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G.C. Waldrep–Poetics Statement


(rough draft)

I don’t know how else to say this:  my poems are my poetics.  I only know what I am doing (to the extent that I do) in the poem, in the context and purview of an actual poem.  Everything else is diagnostic and conjectural, like reading tea leaves or entrails.  I can always stop what I am doing and turn and look back at my poems, and try to understand better what they were always/already doing.  Though one risks turning to stone.

Composing a poem is, for me, like tuning a radio to a station, and then copying down–quite literally (I have even learned how to tune myself to that frequency at will, although I don’t control the clarity of the reception:  sometimes it’s just, or mostly, static coming through).  I almost never know where a poem is going more than a line or two ahead—if that.  Part of the thrill of composition is watching something obtain from nothing; it is the Making aspect, little fathers that we are.

I’ve been thinking lately—while reading my colleague Harold Schweizer’s excellent On Waiting (Routledge, 2008)—about duration, poetry-as-duration, the poem as a captive moment, a captive (or-ating) intelligence.  As Charles Simic writes in “The Truth of Poetry” (in Dime-Store Alchemy, his homage to Joseph Cornell), “A toy is a trap for dreamers.  The true toy is a poetic object.”  The poem is captivating but also captive in time, simultaneously, even as the reader’s experience of the both is both subject to and evades time.  The question, as Simic restates it on Cornell’s behalf, is “How to construct a vehicle of reverie, an object that would enrich the imagination of the viewer [or reader] and keep him company forever.”

Or:  the poem as itself a unit of measurement, of empathy, of experience, of apprehension.


The idea of poetics as community interests me, but I don’t really understand the communities poetry creates, or convokes.  I’ve said before that the arts are one of the few ways we know of through which the living talk to the dead, or vice versa:  our poems talk to their poems.  Thus I think poems have their own “community,” their own affinities and circles… which are not always human, not always about us.  Sometimes it’s about the dead, or those who haven’t come yet.

Another problem I run into—when discussing anything like my “poetics”—is how much to cue my theology, as a Christian of a particular tradition or persuasion.  I wouldn’t ever say that theology undergirds the poetry, but it most definitely (even essentially) undergirds me. And since I started writing poetry just after I made that religious commitment, my development in the art has paralleled, and been inextricably intertwined with, my faith.

The particular language of my religious commitment is quite orthodox and, I think, would prove offensive to some readers, who I hope can find things to value in the poetry even if they do not recognize and/or share some of the work’s philosophical underpinnings.  And of course it’s not like I am thinking rationally about theology when I am composing a poem.

“To write poems,” the Finnish poet Gösta Ågren maintains, “is to encroach upon / oneself, to see / if one is alive.”


Poetry is like entering a room someone or something has just left.  Maybe it’s a homey sitting room, a fire crackling in the grate, inviting; maybe it’s a sumptuously-appointed hall.  Either way, you’re the only one there.  There was music playing, but it’s quiet now.  You’ve missed someone or something important by minutes, perhaps even seconds.  The telephone has just been ringing—somehow you know this—and you pick it up, just in time to hear click.

All poets, then, are messianic:  or rather, all poems.  Still waiting for something that may have already moved on, or may yet still abide, immanent.  Only:  we remain in bodies.  One must occupy somehow.  As men and women we may experience a lively expectation, but the poem, caged in language, knows only the precinct of its cage.  Each poem inhabits its own version of Plato’s cave.

The poem exists as incarnation-in-language, if such a thing were possible.  (The flesh of language, the word made flesh, minuscule, untransubstantiated.)  It bodies-forth in language, it achieves a particular synthesis of spirit & substance and we call “poetry.”  But it cannot save man because, unlike Christ, it cannot die and rise again from death on our behalf.


“The difficulties begin when you understand what it is that the soul will not permit the hand to make,” Philip Guston (of all people) once wrote.

Existentialism, as a system—a belief system, a philosophical system, ultimately as the basis for literature or literary criticism—is quite simply theology with the Theos amputated.  It asks the same questions.  Without the presence of God, it becomes the original Ourobourous, eating its own tail as it goes, turning endless violent circles.  (This is precisely why Stevens, unable to believe himself but intensely interested in the formal requirements of philosophy, posited art as the “necessary fiction” that must take God’s place.)

Reading Maurice Blanchot always proves a chore because, though he is perhaps the most spiritual of the postmodern French critics (save Levinas), he remains entrapped in this web of signification vs. non-signification.  Language has form; indeed, it is form; but in the context of an intolerable, irreducible nothingness—a void of ultimate meaning to which one can only respond with inarticulate “feeling,” of which “madness” and “dread” are two key, inescapable components.

Because we as Christians do not believe that language—the drive towards language, towards form more generally, towards making-in-language, making-in-form—occurs within a larger context of the void, of existentially meaningless (or at least existentially inaccessible) endeavor.  We believe it takes place inside a larger context which is God, and God’s plan for the world through Christ.  One can, as Jabès and Celan did, identify God with the void—a god of absence, God-as-divine-Absence.  But this is a cruel parody, or perversion.

It is not that I as a Christian writer am not asking the same basic questions:  I am, and I tend to agree with the first page of each of Blanchot’s literary essays.  But without God or Christ the thought captures itself:  becomes, if not paralyzed or immobilized, then at least tragically fixed—it declines to precisely a vicious circle (the title of one of his key books).  I find myself venturing further into each of Blanchot’s essays as a succession of negations, I mean on my part:  no this is not true; no this generalization is not valid, nor are the consequential hypotheses Blanchot draws from it.  The vicious circle tightens to a point, a singularity.

Which is neither poetry’s office nor its chief tendency.  René Char:  “However long its tether, poetry wounds itself in our hands as we are wounded, in turn, by its escapings.”


And then there is music, which was my first passionate love in the arts.  I trained as a singer and sometime–conductor, specializing in the early repertoire (European music up through 1650 or so):  plainchant, yes, but also the great works of Renaissance polyphony.

I think polyphony creates, or convokes, great architectures:  of mind, of spirit.  For me, singing or conducting in 6- (or 8-, or 12-) part harmony, especially polyphonic harmony, gave the feeling of walking through a vast, provisionally bounded space.  Orchestral symphonies have the same effect:  it’s not hard to imagine any great symphony, from Mahler to Sibelius, as convoking a palace in the mind.  But for me vocal polyphony is different.  Vocal polyphony forges a connection in the voice—in the body, that emerges from the body—voices, in the plural—with the Object of that polyphony.  A room with a view, as it were.

To be sure, the architectures convoked by medieval or Renaissance polyphony or the more rustic shape-note hymns are usually religious, that is to say, didactic.  But I think all language is didactic, in the sense that every poem says “Touch here. Feel here.

“Meaning” is never quite the question in music, even when an accompanying text bears explicit, verbal witness.  (The architects of the Reformation understood this, and feared it.)

When I think about the construction of a poem, I think about the architecture it convokes:  I think about the room or rooms, the means of ingress or egress, the metaphorical light.  I also think about the polyphonic qualities of the voice.  The mansion, the music of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is very different real estate from the architecture of, say, C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining, though they are both palaces I like to visit on a regular basis.


The question, in postmodernity, in our exigent moment, is what is still possible.

To what extent is poetry itself a theology of expectation? And just what sort of expectation are we talking about?  Paul Celan’s poems are not only discrete in their wounds (the wounds they tear in language, the wounds language tears in experience, into the white page) but in that they seem to gesture, to yearn towards an outside they neither believe in nor permit.

There are many kinds of music a poem can make.  Only some of them are audible.

The poem knows what it must not believe in.  It communicates in those terms, and those terms alone.

“Extreme clarity is a mystery,” Mahmoud Darwish maintains.

Nothing is a retreat from anything, anymore.


All of which is to suggest that Jack Spicer remains important to me, more as goad than guide.  The difference between my practice and Spicer’s is that I not only believe there is an Outside, and that it speaks to and through us, I believe it also has a Name—a Source.

“The word of God is not commandment but correspondence,” Edmond Jabès writes.  “Every work cancels the dark.”  We are frangible, fallible creatures—hence Spicer’s bitter, pointed pun on logos, “Low-ghost.”

The thing is, a living faith—like a living art—exfoliates.  The discourse alters in the speaking, as the poems do, in the making.  Whitman broke the lilac blossoms from their stems because the body is never the same body twice.

We can’t vanquish time, but we can step outside of it, for a little while.  Literature is one way.  The mind, the fact of God is another.  Art goes on before us, to make a place for us in Time, as Christ goes on before us to make a place for us in Eternity.


Addendum to inform into the above


Good morning,

Oh, so the focus has to be on community.  (Rereads original anthology prospectus:  there it is.  Whoops.)  Well, that is more difficult, for me.  I’m totally unsure, as I say, what sort of true “community” invokes, convokes, or evokes.  And, as someone who lives in a pretty vital hands-on religious community, I confess I’m somewhat suspicious of virtual communities:  I mean, the idea of such.  They’re real, but whatever they may be, they’re totally different from other, flesh-and-blood forms of community.  (I actually address this in a paragraph or so in the interview I just completed with Ilya K[aminsky] and Katie Towler.)

I don’t think I can say much more about community qua poetry or poetry qua community at this point.  Although some of my church community brethren have asked to read my writing, and I have even sat down with a few of them and gone over it with them (most are dairy farmers; the more postmodern/allusive styles and forms my work takes are new to them), they are satisfied to know that I am a poet.  It is not our point of primary, or even secondary (or tertiary!), connection, any more than I connect with my dairy farmer brethren in terms of their dairying or my plumber friend in terms of his plumbing.

And as for poetry communities, I try not to invest too deeply in them.  For one thing, I believe my primary investment, emotionally and spiritually, should be in the church.  For another thing, my work doesn’t lend itself well to any particular “group” or “school” at this point–I’ve noticed it’s too rich and lyrical for many of the avant-garde/innovative poetry group/cliques, while of course it’s way too oblique for any group that values “accessibility” or emphasizes narrative or the confessional.

So I make friends where I can–allies, if you will–here and there, a diverse & eclectic group.  Ilya, of course.  Dana Levin.  Dan Beachy-Quick.  John Gallaher.  Joshua Marie Wilkinson.  These are some folks I feel close to, personally and aesthetically.  Interestingly, almost none of the people I feel close to in this sense are close to each other (though most of them know each other; American poetry is a small world).  They participate in other relationships, other matrices of association.

In terms of readership, one writes for the ideal reader, always.  My work is very intensely personal and imagines a single reader on the other end, if it imagines a reader at all.  An intimate relationship, 1:1 while the poem lasts.  That is, a community of 2.  Precisely and (almost) without exception.

Poems talk to other poems, but that’s something different.  It is not a human economy, and I don’t pretend to understand it, though I like to watch.

I am going to print out the other things you sent and read.  On first glance they look wonderful.  (On second glance, we are all dead, but that’s another story.  grin)

Travel safely,


G.C. Waldrep is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Archicembalo (2009), winner of the Dorset Prize, Your Father on the Train of Ghosts (2011), a collaboration with the poet John Gallaher, and Disclamor (2007). His work has appeared widely in journals, including Poetry, Ploughshares, APR, New American Writing, Boulevard, New England Review, Threepenny Review, Harper’s, and Tin House, as well as in The Best American Poetry 2010 and Postmodern American Poetry:  A Norton Anthology (2nd edition). He has received a Gertrude Stein Award for Innovative Writing, two Pushcart Prizes, multiple fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, and a 2007 NEA Fellowship in Literature. He has co-edited two anthologies: Homage to Paul Celan (with Ilya Kaminsky, 2011) and The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (with Joshua Corey,, 2012). Since 2007 he has lived in Lewisburg, Pa., where he teaches at Bucknell University, edits the journal West Branch, and serves as Editor-at-Large for The Kenyon Review.

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