Sharon Berg Interviews James Pollock
Sharon Berg: Titles are often difficult to come up with, though some authors seem to begin there. What was your experience in developing a title for this book?
James Pollock: The title, Durable Goods, is a phrase from economics that you read in the financial news: “durable goods orders were up 3% in February”; it just means, literally, major appliances and other machines and tools that last for some time. To my mind, it also suggests a philosophical sense of enduring values, or “goods.” You can read it as an aspirational boast about the poems, as well. I’ll never forget an old graduate school professor of mine, Frank Kermode, rebuking me in the margin of an essay I had written for his class: “Please, no false modesty!” So I’m engaging with the ancient tradition of poets standing up for their poems, and casting a kind of longevity spell on them: Shakespeare, for example, who wrote, “Not marble nor the gilded monuments/Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme.” I love a good multivalent title, especially if it sounds natural, nonchalant. In this case, the title came to me very soon after I got the idea for the book.
SB: Would you say Durable Goods is written in a particular genre? Does it touch on the literary ideas from a particular place in literary history? Or is it so intent on ‘speaking truth’ and developing an individual voice that you were not overly conscious of its genre?
JP: In terms of genre, all the poems in the book are thing-poems, that is, lyric poems about things in the world, such that the poems imagine their way into those things in various ways. You can see precursors to this tradition in Old English riddles, seventeenth-century emblem poems, and the long tradition of ekphrastic poetry. But the thing-poem proper in its modern sense gets started in Germany with Eduard Mörike and Rainer Maria Rilke, in English with poets like Marianne Moore and D.H. Lawrence, in Spanish with Pablo Neruda, and in French with Francis Ponge. I’d say the most notable Canadian poet in this tradition is Eric Ormsby.
Poets tend to write thing-poems as a way of transcending their subjectivity. That said, it’s easy to see many such poems as projections of the self onto the world, or objective correlatives, to use Eliot’s phrase. Not always, but often. In Durable Goods, I hope I avoided too much ego-projection.
And rather than plants, animals, and works of art, typical subjects for thing-poems, I wrote about tools, appliances, and machines. I’m not the first poet to write about such things, of course, but I might be the first to write a whole book about them.
By the way, I’ve seen the expression “object-poems” used occasionally to describe this kind of lyric, but I resist that because it seems to me the whole point is to treat things as subjects, that is, as persons, rather than objects.
SB: In an interview with Alex Boyd (Jan. 02/23) on his Blog, you write about wanting to do something different from autobiographical poetry, saying, “of course there are a lot of wonderful poems that have come out of this Wordsworthian tradition that Keats calls “the egotistical sublime”; but . . . Keats identifies an alternative tradition of the “chameleon poet”. . . who, like Shakespeare, disappears into the subject of the poem.” You suggest that may be the way for poetry to progress after its long delving into the autobiographical, and now you’ve written a book that shows us what that looks like. Do you have any idea of what will follow from the magic of animating what Western culture has considered to be inanimate objects?
JP: Keats’s chameleon tradition does strike me as the most exciting way forward in our own time. I don’t think it’s necessarily a matter of progress or improvement, exactly, so much as innovation and adaptation to a new age. There are various ways of engaging that tradition, of which the thing-poem is just one: the dramatic monologue, for example, or the verse novel, or the philosophical poem.
The autobiographical tradition in English-language poetry—which has been going strong now, off and on, since at least Wordsworth, and really became dominant beginning with Robert Lowell in the late 1950s—springs ultimately from the subjectivist aesthetics of Immanuel Kant in the 18th century. According to this view, personal experiences—moments lived in their full immediacy—are the raw material that artistic genius transforms into works of art so as to give them universal significance. As a result of the massive influence of this aesthetic, the lyric poem became actually identified in some quarters with the so-called “lyric I,” and enormous pressure was put on the poet’s persona or “individual voice.” Hence “the egotistical sublime.”
But it’s not as though philosophical aesthetics ended with Kant. There’s a whole counter-tradition that has undergone a tremendous renewal, beginning about a hundred years ago—I’m thinking here of thinkers like Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer, and, in Canada, Charles Taylor—that emphasizes that human experience of the world is not so much a matter of isolated moments experienced by a subjective ego, as a continual dialogue with others and the world and the past, an ongoing integrative process in which our encounters continually widen our horizons by overturning our narrow individual perspectives. It’s no accident that Keats is thinking of Shakespeare when he describes the “chameleon poet,” since poetic drama is obviously made for this kind of aesthetic.
And look, there have been many chameleon poets since Keats. But the last sixty years in English-language poetry have clearly been dominated by the egotistical sublime, and it seems to me it would be refreshing to see a large-scale renewal of the chameleon tradition, or rather, traditions, since, as I say, there are many ways to engage with it.
SB: In her review in Montreal Review of Books (11/2022) Emily Mernin says you are working—as you say—with the “thing-poem (or Dinggedicht, as it was developed in German by Rainer Maria Rilke) in which the poem’s speaker is concerned with a single object, typically to a point of discovery or profound alienation.” I personally find the object slipping into an otherness that opens up possibilities, revealing something about the limiting power of dominant culture’s ideas about form and function. After all, First Nations believe that kettles and cars are alive, for instance, just as the redstone pipe lives. What was your reasoning as you created a series of poems that transform inanimate objects into living things?
JP: Sharon, I’m delighted you mention animism. I’m a lot closer by ancestry to an animistic culture than you might guess by looking at me, because I’m ethnically Finnish on my mother’s side. For a European country, Finland has an unusual cultural history. The language isn’t Indo-European, for example, but part of the Uralic family, whose relatives include Hungarian, Estonian, and the languages of various indigenous peoples in western Siberia. Finland was also one of the last European countries to be converted to Christianity—especially the Sami people in the north, who weren’t really converted until the 18th century—and its pre-Christian culture was essentially shamanistic and animistic. So instead of Norse mythology, it has poems like the Kalevala, which scholars have described as a shamanistic epic, even though in its current form it dates from the 19th century. The main character of that poem is Väinämöinen, a kind of shaman or wizard who, among other things, creates things in the world by singing them into existence. And let’s just say that this way of being in the world appeals to my imagination. As you suggest, it was certainly an important part of what I had in mind when I wrote the poems in Durable Goods.
It also happens that the same philosophical counter-tradition I mentioned earlier has produced some relatively new ways of understanding the world that have a lot in common with animism. For example, the French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour’s Actor-network Theory puts non-human things on equal footing with humans, and considers everything that does something—including, say, a microorganism, or a machine—to be a significant actor in a network. And the American philosopher Jane Bennett has an analogous theory she calls vital materialism, which puts the emphasis on both enchantment and ecology. When it comes to language, this same philosophical tradition makes a convincing case for what Charles Taylor calls a constitutive view of language, the idea that our world is not just designated but constituted by language, created by it, if you will. To my mind, this isn’t that far from the mythical vision of Väinämöinen singing things into existence. My point is that there is a kind of gradual convergence happening in our time between the animism of Indigenous cultures and relatively recent developments in what is known as Continental philosophy.
SB: Every book takes a stance in the midst of the social and political concerns of its day. How do you describe the position of Durable Goods and its area of concern in today’s world?
JP: I thought of the book as making a kind of raid on the Death Star by bringing animism straight to technology. It isn’t just our ecosystems that we treat as standing reserves to be exploited; it’s our technology itself. That is, we just use and use up our tools and machines and then throw them away, usually without thinking of ourselves as having relationships with them. The poems in Durable Goods imagine these things that we are surrounded by and use every day as actors in their own right, as persons. Imagine a world in which we all cared for things instead of just quickly disposing of them. In such a utopia, those habits might rub off on the way we treat each other, too, not to mention the planet.
Writing thing-poems is for me a way of trying to adapt poetry to this new world-view, one that, as I say, is gradually superseding the Cartesian dualism that we’ve been living with for centuries, that is, the one whereby we think of ourselves as essentially independent subjects manipulating the external world through instrumental reason. Not that that dualism, with all its manifold consequences—including massive development of technology, and massive damage to our planetary ecology—isn’t still dominant, but at this point it is gradually dawning on us that it can’t go on forever.
There’s a dark side to the animism in the poems, too, though. There’s a tradition of philosophical thinking derived from Heidegger that thinks of technology as having its own teleology, its own evolving ends not necessarily aligned with our own. And there are plenty of poems in Durable Goods that imagine our tools and machines as uncanny or even dangerous, not just helpful. Experience tells us that a certain vigilance is always warranted with regard to technology, whether we’re talking about a chainsaw, a car, or an algorithm, or something on a much larger scale, like the Internet, the military-industrial complex, or the global energy system. Not to mention artificial intelligence.
And finally, if Canadians of European ancestry, like me, can find authentic animistic traditions—and related philosophical traditions—in our own cultural backgrounds, and bring them into a genuine dialogue with the animism of Indigenous peoples in Canada—well, it might be a promising way to understand each other better.
SB: It strikes me that poetry suffers from periods of fashion, just as the other arts do, but that fashion—thankfully—tends to run in cycles. For instance, Canada had a run of authors writing long poems in the 1980s, which disappeared for a time, and long poems are now reappearing. We won’t return to the strict formality of poetry fashioned in the Elizabethan age, but we are enjoying rhyming schemes once again. Your book attends to each line in your quatrains with care, yet your rhymes slip into the background while making music in the language of every stanza. Can you speak to the importance that writing metrical poetry, and not making it ponderous, has for you?
JP: As for not making it ponderous, well, yes, of course, no one wants to read incompetent verse, metrical or otherwise, rhyming or not. Ezra Pound’s phrase about writing metre as supposedly writing to the rhythm of a metronome did a lot of damage. No one writes metrical verse to the rhythm of a metronome unless they’re a beginner, or writing parody. Whenever Shakespeare has a character write bad verses—his comic lovers, for example—suddenly you hear the metronome ticking, and it’s the incompetence that makes it funny.
Speaking of the Elizabethans: no one ever wrote better English verse than Shakespeare, and it’s that level of utterly natural and variegated virtuosity that I aspire to. He is “strict” and “formal” when the occasion calls for it, but that’s just one of the many tunes in his songbook.
The passage of time has a way of dissolving fashions, in retrospect. At just about any point in the twentieth century, you might have gotten the impression that metrical verse was somehow passé, and yet look how many great twentieth century poets there were who wrote metrical verse: Yeats, Frost, Eliot, Auden, Bishop, Merrill, Larkin, Hecht, and, in Canada, Jay Macpherson and Daryl Hine—I could go on and on.
So, to answer your question, I want the poems to be memorable and to give pleasure. Metre and rhyme and stanzas can help a poem do both if they’re handled well, and in this way they’re just like other kinds of poetic technique, and no more or less important to me than the other resources of rhetoric and prosody and diction. I wouldn’t want to fetishize metre as somehow more important than other aspects of poetics.
And I don’t think metrical verse, or rhymes, or stanzas, are inherently better than the techniques of free verse. I’ve written various kinds of free verse myself. What matters is whether it’s done well.
You could think of metre as the drum kit in a band. You can make rhythm with the other instruments, of course, just as there is plenty of rhythm in good free verse, supplied in part by schemes of repetition like anaphora and epistrophe and parallel syntax. But with a drum kit you’ve got another three layers of rhythm altogether, and with metre you can achieve all kinds of rhythmical effects—expressive, meaningful effects—in counterpoint with the schemes and the cadences of the clauses and sentences. So, I like to play all the instruments.
Sharon Berg is a poet, a fiction author, and an historian of First Nations education in Canada. She's published her poetry in periodicals across Canada, as well as in the USA, Mexico, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, India, and Australia. Her first two books were poetry published by Borealis Press (To a Young Horse, 1979) and Coach House Press (The Body Labyrinth, 1984). This was followed by two audio cassette tapes from Gallery 101 (Tape 5, 1985) and Public Energies (Black Moths 1986). She also published three chapbooks with Big Pond Rumours Press in 2006, 2016 & 2017. Her fiction appeared in journals in Canada and the USA. Porcupine's Quill released her debut fiction collection Naming the Shadows in the Fall of 2019. Her cross-genre history The Name Unspoken: Wandering Spirit Survival School was published in 2019 by Big Pond Rumours Press and received a Bronze 2020 IPPY Award for Best Regional Nonfiction in Canada East. She lives in Charlottetown, Newfoundland, Canada.