Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Remittance of Mistrust

Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Remittance of Mistrust

Article excerpt

I am filled with doubts about poetry, about its content and value. I have no single complaint, but a sense that the magic of poetry seduces with gestures and ambiguities beyond its rhetoric and wit. Yet I repeatedly discover that I cannot refuse my need for the attentions of grammar and sense given through poems. Nevertheless, I have no faith in the measurements of form my need discovers.

I am caught by two competing intuitions. Poetry seems a sham, a form of sophistry and fantasy: what Thomas Bernhard, one of the more angry literary mistrusters, calls "a lousy scrap of wind and rot." Absolutely, it can be lousy and windy. Sed contra: I love some poems, find them necessary, feel claimed by them despite my doubts. The combination of these intuitions I call mistrust. I hold my faith in the solution of my doubts. I give precedence to mistrust, and faith motivates its hold.

Situated amid such a tension, not between belief and doubt, but between saying "Aha!" and at the same time mistrusting that any "Aha!" could be about what I think it is, I try to cultivate my attention to poems through my mistrust of them. I have been told this is perverse. So be it.


Poems, disheveled in meaning but neat in form (or disarrayed in form, with whatever coy or disdaining implications), offer particular temptations to belief or doubt. As such, poems can become exempla of an interminable tension between hope built on faith and fear built on mistrust. My motives in reading poetry are both suspect and strangled. Am I simply a disappointed romantic, wanting desperately to live within extravagant meaning (with the pathos of Hamlet or the faith of St. Francis), while at the same time taking it all back in self-reflexive angst and doubt (with the pathos of Hamlet or the wit of Freud)? I will argue for another option, another form of motivated mistrust that is more classical than romantic, in the spirit of Lear's fool.

I mistrust poetry easily. Possibly I am a certain kind of person for whom the attraction and power of words and phrases produces a reaction of mistrust exactly because I overrate their power. Beliefs are also easy to come by, but that is just to say we are easily confused and confirmed in our egotism and cognitive limits, and so we believe things we should and things we should not.

Attending to what might matter more than anything or might be nothing much at all is an exercise that requires discipline and delicacy. My attention through mistrust produces a particular mode of interpretation, a mode of description and redescription that never quite settles in a meaning or a frame, a context for understanding. But nor does it forgo sense or understanding. A poem is unsettled and unsettling if taken, as it should be, not as a statement, but as a half-lost, half-directed reaching and withholding.

Finding a way with poems when one is suspicious of them, when one lets their odd nature color their surface, when one tries to get into view the assumptions and beliefs that allow them to appear as poems at all, requires a specific method of investigation: a peristaltic movement back and forth, toward poems and away from them. Assumptions have great force relative to poems; our beliefs are immediately involved, partly because the way we understand something as a poem is either up for grabs or is controlled by training and prejudice. Our beliefs are the nets we use to catch poems--or they are the means by which poems catch us. The peristaltic method is a means of getting the poem, ourselves, and our assumptions more in view in order to describe all three under different and shifting aspects, yet always relative to each other.

So my method will be to take four steps forward and two back. One might think this would mean to go forward with faith and then retreat half the distance in doubt. Unfortunately, it will be the other way around--to move forward with doubt and react with faith. …

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