Michael Heller and Jon Curley

Michael Heller
Michael Heller

This interview focuses on Heller’s book This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010.

Jon Curley: This Constellation Is a Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010 is a behemoth of a book, a chronicle of work that arcs and darts between thematic concerns, representational styles, and historical considerations across almost a half century. In your retrospective view, what consistencies do you perceive? What abrupt or gradual erosions, erasures, disavowals, or disruptions in content and form do you find?

Michael Heller: I date my serious commitment to writing poetry from the mid-nineteen-sixties when, after winning a prize at the New School, I decided, in the vernacular of those times, to “give poetry a shot.” My first wife and I accumulated some money, and we quit our jobs and went to live in Spain where I wrote and began to publish. After a year and a half abroad, we returned to New York, and it is there that disavowals and erosions began in earnest, most specifically, with nearly abandoning poetry and then realizing that my path back into writing poems was not to see myself as an avant-garde or “experimental” writer, a label I had already been tagged with by Richard Kostelanetz when he included me in his anthology The Young American Writers. I had suffered a tremendous disaffection with the work I had done in Spain—to put it bluntly, it had stopped speaking back to me, which is why I nearly quit despite the fact that I was, as they say, on my way to a real career as a poet. So my first disavowal was nearly total, an “erosion” of my belief in my own poetry.

Then, after meeting George Oppen in 1967, reading his work as deeply as I could and corresponding with him, I began to write again. The poems in Earth and Cave, composed while leaving Spain and then during my first few months back in New York, I now see as a kind of rebuilding of a method, working on memory, observation and keeping at some distance from the playful surreal and inventive manner of the earlier poems such as those collected in A Look At The Door With The Hinges Off, which though published in 2006 consisted of poems written and published in the nineteen-sixties.

Now, looking back from the perspective of 50 years in poetry, I see continuities with those earliest poems—they too rely on memory and observation, perhaps at a remove and via a process of transmutation. They too have a base in rhetoric and thought. Perhaps the only continuity that makes sense is the one Wallace Stevens refers to when he sees reality as a “useable past,” which for me means that continuities are already there to be re-discovered and explored.

JC: In the last several decades, writers, both poets and prosers and scholars have contemplated the late style of various subjects—Yeats, Beckett, William Bronk, Adrienne Rich are key examples of trajectories being pressurized into certain identifiable attitudes, traits, and forms. How would you define “Late Heller” and distinguish it from the earlier work?

MH: I wouldn’t dare to define my work, only hope that it shows forth some deepening of themes that have been there from the beginning and perhaps some more skillful and economical treatment of them.

JC: At the end of a crucial 1995 essay, “The Uncertainty of the Poet,” (collected in Uncertain Poetries: Selected Essays on Poets, Poetry & Poetics, you write: “The next poem is always the aim of the prior poem, and this is how poetry develops, not offering us truth upon truth, but by reminding us how truth is always passing into a lie.” Can you elaborate on intentionality and telos as they come to poetic practice and amassment? What are the ethical designs embedded in your poetic vision? Is poetic ground always a testing ground or does it ever encompass apotheosis, a complete end, an arrival?

MH: Since I am not caught up in a conceptual poetics, i.e., a poetics which, a priori, has worked things out, including its idea of reality, and therefore knows precisely what to do about it, I’ve always felt that each poem of mine heals (for me) a dissonance between what has already been said or written and what a constantly changing world would require to be understood or felt or experienced. The “lie” for me is that the poem momentarily settles or resolves the tension between the already articulated and the inarticulate. Still, we and our worlds, the micro- as well as the macroscopic, are constantly changing (this is what I mean by “truth” passing into “lie”), always evolving, so the tension to write keeps re-appearing as disparity or lack, as just plain itch or curiosity. If this is a Romantic notion of poetry (Novalis insisted that all poetry was Romantic poetry), so be it.

JC: This matter of uncertainty as it abides your sense of poetic practice and mission seems related, even if tangentially, to your preoccupation with the diasporic tradition central to Jewish experience. How do you see uncertainty and notions of diaspora as being conjunctive or mutually disruptive? Can the phenomenological and historical qualities of their poetic apprehension be defined apart from other literary modes which might consider them?

MH: First, to answer your question, we have to say that a word like “diaspora” is in danger of being overworked. I delimit the word to the Jewish diaspora, though in modern times, the uprooting and scattering of peoples is fairly commonplace, a forced emigration or a making of intolerable living situations that result in, to use the words of one of our recent presidential candidates, “self-deportation.” The long experience of the Jews, the virtual elimination of the idea of homelands to return to until Herzl’s late 19th century Zionist vision, etc. means that there exists in the Jewish milieu a rich literature and culture of the diasporic experience.

But for my sense of poetry, the diasporic situation is a nearly universal one. Levinas sums this up for me in a citation I put in my essay “Diasporic Poetics,” when he asks: “[I]s it certain a true poet occupies a place? Is the poet not who, in the eminent sense of the term, loses place, ceases occupation, precisely, and is thus the very opening of space. . .” The displacement of the poetic act, as I described it above, that dissonance between the given and the newly perceived, is cognate with the diasporic experience.

I say nearly universal because I think that for the poet who primarily celebrates the national or the familiar, and for the poet comfortably ensconced within a self-reaffirming clique or group dynamic, the poetic-diasporic experience may not apply.

JC: I would assume that truly honest poets suffer intermittent exasperation about their attempts at sounding the expressible, formulating a voice which brings, in Oppen’s term, “sincerity.” What would you ascribe as the connective tissue and the necessary gap between technique and vision in your own work and the work of some of your contemporaries?

MH: “Truly honest poets?” I would prefer Basil Bunting’s self-definition as a “minor poet, not conspicuously dishonest.” And let history sort the “Truly” and the “minor.” Oppen’s “sincerity” goes back to Pound’s, which goes back to the root of the idea of standing by one’s word. The term gets bandied about, and a moral character is ascribed to it, to “being sincere.” But I won’t say that a poet is being insincere if he or she uses words in a way I think idiotic or frivolous, or, more to the point, just not interesting or revelatory.

JC: Speaking of Oppen, looking back on your variegated body of work, how might you ultimately characterize the Objectivists’ influence on your poetry and poetry making? Of course, I am aware that this designation corrals a diverse group of practitioners.

MH: Oppen and the Objectivists? I’ve never had the impulse to write like any of them, though I think with Oppen particularly I feel direct influences, some idea of cadence, of seeking an intensity of image through what my wife Jane and I once termed (for a seminar we were teaching) “radical observation.” What drew me to them is the depth with which they saw and realized their world in language, and, as well, their ethics of poetry and of the poetry business. I knew three of them well, Oppen, Rakosi and to a lesser degree Reznikoff. These three were, at least in my experience, simply wonderfully witty and kind people to be around. I never met Lorine Niedecker, though I wrote about her before any of the others. I did meet Zukofsky a few times and had lunch at their apartment once, but then he moved out to Port Jefferson, and soon thereafter he died.

JC: Although I would be disinclined to separate your work into discrete categories of concern, I do see the return over and over, in variously re-invented ways, to the relationship between history and art, the text/textuality to experiential and imagined reality and the levels of contact between family through time, family being broadly defined, including literary forebears as well as familial antecedents and descendents. Can you expound on the importance of these subject matters or perhaps direct me to areas that I have failed to report?

MH: The “subjects” you refer to—and, yes, one could find variants on these and even other topics that undergird my work—seem to devolve from psychic tendencies or obsessions. My poems usually begin in a phrase or a jotting, perhaps an observation, but then unaccountably they spin out into some variant of the categories you name. Behind this spinning out are some obvious beliefs, I suppose, that art is often the most complex register of what is going on in a culture at any one time. While Heidegger referred to language as the “house of being,” and Jameson wrote that we were caught in language’s “prison house,” my own idea is that poetry is the clearing house of language and information, that poetry is a kind of testing place, at least it has been so for me.

I think the “importance” of these subject matters, to use your phrase, (I would say how it—the subject—means to me) is signified within any individual poem. To expound, say, on art and history separate from their occurrence in the poem would be to embark on an expository raid on the already articulate. One hopes the poem realizes something about the subject or subjects. It’s like putting a new node or knot in a fabric that is enormously wide and incommensurate to any single act or gesture. The poem-knot, however, gives access and brings into being dimensions heretofore unrealized.

JC: Is poetry philosophy by other means? Can one subordinate itself to the other, or can they enhance each other’s levels of sensitivity and attention to the world?

MH: For me, a poem is not philosophy nor, as in some circles, a demonstration of a particular philosophical outlook. That being said, poetry, poem-case by poem-case, can be a contribution to—and often corrective to—the generalizations of philosophy or concept or anything else, such as history or love or family relationships. Aristotle took this position, proclaiming the superiority of poetry to history. Stevens’ idea that the poem is “the cry of its occasion” seems the sufficient point, and then all else is an exfoliation of the realized poem.

JC: If I understand both your general take on poetics—and am attuned as closely as I think I am to your work in toto—voice is provisional, situational, broaches itself and bears itself in permutations defined by an individual poem’s circumstance, its atmospheric structures (and constraints).

Would you agree about the establishment of a repertoire of voices rather than one monolithic, exemplary one?

MH: As I’ve written elsewhere, everything beats like a drum on the mind-body construct of the poet—the voice is the sound of the realization of those inputs (my “clearing house”). I want to hear this, in myself, in other poets. It is why I read, and, I suppose, why I write. This is different than the search for a “voice,” the usual workshop dictate, something that indicates mastery of an experience and gives the kind of continuity that publishers and critics adore. I might mischievously add that concept-driven poetry, or one dictated by various manipulations of the text, also supply “voice” to what is on the page, external to the input situation.

JC: In “Poetic Geography” from Eschaton, you write: “Lost. / To be lost / in that old American hope //of words /enfolded in the continent, / as though, while walking in the street, / to stumble / into a hole. . . ” A poem in the same volume (“Letter & Dream of Walter Benjamin”) intones how “Messiah and geography never coincide.” Many of your poems survey and are often obsessed by geography, notions of place and placement, whether in naturalistic detail or spectral encounter, from Israel to the Sangre de Cristos mountain range in Southern Colorado. Although one could view the poem as a repository for a place or a map of a place, it seems that you have a more ambiguous perspective, that the observed space translated into the poem is both there and beyond us, that its possession is also a dispossession. Can the poem be at home in the world? Is the poet forever displaced from her/his security of place or security of a sense of place?

MH: “Poetic Geography” was informed by Rob Wilson’s book on the nuclear sublime, the aspect of America under threat of ICBMs from Russia or elsewhere. But also, on my mind was a stunning exhibition, which we saw at the Tate Gallery in London of American Sublime painters, Church, Bierstadt, Cole, who incorporated their idea of America into the physical landscapes they rendered. In the Benjamin poem, the line is from a letter of Benjamin’s explaining to Scholem his reluctance to move to Palestine. Self-evident that Benjamin resisted the sublimation effect, though his faith in Europe as guardian of the human proved to be fatal. Only our pastoralist poetry camp equates landscape with moral or psychic uplift, or its reverse, damnation. This is not to say that places don’t send messages, but our responses are individual, particularized and often require a plunge into one’s own psychic depths or close study of the linguistics involved to make them satisfactorily communicable. Possession evokes dispossession—a Buddhist would call this a scientific truth, testable in meditation or dialectic argument.

JC: I am very interested in your writing procedure. Writing poems can take on many structures, practices and principles. One poem may be written in one fashion and another may reject that technique and require a different method. How do you go about writing your poems? Are there multiple modes or a standard way those lines are created? Are there any necessary accidents which help facilitate composition? Any temptations to alter or abide certain sounds, gestures, or some other aspect which might inhibit or distract the trajectory you are assuming?

MH: As I’ve written elsewhere, my stumbling into poetry came after my formal education, which was in engineering and the sciences (and involved, by institutional design, the most minimal exposure to literature). So I didn’t have heavily fixed ideas about what constituted “poetry” either in terms of form or content. When I began to write, I learned the metrical systems, etc., but was drawn to the cadential poetics of Pound and Williams, which imposed (is that the correct word?) a different order and conception to form. All of which was reinforced by my readings of the Black Mountain poets, the Objectivists, Oppen especially and other contemporary poets who’d given the pentameter the heave, so to speak. At the same time, I have never lost my reverence for poets and poetry that is formal in a different way from my own.

Other factors, which may suggest my compositional proclivities, concern the state of knowledge since the beginning of the twentieth century: comparative linguistics, Einstein, relativity, the sciences of local and particularized lawfulnesses, anthropology and archeology and now what we are discovering in the micro-systems of the perceptual apparatus. All of these led me to be wary of pre-determined formalities, not as a matter of doctrine but simply because each occasion of writing struck me as unique and elicited unique responses. A couple of governing principles or I should say limitations obtain, however: one’s physiognomy and life-experience, exposures and such, and the infinite possibilities of language to create, to shape, to imitate, to represent or refuse to represent. All this is to say, I have only two tools I can use, the sounds I can make and the thinking I can engage in on the materials of the poem. All this I hope comes together in my writing.

Oppen is here again a guide. He has a Platonic notion of a poem’s form. He writes in his notes that one can almost always sense that a word is wrong or misplaced, a word which can ruin the poem (its design if you will), and his skepticism towards our use of language, as in “one can use words provided one treat them as enemies, not enemies but ghosts, etc.,” is a powerful inspiration toward getting the poem “right.” My own practice is to create draft after draft after draft, often numbering in the thirties, or even more if midway I radically alter the form of the poem, from say two-liners to three liners. In all this, I hope I am following Oppen’s dictate. I stop with a feeling of satisfaction or abandonment and often put aside what has not worked, only to return to it much later. I have a very old-school feeling about all this, that I am not trying to make works of art but responding to unresolved knots of experience or understanding.

I aspire to achieve what Eliot described when—I think it was in reference to Blake or Dante—he spoke about “a condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything).” Eliot here echoes another touchstone of mine, Valery who reminds us that in strong poetry “form is costly.”

JC: Ekphrastic poetry, especially in its American poetic flourishes in the 20th and early 21st centuries, has been a mainstay of the tradition, yet only minimally and intermittently. Most volumes tend to include one token poem about a painting, sculpture, photograph, or whatever art object and ruminate on aesthetic beauty or memory relays that the artwork triggers. All through your career I see a deep dedication to responding to art through poetry. In your marvelous Beckmann Variations & Other Poems , you deliberate historical catastrophe—its engulfment, meaning, the possible means of acceptance, refusal, or transcendence of it—as it balances between painting, poem and poet. I take it that for you ekphrastic poetry allows for certain resonances and possibilities of expression that make it a serious mode of interpretation beyond mere house-dressing or covering a typical, vetted terrain.

MH: This is a very complex question because the variables and possibilities are enormous. Good pictures (good artworks of any sort) are powerful concentrations of energies, cultural dynamics, questions of being and becoming, as well as commentaries on their own genres and the very deepest questions of art itself. The least interesting type of ekphrastic poem, to my mind, is that one that wants you to rush out and see the picture or wants to recreate the picture for you, a redundancy at best. What deeply interests me is when the poet wants to transfer the complicated energy of what is observed to the words of the poem. But look at the variations possible, say Auden’s Bruegel (which for him amounts to a meditation on loss) as opposed to Williams’ Pictures From Bruegel, a sequence in which language tries to enact the dance of forms and strokes of paint, to become, in a sense, something independent and co-equal to the paintings. Indeed, one could make a case that the poet wishes the picture would disappear, to be replaced by the poem. Yet another way is to sense that a work or series of works concentrates itself around a theme or subject that has been on one’s mind. This was the method I tried to use in the Beckmann sequence. The mix of poems and prose enabled me to speak to the underlying issues of the pictures I chose: power, love, artifice. In this, Beckmann’s biography played an enormous part, his quarrels with the art of his contemporaries, his fleeing the Nazis, exile—and there is an aspect of him that I am now beginning to explore: his work, his social circumstances, his clients during the ascendancy of Nazism and his subsequent actions after he left Germany.

JC: I do not construe This Constellation is a Name as a summa, the last words, the endpoint, and I would assume neither do you. What new works and ideas are you after? How would you characterize your more recent forays into the poems and their operative inclinations?

MH: Constellations is for me an important marker, but a way station as well. As is my manner, I have a number of projects always in flux, more poems, of course, but also collecting my miscellaneous essays and writing some more prose: memoir, critical and even fictional (where I hope to surprise myself with something like a novel or two).

JC: How to set the poem by or against the man, the individual, who composes it and is, in turn, composed or decomposed by it? W.B. Yeats in Essays and Introductions famously notes, “Even when the poet seems most himself. . .he is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete.” Would you agree with this formulation, explode it or argue a different stance?

MH: I wouldn’t be caught dead quarreling with Yeats on matters like this. For sure, the poet is not the breakfasting man, and let me add, if it’s the poet qua poet in his poeticizing role sitting down at my table, I’d be excusing myself and getting up. Oppen said, “[P]oets shouldn’t live among poets,” a remark that has a Yeatsian edge about roles and masks. Yeats’s poet, who in his workings becomes “idea, something intended, complete,” is anything but a social animal.

JC: The mystical and the mundane, the awed sense and the dogged desire, move like veins (I have a feeling of mixed metaphorism here) through the integuments of your poetic lines and stanzas. How are the layers of your poems to your mind invested with a sense of commonplace and what W.R. Rodgers’s deemed “through-otherness”?

MH: I am unfamiliar with Rodgers’ thinking, so hesitate to respond to his terminology. I wrote to Oppen back in the seventies that I felt “the commonplace is mostly lost,” a thought he reworked into one of his poems. What I was pointing to was an estrangement from our own selfhood and others’ that pervades our thought and culture, reducing us primarily to reactive, easily misled beings, shaping the revenge of our advanced media culture and technology, and, in some instances, the critical arena in which our art forms including poetry are discussed and evaluated. I’ve been reading Yves Bonnefoy’s book on Rimbaud, one of the most moving and important things I’ve come across in years. Poetry, Bonnefoy insists, can be both “hope and threat.” He sees the act of making poetry as one of watchfulness, of a vigilance toward language and its debasements. “The believer in poetry,” he writes, “is perhaps—by his very involvement in words—more an exile than ever, but emotionally, intellectually, he is kept from losing his soul.” If I had to say what the promise of poetry was for me, I’d say it in those words of Bonnefoy’s. Poetry restores the “commonplace,” which is anything but commonplace (and perhaps I want to separate this into two words to read “common place,” which is where words meet and entangle our world. Which is where words interrogate the mystical and the awed, and so heighten our lives.


Michael Heller’s books include: This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010, Beckmann Variations & Other Poems, Eschaton, Speaking the Estranged: Essays on the work of George Oppen, Uncertain Poetries: Essays on Poets, Poetry and Poetics and Exigent Futures: New and Selected Poems.

Since the nineteen-nineties, he has been collaborating with the composer Ellen Fishman Johnson on multimedia works including the opera, Constellations of Waking (2000), based on the life of the German-Jewish writer Walter Benjamin, and the multimedia works, This Art Burning (2008) and Out of Pure Sound (2010), all of which premiered at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Links to these collaborations can be found here and here.

Heller’s home page can be found here, and his PennSound page can be found here.


  1. Derek Coyle

    Thanks very much Jon Curley and Michael Heller for the conversation. I enjoyed the entire piece, but, just to say, I found Michael’s reflections on the mode of ekphrastic poetry very insightful. And I also found interesting his reflection that the self and poetry are somewhat lost in the modern media world. It is always good to hear what others have found stimulating and provocative (in the best sense), and so I have to look at Oppen (who is not so well known in Ireland, to my knowledge), and back to Yves Bonnefoy.

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