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."