An Interview with John Koethe
Southwest Review, Volume 92, Number I
Nearly a decade ago, a Romanticist scholar familiar with my taste for the ruminative sublime handed me a poem entitled "Dorothy Wordsworth." I was struck by its plainspoken, vulnerable, and inviting approach to vague intuitions about selfhood.Phrases like "I don't really know how to say" and "I feel lost" and "it terrifies me" brought home to me how seldom one hears such humble first-person acknowledgments in sophisticated poetry these days, and an apparently secular reference to "the soul" made me feel yet more poignantly a poverty of our poetic climate. Sure, there are writers of "big poetry" who skirmish with the soul as others deconstruct the lyric "I." But John Koethe's phrases arose within a context devoid of both bombast and confessionalism; instead, the poem was suffused with a calm curiosity that seemed to know it wouldn't get anywhere faster by being overeager. Like the late Wallace Stevens of "As You Leave the Room," Koethe tends to think and feel his way back through past encounters, old belief systems, former desires, favorite facts, somewhat awed by the distance of his current sense of being from what, if memory serves, it once was and by the continuity of self that nevertheless persists. Like the "ordinary room" he asks us to imagine in his languorously moving long poem "Falling Water," his poetry avails "a solitary space in which the soul can breathe / And where the heart can staynot by discovering it, / But by creating it, by giving it a self-sustaining / Atmosphere of depth, both in the architecture, / And in the unconstructed life that it contains."
Koethe's poetic oeuvre comprises Blue Vents (1968), Domes (1973, winner of the Frank O'Hara Award), The Late Wisconsin Spring (1984), Falling Water (1997, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award), The Constructor (1999), North Point North: New and Selected Poems (2002), and most recently Sally's Hair (2006). But one must specify "poetic oeuvre" because Koethe is also the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee's Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, in which field he has published The Continuity of Wittgenstein's Thought (1996) and Scepticism, Knowledge, and Forms of Reasoning (2006). A collection of critical essays, Poetry at One Remove (2000), draws upon, and importantly draws together, his two areas of expertise to provide three of the most illuminating commentaries one will find on John Ashbery's poetic project; considerations of romanticism, realism, and subjectivity; and an analysis of the tensions between poetry and poststructuralist theory. Honored in 2000 as the first Poet Laureate of Milwaukee, Koethe recently received a lifetime achievement award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers and was a Fellow of the American Academy in Berlin in 2005.
This interview was conducted over several years first in person the morning after Koethe gave a reading at Miami University of Ohio, later by written correspondence.
Q: First things first: a question about the pronunciation of your last name. At what point did your family begin to rhyme it with eighty instead of Goethe?
JK: I don't know when or how the pronunciation "katy" set in, though I suspect it occurred when my ancestors on my father's side, who came to the U.S. from Salzburg as draft-dodgers in the mid-nineteenth century, moved from Pennsylvania, where they'd originally settled, to Texas, in a vain attempt to raise sheep. Since no one knows how to pronounce it, I answer to almost anything. Sometimes this can be confusing. The high point of my high school career was when I won the San Diego Science Fair Sweepstakes in 1961. I was standing on the stage with the other first-place winners waiting for the announcement, which I couldn't understand. I asked the guy next to me who it was. "Some guy named John something," he said.
Q: You grew up in San Diego?
JK: Yes. I was born there in 1945. My father was in the Navy and my mother was a schoolteacher. He'd been a concert violinist before the Second World War, so there was a kind of musical orientation in the house.
Q: Did you play a musical instrument?
JK: I had to take piano lessons, which I had little talent for and hated for about seven years. My main interests in high school were math and physics, and when finally I started winning a lot of science and math prizes, my parents saw the light and let me give up piano. Throughout high school, I was convinced that I was going to be a theoretical physicist. I did read a lot of modernist fiction as a sideline, however, and I even did a little imitative stream-of-consciousness writing, some of which was published in the city high school literary magazine.
Q: Are you thinking of Joyce and Woolf?
JK: Joyce and Woolf and Faulkner those three, principally. But I read other modern fiction, too Hemingway, for example. And I had an enthusiasm for Sinclair Lewis, which in retrospect seems puzzling, but I liked him very much at the time. Fitzgerald is still one of my favorite writers. When I got to college, I stuck with math and physics for a year, but then I found that I was really more interested in philosophy, much to my surprise. In my sophomore year, I took a course in contemporary literature from Carlos Baker. I'd never read any contemporary poetry in high school; it was all fiction. So this was the first time I'd read Eliot, Pound, Yeats, and Frost.
Q: Did you have a favorite among those four?
JK: We read Yeats and Frost first, so they were my initial enthusiasms. (The first poem I tried to write was an imitation of Frost.) But it was Pound and then Eliot who really bowled me over, and the latter still does, as do a few poems of Pound's, mostly ones from Cathay.
Q: But already you'd been exposed to philosophy?
JK: Yes; I started taking that my freshman year. And I read a lot of it on my own, some in high school. The things that interested me in physics turned out to have had more to do with philosophy than with physics in some ways.
Q: Quantum mechanics?
JK: Yes, and relativity.
Q: This comes up in North Point North's "Strangeness," a short poem with several overt Stevensian references. Dedicated to Mark Strand and initially published in The New Yorker, it ends: "Strangeness lay in ordinary moments // Placed against a background / Is there another word for 'eternity'? / Of the impersonal: curved space / Foaming with brief particles // As you leave the room." Strangeness is an attribute of certain subatomic particles.
JK: That's right; that's what the title refers to. And the "curved space" is relativity and "Foaming with brief particles" refers to quantum foam, a quantum-mechanical phenomenon. Spontaneous creation is allowed so long as the particles don't hang around. But that was really just a poem I dashed off after a dinner with Mark. He was saying that physics wasn't interesting to poets. So I said, "Yes it is," and just kind of jotted this down. Oddly enough, it's the only poem I've ever published in The New Yorker. Alice Quinn professes to love my work, yet each time she sends it back, saying, "Oh this is great but not for The New Yorker. Remember: Wallace Stevens was never published in The New Yorker."
Anyway, to return to biography: I took this course from Carlos Baker Hemingway's biographer and that was the first time I'd read the high moderns and I was just bowled over by them. I decided I wanted to try to do that, too, whatever it was. So I switched from physics to philosophy and started writing poetry and quit running track and started smoking and had a complete change of life.
Q: [Quoting "Sally's Hair" in a faux remonstrative tone] "Are you a hedonist?"
JK: Oh, yes. [Laughter] Well, that was actually from my junior year. Yes, that woman actually said that to me.
There were a number of very good undergraduate poets at Princeton who while they majored in English unlike me were quite anti-academic and distrusted the English Department. R. P. Blackmur was very supportive. Unfortunately, he died just as I was starting to write, so I never got to meet him. But he had supported the undergraduate poets who were serious about it. And we were also, of course, close to New York. My first enthusiasms were for the Black Mountain poets Robert Duncan, in particular. I went through a Duncan phase. Then I discovered John Ashbery and then the other New York writers Frank O'Hara, in particular, and Kenneth Koch and I became a devotee of their work.
Q: I want to pick up on your comment about Duncan. In what may be his most frequently reprinted poem, "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," he writes of an architectural space of imagination. Given your interest in such matters, I wonder if that poem was important to you or whether you have a reaction to it now. Let me read the beginning. The title runs directly into the first line: "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow // as if it were a scene made-up by the mind, / that is not mine, but is a made place, // that is mine, it is so near to the heart, / an eternal pasture folded in all thought / so that there is a hall therein // that is a made place, created by light / wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall. // Wherefrom fall all architectures I am / I saw are likenesses of the First Beloved / whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady." Those lines provide more evidence of what in your essay "The Absence of a Noble Presence" you called Duncan's "discontinuous linguistic framework" than your explicitly architectural poems, I think, but do you recognize similarities?
JK: I don't remember exactly what I thought of Duncan's "Often I Am Permitted..." back then, though I love it now. The poem of his that I was most drawn to, and that had a great influence on me at the time, was "Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar." I had swallowed a lot of what Olson said about disjunctiveness, perception succeeding perception, breath, and so on (though I think I liked his manifesto better than his actual poetry), and Duncan seemed to combine these with a grand Romantic sweep I was instinctively drawn to.
"Often I Am Permitted..." is too Stevensian a poem for me to have liked much then, since I didn't really come to love Stevens until much later, when I was in graduate school. I was in thrall originally to an imagistic, "no ideas but in things" conception of poetry, which made me find Stevens annoying. Worse, the professor who first introduced me to Stevens, Walton Litz, portrayed him as a grandly systematic philosophical poet, with an intricate symbolic system. This was anathema to me, all the more so since I was a philosophy major. I don't think I really started to get him until I read Helen Vendler's book on his long poems [On Extended Wings (1969)] and began to see him as a poet of sublimated desire, trying on and discarding one idea after another. Of course by then I was steeped in Ashbery's work, which was important, too.
What first drew me to Ashbery was that the poems in The Tennis Court Oath seemed even more disjunctive and of a "perception following perception" character than Duncan's, even if the "perceptions" themselves were often abstract or linguistic rather than sensual. But I guess that softened me up for the more discursive and syntactically continuous poetry of his succeeding books, until I finally wound up with a conception of poetry almost diametrically opposed to the one I started with, one in which Stevens was and remains central.
Q: And you discovered the New York School poets pretty much on your own, without the aid of some mentor-figure?
JK: Yes, except that I think I first heard of Ashbery from one of the other undergraduate poets, a writer named Lewis MacAdams, who's still around. I think he writes poetry, but he's involved in environmental activism, too. He came back from New York and said, "I've just heard John Ashbery read this amazing poem that's so long no one will ever read it." It must have been "The Skaters." Then I came across The Tennis Court Oath. It featured the kind of disjunctive qualities I liked in a lot of Black Mountain writing, but it seemed more romantic. It has an affective quality that I responded to. And I got to know a lot of second-generation New York poets: Ted Berrigan and Peter Schjeldahl and, to some extent, Ron Padgett.
Q: The Peter Schjeldahl who is now the art reviewer for The New Yorker?
JK: Yes, he's very good at that and he was a wonderful poet. He may still be. I don't know if he's still writing; I haven't seen him for quite a while. He was probably the person I knew best, and I knew other people through him. I got to know Ashbery when I was a junior, and he then also introduced me to poets and writers in New York. So I gravitated toward that scene. And then I went to graduate school in philosophy at Harvard, though I found Boston an uncongenial place. It's very insular. I still felt more at home in New York.
But I started gravitating away from the New York School way of writing some time early in graduate school. I felt it was becoming a bit of a dead end, that I was repeating myself. I remember reading an interview with W. H. Auden in which he said that he wrote six or seven poems a year, and I thought, Well, it'd be sort of interesting to write a poem where you just really worked at it for a long time, and bit by bit.
Q: You had been considerably more prolific?
JK: Yes, and I would write things at a sitting and then revise them. So I tried this different approach and wrote the title poem of my book Domes, which was very different from what I'd written before, and I was very pleased with it. I was also reading a lot of Hart Crane, which I think shows through a bit.
Q: Was he someone who had appealed to you among the American modernists?
JK: No. Probably he appeals to me least in some ways, though I'd read the Unterecker biography [Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane (1969)] and became fascinated with his life and found that I was able to respond to the poetry better as a result. The shorter poems, those in White Buildings like "Voyages" those are wonderful poems. I still have never been able to respond to The Bridge.
That's how I settled into the way I've continued to write, which is by accretion with lots of revisions. There are still a lot of elements of the New York School in my work, but starting with that poem I had the sense that that was what I was trying to do.
Q: It's interesting to hear you talk about writing by accretion because Ashbery often seems to want to mean by accretion. That doesn't necessarily reflect how he's writing, though there's that passage in "The Skaters" in which he likens what he's doing to the form of falling snow. You, too, are in no hurry; you don't need to get at the pith immediately. I don't even know if you intend, as you go into a poem, to say something particular; you may be always working by accretion... towards....
JK: Well, that's absolutely right. I don't start a poem with an idea of what I'm going to say in it. I may have a few little words and phrases and mini-ideas, but basically what I start with is a sense of the poem's architecture, which is more general than its form: how long is it going to be roughly, what are the lines going to be like, what kinds of cadences are going to be in it. Sometimes there are formal decisions; other times there aren't. I build up this abstract image of the poem in my mind. What is it going to look like on the page? Will it be dense or conversational? Once I have a sense of that, then I can start to write often just three or four lines a day and sort of fill that in. I often don't write consecutively.
Q: There's a sentence a hundred lines or so from the end of "Falling Water" in which you say, "I sit here [...] teasing out a tangled / Skein of years we wove together, and trying to / Combine the fragments of those years into a poem."
JK: That poem started out with about a half dozen or so little fragments that I'd accumulated, and I put them in a sort of order and then the problem was how to connect them up. I originally thought this would be a poem of about 150 lines, but as I tried to connect them up, it kept taking longer than I thought. So I was about a quarter of the way into the poem before I had a sense of what its focus was going to be. In that poem, the last lines were among those I had first.
I had just moved and was renovating. I have an interest in the furniture and architecture of the Arts & Crafts movement, and I'd just been to a lecture on architecture. The lecturer whose name I've forgotten quoted something from Freud that struck me. I thought, Well, I'll put that in. So from the onset I decided I was going to write a sort of autobiographical poem, which I don't usually do. At least, at that point I hadn't done a history of my marriage or whatever you want to call it. But to give it some kind of ground, the architectural motif of space and enclosure was going to float in and out, because otherwise I mean, who wants to read nothing but a narrative of someone's personal life? So that's the way the architectural motif figures in it.
Probably the most extreme example of nonconsecutive writing is the poem called "The Constructor," for which I had the image of a long, unbroken expanse. It's very dense on the page: no stanza breaks; the lines are fairly long. It's just like a big slab. But I started that poem with the last line and then wrote back to the first, and it was kind of exhilarating because you knew where you were, but you had no idea how you got there. So I had a sense of discovering the poem rather than creating it.
Q: Given the poem's title, I think of you constructing the poem on a vertical axis, as though you set down a sturdy foundation (the last lines) and then built upward from that, even though you knew that the poem would eventually be read from beginning to end.
JK: I wanted it to read as though written consecutively. It basically goes in movements it surges, then it withdraws, surges then withdraws. That's the flow. But the title doesn't allude to that. The idea for that poem came to me after I saw an exhibition at the Sackler Gallery at Harvard when I was there in 1987 of the Russian Constructivist El Lissitzky.
Q: I was there in 1987, too, but as an undergraduate. I was very uneasy because the art editor of The Harvard Advocate put one of El Lissitzky's pieces from that show on our cover without, I think, getting permission.
JK: That's interesting, because there was a piece in the show it was a self-portrait... no, sorry, not a self-portrait it was actually a manipulated photograph of Lenin. It was called "The Constructor," and I thought, That's a great title, and I think I'm finally going to write this long poem I have had in mind and call it that. That's how the title and the poem arose. And I use some of the motifs of that cover photograph, which floats in and out of the poem. I'm not sure that HarperCollins ever got permission. [Laughter] The Museum of Modern Art has the image, but they printed over it, and I'm told that the MoMA won't allow that, so I think they just went ahead and did it anyway. [More laughter] When I mentioned this, my editor said, "Well, don't worry; they're not going to sue you." I guess that was a fairly meandering autobiography.
Q: Yes, but why do you think you so often come back to notions of construction and "the unconstructed life"?
JK: I don't really believe social constructionist rhetoric, but it is something that one thinks of. Philosophically I'm a die-hard realist, so I'm not sympathetic to such movements, but the issues interest me. The other thing, though, is that I really do think of poems as forms. While I don't like conspicuously contentless poems, poems that call attention to language just as a thing in itself, I do think of poems as autonomous constructions, freestanding objects. That's probably a little holdover from an Objectivist phase I went through in college.
Q: Oppen and Zukofsky and others?
JK: Oppen, yes. Not Zukofsky; I've never liked Zukofsky. But Oppen, especially The Materials, very much. That's why it's important to me to have a sense of the architecture of the poem. And I guess what I mean by that is: what is the poem itself just considered as an object? And then I can worry later about the ideas and feelings and whatnot that can be used to construct that object. I need to start with the conception of the poem as a freestanding thing.
Q: What does it mean for you to identify yourself philosophically as "a die-hard realist"? I'm also interested in going back to what you saw as the climate of poetry at the time you were first identifying yourself as a poet.
JK: Let me take the realism question first because within philosophy, leaving poetry aside, there are varieties of realism, but it's basically the idea that the world has a character in and of itself which is quite independent of what we think of it or believe about it or the concepts that we use to describe it, and that our beliefs and our theories and assertions are made true or false by some independent reality. It's a kind of correspondence theory of truth. Just within philosophy I'm an adherent to that, though there are many philosophers who aren't, and certainly it's a complicated issue. I'm not a realist about everything, but following up on that would be getting into technical philosophy. I don't think there are facts about meanings; I don't think there are facts about certain kinds of narrow phenomena. So I'm not a realist about those. I'm basically a realist about physics and about the hard sciences.
About the climate of poetry: One of my first bibles was Donald Allen's The New American Poetry, and there really was a time when it made sense to talk about a division between academic poets and nonacademic poets. Now it makes no sense at all because all the nonacademic poets are in the academy. But then there really was a difference. And certainly people like Lowell and Berryman they were people I was always being urged to read by professors I'd come across. William Meredith taught at Princeton for a year and he was always trying to convince me that I should be reading John Berryman and put aside this Ashbery foolishness. And there were no creative writing programs except for Iowa, I guess. There certainly weren't any where I was at college.
I've always tried to respond to Lowell without much success. I think there's something about his temperament, his personality, that just puts me off. But I now like a lot of those figures. I think the first person I thought of as academic who I realized was actually a great poet was Elizabeth Bishop. And then: Randall Jarrell and so many other writers. But I also began to distrust anti-academicism when my friend Lewis MacAdams, who a year ahead of me had gone off to SUNY-Buffalo, which at that time was the center of anti-academic poetry...
Q: Was Creeley there then? Did it have the same ethos that it has now?
JK: Yes, but probably even more so then. Creeley was around. I don't know whether he'd taken his chair yet, but he was in Buffalo at the time. And it really was the English department. I almost went there. I was either going to go to Harvard and study philosophy or go to Buffalo and take philosophy though they didn't have a very good department and just hang around with the poets. But I remember that Lewis came back once, and we were talking about the poets people were interested in there, and I asked, "Well, what do they think of, say, Robert Lowell?" And he said, "He just doesn't exist." And I began to think: Well, this is just crazy. One may not like him, but here's the poet whom a lot of people consider the most important poet in America, and the idea that you just ignore him.... It struck me as perverse.
Q: You've argued that Language poets basically throw the baby of human enactment and the value of selfhood out with the bathwater.
JK: I think all those things are important, but one of the things I worry about with Language poetry is that a lot of those ideas have been around for a long time. And a lot of those were the ideas that fascinated me when I was beginning. There's something frustrating about having to take them at face value thirty-five years later. I continue to find them important, but I want there also to be room for an affective dimension. I'm very impatient with views of poetry that say you're not supposed to do something. My first impulse is to want to do what I'm not supposed to do. That's one of the things that bother me about Language poetry: it proscribes so many things. In a way, it's like that put-down about Lowell: "He just doesn't exist."
The other thing about Language poets as a group is that they're very aggressive, very power-hungry, and that puts me off. And also: a lot of them just aren't very good writers. I like Charles Bernstein as a poetic theorist a lot, and I like some of his poems, but the ones I like have a sort of romantic vein.
Q: Is your evaluation related to Language poetry's sometime apparent antipathy to sound? Ron Silliman opens his anthology In the American Tree by quoting Robert Grenier's announcement: "I HATE SPEECH." When I read that, I think: Oh he hates the sound of language; he hates orality.
JK: I don't know that he meant "sound" exactly. I share some of this antipathy. I think what Language poets mean by that is an antipathy toward the poetics of the authentic voice. That was what characterized a lot of the academic poetry of the '60s: the idea that poems were valuable to the extent that they embodied a kind of distinctive, authentic voice. That's why Lowell was so important.
Q: But that view also presumes that there's some prelinguistic thing that's getting expressed.
JK: It sort of implies that. But that picture behind the notion of voice you can give up that picture and yet still hold on to the idea that a poem has a distinctive sound to it.
When I said that a lot of Language poetry doesn't seem like very good writing I think it's an antipathy towards beauty. I like poems that are beautiful in just a traditional sense. I don't mean that beauty is supposed to be traditional, but it is something worth experiencing and finding.
Q: The Language poets would argue that beauty is a social construct. Would you respond that we tend to agree fairly dependably about what is beautiful and what is aggressively non-beautiful?
JK: Right. And also there is this move that is sometimes made: x is a social construct, therefore x isn't worth paying attention to as though, once it has been revealed to have a socially constructed dimension, that somehow exorcises it. I think that seems very silly. Language is a social construct; that doesn't mean we should stop using it for whatever purposes.
Q: Let's return to your poetry and, specifically, your sense of line. In several poems Falling Water's "The Secret Amplitude," for example, and the more recent long poem "The Unlasting" the prosody is strictly decasyllabic. Elsewhere you seem to be working with a loose pentameter. Still elsewhere, as in "The Interior of the Future," you further elongate the lines in a way reminiscent of late Stevens. How do you determine where a line ends and how has this changed?
JK: I used decasyllabics in those and some other poems (and other syllabics in the first section of Domes, for instance) to keep my tendency towards pentameter in check. And I like the constraints that syllabics provide. I do sometimes elongate the lines when a flowing rhythm sets in in "The Interior of the Future" as well as "Early Morning in Milwaukee" and the final two sections of "Mistral," for instance. I've changed a bit in my attitude towards line breaks. I used to use more enjambment and unnatural breaks (after a word like "the," for example), but more recently I've favored line breaks that coincide with natural breaks, with occasional exceptions.
Q: What about diction? I get the sense that your word choices are seldom motivated strongly by sound. You don't go in for the gorgeous or gaudy mouthfuls that some poets seek and savor.
JK: They are motivated to some extent by sound, but the sound I hear is an understated, almost deflationary one. I think that certain kinds of abstract, nonfigurative words feel quite wonderful in the mind's mouth, so to speak.
Q: Do you think that, beyond turning you into the author of a poem like "Strangeness," your background as a math-physics student has had much impact on your poetry?
JK: It probably has something to do with my temperamental affinity with philosophical realism, where one really thinks that what science is doing is discovering the truth about the world, which really is quite impersonal and has nothing to do with us. My poems oscillate between a personal perspective and a very impersonal sub specie aeternatatis view of the world. In fact, that's the impulse behind my poems: the interplay between those two perspectives.
One thing I probably inherit from my interest in physics is this affinity for realism, the idea that there is a vast impersonal world behind our lives that really has nothing to do with us. In fact, that even comes out rather explicitly in the Falling Water poem "Songs My Mother Taught Me," which invokes physics and the idea of personality.
Q: Whom do you imagine your reader to be?
JK: I don't actually know. I don't write for an audience. I think that's sort of death. I know there are a lot of people who don't like my work and think of it as very abstract, not concrete enough or celebratory enough of domestic and daily life. But I'm often surprised by people who do like and respond to it, though I don't think of them as I'm writing. I agree with Harold Bloom on almost everything, and I like to think of poetry as a sort of internal soliloquy. One is talking to one's ideal self. And I even try to incorporate one of these forbidden distinctive voices in it, though it's not a voice directed at another person. It's the way I think I sound when I'm talking silently to myself. I really don't write with a potential audience in mind. I'm satisfied with a poem if, when I'm finished fooling with it, I can sit down and read it and feel something like: Yes, that's it. That's all I care about.
Q: You mentioned last night over dinner that journal editors have sometimes requested "more showing, less telling." Do you think that's unfair?
JK: It's a cliché of the 1960s.
Q: And of poetry workshop classes. But showing and telling is also a dichotomy that comes up in Wittgenstein. The editors weren't winking at you?
JK: No, if they had Wittgenstein in mind, they wouldn't say things like that. [Laughter] I think that's a common attitude in poetry: that you're supposed to ground poems in something familiar and then take off from there, and they have a somewhat coherent narrative structure, and you avoid anything too discursive or too explicitly theoretical-sounding. But I think there's something very beautiful about the rhetoric of philosophy and of discursive, reasoned language generally. A lot of people think of philosophy as ponderous and obscure, but actually the opposite is true. What you strive for in philosophy is a certain kind of clarity, and sometimes you have to go around and around to get that clarity, but still, that's the goal. And that's what I try to do in poems. I like poems to be locally clear so that when you're reading them sentence by sentence you sort of think you understand what they're saying. But then I also like them to be globally obscure, so that the whole poem remains the kind of free-standing artifact I was talking about earlier. You don't really know what the whole poem means, but you can read any sentence of it and, in a conventional sense, it seems clear.
Q: That makes me think of "Man Carrying Thing." It's almost the opposite. In that poem, Stevens suggests that at the local level you're in a flurry and things are obscure, but as you wait it out the snowstorm settles into a concrete, conceivable whole. You have to endure the storm, and then you get the product.
JK: Right. And when he talks about the whole being clear there, that's what I mean when I say that the poem seems to emerge as a freestanding thing in itself. It doesn't have a representable content. I think that other poets enjoy writing with unclarity at the level of the sentence. I tried that when I was younger; some of the early poems do that. I found as I went along, however, that I didn't feel I was as good at that as some other poets. Ashbery can be mysterious or obscure within the scope of a sentence or a phrase in words that are really intriguing. I don't have that facility. Whenever I'm obscure or unclear at the local level, it always strikes me as forced.
Q: You have to feel that your reader knows, in a way related to Keatsian negative capability, that you are not trying to be clear and just failing at it, but that you think there is some value added by glancing the object of articulation, that you are trying to make a nest for the idea as opposed to pinning down the idea.
JK: I like the unit that I'm working in. I think this has to do with my accretional method of composition, writing a few lines a day and then fiddling with them. I like those little units of accretion to have maybe clarity is not the right word a certain transparency about them, a certain lucidity. Come the next day, I don't think, Yesterday I wrote that P; now I'm going to write that Q, which bears some logical relation to what came before. I'm perfectly happy if the next day, when I'm showering, what comes to me doesn't have much to do with what was there the day before, so long as it seems in some sense to flow from it.
Q: So you get these multiple layers of what seem locally to be transparent, but when you add them up like phyllo dough in a pastry, you get something that's fluffy or diaphanous.
JK: That's good; that's exactly what I find.
Q: In "Falling Water," you link a reference to your "cast of mind" with an "inconclusive / Way of tossing questions at the world." Do you toss questions at the world habitually?
JK: I have to restrain myself. I find that I want to put things in the form of a question. This connects up with the issue of assertion in the face of futility, and of how much of what you write you actually believe. In poems I often feel like posing a question and then answering whatever comes to mind without really caring whether this is something I'd want to stick by or defend. That's what I associate with poetry by contrast with philosophy. You can just roam around and follow your imagination, inclinations, and feel for the language wherever they seem to be taking you and not worry about whether you'd want to endorse them later. And I think Stevens works the same way.
Q: Early in Poetry at One Remove, you use the phrase "habits of thought," which resonates for me with much of your poetry, both early and recent. In My Life, Lyn Hejinian writes of her "chronic ideas," one of which, given the phrase's recurrence, is apparently to think about chronic ideas. You, too, seem to return to this thought habitually: What are my semi-conscious motifs How does habit reflect the self, or imbue a soul, or bespeak voice? A little later in the same introduction, you write of a poet's "inhabiting of possibility." Evidently, you think one's habits are interesting or indicate something interesting about the self. And yet in Domes's "The Hand in the Breast Pocket" you claim that one's "favorite facts" may have "virtually nothing to do with" one's current life, and in "Dorothy Wordsworth" you follow up on this theme by noting that while
I still like most of the things
I used to like in high school, and I still think
Some of those wonderful, vague things are me[,]
I guess the things one has always liked
Don't have much to do with what one is, was, or ultimately becomes[.]
JK: There are actually a number of things going on in those writings you've alluded to. As I recall, what I meant by poets "inhabiting of possibility" didn't really have anything to do with habit in the other sense but more with what we were just talking about: the raising of a possibility, then running with it and seeing where it leads.
Q: But you use an architectural or ecological metaphor, "inhabiting"; it's as if you're thinking, "I'm going to live in the space of this idea for a while and see if it's comfortable."
JK: That's what I have in mind. Or even whether it's uncomfortable to me, just to see what it feels like to live in the space of it for a little while, which strikes me as interesting whatever the outcome is, just to explore it.
I am a creature of habit. I tend to have certain attachments and likes and I tend to stick with them, many of which in any objective sense are probably trivial and silly. I associate this with what one might call a personal or subjective viewpoint, which is just your life as it strikes you regardless of what the reality may be. Regarding "habits of thought," there are certain kinds of ideas that I'll constantly come back to when I'm trying to fill in the content of the architectural conception of the poem. These would be things like the relation between the self and the world, the present and the past, the feel of the passage of time. I'm thinking of one's own past, the time as one experiences it. There's that feeling that the past is really still here again. The poem "16A:" is about that. The other feeling that comes in just as often is how remote and distant and discontinuous from one's own life the past can be. So it's not just continuity; it's also discontinuity. That's probably what I had in mind when I wrote of "habits of thought." These probably make me sound like a terrier who chews them to death over and over again, using certain characteristic words. I guess that's also something one sees a lot in Stevens. When your mind is roaming on its own, there are certain preoccupations you come back to.
Q: Do the various types of inhabitings we've talked about, together with your spatial sensibilities, account for why you so frequently refer to home or a sense of home?
JK: Part of the fascination with home is due to my fascination with time and the passage of time. I also tend to connect poems with specific places and locations not just with "home" to counterbalance my natural tendency towards abstraction.
Q: Was your family home remarkable in any architectural or phenomenological way? In mentioning phenomenology, I'm thinking of Gaston Bachelard's suggestion in The Poetics of Space that the house or home most essentially "shelters daydreaming."
JK: No, I'd say it's the opposite: I'm fascinated by how unremarkable the houses I lived in were. There's something very Californian about that, which appeals to me. I suppose that's why I like bungalows, too. But I like the idea that these unremarkable enclosures shelter daydreaming.
Q: Can we talk a little about the soul? You use the word "soul" a lot in your poetry.
JK: I do, but it doesn't have any theological or religious connotations, though I was raised Catholic, and that has probably had some lingering effect on my temperament. I don't have any religious beliefs. I do think my poetry has a spiritual dimension, but I wouldn't call it religious in any supernatural sense. I use the word "mind" a lot, too. In fact, both of those words I probably overuse, and I'm trying to be a little more discriminating. "Mind" refers to a certain aspect of a person. There's a connotation of mind-body dualism any time you use the word "mind." Descartes often uses the words "soul" and "mind" interchangeably, but soul seems a more unitary concept and has more to do with one's self-identity as a subject of consciousness or subject of experience, whereas mind seems a little more specialized. I think I've used "soul" to refer to the seat of one's subjective consciousness and experience.
Q: In an essay initially published in 1978, you identified the speaker of Ashbery's poetry as a metaphysical subject, to be associated with Kantian and Wittgensteinian concepts of self, as opposed to the more familiar psychological or Cartesian subjects of a voice-centered confessionalist poetics. You also identified a third, intermediary option, the Humean no-self, which you associate with O'Hara. Where along this axis do you locate your own poetry's typical speaker?
JK: That was the first of those semi-philosophical poetic essays I wrote, and I think it's a little tidy, overly tidy. Those are just three philosophical conceptions of the self and I was trying to squeeze various poets into them. I think it's perhaps a little too schematic, but I don't think it's completely unhelpful. The metaphysical or transcendental subject is a conception of the self as not part of the natural world or the natural order. It's a little different from Cartesian dualism, in which the self is not just something not physical; it is part of the world. I think that the locus of the self in my poems rests uneasily within the natural order if it's in there at all. I guess it's a little bit of this transcendental conception. It's certainly not the authentic speaking voice that you find in a lot of workshop poetry. On the other hand, I have been trying to write some poems lately like "Sally's Hair" and "16A:" and, I suppose in some sense, "Falling Water," too parts of that in which I try to describe the history of a person in the world. I'm using autobiographical material in a sort of literal way. The self there is just an ordinary person in the world. But I go back and forth; I switch to the other conception.
Q: In section III of "North Point North," you mention that "Someone asked about the aura of regret / And disappointment that surrounds [certain] poems," about the source of that aura in your life. Later in the poem you basically say: But that's not personal; that's not really me. And yet you do fairly frequently allude to regret.
JK: When you're attempting to look at the world from this transcendental vantage point, there is a kind of well, I hate the phrase but I'll use it anyway a kind of metaphysical sadness about it, because you're looking at the world from a remove or distance.
Q: Would you agree with Stevens that "The greatest poverty is not to live / In a physical world"?
JK: Yes. I don't know if it's the greatest poverty, but there is something poignant about it.
Q: You can't be a hedonist unless you're in the world.
JK: You sure can't, and one of course wants to be in real life. It's in that sense that my poems aren't personal. They're written from a kind of vantage point that almost guarantees that there's going to be a certain sadness to the way things are portrayed not because one is actually unhappy but because it's a vantage point at which you're removed from the world.
I think the critic David Kalstone once observed something similar about the work of Elizabeth Bishop, whose work of course is nothing like mine at all. He was talking about the precision with which she renders events and things, and one would think that this means that she's a poet of the concrete, an Imagist poet but nothing could be further from the truth because, he says, the precision with which she represents these things only reinforces her sense of being removed from them and of observing them. That's what adds poignancy and even a certain sadness or isolation to her work, even though she rarely says anything that would be considered a direct expression of sadness.
Q: You've said "transcendental" a number of times just now. Do you have any attraction to the Transcendentalists of American philosophy Emerson, Thoreau? I think of them because they are often referred to as philosopher-poets.
JK: Certainly a lot of poets and critics that I respect very highly are steeped, say, in Emerson.
Q: Are you thinking of Stanley Cavell, whom you've mentioned in your essays?
JK: Well, Cavell as a philosopher, and I'm thinking of Douglas Crase as a poet. I think you need to read Emerson probably when you're young, and I never did, and so I haven't been able to absorb him as much as I ought to, as much as I'd like to. The transcendental figures to whom I'm drawn include Wordsworth in particular, and then I think a lot about the notion of the sublime that you find in Kant. The experience of the sublime is an experience of the transcendental viewpoint in which you overcome the inhuman world as it were by holding it in thought or seeking it in thought.
Q: In such cases, the distance to which you were attributing a kind of sadness is also a joy.
JK: It's a kind of triumphalism. Yes.
Q: It suggests a beyondness and an affinity with the superhuman. [Quoting Kant's Critique of Judgment] "The inadequacy itself is the arousal in us."
JK: Exactly. That's in Kant and you'd find that in Wordsworth, so it's a kind of triumphant, affirmative experience. The trouble is, to use Bloom's favorite word, we're in a belated period and we can't really believe that such a transcendental vantage is available to us. I know the experience because I've had it, as I believe many people have, so I think it remains an important one. But the notion that the soul can actually rise above the world, et cetera that just isn't open to us. It certainly isn't open to me.
Q: So you've experienced the sublime, but you're dissatisfied with the vocabulary of its description. And part of your poetic project is to find a new vocabulary for it?
JK: Right. And often the new vocabulary is a somewhat deflationist one. In fact, there's a long poem in Falling Water called "The Secret Amplitude," and that's really what that poem is mostly about. It's also intermingled with meditations on the suicides of two friends of mine, but it's mostly about this experience one can have coupled with the deep suspicion, perhaps even verging on the knowledge, that it's illusory. Nevertheless, one is drawn to it even though one knows one shouldn't be. "Piranesi's Keyhole" is also rather explicitly about this relationship between poetry and belief. And it's basically about to what extent one believes what one finds oneself saying in the course of the poem, and it's not very much, but then again that doesn't really matter; you've been drawn to it anyway. But then you disavow that again.
Q: You note in Poetry at One Remove that poetry's "status as a 'high' art form seems difficult to subvert." How do you feel about this status? Is poetry necessarily elitist?
JK: Ah, I'm sort of ashamed to say it, but I think in certain ways it is. Or at least, I don't like attempts to make it an art with mass appeal. I think it arises, as Bloom thinks it does, from a solitary or private argument or conversation with oneself. Elitist may be too hard, but it's certainly a rather private experience. To treat it as an art form that is quickly accessible to lots of people, either on the page or read aloud, is a departure from the idea of poetry as an intensely private conversation with oneself. Many people may want to do just that, but that's not what I'm interested in. I don't like to get involved in essentialist conceptions of poetry, but there is a certain thing that goes on in the poetry that interests me which doesn't seem to be going on in poetry written to appeal, say, to a wider audience.
Q: Bits of Charles Bukowski in the Metro system or something like that.
JK: Yes. On the other hand, that's not to say I don't like popular art. I love horror fiction and horror movies and popular music. I have very catholic music tastes, of which classical music is only a very small and not currently the most important part. I'm probably one of the world's leading Lou Reed and Velvet Underground fans and of rock-and-roll generally. So my acknowledging a kind of elitist conception of poetry doesn't mean I'm an elitist across the board. I have a certain conception of poetry; I can't imagine that it would find the kind of large following other conceptions of poetry might lead to.
You had another question about whether I thought poetry was resistant to the commodification of language. And there, at least if I understood you, I don't think there's a problem. I think poetry can accommodate and take over and make use of popular language, debased forms of language. I think it's all grist for the mill. If you find it in your experience, then why not use it?
Q: You're not interested in cleansing the dialect of the tribe?
JK: Oh no, not at all! I really distrust both efforts to cleanse the language of the tribe in a traditional elitist or formalist sense and also the cleansing of the language of the tribe that you find in, say, Objectivist writings or attempts to purge poetry of elements of language that you think don't belong there in, say, the Olson sense. So I don't think poetry ought to be cleansing anything. I think the language as we find it is what we use in poetry. And we certainly can use it in the service of this "high art" vision of poetry.
What does, I think, threaten poetry, at least as I conceive it, is a kind of commodification of poetry because of the proliferation of writing programs. I don't think there's anything wrong with writing programs or with studying poetry. It's just the scale at which it's suddenly done.
Q: I get the impression that, whereas poets used to seek a cogent or consistent "voice," for the last decade or so it has been deemed crucial instead to have a "poetics."
JK: I think you're probably right. I don't think there's a problem with having either a voice or a poetics. I do think there's a problem with feeling some special urgency or need, that in order to be a poet you have to have an x, and so you better develop this x. I think there is a proliferation of... poeticses, if that's a word. Most of them seem a little too fine-grained and too ad hoc to be believable. They're sort of made up to include the poets that the poet is interested in or wants to promote or is friends with, and so you concoct a poetics that includes them and excludes the ones you're not interested in. There's something specious about that, I think.
At least in the '60s, poets who excluded other poets from their field of awareness had theoretical reasons to do so. And these were at least widely shared theoretical reasons. They would grow out of personal contacts and friendships. But I also think you need to distinguish between, say, the New York School, which I don't think had a poetics they just had a lot of likes and dislikes and attitudes among friends and the Black Mountain School, where there were articulated manifestoes by Olson, saying exactly what they thought they were doing, what you should and shouldn't be doing.
Q: I really like the short poem in Sally's Hair entitled "Continuity and the Counting Numbers." The contrasts you examine in it recall Oppen's dialectics of the collective and the individual, of the discrete and the serial.
JK: "Continuity and the Counting Numbers" was provoked by a mathematics piece I was reading. It's really just some notes for the opening of a longer poem I was thinking of starting, but then I looked at what I had written down and decided that it would make a nice short poem by itself. This is unusual for me, since my typical way of constructing a poem is more deliberate. Despite its mathematical origins, however, the general concern with the relationship between continuity and isolated individual moments (often trivial ones) is something that informs a lot of my work. The recollective poems that make up the fourth section of Sally's Hair would be a case in point. Most of them started with a Proustian memory-experience of some small incident that through a chain of associations gets embedded in a more continuous narrative.
Q: Sally's Hair includes explicit references to Proust and to Giovanni Piranesi's architecture and you've recently written, during a half-year fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin, about that city. Wordsworth has been influential as have been various European philosophers. Do you have other non-American influences? Do you even think of yourself as an importantly American poet?
JK: When I was in Berlin I read some Celan and some Durs Grünbein, but on the whole 1 don't respond very strongly to non-American, or at least non-English, poetry. I don't read any other languages, and I always feel that the translations I read don't serve the poems very well. Rilke, for instance, is someone I think I would admire even more than I actually do if I could read him in German, but he sounds rather stilted in translation. I think this has something to do with the fact that it's easy to form compound abstract nouns in German but not in English. I do think of myself as a strongly American poet in an Emersonian vein. But I don't think of myself as an American poet in the sense Williams had in mind when he declared "The Waste Land" a catastrophe for the development of a distinctively American poetry. On the contrary, I think that Eliot is a deeply American poet, not a British one.
Q: Earlier you stated that you "don't write with a potential audience in mind," but Sally's Hair includes a poem entitled "To an Audience," in which you (perhaps jocularly) ask your audience, "What made me think that I could live apart from you?" You then acknowledge that the audience has "Overrun this stage I said was mine." What's up? Have you changed your mind? Or is this poem your answer to Stevens's theatrical ars poetica "Of Modern Poetry" and Ashbery's playful "Paradoxes & Oxymorons" and, like both, illustrative of the lyric poet's capacity to subsume the audience, the "you," into the poem?
JK: "To an Audience" is actually a sort of playful poem that was provoked by my listening to a poet (I won't say whom) talking about his poetry on NPR. He said that he begins by trying to figure out what would be likely to appeal to an audience, and then goes from there.
My reaction was, My goodness, that's just the opposite of what I believe. So I started fooling around with these ideas in a poem written in a kind of mock-oratorical style, in which the speaker is gradually overwhelmed by the audience. As for the form and manner, I think I had Prospero's address to the audience in Auden's "The Sea and the Mirror" in the back of my mind.
Q: Why did you open Sally's Hair with "The Perfect Life"?
JK: "The Perfect Life" seemed like a poised, short poem that introduced both the themes of the delusional effect of the imagination and of transience, which by the end of the book is treated more positively. So it seemed like a good way to open, though I must confess to having had second thoughts when I came across some bloggers who seemed to think that the poem was about a midlife crisis, which it has nothing to do with. Alas, I'm not even young enough to have a midlife crisis.
Q: The book concludes with a wonderful poem named after a habitual question-tosser who should have been too young to have a midlife crisis. "Hamlet" touches on many of the themes we've addressed: your evolution "from California science whiz into impeccable habitué / Of a Fitzgerald fantasy" at Princeton and the evolution of your poetic tastes there, your attraction to "The thought of something abstract / And aloof, penetrating to the heart of the unknown" even as you reject as fiction the idea of an end-shaping divinity, and your sense of poetry as a constructed "place that [...] has the weight and feel of home." You also pay implicit homage to Wordsworth when you compare your college-era memory of Richard Burton's "bare" Hamlet with your recent DVD viewing of the performance. Were you thinking of the stereoscopic superimposition of vision and recollection in "Tintern Abbey"?
JK: Wordsworth is important to me both for his style and his general concern with memory, but as I said earlier I think of the recollection at play in the last section of the book as mainly Proustian: some random sensation or experience triggers an involuntary memory of a forgotten and usually trivial event, which then awakens other associations. For "Sally's Hair," the blue and gold of the sky and sunlight one day made me remember the dress and hair of a woman I met in college. For "16A:" hearing a replay of an announcer calling the race in 1973 when Secretariat won the Triple Crown brought back watching that race, and then a lot of other things going on in my life at the time. For "Hamlet," a painter friend I was visiting in the Hamptons pointed out Burton's first wife, Sybil, and then when I discovered that the DVD of Burton's Hamlet performance was available I started remembering a lot of things surrounding and subsequent to attending it as a freshman. When I actually watched the DVD, I did experience that stereoscopic experience you mention, but by then the chain of associations was largely complete.
Q: You suggest that Shakespeare's tragedy leaves human agency "in ruins on the stage" and "dissolves" "something like the very / Image of the human," a dissolution you then liken to Dick Diver "disappearing" into upstate New York at the end of Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night. You open one of your Berlin poems thinking of Pynchon's protagonist Tyrone Slothrop "disappearing into the Zone." Is there anything behind this small pattern: something rotten in the state of human agency, perhaps?
JK: This recurring motif of the dissolution of the person reflects a philosophical gut feeling I have, which is that our whole psychological conception or outlook, including our conception of the person, isn't really a "factual" one, but rather a kind of interpretation we impose on ourselves and the world, and as such is rather fragile. Although I never deliberately set out to develop the motif, it does crop up in a lot of poems "Songs My Mother Taught Me," in Falling Water and "'I Heard a Fly Buzz'" in The Constructor come to mind, in addition to the poems you've mentioned.
Q: What about the fragility of the poem itself, or the vulnerability to dissolution of the poet, in an era that has largely foresworn the use of mnemonic devices and in which many believe, with Auden, that poetry makes nothing happen? Several of the poems you've written since returning from Berlin take up the issue of making nothing happen or of being a person to whom nothing happens.
JK: I have what others might consider the rather grim view that, at least sub specie aeternatatis, nothing we do is of much importance, though it's terribly important to us from our own viewpoints. I'm not sure what Auden meant by that famous remark. If you think that poetry ought to materially affect the world, then I suppose he's right, and if that's what you want political poetry to do, then you're going to be disappointed. But I think that successful poetry can affect reality by adding to it, by creating possibilities of feeling, thought, and perception that weren't there before. That can be true even if the poet is a rather incidental figure to whom nothing important happens though I suspect that some of my recent fondness for that idea reflects the lingering influence of Henry James's story "The Beast in the Jungle."
Q: In your Berlin poems, including "The Adagio" (published in this issue), and in the several more recent poems you've shown me, I note a not altogether new but newly pervasive concern about the value of freedom. Some of the freedoms you consider are explicitly political; others have more to do with lifestyle opportunities, the freedom many Americans feel to move far from the site of former homes, for example. You appear to be concerned that humanity or "a relentless will to power" expressed through us is in danger of ridding itself of the limiting particularities that provide meaningful context. Do you worry that we have become or could become too emancipated? And are you becoming a more political poet?
JK: The idea of freedom does show up fairly often in my poems, though in several different connections. Sometimes it's an aspect of a certain conception of the self or subject you find in Kant, Schopenhauer, and Wittgenstein in which the transcendental subject isn't really part of the natural order and so free of its constraints the price for this being a kind of isolation that can feel almost solipsistic. Other times, "freedom" is Cold War cant for an opportunistic individualism that rejects any notion of the common good, which is what the right seems to mean by it these days. As for writing political poems, it's not something I've set out to do, though some of my more recent work tends in that direction. I think this has occurred because one of my abiding concerns is with the relation of the self to its settings in the world, and those settings are becoming increasingly alienating, in large part for economic reasons.
Both of these notions of freedom come together in a place like Berlin, and this is probably reflected in the poems I wrote there, including "The Adagio." There's the freedom of simply wandering around a foreign city whose language you don't understand a kind of isolated and contextless existence, but one open to whatever comes along. Of course, you're also wandering around the epicenter of twentieth-century history and politics. I remember going to the Neue Nationalgalerie to see a very powerful Anselm Kiefer painting, and then strolling over to the Alte Nationalgalerie to look at an enchanting exhibition devoted entirely to clouds by Turner, Constable, and many other artists. It seemed to embody the sense of fragility and evanescence I was talking about earlier, Goethe's drawings most of all. His clouds are so faint you can barely make them out. I suppose that's a bit like the way I think of poetry and the image of the human.
About the Author
Andrew Osborn teaches literature and writing at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. His poetry and articles about poetry have appeared in such publications as American Letters & Commentary, Bat City Review, Contemporary Literature, Denver Quarterly, and The Wallace Stevens Journal.
Southern Methodist University
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