A Poetics of Estrangement

Design by Cleo Maloney

Some Thursday this past September, I attended a reading by the poet Charles North at the JE Head of College House, and I was a caricature of something. I wore a long skirt and I carried a copy of Nightwood in my white tote, which had a pronoun pin on it. While waiting for the poet, we had fresh berries, macarons, and tea in porcelain cups. We seated ourselves politely around the piano and distracted ourselves with the furniture. This was a tasteful home, with kind hosts leading loving lives. My parents’ living room back home kind of looks like this. I’ve never quite felt like myself in rooms like this—so I’ve made my sentences resemble things from rooms like this. I don’t particularly care for rooms like this. My friend from YDSA diagnoses me: “you just want an apartment in Bushwick and to write your own Verso book.” 

In the middle of the reading North said something about someone named “Paul, a wonderful poet, who died young.” I liked the phrasing, and it was the only quote I remembered from the reading. He talked about the way his life as a professor and thinker lent itself to art, but what I got was that the New York School of poets were just the boring, straight-edge cousins of the Beats. Everything he read was well-thought, well-written, and not even alienating— poems that I could’ve understood, had I looked out another window when I was eleven. He gave every English 125 poet a position on a baseball team: Milton, pitcher, Donne, outfield, Shakespeare, second base. The room laughed at every assignment he read out. I didn’t know anything about baseball. But oh, the old lady behind me was going apeshit. Every poem made me feel so harrowingly uptight. I pulled out my phone and went on Twitter. 

“That was such a lovely crowd,” a white woman remarked as I hurried out the door. Whenever people talk about crowds (good? bad?) at poetry readings I wonder if they know something about people or poetry that I don’t. The only other readings I’ve been to were in high school: slam poetry affairs in local cafés, crammed with nervous young inhumans dressed horribly. These were occasions where people snapped their fingers for each other and in the middle of a poem, you’d realize that no one’s writing is really that good—even your own. Back then, I thought that all great poets worked alone and only talked to the dead. I also understood that everyone secretly wished for glitter and drama and to write poems that got it right; that everyone wanted to graduate into “a scene” of sorts where they’d know others and be known in turn. We took joy from these spaces because none of us wanted to belong there.

As Charles North read his poems about philosophy and the weather, something shapeless fell from my grasp. I could feel the symbols and narratives evaporate out of poetry. The way I read things no longer moved me: I am estranged from the images that I once found poetic. And I began to wonder whether there was a great evil in poetry, how it kidnaps a life that could have otherwise been inane. Shakespeare in a baseball cap—is there something immoral about imposing our own order onto things? 

At the end of September I came to the understanding that I had lost a part of my chosen family. The next week, I started reading Nightwood.

When estrangement becomes a necessity, anguish ensues. Enter Nightwood, ex machina—as is often with queer novels, this story was not too different from my own. Every two weeks, Yale-flavored creatives come to Yale to give the same advice to aspiring young creatives at Yale: don’t do it unless you have to. Writers write because they must. Must we intellectualize our lives to make them bearable? My loss became an understanding, and my understanding became an English midterm paper. It wasn’t anything grand. All of us just want to be okay.

No emotional pain is too great when projected onto a poetics of some kind; the projection lessens your suffering, and makes it uniquely your own. So there is nobody in the world other than Nightwood’s Nora and Robin and Jenny, and there is no greater story than theirs: Jenny and her friends first met Nora and Robin, who loved each other with difficulty, at Nora’s birthday party last June. Over time, these friends became a chosen family to Nora and Robin, who were foreigners in this country. One day after Nora and Robin fell apart, Robin fell into bed with Jenny, who had counseled her through it all. And Nora became estranged from Jenny and Robin, who were loving each other in a way that finally felt right, and from Jenny’s friends, whom she adored. It disarms you. After all, Yale makes everybody feel so alone. 

There is extensive literature on how to deal with family estrangement, but not so much when it concerns the collapse of a chosen family. Was it just a falling-out between a group of friends that I chose to see as something more? Perhaps the words we had for each other meant nothing beyond language itself, a courtesy of common sociality. No, I’m sure that only family could be so callous to each other, and only family members linger so long in the way you experience the world after becoming estranged. Is there ever a poetics for the loss of a subjectivity itself?

The great punchline of the joke of our generation, according to older and wiser folks, is that in our endeavor to embrace and embody our own identities, we have lost our ability to envision a collective future. This makes us less than nihilists and blinder than Keynes. 

Some people are so estranged from themselves that they can only understand themselves by understanding others, but according to the greatest band of the twenty-first century, Car Seat Headrest, “It doesn’t have to be like this.” In fact, it could be very, very, very easy for us: as Car Seat Headrest sings, “What should I do? Eat breakfast.” My parents went to karaokes and discos when they were young. After they had me, they went to malls on weekends and watched TV at night. Now their daughter goes to Yale. 

Estrangement is never not generative. Like the empty niches on the facades of Yale’s neo-Gothic buildings, we have expunged the narratives and idols that made us miserable from our spiritual center. All the famous prophets – destroyed by hippie powers – have left the room, and only bodies are left. With old idols exhumed, our bad role models are telling teenagers to put their clothes back on. Any good Hegelian would point out that this estrangement is twofold—we’ve ousted the old, but we still need to fill in the blank. 

I dislike people who write poems about how they’re writing poems. The best writers write just one degree beneath reality; that is, they first show others that they understand them, and then they tell others what to do. Poetry coheres at the moment where we suspend intellect and allow images to reduce themselves to human activity. A poetics of estrangement suspends you in something that is falling apart, forces you to make a narrative and pulls you along with it, forwards forwards—you realize that you must turn your back to it, and like stupid Orpheus, stare straight into the abyss (the abyss turns out to be a beautiful woman, who stares back, and disappears. As she should).

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