I’ve spent much of the past week trying with increasing desperation to write a dissertation proposal. It’s been the academic task that I’ve been ostensibly working on for nearly 18 months now, since I passed my prelims in early fall 2010. I don’t know what it has been so difficult for me to do, or to focus on, or to think about, but at times I’ve felt almost paralyzed by doubt and indecision. Sometimes thinking carefully and grandly about a subject that you expect to devote considerable time and energy about and a position that you hope to advance over the course of thousands of words opens you up to all kinds of fear–fear of not knowing enough, fear of failing to achieve originality, fear of being profoundly and deeply mistaken, fear of misreading, dishonesty, error. I sent off a rough draft of the proposal today, and as I’ve reflected on the struggles I’ve had with dissertation proposal writing, a few lines from George Oppen have persisted in my memory. They come from section 27 of his tremendous long poem “Of Being Numerous”:
One must not come to feel that he has a thousand threads in his hands,
He must somehow see the one thing;
This is the level of art
There are other levels
But there is no other level of art
I confess to something akin to bewilderment mingled with admiration for such an idea–such an ambition. I very much feel as though I have a thousand threads in my hands and am struggling to see the one thing. And so there is for me, in this task, as in so many others a felt necessity to arrive at some greater precision, some usefulness, some method of seeing and saying that offers something to someone else, even if as is the case with this dissertation, I’m not entirely sure who that someone else might be. Still, I’m glad to have chosen to write about poets who I admire so fiercely, women like Lorine Niedecker and men like George Oppen, who not only has given me the challenge of seeing the one thing but who wrote in the concluding lines of the first section of the poem “Route”:
Clarity, clarity, sure clarity is the most beautiful thing in the world,
A limited, limiting clarity
I have not and never did have any motive of poetry
But to achieve clarity.
I find a statement of this kind daunting, but there’s something about it that I also find beautiful. I want to make this my ambition: to write my dissertation carefully, honestly, clearly, without the desperate feeling of having a thousand threads in my hands, but still capable of acknowledging the ways that I am limited and limiting. If anyone reading this has any insight or advice into seeing the one thing when it comes to a large academic writing project or into achieving clarity, please share your thoughts with me. I could use them.