A.D.: You have a beautiful line in this same poem about “paradox riding its cause into song.” That’s a perfect description of poetry—and of theology, too. In Kabbalah, God creates the world through language, and so distinguishing between poetic speech and theological speech becomes quite difficult. How do you think about the relationship between the two?
P.C.: Poetry emerges through sensing and making, theology through thinking. Poetry percolates through words, theology through ideas. There is most definitely a poetry at work in theological inquiry, and a sort of theology implicit in the making and sensing of poems. The two feed off of one another, and I often find myself veering from one to the other. The danger is the easy access to big ideas that theology affords. Genuine poetry, no matter how minor the poem, takes shape from the ground of feeling upward through thought and speech, not downward from concepts.
A.D.: You dedicate one of your poems to the late poet and critic Allen Grossman, and many of your poems remind me of a passage from The Sighted Singer. There, Grossman writes about “the question of the purposiveness of poetry altogether. One answer to that question is to find the real, or to give an account of a mind engaged sincerely in its discovery. The other possibility…is that the purpose of poetry is to supplement the real, to disclose something not at hand which it is the business of the poetic speaker to supply.” How would you answer Grossman’s question of the purposiveness of poetry? Does it exist to find the real or to supplement it? To discover something or to supply it?
P.C.: The pitch of Grossman’s thinking through poetry has drawn me pretty much from the moment I first encountered it when a friend gave me one of his books in 1980—its steepness and timbre, its absolute seriousness and its fearless raising of stakes. It’s an antidote to the thinness and inanity of so much contemporary poetry. His earlier work is somewhat forgotten, or looked down on as derivative, but it was love at first hearing for me—“My house is older than my life, and therefore / a continual instruction,” which is from The Recluse. And there are marvelous things in the signature poetry as well, like these lines from his last book, Descartes’ Loneliness: “Song is extreme work. Help me, river sister… / Start love’s gift once more. words for another.” As to your question about his more theoretical writings and the purpose of poetry: it’s both. I write and read to find the real, but in finding the real, the poetry I read and write in turn creates a reality of its own—it becomes part of the reality it discovers, and that ripples out into everything, moment by moment. For me, and, ideally, for readers.
It’s a matter of how one understands “invention.” Does invention imply “discovery” in the classical and etymological sense of in-ventio and invenire—“to come upon, find, find out”? Or does it suggest a Romantic creation out of nothing, and unique self-expression? Is poetry about the world (and the mind that constructs it), or about the demonstration of the singular self in the process of establishing its difference?
I’m interested in poetry that makes the world more interesting. Period.
A.D.: You and I have talked before about our shared love of the Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones. What is it about him that you admire so much? Is it the music of his verse? His deep sense of tradition—the deeply Catholic and deeply Jewish sense that, as you put it, “you most exist when you’re driven / away, or on—by forms and forces greater than you are”? His vision of poetry as a kind of sacralizing, a “calling forth / and lifting,” as you write?
P.C.: I admire the music of his mind, his celebration of language as a movement through that mind, apart from the image. And the focus in his calligraphy and poetry alike on the letters of the alphabet as a kind of icon beyond the image. I love his shameless, maverick embrace of the religious impulse as a valid subject for poetry, his sense of poetry’s purpose—“to lift up valid signs”—and his obsession with “offering” and its analogue with the poet’s mediating role. In other words, his ability to surprise and reawaken tradition. And, while we’re at it, his calling the poet to “work within the limits of his love.” That magnetic honesty, regardless of where it takes one. It’s in every line of his prose and his poems alike—that desire, not to describe, but to re-present. In that way he resembles Grossman. Both continue to give me a kind of courage, or permission.
A.D.: In a recent poem, you describe your interest in “that which hovers here,” in “the imperfect / tense and tension of what / in fact articulates the eternal.” What contemporary poets express that imperfect tense and tension between that which hovers here and the eternal most powerfully for you?
P.C.: Christian Wiman, and Forrest Gander in a very different way, and in a previous generation but still contemporary, James Schuyler. Also of another generation but contemporary is Harold Schimmel, an American-born Hebrew poet I’ve translated. He’s now in his 80s. While he writes a poetry that’s far from mine, no one has taught me more about the art. It’s a question of touch and pitch more than anything else, the lay of a line, the light it gives off and the sound it makes. This, for instance, is from a fairly recent book called Straw:
A second Turkish coffee Not exactly
consolation though it helps Sunday morning
it’s hard after all to mark
the first month’s just beginning properly
demons flitting through my dreams
instead of family coming one
by one all knew what I was yet to
know beside the table threats echoing
spring’s in everything except for me
that spring within— not so easily
A.D.: Commonweal recently published a lovely poem by your Yale colleague, Danielle Chapman, which ends “in the Brutalist carpark as I round and brake, / round and brake down seven levels into New Haven.” Like Danielle, you and I both live in New Haven. What has the city meant for you poetically? Are there particular places or elements of the city that speak to your imagination?
P.C.: That is a lovely poem. And while I don’t have a car, I do identify with what she’s getting at there. I grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, and then an adjacent suburb, and went to college in Western Massachusetts. Most of my adult life I’ve spent in Jerusalem, apart from a post-college year in Providence and a few years in San Francisco in the late 80s, along with patches in NYC and teaching at various places in New England. I felt out of place in America pretty much from the moment we left Paterson, and most certainly whenever I came back to the States from Jerusalem. New Haven is the first American city or town I’ve lived in since my childhood where I’ve felt I could work, which is to say, live. The combination of grit and care, the coastal quality of its sky and the irregular call of gulls, the train lines and whistles, the signage, the complex history and deep walkability, and what that does to the hips and chest, and to the connective tissue of writing…the familiar trees and weathers (after years in the Middle East) and assorted flora, the stimulation of the degreed and soon-to-be-degreed fauna, in combination with the pace and scale. The urban marvel and Kabbalistic mandala that is Wooster Square, right outside our front door. It’s quiet enough to focus, but highly alive on numerous levels.
There’s a lot that it doesn’t have, but when I get off the train at Union Station and take in the air along the tracks, I’m happy, at least for an instant. And that’s an instinctive instant, which is to say, it’s always at the edge of the poem.