Richard Berengarten and Sean Rys
I Must Try This Telling
This text is based on a conversation that took place between Richard Berengarten and Sean Rys before an audience in the Old Little Theater on the University of California campus at Santa Barbara, on April 11, 2012, following a reading of poems by RB. The reading included poems from The Balkan Trilogy, notably the title poem from The Blue Butterfly. Both events were planned and introduced by Professor Kay Young of the UCSB English Department. Sean Rys made a transcript of the conversation between June and September 2012, which both poets edited and amplified between October 2012 and July 2013.
Sean Rys: Richard, thank you for agreeing to speak with me about The Balkan Trilogy. I thought that we might begin our discussion by turning to the origin point once more. That is, your seemingly random or chance encounter with the blue butterfly. You mentioned in an earlier exchange that Carl Gustav Jung’s writing on synchronicity has informed your own thinking and writing around these events. Bearing in mind what Jung terms “meaningful coincidence”, how do you now view this chance convergence in light of the great body of research and three books of poems that it has engendered?
Richard Berengarten: The butterfly settling on my hand outside the memorial museum in Kragujevac in 1984 was a changing point in my life. That little butterfly turned out to be a very heavy creature indeed. It took me twenty years to get its weight off of my finger – my writing finger. In other words, it took me twenty years, perhaps slightly more, to write the books in The Balkan Trilogy. That event was the trigger for that writing. If it hadn’t happened, I doubt if any of those books would have got made. ‘The blue butterfly’, together with ‘Nada: hope or nothing’, was as you say the starting point. These two poems arrived as gifts. They came, almost unfiltered, straight out of the experience itself. But even as I was writing those two poems, I realised there was a lot more going on under their surface.
So I changed my life. I went to live in Yugoslavia – because of that experience. I managed to get a job there in 1987. My friends said to me, “Why are you going to live in Yugoslavia . . . Yugoslavia? What on earth are you interested in doing that for?” I said, “Chasing Butterflies. ‘La chasse aux papillons’.” That’s the title of a 1960s song by Georges Brassens.
SR: To what extent did your relocation to Yugoslavia shape the direction of your writing?
RB: Massively. I went to live there for The Blue Butterfly to get written. I wanted to live in that space: to experience it, to discover its ground, ground myself in it. People talk these days about geo-cultural, geo-historical, geopolitical zones. All these factors came into my decision to live in Yugoslavia. But there are geo-psychic zones too and, somehow, that factor was the most important of all. By then, I knew that there was a good deal more behind the two poems that had emerged so spontaneously. By ‘behind’ I mean latent, as-yet-unexpressed, pushing at me, in me, through me, for expression and articulation. I was also aware that the butterfly is the soul in Greek mythology. The ancient Greek word ψηχή [psyché] means both ‘butterfly’ and ‘soul’.
I’d like to be rather circumspect about what I’m going to say next, because I don’t want to be making any kind of huge claims here, and certainly not of any ‘mystical’ sort: I felt that the butterfly landing on my hand was a signal from the dead. That’s the way I experienced it. I felt that the butterfly called me from the souls of those men and boys, and women and girls, who had been massacred by the Nazis in their reprisal against an attack by Serbian partisans and royalists on a German platoon. A hundred Serbian civilians were executed for each German soldier killed. Nearly three thousand people were shot. To me, the butterfly was a messenger – or itself a message – from them. At that moment, that was startling, puzzling, upsetting. But I experienced it both matter-of-factly and as a burden, a job to be done. That’s why I’ve said it was a very heavy butterfly. I experienced a call to write about those dead Serbs, Jews and Roma. There was an injunction: to write about them and for them, perhaps even to them. And I mean all dimensions of the word ‘call’. In saying this I’m thinking of what Stanley Cavell writes about the call of the ‘other’.
So could it be that I was being called by the soul or souls of those sacrificed Serbs? I felt I had a sort of responsibility to them. I want to say this modestly and not in an inflated way. I don’t feel inflated about it. That’s how I experienced it.
SR: Can you speak more to the influence of Jung in understanding these synchronicities?
RB: Jung’s theory of synchronicity offers the most accurate way I’ve come across of understanding what happened to me. His various definitions of synchronicity as “meaningful coincidence” depend on an event in the outside world corresponding – or, if you like, chiming or resonating – with an inner experience or state of mind. The sense of meaning (i.e. of meaningfulness and depth) to the person experiencing the event is one of the criteria he specifies for a synchronicity: “The synchronicity principle asserts that the terms of a meaningful coincidence are connected by simultaneity and meaning.” For me, the tiny blue butterfly landing on my writing finger at the site of a Nazi massacre fitted these parameters.
In retrospect it’s also clear that this event / experience could hardly have been more apposite in terms of my own personality and dispositions at that time. While I experienced and interpreted the event as utterly extraordinary, it was almost as if had been ‘tailored’ for me, a ‘perfect fit’. As an English Jew, born in London in June 1943, three weeks after the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, in my teenage years I’d grown up with the overwhelming shadow of the Holocaust looming like a spectre over all horizons of my ancestral past. I’d already tried several times to write poems relating to the Holocaust, and in my own eyes had failed in all of them – except one, the long poem ‘Angels’. So that butterfly coming to perch on my finger was already loaded with meanings for me.
SR: Could you elaborate more fully and precisely on what ways this event constituted what Jung calls a synchronicity? What is the full range of indicators, of “criteria”?
RB: Jung defines synchronicity as “an acausal connecting principle”. There’s no way that the connection between the blue butterfly landing on my finger and my condition of mind at that time could be understood, mapped or explicated in a causal frame. For the person experiencing such an event, a particular patterning of combined experiential responses forms a clear set of indicators of synchronicity. I’d characterize these to include all of the following: a sense of resonance, of chiming, of calling and being called, as I’ve already suggested. Then, the sense of ‘import’ and ‘importance’, of a heuristic opening, of personal discovery, all the more powerful for being sudden and unexpected. And then, the establishment of direct connectivity (conjunction, coniunctio) between personal layers and transpersonal or archetypal layers of consciousness. Hence, an overall sense of an exponential and simultaneous increase in depth and an opening of horizons, combined with meaning and meaningfulness, purpose and purposefulness. So, overall, a charge, in all senses of that word: an energy current, a boost, a thrusting forward, a challenge, and a sense of obligation and commitment towards doing something: i. e. a creativity, towards a making that is a becoming, a becoming that is a making. For me, the ‘doing something’ and the becoming were the making of a poem, a book that is a poem. And every one of these factors was present. All of which is to say that, for me personally, the arrival of that butterfly came as a gift, an epiphany.
SR: What you’ve been saying reminds me of Paul Celan’s notion of the poem as a “making-toward”, or a conversation encountered along the way. Does this resonate with your experience of writing The Balkan Trilogy? Is the writing of the poem also an arrival?
RB: Yes. Celan’s concept of ‘conversation along the way’ and writing as a process of deepening one’s understanding – I think that’s true. I also think that different modes of understanding come together in the various stages of writing a poem. For example, with In a Time of Drought, I wrote that in a sort of white heat. It was an experience of being inspired. I wrote it in a very short period, in the middle of working on The Blue Butterfly. And that intensity even got carried over into its revisions, through my correspondence with Peter Mansfield. The figure of the rain maiden worked strongly on me, in me, through me. I knew that I was dealing with mythological material – Jung would call it archetypal material – and even at the time I recognised that that myth, that archetype, had somehow latched on to me, caught me, called me, landed on me, in me. It was as if it had taken me over, as if my personal, individual voice was irrelevant to the telling. So the best things I could achieve in the composition of the poem had to be, first, to see it through to the end and, second, to eradicate that personal voice. What’s more, embedded in working with that material, both during the writing of the poem itself and later in compiling its glossary and notes, I was doing a good deal of linguistic and mythological research into the origins of the folk practice, as far back as I could get. I was exploring scholars like Roman Jakobson, who had written brilliantly about the etymologies of the names of the characters in the customs. I traced the material back to Vuk Karadžić, the first Serbian authority, who was a friend of Goethe – and to one of the brothers Grimm, to Frazer’s The Golden Bough, to the Bulgarian scholar Mikhail Arnaudov, to the Russian Ana Plotnikova, and various other nineteenth century and twentieth century authors. I also intuited that I was dealing with material that related to the Persephone myth, and later got particularly excited when this hunch was corroborated. I discovered two Russian scholars, Ivanov and Toporov, who had written of etymologically cognate material being “typologically parallel”, and cleverly managed to hint at considerably more than that – i.e. at long-range influences through time.
Even more interestingly, at least to me at that time, as I gradually got more and more deeply into this intricately interwoven imagem, I found that strands that were cropping up spontaneously in my own experience, in me as an individual writer / person, turned out actually to be part of the legends themselves. I kept discovering extraordinary correspondences between stuff that belonged to the materia itself and the themes that were working through me – which I was discovering in myself in the act of writing, without knowing that it belonged to the materia too. So that was a way of ‘conversing’ in Celan’s terms, which meant different layerings of conversations: convergences and divergences. It meant layerings at intuitive and visceral levels – simultaneously intuitive and visceral – when the poetry was pouring out of me. But then the mind, the conscious mind, was trying to catch up with that later on.
I think that what happens in the process of poetic composition in general is that many different layerings or aspects of the mind are ‘engaged’. And these parts work, come, flow together, very intensely and quickly. It also strikes me that this welling up of deep material could be construed as a continuation or a working-through of the patterns of synchronicity that we were talking about earlier: because the materia appeared both inside me and outside, around me. I had many experiences involving those kinds of recognitions and connections during this time, all gestated and triggered by the writing of the poem and by the research I was putting into it. The traditional way of describing this welling up of archetypal material is ‘inspiration’.
That leads to another point, which involves the entire question, so often posed, about authorial intention. Northrop Frye reminds us in his book on Blake, Fearful Symmetry, that the artist, the poet, is somebody who actually sets out to write a work. Doing this is a conscious act. It’s not an accident, it doesn’t just happen. It’s hard work. It’s driven by intention, will, ego, choice, deliberation, all of those elements. Frye elegantly deploys the analogy of the bare canvas to challenge the tendency among biographical critics to ‘explain away’ great literary or artistic achievements by referring them back to the (often trivial) details of their creators’ lives: “To dissolve art back into the artist’s experience is like scraping the paint off a canvas in order to see what the ‘real’ canvas looked like before it assumed its painted disguise.”
Even so, at the same time, there are aspects that the poet is in contact with but doesn’t and can’t control. As Shelley said: “A man cannot say ‘I will compose poetry.” So the whole question of intention is an interesting critical and psychological issue. Ted Hughes broaches this question again from an interesting angle in his famous Paris Review interview. He says something like this: a poet writes what he or she intends to write, but a poet may also be writing what he or she intends not to say, which still somehow needs to get said. We could extend this to suggest that a poet may not only be saying what he or she doesn’t intend to say, but also intends not to say. An interesting contradiction, this, flowering into paradox. It may even be that you find – depending on what kind of psychology you adopt – archetypal material welling up despite the poet. If you’re a Jungian, you might want to say something like ‘shadow material’ or ‘anima material’. If you’re a Freudian, you might prefer to say ‘repressed material’. What do you think about this? How far are we ‘responsible’ for what we write?
SR: The use of ‘responsibility’ in this context has always troubled me, as it seems to indicate an objective control that doesn’t entirely ring true. So I would agree with Shelley’s response as a starting point: the compositional act has more to do with making oneself multilaterally receptive – it’s not an act of brute force or ego or even a matter of ‘willing’ the poem into being! If we accept Shelley’s accompanying claim that poetic composition corresponds ‘inversely’ with inspiration, and if we ultimately think of the poem as a trace recording of its predicating source(s), it places demands on the poet to more consistently cultivate these moments of inspiration when they do occur. Is this a form of responsibility? I’d like to think that it is ...
RB: Yes, absolutely. Though I don’t entirely agree with Shelley here, because he’s one-sided, and so he simplifies things. There’s another aspect to making poems that he doesn’t touch. As you hint, by talking about ‘inverse correspondence’ and ‘trace recording’. Shelley says: “when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline.” In my experience, that isn’t always true. If I ‘catch the moment right’ – or moments – inspiration pours into composition, brims into it, and composition contains the moment’s momentum like a cup or bowl until it fills up. In its abundance it may of course overbrim, overspill, even overwhelm its container. I think Shelley is talking about that sense: “My cup runneth over.” In any case, will and intention work as ‘secondary’ principles with and through this primary upwelling and outpouring, and are fully engaged in it. For conscious will and intention do play a vital part in composition, as we’ve seen from Northrop Frye’s comment, both in directing energy into and through the work, and in making patterns, setting up structures and choosing forms for the energy to settle in. The Chinese call this energy qi [chi 氣].
I agree too with what you say about the poet’s ‘responsibility’. Its preliminary keys are a constant and, as you say, “multilateral” receptivity and readiness: willingness rather than will; alertness not assertiveness; preparedness rather than pushing or pulling. Being responsible means, in the first instance, being responsive, which in turn precipitates response, responding. Overall, ‘taking responsibility’ means training oneself in all of these skills, which eventually become second nature. And this training involves daily practice and lasts a lifetime, as it does for any art, craft, skill [metier, mestiere, τέχνη, techne]. These days I think of any such practice as a kind of wú wéi [無爲 or 無為], often translated as ‘actionless action’, ‘effortless action’, ‘non-action’, ‘non-doing’, etc. By this I mean that in preparing for the arrival of a poem, one does nothing. That is to say, nothing, literally nothing, is what one does. And in the doing of nothing, one enters what from the outside might appear to be a kind of unfocused haze. But what’s actually going on, in the connecting interior rooms or subterranean caverns and corridors of consciousness, is a multilateral alertness, to echoes and resonances, a quiet listening patience. A musing.
Even so, when a poem does arrive, ‘out of the blue’ as it were, at that moment, one moves at lightning speed, to catch it. This is the art of the hunter, an imagem that Ted Hughes explores in his essay ‘Capturing Animals’. The doing of nothing transmutes suddenly into the doing of everything: one moves from inaction into highly focused, spreading and infiltrating action. Fast!
So to me, the onset of a poem involves hearing, tuning in, listening out for and allowing entry to its voice (singular) or voices (plural), and then following – at top speed. Between allowing and following, a harmonious chime rings out, as between wineglasses. More often than not, I’ve a prior plan, a mental pattern, a containing Gestalt, often formulated tentatively through number, perhaps even an architectonics. Number is vital in all senses. But given this context, I train myself not to exert any other prior control, not to spy out or expect anything in advance, not to focus too sharply or intently, but rather to be open, hospitable and welcoming to the ‘other’ voice if and when it comes – or voices. This process also necessarily involves openness to being surprised, astonished, which also mean openness to receiving a gift. I’ve explored this reality in several short statements on poetics, in Imagems 1. There can of course be no active ‘expectation’ of a heuristic moment – which would be a self-contradiction – but there is a readiness to respond to it and resonate with it.
This kind of contextualising applies entirely to the extraordinary ‘arrival’ of my butterfly. There was a ‘twiceness’ to this arrival: first the creature on my hand; then, later, the poem emerging from my writing hand, the same hand. The poem called ‘The telling, first attempt’ is about what you describe accurately as ‘multilateral receptivity’, in the first arrival, though it could also apply equally to the second:
Now my ears awakened in an alert
attentive and percipient listening
to scoured shells of voices, wholly prised apart
from those dead mouths, pouring their testament
onto spring wind, stirred by the instrument
of the butterfly on my finger, glistening.
I often experience a poem’s presence or likely proximity synaesthetically, as is evidenced in the rhyme “listening” / “glistening”. But of all the senses, aural indicators and clues for this process strike me, usually, as being even more ‘primary’, more intimate, more apt and accurate, than visual ones. I often first register the otherness of the arriving poem as words and rhythms sounding inside me. So the butterfly as “instrument” here contains not only the idea of ‘implement’ but also that of ‘music’.
SR: In addition to being ‘primary’, don’t these aural indicators also resonate on deeply primal wavelengths that have little or nothing to do with the upper stratum of semantic meaning? Another aspect of this has to do with the fact that the poem is felt (it acts upon us bodily) before it’s understood, and that sometimes this felt experience of the poem can overwhelm the gravity of its declaration. Hopkins is often this way for me, as is Whitman, and certain poems by Stevens as well. In my own work, I’ve found that following the prosody of words first as they collide or come into contact with other words makes possible a whole range of latent correspondences that blind allegiance to narrative linearity wouldn’t have allowed. In this process, I also find guidance in the dual movement of the word inspiration, which indicates both an opening outward to the ‘air around’ and a drawing or receiving of it inwardly (inhalation). What a great metaphor for the poem!
RB: That’s a fine and accurate approach. I think you’re right to emphasise aurality. And I have a similar response to all the three poets you mention, though in markedly different ways – simply because their prosodies are so different. Musicality in Stevens is paramount because most of what he does is based on playing meaning off against the burden (ground) of the iambic pentameter. Hopkins’ sprung rhythm is intended to deviate from this pattern. … And hearing really is primary. In poetry, we attune to aural layers that are far ‘deeper’ than semantic meaning. And in this respect it’s fascinating to compare hearing and sight ontogenetically. I’ve written a statement on this, not yet published: ‘On Poetry and Sound: The Ontogenesis of Poetry’. The human foetus develops hearing in the third trimester of pregnancy. Sight develops only after birth. What’s even more astonishing – and exciting – is that recent research shows that a foetus ‘recognises’ the sounds of his/her mother language (that is his/her own mother’s language). This means that a human being begins to learn and remember the sound patterns of his/her language well before birth. So the native language starts to be learned prenatally! This strikes me as being an enormously rich area for poetry and poetics, one that’s scarcely yet been broached, let alone recognised by most practitioners.
And yes, with music and inspiration, we’re certainly back once again with Shelley, who begged the autumn wind to “[m]ake me thy lyre, even as the forest is”? Shelley’s “forest” is the Aeolian harp, played on by the wind (Aeolus), that is, by the breath of both physical and metaphysical worlds. Music, like speech and song, consists of sound waves moving, vibrating through air. Shelley’s plea is very similar to Rumi’s image of the “hollow reed”. The imagem of the poet as instrument blown into or onto by the breath both of elemental nature and of spirits (gods) has its origins in earliest shamanic practices and is as relevant and meaningful today as it ever was. The Latin verb spirare [‘to breathe’] gives us our words respiration, inspiration, and spirit. Latin spiritus means “breathing, breath, exhalation; a sigh, the breath of life; life; inspiration; spirit, disposition”. Anatomically, all speech is performed on an outbreath. So inbreath (inhalation, inspiration) is necessary to all language and hence to all poetry. What is more, our word wind is cognate with Sanskrit an [‘to breathe, blow, live’], Greek άνεμος [anemos, ‘wind’] and Latin anima [‘a living being, animal’]. In keeping with these etymologies, the poet’s responsibility is to the natural (i.e. both living and elemental) and spiritual worlds, just as it is to the poem and to language itself – which includes the social world of the human community, as construed for example by Eliot, echoing Mallarmé: “Since our concern was speech, speech impelled us / To purify the language of the tribe.” Nor is there any hiatus or contradiction among these domains of responsibility.
I particularly like the idea of speech-sound patterns being primary in poetry, phylogenetically as well as ontogenetically. I think these must have originated in prehistory even before semantic meanings ever occurred in the brains of our hominid ancestors. And I wonder, and of course we can’t know this, how did speech itself arise in the human species? I mean, in evolutionary terms? Could it have been that early human or proto-human anatomical development of the vocal chords and supra-laryngeal tract meant that the tract was large enough and long enough for this hominid to make certain sounds, and play with them, improvise with them, and that this sound-play was a stage on the way to triggering what we now call meaning? Philip Lieberman’s research across this huge field is stupendously exciting. And I find it fascinating when we start to think about, for example, reduplication, in this context, especially as it occurs in baby proto-speech and child speech. These are after all the beginnings of all sorts of interesting sound patterns that we poets work with as part of our stock-in-trade, our melopoeia. There are a lot of words in all languages that reduplicate.
SR: To return to the text, The Blue Butterfly begins with a fascinating tension created by the movement from the lyric space of “stagnation” in one of the early poems, to the dense and perhaps what one might call the ‘commercial’ language of the ‘Two documents’, which is a poem, as you note, crafted out of the standing orders and report issued by Franz Böhme –
RB: Yes, though I would say that ‘commercial’ is not quite right. It’s militaristic. It’s fascist and dehumanised –
SR: Right, and speaking to that – one of the things that I’m interested in is the way in which you’ve re-contextualised the language of these found texts by introducing into them the formal constraints of a poem, by breaking the line, by introducing prosody into language that is inherently ‘militaristic’. Could you speak about the form behind these poems?
RB: I introduce documentary material into The Blue Butterfly because history is important to me. As I said earlier in my reading this afternoon, in connection with The Manager and T. S. Eliot, I’m not really interested in ‘jumping out of history’. Of course, I’m interested in what Eliot calls “the moment in and out of time” and “the timeless moment”, for sure. As timeless moments come and go, one allows for that, one builds it in. Who isn’t? But in this book I’m more interested in engaging with history. The Blue Butterfly engages with a historical event.
As for the finer points of lineation in the two poems that you mention, they’re basically ‘found poems’. I took two documents from German official missives during the Second World War about policy towards Serbs: about how reprisals should be calculated arithmetically, how prisoners should be dealt with, and how many should be shot. It was important that the poems should operate, like the original commands, in a very neutral cut-and-dry way. The lineation doesn’t really matter, it was relatively arbitrary, or rather, it was based simply on breath-pause positions in English. I wasn’t applying any kind of lyric there. I suppose I was creating an anti-lyric. Because when the curt, clipped, deadpan tone and content, the factual officialese, of these documents is taken out of its original context and thrust into a poem, so that it gets juxtaposed against utterances that are self-evidently poignant, then the absurdity and monstrosity of the language of officialdom become clear. There’s nothing new about this kind of contextual juxtaposition. It’s the key to all satire, as for example within and across pairs of rhyming lines in the English heroic couplet, as perfected by Dryden, Pope and Johnson.
The context where I do apply the technique of the found poem actually to achieve lyric is in another poem, which also comes near the beginning of the sequence, ‘Don’t send bread tomorrow’. This poem documents messages left by men and boys who knew they were going to be slaughtered. Their messages were scribbled on bits of paper, and some of these were found on their bodies after they were killed. I made a collage of those and juxtaposed them (once again, juxtaposition being the key to the technique) against stanzas of my own, recording photographic ‘shots’ from a visit there years after the massacre, which punned ironically on the word ‘shoot’. I couldn’t think of anything more personal than these statements by men and boys who knew they were going to die in the following twenty-four hours. These are all very powerful documents of human courage. To me, the power of those statements exceeds personal lyric – unless of course it could be said that the lyric is by definition that which exceeds the personal. … If the English translations of these messages are poignant, the quality of the vocabulary – its precise calibre, its moral fibre – in the Serbian original, is little short of breathtaking, heartbreaking. So, in The Blue Butterfly, I integrate documentary in different kinds of ways.
SR: I certainly see your point about contextual juxtaposition drawing attention to the monstrosity of programmatic speech, especially when the issuing of such language results in the widespread annulment of human life. Yet I also want to believe that the end result of these poems is something other than satire. It seems more to me! Doesn’t the lineation, even if declared arbitrary, begin to rupture or turn the sentence? And doesn’t this rupturing become aware of itself, and doesn’t that awareness lead to a kind of reanimation? To my mind, recontextualising language of this nature and placing it under the formal pressures of the poem starts to imbue it with an underlying melos, and this music becomes the possibility of repair.
RB: That’s interesting and not something I’d thought of before. Perhaps all sorts of things are going on here. What a found poem does, I think, is lift language out of a certain context and put it somewhere else. And the very lifting it out of context, and saying, ‘Let’s look at this’ could be said to be art, in a way. The key is recontextualisation. And also ‘otherness’, getting through and away from the personal ‘I’. Even so, I don’t think that getting away from the ‘I’ can be forced, programmatically.
RB: Another perhaps not so obvious aspect of this question of contexts is that my notion of poetry is based to a large extent on romantic theories of inspiration, as has been suggested, pretty clearly, by our previous mention of Shelley, ‘responsibility’, ‘will’ and ‘intention’. Even though I modify and qualify these ideas, this means that I believe the ‘voice’ speaking in a poem isn’t necessarily – and certain not entirely – that of ego consciousness. And though ego consciousness necessarily enters into the patterning (crafting, making) of a poem, there’s an otherness, an elseness, to it right from the moment of its first appearance, which I take as axiomatic. Je est un autre, as Rimbaud said in 1871. And that’s different from the kind of discourse that you and I are having now – which is not poetry, but discourse about poetry. In this kind of conversation on a topic, we do our best to be relevant, rational, attentive to what the other is saying – and to avoid non sequiturs. Even so, we know that conversation of any kind depends to a large extent on non sequiturs and proceeds by means of them: interruptions, diversions, spirallings, and recursive clarifications, not to mention misunderstandings. Without non sequiturs a conversation would have no mental leaps, surprises, discoveries or vitality. How might our discourse now move into poetry? Well, I’m not sure exactly where the borderline between poetry and non-poetry is. It’s subtle. If you and I really hit it off, in terms of the mental vibrations between us, and we were really attuned to each other, we might find that something like poetry started happening as we were talking to each other. Now that would be very exciting!
SR: It certainly would be! And I wonder if shifts of this nature happen more often than we think – perhaps they’re just another form of the empathetic moment that occurs when two people engaged in a dialogue arrive at a moment of shared understanding, when they finally come to inhabit or stand-under the speech occasion of a fellow human being.
RB: I find this idea exciting, poetry achieving empathy – or, rather, achieving the condition of becoming the language of empathy – marked by shifts that ‘linear’ thinking doesn’t and can’t encompass. Rupert Sheldrake would say, perhaps, that a ‘morphogenetic or ‘morphic’ field is set up, which in turns creates a ‘morphic resonance’. And doesn’t this link implicitly too with what you’ve been saying about music? Kay Young explores the connection between music and empathy very profoundly and in just this way in her book Imagining Minds, especially where she focuses on musical and sound motifs in Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, claiming that these transcend time. This, surely, is the scope of poetry too.
SR: I think she’s right. Music in its most primitive configuration is little more than an exercise in repetition with degrees of variance. And yet, these repetitions are so deeply vested in cultural and anthropological memory that their soundings tend to invoke in us a ritualistic (and often spiritual) longing for otherness. In music, the certainty of return is a promise of renewal – a promise that stands against western notions of time and death. Is there a corollary in the language arts?
RB: The corollary is obviously poetry itself, which shares an enormous number of features with music, above all sound in non-identical repetition, or rhythm. Of course, language itself is rhythmical; and language – as poetry – meets music in song. In some south-Slavic languages, the words for ‘song’ and ‘lyrical poem’ are identical: Serbian pesma; Croatian pjesma; Macedonian pesen. Incidentally, I think we need the qualification ‘non-identical’ in our discussion here, because nothing could be worse than identical repetition, which would be total monotony, a Sisyphean hell. It’s probable that identical repetition can’t actually exist: any two so-called ‘identical’ identities or beings are bound to differ slightly, even in the minutest of details. But without non-identical repetition, there’s no life. Rhythm is life’s base. Binary alternation, breath, the heartbeat, systole and diastole, the cycles of day and night, of moon and tides, of the earth’s ellipse and seasons, are all based in non-identical repetition. In Repetition and Identity, Catherine Pickstock explains how non-identical repetition in both space and time is a necessary constituent of the thinghood of things themselves. What’s more, in and through us, the rhythms of non-identical repetition don’t invoke only longing. They embed wellness, harmony, order, pattern, ‘knownness’, trust of and in our bodies, our beings, in the actual, physical world. Since rhythm and repetition actually constitute our world, in us they set up Sicherheit, a fine German word that combines the meanings of safety, security, surety and sureness. So non-identical repetitions combine and oscillate between thisness and elseness, between the hic et nunc and alterity. Symmetry and asymmetry also come into this discussion. Total symmetry is monotonous: total asymmetry is chaotic. Art, poetry and music combine and oscillate between these two too.
SR: What happens when the poem begins to move by means other than intervals of repetition? I'm thinking here of the blue butterfly as an associative mechanism throughout The Balkan Trilogy, one that gives rise to innumerable departures, both on the page and beyond it. If repetition connotes safety and security, where do alternative measures of narrative movement – ellipsis, parataxis, non-sequitur – place us within the contextual frame?
RB: I wasn’t disagreeing with what you said about rhythm and otherness. Some combinations of rhythms, chords and tones do inspire, for example, awe, the thrill of the numinous, the chill of the eerie, the sense of an other-than-human presence, even of a more-than-human order. I meant only to point out that rhythm is fundamental to Sicherheit too. The different effects of major and minor musical chords on the hearer indicate both these parameters. ... I also think that juxtaposition itself implies connectivity and patterning, whether evidently ‘meaningful’ and ‘ordered’ or ‘accidental’ and ‘random’. And if there is connectivity, dialectics inevitably come in: it may be to do with either sameness or contrast, similarity or difference. As for the recurrence of the blue butterfly at multiple points during the Balkan Trilogy, the repetition clearly involves return to the predominant motif in varying contexts, but each one different, each one new. And I like the idea that each recurrence in a new context opens up new connectivities, or at least their potential, both on the page and off it, that is, in the reader’s mind. In my understanding, this is what symbols do. A symbol is a complex nexus of actual and potential meanings ‘operating’ at many levels in the psyche and mind, but ‘originating’ at formative layers of consciousness. A symbol is multidirectional, never reducible to the single or even bipolar directionality of the sign.
I like the idea that apparent non-sequiturs indicate not only difference, sudden jumps, surprise, dissonance and so on, but may also hint at a larger contextual frame, an unrealised or subliminal or implicit connectivity, perhaps something like David Bohm’s “implicate order” – by which he means not merely implicit but pleated order, i.e. one ‘containing folds’, ‘in-pleated’. I think that kind of thing happens on stage, say, in a Beckett play, or a Pinter play, for example, where the kind of speech that is coming out from the actors is actually banal and prosaic, yet there’s a powerful, locked energy in the dynamic between the two speakers. Plays like Waiting for Godot and The Caretaker are like this. The characters’ surface language is to all extents and purposes antipoetic – drab, inconsequential, vapid, full of clichés – full, one might say, of absences. But the dramatic charge gives a huge, echoing, polysemic resonance to the speeches. Where does this charge come from? My sense is that non sequiturs are the key and that the resonance lies precisely in these paratactic gaps and hiatuses between utterances. Paradoxically, both despite and because of the surface disconnectedness, we suspect – or glimpse, or discern, or want to discern – a deeper, underlying connectedness.
SR: Since your reading of ‘implicate order’ as ‘pleated order’ connects with digression (non-sequitur), do you think deployment of digression and/or non-sequitur also functions as a stratagem for suspending time (delaying death?) in the fictive? If so, this modus operandi would seem to correspond with the ritualistic nature of repetition in music, its desire for return, which may be equated to a stance against western rectilinear time.
RB: Bohm explains that, etymologically, ‘implicate’ actually means ‘in-pleated’. The fundamental properties that generate – and bind – what he calls the implicate order and make it meaningful are those of relativity. Relativity also means relatedness, connectivity. Meaning itself is (or, or rather, is based in) relatedness, connectivity. Curiously, this idea, this theme, is the key to all metaphor too, as Wordsworth necessarily assumes in Book II of The Prelude when he writes of the “interminable building” produced by an active imagination. This connectivity is also to be equated with Pound’s belated discovery that “it coheres all right, even if my notes do not cohere.” It’s clear too that discoveries like these inevitably involve a realisation of the value of human modesty within the grand order of things. Pound would arguably have been a far better, far less flawed poet if he had worked this out before his Fascist excesses, not left it till his last Cantos. But Pound was brilliantly gifted all along in implying connectivity through paratactical juxtaposition. Once you start connecting things up in non-linear fashion like that, you’re not limited to balancing your life or vision inside the narrow bandwidth of sequential time. You set up – or rather, recognise, or rather, suggest or invoke – a field – of dance, music, song, poetry. And what you recognise is that this field is the one that you’re already in! Nor, I think, do you necessarily dance against death – if ‘against’ is meant in a simple antagonistic sense. The word ‘against’ could also mean ‘towards’, as in Spenser’s line, “Against the Brydale day” in his ‘Prothalamion’, as well as ‘reliant on’ in modern English, as in the phrase “to lean against a wall”. (I pick up this contradiction in a poem entitled ‘Against the Day’, as well as in the title of the book in which that poem first appeared, Against Perfection.) Anyway, the dance – of poetry, music, ritual – can be with death, that is to say, with death as a partner. Isn’t this, perhaps, what the butterfly does?
SR: Your poems are deeply rooted in spiritual and psychological inquiry, in striving after the ineffable. They also inhabit a very physical reality and unfold against an historical backdrop, drawing in at times to celebrate the mundane occurrences of daily life. How do you negotiate these sometimes discontiguous terrains?
RB: The poetic, for me, is closely connected with and engrained in a sense of the radiance of the commonplace. This idea is embedded in my poetic philosophy. I’ve a poem called ‘Only the Common Miracle’, and in Under Balkan Light there’s a two-line poem which goes: “Voices in the mirror call / The commonplace is miracle.” I believe strongly that the commonplace is irradiated with wonder, delight, energy, power, beauty – and that’s something that I’m learning more and more these days, now that I’m writing poems that are connected with – no, better, I should say, rooted in – Daoism and the Yijing. As a learner of taiqi and qigong, I definitely have that sense sometimes, when I’m doing taiqi, of a kind of radiance – the radiance of the ordinary.
SR: Is that for you the place where the poem is engendered? And does the poem involve finding the ‘normal’ world to be something other than the ‘everyday’ – I mean ‘everyday’ in the sense of merely ‘banal’, ‘ordinary’?
RB: In a way, yes, to both these questions. But neither the language nor the experience – nor the world itself – stop being or belonging to the everyday. They are still the everyday. They consist of it and in it. For things are still what they are: “a rose is a rose is a rose.” And they are just what they are, nothing more or else, but they’re also simultaneously invigorated, irradiated with energy (breath, spiritus, άνεμος, qi [氣]).
As for poetic language, it doesn’t necessarily have to condense or deviate from ‘everyday’ speech. In the positive sense, an everyday quality can give a poem an intimacy, a personal flavour – as, say, in George Herbert’s line: “I made a posie, while the day ran by.” What could be more ordinary, domestic, down-to-earth than that? The claim of poetry to use (return to) the koiné [κοινή], the common tongue, to “language, such as men do use”, and the “language really used by men”, in any case reverberates powerfully throughout literary history. Think of Dante choosing Tuscan not Latin and – in their particular local varieties of English – Wordsworth, Whitman, Synge, William Carlos Williams. ... And not just “such as men do use”, but women too. … Nor does the poem’s arrival necessarily mean sudden extraordinary mental leaps or dramatic heuristic flashes. The mundane world’s being-noticed often ‘happens’ very quietly and undramatically. I explore some experiential aspects of this sense in several poems, including the rhymed lyric ‘In the room suddenly’, which focuses on the experience of listening to music, and the last verse of ‘The telling, first attempt’ in The Blue Butterfly:
All was ordinary, still – and yet, otherness
without seam. The world did not sheer away
but was its very self, no more nor less
than ever, but tuned now to its own being,
and the heard and seen were hearing, seeing,
spirit within spiral, wave within way.
Paradoxically, then, the music of the poem, the music that is the poem, both transforms the world and leaves it to carry on as before, though following the experience of the poem, the world appears more finely ‘tuned’ But this sense only opens up, when the ‘I’ leaves off pushing and insisting. Does that correspond with your sense of what is poetic, of what is the charge?
SR: Celan spoke of “an addressable Thou” and Rilke famously apostrophised his Angel in the Duino Elegies, defining it as “that being committed to the recognition of a higher order of reality in the invisible.” Yet there are almost certainly those poets for whom the otherness of the addressee is more hermetic, perhaps even an echo of the poet’s own voice.
RB: Right. In my own case, when I talk of the ‘other’, I don’t mean a narcissistic or egoist echo. I’m closer in spirit to Rilke, Celan, Mandelstam, and George Eliot – and Lévinas. I’ve a lot of poems about the imagined other, especially sonnets, where the reader is explicitly identified and addressed as the poem’s imagined other. I also have a text on this addressee, entitled ‘Pour toi’, whose theme is precisely this. Sometimes I even envisage that reader – other, interlocutor – as being ‘present’ on the ‘other side’ of the page I’m writing on, while I’m actually writing. At other times, I imagine the reader reading the text of the poem I’m writing, in hundreds of years’ time. ... And of course, between the poet and the reader, death does intervene – simply because the reader may come along many centuries after the poet. For this reason, as I say in Imagems 1, poems are “space-time travellers”. Shakespeare knew about this, and this theme is key to his sonnets: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” And François Villon knew it: “Frères humains, qui après nous vivez.” [Brother humans, who live after us.] Paul Celan knew it. And Osip Mandelstam in his essay ‘To An Interlocutor’ says that we all have friends, everyone has friends, we talk to our friends, we write to our friends, but the poet doesn’t do that – the poet does something else. The poet is a person stranded on an island who sends a message out in a bottle. So the poem is addressed ‘to whom it may concern’, possibly years and years after his own death. The Manager actually has the dedication “To whom it may concern”. The person who picks up the bottle, whoever he or she happens to be, opens it, takes out the message, and finds that ‘the message is addressed to me – because I am reading it!’
My internal configuration of that particular experience, in its most wonderful, radiant way, is tied to the story of Miklós Radnóti, the Hungarian poet. Radnóti was a Jew, and as a prisoner at the end of the Second World War, he was being force-marched by the Germans down into Serbia and then back to Hungary. He kept a notebook, and in the inside front cover of that little school exercise book, he wrote – in French, and in English, and Serbian, and Hungarian – a message, to say that whoever finds this book, it is the property of so-and-so. And then he was shot! And the poems in this notebook were ‘shot’ too. They were gone for good. But after the war his grave was dug up, and the poems surfaced again, through death, after death. That’s just amazing. Radnóti’s reader exists – we readers exist – on the other side of his death.
SR: Carolyn Forché writes about Radnóti in her introduction to Against Forgetting, where she marvels that a poem might be the last record of a human life.
RB: She’s right. But I’m making another point, about poems as connectors between life and life, between consciousness and consciousness, across death, despite death, in defiance of death. Think, too, of texts that were deliberately buried, whether to be preserved for posterity in this world or as passports to the next, or both – surfacing thousands of years later. I’m thinking of Gilgamesh, of the Dead Sea Scrolls, of the Mawangdui text of the Yijing.
There’s something else I’d like to add here, though – because I wouldn’t want it to be thought that I’m the kind of poet who simply believes that the poem consists entirely of what you might call ‘the haiku moment’. You know, that moment of rapture or thrill where the hairs on your arms stand up on end. I’m interested in lyric, of course, but also in long poems, and as I said earlier, I’m interested in history – in time and in space, and therefore in the architectonics of poems, of poems as buildings and streets and cities. I’m interested in the poem as big construct. Now supposing you take that motif literally, to construct a poem as an ‘inhabitable space’, as a town or a city, as William Carlos Williams did in Paterson, or Charles Olson with Gloucester in The Maximus Poems, or Dylan Thomas in Under Milk Wood – you can’t have wonderful apartments and beautiful buildings at every point in these poems, any more than in a living city. You’ve also got parts of those poems that aren’t so wonderful. Bus stations? Slum areas? Refuse dumps? So even by that analogy, I think there’s space, there are spaces, in long poems, big poems, for what might be considered, conventionally, the ‘non-poetic’.
SR: Since we've been discussing the possibility of the poem-as-dialogue, perhaps we could turn to a poem that appears near the end of The Blue Butterfly: ‘A Conversation Between a Blue Butterfly and a Murdered Man at the Entrance to the Underworld’. What I find remarkable here is how the dialogue speaks to us from a place referred to in the poem as “an edge, / a brink, without-within, one that is best / described by notness, by negations of/ what may be defined”. Now, I know you’ve been working on a book of what you call ‘metaphysical sonnets’ with the curious title Notness . . .
RB: Yes, that title is an anagram of the word ‘Sonnets’. And actually I’ve just completed this book. When I discovered that, simply by fooling around, I understood that I’d hit on something interesting. Incidentally, I actually thought I’d coined the word notness, but apparently the neologism belongs first to Dylan Thomas, who used it in 1933, and then to Henry Miller, who did so again in 1945. But I extend the word’s meaning in a non-pejorative way. One of the main themes of this sequence is that being and non-being – isness and notness – whirl around inside each other within the core of the moment – within the infinitesimally small now – in much the same way that subatomic particles (which are simultaneously not-particles but waves, and equally not-waves but particles) whizzing around in the nucleus of an atom.
SR: Bearing that in mind, as well as the quote I’ve just mentioned, might the more general claim hold true too: that all poetry operates on an ‘edge’ or ‘brink’ between the expressible and the inexpressible? That is, might we consider the poem itself to exist in a constant condition of ‘without-within’, so that we reach a kind of paradox in which the eternal present/presence evoked by the poem is systematically undermined by the failure of language to reanimate what it names?
RB: I see what you mean, but from one point of view, at least, I think precisely what a good poem does is to reanimate what it names. That is to say, in a poem, the Saussurean écart between signifiant and signifié is bridged, re-forged, rebuilt. There’s no inevitable or necessary failure in poetry: the poem remakes – and constantly remakes – the world. Or: “In the beginning was the Word.”
But from another point of view, language by its nature can’t control, cover, touch, etc. – or even graze or skim – everything. So I think what you’re saying is very powerful, and it reminds me of that trope in Zhuangzi [Chuang Tzu] about the trap (or net) and the fish. When you catch the fish, you no longer need the trap. When you catch the meaning, you no longer need the word. Trap and word are containers that you leave aside when you’ve caught what they’re designed to catch.
I think more could be added here. For example: in Daoist terms, if you understand this, it’s scarcely the beginning of understanding. Because you can carry on discarding, in just this way – and according to the Daoists, discarding is the Way, the Dao [道]. For when you’ve caught the idea contained in the meaning, you can discard the meaning. And when you’ve understood the idea, or think you’ve understood it, you can discard ideas too. ... And then, when you’ve discarded understanding, and discarded thinking, and discarded the ego-trip of thinking that you understand – then perhaps you may begin to realise that in the core of everything there’s a nothing, as at the heart of an onion. And, conversely, in the core of every nothing, there’s everything. ... And once all this has dawned on you, you may also begin to realise that there’s no ‘core’ either, nor are there any ‘surfaces’ or ‘depths’, or even ‘distances’ or ‘time’, only a dance in which everything and nothing are constantly swirling around, transforming into each other, like subatomic particles in a Feynman diagram. Then, once you’ve absorbed all this, you discover that you’ve hardly even begun to set out on the way, the Dao [道].
And, incidentally, or coincidentally, somewhere in the course of all these transformations, you also realise what every poet knows: that words are imperfect instruments for registering and communicating reality, for netting meanings. As you say, there’s always a sense with words that they leave something unsaid. They can’t ‘capture’ the meaning, or thing, or experience in its entirety.
So when I accidentally discovered or, rather, following Dylan Thomas, rediscovered the word notness, I realised that I had in my grasp a word for this nothing at the heart of everything, one that relates to thisness, nowness and hereness in the same way that nothing relates to everything. So could the paradox at least partly be that this word notness perhaps itself actually succeeds in encapsulating what cannot be capsulated, even if only in part? That it does touch or at least comes close to touching the untouchable? That it at least borders the unsayable?
SR: That’s a fascinating premise. And I want to say that there’s a paradoxical energy at work in this language play that mirrors some of the larger questions confronted in The Balkan Trilogy. Is paradox a way of seeing-beyond language?
RB: Can we see or even scry ‘beyond’? Or would it be more accurate to say that we may have the gift to sense it, to intuit it, in much the same way that a dowser is able to locate subterranean water, but can’t explain how? I’d like to clarify that I don’t think poets need to set out to be ‘visionaries’ who aim at ‘surpassing’ language in order to try to reach some mystical ‘other’ state or ‘higher’ state. I like the Daoist teachings because they say, and keep saying, that there’s nowhere to go but now-here. Nowhere else. And elseness is itself engrained in the now-here. The Daoist injunction is nothing else but “Go here,” which in English turns out to be deliciously paradoxical because the verb go, especially in the pithy imperative, implicitly carries the meaning away from here. To go to the now-here therefore embeds a contradiction and is itself paradoxical. And to go to the now-here and be fully in it is hardly easy, as anyone who has done any meditating knows. It takes practice, devotion, and discipline.
As poets we’re locked into language. And even if we have the sense of the ineffable, of that which we cannot reach and still less touch, we’re constantly coming back to language, which pulls us back to the palpable.
It’s worth remembering too that Zhuangzi doesn’t say that we throw away the net or trap for good. If we want to catch more fish, we’ll need to use it again, or make another one. ... So long as we’re alive, we carry on in our blood and bones and skins. ... We don’t slough them off once and for all to attain ‘higher states’ – though who knows what mightn’t be possible for a Daoist master? And as for the vast majority of us, so long as we’re alive, we need food, and that food might well be fish. And so long as we’re alive, we keep coming back to using words.
SR: The metaphor of the two-way bridge is an apt one. I’ve also seen the poem referred to as a “trajectory” by Octavio Paz, which I rather like: both instances remind me that poetry is fundamentally a linkage-between, which may also explain Paz’s accompanying claim that “poetry is our only recourse against rectilinear time – against progress.” This seems true to me ...
RB: For Paz, the keys that oppose poetry to diachronic time are rhythm, repetition and cyclicity, all of which bring poetry closer to the experience of time in rite or ritual than in sequential history or linear logic. This brings us back to what we’ve been saying about non-identical repetition. This also tallies well with the imagem I’ve already suggested: of a poem as a weft mapping and criss-crossing language along the axes of both diachronic and synchronic time – and patterning the stuff! Extend that two-dimensional model into three and more, and you begin to have something interesting.
SR: Somewhere along the line I got to thinking of the poem as existing in a condition of ‘ablative presence’, and this was especially true in my reading of “A Conversation Between the Blue Butterfly and a Murdered Man at the Entrance to the Underworld.” Does this resonate at all with your experience of writing it?
RB: The distinction between the two voices in this poem got quite carefully mapped out at an early stage, and attention to that, once established, governed a good deal of my attention in the course of composition. The man, the dying man, talks in fourteeners. I think the fourteen-syllable line sets up an interesting pace, flexion, rhythm. It was tried out by some of the early Elizabethans, though in a rather rat-a-tat, bouncy, jangly way. So, in the ‘Conversation’ poem in The Blue Butterfly, on the one hand you have a long line that’s rather prosaic, that holds rather well the patterns, rhythms, and inflections of contemporary English speech, while on the other you have the speeches of the butterfly rendered in iambic pentameters. This means that the mode in which the butterfly speaks is more ‘vatic’, more ‘traditional’, more sonorous. Now, that may or may not be noticed on the surface, but it’s part of the craftwork that has gone into this poem’s making. The two modalities are made present in the form, or rather brought into presence by and through the form.
In setting up this dialogue, I also found that it did move into questions of absence and presence, in various ways. For one thing, in terms of its entire subject matter, questions about which reality we’re in, and whose reality, take us back again to the quotation from Zhuangzi [Chuang Tzu] that is one of the three epigraphs to The Blue Butterfly: “Once I dreamed I was a butterfly. Fluttering around, I was completely involved in being a butterfly and was unaware of being a man. Then, suddenly, I woke up and found myself myself again. Now I don’t know whether I was a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I’m a butterfly dreaming I was a man.” Now the fact that in this particular poem, the dialogue between the man and the butterfly takes place at the ‘instant’ of the man’s dying, relates directly to – and spins out – Zhuangzi’s multi-dimensional, koan-like question: as if to say “Is this all – has this all been – a dream? And if so, whose? The man’s? Or the butterfly’s?” (Which also, incidentally, forms the airy substance of Prospero’s speech in The Tempest: “We are such stuff, as dreams are made on, and our little life / is rounded with a sleep.”)
My blue butterfly, though, in keeping with the Greek and European tradition that I’m steeped in, doesn’t quite share the human speaker’s mortality, but is inescapably identified with ψηχή [psyché]. This soul-butterfly / butterfly-soul hovers over and around the gate that divides this world from the underworld, as its keeper and guardian. The butterfly, then, simultaneously belongs to both zones and neither zone. And regardless of whatever the butterfly ‘really’ is or may be in itself, the reality is that to the man at and in that instant of his dying, that butterfly appears as a psychopomp, a soul-guide. In Chinese and European traditions alike, for obvious reasons to do with its changes into different states, the butterfly is interpretable as a ‘symbol of transformation’.
SR: The butterfly as soul-guide, yes. And that’s a powerful trope throughout the three books.
RB: There are at least three plaited strands here: butterfly as soul-guide, as messenger from the soul, and as soul itself. ... And the other question to be asked here is: how long is an instant? How long is the singularity of a ‘now’? This is a long poem, eleven pages, so the instant of dying is stretched out, almost as if linear time had come to a standstill, or been flattened out, or collapsed, at this point. Well, at the instant of death, linear time is no longer relevant. In envisioning this very long drawn out ‘instant’ of dying, I suppose I was trying to peep into, or prise open, or scry, or stretch my hearing, as far as I could – though not one of these verbs, by the very impossibility of the task, could ever quite fit adequately – into what goes on in that moment between life and death that the bardos of the Tibetan Book of the Dead talk about. With no ‘authority’ whatever, I was trying to push that boundary as far as I could.
In doing that, something happened: I found that the butterfly made gnomic utterances which I didn’t expect and still don’t fully understand. And which I don’t regard as ‘my’ invention, you know, or as ‘my’ poetics. There was an otherness, an elseness, in those responses. It was as if the butterfly was dictating to me. So now I can’t help coming back to wondering again if one could say that this was the soul speaking.
SR: Let’s return to something you said earlier about the poem perhaps existing as a document of record for something that has happened. The poems in this trilogy, for instance, represent the historical event or events they’re documenting –
RB: – happened in the world, yes –
SR: – which I find compelling considered against the very long postscripts that end the book – your research notes. How do you manage these two sides, the creative side and also the documentary side, within the book?
RB: I suppose that it’s partly to do, for myself, with a certain kind of obsessiveness. And with what you were saying earlier about having a conversation with oneself. My procedures go something like this.
First, the poem itself emerges, as the primary text, as fully experiential, as a kind of writing that engages me entirely. As I experience it, the writing of a poem isn’t usually driven first and foremost by the head, and certainly not by the intellect alone. It’s not just abstract or theoretical. It involves other kinds of energetic engagement that are directly experienced as embodied – emotional, intuitive, physical – all of which work synthetically, and synaesthetically, with and through the shaping intellect. The word we have for this synaesthetic faculty-of-faculties, this overall faculty that is more than the sum of all its parts, is Imagination. It’s what Coleridge called “the esemplastic power”, deriving his idea from Schelling’s notion of Ineinsbildung. Both Coleridge’s and Schelling’s term means ‘the forming or making together into one’ of opposites – again, a making, a doing, that involves a coincidentia oppositorum.
After the poem has emerged in this way, and been worked on carefully, and placed in what for me is its ‘final’ context, a book – after all these procedures – I also want to ruminate on it, to ‘understand’ (‘stand-under’) what I’ve been doing. And this is the point when the analytic intellect comes in. So footnotes and postscripts are first and foremost my – perhaps rather futile – attempts to try to pin things down. Futile, because explication and explanation can never clarify the whole picture in the way that a poem can encapsulate it. Explications often tend towards simplification, while meanings in poems are multi-layered, complex, polysemic.
But I do it all the same.
And this brings me to the second reason. Thinking about poems and exploring them intellectually outside and after their composition, and researching whatever it may be that lies around them and behind them, deepens and broadens my understanding of the field they’re embedded in; and this process can in turn lead to more poems, so that the already-made poems themselves become part of the field, and an oscillating and never-ending two-way relationship develops between the generating of new poems and the field out of which they emerge. Isn’t this Wordsworth’s “interminable building” again, which I’ve already mentioned?
The third reason I include notes and documentation is that the making of a poem for me is often a powerful, formative, heuristic – and primary – experience in its own right – and, incidentally, not necessarily at all one that “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” This being so, intellectualising a powerful experience is synonymous and coterminous with distancing myself from it, or rather, containing it in a detached, separated form. And this self-distancing in turn means freeing myself up to be open and ready to new poems.
The final reason for postscripts and notes is to do with frames of reference and communicability. Notes can help to situate and contextualise a poem for a reader who wants to explore the text in more depth and detail. Not all readers want to do that, of course, and that’s fine. There are many different modes and levels of attentiveness possible in the reading of a poem. So there’s no injunction or obligation for anyone to read material that I include around or after the poetic text itself. The option for further exploration is, simply, open.
As for these three Balkan books, there are many names, contexts and references that most English-speaking readers are unlikely to know. So in these books, my notes are there to allow an interested reader to explore unfamiliar places and zones.
SR: I love the implied idea here that books are evolving entities, and that different readers will encounter the same text under different frames of reference.
RB: Yes, even an apparently ‘fixed’ text has a mobility. For example, it gets translated, performed, quoted from, selected from, abridged. ... Now these procedures of mine are obviously very different from those that Ezra Pound and most of the other high modernists adopted. Pound’s choice was to deploy a massive amount of obscurities in the Cantos without any gloss or commentary, and leave it to the scholars to work them out. What an ego-trip, what chutzpah those early modernists had! And they got away with it. Then scholars and disciples, like, say, William Cookson, have stepped in and done exegetical work – all of it honourable, sincere, valuable – so that there are by now hundreds of books exploring and explicating The Cantos. But the result is that the reading itself of texts like The Cantos then turns into something that gets done mainly, perhaps even only in university literature departments – and under the tutelage of those same scholars and experts who have written the exegetical and scholarly books in the first place. Gradually, then, the reading of poetry becomes a specialised skill that needs to be taught, hierarchically, in these literature departments, and poetry itself turns into a kind of privileged preserve, an élitist activity, something people get degrees and doctorates in. We’ve seen this happen inexorably, all of us, and I’m not sure that much can be done about it. At worst, poetry risks getting reduced to the in-game of mere intertextuality. Many contemporary poets, including myself, work in contact with the academies in some way or other. But I do think that’s a pity. When poetry relies entirely on the academies, it loses its body and its guts. It stops being open, let alone open-handed or open-hearted. It’s a very complicated situation. And there’s no going back.
SR: I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently in the context of American poetry. On one hand, there’s been a rapid proliferation of MFA programs over the past decade or two, which means, at least presumably, that there are now a greater number of educated readers of poetry than ever before. On the other hand, there seems to be a growing communication gap between those readers of poetry and non-readers, characterised by the prevailing sense among both parties that ‘poets are now writing predominately to other poets’. Is this true? And if so, who or what is to blame? I ask these questions rhetorically, of course, but with a certain degree of forward-looking speculation and uncertainty.
RB: I think there’s a good deal of truth in what you say. In the 1970s, I was strongly in favour of creative writing courses, and was even a pioneer of sorts in running creative writing workshops in schools. Since then, they have proliferated at a phenomenal rate. I suppose this could be seen as healthy, on the analogy of, say, local football clubs: a lot of grass roots activity feeding ‘the beautiful game’. But I’m no longer sure if – like football clubs – the current MFA programs in the States and degree-courses in Creative Writing in the UK really do function as ateliers to develop skills for the talented young, still less as hothouses for budding geniuses. They may simply program and reprogram provincial in-groups, standardise mediocrity, and breed ignorance of wider traditions than their teachers want or are able to expose their students to. Many of those heading these kinds of programs, on both sides of the Atlantic, strike me as being culture-administrators wanting to be members of coteries, and mediocre poets rather than good ones. Even so, let’s be hopeful.
Another relevant point here, I think, is how we construe the fuzzy edges and borders of what we think of as our shared culture. For example, as late as the nineteen-sixties, in England at least, we were still able to assume that Biblical references in poems didn’t need glossing. The Bible was part of our common stock of literate knowledge, if not through active and regular religious practice, then at least through schooling. But by now, our consumer culture is trans-national, global, and immediate, and what were once local and specific traditions – let’s say, writing haiku or ghazals – belong to everybody regardless of where they are (we are, you are, anybody is), in exactly the same way as ping-pong and judo, or potatoes and mangoes, or eucalyptus and goji berries. And quite apart from internationalisation and globalisation, most nations these days are more porous than ever. So poetry readers inside any one country may come from a huge range of religious, cultural, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. Knowledge of the Bible can no longer be relied on, any more than knowledge of, say, the Odyssey. Biblical and classical quotations alike now need footnotes and glosses.
My first experience of this kind of need was when I spent six months teaching Brit Lit at a university in the Midwest in the early 1980s, Notre Dame. I was asked to use the Norton Anthology as my standard text for the course. So I worked my way through it with my students, and was at first stunned to see the extent of footnotes for references that I then thought should have been taken for granted as ‘known’. I realised quickly that my own thinking was at fault, that my expectation was narrow, naïve and snobbish, and that the editors were right. I don’t think there’s room for that kind of snobbishness now. Diversity and multiculturalism mean that glossing is needed for a huge variety of topics. What’s more, even information and references that we regard as communal now, to the extent that we take it for granted that others will know it, may need glossing in another generation. Who for example in a couple of hundred years’ time will know anything about the deaths of Princess Diana, say – or Jimi Hendrix, or Janis Joplin, or John Berryman, or Sylvia Plath, or Cesare Pavese, or Paul Celan?
SR: Right. So the glossing becomes, at least to certain extent, a record of the poem’s historical moment.
RB: Yes, in both time and place. … By contrast to Pound, Eliot did include notes to The Waste Land. When I first read that poem at school, aged fifteen or sixteen, I devoured it. I was so involved in the poem, so impressed by it, that I positively wanted to explore as many of the references in Eliot’s notes as possible. So the notes were helpful: they were guides, and I treated them with the respect one accords to guides. My introduction to Eliot may have begun in the classroom – in the sixth form – but my explorations were my own and nothing to do with school.
This also means that I’m not especially interested in what Yeats called “the fascination of what’s difficult”, which – he goes on to say – “Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent / Spontaneous joy and natural content / Out of my heart.” I don’t aim for my own poems to be particularly difficult, whereas a lot of contemporary poets, following Pound, and that whole Poundian tradition, do aim consciously for obscurity and for difficulty. Some of the American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and their imitators do this: they want their writing to be very hermetic and embedded. Late Ashbery is like that too. In England we have poets like J. H. Prynne and his followers, the so-called Cambridge school, and there are plenty of them. And a good number of these teach in the academies these days. And also Geoffrey Hill, who deliberately espouses difficulty, as he clarifies in his Paris Review interview. And they do all want to be difficult! And all these poets do want to be difficult! Even so, I can’t help suspecting that there’s a kind of bloody-minded stubbornness involved in this stance. … This is a set of responses, not a full answer. ... Does it leave you bothered? It leaves me bothered, I have to say!
SR: Well, today I would say this: If an overly accessible poem risks platitudes and false security, an intentionally hermetic poem risks alienation, not to mention the kind of self-fulfilling discomfort that may well enable “non-readers” of poetry to justify their lack of appreciation or interest to begin with. If poetry’s audience really is shrinking (a stance I don’t happen to agree with), I would imagine that this question of difficulty becomes an aesthetic concern that all poets must grapple with: how approachable am I willing to make this and to what extent can I even begin to concern myself with notions of access?
RB: You’re right, I think, that accessibility is the one of the issues here. It’s complicated, though. The ‘difficult’ poet isn’t worried about risking the reader’s alienation, quite possibly because s/he reads alienation itself as the ‘normative’ condition in our society, and so aims to cut through that by alienating the reader from alienation itself. If one follows that line of thinking and mode of self-positioning, where else is there to go? As for empathy – the kind that we’ve been talking about as both foundation and goal for both music and poetry – its fundamental validity is questioned and denied by our contemporary ‘difficult’ poet, simply because, so the logic goes, in a condition of alienation, any empathy is bound to be false, vitiated, corrupted. Paradoxical, then, or contradictory to the point of being self-defeating? I’d say that more often than not, self-defeat is the result.
But, like you, I’m not at all convinced that that the readership for poetry is actually shrinking. ... Perhaps I should add here, having said what I’ve said about difficulty, that I don’t go out of my way to make the poem ‘easy’ either, and I’m certainly not advocating trying to make the poem populist. Attempts at popularity end in dumbing down, adulteration, crassness: poems that are immediately forgettable because they’re vapid. But I do want a poem to be comprehensible. And I’m prepared to work to that end. The model I have for communicability in poems is that of ‘an open hand’.
SR: To reference Paz again, there exist clear lines of separation between the poem that is “unexplainable” and the one that is simply “unintelligible”
RB: Yes, because no poem is ‘explainable’ in the sense of having one clear and definite meaning. Because a poem contains multiple meanings, it’s a maker of meanings. Paz’s views on this are complex and he contradicts himself – I think, deliberately, to produce paradox. Even in a single text he can write, on the one hand, “Understanding a poem means, first of all, hearing it”, which presupposes the necessity of meaningfulness; and, on the other, “Poetry is a perpetual struggle against meaning. Two extremes: the poem encompasses all meanings, it is the meaning of all meanings; or the poem denies language any sort of meaning.” He then pronounces that the second of these options, that of Dada, failed – which I would agree with – “because it believed that the defeat of language would be the triumph of the poet.”
I think Eliot, in ‘The Metaphysical Poets’, was right in saying that there are times when a poet has no choice but to be difficult. Even so, I think we have to distinguish between the kind of necessary difficulties that a gifted, skilled poet who is genuinely struggling to express complex ideas and social realities may experience, and on the other hand the spurious tendencies in second-rate poets to muddy shallow waters to make them seem profound. I think Celan, for example, had no choice but write as he did. He’s a perfect example of Eliot’s thesis. His entire historical situation – political, linguistic and personal – was tortured. A fantastic, dense pressure is stressed into his lines and pushes through them. But his imitator-poets, at least in the English-speaking world, tend to be academics with safe jobs, and there’s nothing whatever about them that’s on the edge, or dangerous, or risk-taking. In imitating Celan, they’ve reduced his poetic method to an orthodoxy, even a kind of hegemony, of ‘taste’. Celan’s pressurised, tragically splintered diction becomes a mode, a manner – manneristic. How paradoxical that is, and what a shame! The result is what I’ve described in a two-line epigram as “hocus-pocus / out of focus”. That kind of stuff may be fashionable. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s impoverished, facile, false. It does little more than baffle, and it means little or nothing other than an intellectual game of one-upmanship, played by certain literati, especially in academia, to show how clever they are. I could get quite worked up about this, you know. ‘The Emperor’s new clothes’ is a widely played game in the poetry world, and its popularity depends on gullibility. Zhuangzi says “A dog is not thought special just because it can bark, and no man is thought wise just because he can speak.”
SR: Turning now to In Time of Drought: in the postscript you describe how in the act of the poem’s making you arrived at “an attempt to eliminate any elements of my own voice”.
RB: Yes. We’ve touched on aspects of that issue throughout this conversation, haven’t we?
SR: Right. This seems to resonate with something that Eliot said elsewhere about the progress of the artist being a continual self-sacrifice, or an extinction of one’s personality. Since it is precisely your experience that drives the meditations in The Blue Butterfly and Under Balkan Light, what was it about these particular books that led you to push your voice into the margins?
RB: Again, there are various points to explore here. I agree with Eliot here, although I don’t see this process in terms of a Christian abnegation, as he implies, perhaps of the same kind and order as that of his saintly Christian figure of Thomas á Becket in Murder in the Cathedral. Perhaps I can come back to that. ... As well as Eliot, one could also think of Samuel Beckett, who said somewhere: “En francais, c’est plus facile d’écrire sans style.”
My desire to do something like this in that particular book did have to do with the same kind of shedding. Since I was a student, fifty years ago, I’ve made it my business to work painstakingly on craft, and as a result I suppose I’m skilled in a number of different poetic modes. Added to which, musicality has always come quite easily to me. Could that have been because my father was a musician, even though he died when I was very young? At any rate, it’s not hard for me to write well in certain styles. But then, I think, there comes a certain point where one wants to shed ‘styles’ altogether. One says to oneself: “I don’t need this kind of stuff anymore,” you know. “I just want to be simple, to listen to the poem and get my ego out of the way.” This sentiment was voiced wonderfully by George Herbert in the seventeenth century. He has these lines in a great poem called ‘The Forerunners’: “Lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane, / Hony of roses, whither wilt thou flie?” Now there’s melody! He’s got it all there, and he’s good at it. He knows how to do it, how to achieve grace, elegance, beauty. But this poem of his is about rejecting all of that, and moving on. So in the same poem he writes “Farewell sweet phrases, lovely metaphors.” It as if he says: ‘No. I want to write for my God, simply and purely.’
Now I’m not a Christian, and am far from being any kind of monotheist, but not altogether dissimilarly, what was going on for me in composing In a Time of Drought was the desire to get the trappings of my own ego, my own personal stuff, out of the way, because I knew that I was in touch with something more powerful. Again I come back here to a Jungian model: something archetypal. In retrospect, I think it’s accurate to put it this way: not being dominated by ego seemed to be part of what was ‘required’ of me – whatever or whoever I am, or is, or was – by the poem itself. To put it more crudely: this poem simply didn’t need to be filtered through my own bullshit, my personal crap. What it needed was clarity and resonance, not cleverness, not personality. My friend Peter Mansfield, who helped me work on the polished drafts in extensive email exchanges, entered fully into that intention with me.
SR: Because I read this as such a rich, musical book, I'm led to believe that it's music that enters your work once the ego and personal pronoun ‘I’ come out. Is this your feeling as well?
RB: The idea that music enters once the ego partially ‘dissolves’ – or rather, when the borders of the ego become porous – is true. This takes us back to Kay Young’s essay on Daniel Deronda, doesn’t it? But how do I define that quality of the work that is not my personal self?
SR: Right! And that’s a clever reversal of what I’m trying to pin down here. ... How does one eliminate personal voice from a poem? And what happens when you do strip it away, when the “I” is abandoned, along with its egocentric demands on the poem – what stands in its place? I ask this because the relative absence of a centrally-located ‘I’ in this book suggested to me a correspondingly fuller emphasis on the qualities of rhythm and music.
RB: If that is what happens here, I’m delighted. I can’t answer for this particular book: that’s for a reader to do. But in general, I do believe you’re right in linking the loss or dropping of ego-concerns with a greater likelihood of being able to open up to fuller, deeper and richer resonances, and, as a direct consequence of that, to opening up to everything that music and musicality imply. Another way of putting this is that only when the ‘I’ is dropped is it possible to be amenable and attentive to the voice of the other – of Rimbaud’s autre. Or, if you like, when one’s personal voice is ‘vacated’, then the transpersonal has a chance of appearing. “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,” says Caliban, “Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not,” The Caliban in each of us hears and responds to this kind of music more effectively than any self-driven inner rationalist or materialist. Even so, we’re still faced with the question, who is it that does the dropping? I would say it’s still the individual, but one who’s got wiser, deeper, and more attuned to what’s going on within and without himself/herself, who’s no longer so bound up in ego-consciousness.
Even so, there’s another aspect to this discussion that we haven’t broached yet. I think we may need to be a little more attentive to how we talk about the ‘I’ and the ‘non-I’, the ego and the non-ego. And perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad thing to qualify, modify, and even to contradict some of the ways we’ve been talking about these areas until now. For example, I don’t think the tropes of ‘stripping away’ or ‘pushing into the margins’ or ‘casting out’ the ‘I’ are entirely accurate or helpful. The ‘I’ isn’t a layer of paint. Nor is it a taboo creature or spirit, a demon or monster to be ‘cast out’, in the sense of ‘exorcised’. (Caliban is a “monster” to the callous and thickheaded Trinculo and Stefano.) What I mean here is that I don’t think the ego can or should be stripped or peeled off, or cast out, or anything like that, if this is construed as a simple act of will. Here, we’re partly back with Shelley’s objections to ‘will’ as the prime driver. But it’s not only that. It’s because it’s precisely the ‘I’ that exerts that kind of will. So the exercise of banishing or cutting out the ‘I’, if merely willed, is necessarily carried out by that same ‘I’. Here’s a double-bind, a self-deception, a psychological trick we can all too easily play on ourselves, to enable us to think we’re wiser than we really are. There’s a glaring tautology here.
SR: Yet it also strikes me as the most available way of speaking about an ‘elimination of voice’, especially since the presence or absence of an identifiable speaker tends to be so completely tied up in the kind of impressions a reader will formulate.
RB: Perhaps. But to take this point a little further still – will, intention, determination, etc, not to mention survival, depend on the ego and its strength. Deprive a child of ego, deny a child of ‘I’, and you deprive that child of survival skills and possibly of sanity. Consolidate the child’s ego, and you build confidence, opportunity, creativity, trust, and capacity for love.
As for poetry, without an initial experiencing ‘I’, there’s no experience and no poem. Deny the initial experiencing ‘I’ and the entire humanity of the poem – its feeling and its feeling tone, the sympathy and empathy between ‘I’ and ‘other’ – get lost. I draw attention to this not just in the context of our discussion of a particular poem or poems, but because, as I see it, there are fashions and orthodoxies in contemporary poetics to do with these issues of ego. I think we need to see these issues clearly and not be beguiled or cheated by intellectual hegemonies of taste. I’m thinking here especially of the idea of the ‘death of the author’ and the invention of the term ‘scriptor’ by Barthes, which was followed by Foucault, as well as Derrida, in the late 1960s and through the 1970s. Their ideas were swept into Anglophone poetry, especially through the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, as part of an ideologically motivated programme, so that getting rid of the ‘I’ was de rigueur. And the poetics that emerged independently in England through Jeremy Prynne and the so-called Cambridge school and other groups wasn’t dissimilar. Some of these poets exert powerful egos. I think we should be wary of trusting, let alone accepting any statements of theirs about ‘abolishing’ the ego, and we should view that as a rhetorical trick, one that’s all the more suspect when they and their disciples and adherents don’t see it as such. By this I mean that forcing the ‘I’ out means it goes back into hiding and gets more and more devious, which results in even bigger ego trips, and correspondingly bigger self-deceptions and more strenuous denials of those ego trips by the perpetrators.
SR: This is certainly one possible consequence of “forcing the ‘I’ out”, but is it the only one? I also wonder if eliminating the personal voice from the poem makes possible a return to polyvocality, or at least invites into the poem the kind of transpersonal material typically filtered by an ego-bound or controlling ‘I’.
RB: Yes, of course it does. But I think we need to be especially wary here, since there are so many traps dictated by contemporary hype and intellectual fashion that are all too easy for the unsuspecting to fall into – especially young university students who are being taught this kind of thing, as if it were some kind of new discovery – and if we aren’t careful what we shall end up with is specious, ersatz, bogus.
For a start, eliminating the personal or narratorial ‘I’ may be appropriate, called for, necessary, even inevitable, in genres such as drama. Suspending or dropping the ‘I’ can work well in other genres too, for example in third person narratives, including epics, ballads and novels. As I’ve mentioned, that solution worked well for my purposes in In a Time of Drought. This poem is best described, I suppose, as a set of ballads or cantos, even though I added a personal memoir in the voice of the ‘I’ in the ‘Postscript’.
But anyone who knows the slightest tricks of rhetoric knows that pronouns can replace one another and that they operate in fundamentally binary sets, which are often ‘marked’/ ‘unmarked’, as do active and passive voices of verbs. So it’s dead easy to hide the ‘I’, and pretend that it has been ‘transcended’, when it has only been suppressed or disguised, quite possibly for manipulative or propagandistic ends.
What’s more, without ‘I’, there’s no ‘Thou’. Which means that without ‘I’, there can be no love poetry, and no devotional poetry. No psalms. No hymns. Nor a poetry of lamentation or genuine protest. Ultimately, then, you can’t have lyric poetry at all without an ‘I’. What an impoverishment. The strictly grammatical issue here is that if it is de rigeur to ban the ‘I’, relationality itself is put under full frontal attack. Relationality itself is dependent on distinctions (demarcations) between persons, pronouns, personae; and when these get fudged, blurred, squeezed or squashed, the result is that individuality, difference and otherness, not to mention respect and affection for them – and hence freedom itself – all get thrown out too. Complete depersonalisation ensues. A linguistic issue hence becomes a social, moral, psychological and metaphysical one. And since lyric itself then has no ground to stand on, it evaporates, escapes.
There can be no recognition and acceptance of distinctness of one from another without persons. I would go further than this and say not only are lyric, relationality and sociability under attack, but also human bodies. The ‘difficult’ poetry we’re talking about is bodiless, faceless, eyeless (I-less), personless. Without bodies the five senses have no home, and there’s no eros, no desire, no love. Universal elimination of the ‘I’ is therefore anti-human, and according to the paradigmatic model of historical reversal, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and their followers, by very dint of so strenuously denying the ‘I’ in order to absolve themselves from bourgeois sentimentality, and by insisting on the so-called materiality of language, ignore its humanness and its capacity for interiority and desire. Their concept of ‘materiality’ in any case is itself crudely utilitarian, and based on nineteenth century mental models, and way behind, say, quantum physics. These writers appear to have delivered their adherents and readers into a nightmarish Orwellian or Huxleyan prison or a Kafkaesque fog.
So, the net result is that the polar opposite of your implication becomes true. Polyvocality gets undermined. The transpersonal is unattainable. All that is left is language: pettiness not poetry, hype not hope. Triviality and preciousness. Language belongs to human beings, who have bodies, brains, hearts, lungs and voices. Poems aren’t brainless or heartless or voiceless. They’re written by real men and women who intend (mean) to write them, not by ‘scriptors’, as Barthes and Foucault claim. Nor is writing [écriture] primary, as Derrida claims, in its ‘control’ over humans. I agree with Catherine Pickstock’s assault on the pre-eminence Derrida’s accords to écriture:
Unlike inspiration from the Muses, there is here no knowing invocation of the impersonal Derridean god: writing. Derrida’s emphasis on the commerce of absence and death with writing causes him irresponsibly to discount the way in which all language presupposes engagement with living bodies. (My emphasis, RB).
Such writing acts automatically, without reference to place or time. It is a universalizer in a nihilistic mode. There is no subject. There are only objects, death(s).
I also agree with my friend Nasos Vayenas, the Greek poet and critic, of some of these writers and their followers in his critique entitled ‘Identity and Poetic Language’, part of which I’ve co-translated.
Can it really be that literary writing is a field where [...] every trace of the writer’s individual identity, all attempt at expression, has been obliterated? [...] Regardless of the extent to which language may have its own will, and however extensive may be that part of language which the poet is unable to control, the part that the poet is able to control is what actually moulds the part that is uncontrollable into poetic discourse. This part, the part of the language that can be moulded by the poet’s expressive will, is formed by the nature of the poet’s spoken discourse [parole]. No poem is a real poem unless it possesses the character of the poet’s spoken discourse, which is shaped by the poet’s deeper self and which in turn shapes the voice in the poet’s text.
The author is not dead. It’s the author who gives authority: authority is the author’s behest and bequest. More: the author is authentic. The author’s voice is what authenticates the poem. The poem is authenticated in having had an author, with a distinct, distinctive, personal, human voice, and a set of directed, willed intentions, even if we don’t know his or her name, or anything else about her or him, other than the surviving poem.
As for the dissolution of the ‘ego’, when it comes to the processes we’ve been talking about, the word shedding has cropped up, and I believe this may be more helpful and more accurate than stripping, etc. Shedding implies the imagem of a gradual, organic process, one that (as Jung says) tends to happen in the second part of human life, a natural letting go of ego-concerns, a falling or dropping away, like leaves from an autumnal tree.
And perhaps another way of thinking about this is that no shedding happens at all, that rather the ego becomes more firmly based, and more fully contextualised, in a deepened self, until its dissolution in death.
If I look back now at The Blue Butterfly, the first book in the Balkan Trilogy, its starting point certainly wasn’t an abnegation, denial or repression of ego. The experience that became the matter of the subject poem was very much mine: the butterfly sat on my finger, on my writing hand. And if I now read this title poem as if it were written by someone else, a salient exercise for any writer, I can’t help noticing that the word “me” or “my” occurs in it ten times: an emphatic reiteration. On the evidence of this, then, I would say, that the transcendent experience of synchronicity that we’ve been talking about in relation to the making of this poem didn’t abolish ego-consciousness but, on the contrary, first consolidated it and strengthened it. My conclusion, then, is that identity, far from being obliterated, gets more firmly rooted, consolidated (grounded) and deepened through this kind of experience. What’s more, I don’t believe the disappearance of the ego can be forced or commanded, whether by fashion or any other kind of dictate. In this context, the willed obliteration of the ego doesn’t make good sense at all, in any sense.
SR: The final question I wanted to ask about the trilogy has to do with the larger ethical implications facing the language arts as they approach social atrocities of this magnitude. On one hand we have Theodor Adorno’s famous, oft-quoted remark “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” On the other hand, Brecht’s “Motto”: “In the dark times will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing. / About the dark times.” And my question, for you, when navigating this sort of material, is where you find yourself between Adorno’s recourse to silence and the Brechtian call to song as a form of witnessing?
RB: I’m contra-Adorno. I’ve written my response to his remark very clearly into The Blue Butterfly. I can’t possibly doubt Adorno’s sincerity or his integrity. I think of him as a serious thinker, although not one I’m attuned to in the sense that he appeals to me viscerally, in my core. I honour him and I honour his integrity. But I think he’s wrong. And quite apart from the fact that his statement has been taken out of context, and, anyway, he modified it later – the reason I think that he’s wrong is that after Auschwitz, we must write. We have the duty to articulate, to do as much as we can to understand, to deepen and clarify our understanding of evil. And the function of language remains to understand, to articulate understanding. So I’m going to end our conversation with a quote, if I may, from a poem that was intended as my implicit response to Adorno, although I’ve written more poems since then returning to the same theme: that poetry has a moral purpose in relation to human stupidity, barbarity, cruelty and capacity for evil. Poetry stands against them.
I call this poem ‘The Telling’, and there are three parts to it, which I call three ‘attempts’ at telling. This is the ‘second attempt’. Now the whole assumption underlying this title and subtitle is that the ‘attempt’ – any attempt – to express the inexpressible, whether it is to verbalise the horrific, like the massacre of nearly three thousand people at Šumarice, or the ineffable, like the butterfly settling on my writing hand at the site of that massacre – is bound to fail. But, still, the aspiration has to be there. For this contradiction turns out to be the paradox without which poetry can’t happen.
Nobody could stay unmoved in this place,
not blench at all, not flinch with at least some
tightening of skin, muscles of throat and face
or watering of eyes. We who live on
might have been them. There’s no prerogative on
pain. Cruelty’s commonness makes us all dumb.
Numb silence, though, is no answer to evil.
To remain tacit, to call up no speech on its
repeated occurrences, is to grovel
before it, as to some pre-ordained essence
demanding just as complete acquiescence
as the rotation of seasons and planets,
and that won’t do. Fail or not, I must try
this telling . . .
I think I’ll leave it there: “I must try this telling . . .”
April 2012 – July 2013
Santa Barbara, Tucson, Cambridge
This text will appear in Richard Berengarten: A Portrait in Inter-Views edited by John Dillon, Shearsman Books, Bristol, 2014-2015. Many thanks to John Dillon for his invaluable recommendations in finalising this version.
Writings by Richard Berengarten
Adorno, Theodor W. 1967. Prisms. Trs. Samuel and Shierry Weber. London : Spearman.
Arnaudov, Mikhail. 1971  Studii vurhu bulgariskite obredi i legendi [Studies of Bulgarian Rituals and Legends] Sofia: Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.
Barthes, Roland. 1967. ‘The Death of the Author’. Aspen 5-6: 1977, reprinted in Image-Music-Text, tr. Stephen Heath. London: Fontana.
Bohm, David. 1980. Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London and New York: Routledge.
Brecht, Bertolt. 1976. Poems: Part 1, 1913-1956. Eds. John Willett and Ralph Manheim. London: Eyre Methuen.
Brown, Daniel. 2004. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Tavistock: Northcote House with the British Council.
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