Books interview: Mark Doty

"There are those fortunate hours when the world consents to be made into a poem"

Is there an ideal way to read a poem?

Multiply. To read aloud, to read it silently to yourself, and then when you are ready to turn to someone else, to say "listen to this", so that you have that extra kind of listening that comes from projecting a poem out to someone else. They all represent different levels of physical engagement with the reader, and poems are physical objects.

How do you know when a poem is finished?

My revision process for that final polishing has to do with giving readings; I will read new poems to audiences and need to hear them myself over and over again. Maybe the tenth time I read a poem I'll realise I don't need line five at all, or there's an extra word, or something that keeps sounding clumsy to me and I start to see what to do with it.

As soon as you read a poem to a roomful of people it's quite possible it's not good at all! You can hear with a different degree of detachment.

In your essay "Insatiable" you discuss how Walt Whitman ignores the "puritan" division between mind and body. Do we still talk about physical and ephemeral things too separately?

Absolutely. They're both ways of knowing. Poïesis in Greek is knowledge. We benefit from using more than one means of assessing reality. Unfortunately, we in the west have come to understand that when we think about the world in the most rational, scientific terms we can manipulate objects - goods - we can stand back from the world of values, emotion, sensation, and we can make more money. So that kind of rationalist thinking becomes a capitalist value. The poetic and the interior become less profitable, something we can do with our leisure time.

What about the separation of arts and sciences in the classroom?

I love when I teach poetry workshops having students who are biologists, or studying physics, because they bring another vocabulary, another point of view.

I met a couple of wonderful women who taught at a veterinary university in Canada. They were writing the curriculum and were using poetry with the vet students very late in their academic years to help them remember why they wanted to do this in the first place. After all those years of experimentation and hard science it had become hard to see why.

Vets have got some of the highest suicide rates.

I always hear that said of poets. Poets and veterinarians. Two things I would like to be!

The title for "Insatiable" came from a bumper sticker which caught your eye. Is it common for signs and slogans you see to spark the idea for a poem?

It depends upon the state of mind. I really think what's required for making any kind of art is a state of receptivity so that you're able to be struck by what's in front of you, or to become porous so that what's outside can enter you in some way and resonate against your own imagination. There are those fortunate hours when - I think John Ashbery said - "The world consents to be made into a poem". It feels like that.

Now that you mention it, I can think of many poems where a found phrase becomes the starting point. Seeing a poster on the city wall of a religious broadside that says "Homo will not inherit"; a sign on a store in a shopping mall, "Fish R Us".

The seven billionth person was just born, and cities are getting more and more highly populated. You live in and often write about New York City. Do you have much hope for the future of urbanity?

I find it hard to be hopeful about the city as I once did. A few years ago, Poetry International invited me to write my own "New York poem". I tried to write one really celebrating my neighbourhood, and started with sunflowers in the corner of the bodega, a guy who's selling, people in the streets . . . But it just started to go a little darker, more sour. I tried to praise New York and New York just wasn't willing to be praised.

That endless burgeoning of humanity, it's a lovely thing on one hand: this great stream of souls and bodies pouring into the world and out again. But it's only beautiful at a distance. If you're standing right it in it means more suffering, more struggle, everything that comes into being has got to pass out of being, so it's also a world of grief. Those things are always both true. I guess they become more true the more of us there are.

Much of your writing is concerned with desire - as a theme or glowing spots of it on the page. Are rushes of young love the same when you're older?

Before the crisis years of the AIDS epidemic I had that sense that one does of a long, expansive living ahead of me. When my friends and my partner began to sicken and die around me, that shifted everything in a sense that you just don't know what prospect is ahead of you. For me, that exacerbates desire. On the other hand you have to negotiate because desire enflamed can become a blinder. It's a balancing act I have never felt especially good at.

Secretly, I believe balance is boring. I used to take yoga classes and there's these exercises where you're supposed to be standing on one leg in this position as a stork, and I was terrible at them! I would get annoyed because they would always turn it into metaphor: "If you don't have physical balance it means you need to seek balance . . ." No I don't!

You admit to having an obsession with Walt Whitman. What is What is the Grass??

I wanted to write about reading Whitman and a sense of connection to him, that time, the way those poems embody so many obsessions and concerns of my own, and the way that he feels to me like he's sitting right there in the chair. He's not gone. He makes that very clear in many of the poems: "I'm with you now", "Look for me under your boot soles", "How do you know but I am enjoying this?," he says to us. "I thought of you long and hard before you were born." Again and again he says things that place him in the present in a way that is not true really of any other poet.

What I'm after is a kind of hybrid product which will be literary criticism, philosophy, memoir, personal essay, spiritual reflections and a kind of biography of the body, as well. So we'll see.

Is this hybrid style the future of literature?

I think so. I want to say there's some relationship between that kind of form and the seven billion. That the fullness of things, the simultaneity and multiplicity of experience makes linear narration and argument more problematic. It doesn't seem to reflect the nature of experience perhaps as much as it once did.

You've written a lot about 9/11 as an event, and collective and personal grief. Are you often asked about your politics?

In America, poets wouldn't be asked that so much. Except my friend Phil Levine, who's the new Poet Laureate, has been shooting off his mouth and it's just great. He has made some negative statements about Obama and other congressmen, and gets told to "shhhh".

Do you write poems that are explicitly political?

I find it impossible to write poems that don't arise from the centre of perception. I have wanted for several years now to write about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Also, I want to write about Iraq. But the language that I have, the imagery that I have, is all mediated. How do I go to that from some place other than received language, which tends to be the death of poetry?

The places I have been most successfully a political poet is around the AIDS epidemic and homophobia, where I can find the clearest personal connection to the material. It's also maybe where I have the most rage. That can be fuel for poetry.

Mark Doty is an American poet and memoirist. In 1995 he won the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, and his 2008 collection "Fire to Fire" won the National Book Award for poetry. His essay "Insatiable", on Walt Whitman and vampires, appears in the latest issue of Granta.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain