I take my title from Allen Tate's well-known essay discussing his poem "Ode to the Confederate Dead," in which he professes himself to be far from an expert on the poem just because he happened to have written it. As I'm sure it was for him, my use of this title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, since there's always something self-regarding about publicly discussing one's own work. But I hope that there may be something of interest and even use in my discussion beyond mere amour propre. My work, after all, is not me, nor are the ideas which inform that work. I hope that the discussion is at least true to the work.
My poetry operates within a literary tradition and a literary language to which I owe my formation as a writer, yet which is not “mine” (as a black gay man raised in Bronx housing projects): I wrestle with this necessary angel and rise renamed, blessed but also lamed. This language, the language of Yeats and Stevens, Eliot and Hart Crane, has both made me possible as a writer and made being a writer an asymptote. It is a language to which I aspire in the act of writing it and being written by it (every writer is as much the tool of language as its wielder). Thus my relationship to my own language (simultaneously mine and not mine at all) is ambivalent, constantly haunted by the questions, “Can I truly speak this language? Can this language speak through me?” Eliot wrote that the poet must always mistrust words, but the problem of language is foregrounded for me in ways it needn’t be for writers with a more settled, if illusory, sense that language is “theirs.”
It’s my intention to inscribe my presence into that language and that tradition, not to “subvert” it but to produce a place of possibility within it. I wish to make Sappho and the South Bronx, the myth of Hyacinth and the homeless black men ubiquitous in the cities of the decaying American empire, AIDS and all the beautiful, dead cultures, speak to and acknowledge one another, in order to discover what, if anything, can be made of a diminished thing (in Robert Frost’s phrase).
I am constantly working toward a poetic mode in which the lyric (a lyric I wish neither to destroy nor to consign to the trash heap of history) confronts its others, both the historical experience of abjection it has traditionally erased and the abjection of language itself that lyric “mastery” attempts to alibi and cover over. I am willing to give up none of the transformative possibilities of lyric, possibilities which have been at worst foreclosed (as pretention, presumption, or prevarication) and at best permitted to lapse in most contemporary American poetry, both the MFA mainstream practicing, ever-unobtrusively, the aesthetics of transparency, sincerity, and personal authenticity, and the Language poets so busy exposing the lying babble of media-speak that they forget the positive, creative possibilities of poetry. Nor am I willing to surrender the necessary and enabling critical-utopian distance of lyric from the society that both produces it and repudiates it, that cannot live up to its own promises. On this uncertain ground, lyric communes with the social text, while historical circumstance is refracted through the redemptive lens of a revised lyricism.
My work surrenders neither lyricism nor lucidity (in critic Charles Altieri’s terms), charting a liminal space of the coincidence of song and thought, enchantment and disenchantment, the somatic and the cerebral. I hope to uncouple what Russell Berman has called the proximity of form and domination, and thereby to salvage what Adorno (following Stendhal) called the promise of happiness (promesse du bonheur) that the lyric has embodied historically and in my own life.
In the tension or dialectic between enchantment and disenchantment, Language poetry falls squarely on the side of disenchantment. It is a negative project of unmasking, unveiling, and undoing. Language poetry is wholly critical, exposing the ideological mystifications and fracture lines of discourse. But I have not given up on poetry as a practice of creation and not just critique, on the productive possibilities of enchantment and lyricism. Thus my commitment to the lyric and the traditional resources it deploys and makes available to the poet. Both Michael Palmer and Ann Lauterbach have said that their commitment to the lyric, to the possibilities of lyricism and enchantment, prevents them from being Language poets, however experimental and interrogatory their work remains.
My relationship to the Western literary canon (which is no single and singular thing) has always been paradoxical: there is both no place already assigned me and more of a possibility of creating a place for myself than the world at large has offered. I have been oppressed by many things in my life, but not by literature, which represents and enacts potential rather than closure. It’s been the fashion for some time to see literature as a social symptom, to think that social conditions and social identity completely determine the nature and value of a piece of writing. But art’s utopian potential lies exactly in the degree to which it exceeds social determinations and definitions, bringing together the strange and the familiar, combining otherness and brotherhood.