RS: Mort, what do you mean by plain style?
MM: To me, plain style is clear style: clarity of expression that is always conversational in essence and tone. It is never ornate or pursues verbal pyrotechnics. Although I’ve used many approaches in my poems over the years, for the most part I’ve presented them with an austere clarity, almost a simplicity of grammar and vocabulary. And again, I’m more concerned with giving the impression of a voice speaking than singing.
RS: You’re saying the voice mode is primary…
MM: No, that’s just one way I develop a poem; a major way, it’s true. But for me, the voice is secondary to the imagery and/or metaphors that reveal themselves in the course of the writing.
MM: Maybe if I described one of the methods I use to write a poem, this will become clearer. But let me warn you that my description may sound fanciful…
To begin with, images and metaphors in almost all cases appear like golden medallions in the vaulted darkness of my psyche—
RS: Sorry to interrupt, but the preceding sentence strikes me as out of keeping with what you said earlier about “plain style.”
MM: No, no. You’re confusing two things here. My imagery may be baroque, even decadent, but my language is plain. —Remember, I warned you that this might sound fanciful. But let me go on. I was saying that images and metaphors in almost all cases appear in my psyche. Let me add that their appearances are unplanned and unexpected. A long time ago I decided that these appearances were in many cases the beginning of the creative act for me, and that it was my task to pursue their meanings by following their development, which many times consisted of grappling with their changes in shape and direction. Is that clear?
RS: Go on.
MM: … Well, along with the notion of pursuing whatever images arose in my psyche and grappling with their changes, I postulated that images and metaphors were never to be used as mere decoration, nor—and this is most important—were they ever to be conceived of as occurring accidentally. There were reasons why their glinting shapes suddenly appeared in my “psychic darkness.” I’ve described this process by comparing the image or metaphor to a runaway horse I woke to find myself riding bareback, and what I had to do to survive was grab its mane with my hands, grip its flanks with my legs, and hold on for dear life as it took me wherever it would.
RS: Again, how does such a florid metaphor tie in with what you said about plain style?
MM: Good question, and the answer is “easily.” You see, many of the images and metaphors I encountered while writing were so strange, and took even stranger routes in their uncontrolled gallops, that to make sense of them, and more important to have the reader make sense of them, I had to depict them in the clearest, simplest, most accessible language I could muster. This was especially pressing to me since I have again and again stressed in my classes and writings that the poet has to evoke in the reader the experience the poem is depicting, and only by clearly presenting my “strange” images and metaphors could I achieve that. To complicate the matter—and the metaphor—even more, the metaphoric horse might at any moment change shape under me, as if I were riding not a horse but some shape-shifting, Proteus-like beast on the road to oblivion, which is a further inducement to use the clearest language I’m able.
RS: You may have founded your work on the pursuit of “strange” metaphors and plain style, but it sounds to me as if the core of your work is really about the imagination. It strikes me that you have an almost Blakean reverence for this ability of yours to form images.
MM: Let’s put it this way: The images spring from the imagination.
RS: I think I follow you, but what then is its connection to your use of metaphor as a shaping force or tool in making a poem?
MM: Let’s say that the imagination is not so much “imagery” as “imaging”—that is, it is not a noun but a transitive verb, an action, an act of becoming, the core of creativity. It propels the images and metaphors out of nothingness into being. So as I ride the shape-shifting beast, I pronounce (intone?) both its twists and turns and the twists and turns of its route. When the beast finally collapses in exhaustion, I sift through and polish my memories of the ride and from them shape a verbal map from this formerly uncharted landscape, a structure the reader can follow for whatever reason he chooses. And that’s the poem.
RS: Can one say you ground the imagination in what one understands to be realistic observation?
MM: The wilder the imagination, the simpler the language to express it, so the imagery can be not only understood but experienced by the reader. We’re back to my definition of how I “use” plain style.
RS: By the way, I was struck by your use of the phrase “human-hearted” months ago at a particularly moving reading you gave. I believe you were alluding to a Chinese saying. For me human-heartedness calls up something like ‘generosity of spirit…’ and the capacity to forgive.
Here’s a three-part question:
WHAT is human-heartedness? HOW does it find its way into poetry and WHAT (name names?) poets give evidence of it?
MM: In the Chinese sense of the term, “human-heartedness” means humaneness, benevolence. It is the foundation of all the virtues and ways of behaving, privately and publicly, and is expressed in the character ren (jen), which pictographically consists of the characters “man” and “two”. Privately, this character refers to one’s behavior with all members of the family. Socially it refers to being part of a community by behaving to others as one would to one’s self. This is shown through “good manners” or “right conduct,” which is represented by the character li where courtesy reflects inner goodness. This is more than “generosity of spirit.” It’s compassion, and in art it’s expressed in empathy—the ability to experience as one’s subject does: to put yourself in the subject’s place, to fully identify with others. This allows the artist to “feel” the sorrows, joys, angers, and frustrations of the human condition. It makes itself known not as a rational aspect of art but as an emotional power that gathers force and launches itself at the reader in the work of such writers as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Phil Levine, and most evidently in the short stories of Anton Chekhov. Human-heartedness is to me the elemental power that must be projected in a work of art and pervade the beholder in the form of poignancy. Without it, art is dry, detached, solipsistic, self indulgent, even selfish—never engaged with the world. A poet must have this human-hearted empathy not only to enter the lives of human beings, but the worlds of animals, plants and inanimate objects. Supposedly Keats said that the poet should be able to empathize with a billiard ball, although I’ve never been able to find the quote.
RS: Over the years you’ve drawn on, been influenced by an unusually wide range of sources, among them the legends of the Baal Shem which, I imagine, must strike a chord with your Jewish roots. Hassidic tales seem to have influenced your work, too, especially the prose poems. Assuming this is the case, how were you introduced to legends of the Baal-Shem?
MM: I first came across them when I was in Iowa City, specifically the Tales of The Hasidim by Martin Buber. They struck an almost biological chord in me. But understand that I’m a sucker for wisdom tales. I love the Zhuang-Zi (also known as The Chuang Tzu), both for the wisdom of its tales and its humor. That goes for Rumi’s Mathnawi and the comic folk tales about Nasrudin. I love the idiot savants, the holy fools. Their humor is, and always has been, mine. That is, the humor has, but, alas, not the wisdom.
RS: Mort, I think of you as a terrific storyteller both on and off the page. Storytelling strikes me as a form or expression of human-heartedness and, as a fellow writer, I am intrigued with both the techniques involved and the aura, or warmth of spirit, the finished work throws off.
MM: Yes, human-heartedness is part of storytelling, but it is of poetry as well, and, actually, of all literature. That’s because it has and can evoke the power of pathos, poignancy, which I feel is the most human of emotions, the recognition by the reader through the writer of our common humanity—the sufferings, joys, and experiences all of us as a species share. More than epiphany or insight or even vision, this poignancy is the heart of literature for me. I’m not talking about sentimentality here, but rather sentiment, a recognition that goes beyond the rational and touches the heart.
Storytelling itself is—pardon the pun—a different story. It’s a learned thing that has to be mastered. Very complex. Choices have to be made all the time—who’s telling the story, from what perspective is the scene being shown, what scenes are to be developed and what not, into how many characters’ minds should the writer go? Is the story to be realistic, symbolic, or both? Plot-driven or character-driven? Is it to be a parable, allegory, what? Each kind of story has its own restrictions and demands a different approach.
RS: Let’s go back to human-heartedness for a moment: Ted Solotaroff claims aggression is a writer’s main source of energy, “the fuel for all those stories and poems about betrayal and bad luck relationships… plus anything else a person wants to write about.”
MM: Solotaroff said that, did he? Well, that’s not what drives my creative energies. My main source of energy as a writer is a dogged determination to achieve heightened consciousness, to “live at that pitch which is near madness,” where I can envision—or think I can, anyway—the unity in the chaos around me. Maybe “vision” is too grandiose a word here. Maybe I “live at that pitch which is near madness” as often as I can in order to “detect” for a moment here and there the unity of all things.
RS: Working in the prose poem form, how does one manage to combine (as you often do) the narrative with the lyrical? “Story-telling” with song. Plot and music.
MM: My prose poems obey all the trappings of verse poetry, especially the condensing methods of heightened rhythm and poetic language. The only difference is that they are not written in lines. I found that the line inhibited my imagination, and dispensing with it allowed me to enter an area where the imagination has free reign. As for how I combine storytelling and music, plot and song in the prose poem, let me say it’s the same way I combine those elements in verse.
RS: Okay, then what’s the difference between micro-fiction, so-called, and prose poem?
MM: Micro-fiction doesn’t need to be as concerned with rhythm and poetic language as poetry does. It starts from the context of prose, of storytelling. For me, prose poetry begins from the concepts of poetry. Both may meet in the middle, but they start from different places. Let’s say, poetry begins on a beach overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and micro-fiction begins on a beach bordering the Atlantic. Both can meet in Kansas, set down their knapsacks, and throw their arms around each other with equally joyous cries, but both are coming from different places.
RS: On to another topic: how has your interest in film carried over to—or influenced—your writing of poetry? After all, you’re a TV film reviewer and critic.
MM: The only way film has affected my writing is that it’s given me the all important sense of the camera at work; that is, it has made me aware of the importance of always knowing from what perspective a scene I’m describing is being viewed by the reader. Even Shakespeare, whose plays were presented on a bare stage and showed scenes to the audience through the characters’ descriptions, had this sense.
RS: I love that comment of you
RS: ONLY WHEN WE NAME THINGS DO THEY HAVE A SIGNATURE. It calls to mind Adam naming the animals in Eden. Would you elaborate on the poet’s role in naming or defining those things in our experience that may not previously have had a name?
MM: When I talk about the poet’s role in naming things, I’m referring to three areas at once. First is the spiritual, what you term putting “us in touch with the essence of things.” That is the holiest of utterances. The Sufis and the Taoists, like all mystics, know that the essence of things is unnamable and so they suggest the nature of that essence through comparisons—metaphors that give their readers the sense of what cannot be described by comparing their experience of the essence to familiar objects. It’s like putting a fence around a form you cannot see, where the shape of the fence implies the form.
RS: I see. And the second kind?
MM: The second kind of naming is epistemological: people can’t experience phenomena until they’re named. They can’t see the tree outside their window until that tree is defined for them in a word. Twenty or thirty years ago, astronomers found objects at the edge of visible space that obeyed none of the laws of physics known at that time. When they delivered their findings at the annual international convention of astronomers, their colleagues were astounded and angry because they didn’t have the instruments capable of observing these unique bodies the finders called “quasars” and described in detail. When they went home, these grumbling poor cousins turned their telescopes to the heavens in search of the new bodies anyway. And guess what? Armed with the name and definition of the new body, they discovered quasars scattered all over the inner precincts of the universe. They just never had the word before that would allow them to see what was literally right in front of their eyes. So words are like Ali Baba’s magic command, “Open, Sesame!” When said, they allow what is hidden from us but always present to be revealed.
RS: Two good metaphors. I wonder what you’ll come up with for number three.
MM: I may disappoint you on that count, since the third kind of naming is political in nature and all I can think of right now as a definition are examples. So: bureaucracies and governments generally use language to obscure what they’re really talking about. Appeals to patriotism and morally correct action are many times solicitations to commit heinous acts against fellow humans for political or economic reasons. During the Vietnam War, Robert Bly pointed out that Nixon’s “incursions into the north” were really descriptions of “bombing the hell” out of the North Vietnamese. By using language that is clear and concrete, language based firmly in the senses, the poet almost inadvertently reveals the deceptions of those who would misuse language. That is why the poet has been deemed subversive by one government or religion after another down through the ages.
RS: If the world began as a kiss, as you suggest in one of your prose poems, how might it end? We are living in a dark, apocalyptic period. What do you see as the writer’s role in these post 9/11times?
MM: I don’t know how the world will end. It may already have ended. And it may not have begun. Chuang Tzu wondered if the world was a butterfly’s dream. I’d say it was more like a scorpion’s. Yes, we’re in a dark time, but the world has been in such eras before. Many times. As an ex-historian, I know that quite literally. And unspeakable, horrible times may be coming. In many ways this planet is a bone pile, and many of the bones bear sword chips and bullet holes. How do we conduct ourselves in such times? Each person must answer that question for himself. Under fire, the urge to survive makes us do many things we never conceived we would do. As for me, I’ll live on my own terms so I can live with myself—hopefully with compassion and honor, still singing the wonders of what we can achieve for ourselves and others. It’s what I believe the poet’s role demands he do in such times. In bad times more than ever, he is the purveyor of hope, of sanity, of possibility, whether people listen to him or not.