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in conversation with Thomas Fink, 2010
This interview took place between April and June 2010.
Burt Kimmelman has published six collections of poetry — As If Free (Talisman House, Publishers, 2009), There Are Words (Dos Madres Press, 2007), Somehow (Marsh Hawk Press, 2005), The Pond at Cape May Point (Marsh Hawk Press, 2002), a collaboration with the painter Fred Caruso, First Life (Jensen/Daniels Publishing, 2000), and Musaics (Sputyen Duyvil Press, 1992). A poem from his newest book was featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac. For over a decade he was Senior Editor of the now defunct Poetry New York: A Journal of Poetry and Translation. He is a professor of English at New Jersey Institute of Technology and the author of two book-length literary studies: The “Winter Mind”: William Bronk and American Letters (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998); and, The Poetics of Authorship in the Later Middle Ages: The Emergence of the Modern Literary Persona (Peter Lang Publishing, 1996; paperback 1999). He also edited The Facts on File Companion to 20th-Century American Poetry (Facts on File, 2005) and co- edited The Facts on File Companion to American Poetry (Facts on File, 2007). He has published scores of essays on medieval, modern, and contemporary poetry.
Thomas Fink: Astute critics of your work like Norman Finkelstein, William Allegrezza, and Jon Curley, as well as those who have blurbed you like Michael Heller, Jerome Rothenberg, and Harvey Shapiro, have named Oppen, Bronk, and Creeley as your chief influences. Of course, you may have additional names. In your own scholarly work on Bronk, you talk about more than poetic influence; you mention philosophy and science, for example, as helping to shape what goes on in Bronk’s poems. Are there philosophers and scientific trends that you think have had an impact on the poetry in As If Free?
Burt Kimmelman: Yes, surely Oppen, Bronk, and Creeley have influenced me, but so have other poets who have worked within the same aesthetic and arguably, though implicitly, the same philosophical range: the most significant of these influences is probably Paul Blackburn — all of his work but most notably the book he was working on when he died, The Journals; I have always been awed by its dailinesses as well as the way in which he used image and metonymy, and line break. Blackburn was an early mentor, as was, at the time and earlier, Joel Oppenheimer (the two having launched the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, as many people now don’t realize), another important influence on me.
But all of the Black Mountain and related poets were influential (Levertov and Duncan, and of course Olson), and they led me to Pound who is fundamental for me, and to a great many others, and a bit later the Objectivists (Niedecker’s poetry remains revelatory for me, but all the Objectivists are important to me, sort of like the air I breathe — as is true of Cid Corman’s body of work, though he was not an Objectivist but rather a fellow traveler, let’s say). I ran into Star Black the other day (whose poetry, as well as photography and collage work, I greatly admire); having read As If Free, she felt that the poems in the book are the result of and perhaps bespeak a “commitment” to the daily things of life and to the words we use in our daily lives. I like that very much and it sums up, maybe my modus operandi, how I approach the writing of poetry — as a doing of something larger than merely crafting a poem, the writing a part of something greater. She likened my work to Basho’s. This makes sense to me.
But of course Blackburn read the ancient Chinese poets and so did Pound, and maybe Blackburn simply followed Pound’s bread crumbs. I don’t mean to diminish Blackburn’s work or to take away something from my claim for his utter originality, when I say this, but I do think he and Pound were in a groove. The letters back and forth between the two are amazing, really worth reading for their linguistic play, the sheer fun with language the two poets are having; how much they are enjoying themselves with language and banter is extraordinary, as if they were both laying down a conversation that in its ability to pun and otherwise be playful is at the level of Finnegans Wake.
I remember a talented poet who died young, Bradford Stark, introducing me to Oppen’s work in the mid sixties. He read it to me and showed it to me on the page one evening in his apartment, and I thought, “You mean, you can do that?! Wow!” As I think about my more recent poems, I think Marianne Moore is a muse to be noted (she is careful, precise, quietly and wonderfully musical, and she counts syllables, as I have for some years now). I had my love affair with Stevens in college but I don’t see his work showing up in mine. Last but maybe not least (as has been noted by some of my readers), there is William Carlos Williams. I think back now on Marjorie Perloff’s well known essay “Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?” and think how important that essay was for me, but in my mind the debate is settled: It was Williams’ century, Williams the quietest of the three.
I should also mention poets of my generation or slightly older who were influential as I was just beginning to develop as a poet, such as M. G. Stephens, Ron Edson, Tom Weatherly, Sherry Kearns (née Moore), Diane di Prima, among others, and later Michael Heller, Harvey Shapiro, Jane Augustine, of a number of people I can’t think of at this moment.
I don’t mean to be parochial, though. I’ve always been enthralled by a poet like Frank O’Hara and I think his poetry shows up subtly in some of my work. And I don’t think his poems particularly haunt my work but the writings of LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) were significant for me in my formative years.
The Donald Allen anthology The New American Poetry was a powerful change agent for me and many others (as was, now forgotten, A Controversy of Poets edited by Paris Leary and Robert Kelly). And I hasten to mention the brilliant Armand Schwerner whom I met and read early on, especially his towering epic The Tablets (which prompts me to mention Ronald Johnson’s ARK, but I’ve come to that epic poem only in recent years), and from a distance Jerome Rothenberg.
I was a student at SUNY Cortland (where I majored in physical education for a while) when a lot of then relatively-unknown avant-garde poets came to read and do workshops, and my poetry beginnings are there though immediately afterward in downtown Manhattan. I wrote an article (not autobiographical) a few years ago about the downtown poetry scene in the fifties and early sixties — Black Mountain, Beat, and New York School poets all hanging around together, rather undifferentiated — its ambience and cross pollinations, which adumbrates the scene I was enamored of in the mid-late sixties as I was still trying to feel my way for a craft (the article can be found at the Rain Taxi website: http://www.raintaxi.com/online/2002spring/poetryproject.shtml).
There are the “older” poets (Donne et al.) whose work I’ve always looked to as well. But let me now turn to your question about science and philosophy, and here I’m going to sound a bit flaky: I think that post-Newtonian physics, especially Quantum Mechanics and its offspring, makes a certain fascinating conceptual move — which, in discussing Bronk particularly, but also poets like Oppen, Olson, Creeley, I’ve referred to as tautological. “Life is life,” Bronk writes simplistically and deceptively; in context he is saying a lot. When it comes to Oppen, especially once he starts reading Heidegger, I think the idea of the tautology helps us to live deeply in his work and in Heidegger’s too (I’ll not take the time to flesh out here what I mean by this but instead suggest my recent article on Oppen and Heidegger in Jacket (http://jacketmagazine.com/37/kimmelman-oppen-heidegger.shtml); yet my book on Bronk [The “Winter Mind”: William Bronk and American Letters] goes into this quite a bit.
Do science and philosophy make their way into my recent collection of poems As If Free? I don’t think so in any explicit way, except that the persona in the poems is sort of adopting a Zen-like attitude in which tautology is very important. A bird in a tree is simply there and that’s beautiful and enough in itself. I think of Oppen’s exclamation in his famous poem “Psalm,” which echoes Heidegger; Oppen reports on some deer foraging in the woods: “That they are there!”
I remember seeing and hearing Creeley reading a poem about two woodpeckers — the simplicity and innate beauty of their presence beneath a tree and of his percept — on a PBS television show aired in about 1965 when I was first starting to write. This was life-changing for me. I was struck by the way Creeley ended the poem, with the rhetorical question “why not?” [“Like They Say”]. I was struck by the off-handedness of the remark. It is a gesture toward closure. I later discovered, in reading Blackburn, that closure could be abandoned. In the end it is Blackburn’s poems in The Journals (and elsewhere) that are in the spirit of astonishment (to borrow a key term from Heidegger) at the manifest world. And it was and is Blackburn’s simplicity, careful though never studied, which informs my work, I think. But in all these poets (maybe not O’Hara) I have always loved their precision and have tried to live up to that in my own writing.
TF: We’ll get back to Heidegger, Creeley, Moore, and some others you’ve mentioned a little later, but I want to ask a more basic question: what spurred you to select As If Free as the title?
BK: The title comes from the final poem in the collection, “Monet’s Garden,” and was from within the poems the pithiest and on its own most intriguing phrase I had not already used (having used “there are words,” from my poem “After Robert Creeley,” as the title for a chapbook Dos Madres Press brought out): “The lily’s charm is not / its colors but how it / floats, as if free, upon // the pond’s dark surface [etc.].” The phrase, a conundrum and philosophically rich in a way that “there are words” is not necessarily, does suggest, I can see in retrospect, that the implicit philosophical question does sponsor As If Free as a collection. How can freedom be? Can it be?
Denotatively in the poem (but I meant much more), the phrase refers to the illusion of a water lily that seems to be free-moving but whose stem reaches down to the bottom of a pond. So anyway I thought the phrase would work well for the book. It was three words, about as many as I would normally want to choose for a title of a book of my poems. I like the fact that on the surface of the phrase there is a veneer or simplicity, yet the words together carry a deeper implication. So freedom does become possible, but it is only through structure or perhaps artifice (a shaped poem, a planned-out garden such as Monet’s, etc.); otherwise it exists solely as an ideal, a possible figment of the imagination.
TF: Relative freedom is restricted by sickness, aging, and death, three important themes of the book.
Norman Finkelstein speculates playfully in his review of the book that the title could refer to the similarity yet difference between free and syllabic verse. You note that Marianne Moore can be counted as an influence on you because of her syllabic mode. What has motivated you to work consistently in this kind of measure? And how would you characterize the dynamic interactions among syllabic count, enjambment, and stanza formation?
BK: Sickness, aging, and death are not absent in my day-to-day living as I enter late middle age, so they are a part of my consciousness. And I like to bring the dailinesses into my poems when I can. Is my notion of freedom or lack thereof informed by my situation day to day? I don’t see how it could not be. I read an article recently claiming that, based on some studies, older people are happier than younger people. This can’t be because people (the older folks) are glad they can’t get around like they used to. Maybe the existential question is whether anything in life can be understood. I won’t confront that question here but I do think certain landmarks stand out to me clearly now in a way they did not, say, thirty years ago — that, I guess, I have some understanding of some things, that I’m not in the same kind of turmoil I was in as a young man.
In any case, yes, of course Finkelstein is quite correct in his “playful” speculation about the title of my book referring to the similarity yet difference between free and syllabic verse; he makes a relevant point, and I wonder if “playfully” is a fair descriptor on your part (i.e., sober play), given that my poetics is a manifestation of my mind-set. Was it Twain who asked “How can I tell you what I think till I see what I say”? I now see clearly that I’ve ceased being a revolutionary, that I’m a draught horse happy to live my days in the traces of prosody!
Seriously, though, I do appreciate Moore especially, these days. Some of her poems are so graceful and airy and yet so rigorous formally, so elegant. I don’t recall my thinking of her, however, as I gravitated toward syllabics, when I was starting to write the poems that make up The Pond at Cape May Point (begun about 1999, published in 2002) — small, haiku-like percepts, and all syllabic in various patterns — nor was I particularly thinking of W.C.W. or Creeley who have written syllabic poems strictly or less so, and I’d have to stop to check the poems of Corman (whom I may have had in mind then as a model) or Niedecker, or those of John Taggart who once advised me wisely about syllabic poetry. Yet they were surely guiding spirits and I came back to their work later once I realized that I was gravitating toward syllabic writing each time I was trying to write a poem.
It’s not that I am against lowering the net in the tennis match. Yet I have found of late that the formal constraint I impose upon myself forces me to dig deeper and I come up with, as a way to solve a formal problem, some surprising language I didn’t know was in me, sometimes even a whole new poem I didn’t know I was to write, I didn’t know was there to be had, and I think I feel more obliged, than I might otherwise, not to waste even a syllable with extraneous wording, with words that don’t do enough of the work needed to be done. So it’s a game I enjoy playing now — a very sober game — and I like what I come up with generally.
Now, is every line break hard won, exactly what it should be? No, not every time. But I think I have to come close at least. And if, for example, I decide that substantives must end each line then I must remain true to this rule, or if a sentence must not end at the end of a line (or the reverse), and so on. But in my poems of late I feel that there is a tension, an unstated tightly strung quality, and that a reader or listener responds to it subliminally. Surely, in any case, the language is tight, hopefully elegant, taut. It has to be since I don’t have endless room in which I can “sprawl,” to quote Olson (in his 1950 ground-shifting essay “Projective Verse”). Or, as Pound said about H.D.’s poems, in a letter to Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry magazine: there was no “slither” in them.
The two, Olson and Pound, speak out of a like sensibility. And it supports a very important concept the Objectivists took note of (Hugh Seidman wrote to me recently about his relationship with Zukofsky who, having read some of Hugh’s poems, urged him to “cut, cut, cut”), as did the Black Mountain people. Folks can talk about “projective” poetry but even in the capacious poems of Olson or Duncan there is a palpable rigor. I want rigor in my poems too, and that means sometimes I have the line break exactly as I would want it ideally. Yet sometimes I’ve had to compromise a bit — that is, I’d like to think I fought hard, though I’ve lost the fight, but I would argue that the poem discloses that struggle that gave birth to it, if the reader takes time with it. But hey there’s nothing new in this. Poets have always struggled here. Right?
As for the stanzaic patterns — well, there one finds a more intransigent task master. Norman, in his review of As If Free, spent a considerable amount of time discussing my poem “Raking the Leaves” that has two stanzas of eleven lines of eleven syllables each. Now, had I the energy, could I have written eleven stanzas rather than two? I suppose so but I would have ruined the poem (I have a high regard for a poet like Dryden or Pope, and for John Milton — but you know what Samuel Johnson said about Paradise Lost: “A great poem, a great poem, but no one ever wished it a line longer”). So I guess in a way I’m a cop-out.
Yet the purpose of the syllabics was to force me not to settle for what is easily said (or attempted to say), not said well, without pith. Yes I do believe in Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought,” though I won’t stop there necessarily, since I want to know if I have a syllabic pattern! In trying to make the thought fit the pattern, a plan for a pattern that seems would evolve out of my initial words, an evolving construct that is set in motion by a phrase’s music or pithiness, sometimes the thought shifts or changes. After all, I want to end up with a poem, not a thought.
TF: A poem includes thoughts but is not necessarily a single thought, as language and its sound effects also have other things to do. In your first response, you spoke of your valorization of Paul Blackburn’s “spirit of the astonishment (. . . Heidegger) of the manifest world.” Can I shift the terminology to say, perhaps, that much of your poetry in this volume discloses the extraordinary within the ordinary, or the ordinary extraordinarily constituted within or out of another ordinary? For example:
I stand before my
mirror, a graying
man I do not know —
instead, in my mind,
there is a boy with
a round face, dark eyes
and hair, shaping a
pompadour with his
hands, combing through it
over and over,
but it will not stay…
(“That Boy” 10)
Mental time travel requires a common sameness, but the splitting of one’s consciousness of a present and past self can be startling.
BK: Hey okay I’ll definitely take your felicitous description of my poetry as being “the ordinary extraordinarily constituted.” Thank you! But is it not the case that we are better off perceiving the extraordinary in the ordinary (is this a sort of wisdom to be attained)? Before I fully address what you are saying let me specify, for the sake of accuracy, what I said or meant to say about Blackburn’s work, which is that it was in the spirit of astonishment.
I am not saying here that it is a poetry of astonishment in the way that Oppen’s can be or in the way that Heidegger’s philosophy can be a text of astonishment. Also, I think we are led astray by the assumption that poetry is really comprised of or is about thought or thoughts. Philosophy is, but poetry is an artistic experience, and thank goodness poetry need not feel obliged to make sense (I realize I’m saying this to someone whose poetry, not least of all in the recent, exhilarating volume marvelously titled Clarity and Other Poems, is, if anyone ever thought about this contrast, about as far in the other direction from the philosophical postulates of someone like, say, Willard Quine, as can be possible — except that I can imagine you riffing off a language like that of an analytical philosopher with great aplomb — we would all be disappointed, I think, if some reader were trying to posit a “message” in any of the poems in that book, yet the poems there are utterly vital and scintillating, utterly delightful, and they are no less important if they are not necessarily logical!).
Now, as for mental time, let me add to what you’ve said about “mental time travel” by asking us to compare it with the concept of memory. I think the meaning of one’s life and often the stuff of literature — even when not explicit in the way of remembering, whether in the genre of autobiography or memoir or whatever — depends upon memory, upon being both there and here; and we as writers would want to make this dynamic of time travel startling not just for the sake of effect but because we would then be provided an entrance into the savoring of one’s individual existence. I am who I think I am not least of all because of my memory of my life and the lives of those around me. I just heard a radio piece about the possibility of new technologies that could erase one’s memories forever. How practical! How very convenient. But what is the personal meaning of one’s life, what is its very language, except that one remembers and thereby reflects — and out of this activity we choose one or another narrative arc.
TF: I’d like to keep going with the ordinary/extraordinary binary, first noting that your speakers in these poems are frequently people-watchers in cafés. I’m very sympathetic to this, and I sometimes find myself in restaurants alone but not lonely, and yet I think it’s still relevant to ask: What’s in it for him, the people-watcher, and for you, the poet?
BK: The answer to these questions for me is about, once again, the living of one’s life in the present, what I’ll call (as a lay person) a Zen mode of being, or else let’s call it living with and within the tautological. Poetry can convey that mode, that experience, best through the visual image, I think. And again, a poet like Blackburn, W.C.W., or Niedecker, trade on this practice of evoking a world through an intense visuality. So in this sense we might think of their poetries as similar to paintings, some paintings more than others. And I have striven in part to create scenes in my poems — and to allow the psychological meaning possible in the poems to be implied in the scenes, to be understated, or else completely absent, since the scene itself is the important thing; the scene is the totality.
I think some of the work of an artist like Raphael Soyer — some of his representational works were hanging in the homes of both my mother and father (they were divorced when I was six) — has been an unconscious model for my more recent poetry. Soyer’s scenes are about as far from those of a painter like, say, David, as possible. One views Soyer’s scenes and after a while realizes that there is some psychological narrative implicit in them, but the last thing Soyer would ever care to do would be to ask you to interpret a scene of his or even fix upon the narrative; rather, the girl is dancing with the boy in the living room of an apartment and that’s all — it is what it is and we should savor the figuration and color and composition. Other painters might also banish Drama but since I have spent many years looking at Soyer he is a good example. I wonder if Soyer read W.C.W.
Anyway, I go to cafés a lot — a good destination when I need to get out of the house to clear my head, and I like to write, at least to start, poems when I’m mentally free from the hundred things I have to attend to at home. And yes I do love to watch people. Isn’t this what urbanity is in its essence? And I like to think, “I am not him, I am not her.”
TF: In “Taking Dinner to My Mother,” “Old Age Home,” and “Visiting the Nursing Home,” you depict your mother confronting illness, aging, and dying, as well as your own compassionate efforts to support her. As one whose mother passed away a little over a year ago, I am well aware of the tug of this subject, including the desire for literature to serve as group catharsis but also, poetically speaking, a fear that a display of sentiment will turn into sentimentality. You take the risk and avoid sentimentality, I think, through accurate description and relatively small portions of abstraction. In “Taking Dinner to My Mother,” the notion of “balance,” both abstract and concrete, has a philosophical tinge: “the fact of balance, which we/ live with until it abandons us” (1). The old can lose both physical and mental balance, and what’s interesting is that the poem runs through the balance taught infants by parents, the delicious loss of balance that your mother’s teenage granddaughter experiences in “first love,” a tale that the old woman is too tired to hear, the implicit balance that the middle-aged father/son must develop, and finally, that son serving as balance for the otherwise teetering mother. This perspective is vastly preferable to the cliché of second childhood.
In these poems, were you consciously trying to avoid sentimentality? If so, what strategies did you use, and how do you feel they worked? If not, why not? I believe that “Taking Dinner to My Mother” has enjoyed a rare media presence. How have readers and listeners at readings responded to this and the other two poems?
BK: Your analysis of the poem is wonderful. Before I get to the heart and soul of your set of questions (and, speaking of sentimentality, I use the phrase “heart and soul” here advisedly), for the record let me point out that “Old Age Home” and “Visiting the Nursing Home” are about my step-mother — while “Taking Dinner to My Mother,” as well as “The Sleep of the Dead” and “The Waves,” all in As If Free, are about my mother and written when she was dying (“Taking Dinner to My Mother” was begun the day before her death and the day after I saw her alive for the last time, and it, along with “The Waves,” comes out of the experience of our last visit together).
I don’t ever want to be sentimental and my greatest fear as a poet is that I am being so, but I do want to come as close to the line as possible without crossing over, across which lies the realm of sentimentality — and I’m motivated to do so, ironically perhaps, by my poetics of observation sans comment (or with little comment); I want to record the world I see and hear, especially see. But when there is a narrative I am especially risking being sentimental. And when one is talking about the dying of a loved one (even if one’s experience with that person has been vexed), well, one really has to stick with W.C.W.’s dictum, “no ideas but in things,” otherwise one gets into trouble. In any case, I certainly don’t care to write what I’ve come to call “identity poetry” (to echo the term “identity politics”), sort of the Jerry Springer talk show MFA workshop boiler plate. I mean, are we all so very interesting? I’d rather have an interesting poem that avoids self-absorption or trumpeting of, ahem, the “human experience” — let the angels do the trumpeting, à la Donne’s sonnet, and let us instead honor those we love with accurate, objective portraiture. I don’t want to chew up the scenery.
Having said all this, I must tell you that I made “Taking Dinner with My Mother” the first poem in As If Free, after anguishing over the book’s composition. I always get a big response from the poem when I do it at a reading, and my ex-prof scholar and dear friend, the now-poet Alan Holder, once called the poem “an anthology piece.” My better self wanted to start the book with “Black-Eyed Susan,” a much simpler and prosodically more succinct and adept poem, which is not a narrative; I thought that this poem made the implicit statement of what I thought poetry could and should do best, but in the end I decided for the poem about my mother’s dying, about balance, and about generations of human beings and what that means for us — a big story.
So when the poem was featured on PBS’s The Writer’s Almanac, read beautifully, and typically for him, by Garrison Keillor, I knew I’d made the correct cynical move (I don’t mean to knock GK’s literary taste and am grateful not only for him reading my poem on the air but for all he has done for American culture). But you can see, you can imagine — a busy man, he picks up the book lying in a pile of books left by a secretary on his desk, and reads a poem, time for maybe only one or two in the book, and, you know, this is a poem made for him, for how he loves brief digression and resonant syllables with big vowels, and universal human stories made particular.
Anyway, I’m glad you don’t think the poems are sentimental (or clichéd!). Though you’re not the first person to volunteer to me (at the moment I am remembering Marjorie Perloff saying the same thing) that the poems are not sentimental. I do see why you would bring this up. I like to think that the concrete can do so much work.
I am grateful for what John Taggart said about an earlier book of mine, Somehow, that the poems “evince a quality infrequently encountered in contemporary American poetry: modesty, an attentive and forthright modesty. As such they are unassailable. They cannot be tarnished by our times’ endemic disease, the irony disease. The results of that disease, under a sheen of wit and suavity, are hectic and finally a heat death of harlequin vocabulary.” I am honored by this eloquent comment and I think he gets it right. So maybe one can avoid both irony and sentimentality at the same time. Anyway, if one just sticks with the facts (to echo Jack Webb in the fifties police procedural Dragnet), one can avoid — albeit flirt with, at times — sentimentality.
TF: Yes, one can definitely avoid irony and sentimentality at once. Yet, as Stanley Fish and others have pointed out, no text has immunity against someone imposing a frame of irony or literalness (or undecidability between the two). For example, irony can be read into “Poem for Jackson Mac Low,” written for a poet whose aesthetic “of number and name” is very different from your own. I sense a tension between the “oddness” of chance, which Mac Low cultivated extensively, and the coherence of a narrative, which includes the marking of time passing. The poem ends:
[…] I can’t
help thinking of his oddnesses,
mysteries of number and name,
how the line would play itself out,
and then the next, and then the next,
the moment about to happen.
This sounds more like homage than critique, though a poem can be both and neither. Could you please discuss the elegiac function of this poem along with — or perhaps in contradistinction to — other impulses that spurred the process of composition? Also, do you have a sense of your audience for this poem that may be different than the more general audiences for some other poems in the book?
BK: As for what Stanley Fish says, I think a poet has to be aware of what effects words have. I think of Joan Retallack’s book How to Do Things with Words, whose title is of course a pointed, conscious replication of the title of J. L. Austin’s powerful philosophical treatise, and Retallack’s poetry has, in my reading of it, a philosophical substrate. Poems can be a number of things. Your poems are funny but they can also be deeply serious, and they invite a reader’s contemplation of what words can possibly do, can be. So poems do things and the poet had better know what the poem might do, and what I try to make sure of is that the ambiguities in my poem all gesture toward some common unspoken truth, that there is a consonance in the poem. I don’t mean that the poet has to be responsible for the reading of the poem by some insane person who foists onto the poem some willy-nilly interpretation that has no basis in the words, the phrases, the stanzas, and so on. The writing and reading of poetry have to exist beyond the pale of demagogic activity.
I suppose irony can be read into my homage to Mac Low and I can see how, if there is in me an ambivalence toward his work, then it may come through in my poem, can manifest in statements considered to be ironic. I certainly wanted innuendo in the poem (his poems invite this, I believe), yet I was not kidding around or wanting to put down Mac Low’s poetry in the lines of mine you quote.
Now, I suppose on the surface his poems and mine are very different, and your seeing this may have instigated your set of questions here. But I have to say, first of all, that I look for language that is playful, and that can teach me something, when I read poetry. If I read Frost’s work I say to myself, “there is some great poetry.” But frankly his poetry doesn’t help me to write poetry; I’m not learning anything new in it. In a way it is boring, while Mac Low’s need not be, and more recently, for example, certain Flarf poems are like this for me. Mac Low’s poetry can suggest directions for me to explore; it is teaching me something. His poetry — as is true for your work though I see your poems as working out of different presumptions and methodology — pushes at the boundaries of language; maybe a clumsy analogy for what I am trying to say here is a particle accelerator: there is a crash at high speed and new elements are discovered.
Anyway, I have to say that I see his and my poetry as not at all unlike! Gertrude Stein’s work (which I did not read when I was younger) foregrounds the particleness of language, of words, and I think the Language folks’ fundamental move has been to exploit this powerful insight (and that’s in part why they have heroicized Oppen along with Stein — I don’t at all mean to suggest that we should read Mac Low within the context of the Language project, though I do think reading his work in the light of Oppen’s makes good sense). The aleatory for Mac Low allowed him to foreground words in and of themselves. Do we see, do we take in, individual words more vividly and/or deeply when the syntax they might reside within is more difficult or even impossible?
While Armand Schwerner’s The Tablets was in no way aleatory (it also makes sense to me to be reading Schwerner’s work in the light of Oppen’s), it too, coming at the problem from another direction, possibly the other direction, also held up words as things, and in the case of The Tablets as things of visual beauty maybe even if divorced from semantics. Emile Benveniste said that the basis of subjectivity lay in the exercise of language. Is there a subjectivity in Mac Low’s poems? Is there one in mine? I may be wrong but I think that I share with Mac Low an attention to words as things.
Now maybe my poetry doesn’t live up to my theorizing, doesn’t comport with it, but I aspire to that ideal and like to think that it explains most authentically what I am doing when I’m making a poem. Maybe Mac Low said the same thing. I also lean toward the validity of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which says that we need language to think. And one would want to make more possibilities of language, of statement, etc.
The implicit understanding in Mac Low’s work and that in mine too is, I would argue, that poems are machines of words (to echo Williams echoing Mallarmé). He and I are both interested in the particles of language, in their ontology and beauty in and for themselves. I often read, enjoy, admire the work of poets who do things with words I cannot possibly even hope to do (you, Mac Low, Retallack, Bruce Andrews, many others). I am built such as I am. I write like I have to write. But down deep I see a similar understanding of what language is and what it might do, and of poetry’s potential, similar to what Mac Low possessed, arguably.
So, to loop back to answering you directly, I can say that my poem honoring Mac Low is both homage and critique (in the sense of this latter term as having to do with analytical reading).
Yet my poem — and I think he would have understood and approved of this — is really about the persona who takes a trip to the Mac Low memorial and then returns home and writes about the trip as he is thinking about, as he is informed by, the dead poet’s passing and what he has left behind; and the persona, and I hope there is just the slightest hint of this in my poem, is changed by this journey. I’d like to think, moreover, that my poem ends sort of without ending, as his poems could do (no easy feat, necessarily). Is my poem “about to happen” just when it is ending? I hope so.
Not only do I see the poetry of Mac Low as in agreement with my own — in its implicit celebration, and its intention to make full use, of the particles of language (very Objectivist in its frame of mind?) — but I also see his work as being in agreement with the work of someone like Bronk (as well as Oppen, Niedecker, Corman, Creeley and others — of course, obviously with someone like Cage, but in a different way, not necessarily having to do with the words as things per se). My poem on Mac Low, however, exploits the theme of serendipity, and maybe that was being too cute — that is, addressing a poetics that incorporated chance operations.
TF: Your elucidation of the common ground between your poetry and that of Mac Low is instructive. And I don’t think that serendipity is too cute as a theme; it works in the poem.
I would like to return to your essay on Oppen and Heidegger in order for us to think further about its implications for your poetics in As If Free. In Oppen and Heidegger, you find engagement with “the depth of the world’s authenticity, and beauty — which take the form of a tension between concealment and disclosure,” and the task is not an explanation of experience, but “what Heidegger calls gelassenheit or releasement…,” a condition involving, as the German philosopher puts it, “Releasement toward things and openness to the mystery [which] belong together.” (Discourse on Thinking 55; in Kimmelman “George Oppen and Martin Heidegger: The Philosophy and Poetry of Gelassenheit, and the Language of Faith” par. 11). These passages I’ve quoted might be a very fine gloss on a poem like “Reading Barbara Henning’s Poems,” the first and last parts of which read as follows.
I think of the possibilities, the
worlds we move through, of what can happen in
the heat of a summer day or the chill
of an autumn night whose bare stars cover
the hills outside Santa Fe…
[…] Everywhere, in
the daylight, people go through their routines —
as if we can live our lives without
poems — but at night they haunt us, we who
dream when awake, we who dream when asleep,
they having come from the desert beyond
the city to settle in for some time.
I also “think of the possibilities” of the unconscious, especially in phrases like “at night they [poems, etc.] haunt us” and “we who dream when asleep.” Does the unconscious disclose what people are too busy to notice during the day, or, given the operations of condensation, displacement, etc. further conceal or muddle “the world’s authenticity?” To what extent do you think your construct of Oppen and Heidegger’s modus operandi illuminates “Reading Barbara Henning’s Poems” and similar texts in this book? And what, if anything, does such philosophy/poetics not account for in your sense of what is going on in such poems?
BK: Let me begin to answer you here by reminding you of the oft quoted lines that make up a part of Williams’ monumental poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”:
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
I wasn’t thinking of this poem when I was composing “Reading Barbara Henning’s Poems” but it does serve as a nice rejoinder, don’t you think? But let me get to the issue of psychoanalysis versus philosophy.
Aside from what Heidegger or Oppen might have understood in the way of, say, Phenomenology (perhaps it is appropriate to recall here that Oppen chose as an epigraph for his collection This In Which a pungent phrase from Heidegger’s book Introduction to Metaphysics, “the arduous path of appearance”) I might state that I “notice,” as you say, things in my waking life and they often become the matter of my poems (and I’m not sure either Oppen or Heidegger would agree in this with me); and I notice what I do because I have slowed down enough to look. But I do feel that dreams can seem more real than waking life, and I have often felt that art is central to the human condition but that without dreams there would be no art and no reason for art, for poetry.
Am I avoiding your question? Well, I don’t know of any foray into psychology on the part of either Oppen or Heidegger, yet what these two guys were interested in was something more essential (I fear I’ll come off as being trite here), something universal in all our lives (if we ever were to pause to think about it), that is, the human condition; so I’m hesitant to talk in that way, to talk of “condensation” or “displacement” or whatever, though what you say about the unconscious etc. makes perfect sense to me.
At the risk of straying too far afield from what I sense is the thrust of your set of questions, I have to say that I believe philosophy to be a certain kind of talk (Western philosophy being a particular conversation), and both Oppen and Heidegger engaged in that talk (that conversation). Furthermore, as I say in the essay you refer to, Heidegger was a poet and Oppen had a philosophical bent — that is, he was interested eventually in using words in ways that had philosophical importance for him and most of all he understood that, as Heidegger wrote about philosophy, there was possible for them the experience of a fundamental astonishment that the world existed (see Heidegger’s plain-spoken and unequivocal book What Is Philosophy?).
The idea of “disclosure” was (I will inevitably sound hackneyed here) critical in order to allow the fullness of Being to exist. In my poem about Barbara Henning’s poems, for which I enjoyed using imagery and evocations from her work, I meant to talk about “possibilities,” an awareness, and I guess I meant to suggest that poets — that poetry, like all art — make the possible possible (yes I know this is doubletalk). The matter for poetry comes from the lived life, and, now that you press me on this, I mean not merely the waking life (i.e., the life that you might say is blocked from seeing the truth — I say this at the risk of trivializing what you are getting at — the life of the unconscious, that well-spring that keeps our poetry alive, that makes our poetry, and thus art allowing us an entrance into our dreams, or I should say back into our dreams, so that we might in some sense, not necessarily in a logical way, understand them or better yet experience the fullness of being alive in and through them, or at least so that we might be able to live with them fruitfully).
As for whether or not either Oppen’s or Heidegger’s writings inform my poems in As If Free — well, yes, I mean, I’ve been reading both Oppen and Heidegger for a long time and have internalized their thinking and more importantly their respective language and aesthetic. I won’t repeat what I said earlier about tautology except to say that both Oppen and Heidegger helped to legitimate it for me. “The thing things,” Heidegger says in his late essay “The Thing” (I won’t take the time here to try to explain what Heidegger means by a thing); at the crescendo of the essay he says: “The thing things. In thinging, it stays earth and sky, divinities and mortals. […] As we preserve the thing qua thing we inhabit nearness.”
I mentioned before that in his well known poem “Psalm” the Oppen persona exclaims (in astonishment), seeing deer foraging in a forest: “That they are there!” I should like to think that the poems in As If Free exude a sense of clarity (to use a favored word of Oppen’s) within a world (to use a favored word of both Oppen and Heidegger, as well as Bronk).
I’d like to think that something like astonishment, tautology, operates in my poems. I’d like to think that each of these people contributed to my ability to see, and, moreover, that my language wants to call attention to the perception a human being might be capable of (maybe here is an implicit diatribe running through the collection, one that supports it as a collection), and to my engagement of, à la Oppen, the world. In “To Memory” Oppen writes: “Words, there are words! / But with your eyes / We see. And so we possess the earth.”
TF: And this is a good juncture to explore the notion of the being and potential of “words” through a discussion of “After Robert Creeley,” which begins with an epigraph from a poem of his indicating that the communication of “words” is intended to include “worlds,” although the “as if” tends to deny this possibility of genuine representative agency: ”what // can I say to / you — words, words / as if all / worlds were there” (51). Acknowledging the disjunction between a sense of permanence and the world’s “things,” your poem, whose tercets feature three-syllable lines and Creeleyan enjambment and diction, posits “the embrace” as a primary compensation and the “love” of “words” as another, mentioned second:
is all there
is — what can
be said, all
the things of
this world, are
And yet there
are words, words,
which we love. [Etc.]
Then, to illustrate both “the embrace” and the effect of language, you refer to Creeley’s poem “I,” which mentions that Dr. Oscar Creeley died when the poet was four and declares that he “gave all / to something like/ the word ‘adjoined,’ ‘extended…” (Words [New York: Scribner’s, 1967], 34). Your paraphrase is: “there were words/ between you” (52). This can either signify discord — unlikely, considering that the father did not live to see his son’s fifth birthday — or indicate language as attempted reparation for a separation that cannot be bridged by physical embrace. Creeley reads his father as sacrificing his life for a word or words that represent the affiliation and filiation of a family. Let me stop here so that you can discuss your own intentions regarding statement and allusion to “I” in this first part of the poem.
BK: Uh oh. I should have known that sooner or later some astute over-achiever critic would do his or her homework and thus would totally undermine and misread my poem (actually, you are reading it just fine and, though I was not alluding to Creeley’s poem “I” and am blushing because I overlooked it, you are reading the poem nicely, in the spirit it was intended, and relying on a book I responded to, Creeley’s Words, and you “get” what the poem is talking about, pretty much). Okay, let me set the record straight (and, once again, I am growing fearful in hindsight of having been too cute for my own good).
Let me first set everything up, however, by suggesting that you are getting ahead of yourself when you posit “the disjunction between a sense of permanence and the world’s ‘things’,” though I might subscribe to this notion and consider that it obtains to this poem; still, I think there can be “agency” even in an impermanent world or condition.
I’ll start, just to backfill a little for us both (and to pat myself on the back), by noting that my poem is in three-syllable lines and the Creeley epigraph (as well as the entire poem it comes from — “A Token” — is also, predominantly, in three syllable lines. I’ll also stipulate that writing three-syllable lines is no easy feat! I challenge you to try it sometime, and urge readers to check out Samuel Menashe’s amazing verse, some of which is in the three syllable line.
Second, I meant to allude to — rather than the poem you’ve cited — two of Creeley’s famous poems (you’ll agree that his poem “I” is a lesser-known work): “For W.C.W.” and “I Know a Man.” The remark in my poem about the doctor father was meant to point to Williams who of course was a doctor and was also a “father poet” in the Bloomian sense and simply as a model and mentor.
(I think of the possibly apocryphal gossip holding that Williams was stingy when it came to younger poets, in being supportive in print or otherwise, and that Creeley wanted to make up for this, and he was always generous toward me — as well as to other younger poets — for which I’ll always be grateful, and I hope I replicate that generosity toward others.)
So how does “I Know a Man” come into play (a game-changing poem written at the middle of the twentieth century, following upon Modernism, maybe even more so than Ginsberg’s “Howl”)? I write about the “father poet” whose “name was not / the point”; in doing so I’m wanting to echo these lines (from “I Know a Man”):
As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking, — John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, [etc.].
The more important reference in my poem is to the other great Creeley poem I’ve mentioned, “For W.C.W.” (another paradigm-shifter, perhaps, though it reminds us of how the father poet created the necessary conditions in which Creeley thrived, and which he wants to address in this work):
The rhyme is after
all the repeated
There, you say, and
there, and there,
and and becomes
just so. And
what one wants, is
what one wants,
let it go.
I want —
Then there is —
Allow me to return to the question of words as things, and of agency. Are words — never mind things (except that a word might be a thing) — permanent? When words fail, when the mind begins to fail, might physical touch still linger? I was thinking of how people live and find meaning in their lives.
My poem began when I was leaving my profoundly senile, aphasic step-mother after taking her out for lunch. I hugged her goodbye and felt her body respond and I knew that there was something meaningful for her in that embrace. Her memory was gone, her language was gone, but there was still the human embrace. The words, the lilting prose (I say immodestly), “the embrace is all there is” flooded my mind and when I sat down on the subway train I jotted the line down. Eventually she disappeared from the poem, which went through a great many drafts before it was done.
Yet I don’t think I ended up with some kind of scholarly intellectualization about the poetry of the Pound-Williams-H.D. tradition (as it is often referred to) or a scholarly dissertation on the nature of language and meaning (which might take into account earlier Western notions of language as possessing agency, as being, let’s say, thingly, and so on — such as was held by the late-Empire/early-medieval Stoics and subsequently repudiated by the later-medieval Nominalists, especially William Ockham.
But again, as I’ve suggested earlier, for a poet like Williams or Creeley, and for other poets I’ve cited already, words in and of themselves had integrity, and there is a sense in their respective work that the work is about the words rather any anything else such as, for instance, them, the poets; beyond this, there was seen to be a parity among not only nouns and verbs but also prepositions and articles and the like (Corman’s collected poems are titled Of, George and Mary Oppen started TO press and George published a book titled This In Which, Zukofsky titles his epic poem “A”, writes a poem titled “Poem Beginning ‘The’” and titles a book of essays Prepositions, Creeley titles a book of his Words, Williams revolutionizes poetry with poems like “The Red Wheelbarrow” in which a preposition, “upon,” sits on a line by itself and acts as the discourse’s pivot). “All the little words I love,” Oppen comments in an interview. And so on. In any case, I believe that words do things (to echo Retallack echoing Austin) and in that there is agency.
In a poem every word should count, should pull an equal weight (to borrow from Olson in his essay “Projective Verse” where he says that the poem must be “a high energy construct” of equal intensity “at all points”). But also what I’m talking about — the Language poets (and others) saw this in Stein — is that every word is important but more than this that the little words can be where what is important is truly happening.
I think of the story of the famous painter, whose name escapes me now, who tells Mallarmé that he has a poem in mind he’d like to write, if only he could find the words. Mallarmé replies, “but what else is a poem but words?” A poem is its words, and more deeply is language, and language is what makes us fully human. In this sense the world can exist in the words since we need them to know of our engagement of that world — not in any sort of self-surveillant way but instead as a stable entity over and against us, one that provides resonance for us. The “examined life” perchance?
TF: Okay, Doctor Williams is the spiritual or literary dad; I stand illuminated. And I see how one can read your line about “words between” them as a reference to Williams’ generosity in speech and lack of generosity in (blurb or preface) writing, as well as his lesson to Creeley about using the little words, which you “celebrate” (52) at the very end of your Creeley poem. The connection between Williams’ and Creeley’s enjambment in foregrounding both the last word of one line and the first of the next also impinges on the “between” and the emphasis on prepositions, articles, etc.
Degas said he had an idea for a poem, and Mallarmé cautioned him that poems are made of words, not ideas. Or perhaps in your aesthetic, the integrity of words precedes whatever ideas emerge as you write the poem.
Since your first book of poems, Musaics, ekphrastic poetry has been important to you. Among the ekphrastic poems in As If Free, I have several favorites, two of which I’ll discuss with you. “Richard Poussette-Dart’s Night Landscape” refers directly to the New York painter’s “thousand points of light,” to borrow a phrase from a former President, and indicates a wonderfully impossible visual unification of the cosmos:
The stars and other detritus
of the vast explosion of space
appear all at once and seek out
that secret, still spot within us,
and stir us there […]
First, since we’ve been referring to the word-ness of words preceding ideas, I like how “seek out” and “secret” sound so much alike, and in fact, the “s” and “t” beginning and ending the verb/preposition combo and the noun (object of the verb) reappear as neighbors in “still” and “stir.” But perhaps this passage is also a meta-commentary on ekphrasis as a process of “seeking” “that secret” in a painting or sculpture, something that in fact, may not exist outside of the constructive subjectivity of the viewer. This adventure is like the quest for “the truth in painting” described in Derrida’s encounter with Heidegger and Meyer Schapiro regarding Van Gogh’s “Shoes.” Or it may be a mirror of the viewer’s desire, as suggested by the poem’s ending:
slips into sleep and dreams of a
lost star, a forgotten life quite
unlike what the daylight reveals
yet somehow very much the same.
To what degree do you find my characterization of this poem as meta-ekphrastic accurate? What else might be at stake here?
BK: Well, I find it difficult to be content with the notion that a painter “seeks” anything, certainly not consciously, such as an idea or theme when he or she paints (of course you are the painter, a painter as well as a poet and critic, while I am merely an admirer of paintings and painters, somewhat like Hopkins’ persona in “The Windhover”: “My heart in hiding / Stirred for a bird, — the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”).
I may be caught in the web of a silly Romantic idea about visual art but nonetheless I choose to think that, fundamentally, a painter is interested in the tactility and visuality of the paint per se (and, to answer your earlier question, I guess I would err on the side of words’ integrity rather than any idea or ideas that might emerge from them, if I have to choose, and a poet who is not aware of her or his words, like a painter unaware of the primalness of the medium with and in which to paint, won’t produce much of anything worth our attention).
I don’t think, now that I’m being asked to in this way, of my ekphrastic poems as meta-ekphrastic, though I suppose they could prompt this perspective; it’s just, however, that some art critics and/or art scholars are interested in analysis as the central activity of their writing. I’m not convinced that this is necessarily a bad thing, but I do really enjoy the personal engagement of, say, a painting by a critic. In any case, I guess I think of my ekphrastic poems as first and foremost documents of a personal encounter with a painting or artist or milieu in which certain art works are being seen. The art works are occasions, in part.
Now, as I think about Heidegger’s essay “The Origin of the Work of Art” — which prompts the concatenating brouhaha involving first Schapiro and then Derrida — I have to say that the essay, not unlike Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” brings home to me the importance of facticity. Were the shoes really the shoes of a peasant (the question Schapiro and Derrida worry over, given the thrust of Heidegger’s argument that is too much to go into here)? Likewise, is an ancient temple (either Heidegger or Benjamin would ask), still truthful once it is removed from its original location and displayed in a museum?
When I set eyes on Poussette-Dart’s painting hanging in the Guggenheim in NYC, I was blown away, overwhelmed by the painting’s beauty and powerful vision as effected by the sheer painterliness of the painting (this is a great example since the paint is really laid on thick!). Hey, painters and paintings don’t make sense but they can be transforming. As to your question of mirroring — yes I do think that a work of art or of poetry or of music etc. can serve as a mirror for someone who engages it, though I don’t think that is why it should exist and an artist or poet who works with the intent of mirroring something for someone will have problems making the work work, so to speak.
You also ask what else might be at stake here. I’m not sure but maybe what else is at stake is the notion that a work of art or a poem or whatever provides a kind of objective correlative (to twist Eliot’s phrase into something I don’t believe he was thinking of) through which a conversation between two human beings can take place, in which their aspirations, fears and so on can manifest.
TF: The seven-syllable couplets of “Variation of Green, Ellsworth Kelly at the Met, New York City, 16 March 2006” fascinate me, because the poem performs ekphrasis on the work of a minimalist master. That is not an easy task. Sometimes it seems that you are praising a sense of “purity” beyond worldliness, at least as a concept, yet you also seem to challenge the “purity” of the attempt to realize minimalist theory:
Yet there is a purer form,
a sure possibility,
the simple color, at once
dependable and filled with
our dearest ghosts, whose fable
of the unknown beckons — the
shock of red or gradations
of green in which the world, a
world beyond green, has never
been known — for what is there to
know? What is there is just there […]
In the phrase “sure possibility,” not quite an oxymoron, the two terms may be at war. “Possibility” is not “sure,” and “purer form” may want to exclude the present absences of “ghosts” and the “dearest” emotions that attend them yet cannot. We viewers read meaning into color, but, in the last couplet, aren’t you entertaining an epistemology that turns against its own quest? Do you really accept green’s present without trying to acquire additional knowledge or are you positing this as minimalist theory, which cannot hold up? Where does the poet Kimmelman stand on this, or are you just allowing differing views to compete without your acting as judge?
BK: Let’s first understand that ekphrasis need not be, in my mind, only analysis of a work of art. I like to think of my ekphrastic poems as responses to an artwork or collection of artworks or to a place in which people are enjoying art or simply as marking occasions that, even if only peripherally or tangentially, are inflected by art somehow. But my poem on Kelly’s work is more than just occasional and marks, I hope, my engagement of his work but particularly his Variation of Green series of paintings, which I, nevertheless, encountered by chance, on occasion, and was transformed by.
The poem grew out of a trip I made to the Met to see, principally, a show of landscape drawings, etchings and paintings by the British artist Samuel Palmer (1805–1881), though I was taking the day off and so I simply wanted to stroll around in the Met anyway. But what happened was that, as striking and beautiful as Palmer’s representational images were, and as wonderfully detailed as they were, when I exited the gallery they were arranged in I entered a gallery of very, very different artwork, and, Shazzam!, there was Kelly’series of green abstracts (along with a few other pieces of his — hence the mention of red in my poem — and works by other artists too).
As I entered the gallery I looked down the line of green canvases, each a slight gradation, and of course they were arranged so that the eye and then the body would travel along them. Were these abstracts any less landscapes than Palmer’s images? Obviously in a way they were — but, spiritually (if I’m borrowing correctly from Kandinsky), they were the same.
More than this, though, the green was an unequivocal fact and statement, and I both knew that fact and was, not puzzled by it or anything like that, simply, arrested by it, as if I was basically but powerfully caught up in a purely sensory, not necessarily intellectual, experience — and this experience had for me, let’s say, an ontological fullness, and a validity, and I was moved. The epigraph for my poem comes from Bronk whose work is profoundly skeptical and probing epistemologically and questions one’s awareness of life as being truly real (thus he writes a book like The World, the Worldless — which, though not his first book, came out from New Directions, with Oppen’s help, and drew a wider audience than merely the poets of the Origin and Black Mountain Review magazines and Objectivist circles).
So I had an insight, let’s call it, experiencing Kelly, as regards the limits of knowledge and power of visual art that might in a certain sense transcend knowledge that might be articulated with words. I was also happy to be back in my own time, in that gallery where Kelly’s paintings were being exhibited — the British nineteenth century is wonderful but once I entered the new gallery I realized I had been oxygen-deprived.
At this moment I am thinking that a particular Bronk poem, not the one that furnished the epigraph for my poem on Kelly, was an important precursor; titled “The Annihilation of Matter.” The poem goes like this:
The light at least was not to be dismissed:
a hunked-up moon rode a starred sky.
Those objects — what were those objects? Some trivial trees.
Something. Never mind. It was the light
that mattered, as earlier — that afternoon —
the wash of sun crossing the same place;
but it was not the same in a different light.
Would it be otherwise in a real world?
Who could answer. Here, it was always the light
that mattered, and only the light. Once, it had seemed
the objects mattered: the light was to see them by.
Examined, they yielded nothing, nothing real.
They were for seeing the light in various ways.
They gathered it, released it, held it in.
In them, the light revealed itself, took shape.
Objects are nothing. There is only the light, the light!
Well, anyway, is there a possibility of a purer form, à la Plato or perhaps Bronk, or Kelly? This series of Kelly’s paintings made me think as I have, especially since spending some time with Palmer’s very detailed, rich, haunting images — or better to say that the images implied for me the notion that nature haunts us.
TF: Are there any other aspects of your poetics that we haven’t covered?
BK: I don’t know what more to add, except to say that, speaking of form, I want never to lose sight of the fact that a poem or song or painting etc. is always first and foremost a form and if we happen to care about getting close to its author then we need to imagine what that person was doing in creating that artifact. That is the basis for a useful conversation.
And I thank you immensely for seeking me out to have our present conversation, between us two, and I look forward to more sumptuous talk between us.
TF: Thank you, Burt. This has been pleasurable and edifying.
Thomas Finkis the author of A Different Sense of Power: Problems of Community in Late-Twentieth-Century U.S. Poetry (Fairleigh Dickinson UP) and co-editor of a recent collection of essays on David Shapiro. Marsh Hawk Press published his fifth book of poetry, Clarity and Other Poems, in 2008. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s). Fink’s paintings hang in various collections.