STEVEN CRAMER, POET AND MFA DIRECTOR: THE CLANGINGS INTERVIEW

SCARRIET:  Poe said poetry should be a passion, not a study. In the classroom it can be both. Among professors and graduate students, we see that it can be a passion and a study. Is to study something passionately, however, precisely the opposite of what Poe meant? Have we in the U.S. become too studious in our poetry?

STEVEN CRAMER:  Philip Larkin was once asked what he’d learned from the study of Auden, Thomas and Hardy.  His intemperate outburst in response seems to me instructive:  “Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvelous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn.”

            That’s a wonderful, bracing answer, but it begs the question, because what Larkin describes is passionate study.   Larkin recommends a specialized, utilitarian kind of study, the alert eye of the apprentice, but he’s describing study nonetheless.   Studying poetry passionately doesn’t strike me as oxymoronic, whether or not the reader is a poet or has aspirations to becoming one.

            Robert Pinsky says somewhere, If you want to learn a great deal about a fish, dissection is probably useful.  Hasn’t the act of paying close attention always been as much affective as intellectual?  Falling in love is, literally, eye-opening.  “Study” comes from a Latin root that also meant “eagerness.”

With your fifth book, Clangings, you have emerged as a major poet of the ur-trope, sound & sense. I would eventually like to ask you a few questions on this topic, but I also note that your poetry is acutely aware of all five senses; smell, for instance, is often thematic for you; how conscious are you of giving your readers a feast of the senses, and can you tell us how this writing process developed?

At times in writing Clangings I was very conscious of making sense in the way you describe—that is, appealing to the senses, sound especially, and in a manner that trumped logic but not content—or at least not emotional impulse.  Sometimes sense appeal constituted a challenge I’d deliberately pose for myself—for instance, a poem devoting each of its five stanzas to one of the five senses (“If I think in yellow, I can remember. . .”).  But mostly I proceeded intuitively—doesn’t everybody?—within the parameters of the project I’d set for myself—each of the poem’s sections had to be five quatrains rhyming (with many liberties taken) abba.

            After writing the second or third poem, I realized a voice had surfaced that wasn’t the conventional, quasi-autobiographical lyric “I,” and that opportunities for plot and character presented themselves, opportunities new to me as a poet.

            I like that you use the word “feast.”  The poem’s first detail is of dinner plates, and food imagery recurs often.  I think of this character as both literally and figuratively hungry—to make sense, to make connection.  So, in terms of the book’s psychology—and perhaps here’s a way to regard sense appeal as a “thematic”—I hope the sensory textures dramatize impediments as much as nourishments.  The speaker often laments his multivalent language—“What I meant to vent’s getting/twisted up.”   For a poet, language taking on a life of its own equals freedom.  For my invented speaker, it more often blocks connection, makes him “two rhymes snagged between rhymes,/spun puns, all my blinds up in flames.”

Your observation on the difference between language that either connects or impedes psychologically, and in other ways, is fascinating.

That’s why I used that line from “Prufrock” as the epigraph:  “It is impossible to say just what I mean.”  I was 17 when I first read that line, and it pierced me then and still does.  In some ways, Clangings pays homage to that one line.

Can you sum up Clangings’ character and plot, at least to the degree that it’s not supposed to resist that?

The book’s four parts, I hope, develop in apprehensible if indeterminate ways.  We first get a kind of “census” of the speaker’s mental life, which introduces Dickey but also evokes, prismatically, a history and a range of attitudes on religion, sex, friendship, childhood.  Dickey is the focus, of course—part alter-ego, part imaginary friend, part lover, part, uh, part.  The second section addresses the speaker’s parents (I don’t think there’s any evidence of siblings), an address that’s sometimes quite direct.  The poems in the third section recoil and try to recover from “Dickey’s death feels all over me.”  The last section, I feel, is the most located in an “outside” world, beginning as it does:  “so I left my apartment.”  Without getting too reductively explicit, I believe we can detect locations like a pickup bar; a workplace; commuting; and especially, near the end, a clinical setting where certain interventions take place.

            I’d like to think the book has, in a sense, three endings: the valedictory “Dickey my door, I’m seeing”; then the single quatrain of stripped-down statement—“I feel well, but keep hoping to get well”; and then, after the last section break, the Pessoa adaptation.  In the last four poems of the book, I wanted certain quite simple words to cluster and reverberate:  words, think, feel, well. . . 

How close is your Dickey to Berryman’s Henry?

Second cousins.  Seriously, I thought much about the book’s debt to The Dream Songs, and weclome (humbly) the comparison.  It’s interesting to me how often people misremember “Mr. Bones” as a character in The Dream Songs.  There is an unnamed voice who calls Henry Mr. Bones, but there is no “Mr. Bones” per se.   I’d also maintain that Henry, inarguably, is Berryman; in fact, the lyric “I” in the early Dream Songs often has less relation to John Berryman the poet than does the “he” of Henry.  In any case, the “I” in Clangings is not me in the slightest, at least not in any autobiographical sense.

I’d like to quote the poem “Okay, here’s what we did. Dad was a quark” from Clangings.  

Okay, here’s what we did. Dad was a quark.
I took my shogun out. And the jerk grinned!
Toads marched him to where the marshland
meanders, where woods gave such a bark 

I still get a wince. Open fire, said Dickey.
We loaded him, black hole, in the swamp van.
It was premium cable! I aimed at his midline,
silver blanked into him. He’d been less empty, 

I’d have hit a vital. Roses twined in a scythe,
me and Dickey grieved. “Thou Shalt Not”
and all that smearwort. On the hospice lot,
weeds sprouted tips, like: get a life, take a life

We ditched the van at first intermission,
D. and me, we’d had our glister of venom.
There once was a time I’d have said scram.
This time a guilty sun gilded my stun gun. 

“Hey you, what’d you do with your Dad?”
yelled the groundskeeper mowing—yawn,
at least I’m a living—hospitable grass. Then:
“can’t dig here with that hole in your head.”

It sounds like something rather sinister is happening here.  Or is this more how a certain kind of language and a certain kind of mind interact?  Or, both?” 

I hope it comes across as a kind of phantasmagoric revenge fantasy involving the speaker’s father, with the sense of a plot that can’t be pinned down.  Dickey and the speaker do something to the Dad—shoot him?—but don’t kill him (“He’d been less empty/I’d have hit a vital”—and are in some way interrupted and told, more or less, to play elsewhere.  The tone starts out exuberant—It was premium cable!—but not so much so by the end.

Poetry has been defined by ‘the line.’ Verse is rather obvious in presenting ‘the line’ as its unit, but is poetry of a more sophisticated sort really doing anything different? Isn’t free verse’s ‘line’ still someone dancing—but just with the music taken away? Or is there something more mysterious involved?

I don’t think free verse is inherently more sophisticated than symmetrically metered verse. Nor is one more “formal” than the other.  On the one hand, metrical verse is predicated on a patterns of recurrence—say, five iambic feet per line, alternating four- and three-stress lines, or what have you—but the verse is artful only insofar as those patterns of recurrence are varied, syncopated, even disrupted.  A great example is the first quatrain of Shakespeare’s sonnet 129:

 

Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust . . .

 

Say those lines emphasizing the iambic pentameter, then say them again emphasizing the rhythm—that is, the metrical variations, relative stress, enjambment,  interruptive pauses—and you can’t help hearing how sophisticated is the syncopation between recurrence (meter) and variation (rhythm).

            On the other hand, the formal first principle of free verse is variation, improvisation; but that verse is artful only insofar as those variations and improvisations deploy and benefit from patterning.  As Donald Justice points out in a brilliant essay, “The Invention of Free Verse,” Ezra Pound made up one kind of free verse in 1907, probably in Crawfordville, Indiana:

 

Lips, words, and you snare them,
Dreams, words, and they are as jewels,
Strange spells of old deity,
Ravens, nights, allurement:
And they are not;
Having become the souls of song.

Eyes, dreams, lips, and the night goes.
Being upon the road once more,
They are not
.

 

You can scan those lines—you can scan prose—but you won’t find a dependably recurrent meter.  What you can hear, I think, is extraordinarily subtle rhythmic patterning that counterpoints free-verse improvisation.  In this case, “dancing free verse” strikes me as a very apt metaphor for how these lines behave, and the lines are ravishingly musical.  But well-made free verse—like well-made metrical verse—needn’t dance or sing; it can murmur, chant, blurt, curse, meditate, rhapsodize, gossip, coo, and so on.

            The language of poetry constitutes a compressed metaphor for how humans (usually it’s one human) speak—to one other, to many others, to a supposed other, or to him- or herself.  That’s as aphoristic as I can get.

I find in contemporary poetry a lot of crowding, and what I mean by that is there seems to be an excess of everything: meaning, language, suggestion, experiment, experience, nuance, feeling, coloring, shadowing, reference and word-play contained in a single poem. Is it possible that we have too much of a good thing? Lamenting there are no more famous poets, ‘where is our Keats?’ we perhaps ‘have no Keats’ precisely because we have ten thousand Keats’ cramming their poems with Keats x 10. In terms of simple composition—and I got this idea from Plato’s ‘Timaeus’—perhaps one needs space for the spaces, a length for one’s lengths, a room sufficient in size to fit all the furniture. Do you think in terms of pure compositional taste and technique, American poets are guilty of overwhelming the lay reader?

I’m skeptical of general descriptions about what contemporary poetry does or doesn’t do.  Some poetry does indeed crowd every rift with a landfill of poetic effects.  I love how Timothy Donnelly does that in The Cloud Corporation.  But there seem to me plenty of poets who compose as much by leaving out as adding in.  Here are a few lines by Jennifer Barber, from her wonderful book Given Away:

 

A bureau.
A night table.

An armchair
covered in a blue
itchy wool.

 Don’t think.
Don’t think a thing.

 There’s a lot going on in these lines—just now I’m noticing the elegant superimposition of symmetries in its stanzas (couplet/tercet/couplet composed of two sentences/one sentence/two sentences)—and between these lines.  But nothing in these lines strikes me as “crammed.”

            John Ashbery captured the dilemma of “compositional taste and technique” (nice phrase) in the first two sentences of Three Poems:  “I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way.  And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.”  That says it all, no?

            Only a few of Keats’s contemporaries knew they “had their Keats” for the brief time they had him.  Most ignored or reviled his work.   We probably have our Keats—or Dickinson or whoever—but we just don’t know it.  It’s also worth recognizing that the ways people who read and write poetry value it have become much more diverse.   I don’t think it’s a bad thing that it’s harder to define—much less agree upon—what makes a good poem, let alone a great poet.  Readers with different cultural and ethnic experiences read for different reasons, and are aesthetically satisfied by different attributes.  Maybe a century from now, Lord Posterity will have preserved a crowd of Keats’s, for a crowd of different audiences.  That is, if we’re reading at all in a century. 

The Jennifer Barber is a great example of a simple modern lyric, and I agree with you that ‘nothing in these lines strikes [one] as crammed,’ but since there is so much we can take away from this poem (and which might befuddle the lay reader), the rhetorical space outside its lines feels crammed to me, if that makes any sense.

            My only quibble here about the Barber poem involves the word “crammed,” which implies to me a kind of superfluity; as soon as we’re talking about “space,” the mystery seems to inhere in what’s left out, not what’s put in.  I admire that a great deal in Jennifer’s poems, and wish I were better at leaving things out.

Regarding that famous formula, sound & sense: how often do they really become one? We say one is “sacrificed” to the other and so forth, but are they, by nature, interchangeable, or are they really two very different things? Are they similar to light and darkness, where sense is light and darkness the sound that obliterates the light? Or is sound a kind of illumination, too? Is sound always a reflection of what makes the sound? Does the sound of a string of a certain length always cause us to see (or intuit) a string of a certain length? And does sense operate the same way, leading us back to its cause, or is sense (meaning) experienced only as a cause, without any effects? Can a string plucked produce meaning? Can meaning be a string?

Words obviously have sounds when spoken out loud, and those sounds are subject to the variations of pronunciation or dialect; and words obviously have denotations sufficiently stable to allow us to, more or less, communicate with each other.  Of course sound and sense are related.  If they weren’t, you wouldn’t understand this sentence:  “I am content with the content of my poem.”

            In regard to poems, I believe “meaning” describes a relationship—between reader and text—not some dynamic that’s built into a text, absent a reader.  An unread poem means nothing.  That may seem dumbly self-evident, but I’ve had the experience of discussing a poem with others (undergraduates, often)—having a rich, attentive conversation about the poem’s textures and tones and how they affect us.  Afterwards, someone will say, “well, that was fun, but what does the poem mean?” It “means” what we just did!   What that person in fact requires is a summary of some kind that will obviate the need to reread, re-discuss, or re-experience the poem and its meanings. Weirdly, the person who asks that question is often one of the most animated participants in our meaning-making conversation.

Poe said the color, orange, and the sound of a gnat produced the same sensation in him. Scientifically, we understand Poe’s experience as the result of waves or vibrations. A poem read aloud is a vibrating object. A poem read silently does not physically wiggle. Can we say the former is the hum of the gnat, the latter, the color orange? But as someone who loves to both listen and read silently, I swear that poems I love are the same thing, whether I listen to them or read them. Does this prove that sound/sense really is one reality, or the converse: sound and sense are eternally separate, and the poet merely places them side by side?

A poem read silently does not physically wiggle.  That’s terrific.  I find myself noticing simpler—maybe more simplistic—distinctions.  When we read a poem silently, we don’t push our breath against our closed lips, gently popping them open to make the plosives; or shape our mouth cavity to articulate the long and short vowels; or manipulate our tongue, teeth and breath to express the sibilants.   When we read a poem out loud, all of these and other mouth and breath acts take place.  When it’s a very good poem—written by a master orchestrator of the physical properties of words and phrases and sentences—we are “played” by the poem; our body is its instrument.  I suppose one can become a very attentive silent reader, able to “hear” these mouth sounds in the auditory imagination.   I’m not that alert as a silent reader.  To come to an understanding of a poem, I almost always have to read it out loud—not to perform it, but to allow it to perform me.  And I don’t mean listening to the poet read his or her poem out loud (although that can be a pleasure); I’m talking about reading the poem out loud oneself.  I wish I had the patience to read and reread out loud more poems that are new to me.  I’d be much better read if I did so.

Steven, I have to ask you about word-play, since your work is amazing in this regard. You have a line from your latest book, “What, you wander, do I mean?”  Here you place wonder—implied in the punning line—and wander next to each other, two trochaic words of similar sound and meaning. 

            “What do I mean,” you ask, and that’s key. To wonder about something is to wander around looking for the answer, or to behold a great palace—in wonder—is to wander about in that palace: the effect produced by your line is immediate and gratifying—both purely intellectually and in terms of the reader’s word-cognizance. The reader physically wanders through the wonder of space and meaning itself.  The question also carries self-consciousness with it, as the narrator sort of dares the reader to consider what meaning itself is.

            Yet, when we consider this practice in its general use, there is the tendency to feel the pain associated with punning, that clash of colors in clothing, that discord of two adjacent piano keys being struck. The imp who switches the ‘o’ and the ‘a’ will eventually exasperate Apollo.

Punning seems to me language at its most self-conscious, and I was (self) conscious about pushing the envelope, and that I was likely to exasperate some readers. (To exasperate Apollo seems a noble enough aspiration for poetry.  He’s certainly had his share of praise.)

            I very much want readers to experience the speaker’s word-play as, at least at times, painful for him.  He often articulates a wish to communicate simply—“I need to work on my main idea”; “I can’t tell why//I weigh so down when I get this mad.” If the puns unlock meanings he’s unaware of, but we pick up, that’s all to the good.  “Well now, you and I are words apart,” are his last words to Dickey.  I hope that the plays and puns in that simple statement come through very clearly, and that they speak to a more general human condition.

Pain–’tears of the clown (or punster)’–pertains on many levels to the speaker’s story and his attempt to communicate.  Shakespeare puns in his tragedies.  Why does a pun unsettle us/amuse us/annoy us?  How does it work, both aesthetically and dramatically?  One of the many things Clangings does is help to answer these questions.  Thank you, Steven.

Clangings has a book trailer which you can watch here, and is published by Sarabande Books.

You can learn more about Steven Cramer and his works here.

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1 Comment

  1. thomasbrady said,

    February 18, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    We have been reminded here of the importance of puns in great literature, and I’m wondering–which I cannot help but do, it being such a delightful topic on so many levels–whether puns naturally work better as a dramatic device than as a lyric device. When Hamlet speaks in puns, he does so to hide what he is saying from an authority. The reader of Shakespeare’s play knows Hamlet means “son” when he speaks to the king–who thinks he means “sun.” The pun has a dramatic use.

    When Hamlet says “words, words, words” to P. later in the play, this is not a pun, but dramatically it is working the same way: Hamlet does not wish to tell P. what he is thinking/reading. “Words” is the truth, but a more insulting reply than the disguising pun spoken to the king.

    When we pun without a direct (dramatic) purpose, to ourselves, or in lyric, no matter how clever, it calls more attention to itself–which dramatically, it is not supposed to do.


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