Some Practical Advice for Young Poets Considering Exile: Part 2
The catalyst, the fuse, call it what you like, whatever it is that sets sweeping change into motion, often comes in the form of epiphany, the sudden realization that things are not what they had seemed to be a moment earlier.
At the time this happened to me, I was living in an attic apartment in Paris down the street from the Moulin Rouge in Pigalle (a dismal, seedy neighborhood) in a converted chambre de bonne. It had a nice kitchenette and seemed like the inside of an upside down boat. I had settled down to write after dinner, having pulled up a side table in front of the sofa, opened and loaded my portable Adler with the much-loathed blank sheet of paper, ready to put down, as I always was, the first thing that came into my head. Clackety-clack. One line, two lines, a half page. Then everything ground to a halt.
“Why was I writing in this way and not in another way,” I asked myself.
Maybe this will strike you as banal – it is banal. (In fact, I have learned over the years that banality is the wellspring.) But this was the moment in which my “faith” began to unravel.
Without my coreligionists, my fellow travelers: my teachers, my friends; without that certain quality of air that filled the cultural bubble I’d inhabited during my New York years, where I’d blended reading and writing and talking into an essence, a vehicle, a means forward. Without all that, and with all the newness and the loneliness of my present situation bearing down on me, I broke.
Everything I’d written up until that moment, everything I’d thought about how poetry should be carried forward, that whole linkage between ourselves, as writers, and a certain tradition we’d grown up by, seemed discardable, flimsy, irrelevant and self-indulgent.
It was the moment in which I realized that the construction of a certain discourse that went by the name of “contemporary American poetry” was context sensitive in a way that other discourses were not. It simply didn’t work (for me, at least) outside its own well-established parameters. What seemed perfectly credible in New York came off as gibberish in Paris.
Novels didn’t disappoint in this way, even in translation. Or history, or biography, or memoir, and certainly not the best of contemporary writing on science. Nor did painting, or contemporary classical music. These forms, at their best, transcended boundaries. But contemporary poetry, my own and others, felt increasingly parochial. I felt myself suddenly mourning, not only my own failure, but the failure of American poetry in general.
Of course, identifying one’s own failure with perceived larger failures is one of the first signs that delusional thinking is setting in. In the poet’s case, a more general loss of linguistic bearings (at the macro level, of poethood and tradition) tends to dovetail with the process of writing poetry itself, in which losing one’s language can be a poem-by- poem experience. Since poets, more than other writers, are always faced with the challenge of linguistic reinvention, the whole existential crisis of writing poems in the first place, of loss and overcoming loss, is often imported into the drama, becoming the meta-subject of the poem itself.
After leaving New York, I experienced this loss at both the macro and the micro levels. It took me about three years to learn how to write again. There were a few beacon poems along the way, but when I look back at those years. I see mostly grayness, the slate-colored Paris sky and a series of failures and still births. And yet, paradoxically my ability to incorporate this failure into my poems was a way to continue writing them.
Over the next weeks, months (we’re talking 1983) as this realization began to take hold, I allowed my living masters (those that actually taught me), John Ashbery above all, C. K. Williams, James Tate, Ann Lauterbach, to somehow escape my general condemnation. But I was already seeing them in a new light, already glimpsing a new way to read them, ways with which they probably wouldn’t have agreed.
On the other hand, I saw a vibrant health in poetry translated into English (even if it wasn’t well translated). The Russians first of all, and Eastern European poetry (Holub, Popa, Herbert), then Cavafy, Pavese and Pessoa (Pessoa before I even moved to Portugal…thanks to Edward Honig’s translations). My overriding impression was that this was poetry that favored subject matter over self-expression. In fact, in their poetry self-expression was often stripped down, minimalist, anti-poetic, as Nicanor Para would call it. It was grounded in observation of the world and not obstructed by observation of one’s own delicate sensibility. Cavafy looked at himself, in his autobiographical poems, with the same ironic detachment that he used to look at historical figures and the struggles of ancient communities – and yet this didn’t prevent his poems from being intimate. The poet as the center of his own universe was still there, still executive, however toned down. By comparison, the American avant-garde seemed a gifted yet over-straining adolescent. I was, at the time poised somewhere between the New York school and the Language poets - one of my favorite books was Charles Bernstein’s Controlling Interests (1980). I liked the audacity and endless invention. Even though the program (because these poets always came with a kind of ersatz Frankfurt School program) seemed a bit silly, inflated. European poets, as I began to figure out, were not really concerned with “poetics” – poetry was an act of survival, the poem an act of witnessing.
It also could have been the denaturing process of translation itself, which gives us, at best, the husk of poems. But it was the husk I needed, not the grace notes. I needed a new conceptual platform.
Looking back on this moment a quarter of a century later it seems quaint: a young writer who had based his whole identity around one of the many ways to be a poet (the New York way in my case) suddenly discovering that this particular way, like wine, didn’t travel well. It was, in short, non-adaptive. It couldn’t possibly process what was happening with my life, not to mention what was happening in Europe at the time. One reason was that the New York style meta-poem, the poem that was, in formal terms, at least in part, a celebration of its own ability to be a poem against all odds, shunned that old equation which said the poet was uniquely fit to observe the world, to be the winnower, to overcome contingency and assemble a narrative. This tradition had been a strong presence in American literature in figures as diverse as Frost, Williams, Bishop, Thoreau. But the American avant-garde in those years was more concentrated on assimilating continental theory than describing suburban hedgerows.
My own problem, at that given moment (which I realize could be taken as a sudden splurge of neo-romantic self-pity) was, in fact, more practical. I was suddenly aware of the fact that I had not really been trained to be a writer at all, so much as some exquisite compiler of verbal obfuscation.
Something fundamental about how poets are perceived by society made me feel embarrassed, presumptuous. Uprooted, as I was, the French language all around me, I was suddenly averse to calling myself that thing that I had staked my whole identity on: poet. I was embarrassed by the fact that poets were not tested, like other writers, in the market place. They lived off grants, on campuses and only expressed their poethood to captive audiences, their students and other poets. The French poets, were the same, they were all but invisible. The French press made a great deal out of its novelists, but poets were hardly on the radar. For all that the world cared, we might as well have been speaking Latin among ourselves, so monastic, so cloistered had we become. I had been protected from this realization while living in New York, since there was never a shortage of poets, readings, and sympathetic types who liked the bohemian ambiance. But this life tended to obscure the extravagant act of introversion that writing poetry in America was, as well as the new theoretical apparatus that underpinned it.
Without that support system, the production of the kind of poetry that flourished in a particular context, yet not beyond it, and the whole set of characteristics that went with it – indeterminacy, dissonance, the play on register, disjunction, the idiom of camp, the derision of values, the so-called critique of establishment narratives – seemed like outdated ordnance. I wanted to connect with the new friends I was making, but they were unable to read what I was writing, even if some of them were native English speakers, long-time residents in Europe, artists and intellectuals. But mostly I needed to make sense of cobblestones, of a majestic river, of the way an army of sweepers opened the street gutters each evening as this city began to quiet, the round café tables with the inevitable ribbed metal band wrapping around a Formica top, cardboard coasters and bakelite ashtrays, the interior courtyards, and pollarded plane trees.
To return to the original intention of this present set of posts (my presumption of offering practical advice on the option of voluntary exile) I would say that the lessons I took from those early days, when I was still living in Paris, before moving to Portugal, were that one’s initial education in the craft needed to be tested severely if the craft was to be raised to the level of art. De-familiarization, self-estrangement and the abandonment of community were, however harsh, ways to test one’s range as a writer. The immersion in foreign cultures, the learning of foreign languages, and then operating in those languages are for the poet counter-intuitive and to a certain extent self-destructive. Pasternak, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, all refused to leave “mother” Russia, which, in becoming the Soviet Union, threatened to cripple their creative lives. And yet for them mother Russia was as much a state of language as it was a nation of peoples, sovietized or otherwise.
The situation today for English writing poets is perhaps similar, in the sense that our stance is still defensive.
For the Russian poets after 1917, a great part of their mission was to salvage freedom of expression and the Russian language against the perversity of the political slogan and the bureaucratization of public discourse, not to mention saving their own skins. Young North American poets of the early 21st century must come to understand that the English language has become the global language, and this global idiom comes in two basic forms: hegemonic and co-opted; that is, English has become a language which embodies both power and the struggle against power, both the standardization and the defense of the particular. Historically, this trend emerged out of a postwar American economic boom, which spread to Western Europe through, firstly, the Marshall Plan and became consolidated when both America and Europe were, in the postwar context, simply kept on a nearly full-time war-footing, both economically and ideologically, the latter tending to enforce a polarization between the western consumer class – buying a new car was a patriotic act – and the communist enemy, collectivized and without the freedom to consume. English, following the American model was the preeminent language of consumerism. On a geopolitical level, the Cold War, the continuing American occupation of Europe, the creation of NATO and the implementation of that vast military industrial complex that Eisenhower had warned against all helped to consolidate English as the supranational language of commerce, culture and war.
Adopting the language of the victors has, to a certain extent, allowed Europe to unionize and live in peace. But, at this point it has gone far beyond that. The only way to understand how English operates in the world today is to leave the metropole and see for yourself how the process is evolving. These days, the best way to see the English language is to look at it from the outside, to hear how the world speaks it, and to learn to speak in their languages, as both a gesture of respect, and for the insight it provides into the relationship between the syntax of a culture and the way that culture manifests itself materially. It is only then that one can begin to understand the forces that have come to form our own contemporary vernacular. Poets no longer create the language of the tribe (there is no longer just one tribe). It is our duty now, since English has become the language of globalization, to continually recycle all of its registers, to shift and shuffle them, to be at once plain spoken and baroque, as need be, to keep the language exercised, lean and honest.
Martin Earl lives in Coimbra, in central Portugal. From 1986 until 2001 he lectured in English, translation, and American culture at the University of Coimbra. For the last ten years he has worked as a translator and a journalist. Earl has blogged on Harriet, and his translation of Antonio Medeiros’s...