We at The Conversant delight in the prospect of spring and celebrating the end of winter. Winter brought its share of snow and Louis MacNeice’s poem “Snow” reminds us that the poetry world is “incorrigibly various” and that “the drunkenness of things being various” is a sublime intoxication. In this spirit, Eric Hoffman has brought forth two very different volumes, By the Hours: Selected Poems, Early and Uncollected, and a critical biography of George Oppen, Oppen: A Narrative. This interview focuses on these two recent publications. –Jon Curley
Jon Curley: Your most recent poetry collection, By the Hours: Selected Poems Early & Uncollected, carries an epigram from Emerson beginning: “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth…” I was struck by how that affirmation also underscores a distance, the seeking of, the remoteness from perfection and the need, in life as in poetry, to use vocation as a testing device. Would this interpretation gibe with your sense of your poetic exploration?
Eric Hoffman: Yes. The poetry that interests me is poetry that explores, that questions. Poetry that is written with specific objectives in mind is necessarily self-limiting. As a poet, more importantly as a human being, I’m on a quest—meaning I’m on a search for something. What that something is, I don’t know. We don’t often speak of quests now. Many people, if not most, latch onto a comfortable worldview or framework, and that is something that sustains them. Many other people don’t. I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge that this quest sometimes ends in failure. It does, nearly as often as it succeeds. Yet it keeps going. Charles Taylor has written quite eloquently of this quest for meaning, and of how having a framework often means making (with an emphasis on “making”) sense of our lives. I’ll read you a quote from Taylor that, for the moment, perfectly summarizes my view of poetry: “We find the sense of life through articulating it. And moderns have become acutely aware of how much sense being there for us depends on our own powers of expression…Finding a sense to life depends on framing meaningful expressions which are adequate.” It’s that notion of adequacy of articulation that I’m seeking in poetry.
JC: I see that the arc of your career in poetry has been defined by attentiveness, both the role of attention and the lack thereof (“Often we are too busy to notice. // We go about our days/only sometimes remembering”). The influence of the Objectivists in respect to orientation, if not necessarily execution, on the poetic field of your work is obvious. But can you explain more your relationship to these forebears?
EH: For me, the best poetry enacts and utilizes an active engagement with the world, one that remains open and therefore more inclusive, more expansive and more penetrative. And yes, that view is informed by what has come to be known as “Objectivist” poetry—borrowing freely from Louis Zukofsky here, poetry that is directed along a line of thought and melody in a precise manner, and this precision is important both in construction and in perception. Poetry should be constructed in such a way that it captures, as Zukofsky describes it, the “detail, not the mirage, of seeing,” and achieves a kind of aesthetic balance between “sight, sound and intellect,” or enacts, as Pound describes it, “the dance of the intellect.” Adhering to these principles, without necessarily being programmatic about it, results in, to my mind, the most intellectually and aesthetically stimulating poetry. This has some commonality with Taylor’s idea of adequacy of articulation. But what is wonderful about Zukofsky’s Objectivist “programme” is that it is not really a programme at all (this can be deduced from the selection he made for his An “Objectivist” Anthology), rather it is some quality that is occasionally achieved in the work of poets who may have never heard of the “Objectivists.” That holds true today. It’s a mark, to me, of good poetry.
This pertains more to George Oppen, whose work really opened this up for me, but I think also of the importance of sincerity in poetry—that when you write a poem, you’re placing it there for someone else to read and, if they are paying attention, they’re going to perceive whether or not a poem is sincere or simply a vehicle that places in front of them some prefabricated bag of goods. In Oppen’s “The Gesture,” he compares someone holding something in the mind to someone who holds an apple and who likes apples, as opposed to how a salesman holds a bauble the salesman intends to sell. What this says to me is that one can always tell whether or not a poet really needs to write the poem and is doing so in such a way that the expression is somehow necessary, as opposed to some kind of exercise or game or ironic statement. You cannot write adequately constructed or perceived poetry from a dispassionate position. Poetry is not mechanical in this sense.
I find that much poetry these days wavers between Hallmark on one hand and hermetic on the other, and it’s rare that you find poetry that achieves balance or equilibrium, the “perfect rest” Zukofsky describes. Even Zukofsky was rarely able to achieve it.
Poetry, since at least the 1960s (as a result of the New Left, the Cultural Revolution, Civil Rights, feminism, creative writing programs, and so forth), has become very much balkanized. In many ways this is a healthy thing, yet I think it is also in some sense a bit detrimental, as it places all of these self-limiting categories around what poetry is and isn’t, what it can and cannot be, to such an extent that U.S. poetry these days appears to be suffering from a kind of identity crisis. With the advent of the internet, there is literally so much content that it has very much overwhelmed any kind of consensus that may be attempted by the anthologies or the academies that produce and enforce them. And while much of this poetry isn’t without value, nevertheless so much of it is written with specific audiences in mind (and I do believe there is significantly more output than audience) that one has to question the sincerity of many of these poets, and more specifically the originality of their work, because poetry in the U.S., even experimental poetry, has become—ironically perhaps—typical of this era of consolidated media, quite homogenized, to the extent that it is difficult to distinguish one poet’s work from another. That’s not a question of amateurs imitating one another, but rather audience expectations of what poetry is determining which types of poetry get published or recognized or anthologized. This kind of taste-making has been going on since time immemorial, yet has never been quite so compartmentalized, I think.
It’s not difficult to understand why poetry has become balkanized. In this country we are living in a balkanized environment, socially, politically and environmentally, and so our culture is an expression of that. Each subculture brings with it a specific set of rules and types of engagement. As poetry’s a fairly democratic form, and thus highly malleable, it shapes into whatever modes of perception of whichever particular subcategory.
I enjoy exploring new voices and so on, yet with so many different types of media coming at you and methods of expression, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. The economics of production and distribution used to make these distinctions for us, yet now with the ease of publication and dissemination due to new technologies, more and more poems are being published, and it’s very difficult to make any distinctions about what work is of value and what work isn’t. And that’s always in the eye of the beholder anyway, right?
It’s notable that many of the poets I do admire—and this includes you, Jon—come from or live in and around New York City. I think that has something to do with the fact that New York City is always undergoing constant reinvention and renovation, and this constant flux as a way of life impacts one’s thought and aesthetics. That idea of uncertainty has found its way, perhaps not even consciously, into the work many of these poets, most notably Oppen and to a lesser extent Zukofsky, and also some of their progeny, Michael Heller foremost among them.
I’m from the Midwest originally and the poets that I admired prior to moving to the East Coast were from the Midwest or the Western states: Theodore Roethke, from Michigan, James Wright from Ohio, Richard Hugo from Washington state and William Stafford from Oregon. And while I still very much admire their work, their poetry tends not to possess that sort of exploratory mode. In Hugo’s case especially, it pretends a staunch masculinity that necessarily requires and conveys a kind of static outlook. Or with Roethke it is concerned far too much with psychology, with poetry as a kind of catharsis; much of that has to do with the times in which he was living and his particular psychological state. And while it’s perfectly good poetry and it’s very interesting, it doesn’t exhibit the same invention, bravery or intellectual penetration that many of these East Coast poets seem to provide.
Again, this is just a tendency. There are plenty of poets from other regions whose work appeals to me. I’m speaking generally, but I do think New York City over the last century or more, being a very urban city, is a very human, and thus very transformative, environment, and has therefore been forced to contend with the impingements of history and human activity—namely survival. Moreover, these poets were living in the aftermath of two world wars, major economic depression, the threat of nuclear extinction, significant social and cultural revolutions, the rise and fall of Marxism, and now another major economic, technological and social transformation, coupled with impending ecological collapse—all of which has shaken, or should shake, the very foundations of Western civilization. A city like New York City is certainly more shaken by these events than, say, a small Midwestern town. Some of these poets were politically motivated for many years—I’m thinking mostly of Pound and Oppen here—and the ideologies to which they ascribed resulted in oppression and violence. As a result, they were looking back on a history of failed ideals, in many ways similar to those 19th-century Romantic poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley) who were also visited by profoundly apocalyptic social changes, primarily political and social, particularly in the aftermath of the French Revolution, which a number of them initially considered to be an expression of human freedom, of throwing off the shackles of oppression, but which resulted in a bloodbath. There are many similarities there.
You can look at say Allen Ginsberg and William Blake, and many of the concerns those poets had were similar; they were rallying against the old systems, the old ways of thinking. As M.H. Abrams noted, Romantic poets (past and present, they call them “Gnostic” nowadays) see the role of the poet no longer as the mirror on society (in the 20th century that became the newspaper’s job, and now it’s the internet’s), but rather the lamp, and this gets back to my original point about that liminal zone or state between knowledge and discovery. In past religious societies poets had a very real purpose in society; they told the news, they were the village explainers. In a secular society, however, art no longer has this spiritual function. The Romantic movement, as Charles Taylor would have it, was by and large an effort to restore a post-Enlightenment sense of “enchantment” to poetry. This is where you get the idea of the poet as the solitary observer somehow standing apart from society, culminating in the 20th century with the image of Robinson Jeffers in his tower.
What you have with the poets of the 20th century, particularly those in the 1950s and 60s, and especially with Ginsberg, who was possibly the most outspoken and politically active poet of our era, was an attempt to bring the poet back to the mirror state, to say that the poet isn’t separate but is a part of society, and therefore should listen and be listened to. This admits that the poet has a tenuous and complex relationship to society, yet still underlines the view that poets have some kind of social obligation, even if it is merely to comfort or console, or to instruct. Then again, as Giorgio Agamben has argued, it may be now that poetry has entered a late-stage development where the poet is more concerned with poetry’s limits as opposed to any real social consequence or utilitarian function—what Agamben terms a “self-annulling mode,” resulting from a series of “schisms” between artist and spectator, culminating in a kind of self-perpetuating kitsch at the expense of the poet’s sincerity and therefore his or her sense of wonder or discovery.
JC: A motif I discern in your early work is a kind of inviolability of the natural world and its functionings, as if it runs coterminous with us but contains itself, stands apart: “Bird wing: // Wind’s description.” How would you characterize the intersection or separation of nature with humankind in your work, and your conception of our interaction?
EH: There’s no disputing that we are natural beings; we are a part of nature. There’s also no disputing that there is something peculiar about human perception and behavior that makes us somehow stand apart from nature. At least, that is how we perceive it (it’s impossible to be objective about this).
Animals appear to be more at home in the world, their activities more attuned with the natural world, though of course there are other forms of life and natural forces equally if not more destructive than human beings. Yet this behavior lacks an intentionality and self-consciousness that seems to be present in human activity, and in many ways this makes our behavior all the more puzzling and sort of deranged, yet also noble, in that we still manage honorable and selfless acts in the face of nature’s frequent cruelty and indifference.
The older I get the more inscrutable human behavior becomes to me, my own especially. I’m no psychologist or philosopher, so much of this is just a gut reaction to what I perceive, and how I perceive. One can’t be programmatic about it. Considering what I’ve said here, it’s actually pretty banal and unoriginal. Hopefully it makes for good poetry, though.
JC: Elsewhere, there is a sense of displacement, an artificially constructed mediation that is inevitable in our tech-rapacious world. I am thinking, among other poems, of the one about the helicopter pilot discovering the “tribeless, primitive man.” The poem ends: “We watched on tv.” Would you acknowledge the intimations of disconnection and the economy of loss being operative terms and testaments in your work?
EH: Well, yes: Artifice, beyond its utilitarian uses, is in many ways an expression of this self-consciousness, and consciousness of our perceived separateness from nature. But I don’t mean to be psychologically, or anthropologically, reductive. Technology is utilized to manipulate an environment in a beneficial way, yet with its increasing sophistication it has become an end in itself, a distraction. It’s the difference between the television and the weapon that “tribeless, primitive man” wields at the helicopter. There are benefits, of course, to an increasingly man-made or manipulated environment, and humanity has been engaged in massive efforts to manipulate the natural world—to tame it, to alter it so that it conforms to our needs, or to make it reflect upon us.
That poem in particular just seems to underline how we deceive ourselves into believing that technology is a “civilizing” force, and the comforting yet illusory filtering or manipulation of reality by television or other forms of media. As wide as the gulf between us and the member of a remote South American tribe might seem, it really isn’t all that great. What is discomforting is his confusion at seeing the helicopter, and how it reminds us of how mediated our ways of perception have become, how accustomed we are to these wildly complex inventions, and the lack of enchantment we now have with the world as a result of our intensely mediated perceptions. That he is described as “tribeless” is somehow important. By describing the primitive man as “tribeless” I think I’m trying to underline the fact that our views, however sophisticated, are essentially tribal, though we don’t often think of them that way. Certainly nations and armies fit into these tribal patterns, but so too do cultural expressions. The poem, which is essentially imagistic, can only hint at this, though.
JC: I have been enjoying your work for nearly a decade now. What draws me to it is a relentless, restless energy. You do not seem content with casting your sights and structures on necessarily consistent representational models or subject matter. How would you account for this vivifying zigzagging through histories, personages and personae, thematic contours and contents?
EH: Much of it is just following my interests, with poetry being “the scholar’s art.” I think most poets do that. You have to, in a way. I think it’s safe for me to say that much poetry I find of little interest is where the poet shows too little intellectual curiosity. It results in a lack of depth, scale or consequence. Many times it is poetry that is merely descriptive or confessional—the poetry suffers from a kind of superficiality. There’s also little sense of context; you know, we are historical beings and it helps to have some semblance of an understanding of the pressures and forces that influence and shape our lives. In many ways the larger culture can make this harder or easier for someone…
The U.S. in the 21st century is a very difficult time and place to be a poet in many ways. This is a very ironic, superficial culture, and our means of expression have undergone continual debasement over the past 100 years—the result of decades of distortions and plundering by media and political manipulations resulting in a largely cynical, subjugated populace. I don’t think there has been any comparable moment in literature when the poet (whose obligation should be to become the arbiter of language’s meaning, to use language in such a way that it restores to words a kind of incantatory power, to use them honestly and sincerely in order to communicate honestly and sincerely) is at the same time so necessary and yet so marginalized. The reasons for this are many and well-documented: the printing press resulting in the proliferation of text (in particular the Bible, pamphlets and newspapers), increased plebeian literacy, the rise of the middle class and its fascination with the novel, then 20th– and 21st-century technological innovations, the rise of the mass media, television, the internet, and on and on and on. It’s gotten so that poetry is almost an antique expression, and one that only holds a kind of hobbyist subcultural interest and value, somewhat like what a chessboard is to a Playstation.
In some ways, it’s the fault of modernism and postmodernism, which alienated much of what was left of poetry’s readership when it came to favor opacity and ambiguity over clearness of expression. That’s not to say that ambiguous or opaque language is not of value (to my taste, if the poem demands opacity or ambiguity, then so be it), yet it is a somewhat elitist and defeatist approach. Jeffers said as much, but I’d much rather read Stevens than Jeffers, for example. In this sense, a poet is really demanding an audience’s active participation in making meaning. You’re in effect expecting them to learn a language. And most people have trouble enough making sense of everyday speech. It’s an almost insurmountable gap.
I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the contradiction that adequate expression is often difficult to express, and this is because human knowledge and perception are rarely simple or direct. One also needs to really work language in new ways to draw out a meaning that has not already been compromised by everyday speech, that is not clichéd or debased. So these are very real pressures that inform good poetry; there’s also constructing this in such a way that it still remains aesthetically pleasing to the ear and eye. No easy feat.
JC: Your poems move radiantly from intellectual conceit to what seem like sparse, distilled sensory apprehensions without much mental scaffolding—as if the intellectual and the acephalic, mindfulness and mindlessness, must be negotiated restively. The subjective and the objective braid through as does the interconnectedness of the material world and the mythical imagination. That line of yours, “The sinews of Revelation,” really pierces me and seems to reflect a fundamental subsistence of the worldly and otherworldly in each other’s constellation. How would you describe the role of myth and vision in your work and in contemporary poetry in general?
EH: I’m not sure that I consciously utilize “myth” per se, though I have used mythological settings to convey a certain mood or emotion (which is, anyway, what myths are). But always with an implicit understanding that there is an objective reality in which subjectivity takes place. And I’m not referring to consensus reality but to the actual—which is in any case unknowable except as it presents itself to our perception. Yet it is there, however unknowable. And the unseen, too, is actual.
If my poetry has any purpose, it is revelation, adequately articulated. Writing (poetry or otherwise) that is most exciting to me is writing that reveals something to me, a new perception, some kind of insight, something one immediately knows to be true simply by virtue of seeing and knowing it to be true. I don’t need the top of my head lifted off but I do need a sense of discovery, of something laid bare. Again, otherwise why write a poem? Merely to state again what one already knows? A poem, like truth, like an idea, is something that occurs to someone. It does not exist out there in the ether waiting to be found. It has to be made—without Michelangelo, David is just a big block of uncut stone.
JC: You sometimes ventriloquize by appropriating historical or literary sources to frame your poetic narratives. Can you discuss how authorial voice in your work reverberates through the echoes of others?
EH: Yes, I’ve used Andrew Wyeth’s writings in a series of ekphrastic poems, John Adams’ letters in a series called Life At Braintree, Emerson’s notebooks for Emerson In Europe, William James’ essays and Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club for The Vast Practical Engine, David Kellogg Lewis for Everything Is Actual and Thomas Malthus for Forms of Life. In addition to short poems that, in a modernist sort of way, quote various sources, including Maurice Merleau-Ponty, H.P. Lovecraft, and Edgar Allan Poe and so on. There are different levels of quotation. Some of these are almost “found” poems, in the sense that, aside from inserting line breaks and manipulating the language to make it more musical, they do very little to alter the source material. Others use direct quotations, but in the midst of original lyric, while still others use the source material as a jumping off point, and really more or less only retain the sense or the feeling of the original. For Braintree and Emerson I wanted to retain the character of these men and altering the source material too greatly would only obscure it. Those poems are a kind of autobiography in that they were written when I was roughly the age Adams and Emerson were when they wrote the originals. I used their work to illustrate certain political and metaphysical resonances between their time and ours.
I’m not aping Charles Reznikoff—it’s usually not that close to the source material. I’m also not Kenneth Goldsmith. I mean, it’s not meant to be ironic or to make some postmodernist commentary on originality or anything like that. Rather, I mean to transmute these texts into new contexts, to create new resonances, to allow their words and my own to struggle together unwound from their specific historical, social and cultural underpinnings (while still informed by them), to wrest some core meaning from the language. I think also the conversation between past and present has certain valences that help to illuminate peculiarities that transcend time—to get at something crucial, something more than the noisy inconsequentialities of the present. In a way it’s a cheat yet one has to be very sure of one’s own voice, otherwise it can be overwhelmed by the source material.
It’s difficult for me to be subjective about this, but I do think that all of these works do have a consistent voice, tonal similarities, rhetorical devices, that are my own. When the source material jars it’s when it runs up against my sense of what is structurally and musically correct. There are some sources that I find impossible to use. I’m not an alchemist. Leave that to Ronald Johnson, who is for me perhaps the closest approximation of what I’m working toward, at least technically.
JC: Much of your poetry has reiterated various American philosophical schools and civic sensibilities, not as satire and not as personal statement, more as shrewd studies into past language and sociology by other means. Would this be a fair assessment? Is poetry for you a repository for the spirit of the past, or for the past itself?
EH: I think definitely there are philosophical or intellectual strains that I find most interesting or most amenable to my poetics, which in any case is nearly always a matter of taste. Pragmatism, the neo-classical, pluralist variety is there—Menand’s The Metaphysical Club does a very good job of arguing for pragmatism as the distinguishing American philosophical tradition, and one that has helped to form the character of our philosophical, educational and judicial identity, inasmuch as any identity can be obtained. Pragmatism, notably, was more or less an East Coast invention of William James and Charles Sanders Pierce (Emerson, James’s godfather, was an early progenitor).
JC: You just published Oppen: A Narrative, a magisterial study of George Oppen, a sensitive, comprehensive consideration of his life and work. What was the impetus for this project?
EH: I first heard of Oppen when in 2001 I read Philip Levine’s 1970 poem “Thistles,” which is dedicated to Oppen and which features an imagistic portrayal of him. Something about the poem resonated with me, and I wanted to know more about its subject. So, it being 2001, I looked Oppen up on the internet, and came across his Mandeville Library Special Collections biography and the Electronic Poetry Center page on him. There wasn’t much else electronic on Oppen in those days. He wasn’t in the Norton anthologies—or really any anthology—at that time and he wasn’t known to me from what limited knowledge of the Poundian counter-tradition I gleaned while in university in the Midwest. I purchased Oppen’s Collected Poems, the 1975 New Directions edition that doesn’t include Primitive, and just went from there. I consumed his work. I read anything and everything I could find by or about him, all those little magazines from the 60s and 70s, those Ironwoods, Sulfurs, Sagetriebs, Paideumas, the interviews, day books, Mary’s autobiography, you name it. Hatlen’s George Oppen: Man and Poet and Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Selected Letters were a revelation. These really put things in context, really opened up his life and work. I was just fascinated by his life: it is a very dramatic and romantic one of deep commitment and ethical concern, of heroism, love and tragedy. And the poetry was unlike anything else I’d ever encountered. “Encounter” seems appropriate to me. Oppen’s poetry isn’t so much read as it is encountered.
JC: You write in the preface of the book: “Our only philosophy should be that of astonishment.” Please elaborate on this notion. It appears to be the basis of a kind of poetics but also may serve as a methodology for living, even off the page.
EH: I’ve noticed that line has resonated with a number of readers. Really, it’s Oppen’s. I’ve just rephrased his comment on the “philosophy of the astonished.” Oppen’s view, and it’s one with which I agree, is that philosophical systems are inherently self-limiting: They may express certain truths, however that does not make them infallible. One must always remain open to the possibility, as in science, that something else will invariably come along that will throw into question all previously held viewpoints, beliefs that were thought to be sacrosanct. Ask Copernicus. Ask Galileo. So if one must be programmatic about it, if you must hold yourself to any one basic tenet, it should be the sort described by Keats in his concept of negative capability—of remaining in a state of constant openness, free from epistemological or categorical constraints.
JC: Would you align this concept of astonishment with, say, Michael Heller’s poetry of uncertainty or Fanny Howe’s alignment with a heightened sense of bewilderment?
EH: Yes, Heller’s poetry of uncertainty is, as I understand it, derived from the same basic principle. I’m not familiar with Howe’s concept, but the term “bewilderment” appeals to me, though I think it has overtones I might shy away from. Existence is a bewildering experience. I think of Heidegger’s concept of thrownness, how we are thrust into this alien environment that is already always here, and we are somehow expected to make sense of it. Estrangement as a core principle for Oppen, and for Heller, gets at this difficult precision of words as a kind of alienation/isolation from existence. We have to encounter things as they are, and as they present themselves to us. And that radiance can be bewildering. Not comforts, but visions, as Oppen wrote.
JC: George Oppen has always struck me as supremely accessible, addictively engaging, bereft of high-minded blather or slack sentiment, and allergic to the Ivory Tower elitism of some schools of poetry. However, he is still read less widely than I would have imagined. Despite the resurgence of his reputation in the past decade, it seems as if he still is not getting his due readership. Do you think that in coming years more readers will become receptive to his work? I do not want to saddle you with prophetic pressures but you are someone who has lived very closely to the man and his words for quite some time.
EH: I address this a bit in the introduction to the book. I don’t agree that Oppen’s so-called “difficulty” in his poetry will in any way prevent his canonization, which is, I believe, underway. Who can say whether or not this critical reappraisal will be reversed or derailed? I don’t think it will. That doesn’t seem to be the case now. Heller’s book, Nicholls’ book, Shoemaker’s book—there’s simply no shortage of critical responses to his work, which is healthy. New Directions has made a heroic effort in keeping the poetry in print. Oppen’s work speaks to our times, more so than many of his contemporaries, for the various reasons I spell out: His best poems address a very omnipresent undercurrent of the pressures and impingements of history and society faced by the individual, and at the same time the astonishment of existence, the wondrous now-ness of being.
Eric Hoffman is the author of 11 books of poetry, the most recent being By the Hours: Selected Poems Early & Uncollected. His study of the life and work of George Oppen, Oppen: A Narrative, was published in 2013. He lives in Connecticut.