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A Conversation With Paul Auster, Jewish Poet

Early poetic works of the novelist and filmmaker, in ‘White Spaces’

Jake Marmer
June 23, 2020
RAFA RIVAS/Getty Images
RAFA RIVAS/Getty Images
RAFA RIVAS/Getty Images
RAFA RIVAS/Getty Images

I met Paul Auster outside his Park Slope brownstone. Maestro was dressed entirely in black, down to black slippers. It was late December, and the home, where he lives with his wife, novelist Siri Hustvedt, was decked out with a Christmas tree. On the exposed brick walls in the living room there were surrealist paintings of typewriters—only appropriate, given that, as Auster told me, he still writes everything by hand, and receives his emails by fax from his assistant.

One of the foremost American experimentalists, author of nearly 20 novels and novellas, and recipient of numerous major prizes, Auster had ambitions to become a successful novelist from an early age. In his teens he wrote hundreds of pages of prose, which, he felt, were a failure at the time. To maintain his sanity, he began to devote his attention solely to writing and translating poetry. It was then that he realized he “wanted to go against everything that everyone was doing around me,” Auster told me. “What I set for myself as a goal is to simply try to make poetry out of nothing, with as few elements as possible. There was a philosophical and also personal rigor that I wanted to impose on myself, and to see if I can wring feeling out of stone. That’s what I wanted to do.”

A few minutes into our conversation I realized that Paul Auster had begun interviewing me: asking questions about my own life’s story, my family, literary influences, and predilections. This sense of a sudden disorientation, of reversal of set roles, particularly those between readers and writers, authors and characters, is a classic marker of Auster’s writing. Auster is, above all, a storyteller capable of not only telling stories but creating storytelling landscapes, drawn on stories of others.

But we weren’t there to discuss my work. Rather, the occasion for our discussion was the publication of his poetry White Spaces: Selected Poems and Early Prose by New Directions. In addition to the poems picked out from his five poetry collections, there are a number of liminal works, which are, strictly speaking, neither poetry nor prose, but an elegant and dense combination of both.

There are many reasons why Auster’s poetry is not nearly as well known as his fiction. Auster, 73, stopped publishing new poems about four decades ago. Indeed, the earliest work included in White Spaces dates back to the author’s early 20s. Auster wrote the final poems in the collection when he was in his early 30s, which is to say, a period prior to the publication of the works that brought him renown.

And unlike Auster’s screenplays, the poems seem vastly different from his prose—in them, there are no memorable stories, no anecdotes or jokes, no playful personal asides. His poetry is intricate and complicated and rewards slow, repeated readings. And, I discovered, reading his poems can also illuminate layers inside his fiction in an entirely new and more complex manner.

In the piece titled “Song of Degrees,” Auster wrings a poem out of the stone of Jacob’s dream. If this poem is midrashic, it is a very gritty, dark midrash. It imagines Jacob, the biblical ancestor, not as a devout man with a vision of the sacred, but one who finds “the rubble/of awe”—that is, reverence, which is already somehow ruined, deconstructed, and fraught with disappointment. Yet the yearning for it is nevertheless “retched into prayer—the distance bought/in your name.” This suggests that perhaps prayer and poetry are both the balm and the source of pain, and while they offer a kind of existential solace, they likewise continue to deepen the gap between us and that which is forever beyond us.

On the outset, a poem of this sort seems to be written by an entirely different person than the author of Auster’s iconic novel City of Glass, a postmodern detective story, filled with struggling writers, alter egos, doppelgängers, puns, philosophical dead ends, and playful deconstructions of the nature of fiction and reality. Yet, the connection between Auster’s later fiction and his early poems can be traced to a sensibility Auster articulated in an essay about the poet Charles Reznikoff.

“The poems of an American Jew, or, if you will, of a hyphenated American, a Jewish-American, with two terms standing not so much on an equal footing as combining to form a third and wholly different term: the condition of being in two places at the same time, or, quite simply, the condition of being nowhere,” he writes. In Auster’s “Song of Degrees,” the “nowhere” is a disintegrating biblical myth, the seemingly endless nomadic movement through imagery and language. And it is the same kind of thinking that, in subtle ways, underlies City of Glass, where we encounter both the disintegration and inescapable potency of the ancient myths, and the protagonist—a flâneur-wanderer—who famously ponders: “It seems to me that I will always be happy in the place where I am not. Or, more bluntly: Wherever I am not is the place where I am myself. Or else, taking the bull by the horns: Anywhere out of the world.” Out of this world: That is precisely the setting of the “Song of Degrees” and of so many other poems in the collection.

Auster’s poetry period was when he “became interested in Jewish history and Jewish questions,” he told me. “I was very taken by three Jewish writers who had a big influence on me: Paul Celan, Edmond Jabès, and Charles Reznikoff. It got me thinking about my own relationship to Judaism, and the relationship of Judaism to writing.”

For Auster, it was Jabès, an Egyptian-born, French-Jewish poet, who became a close friend and “opened doors in my mind that might have remain closed,” Auster said. “You could be a completely secular Jew and remain attached to history and even the philosophical groundwork of this faith.”

Another distinct characteristic of “Song of Degrees,” and of many poems included in the volume, is an incredible sense of music and rhythm. What Auster wrote about Paul Celan is applicable to his poetry as well: “One reads with one’s skin, as if by osmosis, unconsciously absorbing nuances, overtones, syntactical twists, which in themselves are as much the meaning of the poem as its analytic content.” Wringing of airtight language, repetitions, alterations of very short lines with longer ones—this all creates a melodically complex work, a sound that is a kind of thinking, or struggling with one’s conditions.

Auster pointed out that the close attention to the musicality of words is a sensibility he retained as he started writing prose: “I still think as a poet. I work on my sentences as hard as I ever worked on my sentences as a poet. Books are made out of music of language and the rhythms and the whole tonality is something that carries meaning—even though those meanings can’t be articulated–the meanings that are communicated into the body of the reader, and your body is understanding certain things through the music of the writing, with whatever meanings the words might have—or double, or triple, quadruple meanings,” Auster said.

Reading Auster’s poems, it occurred to me that the center of gravity in Auster’s prose works is not his spectacular storytelling but a poetic sense of constant ambiguity—the mystery that he called “double, or triple, quadruple meanings,” that can be engendered and amplified through the musicality of the sentences.

In a poem titled “Narrative,” even as the poet laments the impossibility of silence, it is precisely the powerfully musical usage of silence that brings both the vision and yearning for silence to the reader.

The poem’s second stanza seems to break off with “if we speak of the world/it is only to leave the world,” but then, the opening of the third stanza, “unsaid,” punctuated with a period, makes it clear that the gap (the silence!) between the second and third stanzas was actually an enjambment—that is, not an empty silence, but one fraught with connection of what comes before to that which comes after. It is, in a way, the enactment of the poem’s dilemma: When we speak, or write, we remove ourselves from the immediacy of the experience, and yet, there seems to be no other way to truly access the moment, to know the world. The world, then, shows itself only in that single, frustrated, syncopated pause in talking or writing.

Ironically titled, the poem’s narrative is in fact what’s absent from the series of images that correspond to its shifting inner landscapes. What narrative could there be when it comes to silence and light, to a sight of a few last remaining apples on a tree, to the contemplation of one’s own existence? Yet, of course this incoherent story is the one that’s truly worth our while.

In The Invention of Solitude, Auster’s first truly acclaimed prose work, a segmented and experimental memoir in which he mourns a sudden death of his father, while also reflecting on his own fatherhood, he confides: “I have begun to feel that the story I am trying to tell is somehow incompatible with language, that the degree to which it resists language is an exact measure of how closely I have come to saying something important, and that when the moment arrives … I will not be able to say it.” Here, again, reading Auster’s poetry illuminates that which lurks beneath Auster’s prose: a sense that one can’t truly devise a “narrative” sufficiently powerful to encompass the mystery of a self, suspended between a loss of one’s parent, and the birth of one’s child. The mystery of a self only shows itself, as Auster posits, when the narrative begins to break down, and words fail us.

But, to be a poet is to dream of a language that reaches beyond language, and is itself an experience of that which we can only intuit through the music of silences.

“No matter how hard we try, no matter how hard we think, we’re never getting to the bottom of things. We’re never going to understand what we’re trying to penetrate. Everything is doomed to failure, but there’re failures which are better than other failures,” Auster said, reflecting on the poem “Narrative.” “And rather than get depressed about it, we can find it as a source of energy.”

After a short silence, he added: “It’s the hope of finding something outside of the words, inside the light of the world. Can we? Maybe, maybe.”

Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of Cosmic Diaspora (2020), The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). He has also released two jazz-klezmer-poetry records: Purple Tentacles of Thought and Desire (2020, with Cosmic Diaspora Trio), and Hermeneutic Stomp (2013).