Note: the introduction to the article appears below. The full article appears only in the print edition.
Two factors motivated the theme for this issue. The first was a gut feeling: of being fed up with celebrity. I originally posted the theme as ‘40,733,985 minutes of obscurity’ – that’s how many minutes, on average, a UK citizen will live outside their putative 15 minutes of fame. (Even Warhol tired of hearing his declaration echoed back at him, and parodied it: “In fifteen minutes everybody will be famous.”) I wanted to see a counterpoint to celebrity, through poetry that honours – or simply observes – subjects not demanding our attention.
The other motivation for the theme reflects a prevailing personal interest closer to philosophy than to concerns about celebrity: our position with respect to the unknown. Donald Rumsfeld was ridiculed for saying: “But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” He may be a man who deserves scorn, but his statement was correct. Our ignorance of our ignorance is one of a variety of phenomena at the edges of our being. Rumsfeld’s observation is the stuff of the theory of knowledge, but many of those phenomena are psychological, and especially Freudian. We don’t know (or perceive) what we don’t want to know: the unpalatable facts about which we are in denial; the marginal beings for which we don’t have time.
Wittgenstein’s writing (“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”) demonstrates that philosophical analysis can also be poetic. I wanted to explore the extent to which poetry can do practical philosophy: the extent to which it can prove what we take for granted, don’t know that we don’t know, or cannot see – yet. It is no accident that this issue’s Showcase poet, Tom Duddy, is also a philosopher. His “darkness beneath the rollicking table” (Public House) is a reference to what lurks unknown in an ordinary situation. I think that poetry rubs shoulders with the unknown, as in Duddy’s pub. In good poetry, language is taken to the limits – of what we know and perhaps can know.
I wrote to well-known poets, asking for examples of what I termed ‘the poetry of obscurity’, giving the example of the torturer’s horse in Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts, scratching its behind on a tree while its master (presumably) goes through with his job. I made it plain that it was not ‘obscure poetry’ I was after, but otherwise left open what, exactly, ‘the poetry of obscurity’ might mean…
The remainder of this article, complete with contributions from Moniza Alvi, Alison Brackenbury, A.B. Jackson, Judith Kazantzis, Michael Symmons Roberts and other poets, appears only in the print edition.