Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

Poetics statement for Lyric Postmodernism, edited by Reginald Shepherd

Notes on a Poetics

In Torn Awake, I was interested most in developing phrasal overlays and polyrhythms and then in driving them through suspensions and repetitions toward a complex emotional and intellectual experience. In Eye Against Eye, I’ve tried to speed up the longer poems, to find lyric rhythms that could evoke the multi-faceted, multi-vocal surge of the present. If the earlier poems are centrifugal, expansive in reference and register, I want the new ones to be centripetal, their energies pressing inward.

Why the difficulty, the dense passages?

I would say that my language is grounded in what Jan Zwicky calls “the essential lack of clarity in human experience attendant on the exercise of our capacity for language.” Aristotle claimed that “not to have one meaning is to have no meaning,” but ambiguity is essential to language and consciousness.

In my quotidian experience, my awareness alternately blurs and sharpens. In my poems, words turn opaque, textured as sound, pitch, rhythm, woven into design and then they come clear as meanings shaped by that design. I think we see them and we see through them. Texture and text. Nontransparent aesthetic form and transparent thematic content. It is this staging of transparence and density, of appearance and disappearance, which is, for me, the erotic tension in the work.

Torn Awake

I’ve wondered whether it is possible to find a line, syntax, rhythmical orchestration that would decentralize the subject’s control of the sentence or, likewise, expand the range of agencies. As part of that investigation in reading, these poems have been nourished by Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible and The Phenomenology of Perception and also by Levinas, Ricouer, Shusterman, and Henri Bergson.

In an earlier book,
Deeds of Utmost Kindness, I tried to work out a lineal and thematic formalism from geology to write the poems of “The Blue Rock Collection.” So, for instance, the poem called “Yellow Quartz” is composed in six lines and references the passage of light because quartz crystals are hexagonal and pellucid. Later, this came to seem arbitrary to me. An entertaining, Oulipoean practice, but overly determined.
Torn Awake’s “Line of Descent,” I wanted the poem to have the look and feel of that winding, cutting back, vertiginous (hence air on both sides) descent by foot into the Grand Canyon, and I was remembering, too, the clarity of the strata as you descend the steeper north face. Of course you read the stratigraphic layers as you descend, not only visually but like a Braille. It is impossible not to trace your fingers across the rocks, to feel the Triassic conglomerates shift into the Permian sandstones and shales and then into the Redwall limestones. The strata extend and thin out or are cut away, and sometimes there are abrupt uncomformities (which the form of the poem about father and son in the KOA bathroom means to enact—the visual unconformity parsing a geological feature into a metaphor for the psychological and emotional disconnection between parent and child). I wanted the line to take all that on.

In “The Hugeness of That Which is Missing,” I’m responding to both a sense of personal loss for a close friend who died—”weeks after the [funeral] service, they open a letter”—and to the radioactive poisoning of the desert. But in the poem, I’m less interested in launching an argument than in allowing the sensual and meditative to interact, as I feel they do in my own actual exigent experience. I hope to provide an inherently different form of insight, one that may be incommensurable with rational analysis. So the poem’s indeterminacy mirrors its thematic obsession with faith, belief, what can be known, how we might continue to feel each other when we are all so blasted, all but overcome by self-concern (“did I piss it away in talking” or “was it insignificant before I bent my gorgeous attention over it”), loss (of friendship, of faith in the “fixed point” of a controlling narrative, of hope), and media’s corruption of language (mistranslation, the blur of events that dilute experience, equivocation, the turn of phrase that is a false step).

In “Voiced Stops”: a language as stressed and baroque and emotionally torqued as the experience, my own anyway, of raising a child beyond all the myths of raising a child. Of being raised by a child.
In “Line of Descent’ with geology and with “Carried Across” with the Spanish language, to incorporate into experience its literal strata—what we stand on as both figural and actual at once—and, in another place, the sound and image and the shifting metaphors of understanding that might begin to give an account of that place. I.e., to write of experience not as something proceeding from a subjectivity but penetrated by the world and others, entangled with corollary systems of meanings, layers of rhythm and voice and depth. To connect the human spirit to the significance of the world that harbors it.