Let’s not waste words: Oren Izenberg is one of the smartest people I know, and if I were compiling a list of the most interesting thinkers about contemporary poetry today, he’d be a sure bet even in a group small enough to fit around my dinner table. A Visiting Scholar in the English Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the poetry editor at nonsite.org, a peer-reviewed journal of poetry, art, and scholarship in the humanities, Oren is currently at work on a new book tentatively titled Lyric Poetry and the Philosophy of Mind.
Our interview, however, concerns Being Numerous, the study of W. B. Yeats, George Oppen, Frank O’Hara, and Language poetry that Oren published with Princeton University Press in 2010. A brilliant synthesis of literary criticism and philosophy, Being Numerous is one of the most convincing demonstrations I’ve read of how literature might be said to accomplish the kind of first-order thinking that Michael mentioned on Tuesday. (For further discussion of the book, see the symposium at nonsite held last September.)
RPB: Being Numerous makes an argument about two kinds of poetry—or perhaps more accurately, two attitudes toward poetry. These are not, however, the two kinds or attitudes we might expect to find, meaning you're not much interested in the divisions that get mapped as mainstream vs. avant-garde or traditional vs. experimental. Describe for us the distinction that does interest you.
OI: Yes; two traditions, or two attitudes. I should begin by suggesting that It isn't quite right to say that I'm not interested in the split between the "traditional" and the "experimental" that so deeply marks so many writers' conception of poetry's history and its present. I came to write Being Numerous precisely because I was intensely interested in it—at once attracted to the way that that distinction seemed to get something right about certain poets' work (and also to license tremendous poetic ambition and energy), and repelled by the way that the distinction produced embarrassing dismissals of poets and poetry every bit as remarkable. (I strongly believe that self-empowering dismissal is what this distinction is for; I am thus not persuaded that the new spirit of detente that has taken hold of the contemporary scene under the auspices of "hybridity" or lyric postmodernism or what-have-you is anything other than the latest form that the division takes. Such terms are simply a way for poets to reorder the terms of praise and abuse in order to claim Stevens as well as Stein, or Traherne (Traherne!) as well as Trakl.)
One of the things that thinking about what I have come to regard as an unproductive distinction caused me to notice more acutely was the powerful disjunction between the kinds of claims that some poets make for poetry—that it might remake consciousness, purify the soul, foment revolution, found an alternative social order—and any reasonable practical account of what can and does happen in an encounter between a reader and a poem. Let's call this disjunction between the boundlessness of desire and the act's enslavement to limit a formal wish; because it represents the attribution of powers and energies to poetic form that are real in the domain of wishing and willing—a domain that cries out for interpretation and explanation every bit as much as any poem. So: the division I became interested in is the division between poets for whom the poetic ambition was directed at the making of a poem, and for whom the sense of what poetry can do must be tied to what can be expected of human-made objects and human perceptions, and poets for whom all the labor of poetic making was undertaken in the interest of something else; something to which the poem as an object was, it often turned out, not simply incidental, but inimical. That something else I have called "personhood."
But even the second kind of poet you mentioned—the poet interested in "personhood," in your sense of the term—is still a poet. Why is that, do you think? What is it that they're looking for in poetry? Why don't they run off and join an army or start a religion or build a commune in the Great North Woods?
OI: In saying that, your "many people" would be playing their part in a script that the West has been performing for millennia. I'm willing to go some distance with Keston here; one of the traditional functions we have allocated to poets is that of outscale desirer. We seem to need a class of persons to hold and to articulate forms of wanting or willing unbound from ordinary calculations of plausibility or even possibility: the unrelinquishable demand for a lover who refuses us, for a perpetual peace that evades us, for the overcoming of the death that undoes us. We are inclined to call those designated to preserve and advocate for the boundlessness of our want "poets" whether or not they write in verse, or at all; just as we are inclined to punish them for reminding us of the ferocity of our unmet needs by calling poets stupid, childish or monstrous ("They that have the voice of lions and the act of hares, are they not monsters?").
So there's a certain way in which I take the exasperated voice of prudence and calculation that I hear in your question—why not put your shoulder to the wheel? Or, you know, help build a bigger wheel—to be not misguided exactly, but symptomatic. As a general matter, it seems to me a mistake—about history, about psychology, about politics—to imagine that the work that makes change possible (laborious, slow, material, incremental) could be adequately fueled by a desire for the increment rather than for something much deeper and greater, and perhaps unachievable. For Emerson, prudence is only legitimate "when it unfolds the beauty of laws within the narrow scope of the senses"; it is "God taking thought for Oxen."
It is precisely because "poets know this"—which is to say, because "poetry" is one of the places where we have stored this dilemma as a dilemma(the beauty of the law or the purity of thought straining to bear the yoke of the senses; the burning heart fastened to a dying animal)—that poets have continued to turn to it, per impossible, as a place where a solution might, or must be found.
RPB: The poets you write about in your book—Yeats, Oppen, O'Hara, the Language Poets—are united not only by a negative distinction—call it their rejection of the well-wrought urn as the model for poetry—but also by a positive aim. What they're searching for, you argue, is the “something else” you earlier named "personhood." In your book you also talk about this as a kind of "thin" or minimal humanism.
As I understand it, the argument is that these poets are trying, in their various ways and through their poetry, to defend a durable value for the human person that at the same time includes all people and depends on none of the traditional foundations for humanism (metaphysics, the state, etc.). Is it fair to say that what these poets are trying to address or resolve is a fundamental crisis of values?
OI: Yes. "Person," for me, is the term that designates a being as susceptible to and demanding moral regard on some grounds. It is the meeting place of fact (the qualities or features, potential or actual, in virtue of which the designation is warranted) and value (when a person is present, all questions are moral questions. Or, less dramatically but more accurately, questions regarding our relations to persons have a normative aspect). In describing the emergencies of the 20th century as crises of personhood, I'm suggesting two things: first, that the grounds on which we judge something worthy of moral regard had become unstable—let's call this your problem of metaphysics. And second, that the consequences of that instability—the widespread inability or unwillingness to treat persons as persons, or to detect the presence of persons—had come to seem fatal in a massive, and perhaps a total, way. (This is, in significant measure, a problem of the state, but not only the state).
Looking back to the last question, I'm also suggesting a third thing: that for some poets, poetry had come to seem implicated in or complicit with the crisis of personhood. The very qualities that give poetry power in the domain of personhood—its ability to open up powerful channels of communication, to create a vivid and subtle picture of a mind in action, to create opportunities for readers to exercise their powers of sympathy to recognize and value their own subjective powers—these had come to seem restrictive rather than expansive—because every one of them had a limit and an end. Even the most minimal account of the person (like the most abstract picture or the most “anti-closural” poem) specifies some minimal features. Now, features themselves had become part of the crisis, and something extraordinary had to happen within or to the art of putting words together into sentences and lines, ordering sounds into sequences and patterns, arraying lines on the space of the page, in order to address that crisis.
RPB: Can you give us a brief example of how that kind of address might operate?
OI: Sure. I'd point to W.B. Yeats's "Cuchulain Comforted"—among the last poems Yeats wrote, 15 days before he died. It tells the story of the mythic Irish warrior, who had figured prominently in some of Yeats’s earlier work, arriving in purgatory after his death. There, he is confronted by strange bird-like creatures Yeats calls "shrouds," who turn out to be the dead souls of cowards and outcasts—those who lived the opposite of Cuchulain's heroic self-assertion. But if heroism is possible in the actual world, the world after, beneath, or before the world does not permit such distinctions. Cuchulain must make, and become, a shroud, relinquishing his powerful, violent, individuated life in favor of collective life, in which all faces are equivalent, in which "all we do / All must together do.'" That collectivity is first represented as a kind of writing (the threading of needles, the stitching of linen to cover and conceal the body and face); but finally it is figured even more powerfully as music, divorced from anything as recognizably human as song:
They sang, but had nor human tunes nor words,
Though all was done in common as before;
They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds.
The art represented in “Cuchulain Comforted” produces something like the root form of collectivity—song itself, abstractly sharable and infinitely repeatable (as birdsong outlasts any particular bird), but unachievable with an actual human throat. But of course Yeats’s poem isn’t that song; it is a striking and distinct poem about that song. And it isn’t formless; it is in terza rima, a form in theory repeatable, but in practice so distinct that you can’t use it at all without evoking the heroic example of Dante, who made it so fully his own. This is Yeats’s only poem in terza rima, and for good reason; for even as it recalls Dante in form, it reveals a deep and terrifying aspect of the insight that lies at the center of Dante’s Paradiso:
E 'n la sua volontade è nostra pace:
ell'è quel mare al qual tutto si move
ciò ch'ella crïa o che natura face.
And in His will is our peace.
It is to that sea all things move,
both what His will creates and that which nature makes.
For Dante, a durable paradise could be achieved by submerging the individual will within the divine will and by recognizing the secondariness of the created being to the creating power. But Dante's Paradise, like any image of perfected life, produces an inferno for those who stand outside or refuse to recognize the "living light." Yeats tries to subtract the restricted scope or restricted commitments in the theological and image culture of Dante's heaven, but in the absence of a functional theological culture, the “comfort” provided by the erasure of the individual is a strange, pitiless one. It may promise the end of violence, but it is surely a kind of violence. It may be the promise of perfected life that motivates us to art, but it is not life, or art. “Cuchulain Comforted,” though masterfully executed as an object, has at its core something alien, difficult, and hostile to satisfaction and comprehension.
Some readers have been drawn to (or repelled by) some the more extreme examples I present of poets refusing on principle to allow the senses to fully attach to poems—Oppen’s minimalism shot through with renunciation; the Language poets’ willingness to forgo closure and court inattention. But for me a poem like this one exemplifies the way that the most radical thinking about persons can be seen even at the very heart of “traditional” poetic mastery.
RPB: So what do you think is the future—or, if you don’t want to play Cassandra, the present—of this alternate tradition of poetry to which you’ve dedicated your book? You say you’re not convinced that “hybridity” is the answer everyone thinks they’re looking for. I tend to agree, but at the same time it seems that there has been a swing back toward the poem-qua-artifact as the relevant object of a poet’s attentions. I won’t try to explain the general phenomenon, but my own distrust of the big “project”-based poetries has a lot to do with what I understand as the failure of Language poetry. By “failure” I mean not only the inability to change the world in the way the poets hoped—which must be true of every poet who ever lived—but also to produce much work that still feels necessary 20 or 30 years down the line. Your book makes it clear that you think otherwise about the Langpo legacy, though I take some critical solace from the fact that your reading of the Language poets argues for their philosophical significance only by opposing some of their own explicit claims.
So where do you find examples of the attitude you’ve described operating these days? If I had to pick, I’d probably start with Juliana Spahr or the British poets who emerged from the aegis of J.H. Prynne at Cambridge, but I should get out of the way and let you do the suggesting.
It’s a completely fair question, and it’s important to me, and I’m going to duck it. One of the things I discovered as a result of writing Being Numerous is how much poets, even those who recognize something of themselves within it, dislike the idea that poems, which are, after all, the center of their considerable efforts, might not be the center of their concern with poetry; that the work of art might have a slant, oblique, even antithetical relation to the other commitments that bring them to poetry and sustain them within it. (They dislike even more the suspicion that it is their poems, their efforts, that I’m talking about). I don’t even know if I like it, exactly; liking, like most forms of judgment, attaches itself to qualities in the object that I can perceive, and so remains deeply bound up with the vivid experiences of art that have been and continue to be absolutely central to my sense of myself. I would give up poems in paradise; on earth, I’d prefer to hang on to them. I’d say instead, I find this “alternate tradition” urgent, affecting, and powerful in ways that my mere experience of the work cannot fully contain or explain.
But even leaving aside my reluctance to court dislike further by naming names, I’d say that my goal in writing this book was never exactly to predict the future of poetry or even to classify the poetic present, so much as it was to think about the powers and limits of poetry’s recent modes of involvement in some questions I take to be important, and to present that thought in a way that might be of interest—and even of use. Just what that use is—what a poet should do if he or she finds the account of poetry in Being Numerous to be compelling is a question that falls to the poet. That is the poet’s right, and the poet’s problem.