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Harvard Authors Spotlight: Kevin Holden ’05 Asks More of Language

Cover of Kevin Holden's "Pink Noise."
Cover of Kevin Holden's "Pink Noise." By Courtesy of Nightboat Books
By Isabella B. Cho, Crimson Staff Writer

Kevin B. Holden ’05 still recalls the moment he first read T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” For many students of literature, the poem stands as a towering testament to the modernist tradition. But for Holden, the attachment went deeper than intellectual appreciation — there was something that drew him viscerally to the uncommon energy of the text, even as an adolescent.

“I was sitting in a chair by the window, and it was snowing,” he says. “It felt very, very powerful. It made sense to me somehow, linguistically, the way that it worked.”

He shifts in his chair on the top floor of the library of Kirkland House, where he is a tutor. Fittingly, the cramped room is surrounded by books. “It’s sort of magical,” he says of Eliot’s verse. “There’s something strange and elegant, and the subjectivity is fractured in different ways.”

All these years later, fractured subjectivity remains a staple in Holden’s literary taste. His favorite novelist is Virginia Woolf. He admires modernism — Joyce, Faulkner, and Beckett, to name a few. One of the reasons, as he came to realize as he delved further into his literary studies at the College and beyond, was because those novels exhibited the kind of experimentation and inventiveness closest to the way language works in poetry.

“The kind of fragmentation, the experimentation with grammar, the lyricism — it’s highly musical. Image-driven,” he says. “It’s about constant consciousness, not as much about narrative. To this day, that just remains the case.”

Holden is now a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, a program that provides three-year fellowships to scholars of exceptional promise at the beginning of their careers. After studying Literature at the College, Holden went on to earn graduate degrees from Yale University, Cambridge University, and the University of Iowa. He is the author of seven poetry books and chapbooks, the latest of which is “Pink Noise.”

Reading many genres of books, including novels, comes inevitably with the terrain of Holden’s line of work. His heart, though, has always been with poetry.

“I just feel so much more drawn to the way that language itself works in poetry,” he says. “It works in different kinds of poetry differently, for sure. But the kind of particularity of language, the kind of tactility or texture of language. Certainly the musicality, the sound, and, just frankly, the way that it makes meaning.”

If there is one word that could capture the ambition of Holden’s poetry, it would be tactility. Holden is not interested in assembling the aesthetically pleasing arrangements that are currently in vogue. At once remarkably practical and abstract in his poems, he evokes organic materials from the natural world to make sense of the ways we live and bring new language to experiences of desire and change.

At once venerated and misunderstood, poetry is commonly critiqued as a genre that is out of touch, ensconced in an opacity that makes access difficult. Holden is no stranger to this strain of skepticism. Rather than turn away from it, he advocates for a reframing of the language used to describe poems that challenge us.

Holden is not a fan, for instance, of the term “difficult poetry.” Rather, he opts for “complexity.” After all, it is precisely the sort of inventive complexity that can result in the most faithful reflections of reality.

“When people say something’s very difficult, it often suggests that they’re basically taking interpretive models that are applicable to other forms of discourse or language — like understanding an article — and then applying those same kinds of metrics of thinking into objects that, by definition, elude those modes of thinking,” he says. “It’s kind of a category error. What happens is that you’re looking for a kind of parsable meaning where there might not be.”

The poems of “Pink Noise” reflect this commitment to complexity as a vehicle to grasp realism. The poems also demonstrate a keen interest in the philosophical dimensions of empirical disciplines like math and science.

This interdisciplinarity has followed Holden since his undergraduate years. (In fact, he briefly considered concentrating in Physics at Harvard.) As someone who appreciates the expressive forms present in both the humanities and the sciences, he finds the conventional wall between them artificial.

“Things in math and things in poetry and things in painting are all grasping dimensions of reality, right?” he says. “They do not need to be separated.”

“The intersection of those things seems accurate to something in the nature of reality,” Holden adds. “That’s what poetry for me is, which is maybe a little bit rare. It’s somehow trying to map or open up something in reality.”

—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at isabella.cho@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.

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