Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Homage to Jon Anderson, 1940-2007

The wonderful poet Jon Anderson recently died at the age of 67. Though he had a high reputation from the Nineteen Sixties until the early Nineteen Eighties, and was widely anthologized throughout that period, from Paul Carroll’s The New Young American Poets to Daniel Halpern’s The American Poetry Anthology to David Bottoms and Dave Smith’s The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets to Jack Myers and Roger Weingarten's New American Poets of the 80s (rather oddly, since his first book, Looking for Jonathan, was published in 1968), he seems to have been largely forgotten today. His neglect is perhaps partly because he didn’t publish a book between 1983, when Ecco Press published his new and selected poems volume The Milky Way: Poems 1967-1982 (a collection that I still treasure, though now sadly out of print), and 2001, when Carnegie Mellon University Press published his fifth book, Day Moon.

Jon Anderson’s poetry was immensely influential on me as a young poet. His poems exhibit a kind of domestic surrealism, a mythologization of the everyday that opens the door to new imaginative realms rooted in the here and now of quotidian experience. Though it is far from ponderous, there is an utter seriousness in Anderson’s poetry. The poems are highly intelligent, thoughtful, often meditative, but there is no undercutting irony or self-consciousness, but rather a sense of total commitment not to any poetic persona but to the verbal worlds they create: “Clarity, I think I am/coming toward you, I bear/myself with such indifference” (“The History of Psychotherapy”).

Anderson’s poetry is concerned with memory not as reminiscence but as the material of identity, as the mode of reflection by which we constitute ourselves. Mirrors abound in his work:

But if all our losses are a mirror
In which we see ourselves advance,
I believe in its terrible, empty reflection,
Its progress from judgment toward compassion.

(“A Commitment”)

The self is not a given, the already defined subject of preconstituted “experiences”, but a fragile and malleable construct. Representation is not merely the technical means of narrative but the problematic of self and world and their interpenetration. As he writes in “Death’s Only Son,” “Memory, we grow/restless, you & I,/and accidental.” In a poem like “Homage to Robert Bresson” the reader is given the materials out of which a story, or a number of stories, may be constructed, but to relate the events of such a story, or to privilege one potential story over another, is not Anderson’s primary concern. There is no explicit speaker at all in this poem; neither the pronoun nor the concept I makes any appearance.

Anderson’s poem is a meditative description: objects are enumerated and possible or potential significances are rehearsed for them. (Bresson said of his film Un condamné à mort s'est échappé [A Man Escaped] that “I was hoping to make a film about objects which would at the same time have a soul. That is to say, to reach the latter through the former.”) Objects such as the “row of public urinals” (perhaps in the men’s room of the theater in which one views one of Bresson’s films) are implicitly ascribed significance by such laden though visually accurate adjectives as “alabaster,” emphasizing not simply their color but a quality of purity, perhaps because they are as yet unused, still in waiting. Objects such as the “single plate” (set at the place of an eventual diner, but metaphorically also a photographic plate) are assigned both immediate significance (the plate is like a “day-moon” or a “lidless eye,” with connotations of continual light, omniscience, sleeplessness and, more implicitly, madness: all concerns of Bresson’s films) and future significance: matters for which talk is either inadequate or irrelevant, “because the soul is speechless,” will be, may be, or simply are “Better revealed in this single plate,” which holds and preserves the image The plate will or may serve the soul as a mirror in which its visage is reflected, much as the face was traditionally thought to reveal the lineaments of the soul. This sentence which begins with that pregnant adverb “Now” enacts an intricate infolding of present and future, actual and potential time.

People are absent from the poem’s first three stanzas except as potential or future presences, but their absence is a strong presence in itself. The scene is one from which we glean instruction as how to proceed within it; we are given questions (“& who/Shall enter, already lost forever//In their lives?”) rather than answers. The search for the answers is, in one sense, the plot of the poem. On another level, this paysage moralisé sets the terms of the work which is the poem’s occasion, a nondiscursive statement of the concerns of Bresson’s films.

When people enter the poem (after the film has begun), we are given their actions (heavily adverbalized, as befitting the simultaneity of action and interpretation in Bresson), we are informed (by way of a question regarding it) of their anguish, and we are indirectly told that it is not proper that they should suffer. The young, here implicitly compared to Christ on the cross crying out in despair (“Why hast thou forsaken me?”), should be happy: “Why are these/Forsaken, too long in anguish?” If the following questions are taken as a reply, then we are told the answer is “because” (which may be taken as equivalent to “It is God’s will”), or perhaps that the question is simply unanswerable: “Why does the tree bear leaves,/The water bear downward into the earth?” Or the questions may simply be in series, equating human experience (here defined as suffering) and natural process. Does the tree suffer as well? Is the water also in anguish? “This is the law, the rest/A commentary.” The words, these speculations, are commentary on the image; the image is commentary on the words, by means of which “the world” exists in human terms. Or perhaps the endless questioning is itself the law, and any possible answer is only the scribbled marginalia. Nonetheless, one questions, these characters question: “Though nothing can be done,//They are not resigned.”

Bresson is a director very concerned with pattern and fate, with “spiritual style,” in Susan Sontag’s phrase. “All of Bresson’s films have a common theme: the meaning of confinement and liberty…. The plots all have to do with incarnation and its sequel” (“Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson,” Against Interpretation, 186). Anderson’s poem seems to be an oblique reflection on and of Bresson’s Le Journal d’un Curé de Campagne [Diary of a Country Priest], in which we see not a series of events but reflections on those events. “The drama of confinement is in the priest’s confinement, his despair, his weakness, his mortal body….He is liberated by accepting his senseless and agonizing death from stomach cancer” (ibid.). Whatever the relation of “Homage” to any particular film of Bresson’s (the suicidal, too-young girl is from Mouchette), these are obviously concerns of the poem. Yet I would like to go beyond the poem’s subject matter to its methods, a deeper level of kinship between Anderson and Bresson.

One may read “Homage to Robert Bresson” as a semiosis (to use Kristeva and Riffatere's term, as distinct from a mimesis) of a “Bressonian” film, a representation of a mode of representation. The poem’s concerns are not only spiritual but aesthetic, or rather, the poem’s concerns are spiritual because aesthetic, the aesthetic being that realm to which the spiritual is relegated in contemporary life. The reader enters the poem as a camera panning over the scene, while “Spaces await their people.” “An empty theater” may be a “shot” in the film, but it may also be a commentary on the film and on the poem: the audience have not taken their seats, the action has not yet begun. One can read stanza one as the audience (unseen because the reader occupies their subject position) entering the theater, and stanza two as the inception of the images the audience encounters. The reader is thus both audience and audience of the audience. The only characters are the actors, the only “voice” is that of the narration within the film, as much an element of the mise en scène as the “brass knob turning.” That “voice” is a constituent element of the total address of the film, no more or less privileged a source of meaning than the lighting or the decor.

Whoever enters this room (the room in the film, the room the film creates of itself, the room in which we watch the film), furnished with “a table,/Chairs, an oak door, heavily grained”, is “already lost forever//In their lives.” The film’s perpetual present tense is also a perpetual past tense: everything that will happen has already happened, can be rewound or fast-forwarded at any moment. Every frame of the film is a still-life, a frozen moment; the speed with which the frames pass gives the illusion of motion.

In this regard, film differs from the verbal media, for the beginning of a sentence leads inexorably to its conclusion. Words mean only in relation: no phoneme, morpheme, or lexeme stands alone. But Bresson asserted that in a film “each shot is like a word, which means nothing by itself, or rather means so many things that in effect it is meaningless. But a word in a poem is transformed, its meaning made precise and unique, by its placing in relation to the words around it: in the same way a shot in a film is given its meaning by its context, and each shot modifies the meaning of the previous one until with the last shot a total, unparaphrasable meaning has been arrived at.” The “endless movement” is the soul’s and the film’s. Whoever enters the theater has already surrendered to the conventions of the film, “lost forever” in the cinematic dreaming. Whoever enters this shot is fixed forever in celluloid.

Who asks the questions in this poem? Perhaps the narrator of the film. “Who/Shall enter?” is a bit of suspense-building in this poem in which nothing happens, in which we watch nothingness unfold. Sarah Jane Gorlitz notes that “In Bresson’s films, first-person narration in the form of voice-over replaces dialogue as the primary means of relaying the story. But interestingly enough, what the narration tells us is nothing that we don’t already know or are [not] about to learn” (“Robert Bresson: Depth Behind Simplicity”). Mostly, I suspect, the audience asks. Is it that the characters are not resigned (they simply act, entering rooms, preparing to drown) or that the audience is not? “Nothing can be done” because it has already been done, is constantly being done. The choices in a film, in a poem, have (for the viewer, for the reader) always already been made. The rest is commentary: the meaning of the film, the meaning of the events. The poem, in this case, in all cases, is both comment and event.

Homage to Robert Bresson

Spaces await their people.
An alabaster row of public urinals.
An empty theater. A table,
Chairs, an oak door, heavily grained,
Brass knob turning & who
Shall enter, already lost forever

In their lives? Now
Will a soul reveal its human face,
Secret luminous flesh,
& because the soul is speechless
There will be little talk,
Better revealed in this single plate

Set like a day-moon or
Lidless eye before its chair.
Who sits shall eat, because
It is important to stay alive, to
Bear the soul’s countenance
Down into the streets, their traffic,

Its endless movement. Here
A young priest, shaken, prays to give
False solace to the dying;
A girl, too young, casually prepares
To drown. Why are these
Forsaken, too long in anguish?

Why does the tree bear leaves,
The water bear downward into the earth?
This is the law, the rest
A commentary. She take off her clothes,
Folding them. He enters
A room. Though nothing can be done,

They are not resigned.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

On Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany is a prolific science fiction writer, memoirist, self-described pornographer, literary critic, and social commentator. Since the publication in 1962 (when he was twenty) of his first book, The Jewels of Aptor, he has published numerous novels, short stories, essays, interviews, cultural commentary, and memoirs. What's most remarkable about this prodigious output is its consistent quality, wide range, and continual development. Delany has never been one to repeat himself or rest on his laurels. Unlike some writers who, beginning in the genre and subsequently seeking literary respectability, and despite his numerous works in other genres, Delany has always strongly identified himself as a science fiction writer. But his work has always pushed at and expanded the boundaries and conventions of the field, constantly seeking out new forms, ideas, and themes. Indeed, his work has become more challenging and complex over the course of his career.

Though I am a poet and he is a prose writer (a prose writer with an active and insightful interest in contemporary poetry, one no doubt encouraged by his previous marriage to and continuing friendship with the marvelous poet Marilyn Hacker), Delany has been a crucial influence on the way I write and think about writing. Among other things, his work is a constant reminder that reading is a form of writing oneself into a text and that writing is a form of reading a potential text.

Delany has frequently acknowledged his debts to poetry. He has also written an extended and wide-ranging meditation on Hart Crane’s The Bridge (“Atlantis Rose…,” in Longer Views), as well as “Atlantis: Model 1924” (published in Atlantis: Three Tales), a vividly imagined meeting between Delany’s father and the poet on the Brooklyn Bridge, an encounter which revolves around misunderstandings and miscommunications: the two, occupying the same space at the same time, never meet at all.

At their best, science fiction and poetry have in common the production and presentation of alternative worlds in which the rules, restrictions, and categories of our world don’t apply. It was this freedom from the tyranny of what is, from the domination of the actually existing, that attracted me to both, first science fiction and then poetry.

Delany has also been an important figure in opening up the once almost exclusively white male world of science fiction to more diverse voices, both by being one of the first black science fiction writers and by writing about the experiences of nonwhite characters of all hues and backgrounds, of women, and of gay and bisexual characters. Almost none of his protagonists are heterosexual white men, but the racial identity of his characters is not an issue in his books. He creates worlds in which race as we understand it is not a significant category, and thus implicitly critiques our society’s obsession with race and racial categorization. Delany has been a trailblazer for later black writers like Octavia Butler and Steve Barnes, who have used science fiction as an arena in which to explore questions of race and identity in a speculative and imaginative manner, unrestricted by current preconceptions.

Samuel R. Delany was born in 1942 and raised among Harlem’s black middle class. His position as both marginal (as a black man and a gay man) and privileged (in the economic and social opportunities available to him) has been a major influence on his work, as has been his liminal position as a black man who could often pass for white. His autobiographical writings address the way that his early experiences of moving between different social, racial, and geographical worlds affected his worldview and his writing.

The power of language to shape human reality has been a strong theme of Delany’s work since the beginning of his career. Much of his later work explicitly refers to literary and cultural theorists such as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault, who sought to uncover and undo assumptions about language, representation, and communication. For them, language is not a passive tool but an active social, psychological, and intellectual force. But Delany’s work has always demonstrated a strong literary and linguistic awareness and even self-consciousness, both in its style and in its subject matter. He has always been fascinated by language’s influence on the way we perceive and conceive of the world and ourselves. This may be related to his dyslexia, which he has said heightened his sense of the material reality of language.

Babel-17 (1966), inspired by the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determnism (that our language controls our thought), centers on the efforts of the poet Rydra Wong to crack what is believed to be a military code used by an alien race with whom Earth is at war. What she finally discovers is that this code is a highly exact and analytical language which has no word for “I,” and thus no concept of individual identity. The novel examines the capacity of culture and language not only to control the way people see and act in the world but to determine who they are as persons. “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” as Ludwig Wittgenstein so famously wrote. Two different words imply two different worlds.

Dhalgren (1974), which is simultaneously Delany’s most “difficult” and his most popular novel, is about the efforts of a nameless (or many named: Kid/Kidd/The Kid) bisexual amnesiac to find his identity in the course of his wanderings through the post-apocalyptic Midwestern American city of Bellona. He can only find such an identity by constructing one, and one of the ways he does so is through writing: he becomes a poet. By the end of the book (whose final phrase loops back to its opening words), the reader is left with the strong sense that the protagonist himself has written the novel that we have just finished reading about him. The novel enacts the ways in which we create ourselves through our language and our ideas.

Delany earlier explored this idea of self-creation through self-narration in The Einstein Intersection (1967), a retelling of the myth of Orpheus set in the far distant future. In the original story, Orpheus descends into the underworld to bring his dead wife Eurydice back to life by the power of his song, only to lose her again because of his own doubts. Delany’s protagonist, Lo Lobey, is a member of an alien race that has come to earth long after humanity has departed. These aliens live out human myths and stories in an attempt to understand what it meant to be human, trying to make sense of the world that they have inherited. By the end of his quest, Lo Lobey realizes that he and his people must create their own stories, rather than live out second-hand versions of someone else’s. He must become a new Orpheus, one who no longer sings the dead songs. “We came, took their bodies, their souls—both husks abandoned here for any wanderer’s taking…You may be Orpheus; you may be someone else, who dares death and succeeds.” Thus the novel is also an allegory about the power of art to create new realities.

Delany’s work argues against the notion of a single, unified human nature. Instead, it celebrates difference, exploring the wide range of human possibilities that different languages and cultures can produce. However, Delany’s work also delves into the complications and difficulties (up to and including war) that can result from such differences, especially when they are not acknowledged or recognized. His novel Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) is largely about a clash of cultures, the conflict of incompatible assumptions about the universe and about people—including who and what (in a universe occupied by many different intelligent species) gets to be defined as “people.” In this book, the conflict between the Family, a social ideal based on exclusion and hierarchy, and the Sygn, an ideal based on inclusion and free choice, almost ends with the destruction of a planet. The implication is that differences, even or especially the most radical differences, must be accepted if humanity is to survive, let alone to thrive. On a smaller scale, Bron Helstrom, the anti-hero of Trouble on Triton (originally published in 1976 under the title Triton) makes himself and those around him miserable because he cannot reconcile his rigid, sexist ideas of the ways in which people should live and think with the variety and openness of his society's "ambiguous heterotopia." (Even utopia is plural.)

Delany’s celebration of difference particularly focuses on the celebration of sexual difference. Many of his protagonists are women, and most of his male protagonists are gay or bisexual. In his fiction, he not only presents universes in which homosexuality is completely accepted and women are fully equal members of society, but also presents universes in which our familiar sexual categories do not apply at all. In his Nebula Award winning short story “Aye, and Gomorrah” (1967), spacers, those people who are physically capable of deep space travel, are neither male nor female, and are eagerly sought after as sexual partners. In Trouble on Triton, it's as easy to change one’s gender or one’s sexual orientation as it is to change one’s hair color.

Delany further explores the various ways and means of sexuality in the four volume “Return to Nevèrÿon” series, which includes Tales of Nevèrÿon (1979), Neveryóna (1983), Flight from Nevèrÿon (1985), and Return to Nevèrÿon (originally published in 1987 under the title The Bridge of Lost Desire). Rather than being set in the future, these books are set in the distant past, in a world in which the civilized rulers are dark-skinned and the barbarian lower classes are blonde and blue-eyed. These books are a deliberate revision of the sword and sorcery genre of which the Conan the Barbarian series is the most famous example. (I always preferred Kull the Conquerer.) In them, Delany investigates the complex and contradictory realities of such a fantasized primitive world, examining the development of civilization in order to uncover the historical roots of our own culture. Among the topics these ambitious books address are the origins and development of language, the family, sexuality, gender roles, private property, commerce, social hierarchy, and the interconnections of sex and power and of language and power.

Slavery is a major theme of the series, with clear references to American history. Gorgik, the protagonist of the series, is a former slave who rises to power and abolishes slavery. He is also a gay man whose sexual desires are all sadomasochistic, based on submission and domination. This is an example of the difficulty of separating sexuality and power in a hierarchical society in which, like our own, all people are not equal or equally free: slavery is both a socio-political phenomenon and a state of mind. But by making a mutually consenting game out of the power some people exercise over others (he can only achieve sexual fulfillment while wearing his slave collar), Gorgik is able to defuse it to an extent, and to create pleasure out of pain. In the third book of the series, Delany makes explicit the parallels between the ancient world he has created and our contemporary world by juxtaposing a plague which affects only homosexuals in his fictional world with the AIDS epidemic in nineteen-eighties New York City. In so doing, he directly addresses questions of homophobia and social stigma.

Beginning and continuing as a practitioner of a fringe literary genre, what he calls paraliterature, Delany has gained recognition and acclaim not only in the field of science fiction, but in those of literary theory and gay and lesbian literature. Despite controversies regarding the intellectual and stylistic challenges of some of his work (controversies which seem to exercise critics more than fans), and the graphic, deliberately (and polymorphously) perverse sexual content of novels such as The Mad Man (1994) and Hogg (1998) (novels I admit to having trouble reading), his reputation as an important writer and thinker is secure and growing.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Why I Write revised

This is a highly revised amalgamation of two earlier posts.


I write because I would like to live forever. The fact of my future death offends me. Part of this derives from my sense of my own insignificance in the universe. My life and death are a barely momentary flicker. I would like to become more than that. That the people and things I love will die wounds me as well. I seek to immortalize the world I have found and made for myself, even knowing that I won’t be there to witness that immortality, mine or my work’s, that by definition I will never know whether my endeavor has been successful. But when has impossibility ever deterred anyone from a cherished goal? As the brilliant poet and teacher Alvin Feinman once said to me, “Poetry is always close kin to the impossible, isn’t it?”

My aim is to rescue some portion of the drowned and drowning, including always myself. For a long time my poetry emerged from and was fueled by an impulse to rescue my mother from her own death and from the wreckage of her life, out of which I emerged, in both senses of the word. That wreckage made me who I am, but also I escaped that wreckage, which she, by dying, did not. So I had a certain survivor guilt toward the person who both made my escape possible and represented that from which I had escaped. Many of the poems in my first book, Some Are Drowning, centered around an absent, speechless other, an inaccessible beloved who frequently stood in for my mother, though she’s an explicit presence in very few of my poems. But her absence was always palpable, a ghostly presence haunting the text. My poems were an attempt to speak to her, to get her to speak back to me, and above all to redeem her suffering: that is, to redeem her life. “Danger invites/rescue—I call it loving,” as James Tate wrote in his early poem “Rescue.” That project is over, not completed but abandoned (as Paul Valéry said all poems are), but the attempt to rescue my mother through poetry was a major motivation for many years.

The possibility of suffering being redeemed by art, being made meaningful and thus real (as opposed to merely actual, something that happens to exist, happens to occur), is still vital to me. Art reminds us of the uniqueness, particularity, and intrinsic value of things, including ourselves. I sometimes have little sense of myself as existing in the world in any significant way outside of my poetry. That’s where my real life is, the only life that’s actually mine. So there’s also the wish to rescue myself from my own quotidian existence, which is me but is at the same time not me at all. I am its, but it’s not mine. For most of us most of the time, life is a succession of empty moments. You’re born, you go through x experiences, you die, and then you’re gone. No one always burns with Pater’s hard, gem-like flame. There’s a certain emptiness to existence that I look to poetry, my own poetry and the poetry of others, to fulfill or transcend. I have a strong sense of things going out of existence at every second, fading away at the very moment of their coming into bloom: in the midst of life we are in death, as the Book of Common Prayer reminds us.

In that sense everyone is drowning, everything is drowning, every moment of living is a moment of drowning. I have a strong sense of the fragility of the things we shore up against the ruin which is life: the fragility of natural beauty but also of artistic beauty, which is meant to arrest death, but embodies death in that very arrest. Goethe’s Faust is damned when he says, “Oh moment, stay.” At last he finds a moment he longs to preserve, but the moment dissipates when it’s halted. The moment is defined by its transience; to fix it is to kill it. “Art works…kill what they objectify, tearing it away from its context of immediacy and real life. They survive because they bring death” (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory 193). Art is a simulacrum of life that embodies and operates by means of death. The aesthetic impulse is the enemy of the lived moment: it attempts both to preserve and to transcend that moment, to be as deeply in the moment as possible and also to rise beyond it. “Wanting to immortalize the transitory—life—art in fact kills it” (op. cit. 194). This is the inescapable aporia of art, that its creation is a form of destruction. “One has to be downright naive to think that art can restore to the world the fragrance it has lost, according to a line by Baudelaire” (op. cit. 59). Art itself is so vulnerable, to time, to indifference, especially in a society like ours that cares nothing for the potentials art offers, that if anything seeks to repress them in the name of profit or proper order. I have an intense desire to rescue these things that have touched me and place them somewhere for safekeeping, which is both impossible and utterly necessary.

What we take out of life is the luminous moment, which can be a bare branch against a morning sky so overcast it’s in whiteface, seen through a window that warps the view because the glass has begun to melt with age. Or it can be the face of a beautiful man seen in passing on a crowded street, because beauty is always passing, and you see it but it doesn’t see you. It’s the promise that beauty is possible and the threat that it’s only momentary: if someone doesn’t write it down it’s gone. The moment vanishes without a trace and then the person who experiences that moment vanishes and then there’s nothing. Except perhaps the poem, which can’t change anything. As Auden said, poetry makes nothing happen, which also implies the possibility of making “nothing” an event rather than a mere vacancy. Poetry rescues nothing and no one, but it embodies that helpless, necessary will to rescue, which is a kind of love, my love for the world and the things and people in the world.

In a graduate contemporary poetry class I took some twenty years ago, a fellow student complained that a poem we were reading was “just trying to immortalize this scene.” I found it an odd objection, since I thought that’s what poems were supposed to do. One is deluded if one believes that one can actually preserve the world in words, but one is just playing games if one doesn’t try.

The world cannot be saved, in any of the several senses of the word. To save the world would be to stop it, to fix it in place and time, to drain it of what makes it world: motion, flux, action. As Yeats wrote, “Minute by minute they change;/….The stone’s in the midst of all” (“Easter 1916”). Poet and critic Allen Grossman is not the first to observe that poetry is a deathly activity, removing things from the obliterating stream of meaningless event that is also the embodied vitality of the world and of time’s action in and upon the world, which creates and destroys in the same motion. The stream of time is both life and that which wears life down to nothing. “Poetry is the perpetual evidence, the sadly perpetual evidence, of the incompleteness of the motive which gives rise to it” (Grossman, The Sighted Singer 71).

But elements of the world can be and have been saved. Thus the history of art. Each artwork that has endured through time is a piece of the world that has survived, and carries with it other pieces of a world, of worlds, otherwise gone. That we are able today to admire the sculpture of Praxiteles, to gaze upon a Rembrandt painting, to read of Keats’s fears that he shall cease to be, is evidence that something does remain, something can be carried over, rescued from oblivion. The artwork is evidence of its own survival. Allen Grossman writes: “My most fundamental impulses are toward recovery, the securing once again of selfhood in something that lies invulnerably beyond history, something which promises enormous, inhuman felicity” (The Sighted Singer 41). I would add that, for me, the impulse is not just for the conservation of personhood, but of worldhood. I seek to save the sensuous appearances, the particulate worldness of the world.


I write not to be bored. I hate being bored, and I don’t want to bore others. Unlike Zelda Fitzgerald, I can’t say that I’m never bored because I’m never being boring. I am often bored, and undoubtedly I am sometimes boring. But I try not to be boring in poems, and in turn I don’t want poems to bore me. Poems should be interesting, should engage and hold the interest. The most basic level of interest is the sensual, the aural, the texture and feel of words and phrases: the poem in the ear, the poem in the mouth. Helen Vendler has called the poem a musical composition scored for the human voice. The poem is a palpable sensuous entity or it is nothing.

What is it that I seek when I read a poem, when I write a poem? Above all, I desire an experience, a mode of experience available to me only through poetry. “The reading of a poem should be an experience [like experiencing an act]. Its writing must be all the more so” (Stevens, “Adagia,” Collected Poetry and Prose 905, 909). A true poetic experience is worth more than a thousand oppositional critiques, most of which tend to be rather predictable in any case.

My interest can be defined by at least part of Charles Reznikoff’s characterization of his poetry: “images clear but the meaning not stated but suggested by the objective details and the music of the verse.” As a reader, I look for such clarity of image and phrase, for a rhythmic pulse and a rich verbal texture, for a sense of shape and coherence even in the midst of apparent fracture. As a writer, I try to provide these things. But an overall “meaning” or “interpretation” isn’t the first or the main thing I seek, as either reader or writer. “A poem need not have a meaning and like most things in nature often does not have one” (Stevens, “Adagia,” op. cit. 914). Attend to the senses and sense will often attend to itself.

I respond to urgency, to a sense of felt necessity, to passion. The word passion derives from the Greek for “suffering, experience, emotion.” The word itself summons up the poem as an experience undergone by the writer and the reader alike. Passion is not just a passion for my lover or for botany or for history, but a passion for words, a passionate struggle to try to create verbal experience that would be as real as the rest of the world. “In poetry, you must love the words, the ideas and images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all” (Stevens, “Adagia,” op. cit. 902). Like any object of love, that also means that the poem will resist its creator, just as the world resists us. The struggle such passion entails is both joyous and painful. “Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully” (Stevens, "Adagia," op. cit., 910). Of course, that presumes both an intelligence to be resisted and an intelligence that resists. The poet, the poem, and the reader must all be as intelligent as possible.

I desire variety in my poems and the poems of others because the expansion of my poetic territories is the expansion of my world. The poem expands the world as I find it, it makes more world available to me. Works of art are (or should be) like people: no person is new, but every person is unique. To encounter a work of art is to enter into a new relationship, with the work and with the world to which it is an addition.

If art really is some kind of compensation or restitution for what we lack in our lives, and I believe that among many other things it is, it can be so only by providing something different from what we already have, not merely by reflecting or reflecting upon those lives and those myriad lacks.

I want to write good poems (and I still believe that there is such a thing, that aesthetic judgment is not merely a mystification), but not the same good poems that I’ve already written. I’d like to do what I haven’t done before. This has proven to be an impediment to my poetic reputation: I don’t have a trademark style that I repeat from book to book, I haven’t commodified myself and my work into a brand. Critic Vernon Shetley describes the contemporary American poetry world “where each poet seems compelled to enhance his or her brand recognition with an easily recognizable gimmick” (“America’s Big Heart,” Metre 10, 79). A reader too often knows exactly what he or she is getting, whether from a “mainstream” poet or an “avant-garde” one. Philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto concurs that “There is an overwhelming tendency in America to brand artists, so that the well informed can identify an example of an artist’s work in a single act of instant recognition” (“Surface Appeal,” The Nation, 1/29/07, 33). Not to so brand or trademark one’s work puts one at a distinct disadvantage.

To attempt something new and fail is much more interesting than to attempt something that’s already been done and fail. I don’t want to write something just because I know I can, just to reaffirm what I already know. Of course, to say that I don’t want to do the same thing twice is to assume that I’ve done something in the first place. I not only don’t know what I can do, I don’t know what I’ve done. How could one, not having access to the vantage point of posterity? With every poem I’m trying to do something that I can’t achieve, to get somewhere I’ll never get. If I were able to do it, if I were able to get there, I’d have no reason to continue writing. As Allen Grossman suggests, poetry aims at the end of poetry, which is unattainable (the ends of poetry are the end of poetry). Thus poetry continues, despite the frequent reports of its death.

I would like my poetry to bring into existence something which did not previously exist, including in my mind or my intention. I want to surprise myself, to do something I didn’t plan to do or even that’s not immediately recognizable to me as something I did. (Though poet Donald Morrill, on a panel we were both on about difficulty in poetry, reminded me that not all surprises are good.) For the writer as well as for the reader, poetry should shake one out of one’s habitual ways of seeing and thinking, conceiving and perceiving. As Hemingway said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the writer “should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed.” The goal is to achieve the higher level of “mastery” that permits the medium to do things of its own accord, out of its own internal logic, in which the writer participates but which the writer doesn’t determine.

I think of the poem the way that I think of a painting or a sculpture: a new entity in the world, not just a comment on the world. While meaning is hardly insignificant, it’s not what defines the poem as a poem. I seek out the specificity of the poem as an event in language (“language as the material of poetry, not its mere medium or instrument,” in Stevens’s formulation), and not a recounting or re-enactment of an extra-linguistic event, though of course such events enter into poems. The poem is not hermetically sealed off from the world, but encounters and engages the world as an independent element.

The forms that these things which have not previously existed, these events that have not previously occurred, take are not predetermined. If one is sufficiently lucky and open to possibility, they can be found, they will happen, in the villanelle as well as in the most self-consciously avant-garde poem. Among others, Karen Volkman demonstrates the continuing vitality of the sonnet as a field of exploration and experimentation. As Wallace Stevens wrote in his “Materia Poetica, “All poetry is experimental poetry” (op. cit. 918). To maintain and expand the formal capacities of the medium is also to conserve and preserve those capacities. In Susan Stewart's words, “the disappearance of any aesthetic form from human memory is a disaster not unlike the extinction of a species, since a realm of possible actions is now precluded and not necessarily provided with a compensatory analogue” (“The State of Cultural Theory and the Future of Literary Form,” Profession 93, edited by Phyllis Franklin).

As many poets have done, I look back, to the High Modernists and to the poets of the English Renaissance, to move forward. Eliot looked back to the English Metaphysical poets and the Jacobean dramatists, Pound looked back to Sappho and Catullus and to the Provençal troubadours, Stevens looked back to what M.H. Abrams calls the major Romantic lyric, and Paul Celan looked back to medieval German mysticism and the Hebrew Bible. Louis Zukofsky’s anti-capitalist "A 9" is modeled after Guido Cavalcanti’s canzone “Donna Mi Prega” (a poem highly recommended by Pound in his ABC of Reading).

Thus I prefer words like “distinctive,” “different,” or “unique” to a word like “new,” with all its connotations of novelty and fashion, of doing the not-yet-done for its own sake. Or perhaps, even better, the word “original,” which means both “of the first instance” and “of the origin, of the source.” To be original is at once to do what has not previously been done, to produce something which did not exist before, and to draw on the beginnings of one’s practice, to move forward by casting back.

I don’t write a poem and ask, “Is this new?” I ask, “Is this individual, distinctive, unique?” Of course, for a poem to be completely unique, for it to have no relationship to anything that’s come before, would be for it not to be a poem at all. As would be the case for the completely new poem.

Forms, styles, modes, and genres don’t have intrinsic meanings or values. A self-consciously avant-garde poem can be as rote as the most bland pseudo-autobiographical anecdote, if its writing is not approached in a true spirit of adventuring into possibility. Simply to seek the new for its own sake is a shallow and pointless affair, like chasing after the latest fashions. As Talk Talk sang, mocking such a dedicated follower of fashion, “She’ll wear anything you can’t recognize.” And too often, of course, one does recognize it.

One is always setting out in search of the new, as Baudelaire wrote, seeking out what does not yet exist. But I would rather write a good poem than a new poem. And many of the varieties of “the new” now on offer seem rather worn and agèd at this point. Rimbaud wrote that it is necessary to be absolutely modern (il faut être absolument moderne). As if in response, Wallace Stevens wrote that “One cannot spend one’s time in being modern when there are so many more important things to be” (“Adagia,” op. cit. 912).

Of course, Stevens also wrote that “Newness (not novelty) may be the highest individual value in poetry. Even in the meretricious sense of newness a new poem has value” (“Adagia,” op. cit. 914). Too many poets confuse novelty with genuine newness. “The essential fault of surrealism is that it invents without discovering. To make a clam play an accordion is to invent not to discover” (Stevens, “Materia Poetica,” op. cit. 919). This is a fault shared by too much of the contemporary American poetic avant-garde: it is filled with entirely too many accordion-playing clams, and the clams rarely play well.


Any artistic medium calls forth into being a self and a world which exist specifically in their relationship to that medium, a self which did not exist prior to that engagement. As Yeats wrote, the self who writes is not the self who sits down to dinner or reads the evening paper. Contrary to Mikhail Bakhtin’s assertion that the lyric is monologic (as opposed to the novel’s “dialogized heteroglossia”), the lyric problematizes and decenters the univocal speaking subject. The self in the most determinedly confessional poem is still a mask, a construct. Eliot writes that “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes” (“The Metaphysical Poets,” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, edited by Frank Kermode, 64). Eliot’s statement needs to be amended to acknowledge that such a perfectly receptive state (for it is receptivity and attention of which he is writing) is always an asymptote, striven for but never achieved, and that the poet’s mundane experience as an ordinary individual is no less chaotic, irregular, and fragmentary than anyone else’s. As Eliot points out in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “It is not in his personal emotions…that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting” (op. cit. 43). The difference is what one makes of those fragments of experience, what and what kind of order, however tenuous and contingent, one brings to the chaos of quotidian life.

I would like each poem of mine to be as close to perfection as possible, and I think that good poems are much more rare than some believe them to be. I would also like my work to be more than just an accumulation of good poems, as hard as even a single good poem is to achieve. I would like the whole to add up to more than the sum of its parts. Eliot said that this is one test of a major poet (his example was George Herbert): “a major poet is one the whole of whose work we ought to read, in order fully to appreciate any part of it” (“What Is Minor Poetry?,” On Poetry and Poets 44). Each individual part illuminates and is illuminated by both every other part and the corpus as a whole. To produce such a body of work is one of my goals as a writer.

Obviously one can’t predict this about one’s own work or about the work of one’s contemporaries. But Wallace Stevens was able in his late poems “The Planet on the Table” and “As You Leave the Room” to look back on his life’s work and know that he had accomplished something that mattered: “his poems, although makings of his self,/Were no less makings of the sun.” And Pound could look back at The Cantos, his failed epic, and realize that, though he had tried to write paradise, he could not make it cohere.

I won’t live to know whether my work has outlived me. But one can’t predict the future in general, and this doesn’t prevent us from making decisions that influence, change, and often determine that future. The future isn’t wholly unknowable, and the future doesn’t just happen: in large part we make it. This works no differently in poetry than in any other field of endeavor. There is no guarantee that one will reach any of one’s goals in this life. But not to struggle toward those goals is to guarantee that they won’t be achieved. I choose, in the words of Tennyson’s Ulysses, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”


And never to forget beauty, however strange or difficult.

Monday, October 1, 2007

A Note on Poetry and Politics

Marxist critic Fredric Jameson, a prominent academic leftist, values art instrumentally, as a critique of or counter-ideology to bourgeois ideology. For him, art is useful as a mode of oppositionality, social struggle conducted by other means. But art’s critique is precisely the critique of usefulness, of means-end rationality. For Immanuel Kant, freedom was the kingdom of ends, in which all entities, including people, existed for their own sakes and not as the means to some other end. Octavio Paz writes that “The poetic experience…does not teach us or tell us anything about freedom: it is freedom itself unfurling itself.” The poem presents a world in which every word, every phrase, exists both as an integral and indispensable part of a larger whole and as something significant (in both senses) in itself and for itself.

The independent existence of art is the product of the rise of what Theodor Adorno calls instrumental reason and what Jean-Francois Lyotard calls performativity: if everything has to be good for something, then art is good for itself. Art’s importance is that it has no place in our culture. As Paz acutely puts it, “poems have no value: they are not products susceptible to commercial exchange….Commercial circulation is the most active and total form of exchange our society knows and the only one that produces value. As poetry is not a thing that can enter into the exchange of mercantile goods, it is not really a value. And if it is not a value, it has no real existence in our world.”

Poetry is potentially liberating because its uselessness marks out a space not colonized by or valued by capital. Its “obsolescence” is also its resistance to being easily consumable; its loss of “relevance” is also a freedom to keep alive certain human possibilities. In this sense, the drive to make poetry “relevant” is a concession or a surrender to instrumental values, to the imperative of use and functionality: poetry had better be good for something. And poetry simply isn’t politically efficacious; as W.H. Auden so perceptively noted, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” The conflation of the existence of social, political, and economic elites with muddled notions of intellectual or aesthetic “elitism” is sheer obfuscation. The power elite in this country care nothing for art or culture; they care about money and power and the means to acquire and retain them. Art is not among those means.

Those who wish to change society might better turn their energies toward society itself, to the real areas of oppression and suffering, economic, political, racial, and sexual. (Identity politics can be a useful organizing tool of social activism, though it can also lend itself to a group solipsism that blinds people to structural, systemic issues.) To blame literature, or culture as a whole, for social, economic, and political woes (or even to see it as central to their perpetuation) is evasive at best, dishonest at worst, a kind of posing as politics, in social commentator Adolph Reed’s trenchant phrase. But such posturing is much easier than doing the hard work of trying to change the world. “Cultural activism” is a poor substitute for real political activity, although we live in an era in which cultural matters are up for debate while fundamental economic and political questions are not, except on the often loud but frequently incoherent and usually ignored fringes.

George Oppen gave up writing poetry for several years in favor of political activism, because he believed neither that poetry could change society nor that it should be subordinated to an agenda. In Oppen’s words, “If you decide to do something politically, you do something with political efficacy. And if you write poetry, you write poetry, not something you hope, or deceive yourself into believing, can save people who are suffering.” Several years ago, I was asked by someone I had just met whether my poetry was Afrocentric. I told him that I didn’t know what he meant by that term, and he said, “You know, dedicated to the liberation of black people everywhere.” My only answer was, “I don’t think that poems can do that.”

Poetry’s preservation of mystery is its preservation of a space not colonized by capitalism’s totalizing impulse. This is also the preservation of a space not colonized by instrumental reason. The poem embodies this space in its specificity as an event in language: a good poem is not simply a recounting or re-enactment of an extra-linguistic event, but an occasion of its own. The poem is a new thing in the world (or better: it is a new event), not simply a copy or an account of an already existing thing: it cannot be reduced to its “meaning” or its “content.” Part of what poetry does is remind us that things and events, including language, including ourselves, aren’t as accessible or as apprehensible as we think they are. The Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky described art as a mode of defamiliarization, making the familiar strange, or perhaps revealing it to have been strange all along when not seen through the smudged and blurred lens of habit and routine.

The encounter that poetry can provide with a realm of experience not defined by or limited to the social (however much it may engage and interrogate that realm--certainly, politics can be the subject matter of a poem) is the most valuable and liberatory thing poetry has to offer in our over-determined world. I wouldn’t want to surrender that freedom to an agenda or a program, however well-intentioned.