The HyperTexts

Esther Beatrice Cameron
Interview by Michael R. Burch

The subject of this month's interview is Esther Beatrice Cameron, a poet and essayist whose work has appeared in Bellowing Ark, The Antigonish Review, Poetry, Hunger, The Lyric, The Blue Unicorn, Troubadour, and many other journals, as well as on the Poetry Porch and Iambs And Trochees websites. Her blank-verse epic on the ecological crisis, The Consciousness of Earth, is currently being published in installments by Bellowing Ark. She also edits a poetry magazine, The Neovictorian/Cochlea, and a multifaceted website, Point and Circumference . . .

Esther Cameron has asked me to remove her poetry and prose from the pages of The HyperTexts. I have complied with her request, although this brings me no pleasure. On the contrary, I am very unhappy with what I perceive as an act of coercion and censorship aimed at The HyperTexts, and at me personally. Poets invariably want to be free from censorship, and to be able to speak freely. And I agree with them. But if someone else speaks freely, should the ideal of freedom of speech fly out the window, and the poet become the censor? If editors should not censor poets, should poets censor editors? How can any editor do his job reasonably or justly, if one poet demands that someone else's words be changed or removed, or else work of hers that had previously been published must be removed? I invested a good deal of my own time on the publication of Esther Cameron's work. I think it very unfair of her to demand that I remove her work because she disagrees with what someone else said on the pages of The HyperTexts. I do not believe in censoring the poets I publish, nor do I believe that I should be censored by them.

Shouldn't readers be able to read what different writers have to say, and form their own opinions?

In this case, the writer Esther seems intent on censoring is me. She made it clear to me that I had one of two alternatives. I could either remove or change things that I said in my own writing, or I would have to remove her work from The HyperTexts. But when Esther said things I disagreed with, I published her words just as she wrote them and left it to readers to form their own opinions. When Esther did not agree with me, I let her speak freely. But she did not reciprocate. I find this unfair.

What does Esther find objectionable about my own writing? I cannot read her mind. Therefore I can only speak speculatively from my own perspective. But it seems to me that when Esther and I worked together on Holocaust poetry, condemning what the Nazis did to the Jews during the Shoah ("Catastrophe"), I was in her good graces. Together, we said "Never again!" to another Holocaust, and we were allies. I believe we made a good team, and accomplished good things, by speaking truthfully of what obviously did happen to the Jews during the Shoah. However, when I began to say on the pages of THT that we must also say "Never again!" to similar atrocities wherever we see them, including the Nakba ("Catastrophe") of the Palestinian people, for some strange reason this was taboo. But why should Israel not be held to the same standards as other civilized nations? I have found this very strange attitude to be quite prevalent among Jewish poets and intellectuals. Not with all Jewish poets and intellectuals, of course, but with many. Of course they are entitled to their opinions, but I am equally entitled not to agree with them.

Every civilized nation is responsible for establishing equal rights, fair laws and fair courts for all the people under its aegis. All people, without exceptions. If Esther were to study history, she would soon discover that it is the "exceptions" to this rule that result in Holocausts. When white Americans decided their "rights" superseded those of Native Americans, before long innocent women and children were walking one Trail of Tears after another, and dying horrific deaths in horrifically large numbers. That was the first American Holocaust. Then white Americans decided they had the "right" to enslave blacks, and slavery became the second American Holocaust. Then abolitionists and other Americans opposed slavery, but the slaveowners decided their "right" to own slaves trumped even the Union and the Constitution, and this led to the third American Holocaust, the Civil War. Even after the Civil War was over, many southerners were adamant that they deserved "more equal rights" than blacks, and America went through a fourth Holocaust: the period of Jim Crow laws and public lynchings. What white Americans did to non-whites in their theoretical "superiority" was evil beyond belief, and the maniacal illness only began to be cured when American courts finally began to establish a measure of justice in the mid 1900's, thanks in large part to Martin Luther King Jr. and the American Civil Rights Movement.

The Holocaust began when Germans decided they had "rights" and the Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, Communists, and other disenfranchised people had none. It is self evident that Jewish women and children who were obviously not criminals could not have been punished collectively as if they were criminals, if the Jews had been protected by fair laws and fair courts.

Now Israel is making the same terrible mistake. The Israeli Jews have appointed themselves superior rights, and denied basic human rights to the Palestinians. The minute innocent women and children are not protected by fair laws and fair courts, ruthless men begin to take advantage of them, while blaming their victims for every ill known to humanity.

Think about it, for a second. White settlers called Native Americans savages, but who was driving whom from the land? White slaveowners called blacks "inferior," but who was treating whom so abysmally? Members of the KKK lynched young black men for looking at white women "the wrong way," but who was clearly in the wrong? German Nazis blamed the Jews for everything that went wrong in the history of the world, but when seventy million people lay dead at the end of World War II, who ended up being tried as war criminals?

Obviously, we can never believe what ruthless men say about their victims. Racists justify their actions by blaming both cause and effect on their victims. And this is just what we see today, in pro-Israel propaganda. Such propaganda almost invariably claims that Israel can excuse doing the inexcusable because, in effect, Palestinians are the devil. But white racists called blacks the devil, and German Nazis called Jews the devil. So why believe what the racist state of Israel says about its victims?

Today Israel suffers the same maniacal illness: rampant racism and injustice. The laws and courts of Israel are matters of public record. Anyone can study them, as I have. The laws and courts of Israel are blatantly racist, and therefore illegal. No one should be expected to obey racist, illegal laws. According to the Declaration of Independence of the United States, human beings have the right and the duty to rise up against unjust governments. Unless the United States is an illegal entity itself, our Declaration of Independence says that the Palestinians have the right and the duty to rise up against and forcefully resist the unjust government of Israel, unless Israel grants them equal rights, including the right to self-determination. Thus, Israel must either make the Palestinians full citizens of the state of Israel, or Israel must give the Palestinians autonomy as full citizens of an independent Palestinian state.

But the government of Israel is obviously intent on stealing what little land and water the Palestinians have left in the West Bank. All the cries about the "security" of Israel are like the cries of southern slaveowners who feared what their slaves might do if they gained their liberty. Israel has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on things that have nothing to do with "security," such as "Jewish only" roads and settlements deep inside Occupied Palestine. If Israel wanted "security," it would build security walls at the edges of its own borders, bring all the Jews inside the walls, and let the Palestinians have their own state outside those walls. But this is not what the government of Israel wants. Instead, it obviously wants to drive the Palestinians from their own land. To do this, Israel wantonly demolishes houses, mindlessly bulldozes olive orchards, and allows Palestinian children to be cursed, kick, spat on and abused on their way to school. Anyone who doesn't believe me has only to read what Jewish humanitarian organizations say about such atrocities. They happen every day to the Palestinians, who are victims of overt, systematic racism that is sponsored and encouraged by the government of Israel.

My beef is with the government of Israel, not Jews as individuals. But democratic governments are, of course, elected by voters. If there is a blatantly racist government in Israel, this means there must be large numbers of voters who are racists. I do not want to stereotype the Jewish people. I have many Jewish friends, although not as many as before I began to speak publicly against the Nakba. But then I really don't care to have friends who believe in abusing children because they belong to the "wrong" race. I don't believe there is such a thing as a "wrong" race. So I am glad to have Jewish friends who oppose racism and intolerance, and while I don't want to be enemies with anyone, I choose not to be friends with racists. The Jewish people will have to make the same decision Americans had to make, not so very long ago. Should little children be spat on and cursed because of their race? To me the answer seems obvious. But to many people in Israel, the answer is not so obvious, because such things continue to happen on a daily basis, and are matters of public record. I have personally met with and communicated with people who have gone to Gaza and the West Bank to act as "human shields." One of these human shields, Anna Baltzer, is a Jewish-American woman who has written an excellent book, Witness In Palestine, on the realities she encountered while protecting Palestinian children and farm families with her own body. The links below will allow readers to investigate the truth. Then they can decide for themselves whether they think I should be censored. The sites below are those of Jewish individuals and organizations, so there is no danger of being misled by anti-Semites. The existence of so many organizations mobilized against racism and injustice with the ranks of the Jews themselves says a lot, to anyone with ears to hear and a brain to think. The situation in Israel today seems to be quite like the situation before white abolitionists helped bring about the American Civil War because they refused to accept the abomination of slavery. And we all know who was right, and who was wrong. Michael R. Burch, editor, The HyperTexts

My personal recommendations:

Anna Baltzer's Blog (Anna is a Jewish-American "human shield." Why?)
Anna Baltzer's Website (Be sure to read her book Witness in Palestine.)
Breaking the Silence (Read what Jewish soldiers say about their actions.)
Jews for Justice for Palestinians (Read what Jews of good conscience say.)
Rabbis for Human Rights (Read what Jewish Rabbis say.)
Rabbis for Human Rights - North America (Read what American Rabbis say.)
Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions (Why are homes being destroyed, really?)
Jews Against the Occupation (Why is there an occupation, really?)
B'Tselem (Get the unvarnished truth about the occupation.)
Jewish Voice for Peace ("Two people, one future.")
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (Israel's oldest and largest human rights group.)
Gush Shalom ("Putting an end to the occupation.")
British Shalom-Salaam Trust ("Crossing Borders for Peace.")
Israel's Back Yard (Testimonies from Israel Checkpoints.)
Jewish Socialists' Group ("Campaigning for the rights of all oppressed minorities.")

A more comprehensive alphabetic list:

5th Mother
Abraham Vision
Action committee for one democratic state
Alliance of Middle East Scientists and Physicians
Al Nakba in Hebrew
Alternative Information Center
Alternative Voice (Galilee co-existance and equality)
American Council for Judaism
America-Israel Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace
Anarchists against the Wall
Andalus Publishing
Anna Baltzer's Blog
Anna Baltzer's Website
Association for Civil Rights in Israel
Bat Shalom, Israeli Women for Peace
Birthright Unplugged
Breaking the Silence (Israeli Soldiers website)
British Shalom/Salaam Trust (Peace in Hebrew/Arabic)
Bustan (Arab Jewish group for sustainable development)
Bustan L'Shalom
Challenge (Israeli magazine)
The Coalition of Women For a Just Peace
Coalition of Women for Peace
Combatants for Peace
Courage to Refuse (Ometz L’Sarev)
Eda Haredit, anti-Zionist Hasidim
European Jews for a Just Peace
Faculty For Israeli-Palestinian Peace
Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement
The Green Line (Kav Yarok)
Gush Shalom
Hagada Hasmalit
House of Hope
Independent Jewish Voice
The Interfaith Encounter Association
International Jewish anti-Zionist Network
Israeli Academics speak out
Israeli artists against the war
Israeli citizens for BDS
Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions
Israeli Committee Against Torture
Israel Insider News
Israel Legal resource center
Israel Religious Action Center (against religious bigotry)
Israel's Back Yard (Checkpoint Testimonies)
Jewish Academic Network for Israeli-Palestinian Peace
Jewish Alliance Against the Occupation
Jewish and Arab Women for Peace
Jewish Friends of Palestine
Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group
Jewish-Palestinian Encounter
Jewish Peace Fellowship
Jewish People Liberation Organization
Jewish Solidarity
Jewish Socialists' Group
Jewish Unity for a Just Peace
Jewish Voice for Peace
Jewish Voices Against the Occupation
Jewish Unity for a Just Peace:
Jewish Voices Against the Occupation:
Jewish Women Watching
Jews Against the Occupation
Jews For Justice
Jews For Justice for Palestinians
Jews for a Just Peace
Jews for a Just Peace (Australia)
Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel (JPPI)
Jews of Belgium for a Fair Settlement
Jews on first
Jews NOT Zionists
Jews Renounce
Just Vision
Kibbush (Occupation Magazine)
Kibbush 40 (Coalition against the occupation)
Machsum (Checkpoint) Watch
Matzpum, Jews to Ban Israeli Products and Tourism
Middle East Crisis Committee
Muzzle Watch (tracking Zionist efforts to silence critics)
Nahalat Shalom
Needle in the Grove
Negev Coexistence Forum
Neturei Karta Homepage
New Israel Fund
New Profile (movement for civilization of Israeli Society)
Neve Shalom/Wahat as-Salam
Norman Finkelstein's Website
Not in Our Name Coalition
Not In My Name!
Occupied Territory Olga Appeal
Olive Tree Movement
One Voice Movement
(The) Other Israel
Oz v'Shalom (religious Zionist anti-Occupation)
Oznik News Service
The Parent Circle
Physicians for Human Rights, Israel
Peace, Justice, and Jews: Reclaiming Our Tradition
(The) Public Committee against Torture in Israel
Rabbis for Human Rights
Rabbis for Human Rights - Israel
Rabbis for Human Rights - North America
Realistic Religious Zionism
Re'ut-Sadaka - Jewish-Arab Youth for Peace and Democracy
Righteous Jews
Schalom 6767 (German Jewish group)
Shministim Refusal Movement
Search for justice and equality
Shvil Zahav (The Middle Way)
Ta'Ayush (Arab Jewish Partnership)
Toronto's Jewish Youth Against the Occupation
We Refuse to Be Enemies
Windows—Palestinian-Israeli cooperation
Women in Black
Women`s Organization for Political Prisoners (WOFPP)
Visions for peace with justice in Israel/Palestine
Yesh Din (There is Law)
Zochrot (Israeli group to remind people of Al-Nakba)

Conscientious Objection to Military Service in Israel:
Israeli Reservists Refusing to Serve
Yesh Gvul, IDF men refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22:20-21)

Love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)

Justice, Justice shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. (Deuteronomy XVI, 18:20) The footnote in the Hertz edition reads: “(T)here is international justice, which demands respect for the personality of every national group, and proclaims that no people can of right be robbed of its national life or territory, its language or spiritual heritage.”

Learn to do well – seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow ... Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness.(Isaiah 1:17,27)

If all afflictions in the world were assembled on one side of the scale and poverty on the other, poverty would outweigh them all. (Exodus Rabbah, Mishpatim 31:14)

Our Nakba Index

These are just a few of the many, many organizations united to establish peace through justice in Israel/Palestine. Why does Esther Cameron want to censor me, when I am merely agreeing with Jews of good conscience who believe the Palestinians should be treated as human beings, with the same human rights as Israeli Jews? Michael R. Burch

The HyperTexts

Interview with Esther Cameron, by Mike Burch

The subject of this month's interview is Esther Cameron, a poet and essayist whose work has appeared in Bellowing Ark, The Antigonish Review, Poetry, Hunger, The Lyric, The Blue Unicorn, Troubadour, and many other journals, as well as on the Poetry Porch and Iambs And Trochees websites. Her blank-verse epic on the ecological crisis, The Consciousness of Earth, is currently being published in installments by Bellowing Ark. She also edits a poetry magazine, The Neovictorian/Cochlea, and a multifaceted website, Point and Circumference, online at For readers who may be unfamiliar with Esther Cameron's work, two of her poems appear below, preceding the interview.

Poets in Law School

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.--Shelley

We take to law because our love has failed.
We study how to sue instead of sing.
We still plead; but our pleadings have a sting:
They're meant not to reach out, but to be hurled.
Farewell, the uncorrupted word that held
In visionary light each common thing,
That fitted symbolism like a ring
Upon the hand of the abandoned world.

Here we avoid each other's eyes in shame,
Learning our lawyer tricks, earning the blame
For half the evils of this addled time.
Wish that other folks had valued us
When we spoke to them in truth and trust.
They cast out reason, when they turned from rhyme. 

Love's Catechism

That water may be taught to flow uphill,
The sun to rise out of the western ground;
That lively ichors from cold stones distill,
That our lost years may somewhere yet be found;
That roses blossom at the arctic pole,
That freshets purl across the desert path,
The swift-sent arrow will not find the goal,
Nor the slow tortoise feel Achilles' wrath;
That there may be two hills without a dale,
That lions may be taught to draw the plow,
That moth-wings make invulnerable mail,
That war-ships founder on a drowned man's brow:
All these false things true lovers must believe,
For the world wears worse, when these illusions leave.

MB: Mike Burch chiming in again, this time with Esther Cameron. Esther is a poet, essayist and editor of The Neovictorian/Cochlea, an excellent poetry journal with pages populated by some of my favorite contemporary poets, including Richard Moore, the subject of May's interview. Esther, your journal has such an interesting name: would you care to enlighten our readers as to how and why you chose it, before we dive into your poetry?

EC: I thought of "Neovictorian" first, because, well, I consider myself a neo-Victorian. Maybe I wanted to be a bit provocative in my way. Of course the Victorian period was, like all other epochs of human history, a mixed bag. But I see it as a time when poetry tried to step into the spiritual gap left by the scientific debunking of religion, and to shore up a social consciousness that was being shattered by the impact of industrialization and capitalism. Why give up? If I had to choose two favorite Victorian poems, they'd be Robert Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" (which to me is about the struggle with cynicism) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "The Cry of the Children," which actually helped inspire the effort to pass child labor laws. "Cochlea" was an afterthought. The cochlea is the labyrinth of the inner ear, shaped like a spiral shell. It symbolizes the intense inner listening in which poetry is written and read. I considered replacing the original title but couldn't quite bring myself to back down from a clarion call. So I kept the two titles as alternatives, and I think having the two titles also pays tribute to that tension between culture and nature which poetry often tries to mediate in one way or another.

MB: I like the journal's title, and it continues to grow on me, which is what "things poetic" are supposed to do. Esther, your comment about Browning's poem made me think immediately of William Blake, a poet who spoke strongly for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised, particularly the children of the poor. Who can forget his chimneysweeps or his railing against the industrial revolution's "dark Satanic mills?" Which leads to an interesting question in light of your comments about Victorian poetry: what do you think of modern critics of poetry who would have us believe it's too late for poetry to have a social conscience, much less a social purpose? Can poetry change the world? Should it try?

EC: Everything we say or do changes the world. And if a person has a social conscience, surely their poetry will also have one. We respond to what moves us, and hope to move others in our turn. That's life, and I don't see poetry as an exception to this -- rather as a heightened instance. Of course, the poem has to be written for its own sake. But the writing of a poem is a struggle of the form-giving eros ("builder of cities," as Auden said) against thanatos (entropy, chaos, indifference).

And social action is or should be the same thing. The important thing is for poetry not to lose its own center; then, instead of becoming subordinated as propaganda to political agendas, poetry could help social activists to design a way of social action that would respect the individual soul and the immense complexity of the world, and run on delight more than anger. In a way my latest poem, "A Wedding in the Texas Flood" (all true!), turned out to be about that. Love wins in that situation, with a lot of logistical hard work, despite hell and high water. And the making of the poem was a somewhat similar process!

MRB: I'm sure our readers will enjoy the poem, so here it is:

A Wedding in the Texas Flood

The waters had been rising for a week,
Each arid gulch a torrent broad and brown,
With logs and planks and what not floating down.
In the afternoon the clouds would thin and break,
But in the watches of the night the freak
Storms would begin again. Plans overthrown,
The members of the wedding hugged the phone
Trying to re-track guests, flowers, cake,

Musicians, church, and preacher, while the bride
And groom were parted by the waters wide.
At the last possible hour the rains abated.
Flowers were found; preacher, food, friends and band
Swiftly assembled in a plot re-planned,
And love's resolve was duly celebrated.

MRB: Esther, I can think of a number of great poets who wrote great poems that raised the world's awareness of critical social issues. For   instance, earlier today I wrote a mini-essay on Yeats' "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" for a poetry forum called "Verses University." In the poem, Yeats touches on the dilemma of an Irish pilot, Robert Gregory, who fought alongside the British in World War I, even though many Irishmen, including Yeats, considered the British oppressors and doubted that the Irish would be any worse off under the Germans' brand of oppression. Today, the Earth itself seems to be under siege, yet modern poetry has become more and more silent on environmental issues. I do see a number of what I politely call "flower name poems," in which poets who seem to think the language is worn out rely on the names of unusual flowers and plants to bail them out. But that's about it. A little bird tells me you're not in sympathy with those poets . . .

EC: "Flower name poems," yes, it's an apt enough term. Although to me it also calls up Paul Celan, who knew botany and much else and does use all kinds of unusual vocabulary, who also accepted the premise that rhyme and meter and traditional language are dead (though he knew how to use all three and sneaked them in every now and then) and accomplished the near-impossible feat of writing free verse that sticks in the mind. But Celan is, as the physicists say, a singularity.  He seems at times to be deliberately carrying the premises of modernism ad absurdum. The tremendous power of his work will only be released when it's understood that this path leads to a dead end, that to go on we have to turn back.

When the dust of postmodernism finally clears, I think we'll see that the language is inexhaustible -- as long as we use it to grapple with the world. A teacher of mine, the late Heinz Politzer, once wrote (I translate from the German): "No one descends to Orcus just for a song."  The Orphic journey isn't possible without Eurydice, without some extrapoetic desire or concern. The minute one denies this, the language becomes a closed system and starts running down -- though only as far as the denier is concerned! Eighty years ago one could still write a poem like "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," and now one hears that the language has worn out! But for those who are still involved with the world through language, there is no reason to think so.

As to the environment, as you know, I am in the process of revising an epic on the ecological crisis -- The Consciousness of Earth, which is appearing installmentwise in Bellowing Ark.  It's in blank verse, with a strong traditional base, though some colloquialism does come in, as with Frost. I suppose it's in a personal style (inevitably), but my focus is not on creating a style but on poetically synthesizing a various modern knowledge, pulling this knowledge together and reintegrating it into a humanistic consciousness, a poetic continuum that is represented by the instrument of Milton and Wordsworth and Frost.  To do this is poetically quite challenging and amusing. But I'm not doing it only for the sake of the poetry, and I hope the work will be read by some who not only enjoy the poetry but share my faith that poetry can actually help us think about these things in a more coherent and hopeful way. 
Part of the modernist mistake, I think, lies in confusing two types of innovation. The rules of chess were laid down some centuries ago. In all the games that have been played since then, a bishop moves slantwise and a rook does not.  Very limiting, right? And yet I'm told that the number of possible chess games is astronomical. There's no way all of them will ever be played. In each of the games that is played the participants are passionately absorbed, chess players innovate and develop their own styles, and yet no one urges his fellow-players to let the rook move slantwise. No one would take that as a serious innovation; it would be just a dumb suggestion that would wreck the game. So here we poets are given an entire language, a set of poetic forms (which can be expanded), and all the objects and relations in the real world that language can refer to -- a game immeasurably more complex than chess. And this is supposed to be exhaustible? The only thing that might be exhaustible is the set of dumb suggestions (like writing without meter, or without reference to the world) that don't explore the game's possibilities but make it impossible to play. Over the last few decades Pound's slogan "Make it new" has come to stand for this kind of mistake (whether or not he originally meant it that way). If the counter-movement were to have a slogan, it might be "Do it justice" -- "it" being the poem's occasion. The impulse to write a poem often comes to me in the form of an appeal from something that would otherwise be overlooked, to do it justice, tell it like it is. If someone who also witnessed the occasion reads the poem and says to me, "That's just what it was like," then I feel I've done a good job. And since no two occasions are alike, the poem will then also be unique and new.

MRB: Congratulations on the Bellowing Ark publication-in-installments.   That's quite a coup! I'm in complete agreement that a small plethora of zingy-but-zany slogans have not helped modern poetry: Pound's "Make it new." Williams's "No ideas but in things." Andrea del Sarto's "Less is more," channeled, of course, through Robert Browning. Rather than "less is more," I like to think "best is more." Modern poetry has become minimalist almost to the point of nonexistence, and poets who espouse "verbal reticence" don't really shut up, they just convince readers they have nothing to say worth hearing. If poetry is "the best words" as Coleridge maintained, shouldn't we want more of them, not less? Your thoughts?

EC: You've touched on another of those self-defeating notions that were somehow foisted on poets by the twentieth century. In an essay published in Bellowing Ark, "Volta" -- it's on my website now -- I try to talk about the whole muddling complex.

I've nothing against short forms per se. Even slogans have their place, every age has had them. Another of mine (on the masthead of The Neovictorian) is "Art for awareness' sake."  In poetry if anywhere the universe truly is a hologram, the whole implicit in the smallest part, and to demonstrate this, to get the impact of the Big Bang into ten lines or so, is a great thing Celan was perhaps the all-time master at this. But in his speech "The Meridian" -- a text to which I keep returning again and again -- Celan quotes a slogan by Mercier, a moderate writer of the French Revolutionary period: "Elargissez l'Art." He quotes it with strong reservations, he contradicts it, but still he quotes it, twice. My own view, in any event, is that poets ought indeed to be thinking about how we might reclaim some space. I remember first hearing from a fellow-undergraduate -- one of those people who are always anxiously straining to catch the latest word in intellectual correctness -- the notion that a poem had to be short, because a longer poem exceeds the reader's capacity to perceive it as a whole. Well, but don't we expand such capacities by placing increasing demands on them?  My own early poems were all very short, not because I believed they ought to be but because these brief flashes were all I could hold at first. The ability to write longer poems is something that built up very gradually, over decades. When I wrote my first poem of 500 lines, I felt I'd crossed a threshold. Soon after that The Consciousness of Earth assignment landed on me -- it was going to be a prose response to Schell's Fate of the Earth, but one day this 130-line blank verse prologue came out -- and this has forced me to work on building up long argumentative and expository structures, a kind of musical organization of ideas.  Poetry is, as we used to say in the '60's, mind-expanding.

Poetry is something very big. It goes beyond the confines of the individual mind, like science. It came to me as a kind of initial breakthrough, again in connection with Paul Celan, that just as the poem is a system, and the life-work of a poet is a system, so there are also systems comprised of the works of related poets, of all poets -- "That great poem, which all poets, like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind, have built up since the beginning of the world," as Shelley puts it. Think about poetry in that light, and you see a whole new dimension open up -- what I've called "macropoetics." I believe that by exploring this dimension we'll find ways of amplifying all our voices, reclaiming for poetry its rightful position in human life. As we understand more about how the human mind works, we see that poetry isn't the optional hobby it has seemed to many in the technological age. Fred Turner's essay "The Neural Lyre" is one beginning. Poetry is what holds society, and even the individual personality, together. People can do without poetry, just as they can let machines do all their physical, work, but it's not very good for them, individually or collectively. The challenge before all of us now is to make this point. And by taking up that challenge, I believe we'll also bring out the best in ourselves as poets.

MB: Well, I certainly agree that poetry isn't an optional hobby, and good poetry is a challenge both to the poet and the reader: a very pleasurable challenge. Esther, thanks so much for taking time to chat. I'm going to end the interview with an essay by Esther that will be of interest to many of our readers . . .


          ...that great poem, which all poets, like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind, have built up since the beginning of the world

               -- Shelley

          Elargissez l'Art!

               -- Mercier (quoted by Celan in "The Meridian")

In this essay I am going to transgress a commandment of W. H. Auden's, by attempting to "commit/ A social science." I have already coined a word - a questionable act, unless one is very sure there is some previously unnamed thing that needs recognition. 

I believe that there is such a thing. For it came as a difficult and unaccustomed thought, some years ago, that the poetic process does not necessarily stop at the borders of the poem; that poems, whole in themselves, can also be taken as elements of a larger structure, as speeches in a play which poets have been acting since the dawn of human mind, making up their lines as they go along. With this recognition came a wish that this dialogue could be more conscious, that it could have more of a presence in the world, that the voices of poets could be heard as reinforcing one another - like the voices in a fugue which, while pursuing their several paths, are yet bound up in an underlying harmony. 

True, every poet must hear his or her own inner voice, and must not be deflected by political ideology or literary fashion from giving voice to his or her perceptions.  However, it happens that poets do see the same things, do have similar perceptions and visions, or perceptions and visions that can be recognized as bearings on the same points. And then there is room for an act of recognition: a handshake, a publication of banns, some gesture or ceremony that has not yet been invented. To keep track of such recognitions, to invent such gestures and ceremonies and forms in which the coherency of the poetic enterprise could become more manifest - this I would like to call the social science of macropoetics.

Macropoetics has several interrelated aspects. The first is simply the practice of attention, the art of noticing these connections. One product of this practice would be a new-old poetic canon, where the central works would be those to which the most connections lead.  Since the purpose of a canon is to help the next generation of writers to orient themselves, this leads to the subject of the poetic apprenticeship, the personal poetic quest, and how it would shape itself in the presence of a "macropoetic" tradition.  There is the aspect of form - the ceremonies, the gestures, through which the recognition of poetic kinship would be expressed. And finally, there is the re-expansion of poetry into domains of subject-matter from which it has recently retreated. 

But having coined a Greek word for an assemblage of thoughts, let me begin the exposition in the form of a story.  Bear with me, reader, in my switching back and forth between personal narrative and systematic exposition, between history and geometry, between the Tao and the halakha, just as, in my own poetry, I switch between free verse and formal verse (more the latter lately, I must admit). Each way of looking at things is in some sense true, as light is both a particle and a wave, as "masculine" and "feminine" types of intelligence both have their uses.


The portal to the macropoetic domain opened to me, so to speak, in the late spring of 1967, when I was looking for a room for the summer in Berkeley. On College Avenue I passed a house that looked a neglected and had never been elegant, but whose concrete porch was flanked by two lions.  These attracted me because of a detail of family history that had always struck me as "talismanic": the fact that my maternal grandfather and grandmother both had "lion" names (Cheble and Leonie). So when a "room for rent" sign appeared on the door between the lions, I rang the bell and inquired and took the room that was offered. The house was owned by an elderly man who, it turned out, kept bees in the back yard, an insect that also had talismanic connections for me. If I didn't make the archetypal connection between the lion and the bee[1], the connection was soon made for me by Sylvia Plath, whom I read for the first time while living there - a fellow-poet, Janine Canan, perhaps prompted by this concrete symbolism, brought me Ariel.  In any event Plath's poetry struck a sympathetic chord, and the same chord was struck, still more loudly, by the poems of Paul Celan, encountered the following autumn.  Here, too, I found myself making "talismanic" connections between his work and the unwritten text of my own life. This both intrigued and frightened me; it still saddens me that I was not able to express this to Celan himself, whom I met personally on one occasion. I was, of course, overawed and tongue-tied, and there is no knowing how he would have responded; but his subsequent fate, and my own reactions thereto, proved to me at least that there is really only one poetic universe, and it would be in our interest to know it.

This finding of "talismanic" connections between one's life and the things one reads: I suspect that this occurs oftener than people admit, that the thought surfaces only to be dismissed as silly or pretentious. But this unexamined reaction presupposes a difference between poiesis and "man's search for meaning" - to borrow the title of Victor Frankel's book, which Janine, again, brought to me the summer after Celan's suicide. It seems to me that the poem is nothing other than a crystallization that occurs occasionally in the course of this search, this quest. Symbolism could not occur in poetry if it did not occur in life. One's personal symbols may, then, be something like one's own key to the tradition.

I am reminded of Sylvia Ashton-Warner's book Spinster, which is about the teaching process. The protagonist teaches Maori children to read by finding out which words are most meaningful to each child. By learning to read these words, the child gains a sense of power and is thus impelled to learn more words.  And I also think of Kafka's parable, "Before the Law," where it is revealed at the end that each person has a door into the Law that is meant for them alone.

This apprenticeship was a matter of sheer accident and instinct. It happened largely in despite of the teachings I was receiving in the academic and literary milieu.  The academic teachers, some of them very learned and sensitive, did teach attention to a written text; but there was no place in the curriculum for attention to the text of one's own life. Insofar as the writing of poetry was taught, it was taught as a "craft," and oriented toward a literary marketplace where one's fellow-students would be one's future competitors. The important thing was to seem original while avoiding a self-exposure that could incur unfavorable comment; questions of ethics, or the direction one's life was taking, were mostly considered irrelevant.  Fortunately, Berkeley in those years was also a place of psychological and social experiment, where many people were writing poetry in an extracurricular way, just to keep track of what was happening to them. Few of the poets I knew then eventually became known, but they and their words are still part of my own inner constellation.

I'd like to think that the elements which I plucked, so to speak, from the academic and countercultural milieux in the '60's could be combined into a macropoetic curriculum. I dream of a milieu in which it is understood from the outset that the quest for one's place in the poetic tradition is also a quest for the meaning of one's life, that while learning the tradition one also undergoes something like a training analysis. It is important to learn craft, of course, but in my experience craft, beyond a simple acquaintance with the form-book, is best learned by responding to the poems that have spoken to one, and by writing on occasions when there is a need for craft. Thus, as an adolescent I had learned to write sonnets by reading those of Millay; and I reverted to this form after Celan's death, when the form became a kind of mast to which I could lash myself while around me the sirens howled.

The encounter with Plath and Celan which I've been alluding to rather than describing was a kind of initiatory experience, which I fell into unprepared and unguided. It was like falling into an entirely different culture. On my flight from an academic world where I had been expected to write a dissertation on Celan's poems in the tone of one untouched by them, I stayed for a few days in the house of a very temporary commune, where I found a copy of Black Elk Speaks. Black Elk reminded me of Celan, and of Buber's Hasidic masters. Like those masters but, alas, unlike Celan, Black Elk underwent his visionary experiences in the presence of others who knew what such visions were and who were able to help him - in a phrase that impressed me deeply at the time - to "dance your vision before the tribe." (In his book Earth's Mind, Roger Dunsmore comments very beautifully on this communal poetics.)  There must be an art of helping one another do this, that we could find again.


Under the above-described circumstances, my "initiation" caused me to talk and act rather wildly for some time, and I came out of it knowing only that I must do something about the isolation of the poet in Western society - but what? Well, I began learning Hebrew, sensing that it might be well to know something about the rabbinic culture from which Celan was only a generation away. Then, in the spring of 1973, I was offered the job of teaching a summer course in the modern novel, a genre in which I was well-read but to which I had never devoted much conscious thought. Having no other definite plans, I accepted the job, and then had to think how to organize the course - how to select from this vast domain, in what concepts to summarize it.

At this point the Macropoetic Muse said to me, "Don't try to summarize. Just pick one novel that you think is important, and then pick others that 'go with' it. In the course of discussions, a coherency will appear." Which novel should I start with? At our interview Celan had said (he apparently also said this to others) that he had settled in Paris because of Rilke's one novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.  Because of Malte, I contented myself with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, rather than attempting Ulysses; chose to discuss The Castle rather than The Trial. The usual choice for Proust, Combray, fitted well. I wanted to begin with Flaubert and Dostoevsky, but which of there books would fit here? An unexpected answer came: The Adolescent, a book that turned out to be extraordinarily rich and revelatory. Joyce Carol Oates' them, which a friend had recommended the winter before, crashed the party, and an allusion in them prompted me to discuss Madame Bovary rather than The Sentimental Education.  Musil's Man Without Qualities was also on the syllabus, but was not discussed for lack of time. A student free-associated to Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, which I had read but had not thought of because its tone repelled me; it turned out to be very much a part of the configuration. As the Macropoetic Muse had predicted, coherencies did show up - to the point where the students and I felt that we were talking, not about seven books, but about one.  Later I tried to fix this configuration in a manuscript entitled The Web of What Is Written (abbreviated, in 1974, WWW!). Besides the above-named works, the manuscript included chapters on some texts that I thought showed alternatives to the pattern enacted in the novels: Kropotkin's Mutual Aid, Simone Weil's essay "Human Personality," Laura (Riding) Jackson's The Telling, Buber's Hasidim, Black Elk Speaks, and finally a fantasy-novel - Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn. In both parts of the work Celan is of course quoted passim.

Thus, as a first "assignment" after the initiation, I had been led to address the task of canon-building. The works that I chose, taken together, were like a recurring dream. The complex of novels was unified, like each of the individual novels, by a common symbolism; the same situations kept recurring. This was partly a matter of direct or indirect influence - I was really talking about a family of novels, whose later writers had been aware of the earlier ones. Most of them point backwards to Dante's Commedia (a central reference point for the major poets of the twentieth century as well). Proust, Joyce and Kafka all regarded Flaubert as the "master" and had been more or less influenced by Dostoevsky; Rilke is sui generis, but he too refers to Flaubert; Pynchon's novel is rife with allusions to Joyce, Kafka and Rilke; Oates refers to Madame Bovary, though the main source of them is not literature but, according to the author, the actual life-story of a woman who certainly does not seem like an "Oates character." them serves as confirmation that The Web of What Is Written is about things that really happen to real people. Of course, the configuration is not closed; any number of other works can be "associated into" it.

This sort of "canon" is an associative complex, rather than simply a collection of "great books." Like a dream or novel, the WWW is unified by a central concern, namely a wish that the poetic imagination might be employed in creating something like a true "earth household," a modus vivendi that would be happier and more "sustainable," as they say, than present arrangements. In the works I have cited, introspection on the craft of writing takes place - in this light. ("In the light of U-topia," as Celan put it in "The Meridian.")

A group of poets with this canon as background would have a common understanding of the forces that come into play when one writes and shares poetry. They would be spared much confusion, and would be better able to recognize both obstacles and allies, and to be generally - to use a word underlined by Celan, Simone Weil, Mandel'shtam, and Dante - "attentive."

In "The Meridian," Celan writes: "The poem is solitary. It is solitary and on the way." Yet through his citations of and allusions to Buechner, Lenz, Mercier, Kropotkin, Landauer, Schestow, Pascal and others - citations that are not mere display, but show that he has had experiences that helped him understand their words, that he has grappled with their questions and understood their positions - he creates the sense of a common poetic space, within which each one traces his or her own path, but attuned to the others and with a sense (he plays on the multiple meanings of Sinn: sense, meaning, direction) of a possible convergence.

In the years after Celan's death I kept seeing poems in literary magazines that seemed like reflections of him, and at one point collected these into a small anthology called "Convergent Vision."  Later, in the house of the late Dr. Israel Chalfen, the biographer of Celan's early years, I saw a pencil drawing by Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, likewise made in the '70's, entitled "Toward a Center." It consisted of scattered dots that congregated more densely in the middle, in a shape vaguely reminiscent of Breughel's Tower of Babel; if it were not for the title one could not decide whether it is aggregating or scattering. The drawing is very like Celan's oeuvre as a whole. Whether it is a gathering or a scattering is up to our interpretation and decision.

Some lines by Hoelderlin, another of Celan's teachers, come to mind:

                                    Therefore, since all around are piled
                                    The summits of time, and the beloved ones
                                    Are neighbors growing weary upon
                                    Most severed mountains,
                                    Then give guiltless water,
                                    O pinions give us, with truest intent (Sinn)
                                    To cross over and to return again.


The individual practice of attention - as Celan demonstrates it in his poems, and expounds it in the Bremen speech and "The Meridian" - is not enough. This was, to me, the lesson of Celan's terrible fate. (Those who see suicide as an acceptable artistic gesture, were of course not troubled by it.) Celan's social position was untenable in one way that many have noticed: the language in which he felt compelled to write bound him to an audience for which he could feel no trust, and separated him from the community of his origin. But his situation is not fundamentally different from the dilemma of any poet who feels that he or she speaks of sacred things (i.e., things that require trust among those who handle them) - and who can only speak of them to a marketplace.

                                    make yourself known,
                                    here too, in the middle of the marketplace.

Unsupported by social arrangements that recognize the sacred character of poetry, he was simply too vulnerable.  In his early years he seems to have attempted to form alliances with other poets - the dedications of several poems are the trace of this - but, for whatever reason, these alliances do not appear to have lasted.  This must have been at least part of the reason why he was unable to "gather yourself, stand" as he wrote in a late poem. Celan suffered a mental breakdown and committed suicide; others have survived, but at the price of muting the voice of the heart and sacrificing the possibility of vision.

In the spring of 1971 I realized, with a shock that unhinged me for a while, that all this concerned me personally. At this remove in time the main thing that puzzles me is: why was I surprised?  But there may be some psychological barrier to the idea of a common poiesis. Bloom's Anxiety of Influence relates this barrier to the Oedipus complex, and I think he may be right, if one adopts the view of the Oedipus complex which Erich Fromm expounds in The Forgotten Language, to which an Orthodox rabbi free-associated in a conversation with me some years ago.[2]  I come back to the idea of some sort of pedagogy or spiritual midwifery, by which poets who had passed that narrows could help pull others through it, into a mental space where the sacred trust among speakers is (re-)established.

Most of what I have written since then has been addressed to this task. I have tried to assemble groups of poets, and I have also tried to envision an organizational form. In 1975, at the start of one organizational attempt, I wrote down the poem which I perceive as the center of my own work:


                        We gather here to see faces from which we need not hide our face,
                        to hear the sound of honest speech, to share
                        what dreams have etched upon the sleeping brain,
                        what the still voice has said, when heavy hours
                        plunged us to regions of the mind and life
                        not mentioned in the marketplace: to find
                        and match the threads of common destinies,
                        designs grimed over by our thoughtless life --
                        A sanctuary for the common mind
                        we seek. Not to compete, but to compare
                        what we have seen and learned, and to look back
                        from here upon that world where tangled minds
                        create the problems they attempt to solve
                        by doubting one another, doubting love,
                        the wise imagination, and the word.
                        For, looking back from here upon that world,
                        perhaps ways will appear to us, which when
                        we only struggled in it, did not take
                        counsel of kindred minds, lay undiscovered;
                        perhaps, reflecting on the Babeled speech
                        of various disciplines that make careers,
                        we shall find out some speech by which to address
                        each sector of the world's fragmented truth
                        and bring news of the whole to every part.
                        We say the mind, once whole, can mend the world.
                        To mend the mind, that is the task we set.
                        How many years? How many lives? We do not know;
                        but each shall bring a thread.  

The language of this poem seems far from Celan's. Yet some months later, when the collection of Celan's last poems (Zeitgehoeft) appeared, I received some assurance that I had correctly divined the way he wanted to point for others, even if he was unable to walk it himself. The second-to-last poem is as follows:

                                    Crocus, seen
                                    from the hospitable table,
                                    tiny, sign-
                                    sensitive exile
                                    of a common truth,
                                    you need
                                    each grassblade.  
                                   ("But each shall bring a thread.")

And his very last poem ends:

                                    The Open Ones carry
                                    the stone behind the eye,
                                    it recognizes you
                                    on the Sabbath.
                                   ("Faces from which we need not hide our face.")

Celan's life-work ends with the invocation of one of the oldest of social forms, a form which creates a sacred time. Within that time, "work" is forbidden. "Work" is legally defined by the prohibition of many concrete acts, such as buying, selling, writing, cutting, tearing, sowing, reaping, building. But one is also supposed to cultivate a certain Sabbath mood, a mood of peacefulness and joy. Supposedly, in welcoming the Sabbath, one receives an "extra soul," which departs at Havdalah, the ceremony that returns one to weekday reality. Around the time that Zeitgehoeft came out, I read Abraham Joshua Heschel's book The Sabbath, which quotes a midrash according to which the original light of Creation was a light by which one could see from one end of the world to another. When the First Human sinned, this light was hidden, but it can still be seen on the Sabbath. Reading this, I had a sense of recognition; I felt that I had seen Celan's poetic landscape in just that light.

The kind of openness that Celan's poetry demands can evidently only come about within some kind of structure. "How but in order and in ceremony/ Are innocence and beauty born," as Yeats put it. "Structure" is often felt as a constraint, but the poetry of the ages bears witness that it is possible to express one's personal views within the constraints of structure. To envision the "keeping of the Sabbath" as at least a goal (to be pursued as best one can in this 7/24 world) is to draw at least the outline of a framework within which the sacred exchange might take place.  The Internet of course opens new possibilities by allowing people to meet in forums to which each person contributes in the time available to him or her.

My own first attempts to convene a meeting of minds in real time suggested to me a second kind of formal measure (actually a very ancient one that has been frequently revived in the "counterculture". In order to avoid tensions over who should speak next and fruitless "debates" where people attack each other's positions instead of reporting from their own, it is helpful for participants to speak in turn, without interruptions, and for a fixed length of time (five minutes seems to be the right measure). Whenever people relax into this procedure, the results are moving and significant. Of course, this procedure can only be carried out in small groups - twelve seems to be the maximum. Next, I envisioned some regular liaison between groups, a tiered structure such as Jethro suggests to Moses in Exodus 18, or possibly an interlocking structure, with each person being part of at least two groups- someone with a better head than I have for scheduling problems might be able to work out the ideal scheme.  Again, the Internet opens new possibilities. An Internet counterpart of the meeting I've described would be a forum in which participation is limited to ten or twelve and all contributions would have to be in poetic form (no "workshop"-type criticism of the type Joseph Salemi have both lambasted on Expansive Poetry and Music Online, in which judgment seems to preclude understanding). Again there could be some form of regular liaison among the groups.

Beyond the agreement to participate in a formal structure, the "macropoetic" association would not require uniformity of opinion among its members. Nor would any voice be officially representative of the association. The social effects would flow from the presence within the community of this kind of deliberation, from the resonance of voices that speak as individuals, but as individuals aware of one another.

Such an association would, I think, want to keep track of its "proceedings," archiving the poems brought to the meetings and anything else the members wanted the association to keep. With computer storage, this would not be difficult.

But storage ultimately requires a locus in space, and so it would be important to establish a "poets' house" in as many communities as possible, with meeting-rooms for groups of poets and for larger assemblies, as well as computer rooms.  The house is an archetypal symbol of the mind as well as the community. Even as a mental image a poets' house can help poets to orient themselves, serve as a beacon of "convergent vision." In 1993 I developed this image in a poem called "The Hexagon." 

The organization, as said, would be the "form" of the "macropoem." Just as sonnet form can help one to state a thought in the most pointed and impressive fashion, so the organization would be a pointed and impressive statement of the transpersonal nature of poetic thought.


There is one further dimension of "macropoetics" to explore, namely the reclaiming of territory from which poetry has retreated in recent times. These days there exists a notion, seldom questioned, that poetry should not be "didactic." Of course, poets have always felt obliged to make the poem pleasurable to read. Dulce et utile - note the order. But it is only in the last century that the "utile" has been definitively dropped.

This, to my mind, is self-destructive. For if one drops the claim that poetry is useful, the chances of someone's finding it sweet are also diminished. There are activities to which people gravitate naturally (like sitting on the sofa in front of the television) and things that they may do at first even with some reluctance and repugnance, for the sake of utility, and then come to enjoy (like exercising, or reading poetry). Someone who doesn't believe poetry is useful has no incentive to make that effort of concentration which the poem demands. Moreover, when we advocate for things like the establishment of a poets' house, we can best demonstrate the effectiveness of poetic language by using it. By reviving the tradition of Hesiod and Lucretius and Dante and Pope, we shall become better able to plead our own cause.

For poetry really is useful as an expository device. If you ever have trouble organizing ideas in prose, try blank verse. That is how my environmental epic, The Consciousness of Earth,[3] began. I felt, when the blank-verse prologue suddenly flashed into shape out of a nebula of prose, as though I'd just reinvented the wheel in some culture where the wheelwright's craft had inexplicably been forgotten.

Biologically speaking, the ability to write poetry didn't evolve only as a way of transcribing personal impressions and perceptions and emotions, although doubtless there has always been an element of personal display. But above all, poetry evolved as a technique for summarizing and recording the perceptions of the group. The poet is very much a product of group selection, delegated to think and feel for the community as well as him- or herself.  Those who are inconvenienced by the presence of thought in the community would like very much to push us into various solipsistic corners, but we shouldn't let them.


At the close of this exposition, I would like to return to its beginning - to that early encounter with Celan and Plath.  Why were precisely these two poets the portal-figures to the macropoetic domain? Couldn't I just as well have been entranced by Berryman and Sexton, or Frost and Millay, or the Brownings?

One thing that Plath and Celan have in common is that both are Oedipal mourners, having each lost a deeply-loved parent early and in a terrible way. (Plath's father apparently refused treatment for an illness that would have been curable; Celan's mother was murdered by the Nazis.)  For both of them, loss of the loved parent makes the world into a wasteland. Throughout this writing, the conclusion of Plath's "Sheep in Fog" has been going through my mind:

                        They threaten
                        To let me through to a heaven
                        Starless and fatherless, a dark water.

And in Celan's "Black Snowflakes" the mother's voice speaks of "the world that will never grow green, my child, for your child." In both of them there is a sense of being radically exposed. Yet at moments this becomes a sense of radical freedom:

                        Step off!
                        Step off seven leagues, like those distances

                        That revolve in Crivelli, untouchable.
                        Let this eye be an eagle,
                        The shadow of this lip, an abyss.

Compare these lines from Plath's "Gulliver" with Celan's references to the "step" that is an "act of freedom," the extraplanetary excursions in The No-One's Rose.

This very personal sense of deprivation, abandonment and exposure correlates with negative perceptions about the state of the world. In Celan's case this seems obviously understandable - although, in the shadow of his Holocaust experiences, his discomfort with post-Holocaust culture is often overlooked. In Plath's case the connection is less obvious. Yet her first breakdown began in a close encounter with commercial culture, as an intern at Mademoiselle.  This encounter with dehumanization may have had as much to do with the "Holocaust" imagery in her poetry as paternal abandonment.

The sense of "orphanhood" must also have something to do with the way in which both use language. Both of them have a trick of making each individual word stand out as if it was the only word ever spoken, alone in the silent waste of the universe.

                      The comets
                      Have such a space to cross
                      ("Night Dances")

The instinct to produce this effect must be part of the reason why both abandoned traditional form after a formal apprenticeship.  Abandoned it, more or less: there is a kind of crying out for form, a sense of form approaching and never quite arriving, in the amphibrachic meter of Celan's broken-up lines, in Plath's off-rhymes, and in a kind of "crystalline" organization that seems to happen from the poem's center.  The formal poem "shelters" the word, whereas in free verse the word is out in the open. The style of both Plath's and Celan's work dramatizes the exposed position of language, of human consciousness, in a universe that was, as Celan put it in "Conversation in the Mountains," "not thought up for you and me." 

But in Celan's work, especially, the "stepping-off" from the world is also the search for the Archimedean point. There is an invocation of a kind of global consciousness, an encompassing solicitude. Something like the "universal parenthood" Schell invokes in The Fate of the Earth:

Without violating that mystery, we can perhaps best comprehend the obligation to save the species simply as a new relationship among human beings. Because the will to save the species would be a will to let other people into existence rather than a will to save oneself, it is a form of respect for others, or, one might say, a form of love. (...) This love, I believe, would bear a resemblance to the generative love of parents, who in wanting to bring children into the world have some experience of what it is to hope for the renewal of life.

Perhaps the association of poets I am trying to start would mean a formal acknowledgment of this "universal parenthood."

In any event, I hope that this note on Plath and Celan makes it clearer how their work could evoke a wish to produce, not only more poems, but also an overarching form, within which poetry could develop under more favorable conditions, gathering strength to speak to the world at large.

[1] See Marija Gimbutas' Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, also the episode of the lion and the honeycomb in the Samson story.

[2] Whereas Bloom emphasizes the "Oedipal" conflict between the father and son, Fromm sees the "Oedipus complex" as an expression of adult longing for the childhood world of love and solicitude. The obstacle to this is not the father as rival but the imperative of conflict that seems to rule the adult world.

[3] Currently being published in installments in The Bellowing Ark, beginning with vol. 17 no. 5 (September-October 2001).