In 1987, when I was three years out of graduate school and expanding my views of contemporary American poetics, I undertook an eight-hour interview, comprised of four two-hour sessions, with my former Pomona College English professor, renowned poet Robert Mezey. Each session of our interview began with the poet’s arrival at my cabin high up on Mt. Baldy, located in southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains. Because Mezey would be a bit breathless from the altitude (7,500 feet), we’d sip cups of chamomile tea before I clicked on my reel-to-reel tape recorder. Suffering from a skin ailment that required direct daily exposure to sunlight, he spent part of each interview discreetly sunbathing nude on my deck (I once told him that wearing his birthday suit was apt for the editor of his much-heralded anthology, Naked Poetry). Clothed or unclothed, Mezey illuminated our discussions with his characteristic wit, passion, humility, and erudition.
Mezey’s academic secretary later transcribed the resulting interview on her Selectric typewriter, making just two copies of it, one for him and one for me. Stacking up to a hefty 251 typed pages, this transcript of our conversations was lively, far-ranging, and occasionally controversial, but always instructive and insightful. In addition to discussing traditional, modern, and contemporary poetry and poets, we examined how America’s counterculture of the 1960s influenced Mezey, his work, and his writing process. We also talked about many of the great themes in poetry, including love, death, transformation, and loss.
Surprisingly, during our interview, Mezey repudiated the two ground-breaking and influential anthologies that he co-edited with Stephen Berg, Naked Poetry: Recent American Poetry in Open Forms (MacMillan, 1969) and The New Naked Poetry (Bobbs-Merrill, 1976). In many regards, these anthologies document an important moment in American letters, for most American poets who were writing during the 1960s and beyond considered Modernism dead and favored a poetics of free verse. Both books helped shape a whole generation of young poets, myself included. In compiling these anthologies, Mezey and Berg presented a credo that American poets must reject traditional literary forms, especially meter and rhyme, and embrace poetic expressions that arise organically from their content. Over the course of our conversation, Mezey made clear that he no longer ascribed to the beliefs undergirding those anthologies, despite the considerable impact of the two books on American poetry, and his change in viewpoints opened up several unexpected and richly complex avenues in our discussion.
Somehow, over the tumult of the ensuing thirty-three years, I lost my copy of the interview transcript. But last year, happily, I learned from a friend and bibliophile, Chick Goldschmidt, that the Huntington Library held Mezey’s remaining transcript among his literary papers in the Robert Mezey Archive. One of the Library’s staff members kindly digitized and sent me a PDF file of our audiotaped interview.
In 2020, Bob Mezey was eighty-five and in frail health. Consequently, I felt an urgency to bring this historic conversation back into the world. I also wanted to pay homage to this terrific poet, bearing a great debt to him for serving as my lifelong mentor. Mezey and his colleague at Pitzer College, poet Bert Meyers, were the first established poets with whom I studied who took me seriously as a young poet, and they did so at a time when women were still often shrugged off in academia as poetasters. Mezey was living in a retirement facility in Maryland, and because he was ailing, I worked for several months to shorten and streamline this interview, while ignoring the temptation to revise some of the reflections of our decades-younger selves that it reveals. He died on the morning I finished editing it.
I last called Bob on April 20, 2020, to get permission from him for my friend, Larry Rafferty, to print one of his poems, “Touch It,” as a broadside. As always, before Bob picked up his phone, his answering machine chirped out a melodious recording of his lovely rhyming message that I’d heard countless times over the past decade, and which never failed to cheer me:
I’m asleep or maybe only blotto,
out reading books, or out running around;
in any case, I’m incommunicado.
This new-fangled device will hold your sound,
till I get home, or in the mood to hear it,
so talk to me, I’m listening in spirit.
Bob happily granted reprint permission for his poem, and when I asked after his health he said: “I just don’t know what’s going on in the world anymore, what with this rampant virus, and all the ensuing insanity.” He paused for several seconds, then added, “I don’t think I want to be around much longer.” He died five days later of pneumonia (and possibly Covid-19), on April 25, 2020, in a convalescent facility in Bowie, Maryland.
My thanks to Cynthia Tuell, my friend and colleague of many years, for her editorial expertise and generous assistance with editing this interview. Given the length and depth of the interview, Literary Matters will publish it in two parts. Part I appears here, and Part II will be featured in the next issue of the journal. Hyperlinks have been added when the full texts of literary works discussed within the interview appear online. Readers will notice that I have arranged Part I into three sections with the following headings: “Naked Poetry, the Sixties, and What Verse Is,” “Contemporary Poetry, and the Nature of Ecstasy,” and “Sexual Love, Death, and the Sacred.”
– Maurya Simon
PART I: INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT MEZEY, JUNE-JULY 1987
NAKED POETRY, THE SIXTIES, AND WHAT VERSE IS
MS: Your work is revered for its technical and musical mastery, as well as for its intelligence and restrained passion. I owe you a great debt, as a former student, for teaching me a solid knowledge of formal poetics. Where do you stand now on the use of meter in poetry?
RM: I’ve gotten involved in a kind of ongoing argument in poetry these days about the meters. Why? I’m trying to figure out my experience of the Sixties, my role in them, and what they meant to me. For example, when I go to readings at some schools, sometimes young poets will come up and thank me for my anthology, Naked Poetry. They tell me how it was the first book of poetry that they read in college, and how it started them on their careers, and I always feel a little mortified. I regret Naked Poetry, mainly because I’m in so many ways opposed to the premises behind it, and to some of the notions that I held back in the Sixties. I don’t mean to disown the young man I was twenty years ago; in fact, I’ve seen too many traits in myself that are still the same.
MS: What kinds of ideas, in particular, do you oppose?
RM: The main premise of Naked Poetry was that the meters, if not obsolete, were not the medium in which the best poetry was being done in the Sixties. I don’t think now that that’s true, but certainly I did believe it then. What I suppose I’d like to tell younger poets is that in ‘66 or ‘67, when we were working on Naked Poetry, I’d already been writing in meters for something like 17 or 18 years. I felt restricted by them, and I was tired of them. But writing in meter was also very much a part of the passions and climate of the time. You know, I realize as I go back over it in my mind and try to reconstruct it, that, in a sense, I’m making another myth about it. I don’t pretend that this is the objective truth, but the closest I can get to the truth is to say that the Sixties were a lie, like falling into quicksand, although it was a much happier experience than that.
MS: But back then, it seems to me, you felt it to be a very exciting time, with so much potential for experimentation with verse.
RM: Curiously, it was. I still think of those years, the late Sixties, both as the happiest and the most desperate time of my life. I was talking to a friend of my own generation, some months back, and he said that, partly because of the way he’d been brought up, the Sixties filled him with anxiety and dread, and he hated them. For me, my upbringing was so uptight, sexually and in every other possible way, that the Sixties seemed to be paradise. Although I was already around thirty then, and not to be trusted, I plunged in from head to foot, and body and soul. I was old enough to have known better, and educated enough, but I embraced a lot of the convictions of the Sixties, which now seem to me kind of dumb and naïve. The idea that this was somehow a break in history was so simplistic, as were the anthems of the day like “let’s love one another right now” and the idea that the Vietnam War would stop and everybody would drop acid.
MS: But the war did stop eventually.
MS: But don’t you think that the war’s end was largely due to the “Movement,” and to the activism on college campuses that eventually spread to the broader American population?
RM: I wonder. I mean, the fact that middle class kids were beginning to be taken seriously, and that people were seeing them protesting on television, maybe stopped the war a little sooner than it would have stopped otherwise, but it went on for a long time after that. You remember before the Americans got involved?
MS: Oh yes, I’d read about the French involvement in Indochina in the 1950s, and America’s involvement a bit later, too. That terrible war went on and on, it seemed.
RM: Was it in ‘72 or ‘73 before the government finally gave it up?
MS: It was in 1973.
RM: I started protesting the war even before the great summers of the Sixties. It was in ’65 that I first got fired for draft resistance. I don’t repudiate a lot of the ideas I’ve expressed in earlier interviews. Nor do I repudiate the positions that I took in the Sixties, or the trouble I got into that resulted in my being fired from various schools. I think I’d feel much the same way now, although I hope I’d behave and respond rather more prudently. So much of one’s political action is tied up with one’s own psyche. I think that a lot of what I did in the Sixties, although perhaps partly motivated by sincere angers and indignations, also met certain inner needs. My actions at the time provided a kind of egoistic satisfaction, fulfilled a desire for self-dramatization, and offered an escape from boredom. Also, I have to remember that for five or six years I was continually stoned. I smoked a lot of weed, for the first time in my life, and I took a lot of lysergic acid and mescaline, large amounts and fairly frequently. So I don’t know what the Sixties were. I was hallucinating all the time. [Laughter]
I don’t mean by saying that I was stoned or drunk to evade responsibility for what I did or was, but it helps explain to me why I believed and said so many things that now seem foolish. For example, the idea that free verse is, was, or ought to be the dominant kind of verse seems to me absurd now. In saying that, I don’t mean to condemn free verse or put it down, for some of the greatest poetry in our language is written in what we would call free verse. But I began to question, after the Sixties ended, what is free verse freed from? There has to be some unfree verse, metrical verse, in order for free verse to have an impact, or else it becomes measureless. If there’s nothing for it to be freed from, it becomes the kind of sludge that makes up much of contemporary poetry.
MS: That reminds me of Pound’s axiom that all arts tend to work off of a fixed element and a variable, but there’s always that fixed element, even if it’s the departure from form.
RM: Right. But the departure from form has its excitement and its beauty mainly because the reader is conscious of what the form is departing from. Most poets who write these days, though, and most of their readers, don’t have much sense of what actually comprises form.
MS: Don’t you think that there are other underlying organizing structures in contemporary poetry at work, such as rhythm, or phrase and word repetitions, or even metaphorical scaffoldings?
RM: What kinds of forms are these?
MS: I don’t mean structures, necessarily, but various other strategies of form, such as cadence.
RM: But cadence is not a measure. Cadence is not form.
MS: What if there’s a certain cadence that’s running like a melody through a poem? Can’t that be a kind of form?
RM: Yes, it can be. I can think of examples, certain phrases that get repeated, or certain kinds of rhythmic movement that run effectively through verses.
MS: Or even pauses that get repeated effectively in a specific way?
RM: Compared to syllabic meter, those are very meager and crude, and they’re small kinds of measurement.
MS: They’re subtler, certainly, than metrical verse.
RM: I don’t think they’re subtler. I think that the subtlety possible in a strict form is infinitely greater and more various.
MS: Perhaps. I don’t know that I agree with you.
RM: I got the new edition of the collected William Carlos Williams, and I’ve been reading some of his early poems in chronological order. They’re wonderful. I’m re-experiencing something of what it must have been like for him to write them, the freshness and the excitement he felt in his teens and twenties, placed against the background of standard verse. The kinds of anti-formalist people who would condemn formalism—and who would include me among the formalists—hold that Williams is a flag of opposition. Yet he’s a formalist! He doesn’t quite know what he’s doing, but he has a marvelous ear and he’s consciously concerned with measure, with form as a kind of song. I certainly have nothing against that. I think that his kind of approach is a valuable one, an essential one. But a lot of what goes under the name of free verse today doesn’t seem to me to sound like anything.
MS: I agree. A lot of contemporary poetry sounds tuneless to me.
RM: Even if it does sound good, as sometimes it does, I think, well, that’s fine, there’s no reason why the poem shouldn’t be written this way, except there’s so little of the other that it seems to me that the major part of the art is being lost.
MS: What do you mean by the “other?”
RM: Poetry has for centuries been thought of as a matter of meter and rhyme, as verse, whatever else it may be. For example, I don’t believe in prose poems because I don’t think that there’s such a thing. Poems are in verse, by definition.
MS: But what about even earlier poetry, poems that arose from a group of people huddled around a campfire, poems created through oral traditions or by shamans? What about incantations and spiritual chants, and so forth?
RM: I think that, first of all, some of those oral works were not poems but epic tales, or histories, though a lot of them were poems, and the reason that people could remember those long, long poems was precisely because they had mnemonic devices, as in verse. I think of Homer, whose name represents all of the various committees that wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey, and many other lost poems. The minstrels who recited those poems for hundreds of years could remember them because they were composed in very strict meter. Some of it’s pretty primitive stuff, but it’s also highly sophisticated. I don’t know much about those tribes, and what those epics were like, but I would bet, from my knowledge of some American Indian poetry, that they’re written in verse.
MS: There’s certainly a compelling amount of repetition in the transcribed Native American poetry that I’ve read, especially in the poems and chants that Jerome Rothenberg includes in his wonderful anthology, The Technicians of the Sacred. But are you suggesting that Native American poetry is metered verse?
RM: If the repetition is repeated enough and it’s orderly enough, it becomes a kind of verse. For example, Hebrew verse is mainly syntactical in that it has parallelism, antithesis, and repetition of either phrases or equivalents. It’s not measured by syllable, or by accent, and it’s perhaps a crude kind of verse, but it is verse, and it’s sometimes very beautiful and very memorable, too.
MS: But I don’t think that formal or ordered verse was necessarily predominant hundreds and thousands of years ago. When you look at some of the transcriptions from Rothenberg’s book, you have these chants and song cycles and sound poems from South India and the Fiji Islands, for instance, that surely can’t be described as “verse,” according to your definition of it.
RM: How do we know what they sound like? We just have Rothenberg’s equivalency.
MS: That’s true. They’re translations. But I know that even in the work of eighth-century South Indian Shaivite poet Çambandar, which has been translated by my husband Robert Falk, the Tamil words aren’t rhymed, and, in fact, the poems are surprisingly disjointed in some ways.
RM: You mean that they’re not in verse?
MS: They’re sung in a kind of strange (to our ear) free verse, with elements of more formal verse. For instance, they often contain refrains, and there’s frequently the same envoy repeated in a poem, such as: “Go ye and worship in Siva’s village.” This will be a recurring directive or phrase.
RM: Sort of half-poems, half-prayers, or scripture.
MS: Exactly. But they’re very loose in terms of structure.
RM: Sometimes poetry and scripture converge, though I think generally scripture is scripture and poetry is poetry. But the old Urdu and the old Persian stuff is in rhymed couplets. Lots of ancient poetries are written in verse of a fairly strict kind. The meter of Beowulf is fairly crude, which is common for some of the ancient meters. You can demonstrate this pretty much by trying to write a contemporary poem in the form of Beowulf, but it seems to me foolish to ignore or make obsolete what seems the most subtle, rich, various, and beautiful meter ever invented, which is the combination of the syllabic and accentual. It’s hard to imagine a verse that is comparable, that’s capable of a greater range of complex effects.
I don’t like this whole notion that formalists are interested in ornament, in style, rather than in content. That’s nonsense. I’m as interested in content as in form, maybe in some ways more. A formalist is anybody who knows that poetry must have a form, like William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens, or I can point to any number of free verse writers. Form is a kind of repeatable paradigm or container. In many free verse poems there may be repeated elements, but those elements are often very primitive and very few. Certain free verse poems by D.H. Lawrence come to mind as examples of this. Some of those poems are marvelous, and they’re fascinating to read, but they don’t really have the kind of power that, say, Philip Larkin does, or Thomas Hardy, or Robert Frost. They’re not comparable.
MS: Yes, I agree completely.
RM: It’s not that Lawrence doesn’t have great poetic powers. He certainly does. But the form is so loose in some of his poems that they degenerate into a kind of cadenced prose.
MS: It’s a question of many of Lawrence’s poems’ lacking rhythmical tension. But some of his poems are still so beautiful and mysterious, like “The White Horse.” You used to quote this poem in class occasionally:
“The youth walks up to the white horse, to put its halter on
and the horse looks at him in silence.
They are so silent, they are in another world.”
Moving on to a poet who is a master of rhythmical tension, I’d like to discuss Robert Frost, who has had a significant influence on your own work. For example, your poem “A Serious Note,” which appears in your new and forthcoming book Evening Wind, is quite Frostean, both because of the dramatic tension informing it and the unraveling of its narration. These aspects somehow enhance the speaker’s emotions, so that the intertwined feelings in the poem get heightened. These combined techniques keep leading the reader on to something else. I’m thinking of Frost’s poem “The Subverted Flower.” This poem of yours looks and moves in a similar way, though it’s not as emotionally fraught.
A Serious Note
Staying up late last night,
I opened the screen door
And stepped outside the light
To look for a star or two,
But stars were few to find,
Those I was looking for,
With eyes a little blind
In the too luminous blue
And soft suburban glow;
And the moon’s expressionless O
I used to think expressed
Bewilderment and woe
Was merely drifting through
A drifting wrack of cloud
An egg in a flimsy nest?
Or a half-covered breast
In its rumpled habitat?
I almost spoke aloud,
Say what you mean tonight,
But light was all it said—
What can I say but light
And reflected light at that?
Let that be my failing.
So, with a sigh, I bent
To earth and undergrowth
Where I stood, inhaling
The breath of leaf and flower
Spread unseen at my feet,
An overpowering scent
That seemed to me, in truth,
My own sweet life in bloom—
As if one could be both,
Sweetness, and all that it meant
To say that it was sweet—
And under the rich perfume
Was something rank and sour.
No, none of this was mine;
There were the shapes of trees,
Cypress and cedar and pine
Motionless in the breeze,
Green to the black power
Against the pale night sky;
And there, as well, was I.
Who heard, I thought, a thrush
Whistling its artless song
In the oleander bush
Or in the cedar tree,
Brilliant, fluent and free
With never a note wrong.
It was a bewitching air.
But thrushes are pretty rare
In this neck of the woods
And most of our neighborhoods—
It must be some other bird.
And suddenly I knew
Just who it was I heard—
Whoever she wanted to call,
Clearly it wasn’t me,
For even as she ascended,
The little mockingbird,
On some invisible mission,
One would have had to be blind
Not to see that derision
Was the last thing she had in mind.
In all innocence,
That was how it ended.
And the best joke of all,
A joke at my own expense,
Was to end on a serious note,
One not intended to be
Misunderstood by me,
Out of a mockingbird’s throat.
RM: Yes, I certainly have had Frost’s trimeters partly in mind, or in ear, while writing, and there are lots of echoes and re-echoes of his poems in my work. I can’t imagine a poem like “The Subverted Flower” written in non-metrical verse. It would be a totally different experience. I think that free verse can only exist meaningfully and usefully when written in conscious tension with metrical verse. It is my belief that young poets are cheating themselves, and that poetry is damaged, when they don’t attempt to master metrical verse. It’s like learning how to draw, if you are a painter.
MS: Or how to read music and know musical notation, if you’re a musician.
RM: Yes, and you don’t see musicians very often who just pick up an instrument and begin playing. The most proficient musicians have gone to school, and they’ve taken lessons.
MS: There are so many poets these days who take three or four workshops and then set themselves up as poets, trying to practice an ancient and difficult art. That was, I think, one of the greatest insights you offered me, leading me to investigate what this whole business of writing in meters meant. Learning about prosody was such an enriching experience, in terms of my growth as a poet. I continue to go back to writing in form all the time, although I have mixed feelings about doing so. I also feel called to escape traditional verse forms, or to rebel against their “regulations” and against any kind of pre-ordained shape that’s been imposed on the subject. Paradoxically, I’ve also wanted to master certain fixed forms. So that’s part of the tension for me: I’m drawn to these forms, but I also feel compelled to repudiate or reject them.
RM: I suppose one of the reasons I’m talking about this so much is not only to make sense of that very strange experience of my thirties, the Sixties, but also because I’ve been involved in some polemic, in recent months, about these matters. It’s annoying and dismaying that meter and rhyme should be thought of as somehow connected with political beliefs or institutions.
MS: Yes, strange and rather reactionary, that kind of judgement.
RM: I think so too, and I believe that it’s an evil thing. Even at the very height of the Sixties, when I was totally stoned and convinced that the utility of using meters was considerably less than it had been, I never stopped loving poems in rhyme and meter, delighting in those great inventions of the art. It’s also partly a matter of having grown much older and at least a little wiser, and one’s taste changing. Not long ago I read through Naked Poetry again, and I was cringing with shame when I read that truculent and flippant introduction. I don’t know how much of it was Steve Berg’s, or how much of it was mine, but it was my responsibility, and it was just dumb. I grant that there are talented poets in our anthology, and I think that we made good choices about which poems to include. I don’t think the anthology is worthless, by any means. But I do find some of the work in there now quite unreadable, and I find it odd that I once liked it.
MS: Which work is that?
RM: There’s an excerpt from “Howl,” a big hunk of it, and it doesn’t hold up for me. I remember one time thinking, well, that has its power, doesn’t it? Now it seems to me awfully crude stuff.
MS: But you do have to remember its social, political, and historical contexts.
RM: A lot of it is historically interesting, but that doesn’t make it good.
MS: “Howl” seemed revolutionary when it appeared. It rocked the poetry world, and it made an international case against censorship.
RM: Yeah, it probably had its uses in breaking up some of the stuff that was happening, and it was an interesting phenomenon, but I think it was a blind alley. You look at the whole Beat movement: How much literature of real interest did it produce? They were obviously gifted writers, but it’s hard for me to think of anything the Beat Generation produced of much lasting value.
MS: Ginsberg’s “Howl” let loose a torrent of laments, not just over the poet’s personal losses, but about the woeful state of America in the fifties—the poverty, materialism, drug addiction, and political and social stagnation, what Robert Lowell called “the tranquilized fifties.”
RM: That’s true, and it’s useful to be reminded that poetry can contain and express a great many things other than what so many poems of the Fifties contained.
MS: What are some of your core beliefs about what creates lasting value in poetry?
RM: What do I believe? One of the most beautiful lines I have ever come across is a remark by Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, which John Berryman quotes in one of his poems. He says this wonderful thing: The opposite of the truth is a falsehood, but the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth. If I believe anything, I believe that. Maybe that’s why I write poems, to try to bring together, at the moment of writing and contemplating, just what it is that I’m experiencing, remembering, and feeling, in as much complexity as I can get into language. I think I love that better than anything, both trying to do it and seeing it done by the real masters. That’s one of the things that poetry does. It creates reality. Poetry adds to reality and enlarges it.
MS: And reality is full of contradictions.
RM: Poetry seems to me the richest discourse we have for trying to deal with the dazzling all-ness of everything. But I don’t want to end up sounding like a complete relativist or deconstructionist or anything like that, because I do believe that there is such a thing as absolute truth, and it’s just in some other world. [Laughter]
MS: But where is it?
RM: I don’t know. Maybe it’s that I want to believe in absolute truth. The word “belief” has to do with desire, etymologically. Belief is what you want. Desire has fostered many intense beliefs. I want there to be an absolute and divine principle partly because I think that, without it, human life and human consciousness are insupportable, and morality is groundless.
MS: So your concept of the divine has something to do with a sense of order, something that opposes chaos?
RM: Yes. One of the things we lost when we got thrown out of the Garden was the beauty of animal consciousness and instinct. Bees don’t have to decide what to do. That sense is always there within them, as far as we can tell.
MS: Along with a sense of being a part of a greater whole?
MS: But many Native Americans have that sense, to some extent, of being in harmony with the universe.
RM: In some ways, although we tend to…
MS: To romanticize it?
RM: We tend to idealize and exaggerate the virtues of “primitive” tribes. Many of them lived lives that, if we dealt with the details of them, would horrify us.
MS: But I’m talking about the philosophical and spiritual aspects of their lives, the wonderful sense of being a part of the whole, and of there being a spirit animating even the smallest pebble.
RM: What seems so beautiful and enviable to me in these early cultures, besides the existence of real community, is what appears to be the seamlessness of how they live. They don’t have categories of religion or philosophy, or cooking, or dance. Instead, it’s all a way of life, and a way of listening, of staying attentive. We have largely lost that, I think, because of Late Capitalism and mass society.
MS: Yes, it’s too late to return to those ways, to a saner kind of life.
RM: Very late. But without romanticizing the “noble savage,” I agree that such people, maybe because they’re closer to the beginning, are closer to that way of life. We’ve lost that proximity: The farther we get from the Garden, the more fallen we become. We’ve also become more self-conscious, so we can’t depend simply upon instinct. We aren’t “naturals.”
MS: But don’t you think that, in some ways, what was happening in the Sixties—what we were talking about earlier—was an attempt, maybe not always consciously, “to get back to the Garden,” as Joni Mitchell so famously sang?
RM: Enormously naïve.
MS: Yes, yes, but it was that vital attempt to…
RM: A childish attempt…
MS: To regain Eden.
RM: Yes, to get back some of the life of the body. It was a flowering of a mad kind of Emersonianism, and it was intensely American in nature. You know, we actually believed, many of us, that if only we could get Lyndon Johnson to drop acid… [Laughter]
MS: That he would what? Understand the futility of the Vietnam War?
RM: Would make love, not war.
MS: I still can’t completely repudiate that hope, or deny it. There’s a part of me still that says anything is possible.
RM: As I grow older, I grow more and more suspicious of Romantic formulations like that.
MS: Oh, but it’s never going to happen, you know—politicians choosing peace.
RM: There’s a sense in which love and war are not exactly opposites, and even if they are, then you can’t have one without the other. You can’t have good without evil, or love without war. But obviously, we can’t continue with the kind of war that we’re used to fighting, or else we’re all done for, and I do believe that’s a bad thing. Then again, who knows, maybe it’s a good thing. There’s a sense in which the whole cosmos is alive, and it may well be that we’re just a little pimple on a far distant extremity. It matters to us intensely, of course, but in the great scheme of things, the God I believe in does not care whether we flourish or whether this planet is engulfed by the sun, which is what will eventually happen. If there is such an intelligence, it dwells far beyond such concerns. I’m not a philosopher, and I’m not sure what all of this has to do with poetry, although I suppose it does have a great deal to do with poetry. But the question of belief obviously troubles me and stirs up a lot of thoughts. There are times when I feel that I believe in nothing, except the taste of myself, which is always with me, and in the world around me, which sometimes seems extremely unfamiliar, as if it’s something I’ve never seen before.
MS: In a funny way, an odd and oblique way, it goes back for me to Williams’ dictum, “No ideas but in things.”
RM: Of course, in one sense that’s true, but in another sense there are no things but in ideas. That’s a very Western idea, isn’t it, the logos? Thought is what produces things. If you believe in God, everything is created out of the idea. Whatever that dictum meant exactly to William Carlos Williams, it was obviously a useful notion for him to hold because it enabled him to write some good poems. But I think it could be a disastrous tag to give young students without going into it in some detail and pointing out the dangers of taking it too literally. What you end up with, I think, or what you can very easily end up with, is a kind of poetry that used to be called Imagist. By that, I don’t mean the things we think of as the best Imagist poems, or haiku, but rather I mean most of what we call Imagist poetry, which is nothing. It’s just physical details. A lot of those Imagist poems are curiosities, and they have very little life in them as poems. There’s no thought, no argument in them: They are just details of the world offered for you to put together. Haiku does a lot more than the work of the Imagists, and it comes out of a very old tradition.
MS: Pound quickly left Imagism and soon went on to writing his Cantos.
RM: Sure, and, in fact, he later said, and it may well be true, that Imagism never existed because it was just something he invented to win over H.D. He sent her poems to Harriet Monroe at Poetry magazine and said, “Here’s H. D.,” or something like that, “and she’s one of les imagistes.” Harriet Monroe replied: “Oh, a new movement from France! Okay, I’ll print that!”
RM: So it was only a joke made on the spur of the moment.
MS: But Imagism was taken very seriously by H.D. and by other influential poets for many years.
RM: Taken very seriously, yes. Quite a lot of people, including Amy Lowell, went flying over to Europe to join the junta, and Pound laughed through the whole flowering of the movement, which he then called “Amygism.” It did produce a small body of interesting work, and it’s part of our literary history, and it has its charm, and it’s somewhat interesting. But it’s not very interesting, and one wears out one’s fascination for that sort of thing after a while. Poetry doesn’t consist either of ideas or things. Poetry consists of words, which are different from ideas and things, although, of course, words are things in and of themselves.
MS: I was just reading that Stéphane Mallarmé remarked to—was it Cezanne—?
RM: Mallarmé to Degas.
MS: Yes, to Degas. Mallarmé said, “My dear, poems are not made out of ideas. They’re made out of words.”
RM: Well, after that, some poet or some painter [laughter] reminded him that poems are made out of words and ideas and the representation of things. I feel utter sympathy with the strong desire of the early Modernists to try to bring back into poetry something that they thought was missing, and there were a number of things missing. The poetry of that time was mostly mediocre poetry of the late Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century. Now, I’m not talking about Hardy, for he wasn’t well known as a poet yet, but I mean the Canadian poet, Bliss Carmen, and people like that. Most of what was being written was corny, vague, and tired, and there wasn’t any life in it. It wasn’t a matter of the modern world not being there. No world was there at all. So there was a lot of energy expended by Williams, Pound, and other Modernist poets in trying to make a new kind of verse, and in working by principles that would present and embody a sense of life lived, of real experience. But that sense of real experience isn’t something that we invented in the Twentieth Century. It’s in Shakespeare, it’s in Homer, and it’s constantly getting lost, in a way, because poetry really remains always the same, even while it’s always changing.
MS: Remains the same in its intentions?
RM: I think that the great poems share elements that I can’t exactly articulate to meet my own satisfaction. All the great poems, in whatever language and whatever time, have certain things in common. We don’t understand the laws of art, the laws of poetry, but a good ancient Greek poem has a lot more in common with a good modern English poem than either one has with a bad Greek poem or a bad English poem.
MS: Can you try to identify some of the elements that they have in common? A great depth of feeling, for example?
RM: It’s very hard to categorize these things. Yes, intensity of feeling is one of our values, but there are great poems that are not so intense.
MS: Would you elaborate more on this idea?
RM: We’re talking about aesthetic emotions largely, and there are different kinds. Aesthetic emotions also include other emotions. We could read a poem and be deeply moved by the things it says, and the memories it evokes, because we respond to the experience it explores. The poem may be heartbreaking in its content, which is also its form, but at the same time, the poem may offer the bleakest vision of life, as in Larkin or Hardy, and yet it doesn’t leave you feeling hopeless. If you read it in the right way, you feel exalted and uplifted. There are those things, as Frost says, that exist “on a higher plane of regard,” and yet the kind of emotion that you feel reading King Lear is very different from the emotion you feel reading “The Rape of the Lock.” I can’t say that I’m much moved by “The Rape of the Lock,” but it’s a delight, and I’m charmed by it. I love it, for it’s great, great poetry.
MS: All right, so intense emotion is not one of your criteria?
RM: “The Rape of the Lock” is not without emotion, certainly, but intensity—what most American readers and poets mean by intensity of emotion—is not there. Intensity of emotion is not always present in great poetry. I think one universal quality of great poetry is that there’s always, or almost always, formal invention and formal integrity, although that includes a lot of possibilities. Also, of course, great poetry can be free in the sense of Verlaine. I certainly think there’s a lot of very beautiful poetry in his work.
CONTEMPORARY POETS, AND THE NATURE OF ECSTASY
MS: Are there any contemporary poems that you consider great?
RM: Contemporary in the sense of being written now?
RM: There are a few, yes, a very small handful. I think there are some poems by contemporary poets that are as good as almost anything in the language. It’s hard to compare things, but some of Donald Justice’s sonnets are as good as any sonnets you can find since Frost, and that’s quite a long time. I think Larkin wrote great poetry. The volume of his work is relatively small, but if that is not great poetry, then I have no idea what great poetry is.
MS: So far you’ve named two people who both write in very strict forms. Are there any other great poems by contemporary poets that aren’t written in traditional forms and meters?
RM: Yes and no. Justice is, in a sense, very experimental.
MS: But his sonnets aren’t, are they? Or perhaps one like “Southern Gothic” is quite untraditional?
RM: He’s written a lot of sonnets, and many of the sonnets are restless with their forms and contain great thematic variations, and they rarely repeat each other. His sestinas are all different, one from the other, and he has written a great deal of free verse of a very high order. To my ear, it’s deeply satisfying, but it’s the free verse of somebody who knows how to write metrical verse. I don’t think it’s an accident that those two poets that I greatly admire are both formalists, in the sense that the word is often used nowadays.
MS: Do you think there are any contemporary poems written in free verse that are great poems? Galway Kinnell’s “The Bear,” for instance?
RM: I like some of Kinnell’s poems very much, especially the early ones. I still find them quite moving, including parts of The Book of Nightmares. He has some really funny poems, too, and I think we tend to overlook how much humor his work possesses. There are also a few early poems of Philip Levine’s that I think are wonderful poems. But for the most part, the poetry that has remained with me over the years has been work by formalist poets, and the list of poets whose work I taught in my Contemporary Poetry course this spring confirms that.
MS: Like whom?
RM: It was an odd collection of poets, but almost all of them were certain kinds of formalists, including Weldon Keyes, Elizabeth Bishop, and J.V. Cunningham. The only exception was Lorraine Niedecker. Yet she’s not a complete exception because she writes a lot of metrical poems, and she rhymes a lot, and she’s obviously very concerned with the feel and look of the verse. She’s a highly sophisticated artist.
MS: What about Theodore Roethke?
RM: I admire many of Roethke’s early poems, and the greenhouse poems are especially wonderful, but I could only include so many people in the class, and I preferred to teach Cunningham, whom I’d never taught before. One thing that was unexpected for me, while planning the class, was the discovery that some poems by James Wright, a poet whose work I’ve always held in high regard, no longer had the same impact on me.
MS: Oh, really, why?
RM: As we touched on earlier, the kind of easy Romanticism that I embraced when I was a youngster seems more and more unsatisfactory to me as a way of writing poetry because it’s an unsatisfactory way of looking at life. For example, I don’t believe a poem like “The Blessing,” where you still have to press the barbed wire, but there you are, back in Eden. The world’s not going to “break into blossom.”
MS: Well, of course not. It’s a metaphor.
RM: Yes, but there’s something unconvincing about that poem, though it’s rather beautifully done in capturing the feeling for the horses, these ponies. The poem is very tender and it’s quite lovely, but the more I think about it in recent years, though it’s a poem I’ve always liked, it strikes me as somewhat unearned and untrue. I mean, what does it mean to “step out” of one’s body, to be in ecstasy? I suppose that’s the metaphor, but we can’t step out of our bodies, really.
MS: The ecstasy is a kind of spiritual stepping out.
RM: Out of one’s body, yes, but I think that’s excessive—and “to break into blossom?”
MS: I disagree. I still buy the poem and buy the belief, I suppose.
RM: A poem that I find more believable, which is largely, about the same idea as “The Blessing,” is Frost’s poem, “Two Look at Two.” It’s about how two lovers go up a mountainside and have to turn back because they’ve come to a tumbled wall of barbed wire binding. They think about how rough the path is at night, with earth and rocks, and then they see a doe coming around the spruce. She looks at them, and they look at her, and it’s marvelous. But see, they’re on the other side of the wall, and she’s in the animal world, the world of the nightingale, the Romantic world of innocence
MS: What you’re saying, basically, is that you don’t believe such ecstasy is possible? You’re saying it’s a wishful kind of yearning or longing, but that you don’t think it’s actually attainable?
RM: I don’t think it’s attainable very often. I’m not sure how much weight I give to those experiences, although I’ve had them, on acid and off, experiences of being outside of my body, and of being in another realm of existence. But I don’t want to be too quick to decide that I know exactly what these experiences mean. One of the things they may well mean is that I was stoned.
MS: But you said there were times when you experienced ecstasy and you weren’t “stoned.”
RM: There were times when I wasn’t. Maybe one has an experience like that just a few times in one’s life, or only once. T.S. Eliot’s childhood memory of the rose garden, a dim recollection that appears in several of his poems, comes to mind. I’m getting onto shaky ground here because we’re talking about things that most of us know nothing about, and they’re very hard to talk about.
MS: Want to go on to something else? Shall we just leave it at that?
RM: Yes, let’s leave it at that, not abandon it, exactly, but leave it hanging there. While it’s true that some of the work I used to admire no longer has the same impact on me, I do read a lot of the same poets I’ve always read, including Herbert, Rochester, and Hardy. The people of my generation who remain really interesting to me are poets like Donald Justice and Anthony Hecht, and, of course, they’re a good deal older.
MS: Have you read anything by Jorie Graham?
RM: A little bit, but nothing memorable. People say she’s good.
MS: She seems to me to be one of the few truly metaphysical contemporary poets we have, other than Charles Wright, and there’s this leaning in her work, very much like Donne, toward the ineffable and the sublime, though the latter’s never attainable.
RM: There are a number of people whose work I haven’t read, and I suppose it’s one of the privileges of old age, or of late middle age, that you don’t feel you have to keep up with everything. Besides, there are too many people to keep up with now. But I do read a little bit in the magazines, and I read review books when they come in. I think many of the younger poets are talented and interesting, though few of them write verse that I find fully satisfying. Several of them have virtues that interest me enough that I don’t mind the fact that the poetry doesn’t sound all that great. There are some terrific poems being written by younger people, including Larry Levis and Chase Twitchell.
MS: There’s been a renewed passion for narrative elements in verse. Have you noticed that? There are even special contests for narrative poems, and there’s The Reaper magazine, edited by Mark Jarman and Robert McDowell, that only publishes narrative poetry, and in which there’s been a real resurgence of interest.
RM: Maybe I haven’t seen enough of that poetry. A lot of the poems I’ve seen that use narrative seem to be very insular in a way, with the poet talking about his day. The conventions seem so recognizable. Also, there’s a peculiar idea out there that poetry has to sound natural and conversational. Not all poets ascribe to that. A lot of excellent poetry is very baroque, quite rich and energetic in its diction. Sandra McPherson’s work comes to mind as an example of this. But an awful lot of conventional contemporary poetry is chatty in a way that I find more and more unbearable. Poetry is not conversation, and there’s no law that says it should be like speech, or that it should sound like something other than what it is. Poetry is a highly artificial kind of language, and it remains artificial even when it pretends to be extremely chatty, which is a high artifice. Just as I did when I was younger, I like poetry that admits its own artifice, that acknowledges and displays its own artifice. I like it even more now and the other kind even less.
MS: Are you thinking of the language poets?
RM: I don’t know what to make of them. I don’t know what to say about that poetry. I find it totally unreadable.
MS: There’s a kind of excruciating awareness of the artificiality of language there.
RM: That’s all there is, at least all I can see, because it’s poetry without a subject, poetry without a theme. Obviously, it can be done. They do it, and there it is, abstract expressionist poetry of a sort. There are paintings like that that I find quite exciting and interesting, although, by and large, the paintings I really love are representational in some way. I don’t think you can use abstraction for long with language. Language is, for better or worse, referential, whatever the critics may say, even though those references may be problematic, troubled, and full of ambiguities. I don’t think language can be used for very long as one uses, say, pigment or line.
The idea of learning a language poem by heart seems to me a very difficult prospect, and also a pointless one. Why would one want to memorize such a poem, in the sense that one knows poems by Frost, Hardy, Keats, and Chaucer by heart? I think that language poetry is the least interesting kind of poetry being written. That just may be my narrowness. My colleague, Dick Barnes, likes some of that poetry. He doesn’t like all of it, by any means, but he finds some of it intensely interesting, and I can, too, in short passages. There are some wonderful sentences as sentences, but they don’t add up to anything.
MS: Reading language poetry is sometimes like looking at a Rorschach.
RM: I suppose you can make them mean something. That’s our tendency. Our brains do that. We may impose our meanings, but the poems seem to have no intention.
MS: I’m not so sure language poets would say that about their work, that the poems have no intentions.
RM: I think it’s poetry that comes out of criticism, instead of the other way around. I don’t think poets should pay much attention to the critics, who categorize, make things simple, and usually get it wrong. Even critics who are poets are often prejudiced and wrong, though I think that the most interesting critics have always been the great poets, including Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot, and John Dryden.
The language poets’ work seems to have grown out of recent criticism and philosophy, so it’s a poetry that calls for deconstruction and post-structuralism. I wonder how anybody can read it for the reason that one goes to poetry in the first place, for pleasure. I mean, what’s the pleasure in it? It seems to take itself enormously seriously. My problem with language poetry isn’t that it’s free verse. Though I now feel, as I’ve said earlier, that the values I expressed in Naked Poetry were largely mistaken, I’m someone who supports, argues for, and propagates free verse.
MS: It’s not that you’re completely rejecting free verse, but you’re arguing that, side by side with other kinds of verse, it can live happily.
RM: I don’t reject free verse at all. In fact, I assume, as I go on writing, that I’ll probably write more free verse, and syllabics, and I may try many things. For all I know, I may even write mostly free verse. I’ll write whatever I can get, that I like. But I do reject utterly the premise of that book, Naked Poetry, the notion that the most interesting poetry being written then, or during any time period, is free verse. I reject a lot of the poetics, as well as much of the poetry, in that book.
As I said earlier, I do love a lot of free verse. But I wouldn’t go so far as thinking of it coexisting, side by side, like Russia and America, two opposed empires. I think, first of all, that free verse and metrical verse are not opposed. Secondly, I’d like to see a lot more poetry in rhyme and meter, which I think is the art form’s natural habitat, and a lot less free verse. I think free verse would be much more interesting and livelier in such a literary culture. Though I want to write more free verse myself, I’m writing mostly in meter because I enjoy it, and because more and more I come back to the early notion that poetry was, largely if not entirely, a matter of rhyme and meter.
MS: It doesn’t seem to me surprising, as it does to you, how you could go back and forth from writing free and metered verse.
RM: I don’t despise the attitudes that I once had about free verse, as reflected in Naked Poetry, but I simply don’t believe them anymore. I’m suspicious of those attitudes and distrustful of them in myself and others. The same is true, as I mentioned earlier, about the attitudes I once had toward Romanticism in poetry. The Romantic, or what we speak of as the Romantic consciousness, and the Romantic aesthetic, produced some marvelous books, tales, poems, music, and paintings, but many of the notions that animated that consciousness seem outmoded to me. Such notions don’t seem useful for either writing or living these days, though of course we are all still willy-nilly heirs of Romanticism, and a good deal of romance is very beautiful.
MS: Perhaps what you’re getting at is an idea that you’ve talked about with me once in the past, the notion that Romanticism in extremis—or taken to its logical conclusion—can become grotesque, perverted, or imbalanced.
RM: Yes. Although I won’t go that far. To some extent, I agree with Yvor Winters’ argument about the negative influence of Emerson and Whitman on American poetry. I like Emerson’s poetry a lot, though I don’t much hold with what I understand as his philosophy of thinking and living. He’s not one of the writers who has been really seminal for me, except in diluted or indirect ways. But it’s easier to talk about this in literary terms: Although these poets are Romantic, Romanticism is in no way disconnected from actual life and behavior for them. I guess there’s just much less Romantic poetry that I like than other kinds of poetry, though there are certainly elements of the Romantic in Hardy and Frost.
MS: Especially in Hardy. You think Larkin’s a Romantic poet, too? I don’t see it very much.
RM: He takes a very conscious and self-conscious stance against a great deal of that, but there are Romantic elements, Symbolist aspects, and even Modernist techniques in his work, although he rants and raves against Modernism. Partly under the influence of Larkin, I’ve been swayed more and more by arguments against Modernist verse, and I’ve become less broadly enthusiastic about high Modernism than I was when I was a kid.
MS: Why are you less enthusiastic about it?
RM: I now find a great deal of Modernism rather boring, partly because it’s so allusive, willfully difficult, and obscure, and it’s so “literary” in a manner I don’t much care for. Though I’m not exactly a democrat asking for “people’s” poetry, I think that the Modernists helped lose the audience for poetry.
MS: Moving from our discussion of Modernism to a focus on some of your own poems, I’m eager to talk about the word-play poems in the Prose and Cons section of your book Evening Wind.
RM: [Reciting a poem from the Prose and Cons section in Evening Wind:]
“Our farther, whose art is heavy, hollow bead I name. Die kingpin come, die wheel be dumb. No, they wheel be dung. Inert as it is uneven. Gibbous this day airedaley bread, and fork over our test-passes as we fuck over them that test-pass against us. For dyin’ is the gingham and the flower and the gory, for rubber and rubber. Aye, men.”
MS: I love that! When I asked you earlier, you said that you’d written most of the satirical prose poems in the Prose and Cons section in a short amount of time.
RM: Yes, most of them were done during a spurt of several months of writing. They just sort of popped out.
MS: How do you explain them? They’re so very different from anything that you’ve written before, it seems to me.
RM: They are, and I had doubts about including them in Evening Wind. I wasn’t sure what to do. But I think that, though they’re humorous, they’re also about serious matters, as are the other poems in the book, so I included them. I call them prose, not poems.
MS: They seem the most explicitly political of any of the poems you’ve written.
RM: Yes, for sure. I published very little of the political stuff I wrote back in the Sixties. I liked those poems, and I enjoyed writing them. I don’t know how good they were or what they were worth, and I have no idea how I came to write them. But to get back to the Prose and Cons section in Evening Wind, some people have said “oh, you’ve been reading Finnegan’s Wake” because the section is full of puns. Well, I can’t bear Finnegan’s Wake. Most of it I find very tedious. I’m willing to admit it could be a great book, but I can’t read it, and it doesn’t have any relation to these poems. You don’t need a Ph.D. to read them.
MS: I think that you do in these poems what some of the best poetry does, which is that you juxtapose specific words in such a way that they become imbued with interesting new meanings. It’s marvelous, and I find the poems very ingenious. I especially like the second poem in the series, which ends with: “to lead a ripe old age of supreme contempt for the State.”
RM: Some of the puns in that one come from Latin phrases, like “Laquer my rare one” or “men sauna in corporal guano.”
MS: The Prose and Cons section is also interesting in terms of the book’s progression. It’s a nice interlude, a lightening in tone that contrasts with the seriousness of the poems in the rest of the book.
RM: I’ll find out what the reviewers think, but readers and reviewers are two different things.
MS: [Laughter] One has to read to review.
RM: If you have good luck, you’ll get a reviewer who is also a good reader, and who understands what you’re trying to do.
MS: Who would you hope for as a reviewer, if you could have your pick?
RM: I don’t suppose I write for anybody, exactly, while I’m writing. I’m writing for the poem, and I never think of an audience, per se. But in between writing sessions, I think of the people I’d like to please, and those are fellow poets whose work I admire, maybe ten or twenty people. You know, I would be happy if Don Justice reviewed my book. I’d just as soon not be reviewed by most of the reviewers I read these days. Well, I don’t know about that, since maybe a bad review is better than no review at all.
MS: Yes, it’s said that people remember the name and the photograph that accompanies the review of the writer, and the title of the book. But apparently the fact of whether the review was negative or positive tends to slide by the reader’s awareness. I don’t know if that’s true or not. It’s certainly not true for me.
RM: We’ll see. It’s a very different scene these days than it was when I first started writing poetry.
SM: More competition and more books being published for sure.
RM: Yes. In those days, it seemed like you were joining a small group, a very small band of people, and that there was certainly a considerable and interesting, if not huge, audience. But now it seems that everybody writes poetry and nobody reads it, except other poets who are looking to put it down, steal from it, or climb up on it. I don’t suppose those are always political ways of reading, but politics are much more naked now, and there are so many more divisions, so many more schools. The poetry world has become much the same as the world of literary studies—terribly fragmented.
MS: And often divisive.
SEXUAL LOVE, DEATH, AND THE SACRED
MS: Let’s return to questions about your own poetry. Your work often contains a merging of sexual references with imagery pertaining to death, especially your early work. Can you say something about the relationship between the two forces? Are the spiritual and the sexual related in your work?
RM: Yes, I think so. The first thing that comes to mind is the most obvious thing: They are related, whether I relate them or not. They are related by nature: Sex leads to death. As Eliot says, the word “copulation” means death. This is one of the major facts of life. Yeats says somewhere that sex and death are the two great themes. Auden has an essay where he talks about the sacred and the profane in poetry. What is sacred for poets varies enormously. Things that seem very commonplace and ordinary to one poet might be sacred to another poet. Underground mines were sacred places in Auden’s poetry, which may have very sexual implications. For me, the sexual act itself has been sacred. I don’t pretend to understand it very well. I might be a more coherent and happier person if I did, but the poems probably make more sense of it than I can through talking about it.
I have written a lot about sex and death in my poems because they both seem so utterly mysterious to me, and yet so central. I’ve thought about death ever since I was a kid, as long as I can remember, in various ways, usually with considerable terror. This terror only increases as one gets older and closer to the event. One knows that the darkness of death is coming. When you’re young, it’s almost an exciting kind of fear because it seems that you’re so far away from it. Of course, as a teenager, I was sometimes obsessed with death, but I don’t think I really believed in the reality of it the way that I do now. I have all of my life written in short periods of a few months or a year, punctuated by long spells of silence. These spells have mostly been lengthy bouts of depression, when I don’t seem to have the energy or the health to write. But one of the things that would rouse me during those times, and make me vocal, was the experience of being in love and then losing it. That’s one place where sex and death connect.
MS: So you could write when you experienced…
RM: Loss, right.
MS: But not when the love was going strong, when the relationship was still in full flower?
RM: Not very often, no. I’ve tried, certainly. I remember poems I wrote when I was a teenage boy that were for particular women, and they were meant to seduce, but they weren’t very good. The poems that I think of as my best poems on the subject of love are really poems of grief.
MS: But there are a couple of new love poems, I realized today, when I was rereading some of the poems in Evening Wind. “The Celebration,” for instance.
What if this man with his rough head
His two hands without jewels
Pretended he was a king
He is a king
Who else would you have beside you
I took you in the abandoned church
With sweat pouring down
The guests departed
And ghosts gathered around us
Under the mountain
We celebrated with our new love wine
The lock blown off the door
The door leaning
Without you I would have been
With this woman that woman
I would have been alone
Trying to summon a name
One hand half lifted
For the curve of a lost face
You lean back into the night of the almonds
In the seventh year a blossom
RM: Yes, that’s a love poem. Poems of lamentation often celebrate love, even while they’re moaning and groaning about it being gone. I don’t know why the loss of love should make me vocal, but a number of times I’ve started writing again out of such an experience, maybe as a distraction, as a way of dealing with it. You don’t deal with it, exactly, and then it turns into something else. But maybe all you finally can do with the pain is to make something else out of it. Sing it into something. I remember writing one of the poems that appears in Couplets, a poem on which I’d spent many hours, and I remember how miserable I was.
MS: Miserable while you were writing?
RM: No, miserable during that period, which was right after a sad summer romance, as corny as that sounds. Yet when I was working on the poem I was very happy, even though I was suffering. I was able to forget my suffering. Writing the poem was so interesting and involving that I was as close as I ever get to happiness. I think that when you’re happily in love you tend not to write. What is there to say? You have better things to do than to write about your condition. If there’s no problem, then there’s no sense talking. I don’t know exactly if loss, more than other experiences, inspires people to create art and song, but I think it does.
MS: It’s just what you were saying, the need to transform that pain into something else.
RM: Yes, though there’s always a sense that art isn’t quite the same as life. I can’t remember who said it, but it’s a wonderful phrase: Poetry is a kind of filibuster against death. I suppose you keep on talking and then try to raise the talk to a higher pitch, to a higher level, to use that wonderful phrase of Frost’s again, for that’s what art and poetry finally do. You don’t get over your sorrow or grief, but poetry raises it to “a higher plane of regard,” and it becomes, in a way, less personal.
MS: It’s like that “formal feeling” that comes after great pain, as Dickinson says.
RM: Yes, right. The formal feeling is the experience of writing the poem.
MS: It’s also an act of distancing, I think, and that’s part of the process, too, or a result of the process.
RM: Yes, it’s wanting to bring order to what seems chaotic, jumbled, and contradictory, although, inevitably, you’re just as interested in the process of the poem and the work itself. So the order is involved with an artistic order, and it’s a way of understanding, or it can be. It seems curious to me now how often in my life the experience of grief, or the need to lament a terrible event, merges with an intense interest in some particular form.
Robert Mezey, an esteemed poet, critic, and translator, was born in 1935. At the age of sixteen, he was admitted to Kenyon College, where he studied with eminent poet, John Crowe Ransom, and which he attended for two years before enlisting in the U.S. Army. After his military service, Mezey earned a B.A. from the University of Iowa and then completed graduate studies at Stanford University. He also received an honorary doctorate from the World Congress of Poets. Mezey taught at various institutions, including Case Western Reserve University, California State University in Fresno, the University of Utah, and Pomona College. His honors include the Robert Frost Poetry Prize, a Bassine Citation, a PEN Prize, and fellowships from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. His poetry collections include The Lovemaker (1961), winner of the Lamont Poetry Prize; White Blossoms (1965); The Door Standing Open: New and Selected Poems, 1954–1969 (1970); Small Song (1979); Evening Wind (1987); Natural Selection (1995); and his Collected Poems 1952–1999, which won the Poet’s Prize. Mezey also edited numerous works, including Thomas Hardy: Selected Poems (1998), The Poetry of E.A. Robinson (1999), and, with Donald Justice, The Collected Poems of Henri Coulette (1990).