Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

from A Faithful Existence

The Transparence of a Faithful Existence

Neither Jewish, Christian, nor Buddhist, when I write I am cloistered, nevertheless, in my own imagination. The basic gesture of my writing is a listening. Perhaps this attitude resembles that of the religious. But my credal source is worldly. Faith, for me, derives from the most common revelations. What is stands suddenly more revealed. Yet, like Edmund Jabés, I have found no Truth but truths and interrogative, no reality but feeling and interpretation.

We shall all be changed, the Bible promises, though for most of us it is momentary. Love unseats us, but we thread ourselves slowly back into the dull wood of our egos. It is hard to sustain a constant awe, as Lao Tzu importuned, and so tragedy befalls us. We fail to construct a lifelong state of wonder. And yet artistic and spiritual endeavors inspire our efforts to do so, as though the efforts themselves were all important.

If the language practices commandeering world history are increasingly standardized, utilitarian, and transcriptional, poetry offers a different order of relationship with the other. Because poetry's meanings are neither quantitative nor verifiable, because they are distinct from those meanings obtained by rational and calculative processes, they might well be considered miraculous.

How else describe acts of language that can communicate coursing emotional registers and formalize insights and so articulate the world that we see as though for the first time. Poetry can be an ecstasy of words spindling perceptions. The meaningful dialogue between the poem and the reader is as much a sacred manifestation as I hope to encounter.

I come to consider language by how it uses me. Poetry offers a transformative summons. It enacts my own felt need to engage emotional, aesthetic, and intellectual experience in forms neither self-serving nor predatory. When, in an interview, Rosmarie Waldrop says that "The one transcendence that is available to us, that we can enter into, is language," she implies that language houses all of us together, shaping human experience. The great capacity of language is to bring us into proximity with one another. We fill with recognitions. In my own encounter with poetry, I approach the imagined possibility of an attentive mode of being. Shifting my perspective, poetry reconstructs my relationship to the world and to the future. I am torn awake.

...but I was more declamatory in my twenties.

In college, I majored in geology. I spent four years learning to recognize crystal forms, using an x-ray diffractor to make structural maps of minerals, tracing the archaic mammalian radiation, cracking open black shales to study graptolites so compacted they were hardly more distinguishable than pencil marks and I was careful not to inhale them.

Sometimes I begin poems with a structural penchant, but unlike the Oulipoians, whom I admire, my architecture deforms according to what it comes to contain. A long poem in
Deeds of Utmost Kindness, “The Faculty for Hearing the Silence of Jesus,” started as mimetic enthusiasm for a rhetorical motif in a section of the Bhagavad-Gita, but in the final version of my poem, no approximation of the original pattern remains. Overriding musical and semantic concerns transformed the poem. "Feel pattern, be wed" goes Robert Creeley’s gnomic verse, and so I do.

Whether form or cadence triggers the poems, measure always conducts my composition. Writing, I pass from time to space, from succession to juxtaposition. I write the poem in all directions at once, emphasizing not the stability of single words but the transition that emanates between them, or between a word and its rings of association, rings of silence. My idea of meaning derives from the continuity of the transition, which is, for me, erotic.

I was raised by women and among women; we communicated in a way that rendered men's minds—when later I came to think I knew them—strange to me. Maybe this has more to do with my family than with gender, though gestation and birth are metaphors I continuously associate with writing. I have always believed my body is involved in my thinking as a locus and means of perception and its arousal, that pen and paper transform the hand into the mind.

What I want is simple enough: to combine spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and technical elements into a resistant musical form. To summon the social and political meanings of sound and rhythm as well as meanings whose truths lie beneath or above our syntax. And for it to have the fillip of implication. As Thelonius Monk put it succinctly: "Just how to use the notes differently. That's it."

Among other poetries, I am interested in those that find in sensual experience not a supplement to the rational intellect but a different, even incommensurable form of insight. I distrust definitions and homily and life insurance. And I follow those poems whose rhythms and syntax draw me away from what is already familiar, secure, agreed upon. The thorn-bug and her nymphs clustered on a green stem, the woman at the nursing home stirring her tea with a frozen Charlotte, the twin flight attendants deadheading back to Pittsburgh, the boy in the dog’s bed curled into a question mark, starlight bending near the limb of the sun, coffee cut with honeysuckle, lagoons of coal slurry leaking into an abandoned strip mine, the faces in foreign newspapers of those we have bombed, tomatoes ripened with ethylene gas, two 300-plus pound men in a canoe fishing for alligator gar, fingerling birches, the thrushes already quiet at mid-morning, and my dead friend and his dog Charlie Parker peeing together in the snow: these are the insurmountable a priori of my poems. Exposed, I close my eyes. Listening. Open. Torn awake.