Book review: Michael Dirda reviews 'Poetry in Person'

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, April 22, 2010; C03


Twenty-Five Years of Conversation With America's Poets

Edited by Alexander Neubauer

Knopf. 343 pp. $27.95

For almost 25 years, starting in 1970, Pearl London conducted a class at New York City's New School called "Works in Progress." London asked poets -- very famous poets -- to come to the seminar table with the manuscripts and doodles and drafts and work sheets for their most recent poems. "This is a course," she wrote, "concerned essentially with the making of the poem, with the work in progress as process -- with both the vision and the revision. In a sense, the shaping spirit of the imagination is what it is all about."

Pearl London died in 2003, and "Works in Progress," like most college courses, would have then simply passed into the memory of its participants. But London's seminars had been recorded, though the cassettes were then packed away and half forgotten -- until Alexander Neubauer transcribed and edited them into "Poetry in Person: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations With America's Poets." A few tapes were missing, including those for Robert Creeley and John Ashbery, and some people had to be left out, but the end result is one of the best books you will ever read on how poems are actually made.

Here are Robert Pinsky, James Merrill, Lucille Clifton, Stanley Plumly, Muriel Rukeyser, Charles Simic, Frank Bidart, Galway Kinnell, Li-Young Lee, Eamon Grennan, Marilyn Hacker and more than a dozen others talking about how they think and work. London herself prepared for her guests by reading everything they had written, both poetry and prose. According to Robert Polito, she would then greet "each poet with a vast folder of her accumulated notes and quotations, her questions neatly but expansively written out . . . on unlined yellow paper, the pages clipped together according to the topics she intended to pursue."

In class London would probe and sometimes deliberately provoke her visitors to comment as honestly as possible about what they were hoping to achieve in particular poems and as artists in general. Many confessed to hesitations and uncertainties about new work and sometimes about old work as well.

Most usefully, Neubauer's book reproduces some of the actual drafts and typescripts discussed, allowing one to follow along and compare an early and late version of the same poem. So Robert Hass takes the class through "Meditation at Lagunitas," Maxine Kumin explains how she wrote "For My Son on the Highways of His Mind," Paul Muldoon elucidates his zany neologisms "emphysemantiphon," "metaphysicattle" and "Oscaraboscarabinary" in "Cows."

"Poetry in Person," then, invites the most careful study, yet it's also a book full of gripes and brilliant observations and impassioned arguments. Here's just a sampling:

C.K. Williams: "People often assume that a form is a constraint, something that you have to push and squash things into, but in fact a form is generative." Philip Levine: "In reviewing '1933,' Richard Howard talks about the fact that I've gone down to the lowest depths to accept a world that is almost unacceptable. Richard Howard can say that because he grew up in a very expensive suburb of Cleveland. But I don't find Detroit's people ugly. I find them precious and gorgeous. They were the people that gave me my life, my values, that nurtured me."

Robert Hass: "The prejudice I grew up with was to distrust consciousness and trust the unconscious. I think that's a mistake. The place to begin to learn a craft is to learn to trust your consciousness so you will behave without robotlike instructions." Edward Hirsch: "There's a tone I hear in [Robert Frost] that I have tried very hard to get in my own work, which is a -- I don't know why it's so moving to me -- but it's a combination of desperation and playfulness."

June Jordan: "I was horrified by the cover [for 'Things That I Do in the Dark']. . . . My editor for the book was Toni Morrison, and I said, 'Toni, this is cheap, this is offensive.' She said to me, 'Poetry doesn't sell. The publishing house feels it's doing a poet a favor to publish poetry at all. And if you're not going to cooperate with what they think is making it marketable, then we're just not going to do it.' "

London herself is very much a part of these conversations and clearly knows each poet's work by heart. She doesn't just admire Amy Clampitt's lush diction, she cites examples: "amber of Budweiser," "oleander stillness," "the in-mid-air resort of honeybees' hirsute cotillion." This leads Clampitt to confess her love for Keats's sensuous language and her own taste for unusual words: "I wrote a poem once that ends with 'tortfeasors.' Nobody will publish that poem. It's a legal term -- a wonderful word. It is always a problem whether you're going to use a word that your readers will never have heard of. I can't defend it very well; if people don't like to look things up in the dictionary, I suppose I do go too far."

Perhaps the single most dazzling interview here is that with Derek Walcott. London starts by saying how much she likes a line from "Sunday Lemons" that goes, "as the afternoon vagues/into indigo." Walcott, surprisingly, doesn't care for it all, thinks it a mistake. In essence, he says, the whole phrase is "a little rhetorical. . . . The verb is magnetic and it's a little overmagnetic here, because the extra touch of saying 'indigo' somehow hits a note that's a little too affected for me. It's pitched a little too high." From here, Walcott launches into a detailed six-page explication of his initial and final word choices for "XLVIII," later included in his collection "Midsummer."

Paul Valery famously observed that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. In a similar vein, Walcott sums up the glory and the vexation of being a poet, of always falling short of one's original vision, of failing the test of "remorseless honesty": "There is no rest, really, there is no rest, there is just a joyous torment all your life of doing the wrong thing." What's more, as William Matthews points out, you also have to work with so many of your own limitations, but the trick is to use what you're given and make an asset of it. "That's what an artist is. You're born with a limp and figure out a way to run fast with a limp."

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