“The aim is to find a form of speech that touches the common denominator. Find poems that speak deeply and then animate them clearly for the common reader. I’m trying to hammer every bit of pretense out of my writing, make it sharp and intense.”
LELAND QUARTERLY: Okay, to start: in your article for the American Poetry Review, you call Romantic John Clare’s attitude toward nature “a unique, witnessing energy.” Is there something about the poetic disposition that might change people’s attitudes toward the environment, and if so, how?
JOHN FELSTINER: Oh, we’re going to start like that. You don’t want to know where I’m from?
LQ: Well, we could start that way, but we kind of figured that we would just dive right in. Do you want us to go back?
JF: No, no, it’s fine. Is there something about the poetic disposition…?
LQ: Right. Is there something about the poetic disposition that might change people’s attitudes toward the environment, and if so, how?
JF: Well, it sounds like you’re asking why even address the question through the lens of poetry when there are so many other avenues that seem to be more to the point—natural history, science, economics, politics, law? All of these seem much closer to our needs, environmentally speaking. Why go back to what so many people consider frosting on the cake, even self-indulgence?
Personally, I believe that all those approaches are absolutely necessary, but without a human acknowledgment of the crisis and the need at the core of it, these efforts are not going to go anywhere except in reaction to a tsunami or worse. Tsunamis, hurricanes, massive shortages have an immediate impact, but the memory of things that seem to jump in your face and say ‘Pay attention to global warming’ is minimal. It can peter out in a matter of months sometimes.
Ezra Pound said: “Poetry is news that stays news.” Actually, he said literature is news that stays news, but I’ll take the opportunity to change that a bit. Poetry—poetry is news that stays news. To make news stay fresh on our agenda, we need a thrust to the gut, the fiber, the grain of what makes us work. More than ever, I believe poetry can do this for people. This hope drives the book I’ve just finished.
Let me make an aside, if I may.
JF: This quarter I’m teaching a course called “Imagining the Holocaust.” It used to be “Literature of the Holocaust.” I don’t believe we can grasp what happened back then except through acts of imagination. Imagination’s no substitute for the real thing, but short of actuality, all we have is imagination—psychic actuality, which may yield an even sharper sense than having been there.
In this course I deal with “creative resistance”: poetry, art, photography, music that emerged in Nazi-occupied Europe. In those conditions poetry occurred for its terseness and coherence. We need to touch people at the core as well as laying out fatal statistics.
And I think we have to start with the 11th grade. College is often too late. Many college students come with a pre-professional aim, but in about 11th grade people are beginning to think what they might devote their lives to. Call it an almost galvanic shock of realizing what can and should be done with one’s life. The recognitions poems can incite may trigger such realization.
Now, for some folks, the environmental cause remains external—an abstract question of natural surroundings, of wilderness. But what matters is the connection, the interaction between humankind and what lives around us. We nearly extinguished the Californian condor, but at the last minute began to bring it back. Because our stance toward non-human nature will make all the difference, we must move through the human element, the human dimension and perspective. Poetry is always opening up and unblocking new perspectives for us.
Are you familiar with the William Carlos Williams poem: “To Waken an Old Lady?”
LQ: Yes, we are.
JF: Then you know the phrase: “But what?”
It marks a fresh recognition. The same thing happens in Shirley Kaufman’s “Jacaranda” or in Williams’s “Spring and All.”
The line itself grips down; it’s taught a whole generation of poets: “rooted, they / grip down and begin to awaken.” Just the crisped energy in that “stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf,” new growth taking form, has bred a whole strain of possibility in modern poetry.
My book is called So Much Depends: Poetry and Environmental Urgency. As Williams would have it, so much depends on seeing things afresh and saying them anew: seeing by saying, and saying by seeing. So much depends upon getting a grasp on the natural world that does not smother it. And “so much depends” is an open-ended phrase. We’re not told how much or what. We are beginning to learn what is needed and how very much.
This may not be the crucial question for my children, perhaps not even for yours, but it is a question for the generation that’s coming very soon.
LQ: I’m interested in how the implementation of this perspective might be carried out. It takes a pretty dedicated teacher, and a pretty personal connection to make you get into something on your own.
JF: That’s very true. I would have to respond with Coleridge’s word “Joy.” Give people joy and they’ll go with you. If you just scare them or hector, they won’t. Catch them where they live—somewhere more than in the mind—I would call it spirit. The spirit—the inner energy we feel when we’re most ourselves and most pointedly engaged. Catch people there, you’ll enlist them in some way.
I try to do this via poetry. The honest answer is, I’m not a scientist, a natural historian, an outright activist, a nature writer, a policy maker, or a lawyer. I’ve decided to do what I do best, for the time being. What’s more, I’ve gotten more energy out of this task than from anything else, with more socio-political urgency.
The aim is to find a form of speech that touches the common denominator. Find poems that speak deeply and then animate them clearly for the common reader. I’m trying to hammer every bit of pretense out of my writing, make it sharp and intense.
Trying to work out this perspective has given me a great deal of pleasure, and American Poetry Review has been a godsend. Publishing columns throughout 2007 has allowed me to choose six poets I thought would be most striking and accessible: Williams, Clare, Dickinson, Millay, Swenson, Haines. Meanwhile, I’ve become more and more taken by finding images to accompany my essays. APR is publishing more graphics than they ever have, among them an unknown shot of Robinson Jeffers and Edna St. Vincent Millay at Hawk Tower in 1930, also Millay protesting against the Sacco and Vanzetti murders.
LQ: It’s interesting that you mentioned Robinson Jeffers. I was recently reading a book of Jeffers poetry, and the introduction touched on something I’m interested in. They were discussing Jeffers’ style, and were opposing it to the experimentalists, who they claim did not have the “spiritual nerve” that Jeffers did. I’m interested in the attitude that comes from such a statement because it seems that experimental and more “traditional” poetry seem to polarize people. Do you think these two approaches to poetry are actually opposed or that they are just two different ways of getting at the same thing?
JF: Of course, there’s also a question of what “experimental” signifies. To say it’s something that blasts beyond the tradition is one thing. But Frost was experimental in trying to wrestle colloquial sound and sense together in his voice, and on the page. Williams was experimental, but so good at it he may not seem experimental now. Everything is relative to what has come before.
Really, I don’t fully credit that distinction. Certainly Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Lowell, T.S. Eliot—all of these were experimenting in some way. What made Jeffers experimental was his impulse toward “inhumanism”—the extreme this carried him to. His so-called misanthropy: the idea that humankind was a botched experiment and that we could just let the vultures take over. In one poem, he’d wish to be eaten by a vulture and end up as mulch.
Jeffers, for me, turned out to be one of the epicenters of my book. A phrase of his became very famous in 1965, in the wake of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, in a Sierra Club book called Not Man Apart, put together with Ansel Adams photography and Robinson Jeffers poetry. Praising “Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things,” Jeffers then says: “Love that, not man / Apart from that”—a loaded line break!
Jeffers was saying we ought not to worship man as distinct from the natural world. The Sierra Club book title misquotes him by leaving out the line break in Jeffers’s phrase.
Two other key poems occur in my book. William Stafford’s “The Well Rising” ends, “I place my feet / With care in such a world.” It’s akin to the Native American spirit. And George Oppen’s “Psalm” ends on “this in which the wild deer / Startle and stare out.” This marvelous poem leaves off where I want my book to leave us. Will the deer bolt in panic or go on feeding? A wildness in our world has carried on for millions of years: Will we continue to live with that and let it live?
LQ: Our last question moves in a slightly different direction. I’ve always been attracted to German poetry, much more so than English poetry. Paul Celan was one of the main poets that struck my interest, and it is frustrating for me because I feel that I am not really getting the poetry directly. It is like a treasure chest that I am not able to unlock, so I am studying German in order to read the poetry in the original language. My question, though, is whether or not there is a fundamental difference between German and English poetry.
JF: There are easier ways to make your way into the German language, but I don’t know if there are better ways. Poetry in another language, such as German, may even constitute a different thing—not just in another language with different overtones, but a different gestalt, a different grasp of things.
Two of the people who first cottoned to my book Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, were Eavan Boland and Tobias Wolff. That Celan should matter to them was so heartening back in 1995 when the book came out. But even before then and since, I have become aware of many poets and writers to whom Celan offered a touchstone, if not the touchstone, for seriousness and absolute honesty in poetry.
Take Jorie Graham. She writes so differently from Paul Celan—her voicings, line lengths, figures, much else. I could add John Hollander, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Galway Kinnell, Michael Palmer, Robert Pinsky, Heather McHugh, Geoffrey Hill, Sharon Olds, Edward Hirsch, Rita Dove, Bob Hass, on and on. This trust in him must have something to do with historical awareness, Celan’s utter dependence on purging German language, his fierce introspection. He’s a touchstone for honesty and seriousness. So, whatever inevitable differences exist, there must be a fundamental kinship between this German poetry and some English/American poetry.
Back in the mid-1970’s, I’d just come back from a year teaching in Israel, from meeting poets of all kinds, some of whom knew Celan. I came back and read a review of a recent book of Celan poems in English and thought: I can’t pass above or around this—I’ve got to go through it. It was a forced option. If I’d known it was going to be seventeen years before I came out with a book, I hope I would not have hesitated. This was poetry of such challenged, challenging intensity. Furthermore, I believe that to get to the heart of it, translation was the only way. Not from outside, but inside.
Now, as it happened, when I began writing on Celan I had no deadline. That was both good and bad. I didn’t hurry, but it did take seventeen years. Now I look back at a road not taken. I can’t imagine who I would have become without encountering Celan, can’t imagine not having lived through that experience and having learned what I did.
Funnily enough, people who take my IHUM course and come back to me later often remember only the St. Lawrence String Quartet, or my giving a banshee cry to demonstrate Yeats’s belief system. But a few more students now are coming back and saying they remember Paul Celan.
If there is anything Johnny Appleseed-like about me, aside from environmental awareness and urgency, it’s the necessity of Paul Celan’s poetry.
Download “Not Man | Apart” as a PDF.