An Interview with Cyrus Console

Cyrus Console’s most recent book The Odicy is an epic in an age that no longer recognizes the legitimacy of the term; a densely-wrought formal artifact whose interiors slowly consume the edifice that gave it life; a poem which moves from the exalted diction of Renaissance masters to the hollowness of modern political rhetoric. It is a work, then, that wakes, bleary eyed, to consider the utter impossibility of its own existence, while the static of everyday life eerily loops in the distance. In this interview, conducted over the last few months via email, I sought to understand some of these paradoxes. Concentrating not only on The Odicy, but his previous work Brief Under Water as well, we talked about the challenges facing formalism, how we might use modern modes of language, and, ultimately, whether writing poetry in this day and age was worth it anyhow.  


Ed Sugden: The Odicy engages with The Odyssey, the Bible, the Inferno, and Paradise Lost, among other texts, pulling on their landscapes, their rhetoric, and their plots. Combined with the recurring presence of its hero, Tony, this grants the work an almost mythic wholeness. Yet, the poem also continuously articulates the failure of poetry to achieve what it sets out to do—of grand aims being necessarily curtailed, and language being rooted in a historical context that it can never transcend. With these thoughts in mind, do you consider The Odicy a work of narrative poetry? What do you make of the prospects for narrative poetry, and the long epic poem of meditation, more generally?


Cyrus Console: While I remember clearly and reverently parts of the texts you mention, I don’t feel I can account for them, whatever that would mean, contextualize them or pronounce an opinion on them. What effect these megaliths—and you’ve named the four I would name—have had seems limited to a forceful but indefinite impression of what epic poetry should sound like, feel like, or be, which The Odicy attempts to echo. The anxiety I mentioned above, then cut, related to speaking of that echo as though it represented judgement, intellection, or work, when in fact it is mindless. I set out to read these epics with the assumption that afterward I would know something about epic, but what I gained was less like knowledge and more like muscle memory—access to a diction, syntax, register, sound, or feeling that represented the epic without understanding it. Are you familiar with Italian performer Adriano Celentano’s “Prisencolinensinainciusol”? His song’s relationship to American English is like my poem’s relationship to Dante.

The relation achieves something worthwhile, though it empowers neither Celentano to shed light on the meaning of English terms nor me to make sense of “narrative” or “epic.” My definition of “epic” trails off after “long” and “narrative,” trails off into something like “of a people.” And my definition of “narrative” is not more helpful or informative than “representation of an event.” And of all the questions begged here—event, representation, people, length—length is the only one I feel I have a handle on.

I consider The Odicy narrative poetry to the extent that it sounds like narrative poetry. My outlook for that form and for that of the long epic poem of meditation—and I don’t mean to be glib—is that the contemporary narrative poem will succeed in proportion to its representation of events, and that the long epic poem of meditation will succeed as it coheres upwards of 80pp or (what is more difficult) 25,000 words.


ES: Your answer reminds me of what John Ashbery once said about poetic form: “And for stanzas the ultimate look of a poem is something that I visualize in advance. Again it’s the box, the framework, which is going to contain the poem and which is arranging it for the viewer. I think very much of the way that the poem will look, not just the lines, the stanzas, but even the form of the letters, all these are things that come into one’s experience as one is reading poems which I, insofar as it’s possible, try to take into account.” The Odicy, of course, uses a very strict iambic pentameter, and “The Ophany” deploys the acrostic “RAINBOW” throughout. Are these formal strictures linked to a desire to embody, or at the very least, enter into dialogue with, classical literature / epic form, and to find some way at least for a modern poetic idiom to relate to what has come before it? And how do they relate to questions of representation in your poetry more generally – does the narrative precede the form, or the form precede the narrative? Similarly, bearing Ashbery’s quote in mind, how important is the visual aspect of these formal constructions to you? “The Ophany” isn’t concrete poetry but it would seem to gesture towards it.


CC: Absolutely, the formal constraints reflect a wish to reconcile tradition with modern poetic idiom, modern art generally, whose essential trait is diffidence. Robert Creeley’s anecdote about:

another poet, who had been on a tour of readings in the Middle West. And, as was his wont, he invited questions from the audience at one particular college, on completion of his reading. And a guy puts up his hand and says, tell me, that next to last poem you read—was that a real poem or did you just make it up yourself? [Collected Essays 577]

How do I know if this is a poem or not? I understand the constraints—the acrostic is the strong example, but meter and rhyme also serve—as responding directly to the identity crisis that is modern poetry by shifting the burden of verification entirely out of the field of content. RAINBOW basically functions as a checksum: just as a machine can recognize a fake ISBN or UPC or credit card number simply by checking whether the terminal digit matches the sum of all the other digits (the actual algorithm is slightly more complicated and varies according to industry convention), a writer with no comprehension of poetry can judge whether his acrostic is authentic simply by reading the line initials. Apparently (reading Wikipedia here) the famous early example of this kind of error detection was among scribes copying the Torah:

An emphasis on minute details of words and spellings evolved into the idea of a perfect text in 135 CE, and with it increasingly forceful strictures that a deviation in even a single letter would make a Torah scroll invalid. The scribes used methods such as summing the number of words per line and per page, and checking the middle paragraph, word and letter against the original.

Apropos of the Ashbery quote—yes, I work this way, at least in the poems in question. Once I realized what the constraints were (something that occurred about 15 pages into the sequence), then every remaining poem existed in the abstract–18 lines, 3 stanzas, 90 stresses–and I went about filling this container as best I could. The acrostics were initially 18 lines also, with 4 lines “redacted” to form a single, blacked out line. That conceit turned out to be way too difficult, for reasons that would surely be pretty interesting if I could say what they were. I sure wanted it to work, especially because it imported the “stripe of color” constitutive of the rainbow into the typography of the poems, which are “black and white and red all over.”


ES: I’m interested in this notion of “shifting the burden of verification entirely out of the field of content,” as it would seem to relate interestingly to the discussion we have been having about “representation”. On the one hand it implies that contemporary poetry necessarily deals with a language that can no longer adequately embody the “poetic”, whilst on the other it suggests that, as a form of compensation, it has swapped one order of (linguistic) transcendence for another. In this construction, language inevitably fails to attain what it gestures towards, while form recuperates the meaning that has been lost. This leads to two questions: how do you relate to a linguistic idiom that can no longer be poetic (meaning poetry becomes something like non-representational art)? And, then, how do you measure the “success” or “failure” of your work against the valences of form?


CC: My answer would stipulate that we equate “language” or “poetry” no less to “form” than to “content” and that we consider the question in terms of, as you put it, competing orders of language rather than adequate/representational vs. inadequate/nonrepresentational language. I would also say that the terms such a discussion demands—representation, reference, meaning, form, content, and so forth—seem so slippery to me that I hesitate to use them in any sentence that is not a profession of ignorance. For example: at first it seems natural to assert that representation in language is accomplished simply through reference; that words represent simply what they denote (“roses,” “violets.”), and that content is what is capable of being represented. But does the representational difference between “Rose loves Violet” and “Violet loves Rose” belong more to content or to form? What about “Rose loves loves loves Violet”? What about the difference between “rose” and “eros”? Form and content begin to seem less like alternatives and more like dimensions in a space all language inhabits. For me, one of the most consistently “poetic” features of poetic language is that it outsources to form/syntax what would otherwise be the work of denotative representation. For example when Milton represents Satan traversing the abyss between hell and heaven, it is his syntax that falters:


So he with difficulty and labour hard
Mov’d on, with difficulty and labour hee …


Or when he represents Eve first seeing her reflection in a stream, the mirroring takes place not illusionistically (in his “content”) but as it were immediately, in his verse:


As I bent down to look, just opposite,
A Shape within the watry gleam appeard
Bending to look on me, I started back,
It started back, but pleas’d I soon returnd,
Pleas’d it returnd as soon with answering looks …


What strikes me about these examples is that if they are examples of a kind of representation, it is a kind of representation of which any art form normally thought of as nonrepresentational—such as music—is perfectly capable. But I don’t know if we can properly call these effects, which are essentially sonic or typographic developments of kinetic or visuospatial schemata, “representations.” In any event, I think their success is an interesting example of your form-recuperating-meaning. Also striking is that this way of talking about representation is a way of talking about lyric and epic. We can think of lyric as the poetic dimension in which these “musical” effects (which is as much to say, “formal” effects, effects such as repetition, variation, rhythm, silence, duration) take place, whereas epic is the dimension of representation, “content.” The epic genre is primarily concerned with creating a fictional space for contents—generally representations of people, their deeds and circumstances—whereas the lyric primarily develops and elaborates relation among contents: repetition, variation, rhythm, silence, duration, as I say. Part of what is confusing here is that the lyric schemata exist just as happily in a predominantly fictional / illusionistic / “representational” space (e.g. Paradise Lost) as they do in a predominantly abstract/nonrepresentational space (e.g. Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os).


To return more clearly to your questions: the only sense in which I experience idiom as “no longer poetic” is this: I haven’t managed to organize the pervasive representational space in which epic poetry transpires. I don’t know how to make this space out of language. This feels less like a general failure of language than a personal failure of education or diligence. What I think I have done instead, to put it as plainly as I can, is generate the largest fragments I can of this space—to sustain individual passages of this language for as long as I can in the writing of them—and then order the fragments according to lyric principles rather than epic ones. In terms of “major” or “living” art forms, the technique would be analogous to sampling in popular music. It’s interesting that all samples–drum beats, vocalizations, police sirens, lines from movies and speeches–are concretely referential and representational.


As for judging the success or failure of the work, it’s mostly intuitive. Does what the representational aspect renders “visible” in the fragment seem well-rendered and interesting in its own right? Do the fragments “move” or “flow” well in themselves as language? Is the succession of fragments “musical”? Do the fragments function “lyrically” as elements in a schema? Is the work free of obvious errors or false notes?


ES: Your description of trying to “generate the largest fragments I can of this space—to sustain individual passages of this language for as long as I can in the writing of them” strikes me as an excellent reason for writing prose poetry. The sentence rather than the line, the relation that the sentence has to more widely deployed forms of narrative and plot, and even the way that prose looks on the page, has always seemed to me to be an excellent way of structuring polyphony and mediating between different scraps of historical noise (as in say Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s “Metropole”). What drew you to the form in Brief Under Water? What do you make of the current wave of prose poems (for instance, by O’Brien, Ben Lerner, Claudia Rankine etc.) Why do you think people are turning towards the form?”


CC: What drew me to the form, I think, was a longstanding interest in prose fiction, my favorite literary genre, one that for me offers an experience of absorption no other genre offers. As a kid I would get absorbed in the events the prose represented; now I find myself more absorbed in syntax, the feeling of what Lerner calls “a subject that always almost arrives on the waves of predication.”
As for why people should turn to the prose poem—I don’t know. People talk about the sense of the “crisis of verse,” fear of a moribund medium. I am fascinated by the consistency with which seminal contributions to the genre refer to another print genre—not “printing” but “printmaking”:


• Aloysius Bertrand. Gaspard de la nuit: Fantaisies a la maniere de Rembrandt et de Callot.
• Arthur Rimbaud. Illuminations
• Ernest Dowson. Decorations in Prose
• Stuart Merrill. Pastels in Prose
• John Gray. Silverpoints

I feel that the prose poem emerged as a small, rectangular form that a person of average means could own, just as etchings and lithographs began to populate the homes of the middle class. Maybe a resurgence of prose poems correlates to abundant traffic in cheap, reproducible image formats?


ES: Perhaps! Your reference to these cheap images reminds me of another important source for your language—namely, that of advertising, corporations, and high finance—all realms of hollow and virtual reproduction. The Odicy struck me as having an interesting relationship to this seemingly debased idiom. The references to Monsanto and sugar in particular, gave the book as a whole an interesting political charge. On the one hand, they imbued the poems with a Jeremiad-esque tone, one that fitted in with the Biblical and Paradise Lost references and allusions. On the other hand, there also seemed to be an urge to attempt to recuperate this same debased language, to see whether, in a form ultimately alien to it, it might thrive, create a new idiom. I guess these thoughts circle around a few questions: is The Odicy a “political” poem, and, if so, what are its politics? And even if it isn’t how do you see the language interacting with the contemporary political and economic scene—the occupy protests, foreign war, and the financial crisis seem to have inspired (usually antithetically) plenty of recent work? And, more broadly, what poetic potential do you seen in “corporate” speak, or, to be even more general, rhetorical realms that are usually excluded from discussions of poetic language (however loosely defined)?


CC: The part of the book that deals in bad affects like anger, disgust, distress, fear and shame–a large part of the book–stems from a rage that is political, rage that as a matter of policy we have destroyed the world. Being a speaker of an industrialized language is like being a citizen of a corporatized democracy: theoretically, in either case, change comes from, and can only come from, the individual voice, but in practice you feel that your voice does nothing, less than nothing. The system evolves within you and without you, but in the service of a power that disdains you. It’s “infantile rage,” that is the appropriate cliché: “infantile” from L. infans, “unable to speak,” from fārī, “to speak,” whose English reflexes include “profession,” “fable,” “fame,” and “fatal.”  And “infantry.”


But, to paraphrase the war criminals, you write poetry with the language you have, not the language you might want or wish to have at a later time. It’s possible that the enormity and mendacity of English in our time—I mean simply the number of English words currently spoken or printed (the majority of speech and print perhaps now issuing from mechanical reproduction, not human) and the proportion of those instances that occur within dishonest or deceitful propositions, for example nearly the entirety of commercial and political speech—maybe the depth and darkness of this backdrop will bring about the conditions for a poetry more profound and brilliant than anything that has come before.


ES: A lot of our discussion has been around failure of the poetic medium to connote or achieve its aims, a failure rooted in a loss of faith in language. If this is the case, what are the prospects for poetry?


CC: I think poetry’s odds, at this point, are as good as those of any other human endeavour, maybe better.