Thursday, July 21, 2011

`A Great Wonder and a Great Order'

An eighth-grader attending a summer robotics camp down the hall from my office told me he’s “passionate about building stuff,” and I believed him. Some kids parrot what they think you want to hear. They learned early that a mingling of confabulation and flattery – bullshitting – can be useful when dealing with credulous elders. This kid was too nervous, too obviously still in love with Legos to be lying, I think. In her essay on “Writing” in Personal Pleasures (1936), Rose Macaulay asks:

“Wherein lies its charm? Mainly, I believe, in arranging words in patterns, as if they were bricks, or flowers, or lumps of paint.”

We might be rechristened Homo faber (or Homo ludens). Some of us are happiest and truest to our nature when “building stuff,” whether blog posts, flower gardens, pico de gallo, watercolors, jokes or robots. Romancing disorder and nothingness is a contemporary fancy, a sterile, unnatural aberration. Humans make things. In “Lying” (Collected Poems, 1943–2004), Richard Wilbur begins with an inconsequential lie, another human creation, told at a party. The poem is complex but fluid, a web of doglegs and digressions, modeling the mind’s machinations. The speaker says:

“In the strict sense, of course,
We invent nothing, merely bearing witness
To what each morning brings again to light.”

In opposition is nothingness, so seductive to some. The speaker counters “…that more rare conception, nothing. / What is it, after all, but something missed?” Wilbur silently evokes Milton and his “arch-negator, sprung / From Hell to probe with intellectual sight” – Satan. The italicized “black mist low creeping” is from Book IX of Paradise Lost, in which Satan enters the serpent, tempts Eve into eating the apple and Adam does the same:

So saying, through each Thicket Danck or Drie,
Like a black mist low creeping, he held on
His midnight search, where soonest he might finde
The Serpent…”

“Lying” here modulates into a meditation on metaphor – itself a metaphor for lying, for poetry, for creation: “Odd that a thing is most itself when likened.” In “Some Notes on `Lying’” (The Catbird Song: Prose Pieces 1963-1995), Wilbur writes of the poem:

“The poem assumes that the essential poetic act is the discovery of resemblance, the making of metaphor, and that, the world being one thing, all metaphor tends toward the truth.”

Lying is truth, which sounds Orwellian but is not, at least as a metaphor. In an interview, Wilbur says:

“The main thing that `Lying’ has to say is that we can't create another reality, because all things are inevitably part of the `cognate splendor’ of the original creation and its development. The busy-ness of the poem (Ralph Ellison once told me `Man, you are riffing in this one.’) consists of one metaphorical proof after another that all things are of one nature.”

“Lying,” he goes on to say, is “a bombardment of proofs that the world is one.” Asked by the interviewer if he is an optimist by nature, Wilbur replies:

“If an optimist is somebody who thinks everything will come out all right, I'm not. But, if it's optimistic to think that the world is fundamentally a great wonder and a great order, yes, I subscribe to those things.”

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