Carl Phillips is the author, most recently, of Then the War and Selected Poems, 2007–2020 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a collection that unites a preternatural sense of poetic syntax and lineation with a willingness to explore the ambiguities of desire, knowledge, devotion, and doubt. The book follows more than a dozen collections of poetry, beginning with In the Blood (Northeastern), selected by Rachel Hadas for the 1992 Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize, and followed by From the Devotions (Graywolf, 1998), The Rest of Love (FSG, 2004), Wild Is the Wind (FSG, 2018), and Pale Colors in a Tall Field (FSG, 2020). His translation of Sophocles’s Philoctetes was published in 2003 (Oxford), and he has also written books of prose: Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry (2004) and The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination (2014), both from Graywolf. He served as the judge for the Yale Younger Poets Prize, the oldest annual literary award in the United States, from 2011 to ’20, and was a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2006 to ’12. His awards include the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Male Poetry, the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Lambda Literary Award, the Pushcart Prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Library of Congress. He studied Greek and Latin at Harvard and holds graduate degrees from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Boston University. A professor of English at Washington University in Saint Louis, Phillips was interviewed by Image culture editor Nick Ripatrazone.
Image: In her introduction to your first book, In the Blood, Rachel Hadas wrote: “Part of the controlled power of these poems results from their reticence—a rare commodity in much poetry these days, but not at all incompatible with passion.” Thirty years and over a dozen books later, how do you envision the tension between reticence and passion—in poetry and in life?
Carl Phillips: I’ll start with the “in life” part of your question. I don’t know that I think of it differently, but I understand it maybe more clearly, and as a result I have a different relationship to it. My first real thinking about this question came from studying Greek tragedy in college and noticing that these plays always involved a tension between what people wanted to do (passion) and what society felt they should do (reticence), and that there seemed to be no reconciling these two impulses. I’d already encountered a similar tension in my life, being biracial. Starting from kindergarten, I had kids in school wondering what I was—Black? White? If I was Black, why didn’t I sound like what they assumed Black people sounded like? If I was white, why was my skin brown? If my skin was brown, how could this white woman be my mother? My teachers were, for the most part, no less blatant in their assumptions and confusions.
But where this tension between societal “norms” and personal identity and behavior really emerged was in my understanding of myself as a queer man—an understanding that took me a very long time (I was thirty-two), in large part because of societal expectations. How absolutely those expectations can imprint themselves, convincing you that who you understand yourself to be must be wrong, because it’s not what people consider normal, acceptable. And when I thought that way about who I was, it meant that I needed either to fix the problem—the “problem” being the self—either by bringing it into line with people’s expectations or by eliminating, hiding, or disguising it. This is maybe what I’m getting at at the ending of the poem “X,” which opens my first book: “X is all I keep / meaning to cross out.” X is the part of the self that the world wants me to believe isn’t correct—and the I keeps meaning to eliminate that self but routinely fails to do so for any number of reasons, including an impulse to live fully as an authentic self, not a shrouded one, not in shame, and also a suspicion that it’s the world that’s wrong, not the self.
Both of these are instances of binary thinking—about queerness, about race—I see that now, but discussions about the problems of binary thinking weren’t in the air back then. What I’ve learned across the thirty years is that not only is there no resolving of these tensions, there’s no need to resolve them. It’s not about being Black or white in predictable ways. Coming out as queer isn’t the resolution of interior complexity, because queerness itself is many things, often all at the same time. And I think this manifests in the writing. Which brings me to the other part of your question.
I’ve never consciously strategized about how to make a sentence, let alone a poem. But I can see, even in the earliest poems, that my way of making a sentence involves enacting the push and pull of my interior life, a way of approaching a statement while also making room for its opposite. I see that even in the line break of what I quoted earlier: “X is all I keep / meaning to cross out.” Before the line breaks, the sentence is about holding on to a thing, keeping it. The line beneath it, though, recontextualizes the situation. X is now everything I keep in order to cross it out, or else X is everything I continue to have the intention of crossing out. Either way, you can see already what I guess has turned out to be a signature part of how my poems unfold, how the thinking unfolds: moving forward, correcting itself a bit, then doubting the correction.
I don’t know that my way of thinking has changed much in thirty years, so maybe my sentences are the same. But I see the most change in how I end poems. The ending of “X” is somewhat ambiguous but feels declarative at least, assured of itself. I notice that my poems end with increasing openness over the years—I think I once loved the idea of throwing down the gauntlet at a poem’s end, as if in triumph at having resolved a thing. Now the poems feel like I’ve suddenly noticed something’s missing. I see a gauntlet lying on the ground and wonder how it got there, and in wondering about it, I walk away, having forgotten to pick the gauntlet up again. Or I see the gauntlet and wonder not how it got there but what it is. I don’t recognize it. I don’t have to.
Image: In the poem “This Far In” from Then the War, you write: “Hopkins thought flowers expressed / devotion the only way they could: / they turn toward the sun. From / humans, he suggested, God expects / more—no, is owed more, because / we have more to give.” You’ve spoken about Gerard Manley Hopkins as a poet who has compelled your attention over the years. How did you first discover his work, and what about his poetry continues to interest you?
CP: When I studied at the Boston University writing program, I took a class called “The Poetry of Religion” with Geoffrey Hill. There I read, for the very first time, poems by Herbert, Donne, and Hopkins, among many others. I wasn’t especially drawn, but I was oddly drawn to Hill as a teacher—oddly, because everyone was terrified of him, thanks to his insistence on precision, absolute accuracy: I remember being called on to speak about a poem, and I began “I feel that…” and he immediately yelled, “I’m not interested in your feelings, Mr. Phillips! I’ve asked you what you think!” (Even being called Mr. Phillips was terrifying.) And yet, he was brilliant, and his insistence on precision seemed correct. I felt challenged to be less sloppy or easy in my thinking. So when he offered a seminar on Hopkins the following semester, I took it, having no idea that there would be exactly two students in the class. It was an intense semester, being basically alone with Hill for three hours each week, having to recite memorized Hopkins poems to him, being loudly corrected at each mispronunciation.
But I immediately loved the wild syntax of a Hopkins poem, the way that it often seemed its own language—and I’d long been a fan of languages, having majored in classics and having learned German as a kid. I also envied the absolute recognizability of a Hopkins poem—how it couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else’s—and it took me a while to understand that a large part of his language had to do with his sensibility. Hopkins’s sentences often work like thickets of agony. To read them is to feel a self trying to fight a way clear of that thicket, toward something like clarity, resolution. And the more I read of his letters and diaries, next to the poems, the more I was convinced that this had to do with Hopkins wrestling with a queerness that, as a Catholic priest, he could hardly have embraced or even let show. At least that’s my take on Hopkins. Which explains—for me—his complicated relationship to God. A struggle to square his instinctive impulses with a religion that Hopkins knows forbids those impulses, and yet a religion to which he is absolutely committed.
I’d already written my first book when I took this class. But I could see that the connection between prosody and sensibility in Hopkins was analogous to how those things were working in my own poems. And analogous to the tensions I’d found in Greek tragedy. I also, as they say, just related to Hopkins, at the level of personal struggle. I’ve always been attracted to work that confirms that this struggle is one that others have, and have had for centuries. Poems that remind me I’m not alone. And if there are more like me than I’d thought, then maybe I’m not so abnormal after all. Maybe I’m okay. And always was.
Image: Then the War is suffused with rich poems about the wild world. From “Of California”: “The dragonfruit / cactuses, ornamenting the yards we walked past, hadn’t / flowered yet, but soon would, the way what isn’t love—at all— / can begin to feel like love.” The gently arresting lines of “In a Low Voice, Slowly”: “So stubborn, and as if almost necessary, this / little wind, playing the leaves, their surfaces, playing / the leaves where they lie fallen, while not once / rearranging them.” I’m especially drawn to your juxtapositions of the tactile wilderness (leaves, birds, grass, plants) with emotions: love, desire, longing. Do you envision the wilderness more as a physical or abstract space?
CP: I guess I think the word wilderness itself can be both concrete and abstract. In general when I think about wilderness, I mean the tactile natural world that you mentioned. The one that I try to make a point of making contact with every day, even here in a city like Saint Louis. I walk my dog several times a day, and I try to make one of those times—especially in better weather—occur in the nearby park. I’m told Forest Park is actually larger than Central Park, though I’ve never looked for proof. When I was in high school, I lived in the woods, and my plan is to move back to a different woods in a couple years, when I’ve retired. And I take your point about my poems being about the wilderness, though I would say—and this is why I never think of myself as a nature poet, whatever that exactly is—that wilderness is less a subject for me than the context within which I explore my subjects.
The thing about wilderness, for me, is that it’s where things are authentically themselves, where they grow and behave as they’re biologically made to. It’s also a place stripped of moral valence or anything like human self-consciousness. So, wilderness includes behaviors like animals mating and killing other animals for food—but it’s not considered sex so much as reproduction of the species, not murder but survival. I am fascinated with the part in human beings that I think of as wilderness—and this is maybe where the abstraction comes in. Humans still contain animal impulses for violence, but we learn early on that we aren’t supposed to act on those impulses, just as we learn to wear clothes and that we aren’t supposed to have sex in the open. This is where I think of wilderness as abstract, as instinct, which is abstract—and the challenge for a human being is how to calibrate this wilderness with being “civilized,” that is, self-conscious about nakedness, aware that being angry doesn’t mean we should attack a person, that being turned on by someone doesn’t mean grabbing or otherwise assaulting them. Likewise, we are told that we’re supposed to partner with another person and remain monogamous with them—and there are indeed animals who are wired that way, but humans, in my experience, aren’t among them.
Which brings us back to the tension between how we sometimes want to behave and how we’re told we should behave. The natural world is a perfect context for my poems because putting humans, with all their self-consciousness, in the wilderness where human rules don’t apply can lead to interesting thinking and behavior. Is the natural world conducive to our leaving behind our societal norms and yielding to (embracing?) our animal instinct? Sexual cruising, among gay men, has famously often occurred in the woods. Surely part of that is simply because the woods are a place to hide one’s behavior from a society that doesn’t condone it, but I sometimes think another part has to do with how being sexually restless is part of most human beings, even if most don’t act on it. Which is to say, it’s natural. And the natural world at once complements that natural behavior, gives space to it, and is proof of its naturalness—we have only to watch the animals.
In a book I read long ago, Ancrene Wisse: Guide for Anchoresses, there’s a bit about how dangerous birds are for those who intend to live a cloistered, religious life. Birds—I think this is right—are potential messengers from Satan, because they constantly remind the cloistered of the freedom they’ve denied themselves. This was also apparently why the windows of cloistered nuns were so tiny in the medieval period, so that they couldn’t get a good look at the sky and all the birds passing through it. Which is to say, this idea of the natural world’s instinctiveness potentially leading humans to yield to a similar instinct is an old one.
Image: In The Art of Daring, you write about how we—among other animals—seek “the comfort of a room or at least of bearings,” how “a wall, a tree, a hillside” can offer the feeling that one can be somewhat “protected.” You use these to demonstrate the analogous “comforts of rhyme and rhythm in a poem,” but it brings me back to your stirring words about trees proper. In your essay “Among the Trees” you discuss how the “woods and forests have long been a queer space,” and also how “in the language of trees there’s no grammatical mood: questions, statements, commands—it’s all song, stripped of anything like judgment, intention, or need.” I feel as if your poems engage this tension of sorts: of trees as strong and rooted and anchoring, and yet also welcoming, shadowing, offering mystery. How do you imagine trees as subject, theme, and metaphor?
CP: Well, some of this I may have answered already—the idea of trees being stripped of judgment, of their language being stripped of grammatical mood: that’s more or less the same as saying they’re instinctive in their behavior and in the sounds they make, the way animals are. But my fascination with trees in particular has a lot to do with the long tradition of trees and forests in literature, the forest as a space where potentially dangerous things occur, precisely because it’s a space that is dark and secret—which also means that it can be a source of protection, if we’re trying to hide. But hiding in a forest also means you’re now in a space where other things that aren’t human, and therefore behave instinctively, are not only present but hidden. So, the trees for me represent privacy, risk, intimacy. They also create a space that makes us, as humans, become a bit more animal—we suddenly find ourselves using those senses that we otherwise would take for granted, especially hearing, but sight also. We become aware of how easily we can give away our own presence by making a sound that’s more audible in the woods than on a city sidewalk; we become aware of the power of stillness as a means of avoiding detection, which can make a difference if there’s, say, a bear in the vicinity.
As for trees as metaphors, that’s tricky, because it’s easy to veer into cliché. People have forever aligned the seasonal cycle of trees with the cycle of human life, my favorite being Shakespeare’s opening to his sonnet:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
And yeah, it’s easy in the fall to look at leaves falling and to think of the passage of time—we speak of being in the autumn of our lives, et cetera. Shakespeare is comparing his own middle age to that time in between—not when the leaves are still fully on the tree (youth), not when they’re totally gone (old age), but the middle years, matched by that time when there are some leaves on the bough, the way in middle age we still have some strength, but neither the vigor of youth nor the frailness of old age.
Of course, the thing about trees is that they come back, while humans—I believe—do not. So there’s also the use of trees in literature as foils, as difficult reminders of what we aren’t. Trees are mortal, yes, but they don’t seem mortal the way humans are. In their seasonal renewal, they’re a hard reminder that their lives are cyclical while ours are more of an arc, it seems to me.
I think what’s most important about trees, for me, is that they’re a reminder of a world so much older than ourselves, that we’re also briefly part of. This feels terrifying and comforting at once. It’s another tension—one that I mostly don’t mind living inside of. Mostly I love it. It’s in that tension that I sometimes think I’m most alive as a human being who is ultimately an animal whose fate is to die.
Image: I typically read poets as phrasal artists, whose work accumulates bit by bit, but you feel decidedly like a poet of syntax—which, I’d venture, has been helped by your classical training and teaching. Your essay “Muscularity and Eros: On Syntax” is a masterful demonstration of how to read poems as “bodily” things. You formulate muscularity as the “relationship between pattern and the meaningful disruption of that pattern,” a conception that fits both poetry and, as you note, eros. If we consider for a moment that a poem might contain sentences artfully and skillfully arranged and layered through lineation, how might you describe the essential differences between syntax in poetry and prose?
CP: When I teach syntax, I often lead with the opening sentence of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.” I do this because I want students to see that they have already been living with syntax for years, even if they’re not poets or readers of poetry. At its essence, syntax in poetry and prose is the same, a tool for deciding what to give more or less prominence to, a way to control the order in which information gets delivered. In the Hemingway sentence, he prioritizes time—and within that, he prioritizes season over calendar year; then he moves to location, but chooses to move from the most intimate space—a house—to something less intimate, a village, and then from the world of civilization to the natural world of rivers, plains, and mountains. Even that ordering moves from lowest to highest, geographically.
But you mention lineation, and that—not syntax—is for me the only thing that distinguishes poetry from prose (or it should; I’m afraid I find that most of what gets called poetry is lineated prose—by that I mean, when you hear it read aloud, you have no idea if what you’re hearing is in lines or a block of prose; some of this has to do with not understanding line break, and some of it is about not understanding the relationship between rhythm and sound, without which there can be no music). Lineation can be used to isolate blocks of grammatical sense, or just to create pause and momentum, but a big part of what it can do is generate surprise—we think we’re headed somewhere, then the next line reveals that we’re somewhere else; expectation happens at the end of a line, and the line break is a tool to potentially disrupt expectation, which can in turn be a way to highlight something in the sentence.
But syntax can also generate surprise, since it governs arrangement and allows for multiple arrangements of units within a sentence. So, while this happens in any sentence, including in prose, poetry is working with two engines of surprise—I guess that’s a way to think of it—which is why poetry often seems more mysterious than prose. Even prose writers tend to think this is true.
All of what I’ve said is inadequate, though. As with a body, there are so many things going on at the same time, not just syntax and line break. Leaps of thought (association and non sequitur), sonic patterns, images, et cetera—they’re all analogous to the various organs and systems that allow me to be sitting here answering these questions, even if I’m not aware of all those elements and their activity. This is why I think of poems as being bodies. And when we’re fluent as poets, we’re as unselfconscious about the ways our poem is working as I am right now about what’s allowing me to move and breathe.
Image: I find your essays both instructive and generative, which is a rare tandem. I wonder if, to some extent, the duality comes from your life as a teacher and professor. You taught high school Latin for nearly ten years and have taught at Washington University in Saint Louis since 1993. How is your method and manner in the classroom similar to or different from the way that you write?
CP: This is an especially tough question. I guess the immediate difference I see has to do with audience. In a classroom, of course, there’s a very real audience sitting in front of me, which means I’m very self-conscious about what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and the direction I’m headed. And I suppose a way to define teaching is to say it’s a form of trying to command the attention of a group of very distinctive, individual, and not-entirely-knowable sensibilities in such a way—and for long enough—that they all leave with an understanding of something they didn’t understand before. But when I’m writing, I don’t have audience in mind at all, except for the audience of myself. So I’m not self-conscious. And I only have one sensibility to deal with, my own, which I already know very well. Meanwhile, in order to write, I can’t have a goal in mind—sure, the ultimate goal is to write a poem, but I can’t write a poem if I know what it will be about, where it will go, how it will end. I write into a space of unknowing, in order to surprise myself both by what I encounter and what I do with that encounter, how I think about it and around it. With teaching, I have a lesson I want to teach, and a fixed time in which to teach it, and I have to shape the teaching in some way that reaches all these people.
So those are some key differences. But this element of writing into the unknown—I do try to encourage my students to approach literature that way (their own writing and the writing of others), as something not to solve or master but to explore. I want them to be open to how the work surprises them and teaches them, as opposed to going in with a fixed idea of what a poem, say, contains and is about, or a limited idea of what it can be about.
But having said all that, I also think a poem is supposed to have authority. We have something to say, and we believe others need to hear it—that’s not so different from being a teacher. And as with students, we hope to get the reader’s attention and to sustain it for as long as it takes to read our poem through to the end. So, although I stand by what I say about writing into the unknown, by the time I get to a finished draft that I can revise, I’ve come to a sense of what the poem wanted to say, and part of revision includes making sure that everything in the poem is contributing to that argument and topic and music. Maybe revision comes closest to teaching, because that’s the stage where I’m consciously shaping how I express myself so that what I have to say will be clear to an audience that—now that I’ve written the poem—I am indeed conscious of, and the question of how can I be sure I’m being understood finally comes into play.
Image: During an interview a few years ago, you noted that people often assume you were raised Catholic. I feel like such an assumption implies the perception of you as a writer whose past devotion has evolved into metaphor and symbol. I know you weren’t raised in a particular faith, and that your earliest introduction to the Bible was through an intellectual route—reading it while taking a course on Milton’s Paradise Lost. Yet your first book leads with an epigraph from Romans, rendered in the KJV translation: “for what I would, that I do not, / but what I hate, that do I.” How might that epigraph and sentiment apply to your body of work as a whole?
CP: Aha! I thought you were going to point to my use of that epigraph as evidence of my having a history of religious devotion. I remember Rachel Hadas pointed to this epigraph in her foreword to my book, hoping I wasn’t referring to the act of writing. And I wasn’t, exactly. When I assembled the poems for that first book and read them together, I truly didn’t think that I’d written a book about queer desire—I wasn’t out even to myself yet, and I’ve said in the past that my first book more or less outed me.
But many of the poems did come as responses to sexual experiences with men, experiences that I couldn’t reconcile with the fact that I was married to a woman, or reconcile with my firm belief in being honest with and loyal to someone I care about, especially someone whom I loved enough to want to marry and shape a life with, together. And as I read the poems, I realized—I understood more fully than ever—how wrenched a life I was living, how my intentions for myself and for my marriage were getting eroded—as I saw it—by my sexual impulses. And alongside that, I could see that the moral ground I’d staked out for myself was splitting open.
So, to return to the epigraph, I literally felt that I knew what I wanted to do—be faithful, be normal, which I understood as straight—was not what I was doing. And what I didn’t want to do was what I kept returning to. When I stumbled upon those lines from Romans, they seemed to capture very succinctly everything I was going through. And at the same time, though I don’t remember the context of the line in Romans anymore, there seemed to be an element of hope—that there could be a way past this conundrum: I imagine the way in Romans is through Christ, but I had no idea what it could be for me, in my own decidedly secular life. The epigraph speaks to the psychic and moral space I was in at the time. But maybe it does also point a little to the writing, now that I think about it. Not a matter of dare I write, or do I want to write, but dare I write about this, dare I be honest with myself—which turns out to be the secular way past the conundrum, not erasing it, but maybe making room for it.
Image: Among your great poetic influences, it seems, you count Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, and George Herbert—certainly three of our finest poets of faith and doubt. You exist in their lineage, I feel, as a poet curious about how divinity intersects with desire, and I sense two religious modes in your work: a theology of naming, and a sense of how unknowing and mystery are suggestions of the holy. I’ll start with the first. In “The Enchanted Bluff,” you write: “Why not say so, / why this need to name things based on what / they remind us of—cattail and broom, skunk / cabbage—or on what / we wished for: heal-all; / forget-me-not.” In “Sing a Darkness,” you describe “how, / moment by moment, any life unfurls, we can / call it fate or call it just what happened, what / happens, while we’re busy trying to describe / or explain what happens.” Are iterations and imaginations of God our desire to name the ineffable? What is the function of poetry in that search, that attempt at naming?
CP: I think the desire to name the ineffable has to do with how faith—more so than trust, which lies close beside it—relies on something that isn’t instinctive or natural for human beings, namely, to believe in something that we can’t possess through the usual senses of taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing; as Herbert says of prayer, faith is “something understood,” which is different from understandable or provable. I always think that by “understood” Herbert means something like “felt deeply inside without a need to question the feeling itself.” But people, as far as I can tell, are by nature empirical. We want proof of a thing, and if we can touch it or see it, then we can prove it, which means we can possess it for ourselves, if only through memory, remembering how it felt, what it looked like.
But abstraction—which includes divinity—isn’t possessable in those ways. Naming is the next best thing. As with naming a child, we make it a recognizable thing in the world. At the risk of seeming obnoxious, I’ll quote an old poem of mine: “It’s a human need, to give to shapelessness a form.” Naming is one way to do that. Another is to give shape to shapelessness as a poem. That’s how I read the poets you mention—Herbert, Dickinson, Hopkins—as minds wrestling not just with shapelessness of subjects like faith, doubt, mortality, ambition, but with the shapelessness of how they think about these subjects. Poems give us a shape, something physical, that can contain the abstract and can enact the thinking that takes place around it. I think that’s why it feels so satisfying to have written a poem—something has been put in a place that was made for it; and the containment feels like safety, stability—resolution, vaguely. We’ve made the abstract concrete; there are words we can see, say, hear; there are shapes on the page in the form of stanzas. It’s a temporary taming of what resists being tamed, as it’s supposed to, I think. That’s the “repining restlessness” that Herbert speaks of, the idea being that that restlessness might lead us, in Herbert’s case, back to God. For me, the restlessness leads to the next poem, the next attempt to make sense of the mystery of being alive.
Image: There are wonderful, epiphanic lines from the selected poems portion of your new book: “To have understood some small piece of the world / more deeply doesn’t have to mean we’re not as lost / as before.” Elsewhere in the book you write that “Holiness has / no limits, there, only two requirements: / to be hidden; to adore what’s hidden.” You treat devotion with an open, inclusive mind and equally malleable language. Your sense of devotion appears to be fueled by curiosity, an appreciation for mystery, and perhaps even a comfort in the unknown. Does devotion anchor your poetry? Might you talk about how you envision devotion in a wider sense, as well—how devotion might apply to the intellect, to love, to life as a whole?
CP: When I called my third book From the Devotions, it was because I realized, once I’d gathered all the poems together, that they fell into three categories—devotion to a divinity, devotion to another human being, and devotion to desire, especially sexual desire. And I’d become much more aware of how often the sacred and profane seem to mirror each other. I was exploring what words like surrender might mean in the context of religious belief and in the context of a body in bed—is sexual surrender also faith? Does that make the person to whom we surrender ourselves a divinity? What are the risks of that kind of thinking? What are the possible benefits?
I say all of this to say that devotion has so many definitions. Does devotion to something like God anchor my poetry? No. But to return to the same handful of questions across a career, to continue to sound the depths of the unknown for some better understanding of the unknown—this, to me, is devotion. To write a poem can be understood, in this context, as an act of devotion, the latest votive (to continue with the metaphor), a gift laid at the altar of—something two-headed, one head being knowledge, the other being mystery, the two things that meaning is made of, it seems to me. I think what we don’t know about a thing is as important as what we do know. And an acknowledgment that there are things we can’t know—even while we keep trying to know them—is a belief that those things exist, otherwise why would we keep trying to know them? And that belief is, I suppose, a secular form of a more religious faith.
I often tell my students that a career in writing means a lifelong apprenticeship to a quest to know what can never be entirely known. That apprenticeship is a form of devotion. But I also think we can think this way about things besides the making of art. To love someone is also a commitment, an apprenticeship to the quest to know another person (who can never be entirely known to us) and to try to make a life with them, which is its own quest, a leap of faith, that there will be a life ahead, that it will include this other person (or persons)—it’s an attempt to continue giving some kind of shape to a future that’s utterly unpredictable. And this can apply more broadly, beyond intimate relationships to relationships with community, with country. For me, each day is made of countless acts of devotion, deliberate and accidental, remembered and forgotten, because I think devotion means paying attention, stopping to notice. In noticing a thing without feeling the need to absolutely understand it, I think I’m also acknowledging the limits to knowing—which is that other kind of devotion, to mystery. They both anchor my life, each differently.
Image: I love these lines from “Dirt Being Dirt”: “How far is instinct from a thing / like belief? Not far, apparently. At what point is believing so close / to knowing, that any difference between the two isn’t worth the fuss, / finally?” What do you think—how far is instinct from belief? Do you feel sustained by the tension between faith and doubt?
CP: Ha, I thought I could get away with asking those questions in the poem and leaving it at that! I mean, I guess instinct has to do with behaving the way we feel is right at a given moment. Our instinct to bring an umbrella to work, as a result of looking at the sky, means we believe it could rain; our instinct to buy a lottery ticket means we believe there will be a winner and that we could possibly be that winner. By that logic, instinct isn’t the same as belief, but it’s evidence of belief, which makes instinct and belief pretty close—yes? As for the other part of what you quoted, I don’t think believing in a thing means that thing is true, but I think many people do think this—we see it a lot these days around the topic of vaccination, where many people have moved from believing Covid-19 is made up, to the point where they now feel they know this as a fact. Or they believe someone who isn’t the president is in fact the president, despite clear evidence to the contrary. Long ago I believed I was straight—because I’d been told I was and that there were no other options that normalcy included—which somehow made it true in my head; which, in turn, made my attraction to other men false. Belief can be dangerously close to knowing, to what passes for knowing, when really the problem is that belief is almost entirely dependent on what we do know. Based on what we know—or don’t know—we believe this or that. It’s the reason why education is so important, so we can understand and know a thing correctly, with all of the facts before us.
Do I feel sustained by the tension between faith and doubt? I don’t know about being sustained, but I feel that accepting—no, embracing the idea that faith and doubt will always be in tension and are meant to be is the only honest way of living a life as a human being. One of the things that makes me love writers like Herbert and Dickinson is that they aren’t one hundred percent faithful or one hundred percent faithless—their doubt, their questioning and challenging of assumed truths and of their own belief, these are what make their thinking authoritative, because it makes them human and therefore vulnerable. They acknowledge that anyone, even the most committed, can have doubts—their vulnerability makes me trust what they say more, because they don’t judge my doubt; instead, they share it. They comfort me that my wrestling with a thing, my restlessness, doesn’t make me any less devoted. The restlessness itself is proof. And I suppose that does sustain me. It’ll have to. It’s all I’ve got.
Nick Ripatrazone is Image’s culture editor. His most recent book is Digital Communion: Marshall McLuhan’s Spiritual Vision for a Virtual Age (Fortress).