Self & The Poem: Lee Hickman to Todd Baron

Todd Baron 2008

Lee Hickman, undated photo by Rod Bradley

Below is an excerpt from a 1984 letter from Lee Hickman to Todd Baron. Baron was living in San Francisco and attending New College while Hickman was in Southern California. The two maintained an ongoing correspondence. Todd read this excerpt at the recent Tribute to Leland Hickman on the occasion of Nightboat Books' publication of Tiresias. You can read about that HERE. When Todd read from Hickman's letter I was struck by Hickman's engagement with the question/problem of the "self" in poetry.It seems appropriate that this excerpt of correspondence should follow the post on Ammiel Alcalay and his argument for reading, rereading and reinterpreting the many versions of "I" and "selves" in the poem.

As to the subject of the “self” in art. What I have written is of course autobiographical, I assume anyone can see that. It is like an autobiography, but since it is a poem, and always remains one, it is a strange form, requesting the reader to respond to it as autobiography at the same time as the reader is requested to question the meaning of the concept of self and the concept of self-writing; the self itself viewed as a kind of text open to transgression, distortion, emendation, fictionalization of our convenient fiction of the self. This is reflexive action by the poem itself, and I assume anyone knows that who reads it. I also assume that any problem it causes comes partly from not having studied the whole book closely and partly from presuppositions about the question of self, as though anyone has a final say on this philosophical and perennial question. In my work so far, I have—in part—and probably a great part—presented my experience of textualizing my experience of textualizing my experience, including the experience of self-interpretation (those ambiguous parameters we are so inconveniently stuck with). The self is indescribable, containing its own contradictions, and unpredictable, yet we live as though those selves are more than fictions: the poem recognizes all this. However, the Leland of the poem is the Leland of the poem, for the poem’s Leland is the will of the poem, and Leland’s poem, like Leland’s self, is not his own. Not his own to interpret, to keep, to will, to kill, to destroy, to debase, to exalt, or to write about. Dynamic & never static, the self is an interpretation requiring continuous reinterpretation and multi-interpretation in order to continue; this is as much to say it does not exist as a closed & bounded entity—and yet—and yet—


Yes, art is a criticism of society. Yes, self, whatever it is, is definitely in concert with community, and vice versa. But a self in conflict with itself is in conflict with its community, and presentation of the results of that ongoing conflict in works of art is decidedly a criticism of society. All that needs to be determined is whether or not the particular self is lying. Such a work must question its truth or its falsity—i.e., it must be tiresian, i.e, it must be concerned with true interpretation just as was that soothsayer—such a work must question its origins—i.e., is the self a social construct (and if the social construct in question is a conflicted one, is society responsible? And if so, in what way? And what kind of self can a responsible society hope to create?), or is it a psychological construct only (i.e., something to do with the supposed nature of psyche only), or is it a metaphysical and religious given (i.e., is a deity responsible?). My work constantly questions itself on these matters—I don’t see how it could have been missed by anyone truly concerned to read it truly. That is why I am always so bewildered by criticisms that my poem is merely “confessional” or merely “autobiographical” or merely an exaltation and/or debasement of self by itself. I come out of the Stanislavsky method, Todd, that is why I am concerned with truth and with questions of self, and as a poet it is why I feel it necessary that a reader know just who this “poet” thinks he was and is being. Ergo, my work stoops to tell a little story about a six year old American boy growing into a man and into an old man; but the story is only part of the poem. This of course brings up the question of narrative, but let’s leave that aside for now; it’s all so tiring. (They’re essentially the same question.)


You talk of “pure charge.” Pure charge is the meaning. In a poem, there is no other saying. What is said and how charged it is said are the same thing. As in life, the generosity and intensity of your love is that love, there is no separating them from it. A poem is not an abstraction. It is a product of the body. It is not the fingerprint. It is the fingertip. No poem goes beyond meaning. Meaning is the body. Yr body.

Todd Baron graduated from New College (studying under Robert Duncan, Michael Palmer, Diane Di Prima, et.al) in 1989 with an MA in Poetics. As Yet, his tenth book, will be published by Chax Press this year. He co founded Littoral Books (now defunct) at the utmost urging of Lee Hickman in 1990.

many thanks to todd baron for providing this excerpt.

1 comment:

Maxim Ludwig and The Santa Fe Seven said...

wonderous look into two more than important poets' correspondence.

Thank you
falls down the stairs
That looks at one and speaks
tv eye