"The notion of "reader be damned" is beyond me—why bother if that's the motivating attitude?"

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Issue 14: The Double Issue

Issue 13: Free Form

Issue 12: The Necessary Ear

Issue 11: The Necessary Eye

Issue 10: Out on a Limb

Issue 9: The Missing Body

Issue 8: The Lily

Issue 7: Passages

Issue 6: No More Tears

Featured Poet:
Steven Cramer

Steven Cramer is the author of four poetry collections: The Eye that Desires to Look Upward (1987), The World Book (1992), Dialogue for the Left and Right Hand (1997), and Goodbye to the Orchard (Sarabande Books, 2004), named a Massachusetts Honor Book in Poetry for 2005 by the Massachusetts Center for the Book. His poems and criticism have appeared in numerous literary journals, including the Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, The New Republic, The Paris Review, and Poetry. The recipient of fellowships from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, he has taught literature and writing at Bennington College, Boston University, Tufts, and M.I.T. He currently directs the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Lesley University in Cambridge.

Perihelion: Steven, it's such a pleasure to read your poems. There is wit in the fullest sense of that word: the evidence of a keen intelligence at work. Best of all is the use to which your intelligence is put: the evocation of large and human concerns from ordinary, everyday life. In Goodbye to the Orchard, for example, there is something nearly Buddhist, meditative. Your poems evoke the spiritual part of existence, not in a religious sense, but rather as an acknowledged part of the everyday while still being grounded in earthy, often sensuous details of living. Can you tell us something about your creative aims and your process?

I'll start with process. For me, writing poetry is very hard; poems don't come easily, let alone “naturally as leaves to a tree.” When I finish one, it's with as much a sense of relief as of accomplishment. Writing, for me, is only a pleasure once struggle yields (or seems to have yielded) “something understood,” to use the last two words of George Herbert's great sonnet “Prayer.” Perhaps my difficulty writing relates to your notion of something spiritual in my work. Growing up, I had no religious training—nothing spiritual to embrace or rebel against—and I often envy those who did, both for the catechism of emblematic thinking that becomes second-nature, and for the discipline such training (I gather) instills. If true meditation, like true prayer, must involve rigor—if its value, at least in part, inheres the ways it “teaches us to sit still”—perhaps I found writing because I needed difficulty, as a form, to counteract what I remember as a rather shapeless personal past.

It's hard to identify my creative aims. The word suggests, to me, a conscious sense of a “mission,” and I know I don't have that. If I take the word literally, however, I'd like my “aim” to be true—to hit whatever target I've been shooting for. If the target is a reader, I'd hope I've “hit” the reader in some way that provokes an emotion. I'm unapologetic about wanting to move the reader—not to tears, and in fact, often enough, I like the notion of moving a reader to anger, or disgust, or skepticism, or even (God help me), to some affective response akin to love. Not love for me—as the poet or the invented speaker—but maybe love for whatever aspect of human life the poem has made vivid. I'm on very thin ice here. Working on a poem, I'm trying to get something “right” according to standards I don't yet understand. After I'm done with it or it's done with me, it doesn't really belong to me anymore.

Perhaps it then belongs to the reader—the one(s) you want to move. Along with the personal “need for difficulty” (I like this as a motivation for writing poetry), can I assume there is also a need for communication of difficulty? In other words, I don't see you as espousing the idea of a poem as self-expression, purely, as some poets like to do (and reader be damned).

The notion of “reader be damned” is beyond me—why bother if that's the motivating attitude? Keep a journal. But “self-expression,” in art, seems to me an axiom—or, if it's a work of art collaboratively created, communal expression.

If a single human being—or that casserole of chemicals, fats, and fluids we call a human being—makes something out of words, and those words were chosen, not picked from a hat—then some attempt to express a self (however mediated and prismatic) is probably at work. To me, it becomes an especially interesting project if that expression of self also constitutes a scrutiny of the self as it articulates itself. That stereo, as it were, of self as speaker and as witness (for instance, the expression of love alert to its own self-consoling maneuvers and dodges) moves me perhaps more than any other kind of lyric writing. As far as I know, Shakespeare's sonnets reached the apogee of this kind of complexity in English poetry; in American poetry, Emily Dickinson did so.

I prefer to think of the need for communication as the injunction to be interesting. Sometimes communicating difficulty is how a poem interests its audience; sometimes it interests by making subtle adjustments to simple formulations of language—thereby reasserting, disarmingly, common truths. I'd hate to do without either option, as a writer or as a reader.

In Goodbye to the Orchard, the poems in Part II deal directly—face to face in some cases—with dying and death. The sentiment in such poems is never sentimental, but always powerfully restrained—and the stronger for their restraint. Many poets have trouble dealing with themes like this and the successes are therefore, memorable (W.D. Snodgrass' “Heart's Needle” comes to mind in comparison). Can you talk about how you achieved these poems? Transcended and transformed this difficult subject matter?

I had two principles in mind as I worked on those poems about my sister's death that comprise Part II. First, the language had to be as plain-spoken and direct as possible. I've said, on a number of occasions, that my sister distrusted anything fancy—she didn't really go for most poetry—so I felt an imperative, aesthetic and ethical, to write about her in a way that avoided, as much as I could, tricks or stylistic sleights-of-hand. Even that old warhorse claim that a poem's “speaker” is not “the poet” would not wash in these poems. I am the “I” in these poems; my sister is the “she.” My sister read some of them in draft form, and sometimes steered me away from inauthentic inventions.

Second—and this was really a principle for the whole book—I wanted the poems to be formally various. Part II includes a prose piece, followed by one of fourteen sonnets in the book (a coincidence I like), then two narratives in loose blank verse, a free-verse lyric, a pantoum, and a dramatic monologue. Obviously, in that single case, the speaker is not “me.”

Restraint, in art, grows out of formal challenge. Perhaps not surprisingly, subjects closest to my bones—say, mixing my parents' ashes and burying them—have often led me to the strictest of received forms, in that case a villanelle. On the other hand, emotional restraint might also come naturally to me, given my WASP upbringing! Whatever the case, strong emotion, for me, usually requires some form that puts pressure on that emotion, although I almost never begin writing with an emotion for which I wish to find words. The emotion and the form usually surface when the language begins to take shape as a poem, like a picture rising out of developing fluid.

Great comparison. It is true, I think, that form follows language, or arises with it almost simultaneously. Certainly, they are inseparable in the best poems. In this light, what is your notion of revision? I would guess you are not a “first word, best word” poet. Who/what do you feel you revise toward/for in your poems? Do you ever feel a poem is truly finished—even when it's published? How do you know?

My former teacher Marvin Bell wrote a wonderful epigram: To accept, and complete, rather than revise. I might change “and” to “then”—if only to give a more accurate picture of my own process. In your question, the word “toward” hits home. I draft and redraft my poems toward some form of completion mysterious to me as I'm working. Most poets I know tell me they work similarly. I show my poems to some very trusted friends who are fine poets, very smart, and excellent readers, so if something in my poem is not clear to them, or strikes them as second-hand, I give very serious thought to their critiques and suggestions. The last stage, for me, always involves reading the poem out loud, over and over, until it plays my mouth as its instrument in a way that feels right. But even here, I may not have “completed” the process. I have altered some of my poems radically after magazine publication, and I have changed passages and words in poems after book publication. Some poems take me years to write; a very few go through relatively few drafts in one sitting.

Your poems are accessible—a dirty word in some circles, as you must know. How do you view the contemporary poetic landscape of language and post-avant poetry? What are your thoughts on the concept of “difficulty” in poetry? Who do you imagine as your reader? How do you want to affect the reader?

With respect to your last question, I'd just go back to what I said earlier about “hitting” my reader. I hope to move. About your penultimate question I have to say I almost never do imagine my reader. In some of the reviews my books have received—reviews being occasions, sometimes painful, when poets don't have to imagine a reader!—I've been called a post-confessional poet and even a new formalist. These reviews have been mostly favorable, so I shouldn't complain, I guess. To be honest, though, I believe I write just as many examples of a different kind of poem—the title poem from Goodbye to the Orchard, for instance—that's personal but in no direct way autobiographical. “The Ghost in the Wedding Photograph,” from Dialogue for the Left and Right Hand, is another example. These poems have real sources of feeling for me, and I trust for some readers; but I'd like them to work on readers in a way that's akin, perhaps, to semi-abstract paintings. The emotions, dramatized through the language, are rendered with exactitude, I hope; but what the reader makes of those emotions—perhaps makes with those emotions—is indeterminate, or at least up for grabs.

If there's something “wrong” with current American poetry—and I'm not positive there is—it's this weird “bipolarity.” On the one hand, there's a lot of “use-once-throw-away” poetry—charming in premise, transparent in content, impeccable in its humaneness, and easy to hear on the radio while you're cutting vegetables. The problem with this poetry is not its perceived accessibility; rather, it's the appeal to complacency, to self-satisfied convictions that, for instance, nature is good and corporations are bad. I once witnessed a very famous poet—who writes almost exclusively about nature—receive polite applause for some pretty good poems, while getting a standing ovation for a poem asserting that it's better to love the warmth of the sun than to love power or possessions. The sentiment is inarguable, and of course that's the problem.

Yes. Platitudes with line breaks are hard to beat for universal public acclaim.

One of the irreducible ingredients of a poem—how each line interacts with another— seems to strike some contemporary poets as not important enough to consider consciously. The notion that one could write or read poetry without heeding how the lines behave, rhythmically and syntactically—well, I just find that mind-boggling.

It's hard to be disinterested about the public acclaim some poets receive for writing that strikes me as “truth frozen over into fraud” (how someone once defined clichés). Some fine people value such work so highly that it turns up in the “wisdom” appendixes of hymnbooks found in the pews of Unitarian churches, or on the bookshelves of responsible psychotherapists. As poetry, though, the “humaneness” conveyed often feels sanitized and therefore mendacious, while the avowed kinship with the natural or spiritual world can come off as self-congratulatory (“I can show you God in the muskrat's eyes”) and therefore meretricious.

What you call “post-avant” poetry constitutes the other pole in the “bipolarity.” A paralyzing fear of being obvious or clichéd characterizes what some used to call L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry (do they still?) and what I'll call “voiceless” poetry. This kind of poetry often allies itself with radical politics—a very strange pact, I think, since its project is to repress vulnerability of any sort, and no one but relatively well-paid academics read it.

I don't think they read it either, unless it's possible to perform such an act without also thinking. And I agree it is a strange pact—post-avant poetry and radical politics—precisely because it is, as you say, “voiceless.” The eradication of individual voice strikes me as a self-contradictory radical politics (not to mention poetry).

Oh, I imagine they read it—or at least skim it; and maybe they read it over and over. Who knows? But your notion of “reading without thinking” raises a very provocative question: what might it mean to read paying attention only to the language as language? And what, then, is the reader really attending to? It seems to me that language is extraordinary because it possesses two paradoxical qualities: opacity and transparency. In a good poem pressure is brought to bear on each of these qualities.

John Ashbery, in one of his masterpieces, “As One Put Drunk into the Packet Boat,” can write: “I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.” Surely that's an ambiguous unit of language, but its ambiguity invites—perhaps I should say clearly invites—the reader's imaginative participation. Does “only” suggest that just “a few” of these “things” were “immortal and free,” or does it inaugurate a tone—alas, some were immortal and free and therefore beyond the speaker's capacity to “try”? The statement communicates both, and of course Ashbery's best work dramatizes the sadness of the divided mind meditating in isolation. There's much more we could linger on, but my point is that the statement, while its meaning is ultimately unstable, is not inscrutable—that is, immune to scrutiny. Compare that single line to this passage from a 1991 poem in the The Norton Anthology of Post-Modern American Poetry:

Who's on first? The dust descends as
the skylight caves in. The door
closes on a dream of default and
denunciation (go get those piazzas),
hankering after frozen (prose) ambiance

Leaving aside the amateurish alliteration and wincingly cute auditory and connotative plays on words—indeed, it reminds me of bad Ashbery—what sort of participative reading does such a passage invite? Mainly, the kind that resorts to descriptions vague as the text described. Dissociation is its mode: the phrases splice together 1) an icon from a 40's comedy routine, 2) a lyric commonplace, 3) a depiction of destruction, 4) a generic detail producing another lyric commonplace, 5) two alliterated abstractions, 6) a banal routine (ordering take-out) mildly gussied up by the letter “a” to make a pun, and so on until we hit the word “ambivalence”—in fact, the very condition Ashbery's line enacts, which the passage above merely names. Therefore, its total effect amounts to an assertion that language constitutes an endlessly mirroring reflexivity. Curiously, what I perceive as the single message of writing like this—that the word is not the world—seems every bit as self-evident as the tree-hugging poetry that reinforces our fantasies about ourselves as good people.

Yes, it's the same “insight” wrapped in many varieties of an indigestible language sandwich—though there are some interesting varieties out there.

Or, if not the same insight, then the same impulse toward message-making instead of dramatization—to insist upon some predetermined notion, rather than to explore, through imagination and rigorous use of the materials of the art, that dynamic between one's notions of the world and the “facts” that world (including other people) presents to one. We use language to try to close this gap, and will always fail. I think poems, essentially, are glorious records of those failures.

So one has a right to ask, then: what makes for successful examples of those failures? If I may, I'll quote myself from an essay/review I wrote some years back for Poetry: I “value poems that need no decoder rings yet invite us to slow down and pay attention—to language's capacity to make memorable sounds, conjure vivid mental sensations, orchestrate the complexities of tone, and render precisely that least precise of human realities: felt experience.” Reading that now, I realize that I don't really mind the need for a few decoder rings—I enjoy and learn much from good literary criticism, and can one read Milton well without some Bible?—as long as there's something in the writing that's indisputably urgent. When I first read The Waste Land, I caught next to none of its allusions, but those opening lines hooked me—through the rhythm, the charge of the imagery, the unmistakable melancholy of the voice.

Great example. We don't mind mystery when there is a sense of urgency. Yes.

If I may go back to Ashbery's “Packet Boat,” here are its last two lines: “The summer demands and takes away too much,/But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes.” Astonishing mystery in those lines—the parallel syntax sets up a summer/winter contrast, but the second line subverts that easy expectation with an asymmetrical summer/night contrast—and I can't say precisely what they “mean.” But, boy, I know they mean what they say.

Finally, what is your hope for your poems? How do you envision/define “success” as a poet? Through your poetry and in combination with your work as a teacher?

My sister once said to me (not necessarily with unqualified approval): “you need to write poems, don't you?” Given my uneven discipline and extended silences, I found her comment strange; but after more than thirty-four years of writing poetry, I guess I can say I do need to write it. But if it's more a need than an “aim”—using the word you used earlier—then it's hard to characterize what I hope for the poems I write—other than, perhaps, the capacity and renewed confidence to keep writing them. Almost no poet achieves “success” in a form that those in more conventional professions would recognize. And of course writing poetry hardly amounts to a “profession.”

I know poets who say they write for posterity, and argue that this ambition to address what Whitman calls “you men and women . . . ever so many generations hence” defends the poet against the siren songs of period style, as well as from the shriveled, worldly ambition to see one's face, say, on the cover of APR. I've tried on that belief in posterity as the ultimate stance toward audience, but it hasn't felt like a good fit. Isn't there another way to keep raising the bar on one's art, without that tinge of self-aggrandizement—which I sense at least—in the “posterity” approach?

If so, maybe it's an attitude toward writing similar to my attitude toward teaching. Everyone who uses language (which is nearly everyone) has felt its power to tell truths, and its power to tell lies. Lord knows, the lies will always win over the truths, and I'm sure I've told more lies than truths in my life—just as I've talked more talk than I've written poems. When one writes well, or teaches well, or learns well, for a few moments truths have the edge over lies. If some of my poems tell truths—aesthetic truths, not anecdotal truths, and certainly not the truth—that, I suppose, would qualify as my definition of success. And as soon as a reader is involved, the truth-telling becomes a conversation—a conversation, poignantly perhaps, that the poet usually doesn't get to hear.

A friend of mine once told me he saw a poem of mine—a poem called “The Work,” which some have found obscure!—posted on a bulletin board at an international conference devoted to modes of healing from trauma. Conferees posted anything they'd found useful to whatever psychological work—personal or professional—they'd been doing. I'll never know who posted that poem, or why, but I can say, with utter conviction, that when I heard this from my friend, I felt like a successful poet.

Terrifc definition of success. Steven, thanks so much for sharing your insights and observations with Perihelion.

Steven Cramer's poetry can be found here.

Order Goodbye to the Orchard.

Information on the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at Lesley University is here.