The following conversation was sparked by famous American poet Chase Twichell’s essay “Eyes Behind the Eyes” published in the book Writers on the Edge (Modern History Press, 2012). The article provided insightful commentary on self-examination and self-observation in the context of language, poetry, and consciousness.
Ernest: Chase, thank you for allowing me bit of your time. First, I would like to ask how you relate language and self together.
Chase: Can I go back to school for a few years before I answer? It’s become the central question of my life, though I’ve been trying to answer it for sixty-something years and look how far I’ve gotten!
I was born knowing that language was an instrument of subtlety and range, and that I had an aptitude. Snotty kid. But I did. By ten, I recognized the quality of mind that spoke to me and asked me to answer. I found it in the epigraph of a children’s book:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken;
-Keats, my first love. I read The Odes. Their language took me inside them, though I had no idea what they were about. Pretentious, snotty kid!
The part of the question about the self is harder to answer. Whatever-I-was spoke, yet something else was the listener. It took a long time for my ear to sort this out. At first I thought it was all me, talking to myself. But no. There were two presences, one always busy and the other floating close enough to eavesdrop but far enough away to sleep. As a child, I took that state of mind to be “self-consciousness,” and have thought of it that way ever since. Something is conscious of something. That has been my primary experience of sentience, and I need to understand it. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because Keats also needed to know. Put another way, I experience myself as mutable, sometimes plural. I’ve found that experience expressed more precisely in the language of poetry than anywhere else.
Ernest: In your article “Toys in the Attic,” you tell readers about this self-conscious exaggeration in expression – like acting out a role when we express ourselves. How do you interpret this constant modification or accentuation of the spontaneous self?
Chase: I was referring to a memory I have of my mother telling me that my dog had been killed by a car. I was about 11, and perfectly conscious of how I wanted to look: hands over face, hunched shoulders: Child in Sorrow. My real sorrow was acutely private, a very rough draft, just then overtaking me. There was an active self and a watcher self, but it had nothing to do with acting. In hindsight, the split was dissociative, of course, and its purpose was not to express something but to conceal it.
The really interesting question is, How does a self-manifest in poems? In early drafts, this sort of division happens all the time. A voice speaks, but has not yet identified itself and has no idea what it intends to say. Spontaneity at this stage requires a tolerance of chaos and ignorance. It’s exploratory. Later, as the speaking “self” emerges from the poem, the calibration changes, and spontaneity becomes the ability to perceive and pursue what is still unarticulated with what Keats called Negative Capability-“that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” It’s ironic that this ability seems to improve with practice. It reminds me of the golfer Jack Nicklaus noting that the more he practiced, the luckier he got.
Ernest: Drugs, especially those affecting the nervous system, can alter the way our brain processes language, as we get it from article. So does it follow that by making such choices as going for a drug therapy or even watching an emotionally charged movie, we are reshuffling our relationship with our self?
Chase: I’ve been a student of Zen Buddhism for 17 years, and have gradually come to see that the “self,” as we call it, is not a fixed, identifiable thing. It’s a construct that changes constantly. Put another way, the self exists, but it’s an illusion, maintained and defended by its maker. On a personal level, I know this to be true not only because of years of zazen (seated meditation), but because of my experience with psychotropic drugs. I’ve suffered from depression all my life (diagnosis: bipolar 2), and have been taking various brain-altering chemicals for more than 25 years. I take Drug X and feel slightly revved up; Drug Y slightly sedates me. One turns off the language spigot; another turns it back on. Am I the same self? Yes and no. Yes because there is a sentience that recognizes and remembers the differences, and no because the experience is always impermanent, just now forming and dissolving.
My husband, who writes fiction, and I have a friendly ongoing argument concerning the relation between language and the self. He’s an intellectual, and the English language his instrument. Words are the primary language of the mind, says he; the self has a mind that speaks. I perceive it to be the other way around: the mind has a self that speaks. Therefore I am much less certain than he is of who’s talking on paper at any given moment. He invents characters; I am one. (These are slippery words: self, soul, spirit, being; consciousness, sentience, mental experience. There’s no across-the-board agreement on what they mean. I think you have to look to their specific usage for definition, and even then it’s always contextual. In general, when I use the word “self,” I mean however one experiences one’s own being.)
Ernest: When you call poetry the most powerful and precise language, do you imply it is so because poetry is the least affected expression coming out from our inner self?
Chase: The word ‘affected’ has many definitions. It can mean artificial, studied, or simulated; deeply moved; or changed by something, plus many subsets of these. The kind of poetry in which I’m most interested seems to arrive on the page almost in spite of the language that carries it, yet the language itself seems immortal. Prehistoric cave paintings have this quality. There seems to be an internal pressure in our best poets that demands both articulation and release. This pressure, I hazard, is like weather. It’s unstable by nature. It’s never exactly duplicated. As Heraclitus put it, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” Paraphrase: Nothing is permanent but change. This is the essence of Zen, and to me it goes to the heart of my inquiry concerning the language of my own sentience. It’s both an endlessly fascinating and unsolvable puzzle and an enormous relief.
Ernest: As you go deeper into this quest for connecting with the real self, you equate death to the true nature of the self. Since our illusory or altered self is afraid to go there, I would infer that here is an ongoing conflict between the two versions of our self.
Chase: It’s not death that’s the true nature of the self; it’s nonexistence. Big difference. Metaphorically speaking, the self has to “die” because it comes to realize it never existed in the first place. So I don’t perceive two versions of the self (though as I’ve said I did when I was younger)-just one constantly-mutating one. This raises a bedrock question: When we read poetry, how do we figure out who’s talking, and whose words are important? All poems, even those that try to disguise or conceal their speaker, have one. Unless, I suppose, a computer wrote them or they were generated by random collaging. I know there are smart people interested in those experiments, but I’m not one. I’m going to die! In poems, I have little time for anything but matters of life and death. I don’t care if the poet is young, or inexperienced, or hasn’t yet “found their voice,” so long as they are driving toward the big questions and doing so with intelligence, ambition, and integrity. If they persist, those poets will encounter the true nature of the self sooner or later.
Ernest: So what would you say if I infer that poetry brings us closer to death?
Chase: All great art reminds us that we are mortal and asks what that means. What does it means to have consciousness? If the self-dies when consciousness does, does that mean that the self is nothing but electrical and chemical activity in the neurons? To whom does this self-imagine it’s speaking when it writes a poem? Zen teaches that once you realize there is absolutely nothing except the unfolding present moment, then there’s no birth and no death. Or, put another way, every moment is a birth and a death. I take this quite literally. The “I” that exists as this sentence begins is gone by the time it ends. I’m nothing but comings and goings! I find this comforting, though I’m still afraid of the pain of loss. One of our dogs has just been diagnosed with cancer. I’m afraid of the pain of losing her, for that matter the pain of losing anything and everyone I love. For a long time-years-I was in a prolonged spasm of grief over the death of our planet. The Ghost of Eden is the book that came out of it. When I was done with those poems, I found myself able to live in the ruined world without my previous rage and despair. I still grieve, but my perspective has changed. My practice is to keep reminding myself that this very moment is the only one that exists. Everything is change, including me. There is no elsewhere.
Ernest: Chase, on a related note, we find ourselves in an age of glamor and glitter where models on screen and in papers try to show us how we should look like. How do you see this heavily “influenced” mode of living in contrast to finding the purity of existence?
Chase: I just read a fascinating book, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. Its subtitle is “What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” It’s about neuroplasticity, how what we feed our brains changes them both physically and electrically, and that this is true until we die. I’m an internet junkie and minor league geek. My husband calls me a techno-slut because I’m so seduced by the newest toys. There’s no question that our culture has affected our minds. I’m well aware that it’s harder for me to read a book after a day of zooming around in the Cyber-world. But guess what? This is our world, our existence, glitter and glamour and drones and pressure cookers converted to bombs, the engulfing noise of machines and music and voices and less and less silence. All of it. Existence isn’t pure or impure. In any case, we can’t control it. What we can learn is how to direct and clarify our attention. What it all comes down to, in both life and poetry, is the quality of attention we pay. We don’t get to choose in what era we’re born. As human beings, we have to live in whatever world we’re given, and as poets we have to write in it.
Ernest: Please tell our readers a little about your poetry book?
Chase: In 2010, I published Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press). Because it’s a retrospective of forty years of work, it’s really hard to summarize the ground it covers. I’ll just say that I organized it by realizing that from the beginning I’d had four or five recurrent themes or concerns, and for the book I chose the poems that traced those evolutions. One of the ongoing inquiries was the question, What is the self? I was wondering about that way, way before I’d ever heard of Zen.
Ernest: Are you working on any new writing projects currently?
Chase: Always. Though right now I’m still bushwhacking around in the dark. I’m interested in how language can become transparent, by which I mean the way a poem can be apprehended through words without being made of them. I love the ancient Chinese masters who wrote poems on rice paper and hung them in the trees to be erased by rain and torn by wind. In spite of that, those words survive because poetry outlives the selves that make it.
Ernest: Chase, thank you so much for sparing me your time and sharing your insight!
Chase: My pleasure. Thanks for asking!