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Not Just Contemplating a Rock

A Conversation with A.F. Moritz

Selections from The Sentinel, reprinted with permission from the author. Original publication credits indicated below.

A.F. Moritz’s last collection, The Sentinel, won Canada’s $ 50,000.00 Griffin Trust poetry prize. Considered by many a modern master of metaphor, Moritz is held in great esteem by poetry icons such as John Ashbery and Harold Bloom. A self-professed country boy from Ohio, Moritz has lived in Canada since 1974 where he penned the bulk of his fifteen collections. He comes over as a soft-spoken, gentleman poet. You quite could easily imagine him in the company of Stéphane Mallarmé in Paris, a member of les Mardistes, alongside W.B. Yeats and Rilke, gently contemplating the vitality of the image and how it sings through words.

In The Sentinel, Moritz touches on moments of great beauty, at times veritably bleeding across the pages as he claws and attempts to grip the modern world, yet somehow never quite manages to unteather himself from his roots: the spirits of Wallace Stevens and Whitman, but even the lyrics of Tennyson haunt the pages of The Sentinel. Influence to one side, Moritz controls his rhythms like a seasoned conductor, rolling his metaphors from beneath the earth almost as if they emanate from some unknown alchemical source. Many of Moritz’s poems require multiple readings, as he says himself: ‘The metaphor of human life is deeply complex.’ Like a good wine, this is poetry you cannot truly taste without finishing the whole bottle—perhaps twice.

During the recent Reykjavik Literary Festival, I sat down with Moritz in the tight confines of his hotel room and we discussed metaphor, philosophy, and the meaning of the ‘I’ in verse.

How about your own approach to writing modern poetry? Is it quite different to what it was, say twenty years ago?

It’s probably quite different from when I was starting out as a modern writer; after having been a kid from a small town in Ohio learning from the library. You know the classics in the library in the 50s and 60s were this Victorian idea of romanticism. I read a little Frost, a couple of poems by Elliot, but by the time I went to university, I was almost entirely unaware of modern poetry. So I began educating myself and trying to write in a modern idiom, and in college I discovered the symbolists and Wallace Stevens. Especially helpful in forming my style was the Philip Sherrard translation of George Sefaris and early translations of Montale. I did, however, continue my relationship with the romantics, in particular Tennyson. Today, mostly I am influenced by the ideas of poets. I have to consciously allow myself to be influenced by their style and method—that comes less naturally to me. I tend to be rather armored in my own style. At times I worry about that. I do wish to incorporate the new not only in thought, but also in manner and form.

With your newest collection, The Sentinel, you made a conscious attempt to be more lyrical than some of your earlier works.

Very true. Although most of my books have a family resemblance, most of them have their own aesthetic, and you can clearly see the differences. This is a conscious effort. To one degree or another, I am trying to write a complete book—like a novelist—a sense that each of the poems in my next collection are linked to one another.

Now, I write poems, and a poem is a self-contained artwork; and yet, you should always think of the book as the unit of composition too. In my mind, each book (or collection) should have a different intention. So I think about that hard, try to learn from my contemporaries or younger poets, which of course, doesn’t mean that I cave into them. Many a movement comes along that I get something of but don’t necessarily approve of. When you’re looking at poetry or philosophy, a lot of it is pretty silly, but there’s seldom anything which is totally, undialectically right or wrong. Mallarmé said, ‘There’s no book that’s so bad that you don’t find any poetry in it.’ Although, he was pretty much a degenerate soul…well, that’s almost true.

How about your approach, say in your mind, or on paper?

Yes, I think it’s still quite similar. I get varied results. My method tends to be more like Whitman: going around with scraps of paper—even dashing into a McDonalds to grab a napkin; and then, at other times, spending long hours at the desk like any clerk in a patent office—developing a kind of rhythm between utter chaos and measured control. Poetry should be permeable to its environment. It should be open. It should be like a man walking around or a house with all the windows open. It’s all part of living, but there has to be a moment when you’re standing there building it too.

Is it a meditation, or a flash of images, or a group of words that suddenly arrive?

I think it begins in a melody. I tend to think of myself as an imagistic poet, yes; but a poet like Keats or Tennyson or Swinburne which would be characterized by music first. It seems to me that melody is the basis of poetry more than the image. So in this sense, I am a often little at odds with modern tradition.

So how does the sound or the melody become the idea?

A poem begins in the idea of a sound, but that isn’t attached to any specific ideas—not at first. Think of an instrumental musician; of course, he’s worried that when you hear his piece you’re not going to get it in the way he intended. The history of music is filled with people writing notes to convey what you’re supposed to feel when you hear their concertos. Let’s say we call a piece “Death by Transfiguration”, which, if you heard it without the title, you’d probably never think of at all.

There are a number of poems where the title doesn’t make any sense either.

[Laughs]…Yeah there are poems like that as well.

The melody is intertwined and supported with the images and the ideas. Sometimes it comes as a riff of words, and sometimes as a ‘spray of mental images’ as Octavio Paz so aptly put it. It tends to originate as a seed. If you look at my work, you will see there are poems of all lengths. Is it an image or a meditation? Well, it’s both. Sometimes I like to keep things close to the distilled image and other times I like to write something more meditative like a Tennysonian monologue or a Keatsian crisis-lyric.

So you always consciously work or write towards a complete collection or a book?

I always try to give my books some form of what I call ‘obsessive unity’, which, of course I can bring out by what I do and do not include and the order. There are books though, that although they are independent poems were really written together; and there are even a few that I compose from the beginning to the end, well, just like a novel.

How much of your poetry would you say is autobiographical rather than let’s say—well, I hate to use the word in poetry, but—fictional?

That’s a great question. It can mean one of two things: either the content or the approach. No doubt about it, I am a modern writer, though some would call me romantic or subjective or sentimental in the sense of the German theorists around 1800. I take my stand with modern poetry though. I wouldn’t criticise it as lesser than the objective or the classical approach. So to that extent in some way you’re always writing about what you know—inevitably it’s autobiographical. On the other hand, I have a strong objective bias, so there are poems that I’ve written that you invited to identify rather closely with A.F. Moritz. Basically, whether there’s an ‘I’ in them, or there isn’t, they’re not really meant to be about me. Yet again, in the modern way—an example is Whitman; his work seems very egotistical, yet he projects himself not as himself, but as an image of ‘the new man’, ‘the coming calm in democracy’. I don’t have a project like that precisely, but I would identify with that procedure when I use the ‘I’. I’m really trying to get out of just being myself in the poem and get out—or write out—of what I only I can know because I have experienced it, rather how the ‘I’ might connote the ‘everyperson’.

The Butterfly
by A.F. Moritz

That day I remember when the butterfly
was expected, the whole city flooded down
to the harbour to wait and welcome, crowding
everywhere on the burnt, blackened wharves,
the crumbled docks and piers, climbing and fighting
to find a place from which the ocean, spread like a bat wing,
and the horizon could be seen. Toward noon
it appeared, a watered pink at first, a fleck
as of blood in saliva, fluttering crazily,
seeming not even to make toward us—and yet
it came on swiftly, spreading and rising up all at once,
a roaring orange veined with black, and blotted out
the sun. Between those fiery curtains, each
a hemisphere, the tube of worm was like
some cylindrical ship of living metal
where beings who had traveled from the stars
for centuries would peer out through ports
of black crystal…except that they were dead inside
and the sweet rot smell of carelessly preserved
entomological specimens filled the light.
Soon, though, it changed again, to Mourning Cloak,
to Tiger Swallowtail, to a humble yellow thing
that brought its own garden roiling under it
to replace the coal-tar waves. The sea was all spiked flowers,
goldenrod, lupin, loosestrife, delphinium,
and the butterfly stopped its anabasis our way
and got lost in the colours. We saw it hovering,
going nearer, farther, so frantic mad
with always more delight it could not pause
on any single crown. And then its female
came to it out of nowhere and the two tied a knot
in the air, and he stabbed his body into hers clinging
to a green translucent stem. A sparrow next,
a bird larger than an Africa of cloud
and yet demonically light and agile,
when they took flight, ate one of them
after a brief arabesque of dogfight. Was it our fly
that still lived? Then the hurricane—a little breeze that rose
when a spot darkened the sun—drove it tumbling
into the leaves. Torn petals
crowded the atmosphere, and whether its wings
of taut anile skin had been shattered and blown
with the flower fragments, or it had survived,
we couldn’t see. It had dived like a fighter jet
going down into the jungle, hit,
behind a hill from which a moment later
comes up a plume of flame, but not flame,
a burst of quiet came. And then our wait
seemed gone and we were watching
the black ocean again, congealed and trembling.

Or a group of people, a community?

Precisely. You’re almost refining out that autobiographical element to merely personal or accidentally personal in that experience because you feel it’s an experience that would be universal, and break from that point of view. I do hope the ‘I’ would become someone who the reader would say: that ‘I’, that’s me—or at least someone he’s known in a dialogue or real-life drama. And so, to that extent, there’s autobiographical intention in my work.

Have you ever tried to place yourself in the body and mind of another person and write from their perspective—another gender, another place in history?

I remember talking about this with Richard Howard. Richard is a great modern writer of dramatic monologues. He was insistent that the poet really ought to be projecting himself into other people. In Richard’s mind this should be the poet’s attempt to know things he couldn’t, or shouldn’t know. I said, the poet is putting himself in other masks: kind of a traditional way of looking at W.B. Yeats; and he said, ‘Absolutely not. It’s more than a mask.’

Myself, I don’t think I can quite do that—make the emotional leap into someone else’s mind, but I do try to do it. I think my monologues come out much more like Tennyson’s than Browning’s. Browning really was a Shakespearean author and would create all kinds of other characters. Tennyson often utilizes mythological people to create perspectives that are different from himself and yet still holds on to aspects of himself. That’s one of the reasons why there is an ‘I’ in many of my poems. I think it’s felt first, but it’s almost philosophical.

photo by Charles Earl, Ottawa, Canada

photo by Charles Earl, Ottawa, Canada

What about the modern tradition, the sense of writing away the ‘I’?

You know a lot of the modern traditions both in philosophy and poetry have attacked the whole notion of the ‘I’, which I think is actually rather stupid. It was the psychologist Erik Erikson who said, ‘The ego is the place where the battle with the id and the superego occur.’ It doesn’t have to be thought of as some simpleminded self-assertion. Somehow you always have to deal with both its unity and its fragmentation, its tyranny and its disintegration; integrate with it or suffer its non-integration. But saying simply that you should escape the ‘I’ without first encountering or dealing with it, is simply—well, stupid. You just can’t do it.

Many modern poets accept the notion that you should get rid of the ‘I’, and so they’re going to write something like an imagist poem about a rock, and the not going to put the ‘I’ in. It just doesn’t get at the question of the problem and the drama of human life at all.

If you’re going to get out of the ‘I’, you have to write out of the ‘I’, and immediately it has an ambiguous poetic meaning. It means you write to get out of that paper bag. It means you write from that paper bag. That dialectic is always going to go on in modern poetry.

Of course many modern poets write about the mundane, about family life, the anecdotal, but try and put a bit of a spin or twist on them. To me it seems many of those poets are just looking for that unexpected moment in the everyday—mostly at the end.

That’s the difference between me, and most modern poets. Most modern poetry writes of—well, at least in the English language—the anecdotal or what They call the concrete, and suggest broader meanings out of it. I think of myself as a surrealist and a romantic, but also as a classicist in the sense that I write the other way around.

You write back to front?

[Chuckles] I start from a feeling of the symbolic or philosophical, the depth of experience and emotion, then shapes, images, symbols occur. There’s also a lot of narrative content in my poems, but you’ll find that I’m not the kind of writer who writes a story which you later reflect upon and has deeper implications. Really in my case, the deeper implications are actually the explicit subject matter of the poem itself, something like Milton’s “When I Consider How My Light is Spent”.

I wish to keep my poetry close to morality. Even though sometimes I write rather dense and difficult poems, I like to think I’ve still kept the primitive sonic and narrative elements in them, so they still have some…entertainment value, even if it seems they’re pretty intellectual modern constructions.

The Sun
by A.F. Moritz

My sun, I see your colour fall
again on everything on earth. The trees
are lifted out of darkness,
and there are flowers,
people (the talk), and houses that create
warm spaces in the great
night and the cold, waiting for you,
almost in despair, their powers
fading. These all spring up
from dimness to full life again
because of you, as if they were no more
than low reliefs carved badly in black slate
until you shine. Then their true bodies
open as desert plants
rise when rare rainfall brings to sudden birth
brief spring, insane and joyful:
plants that break only once through covering earth,
as if young men and women opened
flat gravestones, and walked out
by the same entranceway the terrifying corpses
yesterday and years ago
went in.

Do you see metaphor as essential in poetry?

It’s true for me instinctively, even going far back. My most beloved reading is the British and American romantics, including the Victorian. Their works are highly metaphorical. When I go to university and began being taught these things theoretically, I saw the ideas were in me immediately. It quickly became apparent that Milton’s Paradise Lost can be read as an enormous metaphor of the whole drama of modernity, the whole ‘culture of suspicion’, as Nietzsche would later call it; the devising of the irrational scientific selfhood for mankind and the ambiguous and tortured relationship that creates historical cults and dreams and fates, and any notion of a beyond; the way it gives man his freedom, but reduces him to the pain of being a miserable nothing in an infinite universe. It leaves him longing and wondering about the existence of anything beyond himself to give himself value. It makes his self-giving value entirely ambiguous. This wasn’t the way you usually read Milton, but it came clear to me in my own reading as a revelation of what the romantics meant.

I have a great affinity for metaphor, especially extended metaphor—the kind that you find exemplifies a poem like “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” or “Ulysses” by Tennyson. This approach protected me against imagist reductionism. I knew from Northrop Frye and my own reflections that it’s wrong to consider the image just as a flower you contemplate.

A number of people have criticised you for precisely that reason.

Every once in a while I will do a poem in a Schopenhauerian way, contemplating a flower such that the self is annihilated. I don’t disbelieve in that entirely, but the rest of human life can’t be thrown out either. You see, a poem or a series of poems, is an entire story: the complex relationships with another person within a society. That, of course, is also a symbol, but it’s a complex symbol. So that’s one reason again for writing poems with narrative content. They are a little richer, the have history and culture in them. You’re not just writing about a rock that you’re looking at all the time.

In your poem “The Sentinel”, which won Poetry magazine’s Bess Hokin Prize, you allegorically place the poet in between a rock and a hard place, the conflict between the need to innovate and hold on to tradition.

You know, I didn’t see the allegory in the poem, not at first. I only realised it when other people pointed it out. Now I can’t read the thing without seeing the allegory.

But “The Sentinel” is a perfect example of a poem that is a metaphor. The position of the contemporary man hasn’t budged an inch since the Romantic era. People keep saying technology and computers have changed everything. Baloney! Man has been essentially within the same dilemma as that which he created for himself with the advent of modernity, and especially with the full implementation of it since the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century. Nothing has changed since then.

Emerson is perhaps the most representative poet of this kind of phenomenon. You’re wondering about the beyond, if you want to take any time with that, if it isn’t bad news that you have to bring; for example, that it really just does all end six feet under. But when you turn around to face the day, and your fellow people, you have to ask yourself: Can I really evince the depression and pain it brings in me? Man is stretched between these two parts of himself—particularly today. The man in the office feels this. So often since the 50s, the artist, the poet, has been criticised—maybe he deserves it? But it wouldn’t it be true to say that the man in the office also has his moments of feeling the winds of nothingness whiz past his ears, and the desire for something more that what politics and technology and economics promise?

Do you have a single ideology or philosophy that runs though your works—a thread that holds them all together over the years, so to speak? Or an obsession?

Wallace Stevens says, ‘We reason about these things with a later reason.’ I am always reluctant to express a philosophy because it sounds like you have something you want to express and you use the poems to evince them. I don’t do this, and when I feel I have any form of propaganda emerging, I absolutely try not to write that poem. Mostly, I try to write out of passion and perception; the music that gets snatched out of the air, the image that bursts upon you. I only think about the philosophy later; however, a human being is the whole of him. You can’t say: over here is my vitalistic being and over there are my ideas. On the other hand there can be false and propagandistic or didactically dead ideas. It’s quite a dilemma really.

Cleaving close to creative vitality, again, as a romantic idea would probably be my basic notion; a walking intensity, I guess you could call it—which, to me, means balance.

A sort of Zen approach?

Exactly. Or from the approach of Alexander Pope, the great genius of balance in the English tradition: The strongest thing is that you want to consider your duties to society, only the limitations of society and the message it tends to give is that there is nothing beyond the grave.

Except for poetry?

Of course, we have human aspirations. I see the philosophy in my poetry, but more often I see it afterwards. I don’t impose it upon it, but it is defending hope, I would say. By hope I mean what Tennyson means when he says, ‘The mighty hopes that make us men.’ I mean the hope of the unsayable, the impalpable, or: restoring its full dimensions to the human. The great poets all—from Wordsworth, Blake to Montale, have been engaged in one way or another in trying to defend that man is a great being and that he has a destiny beyond just turning into—dust.

Do you believe that most poets are trying to write towards their own alchemical theory of everything in creating the ‘one’ poem?

Certainly this was explicit in Mallarmé, it seems implicit in Rimbaud and the Alchimie du Verbe. Alchemy means a lot to me through Carl Jung and André Breton, the symbolists and the surrealists. To me, Breton is one of the very great people of our period. Along with Freud, Einstein, Marx and Darwin, Breton was one of the real creators of our climate. And Breton, well, I would say he’s the smartest of those people I just named; and, well, of course he was also a poet. He had his own take on alchemy and occultism as a tradition that was a kind of subterranean source of vitality and dynamism in a world that threatened or exiled it. So, I believe in alchemy in that way, but if you read Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard (A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance) correctly, you will see that at the end of Mallarmé’s attempt to write the ‘one’ poem, he realises that it just turns out to be another poem. The need to write another always arises again.

You were quite active in the 70s and 80s in the small presses in the US and Canada, how do you see that scene then compared to what is happening today?

When I started out, it was at the end of the beat era. I published in some of those magazines like Quixote—I mean they were basically twenty pages typed up, mimeographed with three stapes on the left hand side. It was a wonderful time, it had a kind of counter-culture to it which scarcely exists anymore—today those that do it tend to give it a kind of ‘theme park’ counter-culture feel to it—it’s just a kind of imitation. No, it’s no longer a vibrant, separate culture like it once was. What you really see taking over is professionalism. As capitalism and consumerism and mass-marketism has influenced literature, the actual practicing of its standards has also become more common, Many people criticise this, but now every little magazine is being beautifully printed. In the old days we couldn’t even justify the print. The best we had was one of those old typewriters that could do three different letter widths. There was something ineffable about working with those magazines. Now the ethos of professionalism has completely taken over. In many ways that is truly regrettable. I can’t see it ever going back to what it was.

You know the sense of being there when the great poet had his real bender and is throwing up all over the place—the whole sense of sawdust on the barroom floor, the wild braggart—is gone. It used to be you didn’t send your poems to the New Yorker or to Poetry. The counter-culture scorned that. That was then, and this is us now, you know.

Now you are the lauded poet. You’ve won the Award in Literature of the American Academy, received a Guggenheim Fellowship and now you won the Griffin Prize for your latest collection. Bearing in mind the good old days of cowboy poetry, how do you feel about all that?

Well, you know, there’s a development. You start out as an un-churched intellectual, a beatnik or a hippy. On the other hand, as I got to writing, I got to see the world around me. Yes, it’s a bit of a moral struggle. I don’t want to want those things, but you almost can help wanting them. Having won some notable prizes, and now this one, I have to say that the people I have met through them are wonderful. They’re really aspiring souls, they’re not tangential capitalists or something; and of course, they help spread your work. Maybe I say this because I am privileged now; on the other hand, I got to be here in Iceland.

The Sentinel
by A.F. Moritz

The one who watched while the others sleep
does not see. It is hoped, it is to be hoped
there is nothing to see. The camp has quieted
behind him and all is peace there—let it be—
at his back, where he longs to turn his face
and see the walls of pitched cloth that hide
his comrades, sleeping. But lights for down, and out,
and if he turned there would be nothing, black,
with just the bulks of looming tents aglow
with just the memory of last evening’s light.
Likewise, nothing to see in the outward
dark before his face, where there is nothing,
it is hoped—only a darkness
of useless vigilance, unless it is a darkness
of hostile conniving lights not lit out there,
surrounding treachery, faces smeared with ash
to blend in with the night and lying low.
And what if morning ever comes, when things
are just as always, it’s obvious to all?
Won’t he have to find some commander and report
everything he observed? Out and beyond
the perimeter, he notes nothing that may not be
a moth fluttering or a shooting star
behind thick cloud. Within the camp, though,
constant stirrings. Sudden snorts as if breath
cut off by some torturer was suddenly permitted,
the hands unclenched from the throat at the last
second before death. And longer, steady snores,
woodmen in snowy forests. Whimpers of mothers’
and pet dogs’ names, uncertain breezes moist
with tears and snot fluttering the tent flaps,
men curled up knees to nose and heels to hips
like ringed camps and feeling only
the anus’s openness and the back a target,
of stretched out straight, cupping and tangling fingers
in hair and cooing to the genitals as if
to a girlfriend. Fart, belch, and vomit,
urine, dirt and sperm falling in latrines,
shuffle of feet on stones, books, letters, pictures
felt for under brittle pillows and the dreams
of bleeding inwardly, of growing a third arm,
of removing penis like the banana from its skin
and passing it around the campfire, vaguely anxious
the others won’t pass it back. But
the commanders, would they tell him:
What good’s this report? You saw nothing
you were supposed to see. You wasted your time
listening to us, but we knew where we were
and what was going on here. And you saw only
the obvious and trivial and drew the worst conclusions.
Or drew no conclusions, it’s simply that the obvious
always looks filthy: an obstruction you can’t pass
or at least see through takes the form to you
or a rotting cellar wall aswarm with worms.
Besides, none of this ever happened. You
made it up to humiliate us, you are a foreign
agent, which is why no hint of the enemy’s
numbers, movements, or power ever appears
anywhere in your lying reports. You fell asleep
at your sacred post and this report records
your evil dreams, a spontaneous creation you love
and so deeper shame to you than if
you had rationally constructed out of sheer depravity
this libel on your comrades. And who
appointed you at all? You are not the sentinel.
The sentinel has already given his intelligence,
which we are analyzing. You are the lonely watcher,
the one who won’t sleep until it’s time to work,
the one who wants a salary and a title
for insomnia. If we have nightmares,
it’s that we hear your footsteps under our window,
wake up, look out along the street: no one.
That’s what they’ll say. And yet the report
will have to be filed, the storm endured. But not till dawn.
It is almost possible, it would almost be possible
to enjoy this fogged-in darkness, this dewfall and
rustling silence, the accustomed expectation
of receiving the first shot if indeed the enemy
has chosen tonight, except that one can’t relax,
each detail must be noted or the report
will be a lie. In fact through no fault of his own
the sentinel will miss something, and the report
he contemplates, or the refusal to report
he also contemplates, will be a traitorous lie.
To light a match might well draw fire. He strikes,
it doesn’t catch. But no, it sputters, waits,
then flares. He moves it to his lips, and peace.

Marc Vincenz was born in Hong Kong, but has lived in England, the US, Spain, Switzerland, and worked for many years in Shanghai. Currently based out of Iceland, he writes a bi-weekly column on the paranormal for the Reykjavik Grapevine,
Iceland’s only English-language newspaper, and is a regular contributor to Australia’s Trespass Magazine.

His poetry has appeared, or is forthcoming in various journals and magazines including
FRiGG, Poetry Scotland: Online, Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k), Prick of the Spindle, Rumble, Sein und Werden, Danse Macabre and Right Hand Pointing.

Recently he has been collaborating with the Icelandic artist, Inga Maria Brynjarsdottir on a multimedia project entitled ‘A Pocketful of Crickets: The Cultural Revolution of a Capitalist Soul,’ based on his last collection of poems.

All of the poems excerpted here received book publication in The Sentinel (2008), House of Anansi Press, Toronto, Canada. These poems were first published in the following magazines: “The Sentinel”, Poetry (Chicago); won the Bess Hokin Prize of the magazine for 2004. “The Butterfly”, Event (Vancouver, Canada). “The Sun”, The Fiddlehead (Fredericton, Canada). Copyright 2008 A.F. Moritz.

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