Interviews May 2002

An Aesthetics of Inadequacy

An Aesthetics of Inadequacy

Alan Shapiro, the author of Song and Dance, talks about poetry as an expression of mourning
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Song and Dance: Poems
by Alan Shapiro
Houghton Mifflin
80 pages, $22.00

When, as a college freshman, Alan Shapiro decided to become a poet, he failed to keep it from his family. Soon his Uncle Burt was grabbing him by the arm at gatherings and announcing, "You gotta watch what you say around this guy, it's liable to end up in a little odey."

It's an event so common in the early lives of writers—first efforts publicly trivialized by older family members—that there ought to be a literary term for it: kinning, maybe. Shapiro gets even by telling the story of his uncle's teasing in the title essay of his 1996 collection The Last Happy Occasion, and it's satisfying to see him get a laugh at the expense of a man who got so many at his.

But perhaps the last laugh belongs to Burt after all. His wisecrack—a casual remark about casual remarks ending up in his nephew's writing—did end up in his nephew's writing. And Shapiro did go on to produce book after book of autobiographical poems, many of them odes.

Selected Poems by Alan Shapiro from Song and Dance:

"The Accident"

"Joy"

In the same essay, written in 1994, Shapiro shares a darker story. One morning he dashed out his front door to a terrifying scene. Della, his wife at the time, was on her hands and knees in the street, helplessly screaming as a neighbor's dog savagely attacked their golden retriever, Birdy. Della was nine-months pregnant—due, in fact, that very day—and had fallen on her stomach while trying to intervene. The other dog's owner finally appeared and separated the pair, but showed no contrition or even concern. Thankfully, everyone was all right, but the fury Shapiro felt toward his neighbor got him thinking about deeper and less-mutable angers, grievances so spirit-consuming they make sympathy impossible: "What if Della had been injured and we'd lost the baby? What if Birdy had been killed? These questions, morbid as they are, make me wonder about ... experiences so devastating in their effects that they permanently destroy the victim's desire to understand the victimizer. Does the empathic power of imagination in which I place such faith have any power over Serbs and Muslims, Palestinians and Jews? ... How often have I told my students that to write or read poetry you have to have sympathy even for the devil. Yet now I wonder if such sympathy is only possible for those whom the devil hasn't really touched."

Since then, the devil has touched Shapiro's life profoundly and repeatedly. In 1995, his sister, Beth, died of breast cancer. Three years later, brain cancer took his brother, David. Both illnesses were protracted and painful, and during the same period, his parents' health began to fail and his marriage of sixteen years fell apart.

Shapiro continued writing throughout. He chronicled his sister's decline and death in Vigil, a book of essays that concludes with a series of lyric poems. And in March of this year he published Song and Dance, a collection of poems lamenting and celebrating his brother.

But proving that poetry is still possible after devastating loss has been a cold comfort. The poems he's written since the deaths of his siblings aren't sources of solace, he says, because nothing is. Elegaic poetry is merely an expression of grief—utterly necessary and utterly inadequate.

Shapiro's other books include After the Digging (1981), The Courtesy (1984), Happy Hour (1987), Covenant (1991), Mixed Company (1996), which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Selected Poems, 1974-1996, and The Dead Alive and Busy (2000), which won the Kingsley Tufts Award. He teaches at the University of North Carolina and lives in Chapel Hill. He spoke with me recently from his home.

—Eric McHenry


Alan Shapiro
Alan Shapiro   

It's occurred to me that the writing of Vigil and Song and Dance must have been doubly and perhaps triply painful for you. Not only were you dealing with devastating events, you were dealing with the family problems and conflicts they provoked. And, on top of that, you were in many cases writing about people who were eventually going to read the work—portraits that are often unflattering, that show a whole range of human emotion and behavior. Were there stories you chose to withhold, even though they would have strengthened the essays or poems?

To me, it's a question of spirit and intention. If I'm writing something with the intention of hurting somebody, if I have an axe to grind or a hidden agenda, then I'm going to suppress that, I'm not going to publish it. To the best of my knowledge, everything I've written has been written in a spirit of understanding and sympathy, in an attempt to gain some kind of clarity about a very confusing and painful situation. I do feel that it is my obligation as a writer to tell the truth. And I do want to present the people who are closest to me as fully rounded characters. That said, I also need to remind myself when I'm writing that nobody wants to give up narrative control over their own experience, and no matter what you say about somebody, whether it's critical or laudatory, they might not like it.

I found that out the hard way when I wrote The Last Happy Occasion. There are portraits in that book that are not negative, or that I didn't think were negative, but which apparently caused feelings of outrage, embarrassment, and betrayal in the people depicted. I lost friendships over that book and was very surprised. In fact, my first wife, when she read the book, wrote me threatening to sue, because she thought I'd diminished the humanity of her family and misrepresented the nature of our marriage. When I told my mother about this—"Carol Ann is threatening to sue me, Mom"—my mother said, "That's outrageous. The only person who should want to sue you over this book is me!"

People have a right not to be represented, and I have violated that right. It's different in poetry, because people assume that poems don't mean what they say. Moreover, it doesn't have as large an audience, and people don't feel as transparently revealed in a poem as they would in an essay. But with the nonfiction that I've written, I was surprised to find out how upset certain people were, and in retrospect I've realized that it was naive of me to be surprised. I should have expected it. And I probably, in some cases, should have respected people's desire for privacy more than I did.

Is that one of the reasons that you chose to treat the subject of your brother David's death in poetry? You've written prose about David and poetry about your sister, Beth, but Beth's book is the book of prose and David's book is the book of poetry, and I wonder what informed that choice.

It was desperation that informed that choice. By the time my brother died my family had been through so much pain and trauma—there was my sister's death, the disintegration of my parents' bodies, and the breakup of my own marriage of sixteen years under very difficult circumstances, circumstances coinciding with my brother's illness. The arc of his illness followed the same timeline as the disintegration of my marriage. In fact my wife and I split up a month or so before my brother died. And so I had just moved out of the house and into an apartment in Chapel Hill—a basement apartment in a house whose owner was an eighty-some-year-old woman who had Alzheimer's disease, and who every few days was knocking on my door to introduce herself. I needed poetry then. I didn't need prose. I needed song. I needed art at its most elevated—as elevated as I could make it, anyway. There was too much pain there for prose. That's why I wrote about David's death in a book of poems. I wrote Vigil as a book of prose because I wanted to have readers for it, frankly. I knew that if I wrote it as a book of poems, it would have the usual five or six readers. And I wanted a wider audience. But by the time my brother got sick and died, I didn't care about audience anymore. I was just trying to write to hold myself together.

In the prose-poem "Last Impressions," the final poem in Song and Dance, you reveal that comic impersonations were David's way of laughing in the face of the terrible—a sort of gallows humor that provides what Frost might call "a momentary stay against confusion." Does writing, in your life, function the way impressions did in David's—as something you can turn to in desperate moments for a little bit of solace and order?

I had gone through a period of such radical instability and discontinuity that I needed to find and take comfort in what forms of continuity still remained to me. I had always thought that I was going to be somebody's brother, and all of a sudden I was nobody's brother, so a crucial part of my identity was gone. I had always thought I was going to be my wife's husband, and that part of my identity was gone. I had always thought of myself as somebody's son, and then I was faced with my parents' old age and their imminent mortality. They're still alive, but at the time everybody seemed extraordinarily frail. So much of who I had been was now no longer, and I needed to turn to those parts of myself that still persisted. I had always been somebody who played basketball, so I played a lot of basketball through that period. I was still a father to my children, so I spent a lot of time with my children. And I was still a writer, so I wrote, and what I had spent most of my life writing was poetry, so I went back to that. And in a way poetry provided me with a stay, not against confusion, but against disintegration and loss.

Of course it doesn't really insulate me from loss at all. It's a funny thing. The title of the book, Song and Dance, is really an important key to how to read the book. On the one hand, it refers to David's life, which was spent on stage. He was a Broadway performer, a musical comedy star. But it also draws on the pejorative expression, "Don't give me that song and dance." Don't try to pull a fast one on me. This book of poems isn't going to do what the beauty and grace and formal symmetries of poetry suggest it might. I wanted the book to remind me as well as the reader that the division between art and suffering is absolute, even as we necessarily and helplessly try to bridge it.

In The Dead Alive and Busy, and in many of your previous collections, you wrote pretty clean pentameters and hexameters. It was very consciously formal; even when it broke with our expectations for form, there was a consciousness of form. That's present in Song and Dance, too, but it seems like the alteration of the traditional form has been taken a step further. I guess I'm thinking especially of those poems that cascade down the page. The lines are rather dramatically broken, but they still scan as pentameter if you take away those breaks. I wonder if the need to further fracture the line was related to the book's subject.

I wanted the book to situate itself squarely in the monumentalist tradition —to celebrate the dead. Hence, there's a heavily cadenced iambic pentameter line that runs throughout many of those poems. At the same time, I was writing the poems out of an acute sense of how utterly inadequate they were as a response to suffering. And so I wanted to break the line. Even as I was trying to aspire to the condition of that elegaic line, I also wanted to acknowledge that I couldn't do it anymore, or that even as I did it there was still this sense that it was falling apart, that it wasn't working.

There are a lot of clichés about what art can do for us—therapy and all this. I do think that art can console and can clarify difficult situations. But at the same time, it's just so much less than what we need in the presence of catastrophic loss. People praise me all the time for the courage it must have taken to write this book and other books about the terrible things that have happened to my family. They remark upon how lucky I am to have a tool like poetry, with which I can work through my grief and come to terms with what I've lost. But as I wrote these poems, I didn't feel either courageous or lucky. And while it might have looked from the outside like I was facing my own bereavement head-on, I was in fact doing just the opposite. Writing wasn't grieving but the deferral of grief, or at the very best the transformation of what I was passively suffering into something I could actively make. I was transforming a terrible sorrow into an aesthetic problem that the writing of the poem was a way to solve. But all I solved in writing the poems was the writing of the poems. I wasn't released from pain, and the pain itself, even as I wrote about it, had nothing to do with knowledge—despite Aeschylus's statement, "All knowledge comes from suffering," all that came from my suffering was suffering.

It's like the end of Randall Jarrell's "90 North": "Pain comes from the darkness/And we call it wisdom. It is pain."

That's exactly right. That's a very important poem for me. And writing about the anger that I felt at what had happened to my family didn't release me from the anger. I didn't feel any less enraged by the undeserved absurdity and waste of what had happened.

In the essay "The Last Happy Occasion," you suggested that overwhelming loss makes poetry impossible. Since writing that, you've lost a sister and a brother, and you've continued writing poems. I wonder if you have new thoughts about that notion. Have rage and grief made poetry all the more difficult or all the more necessary, or both?

I had this tremendous faith in the sort of Kenneth Burkeian notion of art providing equipment for living, and I still believe in that. I still believe that it's good to know a lot of stories and poems, and that it can help enrich your life. But has a work of art ever averted an atrocity? Has it made us better? More morally sophisticated? More humane? More compassionate? The art I'm most interested in is the kind that cultivates compassion and sympathy and broadens our imaginative as well as intellectual horizons. But at the same time, it doesn't insulate you from anything. It doesn't provide you with equipment for the worst things that could happen. We are ultimately needy and vulnerable creatures, and there's nothing we can do to make us any less needy and vulnerable.

I still believe that you can distinguish between good and bad poems. What is it that makes a bad poem? Well, it flinches in the face of crisis. It seeks refuge in platitude or cliché, or even in Beauty with a capital B: Beauty that falsifies by failing to attend to the beauty-resisting, irreducibly complicated truths that are part of experience. When we read a poem about some catastrophic illness or devastating loss or terrible injustice, we only truly feel less alone if the poem honors the complexity of what, to invoke Frost again, "we didn't know we knew." We can only truly feel connected to others, to a community of fellow hostages to fortune, if the isolating inward force of pain has been countered by the outward social force of language. I believe that. At least, part of me believes that. The liberal humanist believes that. But as the postmodern skeptic who watched his sister and brother die so horribly and his family fall apart, and who now can't help but see art as a necessary but woefully inadequate response to suffering and loss, I can't give my full assent to that anymore. I can't embrace the belief that art redeems our losses, nor can I afford to live without it. That's why I love Greek tragedy. Because that same distrust and skepticism runs through that genre itself. The best tragedies appeal to our desire for art to redeem or make sense of the terrible things that happen to us, and at the same time acknowledge the improbability of it ever doing so.

In your poem "To the Body," I notice a similarity to the language in some of the odes Robert Pinsky has been writing recently, especially the "Ode to Meaning"—those strings of epithets, working through different characterizations of the apostrophized object. Was his poetry, consciously or unconsciously, an influence on that or other poems of yours?

You've found me out. It was very much a conscious influence. Robert has had a huge influence on my work, as has David Ferry, C. K. Williams, and Frank Bidart. Among that generation of poets, those are the ones who have most influenced me. But yes, "To the Body" is both a poem of praise, an apostrophe, and a poem that moves, quickly, from epithets and metaphors into brief narratives.

Little autobiographical episodes.

Right, and then moves back from that. The trick of it, the art of it, is to try to move as seamlessly as you can from one mode to the other, from high to low, from right to left, and back again. It's the heterogeneity of the language and of the modes of discourse that's so interesting in Robert's work, and that I've tried to make use of in my own. The vitality inheres in the very impurity of the language.

That also speaks to something you write about in your essay "The Last Happy Occasion"—the need to take an experience and stylize it, to an extent, in order to make poetry. You can't overstylize or it loses its rootedness in the experience that's the poem's occasion, but you can't understylize or you get something drier, more like reportage.

Absolutely. It's partly related to the issue of cultural and national identity. The identity of the Jewish-American poet, say, or of any American poet of any racial or ethnic stripe, it seems to me, adheres in the hyphen. My identity is quintessentially American because of its impurity, its mongrel status—the fact that it's pieced together from a wide variety of histories that are informed by an even wider and more heterogeneous variety of histories. So in a way, I want to be able to honor the whole range of that hyphenated term. My identity is what it is because I read the Torah when I was a kid, and because Yiddish idioms and intonations permeated the American English that my parents' grandparents spoke. And it's what it is because I couldn't sit down to dinner throughout my childhood without hearing stories of Adolf Hitler, and because many of my neighbors were Holocaust survivors. And at the same time, I was raised in a conservative Jewish household, and I absolutely hated the religious training that I got. I hated Hebrew school. I hated being stuck in a classroom learning a language no one I knew spoke while all my gentile friends were out on the playground playing basketball.

I guess you could also say that my identity is what it is because during the Cuban Missile Crisis I was certain that everyone on the planet was going to die in a nuclear holocaust. It's what it is because of Vietnam. It's what it is because of the Six Day War, and because of Woodstock, and because while my parents and their friends were singing songs like "If I Were a Rich Man" I was singing "Who put the bop in the bop-she-bop-she-bop?". And I haven't even talked about education: my identity is what it is because I write in English and was schooled in the classical and Christian literary traditions—traditions that are themselves amalgams of different languages, different conquered and conquering cultures, city-states, empires. And because the language I speak and write is in itself the effect of dispossession and displacement. I want to be able to devise a way of writing that can make a place for all of those influences. The high and the low. The elevated, the demotic. The literary, the street slang. The popular culture, the high culture. All of that has to have a place in what I write, if what I write is an attempt to bring the whole soul into activity, as Coleridge says it ought to be. It's got to be impure if it's going to be good.

What were some of your reasons for wanting to write a number of poems that would pose a question and then attempt to address it, or that would have a voice in italics come in and respond to or qualify what had just been said?

I guess it goes back to the sense of the self being multivocal and fragmentary. All of the voices are mine, but there's a sense in which I can't quite make them cohere. You notice that the answers to the questions aren't direct, really. They're oblique or slightly skewed. Have you ever seen a bunch of cats sitting together? They're all sort of looking off in different directions. The questions are going in one direction and the answers are slightly off to the side. The very structure itself implies the desire for understanding and clarity, but the fact that the answers aren't quite meeting the questions suggests that the fractures of the self I'm attempting to hold together aren't quite being held together. I think it's something like that—a desire for unity in the context of multiplicity, but a desire that isn't quite satisfied. It isn't quite not satisfied either.

You conclude Song and Dance with the surprising image of a tuxedo being splattered with mud at the end of "Last Impressions." The idea that David's impressions can offer any sort of solace is slyly undermined, it seems, by the metaphor you chose, which is so ugly. Were you working there to remain true to the fundamental ugliness of everything that was going on?

Absolutely. The kind of poetry that I needed back in 1999, when my brother was dying, and frankly still need now, is one that wants to raise the dead—that wants to bring the beloved back to life, and that refuses to settle for any kind of substitute, however beautiful. I want the kind of poem that recognizes that since it can't raise the dead, everything else is a piss-poor substitute. I want, somehow, to develop an aesthetics of inadequacy—inadequacy as a way of honoring the dead. The occasion of the work I've done over the last several years has been loss, mortality, illness, and grief of one kind or another. But the subject, really, of my last several books is the beauty and supreme value of human attachment. Mourning, lament, every song of sorrow, is simultaneously a song of praise, because you wouldn't grieve for something you lost unless you valued it very highly. So it's praise poetry, ultimately. Hence, to come back to your earlier question about why I was drawn to the sort of odal format that Robert Pinsky has utilized with such success over the last several years, it's because I want to praise. This is a book that tries to praise inclusively and truthfully.

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Eric McHenry has written about books for Slate, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The New York Times Book Review.

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