Lost in the Cave of the Mouth

Talking with Poets. Edited by Harry Thomas. Handsel Books, 2002. $22.00

Unless very skillfully choreographed, interviews with poets are at best temporizing exercises (to show one is still alive creatively); at worst, a crushing bore. Those who have sampled the Mandelbrot sequence of sitdowns showcased by The New York Quarterly since the 1970’s can hardly fail to confirm this; though it is arguable that the fault more often lies with the interviewing journal’s protocols than with the “stars” lured to its hot seat. This is precisely incomparable to what happens when such questionnaires are put to writers of fiction. Which is no doubt why, roughly speaking, interviews with novelists outnumber interviews with poets by at least five to one. (The Paris Review remains of course a prime candidate for exemption here, being among literary journals not only a horse of a different color, but a thoroughbred of a most singular color.) But then, the working habits of novelists are nearly always more interesting to literary groupies than those of poets because, let’s face it, they tend to be a good deal less strange than the gossip-ghouls who hang upon their every word. This is in no way meant to suggest that poets don’t attract their own unique school of bottom feeders. It’s just that when we get right down to it, it’s hard to get a handle on what it is poets do when they’re alone with their muse and still not quite at the point of invoking W. H. Auden’s notorious ruse for rousing her. The skinny on poets is that they hide the techniques they use to get the inspirational juices flowing even from those they’re intimate with. This is not because they think their modus operandi should be kept from prying eyes, but because any attempt to reduce to small talk the game of six-dimensional chess they play with language when confronting the tribunal of white paper (or unfinishable draft) would collapse immediately into gibberish. Also, the poet who sits down every day to write, whether driven to or not, at exactly the same time is a rare lyre-bird indeed. Professional novelists, if not continually distracted by teaching duties, tend to keep regular hours and do their research and the writing and editing of the various drafts of their work-in-progress in a systematic but hardly hieratic way. Certainly, the last thing on their agenda is working word puzzles for sound, sense and subject rhymes all at once.[private]

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
much affected my attitude to Ireland, because Ireland, Northern
Ireland in particular, is a form of entrapment that nobody can
help you with. And it has to be known from the inside. Outsiders
can solve it like that [snaps his fingers]! Solutions straight away—
bang, bang, bang. Why don’t you dee dee dee? Why didn’t you
da da da? Because . . . [Heaney does a Neanderthal slump and
stare]. I think my being here might indeed have affected my
writing . . . made me ready to improvise a bit, to open up and
skim along. I think the poems in Seeing Things, those twelve-
liners, might have something to do with—not with the influence
of American poetry—but with the space-walk aspect of my own
life here. I think being here might have added more confusion
than clarity to my understanding of things . . . Speaking, I mean,
in literary terms. . . .

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
ear was formed by British, Irish, English, Scottish literature and rhythms
and meters and sounds, I would be intolerant of a lot of the open-
weave talkiness of American poetry. But since coming here I’ve realized
that I respond like that because of my first closed and tense expectations.
I’ve realized it’s part of the American idiom, it’s part of a different culture,
it’s part of a different project, a different ambition. So I’ve got a kind of
laissez-faire now in myself towards things that I was agin’ in the beginning.
I’m not sure whether that is a gain or a loss. I think that as a reader you
can have tolerance that you mustn’t allow yourself as a writer. You can
listen in and say, “yeah, yeah, yeah,” but you mustn’t admit that to
which you say “yeah, yeah, yeah” into your writing because then you
become untrue to yourself. I mean, all you have to go on as a writer is
your sixth sense and your sense of the world and your ear and your
instincts. There are many other things which you can include or address,
but if as a poet you’re not on the beam, if you aren’t coming in on the
radar system that belongs in your own ground, you’re not actually
destined to land safely. Maybe I’ve been over fearful of opening up to
other influences. I can hear a lot going on, but I don’t let it get into my
writing. There are only two or three references to the United States in
all of my written work. It’s not that I’m against it. It’s just that I haven’t
found a way to get at it. . . . (Italics the editor’s.)

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
at the same time using the way the English language has behaved
rhythmically as you’ve heard it elsewhere. We don’t make up anything
in our language. It’s all, in a sense, memory. It’s, as Frost says, “things
that live in the cave of the mouth,” that were always there. You don’t
make it out of nothing. You make language out of nothing. You make
language out of language. It’s both trying not to sound like other
people and using ad hoc what’s gotten into your ear.

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
things, I think. Whenever I read something really good, say, Akhmatova,
it seems to have a sort of percentage of what seems to me to be Chinese
poetry. Or it has the sort of Chinese feeling. Man in space. A bundle of
memories and feelings and senses in a vast void. I think those things
are just perfect—tiny, physical notations, obliquity, and an absolutely
direct emotional statement at the end. “Cho-fu-sa.”

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
with long notes and present the Chinese en face. I think you’re in for a
hard time when you read them. Whereas Cathay, it’s sort of flagrant; it
declares the inauthenticity of the words, and it’s perfect for what you get.
And I suppose I would say that’s always more or less what you’re going
to get in English. When you get the great imports, when you read, say,
Marquez in English, you get a Latin Americanized flavor, Einschlag. It’s
not real Columbian [sic] or real Chinese, but it’s from the extremities of
English. It’s got on leather chaps and a flat black hat, and wow, you
think, this is great.

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
was deeply, deeply important to me. And I was saying in it that he was
very masculine in his deliberate, forcing way with words. But, after all,
he was helplessly suffering his own linguistic processes. Those words
came out. It was as if the English language was hatching in him. The
language had been waiting to be born again since Langland, and
suddenly it came to him again. Sprung rhythm was a new birth of
Anglo-Saxon poetry and the old genius of English came through again.
So, there was a kind of birth-giving process there.

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
delightful to discover that the origin of a word like “window” may be
something as homely or simple as “windhole.” Is that a “learned
etymology”? In a way, but what could be more down-home, what
could be plainer? It’s [pointing] the windhole, the hole where the
wind comes in. Is that a piece of arcane learning, or a bit of
fundamental, funky information about these brutal Anglo-Saxons
in their hut with its windhole?

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
mainly to help people without talent write something they can pass off as
poetry. If you can’t tell a decent story, denounce poems that tell stories.
If you can’t create characters, denounce poems with people in them. If
you can’t create images, write boring generalities. If you have no sense
of form, imitate the formlessness of the sea. If you have no ear, disparage
music. If everything you write is ugly and senseless, remind your readers
the world is ugly and senseless. Bad poets are incredibly resourceful. But
those are movements that are easily forgotten. . . .

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
By fools like me,
But only God
Can shit a tree.

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,
and it seems to have vanished already. Very curious movement, a sort
of nostalgia for the poetry of the fifties and perhaps the decade itself,
and it occurred at a time when the best formal poets of the fifties—Wilbur,
Merrill, Hecht, Nemerov—were still writing incredibly well. The important
movements change the way we see poetry or poetry sees us.

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
Until an herald shall proclaim a peace,
An herald strange, the like was never born
Whose very beard is flesh, and mouth is horn.

—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
an arrangement of consonant and vowels, and it sounds good as
an unformulated recognition of other kinds of fact: the fact that
“flesh” and “horn” are good words here, and the fact that horn
means the substance of fingernails as well as the bony process
of, say, a ram’s horn, and that the ram’s horn makes a pleasing
connection with “herald,” because it’s the same word—to blow
into a horn, a goat’s or ram’s horn. That’s how we have the word
“horn,” which we now apply to a sax or a trumpet, instruments
made not of horn but of brass. And a jazz musician will call his
piano or drum set his “horn”! And so forth, through innumerable
chimes and associations. A horny thing is a callous, a hardening
of the flesh. There is a sexual component to the to the flesh and
horn and born and morning, and certainly to the buried image
of the rooster.

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.[/private]

About James Rother

James Rother studied at McGill University and the University of California at Santa Barbara. His critical work has appeared in Contemporary Literature and the American Book Review. He is a professor of literature at San Diego State University.
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