H. L. Hix: Let me start this side of our conversation by taking your advice. The welcome you extend, in Close Calls with Nonsense, to prospective readers of new poetry includes a “How to Read Very New Poetry” section that begins: “The most important precepts are the simplest: Look for a persona and a world, not for an argument or a plot. Enjoy double meanings: Don’t feel you must choose between them. Ask what the disparate elements have in common. . .”
I take that as good advice to a reader of your own very new poetry, since your latest book, Belmont, offers a world that is two worlds at once: The book’s back cover informs readers that you live in Belmont, Massachusetts, and its epigraph tells us we are entering the Shakespearean Belmont of The Merchant of Venice. In fulfillment of your advice, I don’t feel that I must choose between them, but since I have this chance to quiz the author, let me ask you what the disparate elements have in common. Why was it important or inviting to inhabit both worlds at once, the “literal” or “real” Belmont in which you live and the “mythic” or “poetic” Shakespearean Belmont? What does one learn, or what pleasures are offered, by not choosing between those two worlds, but dwelling in both?
Stephen Burt: Thanks for asking. I think we all need to inhabit at least two worlds, because this real world just isn’t enough for anybody, as marvelous as it is; because any adult life, and any child’s life (though not for the same reasons) includes wishes that cannot be fulfilled for real; because the imagination is amazing and should not be limited to what’s probable, or even possible; because there are more things in heaven than there are in Earth.
Also I am a transgender person—I often feel like a girl, or feel that I should be a girl, or feel that I should have been a girl—which means that my one male body isn’t enough, for reasons that can’t be generalized very far beyond trans people.
And also I am a parent, and I love being a parent, and that means that I am frequently trying to attend to children’s ability to imagine, and to request, the impossible: I want to respect that creative potential, that ability to imagine other worlds, while helping our kids learn to live in the world that we have.
HLH: Belmont is filled with ordinary things: Subarus, Cheerios, a Muppet, a Swingline stapler, a Citgo sign, and so on. But the heightened attentiveness enforced by poetry renders them extraordinary (makes them especially meaningful, for instance, and especially memorable). If I were translating into declarative assertions the ways ordinary things are present here, those assertions would include:
- Even something that presents an aspect of ordinariness also has, and can offer, an aspect of extraordinariness.
- Both ordinariness and extraordinariness admit of degree; that is, something can be very ordinary and very extraordinary.
Was the relationship between ordinary and extraordinary a concern for you in any conscious way as you were composing these poems?
SB: Not in those terms, though what a flattering reading you offer. I’d say that real versus unreal, and perhaps wish-fulfillment as against ethical responsibility, and perhaps mundane vs. extravagant, are the polarities I more often had in mind.
HLH: A concern with adulthood and its attendant responsibilities recurs throughout Belmont. The Subaru is described as seeming “to claim / that to be adult is simply to care less / about doing your own thing on your own, / and more about what other people require. . .” The speaker in one poem says, “Now I get out of bed / at sunrise, and am part / of others, of responsibilities.” And so on.
You have written extensively about youth, notably in The Forms of Youth, where you argue that “twentieth-century adolescence, its changing meanings and its cultural powers,” was a formative presence for a large body of important poetry in English in the twentieth century. At one point, responding to social theorist Liah Greenfeld, you entertain the possibility that “adulthood is the state in and for which poetry. . .seems to have no value any more, so that the ‘poetry of a grown man’ (in James Wright’s famous phrase) would simply be no poetry at all.” I feel certain that Belmont wasn’t constructed as an argument, a proof text, but is it in any sense a demonstration that the “poetry of a grown man” is possible, and would be poetry?
SB: Some of the poems are such demonstrations, though they tend to look back at what they are not, at what they and I can no longer be, so that they are demonstrations that adulthood can fit contemporary poetry almost in the way that Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” ode is a demonstration—they might be more convincing in their doubts than in the confidence and the compensation that they claim to find (they might also be cheeseball rewritings of the “Immortality” ode, with teenage flirtation, gender fluidity and obscure rock music in place of a six-year-old’s genuine naïve musings). “The People on the Bus” is the key poem here.
If adulthood has no place for poetry, so much the worse for adulthood. But if “adulthood” just means “the ethical,” then maybe it’s OK to imagine poetry as that which exceeds or evades the ethical; and maybe we are not always, or not often, required to act like adults. (Sometimes, of course, we are, if we are adults. Not all my readers are adults, nor are all of yours.)
HLH: Another prominent concern in Belmont is safety. “Belmont Overture (Poem of Eight A.M.),” for instance, attends to whether “it’s safe around here” and whether “we feel safe”; safety is explicitly present in the last stanza of “Butterfly with Parachute,” the last poem in the book; and so on. And near the center of the book, “Geno,” about “our silver-gray runt of a cat,” starts with Achilles’ choice: “A long safe life, or glory / and an early grave.” Is Belmont a kind of anti-Iliad, a glorification of choosing the long safe life rather than glory and an early grave?
I do, however, celebrate people who aren’t me, who made other choices. And I’m quite willing to risk certain kinds of shame: but safe kinds, kinds without material, economic consequences.
HLH: And what about the role of music, singing, songs and singers throughout? Belmont is populated by bands and singers (The Ramones, Avril Lavigne, Breaking Circus, and others). The very first words of the very first poem (which stands by itself, preceding the other poems, all grouped into sections) are “Sing for us.” That invocation (further evidence in favor of the anti-Iliad reading), I would say, is fulfilled by what follows. Do you have ways to speak about the role of music in your life (our lives) and your work?
SB: I think about music constantly! I used to be an extreme record collector; I wish I still did a radio show, although I wouldn’t have the time now to do a weekly show very well. The collection is full of musical examples, counterexamples, models and foils for who I am, for who other characters are, for whom I could be.
Music plays a slightly different role in every poem; but I am always conscious, I hope, both of the role of music in language, of sound, and of the special tasks taken on by people who set themselves up as musical performers, whether they are public failures, or lo-fi bedroom rockers, or classically trained performers who rehearse constantly in the hope of future attention or people who have already achieved international public success.
HLH: I don’t remember any sheep or shepherds in Belmont, but there are a lot of other echoes of the pastoral: depiction of (and reflection on) suburbia; emphasis on the passing of the day (as in the several morning poems) and on the passing of the seasons; attention to nature and to human placement in it; and so on. Would you embrace a description of Belmont as pastoral poetry, or resist it?
SB: What is pastoral?
There are sheep and shepherds in “The Task,” by the way (it’s a joke I took from an NPR story about kudzu-eating sheep in the Southeast: the host asks the shepherd, “Do you have a staff?” and the shepherd assumes that the host meant “Do you have administrative assistants and bookkeepers?” whereas the host really meant, “Do you have a tall, narrow thing you can use to prod sheep?”).
HLH: The dynamic tension between imaginary and real asserts itself throughout Belmont: The epigraph to the first section notes that children see no reason to prefer the real world to imaginary ones; “The Paraphilia Odes” declares that “Nothing holy is real”; the last stanza of the last poem asks after our desire “that imagination discover the limits / of the real / world only slowly”; and so on. Is this preoccupation related to others I’ve asked about (adulthood/responsibility, the pastoral, ordinariness, safety, etc.)? To others I would ask about, had we world enough and time (comfort and companionship, flight, certainty/uncertainty, etc.)? How do you see this tension between imaginary and real in relation to the poems in Belmont?
SB: Wait, that’s the whole book! It may be the whole of imaginative literature.
May I refer you both to Randall Jarrell’s “The Night Before the Night Before Christmas,” and to Wallace Stevens’ “Reply to Papini”?
HLH: Thanks for sending me back to those poems, neither of which I remembered, though both are marvelous. As you might guess, the Stevens especially “lights me up.” And maybe helps me formulate my question more clearly. When Stevens says, “This pastoral of endurance and of death / Is of a nature that must be perceived // And not imagined,” he is explicitly and self-consciously addressing himself to the tension between imaginary and real. But aren’t there different ways and different degrees of addressing that tension? So I’m inclined to say, for instance, that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” say, addresses that tension more explicitly and self-consciously than does “Home Burial.” But maybe I’m wrong about that (the longer my attempt to formulate this question drags on, the more uncertain I become!), and even asking after your explicit, self-conscious concern about the tension doesn’t do the eliciting I’m after?
On First Fire, Then Birds
SB: Each of your books has a governing project: sonnets; verse sculpted from speeches by public figures; dramatic narratives about extreme situations; prelude and fugue and modified haibun form. To what extent do you see all your books as unitary projects, and to what extent are they collections of poems? Did that extent change as you compiled this selection?
HLH: If the poetry population sorts itself into two distinct clans, the Poem People and the Project People, I’m definitely a Project Person. It’s partly pragmatic: As a reader, I get most of my poetry from books, so I tend to think of the book as a unit of poetry even more basic than the poem (or, to say that differently, I think of the book as the poem). It’s partly a quirk of personal history, derived from such elements as my adolescent musical tastes. What I loved as a kid was the concept album: Dark Side of the Moon, Hotel California, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Graceland, I, Robot . . . The project book feels like the natural analogy to the concept album. And it’s partly a function of taste in poetry: Works that affect me are often projects, such as Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Deepstep Come Shining, Coal Mountain Elementary. . .
But of course as soon as the project/collection distinction is made I want to question it. It’s a pet theory of mine that poetry, after the manner of fractals, is (in a way and to a degree that prose is not) self-similar at all scales, so I suspect that project and collection are more alike than they are different. A collection may start with parts and arrive at a whole, and a project may start with the whole and arrive at its parts, but in the end both are wholes composed of parts, the sum of which they seek to exceed. In both, the self-similarity of whole and part goes both ways.
In any event, I want my work to have integrity at each scale or “level”: phoneme, word, line, sentence, stanza, poem, collection, oeuvre. For First Fire, Then Birds, this meant conceiving of the book in terms other than as a selection. I’d been thinking all along of my books primarily as projects rather than as collections, so it seemed inconsistent to think of First Fire, Then Birds as a selection. I hadn’t been arriving at the previous books by addition, so it didn’t make sense to me to arrive at this one by—I want to say “mere”—subtraction. That’s one reason for the decision to subtitle it “Obsessionals” rather than the more normal “Selected Poems”: to telegraph its project-ness, that the books that had been projects themselves were not now being simply culled, but (as fits their nature) subsumed within a larger project.
SB: One of your first books consists of apothegms and aphorisms. How has the aphorism form affected your subsequent work in verse? Is it something you still embrace, or resist?
HLH: Let me start my reply with a perverse analogy. In digital technology, the race has been to fit as much information as possible into as small a chip as possible. I’m interested in something similar in regard to language, fitting as much meaning as possible into as small a unit of sense as possible. Which makes the aphorism interesting to me: It attempts to condense a lot (of wisdom, say) into a very small bundle of language.
The aphorism also appeals to me as a meeting ground of poetry and philosophy. Is it poetry? Yes and no. Philosophy? Yes and no. And there are so many practitioners to love: Heraclitus, Antonio Porchia, Nietzsche. . .
That said, my embracing of the aphorism is matched by an equal and opposite resistance. The same spareness that imbues the aphorism with the possibility of discovery (after the manner of a gestalt: just “getting it” whole) also infuses it with the possibility of deception, of circular affirmation of prejudice (after the manner of a conviction without trial). Right now, for me, resistance has the upper hand over embrace, but no doubt when I next happen upon a practitioner I hadn’t known of…
SB: Do you have favorite lines, or favorite individual works, or favorite projects, from among your own books so far? What and why?
HLH: Although I feel, for whatever reason, that I shouldn’t have favorites, in fact I do. The favoritism shows up in various ways, such as routinely choosing certain poems rather than others to include in readings.
Reasons for the favoritism vary. For instance, “Light,” one of the poems in “Synopsis,” is a favorite because I think of it as approaching an ideal I mentioned earlier, namely fitting as much meaning as possible into as small a unit of sense as possible. In contrast, “Even Be It Built of Boards Planed by Hand and Joined Without Nails, Yet May a Barn Burn,” is a favorite because in it a number of my concerns converge: dissonance between internal emotional state and external circumstances, discrepancy between agency in thought and agency in deed, the inevitability created by the lag between decisions and their consequences, the limitless human capacity for cruelty and indifference, and so on.
SB: “The God of Window Screens and Honeysuckle” consists almost entirely of description, but what’s described varies drastically from sonnet to sonnet and sometimes within the poems. What should we know about how you view description? What’s the relation between what’s seen and what’s felt or believed, and how has that relation changed for you?
HLH: In her “Soft Architecture: A Manifesto,” Lisa Robertson urges, “Practice description. Description is mystical.” In The Sovereignty of Good, Iris Murdoch declares it “a task to come to see the world as it is.” I’m inclined to take them at their word. Our modes of corruption and harm most typically, I’d contend, arise from hiding or distorting what is: self-deception, prejudice of all sorts, rationalizations of violence and war, and on and on. Against the barrage of false and falsifying messages (advertisements, for example) that we suffer daily, description offers a form of resistance. So description seems to me a valid purpose for poetry to serve. By no means the only valid purpose, but by all means a valid purpose. I don’t consider it an exaggeration to say that description reorients us toward truth.
SB: How has your work been received (if it has been received) by religious believers? (I’m thinking especially of “A Manual of Happiness” and “Synopsis,” whose place near the end of the volume can’t be a mistake).
HLH: You’re right that the placement of those poems was no accident, but if my work has been received at all by religious believers, I’m not aware of it. And probably those two poems hint at one reason, no doubt among many, for my not being embraced by believers, despite my preoccupation with religious language and imagery. “A Manual of Happiness” retells that most “fringe” of canonical tales, the story of Job and his children, and “Synopsis” retells the gospel story by appeal mostly to non-canonical gospels. In my experience, religious believers typically place high value on authority and consensus, but my poems’ proclivities are for those spiritual moments that authority and consensus do not govern, so probably I shouldn’t be surprised at not being embraced by believers.
SB: Has your reception—that is, the reception of your first books—influenced what you’ve chosen to do in the later ones? Some of your first supporters identified themselves very strongly with polemics about what American poetry should or should not do; you’ve resisted those polemics. Has that resistance in turn affected your work?
HLH: I hope it has not affected my work in a reaction-formation way. I don’t want to write poems for the purpose of resisting polemics. But I do hope that my poetry and my resistance to polemics are consistent with one another. I distrust the reductiveness of polemics, and I want my poetry to be capacious: In both regards, I seek to enact my sense that poetry is mysterious and manifold and inexhaustible and capable of many things and much, much bigger than our ideas of it.
SB: What do we need to know about professional philosophy-department philosophy in order to get the most out of your work (in particular, “Material Implication”)? Are there other poets you have in mind who use analytic philosophy in this way?
HLH: Though they are fewer than one might think, there certainly are other poets formally trained in philosophy, in whose work the membrane between the discourses of poetry and philosophy is revealed as porous: Jan Zwicky, for instance, whose work has been very important to me for a long time, and Troy Jollimore, Warren Heiti, John Koethe. . .
I hope that philosophy functions more as, say, a resonance chamber for my work than as a prerequisite to it. Regarding “Material Implication” in particular, a reader need not have studied logic: indeed, my grad-school logic professor, Ignacio Angelelli, would assure you that logic was not my philosophical forté! The recurrence of the “if. . .then” pattern in the “Material Implication” poems themselves, rather than the reader’s prior knowledge of philosophical logic, does the heavy lifting, I hope. I drew on the logical concept of “material implication” in order to layer the poems structurally. The sonnet form already proposes a relationship between parts: octave and sestet, mediated by a turn. I wanted to see what happened if material implication established a particular relationship between title and poem, to add to the octave/sestet relationship.
SB: How has your sense of the sonnet changed?
HLH: My fascination with the sonnet began as a love of its surface, the sonic patterns and musical effects it configured. My interest now has more to do with the sonnet’s “interior,” its service as a structuring of thought. I know these two are not separable: the sonnet is a singing machine because it is a thinking machine, and a thinking machine because it is a singing machine. What has changed for me over time is which of those functions claims the foreground.
SB: You have a long connection with visual artists from your days in Kansas City and Cleveland. Do you retain that connection? Do you miss it? What’s your favorite instance of visual experience in all of your poems?
HLH: Probably this is an inconsistency, but yes I do retain the connection and yes I miss it. I retain the connection in various ways one might mean that: I am still in occasional correspondence with a number of those who were my Kansas City and Cleveland colleagues; over time I have written about work by several of them, and their influence on my own artistic practice remains strong. I didn’t learn from writers how to be a writer. I don’t have formal training in creative writing and was not a member of a community of writers until taking my present job. It was visual artists from whom I learned how to be a writer. The meticulousness of Carl Kurtz, the clarity of Jane Lackey, the restlessness of Warren Rosser, the verve of China Marks, the effervescence of Adriane Herman: I could go on and on listing former colleagues whose work and whose artistic practice I have taken as models for my own.
This plays out in other ways, also. A forthcoming book, Ley Lines, puts artists and poets into dialogue; I’ve written poems in response to artist friends’ images and words; the cover images on most of my books have been work by former colleagues. We poets have a lot to learn from our various sister art forms, and I hope to continue learning from the visual arts and from visual artists as long as I’m around. Which explains the “yes I miss it” part of this answer. I miss the immediacy of being able to make studio visits, see work in progress, participate in crits, see shows frequently, discuss work with artists face-to-face, and so on, all of which I am less often able to do now that I live and work in a small town rather than in a large city.
As for a favorite instance of visual experience in my poems, the first thing that comes to mind for me is the preludes from “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” because several of them consist of bunches of images strung together paratactically—as if simply listing images, without any elaboration, were adequate to experience and understanding.
SB: What’s the place of the erotic in your work? Has it changed?
HLH: As the gap between our urgencies and capacities (not only, in other words, as specifically sexual desire) eros is everywhere in my work. It is my work. And it certainly has changed. In my early work (when I myself was young) I experienced eros as frustration: a gap between my desires and my pleasures, imposed by what social forces forbade me. More recently (now that I am no longer young) I experience eros as despair: a gap enforced by necessity, by the inevitability of my decay and the finality of my death, by how fugitive my life has been and is and will be. The erotic once strangled me in its embrace, because (I felt) I had more life than I had liberty; now, because I have more life than I have time.
H. L. Hix’s forthcoming books include a poetry collection entitled As Much As, If Not More Than (Etruscan Press, 2014) and an anthology of artists and writers in layered conversation, called Ley Lines (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2014). You can find his website here.
Stephen Burt is the author of three poetry collections, including Belmont and Parallel Play, and the author of several works of criticism, including Close Call with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is Professor of English at Harvard University and lives in Belmont, Massachusetts.