by Joshua Auerbach
Excerpt on avant-gardism and innovation in poetry:
JA: There are some quite surprising things going on in some of the poems in Moy Sand and Gravel. For example, in “The Whinny,” “The Braggart,” “Pomegranates,” “Affairs of State,” “Pineapples and Pomegranates,” “Winter Wheat,” “When Aifric and I Put in at that Little Creek,” where you join desire and eros with potential destruction. If I think about it, Donne was one of the first English poets to really make sexuality his subject matter. In your poems there is a subtle degree of desire juxtaposed with a subtle degree of instability or violence; they coexist as perhaps two separate instances within the poem. Often there are poems about sex or death, which, as Yeats suggested, makes for good poetry. A fair number of your poems also seem to combine both. Why did you choose to write along this “edge”?
PM: Well, the edge is the only place, if indeed it is the edge. I’m sure there are edgier places than that. But the edge is where one must be. It’s where the poem wants to be. I think all poetry is aiming for avant-gardism, not necessarily in some conventional sense, if indeed we can talk about the conventions of the avant-garde, which, let’s face it, we can. I mean, in a strange way avant-gardism is as riddled with conventions as the conventional. One of the main ones being its propensity towards nonsense. Which is all very fine and well; meaninglessness is always of interest, and is meaningful, from time to time. But it’s also terrifically easy to do. Any fool can be meaningless. But I do like to play with that from time to time, certainly. Now, in terms of subject matter, it’s from time to time disturbing, absolutely, it’s disturbing. The speaker of a poem like “Affairs of State,” for example, is in an odd position. We’re talking about terrorist activity, basically.
JA: The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Poetry describes your writing as both “wily and mischievous.” Do you think some part of poetry should stay irreverent? I’m thinking of your lines like “with a clink and a clink and a clinky-click,” or “with a pink and a pink and a pinkie-pick,” or “The plowboy was something his something as I nibbled the lobe / of her right ear and something her blouse…”
PM: Yeah, I think so. But you know if you look at those refrains from “The Loaf,” for example, “with a pink and a pink and a pinkie-pick,” or the various versions of that, “with a clink and a clink and a clinky-click,” that’s on the borderline between meaning and its opposite. The fact is, if anything, unlike many traditional refrains, it’s more meaningful than most of them, and the idea, I suppose, is that the little shifts comment on the action, as it were, and there’s some discovery with each of them. I’d like to think, anyway, there’s some real revelation with each of them, even though they seem to be virtually nonsensical, from some angles.
Vis-à-vis the “something” in that poem, I sent that poem to a magazine editor in the US and he sent it back and said, “This is absolute garbage, when you write like ‘this’ I might think of publishing it.” And the fact is that to use the word “something” like that in the context of the poem, as far as I’m concerned, does reflect how we speak. I think we’ve all said, you know, even in terms of the lines of a poem, “I’ve wandered lonely as a something, that floats on high something, something, something.” Right? I mean, we all have those little lapses of memory, for example, where we put in a little bit of emphatic communication. So that poem, as far as I’m concerned, is just reflecting that, reflecting an aspect of the world, and the fun with it is, actually, that you can begin to join up the dots, as it were, and fill up the spaces.
JA: At a panel in New York at Baruch College, you stressed the idea of poetic evolution over the idea of poetic revolution. What does this mean for you?
PM: I would have to think of the context in which I was saying that. Now poetic evolution over poetic revolution? Okay.
JA: I’ll rephrase the question. How important is an innovative poetics for you?
PM: I think every poem is necessarily innovative. So it’s that important; it’s that important. But as I said, I think it has to be borne in mind that, to go back to what I was saying earlier on, one of the main ways in which people seem to think of themselves at the cutting-edge is where that edge coincides with, to sue that word again, meaninglessness, with a distant avowal of the possibility of clarity. So I do like to think that clarity is something towards which one is aiming, you know, some kind of clarification of the world. Does this make any sense to you?
JA: Yes, except that you seem to be stressing both the valorization of meaninglessness and the importance of clarity at the same time, which don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.
PM: No, that’s true, but I think what I was getting at earlier on was that I think there may be moments of what look like meaninglessness, as in the case of that refrain, as in the case of the use of the word “something” in that poem, that are actually about clarification, rather than something else. But in that sense, I can’t imagine any poet, really, who is not interested in doing something new. But I think we need to be mindful that there’s a “new” and a new. I’ve not a great deal of time for certain aspects of the avant-garde, as it’s formally presented.
This is an excerpt from Joshua Auerbach’s interview with Paul Muldoon in 2004 published in Vallum 3:1 “Reality Checks”. To read the rest of the interview and other poems published in this issue, please visit Vallum’s website.
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