Dan Beachy-Quick, who was Visiting Hurst Professor in Poetry at Washington University in St. Louis in the spring semester of 2016, speaks with The Spectacle editor Cassie Donish about the ethical work of the poem, language as inherited crisis, the expression of silence, and refiguring desire.
Beachy-Quick is the author or co-author of over a dozen books of poems, exploratory prose, and fiction, including the poetry collection gentlessness (Tupelo Press, 2015). He is the recipient of a Lannan Foundation Residency and a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship. He teaches creative writing at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where he lives with his wife and children.
Cassie Donish: In an interview with Bob King for the Colorado Poets Center, you said “I suppose the poem is the place where thinking acts feelingly, and feeling acts thoughtfully, and these cause in us readers and writers of poetry necessary confusions. I do worry about the way language prescribes thinking, and through thinking, a mode of recognition that might disenfranchise our perceptive lives, that original root from which thinking emerges.” This reminds me of a passage of gentlessness, from the section entitled “puritanisms,” in which a speaker examines and also perhaps wrestles with the relationship between words and the perceiving, feeling body:
confess I speak
certainties I don’t feel
these certain desires I
disguise in words to hide
me in myself where I cannot be
for example, in your ear
where in words seeming wise
Conversations about your poetry often seem to begin with language, or tradition, or form. What if we begin with desire? What is the relationship between your poetic practice and Eros?
Dan Beachy-Quick: I love that you’d begin by asking a question about Eros and the practice of poetry. One of the things I find myself saying, never wholly premeditated, when I’m teaching a course on poetry, is that one of poetry’s primary ethical works is to refigure the economy by which, or in which, we desire. But there’s some aspect to desire far more fundamental to the work of poetry that might be the place to begin. Hesiod in the Theogony writes of the first creation that there was Chaos/Chasm, then “the broad-breasted Earth,” and then Eros, who overpowers the minds of all, even the gods. There’s something in that equation—nothingness, something-ness, and desire—that feels to me at the very root of poetic effort. The work involves founding a world where blankness by rights reigns, and then the only way to yoke together those potent opposites is by desire itself, which makes a livid, living principle of the tension between nothingness and earthliness.
But at a level closer to us, at a more human level, poetry teaches us about desire as a force that resists the culture’s ease in seeking momentary satisfactions, ease of appetites only to feel the same pangs again, and instead, offers us this way of desiring further, desiring past the limits that should end wanting. Such desire is a form of seeking another, an other, the Other, whose possible reality in some way exceeds the mere fact of our own. I guess I’m trying to say that something about desire undoes the security or certainty of the one desiring, in this case, let’s say the poet. It sets to shaking and trembling the self who realizes, through desire, that he or she isn’t sufficient unto him or herself. The poem reaches out toward another whose reality isn’t there to solve the trouble of our own, but seeks the other as a point of almost supernal reality, an ethical point, where if one were to reach out, one might finally be able to say what it is that exists—a doubt we flee from, but are possessed by, this question of how real our lives actually are. The poem is in motion along this line of its own desire, and the magnificent difficulty of it is that the point toward which it desires is itself in motion, not static, but evanescent, and so it learns not to answer questions, but to ask a question within a question, and so on again, as the lesson might be not how to end desire, but how to keep desire desiring.
This isn’t an answer about my poetry’s relation to desire, I know; but I tend to think of any given poem as a kind of window into what poetry itself might be, a window of “particular bliss.” Somehow, I’m less and less interested in what my poems do as my poems—but I’m very concerned with what poetry does.
CD: Your words here make me think of other lines from gentlessness: “There is a way to think that asks no questions / But divides every question in two.” The idea of questioning what we know, of allowing uncertainty to occupy our various knowledges and beliefs (or our belief in our own knowledge), runs through much of your work. Can a poem know itself, or think it knows itself, too well? What are the dangers?
DBQ: This is a tremendous question. Some immediate and glib part of me wants to say that the poem that thinks it knows itself fully bears in it the same danger as a person who thinks he or she knows himself or herself fully. I keep thinking these past years of many things. Of Socrates feeling over and over again that he does not know himself, and has left unfulfilled the Delphic Oracle’s gnothi seauton, despite being told by the same that he is the wisest man alive. Of course, his wisdom is his embrace of having none, and his knowledge is potent not because it is replete, but because he is so keenly aware of its incompleteness. He speaks out of the lack in the mind of that resource that should solve each problem—knowledge, truth, wisdom. I think of Keats and negative capability, of his lesson that knowledge is necessary for us only in that it gives us strange wings with which, against the endless plummet through life, we can find a way to cease our descent. That isn’t to say we ascend then. It’s to say only that we learn with some knowledge how to hover better in the chasm. I think too of Thoreau claiming that the head is a tool for burrowing, and that ignorance is as useful as knowledge. And I guess I trust these models for the living in poetry I most want to do. The poems I love, the poems I trust, dismantle the edifice of their pride (Wittgenstein’s definition of philosophical work) by learning how, line by line, to use language against itself, to create a system that might describe the self or the world or both, and by its own method, break itself back into unknowing. Sometimes I think to myself the inner life is a myth, that there is no such thing; and sometimes I think the same of the poem. That sounds critical, but it’s not. I guess I mean only that Keats’s sense that a poem is “friend to man” makes sense to me only when I suspect a poem demonstrates back to us our own condition—the want for knowledge, the gaining of which reveals only deeper forms of ignorance—by acting it out for us, a kind of play in which we see ourselves because, for once, we are from ourselves removed. It isn’t happy work in any normal sense, but I don’t know of many truer happinesses—the sense of beginning again where one has always been, not knowing what to say, but knowing something must be said. It’s an ignorant desire. The danger of the opposite? Asking questions that are not questions, speaking truths that exclude the vulnerability of what it is to want truth, or becoming Narcissus, who didn’t simply love his own image, but didn’t recognize that he was staring at himself. He didn’t know how to say what I find to be a mantra—not just “I”—but “I don’t know.”
CD: The idea of desire as “a form of seeking another, an other, the Other, whose possible reality in some way exceeds the mere fact of our own” resonates with Levinas’s ethics of encounter. His philosophy deals explicitly with the notion that the subject has a certain responsiveness/response-ability to the face of the Other. You wrote an essay on Susan Howe’s work in which you extend Levinas’s ideas to a consideration of the voice. What are the implications of thinking about the voice of the Other, rather than the face of the Other?
DBQ: Reading Levinas was a kind of extraordinary, and in many ways life-altering or life-clarifying, in terms of poetry, experience for me. It articulated an approach to what poetry might be or might mean that made me feel that I was involved in ethical considerations, which had, as a younger poet, always seemed like aesthetic ones. That weird parenthetical in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus where he says the ethical and the aesthetical are one made sense to me for the first time. And it was this sense I got from Levinas—not only of our responsibility towards the face of another, not only that there’s a kind of infinite quality behind the eyes of another, behind the face of another, and that our situation in response to that gaze is what he calls an infinite responsibility towards it; but he also has this really wonderful sense of the work of art, and the poem. That the poem is a world that’s built by one who says “I” and received by one who says “you.” The poem is a way to be perceived by another not as a fact, or as proof of the subject’s existence who wrote it, but as a place into which the other can place his or her doubt in a unique way, can hold the questions of another and make them, in a strange way, available for all sorts of encounter. And that sense of the poem becoming a world that sort of hovers between a given “I” and a given “you,” a thing that, to quote from Celan, is lonely and in motion, felt really true to me. That the poem was somehow something other than me, was not the bearer of my own face, nor was it simply a ground in which I could purely encounter the face of another. There’s a kind of agonized existence in the poem in which the two ends of the interaction—writer and reader, subject and object—become strangely co-mingled, their two faces becoming a kind of singular face that looks Janus-like back out at both. I don’t think Levinas would like that much, but it feels truer to my sense of what the odd and paradoxical ethical situation of the poem is—that it never offers itself as a pure window into the existence of another towards whom you might be responsible, but instead has its own particular claim to existence, a very different claim than either of ours.
To think of that in terms of voice is really interesting. It reminds me of this amazing thing that Allen Grossman says in his great book of interviews, The Sighted Singer, where he has this sense that the face gathers around the voice, as if the voice or the singing were the primordial thing, and our ability to recognize a given face comes only after the ability to hear a voice. And in some way that feels really true to me. I see Keats’s face only because that face has gathered itself around the voice. If we accept this aspect of face—this recognition of the other in that deep ethical sense Levinas gives us—and if the voice is the thing around which the face learns to gather, then we have a face that contains on its surface deep levels of interiority that we don’t normally ascribe to a face. Usually we think of the face simply as a surface that has a depth behind it, and we have very little access to what that depth might be. We’re not privy to the inner thoughts. And even, in a strange way, when we’re talking with the owner of that face, there’s always the sense, even with the people you’re most intimate with, that something inside their face, behind their face, could be turned in a very different direction. To think that the face builds around the voice—that this might be one of the ethical fundaments of the poem—is to see a face that evolves out of its hidden-most center. We recognize in that face qualities of the inside, of the mind, of the source of expression, that I don’t think we would get otherwise.
CD: I remember reading that line in gentlessness, “The face gathers around a voice.” Many of these issues come up in the book—especially the idea of the face as a surface that hints at a depth we can’t know.
DBQ: Yes, and then—this is a realization I’ve had, in some ways, post gentlessness, and a lot of poems dealing with face, and my own kind of weird thinking—the way “face” and “fact” seem to be strangely intermingled words to me. Part of the curious thing about having a face, at some level, is that one takes it as a leap of faith that you’re speaking from behind one. There’s a complete mystery about how it is one faces the world, because we don’t have any genuine sense of being able to see our own. The way I think we probably come to know we exist is because we see our hands, or our arms, or our legs. But the sense that we ascribe to the face is our most intimate sense of self in a way, even though, properly speaking, it’s what is missing; it’s as Levinas would say the only decently nude part of our body, but we cannot see it in its nakedness. We can but look out of it. I have the suspicion that somewhere deeply buried in human consciousness is not that we came to know ourselves through our faces at all, but that we came to know ourselves through our hands primarily, and that the first self-portrait of the human is in cave paintings, and you see this across the Neolithic world, where they put their hands up against the cave and blow ink across it, and then there’s this negative space that the hand leaves. I guess I go into such weird thinking about it in part because that word for poet, poiētḗs, just means “maker.” It means that what it is to say “I” is somehow a made quality. And the making of the thing happens by the hand.
CD: That’s fascinating. I’ve thought about that too, about how sometimes one’s own identification with oneself feels more accurately located in the hands. After all, that’s the part of our body we see the most often—even in the winter.
DBQ: Exactly. And even as we’re typing there are the hands, working as if by themselves. It’s strange. I think we forget too that the hand has a kind of vocal quality as well. Most of the singing we do as poets, we do through our hands. The hand-made song the face must learn to sing.
CD: I’m curious about how gentlessness, which you’ve described as “an intimate primer to a history of literary epochs,” came to have the shape that it does. How did this book develop?
DBQ: Well, it’s not a book that began with any conception of being a book. I had accepted a visiting position at another school for a semester, and I was reading through poems that students were turning in that seemed to me to make certain assumptions about the nature of the experimental, about a kind of bankruptcy in traditional forms, traditional prosodies, a sense that there was a use of language, a theory in language that excused them in an odd way from thinking in traditional, formal, received, inherited ways, and I felt a kind of unease about it, I guess. I decided that I needed, for all sorts of reasons, to turn towards what I felt like they were assuming they could turn away from. I wanted to find a way to get back towards the roots—not by pulling them up and dangling them as in an ironic gesture, but to dig down by using my head for a burrowing tool, as Thoreau says. I wanted to show that the way in which we think about language currently, this sense of deconstruction, or simultaneity, or the distance between a name and the thing that it names, the whole semiotic crisis we’ve inherited—these are things Plato and Socrates were concerned with, too. I have this ongoing sense, the more I read and think and write and study language, that nothing in our condition has changed. We haven’t advanced. We’re not in a situation where we don’t, in the end, still think the earth is flat. We think the earth is flat. We just call it round. We’re just infants to the actual complexity of things. Tradition offers us this experiment by which we get to participate in an ongoing effort to make meaning, a meaning that’s both human, and uniquely oriented towards the existence of everything that’s not human, the age-old effort at relation—I feel like that’s happening in prosody, in the wanting of rhyme, in pastoral forms, in sonnets. Prosody is a mode of being, not a set of behaviors. I ended up—and it sounds deliberate but it just was an accident in its way—writing a book that explores all of these ideas through different literary epochs to show, in very different kinds of forms, this ongoing conversation that is still the conversation now.
CD: Can you talk about the work you’re doing right now, the essays you’re working on? A Quiet Book up at Essay Press is a part of it, right? You’re writing about quietness and nothingness. And the pieces we published in The Spectacle’s first issue are a part of that same project.
DBQ: Well, it starts off thinking, exactly as you say, about silence and oblivion and quietness and forgetting. And then it keeps finding different ways, different facets through which the unspeakable makes itself present to us. And so it goes in lots of different directions. Burial rituals in Ancient Greece. Ancient rites of mourning. The history of Atlantis. All these places in which certain forms of loss or departure leave us with the sense that one doesn’t exactly know what to say about any of it. Places that have been forgotten. These strange areas that seem to resist our ability to speak, to resist our ability to know how to think and feel, fascinate me. I ended up writing—or wanting to write; I haven’t yet—one hundred sections. Some of these are very short prose, almost anecdotes in a way. Some are poems, some are imitations of Wordsworth or Dante, some are quite long essays, some are fragments of essays. I think I realized that the writing I most want to do is a kind of writing that is learning how to operate in something similar to that ethical space we were talking about earlier. A writing that by its nature doesn’t give in to the need or will or even hubris of making a kind of argument just because the mind can assemble itself in a way that the argument can be made. To resist somehow. To write these essays that are always interrupting themselves, and doing so in different ways, from including my own personal life, to including other people’s texts, to returning, as this book often does, to ancient literature. It is also looking at the given cultural moment. Over the course of two years, I’ve been trying, every time there’s a mass shooting, to write about that mass shooting, this unspeakable thing in our culture. And so, it’s a weird book that I think is really refusing to obey those rules by which it might become most successful, because it feels—or I feel; I don’t know the difference totally—but it feels like it would be simply a demonstration of my own intelligence to write an essay that knows exactly what it’s going to do. The whole interest to me is what happens when the essay is the thing that can only think itself. I’m writing a hundred pieces because that makes it too large for me. I can’t plan it, I can’t chart it out, I can’t be smarter than it, and it puts me in proper relation to the work, which is to privilege the work entirely.
CD: There’s a kind of curiosity, in your work, about or toward mystical traditions—the ways those traditions think about symbols, the word, and the relationship between language and belief. Where did these interests come from? When did they begin for you?
DBQ: In a lot ways, A Quiet Book is a result of those very things you’re talking about. My interest begins in graduate school, finally taking some courses in the Jewish tradition that I was raised in but never practiced in any kind of knowledgeable or thoughtful way; and really gaining a sense, in that kind of mystical Judaism, of the nature of what language was or is or could be—it radically opened my eyes to the nature of the medium. In the same semester I’m reading Lacan and Derrida, reading Kabbalah and the Safed texts. And, well, I think poets at some point realize they’re not in a situation where they get to choose what they want language to be for them. That there’s an ongoing discovery of the depths and simultaneous ways you can think about language, and they’re all continuous in the word, from the most atavistic magic where to say something is to make it appear, to typing whatever phrase into Google and writing down all the things that result, which is a kind of valid experiment; but of course, that’s just the newest version of the Oracle, which also gave back weird answers when you asked it what a given thing might mean, like your life, for instance. And so now again I find myself thinking about these different kinds of silences that language gathers around. In Midrash and Kabbalah, one might think about the letter aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and how the quality of that letter is that it has absolutely no sound, that it expresses, in some ways, silence. That’s connected for me to this moment early on in Thoreau’s journals where he complains that his friends say he keeps silence, but that they get it wrong, that he’s always letting silence out, expressing silence so fast he’s almost choking on it. I began to wonder if the reason why one perhaps has to write as much as one can, why you might end up as I’ve ended up, for better or worse, being brought under that horrific name of “prolific,” is that you have to find a way to keep inside your words this thing that remains and is unspeakable. Not unspeakable in a horrific sort of way, but unspeakable in a way that is that Chasm or Chaos of old, this sense of the ongoing possibilities of creation that inform the material we speak about but are never wholly it, never part of it, that there’s a silent core inside things that is the germ of possibility. So I wanted to think towards that, write towards that, speak towards that, not to capture it because that’s obviously impossible, but to lay enough lines tangent that one can begin to feel this thing that can be felt in no other way, the thing that in being missing is somehow the most pressing sort of presence we have. Which makes it sound like some version of God. But I don’t know about that.
I do think desire can be uniquely oriented towards what’s missing. In part because it’s the thing in our ongoing human living nervous experience that keeps teaching us over and over again about lack. It arises out of a sense of absence inherent in us, and that gives it a strange impetus or momentum of its own. It’s uniquely honed towards larger forms of absence. And it can be our guide towards it or into it, properly treated. But this is not a culture that teaches us about desire in ways that are good. Which I think is probably one of the reasons why it’s really necessary still to be writing poetry—it’s this training in desire it gives us.
CD: Rusty Morrison has written about something she calls amplification—a powerful sense of listening to the world that she associates with loss, specifically with the experience of losing her parents. The idea seems to address a kind of emotional receptivity, or a heightened sense that allows one to listen to one’s own thoughts more lucidly. Your poetry’s attentiveness to rhythm and sound, to patterning in thought and language, demonstrates a complex sensitivity that seems related. What kind of listening can poems enact?
DBQ: What you’re talking about is very important to me. Certainly I want to believe that the poem is a kind of—to use Rusty’s term, which is lovely—amplified hearing. For me I suppose it’s maybe amplified in a weird way, a way very much influenced by Emily Dickinson as I read her. That it’s also hearing that hears itself hear. There’s a doubleness to the sensing that poems do. It’s not just that they see, but that they try to see that they see. Not just that they hear, but they try to hear that they hear—and in this way poems become these curious models of our own condition, of consciousness—of always getting towards the sense of “I am” through “I think, therefore.” And in the way in which a poem doesn’t realize simply the things that it names, but grows into awareness of its naming them in order to encounter the name, I think of the strange, ongoing friendship of art to the human condition, not where art solves our condition for us, but instead mirrors again and again what it is to have to explain to yourself something that should need no explanation at all: that I exist, that you exist. Or to say it as Emerson says it, “It’s very unhappy but too late to be helped, this discovery we’ve made, that we exist.” Somehow, the poem offers itself as this experiment in which a process that should, for all intents and purposes, be wholly unspoken and wholly interior, becomes available to us outside of ourselves so we can learn something from it. That feels really powerful to me.
Another way I think about it is that the poem itself is such a strangely listening kind of instrument. I think about Coleridge’s “Eolian Harp,” and the power of the Aeolian harp in the Romantic tradition. And then I think of Thoreau going to the grand railroad cut where they put up the telegraph wires, and how when the wind blows across them, he can hear what he calls a supernal music. Those wires are, themselves, carrying voices for the first time. I begin to think that a poem is there not simply to express what is being said in each one of its lines, however many lines there are, but to tighten or tauten those lines to such a degree that another breath blowing across them makes a music that is the truer poem, that has very little to do with the meaning of the poem as such on the page. It feels as if in really great poems, you hear another breath blow across it. It might only be your own, or it might just be some older sense of pneuma or spiritus, I don’t know. But it’s as if, within song, you can hear another song play, and there may be no other way to hear it, that supernal music. Or within a poem, you hear the murmuring of another poem that you can’t quite make out. And those are really, I think, important and powerful experiences of art.
CD: When I read your poems, often a line seems like a thought that you recognized as a line, as though thoughts are “re-cognized” as poetry because of a kind of listening or attentiveness. Could one think about the process of writing as an affair between language as an entity, with its history and sounds and meanings and connotations, and a kind of attentiveness in the present moment?
DBQ: Yes. You know, I think ideally most poems need to begin with that sense of the line that’s received, in whatever way it comes. This is maybe a totally scattered thing I’m about to say, so I’m sorry. Sometimes I think for as lonely as a given person feels—and everyone does, I think, feel lonely—Celan defines the poem as kind of a work in loneliness, a lonely thing itself—and yet, along those lines you were just talking about, so strangely, language teaches us nothing lasting about loneliness, in part because the very nature of language is to keep in common a set of values, of possible values, that all of us can tacitly agree on, even if that value is just being able to say, “Look out the window,” and everyone I say that to who speaks English knows exactly what it is I mean. No one puts his head on the desk; no one stares at the wall. And that sense of how having inherited a system of communication much more complex, much longer-lived than any of us will be, has also in the strangest way divorced us from the ability to speak of the loneliness undoubtedly each one of us feels. And should we try to fit a language to that, to make a private kind of language, no one would be able to understand what it is we’re saying. Poetry becomes this strange form of compromise. What it is maybe that we mean by that workshop-ism of “finding your voice” is that you’ve put enough pressure on the language, altered it enough, made it strange enough, not to “make the stone stony” again, but at a much more personal level, to communicate to another something about your loneliness, you know? Not to end it, because I don’t think that’s the poem’s interest. But to make again this absolutely silent thing in us, not quite silent. Our loneliness alters the language we speak in, and then suddenly, I guess, we have this thing supposedly ours, called a voice. And then, per earlier, maybe around it your face gathers, and your face isn’t just anybody else’s face. It’s your own. And thus begins the ability to live an ethical life.