The title essay of your first book of critical essays, Can Poetry Matter? argued that poetry has become “the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group.” To reclaim its rightfully essential place in our culture, poetry must be liberated from the bureaucracy of academia. What has been the reaction to your arguments among poets and critics?
Can Poetry Matter? has generated more discussion than I had ever imagined possible. The original essay and the subsequent book provoked hundreds of essays, articles, editorials, symposia, and reviews as well as television, radio, and information-network commentary. Curiously, the responses have not been limited to America but also came from England, Ireland, Canada, and beyond. The astonishing thing is that most of the reactions have been favorable. I feel that I should stay out of the discussion and get on with my other work. If an author is fortunate enough to have his ideas enter public discourse in a meaningful way, he should remember that his original ideas were only the starting point. The culture itself is now having a conversation, and the writer is now only one voice among many in that ongoing discourse. To instigate a serious discussion on an important subject is the real purpose of criticism. The culture will take the discussion where it needs to go.
If the reception of Can Poetry Matter? taught me anything, it was to appreciate the complexity of literary culture, which is a collective enterprise involving thousands of writers, teachers, critics, editors, publishers, librarians, booksellers, and arts administrators—as well as innumerable readers. The failure of contemporary academic criticism and literary theory originates in its assumption that literary culture centers on the university. Culture is not an institution; it is an ecosystem, composed of many independent but interrelated entities. The university’s self-absorption has ultimately led to all sorts of blind spots and distortions, most notably the curious cultural paradox I described in my Atlantic essay—America’s thriving, institutionalized poetry subculture that is increasingly removed both from the society around it and the art it professes to serve.
Off the record, you’ve commented that you have been criticized by reviewers for statements you never made and ideas you never advanced. Would you comment for the record?
Whenever a book attracts as much attention as Can Poetry Matter?, there are bound to be distortions. Once the public picks up on a particular set of ideas, it naturally turns them to its own end. I would be naive to complain about the predictable consequences of notoriety. One may dislike being misrepresented, but as Oscar Wilde observed, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” All artists are vain—even poet-critics. I do, however, insist that my views are better represented by what I have published in books and essays than by what a reviewer, columnist, or feature writer claims I believe. I am astonished by some of the things people mistakenly assume I have said—like “Poetry is now a dead art,” “Free verse is a bankrupt technique,” “No one reads contemporary poetry,” or “All Creative Writing Programs should be shut down.” I admit that last dictum is tempting, but I have always suggested reforming these programs, not destroying them. I suspect many critics project their own fears and desires into their image of me. It is easier to declare me a demon than address the points I raise.
Can you give a specific example of an incorrect claim?
One consistent misreading of Can Poetry Matter?—by both its defenders and detractors—is that I crave a mass audience for contemporary poetry. I have even been cited as equating the size of a poet’s readership with his or her literary merit. Not only have I never said such a thing, I explicitly reject these notions in the book. Of course, I wish that poetry had a larger audience in the United States. What poet, critic, or educator does not share that desire? But, for the record, let me restate my own beliefs as clearly and succinctly as possible.
The size of American poetry’s audience matters less than the intelligence, engagement, and diversity of its readership. The problem with contemporary American “high-art” poetry is not so much that its audience is small (which, alas, it is) but that its core readership is distressingly homogeneous. The voluntary audience of serious contemporary poetry consists mainly of poets, would-be poets, and a few critics. Additionally, there is a slightly larger involuntary and ephemeral audience consisting of students who read contemporary poetry as assigned coursework. In sociological terms, it is surely significant that most members of the poetry subculture are literally paid to read poetry: most established poets and critics now work for large educational institutions. Over the last half century literary bohemia has been replaced by an academic bureaucracy.
The main problem with the audience for American poetry originates in the uniformity and professional inbreeding of this coterie audience. Now, it is important that I explain this last point carefully since it can easily be misunderstood. There is nothing wrong with a poet teaching. What better teacher of literature can there be than an engaged writer? The problem starts when all the poets and critics in a culture teach—when, in other words, they all belong to the same professional network, when, in fact, they are mostly state or municipal employees—like police or postal workers. The pressures of institutional life gradually undermine their intellectual and artistic independence. Or, to state the problem in another way, we live in a society where not only do ordinary people not read poetry, but even most novelists, dramatists, and literary critics no longer read it. An art that speaks only to its own practitioners is a diminished enterprise.
“Can Poetry Matter?” set off lively, at times vitriolic, debate nationwide, particularly in the MFA programs whose mediocrity and insularity you decry. Is Dana Gioia popular on campus?
I am mostly a persona non grata on campus. The university is an institution, and one thing institutions hate—be they academic, military, or industrial—is criticism from the outside. I have been amused by how wildly rancorous and passionately loony some of the professorial attacks on me have been. They remind me of nothing so much as 1950’s Southern Baptist preachers denouncing rock ‘n roll. Unfortunately, these cultural ministers don’t know much more about the real content of my work than their predecessors knew about Little Richard. They just know listening to us is dangerous to their flocks.
I have, of course, also found many eloquent defenders on campus. The university is not a monolith. There are still many independent-minded teachers and writers who keenly understand how troubled both Creative Writing and the academic study of literature has become. They appreciated that Can Poetry Matter? is not an anti-university tirade. It is a book that critiques some specific problems in current academic literary study, especially in Creative Writing programs, anthologies, and poetry reviewing, and then suggests—rather tentatively, in fact—some basic reforms. For all its legendary ferocity, Can Poetry Matter? is really a rather gentle and open-handed book. Candid and pointed, yes, but never cruel.
Mona Van Duyn, in a 1993 lecture delivered at the Library of Congress, takes issue with your thesis that poetry is a captive of university writing programs, and argues that poetry is evident everywhere in the mainstream of culture. She goes on to say that the question you should have asked is “why, in America, poetry matters so much to so many people, particularly their own poetry.” Should you have asked this question, or is yours the right one?
Mona Van Duyn has raised an interesting issue. In America the only poetry today that matters to many writers is their own. Like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants, the poetry is written and published for the benefit of the author not the reader. Van Duyn’s observation reflects both the narcissism of our culture and the failure of contemporary literary education. Imagine someone trying to become a composer without hearing any music but his or her own. It would be ludicrous. And yet in many Creative Writing courses an analogous situation often exists. Students are asked to write out of their own experience without any disciplined study of first-rate models. Learning to write poetry is no less difficult than mastering any art. You can’t write well without reading widely and deeply. A person who reads only his or her own work—and we all know individuals like this—does not deserve the title poet. Such a person is, at best, a diarist, at worst, a poseur. So, I disagree with Van Duyn. I don’t consider people concerned with their own personal effusions proof of poetry’s importance to America. I consider it more evidence of our society’s growing ignorance and narcissism.
In “Can Poetry Matter?” you propose an agenda for change in the form of “six modest proposals” which poets, teachers, and arts administrators should implement to renew public interest in poetry as a vital and thriving art form. Are you a crusader seeking to convert or a teacher seeking to enlighten? And if you are a teacher, why aren’t you in academia?
Am I hopelessly old-fashioned to believe that not all teaching is done in the classroom? I consider my essays, reviews, and anthologies as a type of teaching—an engaged and open conversation with a reader. I occasionally teach in universities on a visiting basis, but I have decided a make a living as a writer rather than an academic. Teaching is both a great pleasure and a great privilege, but it is easier to be candid and independent if one is an outsider.
As for whether I am “a crusader seeking to convert,” I think not. What would I convert people to? Poetry is not a creed or dogma. It is a special way of speaking and listening. Poetry is an art that stretches back to the origins of human civilization, primal and essential art that is endangered in the modern world. I am not ashamed to admit that I love poetry. The art has given me immeasurable pleasure, consolation, and enlightenment. Nor am I ashamed to say that I consider poetry important enough to argue over passionately and to defend. A society that loses its ability to hear and value poetry is a diminished thing, a culture that has lost part of its full human potential. My role as a critic has been mostly to insist that poetry still deserves a role in public culture. If that conviction constitutes a crusade, then I am guilty of tilting at a few windmills.
You have described Longfellow as “the most popular American poet who ever lived.” Yet you also note that he, along with Whittier and others, has become a poet one must know of but not one to read; critics do not simply neglect him, but dismiss his entire aesthetic enterprise. The villain is Modernism, which you say “by prizing compression, intensity, complexity, and ellipsis . . . cultivated an often hermetic aesthetic inimical to narrative poetry.” What is the importance of the narrative form to contemporary verse?
When poets stopped telling stories, they not only lost a substantial portion of their audience; they also considerably narrowed the imaginative possibilities of their art. As long as there have been poets, those poets told stories. These stories were rarely about their own lives but about imagined lives—drawn from myth, legend, history or current events. The source scarcely mattered as long as the poet vividly reimagined them for the reader. From Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Attar, Firdausi, Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Camoes, Spenser, LaFontaine, Milton, Goethe, Pope, Pushkin, Byron, Longfellow, Mickiewicz up to Frost and Jeffers, the history of poetry was inextricably bound with the history of narrative—until, that is, about seventy years ago. Modernism, which grew out of Symbolism, was primarily interested in exploring the expressive possibilities of the lyric mode. American Modernism especially prized compression, intensity, indirection, and allusion. Not surprisingly, the movement had little use for the expansive and mostly linear nature of narrative. That mode was best left to middlebrow novelists and the movies. I won’t condemn Modernism’s rejection of narrative because the movement produced some of the greatest poetry written in our language. All artistic movements make decisions on what to explore and what to ignore. If they produce great art, one must concede they made the proper choices.
Now that Modernism is dead, however, the problems with its bias toward the lyric mode have become obvious. No Modernist masterpieces have been produced for decades. The avant-garde is moribund. But the American arts establishment, especially in the visual and literary arts, still passively accepts most of Modernism’s tenets. Even in the 1960’s when contemporary poets first returned to the narrative mode, they made a crucial mistake under the influence of Modernism. They tried to recreate poetic narrative out of an autobiographical lyric “I” rather than the invented third-person. The Confessional aesthetic that resulted exhausted itself artistically within five years, but it continued to be the mainstream style of American poetry for the next three decades. The recent return to narrative is one of the crucial changes now transforming American poetry. This broadscale shift in sensibility represents perhaps the surest evidence that Modernism is now an irretrievably dead period style, despite the cosmetic expertise of the embalmers of academe like poor Marjorie Perloff who naively believe in an eternal avant-garde.
Is there any way to escape the artistic claustrophobia of the poetry subculture?
There must be an escape for poetry to survive as a meaningful public art. I would maintain that the history of post-war American poetry has been a series of escape attempts from its internment in the English Department. What seemingly dissimilar literary movements like the Beats, Feminists, Confessionals, Anti-Vietnam writers, Black Consciousness poets, New Formalists, New Narrative, and Men’s Movement all have in common is their determination to reestablish poetry’s link with the broader culture. Whatever one thinks of each movement’s artistic success, they are united in their initial eschewal of critical fashion—even if almost every group was soon tamed and brought back into the academy.
In the conclusion to “Can Poetry Matter?” you assert that it’s “time to restore a vulgar vitality to poetry.” Exactly what do you mean? Aren’t we vulgar enough?
When I asked for more “vulgar vitality” in our poetry, I used the word vulgar in its root sense, which means “of the people.” The best American poetry of the last few decades has too often been paralyzed by its own sophistication. There is nothing wrong about academics and intellectuals writing poetry. The problems begin when they start writing primarily for one another. Academic art has the tendency to become too knowing and self-conscious. Poetry is not a branch of analytical philosophy. It is a primal, holistic kind of human communication. A poet needs innocence as much as knowledge, emotion as much as intelligence, vulnerability as much as rigor. A poet can become too smart for his or her own good and forget the childlike pleasures of sound and story, sense, and sensuality that poetry should provide. The challenge for a writer is to master the medium of poetry without losing that inner innocence.
Do you remember the early Italian Renaissance when academic poets wrote in an artificially reconstructed classical Latin rather than the vulgar Italian of the streets? (They didn’t even write in the Church Latin that monks and schoolmasters spoke—it was too declassé.) None of that carefully contrived work survived. What we read today is the poetry of the vulgate by Dante, Boccaccio, Cavalcanti, and Petrarch, which we now realize was more truly sophisticated than the verse of the sophisticates because it created an imaginative dialectic that embraced the high, the middle, and the low in its aesthetic. Isn’t that range one reason why we consider Shakespeare our greatest author in English? I am not asking for poetry of the commonplace. I am asking for art powerful and comprehensive enough to reflect the full range of human experience and desires.
In your essay “Tradition and an Individual Talent,” you align yourself with T.S. Eliot on the dynamic interrelation between the contemporary poet and his antecedents. You use the work of Donald Justice to demonstrate how tradition plays a crucial role in achieved modern verse. You say Justice “understands the sustaining power of tradition without seeking to stifle innovation and experiment.”
Tradition has become such a loaded word that one can hardly use it today without being misunderstood. One hears it employed mostly as a code word to signal a reactionary defense or radical attack on some body of work. But, as an artist, I see tradition as something quite different from a fixed or oppressive canon. It is neither static nor prescriptive Tradition is a vast, living landscape we have inherited—so rich and varied that not only do we constantly discover new aspects of it but the places we revisit always seem slightly different. In art, there is no absolute break between the past and present. One grows naturally out of the other. Moreover, once a new work is written, it exists in an eternal present tense with all the works of the past; and by finding its own place, each new work slightly changes everything around it. The heroic bluster of Romanticism and early Modernism makes it easy to forget that no artist exists in isolation. Art is a collective enterprise embracing past and present, artists and audience. There is also no single past. Artists choose their own predecessors, and great artists reconfigure the traditions to which they belong.
Post-modernism looks on tradition as a huge library in which the contemporary artist roams borrowing things from this source or that. All of the past is available, but none of it needs to be taken too seriously. Art becomes collage—all intertextuality and allusion—and the artist is less a creator than an editor. Needless to say, such a theory could only have been promoted by professors. What the Post-modernist aesthetic misses is the utter necessity for art to have integrity and authenticity. Whatever the artist borrows from the past must be completely integrated into a new whole, and the artist can only create that new entity by completely assimilating the material inside his or her own psyche. The process of assimilation always transforms the past into something different. Virgil scrupulously modeled his Aeneid on Homer but nonetheless created an extraordinarily original poem—because every borrowing was transformed by his sensibility. Tradition is not, as post-modernists maintain, a library or museum the artist plunders. It is the endless conversation between the living and the dead. Young artists enter into this conversation passionately—not merely intellectually, though study and analysis play a part. They live and breathe it. Tradition is not a public building. It is a love affair.
Critically, you are considered a champion of formal verse and poetically, a chief figure in the “New Formalist” movement. Yet unlike many formalists, you make quite clear that this is merely a descriptive term and does not imply a value judgment of any particular work. What are the criteria for good formal verse?
The form of a poem—be it in meter or free verse—must grow naturally out of its substance. The form and meaning are not merely inseparable; the form is an essential (if often ineffable) part of a poem’s meaning. If the form seems mere decoration, if it appears arbitrary or excessive, if it calls attention to itself in ways that do not deepen the overall impact of the work, then the form is being used badly. The formal elements have not been successfully integrated into the totality of the work. This disjunction is not only a problem with bad poetry in traditional forms; it is a common failing of avant-garde art where technique often either becomes an end in itself or—more commonly—extreme styles are employed to mask banal content.
Poetry is an art form that demands heightened attention and retention. It both invites and rewards more intense involvement than we normally give to other kinds of speech. Poetic technique, therefore, is never esoteric but eminently practical. It serves at least two purposes. First, it announces that a poem differs from other kinds of speech, that it requires the audience’s special attention. A poem begins by attracting our attention through its sound, shape, typography, syntax, texture, or tone. Second, the technique maintains the audience’s involvement. All poetic form is a way of keeping the audience’s attention beyond what ordinary language requires. Meter, for example, creates a gentle trance state in the auditor. Since poetry is more intense, condensed, and expressive than ordinary language, it needs these techniques to carry the burden of its message.
The form of any poem is an ad hoc contract between author and audience. The poet sets down the principles by which the work will unfold and asks the reader or auditor to pay special attention. For that reason, a poet must keep up his or her side of the contract. To change the rules midway for no compelling reason, to fudge the form when it becomes too demanding, to merely approximate the terms of the contact, is intolerable when the audience is giving each word heightened attention. If a poet asks the audience to surrender to the terms of a poem, the author cannot abuse that trust. A poem that meaninglessly disregards those principles is a bad formal poem.
How does that differ from what you term “pseudo-formal” poetry?
“Pseudo-formal” verse is a term that I coined to describe a common type of bad contemporary poem. It is a poem that employs formal principles so sloppily that they have no integrity. The lines appear roughly similar but lack the energy that regular rhythm gives. Pseudo-formal poems may be arranged in regular stanzas, but on close examination the visual form has no integral relation to the sound. A good poem rewards scrutiny. The closer one looks at any formal element in a pseudo-formal poem, the more arbitrary or imperfect it appears. Nothing survives close examination. It’s just language chopped up into a vaguely regular shape without sufficient attention to sound or structure. It is neither good formal verse or good free verse—just a superficial pretense. And isn’t one of the big problems with so much contemporary poetry that it’s carelessly written and pretentiously presented?
You have said that formalism is only one response to the troubling situation of contemporary poetry What are some other major trends?
Over the last fifteen years American poetry has changed from a visual to an auditory art. This shift is of paramount importance because it ultimately determines both how the author shapes a literary work and how an audience perceives it. The change is apparent throughout the poetry world, although few mainstream critics seem to have noticed it yet. It should be obvious to anyone, for example, that the primary means of publication for new American verse is now oral—namely the poetry reading. Poets reach many more people through readings than they do through books, and their direct experience with the audience affects how they write. Meanwhile there has been a reemergence of popular poetry—like rap, cowboy poetry, slam poetry, and performance poetry—that is primarily oral. Some of it is even quasi-improvisatory and it exists only as oral performance. These new poetries do not necessarily contain individual works of great artistic significance. But collectively they reveals huge change in literary sensibility.
There has also been the revival of formal and narrative poetry. Rhyme, meter, and storytelling all have evident appeal to the ear. The recent resurgence reflects the broader shift in our culture away from the printed words and back to the spoken word. Although many aspects of this change should rightly worry literary intellectuals, the shift is not an entirely bad thing for poets. Poetry, after all, is an art form that pre-dates literacy. It is not impossible to imagine that it will outlive mass literacy as well.
Do you have a vision for the role of poetry in the 21st Century?
My vision for the future of American poetry is of an art that is rooted in the great literature of the past, but understands that tradition is necessarily a dynamic process—the past enriches the present, but does not restrict it. I want a poetry that can learn as much from popular culture as from serious culture. A poetry that seeks the pleasure and emotionality of the popular arts without losing the precision, concentration, and depth that characterize high art. I want a literature that addresses a diverse audience distinguished for its intelligence, curiosity, and imagination rather than its professional credentials. I want a poetry that risks speaking to the fullness of our humanity, to our emotions as well as to our intellect, to our senses as well as our imagination and intuition. Finally I hope for a more sensual and physical art—closer to music, film, and painting than to philosophy or literary theory. Contemporary American literary culture has privileged the mind over the body. The soul has become embarrassed by the senses. Responding to poetry has become an exercise mainly in interpretation and analysis. Although poetry contains some of the most complex and sophisticated perceptions ever written down, it remains an essentially physical art tied to our senses of sound and sight. Yet, contemporary literary criticism consistently ignores the sheer sensuality of poetry and devotes its considerable energy to abstracting it into pure intellectualization. Intelligence is an irreplaceable element of poetry, but it needs to be vividly embodied in the physicality of language. We must—as artists, critics, and teachers—reclaim the essential sensuality of poetry. The art does not belong to apes or angels, but to us. We deserve art that speaks to us as complete human beings. Why settle for anything less?
The Gods of Winter is dedicated to the memory of your son, Michael Jasper. Has your son’s death redirected your artistic vision?
The sudden death of my first son not only changed my life initially, but it still influences me daily in ways both large and small. Losing him brutally clarified my life. It made me recognize what mattered and what did not. I more or less stopped writing for a year. I no longer saw the point of working towards anything. Until then I had always found solace in writing. During my first ten years in business, I had managed to write almost every night, even after spending twelve hours in the office. I worked every weekend. I gave up a great many things to carve out this time, but this nightly routine sustained me spiritually and creatively. It made my daytime life possible. Then suddenly the world I had so carefully constructed collapsed. My will had snapped. I have never regained the patient discipline or quiet certitude of those years. As I slowly emerged from my pain, I resolved to reshape my life—to build my daily existence on the things I valued most. I proceeded slowly because I wasn’t always sure what I wanted. I made many changes. The most obvious one was leaving a business career I had invested seventeen hard years in building.
How did these changes affect my writing? You may see the influences better than I do. My work has always been dark, but it now became more emotionally direct. Rightly or wrongly, I became impatient with poems that could not bear a certain spiritual weight. I also gradually realized that all lyric poetry is directly or indirectly about mortality. The reason we feel the overwhelming force of a particular moment is that our lives are finite. As Wallace Stevens said, “Death is the mother of beauty.”
One of the book’s more remarkable qualities is the tranquillity and understatement of its poetic meditations. As a poet, and a father who experienced a fatal loss, where does the dividing line fall in your work between the personal and the confessional? Should a poet respect his form over his feelings?
In a good poem there is no division between form and feeling. The form embodies the feeling just as the emotion animates the form. Pure form is lifeless and abstract, pure emotion subjective and incoherent. A madwoman screaming on a street corner has emotions enough for an epic, but she lacks the form to express her interior life clearly to anyone else. I believe that emotion is most keenly felt when it is partially held in check. A poem need not shout to be heard.
As for the poems in The Gods of Winter, there was an additional private concern. I did not want my son remembered by uncontrolled howls of pain. My wife and I suffered more than I can express, but to make poems merely out of the agony would have been self-pitying and dishonest. My son had been my greatest joy. His birth had left me awe-struck and humble before life. He turned me from a son into a father—and allowed me to understand my own father clearly for the first time. If I mourned him, I also wanted to preserve the joyful mystery of his existence. The sorrow could not be adequately appreciated without also expressing the joy and wonder. I wonder if what you perceive as tranquillity isn’t actually two strong and conflicting emotions momentarily holding one another in check.
I saw beyond my daughter to all children,
And, though elated, still I felt confused
Because I wondered why I never sensed
That thrill of joy when looking at adults
No matter how refined or beautiful,
Why lust or envy always intervened.
— from “Counting the Children,” (The Gods of Winter)
I’d like to know if the narrator ever found the answer to this question. Are children innocents in your work? Are adults corrupt?
I’m probably the wrong person to ask. Once an author finishes a poem, he becomes merely another reader. I may remember what I intended to put into a text, but what matters is what a reader actually finds there—which is usually something both more and less than the poet planned. Each reader of “Counting the Children” will have to decide whether the poem adequately answers the father’s quandary. I have never subscribed to the sentimental Romantic notion that children are innocents. I am a Catholic and consider Man’s fallen nature an article of faith. If children are in some sense innocent, they are also greedy, cruel, domineering, self-centered, and temperamental as well as curious, tender, loving, loyal, and ingenious. In other words, children are just like adults, although they have not yet learned to disguise their less attractive impulses. Likewise adults are not necessarily corrupt, but they are almost inevitably weak—sometimes fatally so. Human nature isn’t doomed, but it is nervously balanced between contradictory impulses.
There are chilling undercurrents (and sometimes vivid descriptions, as in “The Homecoming”) of violence in your narrative poems. Why? Is there something about the narrative form which unleashes your violent impulses?
“The Homecoming” is the longest poem I’ve ever written. It took years to finish. “Counting the Children” and “The Room Upstairs” were only slightly less difficult to complete. Writing extended narrative poems is a different proposition than writing shorter lyric poems. A memorable idea is not enough for a narrative poem. Style and sensibility are not enough. A lyric poem articulates the impulse of a moment, but a narrative brings all sorts of other matters to bear. Something crucially important needs to be at stake. Otherwise the story becomes merely anecdotal. A story too boring to tell in prose doesn’t become more interesting told in verse. I could not have worked on “The Homecoming” for so long had it not dealt with actions of mortal consequence.
Why is “The Homecoming” so violent? There was no other way to tell that story truthfully. It is a poem about the power of evil. Violence has become an unavoidable subject for American poets. Too much contemporary poetry is platitudinous, full of blandly uplifting and usually self-congratulatory sentiments. We need darker, more dangerous poetry—not sensational but willing to probe uncomfortable areas.
“Counting the Children” is one of several poems which attempt to reconcile life, death, and immortality. In this poem you wrote about immortality:
. . . we do not possess it in ourselves.
We die, and it abides, and we are one
With all our ancestors, while it divides
Over and over, common to us all
Your view on immortality somewhat resembles your aesthetic position on poetic tradition as an eternal cycle in which contemporary poets and their antecedents are immortally engaged. Is poetry itself an immortal engagement . . . or an existential dilemma?
Genuine poetry always grows out of our basic existential dilemma—our mortality. Our minds have the ability to reach across time to scan the past and ponder the future, but our bodies die. “Counting the Children” is spoken by a Chinese-American narrator. Although born in America, he understands instinctively how deeply his life is rooted in the past—of his family, his heritage, his race. The vision he has at the climax of the poem may seem odd to someone raised in the American traditions of progress and individualism; he sees his destiny as historically determined and collective. For him, immortality is not merely about the future; it is a concept that unites the past, present, and future. His vision is tribal rather than individual. The present is a pivot turning between the past and future.
How do you balance the self-consciousness of writing poetry which emerges from the existential dilemma with the detachment that craft requires?
I’ve always considered my work fairly unselfconscious. In fact, I often don’t know what a poem is really about until years later. I try to keep myself busy with the surface of the poem, so that my unconscious has free play to write the rest. I think of my poems mostly in musical and sensory terms. I want them to be physically arresting—like music or painting. I work obsessively to point and balance the language of my poems. In revising, I consciously shape the rhythm, tone, and texture. I also deliberately look for things to cut out. I rarely know where a poem is going until it is finished. In fact, if I know initially how a poem will end, I lose the impulse to write it.
Where will it end? This grim cycle of workshops
churning out poems for little magazines
no one honestly finds to their taste?
This ever-lengthening column of contributors
scavenging the land for more students
teaching them to write their boot-camp sestinas?
– from “My Confessional Sestina,” The Gods of Winter
This witty poem—a sestina which satirizes sestinas—reiterates some of the points you have made in your criticism about contemporary poetry as an industry, and a banal one at that. Does your awareness of this dismal state of affairs weigh on you when you write poetry?
Absolutely not. The current state of literature is always dismal, and yet literature gloriously survives. Genuine poetry is both more timeless and more timely than the fashions of the moment. Compared to the excitement earlier this century, American poetry does now seem to be in a fin-de-siècle slump. I can’t imagine that even the most indiscriminate cheerleaders of Creative Writing would pretend that we have anything happening at the moment comparable to the ‘Twenties when Frost, Stevens, Eliot, Williams, Moore, Millay, Pound, Jeffers, Ransom, Cummings, MacLeish, Hughes, Crane, and H. D. redefined the art. There had never been a moment like that earlier in American poetry, so it’s probably not surprising that it isn’t recurring now. We have some superb poets writing today, but we no longer have the conviction that our best new writing is also our most innovative.
How does this sense of the culural moment affect my writing? It depends. When I am writing an essay or review, I carefully consider its current context. My opinions and approach grow out of the critical discourse surrounding the subject. Critical prose is necessarily timely and pragmatic. But poetry—at least in my experience—originates and develops differently. When I’m writing a poem, I hardly consider its contemporary context. I am not conversing with current opinion; I am talking with the language and its history. That’s why I can work on a poem for years without feeling it is losing anything essential whereas a critical piece might easily lose its edge. Very few literary essays are readable after a century, but the best poetry still feels fresh.
You seem to feel that contemporary poetry is doomed to mediocrity.
No, just the opposite. I can’t tell you how happy I am when I come across a really splendid new poem in a journal— a poem I know I will reread for the rest of my life. I am especially pleased if it is by an unfamiliar author. I get a physical thrill of excitement and delight. I remember when I heard my first poem by Philip Larkin. It was “Poetry of Departures.” I had no idea who Larkin was then, but I knew immediately that he was the writer I had been looking for—not merely a master but a confidante. Likewise, I vividly recall coming across a set of poems, including “The Garden of Medusa,” by Radcliffe Squires in The Sewanee Review twenty years ago at Stanford. I reread them every day for a month. This electrifying feeling of discovery and kinship reminds me of Larkin’s description of his passion for New Orleans jazz, “On me your voice falls as they say love should, / Like an enormous yes.” I felt that “enormous yes” the first time I read particular poems by Weldon Kees, Ted Kooser, Charles Martin, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, James Fenton, Edward Field, and R. S. Gwynn. It doesn’t happen often. It doesn’t have to. Good poems don’t wear out.
Having proclaimed the death of Modernism in your criticism, what do you, as a poet, do now that Modernism dead?
It would not only be pompous to represent myself in an historical context, it would also be misleading. I never think of literary trends when I’m writing poetry. I didn’t begin working in formal meters as a student twenty years ago because it was fashionable. At the time, rhyme and meter were almost universally despised. I explored meter because it seemed the right way to compose the poems that were haunting my imagination. The same was true of narrative. I wanted to describe certain things that could only be said as stories.
The British poet-critic Donald Davie, who was my unofficial mentor at that time, actively discouraged me from working in both form and narrative. Donald was a Modernist. Americans, he told me, should work in free verse; that was our vital tradition. But the older generation can never teach the young how to write. Every poet must undertake that slow, difficult task on his or her own. And young poets can’t expect that the older generation will necessarily like their solutions. Every new movement in poetry will inevitably meet some opposition. If an artist isn’t strong enough to keep his or her vision intact while meeting that opposition, he or she probably shouldn’t be writing.
Who are your poetic heroes? What example have they set which you follow in your work?
There are so many ways in which I can answer your question. I admire a great many poets for different reasons. The poets who have influenced me most as an artist are probably W. H. Auden, Robert Frost, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Ezra Pound. Some of these influences have been very specific. Frost, for example, shaped my notions of the narrative poem. T. S. Eliot, George Orwell, and Randall Jarrell have influenced my criticism. Wallace Stevens and Eliot, both of whom worked outside academia, became important models for my spiritual life, as in different ways did Orwell and Thomas Merton. It’s all fairly complicated and subjective. I have read voraciously since childhood, and hundreds of writers shaped my opinions and sensibility. I love E. E. Cummings’ poetry—an unpopular enthusiasm nowadays—but, I can’t point to a single poem of mine that was directly influenced by his work (except perhaps “The Gods of Winter”). The sheer extravagance of Cummings’ poetic language, however, is often before me as a reminder of how lyric poetry should work. I feel the same admiration for the language of Hart Crane, and early Stevens. They are touchstones.
Philip Larkin and Elizabeth Bishop have also been important influences in a different way. They reinforced my sense that poets should be slow to publish. It is not how much work a poet publishes, but how good that work is. I sometimes keep a poem back for ten years because a single line doesn’t seem good enough. Or I will revise a poem fifty to a hundred times trying to get it exactly right. Some people consider that behavior neurotic. Larkin and Bishop, however, demonstrate that such a neurosis may not be altogether bad for a poet.
Let me mention one more thing. By the time an active writer reaches his or her forties, one’s personal style has pretty much set. I can still learn some small trick from another author or be reminded of an important general principle, but I no longer feel another writer’s sensibility actively shaping my work as I did at nineteen or twenty. Rereading Frost last month, for example, I noted how often he loosens the meter slightly in his blank verse poems by substituting a three-syllabic foot, but he never puts three loose lines in a row. He always feels the need to return to a tightly regular line to keep the beat in the reader’s ear. Frost’s practice will probably influence my blank verse in some way, but this is a small point of technique. Likewise, rereading Dante, I was reminded how difficult and even obscure he can be at times—something surely Eliot learned from him. Dante trusted the expressive power of sound and story to carry the reader through complex or mysterious moments in the poem. The poet’s right to be mysterious is worth remembering. But I will not immediately begin writing an allegorical poem about the afterlife. By middle-age, the strongest influence on a writer is probably his or her own earlier work. Now, alas, I’m now stuck with myself. Self-improvement is now slow and difficult, and it must come from within.
You are fascinated by the art of translation—as evidenced by your book-length translations of Seneca and Montale, as well as the anthology of Italian verse which you co-edited. If you could rewrite your own personal history, would you choose another native tongue in place of English? Which is the most perfect language for poetry? Are all languages perfect . . . or are all inherently flawed?
I can’t imagine a more beautiful or supple language for poetry than English—especially American English. Just look at our vocabulary. It is as richly stocked as the British Museum. We have the sturdy Anglo-Saxon words and a suave overlay of Norman French. Then come borrowings from Italian, Latin, Greek and eventually Hindu, Spanish, and Yiddish. One can live in a house, home, villa, bungalow, cottage, cabin, manse, or condominium. The vocabulary of French seems low budget in comparison. Of course, anyone who studies other languages learns that each offer its compensations. French has a clarity and purity that make all sorts of subtle effects possible that could never work en anglais. Since German is half-inflected, the word endings make it possible to use classical meters beyond the practical scope of English. When I hear Hölderlin, Goethe, or Rilke recreating the hypnotic beauty of dactylic hexameter or the elegiac couplet, I wish one could manage those rhythmic shapes in English. The sheer acoustic beauty of Italian—the language spoken around me in childhood—intoxicates the listener. It can either be as smooth as Petrarch or as spiky as Montale. And how easy it is to rhyme in French, German, or Italian! As a student in Austria, I wrote several poems in German, and the rhymes came effortlessly even for a foreigner. The effect I envy most, however, is the complete freedom of word order that Latin affords. A poet can arrange the words into shapes that simultaneously emphasize both the music and the sense. Latin can pack more meaning into fewer words than any language I know. But what poet would willingly give up English—the mother tongue of Shakespeare, Milton, Mother Goose, Keats, and Dickinson? Or, to go back a hundred years ago, what other language could produce E. E. Cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Hart Crane, Basil Bunting, Archibald MacLeish, and Langston Hughes—not to mention Noel Coward and Dr. Seuss—all within a single decade? Yes, I think I’ll stay with English. I’m only just beginning to explore its possibilities.