The Place of Poetry in the West: A Conversation with William Everson, Nathaniel Tarn, and Lee Bartlett
Originally intended as a "Poets on Poetry" conversation for American Poetry, the following discussion took place at William Eversons home in the Santa Cruz Mountains on June 3, 1986. Though Everson and Nathaniel Tarn had followed one anothers work for many years, and had recently begun a correspondence, this occasion marked their first meeting.
Nathaniel Tarn: Im very interested in the whole question of whether there is, or is not, an "American poetic language" or "American idiom." From Williams on, this has been an important question, though it seems now to be stopped short by the internationalism of a present scene everyone is concerned about, the "Language" community of poetry.
Lee Bartlett: Bill, have you thought much about the Language poets? Ron Silliman? Barrett Watten? Bruce Andrews? Charles Bernstein?
William Everson: The names of those particular writers are familiar to me, but Ive never gotten into any of their theoretical writing. Language poets is an entirely new term to me.
Tarn: Well, I wonder if its even still a live question, "Language" poets aside. The question of an American poetic language.
Everson: For me it is. In fact, Im just getting into it as I write my long autobiographical epic. I find myself resorting to slang, idiomatic expressions that I never would have allowed into my more formal verse. Its as if Im in a new place, more secular, letting my secular side have a voice. So now I find myself inhabiting the American idiom in a way I never thought necessary for me.
Tarn: But that is a personal thing. What does it mean in terms of the overall scene? Is this still a live issue in the culture at large?
Bartlett: Although interestingly Helen Vendler has a new anthology called The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry, which begins with Stevens, yet includes no Pound, Williams, Oppen, H.D., all the way up through no Duncan or Creeley. Its as if for Vendler and Harvard there is a very narrow and peculiar American idiom. Kenneth Rexroth regarded Williams the greatest American prosodist of this century. Can you imagine an anthology of American poetry published in 1986 which includes Stevens but not Williams?
Everson: Only for a special purpose. Maybe tracking a trend.
Bartlett: Yet she includes Ginsberg and Snyder. I cant see either of them coming out of Stevens.
Everson: No, neither can I. Stevens was the Matisse of American poetry.
Bartlett: Nathaniel, you represent an interesting case in this context. Born in Paris, raised and educated more or less in England, and yet you consider yourself now an American poet. Obviously for you the question of an American idiom must be an open one.
Tarn: Well, I try to listen in that way. I am coming, by listening, into speaking that way also. I suppose that, to a certain extent, this involves a theatrical component. It is linguistic work. Poets are linguistic workers. Actors, for instance, spend a great deal of time perfecting their idioms. I could have gone, I suppose, to an elocution school, except that there is something inauthentic about that. When I die, the telltale voice will have died with me.
Bartlett: But you and Bill both seem to be thinking of idiom as lexical--say over against line, for example. Im thinking of it more as, say, cadence.
Tarn: Its both. I certainly do not think of it as lexical only.
Everson: I found Nathaniels At the Western Gates quite American in idiom, and I was very impressed by that. His asking how in the hell do you go about fucking here, in a cabin at the end of the continent.
Tarn: When I arrived in America in the late sixties and very early seventies, I was tremendously hopeful because so many of the ethnic voices were coming on strong. It was a linguistic progress that in some ways reminded me of what had happened in England following the war. Although the standard BBC voice had dominated as long as you could remember, after the war, provincial voices came in, so that you began to hear Liverpool, Nottingham, the Angry Young Men, particularly in the theater. England seemed to be listening to itself for the first time. I dont think America was listening to itself for the first time in the sixties and seventies--it had always been more democratic and more populist--but nevertheless is seemed to me a time in which the American language was growing in every possible direction, and the English language was not.
But now, after living here fifteen years, and after having gotten through fifteen years of teaching and so on, Ive gotten somewhat disappointed with that, lost some of my faith in that. Now, Im more impressed with the deadening of language which is taking place in the media and in political discourse, a kind of ironing out of the thing into a set of commercial formulae. Bill, as I think Ive told you, I think you have five-hundred times more faith than anyone else Ive ever met, and yet in Birth of a Poet you mention this problem only once or twice. You are just far more optimistic than I am. The kids are listening to that stuff more and more, and talking it, and now, instead of expanding, the language is retreating.
Everson: Well, my faith on this question is rooted in the archetype. It doesnt have much to do with these more temporal aspects of the problem. It constantly manifests itself in a primal and refreshing way which is inexhaustible; its the root source of the language per se. My orientation point toward reality is psychological and profoundly symbolic, and for me the poetry lies in the subject matter rather than in the expression. It is the inexhaustible current in the subject of the archetype itself which is the great replenishing factor. The ordeal of the poet is in reconnecting to that, as in prayer.
Bartlett: This takes us back to the American idiom. You are saying that its not lexical, not a cadence, but a subject matter?
Everson: No. The idiom is a matter of expression. Im not an advocate of the American idiom as Williams was. I employ it because you get vibrations of truth out of it which are relevant to where we find ourselves at any given time. But for me its not as important as the American idiom, or the Canadian Idiom. Or the Australian idiom, or the British idiom. The language itself has its own inner dynamic which is the crucial factor.
Tarn: It seems to me it has to be both expression and subject matter, but that expression primes--otherwise why poetry? Ive got a feeling that this is linked to another question, the mission or function of the poet. Bill, you have a very high regard for the poet as the conservator of language and a healer of the problems of the nations. The poet can only contact solutions through the prophetic function, the shamanistic function. Of course, Ezra Pound had this same kind of high regard for the poet, and it seems to me that one of the primary reasons he was so tragically disappointed late in his life was that his vision really was beginning to encounter the wall of silence he had not wanted to perceive before. So my question here would be rather brutal. Do you think that the coming generations are going to have all that elevated a notion of the poet? My sense of what younger poets are doing today does not imply that prophetic idea of the poet at all.
Bartlett: Id agree with that. Certainly I think Michael Palmer would deny a prophetic vocation, as would a poet coming out of Iowas MFA program.
Everson: Poetry goes through changes from primitivism to decadence; we happen to be in a decadent period right now. However, the mythic possibilities are always there, and theyll never be exhausted. If you get a strong enough personality youll recover those elements. If at a particular time he or she hasnt shown up, then he or she simply hasnt shown up. You just have to wait for the voice that can tap it, and there youll get the replenishing energy.
Bartlett: Like Yeats.
Everson: Yes, exactly. He was just late enough to be post-Victorian and early enough to be modernist. And he was able to achieve that vatic voice.
Bartlett: But Nathaniel, your sense of the poet is in some sense similar to Bills.
Tarn: Well, one of the problems I have had for a while is the nightmare of an incestuous circle: that the consumers of poetry are the producers of poetry and that there is nothing else. Its a self-reinforcing circle in the sense that none of the poets want that notion of function, then none of the readers will because they are, after all, the poets. I think we have to rediscover the reader, the function in the system of the reader as "other." Without "other" there is no marriage. Only incest.
Everson: The problem lies in the fact that we are in a new phase of the media and the poets are confused right now among the influx of various alien sources. Its again a matter of waiting for a strong enough voice to emerge in the recovery of taproots. As Emerson insists, if we live in expectation it will happen.
Bartlett: Although it is always possible that American poetry is finished. Its possible that weve lived through a couple hundred years of a great literature, a great poetry, and now it has worked itself out. Maybe next time itll emerge in Bangkok, a whole other tradition.
Tarn: I doubt that, but at the same time I find it hard in the face of all the sociological evidence to have Bills faith that at some point the voice is going to reemerge. After all, in purely sociological terms, the voice that may be most listened to at this moment--a very uneven voice, but the most listened to--is probably somebody like Allen Ginsberg. Does he have this idea?
Everson: The oracular incentive. But nobody reads him much these days.
Bartlett: I dont think Ginsberg is all that popular now. I think that somebody like John Ashbery is far more popular at the moment, at least among people who pay attention in any sustained way to poetry. On the other hand, a poet like Galway Kinnell . . . he read not too long ago in a very large room at the University of New Mexico and we had a standing-room-only crowd. And hes got something close to the religious sense of the poet.
Everson: Well, hes a fresh voice for the neoacademics. Hes got that traditional dimension which Ginsberg lacks. Ginsbergs idiom is so much looser than Kinnells. I am not saying that Kinnell is a better poet, not in the ultimate sense of the vocation, for at his top Ginsberg is inimitable. But you can see how new academics would espouse Kinnell--he brings along with him something from the traditional canon.
Bartlett: Very simply, he writes poems that are in some sense easier to teach in the classroom. There is not all that much you can say about a Ginsberg poem after a certain point. But getting back to your observations, Bill, its like this voice thats hovering out there waiting to be embodied is the tongue of the race. It doesnt really matter whether its expressed in 1985 or fifty years from now.
Everson: Thats my point, though I do take it on faith. Its always happened that way though. Here I am seventy-three years old and I feel it stirring in myself, glowing and burning, whispering, imploring, pleading.
Bartlett: But as an anthropologist Nathaniel would be forced to see this as a wonderful romantic fiction.
Tarn: Yes, as an anthropologist Id have to see it what way, but as a poet--well, there is that terrible division again which Ive suffered through all my life. I am a little uneasy about this conversation, playing devils advocate again. Poets are hard on science--need it from Pound to Cage down to now, yet always dump on it. Actually, Id have a faith at two removes. Id have the faith that Bills faith works, or Id at least try to. But theres something else Id like to get to. Reading through Birth of a Poet, I notice that you say we are passing beyond nationalism. I wish to God this were true. But as we prepare for a third world war, everyone is in the rhetorical posture of a passionate nationalism. The whole social structure of nationalism continues unabated. I dont see Albania shrinking by one jot into something that is not Albania, or the United States growing into something other. All the frontiers seem to be remaining exactly the way they are. I can see that reason and faith are asking for an end to nationalism, buts just not happening. Look at the number of new nations! It is like a plague of locusts. Not that they should not be free! But that they should be nations?
Everson: Everyone knows its over. Only the inertia of the past is carrying it on. We havent found the new way yet, but everyone knows in their bones that its over. We are living in a ghost, waiting for the new forms to emerge.
Tarn: Im just now sure this is so. The poets know this, and the artists, and the environmentalists. But what about the gigantic mass of businessmen, soldiers, technicians?
Bartlett: I see us as transforming nationalism into something else, but the impulse is the same. Transformation into a religious zeal--"born-again" Christians, for example, who tend to huddle under an American umbrella, but who are obviously Christians before they are Americans, when they can make such a distinction at all. Or corporate executives whod love to merge Ford with Toyota, so that their sense of nationalism is an overarching corporation. You dont necessarily have national borders anymore, but interests and sympathies to which large groups of people adhere. And they are of necessity at odds with one another.
Everson: I see the widespread preoccupation with oriental religions as a great sign of the passing of nationalism.
Bartlett: But do you think that search really has filtered into the general population?
Everson: It doesnt matter. The portent is the eye of the fact-to-be. It is already here.
Bartlett: Maybe in Santa Cruz, but what about San Jose?
Everson: Its in the atmosphere. Everything is carrying us into a supranational consciousness. Our technology, the space flights.
Bartlett: But isnt this just a hypernationalism? Get our flag on the moon first?
Everson: The logo, not the cutting edge. The blade is ideology. There will always be nationalism, just as there will always be city pride. But men no longer kill and die for it as they did in the thirteenth century when the city-states supplanted the feudal hegemony, and gave us the Renaissance and Culture. With the sixteenth century came nationalism, which gave us the Enlightenment and Science, between them leveling Culture to Civilization. Now in the twentieth century comes Ideology. World War I was the last great nationalistic war, but it conceived in its violent womb the fountainhead of Ideology, the Russian Revolution, and Fascism arose to match it. True, both Germany and Russia revived nationalism in World Ward II, for Ideology was not yet strong enough to muster the millions, but that was a death rattle. The terrible spawn of the atomic bomb sealed its doom. The obsolete nations are terrified, shitting their britches, Reagan and Gorbachev embrace each other convulsively, invoking God or destiny that the fearful nationalistic death throes can be contained till Ideology can stop clearing its throat and do its thing. I take secularism and religion to be Ideologys Janus face. So far secularism is winning hands down for the age is linear, but with the rise of the cyclical religion begins to breathe. Look at the environmentalist movement. The call of the prenational.
Bartlett: But Bill, even there weve seen a tremendous backlash. Its true that James Watt is out, but a popular bumper sticker is "Nuke the Whales," and I think there is very little irony there. A lot of people are just tired of hearing about nuclear power plants and saving whales. I know that you dont spend any time in shopping malls, but if you did I think youd be a little depressed.
Everson: They are just howling in the dark. The future is against them. Youve got to go after the new consciousness as the wave of the future.
Tarn: Do you think wilderness is still the archetypal American experience?
Everson: The archetypal American address, the archetypal American vision, the archetypal American fantasy. And thats the thing that counts. Reality can offer very little to stand against it.
Tarn: Well, you have the running dream or ambition of the West which is never reached. It occurs to me that this is a transformed metaphor for immortality, because if you never reach the place where the sun goes down you never die. But in fact when you reach the great ocean you cant move further forward. What then happens? Does the whole thing then retract upon itself? Does it go inwards and promote some kind of sickness? Im wondering about this because youve talked a great deal about violence, and Ive never been completely clear on the relationship between reaching the sea and violence. Are you sometimes implying that the violence arises out of the fact that we have reached the last frontier?
Everson: No. I dont think thats the source of violence, though thinking about it now, maybe you are right. Maybe each generation feels threatened by this and therefore resorts to violence to restore the new. But generally I think of violence as being an aperture to primal reality, in the sense that the gash is manifestion of dynamic energy. This attempts to get at the dynamic energy that supersedes the form in an attempt to clarify the present and the nature of the future is what the impulse to violence is. I think that, after Christ, it can only have its true resolution in art, where it can be handled in the formal rather than the physical dimension. In a sense, the resort to violence on the material level is a failure of aesthetics. If the aesthetics were properly functioning, violence would transmute into another dimension and the energies could go forward. But there is always a degree of rupture in material forms in nature, which is both closing and opening as a way to the future.
Bartlett: Are you thinking of violence as personal or institutional?
Everson: I think of it as it is in nature first of all, the rupture and disparity between forms and the contingent reality in the process of evolution. The constant subsumption of one form into another. This is a problem for mankind as a spiritual being in the continuum of material forms, of which he is also a part. As a Christian I think this is met first on the cross, then in art.
Tarn: Youve said Buddhism is a very fine system, but that it doesnt satisfy you because its not dramatic enough. It doesnt account for any drama in the world.
Everson: Well, I dont know too much about it, but my intuition is that it withdraws from the point of violence. The reason I remain a Christian is the drama of the cross. For me thats the point of ultimate reality, ultimate truth. I remain a Christian rather than a Buddhist because of this sense that Buddhism is a deferral, rather than an embracing of violence.
Tarn: Im not really sure that that is so. For instance, in the Zen school of meditation the amount of violence one has to face while sitting still--the violence of trying to remain in the relative world while striving for something else--is amazing. To use your terminology, the violence of having to live in linear time while at the same time trying to transcend it, to get into cyclical time. The amount of violence engendered in the sitting person is tremendous. This tends to be ritualized in those incredible encounters which take place in sesshin. It seems to me that there is certainly a ritual of violence in various forms of Buddhism. The fierce and angry-seeming deities in Tibetan Buddhism are channels for dealing with violence inside us and outside us. It is not just a quietism, which is what you seem to be implying with the word deferral.
Bartlett: But isnt the point of convergence in both Christian violence and Buddhist violence that fact that in each tradition at the moment of violence there is no past and no future, only the here and now? Violence offers the ultimate instance of existential focus.
Everson: Well, my further problem with Zen is the notion that reality is an illusion. I dont think its an illusion at all.
Tarn: Again, the illusion thing is tricky. Theres the Zen statement that when you go in, the mountains and rivers are there; then the mountains and rivers disappear; when you come out, the mountains and rivers are there once again. This seems to be implying that the question of illusion is complex, to say the least!
Everson: A psychological process in any case.
Tarn: To come back to the matter of America. I spent three long seasons in Alaska, and I was absolutely fascinated by what was going on there in terms that were usually codified into "this is the last frontier." The huge debate over "what we are going to do with the place." It is, somehow, "our last chance." I was always overwhelmed by the feeling that people wanted to get it over and done with; that they were profoundly uncomfortable with there being an Alaska. Alaskas position on the map is awkward. It is the Wests culmination, a grand explosion, yet is feels north rather than west. Most times, it is "off the map": people in the "Lower Forty-eight" prefer to forget it. We had gotten to the Pacific and the book was, we thought, closed. Suddenly we discovered that there was still another state to be developed, and what to do with the problem now that weve decided that the issue is closed? For Bill, of course, it would never close, but I still dont see how once weve reached the Pacific we can keep that question open. It loses the force of myth and becomes, say, "folklore." Is that where we want to go?
Bartlett: So your sense of this is simply as a stage in history, or at least spiritual history.
Tarn: Yes, which is why I have a problem with the notion of waiting for the "new" voice.
Everson: Its a matter of transmutation to another dimension. Thats the function of the artist.
Tarn: Will violence remain in this new situation?
Everson: It will have to remain.
Bartlett: What do you mean by "another dimension"? It sounds like something out of science fiction.
Everson: I mean the spiritual, or the imaginative--some other dimension of the collective unconscious. Its waiting to be tapped.
Bartlett: So that the impulse to go west is simply a momentary manifestation in history of the larger psychological process?
Everson: If you wish. We are at a great moment, though, in that we have reached the ultimate West. Thats why Alaska has a temptation about it as a last frontier, but thats not the problem. The problem is that the line is drawn at the Pacific. And thats the relevance of Jeffers. He made the first great penetration of the post-Pacific spiritual tendency. For his pantheism gave him the map.
Bartlett: The cynical answer again might be that once youve reached the West, the Pacific, the game is over. Nuclear weapons, AIDS, wholesale starvation. . . .
Everson: Those signs of impasse will confront us, all kinds of ghoulish threats.
Tarn: There is another realpolitik take here. We are continuing across the Pacific into Asia, which raises the whole issue of the fact that once the inner empire has been built, you move to the outer empire. And God knows that one of the crucial issues of our time is American imperialism. We tried it in Vietnam and it didnt work, though now we are continuing it in Central and South America. Of course, there is the alleged coming of the "Pacific Century." We may have lost the strength for empire by then--too much competition from Japan, Korea, China. Our West should do well though, even if only commercially.
Bartlett: Why dont you have an interest in the north/south axis? Why simply the east/west?
Everson: Because thats the sun pattern. East is life, west is death. The sun is born and the sun dies. I think of the north-south polarities as stable, fixed. They define the course through which the mobile and changing east-west equation must flow.
Tarn: One of the problems I always feel with "archetypal" situations is this: Alaska is in a sense north, but in another way it is very much the continuation of west. If you think of the Rockies as being "archetypally" western, in British Columbia you begin to reach the immense culmination of the West. In a sense, reaching the Pacific Ocean was really a mistake on the ultimacy of the West, which could be continued into the Aleutian archipelago right on to Japan. One of the things that worries me about "archetypal" thinking is that there is very frequently a slippage of categories because the archetype strives to divide the world ruthlessly into its various components. So one finds oneself saying, "Well in this respect its the west, but in that respect its north; in some senses it is female, but then it is also male." Symbolically, its a glorious system, but it seems to me to sometimes negate and drown out the complexity of detail, and my more scientific side begins to rebel.
Everson: Yes, it is incorrigibly reductive, but then so are all symbols, all symbolism. All I can say is that the simplicity of the archetypes is so threatening that if it werent for a little slippage here and there wed be in a bad way.
Tarn: I suppose that fits with your notion of imprecision, which of course would drive the scientist crazy. Even when science talks of imprecision (all the way to chaos) it wishes to do it precisely.
Bartlett: But of course the American continent really stops at the Sierras, and all the coast is really part of a whole other land mass which includes Japan, the Pacific basin.
Tarn: Fifteen years or so ago, Robin Blaser had a magazine which was called Pacific Nation, and Ive always had tremendous sympathy for that idea. One of the things I used to say which made me unpopular in the East was that America was entirely expendable until you got to the Rockies. Thats probably one of the reasons Im in New Mexico right now. Im a western secessionist at heart. All the rest is still Europe.
Bartlett: Except that youve told me before that youre a little troubled by Bills sense of the East Coast/West Coast literary politics scene.
Tarn: Well, I do have a question there. Bill, I was surprised when I was reading Birth of a Poet to see that you felt that western writers still had to go east to be recognized and blessed. I noticed to my surprise also during the Ezra Pound Conference in San Jose, where Lee and I just spoke, that during one panel Robert Duncan suddenly said that his recent National Poetry Award given by Thomas Parkinsons group was all very fine, but that it really doesnt mean anything because its an award the West is giving to itself. So what does it mean? By that he seems to be saying that the eastern reputation business still holds. I just dont think it does, and Im very surprised, Bill, that you and Duncan have that kind of defeatism. Its very untypical of you both.
Bartlett: But again to go back to the Vendler anthology, she includes Snyder and Roethke, but as far as I remember they are the only poets from this side of the country she chooses. Thats an interesting situation in 1985. Neither Duncan nor Bill are in the book. No Charles Bukowski. Even someone like Carolyn Kizer, whom youd you otherwise expect. . . .
Everson: The accumulation of the past lies in the East. And its on the basis of the accumulation of the past that judgments are made. This is inescapable. I just dont think that the East is going to validate the West until the transmutation process which we were discussing earlier is complete. When the Pacific Coast becomes the new East through that process, then well have a shift in recognition.
Tarn: I believe that demography and economics will soon allow us to recognize that the West is now the living center of the nations cultural life. The East will have simply dropped away. But you are saying that the archetype still holds, but the West has to become the East for it to be realized?
Everson: Yes, exactly.
Tarn: Thats what I would call an enormous category slippage, and unnecessary!
Everson: Isnt it that way with London? The East Coast still feels it needs validation from London. And Paris! Not to mention the lust for the Nobel Prize.
Tarn: Sure. I think of New York and the East Coast as the "British ghetto." The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, the Ivy League are the last remaining possessions of Her Majestys government in the country. So that the East Coast establishment--which produces a Helen Vendler or God help us, a Harold Bloom--is still British owned. But that is, in your terms, "a ghost we are living in."
Bartlett: Why? Bill would see this, I think, as an archetypal situation, but from your point of view what is the reason for this?
Tarn: I just had a take on it this summer. I went back to England for the first time since I came to New Mexico, and it had finally stopped getting on my nerves. I began to realize that it was no longer home and that I could begin to enjoy it for the historical and traditional dimensions which it had. Its the history department of the University of the United States. But at the same time I understood why so many people loved it for the history and tradition, so that they then committed the crime of considering that thats where everything came from. It became the great model, thereby perpetually undermining American culture. Until one gets out from under all of that, simply refuses to accept those validations anymore, I dont see that the real new voices can arise.
Bartlett: But even in university English departments, where people should know better, there is always a sense of American writing as a poor stepchild. But I misunderstood, I think, something you said earlier. You werent denying Bills sense of an East/West division, but rather you simply couldnt understand why a western writer would care about it.
Tarn: Absolutely. Which is why I was so surprised by Duncans statement.
Everson: But dont you see, the East holds the canon of judgment while the West holds the canon of creativity. We create out here in order to be judged back there. From the impersonal archetypal point of view, to write to the Easts proscription would be fatal, a true defeat--the western writer who goes east and goes to pot, like Steinbeck. But having written one must wait for the East to catch up.
Bartlett: So that getting a Pulitzer Prize would carry more weight than the National Poetry Award.
Everson: For a Californian.
Tarn: See, I have great trouble with that. I dont see that there is any evidence that the Pulitzer ever meant a damn thing in real terms. Same as, nine times out of ten, the Nobel means very little. I cannot accept "we create out here in order to be judged back there." Its too close to slavery.
Bartlett: But dont you think in part your attitude derives from the fact that youve already got a British background and an eastern background--both of which you decided to leave behind? You do not have that almost innate sense of lack of worth the westerner takes in with mothers milk.
Tarn: Well, I could see this in terms of old, frozen Europe--say London as opposed to English provincial writers. As I said earlier, after the war the provincial writers took over London (the French are still backward in regard to Paris).
Bartlett: But thats the point. They took over London. Maybe they returned to the countryside, but there was obviously a feeling that they had to capture the capital. Until Bill and Duncan have captured New York--which, in both their cases, publication by New Directions in a sense effects--that tranformation cannot be achieved.
Tarn: But this is still a new country! Bill, I feel that your adherence to the archetype theory is almost compelling you to remain in a defeatist position. If you maintain that the eastern archetype is fixed, then there is no reason why the situation of the western writer should change. But this brings me to another question. I wonder if, in your notion of the shaman, there isnt a confusion of the geographic with the ethnographic. That is to say: we have a tendency to think that the American Indian, who is the primal and prime owner of this land, is somehow the fountainhead of our own tradition because we are in the same place, the same geography. So that we mask an ethnographic imperialism, with all its attendant murders and massacres, with a geographic adhesion of son to father. We try to claim descent from these people, but they dont accept it. And the fact that they dont accept this seems to me to be absolutely cardinal. You must be familiar with the Indian reaction to Jerome Rothenbergs ethnopoetics.
Bartlett: Leslie Silko has a scathing essay on Snyders "white shamanism."
Tarn: Yes, exactly. How do you feel about this, Bill? It seems to me that you have a much more deeply rooted view of shamanism in terms of your theoretical background than a number of these other people. Im drawing attention to this because I think one needs to transcend the whole East/West discussion to solve it.
Everson: You speak as an anthropologist, and I respect your concern. Perhaps I do presume too much, as you say; but the truth is I place far more emphasis on the Spirit of Place. It is the numinous force that resolves the apparent confusion between what you call "the geographic and ethnographic spheres." The Spirit of Place is the power that makes the aboriginal shaman and the civilized poet two beads on the same thread. It is the power in the American earth that led me to seek the clue as to how it properly met, and that clue proves to be the shaman. This place was here eons before the Indians arrived. Both our peoples were engendered somewhere else--his in Asia, mine in Europe. But we were drawn ineluctably by the same force; only his people have a longer tenure on it than mine. Nevertheless, any man with eyes to see, nerves to feel, can receive it. As Jeffers has said of the Greeks: "The Greeks were not the inventors / Of shining clarity and jewel-sharp form and the beauty of God. / He was free with men before the Greeks came: / He is here naked on the shining water. / Every eye that has a mans nerves behind it has known it." As for the shaman, were I to usurp his cult, imitate his rites and practices, he would clearly have the right to object, especially if I had not been received into the tribe, initiated into the mysteries, validated by the elders. It would be as presumptuous and futile as trying to consecrate the eucharist in the Mass without ordination. Poets are sometimes called priests of the world, prophets. But this has become a cliché. It is the shamans penetration of the unconscious to engage the demonic that causes the poet to turn to him for a model. It is not a case of either Snyder or myself trying to pass ourselves off as bona fide shamans.
Bartlett: So you dont see this as a question of cultural imperialism?
Everson: No, though obviously there are traces of it. Maybe it is cultural imperialism in inception, but it cant end that way. Certainly, there are terrible traces of imperialism in our occupation of this land, but we cant let that defeat us.
Tarn: Im with you there, very much so, but we have to get everyone to agree and this will take time. OK. I guess I was looking at another facet of the western lack of independence: looking to the Indian as father, to the European as father, to the eastern as father. The question of the weight of tradition. Well, this calls to mind another question. Bill, you are obviously a pillar of this evolving western ethos, while at the same time you are strongly involved in Catholicism, which is certainly not a majority religious situation in America. How do you see your Catholicism and your westernism as a nexus? Is there a connection, or is it just a historical accident in your particular situation?
Everson: Its an extremely problematic situation for me psychologically. I am archetypally tied into two distinct ideas. First, there is the American pragmatism which everyone here begins with, the Protestant ethic. Second, there is the Catholicism, which ties me to the history of Europe and Western civilization, its origins in Asia Minor. I made a break with my American pragmatism, and for eighteen and a half years lived in a monastery; then I reached a point where in a sense the American pragmatism caught up with me, after Vatican II, when the Church became social action oriented at the expense of mystical contemplation.
Bartlett: You left the Dominican order, not the Church.
Everson: Right, though Im not in the sacraments. But I never left the Church. Once out of the monastery, I attempted to recover my aboriginal roots, to go back beyond the pragmatism and the Catholicism to a recovery of nature. I took the figure of the shaman as the most direct route to that. After all, I came to understand Catholicism through the medieval tradition of the vocation of the monk, and it seemed only natural that I might understand my aboriginal roots through the vocation of the shaman. The shaman is the most crystallized symbolic entity in this context, and so I began to shamanize--which, in a sense, as an artist Id been doing all along. It was simply that now I could make a conscious attribution through animism back into the instinctual, which is the basis of the archetypal. Jungs theory of the archetypes is the method by which I can relate these three cultural levels. The project isnt complete, though, because Ive not yet changed my life enough. But currently Im writing my autobiographical epic as an attempt to bring these aspects together. Actually, I never realized that until this moment, but I see it clearly. In some way all three levels will come together there, which brings me back to the idea of transmutation. That is the function of the artist in society. Jeffers could stand aloof from whether or not the East Coast validated him, knowing that the future would. I have the same kind of faith that he did, but I cant bring myself to say the hell with you, that Im putting my stakes on a thousand years from now. I just cant live that conviction of Jefferss. I feel myself driven to heal the wound in the American psyche, the tension between the East and the West. And until the East validates the West the nation cannot be healed. I just cant let it go.
Bartlett: Which brings us back to the Pulitzer Prize.
Everson: It would go a long way to heal the rift. I agree with Nathaniel that the award itself is not all that distinguished actually, but as symbolic gesture it would mean acceptance.
Tarn: Well, what youve just said is very beautiful. I feel it may have some relation to my triad of "vocal," "silence," and "choral." It helps me see how with a certain view of the archetype you might transcend various political realities which seem to run directly counter to it. But after all, I continue to feel that an American Indian poet might still question your right or my right to that view. This seems in some ways to raise that specter of violence again.
Bartlett: And yet, most Indian poets, like Wendy Rose and Simon Ortiz, write in English.
Tarn: Thats something history has forced them into.
Bartlett: Of course. But history has forced Bill into his position also. Leslie Silko makes many good points about cultural imperialism, but its interesting that Bill and Snyder have come to their positions very consciously, while many Indian writers might well dismiss the question of their language by saying simply that history has forced them into it. Which is not a satisfactory answer to a very complex problem. After all, Indian writers who write in English, it might be argued, perpetuate cultural imperialism through their art. That the true Indian artists are those people who stay in the pueblos close to their root languages and traditions, though of course it is more complex than that. But back to what you were asking Bill, Nathaniel, your case is very similar--Judaism combined with your interest in Buddhism.
Tarn: In my case, I think it may well be irreconcilable. Bill has found a coherent way of bringing his contradictions together. But I remain in contradictions which sometimes cease to be beautiful. My own situation sometimes causes me abject despair simply because there are so many strands. Ive come to believe that the artistic, political, and sociological situation in our time has become so complex that the only thing the artist can do is remain in a state of contradiction and give voice(s) to it, at least until history brings about a transmutation. But the artist is not in the position to effect this: she/he is not history. I have a very high view of Bills faith in this matter, but in reality I think that, as you say, he can only do this in his head. Unfortunately, your head is not the world out there. I could go into detail on the relation between my Judaism and my Buddhism, but that would lead to autobiography, which isnt really the point of this.
Bartlett: But obviously, without the vision in your head you cant effect it in the world.
Tarn: Sure, and its that vision, I suppose, which may break us out of the international East/West axis in favor of a more circular view. It got us into space, for example, though what bothers me there is the tremendous deadness of the place. Dont you hanker sometimes for another planet out there, functioning instead of being just a dead mass? I suppose we have to push on further.
Everson: Through astrology I know they are not dead masses, they are functioning. Its my link to the dimension we were speaking about before; purely symbolic, but there it is.
Tarn: Well, thats another of your beautiful notions that Im not so sure about. Geez, I feel like a party-pooper!
Bartlett: Is your sense of this functioning as something abstracted from human consciousness?
Everson: No. In terms of it. The archetype relates to the instincts, but it is also operating out there. There is always a dichotomy between the subjective and the objective, two beads on the same string. The planet activates a potentiality within us. If it werent doing it, we wouldnt recognize it at all. There is much out there that we dont recognize because it is not activating any potentiality within the race. When that material comes it will work through the symbolic mode so that we will recognize it. The result is that the symbolic is therefore superior to all other truth. Hard for the scientist to accept.
Tarn: I guess I may have more trouble with the way this material is usually handled than with the material itself. Most "New Age" handling seems to me to be the tail end of the weakest side of the "counter culture." It is sentimental, anti-intellectual, gushy, and wretchedly apolitical in every sense.
Bartlett: Yet look at something as simple as biorhythms, which you see at work in athletes all the time. Some days John McEnroe doesnt give up a point, a whole basketball team shoots 70 percent, or one can touch Marcus Allen--then other days it all falls apart. Some days we are so in tune with our bodies that its beyond understanding, wonderfully transcendent; other times the timing or whatever is all off. It seems to me that this shift is not simply psychological, but rather muscular. Now if this is true, the rhythm might as well connect with the planets as anything else.
Tarn: Youve got a point, and I dont want to deny that, though I dont think "might as well" is very conclusive. Its just that some of the same problems I have with the archetypal theory come into play here. But Id like to turn to one final point. Again, reading Birth of a Poet I came across the following: "Americans cannot create a clerkly caste, not even by joining the university." But isnt that exactly what happened in America? By joining universities havent poets created a clerkly caste, especially through the artificial production of writers by the MFA machine? All these babies whove done most of their living in test tubes?
Bartlett: I think Bill was alluding there to Audens notion that the British writer traditionally thinks of himself as a member of a clerkly caste, while the American writer thinks of himself as an aristocracy of one.
Tarn: Not all British writers, surely. Auden was class-bound. But are the writing schools a question of an aristocracy of one?
Everson: No, which is exactly why I said that.
Tarn: I see. So you would argue that while it appears to be happening, in fact its not successful. Its not going to produce the great voice.
Everson: But on the other hand, Thomas Wolfe went through the whole system, yet hes considered to be almost the archetypal poet. Certainly nobody would mistake him for an academic, yet Faulkner thought of him as the greatest American novelist.
Bartlett: And hes not often taught in universities.
Tarn: I didnt know Faulkner felt that way.
Everson: In an interview someone asked him to rate American writers. He said Wolfe was first, he himself second, Hemingway third. Someone quoted that to John Berryman in his Paris Review interview and he almost fainted. I guess that points to the difference between Berryman and Faulkner. Wolfe was the greatest celebrator weve seen of the American earth.
Bartlett: But the lack of critical attention takes us back to the question of how much is there to say in a classroom (or in an article) about the great indigenous American writers like Whitman and Wolfe. Emerson, Jeffers, Ginsberg. I gave a paper at U.C. Davis on the Language poets a few days ago, and the first question to be asked was, "This is all fine, but how do you teach one of these poems in an introductory literature class?" As if poems were being written to be taught. Obviously, you can say much more in a critical sense--especially if you are drawn to poststructuralism or deconstruction or whatever--about a poem by Stevens than by, say, Williams. And Stevenss sensibility is thoroughly European.
Tarn: Yes, I must admit that I often find it hard to read Stevens as an American poet. On the other hand, the hell with exclusions!
Bartlett: And we dont want to fall into a kind of simplistic McCarthyism--who is the more "American." Yet the question of canon in late-twentieth-century America comes down to what and who is taught in the universities. And there it comes down to which poets and fiction writers can give you the most critical mileage, or mileage in the classroom. I just finished two full weeks on Ginsberg in a course Im teaching, and I have to admit it was a trial. I was constantly reaching outside the work to fill the hour. Going outside is absolutely fine, and in fact to my mind is even preferable to the various New Critical fictions which still have hold on English departments.
Tarn: The expectation of exegesis. When the whole literary situation is keyed into the university as a canon-creating mechanism, those people who can be taught in class because of a certain complexity will be at the top of the canon. Its a self-perpetuating system. Though lets not forget that there are alternative canons being created all the time. I was looking at Four Letters on the Archetype, and what comes out there is the tremendous importance of Lawrence as an American. Here we get into the whole problem of the English over against the American canon. Today Lawrence has tremendous difficulty being accepted simply as a poet in England, and yet he is singlehandedly the great alternative to that whole other traditional U.K. canon. When you look at his work you realize that he had made that passage. Its remarkable. But again, the British ghetto in the East conspires with the whole ghetto in Britain to keep Lawrence out of the whole system. The transmutation has taken place, but the god-damned East will not acknowledge it.
Bartlett: I dont have your faith in alternative canons, however. Most people, especially adolescents, simply dont read, and if the few university students who do are left in the hands of a few academics who have a very narrow view of what poetry is and should be, then a whole body of work is going to disappear. Publishers wont, or cant, do much about it. Even James Laughlin says that if you dont make it with the "professors" youre as good as dead. The American reading public doesnt keep poetry in print, classes of twenty students do.
Tarn: If this is true, even if the great voice arises there may be no one to listen to it.
Bartlett: And the further complexity here is that as much as we rail against the tunnel vision of universities, they rescued Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville. The reading public could not have cared less.
Everson: I began as an anti-academic, but no more. After all, I taught in the university for ten years.
Bartlett: And Kenneth Rexroth did the same.
Everson: As a poet I know I live by it. I agree that there is little poetry read outside it. I know that if I dont make it in the university I will not survive. But I know I will make it there. And Ill make it in America. There we go again--pure faith.
Tarn: Faith against the dragon of sociology.
Reprinted from Lee Bartletts The Sun is But a Morning Star: Studies in West Coast Poetry and Poetics. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1989.
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