a matter of syntax

[Kay] Ryan has forged—no other verb will do, for it has taken great patience and will—a style of art that is also a style of life. Such strong economy comes with limitations, of course, but the compensations are immense. It is a style capable of withstanding great pressure. It repels all manner of cant, gush, and less-than-exquisite gloom. Sometimes just a drop of it serves as a kind of existential smelling salts: "She gives us poems in shapes that might result in a chamber free of the heart’s gravity." It’s not a fashionable notion. That limits liberate, that there can be in some forms of refusal the greatest freedom (another crucial word for Ryan’s aesthetic), that all life’s troubles and treasures might be—I think of Julian of Norwich suddenly seeing all of creation in a single hazelnut—a matter of syntax. 

 - Christian Wiman, from his introduction to Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose by Kay Ryan.


perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion

I am aware and most grateful for the benefits of the age. No matter what complaints we may have, Japan has chosen to follow the West, and there is nothing for her to do but move bravely ahead and leave us old ones behind... I have written all this because I have thought that there might still be somewhere, possibly in literature or the arts, where something could be saved. I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them. 

- Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, from his 1933 essay on Japanese aesthetics In Praise of Shadows (trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward F. Seidensticker).


how poems finally have to live

Some of these journals I’ve had dealings with for decades. Slow dealings, sending off poems in the mail, waiting for a reply. By the time I’d get my poems back (usually all of them) they would look new to me. I could see them in a new way, maybe like children getting off the bus from their first day of school. They’d been somewhere where they had to fend for themselves. You could get a new respect for them, and also you could think to yourself, How could I have sent them off looking like that?

In any case, it was a distant, silent relationship with these presses and journals. I wanted something from them, but I had to count on the words I’d put on the page to get it for me. Whether or not I started out liking the patient discipline of this exchange, I came to like it. It slowed me down. If I’d gotten those poems back at email speed, say, they wouldn’t have been away long enough for me to lose hope the way you need to. You really shouldn’t be living for a reaction all the time.

I also liked the fact that there were no faces or voices; we were all disembodied, writer and editor alike. Just the slow old mail. I wanted my poems to fight their way like that. Fight and fight again. No networking, no friends in high places, no internships. I think that’s how poems finally have to live, alone without your help, so they should get used to it.
- Kay Ryan, on the joyful process of acquiring a rejection letter, from her essay "I Go To AWP" in Poetry Magazine on attending the 2005 Associaion of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Vancouver. The essay is included in Ryan's Synthesising Gravity: Selected Prose. You can read the whole essay here.


you have to defend before it looks like you have anything to defend

I was invited to attend [AWP] as an outsider, and to write a piece for Poetry. I could go but retain my alienation. This was so doable. Of course, in truth I could only do this now, when I am quite old. If I were young and hadn’t published anything, it would be different. Now, even if my sense of self is threatened, shouldn’t I already have used most of it up? How much more can there be left? Maybe I would never have been influenced, as I feared I would, but to this day I believe I needed to guard against something, even if that something was imaginary. I needed to protect something valuable. The most important thing a beginning writer may have going for her is her bone-deep impulse to defend a self that at the time might not look all that worth getting worked up about. You’ll note a feral protectiveness—a wariness, a mistrust. But the important point is that this mistrust is the outside of the place that has to be kept empty for the slow development of self-trust. You have to defend before it looks like you have anything to defend. But if you don’t do it too early, it’s too late. One must truly HOLD A SPACE for oneself. All things conspire to close up this space. Everything about AWP has always struck me as closing the space.
- Kay Ryan, from her utterly delightful essay "I Go To AWP" in Poetry Magazine on attending the 2005 Associaion of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Vancouver. The essay is included in Ryan's Synthesising Gravity: Selected Prose. You can read the whole essay here.


a choice between honouring the word or the spirit

Most of the trouble in this business stems from a failure to articulate the project and communicate that explicitly to the reader - or the reader's willful or inept misinterpretation of that project. If a translation is read as a version, or a version as a translation, the result is disappointment and confusion. Translations fail when they misrepresent the language of the original, or fail to honour the rules of natural syntax. Versions fail when they misrepresent the spirit of the original, or fail in any one of the thousand other ways bad poems fail. If, through naivety or over-ambition, both translation and version are attempted simultaneously, the result is foredoomed. Essentially, if we are not prepared to make a choice between honouring the word or the spirit, we are likely to come away with nothing. Or, perhaps, between method and goal: in translation, the integrity of the means justifies the end; in the version, the integrity of the end justifies the means.

- Don Paterson, on translation, in Note #10 of his "Appendix: Fourteen Notes on The Version" in Orpheus: A Version of Rilke (Faber and Faber, 2006). 


no ghosts, no gods

There are no ghosts, no gods, nothing secretly lurking in the temple of the poem whose vengeful wrath we will incur through our failure to honour it. The author and the critic might reasonably scream travesty, but they aren't in the poem either. Any faith in anything is misplaced, and masks an essentialist creed. A 'faithful' translation requires an original, a translation and an essence. A poem has no essence. (It has a spirit, but this is utterly subjective and unfixable.) Trust, on the other hand, requires only two terms. So while faithful is an impossible judgement, our versions might nonetheless be subjectively reckoned to be trustworthy. The original poem has a consensually agreed paraphrasable sense, and a consensually agreed unparaphrasable sense. We translate the former and imitate the latter.

 - Don Paterson, on translation, in Note #8 of his "Appendix: Fourteen Notes on The Version" in Orpheus: A Version of Rilke (Faber and Faber, 2006). 


reinvigorating a set of ambitions and capacities

Back in the early 2000s, when surfing the Internet was still, for me at least, somewhat new, I wrote a long fragmented poem that employed shifting (and disappearing) points of view. I drew from a number of poetic forebears, but it was the Internet that really unsettled my relationship to diction, anonymity, history, space and time.

In a poem, association often gets you from one place to another, an image that triggers a radical shift in context or tone. And it is association that governs our experience of navigating the Web. Think of the huge leaps we take, the strange paths we wander by simply following a string of links. Everything that happens in a poem is governed by some kind of compression, but I suspect that narrative in poems is at once bigger and stranger, and more tightly compressed, than it was a generation ago. Then I remember “The Waste Land,” and I begin to feel that the Internet has simply succeeded in reinvigorating a set of ambitions and capacities that have been available to poets for a very long time.

- Tracy K. Smith, talking about how the internet has changed writing, in a 2013 "Writing Bytes" over at The New York Times. You can read the whole thing here.

Thank you to Matthew Zapruder's Why Poetry?, where I first encountered this quote.


bringing that seeing into language

The idea of a poetry of minimal surface texture, with its complexities hidden at the bottom of the pool, under the bank, a dark and old lurking, no fancy flavor, is ancient. It is what is "haunting" in the best of Scottish and English ballads and is at the heart of the Chinese shi (lyric) aesthetic. Du Fu said, "The ideas of a poet should be noble and simple." Zen says, "Unformed people delight in the gaudy, and in novelty. Cooked people delight in the ordinary."

There are poets who claim that their poems are made to show the world through the prism of language. Their project is worthy. There is also the work of seeing the world without any prism of language, and to bring that seeing into language. The latter has been the direction of most Chinese and Japanese poetry.

- Gary Snyder, from the afterword to Rip Rap and Cold Mountain Poems.


I've been saying "doubt" when I mean "play"

Mandy Grathwohl: "Enjoyability can't be the only goal of literature"—would you expand on this?

Richard Siken: Sometimes I wonder if I've wasted my life. I know I'm not alone in this. The other night, I overheard someone else say it: I've wasted my life. The response they got? There's no right way to do it. It was a comforting thing to hear. I think it's the same with writing: there's no right way to do it. I already know what I have to say and how I would say it. I want to hear other voices, other versions. It's not enough to know your three favorite desserts. It's not enough to know your seventh favorite dessert. We should be confronted with things we never considered putting in our mouths.

And enjoyability can't be the only goal of life, either. My mom just went into hospice. She's dying. I don't like the feelings that I'm feeling—sadness, anger, fear, relief, guilt—they're contradictory, and sometimes they overlap. It's confusing, sometimes paralyzing, and certainly not enjoyable. The options are: pay attention or don't.

I feel like there's more to say about it. I feel like I should be able to explain, for pages, with certainty, but I can't. I come from a place of doubt. I think doubt informs my poetry, my editorial style, and my discomfort with the cultural moment. I feel like we're being encouraged to become righteous and absolute in our convictions. I don't see how there can be any room for compassion or development if we abandon our doubt.

Grathwohl: What is your relationship with the concept of doubt?

Siken: Doubt is fundamental to any sense of playfulness or experimentation. We could call it uncertainty. If I climb that tree, will I be able to see the river? If I put bacon in it, will it be better? Is this form the best choice for the poem? Doubt allows us the freedom to paint without blueprints, or start a poem without knowing how it will end. Fear can make us forget about play. It's important to defend yourself, it's important to make calls during business hours, but play is a sideways thinking that solves problems linear thinking can't. We're living in a moment of great and necessary advocacy. We shouldn't, we can't, abandon our advocacy, but there has to be room for not-knowing. Not-knowing is the energetic force that propels invention and discovery. I don't mind being afraid for real reasons, but I wonder if we're diminishing and weaponizing ourselves against a vague and pervasive gloom. I've been saying "anxiety" when I mean "excitement." I've been saying "doubt" when I mean "play." This is a sloppiness I'm not happy with. It's a fundamental struggle, keeping our engines clean, recalibrating, but we have to do it. It makes no sense to limit our strategies when facing such important work.

- Richard Siken, in conversation with Mandy Grathwohl over at The Matador Review. You can read the whole thing here.