[Over several months Dorothea Lasky and I have been slowly exchanging notes to one another. We touched on a few subjects. We wrote with various expression and urgency. Lasky's new book, Black Life, is out from Wave.]
WOLF: Rabbi Avraham Kook wrote, "Wisdom increased through the envy of writers is destined to lead to corruption, precisely because it was born of envy." Would you, please, reflect on the role (or the terrible weight) envy plays in the life of a poet, and in the community of poets?
And also, does the "spirit of love" have something to do being a poet?
LASKY: Let me first ask you: What do you mean by the life of a poet and especially the community of poets? I, for one, feel like I might be able to answer in terms of the life of a poet, but I might get hung up in the community part. Mostly because as a poet I don't know that I feel like I belong to a community. At least a living one. I think poets live in communities of language and language that is divorced from communities of people, even so much so as the two are so intimately intertwined. But tell me what you mean.
I like what Rabbi Avraham Kook is writing here, although I'd love to have some more context to his quotation. I think envy plays a large role in the life of a poet, but maybe as much so as it does everyone. I am envious of many things that others' have and I know that this feeling can lead to corruption. Corruption of myself and also the whole world. But envy is natural, no? And do you think envy is part of the path of a poet or a writer? And if so, how? And if so, how is this envy related to knowledge and language creation? And if so, why?
Questions always make me think of questions I have.
I like this spirit of love question the best. Yes, I do think that the spirit of love has something to do with being a poet. I think that poets create love in the world by making language new and beautiful, which in turn, keeps language alive and beautiful for all people. If this is not the spirit of love, then I do not know what love is.
What do you think?
WOLF: When I refer to the "community of poets" I very much mean the human company that many poets keep. The poets they drink with, and read with, and live with, and are published with--and also the poets they see from afar, never meet, though perhaps read. This is a "living" community of poets.
Of course, I appreciate your notion of living within of a "community of language." Certainly this is also true. In my experience though, the community of language *can* be a much more forgiving community, a community ridden with a lot less anxiety for poets, than the community built of other breathing artists.
Is that a fair assessment?
The Spirit of Love, in my mind, contrasts the force of envy. The community of poets might witness itself as a single project. When a poem is published within this community, it is victory for all. But the fact is there is often great enmity and envy between poets within a single community. Yes, this envy can encourage poets to sit down and get working. But it can also be debilitating.
Are you more likely encouraged or debilitated by envy? And what is the subtle relationship between those two pieces?
Here is the full Kook quote:
"Wisdom increased through the envy of writers is destined to lead to corruption, precisely because it was born of envy. And all corruption gives off a stench, and this is the wisdom of writers, which will stink with the coming of the Messiah. By means of this stench its previous aspect will be erased, and the light of the soul of wisdom that is above all envy, above the wisdom of writers, will start to shine. This is a wisdom that will shine forth from a new song and a new name which the Lord will grant us. 'And his beauty shall be like the olive tree's and fragrance like that of Lebanon.' [Hos. 14:7]"
LASKY: It makes sense to me that you think a community of language is much less anxiety-ridden than a community of poets, who are living. This is why I prefer a community of language!! I guess the flip side could be too--that a living community of poets could be more nourishing than a community of language. Has this ever occurred for you? I feel like this loosely happened for me at UMass, where there was a group of poets I was around most days who nurtured my creativity and were inspiring. But I hesitate to call them a community, particularly because it feels too tight a bound on the idea. Have you ever felt inspired and nourished by a group of poets or a living poetry community? I would hope that we both have. I think this is the hope of MFA programs and I do think it is possible. How do you feel about it? And how do you differentiate between poetry communities and communities of other kinds of artists?
I am seeing now what you mean by a Spirit of Love and how it might drive a community and the creativiity of its members. I completely, completely believe in this possibility. A Spirit of Love is how I see God. A Spirit of Love is possible, I think, in a community of artists, but like anything great, it is a fleeting spirit and can be hard to control. But I wish it were that the world had more of it. As a poet, I've gotten a bit cynical that there is any way for it to be in full force, long term. What do you think?
I think I am debilitated by envy, especially creatively. But I think this debilitation can produce a kind of twisting life and art that is still worth pursuing, but is kind of awful nonetheless. I don't mean awful, like bad, like bad art. I mean awful, like scary and kind of not productive. I am not sure if envy is ever encouraging. How do you feel? What do you think? Why does envy interest you?
Another question, where you are living now, do you feel like there is a community of poets around you?
WOLF: You say: "But I think this debilitation can produce a kind of twisting life and art that is still worth pursuing, but is kind of awful nonetheless. I don't mean awful, like bad, like bad art. I mean awful, like scary and kind of not productive. I am not sure if envy is ever encouraging. How do you feel? What do you think? Why does envy interest you?"
That's really the question, isn't it. What am I wheeling off a litany of questions about envy?
But you're really on to something, seeing how these "twisting" formations of our lives help paint an inner-landscape that is complicated and "worth pursuing." Many poets are very good lingering in those gnarly places of human (self)relation: envy, fear, (but also) awe, etc. These poets send back remarkable reports, visions, accounts, poems.
And yet I want to ignite in my heart a fire of love that burns so intensely and with such ferocious heat that all those small stones of envy and anger explode and vaporize around me.
And you hold these two places in your two hands, and you go back and forth. And, certainly, there is some merit in doing that.
LASKY: I think there is merit is going back and forth, yes. It is the most human thing to do. A fire and heat of love that we could imagine that might ignite the small stones of envy and anger might be too an exalted place for us to be in every second of every day, as we are just human. And being human, I think, is the place where poetry can exist best. Human poetry, flirting with a burning eternity, is the poetry that can create communities, both living and dead. This is what I like to assume. This is why poets, who are creators of new language, are special people in the world.
I think a lot about how language itself is a series of objects that mediates all sorts of scales of human communities (individual, familial, social, world). I think often of the Jabes quotation: "The letters of the alphabet are stages of death turned into signs." I think everyday about Vygotsky's discussion of language in Mind in Society, in which language is a tool of the social. In the end, language always becomes the social, the human. Language everyday, everday language, is just as ephemeral and as lasting in the minds of others as our own bodies. Or maybe so, only so much in what they both do. If one lives a life in which they give off human power by really connecting with people (on whatever scale that this occurs), then there is something eternal there. If one writes poetry that connects with people, that sticks, on whatever scale that it can occur, then there is something eternal there. Envy among writers is stopping before the connection and thus, resisting the eternity. And I think you and I might agree that this is a bad thing for the world. I hope others might agree with us, too. I am pretty sure a lot of people do.