Poetry Koan Poetry Koan (By Heart)

Poetry Koan #8: Anti-Ambition Ode by Dean Young


Is the idea to make a labyrinth
of the mind bigger? What’s the matter?
You still come out of the womb-dark
into the sneering court of the sun
and don’t know which turn to take.
So what? You’re made of twigs anyway.
You were on an errand but never came back,
spent too long poking something with a stick.
Was it dead or never alive?
Invisibility will slow down soon enough
for you to catch up and pull it over yourself.
No one knows what color the first hyena’s tongue
to reach you will be.
Or the vultures who are slow, careful unspellers.
So go ahead, become an expert in sleep or not,
either way you can live in a rose or smoke
only so long.
You will still be left off the list.
You will still be rain, blurry as a mouse.

The problem, if it is a problem, is that language requires we use it. Our minds, which run on language, won’t shut up, no matter what we do. Language is having thoughts; language is saying things about the world; language is writing poems, also writing essays about poems. At some point, surrounded by the latest “crop” of language -its literary confections, its scientific inventions, its interpersonal spinoffs- we become aware of a surplus of intelligence. And surely where there is a surplus of something, we should focus on vending or merchandising this excess in some way, so as to gain the things we want? And what is it we most want? Connection, belonging, mental and physical stimulation.

This is ambition, and there is a kind of ache there too: a need to build a bulwark, with whatever we have at our disposal (our so-called talents) against an as-yet-unspecified death (“the first hyena’s tongue”) or some other form of insignificance – the polar opposite of recognition and renown, to which ambition is directed.

So what a relief, but also a  sadness, to have a poem written from the perspective of sub specie aeternitatis, that incredibly powerful cognitive defusion, that asks us to consider whatever drive or initiative we’re hooked into “from the perspective of the eternal”.

Thomas Nagel in his clear-eyed essay The Absurd sees the usefulness of this perspective in “approaching our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair”. Irony is the chief ingredient of this poem, which makes it such a liberating experience to read, learn by heart and recite.

Wittgenstein also signals a place for a poem in this curative perspective:

“The work of art is the object seen sub specie aeternitatis; and the good life is the world seen sub specie aeternitatis. This is the connection between art and ethics.”

Jung recognised this too, noting that “What we are to our inward vision, and what man appears to be sub specie aeternitatis, can only be expressed by way of myth.”

This the myth, but also the anti-myth of our own animal selfhood that is often ignored or covered up by our facility with language. Are we not mammals: non-hoofed, non-ruminant, but as-good-as cattle? Walk into a Weatherspoons pub on a summery midweek afternoon and watch the old geezers with their pints transform into a lumbering cow herd next to a stream. If you’re a woman, see them follow your every move with their dull, stolid eyes, every man a biform Minotaur, and don’t we know it.    

Even expertise, one of the Gods of our age, is ironised with reference to those who become authorities on socially validated activities, or non-socially-validated activities (like sleep), even though the latter may be more important to our well being and the tenor of our ongoing experience than the former. As with most satire and irony, this reference is also prescient: a number of high-profile books have come out in the last year about sleeping, or not sleeping. Darian Leader, Marina Benjamin, Matthew Walker – just three of many “experts” who have ambitiously put books into the world about this profoundly inactive activity.

William Casey King tracks how ambition has a far more extensive history as a vice than as a virtue. In the Genevan translation of the Bible, there are some seventy-seven admonitions against ambition. It is associated with “crueltie of the wicked,” “malice,” and “all kind of vice.” Indeed, Adam was not fallen by pride but “by ambition.” In Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, ambition is described as “a canker of the soul, an hidden plague … a secret poison, the father of livor [envy], and mother of hypocrisy, the moth of holiness, and cause of madness, crucifying and disquieting all that it takes hold of.”

So how did America, and every country that soon yearned for the confidence and swagger of America (to date: almost all of us) come to put Ambition in pride of place as a virtue? King suggests that the main driver for this were the financial and political benefits of  17th century exploration, colonization, and resource extraction in the New World. The “labyrinth” of national socioeconomic appetites would widen to take on larger domains. In order to vouchsafe this behaviour, the English and Spanish Crowns would need to change their line on ambition, and how it was talked about from the pulpit and in political propaganda, and perhaps even in poetry.

To me this sounds like a post-hoc rationalisation of a drive that is fundamental to our species. “The destruction of the natural world,” writes John Gray in Straw Dogs, is not the result of global capitalism, industrialisation, ‘Western civilisation’ or any flaw in human institutions. It is a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate.”

Which is not the image of human apes that we take away from this poem. In Dean Young’s imagination, we are far more brittle and expendable creatures: not only “made of twigs”, but most of what we do  twiggily negligible: “spent too long poking something with a stick / Was it dead or never alive?” You tell me. Essays like this one seem to fit particularly well into this wasteful category, as does poetry.

I think what I most love about this poem, as jaunty as it is tonally rendered, is its inherently bleak, almost cavalier pessimism:  “So go ahead,” Young dares us, “become an expert in sleep or not, / either way you can live in a rose or smoke / only so long.” He then follows this up with a remorseless instance of sub specie aeternitatis:

You will still be left off the list.
You will still be rain, blurry as a mouse

As Tony Hoagland explains, in an essay that line-for-line is as rich and alive with the poetics of ecstasy as any Young or Hoagland poem, Young has often been mislabelled as a surrealist. He is better understood as “a textbook (big R) Romantic” whose well-formulated worldview:

“…testifies to the supreme force of the individual imagination, the opposition of the individual to mass society, the divinity of nature compared to the malfeasance of humanity, and, especially, the tension between the transcendence of the ecstatic moment and the corrosive nature of horizontal time.”

He does this not by writing ponderous, unread critical essays (though do read Hoagland on Young, it’s such a wonderful piece of writing) but by doing everything everything that is antithetical to the ruminative, self-important behaviour that stems from ambition, but by playing with thought and language in a way that is “fast, daffy, tragic, witty, vivid, fabricated by the collaboration of associative and dissociative powers, interrupted at times by epithets of wisdom and grace.”

Hoagland like Young, was also feted in his lifetime (he died recently from pancreatic cancer at the age of 64) with prestigious awards and well-reviewed publications, but is still not a household name for British poetry readers. He too got “left off the list”, even if, unlike most of us he has a Wikipedia page. And even in America for those who don’t read poetry, which is almost everyone, his poems too fall like rain in the culture arena, “blurry as a mouse”.

In which case: we really do need all the anti-ambition odes and reminders we can get. For what purpose ambition? As inherently social primates, keenly aware of our place in the pecking order, literary or otherwise, I don’t think we get to attenuate its drive just by interrogating its overall usefulness in our lives. I am no less painfully ambitious for having read Young’s poem. But maybe it nudges me as I recite it daily a little bit closer to the negative capability of of seeing my settled and by now in middle-age stable “invisibility” as an existential given, a universal given for all but a few, encouraging me and you to keep our eyes open to other ways of making our time here on the List of Still Living count.  

Sub specie aeternitatis, baby.