2 BOOKS by JORDAN SMITHLYNN STRONGIN Reviews
Two books by Jordan Smith:
An Apology for Loving the Old Hymns (Princeton University Press, 1982)
Household of Continuance (Copper Beech Press, 1992)
AN AMERICAN LIGHT:
“One Stopped at the Center of an Explosion”
The first word that lit up in Jordan Smith’s work for me was Hymns. The second was Love. Last in the trio came the ironic use of the word, Apology. I felt I’d come into the church by the backdoor: this was no formal religion: Such an apology was, clearly, praise using verbal music as vehicle, creating spoken hymns, redolent of early America’s sung hymns. In this interview/study of two of Smith’s books, An Apology for Loving the Old Hymns (1982) and The Household of Continuance (1992.) I will focus upon both the highly personal light he sees in American landscape and history and upon the hymn he speaks in question as often as in veiled praise: these poems are largely narrative. Smith says that the only hymn he ever got by heart was “When I survey That Wondrous Cross.” Reading these poems, I feel I stand atop a hill in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, rural upstate New York. He lives where he views, in fact, a kind of secular cross: industrial and rural upstate New York: the interior lives of people in the interior of homes they have built. Here, pride is grown “bright, turned bitter, ragged fallen.” This is a post-fall world, to be sure, with spent ash coloring it, sky itself “half-stained,” becoming filled with clouds. But there is a moment when, the house done, well-timbered that peace comes:
“. . .that half-expectant peace you feel, head bowed,
after the choir has stopped, and still you’re sure the verses will jug on.”
This “half-expectant peace” is the pause in which we live. Although the songs will scatter like leaves perhaps like the divine spark, the pause confirms “the last word sung/to be a blessing.”
These are highly polished poems that leave one filled with longing. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in “Vine Valley”:
“There will be nothing left to forgive.
This is what you meant by grief: a stroke of charcoal
lost against the dark weave of the scarf, that sorrow”
. . .
and there was no one left to speak:
That sorrow is original
a fellowship of loss lying at the root of things.”
The echoes this poem sets up are those of an insatiable yearning which is our human fate. Echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson, Smith is both classic and romantic: romantic in his enthusiastic tone; classic in his formalist approach: balanced stanzas, regular and irregular rhyme-schemes, above all the poetic technique he links, alliteration marking his work. That America he sings (like Whitman singing his America), finds its nexus where the country began: the Northeast—soon to be scarred with damns, brickmills and linen-mils, the industries which change its motors. Both Democratic and following the injunction of Christ to offer “charity,” without being avowedly Christian, Smith is an exponent of the brotherhood/sisterhood of humans, whose birth-duty is to forgive.
l) You speak of “An American light, as if stopped in the middle of an explosion.. Using a violent metaphor, it captures a moment of stillness. Can you speak to me of this precise light: why do you feel stopped in the midst of an explosion?
The explosion is time. Emerson celebrated it, those changes by which the self outgrows its circumstances: in “Nature,” where he writes of the danger of the unanchored imagination producing a labyrinthine explosion of images. It’s in the landscape too, of the Hudson River painters, the energy of the rivers and the insistent presence of the rocks, the almost psychedelic sunsets of Frederick Church, the sunset over the Alplaus Kill in Burnt Hills. The light is the perception of someone at once in the midst of this transformation and apart enough to notice it.
2) Born and raised in the Northeastern United States, your poetry is situated there. Although you attended Johns Hopkins and the Iowa Writers Workshop, I see you in Northeastern light and landscapes, towns and villages. Have you ever wanted to immerse yourself in any other region?
Well, I’ve never lived anywhere else long enough. I have written about Baltimore or Iowa—you’ll find those poems in Lucky Seven—so I can’t say what might have happened if I’d ended up teaching and living somewhere other than the Northeast. But I do feel at home in upstate New York, with the history of the place, its beautiful and run-down landscapes, it’s legacy of eccentric spiritual seekers. My father used to stop at the yellow and blue state historical monuments when we drove around: he had a copy of Carl Carmer’s wonderful old book about traveling through this area during the Depression, Listen for a Lonesome Drum: it is one of the first books I really fell in love with, a sort of tourist guide to the depth psychology of this landscape.
3) I see you as a formalist: you write in long-lined lyrics. lyric-narratives. Have you consciously chosen models such as Browning’s “My Last Duchess?” Do you see yourself continuing these monologues? I see you as bricoleur, bricklayer: particularly in your taking on historical personages, you layer experience and detail. Do you consciously create with this layering, like the tempera artist who applies brush stroke after brush stroke of egg-yolk tempera to create the radiant color of the Middle Ages artists?
I think the idea of layering is exactly right. I re-write a lot, and that sense of adding layers as the revisions go on has always been crucial. I had the good luck to study with poets who took form seriously, but who weren’t elitist or proscriptive in their sense of it. Donald Justice was particularly valuable here, with his insistence that free verse is itself a formal choice. As for the monologues, I think I got my Browning mostly second-hand, through Richard Howard’s work, which opened up the possibility of speaking as “another self,” of finding narrative and dramatic, rather than expressive solutions to getting things said.
4) You tell me you have no formal religion you feel at ease with, but feel closest to the Quakers. Your work reminds me of composer John Adam’s Shaker Loops. Has any specific music influenced you?
Lots: different music in different books. Behind the poems in An Apology, there’s the Ives first quartet and second symphony, with their use of hymn tunes and American themes (both literally and in the context the pieces create). Kurt Weill’s Silbersee provided the impetus for a poem in Lucky Seven, as did Thomas Lawes’ “A Sad Pavane for these Distracted Times.” Opera was a big influence on the poems in The Household; there’s one long poem which uses an imagined broadcast of Tristan as background and commentary. But John Dowland got in there too. Poems from the last several years have been strongly influenced by my interest in American old-time and bluegrass. Old American fiddle and string-band music especially, has been on my mind for years: the mystery of it, the eccentricity of the tunes and their timing, the combination of evasion and rawness in the lyrics, the connection with history and place.
5) Many of your poems have a domestic setting—“Gingerbread,” etc. Household establishes that.. These too are hymn-like: giving thanks for the gift of domestic life. Do you see your Apology for Loving. . . as a collection of lyric-narratives which could be considered hymns?
Hymns don’t strike me as being only, or even primarily, about praise. Or it might be better to say that praise also implies a questioning, a desire to understand the relationship of the self to that other being addressed, the world. An Apology is a more interrogative collection I think, looking at the world. Household looks at the domestic life and tries to see, what matters in the midst of all the details of a household.
6) Apology and Household appear exactly a decade apart: What chief differences do you see between your first and your second full-length books? Did you decide to grow in certain ways? Did reviews of Apology, such as Helen Vendler’s in Parnassus, Or David St John’s in The Antioch Review affect you?
Well, there’s another volume in between, Lucky Seven, which appeared in 1988. I don’t think that reviews have affected my practice very much—not out of any desire to dismiss what has been said, but because I don’t usually feel that I have much choice in what I write. I’ve changed as a writer—from the historical monologues in the first book to the conjunction of narrative and shorter, song-like lyrics in the second, on to the much more formal structures and meditations of The Household, to the more voice-driven, mostly free-verse poems of the two forthcoming collections.
7) Do you place yourself within any school such as The New York Poets or the Black Mountain Poets?
I don’t see myself as part of a school. For example, I like Liam Rector’s work, we’ve talked and corresponded about poetry for over twenty years. But Liam's work and mine, whatever our affinities, don't necessarily share a “school” sensibility. I think the concept of schools is both interesting as literary history and useful as starting point. But I like poets from a variety of allegiances. Why would anyone give up the privilege of having Alice Notley in the same pile of books as Thom Gunn or David St. John? of James Schyler or Marvin Bell? Michael Burkard or Eleanor Lerman or Jane Cooper, Paul Blacburn, Richard Hugo, James Merrill? The list could go on. . .
8) Household and Hymns both deal with communal experiences: one suggests a choir, one a marriage. Roberta Berke speaks in Bounds Out of Bounds of your extending metaphors: “These images do not remain static pictures.” . . .In “Daguerreotype,” an old woman’s letter is “pressed in the diary/ until its violet ink has blended with the black/phrases of the moon.” (P. 152 Bounds.) Here, I see both solitude and community. The woman is old, hence much alone, but the letter links her with the past in a way that gives her community. Berke speaks of your metaphors extending over borders “like figures in a watercolor.”
Solitude and community, that’s pretty much what we’ve got, isn’t it? I don’t see myself at all as a hermit—I’ve got a job, a family including kids in three different schools, an obsession with playing fiddle that gets me out of the house—but I don’t feel particularly comfortable in the world we’re making here, despite the fact I’ve got good friends in the world of American poetry, a world including many writers I respect.
9) What of the seasons? Have you a favorite? One that creeps into your poems more than any other? “Rexford” takes place in a somewhat romantic autumn atmosphere of joined flame: how does season shape landscape for you? Again, Roberta Berke says of “The Oxbow”: “This poem drifts like a boat with its oars up, yet the backwaters it glides over reflect and focus all of Smith’s previous concerns. . .It is autumn, and the house’s windowpanes are broken, yet it is welcoming.” “Convention and covenant”? To borrow a phrase of yours from another poem? Is homecoming not both of these, yoked? Roberta Berke says, “The coming ice is strangely welcome, and is awaited. “A woman/ who leaves the coffee on the stove and stares/ at her face in the window to see her husband/ come out of the snow.” (p. 154, Berke.) She perceives a necessity to take upon herself another warmth which is not only against the blizzard, but against a longer cold. You become bricoleur once more: whiskey-stain on wallpaper; barge of coal by peeling walls; dead muskrat. What season of the soul of man are we in? Is it totally bleak?
Fall is definitely my season in Hymn. I’ve always found something uncanny about autumn. Maybe it’s Stevens: “death is the mother of beauty’—autumn is certainly the season that articulates that. But I felt that way long before I ran into Stevens, or thought of myself as a poet. There are things that produce a feeling—an autumn day can do it, leaf smoke, a modal fiddle tune, a line of hills-- words framing a scene with mystery.
10) Vendler speaks of your handling best “the artist’s love of his medium, its almost female flexibility.” What do you make of her phrase” “almost female flexibility”? And, do you think she is correct when she notes your echoes of Whitman, and Stevens?
I think what good critics do is to create their own narrative of the work, which may or may not be what the author had in mind. It’s the critic’s response to the work, and if it is compelling, that’s because the story the critic has made of it is a revelation of the critic’s sensibility interacting with the writer’s material. So a critic is a pleasure to read in many of the same ways that poetry offers pleasure, as the articulation of the movements and habits of a particularly engaging mind. And a good critic offers ways of looking beyond the particular poet or poem to a view of how poetry itself works, [Vendler is] right about Whitman and Stevens, both of whom I was very engaged with when writing that book. And in the sense that language, the medium, is almost a presence in the process of writing, and can seem to have its own body. Each poem. . . is such a tunnel-vision sort of thing. I’m usually aware of the next word, the next line (or hoping very much to become aware of them), and I often don’t have a very clear idea of what I’m up to in any particular poem until it’s done.
11) Virtually every critic I’ve read of your work notes that you have a keen sense of beauty. The arts come into large play in your poems. I think of painters: Hogarth, Edward Munch (in Apology) as well as my favorite shorter lyric in this volume “a Side of Beef,” inspired by the Jewish painter Chaim Soutine.
“So I have come to love the body on the edge of ascension”
This sentence would seem an illuminating comment on the body of your work. Depicting a peasant woman beneath a bridge, you pick out that small truth “where she hangs between fire and water, a stillness/that lasts only so long as the soul cannot choose its element." That is our human predicament: we cannot choose our element and despite this paradox must proceed, suspended.
You bring off what you admire in Homer, a type of vigil in which you summon the deceased: “those great imaginings.” Which image prevails at the end of this poem? The girl “too plain/not to forget with the rest” a child who “fetches blood in a shallow earthenware basin,” one who could see her face reflected, would see “ochre broken over vermilion.”? Or the side of beef, the poem’s concluding image? “slaughtered. . ./ hides transfigured/in the afterimage/of leather and a guttering lantern: on a blue ground,/ochre and vermilion.” Ochre and vermilion are echoes of the opening image of the child. I came away with both images. This poem has its life, draws its being from painting.
Music inspired “For Dulcimer & Doubled Voice,” just as it does, “A Lost Sonata.” Can you speak to me a bit about your personal involvement with the arts, principally these two arts and how you see them figuring in your work? Is this a conscious decision such as-- I will put on Handel’s Messiah for inspiration today. Or subconscious? that subliminal art, music always in your mind. (Was Wallace Stevens' Susanna and the Elders on your mind?)
I’ve almost always seen music as inspiration. I usually have music on while I write, although I’d guess the effect is more subliminal than intentional. I like the visual arts—painting and photography in particular—especially for their narrative aspects, especially if the narrative is suggested, so that the viewer is left to play with, to speculate about the images and their relationships. If you think of poetry, all art really, as essentially metaphorical, then the same cluster of emotion and experience can be represented in a variety of ways. (The truth is, I envy visual artists and musicians the physicality the performance aspect of what they do, the activity of it.)
12) Tell me a bit about your method of composition.
Ok. I’ve thought of composition for as long as I can remember as a layering process. It doesn’t seem to matter much what tools I’m using. I start with a line or two in my head, carry that around awhile before I write it down, usually longhand on a legal pad or notebook. But sometimes directly to typescript. Recently, I’ve acquired an oil-cloth-covered notebook I carry around. Often enough, not much happens. I’ll work on drafts that are farther along—then circle back to new material, waiting for something to suggest itself, maybe trying out different ways of phrasing or handling lines. New poems often don’t extend themselves more than a few lines or stanza at a sitting.
Once I have what seems like the full length of the poem (typescript by then), I go over the printed copy, scribbling in changes. Then, I type in edits, followed by more hand-written changes. I’m often going back and forth between several poems, or sets of poems, in different stages. So I may suddenly end up with three or four poems that seem pretty much finished
Sometimes, it’s different. When I started the long Strindberg poem in “An Apology,” (“A Lost Sonata”) I thought of the idea, did some background reading, got nowhere and gave up on it. Until one day, crossing the intersection of North Charles Street and 36th in Baltimore, I knew what the poem was going to be, the whole thing. It took a couple of days to actually write it. That doesn’t happen much. Sometimes I vary work methods, pushing myself all the way through a draft early on just to see what happens.
I like that “the intersection of North Charles and 36th." For me, often poems take shape as an intersection—or on a few occasions, at one.
13) To switch gears, tell me about your admiration for Thom Gunn.
I’ve liked his poems for a long time. I admire the clarity and precision with which he sees, and his way of allowing the self to appear as a function of that seeing, rather than as a matter of direct presentation. I also admire his formal skill—his ability to write so well in free verse, syllabics, traditional meters: equally musical, equally direct. Gunn’s life, who he is, seems to me an essential part of his poetry, but it isn’t the reason for being of any one of his poems. Instead there’s a desire for understanding the particularities of the people who become subjects for his portraits.
14) Have you tried to cultivate that kind of understanding of the characters who are subjects for your portraits?
I’ve used mostly fictionalized figures, historical or imagined, as my subjects, so the poems are more portraits of portraits. I hope in the poems I’ve written out of my own life and experience that I’ve learned to err more on the side of sympathy, which is Whitman’s lesson.
15) Where do you see yourself moving? More into history, say, another “art,” or ardor in your books?
I have two books coming out shortly—Three Grange Halls, a chapbook from Swan Scythe Press, and For Appearances, a full-length collection from the University of Tampa Press. Together, they represent more than ten years of work, all the poems I’ve wanted to keep since The Household of Continuance was finished. They’re still involved with history, although as context rather than as subject; they still refer to music as subject and model, although the music is from the American folk tradition. They’re mostly free verse, although I hope a musical free verse. I was surprised when reading through them to see how abstract many of them are, which makes me think that the syntax, the sentence driving down the lines, was more in my mind that in the earlier poems. I think I managed a more natural, more idiomatic voice.
I’m just beginning work on new poems, but I’m not sure yet what they will be. Character and narrative seem more important in the drafts I’ve managed so far.
16) Like New York painter, Walter Hatke, about whom you’ve written a descriptive booklet to commemorate a show opening, you feature windows and doors. “These do not stop the eye, they lead it only to a further opacity.” The surprise here is the word “Opacity.” One would imagine an open door or window to lead to transparency.
Walter’s work is very interesting that way. He often paints public places, but there’s a sense of intense privacy.
17) In conclusion, this saying attributed to Mother Ann Lee (founder of the Shakers) could stand as commentary on your work as well:
“Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as you would if you knew you would die tomorrow.”
What do you think?
I think that anyone who comes to work in the arts—or to any craft, for that matter, at least partly comes out of a love of form. You’re making something with a care that can seem disproportionate; you’re making something you hope will last.
18) So we’ve come full circle like John Adams' Shaker Loops, a music resonating thru your early formal narratives, and the later lyrics. Your first book opens with an epigraph from Washington Irving’s Sketch Book:
Such is this boasted immortality. A mere temporary rumor, a local sound, like the tone of that bell which has just tolled. . .filling the ear for a moment—lingering transiently. . –then passing away like a thing that was not.
This captures and transmits for me the dark-lined, story-tale spectral, almost phantasmagoric, quality of America’s great fiction writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Present in Irving too, it draws upon the metaphor of music, “Bell” suggests death “Just tolled” transience, a “boasted,” but not real “immortality.”
I was really happy to find that epigraph—it seemed just right for both the tone and concerns of the book, and helped me locate it in an American tradition of folktale and story-telling.
19) Are you not that man who knows his songs finally will end as broken branches, yet still wants the last word to be this blessing? Am I right in hearing overtones of surveying the world as a wondrous cross—the only hymn you ever got by heart?
I don’t know why that hymn stuck with me so, something about the simultaneous presence of pride and self-abnegation in it. I haven’t a formal religion. I was raised as a Protestant. But something about the institutions of religion has always made me deeply uncomfortable. I’ve been most happy, in this regard, when I’ve attended Quaker meetings, because of the combination of silence and spontaneous speech or song. Think of Emerson in this connection and Whitman, both guides to a sort of do-it-yourself, autodidactic spirituality.
20) Your poems are cut with just the her right facet of irony to make them glisten. Am I right in seeing you as both traditional and modern, a late American Romantic, fascinated by the arts, in addition to having a passion for architecture and history?
I think so. The alternatives to romanticism—the modernist gathering of shards, the post-modern reveling in shattered reflections—don’t seem as available to me. But this isn’t nostalgia, just a matter of how the world makes sense (or doesn’t) to me. I don’t see art as evolutionary, a relentless push from style to style. The older styles, the meanings they make possible, stay with us, if only in a form that also acknowledges what has come after. Maybe that’s where the irony comes in.
21) Pride and self-abnegation: I like that conjunction. Very New England. Very bricoleur: it habits the countryside you love. I see your poetry as a poetry of restraint, of understatement.
I think the modulation of emotion by language, by image, by gesture would be a fair description
20) Back to that peculiarly American light: “one stopped at the center of an explosion, can you give me a few last words?
Overwhelmed by change and image in a country that doesn’t have a stable center, we are caught by a self that outgrows its circumstances. The light stopped in the middle of an explosion? It’s the sunset over Aplaus in Burnt Hills. Emerson celebrates its energy; so did the Hudson River painters. It’s in the landscapes and tumbling streams; in the rushing rivers and millennial rocks. The explosion is time itself, spilling with cumulative force, a young energy with a peculiar and abundant radiance: an American light.
(July—Oct 1, 2002)
Victoria, B.C. Canada—July—September 2002)
Lynn Strongin's new book of poems, Short Visiting Hours for Children: Rembrandt's Smock, is forthcoming from Plain View Press, Austin, Texas. This review is a chapter from Strongin’s forthcoming book Returning the Light: Portraits of Hidden Faith in Fourteen Contemporary Poets. A full introduction to Lynn Strongin is available at her website: http://members.shaw.ca/stronginweb/index.html