On Norman Finkelstein’s Lyrical Interference

Lyrical Interference, essays by Norman Finkelstein
Spuyten Duyvil  (ISBN# 0-9720662-2-5); 145 pages. $12.00.

     Let’s talk about voice, a redundant activity, perhaps, but since we are on the page or, more properly on the screen, the task takes on a different dimension. The critic’s voice and the poet’s are by nature distinct. Tone, texture, and analysis all hit different registers and work towards different purposes. But when a poet takes to writing criticism, the resultant voice is cross-sectioned by an analytical focus and a poetic plea for an understanding beyond criticism. Such depth of understanding is rare; rarer yet is the critic who can sub-vocalize the poetic hymn, the poet’s pitch, an understanding of why lines matter and resound beyond critique. Few poets can write criticism with the virtuosity of their craft; critics who are not poets tend to make an exorbitant demand on the activity that they regard with magnifying glass, never the played strings of a poet’s mind and — dare I say in postmodernism’s day? — heart.

Norman Finkelstein is a tremendous poet who need not traffic in criticism but does — for the betterment of us all. His collected essays, Lyrical Interference, were published in 2003 but merits a review if only to garner belated and so deserved praise. What makes the collection so vibrant, so exquisitely touching as well as on the mark, is its sense of urgency, its unremitting honesty, and the shrewdness of its observations. Here, criticism and poetry complement each other implicitly in a fashion I’ve not seen since Michael Heller’s Uncertain Poetries (see my review of Heller in The Jacket Magazine ). Finkelstein is a poet for whom language and writing matter to the extent that he would rather study and use them with the forthrightness that only compassionate concern can allow. One gets the feeling, time and again in this volume, that the poet wishes not to relinquish his artistic eye for the strong arm of the critic; his deft, delicate readings are personalized without being too transparently ad hominen or involved in special pleading. He is concerned with what poems do, and what their significance is and can be in a world not particularly attuned to poetry. This concern fills and fulfills the collection and allows the reader to cherish poetic criticism and critical poetic positions without interruption (or did I mean inter-ference?).

Strangely enough, Lyrical Interference reminds me of Moby Dick. I recently re-read Melville’s opus while visiting Dublin (reading a book disengaged from its geographical context deepens its locality while displacement yields a nostalgia for the book’s power as a universal codicil and menu of particulars. Try reading Ulysses while veering through China’s countryside: double displacement and triple en-gagement).

That book operates as a manual of its content, providing the reader with a history of its subject, how to hunt whales, the metaphysical desperation at the root of tracking whales or human beings. So too this volume in its desire to bring forth the strategies of how to read poetry, the risks and irreducible complexities of being a poet, and the penultimate choices poets make in their forays into the written — and unwritten — worlds of their imaginings.

Moreover, Finkelstein captures the nuances of comprehension to which we must be attuned. He probes, with the flourish of one who understands and yet will only be confident when the readership does to, the theological and ethical implications of endings and silence, the failure to compose completeness and the mission to continue questioning one’s poetic perseverance. Admirably he argues that Pound, Williams, Olson, and Zukofsky seem, at times, to lose sight of what their long poems should do, should mean. Finkelstein claims that these architects of order tend to move waywardly into their subject matter and ultimately fade their words into fathomless pits of circular reasoning, empty feeling, or demote their projects into grand systems when subtler, smaller signs should have taken root. This examination is made all the more poignant when one considers that Finkelstein himself has been long at work with Track, a long poem of several volumes that has happily escaped the pitfalls he ascribes to these other masterful, imperfect works. Part midrash, part exegesis of the abyss of life and the affirmation of language to contend with that life, Track will undoubtedly learn from its creator’s critical bent how to proceed and how not to proceed.

The discussions of the projects and utterances of poets are insightful, as well as his treatises on the language poets and his study of Bronk and Duncan. Finkelstein opens up his full range of poetic and critical powers to invite the reader into the argument of the self, ourselves. Yeats has been much quoted about how the quarrel with others yields rhetoric and the quarrel with one’s self grows poetry. Finkelstein has clarified this difference by thoroughly interrogating the uses of the self, the poetic devices that laminate its representation, and the ethical and aesthetic maneuverings of that individuated, personalized idea of identity that should never be swept away unless at our great, unnecessary peril. The candor, intellect, fine writing, and profound understanding of this collection of essays yearns for the mutuality of poet, critic, and reader. The generosity of the author, the poet, certainly merits your own.

Jon Curley (© 2006)