To Lie Down in the Field of What We Do Not Know: Interrogations of Epistemology with Robert Wrigley

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In this interview conducted by Emily Ellison, Robert Wrigley discusses different angles of epistemology and their consequential restraints of human thinking—restraints that often “box” the experience of living. Differentiating “knowledge” from “understanding,” as well as describing the particularities of perceiving through the “soul” versus the body,  Wrigley suggests that different approaches to connecting with our environment may result in different consciousnesses. Appreciation and immersion in nature, which he refers to as  “apprehending the way the world, the earth, the cosmos speaks to you through the flesh,” may be closest to how “one can articulate to oneself the idea of what might be one’s soul.” To delight in the unknown, the impossible-to-articulate aspects of meaning—this might allow one to expand, to break out of self-imposed human limitations.

Robert Wrigley is the author of many poetry collections and the recipient of many honors and awards, including the Kingsley Tufts Award and the San Francisco Poetry Center Book Award; he has also been honored with fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Wrigley, the Director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Idaho, lives in on the Clearwater River with his wife the writer Kim Barnes and their children.

Ellison: Your work Box suggests a concept that is human-specific, a self-container arising through language and limited definitions of epistemology. Nature seems freed from these restrictions, being outside of a capability for self-awareness, being outside of language—not seeking that way-of-knowing-oneself as we do. How might understanding nature provide us with a means of escaping our box? What might this process look like?

Wrigley: Have you heard of the novel by Richard Powers called The Overstory? It’s a novel about trees. And I don’t know, nor does Richard Powers (and a lot of other people), that trees do not possess consciousness, that plants of all kinds do not possess consciousness.

So, the box that we’re talking about, that humans find themselves circumscribed by or that contains them, seems to me to have less to do with consciousness than with the particular kind of consciousness. Which is to say, humans are so understandably and often contained by a kind of limited sense of consciousness.

How easily people dismiss their dreams—or, even if they don’t dismiss their dreams, they’re not convinced of the dream’s validity, or they’re not convinced that the dream has any kind of connection to the actual lives they live. Much of this is understandable. Human life is invested in epistemological difficulties—just finding your ass with both hands these days is a challenge. But I think that nature, if we involve ourselves in it, if we just spend time [deeply inhales] looking at trees, smelling rocks… I like to crawl, I like to lie down in the woods a lot, I do that a lot, which has made me famous to the animals and my neighbors too. One of these days I’m going to die out there, and the neighbors, they’re going to leave me there for several days.

Anyway, if we can involve ourselves in the natural world in a very deep kind of way—which means being very silent, listening to it, smelling it, letting it contact us through the senses, through the body less than the mind—it allows us, I think, to access other parts of our own psyches and avenues, conscious and unconscious. We might be developed within this.

Ellison: As a lesson from poetry and from nature, perhaps moving away from a defined meaning—focusing on the experience instead, experiencing the unknown—might be a better way of accessing this different consciousness?

Wrigley: Sure, and being comfortable with it as an unknown. But the other thing is, I also think poems do mean. The problem comes in articulating meaning. It does in fact draw a line around the poem, it boxes the poem in.

Take Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I might have been in high school or something when a teacher said it’s a poem about death, and I looked down and thought “this isn’t about death! What are you talking about?” But it is impossible to say what it is about, and that’s what makes it so impossibly rich. You clearly understand that it is about something—something is at stake in that poem, but we don’t know what.

Ellison: Earlier, you mentioned dream-life, which hinges on imagination. Imagination is usually excluded from epistemology, as an invalid way of knowing, yet this seems to be a crucial part of expanding to break our box.

In your poem “Mother Country,” you mention the distinct ways of knowing and perceiving through the soul and the flesh. What might be those differences of the body and the soul in apprehending these things? What role does the imagination play?

Wrigley: I’m not sure there is a difference—and, I’m not entirely certain I believe in the soul.

Stevens, if he believed in the soul, didn’t think it was much more than the imagination; he thought the imagination was what made human life worth living. He was a sensualist, he seemed to relish the experiences of the flesh as long as he could render them somehow in poetry. But he was also very much an intellectual and very much a man who built his aesthetic around the idea of the imagination, just what the imagination could do.

My challenge in that poem, or my interrogation of Stevens in that poem, has to do with the idea that I believe you can come closest to having an articulate notion—one can articulate to oneself the idea of what might be one’s soul—by apprehending the way the world, the earth, the cosmos speaks to you through the flesh, which also includes the brain.

I would also argue that there really isn’t any such thing as the mind—it’s just a brain. I mean, it’s a great organ, one of my favorites [chuckles]. It’s a repository of things we simply are overwhelmed by much of the time. That’s why writing is so difficult—if we could just turn on whatever part of the brain unlocks that, wherever that switch is.

And it’s all of it, it’s the whole thing. You unlock the thing that keeps you from writing—you crawl out of the box that contains you and keeps you from writing—by writing. It’s like going out in the woods. You want to know nature, you go out in the woods. You want to write, you write; there’s no other substitute.

Ellison: Could you talk on the difference between “knowing” and “understanding”? You have a few poems that revisit memories to reconstruct what might have been. Might imagination create a reality that is tied to “knowing” and “understanding”?

Wrigley: Knowing is such a provisional thing. We know we think we know, but we don’t know that we know—if you know what I mean. Understanding is that part of us, that part of the knowledge-generating mechanism that allows us to understand that we know we think we know, but we know we also don’t know. Diagram that sentence! [laughs]

And I don’t know that I’m actually very interested in trying to dig into the difference between understanding and knowing, because that’s sort of where the mystery is that energizes the poem. You know this already: the best poems are not the poems we understand.

Ellison: Or that understand themselves.

Wrigley: Not only is what it is they mean what I never try to say—I understand, I know, I think I know, I think I understand that I know that what power is in them has to do with what I could never articulate. A reader might articulate, a critic might articulate, but critics don’t get to the bottom of things any more than the poets do, and the poet’s probably the last person to ask.

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