"[P]oetry makes nothing happen: it survives, / [...] a way of happening, a mouth." -W. H. Auden

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Carl Phillips: A Review and an Interview

I am posting the following interview and review partly in response to James Rother's hatchet job on Carl Phillips at the usually stellar Contemporary Poetry Review. I won't go into much detail here, but Rother seems to entirely miss both the pleasures and the significance of the syntactical and rhetorical difficulties of Phillips's poetry. His review is full of witty locutions intended to elevate the writer of the review in the eyes of its readers, but for all of his bluster, the essence of what he writes is that he's upset that Phillips doesn't use end-rhyme or the kind of traditional prosody Rother would like to see and that his poems are bad, which is supposedly obvious to anyone who reads the quotes Rother offers from Phillips' poems ("Anyone who claims not to be able to detect a significant difference between these two passages of verse should, in my view, recuse him- or herself forever from considerations of what does or does not constitute poetry.").

I offer the following two pieces as a response to Rother's review.

Riding Westward: An Interview with Carl Phillips

*This interview originally appeared in Asheville Poetry Review, vol. 15 #1, issue 18.

Luke Hankins:  I have a friend who once said that T. S. Eliot’s idea of the objective correlative has been taken to an extreme in contemporary American poetry, has become an aesthetic doctrine that has ceased to be effective because of such strict insistence upon it. (Looking at Eliot’s poetry, especially his late work in “The Four Quartets,” don’t we see how little his concept of the objective correlative really applies to his own poetry?) This discussion reminded me of your collection of essays, Coin of the Realm, in which you say that we are today in danger of losing our ability to engage with abstraction (because of an over-dependence on a concrete “objective correlative,” perhaps), and that this handicap is wrapped up in an aesthetic or cultural posture which discounts beauty and authority. How might poets—and how do you—try to address this danger? Do you feel that these tendencies are continuing, or are they showing signs of suffocating themselves?

Carl Phillips:  For me, it’s instinctive to grapple with abstraction – I wouldn’t say that I am consciously trying to address the dangers of discounting beauty and authority.  I suppose that, merely by writing the way I do, about the things I write about, I’m offering a counterweight of some kind.  Part of what seems to lie behind a resistance to beauty is the fear of nostalgia and naïve sentiment, I think; and of course, a healthy distrust of authority seems essential.  But that shouldn’t mean that we can’t have a sense of an opinion from our experiences – that’s authority, but not fascism.  There’s a difference.  Without authority, I can’t believe what a poet is telling me.  And without an acknowledgment of beauty in its various  forms, a poem doesn’t speak to me of the real world.

LH:  As we have touched on, in the opening essay in Coin of the Realm, you remark upon a resistance among contemporary American poets to the idea of beauty (and abstraction in general). One cause of this resistance is, you claim, a mistaken view of beauty as “inorganic—without the capacity for evolution.” I wonder if there isn’t also another problem, which the idea that beauty needs to evolve belies—and that is the fact that modern and contemporary poetry and theory operate largely upon the assumption that humans today are significantly different than humans a millennium or even a few centuries ago. It can make one sick at heart to hear people talk or write about being modern (or, indeed, postmodern, or post-post...), people who seem to have gotten it into their heads that they are too advanced, or else too traumatized by a “fragmented” modern world, to experience genuine wonder in the presence of things that have always provoked that reaction in us. We are not suddenly beyond beauty—not even beauty in the same things that were beautiful four thousand years ago—are we?

CP:  No, we are not beyond beauty, whether it is the beauty of centuries ago, or of the present moment.  I’m not even sure what it would mean, to be beyond beauty—to have outgrown it?  To be somehow too wise for it?  The world may be fragmented—actually, it always has been, nothing new about that—but who said there wasn’t beauty in the shards?  I was out working in the garden yesterday, when the cathedral bells started ringing—it seemed to me a beautiful moment.  That doesn’t change the fact of suffering in the world, it coexists with that fact.  I think people worry that a concern with beauty is a form of being blind to the realities of life, modern or otherwise.  But beauty is one of those realities of life.  

LH:  All writers have precursors, aunts and uncles that they have grown up with and admire who influence their internal sense of music. You have referenced John Donne and George Herbert before as influential for your work—two uncles that perhaps show their influence most in your grappling with paradox, your devotion to mystery, and in your willingness to make authoritative statements. However, your poetic line—in its length, in its linebreaks, in its rhythm—often seems influenced by other, more recent aunts and uncles. If I were to trace a formal lineage backward, I would do so through the Black Mountain School (particularly Robert Duncan, tonally, and Robert Creeley, structurally) to William Carlos Williams. How do you tend to trace your lineage? Can you talk about particular ways the poets I’ve mentioned, or others, have influenced your work, formally or thematically?

CP:  My poetic lineage is a little uncharacteristic, I think.  The writers you mention—Williams, Creeley, Duncan, Herbert, Donne—are writers with whose strategies I see certain affinities, but I can honestly say I hadn’t read any of them until I had already written my first book.  Actually, I had read Williams’s selected poems, and I remember being astonished that one could write about such seemingly ordinary things in a seemingly easy, clear way.  Other than that, and an addiction to Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath (in that order) in college, I think I had read no "contemporary" poetry.  My syntax comes, I believe, from my having studied Greek and Latin, and German—all of them inflected languages—from very early on.  I really think those languages influenced the way I think, so that my sentences tend to come out the way they do in my poems quite naturally—I don’t spend time trying to twist things around, I just instinctively hear them that way.  And the line seems to get informed by the syntax, somehow…  Thematically, I think the Greek tragedians had the most influence over me, initially—the ways in which they grapple with the irresolvability of so many kinds of human conflict—the ways in which the seemingly impossible becomes possible: murdering one’s children, say, or finding oneself married to one’s mother… Many years later, I found a used anthology of the metaphysical poets—that, and studying them with Geoffrey Hill, led to my fascination with the tension between the sacred and the profane.  But I have to admit, my interest in the sacred and profane was also something I was pondering, thanks to an unlikely combination of reading Iris Murdoch and becoming fascinated with Madonna when she first started appearing on the pop music scene.

LH:  The title poem of your latest collection, Riding Westward, describes a tragically comic cowboy, trying but failing to conform to all the clichés (“standing there, / like between his legs there’s a horse”), and singing old, well-worn songs: 
                        he starts up singing again, 
same as every night, same song: loneliness
by starlight, miles to go, lay me down by
the cool etc.—that kind of song, the kind
you'll have heard before, sure, somewhere…. 
Earlier in the poem, the cowboy writes in the dirt “lines, circles / that stop short, shapes that mean nothing.” With these references to singing and writing, it’s hard to read this poem without thinking of it as a portrait of the poet. Is this indeed a kind of portrait of the artist? Also, how does this cowboy relate to the speaker of the Donne poem (riding a horse, yes, but no cowboy) from which your poem (and the entire collection) derives its title?

CP:  Yes, I did intend the poem “Riding Westward” to be a self-portrait.  Not at first, but I soon realized I was doing a sort of self-parody, which seemed appropriate after a book of poems that spend so much time agonizing about guilt, suffering, sexual restlessness.  Contrary to what many might think, I have a sense of humor, especially about myself, and I found it amusing to do the parody.  Of course, it ends up being a little more serious at the end – and that’s when the title came to me, from the Donne poem, as you mentioned.  With that title, it seemed that the poem also became a bit of a comic way of thinking about devotion and the self – comic, in the way that Donne can be comic…  I mean for the poem to be a kind of contemporary echo of Donne’s poem, to get at the idea that the wrestling for the meaning of devotion – and the human resistance to certain kinds of devotion – are resonant in contemporary life.  For what it’s worth, whenever I imagine an alter ego for myself, it’s always a toss-up between a cowboy and a sea captain.

LH:  Many of the poems in Riding Westward seem to indicate that your poems are transitioning to a more sonnet-like form. Compared to your earlier collections, the layout of the poems in Riding Westward is often less fragmentary, there are fewer poems with short (trimeter or tetrameter) lines, and many of the poems are basically shaped like a sonnet. Now, I’m simply using the sonnet as a point of reference—I know what sonnets are, and that you’re not writing them—but I don’t think it’s insignificant that many of these poems physically look like sonnets on the page. The new poem published in this issue of Asheville Poetry Review, “Lighting the Lamps,” is a good example of what I mean: there are, the way I count them, 15 lines, which are written roughly in pentameter (give or take a beat here and there). It’s interesting in this context that the poem speaks overtly about form, about pattern:  “Doesn’t pattern require – to be seen / as pattern – not just repetition but, as well, eventually, / the interruption of it?...” Are your poems starting to interrupt the sonnet pattern?      

CP:  I think I stumbled into something different, stanzaically, when I wrote my poem “Custom,” which appears in The Rest of Love.  It’s 13-line poem, with these lines that gradually expand and then contract toward the end of the poem.  And it’s a single stanza.  After that poem, I began writing more poems around that line length, and also got more interested in the "dropped" line, where a line continues, but is broken and then dropped below.  I have become increasingly impatient with fixed stanzas, especially the short-lined tercets that I used for so many years.  None of this has been conscious, just an evolution – one that gives me hope, since I worry that my poems don’t change that much from book to book.  My obsessions, anyway, remain my obsessions.

LH: Seamus Heaney has an essay about Wordsworth and Yeats in which he describes two approaches regarding the way a poem’s music is crafted. Wordsworth, according to Heaney, allows his internal musical impulse to govern and drive his lines, so that they become mesmerizing and incantatory, whereas Yeats wrestles with that flow, struggles upstream against it. Do you feel that this framework applies to your composition process? Do you identify more with the Wordsworthian or Yeatsian approach?

CP:  Hmm, tough question. On one hand, I’d say I fall into the Wordsworth side of that description – there’s definitely an internal sense of sound or music that drives the lines into looking the way they do.  But there is a stream – not of sound, I think, but of what I’ll call moral stance, or notions of what one’s moral stance "should" be – that I am constantly wrestling with.  It has more to do with what I write about, rather than with how I write it…  Although it’s true that maybe that wrestling is partly behind the wrestling that is involved in negotiating the syntax of some of my lines…

LH: Guilt is a recurring theme in your poems, and “Hymn” (from Pastoral) is one of your poems in which the speaker feels guilt. At the end of the poem, the speaker uses the metaphor of a stone to describe his condition:
And I a stone that, a little bit, perhaps
should ask pardon.

My fears—when I have fears—
are of how long I shall be, falling,
and in my at last resting how
indistinguishable, inasmuch as they
are countless, sire,
all the unglittering other dropped stones.

Guilt, here, seems an almost impossibly complex situation. There is at once guilt (“should ask pardon”), resistance to guilt (“a little bit, perhaps”), and accusation (“dropped stones” being dropped by someone, or some One). The speaker’s ambivalence raises the question of who is being addressed, and whether that “sire” is ironic, sarcastic, or utterly sincere. I think the poem’s power relies on the uncertainty the reader feels—on the simultaneity of these various attitudes. Is this part of your strategy when dealing with the concept of guilt in your poems?

CP:  Well, you give me a lot more credit than I deserve, for having a strategy at all.  I really don’t go into the writing of a poem with any strategy, except maybe that I have a line or a few words written down, and I intend to build a poem around them.  The uncertainty that you speak of – I think it’s entirely reflective of my own uncertainty, on the fact that there is a simultaneity of various attitudes inside me, when it comes to an abstraction like guilt.  I think this is the kind of thing that I must have gotten from those Greek tragedies – so often in them, guilt is without clarity, without resolution.  No one is entirely wrong, but no one can seem to do right without simultaneously causing offense.  To go back to your question, this isn’t a strategy on my part – but I do think it is an example of how a poem can have authority about an abstraction, namely, by avoiding taking a single stance on such a complicated issue…

LH: Can you talk about the speaker or speakers of your poems? Do you consider your poems to be in the voice of one consistent speaker, or does the speaker change from poem to poem? How much does this matter, one way or the other, for your writing process and for readers of your poems?

CP:  I’d have to admit that the speaker is probably almost always myself at some level in my poems, as the addressee often can be.  If there is change from poem to poem, from book to book, it’s the change that would be reflected by my sensibility as it evolves over time.  At the same time, though, I’m very conscious, at the point of revision, of the need to make sure that a reader could in a sense become the speaker, could have access to that lens and have the chance to see the world credibly through it, if only for a moment.

LH: In one of his essays, Christian Wiman discusses prose written by poets as a means—conscious or no—of staving off “silence.” Do you identify at all with this description of the function of writing prose as a poet?

CP:  No, I don’t find that my own prose is written as a means of staving off silence.  Every one of my essays has been written as an assignment given to me – a lecture I had to deliver, a request to contribute to a book on George Herbert, etc.  Far from staving off silence, I find that writing prose all but renders me silent.  I have never enjoyed writing prose, and I balk at it each time, even though I continue to say yes when asked.  Masochism, I guess.  A benign form of it.

LH: In 2000, Asheville Poetry Review printed a special issue that highlighted “10 Great Neglected Poets,” and we’re working on another one for 2010. Are there any poets from the past century or so that you feel are neglected? Why do they deserve more attention and recognition?

CP:  This may seem odd, but I think Marianne Moore is very neglected.  It’s as if people find her antiquated—and yet I find her to be pretty radical, doing what she does with syllabics, the risks she takes in terms of being so sophisticated in terms of sensibility—she risks seeming inhuman, at times…  I also think Louise Bogan is hugely neglected.  The poems are so spare, and can seem almost clever – maybe that’s what people resist, along with her underlying belief in something like true love, even as it eludes her.  

LH: Thank you for this conversation. As a parting word, can you offer us a quote from one of your favorite poets?

CP:  It’s part of a much longer line, from Howard Moss’s poem, “Rules of Sleep”:

…intimacy is only another form of separation.

A Review of Riding Westward

*This review originally appeared in Indiana Review, vol. 30 #1.

Carl Phillips. Riding Westward. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. $12.00 paper (ISBN 978-0-374-53082-2), 53 pages.

Reviewed by Luke Hankins

Carl Phillips has long written poems that ignore contemporary American aesthetic doctrines, and that fact alone is heartening. He is entirely comfortable with abstraction, often building his poems on lofty language, and he is unafraid to “tell” as much as he “shows.” His poems speak in the tone of one speaking to an intimate about shared experience, without the kind of sarcasm we often call irony. Consequently, the poems tend to allude to experiences in a fragmentary way, as if the reader has prior knowledge of them and needs only small reminders. What is more, the reader is seldom sure where or when the situation described by one of Phillips’s poems is occurring. Because of these qualities, the poems in Phillips’s latest collection, Riding Westward, may at first confound readers who are used to so-called accessible poetry. In fact, “accessibility” is one of those contemporary doctrines I mentioned above—one which Phillips thankfully ignores. The following lines from “Erasure,” the first poem in the collection, are a good example of these qualities:

Above us, the usual branches lift unprophetically or not, depending:
now spears; now arrows. There’s a kind of tenderness that makes
more tender 
                         all it touches. There’s a need that ruins. Dark. The horse
comes closer. […]

Here, we have “the usual branches,” as if they are usual not only to the speaker of the poem (and to the “him” mentioned earlier in it), but to the reader as well. We have fragments of a scene: branches lifting, darkness, a horse referred to with a definite article as if we already knew it was there—but the scene remains fragmentary throughout the poem, and we never quite know where or when we are situated. The above lines also illustrate Phillips’s propensity to “tell” as well as “show,” his refusal to shirk from making authoritative pronouncements: “There’s a need that ruins,” and “There’s a kind of tenderness that makes more tender // all it touches.” However, the tone of this poem is quite complicated, because not only are we assumed to understand this fragmentary scene, but we are presented with a speaker who makes both authoritative statements and equivocations: “the usual branches lift unprophetically or not”—in this case, an equivocation intensified by the double-negative construction. Double negatives recur throughout the collection, working as semantic counterbalances to the authoritative tone of the speakers of the poems, as their logical clumsiness has the effect of undermining what might otherwise be effortless pronouncements. 

Another potentially disorienting aspect of these poems is the fact that the titles often have nothing overtly to do with the poems or their dramatic situations. There is “Bright World,” which does not describe brightness at all, or even the world very much; there is “The Way Back,” which is about “the urge to make meaning”; there is “The Smell of Hay,” which is about memory, but mentions no situation involving either hay or the sense of smell; there is “The Cure,” which describes a dying tree, which ends up as a metaphor for history, and light falling through it, a metaphor for human lives—but no sign of a cure anywhere for the dying tree or the human lives tumbling through its branches. These are only a few examples of titles that are not linked to their poems the way we typically expect them to be, since they are not descriptive of the poems’ content. Instead, the titles function evocatively: their effect is to create mood by association. In the same way, his poems are anything but descriptive of the world or of life—they do not set out to paint a clear picture of the world or of experiences, as we have largely come to expect poems to do. Phillips’s poems are far too abstract and fragmentary to do that. But they do something equally important by letting the reader’s imagination participate more fully with the speakers of the poems. While reading this collection, one often finds oneself unconsciously repositioning oneself imaginatively in order to create, along with the poem, the story to which the poem alludes. The fact that this is effective is a testimony to the power of this collection—it is not something a lesser poet could achieve.

One way to describe Phillips’s poems is to acknowledge that they function more evocatively than descriptively. What I mean is that they are not by any means about life, which would be no accomplishment at all; rather, they are of life, out of it, and convincingly so, which is a great accomplishment indeed. His poems are informed by and allude to experience without having to entirely create or recreate experience, and this is the source of their undeniable authority. In “Turning West,” Phillips himself makes a similar distinction when he mentions “a distance like that between writing from a life / and writing for one…” (Phillips’s italics). Writing for a life might mean writing in order to have a life, to create one out of a paucity of living or being present in the world. This is decidedly not the kind of writing Phillips does. It is clear that his poems are from life. The evidence of this is the powerful effect they have on the reader who is willing to lay aside expectations for simply “accessible” poetry and who is willing to imaginatively engage, as with an intimate, in these evocative, allusive conversations.

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