20 Questions for Robert Kelly
ROBERT KELLY (193 5-) WAS BORN IN BROOKlyn, New York. He attended City College and Columbia University and, in i960, with Jerome Rothenberg, formulated the ‘Deep Image” concept of poetry. He has taught literature and writing at Bard College since 1961, where he is now the Asher B. Edelman Professor of Languages and Literature. He lives with his wife, the translator, Charlotte Mandell, in Red Hook, New York. He is probably the most prolific American poet of the 20th and (so far) 21st century, being the author of over sixty collections of poetry, several novels, four works of short fiction, and two theoretical/critical books. He has also published The Garden of Distances, a collaboration with the Tfrolean painter Brigitte Mahlknecht, and Shame/Scham, a collaboration with the German poet, Birgit Kempker. His most recent full-length collection of poetry is Lapis (2005).
The range of Kelly’s interests and formal competence is enormous. He is inventive in the way that Picasso was: he can improvise intelligently and imaginatively on anything that strikes his ear, heart, or gaze. Kelly thinks of the poet as a scientist of holistic understanding, a world scholar to whom all data whatsoever are of use. Considering his achievement up through the mid-igyos, Guy Davenport wrote (in Vort 5, a special issue of the magazine dedicated to Kelly’s work): ‘No American poet except perhaps Wallace Stevens has his sense of balance in a line. What Eliot and Pound slaved over Kelly seems to have an innate gjftfor balancing out… And he prefers a multiple subject. He has the Chinese sense of bringing diverse things together into a stark- symbol, and is happiest when he himself can’t quite see the meaning of the sign he’s made. Thus his poems are mysteries to be pondered, something to dream on rather than to puzzle out. To understand in our times has sadly come to mean to dismiss; Kelly moves in the opposite direction. I should think that he would be interesting to the philosophers (had we any), for he seems to me to be a man determined to think deeply and carefully about Being itself (perhaps the one subject that pervades his poetry).’
For readers new to Kelly’s writing, I suggest the following: in 10,81, Jed Rasula edited The Alchemist to Mercury, 200 pages of poems not collected in Kelly’s Black Sparrow Press volumes, fourteen of which were published between ig68 and 2005. The Alchemist to Mercury includes the 17 page poem “The Exchanges,” an excellent piece in which to dig. Black Sparrow Press published a Selected Poems (1960-1993), in 1995, called Red Actions. It is a fine overview. In it, I recommend, especially for someone new to Kelly, “Last Light,” “In Mahler’s Sleep,” “The Centerfielder,” the sections from “Postcards from the Underworld” and “A Stone Wall in Providence,” and then, to move into a more complex register, “Man Sleeping,” and “The Door.” Kelly’s single, finest book, in my opinion, is the long poem The Loom (1975), which is a symphonic display of all his talents. It is also extremely readable, and filled with lyrical meditations out of which fantastic narratives (Kelly calls them “Recitals”) erupt.
CLAYTON ESHLEMAN: How would you characterize the primary innovative events in the American poetry of the 1960s? How have such events developed or vanished over the past thirty years?
ROBERT KELLY: The poem is the shaping of time, it is shaping by language (words plus silence plus intonation) our experience of time. So the poem is a score, a language mise-en-page for the reader as performer. The reader as performer. A peak shared by unlikely mountaineers: O’Hara, Blackburn, Mac Low-all demanded an alert performing of the page from the reader, otherwise nothing would make sense. That score idea has diminished in recent years-you need it for O’Hara, but not for Ashbery. You need it for Blackburn but not for Creeley, who has a different sense of compelling music. Or maybe just a simpler music, more simply scored.
But innovation is such a slippery word, a promo word, shiny, easy packaging kind of word. Every time two words rub up against each other in a proposition, or in a public space (which is always what language is) where propositions arise, imply, kiss, depart, then that’s new. Innovation is what we do all the time. So I would say, in terms of your question, that the innovative events of the (late 50s and) 60s, those individual sudden awarenesses of what could be done-like Mac Low’s The Pronouns, Olson’s Maximus, Spicer’s whole work utterly lyric yet utterly remote from sentimentality, Duncan’s Pindar and the prose-rhytiimed Structure of Rime, Blackburn’s Journals, Greeley’s miraculous breath alone as music, his suspensions, Ashbery’s gorgeous lyrical disconnects, Berrigan’s sonnets, Lansing’s symphonic essays cloaked in poem raiment -all that is still with us. Look at Macke/s miraculous polyphonic Gassir workings. Nothing has been lost, as impetus. The only thing that strikes me as having vanished is the page itself-the page as the stage on which the poem acts. That tradition, sternming from Mallarme and Apollinaire, climaxing in Pound and Olson, has drifted out of sight now-partly I’m sure from the technology of web ‘pages’-the page now is of infinite length, so there is no longer a rectangle (golden or otherwise) within which our words disport themselves. Now if s the endless going down-as if Kerouac’s teletype roll were the defining trope for all computer poetry and internet poetic presence. The words run towards us frontally-there’s not much lateral thrust in contemporary work. And the oral delivery of poetry has literally no space for the lateral gesture, if s all ongoing-through-time, therefore linear-in a way that written poetics had escaped half a century ago. Much contemporary practice-on screen or podium-is essentially retro, restoring (or confining) poetry to the linearity and literalness in time of ancient spoken poetry. That is a real achievement, a presentness and gift. But there’s also the loss of something we used to know and practice not so long ago: the sideways maneuver, the quick shunt from the margin that carried us out of time.
CE: In a recent interview, thinking of the future and what you might hope for poetry in it, you wrote: “Perhaps poets will reach towards a kind of star-like, radiating continuity, something that makes the poem in front of you continuous with all your experience.” Gould you open up that statement and concretize it with some examples?
RK: If I can just get the reader to keep reading past the end of the line, edge of the page, her eye will presently engage with the world. Then a new line begins again, summoning him back to the book. In this shuttling forth and back the weaving of that continuity will occur. Continuity in Sanskrit is tantra, a word that also means loom, and weaving on me loom. The star-like radiating (I had forgotten this phrase, and thank you for reminding me) means to me that the poem has to be, or be read as, an event in the space of the world. No aesthetic isolation-no more than a cathedral is isolated from the marketplace in which it stands, the beggars on the steps, the weary tourists taking photos. The poem has to be like that, accessible from within life, and at the same time offering a way out. Through the portal of the cathedral, you enter sacred space. Where another kind of tourism takes its pilgrim course. You ask for examples, and I’m answering with architecture. Sorry. I have the poets reaching towards that continuity-more a stance for them, a way of gesturing as men and women towards the men and women who read them, I’m not talking about performance here, or performance space-that can get lost in the abyss of Entertainment or Education. I’m talking about an attitude in the language and gesture and urgency of the poem or text itself, one that invites the reader to work with it, dance it might even be with it, interact, bringing the reader’s expectations of form and story to a text that proposes to deny them both in aid of some more intense transaction, a more pungent giving. The poet needs to leave space for the reader to enter. “I am the Door,” said Jesus, the great poet who instructs us in John’s Gospel. The poem must be the door. Examples? Dickinson. Olson. Ashbery. Language civil in its permission to engage.
CE: You once wrote, in 1973, that “short poems don’t teach a poet how to live.” I wonder if you still believe that today. If so, how do you understand your statement relative to the poetry of Bashd, Cid Corman, and Robert Creeley?
RK: Basho did not look to poetry to learn how to live. For better or worse, he had the fierce light of the Buddha’s teachings to help him with that. Creeley did not write short poems, in my sense of ‘short’-and to my mind Creeley was richest, best, when he gave himself the time to go onward. Time to go onward. Poetry doesn’t in general teach how to live, does it? Doesn’t it rather speak, out of living, a word that only living knows, but only the poem can speak? Poetry reveals, tells, even shows. But only life teaches how to live. Poetry listens.
CE:Please comment oh the following words:
RK: Once I called craft “perfected attention,” and somehow that phrase caught on a while, long enough to be quoted. I think if s true enough as stated; I could gloss it: listen. Listen all the time. Listen especially to the spaces between words, the friction that rubs there, word against word, sound eliciting sound-from such attentions, propositions speak, images arise, truth happens. That is the truth: truth happens. As we speak. What the poet has to do is constantiy look away from the poet’s own intentions, own meaning, and focus intendy, intentiy, on what’s going on with the words in front The words that alone can speak what you really mean.
RK: I don’t know much about these simians and their postulated linguistic gestures. In fact, I have trouble with all the apes and monkeys. I want to look away. I am Darwinian enough to see them, like ourselves, as products of evolution. But I am sad when I look at mem, because they seem to be descended from us, from humans; they have continued evolving in directions I find comprehensible but immensely sad. They are my lost children. Of course they’ll retain some linguistic enterprise (as we retain coccyges and appendices)-vestiges of what they were. I dunk we should look away in modesty and pudor from the simians, and leave them to the sensuous journey, so different from our own, on which they have perhaps willingly embarked. We can’t help them except by carefully refraining from harming them by hunting, imprisonment, vivisection. Vivisection of any creature is hellish-of a simian if s a blasphemy.
RK: Well, I’ve had a lot to say about tins in many places, most recentiy, and most explicitly in a long review of Peter Lamborn Wilson’s book on Atlantis (Shivastan Press), which I think is the best and briefest of all books on that subject I have only one contribution to the idea or practice of Atlantis -it is this. Consider how so much of the ancient scriptural and mythological material that has come our way over the past few thousand years often has to be understood in rather a special sense-typically, backwards or upside down from the ‘plain’ meaning. (I have been working secredy for years on a Project Achorei that reads Genesis and Exodus that way-hint Cain means strong, Abel means vain, empty. Hint we are born from women’s bodies-when Genesis shows the opposite, it is teaching us how to read the rest of sacred history.) Back to Atlantis. I know how to find Adantis, the real Adantis. Follow this thought experiment: the sea level changed. But the sea did not rise, it sank. Adantis did hot sink invisibly below the waves. It rose invisibly to be part of the land-it is hidden in plain sight to this day. Now find that hill on which the seven terraces of its citadel once rose.
RK: His is the voice of my childhood as much as any other-Bugs’s sassy sagacity, decency and teasingness, struck me as plausible armor in a Fudd world, full of softy dopes with guns. Here he was, impossibly long ears, in and out of every hole. But those tiresome carrots. I ask you, did you ever try to eat a carrot? No wonder they call them crudités in me Old Country.
RK: Ah, my closet I love the word, the thing, the environment I’m very, very claustrophobic-so in all my life, par exemple, I’ve only twice ventured into a cave, and the last one was a pretty modest cave indeed. But in the closet fear turns into desire, as Dante says. The closet, stuffed with tender garments and floored with weird obstacles-boots, vacuum cleaners (maybe even your old Kirby), boxes of ornaments;-what a place this is to experience the fear, and inside me fear find oneself, me only breathing entity (you hope) inside the closet, alone. What a place of discovery! And the only thing to discover there is yourself-body and soul, time sense, space sense, trusting the hands to touch and know, trusting the nose. Total darkness. For a kid living in a crowded, small apartment the closet was heavenly silence and solitude. The smallest, tightest place became a glorious and innocent Mojave of silence. (This is the paradox, I come to know now, that is the heart of poetry. The smallest is the largest a poem is a topological solid whose interior is larger than its exterior.) (As an aside, I’d refer here to the collaborative work I’ve done with the German poet Birgit Kempker, exploring the trope of the closet (Ein Kollahor) and shame (Scham/Shame).)
CE: Around 1980, I believe, you lost a lot of weight, some 200 pounds as I recall. What effects has this regenerational act had on your life and work? I recall that you once wrote that doctors had told you that you would not reach your 35th birthday. Your weight loss at 45 must have been a tremendous second life confirmation.
RK: The real affirmation was passing 35-and right after my 36m birthday-as you well know, we were together in Los Angeles, you in Sherman Oaks and me in Altadena-I began The Loom, the longest single stretch of poetry I’ve ever done. And it was with a “Look, we have come through!” (DHL) attitude that I began it I felt freer than I had ever felt in my life. I was in the clearing now, and all my time was free.
Then, as you say, losing all that weight in 1979-1980. That was affirmation too. Suddenly, the greatest tiling (something most people will never experience), suddenly I was invisible. That is, I looked like anybody else. Talk about freedom! All my life I had been cynosure, collected every stare and many a rude remark. Now there I was, mid-40s, healthy, and indistinguishable half a block away from any other tall white male. I could walk down a street all to myself, and people passed with the celestial civility of inattention! It was wonderful. I still enjoy it. Even thirty years later I still expect to see those eyes swivel towards me. And they don’t And if they do, if s because someone knows me.
CE: One of your salient self-commands is “write everything,” which has appeared in Finding the Measure, The Loom, and Kill the Messenger. How are we readers to understand such an admonition? What role does it play in the size of your body ofwork?
RK: Write everything. It came to me that way, the way certain words or sentences do, coming from on high, or from down low, if s not up to me to decide about that, just to listen. Listen and think it through. You call it ‘self-command,’ a phrase with a whole other range of meaning, but I can accept it here-certainly a command to myself, but I’m not sure if it was, is, a command from myself. Doesn’t matter. To me, the command (and that’s what it does amount to) to write everything meant this: when something comes to mind, deal with it When a word or phrase comes into mind or mourn, deal with it Deal with it – write it down. Inscribe it, and work with it Work with the words that are, as Olson said, before us, there, on the paper, under hand. With the same fidelity that Jackson Mac Low addressed the results of his chanceful procedures and strategies, I try to address the words that begin. So what comes to mind becomes the matrix, casual, random to whatever degree the neuronal processes of a human are random, the matrix from which poems come. Another thing that ‘write everything’ means is something trivially like Keats’ great articulation of Negative Capability, in this case, meaning never to resist the words under hand if they say, or seem to be saying, something “I” don’t like or don’t believe or don’t want “I” have no business in that stage of the poem. If the poem is ever going to be greater than the poet’s self-awareness. If the poem is ever going to be itself.
Incidentally, write everything doesn’t mean write anything. So I don’t think my obedience to that stem command has much to do with the size of me body of my work.
What it does influence though is the variegation of my work, all the kinds of writing that come to me to want to be done. Let me tell you an anecdote. In a London pub once, standing around with some English poets, a man just introduced to me said Aha, so you’re the Kelly who defeated Eric Mottram! I asked what on earth he meant, I loved Eric, no way I’d fight with him, let alone defeat him. No, no, the man said, Eric wanted to write a study of you and your work, but you do too many things, write too many kinds of things, and he felt baffled and over-challenged. That did not make me feel happier. But if s something that comes from my obedience to the Write Everything command-mis past summer, I suddenly found myself writing a play, obedient to a tide that spoke into my head: Oedipus Aficr Colonus. And so it had to be written, and I had nothing but the tide to goon.
CE: In your poem on one of Messiaen’s Symphonies, “Turangalila Meditation,” you write:
The fat space of the cathedral chants her dark
litanies, the cool grey stone light of the Lady
lets me sit down. There is rest here. The traffic
is not far. I hear it
through the ideal blue of the ogival windows,
glass stained color of consciousness, love her,
everywhere I have gone was for her sake
In otiier poems in Kill the Messenger, you wrote: “Love means to find / your original religion,” and “Eros was my master.” Here we have a cluster of vectors: love, religion, and Eros. The “her” in the cathedral appears to be the Virgin Mary (in contrast to a living woman). Tell me about the role women play in your poetry.
RK: Novalis says somewhere: My Beloved is shorthand for the Universe. Somedung like that Never, never the Virgin Mary in contrast to ‘a living woman.’ The blue-robed Madonna in the window is a picture, ‘ill-silenced by the [glass] itself,’ of a living woman. The woman to whom such constant (do you find it tiresome? some do, maybe I do too, from time to time, but who am I? My views are not the point.) references gesture is the woman who stands before me. To whom it wants in me to speak. That’s all. There’s no definition I could give of woman, or prescription for how or what she is or should be. Every woman is different. And there is no essential woman, any more than an essential man. Dozens of genders and thousands of sexes, but only one you. Everything I have spoken was for her sake, this ‘you’ to whom I speak. The living woman. You (as Whitman, no woman in mind, surely, wrote), you who are holding me now in your hands.
CE: The tide-Kill the Messenger-puzzles me. According to the book’s tide page, the full tide appears to be: “Kill the messenger / who brings bad news- / the world is only / description.” How do you intend this tide to be read? Didn’t Bruno bring bad news?
RK: And those who thought that the news Bruno brought was bad news, they up and killed him for bringing it. But for us, he brought very good news indeed: we can change me sky, can change the stars that preside over our birth-the way Robert Duncan used to say that you can’t pick your parents but you can pick your grandparents-as he chose Baudelaire and Brahms to be his.
My point in choosing that tide was not so much the killing as the only, “the world is only description.” The world we describe (to ourselves, to other people, and obviously to posterity) is the only world there is. The world (to amplify Wittgenstein) is whatever has been asserted to be the case. How we describe the world conditions utterly how we live in it. And how we live in our minds and souls and hearts as we do go on living in the described world-Rilke’s ‘interpreted world’.
CE: In your marvelous 1993 poem, “Man Sleeping,” you write:
No one will relinquish money, a revolution
is shattering mirrors only,
doesn’t change the endless empire of Light,
every blood-slimed sliver of the glass still reflects
the intolerable injustice of this one-life universe.
One might conclude from such a statement that you do not believe we can change the way things are. And it is also true that you have written “We are silenced by the way things are.” But as I understand your body of work, its primary drive is to change the way things are. Are poets locked into an impossible situation in this regard?
RK: The situation is possible. An effective outcome is unlikely. But we must work for it. Changing the base-Stalin denied that linguistic (poetic) change could affect the working mind of society. I think it can. The Marxisant poets of the 80s (Language poets, etc.) soldiered on, fueled by that great hope. I don’t know any poets nowadays who still evince much in the way of hope (other than for venal entitlements of job and fame). But hope is still one of the ‘theological virtues’-the three virtues (strengths) by which we speak God into me world. Faith, Hope, Love. Yes, my body of work is driven by that hope, to change the way dungs are, to open onto an otherness from which our own true instinct towards kindness and love might welcome a nurturing breath from a harmless world. I am a child trying to talk my way out of punishment. I am trying to talk the killer out of killing us. I am trying to beguile the monarch into listening to my stupid poem instead of killing anybody at all. A one-life universe is unjust, is terrible. We must live again. The poem must give us the will to want to, the gumption to get around to life.
CE: Michael McClure wrote (in the early 1970s) that “It is conceivable that the most colossal example of vanity that can be found in history is held by the peoples of contemporary North America.” How does this statement reverberate, or not, to you today?
I recall in this context lines from a poem in your 1998 book, The Time of Voice: “o my country / how I long to love you, / be love-worthy, be factual, / be a face / of liberty / and let love in…” What would have to happen for you to be able to love the United States now?
RK: America. How can I answer? I love the skin and rock and skies, and the people of us, our ways, our folkish madness. I do not love our masters. I do not love the word democracy as it is used to hide from us the fearful (in both senses) oligarchs who rule us. I don’t think it has much to do witii the United States. It is the world, or the world now. We are complicit in a vast nightmare of enslavement, indifference, control. Sony/BMG hurts the world as much as Monsanto does-mind-control by mass music, lifestyle compulsion tiirough image-manipulation (Entertainment is the largest single industry in America, and sculpts the world more than the Pentagon has managed to do). I do not like war, and think it is always evil. We have lived for more than a century with that evil. Even the Civil War was evil-our bloodiest war yet, and some other way had to be found. And the War in Iraq is the vilest evil we have yet contrived. We sink, we sink lower-and I say we only to the extent that we tolerate (and god forgive some of us, actually endorse) the vileness of our masters. We know not what we do. If some states seceded, some states whose populations abstained from war and mass imprisonment of minorities, then those states could be the Re-United States of righteousness, and those I could love. But for the moment, I can only love America. Which was before our politics. And will be after. America in eternity. You know it too. Every honest word is an act of contrition. Every word is a pledge of allegiance.
CE: When we read Zukofsky’s translation of Catullus, are we reading Catullus? Or Zukofsky? Or something else? What do you consider to be the value of homeophonic translations?
RK: Answering the last part first: the value of all procedures and constraints used by the poet Procedures and constraints are powerful tools, but theyare tools to build the house we have in mindespecially the house we have in mind but don’t know it, or don’t know if s there, or how if s shaped. I mean that homeophonic translation (or any other strategy of compelling words to appear where none, or others, were before), is finally of greatness and power when it succeeds in shaking something out of me poef s head, shocking the poet into seeing what was never mere: letting her shout out with full conviction what she didn’t know, a second before, that she meant at all. And now she’ll stake her life on it, because that is what one does, in fact, in the poem, throw a handful of grit into the machinery of eternity and change, hopelessly change, the pattern of the real. Any poem does tiiis, and the more it changes and defies and renews and challenges the reader’s expectation, his habit of attention, the better the poem does its work. When I hear Celan or Holderlin as English, I am hearing that most wondrous music, a song nobody sang. So, to answer neither Catullus nor Zukofsky. No One’s Song we hear, like Celan’s famous No One’s Rose. But if s Zukofsky’s ears we bless, his ‘lute’ for letting us hear.
CE: Here are a few names for you to respond to:
RK: Damn braces, bless relaxes, said Blake. Davis relaxes, I guess, irritates me. Too smooth, too crossover, too popular, too smoky, too clean. I feel I ought to say something, at least, given your question, to bring jazz in. Not that I know much about it. Fats Waller when I was a child, Parker when I was half-grown, a one-night stand with John Birks Gillespie in San Francisco, Don Cherry on Tenth Street, Ornette all the time. But thaf s not a life with jazz-if s moments of vivid interruption during my Mahler life, Bellini life, Biber fife, Strauss life, Bach life.
RK: Blank. I really don’t know him. Sorry. I gather he’s a comedian, from seeing ads. Never saw him in a movie or on TV. You maybe are just teasing me with this reference, since I think you know how notorious I am for not being fond of narrative film, but for loving ‘experimental’ films. As far as I’m concerned, and I know I’m eccentric here, there really is in film a place for story, but only when it makes its way to the viewer by eye (Atom Egoyan, say, or Tarkovsky, or the supreme Sokurov) rather than by dialogue (TrufFaut, Cassavetes) or narration. Think of the way Pasolini, who is a powerful writer and poet, nevertheless does it all in film by eye. What a great being he was. Right up there with Brakhage and Bergman. Anyhow, my heroes of comedy are the purely visual: Keaton, Tan”, Uoyd, Chaplin.
RK: You’re the second person to ask me about him today. With his quiet, tenebrous anxieties so elegantly summoned, aired-he’s the one who taught, told, most of us, the white audience, what we needed to know, so little wanted to know. About race, yes, but not just race but all the shades and infamies and tendernesses of human difference. And he did so with a beauty of style, a parlando eloquence, unstoppable flow, that made us listen. Made me listen. Thanks for reminding me of him.
RK: Greatest underappreciated sculptor of our time, maybe the truest one. Instead of sculpting objects (Moore, Lipchitz) or environment/atmospheres (Smithson, Serra), he sculpted vast invisible art works that stand solid in the sky as buildings. We call it architecture, and smile, and walk in and out. But he gestures in the sky (Sagrada Familia) or on the ground (Pare Guell) and the gestures last. He’s wonderful. He made the angels smile.
RK: That grand era of art, the body gesture lifting to the sky, intercepted, “ill-silenced” by the canvas itself. She was I suppose the last of them, the painters who threw themselves into the marks the body’s gestures make on surfaces, the self as fresco, sudden, vivid. In my mind, she inherits a little of the excitement I felt around Kline and de Kooning in The Old Days, that the mark can be enough, the gesture can hold space intact, the gesture can be mark, And the mark can be read. I haven’t followed her work particularly, which I suppose means something. It pleases me to look at it, but it has not yet drawn me to build a house in the mind around her way of work.
CE: How do you understand “improvisation” in poetry?
RK: All poetry is improvisation. It is listening to the voice in the head (no bets on where that voice resides, or where it is coming from, or what ‘from’ could possibly mean), listening: to the first thing that comes to mind. Then following up on that, riffing on that, sometimes with a formal intention, sometimes (better) just the intention towards form.
So called jazz-poetry misses the point. Poetry is there already-doing it ‘with’ music or ‘to’ music just hides either the real poetry or the inept imagination of the performer. Poetry is the other side of music. And in any case, poetry is doing what jazz is doing, but with greater freedom-no chart, no time signature, no dance floor packed with rowdies. It is improvisation at its purest. Something out of nothing.
CE: Write me a poem here called “Moments with Shostakovich.”
RK: Here is the poem, I wrote it as soon as I read the question-so it’s the first question answered of all these. Thanks (as they say) for asking!
MOMENTS WITH SHOSTAKOVICH
I am fourteen it is New York
he is walking towards me, his sallow
face his glasses the two goons beside him
keeping him in line, the world’s
greatest composer (Strauss has died)
walking towards me towards me,
I stand in awe but try not to look
impressed, I am a kid, as a kid
I am always performing for myself
just like the poet I would become
or am I, I am I am a poet Williams
said was he speaking for me then
there with the Waldorf-Astoria
then the classiest joint in America
hovering over D. D. Shostakovich
walking towards fat little Robertas
Jacobus whose heart filled immensely
with the authenticity of this
unbelievable occasion, me with him
on this very street in my own town
forever I am real! this is now! this is
the real thing the real world, I am in it
at last, here he comes the man
whose music lives in my head
we share space, I belong to the world!
By now they had passed, maybe
he was smoking, I probably was,
maybe he caught my adoring eye
maybe he saw it was all too full
of self-importance to see him,
too busy with l-am-with-Shosty
to actually be with him, there,
on the grey street, a frail unhappy
looking man between his two
apathetically vigilant bodyguards
and they too might like him have
looked at me then looked away.
Actually, a few months ago I wrote a number of pieces ‘listening through’ some of the Shostakovich preludes and fugues. That was part of a big cycle of compositions, working also through Biber sonatas, Bax orchestral works, and most of the Mozart piano concertos. At the moment, I am working on a text ‘listening through’ Frances Prelude, Chorale and Fugue as performed by Robin Freund-Epstein, towards a live enactment with her of music and text next spring. But I’m very happy that you made me write a new Shostakovich poem, one that, as you see, breaks into the stifled air of my childhood, to reclaim a memory thaf s important to me. A child, even a child, is in the world.
CE: Christopher Wagstaff has written: “Robert Kelly shares the view that in poetry something of permanent and ultimate importance to man is revealed.” If you agree with Wagstaff, tell us something about the revelation of permanent and ultimate importance in poetry.
RK: I do share that view (but with whom am I said to share it?). I think it is in language that the importance (permanent is a hard word, ultimate harder, but important, yes, has import for us, big import), and poetry-which I keep defining as the shaping of time by language alone-preeminentiy allows language to do its work, work from its depths, which are our own depths, caverns to which we have-as you have shown us vividly in your poetry as well as in Juniper Fuse-access only, or perhaps most fully, in language: the linguistic consequences of what happens to us in the abyss, what we come out spouting and sometimes get to write down. It happens down there. So we have to write it down. (Prepositions, aren’t they the purest words?)
CE: You have often mentioned the word “lust” in your poetry, especially in The Loom. You have written that it is more important than truth, that there is a purity in it, that you yourself are lust, that your lust is faithless, that it monopolizes, and that “What I have made / I made from lust / for eternal conditions, / open systems.” How does lust operate in poetry?
RK: Once I wrote something like this: Fear / and lust / Trust / nothing else. I mean simply we know it when we feel lust, we know it when we feel fear. These feelings are guides. I by no means intend to endorse either as operators in a situation. No, they are criteria from which we can decide our actions. We blunder fearfully when we deny that we feel lust, or deny that we feel fear. I’m not saying (I’m not Blake) indulge the lust, indulge the fear-do as you will witii them, and it is right and good sometimes to turn away, and sometimes not-but know that they’re there, working in you. So lust is something that turns us towards the world. That is wonderful. What is terrible about lust is that what it focuses on becomes the Figure, and all the rest of the poor world just the Ground. This gestalt effect of lust is the danger-while seeming to grant more (“I want, I want!”) it confers always less and less. The more you grasp, the more you let fall away. So I speak of trusting those feelings as signpostsnot as destinations.
CE: In his 1990 book, Words With Power, Northrop Frye writes: “Blake was, so far as I knew and still know, the first person in me modern world to see the events of his day in their mythical and imaginative context. He realized that the old mythical universe, in its ideological form as a rationalizing of traditional authority, was dead, and that it was time for a new emphasis in mythology that would accommodate the revolutionary movements he saw rising all around him.”
In responding to this statement, I wonder if you would keep in mind another of WagstafPs perceptive comments on your work: “Unlike many contemporary poets, Kelly views mythology as something which arises up out of the Human mind and hence as something quite different from poetry. Because mytiiology presents a certain worldview or picture, it cannot embody the basic forms of experience in as immediate a way as poetry can. As Martin Heidegger points out, poetry exposes one to ‘divine lightnings’ rather than to worldviews.”
RK: I really don’t know what Chris means when he says that mythology is quite different from poetry. It is only different in the sense that the fruit is different from the tree, yet they can both be called ‘apple,’ yes? This one is a very important question-let me try to do something with it What comes to mind: mythos and logos started out as two words in Greek, each meaning roughly the same: ‘something spoken-a word or words together making up a story or an argument’ Over time, the mythos word (I think Pindar may be the first to use it this way) drifts away and takes on the restricted meaning of’story-not necessarily factual,’ while logos tends to be restricted to ‘statement of fact’ The former eventually gives us myth, the latter logic. But look at mythos/logos and what you really get is ‘story/telling.’ Thaf s what mythology is-mere is no myth except what is told. All the gods we know arise from telling-whether the telling of poets or the telling of’prophets.’ And Frye certainly is right about Blake, if we understand him to mean (leaving aside the tendentious remark about revolutions ‘all around’-there was only one) that Blake was the first poet willing to let myth arise out of his own telling, the first one who allowed a full-blown mythology to be told ‘in his own words.’ But tiiank God not the last what else are The Cantos, Maximus, Paterson, The Changing Light at Sandover, but myths of our day, of our telling. And in them our gods move, swift and enigmatic and confusing as ever-no clear sign ever from Zeus, the Greeks said, and our gods are no more explicit And no less energetic in the workshops of the heart and mind. If Heidegger’s lightning flashes are indeed divine, they light up-moment by moment, flash by flash-the only world there is. As poems do, in their own moments. Their flashes. Which are, alas, seldom as long lasting as the whole poem might be. The flash shows the god. The duende, we used to call it back in the 50s, stealing Lorca’s thunder to make our own lightning with.
CE: In The Time of Voice, one poem is tided “Every Language is a second Language.” Does one write poetry to break out of second language into first language? Is the language shamans tell us they hear, and converse with animals in, a first language?
RK: No, shaman talk and beast talk are second language too. First language is what happens to our skin and eyes and mind in the world, the hurt of happen. The touch of hand. The wind. We can name all those things later, but when they happen, they are first language talking to us, and we speak that language by moving, touching, tasting. I mean the movement from perception into language is far greater in its abstraction, its terror, than the movement from English to Japanese or Tibetan. My tide, its idea, is to keep people firmly aware of how remote all language is from the healing joyous horror of primary sensation.
CE: At one time you wrote: “Dreams are dragonsnorts, / worth litde.” At another “dream is translation from dreamless sleep into waking.” What is your position on dreams at this time?
RK: There have been periods (I’m in one now) when I dream obsessively, oppressively, and wake relieved by morning light. Other times I go months without dreaming (i.e., to soothe the science brethren, without remembering a single dream). In those times, I feel nostalgic about dreams, and come all over Breton-like about the magistry of the dream state, and its wisdom. Right now, I dread the dream because it imposes on the awakened dreamer the responsibility of taking notice-interpreting, maybe, or reporting it to spouse or friend or counselor, or just writing it down, or just carrying the heavy thing through the day, stubbing against odd corners of dream remnants that show up dirough the day. The converse of Freud’s famous phrase (Tagesreste) is also true: the day is a remnant left over from dream.
I also have felt for years that in addition to all the other ways dreams have been received or understood (messages from the gods, from the collective unconscious, from the personal unconscious, scraps of the day, somatic impressions symbolized as narration-cold feet dream of snow), there remains for us to explore the possibility that dream is an authentic language: that is, like any natural language, a social event, that we dream in a community. I infer that we owe it to that community to report our dreams; our dreams are for the other, are the words our nights speak to the community. Dreams are the News of the Night, and need to come to us every morning. I have some other notes on this in my old book of essays, In lime, and some more, along with other people’s responses, and community dream experiments, in Lynn Behrendf s interesting and ongoing Annandale Dream Gazette online.
CE: In “On Discourse” (1973) you posed the following question: “What is the other side of this place?” At that time, you did not respond to this question. Would you do so now?
RK: You have given the answer. The other side of this place is now. Now has been waiting for us all along. Are we ready for now yet? Maybe I should ask you.
CLAYTON ESHLEMAN’S Archaic Design (essays, prose poems, interviews, and notes) was published this past October by Black Widow Press. He and his wife Caryl wil lead their ninth tour to the Ice Age painted caves in southwestern France this coming June. For information on this unique journey, go to www.arttravel.org.
Copyright World Poetry, Incorporated Jan/Feb 2008
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved