on Literary Influence: Make Us Wave Back, essays by Michael Collier

Writing about Roethke, William Meredith said, “All the writers who go on concerning us after their deaths are men and women who have escaped from a confused human identity into the identity they willed and consented to.” Our population is a clamor of confused human identities, so having one (or having had one) isn’t a mark of distinction. It is the second part of Meredith’s claim that points to value and mission, the determination to shape one’s adult identity through the writing. But also, there is the aspect of “consent” – with its serene or heartless acknowledgement of limitations, trade-offs, and collateral damage.

collier.jpgMeredith and William Maxwell both figure prominently in Michael Collier’s Make Us Wave Back, a collection of essays that circles and pokes at the topic of literary influence. Writing is a long apprenticeship, even after the mentor has taught the ephebe all of his/her tricks, at which point the mentor morphs into an “influence,” by which I don’t mean a memory of dear old times. One’s influences are always present because they provide magnanimous permission. They say: It’s all right to stand in the breach (a prohibited, profane space) between what you experience and what your culture says you are experiencing, and to make poems or stories out of the desolation built into the gap. Abetting the writer in consenting to a breach-identity, an influence is the gift that keeps on giving. A first-rate ephebe may absorb and exploit the full, combined, simultaneous impact of mentor/influence.

Some years ago the pop psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers wrote in Parade magazine that a “chemical exchange” takes place between people who fall in love. She meant it literally, but details were slim. My own experience tells me that there may be unaccountable, remarkable outcomes from certain mentor/ephebe interactions. The feeling is not only hyperactively cerebral, but erotic. Erotic because it is cerebral, the exchange or mixture of internals. The brain flooding (abundance and disaster, in the breach). The pressure to maintain tact is itself an exciting pleasure, and a physical marker for the felt form required in the work at hand. Moreover, the tact demanded by the mentor (however kindly) is also intended to imply something about character. The mentor is the loved one, vulnerably defiant in a harsh world, who seems to vow that a possible alternative may arise in one’s work. All of this, of course, may simply be the ephebe’s long dopamine- and oxytocin-blown runway toward where he would go anyway. But I don’t think so. (I’m not in a position to say what the mentor gets out of this.)

Collier was Meredith’s student at Connecticut College in the early 1970s. They remained close friends until Meredith’s death last May. Meredith wrote of Robert Frost, “He disliked the word compassion, which seemed to stain both giver and taker with crocodile tears, and he liked the word magnanimity, which assumes infinite spirit in the giver and leaves the taker free to put his own price on himself.” A preference for magnanimity suggests more than a vote for high-mindedness. The magnanimous one is in a position to forgive. His arms open wide, but not necessarily to embrace. In an interview, Meredith said, “The response to disaster, even cultural disaster, is an impersonal one and the personal obligation is to mental and spiritual health,” namely one’s own. Frost and Meredith both staked Collier with examples of how to build and consent to a life lived at the writer’s remove. Permission granted. Neither bunker nor outpost, Collier’s erected platform is designed after the sweeter aspects of his influences “who not only helped me to develop a literary temperament but who also helped to socialize and humanize me … to find and make something like a literary home.”

A life may be shaped and validated through the writing, but for some, the shaping occurs predominantly in the writing. Character, as Meredith displayed it for his student, suggested a self-gauging in relation to shared values in the world. Collier learned from Meredith “that a poet’s work was not merely an expression of his experience but that it was interesting and intriguing, and necessary, to the degree in which it enacted a struggle between the private and public, the personal and impersonal.” Perhaps each poet has a preference for a particular speaking location: the personal, the public, or the breach. From a native starting position, one extends in some measure toward the other two. In any event, for Collier the struggle involves the care and feeding of character – and injecting its particular tone into the work. He writes in “An Exact Ratio”:

“Character is probably even less fashionable to talk about today than it was in the seventies. When we do, we might hear it described as a form of personality infrastructure or the hard-wired components of the self. Generally, our attitude is that it’s inherited or determined by the times we live in. Meredith’s point, however, was that you cultivate it and use it like artistic form to resist solipsism and morbidity. Character gets tested during difficult times. In fact, that’s its purpose.”

Collier picked up the idea, held as a belief and now voiced in his poetry, not only of the requirement for a taut connection between poetry and experience, but also for the type of persona who is preoccupied with such a connection. Asked why so few poems are written, Meredith responded, “I think it is because poetry and experience should have an exact ratio … Daily experience is astonishing on a level at which you can write a poem, but astonishing experience would be the experience which is not astonishment of reality but astonishment of insight.” This reminds me of Keats’ recommended “fine excess” in poetry – not an excess of filigree, as in Shelley’s work, but of discovery. I look for fullness in a poem – not of the qualities of the world, but of a searching for them.

Collier tells a story about poets having dinner, discussing the new Nobel Prize recipient of 1975, Eugenio Montale. Objecting to the “fashionable despair” of Montale, Meredith quarreled with some of the other poets. Montale himself knew better than to hone too sharp an edge on despair. He writes in Poet In Our Time, “It is obvious that all real poetry is born from an individual crisis of which the poet may not even be aware. But rather than ‘crisis’ (a word which has become suspect) I would prefer the term ‘dissatisfaction’ – an internal void provisionally filled by the achievement of expression.” Even as a student Collier knew that Meredith had closed off part of his own sensibility by denying Montale’s very reasonable poetics. “What I witnessed in Meredith’s argument at dinner,” says Collier, “was how conviction can distort a man’s style.” Nevertheless, “what I saw, as his student, was an act of courage.” Thus, as a student, Collier was already inclined to feel an affinity for the sanguine view – with modifications: don’t deny the darkness, but keep a lid on distortion. “Character did not suggest balance and stability and harmony but rather the arena where public and private parts of one’s self might negotiate the terms of an existence,” he adds. Character-as-arena is a littered field, private and public parts in competing motions. No wonder that the tone of these essays blends affability, generosity, and a certain lightness of spirit with Collier’s quite specific tastes, traditional values, and sometimes prickly preferences.

William Maxwell is the other presiding influence in Make Us Wave Back. Collier uses a summation of Maxwell’s stature to make a point about art that coincides with his Meredith-derived themes. He writes, “Maxwell has been criticized at times for the overly fastidiousness of his life and art. The source of this criticism promotes a fallacy about art, especially twentieth-century art. In part this fallacy says that inner turmoil needs to express itself in external turmoil: manic art equals manic life or vice versa. Or that controlled and orderly surfaces are repressive and untruthful. Maxwell’s approach, one consistent with his temperament, was different. He developed a manner or working that allowed him to lock onto a particular frequency of experience and to sharpen the tuning as finely and possible” (from “The Dog Gets to Dover”). Frost is quoted by Meredith as saying, “Very few statements which poets make about poetry, even when they appear to be quite lucid, are understandable except in their polemic context.” Piece by piece, Collier’s essays yield, modestly and with decorum, a polemic about his preferred poetics.

Thus, in “Borges and his Precursors,” a fine meditation on Borges’ link to Emerson, he says, “What Borges and Emerson recognize is the negligible role originality plays in one’s art. Or perhaps I should say that art is original as it relates to origins and beginnings rather than spontaneous eruptions or undigested expressiveness.” With Meredith whispering in his ear to crush those despair mongers, he deflects any bleak views we may have of Borges: “Whereas Emerson believed multiplicity leads to a spiritual and transcendental ideal, and ultimately becomes a source of consoling truth, Borges believed it led to a more ironic and paradoxical understanding, an existential confrontation with the human predicament. There is very little in Borges that is meant to console but there is, nevertheless, much that transcends the entropy of the disconsolate.” A miniature transcendence at best, but apparently sufficient to keep a chin up if that is your habit.

In “The Wesleyan Tradition,” Collier takes us through 50 years of poetry publishing by that press, providing a valuable foreshortened view of trends, emphases, and accomplishments. Wesleyan University Press used to be a crossroads of tradition and innovation, the launching point for many notable poets of the post-Lowell generation. Considering the press’ influence, Collier tracks the emergence of “the dominant mode in American poetry from the late seventies until the present,” a merging of James Wright’s “surrealist enterprise” with David Ferry’s “proselike openness of statement” (Robert Pinsky’s descriptors). “That poem, a hybrid of sorts, was already being written by Simpson, Levine and Dickey and would be taken up by seventies poets James Seay, Richard Tillinghast, Anne Stevenson, Clarence Major, and, to some extent, Ellen Bryant Voight.” Noting “the forceful presence of a governing tone or voice,” the rise of the prose lyric and the dominance of tone, he says, “All prose lyrics have in common a surface realism of particular details which are used to establish a dramatic event in a specific time and place.”

Meredith inculcated the importance of “character” in Collier – but also, “ ‘temperament’ was a word he liked to use when describing the imperatives one lives by. Our temperaments were to be discovered as examples of human response.” Visibility is mandated here – the act must be intentional, clear and recognizable, meaning undistorted for novelty’s sake. “Innovation comes about by absorbing convention or tradition of a particular kind,” he states. And since “all poetry resists language and pushes the restrictions imposed by syntax,” Collier turns away from Language or theory-based poets who “see syntax as a coercive agent, that its patterns force us to write in predetermined ways. In order to resist this force, which is also a social and political force, you write against syntax.” He continues, “I understand this as an aesthetic argument and I think I even agree with aspects of its premise. Intellectually I’m drawn to it, but emotionally I don’t respond to it.” Nevertheless, Collier’s impulse as a teacher is to include and validate. “All poetry resists common meaning,” he says. “All poetry resists accessibility. Poetry resides in paradox, uncertainty, and contradiction, and in the contrasts and comparisons that metaphor creates.”

The final piece in the book is an interview, an insightful companion to Collier’s books of poems. Here again he says, “From Meredith I learned something about decorum, about the necessity to be truthful, to avoid glibness … I learned as well that there’s a connection between the poet’s life and work that is essential for both the integrity of the life and the work.” But between ephebe and master, something ineffable and strange, beyond or beside character, teaches where poetry’s power comes from.

From Collier’s book The Ledge, this is his poem for William Meredith:

THE FARRIER

The book is in my hands then his.
The desk, the lamp, the carpet fragment,
the pictures of the poets on the wall,
and then the window, and out beyond
the window, the land drops off steeply
to the river. The river winds into the sound
and the sound into the ocean. The book
we are reading is not the thing we pass
between us. The book we are reading
has not been written. It won’t contain
“The Poem of Two Friends.” It won’t be called
“Teacher & Student,” even now that one of us
is old, the other idling fluidly in middle age:
the book won’t be written.

So how will we sort

the hammer and tongs? Who will wear
the bright bandanna around his head
or forge the useless shoe?
What is the sound the anvil
no longer makes?

The worked iron

cools in its own steam. It’s night
beyond the window. Inside, the light
is bright enough for reading.
A mist spreads upward from the river.
The book is in his hand then mine.

(Make Us Wave Back is published by the University of Michigan Press. 160 pages, $45.00 cloth, $19.95 paper. Michael Collier has published four books of poems, most recently Dark Wild Realm.)