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Jorie Graham & Thomas Gardner in Conversation
from Regions of Unlikeness: Explaining Contemporary Poetry.
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999, Chapter 6.
Interview conducted October 1987
Thomas Gardner: Here’s a line from “Pollock and Canvas.” You say, “What we want is to paint nothing how can one paint nothing?” I’d like you to think out loud about some of the words in that. Maybe you could start with “nothing.”
Jorie Graham: Well, I meant the positive sense of the word. As in Stevens’s “the nothing that is there.” Or the zero. Zero being the value which negotiates between being and non-being. In the Pollock poem, it’s what is seized in the space between the end of the brush and the canvas on the floor beneath him. (Pollock did not touch brush to canvas – he used “drip” methods – his gesture nonetheless in total control)... By something I’d mean, therefore, a motion which has already posited its own end.
TG: A motion already shaped?
JG: Let’s say achieving shapeliness by the postponement of its ending. Or achieving a sense-of-shapeliness by the implied ending (even if it doesn’t arrive). To my mind, the formal elements that occur along the way are only audible – or believable – in relation to their extinction, the closure. By nothing I guess I meant the alternative shape, something which perhaps is centrifugal, something which we don’t identify primarily by its limits. At any rate, I’d say Dickinson’s idea of circumference is close to my idea of nothing – the zero, something which expands outward.
TG: Circumference as something you go out on?
JG: Yes, the idea of the circle, which is defined by its center but for which the circumference is only a temporary stopping point.
TG: Would that work for outer things as well as inner? It seems to me there are poems where you are thinking of the outside world in the same way.
JG: Absolutely. Another term for nothing would be the ineffable. I love the Japanese term for the essence one is (theoretically) trying to seize via the haiku: yu gen. Duende is another notion that seems corollary, and useful, to me.
TG: You say the holy, the given, would those be the same thing, too?
JG: Well, the given... but the problem, of course, is that the means by which we apprehend the given are either habitually or innately (and that’s what we cannot be sure about) structuring devices of a linear kind. I really feel that what Pollock was trying to do was open up – not by the cheap methods, chance methods, but in a more difficult and dangerous and perhaps more lucrative way – the gap between the end of his gesture and the beginning of the painting. I love to imagine that one-inch gap between the end of the brush and the beginning of the canvas on the floor... What could come alive in there that Western thinking has refused to let in for so long? Maya is the term I use for it in that poem – and I try to explore the ways in which, between the act of making and the made thing, she comes alive.
TG: Spell that out?
JG: The male deity, Vishnu, is a creator-god in the way that, say, our Old Testament God is a creator-god. Then there’s the created world he’s made, and I take that to be – in the mythology of Christianity (and I use it as a mythology) – I take it to be the Christ, the Son, the created being. In between there’s this process which, in Hindu mythology, they call Maya, making her the consort of the creator-god. To me she is the moment bewteen the desire to create and the created thing – the moment in which the act of creation occurs – and it’s a flash, a woman, an opening – a rip in the fabric – the “nothing” – as well as what lets the nothing through.
TG: That’s like the spirit moving over the waters at the beginning of Genesis.
JG: Yes. In fact, I like to attach the notion of Maya to the image of the Holy Ghost. A lesser term is process. But in our Western, most noble and wonderful ambitions, we have typically interfered to limit the kinds of activities of which the moment of process is actually capable. The methods the Surrealist way of proceeding has come up with, for example, seem to me somewhat limited... I feel like I’m writing as part of a group of poets – historically – who are potentially looking at the end of the medium itself as a vital part of their culture – unless they do something to help it reconnect itself to mystery and power. However great their enterprise, we have been handed by much of the generation after the modernists – by their strictly secular sense of reality (domestic, confessional) as well as their unquestioned relationship to the act of representation – an almost untenably narrow notion of what that in-between space is capable of. Issues being raised by other art forms (which didn’t even exist, say, when Eliot was writing) by critical theory, philosophy, and the science of our day – as well as by people like David Byrne, Robert Wilson, and the Sanjai Buku are often more ambitious than the issues raised by our poetry. I think many poets writing today realize we need to recover a high level of ambition, a rage, if you will – the big hunger. That is why we are so incredibly grateful for the presence of Ashbery and Merrill, why the hugeness of their project seems so central and the aesthetic differences that divide them ultimately so minor. Why Duncan remains influential – why Michael Palmer’s and Allen Grossman’s projects are so heartening, and Bidart’s, Tate’s, Wright’s. The Merwin of the second four books. Strand’s dark vision of absence.
TG: The image theatre: have you seen it, or read about it?
JG: Seen it. One Sanjai Buku performance in particular moved me deeply. Three hours of highly emblematic gestures without language. [pause] Do you want me to describe it?
JG: There is one scene in which five humans, naked to the waist wit long wraparound skirts on, totally white (covered with rice-flour), seemingly faceless, stand in the lower left-hand corner of the dark stage in a pool of light. There’s the sound of airplanes, very loud – over their heads, mixed with strange carnival sounds. These people move their fingertips for twenty minutes in a very odd way – anemone-like. After a while, it begins to seem like our front/back, up/down distinctions regarding the body are false. That from some deity’s point of view, for example, the fingertips, the area defined by these white fingertips extending outward before the standing body, might be the face? the front? Then, slowly, they begin to move away from their very stark gestures. A thin streak of light appears on the stage. They move along the light. And their skirts open, and you notice there’s genitalia in there, but you don’t really know what kind. I kept thinking, at the point where they opened their mouths (and, as they’re entirely white with the rice-flour, their mouths open on an incredibly dark hollow inside) that if they introduced a single word into the event – if anything came out of that opening – the thing would collapse in on the word, it would so desperately want the word to gloss it. It scared me – that sense of the limiting powers of the word.
TG: And that’s the feeling that’s attractive about it?
JG: Very much. It frightened me – but also, of course, exhilarated me – the degree to which introducing any language into it would narrow the scope of it. And all because of that great double-edged power in language, the power to define. Watching their work made me want to reexamine exactly what it is that language can do now, what role it should take on in this increasingly visual culture. I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with the relationship of any title to a painting, for example.
TG: Because it narrows it?
JG: Yes. It seems to me I’d like to find a kind of language – or action in language (form, in other words) which would have the opposite effect, be more like the painting or the stage event than the label to it. The ritual rather than the use it’s put to...
TG: But you do it, almost, by accepting that narrowing, don’t you? Accepting it, then blowing it to pieces.
JG: I do try –
TG: Erosion seems to employ a strict, stern sort of language, which eventually gives way or erodes. The End of Beauty, perhaps, starts in that condition of having exploded. In either case, these ways of working seem quite different from the theater or performance art.
JG: Yes, but I’m not satisfied with the poems, and they seem to me... well, that’s a different matter.
TG: Go ahead.
JG: I can’t really... For me each book is a critique of the previous. I find it very hard to talk about The End of Beauty, if only because the poems I’m writing now are the way I’m contending with it.
TG: Maybe a way of answering would be to talk about what those new poems are doing.
JG: There’s a poem in The End of Beauty called “To the Reader” that starts “I swear to you she wanted back into the shut, the slow.” I think, in a way, the central impulse of each new book involves my wanting to go into a more moral terrain – a terrain in which one is more accountable, and therefore i which one has to become increasingly naked. For me, the stages of that unveiling require... Well, the motion we were talking about as eroding is really just writing poems up to the point where I can, and then admitting the failure, if you will. But having to go past its point of success, or of intuition, or closure, past the “couplet” wherever it would have occurred. Because it’s only in the terrain that follows – or so it feels to me – that you touch what you didn’t know. [pause] You’re right when you say a whole panoply of veils have come off already (it’s late in history, after all)... and Salome is a governing figure in the new book – the one I call Region of Unlikeness. You see, in Erosion she’s standing there realizing there are veils and that she could get something for it, if you will, but she doesn’t know what to ask for, what to desire (the imperialist urge without the object of desire!) – “Head of John the Baptist” hasn’t occurred to her yet. In the next book, she has started taking off some of the veils – and that’s why your description of it as starting at the center seems completely accurate... but since she doesn’t know which veil is real, as she takes off the layers, she’s constantly interfering and creating the illusion, then destroying it...
TG: The End of Beauty is filled with interfering. I listed ten or twelve ways of showing that this is a veil, this is a veil, this is a veil.
JG: My experience of it is of actively taking them off in the process of writing. It’s not like I would say “Oh, it’s going to be these seven veils.” I would write until suddenly what felt opaque turned transparent, and each time it felt like [pause] pain because what we want, of course, is to get to something which resists, which won’t come off. I was trying with great caution and difficulty in that book to experience, as I was writing, the actual moment when the thing would go transparent on me. I would realize the nature of the “bad” illusion and then have a sort of fall. As when Dickinson says “and then a plank in reason broke.” I felt almost reassured by the blanks in the book, because those were the only places where I felt it couldn’t go transparent.
TG: Let’s talk a bit about Hybrids. You’ve mentioned elsewhere how in that first book it’s easy to make sentences.
TG: It’s hard to read that book slowly. Your eye just sort of whips through it.
JG: For me there’s insufficient tension between the line and the sentence in that book, because the lines are too long to be felt as measured. When the prose-length lines occur, they don’t do so contrapuntally, as they do (I think) in The End of Beauty.
TG: How does your use of the sentence versus the line fit in here?
JG: The way the sentence operates became connected, for me, with notions like ending-dependence and eschatological thinking. With ideas like manifest destiny, westward expansion. Imperialisms of all kinds. I began to notice how the forms our Western sensibility creates are, for the most part, ending-dependent, and that such notions of form – however unconsciously – give birth to historical strategies like the Christian one: the need for the conflagration at the end that takes what appear like random events along the way and turns them into stages. Cause and effect, the link-up into narrative, all of this dependence on closure and strategies for delay in relation to closure, you know, whiz, bang, is terrific as long as we’re thinking of it in terms of art. But when we start realizing that by our historical thinking we have created a situation whereby we are only able to know ourselves by a conclusion which would render meaningful the storyline along the way – it becomes frightening. [pause] I don’t remember how Jonathan Schell put it in The Fate of the Earth, but the idea was that if you create shapes of a certain kind which govern human imagination, they become the shapes by which people experience time. Obviously, the political and historical occurrences of a given moment, of a given culture, have a lot to do with the particular notion of time those people believe they are living in. It forced me to recognize the little wind in myself which I think blows through many people living today – that secret sense of “well, lets get it over with so that we may know what the story was, what it was for” – apocalypse as the ultimate commodification.... All of this focused, for me, on the sense of closure, how we were using closure, and on the need to find new strategies by which to postpone closure (which is, of course, what the best narrative poems do). It made me feel, at any rate, that we had to try to find figures of imagination that contend with some other structuring element. Now, I haven’t been able to find them. I’m not sure they exist; that they are, finally, humanly possible. I’m intrigued by medieval triptychs –in which the middle panel (the present) is larger tan the side panels (past and future) – as a model. Or by certain unfinished works – like Bach’s Fugues. That’s why Pollock’s paintings became important to me, because of the ways in which they are a-closural. And the notion in chaos theory of “extreme sensitivity to initial conditions” (which I think Scalapino’s work explores beautifully). But to go back to the idea of the line – and your question – the line does bring with it (not only historically) an extraordinary sense of balance – poise outside time – which then contends with the swift scary suction of the sentence, careening, with its time sequences, its musically and rhetorically posited closure, grammatical causal linkages. The balance, the struggle, between these two in the style of any strong poet probably provides the swiftest access to their metaphysics...
TG: Does The End of Beauty feel like it’s simply suspending closure or does it feel like it’s doing something else?
JG: No, I wouldn’t way it’s managing to suspend closure. It might be trying to. But what I discovered in trying to write those poems was that the suction of closure was enormous – the desire to wrap it up into the ownable meaning – and that doing away with it wasn’t as easy as I had imagined. That was, for me, a very moving discovery. It was Demeter and Persephone, if you will – with the pull from the end, the suction towards closure, and the voice trying (quite desperately in spots) to find forms of delay, digression, side-motions which are not entirely dependent for their effectiveness on that sense-of-the-ending, that stark desire. Side-motions which actually move off a piece, and do not necessarily feed back into it – in the way I had always experienced poems moving before, sort of wrapping the poem down towards closure.
TG: Those side motions keep the gap alive?
JG: Yes. But they keep it alive, hopefully – or ideally – as a real gap, not one invented for the purposes of extending the delicious moment between the beginning and the ending. The deliciousness of that moment was the thing I was trying to mess with. The imperialist pleasure...
TG: So you want it to be extended because in doing so you gain what?
JG: Let’s put it this way: as a gap, an open field, so that one is at least aware of the wages, the responsibilities (as well as the incredible freedoms) of that opening. After all, the sensation of closure is primarily powerful for the ways in which it permits us to inhabit delay and feel that we are safe inhabiting delay.... I guess I wanted it to feel not safe – but real, open. Can we use the word being? The ground of being. The river of rivers. The gash of the present as not simply timeless but as the rip that affords a glimpse into a more genuine reality?
TG: You can inhabit because you don’t even know that it’s a delay. Is that right?
JG: [considering] We’re getting so abstract! In Ashbery’s poems, the thing that is often both intoxicating and scary to me, is how one is comforted by the sense that all these spinning off the spine of the poems, the line of argument, will be taken somewhere. It feels, by analogy, like you are in the hands of a deity who has ultimate plans for this. You are in the hands of a formal situation in which all of the apparently loose threads occurring in the middle are part of a larger design. The musical illusion (even if not the stated promise, and in spite of the contrapuntal tonal slippages) is that they will all be, ultimately, woven in.
TG: Whereas in The End of Beauty...
JG: There I basically wanted to say (formally) “Look, see these loose threads. Is it responsible to weave them back in? Isn’t that sort of saying, on some level, that the governing deity overseeing this mess has plans?” I grew up with a classical sense of “history.” I was taught in French schools after all! [laughs] My sense of history was of the most neatly planned narrative. Suspecting the illusion of that way of thinking – or feeling – and not being able to replace it with any other meaningful model, and becoming aware that poems, by the implications of their formal characteristics, were providing a metaphysical view of the world which might be a terrible illusion, one which might, moreover, be permitting us to not take certain kinds of actions because we feel ultimately, as a species, safe, compelled me to try to break that illusion as often as I could. Mostly to make myself feel how often I wanted to restore that illusion. In the act of writing, the desire to restore the illusion – you might call it the ultimate bourgeois illusion – to get the story moving down, link by causal link, to not let it stop, to make it arrive at right (i.e. inevitable) closure (what one deserves), was so strong. I could feel myself reenacting what I know is our cultural predicament. I guess I was writing them in order to feel that. It was, in fact, an incredibly noble and beautiful idea, the idea of Progress, the love story we call History. Wasn’t it? Where did we screw up? I was trying to move through those poems to feel where the outs were, and the ways back. That’s why they’re so frustrating to me. It’s an impossible avenue.
TG: Let me push a little bit. You mean that you’re doing more than just critiquing language, don’t you? There’s really something you want to gain between those two things.
JG: Oh. Yes. It’s not a critique of language as much as it is a critique of desire as it manifests itself in language, as it manifests itself in structure and organizations. Look, those cloistered sisters in “Eschatological Prayer” open up Saint Claire’s body, and they find proof, inside, of ...
TG: You see a metaphor made literal inside her...
JG: And they gained nothing by it. I don’t know, in the poe, if they should be forgiven or accused. And that dilemma felt, for me, like the center of what I was looking at. We pried it open. It says they found the gap “between the curtains of light and the curtains of light.” and went on in. Now, of course we should have gone in. Who wouldn’t have fone in? We divided the atom, etc. We had to. We became self-conscious.... This might seem excesive to some, but I feel that poems are enactments, ritualistic enactments – fractal enactments – in language, of historical motions. And in the process of them, you experience your accountability. You feel, in yourself, those crucial motions the culture has effected because you feel yourself actually doing them, undertaking them – helplessly, really – in the poem. “I’m going to wrap this up. I’m going to make this mean this way. I’m going to judge this way. I’m going to invade, control, usurp this way.” ...And of course I have to give those impulses play as well, because they’re true. But then, then...
TG: That’s what you mean by “and still be.”
TG: And then the other side of that is, we want “to be shattered.”
JG: Exactly. And to feel... That’s why the portraits are of double figures – male and female – and one is usually moving towards closure and one away.
TG: And both of those are inside?
JG: Yes. Aren’t they? Somebody wrote a mildly astonished review saying that it seems of all the people writing with myths now (and the review listed many such people), Jorie Graham is the one who seems to actually believe they are real – that they really happened. I found that incredibly tender and sweet – because it’s not just that I feel they “really” happened; I feel like they are, at all times, happening. There are moments when the gesture of Eve towards Adam occurs within the psyche, for example, that sudden turn towards self-transformation, death, form. We have, over the years, found other terms for those motions of the spirit – biological terms, sociological terms, religious terms. But the mythological figures for those actions seem to me more useful because less reductive; more complex; more inclusive – not to mention more mysterious.
TG: Could you say more about that gesture of Eve towards Adam?
JG: It’s a “gesture” that is happening, historically, at this moment in our culture, in fact – the way in which the female is ascendant, the desire for loss of hierarchies.... I even heard a discussion regarding new types of marketing and business structures – how Benetton, for example, and other world corporations, are developing what the speaker called “non-hierarchical organizational structures.” He actually used the metaphor “no head” in order to describe it. Erich Neumann in “The History and Origin of Consciousness” describes how the uroboric mother-archetype – neither terrible nor good, but both at once, unconscious, the dragon figure – spews forth a germ, a seed, the ego, and how this rises up as the hero out of the unconscious. His analysis privileges the moment (which seems to me our moment) when the hero looks back and sees her, the moment when the rational, masculine, mental hero, the Christ if you will, rises up out of the virgin – although it’s our of a darker thing than the virgin, more like a black Madonna – and encourages us to sense both of these figures in us at once. Neumann doesn’t do so explicitly, but his method seems to lead to such work, and I, for one, took him up on it – being in a period in history when the hero, the ascendant rational mind, has gotten so far along in its quest that the female has to ask for him back – or risk total psychic disintegration. There are a lot of Indian myths – of course – in which the great mother then eats the hero again, takes him back into her body, so that he may be born again in a new form.
TG: And you’re right between aren’t you, between the hero being eaten and being reborn?
JG: How nice! But I think what I’m trying to do is – if you will permit this exaggeration! – is reincorporate the hero part of my psyche back into the unconscious, uroboric female. Not in some foolish way in order to dissolve “him” – the mind – but to keep everything alive, to keep the tension alive. It’s as if, for me, those poems are balloon environments in which I’ve got the terrible mother, if you will, and the hero – both awake, hopefully, and at their fullest. My hero side is enormously developed, and, in some respect, I use poetry to reawaken the mother, the unconscious side. This is a description of any functioning form – a vessel for active tension.
TG: Now, once these two thing are quivering together, once they’re in tension together, what do they pick up? What can they register? Does that make sense?
JG: Yes. It’s also a very difficult question, because my answer would be “then they pick up a whole view.” They recover, they restore, the body and senses to the mind. And they therefore provide a way of thinking about time which is linear and circular at the same time. They create, hopefully, a restored, undissociated sensibility, which then permits one to see the ways in which time is at once news time and the time of the mysteries. I guess I believe that if one could see both ways at once, one could – without even having Cassandra around – make “sense” of events. Obviously it’s in many ways absurd as a notion; absurd in its belief that creating a restored sensibility is a way of affecting the consciousness of the race so that we might not destroy ourselves. I’m so much at the outer limits of political action, and feel so frustrated in that regard, that it’s probably a delusion that I create for myself in order to get myself off the hook... On the other hand, there’s that great story about the hundredth monkey, do you know it?
JG: Jungian analysts often use it. There was – is – some island out in the middle of somewhere – an actual island – where monkeys used to not wash the tubers they dug up before they ate them. A monkey was taught that skill, and it passed it on to its offspring and immediate group, and so forth. When the hundredth monkey learned the skill, monkeys all over the globe – totally unrelated geographically – started doing it. That’s one of the saving stories for me.
TG: That helps me. So you take your task as being not really presenting information about that nothing at all, but more working with yourself, working with the instrument, getting yourself prepared to start dealing with that. Does that make sense?
JG: Yes. Completely. Only there is no way to prepare oneself without actually undergoing the encounter.
TG: Banging your head against it.
JG: It’s not like aerobics! It’s more like intercourse. You have to do it to become the person who can do it. That’s what Keats’s “Vale of Soul-Making” refers to... that use of poetry, of composition, as self-creation. Or Stevens’s notion of “the poem of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice.” That motion towards the opposite in order to complete oneself and forge a soul. The ego/unconscious dialectic is only one figure for a deep psychic dynamic which sets most poems in motion, which drives most poets into language. The desire to create one’s self... Whitman trying to find a body. Stevens writing to recover a mind.
TG: I would have reversed that.
JG: Let’s see. Take these two typical images: Whitman’s “Sniff of green leaves and dry leaves” and Stevens’s “Grapes/ [that] make sharp air sharper by their smell.” ...Whitman’s line is totally mental – needing the reader to supply the sense-memory that corresponds to green leaves and dry leaves. Complete with instructions as to how to do that work for yourself: “Sniff.” Stevens’s image, on the other hand, is utterly of and from his body – received by the reader via his or her senses and then translated into the mental construct, idea, that it is... Whitman has always seemed to me a very intellectual sensibility writing desperately towards his body to recover it. And Stevens, of course (with those sticky cinnamon bus in his coat pocket!), a poet so fully in the body, in his senses, and moving towards the conceptual and philosophical in order to complete himself – or, rather, in order to save himself (since that’s what it feels like to forge a soul). We tend to define our poets by that aspect of sensibility they actually most lack and strive towards.... Williams – a very intellectual sensibility – thrusting himself toward matter – things! – cracking them open via fissures in every sentence, between every word almost – enlisting the aid of silence – in order to crack open his very mental sense of reality. We tend to think of him, though, or describe him, as the great sensualist, the great advocate of matter.... It’s the gap, the crack in the sensibility that compels the action of the poem into being. The ambition I was talking about earlier – that so many of us are growing less afraid of and more urgently in need of – is precisely the desire to find (via all the accretions, layerings, partial views) a whole view, a view which arrives at objectivity via all the failures, all the archaeology of multiple subjectivities – rather than the old (fake?) objectivity of simple representation – representation as a coded statement of beliefs – agendas really – usually the dominant culture’s – trying to pass for an objective picture of reality. Ashbery’s whole method of course involves this slow incorporation of all the possible subjective points of view – the failures – in order to arrive at this other objectivity....
TG: In Erosion I’m real clear where the failures are. The girl’s memory of ironing breaks apart and the tragedy shows through and you can see what’s there. But in The End of Beauty, I’m aware of you working the instrument over, showing me the failures of memories or numbers or time, over and over, without the poems ever slowing down enough to examine the one thing that blew the poem apart. In Erosion there is one thing that blows the poem apart, but in the next book there are just so many things that are blowing each of the poems apart.
JG: Yes. But I would say that it’s the same thing, always, that blows them apart, no? It’s what we would call self-consciousness, or the hero in the way that I’m using it. The self-portraits are about (but the other poems are written from) the predicament in which the hero is being sucked back in. The reason the hero needs to be sucked back in is essentially the same in every case. The poem is exploring the limitations of what the hero got to – this imperial, incredibly moving, yet absurd belief that one could seize, in language, the nothing. (And yet that desire is, I think, I hope, also fully represented in the poems.) And so, there are actions in many of those poems which are the hero going: “Look, I can still do this. Here we go.” And then there are actions which are the sucking under, and they’re different in every poem. And there are poems in which the hero remains victorious. What we’re talking about in all this, of course, is what the style of the poems is about. We’re allegorizing the formal elements.
TG: Yes.... You’ve written, elsewhere, about the important role silence plays in your work. About how you go about trying to “activate” the silence.
JG: Yes. Making the silence come awake in the poem is important to my process. The silence – or anything else that resist the impulse to imagine, own, transform.
TG: And the way you make this silence come awake is by painting for us the moment when you are just about ready to crunch it with words. Is that right? That’s what you’re drawn to in that Japanese theater. How tempted you are to put words around it.
JG: [pause] Yes. Also, lines of breath-length, say, lines that contain up to five stresses, sometimes feel to me like measures that make that silence feel safe. A silence that will stay at bay for as long as it takes to get the thing said. Writing in lines that are longer than that, because they are really unsayable or ungraspable in one breath unit for the most part (and since our desire is to grasp them in one breath unit) causes us to read the line very quickly. And the minute you have that kind of a rush in the line (emphasized perhaps by the absence of commas and other interpretive elements) what you have is a very different relationship with the silence: one that makes it aggressive – or at least oceanic – something that won’t stay at bay. You have fear in the rush that can perhaps cause you to hear the fearful in what is rushed against.
TG: I see. Your voice mimes the process by the way it struggles to get out.
JG: What you feel – this is Romantic of course – is the pressure of a silence that might not wait until the end of the line to override you. And so you have to rush those words into it. In this new book, I’m writing mostly in traditional lines again, with less counterpoint from such prose-length units. But the calm assurance of the standard English line has always interested and troubled me. In Erosion, the line-length tended to be much smaller than the norm. The voice in that book was, in fact, so aware of the overriding presence of the white space that it just tried to mash words into that space. With great pressure. To create the sensation of that gravitational weight. Sternness. Solemnity. As if to build cell by cell a fabric that could take the weight of eternity into it – like human tissue.
TG: Creeley feels like that, too.
JG: I love him. [pause] It’s the automatic taking on of generic voices, formal devices, musics, that drives me crazy. Using the very devices that make poetry powerful – those soul-creating devices that are, of course, in the process, creators of humanity – using those against poetry! To not locate yourself in your personal sensibility – to not find your driving act – but to just talk in some received voice, received music, with its attendant received attitudes, ideas, feelings... that is not only an utter waste of time, it’s probably damaging to all concerned – reader, writer, even the medium... so that with the “new formalists” (so called) it’s that sense of having one’s head in the sand – (it’s all OK folks, these lines are five beats to the line, the silence is beautiful, whatever’s in it is not really terrifying) – that makes me uneasy. It is, of course, also “beautiful.” But the silence around most such meters sounds very different to me now. Is there nuclear winter in it? Auschwitz? Screams that will not go out? And the abysses of analogy – fractals – the silent abysses of matter? The easy music – unless it’s used with the full weight of its implication – as in the tragic poems of Merrill; or the historical confrontations meter enacts for Walcott; or Rick Kennedy’s use of science... but that banality of easy – meaningless – music... it sometimes feels like a lunacy to me. Historically – given our predicament.
TG: Yes. That’s what you would call Apollo. Or the mother in “The Veil” who wants to cover up the gap with her story – without realizing there is any sort of problem with that.
JG: What we’re talking about, in the end, is the distinction between suffering and understanding, and how we want to merge them in the act of writing a poem. We want to be able to suffer the poem so that the actions that we take in the act of writing are true actions – in order to save ourselves. When Frost says, “After all, what are the ideals of form for if we aren’t going to be made to fear for them? All our ingenuity is lavished on getting into danger legitimately so that we may be genuinely rescued”: you have to have genuine risks in order to have genuine salvation. What I sense in many poems I read are risks fabricated for the purposes of getting a poem (consumer risks to awaken consumer desire), and what I get therefore is a salvation (a form, a discovery, epiphany or failure thereof – a meaning) which is of no use to me. What moves me about Roethke, for example, in his mad poems, is the degree to which he has put himself at genuine risk. Now that means actually putting oneself in a poem as a protagonist, rather than a narrator; and in a situation where one might not, in fact, get a poem.
TG: You mean a risk with your words – that the words are going to be said and won’t hold at all.
JG: That things will be said that sound true, that might even be beautiful, but that aren’t true. [paus] One needs to be both – the questor in the poem, the protagonist, the sufferer, the one who’s lost in the forest of language, and simultaneously (because we can’t just write “nothing”), the one who understands enough to guide and shape; though without overunderstanding so that you move too swiftly (automatically) (rationally) towards closure and the whole problem we were talking about earlier; or without creating a form that understand itself so thoroughly (as the middle poems of Roethke’s do) that once you set out in that form, the form will simply take you home.
TG: The form is no longer an issue then, is it?
JG: If the poet is sage, if he knows the form can for sure get him there, he’s not genuinely at risk any longer. Which is what’s so extraordinary about free verse. The opportunities for being genuinely at risk and therefore for genuine salvation, or recovery in it, are extraordinary if it is undertaken honestly. [pause] “Free verse” seems to me a sloppy name for the formal verse we write which is not in a priori patterns. Would we call jazz simply free classical music? All real poetry is formal – any pot knows that – all mere verse is not formal, whether it be in meter or other counted patterns, or not. The difference concerns more whether the pattern is explicit (or a priori), or implicit (even secret) and created in process (some would say discovered – itself a slippery word).... There is no “plain speech,” however it may ultimately appear to a reader, wherever a genuine form has been wrought from and earned from and stolen from chaos. There is, though, the issue of where the particular poet wants chaos represented in his or her work, and to what degree. No genuine form occurs without the honest presence of chaos (however potentially) in the work. Form, when it has power, is form wrenched from its opposite. I happen to favor work in which the potential (or posited) power of chaos is great. Because I believe it is so in the world. It feels right to me. So form wrought from a merely suggested, hardly virile, chaos might seem more artificial to me, less trustworthy. A saying-so, not a doing. But it’s a matter of temperament, not – as some polemicists would have it – a matter of learnedness or metrical literacy. It’s a matter of the relative weights ascribed to chaos and order in the sensibility of a given poet and how honestly he or she has managed to enact that in his or her use of formal elements – those that move towards, and those that flee from, the center. Poetry that doesn’t address the battle between God and Leviathan implicitly in its form is an uninteresting to me – and probably as useless and powerless in the world – as any blind acceptance of any status quo. It feels nice, no doubt. You can go home and have dinner and smile at the little ones without fear.... But to go back to your question. What’s so extraordinary about Stevens, is (among other things) the marriage he’s effected between being at genuine risk and having all his formal understanding operative – without putting himself in a situation where the formal understanding is such that it’s already a contract, where the end is guaranteed. That, to me, is the ideal, and why poetry is such an extraordinary medium for spiritual undertaking.
TG: I wonder why, then, what people like Laurie Anderson are doing makes you uneasy with poetry?
JG: Maybe I just want to be kept uneasy, at a certain level. I’m terribly afraid of the complacency of this is a story, there’s a reason why each thing is happening... and yet I find I have an enormous desire to become innocent in that way again. The relationship between the word and the thing can be very lulling if you decide they’re really connected.
TG: That they’re married.
JG: That it’s a stable marriage.... And so I find myself very drawn to situations in which the problems with reference are roiled up. I like to be kept on that hook. Because then when I go to write about anything – and after all, the poems are always “about” something else – the issue of the medium they are enacted in is alive. Then I can (hopefully) undertake whatever the quest of that particular poem with, simultaneously, sufficient doubt and sufficient faith. Under those conditions I feel I might get somewhere. Somewhere tenable. Somewhere trustworthy. [pause] Part of what disturbs me in poems that don’t work – mine and those of others – is the sense of “you didn’t go into it with the issue of language alive; you didn’t go into it with the problem of ‘saying’ implicit somewhere.” So I don’t care what they arrive at, because the uncertainty principle wasn’t operative. Of course, that in and of itself isn’t an interesting topic. The nature of the distortion can’t be itself the end.
TG: That must be hard to do, to keep yourself honest on that issue.
JG: That is the whole problem. [pause] You know when I was talking earlier about veils coming off? I feel that really strongly in Berryman’s use of different voices. When he puts on each of the voices, there’s a certain terrain he takes on, and therefore clues as to what his condition is for, why he’s stuck there, how he’s supposed to live his life. There’s a certain terrain that he can only get to in that voice. The drunk white professor voice permits him to look at God in a particular way. Then his black minstrel voice permits him to look at Him in another. And the ways he sees trhough each of these voices as he’s using the, so that he has to, in some of those poems, snap out of that register into a different level of voice...
TG: “Come on, now.” That kind of stuff. So he makes voice the issue.
JG: Yes. He makes voice the issue and the instrument, and – in that there’s no bedrock voice – the terror: that there’s no voice with which to approach experience. There’s no whole self. And no governing self that straddles and negotiates the various selves but, rather, a constant falling away of different selves into an increasingly relative sense of self: a dramatic self, in other words, but also riddled with perspectivism, insincerity, the fluidities of self-presentation – arbitrary, ironic, endlessly exfoliating. Most moving, to me, is the way in which the poems try to make form the medium by which all these terrifyingly relative selves are governed into some kind of a whole that might survive the onslaught of experience. Because clearly a fractured or atomized self can’t. We were talking, earlier, about the use of the traditional line, and the ways in which it seems historically problematic to me at this point. In Berryman, though – given how he’s fracturing the self – the way in which the line stands as an attempt (constantly shattered in the poem) to recover a sense of self, a nobility – moves me deeply. I’ve learned so much from that man.
TG: A poem that doesn’t acknowledge the problem of saying is perhaps interesting as a document of a life?
JG: Yes – of course – but from a poet’s point of view, greedy on behalf of the medium: it cannot push the medium.
TG: Maybe that’s why Bishop wrote so few poems. Each of the poems was a new problem.
JG: Exactly. The next poem had to be the next stage in the quest her life was undertaking via poetry – not the life over here and the poem tracking alongside with good binoculars. Now I don’t mind that in and of itself. It’s wonderful that someone should want to record their experience in poems. But for the medium to remain the antenna of the race, it has to be a medium in which growth is happening, so that the medium itself can be extended into the future. You don’t feel like Donne’s Holy Sonnets are records of something that occurred prior to the vent of the poem. You feel like the moment of confrontation occurred in language – in that particular language – and that language is compelled to push and extend itself in order to make the confrontation happen, to extend itself into the future, to grow. The life in the language grows. Rilke is, for me, an important tutelary deity in that regard – in the sense that he will not speak until he’s at the act of confrontation. He doesn’t speak about wanting to confront and then hoping to confront. He’s silent until he’s right at it. He’s the lip of language going into the unknowable and bringing it back. That’s what’s so moving to me about Bishop’s poems – the ways in which they all take place at boundaries, and are enactments of the ways the ineffable erodes the known, and the known makes inroad into the ineffable. Mapping of the back and forth. Poems which are entirely acts of description, because description is an attempt to go out into it and come back changed.
TG: Acts of description and criticism of description, that’s what’s onwderful to me about it. But different ways of criticizing description.
JG: Yes. Think of her subtle wounds – where she starts to describe and revises her description. She’s stunning in that gesture. So puritanical and calm about such dangerous terrain. Do you know that wonderful poem called “Jerónimo’s House” – with the flamenco and the blinds – in which she describes how in between the bars of our prison (the blinds, literally) there are notes, and how the language itself, the names for things, are those bars? And how in between – not in the act of description itself – but in the cracks of it, the thing emerges. You have to undertake an act which you know is essentially futile, in the direct sense: the words are not going to seize the thing. But what leaks in between the attempts at seizure is the thing, and you have to be willing to suffer the limits of description in order to get it.
TG: It’s amazing how close the two of you are in that – suffering the limits of description.
JG: It’s the old idea that the only way to experience faith is through active doubt. You have to undertake the encounter with the “monument,” and it has to remain essentially unknowable. The desire to apprehend it, the act or attempt at apprehension, description – and the failure of that attempt – is the beginning, as she says, of imagination, of art.
TG: It’s “the little that we get for free.” Even as cracked and eroded as that painting by her great uncle is, as she looks, it opens up, and while remaining cheap and worthless, it’s got compressed behind it “life itself,” or “nothing” you would say.
JG: Exactly. And “Large Bad Picture,” with its simultaneous matchstick-strokes and real masts, its view of the world as at once “commerce and contemplation.” It’s what we were talking about earlier, the male and female view of things merging into one view, a view in which the differene between them is kept intact. They are kept in solution, unsolved.
JG: It’s also in “Cirque d’Hiver,” where the little automatic ballerina is both being “pierced” and yet remains mechanical. What Bishop does to the reader in that poem is very interesting. As you go through it, you see the doll as a machine, then she suddenly has a soul, and she’s real, and you empathize, then Bishop restores her to her mechanical status so you withdraw empathy, then she makes her “human” again: by the end, you can’t shift back and forth between subjectivity and objectivity any longer; you’re compelled to hold both emotions in yourself at once without losing their difference.
TG: Which is trust and distrust of language, holding doing and undoing it in your hand at once. Is Bishop a model, or is it just you’re on similar paths and she’s helping you see what you’re already dealing with?
JG: When I read Bishop, I understood her so completely I realized I had a temperamental affinity with her. My sense of the border was utterly confirmed in Bishop, and extended. But the music in her poems, the rhythm – however extraordinary – didn’t set me off. My body didn’t recognize it. There’s a very big difference between poets whose obsessions (obviously they’re enacted by the form and only available via the form) are influence or confirm one’s concerns as essential issues – and ones whose surface is electric – the ones you read to get charged. I felt inBishop and in Merwin, and in Dickinson and Yeats, confirmation as to the nature of the enterprise. Stevens, though, I read to get charged. His language puts me in contact with my language. The same with Berryman. Eliot. But if I read Dickinson, I can’t write at all...
TG: I see what you mean. In Bishop you get the problem and a way of dealing with the problem.
JG: But I also get incredible confirmation. Let’s go back to this issue because this one seems important. The relationship between the poem and the reader is what I learned actively from Bishop, the sense of the reader’s soul being actually jarred between opposing sensations – commerce and contemplation were the terms of hers I used for it earlier, I believe – secular and sacred, like a dying animal and like... something lse. The idea that you could end up, at the end of the poem – if you’d opened yourself up to it in the act of writing – with a different notion of reality and of your role in it: not simply a receiver of the poem, but an enactor of the ritual the poem created.
TG: But you do it with a kind of anxiety that she doesn’t have. You don’t say “Dear reader”; you say “Dear are-you-there?”
JG: Yes. Her poems posit a willing reader, and for me the reader is one who has heard it all before, who is no longer really capable of extended reading, who is so overwhelmed with stimuli of all kinds he or she cannot receive much else. A reader who can practically no longer tell the difference between something true and something false because of the surfeit, the information glut, the sensoral glut. You have to get that reader’s attention quickly. The God I imagine that reader to be is a bored God, bored with the world he created, incapable of attending honestly to prayers any longer. So that the only prayers He might hear are ones that are very quick and to the point. A bored parent, a lover who is about to walk away – that reader. In fact, many of the devices in the poems are intended to work on a silent reader about to put the book down. A reader who doesn’t trust language any more as a medium for truth – because of advertising, because of government, because of the atrocities language has carried in its marrow... I felt like those poems were really trying to recover the faith of the reader, his or her good will, his or her quietness.
TG: I see.
JG: Then, perhaps, to move that reader through certain of those stages we were outlining above. But the nervousness in the project comes from that predicament – Bishop assumes a contemplative reader and I cannot do so, in good faith, because even I am not that kind of reader any longer.
TG: Parenthetical comments do that as well, don’t they?
JG: Yes. It’s an attempt to say “are you there?” to a nonidealist, a pragmatist, a reader who doesn’t necessarily even believe in literature; most importanly, though, a reader who doesn’t believe that words are telling the truth. Trust these words.
TG: This issue of the reader also connects with the problem of obscurity in your work, doesn’t it?
JG: I’m often asked, in a kind of aggressive way, why the surfaces have to be so difficult in these poems. Or why I so admire surfaces like The Waste Land’s, or Berryman’s, or Ashbery’s. I think it’s because a resistant or partially occluded surface compels us to read with a different part of our reading apparatus, a different part of our sensibility. It compels us to use our intuition in reading, frustrates other kinds of reading, the irritable-reaching-after kind. I agree with Stevens’s dictum: “the poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully.”
TG: You’re asking us to read differently?
JG: Pollock’s larger murals provide a good example of the process. Because they are painted in such great detail, if you stnad far back enough to “see” the whole painting – its wings as it were – you can’t see the actual painting. But the minute you get close enough to see the painting, the dripwork, you can no longer see the whole canvas. Or not with frontal vision. But you can pick up the rest of the painting with peripheral vision – which is, of course, a more “intuitive” part of the seeing apparatus. I think he was doing this consciously – that he was trying to compel us to stand at that difficult juncture of whole and partial visions, subjectivity and objectivity if you will – or at least view-from-above and view-from-middle – historical distance and the present moment – and use our whole seeing mechanism... As with Pollock’s surface, poems with resistant surfaces frustrate frontal vision long enough to compel the awakening of the rest of the reading sensibility – intuition, the body. To my mind (to my hope) that creates a more whole reader, the dissociated sensibility restored to wholeness by the act of reading. Perhaps you could even say the male and female both suddenly awake in you...
TG: There’s some risk in that for the reader, isn’t there?
JG: Yes, because the whole culture requires us to shut that other part down in order to survive – the intuitive, the female, whatever you want to call it. So that it seems to me a very useful poltiical act to write poems in which the resistance of the surface compels that other aspect of our sensibility awake.
TG: The trick then is for you to get yourself in that position where someone will read you long enough.
JG: Yes. And stay with it. That’s what all the elements of sound and lyricism are for – the whole seduction: “this is getting darker and darker but stay with me.” That’s one thing – among many – that Ashbery taught us (of course Eliot is the master in this regard): keep it lyrical, keep the music up, and that sense of “don’t worry, this is going to mean” alive. Only music will allow us, as reader, to suspend ourselves out into “incomprehension” long enough to awaken that intuitive aspect of our reading sensibility, and permit us to sense it, feel that it can “know.” What I discovered in looking at Pollock’s painting is that, damn it, peripheral vision is an incredible instrument. It’s not just a stunted form of frontal vision. It apprehends totally different things. Imagine how we could see the world if we could awaken our whole seeing apparatus that way. It seems to me a certain aspect of the reading mind has been atrophied at this point in history that was perhaps more muscular when people read the Bible regularly, because of a certain peripheral vision the reading of parable requires, for example.
TG: Try that again about lyric and song, because it goes back to something you were doing earlier.
JG: I was just saying that for me a poem has to contend with its opposite. A poem that touches upon, or flirts with, or arrives at, the disintegration of song and the world view that accompanies it, for example – the “beautiful” one – ahs to actively contend with it. Then, in arriving at a darker vision, it has arrived there honestly. Or if, conversely, it arrives at the purer vision – the well-wrought urn – what it has arrived at is a truth only if it has made the pure vision contend with the darker one. At any rate, sufficient tension can be generated by music to make this kind of “authority” happen. If the vision of chaos prevails in the strategy for example – for example, if we don’t get a narrative thread or a governing metaphor to follow – we will stay with the poem (and the experience the poem is permitting us to have) if we get a music we can stay with, an articulate music. The reverse, of course, is equally true. [pause] I know it seems crazy in poems as noisy as mine, but I really do try to keep music alive above all else. What that does for me is keep a very particular kind of desire alive. The minute I’m writing lyrically – or trying to make sure a lyrical thread is alive in the poem – a certain kind of hope is alive in me.
TG: And then as soon as you start hoping for it you’ve got to challenge and defend it, don’t you?
JG: Yes. But keeping the song alive is keeping alive a world in which song is possible. You have to keep hope alive. Any kind of truth you might arrive at that hasn’t contended with hope is going to be very partial. [pause] Michael Palmer is very interesting in that regard. He has extraordinary music. I think he’s learned better than anyone the Stevens trick of making the poem disintegrate on the surface but stay totally alive musically. To me he’s very important in that regard. The way he uses repetition. The particular way he will bring certain images back without that turning into structure. Pure desire kept alive in the act of writing by the way fragments recur.
TG: His sense of contention seems different from yours.
JG: I don’t know. I know what I learned from him, which is the way in which a line is a medium for desire of a completely different order than the sentence. In Notes for Echo Lake – especially in the poems of that title (“He would live against sentences” for example, which is “Notes for Echo Lake 10,” I believe) – he uses silence to make each line audible in poems which are specifically about the disintegration of the kind of desires the use of the line implies... You hear the line, and the desire for order it implies, the desire for History – the desire for the English version to have been right! – all the enormous upswelling of “Oh, let’s make the thing beautiful and leave it at that”; the four-stress line coming in to practically make you weep with the “Oh, couldn’t it just have stayed there?” Who wouldn’t want to put their head in the sand – on that level – and just make beautiful things? He manages to almost make fun of that desire and yet he’s joying in the instruments of that desire. Duncan, of course, does much the same thing – but not as radically. I decided, after rereading them (and Paradise Lost!) that I had to go back to the line, had to contend with all the implications of the line, not just the sentence. The ambitions and desire of that kind of time...
TG: And see if they hold up?
JG: Oh, they hold up! No, more to see what they can teach me to believe in. The temptation to trust beauty of that order – well – it’s very Republican! [laughs] I forgive the “new formalists” everything, therefore, because they really want it all, on some level, to have been all right. I’ve had to raise that specter vividly for myself – to make sure I understand it, know it in myself. Here is beauty, and here is order, and here is the made thing and the one-on-one relationship between language and the world. Let’s love it again, let’s roil that classicism up again. I didn’t want to get so far that my desire and passion for that was extinguished. Have you had this experience? At a certain point it’s really easy to trust cacophony over mellifluousness. It gets really easy to trust disintegration over the well-wrought urn. So you have to summon that urn again. I have had to write in that kind of music again in order to experience that kind of desire-for-order again, in a real way, not in quotes. So that I might be able to break away again in a different – and newly true – way. I can really understand now what Roethke did – taking on Yeats’s voice after the wild poems: how he might want to feel the attractiveness of the illusion again, the non-illusory quality of the illusion.
TG: Let’s go back to that Neumann quote you wanted. Did you find it?
JG: It goes like this: “The real source of conflict between the individual and the unconscious” – by individual he means the ego – “lies in the fact that the unconscious represents the will of the species, of the collective, and not in the opposition of the pleasure and the reality principles.” I think it’s really important to us now, historically, to realize that the female principle, the unconscious, the great uroboric mother (what I was referring to earlier as the female aspect of the poems), is collective. The male part, individual. In my case, it becomes clear to me that the “balloon” the poems in End of Beauty were making – combining male and female, the uroboric mother-dragon and the hero rising up out of it as rational consciousness, will, manly spirituality, “the higher masculinity of the head” – that drama, enacts a battle which goes on between the individual tragic hero and the chorus. In writing them I kept having this image (which I only understood later, coming upon Neumann) of a group of women on one side (a sense of collectivity among them, but scary) and a single man on the other, holding up a shield, or a plan, or an idea – very alone.
TG: So Eurydice is a collective, many women.
JG: Yes. “Many women” is why I hesitate to talk about it. It starts to make it more political than I would have intended it. But, yes – that sense of the will of the species and the individual will – the battle between them being also the East/West battle. There’s always, to me, something crucial about Apollo being Western and Daphne still being Oriental.
TG: Could you push that further?
JG: The Greek myths are so powerful for me because they are located at a moment when the Oriental and the Occidental world views are pulling free of each other in a place where they were married. That sense of the “many-headed foam,” as Yeats would have it – the Oriental view, collective, giving in to time (the will of the species) – as opposed to the incredible dramatic and moving rise of the individual free voice – fighting time, or insisting on forging something out of time, in time.
TG: And in your poems –
JG: In those poems, there’s a dance going on between a voice which rises up – an individual voice, of personality if you will, in little expressions like “What do you think?” or “Darling” – that kind of tone – and a voice, and undervoice which is much more diffuse, less “personalized.” That’s part of the same battle we were talking about, given the fact that the cult of personality is one of the weird side effects of the cult of individuality.... That push of “species” fate (on the female side) is really quite different from fate in the guise of closure pulling you. In one version, one is propelled by the will of the beginning, one exfoliates off the power of beginning, of creation; in the other, one is tugged down indefatigably by the end. The Bible itself is a mixture of Occidental and Oriental views of time; the Old Testament really representing a circular Oriental view that slowly transmogrifies into the Occidental view with the Advent of Christ and linear time and eschatological narrative. One is beginning-dependent, the other ending-dependent. The whole Old Testament exfoliates off the act of Creation, the New fulfills predictions, prefigurations of “something” at the end. The enduring power of the Bible must consist in – among other things – the way in which those two versions of time, cyclical and linear, are married to each other.
TG: And struggle?
JG: And the wonderful struggle, of course, where things that are actually exfoliations off the beginning are being used as prefigurations of Christ.
TG: That’s what the beginning of the Gospel of John is all about.
JG: Yes. [pause] In this new book the other John, John the Baptist, plays a central role. I guess it’s because he’s used by Christianity to point forward, though he’s actually also pointed back. He’s operating in both principles at once, which is why his face has to come off! [laugh]
TG: So in the new book you’re looking for the point of intersection?
JG: I guess I’m just always looking for why it happened and how it happened - why we are where we are. Because I believe (in the conventional Jungian sense) that we reenact in our own lives, in the stages of our growth of consciousness, the history of the species, I feel that if I can track in my own individual consciousness reasoning errors, slippages, misreadings, I might be able to find ways of altering them – at the very least in myself, by becoming aware, by understanding how we got here, beached; and maybe not only in myself. Maybe in the form of the poem as well – which is, of course, the beginning of others.