Interview with Jack Harvey

Duane Vorhees

- Duane Vorhees

Jack Harvey: I was born and raised in Albany, NY. I attended a military prep school and after that, college and after that, graduate school and after that, law school and after that, joined the Army where I served as a medical corpsman in Texas. After mustering out of the Army, I embarked on the practice of law, emerging from that 43 years later. I am now, like Tiberius, sinking in the paranoia and gloom of old age and doing my best to live out my few remaining years on my own terms. I am in my third and final marriage. I have one daughter and one granddaughter. I once owned a cat who could use a knife and fork, whistle “Sweet Adeline” and killed a postman. My poetry has appeared in “Scrivener,” “The Comstock Review,” “Bay Area Poets’ Coalition,” “The Antioch Review,” “The Piedmont Poetry Journal” and a number of other on-line and in print poetry magazines. I have been a Pushcart nominee and over the years have been published in a few anthologies. I have lived for many years in a small town near Albany, N.Y. I have also written a book, called “Mark the Dwarf,” available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble ( Worth a read, but bring an asbestos suit and keep this book away from the kids and probably young adults as well. It is smutty, in some parts. If you are looking for “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Behind” or “Strictly From Hunger Games,” don't come here. I am old enough to have received a proper education in what is usually referred to as "the classics", but am well aware that we live in Hesiod's "age of iron," where language and especially the spoken word are degenerating at a rapid pace. People consider the classics "irrelevant," but what they really mean is "intimidating." Too bad for them. Harold Bloom was on the nose regarding what he called "the dumbing-down of culture," especially here in the US.

DV: What was it that first turned you on to writing poetry?

JH: Back in the fifties, when I was in my teens, I spent summers in Gloucester, Mass, where my parents had a summer cottage. I had the good fortune to meet a poet called Vincent Ferrini and his friend the better-known poet, Charles Olson. Vincent lived with his wife and kids up the street from our place, in the house in which Rudyard Kipling wrote Captains Courageous. I remember many a night at his house with Vincent and Charles and their wives (Peg Duffy, Vincent's first wife, was a very intelligent, highly educated woman) and others, talking about everything from poetry to politics to the local fishing industry, to cabbages and kings, and it was through Olson's suggestion that some years later I eventually met Achilles Fang, the polymath and polyglot, when I was in college. At that time, he was teaching and studying at Harvard. Vincent encouraged me to write poetry and was both supportive and critical. Both Vincent and Charles are long dead. In any event, that was how I started and I have been writing poetry ever since.

DV: Olson claimed that Ferrini invoked his Maximus poems, and its first iterations appeared in Ferrini's "Four Wnds" magazine. In their poems they sometimes engaged each other over esthetic differences, but Ferrini admitted that Olson caused him to change his own approach to poetics: "How has he affected me as a working poet? By the way he used his harpoon, ACCURACY." And he later remarked that "his verse became loose and open, mine tight, narrow, and as sharp as the hook he used." So, in this Olson-Ferrini spectrum, where does your own work fall (if anywhere at all)?

JH: A really definitive answer would take pages for me, because I would have to get into an exegesis of the work of both men, the profound difference in their backgrounds and my own perception of the relationship and influence they exerted on each other. Regarding the Maximus poems, Olson was never comfortable acknowledging his debt to Ezra Pound, whom he visited after WW II in the St. Elizabeths bughouse in DC. And, of course, Olson, did not have Pound's unerring ear for language, music, meter, Wortklang and whatever else goes into the making of poetry. Pound, whatever his pretensions to such, was no philosopher or economist, but his ear was unerring. As he said somewhere, poetry has to be closely tied to music -- when it isn't, it degenerates and, in turn, music has to be closely tied to dance (he meant tribal, ritual or communal dance) or it degenerates. Too many "poets" these days chop prose into lines and call it poetry, based on some kind of expectation that sentences chopped into lines will yield/deserve some kind of special pleasure and significance. I try to avoid that and follow Pound's advice.

DV: We could talk about Pound and Olson and Ferrini all day, but what I’m really more interested in is getting you to talk about your own work (admittedly, something that most poets find difficult). So, where do you fit on the “loose and open” / “tight, narrow” line? Which is more important, accuracy or music?

JH: Had we but world enough and time, so we could, Duane. But we don't. So let me try to answer your question. In the first place most writers, including poets, find it difficult to talk about their work and the generation or creation of their work because it is such a dippy process, involving as it does, the gnomic, cryptic, ambiguous, incantatory, discontinuous, oracular and accidental nature of creation of language, the putting together of words. There is no question that some of what I write is not some conscious creation, like putting Legos together, but involves the muse itself in some form, coming in from outside and I am not talking here about "automatic writing", taught and pursued by William James and Hugo Münsterberg and Gertrude Stein or some kind of reductive Freudian id-scape. The first lines of both the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” invoke the muse -- "muse, tell  through me the rage of Achilles" (Il. 1) and "tell to me, [whether you go with ennepe as derived from epo or from en and epo, where the second n in ennepe represents the archaic Greek digamma ϝ ] muse, of the wily [may also be translated as "of many wanderings"] man" (Od 1). The first poetry (including the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey”) was recited from memory by the poet or rhapsode and constituted a kind of compendium of societal and cultural practices, carrying and preserving information vital to the existence and continuance of the society. Hence all the fixed expressions in early Greek poetry and the kennings in Anglo-Saxon [now referred to as Old English] poetry, used, inter alia, as mnemonics. Any poet who claims to be an authentic poet is a Parryist at heart. Your use of "loose and open" / "tight. narrow" line really has no bearing on where I fit. I use both forms and wear as many masks or personae as I need to to do what I have to do. If you strip away the masks to the bare face of the poet, you will find that his own face is nothing more than a mask and that is as it should be. As far as the importance of accuracy vis-à-vis music, you need both and you need balance with both, but when it comes to "needs must when the devil drives," I would choose music every time. That is the heart and soul of poetry. In the two simple Anglo-Saxon words from Beowulf, “wordum wrixlan,” word-braiding or word-twisting is, to my mind, the core concept of poetry. This is something that is lacking in most of today's poetry, which is too focused on "relevancy" and the passing fads or injustices in society and not enough on language and music. There was a big flap a while back about some poem that was published in “The Nation” and aroused the ire of the PC police and the black community because it was written by a white man who used some version of what he thought was black patois to write about how a poor black person should beg for money on the street. Tout court, the poem is a piece of crap, but there was no discussion of this obvious fact and in the end, the two girl editors had to issue an abject apology for publishing the poem. Disgusting weak behavior on their part. As a short example of what I am talking about and what you are talking about, I set forth two poems of mine to illustrate the point and show a "tight and narrow" line and a "loose and open" line:   


Cats' philosophy.

Stay close to home.

Avoid people with
cold hands;

in plain sight
hide all the time.

Walk alone.

Live at night.

Trust the moon.



Gadabout God faces famous courtesan,
tits and all,
calls Moses a fraud, calls Jesus false
as the bloody cross he hung from;
tricks of the trade, snakes in the grass,
he calls them, all of them;
read all about it, it's all here,
plain as day or the sparkling night.

Queens leave adultery to
their daughters instead of cold millions;
read all about it, read about
flames, arson, dying firemen,
flying bullets and
dead famous entertainers,
death coming to Disneyland
in a hoop-skirt;
lapidary hoopla, it's all there,
bold as brass, stupid as paint,
creating coffins of words,
black and fleeting,
holding us briefly
and no more.

We ain't talking about the good word,
boys and girls,
the gospels to come, to be told,
to be treasured;
just the daily bleating, the comings and goings,
the ratcheting of infamous feats,
retarded admirals and presidents
at home and abroad,
in big trouble, uh-oh,
stays of execution,
all kinds of sinners and whores
in the fields of earth and
at the end of the road, the end of now,
as we know it, a modest apocalypse.
Wow! And forget it.

God, sly as a fox and bold as a lion,
scales down his limitless circumference,
signaling from the sky,
comes down again, this time
harrowing not only hell,
but earth's own sweet self,
not only boxing
the daily evangelists into oblivion,
but bringing to us all
His grace and terrible truth;
ripping out now with
the message of eternity;

none of it lasts, folks,
not a goddamned bit of it. 

As Lenny Bruce/Shorty Peterstein said, "art blows the most," and if your axe is poetry, you better know how to play the tunes. All of them.

DV: Yes. But. The Artist may enjoy personal, technical expansion and the freedom to escape boring monotony, avoid being in a rut, but the Consumer is not so forgiving. Maybe the Beatles got away with it but the Rolling Stones never managed to desert their primal sound (though they occasionally tried, and they certainly lasted a lot longer as a creative entity). We have a certain expectation about what a Walt Whitman or an Emily Dickinson or an e. e. cummings poem will look and feel like and, indeed, would have a great deal of difficulty even finding one that didn't conform. It's what the English teachers call "voice"' and what they urge their tyros to find. We may admire writers who did poems, novels, essays, short stories, and plays, were equally adept at comedies and dramas, and also made forays into music and painting -- but we don't usually read them, or we only read (let us say) the novels and ignore the rest. Branding is both the boon and the bane. But it all comes down, in part, to: Who do you write for, You or the Masses?

JH: If you have any competence in your craft, your voice is always there, no matter what persona you assume. As far as the Stones and the Beatles, I was always a Stones guy; whatever they did, they stayed with their core identity, where the Beatles, under the influence of John Lennon, experimented with more "orchidaceous" modes of expression. There are plenty of writers who worked across various forms and styles, e.g., Johann Wolfgang Goethe, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Ezra Pound, Thomas Mann etc. and still kept their voice -- "cleave the rock and I am there." As far as branding or what you call the Consumer, this may be well for writers whose prime concern is to make money, like the Harry Potter woman or the Strictly From Hunger Games woman or the writers of "young adult" fiction, like the Twilight Series, or the vampire/zombie chazerai. The real problem is that people, esp. the lumpen, don't read any more. Most of what they absorb comes from the TV and the talking heads on cable TV. And, again, as Bloom says, there has been and continues to be a dumbing-down of the culture. The latest studies from leading universities, consisting of hundreds of pages of small print, indicate that the cultural level of the average "man in the street" here in America is equivalent to that of a five year old chimpanzee. This is a huge problem for the serious writer. There are no or few serious readers. As a matter of fact, there are few readers of books. The eye and ear now follow the shadows and words on a screen. As far as "writing for you or the Masses," the “Waiting for Lefty,” storm-birds of the working class, Hippolyte Havel, Emma Goldman etc. days are long gone and the kind of heavy-handed agitprop that went with it is gone as well. The Masses, a somewhat quaint word these days, have moved on to the TV and the internet, where the voices, like the devils in the bible story, are legion. If you write for anybody, write for what Dante called color che sanno; far and few between these days. As far as poetry, always the step-child, nobody reads poetry and probably never has. In spite of that, throughout the course of human history, poetry makes mythology and mythology is the third eye for all of us, opening our minds to possibilities beyond the daily bread of our lives. This is important. Nevertheless, poets these days serve at a ruinous shrine and we know it.

DV: As far as the state of current culture, do you see any remedies? Are the poets (or any culture figures) trapped in Dante's 10th circle, ceaselessly speaking truth and nonsense into an earless limbo, not even knowing that they are howling in the wind? How can they restore connectivity?

JH: Pace McSweeney's Internet Tendency and Deborah Tennen, there is no tenth circle in Dante's Inferno. Limbo is in the first circle and the last is the ninth and bloody well enough. I assume you are kidding around manufacturing a new circle for poets. Arnaut Daniel did pretty well; at least he had a shot at paradise. I don't see any remedies and at the rate technology is moving, especially with the internet and other electronic gizmos, it is hard to predict how things will develop. I am in the sere and yellow leaf, when there is a tendency to fall into the laudator temporis acti mode. I am living up here in the boondocks, like Ovid among the Goths, so have no clear idea what is happening in the current culture, nor do I really care. Après moi, le déluge.

In talking about restoring connectivity, Duane, I think you have hit on the root of the problem by using the word "connectivity." There is too much connectivity these days and people want their info, their input in Max Planck's quanta, "discrete packets." We may be entering an age where what George Orwell in “1984” called Newspeak becomes the lingua franca, except that it will be self-imposed and not coming down from the Regierung. A horrifying example is the kids' and even adults' texting habits, which do nothing to develop the ability to write decent English prose. Again, the dumbing-down of the culture. Nobody these days is interested in reading what we of the old guard called "literature." Harry Pothead, Strictly From Hunger Gladiators and Teenage Vampires from Canton, Ohio will do nicely, thank you very much. As far as poets, poetry has never been popular with the public and poetry needs some kind of aristocratic support, needs some kind of educated and sophisticated Adelstand to foster it and keep it going. We don't have that any more and complaining about this being "the century of the common man" does not help. I have no solution and accept the inevitable decline and fall of the craft.

DV: I’m more optimistic than you are. Although clearly the process of dumbing down has been present throughout human culture, it has at least sometimes been a liberating event. The gatekeepers, as at studio 54, always want to keep out the riffraff, or else there is no longer a gate for them to keep, so they insist that ordinary people can’t understand or appreciate, and ordinary artists can’t produce, “real” art. So literature has to be in Latin rather than the common vernacular, until Dante (and then Geoffrey Chaucer, and so on) comes along. English poetry has to have a regular, and prescribed, rhythm and rhyme scheme, until Walt Whitman demonstrates his barbaric yawp. Art of all sorts has to be essentially representative … oh, the Modernists disagree. And so it goes. And the elites, of course, have championed their own artistic duds. Antonio Salieri, anyone? William-Adolphe Bouguereau? Robert Southey? In fairness, of course, it should be pointed out that magnificent, mediocre, and miserable artists have been championed, ignored, or derided by connoisseurs and hoi poloi alike. But, given your despair, why do you persist?

JH: That may very well be regarding your optimism. I don’t entirely agree that dumbing down has been present throughout human culture. Periclean Athens, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Euripides and Aeschylus were not dumbing down anything. Nor do the Si Da Ming Zhu, the four great classics of Chinese literature dumb down anything. The Hong Lou Meng is as subtle and complex as anything Proust wrote. There may be an ebb and flow to human culture through the ages, based on some kind of deep-seated dependence on initial conditions we still don't fully understand. Like chaos theory, order in disorder and the other way round. The present situation with the internet and the explosion of "the information highway" is probably the biggest change in human communication since Gutenberg. As I have said earlier, we are in a situation where there is an information overload, an embarras de richesse. This leads to people garnering bits of information here and there and is certainly not conducive to the arts or humanities as we know them. Much (Provençal, Catalan, Galician etc.) was written in the vernacular long before Dante and Chaucer came along, although Latin remained the lingua franca of Europe for a long time and was still used in the Byzantine Empire until late in its existence. When I was in prep school some sixty years ago, Latin was a required subject. Greek was an elective subject, but I did not get serious about either language until I got to college and thereafter at graduate school. As far as English verse, I would say there was experimentation with new forms long before Whitman. The Romantic poets railed against Pope and his ilk: "they swayed about upon a rocking horse, and thought it Pegasus." When you think about it, Robert Southey did OK; his poem on Blenheim is still anthologized and “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” was a best-seller from Jump Street. On the other hand we have Abraham Cowley and Colley Cibber, whose reputations died like dogs over the course of the ages. Too right regarding "magnificent, mediocre, and miserable artists have been championed, ignored, or derided by connoisseurs and hoi poloi alike." Gut gesagt. As to my own situation, I do not despair. At my age it is unbecoming. If I were a reductive Freudian, I would say that my writing harnesses or displaces some deep-seated neurosis in a positive way. As Freud said, "Artists, like neurotics, flee a reality that is hardly satisfactory to them and take refuge in a fantasy world, but - unlike the mentally ill - are able to find their way back." But, alas, I am not Jung or easily Freudened, with a bow to James Joyce, so I say I persist because writing to me is like breathing - I can't survive without it. And perhaps for some of the reasons Orwell sets forth in “Why I Write.”

DV: I don’t wish to beat a dead (or living!) horse, but we don’t know the other Periclean playwrights (and don’t even have the bulk of the works by the handful of famous ones). Some now-well-established poets (John Donne comes to mind) were not routinely read or well-regarded until they had been safely dead for centuries. Pope joyously engaged in many verbal jousts against his critics, but he also had his champions; the bad-mouthers went after him because of his reputation – like the gunslinger constantly beset by the killer wannabes.

JH: That's true regarding what has been lost from classical antiquity. Between the decline and fall of the library in Alexandria and Caesar accidentally burning down part of it and the Crusaders pillaging Byzantium and the ultimate Halosis ("Black Tuesday") of Byzantium, God knows how much was lost. Some of the bronzes and other statuary work ended up in Venice. Most of the rest, including precious manuscripts and papyri, was scattered to the four winds or destroyed. Lost, lost, lost to us. Weh. I admire Pope; was just making a point re changing styles, changing fashions. You are right re Donne.

DV: The communications revolution you describe was essentially foretold by Marshall McLuhan. But books have not disappeared (nor have vinyl records, but books are not yet regarded as the precious playthings of self-proclaimed connoisseurs).

JH: Marshall McLuhan did indeed adumbrate the communications revolution, but I don't think that even in his wildest dreams he could have imagined the extent and influence of this shambling monstrous dangerous and useful beast that is the internet. Could have foreseen 4chan, LOLcat, Pedobear or the Narrischkeit on YouTube. In any event, giving credit, if not respect, to his prophetic soul, the trolls and gnomes of academia have been busy deconstructing him ever since he came to prominence. The medium is the massage, the message as well, and now, so to speak, the mise en scène.

DV: A few writers are able to support themselves from their craft (and some do so quite handsomely), but most of them do it for the love of the doing. Olson wrote of the ecstatic anticipation of creation as well as his fear of already accomplishing his best work. “It is the craziest sort of feeling, this, of not being able to match the done! … One loves only form, and form only comes into existence when the thing is born. And the thing may lie around the bend of the next second. Yet, one does not know, until it is there, under hand.”

JH: Olson was a troubled soul and an oiler from way back; died at 59 of liver cancer. As you know, he was into the LSD scene under the tutelage of Timothy Leary. Lived in extravagant poverty, a Luftmensch, starving by his wits. But he persevered. Respect to him.

DV: You/we/they are engaged in the holy selfish quest task of “ripping out now with / the message of eternity” – even if “none of it lasts, folks.”

JH: Ha! De me fabula, apparently -- you are quoting lines from my own poetry for support of an eschatological Weltanschauung of and for the craft. But as Goethe says at the end of Faust II: Alles Vergängliche Ist nur ein Gleichnis....  I know German pretty well, but am still not sure what Goethe meant by Gleichnis. A slippery concept and a slippery word. Does Goethe mean copy? Allegory? Symbol? Parable? Gleichnis for German speaking people has an association with biblical parables and is often used in that context. Maybe something like "everything in the passing world is a parable/symbol." Take your choice. Nothing lasts and as Democritus said, "nothing is more real than nothing." So we see today with quantum vacuum fluctuation and virtual particle theories. Something from nothing and nothing out of something.

DV: Do you have an established means of luring the muse – some routine or schedule that allows your juices to salivate and flow?

JH: I have no established routine or schedule in any facet of my life. I am happy to wake up in the morning and get out of bed and that is more than enough at four score plus. I read and write, study Chinese (by the way, decades ago, Achilles Fang told me Ezra Pound's knowledge of Chinese was shit), go to the gym, annoy my wife and at the end of the day, as Pepys says, "so to bed."

DV: And so to the end of our conversation as well. It has indeed been a pleasure!

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