Epigraph

"[P]oetry makes nothing happen: it survives, / [...] a way of happening, a mouth." -W. H. Auden

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Review of Field Knowledge by Morri Creech

*This review originally appeared in Lyric Poetry Review.


Morri Creech. Field Knowledge. London and Baltimore: Waywiser Press, 2006. £6.99 paper (ISBN 10: 1-904130-23-2, ISBN 13: 978-1904130-23-9), 80 pp.


Reviewed by Luke Hankins




Morri Creech’s poetry is unabashedly a poetry for those who read. When he’s not speaking of what seems to be his own life, he invades the consciousnesses of the dead or mythic. In various ways, he conjures Orpheus, Job and his wife, Primo Levi, Giotto, Leonardo DaVinci, Isaac Newton, Blake, Rousseau, Wordsworth, Keats, Marx, Matthew Arnold, and Simone Weil, among others. Field Knowledge, chosen by J. D. McClatchy for the 2005 Anthony Hecht Prize and nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, certainly evinces knowledge of historical and literary fields, and assumes the same knowledge-base for its readers. Don’t get me wrong – I find this refreshing. It seems in no way presumptuous to suppose that those who love poetry love to read. This assumption has only recently fallen away from poetry in a large-scale way. As J.D. McClatchy notes in the foreword, instead of reverting merely to “private memory,” Creech “prefers more amplitude, and draws on a range of classical and biblical allusions, on the choreography of rhetoric, on the complexities of science and nature.” Creech’s poetry, then, is distinct from much of what is written in America today. Yet, for all its learnedness, his poetry is not obscure or “difficult” in the pejorative sense. Creech’s primary field is not myth, or history, or literature – it is the human experience and the human condition. The "field," in fact, is a recurring image in this collection, symbolic of the world in which we all participate, at once physical and symbolic, difficult and beautiful, practical and mythic. The field is the physical world acted upon, emblematic of the human drive to discover and to create significance. “Listening to the Earth,” a poem reminiscent of Richard Wilbur’s “Advice to a Prophet,” imagines a people who are used to hearing the cries of a biblical prophet, and are, frankly, sick of it. But soon they begin to sense a loss, an emptiness. Here is the final stanza:

                     And in the plain streets we listened
          for those syllables that once conjured the cold,
fathomless swells of Leviathan-haunted seas,
          the fabled bush ablaze on hallowed ground,
                      and snowflakes’ mythic treasuries,
transfiguring our ordinary fields.


The task of the prophet is the task of the poet, the task that Creech takes up in his masterful second collection. Creech transfigures ordinary human fields – physical fields, as in the title poem, and figurative fields, as in “Some Notes on Grace and Gravity” – into messengers speaking specially for us. We would do well to listen, lest we forget the “things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken,” as Richard Wilbur put it. If we attend closely, we may find, as Newton finds in Creech’s book, that even “gravity […] becomes a kind of grace.”

Friday, December 24, 2010

Magnanimous Despair: A Poem and Thoughts on Advent at Being Blog

Happy Christmas Eve to all! Here is a link to my poem, "Weak Devotions," and my introductory thoughts on Advent at the blog of the NPR program "Being" (formerly "Speaking of Faith"). Click on the painting below by the wonderful artist Grace Carol Bomer to go to the post at Being Blog.

"We Wait Bowing I" by Grace Carol Bomer (used by permission of the artist)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Paradise Re-Lost: A Review of Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife

by Luke Hankins


Late Wife, Claudia Emerson. Louisiana State University Press, 2005. 54 pp.. $16.95 (paper). ISBN  978-0-8071-3084-1

















It had to have come up from the cool underbelly
of the first old house we rented, climbing
pipes like branches to make a nest of the rusty
sink-cabinet drawer where I kept the silverware.
I opened it, and the snake lay coiled, brooding
on its bed of edges—blades and tines....
[...]
...I let the snake
escape, drain back into the house, and for years
I told at that same table what I had to tell,
how it disappeared the way it came.
-from “Natural History Exhibit”


With these lines from the first poem in the collection, Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife thrusts the reader immediately into a familiar but freshly-rendered postlapsarian world in which the natural world inevitably insinuates itself into the house, the human-made dwelling, and sometimes also finds a home there, though the human occupants remain ill-at-ease with its presence. There are spiders and termites, for instance, in “Rent” (“spiders—seasonless—survived the broom / to live in every corner,” and a queen termite “pale and thick / as my thumb, invalid, being fed the house”); in “Waxwing,” a bird takes up temporary residence in the house, then is released after several weeks (“What had we saved // for a world so alien, the waxwing / must have believed it had died in those rooms...?”); in “Metaphor,” a bat enters the house, and the speaker’s husband kills it (“I wanted // you to do it—until you did.”) Many of the poems in this book, primarily in the first of the three sections, but also throughout, are built on this primal dilemma of recognizing our connection to the natural world while defending ourselves against its encroachment into the house, the human-made space. For this reason, the speaker in the opening poem allows the snake to lie on the silverware, but vigorously washes all of it once the snake has moved—and the speaker later regrets not having killed it (“I know now I should have killed the snake”). But she did not kill it, and it has sunk back into the house. And indeed, if Emerson had not allowed the snake, sinister and at home in the bowels of the house, to live in the poem, to dwell in the interstices of the house, there would be no book and we would be deprived of its understated beauties and complex emotions.

To frame the book this way is to postpone discussing the book’s more obvious subject and storyline. In the aftermath of Eden, it would seem, the speaker of these poems endures a divorce, then marries a man whose first wife has died. The second of the book’s three sections combines explorations of the psychological upheaval caused by the speaker’s divorce with evocative reminiscences from her childhood. The third section, however, is the most subtle and formally deft of the three. It opens with a sonnet that explores the primary motif of the book: the house and the objects that make up the household. Many of the poems thus far have dealt with the speaker’s houses, but now “Artifact” deals with her new husband’s house, along with the objects he has kept from the house he once shared with his late wife:

...and the quilt you spread on your borrowed bed—
small things. Months after we met, you told me she had
made it, after we had slept already beneath its loft
and thinning, raveled pattern, as though beneath
her shadow, moving with us, that dark, that soft.


And the rest of the book does indeed move beneath the shadow of her death, along with the shadow of the speaker’s divorce—two smaller shadows within the great shadow of The Fall itself. Whereas the speaker’s marriage seems to have ended because of frustration in the relationship, her new husband remained devoted to his first wife to the end. This lends great psychological complexity to this section, so that when the speaker’s husband tells her about his first wife’s illness or when her possessions show up—a daybook, a photograph, a glove—the reader feels the speaker’s conflicting emotions. The speaker desires to know who this woman was, and perhaps even to love her somehow as well, since she was beloved, but this task is ultimately impossible, so there is a gulf that remains between her and her husband. The speaker must also feel confusion as she lives with someone who loves her, but will never stop loving a former wife as well. In “Old English,” one of the finest poems in the collection, the book’s many strands suddenly coalesce in the space of seven lines:


I buried the sheepdog for you, trying
to save you from that grief, dug through muscled
roots, past rain-wet earth to harder, drier
soil that did not cling, but scoured the shovel.

Even the expected, smaller death recalled
the other. I transplanted sedum from the garden
to mark the place and obscure it.


In context of this third section, the reader will emphasize the word “that” in the second line far more than one normally might, which lends an incredible emotional potency to the line. Again, in context of the section and of the book, “the other” death referred to in the second stanza must refer not only to the death of the husband’s first wife, but also to the entrance of death itself into the world in Genesis. And finally, a plant is brought out of the garden to paradoxically “mark” the place and to “obscure it. This is a post-Edenic setting in which the natural world is both kept at bay and tended, a world in which beautiful plants feed on the rotting flesh of beloved animals and in which relationships are predicated on loss.

Before judging this collection to work within too-familiar territory, one would do well to read it through. Emerson casts her narrative within the ancient allegory of The Fall with formal deftness, tonal subtlety, and psychological acuity, such that the reader can almost hear the flaming sword guarding the entrance to Eden flicking back and forth off in the distance, as if that blade were the source of the light in which these poems cast their shadows.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Phil Metres: Advent Poems

Phil Metres has posted a video of a reading of his wonderful series of Advent poems, interspersed with music. Phil writes that "the psalms and readings and prayers I heard as a child in Mass were among my first experiences of poetry—a language that draws us into its song, that claims us, even when we don’t understand all its meanings. The longer I write, the more I admire the durable language of Scripture. Despite its translations from distant languages, its vivid evocation of the sacred flows in and between the lines. I am still awed when I read the poetry of Isaiah:

The Lord God has given me a well-trained tongue, 
That I might know how to speak to the weary 
A word that will rouse them. 
Morning after morning 
He opens my ear that I may hear…"

Watch the video here:
http://behindthelinespoetry.blogspot.com/2010/12/happy-advent-everyone-poems-music-in.html

Friday, December 10, 2010

Turning a Language of Death into a Language of Life: An Interview with Richard Jackson

Interviewed by Luke Hankins

*This interview originally appeared in Asheville Poetry Review (vol. 17, no. 1, issue 20, 2010).


Richard Jackson is the author of numerous books of poems, most recently Resonance (Ashland Poetry Press, 2010). His other collections include Half Lives: Petrarchan Poems (Autumn House, 2004); Unauthorized Autobiography: New and Selected Poems (Ashland, 2003); Heartwall (UMass, 2000 Juniper Prize); Svetovi Narazen (Slovenia, 2001); a limited edition small press book, Falling Stars: A Collection of Monologues (Flagpond Press, 2002); and several chapbooks of translations. His own poems have been translated into a dozen languages. He has edited two anthologies of Slovene poetry: The Fire Under the Moon and Double Vision: Four Slovenian Poets (Aleph, 1993). He edits Poetry Miscellany and mala revija, and an eastern European chapbook series. He is also the author of a book of criticism, Dismantling Time in Contemporary American Poetry (Agee Prize), and Acts of Mind: Interviews with Contemporary American Poets (Choice Award). His several dozen essays and reviews have appeared in Georgia Review, Verse, Contemporary Literature, Boundary 2, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, and numerous other journals, as well as in anthologies such as The Planet on the Table: Writers Reading (2003) and John Ashbery (ed. Harold Bloom, 2004). In addition, he has written introductions to books of poems by four different Slovene Poets for various presses and for a special Slovene issue of Hunger Mountain (2003). He has also edited a special 50-page section of Poetry International (2004) on William Matthews with an introductory essay. Jackson was the recipient of the 2009 George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature, awarded by the Association for Writers and Writing Programs. In 2000, he was awarded the Order of Freedom Medal for literary and humanitarian work in the Balkans by the President of Slovenia and has also received Guggenheim, NEA, and NEH awards, 2 Witter-Bynner and Fulbright fellowships, and 5 Pushcart Prizes. In addition, he has won teaching awards at UT-Chattanooga and Vermont College (MFA program).



~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Note: This interview combines material from exchanges in 2005 and 2010.


Luke Hankins: Your poems are often filled with facts, or “facts”—sometimes the reader isn’t quite sure, especially when you write things like “There are only two things I’ve made up / in this poem”! In that same poem (“Personals,” from Resonance), you write, for instance: “To testify meant originally to swear by holding / your testicles,” “21% of frogs in suburban CT / have become hermaphrodites,” and “The emperor moth smells a female at seven miles.” What is the role of facts and statistics, and the accompanying mix of certainty and uncertainty that the reader probably feels, in your poems? Why are you drawn to them? Where do you gather them? Do you make many of them up? Or is this question meant to be left unanswered?

Richard Jackson: I started out in science—in engineering—and later changed first to economics, then philosophy, then English. I still read a lot of science journals and books and find interesting facts there. Science IS metaphor: pure science can be reduced to math, but when you expand it to explain the concepts you have to use a language that is not structured to describe what you want to say. For example, when I was in high school we had this picture of the atom that was modeled on the solar system, with the nucleus like the sun and electrons like planets, but that isn’t what it looks like. In fact, now some scientists use a metaphor of strings to describe basic particles, or a flexible table top to describe the universe. When I use those facts, and they are true, I mean for them to be analogous to the emotions: the poems use a language of science to talk about emotions and an emotive language to talk about science so that the two types of language become metaphors for each other. Sometimes the science terms come from a similar phrase in an emotive phrase, or just the opposite. I remember seeing something like this in the Czech poet Miroslav Holub. But also I remember the way Alexander Pope used names, references and places as metaphors for emotional states. And the way people like Newton and Einstein used metaphors to describe the undescribable. In that poem, by the way, the science is all real, but some of the emotive contexts were made up, though the general situation was true. I was in fact waiting in a hotel room, for example.

LH: Even a cursory look at your books reveals one thing—most of your poems are long. Is the fact that your poems are on the long end of the spectrum of contemporary poetry important to you? How is the length an asset and how is it a drawback?

RJ: When I began writing my poems were small—short, imagistic poems dense with similes and metaphors. After a while I took up photography and began to see that the pictures were doing a better job at capturing images. I was also having more fun at the time writing essays. As a result of those two things I started to write discursive poems, first by combining shorter ones that would now be sections. I had Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” as a sort of model. The way I have always thought has been to counterpoint things—so instead of counterpointing images I started to counterpoint discursive bits, narrative fragments. When you start to do that, use one fragment to define another, things start to build, get longer. But it also starts to lead you to see things in a larger way, to see contexts you didn’t see before. I don’t really see length as an asset or drawback: the poem has be the right size to deal with whatever presents itself. I have a whole book of Petrarchan sonnets, for example. Now, most of my longer poems work faster despite their length in that they counterpoint, often in a surreal way, images, but unlike the images that were in the earlier poems, they make a sort of subtext story, a narrative of images.

LH: Was the experience of working in received form while writing the poems in Half Lives noticeably different for you? The idea of end-rhymed lines, for example, seems particularly foreign to your typical technique.
RJ: First, I would make a distinction between form and format. For example, a Shakespearean sonnet is defined as 14 lines of iambic pentameter rhymed a certain way, but Shakespeare has a 12-line sonnet in tetrameter, a couplet sonnet, etc. So either Shakespeare didn’t know what a Shakespearean sonnet was or something else is going on. And there is Gerald Stern with his American sonnets, and Robert Lowell with his unrhymed sonnets, both rather loose variations on line numbers and rhyme. Those definitions are what I would call format; form, on the other hand, is the way something moves from beginning to end. A Shakespearean form has an opening and two variations that then end up with a small section, often a couplet, that either turns back into the poem or takes off into the stratosphere: the whole movement tends to be metamorphic, one image starting to redefine another. A Petrarchan sonnet moves in terms of either/or, cause/effect, before/after—some sort of duality where the parts remain, usually, pretty distinct. When we talk about rhyme we usually mean end rhyme, but that is a narrow sense of what poetry can do. We have assonance and consonance, vowel and consonant echoes, and they can be at the beginning, middle or end of a word or a line: the result is about 18 different possibilities, and end rhyme is only one of those. In the so-called free verse poems there is a lot of echoing of various types, and in the rhymed Petrarchan variations there are also a number of other kinds of sound echoes.

LH: What is your approach to line breaks in general, and how did you have to adjust that when writing the sonnets? In your mind, does the line in your sonnets have a quality that is primarily similar to or distinct from that of the line in your free verse poems? Also, do you think you might attempt another formal project like Half Lives? Why or why not?
RJ: In English we have a unique system. If we scan a line as they tell us in school, say an iambic line like Keats’ “The PO-e-TRY of EARTH is NEver DEAD,” we have a typical iambic pentameter line, but it would sound silly to say it that way. Instead, we’d say, “The POetry of EARTH is NEVer DEAD,” almost eliding the words poetry and never. There is a difference between the spoken rhythm (like a lead guitar) and the school-taught meter (the base guitar or drums), and that is an incredible asset in our language. It’s why Wordsworth can end a poem “the difference to me” where we expect by the school-taught rhythm to have 3 syllables on difference, whereas we speak it with only two. It’s why most of Milton’s iambic pentameter lines in Paradise Lost read like four-beat lines, an echo of our natural rhythm from Old English.
So, to answer your question, my sense of the line in the sonnets and the other poems is pretty much the same. My sonnet lines are longer than Petrarch’s 11-syllable lines, partly because his sound longer in English than they are in the Italian, but also because it reflects my adaptation of his voice. In the case of my own poems, I don’t think of them as free verse: there is a principle in each one, often varying 5–7 beats per line. In addition, I have a sense of the line break as a hesitation—not a pause, and certainly not that sort of upwards line ending sing-song some poets recite their poems to. It is more like a sense that the writer is searching a tenth of a second for the next word, so that the line break—like Emily Dickinson’s dashes—gives us a sense of the process of thinking that the poet wants us to engage in. The lines are generally longish because of the density of materials and because I want the echoes to appear often on one line. Sometimes the end of one sentence and the beginning of another occur on the same line—and make sense as one sentence in itself.
I have had a similar experience when translating Pascoli (a just completed project for a book to appear from Red Hen Press) with two other translators: I was always the one arguing to keep the sense of the line he had, and even his word order where possible, because a poem gives us a sense of pacing and timing, rhythm on a larger scale, and the order in which we receive information—words—is part of that. I had the same issue in translating Preseren from Slovene, also using rhyme. I have also been toying with the idea of going back and translating some of Pavese’s very early poems—no one has done that yet.
LH: How does this sense of the line affect how you look at poems by other poets? Or in workshops and teaching?
RJ: I am fascinated at how a poet like Denise Levertov could get such incredible results with her short lines, and how C. K. Williams does it with Whitmanesque lines—so different and yet both so wonderfully exciting. When I read others I don’t have a preference, and I don’t subscribe to any “school” of poetry.
I am very suspicious of workshops and have changed how I operate in them. For one, we read probably 2/3 of the time and discuss students’ poems 1/3 of the time. This has been very successful. If it’s any measure, every undergrad who applied in the past 25 years received multiple MFA fellowship offers and over 25 former undergrads have published over 35 books. At least that means they have continued and are productive. In the “workshop” part of workshop we always begin with asking where a poem ends and then where it began: if there isn’t a difference, then the poem is static and all the words in the middle are wasted. If there is a difference, then good, now we can look at the arc, HOW the poem moves from beginning to end—that sense of pacing and structure that appears in the poem as a whole and on down to line and phrase. Once we have investigated that and described it, then we can move on to look at the usual workshop questions, usually in the context of the reading we have been doing.
LH: Your poems are full of the consciousness of war and suffering in the world. You say, in “The Head of the Devil” from your book Alive All Day, “whoever you are, / there is no sense trying to escape this world.” Do you think that our society tries to “escape this world,” and if so, in what ways? What role should the poet play in such a society?

RJ: I think our society is very naïve. A few million children around the world die each year from preventable sickness. There are a few dozen wars in the world at any given time. Terrorism, torture, oppression exist in all parts of the globe. Poverty affects hundreds of millions. When I worked with the PEN peace Committee in Slovenia I learned about things like this that would turn your stomach. We escape this so easily: just look at the ads on TV, so unreal. Here we are worried about what the new car models will look like, or the most convenient way to package a new food, the newest fashions. Our ethical system in many ways is based upon materialism, upon gaining material things. There’s a TV show called “Survivor” which, given all those things I mentioned above, is simply obscene. Or the MTV “Real World”—those kids haven’t the slightest idea of what the real world is.

What role should the poet play? In our materialistic world the poet doesn’t have as much as a role as in, say, South America, or Europe, where poets become spokespersons, even heads of state. That’s hard to imagine. At a poetry conference I went to in Macedonia, in former Yugoslavia, two years ago, there was an audience of 10,000.  1,500 were crammed into a huge auditorium, and they had multi-screen TVs, like at Riverbend [a street festival in Chattanooga, TN], scattered around the banks of a river outside! The audience included ambassadors and other politicians.

I think in America we have a creeping dark force, and that is materialism. Too often we measure our values by who has how much—just today there was a list of the ten richest, an article in the paper that took precedence over the slaughter going on in the Sudan. What does that say about us? But there is the hope that maybe writers can offer some vision that is different. I think that is why Oprah Winfrey has that book program: she realizes how important it is. This is why, for instance, Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz writes: “whoever wields power is also able to control language and not only with the prohibitions of censorship but also by changing the meaning of words. A peculiar phenomenon makes its appearance: the language of a captive community acquires certain durable habits; whole zones of reality cease to exist simply because they have no name.... Only if we assume that a poet constantly strives to liberate himself from borrowed styles in search of reality is he dangerous.” It is not just subject matter, then, but the very nature of poetry that is the issue here. Robert Hass, the American poet, writes: “Because rhythm has direct access to the unconscious, because it can hypnotize us, enter our bodies and make us move, it is power. And power is political. That is why rhythm is always revolutionary ground. It is always the place where the organic rises to abolish the mechanical and where energy announces the abolition of tradition. New rhythms are new perceptions.” And here is Stanislaw Baranczak, another Polish poet: “regardless of theme and specific address, poetry is always some kind of protest....That’s why all the metaphors and rhythms—it’s just a way of putting the world’s chaotic gibberish in some meaningful order and restoring the original weight to abused words. That’s why all the concreteness and conciseness—to resist the engulfing power of the world’s empty abstractions and statistical generalities. That’s why all the speaking in first person singular and seeing things from a strictly individual perspective—it’s poetry’s way of standing up to the world whenever it tries to elbow the individual aside and off the stage.” And so, as Joseph Brodsky, the 1987 Nobel Prize-winning poet, has written: “With a poet, one’s ethical posture, indeed one’s very temperament, is determined by one’s aesthetics.”

LH: I’m not sure of the context Brodsky was speaking in, but it seems to me that perhaps he’s put it backwards. Couldn’t it be said that one’s aesthetics are determined by one’s ethical posture? Isn’t that the kind of revolution that needs to happen—having people consider the ethical implications of their aesthetic engagements? (I’m speaking even of consumerism as a kind of aesthetic engagement, or as the arena in which this country’s primary aesthetic engagements take place.) That seems like our only hope, because if our ethics are determined by our aesthetics, as you’ve clearly noted, this country—our culture—is in permanent trouble.

RJ: I suppose it could go either way—maybe, in fact, it must go either way. As much as I love this country, I also fear for its future: so many people from the new and even older generations can’t or don’t read, don’t have an awareness of what is going on in the world, don’t care for much of anything beyond what momentarily satisfies them. All this makes them very easy to manipulate, as so many politicians do today, and these people don’t understand how they are being manipulated. Ironically, they often vote or speak against their own self interests and against the interests of society as a whole because they have not been taught to think, to question, to argue, but only to shout or ignore. No, this isn’t everyone, but it is certainly an alarming tendency. When we look at our ads and the lifestyle and values they project we see a pretty self-centered worldview. Will poetry change this? Of course not. The problem is huge. We have people who don’t know the geography of their own region, never mind the country or the world, and so how, for instance, can they judge about a foreign policy that has implications well beyond our borders but will inevitably reflect back on them? The basic problem is education: more and more our educational system sounds like that described in Dickens’ Hard Times: “facts, facts, facts.” Our testing systems and teacher evaluation systems are moving more and more to this at the sacrifice of thinking and questioning skills. In a way we have become soulless despite all our religious banter: I once had a hope in religion, but so much of what we see today has been infected by a materialistic brand of religion.

Arnold said poetry was a form of religion, and I think he was right, if we take it to mean the kind of engagement with a writer’s thought processes as I described earlier. What that does is let us understand another point of view, another perspective, and we can grow, become more tolerant, and also more curious about the world and the values of other peoples. Of course, any of the arts can help us do this. I am not being idealistic, and I understand that some very evil people have loved art, but I would also question if they loved art or the idea that loving art made them appear cultured and therefore superior—something I think the Nazi art lovers we hear about felt about art, for example. Anything can be misused.

LH: In your poem, “Objects in This Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear,” from your book Heartwall, you write, “Maybe we can love / / not just within the darkness, but because of it….” Will the reader find an essentially hopeful philosophy underlying your poetry’s vivid, realistic picture of our war-filled world?

RJ: No matter how horrible the things that get mentioned in a poem, it is not the subject per se but the process of thinking, the structure, that is most important. I think the very fact that one CAN write about such things means someone has come to grips with them, understood them, and this is the first way of dealing with them. In that poem, which was modeled on an ode by Horace, the speaker tells first the horror story, then turns to his wife and remembers some things between them, and about his father, stories that counter that horror, and with that, hopes that some same sort of humanity might be infused into such a horrific situation. So the poem tries to fight its way through some sort of depressing ending. That to me is a pattern meant to show a way out of a hopeless situation. It is a way of turning a language of death into a language of life.

LH: You’ve been involved with Slovenian poets for a long time. How did this get started? What are some of the most significant influences of your experience with them and their country?

RJ: I was a Fulbright Exchange poet to former Yugoslavia, Serbia really, in 1986. I went back the next year, took some students, and have gone back each year with more students, but mostly to Slovenia, where I met a bunch of writers who immediately seemed like old friends, and Croatia. There are two conferences, one in May and one in September, that I go to most years in Slovenia by myself. I’ve also traveled a lot to Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, usually for literary reasons, and England, Germany, Austria. I get to Italy at least once a year in connection with my translation projects.  I really love Slovenia and Italy: the mountains of Slovenia—I stay in the Alps on an alpine lake—and all the culture and art in Italy. Experiencing another culture, living in it for a bit, really broadens one’s view of the world, of one’s writing. The Slovenes are a very literate society: it would be like going into a Bi Lo and asking the cashier about Emily Dickinson, and then having her recite a few poems. All their statues are to writers, scientists, artists, musicians, philosophers, religious thinkers—no politicians or military people. A lot of the places and the stories around them have entered my poems, my teaching, my way of thinking.

LH: Where do you think poetry is headed in the 21st century? Are you optimistic about the overall direction of poetry, as you perceive it? Do you see a lot of talent and originality? Have you noticed any major trends or practices that are disturbing? Any that are reassuring?

RJ: American poetry, despite the fact that few in America read it, is influential around the world. More people from around the world read our poets than from within our own country, easily. It is a rich poetry with numerous influences—geographic, ethnic, gender-wise, philosophical, mythic, narrative, formal, etc.—and at its best all these rich melting pot influences make for a deeply resonant poetry. Yes, it’s true that sometimes some in these groups listen only to themselves, but that’s not true of the better poets. This richness of vision is a valuable export our country has, but which our country doesn’t realize. Some of our best poems have a sense of justice, equality, and morality that is the basis for what this country was founded on, and it’s too bad that isn’t better exported. I was in Prague this past summer and you could sense that—the people were really amazed at some of our poets. I think our younger poets, the ones still in graduate schools and just starting out, are doing a lot of interesting things. The only poetry I feel doesn’t do anything like this is the so-called “language poetry,” which is mostly hermetic and about itself.

LH: Do you find it necessary to discipline yourself in order to get your writing done? If so, what are some of the things you do to make sure you’re productive?

RJ: I’m as lazy as anyone, and my main weakness is old movies, the history channel and Law and Order. There, it’s out.  I also love music—classical, jazz, rock, country, bluegrass—and opera—a bit of everything—sort of like my poems. I am always taking notes, though, and I translate a lot, mostly from Italian, especially when nothing of my own seems to be coming out. Or I read, or do a book review or essay. Teaching usually fires me up, gets me thinking imaginatively, so I sort of feed off these things.

LH: A friend of yours, the late William Matthews, was also a poet whose love of music, particularly jazz, was evident in his writing. Here at Asheville Poetry Review, we’ve tried to bring more attention to his work over the years, and I think our readers will be interested in your thoughts about him and his work. Can you describe the nature of your friendship and any influence, whether personal or literary, that Bill Matthews has had on you?

RJ: Bill was one of the most generous people I knew. I remember seeing him sitting at Bread Loaf with a group of famous writers, and anytime a student would come by he’d pull the person in and make the person feel an equal part of the company—and this happened wherever he was. He had an incredible ability to make everyone around him feel important.

He could also be incredibly witty in a helpful way: one student in Chattanooga, a graduating senior who already had a few MFA offers, had a conference with him, and it turned out he talked about the proper care and feeding of the goose. He was talking about the poet’s life and playing off the fairy tale story of the golden goose, which the student immediately recognized. She said it was perhaps the best conference she ever had. That was at a little festival we have every semester at UT-C which he sometimes came to for serious money, sometimes for very little, and once just for a bottle of wine. In other words, he understood that sometimes schools don’t have much to spend and he’d be willing to make up for that.

When I was trying to start my Petrarch riffs, he had finished translating Martial and was wondering what next. We were sitting on my porch in Chattanooga and he was encouraging me to go ahead with the project and I in turn suggested Horace, the letters or the satires, and he took me up on that and later published his Horace. Another time I was worrying over how to trim down Alive All Day and he was working on a Selected Poems: he suggested we each cut 20% out of the other’s book, something that worked pretty well. He’d occasionally send poems, often with a question, and I’d send some back, but most of the time we talked generally and avoided going into any commentary other than some general description.

He was incredibly smart and seemed to have a photographic memory for some things—we played scrabble several times and he won, I think, on the first turn 3 or 4 times, sometimes teasing, “Oh, you don’t know the name of that part of the antelope’s foot?” And he loved to sit and talk about everything—the range of subjects was enormous. He’d spend a good deal of Sunday morning reading, I should say digesting, the New York Times.

As generous and gregarious as he was, I think he was also incredibly lonely. Sometimes I felt that all those ideas, the talk, the jazz, the opera, the many friends he had for dinner and conversation were desperately needed. He’d call at night sometimes and we’d mumble a few things back and forth, but we both felt pretty alone in the last few years of his life. That’s not to say that he didn’t have a wonderfully close relationship with his sons and with his love—he always bragged on his two sons literally every time we talked—just that some people are inherently lonely. I think this explains a lot about him, and maybe it allowed him to see more of other people’s needs than most people I know. So many things were about the future, too—and his last words to me were one night a few nights before he died, “I think Patrick (Ewing) is going to do it this year.”

LH: Who are some of your favorite poets, both living and deceased? Which have had the greatest influence on your writing?

RJ: For me the greatest poet of all time was Ovid, because of the technical things in his poems, the depth of the psychology in them, and the breadth of what he did—an epic, love poems, letter poems, a play (lost), various satires. I also love Horace and Propertius from those times, Dante and Petrarch, Ariosto—and of course all the greats in English. I keep going back to Rilke, Pavese, Montale, Stevens, Williams, Millay. My list of favorites changes daily, especially for the current poets, but I do find myself going back again and again to Gerald Stern, Phil Levine, Jack Gilbert, Linda Gregg, Charles Simic, Mark Strand, James Tate, Tomaz Salamun. Dean Young and Mary Ruefle and Dara Wier are three other names. I read eclectically and could go on here forever.  Neruda may have been the best poet of the last century, some say Anna Akhmatova, both great poets. Maybe Lorca. See what I mean?

LH: Do you think a writer like Ovid or Horace would be considered among the greats if they were living and writing today? Would their writing have an essential quality that would mark it as their own and that would be recognized as high art, or are writers too thoroughly products of their own time for that? I use these two merely as examples.

RJ: In those two cases I think they would—Ovid is so cosmopolitan and Horace so urbane—and both have great range. Ovid especially, who I think is the best poet who ever lived. I think they both transcend their age and would be among our more famous poets today. Horace had a great influence on James Wright and Bill Matthews, two very different poets, which shows Horace’s strength and range. And Ovid has had a great influence on Kenneth Koch and poets after him like Mark Halliday and Dean Young.

Unfortunately, today most students in creative writing programs don’t read much that is earlier than 1990, or at best the twentieth century. I remember David Wojahn complaining that some grad students didn’t know Jarrell and Berryman, not even Lowell or Bishop! So often they end up doing what has already been done but in a tired way. Poets like Matthews and Wright looked to the past, saw what others did, and that opened up yet other, more original possibilities when combined with their own imaginations. Look what Levine does with Lorca and Machado, or what Stern does with Whitman. Look at what Marvin Bell does with William Carlos Williams, James Tate with Stevens, Charles Simic with Vasko Popa. It’s interesting that a situation like that doesn’t occur in art or music, where one studies the history of the art. It goes back to education, what we were talking about earlier, where students are taught early on that poetry is just like a personal private journal and all you need is a pencil, not a knowledge of the art.

Today so many look to the hackneyed reviews of the New York Times Book Review section, and great attention is paid to the newest flashy poet much like to the newest building put up in place of a demolished one. Then in a few days the poet is forgotten. It isn’t the poets’ faults—they are being mistreated by getting such early lavish praise—like the record industry of late. The problem is our culture that values the new and different over everything else, and that value system is seeping into the arts, at least into literature.

At the recent AWP conference, one of my students was enthralled with one of these poets she had just read, and went to hear him read, then came back with the knowledge that he was cliché-ridden, juvenile, and just plain boring. But granted, on the surface he seemed to be doing something different at first glance. It’s a shame, because this poet has gotten enough over-attention to probably not progress much, at least for a while.

LH: Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to these questions. I have one last one for you. Asheville Poetry Review put out a special issue in 2000 called “10 Great Neglected Poets of the 20th Century,” and we hope to cover 10 more in a future issue, so we like to ask poets we interview if they have any suggestions. Are there any 20th-century poets that you feel have been underappreciated or neglected, in comparison with their peers? If so, do you have any theories as to why they’ve been neglected?


RJ: They are neglected because of that fascination with the new. We ran a panel at the AWP conference on forgotten and neglected poets for several years. One especially is the Canadian poet, Gwendolyn MacEwen, a fantastic poet who died early from the results of alcohol, a real loss. One of our great poets has been William Meredith, and I think he’s been overlooked because he wasn’t “flashy.” Edna St. Vincent Millay is read perhaps more by a popular audience than poetry students. Two others are Sara Teasdale and Elinor Wylie. Of course Weldon Kees. When you look around, there are hundreds of poets worth reading. There’s a kind of wonderful renaissance going on in American poetry today. We have a wealth of different poetries that converse with one another across race, gender, geography, poetic principles. It seems I discover another voice every few days, though I still keep reading the older ones. My only fear, and I see this occasionally, is that a poet of one of these subdivisions start to write only for those in that subdivision and argue that anyone else writing about that material has “appropriated” his or her material. This is an incredible narrowing of an art that is supposed, as I take it, to reach out beyond boundaries, to be the inclusive art that Whitman dreamed of. At our best moments I think our American poetry does that.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Cover Mock-up for My Chapbook of Translations

Here are the front and back cover mock-ups from the publisher for my forthcoming chapbook of translations, I Was Afraid of Vowels    Their Paleness (Q Ave Press, Jan. 2011), poems by Stella Vinitchi Radulescu, translated from the French by yours truly! The artwork was created specially for the chapbook by Marie-Thérèse Pent. Blurb by Hoyt Rogers, poet and translator of Yves Bonnefoy's The Curved Planks (FSG, 2006), among many other works.