A word is a symptom
of what can’t be described
A promise, a premise
held open like a door
“Friday” (Address, 2011)
Concrete is not
“The Completist” (Alive, 2015)
Elizabeth Willis’s work is a paradox of the concrete and the open, the object and its interpretation, the human and its untranscribable form. Her poems are visual pieces composed on the ear; they transpose the everyday (the search for some lost keys) into the metaphysical, the philosophical, and the arcane. They tell us how “I” is complicated in its address to “You”, but above all in its address to itself.
The first line of Willis’s professional biography reads: “Elizabeth Willis was born in Bahrain and raised in the Midwest.” We sense immediately that we are approaching a poet with complex roots, whose voices – whose position, and possessions – are fundamentally at odds:
This is the I
I’ve learned to speak to
way, way out there […]
A tripwire on the field
of Great Ideas
Poems should not be eclipsed by biography, as Willis herself has argued. Yet the page is site of a poet’s own person-making. Willis’s work defies comfortable classification, while at the same time it excites in human taxonomy. As she writes in an essay on poet Lorine Niedecker, “not only is the poem an object but so is the poet”. Willis’s best poems lay out their speakers for vivisection, while they point to the limits of understanding experience through our most trusted methods: science, syntax, and making sense.
With the publication of Alive: New and Selected Poems, a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, readers have been given the opportunity to see Willis’s work as a continuity. Though the individual volumes that make up the selection may not have been written with this larger view in mind, she speaks, as we suspect poets might, of the mystery of a “guiding principle” holding things together. It emerges in the act of writing itself, and publication – in books, magazines, or digital platforms – freezes the act for a moment, before its formal, emotional, and intellectual demands force it to continue.
Born in 1961, Willis is one of the most distinguished poets to emerge from the University at Buffalo and its famed poetics programme led by Robert Creeley, Susan Howe and Charles Bernstein in the 1990s. (She first attended as an undergraduate in the 1980s to study with Creeley, even before the poetics programme was established in 1991.) There are ways of reading Willis’s poetry, and her poetics, through the clear influences of Creeley and Howe: we read Creeley’s tight, talkative accumulations, his self-reflexivity, his humour, and his restless interrogations of the “I” that dominates his poems; and we see Howe’s complex patterning of history, scholarship, found material, and polyphonic music made from the mix of the poet’s voice and what Robert Duncan would call her fire sources.
Buffalo was an extraordinary place during the period of Willis’s study, and it shaped her in the mould of poet-scholars of the past. Liz McMillen opens her piece on the Buffalo poetics programme in The Chronicle of Higher Education (1995):
As a recent graduate student in the English department at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Elizabeth Willis wrote her dissertation on late-nineteenth century aesthetics, mainly Pre-Raphaelite poetry and painting. Nothing too unusual about that.
What is unusual about Ms Willis is that she also is a poet. A book of her poems, The Human Abstract, won an award from the National Poetry Series and was published last month by Penguin.
“Other people who have gone into graduate school have set aside their creative work or abandoned it entirely,” she says. “What attracted me to the program was the fact that creative writing was not dealt with separately from literary study.”
Poet-scholars are not uncommon in Buffalo’s innovative poetics programme, which is devoted to the study of poetry and language and is winning plaudits from scholars and poets.
Taught by faculty members who are poets and novelists themselves, the programme tries to bridge the sometimes hostile divide between creative writing and critical theory. Here, students read their Dickinson and their Derrida side by side, an approach that professors say resonates with the shift to cultural studies.
At Buffalo, poetry – particularly experimental poetry – is anything but marginal. Poets and scholars visit the programme regularly, giving readings and teaching the work of other poets. Students not only read poetry, they also study poetry as performance.
This was fertile ground for the emergence of a singular voice, led by the combined influences of poets, painters, and scholars of the nineteenth century, as well as the hands-on guidance of some of the twentieth century’s most important writers. In time, Willis emerged as one of those writers herself. The idea of experiment – of so-called experimental writing – is not an overt challenge to other forms of writing in her work; it is fundamental to the activity of writing. In an interview with Sean Patrick Hill for Gulf Coast, Willis asks, “isn’t all writing an experiment? A way of trying something out?”
However distinct two poets such as Howe and Creeley certainly are, the education at Buffalo (and places it was modelled on, most notably Black Mountain College of the early 1950s) challenged the usual assumptions of poetry, criticism, scholarship, and the Academy, refusing to draw hard lines between them, allowing disciplines of thought and areas of knowledge to cross-pollinate. These are means not only for making poems, but also for engaging in one’s own self-creation, self-reflection, and participation in the wider world. As Howe writes, “at the threshold of academicism and poetry – sympathy is passionate morality”.
It’s unsurprising, and not unusual, that Willis earns her living as a teacher, as Charles Olson, Creeley, Howe, and so many others have before her. From 2002 to 2015, she taught at Wesleyan University, and she is currently Professor of Poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (notable, in part, for hosting a long list of Irish writers as part of the US State Department’s International Writing Program). Willis has also held residencies with the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Centre International de Poésie, Marseille, and the Lannan Foundation (where we were both in residence in 2016).
The poet’s mobility is a fact of the economic realities and necessities of making literary works. To teach here, read there, take up residence elsewhere – the poem is the site of return, the place the poet inhabits most completely. To look at the work and careers (a word I always hesitate to use) of Creeley, Howe, and Willis is to notice a dislocation, ever commented upon, resolved, and re-imagined in the activity of the poem itself.
Willis’s edited volume on Niedecker is titled Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place (2008), revealing her own interests and commitments as a poet: the search for an elusive place where the world is made particular, and the (in)ability of words to create and hold it. Willis writes of Niedecker: her
opus […] seems less about place in a geographical sense (she certainly disliked the notion of being a “regional” poet) than it is about knowing one’s place: that is, about where the poet fits into the culture and how one travels through and within the interstices of class and regional identity.
These were Niedecker’s concerns in the middle of the twentieth century; they are Willis’s concerns (and ours, as poets) today.
In a poem from her 2011 book Address, collected in Alive, Willis grapples with a dislocated sense of place and the poem’s attempt to hold onto its own definitions.
“A Species is an Idea (2)”
The vine is just a vine
a substitute for nothing:
Or you, my landscape
a sensory derangement
next to Ireland’s forgeries
the dream of her gigantic ear
on the poem’s longest coastline
The poem that is America
America a prophecy
like reason in atomic winter
We think its magic wheel
is but a dress
that calls this city home
She begins, like William Carlos Williams, Creeley or Niedecker, with the object as poetic material without justification: “The vine is just a vine / a substitute for nothing”. A humorous, ironic turn at “bellwether friend” leads to the transformation of person into place: “you, my landscape / a sensory derangement”. The simple, natural object (the vine) and the means of location (landscape) serve not to locate but rather to derange, and we are sent back to nineteenth century symbolism and its “sensory derangement”, seemingly at odds with the poem’s objectivist referents.
Ireland might be a geographical reference, a landscape with a famous poetic ear facing the poem’s “coastline”. “Ireland’s forgeries” is also a reference to the infamous literary hoax perpetrated by William Henry Ireland, whose Shakespeare forgeries fooled even James Boswell. Language can bring truth, fortune, fame, and ruin. Texts are slippery, evasive, incriminating. The speaker is placed in-between, before America’s prophecy: nuclear winter. There is a Whitmanian gesture in “the poem that is America”, but this is a United States that has accelerated far beyond Walt’s wildest imagination. In a 2012 essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Jennifer Chang points out the heavy work done by Willis’s one-word title in Address:
The book’s title occupies two parts of speech and, essentially, two meanings: the verb speaks to us and locates us; the noun is a speech and a location. Regardless of usage, the word “address” is always contingent on language, either as speech or notation, and, further, always contingent on public experience. You give an address to connect to other people; you have an address to mark your place in the world.
In Willis’s work this address is unfixed, both in locating one’s place in the world and in using language as that locating force. Chang is attuned, as Willis’s readers must be, to the act of misreading, of mishearing, in Willis’s poems:
The mishearing reveals how stubbornly the poet sets her language in the present, where the errors (or revisions) indicate how wildly we’ve misread the past. So she directs us to read “the poem that is America / America the prophecy” to understand the present as, if not a fulfilment, then a consequence of the past.
In the final stanza of the poem above, we hear “address” in “its magic wheel / is but a dress / that calls this city home”. The dress – the empty garment (a repeated image in Willis’s work), “Unpeopled” – the poet’s anonymity among the architecture of the void city. We recall Willis’s “The Human Abstract”: “Beside this I my silence is a sister / of uncanny omissions”; and we hear Creeley’s “The poem supreme, addressed to / emptiness”, itself a mode of epistolary address, contingent on language, undone by its absence.
Willis’s poems often turn to architecture, and of course architecture points to both form and history. Willis says in her interview with Hill: “I want to build a new architecture out of the ones I inherit.” This is a physical, tactile apprehension of poems and poetics, manifest in public forms we hold in common. We may read buildings as we read poems, and vice versa. They are formed in the language of things and their relations: designed, drafted, and constructed. They are also compromised by the very materials they depend on to exist.
Reading Alive gives a clear picture of the formal restlessness of Willis’s books and poems. The selection brings together work from Second Law (1993), The Human Abstract (1995), Turneresque (2003), Meteoric Flowers (2006), All the Paintings of Giorgione (2006), Address (2011) and fourteen new and uncollected poems. In these selections, Willis engages with the work of William Blake, JMW Turner, Erasmus Darwin (naturalist, abolitionist, and grandfather of Charles Darwin), and countless oblique literary and historical references and allusions that accumulate into mysterious, subtle, and intoxicating language.
In Alive, Willis proves herself a lyric poet, a pastoral poet, a prose poet, an historical poet, a political poet, a “language” poet, a post-modern sonneteer, a list-maker, an ironic prankster, a confessionalist, and a minimalist, at least. She is preoccupied by the poet’s agency and the poem’s efficacy. Her speaker-poet is complex and contradictory, yet endowed with undeniable powers. As she writes in “About the Author”,
She was barking at the waves, thinking they
Her eye had turned the water into sky.
The poet is a trespasser.
The poet is the king of Rome, New York, with
one foot in a boat and one against the snowy
shore of reason.
The poet and poem are many things, and Willis’s work revels in the multiplicity of form, meaning and knowing. There are no clear answers here, but questions asked to turn the reader into a wanderer. She says of Address, “I wanted to set aside what can seem like the kind of self-absorption within certain strains of the lyric – but to maintain its human frame, to shift something in the balance between speaker and audience.” In this sense, Willis’s work is dialogical. Again, from the Gulf Coast interview:
I often think of a poem as a dialogue. Not just between reader and writer but a dialogue with its own history and with the history of its form. […] Our sense of what a poem means arises out of our composite sense of what a poem looks like and what it can “do.” So the mere fact of genre and form shape the way we take it in. […] Each poem is at least potentially a sonic reinvention of the world in which it is produced.
In this way, Willis reshapes well-worn poetic forms. In Turneresque, she offers a sequence of non-sonnets, called “Sonnet”, including the following:
To live in someone
else’s music (the musician
not the composer is free)
a divine contention
like the damp carpet
of liquored olivia trees
(something my favorite you
finding in a hollow day
a winter keeper
a paper woman
caught in the torrent
not quite falling
In a separate near-sonnet, part of a sequence in The Human Abstract, Willis derives an enchanting near-sense from the rhythms, diction, and themes of centuries-old poetics. The “her” at the centre of the poem is undone by this language, her “eros” and “errors”:
Lovely hero where the lovely hero bounds
an acre hidden between eros and its errors
Finding a dozen darts beneath the skin of
Watching the wire of a skinny flame
No other lovely hero found the back
behind her secret form of symmetry
Her gleaming difference
Her schoolish way in pretty understandings|
Said Not done Not said Undone
Wealthy sadness has a way of winning everyone
This is the end of my body as you know it
its superfluous penchant for love
its poorer costume, its shiny disaster
The turn from “her gleaming difference” to “my body as you know it” signals a shift from public to private address. Language is superfluous in its adornments, like an Elizabethan costume. To strip it away leaves the speaker naked and alone; her “schoolish” tricks of “pretty understandings” are not actions, but evasions. Two sparse pages later, we return to the speaker’s ceaseless self-questioning:
What rules a body’s buried factions
when laundered by morning
When called by our names
although we are invisible
Sleeping I forget my animal
When the animal comes
I’m forgotten because of it
Willis’s language, where it seems most unmoored from sense, is driven by sound and image. She is interested in what she refers to in relation to Niedecker’s poems as the “object status of letters, words, and syntax […] the physical stuff of poems”. The poem is body and architecture; personal and public; interior and vastly open.
Other lines, “(a few stones for Lorine Niedecker)”, in “The Human Abstract” echo the same contradictions:
This I is an idyll
I captured the first day
the office between
the leaf and the external
Landlord I said again
you can’t move a river really
yet with no apparent music
my face would pass
Against this house I always hammering
“I” is a tool caught up in the action. It’s somehow external. Willis’s sense is musical, and throughout Alive she constructs polyphony from varied poetic forms. Prospective readers should know, however, that despite this complexity, beneath the experiment is a clarity and intelligence that rank her among the finest writers in Anglophone literature, either side of the Atlantic. Willis’s poetry exists at the meeting point between the composer and the listener. Or, as she writes in “Nocturne”, “The edge of my mind / against the edge of yours”.
Jonathan C Creasy
New Dublin Press and the James Joyce Centre present a reading by Elizabeth Willis as part of the Bloomsday Festival 2017:
June 14th, 6:30 pm
11 Parnell Square
Poetry Ireland is also accepting applications to join Willis for a poetry masterclass on June 15th. For more details visit http://www.poetryireland.ie/whats-on/bloomsday-festival-an-evening-with-elizabeth-willis