The Poet Attempts To Explain His Poem

The Agassiz statue, Stanford University, California. April 1906. San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
The Agassiz statue, Stanford University, California. April 1906. San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

Common Errant:  What goes into the making of your poems?

Nemesis-Poet:  Who knows?

CE: One presumes you know. Or perhaps that you know something of this.

NP: Well, I can only offer an interpretation and a critical response to each poem. That is, like you, I am a reader of the poem when I begin talking about the poem.

CE: But at the least you can tell us about YOU. That is, “what goes into the poem” is you. And you are made up of some such stuff that must in some way “result” in a poem.

NP: I think that’s fair as regards particulars. But I’d say that you’d need to ask very specific questions or at least focus on only one poem at a time–and maybe even one line. Also, I might caution anyone about the assertion that there is a way of  “knowing” things about themselves.

CE: Well then, let’s take a specific poem.  What from within you resulted in the poem “Reduction”?

NP: No idea. Just kidding, I’ve got lots of ideas and perhaps each one valid as a reading, perhaps not.

CE: Ugh.

NP: Right.

CE: Here’s the poem in question.


There is this to consider:

You pot upon a souped reduction.
Which is to say
Fervor at the helm sets its sails to reef and breach.
Agassiz was wrong about every human thing,
Though his eyes were lit to see.

Poetry is a waste of our time.
Which is to say
Meteors strike and vines still hang their bellied fruit.
Hill Dunsinaine would host the walking wood
To bid impress upon a tree.

The tone is a mix of conversational– “There is this to consider:” “a waste of our time…”–and the allusive; and the language is elevated–all encompassed in a philosophical argument. My problem is connecting your allusions, parsing your logic.  Clearly we’re in the world of Macbeth, but Agassiz?  His species creation theories? His general idealism?  Not sure. Mostly, I’m captured by the word play. But…there is the danger of sounding superior.  You undercut that judgment by your casual presentation, but you clearly require a widely educated reader.  Or I could be misreading you entirely.

NP: Misreading, yes. That’s right.

CE: What’s right?

NP: It’s “about” misreading.

CE: That’s it?

NP: Most of everything I write is about misreading. My misreading of literature, of science, of religion, of history, etc. I am a greedy reader, but I am a user. I take what I would have said out of books that often have nothing like the meanings I want them to have.

CE: That seems likely to confuse a reader.

NP: It probably should. I’m confused most of the time.

CE: But you could tell us who/what you’re reading when a poem like this is written.

NP: Yes. And I think that makes the most sense when thinking about my poems. They pop out of me usually. That is, I sit down and out pops a poem. I may or may not fiddle around with it. I may try to give it greater form, that is seek a container that might display what I think is going on via the words and lines. But often as not, I don’t do much revising. Usually I feel like I ruin it if I do. Though a friend who is a poet and a generous respondent to me often tells me that my longer poems seem to exist as a bunch of words building to a very small poem that can or should live on its own without the baggage I’ve given it. I would only object and say that the poem has that baggage in the same way I have baggage (a past that haunts, inflects, my every act and momentariness).

CE: And…

NP: Okay, okay.  Moby Dick is in everything. Some of Melville’s poems. A friend wrote a book on Agassiz that I read along with an essay on Agassiz by Guy Davenport. I had just watched a little bit of documentary on Macbeth. The first line is an echo of one of my own poems (Cat Stew).

CE: But that won’t “tie” these things together will it?

NP: Should it?

CE: Shouldn’t it?

NP: What do you want out of your reading? Answers? This poem in front of you becomes a space for the reader to inhabit if she can. Perhaps it offers no doors or windows for entry. Perhaps it does. But, because we are here and spending this time together, here is an explication, one of perhaps many that would be viable.

So, let us say Louis Agassiz misreads nature the way that Macbeth misreads “the Fates.” And just like Macbeth, Agassiz becomes a king who exposes himself by his willful misreading. He is exposed by the passage of time and the “overcoming” of his interpretations by other investigators–readers of the fossil record and glacial striations–and readers without scriptural conceits.

The meteor  (Melville’s John Brown) is the truth that is hanged (or at least a belief is hanged–all humans are divine fruit); but the truth that strikes does not kill the “vine” and fruit of those fervent in their explications that nature is only read one way. All tribes read the tribal story and each tribe has a different story

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Is Melville’s “Portent” a waste of our time as a poem? (NO! in Thunder.) Is mine? Is any poem? Maybe…am I asking for a kind of political engagement in poems? What is germinating in the belly, what is “belied”?

If one can find “Portent” in the reading then this can also echo with “weird”–as Melville describes Brown, so too the three fates/sisters/witches who mislead Macbeth. What are our guesses at the why and how of “life” but a type of blind divination?

I’m not sure I can really explicate the “hill dunsinaine” lines: simply it is forest for the trees. But its intent is to beg the “interpretive” question and the power sought over meaning given to action and action borne of interpretation (and we can dance back to Ahab here as relying on Fedallah’s readings, and perhaps his unconscious fulfilling of the prophecy of “the old squaw Tistig” ). Also, we find “hill duns inane” hidden here–with a dun being a demand for payment. We can read this debt as inane. The Hill being “the seat of power” sought without sanction. “Inane” is not simply “silly” or “stupid” but “empty” and “pointless.”

I’m sure, given time, I might also convince you that I’ve alluded to Duns Scotus here as well: the axiom stating that only the individual exists is a dominating principle of the understanding of reality…

CE: Maybe I should stop you before you really sink it.

NP: Probably. I was about to get fervent at the helm…

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