4.09.2009

The scrambled oeuvre of Henry Gould

Play, play,
it's time to play!
Play all day,
that's what I say!
Your work is done,
come out in the sun -
play, play, play!


If you count this poem I composed at age 4 (in 1956), preserved by my father in pencil on a key tab, I have been writing poetry for over 50 years. Actually, there was a hiatus of about 10 years there, when I played at various other things. I started up again in jr. high school, with the encouragement of good teachers, good books, and fellow student literati. I kept writing through high school, influenced by ee cummings, Rimbaud, the NY School poets... & when I got to college (here at ol' Brown) I really took off : within a year I had won 3 literary awards. I was on my way.

Then I had my strange encounter with Shakespeare & the Bible... dropped out of school, dropped (partially) out of poetry... traveled around, was at various times a missionary of one, music bum, organic gardener, food coop manager, community organizer. Discovered the life & poetry of Osip Mandelstam. Began to read modern long poems (Pound, Williams, Olson...). Got married, became a father. My last job outside the library (I was scraping the bottom) was as a "professional resume writer". I made what seemed to be a conscious, principled decision to step back from community activism so as to concentrate on my writing. I became a door guard in the Rockefeller Library, at my alma mater. That was in 1984. Have been doing that (concentrating on my writing), mostly, ever since.

Aside from a prize from the Pawtucket (RI) Arts Council (annual poetry contest), those college awards I garnered back in 1971 are just about the last "official" recognition, as poet, I've received from the outside world. I've had much friendly acknowledgement & support from some other poets (Edwin Honig, John Tagliabue, Stuart Blazer, Karen Donovan, Lissa Wolsak, Tom Epstein, Elena Shvarts, & many internet pals, in particular). I'm proud of the fact that I've had 3 poems published on the op-ed page of the local newspaper, the Providence Journal (including my elegy for Joseph Brodsky). I've edited a little mag (Nedge) and an anthology for Edwin Honig (Glass of Green Tea - with Honig), & Honig's collected poems (Time & Again). I helped organize the Poetry Mission, which sponsored a number of readings & events back in the 90s. I've spent (& perhaps largely wasted... though not all a waste, by any means) a lot of time & hot air on internet poetry chat lists & blogs.

& that's my back story. (I'm probably forgetting several important things.) What about the poetry?

As far as style, the major influences are : NY School; John Berryman; the magnetic, harmonic, elusive imagery of Osip Mandelstam; Hart Crane, as filtered through Mandelstam (I saw a kinship there); the long poems of Pound, Olson & Williams, with Crane as my pivot & counterpoint; & other Russian poets.

I've written many long poems, oscillating between the stylistic poles of Paterson & The Bridge. I've written some very short, gnomic poems (mostly back in the '80s) which I still like. & I've written a lot in between, sometimes in particular short forms (sestinas, odes, one glose, pantoums, one nocturne...).

As far as subject-matter, themes, I would say there are 3 basic chords : love/nostalgia; history; metaphysics/religion.

The threads of Byzantium & early Rhode Island history run through it, and are sometimes intertwined. Why? I see Byzantium as filtered through Mandelstam & Russian poetry. I think of it as the place where the Jewish understanding of God & the Greek understanding of Man & the Roman sense of government grew together. Theologians like Maximus the Confessor articulated an intellectual balance between the human & the divine - between the incomparable & mysterious historical earthquake which was Jesus, and the philosophical comprehension of experience.

I see the work of Roger Williams as both a parallel & a counterweight to Byzantium. By recognizing that divine "Providence" works mysteriously through all mankind, Williams was able to assert the separation of the "two tables" of the Mosaic law, the civil & the sacred, and sanction the freedom of the individual conscience to seek its own way to the Way. Behind Williams' equilibrium, and the new kind of State he founded upon it, lies the whole law-ful civilization of the West : going back to the Middle Ages, to Rome & Byzantium, & finally to Athens & Jerusalem.

My sense of poetry is that it is a kind of song-language, slightly alien & differing from normal everyday discourse, or prose; and this difference, for me, registers the gap between the worldly & the visionary, the secular & the spiritual, the world of habit & convention, and the world of consciousness & creation. The motor driving the whole thing goes back to the charismatic faith-experiences I underwent in the early 70s (sketched out elsewhere). After these experiences I can only understand life, the universe, and consciousness as fundamentally alive, vital, conscious, personal, spiritual. The cornerstone of the entire edifice (if such it is) rests in one notion : the constant awareness that the human person is an image, seeking to be a likeness, of the divine Person(s). Call it Jung's or Chas. Olson's "Self", if you will - though for me that doesn't quite capture it, precisely because my sense of God is orthodox & Trinitarian : ie. we don't comprehend the full nature of God without including the whole record of divine intervention, sacrifice & fulfillment in the people of God, & in person & acts of Jesus.

For the person interested primarily in poetry, I realize this is a lot of heavy-duty religion piled on top. Can someone even be a free artist, a free thinker, & carry around all this (perhaps mythological) baggage? I guess that's not up to me to decide. Poetry itself - mine included - cannot be "doctrinal" : it springs, like music, from sources more primitive, primordial, universal, maybe inarticulate. The impulse toward song & beauty runs back deep into the unconscious - to the other side of the mirror, the far side of the moon.

A lot of my poetry is available, but it gets little attention. I think people generally don't know what to make of an artist who falls outside the official zones of recognition & promotion. It's not as though I've kept my distance, or kept aloof - I've had my share of rejection slips etc. & I will keep trying to break in in various ways, because I'm the eldest son of a successful man, I come from a hard-working middle-class background, & I want to be able to feel that my 30-odd years devoted to poetry haven't been completely in vain. But that's not up to me, either. There's a kind of special fate attached to a culture's poetry : & only if the Muse actually spent the night, will there be any lasting trace.

2 comments:

baj salchert said...

Those of us who believe in a Trinitarian Diety and all that entails, do; and so we, though we continue to fail, try to live what we believe, even when we have arguments with our God. For me, one who gets frustrated easily, being kind to others is key. Oh, I could make--and have--didactic artifacts.

Several days ago I read the Jacket Kent Johnson interview of you, and then read a little of Island Road. It surprised me that Ted Berrigan was an influence, and that your sonnets are more loosely structured than I would have expected after reading so many of your comments. I plan to read the entire IR. *
Brian

Henry Gould said...

Thanks, Brian, for your comments, & your kindly interest!

Island Road has an overall design, which I guess is more implicit & conceptual than concrete. But you're right, the individual poems, for the most part, are more like "para-sonnets" than true sonnets.