Negative Capability in Kansas | By Sydney Lea
I’m just back from a week in Kansas, my reasons for being there irrelevant. I’m thinking of the farmer outside the town I was staying in, the one who said to me, “They think we’re crude and stupid because we’re poor.”
This was far from my first visit to that part of the world, and vehement judgment doesn’t seem part of the citizens’ makeup. But they may resent, however gently, the conspicuous smugness of some northeasterners, their studied diction, their oh-so-refined tastes: certain brand and food fetishisms, certain looks and styles.
On this recent trip, I met a goodly number of people who were anything but crude and stupid, and I noted how many of them were doing things that we all like to talk about: comforting the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the misfortunate. I ate breakfast every morning, for example, at an eatery called The Gathering Place, run by a local pastor. The menu had “suggested prices” only, the restaurant’s guiding notion being that a customer paid what he or she could, precisely so that those who could pay nothing need not go hungry. In these tough times, a lot of the latter showed up each day.
When I told this or that Kansan I was a poet, I was met with curiosity and genuine interest. Mr. and Mrs. Kansas seemed a lot more willing to walk a mile in my shoes than some of my friends would care to walk in theirs.
One of the things that most attracted me to life as a poet is that lyric can see several sides of an issue, situation or personality at the same time. This is a capacity our nation could surely use. John Keats called it Negative Capability. Kansas people seem to intuit its meaning. Do we?
NER Digital is a creative writing series for the web. Sydney Lea, founding editor of NER, is Vermont Poet Laureate.