Poetry selection from Readymades by Tony Barnstone in this issue.
Books at bn.com by Tony Barnstone _______
Visit our other interviews with:
Online work by Tony Barnstone
The Columbus Series at Exquisite Corpse
“The Video Arcade Buddha”
translations of Li Po and Tu Fu
“The Poem Behind the Poem: Literary Translation as American Poetry”
“Technology as Addiction
Review of Arthur Sze's “The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998”
Reviews of Barnstone's “Impure,” by Karlene Miller
“Literatures of Asia, Africa and Latin America” by Elizabeth Blakesley Lindsay
Tony Barnstone website
An E-view with Tony Barnstone
By Rebecca Seiferle
%%%%% Tony Barnstone is a young poet whose first book, Impure, was a finalist for the National Poetry Series, The Walt Whitman Prize of the Academy of American Poets, and published with the University Press of Florida in June of 1999. His father is the poet and translator, Willis Barnstone, and his sister, Aliki Barnstone is a well-known poet. In the family tradition, Tony Barnstone has done a number of translations and anthologies. He is the author of Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1993), Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Selected Poems of Wang Wei (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1991), The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1996), and Literatures of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. His poetry, translations, essays on poetics, and fiction have appeared in dozens of American literary journals, from APR to Agni.
%%%%%This e-interview focuses on Tony Barnstone’s new project, a poetry collection entitled Readymades, poems which have been created out of the readymade texts of Nietzsche, the logs of Christopher Columbus, the accounts of survivors of Hiroshima, and various manifestos of avant-garde writers and artists. My first acquaintance with the project was when Barnstone sent a selection of his Nietzsche poems from his new book, Readymades for consideration in this issue of The Drunken Boat. Nietzsche was a very gifted writer, much of his philosophy would, in the brilliance of its language, shame much of contemporary poetry as prosaic and timid. Barnstone’s Nietzsche poems are among the best of the series, perhaps, because they reflect the lustre of the original. In the course of several exchanges about the project, including revisions of the Hiroshima poems in particular, we decided to discuss the project in an e-interview.
%%%%%As the e-interview has evolved as a form during the last year at The Drunken Boat, I’ve become aware that e-interview lends itself to discussion about a particular project, a particular aspect of the writer’s work. In Readymades, as in David Romtvedt’s Introduction to American Poetry in our Summer Issue, we see contemporary poets struggling with the tradition that contemporary American poetry has inherited and also trying to expand the range and voice of their poetic utterance beyond the narrow concerns of the self. We hope that these conversations will provoke new possibilities.
%%%%%Tony Barnstone is Associate Professor at Whittier College, where he teaches creative writing, American literature, and Asian literature. He is the author of Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry( Wesleyan University Press, 1993), Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Selected Poems of Wang Wei (University Press of New England, 1991), The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters ( Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1996), and Literatures of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. His poetry, translations, essays on poetics, and fiction have appeared in dozens of American literary journals, fromAPR to Agni. His first book of poetry, Impure, a finalist for The Walt Whitman Prize of the Academy of American Poets, the National Poetry Series Prize, and the White Pine Prize, appeared with the University Press of Florida in June of 1999.
Seiferle: How did you get started with this particular project?
Barnstone: The conceptual roots of this process go deep into my sense of the nature of creativity. Creativity is a force always resident within us, though usually dormant, a sleeping power we can awaken if we understand what it is. Creativity is a matter of seeing patterns in apparently unrelated material, finding the story in a life, finding the fantastic in the mundane, and finding ways in which disparate pattern structures relate to each other. In this sense, it is a basic human activity, an essential function of the mind.
***** Perhaps the best way to explain what I mean would be to describe a set of writing exercises I developed for my creative writing classes. These exercises were designed to present students with chaos, a lack of pattern, or a confusion of conflicting patterns; their role would be to use their imaginations to create new paradigms from this material. For example, in an exercise I call “Chaos and Imagination” I might ask everybody in the room to write a poem about rain, and while they were writing I’d read select words from a physics textbook, or from a sexy passage in Nabokov’s Lolita. As they wrote, they would integrate the words I read out loud into their poems. Thus, the discourse of rain would become married to the discourse of the play of physical forces, or of teenage sexuality, or to both, as mediated through their imaginations.
***** Another exercise, the “Find the Poem” exercise, worked along similar principles. I would hand out a photocopied page to each student from diverse sources—a geology text, a page about the formation of stars, a page from a textbook on internal medicine, a carpentry how-to book, and so on—and each student would then scan the page like a painting (not read it left-to-right, top-to-bottom), and circle words that leapt off the page at him or her. Once they had an interesting collection of words, they would look for how those words cohered into a pattern, and circle connecting words, articles, prepositions, until that pattern came clear. Thus poetry writing becomes a matter of seeing well, of having creative vision. Usually, the poems would not be about geology, stars, internal medicine, or carpentry, but they would be enlivened by the particular and unusual vocabulary of those discourses. Our language is very old, barnacle-encrusted, dirty, clichéd, used-up, dissipated, desiccated, exhausted. Therefore, we as writers need to seek out backwaters away from the mainstream of language that haven’t been entirely fished out. When writing a poem about a rose, use the language of surgery. When writing about love, use the language of locomotive engineering. Though these discourses may seem utterly unrelated, we as pattern-making organisms are infinitely capable of finding previously unseen relations, and that is the essence of creativity.
***** John Ashbery is not a poet with whose work I normally see my work aligned, but when reading a recent review of his poems and essays by Charles Simic in the New York Review of Books, I had a sudden shock of recognition: Simic’s description of Ashbery’s technique seemed like an excellent summation of the esthetic and compositional principles that led to my own “readymade” project. Simic writes: “To me, the poems frequently feel as if they were the products of chance operations. Words and phrases found anywhere are moved around until they begin to cohere. I can imagine him getting up in the middle of a poem, reaching for any book on his shelf, opening it anywhere, or picking up the newspaper from the floor and incorporating the newly found language. He has a knack for making these fragments flow together as if they were part of someone’s interior conversation.... Whatever an Ashbery poem turns out to be about is not an idea he started with but something he stumbled upon as he shuffled phrases and images like a pack of cards.” Even more strikingly, Simic explicitly relates Ashbery’s technique to that of the “readymade”: “like Marcel Duchamp with his ready-mades, he is confident that poetry can be made of any verbal matter, no matter how lowly it may be.”
***** Of course, there are major differences between Ashbery’s technique and mine as well. Ashbery utilizes source-texts but doesn’t acknowledge them, so that the effect is as of overhearing a soup of different radio announcers, television programs, bedroom conversations, and popular songs all blended together without distinction. His poetry has a text-to-text relationship to source texts that are elided, so that the reader ends up with a sense of reference and familiarity without any clear notion of what is being referred to. The effect is magical and frustrating, like deja vu. Ashbery gestures towards meaning but then denies it: “Please don’t tell me if it all adds up in the end./I’m sick of that one,” he writes. I am less comfortable with the Derridian play of significance than Ashbery apparently is, less comfortable with an infinitely self-referential poetics, focused upon its own process of making and unmaking meaning. To me, the limitations of such an approach are the same as those of Andy Warhol’s Pop Art: the effect is hip, ironic, and emotionally cool, but despite the pop-cultural references ultimately more academic and conceptual than human.
Seiferle: Did you begin with the concept and then turn to particular authors or sources, or did you hit upon the method by accident, or, perhaps, experiment with the work of a particular author and then develop the concept for the entire project?
Barnstone: I started this project several years ago while working on a large textbook, Literatures of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Though I was the editor for Asia and the Middle East, I also did some work with the Latin American section, including choosing selections from Christopher Columbus’s log of his first voyage to the Americas. I was very impressed with the unfolding drama of the voyage, the fear that came with the voyage into unknown seas, the threat of mutiny from the crew, the thick seaweed of the Sargasso Sea slowing the boats, the false hopes and false signs of land in a world of water, and then the extraordinary moment when a light was sighted at night, and in the morning a new land appeared and the crew had their amazing first encounter with the naked Arawak Indians. I was fascinated by his account of the attempt to communicate, the Indians mistaking the Europeans for gods, Columbus’s mistaking them for Indians, Japanese, and Chinese. Columbus's paradisical vision of these Native Americans and the green world he had found was dazzling, but balancing his account of the beauty, simplicity and innocence of the native American is how he actually behaved towards them: his kidnapping of several men, his interrogation of them in search of gold and spice, and his musings on how easily they could be conquered and enslaved. Throughout the log, Columbus recounts the fantastic rumors of cannibals, of an island of women, of sirens of the sea, of men with faces like dogs, which gives the voyage a mythic aura, and towards the end there is great drama as he describes the sinking of the Santa Maria which forced him to leave behind a complement of men, whom he promised to come back for, but who had disappeared by the time the next expedition had arrived. It is one of the great stories of all time, epic on the scale of the Odyssey, adventurous and tragic, brave and idealistic, and yet containing the originary myths and roots from which would spring American capitalism, religious intolerance, and slavery.
***** The experience of reading the log reminded me of William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain, in which Williams allowed the edited voices of great historical figures to speak in his prose directly to the reader, making history present tense. “Make it new,” Ezra Pound advised, meaning not only that poets should innovate and transform their craft, but that they should make the past new. Thus in the modernist epics, Eliot makes new a variety of authors and texts that speak through his voice, from St. Augustine to the “Fire Sermon” of the Maha-Vagga, William Carlos Williams makes new the documents and newspaper stories that testify to the history of Paterson, NJ, and Pound makes new everyone from Malatesta to Confucius in the Cantos. Would it be possible for me to make this text new, to write my own mini-epic, learning from the techniques of collage, allusion, and adaptation that the great modernist poets used? I set out to do so, disciplining myself by avoiding free verse, choosing instead to form the log entries into tetrameter sonnets. My wife was out of town, I was on a semester break from school, and I found myself working obsessively, writing the entire sequence of 20 sonnets (one of which I later discarded) in about seven days. Of course, it took me four years of fiddling with them to bring them to their final state.
***** The books of lyric poetry that I admire the most are George Herbert’s The Temple (in which the poems are architecturally arranged to build a temple to God), Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (a book of poetry constructed as an American Bible), and James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break (in which each poem echoes the language and iconography of the others, tying the lyrics together into a sequential meta-poem). I admire these books because they have found ways in which lyric poems can be molecularly joined to make a complex and serious argument that is as ambitious in its own way as that of an epic poem. I have long thought that I would like to write a book as sustained and organized as are these models. In my book of poems, Impure, I tried my best to link the poems together into something more than an anthology of diverse lyrics. I organized them by theme. I linked many of them together like Japanese renga poems in which the last line of one poem is echoed in the first line of the following poem. I planted recurrent imagery, referred directly in some poems to earlier poems, so that the reader who read the book sequentially would gain a certain reward. In the end, however, the poems were stubbornly independent, demanding their right to be themselves, though joined together in a republic. The Columbus sequence gave me a technique that I could used to build a complex argumentative structure through a series of speaking voices. It wasn’t as simple as that, however. In fact, I wrote two extended sequences that were thematically linked to the Columbus sequence, but that I later discarded as intellectually interesting but emotionally dead. It took me several more years to find my way to the Nietzsche, Hiroshima, and Untitled sequences.
Seiferle: Many of these poems are taken from a historical record, for instance, the Hiroshima monologues, the Columbus series, even to some degree the “Untitled Series” which uses the texts of various early 20th-century artists. Only the Nietzsche series, taken as it is from the writings of a well-known philosopher, departs from this model. How did you choose these particular subjects and have you written or propose to write other series with the same approach?
Barnstone: The sequences that I discarded were more closely linked than the Nietzsche series to the Columbus sequence thematically: each one was about a different sort of voyage into the unknown and unseen worlds. The three of them together made a terrific dialectical meditation. In the end, however, they felt academic to me. I wanted to write serious poetry that has emotional intensity, and that meant that I had to accept the same sort of fragmented, or crystalline structure, that is at the heart of all modern lyric epics. The Hiroshima monologues and the Columbus series spoke to me because the source documents chose me emotionally. The same is true of Nietzsche and the esthetic documents that fit into the Untitled series. Here, then, is the limitation to my project: I had hoped to choose and control and build a self-consistent architecture, but in order for them to be emotionally alive I found I had to allow the texts to choose me, and to build themselves through me.
***** Still, I created the Untitled sequence, along with a series of prose manifestoes, as an attempt to apply putty to the gaps. The Untitled sequence masquerades as parts of a book (dedication, table of contents, author’s note), while meditating upon the techniques and esthetic issues of the “readymade.” The individual poems rebut other sequences, echo and argue with the manifestoes, and thus perhaps find the essence that joins together these diverse texts: an unusual technique of composition, and the attempt to make the dead walk and breathe and feel in these lines. Perhaps this is not enough to make the cracks and fissures disappear, but a certain amount of disorder actually makes order more interesting. As Nathanael West wrote in Miss Lonelyhearts, “Man has a tropism for order. Keys in one pocket, change in another. Mandolins are tuned G D A E. The physical world has a tropism for disorder, entropy. Man against nature... the battle of the centuries. Keys yearn to mix with change. Mandolins strive to get out of tune. Every order has within it the germ of destruction. All order is doomed, yet the battle is worthwhile.”
Seiferle: Why the distinction between modernist and postmodernist? For instance, in many respects, the poems seem to me to be particularly postmodern in their deconstruction of original texts, in their willingness to remove what is already written from its original context and appropriate it to another context. When Picasso turned the bicycle seat and handlebars into the head of a bull, the bicycle seat and handlebars were readymade objects, that is, as your poem imagines, anyone could come along and reclaim, out of his work of art, those ordinary objects of bicycle seat and handlebars. Is it similarly possible to retrieve Nietzsche or Columbus from your poems?
Barnstone: You are entirely correct in that part of what I’m doing is to re-contextualize texts, in the same way that Marcel Duchamp re-contextualized a urinal by submitting it to the New York Society of Independent Artists Exhibit of 1917. Certainly this is a postmodern technique, but like almost all postmodern techniques, it is merely an extension of the avant-garde practices of the modernists. The lie in the word postmodern is the prefix “post.” On the other hand, I would have to say that my technique more accurately described is one of appropriating but also transforming texts. I am leery of the sort of art in which an artist, for example, becomes famous because he signs his name on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I’m not interested in mere trickery.
***** As to whether the reader will find it possible to retrieve Nietzsche or Columbus from my poems, all I can say is that the body will have been twisted and transmuted by its long immersion in the sea-bed of the imagination-- these are jewels that were his eyes. As I have Nietzsche say in “Psalm of the Mirrors”: “Moral: I am distorted inside this glass.” The majority of the poems in the manuscript are deeply transformed and reimagined. If readers try to find the sources of "Vision of Milk," "The Grapevine," "Nightmare," "Psalm of the Mirrors," and other poems they may be frustrated, because the dramatic situations are my invention, and, in many cases, the language is mine as well. On the other hand, there are several poems in each sequence in which I explicitly strived to stay as close as possible to the original. Here, for example, are excerpts from the account in Columbus’s log of the sinking of the Santa Maria:
After eliminating most of the log entry as extraneous to the dramatic purpose of the poem, I worked from the language and imagery of Columbus, casting it into rhyming iambic tetrameter quatrains, and forming it into a sonnet.By disciplining myself to keep each log entry within the limitations of a shortened (4-beat) rhyming sonnet, I hoped to transform and thus in some sense “own” the material. As can be seen by comparing the poem with the original text, the language is a combination of Columbus’s and my own. In fact, I took it is a matter of pride to stick as close as possible to Columbus’s language, while still injecting my own sense of dramatic pacing, and of recurrent iconography (the watery voyage of the dream is an image that I threaded throughout the series). The sonnet form was something of a Declaration of Independence for me: it stated to the reader that I was the author of this text, not Columbus. On the other hand, in doing so I felt that it obstreperously insisted upon the craft of the poems, whereas part of what I had fallen in love with in the original was the simplicity and directness of the log entries. The first solution I came up with was relatively simple: I converted each couplet of the sonnet into a single line. In this way, I hoped to disguise the sonnet as a seven-line metrical poem with internal rhymes. Later, however, I decided to disguise the craft even more, to convert end-rhymes into internal rhymes, and to re-present the poems as if they were free verse:
Seiferle:Does this method create a certain anxiety about authorship? Are you in a sense, perhaps, merely the co-author or editor of these texts?
Barnstone: The short answer to this question is, yes. There is great anxiety of authorship in this process, because even after modernism and Pop Art we continue to define the authority of the text in terms of the Walter Benjamin theory of art as a crafted product of the individual genius revealing its own unique aura (as articulated in his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”). The issues here are the same as those that greeted the new art form of photography early in the century: how can photography be art, when the genius of the artist lies not in painting a surface upon emptiness but in pointing a machine at the world’s chaos of images and capturing a still moment in a silver spell within the frame? How can a poem like T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” be a poem, when he didn’t write every word in the poem, but instead blended his words with quotes from wildly diverse sources, blending the words of others into his own collage-text? We believe that the art object loses value when it is duplicated, which is why printmakers must sell their work for less than painters sell theirs. Printmakers are taught that the ability to make multiple indistinguishable copies of their art is the height of professionalism, but this very ethic is what diminishes the perceived esthetic value as well as the actual market value of their work. Those printmakers who declare independence from the traditions of their craft and make each print somewhat different from every other are actually making their work more valuable by breaking the rules of their craft.
***** Here’s what I say in one of the manifestoes in the book: “There was a printmaker who inked a corpse and ran it through his machine. He wanted to achieve the ultimate mimesis, the ultimate fidelity to the dead man, and yet it was also a desecration of him. So William Blake advises us to run our cart and horse over the bones of the dead. Blake also speaks of an infernal manual for printmakers written in living rock with corroding fires, that tells how to etch by the infernal method, with corrosives which melt apparent surfaces away, and display the infinite which was hid. By corroding the bodytext, we might cleanse the doors of perception, and by rearranging the bones—the surreal method celebrated by Ginsberg—make incarnate gaps in time and space, trap the archangel of the soul between two visual images, joining the elemental verbs and setting the noun and dash of consciousness together jumping with sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus. As an infernal printmaker, I want to eat the dead, but also to digest them, to infuse randomness and chaos into the writing process, but also to master that chaos, not to submit to it. I built my monster from the limbs of dead men, but if I neglect to infuse it with my own electricity, it won’t stand up and walk.”
***** Like a printmaker who refuses to truly duplicate an original template, in each of these series I have given myself wide latitude to transform and betray the “original” authors and texts. In fact, the poems that I am most uncomfortable with are the ones that are closest to the originals, and for this reason I continue to submit the pieces to process after process until they take on a life of their own. In the Hiroshima series, for example, at first I condensed, reworded at times, and arranged the pieces, but added relatively little of my own voice, feeling that what I wished to do was to create a cycle of poems narrating warring points of view on this human tragedy, but to remove myself from the process as much as possible. If in the other sequences I distrusted readymades that too easily seemed “ready,” preferring to add my own making and craft, in many of these poems I found myself distrusting the readymades that felt too made-- crafted and estheticized. The texts were so intrinsically powerful, so imbued with a radiation charge of the appalling, that I wanted to be clear glass onto their witnessing, to condense a page to a line, perhaps, to arrange and to choose, but to add very few of my own words. Perhaps Nietzsche could be my Nietzsche because the mix of skepticism and ecstasy that I respond to in him is as essentially human as adolescence. But Hiroshima was not the banality of evil, not the ordinariness of violence, but the entrance of sublime terror into what was already a total war against the world’s civilians. Like everyone else on the planet I live in the shadow of the Bomb, but these poems didn’t feel right when I began forming them into my Hiroshima.
***** In fact the poems began to die. I gave up the project in self-disgust. I could understand why Adorno observed that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. Perhaps there could be no poetry after Hiroshima. I found these voices so personally devastating, so emotionally shocking as to leave me paralyzed before them. They were nitroglycerine; I was afraid to touch them. Yet the voices continued to clamor about what they had seen. In the end I decided to simply shut up and get out of the way and let them speak. Still, the desire not to be merely the co-author or editor of these poems is strong, and therefore I am still playing with the idea of linking these dramatic monologues together into a longer polyphonous meta-poem that uses multiple historically-derived voices speaking about the moment of the blast and the time after to create something like a dialectical or perspectivist essay in voices about the irresolvable moral issues at the heart of this disaster. Therefore also, I applied to the Hiroshima monologues a similar discipline to the one I applied to the log of Columbus, forming them into rhyming or off-rhyming iambic quatrains. I feel that my job here is to be a historian in verse, and to try to tackle this difficult legacy with accuracy and complexity, and with a poetic craft that presents the past in a condensed, clear and dramatic form.
Seiferle: Yet I find this appropriation, consuming the works of others, one of the most troubling aspects of your project. Why, for instance, would one want any monster made of dead men’s limbs to rise up and walk? What are your concerns about the qualities of voice in the resulting poems? For instance, should Columbus sound quite different than Nietzsche? Do you think, perhaps that processing all of these very different texts by very different writers through single sensibility, i.e., your perception of what constitutes “their figurative and argumentative core,” grants the results a certain inevitable verisimilitude? Is the process truly random or just the deconstruction of texts to become material for a particular late 20th-century poetic sensibility?
Barnstone: I don’t think that the process is truly random. It is an application of an ordering sensibility to a delimited set of variables. I do think that each series sounds quite different from every other, and this is in part because of the difference between the source-texts, but even more because of the substantial differences in the processes each series underwent. The Columbus series, for example, is written in tetrameter sonnets, the Hiroshima series in metrical quatrains; the rest are free verse. You must filter everything through yourself, Walt Whitman advises his readers, and so perhaps by filtering such diverse texts through myself I might have imparted an overriding sensibility to these four series. I hope so.
Seiferle: One of the trends I’ve noted in contemporary poetry is the willingness to write from the viewpoint of a well-known writer, or philosopher. For instance, Edward Hirsch’s poems written from the viewpoint of great philosophers, poets, etc., or Linda Bierds’ poems as if from viewpoint of Tolstoi, etc., or Lucy Brock-Briodo writing as if she were Dickinson. Is this perhaps due to a desire for reflected glory? Has our own poetic practice so eschewed the sublime, forfeiting claim to anything of greater significance than the self, that we can only obtain it by somehow borrowing the work of another age, of writers who were capable of the sublime, the universal, and placing it in a context that is random, chaotic, and accidental, just so the contemporary poet can’t lay claim to the material as its maker?
Barnstone: My book of “regular” poetry, Impure, contains a certain number of poems in the first person, in which I dramatize my own experiences and thoughts. I worry, however, about the limitations of the current, dominant confessional mode of poetry, whether, as you say, we forfeit claim to anything of greater significance than the self by overreliance on this mode. And yes, perhaps that’s why I very much like the fact that the readymade sequences tackle serious subject matter that transcends the merely personal. The first-person “overheard” lyric is an extraordinarily successful poetic genre, but it can also be a trap. I think it is very informative that Ezra Pound’s early work takes a form of “personae,” masks, dramatic monologues in which he speaks first person in the voices of others. It is a technique that the contemporary poet Ai uses to devastating effect. By transcending the self and speaking from the point of view of others, the intense emotional effect of the confessional lyric can be duplicated, but the poem can be used to address larger historical and philosophical concerns than usually fit within the constraints of confessional poetry.
***** The hegemony of confessional poetry creates certain unexamined biases in the poetry readership. Because confessional poetry works best when narrated by an apparently “authentic” voice, the poet is only given the authority to filter the self through the self, and religious, historical and spiritual issues typically enter the poem only insofar as they directly affect the poet. From this diminished practice, it would be impossible to expect a poetry of “greater significance than the self.” Because of the increasing dominance of fiction in the 19th century and film in the 20th century as the primary carriers of narrative, poetry has shrunk in on itself, and today most poets cannot even conceive of themselves as the carriers of history, philosophy, fantasy and storytelling for their culture. The fiction writer or filmmaker who lays claim to this material as its maker is not doubted, because in recent centuries that arena has been conceded to them by the poets, who fear that they cannot compete with these more flashy media, and so retreat into the self or into poetry focused obsessively on the reflection of its own process of meaning-making. I have a larger vision of what poetry can do. Almost certainly, I am not the poet who can succeed in this, but I do believe that we should measure ourselves as poets against Homer, Dante, Virgil, Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Milton, that we should hold our slim volumes of lyric verse up against the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Tale of the Heike, and the Persian Epic of the Kings, and we should ask ourselves why we have given up the world for the self, and whether there is any way that we can take it back.
Seiferle: How has your sense of poetic practice been informed by this process and the involvement with these different original texts?
Barnstone: It’s easy enough for a reasonably talented writer who is disciplined and obsessive enough to become a machine for producing the publishable poem: lyric after lyric, most of them first person, with a few narrative or thematic turns, with some sort of twist at the end that ties the poem up in a nice knot; or the other sort of publishable poem, the standard avant-garde lyric that gestures towards the type described above, but that gets its energy by denying narrative and thematic unity and closure. Writers are never happier than when they are writing, and so it is tempting to continue to do what they do well and what they know how to do. But I do believe that writers need to continue to innovate and change from book to book, from decade to decade, in building their life work. I am not a very good follower, and so I will continue to write both mainstream and avant-garde poetry simultaneously, though I expect that I will send them to publishers segregated into different manuscripts. This project has given me greater confidence to think outside the envelope, to question the dominant paradigms of today’s practice (not merely to create a reactive practice but to see what other sorts of cultural pleasures poetry can achieve when not written in a received mode).
***** Thomas Love Peacock, a close friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley, wrote a humorously devastating attack on poetry in his 1820 essay “The Four Ages of Poetry.” Peacock’s hyperbolic and exaggerated utilitarianism was intended to take the Romantic poets to task for their extreme faith in the power of art. He wrote: “Poetry was the mental rattle that awakened the attention of intellect in the infancy of civil society: but for the maturity of mind to make a serious business of the playthings of its childhood, is as absurd as for a full-grown man to rub his gums with coral, and cry to be charmed to sleep by the jingle of silver bells.” Shelley’s “Defense of Poetry,” written partially in response to Peacock, asserts that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. “Look at/what passes for the new,” William Carlos Williams famously writes. “You will not find it there but in/despised poems./It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” I think that the work of poetry can be important, and that each poet needs to find his or her own way to make it so. The dialectical essays in verse that Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass write show that modern lyrical poetry can be a medium for serious argumentation, that it can transcend mere epiphany. The great gift that the readymade process has given me is that it has opened my personal field of poetry to something worth arguing about, allowing me to say with Williams, “My heart rouses/thinking to bring you news/of something/that concerns you/and concerns many men.”