from PARIS REVIEW 1995:
The interview was held in April, 1983, three weeks before William Meredith's stroke. Edward Hirsch conducted and edited the interview and was assisted by Michael Collier. 1980 he was the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. In 1984, he was awarded one of the first Senior Fellowships of the National Endowment of the Arts.
On the day of the interview, a spring morning in 1983, Meredith was wearing a soft, bone-colored V-neck sweater with an open collar and brown corduroy pants. He looked decidedly nonprofessional-casual enough to work in the garden, but also turned-out enough to sit and have cocktails with friends. The interview was conducted around a kitchen table in the dining area downstairs. It had poured the previous day, and there was still some evidence of moisture on the stone floor. Meredith seemed a little tired-he had suffered a major heart attack about a year before-but otherwise very much himself. Everything he says is informed by a sharp intelligence, a sly wit, a deep modesty, and a complex optimism. We overheard him tell a close friend on the telephone that morning, "We're in bad health, but high spirits."
You've said that you average about six poems per year. Why so few?
Why so many? Ask any reviewer. I remember a particularly wicked review of Edna St. Vincent Millay whose new poems weren't as good as they should have been: "This Millay seems to have gone out of her way to write another book of poems." You're always afraid of that. That could be said, I believe, of certain people's poems. So I wait until the poems seem to be addressed not to "Occupant" but to "William Meredith." And it doesn't happen a lot. I think if I had a great deal more time it would happen more often because I would get immediately to the typewriter. But it might happen eight times a year instead of six-not much more than that. I'll say this because it may be interesting or important: I think it is because poetry and experience should have an exact ratio. Astonishing experience doesn't happen very often. Daily experience is astonishing on a level at which you can write a poem, but astonishing experience would be the experience which is not astonishment of reality but astonishment of insight. It is for me, as a lyric poet, to make poems only out of insights that I encounter. Robert Frost used to say, "How many things have to happen to you before something occurs to you?"
How do you usually start a poem?
It starts with an insight which gets a few words close to the ground and then the words begin to make specific the insight. Once they start growing the words are seminal-I suppose it's like the bacteria of a growth. I can hardly remember a poem in which the words are not particular words, often very bleak, simple words. Once they are put down they are able to focus an idea. I have, I think, only once written a poem—- and it's not a very good poem—- which came to me literally as a dream that was decodable. It's about an eight or ten line poem and all I could say was, "That's what it said."
Your poems tend to have a sly, angular way of going at subject, approaching it from the side rather than directly. Would you say something about that?
If it's so, it's the nature of the work that a poem is getting at something mysterious, which no amount of staring at straight-on has ever solved, something like death or love or treachery or beauty. And we keep doing this corner-of-the-eye thing. I remember when we were in training to be night fliers in the Navy, I learned, very strangely, that the rods of the eye preceive things at night in the corner of the eye that we can't see straight ahead. That's not a bad metaphor for the vision of art. You don't stare at the mystery, but you can see things out of the corner of your eye that you were supposed to see.
Do you think that writing a poem is a specific engagement of a mystery?
I would say exactly that. It is the engagement of a mystery which has forced itself to the point where you feel honor bound to see this mystery with the brilliance of a vision. Not to solve it, but to see it.
Does this relate to the statement in your poem "In Memory of Robert Frost," that Frost insisted on paying attention "until you at least told him an interesting lie."
Well, he understood—and I'm afraid his biographer, Lawrence Thompson, does not understand—that at the higher reaches of our experience we don't know the things that we say, but we say that we do. That's the ultimate artistic lie. I tell you what I know today in a poem and I don't know it; in the first place it may not be true, and in the second place it may not be what I know tomorrow. Artistic truth is to declare, under torture, what the torturer does not want you to say, not what the torturer does want you to say. You try to tell the truth even though it's uncomfortable for everybody. When the hippies were talking about how the only two things you need to know about life is that you must love one another and not lie, they forgot tell you that those are the only two really difficult things. We all know that's what we're supposed to do; it's much harder to love people than anybody ever tells you and it's much harder to tell the truth, and how do they tell the truth? They say something that isn't true. This is the slyness of art: if you tell enough lies you're bound to say something true. I think my work is only as good as it is honest but as a data bank it's full of errors.
Is it fair to characterize The Cheer as a work of sly survivals, a resolutely hopeful book?
A resolutely hopeful book I think it is. The question of survival, in fact the process of survival, is something that either occurs or doesn't occur. It doesn't seem to be something that one deliberately does, but is a product of good instincts and good life. And quite right. Survival, in terms of the poems, has been such that I use them for making my way from one form of commitment to the next. I hope that the poems will lead me more directly to where I'm going and that I'll arrive directed only by instincts, social instincts.
In a memorial poem to John Berryman, "In Loving Memory of the Late Author of Dream Songs," you write that "Morale is what I think about all the time / now, what hopeful men and women can say and do." Why morale?
I suppose it seems to me that the preistly function of artists in a society is to administer spiritual vision and that the obvious deficiency of a fragmented and confused society is in confidence. I use morale partly in quotation marks because I first became aware of the word in the military. Muriel Rukeyser pointed out to me that there was a certain General Euleo whose title was "Chief of Morale" and we thought that very funny. I was in the Navy so long that I have to remind myself that's a humorous title. But like General Euleo, I see the need for keeping the morale of the troops high. At one point it was in the papers that Congress had discovered large shipments of dice were being made to the troops overseas, and General Euleo explained that they were parts of a parcheesi set they had not been able to requisition and that the whole thing would keep morale high. That's like The Cheer. My real concern is, in the first place, that we ought not to be solemn and, in the second place, the response to disaster, even cultural disaster, is an impersonal one and the personal obligation is to mental and spiritual health. Of course, it always has been.
In "Hazard's Optimisim" you also noted that Hazard is "in charge of morale in a morbid time." Is that one of the poet's responsibilities?
I would suppose so. In a happy time, like Elizabethan England, the poet is probably involved in reminding people that they're all going to come to a bad end. Nowadays, you try to keep people from precipitating their own bad ends.
Playfulness and humor also seem to be an integral part of your poetic stance.
I first learned about playfulness from W.H. Auden, who talks about it all the time. But the example of playfulness I found in Frost was the great attraction of Frost for me. I could see that he played games with words, a sort of Hide and Seek with the reader, and therefore the poems were never as earnest as English teachers said they were. People who are basically humorous are constantly misunderstood in an instructive way. My social career is littered with ill-calculated humor. One doesn't want to say, "I live on the verge of despair and terror and I'm perfectly safe because I'm roped off by humor and good cheer." But sometimes, it's the only way to talk about things. Here is an example: in the Navy, when we were flying, instead of saying, "Take care of yourself," people would say "Don't crash and burn." I don't know how funny it was, but we thought it was hilarious. Still, there were some people who forgot and didn't take care of themselves and did just that. Humorlessness is a positively morbid quality that certain people have. This is not the same as not being witty, it's not the same as not using humor in a particular instance. It's a solemnity which puts blinders on your awareness of ridicule and absurdity. I'm always suspicious of humorlessness. When you see the pictures of Hitler jumping up and down and laughing with glee over the conquest of France you see a somewhat disoriented human being whose life has had a deficiency of laughter. It's almost a snickering.
Frost has had an enormous impact both on your life and on your work. What do you think in particular that you learned from him?
When we were in Tucson on a visit once he quarreled with me about something. I guess indeed I quarreled with him on a statement of dignity, and in making up he said, "I brought you along on this trip so you could see a little how I take things." That's also his definition of style: style is how a man takes himself. I think I learned-it's not a very precise answer but it's precisely what I learned on the page and from the person-that was the way I would like to take myself. I think one of the reasons I am so quick to rush to the defense of Frost, who after all was not any nicer than most of us, is that I wouldn't mind being as nice as he was. He took things very generously and magnanimously. His language fascinates me because he lived within his means in language, like an old man. There's never a single word that seems to call attention to itself in a pretentious way.
Is this an attitude from life which applies itself to how a man takes his poems?
One time he said, in connection with his youth and his mother's life, "People used to call us riff-raff. They never knew what riff-raff I am." I take that to be his form of modesty, which is puzzling to people who think he was vain. I think it has to do with his making do with his human and verbal resources, knowing exactly what the best you could do was and doing it.
What are your favorite Frost poems?
"The Vanishing Red," "Directive," "Spring Pools," "The Birthplace."
In his poem "For John Berryman," Robert Lowell write, "Really we had the same life, / the generic one / our generation offered." How much do you think of yourself as a poet who belongs to a particular generation?
I feel myself of that generation because I had the good luck to know those poets. As far as our experience being similar, I think the responses of people like Richard Wilbur or Elizabeth Bishop are different from the responses of Berryman and Lowell, and Randall Jarrell's was different still. So that while I'm sure we had basic encounters with history that nobody else had, we took them differently. I believe Lowell is right in associating himself so closely with Berryman. Berryman associated himself closely with Lowell, and both of them with Jarrell, although if you look at Jarrell's work, you wouldn't know that there was any relation. It's one of my theories that Jarrell is probably the most useful poet of all three.
His poems are accessible to people who are not trained readers. You have to train yourself to read Berryman, though it's very much worthwhile. I would say to somebody who wants to read Berryman what Nabokov said about Pushkin: "Learning Russian is a small price to pay for reading Pushkin." But every other poem in Jarrell's Complete Poems is accessible to somebody who is not a trained reader of poetry. It is just interesting, attractive, and human. Anybody who can read a short story by O. Henry can read a poem by Jarrell.
You've written about Jarrell, "The poems he left behind seem to me to speak in the most compassionate voice of any of his generation." Is compassion the virtue you most prize in Jarrell? What about his acid wit?
His wit was splendid. I think it's twice splendid because he almost never used it except when appropriate. He used it to detect falsehoods, to deflate intolerable pretension. The reason I think it's less important than compassion is that it is a more common thing in our time. Jarrell wasn't any wittier than Tom Wolfe, say. Also, I lived in mortal fear of him. Why not? He gave a talk in 1962—one of his modest talks where he was assessing fifty years of modern poetry in fifty minutes at the Library of Congress—and at the end he said, "And then there is another larger group of poets who, so to speak, came out from under Richard Wilbur's overcoat." It was a reference to Dostoyevsky's famous comment on Gogol, "we all come out from under Gogol's overcoat," and it made me feel that I was in that category of poets. I thought then that I would just like to get through life without ever attracting his attention.
When did his poems start to interest you, or influence your work?
I can date it precisely: it was when I reviewed The Lost World in 1964. I read his work very carefully then and with great admiration. Mary Jarrell tells me that he was very pleased with the review and when I saw him with Lowell he treated me with respect, though I can't imagine that my poems interested him very much. But, really, it's the vertebra that I think mine could nearest approach. His and John Crowe Ransom's are the two works most like the works that are my mind's.
Is Ransom one of your models?
Ransom is a bad model in the sense that he wrote his book of poems and then didn't do much, didn't grow as a poet, didn't have much more to say. I just would like to have forty poems as good as that to call my own, that's what I mean. Also, I would like to have such original insights.
Lowell's poem "Morning after Dining with a Friend" describes a dinner which you had with Lowell near the end of his life. It also refers to your first meeting. How accurate is the poem, and would you talk about your relationship to Lowell both as a person and as a poet?
The poem, like everything he wrote, is terribly accurate, but the remark about the language of the tribe is changed in mode from declarative to optative. What I actually said was, reading the new batch of poems he gave me that evening, "I feel that with every book you have come a little closer to the language of the tribe." And that's what I say I said in my poem. I have it in his own handwriting that night "to move a little closer to the language of the tribe if we could." So he thought—and he may have been correct—that I was saying: "You've got a long way to go." I wouldn't have the insolence to say that then or now, but what I might have meant was, if you can write this much more accessibly every year you will eventually become as useful as Frost as well as great as Lowell. That's what I must have had on my mind but I surely didn't urge him to do anything. It's just not my style to urge people to do things. But the account of our meeting is correct as I remember it. I was a member of the Metropolitian Opera Club in those days and we met there—it must have been in 1954—when he was a guest of his friend, Bob Giroux. I had on a uniform because you had to wear either evening clothes or a uniform, and it was easier to put on a uniform. Very soon after that he came to give a lecture at Connecticut College. He was the house guest of his friend Mackie Jarrell (Jarrell's first wife), and I spent the evening with them. In that same winter (1955-56) the Lowells invited Mackie and me to visit them at their cottage. I remember at the end of the visit he said, "I feel this has been a momentous meeting." We stayed friends through the years. Nobody had any trouble staying friends with Cal. He was an extremely loyal and generous man.
Would you gloss the last lines from your poem "Remembering Robert Lowell": "To punish the bearer of evil tidings / it is our custom to ask his blessing. / This you gave. It dawns on each of us separately now / what this entails."
To me that line is interesting because it was written under the influence of Lowell. It is not a meritorious line and I'm not sure I'm entitled to tell you what it means any more than I could tell you what it means when I paraphrase a Lowell line. He has the gift for that kind of meaningful inversion of myth. He told us these things about ourselves and we gave assent to the things that he said. And the blessing we asked was: after such knowledge, what forgiveness? And now each of us, reading Lowell, sees what is the appropriate response to that terrible lucid vision of twentieth-century America. He's a much more American poet than anyone ever probably knew. It is ultimately a very American manifestation—think of Henry James or T.S. Eliot—to look over the shoulder of the educated person to see what we can salvage from our past to regain our direction in the twentieth century.
So Lowell is particularly American because of his entanglement with American history?
Yes, he was very conscious of that. I'm very conscious of it too, but it seems to me that one doesn't talk about it. It annoys me to have been called "aristocratic" when the truth is I have a very deep sense of the commitment of eighteenth-century settlers to this country, all of my ancestors having come to this country before 1800. I don't need to talk about it. Also, my name isn't Lowell. My name is a considerable name: it was on a piece of paper currency in the nineteenth century, a ten-cent fractional note. But this is not the kind of bragging that Lowell did and it's certainly not the kind of bragging I would do; it's only that I'm aware of these things and not ashamed of them. I only wonder what possible usefulness they have—what sense of that kind of history can go into a modest man's modest work.
John Berryman's thirty-sixth "Dream Song" is dedicated to you. It begins, "The high ones die, die. They die. You look up and who's there?"; and it ends with a parenthetical "(Frost being still around.)" What's your attitude toward the poem? Does it set up a dialectic that's important to you: the doomed poet against the poet as survivor?
I have a version of "The high ones die" which he wrote out for me at Bread Loaf that says, "The great ones die." He was thinking specifically of the fact that Faulkner and Hemingway had died. He was thinking about mortality and not suicide. He wasn't thinking that the line means "even the high ones die"—-rather that it's a bad time to be a high one. "Frost being still around" means the survival of certain high ones is to be thought of, too. The parenthesis probably means to suggest the jeopardy of age. To me the poem was a statement of praise like those other poems he wrote about Frost afterwards, when Frost died. He was saying that we live in a terrifying world where the great poets are being taken form us. It's true that we can't see anybody on the American horizon now who is quite the size of Faulkner or Frost. We are aware of all other kinds of inferiority and this is added to the hazards of the morale. It would be nice if a Robert Frost or a William Faulkner were regularly produced at twenty-year intervals.
Three of the poems in The Cheer deal with Berryman, "Dreams of Suicide," "In Loving Memory of the Late Author of Dream Songs," and "John and Anne." Berryman seems to be a key figure to you both as a person and as a poet. Would you talk about your relationship to him?
He and I were more familiar than I ever felt myself to be with Auden, Frost, or Lowell. I was intimate with Lowell but not familiar. We were close friends and the warmth was there, but my mind is not of the size or shape of Lowell's and I was always aware of this. Berryman was wonderful: anything you didn't know that was necessary to follow his argument he would fill in. He didn't expect me to follow his argument he would fill in. He didn't expect me to be anything but bright. I have a postcard from him, written when I was doing a piece about the sonnets at his request. I had asked him to identify a source. He wrote me back with the information and the rest of the postcard says, "Really, Meredith, what will you pretend not to know next?" I was familiar with him. You had to accept his undignified behavior in a way that was comfortable for him and you had to do that naturally. Not everybody could do it. I naturally felt that his dignity was never lost. I knew when the alcohol was taking over. I always knew that he was misspeaking himself, rather than saying something wrong. He was saying something in human need. He understood that and relied on it.
Do you think there's been too much emphasis on his tormented biography?
In the sense that John Haffenden's biography of Berryman and Ian Hamilton's biography of Lowell are not the proportions of the men's lives. Most of the time that I was with Lowell and Berryman, they were happy. They had the happiness of seriously engaged, useful people. That's the impression that I think a biographer ought to give. It's our style now that a poet is taken seriously in proportion to his tortures, particularly if his tortures can be blamed on himself. I think it's inappropriate as a value judgement and inappropriate to apply to those two in life. Remember they gave of their company; they gave a great deal. This is partly what I was bitching about in the poem called "The Cheer." We're convinced that you shouldn't smile in public because people are killed in El Salvador today. I am no less gravely sad about history than the solemn people are. But part of my response is to try to reverse it personally because there is dignify in our response and our response is not self-pitying or entirely angry, but a historical one. There is a historical answer to what befalls us and I think the people of good morale have better sense about how to respond.
Does Meredith's Hazard owe anything to Berryman's Henry, the protagonist of Dream Songs, beyond the fact that they're both working at a time when, in words you quote from Berryman, "The culture is in late imperial decline"?
I think it owes something in the sense of the playfulness of the character. I put three of those poems together (they may have appeared in a magazine) and sent them to Berryman and they didn't interest him at all. He was polite about them but I think that all he could see was that anything I could do he had done better. Maybe that clarified for me that I ought to distance myself more in the poem from the diction of Henry. I showed one of the poems to Mackie Jarrell and she said that she didn't like the lines. She didn't say they were from Berryman, but they were conscious attempts to fake his style. I think it does owe something to him in the freedom of colloquial speech, as in his concern about "lay" and "lie," his use of "ceremony wise." All of which, I suppose, if the poem were to live one hundred years, would have to be glossed: "In those days there was a difference between th verb 'lie' and 'lay'; and in those days it was considered barbarous to use the suffix '-wise.'"
There is a powerful impulse in your work to move beyond the misgivings, grievances, and despair of so many contemporaries. Do you see your work as a dialogue or as an alternative to the work of contemporaries like Lowell and Berryman?
I see it as a dialogue because it relates me to the writers that I admire and know personally. We have different things to say in our poems, we have different visions, so that, in essence, it's a dialogue. I don't think their visions are wrong and mine is right. Mine is corrective of one thing and theirs is corrective of another. It's the distortion of art. I distort to see the truth and they distort to see the truth.
And yours is a more optimistic distortion?
It really is, and I think it comes from having been a closet Christian all my life. I believe in salvation.
Although much of your work is concerned with moral purposes, it does not strike one as being blantantly religious. In fact, the speaker in most of your poems seems to offer the consolation of a well-honed agnosticism. But in a recent poem, "Partial Accounts,: you write, "Growing older, I have tottered into the lists / of the religious, tilt." Is this incontrovertible evidence of a conversion?
No, I would simply say I came out of the closet. My belief is a little clearer to me now and I feel I ought not to hide it. You know that the best Christian writers don't talk about it as though they were trying to sell you a product. I think of Gerald Manley Hopkins. All the good criticism of Hopkins is written by agnostic Jews and brainwashed nuns who understand that the poetry is true and the truth is what will prevail as a religious example. I say that I'm careful not to practice Christianity conspicuously. But I want to pay attention through the medium of religion. I'm going to give a talk in chapel this month and my theme is going to be that the greatest imaginative accomplishment of the human imagination is atheism. It's the only thing that man has thought up creatively without the help of God. It's a short course but it's a very interesting one. It's sort of like concrete poetry; after you've gotten to the bottom of atheism, you don't have very much left. It's an experiment that has run its course. It is my feeling that all the other works of the imagination are derivatives of the creative imagination of a creator. I don't believe in being very doctrinaire and when I'm among the humanists in Bulgaria, what I say is, "Indeed man isn't all the work of God. Indeed there is no reason that he need refer to God." But that's where I see it coming from.
Is it accurate to say that in recent years your work exhibits a greater willingness to speak to public subjects?
I hope so. I think this had partly to do with my having to think of myself as a public servant again after twenty-five years of not being in public service. I considered myself a public servant when I was in the Navy. Afterwards, I wondered what a public servant does in the role of a poet. When I went to Washington as the poet to the Library of Congress I had a chance to see what could be done with a large audience. Thinking about what happened at the Library of Congress, the chain of artists that one follows there, you see that Americans do have some slight sense of the public function of the poet. It's nice that the Library of Congress has that. It's the branch of Congress that has literary opinions.
In poems like "Politics" and "Nixon's the One" (from Hazard, the Painter) and "On Jenkins' Hill" and "A Mild-Spoken Citizen Finally Writes to the White House" (from The Cheer), you develop an unusual civic stance for a contemporary poet, a kind of "poet as concerned citizen" approach to the political scene. Does that characterization seem accurate to you? And does this attitude signify a new kind of openess or political engagement in your work?
I believe that it represents an openness that I've always felt and acted on but never found much way, before this, to talk about poetry. The lyric poem is so often private. For example, my intention in writing "The Wreck of the Thresher" was to write a "public" poem about my feeling of disappointment in the hopes of the United Nations. When I was writing that poem (and I kept all the drafts of it because I wrote it as a sort of dialogue with my friend Charles Shain, who was here that summer without his wife, being the President of the College; I would leave the draft off for him in the morning and he would scribble notes on it and send it back), I remember seeing it change from a rather pretenious public statement to the very private statement it turned out to be. It occured to me that this is simply a demonstration of what Auden said in The Dyer's Hand, that we don't trust a public voice in poetry today. I would say that my concern about politics is precisely the concern of a Joan Didion or a Denise Levertov but that my stance is very different, so it doesn't appear to be the same. There is a spectrum of political opinion and a spectrum of political involvement. I stand with regard to involvment where those two women stand, but in the political spectrum I'm much more Jeffersonian-I'm nearer the middle.
Your friend, the poet Muriel Rukeyser, had a great sense of the poet's social responsibility.
Yes. I was never as clear about that as she is. I suppose I'm halfway between Muriel Rukeyser, whose every breath was socially responsible, and James Merrill, who pretends not to read the newspapers. Somewhere in the middle is where most artists belong. I sign a lot of things, I send a lot of funny dollars off. Every four years I have a kind of knee-jerk political life. But I can't compare myself to Muriel in that, except insofar as I pay attention to the things that need to be done in the world. One doesn't miss Vietnam and El Salvador.
You have several poems dedicated to Rukeyser. In what way was she influential and important to you?
She was the first poet that I knew personally. I knew her when I was still an undergraduate. She was a very amazing human being and any traces of honesty in my life come from having seen how beautifully honest she was in administering her life and her poetry without any separation-you couldn't get a knife between those two things with her. And my poems are very different from my life, alas. But I understand that's one of the things you work at when you hope to get better as a poet. The real influence was her human model of what a poet could be. Clearly, our poems have almost nothing in common. But we liked each other's poems, which is an important form of attraction to one's own insufficiency. You like people who can do things you can't do.
You mentioned James Merrill before. One of his chief poetic models is also one of yours: I'm referring to Auden.
I see more of it in my work than in Merrill's. Of course, the wandering spirit of Wystan Hugh Auden prevails in Merrill's trilogy. That spirit is charming and very genuine: it's clearly coming directly. But in my work there is lot of Auden that nobody could see except me. I don't know how to tell you what it is. In my mind, my playfulness is a lowbrow American version of his Oxford playfulness. Two of the lines in my poem "About Opera"—"What dancing is to the slightly spastic way / Most of us teeter through our bodily life"—seem Audensque to me, and I think Auden liked then. I don't know exactly what I mean by Audenesque. It's like Kafka; it's a totally subjective feeling of how you play with language until you get to something spooky.
NOTE: FOUR QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS HAVE BEEN DELETED HERE, BUT CAN BE FOUND AT THE END OF THE PARIS REVIEW INTERVIEW AS IT APPEARS ON THE WEBSITE: www.riverrunbooks.com
One of the Yeats poems that crops up in your work is “The Wild Swans at Coole.”
I like the early minor poems enormously. I think my favorite Yeats poem is “Upon a Dying Lady.” It is a very small poem, not in length but in grasp, and it is so elegantly worded.
Is it the high rhetoric that you object to in Yeats’s poetry?
I don’t object to it at all. I find “Sailing to Byzantium” a wonderful piece of music, but it no longer seems to have any model value for me. As I look back, it was only an affectation to think that it ever did. I remember how odd I felt showing Frost my little poem “To a Western Bard” where the last paragraph starts “Or our own great poet’s rage / Yeats…” Frost must have wondered why the hell I didn’t say Frost. And twice would he have wondered, once because he was greater than Yeats in his own mind—or maybe not, but competitive—and twice because he must have known that Yeats was no place for me to be whoring around.
Throughout your work, you continually exhibit and also prize the civic virtues of modesty and formal restraints. Why do you think these are so important?
They seem to work for me and I think they’re neglected. They’re a small part of the picture, but they’re a part of the picture that, first of all, isn’t talked about very much and, secondly, that I think I know something about.
In the fourteen new poems in EARTH WALK, in HAZARD THE PAINTER, and in THE CHEER, the style seems a little more casual and idiomatic, roomier, and more meditative, less metrically concentrated. Do you feel that after your SELECTED POEMS, your work has been evolving a new mode and style?
I guess I have the poet’s antennae for what’s going on in the medium. I’ve adapted the kind of formalism that is mine with the sensibility for formalism that’s abroad in the United States. I would say if you want to see how this happens you can look at the work of Berryman or Lowell and see at what point they stopped using initial capitalization and semicolons and exclamation points. My form, insofar as it’s subconscious and instinctive, is responsive to the colloquial, by which I mean in this case the colloquial of the genre. What constitutes the very problematic is audibly different from what constituted my speaker’s voice. I believe that I will continue to write poems that are shaped like sonnets and villanelles, but I will write them in a way that sounds to me like the modern version.
It sounds like this opening up is a little unwilling.
It is the opening up of a poet who owes as much responsibility to the tradition as to the new and the novel. In that sense, I’m not willing to modify forms which seem to me very energized still. I want to use them now as they were used then, which is to say, to change them.
In a prefatory note you refer to Hazard as a “characterization” and your publisher describes it as a “miniature novel in verse.” Is your sequence trying to regain some of the large territory that poetry has lost to prose fiction?
Rather, I think, an attempt to concentrate on the dramatic virtue of the lyric poem. It comes from contemplating for years Frost’s remark, “everything written is as good as it is dramatic.” I felt that many of the experiences that I wanted to comment on would be more interesting if I could give them to somebody else with a different opinion. Take Hazard’s problem with his friend’s homosexuality: it’s the reverse of my problem. I believe in equal rights for heterosexuals. I have a lot of problems with it, and this is a way of getting at them. I was thinking really about, in that relationship, what I must look like to Lowell. Mostly, I’m Hazard in the sequence, but in the poem “Wholesome” I’m Elliott and Lowell is Hazard. But the poet has no character in the sense that he is interchangeable.
Apollinaire, a poet you’ve translated particularly well, talks about the long quarrel between tradition and innovation. Is that quarrel germane to your work?
I’d rather agree with anybody than quarrel, you know. I think I would say, “Guillaume, you’re perfectly right.” That doesn’t help me. I have no quarrel with tradition, as all of my enemies have point out. I think there is no point in striving to be modern or original, because I live now and I am unique. Not terribly unique, but God thinks I’m unique, and in that consists my originality. My modernity consists of the dates of birth and death. So that I don’t have this battle with tradition. I feel terribly grateful for any insight that tradition gives to me as to what we’re about. One of the things that poets sometimes forget is that—by their job specification—they are dealing with the most conservative force in the culture, that is, language. I believe that my sense of tradition is limited by my ignorance, not by my conservatism. I would like to be more indebted to Spenser but I haven’t been able to get through THE FAERIE QUEENE yet.
What do you think you learned from Apollinaire?
I learned to lie back more fearlessly on my subconscious. I think the little poem I wrote called “For Guillaume Apollinaire” is an attempt to say how wonderful it was not to be held accountable for a rational organization of the poem, but simply to feel and say in English, “Honest to God, that’s what Apollinaire said.”I’ll stick up for him even though it would not have come to me naturally. I think I have one of the most constricted imaginations of any good poet of our time and he had the most liberty in imaginations. It was a helpful distortion. Actually, if I had known about this device I would have started to translate poets like Rilke before. Rilke may be the poet to whom I’m most completely insensitive. I can see what he’s doing, but it doesn’t make much sense to me. My dream life is as orderly as my waking life.
Of course, Jarrell was a great Rilkean.
Lowell was not and Berryman was not. But none of us will say a word against him. One of my favorite stories about this is the story that Charles Rosen tells about Richard Strauss. He was advisor to Mahler’s widow, who had set up the notion of a foundation with her husband’s money. They wrote her and told her why they wanted it - you didn’t have to explain how many boats how much booze you consumed. You just said what you wanted the money for. She consulted Strauss about Arnold Schoenberg and Strauss said, “I’ve heard some of his recent work and for my part, I think you would be better off in Vienna shoveling snow than giving him the money. But we never know what posterity will say, so you had better give it to him.” That’s the way I feel about Rilke.
Some of the poems in THE CHEER revolve around a single, central, and somewhat mysterious idea. I’m thinking of poems like “Parents” and “Not Both.” Would you say something about how these two poems were written?”
I’d love to tell you the story about “Parents” because it occurred one time after I’d gone to a Thanksgiving dinner where a couple I’m very fond of had three surviving parents. The three parents seemed to me valid, charming, interesting people, about my own age, and to their children they seemed, as parents normally do, embarrassing, stupid, tedious, albeit lovable. I saw my friends suffering and I remembered such suffering. The poem says essentially,”It is in the nature of things that one’s own parents are tacky, and this should give you compassion because your children will find you tacky.” The poem came out of that particular experience. “Not Both” came from the fact that I was entrusted, unfairly, as one is often entrusted, with a secret by someone who then said, “Probably I shouldn’t have told you this, because I know that you don’t have the character to keep a secret.” I thought, okay, that’s a dare, I will. I don’t have the character to keep a secret and in this one case I will keep a secret and won’t tell it to anyone. The other examples in the poem are unresolved questions about people I know. I don’t know whether one is a suicide, I don’t know if one was having an incestuous love affair, and not ever knowing that is almost the same as it not ever having happened. Two things can happen and one did, and I don’t know which one it is. And then the final thing is Pascal’s wager: Somebody knows, or nobody knows, the answer to these questions.
The final line is a comment on that: “One of those appalling things is true too."
Some people don’t see how I use the word “cheer.” I’m cheerful because I’m able to say that , to see that, and live. That’s all I’d lose. Those are not the rules that I myself would have chosen. But we accept this wager from God, or not from God, and we don’t despair. We assent.
What does it mean to say, as Thoreau does and as you affirm, that things change, but from what they are not to what they are?
Well, any time people ask me about the difference between the poems in THE CHEER, formally or in content, from my earlier work, my impulse is to say that I’m more sure of what is in character for me now than when I was thirty-three, and the poems are what is in character for me. I have changed, like Thoreau’s aphorism, only by sloughling off that which is not in character for me. I would have loved to write like Yeats or Matthew Arnold or Eliot at one time, but in terms of what’s shown to me, I don’t see in those spectrums, I don’t see in that way or in those rhythms; so it was inappropriate, insofar as I imitated those people, to imitate that which is not in character. It was probably in character for me all along to imitate Wordsworth and Frost and Auden.
Theodore Roethke once said, “In spite of all the muck and welter, the dark, the dreck of these poems, I count myself among the happy poets.” Do you want to be one of the happy poets?
I would like THE CHEER to seem like someone who would say, “Yes. Without any reservations, I say yes.” I speak about other things with reservations: things that I would want to change, things that I wish hadn’t happened, things that we need to do and that we’re not doing. But there are people who involuntarily give off an aura of “No,” and those seem to be the people I quarrel with. It is inevitable to quarrel with that which you consider damaging in life.
In your introduction to a selection of Shelley’s poems you wrote, “Art by its very nature asserts at least two kinds of good—order and delight.” Do you still believe that?
I think I would say it more carefully.
What do you think you will write next?
I think that at the rate that I go I will probably continue writing poems that synthesize or readdress some of the things I’ve seen in terms of the experience of my life. I’m not a quick study. I learn the things that are important in life very slowly and often more than once. The only thing the poet has to say is how he got an insight into what everybody already knows. I’ll be trying to write poems that are generally accessible and attractive. And more and more I think happiness is the way that my poems go and the way that people take them, taking them as unpretentiously as they’re offered. I am very happy about my relationships with students and friends, and I have this wonderful sense that my obligation comes from being privileged to write poems.