Poetry at the Threshold

Peter Gizzi on lyric selfhood and the perils of singing.
By Peter Gizzi Interviewed by Ben Lerner (Peter Gizzi and Ben Lerner)

Peter Gizzi’s poetry at once captures the flattening, the deadening, and the standardization of our televisual culture (“This is the snow channel / and it’s snowing”) and wakes us up, makes us “silly with clarity.” Through his poetry we become almost painfully attuned to the present, powerless to resist his injunction: “Be everywhere alive.” He can name with precision our medicated, mediated insensibility (consider the palindromic title of his earlier book Lonely Tylenol, a phrase condemned to eternally pace the room of itself), and then startle us out of anesthesia with the beauty of his singing.

Gizzi’s poems remind me that there is a tension at the heart of song, which has the power both to lull and to intensify, as do certain drugs. Scientists (and marketers) speak respectively of an “absolute threshold,” the lowest level at which a stimulus can be detected, and a “terminal threshold,” the maximum level at which we can experience sensation. Gizzi can move from the ghostly, flickering edge of perceptibility to focused intensity at disorienting, Dickinsonian speed. The nerves “sing, blaze, and flame their circuit.”

Threshold Songs, Gizzi’s fifth book, is occasioned by profound personal losses, and tracks the way absences become presences: “now that you’re here / and also gone / I am just learning / that threshold.” Indeed, the speaker in his poems is often posthumous, on the other side, even though the voice is coming to us live, lending the work an uncannily simultaneous sense of immediacy and delay: “The shadow cast a singer.”

This book offers no easy consolations, but it insists that—is an example of how—a poet’s total, tonal attention can disclose orders of sensation and meaning that, far from being palliative, give us the courage not just to face the day, as the saying goes, but to find “the twinge inside this fabulous cerulean.” “Don’t back away,” Gizzi writes in “Tiny Blast”: “Turtle into it / with your little force.” 

Each “/” I’m deploying to quote Gizzi’s poetry is a visual reminder of the deep identity of poetry and threshold, a reminder that the right margin, the line break, establishes a little limit at which we hesitate, then cross. It’s the thresholds that make the song, that bind thinking and feeling so that patterns of sense and sound emerge. Gizzi’s beautiful lines are full of deft archival allusion, and his influences range from Simonides to Schuyler, but those voices, those prosodies, aren’t ever decorative; Gizzi is gathering from the air a live tradition. Ultimately, the best account of what it’s like to read these poems is in these poems, as they enact, line by line, the animation they describe:

When a thought’s thingness
begins to move, to become
unmoored and you ride
the current with your head,
feel yourself lift off like
birdsong caught in the inner ear
even the curious seem animated
in their dusty shelves—
the song is alive.
That part of tradition.

Ben Lerner: In many of your “threshold songs,” you sing your ambivalence about singing. The book opens with the lines: 

There is a spike
in the air
a distant thrum
you call singing

I’m interested in that “you”—it can be read as saying: “You call it singing, not me.” Or they are songs in which the singer has been abstracted: “A bright patch over the roof / on the jobsite singing itself.” Or there is the fear of singing: “For why am I afraid to sing / the fundamental shape of awe.” Can we start with my reading that question back to you: why might a poet writing now be afraid to sing?

Peter Gizzi: It might be useful to begin with Whitman’s famous phrase “I contain multitudes” to consider the “you” in poetry and in my work. I like to imagine that “you” contains multitudes. There is, of course, the apostrophe, to the beloved, to the things of the world, or to an abstract quality or idea. But there’s also the you that speaks back to the poem, to the reader, to myself—“you” singular and “you” plural. The personal impersonal, the “you” speaking to “you,” a figure of besidedness like Hawthorne’s “Wakefield.” To embrace the amplification of self by standing next to oneself, outside of one’s life, to look at one’s self in and through the world—a form of discovery within the baffles of pronominal reality.

In my work I’m interested in this form of “vamping,” or “throwing” of the voice and placing it beside the speaker, or even pitched (this is so effective in Whitman and Dickinson) on the “otherside of the river,” speaking—or singing!—back to me in time, to the beloved, to the reader, to imagine the “you” speaking back to me when I am no longer here to read it. The last lines of the last poem in my new book are my way of thinking through this debt of address:

Whose book lying
on that table?
And where does
the voice
come from?
What life
was attached
to its lift,
to its feint,
its gift of sight.
To understand
oneself. With-
out oneself.
How to live.
What to do.

Singing is a perilous business. What does it mean to be next to oneself, seeing and/or singing one’s self in time as a rhetorical figure, disembodied and refigured as an embodied line of verse? To be spoken not just in the act of writing, but to be spoken and present and remain intimately embodied in some posthumous time as well—to accept this haunted occupation of poetry? I think of this vamping or throwing of the voice as a kind of homespun amerikun version of the aorist tense—a sonic blurring in time. It’s exhausting and sometimes overwhelming to give oneself over to the pressures and responsibilities and the real depths of writing and reading, and to employ language as an instrument that might give some form of relief to this otherwise dark process of time and its passage, in an historical sense but also within one’s own body.

Then “why am I afraid to sing,” you ask? Madness? Overindulgence? Failure? I accept all three of those conditions, and am willing to let my line seem ungainly or misshapen in order to refigure my voice so as to open a threshold to other orders of sense or reality. Simply, life is strange (at least for me) and a life in poetry is strange and gets stranger as one journeys further into it—and as my ambition for modes of expression grows, so does my humility and doubt. I want to insist on my own asymmetrical and restless and fallible imagination, and go further into it to embrace mystery as a useful mode of research. I think that one essential preoccupation of poetry is to forge its own terms, even if these terms may at times be seen as absurd, odd, or obsolete.

BL: In the last half century or so, many poets and critics have challenged “singing”—challenged the lyric as a genre—for its supposed turning away from the social and its systems in order to focus on individual expression. But, as in the lines you quote above, your songs are consistently concerned with the inseparability of the poet from a transpersonal history (“And where does / the voice / come from”)—and concerned with how the poet’s implication in that history raises what are fundamentally political questions (“How to live. / What to do.”). This poem’s concluding questions are complicated, however, both by their being a citation (the title of a Stevens poem) and by punctuation: there are no question marks, no expectation of response. 

PG: As Ted Berrigan said, “I write the old-fashioned way, one word after another” or, to quote Pound, “put on a timely vigour.” As long as there is soldiery, there will be poets: “I sing of arms and the man,” Virgil begins the tale of the West; sadly, the relation between war and song is a venerable tradition. I own it. There is no easy “app” to the muses. I suspected that your original question about the “perils of singing” was connected to the many discussions, debates, and attacks on the lyric as a substantial form of thinking (I almost wrote “thinging”). Why should I apologize for, or give up on, one of the most flexible and dynamic forms of poetry? So I can download my work? I mean, what do they call the guy who graduates last in his class at a fancy med school? Doctor. It’s scary. But it’s the same for poetic practice. And as is the case with all disciplines, it’s always a question of ambition, of how well it’s done, right? Like every good poet before me, I accept my responsibility to my vocation.

Let me offer a positive counterweight to the lasting, deadening effects and dreary afterlife of Robert Lowell’s admonitory “the raw and the cooked” dichotomy, by relating one of my favorite moments in my early life as a poet. In the late 1980s I went to James Schuyler’s first-ever public reading (he was well into his 60s) at the DIA Foundation in SoHo. The room was packed and overcrowded with poets, painters, editors, composers, and musicians from every possible aesthetic position—that is to say, there were uptown poets and downtown poets, abstract painters and figural painters, editors of major commercial presses and editors of little magazines, etc. It was inspiring. Everyone in that room, filled with anticipation and excitement, had come to hear this poet read his achieved, astonishing, and singular work. It spoke across “positions” and offered a complicated grammar, field of reference, and form. Another way to say it is: Schuyler’s poetry (which only gets more powerful over the intervening years) actually has something to say, and he found a rich and clear way to say it. Now, one can learn craft, but not the rest of it. Either you have something real to say in an original way, or you don’t. At least, that’s the dream. Good luck to all of us.

I prefer to free-fall into the fathomless blank space between things, discourses, peoples, histories, the mapless territory of my illegible interiority, and try to give it a voice, to simply open up to it.

What does it mean to wait for a song
to sit and wait for a story?
For want of a sound to call my own
coming in over the barricades,
to collect rubble at the perimeter
hoping to build a house, part snow, part victory,
ice and sun balancing the untrained shafts,
part sheet music, part dust, sings often—
The parts open, flake, break open, let go.

I have always subscribed to the author function, the “death of the author” aside, or even weirdly imagined my voice as already posthumous during the act of composition.

I am interested in states of consciousness and the discovery of selfhood, i.e., who Peter Gizzi might be or might have been, through the baffles of tradition. I work from an understanding that my voice is a conceptual and a made thing; it’s built from both my autobiography and my bibliography. One’s interiority is discovered through language usage, i.e., syntax. My previous two books (Some Values of Landscape and Weather and The Outernationale) were partially affected by a decade of the Bush Doctrine and the shaping of our frightening political reality as well as the reality of my imagination. Threshold Songs is more private, but it is no less bent and refracted through the degraded languages that come at me from all the present media and the outrageous political theater that informs public life.

But I don’t want my work to be merely manipulated or bent, or to parrot the news and its hangovers (same for poetry wars too) or the dehumanizing financialization of the world (word) and simply “manage” all that—sure, syntax connects me to all these degraded definitions of the human, it is unavoidable, but syntax also connects me to the beloved, to other languages and marvels, other art forms, other heights of the imagination, and I need and want to follow the cathexis to that too, or fight to stay open to an evolutionary consciousness and/or love. I believe William James, who is said to have written: “The world is made of consciousness as well as atoms. . . .” After all, we are all subject to syntax, the transcultural truisms seemingly behind the structures and rules that govern meaning, but I refuse to let my imagination, my discovery of selfhood, be merely governed and managed by corporations and the politics they produce: “To Times-Roman I give my stammer, my sullenness, my new world violence, form and all that, forms, and all that paper, gusts. . . .

The recent losses of my mother, my brother the poet Michael Gizzi, and a dear dear friend, the artist Robert Seydel, have driven me further inside; it’s as if I moved the lens from the last two books from the outer world to the inner world. It’s still me writing—i.e., it sounds like my work, and it’s still my voice and the attendant pressures on it, which give it purpose—but the aperture of the lens has changed. I just read these lines by Dickinson this morning: “Patience – has a quiet Outer / Patience – Look within – ” and this activity is not without a politics; the political is always implicit in real writing. It runs through the entire fabric of its meaning and sound. For instance, reading Ovid we are encountering what it was like to be a citizen in first-century Rome. Like it or not, those narratives arise from their social mores, that understanding of power, and its call to duty, even though we might be reading the story of a person becoming an animal or a lover disenchanting a suitor.

William Carlos Williams might have stated it best when he wrote in his introduction to The Wedge in 1944:

The war is the first and only thing in the world today.

The arts generally are not, nor is this writing a diversion from that for relief, a turning away. It is the war or part of it, merely a different sector of the field.

He reminds us that working in the American langwedge (or any national language) is already working within a vast political architecture and ideology. It’s the old linguistic joke: “What’s the difference between a language and a dialect? A language is a dialect that has an army and a navy.”

W.H. Auden’s famous statement that “[p]oetry makes nothing happen” always seemed an apt perspective from which to consider poetry’s inability to shape policy. But perhaps this is too narrow a read of this famous line. Perhaps poetry is effective precisely because it does in fact make “nothing” happen. I find it productive to set Auden’s phrase in relation to Emily Dickinson’s earlier and more haunted perspective in order to tease out the finer aspect of his thinking. Here is Dickinson again: “The human heart is told / Of nothing – / ‘Nothing’ is the force / That renovates the World.” It’s all too true. I feel that that “nothing” is generative and opens up a dynamic space. I am forever fascinated by the space or threshold between seeing and feeling, knowing and not-knowing, and how the fact, and the affirmation, of not-knowing, call it doubt and discovery, can be generative for the creation of meaning in poetry.

BL: This makes me think of the third section of your poem “Stung” from The Outernationale, in which, beyond the Shakespeare, I can hear a conflation of Whitman and Dickinson:

To be and not to understand.
To understand nothing
and be content
to watch light against
leaf-shadowed ground.
To accept the ground.
To go to it as a question.
To open up the day inside the day,
a bubble holding air
bending the vista to it.
To be inside this thing,
outside in the grass place,
out in the day
inside another thing.

Hawthorne, Whitman, Dickinson—on the one hand your work is clearly informed by a wide range of 20th century American poetries, but these 19th century New Englanders often seem to me to be your most immediate contemporaries: that you’ve caught the voices they’ve thrown, that you’re in some important sense coeval. 

PG: They have written the music of my childhood. It’s native. I grew up in New England, where so many of these writers lived, and as a child I would go to my local library (the Berkshire Athenaeum, a massive and beautiful old granite, H.H. Richardson-style building) and pass by what was then the Melville/Hawthorne Room, and they just seemed ever present to me, neighborly, part of the landscape and vistas, adjacent to everyday life. And so I am unwilling to allow a mere 150 years (blink) to make me think that these enduring authors are not my immediate contemporaries, along with yourself and other writers working today. Their work is still being discovered in our own moment, still becoming. They are still “active” in the field. Imagine reading Dickinson’s “Master Letters,” Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” a chapter from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Emerson’s “Circles,” or Hawthorne’s “Wakefield,” for example, in the pages of your favorite poetry journal or literary magazine. It would be entirely revelatory.

For me they offer an ever-present model of discovery, of pushing back, of social critique, of sheer beauty, of private reverie: a matter-of-fact way of dealing with death and finding an opening, of transformation; and the conscious assembling of a developing literature and a language. Each culture needs a soul inhabiting its language (for better or worse), and theirs is a positive model and imprint—an uncanny combination of a major, homespun, and haunted music always reaching for the “better angels of our nature” just behind the next glen, the next war, the next tree, an alleyway, an ocean vista, etc. Now, after the past 50 years or more of a highly nuanced and exploding field of academic debate and discourse in American literature, it gets a bit crowded with all the micro-positioning in poetryland. Simply, these writers offer me a way to find daylight and be free to discover the sound of my own work.

What I also take from their writing is the right to simply read the world in terms of my own instrument, my body and what it has taken in as sensory data—to be the ethnographer of my own nervous system. You said it yourself, in conversation recently after a reading, that we live in an uneasy time when we no longer share a stable belief system and have no trust in science. True enough. So I want at least not to discount what I have lived these past 50 years, here in this world. Godard said a while back that “now when we see a building on fire we no longer believe what we see if we are told otherwise.” I prefer to believe in and process and make meaning of what it is I actually “see” and have experienced, read, or imagined, no matter how fleeting, turbulent, or phantasmagorical.

That said, I have come up with some strange conceptions of time. Turning 50 (that cultural marker) made me consider other ways for me to picture time and try to give some measure of its dark process for myself, like some mad failed naturalist in the provinces. I thought, I now know what it means to have been here for 50 years (or so my body has shown me; we know that inside our heads it doesn’t quite work like that). Then I thought: what if I had a party and invited 49 other people who were all exactly 50 years old? If we added up the ages of the entire group, it would be 2,500 years. And if we could imagine lining up in some chronolinear fashion, it would only be 49 people between fifth-century Athens and myself. I mean, that’s a room of only 50 people who have all experienced 50 years, and we are back at the birth of Western thought. Fifty is not even a large party. But it gave me a way to picture how the birth of the human story in Western civilization is not that far away from me. Nevertheless these are things I think about. I know, I have too much time on my hands.

I accept Rimbaud’s terms in his famous lettre du voyant, that the poet must be a “seer” and embrace the “derangement of all the senses.” Poetry is a privilege and affords me a laboratory and a lens, no matter how bent, in which I have come to see and imagine not merely myself but a world. It has offered a strange and unique way to listen and learn, to “witness and adjust,” to give a sound to the invisible world animating my nerves—the vast spaces inside consciousness.

Is being invisible not
A kind of vow like poetry
burning the candle down.
Bring back the haloed
Music, retake the haughty
night sky. Its storied rays
its creak and croak
its raven’s wing tonality.

Originally Published: March 15th, 2012

Educated at New York University, Brown University, and the State University of New York at Buffalo, poet Peter Gizzi is the author of several collections of poetry, including Archeophonics (2016), finalist for the National Book Award; Threshold Songs (2011); The Outernationale (2007); and Artificial Heart (1998). Influenced by Ezra Pound, the Beat Poets,...

Born and raised in Topeka, Kansas, writer and editor Ben Lerner earned a BA in political science and an MFA in creative writing from Brown University. He has served as a Fulbright scholar in Madrid and as a Guggenheim fellow. In 2015 he was awarded a prestigious MacArthur fellowship.   Lerner is the...

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  1. March 17, 2012

    Very Insightful..!!

  2. March 19, 2012
     Matthew Buckley Smith

    Thanks for this interview. I heard Mr. Gizzi read years ago and recall his
    making an impression. I feel obliged to note that it was Virgil, not
    Homer, who began his song with the claim "arma virumque cano," or, as
    Mr. Gizzi translated it, "I sing of arms and the man." Homer begins with
    Achilles' wrath and Odysseus' cunning, and in both cases––though I'm
    certainly not a classicist––seems to be asking the Muse to sing rather
    than claiming to sing himself. Sorry for the pedantry, but it seemed
    something not to let go. [Editor's Note: Thank you. This has been fixed.]

  3. March 20, 2012
     Tony Berendsen

    Beautiful, but does it have to be so complicated? Be simple, be pure.

  4. April 2, 2012
     swapan roy

    peter,enjoyed this one,v.nice. aesthetically informative.
    i really enjoyed the reading..
    regards,swapan roy

  5. April 5, 2012
     Kenneth Burns

    It is a pity that people with a fine lyric gift must use such pretentious language to justify their art.It all reminds me of the 13th century Church Fathers and their torturous apologetics, their abuse of Aristotelian logic as a means to justify the Christian fairy tale.Either you believe in the fairy tale, or you don't. Don't try to dress it up in faux-scientific or -mystical garb.
    I think Frank O'Hara was right to reject theoretical justification or explanation of his gift: "If someone's chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don't turn around and shout, "Give it up! I was a track star at Mineola Prep."