Friday, September 2, 2016

Negative Capability

“I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” John Keats

Image © Lori Gravley
Reading this quote again after so many years away from it was a revelation for me early this summer.

I cut my teeth on Sharon Olds, Susan Wood, Sylvia Plath, and other mostly narrative poets whose work, while it did hold on to mystery also held to meaning.  It was the poetry of story, the poetry of history, the poetry of examination, of looking at a life and trying to come to terms with it.

I also fell in love with the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning and Ai.  This was the poetry of transformation, of becoming the other and speaking in her voice.  It was poetry of exploration--putting on personas, even difficult ones, and taking them off when the poem was done.  They left a residue of empathy behind.

So, for much of my poetic life, I’ve written narrative poems and dramatic monologues.  My attempts at lyrics have been less successful.  This spring, I was drawn to the lyric poem.  Over the past few years, I’ve read poem after poem in journals and books and online, beautiful mysterious things whose stories and monologues were hidden inside the sort of mysteries and doubts that Keats talked about. 

Without even realizing it, I started working with lyric poems last year in my poetic responses to Elliott Erwitt’s photographs. In those poems, I can see story loosen its hold on me.  This spring, the story sometimes fell away entirely. (Years of therapy have relieved the confessional urge and writing fiction has given a new outlet for my storytelling.) When I looked at those poems I was writing, I wasn’t sure what they were.  I found them pleasing and musical, but felt a bit discomfited that there wasn’t a story behind the poem.

I’ve recently discovered that my meditations on words and images and often on life and death weren’t just difficult word play, they were my attempts at Negative Capability, at getting comfortable with the mysteries. 

Honestly, I had no idea what I was doing, so it was a relief to have Shane McCrae describe the process of reading and writing the lyric at the Antioch Writer’s Workshop in July. 

Shane also projected the Keats’ quote on the magnificent screen at Antioch MacGregor.  Though I knew the quote, I’m not sure I ever really understood it.  Now, as I’ve been exploring what it feels like to let a poem hold uncertainties without any irritable reaching for meaning, I’m getting more comfortable letting my lyrics do what they need to do, which is just be.


  1. This is a good read and a keeper to jog me out of "story" habits down the line. My poetry swings back and forth between mystery and reality - the Keats quote is new to me, yet I recognize it. Thanks.

    1. Your welcome! Narrative is one type of poem. Lyric is another. Recently, I've tended to move between these two (with a few dramatic monologues thrown in). It feels like lyric is more highly esteemed right now in poetry circles, but it's a pendulum that's always moving.