No personal history here

Eleanor Wilner “gets out of the way” of her poetry

by Rachel Aviv
POETRY FOUNDATION SYNDICATE

Before our meeting, Eleanor Wilner asked me to read her poem “Interview,” in which she stages a Q&A between a poet and journalist. The questions are generic, and the poet sidesteps them all:

Q. What can you tell us about your personal history?
A. Does the rain have a mother?
Is the mole the explicator of the lawn?
(The dancer keeps the mask for calling in the gods.)
Is the fire by night as bright at dawn?

The poem served as a kind of friendly warning. We wouldn’t be getting too personal. Wilner, who has a soft, hushed voice that often fades into a whisper, thinks the poet should “get out of the way.” Autobiographical questions don’t seem to annoy so much as politely bore her. “People, by and large, are not that interesting,” she says. “Bachelard said the trouble with the psychoanalytic view of poetry is that it reduces the flower to the manure out of which it grows.”

Wilner wears her gray hair in a loose, wispy bun and dresses in unassuming shades of beige and green–she jokes that it’s her “camouflage.” In conversation, she is generous and cheerful, and sometimes begins stories by saying, “Let me tell you something wonderful.” If she thinks her point is really important, she tends to attribute it to someone else: a mythic figure or foreign scholar. She laces together different stories and quotes in answering a question, moving swiftly from Jung to Pegasus to the hydrogen bomb. Her poems do the same, connecting individual stories with history and myth–one thing always becoming another. “I have no personal memory when I’m writing,” she says.

Good poets, like good hunters, she says, can’t know what they’re going to capture. “Go empty-handed to the hunt,” she writes in “Hunting Manual.” “Look then for the blank card, the sprung trap, / the net’s dissolve, the unburdened / line that swings free in the air.”

Wilner feels strongly about the limits of art that focuses on only one person. In “How to Get in the Best Magazines,” she parodies the “tired little poems, taut, / world-weary, properly bored / with it all” that go down like a “silky martini.” They are the “tongue’s anorexia,” glib and unhappy. In a speech given at Drexel University in 2004, she described the overuse of the “I” pronoun as a uniquely American problem–a result of the emphasis on the individual who must revisit childhood to figure out what their parents did wrong. “It’s terrible to have our writers thrown back on private subjects while the public language gets farther and farther from the truth of what is happening,” she said. “We need to take back the rhetorical high ground from the politicians who degrade it.”

When Wilner does use the “I” pronoun, it’s usually to take on the voice of a figure in history–most often a quiet woman with a world-famous husband. Swiftly she undoes the canonical couple. Penelope hides when Odysseus comes home, and Eve–after a bad date with Adam (God is their “cosmic dating service”)–walks out on him.

In “Sarah’s Choice,” God asks Sarah, not Abraham, to sacrifice her only son, and she’s shocked and disgusted: “What fear could be more holy / than the fear of that?” Wilner came upon the idea for the poem after framing the question–Would Sarah have sacrificed Isaac?–on a final exam to students she was teaching in Tokyo. All but one student said no. “I was teaching what the students called ‘interectual hellitage.’ They have a letter that’s just between an r and an l, so they can’t really discriminate that sound. So anyway, they mixed it up, but we do have a hellitage. Hell is a big part of the tradition.”

Wilner wrote her first poem, in her early 20s, after reading all seven volumes of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. “I can’t explain it, but when I closed the final volume, I started writing poetry,” she says. “And yet I loathed him, the man who enclosed himself in his cork-lined room to write. He said, ‘If someone came knocking on my door, and I was working on my novel, I wouldn’t answer.’ And I thought, That’s not the kind of writer I want to be. I want to be the kind of writer whose writing would make people open that door.”

Rachel Aviv lives in Brooklyn and has written about books for the Village Voice, Salon, and The Believer.

© 2007 by Rachel Aviv. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at http://www.poetryfoundation.org.

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~ by ericedits on February 26, 2008.

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