Thought and Witness

Tell me to what you pay attention and I’ll tell you who you are.  –Jose Ortega y Gasset

I’ve been slowly reading and writing notes from The Life of Poetry by Muriel Rukeyser since  March.  It was recommended to me by my brilliant friend Renee, and I ordered it immediately on my phone from her kitchen table.  I’ve reached the title essay in the collection, where Rukeyser walks us through the long process of writing her poem “Orpheus.”  The thought originated from childhood memory, and mythology, and an evening in New York City watching women walk by, dismembered in her view by the window frame.  She wrote notes in different places over many years and then finally arrived at a shape that needed editing.  “The sharpening of the resurrection,” she called it.  Which refers both to the literal resurrection that occurs in the poem and also to the poem itself as resurrection, the editing being the sharpening of that which is being brought to life.  In editing, the poet transitions from being the one who is writing the poem to the one who is reading–witnessing–it.  You leave behind the person who had the original thought, the one who knows in a realm beyond and before articulation what it means.  Relegate her to the past, and try to look at the thought from the outside to see if the work has been done correctly. 

 It’s a sticky process, editing, particularly editing other people’s work.  Last week, I worked with a few of the poets I am honored to guide in editing their poems.  I strive toward ruthlessness in the editing of my own work and try to temper that while working with the poems of others. Because poems are, at their core, thoughts that lead the poet toward becoming, and the pivotal thoughts of others must be handled with care.  

This morning I had a conversation with a poet I admire about thoughts–where they originate, how they travel, whether plants think, what the first thought ever might have been (I’m maybe not doing much in the way of promoting the fun of hanging out with poets here). Then the conversation turned more specific and concrete, as conversations do, and I found myself wondering (aloud, because the great pleasure of being in the company of those you trust is the space to wonder aloud) what we were really trying to say, under the cloak of the anecdote.   There is always bound to be space between the thought and the articulation and the reception–between what is intended and what is witnessed.  Martin Heidegger writes, in Poetry, Language, Thought,

“Thinking’s saying would be stilled in
       its being only by becoming unable
       to say that which must remain

Such inability would bring thinking
       face to face with its matter.

What is spoken is never, and in no
       language, what is said.

That a thinking is, ever and suddenly—
       whose amazement could fathom it?”

If we removed the articulation (spoken or written) the poems or ideas would exist only as thought, but would still exist.  If we then approached these with the attention of editing as they occurred, what might we discover about ourselves?  And–who, exactly would be witnessing the thoughts?  If both the poet and the witness exist simultaneously, inside us, which are we really?

Maybe the point of this whole post is that it’s not my fault if nothing I write makes sense. Look, Heidegger said it. 

Think about it, dears. Tell me what you think. (Or what you think you think or what you mean to think). Or tell me about whatever else you want to tell me. I just want to see your name in my inbox.

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