Adrienne Rich's Forward to Clayton Eshleman’s Companion Spider
There is very little around today, certainly in the literary essay genre, that
possesses the depth and substance of this book.
This is the accumulated prose-work of a poet and translator who has gone more deeply into his art, its process and demands, than any modern American poet since Robert Duncan or Muriel Rukeyser. As a poet, Eshleman has wrestled with his vocation and, in some senses, created himself through poetry. At the same time he has offered poetry his inspired and tireless service. He is the translator of such essential world poets as Rimbaud, César Valléjo, Aimé Césaire, Antonin Artaud, and the founder and editor of two important magazines of innovative literature and art, Caterpillar (1967-1973) and more recently Sulfur (1981-2000). He has written on the self-making and apprenticeship of the poet and of poet as translator, as no one else in North America in the later 20th century. He has written perceptively about visual art in its relation to contemporary poetics. And he has delivered stinging critiques of mediocrity and cautiousness in the standardizing of poetic canons.
Eshleman’s integrity as a translator has demanded meticulous searching of texts, glossaries, dictionaries, and intense collaborations. In “The Lorca Working,” “At the Locks of the Void,” “Tribute to Americo Ferrari,” among other pieces, he lays open the cartography of the poet-translator’s work. Anyone wanting to study live, pulsing poetry will find these essays illuminating and contagious.
“Novices” and “Remarks to a Poetry Workshop” directly engage the nascent poet and introduce the concept of “apprenticeship”-- to the work of earlier poets, to powerful living poets if possible: an apprenticeship which is a deep immersion, a recognition that art is difficult and exigent, an ocean and not a swimming-pool, a calling and not a career-path.
Through the variety of poets and visual artists whom he addresses, Eshleman evokes a community of no one place or time or language, where a younger poet might hang around to overhear conversations, absorb the individual gestures of certain remarkable practitioners. The reader is made aware of a complex of artistic practises to be explored, not to mention arguments and conflicts within the gathering.
A running criticism by Eshleman himself has to do with the exclusionary maleness of this tradition, its error in gendering concepts like muse or mentor, the defacement of western tradition by misogyny. Eshleman clearly understands the meaning of entitlement--and of its lack. So I would emphatically urge these essays upon women poets. Too little has been asked of us--by our peers, by feminist criticism, by the university workshop and the feminine ghetto. Eshleman writes of “blocks and chasms,” of “strife and destruction” in the making of poetry, which are of the deep psyche, not the stuff of limited personal observation or attractive style. Eshleman’s stormy and rigorous claims for the art belong to whoever needs them, whoever has felt “there must be more than this.”
Crucial to this book is the idea of a lifelong commitment of self to art. There are novices who want poetry to enhance them by making them careers; there are others who vaguely or keenly sense that it’s the vocation that matters, the long accountability to the word and the oceans and deserts around it.
In several places, notably in the clear-eyed and compassionate essay on Artaud, or the Celan essay, Eshleman refers to the stamina of poetry (which is of course the stamina of the poet in the face of disaster.) This stamina, along with prodigious empathetic capability, is embodied in Eshleman’s own life/work. I am glad to see these essays entering a new form of accessibility, for those of our dazed and enraged era who surely have need of them.
-- Adrienne Rich