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Ghouls and locutions.

THERE IS PURPOSE, THERE IS METHOD, and then there is personality--or neurosis, maybe. Sorry, Eliot, I side with Berryman: "It seems to me on the contrary that poetry comes out of personality." Part of my personality is this: I like to say no to myself. Which affects my purpose and my method.

All this saying no to myself means that at bottom I have an assumption that too much poetry is not a good thing. I like to feel that every word is torn out of me, after careful weighing. The words that seem optional go unwritten. The words I do write inevitably seem devalued in some grave way. In this I am Nietzchean ("We find words only for what is already dead in our hearts.") rather than Dickinsonian ("I say it just begins to live that day.").

<Quibble: This writing task feels narcissistic. I have nothing against narcissism except being seen to consciously embrace it. Is all this just an update of the old saw "Do you write your poems longhand or on a typewriter?">

A poem is a text (object made of words) that is gambling on a precarious balance of beauty and significance.

Beauty is something of symmetry, something of intent, something of sufficiency, something of stopping short of the unnecessary addition. Significance can only come from the absolute conviction of the writer (even if he/she is absolutely wrong-headed).

If there is a way to write poems other than treading the line between audacity and absurdity, I'm not sure I have the capacity to understand it. I'm attracted to the brink of failure.

And I'm increasingly cranky about verse and prose. If verse doesn't sing, let me write prose.

<Quibble: That title, "In the Studio"! I don't wish anyone to picture me in a hushed and gracious retreat. My studio is a small room on the second floor of my house. The walls, painted Benjamin Moore Straw, waft the must of a century. It is a holy mess (my mother would say).>

I don't know that I believe in anything, except interestingness.

One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from John Gardner: First, ask yourself "What can I think of that's interesting?" I try to keep that question very much present in my studio.

(Although I myself don't find Gardner's creative writing interesting.)

<Quibble: Of course the person I am most interested in interesting is me.>

It would probably be nice to have a few beliefs.

What I seem to have instead are bents.

I'm attracted to locutions.


I'm pretty sure my poetry is based in the locution, and its music is the music of the locution. What do I mean by locution? I mean the uttered phrase or clause, heard whole, with all its resonances and all its history ringing after it. For me, this produces an irreplaceable music: as, when reading my daughter a fairy tale a few nights ago, I came across the words "the doors of the prison were flung open." Because we can imagine having heard it before, somewhere, in context of great emotion, it chimes. On borrowings such as these, and in making up borrowings of my own that I lift for my poems (I mean this literally, actual lists of coined phrases that sit for a while until I have the distance from them to see them as locutions to borrow from), the music of the locution is made.

My writing is not thought-based, except as thought emerges from these borrowings. It is not subject-based, though I may write around a subject. If it is lyric, it's a lyric that places words and rhythms in the mouth of the speaker which are not original to the speaker but which characterize the speaker, I perpetually hope with intensity and subtlety and interestingness. Why this method? It is frugal (it makes use of what material already exists instead of creating more) and it is honest (we are always borrowing, consciously or not).

One more thing: I have ... well, it's not a conviction, because I seem to be incapable of conviction but at least ... a working hypothesis, based on experience, that given a critical mass of locutions, a poem will fall into place.

So in the studio, half of my time is spent accumulating or inventing locutions and half piecing them together and much doubting my ability to do either.

In the Metropolitan Museum of Art there is a small, rotating collection of contemporary art. Included in the collection is Douglas Huebler's Duration Piece #11, Bradford, Massachusetts (1969). It is composed of 12 black and white photographs of a tree in snow, accompanied by a typewritten text that reads:</p> <pre> The world is more or less full of objects, more or less interesting. I do not wish to add any more. I prefer, simply, to state the existence of things in terms of time and place. The sequence of time is not, however, represented and the photographs as they exist otherwise join with this statement to constitute the form of this piece. The museum comments: Huebler abandoned the making of traditional art objects. The results are typewritten documents in bureaucratic legalese accompanied by deadpan black and white snapshots. </pre> <p>I find it hard to quibble with Huebler's method and purpose.

At the moment, my studio is full of the past. I am writing about the past, personal and public. I have found myself fascinated with texts of the Cold War era, a yearning to understand that era, which is also probably a yearning to understand my parents. I need to figure out how those dead texts got us to life in the present.

<List of titles: Karl Menninger, The Human Mind: Vance Packard, The Status Seekers; Yvor Winters, "The Experimental School in American Poetry: An Analytical Survey of Its Structural Methods. Exclusive of Meter"; Philip Wylie, Generation of Vipers.>

I wonder why the dead frighten us, where tales of zombies and skeletons and ghouls and revenants come from. The living would seem to be more fearsome.

I long for the very much alive literary superegos (those whom Louise Bogan called "parochial punks" and "joiners true-blue") to get the hell out of my studio. Eventually, if I swim long enough in a poem (or a group of locutions), they do. If I am lucky they are replaced by the fond ghosts of Bogan, Berryman, Pound, O'Hara, etc.

<Quibble: Who are of course just an amalgam of my own longings and my transferences. I mean, I never met any of these people.>

These dead, I love. The dead I fear are also my own creation: my own experience, now dead to me. I fear the dead because I fear my inability to wrench myself from the past. Because at the same time I yearn for it: the past is safe because it has been so thoroughly written. And if I can't wrench myself away, there is no autonomy, no growth, and--my opinion--no reason to write poetry.

<Deep Thought: How does despair relate to the capacity for very sharp joy? They are twins, conjoined, and without one the other would die. If we are capable of joy, we crave it, and if too much time goes by without a stimulus to produce it, we fall into despair. And those sharp joys can only be sharpest in early life, and so looking back brings despair, because we will never find our way back to that feeling, the stab of joy.>

<Quibble: As Proust and his cookie said. Not to mention Wordsworth.>

A locution is dead language. I yearn for it: It has been so thoroughly said. I fear it: My job is to bring it back to life. Ambitious.

I feel very much, more and more, what a privilege it is to have the time and the physical safety and the emotional easiness to be in a position to write poetry. I suppose the privilege demands our best efforts.

Or put it another way: snapshot of a day in the studio:

Dimensions, I asked myself: What are the dimensions that contribute to reality?</p> <pre> Space (location) Time Depth Emotion (subjectivity) Facts (objectivity) Result (What Pound called "scope") Cause </pre> <p>After that, success is up to your powers of invention.

Kindness to others and understanding of yourself will probably not lead you astray. Careerism probably will.

Time will erase everything except what is radically new at the time of its creation.

Absolute frustration!

Significance: Let someone else interpret me.

Beauty: Ornament is never of major importance.

Quibble. Deep thought. Tug of war.

KATHLEEN OSSIP has recently completed her second book of poems, The Cold War. Her first book, The Search Engine, was selected by Derek Walcott for the 2002 APR/Honickman First Book Prize. She teaches poetry workshops at The New School, where she serves as Editor at Large for LIT.

photograph by Robert Ossip
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Title Annotation:poetry
Author:Ossip, Kathleen
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Previous Article:Initiation.
Next Article:Twelve poems.

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