Tarn, Nathaniel

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TARN, Nathaniel

Nationality: American. Born: Paris, France, 30 June 1928. Education: Cambridge University, B.A. (honors) 1948, M.A. 1952; Sorbonne and École des Hautes Études, Paris, Cert. C.F.R.E.; University of Chicago, M.A. 1952, Ph.D. 1957; London School of Economics; School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Family: Divorced: two children; married Janet Rodney in 1981. Career: Has worked as an anthropologist in Guatemala, Alaska, and Burma. Former member of the faculty, University of Chicago, and University of London; visiting professor, State University of New York, Buffalo, and Princeton University, New Jersey, 1969–70; professor of comparative literature, 1970–85, and since 1985 emeritus professor, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey; visiting professor, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1976, and Jilin University, China, 1982. General editor, Cape Editions, and director, Cape Goliard publishers, London, 1967–69. Awards: Guinness prize, 1963; Wenner Gren fellowship, 1978, 1980; Commonwealth of Pennsylvania fellowship, 1984; Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, 1988. Address: P.O. Box 8187, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87504, U.S.A.



Old Savage/Young City. London, Cape, 1964; New York, Random House, 1965.

Penguin Modern Poets 7, with Richard Murphy and Jon Silkin. London, Penguin, 1966.

Where Babylon Ends. London, Cape Goliard Press, and New York, Grossman, 1968.

The Beautiful Contradictions. London, Cape Goliard Press, 1969; New York, Random House, 1970.

October: A Sequence of Ten Poems Followed by Requiem Pro Duabus Filiis Israel. London, Trigram Press, 1969.

The Silence. Milan, M'Arte, 1970.

A Nowhere for Vallejo: Choices, October. New York, Random House, 1971; London, Cape, 1972.

Lyrics for the Bride of God: Section: The Artemision. Santa Barbara, California, Tree, 1973.

The Persephones. Santa Barbara, California, Tree, 1974.

Lyrics for the Bride of God. New York, New Directions, and London, Cape, 1975.

Narrative of This Fall. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1975.

The House of Leaves. Santa Barbara, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1976.

From Alashka: The Ground of Our Great Admiration of Nature, with Janet Rodney. London, Permanent Press, 1977.

The Microcosm. Milwaukee, Membrane Press, 1977.

Birdscapes, with Seaside. Santa Barbara, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1978.

The Forest, with Janet Rodney. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1978.

Atitlan/Alashka: New and Selected Poems, with Janet Rodney. Boulder, Colorado, Brillig Works Press, 1979.

The Land Songs. Plymouth, Blue Guitar, 1981.

Weekends in Mexico. London, Oxus Press, 1982.

The Desert Mothers. Grenada, Mississippi, Salt Works Press, 1984.

At the Western Gates. Santa Fe, Tooth of Time, 1985.

Palenque: Selected Poems 1972–1984. London and Plymouth, Devon, Oasis/Shearsman Press, 1986.

Seeing America First. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1989.

The Mothers of Matagalpa. London, Oasis, 1989.

Flying the Body. Los Angeles, Arundel Press, 1993.

Caja del Rio. Tucson, Arizona, Chax Press, 1993.

The Architextures 1–7: The Man of Music. Sherman Oaks, California, Ninja Press, 1999.

The Architextures 1–70. Tucson, Arizona, Chax Press, 2000.

Three Letters from the City: The St. Petersburg Poems 1968–1998. Santa Fe, New Mexico, Weaselsleeves Press, 2000.

Recordings: I Think This May Be Eden, Spoken Engine, 1994.


Views from the Weaving Mountain: Selected Essays in Poetics & Anthropology. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1991.

Scandals in the House of Birds: Shamans and Priests on Lake Atitlan. New York, Marsilio, 1997.

Editor and Translator with others, Con Cuba: An Anthology of Cuban Poetry of the Last Sixty Years. London, Cape Goliard Press, and New York, Grossman, 1969.

Editor and Translator with others, Selected Poems: A Bilingual Edition, by Pablo Neruda. London, Cape, 1970; New York, Delacorte Press, 1972.

Editor, Multitude of One, by Natasha Tarn. New York, Grenfell Press, 1994.

Translator, The Heights of Macchu Picchu, by Pablo Neruda. London, Cape, 1966; New York, Farrar Straus, 1967.

Translator, Stelae, by Victor Segalen. Santa Barbara, California, Unicorn Press, 1969.

Translator, Zapotec Struggles, edited by Howard Campbell et al. Washington D.C., Smithsonian Institute Press, 1993.


Bibliography: Nathaniel Tarn: A Descriptive Bibliography by Lee Bartlett, Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland, 1987.

Critical Studies: In Le Belle Contradizzioni, Milan, Munt Press, 1973; "Nathaniel Tarn Symposium" in Boundary 2 (Binghamton, New York), fall 1975; "The House of Leaves" by A. Kingsley Weatherhead, in Credences 4 (Kent, Ohio), 1977; by Ted Enslin and Rochelle Ratner, in American Book Review 2 (New York), 5, 1980; Translating Neruda by John Felstiner, Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 1980; "America As Desired: Nathaniel Tarn's Poetry of the Outsider As Insider" by Doris Sommer, in American Poetry I (Albuquerque), 4, 1984; "Il Mito come Metalinguaggio nella Poesia de Nathaniel Tarn" by Fedora Giordano, in Letteratura d'America (Rome), 5(22), 1984; by George Economu, in Sulfur (Ypsilanti, Michigan), 14, 1985; by Gene Frumkin, in Artspace (Albuquerque), 10(1), 1985; in Talking Poetry, Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1987, and The Sun Is But a Morning Star: Studies in West Coast Poetry and Poetics, Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1989, both by Lee Bartlett; "Nathaniel Tarn: The Body As River," in Poetry Flash (San Francisco), 227, 1992; "Bringing the World to Little England: Cape Editions, Cape Goliard and Poetry in the Sixties" by Shamoon Zamir, in Comparative Criticism (England), 19, 1997; Nathaniel Tarn section in Xcp (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 5, 1999.

Nathaniel Tarn comments:

The primary question today concerns the survivability of poetry. We must look for it not in the horizontal deployment of an ever shrinking population of readers at any given historical moment but in a vertical time-depth, poetry surviving as a diachronic passage of culture from one generation of readers to another. For me such time-depth is literally without limit. I take at face value the idea that poetry, whenever it truly inhabits any one of us, reaches back to whatever we can envisage as the beginning of all and any time, encompassing the poetry voiced by any human from that beginning onward.

Further, as poet—and anthropologist used to the notion of all good coming from the ancestors—I think of the poet's virtually sole important function as being that of a carrier of a vocal link between the living and the dead, speaking with the living as the orators of the dead and addressing the dead on the part of all life in return. The time-bound voices of any given set of the living in this model would be but the very briefest of flashes in the cosmic pan.

In study, work, and personal life Buddhist philosophy has always been a guiding light. I am suggesting that, ideotypically, the pure time-space of poetry can be taken as the breathed or voiced component of a reach for wisdom—many would call it a path—in which nothing need be lost and everything can be recuperated at any moment and at any place in the practice of a constant and summarily attentive presence.

It follows that poetry can only be obliterated if the human is obliterated and that, unless this latter circumstance were to occur, there can be no fear whatsoever of poetry ever being lost. Nor, I hope, need it be pointed out that such a view categorically does not lift poetry out of our daily life into some woolly or smoky divine empyrean; on the contrary, it affords poetry the very best vantage point from which to survey all politics from the cosmic to the regional and local, no subject in any time or space whatsoever being alien to it.

I have always argued for three levels of operation of the poetic voice. First, a surface level, the "vocal," involves the individual poet's voice qua individual, and as we know from the present scene, that level is enormously competitive. Should a poet remain at that level, there can be no access whatsoever to the vantage point I have described. Next, it is usually held that under the individual voice lies a silence out of which that voice emerges; this I would take as the second level of operation. But it is not a primordial silence, for under it, in turn, there seems to be some kind of third level that, for want of a better term, I call the "choral." The easiest way to describe this level is to refer to a sense many have that the truer they are being in referring to themselves, the more their voice appears to sound like the voice of all. This level, then, is communal, and it is the absolute opposite of competitive. One way of speaking of this might be to posit that on level one the self acts in reciprocity to others, on level two in reciprocity to self, and on level three in nonreciprocity, reciprocity dying out since where there is no self there can be no other.

My model goes on to postulate that, in fact, one cannot reside or dwell in either level one or level three uniquely. Levels one and three are both illusions, reciprocal illusions if you will, the first representing the war of ego or self with others in a babel of voices, the third representing the ideal peace of nonself with all creation. Neither of these by themselves are possibilities for long, because when you dwell within one, it is impossible even to conceive of the existence of the other, and the process can therefore not be rounded out. In fact, the model eventually proposes silence, the level that initially would seem to be by definition alien to the poet, as the only reality in which poetry can ultimately dwell.

I see specific menaces to the immediate future of poetry. These range from macro-to microsociological issues. Among the first, one might wonder on present evidence whether the promised information highway involving all possible media is not the incarnate reign of quantity over quality. If so, whether it, together with an ever growing attrition of language and a thriving, universally distributed illiteracy, will not seriously endanger the art as we know it. I am not certain either way.

Among the micro issues I also see quantity over quality as the main aspect of the picture. The myth that there can no longer be, in our present state of cultural evolution, any mute, inglorious Miltons falters where quantity drowning out quality can be demonstrated at every turn, both in publishing and in the production and reception of writing. As Kenneth Rexroth pointed out some time ago, you have the choice, past a certain age, between suicide, black hole depression, or a megaton weight of passive aggression on all sides as your only defenses. The intrusion of allegedly "creative" writing into the university since the end of World War II has created and goes on creating a huge quantity of students, all carrying poets' batons in their knapsacks who, once golden youth is over, are doomed—such are the conditions of true poetry as well as conditions in the immediate market—to the most abject disappointment and suffering. It is, alas, the case that where too many laboratory animals are crowded into too small a cage they start lacerating each other. We should cease misleading youth in this way and abolish all writing programs as well as all the cultural bureaucracies that feed off them.

I would also suggest the abolition of all awards and prizes. You may have noticed that the word "poet" no longer exists. We now have "renowned poet," "famous poet," "distinguished poet," "much-awarded poet," "massively prized poet," "interminably honored poet," etc. Like all inflation, this masks a currency devaluation. In a society that does not truly value poetry, the poet disappears behind the award. The award is frantically crying out for an attention no longer freely granted to the poet.

This same intrusion of allegedly "creative" writing into the university has created a situation of intellectual incest rather than marriage. As many have pointed out, poet no longer talks to or listens to anyone else but other poet. The result is that, on the one hand, we have a highly redundant workforce of traditional academic poets servicing the M.F.A. industry and, on the other, an avant-garde rapidly approaching that status in the same academy. In the latter's work a massive crisis of the signified brought about by pathologically devoted self-rapture with the signifier and interminable pottering with contemporary critical theory is in effect rapidly reaching the same dead end as that reached by the traditionalists. Superspecialized technocrats of complexity are bound to suffer the same fate as the dinosaurs.

On a more hopeful note, I would see the continued attention to song in the many elements of the population that refuse to succumb to the domination of the academy, or do not have the means even to attend it, as one reflection of where importance lies. The pluralism and multiculturalism of America—seen not as the United States alone but as the whole continent from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego—may be one of our choicest guarantees that the immediate future is more enticing than it looks from these perspectives.

*  *  *
I remember on the shores of the most beautiful lake in
the world
whose name in its own language means abundance of waters
as if the volcanoes surrounding it had broken open the earth
there in the village of Saint James of Compostela one
cold night
not the cereus-scented summer nights in which a voice I
never traced
sang those heartbreaking serenades to no one known
a visiting couple gave birth in the market place
the father gnawing the cord like a rat to free the child
and before leaving in the morning they were given the
freedom of the place
I mean the child was given

A child of nowhere, Nathaniel Tarn has been given, and has given himself, a freedom of place that is rare among contemporary poets. Anglo-French by birth, a dual citizen, his childhood was bilingual, and he was educated on both sides of the English Channel. In the 1950s and 1960s he had a short career as a self-described "25th-rate" French surrealist poet and a more successful run as an up-and-coming young English poet, becoming associated with the so-called Group as well as editor of the extraordinary Cape editions. Furthermore, he was an anthropologist, a student of Claude Lévi-Strauss in Paris and Robert Redfield in Chicago, writing monographs on the Atitlán region of Guatemala. He was also a Buddhist scholar and author of, among other writings, a book on the monastic politics of Burma. In 1970 Tarn followed his literary affinities and moved to the United States, where he became an American poet and citizen. As an anthropologist he continued to write on Guatemala and as a Buddhist scholar to be involved with the Tibetan diaspora.

This range of Tarn's is mirrored in four major book-length poems: in a poetry of place in which the place is always changing (The Beautiful Contradictions); a love poetry in which the object of desire undergoes countless transformations (Lyrics for the Bride of God); a deeply personal poetry that the poet allows to be spoken by others (A Nowhere for Vallejo), a collage of lines and invented lines by the Peruvian poet, in Spanish and English translation, mingled with the voice of Tarn—and From Alashka, written with Janet Rodney, perhaps the century's only collaborative poem that does not identify the individual contributions. Moreover the poetry has, in the poet's words, frequent "unconscious thrusts, sudden irruptions into the body of the work, almost like spirit-cult possessions," in which the poet speaks in other voices and sometimes other languages.

What holds this together is Tarn's ecstatic vision, his continuing enthusiasm for the stuff of the world. It is a poetry whose native tongue is myth, and it rolls out in long lines of sacred hymns that oscillate between the demotic and the hieratic (as heir to Christopher Smart and Blake, to Whitman and the Neruda of The Heights of Macchu Picchu, which he translated) and sequences of short poems, small, linked bursts of sharp image and speech (tying Tarn to Williams and contemporary practitioners like Snyder and Kelly).

Since the death of Kenneth Rexroth, Tarn is the major celebrant of heterosexual love in the language. His combination of ingenious metaphor and sexual exuberance has not been heard in English since the seventeenth century. (Indeed, much of Tarn's American work may be read as an epic elaboration of Donne's erotic geography of the "new found land.") Like Rexroth, he is the author of travel narratives that restore the adjective "readable" to poetry. And like Rexroth and MacDiarmid, his poetry encompasses Eastern philosophy, world myth, revolutionary politics, and precise descriptions of the natural world. (His poems are filled with birds.)

Not an exile longing for the abandoned home but a nomad longing for the idea of home, Tarn exemplifies the American condition and the Jewish condition. Tarn, both American and Jewish, has declared that sparagmos ("the falling to pieces /the tearing to pieces /of the world as body") is "the inescapable theme of our time." (He can at times be as indignant as Pound at the destroyers of culture and of the wilderness.) His poetry, along with that of few others, sets course for a mythical unity—the hierosgamos, marriage of earth and sky, when history will be forever in the present tense, somewhere will be everywhere, and the author everyone:

			...that the branch may break
that the long voyage may end for the planet
and the furthest point of death be returned from
the separation into dead and live
summer and winter, and only green be seen above ground
    that he might go home

—Eliot Weinberger