Interview with Susan Stewart
Susan Stewart is the Regan Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and a MacArthur Fellow. She is the author of four books of poems, including Columbarium, which appears in August from the University of Chicago Press. Her most recent critical book, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, won the Christian Gauss Award for literary criticism from Phi Beta Kappa in 2002, and Chicago will be publishing her Essays on Art 1987-2003 next year.
FV: Could I begin by asking you to reflect upon Columbarium , your newest collection of poems to be released in August by the University of Chicago Press? Do you see it as a gathering of interests that you’ve been exploring for some time in your poetry, or do you see it as a departure? Or both?
S: Although I write individual poems without deciding, as I begin, the forms they might take or the direction of thought they might pursue, I do eventually create a particular frame that will inform each book. After I have a sense of this frame, I start to write toward it and revise heavily as I go along, letting fairly long periods of time pass before I feel I’m finished with any given poem. And then I try to think about what the frame is resisting or addressing and use those insights to revise again. Working this way makes me one of the slowest poets. I haven’t published a book of poems since The Forest appeared in 1995 and Columbarium was, I’d say productively, delayed by my collaboration with Enid Mark on an artist’s book, The Elements, that appeared with her ELM Press this year.
The Forest was concerned with the relations between unconscious and conscious knowledge of the past. I finished a draft of it in the early 1990’s and then I was dissatisfied with it formally and started over again. I wanted to find ways to make time a material part of the book itself, so I invented forms with that goal in mind, as in “The Arbor,” where the original poem goes down the left side and the right side is a later gloss on its meanings. Some poems are repeated and reappear with new material, others move backward in time to a point of origin.
From the mid-90’s on, I worked on the poems of Columbarium as what I called a “shadow georgic.” I knew I would write the major part of the book as an alphabet so that I could evoke memory practices, though I decided to write a number of poems for each letter to avoid the tedium of a one-to-one structure throughout. I was still preoccupied with the relations between knowing and not knowing, which I think of as a dynamic of poetic composition more generally. But now I wanted to turn toward the future and use the georgic form, since georgics traditionally involved the transmission of knowledge from a member of one generation to a member or members of another. The problem I faced was finding ways of avoiding the didacticism of the georgic, so I saw the notion of “shadow,” or the underside of knowledge and the unforeseen consequences of knowledge and technology as a useful metaphor. Then working with Enid on The Elements, I explored the forces of nature that are a threat to georgic transmission. I gave the book a structure that moves from unintelligibility to intelligibility and back again–there is a nest of georgics at the center of the whirling forms of the works on the elements.
FV: I’d like to return to a more wide-ranging discussion of Columbarium shortly, but first I’d like to pick up on the question of knowledge that your poetry has been addressing for some time. In your poem “The Forest” in The Forest (1995), The Forest rendered seems to refer to an “actual” forest-but also perhaps, to the past or what can be remembered of it: “Once we were lost in The Forest, so strangely alike and yet singular, too,/but the truth is, it is, lost to us now.” In Yellow Stars and Ice (1981), there is a beautiful sequence of poems entitled “Four Questions Regarding the Dreams of Animals.” The fourth poem, “How can we learn more?” is made up of a single line: “This is all we will ever know.” Interestingly, both of these poems pose the question of knowledge in terms of nature (or a nature that is lost to us). Is there for you a sense that human knowledge is diminished by the loss of nature, that it needs the education of nature? And what then does poetry allow us to perhaps uniquely “know”?
S: The Forest explored nature as a reserve beyond the facts of history; the concept of the forest became linked in my thinking to the unconscious as a source of terror and consolation. Later when my editor sent me Robert Pogue Harrison’s beautiful book, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, I learned in a deeper way how much of my thinking was connected to a long tradition of the place of forests in the Western imagination.
More recently I wrote my book Poetry and the Fate of the Senses as another, more discursive and pedagogical, way of claiming some of the relations poetry has to nature–that nature of which human nature is a part. Little could be more devastating to our lives and to the life of poetry than a forgetting or denial of our place in nature. Today we live under the knowledge that life on earth is materially finite, yet of course nature remains the noumenal. I mean this in Kant’s sense. Nature does not educate us; it is beyond our frames of time and space and the categories of our understanding. To me, nature is the undefinable, unlimited resource out of which knowledge arises just as invisibility lies beyond and behind the visible–not in some mystical way, but as a real acknowledgment of the limit of our powers analogous to the finitude posed by our individual deaths. Poetry–in its making and reception bound up with the somatic, with memory as well as sense experience, and with the overdetermination of symbols–opens to new knowledge because it is not bound by received habits of perception and understanding and, because, like all art, its aims are non-teleological.
I hardly ever have occasion to re-read my old work, so I’m glad to be reminded of this poem about the dreams of animals. On my birthday, I usually, not always successfully, begin a new poem and that poem was written a century ago on my 26th birthday in a coffee shop in Gloucester, Massachusetts. I had taken the train there for the day to find the sea after a dreary winter of living in Boston– only to discover the same gray misery in that shore town. The dreams of animals seemed like a brighter and warmer place to go.
FV: Yes, I had in mind the sense that nature educates us not in the Wordsworthian sense so much as it, in its self-sufficiency, exists as a reproach to rational presumptions of mastery or omniscience…if this approximates your sense of things, I wonder if seeing nature as the larger ground of knowledge isn’t responsible in your poetry for a certain openness to understanding experience: the sense that human frames of knowledge are just that– hence, the reluctance to size up experience too quickly. As I see it, your poetry tends to hold out for an apprehension of things that is interested in registering the relativity of experience-its flux and ephemerality– but also, as you put it in your poem “Slaughter” “the knowledge/that had disappeared behind the given-/ness of all things to us now.” And does this in any way have anything to do with your reluctance to invoke the first person indicative? I mean, are you more interested in invoking a larger vision of experience-a wider swath of being in the world–than the insistence that subjective consciousness is the ne plus ultra?
S: I don’t consciously eschew the first-person indicative, but others have pointed this “reluctance” out to me before, so I believe you! If it seemed to be a kind of rule, I’d of course be tempted to break it. Poetry always takes me away from myself in any present-centered or even socially-narrated way and comes back as a gift of transformed perceptions, so it’s hard to imagine wanting to use it as a device of self-assertion. I sometimes include myself among the “you’s” who are the addressees of my poems–such an accusative self can be like a conscience and can also add a material sense of time. The first obvious use of it that I know of in English poetry is Ben Jonson’s “An Ode to Himself” and he turns to it to renew his writing:”knowledge that sleeps doth die.”
FV: How do you begin a poem? Do you begin with a particular rhythm in mind–or an idea that you want to work on or work through?
S: I don’t have a daily practice of writing, although sometimes I have worked by a cycle of nights or seasons as a way of creating a series of poems. If I’m writing a long poem I usually take many notes and brainstorm, putting down thoughts over time. And then I begin to construct a living form that has something to do with the shape of the thought without necessarily knowing from the outset what it will be. But at other times, especially when I’m writing short lyrics, I just begin with a sentence or phrase, or a beat or pulse, and go on. Or I might wake up in the middle of the night with a poem in my mind that’s almost finished, as I did with “Dark the Star.” The issue for me is more the end of the poem than the beginning of the poem. It takes me a long time to finish a piece; I put pages aside often for one or two years and then go back to them periodically and revise them. In writing Columbarium, I had poems I was working on under a general frame of the georgic, and then I thought of writing an alphabet because of the association to mnemonics and learning. At the end I was putting poems together specifically where I needed them and that resulted in some interesting visual and semantic resonances across poems-for example, the pairing of “O” and “Zero” and “Cross/X” and “X/Cross”.
FV: Unlike say, Charles Wright, your poetry doesn’t develop by working toward a single signature form, but instead embodies itself in a dazzling variety of longer forms. Why? Is there a reason or set of reasons for that?
S: I haven’t wanted to pursue a signature form. I’ve been influenced in this regard by friends who are visual artists and tend to think about a life’s work in terms of choice of media, scale, and form rather than working toward a recognizable style. There certainly are many poets I admire who have such a style, though, and I follow the nuances of the development of a style like that with much pleasure. It’s really a generosity to the reader that creates signature forms, and I have what is perhaps a more self-absorbed interest in composition–especially composition at the level of the book. In the end the book is the unit for me, not the individual poem, and so I always work toward a book and in each of my books I try to confront a problem of making and knowing. Perhaps that is my signature. I expect each book in itself to give another level of poetic structure. I have to imagine what it’s like for a reader to move through from beginning to end, but also what it’s like to reread and how the reader might be directed toward or shown various modes of reading and I give weight to that during the process of composing…I hope that makes sense!
FV: Yes, perfectly. So you’re very interested in the architecture of the book. I think of Yeats where he became very mindful of the architecture of his own books and thought about the relationship of poem to poem and would try out a position on a particular issue in one poem and then try out the opposite in another…
S: I’m interested in that also-how a poem is responsive to earlier poems in the book so that those responses require you to go back and reread the earlier poems. That’s a way of making echo verse that is between poems and not just within poems. But sometimes it is more truly an architectural structure: Herbert’s The Temple and a small bound manuscript in the British Library of Crashaw’s sacred poems encased by his secular poems were influences when I first gathered together the pieces of Columbarium. I think I mentioned that I wanted to have chaos on the exterior and have that experience take us toward order before returning to chaos again. At the center, between the two parts of the elements series, I created a nest of human voices speaking to and for each other.
FV: Earlier you spoke of Columbarium as a “shadow georgic” and talked about “shadow,” as a metaphor for “the underside of knowledge and the unforeseen consequences of knowledge.” Could you expand on this at all? What is a twenty-first century georgic? What “undersides”–and how do you get to them?
S: Specifically, I wrote with a sense that every insight had its negation and that a new poem could begin at the point where such negation arose. So, for example in “Two Brief Views of Hell,” I went in, reached a point of blockage, and came out. “Shadow: Isaiah” imagines the strange pivoting time inside of time when the fragility of a world might or might not collapse. [a model for me here is Tarkovsky’s majesterial film “The Sacrifice”] Such a pivot seems part of ritual time, also something that it would be unbearable to recognize in lived experience, but it can emerge through retrospection. “Dark the Star,” “Lintel” and “Shadow” began as brief songs about thresholds and shadows themselves and became reflections on the impossible pull to know death and the isolation that follows fulfilled desire. I don’t want to explain or “tell” the poems in saying this or make claims that they cannot rise to meet; I’m trying to describe a method of composition that I used against the form-giving forces of writing in an effort to create new forms–forms that are not discrete, but rather bound up in each other as the book unfolds. A lot of the pressure to unsettle, to side with forces of nature and to allow negation to come in, arose from choosing to write georgics. A georgic speaks what it knows as truth and heals a gap in cultural knowledge, but doubt and a sense of the limits of human will are also important truths to pass on. A Columbarium is a nest and a crypt.
FV: Your poetry has turned on this kind of emphasis from the beginning, an interest in, for example, childhood and death — not as opposites, but as complementary states of being. This seems particularly pronounced when I think of the probing in your work of the relations between the living and the dead. As you say in Yellow Stars and Ice (1981), “nothing ever dies simply.” The living dream the dead, live the dreams of the dead and the dead live in the dreams of the living. At any rate, there is a profound sense of interplay between the two, a profound sense of the presence of the dead. In the poem “Shadow” from Columbarium you write: “For everything has its countering/shadow, everything/under the sun” and in “To You and For You” you give the reader a poem shaped by a haunting that is more than temporary, and which, is nevertheless, very much of the moment. I’m reminded of James’s description of the dead in his novella The Altar of the Dead : “They were there in their simplified, intensified essence, their conscious absence and expressive patience, as personally there as if they had only been stricken dumb.”
S: I feel this intensely because the family culture of my childhood had a vibrant relation to the dead of previous generations who seemed to be with us in this “expressive patience” of gestures and appearance and predilections. The connection between the dead and the unborn is also important to my work as a teacher since such work always involves the transmission of the words of the dead into the future. Literature can be an endless resource of forms of thought and beauty that the dead have left us. The vast possibilities of literature as the gift of the dead are some compensation for the unknowable, yet irreducibly literal fact of individual death and its resistance to meaning.
FV: This brings up the issue or sense of place in your poetry. How does a sense of place function in it? I can’t think of many of your poems that address themselves to a named locale. Place seems to be a part of a landscape of memory and desire, or simply reflection-yet one feels in many poems the presence of a place in the physical detail of the poem. How does that all play out for you?
S: I haven’t tried to write landscape poetry or to produce an adequate representation of a particular place, but I’m sure that my emotions and the things I know are shaped by particular places. I grew up partly in the southern Pennsylvania countryside and most members of my extended family still live in that place and are buried there, so I have a clear sense of my place of origin and I expect to be buried there as well. Yet I’ve also been able to travel a great deal and to live in many different kinds of environments and I’ve kept travel journals and sketchbooks for most of my life. I’m sure this all plays a role in my poetry and I imagine particular places while I’m writing-I have a strong visual or contextual imagination in relation to language and speech.
FV: I guess I was thinking of the way in which you seem attracted to the pastoral tradition, particularly in English poetry, which seems to begin at least with a particular place, and there’s so much of that in your poetry and yet, it seems to have a very different kind of unfolding…it’s almost as if perhaps you make a place for memory first before geographical locale…
S: For me the pastoral is a utopian form-the pastoral hasn’t happened yet. Much of the pastoral tradition, starting with Theocritus and Virgil, juxtaposes worlds of violence with pastoral caretaking. I don’t know if you know that John Kinsella and I have just edited a large international volume of work on pastoral for TriQuarterly-it has artwork and poems and prose essays from a great array of places, including Britain, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the South Pacific, and Africa. We’re trying to think about pastoral in relation to ecological concerns and issues of conscious volition in regard to technology. Also in my critical writing-in a study of Proust, and in my book On Longing-I have wanted to query or question nostalgia. So in my sense of place and memory I’ve tried to be aware of the creativity of memory and of the involuntary aspects of memory, and I’ve hoped to avoid making fictions of re-creation or re-enactment.
FV: Is there any sense for you of poetry as redemptive in relation to the past as well? I am thinking of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history who “would
like to stay, awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed” but who is caught up in the vortex of history: perhaps this is what you meant
earlier by talking of healing “a gap in cultural knowledge.” Does poetry for you have the power to offset or even redeem the losses of the past? Or do they, for you, remain obdurate and untouched? What is your experience on this too?
S: I can think of poems that are redemptive of the past because they place the past in an urgent relation to the future. These would include Edwin Muir’s “The Horses” or Yeats’s “Among Schoolchildren” or Walt Whitman’s “Reconciliation” or Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” or Susan Howe’s “Articulation of Sound Forms in Time” and others . And of course this function is not poetry’s alone, but a possibility latent in any imaginative form since the imagination effects the kind of constellation Benjamin proposes. As alternative models of time such forms let us move between seasonality, cyclicity, recurrence, and utopian projections as well as chronology–we are no longer bound to the irreversibility that is our conventional way of thinking of temporal experience. And the quality and temper of reversals is also taken up by aesthetic experience–I’m thinking of the long struggle against the mechanism of revenge that stretches from the Oresteia to the work of William Kentridge and others today. I believe an art that does not necessarily valorize novelty will see that “things of the past”, obsolete forms and ideas, including art works, are renewable resources of beauty and knowledge precisely because their obsolescence frees them from mere utility and calls for our judgment. In other words, the more obdurate the past, the more powerful is the call to animation or refusal. It’s the past that lies before us, within the realm of apprehension and evaluation, and not the future, which remains veiled and to which we often succumb as we succumb to contingent nature.
FV: Yes: I feel a certain hesitancy or reticence in your poetry about approaching the past, a reluctance to lay claim to it fully–even as your poetry continually places itself in the past. In Lightning” in Columbarium, for instance, you ask “Was it the god of mercy or the god of light/ who calmed the water[…]”Is this due to a certain skiddishness about appropriating the past? A sensitivity to the perils of doing so?
S: It’s true that I distrust the ready appropriation of the past and I don’t know what it would be like to claim the past fully. It seems to me that whatever resisted such a claim would be the very pastness of the past. As The Forest is meant to indicate, I believe we only know the past through processes of retrospection that are informed by some present or future-oriented interest and that we are bound to return to the past and continually to revise our apprehension of it. I hope my poems express some negative capability in relation to the past–the questions in “Lightning,” and every other question I ask are real questions to which I don’t know the answers. Powers of harm and powers of salvation were both at work in the moment of recollection informing that poem; such powers are not readily synthesized. It’s always tempting to resolve contradictions like this in the interest of the closure of the art work, but to do so is, in a deeper sense, to betray the poem and the reader. I don’t believe in ready epiphanies and I’m also not interested in skepticism or irony–that is, I’m not interested in pursuing such attitudes since skepticism can come naturally and plenty of irony shows up in the course of events and must be faced. But I am very interested in transmitting doubts and uncertainties in my writing and my teaching. When Keats asks “Do I wake or sleep?” I have to think he really doesn’t know and that the question lives on for us beyond its circumstances of composition.
FV: While your work is unmistakably charged with this negative capability, it seems to me it is also evaluative-that is, deeply interested in making evaluations. In our society in particular, doubt and uncertainty are often seen as lesser virtues, if not expressions of failure. Is there a sense in which, for you, doubt and uncertainty are productive, even necessary? How do you balance or coordinate the need to be evaluative with the desire-or need-to transmit doubt? Is there any difference here between your poetry and your critical work here?
S: Yes, a chance to judge and evaluate can turn us productively toward thinking about the past–for that matter, a chance to judge or choose values is also a reason to make poems and other art works and to engage in the process of reading itself. But judging the past in order to reach a conclusion comes under the finite terms of ethics whereas judging in order to make or apprehend forms of beauty and uniqueness comes under the indeterminate terms of art. Error is inevitable, it seems, in both ethical and aesthetic judgments, but the consequences are not the same.
In making poems, writing critically, and teaching I have the freedom to see error as a blessing, for error is a mark of departure from perceptual and cognitive habits. I don’t think there can be errors of imagery or rhythm or voice, for example, so long as the intention to make the poem has not been crippled by external or conventional demands. Scholarship can take a wrong direction or be blighted by errors of fact, but to create new knowledge scholars also have to be willing to go beyond the usual frames for thinking. While most of life presses finite requirements upon us, creative and critical work has the luxury of being an incomplete project.
I’d find reality, the reality of history, unbearable without the openings offered by works of art especially.
I also think there is a difference between the tasks of communities here: communities of scholars take collective responsibility for carrying forward problems and transmitting critical methods to new generations–there’s a constant process of evaluating, revising, returning, and seeking new directions. But I believe communities of artists have an obligation to protect and recognize the individuality of makers even at the expense of the very idea of a community of artists. Making art is for me a reserve from existing social values of all kinds. This is one reason why I don’t like to teach what is called creative writing, though I’m always grateful to have a chance to teach aesthetics and the history of forms, and I also have no interest in being associated with a school of work or orthodoxy beyond the happenstance rubric of the art of my generation.
FV: Speaking of communities of artists and communities of scholars, I was wondering if you could pick out figures who for you have been exemplary presences? Not simply writers you have liked, but ones who, to you, opened up possibilities for writing in a certain way that you have found to be important in your development as a poet and as a writer more generally?
S: This is a hard question to answer because so many figures have meant a great deal to me. Of those figures from the past who have opened up possibilities for writing in English, I would list among poets Sidney, Herrick, Herbert, Donne, Traherne, Cowper, Finch, each of the Romantics for different reasons, Dickinson, Whitman, Hopkins, EB Browning, Swinburne, Hardy, Eliot, Stevens, Lowry, Moore, Bishop. Among prose writers I would list Browne, Burton, Sterne, Johnson, Coleridge again, Emily Brontë, Melville, Poe, Hardy again, Conrad, Lowry again, Arendt, and in translation Benjamin. Of course, I’m influenced by many other figures as well, but this would be a partial list of writers who have revealed possibilities of composition or style or ways of thinking about art and writing that have been transforming.
FV: Could you talk a little bit more about a couple of these writers and their influence on you-say, Melville and Coleridge?
S: One of the reasons I love Melville is the utter wildness, that is, a wild perfection, of his writing. He and Henry James take on the relationship of the “New World” to the “Old World” in radically different ways–they tell us what it is to be in a secondary relationship to Europe and find that the pressures of originality are an opportunity; for James this seems to be a matter of ethics, but for Melville it is a matter of reconfiguring the very grounds of thought. And Melville’s ability to move between different forms-what a genius emerges from the adventure story in Typee or the picaresque narrative in Israel Potter to the strange anomie of the urban world of Pierre, and the invention of Bartleby, somehow the most idiosyncratic and universal of all characters. Moby Dick is like a Bible for me–an idea that comes from the book itself with its “Bible leaves! Bible leaves!” I’ve read those endless, amazing sentences so many times, and with such a sense of needing a dose of them, and filling up the margins, that my book is in pieces held together by a rubber band. I even took it with me to Fiji several years ago when I was going through some of his territory and I keep a commonplace book of its sentences. The book’s joyous sense of creativity, its manifold of perspectives, its forms of sense knowledge and ways of thinking: reflections on life and death and the particularity of abstraction and the great metaphysical questions it evokes. There’s nothing that’s not in that book.
FV: Are you attracted to its capaciousness? It seems that’s a word that describes your poetry as well as your critical writing…
S: Well, there’s absolutely no comparison between what I’ve been able to do and what Melville has been able to do in that book. Opening Moby Dick again is like entering a mine. Yet maybe I shouldn’t choose such an earthly metaphor of descent, for the book is also evocative of all the ways we come out of water and go back to water, and of the well of the self. The whale is an anthropomorphic figure at the same time utterly alien to us. The pursuit of it represents the discovery of a form of life, a form of relation, that perhaps we haven’t even realized yet. Moby Dick is literally a profound book-a sounded book of the depths. It was almost ignored in its own time, but it already seems to live in the future. I know I’ll continue to read for real wisdom and humor and the full scale of human values.
You also asked me about Coleridge; I’m just now writing about his “Dejection Ode” for a small conference on “poetry and knowledge” next week and thinking a lot about what for me is the central problem in Coleridge: the question of how we know we are alive. Coleridge uses the physical qualities of poetry to take on this problem– not just those we associate with sound, rhythm and meter and other somatic dimensions, but also processes of revision, substitution, redrafting and alternate texts, some of which we also find in Wordsworth. But in Coleridge there’s a desire to animate the world tied to terrible conditions of mental and physical suffering. Coleridge is also the great poet of the relation between waking and sleeping. Despite his plagiarisms, his efforts to link philosophical speculation or aphoristic writing to a vivid and sensual practice of poetry are also a real model for me. There are wonderful insights and enthusiasms there, but you can also get very confused about German idealism reading Coleridge. In Moby Dick of course there’s a great parody of metaphysics. Melville refuses abstraction, relentlessly dwelling in materiality and the particulars of the phenomenal world, yet when the whale is disseminated into all of its parts and when the world of its human action is considered in light of motivation, it’s only abstraction that makes it cohere-that and the persistence of a voice beyond destruction. A coffin turns out to be a life raft. [Laughter] The short answer is that Melville somehow makes me mysteriously happy.
FV: As we talk, American-led forces are converging on Baghdad while engaging in an aerial bombardment of that city that the Pentagon itself describes as one of “shock and awe.” We are, manifestly, living in a time of violence, a time when violence has become the chief currency of exchange. It seems to me that your poetry is deeply interested in violence, but not usually by overtly discussing it–perhaps the sequence “Slaughter” in The Forest is the exception here. Could you talk about the relation between violence and poetry in your work?
S: I don’t have an interest in violence– an interest would imply both a separation and an investment and I think violence is, unfortunately, given in our nature and nature, and requires a recognizing and moderating attention in ourselves and toward others. “Slaughter” is a poem concerned with taking responsibility for habitual practices, and understanding their causes and consequences. In all of my writing I feel an obligation to recognize violence as an ever-present force: art exercises a form of violence in its alteration of nature and violence is inherent to representation, but as purposeless destruction violence is also the greatest threat to artistic making and intellectual work.
Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, an essay written as fascism was rising, is to my mind the best explanation of the tragic escalating dynamic between repression and violence. Writing poems against the war draws the community of poets and poetry readers together and makes us feel better–outcomes not to be slighted. But this is a time when I believe we must pour ourselves into all the available means of expression–calling, writing, demonstrating, finding ways to reach and educate those who support the regime and not merely those who oppose it–and use our imaginations to produce new forms of public debate and insight. I am given some hope by the ways the internet and other global phenomena of communication have opened access to information and aided dissent, though the limited channels of distribution are still bound to reify existing opinion and many people do not have such access. I believe, too, we must continue to live our lives by praising and protecting forces of growth and cultivation, including the making of poetry under non-utilitarian conditions, or we will be hopelessly lost.
FV: Does an interest in something necessarily imply a posture of separation from it? Cannot interest come from recognition? I think what I was thinking of in my use of the word “violence” in relation to your work was the sense that your poetry seems to emphasize the connectedness of things that in the Western tradition are often seen as opposites or “others”–the individual and nature, the individual and others, the living and the dead. Particularly in The Forest, there seems to be an assertion of the irreducible oneness of life, and the violence that occurs to ourselves, to others, to human community, to nature, even to the dead when that connectedness is denied on behalf of self-aggrandizing motives. But perhaps I am seeing what I want to see…
S: Let me explain that I think of an interest as something we pursue, whereas violence is something I can’t help but recognize as I’m trying, not completely successfully of course, to flee or fight it. Violence is also an eruption of time and detrimental to thought; it turns time into emergency. I learned the hard way that it’s a bad idea for me to read “Slaughter” aloud at a poetry reading–once the thoughtful deliberation of silent reading with its variable pace and possibility of returns is gone, the poem’s details become almost pornographic. From that point on, I decided that poem could only exist as a written text. Otherwise, I agree with everything you’ve said and wish I had put it all so succinctly. With Columbarium the oneness of life, as you’ve called it, in space and time is my foremost formal and thematic interest.
FV: This brings up an interesting paradox in your poetry, including Columbarium. It is firmly rooted in western traditions of poetics and Western mythologies, yet there seems to be much in it that coincides with eastern traditions, especially Buddhism, with its emphasis on the ephemerality of the self, the transience of experience (as well as its extraordinary richness), the limits of human knowledge, the interconnections between the living and the dead and perhaps most of all, the sense of putative opposites actually being imbricated in one another-the cinder that bears the seed, to paraphrase a phrase of yours from The Forest. Yet Western traditions of philosophy and thinking historically have moved in quite different directions, valorizing for instance, the sufficiency and value of the independent self. Does your poetry question in any way the Western notion of the self as a fixed and self-sufficient monad? Do you see your poetry as also contesting western philosophical traditions, as well as drawing upon them?
S: The Western tradition surely includes concepts of the self that are not fixed or self-sufficient. Freud, Hegel, Nietzsche, Althusser, Arendt, Murdoch, Lacan, for example, are disparate thinkers with incommensurable approaches, but all find a mutuality of the self and the social. And if we think of pre-socratic flux, Aristotle’s organicism, Plato’s idea of the world soul, it seems that the mutuality of the self and nature is also a deep aspect of Western tradition. My knowledge of Buddhism is superficial, but my sense is that it has quite a different relation to individual will and desire and is other-worldly in its concerns. I’m a meditative and lyric poet, and I believe those genres– linked since antiquity to the individual voice and conscience–represent a counter-force to ideology and the rhetoric of unthought social values. Adorno’s essay on lyric and subjectivity has always been important to me as a way of thinking about lyric as a form of rescue from hegemony–not only in the “romantic” sense of lyric as marginal and alienated from social values, but in the sense that hegemony needs to be rescued from its own petrification.
I’m not sure I’ve answered your question, but let’s say we consider Descartes and Locke as the chief proponents of a “fixed” or self-sufficient entity. Even there, Descartes must accomodate the ongoingness of thought [he is thinking, therefore he is being] and Locke must come up with an account of memory so that the self will be unified across the immediacy of successive experiences. And of course in Locke our value as individuals is tied to property–not exactly self-sufficient!
It’s sometimes fashionable to say that subjectivity is a social construction, but this is only one dimension of the processes of making by which we create social life and ourselves under conditions of contingency, including the contingency of nature. And it’s sometimes fashionable to say that subjectivity is fragmented, but this doesn’t recognize that, especially in the face of trauma, the need to unify the self (as an image, as an act of will, as a retrospective project) is necessary and possible.
FV: I take your point: there are numerous intellectual formations in Western culture that have asserted the connectedness of the self to something larger, or have questioned the self-sufficiency of the individual and one does not need to go “outside” Western traditions to locate these affirmations (though my sense of Buddhism, or Zen, is just the opposite of an other-worldly practice); I think I was thinking of the dominant culture in the US which seems to me to be relentlessly individualistic in ways that are destructive. But your response also brings up the question of “inspiration”: are some of the intellectual traditions that you mention also sources of inspiration or creative reflection for your poetry? If so, it would seem that your sense of literature is more eclectic than most Romantic canons…
S: Yes, nearly all of the traditions I’ve listed have some impact on my work in prose and poetry–sometimes just a writer’s way of proceeding or even sense of humor or example. Though Romanticism is central to me and a period I often teach, I also have very strong interests in 17th century and earlier 18th poetry and of course in modernism, particularly Stevens. In my new book of poems I’ve used Empedocles and presocratic thought to create the framing poems on the elements, “Rewind” is taken from Kierkegaard’s Diary of a Seducer, “The Rose” from Kant’s passages on time in the Critique of Pure Reason, “Scarecrow” is influenced by Heidegger on the origin of the work of art and building, dwelling, thinking. It’s not that I’ve set out to create allegories, but rather that when I read literature and philosophy I often end up working through how I can know or try out their truths. I think by means of writing, including thinking about my reading and experiences of art works. Right now I’m reading Nicholas Mosley’s remarkable novel, Hopeful Monsters, which has sent me back to Bateson and Mead and their circle. Mosley has a sentence I came upon a few days ago, “Life in fact goes on in nests; hurricanes blow over them,” that sums up just about everything I wanted to say in the structure of Columbarium.
FV: Could you say a little more about specific poems and forms in Columbarium and how they allude to various moments in the history of literature?
S: Many of the poems in Columbarium are of course directly influenced by Virgil’s Georgics–“Apple,” “What You Said about the Moon,” “Wings,” and “Bees” and “Weather” are paraphrases or very loose translations of specific passages. In “Kingfisher Carol” I wanted to evoke the 4th eclogue and the coming of a god, and I also just wanted to write a carol or hymn because I find that form so beautiful and poets I admire deeply, like Cowper, were drawn to the form in part as a way of getting out of first-person expression. “Ellipse” and “Now in the Minute” borrow from Donne and of course “the Seasons” follows Thomson. I wanted to evoke American transcendentalist thought in “These Trees in Particular.” In the series of poems on The Elements and “The Rose,” I narrate some of my relation to Dante–the final poem from the elements group tells the story of a sodden copy of the Inferno that I found one rainy night in the gutter of the street where I was living in Rome. Herbert has been an influence on the haptic structure of the book and my turn toward figurative poems; I also wanted to use echo verse and dialogue since they are so important to pastoral tradition. I won’t go on because this is beginning to sound like an examination answer! What I hope I can indicate is that the poetry of the past is a powerful force in my writing and my life and I hope it’s woven into Columbarium in the emotional and living way I experience it and not simply as a system of allusions.
FV: When you speak of the past or refer to it in your poetry the reference points for it are ancient history or the long march of Western civilization-rarely the more particular instance of history as it is played out in North America. Why is this?
S: Because it’s the past I live in ![laughter]. This past is tied up with every other aspect of the past. I’ve never aspired to write a poetry that is purely American, although I’m aware of how my imagination is shaped by the local and national culture I’ve inherited. But that culture is also bound up with the long march of Western civilization; the neoclassical legacy is the heart of American culture, central to its founding, and the perpetuation and violation of those Enlightenment ideals is key to our experience in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as well. I’ve not been drawn to myths in the intense interrogative way that my neighbor and friend Eleanor Wilner is. I find I have a steady need to read and re-read Eleanor’s poems for this reason-she really is a messenger between humans and the gods. Perhaps because I didn’t have this kind of relationship to myth in my childhood, it’s more the general frames of stories that come to me from my background in folklore studies and other experiences as a reader. Were you thinking of a particular work?
FV: No, I was just thinking of your oeuvre overall and I was placing it in my mind alongside Susan Howe whose work really does interrogate American history, not to say that she doesn’t see it as evolving from European history; quite clearly she does but there’s that singular interest on her part and I found it striking that that’s the past that preoccupies you.
S: Susan is very rooted in a particular New England tradition and its connection to the history of her family. She is also Irish and Anglo-Irish traditions, Puritanism and other varieties of non-conformism in England and New England, and 19th American culture all provide a matrix for her work. Of all the poets I know she is the one who has most intensely thought in historical terms about what American discourse might be. And Susan has a direct and powerful relation to the major canon of American writers, as well as many less canonical British writers. Perhaps because of all the years I’ve taught in Rome, and other traveling and study of European literature and literature in translation, and translation projects of my own, I have a different relationship to world literature and to thinking about what human values might be transnational or universal. At the same time, I’m interested in American culture as a historical, syncretic project that also involves aboriginal influences…
FV: You often invoke classical figures and classical myths in your poetry. Does our age in some sense for you demand this, or is this an expression of your particular sensibility?
S: Could you give me an example?
FV: I guess I’m thinking of your interest in The Aeneid in your poetry, your rewriting of the Icarus myth…
S: In turning to Virgil’s georgics, there was a formal connection that I was borrowing–a way of transmitting language from one generation to the other. I also took up the classical trope of a descent into the underworld. Those are structural features of epic or myth that I find really helpful. They provide a kind of landscape for my poetry. Sometimes, it’s true, there are particular stories that interest me like that of Icarus and the inevitability of his falling back to earth, as well as our acceptance of his disappearance. In my series on the elements there’s the little motif at work from Breughel’s great painting of the relation between the plowman and Icarus. The plowman recognizes that we are bound to the earth and must cultivate it: he doesn’t aspire to a transcendent flight. But I have sympathy for the Icarian as well, and I associate it with flights of the imagination, so I wanted to have something of Breughel’s dialectic between the two. In The Forest, the Medusa figure interested me greatly. Many other poets and artists have given compelling accounts of her, including Eleanor [Wilner]. In my own poem I wanted to take a range of allusions to the Medusa and think about the relationship between narcissism and horror, or how narcissism can freeze perspectives and so be detrimental to truth. The idea that we might correct social ills simply by gazing on them seems to me to be insidious. So I wanted to consider the languages of pity and the problem of staring at what horrifies you in relation to self-reification. All in all, I believe these stories and figures are overdetermined and are an endless source of thought for the writer–a place to which we return, and it’s better to return to them rather than simply to suffer them or be a mere product of them.
FV: So for you they’re endlessly flexible?
S: Well, they’re limited in their range of meanings. They’re not free to mean whatever we want them to mean. That would present the problem of turning them into something else, something unthought, or something that serves our own needs at a given moment. What is profound about these stories and images is that they reappear in history and the profundity of their commentary accrues over time.
FV: Given your sense of connection to the broad legacy of Western civilization, to what extent is your identity as a poet tied up with being an American poet?
S: It’s a complicated question. I’ve found you realize you’re an American poet when you go somewhere else. Yet we share English with so many people across the world; I’m always conscious of the fact that I’m writing in English. I teach British literature and British poetry, and Romanticism particularly and I don’t necessarily want to write in a language that’s distant from that poetry. I feel very tied to it. Of course, many American poets have taken an American idiom as their material. Pound is a particularly important poet in this way because there’s a dynamic between an American idiom, an almost folk idiom, on the one hand and a very high syncretic manifestation of the whole history of the West on the other. The Pisan Cantos are an exaggerated instance of this dynamic and they’re written under a desperate mandate to hold onto reality. A poet like Williams of course has a different project, one concerned much more with typicality or the representative. And I read Robert Creeley’s early work for an American speech that is graced with something like the music of Campion. In my own writing I don’t have a sense that I’m speaking for a particular group of people or that I’m representing anyone. I’m also appalled by the current rise of an imperial form of nationalism. There’s such an urgent need to construct values that transcend national borders and to ask what we might care about together. This concern is also tied to issues of world literature: what is it that we can write in English that can be communicated in other languages? Of course there’s beauty at that boundary where something can’t be communicated– both the beauty of the familiar and the beauty of the strange, so when we reach a moment of opacity we do know something about the capacity of the individual language. When I was working with Wesley Smith on our translation of the Andromache, I learned how incredibly economical and condensed Greek can be– a single line in Euripides could require a great deal of exposition in English. In Italian, the frequency of rhymes is so overwhelming that the task becomes one of tempering or even avoiding unintended rhyme, whereas in English we have a whole array of slant rhymes and possibilities for rhyming that are very subtle. You realize some of the gifts of English when you work in another language, but you also realize what English doesn’t have.
FV: It seems that you’re mindful of the artificiality of purifying the “dialect of the tribe” inasmuch as any tribe’s dialect is “always already” going to be hybrid…
S: Yes, it is. That’s a project that’s doomed-purifying the language. That’s not how language works. Language is a mode of communication, so it’s always reaching out to the edges of what it can express.
FV: Yet, it becomes useful, a kind of energizing myth for someone like Williams to fancy that he’s writing in the American vernacular where his contemporaries like Eliot, whom he regarded with great suspicion, had basically set poetry back.
S: Nevertheless Eliot was very interested in mixing popular and high culture. Poets who take a position on purifying the language, or in Wordsworth’s case, simplifying the diction, are often reacting to something they don’t like. I’m not an exception to that: many people of my generation who are alarmed by American imperialism live under the rubric of “thinking globally, and acting locally”-the relationship between the local and the global is more of a preoccupation for me than the register of the language, and it appears on the level of theme and imagined audience.
FV: Are there evaluations of the present moment other than the things we discussed that your poetry makes?
S: I don’t set out to be relevant, but a poem like “Lessons from Television” [from Columbarium] might be an example of such an evaluation. I wrote that poem the morning after I had listened to one of Clinton’s televised evening speeches; as I recall, it was the speech when he rationalized cutting people from welfare completely, and since I live in a very poor neighborhood I knew the forms of devastation he was setting into motion. I started in that poem to think like an ethnographer about what television does. When poets do this kind of thinking we end up looking at phrases and looking at language, or looking at abuses of language. The choice to write on the lessons of television was informed by my interest in georgics. I wanted to ask what kinds of values television transmits through time and across generations.
FV: Do you see your poetry–or artistic projects in general– as countering or offsetting the debasement of language many see in our political culture?
S: A weakness of that poem is that it is already wrapped up in a kind of utility, so any forms of insight or beauty that it offers might already be so ironic that it’s difficult to read the poem as a poem; I’m not sure that it has much force outside of the structure of the book. But overall, yes, true poetry is non-teleological and involves commitment and intensity and a sincerity of structure—these are all counterforces to the abuse of language, especially in the situation of war. In a time like this we all act according to our scripts and so writing war poems can be tragically tied up in modes of reception that can negate what the poet might be trying to say.
FV: About poetry and politics: I’m thinking of the work of Brecht or Denise Levertov, whose work is explicitly political. Can poetry be an effective means of “educating” those who support the status quo-or is it just preaching to the choir in the end?
S: As you know I’m a Kantian, so I think that poetry can be political in that it creates a space that resists utility. When we apprehend art works in themselves and for themselves we practice apprehending persons in themselves and for themselves without a prior sense of outcome or goal in that encounter. In this respect the aesthetic is deeply political and makes serious demands on us. I look to art to produce new social conditions and not to be merely reactive to social conditions. For me, art leads. Art is before culture, because culture is an aesthetic activity. I’m deeply concerned with politics, but I believe an artist has certain obligations in relation to politics that are different from those of someone doing cultural commentary or the analysis of political discourse. And as citizens we have responsibilities to public life that cannot be met entirely through the practice of our art.
FV: You’ve referred to an essay by Adorno on the lyric- “On Lyric Poetry and Society,” which I haven’t read but I do know his Aesthetic Theory and that seems very similar to his position. The argument is, for example, that Kafka makes the most incisive critique of capitalism precisely because it offers an alternative to its reifications.
S: We already have Marx and Weber and other powerful critiques of capitalism, so to have our art work follow in their footsteps seems to me redundant. But Adorno’s position in that essay specifically is about lyric. Because lyric is first-person expression, it preserves modes of individuality and uniqueness at the boundaries of the social, providing a sanctuary of individual meaning and value. Ultimately, lyric functions for social ends in that it prevents the petrification or reification of social life that would occur if we lived without the insights individuality brings us. This model implies that lyric often conveys the viewpoint of an alienated or exterior position. Here Adorno is like Bruno Snell in that he implicitly describes a thematics or direction for poetry to take. I’m somewhat leery of this prescription because poetry can be socially embedded and at the same time deeply beautiful once its content falls away, or its utility fades, and only the form is there-I’m thinking of carols, and work songs, the whole tradition of anonymous lyric forms. Perhaps they’re meaningful to us because they’re not associated with a particular individual but rather represent a single voice out of a past that can’t be explored or known. You’ve asked me about my current critical projects and one of them is a study of how folk beliefs or ancient religious practices or other systems of knowledge from the deep past that often have lost their audience and are unreadable in various ways play a role in the novel– particularly novels that I think of as having some kind of utopian aim like Shelley’s Frankenstein, Eliot’s Silas Marner, and Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
FV: I wanted to talk a little bit about your critical writing in part because it seems to be so distinctive, not least of all in its style, which seems to me to have a lyrical density, which has little in common in style with the received style of North American criticism, Is this “negative capability” in prose? Could you talk about the role of style in your critical work-has the writing of poetry affected the way in which you write critically?
S: I think of my critical writing as a notebook or ongoing meditation. When I’m writing a poem, I’m much more conscious of creating music or making some form of rhythmic pulsion, of bringing the reader physically into the space with me. But when I’m writing prose, I’m often thinking about a reader who is more distant. Working in a tone that is written rather than spoken, I’m hoping to bring the reader along– if not in a logical way at least in some associative way that develops an argument. So poetry and prose involve different ways of beginning or proceeding, and over many years they constantly supplement each other; in poetry I have to trust to rhythms and coincidences beyond the frames of reason, in prose I have to work at a certain level of self-consciousness. I try to keep both kinds of writing open to the possibility of discovery.
FV: It also seems to me that your style in your criticism is not readily exhausted…it’s also very self-conscious as an aesthetic object.
S: I admire seventeenth-century prose writers-as I mentioned earlier, Browne and Burton especially– and they’ve no doubt had an influence on how I go about my work. Of course more contemporary critics like Benjamin and Kenneth Burke are also extremely important to me-and their way of trying to move beyond the received way of making an argument may make their work, as you say, more aesthetic; we don’t necessarily know how to read it. We have to learn to read it. But I haven’t consciously emulated a certain style. I’ve tried to start with whatever is the problem, whatever it is that is the focus of the work, and then figure out how far away I should stand in order to get a perspective on it, or how close up I should go, and certainly by the end of the piece I try to bring together as many perspectives as possible.
FV: It seems to me the notion that criticism is an aesthetic object is something fairly foreign in North America, whereas it’s not in Italy or France.
S: I believe critics and artists have different obligations. Artists move forward in unanticipated ways and in the end must surprise themselves and their audiences. But the critic has an obligation to the intentions of the maker and to the work’s formal integrity–the work is complete and must be addressed on its own terms. I often write about perceptual issues and not literary criticism per se, but when I am writing about someone else’s work, whether living or dead, I try to keep pushing myself to go beyond my expectations and to come closer to the maker’s intentions. And I try to infer what decisions were made that make the artwork what it is, so there’s a mode of temporality that’s retrospective. But there’s a proleptic aspect, too, that in truth is closer to art-making itself, for I ask “What am I not considering,”? “What have I left out?,” “Where else could I go?”
FV: Well, that emphasis on the desirability of openness provides us with a singularly appropriate place to stop. Thank you.
S: Thank you.
Interview by Jon Thompson