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  © James Hamilton

 

J. D. McClatchy has published five volumes of poetry in the course of some twenty years, a rate that might seem unexceptional until you consider the other projects that have consumed him throughout his writing life. He has also published two collections of essays, edited six anthologies of poetry and some two dozen other books, written five opera libretti in collaboration with leading composers, all in addition to his duties as editor of The Yale Review, a chancellor of The Academy of American Poets, and a popular teacher at Yale, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, and UCLA. While this industry suggests an almost pathological workaholism, he is in fact relaxed and charming company, with a wicked sense of humor and a winning way in the kitchen. His salt-and-pepper beard, trimmed to a neat stubble—imagine a grizzled Robert Donat—and his close-cropped gray hair are in sharp contrast to his youthful energy and curiosity. (For the record, he turned fifty-seven in August.)

   His poems, whether free verse or formal, are conspicuously fashioned, built up slowly, a thousand decisions made one at a time. They veer in an unnerving way from the disturbing to the hilarious, and finally offer little consolation beyond a clear-eyed, astringent wisdom. His love of the classics is evident both in his translations—he has published versions of Ovid and Horace—and in the rigorous use he makes of the past in his own poems: what Frost called “the old-fashioned way to be new.” These qualities are especially evident in his latest collection, Hazmat, which consists entirely of poems with one-word, two-syllable titles. Each is concerned with hazardous material of one sort or another, but the subjects and settings range through history and around the globe. The consummate attention to detail, though, is unmistakable.

   Our interview was conducted last year over a period of several months, partly in his home in Stonington, Connecticut, and the rest by e-mail. However, his two voices, the spoken and the written, are remarkably similar—ironic, urbane, whip-smart—and in editing the interview I have sometimes found it difficult to remember which was which. His house is a modest, two-story Federal-style clapboard that stands cheek by jowl with its neighbors. Inside, even the clutter is neat: furniture and other objects have been placed so carefully that the rooms feel almost austere, though in fact they are overflowing with books, many of which—Cole Porter sandwiched between Piero della Francesca and William Blake—are neatly stacked on tables, chairs, and even the floor. At one end of the living room is an oak table covered with framed photographs of friends and still more books; at the other, the mantel above the fireplace is lined with obelisks, bronze figurines, and a Cambodian head of the Buddha. Hung on the walls are a Fairfield Porter, a large Chinese ancestor portrait, an embroidered image of Ceres; in the dining room there are ranks of Japanese prints and an assortment of cloisonné tea caddies. There are curiosities throughout the house, including a few dangerous-looking insects mounted under glass, Byzantine coins, fossils, an antique map of Stonington, a cameo of Goethe, a gigantic geranium blocking the narrow stairway at the back of the house. As with the poems, you have the strong sense of an idiosyncratic sensibility at work. He and his boyfriend, the book designer and novelist Chip Kidd, spend weekends and a good part of the summer here.

   We met for the interview in his study, which sits in a corner of the tiny backyard, and is connected to the house by a pergola thickly entwined with wisteria. The garden, small but lush, is planted mostly with blue flowers and is lovingly maintained. If Stonington provides a haven from his other life in New York, where he has an apartment at the border of Little Italy and Chinatown, the study is a haven from even the low-key distractions of village life. The room is brightly lit and comfortable: a fat jade plant squats in one window; bookshelves line the walls, and the overflow is piled high on a Jacobean oak table; a computer and an IBM Selectric sit on the large, L-shaped desk. There is a small sofa and a few chairs in one corner, where we sat for the interview.

 

INTERVIEWER

You have a new book just out.

J. D. McCLATCHY

Yes. It’s called Hazmat—the abbreviation, of course, for hazardous material, a label that’s usually found in red letters on the sides of suspicious canisters. The manuscript for the book had carried that title for a couple of years, and I thought it an intriguingly unusual term. Then, after September 11, the word was everywhere. I considered changing the title, but thought finally that the book has an integrity I didn’t want events to disrupt.

INTERVIEWER

There’s even a poem in the book called “Jihad.” You must admit, Hazmat seems more topical than you may have intended.

McCLATCHY

Odd that you should mention that poem. Not long after September 11, the manuscript of “Jihad” came to the attention of the op-ed folks at The New York Times. They asked if they could print the poem, and it was rushed into type. It’s peculiar enough for the Times to print any poem at all, but three sonnets about a suicide bomber? Then, late the night before it was to appear, I got a call and was told that the editorial board had wrangled over the poem, and at the last minute decided not to run it. When I asked why, I was told they feared it might offend the Palestinians. I burst out laughing.

I’ve been writing poems about the paradoxes of Arab culture and about the struggle in the Middle East for, oh, twenty years. And politically, I’m in favor of the Palestinian cause. But poems aren’t platforms. It’s the psychology of terrorism that fascinates me, not its causes. A poet—as distinct from other, perhaps more persuasive, kinds of writers—can only unstitch the weave of tangled threads. Poems are meant to complicate our sense of things, not pamper them. In “Jihad,” I wanted to look at things not from the victims’ side or the dazed teenage bomber’s, but, as it were, from as remote a point of view as scripture’s.

INTERVIEWER

No one reading your first book of poems, Scenes from Another Life, could have predicted Hazmat (or even the strong Ten Commandments that preceded it). It strikes me that among your various careers—poet, critic, editor, librettist—only the first seems to have entailed real difficulty getting off the ground. Were you held back somehow, or does it just seem that way?

McCLATCHY

Yes, I suppose it did take me longer to clear my throat as a poet. Perhaps that’s because, by comparison, it’s the more difficult role and played for higher stakes. Still, I was stymied by a wrong idea I had of my task, based in part on my studies and in part on my anxieties. I thought poetry was merely language. I thought that poems don’t mean; they be. I thought that a suitably snazzy poetic diction and a complicated syntax would somehow conjure the poem’s occasion. It took a while to realize that life does that. And at the start, I never thought of taking the Proustian look backwards toward childhood’s sweaty sheets and adolescence’s nightsoil. I was trying instead for . . . for what? A weary sophistication? A haughty symboliste perch? The revolving disco ball of Stevensian abstraction? In any case, I was writing to show off what I knew—a sure sign of uncertainty, no? “Held back” is your phrase. Held back by what I knew, inhibited by my education? Or by what I thought it best to appear to be doing, a form of moral cowardice? Someone said once that an author ought to be fondest of two books, the one he’s at work on at the moment and the first one he ever published. I don’t share that sort of sentimentality.

INTERVIEWER

Do any of the poems in that first book still please you?

McCLATCHY

The last poem in the book to be written was “The Tears of the Pilgrims.” It drew on episodes from a summer recently spent in the Pyrenees, and is the book’s longest, loosest poem. To the extent that it resembles the kind of theme-and-variations format I came to prefer for many stronger poems, I have a tepid respect for it.

INTERVIEWER

What about this format—a long poem in smallish sections, an anthology of little poems slowly accumulating around a theme? The most accomplished example might be “Fog Tropes,” where it suits the subject so perfectly. Is it based on a musical model? Or maybe Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror?

McCLATCHY

I wish I could claim anything so grand as an Auden for a model, but actually your term anthology is closer to the mark, if you keep in mind one of those little gift books of poems about gardens or birds . . . very different sorts of poems all centered on a single motif. I suppose it comes down to—or rather, arises from—the force of form itself. Any one form—sonnet or haiku—gives such a radically new perspective on one’s theme that a suite of these seems closer to the second thoughts or mixed emotions one has about any poem’s subject. I prefer too the accumulation of clarity. William James says somewhere that ideas become true, that truth happens to an idea. It’s always seemed to me that, in the same way, meanings occur to a poem. Those meanings shift and shimmer, work at one time and are later irrelevant. So my theme-and-variations poems are an enactment of that process. No poem should be an urn to contain a meaning, but a net to catch what meanings float through the day, or float up from between the lines.

INTERVIEWER

That’s a rather watery definition.

McCLATCHY

Then let me navigate towards a better sense of things. I’m driven by a formal imperative. It’s like adoring the open sea, the clash of elemental forces, the overpowering scale of water and sky, the sleek majesty of sloops, the billow of sail and pull of line—and wanting both to study and pay homage to it all by building a model of a favorite boat—and then deciding to do it inside a bottle.

INTERVIEWER

One sonnet-length section of “The Tears of the Pilgrims” eerily anticipates “Fog Tropes”: “Overlapping jadeite scrolls of fog . . . . They couldn’t have understood until now.” I would guess that when you were writing the first book you were still in a sense putting your life together; in “Fog Tropes,” on the other hand, you’re watching the world slowly dissolve, through the eyes of—isn’t it?—your friend David Kalstone.

McCLATCHY

Or—the cynic in me would add—it may just be that I wrote about fog as an emblem of my own confusion over what I was up to. Something to duck behind. Your formulation of the difference between those two poems is much more elegant than I have any reason to claim, but I’d be happy to borrow it. And you’re right as well about the last section of “Fog Tropes.” It isabout my friend David Kalstone, whose dying days I attended. But “dissolution,” at least according to some wisdoms, is a form of discovery. The poem’s own term is “unknowing.” Learning how to unknow something or how to unlove someone . . . these flapping reels running in reverse have always fascinated me.

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of literary and musical models: how did you come by your love for those two arts in particular? Were they part of family life? Or did you discover them on your own?

McCLATCHY

I didn’t come from a literary family at all. Oh, there was a library in the house, stocked with unread sets of Dickens and Thackeray, and popular novels by the likes of Taylor Caldwell and James Gould Cozzens. If my parents never read to me or pointed me towards the classics, they always encouraged my passion for spending time in libraries and bookstores, which I began doing even as a child. And maybe reading is like sex—best discovered on one’s own. Music, on the other hand, was a family affair. My grandmother had seats in the center balcony box at the Academy of Music for the Friday afternoon subscription series of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and even as a boy I was often taken out of school in order to accompany her. By the time I was ten, and felt my sleeve tugged to leave midconcert—there was a Mahler symphony afoot and my grandmother was bored—I insisted on staying. The sound of that orchestra literally thrilled me. And before long, I had my own record player in my bedroom and was furiously conducting Siegfried’s Rhine Journey or Romeo and Juliet in front of the closet’s full-length mirror.

INTERVIEWER

What about popular music—Tin Pan Alley, jazz, rock? What sort of power does it have over you, if any?

McCLATCHY

I’d have to make a distinction between what I heard and what I listened to. I have an ear for music and remember almost everything I hear, so popular music has always been in the back of my head. Growing up, I loved to listen to my parents’ recordings of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, and to this day I know every note, every word of all the old standards, “Moonlight Cocktail” and “Elmer’s Tune” and the rest. The same with Broadway musicals. I knew them all. My parents loved them, too, and took me to New York for, say, The Music Man or The Sound of Music. And in those days, Philadelphia was a try-out town, so my high-school years were spent going to show after show. I still know by heart tunes both familiar and obscure, but the musical is an art form that’s largely extinct now—with the brilliant exception of Stephen Sondheim, whose work I admire to no end.

INTERVIEWER

And what about folk music?

McCLATCHY

By the time I was struggling into my teenage years, groups like the Kingston Trio were a hit, though the subsequent folk revival left me cold. The nasally whine of a Dylan, the dulling clarity of a Baez—all I wanted to do was throw a cloth over their cages. But the slushy, genial songs of earlier teen idols like Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Teresa Brewer, Dion and the Belmonts, the Platters—I knew all of that, mostly as background schmaltz. By the time I started at college the Beatles had burst on the scene, and eventually I even bought my first album of pop music, Sgt. Pepper’s. But that was about it. From the start I adored Ella Fitzgerald, and had her albums. A cool virtuosity has always appealed to me—hers or Art Tatum’s or Bill Evans’s. I wish I knew more about jazz, which is the greatest American art form, but I don’t. I still have an instinctive curiosity, though, and four or five times a year I’ll buy the new Radiohead or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s greatest hits. But in general, it was rock music . . . Well, that’s when I pretty much signed off. The first electric guitar, the pounding rhythm that banished melody, the indecipherable lyrics, the mindless repetition, the preening . . . it was as off-putting as the first time one heard “Kumbayah” in church. Oh, I listened to Diana Ross or Donna Summer, but that was only because in the seventies I was in discos to get drunk and laid. Once back home, with last night’s trick safely out the door, I’d put Thaïs on the stereo and sink back into the pillows with a smile.

INTERVIEWER

How conscious were you of the social implications of the choice between popular and classical music? That is, when you write of your earliest sexual experiences, the object of your affections—camp counselor Red, or a classmate’s horny older brother—usually seems to be a regular guy, with you cast in the role of—forgive me—the sissy.

McCLATCHY

In those poems, I think of myself as more the mooncalf than the sissy, but then they’re fictions—the feelings, not the facts—and meant to evoke a sorry innocence rather than a sexual type. In any case, despite the image others may have of a Franklin Pangborn dusting off his seat at Carnegie Hall, I never for a moment thought of listening to classical music as sissified. Even as a youngster I thought of conductors and soloists in the heroic manner other boys may have thought of major league sluggers. But speaking of pigeonholes, the sissy thinks of himself as apart, while I thought of myself as . . . What? Above? In any case, I had a cushioned ride up, and whatever snickers went unheard behind my back, I was tolerated, unmenaced by bullies or geeks. First, I had the good fortune of having few neighborhood friends, most of them girls, and of attending all-male Jesuit schools where intellectual aplomb was encouraged. The pudgy chess wizard was as famous in those corridors as the starting quarterback. I ran the literary magazine and starred in the senior play, was in a special class devoted to Greek and Latin, liked by the smart boys who bored me, ignored by the—what did you call them, “regular guys”?—whom I most longed for and despised. Second, I was blessed with parents who had the good sense to screen out what facts they must have feared would turn out to be unpleasant. In turn, I obliged family decorum by a hapless incuriosity—my so-called formative years confined to a few furtive, unfulfilled encounters, but mostly to mild private fantasies and handmade sex. In public, at home and in school, I didn’t rock the boat. Why bother? Better to lean back in the punt and be poled along the Cam by the imaginary depraved blond aristocratic scamp.

INTERVIEWER

By the way, have you ever been a sports fan yourself?

McCLATCHY

As a kid, I just adored baseball—not playing it, but watching it. I was raised to be a Phillies fan, but can even remember being taken to games of the Philadelphia Athletics. Mostly, I went with my father to Phillies games, and thrilled to them—to the likes of Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons. I remember Ted Kluzewski’s upper arms, and Richie Ashburn’s blond hair. But my most vivid memory is of being taken by my father to Yankee Stadium for a World Series game—the Yanks and the Braves—the immortal Warren Spahn! My head’s still filled with the stars, chaws in their cheeks, of those days, but I haven’t followed it all for years. Well, that’s not true. Because I admire virtuosity, I do follow the Yankees, but at a distance, in the newspaper, over a fellow straphanger’s shoulder.

As a teenager, I loved to shoot and owned a rifle. The sweet-and-sour smell of oil and smoke, the gunmetal’s iridescent blues, the target’s wounded circumferences . . . Then, in my twenties, I followed bullfighting intensely, in person and on TV. I was drawn by the gaudiness, by the lumbering menace, the mythic ritual of death destroyed—all so appealing to the Catholic sensibility I never lost even after its dogma had been jettisoned. I suppose both the firing range and the corrida are themselves theaters in which are enacted dramas of power and precision—the qualities I came to prefer in poems.

But playing sports? Well, I’ve always been happier in the locker room than on the playing field . . . and that puts a different spin on “sports,” doesn’t it? The idea of competition appeals to me. But focusing on a ball? All that gear, the injuries, the forced bravado and bonding, the cheerleaders, the lust for statistics . . . not for me, I fear. My parents were champion golfers, and early on pushed me toward the links. I had a natural swing, and might have been a good golfer. But, as you’d expect, I resisted their kind shove, and decided to try tennis—for which I had no aptitude whatever—and failed, as I had at chess. I’ve already said how thankful I remain that I went to schools where one didn’t have to prove oneself with a kneecap injury. Nowadays, my favorite solitary sport is the morning’s crossword puzzle, and my preferred contact sport—so much more grueling than football!—is gardening.

INTERVIEWER

In an essay, “Reading Pope,” you say, “The older I get and the more I have read, the less do masterpieces appeal to me.” You go on to claim that you prefer Vuillard to Michelangelo, which I assume is there for shock value. Equally hard to believe, though, is that you prefer Mendelssohn to Beethoven. I can imagine that you might be more likely to put on Mendelssohn in the house, but when you hear Beethoven in a concert hall—well, what happens? I mean, compared with what Beethoven did to you when you were a boy.

McCLATCHY

But I rarely go to concerts nowadays, and never to one featuring Beethoven! I don’t even own a CD with a Beethoven symphony on it. But that has nothing to do with my boundless respect for Beethoven’s genius. It has to do with the enjoyment of taste as distinct from the formation of taste. As a teenager, of course I had my Toscanini set of the symphonies and my Schnabel set of the sonatas (both of them so-so performances in wretched sound, but never mind—they were the high priests). It was crucial to learn everything, and the first score I ever bought, in fact, was that for Beethoven’s “Archduke” trio. But gradually preferences emerge. I found myself listening more often to Brahms than to Beethoven. Why? A little later, when you were told you couldn’t consider yourself sophisticated if you preferred Shostakovich to Schoenberg, I’d be under the sheets listening to the even more despised Tchaikovsky. Why? Where do these preferences come from? Partly it must be one’s own temperament, and how certain works of art both appeal to and help shape a sensibility.

As a teenager I’d been sold on the idea of genius. While my friends pored over Superman, I was reading garish lives of the great artists and couldn’t get enough of the overmuscled heroism, the gigantism of scale and form in Michelangelo’s figures, or the earnest solemnity, the storm and stress of Beethoven’s struggles—the noble rage, the deafness, the smashed pianos. That, as they say, is only a stage one goes through. Eventually I discovered that, say, Vuillard’s overlapping panels of texture between which women, half-glimpsed in lamplight, bent over small tasks like darning or dreaming, appealed to some as yet ungrasped understanding of myself. Or that Mendelssohn’s flickering romantic flame cupped in a crystal lamp of classicism corresponded to the economy of my own feelings—to a simultaneous yearning and restraint, a sense of passion and better still the memory of that passion.

Taste is the expression of the pleasure a person takes in his own inner perplexities and satisfactions. Which is why I can barely get through a day without listening for what echoes I can hear in Ravel’s silvery labyrinths and Rachmaninoff’s surging heaves. And why I’m enchanted by Britten, Mompou, Fauré, Chopin, Schumann, and Bach. I adore the Brahms chamber music, the Mozart piano concerti, and Tudor church music—along with Astor Piazzolla, Lou Harrison, G and S, and Bernard Herrmann. But the serious music lover would undoubtedly be horrified by my ready admission that I’m bored by Schubert’s songs and (with the sublime exception of The Marriage of Figaro) by Mozart’s operas too.

INTERVIEWER

Do the arts of music and poetry come together naturally for you in the writing of opera libretti? I can as easily imagine the enterprise spoiling them both for the duration of the project. And how does it work: does the music come first, or the words?