Aaron Kunin and Ben Lerner in conversation

In this long-running exchange, Ben Lerner and Aaron Kunin discuss Kunin’s latest collection, The Sore Throat and Other Poems, and the sources with which it is in dialogue, including Pound’s “Mauberley” as “a repository of lyric gestures.”  Lerner and Kunin have previously published two similar exchanges in Jacket  — one addressing Kunin’s novel The Mandarin, in Jacket 37; another, on Lerner’s Mean Free Path, in Jacket 40.

Ben Lerner: This is your second published book of poems, after Folding Ruler Star, but you wrote it first. So it’s possible to read the Mauberley series, which begins the book, as a kind of inaugural, as announcing your entry into poetry. Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” is largely a farewell — a farewell to a poetic style, a farewell to British society after WWI, etc. Why is a poem of farewell the source text for your beginning? Does your poem renounce anything? Does it renounce Pound’s renunciation? 

Aaron Kunin: The January eclogue in The Shepheardes Calender ends with Colin destroying his instrument, the oaten pipe, and vowing to sing no more songs. In the first poem in his first collection, Spenser says farewell to poetry: hello, I must be going. The gesture is conventional — Spenser got the idea from Virgil.

Not that I had any notion of this convention when I wrote my poems. I was a beginner. Fortunately, “Mauberley” is a great introduction to poetry. All the figures in this literary history of “a botched civilization” — all the funny, forgotten, and made-up names — acquire flesh, color, and life through Pound’s effort at renunciation. All the bad habits of “vers libre, Amygism, Lee Masterism, general floppiness” get to enjoy their moment of technical demonstration before they become garbage. In spite of the astringent tone, the poem is as full of “life and contacts” as the alternate title promises.

The life of “Mauberley” is its lovely, off-kilter rhythm. This rhythm is seductive and unique — there’s nothing else like it, at least not in poetry. (The edits in movies like The Conformist and Petulia, with their use of flashforwards, have a similar effect.) The poem stops, it goes back, gets stuck, repeats — then it lunges ahead very fast. It draws together materials from various ancient civilizations, and meanwhile, as early as the second poem, it starts cataloguing its previous moves, treating itself as its own sourcebook. That’s what I was trying to translate from Pound’s poems into mine. Is that the quality of “goodbye-hello” that you mean?

Lerner: Yes, that’s one of the great things about Mauberley — how you can feel it becoming archive as you read. It’s already using itself as a source text; in that sense your series is more of an extension than a displacement. And what you’re saying about the quality of “goodbye-hello” — that it’s largely a function of the poem’s prosody — is something your series proves. You reduce a poem with an almost parodically wide range of vocabulary (I always have to look up “mousseline,” “barbitos,” etc.) to a severely restricted language field, and yet the affects of the original are preserved, which reveals them to be largely formal effects. (Maybe this is a version of the conventional renunciation as foil for virtuoso display: you would think the radical reduction of vocabulary would be an austerity measure — a disavowal of the pleasures of rarefied language — when in fact it intensifies the life of the poem.)

But that’s not to say you ignore the paraphrasable content of the original altogether. 

Kunin: Well, I tried. In some poems, you can see how hard I tried. For instance, “A can of rats” translates Pound’s “Envoi.” I wanted to do something special for this incredibly beautiful poem. The “Envoi” begins with what feels like a dismissive gesture, “Go, dumb-born book,” where the masochism of the speaker has turned the “go, little book” trope into something rather nasty. And somehow the same poem ends with the almost pure lyricism of:

When our two dusts with Waller’s shall be laid,
Siftings on siftings in oblivion,
Till change hath broken down
All things save beauty alone.

For me, the challenge was to follow this stumbling path from irony to beauty.

I was helped by the belated recognition that Pound was translating another English-language poem, “Go, lovely rose,” by Edmund Waller. By a lucky coincidence, I happened to be reading Waller just before I started writing. This discovery gave my poem its own path from the prosaic to the lyric. Contrary to my usual procedure, I did not follow Pound’s syntax, lineation, or punctuation, and instead introduced a new, shorter stanza based on the rondeau. I tried to bring the concerns and wording of the “Envoi” closer to its source, to translate Pound back into Waller. I also took from Waller the suggestion of marking a caesural pause with a dash. As a result of this confluence, my poem really is about what Pound’s poem is about: beauty as atomic fact, a kind of transportation without transformation.

Lerner: But Pound’s poem is also about a historical moment — about losses both personal and public.

Kunin: I didn’t have such good luck there. Two poems, “Anyhow, we do not complain” and “We know what choice we have,” translate the poems that Pound wrote for his friend Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. I like to think that my translations successfully communicate some of the charm and energy of Pound’s portrait of his friend, and the anger occasioned by his loss, and the waste and confusion and abstraction of the war.

One theme in those poems was beyond my reach. In a crucial substitution at the end of Pound’s fifth poem, the “broken statues” and “battered books” become roughly equivalent to the “botched civilization” that Gaudier-Brzeska fought and died for. Since he was also a producer of culture, a sculptor, the statues and books may be offered as inadequate compensation for his death. My friend is gone, but at least I have his art to remember him by. In addition, the statues and books represent some of what civilization lost when Gaudier-Brzeska died: if he had lived, think of all the great sculptures and books that he could have made. Finally, the poem suggests something about Gaudier-Brzeska beyond what made him the best at what he did, something beyond his artistry and therefore not replaced by his art (whether he lived long enough to make it or not), and this extra something is represented by his smile and glance. 

None of this shows up in my poem — not the calculations, not the ambivalence, and not the unique expression of Gaudier-Brzeska’s face. The social inventory of “Mauberley” is missing. The base vocabulary was not great for direct verbal portraits — I had “eyes,” and I could make them “wide” or “narrow,” and there were certain feelings and expressions that I could intimate — all mere suggestions and indirections, although I suppose I could have used them more imaginatively. I never even came up with a good equivalent for the idea of “an art in profile.” Instead, for the most part, I substitute my own nervousness for Pound’s portraiture. (For a new version of “Mauberley” focusing on the “art in profile,” I would recommend Brian Kim Stefans’s wonderful “Pasha Noise.”)

Lerner: One significant change between your poem and “Mauberley” that I keep pondering is the shift from the third person to the second. (I don’t know if “he” is in the reduced vocabulary; maybe that’s part of the issue.) In the original, Pound creates a persona, H.S., that he can load with his own characteristic (thereby composing Pound’s Ode Pour L’Election de Son Sepulchre). But in your translation, where we expect the poem to shift the author’s attributes onto a third party, we encounter “you”: not, “He strove to resuscitate the dead art …” but “You wish to begin the dance.” 

Hard not to hear Pound’s definition of logopoeia here — “the dance of the intellect among words.” It’s as if the author sat down to model Pound’s creation of a persona, a “he” he could distance himself from, but he was interrupted, usurped, at the beginning of the poem (dance). It seems to me that your hand is addressing you — showing you who’s in charge.

Kunin: That wasn’t deliberate or necessary. I always had two third person pronouns in the vocabulary, both “he” and “she.” In the first series “he” appears only in one poem, “What’s your pleasure, brother?,” where the figure elsewhere called “the moron” is identified as male. I didn’t even notice that I had used “he” once and “she” not at all until years later, when I was preparing to write the Sore Throat poems. Then I thought, okay, this time gender should be in the foreground; I’m going to use a lot of “he” and “she.”

Keeping in mind that the tendency to substitute “you” for “he” was purely intuitive, let me propose a retroactive justification. I was treating “Mauberley” as a repository of lyric genres. To me it was the Greek Anthology, a collection of every kind of lyric — blessings, curses, romantic complaints, hymns, odes, epitaphs, everything. All of these genres really are in “Mauberley,” but if you want to bring out their lyricism, it might help to emphasize apostrophe, because lyric usually means a poem in which a first person appears and speaks to a second person who does not appear. Maybe if I’d thought more clearly about this problem, I would have chosen a different source text, “Homage to Sextus Propertius” or even Cathay, where the lyric affiliations are more on the surface.

As for “the dance of intellect among words”: I did actually translate this phrase in the second poem as “The dance of the mind about the word.” A close translation, I think. More often, though, “dance” and the imperative to “keep up the dance” refer to the halting rhythm that I love so well in “Mauberley.” The rhythm, not the themes, drew me to the poem in the first place. I mean, does anyone go to Pound for the content? 

Lerner: I agree with you that “Mauberley” can be thought of as a repository of lyric gestures, gestures that could be brought into relief by apostrophe. But I want to press the notion that the author here is as much the object of address as he is it’s subject. We know that “he” (H.S.) really means “I” (E.P.) in the original; this makes “you” mean “me,” at least at the poem’s opening. I think this shift is crucial to what you describe in the note on method as an “inversion” of “Pound’s psychological experiment”; it’s a refusal of the attempt to go outside oneself, the internalization of the split of persona. Maybe your unconscious knew what it was doing: this shift was “intuitive,” the availability of third person pronouns was repressed (“until years later”).

Kunin: I’m open to the idea that my hand could know something that the rest of me did not know. At the same time, I would not want to give up on the idea that my hand is part of me, and if my hand knows something, then that’s my knowledge too (even if I only have access to it through my hand).

It’s true that I did not avail myself of certain third person pronouns in the Mauberley poems. But this does not mean that the poems are written in one voice, or that speaker positions are fixed. There are a number of third person figures, like the moron and the rats, and they sometimes speak in their own voices. The most obvious reading of “A can of rats” is that it’s spoken in unison by the rats; the demand for “change” in “What’s your pleasure, brother?” is also attributed to the rats as a group. Even the first poem includes some narration as well as apostrophe, and I’ve never been able to decide who is speaking in the last quatrain, whether the original speaker just keeps talking, or whether the addressee replies. Maybe the addressee mishears liking (in “I like you as you are”) as likeness: “I do not know what is ‘like me.’” (That line could be a slightly doctored quotation from Henry V, in which case Catherine of France is the speaker.)

Lerner: You mention your desire to inhabit your hand vocabulary as fully as possible in the note on method, “because [you] really believe that the part of yourself that you’re most ashamed of is interesting and can be used as material for art.” What’s so shameful about your hand alphabet or the habit that produced it? What is the relation between this kind of automatic writing and shame (the affect around which Folding Ruler Star is organized)?

Kunin: Shame can attach to any object. (Adam Frank, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Silvan Tomkins have written about the “binding” tendency of shame.) I can feel shame for my voice or for silence, for being stupid or smart, for nervous hand gestures or stillness, for dressing extravagantly or simply. The objects acquire the strength of the feeling that I, by compulsion, put into them. 

Think of a rat encountered on the sidewalk, or a centipede on the wall in the kitchen. The rat and the centipede mirror me, because I am also on the sidewalk or in the kitchen. They are part of me — or we are both parts of the same whole — and they know exactly how I feel about them. The rat knowingly wields the full power of the disgust that it inspires in me. That is why it seems utterly without fear; that is why I move to give it space on the sidewalk. The rat disgusts me, and the disgust shames me, because what is the difference between me and the rat?

David Larsen once asked me what I learned about rats from writing these poems, and I was stumped. I said something like: David, I’m not a zoologist! He asked a good question, though, and I didn’t like my answer. You know, having spent a month of my life writing and thinking about rats, I should have something to show for my studies. Now, years later, it occurs to me that I may have learned something after all; maybe the defiance of the collective voice of the rats reflects this knowledge.

Lerner: You seem OK with transferring human feeling to rats. And yet the rats at one point in these poems demand “the thing in itself.” On the jacket of the book, there is a long (and I think accurate) list of genres and situations your poems explore, including: “riddle, cosmogony, theodicy, vanity, and misplaced concreteness.” I’m interested in that last term, that fallacy.

Kunin: We poets are in the business of misplacing concreteness. Where does concreteness belong? A Platonist would say that a building is less concrete than the number 12, since it would be difficult to destroy the number 12. A Marxist would say that concreteness pertains to social structures rather than individuals.

Whitehead, who names the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, has a peculiar sense of the proper place of concreteness. He derives the technical term concrescence “from the familiar Latin verb meaning ‘growing together.’” According to Whitehead, in order to concretize something, you have to connect it to a lot of other things. You misplace its concreteness when you limit its position to one place or one moment, or if you assign its qualities to your own perceptions. Thus Whitehead says that the poets, not the empiricists, are right to give credit to “the rose for his scent, the nightingale for his song, and the sun for his radiance.”

In poetry, there are no secondary qualities: the song is in the nightingale. For this reason, Whitehead congratulates us, the poets, for keeping concreteness where it should be. But the other side of the picture is that we misplace it. Tropes mix up the abstract and the concrete, the temporal and the eternal. Images dematerialize objects. The line cuts time into space.

Lerner: As a transition to the translations of Pelléas et Melisande, the book’s second source text, it might be worth noting that the boundary between these two parts of your book is fluid, hard to mark. Is this book one series with two sources? Two distinct series?

Kunin: I prefer to think of the book as a collection of poems. In the introductory note, I acknowledge the relationship between the poems and the sources, but I don’t want to make too much of it. The groups of poems are not clearly articulated; they run together, and there are competing versions of The Sore Throat. (To my mind, the title of the collection suggests that there is one genuine poem called “The Sore Throat,” and the rest are “other poems.”) The poems don’t acknowledge their sources either. Each poem can be read on its own, without reference to the source texts, the other poems in the collection, or the hand alphabet.

Lerner: Another way to put the question might be: is the problem of Golaud the same problem as the speaker(s) in “Mauberley”?

Kunin: When I wrote the poems in the first series, the vocabulary felt inadequate to the content. Not many words to begin with, few substantives, almost no particulars. And the particulars tended to be overparticularized. In the first poem, “Jesus” appears in place of Pound’s “Penelope.” In the second poem, I used the compound word “hard-on.” Not one of my happier inspirations: “a prose kinema” becomes “a machine hard-on.” In both cases, I remember thinking, a little goes a long way; I shouldn’t use that word again for a while. I didn’t want the Christian or phallic element to overwhelm the others. The machine and the rats, on the other hand, were richer concepts for channeling universals into particulars.

The problem felt very different in the second series. Suddenly it felt as though I could say anything with these 200 words. I’m not sure why. Maybe I was just more comfortable in the vocabulary. There were more words than before, and I created still more words by systematically reviewing possible compounds, particles, and elisions. I squeezed words out of other words: “mess” and “age” made “message,” “thinking” broke into “thin” and “king,” and so on. Also, the dirty secret of this project is that there may not be more than 200 words in Maeterlinck’s vocabulary!

Anyway, I started working with Pelléas, and discovered that I could translate it kind of faithfully, which hadn’t been the case at all with “Mauberley.” But I didn’t want to do a faithful translation; I wanted to write a new poem. Instead of using Maeterlinck’s decisions to guide mine, I used his text more impressionistically, to suggest themes or occasions.

Lerner: “The poems don’t acknowledge their sources either. Each poem can be read on its own, without reference to the source texts, the other poems in the collection, or the hand alphabet” — why the note on method? Why the “knowledge blobs”? (You seem fond of paratexts — your novel had a summary and an index.)

Kunin: The preface and the postface are supposed to communicate some information about the process of composition. (In the case of the postface, this doesn’t necessarily mean accurate information.) The goal is for the process to live in the object, like in a Marianne Moore poem where you get to see the sources, their provenance, some of her drafts — you’re watching her put the poem together. This is a modernist value that I like. As a reader, I want to see all the decisions that go into making a book. I don’t want to replace the book with a conceptual scheme, but I want to see the method of its composition. To revert to the terms of my limited vocabulary, I affirm “the machine” rather than “system.”

Lerner: You model many of the stanza patterns of “Mauberley in your translation; Pelléas et Melisande, however, is not in strophes. So where does the (often wild) structure of The Sore Throat come from? Does it have any relation, however oblique, to Pelléas?

Kunin: The stanza patterns are not based on Pelléas. I introduced them because I wanted a pattern of shapes, a pulse, on the page, and there wasn’t anything like that in Maeterlinck.

Like lines, the shapes of stanzas have a rhythm. In a sense they do what the line does: they transport material, only they do it vertically. Also, unlike the line but more like an arrangement of city blocks or a seating pattern in a bus, this rhythm doesn’t measure anything; it’s just a pulse. (In Spenser, and I think in Dante, the stanza is actually a metric — this is one of the calendrical pretensions of the Shepheardes Calender — but these poets are unusual in attributing significance to the numbers of their stanzas.)

We were talking earlier about Whitehead. His chapter on “process” derives all of metaphysics from the first two lines of the hymn: “Abide with me; / Fast falls the eventide.” Permanence and change: something abides, and something falls with overwhelming speed. This “complete problem of metaphysics” is a target for art. Coleridge describes an improbable folding of variety into unity in his effusions on the Spenserian stanza: “That wonder-work of metrical Skill and Genius! That nearest possible approach to a perfect Whole, as bringing the greatest possible variety into compleat Unity by never interrupted inter-dependence of the parts!” I don’t think that’s an overstatement. The stanza tracks movement against persistence in time. I sometimes think of it as a hydraulic operation: you’re trying to control a fluid moving through a channel.

Lerner: Speaking of fluid mechanics, the “machine” is everywhere in this book. We’ve largely been discussing the mechanics of your composition, and sometimes the machines you’re describing seem fairly exact figures for the poems’ procedures. The hand alphabet, for example, could be “a machine / for concealing your desire.” And making that machine into art could even be considered “inventing another / machine for concealing the / machine.” But your machines are also technologies of expression, e.g. “machine of weeping,” “a machine hard-on.” I’m interested in the way the machine is alternatingly expressive and repressive, or how repression passes into expression, often against the wishes of the machinist: “Every machine / has more beauty than the last, / for everything whose purpose / is to conceal seems to change, / in the end, into a sign / of what it’s concealing.”

Your poems also address the mixture of metaphysics and mechanics described in your answer above: “Dear machine — // You are not so much a brother / To me, more of a god, I guess.”

Kunin: I’ve written a lot about machines. Why is that? I’m not mechanically minded, and my relationship to the machines that I use is primitive: I depend on them, but I don’t know how they work, and I don’t have any genius for making them work.

I tend to write about machines as machines. Always the general term. Maybe I don’t see a useful distinction between levels of technology. Complexity does not belong only to electronics, and beauty does not belong only to handcraft. Kitchen equipment and software give me the same problems, more or less.

You’re right to say that my machines are expressive. I have a poem in Folding Ruler Star about how mechanical emotion basically is: “it’s precisely in // blushing crying and / loving that they are / most machine-like.” I hope that doesn’t sound like behaviorism. I’m not trying to reduce the mysteries of psychology to a set of predictable responses. I see emotion as mechanical in two ways (and I guess these must be the two senses of “the machine” in my usage). First, emotion repeats. My responses are personal — perhaps no one else has quite the same pattern of responses — but they describe a definite pattern; and each response reflects and magnifies itself. Second, emotion is a force, and it treats you as an object. It’s the experience of being moved, after all. Somewhere in every emotion is a vertiginous pleasure in being an instrument. The Stoic tradition that sees emotion as a kind of bondage may be on to something; for Marcus Aurelius, the only measure of freedom in a deterministic and eternally recurring universe was to behave as though his emotions did not touch him.

Lerner: At certain moments in the book, the machine seems to be breaking down, or maybe you’re attempting to “invent / a machine for disinventing.” I’m thinking of those poems where syntax more or less collapses:

Can see, in my, me a, say that you think
Nothing, head you, gain you, it’s all you see
But you won’t see, must not, right if I won’t
Begin, we can’t, no rats, left
Seeing, begin report, left

I can’t tell if the machine is failing or if it’s receiving or giving instructions — “left” at the right margin starts to seem like a command to return to the left margin, to break a line; “begin report” sounds like an imperative, maybe to reboot. What’s going on here?

Kunin: I see why you describe the syntax as breaking down or broken, but I would take a different perspective. I think of these poems as something like graffiti. Other poems in the book have a chiseled quality, but here I was imitating a different kind of public writing, not just terse but crude, diagrammatic. These are elementary combinations of words, not built up into anything complicated. The phrases are short, sometimes incomplete, and linked by comma splices, and you can also read through the commas and combine phrases across the lines. Part of the point is to expose the machinery, to show the elements of the word list and how they fit together. Here is the skeleton, and here are the joints. The main point is to achieve a tone efficiently, using the simplest means. The operation is similar to the translations of “Mauberley”: drawing a diagram of a poem’s tone.

Lerner: Did you ever watch Star Trek? Data — who was an android — was always baffled, as Spock before him, by human emotions. But this bafflement was of course quite human; really it made Data the most human character on the show. I remember one episode where Data is playing a violin solo and, like everything Data does, it’s technically perfect — he’s incapable of error. But one of his companions tells him that he’s missing something, that, while his performance is flawless, or maybe because it’s flawless, it lacks an emotional charge, and so it isn’t really art. This is a version of a familiar opposition between virtuosity and sincerity, or, in Coleridge’s language, between mechanical and organic form. It sounds like you reject this opposition and the Romantic critique of Data’s performance.

Kunin: The root meanings of mechanical and organic are almost the same. “Machina” means “device,” and “organe” means “tool.” The etymologies are not related, but the concepts they name are quite close. Both mechanical and organic form are formal; that is to say, they organize parts into wholes. As Sol LeWitt clearly states in “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” the difference between them is not that the former is totally controlled while the latter is absolutely free. The difference is where the controls appear. Mechanical form makes all the decisions at the start of the process, and organic form makes new decisions at every step.

What has to happen for Data to become “a machine that makes the art” (to borrow LeWitt’s phrase)? Silvan Tomkins, whose writing on shame is important to me, has an intriguing suggestion. He says that machines will never be intelligent until programmers stop behaving like overprotective parents. In order to be intelligent, the machine has to learn, and in order to learn, it has to be able to make mistakes. But the designers and programmers never let them do that. In a sense, Tomkins proposes organic form as a model for artificial intelligence. Not every decision can be made in advance.

On the other hand, you might hear something surprising if you gave a violin to a robot — even a highly disciplined robot such as Data, whose name suggests that he is only information. The robot follows instructions perfectly, but a lot of the sound that you expect to hear coming out of a violin isn’t going to be in the instruction manual. Certainly it isn’t in the sheet music. Even a Norwegian choir (human professional musicians, not Norwegian robots) can make “The Star-Spangled Banner” sound new and surprising. The Norwegians aren’t used to hearing the song in school and at baseball games, so their stylistic decisions will be somewhat unprecedented.

What Data does with the violin should have its own distinctive sound. He might invent a new fingering. Or maybe he doesn’t use his fingers. Maybe he pays attention to bowing but not tone, so his violin has a scratchy, old-timey sound. Or maybe his mimicry of concert styles of play is uncanny in its perfection, but what styles does he know, and how does he choose one style rather than another? Provided that he is sufficiently curious, Data has a freedom that would not be available to most classically trained musicians, and he should be able to satisfy the Romantic criterion of creating a sound that no one has ever heard before. Why wouldn’t he take advantage of that freedom?