My statement of poetics is going to be a personal narrative of sorts.
I spent my twenties in the Bay Area - at one of the origin points
for what came to be known as "language poetry" and I am,
as you may know, one of the people associated with that group. But
when I've said that, what have I said really? That group is as varied,
as diverse as any poetic school you can think of. So I want to look
farther back - at what first drew me to poetry. When I was a teenager,
I was given an anthology and the poets I most loved there were William
Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson. So I was drawn to poems that
seemed as if they were either going to vanish or explode - to extremes,
in other words, radical poetries. But how do we define "radical?"
Perhaps by how much is put at risk in the text, how far the arc of
implication can reach and still seem apt. But so much rides, as always,
on that word "seems." Is a writing radical when it risks
being wrong, when it acknowledges our wrongness? I think my poetry
involves an equal counter-weight of assertion and doubt. It's a Cheshire
poetics, one that points two ways then vanishes in the blur of what
is seen and what is seeing, what can be known and what it is to know.
That double-bind. But where was I?
I was saying that I discovered Williams (and the other Imagists)
early on and was very much moved by them. By what though? I would
say now it was by their attempt to make the object speak, to put things
in dialogue with mind and somehow make them hold up their end of the
conversation. This is both an important project and a doomed one.
The world enters the poem only through a kind of ventriloquy. Thing
and idea don't really merge, as the poets themselves knew. Williams'
red wheelbarrow is essentially separate from the "so much"
that depends upon it. But there is so much poignancy in that gap!
It is as if the Imagist poet wants to spin around suddenly and catch
the world unaware, in dishevelment, see it as it is when we're not
looking. And how can we not want that?
One of my favorite Williams' poems is "The Attic Which Is Desire."
This poem does an amazing balancing act; it is simultaneously a realist
depiction of an urban scene and an apotheosis of projected desire.
I encountered it when I was quite young and discovering sexuality.
I understood the poem's narrow, vaginal column of text, transfixed
by the ejaculatory soda, as an amazing embodiment. I loved the way
the poem was both about orgasm and about seeing the lights of a sign
reflected in a dark window. In other words, I liked its doubleness.
That's not a term usually associated with Imagism, perhaps. As Bob
Perelman has pointed out, Pound praised H.D.'s writing by saying it
was "straight as the Greek" and with no "slither."It
took me awhile to see the gynophobia behind such rhetoric. I wanted
my Imagism and my slither too. My precision and my doubleness.
My earliest published poems were minimalist and neo-Imagist. A good
example would be "View," a poem from my first book, Extremities.
Looking back on it now, I see in "View" an exacerbated form
of the doubleness which interested me in Williams' "Attic."
"View" has not only two meanings, but two dissonant meanings.
On the one hand, "we" (an already suspect first person plural)
want to see the moon as separate from our own activity (a bit of the
world caught unawares). On the other hand, our yearning is framed
by deflating cliches. To want the moon is to want the impossible.
Our thrust toward the non-human moon can't escape the gravity of received
language. The purportedly single voice of the nature lover and the
words of a somewhat cynical crowd seem to collide. So this is a poetics
of collisions and overlaps, contested spaces. The border of the public
and private is just such a contested space. To use dream imagery in
a poem, for instance, is to expose something private, but what if
a recent film inspired the dream? As I have become increasingly conscious
of such contested spaces and the voices that articulate them, my poems
have become somewhat longer and more complicated.
The concept of voice has long been associated with poetry. We all
hear voices, on the radio, in the newspaper, in memory. As Whitman
says, "I contain multitudes." As Satan says, "My name
is legion." Various voices speak in my poems. I code shift. I
am many things: a white person, a working class person with roots
in the South, a woman, an academic of sorts, a 60's person who still
likes rock and roll, someone who was raised on the Bible, a skeptic,
etc. My voices manifest their own social unrest. In the last decade
or so, academics have been raising the question of who speaks in literary
works, who speaks and for whom. There is a contemporary poetry which
enacts these same questions, a poetics of the cross-roads.
As I looked over my poems, trying to extract a "poetics"
for this talk, I noticed how often my poems parody and undermine some
voice of social control. My poem, "A Story" (from Made To
Seem) might be an example of that. In "A Story" the characters
of the Good Mother and the Doctor try to keep things in their proper
places. They want pleasure postponed, categories upheld. The Child
who pinches her nipples and the Stubborn Old Woman who thinks a name
is a fiction are skeptics and dissidents. There is a way in which
I am all of these characters - the doctor and the mother as well as
the rebellious old woman and the child. These power struggles begin
in the public sphere and are reenacted in private. The mother is charged
with reproducing the social (linguistic) body within the single body
of the child. (Clearly, gender has a lot to do with the power struggles
in my poems. Increasingly so, perhaps.)
Would Pound have seen such confusion as a kind of distasteful "slither?"
Then let me appropriate an ally by invoking a Dickinson poem I love,
the one commonly known as "A Narrow Fellow In The Grass."
Pound called for "direct treatment of the thing" and Narrow
Fellow certainly isn't that. Dickinson never identifies what she's
seen as a snake. She first personifies it, rather comically, as a
fellow. (Note the mock casualness, the mock intimacy there. Dickinson
is mistress/master of sinister humor.) The snake is then Him, capitalized
like God. Subsequently it appears as a comb, a rather phallic shaft
and a whiplash. It is gendered male - but then so is Dickinson - she
presents herself as a boy. So the gender dynamic is complex. There
is more going on than a virginal fear of penetration. The last two
lines evoke vividly the fear the snake arouses - but I would argue
that, like Satan in Paradise Lost, the snake is the real hero of the
poem. Dickinson's persona, the barefoot boy, is just too cordial with
"Nature's People." There's something almost Norman Rockwell-esque
about this boy, reaching to "secure" whatever he sees. He
deserves the unsecurable, eerie snake who "occasionally rides."
Dickinson, I would argue, is at least as much the snake as the boy.
Her poems reveal the fissures in identity and ideology.
And now back to me. There's no good segue back from Dickinson. But,
in their own way, I think, my poems enact such fissures. They are
composed of conflicting voices. Formally, too, they are often disjunctive.
The relation between stanza and stanza or section and section is often
oblique, multiple or partial. This isn't an accident. It's a way to
explore the relation of part to whole. This relation is a vexed one.
Does the part represent the whole? Is metaphor fair to the matter
it represents/ Does representative democracy work? I think of my poetry
as inherently political. (though it is not a poetry of opinion). In
an optimistic mood, one might see the multiple, optional relations
of parts in such work as a kind of anarchic cooperation.
Finally, poetry, at least the poetry I value, can reproduce our conflicts
and fractures and yet be held together in the ghost embrace of assonance
and consonance, in the echoed and echoing body of language.