When I was in college I found my way to the study of history because I’m interested in what and how we remember, but I found my way to poetry—or poetry found me—because I didn’t want to leave out the personal. I didn’t want to leave out the body. “Transpersonal” is what Eleanor Wilner has called her poetics, for the way it mixes “our” human voice, our various ancient stories and gestures, with the experience and perspective of a particular sensibility, an individual. A poetics that leaves out neither the collective nor the singular—the tradition of Osip Mandelstam, who said he was interested not so much in “personal memory but in cultural memory.” Wilner’s poems are personal interventions in that cultural memory. It’s not that she retells Western myths, she remakes them—such as the way she famously rejects a god of self-mutilating sacrifice in “Sarah’s Choice”—and so her poems are often as narrative as they are lyrical. Replete with internal rhyming, the breaks in her lines are organic: she tells me they are like turns in a river. Wilner is a storyteller, an oracle, an editor of our psychic canon.
I say “our” not without a little wonder; the poet uses the words “we” and “us” as often or more than she uses the word “I.” It’s neither arrogance nor a forced universalism—there’s a palpable humility across her oeuvre, emanating from her lines—but rather a refusal to take the “I” as the most important thing in the landscape. The ego, Wilner’s poems argue by implication, is a blinding force. Her “we” isn’t the encompassing embrace of Whitman, but the unsilencing of lost voices, or else the fierce personal “we” of Dickinson. For the personal is always there in Wilner’s poems—a seer is after all a person—but her search is for a communal memory, a truly communal music, a negotiation of how we’re going to live now with some of the figures that have traveled with our kind through history, how we might see them differently, not least because we ourselves are different seers than any who’ve come before. And that’s not all: Wilner proposes that we need new myths, new communal memories—dreams, or sometimes nightmares, like “Magnificat,” with its vampiric force and self-consuming people—to make way in our lives. These, at any rate, are the kinds of things gathered in Before Our Eyes: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2017, out recently from Princeton. The book is a feast. And if you flip to the back, where her earliest poems are, you can see Wilner, right from the beginning, working with the question of a new mythmaking. Look at a poem like “Landing,” in which a mysterious corpse suspended by a cloud slowly comes into view, then drops to earth, a deep riddle for the “we” in whose midst the cadaver lands.
As for her own origins, Wilner was born in Cleveland in 1937, was present at the March on Washington in 1963, and entered the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins in the 1970s as a critic, not as a poet. But when she put down the seventh and final volume of Proust, she had the impulse—mysterious even to her—to write poems. She thought she’d do a PhD in English. One well-known professor told her matter-of-factly that “we”—the word in this case a weapon—“don’t like women here.” So she found her way to the Humanities Center with its focus on the history of ideas, and there she created the interdisciplinary program she wanted—a mix of anthropology, depth psychology, and literature. She studied the prophetic visions of individuals in indigenous societies in cultural crisis from colonial dispossession, read Blake and Yeats in their light, and wrote a dissertation on visionary imagination and radical transformation of self and society. Her first book of poems, maya, came out in 1979, when she was forty-two, putting her in the company of Frost and Stevens, whose first books came out when they were thirty-nine and forty-four. New and Selected showcases poetry from Wilner’s seven previous collections, as well as a large cache of dazzling recent works. And it’s in these latest poems that you see as clearly as ever the poetics of generosity that understand—undergird, give strength to—her project of collective dreaming and re-dreaming. “Ars Poetica, 2017,” a poem that strings together Schiller, Lithuanian folklore, the Persephone myth, a mythical hot-air balloon, Tiresias, the Vietnam Memorial, and more before it lands on Prometheus, proposes that “art gives the power to give [the fire] away,” that to hold on to the fire—to dare submit our generosity to abeyance—will destroy us.
JESSE NATHAN: Sometimes when I hear people say “write what you know,” they mean that you ought to write about yourself, your own life. That that’s where compelling poetry comes from. What do you say to that idea of poetry’s subject? In your poems, you use the word “we” as often as the word “I,” it feels like.
ELEANOR WILNER: Thank you, Jesse, for aiming your question at the heart of the matter—the enlargement of our sense of the personal beyond the single self, for all lives, however intimate our account of them, are set in a larger context. We each live at the intersection of the singular and the choral, and are all subject to the history that we live in and that lives in us. Or we feel free of history precisely because of the privileged position it has given us.
So, yes, I use “we” a lot, as my experience is that poetry’s “we” contains both what we share and our irreducible singularity. The “we” that poetry invokes opposes the crude “us versus them” of political rant. I do not think poets should cede the collective noun to those who negate thought, abuse the language, and divide us for their own ends.
The impetus for poetry, I think, begins not with what we know but with what we don’t know, the unseen or unsaid in whose presence and pressure we write. I love to quote these lines by Constance Merritt about that knee-jerk prescription:
Write what you know. And go on knowing only what
we know? And never know the lakeness of the lake?
I used this as an epigraph once for a poem called “What Narcissus Gave the Lake,” and, though it never reached “the lakeness of the lake” (this is what keeps us writing!), it did extend my gaze. Though the poem began with Narcissus admiring himself, the lake took over, and looking up, seeing his momentary face through its own blue, populated depths, opened a fresh perspective and an enlarged perception of how, looking so fixedly for ourselves in nature, nature may be given eyes to see both our helpless narcissism and its own plenitude in which we share.
Or, put another way, the poem may borrow nature’s eyes to see our vaunted victories for what in fact they are. And to be clear: I don’t plan this stuff, what happens in a poem is always unexpected. The poem “Bat Cave” began simply to describe a remarkable experience—that of visiting a holy bat cave near Denpasar in Bali. But as the US began bombing yet another country, the bombers entered the poem, and as the flight of bombers contrasted that of bats, the “we” shifted imperceptibly from the American spectators to the bats, who became, by their very nature and to my surprise, instruments of vision that revealed us to ourselves. Of course, this flattens the physicality of the poem, which, in the way it reveals our brutality and perversity, is enactment rather than statement.
The images of poetry, for me, become agents of discovery and change, a way of knowing, which assumes that “what you know” is limited in a way that requires another kind of language, one that—through music, form, metaphor—gets the writer out of the way and circumvents what the ego guards and the will enforces: a circumscribed view of the world and a self-image largely created by that larger world that we ignore at our cost.
We don’t consciously choose what calls to us, what we are compelled to see, and no one’s practice is a prescription for others. I admire the eloquent, intimate personal lyric of the “I,” which, of course, can be an instrument of necessary expression and discovery. But that’s not where my imagination wants to go. I’ve often been asked: Why don’t you write about the personal? But the question shrinks the notion of what is personal. In Tony Hoagland’s words: “I was the dog, chained in some fool’s backyard: barking and barking, / trying to convince everything else to wake up, and take it personal too.”
I am drawn to ancestral stories that have accompanied us through time, transpersonal figures that carry depth charges of meaning, that carry shared memory, and, alive in us in our contemporary context, can be changed to alter both memory and meaning. I began using the word “transpersonal” as a corrective for T. S. Eliot’s mistaken word “impersonal” for the role of the poet in the making of art. “Impersonal” implies a rather majestic detachment, while “transpersonal” indicates a commonality, for it keeps persons—both individually and communally—in the picture. To my mind, the imaginative vision of a common condition, rather than merging into groupthink, heightens individual perception by way of poetry’s irreducible, tangible, and particular experience of what could not have been seen another way.