Michael Palmer

Portrait Michael Palmer
© Hartwig Klappert

Michael Palmer was born in New York City in 1943.  He studied Comparative Literature at Harvard University and settled in San Francisco in 1969.  As an undergraduate Palmer collaborated with Clark Coolidge in publishing the magazine ‘Joglars’. His first volume of poetry, ‘Plan of the City of O’, appeared in 1971. Palmer obtained fellowships from the Literature Program of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He won the America Award for Poetry for ‘At Passages’ (1995).  In 2006 he received the Wallace Stevens Award of the Academy of American Poets.  Palmer has also gained prominence as an editor and translator of Brazilian, French and Russian poetry. His own works have been translated into more than 20 languages.  The poet has often collaborated with composers and performers. Margaret Jenkins has teamed up with him on more than 12 dance theatre projects since 1974. He also wrote radio dramas and essays, and completed a volume of prose, ‘The Danish Notebook’, in 1998.  After the volumes of poetry ‘The Promises of Glass’ (2000) and ‘Codes Appearing’ (2001) his latest collection of poems is ‘Company of Moths’ (2005).  Palmer is one of the publishers of the magazine ‘Sulfur’. He teaches and lectures at many colleges and universities in the United States and Europe.

At first glance, Michael Palmer’s poetry is disturbing.  Syntax is breached.  Referentiality is denied.  Words are welded and constantly reforged into new, unexpected, apparently absurd units of meaning. Conjunctions lead the reader astray. Any search for meaning seems fruitless.  The literature scholar George Hartley says Palmer’s poetry explores “the syntactical and logical conventions built into our language which serve to define a specific context for a topic.  These conventions – such as parenthesis, apposition, and conjunction – are submitted to a disorienting ‘defamiliarization’, … a constant positing and subverting of context.”

It is the author’s intention to capitalize on the negation of the laws of narrative logic, which initially seems repulsive and sterile, to create a potentially more direct connection between the realities perceived and experienced by himself and those impinging on his reader.  Having observed that, for example, memory is non-linear, Palmer banks on the assumption that poetic language with its complexities, fractures, omissions and circumlocutions has a more immediate impact than a statement which purports to be unambiguous.  “What is taken as a sign of openness – conventional narrative order – may stand for concealment, and what are understood generally as signs of withholding or evasion – ellipsis, periphrasis, etc. – may from another point of view stand for disclosure.”

Translator: Rainer G. Schmidt

© international literature festival berlin