Idea for a poem: I’m interested in hopelessness. An ugly feeling if ever there was one, especially for the political left which I consider myself as belonging to. Hopelessness is not just a failure to be hopeful (and it is certainly that) it’s dangerous, it threatens especially the youthful leftist stance of hope which requires all of our participation and an enormous amount of emotional labour to sustain.
Politically, the usual angle is this: without hope we have nothing and would do nothing, without hope They win. We are all tempted by hopelessness, who wouldn’t be in these circumstances? But we must resist it. Hopelessness is therefore insubordinate in a self-destroying, self-eating, entirely unredeeming way. Listening to a podcast recently I heard that Naomi Shihab Nye’s father would say something to the effect of ‘we must have hope because if we don’t we have nothing and how depressing is that?’ Well, quite. Hope is apparently our best and most peaceful defiance on the political left, it propels our vision and keeps us motivated to fight what we see to be the good fight. Hope is an implicit condemnation against fascist and capitalist politics, against the far right. To hope for better is to identify the bad and nobly motion so as to over come it. Hoping is the cry of life.
So what happens when we do not hope, cannot hope, or hope no longer? Hopelessness is politically and morally repugnant. I intuitively feel that by submitting to hopelessness I am inviting shame upon myself as both a person and as a member of the political left, that I am doing something deviant on all social levels. Certainly that is how others have typically responded to my hopelessness my whole life. This is not how one should behave, buck up, don’t be stupid, don’t be so irresponsible...and their gentler cousin - you don't really mean that. Whatever the situation hope is considered logical and clever and strong, hopelessness is a deficiency in reason and a weakness of the flesh. Who would want to live a hopeless depressing life? Who indeed? It is the lesser choice, the wrong choice. Hopelessness is the province of fools and disappointments, as if there could be no situation in which it were simply an appropriate emotional response.
This is the affect of hopelessness: not only is my capacity to hope blocked, I am also actively blocking the grander project by way of my deviant emotion. It projects negativity inwardly and outwardly. So hopelessness is a measly and feckless non-emotion, not just as the incapacity for the grand and noble emotion of hope, but also as a despicable mole. Hopelessness marks one, it bans one from the project of the living. It is the opposite of life’s vitality, it is a living death, and so many of us are raised to despise death. Hopelessness is an intolerable affect, an anti- affect predicated on wrongness that seems to us to exist only to be cured. And yet, so wholly, completely and to-the-bone do I feel it, both for the world and for myself as an individual person, that it colours, defines and makes sense of both my daily experiences and my big, wide political life. And I am very much not alone.
I shouldn’t admit to hopelessness, I shouldn’t talk about it except as a temporary lapse or momentary and regrettable flight of indulgence, I shouldn’t take it seriously, I certainly shouldn’t encourage it, I must not look too hard at it in case I fall in love with it, I must not give it an inch, I must not romanticise it, I must not empower it, I must not consider it as appropriate or logical...etc etc etc...which is why (if I am doing poetry at all right) I should do all of these things in my poem.
I am interested by the offence that hopelessness causes to our sense of decorum, especially in poetry. The self-indulgence and self-pity which would necessarily be associated with sustained attention on hopelessness contradicts good taste. We leave that poetry behind with our 15 year old selves don’t we? Our mature lyric poetry is supposed to be generous and expansive and include the endless metonymic displacement that is the reader in the ritual of shared emotions, our poetry is not to dwell obsessively on one’s own myopic misery (or it can, but only if accompanied by more honourable purposes), it ought to ultimately express a will to life, it is not to deliberately shut out the world and die. But what about when we want to? Hell, I do that every day! Doesn’t that make my despair and self-pity a fit subject for poetry? But, you say, lyric is not supposed to be entirely like a phlegm ball in a drinking glass, how could we tolerate that? I wonder how far it could be pushed, just how morose and grinding and tail-eating a poem could be before we would throw it in the trash. But I don’t suggest this just to be petulant, I want to see what happens when I look at my lament, when I give it the dignity of a poem, and in a way that doesn’t try to make it any more noble than it isn’t. Perhaps it would be like Rilke, but after he had given up even on beauty.
I read the most incredible poem in Sweet Mammalian by Freya Daly Sadgrove ‘If I had your baby in my uterus I would probably kill it with abortion’. While I read it I felt so happy I could cry. The poem is written only for my demographic of young sad poet girls with no hope and no future and excludes everyone else in order to talk to me. I thought - ‘FINALLY!’ Freya said
we are just sitting around half-smiling
I am very quietly whispering to myself sup cunts
and you are like over there in your mud
just dying too and hoping the time you’re spending with me
is gonna pay off some day
Sup cunt, I know who I am, cunts always will. The poem ignites my dignity in the way that only oblivion can, and not only that but I don’t feel alone in my dignity. What a vindication this is, my feelings are real and not just failures to be some other emotion, not just childishness or sour grapes. I know this because it’s the same for me and a whole bunch of other cunts (for real, read this poem). Even the word ‘cunt’ can be mine, and without having to do somersaults trying to reclaim it to mean something good. There’s perhaps some value in this kind of endeavour then, without having to justify it by making out like poetry can save the world. We’re already frustrated - though not really surprised - that it can’t. It’s something like dying with dignity.
Anyway I envision:
- a long poem because 1. excess, 2. fashion, 3. I’ve not done one yet
- and essay-like format because 1. let poetry struggle to survive here, 2. the event of hopelessness is poem enough for us cunts, 3. if Charles Bernstein can do it so can I
- self-indulgence mixing with critique because 1. I’m alive in this mess aren’t I?
- I would probably call it Lamentation or Lamentations, and harvest some text from these notes.
Politically it’s supposed to be good practice to look at one’s own side with a critical eye too. But I don’t pretend any higher aims like that, any moral virtue will be coincidental. Why not be despised by your own? It would be an interesting critique of collective subjectivity and solidarity. I’m finding it exhausting that my intellectual positivity is based on a programme of constructive behaviour designed to engender hope for a better future when my body (which is experiencing the present, the only time that actually exists) knows that everything is, as Freya put it ‘like everything else/horrible and with no future’. My real body in the real world has ended in that way that hopelessness ends you, and that’s the truth, so I want to say so.
So what are my questions for hopelessness?:
No questions really, I want to spend an extended period of time poetically dwelling in it, without shame, to its excesses. Perhaps in this time I'll have said something dignified. Questions would imply that there's something to figure out, to resolve, but hopelessness isn't that kind of affect. As I said, we seem to be interested in the dark night of the soul only to the extent that we can cure it, dismiss it or become stronger as the result of it. But hopelessness does not seek to overcome, there is nothing after it, it makes nothing and it builds on nothing. I don't intend to teach anybody anything, I am interested in doing something without redeeming qualities, which does not look towards the sun, which is therefore true unto itself. I think hopelessness requires respect and validation like the nobler passions because it is a real feeling, not just failure - moral failure, intellectual failure, failure of character - and it is so prevalent and characteristic that it’s a travesty not to respect and validate it, it screams to be acknowledged and taken into account.
I want to look at it, and at it, not at some abstract pretty darkness which exists only to be survived and overcome, which is only figured as the inverse of a true light. I will let it eat me. Why not? I would like to try my hand at a work that is needful but not in a way that offers hope (that traitorous devil), this would be a work with the honesty of the hopeless present, a work that aspires to nothing and claims no benefit, a work that is like a cat shit in the drive way, and which, like a cat shit in the drive way, is a part of the present world rather more than it tries to influence the world.