Harold Schweizer is professor of English at Bucknell University. His volume of poems, The Book of Stones and Angels, is forthcoming from Tupelo Press. His most recent book is On Waiting with Routledge. His poem “But Do Not Let Them Know You Were Alone When You Died” appears in the Fall 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review and can be found here.
Could you tell us a little about “But Do Not Let Them Know You Were Alone When You Died”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
The most difficult aspect about writing this poem is the thought that one dies one’s own death. And that the one thing the dying can do for the bereaved is to leave them without love, without grief and sorrow; that is, not to take love, grief, sorrow, those emotions that connect us to others, onto the long journey of dying. Not to diminish that for them by clinging to it. Not to be afraid to be alone. Hence the mantra of “leave,” above all, “leave,” four times repeated and alliteratively echoed throughout, especially in the repeated urging “let” which suggests letting go, leaving, and then one more alliteration in the word “look” which announces an unexpected turn.
This is the hardest part: to imagine dying as total, as absolute aloneness. One leaves absolutely. Gives everything up. Love, grief, sorrow; let it not “hinder” you, lest the dying be too arduous. I had not expected, at this point, and after a number of drafts, that I would suddenly think of lightness, and that, unexpectedly, there would be those “waiting / for you by the river.” Do I know who they are? Angels? The dead? What kind of mythological river is this? On which shore are they waiting? Does one not make the passage alone? Perhaps the thought of absolute aloneness is not final. The poem speaks back. Who then speaks these words that compose the poem? It is one of those poems one wakes up the next day and says, did I write this?
In addition to being a poet, you’re an accomplished scholar in the fields of literary criticism and trauma studies. What bearing do those scholarly interests have on your writing?
I get much of my inspiration from my scholarship. Many of the books and essays that I read contain beautiful, revelatory sentences, passages, and arguments that I find irresistible as a poet. Many of my poems concern themselves with philosophical problems: is reality constituted solely materially? What are our impediments in conceiving of the metaphysical? Why do we imagine angels? Do obsessively recurring poetic images, like stones in my case, originate in trauma? Is the writing of poetry fundamentally affirmative? Much indebted to my love of literary theory, my forthcoming book of poetry, The Book of Stones and Angels, imagines a conception of the material and the metaphysical as non-Platonic, i.e. as non-binary, non-contradictory. Because, as western people, we are so steeped in Platonism that privileges mind over matter, it is very difficult, I have experienced, to envision a non-Platonic cosmology. It is very hard to think that when we look at a stone, an angel looks back at us.
You’re also the author of a book about waiting. Do you see the literary world as moving quickly, or moving slowly? Is it a space of waiting, or a space of speeding through?
The literary world, when I am in a reasonably sane state of mind, is a small world. It occurs on a page, in a stanza. Remember, stanza means “room.” It is the literary world shrunk to a room, come to the intimacy, the quietness of a stanza. One takes a book from a shelf, one reads a magazine, and one finds oneself in the literary world. What we often think of as the literary world is the world of prestige, the economic world in which literary products are loudly advertised. The fierce solicitations of the publishing industry, the constant emergence and obsolescence of literary voices, have established a cultural momentum that is hard to keep up with. At odds with this breathless speed is the commodified waiting imposed on the writer who waits, sometimes for years, for the publication of her book. Although in the rush and simultaneous delay of such economic and cultural imperatives she may find her voice, out there it is a public not a literary voice. The literary resists commodification. It comes about through genuine, willed waiting, pausing, thinking, resisting the velocity of the new. Literary means to read, to read slowly, to let words speak; it means to find a quiet room, a stanza, alone or with others. The literary world is that small world we carry within us.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
To write scholarly prose is very different from writing poetry. Scholarly prose propels itself from its propositional claims along an axis more or less logical, to some, one hopes, revelatory and relevant conclusion. Although scholarly writing is arduous and difficult, it is work that can be done somewhat predictably. One can make promises about it, keep deadlines. The writing of poetry, which I have been practicing in earnest for the last ten years, is unpredictable. The best thing is to practice every day, hoping something might suddenly disclose itself that one had not expected. Writing is indeed a process. For the unwearied it proceeds in spite of lack of assurances. The poems that I write, or rather the few that are eventually worth saving, come about as fortuitous gifts. I would not have believed this ten years ago and would have dismissed it as romantic sentimentality. I know better now.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Hiking, kayaking, strolling. Such activities return us, I think, to fundamental rhythms, those aspects that Julia Kristeva calls the semiotic, which we acquire through our maternal bond in the womb. I write about the Kristevan semiotic in a poem entitled “Nicodemus Reenters His Mother’s Womb.” I should also mention that I am a lover of the rhythms of nature, the flow of water, the falling of leaves, the change of colors, certain slants of light. I am, inevitably, also deeply affected by the unspeakable suffering of so many people in the world, by those who suffer in persecuted or victimized communities, by those who suffer alone in the anonymity of their pain. If my work, either in prose or poetry has any gravitas at all, it would be because I am both gratefully aware of the rhythmically unfolding life around us and grievously troubled by all the suffering that we cannot alleviate.
In the 1950s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by ten leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” If you were to write a credo, do you have a potent piece of advice, either from yourself or from another writer, that you might use as a jumping-off point?
In his novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainer Maria Rilke suggests that “for the sake of a single poem” one must expose oneself to numerous experiences throughout one’s lifetime, and that one must then forget those experiences and wait for them to return—namelessly. Along the lines of that argument, my credo is that the poet must wait. Not passively without practicing her writing, but wait nonetheless. Wait as one waits for a child to be born. Such waiting implies that a poem worth its paper will not be forced onto the page, will not be what one expected, not what might please another, but something that comes to me namelessly, that will want to be gently borne into the rhythm of sound and syntax. Rilke might have agreed, even as he deplored that “we move about like weights, / attaching ourselves to everything, enthralled with our heaviness.” If what I have said amounts to a credo, a credo is nonetheless precisely the kind of setting up of expectations that the poem might defy. And if this is true, then I will conclude that a poem is an event that cannot be foreseen, cannot be planned, just as one cannot plan a child.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
In the spring of 2015 Tupelo will bring out The Book of Stones and Angels. It is only since I sent off the final manuscript of that volume that I have been able to move into a new poetic project. I waited many decades for my first volume of poems. I am currently, very slowly, envisioning a second volume of poems that is as mysterious to me as was that first volume.
My scholarly work in progress is entitled “On Incomprehension.” The format of this book, a series of relatively independent chapters, is similar to my book On Waiting. This new project attempts to rehabilitate incomprehension as a crucial cognitive and emotional state, to be acknowledged, even sought out, as a fundamental, necessary human experience. In our lives, experiences of incomprehension by far outnumber experiences of comprehension, and thus it seems important to learn not only how to convey understanding, but how to acknowledge incomprehension, how to speak or be silent in its presence, how to communicate it. The poem, as Wallace Stevens writes, “resists the intelligence / Almost successfully.” The poem exists at the boundary between comprehension and incomprehension, between sign and sound, or between word and music; it is an ideal genre to examine how incomprehension comes about and what it is.