A Conversation with Mark Irwin: Four Questions on Memorability
Interviewed by Andrew Wessels
Editor’s Note: This interview is paired with Mark Irwin’s essay “Poetry and Memorablity,” also published in this week’s issue.
ANDREW WESSELS: Is the memorable created at the moment of reading from the surprise of a “new and ravenous” use of language, or is it a quality that can only be recognized later, as a reader finds him or herself remembering and re-remembering the poem again and again?
MARK IRWIN: Certainly “new and ravenous” language can create memorability, but language need not be dramatic to accomplish this. Often memorability is attained through reducing actions or experience into truth. This reduction often appears as a kind of profound simplicity. Or as Caravaggio said: “In art there is nothing more difficult than simplicity.” Complex structures can be harder to remember. I think we are all attracted to the manifestation of truth in art, something that can be lost in a lot of experimental poetry, but it doesn’t have to be. Perhaps a clarification of this appears in two poems (written 20 years apart) by W.S. Merwin, certainly a master in both forms. From his groundbreaking work The Lice (1967), the poem “In Autumn” opens
The extinct animals are still looking for home
Their eyes full of cotton
Now they will
The stars are like that
Moving on without memory
Without having been near turning elsewhere climbing
Nothing the wall
The hours their shadows
The memorable begins here with a profound sense of disjunction: extinct animals wandering as if they were alive, then suddenly we are jolted awake by the taxidermied implication of “cotton.” A subtle pyrotechnics of language however begins in stanza four as “-ing” endings of nouns, verbs, and gerunds create a stubborn frisson of eternity. The enjambment in the second line of this stanza heightens that notion. The line wants to continue but is also frozen.
Compare the use of language in that stanza to the opening of Merwin’s “Place” from The Rain in the Trees (1988).
On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree
Those opening heptasyllabic lines are very memorable to me, especially in conjunction with the title. The opening lines take experience (Merwin tries to cultivate near extinct species of palms) and mythologize it, reducing it to a higher truth. D.A. Powell accomplishes a similar thing in his wonderful panegyric “[who won’t praise green. each minute to caress each minute blade of spring. green slice us open].” Powell’s poem is both complex and profoundly simple. He uses heteronyms and mimics Biblical language to create paradox. Both Merwin and Powell accomplish a great deal in their short poems.
AW: The examples you cite have elements of both the new and the true. In what sense is the memorable a balancing of these two forces? Or is it something else: finding the new within the true? finding the true within the new?
MI: Yes, it can be a balancing of the two, but then I also find truth in those wonderful poems that blindfold you somewhere inside, spin you around, then allow you to participate in the poem’s unraveling. For example this lovely poem from Anne Carson’s The Life of Towns in Plainwater. The speaker’s disorientation allows the reader to participate more.
Town of Finding Out About the Love of God
I had made a mistake.
Before this day.
Now my suitcase is ready.
Two hardboiled eggs.
For the journey are stored.
In places where.
My eyes were.
Like a current.
Carrying a twig.
The sobbing made me.
Audible to you.
AW: Whenever we have a conversation about poetry, we always seem to find our way back to that Carson poem. That returning, if anything, indicates that whatever it is that causes memorability is happening in that poem. I also think a lot of your own poem, the one that begins “Such a long way through darkness then a chance to sing.” This poem of yours I find quite memorable for a variety of reasons, some that you have touched on in this discussion. When you are writing, do you actively think about incorporating memorability within the poem, about the possibility of creating “the new sublime,” or is memorability a quality that must emanate out of the poem?
MI: I mention the Carson poem because it bears a profound simplicity within its radical use of imagery, and of punctuation, periods at the end of each line. Don’t periods—their difficult stops—become a metaphor for anyone’s path to God? And don’t they become eyes themselves, staring from the page, like those eggs, endpoints of language that fail to grasp the ineffable?
I never think of the memorable when I’m writing. I prefer to sink into the subconscious and hope for the best, waking at opportune moments if I need to choose a path, but I prefer when they are chosen.
I admire the sublime, but the sublime chooses us if we are lucky in our unluckiness of life most often, if you know what I mean. When Dickinson says “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—” she’s both recollecting & imagining. What does St. Augustine say: “memory is the belly of the imagination.”
AW: The memorable seems to come out of a relationship, but I’m not sure if that relationship is between the reader and the poem or the reader and the world as now seen through the poem. When we marvel at the memorable, are we marveling at the poem itself or at how the poem makes us see or re-see the world?
MI: We’re marveling at both—to answer the last part of your question, but the first part of your question is more critical. The reader/poem/world relationship is primarily dependent on the writer’s relationship with the world, his stance toward it. Here’s the opening of Mandelstam’s #393 (Merwin translation), written as Stalin hunted him down in Russia:
Pear blossom and cherry blossom aim at me.
Their strength is crumbling but they never miss.
The regenerative force of spring paradoxically becomes a weapon in the poet’s eyes; the same spring that marks others with joy, marks him with fate. Mandelstam’s words aren’t only immediate, they are inevitable, just as D.A. Powell’s words are somewhat inevitable in his “[who won’t praise green. . .]” poem, due to his relationship with the AIDS crisis.
Certainly the use of language and the imagination lead to the memorable, but often the emotional amplitude that raises a poem to a higher power springs from the poet’s stance toward the world.
Editor’s Note: See Irwin’s essay, “Poetry and Memorability” also included in this issue, that prompted the above discussion.