Michael Heller, 'The Chronicle Poet'

“Writing is figured here as a painstakingly physical yet frail endeavor, its repeated efforts sometimes fruitless: ‘pulling syllables clean, like freeing / old nails from plaster.’” Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

 There are no sagas — only trees now, animals, engines: There’s that.  — William Carlos Williams

To write poems is not enough if they do not keep the life that has gone. — Louis Zukofsky

The poetry of Michael Heller appears deeply sensitive to the achievements identified with the poet Charles Reznikoff, a mentor for Heller who brought to the textual horizon of the twentieth century an unprecedented form of testimonial poetics. The dualism Reznikoff breathed into verse poised between narrative and song grew from the condition of a poet who sought to reconcile poetic discourse and the records of historical and judicial import to which he persistently turned over the course of his life. The fabric of Reznikoff’s “recitative” poetry is a leading example of the testimonial and archival turn in twentieth-century American poetry. A wellspring of collective memory, the two volumes of Testimony: The United States (1885–1915): Recitative form an aesthetic experience that challenges our understanding of the past: “No simple addition to or nostalgic reminder of the past,” as Michael Heller has argued, “but, like the songs and poems of the biblical prophets, a potential guide to personal and social action.”[1] Cross-fertilization of genre becomes an occasion to offer a response to the world that can evolve for readers into a moral vision. Poems are developed rhetorically so as to give figurative life to the circumstances reported by witnesses and, at the same time, they foreground the linguistic universe framing those circumstances. With Reznikoff, the poet who is to sing “the tale of the tribe”[2] adopts a fundamentally unobtrusive role closer to that of the medieval chronicler than Ezra Pound’s twentieth-century troubadour, too closely mired in the chaos of his own epoch. Consciousness acquires the elasticity of modernity, its design expanding to include a web of enunciators and a myriad of experience, as the poet incorporates fragments of utterance culled from outside sources. In doing so, Reznikoff excels in what is astutely named by Heller as “the act of leaving language alone.”[3] The paradox that lies behind this assertion strikes a chord with the linguistic reduction encountered in the work of writers associated with the Objectivist poets, where the workings of poetry are comprised in equal measure of efforts at reserve, transformation, and transmission. No less than Charles Reznikoff or Louis Zukofsky (another Objectivist forerunner who conceived of poetry as a “test,”[4] a probing of language and consciousness), Michael Heller fosters an acute investigation of language in his poetry, as in the first stanza of the poem “The Chronicle Poet”:

One tries pulling syllables clean, like freeing
old nails from plaster. Undoing the dismantling of
human gantries by listening, as though one had an empty
water glass to his ear, wondering about the other side,
shushing wife, child, visitor, the gnawing of a rat,
to catch sounds between these histories and our apartments.[5]

The direction of Heller’s writing captures these apparently opposite vocations, whether the semiotic inclination is to effect change upon language (“pulling”; “freeing”; “undoing”), or to allow for a “listening,” the notion that the poet’s receptivity is key to validating human experience and its mimetic capabilities. In his approach of George Oppen’s poetics, Heller ties poetic technique to a vocabulary of receptivity that suggests a similar kind of synaesthetic disclosure that rests upon the intelligibility of sound and sense. Through a refined honing of the senses, the “former unsayableness”[6] of the world, what habitually escapes a recording in language, visually and audibly, may be revealed in the poetic image. But as so clearly articulated in this poem, the concern for referentiality is overshadowed by the scant knowledge of the world these investigations bring into focus. Writing is figured here as a painstakingly physical yet frail endeavor, its repeated efforts sometimes fruitless: “pulling syllables clean, like freeing / old nails from plaster.”

The metaphysical problem addressed in Heller’s poetry is one experienced across literary modernity, since the poet navigates as “another legatee of Mallarmé,”[7] in a canvas where the mimetic capabilities of poetry are no longer a given and where, inevitably, the poet gives voice to the estrangement between language and experience. Heller’s poetry travels the world, encounters diasporic distances; he writes: “I have strained against the tongue / Until the word displaced / The world’s foreign body.”[8] The process of writing is invested with the role of resistance, acknowledging the poet’s part in narrowing the gap between experience and intelligibility. As though creating a disturbance, poetic imagery emerges as an investigative tool wrestling with otherness. What choice thus remains for the poet seemingly caught between a modality of action and inaction “If / The poem need witness something, / Or simply come to take its place / Beside these lovely things”?[9] Heller’s rhetorical meanderings weigh postures of risk against the whimsy of repose, an impossible route for one who puts into motion lived experience. Poetry for Heller emerges provocatively as a transformative chronicle that nevertheless questions the stance of the poet as witness. The lineage of that process is to be the starting point of this discussion, bringing into focus Heller’s relationship with Walter Benjamin and the original twentieth-century “chronicle poet,­” Charles Reznikoff.

If we return to the second and last stanza of the poem “The Chronicle Poet,” a babel-like figure emerges who is akin to the Benjaminian figure of the cultural archaeologist. Here, he is struggling to satisfy a tremendous appetite for language:

What is overhead is mere scratching, someone perhaps
short of air, desperate, a man eating dictionaries
quickly, avidly, hopelessly. Useless, useless! Nothing
impedes thought’s passage more than an unuttered word,
one desperately cut short or untimely enough to have become stuck
where it makes only a shameful noise, a beetle’s endless
clicking in the throat of a corpse. A noise seeking to reach
its fundament, trying, out of pure sound, to form itself
as honest language, and by that failure, painfully embarrassing.[10]

The predicament of the chronicle poet is laid bare since the discernable world, comprised of sounds and sights, continues to get lost under the layers of time. Yet even if language fails to adequately say the world, the imperious need for utterance, the poem appears to suggest, loses no hold over the “man eating dictionaries.”[11] He will continue to strive to build an audible framework in the shape of poetry. Heller’s tireless chronicler espouses the view articulated in Benjamin’s Arcades Project, according to which “remembering and awakening are most intimately related.”[12] It requires no great stretch of imagination to envision poet and essayist, from their respective vantage points, digging through layer upon layer of cultural data. The philosopher does so only to rebuild modernity or have it emerge into consciousness once again as a “dialectical image” that makes the past newly present.[13] The efforts of the “Chronicle Poet” to partake in a similarly redemptive dynamic are frustrated, the poem concluding upon an avowal of “failure.” The poet will aspire to expansiveness and renewal nevertheless through the image of the “beetle,” which combines symbolically knowledge of mortality and the human desire for eternity. Though at times pitiful, the persistent sound of language, as though a pulse, “clicking in the throat of a corpse,” is one that poetry will continue to track, in search of a Benjaminian “awakening.”

Since the mid-1960s, when Heller first read Walter Benjamin’s essay collection Illuminations,[14] he has become something of a scholar of Benjamin’s writing, all the while forging a body of work that intuits and exercises some of the same conceptual stances that straddle the realms of philosophy, history, and poetry. But how does Heller’s attachment to what he calls Benjamin’s “intellectual and emotional ‘poetics’” relate to the transformative power underlying the function of language,[15] and, more broadly, that of memory? If we pause to consider the appraisal Benjamin makes of narrative tradition in the essay “The Storyteller,” we might better comprehend the bond uniting poet and philosopher. To begin, Benjamin devises a portrait of the ideal storyteller, one whose senses are keenly attuned to the experience he sets out to relay. Less concerned with fitting events along a diachronic chain, Benjamin’s storyteller is a phenomenologist, seeking to observe and present the fruit of his findings and yet never explain them in a causal sense. The story that arises is incumbent upon the ability of the writer to incorporate any given number of threads that he is poised to hear. For Benjamin, a successful and enduring narrative is redolent of an oral tradition since it is tied up in the fabric of the lives of speakers and listeners alike: “The storyteller takes what he tells from experience — his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale.”[16] Embedded in this oral tradition is the figure of the balladeer, whose song is transmitted from singer to singer by word of mouth. Benjamin, however, names the nineteenth-century Russian novelist Nikolai Leskov as the exemplar from whom he borrows a metaphor of craftsmanship to characterize this collaborative mode of storytelling.[17] At the same time, he is no less interested in the medieval chronicler, a figure whose verse renditions of historical events bear a strong relevance for practitioners of chronicle poetry in the contemporary context of American poetry.

In the case of Michael Heller, the chronicle assumes no single mode or pattern. Yet in the manner of a secular ritual devised to be repeated again and again, the legacy of the chronicle has a lasting hold over Heller’s writing, but more as a conviction, it might be argued, than as a distinct form. It remains in the background, discretely nurturing such poems as those tied to the history of his family and the larger Jewish diaspora (“Bialystok Stanzas,” Knowledge), the elegies to departed family (In the Builded Place), and importantly, Heller’s memoir Living Root. Here, the chronicle assumes a decisive role in the narrative that grows up around Heller’s beginnings as a writer. As Heller recounts, the chronicle emerged at a critical juncture between his former life and a new life as a poet, providing him with an entry into the world of literature that allowed him to step over from his ancestral past into the present. Poignantly, the realization is formed that the chronicle was a model towards which Heller’s family history guided him. As Heller recalls, in 1963 when his ambitions as a writer were beginning to take hold, it was at his father’s urging that he read a historical account of Bialystok, the Polish city from which the Heller family fled prior to World War I. If he were to write such a chronicle, recording the pogroms, the poverty and ultimately, the destruction endured by the Jews of Bialystok, the dubious activity of the writer would deservedly be drawn into the historical and family sphere of trauma and displacement. Heller would never write a historical account of Bialystok; instead, the texts, drawings, and historical photographs of David Sohn’s book Bialystok: Photo Album of a Renowned City and Its Jews the World Over prompted him to write the “Bialystok Stanzas (from an old book of pictures).”[18] These were published in his 1979 collection Knowledge and later included in his memoir Living Root. Yet as Heller explains, Sohn’s book would remain a resolute model, “a template to lay over a clean piece of paper.”[19]

If the chronicle emerges as a strong shaping poetic modality with Heller, it also has its roots in the philosophical lineage his oeuvre demonstrates with Benjamin, beginning with the acknowledgement that no contemporary writer can look backwards without querying the chain of events that has brought us to the present day. As Heller states in Living Root, “everywhere I look at or remember a past, chronicle is broken open into contradictions and ambiguities so that another logic is impelled that builds contrary to the flow of time.”[20] Elsewhere Heller has discussed how the structure of his memoir is shaped by different generic strains that combine to revisit the layers of experience outside the continuum of a linear chronology. In particular, in a recent interview, he builds the analogy of a circular trajectory of memory and a midrashic poetics derived from the Hebrew tradition. The memoir stands up to this parallel with the format of rabbinic literature since, as the poet explains, there is no one single direction along which his narrative can unfold. Instead, the model of the “three encircling and interpenetrating circles”[21] of midrashic commentary better illustrates the multidirectional path that memory takes in his memoir. The multiplicity of routes is further compounded by the use of a range of genres, including poetry, prose, photography, and the poet’s family correspondence. The authorial strategy of generic porosity and layering is reminiscent of the slow, artisanal distillation of the texts Charles Reznikoff acquired as the collector and editor of his family’s biographical history.[22] Reznikoff’s own Family Chronicle boasts a composite publishing history of dialogic interplay between prose and poetry. It also stages a linguistic circularity between the accounts written in English and those that the poet translated from Yiddish. Reznikoff’s chronicle stands as an example of the narrative flux and indeterminate discourse that resonate with the dialogized narrative of Living Root. To borrow from Heller’s pivotal metaphor of the experience of poetry, Reznikoff’s chronicling rests upon a degree of enunciative and generic “nomadism.”

Taking his cue from Benjamin’s analysis of the disruptions engineered by modernity, Heller follows through, after Charles Reznikoff, with the recognition that literature must be put upon to reimagine the temporality of memory. With Heller, poetry is poised to disrupt our perception not only of self, but of time and place, and ultimately upend our knowledge of how we have arrived in the present. More essentially even, beyond the Marxist context exposing “the clatter of failed myths,”[23] Heller appears to derive from Benjamin’s grasp of modernity the power of literature to carry ethical value in the face of crisis. Ethical value is tied up, as Heller compellingly explains, in the essential duality of the writing process for Benjamin: “The strength to refuse is very nearly equated with the power to produce.”[24] Resistance and even retreat from all that convention hands down to the poet is construed as a form of recovery. It is perhaps not surprising then that Benjamin’s characterization of literature as a body of “hieroglyphs of redeemed life,” a phrase quoted by Heller in the same essay, is a metaphor that fascinates and intertwines with Heller’s poetry.[25]

Retrieval is inseparably tied to the task of the poet, as in Heller’s poem “Looking at some Petroglyphs in a Dry Arroyo Near a Friend’s House.” The inscriptions of the visible world are there to be puzzled over, just as one may ponder the intelligibility of selfhood after Whitman. In the absence of myth, personal and collective, the “Petroglyphs” of the poem, whether pictograms or logograms, mirror the question raised by transmissibility, inviting us to “see the petroglyph as just there, exposing all this”:

If the spiral meant one thing,
and the square with an incised X another

And if the footprint were deeply traced in stone,
and the spider on the rock scurried off, or if,

As Janet said, the boulders were a ‘rattler motel’
but the snakes were off molting in another place,

And if our words are off not by being
in another place but in a nowhere

of no help to ourselves or anyone,
if they are just stuff and the proof of stuff,
but might as well be vanished or banished,
if they are the proverbial music of the cosmos

but no longer sing of a self, and if the footprint
is just something to aestheticize and to remember

those tribes who lived here but now go unrecorded,
if the stone’s marks are the fleet music that we exist

and exist no more, if the tragic mode was a wondering
about this very fact and therefore had to go like a used car[26

When the question of representation is sounded out in Heller’s poetry, it is difficult to view it outside the poetics of “recognition” and “contingency” that he learns from Benjamin: “Who will it hurt that tonight / This broken world is but a literal? / Who will it hurt to note // The light on a woman’s face?”[27] The desire for retrieval is no less powerful than the desire to impress a figure upon literature no matter how damaged it may be. As Heller suggests, Benjamin saw in these “hieroglyphs” “not only the products of observation or of the visual imagination, but the historically and culturally determined monadic ‘spiritual substance’ that gives them ethical or truth-value status.”[28] Heller’s poetry contemplates, alongside Benjamin, the loss of what the storyteller is said to enjoy, namely the ability to conjugate experience and language.[29]

Yet at the same time, Heller’s poetry acknowledges the responsiveness a roving, disruptive modern consciousness has when appraising a sensory reality. This is apparent notably when the mutability of language, as in the poem “Strophes from the Writings of Walter Benjamin,” is framed paradoxically as a route towards a crystallization of experience: “the replacement of older narrations / by information of sensation.”[30] Though the media of literature has never stopped evolving since Benjamin’s post-WWI musings on the memorialization of experience, a sensory route reconnects the contemporary poet with storytelling and the corporeality of the oral tradition celebrated by Benjamin. In a broad sense, the chronicle with Heller materializes as a motif that casts back to Benjamin’s investigation of “transmissible form[s]”[31] of experience. How fully the sympathies of the poet lie with the chronicler, the artisan of experience as so portrayed by the philosopher in the early years of the twentieth century, echoes throughout his oeuvre. “Who can say / This world,”[32] we read in the early volume Knowledge (1979), a line whose modality is both affirmative and interrogative. Casting out to “say / This world,” the poem brings into focus a lexicon of “being,” an ontological vision of the world in the here and now. In succinct form, it builds a relational stance, recognizably ethical, through its concurrent appeal to a community of speakers called upon to give voice to the “Story of our lives / Like the story of our differences.”[33]

For both the storyteller and secularized chronicler — one for whom events unfold outside the scope of a divine plan — the stimulus is derived from the oral tradition that ensures a “slow piling,” as Benjamin argues, of layer upon layer of “retellings.”[34] Just as success as a storyteller resides in the ability to acknowledge the subordination of one’s own experience to that of many, the chronicler is portrayed as a link in a chain of narrators who merely relay what has been conveyed to them: “For storytelling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained. It is lost because there is no more weaving and spinning to go on while they are being listened to. The more self-forgetful the listener is, the more deeply is what he listens to impressed upon his memory.”[35]

Michael Heller’s writing harbors great interest in the oral tradition underpinning Benjamin’s definition of the chronicle. The way that narrative accounts are layered from speaker to speaker in the chronicle entails a displacement of authority, a polyvalence of voice integral to the manner in which historical content is shaped. Consciousness of the critical tie between self and other is mirrored in the relational poetics that similarly governs the ordering of experience: past and present and future. Heller suggests as much in his essay “Aspects of Poetics”:

Clearly, poets are already Other to themselves; they have an anthropology and a structure that is opaque, and which becomes available to articulation only by the trial and error of composition. For poetry, like other disciplines, is almost always looking two ways at once. It is always reading its own graphemes and seeing, in the handwriting of its gestures, the potential of consequences arising out of antecedents (tradition) and the reverse, seeing antecedents in consequences (ghostings, hauntings, voices of the dead, that is, phantomology).[36

If otherness is the philosophical cornerstone explored in much of Heller’s critical prose, the path to a connection between language and experience posits the poet as one partaking in a dynamics of errancy that keeps words and what they name perpetually in motion. In other words, this is a dynamics that upholds the distinctly modern rallying cry for disjunctive action, or “new conjugation,” embodied by a “constellation” in Heller’s thinking.[37] The mutability this stance entails is no less than the very “condition of poetry,” a “diasporic poetics” that entrusts the poet with the task of transmission, or renaming: “he does not perform but is performed upon by experience, by adversity, by love and history.”[38]

According to this portrait, the poet finds himself inhabiting a transpersonal and a reverse position of nonperformer, a challenging posture for one whose vocation, as Sir Philip Sidney once framed it, has been historically “to teach and to delight.”[39] Heller’s poetic stance is derived more distinctly from a lineage of ritual performance learned from his grandfather, a rabbi. Heller elucidates this Jewish cultural heritage in his family memoir and in doing so highlights the sprouting of an intellectual and emotional bond to sound and utterance that appears to be only a small remove from the “discourse of ethics” the critic Tim Woods has referenced in connection with Objectivist poetics:

What this Objectivist poetics calls for, on one hand, is a phenomenological concentration in its insistence that poetry must get at the object, at the thing itself, while on the other hand, it must remain ‘true’ to the object without any interference from the imperialist ego, dismissing any essentialism and calling for the ‘wisdom’ of love or sincerity.[40

Here we are reminded of Kenneth Burke’s assessment of Reznikoff’s 1934 Objectivist Press Testimony prose pieces. In a manner that echoes much of what Benjamin would suggest in “The Storyteller,” Kenneth Burke touches upon the relationship between poetry and “communicability.”[41] For Burke, the value of Reznikoff’s writing lies less in the “documentary aspect of this work” than in the “vein of sympathy” to which it is intrinsically tied. Burke points to the universality achieved by the presentation of experience through testimony and concludes by praising Reznikoff’s work for its “usefulness to living.”[42] In turn, Michael Heller grapples with the decline of communicability as his writing explores the problematic function of performance and witness in the contemporary sphere. When he entertains the prospect of the chronicle, his poetry adopts a paradoxically radical stance. It affronts the “darkness of chronological time”[43] and in response envisions “not silence but new conjugation.”[44] Michael Heller takes up the thread of stories and, embracing the wisdom of Benjamin’s narrator, bends his ear closely to hear the “beetle’s endless clicking.” 

1. Michael Heller, “The Modernity of Charles Reznikoff,” Conviction’s Net of Branches: Essays on the Objectivist Poets and Poetry (Carbondale and Edwardsville.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), 68–69.

2. Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur (New York: New Directions, 1938, 1970), 194.

3. Michael Heller, “Dantean Reznikoff,” Talisman, no. 34 (Winter–Spring 2007): 35–41.

4. Louis Zukofsky, A Test of Poetry, 2d ed. (New York: Jargon/Corinth Books, 1964).

5. Michael Heller, This Constellation is a Name: Collected Poems 1965–2010 (New York: Nightboat Books, 2012), 401.

6. Michael Heller, “A Mimetics of Humanity: Reading Oppen’s Of Being Numerous,” in Speaking the Estranged: Essays on the Work of George Oppen (Cambridge, UK: Salt Publishing, 2008), 41.

7. Heller, Constellation, 264.

8. Heller, Constellation, 264.

9. Heller, Constellation, 264.

10. Heller, Constellation, 401.

11. See Heller’s discussion of George Oppen’s search for an “adequate language” in Conviction’s Net of Branches, 86.

12. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 389.

13. See Derek Sayer’s analysis of Benjamin’s “dialectical image” in Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 3–6.

14. Michael Heller, “Now-Time Poetics: Under the Sign of Benjamin,” Anglophonia / Caliban French Journal of English Studies 35 (2014): 211.

15. Heller, “Now-Time Poetics,” 215.

16. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 87.

17. This craftmanship — storytelling — was actually regarded as a craft by Leskov “Writing,” he says in one of his letters, “is to me no liberal art, but a craft.” Benjamin, Illuminations, 92.

18. See Elizabeth Joyce’s insightful discussion of commemorative memorializing in Heller’s poetry: “‘Poetics of Remembrance’: Michael Heller as Memorial Candle,” in The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller, ed. Jon Curley and Burt Kimmelman (Madison, NJ : Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015), 103–119.

19. Michael Heller, Living Root: A Memoir (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), 14.

20. Heller, Living Root, 20.

21. Michael Heller, “Interview with Michael Heller: conducted by Jon Curley and Burt Kimmelman, October–November 2014,” in The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller, 161. 

22. For a discussion of Family Chronicle, see Fiona McMahon, Charles Reznikoff, une poétique du témoignage (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2011), 245–66. 

23. Heller, Constellation, 220. 

24. Heller, “Now-Time Poetics,” 217. 

25. Heller, “Now-Time Poetics,” 217. 

26. Heller, Constellation, 385–86. 

27. Heller, Constellation, 219. 

28. Heller, “Now-Time Poetics,” 217. 

29. Benjamin, lluminations, 83: “It is as if something inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.” 

30. Heller, Constellation, 241. 

31. Benjamin, Illuminations, 94. 

32. Heller, Constellation, 130. 

33. Heller, Constellation, 130. 

34. Benjamin, Illuminations, 93. 

35. Benjamin, Illuminations, 91. 

36. Michael Heller, Uncertain Poetries (Bristol, UK: Shearsman Books, 2012), 242. 

37. Heller, Uncertain Poetries, 229.

38. Heller, “Now-Time Poetics,” 219–20. 

39. Sir Phillip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry (Or, the Defense of Poesy), ed. R.W. Maslen, revised and expanded 3rd ed. (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002), 86. 

40. Tim Woods, The Poetics of the Limit (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 5. 

41. Benjamin, Illuminations, 93. 

42. Kenneth Burke, “The Matter of the Document,” introduction to Testimony by Charles Reznikoff (New York: The Objectivist Press, 1934), xvi. 

43. Heller, “Now-Time Poetics,” 217. 

44. Michael Heller, Uncertain Poetries, 229.