Rachel Hadas and the Role of the Poet-Critic

Interviewer’s Note: Born in New York City, Rachel Hadas was educated at Radcliffe College (Classics), The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins (poetry), and Princeton (Comparative Literature), as well as by living on a Greek island for several years in the early 1970’s.  Since 1981 she has taught in the English Department of the Newark campus of Rutgers University, where she is currently Board of Governors Professor.  She has also taught writing courses at Columbia, Princeton, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the West Chester Poetry Conference, and the 92nd Street Y.  Most of her numerous books are collections of poetry, most recently Laws (2004) and The River of Forgetfulness (2006).  She is also a translator of poetry by Euripides, Racine, Baudelaire, Karyotakis, and many others; an essayist; and currently a coeditor of an anthology (forthcoming from Norton) of Greek poetry in translation from Homer to the present.

A recent preoccupation, literature and medicine, has given rise to a new course Rachel Hadas is currently teaching at Rutgers.  In the spring of 2007 she served as Scholar-Facilitator of a series of seminars in Literature and Medicine held at UMDNJ, a Newark medical school, under the auspices of the New Jersey Council on the Humanities. She has also recently completed a prose memoir about her husband’s dementia.


Garrick Davis: When did you begin writing criticism?  Did you see it as an inevitable task – an obligation –of your poetry? 

Rachel Hadas: I first wrote a book review for Parnassus around 1978, when I was in graduate school in Princeton. It was David Kalstone who suggested I try Parnassus; I knew him slightly through James Merrill. David and I sometimes found ourselves riding  New Jersey Transit trains together, he getting off in New Brunswick, where he taught at Rutgers, I going on to Princeton (now I get off in Newark).  Parnassus proved a wonderful start, since Herb Leibowitz is a famously precise and exacting editor, whose advice, by the way, or much of it, I have long since internalized. (Thanks, Herb.) 

Inevitable task?  Obligation?  Truthfully, the looming issue of tenure, once I started teaching at Rutgers—Newark in 1981, was probably a more immediate motivator than any sense of my role as a poet and its attendant obligations.  In other words, I was both insecure and pragmatic.  But I think I probably felt fairly early on that reviewing teaches you what you really think about a writer; that I had as much of a right to write about poetry as other young poets did; and that, knowing Modern Greek, I was an obvious person to write about Ritsos.  Things fell into place, in a modest sort of way, quite naturally. 

GD: What do you think the role of the poet-critic should be?  What critics or poet-critics do you consider exemplary in this regard? 

RH:  I wouldn’t want to generalize about this.  Poets (good poets!) vary; so do critics; and poet-critics are an odd hybrid in that while some hew quite closely to their poetic principles in their criticism (see Question 6), many others do not.  What all good poet-critics can do, it seems to me, is cast light on the literature they are writing about. 

Two poet-critics I admire are Timothy Steele and Robert B. Shaw, both experts on meter.  It’s true both Steele and Shaw use meter surpassingly well in their own poetry, but then so do other poets whose critical concerns aren’t formal but rather (think of Marilyn Hacker) politically inflected. 

Jane Hirshfield’s essays in Nine Gates are more interested in poetics than are her own poems, it seems to me.  Still other poetsv—Sharon Olds comes to mind here—are more learned than they seem to want to let on; their scholarship doesn’t show in the poems, and they do not write criticism.  

A stellar example of a poet-critic is, of course, W.H. Auden.  Rachel Wetzsteon’s book on Auden, and Phillis Levin’s editing of The Penguin Book of the Sonnet are inspiring examples of scholarship by poets who I would wager think of themselves primarily as poets but who are fine scholars.  The same might be said of A.E. Stallings’s wonderful new translation of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura.    

Time will no doubt tell whether Steele or Shaw, Stallings or Robert Pinsky or John Hollander, is remembered more as a scholar or critic or poet.  I’d like to think, why not both?  We’ll see. Is it too soon to say with certainty that William Empson, Owen Barfield, R.P. Blackmur, and Yvor Winters, to name a few, are definitely now thought of as critics rather than as poets, though all of them did publish poetry? 

GD: What do you think of the present situation of poetry?  Of its health as an art? 

RH: This question seems to invite a kind of pontificating I’d rather avoid.  Obviously, anyone my age can easily fall into being a laudator temporis acti. Just the other day, catching up on the summer’s accumulation of Times Literary Supplements, I enjoyed the poet-critic Hugo Williams’s comment, in his column “Free-Lance,” that “The everything’s-getting-worse point of view is tempting and has to be resisted. In my case, it’s probably something to do with my sympathy for poetry, which finds itself hardly even the Cinderella of modern life—more like an open suitcase beside the road, lit by a candle.”  

But whether one is optimistic or pessimistic, our views are so partial, depending on where we’re situated, our mood at the moment, what we’ve been reading, what and whom we’ve been teaching.  Many of my experiences have been quite heartening: there are ardent readers out there; countless eager poets, many very talented, attending conferences; high school teachers gallantly swimming against the current. On the other hand, that theatre is a current of indifference or illiteracy is indisputable.  Depending on one’s mood and where one goes online, of course, the Internet is a purveyor of illiteracy or a miraculous dispenser of culture – no doubt some of both.  The NEA’s recent “Reading at Risk” study of course made it grimly clear that fewer and fewer Americans read any serious literature at all. 

And yet was there ever a golden age of poetry, of literary culture? Randall Jarrell says somewhere that the thing about a golden age is that everyone goes around complaining how yellow everything looks.   And I come back often to a resigned comment made by Nick Jenkins, the (bookish) narrator of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time: “I was impressed [when Nick is in the army] for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illumines life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are incontrovertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.” 

 GD:  Is there a vital connection between your poetry and prose? 

RH: I’d rather let someone else answer that; the answer isn’t crystal clear to me.  But this might be the place to mention that I am now working on a book arising from my husband’s dementia that mingles poetry and prose in a way I haven’t attempted before, though my AIDS anthology Unending Dialogue did something somewhat similar. Certainly for many 20th century poets of note who wrote prose, whether criticism or scattered forewords and lectures and letters, there are often subtle, interesting and illuminating connections between their poems and their prose.  I’m thinking of Frost, Stevens, Williams—and, of course, Auden. I’d agree that Jarrell’s criticism, as you mention earlier in this question, seems a bit more separate from his poetry; yet the connection may none the less be “vital.”  Can we extend criticism to include H.D.’s wonderful book Tribute to Freud?  It surely sheds light on her long poem Helen in Egypt.  How about Louise Bogan’s reviews and essays, or those of Marianne Moore?  What about James Merrill’s rather sparse but luminous critical prose as collected in Recitative—the connections with his poetry are worth teasing out. 

GD: Is there some way to account for the fact that the vast majority of American poet-critics have been politically conservative? 

RH: Is this even a fact?  One thinks of Pound and Eliot, yes.  To some degree, Stevens and Frost.  But Jarrell?  Stein? Williams? Auden?   

Some poet-critics pontificate by temperament; they pontificate about politics as easily as about poetry.  Other poet-critics, including many in our post-modern age of irony, have a much lighter touch but are well worth attending to: Heather McHugh, David Lehman, Billy Collins. The cultural authority of figures like Eliot or Auden now seems as ponderous and rigid as a dinosaur’s carapace; we have, or seem to have, a lot more competing voices now.  Yet who knows whether bloggers or critics will have more than their 15 minutes’ worth of fame? 

GD:  Much has been made in recent years of the proliferation of creative writing programs in the United States.  Do you think this academicization has had a beneficial or baleful effect on poetry?

RH: I have to be wishy-washy here.  There are probably too many creative writing programs in the U.S.  Yet people in these programs learn something, enjoy themselves, read more and write better than they otherwise would.  MFA programs are helping keep the study of literature alive—as David Lehman has pointed out, among others.   As many undergraduate and graduate programs in literature incline increasingly towards cultural studies and away from texts, students often read less.  MFA programs are doing something to redress the balance and to keep students on at least nodding terms with some of the great writers who are their heritage. 

It would be interesting to learn what graduates of such programs go on to do. Fairly few will become full-time poets–think of Williams’s candle-lit suitcase by the side of the road.  I expect many are too realistic to expect to live only by writing, or even teaching for that matter.  They can be forest rangers, chefs, business people, librarians.  The hope is that all these folks will be not only writing but reading, and also in some way spreading the word about literature, about the joys of reading, to others. 

Here’s a general observation to which there are surely many exceptions, but here goes: as literature is edged out of more traditional curricula, it’s popping up in other places.  I have in mind the very striking literature and medicine movement, for example, whereby many medical schools require their students to study works of literature and sometimes to write themselves. 

Robert Coles at Harvard and Rita Charon at Columbia have been pioneers here, but there are countless offshoots.  We all read doctor-writers like Jerome Groopman, and there others too numerous to mention.  Last spring I was what’s called a “scholar-facilitator” at UMDNJ, a New Jersey medical school, Newark campus, running seminars with a group of medical students, faculty, and staff, who were reading poetry and essays and talking about the corresponding issues in their professional lives. 

Now I don’t know if this phenomenon would be called academicization.  But it is a real movement out there, and it surely encourages both writing and reading. The movement is predicated, it seems to me, on the sense that what Wallace Stevens said about the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality is true: literature, the word, artful communication helps us to lead our lives. 

I am writing a book about my husband’s dementia which makes this point again and again.  And in the late 80’s and earl7 90’s I worked with AIDS patients, running a poetry workshop.  My students are no longer living; their work survives. 

GD: What do you think of the vast subsidized system of grants, prizes, and awards that poets currently compete for? 

RH: One of my reactions is predictable: too many prizes, too few readers.  Some of the prizes seem grandiose in their munificence.  Some of the judges have taste I question.  But I also question the conspiratorial flavor conveyed by the phrase “vast subsidized system”—the system is really a somewhat incoherent, sometimes redundant, often discontinuous patchwork or series of fiefdoms, where standards, tastes, and practices vary, and thank goodness they do. 

GD:  Do you see hopeful signs for the future of poetry? 

RH: Where there’s life, there’s hope. 

And since the vast majority of good poets are dead, there’s hope there too.  Here’s what I mean.  Poetry, as I am fond of saying, is enormously patient; the present of a lot of poetry written long ago is its future, as it were.  As soon as someone reads or rereads a poem, in however musty a volume, by however obscure an author, that breathes new life into it.  I experience this myself all the time as a reader, and I can at least hope the same thing works in principle with the poems I have written, which will be read, I hope, by others.

I might mention here Shafiq Naz’s remarkable venture, the Alhambra Poetry Calendar, at once calendar and anthology with a poem-a-day format.  Shafiq mixes known with unknown poets and intentionally omits dates, though you can look them up in the back.  So Thomas Wyatt, Rachel Hadas, Thomas Hardy, Tom Sleigh, Alan Ansen, Herman Melville, and A.E. Stallings all rub shoulders.  The texture is bumpy but the experience is bracing. 

GD: Can poets regain the common readers they once had?  Will poetry ever exert itself again in American culture as it did a century ago?  Does criticism have a role to play in this? 

RH: Part of the answer to this would have to involve the enormous role of the Internet in making poems accessible.  Given the virtual ubiquity of poems if one wants to find them (or the ubiquity of virtual poems?), the role of criticism is to help many readers— “common readers” —know what they think of these poems—how to put them in various kinds of contexts, how to find more poems that resemble the poems they like.  Of course for many younger readers the Internet takes the place of the eclectic reading that was once, or so we like to imagine, commonplace among lovers of poetry.  Yet the Internet also surely leads many readers to writers – poets, critics, poet-critics – they didn’t know existed. 

I am snobbishly assuming that the common reader trolling the Internet knows less about history, poetics, prosody, you name it, than the more specialized reader of yore we are wont to imagine.  But who were these readers?  The culture of books is a whole new historical (or New Historical) topic.  I am thinking of two readers of poetry from the 1880’s or thereabouts, both semi or wholly fictional.  In one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, Laura finds the Christmas present Ma has hidden away in a drawer and surreptitiously (and prematurely) opens it: it’s a volume of Tennyson, and Laura is spell-bound by “The Lotos-Eaters,” and reads it hungrily until she guiltily rewraps the book and puts it away again.  A very different take on 19th century book culture occurs in Trollope’s last Palliser novel, The Duke’s Children, where a young chuckle-head named Lord Popplecourt asks Lady Mary, his dinner partner, whom he knows to be bookish, whether she prefers Shakespeare or Tennyson.  (He loves them both, he says.) Lady Mary responds “They are very different.” 

The second conversation—a bookish person nonplused by a dumb question—could easily happen today.  Laura’s voracious longing seems rarer, more distant from us now. Criticism, a form of connoisseurship, is a natural companion or partner of any avocation or taste, from wine to tennis.  You evaluate, compare, savor the experience, disagree with other aficionados. People who write poetry tend also to like to write about it; people who like to read it tend also to like to read about it.  Are the numbers of such people dwindling?  I have no idea. 

GD:  What are your favorite books of poetry and criticism published in the last thirty years? 

RH: I love James Merrill’s work, and have recently been returning to the later volumes: Late Settings, The Inner Room, A Scattering of Salts, as well as to his memoir A Different Person and the prose selections Recitative. (A biography is looming on the horizon; also letters.) More recent books of poetry that have caught my eye: A.E. Stallings’s Archaic Smile and Hapax, Joseph Harrison’s Identity Theft, Lisa Williams’s Woman Reading to the Sea.  There must be many others, but poetry isn’t all I read by any means. My reading in criticism is eclectic in the extreme.  Recently I’ve enjoyed Colin McGinn’s Shakespeare’s Philosophy and a book by the classicist William Fitzgerald on Catullus, the title of which escapes me. 

My work for the past four or five years co-editing an anthology of Greek poetry in translation from Homer to the present has taken me out of the pond of contemporary American poetry and plunged me into wilder though still familiar waters.  And I’ve been savoring the lush love epic Vis and Ramin, a 12th-century Persian tale in poetry beautifully translated by Dick Davis.

About Garrick Davis

Garrick Davis is the founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review, the largest online archive of poetry criticism in the world. The magazine was founded in 1998, and was one of the earliest literary reviews in the United States to be published exclusively on the Internet. His poetry and criticism have appeared in the New Criterion, Verse, the Weekly Standard, McSweeney’s, and the New York Sun. He is the editor of Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism (Swallow Press, 2008) and Child of the Ocmulgee: the Selected Poems of Freda Quenneville (Michigan State University Press, 2002). His book of poems, Terminal Diagrams, is also available (Swallow Press, 2010). He served as the literary specialist of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. from 2005-2008. He currently serves as a multidiscipline specialist responsible for the NEA’s Arts Journalism Institutes.
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