Michael Heller is the author of nearly thirty volumes of poetry, essays, memoir and fiction. His collected poems, This Constellation Is a Name: Collected Poems 1965–2010, appeared in 2012. His poetry notwithstanding, Heller’s masterly essays have been a major influence on our arts and letters; his collections of criticism (especially on poetry and art) have been instrumental in shaping contemporary poetics. He has also collaborated on a number of mixed media works, including Constellations of Waking, an opera on the work and life of Walter Benjamin — its libretto is to be published in 2019. Also in 2019, his Telescope: Selected Poems will be published by New York Review Books. Among his many awards are grants and prizes from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Poetry Society of America, and The Fund for Poetry.
Heller has been both seeker and critical explorer of avant-garde tendencies in poetry and art prevalent in North America and Europe. While he has never been a poet who would choose to see himself as part of any particular school or coterie, his poetry and his thinking about aesthetics clearly situate him within the realm of the “new” (à la Pound) and “experimental.” In resisting the doctrinaire, Heller’s work has possessed both a musicality and a philosophical bent that can be usefully compared with two of his major influences, Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen, poets he knew and wrote about starting from the beginning of his career in the mid-1960s. Although these poets, and to a certain extent Heller himself, have been taken up by the academy, their work and its origins remain resolutely outside of what has come to be referred to as “academic.”
Heller is the grandson and great-grandson of Bialystok rabbis who fled to America in the 1910s to escape the pogroms in Central Europe. He was born in 1937 into a semisecular Brooklyn-Jewish household (the family would relocate to Miami Beach); family life was permeated, as Heller recalls in his memoir Living Root, by the kind of “Judaic chaos” Osip Mandelstam writes about in The Noise of Time. The fact that Heller trained as a mechanical engineer (he graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), and for some years earned a living as a technical writer, may not be readily discernible in his poetry — although it is there to be seen, particularly in the titles and diction of earlier collections like Accidental Center and In the Builded Place.
It was in his postcollege period that he met several of Zukofsky’s former students, including Hugh Seidman, who introduced him to the work of a wide range of contemporary poets. In 1964, while attending the one writing class he ever enrolled in (taught by Kenneth Koch), he won the New School’s Coffey Poetry Prize. The prize money allowed him, in 1965, to set sail from New York to live in Spain for a year and half, during which time he made, as he says in his memoir Earth and Cave, “an unarticulated commitment to writing, to poetry.”
Upon his return, he met not only Zukofsky but the other Objectivist poets Charles Reznikoff and Carl Rakosi, as well as Oppen, who became, in a sense, a mentor figure for Heller. Heller’s volume Conviction’s Net of Branches, published in 1985, which included his study of Lorine Niedecker, was the first of a number of book-length critical works on the Objectivist poets. It earned him the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Prize from the Poetry Society of America and a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Since then, along with his many books of poetry, Heller has published additional studies of Oppen, Walter Benjamin, Max Beckmann, and other modernist writers and intellectuals. Heller is one of our most valued critical voices. But it is on the basis of his poetry, especially, that his work has attracted a good deal of attention. In 2015, The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller: A Nomad Memory, a collection of scholarly essays edited by Jon Curley and Burt Kimmelman, was published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. A further volume of his poems, Dianoia, appeared in 2016, attesting to Heller’s unflagging vitality, his artistic and intellectual significance.
Now we have a new gathering of critical assessments. The essays presented here arrive in the wake of those volumes, and yet they stand on their own as knowledgeable and refined commentary. They can and probably should be read not so much as a postscript, but rather as filling in the spaces of inquiry, as criticism should do, created by the prior scholarly work (in this vein, the present essays also follow upon papers presented in special sessions on Heller’s poetry and poetics, in 2014 and 2015, at the Louisville Conference on American Literature and Culture).
Benjamin Goluboff’s contribution, “Heller’s Dianoia: A briefing,” considers the new work as it relates to the Heller ‘constellation’ of previous poetry. Calista McRae’s essay, “Blurring realms: Michael Heller’s New World,” accounts particularly for his mature poems’ significance, while placing the later work within the greater context of Heller’s career. Fiona McMahon and Peter O’Leary each take a longer view in their individual approaches to the Heller corpus. In “Michael Heller, ‘The Chronicle Poet,’” McMahon looks back on his poetic development in its entirety, closely integrating in her examination Objectivist poetry and poetics; she begins with Heller’s study of Charles Reznikoff, one of the essays that set Heller’s literary enterprise in motion. O’Leary’s essay, “The art of lyrical commentary: Michael Heller’s poetic achievement,” situates Heller’s work within the broader tradition of American poetry and poetics as a way to show its intellectual and ethical engagement via Heller’s notion of commentary, an insight that connects him back to an exegetical tradition and invites consideration of not only an ethical but perhaps also a spiritual dimension to his work, as abundantly evident in his poems and in his moving and thoughtful memoir Living Root.
A new gathering of poetry and prose by Heller accompanies the essays by Goluboff, McRae, McMahon, and O’Leary. “The Premises of Poetry,” a work of prose and citation, concerns both the placing and enhousing of poetry, as well as considerations of the poesis of the literary act. The excerpt here is part of an ongoing project derived from the poet’s notebooks and informal observations on his readings in poetry, philosophy, history, and current affairs.
Michael Heller’s poetry continues to intersect with various traditions and to grapple with many historical traumas, including the Holocaust and 9/11, scrutinizing both their legacies and how they are and might in future be represented. His ongoing project to bring focus and witness is a relentless and exemplary process of seeking to apprehend, while resisting any easy or final conclusive poetic portrayal. As he notes, “it might well be the first duty of the writer to resist violently the culture’s language games, including a duty to resist the fashionable romance of resistances which is often part of the ongoing mythologizing of one’s times.” As those language games become ever more prevalent in art, media, and politics, Heller retains a healthy wariness — of formulas, formulations, statements, and agendas. In doing so, he constantly invents new framings of poetic conception and has achieved, as this Jacket2 feature shows, a bracing clarity, a wide-spanning oeuvre, a generous poetry of powerful meanings and momentums.