Q & A: American Poetry

Q & A American Poetry: Seth Abramson

In what ways might you consider yourself an American poet?

I take the phrase to mean a poet living in America—as aesthetically (and to the extent that so much innovative poetry has been informed or inflected by European theory, be it Jung, Derrida, or others) I don't believe we can say there is an "American poetry." Like any community of artists we are both infused with and occasionally desperate to part ways with our intellectual and aesthetic inheritance, which is most certainly Western European if not (regrettably) as global in scope as we might sometimes wish. Or would (certainly) benefit from.

But to ask what it means to be a poet living in America: I can say what I hope it means. I hope it means recognizing and celebrating the diversity of poetics in evidence on this continent over the past half-century and to the present day. I hope it means attending readings, buying or borrowing books, and seeking out communities of writers with an abiding capacity for and interest in being shocked. I mean to have one's underwear blown off. The response I give to this question is quite literally not the one I would have given yesterday, as today—a poet in America—I attended a reading of poetry that caused me to rethink (or, if I'm honest, further rethink) much of what I believed about poetry and (as importantly) poets. I consider myself an American poet in the sense that I don't know what I don't know and I know that. I am willing to challenge and be challenged in return, to be audacious myself and appreciate audacity in others. I don't think it essentializes America to say the American experiment is itself audacious—perhaps not uniquely so, not exceptionally so, but sufficiently so that one cannot be said to have fully participated in American poetry until one has warmly allowed one's entire intellectual framework to collapse in upon itself. More than once. Whatever force (if any) prevents this happening is, if not exactly un-American, certainly contrary to the whole of history.

To say complacency is a common American affliction would be true; but it is equally true to say that in America complacency has a duration and it is, in view of the arc of history, not long.

Do you believe there is anything specifically American about American poetry past and present? Is there American poetry in the sense that there is said to be American painting or American film?

Again, I think the term "American poetry" can be read as aesthetic, as philosophy, as culture. Certainly other ways as well. Besides the bare fact that American poetry is often (but crucially, not always) written by Americans, I'm not sure there's any utility to distilling the entire mass of American poetry and poetics into some single grain that is distinctly ours and no one else's. I don't mean (necessarily) to say there's nothing new under the sun—merely that I would appalled if there should be some valence or condition in the poetry of any "American poet" (exceptions noted above) which could strictly be called "American." I find that not just limiting but, in a way, grotesque; never have I enjoyed in a poem any aesthetic or theoretical/structural or psychosocial phenomenon whose source could be mapped as the terminus of a single line—with one origin-point, a logocentricity that is in any case an impossibility (as too many thinkers to name, most of them not American, have drawn to our attention).

I'm reasonably certain all poetry written in America makes use of—whether through adoptions or refusals—each poet's American experience, but so does (say) my own poetry draw from my legal training (largely based on received English common law), my semi-rural New England upbringing (a region of whose character I can say, with fondness, there is much that is distinctly English), my Ashkenazic Judaism (whose moral and ethical codes find their source in my Polish, Lithuanian, German, and Russian ancestry), my gender (whose privileges and ideations were formed well before Englishmen set up camp just a few miles from my birthplace in 1620), and perhaps more than all else my aggressive reclusiveness as a child—which was in every way a rejection of American culture rather than an embrace of it.

But to read "American poetry" as the sometimes odious culture we American poets have wrought—wrenched—from what is, by all accounts, a perfectly "decent" art-form, well, there's certainly something to discuss there. And at greater length than is possible here. Suffice to say I think poets in America have found ingenious ways to act shabbily toward one another, to circle wagons against the rest (always in the guise of [strictly-delineated] "community"), to privilege politics and personal association over poetry, to militantly adopt many a manifesto and aesthetic peccadillo to shield one or another of us from the intelligence and influence of others of a different view -- and as I find myself as implicated in this as anyone else, and as I see this sort of conduct (all of which literally diminishes the act of poetry by literally distancing us from it) in so many others as well, it is reasonable to conclude there must be something of America in it somehow. This is a great nation whose greatness has all too infrequently been directed toward avid promotion of the arts; I fear that, as American artists, we must include in our American inheritance our abiding angst over that fact along with everything else. Being a poet need not be as emotionally wrenching as we make it here. I imagine a fuller revelation of such phenomena will at some point be the product of a dissertation somewhere.

That we can speak of "American painting" does not mean, I don't think, that we can speak entirely accurately in calling it so—or not if that means identifying a "distinctly" American aesthetic. And certainly "American film" was born with a much smaller inheritance from overseas than American poetry—as could only be the case, given that poetry and poetics are a gift of the Ancients and the birth of film is traceable (arguably) to a large warehouse in West Orange, New Jersey in 1888.

What role do historical and geographical factors play in American poetry and in your work specifically? What other aspects of your life (for instance: gender, sexual preference, class, ethnicity, religious belief) relate to your sense of being a poet in America?

I don't know whether too much or too little is made of a poet's biography—there are substantial dangers at the terminus of either line of thought. I do know that many more persons, poets included, have lived strange lives than ever have been acknowledged (or could be; New York City agents can only sign on for so many memoirs) for the remarkableness (and remarkability) of their experiences. That I eschewed all human contact to the extent possible for five of my most formative years is neither an "aspect" of my life nor an "aspect" of my character: It simply is my life, of which (again) no single, marketable, categorical explication can (or perhaps should) be found. At twenty-two years old I was making arguments in municipal courthouses in Boston on behalf of clients charged with homicide—what that experience did for me (but also, sadly, to me, at that age and thereafter) was and is incalculable. But I have no proper place to put it in a way I could (yet) fully understand -- let alone that others might. That I grew up in a Commonwealth that celebrates Patriots' Day—a holiday in no other State or Commonwealth—and that, moreover, I grew up in a town within that Commonwealth so intimately connected to the historic events at Lexington and Concord and so invested in "American-ness" that we celebrated, too, Fifers' Day (a holiday celebrated nowhere else in America) is likewise both a historical and geographical fact with which there is little yet, I feel, to consciously be done. Though of course I will never be done with it. I mean to say that it is there in the poetry but to write "about" it—to try to hold it up for inspection—well, I think the true character of it would wink out like a candle-flame. I can only approach it slant-ways.

I know this is just my own view; I know there are those who, like me, had (say) more than a decade of religious instruction in Reconstructionist Judaism, who could find in that, or devolve from that, some reification to later elevate to a traceable "aspect" of a poetry (or a poetics). I'm envious; I've never been able to do that. Not with a series of serious health-related issues, or what it meant to me to represent more than two thousand criminal defendants in two states, to have been a non-traditional student, a political commenter active in national media, or someone whose public statements on a subject as esoteric as the creative writing MFA have drawn everything from physical threats to fanmail. Not even my gender—which I consider not only a conspicuously destructive influence in my poetry, but also (and perhaps less articulably) an incalculably generative one—could I or would I wish to cogently discuss except to say that it, too, like everything, is in the poetry. It must be.

I don't consider any of this to be a uniquely American phenomenon, though perhaps we are more likely than some others to either be reductive or romantic about personal biography. I am interested in the way history and geography (and psychology, and religion, and sociology, and so on) enable personalities which in turn enable, in time, off-page communities—but I do find, for myself, that what's on the page needs to be (or at least privilege the illusion of being) exclusively mine. And if I'm doing it right—codifying in some way something that doesn't fully make sense to even me— it will be not just mine but unmistakably so.

Is there something formally distinctive about American poetry?

No. Because I voluntarily take the word "distinctive" in its most rigid sense—and we are always to some degree standing on the shoulders of giants. And many of them (most of them) are not from these parts. I don't myself see the point in enumerating interesting formal traits of certain American poetries—both because none could possibly ever be "representative," and because none would be, in my view, entirely original. And tracing our many American borrowings seems to me an academic task rather than a particularly nationalistic one.

I would say that I see great innovation in form in the history of American poetry, a refusal to fetishize form (or not for very long)—but the Germans, French, Italians, and everyone else would surely say the same, whether to greater or lesser degree, with greater or lesser force of conviction.

What significance does popular culture possess in your sense of American poetry?

It's always there, of course. It's inescapable. And so, understandably, there will be those who feel strongly compelled to acknowledge it -- and perhaps propagate, lionize, and deify it. I read an interview with a young poet recently in which he said he had decided, early on, to give himself "permission" to use corporate brand-names in his verse. I think it's probably more the case that popular culture is always elbowing its way into any not purely aesthetic but also cultural artifact (or anti-artifact), like a poem—and the decision we make is whether to be strong-armed in that way or not. I'm not sure I see it as a matter of permissiveness; it's much easier to allow nature to follow its course than to be like Freud's little boy on the potty insisting poetry be atemporal, ahistorical, acontextual, asexual, and therefore undefiled by a popular culture we've already (like it or no) thoroughly consumed.

But everyone makes their own choice. I'd prefer, if I had my way, to write as though popular culture were not extant. And that's not because I consider doing otherwise some sort of exhausting contemporary rage—Samuel Butler, for one, would beg to differ. It's been done and always will be. It's that I'm not sure popular culture has often (if ever) been successfully extirpated from poetry. James Wright had the anti-nominal, Deep-Image "The Jewel," but he also had "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio"—which names one stadium, two towns, two corporations, two large Midwestern sub-communities, and, not for nothing, one (for many) highly-culturally-significant month of the year.

In any case, I'm only speaking of an aim—not an achievement. Popular culture makes its way into some portion of what I've written, surely. But to say, broadly, that a poetics will provide popular culture a space in which to be significant is to make a decision as to both form and content (as well as their innumerable convergences). Once popular culture is let in, it's difficult to let out. Once we bend toward the material, the metaphysical moves that much further away. And some forms of poetic discourse, like metarealism— with which I find myself increasingly interested -- may be rendered altogether impossible. If the question is whether I adore the work of (for instance) Frank O'Hara, Dean Young, Ed Dorn, and others who've done wondrously surprising and lively things with our continued fascination with American mythology, the answer is a definite "yes"; but I suppose if the question is whether I consider popular culture significant to my own poetics, I do not.

When you consider your own "tradition," do you think of American poets, non-American poets? Which historic poets do you consider most responsible for generating distinctly American poetics?

I don't really subscribe to the notion of an "American poetics," but I certainly see certain poets as having been significant to American culture at large. Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, dare I say (with some real regret) Maya Angelou. These poets did not necessarily contribute to—again, because I balk at that word "distinctly"— an "American poetics," but, for better or worse, they helped define what poetry means to America and to Americans. (A related but very different item.) I wish the list was longer and more diverse, and I've no doubt there are other names that could be added (perhaps, for my generation, and again keeping in mind my particular reading of the question, Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein; for the generation preceding, at a stretch, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, whose status as poets is rightly contended among poets but only rarely among Americans who are not; and so on).

My own poetry is informed not only (and perhaps not even primarily) by poets; I know that's the case with many others, too, though it's not as often discussed as I'd like. The plays of Harold Pinter have been very significant for me; the fiction of Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie, and Neal Stephenson; mass-market fantasy novels of the 1980s and early 1990s (Piers Anthony; Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman; David Eddings; Guy Gavriel Kay; Lloyd Alexander; Raymond E. Feist); too many movies to name here; children's literature (Roald Dahl; Norton Juster; Madeleine L'Engle); 1980s animation; psych-pop between 1967 and 1969; the Talmud; legal rhetoric and legal reasoning; and many influences both more exotic and more particular.

Because I came to poetry somewhat late—I started writing at twenty-two—it took quite some time for me to discover poets whose work seemed to me to speak directly to what I hoped to accomplish as a poet. Probably not until I entered a Master of Fine Arts program in 2007. If asked this minute which contemporaries and predecessors I often read and re-read with profit— and I do consider contemporaries part of my "tradition," at least as and when they cause me to rethink my assumptions about what's possible (and how much I have in the tank to pursue it)—I'd say Jean Follain, Jesse Ball, Barbara Guest, Joshua Beckman, Anne Carson, Robert Creeley, Alan Dugan, Fanny Howe, Larry Levis, Franz Wright, Christopher Logue, W.S. Merwin, Frank O'Hara, Michael Palmer, Rae Armantrout, Gwendolyn Brooks, Charles Olson, Guillaume Apollinaire, Bertolt Brecht, Ron Padgett, Donald Revell, Georg Trakl, Ron Silliman, Frederick Seidel, David Shapiro, Juliana Spahr, Catherine Wagner, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, Matthew Zapruder, John Godfrey, Mary Ruefle, Lyn Hejinian, and many others. In another minute the names would change, because my relationship to poetry and even my own work changes. Constantly.

I commingle younger and older poets above (and poets living and dead) because I really do believe there's no telling which poet—at any moment—will have said or written something that sends me back to my poems with a greater commitment to courage and innovation than previously.

What are your predictions for American poetry in the next century?

A century is a long time, and predictions are rarely worth the paper they're printed on (or their binary code). I think it's safe to say, though, that despite all the doomsayers poetry will thrive; that there will continue to be American poetries as diverse as America itself; that American poets will continue to innovate, to draw heavily from cultures beyond our national borders, to form vibrant communities across the country.

And I do think this last point is key: We are no longer a country in which a poet may only prosper in peculiar enclaves in New York City or San Francisco. Nor a country whose most innovative and valued artists must be, as they have often been in the past, those who are in some way tragically isolated—politically, spiritually, socially, emotionally—from the bulk of their countrymen. I don't know if this will make our poetry more joyous, but I do think it will lend to it the sort of toughness that comes from knowing that being a poet is no automatic license to shut oneself away from the world one writes in and into. Poetry-writing will always be a solitary act, but whether it's a question of it drawing from theoretical texts, popular culture, religious dogma, or even the tectonic culture of science, America—and the rest of the world—will continue to inspire poets and poetry, not merely as a matter of landscape but also, if it can be said, as a matter of principle. That is, a country is its people, and people matter more than poetry; in the century ahead I suspect we will find a way to write (and, as importantly, to live) as poets who can and do acknowledge that.

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