I write because I would like to live forever. The fact of my future death offends me. Part of this derives from my sense of my own insignificance in the universe. My life and death are a barely momentary flicker. I would like to become more than that. That the people and things I love will die wounds me as well. I seek to immortalize the world I have found and made for myself, even knowing that I won’t be there to witness that immortality, mine or my work’s, that by definition I will never know whether my endeavor has been successful. But when has impossibility ever deterred anyone from a cherished goal? As the brilliant poet and teacher Alvin Feinman once said to me, “Poetry is always close kin to the impossible, isn’t it?”
My aim is to rescue some portion of the drowned and drowning, including always myself. For a long time my poetry emerged from and was fueled by an impulse to rescue my mother from her own death and from the wreckage of her life, out of which I emerged, in both senses of the word. That wreckage made me who I am, but also I escaped that wreckage, which she, by dying, did not. So I had a certain survivor guilt toward the person who both made my escape possible and represented that from which I had escaped. Many of the poems in my first book, Some Are Drowning, centered around an absent, speechless other, an inaccessible beloved who frequently stood in for my mother, though she’s an explicit presence in very few of my poems. But her absence was always palpable, a ghostly presence haunting the text. My poems were an attempt to speak to her, to get her to speak back to me, and above all to redeem her suffering: that is, to redeem her life. “Danger invites/rescue—I call it loving,” as James Tate wrote in his early poem “Rescue.” That project is over, not completed but abandoned (as Paul Valéry said all poems are), but the attempt to rescue my mother through poetry was a major motivation for many years.
The possibility of suffering being redeemed by art, being made meaningful and thus real (as opposed to merely actual, something that happens to exist, happens to occur), is still vital to me. Art reminds us of the uniqueness, particularity, and intrinsic value of things, including ourselves. I sometimes have little sense of myself as existing in the world in any significant way outside of my poetry. That’s where my real life is, the only life that’s actually mine. So there’s also the wish to rescue myself from my own quotidian existence, which is me but is at the same time not me at all. I am its, but it’s not mine. For most of us most of the time, life is a succession of empty moments. You’re born, you go through x experiences, you die, and then you’re gone. No one always burns with Pater’s hard, gem-like flame. There’s a certain emptiness to existence that I look to poetry, my own poetry and the poetry of others, to fulfill or transcend. I have a strong sense of things going out of existence at every second, fading away at the very moment of their coming into bloom: in the midst of life we are in death, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it.
In that sense everyone is drowning, everything is drowning, every moment of living is a moment of drowning. I have a strong sense of the fragility of the things we shore up against the ruin which is life: the fragility of natural beauty but also of artistic beauty, which is meant to arrest death but embodies death in that very arrest. Goethe’s Faust is damned when he says, “Oh moment, stay.” At last he finds a moment he longs to preserve, but the moment dissipates when it’s halted. The moment is defined by its transience; to fix it is to kill it. Theodor Adorno points out the paradox that “Art works [...] kill what they objectify, tearing it away from its context of immediacy and real life. They survive because they bring death” (193). Art is a simulacrum of life that embodies and operates by means of death. The aesthetic impulse is the enemy of the lived moment: it attempts both to preserve and to transcend that moment, to be as deeply in the moment as possible and also to rise beyond it. “Wanting to immortalize the transitory—life—art in fact kills it” (194). This is the inescapable aporia of art, that its creation is a form of destruction. “One has to be downright naive to think that art can restore to the world the fragrance it has lost, according to a line by [Charles] Baudelaire” (59). Art itself is so vulnerable, to time, to indifference, especially in a society like ours that cares nothing for the potentials art offers, that if anything seeks to repress them in the name of profit or proper order. I have an intense desire to rescue these things that have touched me and place them somewhere for safekeeping, which is both impossible and utterly necessary.
What we take out of life is the luminous moment, which can be a bare branch against a morning sky so overcast it’s in whiteface, seen through a window that warps the view because the glass has begun to melt with age. Or it can be the face of a beautiful man seen in passing on a crowded street, because beauty is always passing, and you see it but it doesn’t see you. It’s the promise that beauty is possible and the threat that it’s only momentary: if someone doesn’t write it down it’s gone. The moment vanishes without a trace and then the person who experiences that moment vanishes and then there’s nothing. Except perhaps the poem, which can’t change anything. As [W. H.] Auden wrote, poetry makes nothing happen, which also implies the possibility of making “nothing” an event rather than a mere vacancy. Poetry rescues nothing and no one, but it embodies that helpless, necessary will to rescue, which is a kind of love, my love for the world and the things and people in the world.
In a graduate contemporary poetry class I took some twenty years ago, a fellow student complained that a poem we were reading was “just trying to immortalize this scene.” I found it an odd objection, since I thought that’s what poems were supposed to do. One is deluded if one believes that one can actually preserve the world in words, but one is just playing games if one doesn’t try.
The world cannot be saved, in any of the several senses of the word. To save the world would be to stop it, to fix it in place and time, to drain it of what makes it world: motion, flux, action. As [William Butler] Yeats wrote in “Easter 1916,” “Minute by minute they change;/ .... The stone’s in the midst of all.” Poet and critic Allen Grossman is not the first to observe that poetry is a deathly activity, removing things from the obliterating stream of meaningless event that is also the embodied vitality of the world and of time’s action in and upon the world, which creates and destroys in the same motion. The stream of time is both life and that which wears life down to nothing. “Poetry is the perpetual evidence, the sadly perpetual evidence, of the incompleteness of the motive which gives rise to it” (Grossman 71).
But elements of the world can be and have been saved. Thus the history of art. Each artwork that has endured through time is a piece of the world that has survived, and carries with it other pieces of a world, of worlds, otherwise gone. That we are able today to admire the sculpture of Praxiteles, to gaze upon a Rembrandt painting, to read of [John] Keats’s fears that he shall cease to be, is evidence that something does remain, something can be carried over, rescued from oblivion. The artwork is evidence of its own survival. Allen Grossman writes: “My most fundamental impulses are toward recovery, the securing once again of selfhood in something that lies invulnerably beyond history, something which promises enormous, inhuman felicity” (41). I would add that, for me, the impulse is not just for the conservation of personhood, but of worldhood. I seek to save the sensuous appearances, the particulate worldness of the world.
I write not to be bored. I hate being bored, and I don’t want to bore others. Unlike Zelda Fitzgerald, I can’t say that I’m never bored because I’m never boring. I am often bored, and undoubtedly I am sometimes boring. But I try not to be boring in poems, and in turn I don’t want poems to bore me. Poems should be interesting, should engage and hold the interest. The most basic level of interest is the sensual, the aural, the texture and feel of words and phrases: the poem in the ear, the poem in the mouth. Helen Vendler has called the poem a musical composition scored for the human voice. The poem is a palpable sensuous entity or it is nothing.
What is it that I seek when I read a poem, when I write a poem? Above all, I desire an experience, a mode of experience available to me only through poetry. “The reading of a poem should be an experience [like experiencing an act]. Its writing must be all the more so,” as Wallace Stevens reminds us (905, 909). A true poetic experience is worth more than a thousand oppositional critiques, most of which tend to be rather predictable in any case.
My interest can be defined by at least part of Charles Reznikoff’s characterization of his poetry: “images clear but the meaning not stated but suggested by the objective details and the music of the verse.” As a reader, I look for such clarity of image and phrase, for a rhythmic pulse and a rich verbal texture, for a sense of shape and coherence even in the midst of apparent fracture. As a writer, I try to provide these things. But an overall “meaning” or “interpretation” isn’t the first or the main thing I seek, as either reader or writer. “A poem need not have a meaning and like most things in nature often does not have one” (Stevens 914). Attend to the senses and sense will often attend to itself.
I respond to urgency, to a sense of felt necessity, to passion. The word passion derives from the Greek for “suffering, experience, emotion.” The word itself summons up the poem as an experience undergone by the writer and the reader alike. Passion is not just a passion for my lover or for botany or for history, but a passion for words, a passionate struggle to try to create verbal experience that would be as real as the rest of the world. Stevens insisted that “[i]n poetry, you must love the words, the ideas and images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all” (902). Like any object of love, that also means that the poem will resist its creator, just as the world resists us. The struggle such passion entails is both joyous and painful. As Stevens also famously wrote, “Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully” (910). Of course, that presumes both an intelligence to be resisted and an intelligence that resists. The poet, the poem, and the reader must all be as intelligent as possible.
I desire variety in my poems and the poems of others because the expansion of my poetic territories is the expansion of my world. The poem expands the world as I find it, it makes more world available to me. Works of art are (or should be) like people: no person is new, but every person is unique. To encounter a work of art is to enter into a new relationship, with the work and with the world to which it is an addition.
If art really is some kind of compensation or restitution for what we lack in our lives, and I believe that among many other things it is, it can be so only by providing something different from what we already have, not merely by reflecting or reflecting upon those lives and those myriad lacks.
I want to write good poems (and I still believe that there is such a thing, that aesthetic judgment is not merely an ideological mystification), but not the same good poems that I've already written. I’d like to do what I haven't done before. This has proven to be an impediment to my poetic reputation: I don't have a trademark style that I repeat from book to book, I haven’t commodified myself and my work into a brand. Critic Vernon Shetley describes the contemporary American poetry world “where each poet seems compelled to enhance his or her brand recognition with an easily recognizable gimmick” (79). A reader too often knows exactly what he or she is getting, whether from a “mainstream” poet or an “avant-garde” one. Philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto concurs that “[t]here is an overwhelming tendency in America to brand artists, so that the well informed can identify an example of an artist's work in a single act of instant recognition” (33). Not to so brand or trademark one's work puts one at a distinct disadvantage in what is too often a literary marketplace.
To attempt something new and fail is much more interesting than to attempt something that’s already been done and fail. I don’t want to write something just because I know I can, just to reaffirm what I already know. Of course, to say that I don’t want to do the same thing twice is to assume that I’ve done something in the first place. I not only don’t know what I can do, I don’t know what I’ve done. How could one, not having access to the vantage point of posterity? With every poem I’m trying to do something that I can’t achieve, to get somewhere I’ll never get. If I were able to do it, if I were able to get there, I’d have no reason to continue writing. As Allen Grossman suggests, poetry aims at the end of poetry, which is unattainable (the ends of poetry are the end of poetry). Thus poetry continues, despite the frequent reports of its death.
I would like my poetry to bring into existence something which did not previously exist, including in my mind or my intention. I want to surprise myself, to do something I didn’t plan to do or even that’s not immediately recognizable to me as something I did. (Though poet Donald Morrill, on a panel we were both on about difficulty in poetry, reminded me that not all surprises are good.) For the writer as well as for the reader, poetry should shake one out of one's habitual ways of seeing and thinking, conceiving and perceiving. As Hemingway said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the writer “should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed.” The goal is to achieve the higher level of “mastery” that permits the medium to do things of its own accord, out of its own internal logic, in which the writer participates but which the writer doesn’t determine.
I think of the poem the way that I think of a painting or a sculpture: a new entity in the world, not just a comment on the world. While meaning is hardly insignificant, it's not what defines the poem as a poem. I seek out the specificity of the poem as an event in language (“language as the material of poetry, not its mere medium or instrument,” in Stevens’s formulation), and not a recounting or re-enactment of an extra-linguistic event, though of course such events enter into poems. The poem is not hermetically sealed off from the world, but encounters and engages the world as an independent element.
The forms that these things which have not previously existed, these events that have not previously occurred, take are not predetermined. If one is sufficiently lucky and open to possibility, they can be found, they will happen, in the villanelle as well as in the most self-consciously avant-garde poem. Among others, Karen Volkman demonstrates the continuing vitality of the sonnet as a field of exploration and experimentation. As Wallace Stevens points out in his “Materia Poetica,” “All poetry is experimental poetry” (918). To maintain and expand the formal capacities of the medium is also to conserve and preserve those capacities. In Susan Stewart’s words, “The disappearance of any aesthetic form from human memory is a disaster not unlike the extinction of a species, since a realm of possible actions is now precluded and not necessarily provided with a compensatory analogue.”
As many poets have done, I look back, to the High Modernists and to the poets of the English Renaissance, to move forward. [T. S.] Eliot looked back to the English Metaphysical poets and the Jacobean dramatists, [Ezra] Pound looked back to Sappho and Catullus and to the Provençal troubadours, Stevens looked back to what critic M. H. Abrams calls the major Romantic lyric, and Paul Celan looked back to medieval German mysticism and the Hebrew Bible. Louis Zukofsky’s anti-capitalist “A 9” is modeled after Guido Cavalcanti’s canzone “Donna Mi Prega” (a poem highly recommended by Pound in his ABC of Reading).
Thus I prefer words like distinctive, different, or unique to a word like new, with all its connotations of novelty and fashion, of doing the not-yet-done for its own sake. Or perhaps, even better, the word original, which means both “of the first instance” and “of the origin, of the source.” To be original is at once to do what has not previously been done, to produce something which did not exist before, and to draw on the beginnings of one’s practice, to move forward by casting back.
I don’t write a poem and ask, “Is this new?” I ask, “Is this individual, distinctive, unique?“ Of course, for a poem to be completely unique, for it to have no relationship to anything that’s come before, would be for it not to be a poem at all. As would be the case for the completely new poem.
Forms, styles, modes, and genres don’t have intrinsic meanings or values. A self-consciously avant-garde poem can be as rote as the most bland pseudo-autobiographical anecdote, if its writing is not approached in a true spirit of adventuring into possibility. Simply to seek the new for its own sake is a shallow and pointless affair, like chasing after the latest fashions. As the New Wave group Talk Talk sang, mocking such a dedicated follower of fashion, “She’ll wear anything you can’t recognize.” And too often, of course, one does recognize it.
One is always setting out in search of the new, as Baudelaire wrote, seeking out what does not yet exist. But I would rather write a good poem than a new poem. And many of the varieties of “the new” currently on offer seem rather shopworn and aged. [Arthur] Rimbaud wrote that it is necessary to be absolutely modern (il faut être absolument moderne). As if in response, Wallace Stevens wrote that “[o]ne cannot spend one’s time in being modern when there are so many more important things to be” (912).
Stevens also wrote that “[n]ewness (not novelty) may be the highest individual value in poetry. Even in the meretricious sense of newness a new poem has value” (914). Too many poets confuse novelty with genuine newness. “The essential fault of surrealism is that it invents without discovering. To make a clam play an accordion is to invent not to discover” (Stevens 919). This is a fault shared by too much of the contemporary American poetic avant-garde: it is filled with entirely too many accordion-playing clams.
Any artistic medium calls forth a self and a world which exist specifically in their relationship to that medium, a self which did not exist prior to that engagement. As Yeats wrote, the self who writes is not the self who sits down to dinner or reads the evening paper. Contrary to Mikhail Bakhtin’s assertion that the lyric is monologic (as opposed to the novel’s “dialogized heteroglossia”), the lyric problematizes and decenters the univocal speaking subject. The self in the most determinedly confessional poem is still a mask, a construct. In his essay “The Metaphysical Poets,” Eliot writes that “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads [Baruch] Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes” (1975: 64). Eliot’s statement needs to be amended to acknowledge that such a perfectly receptive state (for it is receptivity and attention of which he is writing) is always an asymptote, striven for but never achieved, and that the poet’s mundane experience as an ordinary individual is no less chaotic, irregular, and fragmentary than anyone else’s. As Eliot points out in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “It is not in his personal emotions . . . that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting” (43). The difference is what one makes of those fragments of experience, what and what kind of order, however tenuous and contingent, one brings to the chaos of quotidian life.
I would like each poem of mine to be as close to perfection as possible, and I think that good poems are much more rare than some believe them to be. I would also like my work to be more than just an accumulation of good poems, difficult as even a single good poem is to achieve. I would like the whole to add up to more than the sum of its parts. Eliot said that this is one test of a major poet (his example was George Herbert): “a major poet is one the whole of whose work we ought to read, in order fully to appreciate any part of it” (1957: 44). Each individual part illuminates and is illuminated by both every other part and the corpus as a whole. To produce such a body of work is one of my goals as a writer.
Obviously one can’t predict this about one's own work or about the work of one's contemporaries. But in his late poems “The Planet on the Table” and “As You Leave the Room,” Wallace Stevens was able to look back on his life's work and know that he had accomplished something that mattered: “his poems, although makings of his self, / Were no less makings of the sun.” And Pound could look back at The Cantos, his failed epic, and realize that, though he had tried to write paradise, he could not make it cohere.
I won’t live to know whether my work has outlived me. But one can’t predict the future in general, and this doesn’t prevent us from making decisions that influence, change, and often determine that future. The future isn’t wholly unknowable, and the future doesn’t just happen: in large part we make it. This works no differently in poetry than in any other field of endeavor. There is no guarantee that one will reach any of one’s goals in this life. But not to struggle toward those goals is to guarantee that they won't be attained. I choose, in the words of [Alfred, Lord] Tennyson’s “Ulysses”, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
And never to forget beauty, however strange or difficult.
Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Christian Lenhardt. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.
Danto, Arthur C. “Surface Appeal.” The Nation 284, no. 4 (January 29, 2007).
Eliot, T. S. On Poetry and Poets. New York: Farrar Strauss and Cudahy, 1957.
Eliot, T. S. Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot. Ed. Frank Kermode. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1975.
Grossman, Allen. The Sighted Singer: Two Works on Poetry for Readers and Writers. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Shetley, Vernon. “America’s Big Heart.” Metre 10 (Autumn 2001).
Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose. New York: Library of America, 1997.
Stewart, Susan. “The State of Cultural Theory and the Future of Literary Form.” Profession 93. Ed. Phyllis Franklin. New York: Modern Language Association, 1993.
From Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry, published by the University of Michigan Press. Copyright © 2007 by Reginald Shepherd. Used by permission of the estate of Reginald Shepherd.