Issue 62, Summer 1975
Early in 1972—following the publication, in April 1971, of his Collected Poems—James Wright was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets. The latter was awarded “for distinguished poetic achievement” by a panel of judges consisting of W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and Richard Wilbur.
Thus, a considerable measure of public recognition was given to a poet already widely admired, especially on college and university campuses. In an age when, much to our loss, many fine poets find their books out of print, Mr. Wright’s earlier volumes—The Green Wall (1957), Saint Judas (1959), The Branch Will Not Break (1963), and Shall We Gather at the River (1968)—all have gone through more than one printing.
The following interview took place at Mr. Wright’s Manhattan apartment in early spring. The apartment is on the ground floor, and so, as we sat talking, we were able to look out through the (inevitably) barred windows at the small back garden and see, occasionally, the sunlight slanting between the surrounding buildings.
On the first day we held two sessions, separated by a walk in a nearby park on the East River and an excellent lunch prepared by Mrs. Wright. On the second, a misty, rainy day, we held one long afternoon session. On the table between us lay the tape recorder, the interviewer’s notes, a diminishing and then replenished gallon of wine, and Mr. Wright’s cigarettes and ashtray.
During the interview, Mr. Wright quoted many poems and prose passages as examples of points he was making. The interviewer later spent several hours in the library looking up and checking these quotations. The effort was unnecessary, as, except for a word here and there, Mr. Wright’s versions were always accurate. In the interest of conserving space, and because most of them are readily available elsewhere, several of these pieces have been cut. Those which are especially important to the interview as a whole remain as illustrations of Mr. Wright’s remarkable memory.
The unedited transcript of the interview typed out to eighty-three pages. Rigorous, and painful, editing brought this down to a manageable size, and the resulting version was sent to Mr. Wright. He returned it two weeks later, having added a few sentences and deleted a few others. That version, finally, is the one printed here.
Mr. Wright, you taught at the University of Minnesota with John Berryman. What is your feeling about him as a poet?
John Berryman was a very great poet and I think his work is going to endure. And not just because he was a good craftsman, but because he was demonstrating in his poetry, I think without realizing it completely, the fact that a poem is not only a single thing that can be made and very beautifully constructed, but that poetry is also something that can go on being made and it can almost reach a point where it recreates itself. By the growth of his work, and he never stopped growing, he was showing that there is something about poetry in the human imagination which is like the spring. Dr. Williams is a great poet for the same reason.
Tolstoy worried about this question. He was asked in a letter by a pacifist group if he could give them a definition of religion and, if he could do that, to explain to them the relation between religion, that is, what a person believes, and morality, that is, the way he acts in accord with some notion of how he ought to act. Tolstoy worried about this letter, and then as I recall it, he said: “I can only go back to myself. I look around myself and I see every year that, no matter what people do to themselves and to one another, the spring constantly renews itself. This is a physical fact, not a metaphysical theory. I look at every spring and I respond to it very strongly. But I also notice that every year the spring is the same new spring and every year I am one year older. I have to ask the question: what is the relation between my brief and tragic life and this force in the universe that perpetually renews itself? I further believe that every human being asks this question. He cannot avoid asking it—it is forced upon him. And his answer to that question is his religion. If he says the relation between me and this thing is nothing, then his religion is nihilism. As for morality, what ought I to do? I wish I knew.” That was a great letter.
Berryman’s greatness included of course his utter mastery of the craft of the language. But he also was demonstrating that poetry is not simply an ornament, that poetry has some deep-rooted relation to life itself, the way we go on living.
What is it to be a poet?
I can only tell you what it is to me. I regard myself primarily as a craftsman, as a Horatian. My favorite poet is Edward Thomas, and the person whom I would like to be my master is Horace—Horace, who was able to write humorously and kindly in flawless verse. I’ve achieved that maybe twice in my life, but that is what I would like to be.
Of course there are many other kinds of poets. There is Jack Finnegan for example. Jack Finnegan is a friend of mine, a learned gentleman whom I sometimes meet at Jack Loftus’s bar. There is a tradition in Irish poetry in which the poem itself is an answer to a question which someone has posed. Somebody says to a guy who is standing in a bar: What are you doing with those dice? The guy turns and says:
God rest that Jewy woman,
Queen Jezebel, the bitch
Who peeled the clothes from her shoulder-bones
Down to her spent teats
As she stretched out of the window
Among the geraniums, where
She chaffed and laughed like one half daft
Titivating her painted hair—
King Jehu he drove to her,
She tipped him a fancy beck;
But he from his knacky sidecar spoke,
‘Who’ll break that dewlapped neck?’
And so she was thrown from the window;
Like Lucifer she fell
Beneath the feet of the horses and they beat
The light out of Jezebel.
That corpse wasn’t planted in clover;
Ah, nothing of her was found
Save those grey bones that Hare-foot Mike
Gave me for their lovely sound;
And as once her dancing body
Made starlit princes sweat,
So I’ll just clack: though her ghost lacks a back
There’s music in the old bones yet.
Which is a way of saying, “You sing your business and I’ll sing mine.” The poem, by the way, is “Song for the Clatter-Bones” by the Irish poet F. R. Higgins.
Well, I thought it was only a literary convention, and you’re not going to believe this, but I swear in the sight of God that it is the truth. I went over to Loftus’s the other day, and I saw Jack Finnegan. I said, “Jack, how are you?” “OK, Professor,” he said, “how are you?” Then I asked him a question—and by God it turned out to be a living thing. He could not have known what question I was going to ask him. I said, “Jack, what do you think about Nixon’s visit to China?” And he turned to me and very beautifully sang:
In Peking’s fair city
Where the girls are so slitty
Twas there I met witty
Miss Molly Wong Wong.
She drove a wheelbarrow
Through streets broad and narrow
Singing Szechwan, Peking,
Alive a long dong.
Alive a long dong,
Alive a long dong,
Crying Szechwan, Peking,
Alive a long dong.
He sang it on the spot. What was I going to say to him? Jack, you made it up? Of course he made it up, he made it up on the spot. I was present at the creation.
There is another Irish tradition I’d like to mention. It is based on sheer arrogance, the determination to live. Poetry can keep life itself alive. You can endure almost anything as long as you can sing about it. Do you know Raftery? Anthony Raftery, from the eighteenth century, blind and illiterate, who carried a hand harp. He was standing in a bar and someone asked, who is that poor, frail old man leaning there in the corner with a harp in his hand? Raftery turned around and said: “I am Raftery, the poet, full of hope and love, with no light in my eyes, and with gentleness that has no misery, going west upon my pilgrimage by the light of my heart, though feeble and tired to the end of my road, and behold me now, with my back to the wall, playing music unto empty pockets.”*
Do you find being a poet painful, like playing music to empty pockets with your back to the wall?
Well, as you know, I’m also a professor. I’ve written books of verse, but I’m a professor. And to me personally, teaching is the art that gives me the more pleasure. I’m not trying to put myself down as poet, but I mean what I say. That is, the contact with my students, and my reading of books and trying to share my thoughts and feelings with my students, gives me more pleasure, and I honor this as a high art. Remember that the teachers include Jesus, Socrates, Siddhartha, Meister Eckhardt. In short, yes.
Poetry is something that you can’t escape from yourself?
I’m afraid I have to admit that I cannot escape it, and to that extent I regard it as a kind of curse. I’ve thought that many a time. Why the hell couldn’t I have been a carpenter or a handyman?
Is there behind it the feeling that to be a poet is to be too conscious of too many things?
Well, no, it doesn’t mean that to me so much. I’m conscious of many things, only strange things happen, strange things happen to me. And although I say that my ideal would be Horatian, I suspect this happened to beautiful Horace too. Sometimes there is a force of life like the spring which mysteriously takes shape without your even having asked it to take shape, and this is frightening, it is terribly frightening. It has happened maybe a few times to me—times when I’ve been able to get the poem finished in almost nothing flat.
What poems are they? Do you remember which ones finished themselves in nothing flat?
A poem called “Father,” a poem called “A Blessing.” Where did they come from? If you were to ask me that question, I would have to say, how should I know? Being a poet sometimes puts you at the mercy of life, and life is not always merciful.
Have you ever taught creative writing?
I tried it once and failed at it completely because all I could do was sit and talk to the class. And someone would ask me a question, how I worked on something, and all I could do was grunt. This is not to say it can’t be done, it can be done very brilliantly, as we know from the work of Theodore Roethke, who was a very great teacher.
Was he your teacher?
Yes, and he was my good friend for four years.
Oh father dear,
Do ships at sea
Have legs way down below?
Of course they do,
You goosey you,
Or else how could they go?
Roethke used to toss up a lot of them like that.
What did he teach you?
He taught mainly the craft, and he, like Berryman and like Lowell, was an entirely conscious craftsman. He understood that the relation between the craft and the mysterious imagination is not what we conventionally think it to be. There are some people who think that a very careful, conscious craftsmanship will repress your feelings. And Roethke understood that it is careful, conscious craft which liberates your feelings and liberates your imagination.
I know you took a master’s in creative writing. I’m not aware of how many poets actually study creative writing in a formal situation. Is there any real value in that, or does one still have to learn the essential things by himself?
I took the Master’s in creative writing to get it the hell out of the way. Don’t you have to learn every essential thing by yourself? Stanley Kunitz said to me once: “You’ve got to get down into the pit of the self, the real pit, and then you have to find your own way to climb up out of it. And it can’t be anybody else’s way. It has to be yours.”
May I tell you why I took the M.A. by writing a book of verse? I wanted to be a serious teacher and I wanted to get the M.A. out of the way so I could get down to the serious work of the doctorate, which I did. And I wrote it on Dickens. My subject as a teacher, my main subject, is the history of the English novel.
For a poet?
Oh, there is plenty of poetry in it. “And it’s old and old it’s sad and old it’s sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father, till the near sight of the mere size of him, the moyles and moyles of it, moananoaning, makes me seasilt saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms.” Finnegans Wake. Do you want to hear another one? This is from Tristram Shandy. Tristram, the narrator, has been trying to get to the place where he is born. At the end of chapter eight of volume IX he thinks he can finally tell what happened the night he was conceived, but then he suddenly remembers from what his Uncle Toby told him that the night he was conceived his father, Walter Shandy, and his mother got into a quarrel. It had something to do with who was to put the cat out and who was to wind the clock or something like that. And suddenly Laurence Sterne breaks through his own narrator, in the middle of the argument, and he says this. This is prose in a novel:
I will not argue the matter: Time wastes too fast: Every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen; the days and hours of it, more precious, my dear Jenny! than the rubies about thy neck, are flying over our heads like light clouds of a windy day, never to return more—every thing presses on—whilst thou art twisting that lock—see! it grows grey; and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, and every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make—Heaven have mercy upon us both! And the whole of chapter nine is: “Now, for what the world thinks of that ejaculation—I would not give a groat.” And then a little later in the novel he interrupts himself again and says: “You wonder who Jenny is, don’t you? Well, you pay attention to your own business and get back to the story.”
I want to ask what poets influenced your early work and what did you learn from them?
All suddenly the wind comes soft,
And Spring is here again;
And the hawthorn quickens with buds of green,
And my heart with buds of pain.
My heart all Winter lay so numb,
The earth so dead and frore,
That I never thought the Spring would come,
Or my heart wake any more.
But Winter’s broken and earth has woken
And the small birds cry again;
And the hawthorn hedge puts forth its buds,
And my heart puts forth its pain.
Can you guess who wrote that?
You would never guess, would you? Rupert Brooke. And he was a very good writer for a sixteen-year-old to read. “Down the blue night the unending columns press . . .” People never give him a tumble any more, but he was pretty good. He’s dead.
In the note attached to The Green Wall, you mentioned Robinson and Frost as influences.
Well, I was somewhat older then. When I wrote that book I was twenty-seven years old. I could tell you the kind of thing I had in mind. I wrote a sonnet called “Saint Judas,” and in that sonnet I was trying to do two things technically: to write a sonnet that would be a genuine Petrarchan sonnet and at the same time be a dramatic monologue. I got that idea from Robinson, who has a sonnet called “How Annandale Went Out.” Do you know what “went out” means? Well, this is conventional hospital parlance for dying. So and so went out last night. Annandale is a character Robinson had written about before, but in this particular sonnet the doctor is speaking. And, as usual in a dramatic monologue, he is speaking to another person, so that what you are doing is overhearing a conversation in which one person speaks and the other is listening. The doctor was a friend of George Annandale’s. George Annandale was an alcoholic who was suffering terribly with his death and so the doctor gave him an injection. That’s what the word engine means in this poem. He gave him an injection which killed him; that is, he administered euthanasia. Then he gets drunk, and in the poem he is talking to another friend of George Annandale’s. What is he trying to do? And Robinson—great Robinson!—leaves you hanging there saying, yes, what was he trying to do? Here is the sonnet:*
“They called it Annandale—and I was there
To flourish. to find words, and to attend:
Liar, physician, hypocrite, and friend,
I watched him: and the sight was not so fair
As one or two that I have seen elsewhere:
An apparatus not for me to mend—
A wreck, with hell between him and the end,
Remained of Annandale; and I was there.
“I know the ruin as I knew the man;
So put the two together, if you can,
Remembering the worst you know of me.
Now view yourself as I was, on the spot—
With a slight kind of engine. Do you see?
Like this . . . You wouldn’t hang me? I thought not.”
Then we have my poem on Judas, who is, I suppose, the ultimate lost betrayer. It is a—well, I wouldn’t call it a literal imitation of Robinson, but if I hadn’t read Robinson’s sonnets I know that I wouldn’t have tried to write that poem.
What did you learn from Frost?
Well, first of all I think that there is his profound, terrifying, and very tragic view of the universe, which seems to me true. I’ve never said life is meaningless, I’ve said it is tragic. I think it is intensely precious. God, sometimes I think I’m so happy I don’t know what to do with me. But it hurts like hell. There is that, but also technically there is something in Frost. He knows how to keep the adjectives out. An example is his poem “Lodged.” A very short poem, it has one adverb in it—”actually”—and that one adverb, it seems to me, strikes like a bullet.
Frost—America’s great nature poet. Would you call yourself a nature poet?
In part, yes.
The reason I ask that question is, the early poems seem partly nature poems, but also there are a lot of poems about people. The Branch Will Not Break is almost entirely a nature book. Shall We Gather at the River is something else, more personal. And the new poems, probably growing out of your life here in New York, are almost urban poems. I mean there is an urban landscape as opposed to the earlier Minnesota and Ohio landscapes.
Human beings are unhappily part of nature, perhaps nature become conscious of itself. Oh, how I would love to be a chickadee! But I can’t be a chickadee, all I can be is what I am. I love the natural world and I’m conscious of the pain in it. So I’m a nature poet who writes about human beings in nature. I love Nietzsche, who called man “the sick animal.”
Is it fair to ask you which of your own books is your favorite, which one you like best?
Yes, that’s fair enough. My own favorite is Saint Judas. I tried to come to terms in that book with what I felt to be the truth of my own life, which is that of a man who wants very much to be happy, but who is not happy. I do not have the talent for happiness. There are some people who do. I have a friend, a student, and you heard me tell her yesterday on the telephone that one of the high-rise buildings in New York is a cathouse. And she roared and roared with laughter and said it will set her up for the whole day. I do not have that gift; I wish I had. And in Saint Judas I tried to face the fact that I am not a happy man by talent. Sometimes I have been very happy, but characteristically I’m a miserable son of a bitch. I tried to come to terms with that in the clearest and most ferociously perfect form that I could find and in all the traditional ways. That was partly a defensive action, because I hurt so much then. After I finished that book I had finished with poetry forever. I truly believed that I had said what I had to say as clearly and directly as I could, and that I had no more to do with this art.
You’ve told me that before. What was wrong, and how did you get going again?
At that time I had come, for personal reasons but also for artistic reasons, to something like a dead end. I was in despair at that time, and what usually has consoled me is words—I’ve always been able to turn to them. But suddenly, it seemed to me that the words themselves had gone dead, I mean dead in me, and I didn’t know what to do. It was at that time that Robert Bly’s magazine, which was then called The Fifties, appeared. I wrote him a long letter because his magazine contained a translation of a poem by Georg Trakl. Some years earlier, at the University of Vienna, I had read in German the poetry of Trakl and I didn’t know what to do with it, though I recognized that somehow it had a depth of life in it that I needed. Trakl is a poet who writes in parallelisms, only he leaves out the intermediary, rationalistic explanations of the relation between one image and another. I would suppose that Trakl has had as much influence on me as anybody else has had. But the interesting thing is that when I read Robert Bly’s magazine, I wrote him a letter. It was sixteen pages long and single-spaced, and all he said in reply was, “Come on out to the farm.” I made my way out to that farm, and almost as soon as we met each other we started to work on our translation of Trakl.
You should see us working together on something. We get up in the morning and won’t even look at each other. We pace back and forth. He’ll turn without looking at me and say to his wife, Carol, “Yeah, he likes J. V. Cunningham.” Then I get one up on him by quoting him a Cunningham poem. And we sit and stare at each other. We would say things that I would not repeat even for The Paris Review. And yet I’m a member of his family too. I’m Mary’s godfather. They loved me and they saved my life. I don’t mean just the life of my poetry, either. To think of Carol Bly is to defeat despair. Never mind my small experience of human beings. Carol is one of the noblest persons who ever lived, as far as I’m concerned.
Did he have the strong influence on your work of that time that is sometimes ascribed to him?
Yes. He made it clear to me that the tradition of poetry which I had tried to master, and in which I’d come to a dead end, was not the only one. He reminded me that poetry is a possibility, that, although all poetry is formal, there are many forms, just as there are many forms of feeling.
The book that followed, of course, is The Branch Will Not Break. How do these things show up there?
At the center of that book is my rediscovery of the abounding delight of the body that I had forgotten about. Every Friday afternoon I used to go out to Bly’s farm, and there were so many animals out there. There was Simon, who was an Airedale, but about the size of a Great Dane. There was David, the horse, my beautiful, beloved David, the swaybacked palomino. Simon and David used to go out by Bly’s barn. David would stand there looking out over the corn fields that lead onto the prairies of South Dakota, and Simon would sit down beside him, and they would stay there for hours. And sometimes, after I sat on the front porch and watched them, sometimes I went and sat down beside Simon. Neither Simon nor David looked at me, and I felt blessed. They allowed me to join them. They liked me. I can’t get over it—they liked me. Simon didn’t bite me, David didn’t kick me; they just stayed there as they were. And I sat down on my fat ass and looked over the corn fields and the prairie with them. And there we were. One afternoon, a gopher came up out of a hole and looked at us. Simon didn’t leap for him, David didn’t kick him, and I didn’t shoot him. There we were, all four of us together. All I was thinking was, I can be happy sometimes. And I’d forgotten that. And with those animals I remembered then. And that is what that book is about, the rediscovery. I didn’t hate my body at all. I liked myself very much. Simon is lost. David, with what Robert called his beautiful and sensitive face, has gone to the knacker’s. I wish I knew how to tell you. My son Marsh, the musician, is in love with animals.
What effect do you feel your role as translator—the sort of work you did with Bly—has had on your own poetry?
It’s led me into some further possibilities of saying something that I think I wanted to say from the beginning. And that, unfortunately, being damned as I consider myself, I felt that I had to say or I would die. I think that most of the people who are alive in the world right now are very unhappy. I don’t want people to be unhappy, and I’m sorry that they are. I wish there were something I could do to help. I’m coming to face the fact that there isn’t much I can do to help. And I think I’ve been trying to say that ever since I’ve started to write books. That’s what my books are about.
How do you react to hearing the poems of The Branch Will Not Break and afterward described as surrealistic?
They are not surrealistic, they are Horatian and classical. When they sound surrealistic, all that means is that my attempt to be clear has failed. They are not surrealistic and I am not a surrealist. The crucial element of surrealism is not a structural and formal matter, but that it is funny. Up to World War I, the ideals in Europe had been ideals of honor, integrity, mother, apple pie, and the flag. The young men who went into that war suddenly discovered that this was a lie. What it meant was that they were being led to kill each other. The French surrealists responded with comedy, and the only American surrealist we’ve had who has understood this—no, we’ve had two of them. One is Malcolm Cowley in the book Exile’s Return. No, we’ve had three of them—E. E. Cummings was another one who understood. You know, he went out to urinate on the Paris lawn. Suddenly, a policeman grabbed him and he immediately found himself surrounded by the French. This was after the war was over, and they shouted at the cop, “Reprieve le pisseur American!” Let that American pisser go.
Another thing that happened was that Cowley was sitting, as he tells us in that beautiful book, in a cafe. The waiter pushed him. He pushed the waiter back, and he thought, this is it. You know, le gendarmerie will be here in a minute. And so he covered his face with his hands. Suddenly, he found himself lifted on the shoulders of all the people in the cafe, and they carried him down the street singing. The only other American poet that we have had who has understood the principle of French surrealism is our beautiful poet from Ohio—where else?—Kenneth Patchen.
My favorite of your books is Shall We Gather at the River. And one thing that I really like about it is the fact that it has integrity and coherence. In other words, it’s not quite a single narrative poem, but it’s not just a collection of separate lyrics either. How do you feel about that in respect to that book?
It was very carefully written to move in that way. Whether it came off or not is another question, and not for me to judge. Like hell! I know damn well that that book is perfectly constructed, and I knew exactly what I was doing from the very first syllable to the very last one.
Which is what? What were you doing?
I was trying to move from death to resurrection and death again, and challenge death finally. Well, if I must tell you, I was trying to write about a girl I was in love with who has been dead for a long time. I tried to sing with her in that book. Not to recreate her; you can’t recreate anybody, at least I can’t. But I thought maybe I could come to terms with that feeling which has hung on in my heart for so long. The book has been damned because it is so carefully dreamed.
Do you in constructing your books generally have that idea of coherence in mind?
Every time. Did I mention to you Robert Frost’s remark—it is a very Horatian remark—that if you have a book of twenty-four poems, the book itself should be the twenty-fifth? And I have tried that every time, every time.
Well, let’s take one more example. What was your principle of order in The Green Wall? What structural principle were you working with?
I tried to begin with the fall of man and acknowledge that the fall of man was a good thing, the felix culpa, the happy guilt. And then I tried to weave my way in and out through nature poems and people suffering in nature because they were conscious. That was the idea. I don’t think that that book is structurally very coherent, but that was the idea of it. You know, I left out about forty poems from that book.
I had a letter from Mr. Auden about it in which he said, in effect, “I think that you should cut some things, but whatever you cut is up to you.” And once I started cutting I got about forty of them out and ended up with forty. In other words, I write abundantly. And then my next step is to struggle to reduce the ornament, to reduce the abundance—to prune the book, in other words, the way one prunes a tree—so it can grow. This is my idea of a book.
Do you do that with individual poems also—rewrite them and prune them?
Yes. I rewrite my poems so often that I sometimes get mixed up about which version was finally published. I don’t want to let a poem go until I think I’ve got it honed down just to what it should be, and that involves all sorts of weird problems. One of them is that you overwrite it. You’ve got to know when to stop. Bach is the greatest of the human composers, but in my opinion Mozart is an angel. And one thing that makes him angelic is that he knows exactly when to stop. He knows when to shut up. And in doing that he gives you your own song. I think he is the greatest thing who ever . . . He is the spring. I think he’s an angel, I think he was an angel that came to the earth. And that is one thing that makes him angelic—he knows exactly when to shut up. And by knowing that, you sit there, and you realize that your own song is coming awake in music. He can give you your own song. Think of that! God I think that is miraculous, I think that literally is miraculous.
You have said that being a very good craftsman is a problem for you as a poet. How is this so?
Because my chief enemy in poetry is glibness. My family background is partly Irish, and this means many things, but linguistically it means that it is too easy to talk sometimes. I keep thinking of Horace’s idea which Byron so very accurately expressed in a letter to Murray, “Easy writing is damned hard reading.” I suffer from glibness. I speak and write too easily. Stanley Kunitz has been a master of mine, and he tells me that he suffers from the same problem. His books are very short, as mine are, and he has struggled and struggled to strip them down. There are poets, I have no doubt, who achieve by some kind of natural gift the difficulty that one needs. Because whatever else poetry is, it is a struggle, and the enemy, the deadly enemy of poetry is glibness. And that is why I have struggled to strip my poems down.
When you sit down to write a poem, what happens? Do you start with an idea, a theme, a rhythm?
In my own case it’s usually with a rhythm and not with an idea. And I don’t know what I’m going to say, and three-fourths of the time after I’ve finished I don’t even know what I’ve said. I wouldn’t say that I’m a frustrated musician, but I love music and I think this is why I usually begin a poem that way. Music has given me a much greater sense of the possibilities of quantity in poetry.
But can you do that? Is it really possible to take a musical quality and make it work only in words?
The Elizabethans sure as hell did it. When they figured out blank verse somehow they learned this was a way you could sing and talk at the same time. And they didn’t let it dominate them. Hell, there are about ten thousand examples—Shakespeare poured songs into his plays, Ben Jonson wrote many beautiful songs, Sir John Dowland, one of the great musicians of the world, was at the top of his form right at that moment. Sir John Harington, Sir John Davies and his “Nosce Teipsum,” George Peele. They were all in there.
Walt Whitman learned how to do it. He didn’t understand what he was doing, but he did it. Let me give you just one example, from his poem “I Heard You, Solemn-Sweet Pipes of the Organ.” He has this line, and you don’t have to ham it up to hear the effect: “Winds of autumn, as I walk’d the woods at dusk I heard your long-stretch’d sighs up above so mournful.”
We were speaking of coherence in books of poems. Did you have in mind, when arranging your Collected Poems, an overall unity? One critic has found a quest throughout all your earlier books which he feels is resolved in the section of “New Poems.”
Wait till you see my new book. I published the Collected Poems because I had a new book going and those other books were getting in my way. I thought that this would be the most practical way of getting them off my neck. Once I’ve finished something, I’ve got to be free of it. I also published that book because it was time to get the hell out of America.
The new book is called Two Citizens. What is the significance of the title?
My wife, Annie, who means so much to me, introduced me to Europe, which we love. And yet we know that we also love America. We know that at this time Americans, who are good people and a kind of lost people, are suffering very badly. There is so much vitality in this country, there are so many good men, good, kind, intelligent men. Where did it all go wrong? May I quote Mencken? “There are many people in this country, some of whom are handsome, and many of whom are wise, and Calvin Coolidge is President of the United States. It is as though a man, seated before a sumptuous banquet, were to turn aside and regale himself by eating flies.”
So Annie, who had taught several years ago in the Overseas School of Rome and in the American school in Paris, introduced me to France and Italy. I’m a Viennese myself, that is I’m fluent in German. Annie speaks a little French and Italian. We are two citizens. Citizens of the poor old son of a bitch, the United States. But we are also citizens of Europe.
Two Citizens begins with a curse on America. There are some savage poems about Ohio, my home, in that book, poems that I could not have written if I hadn’t found Annie. She gave me the strength to come to terms with things which I loved and hated at the same time. And in the middle of that book, between the curse and the final expression of grief, there is a whole long sequence of love poems. I’ve never written any book I’ve detested so much. No matter what anybody thinks about it, I know this book is final. God damn me if I ever write another.
Even though I don’t love that book, I love what lies behind it, because it grew so directly out of my new life, my life with Annie. We’d planned a trip to Europe, but it was late spring and I was trying to finish up the Collected Poems. I felt empty, but Annie kept me going. She even did all the typing. So we finished the book, the contract was signed, the manuscript delivered, and off we went. And for the second time in my life I thought I was done with poetry forever. I always think I am done with poetry forever. We stayed several days in Paris, where we would walk out in the morning. We would go to market, then we would go to a cathedral to see what was going on in town. Then we would go with our cheese, our paté, our wine, and have lunch. Then we went to bed. Then in the late afternoon we would go out and have an aperitif. And to my utter, miraculous astonishment, I started to write poems again. And they turned out to be love poems, love poems of gratitude. And that went on all summer, all the way drifting down through from Paris to the south of France, and then to Italy.
I told you earlier that I loved Saint Judas the best because I came to terms with my own pain then. But the new book is—it’s almost a resurrection of Saint Judas. In fact, maybe I should have given it one of the titles Don Hall has suggested to me. He’s a wonderful man, and he loves to make up titles. One he suggested to me was Son of Saint Judas. Another was Saint Judas Meets the Wolf Man. He’s a fine man, an excellent poet and certainly one of our most intelligent critics of poetry. And we have damned few, damned few. That’s one thing that’s wrong with us, because you can’t have a real poetry without a real criticism.
Does your poem “Ars Poetica: Some Recent Criticism” deal with literary criticism?
No, this is a poem about my Aunt Agnes, who is a very suffering woman, and has been dying slowly for many years. I get so damned angry about the difference between literary criticism and real life in this country that I thought I would write an ars poetica of my own, which is about what is really going on in this country.
What would you see as the ideal criticism?
To teach the younger poets the crucial importance of the relation between craft and imagination. Because without craft, by which I mean the active employment of the intelligence, the imagination, that mysterious and frightening thing, can not come free. We have had to learn so much by ourselves, and you, the younger poets, are in a position to see what Merwin and Dickey and Bly and Kinnell and Stafford and Mary Oliver, with her singular purity and gentleness, and I meant, that the American possibility is a possibility of forms fantastically beyond what we had been taught.
While we’ve been talking you have mentioned several very good but almost forgotten poets—Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke, and others. Of course you’ve also written a poem indirectly addressed to Edna St. Vincent Millay. Why do we keep forgetting good poets like that?
I have no answer to that. How do you account for the fact that people forgot John Donne for a couple of hundred years? We can’t remember everything at once. We do get a few people who understand the intensity and the true beauty of life in the face of death and pain. And what else have we got except love? We’ve got to have it because the only other thing there is is death and pain. That, I take it, is the meaning of that shocking statement, God is love. Whole cultures have been built to get around that one. Now that we are almost finished, I want to tell you two stories. The first is one of the tales of the Hasidim, from western Poland.
There was an orthodox Jewish tailor who knew that on the day of atonement he ought to attend the services at the synagogue. He did not go. The next day he met his rabbi. The rabbi said, “All right, let’s have the excuse.”
The tailor said, “I decided, Master, that yesterday I would go in the back of my shop and talk to God myself.”
“All right,” said the rabbi, “what did you say to him?”
“Well, I said, ‘God, you know everything, and you know all my sins. But for your convenience I will repeat them. Once when I was young I slapped a child in the face. Once when I was a tailor I made a pair of pants for a man and instead of giving him back what was left of the material, I kept it myself. I’ve probably committed a few more and I can’t remember them, but God you know everything and you remember them. And as far as I know, that is the extent of my sinning’.”
“Go on,” said the rabbi.
“Then I said, ‘God, you have allowed children to be born without eyes. You have allowed the human race, whom you created, out of their own unhappiness to kill each other when they did not even know each other. You are all-powerful, you know everything’.”
So the rabbi said, “Go on.”
The tailor said, “I told him, ‘God, let us compare our sins. If you’ll forgive me mine, I will forgive you yours’.”
The rabbi paused and then shouted, “You idiot! Why did you let him off that easily? Yesterday was the day of atonement. You could have forced him to send the messiah!”
That’s a fantastic story.
Yes. Our real life is the most fantastic story. Rabbi Heschel is dead. Eheu! Back in Minneapolis I made friends who are Muslim and they invited me to the first banquet after the feast of Ramadan. Ramadan is a ritual carried on in the spring in which the Muslims remind themselves that there are many poor and suffering on the earth, and from dawn until evening they will not eat or drink. But the Muslims also have their orthodox, their establishment.
In the eighth century, there was a man named Mansur-al-Halaj who entered the city of Baghdad. He was a Sufi. The Sufi were a Muslim sect who had heard about Jesus, and they believed that Jesus was a saint. There are many of them, but al-Halaj is my favorite. This is what he did. He went to the chief authorities of the city of Baghdad and he said, “I am going to try to live as Jesus lived. I know what happened to him”—eighth century, remember—”I remember what happened to him, and I know that if I try to live as he lived, you will be frightened, and I know what you will do to me. And I want to tell you beforehand that I don’t hate you.”
Well, they gave him the fish eye and said, “Well, here’s another nut.”
Then he went out and talked to people saying, “Why don’t we try to love one another?”
Finally they got him. They crucified him. They cut off his right hand and his left foot and crucified him upside down. And at dawn he was still alive. The vizier—ah, Henry Kissinger—came out and said to him, “Were you flying through the universe again last night?”
And as he died he said, “No, I was just hanging here, alone with the alone, among the stars.”
I’ve got one more for you. It’s a gag, a Muslim gag. You’ll like it, it’s very nice. One of my best friends in the world is a man named Ghazi Ghalani. He is from Iraq, from Baghdad, and I used to see him in St. Paul all the time. There used to be a bar, a piano bar, called The House of Ming. And I would get this phone call saying, “Hello, Jim?”
“Ghazi! Where are you?”
“I am at The House of Ming. Come on down and have a drink.”
So I would arrive, and there would be this ninety-year-old woman playing World War I torch songs. And Ghazi would be sitting there. He looked like Danny Thomas. And I would say, “How do you feel, Ghazi?” Now in English if you ask somebody how he feels, and he feels lousy, he’ll say, “I feel lousy.”
But Ghazi used to do the prayer gesture, and then he would say in Arabic, “If my family traded in shrouds, people would stop dying.”
If my boyhood dreams were true, my country would stop dying.
* Translated from the Gaelic by Dr. Douglas Hyde.
* “How Annandale Went Out” (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910) is reprinted by permission of Charles Scribner’s Sons from The Town Down the River by Edwin Arlington Robinson.
Author photograph by Nancy Crampton