Interviewed by Michael Lupi
Since you switch quickly from talking about varieties of happiness to speaking about performance in line 4, are you suggesting that happiness is a kind of performance? If the poem does mean that happiness is a performance, I wonder if you could expand on that notion?
Looking back at the poem, it seems to me I am pulling the old philosopher’s trick of pretending to offer a definition of something when I am really describing one particular version of that thing. That is, I don’t think it’s at all plausible to say that all happiness has the features of performance that I point to here. There are, after all, pleasures of repetition, of going back to the place or person you love, doing again the thing you know you enjoy. And the poem is partly about those things, because a movie is something that can be repeated; it’s a special kind of art form, like recorded music, that can be played again and again and is, in itself, the same each time. For me, going back to a film I love is one of the great pleasures of life, and I often find that the second viewing represents the peak experience: it’s still fresh, there is still a great deal that you don’t remember or have not assimilated, and yet you know where it is going, little things—throwaway lines, looks, gestures—that meant little to you the first time through now reveal their true significance, and the experience is that much richer, that much more resonant.
Perhaps for this reason I especially enjoy films that contain some sort of gesture toward that aspect of their own nature—films that repeat certain scenes, for instance, with the expectation that even in a single viewing, even on the first viewing, the scene will mean something different the second time around. Or films that play with the temporal structure so as to achieve something along these lines. Pulp Fiction is a nice example. Maybe my favorite example is Inside Llewyn Davis, which begins at the end, then goes back about a week and relates the events that led up to that final scene, which it then repeats with slight alterations, and is experienced entirely differently.
But of course, the first experience of something—the first time you read a book, watch a film, kiss someone, whatever—is special and unique in its own way, and this is where I wanted to draw the connection with live performance, the kind of art that really is different from one night to the next. Each unique performance is what it is in itself, but also contains a recapitulation of past performances and an anticipation of future ones. And similarly, when you kiss someone you have loved for some time it’s like a recapitulation of all the kisses that came before—of the entire relationship, really—and when you kiss someone for the first time there is a projecting forward, that kiss anticipates all the other kisses that will follow. And that is part of the pleasure of kissing, and part of the pleasure of art, that productive tension between the uniqueness of the individual event—the “happening”, to borrow that wonderful 1960s word—and the historical ideas, the memories, projections, and anticipations, that are folded into that one particular event in such a complex and delicious way.
The movies are a theme in your work, and not just in this poem. I’m thinking of your collection Lake Scugog where, for example, in one of your poems nostalgia is depicted as a sort of movie theater. What is it about the movies that provides such a rich metaphoric material? I’m tempted to quote you a passage from Cavell’s book on film The World Viewed that might be relevant or illustrative, but I’m curious to see what you’ll say without further prompting.
Putting aside what I just said above, which also speaks to this question, I can say, first, that the movies have meant a great deal to me; I find cinema a tremendously exciting art form. It’s a form that draws on the resources of so many other forms—photography, music, theater, sculpture, poetry. A feature-length narrative film is like a novel, a scene can be like a short story or a poem, a long shot can be like a little play, a striking stand-alone shot can be like a photograph or, sometimes, like a painting. And also, as someone who for most of his life has lived on the geographical margins—rather than, I mean, in large cities—I’ve had much less access than many people have had to certain arts: painting, live music, the theater—I have to travel to a city to experience those things—but the movies travel, they have been willing to come to me. When you see a movie in the theater you are seeing, essentially, the same artwork that people in the cities are seeing; it isn’t as if they get the real thing and you only get a recording or a reproduction. And that’s quite wonderful. I have very ambivalent and complex feelings about the idea that art should be democratic, but this seems to me one wonderful and valuable sense in which the movies really are democratic, and it makes them special.
And there are also the ways in which cinema, it seems to me, resembles poetry as an art. In particular, two similarities: the significance of image, and the way that time is managed. Combining these, we could say that what poetry and cinema have in common is the fact that in each, what we find is images, frequently visual images (whether literal or imaged) moving and developing through time. The poet and the filmmaker are aware of time—of how long it takes for something to happen, how long it takes to think a particular thought, for instance—in a way that seems to me different from the other arts. (Other than music, of course – but there are no visual images in music, so that is a separate thing.) So I find myself drawn to movies both as a practitioner of an art that, I think, works in much the same way, and also, less self-consciously and more innocently, simply as a person who has, in his life, taken a great deal of pleasure and excitement from the movies, and found a lot of meaning there.
Did you have a clear intention when you set out to write this poem? If so, what did you hope to achieve?
I think I have mostly given up on having intentions in writing. Poems never turn out to be what I “intend,” and the general rule—there are exceptions, but—is that the closer the result is to what I intend, the more disappointing it is! A poem has to resist you at some point and take on its own life, otherwise it’s just no damn good. At any rate, I remember writing this poem—I wrote it at the Squaw Valley conference, where you write a poem a day for seven days, and this was on day four or five, I think—and I do remember thinking that I wanted to allow myself, in this poem, to directly address things that had been feeding or lurking in other poems I had written, that I wanted to come out and say to the reader, “well, this is what I really think.” So that the ideas, I think, aren’t so much dramatized in this poem as simply stated, and whatever drama there was would be inherent in the movement of the logic itself—the way the poem goes from idea to idea, and the choices it makes for illustrating or articulating the ideas—and that this would be enough because some of those choices, like the linkage of my ideas about the movies with the other bits of personal history that enter into the poem, were, if not dramatic, at least inherently interesting (I hope) in a memoiristic sort of way.
I’ve rarely heard poets or artists speak or write of “the cruelty of art,” as you do in the second half of this poem. I wonder if I may draw upon your expertise as both a poet and philosopher and ask: Is art moral? If not, why not?
This is a fascinating topic. Under the right conditions I could probably go on about this for some time! But this probably isn’t the place, so let me just say a couple brief things. First, I am more sympathetic than some people I know to the idea that art contributes to our moral development, and even to the idea that art can be evaluated in terms that are to some degree moral. That said, I also find a great deal of moralistic evaluation of art to the thoroughly wrongheaded and often very simplistic; so much so that I understand the reaction that says that we should never let moral considerations enter into our evaluation of art in any way. At any rate, I don’t think the kind of cruelty I have in mind when I speak of “the cruelty of art” is necessarily immoral; it’s cruel in the sense, perhaps, that it keeps the past in view rather than letting us get on with the process of letting it go, and in that it raises hopes and wishes that cannot possibly be fulfilled. But having unfulfillable hopes and wishes seems to me deeply human, so I wouldn’t blame art, or call it immoral, for doing that.
I ask the following question a little jokingly, so I hope you’ll interpret it in a manner that you feel is most useful to broadly addressing the topics I’m raising in it: Is there a war between philosophy and poetry? And if so, which one is winning? And which side are you on?
Rather than a “war,” I prefer to think of it as being a productive tension, with the philosopher reminding the poet that the particular objects and experiences of our lives are instantiations of more abstract properties and principles—that things are repeatable, that it is not the case that each thing happens only once—and the poet reminding the philosopher that our thinking ceases to be human, or interesting, when it becomes too general, too abstract, that the complexity of the world always overwhelms any attempt to capture all of existence in a singular system or theory and that the tendency of any ‘theory’ is therefore to simplify and falsify the world as it actually is. All great poetry is inherently philosophical, and any great philosopher needs to be able to think and write poetically. (Plato, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein are obvious examples, but the point holds for less obvious examples, too.) Rather than being forced to feel a need to choose sides I’ve been lucky enough to be able to plant a foot in each camp, and I think it has fed my work in both disciplines. Not that my work is stronger than what it would have been if I had chosen one narrow path or the other—I don’t think it is up to us to judge the strength of our own work—but it certainly would have been something very different than what it has turned out, often to my surprise, to be.