Stride Magazine -

(Clayton Eshleman at Warwick University)

Warwick University’s ‘Writers at Warwick’ series 2001-2 ended with a bumper crop of literary events. Tuesday 21st May: self-styled half-Turkish writer and modern metaphysical John Ash reading from new unpublished work and archly discussing his poetics with students of creative writing. Thursday 23rd May: ponytailed doyen of playground verse Roger McGough performing to an adulating audience of hundreds in a sell-out appearance. Most interesting, however, was Wednesday 22nd  May, when the American poet Clayton Eshleman stopped, en route to his annual cave-tour of the Dordogne, to give a fascinating glimpse into the workings of the mind of a postmodern polymath. What follows is a personal account of the evening and should in no way be accepted as fact or literary criticism.

Eshleman (b.1935, in
Indiana) has had twelve volumes of poetry published by Black Sparrow Press, the most recent being From Scratch (1998). His prose is available in a volume of essays, Antiphonal Swing (1989), and he was also the founder-editor of the renowned journals Caterpillar (1967-73) and Sulfur (1981-2000). A world-renowned translator of Aimé Césaire, Cesár Vallejo and Antoin Artaud, among others, he teaches at the University of Michigan and also leads an annual expedition to Lascaux in France, where the earliest works of art made by mankind are to be found in the form of cave paintings by Cro-Magnon man. His forthcoming Juniper Fuse:Upper Paleolithic Imagination and the Construction of the Underworld represents, he says, the first investigation into these archeological treasure troves by a poet – he seems to see them in symbolic terms as the birthplace of the human imagination itself. Deep. The Chair of last Wednesday’s event, his old crony Peter Blegvad (The Independent’s Leviathan comic strip, Radio 3’s Static in the Attic series), himself a somewhat maverick writer, rock star and auteur, describes Eshleman as ‘my mentor’ and himself as ‘following him around, collecting the pearls of wisdom which he leaves lying around the place’.

This is a rather striking image, since the Dylanesque Blegvad is exceedingly tall and thin, while Eshleman, who appeared wearing a grey shirt and salmon-coloured braces, looks rather like Toad of Toad Hall. He also proved to be an extraordinary speaker. I was reminded irresistibly of Thomas Carlyle’s portraits of Coleridge: ‘His talk is resplendent with imagery and shows of thought; you listen to an oracle, and find yourself no jot the wiser. He is without beginning or middle or end. A round fat oily yet impatient little man, his mind seems totally beyond his own control; he speaks incessantly, not thinking or imagining or remembering, but combining all those processes in one; as a rich and lazy housewife might mingle her soup and fish and beef and custard into one unspeakable mass and present it trueheartedly to her astonished guests.’ I mean no offence to Eshleman here – Carlyle was a hack who did not understand poets, and his hostile criticisms of Coleridge are severely flawed through his continual tactic of making gibes about the poet’s personality and physical attributes stand in for a proper analysis of that personality’s ideas. Yet ignore the partiality of this description, and I think you have a fair indication of how Eshleman appeared to the students who were lucky enough to dine with him that evening: ‘Nothing could be more copious than his talk; and furthermore it was always, virtually or literally, of the nature of a monologue; suffering no interruption, however reverent; hastily putting aside all foreign additions, annotations, or the most ingenious desires for elucidation, as well-meant superfluities which would never do. Besides, it was talk not flowing anywhither like a river, but spreading everywhither in inextricable currents and regurgitations like a lake or sea; terribly deficient in definite goal or aim, nay often in logical intelligibility; what you were to believe in or do, on any earthly or heavenly thing, obstinately refusing to appear from it. So that, at most times, you felt logically lost; swamping near to drowning in this tide of ingenious vocables, spreading out boundless as if to submerge the world.’

‘But after all what did he mean?’ as someone once asked of Mr. Apollinax. The American Poetry Society has e-published a useful manifesto by Eshleman on ‘What is American About American Poetry?’ (see and, in the interests of structure, I will aim to give an account of his appearance in Coventry elaborating, where his talk seemed to, the short paragraphs of this manifesto. What is immediately striking about Eshleman’s poetry is its strange, foreign nature – politicised, witty, boisterous, almost barbaric, it is markedly different from the measured formalism now predominant in England. Perhaps, indeed, the situation immortalised by Eliot when Bertrand Russell visited America has now come full circle, and the bewildering, ‘subterranean and profound’ laughter of the old man of the sea is no longer characteristic of European but of American writing. What forms are most suitable for a world in flux?

4. Our incorporation of multiple levels of language – the archaic, the ‘American idiom’, the erudite, the vulgar, the scientific – along with soundtexts, sublanguages, and typographical eccentricity, into the poem’s textures. A sense of relentless excitement; say anything; all words can enter into play.
4:50pm Blegvad and Eshleman arrive rather late on the university campus, in the company of Caryl, the poet’s wife, and an excited conceptual artist. Eshleman proceeds to read work from From Scratch, swiftly winning his audience over by shouting the last line of his first poem like a hick at a multiplex: ‘DROPKIC

5. Our incorporation of the non-poetic and the popular – reportage, history, dreams, songs, visions, librettos, chance events, comic books, legal transcripts, agit-prop – as part of an ongoing, international ‘grand collage’. Everything is material.
4:55 Eshleman quickly launches into an extract of a sequence about the obscure French painter Soutine, the scenes of which seem to be translations of his strange pictures into poetry. More poems follow – they are quirky, long, rambling, rhythmic, unsettling, odd. One piece describes the difference between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon skulls. After this comes a short talk, first delivered in Paris, called An alchemist with one eye on fire, which contains a bewildering array of ideas: ‘part of being fully human is to realise that one is a metaphor’… the ancient poetic theme of timelessness, always underpinned by nature, must now be reconsidered because ‘Mother Nature has now become man’s problem child. We must take care of her’… the democratisation of art… ‘American poetry as a composite force has become more representative of humanity’… but it is ‘bricklayered into the academy’… an ‘archipelago of sites of production’ is resulting in a devaluation of literary values… ‘Is American poetry still in the grips of a genteel English tradition?’ he ends by asking.

6. Our belief that poetry can be institutionalized and funded – degree writing programmes, professorships for poets, archival purchases, endowment and foundation support – and remain authentic.
5:30 The talk is thrown open to questions from the floor. Eshleman continues to criticise writing programmes in America and their derivatives in Britain (‘Writing has taken over; reading has been abandoned.’), characterising them as the spawning grounds for mediocre literature and prompting defensive responses from tutors of writing at Warwick. He argues that any student wishing to write should be forced to read ‘mountains’ such as
The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, and Blake’s Jerusalem before being allowed to attempt a poem. Louis Zukofsky is singled out as a particularly pernicious influence; Wallace Stevens, H.D., Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Garrett as potentially useful.

7. Our commitment to a radical, investigational poetry that is raw, unfinished, wayward, ineluctably in process; poetry as an intervention within the culture against static forms of knowledge, against schooled conceptions and traditional formulation.
5:45 Eshleman is by this time rather excited; he frequently waves his arms about in front of him, speaking of Chomsky being ‘relegated to the periphery of newsflow’ and describing the US in the wake of September 11th in less than complimentary terms: ‘Everybody has a fucking American flag on the door – it’s disgusting!’ Yet he also admits to being compromised intellectually by working within that society – enjoying the benefits of US imperialism (‘terrorism’) is part of  ‘the anti-imaginative constellation in any artist’.

9. Our vision that poetry must be political (in spite of the fact that no one in America takes the poet politically seriously), and confront racism, imperialism, ecological disaster, and war, as part of the poet’s social responsibilities.
6:10 Eshleman and Blegvad proceed to a restaurant, accompanied by members of the blossoming Heaventree Press, a new, Coventry-based publishing collective. After dinner, the discussion continues, with Eshleman giving advice on blackmailing university bookshops to gain funding deals. He certainly is a fluent talker, becoming over a glass of red wine even more like Carlyle’s Coleridge than ever. Yet it would be unfair to indict Eshleman in the terms Carlyle used, for the latter’s anger seems to have been at Coleridge’s de-politicised outlook (‘One right peal of concrete laughter at some convicted flesh-and-blood absurdity, one burst of noble indignation at some injustice or depravity, rubbing elbows with us on this solid Earth, how strange would it have been in that Kantean haze-world, and how infinitely cheering amid its vacant air-castles and dim-melting ghosts and shadows! None such ever came. His life had been an abstract thinking and dreaming, idealistic, passed amid the ghosts of defunct bodies and of unborn ones.’), whereas Eshleman’s poetry is notable for its antiracist stance, among other things. Quizzed as to whether poststructuralism makes real ideological convictions impossible (an argument holding great importance in, for example, the field of Subaltern Studies), Eshleman brusquely disses theoretical readings of his work. Aside from his own works, Black Sparrow Press also publish
Minding the Underworld: Clayton Eshleman and late Post-modernism, a critical thesis by one Paul Christenson. ‘The guy insulted me with the term late post-modernism!’ exclaims Eshleman, before inveighing against such terms: ‘I don’t give a crap about all those labels – modernist, postmodernist, symbolist, surrealist. You can’t write with theoretical labels in mind.’ He writes about things that affect him strongly, he says of Hardball, an angry tirade against the racist murder of Rodney King (see; ultimately, nothing else matters.

1. Our amplification of Walt Whitman’s panopticon (phrenology, Egyptology, opera, Hinduism, the poet as a reporter and a mystic, amative and adhesive, cultured and anarchic) and his ‘open road’: the democratization of the whole person, the liberation of impulse and instinct from involuntary servitude, a new breath line based on vernacular and natural measures. We continue to be under Whitman’s charge.
7:00 Discussion moves onto Blake, a favourite of Eshleman’s. He tells bemused students that Blake had an imagination so strong he could actually project angels into a tree if he was thinking about them whilst looking at it. After this things get more complicated – Eshleman begins to describe the four planes of reality in Blake’s cosmology. The first is selfhood. The second is awareness of others, found through sexual love. The third: god-like transcendence (dangerously like the first). Sex and love are very important, remarks Eshleman, perhaps even necessary if you are to become a great artist. ‘I don’t know where you guys are in terms of Beulah…’ he says, looking slyly around. I ask him if he has ever been accused of harassment; he looks momentarily outraged, until his wife, a subdued lady, reminds him of the Puritanism rife in American campuses. ‘After about my fourth semester, I learnt to hand out a disclaimer before teaching my course,’ he admits. ‘If you are offended by sex and violence, do not attend these classes!’

2. Our invention of historical and prehistorical otherness; for Ezra Pound: ancient China; for H.D.: classical Greece; for Charles Olson: the Maya and Sumer; for Judy Grahn: merarchic metaforms; for me: the Upper Paleolithic.
7:10 Paleolithic graveyards have been found where the bones of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon man are inextricably entwined. Does this signify racial interbreeding? What killed the Neanderthals? Did we infect them with a sexually transmitted disease? Are these graves evidence of the first racist murders? Is the creation of art – culture – inseparable from racist ideologies?

3. Our view of translation as an integral part of the poet’s work: Pound’s Cathay; Louis Zukofsky’s Catullus; Kenneth Rexroth’s Chinese and Japanese anthologies; Paul Blackburn’s El Cid and Provençal troubadours; Cid Corman’s Basho, Montale, and Char; Richard Wilbur’s Molière; Richard Howard’s Baudelaire; Rosemary Waldrop’s Jabès; my Vallejo, Césaire, and Artaud; Jerome Rothenberg’s Lorca (and his international anthologies); Bill Zavatsky’s Breton; Ron Padgett’s Cendrars and Apollinaire; Lyn Hejinian’s Dragomoschenko; Robert Pinsky’s Dante; etc.
7:15 By this point, most academics present have left in order to attend a reading by Susan Bassnett, pro-Vice Chancellor of Warwick, whose
Exchanging Lives, a book of translations of the Portugese poet Alejandra Pizarnik, has just been published by Peepal Tree Press. Bassnett, a well-known figure in the field of translation studies, is big on notions of ‘visibility’ – to the extent that she translates her source’s epigraph – ‘Alejandra alejandra / debajo estoy yo / alejandra’ – as ‘Susan susanna / lying underneath / susanna’. Knowing that Eshleman is a rigorous translator who has written that ‘By adding to, subtracting from and reinterpreting the original, the translator implies that he know better than the original text knows, that in effect his mind is superior to its mind. The “native text” becomes raw material for the colonizer-translator to educate and re-form in a way that instructs the reader to believe that the foreign poet is aping our literary conventions.’ (see, I ask him what he thinks of Bassnett’s translation. ‘That’s terrible,’ he groans. ‘That would like me translating Neruda and rendering Pablo as – as – Paul!’ He recounts an interview he once conducted with Aimé Césaire (‘probably the greatest living poet’) in which the Martinican had insisted that Negritude must be translated as Negritude; that any alternative was wrong. In Eshleman’s view, there is only one form of creativity allowed the translator: the creative impulse to learn. ‘As a poet translating another poet,’ he has written, ‘I let my sense of my relationship to Vallejo and his poetry enter my own poetry, so that the translating activity, in the context of an apprenticeship, was envisaged and critiqued as an aspect of my own evolving poetics. Over the years, I constantly tried to skim my own imaginings of Vallejo off the surface of the translations and let them ferment in my own poetry. I came to understand that if a translator does not do this, he runs the risk of building up an imaginal residue in his translation, which with no outlet of its own, spills into the text.’ By Eshleman’s standards, then, Bassnett is a slovenly translator. She edits books of translation theory, and could probably argue that her division of Exchanging Lives into different sections – translations, responses, her own works – deflects such criticisms. As a woman in the postcolonial world, she might even say, there is no question of her actions being anything other than briskly egalitarian, rather like a 19th century abolitionist. Yet it is hard to escape the image of a second-rate poet leeching off the work of a dead predecessor (Pizarnik committed suicide some years ago). At its best such an experiment is dependent on an outdated, Romantic vision of the author which pays no heed the (itself hardly novel) concept of subjugating oneself in another’s work. With all her experience of creative rewriting, Bassnett can surely think up an alternative description to ‘translation’ for her activity – Eshleman would seem to argue.

8. Our commitment to a conservative, univocal, episodic poetry employing a restricted vocabulary, grammar-book syntax, and traditional English verse forms; the world represented as it is; a poetry of ‘intimate, shared isolation’.
7:30 Exactly, by the way, what is lacking in Eshleman’s startling translations from the French and Spanish. And the differences between them and his own work are, in effect, the innovations which he carries through into American verse. A conservative, then, perhaps, but also a committed radical and a formidable scholar. Eshleman leaves vowing to return next spring – to teach a class on translations! This will probably raise a few official hackles at Warwick, but the students who met Eshleman on the 22nd May will, I think, be pleased.

                   © Jon Morley 2002