Q: Is writing poetry fun for you?
A: It's fun in that terrible, anxious- making way that riding a rollercoaster is fun. It creates enormous kinds of anxiety but at the same time there's something very satisfactory about it. It's a challenge that you set for yourself as opposed to having it set arbitrarily by others.
As a teacher I have to oblige my students, I have to oblige my colleagues, my deparment, my university. But with a poem I have ultimately to satisfy myself. If it satisfies me the chances are pretty good it will satisfy most of the poets that I know whose judgment I would rely upon.
On the other hand, there are an awful lot of poets, some of them quite well known, who are bored stiff by every word I've ever published. There are an awful lot of people who write free verse not only habitually, but with a kind of virulent determination that this is the only good thing and that everything else is old-fashioned and bad. A lot of those people would dismiss everything I write out of hand, just because of that.
And there are those kinds of poets who write what I describe as a sort of charcoal or pastel sketch. Things that are little transcripts of some passing mood or evanescent thought that happened to enter their mind. That doesn't seem to me very interesting, but these are people who think that anything they happen to think about is interesting.
Q: Does that make it poetry?
A: They have a following so they say yes. I think that what they offer as poetry is what I would conceive of as the draft for a poem. They think that anything that occurred to them is per se poetry because they are in some blessed way poets. And have been told so by their publishers.
Q: If you're published I guess that makes you a poet.
A: Yes, it's very strange. There was an organization that sent out a brochure. Anyone could join who was regarded as a writer. There were two criteria. One was if you had published two poems -- didn't make any difference where. The other one is if you had published no poems but given three poetry readings. There are an awful lot of people who are much more interested in being "poets" than they are in actually writing poems. To be able to say, I am a poet. Here was a peculiar standard. Having published two poems or given three readings. Then you knew that you were certified. It's very odd.
Q: When did it dawn on you that you were a poet?
A: I started trying to write poems a long time ago, 1946 or 1947. But Allen Tate used to say that he often felt that every poem he finished was the last one he might ever write. He never had any idea where the next was coming from. You're a poet when you're sitting at your desk actually writing the damn thing. But when you're getting up, eating a Hershey bar, you're just eating a Hershey bar and you're not a poet anymore.
Q: What do you do to get yourself into the writing mode?
A: I like to rise around 5 or 5:30. I normally have no more for breakfast than a cup of coffee. And what I do is to allow the sort of dazed state of semiconsciousness to last as long as I can. It happens to be rather fertile.It comes up with all kinds of suggestive material, sometimes words, sometimes images, sometimes something that has been gestating for a long time. From that state I can very often find my way to beginning a new poem.
Q: A novel begins, in the novelist's mind, as a germ of an idea, and then it develops over time. Is that the way a poem works with you?
A: A novel is likely to begin with some sort of dramatic situation or confrontation. A poem is likely to begin with words as opposed to seeing two people in a room about to knife each other. A poem can also have that as the subject. But because it is so much briefer than a novel, it won't have room for a great deal of action to take place. No time for babies to be born and old people to die and funerals to take place and lunches and so forth. All of whatever happens has got to be contained in a certain number of very carefully chosen words. The chances are that the poems will begin with some metaphorical discovery on the part of the poet. This color green looks like or reminds one of -- the mind is already launched on some trajectory. If it's any good it will pan out into some sort of decent thing.
Q: Then there's something magical about it?
A: Well, to people who don't write poems I guess it does seem magical, yes. To people who do it's an experiment with the mind. It's a dredging up of a lot of unconscious life and it's putting it in a certain kind of order. But it is not raw material for the psychoanalyst either. It's been sifted and chosen with particular care. Stuff that comes right out in a sort of raw, uncouth, untutored outpouring may very well serve for analytic commentary. There's a certain amount of which a poet is not aware that he has any control. He thinks he's choosing. He's being governed by forces deeper than he knows. Nevertheless, aside from whatever patterns of the unconscious may appear in a poem, he does his best to try to form it into what he regards as an artistic design.
Q: Do you find that you're composing as you're walking down the street?
A: Every once in a while I get an idea and I rush to make notes, lest I forget.
Q: Little teeny pieces of paper everywhere?
A: Right. Backs of envelopes.
Q: And then do you just throw them in a drawer somewhere?
Q: And then what?
A: When I finish something and don't know what to start next, I go and look at these little scraps of paper and see if they kindle any sort of fire. Sometimes they don't. And if they don't I just throw them out.
Q: What is it like to be the only employed poet outside of universities and Hallmark?
A: There's nothing I take greater delight in than writing poetry. But I can go on being delighted just so long and then I have to eat. Writing poetry does not make for a sufficient income to live even alone, much less with a family. Teaching earns you a living.
Q: What's it like being both a poet and a teacher?
A: You're teaching the literature which has gone into whatever education you've had as a writer. A writer begins to write because he has read things, not just because he's gone through them. You can go through them and be totally illiterate and be incapable of articulating whatever it is that you've gone through.
So it's a big pleasure. I enjoy teaching. There are only three things wrong with it. One is having to correct papers and grade them, which is absolutely petrifying in its dullness. The second is to attend the committee meetings. And the third and perhaps the worst of all is sitting in judgment on one's younger colleagues and deciding whether they are to be promoted or whether they're to be discarded.
If one could be free of all that stuff and just go into class and talk about the things that one loves and try to answer questions, it probably would be the most perfect profession in the whole world.
Q: What were your interests when you were, say, 12?
A: I was very fond of music. I played the piano by ear and went to concerts as often as I could. I exhibited no particular literary skills, no interest indeed of any strong kind until I got to college. I went right from college into the army. My parents were not interested in my literary efforts. They were a little surprised and bewildered by them when they appeared.
Q: Did you play sports when you were growing up?
A: No, I was a rotten athlete. There was something natively sedentary about me.
Q: Did you always play right field?
A: Not only did I always play right field but I was always the last to be chosen when you chose up sides for a game.
Q: Did you actually fight in World War II?
A: Yes. We went into action on the west side of the Rhine River and then took part in the invasion in Germany and ended up in Czechoslovakia when the war ended in Europe. At that point they still expected to have to invade Japan. Just after my division reassembled in Ft. Bragg, N.C., they dropped the two bombs that ended the war in the Pacific. Otherwise I would have had to go and I know very well that I would not have survived. I was scheduled to be in the first wave and there was no question but what it would have been a very costly invasion.
Q: Like the character said in "Venetian Vespers," "Life is a spectator sport." Is that the way it is for a poet?
A: I think the person who felt this most keenly in his poetry and in his life was William Butler Yeats who was torn constantly between wanting to be a man of action and a poet. And finding that the two roles were not to be reconciled. Especially when the rebellion was going on in Ireland, there were those who were manifest rebels and military heroes. They took their lives in their hands and dreamed of dying a martyr's death. Every once in awhile Yeats seemed to be furious with himself for not doing the same thing himself. At the same time he knew that if he did he'd stop writing poetry.
Q: Did you read (poet) Howard Nemerov saying that poetry in English is coming to an end?
A: Yes. I thought that that was an expression of personal weariness and bile. I don't agree with it for an instant. I don't think Howard does either.
Q: Do you find that people are not as enthusiastic about it as you'd like?
A: Oh, yes, of course. The last poet writing in English who had a really large audience was probably Tennyson. And all of us would like to have Tennyson's kind of audience.
Q: It doesn't seem to be a medium for someone who wants a lot of attention.
A: No, it's not. And I think what Howard may secretly have meant is that even the people capable of reading words is dwindling. They're being seduced by television and other forms of entertainment and there may come a time when the printed word is eclipsed altogether in which case poets are going to have a very tough time. But so will novelists.
Q: Isn't poetry an oral tradition? Might not television actually provide a place for it?
A: It is a possibility, yes. It would be altogether a different kind of art from the one we have now.
Q: Another form of modern poetry -- have you written any songs?
A: Yes, and some of my poems have been set to music. There were a group of little lyrics called "A Choir of Starlings." And then I had a group of poems called "Songs for the Air" or "Several Attitudes about Breathing." But this is not a field on which I try to concentrate.
Q: You wouldn't write an advertising jingle to make a quick buck?
A: I don't think I could make a quick buck with an advertising jingle. I suppose people who sell little verses to Hallmark greeting cards can make some money that way. I prefer to earn my living as a teacher.
Q: What do we lose if we lose poetry?
A: I don't think we will lose poetry because it will resurface in other forms. There are a lot of people who think that the pop rock lyrics are poetry. I happen not to think very highly of them, but my son thinks they're terrific.
Q: How old is he?
A: He's 11. If the reading public for poetry were to disappear it would probably come up in ways that might very much enrich the texts of popular songs. They would not be quite as mindless as they incline to be these days to be. I think the instinct for poetry is richly and usefully and profoundly there. Just the fact that we all do learn Mother Goose when we're kids makes an enormous difference.
Q: What purpose does rhyme serve?
A: Things written in meter and rhyme have a mnemonic value. It's much harder to memorize prose. I used to know parts of "Moby Dick" by heart. But "Moby Dick" is a cheat. There are parts of Moby Dick that scan. This is one of the reasons it is easy to memorize Shakespeare. Not because it's poetry with a capital "P," but because it's metrical, and the metrical pattern makes memorization easier. It's much easier to remember Shakespeare than Shaw.
I use rhyme quite very often. Most modern young writers think that it's just a leftover, old-fashioned preoccupation with what we got rid of. It's a musical feature of poetry. Sometimes it can even have meaning. There's a poem by George Herbert in which each stanza ends with a rhyme that ought to rhyme but doesn't, until the last stanza, when it does rhyme. The poem is a prayer which asks God to chasten and tune the heart of the poet. So that his lines will rhyme.
Q: You turned 60 this year. Popular wisdom has it that that is when a poet goes into his prime. Do you have a feeling about that?
A: Robert Penn Warren is still writing superbly well. He is a man of some more years than I have. William Butler Yeats seemed to have gotten more powerful and stronger as he grew older. Thomas Hardy didn't begin to write poetry until he was over 40. And quit writing novels, really, in order to turn entirely to poetry. And Sophocles wrote "Oedipus Colonus" when he was 90 years old. These are the people that I aspire to keep company with.