Ted Enslin in conversation
with Stephen Ederscheim and John Taggart
The following is transcribed from a student FM radion broadcast done at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pennsylvania) in October 1975.
EDERSCHEIM: My name is Stephen Ederscheim and I'm hosting, and tonight we are very lucky to have with us poet Ted Enslin who is also by the way a critic, dramatist, journalist, and sometimes recluse. Aside from being a frequent victim of creeping anthologies, Mr. Enslin has published over twenty volumes of his own work and his work has appeared in every significant poetry magazine sometime in the last sixteen years. Included in these are Poetry, Origin, Black Mountain Review and Maps, and we're very luck to have with us this evening the editor of Maps and a very distinguished poet in his own right, Mr. John Taggart.
I wanted to begin by asking you Mr. Enslin, how you felt your poems to be a unity. You remarked tonight that you couldn't imagine a poet who could write one steady marble block - one monument or several monuments - and have a poem finished in that way, that you saw your own work as something very different. Could you elaborate on that?
ENSLIN: Yes, ah, not that other poets can't do it. I can conceive of that attitude but for me it's not a thinkable way, because the poem, for me, doesn't begin with what's on the page. It's not, not to use a mouthfilling phrase, but it is a life process. It's something that continues. After the written poem is over with, there are other things which go on and which are part of the - to me - what I think of as the creative process, and particularly in the long poems, where the immediate material - where the immediate material is - the immediate whatever is happening at a particular time, whatever is happening to be thought, how it is being interpreted. This is what makes the form (flaw). So I can't conceive of it as far as myself is concerned as anything but one poem and I think there are other poets who work in fairly different ways from the way in which I work who think very similarly. Cid Corman, for example, is always talking about this, that he is writing one poem. The only way in which it can end, be finished off, is when I either turn away from it for some reason or die.
TAGGART: I'm curious from the position you describe yourself as having, if you feel what you're doing is one long poem, that suggests you have a sense of what's coming or at least what's going on. How can you keep up any sense of newness or discovery.
ENSLIN: I think insofar as I have that feeling towards life itself and I think that I have it pretty strongly. I've often said, rather sententiously perhaps, and certainly it isn't wholly true, but I would like to have as many kinds of experience as possible - any kind of experience - I have a large appetite for things. I think the only danger, the only real danger as I see it in this is that it can become too conscious, that perhaps I'll say now, ah, yes, here's something that's happening, I can use it in my poem. There I think, is a very decided danger. The aloofness simply has to be, that you don't think too much about the importance of yourself. As I said earlier this afternoon to Steve, certainly in the long poems particularly, there is a very strong autobiographical thread, but that is not important in itself and I never feel that it's important except insofar as the measure of myself is something put against whatever else is there to give some sense of size, to give some sense of scale. I think it's a lesson in unself-consciousness that is the crux of the thing.
EDERSCHEIM: I've heard the term 'sincerity' brought in frequently in reference to George Oppen's work and I know your own work has been closely allied to him in some points. Do you think, then, that this is the meaning of 'sincerity' , the idea that one writes unselfconsciously?
ENSLIN: As far as possible, I really do shy from terms like 'sincerity' and 'honesty' - not that they aren't perfectly respectable words. It's simply that they're used in such ways that they put people on the spot and they mean things that they really don't mean and they can be twisted in almost any direction. I think that's a very dangerous thing.
TAGGART: You might find that several different poets would agree that sincerity is important and being unselfconscious is important, but that each instance of practice would be quite different...
ENSLIN: Oh, absolutely!
TAGGART: ... quite particular and certainly, if I could bring in Zukofsky, his would be quite distinct from that notion. In fact, he would probably say that sincerity is being as conscious as possible.
ENSLIN: Yeah, in that sense, absolutely. I would agree with that fully, but the not-being-conscious is more or less like (and this has been done by certain very good journalists) writing something. Hunter, for instance, was an excellent music critic. You know, he had deadlines, but he wrote literature. He didn't seem to be conscious of this spectre hanging on his shoulder, of this deadline in front of him.
TAGGART: Like Virgil Thompson.
ENSLIN: Virgil Thompson the same way. That kind of attitude towards the life and a lot too much has been made of life and lifestyle and all this. But still, there is something to a correct conduct of life and the way in which a poem conceived in this way might develop. If there's something wrong with the life, there'll be something wrong with the poem.
EDERSCHEIM: You say the poem has an exposition, an ethic? Is that bad?
ENSLIN: Not at all. Simply in practical terms of the way in which the poem works.
EDERSCHEIM: OK. The poem is the thing itself.
TAGGART: You get the ethics, you know, in Olson's 'Projective Verse' essay when he talks about the whole business of rhythm and the day's work. The idea being the poetry is central, is 'organic',and that it will have to proceed out of the life. I think some people have found though, and I'd be interested to know what Ted would say about this, that their poems and the rigor they've had to go through with their poems - the things they've found out with their poetry - have greatly altered their lives.
ENSLIN: Oh, absolutely.
TAGGART: It's almost made them lead better or more organized lives.
ENSLIN: Not to make any big thing of this, and certainly not to get it on any high moral plane, I think this is very true. And sometimes simply from a mechanical inability in the work itself. The fact that something that I or anyone else might want to do isn't impossible. The life has to be in order that it is possible. I can think of one specific incident in 'Forms' where that was necessary. To have begun the last - part four - it was very necessary for me to change a number of things in my personal life and I knew it. And it became important to me at that point, to go on with the poem, that I did it, even though I was perfectly comfortable (apparently) in the life I had up to that point. And I think afterwards I was immeasurably glad that I had, both for my poems and because the life became better.
TAGGART: What about Pound's early work, trying on different costumes and postures? Is that illegitimate or?
ENSLIN: No, I don't think so, not at all. I think one key to that is what you said of Pound. Pound's early work - yes, that's the time to do it, of course.
EDERSCHEIM: You apply this almost in the Jungian sense of putting on different archetypes and moving through these in an attempt to search for identity. The poem as a reflection of the poet's search for identity?
ENSLIN: Yes, maybe, but I think that the more the poet himself thinks about these things, the less likely he is to accomplish them. I mean, it's nice to look back on something and say "Yes, this is what I did", but I don't think it's a very nice thing to do at the time. It becomes alomost like saying now I will sit down and write me a poem. We all know that just ain't the way it's done.
TAGGART: Ted and I have talked about this before and I think we're agreed on it. And that is that people don't - I won't say cannot - write with a prevailing consciousness of an audience, nor all that much of themselves in the act of writing. One must be very clear on seeing that the poem is discovery. And if you're going to be self-conscious and worry about an audience, you're probably not going to discover anything. You're only going to discover what those people, the wished-for audience, already know.
ENSLIN: I think this - what John has brought up - is tremendously important and I agree completely. I think that if we're going to try and teach people about poetry, something I think is doomed from the start, at least this point could be made. I think one of the basic misconceptions of almost everyone who comes to poetry has about the poet, about any of this, is that he is writing for some audience, for some market... for some, and he's actually not. He's writing what he does not know. That's what it is. That can be the only joy in it and the other is just pretty dull stuff. It doesn't make any difference what angle you come into it.
EDERSCHEIM: I noticed there's always - often - the small, very general nouns you deal with. You talk about tree, house. Ted, you spoke in one of your poems this evening about the Sun. There were three things - I've forgotten - how the Sun in 'Ranger'...
ENSLIN: Sun, water, light.
EDERSCHEIM: Sun, water, light. Is there some specific reason that you do stick to those very general nouns rather than trying to invoke specific trees and specific...?
ENSLIN: I don't really think that I do stick to very general things. I think, what I've always enjoyed doing and when I've gone back and really liked a poem that I've written there has been a feeling that it's always been abstract, but that there's this one thing that will fix it. I like doing that again and again. It's playing dangerously, but it's fun.
TAGGART: I don't know if you had it in mind when you were doing the 'Ranger' poems you read tonight, but the effect, from the reading, was musical.
ENSLIN: I read the sections that I did - and in the sequence that I did - purposefully.
TAGGART: And the business of the repetition. I don't know if - well, any noun is general -, but the repetition as closing off sections of musical composition and summing them up.
ENSLIN: I don't know whether you noticed or not. The last two sections that I read, 41 and 43, actually are around 42, which is actually music, and 41 actually does lead up to that - that whole business of the door slamming is just ... ok, at this point something else has to happen.
EDERSCHEIM: Mr. Enslin, we have about five minutes left now and I thought we might close, if you're willing, by reading one of your poems. Is there any in particular?
ENSLIN: I'll read section 40 from 'Ranger', particularly because it has something to do with the process that we've just been talking about.
This interview was published in Truck 20, pub. Truck Press, Minnesota, USA, 1978