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Avoid the Personal Like the Plague

Eleanor Wilner published her first book at age 42, but enough about her.
Introduction
“It’s terrible to have our writers thrown back on private subjects while the public language gets farther and farther from the truth of what is happening,” says poet Eleanor Wilner. A profile by Rachel Aviv.

Before our meeting, Eleanor Wilner asked me to read her poem “Interview,” in which she stages a Q&A between a poet and journalist. The questions are generic, and the poet sidesteps them all:

Q. What can you tell us about your personal history?
A. Does the rain have a mother?
Is the mole the explicator of the lawn?
(The dancer keeps the mask for calling in the gods.)
Is the fire by night as bright at dawn?

The poem served as a kind of friendly warning. We wouldn’t be getting too personal. Wilner, who has a soft, hushed voice that often fades into a whisper, thinks the poet should “get out of the way.” Autobiographical questions don’t seem to annoy so much as politely bore her. “People, by and large, are not that interesting,” she says. “Bachelard said the trouble with the psychoanalytic view of poetry is that it reduces the flower to the manure out of which it grows.”

Wilner wears her gray hair in a loose, wispy bun and dresses in unassuming shades of beige and green—she jokes that it’s her “camouflage.” In conversation, she is generous and cheerful, and sometimes begins stories by saying, “Let me tell you something wonderful.” If she thinks her point is really important, she tends to attribute it to someone else: a mythic figure or foreign scholar. She laces together different stories and quotes in answering a question, moving swiftly from Jung to Pegasus to the hydrogen bomb. Her poems do the same, connecting individual stories with history and myth—one thing always becoming another. “I have no personal memory when I’m writing,” she says. “It gets assimilated into the dreamtime of our culture—the air we breathe, the images we all share. People have asked why there’s so much lush nature in my poems. They assume I must be living in some rural area in Vermont—and not on this dirty street in Philadelphia.”

Wilner has lived in the same Philadelphia townhouse for 30 years; its walls are lined with old bookshelves and an occasional “PEACE” sticker or domestic reminder—“But did you lock the door?” With her husband, a physics professor, she travels frequently to teaching positions all over the country. Formerly a civil rights activist as well as a reporter, she didn’t publish her first book of poems until she was 42. She’s put out five collections since then and won a number of awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship. Still, she avoids the term “poet”: she thinks of herself as a teacher. Self-dramatization does not impress her. When publishing her first collection, maya, she refused to collect gushing blurbs from other authors, as her publicist insisted. Instead, she wrote her own message: “I dislike this practice of having a chorus of angels herald a less than divine birth. . . .”

In many of her poems, Wilner describes the ability to write as a kind of unexplainable gift, randomly awarded; inspiration comes suddenly—you should only “write about what you don’t know.” Good poets, like good hunters, she says, can’t know what they’re going to capture. “Go empty-handed to the hunt,” she writes in “Hunting Manual.” “Look then for the blank card, the sprung trap, / the net’s dissolve, the unburdened / line that swings free in the air.”

Wilner’s language is high-minded, eloquent, and elaborately layered. With an extended “Nooo,” she dismisses the idea that she can trace poetic motifs to childhood. “I had a fine family, everybody was fine, the dog was fine,” she says quietly. “The two most important moments of my childhood were not individual, but cultural—the moments when my life intersected with events that affected most human beings: the opening of the concentration camps, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I saw the pictures in Life magazine. I’ll never forget those images.”

Her poetry reworks historical moments and traumas, while often acknowledging her own distaste for the personal. In “Postscript,” the speaker admits to Maxine Kumin that she doesn’t know how to use the words “I” or “love” or “gone.” She’s afraid she’ll “start / some mad striptease of art, tell all, / embarrass everyone, even the dog.” She doesn’t want to “hoot and / hoot like some demented owl.” Instead, she broadens the picture, imagining the cultural ramifications of her every gesture:

I can’t face
the amputation of a branch without
the towers of Troy beginning to go over
like Humpty Dumpty toppling through the years,
his scattered bits the Hittites, the Sumerians,
the Greeks, the Romans (row on row on row),
the French in the deep freeze of the Russian
snow, and don’t forget the Jews, the Congolese

The list of civilizations continues. “I am a mass of digressions,” Wilner says, leaning back in her chair. “My mind is like a dog without a master.”

Wilner feels strongly about the limits of art that focuses on only one person. In “How to Get in the Best Magazines,” she parodies the “tired little poems, taut, / world-weary, properly bored / with it all” that go down like a “silky martini.” They are the “tongue’s anorexia,” glib and unhappy. In a speech given at Drexel University in 2004, she described the overuse of the “I” pronoun as a uniquely American problem—a result of the emphasis on the individual who must revisit childhood to figure out what their parents did wrong. “It’s terrible to have our writers thrown back on private subjects while the public language gets farther and farther from the truth of what is happening,” she said. “We need to take back the rhetorical high ground from the politicians who degrade it.”

In her poetry as well as her academic work, the imagination reappears as an almost religious source of salvation. Her first book, Gathering the Winds, an extension of her dissertation, attempted to determine the “structural constants in imagination” by analyzing the apocalyptic visions of poets and shamans. It’s our inability to imagine, she says, that leads us into wars we don’t understand. The politicians tell us what to believe and we oblige. “If you really could imagine what’s happening in Iraq, you’d go crazy,” she says. “You’d be doing everything you could to prevent it.”

She picks up a petition, titled “Fatalities in Iraq,” from her desk and begins reading the figures in a soft monotone. “Poetry gives you images—to make the suffering bodies real,” she says. “There’s no such thing as naked truth—it’s merely exposure. Human truth needs some sort of disguise, or mask, or metaphor to reveal what can’t be seen in another way.”

When Wilner does use the “I” pronoun, it’s usually to take on the voice of a figure in history—most often a quiet woman with a world-famous husband. Swiftly she undoes the canonical couple. Penelope hides when Odysseus comes home, and Eve—after a bad date with Adam (God is their “cosmic dating service”)—walks out on him. Wilner has no patience for wives who serenely embrace their destiny. In “Sarah’s Choice,” God asks Sarah, not Abraham, to sacrifice her only son, and she’s shocked and disgusted: “What fear could be more holy / than the fear of that?” Wilner came upon the idea for the poem after framing the question—Would Sarah have sacrificed Isaac?—on a final exam to students she was teaching in Tokyo. All but one student said no. “I was teaching what the students called ‘interectual hellitage.’ They have a letter that’s just between an r and an l, so they can’t really discriminate that sound. So anyway, they mixed it up, but we do have a hellitage. Hell is a big part of the tradition.”

With little interest in the literal, Wilner’s poems reach both forward and backward in time, correcting historical wrongs and reordering nature. There’s a sense that the wholeness of the world is in danger—yet still within reach. Wilner wrote her first poem, in her early 20s, after reading all seven volumes of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. “I can’t explain it, but when I closed the final volume, I started writing poetry,” she says. “And yet I loathed him, the man who enclosed himself in his cork-lined room to write. He said, ‘If someone came knocking on my door, and I was working on my novel, I wouldn’t answer.’ And I thought, That’s not the kind of writer I want to be. I want to be the kind of writer whose writing would make people open that door.”

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Avoid the Personal Like the Plague

Eleanor Wilner published her first book at age 42, but enough about her.

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