Wouldn’t it be generative to think of a poem not as the last statement about something, but as part of an ongoing process of conversation? To imagine that the poem wouldn’t have the responsibility of resolving, but of further illuminating? Here is how Fanny Howe puts it in her inexhaustibly interesting, mystically precise “Bewilderment”:
A big error comes when you believe that a form, name or position in which the subject is viewed is the only way that the subject can be viewed. That is called “binding” and it leads directly to painful contradiction and clashes.
No monolithic answers that are not soon disproved are allowed into a bewildered poetry or life.
According to a Kabbalistic rabbi, in the Messianic age people will no longer quarrel with others but only with themselves.
This is what poets are doing already.
I am thinking here about the way readers think of poems, but also about how poets write them. I’ve heard Bob Hass say, when talking about what to do when a poem feels stuck, to “put the problem in the poem.” Bring the ongoing conflicts you are feeling, the limits of your understanding, into it. Articulate those struggles. Open yourself to the reader. Most likely what we need are not poems that resolve our greatest problems for us, but poems that will clarify them, or help us see them in new ways. If you can bring those problems forth for readers and yourselves in a new or at least useful way, that is a great service. And it might even be something like a new form of humanism. Perhaps the problem with our species right now is not merely that we are not coming up with the right solutions, but that we are not asking the right questions.
To pose something as a question brings the matter into the poem not as something resolved, but as an ongoing difficulty, which is almost always far more honest. And practically, therefore, as a poet, it gives you a place to go. It is the difference between saying
You are like a summer’s day
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
The question creates momentum that the statement does not.
- Matthew Zapruder, from his essay on reckoning with Walt Whitman's racism and his own poetry on the subject, "Poem for Harm," over at Harper's. You can read the whole thing here.