The Civilized Yawp

As Reviewed By: Sunil Iyengar

Fourteen On Form: Conversations with Poets by William Baer. University Press of Mississippi. 265 pages.

The liveliest moment in William Baer’s collection of table-talk occurs in an interview with Douglas Dunn at St. Andrews University. The author of Elegies (1985), that masterful tribute to a dead spouse, recounts his poetic debt to Philip Larkin. Anyone familiar with Dunn’s background, his training as a librarian, his career at the University of Hull, and, above all, his first book (Terry Street, 1969), will recognize the allegiance straightaway. So it is strange to read Dunn profess a degree of alienation from his former mentor and friend. Larkin, it seems, wrote mockingly of Dunn to one correspondent. This revelation, along with Andrew Motion’s 1993 biography, left Dunn “very shaken.” The two rarely discussed poetry, and one anecdote illumines the extent of their literary relationship.[private]

You know I still remember when my fourth book, Barbarians, was about to come out, and [Larkin] asked me about it. He was a bit deaf, you know, so he’d crane over me, especially since I’m a bit of a mumbler – he once described me in one of his letters as that ‘short, bearded, mumbling Scotman.’ So he asked, ‘What’s it called?’ And I said, ‘Barbarians.’ When he seemed concerned, I repeated the title louder, ‘BarbariansBarbarians.’ ‘Oh, thank God,’ he finally said, ‘for a horrible moment I thought you said Librarians.’

The story, while amusing, carries the archetypal chill that visitors can expect to meet at the foothills of Parnassus. In the tradition of The Paris Review (whose interviews, incidentally, are being logged online), and the University of Mississippi Press’ “Conversations” imprint (under which this volume appears), Baer records a series of Q&A sessions with some of formal verse’s most seasoned practitioners. A different kind of chill envelops the reader at the recognition of poets no longer among us-Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, Frederick Morgan-and of so many others in the winter of their careers. For that reason alone, Baer’s book promises historical value.

Readers hoping to raid these Socratic dialogues for a few lifetimes’ worth of trade secrets will, inevitably, be disappointed. Any musings on craft are brief and unremarkable; like one-line journal entries, or notes toward an essay, they hint at broader avenues of discussion. John Hollander highlights as a “characteristic mistake” when novice “pentameters start turning into anapestic tetrameters. You know how easily that can happen!” (“Sure do, J. H.,” we chime. “Now please expound on the tendency and how you propose breaking it….”) Stevie Smith’s heiress-apparent, Wendy Cope, says, in reference to Kipling’s poetry:

Somewhere along the line, I realized that we don’t always have to stick to the set forms. That we can do a lot of inventive things by allowing ourselves to alter the rules a bit-or making up our own rhyme schemes. So I do it more often now.

(Another hand-raising. “How far, precisely, have you managed to stretch those rules? And let’s pause to consider if any stanzaic forms invented in the last 30 years have spawned imitators….”) John Frederick Nims, whose Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry (1974, 1983, 1991) may be better known than his own poems, unwittingly explains why such discourse seldom rises above a layperson’s level: “I suppose there are still some people who think an iambic pentameter line is always da dum da dum da dum da dum da dum.”

If the life-lessons of Baer’s poets arrive in diluted form, two factors are responsible. Baer, founding editor of The Formalist and poetry editor of Crisis, conducted most of the interviews at rhyme-and-meter strongholds like the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the West Chester University annual poetry conference. Consequently, many of his questions light a reactionary fuse. There go those barbarians again, eliciting worry from Justice this time, not from Larkin.

English departments-that’s what I know most about-naively, in a sort of blind liberalism, welcomed the barbarians through the gates, and these barbarians turned out to be the true barbarians who were soon demanding exclusive rights to all privileges…. I really do think it was like the barbarians getting in through the gates and taking over-barbarians who no longer had any regard for humane principles, yet spoke as if they were even morehumane than everyone else.

Thus, many of the exchanges, notably Robert Conquest’s, are concerned with defending serious metrical writing and the conditions that enable it. Hardly anyone who picks up Baer’s book, however, needs to be sold on those principles. As a group, the poets are less intense, both in personality and critical theory, than the generation immediately preceding them. They are also less favorably disposed to those poets than to modernist forebears. Consider Donald Hall’s preface to his excellent memoir, Their Ancient Glittering Eyes (1992): “I learned from Richard Wilbur, a little, but he was only seven years older; it would have been dangerous to take more from him. But the grandparents! One can accept the jewels of Asia from old hands.”

The second reason that sustained discourse on poetic craft is stifled in these pages may be a blessing. Baer is admirably acquainted with the life and oeuvre of each poet he treats, and he cross-references both in his interviews, giving the text a thematic unity. His curiosity, moreover, appeals to the literary gossip-mongers among us (i.e. everyone). Here we read W. D. Snodgrass’ recollection of Randall Jarrell as teacher:

He was very witty. His normal conversation would make a cat laugh-one ofhis phrases. He was an amazing man, but he could also be terribly brutal, and in public. He’d sit out on the plaza at the student union, surrounded by students, and he’d pick up one of your poems, and read it out loud, and howl with laughter, banging his thigh, and saying, ‘Snodgrass! Snodgrass! You wrote this!’ And I wanted to kill him.

Elsewhere, we learn of Derek Walcott’s belated appreciation of John Betjeman as bedside reading; Walcott also reminisces about his brief meeting with Auden (“And I do mean really briefly. I’m talking about a nod, you know.”)

Not surprisingly, the most revealing passages stem from the two other superior poets in the book, Hecht and Wilbur. Hecht acknowledges an “almost embarrassing, Puritan streak” in himself that, nonetheless, likely accounted for his magnanimity to all who knew him. For Hecht,

it’s impossible to look at existence, even at its most joyful, without remembering that there are other people who are suffering at the same time-and keeping that double vision in mind is difficult.

In a separate interview, pondering the Muse’s dictates, Wilbur comes close to divulging his source.

I commit myself to metrical precedents which my first lines set. I have found that though I don’t know how a poem is going to end, I always have a pretty good advance awareness of how long the poem is going to be, what its tone is going to be, and thus can initially arrive at rhythms and line lengths which are going to be capable of repetition without troubling the flow of thought as it emerges.

Reading this flat self-assessment, one hesitates to rank it above Wilbur’s endearing association of Jimi Hendrix with Madonna, when he discusses contemporary pop culture in a different context. Such sidelights on a poet’s unguarded idiom are the real pleasures of Baer’s book, whose primary function is to entertain, not to instruct. They offer a diversion, a breezy alternative to the pains and ardors of writing or reading a poem.[/private]

About Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar, a poet, writer and editor in Washington, D.C., is a board member of the American Poetry & Literacy Project. His essays and reviews have appeared in Verse, The American Scholar, New York Times, Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle.
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