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Within the Inscribed: Selected Prose and Conversations by Michael Heller (Shearsman Books)

Within the Inscribed: Selected Prose and Conversations by Michael Heller (Shearsman Books)

This is, it must be said, a deeply intelligent and thoughtful book, of what are interviews and essays. This comes very late for Michael Heller (b1937) who has already behind him a copious collected poems This Constellation is a Name and a number of significant prose volumes, including a much admired study of the Objectivist poets Conviction’s Net of Branches (1985)This comes some years after a significant volume from Salt, Uncertain Poetries (2005). There are insights to be gleaned here not only on Heller’s writing but on poetics and practice more generally.

A full appreciation of what is going on here might very well spur further essays. So in that sense this short review is bound to seem a little superficial. The book is in three parts, one more general, one geared to specific readings and a concluding ‘Coda’ of just three articles. 

It is doubtless relevant and pertinent to note that Heller’s predominant influences have been George Oppen and Walter Benjamin, with whose work he has sustained a lasting relation (p117) and there was an Oppen correspondence. The book, regrettably, has no index but there is a bibliography of works cited, some six pages.

There is almost an unspelled out theory of poetic composition here, almost an ars poetica, but it is not stressed or emphasised, and we have reference to such notions as revelation and clarity, as well as the void, which language might ‘cover’ with some nods to Heidegger, in ‘revealments and concealments’ (p189). This is plainly not far from the notion of authenticity if not exactness. There is also Heller’s late encounter with Buddhism, something he shares for instance with Ginsberg. The notion of ‘now time’ is also picked up from Benjamin.

The book itself has a wonderfully perplexing epigraph from critic Geoffrey Hartman,- ‘the sacred has so inscribed itself in language that while it must be interpreted, it cannot be removed’. This suggests of course that interpretation can be a kind of usurpation or adaptation. Yet this intrinsic core of the sacred remains, although Heller, to his credit, does not harp on about this.

So in that sense, the first part is about poetics generally, and the second offers specific readings, of Oppen, another leading Objectivist Reznikoff, HD (her ‘Helen in Egypt’), Robert Duncan and Norman Finkelstein. Memorably Duncan asserts that he is waging poetry, not war. There does seem also to be an awareness of Harold Bloom’s notion of the literary agon. For Heller his engagement with Oppen seems to have been quite critical. Heller’s implication in secular Judaism cannot equally be discounted. 

For better or worse, Heller’s main engagement has been with the Objectivists and of course also Benjamin. He writes insightfully also about Pound and HD. Olson is mentioned only briefly, and there is certainly an awareness of Whitman as well as Ginsberg. Also the Oppen connection in which Heller was imbricated was personal. Heller may be very interested in the methodology of poetry but he is not trying particularly to sketch out any larger historical development.

Poetry as Heller asserts is ‘an articulation of that which was inarticulate’ (p45). He then discusses the ‘desanctification’ of Whitman and how this must be ‘re-examined in the light of present circumstances’, before going on to discuss some Buddhist possible extrapolations, whose foremost exponent might be Ginsberg. Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, might be seen to be reaching out to the West, in a way for instance that Hinduism does not.

And there is more besides;- Heller is very aware of Judaic thought for instance, and how this must relate to contemporary poetics. He speaks of a tendency to ‘turn the Torah of Israel from a source of authority to a source for inspiration’ (p59), of converting Law into lore. One might cover ‘the underlying void and expose it at the same time’ (p61). This he says leads to Oppen’s ‘speaking the estranged’. (p62) Citing the poet Bialik he asserts ‘between concealments, the void looms’ (p64); and he continues that ‘between a perfunctory use of language and a language of the mysteries’ ‘are at the heart of the sacred text’ (p65). 

There is an interesting engagement with Leiris, where we find commentary on ‘the refusals of the confessional writer to indulge’ in a more palatable artifice (p73), described in terms of ‘adherence to the rules of the game’. And, actually this is a signal characteristic of Oppen and the Objectivists that they tend to be disinclined towards confessionalism, introspection and subjectivity which are then bound up with purported solipsism or narcissism. 

Given that, the presentation of lyricism here is penetrating and thorough, as well as effectively honed. There is of course nary a hint of Lowell, say, and one feels that this is a work of communal engagement, not the solitary or personal insight. Given that, the sophistication of argument is high, and just about all the poets cited well worth the attention and effort. I would maintain then that this is criticism and comment of a high degree. But of course Heller is not discussing the ‘New Americans’ but the ‘Objectivists’ and their legacy. Yet given this process of constraint there is much here to stir a quite delving creative interest if not some soul searching.  

Clark Allison 10th October 2021

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