To my ear, Ange Mlinko is about the most painstakingly
elegant poet around. Her first two books, Matinées and Starred Wire, are whiz-kid graduates of the New York School. Without seeming derivative, they work the Ashbery-O'Hara-Schuyler tradition as if it were a form—especially Starred Wire, which, Stephen Burt wrote in The Believer, extends “into a kind of imagined aerial realm, a Technicolor urbane pastoral, bigger and stranger than what we see with unaided eyes.”
So her poems have always been "layered and loaded up," as she once put it. But with Shoulder Season (2010), Mlinko has become a full-feathered, info-soaked Byzantine, her language as far from the plain style as Paul Muldoon’s or Marianne Moore’s or Geoffrey Hill’s at its loopiest. But it remains almost as far from grandiosity as Frank O’Hara at his most laundry-listing. This is where I note that she has, nevertheless, a sensibility all her own—and she does, but it seems parsimonious to say so. Read a few of her poems and you might wonder whether anyone else has a sensibility at all.
You can start with “Shoulder Season,” quoted below. Our interview begins after the jump.
On the strength of the light in the southeast
I could surmise this isn’t the time for poinsettia.
Snowflakes hard as schoolyard jacks
fall from a cryogenic layer of air
eagles use as lorgnettes. It’s unseasonable
judging by the light in the southeast.
The poinsettia has been delicately
loosening the bolts locking velvet bracts
in attitudes of warm jouissance
so that a cuticle of dried blood hue
encroaches on the edges of a lively red,
then altogether drops to the ledge a corpse.
On the strength of this I could prise
piccolo jonquils out of April edemas.
MR: I know you're interested in the question of the privilege allowed to poetry of subjectivity (Wordsworth/Stevens/Ashbery) as opposed to something more extroverted—social? Byronic? Where do you see yourself on that scale, I wonder. I want to ask you, too, about the limits to complexity—your poetry is delightfully and, I think, deliberately baroque:
Sinister not knowing if silent esoterics filter
down to our little dam, dreamt of down under
sweet sweet down duvets. Bretagne's off-kilter
menhirs call to our bric-a-brac rock
like names orphaned after the glaciers' retreat
from Bricquebec to Wequetequock.
So how baroque is too baroque?
AM: Since I've written recently about poetic freedom, I feel as if I should take this opportunity to defend, again, the poet's freedom to follow her instincts, be as baroque or abstruse as she likes—but it's not a satisfying freedom if it isn't effective. This easily devolves into the old binaries of obscurity vs. accessibility, elite vs. populist; but I think those are surprisingly fluid distinctions. Reception is a mystery. There must be thousands of accessible poets who have little audience, and some difficult poets who have fiercely loyal followings. A poet either has or does not have charisma—a gift of the gods.
The power to delight and charm is—not to put too fine a point on it—critical. It is one of the ancient privileges of poetry, as is the act of personification: putting a recognizable face on your poem. As for me, I find it hard to judge my own work. I will say I don't set out to be especially challenging or difficult—I set out to write a new thing every time; to discover something new; and sometimes, to see if the prosody alone can get me there. That's probably where the baroque creeps in.
Complexity of form is one thing; I'm not sure if erudition is such a problem since the advent of search engines. And since there's no consensus on what common knowledge is, how erudite is too erudite? What do you think?
MR: I think that probably there is a cognitive limit to erudition and its name is Finnegans Wake. But The Triumph of Love makes me wonder, too. Needless to say, I love complexity. I love Hopkins and Hill and Herbert!
AM: I love them too. But they dramatize complexity toward a specific end: psychic pain relief. I just taught Valéry's Cimetière marin, with its epigraph from Pindar's wonderful Pythian 3: "Do not, dear soul, long for deathless life / but use to the utmost the resources in your powers." Poems must use to the utmost all the resources in language's power toward a salvific end.
I am also thinking of Oren Izenberg's essay on "the poetry of ease" as I write this; it seems to wrestle (I don't want to be reductive) with both our quick imputation of value to anxious poetry, and our suspicion (but continuing attraction to) poetry that is salvific (through beaute, lux, calme et volupte, e.g.).
These might be sneaky ways of talking about meaning, communication, and accessibility—perhaps.
MR: As far as pain relief is concerned—and I love the idea of Hill hawking paracetamol—I take it you would disagree with Stevens that "From this the poem springs: that we live in a place / That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves / And hard it is in spite of blazoned days"? Or that you would modify that formulation in your own case? I think of O'Hara's importance to you, who reminds us that happiness is "the least and best of human attainments."
AM: Stevens seems to be saying what Hill, or Fanny Howe, or St. Augustine, says: that we are not at home in the world; the real world is elsewhere. (Emily Dickinson's epitaph: "Called home.") And for him, as for Hill, poetry is an atonement for that: "The technical perfecting of a poem is an act of atonement, in the radical etymological sense—an act of at-one-ment, a setting at one, a bringing into concord, a reconciling, a uniting in harmony." I'm so imbued with Catholicism that I think in practice I probably follow that line of thinking more than I know; but consciously I try to think of language as nutriment or even a pharmakon. It has analgesic effects, or it is nourishing, or it is therapeutic (and let's acknowledge that real therapy involves pain—that's something that casual purveyors of "poetry as therapy" seem to forget. It's not all instantaneous empathy and absolution). So yes, I probably agree still with O'Hara that happiness is a worthy attainment. Gaston Bachelard has so much to say on this subject too—just read the preface to The Poetics of Space or The Poetics of Reverie. "Thus a whole universe comes to contribute to our happiness when reverie comes to accentuate our repose. You must tell the man who wants to dream well to begin by being happy" (substitute write poetry well for dream well).
MR: The clamor for accessibility is all around us; perhaps you share my suspicion that it is a complaint about something else ("When a person says accusingly that he can't understand Eliot, his tone implies that most of his happiest hours are spent at the fireside among worn copies of the Agamemnon, Phèdre, and the Symbolic Books of William Blake"—Randall Jarrell). But I wonder if you share Hill's sense that poetic obscurity is democratic:
wantonly obscure, man sagt. ACCESSIBLE
traded as DEMOCRATIC, he answers
as he answers móst things these days | easily.
AM: I take it that Hill is making an elevated level of reader participation stand in for democratic process, like doing the work of voting on election day. And that he equates accessible poetry with handing down "meaning" to the reader by fiat. I don't agree with this. Reading is inherently participatory. Reading engages the brain physically like nothing else. Reading is a great act of generosity: a reader is giving her time to another's consciousness, allowing that other to exercise the freedom of saying and making. It is one of the least narcissistic acts. Poets I think should acknowledge this; there should be humility in writing for the more generous one. ("If equal generosity cannot be / Let the more generous one be me"—doesn't scan as well as the original, but there it is!)
Hill's only defense, really, is beauty; and that he does give us. He answers generosity for generosity by making beautiful things. The beautiful is difficult, the Greeks used to say.
MR: Fair enough, but then I wonder if I might turn your own question back on you and ask "Are there ways in which poetry could or does both exploit its own difficulty as well as its pleasures (prosodic, sensual, scenic) to maximize its potential as a unique cultural product—a 'super-stimulus'—that can make us smarter and more sympathetic?" Another way of asking this might be: what is poetry's humanist potential?
AM: Reading linguistics, let alone poetry, will convince you that language holds the key to our cognitive development historically.
I think some poetic devices are more advanced than others: the sonnet is cognitively more interesting than the villanelle; metaphor and metonym are more interesting than meter, and the mimetic is strikingly contrasted with the meontic.
These effects and functions do improve us, but slowly, and in spite of ourselves. Because truly, none of us wish to change or be improved.
Ange Mlinko is the author of three books, Shoulder Season (Coffee House Press, 2010), Starred Wire (Coffee House Press, 2005), which was a National Poetry Series winner in 2004 and a finalist for the James Laughlin Award, and Matinées (Zoland Books, 1999). In 2009, she won the Randall Jarrell Award in Criticism. She is currently an Assistant Professor in the University of Houston Creative Writing Program.