Robert B. Shaw is the author of eight books of poetry and of two critical studies, Blank Verse: A Guide to Its History and Use (2007) and The Call of God: The Theme of Vocation in the Poetry of Donne and Herbert (1981). The recipient of fellowships from the NEA and from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, Shaw was awarded the Hollis Summers Prize for his 2002 collection, Solving for X, and he received The Poets’ Prize for his 2011 collection, Aromatics. In 2016, his poem, “Ferrying,” won the Meringoff Prize for Poetry from the ALSCW.
Now a Professor Emeritus at Mt. Holyoke College, Shaw earned a B.A. from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Yale. He has been publishing widely for almost fifty years, and his work has appeared in periodicals such as The Kenyon Review, The Nation, The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Poetry, The Sewanee Review, and The Yale Review. In April of 2022, Pinyon Publishing released Shaw’s What Remains to Be Said: New and Selected Poems.
RW: In your fine 1981 book about the significance of vocation to Donne and Herbert, The Call of God, you wrote, “Here I want to assert in general that the writing of poetry is an activity which must by its very nature involve constant reflection on questions of vocation.” I think it might be argued that questions of vocation are just as important to the poetry of our time as they were in the age of the great Metaphysical poets. That is, poets of the modern world seem, at least since Burns and Blake, to be very interested in themselves and in the eldritch power of poetry that moves through them. While it’s always risky to generalize (“To generalize is to be an idiot,” saith Blake, ironically generalizing), I wonder, four decades after your book on Donne and Herbert: what is your current thinking about vocation in poetry? How would you characterize your own calling? When did you first consider writing poetry as a vocation of your own?
RBS: “Vocation,” either in the spiritual or the mundane sense, wouldn’t have been a word I would have used to describe what I was up to when I began writing poetry in high school. A girl I knew invited me to join the creative writing club that met once a week after school. I saw some of my classmates’ poems and said to myself, “I think I can do as well as that—maybe better.” So the first spur was competitiveness. At the same time, I was beginning to read modern poetry attentively, and competitiveness gave way to emulation, a more ethically attractive impulse. Emulation, in practice, involved a good deal of imitation, until I achieved enough confidence to make do with my own sound. Now, of course, I have to steer clear of lazily imitating myself, as many poets in their later years lapse into doing.
Very early on, without thinking of the word “vocation,” I felt that what I was doing was different from a hobby or a pastime. I felt deeply compelled, not just to write, but to rewrite; to master expressive clarity and technical skills. It gave me, when it went well, a pleasure that was too serious to be called fun. I think I was a very odd teenager. It took me a long time—years—to come close to what I now think I was aiming at. The hope was to capture the moment and give it safe harbor on the page, rescued from the flow of time. Some people do this with cameras, others by keeping diaries. I do it in verse, which to me seems to have more staying power.
As to vocation in the everyday sense (as in “vocational training”) I knew already in high school that writing poetry was no way to earn a living. I was given to understand, though, that teaching it might be, and I took practical steps in that direction. The best moments in teaching are almost as good as those in writing—almost, but for me not quite. You may feel exalted in talking about a line in a poem, but your ecstasy is probably not shared by everyone in the room. When you’re packing your books into your briefcase you’re like the Sybil stepping down from her tripod.
RW: For more than three decades, you taught at Mt. Holyoke College and lived in the vicinity of Western Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. Of course, that area has long been a venerable one in American letters, from Melville’s Arrowhead in westward Pittsfield to Dickinson’s home in Amherst. In the twentieth century, the region has also been a home, for various lengths of time, to Frost and Auden and Brodsky and Wilbur, as well as to wonderful, though perhaps less celebrated, poets like Robert Francis. And, of course, the area has also been home to poets of your own generation such as Brad Leithauser, Mary Jo Salter, and Daniel Hall, as well as to wonderful critics and scholars, such as the marvelous William Pritchard.
I sense in certain poems a sort of atmosphere that I associate with this place. For instance, I cannot read your tremendous poem, “Shut In,” without thinking of Dickinson. How would you characterize the influence of this region on your work? How has the region’s literary community, past and present, affected you and your thinking about literature?
RBS: The Pioneer Valley, as you say, has been well populated by poets during my time there. Besides those you mention, the eccentric and at times weirdly brilliant Peter Viereck was a colleague of mine—he taught Russian History at Mount Holyoke for decades. It’s been a pleasure to have other poets near at hand: it makes shop talk possible. And of course, as you say, there is the heritage. If I drive for twenty minutes in the right direction I can see a landscape that could have come out of a Frost poem. When I was appointed to the Emily Dickinson Chair at Mount Holyoke, I told friends that I felt I had earned it by managing to stay at the college a lot longer than she did. But of course, in a sense, she never left. You can look out the window on winter afternoons and see that certain slant of light “That oppresses, like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes.” It can seem intimidating—a lot to live up to—but also inspiring if you can at moments sense such lingering presences.
Even apart from literary associations, the word “atmosphere’ is apt. If you venture away from the well-groomed college campuses and the optimistic attempts at housing developments, you can feel you are in an open-air museum: the town centers with their 19th-century buildings, the abandoned factories with their crumbling brick walls, the once-cultivated fields reclaimed by woods. It’s an all-over left-behind quality. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’ve experienced the feeling of being haunted that hovers over such places. I’ve tried to give a sense of this in some of my poems: “Backyard Archeology,” “Picturesque,” “Drowned Towns,” and “Hill Towns in Winter,” to name a few.
RW: I’d not known, or had forgotten, that Viereck was at Mt. Holyoke. Viereck, of course, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1949 for his book, Terror and Decorum. About ten years ago, I read his New and Selected Poems: 1932-1967, and I was struck by the musicality of his verse, which sometimes seems, as I recall, to approach the quality of a spell, or a charm. Nonetheless, when I would praise his poems to friends and colleagues, the response was, invariably, “Who?” Somehow Viereck seems to have fallen out of fashion. Why do you think that is? Is it the music of his verse?
RBS: I think that in later years Peter dropped below the radar somewhat: he published fewer short poems and concentrated for several years on a book-length poem, or poem-cycle, Archer in the Marrow. When it was finally published, it was not to wide applause. Peter was challenging to converse with; he was something of a magpie darting among an array of shiny objects, and it was hard to keep up. I’ve been told that when he was swimming at the college gym he was utterly incapable of staying in a single lane. His poems can be like that: multi-directional. Readers may feel a bit blitzed. Terror and Decorum is very much of its time, much of it shadowed by World War II, in which Peter and his brother both served. There are some pieces that the term “musical” fits well, like the charming “Love Song to Eohippus,” but there is a good deal of discordancy, too, reflecting the antithesis of the volume’s title. My own favorite poem of Peter’s is his touching, dignified elegy for his brother, who was killed in combat, “Vale from Carthage.”
RW: In 2007, you published Blank Verse: A Guide to Its History and Use, a book that manages to be both an eminently pleasant read and something like a definitive work of literary criticism. And, indeed, you’ve often turned your hand to blank verse. In your first book, Comforting the Wilderness, for instance, we find “Boston Sunday Dinner,” a poem reminiscent of Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady.” Toward the middle of your career, we find the powerful ars poetica, “The Post Office Murals Restored,” and in your devastating recent book, A Late Spring and After, we find, among many moving poems, the very fine “Ferrying,” which won the ALSCW’s Meringoff Prize and which I had the pleasure of publishing in Literary Matters. Throughout your career, you’ve worked with great success in a variety of forms wide enough to recall the ingenious poets of the English Renaissance, but blank verse runs through your work like a backbone. What first led you study blank verse so intently, and what about the form has kept you returning to it?
RBS: Frost was the first modern poet I read extensively, in one of Louis Untermeyer’s selections of his poems with interspersed commentaries. At first, because I hadn’t read much if any earlier blank verse, some of Frost’s speech effects made it hard for me to hear it as regular meter at all. I remember puzzling over it, and very gradually growing to hear the regular beat underlying even lines that veered conspicuously away from it. This interested me deeply, and gave me a sense of meter as something measured but not mechanical. When I came to writing blank verse myself, I was attracted to the versatility of it: it could be lyric or narrative, descriptive or dramatic. And the open-endedness in some cases has been appealing also. Most of my poems are short (a long poem for me is one that goes beyond two pages), but when dealing with complicated material, it is nice not to feel fenced in. And I suppose that, like Frost and so many others, I value the illusion of verse as conversational speech—an idea that goes back before Frost, at least to Wordsworth and Coleridge.
RW: Yes, that “illusion of verse as conversational speech” is tremendously important. In the Ars Amatoria, Ovid writes, Ars est celare artem, or “The Art is to hide the Art,” a notion Yeats rephrases in “Adam’s Curse,” as “A line may take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” Blank verse is, of course, an excellent medium for “hiding” sonic patterns. In what other ways, do you think, concealment and illusion aid poetry?
RBS: There are an awful lot of directions one could go in considering this. In regard to matters of form and style, I’ve often been struck, as I think you are suggesting, by how effective patterns of assonance can be when deployed within lines of blank verse. It’s something of a paradox for unrhymed lines to be hosting so many rhyme sounds. I’ve sometimes thought of some of my syllabic poems as being (at least to some readers) in disguise. When I am writing in lines of nine or eleven syllables, some are likely to think, at least initially, that Shaw is getting awfully slipshod with iambic pentameter.
But there are deeper ways to think about this. Although some poems may have a single level or layer of meaning, many—and probably most serious poems—have more than one, foreground and background. This is enabled by the tendency of poetic language to mean more than one thing, as words function as metaphor, or stare out two-faced at readers who will smile or groan at puns. One of the more ancient poetic forms is the riddle. This refusal of language to be straightforward drives some people—tunnel-vision types—crazy.
More complexly, some writers use not merely localized figurative language but extended passages or entire poems to write about one thing in terms of another, a kind of personal allegory in which the key is withheld from the reader. Some of Elizabeth Bishop’s descriptions are undoubtedly “about” what they describe, but they gain resonance from being simultaneously about things that can’t be described pictorially, such as emotional states or aspects of personality or painful events that can only be hinted at. Think of her achingly sad “Sestina,” or the quietly despondent “Five Flights Up.”
Sometimes a layer of meaning can slither into a poem without the poet’s conscious intention. If a subtext is intended, the poet needs to decide how obvious it should be. If it is apparent too quickly, there isn’t much point in the disguise at all. If it is buried too deep, it may not be apprehended by even careful readers, and will languish out of view like a hibernating mole. One has to think carefully about when, and how noticeably, to attract the reader’s attention to this less conspicuous element. There are other, not merely literary ways to think about approaches to things visible and invisible. One of my poems, “A Geode,” in which readers have discerned religious overtones, speaks of “the worth of hiddenness, / which, in regard to our own kind, we call / reticence, and in terms of higher things, / mystery.”
RW: One of the challenges of a “new and selected” volume is, of course, attempting to look on one’s own work with a dispassionate retrospect, the “cold eye” of “Under Ben Bulben.” When I think about this challenge, I often think about the late Donald Hall. In 2006, Hall published White Apples and the Taste of Stone, a doorstop of a book at 448 pages. Eleven years later, he published The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, which, at 160 pages, included only about a third of the poems from the previous “selected” volume. Each book seems to represent a different school of thought about what a “selected” volume should entail.
Your own What Remains to Be Said: New and Selected Poems includes, by my count, some 210 poems, totaling a little over 300 pages. What were your ambitions with this volume? Did you have any specific models in mind? What were your criteria in making your selections? Which of your older poems, if the question is not too embarrassing, are your favorites, and why?
RBS: I have not been as prolific as some, so what I had to select from, while abundant, was not overwhelming. Various factors affected the size of the book. I did not want the section of new poems to be dwarfed by the selections from earlier volumes. Three hundred pages seemed ample to me, and was manageable for my publisher. I am not good with numbers, but I think I ended up with about three-fifths of what I had previously published in books. I was tough on my first book, which included what now seems to me apprentice work, and fairly strict towards my second book as well. The later volumes got off easier. Like many writers, I tend to feel my later work has fewer false starts. I wanted to display some variety, but mainly I wanted to include my strongest work.
Actually, making the selection was a strange experience. I had never before sat down to read all the way through my seven books in sequence. Although I was well aware that most poets are prone to recycle certain themes and images, I was unprepared to discover how often this was the case for me. So many clocks and mirrors and woods and shadows; so many children wise beyond their years, or painfully having to wise up. Even the same words kept turning up—I never had realized how often I’ve used the word “smidgen.” It made me a little sad: why so many smidgens, and why not ever a dollop? But perhaps I have been following Blake’s advice to poets: to keep one’s attention focused on “minute particulars.”
Reading through everything made me aware of just how long it took me to get the hang of certain forms. For many years I was unable to write a sonnet I was really pleased with. When I finally did, in the late ‘90s, it was called “The End of the Sonnet” and was about a man having trouble writing one. Recently I’ve written quite a lot in syllabics, and it was surprising to be reminded that it was only in the mid-2000s that I began to feel comfortable with that. I like different poems for different reasons. Some, like “Blue Period Sketch,” are exact reminders of an experience. Some I like because they finally got written after abortive attempts which in certain cases stretched over years: “An Exhumation,” “River and Road,” “Muscle Man,” “Later Life,” and “Around the Block” are some examples. And I like some because they were able to make use of forms that I hadn’t ever tried before: “Shut In,” for instance, with its Marvellian stanzas, or “Questions about Elizabeth Bishop’s Clavichord,” with its doggerel couplets.
RW: It is gratifying when poems finally come after many false starts, isn’t it? This circumstance points toward the importance of patience to the poet, or perhaps to the love of perfection, if those two be different. Several poets whom I admire greatly—here I’m thinking of Bishop, Larkin, Donald Justice—put out a new book every decade or so; they seem to have been extraordinarily patient artists, and their books are often extraordinarily near to perfection. I wonder how you would respond to two questions I often receive from young poets. How do you know when a poem is finished? And how do you know when a book is finished? If I may borrow from Valéry, are poems, in your experience, achevé or abandonné?
RBS: The question about a book is easier than the one about a poem. I came of age in a time of slim volumes, and that has tended to be my model: a sheaf of, say, about forty poems, give or take a few. I write so slowly that it has always taken at least a few years, and sometimes more than a few, in between volumes, and I’ve never felt that I was leaning too heavily on the hospitality of the reading public.
I guess I agree with Valéry: it’s hard to know when a poem is finished; but it’s at least somewhat easier to know when I’ve finished with it. I write in longhand, in repeated drafts until there is an identifiable beginning, middle, and end to a piece. Then I go through a number of typescripts, making changes by hand and retyping until the text seems to resist further embellishment. If the margins stay clean for some days or weeks, I’m unlikely to go back and make changes—it’s as if the clay has hardened. At a certain point my feeling is that I could continue making it different, but if doing that wouldn’t make it better, I should leave it alone.
RW: The virtues typical of your poems are, I daresay, atypical of contemporary American poetry: clarity and balance, shapeliness and moderation, exploratory meditation offset by self-possession, and, I might venture to add, something like good cheer. That is, your poems seem by and large more in the vein of Herbert than in that of Donne. While your poems, especially those before A Late Spring and After, are not what one might call “personal,” there is a personable quality to them, a personality informing them that’s quite companionable. In this aspect, your poems frequently remind me of Wordsworth, and, indeed, your poem “A Field of Goldenrod” seems very much in conversation with “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Of course, in his preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth described the poet as “a man speaking to men.” What role does the audience play for you in the process of composition? How has your thinking about audience changed throughout your career? Is the much-discussed “ideal reader” a notion that interests you?
RBS: I favor a conversational style. Here and there I may use a word that would send a reader to the dictionary, but I like to think that most people who are used to any kind of literary reading could read my work without finding it forbidding. There might be further levels of meaning that they wouldn’t catch on to, but they could come away with a clear sense, at least, of the surface meaning. I remember when I was beginning to write verse one of my grandfathers, my father’s father, who did not normally read poetry, read some of mine. He said to me, “I like reading your poems because they’re clear.” I’ve never forgotten that. I spent many years as a teacher guiding students through some heavily footnoted poems. That was worthwhile reading, but I want my own readers to have an easier time.
RW: As an undergraduate at Harvard, you studied with Robert Lowell and with Robert Fitzgerald, the great poet-translator to whom your first book is dedicated. As a doctoral student at Yale, you studied under the illustrious Renaissance scholar Louis Martz, perhaps best known for his brilliant study, The Poetry of Meditation. All three, in their own ways, explored the relationship between religion and poetry. And, indeed, the relationship between religion and poetry is old enough that it antedates both as we now think of them. Long before Homer, if we follow Prof. Gilbert Murray, there was the molpe, a religious sort of song-and-dance. The oldest of the songs collected in the Chinese Shih-ching date back to the quasi-mythical Shang period and are almost all religious in nature. Looking back on your own career, how have religion and poetry interacted in your life and in your work? What discoveries have you made, in your pursuit of understanding their relationship, that have informed your writing?
RBS: All three gentlemen you mention were valued friends and mentors (Lowell more briefly than the other two). I happen to think Lowell’s early religious poems are some of his best, though that is not currently a prevalent view. Robert Fitzgerald, of course, was a committed Catholic. He gave me practical guidance on matters of versification and much else when I was working on some of the poems in my first book. My dissertation at Yale was directed by Louis Martz, who was the ideal audience for my own ideas about Donne, Herbert, and Milton.
As to my own religious background, I became an Episcopalian in college. That took some daring, since there were some three generations of Presbyterian ministers in my family tree, including the grandfather who baptized me. Faith—in particular, a devotion to the Sacrament of the Altar—has provided me with some needed steadiness while making my sometimes wobbly way through the world. I haven’t very often made religious sentiments paramount in my work, but because they have shaped my view of existence, they are there to be found in more than a few poems. I think that in certain pieces my view of nature can broadly be termed sacramental. I may not have intended that in every case when I sat down to write, but it is what emerged. Good religious poetry in the modern period is rare, but not as rare as some people think. There is a lot of fine work of this kind not just in the obvious examples of Eliot, Auden, and David Jones, but also in those of now often overlooked figures such as Allen Tate, Edwin Muir, R. S. Thomas, and Ruth Pitter. If one is looking for something heterodox, H. D. in longer sequences like her Trilogy will oblige.
RW: In your books and in previous interviews that I’ve read, you have said precious little about your childhood. I wonder if you might tell us a bit about your early life? Where and how did you grow up? When did you first take an interest in poetry? What led you to devote yourself to poetry and literature? Who were some of your first literary loves? Which, if any, of those first loves persist? With what goals did you set off for Harvard?
RBS: For the first four years of my life, my parents, my older brother and I lived with my mother’s parents in a sizable manse next to my grandfather’s neo-Gothic church in West Philadelphia. It was right after World War II, and there was a housing shortage. Other members of the extended family came and went, and my brother and I were cosseted and spoiled by the ladies of the congregation. My brother was three years older, and didn’t find me adequate to play ball with, so I amused myself much of the time when the grownups were too busy. I remember sitting under a tall tree beside the house, using a small trowel to bury peanuts in the shell for the squirrels to find.
In 1951 my father, an advertising copywriter, got work in New York, and we moved to a house in the final section to be built in Levittown, Long Island—that great postwar experiment. I’ve mentioned my parents’ Frost book. Even before that, my grandmother, who had been a college teacher before her marriage, had read a great deal of poetry to me—not just children’s verse, but some of the 19th-century poems she had grown up with. She was proud of her (and therefore my) family connection with Robert Burns, which explains my middle name. Our ancestor was Burns’s first cousin, John Burns, who emigrated to America in the late 1700s, served in the Revolutionary army, settled in Pennsylvania and died at 104.
It was after we moved to a bigger house (by then there were two more children) out in Smithtown that I began to read more poetry myself and try to write it, as I moved through high school. I had encouraging teachers, one of whom prompted me to apply to Harvard, which I would not have thought of. Another teacher arranged for some of my poems to be published in a magazine at the nearby branch of the State University system in Stony Brook.
During high school I read Eliot without much understanding, Yeats with what I thought was understanding, Hopkins, Whitman, Auden, Dylan Thomas, and even Lowell and Berryman (the school library actually owned a copy of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet). I dipped into earlier poets as well, such as Donne and Keats. It wasn’t all highbrow stuff: Vachel Lindsay and Stephen Vincent Benét got my attention as well. Probably what I was writing myself bore the marks of many of these. My level of admiration for some of these has fluctuated over the years, but I don’t regret having immersed myself to that extent. Some of this bookishness was no doubt compensation for my lackluster athletic performance and my total lack of interest in being on anyone’s team. In high school, writing was the only sport I was any good at.
I had not expected my application to Harvard to be accepted, so I was in something of a daze as I prepared to go there in the fall of 1965. Besides planning to major in English, the only specific aspirations I had were to take Robert Lowell’s writing course and to join the editorial board of the Harvard Advocate. Both of these aims in time were realized, though in the case of the Advocate I joined it after having started a rival magazine with my freshman roommate, which survived for several issues.
RW: One of my favorites among the new poems in this book is “Teaching Poetry,” a fine sonnet which concludes, “We do not teach the poem. It teaches us.” In my own classrooms, I always encourage young writers to take up the practice of keeping a commonplace book, precisely because great poems continue to teach us as we revisit them. If you had to distill a distinguished lifetime in literature into a short commonplace book, what are some of the poems or mottoes that you might include? What poem was most important to you at 20? 30? 40? 50? 60? How have your tastes changed over time, and why? Which poems have taught you most?
RBS: If I tried to list titles, it would turn into an avalanche, and I would find it hard to date enthusiasms or disaffections with much precision. It’s a little easier to think in terms of poets rather than of poems. I was entranced by Berryman in my 20s, but the feeling has faded over the years, as I’ve come to distrust the extreme mannerism of his style which had at first excited me. Wallace Stevens, whom as a young man I was cool to, grew more appealing to me in middle age. Thinking back, one of the great things, beginning in my 20s and 30s, was my discovery and growing appreciation of a wide range of women poets who had not figured in my earlier reading. Dickinson and Moore, of course, and my colleague for a brief time, Elizabeth Bishop; and also undervalued formalists such as Louise Bogan and Marya Zaturenska, and Adrienne Rich in her middle volumes. As time went on there were others my own age or younger who should be listed: Louise Glück, Rachel Hadas, Mary Jo Salter, A. E. Stallings. Teaching at a women’s college, of course, meant that I had interested students to discuss such figures with. I’ve managed to live long enough to look with satisfaction on the flourishing careers of some of my own students of both sexes, such as Dana Gioia, John Burt, and Judith Baumel.
RW: In your poem, “Another Orpheus,” from the 1999 collection, Below the Surface, you devote an entire line of trimeter to acknowledging Hermes Psychopompos—Hermes the Guide of Souls—a figure dear to my own heart. According to Horace’s ode i.10, Hermes/Mercury is the god who gave language to humans. The Homeric Hymn to Hermes also tells that, using a tortoise shell, Hermes invented the lyre, though he ended up having to give the lyre to Apollo in recompense for stealing that fiery god’s beeves. Fairly clearly, Below the Surface is a book governed by the spirit of Hermes, the only god who could move freely from the realm of the gods on Mt. Olympus to the realm of mortals and down into the realm of Hades, the realm “below the surface.” However, I suspect all of your books may be indebted to Hermes. How has the figure of Hermes been important to you as a poet? What lessons does that ancient god offer to contemporary poets, or readers of contemporary poetry?
RBS: Below the Surface, as the title indicates, is a book with a lot of digging and downward adventuring in it, and I certainly thought of catabasis (never sure whether that starts with a c or a k) as a central theme. And Hermes necessarily turns up as a character. I can’t say I consciously thought of him as a presiding spirit, but that is an idea I like very much. He is, as you say, able to range freely in both directions, up as well as down, while we mortals, without mechanical aid, can only go in one of them: gravity will get our worn out bodies in the end. But the imagination is still free to ascend as well as to plumb the depths. As a poet I’ve attempted in a modest way to reach toward both extremes. I didn’t know of that myth of the lyre’s invention, but Hermes is a more plausible inventor of it than even far-darting Apollo.
RW: One of my most favorite poems of yours is from your devastatingly beautiful 2016 collection, A Late Spring, and After. “The Tally,” a tour de force which treats the loss of both your mother and your wife within a single year, seems to me the most ingenious, and most effective, use of the trimeter quatrain since “My Papa’s Waltz.”
Mother first, now my wife. Dead within a year. A joke unfunny life has foisted on me here.
Past sixty, orphanhood can’t be unexpected. It came; I understood. Grief was calm, collected.
But that just months ahead there would be a second farewell to be said— that I had not reckoned.
One, two: each blow hit home. Each left the house more quiet. Each time, the patient loam obtained some profit by it.
The orchestra has stopped. But faintly, unabating though the baton has dropped, two notes go on vibrating.
One, two: insistent pair clinging to every thought. Murmured to vacant air, “One, two” adds up to nought.
One, two: the digits can’t supply those fingers’ touch now no more extant, neither caress nor clutch.
One, two: my footsteps roam from empty street to street. Some tireless metronome sets the relentless beat.
One, two: the pace I keep requires no grace of art. Whether I wake or sleep, despoiled again, my heart
does all it knows to do: as if it overheard, it keeps the count—one, two— will, till I make a third.
The technical nuance and the virtuosic command of the poem seem, as I suppose is often true of the very best poems, impossible. If it is not too painful a memory for you revisit, might you say a few words about that tremendous poem and its origins, personal or poetic?
RBS: For some months after my wife died I was not thinking clearly, let alone writing. Whenever I stepped outside the house, I felt that something might be about to fall on me. When I felt able to write about what had happened, I didn’t know it would turn into a sequence of twelve poems with a prose interlude. The first piece I wrote was “The Loss of the Joy of Cooking.” As I reached the end of it, I felt that there would likely be more poems to accompany it, and that there should be something to begin with that would provide the context, a kind of stage-setting. I wrote the first stanza of “The Tally” without any sense of how long the poem would be, and without any conscious choice of the meter: I was just setting down the facts. But the meter took hold of me and seemed to be pulling me along as the rhymes fell into place, almost as in a sort of trance. The meter is tighter and the pace is more propulsive than in most of my rhyming poems. I wrote a lot more quickly than I usually do, and didn’t find much to revise. I felt at the end that the words conveyed the message, but the meter embodied it. I don’t find it an easy poem to read aloud to people.
RW: That “sort of trance” fascinates me. Since you mentioned Mary Jo Salter previously, I recall that she wrote the title poem of her own “selected” volume, A Phone-Call to the Future, in a single go and in, I think, a hotel room. The poem is uncharacteristic of her work in some ways. First, it doesn’t use any regular meter or rhyme. Second, if I’m not mistaken, she said that her revisions were few, if any. Sometimes, it seems, poems just come to us, are given to us. And it seems that, often, the best poems are those which come as gifts in precisely this “sort of trance” that you mention. Of course, the ancients attributed poetry to the Muses, Aristotle to manikoi and ekstatikoi. Eliot somewhere wrote that being just a little bit sick, and thus foggy-headed, helped him compose, and I believe Borges says something similar. Athletes will talk about a similar thing, often called “the zone,” in which they can marvelous perform feats that ordinarily they could not. What do you make of these trance-like states? And what relationship do they have to poetry?
RBS: I’ve heard that talk about “the zone”; people also seem to speak of “flow” in terms of achieving unusual degrees of capacity, or of being startled by what emerges from concentration. I think the quality of feeling in such states will vary with temperament. For some, it may not be as dramatic as it is for those more highly-strung (or let’s say, more finely tuned): not everyone is going to be as thoroughly rapt as Rilke professedly was in writing portions of his Duino Elegies.
What happens, probably, is a removal of inhibition. Some internal censor or gatekeeper goes on a break, and material hitherto inaccessible rushes out. I know some people expect what appears will be in some way primitive or irrational. My experience with “The Tally” doesn’t bear that out. It didn’t land splat on the page like Ginsberg’s Howl. It was a kind of relentless unspooling, couched in an even tighter metrical form than I most often have used. What was released was an openness of emotion that had been tamped down, but it came forth in precisely measured lines. This makes me wonder if basic metrical patterns are themselves deeply embedded in consciousness, inherited from the ancient rituals whose rhythms held our tribes together. If what I have written is in that sense primitive, I guess I would need to be a lot more sophisticated than I am to be able to write like Ginsberg. At least for me, this was an almost unique experience. I would not care to be routinely dependent on such visitations. There are, fortunately, other less emphatic promptings of imagination that can set us to work with equally worthwhile results.
RW: As Literary Matters is the online journal of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (alscw.org) —and as you yourself are a literary scholar, a literary critic, and a writer—it occurs to me that I should ask: how have these three roles interacted in your life? Or, perhaps, what enabled you to sustain integritas while performing these three different roles? What binds them together for you?
RBS: I guess I have published enough in the way of literary interpretation to call myself a scholar and a critic, but I do so diffidently. My knowledge has nowhere near the depth of that of erudite teachers and colleagues I have had, like Herschel Baker, Walter Jackson Bate, Louis Martz, and Harold Bloom. And I have devoted myself to practical criticism—close reading—rather than to critical theory, which was developing in directions I found uncomfortable in my later years in the Yale English Department. Toward the end of my time there, in the early 80s, Jacques Derrida stopped over in New Haven and was given a reception at which younger faculty were able to present themselves to him. When I shook hands with him, he asked me what I did in the Department, and when I listed my courses and ended up by saying that, by the way, I was a poet, he looked at me quizzically. He said, “In France, we question whether it is any longer possible to call oneself a poet.” I said, “Here, we haven’t advanced quite that far.” I wasn’t trying to be smart; I was just slightly bewildered and trying to be polite. He gave me a tight smile.
Teaching, academic writing, and writing poetry don’t always feel “bound together” in my experience. It’s more of a balancing act. But they do inform one another. I think I would still have written poetry if I had pursued a different profession, but it would have been quite different.
RW: You were, of course, for many years a frequent reviewer in Poetry magazine and elsewhere, though you seem to be reviewing less frequently, or not at all, these days. And, indeed, reviewing itself seems less frequent these days, at least in many poetry journals. (There is, on the other hand, a great deal of reviewing at, say, Goodreads or Amazon.) What are your thoughts on the contemporary state of book reviewing?
RBS: This is going to sound lame, but one reason I did so much reviewing in the first few years was that it got me copies of books that I would have found it difficult then to afford to buy. One thing I liked about it was that it gave me a chance to study and write about such a wide range of poets—often about ones I admired whose writing was very different in style from mine: Charles Simic, A.R. Ammons, the early Mark Strand, Louise Glück, Rita Dove, etc. It kept me from nesting too placidly in a stylistic cocoon. And it conditioned me to set down my thoughts in an orderly, extremely concise fashion, which has been a lasting benefit, since my mind’s default mode is one of drifting reverie. When I wrote the historical parts of my book on blank verse, I felt as if I was writing “reviews” of five centuries’ worth of poets.
I pulled back from that kind of omnibus reviewing after some years for a number of reasons. I had come to know more and more poets personally, which made impartiality hard going. (I did a few times allow myself to comment on books by poets I knew when there was no question as to their thoroughgoing excellence—books by my friend Timothy Steele, for instance.) Moreover, as my own life and academic work became more complicated, I did not feel on top of emerging trends, and was worried about sounding uninformed. It was easier to write about editions of dead poets, which I did. Gradually, my work in prose shifted over to longer forms—essays, and for the four years it took to write it, the book on blank verse.
Poetry reviewing seems to be going through lean times these days, with so many print publications cutting back or going out of business. Much of it that I’ve seen lately seems more like display of the reviewer’s diary jottings than judicious consideration of a book. I need to acquaint myself better with the work online; no doubt some of the studious attention and critical acuity that I’m missing has migrated there.
RW: It seems to me that, sometimes, interviews avoid the best questions because the best questions seem obvious. I believe it was in 1955 someone asked Robert Penn Warren what he valued most in a poem, and, as I recall, he answered something like, “A vital image…an image of vitality.” It may seem a doltish question to ask, but it may also be the most important question one can ask a poet: what do you value most in a poem? And why?
RBS: I think the element I appreciate most in poetry, whether reading it or writing it, is surprise. Even if a poem ends up more or less as we might expect as we get well into it, there can still be surprise in how the foreseen conclusion is expressed. And for me, in writing, I feel humbled and grateful when something I had not thought of and could not have planned suddenly appears to shake things up. Especially for me, writing mostly in traditional forms, this is what keeps the piece from seeming airless and prematurely clamped shut. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” Frost said, and in that, as in much else, he was right.
RW: Frost’s famous motto seems to me to combine two notions for Horace’s “Epistle to the Pisos.” The first is: si vis me flere, dolendum est primum ipsi tibi, or “if you want me to weep, you yourself must sorrow first.” The second regards the ambition of poetry: non fumum ex fulgore, sed ex fumo dare lucem, or “not to give smoke from out the fire, but from the smoke to give off light.” Of course, Frost was a formidable student of the Classics, though he wore his learning lightly, and one finds in his poems elements from Theocritus, from Vergil’s Eclogues and Georgics, and from Horace, among others. Given that the three poetic Roberts (Frost, Fitzgerald, Lowell) who have most informed Robert Shaw’s poetry were all, in various ways, students of the Classics, I wonder: what is your own relationship to the poetry of antiquity?
RBS: For me, the influence of Classicism has been significant, but decidedly derivative. I regret that I didn’t begin my studies of Latin in high school. Although I slogged my way through proficiency exams in French, German, and Latin in Yale Graduate School, I am scarcely an accomplished linguist. I can read French and German poems with facing-page translations and make out where the translator has done something clever. But I cannot read Latin (or Greek, which I studied briefly in college) with even that sort of rickety facility. For Classical poetry I have been dependent on translations, by older masters like Robert Fitzgerald, John Frederick Nims, and David Ferry, or younger ones like A. E. Stallings, Rachel Hadas, and (if I may be allowed to say it) Ryan Wilson. That has served me well in my reading. In terms of Classical influences on my writing, though, I believe it has come to me through various English poets from the Renaissance through the eighteenth century. If one of my poems (or more likely, a part of one) seems reminiscent of Horace or another Roman poet, that would be of the original filtered through the brilliant imitations of Donne, Jonson, Herrick, Campion, Pope, or others of that ilk. Usually theirs are not what we would consider punctilious translations, but inspired imitations, the ancient texts adapted to the then-modernity of a later time and place, which often meant the Latin came into English discreetly but recognizably Christianized. It’s a cultural blend that I find very attractive, as in Campion’s “The Man of Life Upright,” his deft paraphrase of Horace’s Integer vitae ode. It’s a tissue of attitudes I would have absorbed, to the extent that I did, from numerous examples ranging from Donne’s Elegies and Satires to Samuel Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes.”
On a more granular level, I’m certain my seventeenth-century studies have left traces in my verbal habits in verse. I’ve always been interested in intermingling contrasting types of diction. For many of those poets, balancing Latinate words against Anglo-Saxon ones was a common element of style. Herrick is particularly memorable in this regard—as in a line like “That liquefaction of her clothes.”
The polysyllable gleams like a gem in its plainer monosyllabic setting. I’ve done something of this sort in the final lines of two of my poems, “Up and Away” and “A Field of Goldenrod,” and very likely elsewhere. I owe Herrick some spiritual royalties.
RW: Yes, the appearance of “thaumaturge” in the final line of “A Field of Goldenrod” does recall, in its effect, that wonderful line you quote from Herrick’s “Upon Julia’s Clothes.” I previously mentioned your poem’s being a response to Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” but Wordsworth’s poem itself was also likely a response, however obliquely, to Herrick’s lovely “To Daffodils,” and so your poem, in a sense, closes a circle. And the final sentence of “Up and Away”—“Yes, / One could do worse than evanesce”—does have a similar movement, though also echoing the conclusion of Frost’s “Birches” to a degree.
But since you’ve mentioned Herrick (another Robert!), perhaps we ought to end at the beginning. The first poem in What Remains to Be Said: New and Selected Poems is called “Morning Song,” a poem which belongs to a rich tradition that would include Herrick’s great “Corinna’s Going A-Maying.” Of course, Herrick’s final stanza begins:
Come, let us go, while we are in our prime, And take the harmless folly of the time. …………..We shall grow old apace, and die …………..Before we know our liberty. …………..Our life is short; and our days run …………..As fast away as does the sun.
Meanwhile, your “Morning Song” concludes:
Once more, the sun, the sun! The miracle amazes every time it’s done.
There is a perception, common in your poems, that life is a miracle. I wonder: what role does gratitude play in your poetry and in your life? What role does gratitude play more generally in poetry, do you think?
RBS: I think that an absence of gratitude would leave one’s emotional life profoundly stunted. Besides all the debts I have already referenced—to poets of the past, to relatives and colleagues, to indulgent teachers and demanding students—I am indebted in a primal way to the English language. It’s a well fed by everlasting springs, ready to fill any bucket lowered into it. I can’t imagine any writer who has drawn from that source not wishing to give something back. Writing is a solitary activity, but artistry in words is a gift that only realizes itself fully in being passed along to (hopefully) grateful recipients. And what writer isn’t grateful for having readers? And what better way to show it than by trying to write one’s best? Seen this way, gratitude is a reciprocal process linking writers to readers.
Speaking more personally, I could not honestly say that I wake up every single morning feeling glad to be alive. There are a lot of things wrong in the world, and I find myself with the same bundle of faults and infirmities that I lay down with the night before. But if I think of all that I have been given, including what it has been given me to write, my spirits are lightened. And the world, with all its terrors, too often manmade, is easier to see as a thing of wonder. The Book of Common Prayer, in its summary phrasing, invites us to be thankful for “all the blessings of this life . . . for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.” Bearing this in mind strengthens my hold on equanimity. As the politicians say, I approve this message.
RW: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions, Robert. I’m grateful to you.