To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

From The New Delta Interview (Part One): The place of poetry, the place of religion, the place of rhyme

Following a reading at the campus of Louisiana State University in 2004, I sat down with members of the campus community & the staff of the student-run magazine, New Delta Review, for a question-and-answer session. The interview was published in the summer 2005 issue with the title “The Synthesizing Mind,” and the interviewers were identified as Brooke Champagne, Hillary Major, and Mike Walter. Like most other interviews I‘ve done, there was a fair amount of rewriting prior to publication.

Q: So, I’ll start with a very broad question. When you were reading from A Book of Witness, you talked about making the millennial or the century transition, and I would ask you how that relates to the role of the poet. Do you see the role of the poet changing or just continuing on in the same way?

A: For myself, I think I see it continuing. At different times in my life I’ve been more or less optimistic about the role of the poet, and at one time, maybe beginning in the middle of the 1950s and into the early 1960s, there seemed to be a forwarding of poetry; poetry and poets were coming toward the center of the culture and the culture was going to be changing as a result of that. There was a move away from the notion of marginalization toward the notion of a new centering for poetry, but at this point -- today – I have the sense that it hasn’t worked out in those terms. For me — and maybe this is true for some others — poetry was and remains central to my life as an activity and as a way of coming into relationship with the world, of understanding myself in relation to the world. A way of documenting mental experience through language, as that experience relates to actual things going on in the world, some personal and some shared with everybody who’s paying any attention.

We’re a long way now in a process that began two hundred or more years ago, when poets, or those who would be poets, began to take very seriously the idea that poetry — like other forms of thought and sometimes in conjunction with other ways of thinking, scientific, philosophical and so forth — was absolutely essential to change and transformation in the world. Some would say that’s an overblown notion of the poet, but I subscribe to it and will probably continue to subscribe to it until the end.

Q: Feeding off this concept of centering and marginalization, do you have any thoughts on why poetry isn’t valued—I’ll say in our culture, but probably mostly in America—as much as it is all over the world?

A: You think it’s more valued elsewhere.

Q: Right. That may be a leading question.

A: I’m not sure about that. Sometimes, when we feel the undervaluing of poetry where we are, we look elsewhere and imagine that there’s a real valuing there. And I think sometimes that is the case. I’ve traveled into other places to do poetry, and I’ve had my poetry translated into a number of different languages. When there’s a response to poetry in other places, it can be a very strong response. (Sometimes that’s the case here as well.) But poetry as that form of written composition, poetry as we know it … -- I don’t know how far poetry reaches people in other places.

I think there’s a cadre of intellectuals in different countries – thinking people of all sorts – who take poetry as a primary value. One of the things that’s happened here in fact, in the context of literature departments and so forth, is that attention to poetry has been in a process of great reduction. Poetry is no longer central to the curriculum of an English literature program. A little more attention may be paid to it in French literature classes or Spanish literature classes, but increasingly, even in creative writing programs, fiction really overwhelms poetry, and my experience with various literature departments is that forms of popular culture overwhelm both poetry and fiction.

There are places in the non-academic world in which poetry or that which we would think of as poetry is central, but usually in conjunction with forms of religious and ritual practices. I have spent some time during my life paying attention to those practices and have assembled works to illustrate them. Those practices become a paradigm for what poetry might be and how it might function in a culture. A lot of that is in the past, a lot of that is itself threatened, a lot of that is involved with very small cultures where human beings still carry on those practices.

But then it depends on what you value as poetry. Hip-hop poetry has very large audiences here.

Q: I have a question about the religious aspects of your poems. I know that you’re interested in Kabbalah, and in Kabbalah language takes on such power, beyond just the symbolic. The world is created through language; golems can be created through ritual language; language itself carries enormous weight. I’m wondering, based on your background, what you feel the responsibility of the poet is, as the wizard who wields these words, items of immense power?

A: I’m interested in Kabbalah precisely because of its language practices, taking Kabbalah as a kind of generalized term for Jewish mystical traditions which involve certain practices and notably the manipulation of language in ways that resemble forms of poetry and provide insights into forms of poetry that are in practice among us. I’m certainly not involved in the sense of creating a golem or anything like that – what I think Gershom Scholem would call practical Kabbalah. I’ve no intention to practice Kabbalah in that way, nor even as a systematic form of meditative practice. I have not personally pursued systematic forms of meditative practice — whether Buddhist or Jewish or Christian or whatever.

I became at some point almost obsessed with the need to investigate the various ways in which poetry or something that resembles poetry has been made in other times and places. The first book of such exploration or presentation for me was Technicians of the Sacred, which was worldwide in looking at what at the time was still called primitive poetry and later called tribal poetry, traditional poetry, first nation poetry, aboriginal poetry. Technicians of the Sacred was the opening. I followed that with Shaking the Pumpkin, where the idea was to focus specifically on one continent — a big enough space — and there I focused on the North American Indians, with an emphasis again on the traditional, the deep culture as far as I could know it. At that point too, I came to explore ancestral sources of my own in writing poems like Poland/1931. But here I want to make something clear. I really thought of what later came to be called identity poetry (ethnic poetry in that sense) as a rather demeaned form of writing, so in writing Poland/1931 I had to maintain that I was not searching for identity but putting identity into question. In the course of that, first came Poland/1931, and then I thought I’d transform that into an investigation, an assemblage like Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin, that would trace a kind of history of the Jews or the poetry of the Jews. I wanted to be able to write or seem to write from within that large culture, to deal with a culture, a true diaspora that had become international in scope. There’s even some Chinese-Jewish and Indian-Jewish poetry contained within A Big Jewish Book. And again, in the course of doing this exploration, I became aware of and drawn toward forms of language practice in what could roughly be called Kabbalah. That’s my relation to Kabbalah.

Q: Drawing on these traditions, the Kabbalah, the Seneca, how do you balance the particular and the universal and relate to a wider audience? Do you get closer to the truth by narrowing in? Or do you have some way to present the insular traditions in a more broad way so that people can approach them? How do you negotiate?

A: I try to make connections even when dealing with the particular. In the big books, in the assemblages, I presented poems or translations of poems or visualizations of poems in one part of the book. Then I used the back of the book for commentaries, which would sometimes establish a particular context for the work but more often would connect, say, an American Indian tribe or nation to some contemporary European or North American poetry practice — something placed elsewhere on the map of poetry. I think within the particular, there’s a tremendous amount of value, certainly for the people who are themselves the practitioners there, but for us also looking in from the outside.

For the last, oh, two hundred years at least, the important push in poetry as in the other arts has been toward experimentation and the search for new forms, new forms both of composition and of ways of thought and observation (much like science). That calls on poets to be in a perpetual process of invention and reinvention, and in the course of that the possibilities of poetry, what poetry can do, what language can do, are greatly expanded. The other way that is open to us is to look at the particulars of poetries around the world both in time and space, ancient poetries, poetries practiced in very particular places, and again, looking there, the possibilities of poetry are greatly opened up.

There’s a synthesizing mind at work in that process, and of course one ends up comparing things, but in another way, these things exist without need for comparison. No, it’s not a matter of progress. Except the progress toward greater and greater incorporation and integration.

Q: Can I ask a formal question? I wondered about the return to rhyme in A Book of Concealments.

A: I don’t know that I ever departed from rhyme. It’s not a return to rhyme in any end-rhyme, structural sense. I’m certainly aware of rhyming as I write and I like rhyming. That said, I rather resent any push toward reinforcing the notion of terminal rhyme.

Q: Understood; that would be terrible. On the other hand, the push that we have in contemporary poetry, to get rid of rhyme altogether, because it’s doggerel, also seems like a wrong-headed push. There’s something gorgeous about rhyme. I was reveling in the music of those poems from A Book of Concealments and very struck by the fact that there should be a return to an audible rhyme in the sadder book, the after-9/11 book.

A: There’s a poem, not from there, that I’ve read it a couple of times on this trip. In 1997, Jackson Mac Low was celebrating his 75th birthday, and I wrote a poem for Jackson. One of the things that’s going on in that poem is that I’m playing very deliberately with rhyme and with the poetics of rhyme. The rhyme comes into it because many years ago now, Jackson had begun and then finally completed a series of poems called the Light Poems, in which by systematic chance operations and by free invention, he plays off a number of words for light or kinds of light, a list of lights which he incorporates as the building blocks of that series. I think the first time I really came to an enthusiasm for Jackson’s work was through the Light Poems. So for his birthday, I decided I would do a night poem for Jackson, which is partly an address to Jackson about what I’m doing: he did the light poems, I’m doing the night poems.

Light and night, “its rhyming brother.”

I’ve thought of how that poem might go in other languages where those key words don’t rhyme. Let’s say in German Licht und Nacht, or luz y noche in Spanish. It’s a phenomenon of English, this rhyme can only happen in English. In France, somebody tried to translate the night poems for one of those poetry festivals where they want to have translations on hand; well, it really becomes a challenge to translation. Really impossible. In English, it makes sense because night and light rhyme. It’s wonderful really, they rhyme and they’re nearly perfect opposites, light and night. Maybe since doing the poems for Jackson, I’m more openly aware of rhyme.

Recently, as the next big book, I’ve been working on a 19th-century anthology, starting with Romanticism as the blast off, the big bang moment and what proliferates out of that. In doing that, I’m immersed in and coming to a greater acceptance of rhymed poetry. For obvious reasons, there’ll be a lot of rhyming.