L to R: Kathleen Fraser, Patrick Pritchett
December 22, 2004
So now we are writing letters. The question on my mind this morning has to do with how we negotiate this task of lettering. Both the letters we pass back and forth between us and the letters that deliver us to the poem. How do we keep finding fresh ways inside of the same 26 letters? (God, according to the Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Formation, only needed 22 to create the entire world – how very thrifty of him!). How, in other words, as we grow older in letters, and to some extent, wearied by it, worried by it, do we re-invent the letter? How do we reinvent our relationship to it? Is it like a marriage, which our reality-based, Protestant-flavored, ideological script tells us can only be successful to the extent that we invest it unremittingly with our dutiful labor? Wouldn’t we much prefer instead a marriage based on the pleasure principle? A relationship to the other, in this case, language (the ultimate other?) that is founded on a principle of repletion and overflowing? It would be something like Marcuse’s utopian poetics, in which he envisions a re-affirmation of the early stages of the libido before it undergoes negation, suborned to the harshness of the reality principle, and where eros serves as the foundation for telos. “The struggle for existence,” he writes, “is originally a struggle for pleasure.” I think this attitude speaks for our desire for the poem as well. The question and the anxiety every writer faces with respect to her own work must be intimately tied up with the pleasure letters give. The question on my mind this morning is simply this, then: how do we find new ways inside the poem? How do we keep things from going stale?
Camus writes somewhere in his preface to Lyrical and Critical Essays that to be classic is to repeat oneself. And he adds, it means knowing how to repeat oneself. I think this is the real trick all right. Repetition is the sign of obsession. To write is already to be obsessed. To obey and amplify one’s strangest impulses; the urgings of the word itself. The question of this “how” – this however, this how-to! — has been weighing on my mind a lot lately. Not so much from any grandiose anxiety coming from the chimerical appeal of what it means to be “classic,” as if anyone has any control over that, or that such a canonical designation could possibly mean anything. But from the deeper anxiety of how to keep faith with my work (how’s that for Rilkean resonance?), how to keep it fresh and full of energy. I feel lately I’ve hit a barrier in my work, a place where I’m repeating myself all right, but in all the wrong ways. This is the place every writer dreads: where yesterday’s surprise and invention are today’s cliché. The force of original thought that is a writer’s style, as Synge calls it, can often decay into just a bag of tricks, a schtick of some kind. We all tend to repeat what proved successful once, but the risk we run by doing so is that the writing can just as often as not go flat. Even the most uncanny writing can erode into mannerism. I see it in older writers as well as those of my own generation, accomplished poets in their 30s and 40s who have hit on something forceful and new, but who then beat it into the ground. How do we escape this trap?
Your own work, it seems to me, offers a salutary model for reinvention. You continue to build on themes that have preoccupied you your whole life, but you do so in ways that infuse the language with vivid and demanding turns. hi dde violeth i dde violet is an extraordinary case in point. What incredible risks you take in this poem! It has the structure of a free-fall. But the thing is – as fractured as it is – it has a structure. It is very much a translation of the unspeakable, that is, it carries forward – and lavishes in a delirious spray all around it – the deep strangeness of English. Our own language comes back to us as though it were some other language. For my part I feel lately as though I’ve become mired in everything I’ve done up to this point, marooned in stasis. Every time I start a poem I feel hampered by what I’ve already written, unable to see beyond the rhetorical strategies I’ve developed, or past rhetoric itself. (Gil Ott once told me I seemed overly fond of relying on rhetoric, a remark which stung at the time, but only because it was so on the mark. On the other hand, pace Gil, who doesn’t rely on rhetoric?). Poets like Duncan, whom I’ve long held in the greatest esteem, have made an entire body of work out of an elevated, at times almost superannuated, rhetoric. (And now I wonder if my devotion to his poetry hasn’t been somewhat misplaced). The urge in my most recent poems has been to try to push things right up to the limit and then past it. To load up the language with as much as tension as it can bear, straining it to some kind of infernal/internal breaking point. Then I find myself longing for some form of impossible and complete simplicity in the wake of such excessiveness.
The tension between excess on the one hand and austerity on the other seems central to poetry and deeply marks so much of the most invigorating work of the past century. To transit/translate back and forth between these poles is nothing but the longing to inhabit an idiom that obeys its own law. How to follow?
February 22, 2005
Does weather determine everything about human capacity? Is that why so many long-distance telephone conversations begin with: “So, how’s the weather there?” It’s morning in your letter and I’m guessing that the sun is fully blasting through the window, warming your back as you place your question with its elaborate sub-texts, on the table between us—a thesis already so eloquently developed that it might be launched as a dissertation topic. You despair of the dead-end position in which you find yourself at this moment while I, viewing you from the icy cold & drearily dark long European winter— “Rome’s coldest in 200 years,” warns il Messaggero—admire your swift brain and your capacity to move flawlessly among the arguments and quotations you embrace as an important part of your poetic ground. I wish for that agility.
As soon as I arrived in Rome mid-February and unpacked my books, I pinned a photograph to the wall (just above the desk where I write) showing the figure of a woman running straight into a brick wall. On sudden instinct, I’d tucked the photo into my journal before leaving… knowing that the friend who sent it had intuited something of the life I was about to enter. The bricks are of uneven lengths, as if formed by a number of hands, and carry density unequally under the glare of a harsh light source projected from outside the top right corner of the photograph. [I think of a huge prison light, stopped in its certain surveillance… or a radiance outside my ability to name it.] The bricks—uneven in their sepia tones and pushed into beds of rough mud—fill the entire photographic plane, except for the woman’s long white skirt of bunched tulle, her partially lit bodice wrapped hurriedly around her trunk, head erupting in a dark mass of feathers—or is it hair?—rushing away from her face as it collides with or turns slightly away from the wall, her outstretched hand braced for impact, her legs split apart, an isosceles measure in the air, feet still poised for flight.
Several other notable details: her black shoes, arching in opposite directions; a heavy geometric shadow pressing along the bottom of the photo, somber and irreducibly solid, rising abruptly to become the shape of a flat rectangular chimney —possibly, a doorway?—marking the right side of the photo; the dark stripe, three bricks deep, rushing along the back wall’s lit momentum, marking an upper limit barely held in place, as if constructed to lead the eye to an edge beyond which the light’s source refuses to be identified.
In trying to describe this photo to you, my computer has jumped at least three times, erasing the shape or direction of my words, causing whole chunks of sentences to disappear from the screen. A groan of frustration can be heard by someone in the next room. My conclusion has been erased as abruptly as a theft on a bus. At first I thought it happened when I was tired and accidentally hit a wrong key. But I am not tired today. There is no wrong key. I look again. Each time the erasure happens I’m required to start over and a slight divergence, a jog of invention occurs because of starting at a different point in the established order. Beginning again is the only source I have at my disposal for answering your question because the brick wall is an image that chose me, one I didn’t recognize or have a language for. It required my attention, brick by brick.
I wonder if the continuous surveillance of self, in the split context of one’s private writing mind—re-phrased in the public glare of academic life, might not be a part of the problem for the poet who has grown up inside seductive, post-modern theory wherein subjectivity and self-referentiality, tricked out in their culprit costumes, persuasively lead(s) one to the very self-tracking anguish that many writers of my generation were trying to distance themselves from in the Sixties?
I’m talking about language, the literal lexicon of narcissism that poets often seem to come up against, in this or that assigned guise—be it “confessional” or “objectivist” or “language” poetries—in the attempt to make something fresh and “original” from the tones and conclusions threaded inside an inherited language we admire and take for granted— the drama of self-consciousness, pitting the presumed “self” against history and in company with one’s contemporaries. Seeking or doubting one’s place in the reconfiguration of meaning as it is carried forward in alphabet and syntax—perhaps we allow too powerful a klieg light to be trained on our most private moments of privilege.
You feel certain that obsession—the heart of any vital writing— inevitably takes one back to a same starting point. I know well your feeling of frustration with a personal writing history that seems so often to have hit a wall after a certain number of years inside the same rewind of memory and cultural pressure. The problem appears to be not so much one’s inadvertent return to the familiar but how to recover solitude and sufficient curiosity as to forego the personal drama and, instead, to untangle what has evaded your attention--to reconfigure the terms of investigation so that known grammatical paths are not so easily satisfied with their glamorous conclusions.
But you have addressed your own question, finally, by citing pleasure in language as the first working principle: Play as the highest form of work.
Patrick Pritchett is the author of Burn (Chax Press, 2005) and two chapbooks, Reside (Dead Metaphor Press, 1999) and the forthcoming Antiphonal, (Potato Clock, 2006). His essay “Orpheus in Oz: Ronald Johnson & The Utopian Poetics of Place,” will appear in the National Poetry Foundation’s critical volume, Ronald Johnson: Life & Works, due out in 2006. Essays on Ezra Pound and Lorine Niedecker are forthcoming from scholarly journals. Pritchett’s poems and reviews have appeared in Hambone, Colorado Review, New American Writing, Shiny, Bombay Gin, Prairie Schooner, American Book Review, Rain Taxi and Jacket, among others. He has taught at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program and the University of Colorado at Boulder, where is completing his Ph.D. in English and is assistant editor for the journal English Language Notes. In the fall of 2006 he will begin teaching in Harvard’s History and Literature Program.
Kathleen Fraser has published sixteen books of poems, most recently DISCRETE CATEGORIES FORCED INTO COUPLING (2004, Apogee Press), and hi dde violeth i dde violet (2004, Nomados Press). Her collected essays, Translating the Unspeakable, Poetry and the Innovative Necessity (2000), were published in the Contemporary Poetics Series. University of Alabama Press. Fraser’s Selected Poems, 1970-1995, il cuore : the heart, is available from Wesleyan University Press. She has also collaborated on artist books with Sam Francis and Mary Ann Hayden.
In 1973, Fraser founded The American Poetry Archives, during her tenure as Director of The Poetry Center at San Francisco State University where, as Professor of Creative Writing, she taught from 1972-1992. Between 1983 and 1992, she published and edited HOW(ever), a journal for poets and scholars interested in modernist/ innovative directions in writing by 20th century women. This project was up-dated in 1999, to continue as the electronic journal How2 : http://www.how2journal.com/
Fraser is winner of a Guggenheim and two N.E.A. Fellowships in Poetry, and the Frank O’Hara Award for innovative achievement. She currently teaches in the graduate writing program at CCA in the Fall and lives for five months of each year in Italy, reading and lecturing widely on American poetry, as well as translating Italian poets.