Tryst Interviews CE Chaffin (Page.2)

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Mia: In your Essay, “The Hollow Men” you wrote an apologia regarding your long held admiration of Eliot’s work and why it would not qualify for logopoetry:

“I admit most readers today need help in appreciating Eliot and likewise admit that Eliot’s poems, especially his pre-Christian works, are more difficult than poetry ought to be….

“My antidote for this [the declining popularity of poetry and fear of its academic mystique] is, quite simply, that poetry should be intelligible without footnotes, explanations of technique or other intermediary bells and whistles.

"The first concern of logopoetry is that art be intelligible. By this I mean a poem should be comprehensible enough on first reading to yield a sense. Practically, this means that after one reading the audience should be able to say, ‘The poem was about this or that" and have some general agreement.’"

Later, in "Logopoetry IV," I expanded my definition:

"I recently saw the need to raise the threshold for logopoetry, that is to say, make room for the secondary and tertiary cognition many pieces require. This need for widening of the definition of intelligibility (the first principle of logopoetry) was triggered by a remark from Mark Strand, writing as an editor: ‘In cases where I had to choose from many poems of the same length, as in the sonnet sequence of Spenser or Shakespeare, or in the poems of Emily Dickinson, it was difficult, and the determining factor became the relative accessibility of the particular poem on a first or second reading’" (Preface to the Golden Ecco Anthology, 100 Great Poems of the English Language, edited by Mark Strand).”

Mia (cont’d): Ah, here is one of the most interesting approaches to reading. Reading Eliot is like reading the Bible—there is something so inherently beautiful about Eliot’s work in every aspect: substance, form, feeling and meaning—I am alluding to the Mandala of Balance discussed in Logopoetry III and IV—that even if one doesn’t understand it at the “moment” it comes to a reader later in small epiphanies as one experiences more life and matures. In other words, read the Bible, read Eliot now and understand it many successive reads later. You admit as much by supporting Eliot’s Objective Correlative:

However, his principle of "the objective correlative" and his statement, "Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood"….

Mia: Now here is where I have a slight conflict with your argument regarding Eliot. In your apologia, you also wrote:

“These statements (see above) beg the question as to why I am so enamored of a poet who, excluding his plays, would not qualify for my ideal until his Four Quartets (4Q).

“To this I reply that in what Eliot considered his Meisterwerke, 4Q, he reverts to the rational use of language, even mocks his own poetic flourishes, abandoning, for the most part, his earlier allusive method. Thus I think it fair to say that Eliot grew toward my ideal although he began at a point distant from it.”

Mia, cont’d.: Blame it on the failure of the reader, but Eliot’s Four Quartets for me are not rational use of language. Perhaps what you mean is that he uses rational language to confront abstract concepts and that makes it for difficult reading; or, perhaps you mean to say that Eliot doesn’t lean as heavy on allusions and footnotes as he did in “The Hollow Men” or “The Waste Land.” I don’t know what to say excepting that I agree, his Four Quartets are some of the most beautiful poems written in the English Language and the fact that they were written at different times over a period of six(?) years makes me admire it all the more; but, not more than say his “Ash Wednesday.”

CE: I must (respectfully) disagree with your description of 4Q as “not a rational use of language.” Here’s a passage from “East Coker’ which mocks traditional lyricism (while performing it) then moves to direct address. If this is difficult, Ashbery and Graham are insufferable.

What is the late November doing
With the disturbance of the spring
And creatures of the summer heat,
And snowdrops writhing under feet
And hollyhocks that aim too high
Red into grey and tumble down
Late roses filled with early snow?
Thunder rolled by the rolling stars
Simulates triumphal cars
Deployed in constellated wars
Scorpion fights against the Sun
Until the Sun and Moon go down
Comets weep and Leonids fly
Hunt the heavens and the plains
Whirled in a vortex that shall bring
The world to that destructive fire
Which burns before the ice-cap reigns.
That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.
It was not (to start again) what one had expected.
What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us
Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?
The serenity only a deliberate hebetude,
The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets
Useless in the darkness into which they peered
Or from which they turned their eyes. There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment. Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
The houses are all gone under the sea.
The dancers are all gone under the hill.

I mean, could Eliot be any clearer here? Sure, the thoughts are deep but the explanation outstanding. I love “Ash Wednesday,” too, but in AW Eliot had not yet departed from his earlier techniques to the degree we see above in “East Coker.”

Mia: There was one line where you advise, “write because you have to,” and I want to add to that bit of wisdom that I think one should write when they have something to say. You say basically the same thing in your essay, “Towards a new Direction for Poetry

“As I have said of MFA programs, presently estimated to turn out some 20,000 “professional poets” a year, their tragicomedy is teaching students how to say something before they have something worth saying.”

But do you truly believe that a thirty-year-old poet has nothing worth to say to poets/readers over forty, or fifty for example? At the very least they have something to say to thirty-year-olds, but not much of a lasting value to get through life’s lessons?

CE: Ah, my view has been contaminated as a dishwasher, bus boy, Fuller Brush salesman, oil field hand, shoe salesman, housepainter, phlebotomist, working musician, family doctor, psychiatrist, and especially as a father of four very different children. I wrote some good poems in my 20s as do many other poets. Remember that Keats, the best of twenty-something poets, was a pharmacist’s apprentice dying of tuberculosis (at 26). It’s not the years, it’s the miles. Experience cannot be granted in an academic greenhouse. You must live first and write poetry second. Shakespeare was an ambitious businessman, social, apparently well-liked, an actor who made acute observations of his fellows, who loved and lost and likely had an unhappy marriage. No one can read Shakespeare and say, “This man did not live.” But one might say that about Shelley, perhaps even Wallace Stevens. It’s not the years, it’s the engagement. It won’t come through MFA programs, though they may admit someone with the requisite experience to become a good poet. Look at Wordsworth, for instance, who walked and talked with all kinds of queer people beneath his class in the Lake Country in order to gain the human experience necessary for art.


Copyright © 2004 Chaffin