28 may. 2005

My own answers. I can't say how grateful I am to everyone who answered them. I won't say who wrote my favorite set of answers, because they all taught me something.

1. What is your sense of the poetic tradition? How far back does your particular historical sense range? What defines your tradition? Nationality, language, aesthetic posture? What aspect of your poetic idiolect or tradition most distinguishes you from your closest poetic collaborators?

A tradition is a fictional account of how we got where we are. In my case, the tradition is, in the first place, contemporary American poetry, especially the 5 orginal New York School Poets and their immediate followers. Clark Coolidge, David Shapiro. Secondly, the "great moderns"--Pessoa, Rilke, Stevens, Surrealism, Lezama Lima, Kavafy. In a larger sense, any artistic practice from any period of time that can be incorporated into the fictional account. I'm big on Joseph Cornell, the T'ang dynasty, and Japanese poetry. Being a scholar of Spanish poetry I have a whole 'nother tradition that I know fairly well. It isn't my tradition, exactly, though it is my field. When I write in Spanish directly I am still myself: I can't channel Lorca. American poetry is my tradition, especially American poetry inflected by French (not Spanish) poetry.

2. How would you define contemporary poetic practice? (Say, the typical poem that would be published alonside one of your in a magazine where you are published.) How does this practice relate to the tradition defined above? Does poetry of the "past" (however you define the past for these purposes) occupy a different corner of your mind?

Contemporary writing can only actualize a tiny fraction of the tradition. (This is true of any period, not just our own.) I believe in being a "schooled" poet, but a poem I might write may only show a tiny fraction of this schooling. There are no separate corners of the mind. The tradition is a creation of the present.

3. Whom, among poets you most admire, do you understand least? What is hindering a greater understanding of this poet?

José Lezama Lima. I have never invested the time in understanding his poetry and "poetic system." A little bit goes a long way. Generally, poets like Blake who carry around extra baggage. I admire such poets but do not understand them.

4. Are we over-invested in poetic "hero worship"? Is it necessary to have a poetic "pantheon"? How does the poetic pantheon relate to the notion of an academic "canon"? Are they mirror opposites, rivals?

I am definitely overinvested in the pantheon. A personal tradition or pantheon is an idiosyncratic account, whereas the academic canon is an institutional narrative. A poet who is important to me offers a constant source of renewal.

5. Is "total absorption in poetry" benign? How about "poetry as a way of life"?

Nick had a great response to this one. Maybe what I was getting at was a sense that poetry is so large we can never be devoted enough to it. Ars longa, vita breve, and all that. When I look at art or listen to music, that is still poetry.

All these questions are a single question.

6. Do you see poetry as a part of a larger "literature," or is poetry itself the more capacious categtory?

"Literature" means prose fiction, for a lot of people today. Poetry is older and includes more types of writing practice, though the contemporary tradition might only actualize a tiny fraction of these practices.

7. Are humor, irony, and wit (in whatever combination) a sine qua non? Or conversely, is humor a defense mechanism that more often than not protects us from what we really want to say?

I have trouble with "humorless" poets. Also, with jokey poets who never step out of that role. Humor has to do with a certain humility vis-a-vis the "tradition." We don't show all we know at every step. Frank O'Hara was more erudite than Anthony Hecht.

8. Is the poem the thing, or the larger poetic project?


The poem is the thing. I admire the discrete object "poem" in its jewel-like perfection. The poetic project is the narrative that allows the object to have meaning, "ever perfect / ever in itself renewing." you can't have one without the other.

9. What is the single most significant thing anyone has ever said about poetry?

This is a dumb question. How could anyone answer this? My own sense is that "ars longa, vita breve" might be the most significant possible insight. The life so short, the craft so long to learn. Poetry is bigger than any of us. A single lifetime is insufficient. Yet there are poets who manage to do it even dying young.

10. Which of these questions asks you to define yourself along lines of division not of your own making, in the most irksome way? How close do these questions come to the way in which you habitually think about poetry? What other question would you add to this list?

These questions come very close to how I think about poetry. I thought them up in the shower a few days ago. They are all versions of the same question, I realize as I try to answer them myself. (9) is the most irksome to me. (1) was the least popular, though the one I think the most about.

5 comentarios:

Griffin dijo...

Is poetry, in fact, "older" than prose fiction? I'd thought Gilgamesh predated all poetry.

Jonathan dijo...


How can the Gilgamesh predate all poetry when it is itself poetry?

Griffin dijo...

I suppose it is an epic poem.

L. Trent dijo...

Man, I really have enjoyed these questions. They are much better than the bullshitty things you read in mainstream mags (which poets move your soul?).

(I found your blog through reading your poems in the latest issue of "The Hat," btw. I looked up all the people I liked from the journal & they all have blogs. Wonders of the modern world)

Jonathan dijo...


Thanks. I'm kind of glad you found me from The Hat.