2/10/09

Lightness Essay

(N.B. I started writing this almost 18 months ago and never finished this. I don't plan on finishing it, so I'm posting it here. Probably part of an introductory thought on The Breakers)

If I may spend a moment wrapped inside of a cliché:

I really can’t seem to find what I’m looking for. And I’ve read the suggestions and the comments on my blog. But I, very seriously, still haven’t found what I’m looking for. And I wish it were something so simple as Bono’s vest and ponytail.

I’ve been on a poetic quest over the last few months and though I’ve received excellent directions from those electronically within my grasp, I still seem to be stumbling about in the dark with nothing but the glow of my Timex watch to guide me.

(end clichés, hopefully)

I’m looking for lightness in poems. I don’t mean lightness in the thematic sense, like poems about puppy dogs and ice cream, which I got enough of in undergraduate workshops. I don’t mean lightness as in the opposite of heaviness, in the sense of Italo Calvino’s lecture on lightness in Six Memos for the New Millennium. I mean the opposite of a heart attack crushing your chest. I want a poem (or more, if possible) that feels as though it could easily come off the page and leave no residue behind: no poems that need peeling from a page. Poems that desire to float away on their own.

This does not mean, however, that the poems need to be short or have a bunch of white space in the middle of letters or words or sentences. Length is fine and a lack of space is fine. I believe it is possible to have both a decently long poem and little or no space and to still not feeling constricted by the poem.

I’ve unfortunately tapped into a general definition of lightness when asking for others about it, and while all suggestions have been well-intentioned, I feel like I’m unable to reach the style I want and have ended up elsewhere. Unfortunately, too, I am unable to give a true definition for what it is I am seeking. I call it ‘lightness’ because it is the best adjective I can think of.

The suggestions have been interesting on this quest. Italo Calvino’s lecture (though it’s really an essay due to Calvino’s death) gives us lightness as a construct in which thematic issues create this sense. Calvino’s lightness seems to require taking on levity with respect to topics and issues, rather than style and form. Calvino gives us Dante, in that The Divine Comedy.

I recently finished reading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In the hope that the Czech writer could give me some idea of the direction I need to go in, I read it slowly and thoughtfully, hoping to capture the minutiae of events and language. In some way he has given me a direction: through his characters, Kundera gives the reader an example of lightness in terms of day to day existence. Sabina and Tereza are on opposite ends of the spectrum, with Sabina hoping to live and die in a state of lightness and Tereza being unable and perhaps unwilling to give into the lifestyle. Tomas is somewhere in between: at the beginning of the novel he is living his life in lightness, but is eventually caught in the struggle between his lover Sabina and his wife Tereza. I believe that by the end, his death with his wife signals the migration from lightness.

I believe that to Kundera, lightness can be exemplified by a lifestyle in which no issue is given any true significance. Sabina is not unfeeling, but through her avoidance of kitsch, she becomes Kundera’s character of the light. She seems to do her best to avoid assigning meaning and therefore structure to her existence. At the same time, Tereza assigns meaning to all things in her life: her dreams, her husband, her jobs, and her dog. As if to throw at us just how anti-lightness Tereza is, she is even superstitious, seeing it as a sign when Tomas tells her that he is in room six and that her shift at the small-town café also ends at 6pm.

Tomas, as I said, is caught in between. I believe he is shocked to find out that the things he considered meaningless, which allowed him to live in lightness, actually do have some meaning to him. I believe the first moment (upon which he dwells through out the novel) is when Tereza comes to Prague to basically move in with him. He has assigned meaning to his bachelorhood and to the life he had made for himself as a surgeon. After that point, however, he begins to discover that the only item with true meaning in his life is his wife. He is forced to stop being a surgeon, reunite with a son he had ignored, and move out to the country and live a life away from lightness.

But I’ve gotten off track: this isn’t an essay on Kundera- it’s an essay on lightness. What I feel Kundera and Calvino are going towards is the insignificance of issues presented under the practice of lightness. This, however, goes against what I’ve been trying to get at all this time: lightness should not exist in theme, but in style and form.

One can be serious and still write a light piece. Significance can “weigh down” the piece with its Calvino-esque “heaviness” and still exist as light. In correspondence, I have been referring to them as my “light poems”. I hope these poems exhibit the quality I am attempting to find amongst the essays, poems, and writings of others, because I know that deep down, I am not searching for anything truly new. It must exist somewhere for all of us to read, understand, and analyze.

I have found, I would like to admit, contemporary examples that should hopefully show what I am attempting to get at. The reason I’m not presenting my own poems is that I believe several poets have attained a light feeling to their poetry and I hope by holding them up as examples, what I have been talking about will become clear. These examples are not the only ones that exist, but are the ones I have read in preparation for writing my own light poems.

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