Dr. John Horváth, Jr. is the editor of the ezine PoetryRepairShop, a professor of English and poet. John is widely published, both in print and on the internet; indeed he is one of the most recognizable poets on the web. A Southside Chicagoan and second-wave immigrant, he was born in 1948, educated at Peabody College at Vanderbilt and Florida State University, and now lives in Mississippi. John’s Bibliography can be found at: http://www.horvath.ws/bib.html
A PRIVATE UNIVERSE OF POETRY
AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN HORVÁTH, JR.
by Ward Kelley
Ward Kelley: What compels you to write your poetry?
John Horváth, Jr.: During my life, major catastrophes have visited: a divorce wiped me out; neurosurgery on a son; the call to Desert Storm, to name a few. “Tranquility is of no poetic use,” said Robert Graves. No sympathy desired, just explaining my “moods.”
I’ve been writing poetry since I was thirteen (now I’m 52 -- March ‘48 -- and each new poem is my favorite, each new one the most exciting I’ve had to work on). Perhaps what compels all poets to poetry is that every day is new; every observation new; poets bring the excitement of childhood to things.
Life becomes a narrative. It is a long telling of tragedy and comedy, recognitions and reversals, climax and denouement. Incidents define us. I’m from the Calumet region -- industrial northwest Indiana from Gary into Chicago South Side -- that part of Indiana that keeps Chicago time. My parents were immigrants from Hungary, though from the old Austrian dominated empire. I am telling you this as if I am telling my children, so that I can strip away whatever pretence there may be. That’s been a big part of writing: the “who-am-I what-is-this-all-about.” Poets begin, I think, as ‘the confused,’ compelled to make sense of the world.
WK: And there is much sense to be found in language?
JHJ: Family and home were often the “old language” and old world traditions, where I listened to Radio Budapest, and we unpacked in 1956, knowing we would never “return” (now I am too old, my four children American). The streets had a language of their own where “mama jol” could be confused with “yo mama” (and our parents could not teach social ‘etiquette’ on this level). Away from gangs and dangers (yes, even then), in school there was the teachers’ ‘English’ where we memorized the kings and queens of England as part of our ‘heritage.’ It was a time of ‘assimilation.’
The languages blend in one’s mind. Each language has a rhythm and meter of its own (poet Vachel Lindsey knew it well). Dreams were musical. If you sat on the right roof in town, below you could hear the music as different groups walked by. With my brothers I often “walked the roofs” jumping from one to another (they were so close together you could kiss a neighbor through the windows). So the richness and diversity of language has always been with me. I agree with William Blake that there is more to being human than the senses. Experience is not all. I believe there is also a music of life.
From the beginning, I observed the diversity of language, religion, social class, “first comers” and “new comers” and “temporaries” who came from the Ozarks and the South for summer factory work then returned rich to the South. To know people, you must learn to understand the music of their minds. What patterns of thought lead to certain behavior? Which pauses and gaps lead to uncertainty, separation, danger?
WK: Separation is part of what compels your poetry?
JHJ: Separation was always a marvel to me. I grew up Eastern Orthodox, those Christians who have icons in their homes and churches. The icon is a thing, a printed picture that represents a holy spirit, so it is a window -- both material and ideal simultaneously. It is very like a person: the “I” within the “family” is you standing alone and never quite apart from what and who came before. So, I suppose, my poetry tends to focus on the outsider, the one separated. I have always tried to be them in my poetry. They teach survival in a world estranged and alienated from the soul.
I started writing and painting at 13. A fellow I called “Hoppy” took me to a Van Gogh exhibit, which was the first real art I ever saw. He gave me paints, brushes, pens and paper to work with. He was my counselor in reform school back in the early sixties (one year) . . . I was no sweet kid. This I’ve come to know as “art therapy.” But I’ve written ever since. At least two lines a night, after reading. I no longer paint as it is a tedious process and I was never all that good at it . . . mostly portraits of friends in acrylics.
At the end of High School, I was Senior Class President and a promising egghead who, like many minorities in the area, received a draft notice before a college acceptance (mine came from Indiana University while I was in basic training). After my tour, upon arriving in the US, I got on the first plane to London and began hitchhiking eastward. I meant to circumambulate the globe but was awarded the Legion of Dysentary in the Khyber Pass. I did however hike from New York to L.A. then back to Chicago. Met a woman in Florida, went to visit her in New England, was married and divorced ten years later. Thank God. Now happily married with four children, a daughter and three younger sons.
I am an observer. I try to go into the OTHER. Poetry is autobiographical only in the sense that my experience of the event/s that lead to the poem comes from observation. I do observe. As I grow older, more of the poems are born in the music of the mind. I take the other person’s point of view and try to explain/understand the whys and wherefores of that behavior which attracts attention.
WK: In preparing for this interview, I became aware of your recent economic misfortunes. I must say I’m perplexed at your current financial fate; if you don't mind my saying so, it doesn’t seem like you’ve had a full measure of justice from life.
JHJ: The truth is something akin to what T.S. Eliot’s teacher, F. H. Bradley, philosophized: Each person exists in a totally encompassing private universe of one’s own experience which each attempts to communicate to others. From this manifests all our systems of belief, our rituals, our institutions. It’s all about the force of “I” alone and the force of “Other” alone. Those forces that derive from “in” ME are domestic forces, my wishes and desires. Those forces that impinge upon me are economic forces, ‘my’ needs and necessities. Our culture places FAR too much value on the economic. Youth loves traditional poetic form, ordered couplets and ready rhyme schemes and predictable stanza lengths -- the makings of the ordered and predictable -- while their lives are filled with future uncertainty; as we age, we become more capable of dealing with uncertainty (possibly, why a Mozart child or idiot savant so interests us). My poetry’s vague terms -- “someone” “someplace” -- recognize that everyone experiences a measure of uncertainty; we seldom speak of it, but it is there.
In a lived world of tendencies, what holds true for each of us is temporary. No condition is permanent. I have a full measure of impermanence.
Mathematics is the type for poetry; and, poetry is the type for mathematics. Turing’s ON/Off switch and computer binary 01 and moral right/wrong and stress/unstressed syllables. But variation and uncertainty creep into things human. The dimmer switch. Hexadecimals. Ethics. Anapests, sonnets, free verse. I’m a ‘fan’ of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Roughly, observation/measurement influences the outcome of what is observed/measured. Blatantly obvious and true for every human act, science came to it only recently! All we truly have is tendencies. We want to have identity or unity; we accomplish only a tendency to unite. We have tendencies toward difference and/or distinction; tendencies toward harmony. As Yeats noted, ‘the center cannot hold.’ So, we ‘anchor’ -- into and toward whatever system we can invent to observe the world and make ‘sense’ of it. Since early times, each human has wanted to be a perfect sphere, a prime number: unique, distinct from the others, but part of a SYSTEM, which is UNIVERSAL -- unity, difference, harmony.
Again, “Tranquility is of no poetic use.”
WK: I sincerely applaud your value system concerning money; but considering your thoughts on mathematics, I’m appalled! Help me to understand, in that I have always detected a dichotomy between poetry and math. Two of my brothers are electrical engineers who frequently wonder if I’ve gotten hold of bad acid when they evaluate my poetical endeavors. It brings to mind a quote Charles Van Doreen wrote in his ‘A History of Knowledge,’ concerning scientists, “They do not wander out onto the deck at sunset and look at the world with wonder, as a poet might . . . They do not claim more than they can prove, and often even less. But they are very proud of their calling and prefer to talk to other scientists rather than anybody else, especially poets, who tend to make them feel uncomfortable, to put them down. (Of course poets also feel scientists return the favor.)”
JHJ: Wow. A frighteningly horrific statement. Pity those imprisoned in narrow minds. Each of us is no more than what we DO in life! It’s a grossly binary way of thinking, typically American: Liberal or Conservative, Black or White, In or out -- any reasonable person would tell you things are far more complicated than that. (Mr. Van Doreen meet Mr. Sagan).
Scientists do indeed see sunsets. When I was a grad student, English majors after hours discussed anything but literature. I’m not talking about creative writing students (they are another breed altogether). But I took a political science course on research and statistics for humanities funding/programs. I wanted to know the insides of agencies that doled money to artistes such as I wished to be. Well, after every class about six of us (half the class) would go to a local shop, pick up a jug of cheap wine (it was a night class) and sit on the curb of main street. Never among any group have I more enjoyed discussions of poetry. Statisticians, poli-sci majors, urban planners, we all talked poetry and fiction for HOURS.
Why might anyone think to separate science and poetry; why think one is more pedestrian than the other? T. S. Eliot was a bank teller; W. C. Williams was a pediatrician; each of us is making a world; and, where we all come to agreement, that is the natural world. No one is excluded. I read an article in Atlantic Monthly Online about a Romantic Era poet, a contemporary of Keats and Shelley who wrote bucolic poetry. He was not gentry but peasant stock and his choice of “social clothing” was laughable. In life he was a country bumpkin; but an extraordinary poet. Spent his last days in an asylum for having “gone mad with poesy.” I certainly hope we are not moving toward elitism again.
From the rantings of the insane to glorious scripture, from those who put square pegs into round holes up to the most knowledgeable astrophysicist, each of us makes a world and sends it out as a shield. Others reject or accept it variously. All of it fits into art (Warhol showed us that). And abstractionists like Mondrian show that science too is art. The discoverer of subatomic particles called them ‘quarks’ but the word ‘quark’ comes from James Joyce's ULYSSES which, of course, bears the title of a Greek hero. Visual art influences poetry; poetry influences science; life touches life.
Very Aristotelian to think in terms of A or not A; the “not CHAIR” has a billion positive things it could be. A star; a mountain pass, a nomad’s wagon, the child asleep in its mother’s arms, the mother’s teardrop, a slight imperfection in her gait, a shooting star. All these are “not CHAIR” and more. The choice is never actually Scientist or not Scientist; Poet or not Poet. On the other hand there is a more generalized identity that is useful (we can’t name each tree differently; we call it ‘forest’). There are humans; and, human spirit; there are many ways to be a “poet.”
WK: The Israeli poet, Abba Kovner, was a freedom fighter against the Nazis in World War II, organizing the resistance in the Vilna ghetto of Lithuania. After the war he settled in a kibbutz in Israel, and essentially wrote for the rest of his life. A witness of the Nazis’ genocidal crimes, Kovner, to my mind, produced one of the most wonderful descriptions of poetry. He once said, “Poetry is, in a sense, a request for pardon for what we do in our lives, and for what was done to us. If there is any moral meaning to poetry in general, perhaps this is it. A way of asking forgiveness for the evil in human existence.” Your thoughts?
JHJ: I wish Kovner were wrong.
Atrocities sometimes generate grand upheavals of the soul. But our responses differ. Babi Yar. Charge of the Light Brigade. We are rightfully convulsed by horrific wrongs. But we can as easily ignore them. We celebrate the reunification of Germany and ignore the partition of Hungary after World War One when two-thirds of its people were placed under foreign domination (including part to Austria which began the war). We weep rightly for what was done to Jews in Nazi Germany, but Gypsies (Rom) have never received the slightest compensation though their losses were, per capita, greater. We decry slavery in the US in the 19th century; but, we ignore slavery today in the Sudan. The list of what we ignore is itself atrocious.
I'm cautious about a “poets speak from experience” that may be interpreted from Kovner. Reading, listening, observing are also part of life through which we gain experience. If poets must experience to be able to write, then we cannot be readers. Reading requires compassion; reading requires sympathy and empathy with the writer. That is the great loss of our time -- yes, we are alienated from our societies; yes, we are estranged from our environment; but, we have lost the ability to be compassionate. We’ve neither great sympathy nor empathy with those unlike ourselves. Compassion once knew neither time nor distance. The pathos in the last line of “Ozymandias” exemplifies this. [editor’s note: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” / Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.” -- Shelley]
Poets may point to mundane wrongs, random acts of unkindness, that effect the quality of life (much as an Amazon butterfly fluttering its wings may be the ultimate cause of a hurricane). But even in focusing on the most minute, least “earth shattering” upheaval of the soul, there must be compassion, sympathy, empathy. “I heard a fly buzz when I died” -- Dickinson could see her own end with her focus outward. Now THAT is a poet!
But, there! I too am guilty of the experience fallacy! I’ve often reminded students that the speaker/persona/character is not necessarily the writer.
WK: Is the internet having a profound impact on poetry? Would Dickinson and Whitman been ecstatic or appalled over Moongate and PoetryRepairShop?
JHJ: A very grand notion! Dickinson would have a bulletin board of poetry that she’d never submit to a search engine; Whitman would be encyclopedic, sponging from cultures across the globe, inventing a truly ‘world literature;’ unfortunately, we’d have no poetry from Shelley who would spend all his time in sex chat rooms. I think the Formalists would have all become hackers.
The impact is as yet not pronounced. Most users are at a provincial stage. We tend to browse through and in one familiar culture and language. Look at the popularity of things. Pornography alongside chat rooms, family channels, and email: one-to-one and small group interactions dominate. Then there is poetry. Popularity is not its sole measure; however, poetry is extensive online. I have met Israeli, German, Hungarian, and Afrikaans, Australian, and Malay poets via the net. Admittedly, I sought them out or they submitted poetry to me as editor of PoetryRepairShop. But this second Columbian Exchange, the one of the mind, promises to be as bountiful as the first Columbian exchange. (It’s a bit sad that some Americans see Columbus day as a celebration of the evils of conquest, which is true; but Columbus Day also honors the one most responsible for our world of global exchange.) Although business has found a practical tool in computers, the internet extends the material Columbian exchange into the intellectual realm.
Poetry and sex (mental more than physical) are closely related on the web. After pornography sites, poetry sites proliferate. What does this mean? Humans crave intimate contact. Humans crave. It is pleasing that so many children are in Poetry Chat rooms and elsewhere; the young are reaching into a broader world. The medium invites their intimacy, welzschmertz, their cries of love lost, their adolescent rebellion. Yet their search for intimacy via this machinery saddens me; it is a statement of private and public loss, loss of family, neighborhood, community contact.
Consider that the highly technical orientation of the computer has become an everyday thing for many people. Each day, the computer becomes more a tool like the telephone or radio -- a background material form for our communications. Some ‘online poets’ are merely kids making prank phone calls. Some are the criminally tortured minds that break into our lives to do harm. But many online poets, and more daily, see great possibilities for net poetry. As an example, I have published more poetry online, met more poets online, received more responses to my poetry online in the last five years than I did in the thirty-five previous years of becoming a poet. Again, poets and computers invite intimacy; they are made for one another.
Generally, we know little of computer “insides;” throw it away or replace it when it wears out. There ought to be recycling centers where the machines are repaired and donated to schools, hospitals, places where the ‘homeless’ can have permanent addresses. These minds, these visions, ought to be brought into the exchange while the computer becomes an invisible technology whose use can be and is often extremely personal and individual and private way to be comfortably in the public on very intimate levels. I have found, and someone has noted to me, the extensive use of the internet by disabled individuals who operate bulletin boards, email lists, edit journals . . . much of the internet background cannot walk and talk with you. That includes me to some degree. Think of it: poetry enabled by the disabled. Perhaps that has always been the way; poets haven’t admitted it.
Poets must cherish openness to other cultures, the intimacy of exchange that is available, the freedom to be as grandiose or as stupid as we want to be. I pray we do not lose this boon to takeover by corporations and governments. Poets know that government control is a death knell to invention and individual thought. Alcohol prohibition, drugs, tobacco, licensing presses, cars -- whenever government becomes interested in controlling, government creates ‘group identities,’ the call for the ‘social good.’ Control over actions almost always descends into control of thought. Plato’s REPUBLIC, an ‘ancient’ document is a very contemporary text.
Negative and positive, the impact approaches subtly and slowly. Poets will mark its progress, as poets have marked the crawl of industrialization, the sweep of ideologies, the crush of oppressions. It’s what we do. On the other hand, we must remember that others visited Avalon and Caribe before Columbus; humans visited the moon -- ONCE. The lights have gone off before; they can go out again. For the internet to have great impact, poets must find ways to make the virtual into something real.
I dislike the trend toward audio and visual on the net. You may recall when the audio/visual “club members” brought film and slide equipment into classrooms in the 1950s and 60s. Audio/Visual Club -- identity via machines! Students instinctively disliked those others who had given themselves over to machines -- the worse kind of geek or nerd, we thought. We were bored by amateurish films, static slide presentations, by listening to sounds of animals, by learning to drive by audio/visuals; we waited for the moment of actually DOING something! Driving! Talking to one and other! Hell, even listening to the teacher or talking with teachers was better than audio/visual.
Listening and watching are passive; they require little intellectual exchange. It is nice if it happens. Few movies do it; few songs do it. But when you love a song or singer, you want to sing it or see a LIVE performance by the singer; Andrew Lloyd Webber on stage is not Andrew Lloyd Webber on film. A living audience effects the performance. Writing and reading require active participation of more than one person; writer and reader, without one the other is meaningless, truly without meaning. This is why I wish to see new avenues of exchange develop from and beyond the contact on the computer.
I love the Romantic poets because as they wrote they were involved in the revolutions of their time -- in Greece, in France, in Poland, in Hungary. They fought for ‘republicanism’ or pan-Slavism or for an American style of ‘liberty’ . . . poets online are leading us from nation state into the new global culture. Without poetry, it is global but business as usual. Online, poets can change how and when we come to KNOW one and other.
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