in conversation with Kent Johnson
This piece is 4,600 words or about ten printed pages long.
Kent Johnson: It’s already a commonplace to observe that the world has changed forever after September 11th. Has American poetry also changed forever? What’s a U.S. poet to do? Whither our poetry?
Eliot Weinberger: American (or any other) poetry changes forever with each poem worth reading. The Trade Center attack will not alter the autobiographical, anecdotal, therapeutic poems of the workshops; it will merely add another subject. But it will be interesting to see what happens, if anything, on the progressive front. Their poetry has been a kind of decadent modernism and their politics has tended toward an academic pseudo-Marxism that is completely oblivious to politics as the rest of the world knows it: the infliction and alleviation of suffering. Meaning is not a capitalist construct, as they claim, but meaninglessness is, and 9/11 was an explosion of meaning in the prevailing media-fantasy unreality of the nation.
Kent Johnson: What poem would you have sent around?
Eliot Weinberger: I confess the poem I immediately thought of at the time was an even earlier one, Reznikoff’s:
Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies
which I always remember the way George Oppen used to misquote it, with the last word as ‘rubble.’
Interesting that someone who has written an hilarious send up of the New Formalism would choose a couplet of near-perfect blank verse as example...
Blank verse is normal speech in English and, after all, Rezi didn’t write:
Amidst the rubbish a solitary girder
I wish I had a decent comeback to that. So to shift the focus a bit: As essayist, translator, and editor, you have been a consistent champion of innovation and experimentation in poetry — of writing that challenges the literary establishments and prevailing canons of taste. You just strongly suggested that the work produced by the most visible wing of the U.S. poetry ‘avant-garde’ — a grouping that has come to academic prominence in the past decade or so — has been lacking in certain fundamental qualities. Could you talk more about the relationship, as you see it, between formal experiment and those ‘enduring’ contributions poets should be aiming to make? That is, to the extent that a ‘reconstruction’ of America’s avant-garde poetic spirit is on the agenda, what girders of meaning amidst the rubble, so to speak, might innovative poets seek to salvage?
I am not a critic, so I don’t write prescriptions. And I am especially not an academic critic (left or right) in that I don’t write the same prescription for all ailments. There is no agenda for the American ‘avant-garde poetic spirit’; it will be transformed when someone writes the work that transforms it. Nevertheless, in this moment when the war has finally ‘come home,’ one would hope that there will be a new poetry of a political engagement deeper, or more realistic, than the Jesuit Baroque of so-called theory. There are two models in the recent (American) past. One is the overt political poetries of Ginsberg (particularly in the 1950s and early 60s), Baraka (particularly during the Black Nationalist period), Rexroth and Rukeyser (throughout their careers) and Duncan (particularly the war ‘Passages’) — all of which were ‘formally innovative,’ and all of which, from the flood of antiwar and civil rights poems of the time, remain great poetry. The other model, far rarer, is an interior poetry of the political zeitgeist. For me, Oppen is the primary postwar American exemplar. Some others, in the 20th century, would be Vallejo, Célan, Césaire, Bei Dao.
So what does one do? I’m remembering that for Oppen, actually, the only answer was to give up poetry for a very long time in order to do full-time political work.
Well, Oppen was a unique case in that he was a committed Party member who refused to write Party propaganda, whether prose or poetry, and, unlike every other Communist writer, he didn’t think writers should be treated differently than other people. That is, if the work to be done was organization and agitation, then a writer shouldn’t be exempt. So he simply stopped writing for twenty-five years.
If we could talk about the essay, then, a genre you have certainly put to controversial use in pricking a few balloons over the years... But your prose is hardly limited to the didactic and polemical, and it’s been opening more and more, it seems, into lyrical states and even poetic forms — such as ‘Renga’ in Karmic Traces. I’m wondering why you insist on classifying everything you do under the generic marker of ‘the essay’? In Karmic Traces, for example, what do recognizably essayistic, often sharply polemical pieces like ‘Can I Get a Witness?’ or ‘What Was Formalism?’ have in common with quasi-lyrical and decidedly bizarre works like ‘Naked Mole-Rats,’ ‘An Archaeology of Dreams,’ or ‘Sex Objects’? Aren’t you writing, in these latter cases, as a poet? A mutual friend of ours, in fact, himself a New Directions author, remarked to me once that you are ‘America’s great poet in public intellectual disguise.’
The essay strikes me as unexplored territory in English. With a few exceptions, it is either stuck in the 18th century narrative model — now called the ‘personal essay’ with its various sub-genres (travel writing, personal journalism, memoir) — or in standard literary criticism. The exceptions — in English — have been mainly poets (D.H. Lawrence, Pound, Olson, to name a few obvious ones) or writers close to the poetry world (such as Dahlberg and Metcalf). These days, amidst an overpopulation of everything, there are, as far as I know, only two writers doing anything interesting or new with the essay form: Guy Davenport and Susan Howe.
By the way, I mentioned our mutual acquaintance in the question above, and I know that right after you had spoken to his classes at Harvard last year, three or four of his students were inspired to drop out of school so they could take up being full-time writers. As someone who has written often and in sometimes cynical terms about poetry’s relation to the academy, how — as they used to ask on campus in the sensitivity workshops of the 1980’s — does that make you feel?
The strange part was that I hadn’t even told them about my own dubious past — and now the parents will probably sue me.
You’re widely recognized as one of America’s leading translators of Latin American poetry. You’ve argued that the dearth of translation activity among contemporary U.S. poets reflects a generalized poverty of cultural perspective and imagination. And you’ve pointed out that ‘most of the great ages of literature have been great ages of translation,’ which, if true, would seem to make our age a minor one... Is there reason to think the radically new and unfolding international context might have a stimulating effect on the practice and status of literary translation?
It’s been ten years since I published a book of translations of a Latin American poet, so if I’m still ‘leading’ it only proves the dearth of poets translating.
In the past few years, the politics of anthologizing has been something of a critical battleground in poetry studies, and issues of race and gender have been at the center of the debate. You’ve been brought into this discussion yourself: your 1993 anthology, American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders, having been the subject of some harsh polemic in the pages of the American Poetry Review and other places. Looking back, and in light of what you’ve just said about the ‘next great age’ belonging to non-white writers, is there anything you would have done differently with that book?
Did you have to ask about that?... Well, OK: An anthology is a game where the publisher and the editor set the rules, and one tries to play the game within those rules. First, there are the number of the pages you’re given and the number of lines per page. This requires that the editor read with a pica ruler and a calculator, a weird and not particularly pleasant way to read poetry. And it turns out that every poem is much longer than you remember it as being, so one’s ideal anthology quickly crumbles.
Of course, the book appeared right at the height of the multicultural and ‘Political Correctness’ era in academia...
Right, and since I am not a prof, I wasn’t thinking about the academic standards of that moment with its retroactive affirmative action. (The opposite, by the way, of what affirmative action is supposed to be: a way to change the future.) So everyone counted heads and found that the statistical number of women and minority poets did not mirror the population at large, even though — I’m sorry but it’s true — among those kinds of poets in that particular historical period, most of the ones of enduring interest happened to be white guys. (And some of those who were not, and who I included, had been, until then, completely ignored as avant-gardists: I’m thinking of Hughes and Rukeyser, who were strictly read as ‘black’ or ‘feminist’ poets.)
That’s an amazing thought — that those poets may be more familiar names to Mexican poets than to U.S. poets!
But it’s generally true that abroad they have more interesting taste in American poetry than in the U.S. French anthologies of American poetry are better than the American ones. When I talk to Brazilian or Danish poets, they ask me about Michael Palmer or Rosmarie Waldrop or Robert Creeley. They’ve never heard of Stephen Dunn or Mary Oliver or Alan Dugan or some prizewinner. In countries where poets are intellectuals, they simply can’t relate to all those poems about changing the storm windows or the jonquils coming up through the snow.
And isn’t it true that you’re better known abroad?
Oh definitely, but that’s another case. What I write — a kind of non-litcrit, non-‘personal’ intellectual essay — is utterly routine in many countries, but it has no place here. All the periodicals, except some little mags, are locked into their formats — N.Y. Review of Books reviews, New Yorker profiles and domesticated prose, etc — and all of them are ruled by editors — in many languages there is no word for editor! — who ‘polish the piece’ (as we say in a land obsessed with handguns and pornography) until it ends up sounding like everything else in the issue. Abroad, they print it the way you wrote it, and you sink or swim according to what you wrote.
And yet the Borges Selected Non-Fictions had tremendous success, with its reviews and prize... [review in Jacket 9.]
It was a long slog, mainly because Borges is such a mess in Spanish and I had to track down so many of the texts, but I think it’s a delight on every page. And Borges was so unimaginably prolific, I could easily do a few more volumes that would be just as good.
Speaking of old age, you’ve written that MacDiarmid wanted the inscription on his tombstone to read ‘A disgrace to the community.’ What do you want on yours?
‘Walkman, pass by.’
Eliot Weinberger’s most recent book of essays is Karmic Traces (New Directions). You can read other material by Eliot Weinberger in Jacket:
And you can read Nathaniel Tarn’s review of Weinberger’s Selected Non-Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges at
Jacket 16 — March 2002
This material is copyright © Kent Johnson, Eliot Weinberger and Jacket magazine 2002