Prose from Poetry Magazine

Lines of Affinity

On Nathaniel Mackey, Winner of the 2014 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize

When Harriet Monroe started this magazine in 1912, she devised a metaphor, “The Open Door,” for its editorial policy, and took as her motto a line from Walt Whitman’s “Ventures, on an Old Theme” — “To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.” In Whitman’s piece, which is a dialogue, that line gets a whole paragraph to itself, as does the sentence preceding it: “Poetry (like a grand personality) is a growth of many generations — many rare combinations.” As if taking his cue from the capacious thinking packed into these lines, Nathaniel Mackey’s poetry ambitiously continues an American bardic line that unfolds from Leaves of Grass to Pound’s Cantos to H.D.’s Trilogy to Olson’s The Maximus Poems, winds through the whole of  Robert Duncan’s work, and extends beyond all of these. In his poems, but also in his genre-defying serial novel From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate (which has no beginning or end), and in his multifaceted critical writing, Mackey’s own rare combinations create an astonishing and resounding effect: his words go where music goes.

That music as Mackey performs it on the page, and as represented 
in this portfolio of his work, has been intertwined through the years in two concurrently progressing serial poems. One, Song of the Andoumboulou, addresses and gives voice to the progenitor spirits of the Dogon people of West Africa; it’s both a funereal song and a song of rebirth — a song of longing sung to people who no longer exist. The Andoumboulou, Mackey explains, are a “failed form of human being” in Dogon cosmology: “a rough draft of human being, the rough draft we continue to be, compounded of starward reach and,” as the poet H.D. put it in her own multivolume poem Trilogy, “the palimpsest / of past misadventure.” The other series, mu, weaves 
together the titles of two albums of improvisational music by jazz trumpeter Don Cherry and the Greek word muthos — which means speech, story, fable — and also indicates a lost Atlantis-like continent thought to have existed in the Pacific Ocean. It’s also a word that Olson absorbed from Jane Harrison, the great writer on mythology, who seems to have traced it back to the very first human utterance: Mu!

You can tell that the mu that’s in music is going to be of key 
importance. Mackey’s “explicit interest in the permutability of words and the spells cast by spelling” was something he found in the otherworldly jazz of Sun Ra; it plays throughout his work. This is because the improvisational techniques jazz pioneered taught Mackey that “the given is only the beginning, that arrangements as we find them are subject to change, rearrangement”; it forms the basis and lifeblood of his own poetics. To some people, improvisational jazz sounds like a kind of noise; for Mackey, that’s the point: in an interview (as in his novel), he describes the Dogon “creaking of the word,” the “noise upon which the word is based, the discrepant foundation of all coherence and articulation, of the purchase upon the world fabrication affords.” It’s as if, as Zora Neale Hurston, another of his influences, put it: “you got tuh go there tuh know there.”

Or as Duncan put it in The Opening of the Field, quoting St. John at Ephesus: “If you have not entered the Dance, you mistake the event.” And indeed, Mackey got his start browsing in a bookstore in 1965, when he happened upon a copy of Robert Duncan’s Roots and Branches, where lines from “The Continent,” he says, reeled him in; they were “lines cast, as in fishing. I was caught.” Their oceanic pull was strong, and led Mackey to H.D. and eventually a “coastal poetics, a coastal way of knowing.” This led in due course to Lorca, whose legendary sense of duende involved “speaking more than one knew,” Duncan said, the “taking over of one’s voice by another voice.” This poetics of fluidity gives birth to the notion of language as “an area of implication, resonance, and connotation that is manifold, many-meaninged, polysemous.” And so from his literary, musical, and flesh-and-blood ancestors — drawing upon the vast traditions from which each individual creates a lineage for oneself — Mackey’s vivid and constantly regenerating ethos arises:

Call it influence without anxiety. As a writer, one has to find one’s tradition, create one’s tradition, and in doing that one creates lines of affinity and kinship that can cut across national boundaries, ethnic boundaries  ...    [and] also relate to the question of how one’s writing can be informed and instructed by other artistic media, how one can create or pursue lines of kinship and conversation with nonliterary media.

Though greatly influenced by Duncan’s ideas of  “the world-poem,” 
and “the grand symphony,” for Mackey the pursuit of other voices, alternate voices, and indeed of a large metavoice is also very much a part of the African American musical tradition, ranging from the blues of Mississippi Fred McDowell to the jazz of Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Yusef Lateef, and others. Black art is innovative, as Mackey demonstrates over and over again, yet as he points out, critical approaches to African American writing often fail to see it as such. And no doubt some readers may find Mackey’s innovative work difficult in its quintessential and innovating blackness. But as Olson exclaims in The Maximus Poems: “the blessing / that difficulties are.”

This is very much to the point. “American society’s appetite for simplicities is not to be underestimated,” Mackey observes. His work takes up the challenge — “an especially stiff one to those hailing from a group” — poets! — who are “expected, more than most, to feed and affirm that appetite.” He hasn’t, as he readily admits, “been concerned with prioritizing a plausibly autobiographical ‘I’” in his poetry.

Instead, Mackey works with the “incongruity, the rickety, imperfect fit between word and world” which makes his technique for writing compelling, apt, mysterious, and musical. His constructions are complicated, yes, but we ought to be used to the complexity of edifices.

After all, even the houses we live in, with their old elbowed pipes and veins of wiring, their skins of plaster and joists like wooden bones, are complicated, and compose a body that speaks to us discordantly each night when the radiator clanks, something scratches in the walls, a floorboard squeaks unbidden, and there’s thumping in the attic. Anything lived, and lived in, has something to sing or say. But as Mackey himself sympathetically notes: “Some things speak to you and some things open doors for you while other things don’t.” In the end, though, as Mackey says in the introduction to his book Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews: “Doors are for going through.” How consonant this is with Monroe’s “Open Door.”

“To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.” As N. says to the Angel of Dust in Mackey’s novel (upping the ante considerably): “One invents one’s audience in more senses than one.” I’m pleased to honor both the traditions of this magazine and those that flow into the inventive music of Mackey’s work with the 2014 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.


More about the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize »

Originally Published: June 2nd, 2014

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...

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  1. June 3, 2014
     Joan Houlihan

    The “creaking of the word”--yes! I love Mackey's work and this essay adds another dimension to my appreciation of this dazzling and important poet. Thank you.

  2. June 9, 2014
     Tim McGrath

    I would trade everything ever written by Whitman,
    Williams, Duncan, Olson, and the whole horde of their
    successors for a single pristine stanza by Emily

    It's all I have to bring today,
    This, and my heart beside,
    This, and my heart, and all the fields,
    And all the meadows wide.