James Longenbach and the Whole Human Contraption

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 loggernaut Few people are able to write lyrical poems that convincingly inhabit the border country between the familiar and the unknowable. Few people write about poetry with agility, wisdom, and unfailing generosity towards subject and reader. How many fewer do both? And bring to each effort a vast learning, worn as lightly as the task allows? Which is to say there are very few people today writing like James Longenbach. He published his first book—Modernist Poetics of History—when he was just 27, and to date he has written five influential works of scholarship and persuasion. His is one of the most lucid and distinctive voices in contemporary literary criticism. Longenbach's two collections of poetry (a third, Draft of a Letter, will be published in 2007) reveal his unerring command of sound and line. Yet the poems are as elusive as they are precise, as searching as they are complete; their willingness to explore and deepen contradiction is what gives them so much life. Longenbach is a professor of English at the University of Rochester in New York. -Jesse Lichtenstein

Loggernaut Reading Series: You conclude your book, The Resistance to Poetry, with a beautiful essay called "Composed Wonder." It's rich in reasoning, example, and epigrams one wants to scribble in a notebook and return to when confronted by poems too difficult, or too pleasurable, to know what to do with. The subject of the essay—the source of wonder in poetry—seems daunting: so large, intangible, and terribly out of fashion. How did you come to take this on?

James Longenbach: I think that essay is probably the most personal thing I've ever written; it was an effort to describe what gives me pleasure when I write or read a poem. I'm drawn to poems because of what the language does, rather than what it says, and the concept of wonder became a way for me to explore the effect of certain kinds of diction and syntax on a reader. More importantly, it gave me a way of describing the allure of the language of poets like George Oppen as well as Andrew Marvell. My own poems aren't much like either of theirs, but from both of them I have learned something about how to keep a poem utterly clear but completely mysterious. And that's a mighty fine line. Descartes once said that wonder has no opposite: if you don't feel it, you're not alive. In poetry, the threat of the disappearance of wonder is itself wonderful.

LRS: Or even essential—as you write in that essay, "To feel the eruption of wonder convincingly, we need to feel an equally convincing lack of wonder." Some poems, you seem to be saying, strive too hard for all wonder, all the time. Do you have a particular kind of poem in mind?

Longenbach: You could say that I have a particular tendency in mind. One of the great things that poems do is to give us permission to take pleasure in language we don't yet understand; another word for that kind of pleasure would be wonder. But it wouldn't be quite right, I think, to say that wonder is aroused by the sonic rather than the semantic properties of language—it's an interplay between the two. A poem without any semantic interest could ultimately be as flat as a poem without any sonic play. What matters is the temporal process by which that interest happens to us—the movement of the language of the poem.

LRS: So if wonder is the pleasure we're able to take in language we don't yet understand, is there an implied expectation that this language will yield to understanding in time—in the course of the poem, or in the course of repeated readings? I notice you said semantic interest, not semantic clarity.

Longenbach: Hmm, that "yet" does seem crucial—but how? Let's think of an example.

Bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyringing.
Imperthnthn thnthnthn.
Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips.
Horrid! And gold flushed more.
A husky fifenote blew.
Blew. Blue bloom is on the.
Goldpinnacled hair.
A jumping rose on satiny breast of satin, rose of Castile.
Trilling, trilling: Idolores.

These are the opening lines of the "Sirens" episode of Joyce's Ulysses. The episode goes on for another fifty-five lines in this manner—it's gorgeous stuff, but mostly inexplicable. Or so it seems. In the plot of this episode, Leopold Bloom is wasting time in a bar at the precise moment when he suspects that his wife is meeting her lover, Blazes Boylan: Bloom sees Boylan leave the bar, but instead of following him, he stays and listens to various drunken men sing various songs.

The song that affects Bloom most is "Tutto è sciolto," or "All is lost," from Bellini's Sonnambula: a lover sings it when he believes that his beloved is leaving her bed to sleep with another man. But the lover is wrong: his beloved is merely sleepwalking, not engaging in a tryst. Bloom ignores this context, however, hearing the song as a reflection of what he supposes is his own loss.

And Joyce makes us experience a similar lack of semantic context: the lines I quoted form a kind of overture to the episode, and if we read them in isolation, they sound provocative but make no sense. But if we pay attention to the whole episode, we discover that Joyce is quoting bits of language from the episode at large: with that context in place, the lines make complete sense.

Anyway, Joyce's point is that readers of the episode need to do what Bloom neglects to do: look beyond the visceral seduction of the sound of language to the context provided by plot and character. And my point is that readers need to feel—want to feel—a tension in any utterance between the potential chaos of sound and the potential order of the meaning. Chaos and order in themselves aren't so interesting: great poems make sense because they threaten to make no sense. And they can't help but to do this because this is what language always inevitably does: "The Pope Calls for an End to Long Division," said a recent newspaper headline.

LRS: To the relief of fourth-graders everywhere! Let's return to the poets you mentioned earlier: Andrew Marvell and George Oppen. An odd couple? How are these poets—one a seventeenth-century British M.P. and author of a famous ode to Cromwell, the other a twentieth-century American who famously stopped writing poetry for decades to commit himself to grassroots leftwing political action—linked in your mind? What about their use of language draws you to them?

Longenbach: I admire the way Oppen lived out his political commitments to the point of idolatry. "There are situations which cannot honorably be met by art," he once said, and his refusal to imagine that he fulfilled any political responsibilities by writing poetry is part of what makes his sensibility so attractive to me. So when I read the poems—and I feel that







  {buy the by}

purchase selected works by James Longenbach:


Fleet River



The Art of the Poetic Line

The Resistance to Poetry

Modern Poetry after Modernism

Stone Cottage

Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things

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