Ben Mazer Interviewed by Robert Archambeau
[Note: This interview will appear as the Afterword in Ben Mazer's new collection of poems The Glass Piano, forthcoming from MadHat Press on November 1.]
|THE AMAZING MAZER, ALWAYS AN EYEWEAR FAVOURITE|
RA: I'd like to begin with process. Often, poets have spoken of their process as one or another kind of mixture of deliberation and intuition—whether they call the intuitive element "the muses" or (in Jack Spicer's case) a radio transmission from Mars. How does a poem begin for you, and what happens once you have the initial impulse?
BM: Jack Spicer was deeply in love with the relatively unknown but deeply brilliant poet Landis Everson, who in turn, late in his life, fell deeply in love with me, so I not only know all of the Spicer literature, but have heard many intimate, off the record stories of Jack's thinking about poetry, and his methods of composition. Like many of the best poets, he was possessed by words, and his poems came to him as voices that he heard and recorded without any other guidance than long, elaborate and strenuous preparations for being able to write poems—when they came into his head—which must have acted as a kind of net or formal conception already deeply ingrained in his consciousness by the time he was struck by inspiration, instinct, and intuition—what he referred to as transmissions from Mars—so that the poems were deeply guided by a well-prepared consciousness, with its fully digested lore and ideas, and personal feelings concomitant with his own rather compendious knowledge in many intellectual areas, such as philosophy, as well as the knowledge that comes with personal experience, while at the same time being completely intuitive and unexpected events of inspiration. I think most poets of a high calibre work in this way to some degree or other—typically hearing first lines of poems simply come into their head, sometimes even as heard voices, successively followed by a flow of words, lines, and passages that come as naturally as leaves to a tree, and are imbued with what Eliot called the auditory imagination, a deeper level of meaning that is not contained in the literal meaning of the words, but—on another level—in the sounds of the words, their origins and accumulated meanings and resonances, and their emotional suggestivity, until the poem peters out, completes itself, and the poet knows it. Sometimes the poet goes on too long—maybe just a line or two beyond the point where the genuine inspiration ends—but the poet is quick to spot this dead wood and snip it off to give the poem the wholeness and unity that it must have. There are many descriptions—throughout the history of poetry—of poets, many of them of the greatest stature—creating poetry in exactly this way.
I find that this is precisely the way I work when I am writing my best poems—that they are miracles of inspiration and intuition, and typically begin with a first line simply coming into my head—something like hearing a voice that fully forms itself without my interference—and then followed by another, and another, and so forth. I do, and I imagine other poets do this also, to a certain extent, realizing what the meaning of the inspiration is, even if only intuitively, tend to offer it a little guidance through an act of intense concentration on where I know the poem must lead, or upon some symbolic image or emotion (what Eliot called significant emotion), which I know instinctively to be the heart of the poem, and which I know must be unravelled to its end, even if I don't quite, at least consciously, know what that end is. I am there to find out what the end is, and I must seek the path the poem beckons me down in order to find out. This does occasionally demand a tiny bit of interference on my part: a search for the right word to convey what I feel to be the object of my attention; an intensified focus—more meditative and open than merely conscious—on the object of attention; a determination to get some nuance of what I discover to be the meaning or quality of the emotional experience of the poem into the poem. But I possess a well prepared machine or instrument, and largely when real inspiration hits there is very little or often no need whatsoever for interference on my part. The best poems simply write themselves, with a minimum of this sort of interference, and I imagine many people would be surprised to learn that internal rhyme, end rhyme, and meter come to me without conscious thought or guidance of any kind on my part—they are simply what the poem itself wants to say; and I am often surprised myself to discover afterwards how many connections and meanings and levels of meaning a poem which the unconscious created can possess due to what is essentially the gift of a possession of a naturally musical and meaningful consciousness which has paid its dues in experience and preparation. The most exciting poems of all are those in which I am swept up entirely by a cascading ocean of words which seem punched through with an infinite number of levels of meaning, all deeply felt in the act of composition, and which are above all deeply resonant musical conveyances of significant emotion. My long poem "Divine Rights" (in my collection Poems) is an example of this. Another is a poem from the same collection, "The Double".
To put it an entirely other way: the advanced poet is likely to know exactly what he is doing, and is unlikely to make a mistake, even when writing without thought, and by intuition. He is like a jazz musician in that he either is on target and gets it right the first time, or else he flubs it, in which case he may wish to simply scrap the entire take as not up to snuff. Revision is largely, for me, a matter of cutting a line, finding a single better word (sound being the operative principle as much as the literal level of meaning), scrapping a weakening stanza, or some such minor alteration. Consider the fact that revision is as much an improvisatory act as the original act of composition, and depends just as much on inspiration and intuition. When the poet is at the height of his powers, revision is often if not generally entirely unnecessary.
RA: On the question of revision—you've lavished considerable attention on the poetry of John Crowe Ransom, even editing his collected poems in an edition that includes all of the revisions he made over time. For you, is revision something that comes immediately after composition? Ransom would revisit old poems many years later, often changing them significantly. Is that something you've been tempted to do?
BM: I've never been tempted into the kind of forays into compulsive, perpetual revision that absorbed Ransom late in life, though who is to say what devil might get into me when I reach those later years. No, generally revision is as I've described in my answer to the first question: it is a very minor affair, and generally does come almost immediately after composition, if at all. When I write poems I have a great conviction about them when I feel I am doing it correctly (that is, in the way that suits me, and suits the object of my mental attentions), and generally I tend to feel I have got it right the first time. If one is going to get it right at all, why not be done with it at the first stroke of the anvil. When I am writing I have that kind of control over my instrument, again like a jazz musician who has trained himself in the art of improvisation and concentration. When I am on, I am on, and I know it, and I know that I can do anything that the poem wants me to do. The poems that don't work out, the false starts, and half-successful attempts, I simply toss into the dustbin. It is easy to see in those poems that the poetry was not really genuine. I try to explain this to people: if, when it comes, it is genuine poetry, it is not going to need to be altered. It is just the case that I have prepared my instrument particularly well and thoroughly. Others may need to proceed more slowly, more cautiously, and refine over time; that is not my method. If I make a mistake, I feel I may as well give up for the day. I have a great trust in the powers of the unconscious to present one with gifts of treasure in the realm of significant utterance, even if that utterance is not immediately accessible to total comprehension. Eliot famously told Richards that he felt his most successful poems were those which elicited the most various and unexpected array of interpretations, strange and foreign to the poet's own understanding of his poem. This is a sign of the mysteries. It is the poem that rules and has authority over the poet, and not the other way around. The poet is the conduit for the poem. Otherwise we would just be writing what we already know. And even when we have a reason to write what we already know, sometimes especially when we have a reason to write what we already know, it is possible to get it right the first time, and still for the poem to be imbued with unexpected and rich meanings that the poet was not fully conscious of during the act of composition, though he is likely to notice them later. It is all a matter of the poet's capacity for concentration, and of his responsiveness to the powers of the unconscious mind.
Revision? Sometimes I'll work on a poem for several days in a row, as I did when I wrote the 41 sonnets in "The King" (New Poems); here's a case where composition itself is an act of revision through a process of accumulation. All composition is revision, just as all revision is composition.
RA: What can you tell us about the ways you prepare yourself to receive the poems when they come? To steal a phrase from Yeats, what is your singing school?
BM: Three things. One, about thirty years of continuous reading in every area of literature, with a continuous application to poetry and the criticism of poetry, and foraging forays into philosophy, history, anthropology, psychology, popular culture, family lore, love itself, and other subjects as well. Two, many years of hard labour scanning meters and cadences and other technical minutia of the most accomplished verse one can find, coupled with unceasing attempts to master the art of writing rhymed and metrical verse until it becomes effortless and as natural as breathing, so that one can break from or depart from or transmogrify these things at will or whim with authority, control and meaning. Three, intensive exercises in the arts of memory and concentration, with particular attention to the knack of holding an emotional memory steady in the mind's eye. There is also the fact of one's background. I was particularly lucky in this, in that I was surrounded by good books and a family that paid close attention to matters of aesthetic philosophy (whether they were aware of this or not!). But honestly, I think at root that it is an innate predisposition to deep reflection that one is born with, or in some cases scared or scarred into. My "singing school" is something like an adherence and receptivity to the ways and purposes of a controlling god. My source is divinity. Or perhaps it is the art of being transfixed to the point of solipsism. But with the object of focus the known world. There is more, but I can't recall what it was. I was six years old. I saw them through the window. The guys in the blue coats fired on the guys in the red coats, and then they all ran away.
RA: We've been talking about process, now I wonder if we can relate it to form. I know you have an affection for rhyme: one of the pleasures of visiting the Boston area is hearing you and Philip Nikolayev improvising rhymes together as you walk the little streets around Harvard Square. But rhyme in your work tends to be intermittent rather than regular, and you've never been affiliated with New Formalism. What attracts you about rhyme, and what role does it play in your poetry? Also, what can you tell us about other unusual features of your poetry—the sometimes irregular syntax, the deliberate use of British spellings, the way a sentence can sometimes meander. The latter feature accounts, I think, for the comparisons sometimes drawn with John Ashbery, although I know you don't see him as a major influence.
BM: I am amused and intrigued by rhyme, especially intricacies such as partial or near rhyme, assonance, and internal rhyme, which my work naturally seems to gravitate towards. It is quite unconscious, and comes from years of reading and hearing the sounds of poems and language in my head. I rarely set out to write a rhymed poem—though sometimes I do, with the purpose of attaining a sort of formal integrity that might aptly suit my subject matter when my subject matter is largely tonal: the rhymes, both internal and at line ends, come quite naturally and unconsciously, without my thinking about them. I'm heavily schooled in blank verse, Marlowe, and so forth, so—as in Lowell's late sonnets—you get a varied mixture of real rhyme, heavy rhyme, sporadic rhyme, and blank verse punctuated by occasional rhyme. I like it! It rings the ear with emotion and pleasure when it hits home and has qualities. Sometimes it echoes a cadence I have heard somewhere that must be in the back (or at the tip?) of my mind. This can raise poetic ghosts, and induce resonances with emotional significance. And yes, Philip and I have had many a long session of improvising perfectly rhymed sonnets for sheer pleasure's sake—it's sort of a running theme with us. Again, it all comes from taking apart poems for years as you would take apart a radio and put it back together again just to see how it worked: the lesson sticks with you. I played classical piano as a child, and jazz music growing up, so it is all music and indicative tonality to me. Sometimes when I listen to people talk all I hear is the rhyme; I must have a look on my face as though I'm in outer space. I wasn't aware that my poetry had irregular syntax in it—but I suppose that's because I'm forging an idiom that correlates directly with whatever it is I'm expressing, whatever perception or emotion (the two can be the same). It has struck me that my use of internal rhyme is quite innovative, in fact: something I wait for people to notice and gather in cafes to discuss. As to the syntax though, I have read far too much Hart Crane, and perhaps that has something to do with it, as well as my early obsession with Cubism, which breaks up the syntax of visual perception, color and shape. It is all emotionally correlative. I follow the thought, the emotion; what happens as a result to the language is my business, but not my business, if you see what I mean. The British spellings: my maternal grandmother was English, and I grew up on English literature as a child; I can't really say what attracts me to the British spellings; just the offbeat pleasure of it, I suppose. It's my nod or tip of the hat to English literature and culture; my turning away from the downgraded cultural atmosphere of our times. I also misspell words and have no wish to correct them! I feel I am stuck with the emotional and musical baggage of their peculiar semi-neological resonances, and can't betray them for a correct word. Joyce of course carried this to the extremes of obsession. Meandering: I suppose by that you mean largely tour de force enjambment, which has always struck me as the sign of genuine (the personally unique taking part in the universal) emotion in all the glory of its flux and flow: its stasis which has its simultaneous existence as well, as a rounded unity, or a pervasive extension, mirroring the nature of reality such as we come to know it in our more observant, less impinged upon moments. Lycidas is a famous example of how far you can take that (Ransom has a good essay on this in The World's Body); but of course it can always be pushed farther, and it is experience that does it. It's that contained flowing which is so universal, like the bounded and boundless sea, interminable rain, infinity without cessation (passion and reverence), one's movements through the world and through oneself, monumental archetypes of catastrophe and rebirth, the night. No, I don't see Ashbery as an influence at all. I like his stuff—it always amuses me, and I'm attracted to "The Skaters"—but it's not a model I would aspire to, or anything I would want to steal from for my own use. He's merely there, Ashbery. I drove by Sodus recently. I like that neck of the woods. Nice to think of young Ashbery emerging from such a place. Seriously, though, the comparisons with Ashbery drive me crazy. I see no resemblance whatsoever, other than some vague resonance of the Harvard outsider poetry tradition, which I, too, partook of. The parti-colored brick and cobblestone, and the grey sky over Mem Hall, kind of seep into you like damp weather in the autumn. Probably comes from a mutual love of French poetry and music, Apollinaire and Debussy and so forth, as well. And the historical moment (which I reject, in order to embrace). Someone said we are a late blooming generation. But whatever we are doing, it strikes me that we are making it new. The young crowd in ascendancy now has much to buck against. Why not simply follow one's own inspiration? And let the rest take care of itself. Oh, the syntax: it might come from layered and abrupt shifts in imagery and meaning. The cinematic quality of consciousness. I try to mirror my thought, or perhaps go further than that. A guy's alone. The skeleton of a horse is crossing an abandoned railway bridge. Everything in the world is in its place. But what is that but hunks of color: solipsism or divinity? Or both?
More about the syntax: Sometimes planes shoot off at oblique angles. Other planes shoot off at oblique angles from those planes, and others from those. This is the way the mind works: holding perception at a distance to the point of substitution. How else are we going to deal with the richness of our memories?
RA: It's interesting that you mention a "Harvard outsider tradition," since for most people the words "Harvard" and "insider" go together, like little cucumber sandwiches and summers in the Hamptons. What can you tell us about this tradition, and your relation to it?
BM: Poets are poets. You can't change them. They say nothing, stare into space, or talk like maniacs about incomprehensible complexities, and sometimes disappear for days on end without anyone ever finding out where they went. They procrastinate, and can't be made to do anything but read endless numbers of poetry books. They don't fit in socially at the Fly Club, they dress funny and don't know how to assert themselves, and are shunned by all but the strangest of social outsiders. This is as true at Harvard as any place, and probably even more true at a place like Harvard, where people are being groomed to be presidents and so forth. Practical concerns are not their forté. I'm third generation Harvard myself, but the Mazers were all Jewish (my grandfather Moses was class of '24, when there was still a quota and there were I think no more than 8 to a dozen Jews at Harvard at most). I got into Harvard through the back door, as it were, as a Special Student (an offbeat status which I share with Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Eugene O'Neill), and then only because Seamus Heaney and William Alfred (Robert Lowell's friend) wrote letters on my behalf. This was all contrived so that I could study with Seamus Heaney, but I took advantage of the situation and took courses with such excellent professors as Derek Pearsall (Chaucer), David Perkins (lyric poetry), Leo Damrosch (American poetry), and Donald Bacon (modernism), and was tutored privately by Bill Alfred. The literary studies at Harvard were brilliant at the time (many people were still alive who had known Eliot, Richards, etc.)—I don't know what they are now. I absorbed myself in them completely, and felt that I was entering a tradition. They were every last one of them outsiders: Tuckerman, Eliot, Frost, Stevens, Cummings, Wheelwright, Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, Dunstan Thompson, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery . . . They were spooky ghosts on the fringes of that cucumber sandwich crowd, and never the twain did meet. Few did well in their studies (Eliot was mediocre as an undergraduate), and many dropped out, or were thrown out. Delmore Schwartz surprisingly won the Boylston Prize for a brilliant philosophical essay in 1936. I've written about this before at length in Fulcrum (#5, 2006), where I think I summed up the situation of the outsider tradition pretty well, so perhaps it's best to wrap up this question with a passage quoted from my essay there:
"It is in fact precisely the poet, more than anyone, who has usually found himself to be problematic and institutionally marginal at Harvard, and who has typically had an unpredictable, unconventional relationship with the university. [. . .] By and large, the best of the Harvard poets have been far from either staid or academic. They have been poets, with all the wildness and sensitivity that that implies. What distinguishes them as Harvard poets or near Harvard poets—as often as anything—is a consciousness of the tribulations—fugitive, obscure and various—of those who have existed with them in a continuous tradition: not Harvard's, but poetry's."
RA: Finally, I wonder if you could say a little something about the place and meaning of poetry in the world. You've been bold enough to speak publicly about the future of poetry: what do you see for poetry when you look in your crystal ball?
BM: I discovered Rimbaud when I was 16. I had played hookey from school and taken the bus into Harvard Square. In the basement of a very filthy used bookstore, I found an old blue and grey Pelican paperback anthology of French poetry and slipped it unnoticed into my pocket. It was a very grey, foggy, and sort of misty or rainy day, typical New England, and on the bus ride back I happened to have my eye caught by this poet, Jean-Arthur Rimbaud, who had been about my age when he had written his poems. I began reading and was immediately transported into some realm that I had never experienced before, but which I had the sensation of having always known had existed. It seemed as if words were detached from time and space. I didn't know Rimbaud was a famous poet, and I thought that this was my own discovery entirely, something that no one else in the world knew about except me. Right then and there I recognized that this fellow was me, and had written exactly what I was trying to write. I became insatiably obsessed, and I think that right there that was some kind of beginning, or a further beginning built upon other pivotal reading experiences of childhood such as my discoveries of Lewis Carroll, Poe, the perfectly circular sentences of Raymond Chandler, and the clipped and projective syntax of Samuel Beckett, whose Waiting for Godot I had dipped into with a sense of wonder and discovery. Among poets, Rimbaud was my first true hero. I thought that I possessed an immense secret about an entirely unknown figure. Through me, I felt, this person was living again. Ah, the providential reader! Years later, when I discovered the Confessions of Verlaine on the interminable hold shelf of an antiquarian book store, a book that was never for sale, and which I wasn't even allowed to look at until the owner had left the shop for the day, and the girl behind the counter took pity on me, I almost died of grief when I read, only at the very end of the book, that Rimbaud had just come into Verlaine's life, the only mention of him in the book's very last sentence. Why couldn't the Confessions have gone on! I tried to trace Rimbaud's footsteps in the snow around Harvard Square—and almost succeeded!
I guess what I'm driving at is that poetry and poets are for poetry and poets, and only then for the rest of the world to catch up with, or be stirred by in some way that it can't quite fully comprehend. Poetry has an endless future, in a way encompassing the entire universe, but I think that the core of the thing, when you get right down to it, is that, aside from writing sheerly for his or her self, a loved one, a poet friend, or truth or God (however fictional the poet's means), the poet is really writing for the providential reader, that strange young person of the far distant future, who, with immensely empathic consciousness, will stumble across the stuff and say to himself, "This person is me."
Ben Mazer's collections of poems include Poems (2010), January 2008 (2010), New Poems (2013), and The Glass Piano, forthcoming from MadHat Press in November. He is the editor of The Collected Poems of John Crowe Ransom (Un-Gyve Press, 2015), Hart Crane's The Bridge: The Uncollected Version (MadHat Press, 2015), Selected Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman (Harvard University Press, 2010), and Landis Everson's Everything Preserved: Poems 1955-2005 (Graywolf Press, 2006). He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and is the editor of The Battersea Review.
Robert Archambeau is a poet and critic whose books include the poetry collections Laureates and Heretics and The Kafka Sutra and the critical studies Laureates and Heretics and The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World, among others. He is professor of English at Lake Forest College.