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The letter of the spirit like a frame

Henry Gould in conversation with Kent Johnson


Kent Johnson: In a recent essay on the work of Barbara Guest, Charles Bernstein says the following:

"In a period of American poetry in which the most visible and indeed much of the very best poetry has been written with hooks galore - whether outrageous or flamboyant or hip or morally uplifting, the arrogant or agonized or transcendent - Barbara Guest has used no hooks - and this has allowed her to create a textually saturated and satisfying poetry that embodies the transient, the ephemeral, the flickering in translucent surfaces that we call painterly for lack of a term to chart the refusal of a pseudo-depth of field that remains a ghostly presence in much of the poetry of our time."

[You can read Charles Bernstein's essay
in this issue of Jacket magazine. (Ed.) ]

As a poet, what do you think about "depth"? And while you are at it, what do you think, as a poet, about ghosts? Please relate your answer to the matter of poetic form.

Henry Gould: Well, the oppositions Charles Bernstein raises may be more apparent than real. Speaking of ghosts, it's just a short step from Guest to 'geist' and from Gould to 'ghoul'. (Now as far as poetic form goes, that's a perfect example of my working procedure! Punsville, all the way!)


Beth Anderson wrote an essay called Imperturbable Things : On Still-Life Poetics (which was #5 in the Impercipient Lecture Series put out by Evans & Moxley). She looked at some "painterly" poems by Stevens, Guest & others from standpoint maybe similar to Bernstein here. The idea is that poetry is a progressive force for a demythologized, egalitarian materialism - by analyzing and rejecting all forms of idealizing/poeticizing rhetoric. I thought it was really well-written, though I disagreed with its premises all the way through. Maybe if you take these premises to the limit, as Bernstein tries to do, it can be understood as "revolutionary": in a rationalist post-Enlightenment sense, uprooting all remnants of antique, medieval and romantic spiritual "aura" around language on behalf of the demystified human will. So Bernstein & others attach themselves to abstract expressionism in painting (doing away with the "hooks"), to deconstruction in criticism (doing away with the "aura"), and will round up any stray calves in the field of outsider & marginal art (even if those strays are from a different ranch) to forward this project.

I'm coming from someplace else, and opening this by asking me about "depth" and "ghosts" really hits the mark. I think I felt from early on, in my early teens when I started writing, that poetry and fiction are, in their essence, an attempt to bring special resources to bear on a gap between knowledge and the unknown, between the rational and the irrational, between dream and reality and life and death, which the categories of criticism and philosophy can NEVER resolve. Criticism and philosophy raise questions about these endless riddles; poetry and literature provide provisional, strange "answers" to them. But if you piggyback poetry on the hump of a rationalized materialism, you've provided it with a critical pseudo-answer rather than an answer drawn from its own (poetic) depths.

Kent Johnson: So it doesn't sound like you'll be spoken of as a NY School poet anytime soon . . .  Celan and Mandelstam, please: bring them in too.

Henry Gould: These special resources I'm talking about involve full engagement and a genuine risk to the mind - but "poetic license" is the license to be provisional by means of a fiction, a protective layer of storytelling or symbolism. The work of poets like Celan or Mandelstam exemplifies this sort of shamanistic engagement, which is diametrically opposed to the materialist approach: it dares to take reason into these depths of traditional vision, and make magic amulets out of that experience. It's not for everybody to WRITE - it's a rare kind of beauty they pull out of their own depths. But I predict it will be less rare and more accessible in the future, when people have a greater appreciation for ancient language practices - Biblical punning, and so on.

I don't talk like this in an attempt to play Mystic Magician. Celan & Mandelstam, two of my big heroes, were dedicated to life and to this world. I've been pulled toward the "cosmic" view of poetry almost against my will. You want to talk about ghosts. I started out writing funny poems - I was, actually, in love with the New York School poets when I was in high school and college in the late 60s and early 70s. But I dropped out of college & started wandering around the West, the East, & lived in London for a while after an extreme psychic experience - I thought ghosts of Shakespeare & Christ were present to me & trying to communicate with me. I know how bizarre this sounds. I wrote about it at some length in the anthology I did for poet Edwin Honig, A Glass of Green Tea - With Honig. I'm not a new-agey spiritualist type by any means; this was a real shock to me. It took me several years of questioning & searching to come to some kind of terms with it intellectually.


How does all this relate in terms of as you ask, poetic form? I guess for me, beauty in poetry reflects & absorbs both music and the visual arts. These are stirred at a depth-level you might call "the sublime" - and it's this depth itself which I think I respond to, in Mandelstam particularly. It goes down to some kind of uncanny sea - bottom of human speech, where the blind seer expresses cosmic relations - "deep speaks unto deep". This is real, and it's beautiful in the sense of speed, shorthand, concision - the way scientists describe the "beauty" of a theorem, and maybe it's something you would relate to certain aspects of Zen or Asian art (which I don't know much about).

Kent Johnson: I don't know much about those things either . . .  But the graduate student in the Poetics program at SUNY/Buffalo has raised her hand, and she retorts with the obvious and confident remark:

"Oh please. The 'sublime aura' you feel to emanate from the surface - quite flat by the way - of a Giotto is nothing but the ghostliness of a nostalgic surplus washed up by Capital onto the littered beach of an alienated culture. Aura, too, at the millennium, is a commodity."
In responding, please speak to the notion of avant-gardeness in light of the medieval ideal you evoke.

Henry Gould: There's nothing more Scholastic than asserting the liberating power of Reason, as your Buffalo-scholar is doing. Reason, laughter, and demystification will always be avant-garde. The century (the millennium?) just past, I don't need to repeat, was marked by acceleration - the accelerated debunking of aesthetic & cultural shibboleths, and the often brutal reactionary counter- attacks which followed. But I guess I must simply reiterate in slightly different words what I consider my own experience in making poetry. Art operates both below and above the level of the rational intellect. Not necessarily in conflict with it - in fact the process seems to be a matter of synthesizing on all levels. The conflict comes when rationalist ideologues pretend to "explain" what should be considered important or relevant art. You have to be more than an over-all "critic" to be a good ART critic.

Kent Johnson: So among poets of this accelerated century, who are most important to you? A good seven or nine, if you will, with perhaps a few words on what moves you in each. Please include within your answer (without attribution or quotation) four or more of your favorite lines from any of these poets.

Henry Gould: When I was young I took piano lessons, and my teacher Mrs. Elledge would give me little plaster busts of great composers each time I finished a music book to her satisfaction. It's getting dark, everybody's gone home. I'm not very articulate about these matters. You feel an affinity, a personal closeness, a sense of conviction or rightness emanating from the poems. Hart Crane, in spite of his occasional over-reaching, has a very refined ear. Accolade thou dost bestow / Of anonymity time cannot raise . . .  Vallejo is another tremendous poet. I hate pantheons, favorites. I love Montale. Felicita del sugghero / Abbandonata alla corrente . . .  Mandelstam is my all-around best. There are things in Stevens which are utterly adorable . . .  other things that just seem tired & sad. Still, he's up there for me. I'm not a good reader of poetry. Akhmatova has sent chills up my spine, which I agree with Emily is a good test of poetry. And ships sail slowly down the Neva. Indescribable intensity of presence, greatness shining through all their exaggerations, foibles & lapses - that goes for all of them. Presence, heart, HEART. That's what makes song - the gift itself and FORTITUDE. Lots of famous poets think they're singing heart but it's testosterone most of the time. Tsvetaeva's prose - I haven't figured out her poetry yet. Elena Shvarts - "Leonardo". She's building a magnificent sound there, pretty much unrecognized, in Petersburg. Pound had a big impact. Olson to a lesser extent. Zukofsky is amazing, but I haven't come to grips with him yet. I think his popularity among his arcane followers put a damper on my interest. These are big shot names. There are quieter voices I like - Ivan Zhdanov. A swarm of crows / were discussing my fate. Fantastic bitter brevity & wit in Zhdanov - beautiful, beautiful, like the ravens in Andrei Rublev. "This is the icon of St. Michael - he will protect you." I've left a lot of poets out too: Yeats, Bishop, Berryman, Berrigan . . .  pantheons tend to leave out the subtle helping hands, nearby & invisible. Plus I'm at work & not thinking very calmly . . . 

Kent Johnson: Nearly all the poets you mention were or are masters, and deeply so, of traditional prosody. Do you think there are too many young poets today who want to "make it new" without having first learned to (figuratively speaking) draw? In answering, please tell us what you, as a poet deeply attentive to form, think about the New Formalists.

Henry Gould: There have always been too many young poets, but they weed themselves out. New Formalism is a snore. Too many isms - all of them forms of literalism. The language poets & postmods want to harp the materiality of language - well, I say the word isn't material, the word is Psyche, it's a meaning-flash made of SENTENCES, not words. Humboldt would agree with me. Just as a painting isn't only paint - it's an image or a dream. The New Formalists want to have a movement in the bowels of the beaneries . . .  well, I say technique is never "literal". Mandelstam said future critics would study the "impulse" of the text, the pre-text: I think one way of thinking of that is in terms of generic & rhetorical framing arguments - what is the poet trying to get across, & with what rhetorical & literary resources? These things come BEFORE the grain of meter or rhyme-patterning (so boring today from every vantage point, avant-garde or traditionalist, metered or "free").

And the fact is . . .  the fact is . . .  experience is allegorical & symbolical down to the wee hairs on your earlobes - that "green man" John Clare expressed his lines lying on the sod through bones & stars - the poet "speaks" and the "speech" surrounds the "letter" of the "spirit" like a frame - so intricate, beyond "explanation" - Shakespeare's finesse . . .  voodoo of sound - what Ed Dorn in an interview called the ultimate poetic demand - ie. the dedication not to "expression" but to the imperatives of the spirit - "divining". Orthodox or heretical, it's all voodoo.


Kent Johnson: Which seems to make it a kind of poetic ecumenism you're proposing, this "voodoo of sound, orthodox or heretical" - that there is something pre-material, pre-language running beneath all the sects and denominations of philosophy and prosody . . .  Not form or theory as the defining issue, but something else. Actually, Pessoa would be an interesting example, wouldn't he: The orthodox Reis, the heretical de Campos, their master, the "formless" Caeiro, each a singular speaking, as you say, arising in ways ultimately mysterious to the poet and "his" readers. Do you think? Mention in your answer, please, those Russian dolls inside dolls that are inside dolls.

Henry Gould: This mysterious pre-verbal impulse doesn't cancel philosophy or prosody by any means: I think of it more as innate, primordial rhythm. It is what sings in the prosody or finds the right balance of philosophical conundrums. And Pessoa is a good example of what I was trying to get at regarding the "frame". It's like an Escher drawing or, yes, a set of Gorby dolls-within-dolls; there are the actual words of the poem, and then there's the para-poem, which includes all the mysterious circumstances of its production, the historical & personal facts involved, the image of the poet . . .  all of it together welling up from this pre-verbal nexus. I'd tend to call it an "incarnational" concept of poetic expression.

Kent Johnson: You mentioned earlier A Glass of Green Tea, the wonderful collection you edited for Edwin Honig, Pessoa's brilliant translator. The book is led off by the following poem by Yehuda Amichai:

      Language School

I passed by an imposing house with a sign saying:
"Language School," and I called out: my Lord,
From the depths I called my Lord. For people
Call their God, and their God calls only
Other Gods. One bird calls to another bird,
Only water sometimes talks in voices
Of people at swimming pools in the summer.

Language school. Here language learns how
To get used to foreign lips, to a dark palate,
To a laughing mouth and a crying mouth.
Languages learn and will never end,
Like yearnings.

This life gets ever harder,
But the response to it grows ever softer,
Like a ball coming back from the wall
Where it was hurled in rage
And its bounces are appeased and soft
Until it rests and is mute.

And one woman said to a crying child,
"Don't cry, a nice boy doesn't cry."
I heard this as I walked by
The "Language School,"
And called out: my Lord, from-the-depths.

This seems to me, in good part, about those mysteries of poetry's provenance. Could you comment on the third stanza and tell us if the poet is the one who throws the ball or if she or he is the ball that is thrown? In answering, please speak about translation, mention Walter Benjamin, and quote something from Mandelstam.

Henry Gould: Ah, yes, that is such a beautiful poem, I don't even know why. It speaks about the distances between languages & between peoples, but in terms of tenderness - the distance between experience in general and language in general. Walter Benjamin - I'm sure Walter Benjamin would understand. I heard an interview with James Kugel, a Harvard prof who just published a book called "Great Poems of the Bible" - focuses on the specific problem of poetry-in-translation. He happened to quote some beautiful lines from Jeremiah, about when the "almond flowers out of season". Now you know the almond flowers in midwinter. Midwinter spring is its own season, someone wrote. And how important the almond is symbolically in Judaism (Aaron's staff was a flowering almond - the almond is also the "eye", etc.). And how important Mandelstam was for Celan. And the fact that Mandelstam means "almond stem". And the fact that "mn" or "mndle" or "mnt" meant axle or pivot - "Min" was also the (mythical?) "first" Egyptian king. Now you asked for a Mandelstam line: I could quote the one about "os" (Osip, wasp) - wanting to be like the wasp in summer listening to "the axis (or buzzing) of the earth, the axis of the earth". Or the line describing the brotherhood of all people like a bee's eye: "maybe we are Hagia Sophia, with a million eyes". But I think in the context of the Honig (German for "honey") anthology & the Amichai poem I will simply quote: "Sisters - heaviness and tenderness - the same insignia." But to answer your question, I think the ball in Amichai's poem is the poetic word, growing softer and deeper each time it hits the hard wall of experience; as Mandelstam put it "Time silvers the plow / and the poet's voice."

Kent Johnson: At the beginning of "The Task of the Translator" - that astonishing poem masquerading as essay - Benjamin says, "No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener." What is the relationship between being a poet and not caring about what the living think of you? In answering, please refer to Dante, gothic cathedrals, and your long work, "Stubborn Grew the Rose."

Henry Gould: Well, there are at least 2 ways of looking at that blackbird. Somebody asked Mandelstam for a definition of poetry and he said: "The poet's sense of being right." Ed Dorn similarly wrote in Gunslinger:

To a poet all authority
except his own
is an expression of Evil
and it is all external authority
that he expiates
this is the culmination of his traits.

The word feeds the poet; as Jesus says in the Gospel, "I have bread of which you do not know." & it can breed the most excruciating arrogance as well as the most abject devotion to the sources of that nourishment. Everybody cares what people think of them, everybody's got feelings & so on. But gothic cathedrals like the Divina Commedia are incitements to build. Poetry in general is such an incitement. It's got its own agenda, believe me. I've shortened the title of that long poem, to Stubborn Grew. It's volume I of a 3-volume work. I'm at work now on the final volume, called July. I'm thinking of titling the whole thing The Forth of July. What I mean by poetry having its own agenda is that the design of this poem, its motivations, were hidden from me when I started it - but I was articulating them in the very first pages of Stubborn, unknowingly. I mean IT had designs on ME.

Kent Johnson: Tell us more here. Can you describe your Stubborn Grew undertaking in more detail? Your response to this question need mention neither God nor cathedrals. But please talk about Pound, Crane, and Olson in relation to your engagement with the building of a long poem.


Henry Gould: Well, I may have to mention Mandelstam again too. Must seem like a true idée fixe I have on that Russian. But I'm not always thinking about him - he's just been there at some crucial moments over the last 20 years or so. One such moment was about 3-4 years ago, when I started this long poem. I've been interested in the long poem since the early 80s. People consider the whole serial/magnum opus thing boring & pretentious, I can understand that. But if you refer back to my "Shakespeare/Bible" episode I mentioned to you, you might see how somebody like me might need a Big Poem to lever that kind of experience. I was reading Pound, Olson, Zukofsky, Williams - & a lot of 2ndary material - curious how The Long Poem seems like such unfinished business in the U.S. & I had a couple trial runs - wrote a long complicated sequence called Spring Triptych, very structured mathematically & otherwise. Followed that a few years later with something more Olsonian & open, called In RI. But I wasn't really satisfied. Stubborn Grew began pretty much in desperation. I needed to break out of my own long-term over-arching "ideas". & then I happened to re-read Mandelstam's late Voronezh poems, so saturated with "black earth", earthiness - so "formally-informal", so heavy-light, so happy-sad. & I started writing these short connected passages with that sound in mind - semi-connected passages, in quatrains, abba, roughly. I tried to loosen up my speech & my whole approach.

That sequence was the seed out of which this enormous poem developed. I've been working on it now pretty steadily since then: it's grown its own sort of orpheo-epic design. I wanted to write the long poem which would bring out some emphases I didn't find in the Pound- Olson nexus: historical & aesthetic emphases. Every epic tries to re-orient the historical record. I think I'm closer to the apocalyptic historical- uncertainty- principle emanating from the finale of Milton's "Paradise Lost" than to Pound's pedantic authoritarianism. And as far as aesthetic emphases, I always liked a certain synthetic-continuum feeling in Crane's work, as opposed to the militant experimentalism of other modernists. Sort of a musical, suggestive quality, that produces a different reading experience: more like a glissando than a dissonance. (Of course I don't want to pigeonhole these issues - it's all a matter of emphasis.)

I find a lot of affinities (as well as differences) in Crane's approach to language, with Mandelstam's. So my sound tries to follow up on some possibilities I was hearing in Crane. & my "story" attempts to counteract the Pound-Olson nexus in several ways. Stubborn - the 1st volume - is completely local in Olson's sense: it's a Providence story. But it uses fiction & narrative in a very different way. There's a character "Henry" who follows a Virgil- figure ghost named "Bluejay" into this abandoned railroad tunnel under Providence, looking for Henry's lost cat "Pushkin" (it's what classical authors termed a "CATabasis" or journey to the underworld). Bluejay is a kind of Queequeg pal, a cthonic American. However, I discovered in the process that there were other things developing - a whole 2nd volume which went more directly into my own private motivations. In sort of a Poe- esque way (Poe also plays a role in vol. I - he spent some time in Providence) I was working out an obsession about a cousin of mine, my age, who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge when we were both 20 years old. I never got over it, without knowing it. I had a crush on her. Juliet Ravlin. Anyway, now I'm working out the final pattern - am onto volume three, called simply July. It's less personal, I think - covering some American background - in the context of a more universal viewpoint (I hope).

My technique involves a sort of intercalating of numerical design with meaningful calendar dates - it's a sort of performance piece or big occasional poem. So there are these meanings at work which aren't so obvious. As far as the rest, I use different kinds of end-rhyme and internal rhyme a lot - the sound & cadence are very important to me. I learned a lot from Renaissance poets about structure.

Anyway, at this point I am pretty satisfied with this thing, which has dominated the last few years of my life.

Kent Johnson: You had quoted Ed Dorn. I just saw a lovely tribute to him, by the way, in Jacket. The essay is by Tom Clark, Dorn's long-time friend. Jacket is perhaps the premier web poetry magazine, and as such it represents something new: a sophisticated use of a brave new medium that gives poets an unprecedentedly large audience. Now, you have been quite active on the internet in offering your thinking about poetics, and Jacket, among other web sites, has published your poems. And I wonder if there is not some odd tension here between your advocacy for what some would see as dusty, pre-modernist poetic ideals and your apparently enthusiastic embracing, as artist, of "post-modern" technology? In answering, please quote something from Frost and say something more about one of my own "way up there" poets, John Clare.

Henry Gould: I don't know, it seems to me the technology of poetry hasn't changed that much. The word itself is techne way beyond anything we've added up yet using rare metals & engineering. See Mandelstam's "Conversation About Dante" about that. He makes Dante sound like a bloke of the 23rd century. Poetry is avant-garde because it doesn't change much; it remains in character. Frost wrote a little love-poem - something about "we win the race by standing still". Now you quote us some Clare, Kent! I don't know him . . .  - your turn!

Kent Johnson: "I am - yet what I am, none cares or knows . . . / Even the dearest, that I love the best/ Are strange - nay, rather, stranger than the rest."

Anyway, and to return to my drift, which concerns the opposite of standing still: In providing an analogy for how social modes of production are exploded from within by the technical development of productive means, Engels says somewhere that the invention of the musket suddenly and completely transforms medieval military organization and strategy. The analogy, insofar as my point is concerned, is far from exact, but is it possible that the development of computer technology will also explode the Poet from within? In your answer, please say something about recent critiques of the "I" in poetry.

Henry Gould: The whole cheeseburger about Language poetry had to do with the status of the "i". Technology may grind the beef from within but getting back to an earlier tone of this interview, I just keep on plugging in here that poetry as I see it goes ABOVE and BELOW that rational ego that says yes & no & discriminates rationally. Not to escape reason, but on behalf of a larger, more mysterious concordance, the whole harmonium or whatever. & this poetic word manifests . . .  ie. "the wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you know not whence it cometh nor whither it goeth. So it is with all who are born of the spirit." So yes I believe in some UNION of the whole biddy-o body of readers & writers . . .  The final judgement, the truth, the irony of ironies, the discrimination of fine hairs, the sheep & the goats . . .  ideology -we all suffer from it - just tries to jump the gun (or the musket).

Kent Johnson: Ideology, whose swelling, honey-suckled shape is echoed in the musket, compels me to ask: Why do you think you were banned from the Buffalo Poetics List? In answering, please bring in the general idea of churches, some remarks concerning the principles of optics, and an accounting of the current contents of your pants' pockets.

Henry Gould: My jeans at the moment just hold a few bits of laundry fluff, which rhymes with buff, and in a way, with flub, I guess - sort of a 90- degree rotation transformation. I guess the pockets are fairly adjacent also to my humble family jewels, which were probably doing most of the talking on the Buffalo list. Delayed adolescence, ego-trip. Another reason Americans have never been able to really dwell in the general idea of churches. "I shall not drink it with you again until the Kingdom of Heaven has come." That kind of abstinence requires complete dedication to the Jubilee principle of optical mardilentgras, if you know what I mean.


Kent Johnson: Well, I have to admit that you've lost me a bit on the Jubilee thing. But how about this: You've read Jed Rasula's The American Poetry Wax Museum and commented on it at Poetics. To my mind, Rasula is one of the most brilliant writers around - both as critic and poet. In an essay, he says, "(T)here have been texts, episodes of writing, concentrated and unremittingly sent from beyond my local and partial resolve or will." I'll take the liberty of expanding on this comment by telling you that once I had a drink with Rasula and he told me (soberly), that his magnificent poem, "The Field & Garden of Circe" had its genesis on an afternoon when a ghostly hand appeared before his eyes and began to write the first lines of the poem on his study wall. No drugs, apparently, were involved. I want to ask you: Do you believe him? How important to poetry is an openness to supernatural experience? In answering, please refer to at least three poets you admire where (as in the case of Rasula) "linguistic experiment" and a predisposition to mystical vision overlap.

Henry Gould: There was an episode of Law & Order last night, where this 10-year old kid witnesses a gruesome murder. He is terrified, won't talk about it. Only opens up when he explains that he had a DREAM about it - describing the actual murder. The shrink says that's a way of dealing with trauma. "History is a nightmare from which . . . " and all that.

Sure I believe Jed Rasula. How important to poetry is an openness to supernatural experience? This gets back to the status of Reason. As Stevens put it (roughly) they'll figure it out at the Sorbonne someday. Poetry as an expression of forms of faith doesn't require a surrealist leap into unreason. Reason can draw tentative conclusions or propose postulates or fling out fragile bridges & flying buttresses based on experiences which in themselves seem inexplicable, and based on a "physical" cosmos which from the minute to the enormous is a complete riddle and wonder. So for me those poets who combine the mysterious actuality of experience with a free questioning spirit have the most to offer. Melville, in this regard, is probably the greatest writer the U.S. has produced. The language games he's up to in Moby Dick & the Confidence-Man are utterly unparalleled. Whitman's experiments with language's song- capacities impart a truly voodoo sense of mystical unity. Dickinson is a master of the concise deep speech I spoke of early in our gab here.

But to tell you the truth, Kent, I am uncomfortable with the term "mystical". There is something rather Symbolist and otherworldly about it which disagrees with me - something that reminds me of all the bad poems & misguided cult-worship that goes on when the Poetry Club is substituted for independent thought & experience. & if as I claimed earlier EVERYTHING is deeply engraved with meaning - "All's figures" as Shakespeare has foolish Feste say, I think, in Henry IV - then poetry has to measure, rather than simply report on, ineffable experiences.

Kent Johnson: Spirits or not, we know that someday the earth will be visited by a giant meteor or comet whose impact will erase (if it has not been erased by then) all trace and memory of the human race and its cultures. The earth will be a place devoid of human consciousness, a rocky body wobbling blankly in black space. In light of this eventual certainty, why does poetry matter? How can it? In answering, please feel free to respond without any of the previous thematic constraints.

Henry Gould: I wrote a fairly boring poem a few years ago based on this very scenario, so I won't quote the whole thing, just the final section:

      from One Evening (Early Spring)


Around the synagogue in the evening light
the houses cluster in their modest drab integrity.
Walking through their vocations (under blight
of a voracious contracting whirlpool city)
the humble continue . . .  gathering on holiday
outside the bronze double doors of their temples.
The writer (an unnoticed bystander) crumples
a scrap of crosshatched paper and throws it away.

And the wind lifts a corner of the scribbled page,
not yet finished with the end of the universe.
Over the brilliant dome a small cloud of rage
disguises the sun - cries: I will immerse
in tears - I will burn with fire - I will erase . . . 

(- pretending once more deep within heaven
not only to destroy all creation and then
again rebuild the whole cracked edifice

but to do all this in the manner of a scribe
with one hand at his aching brow and one eye
peering at a mossbound, moldy parchment -)
and Lord, we have deserved your diatribe.
The parched earth groans for a comet's finality
Your mortified heart stretches through space and
swelling spreads (ubiquitous) the fiery ointment
of your love, of your forgiveness, of your peace.
Kent Johnson: I hope you're right about the loving heart. Anything you'd like to a add in conclusion? Thank you, and in doing so, please end with an allusion to music.

Henry Gould: Well, I'd hate to close on a major chord of triumphal idealism. Your SUNY graduate interlocutor has reason to doubt. The seamless non-Hegelian flow from patriarchal Tradition through nucleic Family and Gradgrind Economics and confidence-Man Capitalism into supra-rational Poetic Mumbo-Jumbo to a hermetically-sealed Aestheticism is a tasty Millennial Potpourri of rotten eggs: New Age Wonder!! Cream- Colored 3-piece Suit!!

No, the only Jubilee involves Lent. Unleavened. "I shall not drink wine with you again until the Kingdom of God has come." Whatever is spiritually genuine isn't a matter of words only, but hands backing up words - handshakes, promises. And whatever is genuine in poetry has to do with an asceticism of the spirit and solidarity of the body and service of the whole person on behalf of the future beyond anything the pretentious intellect has yet "imagined". A humane civilization. Another great poet of this century was Joseph Brodsky. I met him once when he read in Providence: during the discussion session after his reading, I got up & naively asked: "Do you have a favorite poem of Mandelstam?" Brodsky said with a sly grin: "Yes. I do." The audience laughed, I felt like a fool. But I brought him some wine in a plastic cup after the reading, and he was warm, on the level. I asked him if he'd be willing to look at some of my poems (the poor guy) & he kindly said: "Sure. It will give me something to read back at the hotel."

Brodsky wrote once: "Humanity was put on earth for one purpose: to make civilization." He was a great Russian poet, much touted & blandly misunderstood in the west. His civilization is the one I am talking about, with an added dose of American equality.

(Minor chord: three notes, in a descending pattern, played for blonde Heidi Johnson, across the street) (at her own piano) (in Hopkins, Minnesota, "Mendelssohn" neighborhood, in 1961, when I was nine).


photo of Kent Johnson (left) and friends Kent Johnson is editor of Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry (Shambhala), and Third Wave: The New Russian Poetry (Michigan). He is translator of A Nation of Poets: Writings from the Poetry Workshops of Nicaragua (West End Press). You can read his translations of some poems of Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz (translated with Forrest Gander) in Jacket # 8. Photo, left: Kent Johnson, left, with friends Hoa Nguyen and Dale Smith. (Photo by Frank, bartender.)

Kent Johnson’s author notes page gives more recent information.
Jacket’s ‘author notes’ provide direct links to various pages in the magazine that feature more of an author’s work, reviews of their books, and interviews.

Henry Gould  
Henry Gould lives in Providence, RI, where he co-edits Nedge. He co-edited & published an anthology in honor of poet/translator Edwin Honig titled A Glass of Green Tea - With Honig (available from Fordham University Press; the Contents list is available at the EPC site at Buffalo at
His poems & essays have appeared in non, Talisman, Witz, and elsewhere. His "neo-sonnet" sequence Island Road can be found online at Mudlark (
His book-length "countertop-epic" Stubborn Grew was published early in 2000 by Spuyten Duyvil Press, at


J A C K E T  # 10 
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