Essays, Recent

Going in Fear of Negation: What Happens When We Stop Saying ‘No’?

by Justin Jannise | Contributing Writer

“Indian Canyon Road,” Lauren Szabo, 2012

Teaching creative writing workshops—poetry, in particular—can lead to a surprising amount of self-plagiarism. With each new crop of students, I overhear myself issuing the same advice over and over, as I try to help relative newcomers improve their poems.

“Go in fear of abstractions,” Ezra Pound writes in his Buzzfeed-ready manifesto, “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” which I often introduce as one of the more practical guides for crafting modern poetry. Pound’s catalogue of “Don’ts” need not be taken as doctrine, but it can be taken as something like a beginner poet’s Strunk & White—a handy (and inexpensive) tool for shaking a first draft free of those clumsy phrases and over-reaching metaphors (“dim lands of peace”) that unnecessarily weigh a poem down. 

I don’t recall if it was Pound’s essay or some other object of close scrutiny that led to my own, oft-repeated warning: “Go in fear of negation.” However, this command, echoing across many classrooms and scrawled into the margins of many first drafts, has become such a touchstone of my teaching that I figured I might as well share it with a broader swath of writers and readers.

When, in “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth writes, “These beauteous forms, / through a long absence, have not been to me / As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye,” I feel the positive momentum of the first 22.5 lines of that poem screech to a halt. Whereas I need little help conjuring “these waters, rolling from their mountain-springs” (3) or “these plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts” (11), I feel vexed by the change in energy that arrives just after “these beauteous forms” because I’m suddenly being asked to imagine not what is but what is not. To make matters more confusing, Wordsworth’s diction turns abstract (“forms,” “absence”), his syntax becomes elaborate (“have not been to me / as is”?), and his imagery (“passing even into my purer mind / With tranquil restoration:—feelings too / Of unremembered pleasure”) evokes yet another degree of inaccessibility. Am I saying Wordsworth’s lines are impossible to parse? Not at all. Am I foreclosing the possibility that the poet intended to enact upon his reader the very perplexity I’m experiencing? Far from it. What I am saying is that poetic language has the ability to carry me off and away, and if it ever wants to stop carrying me off and away, all it has to do is pile on one negation after another—a “not” here, an “un-” there, maybe a “without” or “the absence of” for good measure—and, if I’m reading leisurely enough, I’ve lost that sensuous feeling of direct contact with a speaking voice before I’ve even realized it, much less why. 

The “why,” I’ve come to realize, has to do with the way language works on its most basic levels. If I say there’s a green car in my driveway, I’ve just created the mental image of a green car, perhaps also the implication of a suburban setting, in the reader’s mind. If I then say that the green car just left my driveway, I’m painting the picture of an empty driveway with negation. The green car was. The green car is no more. 

However, if I say, apropos of nothing, “there is no green car in my driveway,” I’ve played a rather clever trick on my reader. With the preceding word “no,” I’ve negated the green car before it’s ever appeared. Though I mean there’s no green car, I’ve nevertheless conjured one while speaking of its absence. The reader and I, in other words, are at odds: I see no green car, but the reader must understand that the green car flickering into her mind is already gone. What to call the green car that isn’t there? A ghost? A memory (for which there was no event)? Is it like Wallace Stevens’ enigmatic “Snow Man,” beheld as the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”? 

I have to be careful when I say that negation has its place in poetry. It has its masters. It has its devotees. That’s not the same as saying that everybody deploys it equally well. Mastery means knowing precisely which “rules,” when broken, can be gotten away with—or how to pull off the crime without drawing undue attention to it. Many of us grow up in grammar school learning to avoid double negatives, but in poetry even one negative can be too much. It can ruin the entire illusion, forfeit the whole game. 

The most frequent instances of negation I come across in poems by beginners use negational prefixes like “in-” and “un-” as a way to make the language sound, I suppose, more gravely “poetic” than it would be otherwise. When I edited a literary journal and read hundreds of poetry submissions every few months, I saw poems with titles like “Unraveling” or “Unbecoming” with such startling frequency that I almost developed a predictive model for what type of poem would follow: wispy, elliptical, full of “unfettered” natural imagery and “unnameable” body parts. Negation comes to us too easily. We stuff our first drafts with it because, I suspect, we are socialized adults who prefer the relative safety of saying of what something is not (which is infinite) versus what something actually is. When as writers we take for granted our readers’ patience, assuming they’ll be willing to untie all our “nots” and excuse all our “absences,” we take a huge risk—and it’s not the kind of risk, I think, that ought to be taken lightly. 

Anybody who’s ever been in a workshop has heard a writer defend questionable aesthetic choices by claiming “questionable” was, after all, their intent. As exasperating as these defenses can be, I usually find my way around it, if I’m the instructor, by pointing out that intentions are not in and of themselves a redeeming force in poetry. Bad intentions, indeed, may be the root cause of most bad poems, so that when intentions are expressed we must move our discussion away from craft and meet the validity of those intentions head-on. 

Let’s be honest. Most people starting to write poetry want to write a recognizably good poem. I maintain that anybody is capable of at least one. Rarely do I see a poem that contains absolutely nothing worth salvaging. What stands in their way is nothing more than study and practice—or, as James Merrill called it in an interview, “artistry.” The good news is that artistry can be taught and learned.

“Life will teach you passion,” Merrill says. “Unfortunately, when we’ve been in workshops, or looked at beginner poems, we’ve seen poems full of passion which neither we nor their authors would want to read a few months later.” 

He goes on: “And yet the great poems . . . are the passionate poems. . . . It’s really the artistry that sustains the passionate poem that we would read from one century to the next. What I might have wanted to learn in a workshop was precisely as much as I could about artistry, trusting life to take care of the rest.”

I want to be clear that, while negation is far too essential to be wholly purged from one’s poetic skillset, there’s good reason for a beginning poet—perhaps also for more advanced apprentices of the craft—to go in fear of it. There’s generative power to be found in, say, revising a poem by replacing its whatnots and strikethroughs with confident and affirmative energy. When poets find that some form of negation is unavoidable, they use it with the conviction that ought to accompany every decision they make, large or small. That’s artistry. 

Another way that negation can work powerfully in a poem is through pattern and repetition. Hailey Leithauser’s “Zen Heaven” shows what can be achieved when the negative is embraced and embodied, rather than deployed haphazardly. Here’s the entire poem: 

No melon, no lemon, no scone, no crumb,
no tuns of gin or barrels of bourbon, 
no chocolate chiffon, no filet mignon.

No bumped shins, no bunions, no rain-ached bones,
no lesions or abrasions, no spasms,
nothing swollen, fallen, rotten, or numb.

No courtesans or virgins, no woman
or man. No estrogen, progesterone,
not one lone hormone to scorn or condone. 

No vision, or mission, or chosen son,
no inaction or action, no outcome
of passion, no function, done or undone.

No lesson at the end, no dead dial tone.
No one in the tomb, no tomb, no tombstone.

Beginning with one of her favorite linguistic anomalies, the palindrome (“No melon, no lemon”), Leithauser doubles and redoubles each “no” until the negational meaning it references becomes supplanted by its musical sound. Through cumulative repetition, in other words, she takes the negation out of the word “no” and appends each one to a concrete image. These images aren’t random, and they aren’t merely determined by rhyme. They escalate and dilate in intensity, from the ordinary stuff of still life paintings (“no spoon, no crumb”) to the language of human anatomy and medicine (“No estrogen, progesterone,”) all the way to the imagery of Christ’s resurrection (“No one in the tomb, no tomb, no tombstone”), which echoes the word “Heaven” in the title. 

“I indulge myself / In rich refusals,” wrote Donald Justice, and there’s an element of his “Thin Man” formalism in “Zen Heaven,” as there is in Kay Ryan’s “Blandeur,” which begins: “If it please God, / let less Happen.” But anytime I read a poem that raises the art of negation into religious or theological terms I think of this poem by Emily Dickinson: 

Renunciation—is a piercing Virtue—
The letting go
A Presence—for an Expectation—
Not now—
The putting out of Eyes—
Just Sunrise—
Lest Day—
Day’s Great Progenitor—
Renunciation—is the Choosing
Against itself—
Itself to justify
Unto itself—
When larger function—
Make that appear—
Smaller—that Covered Vision—Here—

To anyone familiar with Dickinson’s body of work, this poem appears exceptional in that it is composed of one long stanza—a remarkable departure from the four-line stanzas typical of Dickinson’s hymn meter. It is as if Dickinson has formally enacted a renunciation of her usual style. We might, then, read the poem as both a performance of renunciation and a complication of its mechanics. 

To renounce means to make a vow or promise against something. It means to make a “larger” no, which occurs in an instant (the instant of renunciation), which is itself comprised of a series of smaller no’s (the protracted period of renunciation). The first “no” is something like “never again,” which performs a kind of spiritual or psychological function. To decline bread at dinner is an act of abstention. To say, “I hereby quit bread because bread has never done anything good for me and never will again”—that is renunciation. The hereby indicates J.L. Austin’s performative; it gives the language act a real-life consequence—or rather, it intends to. The real-life consequence is always deferred, promised; it requires something more than just words—it requires unyielding repetition. Renunciation, then, brings the present into the future—it scatters one big “Never Again!” into an endless sequence of negations. Once renunciation has been initiated, the present becomes the past, and each “no” draws on the past act of renunciation, collecting power from the explosive first vow. 

But there’s a problem with renunciation—a kind of paradox—that Dickinson addresses in the second stanza of the poem, a problem that helps explain the “piercing” part of the virtue. To make a habit of renunciation (and renunciation, to complicate matters, depends on habit) is to eventually encounter the problem of renouncing an earlier renunciation. It’s like Midas’s touch; eventually one runs out of things to turn to gold conveniently and arrives at a point of gilding things against one’s wishes. Renunciation, once espoused as a virtue, looses renunciation upon the world with a kind of unstoppable force. Dickinson’s poem seems to draw on personal experience with rebelliousness, of crying “Never again!” for the sake of saying so, to prove a point, to practice renunciation in a sense to elevate oneself over those who lack the will to live with as much moral integrity. One recalls the character Dorothea in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, whose self-imposed deprivations are themselves a kind of excess, or Cordelia in King Lear, whose moral righteousness comes to resemble, ironically, her father’s tyranny. 

Dickinson’s era produced many figures who were cartoonish with their performances of piety. The point is not simply that renunciation is good, or that it is bad. To the extent that Dickinson’s poem can be translated into any moralistic truism, it is that renunciation in excess leads to a kind of tricky moral snake pit. How can we know if we are renouncing for good reason, or for the sake of justifying the activity to ourselves? Most of us learn the lessons of Dickinson’s poem too late. We “wake up” in the middle of her poem, or at the end, but not at the beginning. We recognize the trouble with renunciation only after we have renounced something. There is something in our nature to renounce, she suggests, as well as to misunderstand the consequences.

Like Whitman at the end of “Song of Myself,” Dickinson is always ahead of us lesser poets—stopping, waiting for us. Her poems reveal a highly adept mind capable of extraordinary disavowals and abstract negations. Meanwhile, many of us stumble through our poems with only an intuitive understanding of which direction may actually lead somewhere. This uncertainty can be a source of both fun and frustration, but there’s something even more exciting about cutting the grammatical breaks and hopping over the negational speed bumps. Only then does it feel possible that we may ever catch up. 

Justin Jannise grew up in rural southeast Texas. As a first-generation college student, he attended Yale University, where he won the 2009 Albert Stanburrough Cook Prize for Poetry. He worked as a freelance pop culture writer in New York City before moving to Iowa to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The University of Iowa awarded him a Teaching-Writing Fellowship in 2013 and named him the Provost’s Visiting Writer in Poetry in 2014. Now pursuing his Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston, Justin served as Editor-in-Chief of Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts from 2018 to 2020. He frequently teaches workshops for Inprint, Grackle & Grackle, and Writespace. As part of Writers in the Schools, he has led classrooms at Field Elementary School, the High School for Law and Justice, and M.D. Anderson Cancer Hospital. He is the recipient of both the Inprint Marion Barthelme Prize and the Inprint Verlaine Prize in Poetry. In 2019, his poems appeared in both Best New Poets and Best of the Net, and Copper Nickel nominated his poem “Leather Jacket” for a Pushcart Prize. His poem “Flamingosexual” won The Pinch Journal’s 2020 Pinch Literary Award. His writing has also appeared—or is forthcoming—in Hobart, Houston Chronicle, Lana Turner, New Ohio Review, Out, Palette Poetry, The Southeast Review, Split Lip Magazine, and Yale Review.