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Jon Curley reviews

Uncertain Poetries — Selected Essays on Poets, Poetry and Poetics
by Michael Heller

264pp. Salt Publishing. US$21.99/ ₤14.99 ISBN 1844710572 paper

This review is 1,630 words
or about 4 printed pages long

Passionate forms

One would not be amiss thinking that, at least in most contemporary cases, poetry and poetry criticism only fitfully illuminate one another. There might be certain mutual resonances, occasions in which analysis dutifully, even masterfully, accentuates or arrests our understanding of the poem. However, such occasions are all too rare; it’s as if critical encounters with the poetic object quit rigorous engagement in favor of skirting peripheries, whether setting up broad historical contexts which lose sight of the poem under study, evoke biographical or extra-textual themes, or force patterns where they hardly exist.

Idealistic, programmatic, and whimsical readings crop up in abundance and their regimentation imposes authority rather than finding it in the work. Often the result is ironic mystification: explanation eludes the poem as it treats the poem’s inner-workings as mere rhetorical anatomies to be dissected. But the soul goes missing, the metaphysics are lost, and interpretation obscures its subject. A key condition of the poet is delight in or deference to ambiguity. The critic, on the other hand, will tend to cling to definition and exactitude. Like rival sects, their forms compete with and rebuke each other in practice. A belief in certainty ties the critic to his craft, a belief which the enigmatic conditions of the poet’s art implicitly contests. An ecumenical dispensation is needed, a middle ground, but not a middling one, and Michael Heller achieves this tricky feat with  unparalleled skill in his new collection of essays, Uncertain Poetries.

Heller is both a poet and critic, that well-plumed rara avis who flies effortlessly between poetry and criticism and adroitly links their dual legacies. (Patrick Pritchett reviewed his Exigent Futures: New and Selected Poems for Jacket in 2003). For him, poetry provides an exorbitance, not so much of a transcendence, of human possibility and limitations. The criticism he so painstakingly imagines here is of a single breath with the poetry; its technique, vision, and reasoning conjoin with his personal task of writing and his idea of the poet’s response and responsibility towards the world.

The primary attribute of uncertainty to which he credits poetry is the procedural uneasiness of imaginary composition and the willingness to engage the historical world obliquely, as an expressive possibility despite the necessary incompleteness of poetic response. As he notes in the opening essay, ‘The Uncertainty of the Poet’: ‘Uncertainty lives here first of all, between the game and sign, between our linguistic selves and a world, the source of the poet’s uneasiness.’ (4) This uneasiness is not so much the seat of psychic dread and metaphysical pain that unseats itself, but the force of acknowledgement that redresses doubt, negation, and stasis through reviewing the limitations of the word acting on the world, revising the value of language in creative conception. What arises is an awareness of the fragility of one’s poetic representations, choices, and challenges. In turn, uncertainty becomes an agent for articulating those tendencies and desires which admit the obstinate difficulty of coming to speech, action, expression, even to being, in the world, and the eternal rhetoric of hope which guides all of these operations: ‘...the unsettling of conceptualization and of identity, the constant transforming and renewing of our image of the world.’ (234)

This realization, that uncertainty guides as it also reproves the poetic faculty, is a radical revision of traditional notions of poetry which would perceive in the crystallizing of representation a ready, communicative fullness. For Heller, the poem transmits a Heideggerian ‘boundary of the boundless,’ a mobilized, seemingly completed expressive energy melding with the strange, unknowable, additives of experience that the poem infers but cannot wholly confer. The logic of this approach is instructive, for it urges us to embrace the poetic field as both a lasting and effervescent space of creation: what is written balances on the unwritten, the un-writable, informing epistemological planes while visiting the vast tracts of mystery and impenetrability which cleave to experience.

Heller’s vision is not supra-historical or flippant to the organizing principles of tradition, formalism, and ethical value assessments. In fact, he argues forthrightly for the social causation of language, for a productive affinity of poems to their historical origins, for the attempts of ratifying truth even when the risks incurred — ethical and otherwise — are so obvious and threatening. ‘The next poem is always the aim of the prior poem,’ he writes, ‘and this is how poetry develops, not by offering us truth upon truth, but by reminding us how truth is always passing into a lie.’ (14) This sentiment is also the sediment of Heller’s thesis, valuing history while questioning the authenticity of its official narratives. But the tone is suggestive, not polemical, and the tenderness of the practitioner merges with the objective, never caustic eye of the poet-critic. These arresting essays, covering the varied techniques and aspirations of poets like Rilke, Pound, George Oppen, Marianne Moore, Lorine Niedecker, and William Bronk, assign gravitas to the incandescent humanism and vexed categories of belief and unbelief on which these poets and their work depend. That Heller discusses these poets within the context of ‘available culture’ means that poetry is neither sancrosanct nor self-involved; it adopts wide-ranging vocabularies at its best in order to traffic with reality, in order to find the possible within limitation, share significance alongside other disciplines and differing modes of inquiry, and renew its meanings within contemporary sensibility, artistic, scientific, and anthropological.

Lorca’s canon is granted the poet-critic’s esteem for condensing passionate forms into an idiom central to the poet’s localized context but not circumscribed by it, sheltered in historicity and yet made homeless by it. Its grandeur fabricates a challenge to the indeterminateness of fate, even more so its finality, by preserving love and hope as viable antidotes to inevitable ends. The Rilke and Pound chapters help us chart romanticism and historical materialism as paradigms for recognizing the success and failures of embracing and abjuring the historical record. We witness in the essays on Marianne Moore and Lorine Niedecker the project of objectifying psychological impressions, transmuting personal expression into bright, sometimes vexed emblems of human experience. His readings of David Ignatow, William Bronk, and Armand Schwerner clarify the procedures of these misunderstood, generally under-read poets, who tend to bask in delicious ambiguity rather than doctrinal assessments of their subjects, their selves, their worlds.

In every essay Heller endears us to his appetites and views because his rapprochement with poetry is underwritten by sincere enjoyment. Often I feel that much poetry criticism, older or more recent, lacks any real indication of the writer’s delight in his subjects. Whether extolling Henry Weinfeld’s Mallarmé translations or recounting his mentor George Oppen, he is an exacting critic who nevertheless registers his enthusiasms. Intellectual honesty goes hand in hand with a sense of wonder and sensual appreciation. Even when he scolds language poetry for reducing language to arbitrary instruments and agents signifying nothing, he does so not as a polemicist or arch formalist, but as a concerned commentator and practitioner, wishing words to thrive as crucial interpretive devices, not merely random runes without meaning. Heller doesn’t so much castigate as he professes a viable alternative to words in vacuo. Discussions of Holocaust poetry and the subsequent legacy of diasporic Jewish poetry emerging from its shadow, including his own, lend added credence to uncertainty as being a theme and birthright of poetry, and buttress his argument for returning poetics in practice to adopting words as articles of faith amid uncertainty and against self-willed insignificance. The essay ‘Aspects of Poetics’ is both a map and manifesto of Heller’s thinking and one of the most invigorating essays in the collection.

Anyone interested in any of the themes and subjects outlined here would do well to read Heller’s own poetry. He is a poet who practices what he particularizes, empowered by the uncertain domain of human existence rather than languishing in despair. Reading him one sees the relationship between theory and practice, discourse on one hand and creative acts and choices on the other. Perennially, Heller’s desire for knowability competes with an awareness of limitations. ‘Moon Study,’ first published in In the Builded Place, illustrates the perpetual summoning of constructed meaning from the mystery of life:

It appears beyond my capacity
to do more than give it a name, to shout

Like the haiku master, O bright!
O bright! O moon! as though
With a word I could embrace

Some lucent teaching of its being.

In “January Nights,” Heller represents the poet, himself, as ‘a trace/ On the mandala of a poetry made/ Out of the uncertain ache for certainty.’ This sentiment serves as the basis of both his poetry and criticism. Here there is no duality between what is critically endorsed and creatively espoused. As ‘Winter Notes, East End’ attests:

                                     But often

one can’t find what is being searched for,
the galaxy seemingly drained of that covenant.

Thus is it written out for syntax’s rules,
for the untranslatable memory of black holes,

for voice, for love and against concept.

Uncertain Poetries is a marvelous book, enlightening in its visions and proposals.

I hope the superlative will not be taken for over-heated praise when I suggest that it is the most powerful book of criticism I’ve come across in a decade. Its relevance will continue to grow throughout the years, whatever trends, tones, and traditions either poetry or poetry criticism take on. My only quibble has to do with numerous careless typos — the work of the publisher and not the critic — which fortunately do not detract from the grandeur of the collection. They also prove that, at least in this case, form is not always an extension of content.

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