Interview with Connie Grogan, June 21, 1989 (excerpts)
Your poetry is wonderfully musical. You commented earlier that music in poetry is very important to you but not enough by itself. Poetry must have something else. Just what is that something else?
I was probably thinking about content or thought, whatever it is one feels compelled to say in a poem. I think one writes to say things, but the poet wants to do that as a kind of music. I think of poetry as a music made of emotion or feeling. It’s the feelings which correspond to content in poetry. If you have only one of these poles, music or content, then the poem is incomplete or inadequate. If you’re not particularly interested in music, but interested in saying things, you should write essays; if you’re interested in music but not content, you should write music. The great challenge and joy of poetry is that you’re given language to make music with. Language, though, has a prior life to the poet’s uses of it. Language carries with it traditions of use and etymologies. Words mean things and are used in specific ways. They have social resonances that the poet must deal with in making whatever music he or she makes, and cutting through language, which is used for advertising, political persuading, cursing, praying, and such functional matters as “please pass the salt,” can present the poet with huge problems, though of the sort that poets love to solve if they can.
What function do you think poetry serves? Why do we need poetry?
I guess I was brought up, or came early, to Freudian notions, that somehow or other real life is concealed from us. Important dimensions of life are there but not there. As Wallace Stevens said, on a completely different subject, “Invisible or visible or both. ”I think the arts in general, all forms of it, have ways to get at buried experience, buried senses of things, things we feel but have no words for. As William Carlos Williams said in a famous quotation, “it is difficult to get the news from poems, but men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
Your poetry shows much skill in changing from one voice to another from poem to poem. What makes you choose to write a poem in a different persona than your own?
I don’t know. I don’t think I choose. Rather I just find myself doing it. Sometimes it’s in the nature of the experience I want to render.... The range of aesthetics in poetry, and the arts in general, continues to be dominated by Romantic thinking, and Romantic aesthetics is predicated on the belief in a single, genuine self. This notion, depending on the individual, can be coercive or limiting. If you feel that you must have a single, genuine core to your self, that you must be one person, you can’t let other parts of yourself out. You cancel out ranges of being and prevent yourself from seeing or dealing with feelings you do in fact have. Some part of me (notice the language here) has always believed, perhaps because I first learned from poets who were anti-Romantic (T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Robert Browning, all poets who used different voices in their poetry) that there are many different kinds of selves. I also feel, and Language Poetry has helped me see this, that selves are to an extent constructs. Poets make a self for themselves to speak their poems, as W.B. Yeats said in the 30's. So, why stick to one? I know there are some good answers to that question, but for me it’s necessary that I try to address as full a range of my feelings as I can, and multiple voices help. Many writers have had them. Browning, Chaucer, Dickens come to mind, though each of them had what I would call a dramatic imagination which made writing in voices easier or more natural. The poet some people call the greatest we’ve had in English, Shakespeare, admittedly was writing plays, but the poetry of those plays relies on his ability to “be” anyone. We only starve ourselves as poets by not allowing that option.
You mentioned Ezra Pound earlier, which brings me to ethics. Can poetry be unethical?
Poetry can be, I suppose. I don’t think any poetry that matters, any writing that matters, is unethical. No one has been more ethically motivated than Ezra Pound. There is, unfortunately, the fascist side of him. But he railed against misery and spent the greater part of his life trying to make what he called civilization possible, an ethical civilization based on ideas of orderly government and morally responsible economics. That he should have had the ideas about Jews he had is really unfortunate. He was a great poet, who, after passing through his art-for-art’s sake phase, was converted I think by the experience of World War I to the idea of using poetry immediately and directly for the good of the social order, for political broadcasting and preaching.
Do you agree with that—using poetry for preaching?
I tend not to want to. However, I sometimes break down and do it. But it is a matter of breaking down. I would rather, putting it in terms of showing and telling, try to persuade by showing or as Pound said, “presenting.” This has become a rather worn-out piece of advice, “show, don’t tell.” It carries a distortion that goes against the very reason for writing. Of course we want to tell. Every writer does....”Show don’t tell” should be replaced by “Tell by showing.”
Most modern published poetry seems to be written by academically trained poets, writers who earned an M.F.A. or Ph.D. What do you think about the academic training of the poet? Is poetry changing because of the large number of people obtaining advanced degrees in creative writing? Is poetry losing profundity? After all, what can a 23-year-old streamlined M.F.A. tell me about life?
Six years ago I would have said hogwash. If Shakespeare were alive today, he would be in an MFA program because that is the way we raise and encourage writers. Going back to Ezra Pound: In his day, to be a poet in this country was to be ignored, to be isolated, to work in a kind of desert. That’s changed. We now have an audience for poetry, however slim. They may all be writing poems, but what’s wrong with that? Fort Wayne has a symphony orchestra, Indianapolis an art museum, San Francisco a ballet company. A hundred years ago it was very different. There is more good poetry be written now than at any time in our history, though I’m not sure there is more great poetry being written. However, I admire poets who are able to stay out of the academy, such as Bly. Yes, I think there is a lot of routine writing, but at the same time, if you were able to examine all the sonnets written in England from roughly 1565 to 1600, would you be able to tell a Michael Drayton sonnet from one by Sidney? Or, would you find that these poets were all pretty much talking about the same things in roughly the same language? I think every period has its period language and voice, its own recognizable range of concerns and diction. From that standpoint, I think there is more variety today than there ever has been. Of course before Romanticism, originality was considered an esthetic vice. The Romantics made it the cornerstone of their esthetics. As for originality, It think it is important but only because we are all original. Honesty requires that we notice and reveal that originality, but I think it can take care of itself. If you try to be original, I think you’ll fail. When you get down to it, it’s the easiest thing in the world to be original. You can print your poem upside down (unless somebody’s already done that).