There It Was: A Discussion of Wallace Stevens's "The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain"

December 30, 2014

 Al Filreis: I'm Al Filreis and this is Poem Talk at the Writer's House, where I had the pleasure of convening three friends in the world of contemporary poetry and poetics to collaborate on a close but not to close reading of a poem. We'll talk, maybe even disagree a bit, and perhaps open up the verse to a few new possibilities and we hope game for a poem that interests us, some new readers and listeners. And I say listeners because Poem Talk poems are available in recordings made by the poets themselves as part of our Pen Sound Archive

Today I'm joined here in Philadelphia at the Kelly Writer's House in our 3rd floor garret studio by Dee Morris, who has taught modern and contemporary poetics, including Sound Art, documentary and digital, and whose books are How To Live, What To Do, HD's Cultural Poetics and Sound States, innovative poetics and acoustical technologies in a co-edited collection new media poetics, who has written tons of fabulous essays on writing, the human machine interface on HD's time in Philadelphia, on Story tellers, on Dickinson and on oppositional intellectuals. And by Nancy Kuhl, poet, editor and curator whose books of poems including Suspend, and The Wife of The Left Hand, who is the co-editor of File and Press and curator of Poetry for the Yale Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke Library and among whose exhibition catalogs is Intimate Circles, American Women in the Arts. And by Susan Howe, whose many, many books include My Emily Dickinson, The Liberties, Singularities, The Midnight, Souls of Labadie Tract, a favorite of mine, The Birthmark, and two of my own favorites in addition, The Secret History of the Dividing Line, and Melville's Marginalia, among many others who studied acting in Dublin, who earned a degree from the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, whose writing asks us to focus on the tangible presence of language itself, who deeply admires the poetry of Wallace Stevens, and whose aim with Dickinson, according to Marjorie Perloff is not so much to explain the poets meanings, as to relive them. Thank you, thank you all for coming. Thanks, the two of you coming from Connecticut. Did you share a train?


Nancy Kuhl:   No.


Susan Howe: We did not.


Al Filreis: If you had, you wouldn't have just stopped talking.


Susan Howe: We should’ve, but we couldn't.


Al Filreis: No, you would have said all the things that we're going to say and Dee, thank you again for coming to New York.


Dee Morris: Thank you for the invitation Al.


Al Filreis: So we're here today to talk about a poem by the aforementioned Wallace Stevens. It's a late meta-poem called “The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain”. It was collected in Stevens' last group of poems called The Rock. Our recording was made during Stevens May 1st 1952 reading at Harvard in the new lecture hall there, now called Lowell, the Lowell Lecture Hall. The original is in two reel-to-reel tapes house at the Woodberry Poetry Room Lamont Library at Harvard. And we're grateful to Don Scher and Christina Davis successive directors of the Woodberry for working with us at Pen Sound to bring this Harvard Stevens' recordings to our archive. And thus, to make them available for everyone, everywhere. So here now is Wallace Stevens, reading “The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain”.


Wallace Stevens: There it was, word for word,

The poem that took the place of a mountain.


He breathed its oxygen,

Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.


It reminded him how he had needed

A place to go to in his own direction,


How he had recomposed the pines,

Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,


For the outlook that would be right,

Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:


The exact rock where his inexactnesses

Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged,


Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,

Recognize his unique and solitary home.


Al Filreis: So I'm asking everybody, I had no idea I was going to ask this question first, but I'm asking everybody to try to remember when they first read this poem, or somewhere early in their experience with this poem, because it is a meta poem and it's announced by the title that it's a poem about poetry. So does anybody want to say about one's first experience or maybe our student's first experience with grappling with this meta poem. It is a simple poem about poetry? Susan, do you think it's sort of straight forward in that regard?


Susan Howe: I think it's magnificently complicatedly simple, that he ties that beautifully. But for me, it's so supremely a late poem, and I read it particular at my age as an absolute, I can't remember, because I was far more attracted to the early poems in Harmonium when I first started reading Stevens. So this to me, I don't think of it in terms of an early poem.


Al Filreis: So we could, let's defer for a second talking about the late style, where there is a late

style down to the grammar. But let's go a little more with the meta poem. So Nancy, Dee, how do you want to respond to this poem? How would you teach someone this poem as being about poetry or being about a poem, how a poem could take the place of climbing up a mountain, or whatever. Dee, you want to start with that?


Dee Morris: You know after listening to Stevens reading, I would approach it maybe through sound. Because it is as if he's climbing a mountain. He can get, the first line of each of these seven couplets, he has two bursts. There was, word for word, and then the second line of the couplet, three bursts, “the poem that took the place of a mountain”. So there's almost a breathlessness-


Al Filreis: Yeah.


Dee Morris: About it.


Al Filreis: It's hard work going back.


Dee Morris: It's hard work and it what it replicates in its sound is pick your way. Pick your way through the clouds toward a kind of clarity.


Al Filreis: Yeah, I agree and implicitly with Susan too. I find the lateness of this moving and I find the 1952 reading moving because basically he's doing this work of climbing up this poem. And it's hard and satisfying and it's, there's a ton of recollection here. But let's stay with meta poem for one second. Nancy, anything to add to that?


Nancy Kuhl: Just that I think I love about this is the way it's not a poem about a mountain, it's a poem about a poem about a mountain.


Al Filreis: Right.


Nancy Kuhl:   And that that already you enter with a kind of uncertainty about where you're

headed, in spite of what I think Susan rightly refers to as a kind of, there's a sense of a simplicity. Though it's so complex.


Susan Howe: I just think that of the, there is was-


Al Filreis: There is was.


Susan Howe: “The poem that took the place of a mountain”. That's just saying there it is. That's my entire life, there it was. The poem that took the place of everything in life I didn't do, all the great mountains. I mean, I don't think it's climbing mountain metaphorically a mountain as the sort of mountain could be, on one level it could be philosophy, because he's just written the Poem to Santayana and-


Al Filreis: Same year.


Susan Howe: He chose, yeah, in the same group as anyway, there's some sense of I chose poetry, he chose philosophy, there it was.


Al Filreis: Right. And he takes a retrospective view. So he doesn't say, there it is-


Susan Howe: Yes.


Al Filreis: Some meta poems would, you know. Dickinson when she's talking about the occupation of this, the thing that she does, is more likely to use the present. Stevens is saying, I've re-encountered a poem, whether it's an actual poem, there are plenty of earlier poems about mountains-


Susan Howe: Yeah.


Al Filreis: So he could be actually encountering, oh there it was, there's the poem. Or he could, as Susan's suggesting be encountering the experience of having written such poems.


Susan Howe: That's what I think it is.


Al Filreis: Yeah.


Dee Morris: You know one thing that works toward that for me is the verbs that he uses.


Al Filreis: Yeah, we better look at those.


Dee Morris: To remind-


Susan Howe: Yeah.


Dee Morris: To recompose, and then to recognize. So it's an act of the mind again and again and again that makes a life.


Al Filreis: He says that it, past tense, reminded him of how he had needed, how he had recomposed the pines. Why switch to the past perfect at that point, is that what it is?


Dee Morris: It's very interesting because then he goes into the subjunctive.


Al Filreis: I know, I was going to go there again. But before we confuse it even further, so he says, in the past, there is the poem I used to write, or there's the poem I encounter now, from of the past. And this poem reminded me of how I had once been what, what would we say? I had once been a poet who needed to find my way?


Susan Howe: Well for one thing I can never stop thinking about him, that he never went to Europe. I mean, that just blows my mind always about Stevens. He never went.


Al Filreis: Yeah.


Susan Howe: And he's so in love with France, I mean and Rome, I mean the old philosopher-


Al Filreis: Right.


Susan Howe: And he never went there. So I always think, I take it to mean, that took the place of life, of a life that I might have had.


Al Filreis: So instead of life I had a poem.


Susan Howe: But that was life, that is life, that's the thing. That is life. For him.


Al Filreis: So recomposing the pines would mean, not encountering pines, or chopping down pines, or walking through pines, but composing them as I would write them.


Susan Howe: Right.


Al Filreis: It reminded me of how I had written pines, rather than been with pines. In pines.


Susan Howe: Yeah, I think they're, well I think they're also references, I don't want to get too heavy-


Al Filreis: No go ahead, get heavy a little bit.


Susan Howe: I think they're references to Chocorua and to-


Al Filreis: Chocorua and his neighbor.


Susan Howe: Chocorua to its neighbor.


Al Filreis: To its neighbor.


Susan Howe: Which is his mountain poem.


Al Filreis: An earlier poem.


Susan Howe: But it's a mountain poem. Mount Chocorua.


Al Filreis: And it has been argued that as a poem that deals with Romanticism and the influence of Romanticism-


Susan Howe: Well, and, well no but you can't think of Chocorua without thinking of William James. Or I can't. And therefore the James's.


Al Filreis: This is a New Hampshire mountain we should stipulate.


Susan Howe: Yes. That was William James's home. So I, it's so Jamesian, I mean there's this short story of James's, The Altar of the Dead, where he recomposes the candles, I mean it's almost, he's almost echoes that James story. And again, with the philosophy thing, and that he, you know, that that was what was important to him at Harvard when he went there-


Al Filreis: As was Santayana.


Susan Howe: That's just me.


Al Filreis: Yeah, no, I don't think it's just you. You're not the only one whose read the James in there.


Susan Howe: I think that little word it iss also key in the sort of, leading you to Mount



Wallace Stevens: There it was, word for word,

The poem that took the place of a mountain.


He breathed its oxygen,

Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.


It reminded him how he had needed

A place to go to in his own direction,


How he had recomposed the pines,

Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,


For the outlook that would be right,

Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:


Al Filreis: So, he's climbing the mountain of the old poem and he is not walking through the pines but recomposing them. And he's not climbing over rocks, he's shifting them. There's something active about that. And he's picking his way among clouds. So, Nancy, can you speak to this? What's the activity? How would you describe this activity?


Nancy Kuhl:   Well, I'm interested in the verbs "shifted" and "picked," too in addition to the ones that you pointed out earlier, Dee. But, before that, the sentence or the line rather, "a place to go to in his own direction," is a really fascinating one to me. Outside, or aside from, I guess adjacent to it, Susan was saying, "'cause I'm interested in the way in which it fixes the idea of a place, alongside the idea of motion and direction." There's a fixed thing and an openness. Both things are kind of happening simultaneously. It's a unusual construction, a place to go to in his own direction.


Al Filreis: It's an unusual one for Stevens. A place to go to. He would not normally say that.


Nancy Kuhl: Yeah.


Susan Howe: Which was home. The dust of his table.


Al Filreis: And it is home. I mean, in the end, we're kind of jumping to the conclusion, but in the end he got to this place so that he could see the home from where he came. Or at least down at the sea. Maybe all of our homes. It's been read as Whitmania. Whether it's true or not, the sea. We all crawled out of the sea.


Susan Howe: When you bring up the Whitman, I think that it's very late, "this is thy hour O soul, thy free flight into the wordless." That simple, simple Whitman which, "away from books, away from art" and then "night, sleep, death and the stars." This is his Whitman. "Night, sleep, death and the stars" poem.


Al Filreis: Oh yeah, oh yeah.


Susan Howe: To me.


Al Filreis: Yeah. I think so. Okay, so now, somebody, I think it was Nancy, mentioned that we go from "he had needed" so you get past tense, then "he had needed" and "he had recomposed," and now, "for the outlook that would be right," so it's really complicated 'cause we're going doubly into the past and then into the subjunctive. Dee, do you want to say anything about this? It's complicated.


Dee Morris: One of the things that I love about looking at this poem is the way that he keeps reminding you that a poem is making. That it is a kind of making. So, it begins to accelerate. He's very slow with "the dust of his table," right? And then it reminded him "how he had needed a place to go." And then the response to the need is not to compose, but to recompose.


Nancy Kuhl: Recompose, yeah.


Dee Morris: A little bit like Lily Briscoe in "To the Lighthouse." Move the salt cellar. It would make a gestalt to recompose and then that's not simple. Shifting rocks, especially in this book, the rock. And picking, "eh, eh," it's those sounds, his way among clouds for the outlook that, and at this moment, what I love about this is he's still doing it for that would be right. It hasn't closed, yet. Although he's looking toward the cloud.


Al Filreis: For the outlook that would someday be right. For the outlook that could be someday right. Or that would inevitably be right if I could get up to that spot. Could be any of those things.


Dee Morris: Or in this condition of always, already, not right are inexactnesses.


Susan Howe: Yes, well, unexplained. I mean.


Dee Morris: Nonetheless, we write poetry.


Susan Howe: Exactly. An unexplained completion. That's what he wants. He never wanted.


Al Filreis: Vintage Stevens.


Susan Howe: It's always there's more than can be explained.


Al Filreis: Right. "Mind is never satisfied" says Stevens. Yeah. Yeah. So, Nancy do you wanna help us with the exactness, the exact rock, which in the rock is, I mean, rock, the word "rock" is so important to someone like Stevens 'cause it just says exactitude but he's very slippery about how exact it's gonna be. The exact rock where his inexactness would discover at last, the view toward which they had edged. You wanna take that, do anything with it?


Nancy Kuhl:   Well, the edging I think is fascinating and compelling and suggests something of danger and a kind of precipice beyond just the view, but also the.


Al Filreis: And usually edged in this connotation is not dangerous. Edging slowly toward a viewpoint. But, here, when you're on a mountain, he's also lying by the way. So, he is lying on the edge of, go ahead I'm sorry, it's dangerous.


Nancy Kuhl: Yeah, no it's precarious, it's dangerous. There are stakes.


Al Filreis: And what does he want? What's he willing to risk the danger for?


Dee Morris: I'm just thinking about edge and the way in which as he reads it, his voice falls there, toward which they had his inexactnesses.


Al Filreis: And he waits. He waits for edged.


Dee Morris:    Edged. He waits for edged. And then the poem goes flat again where he could lie, which I think has a kind of doubleness.


Nancy Kuhl: Oh, totally.


Dee Morris: Make things up, yeah. "And gazing down at the sea" which is a kind of doubleness. Seeing in the sea. But, the heart of the poem is full of the activity of composition, and the end of the poem is the edge of letting go of the act of composing.


Al Filreis: Wow.


Dee Morris: That's how it sounds like to me.


Al Filreis: Yeah.


Dee Morris: That's what that deep sadness brings me.


Al Filreis: So, you feel deep sadness here?


Dee Morris: I do, I mean there's an attempt at consolation, unique and solitary home, but it was the poem.


Wallace Stevens: At last, the view toward Which they had edged. Where it could lie and, gazing down at the sea, recognize his unique and solitary home.


Al Filreis: So, let's talk about lateness. Let's all chime in. Susan opened this up, but I think we should talk about it. Stevens has a late style. What evidence do we have in this text in front of us of a late style?


Susan Howe: That what, Dee had said, that simplicity, that sad, that's what is it, tragic and yet? Full, what?


Dee Morris: I was thinking of the way walking here, the thing for me is that it's steer, spare.


Susan Howe: Yes, great. That's true.


Dee Morris: But, grateful.


Susan Howe: Yeah.


Dee Morris: But, grateful. But, accepting of everything that's there. So, there's a double move, I think.


Al Filreis: Yeah.


Dee Morris: Closing that for him in these late poems feels so much like an opening.


Susan Howe: Yes.


Dee Morris: Which is also a letting go.


Al Filreis: So, if somebody erased my bibliographic, or poem by pom bibliographic memory of Stevens' poems, which is hard to erase in my head at this point, and said "Here's a poem, is it late or early?" I would know instantly this is late.


Nancy Kuhl: Late, yeah, yeah.


Al Filreis: And, I guess what I'm asking, the four of us who know Stevens, give us some more

of what's late.


Susan Howe: Okay, I'm gonna give you one little more thing. I just did this turned in the dust of his table.


Al Filreis: Yes.


Susan Howe: Now, just in the fact that Stevens loved the dictionary and he constant, I mean this may be very austere but it's also wordplay. The man could not not be. When he says "sea," it could be the letter "C." And, anyway, when you think about "turned in the dust of his table," is it turned over face down? Does the word "dust" bring up dust to dust?


Al Filreis: It does.


Susan Howe: It does bring it up.


Al Filreis: Sure. Especially after word for word.


Susan Howe: So, is it just simply that he turned the book over or it sort of laid down dust to dust, ashes to ashes over, or what? I mean, the end is there. The tomb is there.


Al Filreis: I have an answer to that question, but I wanna collect other answers first. I wanna hear answers to the question, but I definitely am excited about an answer.


Nancy Kuhl: Well, I also just wanna point out that it's a beautiful image of the book as a mountain also,which is almost too obvious to say. So, the book on the table is itself a mountain.


Susan Howe: That's right.


Dee Morris: Another thing about the word "turned" is that it also is verse and reverse. Trope. So, and turning as a craftsman might turn.


Al Filreis: Yes, it's also word.


Dee Morris: Turn too.


Al Filreis: About change. About life change. Life change, seasonal change. Alright, here's my little story. I imagine a, either a sadness, a refusal, a turning away from bookishness, a turning away from poems in books. So, normally you would think, "There it was, the poem I wrote years ago, in the book that is open in front of me." But, what we get here is, there it was word for word, it's not in the book. The book has been turned away. There's something really fantastic, fantasy like, about living a life of poetry, but imagining that you turned away from the book and climbed up the mountain of the imagination. And then, in the end, had your poem. Dee, you wanted to say something in response.


Dee Morris: No, you're making me think of domination of black. The colors turned.


Susan Howe: Yeah, yeah that's right, so.


Dee Morris: And that really works here, in also the sense of turn into.


Susan Howe: Yeah.


Dee Morris: Become metamorphose.


Al Filreis: Transformations, yeah.


Dee Morris: Through meditation. Come to a kind of vitality.


Al Filreis: Yeah. Nancy?


Nancy Kuhl: Sort of speaking toward the vitality, the oxygen, the idea of the oxygen, this creation of what is atmospheric, too seems to me to be important.


Dee Morris: It's such a wonderful word.


Nancy Kuhl: It is.


Susan Howe: Yeah. Yeah.


Dee Morris: He breathed, not air, not its spirit, its oxygen.


Al Filreis: Yeah. It's all about "I'm old, but I'm getting all the way up there." Breathe deeply, this

is a breathe deeply poem. Alright, so help me with outlook. Now, that is not a word. I've read all of Stevens' business letters and everything, I mean, this is not a word he would've normally used so he really thought of it. Go ahead Susan.


Susan Howe: I can come up with something because I read it somewhere else, somebody else was. He read, you can find echoes of the poet Henry Vaughan throughout late Stevens. And, there, here's a, dear, this is a Vaughan poem, the one about "We are all going into a world of light, while I alone sit."


Al Filreis: Yeah. Most famous poem by him.


Susan Howe: Yeah, that's his most famous poem. Okay well, one of those verses here, "Dear, beauteous Death! Shining nowhere, but in the dark. What mysteries lie beyond thy dust could man outlook that mark!" There he's used both dust and outlook.


Al Filreis: How is outlook used there? That's unusual. Yeah.


Susan Howe: Well, when you go to look up "outlook" in the dictionary, that's how, because Stevens always did.


Al Filreis: Fabulous archaism. "Outlook" meaning to overlook, to out do a look. Oh my God I never thought of that!


Susan Howe: Look farther. Yeah. That's one of its many… but when you find both outlook and mark, in that famous, and dust I mean, and I think they are all gone into a world of light.


Al Filreis: And Vaughan is all over like Stevens. You've done it. Susan Powell you've done it. We knew why you traveled from Connecticut. That's pretty great.


Susan Howe: No, but I think Dee you're totally right about Virginia Woolf. When you bring up Virginia Woolf and "To the Lighthouse" echoes of "To the Lighthouse," the same mood in the lighthouse of this terrible sadness, and love, and home, and —


Nancy Kuhl: Transience.


Susan Howe: And the painter, Lily, working. And the last word in the thing being vision, I mean, so-


Nancy Kuhl:   And just that little gesture as she shifts the salt cellar-


Susan Howe: No, right, right.


Nancy Kuhl:   To a different part of the table and that completes the painting.


Susan Howe: There you go.


Nancy Kuhl:   These little shifts become the turn, the verse, the move from dust to word.


Al Filreis: We could go on and on and on and on about this, I could tell just looking at you all.

So what I want to do is go around once and get sort of one last thought, just something that you want on the record for those who are listening to this and encountering Stevens' late poems, maybe for the first time, would need to hear that we forgot to add. So Dee, you look like you've got some extra thing you want to say.


Dee Morris:    One of the things that really seized me in rereading "The Rock" was the place of emptiness and vacancy, and the fact that that emptiness and vacancy is a fullness. It's a little bit like when you stop talking, you know, the cage thing, you can hear the music all around, the

sound all around.


Al Filreis: Right, right.


Dee Morris: "The Rock" ends with that little start of a cry. Is it a squawk?


Susan Howe: A bird cry.


Dee Morris: Yes.


Susan Howe: The C, the "chorister whose C preceded the choir."


Dee Morris:    That's right, that's right. And it's that sound that you hear when you stop talking, only when you stop talking. So for me, that's part of the balance to end with this.


Al Filreis: Thank you, Dee. Nancy?


Nancy Kuhl:   Oh, I would just add, and I think, along the same lines, and we talked a little bit, you certainly pointed to some wonderful examples, Dee, of the sound of the language of this poem, too. I think we didn't spend as much time, certainly, as we could have talking about how that informs a reading and how it resonates kind of physically at the same time, as well. So I would add that.


Al Filreis: Thank you, Nancy. Susan?


Susan Howe: Hi, Gordon. I don't know what to say, but, um, Dee, when you just said ... you didn't say the word nothingness, did you? But just sort of edging towards. I thought, instantly, of course, The Snowman-


Dee Morris: Yes, yes.


Susan Howe: And, you know, that sense of nothingness as, it's like negative theology, in a

way, that nothingness is holy, is, I mean, there's a, see, and choir is one of the last words.


Dee Morris: That's right.


Susan Howe: I mean these things, actually, these late poems to me are holy. I can, honestly feel they're holy even though, I suppose, I mean some writer said, "Stevens is my religion." Some famous English novelist said that.


Al Filreis: Someone said that of you?


Susan Howe: Steven ... No!


Al Filreis: Someone said that of herself?


Susan Howe: Someone said that of herself; some famous English novelist. They said, "What is your religion?" Now I can't remember her name. Anyway, she said, "Wallace Stevens is my religion."


Al Filreis: Wallace Stevens.


Susan Howe: And I mean there is just something religious. I kept thinking, you know, going through "The Rock" for this time, that really what I always hear is the psalm at the end. The psalm. The psalm at the end of the line! There you are!


Al Filreis: If you don't read the palm.


Dee Morris: I don't read the palm, I hear the the Psalm.


Susan Howe: The Psalm at, yes, absolutely, I do, too! Absolutely.


Al Filreis: Well, I'm gonna throw out my final word, or last thought here, and it has to do with, also, a late moment in Stevens', where he explores in another poem what might happen if we come to the end of the imagination. Now, Stevens is such a champion of the imagination, even at this somewhat diminished point, and I can only think, I mentioned Emily Dickinson earlier, but I can only think of Emily Dickinson as equally a champion of the imagination. And so when Stevens gets to the point where he's at the end of the imagination and the lines get a little longer, it's a different kinda poem here. The lines get a little longer and he's sort of not sure he can choose the right adjective for this blank-


Dee Morris: The blank, yeah, yeah.


Al Filreis: Cold, which he does so well. The blank. The word blank. You did it fine, Wallace, you still got it!  And then he discovers that the end of the imagination, itself, had to be imagined, "Had itself to be imagined," he says. And that is a great resurgence and the poem does its job to the end after that. A little bit slightly pat, like this one, there's a, there's a reading of the end of this poem that's slightly pat, like, you know, I got to the thing and I saw what I was intending to see, my origins, and it's the circle of life and all that stuff. But the fact is, the key moment is where he realizes that all I have to do is get really old and start thinking about death and I realize that until I'm actually dead, I have as much capacity to imagine as I did when I was young and watch me do it more maturely. Watch me do that imagining more maturely, and this is poem where he's declaring, "I can write a poem that does the work of mountain climbing. I can write a poem that stands for mountains. Just watch an old man do it.”

Well, thank you. We like to end Poemtalk with a minute or two of Gathering Paradise, which is a chance for several of us, or all three if you're quick. Now, I forgot to remind you of this, so you're winging it, um, to "spread wide" our "narrow hands to gather" a little something poetically good to hail or commend someone or something or some project or some book going on in the poetry world and I forgot to ask you to prepare this, and so you're really just gonna wing it. Dee, what's going on that you would like, a book, a poet-


Dee Morris: What I love is Tyrone Williams' little reviews that he's been doing in Jacket2.


Al Filreis: In Jacket2, yes.


Dee Morris: He's been embodying the reader in just a way that.


Al Filreis: I think he's been reading constantly.


Dee Morris: Yeah, yep, it's wonderful.


Al Filreis: So you would just go to and you would click on commentaries and look for Tyrone Williams and it's terrific. Did you know that Tyrone is going to be the subject of an upcoming Poemtalk? So, some great poems by him. Nancy? Cool!


Nancy Kuhl:   I will just mention the book I was reading on the train, which is by a poet I don't know well. Her name is Brooklyn Copeland; the book is called "Siphon, Harbor" I believe? It's from 2012, from Shearsman Books.


Al Filreis: From Shearsman.


Nancy Kuhl: Quite lovely.


Al Filreis: C O P E L A N D?


Nancy Kuhl: I think so, if you don't mind, I'll reach in my bag-


Al Filreis: No, that's great, and you can follow up. Here it is.


Nancy Kuhl: Brooklyn Copeland. C O P E L A N D. And the book is, indeed, called "Siphon, Harbor," I got that right.


Al Filreis: Terrific, thank you. Susan Howe, gather some paradise.


Susan Howe: Mine is "Echolalias," it's not a book of poetry. But it's "Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language" by Daniel Heller-Roazen, which I think all poets should read. I mean, it isn't a book on poetry, but it is all about language.


Al Filreis: And we all, to some degree, have echolalia.


Susan Howe: Yeah, we all have-


Al Filreis: So I want to gather some paradise. It's real simple, it's called, The Beinecke Library. Now, we have in the room the person who's in charge of the poetry collections there, but it is just amazing, you have to go! You have to email Nancy and, oops you're gonna get a few emails, email Nancy and say, "I wanna look at the Stein materials," and just, there's just, rattle off some major poets whose work you have that you would just like people to know about.


Nancy Kuhl: Sure, of course. I'm delighted to do so.


Al Filreis: H.D. a little bit?


Nancy Kuhl: Dee and I were just talking about H.D.'s papers, which are at The Beinecke, um, we could have also talked about, since we talked about Stevens, William Carlos Williams, um, Ezra Pound is another, uh, we, not all that long ago, we acquired a wonderful collection of manuscripts of the work of the poet Susan Howe.


Al Filreis: Wait a minute, Susan Howe's manuscripts? And I assume early drafts of poems and books.


Nancy Kuhl: Indeed, I would say, among my most favorite things in that archive, what I think

are the most exciting, and I've talked with Susan about this quite a bit, are her notebooks, which bring together both what is, uh, what is on Susan's mind at any moment, alongside what she's working on. There are some wonderful examples, I especially like a notebook in which I discovered a drawing of the fragment of the wedding dress of Sarah Edwards, which appears on the cover of "That, This". And It's a wonderful example of looking at what Susan's looking at in the archive with Susan, that dress fragment is in The Beinecke Collections of Jonathan Edwards, so, speaking of meta-


Al Filreis: Yes, I'm glad this conversation's gotten so recursive.


Susan Howe: Well, no, now I have to go in quickly on Meta, I just have to say that Nancy Kuhl, her spirit in The Beinecke Library, the sense of openness, excitement, generosity toward scholars and poets, it just, it's extraordinary compared to other research libraries-


Al Filreis: Huzzah, it is. Sorry, Nancy, you're blushing-


Susan Howe: It's really, and, and, it's true!


Al Filreis: But, you know what, the fact is that that we want to declare here, now, that a poet

who rises to such a position, it means something to the poetry community because you understand what poets do. And so, sorry, this is really a love-fest, this is a little weird.


Susan Howe: No, but I could-


Al Filreis: But wouldn't it be great if one of the results of this Poemtalk conversation, which is already rather unusual, would mean that people who listen to Poemtalk would make the journey to The Beinecke or to your nearby poetry archive. Great one at Washington University, great one at the University of California in San Diego, great one at the University of Washington Seattle, a very fine one here, at the University of Pennsylvania-


Nancy Kuhl: Not to mention Buffalo.


Al Filreis: At the Houten Library,


Susan Howe: Oh yeah, Buffalo!


Al Filreis: And Buffalo, and so on. If people would make their way, they would begin to do what, in fact, Susan Howe, at the Houten, when you were dealing with my Emily Dickinson-


Susan Howe: No, but they were horrible; I'm gonna give it to the Houten.


Al Filreis: They were, personally, back then, horrible, which is part of the book-


Susan Howe: There's no comparison to the Beinecke and the Houten.


Al Filreis: But what I'm saying, as a scholar who likes to archive-


Susan Howe: And I put that on the air!


Al Filreis: It's on the air, we can't get it off. But as a scholar archivist myself, I realize that looking at those materials means that the next article, or essay, or book that you write about, to use Susan as an example, about Susan Howe has to take into account the things she was drawing, the things she was clipping out of the newspaper, if we have those things, and the early drafts, and that's what's so great about this work. We want to integrate the discussion of poetry in a somewhat formalistic way with the work of the archivist, which is providing us materials that gives us historical and bibliographical and other alogical ways of approaching. So that's all the right outlook we have time for on Poemtalk today. Poemtalk at The Writers House is a collaboration of The Center for Programs and Contemporary Writing and the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania and The Poetry Foundation; Thanks so much to my guests, Dee Morris, Nancy Kuhl, and Susan Howe and to our engineer, Zach Carduner and our editor Allison Harris.Next time on Poemtalk, Julia Bloch, Annette Debo, and, once again, Dee Morris will talk with me about five sections of H.D.'s book, Helen in Egypt, based on a recording made in 1955 by another Yale Beinecke guy, H.D.'s executor, Normal Holmes Pearson. This is Al Filreis and I hope you'll join us again for that or another Poemtalk.


Hosted by Al Filreis and featuring Susan Howe, Dee Morris, and Nancy Kuhl.

Program Notes

More Episodes from Poem Talk
Showing 1 to 20 of 131 Podcasts
  1. Wednesday, January 16, 2019
  2. Wednesday, December 19, 2018
  3. Friday, November 16, 2018
  4. Wednesday, June 13, 2018
  5. Friday, April 13, 2018
  6. Friday, March 9, 2018
  7. Thursday, December 14, 2017
  8. Friday, October 13, 2017
  9. Wednesday, September 13, 2017
  10. Wednesday, July 12, 2017
  11. Tuesday, June 6, 2017