Tuesday, January 24, 2006

INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL HELLER by Thomas Fink

TF: In Uncertain Poetries: Selected Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Poetics (Salt, 2005), you continue the work that you did in Conviction’s Net of Branches: Essays on the Objectivist Poets and Poetry (Southern Illinois University Press, 1985) to deepen and complicate the understanding of the work of various objectivists and post-objectivists while, this time, also treating various other poets—for example, Rilke, Mallarme, and Stevens—whose projects, however different, are engaged with fundamental uncertainties. Objectivism, then, is not the assured description of the world and language’s unproblematic re-presentation of the world, as some naïve readers might believe, but a serious confrontation with uncertainty in the act of striving for truths, if not quite Truth. Before I go on to address some of the points in your readings of Moore, Niedecker, and Ignatow, am I anywhere near the intention that impelled you to collect these essays into a book?

MH: Your summary of the book is right-on, better than I have said it to myself, though I would substitute discovery for your word "intention" above. But let me put in a few minor additions, modifications and corrections. I've tried to understand how the given of uncertainty, the poet's willingness to embrace it, rather than strategize around it, has led, for me, to the power I see in poetry. I'd apply this pretty much across the board to the poets I've discussed in the book, hence the widening of the field I cover to include such foreign poets who might not be in every American poet's canon such as Rilke, Mallarme, Lorca, or even Stevens, that fine French poet writing in English. I also implicitly shy away from the collective word "Objectivism," and here my authority derives from no less than the master coiner himself, Louis Zukofsky who disliked the word. In fact, with the exception of the memoir on Oppen and the two pieces concerning Niedecker, I don't say much in this book even on the "Objectivists," the term I'd prefer to use for poets who fell under the sway of Zukofsky's "An Objective," and felt it in some sense as an honor code by which to write. On the other hand, you are also absolutely correct in seeing that my thirty-some year pondering of the Objectivists, especially Oppen, has deeply influenced my thinking about poetry.

TF: Marianne Moore is one of those poets you treat who was not an Objectivist. You include some extremely useful and interesting remarks about one aspect of “the poetic process in Moore”: “a move toward ‘objectifying’ the psyche, of giving weight and materiality to a mode of relating to the world,” which involves “transposition, the act of recontextualizing or decontextualizing the materials which enter the poem” (89). You link this ‘objectifying’ practice to her desire to arrive at an ethics. How do these factors connect with your overall theme of uncertainty? Also, is there an important relation between Moore’s poetic strategies and her ethical sense and your poetics and, as one contemporary writer puts it, “poethics”?

MH: What drew me to Moore's work was a sense of being in direct touch with her sensibility, almost a feeling of grasping her mind, that physically sensuous or palpable quality of being in immediate contact with something. I linked her with Niedecker, whose work had a similar quality for me. Something beyond the performative gesture of the poem, something unsheltered and exposed, unmediated in the quality of contact. Trying to explain it here, it sounds mystical or off the wall; maybe Pound's word "hardness" would be enough. Just before the passage you cite, I say that for both poets "the poetic act...becomes the working dimension of being, a way not of inventing counter-roles against traditions but of outfoxing the need for either role or counter-role." In both poets, then, there are few instances of being lectured to or orated at but rather sublimely one is given a sense of experiencing something like necessity. The ethics then are of transparency--solidity, not of language, but of the thing we call poetry. In the next essay, devoted to Niedecker's "Wintergreen Ridge," I quote Kenneth Cox's remark that it "is one of the poems that show what poetry might be." You will recall that, as I say, the act of "transposition," or defamiliarization if you wish, is the more common act of most poetry; but I go on to describe how Moore is ever-alert to the male-dominant modalities of that transposing and, in the act of resisting or modulating that tradition, her ambivalence is a felt thing. It's like being in the room with a no-nonsense person, electrifying and, for want of a better word, "real."

TF: Yes, you’ve put what I’ve quoted in an eminently clear context, and I’m assuming that when you speak of ethical “solidity . . . of the thing we call poetry” in Moore, that “thing” you refer to as “poetry” is an attitude toward “being in direct touch with her sensibility” and being interested in her heterogeneous environment. One might call it “sincerity” or even the absence of self-deluding bullshit, of either grandiose posturing or paradoxically grandstanding self-effacement. Moving on to Niedecker, you observe that her concentration on “physical realities” does not “anchor” “life” for her, but tends to “transport her into its uncertainty” (97). But how does this jibe with Niedecker’s notion that “the natural world is a ‘true source,” involving what Baudelaire might call “correspondences” among an infinite number of elements? How does it relate to your sense of the poet’s “metonymic/visionary mode” in which “each noun,” transformed into “a large scale metonymy” allows the noun to stand “for the world as a whole” (in the sense, I think, that synecdoche is said to work as a subset of metonymy)? Does this seeming totality or (in the words of the poststructuralists) totalization undermine the premise of uncertainty, or can the two trends be reconciled satisfactorily?

MH: I'm wary of both "totality" and "totalization"--they seem to describe a theoretical as opposed to a living situation, one in which the individual is inscribed in the prison house of language. I've come at this subject from another way. A reader of my collection in an earlier version suggested that perhaps I should entitle it "Precision and Uncertainty." My experience of poetry is that the more precise it is, the more it limns the outlines of an otherness, the more powerful and unsettling is its effect. So, in "Aspects of Poetics," I speak of an "interrogative, cliche-destroying precision" which maps psychic encounters, which saves us from sentimentality. In this, I follow a line of European thinkers such as Musil (one of his essay collections is entitled "Soul and Precision") and Lukacs who I cited in Conviction's Net of Branches. Lukacs writes that a "composition" is something "you cannot enter into, you cannot come to terms with it in the usual way. Our relationship to a composition--to something that has already taken form--is clear and unambiguous, even if it is enigmatic and difficult to explain: it is the feeling of being both near and far which comes with great understanding, that profound sense of union which is yet eternally a being-separate, a standing outside. It is a state of longing." In my shorthand view, then, otherness always interrupts the dream of totality.

TF: In writing of David Ignatow’s poems as parables and, perhaps more properly, anti-parables or self-critical parables, you identify a precision that exposes “otherness” and thus challenges “totality”: “Instead of wisdom, Ignatow’s poems remind us that our received truths probably won’t work, that whatever our course of action, we are as likely to end up in folly or disaster as to save our skins” (109). Until I read your essay on Ignatow, I didn’t quite know how to deal with his poetry or whether I wanted to think about it at all. When your own poetry is overtly political, it evinces a desire to achieve a more democratic society amid tremendous difficulties, and so I wonder what you think of Ignatow’s apparent pessimism, if I’m right to call it that. Is pessimism a limitation in the work, or is it, at least in part, an implicit critique of the poet’s society, implying that social arrangements could be otherwise?


MH
: This is a question that drives toward the underpinnings of all of Western thought. I won't try to be even minimally comprehensive. So let's say that I would put Ignatow in a group of poets (and thinkers), a group by the way in which you and your work hold no small membership card, whose individuals see and reflect on the absurdities of our rational structures, the vanity of human wishes, however one might typify the activity. Ignatow's parables, the part of his work I like most, his comic routines, are deflationary exercises in human reason, antidotes to the implied utopian dimensions of our would-be systems--political,social, cultural, and, if I may ride my hobbyhorse, poetic. Pessimistic yes, to a degree, and why not in the face of modern history. But I don't think they counsel nihilism, rather suggest we ought to take a lighter touch about the improvability of man. I'd also say that to appreciate Ignatow more fully, one would have to see the artfulness of the forms, the history of the parablistic mode they work against i.e. how at some level below the radar, they play at undermining our expectations, hence the uncertainty I feel they induce. Clearly his roots are in the absurdist tradition, and some poems carry the absurdity beyond the social and into the cosmic, reminding us of the great joke of existence out of which so much poetry arises. Let me add that I haven't ever consciously tried to be 'political' as a poet, but I have tried to see things with all the intensity I can muster--and perhaps that might seem to set up political resonances.

TF: There are modes of “undermining our expectations” in contemporary experimental poetry that you find unsatisfactory. “Avant-Garde Propellants of the Machine Made of Words,” which appears toward the end of Uncertain Poetries, develops an intricate argument against tendencies in “language-centered poetry.” You cite Bakhtin’s critique of “the formalist theory of defamiliarization,” which has been important to Language writing, as “ideologically empty and meaningless” (212. In commenting on Barrett Watten’s championing of the use of a kind of defamiliarizing “machine” in the poetry of Bruce Andrews, you suggest that both critic and poet fail to get beyond formalist concerns; they lack ideological engagement. Your points are complex; I must quote at some length:

The work is in sync . . . with a whole range of cultural productions, with Ortegean
“dehumanization of the art form, with media generated information. Indeed, . . .
Watten makes constant identification of Andrews’ work with the Zeitgeist : ‘The
structure of the poem is literally that of signs in social space, which is identified
with the formally coded subject” (160), or “What at first seems to be a simple theory of a work of art [machineness] is extended into a fantastic program for mass- psychology. . . the sense that the form of the machine can be extended into cultural space” (162). Here, Watten seems caught in a strange contradiction, valorizing the replication of the given sign system of the culture he is criticizing . . . .

Andrews’ machine begins to look like the very capitalist-bourgeois instrument it was aimed against. It is already part of what Guy Debord calls the “society of spectacle,” fetishizing not reality but language, as though language were now suddenly capable of becoming an object where all else had failed. Machine reads machine as the work becomes a stimulus for purely private and subjective states. . . . For here, a reader’s psyche no longer encounters a meaning to embrace or resist but the sensation of words to indulge or project upon. . . . Gaps and discontinuities are not so much opportunities for creative co-participation as a kind of letting off the hook, equivalent to the processes of manipulative political and cultural media productions, the “feel good” ads, . . . non-sequiturs to thought. (213)



I’m much less conversant with Andrews’ poetry than with that of some other Language poets. Taking Watten’s remarks about Andrews as a synecdoche for Language writing in general is problematic. How can the poem’s “structure . . . literally” be “that of signs in social space”? Mass-advertising’s “form,” with rather predictable juxtapositions designed to kindle consumer desire/anxiety, seems infinitely more mechanistic than, say, Charles Bernstein’s long poem, Artifice of Absorption, in which elements of surprising disjunction and sustained theoretical speculation mingle. In Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, “signs” acting as metonymies for women’s experience in late patriarchy are not “extended into social space” as in “cultural media productions,” but are carefully arranged to question women’s secondary status as much as or more than they serve as “a stimulus for purely private and subjective states.”

Finding so many “gaps and discontinuities” in some Language poetry that I have trouble encountering “a meaning to embrace or resist,” I try—if the text seems intriguing enough to merit the effort—to expand my sense of possible signifying intention and reception of meaning. When I succeed, this can give access, not to the fetishizing of language, but to the dynamic interplay between the will to representation of “reality” and language’s complicated, uncertain, not always precise (enough) workings. In such cases, “creative co-participation” involves persevering until continuities within/beside “non-sequiturs” are as salient as discontinuities. Reading a long poem like Ron Silliman’s Tjanting, I may feel thwarted by the gap between one sentence and the next, only to find, after a while, that an accretion of different motifs and patterns of trope, image, and abstraction allow meaningful overall connections to be made. (Silliman’s autobiographical text Under Albany underscores the usefulness of this kind of reading.)

I’d be very interested in your response to my response to your argument in that passage.

MH: First, let's set some context. "Avant Garde Propellants of the Machine Made of Words" was my late 1980s polemic quarrelling with a number of polemics at the time, the MFA doctrines as well as those found in the pages of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, many of which were insistent to the point, ad nauseum, that either words were to be used in a simple-minded referential manner (the MFA scenic pastoral as described by Charles Altieri) or were to be used in a variety of malleable ways, as non-referential counters (Silliman, McCaffery, etc.), that the Saussurean bar between signifier and signified was an unbreachable wall. The paper was delivered at the MLA in San Francisco, the epicenter of the "language" wars at that time, with all sorts of very high feelings and some very low actions, with charge and counter charge. My paper was aimed not at any one's poetry particularly (we could probably both agree that there is interesting and very good poetry across the spectrum, including the "language-centered" bandwidth), but at the philosophy, the political claims, the nasty and proto-typical avant-garde and movement maneuvers of proclaiming all poetry to be invalid but that written under a certain set of rules and assumptions concerning the nature of language, how poems are or are not "political," the very nature of poetry and communication. Whether the poetry is good or bad, interesting, boring, whatever, I left to others. Rather, in the examples I cited, I tried to demonstrate a particular point, usually a contradiction or lacunae within the claims made for a poetic practice or between that practice and the actual poetry itself. I did not find language poetry "unsatisfactory" (your word), only its underlying ideas about reader-reception and the political claims, ones that had been heard before in the dada time, in the social-realist 30s, claims that perpetually resurface as salvational and legislative either politically or psycho-socially. I did not feel that aleatory mechanisms, formalist procedures or (in your phrase) reading as "creative co-participation" could have genuine political or conscious-structuring effect. This is the critique Bakhtin, late Altieri, Charles Newman (in The Post-Modern Aura), Jameson and others lay on the formalist agenda. Needless to say, this was a very strong view held by Oppen. My own motto vis-à-vis 'political' poetry has always been that it might work better not to make it new but to make it shame or question. This is the history of 'political' poetry especially in its classical and Romantic phases from Milton through Blake through Shelley and Keats, on and on. In the essay, my own spin-my main point re solutions—if that is the appropriate word—was to suggest that poetry could be engaged in creating "counter-continuities," complexes of thought and intellect and vision that had the capacity to argue with, to nudge or even dislodge the continuities that formed the discourses of culture in which we live. Part of this 'solution' (and here one can applaud and make use of ideas arising out of language poetry) involves the critique of the over-determined belief systems with respect to language, its tendency to reify and rhetorize some thoughts as "Truth." There is a lot more I could say here about the shallow arguments against the "self" and the "personal" which caused me to argue the way I did, but then I'd just be retelling a number of the essays in the book.

TF: I appreciate your historical contextualization of the essay, and I withdraw my provisional thought that it was a critique of all Language poetry—and not what seemed the most dogmatic theorizing and proscriptive sentiments of some practitioners in the seventies and eighties. For me, the notion of “counter-continuities” which includes enactments of discontinuities (as they “necessarily deconstruct the old ‘mind-forged manacles’ of formerly held continuities” (218) on the way to new continuities, is extremely useful. “Dismemberment” of “whole theories and reading strategies” would be followed by picking “up certain parts, building flimsy wattles rather than castles or fortresses.” This is a kind of bricolage. In your own references to deconstruction, for example, you critique the kind of deconstruction popularized in the U.S. in the Nixon-Ford-Carter era while still alluding to less “fundamentalist,” more historically and socially situated paths established by Derrida and followed by some critics later.

In the light of your notion of “counter-continuities,” I’d like to ask about your sense of poets who are not discussed in Uncertain Poetries. The term “New York School” may not be all that helpful, but do you think that, in whatever aspect of a common aesthetic they may have, the major members of the “School” (for example, Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch, and Guest) fall into missteps similar to those you’ve identified in some Language theory? Or do they include enough “counter-continuity” (even occasionally) to have given sufficient pleasure and edification?

MH: Well, the question is interesting—though I think it might be a bit tangential to what we have been talking about so far. My sense of the NY School is that there is far less of a common ethos or project, very little by way of manifesto (O'Hara's "personalism," as an example, is marvelously free of all the stridency of the language poets' bullying and writings). The poets tend to make few claims for a socio-political agenda in their work. And I think in its public face, NY School poetry can be characterized by subtexts of, belief really, in friendship, stylistic grace, entertaining intelligence. At least, that is the feeling tone I get from the 'group' qua 'group.' As to individual poets and their works, Ashbery is one of our major poets, especially in works like "Self-Portrait," and Three Poems, and in other works like "The Skaters" and "Litany." Rivers and Mountains is a ravishingly beautiful collection. Naturally, in such a large body of work, there are some lapses, some poetry which strikes as self-parody or even mawkishness. I’d say much the same for Koch or O'Hara. Recently, I heard Ron Padgett--a brilliant poet in his own right--read aloud Koch's late poem, "To My Jewishness," an incredible and moving work. Let's say, if I hadn't been born and cursed with my particular kind of angst, I'd be closer in spirit to their work (after all, Koch was my one and only poetry teacher in that one semester in 1964 that I could claim to have been a creative writing student). It's something to hope for in my next reincarnation.

TF: Regarding your own Jewishness, a few sections of Uncertain Poetries, most notably “Diasporic Poetics,” continue what you did in the memoir, Living Root, in examining how the influences of Jewish culture have affected your work and that of poets, such as Zukofsky and Oppen, who have meant a great deal to you. Included in this analysis is the modern Jewish poets’ capacity for “antinomian” thinking or “commentary” on the “text” of Jewish culture as thorough questioning. It can be argued that modern feminism has produced a similar “antinomianism,” a comparable interrogation of patriarchal culture. Your wife, the poet Jane Augustine, has contributed to the elucidation of H.D.’s feminist re-visions of myth, and you include a consideration of feminist critique in the section on Marianne Moore. How do the “counter-continuities” developed by some feminist poets (writing since you entered the field of poetry in the sixties) relate to and/or depart from your abiding ethical/aesthetic concerns?

MH: Your question concerning feminist poets goes back to some ground we have already covered. The "interrogation of patriarchal culture" has been most powerful, has achieved the most rethinking, to my mind—as has the feminist movement in general—by indicting that culture via the very same counter-continuity modalities that I wanted to suggest: personal testimonies, reversals of rhetorical structures, humor (often scathing i.e. shame) rather than by radical experiments in language. I would add that poets like Susan Howe or Rachel DuPlessis and others who "interrogate" patriarchal language do contribute seriously to a feminist critique in a way that much other experimental work does not, simply because in the feminist oriented critique there is more there there. It strikes me that when being consciously "political" one does best by speaking in the lingua franca of one's political—rather than one's poet—peers, that one engages the opposition on their level of discourse. Hence, for example, Paolo Freire's radicalism is first an educational and linguistic endeavor that recognizes that friend and foe meet across a similar language frontier. Hence Bakhtin's complaints against formalisms, his deep concerns on art and answerability, hence...etc. Behind my focusing on Moore and Niedecker, these ideas above came into play. What deeply excited me about both of these poets was that through intense observation, intense precision of language they could register the cost, so to speak, of cultural barbarism, in particular that directed against women's lives. They formed a baseline of thought, a realm of experiential material that questioned the barbarism, that opened insights into thinking, quite clearly, that the world doesn't have to be this way. If such thinking seems naive, then one is not reading the newspapers these days.

TF: You have explored a great range of material in Uncertain Poetries. Aside from poets we’ve mentioned already, you consider Rilke, Mallarme, Pound, Stevens, Duncan, Bronk, Schwerner, and Holocaust poetry. As a critic, is there any poetic terrain, area of cultural commentary, or thematic magnet that might command your extended attention—either in the near future or years from now? Or do you just want to pursue the exigencies of writing poetry for the foreseeable future?

MH: As the author of Exigent Futures, your last sentence brings a smile. Truth is I'm always--in my slow way--writing poetry while doing the other things I do. So this Fall while completing essays on Jewish-American experimental poetry, Buddhist influenced poetry and on George Oppen, I also finished a new manuscript of poetry. I'm putting together my other essays on Oppen--a book's worth-- and will send them around. I'm deep into some other prose, mostly autobiographical in nature, that goes back to my early days as a writer when I lived for a year in a small village in southern Spain. Whether this will turn out to be an installment of my memoir project, which began with Living Root, remains to be seen. I see that I have at least another book's worth of 'collectible' essays which cover poets and poetry. It looks like a lot of work, but I would say it has less to do with productivity than with the fact that I'm easily bored with my own work and need to shuffle from one project to another to keep my interest up. All the time I watch for what strikes me in poetry, in literature, in ideas. We are witnesses to tremendous ferment; I don't believe anything about our lives or our work is settled.

TF: Thank you, Michael.

1 Comments:

Blogger EILEEN said...

Gentlemen,
THANK YOU both for sharing! I just posted a reaction on my blog (http://chatelaine-poet.blogspot.com) that begins:

"ONE WAY TO ADDRESS ETHICS AND POETRY and not come off as buffoonish is stellarly shown" in this interview.

Which is to say, I posted there because I go on too long for a Blogger comment.

But suffice it to say here, I've learned more from this interview than I can recall learning from any poet interviewed over the past year.

And now I'm off to order Michael Heller's books!

Best,
Eileen

10:32 AM  

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