Poet Joshua Beckman on Walt Whitman and Influence
Interview Series, the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress
Joshua Beckman was born in New Haven, Connecticut. He is the author of ten books of poetry, three books of poems in translation, and two collaborative works with Mathew Rohrer. Beckman serves as an editor for Wave Press. His many honors include a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts as well as a Pushcart Prize. His most recent work Porch Light, released in 2012, is a limited edition collaboration with Jon Beacham published by The Brother in Elysium Letterpress.
"That No One Knows Me" for Walt Whitman, May 31, 2012: Happy Birthday, an essay by Joshua Beckman
Interview conducted over the phone by Caitlin Rizzo.
What struck me most on first listening to your piece was its ability to connect the self to the world. Do you think poems allow us to best create or even to contend with this connection?
I don’t know about us. Me, yes. The possibilities of poetry continue to unfold and to open up for me. I think what you’re asking about is the experience in poetry that creates and expands an individual to the point where they are not indistinguishable, but fluidly in and out of the greater society, or humanity. Poetry can do that in a theoretical way or even philosophical way, but also in a really specific, personal way for me.
I would say that as far as being a poet, that writing poems is one of many experiences that comes out of my experience of being a poet. Being a poet and engaging in the world through poetry and having that be the dominant part of how I engage with the world. Each time I write a poem I am doing that, but also the writing of the poem is only a very small part of that experience of being a poet, of being in the world and having an imagined self.
Can you talk a little more about that persona or “imagined self” that is part of being a poet?
Sure, and when I say the “imagined self” I mean it more as “me,” whatever is “myself.” I think of it, and I’m not sure how I feel about this, but my self feels more imagined than real. Sometimes it feels real, and sometimes so disperse and respondent to the rest of the world and things that are happening that I can’t say instantly and assertively that I am this or that. I have a sense of myself as a constant and real thing. You know, I get up and eat breakfast, and all that. Of course, I am always reminded I am a real person.
I want to be clear that I don’t think that being a poet is the imagined space of me; more that the actual space I live in allows the imagination to play a constant role and a dominant role. You were initially asking about being a poet, and for some I think the experience of writing a poem is the experience of being a poet, and certainly if you’re not a poet, you imagine that being a poet is about that moment too. The same way you would being anything else. If you’re a carpenter and you’re building something, you’re certainly a carpenter when you’re not building something, but to what extent are you actively being a carpenter when you’re not? Well, the answer is maybe ask a carpenter.
For me as a poet, the answer is the entire time. It’s the way in which I move through the world. Sometimes, if I say “paying attention to” things or “attending to” things, it makes it sound like a kind of gathering impulse for a kind of product. It’s not that at all. It’s just so much of the experience, of what is important for me about being a poet, happens at all of these different moments, before, during, and after the experience of actually writing something. All my experiences are before, during, and after writing something.
Writing is one facet of who you are, but it also makes up a greater part of you. It’s inseparable on some levels.
On all levels. That’s how I think it connects to where this all started which is the society, or “larger world.”
In your introductory piece for the Poetry and Literature Center’s Whitman Birthday Celebration you define love as a “communication of the deepest things” and the reader as a “loving receiver.” How does your writing work to create that communication?
I definitely do not know the answer to that question. I feel confident that I don’t know how. If the question is “does it do that,” I would say it tries to do that. If the question is “how does it try,” I might not know the answer to that either. I know that there is something longing to be in as deep communication with another as I can be, or possibly a longing to be in as deep communication as possible, beyond what I’m capable of. The poems have at times actual, recognizable but usually not identified recipients (in the way, say, a letter has a recipient) or they have actual but yet to be imagined recipients. There is the sense that there is someone that the poem is speaking to and the desire is to speak in a sort of deep, true, full way something meaningful, and that somehow the other sort of hope is that you create the other person. You know the person exists and that somehow the writing of the poem helps them to appear or they find it.
As a reader, that’s been my experience. I recognize that Walt Whitman did not know me, was not alive when I was alive, had no actual experience of me as a human being. Yet, here I am totally in love. Here I am completely in accord and understanding, and finding meaning in what he’s saying. I feel not only close to the poems, and a sense of having something shared with me that was real, but close to the poet. I feel that we are lovers. I was going to say friends, but part of the question here is that I use the word love and part of the reason is because you know in the piece I categorize love inside of friendship.
That’s so beautiful. Honestly, it describes my experiences as a reader as well: that the writer and I are taking a leap of faith and hoping that if we both desire a kind of communication, it will come.
In your piece you write “earth wants only your everything,” and as I read it I felt slightly terrified by its implications. You continue to make statements that at times hint at something darker—about the “efforts of love” and the “difficulties of friendship.” How do you reconcile the great optimism and loving factor in this piece with the “dark” and “stormy” nature that’s also surrounding it?
I don’t. It’s a little bit like death—you’re not doing any reconciling with death when you go swimming. You’re going swimming, and you’re having some big, living experience. That is in relation to the body and self you have, and the experience of being in the world that will, I imagine, differ greatly from the experience after you’re gone. I think that something like that would be of the darkest implications. Among the living dark things is to recognize the complexities of everything.
There’s always a darkness that I think friendship has as a deep, real thing in the piece. Emerson calls friendship the “masterpiece of Nature”—of nature, of everything! That masterpiece holds the whole palette. It gets very dark at times, it gets very light; it holds the whole thing there. I feel the recognition of that is just the recognition of the depth of something.
Perhaps that’s the key not only to your work, but also to Whitman’s: that light and dark have to exist side by side, and there’s always going to be a sense of unease.
That sense of unease is also a sense of the living, changing, organic thing. That there’s actually the desire to perfectly balance or to reconcile is a desire to push towards a completion—I think in general I push away from that.
Your piece focuses on the importance of being what you call “most oneself.” It goes on to add that “death will accept the whole self”—I wonder how our lesser qualities fit into this equation. This has to do with what we’re talking about, and also with Whitman and Emerson and the idea that sometimes the best man is not the whole man.
When I went back to read Whitman I thought, “It’s his birthday, why don’t I read all of the poems?” I knew which poem I was going to read when you all asked me. “The Sleepers” was the first thing out of my mouth. That poem is so important to me and is the one I wanted to share. But, I thought I would just read all of the poems because that would be good for both of us, Walt and me.
In doing so, you find a willingness in the big poems to allow all facets of oneself from the base to the graceful. You see in those poems the full range of the human self, not just of Whitman, but of what he sees in other humans around him. When you go through and read all of the work, you recognize that at some point or another, he attempted to find the depth in all aspects of his self and of his selfhood. He tried, and that experience of trying is amazing.
That sense of the poem as something that has succeeded or accomplished something pales in comparison to the value of the poem itself. Not value—I should say the meaning of the poem as something that documents a human experience, an individual’s human desire to make meaning out of the whole self that they are, not in its wholeness, but like in every part, every understandable thing. He really tries to get there, he opens up and he keeps trying to find what is in him.
You discuss community in your piece, and you create a literary community through your work as a translator and an editor. Could you talk about your commitment to such collaborative work and the importance of friendship as part of it?
One of the things I thought about as I was writing the piece, when I was thinking back to my initial encounter with Whitman (and with a few early poets that moved me), was that what came out of that was a desire to have similar experiences with living people. Not just similar human experiences, but the experience of reading the works of another living person, of having them there, and responding, and being someone who writes poems and having someone on the other side of that.
Most of my collaborations, the collaborations that are deeply important to me, are constant. I’m happiest when I’m collaborating, but I would say over the past bunch of years, the bulk of my collaboration has not resulted in tangible, public works. I have a close friend and we read each other poems all the time. He calls me up and he reads me his new poems. He’s reading a good book, he calls up and reads it to me. I call and read him the poems that I’m preparing. If I’m going to give a reading, I’ll practice it for him. The experience that comes out of that, what happens for us, is one of the strongest collaborative experiences I’ve had in my life and it continues to be a consistent one for which there are many tangible results, most of which are essentially private.
I have friends I work with, and some of the best times are when we listen to things: listening to music, listening to each other reading poems, experiencing what that means for each of us. Then sometimes we perform and that has another separate, social value. Then we see what this experience is like in public. But, for me the idea of collaboration is as deep and important as the idea of being an individual in a society or community.
I love that answer—it’s very complex, but at the same time it’s simple in the way that love is simple. And it points to the meaning of collaboration meaningful, which is at its core a friendship and a connection.
Yes, I feel like that too.
Do you remember the first time you read Walt Whitman? Or the first copy of Walt Whitman’s poetry you owned?
Yes, in fact I thought a lot about it when I was doing this. I went back to the first copy I had because it was given to me when I was in high school by one of my mother’s close friends—who passed away not long after that actually.
I didn’t quite understand what I had until my first year of college when a professor said something about Walt Whitman. I believed that my sense of him was as a stodgy, old man, some sort of boring old poetry that I wouldn’t like at all. Then my professor was very encouraging. I thought, “Maybe I’ll actually take a peek.”
I had a similar experience, coming back to Whitman and only realizing later how wrong I really was.
It waits around for you . . . Kathy, by the way, was her name. My mother’s friend Kathy gave me a copy, which I still have.