CS: Here’s a craft-bound question, Lyric Poet. There are two devices you use that are rarely deployed outside avant-garde texts. One is actually setting down within lines the slash; the other is a line broken over a section break. These bold manoeuvres work for me, but in ways I find difficult to quantify. What might be their intended effects, and what led you to decide on them?
MT: Bold? I wish. When I look around me, I see a spray of pigeon feathers. These devices are meant to slow the reader’s eye down, offer certain lines that contain a variety of textures, even gradations, of meaning, sensibility, and emotion. Poems can be very messy things; and they’re stubborn, too. As you well know, a poem is often a squabble of voices, each demanding its insistent time-overlording-space. You’re lucky if you can find anything.
Forgive me for sounding disingenuous, but I have enormous trouble with the purported distinction between the avant-garde and, what, the traditional? Sure, Dan Tysdal looks and sounds different than Louise Glück. But what they’re after is utterly similar. I don’t like the conflict between so-called experimental writing and the traditional. All literary writing is earned. Line by line. What I mean here is that, if my sensibility moves closer to Rimbaud than Tennyson, I continuously return to both Larkin and Ashbery because, just like Beckett and Kunitz, each requires that the reader enter into whatever a line tries to hold. You learn from everyone. The problem always becomes what you actually do on the page.
I completely agree with Eliot regarding tradition. No evolution of art. None. All our human actions are the vomit and tears on the cave’s closest wall. And no one will ever catch hardly any of it. To me, what matters is juxtaposition. A single paragraph by Mavis Gallant can detonate further than anything by each Dadaist.
A big thank you, though, for noticing the line breaks and punctuation. That said, to be a writer in the 21st century and ponder punctuation is, in some ways, quite strange. For much of English literature, such devices didn’t exist. A poem that forms me is the Anglo-Saxon “The Wanderer,” and in it, punctuation is meaningless. But Eli Mandel showed me how Charles Olson could use a “/” for considerable effect. (Spreading lines over section breaks was something that I played around with on my own.) You use what’s available. And delight in this. I’ve spent several hours worrying about punctuation for a single line.
Two more things: first is epistemological. The use of the “/” and the technique of breaking lines over sections is meant to embody a fundamental skepticism. Even though I’ve written a book of short stories, I don’t believe that continuity has much validity in an epistemological sense. Partially, then, the section breaks are meant to embody the fundamental cut of discontinuity that is our everydayness. Second, much poetry works by the eye. I love how poems work line by line and how each poem is never able really to know how its lines might work.
CS: Michael, are you any sort of subscriber to a homogenous spirituality? There seems to be an abiding theological tussle in your poems, but it’s conflicted, at times possibly hedged. There’s a lot of manifest Christianity reflected throughout Accidental Animals, but also a bunch of sly, droll, dour, and smart jests about the idea of omniscience. “Nothing remembers the continuous,” the opening line in “Adumbration,” struck me in this regard.
Are you working your way through this conflict as a means toward inculcating pantheism?
MT: No pantheism, sorry, none. I’m a complete atheist. I wish it were otherwise — not that I wish I could be religious — I wish the world was constituted in such a way that some sort of Divinity would be coherently present. But it doesn’t appear to be so.
As I write this to you, on my left is a reproduction of Diego Velázquez’s painting El Cristo Crucificado; on my right is an unidentified photo of Franz Kafka. Between them, our hearts might grind. Our species doesn’t know much. Religion and art do reasonably well at trying to articulate what’s basic: how should we treat each other and ourselves? What does it mean to watch? What does it mean to want to be seen? How is it that fear and pain happen? Can we face death with dignity? But both religion and art fall apart at the end, as everything does. Because what we want most — for our children not to die — we can’t make happen.
Back to Plato: “In the likeness of what animal was the world made?”
An accidental one.
As intelligent beings, we desire to be beyond the material world, but we can’t be. We are so funny. We all know, we’ve always known that the grave is the end, each of us, and we’ve also always known that the world won’t fall apart without us — and yet, we can’t accept any of this at all. In a very small and large way, on occasion, I admire our species for this propensity for denial. But this denial can be dreadfully harmful. People keep killing people because they fear reality. We can never sufficiently understand that reality doesn’t care about us. If we continuously return to Plato to help formulate thought, Euripides always wins.
Here’s a gentle ha! ha! My parents were irresponsible when they didn’t send me to a psychiatrist when a neighbour once informed them of the G.I. Joes I’d crucified on hockey sticks back in the woods. I was, maybe, eight.
You work with what you have.
I am a citizen of the West. The conversation I engage by necessity speaks within Greece, Israel, whatever Christianity means, the long and slow and continuous discovery of Reason, and, as someone formed by the 20th century, the Holocaust. The attempt to reach beyond human disaster. On that latter note, Accidental Animals can’t stray more than a few moments from the Second World War.