Beginning My Poetry Obsession with “The Endless Unbegun”

I’ve never really thought of myself as a poetry person. There’s some quality to it that made it seem arduous and pretentious, showy and unnecessary, and generally a disagreeable pastime. Whenever poetry week rolls around, it’s accompanied by the same eye roll, reluctant sigh, and dejected mood that is necessary to mourn the loss of even one English class for the terrible cause of poetry. This year, however, it was different. Day one of poetry week followed the same progression as previous years, yet, on day two I was pleasantly surprised; for once, I was intrigued by poetry rather than being put off by it.

The woman who was leading the workshop on day two was Rachel Jamison Webster, a teacher at Northwestern and a poet. I really enjoyed the workshop–and may have even gotten a poem of my own out of it–but what I enjoyed more was her book The Endless Unbegun. Her work taught me that poetry is capable of telling a story. Being a strange, but beautiful melange of poetry and prose, it also showed me the lengths that both media can go to. I never thought it would be possible to mix the two, but she makes an argument for their seamless coexistence.

The story starts with Jon and Marisol. A seed of their possible love is planted, but there’s another much more disorienting idea introduced: outside of them there’s a wish–some sort of disembodied hopefulness about their future. This story really made me think. At times, I found myself trying to determine who’s speaking and when I wasn’t doing that I was trying to decode the true subject. Despite my trials, it wasn’t frustrating. It’s my contention that any book that pushes me to think about things you otherwise wouldn’t is a good book.

The larger part of the story doesn’t follow Jon and Marisol, but Fortunatus and Radegunde who are the subjects of Marisol’s writing. Yet, the even deeper subject of her writing lies in the middle distance, which to me was a majorly confounding prospect. Webster defines the middle distance as “that space between performance and communication, between my imagined characters and real characters with life in them, between the small rehearsal of love into Love, .” (17). While this idea is presented in prose it’s built upon in a poem called “We Plod on in Darkness, We Plod on in Light,” where the act of traversing the middle passage is described. Once through the passage, the speaker says, “life was taking shape/on the horizon, in a faint bolt of blue” (86); the journey is a journey into life which reaches its crescendo when “the head breaks through/blood, hair and sinew to crown” (104). This idea of the middle distance, while confusing at times, kept the book interesting and even makes me want to re-read it just to better understand the concept.

As I read any book, I dog-ear the pages that have a particularly profound impact on me. I expected the bulk of the marked pages in The Endless Unbegun to be prose pieces, but that wasn’t the case; the poetry that struck me more often. A few ideas presented by Webster resonated deeply with me, the first of which being time. In “Life is Just One Long Forgetting, I Said,” the speaker describes life saying, “you called life a recollection/of the light that composed us to matter./Forgetting, remembering,/we have only the space between” (60). What I like about this definition is that it makes life seem much simpler than it is, which is reassuring when you’re an over-thinker like me. It’s also a pleasing idea that we are composed of light; how can you think that and not be hopeful. The ideas in this poem sort of remind me of this quote by J.R.R Tolkien which I like enough to hang on my wall.

The next few lines that stuck out to me are from a poem called “Lord” which calls into question the fluidity of time. The speaker describes, “My present was my past/and my future was coming at me/ in dreams” (40). The idea of the present being the past is mind-boggling, but it’s exactly what I love about this line. I guess that’s the thing about poetry: it makes sense without making sense. I also like the prospect of our future coming to us in dreams; it’s intriguing and scary at the same time–especially with some of the dreams I’ve had.

The last quote that struck me coincides with a piece of advice that Webster shared during her session with us. She said, “The deepest things are in the answers, not in the wonder; we all wonder.” I think it’s easy for poetry to pose questions, but as a reader, I find that unhelpful–unless I’m just looking for reassurance that someone else has the same qualms I do. In her poem, that is titled with a question, “Why Did We So Love the World?” Webster gives an answer: ” We loved it/ because we loved each other./ Because our love of the world/ was finally at last proportional/ to our love of one another” (95). To many people, love is a scary thing. If you love something or someone, you open yourself up to the possibility of being hurt, of losing them. Yet, this quote argues for loving one another unabashedly, for in doing so love has the ability to spread. This is a concept that I have not fully grasped, but this line reinforces the idea that love is powerful, and that is an idea I can get behind.

Poetry is one area of literature I never thought I could like. But like a lot of things this year, I’ve given it a chance–because of my English class–and learned that poetry is more powerful than I once thought. I’ve even integrated a little poetry into my mile-long reading list (Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, and Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems). Our daily, in-class poem only makes me more passionate about an genre I thought I’d always avoid. I’m a changed woman. Bye, bye Chemical Engineering. Hello, English.

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