No 3 - 1981
David Jaffin : An Interview
This interview took place on the morning of 22 October, 1980, at David Jaffin’s Pfarrhaus (vicarage) in Malmsheim, a pleasant village some 45 minutes’ drive from Stuttgart, and a short hop from the Black Forest. David and I talked long about poetry, and about music, about publication and the audience for poetry, about poets and their books - much of this while tramping the rural pathways, walking the family dog. The interview developed many of these themes, though, obviously, in a more formal manner. The text presented here represents some 60% of the total discussion - about 15% having been lost due to a tape malfunction, and a further 25% having been cut. These cuts were mainly of those parts where we drifted off into subjects not directly related to the poet’s own work. A few minor changes have been made in the final text as a concession to legibility. The spoken language (particularly mine !) seems to move often in ungrammatical patterns. Where this was the case on the tape, I have altered the word-format, but rarely the words themselves.
Some reference is made to David Jaffin’s publications during the interview. They are as follows:
Conformed to Stone 1968
Emptied Spaces 1972
In the Glass of Winter 1975
(all published by Abelard-Schuman, New York/London)
As One 1975
The Half of a Circle 1977
Space Of 1978
(all published by The Elizabeth Press, New Rochelle New York)
To For Of In 1980
(published by Imprint Editions, Hong Kong)
Jesus von Nazareth Koenig der Juden 1980 (sermons)
(published by the Verlag der Liebenzeller Mission Bad Liebenzell, West Germany)
Forthcoming during 1981:
(with facing Hebrew translations by Menachem Ben, and illustrations by Mordechai Ardon) to be published by Massada, Tel Aviv, Israel.
Die Welt und der Weltueberwindler (sermons)
to be published by the Verlag der Liebenzeller Mission.
The Elizabeth Press books are available from Small Press Distribution Inc., 1784 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, California 94709, and from Words Etc., 89 Theberton Street, London N.1. The Imprint volume can be ordered from Shearsman, or from Nick Kimberley at his new shop, Duck Soup. (See last page for details). The Abelard books are now out of print, but Alan Halsey has had copies in the past, and should be able to help to locate second hand copies (see also last page).
Tony Frazer: I suppose we should start at the beginning, and with a very simple question: when did you start writing ?
David Jaffin: I started writing poetry because my sister was a very good high-school poet - she won a lot of awards - and I didn’t understand her poetry, I didn’t understand much about poetry at all, and I thought I wanted to write too. I began when I was about 13/14, and I began first by simply writing ideas and putting them into lines. Then about a year later I began by writing images and working purely on the image. The first poem I wrote where you can talk of the unification of image, sense and sound was written when I was about 15 or 16. The first of these poems were then published in my high school magazine. I would say that I became a poet at around 15 or 16 when I began my attack on cliché. I became aware of the fact that words were being used in specific ways, in straight-jacketed ways, that expressions, clichéd expressions, were being used to define things so that these things or experiences no longer had a sense within themselves, and the first question that I really asked myself, that was really the poetic question, was: “What is it that I experience?” and the second question I asked myself was: “What is the language of that experience?” And I became a poet when I began to be aware of the specificness and individuality of my experience, Wahrnehmung in German, by full experience, feeling and mind, and I developed as a poet when I tried to find the language for that specificness and I think that’s the essence of what my poetry is all about up until now. And I began that as a poet when I was about 15 or 16. With this problem, and this is to me the central problem in modern poetry, to redefine reality through a realisation of experience and the words for that experience, you in the same process redefine the language that you are dealing with, because language is there to define experience, and if experience is seen anew, language must be seen anew.
T.F.: How many of your early poems are still extant in your books ?
D.J.: Well, first of all I wrote high school poetry. None of the poems that I wrote until I stopped writing when I was about 19 . . . only one of all these poems have I had published in a book, and actually in a later book.
T.F.: Oh, yes, we mentioned it last night.
D.J.: That’s A Study of Tonality in The Half of a Circle. I wrote that when I was 19. There are other sections of poems - images and parts - which have been put into new contexts which are in books or are going to be in future books. I imagine that the quality of my poetry - let’s say that the very first poem I wrote that I think of as publishable quality is a poem called Wind. I wrote that when I was still 16 or maybe 17. I’m debating whether to have that in a later book or not.
T.F.: Are you conscious of any particular influence at that period, from other writers ? I mean, we’ve talked about Stevens.
D.J.: Yes, I’ll explain. First of all, my sister’s poetry interested me. My sister was very interseted in Baudelaire and in Blake. She was very interested in imagery. I don’t even remember my sister’s poetry any more. I only know that she recently read some poems to me and I didn’t like them any more - but I really don’t remember anything about her poetry. My sister was very interested in the mystic poet Kahlil Gibran - The Prophet - Arabic writer, very famous Arabic poet, and Gibran had a Biblical kind of language that interested me very much and when I was working with language, I developed in my early phase a Biblical tone, with a lot of use of conjunctions like “and” - with a kind of sweep and movement of line. All of that was negative for my poetry. I had to overcome that before I could become a poet. The determining factor in my development as a poet came through one single poetic experience, and that’s Wallace Stevens. When I heard him read at the YMHA in New York - I was 15 or 16 then - and the poems he read (13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird; Peter Quince at the Clavier; Idea of Order at Key West; Domination of Black - poems like that) I immediately thought “That’s what I’m after”. And then I became very much involved with Wallace Stevens’ poetry. Ultimately I see myself as the one who follows through on what Stevens had achieved - and only achieved in part - in terms of language, image and sense; the one who brings that to what I consider personally the kind of perfection that Stevens was always lacking, or often lacking in his poetry. Stevens was the enormously intelligent, enormously sensitive man to language, to image, to sound. But he got carried away by sound in some of his poems and he got carried away by image in other poems, he got carried away by idea in most of his poems. He is very rarely able to unify these senses with a metallic clarity. Now the 13 Ways is, to my way of viewing things, the ideal poem and I would say that’s where Jaffin poetry begins - with that as an ideal, with an absolute clarification of image, a clarity of sense, a specicness of language, which is the ultimate in what Imagism was searching for, and that is the starting point for my own poetry. In addition - I want to in Time magazine, strangely enough, of the death of Stevens, the poems they quoted were exactly the poems that have always most influenced me. And they quoted also from two poems from Opus Posthumous - A Letter To and A Letter From, and in the poem A Letter To - which is to me another very central poem - Stevens writes of a personal intimacy of voice, of room, and of space. I would say that the end of that poem A Letter To was another starting point for a whole series of poems of mine.
T.F.: Your re never conscious of other writers that, at this time - we’re talking about 1953/4/5 - you weren’t actually conscious of other writers who were coming to the fore at that stage in America ?
D.J.: Not in the slightest, no.
T.F.: So you really went back a generation to Stevens , and contemporaries who were just breaking through - one thinks of Corman, Creeley and so on . . .
D.J.: Yes. Didn’t know their work at all. Stevens was contemporary for me. I’m the young Jaffin, 19, 16, and the late Stevens was over 70 - some of these late poems in Opus Posthumous were being written when I was starting to write poetry, so they’re contemporary even if there’s a 60 year age difference
Let me just point out one thing which I want very much to be on record about my poetry. I wrote Wallace Stevens a letter, sending him my poetry after hearing him read and Wallace Stevens wrote me back a letter (which I’m not able to find any more). It was very, very basic for my development as a poet. Stevens wrote back and said “Young man, I can give you compliments on your poetry, and you deserve it, but I’m not going to.” He said, “I’m going to teach you something that you’re going to have to learn right now, and that is is that there’s only one critic for you in your whole life and that’s yourself. And you, from now on, have to be the sharpest, most demanding critic that you can possibly think of. You’re going to have to deal with the most intense critical reaction to your own writing. Only then will you develop your own critical and poetic abilities.” I found that totally convincing, and I find it rather sad that Stevens had not done that with much of his own poetry. I’m convinced that, if Stevens had taken the effort to consolidate the abilities he had - and I think his abilities were unique , I don’t think there is any poet in the 20th century who had the ear Stevens had, not even Yeats. I don’t think there is any poet in the 20th century in the English language who has the image-sense Stevens has, and I’m sure there is no poet that has the mind Stevens has, not even Eliot, or Pound. If he had, with these enormous gifts, been able to concentrate them together, to form a functional whole with a critical sense, then he would have been the towering figure in poetry of the last three or four hundred years. And this is what is so lacking in Stevens - that he wrote too quickly, he wrote too much, he was too much interested in his own writing for its own sake. And the critical function, which was the necessary function, - that was what was lacking in him.
T.F.: Stevens is very seductive in his use of language . . . your own poetry is very, very spare, wrought down to the bare essentials: but nothing too much, nothing too little there - a proper weighting of poetry. Do you find Stevens does anything like this ?
D.J.: There are poems of Stevens’ that do exactly that and they’re the exceptional poems of Stevens. I pick out for instance a poem that is very little known, The Sun This March - that’s in his Collected Poems - he reduces that poem, at least leaving out the last two stanzas, he reduces what he has to say to its basic essentials. That’s true also of The Last Letters, at least the first part of The Last Letters, The House was Quiet and the World was Calm; in the Auroras of Autumn, The Beginning; Vacancy in the Park in The Rock, which I think is a very good example of the ability that Stevens has with condensation, if he takes the effort to condense. He brings everything there down to 20 lines - very essential, reduced to the image, to the place, to the elements themselves. Stevens had that ability, the point is, he very rarely used that ability.
T.F.: How about German poetry ? We’ve talked about how Stevens is an antecedent of yours and your appreciation of him. Do you find there are any German poets who, in many ways, at the beginning of this century were interested in language in a way that English and American poets never were? They were more interested in ideas, I think, people like Pound and Eliot. Poets like Hoffmannsthal and Rilke come to mind - do you feel any sort of affinity to these poets ?
D.J.: First of all, I don’t necessarily agree that Eliot, who was a very central poet for me in my development too, though not as important as Stevens . . . I think Eliot is very concerned with language. He has some of the most magnificent first lines of any poet, and there are wonderful images that run through Eliot, although Eliot is certainly a poet of the mind - but then, so too is Stevens a poet of the mind. If you deal with German poetry, I think there is beautiful transparency, and there is a beautiful aesthetic lyrical clarity, in the poetry of Hoffmannsthal - all of which he wrote before he was 19 years old. There certainly, in my search for unity, a unity of the image, the sense, the movement, the flavour of the poem, the early Hoffmannsthal plays a central role. I’m often compared with Rilke - the Dinge-gedichte - Rilke has a kind of pathos about his poetry, a suggestiveness about his poetry that I reject. If you get away from that and you get to the object, to the inner relationship, then there are certain similarities. The German poet whom i have the most in common with - and he is someone who has never influenced my poetry, beacuse I didn’t know his poetry until my style had evolved - is Paul Celan. I think his concept of the poem is very similar to my concept of the poem. I also went through an expressionistic phase in the 60s where, despite the emphasis on reduction, on abstraction, it was intensification of experience which was frozen in stone - Conformed to Stone, the title of my first book - that leaves me also with Celan. But I’m not satisfied with Celan’s aesthetic. I don’t think that Celan delivers the goods aesthetically. I think his concept of getting within the word, getting within the experience, getting within the tone and the mood through language, is completely what a real poet must do, but I’m not convinced that he does it as one can do it. I find discrepancies in the use of image and the use of word, discrepancies in the shape of word, and the suggestivity of the language, but I do not find the kind of unity that Hoffmannsthal for example had, but a totally different concept of poem. Interestingly enough, poets with whom I’m compared, like Celan, or the early Creeley, were poets who never influenced me, but whom I discovered after I developed certain similarities.
T.F.: Can we backtrack a little here? We’ve just touched on your “expressionist” phase. Would you care to explain how you got into this phase . . . it s an unusual influence for an American poet.
D.J.: Well, let me explain. I had a manuscript of all the poems I wanted to have published by the time I was 19 - I think I still have it. I had won a Hopwood award at Michigan with some of these early poems - and they’re still available, I’m sure, in the Hopwood Room book (it was a freshman award). There must have been no more than 20 poems that were there that I wanted to have published, and of those 20 poems there is only one that’s been published fully in a book, and others where parts of them have been published in a book or where I will want parts of them published as full poems, or with another context. I thought I’d finished writing poetry. I devoted myself to scholarship during the next period - I thought I was going to be a University teacher. It’s only when I met my wife, shortly before my 24th birthday, in Germany, that I started writing poetry again. Of course writing poetry when you fall in love is a form of propaganda, and that’s exactly what good poetry is not made of. But then, when I came back to Germany - I taught at New York University for a year - then I started learning German. I was continuing to write poetry - the first poems that I wrote for my wife were not good, they were romantic, they were certainly cliched in many ways; some of them were quite intense, but none of them was of first-rate quality. Then I absorbed myself in German culture - I knew German music very well before, I knew something of German literature, but very little; I knew a great deal of German history, as a historian - but I absorbed myself with German literature, and I spent a lot of time then reading, to develop my knowledge of German, reading German literature, reading all the major German writers. And I started reading the poetry. Then I got to the German Expressionists, people like Nelly Sachs, and even some of the romantic expressionists like Trakl - Menschheitsdaemmerung, this famous early Expressionist anthology. I began to see, here was a possibility which had never been developed within the English language, because, in English we have Imagism in terms of refining language, clarifying language, through Pound, H.D. and so forth, and I’ve said I think, that the only great Imagist poem is 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. I think also the Imagistic style is refined in the novels of E.M.Forster, a poetic novelist. I could see that the symbolist tradition, which was central in France, had reached an American fruition in the verse of Wallace Stevens , and it came through to my verse in that way - the interrelationship of the senses - but the other central modernist movement, which was specifically German, was the expressionistic tradition, and I. living in the happiest period of my life in the early married years, and at the same time researching my doctorate, but having plenty of time for poetry, and for the German language, I read a lot of German literature. Then the whole most unhappy time in my life, during my adolescence, when I was quite misunderstood, and the coming to grips with what had happened to German Judaism - going to the concentration camps, to Dachau, (where I have been many times), coming to grips through lectures on German Jews and the whole 3rd Reich, all of that came together in an expressionistic phase in my poetry, and those poems were written between 1962, the year after I got married, and, let’s say, 1966, the year I got my doctorate officially, after my dissertation was finished. Now, these poems form a good part of two of my books : the first and the third book Conformed to Stone, and In the Glass of Winter. What I mean by expressionism is the following: Expressionism is a form of modern romanticism, where the feelings are no longer soft and lyrical, but they’re desperate and they’re intense, and this desperation and this intensity is expressed through a strength of image, a startlingness of image and through a very strong sense of rhythm. If you want to think in terms of English . . . I think of Milton and Shelley . . . those would be the kind of rhythms that come nearest to what Expressionism was all about. I mean, in their strongest rhythms, but in German you see that in in Hoelderlin and Novalis, who were certainly the two founding fathers of the development of German Expressionism - also with their imagery, their sense of darkness. So there I was facing my own unhappy adolescence. I was facing the whole question of the German-Jewish past, where I saw myself as being the last one, the survivor. Coming, identifying myself with German Jewry, even though I was not German, and nor would I remain a Jew (although at heart I am still a Jew), in terms of religion that is. I became a Christian at this time, within my own consciousness I became a Christian; you can see that in my poem Bruckner, which is expressionistic. At any rate I tried to write expressionist poetry in English, and I must say I think I’m the only person in English who’s ever taken this task seriously, and I’d like to read a little bit of this expressionist poetry, all of which - the best of which - is written between 1962 and 1966. There are later poems which come back to this kind of expressionistic intensity. Let’s take a poem The Fear of Winter in Conformed to Stone : (reads)
With the sharp
Veins of this
River run, see-
king my song
In flight; win-
ter is come,
The rock nar-
rowed to the
Scope of fear.
You see, I take a word which is a terrible cliché, to be “thrilled”, and I see it in a purely physical sense, and the whole physical sense is reproduced in the “sharp veins”, it’s reproduced in the running of the river at this time of year and then it hardens. Winter has come and the rock “narrows to itself”, and you’re running away from fear but you’re running in fear, and it narrows to the scope of this fear, and that is what winter is, the essence of winter, winter takes us running, from fear, and crystallises it. It makes it fear where you can’t get away, where you’re straightjacketed inthis fear. It’s an extremely intense poem and yet it has all the characteristics of a Jaffin poem. Image is very much intricately related - every image may be unusual in itself but the form and structure of these words “thrilled” and “sharp” and veins and “running”, and then narrow “scope”, they’re all saying exactly what I’m after. In an emotional sense the poem is extremely condensed through the image and through the rhythm, and through the form itself.
I tried then writing in German. I thought then that German must be the language of Expressionism. I wrote 80 poems, and I threw out 79. I have one poem called Cassandra, which I think is a good poem, an expressionistic poem. Nobody would ever think that that was written by Jaffin, unless they knew these particular poems of the early 60s very well, where again the whole emphasis is put on the intensity of the image, of rhythm, and of language. The poet who most influenced me then was probably Nelly Sachs, who understood what the meaning, the emotional meaning, of the 3rd Reich was, better than anyone, certainly much better than Wiesel. Although I think her poetry is more of a human document of suffering, than it is a poetic document.
T.F.: One thing that has become clear to me through our various discussions is that your influences are, to some extent, extra-poetical. Basically we come down to very few individual poets Sachs, Hoffmannsthal, Stevens, and few, if any, others.
D.J.: I want to get to a point you’re making which is very central. To understand my poetry, one has to understand, to feel a great deal of music and a great deal of painting. This is your “extra-poetical”. From the time I was 13, 14 years old I listened to music with full intensity, emotional, intellectual intensity, and I discovered my composers, Haydn and Schuetz, when I was about 16. If one has to say who is the real influence on my writing, it would be people like Haydn and Schuetz in music, and people like de Hooch and Vermeer and the late Bellini in painting. What Haydn and Schuetz have is everything reduced to its essence, abstraction of space and of line, inner austerity, essential classicism. This is true of the great motets of Schuetz - evrything reduced to the bare essentials - and this is true of the great slow movements of Haydn. This is the same kind of truth, on another level, in Vermeer and de Hooch, where reality is defined through the object and where the reality of the world in Vermeer becomes the reality of the room, as it is in my poetry. Or where the reality of the world becomes the metaphysic, that goes through that room to a religious sense of undefined space, as in the great paintings of de Hooch, who was a metaphysic painter. Then the enormous sharpness and clarity of the late Giovanni Bellini, but not a clarity and a sharpness like Mantegna which leaves itself, which stays within that clarity, but which goes to an abstract, metaphysical sense of object and space. Ultimately the austerity, the abstraction of my art is the art of classicism.
T.F.: We may as well go on to your contemporaries . . . in reviews you’ve often been thrown together with poets such as Corman, Creeley, John Perlman, Lorine Niedecker, George Oppen and others. Most of them have shared a publisher with you at some time or another, both in magazines of course, and at the Elizabeth Press. Do you feel at all close to any of those writers - do you feel close to any contemporary American writer . . . ?
D.J.: I feel myself totally alone in what I’m doing poetically. I think the similarity . . . I discovered Creeley when I was at the Frankfurter Buchmesse, when my Conformed to Stone came out and there are some poems in For Love that I think have certain similarities with my poetry in the sense of trying to discover the inner structure of language, almost in a visual sense, to discover the meaning of that for person and for place, and the interrelationship between tone, sound, person and place. I never found that Creeley plumbed the depths; Creeley never for me reached metaphysical depths that I would have been happy with in my own poetry - I know I make myself unpopular in making that comment I never thought of Creeley as a first rate poet. I think that his early poems were good poems, but they never had the depth of 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird or the best of Stevens, and they were simply historically important in trying to get poems reduced to their essentials, but the essentials of Creeley and the essentials of Jaffin are something totally different: the essentials of Creeley are the essentials of experience, personal experience, and the essentials of the spoken voice, whereas the essentials of Jaffin are metaphysical essentials. They’re trying to understand, as Vermeer does understand, personality, through object, through tone, within the word. My poetry was always metaphysical. Creeley was never a metaphysical poet. What we have in common is a search for the short line, for an outer clarity. The question is: what are we clarifying ? We are clarifying totally different things. Creeley is trying to clarify daily language, and Corman is trying to clarify the quickness of realisation. I am trying to clarify the inner metaphysical relationship of personality to object, room, space.
T.F.: In other words it is very much like people comparing, say, Mondrian and Malevich, because they both paint squares…
D.J.: That’s right . . .
T.F.: . . . the outer forms are the same, but everything else is totally different . . .
D.J.: . . . that’s right. The outer form has an importance here, because I cannot see the poems any more in terms of the line, but my poems work within, and that is why I’m breaking the lines and that’s why I’m focussing within. Although there can be certain poems of Creeley and Corman where I can say there are certain similarities, they are ultimately not similarities at the deepest level.
My art has never relinquished the attitude that art deals with beauty, and that beauty is a many-facetted thing, and in this sense I’m the most traditional of avant-garde poets, beacuse I will never accept a work of art that I do not think is intrinsically beautiful.
What Creeley and Corman and I share in common is the means to each of our kinds of beauty can be through simplicity, and simplicity can lead to impressionistic beauty, it can lead to imagistic beauty, it can lead to a beauty of the spoken word, it can lead to a beauty of the suddenly realised. It can also lead to a beauty of the metaphysical inner sense of realisation of language and experience.
T.F.: I’d like to move on to your later poetry, and something we’ve spoken about recently, that is your bringing in what I refer to as the “shock word” . . . the diction is becoming more complicated in your poetry. I come through a poem with simple diction and I hit a word which sends me askew from the poem. Then I have to go back to the beginning, look at it again and try to approach it in a new way . . .
D.J.: . . . let me take you up on that point, Tony, about these sudden words that I use just once, and that hit you. All of my poems are poems of definition. I’m definingexperience which is always specific, individual experience through the languageness of that specific experience. Now. if you do that, you’re going to discover that you reduce your vocabulary - the way Racine used his vocabulary…I hear he only used 500 words in all of his plays - you’re going to reduce your vocabulary so that the word will not be rhetorical, so that you’re not going to be affected by outer relationships of word, but that the word can move you within to a unity of experience, and that’s the first approach: to get to a common simplified language which moves within and doesn’t move without, rhetorically. But then one discovers, and it’s something I’ve discovered, that each of these poems ultimately define a word. There’s a key word to it and it can be a very simple word like my prepositions are very special in the way I use them, where one word is the whole key to that poem, and it’s the ambiguity of that word, or the relationship to what comes before and afterward, and the interrelationship that suddenly throws light on this word, and this word has new meaning.
Now one of the characteristics of my poems after Preceptions, after winning the simplicity of language, is to try and win a larger scope of language…that suddenly a word would come which I’d never used before in my poetry, and that word will be…it will define the experience and the relationship to other words. The word stands out and yet the word is always put back within the context, so that it’s not there to simply strike you, and shake you, but it’s there to make you see the inner relationship of the other words to this word. That’s not only true now. That’s also true in poems like A Bouquet of Flowers in one of my earlier books, where there are particular words that I never use in my poetry, that are suddenly there, and then other words which are part of my common vocabulary bring that word into the Jaffin world. I take for instance in this Bouquet of Flowers, which I wrote in the early 60s, “the fundamental thought . . .” The word “fundamental” - that’s a word that no writer searching for perfection the way I do, could possibly use in a poem. It’s just as bad as using a purely sentimental word, which I’ve done sometimes too, and have brought it within a new context. Because the “fundamental” becomes fundamental in its experience. It’s no longer the professorial tone that you get at the beginning of the word.
T.F.: Talking of the word in these poems, the individual word, verbal inspiration. Do you find that it’s the single word that triggers a poem for you, as a unique part of the experience. Are you conscious of experiencing life verbally ?
D.J.: Well, let’s put it this way. When I write a poem, these are the things I experience : first of all I feel a tension within me. I begin to see evrything with a lucidity, with an awareness that I haven’t seen them with before. I suddenly become aware of the things around me. Then I go into a room - room is a central image of my world - and I get paper, I start writing, the words come to me. They’re not words that I preconceive. I start writing. The words that come to me out of this intensification of consciousness, out of this sudden realisation of things around me. Words come to me and then, the minute the words have started to come, I am caught within a double process. One is this light coming through me ma verbal sense - words coming and moving - and my craftsman’s sense of organinsing these words on a page, of interrelating them, of paring them down to the essence of what they are. And I’m caught between this process of verbal inspiration and the craftsman. Now, it isn’t that I get carried away by the sound of my voice, as Dylan Thomas and Swinburne and others did, because, the minute the first line is there, the inspiration, the verbal inspiration, immediately adjusts itself to what is there and develops a language which has the same intrinsic structure as the words which are there. Because, after all, the essence of depth in craftsmanship is to feel the weight and weightings of words, to feel their transparencies, their sounds and inner meanings, and relating this language to the language that comes before and after. This is where you see whether one is really a craftsman or not, because . . .
T.F.: Is this more sound or etymology or both ?
D.J.: It’s everything. It’s sound, it’s image, it’s inner structure. You feel there are words that are thick, words that are thin, words that are rounded, and you feel like when you’re picking pearls out of to go to . . . to fit to one another . . . you have to pick exactly the right words, the right sound of words and the structure of words. Every word has a structure just like sculpture or like painted objects have structure, and you have to relate the weightings, the colouring, the shadings to one another that they all become part of one. The essence of the poem I see ultimately, that behind this inspiration is an a priori realisation that reality is there and has to be discovered by me. The reality is the silence, and the intensity. I have to come from this vividness, from this intensification of consciousness, from this verbal realisation, and the craftsmanship back to that silence. The poem is only a poem when at the end every word fits together in a linguistic sense, in a functional sense in terms of the weighting of it, in terms of the inner structure, in terms of the suggestive ties of the secondary meanings where everything fits together and has become as one, as the experience of this intensification, of this consciousness within. Then I would say that these particular words have been defined, because all of my poems are ultimately poems of definition, definition of word, and definition of experience. Freeing words, as one critic says, freeing words from their old relationships, that the word suddenly takes on a meaning within a context, that the context becomes meaningful, because the word has become meaningful. It is a double process. And it is the same as the double process of the background of silence and of reality that I think of as God, as a religious reality, and the intensification of that within me, that intensification is the word itself.
T.F.: How does revision fit into this ?
D.J.: I revise only by cutting out. I never change. I haven’t changed a poem since I was 20 years old. Revision means cutting down. When I write a line, I pare it down. I said to my wife once, I said , “Rosemarie, I’m going to write a novel, I’ve got an idea for a novel.” When I came out I had a three-line poem. That’s a Jaffin revision. Because why is it paring down ? Because that implies a preconceived sense of reality, that is not my own. I have to pare down my own experience. If you see the landscape Cézanne painted, the essence of what Cézanne learnt was paring down to find what is real within this mountain or within this landscape. This is the process with me.
T.F.: Yes, this is again what we came onto during our walk last night, which I think is of central importance, in that you have been accused, no accused is the wrong word, but it’s been suggested by some reviewers that your world is too limited to make you a “really good poet” or whatever category one wishes to shove poets into. It strikes me as a very false assumption on the part of a reviewer that one has to have a broad world of experience to make a great poem. This is the attitude that regards The Maximus Poems as the greatest poem in the world - because everything’s in it, it has to be a great poem. As you say, Cezanne must be the greatest example of a painter whose world is so utterly and completely “limited”, and yet he’s one of the greatest landscape painters who ever lived.
D.J.: The minute you cut down . . . . . . . first of all, it’s not a question of what it is you paint or you write about, it’s a question of the inner experience. That means it s not a question of saying I’ll write something about social relations: my poems are never written about things, at least my later poems. They are always experience of and through and in things, and therefore the outer reality doesn’t matter, the diversity of outer reality. There is a great richness in inner realisation. In other words, I would argue that what is really significant in life is not the events that happen to us, but the way we feel our way to these events and experience them afterwards in our consciousness, and that can be sitting in a room simply looking at the objects of this room. Simply by looking at flowers I can create....by looking at flowers at different times of the year, or by looking at a tree, for instance, and the leaves. I have the whole of the seasons and I have the whole of light, of shading, of space. I have the whole of the inner world. My interest is in the inner world, and not the outer world. Therefore my experience drives one within.
Ultimately Eichendorff wrote the same poem over and over again, but he was, for my taste, the greatest of German poets. These slow-movement Eichendorff mystical poems - everything is reduced. It’s always an experience of inner space, of inner movement, but they’ve different word-combinations, different ways of deriving this freedom which is God. This sense of stillness. And it’s the moving into that which is different, but the realisation becomes the same, and that is peace, or freedom, or paradise, but that is ultimately all that there is. The Bible says there will be a new world, and that new world will be a unified world, and these are simply the ways to that world.
T.F.: Mentioning the Bible, another thing that we must pursue is your calling. The unenlightened reader of your poetry would probably be surprised to find you were a minister.
D.J.: . . . yes . . .
T.F.: . . . beacuse there is no sign - no outward sign - of God, that is, you don’t talk openly about Christ in the poem, you don’t talk about the Crucifixion or the Resurrection openly, in a way that, perhaps, - let’s take R.S. Thomas, who is a minister, I think he’s a nice poet . . .
D.J.: . . . good word for him, nice . . .
T.F.: . . . he strikes me as a religious poet in many ways. His poetry is a part, in a way, of his calling. But even he obviously doesn’t do it all the time. He is not a meditational, vocational-type poet. How do you find the relationship between your calling and your . . .
D.J.: Let me get to this difference : what religious art is. We know in Renaissance painting, in High Renaissance painting, Florentine painting, they do religious themes that have no religious content. So one must make the distinction first of all between religiousness on the basis of theme, and on the basis of content. I think for instance that Lipschitz, who was habitually doing religious Jewish themes, has little Jewish, specifically Jewish feeling. Then the question is, “Does a religious artist have to deal with religious themes to derive a religious content ?” I don’t believe that at all. Now, there was a little bit of a mistake in the thing you said . . .“I never do a Crucifixion” . . . there is aclear Crucifixion of Bruckner in my first book, Conformed to Stone, where I’m dealing with a Crucifixion in very abstract terms. There’s even a Crucifixion which is very difficult to come to terms with, as a Crucifixion, as we saw yesterday in Space Of, where it s really a signpost in the form of a Crucifixion. There’s also a poem I wrote called The Annunciation where I’m dealing, as Simone Martini deals, with the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, but within the context of the image. I would say the real question is not the question of theme, but the question of reality. What is it that I’m after ? I’m after silence, I’m after the inner sense of peace that every person who prays and hears God’s voice inwardly, when he prays, feels. The sense it’s not me, it’s his realisation. I’m interested in a silence which pervades not only my own personality, but is this dominant force within the world, which is the law, which is ultimately the basis of the Judaic Law, because God created the world out of silence. It’s a return. As the prophets said, we should return to the Law. It’s a return to the inner voice within me, the inner stillness in the relationship of prayer to God. Therefore, ultimately, all of my poems in their realisation are totally, intricately connected with what prayer really means; not listening to your own voice, not rhetoric, not your own needs, but a listening, as Kierkegaard said, to realising that God has begun the prayers and that you have returned to the stillness of Him.
T.F.: So you’re feeling that the poem is coming out of the world. It is a part of the world, and not necessarily a part of the self. Just as God is a part of the world, so the poem is also . . . would that be fair comment ?
D.J.: Well, God is both the world and he who has overcome the world, which is the title of my next book of sermons. The God, Jesus, whom I am experiencing in my poems, is he who has overcome the world, has created the old world order, and through the Resurrection, has created a new world order. “I am right among you,” Jesus said to his disciples, and believers experience that. When I do my sermons - as Luther said, you begin the week with a sermon - I wait until total silence is within me, and then I look at the word, and then I write. Very similar to what happens to me in poetry - where the silence comes over me, and then the word comes.
T.F.: Do you feel that there is any relationship between your writing of sermons and your writing of poems ? Further than the moment of inspiration ? So that, for instance, with a sermon it could be said that you are the median point between God’s word and the congregation, and the poem itself is the point between your experience and your audience.
D.J.: That is right, and that is a very good point, Tony, because I am a mediator in the sense that I live within the stillness of God. Then, in that moment, God brings me within that stillness and His word can take on new form. Many who have heard my sermons, read my lectures, say, “That is totally new for us, but it s totally Biblical”, and the same with the people who understand my poetry. They say, “Well, I suddenly realise what language is all about, that’s totally new for me”. It’s the same kind of reaction to totally different things. The newness, the clearness, the cleanness of things. “Oh, Lord, how sweet and clean are Thy returns” - one of my favourite lines in poetry. That’s Herbert, George Herbert, who is one of my very favourite poets. Very compressed, reigious poet. I very much prefer him to Donne. But, “how sweet and clean are thy returns”, things, suddenly through, as you mentioned before, through simplicity, through clarity, they suddenly take on new meaning in this simplicity and clarity and that has to do with the word become flesh.
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