INSCAPE: One of the many things I noted in your lecture was the commentary on digital versus print literature—I found that very interesting and thought-provoking. Charles Bernstein once said that “A piece of paper is worth less with a poem printed on it.” I think the argument being made was that poetry isn’t commodified as much as something like fiction or even creative non-fiction is, both of which can be published much easier in journal formats, I think, than your average poem. When most things printed online are accessible for free, is literature in a digital realm therefore more open to experimentation and pushing new boundaries? A literature when it’s commodified is necessarily at the behest of audiences and readers. I’m wondering if you could comment on that dichotomy: the commodification of print literature versus the liberation of online digital literature.
WILLARD SPIEGELMAN: Let me say a couple of things. Do you know what Gresham’s law is?
S: Gresham’s law is a principle of economics that goes, “Bad money drives out good.” Which means that, as an analogy to this, a kind of lowest common denominator will set in. If by “commodification” you mean a vetting process, a clearing house, all of the things that take place when somebody is approving or commenting on a poem or a piece of literature for possible publication, then we can list all of the standard charges or compliments that can be used for and against this process. Charges: snobbism, elitism, quieting various voices, silencing various voices. Or, on the other hand, praise for that kind of thing: “Oh, you’re getting the best that has been done. Things have been looked at, things have been approved of.”
If you have nine million people writing poems—let’s just think of it this way—if you have nine million poems appearing online, are they all of equal value? A different kind of person would say as soon as you use a word like “value,” you’re announcing your hand right there. So let’s say “meaning.” To whom are they meaningful? I have been to conferences where I’ve talked to audiences and/or writers, and somebody once asked me at one of these things: “Don’t you think it’s a wonderful thing that courtesy of the Internet we have the option of hearing so many more voices?” And I immediately said, “No.” She looked crestfallen and she said, “Why?” And I said, “Well let me ask you this. Do you publish your things on the Internet?” She said yes. I said “How many other people’s things do you read on the Internet?” And then she had to sit down—because it becomes an act of glorified narcissism.
Among other things, having a print publication or having somebody siphon, winnow, or cull does a lot of work for somebody else as a reader. A choice has been made. When you go—and this is where the model of capitalism, not the model of anarchy, is the better one—when you go into a department store, how many pairs of jeans do you really need to choose among? This is the glory of the American system. We have choice. How many pairs of jeans do you really need? Isn’t one sufficient? But that’s the nature of our capitalistic economy. So you go in and you are overwhelmed by this, and it’s a dizzying and indeed a depressing kind of phenomenon. You open up a web portal or a site that says “we are poetry for the people” and you have in front of you nine million poems. Which do you read? And how do you read them? I don’t like doing that. It’s anarchic and confusing to me.
I: She would publish online and not in turn read the poems—
S: But this, excuse me, this is not a new phenomenon. In 1760 Dr. Johnson complained about exactly the same phenomenon. He said there are too many people writing now and too few reading. Hello! More than two centuries later we’re saying exactly the same thing.
I: You’ve written a book entitled How Poets See the World: the Art of Description in Contemporary Poetry. I’m wondering if you could talk for a moment about the role of description in contemporary poetry specifically. Maybe you could talk about poetry as an act of seeing.
S: In the beginning of that book, one of the things that I say is that in prose—prose fiction— description is often thought of as the kind of thing you have to wade through, somewhat either background-setting or superfluous. The real edge, the real meat of a work is action and dialogue. That attitude reduces fiction to a kind of playbill or a film script, something about to be made into a movie. “All that description, get rid of that. The camera will do some of that for us.” Very often in prose fiction description is superfluous, or it’s pleasant but it’s not relevant. But very often in poetry, description is all there is. Description is never just description. Description is always something else, and that’s what got me interested in the subject. What is he doing in this description of the lake? What is she doing in this description of the picture on the wall? Sometimes it’s quite clear, sometimes it’s all a stand-in for analysis, or feeling, or it’s representing something else—but at the very least you can say it’s showing the way a mind is working. It’s the mind of the perceiver who is registering a scene, s-c-e-n-e, or something seen, s-e-e-n, and interacting with it. There’s drama going on in any good act of description.
I: Would you say then that description and image serves as a springboard for rhetorical gestures? Is that the main thrust?
S: It could be rhetorical gestures, it could be psychological gestures, it could be—well, I’ve used the word contemplation before. The act of describing is the act of presenting the mind in contemplation. Emerson said that what he valued was the act of man thinking—that was his catch-phrase for the American scholar: “man thinking.” When you see this occurring—and it doesn’t have to be through description—but as a reader or even as a teacher in a classroom, I want to have the sensation that thought is being thought there. That we are engaged in a process. I may be doing most (but not all) of the talking, but we’re in the process of working out problems. Just like that, the writer is always in the process of working out problems and the finished product is often the result of many iterations of that.
I: Can you talk about the relationship of poetry and description of the external world? What’s the interplay there?
S: One value of description is that it takes a writer out of his or her own head and away from his or her own feelings. It opens the world up and makes the world a bigger place. One of the things about a lot of contemporary writing—maybe this is more than just contemporary—is that it is narcissistic. This idea of “Look at me! Look at me! This is what I’m doing!” is just looking in a mirror and reporting back what is seen there. This is one reason that I really hate a phrase you used: “creative nonfiction”. Because think of what it implies. Creative nonfiction means that all of the other stuff is just shit. Junk. Creative nonfiction is a story; and what is it a story about, usually? Well, at the college level or the workshop level, it’s a story about me, me, me. So it’s creative, and it’s nonfiction, but I can’t help thinking: why should I be interested in you? You’re nothing, you’re twenty years old. What do you have to say about yourself? Should this be of interest? I believe in the essay as a great form invented by Montaigne in the 1580s, perfected by Emerson and Virginia Woolf. Montaigne says quite deliberately, “My subject is myself. That’s what I know best.” But he’s not writing creative nonfiction—he’s cutting a wide swath. He’s writing about the history of his reading, he’s writing about the history of the West, he’s writing about anthropology. He’s writing about everything. The essay is an exploration, it is a trial in which the self is involved but not exclusively. Most works of creative nonfiction as they take place in workshops today are just about what I did last summer with my girlfriend or my pony or my hunting and fishing. Isn’t that the substance of most creative nonfiction? Stories about the self of the person? I’m not interested in them. I’m interested in anything that is well-written. But usually these things are not. It becomes an excuse not to write about something other than the self. Description, then, means you are writing about something not yourself.
I: So it is necessarily external.
S: It’s necessarily external. Whether it is, as I said, a scene or a thing on the wall. That’s why it’s a good exercise to send the students to the museum or to a pond and say “Write down everything you see.” That’s why Darwin was such a great writer. And why Ruskin was such a great writer. Because they were looking.
I: I’m thinking in particular of one particular contemporary poet, John Ashbery—his poetry is different from another contemporary poet like, say, Gary Snyder, who’s very much based in nature and the external world. Ashbery seems to communicate more internal descriptions. I don’t see him referencing the external very much in his poetry; or, rather, he doesn’t depend upon the external world to write his poetry. I’m wondering if you could maybe talk about this resistance to an interaction with the external, physical world.
S: Gary Snyder appears in chapter one of my book; John Ashbery is the subject of a separate chapter in the same book. Of course, other dichotomies come to mind. For example, Gary Snyder is all about the West and the outdoors; and the East, the real East over there—John Ashbery is entirely of the city, the East Coast, and Western Europe. One’s going this way, one’s going that way. And their styles are entirely different. The rugged, Whitmanian outdoorsman; the museum-bound aesthete. So that’s one thing. Second thing: Gary Snyder has made his poems out of two complementary principles: one, physical work building houses, etc. And two, an attempt in a Western way to internalize Zen principles of meditation. The primary one of which, of course, is losing selfhood; but you can’t be a poet and lose selfhood. So there’s kind of a paradox right there.
Ashbery, on the other hand—very much in the tradition of people like Wallace Stevens, Eastern, urbane, urban—has, I think, the distinction of being on the one hand a culture poet; on the other hand being probably the most important contemporary poet who presents no image of himself in his work. He is an “I”-less poet. In this way, he’s a kind of model of and antithesis to Walt Whitman. If you are great, if you contain multitudes, if you are part of everything you meet like Tennyson’s Ulysses, you are yourself nothing. And Ashbery said in an interview many years ago that growing up as an only child in the rural farmland must have prevented him from growing up with a very strong sense of himself. Because he’s so able to imitate other writers—he said it’s like a cuckoo building its nest in the nests of other birds. So paradoxically his poems are, on the one hand, almost instantaneously recognizable because of their style; and, on the other, not quite able to be pinned down. He goes all over the place.
Ashbery is a great observer and I think Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is one of the major poems of the last half of the twentieth century, and it’s a poem I teach with great relish and read with great relish. And there, of course, that whole poem is exactly about the subjects I’ve been talking about. “I’m looking at something, I’m thinking about it, but now I’m thinking about this.” Flow Chart as the title of one of his books is really a title to describe his mind. He’s like a radio and every channel is playing all the time. For Ashbery, this is one of the things that make him distinct, or indeed unique. For Ashbery—unlike Snyder and other poets who are trying to, as they say in writing classes, “find a voice”—there is no voice. All the voices are there together. And so in terms of something like syntax he’s the most mysterious poet today. You’re reading a sentence of Ashbery—unlike somebody like Wallace Stevens or W.H. Auden he doesn’t send you to the dictionary, he’s not using words that are arcane or archaic or scientific (maybe a little bit, but not too much)—but you’re going through the sentence and all of a sudden you think, where am I? How does this part relate to the other part? This is because he’s so masterful at putting together cliche, the language of advertising, literary echo, bits and snippets of things heard, things invented in his own mind. There are plenty of people who say this is the emperor’s new clothes. “This is just total bullshit.” “It is meaningless palaver.” But anybody who writes that much will open himself up to that kind of accusation. And there are plenty of times when I—who am a smart person—am reading Ashbery that I just want to throw the book against the wall. Because I’m so thwarted by it. And then other times I keep saying “No, try harder, let’s see what happens.” It’s funny, because he is the quintessential poet who defies efforts of paraphrase. I think paraphrase is a very good thing and a very useful thing at an elementary level– I mean only elementary for beginning students, but when one is reading a poem for the first time, one says “Well, what does this mean? Why is it going this way?” And Ashbery absolutely defies that. He renders it almost impossible.