A talk delivered by poet and scholar Kimberly Campanello
I have decided to focus this talk on three poets who some might say are quite disparate in their poetic approaches. However, Susan Howe, H.D. and Etheridge Knight have each had a huge impact on my writing and thinking about poetics. So in some way, the premise of this talk starts with my bookshelf and what’s on it, what gets reached for, and what is brought along with me in moves across oceans and sojourns in Achill or Andalucía.
I will be talking today about the notion of the ‘found’ voice. This phrase is first meant to conjure that mantra that is now nearly rendered meaningless by its overuse in creative writing courses and the advertisements for these courses: the idea that you have to ‘find your voice’ in order to become an authentic poet and write the poetry you are destined to write (with the assumption that once you find this voice, you will stick with it). This idea has been critiqued and critiqued well in the literature on creative writing pedagogy, so instead I would like to use it as a placeholder that signifies firstly the desire of the poet-apprentice to discover or arrive at a way of writing that feels and looks like her own ‘creative signature’, to borrow from Susan Melrose’s way of describing how an artwork stands up on its own and is recognised by the critic, who she describes as an ‘expert spectator’. The poem is recognised by the ‘expert spectator’ as a Heaney poem or a Howe poem, rather than a poem that is like a Heaney or a Howe poem. Melrose is delineating ‘creative signature’ from her vantage point as an expert spectator, but her entire project is meant to acknowledge the perspective of the ‘expert practitioner’, the poet herself.
So in the case of ‘finding one’s voice’, I believe that despite the crass ways this phrase is used and abused, it actually stands for the poet’s desire to arrive (perhaps temporarily) at a way of writing that looks familiar – not in the sense of other writers’ work, but rather in that shock of recognition that creative artists in all disciplines experience, and which often give us a hint that it’s time to stop working on this one because it’s ready. In this way, ‘finding one’s voice’ or creative signature is not meant to lead to an arrogant posturing: ‘Well, it’s my creative signature, of course it’s amazing!’ Instead, I’m leaving this idea at the level of a basic and necessary urge that we must pursue.
Secondly, I wish to suggest that the idea of ‘finding one’s voice’ is also a placeholder for its own demise. By this I mean the Modernism of 100 years ago, Black Mountain, L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E, and Oulipian poetry of between 40 and 50 years ago, more recent poetries that are called ‘innovative’, ‘avant garde’, ‘experimental’ or ‘other’, and finally the even more recent ‘conceptual’ poetries. The shared ground among these otherwise quite disparate poetic practices is a desire to challenge the transparent ‘voiced’ poem as communicative of a coded and intentional message arising from the coherent, self-aware, and very wise subject writing a poem for a reader who is likewise coherent and self-aware (though not necessarily as wise as the poet). This desire to challenge (notice that I’m not saying eradicate) the voiced poem arises from a variety of motivations, many of them political. One was the desire to challenge the patriarchal and Cartesian linguistic ordering of reality, nature, and the literary canon, a desire that was in play for Gertrude Stein, for example, and is still in play today.
I don’t want to digress too far into this, as much has been written about it already in American and British literary contexts. Camps of poets have been formed, imposed and deserted along various lines. However, this situation, that, as I say, occurred from Modernism onwards, is particularly interesting to me in the context of Irish poetry because it’s almost like it never happened, or that it’s not still happening.
That is quite a sweeping statement, I know, but the assumptions behind the reading and writing of Irish poetry require that poets are either unaware of or refuse to acknowledge a situation that has had such a huge impact on Anglophone writing and reading everywhere else (and indeed writing in other languages). That is not to say that there aren’t contemporary Irish poets writing with this understanding – Maurice Scully, Trevor Joyce and Billy Ramsell come to mind – but it is to say that Irish literary culture is largely proceeding without evident cognizance of these debates, past and present. Any refusal of the terms of this historical situation in poetry that I am referencing is also unapparent. What we have instead is a staunch but seemingly unreflexive commitment to lyric poetry of ‘voiced’ lyric interiority and universalized insight, a largely unexamined, steadfast vatic projection singular in its creative signature not at the level of poets as individuals with specific poetic practices, but rather as a collective WE of Irish poetics: WE write this way. And perception of Irish writing has been taken up by the U.S. lyric ‘camp’ largely through the publication of some Irish poets by Wake Forest University Press, which is how I came to read certain Irish poets, but not others before coming to Ireland. I also think ‘WE write this way’ underlies the fact that Irish poetry has not claimed Susan Howe, despite her profound personal and literary connections to this place.
So where are we now in this talk? I have so far set up this notion of the ‘found’ voice as both the poet’s urge for creative self-recognition in the poem (what Melrose calls ‘creative signature’), and I have also tempered this idea with reference to developments in poetics outside Ireland that offer a productively problematized approach to what we mean by ‘voice’. I have done this in such an extended fashion in order to set up a reading of these three poet’s work using the terms of reference set up by that work’s ‘voice’ or creative signature, and in order to give a clearer context for approaching these three poets whose writing is practically unread in Ireland.
I first read Etheridge Knight as an undergraduate student in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he is, in fact, buried in Crown Hill Cemetery and where his papers are housed in the Irwin library of Butler University. Fran Quinn, one of my poet professors, always said that every time he went to Etheridge’s grave, he would first climb the hill to the grave of popular 19th century Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley and grab a handful of dirt to take down and add to Etheridge’s patch, with the aim to eventually raise Etheridge’s grave to its deserved heights and bring Riley’s down to a more reasonable level in light of the quality of his sing-songey work, which I remember being taught in elementary school merely because he was a Hoosier poet.
Born in Corinth, Mississippi, wounded physically and psychologically in the Korean War, imprisoned for eight years for stealing a woman’s purse to support a heroin addiction, Knight’s first book of poetry appeared in 1968, and he was soon identified as a significant member of the Black Arts Movement. He went on to teach at several American universities and was awarded NEA and Guggenheim grants. Knight and the Black Arts Movement itself are known for direct language that is meant to reach and edify members of the black community, often drawing upon the oral tradition. Knight’s work, in my view achieves this through a very particularized voice. American poet Terrance Hayes explains in the Paris Review:
As I have researched, speculated, and obsessed over Knight’s poem, it’s become more and more an idea prompting other ideas – ideas of influence, incarceration, inheritance; of what’s given versus what's found; of poets and poetry and poetics. Knight was something of a chameleon, spiritually and poetically. He had a foot in several circles of poetry – the Black Arts poets, the Deep Image poets, the university poets, the community poets – but he was committed to none of them.
Hayes is referring to Knight’s poem the ‘The Idea of Ancestry’, which enacts the chronicling and the creation of family ties. As Hayes points out, this is extremely difficult in an African American context in which ancestral lines can only be traced back a few generations due to slavery and its aftermath.
In the context of this lecture, I wish to focus on Knight’s transcription of the voice, which is itself the act of finding it and is for me the most recognisable feature of Knight’s creative signature. In Creative Writing workshops – including the ones I lead – students are often encouraged to read their work aloud in order to get help from others in putting in their line and stanza breaks. This can work pretty well, but oftentimes the poem or the poet’s voice is not ready for this kind of treatment. Or, perhaps a stanzaic shape shouldn’t be the goal for the poem. Likewise, there are constant debates about whether there are in fact poems ‘for the page’ and poems ‘for the stage’. As I am sure we will see in Susan Howe’s reading on June 14, this is indeed a false dichotomy. And yet, the ‘transcription’ of much so-called performance poetry falls quite short. I would argue that is because the ‘voice’ of some of this poetry has been found neither in its performance nor in its positioning on the page and that more focus on the act of transcribing (notice I am not saying ‘writing down’) would have a significant impact on the oral work. Likewise, I would argue that the sounding of much lyric poetry has little to do with what’s on the page, and what’s on the page is really just a familiar shape that constitutes A POEM, writ large, rather than the result of any kind of sustained, reflexive shaping activity.
Knight is a master of the act of transcribing the voice. He is not worried about page versus stage. Instead, he is concerned with voice and its graphic presence. See his stanza and line breaks and enjambments. See the way he uses the slash, abbreviation, all caps. He is making a score of this voice he has found, but it is entirely unlike the transcriptions of for instance, traditional Irish music, or even standard musical scores in a classical music context. Knight’s transcriptions shimmer with graphemes of sound precisely placed.
As such, we have much to learn from Knight, especially if we wish to build lyric poems marked by our own creative signatures and voices rather than fill in received, a priori frameworks. Knight certainly has his models and influences – African American oral poems called roasts, the blues, deep image poetics – yet his poems are recognizably his signature and voice due to this act of transcription. If we take this emphasis on transcription from Knight and return to the origin of the lyric – the sung poem, the paradox of the inward-looking utterance, and if we consider again its voiced status, how might we transcribe the contemporary Irish lyric? How might it sound? How might it look? What might it say?
I am again indebted to my mentor Fran Quinn for introducing me to H.D.’s work, specifically to Trilogy. In 2001 I was 21, and on September 11 I was working the morning shift at the front desk of my university’s library, the same one that held cardboard boxes of Knight’s notes and letters and even a photograph of him from the 1980’s, shirtless and handsome. As there were always muted televisions tuned to various international news stations at the front desk, I saw the second plane hit and a lot more scenes I’d like to forget. The rest of the day was comprised of students wandering around campus – no one seemed to leave – most of them looking for someone to explain what had happened and why.
We were sheltered in so many ways as university students at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, not only because we were mostly white, mostly middle class. Perhaps we were also stunned by this because of the great liberal arts project itself: we were under the impression that things were getting better, that art and literature were shifting consciousness, probably because we were so immersed in it. One of the required courses for all students at Butler prior to September 11 was called Change and Tradition. In it we read the whole Qu’ran, all of the hadith, contemporary writings by imams and women Muslim scholars. Rumi. We knew about Sunni and Shia already. We also knew about American foreign policy and its failures. We had read Robert Bly’s ‘The Teeth Mother, Naked at Last’ on the Vietnam War. We mistakenly thought those in power were doing the same.
That day my mentor Fran Quinn took me and another young poet to an alcoholic lunch on the university credit card. I was surprised that he was not in the least surprised by what had happened. It turned out none of my professors were, in fact. I asked him what I should read in light of all this. It was H.D’s Trilogy, her book written following the blitz of London, the repeated collapses of European-read-Middle-Eastern-civilization in the two world wars – perhaps these collapses were just as expected as the attack on September 11. In Trilogy, a poetic sequence in three parts – ‘The Walls Do Not Fall’, ‘Tribute to the Angels’, and ‘The Flowering of the Rod’ – H.D. finds the voice, firstly of the poet-as-visionary, through Hermes Trismegistus and Thoth; secondly of women, through Mary Magdalene, Isis, Venus and a network of erased and degraded goddesses, which corresponds with the erasure and degradation of actual women under heteropatriarchy, and thirdly of language as container. Words are:
little boxes, conditioned
to hatch butterflies . . .
Language as a body that survives:
the bone-frame was made for
no such shock knit within terror,
yet the skeleton stood up to it:
the flesh? it was melted away,
the heart burnt out, dead ember,
tendons, muscles shattered, outer husk dismembered,
yet the frame held:
we passed the flame: we wonder
what saved us? what for?
From H.D. we can take away the fact of an immense commitment to a project – a single allusive poem that is almost 200 pages long. To go even farther than that, we also have to immerse ourselves in Trilogy and undermine the circumscribed view of H.D. that Pound and subsequent anthologists of American poetry wish to create: H.D. as Imagist. Certainly, the voice in Trilogy is linked to that of her brief period writing Imagist poems, but it in the main it is more of an Imagist epic comprised of free verse stanzas highly complex in their unpatterned interlocking. With this voice, we have vatic authority only through supreme humility. There is no terza rima. We don’t know where we are being taken as readers. And yet the poem appears so innocent and clear in its shape.
In Trilogy the poet is worm. The poet feeds on the dead and decaying. The poet can, however, make a cocoon, hatch, and fly.
On the one hand, the poet is still necessary. Yet, the poet can be unsure and in this uncertainty show up the over-proud cultural confidence that gets us into these messes or lets us get away with them.
It is a real privilege to be speaking about poetics before Susan Howe reads for us in Dublin. In my view, more than any other poet, American or otherwise, Susan Howe has shown a sustained commitment to an intensive poetic practice at all poetry’s potential levels: the sonic, the graphic, the connotative, the denotative. And she does this all at the same time. This should be impossible. But it isn’t, for her. Which begs the question – why aren’t we all at least attempting it?
The ‘found’ voice across Howe’s work is simultaneously and richly inscribed. It is the lyric ‘I’, it is the revelatory ‘found’ text, it is the breath, it is the mark, it is the eye’s joy and the ear’s electric hum.
It is the dangerous sensuality of a deft wrist guiding scissors or the pad of a forefinger on a scalpel carefully locating and detaching the membrane of the canon, of American history and imperialism, of Irish politics and culture.
She pastes that membrane back down slightly askew so the wounds show up for us better.
The wounds we hadn’t noticed.
The wounds that were there all the time.
She mouths Melville and James Clarence Mangan.
She mouths Charles S. Pierce and the philosophers.
She mouths Mary Rowlandson.
She mouths Emily Dickinson.
She mouths Mary Manning, her mother.
She mouths Modernism.
To say that I am excited to hear Susan Howe read in Dublin would be an understatement.