“A Few Thoughts about My Recent Work”

      It seems absurd to write a poem out of the scraps and random thoughts of a day or two. Encounters, conversations, what one finds in a book or newspaper, what one remembers of a dream, however vivid. The only way to justify the attempt is the knitting together of phrase with phrase by way of a certain almost indefinable music, a rhythm wed to a practice of lineation, and an obscure sense of purpose that carries one through.

      And yet that in itself is not enough. Mike Heller quotes Heidegger in his recent piece on Oppen: “it is a necessary part of the poet’s nature that, before he can be truly a poet in such an age, the time’s destitution must have made the whole being and vocation of the poet a poetic question for him.” So that one asks oneself at what point, under what conditions, does one feel that this “being and vocation” has been called into question. How does one recognize this in oneself, or more to the point, in one’s poems? After all, it is absurd (again, finding absurdity in such thought at every turn) to aspire to the status of a “foundational” poet, which seems to be something more than being merely great or even canonical. Rather, the point is that in “destitute times,” all poets must pose the question of vocation. And yet the poem, written with such a crucial question hovering over it, is still made out of, still emerges from, the least “poetic” circumstances and verbal stuff. Such has been the case for a long time now, though this basic condition has come to be treated, processed, in many ways, not all of them producing poetry of lasting value. Inside the scraps and random thoughts I mentioned previously, must be found the self-awareness that just here, in this “stuff,” is the question of “being and vocation” to be raised. If poetry is going to do something for us, something truly worthwhile, it must crack that “stuff” wide open.

      But then again, why? That is, why must the poem speak to the destitute time, why must such circustances lead to such radical self-interrogation? Might not the poem’s arbitrary organization of itself out of whatever, its quality as insouciant verbal bricolage, oppose itself to the (perhaps insufferable) earnestness, even the piety, of the “vocation”? I’m playing devil’s advocate here. I do believe that the poem on some level is always a “crisis poem,” that the poet’s vocation is always constituted by and through the interrogation of his vocation. And yet the form, the tone, the attitude of the poem facing itself sometimes comes as a surprise. Sometimes the poem has a bad attitude. Which is a good thing. Sometimes the poem acts out.

Norman Finkelstein (© 2009)