As an undergraduate in the late 1970’s, I studied modern and contemporary American poetry and formal poetics with poet Robert Mezey at the Claremont Colleges. Ten years later, I undertook a series of interviews with Mezey, all informally conducted in my cabin perched high in the Angeles National Forest in southern California. Part I of our eight-hour interview, which was published in Issue 14.1 of Literary Matters, covers a broad range of topics, including Mezey’s groundbreaking Naked Poetry anthologies, various literary movements, and contemporary poets. The discussions in this second half of our conversation focus primarily on Mezey’s own poetry.
Robert Mezey was an extraordinary teacher and a wonderful poet. The classes I took with him from 1978-1980 at Pomona College introduced me to an array of contemporary poets whose poetry was new to me, among them: Peter Everwine, Donald Justice, Sandra McPherson, James Wright, Philip Levine, Adrienne Rich, Galway Kinnell, Louise Bogan, Gerald Stern, Lorine Niedecker, Russell Edson, and J.V. Cunningham. But my most lasting memories are of Mezey’s enlightening lectures on prosody and on his triumvirate of masters, Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost, and Philip Larkin. Equally remarkable were Mezey’s impassioned recitations from memory of scores of these poets’ poems. Deeply affected by their poetry, Mezey wept when he recited “The Voice,” “During Wind and Rain,” and “The Going” by Hardy, and Frost’s tragic “Out, Out.” The other students in our seminars seemed mortified to see their professor openly weeping, but I was profoundly moved by Mezey’s love of and reverence for these poems. Here was someone who lived and breathed poetry, and who celebrated its ability to change the way we perceive and endure our lives.
Our paths diverged for a decade after I was Mezey’s student, but when he and his long-time partner, Nancy Ware, began to help Claremont poet Virginia Adair—who’d been blinded from botched cataract surgeries—to compile a book of her poems, he called me to ask if I’d read their draft for her first volume, Ants on the Melon (Random House, 1996). He also invited me to meet Virginia, a rare honor. Thereafter, for roughly the next twenty-five years, Mezey and I met monthly or bi-monthly for lunch in Claremont, where we argued incessantly over poetry and politics, and shared our families’ woes and triumphs with mutual fondness. When he moved to Maryland in 2017 to be closer to his daughter Naomi and her family, we regularly kept in touch by phone. The loss of Mezey, my friend and mentor of forty years, has hit me hard, but editing this 1987 interview has been a pleasurable way to return to my conversations with him.
A note on Part II: Robert Mezey had been a Fresno State University colleague and close friend of poet Philip Levine for several decades, and though they eventually had a falling out, they maintained a cordial friendship thereafter. I’ve chosen not to censor Mezey’s ambivalent comments about Levine and his poetry, which appear toward the end of Part II of this interview, since similar complaints recurred during our many future conversations, indicating that the issues of literary identity and honesty were deeply important to Mezey. It’s also essential to note that, ultimately, Mezey held a very high regard for Levine’s work. Perhaps Mezey reveals a tad of professional jealously here, but I also think that his views about authenticity of voice are relevant. What Mezey considered to be Levine’s “phony” identification with the working class was a matter of profound dishonesty to him, since he believed that Levine’s pose wasn’t genuine. According to Mezey, Levine’s identification wasn’t based on his friend’s actual experiences; he’d often told me that Levine’s father’s used auto parts business in Detroit afforded his family an affluent life. “Years ago, I went with Phil to visit his family’s home in Detroit,” Mezey once said, “and they lived in a mansion. I’m not kidding!”
Hyperlinks have been added when the full texts of literary works discussed within the interview appear online. Readers will notice that I’ve arranged Part II into four sections with the following headings: “Writing Ghazals and the Intricacies of Meter,” “Revision, Stealing a Line from a Serial Killer, and Bert Meyers’ Poetry,” “The Comfort and Terror of Art,” and “On Political Poetry and Why We Write.” The title of this interview is comprised of two lines lifted from Robert Mezey’s poem “Four-Part Psalm.”
– Maurya Simon
PART II: INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT MEZEY, JUNE-JULY 1987
WRITING GHAZALS AND THE INTRICACIES OF METER
MS: I know that you possess an interest in the ghazal as a poetic form. Would you talk more about that?
RM: It just so happened, by accident, that when I was recovering from a disastrous love affair, I was reading a wonderful book of ghazals. The poems were in Urdu with English transliterations, so you could hear how they sounded, and there were detailed notes and translations by various poets, some of them pretty good. There was one by William Stafford, for instance.
MS: What was this book? You’ve mentioned it before.
RM: I have the book in my office. I’ve never seen it since, except this one copy, and I don’t know where I came across it, but I was fascinated by it. I’d been thinking around that time about certain images that reappeared in my poems, such as the image of a door standing open.
MS: And images of windows?
RM: Yes, windows. I can explain an image’s use in any particular poem, but apropos an image’s totality, I don’t quite know what it means. I suppose that images of doors and windows have something to do with the primal scene, or some idea of freedom, getting out of the prison of life.
MS: For those two images, in particular, maybe it’s the mystery of not knowing what lies beyond the world of our senses.
RM: Right. Also, obviously, they have to do with sex and death, which relates to our earlier discussion about the role of sex and death in my work. I was thinking about repeated images, and I found that some of them—conventional ones, such as bees, insects, candles, and mirrors—would reappear in poem after poem, and it was wonderful to see them go through so many changes across different poems. As a consequence of reflecting on how recurrent images assume new shapes with each use, I employ repeating imagery more consciously now. While writing Couplets, I borrowed some images of mirrors, insects, and bees from other poems, and then used some of my own, so that the book contains an echo and re-echoing of hands, eyes, bees, mirrors, windows, and doors.
From Couplets (an excerpt)
The bee’s so bloated with nectar he can’t fly,
Buzzing on his back at the flower’s foot.
So many fresh blooms! Summer will never end,
The fucking idiot dances in his euphoria.
The first faint brown nibbles at the edge of a leaf—
Even the city cousin notices such things.
Down an aisle of leafy shade and leafy sunlight,
Growing smaller and smaller, she disappears.
The watcher, shivering, cannot believe his eyes
That this body too should be taken away from him.
The dry husk of a stonefly clinging to a rock
Came apart in my fingers, the wind lifted it away.
Ojos que no ven, Corazon que no siente—
The little peasant whispers it over and over.
In a field of mustard and grasses, blowing light,
A house, almost beyond the light. Who lives in it?
Mother is resting. On Sunday it is so.
The cat’s eyes half close. The mice go by unmolested.
Alighting to sip dew from the cool ruffles
The butterfly bows slightly, folding her wings.
There is a stripe of sunlight yellow as her blood,
Spilled wine, and a thimble lying on its side.
Glimpses given even to those in torment.
Yes. Even in this world.
I’d seen ghazals in English before, including some by Adrienne Rich and Jim Harrison, and I didn’t think much of them. I could see what Rich was trying to do, and the process interested me, especially the notion of a leap from couplet to couplet. It struck me that there was a lot of space separating each couplet, which made the boundary between them seem very loose. Sometimes the next poem would be a continuation of the one before. I’ve been told, or have read, that devotees of ghazals sometimes recite passages that consist of the last two couplets of one poem and the first three of another poem, as if the couplets are connected between both poems in a fluid way. On the other hand, in some ghazals, the distance between individual couplets is so great that each couplet seems like a self-contained poem.
MS: Yet sometimes the couplets are thematically or imagistically connected as well?
RM: There’s almost always something connecting the couplets, such as a mood, an image, or a syntactical movement. It’s hard to tell when you’re dealing with translations. But the ghazal form makes such an airy structure, like filigree, that I thought it would be interesting to try the structure in English. Since I was in the midst of suffering over the end of an affair, I found that my state of mind merged with my fascination for this book of ghazals, which I had been reading for comfort and peace. I began writing about what I was feeling, and I became involved with the formal necessities of the ghazal. As I navigated the form, I felt a strong impulse to bring a metrical approach to the process. Rich’s and Harrison’s ghazals are also composed in meter, but they use rhyme, which is something that I chose not to do. Their ghazals contain rhyming couplets, and I didn’t want to go that far.
MS: How many stresses are there per line in your couplets?
RM: The lines in my couplets generally range from thirteen to fifteen syllables in length, though there are significant variations in that pattern. I’d started to write in meter again, after many years of not doing so, and I was really enjoying it, though I didn’t want to feel restricted by using a tight metrical line. I was also reading Catullus at the time, and I had been working on translations of his poems not too long prior to that, so the sounds of his lines were in my ear. I wanted to see if I could get a pentameter base and then sort of “roughen” it, as John Crowe Ransom used to say, with various quantitative interruptions or overlays.
As I wrote, I began to realize that the poems were no longer about Robert Mezey pissing and moaning over a girl. I recognized that I’d become a member of a certain species, the Lover gnashing his teeth. In essence, maybe because my head had always been full of poetry, I became an archetypal Lover on the page. This was both a way of getting some personal stuff off of my chest and a means of transmuting it into art. While writing this long sequence, I immersed myself so deeply in the actual composition, as in those Urdu models, that I wasn’t always sure where one poem left off and another began. I must have written six hundred or eight hundred couplets.
MS: Oh really? My God!
RM: Many of the couplets didn’t fit anywhere in the project, so I ended up storing them away for future use. Some people might say the ones I kept in the book don’t fit very well either, but I have an intuitive sense of how they connect. There’s a narrative line, or a kind of buried narrative, running throughout the whole poem, and each section progresses logically.
MS: So, traditionally, the form is not narrative in nature?
RM: No, it may use narrative elements, but it’s almost entirely a lyric and meditative form. I have some couplets that make pure leaps across to the next one, where the mood is the same, but the subject matter changes. It seems as though each couplet is a little poem that leads to another little poem of the same theme. In addition, there are some couplets in which I hope to create both effects, a sense of leaping from couplet to couplet and also an underlying story or structure that may be perceived by the reader.
MS: There’s always the underlying story of the lover’s loss, no?
RM: Sure. I found myself writing about other things as well, and they often seemed to relate to the loss in some way. Some of the later poems are more philosophical, and they explore the process of dying. I suppose losing love is a kind of dying, so the book examines death in a variety of ways. The poems in Couplets address the whole subject of oneness and two-ness, and of suffering in general. I don’t know what to say about them, other than what the poems themselves say.
MS: Do you think you’re one of the few contemporary American poets who has done a similar cycle of these kinds of couplets in English? Of course, I know Rich has composed a sequence of them, but in many ways they aren’t as ambitious as yours are in length and scope. Hers seem more isolated, and they don’t have a strong sense of continuity.
RM: Rich’s couplet sequence doesn’t seem conceived as a whole poem. In my case, I sometimes felt as though I was crafting the couplet cycle as one poem, and sometimes it seemed to me that I was just writing individual couplets. There were some days when I wrote poems that weren’t at all connected. For example, in my most recent book, Evening Wind, there’s a poem titled “Last Days in Salt Lake City.” I wrote that at the same time as the couplets, using the same form.
MS: That’s a wonderfully bitter poem.
RM: It’s funny how the tone of that poem is utterly out of place. I wrote it at the same time as the couplets, as a way of trying something else with the form. One of the things I try to do is to see how I can use a form in some fresh way that hasn’t been done before. It’s tiresome to write the same kind of poem over and over. If I’d written lots of good sonnets, I probably wouldn’t be writing sonnets now, but I think I started writing sonnets again because I’ve never written a good one.
MS: You have written some wonderful sonnets. The book’s title poem “Evening Wind,” for instance.
RM: I think I’ve written a couple of fairly good sonnets at this point. But it’s a hard form, and I never had much success with it during my earlier years as a writer. I was thinking about that while driving up here, about not having the kind of technical mastery as, say, Don Justice possesses, or some other poets, but I love playing with variations on formal ideas. I was thinking about that little poem of mine called “The Power of Thought,” where I do something that I teach some students in writing classes never to do, which is to go from meter to free verse.
MS: You do that in a sonnet?
RM: Yes. I didn’t do it deliberately, but it came out that way, and I thought, well damn, I’ve always been told not to do it, but there it is.
MS: That poem’s also in Evening Wind, isn’t it?
RM: Yes. It’s a proem in the first section. It begins with three, six, and eight, and the first eight lines are pentameter. The rhythm is a little jazzy here and there, but the poem is mainly rooted in fairly regular pentameters.
The Power of Thought
The rain falls like an army, clattering
on the thin plastic tied to four trees
for a flimsy roof, though not to be despised.
We watch the drenched pines through a veil of water
and wait, feeling left out, as it gets dark.
It rains hard all evening, we can hear it
even over the hiss and crash of the river.
Curled like a toad in my clammy bag I wish
I was home, at my desk,
dry clothes, pen, paper,
old typewriter under the warm lamplight—
and here I am.
MS: “I was home at my desk”—the fourth-to-last line—isn’t in pentameter.
RM: Yes, the poem suddenly breaks into an anapest. There’s an extra syllable before that, which creates a sort of sonic permission for me to use an anapest in that line, and then the next line breaks the rhythm again. This part of the poem sounded right to me while I was writing it, and it said exactly what I wanted to say, and so I left it in. The next line also sounded right to me, though I noticed that it returns to a strange kind of pentameter: “old typewriter under the warm lamplight.” That may be the most interesting single pentameter line I’ve ever written because it begins with a rare ionic major and ends with a trochee. It’s a very odd line, but it’s metrical, and it goes back to the meter at the end.
MS: The change seems right because the short line builds suspense while enhancing the tension and drama in the poem.
RM: I like the effect, which is why I kept it, but I recall, with considerable humor and rue, how many times I’ve told students not to switch from free verse to metrical verse. Of course, students don’t usually try to write in meter, and they don’t always know it when they are writing in meter.
MS: They don’t know how to write in meter, or they aren’t even aware of what meter does in a poem?
RM: They often aren’t fully listening to either free verse lines or formal lines. For example, students sometimes begin with the first four lines in iambic tetrameter, but they drop the meter entirely in the next line. So you feel like you’re falling off of a cliff instead of reading a poem.
MS: Do you ever tell students that you’ve actually broken your own rule?
RM: Yes. But it depends on what level I’m teaching. In an advanced workshop, students can handle it. But when I’m working with beginners, no. I just tell them not to do that.
MS: Do they ever rush off and try to challenge themselves by doing it?
RM: No, I don’t think anybody has so far.
MS: Trying to stretch is so important, attempting to break the rules while remaining within a certain tradition.
RM: Sometimes when I’m writing, I set out with an idea of what I’d like to do with a particular form, but mostly, as with “The Power of Thought,” it just happens. I was scribbling away, and what I felt needed to be said didn’t turn out to be in quite the same meter as the rest of the poem. But it sounded good to me, so I went with it.
MS: You don’t do that kind of switching of meters in any other poems in this book, do you?
RM: No, but I do it in Couplets quite a bit. Though there’s always an iambic base, the rhythm often varies in significant ways. Many lines aren’t scannable as pentameters, and sometimes they get shortened. There’s one in the “Couplet” sequence where the second line is a three-beat line all the way through.
MS: I was thrown by the last line on the first page of Couplets: “And you never will.” What’s happening there?
RM: The line you’ve quoted is the shortest one, and I hoped that the force of it, in terms of the shock of what it says and the metrical surprise it delivers, would impact readers in a strong way. The other lines in the poem contain three beats, and some possess four beats, as in the collection’s next poem, where readers again encounter a shock within the subject matter that’s mirrored by the form. This effect recurs throughout the poem. To highlight another example, the final couplet begins with three trochees and unfolds in an odd but interesting pentameter. The last line is considerably shorter and prosier than the lines that precede it.
MS: Are you referring to the phrase “In a field”?
RM: No, I’m thinking of the language that appears at the end of the last couplet: “Glimpses given even to those in torment,” which is quite regular in its funny little way. Then there’s “Yes, even in this world,” which is a flat and prosy line by comparison. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I tried to achieve a mixture of diction levels and tonal qualities throughout the poem. My goal was to create an effect similar to that of regular conversation. It’s not uncommon to hear people say something exalted, ornate, or shapely, followed by something slangy, idiomatic, or highly colloquial. I wanted to mingle literary language with the vernacular and the obscene. Once you begin writing in any form, it generates new possibilities and ideas about what you can do with it.
MS: Do you think of Couplets as one long poem?
RM: Yes, absolutely.
MS: Would you say it’s the most ambitious poem that you’ve ever written?
RM: I guess so, though I didn’t think of it as ambitious while I was writing it. I was enormously grateful that so many couplets were given to me through inspiration. I mean, many of them were bad, but those were the ones that I wrote myself! They were just coming all the time, and I felt extremely prolific, which isn’t my usual state. I didn’t feel anything like the sense you get from, say, Hart Crane’s letters, when he talks about “To Brooklyn Bridge,” the vastness of it. Of course, Couplets is not in a class with “To Brooklyn Bridge” in terms of size and reach. I didn’t even know quite what I was doing, or even that I was writing a poem. I was simply writing couplets.
Only at the end did I realize that I had a huge mass of material comprising about fifty or sixty sections. Some of the work I produced at that time, including “Last Days in Salt Lake City,” didn’t fit the project. Some of the poems were poor, so I threw them away, and some contained two or three good couplets but possessed weaker connecting material. I began to separate the manuscript into sections. In certain instances, I wrote the poems with a specific section in mind, and in other instances, I discovered couplets within different poems that seemed to go together. Another approach I took, at times, was to craft a poem out of separate couplets that were written on different occasions. I’d see connections between them, and then I’d write a new couplet or two to sew them together.
MS: Had you done that before when you were writing a poem or a sequence of poems?
RM: No, I’d never written a poem of this kind before.
MS: Do you mean in terms of length? Even in many of your longer poems, you’ve drawn from other poems, no?
RM: Occasionally, sure. I’ve often had the experience of working on two poems and realizing they’re really one poem. When I get four or five lines that I can’t do anything with, they just stay in my notebook as fragments. Sometimes a phrase or line that I wrote years ago suddenly pops into my mind when I’m writing a poem, and it will fit.
MS: What a wonderful moment!
RM: Yes, terrific. It brings to mind that wonderful image in Gary Snyder’s “Riprap.” He describes slowly building a path with stones, and how you need one stone that will fit just right, and that’s the line that you never thought you’d remember or would ever again use. I’d never done anything like this before, where I had individual couplets that were little poems in themselves. I had strings of them that made poems, and then I had truck loads, so there was a mixture of things.
MS: Very architectural.
RM: Yes. I put aside some drafts, throwing away others, and I reduced Couplets from fifty to thirty sections, yet I still didn’t know what to do with it. The poems stopped coming, and I developed a sense that the project was exhausted and that, whatever it was, it was finished. But it wasn’t. It hadn’t come to anything yet. I realized that all of the sections were connected by certain images that appeared throughout the couplets, and that often one led to another, which is something that I didn’t really see until I was done writing, or until I was done reading.
From Couplets (an excerpt)
Remember the depths of her eyes and swimming there.
Remember the glistening festivals of her body.
Remember the sudden chestnut mare and the colt
Running out through buckthorn to the high mountain lake
By which we slept. Remember the fullness of the moon.
And the mountains drinking in that sea of milk.
Remember the long silences. Remember the flute
Answering to itself high up on the red cliffs.
Remember the rock floored with sun and two immortals
And the white water crashing and frothing in the channel.
And her arms raised to her hair, lifting the small breasts,
The flat belly, legs akimbo, tuft of fur,
The faint shadow of the wings of the dragonfly—
Remember everything. And now forget.
The hound keeps circling a putrid lump of fur
But after a while, it gets bored and wanders off.
When the flowers are empty, the bee flies straight home
With no more regrets than the setting sun.
Stop crying, lover, you were both well served.
When the bill comes, someone must pay.
RM: There’s a reference at the end of one couplet to the female sexual organ. That particular couplet begins with “remember the depths of her eyes, remember, remember, remember,” and ends with “the flat belly, legs akimbo, tuft of fur.” The image following that is of “the faint shadow of the wings of the dragonfly,” which just popped into my mind as I was composing the piece. While the rest of that poem is my invention, “the faint shadow of the wings of the dragonfly” comes from a haiku that I had remembered for many years: “Afternoon sunlight. The faint shadow / Of the wings of the dragonfly.”
Later in the sequence, I wrote about a hound circling a “putrid lump of fur,” and I noticed this image harkening back to the “tuft of fur” in that earlier couplet, though the feeling evoked by the two fur images is utterly different. Eventually, the more I worked on the project, I grew weary of trying to figure out how to integrate all of the parts. I had the first and second couplets, as well as the last one, and I had some of the sequence, but I was just really tired of it. It seemed too much for me, so I dumped it on my friend Pete Everwine. I sent him the whole thing and said, “This is a poem I’ve written, but it isn’t a poem yet, and maybe you could help.”
I spread out the couplets across the floor, all one hundred of them, and fixed them around like a deck of cards. I sent him about thirty or thirty-two sections, and he put them into a sequence. He threw away seven or eight and sent the whole thing back to me. I could see what he was trying to do, and it made sense to me. Then I fiddled with his order. I put back a couple of the sections that he’d taken out. I may have been wrong in doing that, but I liked those sections and thought I wanted to keep them. I made some additional changes, but essentially it was Everwine’s order. I created the crude beginnings of the sequence, and he arranged most of the middle, and I continued tinkering.
MS: So he gave you a basic structure from which to work.
RM: Yes. In a sense, he collaborated with me on the poem.
MS: How lucky you were to have someone with such good aesthetic judgment who could do that!
RM: That was a great gift. The book would’ve been completed some way or another, if I’d done it myself, but probably not as well. I’m happy now with how it moves from section to section, and I find myself, on the few occasions when I have to re-read it, seeing connections and echoes that I didn’t see before. I don’t know if the book is ultimately a complete success, but I think it’s my best work, though my friends and my small audience of readers might not agree with that assessment. It’s the one poem of mine that remains extremely interesting to me every time I revisit it.
MS: Do you think you’ll ever attempt composing something similar to this again?
RM: I’m still fascinated by the ghazal convention and what it offers, but I think I would do something different. I wouldn’t want to repeat that again.
MS: It seems that the form of Couplets allows for a great range within it. You could still use this form, and yet have very different themes, moods, and images.
RM: I’m sure it’s possible, but I don’t know if I’m up for it. What I’d love to do is write a contemporary poem in heroic couplets. How about that? That’s a very archaic form, one of the forms least commonly found in current poetry, even less common than the sonnet, and yet I love heroic couplets. I can’t see my own work as clearly as others can, obviously, so it looks to me as though each of my books is quite different than the last. Whenever I begin writing again after having finished a poetry collection, I can’t remember how I wrote the poems in that collection, so I feel like a beginner who lacks the skills and resources to proceed. I always feel that a new poem is unlike anything I’ve ever done, so I’m sort of on my own. Of course, that’s not quite so, and it may be that I just need to feel this way.
MS: Your voice is constant.
RM: I suppose this is true for many poets, but I don’t feel that way. It may be that someone reading my poems might say, “Oh, that’s a Mezey poem,” but I don’t hear it.
MS: This must be a truism for most poets, that they can’t recognize their own voices or a consistent modality. But I certainly hear it, and see it, when I read your work.
RM: Some poets think of themselves as having a style, but I don’t have a style recognizable to myself.
MS: I guess I’m thinking of a tenor, or it’s the music, maybe, that I’m thinking of. Your own particular lyrical voice.
RM: I’m sure there’s a style that goes from bad poem to good poem, and from early poem to late poem. I’m sure there’s continuity, but I’m more aware of discontinuities, partly because I write with such long stretches of silence in between more productive periods.
MS: In those interludes, you’ve lots of time to study, no?
RM: Yes, and also lots of time to forget. It’s partly a matter of forgetting, and partly that I’m easily bored. There are some very good poets—I won’t name names—who seem to me to rely on a formula. It’s usually something they’ve done really well at some point in the past. They’ve published a book containing a certain kind of poem, and that book was beautiful and highly praised. It seems to me that sometimes they go on doing the same thing repeatedly. There’s no great harm in that, but it seems tiresome to me, and I can’t imagine doing it myself. I wouldn’t be interested in writing the same kind of poem over and over. Some of these poets have published six, eight, or ten books since then, in which they seem to rewrite the same poem, essentially, that they wrote fifteen years ago. But they should be trying something else. The new versions just seem thin shadows of the old formula, re-workings of the same machine, going around and around making the same product. That may be purely an illusion. I may be doing quite the same thing without knowing it. But I like to tell myself that what I’m working on isn’t like what I’ve done before.
REVISION, STEALING A LINE FROM A SERIAL KILLER,
AND BERT MEYERS’ POETRY
MS: In the poems from the first section of Small Song, your altered endings are so compelling because your revisions constitute a different philosophical stance. I’ll refer to a revised poem and its last lines, specifically, that I think are quite interesting. In “In the Fields of the Dead,” don’t you leave off the last line that appeared in the original version? You’ve cut out “Were it not this darkness just behind my eyes,” and instead you end that last sentence with an ellipses. This change opens up the poem to the mystery of being, which anticipates the unexpected and unknown in a way that didn’t happen with that earlier last line. The revision alters the poem substantially.
RM: I think it’s an improvement to drop the line, and it’s interesting how that happened. I worked hard on that poem. I don’t think it’s one of the better poems in the book, and I even feel some regret at opening the book with it. I do like some aspects of it, and I worked so long on it, but it just didn’t turn out quite right. The poem seems good enough to include, but maybe it was a mistake to open the book with it because I’m not satisfied with how the lines move in some places. But I’ve done the most I can do with it. The final thing I did was take out that last line.
MS: You do that again in “Little Poem,” republished as “Poem” in Evening Wind, where you leave off the second stanza. That’s half of the poem, right? This deletion seems to change the poem’s focus. Here’s the second stanza: “We make fire with stringed instruments / Two serpents dance in the fire / The fire is a man.” The stanza’s absence leads the poem astray, at that point, and it greatly changes the poem.
RM: Yes, this change takes the poem somewhere else, to a private place. There are some people who preferred the poem as it stood in the past. Those last couple of lines were describing a yarn painting made by the Indians above Nayarit in Mexico. They take peyote and make art with it using yarn and beeswax. I have a painting of a man who turns into—who really is—the fire, and the serpents in the poem arise from that painting. But nobody would know that.
MS: So it’s a personal allusion?
RM: When I first wrote “Little Poem,” I understood the connection I was making, but now I no longer do. I don’t know exactly what I was trying to express.
Thick spriglets of mistletoe
Even disease is beautiful
When the eyes are open
MS: What you’re getting at is profound and embedded in that first stanza, I think.
RM: I guess so. It seemed to me that the little poem was not little enough, so I tried different versions. I cut out the last two lines and left this as the last line: “We make fire with stringed instruments.” Then I cut out some other lines, and wrote others to put in their place, and sent them to a friend. He wasn’t quite sure which he preferred, so I just let it be with a jinxed first line.
MS: But the wonderful thing about that poem is how, in the new version that appears in Evening Wind, that single stanza says so much with such eloquence. It celebrates the paradoxical nature of the world, both the disease and the beauty, and how they coexist.
MS: There was a movement in some of those poems, which you changed for this new volume, where you turn the focus back to the poem’s speaker. By taking out particular lines, in three or four of those poems, you open up the poem to the reader. There’s less of a concern with the personal lament, and more emphasis on universalizing the experience, as in “In The Fields of the Dead.”
RM: Often in a poem, less is more, and often when you’re revising a poem, you end up throwing away lines. A great deal of hard work goes into the passages that you throw away, and it’s important that you write them, but it’s also important to get rid of them. I was stubborn about that poem’s last line: “Were it not this darkness behind the eyes.” I showed it to a friend, who responded that he thought the last line was a cliché. That surprised me because I think of myself as fairly sensitive to clichés, and I didn’t know it was a cliché. I thought it was my own idea. It’s a fairly simple one, I suppose, but I thought, isn’t it odd that all of this light is coming in and we live in this illuminated world, but inside the body it’s pitch-black. I thought, isn’t that original? But it’s not.
MS: [Laughter] I don’t know. It sounds vaguely familiar, but I can’t place it.
RM: I don’t know either whether it’s a cliché or not. But even if it’s original, even if it’s a good idea, who needs it? That had never occurred to me before. You don’t draft things at random when you’re revising, when you have something concrete in mind.
MS: It’s the ellipses, I think, that are compelling because they invite readers to imagine what lies beyond death.
RM: Yes, the poem doesn’t quite close. It drifts off to the beyond.
MS: The poem’s ending is wonderful. I think that its final movement is a good rationale for having it appear as the first poem in the book.
RM: I don’t know quite what the ending of the poem does. Mainly, I suppose, it’s intuitive more than anything else, but the tense is not quite right. It’s all present tense, so in the proof I changed it to “I can,” which seems to make it more immediate.
MS: Yes, I agree.
RM: It gives it a little more drama. I made a lot of little changes in the proofs.
MS: Yes. I’ve noted all of them because I find it interesting to see the revisions you made.
RM: You mean from the earlier book to this new one?
MS: From the versions in that earlier book to the revised versions in this one. But now I see from this version of the proofs that you’ve made even more revisions. I think all of the changes you’ve made are really significant improvements. When I compare the two versions I have at hand, I’d say the second versions are stronger.
RM: I revise a lot, and if the editors hadn’t been yelling at me about deadlines, I would’ve kept those proofs. I’d still have them, probably, and I’d be worrying about a comma here or a comma there.
MS: [Laughter] A comma can make all the difference in the world. There’s another poem that I wanted to ask you about: “On the Burning Coast.” It’s the “misty figure” that surprised me. Does this “misty figure” at the poem’s end refers to your mother?
RM: Grandmother. I suppose the “misty figure” is old man Death, but it’s also Alex, her dead husband.
MS: Right. I was going to say that what seems unusual or unlikely is that it’s not an image of death for me. It doesn’t strike me as an unwelcome or threatening image. Rather it’s quite a seductive image, though not in the sense of sexual seduction. There’s something alluring about it.
On the Burning Coast
to which he comes as often as he can
my grandmother sits
waiting for him with her thin hands
hands that more than seventy years
clutched at everything
have already sculptured into a final grip
she has forgotten
the sacred embroidery the country dances
even the prayers intended for these moments
her dead husband
all she has is a few dollars
for the fee
evening mingles tenderly with the horizon
putting out all fire
it’s like a fairy tale she says
isn’t it Alex
and hobbles off across the beach
toward the misty figure
who stands knee deep in the breaking surf
RM: That’s another poem with which I’m not altogether satisfied. I’ve changed those last few lines around quite a bit without getting them right. But it’s an appealing and intriguing image to me, as well. It’s easy to say that the image represents death, or that it’s the dead husband, but there’s obviously more to it. It’s almost as if the figure has arisen from the fog, or as if the figure is made out of the surf itself.
MS: Neptune rising?
RM: I don’t know. But it’s funny where ideas and images come from. Maybe the prettiest line in the poem is “evening mingles tenderly with the horizon,” and the word “tenderly” came into my mind because I found myself remembering a phrase. This is an odd connection because it has little to do with the poem, but I’d carried the phrase in my head for years. It comes from the mass murderer Charlie Starkweather. Do you remember Charlie Starkweather?
MS: Was he a Texan?
RM: I think he was from one of those big Midwestern states. He and his girlfriend went on a murder spree. They spent a week or so just shooting people all over the place, and he was eventually electrocuted. While he was in prison, they published drawings that he made and some of his writing. He was not quite literate, but he did write some poems and prose. I remember one line: “The sun wented down in all its tender glory.” I don’t think my line’s as good as that. His line about the sun is a wonderful line, a naïve but beautiful line. So this was the source of that line of mine. Funny how you make connections in your head with ideas so far away from each other.
MS: In the fourth stanza of “On the Burning Coast,” you’ve cut the last two lines, including “and the fiery brown earth speaks in tongues,” a line that expands the poem for me because you bring it back down to earth.
RM: Now the poem is syntactically open at the end. It doesn’t seem to finish the sentence, so it’s hanging there with the participle. It ends this way: “to join the misty figure / who stands knee-deep in the breaking surf.” I do like the “fiery brown earth speaking in tongues,” but I showed the poem to two or three people, and one of my friends said, “That seems like a forced and poetically willed ending.” I still liked it, but I saw what he meant, so I resisted the change for a long time, and then I finally dropped it.
MS: That seems again like a change that’s more than just technical or stylistic, since you’re also altering the poem’s meaning by ending on this different note.
RM: Yes. I think it helps the poem. That’s why I did it. But it took me a while to make the change, and it was based on someone else’s advice. I don’t always follow revision suggestions from others, of course, and I have friends who haven’t liked poems that I continue to like and keep. They may well be right, but finally, you have nobody else to go on but yourself. A poem of this kind—and I like this one pretty well—seems to me very different from the type of poem I usually write.
MS: Yes, it does. I reread “On the Burning Coast” several times because it’s deeply interesting in surprising ways, and it’s certainly one of your more unusual poems. For one thing, there’s no metrical pattern in the poem.
RM: It’s free verse. I think one of the reasons “On the Burning Coast” may seem so different is that it’s a wide-open, dithyrambic, ecstatic sort of poem. It typifies much of what I was trying to write in the Sixties. I don’t think I succeeded very well at writing this kind of poetry back then, but “On the Burning Coast” is a remnant of that time, and it sounds better than a lot of my work from that period because it’s more attentive to the sounds of the lines.
MS: Yes. It’s more powerful than those earlier poems, and more emotionally intense, even though it’s more condensed. “On the Burning Coast” stands in contrast to the long poems you have in “The Book of Dying.”
RM: I care a lot about writing poems that are lucid and comprehensible. I don’t like the idea of hermetic poetry. There’s some obscure poetry that I love very much, but I think that one of the harmful effects of Modernism has been the proliferation of poetry that is hard for the common reader to access. This has driven away many readers of poetry. There are a lot of poems that I don’t understand, and sometimes I find this to be extremely irritating. You wonder: Can’t this writer just say what he means? Not that I always succeed at achieving total clarity in my own poems, but I do try. Yet even then, I still write poems on occasion that I don’t quite understand. One that comes to mind is “Trying to Begin,” which is a poem that I would have a hard time explaining. It’s very mysterious to me.
Trying to Begin
Here you are once more, sitting at a table,
hands folded and ankles crossed, the most
ordinary of mornings and absolutely nothing to do.
And slowly, neither awake nor asleep,
you start to feel
you must have been lost a long time in the cells of paper,
a faint tinkle of dust
coming back to life in the world of the ear.
The coffee is cold,
yet always the same white ground and the same ghostly
weaving toward a distant light,
and lines groping for some opening in the crushed wall,
and lines that glisten like the snail’s whereabouts
down to this wet sheaf
that might have just arrived, so heavy and fresh,
from the wheat farmers in regions of ice and cloud.
Or maybe just a layer of sodden leaves
left on the doorstep by the nightlong rain.
MS: Is that one in Small Song?
RM: It’s not in the original book, no. “Trying to Begin” is about attempting to write again.
MS: You also added a few poems that weren’t in the original version of the book, yes?
RM: Yes, and I left out “Lines Written in Jubilation.” That was the sexy one, but my friends didn’t like it. It’s the poem that ends with, “o my lord, / coming into this poem / in golden showers.”
MS: Actually, I was going to ask you about that line because you have several poems that equate the act of writing with the sexual act.
RM: Yes. I still like “Lines Written in Jubilation,” but nobody else seemed to like it, so I said, okay, they’re probably right.
MS: I don’t like it very much either. [Laughter]
RM: I left it out, and I’m not unhappy about that. I think the only time I’ve really regretted omitting a poem from a book is when I cut “The Stream Flowing” from my Selected Poems. I’d always liked it, though I’d never thought it was quite right.
MS: Did you originally write that poem in blank verse?
RM: I originally wrote it in unlined quatrains. The poem appears in White Blossoms, and it’s not that wildly changed, but a number of lines are quite different. I also left out “Holy Day,” although there were a couple of things in the poem I liked, and I cut “Looking into the Fire,” which is a curious story.
MS: A curious story in what sense?
RM: I find it curious that I had no memory of having written “Looking into the Fire” when I found it among my papers. I thought, now isn’t that funny, it’s in my handwriting. I think it’s an interesting little poem, but I can’t say that I understand it very well.
Looking into the Fire
The fire speaks.
Some logs cry out drily before they die,
others go up like San Lorenzo and that’s it.
A band of crickets launches a wild harangue,
a beseeching wing,
a crazy music,
—my eyes get caught up
in the flames of the carnival—
wait, somebody’s living in that wood!
The crowd shouts before disguising itself as ashes.
MS: It sounds like a Bert Meyers poem to me.
RM: Yes, and it sounds a little like me, but not very much. Yet I seem to have written it.
MS: Was this during your hallucinatory days?
RM: I don’t think so. But years before, a somewhat similar situation occurred when I came across a poem that I had no memory of writing. I thought it was mine, though, so I put it into one of my books. Then what happened? I came across Phil Levine’s selected poems of Gloria Fuertes, Off the Map, and there was that exact poem, in another version. I had obviously translated it and forgotten that I’d done so, and I’d also forgotten the identity of the original author. So I had stolen it and published it as my own work without realizing it.
MS: Bert Meyers must have read Fuertes, no? Do you think she influenced him?
RM: He was probably influenced by some of the poets who influenced her.
MS: By whom, for instance?
RM: For example, Jacques Prévert, Federico Garcia Lorca, and the earlier French and Spanish poets. Meyers has written some things that are similar to what Fuertes wrote, but, for the most part, his work is quite different from hers. The poem by Fuertes that we’re discussing was quite unusual for her, and it does sound more like something by Bert Meyers.
MS: I think what makes it feel that way is the image of ashes and the act of burning things.
RM: It’s funny how these things go in America. Bert is a very fine poet, a wonderful poet, I think. He’s great fun to read and quite unlike anyone else. But he never had an audience, or if he did, it was a tiny, tiny audience.
RM: I don’t know.
MS: Did he try to get his poems published individually?
RM: Yes. He did try. He attempted to be a self-publicist, but he just wasn’t very good at that kind of thing. A few of his poems appeared in magazines, and there were some editors, like George Hitchcock, who admired his work a lot and published him often.
MS: Some poets regarded his work highly. Denise Levertov comes to mind.
RM: Sure. She found him rather late, but when she discovered his work, she fell in love with it. I carried a couple of Bert’s poems in my head for years without knowing who had written them. I remember reading a magazine and coming across a poem that knocked me out. It stuck with me. I could recall almost the entire poem, but I couldn’t say who wrote it. Years later, I learned that Bert Meyers, with whom I’d became friends in Claremont, was the author of this poem that I had cherished for so long. But sadly and inexplicably, during the last few years of his life, when he was sending out his book for publication, he received rejections from thirty-five to forty-five publishers.
MS: Which one of his books was this? Wild Olive Tree or Blue Café?
RM: Mainly Wild Olive Tree.
MS: Wild Olive Tree was rejected by over forty publishers? That’s just amazing to me. His work is so terrific.
RM: The book was much better than a lot of what was being published at that time, and receiving so many rejections embittered Bert’s last years in a way that was sad to witness. It was hard not to sympathize with his predicament because he was a real poet, and nobody was paying attention to him. Meanwhile, one sees so many frauds out there who attain great literary reputations. I suppose many poets feel how he must have felt, but it seems so obviously true in his case: This was the genuine article, and he didn’t have readers. It’s the worst possible situation for a writer.
MS: I hope to remedy that a bit. I don’t know if you ever get the Poetry Society of America’s newsletter called The Poetry Pilot?
RM: Yes, it’s sent to me regularly.
MS: I’m going to propose to its president that you and I do a section on Bert Meyers for the purpose of re-introducing his work to people.
RM: That’s a terrific idea. I’d love to do that.
THE COMFORT AND TERROR OF ART
MS: You were starting to say something about your poem “Trying to Begin.” I can’t remember the full context now, but we were discussing it for a reason.
RM: “Trying to Begin” seems in some ways like another poem of mine, “Four-Part Psalm,” in the sense that it’s different from the kind of poetry I usually write. It’s about trying to begin writing again after a period of silence, and I see it as a poem that ventures a definition of poetry. But I don’t know where the images came from. They just appeared, and they made sense to me. They felt right and they still do, but I’d have a hard time explaining them.
MS: Yes, “Trying to Begin” does seem different from your other poems. It says something that none of your poems has said before. In the rest of your oeuvre, you have certain themes to which you frequently return, such as the alienation of the self and the grieving of lost loves.
RM: Elegy seems to be my dominant mode.
MS: I’m not sure that I completely understand “Trying to Begin.”
RM: I’m not sure I do either. I think that the ghostly figures and the white ground have to do with the cells of paper, in a way, and the images combine to evoke a snowy, silent world.
MS: And the snails?
RM: The snail lines seem to be identified with lines of poetry. But it’s all mysterious, and it comes from a mystifying place. The poem explores the act of creation, and the process of writing poetry, and those aren’t among my usual subjects. It remains not fully comprehensible to me, and I think that’s okay. There are probably some things that are not meant to be understood.
MS: Do the images themselves serve to explain the act of writing poetry?
RM: One of my favorite bits from John Berryman is from a late Dream Song, where he says, “These songs are not meant to be understood…they are only meant to comfort & terrify.”
MS: Two very different effects! Simultaneously?
RM: Oddly enough, it is often simultaneous. I was thinking about that while traveling up north. I kept listening to a tape of Philip Larkin reading his work, and I played it for anyone and everyone who would lend me an ear for even just a few minutes.
MS: You have a tape of Philip Larkin reading? He so rarely read his work in public!
RM: Yes, he made a recording for Faber and Faber, and it occupies a whole side of one tape.
MS: Might I hear it sometime? I’d love to hear Larkin reading his work.
RM: Sure. You can make a copy if you use a machine that’s reel-to-reel. It’s a lovely tape. He’s a terrific reader, and he says little things about the poems beforehand. A wonderful performance. He reads these poems that are unbelievably bleak—you know what his work is like— and yet hearing them is like reading them. They’re terrifying and comforting at the same time.
MS: Because one recognizes them as capturing universalities of human experience?
RM: It’s the comfort of art. It’s peace. It’s order. It’s the solace of recognizing the truth, and hearing it sung into something quite grand.
MS: A strange comfort.
RM: Yes. There are poems about the terror of death, and they are very grim. Such a poem offers no consolation other than itself. Good poems exist as forms of consolation beyond the subjects they explore. Even if a poem asserts that nothing can help assuage the suffering caused by death, the poem itself may help the reader face that suffering. It’s odd how that happens. This is one of the most magical aspects of art. Paintings do it as well, and so does music. There’s probably no more horrible, heartrending work of literature that embodies this effect than King Lear.
MS: Or any painting other than Picasso’s “Guernica,” I suppose?
MS: Returning to a discussion of the way that you’ve changed various poems through revision, I’d like to talk about “Good Fortune by Black Mountain.”
RM: I ended up cutting the last stanza of “Good Fortune by Black Mountain,” which originally read this way: “rich man listening to silence / it’s the sound of your own blood / singing like a mountain stream.” It’s an interesting simile, but it sounds rather poetical, doesn’t it? It seemed to me that the poem would be better without it.
Good Fortune by Black Mountain
Late night full moon
black mountain rising pale and massy
the congregation of the trees
share their silver bread
most stars have hidden themselves in moonlight
a few stand shy
like children on some lonely farm
one could sleep in its shadow
one could sleep on its full breast
and wake in the milky night
and these rocks
glowing like phosphorus of another planet
they have made you a rich man
MS: As you’ve mentioned, “Good Fortune by Black Mountain,” in its revised form, veers away from returning to the solitary human being. Instead, the poem ends on a note of gratitude. There’s a lament embedded in there as well, and there’s a sense of strangeness lurking within the gratitude, since the rocks are “glowing like phosphorous of another planet.”
RM: Yes. I’m not phosphorous, and I’m not a rich man, so there’s an irony at play there. I suppose I felt that I needed to cut that last part of the poem because it was too much of a good thing. The poem’s about a wish to nestle in the breast of nature, to be one with it, and yet it’s also about the impossibility of fulfilling such a wish. In light of that, the last part seemed phony and a little false to me.
MS: Yet the word “glowing” seems to contain vaguely negative connotations. For me, the word possesses a sinister tenor, maybe because it makes me think of radium and radioactivity.
RM: Yes. Often when you do something in a poem, you’re not quite sure why you’re doing it. Sometimes it’s quite conscious, and it’s exactly what you want to accomplish while you’re writing it. Other times, it’s hard to know. In the case of this particular poem, I often found myself taking out a line and putting it back in. Then I’d take it out again and re-type the whole poem, only to end up putting it back in again. I may change some aspect of a poem back and forth fifty times, until I decide on a final approach. But it’s never really final in my mind. I’ll see the poem published in a book and think, damn it, I should have left that part in, or I should have cut it out!
MS: [Laughter] Yes, the process goes on ad infinitum. Once you’ve published a poem and it exists in the world, there’s no erasing its many possible versions from your consciousness, right? Those versions still reside within you.
RM: Some folks think that, when it comes to work you have written in the distant past, you should leave it unchanged as a way of honoring the fact that you were a different person then. Others believe you have the right to revise older work at any time, even if you alter it in significant ways. Justice does that in his Selected Poems. He makes very different versions of some of his early poems. Sometimes he improves them enormously, and sometimes it’s not so much a matter of improvement as it is a matter of writing a different kind of poem. Sometimes I prefer his earlier versions, even though I might also like what’s been added or changed.
MS: Is that because the earlier poem is already familiar to you? Or is it because you think it’s actually a better poem than the revised version?
RM: Maybe it’s because I’ve known the poem for a long time, and I’ve come to love it in that particular form. But I tinker with my own poems constantly, so I understand the impetus behind what Justice does in his Selected Poems. I hope to live long enough to put together a Collected Poems containing every poem that I want to preserve, though it might be quite a small book. I grow dissatisfied with poems quickly. In compiling a Collected Poems, I’d probably go through the usual process of putting some poems back in, and taking some poems out. Maybe I’d also rewrite several poems. Interestingly enough, the very poems that you’ve mentioned are ones with which I’m not fully satisfied. They’re poems that seem good enough to include, but not really good enough.
MS: And they’re the ones with which you’ve tinkered the most?
RM: Yes, for the most part. The poems on which I’ve worked the hardest seem to be the ones that still aren’t quite there, though that’s not true in every case. I think what distinguishes poets, or what I would call people who really are poets, from people who want to write poetry, is an experience that I’ll try to describe here. It has nothing to do with whether one is a good or bad writer, because you could be a weak poet and still have this experience. Through some force of inspiration, if inspiration is even the right word, you are given a phrase, a line, or maybe the first couple of lines, or maybe the last line. This is what starts you on the process of shaping a poem. Then you’re faced with the difficulty of inventing something that seems as good and seamless as that art you’ve been given. One reason that so many poems fail—most poems, in fact—is that you’re not up to inventing anything as good as what came to you in that initial instance of inspiration.
An example this is the sonnet titled “Hardy” that I wrote in an airplane. The poem began in the simplest possible way. I was thinking about Don Justice’s sonnet about Henry James and the beach, “Henry James at the Pacific.” When I’d expressed my admiration of the sonnet to Don, years ago, he’d said “Well, you know, you ought to write something about Hardy.” I was on the plane and I remembered his suggestion, and I thought, why not? I began to think of a story, which is likely true, about what happened to Hardy when he was born. As the story goes, his family just threw him away. Upon delivery, Hardy was pronounced dead by the attending doctor, but his mother’s midwife resuscitated him. So I had the first phrase, and as I began to write the poem it seemed to be coming with enormous ease. After four lines, I saw that I had “abab,” and I thought it might be a sonnet. I wasn’t sure, but I wanted it to be a sonnet, and so the next four lines sort of finished off the octave. It all went smoothly until the last two lines. The first twelve lines I wrote in maybe twenty minutes, a little back and forth, a little rhyming, but they basically just popped out. The last two lines, by contrast, were really awful.
MS: You had to match those last lines with the high quality of the preceding lines?
RM: That took two months, the last couplet.
MS: Are you satisfied now with the last two lines?
RM: Yes, I think they work well. Nobody could tell that’s where the poem ran into trouble. I can always tell where my poems ran into trouble because I remember wrestling with those parts, but I also think a sensitive reader can sometimes figure out where I intervened and didn’t do such a good job of it. The Hardy poem now seems fairly seamless to me. But it was a frustrating piece to write, though composing the poem’s first lines on the plane was an experience of pure pleasure. The two months afterward were enormously painful and exasperating because I rewrote the ending so many times. I must have had forty different couplets before I landed on something that seemed good enough.
MS: I love these lines: “From this it follows, all the ironies / Life plays on one whose fate it is to follow / The way of things, the suffering one sees, / The many cups of bitterness he must swallow.”
RM: Thank you. Once I started with the story of Hardy’s birth, I wasn’t sure where the poem was going to lead. But it seemed to lead itself, and it was doing things of which I wasn’t fully aware at the time. I like the way that time works in the poem, how it begins in the past and suddenly Hardy appears, an effect that I didn’t purposely set out to create. The past becomes the present tense. Then the poem moves into the future, but it’s a version of the future as seen from Hardy’s past. The fact that time simultaneously changes and remains the same in the poem intrigues me, and it happened quite by accident, or on some less-than-conscious level.
MS: You do that again in the last two lines, which conflate the present perfect and past tenses apropos the poem’s perception of time. I also really like the double entendre of “headed” because the “head” is the first thing to emerge at birth, and then you refer to where Hardy is “heading” after being tossed out. You’re also suggesting that he’s heading into life, which inevitably ends in death.
RM: Yes, and the head coming out of the birth canal seemed perfect to me because it returns the poem full circle to a focus on the act of being born. At the same time, the image also evokes the certainty of eventual death. The moment of death and the moment of birth meet. In contrast to the parts of the poem that seemed to emerge beyond my conscious awareness, one very willful aspect of my composition process was that I wanted to use a Hardy rhyme—that is, to use words that Hardy rhymes in his own work—in my sonnet.
MS: May I guess which words?
RM: Yes. If you don’t guess, when I tell you, you’ll recognize the rhyme immediately. It’s a little disguised because the meanings of the words are different here.
MS: “Follow” and “swallow?”
RM: Yes, they come from “The Going” by Hardy: “Where I could not follow with wing of swallow.” Neither “follow” nor “swallow” mean quite the same things in my sonnet as they do in Hardy’s poem. “Follow” is close, but it’s a different use of the word, and “swallow” is utterly different, but I was determined to use a Hardy rhyme.
MS: Are all the poems that comprise the book’s last section newer poems?
RM: Yes, they’re all newer. The majority of them I wrote last summer and fall, and a couple in the winter. The most recent is probably “Ill-lit Blues,” which I stuck back in the first section of Small Song.
MS: So you’ve added that?
RM: Yes. I think that’s the only poem I’ve added, plus a couple of the poems that you’ve already mentioned, such as “Trying to Begin.” I put that in the last section because it was one of the new ones, but it didn’t fit anywhere, so I put it back in Small Song.
ON POLITICAL POETRY AND WHY WE WRITE
MS: I’d love to hear more about your process in composing “Ill-lit Blues.”
RM: I had been rereading Don Justice’s “Blues,” and I thought of writing a blues poem myself. Then I wrote a poem that was seemingly too bluesy, in the sense that I was unwittingly writing in a kind of blackface, and that was problematic. I couldn’t quite get the rhythm of it right, partly because it’s really meant for guitar, and so I combined it with fourteeners, with dipodic meters, which I’d never written in before.
MS: Denise Levertov wrote a few syncopated blues poems during that time that I thought were effective.
RM: A few, but again, though I love some of Denise’s work, I’ve found her poetry less satisfying the more political it has gotten, even though it’s often deeply moving. I also think that Neruda’s political stuff is phony and windy. I liked it very much at one time, but now most of it strikes me as awful. I suppose that’s partly because of how I view my own political poetry. I wrote tons of it in the Sixties, which no one will ever see, and it was quite bad. My emotions were no doubt sincere, but the poems were wretched. Vallejo has some effective political poems. But he was coming from a situation of genuine poverty, so maybe there’s an authenticity there that poets from other backgrounds can’t quite create. He lived the life.
MS: Are you saying that one must be dispossessed in order to write an effective poem about the dispossessed?
RM: Not necessarily, but perhaps it helps. Lorca wrote some moving poems about peasants and poor people, although he himself came from a well-to-do and cultivated family. He died at the hands of men from a lower social class whose hatred of him was partly due to the fact that he was so well-off. Of course, they also killed him because he was gay.
Lorca aside, though, I often return to Frost’s distinction between grief and grievance when I’m thinking about the relationship between poetry and politics. He essentially argued that one should leave poetry free to go its way in tears, and one should save grievances for prose and polemic. He once referred to E.A. Robinson as a prince of heart-achers, but I think today Frost would find that we have many princes of another kind. Belly-achers. It’s extremely difficult to write a powerful political poem. It’s easy enough for a poet to say “I’m for the poor,” and then for everybody to say “he’s a great poet because he’s for the poor.” But most poets are not really for the poor. I mean, poets may feel great compassion for the poor, but many poets are teaching at universities and they don’t have any real sense of poverty.
MS: Are you saying there’s hypocrisy inherent in that pose?
RM: There are many middle-class poets writing about, or trying to be a voice for, the dispossessed, and that’s a risky thing to do. It brings to mind Neruda writing about dispossession from his three houses, while dressed in his fancy clothes. I won’t name names, but I think there are poets who are famous mainly because the people who celebrate them view them as spokespeople for a political program.
MS: Not that you’re thinking of anyone in particular?
RM: Actually, I’m thinking of a number of people, quite a lot of them. Many of them are men, and some of them have politics that are not so different from mine, which are left leaning.
MS: What is it that you object to most in terms of the kind of political writing that you’re describing here? Is it that you think it’s too easy from an artistic point of view?
RM: My objection goes beyond politics. The reason I’m suspicious of poems that endorse certain political attitudes is that so many readers, simply because they happen to agree with those attitudes, will automatically consider such poetry terrific. For example, when it comes to my own work, I think that my strongest “political” poem isn’t really about the Vietnam War at all. Rather, it’s about the war at home, about what’s happening on the home front.
MS: Which poem is that?
RM: It’s my poem “How Much Longer,” which ends with my seeing ‘Nam in a photograph, and an image of a child on the shore burned by napalm. The poem appears at the beginning of the book’s second section. It’s all about “normal” life in the U.S., about teachers, students, friends, parties, and driving a car.
How Much Longer?
Day after day it goes on
and no one knows how to stop it or escape.
Friends come bearing impersonal agonies,
I hear our hopeless laughter, I watch us drink.
War is in everybody’s eyes, war is made
in the kitchen, in the bedroom, in the car at stoplights.
A marriage collapses like a burning house
and the other houses smolder. Old friends
make their way in silence. Students stare
at their teachers, and suddenly feel afraid.
The old people are terrified like cattle
rolling their eyes and bellowing, while the young
wander in darkness, dazed, half-believing
some half-forgotten poem, or else come out
with their hearts on fire, alive in the last days.
Small children roam the neighborhood armed
with submachineguns, gas masks and riot sticks.
Excavations are made in us and slowly
we are filled in with used-up things: knives
too dull to cut bread with, bombs that failed to go off,
cats smashed on the highway, broken pencils,
slivers of soap, gristle, old TV sets
that hum and stare out blindly like the insane.
Bridges kneel down, the cities billow and plunge
like horses in their smoke, the tall buildings
open their hysterical burning eyes at night,
the leafy suburbs look up at the clouds and tremble—
and my wife leaves her bed before dawn, walking
the icy pasture, shrieking her grief to the cows,
praying in tears to the softening blackness. I hear her
outside the window, crazed, inconsolable,
and go out to fetch her. Yesterday she saw
a photograph, Naomi our little girl
in a ditch in Viet Nam, half in the water,
the rest of her, beached on the mud, was horribly burned.
MS: It’s really a powerful poem.
RM: “Unsent Letter to Luis Salinas” is another poem of mine that might be called political. I wrote it during the Sixties, when I was politically impassioned and felt that I had to do something to create change. I was also playing a certain role that I needed to play for various psychic reasons. As I’ve said, most of the poems I wrote during that period were terrible, but I did save a couple of them in The Door Standing Open, and this is one of the pieces I saved. These days, I’m not that close with Luis, and it’s been a long while since I’ve spent much time with him. I’m not entirely sure why I ended up including “Unsent Letter to Luis Salinas” in the book.
MS: The poem certainly contains bitterness and anger, especially toward the end, but it seems to express a sense of compassion for someone who’s an underdog in society. Not knowing Salinas’ full identity, I wondered if he might be a migrant farm worker.
RM: No, he’s not. But he’s Chicano, and he has suffered, and the anger he feels as an outsider is something that I’ve often felt as well, though for different reasons than him.
Unsent Letter to Luis Salinas
It’s hot in the mountains now even at night
and soon you will be in Texas
sweating the sun and looking for the virgin in Mexican bars.
Obsidian eyes that see the human
and the inhuman with the same anguish,
hands of broken wheat,
bones worn down to frail shadows,
all the weariness of the poor
burns clearly through raw alcohol.
I think of you pushing a heavy brown breast to your mouth
as if you could get away for just one night
just twenty minutes.
Stay with her, brother, laughing, wakeful,
showing your bad teeth—
while you slept
they stole your country again
and while they steal,
the bed creaks with the weight of the whole world.
May you have many children,
and the gringos none.
MS: Who is Luis Salinas?
RM: Luis is a poet I knew in Fresno. He suffers from schizophrenic attacks. He’s written poetry all of his life, and he has a kind of natural genius for it, though he’s never formally studied poetry. There’s no discipline whatsoever in his work, and he doesn’t have the foggiest idea when his poems are good, or when they’re bad. But he’s written tons of poetry, and some of it’s marvelous, so natural.
MS: He sounds a bit like Jack Hirschman.
RM: Yes. Natural, surreal, wonderful stuff. Luis is a guy who’s been tortured by life, and that’s not necessarily just economic, racial, or social torture. Everybody’s tormented by some emotion.
MS: Are his torment and his art a curse of sorts?
RM: Perhaps. In the poem, I say “May you have many children / and the gringos none,” and I’m one of the gringos, of course, as are most of my friends. This brings to mind Auden cutting the poem “Spain” from his book because he didn’t like one line in it. He felt that the things he’d said in that line were evil things to say, or that they were wrong, or else that they were lies. I don’t think those lines in my poem are dishonest, but there’s something evil in that wish that I wouldn’t necessarily endorse now.
MS: What made you decide to keep those lines in the poem?
RM: I don’t know, maybe because I still like the poem. Sometimes a poem seems to have a will of its own. For the most part, I won’t publish poems in which what I’ve said is ignoble or stupid, even if it’s strongly felt and maybe even well-written. I had some of those concerns about “Unsent Letter to Luis Salinas,” but ultimately I published the poem because there’s a certain truth in it. I thought, why can’t I say that in a poem? In part, it was an instance of me wishing to write poems that people would want to read, poems that weren’t being written because others weren’t doing the same thing on the page.
MS: Also, writing such a poem entails a process of discovery, at least in my experience, because you never know what you’re going to learn, either in terms of style or in terms of the truths you might reveal to and about yourself.
RM: It’s very odd how that happens. Sometimes you sit down to write a poem based on an idea you wish to express, and you think you know where the poem’s going, and you end up saying exactly the opposite of what you intended. Sometimes you end up saying things that you’re afraid to say.
MS: Or things that you didn’t know you believed?
RM: Yes. It’s probably the case that I still write to be loved. I want to please my readers. It’s not the same kind of seductive purpose behind some of the early poems that I wrote for girls, but there’s an element of wanting to draw in the reader and please him or her. There’s also a desire to please friends.
MS: To “please” not necessarily in the sense of giving the reader a pleasant experience, but by giving him or her something meaningful to take away from the piece?
RM: Yes, I want to give them the pleasure of poetry. Sometimes the poems are terrifying, of course, or they’re about painful things. I also write because I’ve been given so much by poetry, and I want to give something back. That’s the good part, the altruistic and generous part, though it’s also the egotistical part in some ways.
MS: Getting back to Levertov, I think that her earlier political poems, like “The Distance,” were the most effective.
RM: She’s a lyric poet in my view, not a political poet. I don’t think she’s a spokesperson by nature. I agree with you that some of her earlier poetry is beautiful. It seems to me that a lot of poets, and I’m not putting Levertov in this category, use politics to advance their careers. though they may not be doing it consciously or cynically. I think what happens is that you write a political poem and people praise you for it, and then you feel an increased identification with that subject matter. Ginsberg took a vow when he was very young, a little boy, that he’d be a labor leader or lawyer like Eugene V. Debs, or that he’d write for his class and his people. He has largely kept that vow. Whether you like his poetry or not, it’s certain that you wouldn’t doubt his sincerity, and how deeply he feels the purpose and meaning of his work.
MS: There are few effective political poets now, it seems to me, at least few who write about America. There are several writing about Central America, though.
RM: That’s an interesting thing, isn’t it?
MS: There’s much to write about that’s politically and socially relevant.
RM: Yes, and there are people who do write about such things. I heard a guy read at Michigan State when I was there for a festival last summer. He’s a very unpolished poet, but a real working-class person writing about real working-class life, and it was interesting material.
MS: Who was he?
RM: I can’t remember. I mean, some of his poetry was corny, and he obviously didn’t have the art of it down, but it was genuine stuff. Listening to him read, you could really begin to see what a tough, funny poetry of the working-class life might be like.
MS: There’s Phil Levine’s work as well.
RM: Yes, there’s Phil Levine’s poems, though I think he could be a bit less phony at times. Phil Levine spent maybe a total of two weeks working in a factory.
MS: Really? How odd that you’d never know that from his writing!
RM: He’s very inventive. I’m not saying that he’s insincere. I think that he has a genuine feeling for life’s struggles, and for poor people, and for black people, and so forth, and he has a sense of injustice. Those are his subjects. In some of his poems, he treats such subjects with great power, wit, and emotion, and they’re terrific poems. Everybody has limitations as a poet, and he does as well, but he goes beyond his limitations. He produces poems that aren’t just on the right side politically, as many readers see it, but that are also examples of good art. But he’s gone on for a long time doing that stuff, and it sometimes seems like that’s the only kind of poem he writes now.
Of course, he still succeeds in writing some wonderful work. There’s a poem in his last book that absolutely knocked me out. When a poet has written truly terrific poems, does it really matter how many less-than-terrific poems he writes? I wouldn’t want to be judged by all the crappier work I’ve written. I want someone to say, “He wrote four terrific poems,” or six, or whatever. Hardy comes to mind. He claimed poetry as his life’s great ambition, and he saw his novels just as a way to make a living. His ambition was to write a few poems that would lodge themselves in a good anthology. As he saw it, that was the test of time. Appearing in an anthology doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to us now, but Hardy wanted to write a few poems, much as Keats or Shelley did, that would be remembered.
MS: Hardy certainly did that.
RM: Yes. He wrote hundreds of them, and he’s the kind of poet whose bad poems are even worth reading, which is a rare thing. In the case of many great poets, reading them in their entirety can be an enormously tedious undertaking. I mean, to sit down and read all of Robert Browning?
MS: Or Tennyson.
RM: Yes, or Wordsworth.
MS: Do you think Hardy is someone of whom one could never tire?
RM: You could read him endlessly, early, late, and middle, it doesn’t matter.
MS: Frost as well, yes?
RM: Yes, definitely Frost. His standard is very high. There are poems of Frost’s that can seem a little easy, and poems where he may sometimes overplay the roles of bard and wit, but even then there’s great pleasure in seeing how he does what he does. His work is endlessly inventive and fertile, and Hardy is much the same. I mean, there are poems of Hardy’s that fail, where it’s clear that he’s just going to work within the form even if it kills him, but then you get to know him better, and you come to see the virtues even in those poems. You can see where he goes wrong sometimes, but even that becomes loveable in the end. I think Larkin was right when he said there’s not a page that he’d give up.
MS: Not a page of Hardy’s?
RM: Yes, Hardy’s. I’ve had the pleasure of reading through his Collected Poems many times. There are Hardy poems that nobody anthologizes or talks about, and they are wonderful poems—wonderful!
MS: Which ones in particular?
RM: There’s a poem of his titled “At a Country Fair.” Do you remember that one? It’s about a giant and a dwarf.
MS: I think I did read that poem recently, and I thought this is a strange subject.
RM: I can’t remember exactly how it goes, but it’s something like this: “At a bygone Western country fair / I saw a giant led by a dwarf / With a red string like a long thin scarf; / How much he was stronger there / The giant seemed unaware.” Later in the poem, though I’m not sure about the exact wording, Hardy says something along these lines: “And then I saw that the giant was blind, / And the dwarf a shrewd-eyed little thing.” Then Hardy talks about the giant being led around by “the string,” as if fate had willed it so. The poem presents a description of this terrible, sad thing, this huge man led around by a tiny manipulator. In a way, the giant and the dwarf mirror the two parts of the psyche, Then the poem ends with something like this: “Various sights in various climes.” It’s a wonderful last stanza, though I’m clearly not remembering it well enough to quote it with total accuracy.
MS: Shall I go downstairs and look it up?
RM: That’s okay. In fact, if I sat here for half an hour, it would come back. I’d be able to reconstruct the whole poem from its rhymes and meters. I did that the other day with a Frost poem, “The Onset,” that I hadn’t read or thought about for years. I knew that poem well at one time, and I sat there for ten minutes and got it all back, except for a mistake I made on one word. But I can’t do that with anything other than poems. I can’t remember people’s names.
MS: If you’re going to remember something, why not have it be great poetry?
RM: I’ve forgotten most of my life, but the poems I still remember. That poem about the giant and the dwarf will always be lodged in my memory. I haven’t known it for long, so it’s not as deeply embedded as others. Hardy thinks how sad a sight it is, and he thinks that even if he sees that figure a hundred times, he’ll never see anything as sad as that. That’s all there is to the poem. It’s hard to write criticism about it. What are you going to say? He saw a dwarf and a giant, and he says that it was very sad, and that he’d never seen anything sadder.
MS: But perhaps it’s what you said, too, about it representing two parts of the psyche.
RM: Yes, a writer of literary criticism could venture that idea, although I’m not sure Hardy would agree. He’d probably say, “Well, I saw this in real life, a real giant, and a real dwarf,” and I’m sure he did. The images might stand for more, but there’s a limit to how much they represent. The poem’s simple and clear, and it says everything there is to say about itself.
MS: I do remember seeing that poem a few months ago while flipping through my Hardy collection, and I’m looking forward to rereading it now. That’s something I do with Dickinson’s work as well. I read repeatedly through nearly everything she has written. I find there are many opaque poems, and some poems in which she’s posing. She occasionally tries on a persona that seems a bit disingenuous. But her work is always surprising and masterful, even when she seems to adopt a feigning persona.
RM: She’s another important poet, though I’m not sure that she wrote as many good poems as Hardy did. When one counts all of the fragments, she certainly produced a larger body of work than Hardy, but it seems a smaller oeuvre than his because her good poems are fewer. Of course, she’s such a great poet that, similar to Hardy, even her bad poems are highly readable.
MS: The weaker poems are so interesting as well.
RM: Yes. Some of them fail because they’re impenetrable, or because she seems to be playing the role of a childlike waif in a way that doesn’t fully convince the reader. Also, some of what we call her poems are just fragments of language, unfinished, with no beginning, middle, or end. Dickinson’s one of those rare cases where all we have to go on are her notes, notebooks, and manuscripts. She never prepared her poems for publication, except a couple that appeared in magazines, and those were changed by editors at the time.
MS: Yes, and those pieces were given titles when published.
RM: Their first lines were designated as their titles, which is a good way of identifying them, but I don’t necessarily feel that her poems should be given titles. I do think, however, that her work should be punctuated.
MS: Oh, you do?
RM: Yes. Absolutely.
MS: You don’t hold with the dashes?
RM: I can’t bear them.
MS: I guess I’ve gotten so used to reading Dickinson’s poems with the dashes that I don’t find them distracting. In fact, I like them quite a lot now.
RM: I’ve grown used to reading them that way too, and I’m glad that they’ve been published with the dashes because they should be printed just as they were written. But when I’m reading Dickinson’s work, I often find the dashes obtrusive. It’s almost as though they’re a nervous tic, and they start to get on my nerves. Also, there are many places where there shouldn’t be a dash, especially between nouns and verbs. It’s not clear what she may have meant in those cases, if she did mean anything in particular.
MS: Talking about Emily Dickinson brings me back to thinking about the subject of early influences in the life of a poet. Would you elaborate further on how you first got started writing poetry?
RM: I found myself ruminating about my high school Latin teacher recently. The memory came back to me because it has to do with how I started writing poetry. Some of my needs were fulfilled by writing poems, especially the need to be loved. Because of the attention and encouragement that I received from teachers, I felt as though writing, my one talent, could bring me the love I craved.
Earlier you asked me to recite “Evening Wind,” but I don’t know if I can remember it. It’s funny, I have such a good memory for other people’s poems, but my own don’t stick as well, unless I’m reading them aloud frequently. If I can remember the beginning, I can probably get the rest of it, but this one’s gone. I wrote it mainly as a way to escape from my misery at the time. It’s a sad poem, but it’s also fun and relaxed. I sent “Evening Wind” to an old friend who obviously preferred my bushy romantic persona of the Sixties, and he just hated it. He probably hates all of my new poems, but that’s how it goes. The difference between my early work and my later work is one of the discontinuities that we’ve discussed, and our conversation makes me want to write about the subject in depth at some point.
MS: I’m glad you want to further explore in your writing some of the things we’ve discussed. I feel the same way about many of the subjects we’ve covered, and I’m eager to see how our exchange will influence my writing process when I next sit down to compose a new poem. You’ve given me so many things to think about in relation to why poetry is so vital to my life, and you’ve expanded and enhanced my view of the poets whom we’ve discussed. Thank you again for joining me in conversation. Since we’re not ending with a recitation of “Evening Wind,” it seems appropriate to finish by sharing that remarkable ekphrastic sonnet with readers of this interview:
After an etching by Edward Hopper
One foot on the floor, one knee in bed,
Bent forward on both hands as if to leap
Into a heaven of silken cloud, or keep
An old appointment—tryst, one almost said—
Some promise, some entanglement that led
In broad daylight to privacy and sleep,
To dreams of love, the rapture of the deep,
Oh, everything that must be left unsaid—
When then does she suddenly look aside
At a white window full of empty space
And curtains swaying inward? Does she sense
In darkening air the vast indifference
That enters in and will not be denied
To breathe unseen upon her nakedness?
(END OF PART II)
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 (2000), 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).
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