Interview with Cyrus Console on The Odicy — April 20, 2012

Cyrus Console is the author of Brief Under Water (Burning Deck, 2008) and The Odicy (Omnidawn, 2011). He teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute.

Christopher Nelson: How do formal constraints affect your generative methods? Or are the formal constraints the generative method?

Cyrus Console: The book’s basic constraint is five stressed syllables to a line, the fundamental of pentameter verse. I was going to say it constrained placement of stressed syllables—the way iambic pentameter requires one following every unstressed syllable, for example, or folksier pentameters might require an unspecified number of unstressed syllables between stresses—but the truth is I tried to keep the rule as simple as possible, and in places wrote lines that mostly lack unstressed syllables: “Real men take half measures / …” My interest in syllable counting comes from the fact that in ordinary language, sense, syntax, and speech stress all correlate: “beautiful” is a dactyl; “interrupt” is an anapest; the stress falls on the part of the word that is most “meaningful” (a dactyl like “beautiful”; the unstressed syllables “-ingful” and “-iful” basically interchangeable). At every moment in ordinary language, content demands a specific and, as a general rule, pretty musical distribution of speech stresses. In prose, clear patterning of thoughts typically manifests as clear patterns in syntax. E.g. the following sentence of Donald Davidson’s ends with two illustrative examples, and we recognize them as examples in part because they follow the pattern of three strong front-stresses: "What we call the element of novelty or surprise in a metaphor is a built-in aesthetic feature we can experience again and again, like the surprise in Haydn's Symphony no. 94, or a familiar deceptive cadence." In fact, in Davidson’s sentence, the three-stress “cadence” is the second example.

I’m not sure I agree with Emerson’s well known claim that "it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing. The thought and the form are equal in the order of time, but in the order of genesis the thought is prior to the form." Because it seems to me that thought and form instantiate a prosody prior to them both. That is, both the cognitive form and the linguistic form concretize a prior syntactic form. It’s the emptiness, the potentiality of that syntax that’s generative. In metered poetry you have the simplest formal order (number, succession) superimposed on the endlessly complex order of language. This is analogous to the way the camera crops the rich visual field of the environment against the minimal visual idea of the rectangle. Imagining the simple, artificial frame against the flourishing natural form is a powerful generative technique. Someone at the art school where I work has decorated or defaced various campus fixtures and objects with a sticker that reads “This Has Potential.” Maybe any attempt to carve nature at the joints endows it—language and image both—with “potential.” (It occurs to me to be explicit that here I regard language as phenotypic, “natural,” evolved.)

Nelson: Your previous book, Brief Under Water, is composed of prose poems. Stylistically, so much is different in The Odicy: meter, stanza patterns, ruptured syntax. Could you contrast the two forms; how did they direct your thought?

Console: The basic idea for me—and I think this has been said many times in as many ways—is that transparency (cliché of “limpid” prose) is the criterion of the prosaic against the poetic; that prose prioritizes the signified, verse the signifier. In writing the prose poems, I was more concerned with representation (of images, percepts, concepts), whereas in the metered poems I focused more on production or manipulation of linguistic units (phrases, rhythms, breaks and silences). If you wanted to get mystical (and/or complicate my remark about Emerson) you could say “prose is thought rendered language; poetry is language rendered thought.”

Nelson: I don't want to dispel the mystery of the character Tony by asking about him, but could you suggest a metaphor or offer a directive on how he might be considered?

Console: Tony has dual status in the book. “Tony/Anthony” often function in the line as front-stressed feet, working against the strongly conditioned expectation that verse be iambic. As I wrote, the names sometimes seemed to me to be images of the trochee/dactyl, or the character seemed to be “playing the part” of the front-stressed foot in a metrical drama. In places I tried to reproduce a discourse that sounded like scripture, or like Dante or what have you, using Tony as a default name in place of that of the lord or guide or savior. I would also think about St. Anthony as a figure for asceticism, renunciation, withdrawal. Writing the book I fantasized that poetry could be a form of monasticism, of standing off from the evils of the social or at least resisting the forms of participation that result in soft drinks or chemical weapons.

Nelson: Can you clarify “forms of participation”? For me it suggests the ways in which consumers (knowingly or unknowingly) support corporations engaged in various unethical acts; e.g., polluting, war profiteering, exploiting workers.

Console: Yes, I guess “participation” is a vague word that reflects the vagueness of my sense of being implicated. I don’t know how not to click the link to the news article published by the media conglomerate that is owned by the nuclear bomb manufacturer, or how not to burn coal while I do it. If I work in the thoroughly renewable medium of language to produce objects for which there is no quantifiable demand—if my work is mostly contemplative, if my work, lol, promotes contemplation—am I somehow shrinking the machine or changing its path? How would I know. Or what if I conceived of my work broadly as mourning. Would there be any value in the rise of a mourning class? At any rate I would say that in the response you’re asking about, “fantasized” is the operative term.

Nelson: I admire the satiric content in The Odicy. Do you think poets could—or should—be more engaged in social critique?

Console: I’m afraid I don’t have a clear sense of how engaged in social critique poets generally speaking are, and I can’t always differentiate between poems that are critical and poems that produce the sound or tone of critical engagement mimetically. But “my poetry isn’t political”; “I’m not a political person”; these are dishonest positions stemming at best from active denial and not mere ignorance.

Nelson: And what is the function of that denial?

Console: We have all these activities in which the only barrier to enjoyment is the feeling we might be harming someone.

Nelson: "Theodicy" … Does God—or the gods—want evil?

Console: I see the book’s title as crucially distinguishing “Theodicy” from “The Odicy.” Putting the space character in the#odicy transforms the “theos” morpheme into the English definite article, which mediates the infinite that is language and the given that is the world. A general procedure in the book is to replace transcendent terms with mundane ones—not “God said” but “Tony said.” The space character also destroys the “dike” (justice) morpheme to yield “odicy” (odyssey). Rather than confront good and evil logically, the book supplants them with other words. “Theodicy” implies divinely plotted (or metered) progress through time, whereas “the odicy” is evolutionary wandering, no goal but origin.

Nelson: As in “no goal other than origin”—a returning to Source?

Console: Yeah, both in the sense of nostos and in the sense of continuous origin. Return to both senses.

Nelson: Thank you, Cyrus, for the conversation and for your wonderful book.

Console: Chris, it is always a pleasure talking with you. Thanks.