Wilmer Interviews John Peck


In the first poem in John Peck’s first book, a party of climbers on a mountain approaches ‘the last cols’ before the peak:


                    Doors in this termless morning

                    Sills, thresholds

                    And the firmness beyond


It could be a description of Peck’s own poems, which are like gateways between consciousness and the world it registers and perceives.  His method combines clear definition (‘firmness’) with what appears to be its opposite--the moment when sensuous experience is transmuted into thought.  One is not told what to think.  One is invited to re-experience the world.

     It is this that makes Peck, for me, the outstanding American poet of his generation--as well as one of the most difficult.  He was born in Pittsburgh in 1941.  As a young man he went to California to study under Yvor Winters.  Then a doctoral thesis on Ezra Pound, which was supervised by Donald Davie, encouraged experimentation.  The crisp sensuousness of Chinese poetry, as mediated by Pound’s translations, is a key influence on his first two books, Shagbark (1972) and The Broken Blockhouse Wall (1978).  Peck seemed destined for the now familiar career of American academic poet when, in 1984, he embarked on the study of Analytic Psychology at the Jung Institut in Zuerich.  Since 1993 he has been practising psychotherapy in his native New England.  The 1990s have witnessed a spectacular flowering of his talent in two substantial books: Poems and Translations of Hi-Lo (1991)--Hi-Lo is Peck’s Chinese heteronym--and Argura (1993).


You studied under Yvor Winters at Stanford and then went on to write a doctoral thesis on Ezra Pound under Donald Davie.  What would you say to those who argue that Pound and Winters are irreconcilable?


Well, of course one thing to point to is the work of Davie himself.  As for Winters, who was both a great and peculiar teacher, he dismissed Pound, to be sure, though not entirely, and not without having paralleled Pound’s career in several ways as a younger writer, critic, and publisher.  Later on, in part of his trilogy on Theseus, Winters seems to answer Pound’s fourth canto, perhaps the weightiest of the early Cantos to choose for besting.  What sets Winters apart is the stand he took against the isolating intensity of mental states which he knew from youth on, and his clear sense of evil, for example in ‘A Vision’, and then his turn to standard measures after a long experimental phase.  But I would guess that a more complex engagement with Pound persisted.  Donald Davie’s self-renewing colloquy with Pound, from the vantage of an Anglo-Wintersian poetics, certainly suggests that the instigations go on working away.  The oxymoronic span of writers now manifestly indebted to E.P.--from Christopher Logue’s Homer to Davie, from Peter dale Scott to Armand Schwerner in The Tablets--shows how unsettled Pound’s hash remains.  Davie is the most interesting because the least obviously indebted at first glance.


Davie, in his essay on Shagbark, contrasts your emphasis on wood with Pound’s on stone.  He also praises the elaboration of your syntax in contrast to Pound’s more fragmentary manner.  Do you recognize this account of yourself?


I do.  Those craftsmanly observations of course carry astute observations about temperament, and Davie has been as sensitive in applying them as was Adrian Stokes in writing on the visual arts and architecture.  But since temperament develops, so do some of these ratios.  They have changed somewhat with me, although the poems demonstrate that better than I can.  Your question prompts some reflections.  Our relation to both wood and stone, and therefore to parts of our own nature, is being altered by new materials and technologies, in the same way that our relation to established metres can be altered--enriched and renewed,  I think--by more than a century of changes in the modes, to borrow Plato’s phrase.  These changes are profound; our realignments in the arts are symptoms of them.  Pound’s elegy throughout The Cantos on building and carving in stone, Stokes’s writing about these (even the ugly Kleinian parts), and Buckminster Fuller’s praise of Pound, are all of a piece--that is, new means and formal values perhaps mean renaissance, but also a reinvestment of our primary imagination in the materials that immemorially carried it in modes now passing away.  It is too bad that Adrian Stokes came to rely on object-relations jargon to express some of this, but his instincts were trustworthy.  We are not abandoning, we are remarrying, wood and stone and the alloys of iron and steel.  Our liminal or transitional position prevents us from seeing the outcome, but we should not label as nostalgic what instead may anticipate a redefinition of both our inner ratios and our outer involvements with materials that have long engaged us au fond.  This is a roundabout reply, but one I need in order to side-step the usual distinctions about syntax.  Pound’s syntax became marked, even mannered, by the cantilevered relative clause dangling its verb, antenna-like, into spaces which seem nostalgic but which function more gropingly and constructively.  That unsettledness or ambivalence is fitting.  Though a stone-carver, Pound developed a syntax which draws to itself analogies other than the chisel.  If I take a poem of my own, the one on our post-von Hofmannsthal, disturbed relation to language, ‘By Mummelsee’, the first thing I notice is that the wood-carving in the poem (and I have sometimes been a carpenter) does not answer directly to your question about syntax.  And then, that a liminal gateway is posted just at the turn of the poem, so that what is so on one side may not be quite so on the other.  Is that true of the syntax?  I notice only that the poem’s one short sentence comes post-gateway, and describes the knife.  Where have we gotten?  Perhaps it is time to wash the dishes.


But the gateway opens up something else.  From the first book on you have images of frames, gateways, porches, thresholds in your poems.  I think of the first poem in your first book, ‘Viaticum’, the last section of ‘March Elegies’, and so on.  Are these mediations of reality metaphors for the poem itself?


Yes, that seems true of them, though without supporting the strictly reflexive view lately favoured by writers on literature.  Your question makes me realise that these images still touch strong feelings.  I’d guess that such things are held in common.  These places offer shielding form but also fluid passages.  They provide structure for moments which are liminal.  I believe that dervishes derive their name from doors.  Since these images return in the work, they probably mark initiations.  But they may return, too, because our time asks us to stand up to such points of passage.  But timeless matters go with the images you select--matters that define our human role as frail portals between worlds.  Our great poets make these matters their themes--Yeats, or Edwin Muir--while prevailing intellectual attitudes continue to turn them aside.  Endurance in this human role I’ve underscored in later poems, as with the portal in ‘Little Frieze’, where under shock the threshold slows passage.


For one thousand years, for another thousand years...’


Yes, not unlike passage into the borderline inorganic realm in ‘Ars Poetica’.


That poem uses a metaphor--crystalline accumulation--that is different from working in wood and stone.  Is there some connection between syntax and each of these modes?


Intriguing though this question is, I feel at a loss with it.  I am intuitively certain that some such connection, or some suggestion of a connection, pursues each mode, though it may be as subtle as the colouring of tonal keys in music.  Rephrasing your question as a general one, I might ask:  why does syntax elicit a certain range of master metaphors at a given time?  Consider Mandelshtam’s rocketing probe of Dante’s language, including the syntax, in the Commedia.  Metaphors are strongly but illuminatingly mixed there.  That essay holds more encoded answers to your kind of question than anything else by a modern master.


Are you surprised when readers find you difficult?


Not with respect to what we have just discussed.  But in other respects, yes.


You write mostly in free verse now.  You also write in the standard metres and in syllabics.  But, as with, say, Bunting, your free verse is so tight as to make the term seem a misnomer.  Do you scan according to objective principles?


Accentually, in the ‘free’ zone, which practice taken alone promotes no fineness or differentiation.  So, at the same time I plait phonic elements across both accentual and syllabic grids.  The results do not submit wholly to rational description, but they draw on processes at work in the poetries of all the major European languages for more than a century.  The family resemblances as well as the clan differences in those ‘free’ traditions would repay study--which one American poet living abroad, Bruce Lawder, has made it his business to pursue.  In English, Bunting’s ear for these matters spanned the smallest and largest scales.  His Celtic visual and Scarlattian keyboard analogies interlace, but that difficulty simply suits the order of complexity which his skill harmonises.  Scaling is Pound’s domain, plaiting is Bunting’s, but those artistries prove to be compatible in Bunting’s hands.  We have to catch up with him.  American poets say they admire him, but they usually don’t say why.  Their cloudiness may be forgiven, since American habits revolve around the axis of conviction that metrical variation has gone entirely out of the window and that only tone, and tones of voice, have moved in to replace it.  A titration of one of Eliot’s impulses, but diluted beyond recognition.


Is your metrical pluralism provisional or principled with respect to those habits?


May I cross a Pauline reply--what I do is not what I may intend to do--with the observation that the innovations of Sir Thomas Wyatt, were they floated today, would go unperceived?  Let me interject a different observation: that because of linguistic experiment from surrealism to Stein’s recombinatory probes and onward, the life that we may find in strophic and stanzaic composition, the older syntaxes of thought-rhythm (and somatic under-thought), ought to seem more interesting, yet usually goes unexamined by both its upholders and its spurners.  That is odd, since the older patterns are resonance fields no less than are the new ones.  Our social and class feelings about all of these patterns carry great weight, as they must.  Yet those associations cannot account entirely for the capacity a given pattern has for resonance.  Perhaps I should say, rather than the new life in, the new perceptions of, established patterns alongside fledgling ones--a virtuoso of Schoenberg may turn back to Brahms with altered ears, hearing Brahms anew without compromising artistic and social conscience.  Which chance it would be sad to miss, since all of our patterns, old and new, function in ways that we understand as poorly as we do the holistic generation of form in nature.


Between The Broken Blockhouse Wall and Poems and Translations of Hi-Lo, there’s a gap of twelve years.  Then almost immediately Argura follows.  What happened in that gap?


The transitions to Europe, new training, and freelance work preoccupied me, as did a requisite interval of purgatory.  Some poems in both books antedate that time; the rest slowly came later or filled out the idea for each book once it stood clear.



Has Analytical Psychology affected you as a poet?  Has it, or has Jung, influenced your poetry?


No doubt, in ways that I would be the last to see.  But Jung’s psychology has deepened my respect for the gap between framing an intuition in words and actually taking in what the larger personality would have one incorporate.  The actual effort may require many years.  It has also let me see more clearly the writer’s burden of inhabiting two worlds at once.  And see that though this be the case, whatever gifts come in over the transom should not be greeted naively or superstitiously.


What would you say to those poets who suspect that to psychologise themselves would be to kill the goose that laid the golden egg?


That they are being proprietary about the gold and too dainty about the goose.  If they are resisting the mechanistic and personalistic cartoons that usually pass for psychology, well and good.  The jargons of psychology, at least in the American setting, serve as questionable surrogates for all that is missing in our atomistic and barbaric disregard for a public realm.  But it is also the case, and a humbling case it is, that poetic work, or imagination and the labours consequent on it, is only one instance of our relation to autonomous psychic processes that go on out of sight continuously, with which we may cohabit but never master, but which (as imagination in a comprehensive sense) can be somewhat altered very slowly, just as a poem can be altered more quickly, by our attention to them.  Perhaps this is in part what Yeats did in writing A Vision.  So, protective diffidence and sly arrogance on our part about that order of fact is ill-advised.  In holding such attitudes, we also disregard what Jackson Knight infers about the way in which Virgil worked, or what we know about how Mandelshtam worked.  ‘Courting the Muse’ remains a quaint figure only to the innocent.


Hi-Lo is Chinese.  There are ‘Chinese poems’, though, as early as the Colophons in Shagbark.  How did you first get interested in Chinese poetry?


Through pound’s work at first, and then A.C. Graham, and the work of Bernhard Karlgren and other scholars.


Can you read Chinese at all?  Where did Hi-Lo come from and how did he come about?


Not without crutches, or over the shoulders of emigres and scholar-friends.  Hi-Lo inverts Li Ho, on whom I worked much earlier with the help of Mrs Susan So.  He came to life through my own exile’s eyes, at first playfully, as a way of conjuring with impressions.


Can we talk about translation? Hi-Lo, the book, is in two halves: Hi-Lo’s ‘own’ poems, and his translations of various foreign poems into English--though it’s filtered through a sort of Chinese mind-set.  Are the poems in the first half also, in a sense, translations?  Are they not linguistic but cultural translations, not unlike the subject rhymes of Pound?


The idea is that of the roman a clef, but with the atmosphere of an era, rather than a biography, as the subject.  Since my circumstances were those of an exile, though usually not straitened ones, you might say that the poet was translated before his poems were.  ‘Cultural translations’ I will accept, though that may aggrandise what was sometimes playful or wicked, though certainly plotted under the terms you have in mind.  My interest, too, was in touching registers on the whole of the keyboard available to us, at the risk of occasionally striking a vulgar note.  The sheer amount of literary translation done now lifts plumes of industrial smoke into the air, with incalculable effects.  I take a poke at that fact while also indulging the practice to an end.  to be sure, in some cases I stand on several sets of shoulders in order to do so.  Occasionally the effort is both experimental and scrupulous, as in the version of Wang Wei, where I hazard a correlative for the musical tones borne by Chinese characters, or in the poems derived from Karlgren’s inventorial readings of archaic inscriptions.


Argura must have been written over many years, but it reads like a single project, as the very pregnant title suggests.  Was it?  What does ‘Argura’ mean?


Yes, it was.  And the title, as anagrams do, means what combinations and root-talk mean.  The diamonds between the majuscules [This is how the title appears on cover and title page: CW] are not the currently fashionable designer’s sprinkles, but a Roman inscriptional convention, signaling here that the elements should go into recombination.  Argument, and augury, but other possibilities as well, which canvass the book’s themes.  The title is a gift from the unconscious, arriving at the end of a search and only then yielding to scrutiny.


You are very preoccupied with form in nature and form in art--and with their relation.  I think of the frequently recurring formations of birds echoing human and aesthetic formations, as in the wonderful ‘Migration’, for instance, or in ‘Passacaglias’.  This seems connected with the preference for argumentum over ratio...


Yes, it is connected, since the arguable is boh proposed and to some extent given, with respect due to the given.  But it is easy to be misunderstood here, since modernist work has already achieved its corrective, through Joyce’s Aquinian ‘modality of the visible’, Dr Williams’s things, Pound’s natural object, Oppen’s ‘this in which’, even Cunningham’s haeceity.  Held to, this view grows one-sided, blinkering itself to those realia which are not visible, to which both Yeats and Pound, after all, paid assiduous attention whether in Stone Cottage or out of it.  I do not mean that Robert Duncan’s Coleridgean, quasi-Neo-platonic volubility is to be preferred, but only that reality in its fulness is going to insist on poking in.  One way of rendering the cosmogonic beginning of John’s gospel would be to say, ‘Energy is already patterned and forever patterning’.  The craftsman’s emphasis may fall either on seeing the result--actually seeing things, or seeing and loving persons, is hard--or on acknowledging the ways in which energies turn into things and persons and then pass away--incarnation is after all an agony aimed at a transformation.


Incarnation is also Christian and not Chinese.  Are you specifying something about these relations of form?


But neither is incarnation specifically Greek and Christian, as Simone Weil underlined for herself in turning to the Vedas.  To restrict this to art: tradition is neither ideal nor an idea but incarnate (an aphorism by the painter Fairfield Porter), and the heritage is not passed on but conquered (that’s Malraux).  Those two viewpoints, feminine and masculine, give a whole picture.


Well, increasingly your emphasis seems to be on history and what we inherit from the past.  My favourite of all your poems is ‘He who called blood builder’, which draws on the Aeneid, itself a great meditation on history and heritage.  Your ambivalence is Virgilian, though it also reminds me of Geoffrey Hill.  But when I discussed this with Robert Wells, he suggested that you were more resigned to the ambivalence than Hill is, more willing to accept a tainted (but not a poisoned) chalice, maybe nearer to being optimistic.  Would you agree with this assessment?

Yes.  A short-term pessimist often holds fast to the radiant rag of hope.  ‘Frieze from the Garden of Copenhagen’ speaks to this.  Our well-informed glooms may draw on only part of our nature, and on those forms of feeling that preoccupy us en masse.  As for the Virgilian, there is already of course the poetry of Allen tate, perhaps along with John Crowe Ransom one of Geoffrey Hill’s exemplars.  But passion more than ambivalence informs Tate’s Virgilian feelings.  A poem as darkly magnificent as ‘The Subway’ (not one of the explicitly Virgilian poems) evokes for me an opposite number, George Oppen’s ‘Vulcan’, on the same subject.  Both poems strive to contain adult anger by reference to pre-adult revery, neither mental state being sufficient alone to span the accelerated malformations of our ‘built environment’, as the planners now blandly call it.  And that spanning cannot quite be managed with Virgilian ambivalence, whether it be felt on the Left or Right side of one’s grip.


I find your poetry unlike almost anything that’s being written at the moment and wonder if that’s not why it’s still insufficiently recognised.  For instance, you seem wholly uninterested in ‘the self’, which is not exactly fashionable--and you’re not post-modernly reflexive either.  This is perhaps surprising in a psychologist.  Do you feel at home in the current climate?


No, but for whomever that is the case, it still leaves them in good company.  As for the wide currency of memoir and verismo family sentiment, these prevail, touchingly, in societies whose continuities break and whose personal bonds shatter under systemic pressures.  Then, too, popular conceptions of ‘the self’, even the ones prevailing in literary discussion, however brightly lit and congested the notions may be, are passing and fluid next to the Self upper-case, however we choose to name it (Atman is an ancient term, which Jung expressed humility in borrowing).  Among poets, Yeats again would be one who stands over against much current feeling.  Already in the 1960s George Oppen curtly rejected these still-preferred currencies, saying (I approximate): ‘The miracle is not that we have a self, the miracle is that we have something to stand on’.  Of course, his viewpoint was politically engaged, thoroughly masculine, and typically American in its wondering preoccupation with the external world.  But there is more to the world, and it is intriguing that the fluid syntax of Oppen’s later poetry turns towards it.  But the truism that we share a self with others compels recognitions which not only Geroge Oppen would underscore.  The facts of general assault on the planet and the political slaughter of innocents seep constantly into awareness.  Conscious innocent action perceives its own participation by default, and is forced to inquire into that scandal.  The reflection of action which poetry is--I leave that vexed question hanging--will inevitably reflect these matters somehow.  Were we to adapt David Jones’s Welsh inscription--‘The bards of the world assess the men of valour’--from epic tones to contemporary ones, I wonder what we might hear, or overhear, in it?


                                                                        Brattleboro, Vermont,

                                                                   October-December 1993