The Channeler

Anahid Nersessian, interviewed by Merve Emre

Anahid Nersessian

Anahid Nersessian

In a series of conversations with Merve Emre at Wesleyan University, some of today’s sharpest working critics discuss their careers and methodology, and are then asked to close-read a text that they haven’t seen before. The Review is collaborating with Lit Hub to publish transcripts and recordings of these interviews, which across eleven episodes will offer an extensive look into the process of criticism.

I am delighted to have Anahid Nersessian as my guest, not least because she’s a good friend. Anahid is a professor of English at UCLA. I have been reading her work for a long time, and I think of her as a companion in a shared critical endeavor to figure out how to take our expertise as scholars and use it to make certain kinds of literature, particularly difficult or old forms, attractive to people who are not in the academy. It’s wonderful to see the way she takes the same skills and sensibilities she’s developed to write about John Keats or William Wordsworth and applies them to contemporary poets like Dionne Brand or Maggie Millner. I also think of her—and I believe that this is one of the greatest compliments—as someone whose voice you can hear speaking in her writing. There is a real continuity between having a conversation with Anahid, gossiping with her, and reading her essays in The New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and New Left Review, or reading her books, Utopia Limited, The Calamity Form, and Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse, which is a gorgeous blend of memoir and criticism.

Merve Emre: Most of the members of this audience are college students, and presumably one of the reasons they’re here is because they want to figure out how to get from where they are to where you are. Tell us that story.

Anahid Nersessian: I have to answer that question by talking about my father. My father was born in Iran and went to England when he was about twelve to go to boarding school, then went to medical school in Belgium, then did an internship in Montreal, and then landed in New York City in the late Seventies.

Because of that trajectory, he was invested in English-language literary culture and also felt very much on the outside of it. There’s a story in my family about how when he was at his English boarding school, my father got the only perfect score on that week’s geography test, and the English geography teacher said, “Nobody got a perfect score except for Nersessian, and of course, he is a foreigner.” The suggestion being that because you’re foreign, you have to compensate for losses that nobody else has to, and I think he always had the sense that he needed to compensate for being a foreigner in any situation.

All to say, my father has tons of books. He’s a psychoanalyst, which is why it’s partly funny for me to talk about my father in response to this question. My mother is a child psychologist. The house that I grew up in was also where they had their offices; they worked from home. Both of them had offices with books, but my father’s office had floor-to-ceiling books, and a lot of English Romantic poetry, which is the field that I came to specialize in. The first time that I encountered Keats, Shelley, and other writers was on the shelves of my father’s office. Sylvia Plath I first found in my father’s office. Virginia Woolf, Auden, Shakespeare, really anybody who became an important writer to me. Books were always around. I also inherited some of my father’s sense of needing to compensate and apologize for my funny name and the fact that I didn’t look like the other students in my class.

I have no idea what you’re talking about, Anahid.

This is also why Merve and I are friends, because we had a very similar experience of coming from an immigrant background and feeling on the outside of things. Wanting to be on the inside, wanting to be good girls, wanting to succeed, and wanting to prove ourselves.

I’d appreciate if you would stop making this about me.

I would say it really comes from my dad. I started reading poetry at a pretty young age and became enamored of Romantic poetry, as well as other kinds of poetry. When I went to college, I knew that I wanted to be an English professor. The only other profession that I toyed with was photographer; I was interested in photography as a high school student and rigged up a dark room in my parents’ basement. But I decided eventually to commit myself to being an academic, and I went straight from college to graduate school and then straight from graduate school to my first academic job, and jumped through all the requisite hoops.

I wrote my first book very quickly. I wrote my second book very quickly. Then I had this opportunity fall into my lap to write a book about Keats. It was the first time in my academic career that I felt I had an opportunity to write from a place of love and affection for a writer. Even though I had touched on Keats in some of my other work, it had been from a conventional, scholarly angle. This book came from a much more intimate place. The book is literary criticism and memoir. Some of the story that I just told about my dad is in that book.


The first time I wrote for The New York Review of Books, my editor there, Jana Prikryl, reached out to me because I had written an article that she liked very much about Leonard Cohen, when he died, and that had come out in the Los Angeles Review of Books. I don’t think she had read the Keats book, but she somehow found the Leonard Cohen piece. Leonard Cohen was very important to my father, and I heard a lot of Cohen growing up in my house.

Jana asked if I wanted to review a new biography of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, whom I had read but didn’t know much about. My second child was six weeks old, and I was delirious; that’s probably why I said yes. I wrote it when I could, when one child was asleep and the other one wasn’t up in my grill for things. My other child is five years older than my son, so there’s a lot of energy in the house. Jana and I immediately had a good working relationship, and she kept asking me to do things and I kept saying yes. It’s been really wonderful.

In my experience there are two different ways that people who have conventional academic training think about making the turn to nonacademic genres of criticism. One thing that people say is, “I want to take my academic work and make it intelligible to a nonacademic audience.” There are other people who say, “I have a certain set of skills that I’ve spent a lifetime developing, and I will apply those to objects that might not have anything to do with my scholarship but will let me broaden my reach.” It sounds like you’re doing both of those things. How do you situate yourself in those two camps?

One of the things that happens in academia is that the work becomes very, very specialized. If you go to graduate school for English Romantic poetry, it’s easy to become pigeonholed as a person who will write about English Romantic poetry for the rest of their natural life. The way that success is determined in the academy basically demands people contract their sphere of interest.

That was something I always found disappointing. I thought, Why is there no room in my everyday life for me to think about Renaissance painting? When I was a teenager, I was interested in Renaissance painting. I regularly go to the Getty in Los Angeles and look at Renaissance painting. Why can’t I write about it? People who are art historians specializing in the Renaissance would say, You’re not allowed to write about it because you don’t know anything about that field. I think, Well, I don’t know anything, but—this is to your point about my set of skills—I am what’s called a humanist. I think about art, and I know some things about art. I’m also a human being and I know some things about being a human being. Why is it that there’s no space in which I can take these things out to play?

What I’ve loved about writing for a so-called public audience is being able to talk about what I haven’t necessarily been rewarded the space in my department or my university to talk about, because I’m the person who specializes in English Romantic poetry, and they don’t really care what else I do.

When I think about you as a specialist, I actually don’t think about English Romantic poetry. I think of a certain highly intelligent form of leftist critique that does not sacrifice aesthetics on the altar of politics—that is about as specialist as you can get. I wonder if we could orient that category of the specialist a little bit differently and say, “Here’s what I specialize in—it’s not a period, it’s not a nation, but it’s a way of thinking, a way of perceiving, and a way of synthesizing my perceptions into a kind of argument.”

I love that idea of specialization. I don’t know how much room there has been for it in the academy in the past several years. When I’m asked what I specialize in, I say poetry. I mean poetry writ large, in every language that I can read in, and anything that I can read in translation. I also connect deeply with poetry criticism from a variety of traditions, whether it’s a leftist political orientation or a more formalist orientation. I think of myself primarily as a poetry scholar, and then what comes next would be something like a left political orientation. John Berger didn’t really write about poetry, but he is one of the most important writers for me.


Anyone who writes for nonacademic publications is participating in an act of consecration. You are writing about contemporary poets, some of whom might not get the same amount of attention if you weren’t directing readers to them. How do you think about that function of criticism at the present time?

That’s a great question. Here’s the thing about consecration: I am congenitally passive, and I really like to take orders. So I almost never pitch a review. I almost always say to my editors, whether it’s at the NYRB or the LRB or New Left Review, “What would you like me to write about?”

We’re very different in this way.

I think that you’re much more of a curator. And I’m not. I think of myself as somebody who’s in service to the enterprise of literature in a serious way, and I show other people how it’s done, but I almost never offer something that I would like to write about. Sometimes an editor will say, “This book came across the desk. We’d like a review. Will you review it?” And I’ll say, “Well, I’ll do it if I can do it with this other book that might not get the attention otherwise.” I’ll pair books, and that’s a strategy. But other than that, I really like to see what lands in my lap and see what I can bring to it. For me, there’s a real value in breaking my head against something that I might not already be interested in.

One of my aims is to create a space where a reader can take twenty minutes to engage with an object. Not to be too idyllic about it, but to me that’s freedom, and the more we can experience or rehearse freedom in our day-to-day lives, the more we can know what it might be on a grander scale. That’s the most grandiose thing that I’ll say.

For me, it’s a kind of freedom that is much more akin to the freedom of the classroom than to the freedom of scholarship. Scholarship does have its freedoms. The freedom to be a specialist is a kind of autonomy, one that has been purchased at what some would call an acceptable cost and others would call an unacceptable one. But it is a kind of freedom.

To show people how to think in the service of literature is essentially a pedagogical act. I wonder how far you would push that idea of passivity, because you are also an active and sometimes aggressive issuer of judgments. You might not choose the books, but your hand is on the rope that lets the guillotine down. Tell me how far you take the idea of your congenital passivity.

Now it’s going to get very Los Angeles (I live in Los Angeles). It’s completely true that I have strong opinions, and I’m comfortable expressing them on the page or in real life or over text message, as the case may be. That said, my relationship to reading is, if not passive, then porous. When I read something, I want to know what it is that the object wants to say. My job as a critic is to present what the object wants to say, or what it may say unintentionally, and then to make a judgment about that. Has the thing been said successfully? Is it interesting? Does it have value? Would I want to hear it said again? I do think of myself—this is the Los Angeles part—as a bit of a medium or a channeler, more than a judge. It’s funny to me that people experience my writing as very pointed, since it doesn’t feel pointed to me. It feels more like a passage through ideas that want to be heard.

You wouldn’t hear this in New York.

One of the dominant affects that comes with making the shift that we’re describing, however you might describe it—either from specialist to generalist, or code-switching between different publics, which is how I tend to think of it—can be joy at the freedom one feels, but it can also be anxiety at straying from a set of professional expectations or norms, or the anxiety of the generalist, which is, “I have to make an argument or explication or interpretation of something, and I don’t have the lexicon or the know-how to do that.” I’m wondering if you ever feel that anxiety, and if so, what you do to address it.

I have so much anxiety in the rest of my life; my life is completely driven by anxiety. Writing is the only place where I don’t feel anxious. And that’s pathological. Like you, I’m very productive. I write a lot and I publish a lot and people sometimes think of that as a testimony to a certain kind of ambition or drive. But I think it’s basically pharmaceutical. I write because it makes me feel sane. It’s therapy and it’s meditative practice. It’s everything.

Speaking about writing and anxiety, let me tell you a little bit about how we came to your object. I have been teaching a class this term called Practical Criticism. It is a restaging of I. A. Richards’s experiment in the 1920s at Cambridge. He would give his students a poem—no author, no title, no date of publication—and ask them to write these protocols in which they would explicate and judge the poem that they were given. He wrote a book based on that experiment, Practical Criticism, half of which is dedicated to making fun of his students in just the most savage way imaginable. The other half is dedicated to the things that, for Richards, get in the way of judgment. Poem number six, out of the twelve poems that we have looked at, was the poem that the class voted to give you, in part because it generated the most intense debate. Even the naysayers judge it to be the most interesting. They wanted to see what you would do with it. Could you start by reading this?

I was going to say, we have to read it first. I don’t know this poem, so I won’t read it very well.

Okay, so you don’t recognize it?

No, I was desperately trying to, and I totally don’t.


Ravening through the persistent bric-a-brac
Of blunt pencils, rose-sprigged coffee cup,
Postage stamps, stacked books’ clamor and yawp,
Neighborhood cockcrow—all nature’s prodigal backtalk, …

[Read the full poem here.]

I hope you can see why it was an appropriate poem to give to you in addition to being the one that they argued over most intensely. Where do we start?

One of the tricky things about the Richards method of practical criticism is that the democratic ambition of practical criticism says you should be able to come to a poem without knowing anything about English literary history and bumble your way through it. It’s very hard for me to read a poem like this without immediately thinking, What else does this sound like? I hear Ezra Pound, I hear Wallace Stevens, I hear Gerard Manley Hopkins. I can’t eject those from my mind.

To go back to the LA mediumship thing: often reading for me is a process of allowing the voices behind the poem to come through. I hear Ezra Pound—what does that mean? That tells you something about the poem, that it’s a poem that’s operating with a certain amount of erudition and “insiderness.” I hear Ezra Pound, but someone who doesn’t know anything about the modernist tradition might not. Are they immediately excluded from the poem? I think that even if you don’t know what a poem like this is referencing, you know it’s referencing something because the language is so dense. It’s very convoluted. There are inversions and grammatical reversals that make it rebarbative in a certain way. It’s not a poem that invites you in. Why does the poem not invite you in?

One of the debates we constantly have in class is how much people can OED words. The debate over this poem was so intense because people were like, We need to OED every other word in this poem. What does it mean that we don’t know what every other word in this poem means? Who is this for? Why am I being kept out?

There’s a difference between needing to OED a poem from the seventeenth century because there’s a word you literally have never experienced in your life and having to OED a word that you may have heard before but you don’t really know what it means. Obviously you can tell that this is not a poem from the seventeenth century. The kind of obscurity that it has feels like a contemporary obscurity.

The great literary critic William Empson has this essay in which he says that one of the interesting things about modernist poetry—and he has in mind people like T. S. Eliot and indeed Ezra Pound—is that it is the first poetry in English literary history that comes with footnotes. Eliot doesn’t think you know what shantih means at the end of The Waste Land. So he has a little note on it. What does it do to the space of the poem that it now has this academic apparatus attached to it? I don’t see any footnotes here, but the footnotes are silent.

All of a sudden there’s this reference to the myth of Apollo and Daphne, which is a myth that I write about in Keats’s Odes. A lot of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is taken up with stories of gods trying to sexually assault women, and either succeeding or failing, and some change of form taking place as a result of that chase or that assault.

In the case of Apollo and Daphne, the god Apollo is trying to get his hold on the nymph Daphne. She prays to her father to be saved from Apollo, and she’s transformed into a laurel tree. In Ovid’s telling, there is this horrific moment when Apollo sees Daphne’s heart beating in the bark of the tree and wraps his arms around her. Then he says, “Since you can’t be my bride, at least you can be my tree.” From that moment on, the laurel tree is consecrated to Apollo, which is why poets who are under the guardianship of Apollo are supposed to wear laurel wreaths on their heads.

Ovid is one of my favorite poets. It’s a really incredible moment in that poem. That’s what’s referenced here. Again, there’s that sense of a prior knowledge that some readers will have and some won’t. If you have that prior knowledge, you know a whole lot of things. There’s an invocation of this scene of sexual violence. There’s the long tradition of the representation of that scene in Western art. Whoever this poet is wants you to think that they’re very smart.

Or the poet has anxiety about wanting to be perceived as very smart.

Yes. We can keep going on this thread. The opening stanza immediately reminded me of Wallace Stevens. If you know Wallace Stevens’s poetry, you’ll know that there are often these invocations of bourgeois comfort in his work.

Ravening through the persistent bric-a-brac
Of blunt pencils, rose-sprigged coffee cup,
Postage stamps, stacked books’…

These are certain markers of a high level of education. This is a writer’s house, it’s an academic’s house, or it’s anybody who lives with a lot of books and pencils around. From the get-go, you either recognize this world or you don’t. If I were reading this on my own, I would immediately start grumbling, I would immediately be annoyed, even though this is a world that I recognize, because I don’t necessarily want to see myself in other people’s work.

What about the second part of the stanza? “Neighborhood cockcrow—all nature’s prodigal backtalk,” the “impromptu spiels of wind.” What’s nature doing here vis-à-vis culture?

Well, here’s my question: Do you think it’s “speels,” or do you think it’s “shpiels”?

The people in my class are nodding because this was a very long conversation that we had, whether it’s “speels” or “shpiels.”

Good, because as a New Yorker, I had to hesitate. I wanted to say “shpiels,” and then I thought, it’s “speels.” I’m going to go with “speels,” but I felt myself trip up. That’s an interesting diagnostic experience as a reader. I think of this as a Yiddish word. Am I going to descend into this vernacular that has associations with being an immigrant, with being ghettoized? Or am I going to say “speels”? I actually don’t know what a “speel” is. I know what a “shpiel” is, but I don’t know what a “speel” is. That’s an interesting moment of tension, and I don’t know if it’s deliberate or not.

What is nature doing here?:

… all nature’s prodigal backtalk,
The vaunting mind
Snubs impromptu spiels of wind
And wrestles to impose
Its own order on what is.

Nature seems to be the site of a certain cacophony that’s intruding on literary culture, but in fact the two are working completely in concert—because what a description! The description of nature is very erudite, involved; words like “vaunting.” We’re talking about order, so it seems to me that the tension set up in that first stanza is ultimately resolved. It’s the classic, English professor trick we may all be familiar with: of course everything is subordinated to the order of the poem. There is no such thing as nature. It’s already poetry. That seems like a fair take.

Does it get complicated in the second stanza, when we have the bragging “‘with my fantasy alone’” of “the importunate head”?

I look right away at “finned falls.” There is another moment down in the next stanza:“damasks with dazzle” and then “doctor” and “damn” and then “Daphne.” As soon as I see “finned falls,” I think of Hopkins again, but then I also think of Old English poetry, which is highly alliterative. The reference to “rook-tongued spaces”—obviously rooks are birds. “Sheep greens.” These allusions are—I hesitate to say “always already,” that classic English professor phrase, but nature is always already subordinated to culture. This seems to be a reference to an English poetic tradition.

So, we have “shpiel,” set in the English countryside.

Is it English?

Sheep greens, finned falls, trout, cock, ram. I have only encountered trout, cock, and ram in England, so I’m going to insist that we think about this, for many reasons, including the references to Hopkins, as the English countryside.

Maybe I’m wrong, but would clamor have a u? Wouldn’t neighborhood have a u?

But what if it’s an American in England?

That’s funny, because in my head I didn’t think of the English countryside. Wallace Stevens lived in Connecticut, and wrote about New Haven and Hartford. Because that first stanza tilted me so strongly toward Stevens, I was in a suburban kind of mindset. I was thinking Connecticut. So now I have to take the English thing into account. Can we go on to the next one?

Yes, please.

 “No hocus-pocus of green angels/Damasks with dazzle.” Again, that really stuck out to me, the “damasks with dazzle.” I thought, now we’re in Old English territory. “‘My trouble, doctor, is: I see’”—speaking of Rorschach tests—“‘I see a tree,/And that damn scrupulous tree won’t practice wiles/To beguile sight.’” So, who’s the doctor? We remain in the zone of a middle-class, educated professional. Is the doctor a shrink? Is the doctor a medical doctor?

It’s your father.

How could it not be? Also the register of “my trouble, doctor” now seems to me like the setup to a joke. In fact, it sounds like a joke that my father would tell. So now the register of the joke wants to take me back to “spiel” and think about this as a kind of Jewish American idiom. That moment softens me to the poem, because I really like when you can hear a conversational or vernacular register start to swim up through language that is otherwise intimidating. That’s an interesting gesture.

Immediately, we move from that to this reference to Apollo and Daphne. A word that I might use if I were writing about this poem in, say, The New York Review is “vertiginous,” meaning dizzying and abrupt. There’s a vertiginous movement between different kinds of diction, different kinds of idioms, different kinds of intellectual and linguistic contexts that at first you don’t notice because the language is so aggressively poetic. My primary way of engaging with any literary material is through sound, even before I think of meaning.

By the way, “cant” is one of my favorite words of all time, and I really hate that it’s almost impossible to use in conversation. It sounds like you’re saying “can’t,” and that’s a bummer because it’s a perfect word that describes something very perfectly: self-satisfied, hypocritical, and calcified speech. “By cant of light.” Interesting. What does that mean? Sometimes I give the example of “#resistance” as cant. It’s a phrase that at one point had real meaning and now people use it simply to signal their affiliation with a particular set of political attitudes. That’s one way of thinking about cant. The Romantic poet Lord Byron uses “cant” all the time; it’s Byron’s least favorite thing and one of his most favorite words. Maybe “cant” has a different meaning, too. I keep thinking it means something like “angle”—something cantilevered is angled a certain way. The word has ambiguity, though it would already have ambiguity because it’s not a commonly used word. If you were a person who wanted to be attentive to meter, it’s a moment you might trip on.

Speaking of Byron, his poem Don Juan is written in what’s called ottava rima, but there is a series of lines in Don Juan in which all the words are abbreviated. It’s meant to be the transcription of a prescription for pills, starting with “Rx.” Whether you’re reading that poem in 1820 or today, how do you say those words? Do you say “Rx”? Do you say “prescription”? The same thing happens with “e.g.” Are you supposed to say the words that those letters stand for? Are you just supposed to say it phonetically as “ee jee”? It would change how the line is read and how it scans.

That whole line makes me think of Byron in a poem that otherwise doesn’t look very Byronic, except for the fact that the longer stanzas have eight lines and the stanzas of Don Juan also have eight lines, but they’re more regular than these are. 

So, what’s my trouble, doctor? What’s the joke? Because I love reading it as the setup to a joke.

Is it a joke? Is the joke funny? Is my trouble that all I can see are trees and not women imprisoned in them? I guess you are in trouble if what you want from the tree is to see an imprisoned woman.

That reading would have to be something like the old saw from academic discourse around what’s called secularism. Nowadays nobody believes in God, in fairies, nymphs, anything, so we look at the world and see trees instead of animate beings that have souls. And this is very depressing for everyone. So, this seems to be an expression of that same idea—I don’t see magic in the world.

Sorry to be such a Romanticist, but Wordsworth has a famous line in his ode “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”—sometimes called the “Intimations Ode”—that reads, “Whither is fled the visionary gleam?” You all remember being young and feeling like your basement was haunted or a particular stretch of your walk had a kind of magic to it, then coming back when you’re older and not seeing those things anymore. No longer feeling like the basement is haunted. There’s a loss there. The trouble is the loss, the sensation of loss. But how interesting that it’s attached to this fantasy of seeing women imprisoned.

One of the debates that reliably comes up in our class is whether the speaker of these poems has a gender or can be gendered, and what relationship the speaker’s gender might have to the author’s gender. When you read this, there is so much about the fantasy of sexual violence as being utterly essential to the history of poetry. I’m guessing that’s why you think of Eliot and The Waste Land. Do you hear this utterance coming from a gendered being, or is that simply unimportant or inessential to the reading you might produce of the poem?

The first thing one would have to say is that it’s complicated, because we have an additional speaker inside the poem. There’s the speaker of the poem, and any good English professor will tell you, Don’t conflate the speaker of the poem with the author of the poem. Then there’s another speaker in the poem, you have the quotation marks that arise. That complicates things. Are there two people of different genders? Is there one person who is not speaking out loud and then one who is, hence the quotation marks? Are we the doctor? I think that’s the other question: Are we the addressee of the poem? Are we the doctor, and we’re being told what the trouble is?

I think for some poems, gender really matters, and then for some poems, it really might not. There’s not going to be a hard-and-fast rule. We’re human; we experience humanity as having a relation to gender, whatever that relation might be. Of course, if we read a poem and we encounter a human voice, we think, What do I know about this person? What’s their gender? That happens very quickly. The poem also thematizes sexual violence, so now we’re also thinking about gender, too.

To me, the most interesting stanza, and the hardest to wrap my head around, is the final one. I wonder what you make of it.

We have this sudden efflorescence of epithets. When language is highly artificial, it’s highly artificial for a reason. Again, we’re not in the seventeenth century. It’s a contemporary poem. You look at this artificial language with these epithets left, right, and center: “Dream-propertied,” “Moon-eyed,” “Star-lucky.” “Sleight-of-hand” is not that, but it has the hyphens. The visual image of the hyphen is now spilling across the page.

The reference to Daphne and classical mythology would tempt a person who has read something like the Iliad or the Odyssey, in which there are many epithets, to say, “We’re still in this zone.” The speaker is trying to reach toward some antique past that offers—I keep fighting the impulse to say “him.”

Yes, my students fight that impulse, too. The default assumption is him.

Okay, let’s just say “him.” We’ll take a gamble. That antique past seems to offer him some resource of beauty and enchantment that is otherwise unavailable in his everyday life.

The language suddenly goes hog wild. To say something again about Wordsworth, if you’ve ever read The Prelude, you’ll notice that at the moments when Wordsworth is trying most intensely to convince you that we can live in the present, and not mourn our childhood or have to search for something beyond ourselves, is where his language becomes incredibly bombastic. It just goes vroom, vroom, vroom, vroom, vroom. And you think, This guy’s full of it. Why is he talking like this? He’s talking like someone trying to convince himself of something. Here, too, the use of epithets seems like somebody trying to force a language that they find tragically absent from their everyday life.

And its absence might, in fact, deprive them of something. I’m very struck by all the money language in this final stanza: “dream-propertied fall,” “squander coin, gold leaf,” “affluent air,” beggared brain,” “no fortune,” “thieves what it has.”

This, to me, is the Ezra Pound moment, and that makes it interesting to think again about spiel or “my trouble, doctor.” As you all surely know, Ezra Pound was a raging antisemite. All over his work is the trope of moneylenders, always coded as Jewish in his writing.

Why is there this turn to a kind of Poundian register at the end? All the language of money seems to come out of nowhere, and to be invoking Pound’s antisemitism in the final stanza. And it was in the first stanza that we had our little stumbling block over “speel,” which we don’t think is a word, and “shpiel,” which we know is a Yiddish word. Now we want to say that more is going on here than nature versus culture, or a secular world versus a religious or magical or enchanted world. There’s something else, too, that has to do with the tradition of modernism, and the ideological and political inheritances of modernism, and how one would grapple with them in the present.

Any contemporary poet will tell you that the most important writer in the modernist tradition is Ezra Pound because of how formally experimental he was. Eliot’s politics are also execrable, but Pound went to prison for being a fascist. Well, he went to a psychiatric institute, but in lieu of going to prison. Many contemporary experimental poets, who tend to have left-wing politics as a general rule, at least in this country, have a very hard time grappling with the legacy of Pound. I hear some of that in there, too, even though this doesn’t strike me as an especially experimental poem. There’s clearly some relationship of tension, but probably something even more grand and fiery than tension, at play.

Does this poem give you pleasure?

It gave me pleasure when we started talking about it. It didn’t give me pleasure out of the gate because I felt annoyed by its tricks. I felt annoyed by the alliteration. I felt annoyed by the epithets. I felt annoyed by the density of references. Like, yeah, yeah, yeah. Pound, Stevens, I don’t want to hear it. It felt pretentious. That’s the easiest thing to say. I never felt like I had a moment where I could forget how smart the poem was. That’s not what I want to be thinking first. I want to discover over time how smart a poem is. But when we started talking about it, of course I was like, Now I’m having fun.

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