by Thomas Fink and Melissa Mantilla
Melissa Mantilla: What is the significance of the title Sowing the Wind? Does it reflect a central idea in the book?
Edward Foster: The title comes from Hosea 8:7: “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.” That passage tells us that if we worship false idols (i.e., sowing the wind), the consequence will be loss, destruction.
The final section of the book argues: “Our secular culture is rooted in belief systems and is itself a belief system. What passes as a means to ‘truth’ is grounded in notions that survive from a religious past.”
The poem itself offers a secular reading of the passage from Hosea, I think, suggesting that the pursuit of, say, pleasure – or any singular aspect of the human totality — may end in self-delusion. For example, to evade suffering is, in this instance, to evade part of what is human.
Thomas Fink: And how is the poem a “requiem”?
Foster: The poem is a requiem for what is lost in the pursuit of false idols, in this case the pursuit of aspects of whatever it means to be human.
Mantilla: How important is the contribution of form, including sound effects, in this collection? How does form influence the overall effect of the work?
Foster: Form, especially musical form, is critical. Each segment of the poem or book is structured according to the musical thrust of the words, and there may be echoes, too (I think there are), that extend the musical structure of the book. Thematic transformation or what I would call thematic “wrangling” in Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto, for example, underlies the segment that begins “Tubes kept him going” and its fragmented development – or so it seemed to me as the words took shape when they were written. In any case, that segment also imitates, I believe, the concerto’s high romanticism but without its resolution since the segment heads in a very different direction. At one time, I thought it would be useful to include as an epigraph for the concerto’s principal theme, but I did not understand it well enough to do so.
Mantilla: How do the photographs placed throughout the book relate to one another? Do these images form a motif that connects with the poems?
Foster: The images have their own tone and presence. They are important in themselves, but in the book or poem as a whole, they act as disturbance. In their own way, they can be as intense as the words, but they also interrupt whatever patterns the words create. Repetition is destructive when it encourages conclusion and certainty, which can be sentimental in poetry. Several of the segments in Sowing the Wind – such as “For I remember, Dave” – are deeply sentimental and, therefore, false. Segments such as this act as disturbance also. We are brought up sharp: no, that isn’t true or isn’t sufficient, which in this case is pretty much the same thing.
The photographs in Sowing the Wind may also be understood in some degree as a kind of ground bass on which the segments of a given section are built. Each section begins with an image that underlies the segments that follow, as counterpoint perhaps. It would be a mistake to try to name the “subject” of each photo – as much a mistake as trying to say what a poem is “about.” A photo or segment should, in one sense, be sufficient in itself but also work as contrast to or extension of what other parts of the book are doing.
Fink: There are various moments in the book where you argue that “poetry”—which “lets us see what can’t be seen” “is not for scholars,” who merely focus on “clever language, clever thoughts” (37), and you even indicate that the study of “chemistry” is in some way lacking (38). You taught for a long career and wrote books contextualizing and to some degree explaining “difficult” poetry. How do you reconcile your critique—if it is your critique and not the views of one voice or persona among others—with the fact of that career?
Foster: Scholarly thought, whether in literary criticism, science, or any other academic pursuit is ultimately modelled, intentionally or not, on biblical exegesis. There is a text and then there is something, perhaps discursive, perhaps not, to which it allegedly corresponds. The process may involve a philosophical proposition, a mathematical equation, or an essay on Moby Dick, but in every case, the process is essentially the same as the process in biblical exegesis. The thinking is metaphorical. One thing “explains,” and in so doing, stands for the other. That is exactly the process I am using now and the process in all academic disciplines. But a poem, at least a poem as I would understand it here, operates in a different economy. It does not seek to explain, to replace one thing with another. It is not an equation, a metaphor, an equivalence but is, or should be, sufficient unto itself. Correspondence in poetry is radically different from correspondence in, to use the example in Sowing the Wind, chemistry. I am intrigued by chemistry as it intends to identify and name the elements out of which all that we know is constructed. It is useful. You can teach that.
I don’t believe poetry can be taught. Poetic criticism and poetic techniques are another matter, but they are not themselves poetry. Poems are not subjects, although exegesis may make it seem as if they were. Spicer’s notion that poems are dictations from “East Mars” is as useful as any way of naming their source.
Poetry is impersonal, no less so in lyric poetry. The words, the experiences may be personal, but these are merely among the means through which the poem is manifest. The poem may use whatever the poet, within him- or herself, can offer. (Ted Berrigan: Get all the words inside yourself.) Gnosticism in poetry is simply the capacity to let poems devise themselves without letting the poet’s preconceptions of what a poem should do or say necessarily drive the writing. Poems are not diaries though they may, and often do, use the personal for their own ends. They are not therapy or therapeutic.
As William Bronk remarked,
I have repeatedly had the experience, when the poem gets written down, of saying, oh, God, no, I don’t mean that — but hesitating to change the meaning because it seems to me the way it has to be said — and then only later, maybe the next day, two days later, the next week: yes, I guess that’s what I do mean. But the initial rejection of what the poem is saying because it seems to me something that I don’t particularly want to mean, a meaning that makes me uncomfortable or embarrasses or contradicts something else I’ve said or whatever. Having to accept that when I’ve lived with it for a little while. . . . Admitting, yes, yes, I guess that is what I mean.
The poem itself is in charge of the poem. It is not necessarily a construction, however cleverly done, such that, like political discourse, it is no more than an expression of the poet’s convictions or beliefs. That way ego lies, in every sense. Wasn’t it Frost who said, “Trust the poem, not the poet”?
Fink: One important thematic element in Sowing the Wind is a questioning of friendship which needs to provide “connections that are mutual” (17). There is a criticism of narcissistic “friendship”—for example, the exploitation of “a sounding board” (24) or “furniture” (26). In the process of writing this poem, what did you learn about the possibilities and difficulties of establishing and sustaining friendship?
Foster: “Friendship” is personally a matter of extreme importance to me, having known it principally as failure, but Sowing the Wind seems to me to understand this failure as an instance of the whirlwind promised by Hosea. This interpretation may or may not be useful, but it is a lens through which I read the work, although, in doing so, of course, I realize that I am merely engaged in personal exegesis. It does seem to me that friendship too often is driven into matters of satisfaction and not much more. The “other” – person, ideology, object – turns out to be a reflection of what one thinks one needs.
Fink: The final section of your text, “The Children of Wrath,” is a discourse on gnosis which contrasts Emerson’s “invitation to solipsism, fantasy, and self-delusion” (68) with Dickinson’ “perception of [what in the world” is “experienced inductively” so that “language becomes more than itself and correspondence is established” (70). What made the development of this contrast in American literary history important to put in the culmination of this book?
Foster: The final section is an abbreviated version of a talk on gnostic poetics given in a session on gnosticism at the University of Louisville several years ago. The talk drew on the “two books” theory that was developed in the Middle Ages and that has had profound consequences for American life, including poetry. The “two books” theory claims that spirituality, understood as a text (which could be, say, “the book of nature”) and materiality correspond. Emerson’s work implicitly disputes, or modifies, this correspondence, imagining instead a spirituality outside scripture or any book, any text, anything – a correspondence in which the self transcends materiality and thereby enters the divine. (“Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”) Dickinson retains the notion of correspondence but also firmly retains, rather than transcends, the material world we share. I argue that this trajectory, rather than Emerson’s, is the foundation for gnostic American poetry. When I was young, I took great delight in Emerson; he seemed to offer permission for so much. But it was all too easy. Dickinson resists easy answers.
But this argument is in itself, of course, mere exegesis. Still, it may be one way of bringing the argument to rest: “Gnosis, as the word is used here, can be imitated but not learned and is uniquely inflected by the poet’s world and being.”
My answers to your questions mostly deal with Sowing the Wind from a formalist point of view, but a political analysis might be useful as well. In part, the book, I think, is specifically rooted in gay identity and the social and cultural oppression it entails, at least in my experience. But if the work succeeds, I trust, it succeeds essentially as poetry rather than as political discourse.
My comments here were made after the fact, but I recognize in the book obsessions that have long been with me. For many years I had hoped to write a book about the New England character and its origins in religious belief systems. I grew up not far from the town where Jonathan Edwards was expelled from his church and quite near Dickinson’s Amherst. For many years I lived on a hill opposite the one on which Bryant lived when he wrote “Thanatopsis” and “To a Waterfowl.” At present I live a mile or so from the home of Dwight Lyman Moody, the nineteenth century’s Billy Graham. One of the sons of the people who built the house in which I live was a devout evangelical who wrote a book entitled Sin. And there is much much more. Every city, every town, every village here is saturated with religious history. Any New Englander who is not aware of the critical role religion has played, and continues to play, in New England is blind.
The region’s history has also entailed persecution and violence, as, for example, in the Indian wars – in part the result of irresolvable religious and cultural differences. Some years ago, I was hiking through the hills with a friend near my home when we came upon an especially pleasant pastoral scene. Lovely though it was, my friend said, truthfully, this land is drenched in blood. Such an awareness, I think, cannot help but sink into one’s language and affect the direction poems take. Left to themselves, words will find what they find.