Welcome to “On Beauty,” a series of interviews with poets about their relationship with beauty. For an introduction to the project, see Poets on Beauty. Earlier I posted interviews with Sonnet L’Abbé and Robyn Sarah (which can be found under “In Conversation”). In this, the final installment for volume II of Lemon Hound, I present Steven Price’s thoughts. Price is a writer through-and-through; it seems impossible for him to write a line or sentence that doesn’t sing—perhaps because he understands that “the wrong note in the right place can become the right note.” (For a biography of Price, see the end of this post.)
I began by asking Price the same three questions I’m asking each of the poets. Here’s what he had to say:
1. Can you point me toward a poem you find beautiful? In what way do you think of or experience this poem as beautiful?
This is difficult because the word itself is so shifty. What I find myself responding to as ‘beautiful’ might as easily be its opposite under a different name, I suspect. But I suppose I take ‘beauty’ to mean a kind of contrary goodness, an impurity of goodness, one which acknowledges the flaws in the world, and that reflects those flaws. I haven’t much interest in the idealized world, and don’t find myself responding to it in poetry, or in any other sphere. In poetry, I do find myself responding to language that stands at a very low level, at an almost physical level, the level of the flesh. For me a very large part of this lies in the way language fills the mouth. But I can return to a poem for the beauty of its ideas, the beauty of its imagery, the beauty of its punctuation and pacing too. A particular example? There are so many poems I return to for the overwhelming beauty of their language, but a fine (and brief) example might be Heather McHugh’s “Fastener,” from Upgraded to Serious:
One as is as another as.
One with is with another with;
one against’s against all others and one of
of all the ofs on earth feels chosen. So the man
can’t help his fastening on many
(since the likes of him like
look-alikes)… When the star-shower crosses
the carnival sky, then the blues of the crowd
try to glisten, to match it; and the two
who work late in the butcher-house touch,
reaching just the same moment
for glue and for hatchet.
(“Fastener” from Upgraded to Serious, copyright © 2009 Heather McHugh. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press, Toronto.)
What do I respond to here? The coiled linguistic energy in the words, of course. The ways the prepositions shift their usages in the openings and unsettle their meanings, as if they’re wriggling out of their own skins. The unsettling, and wonderful, and strange effect on my ear each time I read it. The dizzying repetitions, as well, the uses of half-rhyme which reach their ripeness in that strong feminine true rhyme closing off the poem. The rhythms are an essential part of it, too: the way the poem strikes into a hurtling anapestic foot following the ellipsis, and crashes up hard against the punctuation throughout, until it cuts off into silence with that final rhyme. But I admire too the way the poem makes its claim towards similarity, and rhyme, and linkage in language and the world itself (not to mention that wonderful final tool for cutting, as the thing all of this fastening has been building towards), and the way all of this is built through a kind of singing. “Fastener” leaves me astonished and delighted each time I read it. I wouldn’t change a syllable. I think of Pope’s couplets, the great beauty in their manipulation of symmetry and different kinds of balance, and there is that here too, but in a kind of unbalancing – which leads to that extraordinary feeling of plummeting through the language.
2. Do you hope for, look toward, seek out beauty in your work as a poet? Why or why not?
Do I seek out beauty in my own work? I don’t know, I do believe beauty, whatever it is, is a kind of pleasure beyond language. It’s hard to talk about partly by its very nature. I seek out some kind of texturing in my work, and certainly I would like my poems to fill the mouth with their language, to build through sound and texture the almost physical experience of the poem itself. But ugliness, too, is a part of all that – the flaws and asymmetries and cracks that infuse the particular, the individual, the unique. Nothing in this world is perfect, is identical to the idea of itself, and it is where the one separates from the other that beauty punches through. At least to my eye. The photographs of August Sander would be one example of this. The drawings of Alison Lambert would be another. I’m drawn to this kind of beauty, I guess, because it moves me. That is, it leaves me changed, exhausted, grateful. The wrong note in the right place can become the right note.
3. Do you hope for, look toward, seek out beauty in other aspects of your life?
I wouldn’t say that I seek out beauty in my life. But I appreciate it when it descends on me, it comes as a kind of gift through all of the other daily noise that is life. But it feels, too, like a very private experience – it isn’t something shared with anyone, isn’t something I could turn to a companion and say, ‘Isn’t that beautiful?’ about, without feeling something ebb from it, something slip away in the mentioned particular. I suppose beauty in the end is something I don’t quite understand, can’t quite articulate.
4. The idea of the experience of beauty as something private is one I haven’t encountered much, so I’m curious about it. Does this unsharableness of beauty have anything to do with language (I suggest this because you’re saying to your companion “isn’t this beautiful?”) Or is it that bringing another person into the experience with you dilutes it somehow? What might the private character of the experience of beauty mean for poetry—is the experience of a beautiful poem somehow private too?
Some of this is hard to articulate, and the better for being so. I suppose I believe the private is our true home, in poetry as in life. And like any home we have to leave it to know it fully. Transcending ourselves, our own particular way of seeing the world, is the one essential challenge we face in order to be fully ourselves. Challenge, and responsibility. We call it empathy when faced with other living beings. But it’s bigger than that. The beautiful (or its opposite, or any powerful aesthetic response) can be a gift, can be one way to lift oneself out of oneself. I guess if the beautiful is closer to a way of perceiving than a thing perceived, then when we call something beautiful, the language is probably doubling back and examining us more than we mean it to. Does that make sense? No, I don’t believe the beautiful can be diluted, nor that the beautiful is merely subjective. But the language fails all the same, the way a bridge will fail under a heavy weight.
Steven Price was born and raised in Colwood, BC. His first collection of poetry, Anatomy of Keys (Brick Books, 2006), won the Gerald Lampert Award and was named a Globe & Mail Book of the Year. His latest collection, Omens in the Year of the Ox, came out in 2012, also with Brick Books. His work has appeared in Canadian and American literary journals. He is one of the poets in Breathing Fire 2: Canada’s New Poets, edited by Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane. Price graduated from the University of Virginia Writing Program, and currently teaches poetry and writing at the University of Victoria.