As Reviewed By:
in the Cave
Talking with Poets. Edited by
Harry Thomas. Handsel Books, 2002. $22.00
E-mail this site to a friend.
None of which stops major—and minor—poets from pretending in interviews that idiosyncratic and even nutty ways of producing poems 1) can be made intelligible and/or comprehensible; and 2) are of any use whatever to the readers of the interview. Which is precisely what prevents the salient lore dispensed by the five poets “talked with” in this new collection of tête à têtes edited by Harry Thomas from being anything more than a passel of idiot-savants opining frankly about a craft which, if Harold Bloom can be believed, goes about its business of communing with the dead as documentably as Eliot’s Madame Sosostris in that poet’s The Waste Land. Conducted (with the exception of the one with Michael Hofmann) by students enrolled in Thomas’s university class in the “Art of Poetry,” these exchanges can be deemed illuminating only if what they cover by way of direction is ignored in favor of what ends up coming to the surface through indirection, and by that I mean the poet’s, not the interviewers’. Short of that, it’s nothing less than dispiriting to find a Nobel prizewinner like the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, hemming and hawing his way through an answer to a perfectly straightforward (albeit multilayered) question: “. . . [How] do you feel your time spent in America has affected your writing . . . [and has] it changed your thinking about Ireland?” “I don’t know the answer to that,” Heaney, fresh out of temporizations, admits. Would that he had left it there; for barely pausing to get his bearings, he proceeds to treat a hand that had nothing for openers as though it had the makings of a full house.
. . . I think it has changed my writing a bit. I’m not sure that it has
The reference to “literary terms” somehow triggers an impulse to call his own bluff and Heaney is again off to the races, handicapper sheet in tow. (Excuse the lengthiness of the quote to follow, but as even poets have admitted in interviews, sometimes going the extra mile is required to put a foot right where you started.)
. . . Within my first ear, within my first literary hearing, because my
But for the out-of-country references to British, Irish, English and Scottish literature in this creek-of-consciousness dambuster, there’s not a whole lot preventing us from attributing it to a writer like Jack Kerouac. No, strike that—not to a writer like Jack Kerouac, to the Big Slur author himself. In humbly reserving to itself only some of the dharma, self-reculpatory commentary like this makes one wonder where all the rest of it went. After fifteen pages of sitdown, there’s little that sticks to the ribs—a sweet-and-sour pork rib here, a mostly foreskin buffalo wing there. Almost everywhere are the sorts of disclaimers that recall nothing so much as the testimony—Fifth Amendment-studded—given before the House Un-American Activities Committee by witnesses such as Clifford Odets back when Ridealong Cassady’s sidekick was deserting town and city to take his medicine show on the road. Asked if he thought his poems “from the beginning were growing in some way rather than changing,” Heaney skirts the personal for the oracular and nods (some would say, ostentatiously) his acquaintance with one of Delphi’s more questionable graduates. “That’s a very good question,” he replies tactfully. “If I had a clear answer to it, I would feel like Yeats felt after he wrote A Vision: totally empowered and ready to go again in my sixties.” Perhaps what keeps Yeats’s magic as a word man alive (except in Ireland, where even the elderly now view him as hopelessly century-before-last) is that he never had to face the students of Professor Thomas’s “Art of Poetry” class with a tape recorder running. Still, one can’t help feeling gored, along with Heaney, by at least one horn of that dilemma which poets must regularly face: Admit that, whatever you might pretend, you’ve really no idea how those poems of yours got written and risk looking the fool Plato’s Republic made commonplace; or bob and weave your mysterium into being, which, with the flourish of an added mustache, courtesy of Marcel Duchamp, will (to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln) promptly remove all doubt.
Mostly, though, the good things in Talking with Poets are not found in the pretentious, programmatic pronunciamentos of this poet or that, but in some of the adventitious recollections of what has come up in small talk about poetry over the decades. For example, David Ferry, celebrated for his ongoing translation of the works of Horace, recalls in the context of Robert Frost having said that “things live in the cave of the mouth,” that
. . . while you’re trying to avoid sounding like somebody else you’re
Poets are almost always more interesting talking around themselves talking about other poets, other things, than they are talking about their own work, their work-in-progress, their progress toward other work. Michael Hofmann, German born and discoursing in English, knows enough to talk as English readers expect him to talk outside the largely deserted canton of his native speech. He obliges them by sounding ever so grateful to be exiting the orbit of German, into the freer air of unconstrained transliteration of thought. As a young student, he confides, “I read Lowell and Enzenberger. Basically, I wanted to write a cross of the two. The perception of Enzenberger and the splendor of Lowell.” Hofmann is least pedestrian as a spokesman for altered states of, rather than in, poetic language in his brief disquisition on the travails of Chinese poetry in English—the Tong wars between the Waleys, the Rexroths, the Vikram Seths, and—well, the Pound of everyman’s Cathay.
. . . I love Chinese poetry. Chinese poetry is one of these irreducible
Chinese poetry might just be the lo-carb diet called for after too heavy an indulgence in Enzenberger and Lowell, not to mention Joseph Brodsky, whose verse Hofmann also says he admires. And Hofmann prefers his Chinese verse, or at least his Chinese verse in translation, straight. No surfeit of scholarly paraphernalia, no notes, no facing texts in original inscrutablese to make the novice edgy:
. . . I think it tends to be a bad sign when books of Chinese poetry come
The “extremities of English” is a stunning concept, redolent not of ghettoes and barrios of expropriated English—those detention cages of hip hop, Chicano-ese or ebonics (which is to say, the slums of today’s sacrosanct “multiculturalism”)—but of the outer reaches of the Whole String-Theoried Enchilada: the Angloid universe, duly franchised with Dark Side, beyond even where Trekkies conventioneer to parse the semiotics (liberally doused with Ayn Rand) of “boldly go”’s unrestricted Enterprise.
There are echoes of this—that if poets are condemned to speak in tongues, they are fortunate when the tongue they are condemned to speak in is English—in remarks by the other interviewees as well. English is an endlessly self-renewing language, full of weeds that turn miraculously into diamond bits like Pound’s sassafras, or “rock-drill.” It is near to chaos, a hurricane’s eye, one of the gamiest of verbal preserves, whose borders are infiltrated at every crossing point by aliens legal and illegal, by chaps with flat hats and floozies with no known passports. And yet it not only continues to survive more or less intact, but thrives on its most harshly absorbed antigens, like capitalism, a perduring prodigy of unresolved—some might even say unresolvable—contradictions. Seamus Heaney is particularly endearing (if that’s not too patronizing a word) on the subject of English’s lust for antibodies and its never-say-die refusal not be reborn whenever a truly ground-clearing poet appears to rock its solubles to their very foundationalisms.
. . . I had written an essay on [Gerard Manley] Hopkins because Hopkins
Had these five poets in the course of their interrogations remained above ground and avoided the catacombs of trying to account for the unaccountable, less odor of sanctity would be detected hanging over some of these exchanges. For the most part, the worst sort of Brewster Ghiselinizing is avoided and when it is, things stroke ahead swimmingly. Levine and Pinsky, for example, are forthright and even feisty about the dereliction of duty and craft discernible in many creative writing programs across America. Levine considers a sanguine development the sense, newly hatched in America, that everyone could become a poet, but he pulls no punches when reminding us that “too many writing programs . . . staffed by people who can’t write themselves” is not just a scandal, it’s a bloody shame. It’s when he expatiates for pages on how he “scouts” a poem before writing it that page turning turns into a turning away from the tropisms Levine tries to convince us made him hope to turn again. (Presumably, even his poem “Scouting,” about the summer of 1954 spent in the North Carolina “mountain town” of Boone, was “scouted.”) Or when Robert Pinsky goes on about his Irish mother’s metonymizing of “windholes” for windows long enough to make us wish we had a page turner’s equivalent of a pruner or a hook to reach for:
. . [Sometimes] you discover the plainness in the learnedness. It is
One of Harry Thomas’s fledglings (Ann Brooke Lewis) lapsed into a miscalculation. She apparently thought that if she asked the poet to elaborate on his poem “Window” he might sidle neatly into an informative jog clarifying “how much history or culture actually is in your language?” What she got—and we’re asked to wade through—is an elaborate sidebar on hardware, etymology, the sociology of idiom, and plain-speaking about matters so plain that speaking about them at length beyond the alimentary canal of the poem’s own discourse strikes this reader at least as bombast by another name, but still bombast. Not that I’m blaming Pinsky, or any of the other poets talked with here, for this ambuscade loosed on the reader’s attention span. My purpose in adverting to it is not to pile recrimination upon ballyhoo, but to reiterate what was said earlier about the subterfuges of poets under stress of the third degree. Too nonplussed to disinter a modus operandi on demand, poets might well stop what they're doing and consider having a Sir Philip Sidney moment. Thus, when told by their Muse to "look in their hearts and write," they might describe how on one splendid occasion they had a sacred tryst with language, the result of which, sired upon that occasion, was such as to not only merit awe as a masterpiece (however slight), but to make them feel that for once--for once--as a poet something more had occurred than the mere date rape of words or (the severe Charley horse experienced afterwards notwithstanding) a Bloomian set-to with some musclemouthed poet linked to them forever as Oedipal Other.
And isn’t it precisely that which separates the iron-butted practitioners of the novel from the wild boys and girls of the verse racket? Lacking the moxie of novelists, poets feel incessantly set upon by the “Three H’s”—habitude, hebetude and hobbitude. The first has to do with the silly little tricks poets must play on themselves in order to “unlock their word-hoard” (as the Beowulf poet would have it) and get started. (Among professional athletes, such tricks involve an enabling superstition centering on a talisman, like a “lucky” article of clothing, that will cause them to win.) The second (also associated with superstitiousness of a sort) relates to the slavish servility with which poets (and certain idiots-savant) submit to language as though it were the very armature of the cosmic All. Finally, the third concerns the propensity that poets share with hobbits (according to the inventor of those creatures, J. R. R. Tolkien) to “have little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off.”
Again, none of these predations serves to make the practicing poet one whit more fascinating to those who would either probe his or her innermost workings or look over others’ shoulders while they try to do so. All of which makes it almost certain that the poor sot some literary journal assigns to interview National Book Award winner A or National Critics’ Circle Award winner B will come in for some heady wagging at the hands of an interlocutor determined (in the interest of furthering his own reputation) to make the marriage of a supersensitive ear and hit-or-miss word alchemy seem a triumphant synergy between tradition and a quite remarkable individual talent. For you see, fiction writers (however Flaubertian their tradition) almost never confront or are hobbled by such drawbacks, being on drinking terms (or darksomely familiar in some other way) with Fact, Verisimilitude, Dissimulation, and the rest of that Boar’s Head bunch. They can talk openly, and with reasonable accuracy, about their craft because they feel no embarrassment or lack of secure election before either their constituency or their muse. Since they are helots of routine they tend to develop pig-iron butts which permit them accommodation to the strict writing regimens they set for themselves. Over the span of a writerly career, quirks appear; twitches of judgment become habitual out of which a style slowly begins to emerge, the discussion of which constitutes the desired nuggets, and not just the ore, of interviews with successful novelists. A Voice, already authoritative, ends by self-authorizing the means by which it makes the law of the canon its own canon law. One calmly answered question leads to another, and before the reader can say Sven Birkerts, the atelier of an Updike or a DeLillo is pried open like an oyster, revealing secrets known previously to none but the Balboas and the Magellans of the novelistic world. How do fiction writers work? How does their writing interface with the less creative responsibilities of life? Do their political beliefs impinge on the creative process as they write? Is it okay to give free rein to these beliefs, or should their comet trails be monitored and their effects limited? Finally, how do writers personally view their rivals in the trade, what Norman Mailer in 1959 broadbanded as “the talent in the room”? Is there a genuine community of writers, or is it all just self-positioning for a one-on-one with the Trough?
So, where does that leave us? Does it really matter that, after having slogged the length and relative breadthlessness of Talking with Poets, we are really no nearer to knowing how the making of a Seamus Heaney poem differs from that of a Robert Pinsky, Philip Levine, David Ferry or Michael Hofmann poem than we are to an acceptable answer to the question repeatedly posed by Michael Moore (even to an Alzheimered-out Charlton Heston) in his award-winning documentary film Bowling for Columbine, “Why should Canada, a country of 30 million residents and 7 million firearms, have the lowest gun mortality rate in the world, while the USA, with more or less the same ratio of guns to mongoloids as its neighbor to the north, have what is by far the highest?” Does Moore’s failure to throw light on the matter (beyond some weak speculation that the relentless scare tactics pursued by the mass media for profit might have something to do with it) deprive his movie of serious value? Of course not. There will always be poetry readers interested in discovering how the poets they admire go about crafting their verse, even if the craft in question was adduced ad hoc in the course of the interview. Then, too, the pet peeves of poets are often as, or even more, revealing of what makes them tick than who or what they claim to admire in the, let’s face it, adversarial world of their contemporaries. For example, Philip Levine sounds off rather testily (and without a whole lot of provocation) on the notion of poetic movements:
Ever since I began writing I’ve noticed that certain movements are there
Though this indictment isn’t without some truth, the sheer bravura of its tact in refusing to name names reminds one just how carefully players in the poetry game must tread, how few backs can afford to be raked which might someday require more gentle scratching. It might also bring to mind one of the innumerable travesties of that oversung formalist, Joyce Kilmer—
Movements are made
In Levine’s defense, he does draw in one “movement” of recent years but fails to cite any malefactors specifically.
About fifteen years ago we had something called the New Formalism,
Obliquely alluded to here of course are collections of “poetry in traditional forms” like Dacey and Jauss’s Strong Measures (1986), which might have merited a plug rather than a poke for its having reignited interest in the formal verse of the poets he mentions and a sizeable number of others, from Donald Justice to Howard Moss. (Actually, Levine himself contributed three poems to that anthology, in company with other “New Formalists,” such as Denise Levertov, Frank O’Hara, and Gary Snyder.)
But perhaps I’m being a tad unfair myself. For all the make-work noodling, Talking with Poets does throw out some fascinating sidelights on poems already written and out there. Nor is there any shortage of insights into how poets, in order to make a poem happen, steer themselves down paths hitherto unexplored. Even, one might say, when the end in view (as with Robert Pinsky’s Mindwheel) is a “text adventure game” for computers, using poetry as a riddle-solving—ah, what the hell, let’s be honest: gimmick. “Where text appears on the screen . . . and in response to each bit of narrative, which ends with a prompt,” Pinsky explains, “you decide whether to go north or to look around a room, say.” The answer to one such riddle “prompted by some lines from Walter Ralegh—
this tumult shall not cease
—is “rooster”; but while solving word puzzles, the player of the game is also subtly made to appreciate the intrinsic musicality of lines like “Whose very beard is flesh, and mouth is horn.”
It sounds good, and it sounds good as a syntax [sic], as well as
Pinsky has said in writing about T. S. Eliot that “True poetry is never really misunderstood or discarded, because its basis is in pleasure. Explanations and theories are misunderstood; pleasures are either had, or not.” By the same token, the process by which the pleasures provided by an Eliot or Mallarmé poem are assured may be judged successful or unsuccessful, but its explanation is susceptible only to being misunderstood by absolutely everyone, including, as Plato insisted long ago, the poet herself. Eliot was a firm believer in the power of great poetry to be appreciated before it was understood and it’s hard not to concur with Pinsky’s own conviction “that if you write whatever it is well enough—Wallace Stevens is a good author to demonstrate this with—the reader will put up with quite a lot of incomprehension. . . .” I think Pinsky is right on the money about this. I would bring to his case only the most circumstantial of alterations, and that about Wallace Stevens, who isn’t simply a good author for demonstrating this point. He is, next to Mallarmé, Valéry and Eliot himself, the best author for demonstrating it. What would be the best Chinese whisper, ever? No contest: Stevens’s explanation to the Paris Review of how he composed “The Comedian as the Letter C.” But there’d be nothing to whisper. He never made one.