A Poem Is a Human Artifact
Camille Guthrie in conversation with Ann Lauterbach
Apr 10, 2017
23 Min read time
Camille Guthrie in conversation with Ann Lauterbach.
Last fall I visited Ann Lauterbach, a poet of verity and the splendid particular, at her renovated schoolhouse in upstate New York, where every corner reveals lovely and curious objects—exquisite and witty art, oddly shaped shells, a plastic white buck, glass decanters, vivid silks, piles of books. We sat in her living room beneath the large windows to have a long conversation. This interview is a record of that afternoon, and we began with this idea from her 2005 collection of essays, The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience:
In choosing to be a poet, I took a path that led to the unknown, perhaps to the unknowable. My future had only the most furtive of shapes, my aspiration the most chancy, digressive roots. Language came to me as the most potent and ephemeral of commitments. To this day, I’m not sure what a poem is. Each time I write one it becomes the particular, the example. But the next one might not resemble the one before it or the one to come. Poetry, like so much else in life, can only be known by example.
Camille Guthrie: At this point in your career, having written nineteen books, do you continue to experience each new poem as a new example?
Ann Lauterbach: I could just answer “yes.” And that would be that.
CG: Well, maybe this is a good time to ask what you are working on now and how are those poems like new examples?
AL: The idea of the example comes from a lesson of modernist poetics, that things are known most vividly by particulars. So, for me, a particular is an example. The idea that every poem is its own example was based, not only on this pleasure in the specific, but also on the fairly clear sense that forms are the result of the “about-ness” of a poem. I write “into” something—the forms are responsive to the subject; sometimes they even create the subject space. I have almost never started with a preconceived idea of what the form of the poem is going to be and, as a result, there are numerous examples of different poetic forms over the course of my writing life. Some of them are quite tight, with strong narrative elements; some are much looser and have a sense of what I think of as scansion, a way of scanning across an imagined space in which there are gaps, tangles, and elisions. You, the reader, have to trust that there is a reason for things to follow other things, a reason beyond the necessities of syntax, for example, or an isolated phrase. So whatever it is that I wrote yesterday or write today is going to be another inquiry into the question, “What is a poem?” This is not disingenuous; it’s actually true. I do not fully know in advance what I would call a poem. Revision has a lot to do with how this question is answered.
I do not fully know in advance what I would call a poem. Revision has a lot to do with how this question is answered.
CG: In your writing you often talk about the importance of the fact, an element of the real that is always in conversation with the abstract or the philosophical.
AL: Facticity is interesting in relation to how we think about the real, the true, the imagined, the lie, the fake. Words are themselves facts, one by one as well as in relation to each other. But perhaps my interest began in early childhood, and in the training of the little school I went to, where the teaching seemed to be that you learned about things best by attempting to do them, following John Dewey’s emphasis on practice. We were little activists. If we wanted to know what a painting was, we painted; if we wanted to know what a dance was, we danced; if we wanted to know what a newspaper was, we went to visit The New York Times. Teaching and learning was tied to this empirical awareness, activity, and attention, this doing. This process eventually got tied to a more abstract notion of what “the real” is. Yet I have constantly resisted the literal, where there is the assumption or expectation of a direct transfer between what happened, the experience of something, and the language of the poem. I seem to be drawn to acts of poetic invention that are seeded or anchored in an event, or more than one event, and the poem accrues in relation to those, at the same time that it builds in relation to itself, independent of these originating factors. The poem makes its own facts after the fact.
CG: At a recent celebration of your work at Bard College you gave a talk called “On Difficulty.” You began with Eve’s act of eating the apple: “This is the moment when we enter into discourse, when we recognize a difficult two-ness and difference. The 'I' and 'not-I,' the subject and the object, the moment that 'this is this' becomes suspect.” How do poems represent this “I” and “not-I”?
AL: Well, a poem is itself the “not-I.” When I think about entering a poem, as writer or as reader, I am entering a space that I don’t know. I am seeking something, an inquiry that has to do with finding the shape of the relationship between a self and a world, which is what I think a poem, the language of a poem, articulates. The fluid, indefinite triangle—self-language-world—is the paradigm that guides me, and the poem is the result of that field or constellation of relations.
CG: You have also talked about how poems allow people to confront the “absolute strangeness of others without fear because artworks mediate subjectivities by making objects.” This concept of art is far from an idea of self-expression, which I think is still the common understanding of what poetry does.
AL: When I read Shakespeare, I do not know anything about Shakespeare, except for the wonderful fact of his relationship to the world through language. If I read Keats, I can say the same thing. The poems allow for an intimate relationship to form, not with John Keats but with how John Keats thought about his world. If you do happen to personally know a writer—Don DeLillo for example (he’s on my mind because I just got a postcard from him)—there is no way I can confuse the subjectivity of Don DeLillo’s personhood with Underworld. It’s a ridiculous idea. Underworld is a novel, so we expect the fictive to happen. I don’t quite understand why we don’t understand that in poems the fictive happens too, but on a different scale or register, and with different intent. Stevens worried over these ideas with endless acuity—the interplay of the real and the imagined. I am constantly saying to my students, “The poem doesn’t have you. It has only words. Whatever it is you’re thinking the poem has, if you don’t put that in the poem, the poem can’t have it. It will never have it.” I remember Charles Bernstein once said—I can’t recall the context—“grandmothers are not poems,” and this seems a pretty succinct way of addressing this issue of the not-I or not-me.
In a world in which computers and cell phones are ubiquitous, language comes to us as soundless text.
CG: You have a precise way of reading your poems: your hand often scans the line as you read, so the investment in the sound, the rhythm, and sometimes the meter of the poem is enacted in the movement. In the last two poems of your latest book, Under the Sign, you examine the sound patterns of the Os in Emerson’s essay “Circles.” In the poem that refers to your collaboration with the artist Ann Hamilton, “Some Elements of the Poem,” why do you write that contemporary technology separates us from what you call “sound sense”?
AL: About the hand motions: they seem to have come into play about the time when my poems began to break up on the page, when they began to lose their direct narrative thread. The moving hand became a way for me to hold onto the sound patterns; I came to think of it not so much as conducting the cadence of the poems but as drawing the space of the sound. I think I perceive some of these poems in spatial terms, as if they were mobiles turning, or constellations. The hand makes a kind of tissue of virtual connectivity across the gaps.
Language now comes to us—us meaning the advanced world in which computers and cell phones are ubiquitous—as a text. Most of the time that text is soundless, and so uninflected by the voice, and that loss of vocal inflection seems to have caused us to listen differently; we don’t read tone in an email or text very well, as many have pointed out. And I think this tonal flatness and concurrent instrumentality has altered how we listen to each other in real life, and how we read and write poems.
How do poets get what is called a good ear? Some of it has to do with reading aloud; some of it has to do with having had books and poems read aloud to me as a child and the fact that there seemed to be a lot of different kinds of music in our household—Billie Holiday and Marlene Dietrich and Paul Robeson and Brahms and Sibelius. Stacks of records. I am interested in how sound, sense, and sight mingle in a poem; this is not an interest that belongs only to me, since in that mingling most of poetry in English finds its terms. If you are listening carefully when you are writing, the words will begin to call to each other through their sound patterns. The Emerson poem [“Song of the O (Emerson Circles)”] arose from reading his long essay “Circles”—it was Ann Hamilton’s choice to do something with Emerson, so we each went off and read it by ourselves—and I started seeing all these Os. I kept thinking, “Did Emerson know he was writing this long essay on circles with all these 'O’ sounds?” It became kind of an oral miracle. I thought, “Okay, I’m just going to note them all.” I went through the essay marking all the words with “O” sounds. It’s odd, but in some peculiar, fragmented way, Emerson’s whole meditation on circles is intact in this poem composed only of its Os.
CG: A kind of deliberate erasure.
AL: Yes, exactly.
CG: And an “O” is a circle, of course.
AL: That’s a literalism that has a very particular charm to it.
CG: In Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece, there is a preponderance of Ws and Ms, which is statistically odd, similar to these circles in that you can’t quite know if it is intentional or not. It seems that he is meditating on his name, William, with Ws and Ms, and so the poem becomes a self-portrait at the level of the letter.
AL: That’s the way I think about the Emerson example—all right, he is writing about circles— and being Emerson with his extraordinarily refined sensibility. You know, sometimes I think sensibilities are like sieves, some of them very fine. Emerson had one of the finest mental sieves; every word was, for him, a particular, an ingredient. He takes up this idea of circles, without any intention for these Os to appear. It doesn’t take very much effort to imagine—remember, he is writing in longhand—that he was thinking about forming that letter. And there is that moment, that beautiful apostrophe where he writes, simply, “O”!
You can go wherever you want to go. All you need is a language machine.
CG: Emerson is one of your favorite conversational partners. At the famous ending of “Experience,” he posits that “the true romance, which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power.” You have called this idea, in your life, the power of doing over the power of fate. This transformation of genius into practical power—do you see it as having any possibility to work now? Especially since the fraught election of Trump and the consequent controversies and daily emergencies?
AL: Emerson of course means genius in an earlier sense of the word, as Stanley Cavell and others have pointed out—a given spirit, or a given aspect of a person—one’s affinities are one’s genius. Emerson is suggesting that you have these possible ways of behaving, acting, given your genius, and in the fullness of time, those attributes should or can become powerful, or the practice of power. Emerson also wrote that words are a kind of action. For him, the practical power of genius could be writing, the power of writing, rather than going out and shoveling snow. One of the reasons Barack Obama’s years as president were so stunning is that he seems to have had an Emersonian belief in language as action. His sentences are facts of thinking, evidence of thinking which felt to many of us like acts of political purpose. Unfortunately, he is living in a time when that kind of evidence of thinking in language is without much value in the culture at large (need I add: similar to the devaluing of poetry). There are those who thought that Obama’s thinking constituted weakness, rather than evidence of an alert, judicious consciousness. All those beautifully made sentences, those pauses in recitation, constituted for some an elitist prevarication and privilege, rather than an extraordinary political, human intelligence. Well, now we are in the grips of the antithesis, and many persons are delighted, because they recognize the truncated syntax and limited vocabulary of Donald Trump as familiar, direct, and purposeful. Indeed, for many, his words seem to constitute actions, and we shall see whether and when there will be consequences of this belief. So much is at stake in this linguistic shift that we would need to start our conversation over again! Needless to say, for my particular mental attributes and attitudes, I will hope that the evisceration of political discourse into meager signals is not a lasting phenomenon. There is pleasure in circling around a particular thing rather than going directly to it, and this circling or digressing or coming toward and going away seems to me to be both necessary and generous—a poetics of inclusion, a politics of inclusion. If you decide that the world is nothing but the sum of its categories—its identities and dualities—then I think the democratic experiment will have failed.
CG: From the beginning of your writing career, you have collaborated with artists or have written about artworks. There is a whole section in Hum where you write about Giotto, Robert Smithson, and Joseph Cornell. What you are saying about the circuitousness of your poems seems to reflect your approach to ekphrasis. The poems are often an enactment of your present meditation on the work of art, not a description, not an interest in verisimilitude—an enactment of that circuitousness.
AL: There are so many ways of thinking about this particular dialogue that I have had, as you say, my entire life. Visual work nourishes me; spatial relations compel me. Paintings and sculptures are present in time and space and are the result of an artist’s engagement with another time and space; they are material, formal interpretations. They are in some sense like persons except, unlike persons, they don’t change and they don’t die. Because visual artworks are static and in space, and language is not static and not in space, the temporality of language and the spatiality of artworks are in a kind of antagonism, or conflict, or dissimilarity. All references to things seen in a poem are metaphoric, not literal. Wittgenstein considered this paradox. Stein enacted it. The structuralists made theory from it. Foucault wrote a little book about Magritte’s This is Not a Pipe. One is a creature of one’s time. I was lucky to come into thinking about poetry when so many had been thinking about the nature of language itself. The otherness of a painting is akin to the otherness of a person for me. As you say, works of art enact a change from subject to object at the level of the most profound engagement, so the “subject” (the poet or artist) is at once present and absent. Almost all of the artworks I own were made by friends or students. They constitute a company, even a community.
CG: Looking around your living room, it is evident that you are a voracious and disciplined reader. This is not unusual for any serious writer, of course. Since you have invoked the presences of people you know, do you think that this kind of reading, a critical intimacy, is not only a way of situating yourself in a literary history, but also a way of creating that intimate dialogue taken from you as a child because of your father’s early death, when you were only eight, and your mother’s death, when you were just a young woman?
AL: Somewhere along the line, I understood that I could construct my family, and that a constructed family made of chosen persons was perhaps both a more reliable and a freer association than a biological one. My parents disappeared. My mother died when I was a young woman, but she left home when I was a much younger woman, and I went to live with my mother’s sister Priscilla and my uncle Bill, who had a family of seven children. They lived in Chappaqua, which is where my mother had grown up and where my grandmother still lived. But these children, my cousins, were sick; five of them died before they were twenty. I was a member of that household as they were dying, my cousins who were not quite my siblings. So there was that kind of erasure, sudden and constant, and because of the kind of family I come from, there was very little active mourning. When my mother died, finally, and I visited my grandmother, neither of us mentioned the fact that her eldest daughter, my mother, had died.
CG: It wasn’t done.
AL: You just didn’t speak about it. My work is marked by those conditions of absence, those conditions of loss, but my poems have rarely been about those losses in the obvious, literal sense. My life choices veered away from certain kinds of conditions, conditions of the family. I didn’t marry; I didn’t have children. Why? We believe family is where happiness is inscribed and for many it is. But because I ended up being a guest in many households, I began to think, “I don’t see happiness here, I don’t experience happiness, I experience anger, boredom, sadness, inequity.” I was a bit of an adventuress anyway. I was a hopeless romantic as well, and so these sobering thoughts ran against my schoolgirl dreams and desires—I really wanted to fall in love and live happily ever after. But all along the way, I chose autonomy over commitment. It was safer to trust myself than to trust others; it is not something I am prideful about. The ground of trust was ruptured. I had to create it as I went along. It was very slow—to find the ground of trust.
CG: In The Night Sky essays, you write about how your mother took up residence in your work as the idea of the wild, the site of the unknowable, and your father became “a whole lexicon of absence and desire” enacted in the writing process. Your father, of course, was a writer himself, a journalist, an intellectual, and a foreign correspondent.
AL: I realized that my once-beautiful and then horrendous drunken mother could be called a wilderness, or wildness, because these tropes include both the beautiful and the terrifying, which is certainly one way to think of her: beautiful and terrifying. And my father, Richard, called Dick, would go away and come home and go away again until he went away and never returned. When he did return, he would often be in his study on East 18th Street, which I could see into through glass doors. There he was, typing away on his little Hermes typewriter, the same that he carried when he left home. So the typewriter was a literal extension of his physical body. His dictionary was a huge tome, the Webster’s Second Edition. After he died, I came to believe that the secrets of the world were in that dictionary. All I needed to do was to open it to find them. I could find my way to the world through a path of language, because when he died, he left behind these language machines: a dictionary, a typewriter. It’s thoroughly Oedipal, but there it is. So I thought, “Okay, all you need is a language machine.” You can go wherever you want to go.
I sometimes think that a poem is the quintessential human artifact.
CG: One of my favorite essays of yours describes how language comes to us like a broken cup in a secondhand shop. Could you describe how you came to the idea of “the whole fragment”?
AL: I’m not sure how it came about. There is a story too complicated to narrate here. But when I lived in London, I began to understand something about the partial, the incomplete, the fragment, in relation to both personal and historical narratives. I felt a powerful sense of both limit and possibility and some augmented awareness of the significance of the immediate, the near. Obviously, the modernist tropes involved fragments—in Pound and Eliot among so many others, for example—but they were set against a supposed ruin or loss, an encroaching incoherence. But I began to see that to think about a fragment as a whole might be more useful; that one could understand a gesture, for example, as a thing complete in itself. This was one of the instructions of abstract expressionism, at least for me. And then also the idea of the used, the imperfect, began to appeal to me. So many rummage sales and flea markets! So many things that had had previous, unknown lives. And when I returned to America, I had to begin all over and felt keenly this loss of narrative continuity. I found it difficult to make poems which could accommodate elisions except by enacting them. One tries to accommodate the real as form rather than as description. My real seemed not so unlike those of others. I liked the idea that a reader might take one line or one phrase from a poem of mine and attach it to her own narrative. My whole fragment would become part of her story.
CG: An acknowledgement that words arrive to us damaged, overused and clichéd, or ruined, but that it does not strip them of their possibility.
AL: This is a poetics of impurity, an aesthetic of acceptance: it’s not, “Oh, that cup has a chip in it, it’s so imperfect”; it’s more tender. It’s got a chip in it, which means it’s been used, it has already had a life. I am conscious that virtually everything I own has been used prior to my having it. But they are not fine; they are not proper antiques.
CG: They still have history.
AL: Yes, and words have histories too. You want to give them a fresh, unexpected place to be, which is the way I think about many of my objects. I put an object in relation to something it could not possibly have imagined being in relation to before. There is a green Christmas ball over there, a kind of an olive green, sitting right next to my grandmother’s ugly Tiffany lamp with its green shades. I am sure that that little green Christmas ball never expected to be sitting next to a Tiffany lamp. But they seem to agree with each other.
CG: This room is full of unexpected relationships! It makes me think of the passage you read to me from Georges Didi-Huberman, who wrote about Vermeer’s The Lacemaker; he describes the painting and says, “Meanwhile we have the lacemaker and her beautiful lace, and over there, behind the pillow, a violent chaos, bloody and unscripted, the opposite of the precision of lace. Which makes, in fact, a kind of mockery of the lacemaker and her brilliant master.” Immediately I thought that passage corresponded with your poetics.
AL: I cannot begin to tell you the exhilaration I felt when I read that passage. My heart leapt, because it brilliantly describes something of what I have in mind—the value of clarity in relation to the unscripted and incoherent. All you have to do is watch the news for two minutes and you see images of unscripted wreckage. But we don’t always know how to include those images as part of the way in which we see and understand the world. This is not easy to speak about without becoming reductive or overly simplistic. Something about images when they are extracted from their narratives, something about a continuum. The passage from Didi-Huberman struck a chord, but I am not entirely sure I can explain why it means so much to me. Maybe it is related to Edouard Glissant’s argument about opacity, or my interest in a very specific kind of difficulty as a place of poetic interest, or even necessity. This passage seemed to me to be wonderful and affirming; you are completely right, I took it on as my own understanding of what I do, which is to say, if you go into a tangle in a Lauterbach poem, you might come out of it into a place of clarity, and it will feel more like clarity because you have been in the tangle. The idea that a poem is always clear all the way through is a form of deceit. I want the form of the poem, the way the poem behaves, to be realistic, not descriptively, but actually. I am not describing incoherence; I will make it for you. You will have to struggle inside of it, and language will allow that; it will allow a really murky scrapheap, which nobody has organized into sense. But I do not set out to make a mess; that would be both pretentious and silly. It is more a kind of delight in moments of opacity that are followed by moments of lucidity, and a willingness to accept the difference.
CG: I find that your work, like the painting, requires both: the precision of the lace and the unruly, tangled knot that cannot be untangled.
AL: Yes, a resistance to a certain idea of how meanings are made. “What does this mean? I can’t make meaning of it.” Well, that’s fine, don’t make meaning of it. Leave it un-meaningful.
CG: It is the wild.
AL: Allow it to have some jurisdiction over your experience of the world, however briefly.
CG: I would like to bring us back to The Night Sky to a moment when you argue that poetry can “elucidate the vital topography between the individual and historical accounting.” Since we are living through such a chaotic period, would you talk more about how poetry can function as what you call a “mechanism for survival”?AL: I sometimes think that a poem is the quintessential human artifact. We seem to depend enormously on communicating with each other in words, however badly. The poem is a kind of example of the human desire to take this human trait—language—and make something that is only about that distinctive trait. I do think of poems as essentially about language—how it works, allows us to make meaning, to understand and experience the relation between facts of feeling and facts of thought, how these converge, how infinitely complex and particular the world is. The greatest thing about poems is that they make us think about how language works at the most intimate level: why is that comma there? What is the difference between the “the” and the “a”? Poems, as many before me have said, are acts of attention. They help us to understand what we have in common and what makes us distinct from each other. They animate the constellations of selves and worlds.
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April 10, 2017
23 Min read time