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.