Jared Carter Poetry
The editing team of Patricia Lieb and Carol Schott published the literary journal Pteranodon from 1979 to 1984 from their base in Bourbonnais, Illinois. This interview with Jared Carter appeared in their magazine in 1981.
Pteranodon: How would you define poetry?
Jared Carter: There are a lot of good definitions. Borrowing from Pound, I'd say that the book of poetry should be a ball of light in the reader's hand.
Pteranodon: Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write?
Carter: One writes for oneself and strangers.
Pteranodon: Is there such a thing as "bad" poetry?
Carter: I prefer to call it "unrealized," "incomplete," or even "poor," as when we say the shortstop made a poor throw to first. He goofed, but no moral judgment is implied. The ball player is trying hard; so is the poet who writes what someone else might consider a mediocre poem. To call it "bad" overlooks the fact that to do—even to attempt to do—anything creative is basically a healthy, life-oriented impulse, and in that sense may be called good.
Pteranodon: All poetry is good, then?
Carter: No, because much of it is clearly not life-affirming, in the sense that Lawrence wanted it to be, and much of it does not "freshen" our language, as Robert Bly says it should. In fact, someone has said that rather than being bad, what offends about a great deal of poetry is that it is dull. Derivative. Shallow. Trite. Unimaginative. Predictable. And some of it is actually "bad" in a moral sense—written to deceive or to impress others, even to deceive oneself. When poetry is used instrumentally—when it becomes the vehicle for something else, even worthy pursuits, such as politics or religion—it tends to become bad in both senses: dull and deceitful.
Pteranodon: How would you describe the experience when you've just completed the final draft of a poem and you know it's good?
Carter: I don't know; I can't remember. I am usually too busy trying to put it in an envelope and find a stamp.
Pteranodon: When you write, are there any principles or techniques that you are aware of using?
Carter: None. In fact, that concern for technique—that belief that it must exist, and that it can be learned, or taught, or imitated—is one of the chief errors of contemporary thinking about writing. You won't produce much of anything until you clear that sort of assumption from your mind. What is technique, anyway? It's just a bunch of terms thought up by the critics, and they aren't playing the game, they're up watching it from the press box.
Critical distinctions are useful sometimes when you're revising something—the difference between an iamb and a trochee, or pentameter versus hexameter. But nobody thinks in those terms when they're actually writing. If they do, they're missing the point. Which is, not to think at all. You are probably the safest—and most on course, most assured of reaching your destination—when you stop thinking about guiding the car, and simply drive.
Pteranodon: Would that be your advice to the beginning writer?
Carter: That would be at least part of my advice to any writer. Stop thinking, start doing. It's rather like what they say about the occult: there are no secrets, no hidden knowledge. It's all there in the books, people have been writing about it for ages. But putting it into practice in your own life is a different matter. So it is with writing. There are dozens of books, dozens of essays on the subject. They all say the same thing. If you want to write, do it. Teach yourself as you go.
Pteranodon: How about courses in creative writing?
Carter: Courses are OK; I'm not so sure about granting degrees in it. Seems a bit Mandarin to me. But a course certainly can't hurt you, and neither can an occasional writers' conference. I'm in favor of times when writers and would-be writers get together and talk about what they've been reading, where to submit new material.
Pteranodon: When you read poetry, what makes it come alive for you?
Carter: You mean when I read it aloud?
Pteranodon: Either way—when you read it or hear someone read it.
Carter: Its music. Pound said that music atrophies when it strays too far from the dance; and that poetry atrophies when it strays too far from the music. I think he meant that literally. All the arts have a great deal to learn from music, and there are important relationships between poetry and song, for example. But I think Pound was also referring to the musical qualities of the spoken word—something very similar to qualitative verse in other languages. We need critical terms to describe this music in English: assonance, consonance, alliteration, and so on. Call them tonal elements. They are that which gives resonance and audible dimension to the poem—or, as you said, makes it come alive.
Pteranodon: Can such characteristics be injected intentionally in a poem?
Carter: I'm not sure; I have my doubts. I think they're products of what poets call "a good ear." Either you have a good ear, or you don't ; either you're born coordinated enough to kick 40-yard field goals, or you're not. We're born with certain potentials, and then we spend a lifetime developing them. But just as nearly everyone responds to music, even if they're not musicians, nearly everyone responds to this musical dimension of poetry. And contemporary poets should pay more attention to this kind of response.
Pteranodon: Is there anything else they should be doing?
Carter: Reading more—especially literary history. A lot of poets today are operating on a number of false assumptions about their art, simply because they don't know what has gone before. It's chic or hip to present yourself as avant-garde, as though you're doing something radical and new—when in reality what you're probably doing is wasting a lot of time and energy while you reinvent the wheel.
Pteranodon: Should they begin writing in more traditional forms?
Carter: Not necessarily. They should simply straighten out their logic, and be a bit more honest with themselves about what is going on. Look, to draw a parallel, just because Pythagoras sat around with his friends and talked about how a2 plus b2 probably equalled c2 , but didn't really write down very much about it, young mathematicians today don't claim that Pythagoras's methodology is superior to that of, say, Leibniz, or Descartes.
Least of all would such arguments persuade them to give up their computers and go back to sitting around in a circle talking about what a2 and b2 add up to. Poetry in the future will be electronic, clearly—but it will be built up out of successive traditions—oral, manuscripts, books—and it will still be recognizable as poetry, and only poetry, and nothing else, just as sex and fear and joy and death do not change, in any age, no matter how we disguise them or deny them.
In the long run art is the equal of science; in the short run, it's neither verifiable nor rigorous, and we have to put up with a great many would-be emperors running around with no clothes on. Take concrete poetry, for example. This is very hip right now, and a lot of people are doing it. But concrete poetry is either a branch of graphic art—and thus not poetry at all—or else it's a kind of poetry inextricably bound up with print. It's for the eye, not the ear—and this is a time when many are claiming print is outmoded. But you can't read a concrete poem to an audience. There would be no point. It's entirely page-bound, a product of the typewriter and bookmaking.
Much of the poetry produced by proponents of the so-called Black Mountain school, and by followers of Charles Olson, exhibits similar contradictions. Olson's projectivist theory—if I understand it correctly—is based on erroneous notions about how poetry and technology interact.
The typical poem by Olson or one of his followers as it appears on the page—"the field," as I think they would say—is a product of typewriters and printing technology. It is a variation on a theme by cummings, in other words, and whatever charm or meaning it generates by being broken up and scattered like cracker crumbs across a book page is lost, becomes invisible, the moment one begins to read the poem aloud to listeners who do not have the text in front of them. It's more print-bound than a Petrarchan sonnet. Its pauses and spaces are hyper-typographical, and they could be achieved just as easily by conventional means—punctuation, variations in length, and so on.
There's nothing inherently innovative about "composition by field" at all. That's also true, incidentally, of the so-called skinny poem popularized by followers of Robert Creeley. It may be skinny on the page—two or three words per line—but what happens to that skinniness when the poem is read aloud? It disappears, and what you hear is not a skinny poem but a short one.
Pteranodon: You don't like this kind of writing?
Carter: I don't care for the pretentiousness that sometimes accompanies it. Or the blind alleys it can lead beginners into. I suppose what we've been talking about could be labeled the "typographical fallacy," in case Wimsatt and Beardsley are listening. But even more damaging, in my opinion, is Olson's view; one he supposedly got from Williams, about the breath determining the length of the poetic unit or foot. This in turn rests on a mistaken notion that the speaking voice is the creative voice.
Denise Levertov has written about this, and surely she is right when she says that the speaking, breathing voice of the person on the platform is not the same as the voice that seems to dictate within one's mind or consciousness when everything is going well and the good poem is appearing almost magically on paper. Neither, one might add, is this a random, free-associated voice, or a voice as disjointed as the events in a dream—two chic assumptions frequently advanced by those who usually turn out to have read very little Freud or Jung.
Pteranodon: What is this inner voice?
Carter: Look at the great poetry of the ages, from Sappho through Lao-Tze and the Old Testament, on up to Rilke. The best of it is clear and cogent, far more so than everyday discourse. It is far more compact, more efficient, more colorful, more effective, more convincing. And it became this way because it was written out of an inherent human need for order and continuity in the midst of chaos and decay. Our minds and our daily speech are filled with scraps and fragments, with all sorts of verbal flotsam and mental jetsam. But to want to reproduce this flow, or to assume that it has much significance, or to pretend that it is art, is folly.
It is only by long practice and discipline that we are able to summon more than what floats on the surfaces of our minds—summon something out of our bodies, our memories, our life's experiences—and focus this onto a work outside ourselves that has intense meaning for others too. That is what we do when we create successful art. And if we would read such a work aloud to others, it is true that breath is important. But it is not the determining factor. To assume this would be to stand rhetoric and acting and singing on their heads. In all three, the breath does not control, it is controlled by the artist. Its purpose is to help deliver, not determine, the form of expression.
Pteranodon: What do you expect from a poetry reading? What do you listen for?
Carter: I suppose it's clear by now that I'm not much interested in performance. I don't think poetry is a spur-of-the-moment art. I don't read audiences poems I've just written five minutes earlier on a napkin. As Pound said, "Any damn fool can be spontaneous."
The poet who in public must rely on a stentorian voice, on props or theatrical gestures, who prances around on the stage, who makes faces or wears exotic costumes or has a saxophone tootling in the background for accompaniment—that person is as much as admitting that he or she doesn't trust in, and in fact may not even know about, the true power of poetry. Which is that inner voice made manifest in human speech—an outpouring, a going forth that contains its own music, its own world, and needs no rhetorical amplification or theatrical embellishment.
Pteranodon: You remarked in class today about the importance of memory and memorization in poetry.
Carter: Yes, but rather about their almost total absence in contemporary poetry. For most persons attending a poetry reading today, the experience of hearing the poem is the terminal event, the "product." It goes no farther. If they happen to like the poet's personality, they might buy his or her book. And that's how the poems become part of their lives—leaf through it a couple of times, and put it on the shelf.
Please understand that I think it's important to buy books of poetry; we should all be doing that. But I'm not sure it's enough. Because the last thing most of these people in the audience will do is to be sufficiently moved that they will memorize a poem, to make it a part of their own consciousnesses. Yet this is the basic mechanism by which lasting poetry survives, and it is the way each of us pays homage to the poems we love best.
Good poetry offers certain marvelous phrases and images and emotional moments that can henceforth become a part of our own lives. Paradoxically, this is why live readings are of secondary importance—except that they sometimes introduce us to work we otherwise might not know about.
The poet's task is to form words in such a way that their music will outlast his or her own speaking voice. Anything said forcefully and dramatically enough has a certain power. But what is left when that power is subtracted? And when the next anonymous reader lifts the words from the page where they have been stored, and admits them into his mind, or speaks them with his own voice? It is for such a stranger that the serious poet writes.
We have no idea what Homer's voice sounded like, who his friends were, what happened in his life. Yet he created in a lasting way, and his words survive. We know little more about Shakespeare; and yet his poetry has shaped the way we think, the way we look at life. And there is no difference between the two. Both are great. Homer is not a different kind of poet simply because his work was initially recited aloud and preserved by memorization.
Had there been more efficient storage systems in his day, such as Shakespeare had, he certainly would have used them. The goal of both was by means of their poetry to get inside people's heads, not inside libraries or data banks. The means change— memorization, papyrus, manuscripts, printed books, computers—but the goal remains the same.
If anything, we're poorer today not because Homer's art was oral and ours is print- oriented, but because his listeners took an active part in memorizing his verse in order to help pass it on, and for us, the live reading is usually the end of a process, not a continuation, and something to which we react, if at all, quite passively.
Pteranodon: Can this be changed?
Carter: I don't know. At present we're in technology's grip, not vice versa. Memorization systems—and there were very elaborate and efficient ones, on which the ancients relied for thousands of years—are technology, too, but they're software, and since they're internal, they're easily controlled. That was their point: they enabled the speaker to store and retrieve information from his own mind. Our technology, in contrast, is all outside us, residing in physical objects and machines. And this difference affects poetry.
In the nineteenth century, if you were to speak or read to a crowd of people, and expect to be heard, you employed any of a number of verbal devices—parallelism, contrast and comparison, questions, periods, and so on—which were a product of the best thinking on rhetoric and public speaking during the previous three thousand years. Breath control, tone quality, all these were important, too, and you had to know something about these matters, and to have practiced them, or you simply wouldn't be heard. There were no means for amplifying your voice except sometimes by architectural design. And the very structure of this rhetorical tradition determined what got said, how it got said, whether in prose or poetry, in print or live.
All this began to break up with Marconi and Edison. One no longer had to train one's voice in order to be heard, and this is the case today, except for classical singing and opera, both of which are nineteenth-century arts. The jazz voice is usually untrained; even actors' voices are amplified from today's stages. Poetry has changed during this period, too, becoming less something addressed to a reader or audience, and more something overheard by them. In contemporary poetry the dominant style is conversational, not rhetorical. Emerson had something to say to us, or so he assumed; Eliot doesn't seem to care whether we listen to Prufrock or not; ultimately Pound seems to be talking to himself.
The microphone has made us all public speakers, and none of us very good ones. But it has changed the way we write. It has enabled the journal entry, broken into lines, to be considered art; hence the confessional school of poetry. It has enabled many of us to ignore our bodies and our own breathing when we read, rather than take them into account.
In view of all this, attempts to perform poetry, to dramatize it and stage it, to mix it up with the other arts, seem all the more strange to me. There is so little appreciation of literature today at any level—visit any high-school English class if you don't believe me—that to spend an hour or so listening to a good writer or poet simply read aloud from his own work could be a very rare, satisfying experience.
About the Interviewers
Patricia Lieb and Carol Schott, co-editors of Pteranodon, also collaborated on a book of poems, Catholics and Publics , which was published in 1983, with a foreword by Jared Carter. In the late 1980s Patricia Lieb moved to Florida and worked for many years as a crime reporter in the Tampa area. She is the author of several books, including Murders in the Swampland. Carol Schott, originally a journalist, began work in the early 1990s as a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines in the US and abroad. At present she lives in Pontiac, Illinois.