Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Carr’s book Surface Tension: Ruptured Time and the Poetics of Desire in Late Victorian Poetry (Dalkey Archive Press). Recorded June 20th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Could we start with the concept of surface tension, as borrowed from physics and applied to Victorian-era poetry—specifically in terms of how a purported aesthetic of surface can be read for its participation in broader political discourses?
Julie Carr: Surface tension explains why molecules at a liquid’s surface bond with stronger energy. They do so because, with no molecules on top, fewer molecules surround them. This creates a horizontal surface density, which became a useful metaphor for describing what can happen in a poem when you read for (let’s say, just using familiar terms) content. You’ll try to understand a sonnet’s argument, but various sound associations play out among the words as do visual patterns. Surfaces also can become dense with invented languages, or borrowed languages, or pastiche, or collaged language. This density at the textual surface complicates our absorption of narrative or message. And of course these issue arise often in contemporary poetry or in modernist poetry, but most readers of Victorian poetry don’t understand the work that way. Specialists do. But for the average, semi-informed reader, if you ask about Victorian poetry they’ll think of somebody like Robert Browning or Tennyson. They’ll recall some long narrative poem or poem of deep feeling—one which doesn’t seem to engage language’s materiality. So reconsidering the Victorian-era interest in surface, especially amid a poetics engaged with ideals of transformation or sudden ruptural change, drives this book. Here I focus on three poets invested in the aesthetic surface as a redemptive space but for different ends. They are not, all three of them, Marxist or revolutionary poets. William Morris does engage a Marxist discourse. But Gerard Manley Hopkins remains focused on some kind of conversion or Christian ontological . . .
JC: Rapture. And then I read Dante Rossetti as constantly trying to salvage the human—to have the individual subject reborn into some liberated space—because Rossetti recognizes contemporaneous culture, specifically market capitalism, destroying possibilities of freedom or transcendence. He tries to rebirth the subject, the self. So again I ask: how does a surface do that?
AF: For readers less familiar with Victorian poetics, this surface-tension metaphor, as you’ve said, could speak to a broad range of late-20th-century literary practices. New York School name-dropping, Language opacity, camp appropriations of corny content, Conceptualist procedures, Gurlesque intensification of affect—do some of these models fit within your current scope, foregrounding a rhetoric of the surface while seeking to channel subterranean, transformational, ruptural change?
JC: Probably of what you’ve named, the Gurlesque most proactively probes surface tension as I try to define it, specifically in the Gurlesque anthology, which is filled with poems pressing language toward guttural, affective sets of expressions. This sense of the textual surface containing its own meaning (meanings directly tied to affect) returns me to Hopkins and Rossetti. But that doesn’t happen with procedural or Conceptual poetry at all. Those often don’t pursue, along these lines of surface tension, an intensification of sound. They emphasize compositional processes as a means of interrogating the subject matter. And then you mentioned the New York School. You could make an argument for O’Hara as a poet of surface, since glitzy, shiny, fleeting, contemporary things interest him. But again: the poems don’t emphasize a huge amount of orthographic or homophonic play. They just delight in representing surfaces and being quick and cool about it. Only with someone like Ashbery do you see different degrees of language density, foregrounding a kind of surface tension. You could think about this in terms of a discourse of “difficulty.” When people say, “That poem is difficult,” sometimes they mean it presents a philosophical argument the reader must struggle to understand, though often they mean that language play itself keeps distracting you from reading in other ways.
AF: Amid questions of language’s density, of language’s materiality, William Morris comes to mind. Do his poems provide a difficult surface or not, or both? If Morris prioritizes the “lesser arts” of design, does he anticipate more recent emphases upon such “lesser arts” (compositional process, for example) in poetry? Here I’ll think of John Cage’s aesthetics of furniture and where that places us in terms of surface tension, or Roland Barthes self-consciously embracing a “minor” key as its own distinct idiom. I wonder if such discursive interventions can produce their own forms of surface tension. But can we start with Morris?
JC: Morris presents a special case. It probably would have made more sense to substitute Swinburne. Morris’ surface tensions foreground the visual. They don’t emphasize sound, but the look of the page. And of course this only applies when you see his illustrated manuscripts or his design work. If you look at, say, his wallpaper, you’ll find intertwining, interrelated visual motifs. Vines and floral patterns recur, but not evenly repeated or regular—rather, patterns are complexly engaged with each other. So I try to think through Morris’ interest in visual surface. His dense surfaces provide an important aesthetic for two reasons. First of all, Morris considers these beautiful surfaces, these beautiful patterns, the “motive cause” of revolution. If beauty surrounds you, and you engage beauty, especially as a worker, a proletarian, this will ignite a set of desires that teach you, in essence, to want. When you feel this want, you possess a motive. You can fight back. Society no longer has stripped you of desire. Beauty picks up a political charge. Still when Morris discusses the designs he prefers, he specifically talks about abstraction (but not full abstraction). Design cannot offer pure mimetic realism, since that gives nobody any hope, right? That’s like sham flowers. Instead, we want something that embodies the aesthetic but remains recognizable, reaching toward a better world, directing us toward some idealized beauty. Such designs, in fact, might represent physical processes of change or growth. Flowers and vines become quite important. In his later projects, these begin rooted at the bottom of the page but then climb out and up. And again, for Morris, this work must stay accessible in order to serve its political function. It shouldn’t belong in a museum or aristocratic space. It has to indicate, to us, where we might go, how we should strive (“strive” is his word), what we might want. So Morris’ surface tension has to do with the visual yet underneath lies an elaborate political and aesthetic theory.
AF: We’d begun by discussing how such Victorian conceits continue to surface in recent poems. Your book argues that, for postwar North American poetics, specifically Language poetics, an emphasis on the semiotic or material surface often gets placed along a critical trajectory extending back to the Frankfurt School, or in a literary context, back to Stein—but in both cases rarely further than that. Do you want to trace a trajectory here from the pre-Raphaelites to post-Language poetics? And then, the more pressing question becomes, how and why did that continuity get eclipsed?
JC: I don’t consider this a continuity. It’s more of a refraction. It’s more a pairing I try to draw out, rather than a lineage that got erased. Because high modernists rejected the Victorians almost completely. Yeats became kind of this crossover figure. Hopkins was not totally rejected—grudgingly accepted, though never liked, by Pound, Eliot, Yeats. Then the New Critics loved him and brought him into the modernist canon. But my point is: it’s not as though Language poets secretly read Rossetti and Swinburne and refused to acknowledge their debt. It would take a new book to trace this, but I find it fascinating how Victorian ideas about aestheticism and temporality reach back toward Kant and an even older eschatological Christian sense of time and how related concepts filter through the Frankfurt School. In other words, the Frankfurt School (specifically the Jewish messianism that Benjamin picks up from Gershom Scholem) presents tropes about temporality and change and rupture similar to what we find in late Victorian Christian thinking. If we compare those two discourses, we can see how they parallel and differ from each other, but I don’t mean to pretend that some successive lineage has been ignored.
AF: Can we briefly return to the New Critical embrace of Hopkins? Your Matthew Arnold chapter traces the gradual development of Arnold’s position that the poem’s primary purpose is to carry a moral message—often one borrowed from criticism. This reminded me of New Critical approaches in which the carefully trained, authoritative scholar extrapolates a latent message from the text. For Arnold, as for critics to come later, this ultimate message seems to require intermediaries, some kind of clergy interpreting the message. You’ve already outlined a parallel between poetics eras. Could you do the same for their corresponding models of criticism?
JC: Sure. Yes, similarities exist between Arnold’s “Function of Criticism” and The Well-Wrought Urn. But what might be distinct and worth paying attention to are differences in reading practices. I found it fascinating, when reconsidering the New Critics and I.E. Richards and people like that, how reading difficult poetry, working hard at texts, gets framed as a kind of healing practice. They present their work itself as a kind of healing, a counterbalance to contemporaneous cultural ills. Right there I sense a stark difference from Arnold who doesn’t really theorize the reading practice, at least not in what I read. He theorizes the relationship between poetry and criticism as one where the poet waits on, relies on, a “critical free flow” of thought. The poet should not invent a knowledge, but should absorb and represent those new knowledges created through what Arnold calls criticism. Here “critic” remains a pretty vague term. And here one other thing I should say about why New Critics love Hopkins is that they admire how his language can represent complex feelings. Only this dense language seems adequate to the task of representing, say, a devout Catholic dealing with industrialization. The lyric grants us access and presses us toward a more complex set of responses to our world. So I think New Criticism in general has gotten short shrift. “Ambiguity” and “paradox,” two of their favorite words, present a means of grasping language’s fluidity, its complexity, its multiplicity, its contradictions (though of course this interested them, at least partially, because of their faith in language’s ultimate effort to express a universal affect, or “truth,” as they might say).
AF: Given your comments on this body of New Critical writing, I’m curious how your surface-tension concept plays out in texts by Arnold’s critical contemporaries like Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater. Does a corresponding surface tension exist within their work?
JC: Do you mean a surface tension in their critical prose?
AF: Yeah. I’m wondering if syntactical convolutions in somebody like Walter Pater complement what you find in Victorian poets, and if paying attention to embodied critical language can counter the conventional sense of, say, New Criticism as a priesthood of privileged interpretations—pointing us, instead, to what you’ve described as its more ambiguous, eroticized means of communication.
JC: I hadn’t considered that, but what you say makes me think of Lisa Robertson or Andrew Joron, the two poets I focus on for my final chapter. Both have written essays or critical prose that don’t fully forego the surface-tension techniques you find in their poetry. So what work does this gesture accomplish? In a prose writer, let’s say Walter Pater, a generative affect occurs in the writing, which strays far from purely utilitarian purposes. And I think that this generative affect is meant to be, in some sense, rhetorical or persuasive. And we could say the same for the two contemporary poets I just mentioned: to flatten out their language, to demand a more simple or less surfacey prose, would do an injustice to their thinking.
AF: You’ve sort of conjured a dream for me, that we could say the same for much New Critical writing—that it deserves a second read as a study of literature which becomes its own body of literature. Is this just a dream?
JC: You know, it depends who you talk about. I definitely would recommend Richards’ Science and Poetry. The book has a kind of rhetorical beauty. It’s short, condensed and very charged. In other cases, like The Well-Wrought Urn, for example, an authoritarian voice comes forward that kills any passion or vibrating affect.
AF: That New Critical tangent arose as we talked. But I’m also curious, given Hopkins’ sense of his religious vocation, or Arnold’s ultimate identification as a critic, if we could return to Victorian/contemporary comparisons. Here I think of Marjorie Perloff’s “Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject” article, in which she distinguishes Language poets from a preceding generation by tracing how Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews all move from non-literary disciplines into poetry—how they arrive at this field from different methodological perspectives, with different models for how to function as poets. So this takes me back to Rossetti as painter, Morris as designer, Arnold as critic, Hopkins as priest. Could we consider surface tension’s place amid this cultivation of a cross-disciplinary, multivalent discourse?
JC: Yeah. I’ll withhold any sweeping statements, but what you point out interests me. Here Arnold seems the counter-example. He’s not a poet of surface tension. He’s primarily interested in content. He provides the model for an author who couldn’t maintain multiple identities at once. Once he shifts to focus on criticism, he becomes much less of a poet, whereas others keep their dual vocations alive, with various amounts of suffering attached. Certainly for Rossetti and Morris, part of what makes their poetry their poetry is that they remain so deeply engaged in visual culture. So they’ll paint, in some sense, or design a poem. For Hopkins, his two vocations go to war with each other. He quits writing for a while. He returns to it in a tortured way. He remains unable, I think, to justify his poetry to his religion. At the same time his poems provide an underlying theory that language, like all other surfaces in the natural world, presents a portal for accessing God. And the more complex that surface, the closer language can take us to God. So the vocations blend, but also a big conflict arises that goes deep into his theology and biography.
AF: Do you mind these broad questions? I like how you’ll give more specific answers than my generalizing phrases could provide. Your reference to an underlying theory of Hopkins’ poetics first led me to Romantic naturalism/supernaturalism, to the migration of the sacred, the retreat of the sacred into the secular. And throughout your book, I thought a lot about Rosalind Krauss’s The Originality of the Avant-Garde (and Other Myths). Her essay “Grids,” for example, traces a migration from sacred iconic representations to late-19th-century Symbolist motifs to modernist surfaces—arguing that modern art becomes the final socially acceptable preserve for sacred yearnings. So if you look at the utopian rhetoric of Mondrian, you detect the lingering legacy of Christian spiritual aspirations. And Krauss literally grafts the late 19th-century Symbolist window (with its thematization of this displaced spiritual vantage) onto the 20th-century grid. The transparent, sacred vision becomes a periphrealized trope in a 19th-century atmospheric scene, then a 20th-century empiricist’s exploration of the picture plane. Again, that’s a quick, reductive summary. But can we trace analogous spiritual legacies playing out in Victorian and post-Victorian surface tensions?
JC: Let me enter that through a side door. Lately I’ve been thinking about Lyotard’s essay, “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde,” which makes a somewhat similar argument about Barnett Newman. Lyotard discusses Newman reaching towards the sublime (but defines the sublime coming more out of Burke than Kant). Lyotard describes this sublime as an experience of now-ness, of present time, so that the painting as pure surface, as pure abstraction, can become a moment, or represent a moment. Lyotard reads this kind of surface as the painter’s desire, the painter’s effort to access something that never can be accessed, which is present time itself. The painting attempts to present the viewer with what Lyotard calls an ontological dislocation—some kind of transcendent or transformative experience. So to come back to Hopkins: hmm, it all sort of hinges on this idea of “the now” or the present moment, on whether one truly experiences, or even tries to experience the present moment, which must mean experiencing sensation, experiencing the body. If you can reach that experience, if you can break through to divine access, then that’s a redemptive moment.
AF: And the work’s surface provides the point of contact with the body, which triggers this redemptive experience?
JC: Right. This is central. This helps us understand how Hopkins could stay so fascinated with cloud formations or light on water or animal hides or the pattern of a leaf. Because he tried to—I keep wanting not to use the word “experience,” which already implies some distance—truly touch, with his senses, those surfaces. He tries to remain truly in his senses. To me this resembles Lyotard’s encounter with a Barnett Newman painting. No layers of mediation separate you from it. You stand there before the paint, and the paint never seeks to become anything other than itself.
AF: Could we bring this back to Rossetti for a second? If we think of a Newman painting as pointing toward transcendental experience but also perhaps preventing us from considering the art market as a social institution, which mediates and constructs our access to such experiences, that takes us back to what you say about Rossetti. He recognizes humanist individuality getting pulverized or destroyed by the broader contemporary culture, just as Abstract Expressionists do. But Rossetti, in your intriguing account, also has much more pointed things to say about the art market itself. He seems to verge on some form of institutional critique.
JC: You’re right. Hopkins stands alone in that his relationship to writing does not get mediated by the market. He fails (or declines) to have his work enter a market. But Rossetti depends upon the art market for an income. And he also desires for his work, for art in general, to carry this transcendent force we’ve discussed. Still he remains entirely aware, in a kind of sardonic, funny, angry way, that any work he makes becomes a commodity. And he hopes for his works to become successful commodities. He wants to make money. So his writing gets laced with references to these contradictions. One reason he can seem the most relevant poet to read in this group comes from the tension between his concept of art as a kind of criticism (of the way capital empties out any hope for transformation or transcendence, and makes everything a servant of capital itself) and his continued resolve to transcend and rebirth the subject out of that bind. Of course no triumphant resolution occurs. But neither does utter failure or complete disgust. Rossetti’s dense surfaces mark this struggle, this very difficulty of aesthetic labor—the only force to which one can cling and try to remain free in the face of institutional power.
AF: Well, a basic current running through your book, especially the Hopkins chapter, concerns the eschatological structure of the apocalyptic “new type.” This “new type,” which religious thinkers once had prophesied, continues to inform not only the paintings we’ve discussed, but also, as you’ve mentioned, Benjamin’s or Adorno’s emphasis upon a rhetoric of the difficult, an aesthetic geared toward an unforeseen future, to a utopian era for whose readers this work finally can reach its full potential. Much of your discussion of this “new type” follows the chapter on Matthew Arnold, who develops the trope of poetry as a perpetually pregnant discourse—one in which a moral message needs to be unpacked. So both this metaphor of the charged surface and of the pregnant poem seem future-oriented. You will do a better job than I explaining how these two future-oriented discourses both relate and differ. Does Arnold’s pregnancy metaphor anticipate Hopkins’ poetics of rupture? Does Rossetti’s embodiment of aesthetic labor somehow harness (though, as you say, not reconcile) these countervailing movements?
JC: This book makes the basic argument that Arnold’s perpetually pregnant poem metaphor provides a gradualist idea of change. So yes, poetry can carry us into the future, but it does so through a slow, developmental model. Pregnancy seems a good metaphor for that, for obvious reasons, but also because . . . Arnold emphasizes pregnancy, specifically, not birth. Pregnancy suggests development but skips the suddenness of actual transformation, change, which birth provides. Birth is violent, right? Pregnancy just offers . . .
AF: An ongoing process.
JC: So my book argues that all three other poets model ideas of rupture and revolutionary upheaval or birthing. Though you’re right to point to Rossetti as maybe a bit closer to Arnold than I admit because of this reliance on labor. You can’t suddenly burst upon the world as an emerged being. You have to work towards that. You have to do what Rossetti calls “fundamental brain work.” Again, analytical labor sinks into the aesthetic. This first interested me in Rossetti as a poet who represents rupture through the image of birthing, which gets figured over and over in House of Life. Here he offers “Bridal Birth.” He offers poems specifically about birth (or about a stillborn child so also about death). He’ll use the metaphor of exodus and the Red Sea and people emerging through this break in the water. These rebirthing images drew me to Rossetti as a poet more interested in sudden transformation than some gradual development, some classic psychological growth of the ego. He rejects that. But he also doesn’t. While he creates this epic poem The House of Life, a sonnet sequence focusing on amorous relationships, he doesn’t design this poem in any kind of linear or developmental way. So people get confused when they read it. They’ll ask: who is he talking about? Did a new woman arrive? Oh, two women are here. This sequence doesn’t allow us to watch the subject develop and grow and mature. He never does. That presents a significant counter-model for how a person becomes him or herself.
AF: I’m picturing Rossetti as this institutional player for whom change remains important, but change within the existing order through which he operates and on which he depends versus Hopkins as this isolated, amateur (not that that’s bad) poet for whom the dream of rupture, the fantasy of futurity, would have quite different significance. Here I’m especially interested in Hopkins’ concept of the poetic “now.” I wonder if poets get drawn toward a clean, shiny futurity in part because we feel haunted by delays not only in the production and reception of our work (that’s the more obvious complaint) but also because poetry takes place in time, because communication and interpretation only can occur as temporal experiences—implicitly hinting at unending, unyielding delay and deferral. I guess that’s what you said about Lyotard. But to formulate a question here: how does your study of the pre-Raphaelites shape your thinking about the poetic “now,” about the now of any given moment?
JC: Well I’m currently co-editing a book called Active Romanticism, which presents a collection of essays about Romanticism’s (here very broadly defined) continued life in contemporary poetics. Jeffrey Robinson and I make the argument that Romanticism describes a continuous mode, not a historical period.
AF: Something more like an impulse.
JC: An impulse or way of thinking about relationships between self and world, between language and world. So our book seeks to poke holes in periodization practice. I know that, for me, as a writer, I constantly lean on various 19th-century poets, Hopkins for sure. I think we all do that. We have our people or writers not from our moment but who feel present and contemporary with us. Didn’t Jack Spicer say that poets have no history? Or poets stand outside history? We have to do that, in a way. That’s how we keep poetry alive and continue to live as poets. We can’t just read each other.
AF: One last question: if we accept the premise that the pre-Raphaelites construct charged aesthetic surfaces with pointed political implications at least some of the time, in some ways not unlike those of let’s say Language poets, then what can we learn from the pre-Raphaelite legacy? Did this poetics of the surface become politically efficacious? I ask with some sense of an end-of-the-empire historical analogy between the Victorian era and our own. Within that context, returning to William Morris’ poetics of desire and more generally based on your overall study, do you sense unsuspected channels of desire to be tapped in our own particular present?
JC: Again, I think of Lisa Robertson as my book’s final figure, based on how she offers utopia as a lived experience of the present, a lived experience of the body, of the erotic and of the relational, of proximity to the other and what all this could imply. Of course this idea of utopia as a lived, sensorial present-time differs from Morris’ Marxist/socialist vision of utopia. Though again, what makes Morris’ socialism special is that it has to include desire. And it can’t provide the satisfaction of all desires, because no life would remain. Existence would be flattened out by boredom.
AF: It can’t foreclose future definitions and possibilities of desire.
JC: Exactly. So if I have some goal for this book, as far as its interaction with contemporary poetry, I wish to make the case for a poetics that doesn’t give up on ornament, that doesn’t give up on pleasure, that doesn’t give up on pleasures of language itself, but also a poetry that doesn’t forget the body, that doesn’t reject desire, that doesn’t preclude affect. Some of the contemporary rhetoric around poetry, especially around Conceptual poetry, seems to ignore those arenas. But for me, and perhaps for these pre-Raphaelites embodying surface tension, to void or move away from what we might call subjective feeling, or emotional selfhood, only could bring a kind of death. And hopelessness. I’m not interested in that.
Julie Carr is the author of four books of poetry: Mead: An Epithalamion; Equivocal; 100 Notes on Violence (winner of the 2009 Sawtooth Award); and Sarah-Of Fragments and Lines (a 2010 National Poetry Series selection). Her critical study of Victorian poetry, Surface Tension: Ruptured Time and the Poetics of Desire in Late Victorian Poetry, is forthcoming in 2012 from Dalkey Archive. She is the recipient of a 2010-11 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and is the co-publisher with Tim Roberts of Counterpath Press. She teaches at the University of Colorado in Boulder and lives in Denver where, with Tim, she runs a small bookstore/gallery/performance space called Counterpath. A new book of poems, RAG, is forthcoming from Omnidawn Press.