Dumb Pig Fate
Christian Wiman: This is the Poetry Magazine Podcast for January 2012. I'm Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry Magazine.
Don Share: And I'm Don Share, senior editor for the magazine. On the Poetry Magazine Podcast we feature readings by a few of the poets in the issue.
Christian Wiman: This month on the podcast, we're going to hear from Michelle Boisseau.
Michelle Boisseau: But I could still turn a head, as I took the foam between my thighs.
Christian Wiman: Louis Glück.
Louis Glück: The empty canvases were turned inwards against the wall.
Christian Wiman: And from Eliza Griswold, who wrote a prose piece about refugees.
Eliza Griswold: And I asked him the babies drowned. And he said, "No, no. They- They pop up like corks.
Christian Wiman: The January issue also includes poems from A. E. Stallings and Kathryn Starbuck, David Ferry and then other poets as well. There's a wonderful essay from Clive James about the waning of poetic technique.
Don Share: And it's 2012, and that means it's been 100 years since Harriet Monroe founded Poetry Magazine, and to mark the anniversary we are ... What are we doing?
Christian Wiman: Well we've got-
Don Share: Seems like we should do something.
Christian Wiman: I guess we've got to plan it hurriedly. We have all kinds of things planned. In fact, in this issue, there's a wonderful essay by Penelope Pelizzon called “Potsherds and Arrowheads”, in which she looks at some of the early years and tries to see if there are any overlooked masterpieces. Don and I have put together an anthology, which is going to come out in October, of 100 Poets for 100 Years of Poetry Magazine. There are a lot of things that we were unable to include in that anthology, and we're going to be featuring some of those in coming months.
Don Share: We'll also have events here and there, so that we can talk to people in person, meet readers, have some well-known poets participate in this, too. So keep your eye on the pages of the magazine for what we'll be doing in the coming year.
Christian Wiman: This is the time in the podcast when we usually read on of our favorite things in the issue, and Don, do you want to start? Anything you've particularly loved?
Don Share: Well, there's a poem by Michael Ryan called “Hard Times”, and we do live in hard times. This poem really helps capture some of the frustration that we all feel.
The lousy job my father lands
I’m tickled pink to celebrate.
My mother’s rosary-pinching hands
stack pigs in blankets on a plate.
Teeny uncircumcised Buddha penises
(cocktail hot dogs in strips of dough):
I gobble these puffed-up weenie geniuses
as if they’d tell me what I need to know
to get the fuck out of here.
They don’t only stink of fear.
They’re doom and shame and dumb pig fate.
I tell my mom I think they’re great.
Dad chews his slowly with a pint of gin,
and says he eats a whole shit deal
because of us. My mom’s in tears again.
I don’t know who to hate or how to feel.
Christian Wiman: You can't help but think of that poem by Theodore Roethke, right? “My Papa's Waltz”.
Don Share: Yeah.
Christian Wiman: "The whiskey on your breath could make a small boy dizzy, but I hung on like death, such waltzing was not easy." Famous poem, very similar.
Don Share: Yeah, this is much grimmer.
Christian Wiman: Yeah.
Don Share: Maybe this father's a little harder. I remember that, too, you know when I was young, and my father was struggling, we had that sort of dinner table drama.
Christian Wiman: Oh really?
Don Share: Not with the gin particularly, but the hotdogs for sure.
Christian Wiman: With the same dire straights. I love when a poem can make you feel with its form, and it's textures, the very thing it's describing, and so a line like, "Their doom, and shame, and dumb pig fate." Those things just come down like hammer blows, those monosyllables.
Don Share: Yeah. It reminds me a little bit of Ted Hughes, his View of a Pig, where each syllable has real weight. Also, the enjambments, particularly where he says you know, that his dad says he eats a "whole shit deal because of us."
Christian Wiman: It's a great use of idiomatic expression. There's another place earlier on where he is gobbling those weenies, and he's likened them to Buddha, Buddha's penis granted, but Buddha still. And he says, "As if they'd tell me what I need to know," so you think he's going to get some kind enlightenment, but the only thing he wants to know is how to get the fuck out of here.
Don Share: Right. And when you think of the Buddhas, they're always sitting very passively. They don't go anywhere.
Christian Wiman: Yeah. A different poem, very different, I wanted to look at is from this essay by Penelope Pelizzon. It's by someone that I'm sure no one has heard of. I'd be surprised. Her name is Kathryn Worth. I hadn't heard of her until Penelope dug up some of her work for this essay. Penelope starts the discussion of Kathryn Worth with a review that appeared of her work, and I wanted just to read a little bit of that. "Being a woman and a mother, as well as a chemist and stargazer, the author makes a unique mixture of her poetry. But the book's middle section about a child has a best, a limited interest as poetry, or even as record. This is even truer of the following section, which is that sort of poetry most amazing and distasteful to men." That's from 1938. Let me read one of these poems that are so distasteful to men, and the poem is called Genetrix, which means literally, mother. It's in two parts. This is the first part:
The body was knit,
The thigh bones riveted
Deep in the side;
Dark roadways of all love
Converged to this,
Passion and kiss
Bride-bed and death;
So to bequeath
Bone upon bone
Now you may go
Empty of import; you
With lustral service done.
Nor moon, nor sun,
Concerns itself again
Bright lips and hands,
Breast-bone and thigh.
What circumstance and height you bore
Is yours no more;
Anonymous as snow,
Empty of import; go.
Don Share: Well, listeners who want to pass judgment on this poem might like to reflect on the fact that Kathryn Worth's poetry was published my Knopf, and was praised in reviews by Janet Lewis. I mean, those credentials are quite hefty.
Christian Wiman: Yeah. And she published extensively in Poetry Magazine. She was in her late 30s when this poem appeared. Pelizzon says, I think very acutely, "While it's lines dismiss her individuality, the poem's Latin title bestows archetypal power. Like Venus Genetrix, she's incorporated into an ancient lineage and in turn becomes its embodier. Via birth— and this poem about birth— Worth makes herself primal maker." And she goes on to talk about how we have a language, we read these poems so differently now than they read them in 1938, this was shocking that someone would be writing about this at the time. To us it seems familiar.
Don Share: Familiar, yeah. Pelizzone points that out, she says, "We're gifted now with a luxury of younger writers who have taken the mommy poem to wild, thorny places," and she mentions Beth Ann Fennelly, Danielle Pafunda, Rachel Zucker, who are poets doing this, who come to mind now, so that in a way Worth's poem is what Penelope calls a "memorable earlier expression of this yet-to-be historicized genre's darker roadways." Somebody had to start walking down that road.
Christian Wiman: Michelle Boisseau has been contributing poems to Poetry since the 1980s. Her latest book is called A Sunday in God Years.
Don Share: We have two of her poems in the January issue, and we're going to hear both of them. The first is called, Among the Gorgons, and it's dedicated to Eleanor.
Christian Wiman: As in the poet, Eleanor Wilner, Michelle Boisseau told us.
Michelle Boisseau: The idea of the Gorgons of course, is that this is the other story that doesn't get told. This is one of the kinds of poems that Eleanor Wilner often writes. The other side of the story of a myth. So what if the Gorgons told their story instead of just having the heroes who've slayed them tell their stories? What if they tell the story?
Christian Wiman: The Gorgons of course, being Medusa and her two sisters who had snake hair, and whose glance would turn you into stone. In this poem, the speaker is approaching old age. Here's Michelle Boisseau reading “Among the Gorgons.”
Michelle Boisseau: For seventeen years I was caught in the surf.
Drubbed and scoured, I’d snatch a breath
and be jerked down again, dragged across
broken shells and shingle. I loved it,
mostly, the need, how I fed the frantic.
I’d skipped into that sea. Certainly not
a girl, but I could still turn a head as I took
the foam between my thighs.
Then it was over.
Hiss of a match
snuffed with spit. The sea had trotted off.
I stood in the stink of flapping fish.
At first it stung. A galaxy of dimes
eyed my sag and crinkles and dismissed
me like a canceled stamp,
but something tugged at me, silver braids
weaving and unweaving themselves
and either the path was shrinking
or I was getting bigger, for soon the way
was just a hair, the extra bit of wit
a grandma leaves on her chin
to scare the boys, and it led me
into a cave crackling like a woodstove
A landslide opened
a seam of rubies and we stepped inside.
Christian Wiman: It's very interesting to read this next to that Kathryn Worth poem, because all that abstraction has become completely physical. We've got the hair on the chin. We've got all kinds of images of the body actually growing older.
Don Share: It's a scary poem, as it's intended to be, and as you would expect, and yet there's something ravishing about the ending, which turns out I think, to be a surprise ending in a lot of ways, too. When you have that cave cackling like a wood stove with laughter, you're surprised by that, but then the two lines of the poem show that "A landslide opened a seam of rubies and we stepped inside."
Christian Wiman: There's some acquisition of power in what has seemed like the complete antitheses of that. The poem tells us about beauty being stripped away, and growing old, and at the end that actually enables the excess of some other power. That seam of rubies, embadged in some wisdom, some- we don't know what exactly.
Don Share: It seems like the kind of thing that really could only happen in a poem. I mean, you could almost see the seam of rubies. You never think about a thing like that, but here, a landslide opens a seam of rubies and you step inside. I mean, what is it that you're stepping inside? This glittering stone. It's not just being turned to stone. It's being allured into that metamorphosis.
Christian Wiman: Yeah. This poem also does great things with the lines, like the Michael Ryan, it says that you know, "Certainly not a girl, but I could still turn a head as I took the foam between my thighs."
Don Share: That's repossession.
Christian Wiman: Yeah.
Don Share: I'm always alert to similes. It's so easy to have bad similes in a poem, but you always like a poet comes up with a good one.
Michelle Boisseau: A galaxy of dimes eyed my sag and crinkles and dismissed me like a canceled stamp,
Christian Wiman: Man, that's wonderful.
Don Share: Yeah.
Christian Wiman: You know, this poem begins, "For 17 years, I was caught in the surf," for Boisseau, that number 17 was not arbitrary, as we found out when we asked her about it.
Michelle Boisseau: 17 years of having a child, and a child being grown up, and going off. You know you're just like, all of a sudden like, "Now what?" I mean, you're so obsessed with putting this life, getting it going, and setting off, and doing exactly, being independent just as you had dedicated your life to, but afterwards it feels like, "My God."
Christian Wiman: That's interesting to read it that way. It's a bit oblique, raising of a child, right? That's one way to read it, but there's certainly other ways, right?
Don Share: Well, yeah. And anything you have an abiding commitment to, whether it's Odysseus sailing around the world and coming home, or your chosen path, whatever that may be, the big commitments in life have something waiting at the end of the process.
Christian Wiman: Yeah, and let's hear what might be waiting in the second poem by Michelle Boisseau. The tile is “Death Gets into the Suburbs”, which she actually lifted from a poem by Les Murray, that darkly comic Australian poet.
Don Share: One thing to know is that the Falcon 7x mentioned in the poem, as a fancy jet airplane designed to make the business travel of the one percent more comfortable.
Christian Wiman: Here's “Death Gets into the Suburbs”.
Michelle Boisseau: It sweats into the tongue and groove
of redwood decks with a Tahoe view.
It slides under the truck where some knuckles
are getting banged up on a stuck nut.
It whirls in the egg whites. Among blacks
and whites spread evenly. Inside the chicken
factory, the Falcon 7x, and under the bridge.
There’s death by taxi, by blood clot, by slippery rug.
Death by oops and flood, by drone and gun.
Death with honor derides death without.
Realpolitik and offshore accounts
are erased like a thumb drive lost in a fire.
And the friendly crow sets out walnuts to pop under tires.
So let’s walk the ruins, let’s walk along the ocean
and listen to death’s undying devotion.
Christian Wiman: So that's unusual right? Death is devoted to us. I guess we should be glad.
Don Share: But you know, this is a poem where the sounds of the poem, which are so striking, don't detract at all, but only the focus and concentration of what the poem is really saying. It is, I guess, darkly comic, but memorably so. "Death with honor derides death without." It's almost a tongue twister and brain teaser, that one.
Christian Wiman: Yeah, and the rhymes, ocean and devotion, you really get the sounds of those waves at the end of the poem. You know, we're so bad at dealing with death in this country, and we devise all sorts of ways not to face it. This poem is notable for drawing our attention to ways in which death insinuates itself into these lives that do everything they can to keep it out.
Don Share: It's almost like death with a small D, instead of a capital D, you know, “death by taxi, by blood clot, by slippery rug. Death by oops and flood."
Christian Wiman: "It whirls in the egg whites. Among blacks and whites spread evenly."
Don Share: Kind of makes me afraid to go home.
Christian Wiman: Louise Glück has long been celebrated for the spare intensity of her poems. Robert Hass has called her one of the purest and most accomplished lyric poets now writing.
Don Share: We have two poems my Louise Glück in the January issue. They're longer and maybe even a little looser than what we've come to think of as a Louise Glück poem.
Christian Wiman:One of them is called “Afterword”, and it's part of a work in progress.
Louis Glück: It's one of, at present, five long poems. Some of them extremely long, written in the voice of an artist at various stages of, I think of him as a "he,' his life, dealing with silence of different kinds.
Don Share: So this is a long poem. It's about three pages in the issue. It begins in midstream, after the speaker has just finished writing something. Here's Louis Glück reading “Afterword”.
Louis Glück: Reading what I have just written, I now believe
I stopped precipitously, so that my story seems to have been
slightly distorted, ending, as it did, not abruptly
but in a kind of artificial mist of the sort
sprayed onto stages to allow for difficult set changes.
Why did I stop? Did some instinct
discern a shape, the artist in me
intervening to stop traffic, as it were?
A shape. Or fate, as the poets say,
intuited in those few long ago hours—
I must have thought so once.
And yet I dislike the term
which seems to me a crutch, a phase,
the adolescence of the mind, perhaps—
Still, it was a term I used myself,
frequently to explain my failures.
Fate, destiny, whose designs and warnings
now seem to me simply
local symmetries, metonymic
baubles within immense confusion—
Chaos was what I saw.
My brush froze—I could not paint it.
Darkness, silence: that was the feeling.
What did we call it then?
A “crisis of vision” corresponding, I believed,
to the tree that confronted my parents,
but whereas they were forced
forward into the obstacle,
I retreated or fled—
Mist covered the stage (my life).
Characters came and went, costumes were changed,
my brush hand moved side to side
far from the canvas,
side to side, like a windshield wiper.
Surely this was the desert, the dark night.
(In reality, a crowded street in London,
the tourists waving their colored maps.)
One speaks a word: I.
Out of this stream
the great forms—
I took a deep breath. And it came to me
the person who drew that breath
was not the person in my story, his childish hand
confidently wielding the crayon—
Had I been that person? A child but also
an explorer to whom the path is suddenly clear, for whom
the vegetation parts—
And beyond, no longer screened from view, that exalted
solitude Kant perhaps experienced
on his way to the bridges—
(We share a birthday.)
Outside, the festive streets
were strung, in late January, with exhausted Christmas lights.
A woman leaned against her lover’s shoulder
singing Jacques Brel in her thin soprano—
Bravo! the door is shut.
Now nothing escapes, nothing enters—
I hadn’t moved. I felt the desert
stretching ahead, stretching (it now seems)
on all sides, shifting as I speak,
so that I was constantly
face to face with blankness, that
stepchild of the sublime,
which, it turns out,
has been both my subject and my medium.
What would my twin have said, had my thoughts
Perhaps he would have said
in my case there was no obstacle (for the sake of argument)
after which I would have been
referred to religion, the cemetery where
questions of faith are answered.
The mist had cleared. The empty canvases
were turned inward against the wall.
The little cat is dead (so the song went).
Shall I be raised from death, the spirit asks.
And the sun says yes.
And the desert answers
your voice is sand scattered in wind.
Christian Wiman: So I'm not sure we get an answer to that question, do we? "Shall I be raised from death?" I'm not sure if the answer is yes or no. The desert seems to say no.
Don Share: Yeah. Well when the voices scattered like that, like sand in the wind, it can't really speak definitively. It's such an odd strategy. The poem is called Afterword, and you don't necessarily know what it is the afterword to, and then it really does begin in midstream. "Reading what I have just written, I now believe-" either you have to be a very confident poet to start off that way-
Christian Wiman: Right, and we don't get any of that, and we're told that there is some shape preceding this, some instinct, discerned a shape, or something like that, that there's some shape that we don't know about, and the poem becomes a meditation on art and life, and the way these two things contain and imply each other, and are raveled together. She's got these great lines, "One speaks a word: I. Out of this stream the great forms—" it's as if everything comes after you assert that self, the notion of a self, everything comes after that. All of our notions of consciousness, and the ways that we understand the world come from that "I."
Don Share: The poem follows right up by saying, "I took a deep breath-"
Louis Glück: And it came to me the person who drew that breath was not the person in my story
Don Share: That's funny, the earlier part of the poem makes you feel that the poem is about a crisis of vision, but really it's about what you call a crisis of vision. What is it? What is a crisis if vision? It's easy to think that you might not understand what your life is about, or has been about, or what your work has been, or should have been, but what do you even call something like that? Who would even ask these questions? Who is that person? Who's the person you have been?
Louis Glück: What would my twin have said, had my thoughts / reached him? // Perhaps he would have said / in my case there was no obstacle (for the sake of argument) / after which I / would have been / referred to religion, the cemetery where / questions of faith are answered.
Christian Wiman: This is a poem about some kind of search for faith that religion can't answer.
Don Share: And art is left with that question which it poses, but has difficulty answering as well here. It's almost like something you would see in a novel, like a Henry James novel, or something like that. "The empty canvases turn inward against the wall."
Christian Wiman: Right. Art can't tell you anything about this dilemma either. It's somehow appropriate that the poem would be unresolvable. That we find ourselves in some confusion as to how the poem ends, because she writes, this man, this artist, finds himself face to face with painting chaos. I was just reading this essay in Harper's this month, about theoretical physicists are in despair over the fact that it looks like they're discovering the multiple universes which sort of renders the rules that they thought governed our universe, as being arbitrary, or perhaps only pertainable to our universe, and not to others. And so, they don't have the mathematical finality and elegance that they thought they did, and it's sort of thrown people into despair. The despair is over the fact that there is this chaos that then, completely unpredictability, before which our [inaudible 00:23:49] powerless, and I think that's something of the sort that this artist faces, looking out and seeing that what he perceives of reality is in fact, a kind of chaos he cannot get. He cannot get it all.
Don Share: Right.
Christian Wiman: And it throws him into this confusion, and at the end, I don't know where we're left. Whether we're left with a religious vision, or a complete renunciation of that.
Don Share: Maybe what it is, is that everything is a work in progress, as these poems are, and we'll have to see where Louise Glück takes us with them.
Christian Wiman: Right. It may be that the poems around it cast this one in different light.
Eliza Griswold: Garrison island, let me find in your deprivation, my love of deprivation, in your bleakness, my bleakness, in your frank cliffs the same. Teach me to align my will with what is.
Christian Wiman: That's a poem from the notebook of Eliza Griswold, a poet and journalist who recently visited the Mediterranean Island of Lampedusa. Her notebook chronicling the experience is in the January issue.
Don Share: Lampedusa is a tiny Italian island, midway between Tunisia and Sicily. It's shores are littered with bunkers from World War II. The past few years it's been serving as a processing point for tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the violence in Libya.
Eliza Griswold: So what happens is, small boats of mostly Africans, I mean we're talking about sub-Saharan Africans, would arrive, and by the time I saw them, they'd be wrapped in like, marathon runner blankets, those Mylar blankets, because they'd been exposed to the elements for more than 24 hours. And it's a pretty dangerous gauntlet, to run that journey from Africa to Lampedusa, so people were pretty traumatized. Sometimes fine, sometimes dehydrated and exhausted, and we would see them get off the boats in lines, and be shuttled onto buses, actually modified tour buses, and taken to basically the immigration prisons, which were called "centers."
Christian Wiman: Griswold has been working for many years as a journalist in some pretty rough corners of the world. But she happened to be Umbria on a poetry residency, when this particular refugee crisis erupted.
Eliza Griswold: So I decided as I was sitting there, and as this huge story was happening just a couple of hours to the south, that it was really actually my responsibility after reporting for a decade in Africa, to go and see what happens when Africa washes up by the tens of thousands of people, on your Europe's shores, and what kind of pressure that brings to bear on both communities.
Don Share: But when she got there, she found it was all but impossible to get access to the refugees. Even when she rented a boat and tried to get to a refugee boat, before the Italian Coastguard spirited them away, she could only shout some questions at some English speaking refugees who didn't know where they were. So she ended up talking to the locals.
Eliza Griswold: Probably the man who became the most significant character in the piece in a lot of ways, was a guy who owns a gift shop. But because there's nobody coming to buy any kind of tchotchkes that he sells, like turtle shaped ashtrays and that kind of stuff, he was working for one of the refugee centers as a driver, but also as kind of a do-everything man. And I asked him what he'd seen that he couldn't forget, and he told me that one night he'd gone out in a boat, and when the refugees coming in saw that Coastguard arriving, they were terrified that they were going to be sent back, and so what the mother's did is, they threw their babies overboard into the water, because they thought that somebody would save the children, and then those children would be Europeans, and no longer Africans. When I asked him what happened to them, of course all the guys on board the Coastguard boat just went right into the water, and I asked him if the babies drowned? He said, "No, no. They pop up like corks."
Don Share: Certainly a memorable image, but not one she had witnessed first hand. So with her journalistic efforts thwarted, she decided that her notes would have to be the ultimate end of her visit. Here she is reading from the text, in the January issue.
Eliza Griswold: I am not going to write an article about this trip. I am going to write only this notebook, because I don’t think that what I’ve seen here, the story I’ve been able to gather with the refugees at such a distance, is a matter of news. What I’ve seen is a complicated set piece, a drama, which I’ve watched only as a member of the audience sat before the false proscenium. I’ve experienced violence firsthand that far outstrips what I’ve encountered here on Lampedusa. But this violence is equally sinister—it’s aboard the ships, it’s in the prisons, it’s in Tripoli. I think of what Wallace Stevens says in The Necessary Angel. A poet has no moral role. A poet has to use imagination to press back against the violence of reality. I don’t agree. He also wrote that reality was growing more insistent, more violent. I agree with that.
Don Share: We asked her why she disagreed with Stevens, saying that a poet has to use imagination to press back against the violence of reality.
Eliza Griswold: If my poetry has value, it is to articulate the violence of reality, not to press back against it with imagination.
Don Share: Which begs the question, what is the difference in her mind, between her journalism and her poetry? When does she write one and not the other?
Eliza Griswold: Both involve the same kind of paying attention, the same kind of looking, and I think being a poet first, that really helped train me to notice the kind of details that make the journalism I write more particular, and so they feed each other nicely in that way. My poetry that comes out of the journalism I do, tends to be the questions that I can't answer in a piece of reportage. Like if I meet somebody and either I'm implicated morally in some way that makes me uncomfortable, or I can't answer very basic questions, and something is mysterious to me, those are the issues that I usually end up working in poetry.
Don Share: And as part of her notebooks, she did work out a poem based on her experiences. Here it is.
Eliza Griswold: High ships come in bearing black strangers
who call over the harbor, Where are we?
Arrivals, it will get worse.
The island is running out of water.
Prison awaits. From some distance,
you saw the steel lintel of Europe’s doorway
standing open. There is no door—
a yellow hello hung with your forefather’s shoes,
a cross nailed from the ribs of your sunk ships,
paper prayer scraps, one million calls
to the wrong God. Be grateful
you wear that fake-fur parka,
the violet, pompomed hat; you drag
that odd wheelie bag, the snow-suited baby.
Among defunct bunkers on this tropical rock
it’s difficult to conceive of winter.
And you, giddy with surviving war elsewhere,
unsure of who you should please,
grin at every white face
and wave wildly down to me
as I shout welcome from a rental skiff.
My job is to learn where you’re from.
I’ve come by water to reach you
before the police. We have seconds.
Ignore my pleasantries.
Demand what my straw hat costs,
how much I pay for my skin.
I don’t say go north. Stay off the train.
Christian Wiman: You can't tell exactly from what she was talking about, but all of these details in this poem have been mentioned in this essay, and so when you read this, every detail has been prepared for in the poem, and so you read it in a very different way, but it makes you realize a couple things. It makes you think first of all, what is the difference between journalism and poetry, just what she was talking about? I mean, what's the difference when you come across it like this, and you come across it in a prose. It's striking to compare this poem with the earlier poem because she says she doesn't say "go north. She doesn't say, "Stay off the train." Both things which would help those refugees to know, knowledge which would help them to know, and I wonder why not. I mean she says earlier, "Teach me to align my will with what is." Is she not disturbing some order that's there?
Don Share: I wonder about her reaction to Stevens because I can see the dilemma,
especially if you're working as a journalist and a poet, but it seems to me that what she's got to do in the poems, in her poems, in this particular poem, is to press back against what's happening with her imagination. I mean, that and her notebook, is really all she has. I can understand that she doesn't want to write a poem in this instance that's like a Stevens poem, in other words, where it's made entirely out of the imagination. That's a very forceful way to push back against reality. But nevertheless, the stuff that's in here, is from her imagination. What she sees has to be filtered through her own imagining of these things, and that would be true both in her journalism ad her poetry. I don't see it as a big argument. I just think it's interesting, because what it really is, is it's a moral dilemma for her, or an ethical dilemma because you have to feel that it's a problem if you see all this anguish and suffering, and what you're going to do is write a piece, or take some notes, or come up with a poem. It seems right to suffer over that.
Christian Wiman: People would think a poem is even worse, right?
Don Share It's a luxury, yeah.
Christian Wiman: Well, she says, "Demand what my straw hat costs, how much I pay for my skin," and nobody asked her how much she paid for skin. So that implies a whole moral dimension, self questioning that's going on, and self accusation that's going on outside of reality.
Don Share: Well she says, and we have this as the pull quote, "We talk about survivor's guilt, but not observer's guilt. For journalists this is particularly acute as we are paid to watch suffering, and paid more during war. For poets, it's even worse." I'm struck by that because I think journalists do talk about this, as indeed she is. It's when she puts the poetry into the equation, that it becomes worse, that it sets off in real relief that notion that you can get paid, and that you will survive.
Christian Wiman: The question is, at what point do you become exploitive of other people's experience to make your work of art?
Don Share: Well you see, if you don't, if it's a real dilemma and you don't do that, then you end up doing Stevens. I mean, that you construct these things that are counterweights to the awful reality.
Christian Wiman: Yeah, but purely imaginative counterweights. I think that's a dream, to think that he is, that the pure imaginative constructs press back against the violence of reality. I just don't think that can happen. I guess you could argue that by creating a space in which consciousness can occur so acutely, you are pressing back against the violence of reality, as it imposes itself on us all the time. But as it imposes itself on particular people, and particular circumstances, come on.
Don Share: Well, the horrible thing about that is that, what survives is not the victims or the people, the human beings, but these works art. I mean, that's a kind of survival for which some price presumably be paid.
Christian Wiman: Yeah, and the powerful thing about this, the way this poem fits into the essay is that, for me, it seems to exist at, and within, this confusion. It doesn't try to resolve it. It doesn't try to do anything with it. It just says, "Here. This is what I've made. This is what exists."
Don Share: Exactly. It's explicitly wrestling with this, which I guess Stevens does implicitly.
Christian Wiman: Yeah. You can read Eliza Griswold's notebook, as well as everything else you've heard on this program, in the January issue of Poetry Magazine, or online at poetrymagazine.org.
Don Share: Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at [email protected]
Christian Wiman: The Poetry Magazine Podcast is recorded by Ed Herman, and produced by Curtis Fox Productions.
Don Share: The theme music for this program from the Claudia Quintet. I'm Don Share.
Christian Wiman: And I'm Christian Wiman. Thanks for listening.