In Black and White
(a dialogue between Leonard Schwartz and Allen S. Weiss)
Because we should only examine
The confused, combinatory state
In a confused, combinatory state.
Because there will be a next conversation...
--Leonard Schwartz, “Poetry as Explanation #10”
ASW: One would need the space of an entire book to analyze a single poem, a lifetime to analyze an oeuvre.
If there is no summary that can contain
The indecipherable sign
Thus at best I can hope to create a patchwork of cutouts to elicit some responses.
ASW: So many poets and artists are notoriously reluctant not just to reveal their influences, but to even admit that any influences exist. I find this to be the height of arrogance and hubris, for to live in the world is to be a fragment of, if not a whole, then at least of a community, a history, a transcendence.
In the end I cannot accept that
The whole cannot be held in a fragment.
Perhaps the only way to escape the anxiety of influence is through the foreclosure of the symbolic, which was the case of Antonin Artaud during his years of madness. Fully conscious of his poetic genealogy – Poe, Baudelaire, Nerval, Lautréamont, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, all poètes maudits like himself – he found his poetic voice by suffering a gnostic curse, first losing not just poetry but all language in year upon year of madness, delirium, aphasia, during the death-in-life he suffered incarcerated in the psychiatric asylum at Rodez. There, in a theological struggle to the death, he renounced all human genealogy – as when in the funereal Ci-gît he proclaims that he has no papa-mama – and all theological transcendence, replacing a malevolent god by a pathological self as the source of creativity, thus becoming the origin of his own self and his own poetry. In doing so he transformed French poetry. Short of that, I do not believe that a poet can escape influence, or would even want to. For what is reading but influence!? I will grant you that “impenetrable self-reference” which, as you say, “locks the only door,” referred to in your poem “Meditation” (in Objects of Thought, Attempts at Speech), but this hardly precludes the fact that there must be locked in that room with you the phantoms of many poets, living and dead. I may be projecting, but I hear echoes throughout your work, whether in homage or pastiche, of Artaud, of course, and Lautréamont, Jarry, Rimbaud, Breton, Desnos, Fondane, Pound, Eliot, Olson, Duncan, Zukofsky, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Allen Ginsberg... But perhaps it can be said that every poet is somehow influenced by all poetry, whether read or unread, for there certainly exists, as Merleau-Ponty insisted, an “underground trading of the metaphor.” I give one specific example from a recent exchange:
ASW: Is the Howl on page 24 of A Message Back and Other Furors (which I love!) Allen Ginsberg’s?
LS: Not necessarily... though it could be! How deep is his hold on the word? Certainly I’m honored
by the association...
ASW: When the word is capitalized, and within a poem by an American Jewish poet, it’s hard to
think otherwise, no!? All that’s missing to make it a direct reference are quotation marks! Believe me,
coming from me, this is not a criticism! (The very first book of poetry I ever purchased, from the Eighth
Street Bookshop in the mid-1960s, was Howl.) Furthermore, we find on page 46: "I bearded dragon the
best minds of my generation..." So let me Howl what was on your mind!
LS: I guess you are right, the best minds is certainly a pastiche!
ASW: Your last sentence, wittingly or unwittingly, is hilarious!
LS: Ha! I see it...
ASW: One more "proof" of my "Howl" hypothesis: toward the end of the book you evoke an Owl (upper
case). Need I say more!? (The rhetorical strategy is linked to what we recently saw across the nation
during the Super Bowl, which has spawned a certain Superb Owl.)
The very first book I ever bought on my own was Howl, at the 8th Street Bookshop, where I often went after playing chess in Washington Square Park in the 1960s. I can’t imagine the 20th century without that poem! Might I ask for your own reflections on poetic influence, anxious or joyful, and for a hint at how you sense your own geneology?
LS: Well, I certainly agree to being “under the influence”, by which I mean beholden to the poetry that makes it possible for me to write -- and deeply intoxicated by those sources! It is Jed Rasula in This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry that spells “reading” as “wreading”, where reading and writing become a continuous act. By now I’ve appropriated that. I have also been talking for years about writing from the black of the page, meaning from language that is already there, not from the white of the page, which rarely exists. It turns out that in order to be color coordinated with the motif of “in black and white” you offer at the start of the conversation, (in other words, in Schwartz and Weiss in another tongue), for the space of this interview you must be the one who believes in the white of the page. Or in Year One of the Revolution. Or the white of the tricolour, since Schwartz writes from the black of the page. In his “Poem Beginning With The Word The”, Zukofsky cites particular sources for each line, and for the one he can’t, he writes that it was “quoted from the English”.
I feel in many ways I’ve been following for years on the trail of the poet Joseph Donahue, an unsung master of what I’ve called “transcendental lyric”. His first book, Before Creation, means so much to me, as do later works like Terra Lucida and Dark Church, for their pared down lyric effulgence, informed by formal innovation but not beholden to any kind of Group Think, including the potential Group Think of certain avant-gardes. Robert Duncan was an early teacher of mine who was very influential, as was Robert Kelly; I feel lucky to have studied with them when so young. E.M. Cioran was an intellectual hero of mine, and then I kind of befriended him in Paris, when I was 22 and he was in his 70’s, (he was of course more mentor than friend, but had a very light touch). He asked me to co-translate a few of his texts together, that was huge for me. Edouard Roditi was an early influence, and impressed upon me the need for the cross-cultural. I read and enjoy the poet Michael Palmer, in person and on the page. Never met Homer, but I try to read Fagles’ translation of The Iliad once every two years. Christopher Logue’s War Music is great too! A poet who is I think important to you, Clayton Eshelman, once wrote an essay that called for a poetry that would navigate between Artaud and Wallace Stevens, and certainly those two poets have meant a lot for me to keep in mind and in play simultaneously. And everything, obviously, leads back to Pound, of whom we all are small versions. Apropos Allen Ginsberg, who visited Pound in St. Elizabeth’s, his poetry translated over into the culture in an exceptional way, so that it becomes a nearly unconscious influence on us all. By the way, I met Allen Ginsberg several times in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Though I have to say we had a touch and go relationship: he tried to touch me, and I would go. In fact I was honored. I guess many people were so honored. Attended Ginsberg’s funeral too. Couldn’t follow the Tibetan prayer chants, but I still remember Amiri Baraka’s riveting eulogy.
ASW: The whiteness that most inspires me is that of fine Japanese handmade paper on which we see that mix of drawing and calligraphy typical of Japanese and Chinese art, where the empty white expanses may be sea or sky, snow or fog, mist or mountain, and where the calligraphic traces are at times indistinguishable from the drawn figures. I am fascinated by the threshold between abstraction and figuration, as well as by the ambiguities of visual perception, and these most often occur in white ... or black.
Though I have lost touch with Clayton in recent years, we were quite close through the 1990s, during which time I served on the editorial board of Sulfur, to which I regularly contributed. We were bound by several shared interests beyond poetry and literature, notably cuisine and wine (about which Clayton is extraordinarily knowledgeable), as well as the parietal art of paleolithic caves in the Dordogne. But what was most important to me was that Clayton – along with Annette Michelson, my thesis director in Cinema Studies and editor of October – was among the first people who took my writing seriously. I have always liked his Novices: A Study of Poetic Apprenctiseship, which taught me, among much else, that a suggested reading list is not necessarily a canon, but rather an inspiration. Concerning Allen Ginsberg, he made the best portrait of me ever done, a photo taken at the opening of a Simon Carr exhibition in 1989. I met Ginsberg several times, through Simon, with whom I was very close: mythic encounters, however brief.
ASW: I love lists, of all sorts. As a writer I certainly enjoy a periodic reworking of my Hundred Favorite Books. This needs to be done yearly, though it probably changes daily. (Such a list is not a canon but an autobiographical statement, and it absolutely must not be confused with the “Desert Island” list, which would be foolish not to include, for example, the U.S. Army Survival Manual!)
O those statues of Hindu goddesses with many, many arms
Are no false infinite, in fact one could be the reader
Holding her many books...
There is probably not enough space here to ask for your list of 100, much less to compare our lists, but could I ask for at least a short one of the many books that are reflected in your writings, or in your soul?
LS: Yes, that is a terrific question. Thanks for that quote back to me from If. You know, it was Hegel in the Aesthetics who stated that art is the pursuit of the Infinite, and that Hindu sculpture was a primitive version of that pursuit, in which the artist simply adds pairs of arms to the sculpture in order to suggest the idea of infinite addition. Those lines of mine from If are a refutation of Hegel, a suggestion that such sculpture embodies the Infinite to the extent the reader needs many, many arms all at once in order to hold all the necessary books in play all at once. Some titles to hold in those many hands, to pass before one’s eyes in a kind of dance: Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph. Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette. Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye. Fanny Howe’s The Wedding Dress and Other Essays. Robert Duncan’s Groundwork II. Bloom and Rosenberg’s The Book of J. Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and The Invisible. Raul Zurita’s Inri astonishes me every time I read it: do you know this great Chilean poet? The Mexican poet Coral Bracho’s Firefly Under The Tongue, translated by Forrest Gander, is a fairly recent discovery, a new love. Paul Celan’s Speech Grille, Martin Buber’s I and Thou, passages in Levinas. Amiri Baraka is the poet I think the culture misses most now, so his SOS: Poems 1961-2013 needs to be on the list. Ann Carson’s Sappho in If Not Winter and Rodrigo Toscano’s multilingual poems in To Leveling Swerve! How is that last for a juxtaposition? Gregor Von Rezzori’s Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. Stifter’s Rock Crystal. Ibn’ Arabi!
ASW: Just a note to mention that I did my first doctoral thesis on Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and The Invisible, and that very early on, through the 1980s, I was deeply involved with Artaud, Klossowski, Bataille, et alia, in a sense in opposition to the Surrealism which was my first aesthetic love. Of all that, Merleau-Ponty remains as my fundamental epistemological underpinning (for I still believe in the primacy of the body as the source of forms, as well as in the exigencies and liberties of eros), while Artaud is the one who continues to push me beyond my limits (with all the violence of his iconoclasm). As an aside, Rock Crystal is one of the most perfect books I have ever read!
LS: Yes, the primacy of the body, in both its visible and invisible forms.
ASW: For two decades I have taught a course on, “The Hybridization of Genres,” which over the years evolved into a seminar on “Monsters and Monstrosity.” It struck me at one point, reading the chapter of Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things on classification at the beginning of the modern era, that poetry is a form of monstrosity, and that dictionaries and encyclopedias of rhetoric are in fact means of generating linguistic monsters, e.g., the “arm” of a table or the “foot” of a chair, such catachreses being akin to the visual transmutations of the Surrealists (not to mention of your own poetic iconography). However, I am appalled that rhetoric is no longer taught, other than as an esoteric specialization in some English departments. May I ask for your thoughts on this?
LS: I think Poetics is connected to Rhetoric, even if Aristotle treats of them under two different titles, so I guess in my teaching I’m addressing this shortcoming you have pinpointed. Without a study of rhetoric young and old alike are more easily manipulated, obviously, but also end up taking things way too seriously, particularly their own rhetoric. Because if one doesn’t recognize one’s own rhetoric as such one becomes fundamentalist about one’s persuasions. Zizek likes to quote a line of Groucho Marx’s, which I’ve borrowed and altered the pronoun for, taking it on myself: “I may look like an idiot, and I may sound like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you, I really am an idiot”. Sometimes I forget that. At which times I sound idiotic.
ASW: The more I read the more I realize how little I know. If I still believed in philosophy as a discipline, it would be expressed by the indiscipline of a docta ignorantia.
LS: The writer Fanny Howe evokes the idea of “Bewilderment” so beautifully in her essay of that same title. “Lord, increase my bewilderment”, according to a Muslim Sufi prayer…
ASW: I had long claimed that I would wait until my French was good enough in order to read Proust’s Recherche. I have now read it three times. I also always said that I would wait until my English was good enough to read Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I now realize that I shall never do so. Just as languages enrich each other over time, working between languages enriches the writer. Never have I learned so much about the English language as when I translated from French the essays of Valère Novarina (Theater of the Ears). Might it be said that translating is a form of poetizing? Might you speak to this in regard to your work on Fondane?
LS: The poet Charles Bernstein opines that he has not mastered English, does not even know English. (He is American, English is his first language). But he is right, a language is too oceanic and too uncanny to ever be mastered or known. So we are always someplace in the midst of Finnegan’s Wake, and our foose won’t moose. As to translation, I think really good translators are masochists, submitting to the will of the author or the text. As such I’m a really bad translator. But I made a promise to E.M. Cioran I would see through a book or a book of translations about his friend, the Romanian born French language poet and philosopher Benjamin Fondane. I lived up to my word in 2016, with Cine-Poems and Others, from the New York Review Books. I wish the book had received more attention. Fondane was killed at Birkenau-Auschwitz towards the very end of the war. His work came back into print in the 80’s in France, and now recently in book form for the first time in English. Some of his lines figure very heavily at Yad Veshem, the Holocaust Memorial. There was a point in graduate school in which reading Fondane saved me. And I did work on some of those translations for many years. The one I like best is the one I did with Cioran:
I have put into port in cities
with companions whose names I did not know
opened myself to faces whose expressions,
from within, filled my flesh with wonder
--flesh, this city was of flesh, of skin,
set in motion by living transmission belts
it washed its old cathedrals, its ancient cobblestones,
its time like dirtied linen;
it cried its glory:
O, I’ve spat on History,
hungered in Seville for a real Senorita
lean as a meal on Ash Wednesday;
she sold canaries.
At Cadiz, I dreamed of the dawns of Paris.
I’ve cursed, in Dakar, the white homelands,
Called for sand, sleep…
My heart was so cowardly and so weak:
--Almeria, you reeked of garlic…
Everywhere people seated in cafés: the banks.
We spoke their language as little as possible,
spent time in old churches where Jesus Christ,
painted, nailed to the wall, let out his cry!
The time for prayers, passed,
the cry old, all beauty, old;
nothing alive but blood,
blood that ran black from gutted horses,
and in those slaughterhouses,
a dull emotion that taking shape in the mouth:
“Come in gentlemen, witness the marvelous and horrible
Oh, what had I come to do in this crowded forest?
I’d searched for a little silence,
a little sun less exhausting than snow;
the woman with the heavy womb crossed my blood,
life, life burst out everywhere with greater vigor,
Born in Jassy, what was I searching for in Oran
(in the windows of beauty parlors, beautiful women?)
my voyage finished, my past abolished,
where will my steps carry me? to what climes?
What human faces will call to me?
What super-human exhaustions?
I cannot listen to so many voices all at the same time.
Who speaks? What did I say? Who, who is it that hears?
Enough, enough, I say to you,
The weight of my body burdens me more than God,
I can no longer struggle against winds, against tides,
Can no longer walk; the roads are barred
(Translated from the French by Leonard Schwartz and E. M. Cioran)
ASW: I am fascinated by transpositions (of both form and content) from one art to another: Satie’s Entr’acte, perhaps the first musical composition structured like cinematographic montage; Fondane’s poetry, likewise written according to filmic structure; Iannis Xenakis’ use of mathematical forms (both stochastics and the geometry of hyperbolic paraboloids) in Metastasis and other early works; Morton Feldman’s passion for Middle Eastern carpets, which informed certain of his compositions such as Crippled Symmetry. Going beyond the obvious transpositions from poet to poet and poem to poem, could you speak to the effects of other art forms on your poetry?
LS: That is great. When I was working on “The Sleep Talkers” and thinking about the aesthetics of sleep – sleep, not dream – Wagner’s Ring Cycle helped a lot. There is a lot of sleep there: Brunnhilde on her rock, Erda’s sleep, Alberich’s dream. So music drama helped me into the territory of sleep thought. And the language of philosophy has always been an important rhetoric for me in poetry, as if hidden in abstract concepts were nearly figurative forms, consciousness as the new name for Odysseus, and so on. I’m not able to articulate the ways Bresson’s film Au Hasard Balthazar has shaped my sensibility, but I know it has. Certainly I was a different person after seeing it.
ASW: I take citations from your work out of context. Such is literally a metaphor, a transfer.
One is always stopped just as one starts finding out where it is that the messages are written.
[“Monuments to the Not Yet Lived,” in Words Before the Articulate, 38]
One might even claim that in our times, the genius loci is nomadic. We know through Marx and so many others how an object – and a statement, for that matter – is a nexus of human relations; this implies that it is also the sign of a trajectory of events and voyages. The clearest example I know of this is in Neil MacGregor’s remarkable A History of the World in 100 Objects, where the spatio-temporal site of each object consists of the conjunction of trade routes and happenstance, personal histories and circumstance, political change and coincidence.
Familiar ground is a foreign land.
[A Message Back and Other Furors, 18]
And yet there is transcendence. So one needs to ask whether every poem comes from a place. And of course, one place can hide – or reveal – another, as when we read:
I seized it and opened it, and in silence
I read the first passage on which my eyes fell.
[“As You Run Up the Stairs,” in Objects of Thought, Attempts at Speech, 10]
This epigraph is from Saint Augustine’s Confessions – that primal source not only for a certain oecumenical theology, but also for all Western autobiography – and yet it is impossible to read this passage without also remembering the crucial moment of Petrarch’s “The Ascent of Mont Ventoux,” when the poet atop the mountain forgets the sublime view of the world as he opens to this very same page in Saint Augustine to experience his own revelation. I should add that this reference and this mountain were also at the origin of one of my books: The Wind and the Source: In the Shadow of Mont Ventoux.
LS: I vividly remember talking with you about The Wind and the Source: In the Shadow of Mont Ventoux for my radio program Cross Cultural Poetics. It is a beautiful book, and immediately calls to my mind a poet we had in common as a friend and as a writer: Gustaf Sobin. If Mont Ventoux is a stunning mountain that is almost never named, as your book explains, then this is true of Gustaf Sobin as a poet too. I should have mentioned him earlier, in that list of books, both Luminous Debris and the Collected Poems. But yes, psychogeography is important to me, and NYC and the Pacific Northwest have provided many micro-environments from which poems flow. So do other places: Beijing, Cusco, Kathmandu. One is thrown.
ASW: I truly miss Gustaf, a wonderful poet and person. So much of his poetry was so minimal that it was about almost nothing – a gust of wind, a ray of light – and though one immediately thinks of the poetry of René Char (whose grave Gustaf helped tend), it rather beings me back to Mallarmé. Luminous Debris – beautiful title! – is among my favorite books on landscape, and I was thrilled to have been able to walk the paths of the Lubéron with him.
LS: I think I made some of those same walks with him. As you say, the psychogeography he wrote from radiated out from the Valley of the Lubéron, that particular locale in Provence. His sense of the layers of culture sedimentation he was living amidst and writing from, from the Neolithic to the Celtic, to the Roman, to the Gothic, and his refusal to permit nuance and distinction to be lost to generalization, in spite of the world’s insistence that they must, is something we need to keep in mind now.
As I write these words, my most recent project arrived: East Village Blues, an autobiographical volume by Chantal Thomas for which I did the photography. I am particularly pleased with this book as an object (an argument among others for the continuation of publishing on paper), and I think of the cover image (a wall covered with images and graffiti, including a portrait of Andy Warhol) as a sort of visual epigraph for the tale. Perhaps I can appropriate one of your phrases out of context, and say that this is precisely and literally where,
“...street means event.”
[“Monuments to the Not Yet Lived,” in Words Before the Articulate, 37]
The event in question for me is the photographic capture of a moment and an image – an entire sensibility – which disappeared by the time the image was published, a cruel tale of time (and neighborhood) lost. This goes back to the issue of the genius loci – who is often cruel, ironic, sarcastic, hermetic and mercurial – as it points to the ineluctable ephemerality of place. In this regard, I think of the cover image of A Message Back and Other Furors by analogy. I have always thought that one of the most poignant, heart-wrenching of all images is Pieter Breughal the Elder’s tiny painting of 1592, Two Monkeys, in the Gemäldegalerie (Berlin). We see two monkeys chained onto a deep window sill, with a view of Antwerp in the background where two geese fly over the horizon. This political and existential allegory of bondage and freedom is one for the ages. It instantiates your view, in Ear & Ethos (x), of poetry as simultaneously revelation of ideology and sounding of lament. Here I need compare the cover image of A Message Back and Other Furors, also depicting a deep window ledge or gateway, itself in ruins, beyond which we see Kabul in ruins. If the Breughal is a summit of poignancy, this image is beyond poigancy, touching upon sheer despair. I would like to ask about the relation between this photograph and the poems in the book. For in “The Ghetto of Gaza and the Angel of History” (The New Babel, 97-98) you contrast the imagery of Walter Benjamin with the textuality of Somaya El-Sousi, showing how they both work to the same effect in their historical function. And yet, even if an image is worth a thousand words, it is much, much different in what it communicates.
LS: I have Chantal’s book. It makes me wish I had been a bit older. I missed the 70’s in NYC. I’m 55, I came into some several scenes in NY in the mid 80’s. It feels strange to me to speak of that period now as historical too. But “street” can still mean “event”.
You know for Ibn’ Arabi, and for the pre-Islamic Arabic poets before them, the poet’s primary topos is the edge of the ruin, lamenting the destroyed city or the departed encampment. Now we lament the ruins we ourselves have made. In Ear and Ethos and The New Babel I wanted to explore the Mid-East crises specifically, and the circumstance, incredibly, that the Palestinians are the Jews of the 2nd half of the 20th Century and the foreseeable 21st. It is my great honor to have been able to call the Palestinian poet Somaya el-Sousi at her home in Gaza City, and air on the radio our conversations and poetry reading together, she in the original Arabic, me in the English translation, in the midst of the most unspeakable circumstances in her city. But she found the words.
By the way, the cover photograph for A Message Back and Other Furors is by an extraordinary Afghan-American artist, Lida Abdul, who splits time between L.A. and Afghanistan. She is a friend, but I haven’t seen her in years.
ASW: Finally, I have to ask what, for you, is poetry. From almost all of your poems I could cull a phrase that would offer a definition, but given this range of possibilities no one of them would be adequate, and perhaps no such definition is even possible. For example:
...to order the chaos yet leave the astonishment blaze.
[“Form,” in Words Before the Articulate, 18]
Sometimes the genius of language is profound, sometimes silly: both can make for good poetry, as we know from the many juxtapositions of the sublime and the ridiculous in Victor Hugo, and as the Surrealists taught us time and again. This is clearly articuated in your dictum, “No ideas but in irony.” [“Book of J,” in Words Before the Articulate, 82], echoing, perhaps ironically, William Carlos Williams’ oft cited phrase from Paterson: “No ideas but in things.” The very beginning of Ear and Ethos offers one of the richest moments of your work concerning the constitution of a contemporary poetics, where, writing of the “particular transcendental,” you suggest a “mystery without belief” and an “ethics of ambiguity,” this couched in a “transcendental lyric.” This page alone could be the subject of a long interview, but might it not disclose the core of your poetics?
LS: Well, thank you, Allen. I am glad you arrived at that particular line of mine, for that particular purpose, in this particular conversation. To order the chaos yet leave the astonishment blaze. As you may have suspected, I don’t want to be definitional on this point, for fear of generalizing. Instead I will respond with two new fragments. The first of these references the aforementioned Merleau-Ponty:
An individual nuzzles
In another individual
And is carried away by that.
Wild logos means
The sensate thinks.
Or else, Allen, I can offer this:
Half-meaning, because it calls into question
Its own methods for generating meaning.
Half-hawk, because the other wing
Flies in the void and is a shadow.
Demi-gods, among the boulders,
Recognizing one another, now and then.
Actualities, not identities
Ceaselessly unaware of themselves.
And a bench of stone
In an excited state.
It seems to me that at this particular moment what poetry needs to demonstrate, in as many ways as possible, is that consciousness is indeed non-self-identical. Black is never only black and white is never only white.