How do you take notes in a class where the only way to note is to take flight? Last semester, I sat in on an undergraduate poetry class taught by Fred Moten.
Fred Moten‘s lectures are unusual. Picture this. There is Moten dishing out what by all accounts are profound words of wisdom about poetry. As is expected, I am captivated. But the moment I try to catch a phrase or hold on to a thought of his by setting my pen to my notebook I find that my thought begins to drift away. I sense these phrases caught in my pen taking me places neither they nor I could have anticipated. My sense is that Moten is one of those teachers who can captivate without capture. They are wise but not tyrannical in the way that wisdom can be. Their thoughts are beautiful because they let you wander as long as you are wandering in thought in search of other beautiful places. That is how these notes came about. To put it simply, these notes or trips or whatever you like to call it are the result of the impossibility of taking notes in Moten‘s class.
Because a poem is never really finished, it is always a fragment. It is a remainder but of nothing, a trace but of no one. A poem is a fragment not like a ruin or the left over of something that once was. Neither is it an unfinished portion of a whole that will eventually be completed. A poem is a crumb that fell from nothing, a scrap that just is. Perhaps that is why the best way to consume a poem is by tasting it, savoring it, and then nibbling it piecemeal. If a poem is never finished, it is probably because we love to eat it in the tiny bite sizes in which it comes to us. But if a poem is always unfinished, does that not mean that it can be written to infinity? Does that not mean that a poem is necessarily overwritten?
The force that makes poetry possible is centrifugal. Poetry is borne out of things falling apart and scattering all over and leaving everywhere untidy and, perhaps, dangerous. That is why the place to find poetry is in goodbyes, in centers that cannot hold, in disavowal, in shame, in homelessness, in forgetting, in disposable things, in love after it is lost, in life when it is of no use. But then there are those who say that if poetry happens in the leaving-behind, it is also a carrying-with. They claim that poetry is a strange kind of exile that transforms whatever it has lost or left behind.
The poem itself is centrifugal in the sense that it seeks to flee any kind of center. Yes a poem desires. Yes a poem dreams. It seeks to scatter away from the reader who hears with his eyes and the poet who writes with his ears. One more thing to keep in mind. There are no turning points in poetry. Only false ones. A poem is a vortex that turns itself against itself, inside out and falls out at the bottom. There are no miraculous moments of discovery. If there are, they are false ones. A poem tells you nothing that you do not already know or feel or fear. And if you leave a poem confused not even this confusion is a discovery. Poetry profanes. It is a rite, a litany, a chant, a cant, but rites invented entirely in the moment or over the years in the din of a raging war or in a castle or in a mud hut. A poem is a radical habitation. A habitation in the outside. Where dwelling has nothing to do with an interior space.
Photo Credit: Ash Sivils