Thursday, January 10, 2013

Fooling a Butterfly: Poetry and (Kinda, Sorta) Belief

Nabokov hoping to fool some butterflies

A few days ago, over on Facebook, Barry Schwabsky responded to my recent post about Robert Duncan's belief in mythology by saying that he's never fully understood the distinction between really believing something and only "kinda sorta" believing in it.  I was intrigued: what, after all, does it mean to only sort of believe in something?  Is there a stark belief/unbelief dichotomy?  If so, why do I refuse to blink during a Notre Dame field goal attempt, even though I tell myself I don't believe in anything so supernatural as the kind of sympathetic magic such an action entails?

The question of semi-belief came to me again today as I was reading Michael Benedikt's 1970 poetry collection Sky.  There's much to admire in that book: it's where Benedikt leaves off the Ashberyesque ellipses and Mark Strand-ish soft surrealism of his earlier work and starts to sound more like himself, or at any rate more like the poet he'll become (more talky, more anaphoric, longer-lined).  One of the poems, an elegy for Benedikt's father called "This Morning I Fooled  Butterfly," seems to capture exactly what it's like to "sorta, kinda" believe in something.  Here's the poem:

It was not real, finding an unmarked envelope of old seeds left by dead dad
It was not real, finding them acting as a place-marker in one of the armaments catalogues of
     the electronics industry for which he worked
It was not real, that there was a place left clear for planting among the weeds that had ensued
     in the six weeks since his decease
It was not real that these seeds sprouted
It was not real that that happened after three months, during which I could hardly find the time
     to return for a visit to the garden beside which my mother lived in a cottage
It was not real that they were not tended but came anyway to maturity
It was not real that, as I lay there in the garden, an insect came (some damned dumb butterfly)
     &, proceeding straight to the spot, sat on the product of all this accident, the issue of so much
     deflection & misunderstanding
& sat there on the tangle of unknown yellow & blue flowers, & roses, for a full fifteen minutes,
     as if all this were real.

On the simplest and most literal level, this is, of course, a statement of non-belief.  There was no packet of seeds, there was no fortuitous place to plant them, they didn't grow in the absence of care, and no butterfly came and perched on them.  The butterfly most certainly wasn't connected in some mysterious way to the poet's dead father, and its long stay on the flower while the poet lay nearby was in no way to be confused with the return of the poet's father, and some kind of reconciliation between living son and late father.  No sirree: that would all be a matter of "deflection and misunderstanding."  But convention indicates that we don't limit ourselves to reading poems literally, and Benedikt knows that.  Each of those things that "was not real" is implied.  Indeed, the whole scene that the poem invokes—a scene of the fortuitous recovery of the relic of a dead father, and a kind of reconciliation with the spirit of the departed—is painted quite vividly, and a reader of the poem isn't likely to discard that vivid depiction just because the repeated statement "It was not real" asks her to.  Indeed, the real effect of the repeated negation is to make us weigh the statement of the scene (that there was a spirit-visit and a reconciliation) against the assertion of that scene's unreality.  The very repetition of "it was not real" becomes less a confirmation of unreality, and more like a weakening of the assertion, the effect is to make it as if the poet were trying to convince himself that the reconciliation could not have been real.

There's a fairly strong case to be made that the poem works via Keatsian negative capability—that it leaves us, and the poet, in "uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."  In fact, the case becomes quite strong when we consider how the poem's ending balances out the poem's title.

Consider the title. What are we to make of the statement "This Morning I Fooled a Butterfly"?  I suppose the most likely interpretation is that the poet fooled the butterfly into playing the role of his dead father.  Read that way, we can take the title as a confirmation of all of those "it was not real" statements: the whole experience of the father's spirit returning was a matter of the poet projecting what he needed to believe onto a scene that did not in itself support such an interpretation.  Of course, since the butterfly would have been oblivious to all this, a more accurate statement would have been "This Morning I Fooled Myself (Into Thinking a Butterfly Embodied the Spirit of my Dead Father)"—so we can see the title as Benedikt's way of dramatizing himself almost, but not quite, admitting to the kind of self-deception he would need to undergo to believe in the father's return.  It's a nice hesitancy, but in the end the title seems to argue against the reality of the spirit's return.

But consider, too, the end of the poem.  In that final, long line we're not just told that the butterfly sitting there for fifteen minutes wasn't real: we're told something like "it was not real that the butterfly sat there as if all this were real."  This last bit is interesting, because there is a kind of redundancy of doubt.  That is, if Benedikt had only wanted us to think "oh, the butterfly sat there as if it was the spirit of his father, but it couldn't really have been the spirit of his father" he'd only have needed to begin the line with "It wasn't real"—he didn't need to add "as if all this were real" at the end.  So the statement is really more like "It wasn't really the case that the butterfly sat there just pretending to be the spirit of my dead father."  This muddles things considerably, with the result that the line could conceivably be read as the kind of double negative that produces a positive—in which case this line, unlike the rest of the poem, effectively becomes a claim that the butterfly did somehow embody the spirit of the father.

So we have a title—a statement about the poem as a whole—that seems to deny the butterfly-as-spirit hypothesis, and a final line that could possibly taken as a confirmation of that hypothesis.  The two most powerful positions, title and ending, point in different directions, underlining the kind of undecidability, or negative capability, that we get in the body of the poem, where rich description is played off against repeated denial.  We have Benedikt depicting himself as desperately wanting, even needing, the butterfly incident to be a reconciliation with the spirit of his father—but we have, just as powerfully, Benedikt's modern, secular denial of that kind of need.  The end result isn't a poem of belief or of nonbelief, but of a kind of tension between the two.  It is, at the level of tragic emotion, exactly what not blinking during a field goal attempt is at the level of game day farce: a moment of kinda, sorta belief.

The present humble blogger in his Notre Dame rally beanie, in whose football-influencing powers he kinda, sorta believes.


  1. See, this is exactly what I mean by finding a lot of contemporary poetry too rational, too cerebral. It's a fundamental values thing. Again, I find myself resonating far more with Duncan's viewpoint. I don't think it was merely intellectual knowing with him, as it is with all too many other writers.

    Writers use words as our tools, but they are also what trap us into thinking we have defined and contained and known more than we actually do. Because verbal language is not only not the only way of knowing, in some ways it's incredibly limited relative to some other ways of knowing.

    Behind all this is the question of synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence, as defined by Jung. In the mythopoetic worldview, there are no coincidences, only synchronicities, and trying to rationally sort through them leads to mind-drama rather than peace. I gave up believing in coincidence a very long time ago, because experience was too full of meaningful synchronicities to do otherwise. There are things the rational part of the self (which in the modern era has come to convince itself as being the whole of the self, when it never was) can never explain, or explain away. The question remains open, and the real world is more like that than like something ordered.

    Virginia Woolf: "Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end."

    And then there is the question of Chuang-Tze's famous butterfly: "Last night I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting in peace from flower to flower. Now I have awoken, and dream I am a man. Am I man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or am I butterfly now dreaming he is a man?" This poems evokes that, in a way, with its nondual contradictions. Taoism is inherently nondual in viewpoint.

    Anyway. I'm not trying to come down on anyone, not you and not Mr. Benedikt. I'm just trying to point the inherent clash of worldviews, and the problem many poets from the more cerebral camp have with wrapping themselves around Duncan's more magickal (if you will) camp. Although Duncan is only one I might list in that camp, and only one who has led a life largely more mythic than most. (Robinson Jeffers comes to mind, for starters.)

    One of the clashes of viewpoints is very simple: "belief" vs. "knowing." In fact, in the shamanic literature, what you find again and again (Jerome Rothenberg would probably back me up on this) is that people don't believe in something, they KNOW it. They know it because they've experienced it. Rilke didn't just believe in angels, he had encounters in the deep self with them. Poets who have had visionary experiences are generally not fashionable in Poetryworld right now, as we've agreed. But the long list of essential poets who have had visions are the constant reminder that the rational mind doesn't know everything. It might believe many things, including believing that visions are just delusions. But it believes. It doesn't KNOW.

    1. There's a lot of interest in Duncan just now, what with poetry being reissued and the new-ish biography. It'll be interesting to see what people make of him, and whether the visionary side of him is accepted, rejected, elided, or something else.