Uncertain Poetries: Selected Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Poetics, by Michael Heller. Cambridge, UK: Salt Publishing, 2005. 247 pp. $21.95.
When poet and critic Michael Heller wrote his first book of prose, Conviction's Net of Branches: Essays on the Objectivist Poets and Poetry (Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), the Objectivists were the neglected stepchildren of American modernism, overshadowed by the far more famous poets who influenced them (Pound, Williams) and by the bravura public careers of the poets that followed (Robert Lowell, W H. Auden, and the New American Poets of the 1950s and 60s). Twenty years later, the core group of Objectivists are routinely anthologized, with Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, and Lorine Neidecker-all but the last of them Jewish-seen as major figures in their own right and in the history of American verse. Heller, too, has finally begun to receive the attention he deserves, not least as the leadoff figure in the "Objectivist Continuities" chapter of Norman Finkelstein's Not One of Them in Place: Modern Poetry and Jewish American Identity. Uncertain Poetries, a selection of Heller's essays, talks, and reviews from the past twenty years, shows how far the range of this poet's interests have carried him beyond the Objectivist tradition-and how thinking deeply within this tradition, as well as outside it, has carried him into a distinctive, appealing account of the relationship between poetry and "tradition" more generally.
Heller strikes a keynote for the collection in the opening sentence of "The Uncertainty of the Poet," a meditation on the painting of that name by the Italian modernist Georgio de Chirico. "I am here," he declares, "investigating the floating filigree of doubt and fear, that feeling of being on the edge, which often accompanies poetic composition" (p. 3). Heller's essays pursue the "edgy" encounters incumbent upon writing poetry: encounters with oneself, one's culture, one's imagined future readers, and most profoundly with what Gershom Scholem described, in a passage Heller cites, as "the abyss in which the freedom of living things is born" (p. 230).
By opening his collection with an essay on de Chirico's enigmatically allegorical cityscape, Heller joins a fine tradition of poets who have explored their own poetics by writing about visual art. Heller writes with sympathy and sensuous intelligence on Pound's relationship with the sculptor GaudierBrzeska and Rilke's interest in Rodin and Cezanne, the painter who gave the German poet "a way to use the past" (p. 57), and uses the contrasts between their disparate Romantic and Vorticist versions of modernism to triangulate his own ideas about nature of form and the uses of artistic tradition.
The Rilke who set himself to study at Cezanne's easel, Heller writes, did so to learn to write "a poetry in which precision and uncertainty were inextricably joined" (p. 59). To Heller, lyric poetry ought to articulate both affirmation and doubt-ideally, in fact, it should do so simultaneously, although as several essays make clear, the poem will be just as well off if it tracks the poet's trajectory from "the museums of received ideas" (p. 178) into the open space of the new, or "from the known into the unknown," as George Oppen put it in a passage Heller cites (p. 200). Heller's emphasis on this "double-sidedness of the literary act" (p. 3) serves to distinguish his poetics from those promulgated by the Language poets, that radically skeptical, radically theoretical cadre of poets who announced their presence in the early 1980s. That the Language poets saw themselves as heirs to the Objectivists seems to have sparked a need, on Heller's part, to distinguish his vision of that inheritance from theirs; several essays here, notably "Avant-Garde Propellants of the Machine Made of Words," take up how his own ideal of a poetry that frees us from intellectual dogma and orthodoxy differs from their revolutionary ambitions. …