Richard Livermore interviews his world-famous alter-ego, Joe Mismo, concerning his outlook on poetry.
JM. I don't know to be certain. There are poets I like and poets I don't, but it is hard to talk of actual influences. I don't think I have really been influenced by anyone except in passing.
RL. OK, regarding contemporary poets. Which of these would you say were your favourites?
JM. Well, even that's not very easy to answer. Perhaps Y, certainly Z, but you must understand me here. I like these poets because I recognise something outside the norm in their work, rather than anything specific within it. There is something about it which shifts contemporary mainstream poetry away from its own centre. I can put it no other way. It's not simply that they are good, or even better than good; it's more that their work effects some kind of radical departure from the mainstream and takes a stand purely on its own ground in a way other poets don't seem to. What was it that was said by the Schoenberg character in Visconti's film of Mann's Death in Venice. "Mediocrity lies at the bottom of the mainstream." That just about sums it all up.
RL. All very well, but how would you define the mainstream? What qualities characterise it in its present guise?
JM. That's very difficult to pin down as well, but the quality all mainstream poets have I believe is a tendency to huddle together like wildebeests in a herd who instinctively recognise that if they stand out they are more likely to be picked off by lions or hyenas. They find safety in numbers, so, of course, they do not stand out. I'm sure that this desire to hide among others and find their value as poets in some kind of collective mindset is what characterises most poets of the mainstream.
RL. So what would be the actual objective features of a poet who didn't belong to the mainstream?
JM. Once you start talking about "objective features" you come unstuck because discussing such features outside of actual poems is really indulging in abstractions. A concretely objective feature of a poem cannot be said to exist outside of that poem. It has no life of its own independent of the concrete example before you. This is why criticism can never become a science, because the latter's objectivity is purely abstract and cannot account for the concrete exception - the anomaly - without a radical rethink of its own premises. Of course that's true of a lot of criticism too. The concrete exception usually throws it and until it develops a language for dealing with it, it will do its best to ignore it or consign it to the margins - out of sight out of mind, as it were. The thing is, of course, that mainstream criticism complements mainstream poetry and doesn't look beyond its horizons. Perhaps this explains what someone once said that great criticism is even rarer than great poetry. After all, there always seems to be less incentive for critics than for poets to move beyond mainstream horizons.
RL. Could you perhaps explain your own position vis-a-vis some of the ideological disputes which every now and again erupt in the poetry-world.
JM. You mean political ideologies - anarchism, Marxism, fascism etc.?
RL. No, I mean specifically poetic ones, you know, modernist, post-modernist, L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry, concrete poetry, minimalist, traditionalist, new formalist, realist, surrealist and so on.
JM. I think that they can be applicable to the directions taken by individual poets, but all too often they become labels for branding and marketing poetry in ways which stress the exclusivity of this or that tendency. I once coined the phrase "Fingers in the Poetry-Pie", and I suspect that that has a lot to do with all the labelling that goes on. Again, I think it's a question of the abstract versus the concrete. For every rule there will always be exceptions and it is the exceptions which prove - in the sense of test - the rule and find it wanting. Personally, I don't look at whether a person's poetry has conformed to this or that external criterion, but whether it has broken away and stands on its own unique ground.
RL. So you don't believe in applying outside criteria at all?
JM. I didn't say that. Of course, external factors bear on poets who may write as if they belong to a movement, yet are unique. Take the French 'Symbolistes' from Baudelaire through Verlaine, Rimbaud and Mallarme, influencing later poets as far apart as Rilke and Valery. Obviously their work shares certain features, as does that of the English Romantics, but I suspect that this has more to do with the 'Zeitgeist' or moment in history than any conscious effort to write in a particular way. They all stand out because they challenged the horizons of their mainstream contemporaries, and they stand out from each other no less than they stand out from their mainstream contemporaries.
RL. Ok, Joe, if you don't mind, I'd like to move this discussion on a bit. I'd like to ask, in relation to what we've been talking about, what meaning or meanings you attribute to such things as form, content and style in poetry. I get the feeling that these aspects of poetry are no longer discussed very much.
JM. Yes, well, it seems to me, taking style and form to begin with, that the first is personal, the second impersonal, that is to say has a kind of portmanteau aspect about it which can be passed from poet to poet, whereas style is personal and reflects something of the actual sensibility of the individual poet in the way that that poet phrases him or herself in their work as a whole. Of course, form is related to content, just as the tone or pitch of a voice is related to what a person is saying. In this way, we can say that an angry tone of voice is the recognisable form in which a particular message may be conveyed and is a very important part of that message. Paul Valery, one of the most intelligent and lucid critics I've ever read, spoke of the Voice in Action in relation to poetry. I think that this is a very important idea. A poem does not simply exist flat on the page, as it were. It is rather something delivered by a voice (in action) and that voice is an essential part of what is delivered. I think that this Voice in Action in a poem relates not simply to the formal aspect of poetry and its content, but also to its stylistic aspect, in that it reflects the unique, non-portmanteau aspects or such things as phrasing which give you the name of the poet and tells you it was written by no other poet. So, yes, these portmanteau and non-portmanteau aspects of poetry are equally essential, but in terms of a poet's distinctiveness, it is the non-portmanteau element of style which really matters. For instance, formally, Shakespeare and Milton both had recourse to iambic pentameters in their work, but their styles are quite different.
RL. What do you feel is most important?
JM. Oh, style definitely.
RL. Could you be more explicit?
JM. Well, it does seem to me that forms change from poem to poem depending on the requirements of the poem being written, whereas style doesn't. Sometimes the forms are looser, sometimes not. What matters is not the looseness or not of the form, but the underlying structure of concerns within the poem, which is highly individual, perhaps even idiosyncratic. Thus, although form of some kind may be essential, I think it is secondary, whereas style is primary. Elsewhere, I have said that it is the poem, not the poet, which dictates the form of the poem, that when you are writing a poem, whether it is in free-verse or not, the form depends on the requirements of the poem, not any conscious decisions you make before starting to write. From this point of view, form is a variable, while style still remain a constant because it's more basic. It will be there in the poem no matter what form it is written in. It will carry your signature and no one else's. I don't believe in all this 'intertextual, death of the author' stuff. In fact, I think it's partly why contemporary poetry is often so flat and gives the impression of there being no peaks and troughs in it. If the author has been banished to the sidelines of poetry, the subjective - ie. emotional - element goes by the wayside. But then, of course, we also live in the age of the death of the subject, so I don't suppose that there's much we can do about it. We just have to motor on and hope people come to their senses. There are many signs that this may be happening, that people may be waking up from a rather long sleep in which the established mainstream has had everything all its own way.
RL. Well, thank you Joe Mismo. That last parting shot hopefully sums it all up.
JM. Thank you for interviewing me.