Tom Merrill Interview with Michael R. Burch
Tom Merrill has been a regular contributor to The HyperTexts since 2005. In 2008 we added Tom to our masthead as THT's Poet in
Residuum. This, I like to joke, "is a mysterious office," but Tom's contributions—poems, essays, articles for our Blasts from the
Past series, introductions for the pages of contemporary poets, etc.—are always rock-solid and very much appreciated. Some of his poems are, in
my opinion, absolutely stellar and rank with the best work we've published. Readers unfamiliar with Tom's poetry can click on his hyperlinked
name above, read a very nice collection of his poems, then click their browers' back buttons to return to the interview
below.—Michael R. Burch,
editor, The HyperTexts
MRB: Tom, first, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. Since you’re one of
my favorite contemporary poets, it’s a real pleasure and honor for me to be able
to interview you. Here’s my first question: While I like and admire your more
recent work, I am also a fan of your earlier work. Was there an early poem of
yours that made you think you might prove a poet? If so, can you share that poem
with our readers, and tell us a bit about its genesis and the revelation?
TM: Well Mike, it certainly sounds like a simple enough question ..... Now,
how to tackle it I wonder .....
I suppose I could say that my own experience tends to confirm Plato's famous
observation, that every man's a poet when in love.
I was about Romeo's age when I suffered my first serious bout of lovesickness. It was
in Europe, where I was attending school. The cause of the affliction was a new
student who showed up one year.
My English class that year was conducted by a professor who was on loan to the
school from an American college. He had a rather odd name—which now escapes
me—and was also a bit different in his person. While others would
into a room, he seemed to sweep into one, as if on the crest of a wave.
His every motion was fluid and sweeping. He was a rather theatrical type, a tad
flamboyant I suppose one might say, did everything with a swish and a flourish.
That's how I remember him anyway. But he also seemed to love language, poetry in
particular. I remember that he was busy at the time composing what I suppose
could be characterized as a loose translation of "The Canterbury Tales." At any
rate, he had us studying Shakespeare and Chaucer, among other poetic eminences.
It was autumn, and every night after evening study period, which we had to spend
working in silence at our desks in our rooms, I would go wandering off outdoors,
more or less regardless of the weather, to lie down alone on a courtyard ledge
and stare—often through blurry eyes—up at the heavens, entreating them to send
me my heart's desire. Night after night, I listened for footsteps that never
came. It became quite a sad ritual. I don't remember exactly how I managed to
get free from my schoolmates and the regimentation imposed on our lives for long
enough periods to compose the poems, mostly sonnets, I started writing, but
somehow I must've. I don't think there were too many of them, just 6 or 8 things
I'm guessing. A couple of the sonnets somehow ended up in a course notebook the
theatrical professor had required us to keep and that we had to turn in at
intervals for his inspection. I remember feeling quite pleased when my notebook
came back with a scattering of exclamatory superlatives—even his handwriting, by
the way, was a sort of cursive flourish—adorning the margins alongside the
poems. So I guess school sometimes can, if nothing else, be a place to
fall in love, and maybe even begin to be a poet.
Those were probably my first poems written with any serious intent. I remember
carrying them in my wallet for a number of years, but they're long lost now, and
I remember little about them besides their theme and maybe a few words.
In college I wrote no serious poetry. There was an attempt at parodying Pope (who
frankly never appealed to me). It ran to a couple hundred lines, and I remember
the comments on it I got from my 18th cent. lit. professor being favorable
enough. And I seem to remember reading some other poem I'd written to a
gathering of poetry buffs that was held at a theatre there. But I guess the next
poem of mine that I'd be at all inclined to call serious, came a while after
college, after graduate school actually, during a period of depression I suppose
you could call it, when an intense feeling of loss welled up in me one day that
seemed to demand painstaking translation into language. Perhaps that one more
than any other represented a turning point. I was no longer responding to
anything in my surroundings the way I once had, and the poem that finally took
shape—I may actually have finished it years later, I'm not entirely sure—was
about being cut off emotionally from things that had previously excited, a sort
of dirge for the passing of my youth I suppose, for the extinction of certain
feelings and tastes I no longer seemed to have (The poem concludes: "But now,
the seasons glow and fade / Less shades of ache or joy / And as the world goes
by, I miss / Once longing for the boy"..... "the boy" being my younger self I
think.) It was a small poem, but I think it had a decent degree of finish to it.
After that, except for the occasional odd effort, I didn't return to poetry until I
next fell in love, a ways into the future. I think it was during that period
that I began feeling more mastery of my medium, more certainty of my ability to
finish a poem. Love certainly provided me a
cause for writing my
best. I was also fortunate in finding a small handful of appreciative editors,
without whom I might not have continued. Having them provided extra motivation
to keep at it. It can help to have the occasional well-placed fan. And many
thanks, by the way, for all you've done yourself, Mike, to increase my incentive
for writing. I just hope THT readers don't hold it too much against you!
MRB: Tom, it has been one of my “happy thoughts” to have been able to encourage
your writing and publish the always-good and often-stellar results. My early
experience was “similar but different.” I wrote my first poems out of dreams of
love and bouts of despair. I too had a flamboyant teacher, but he wrote me a
love poem and I was only interested in girls, love- and sex-wise, so I never
took his poetry class and became something of a hermit, poetically, for decades.
I never met a “real poet” in the flesh, as far as I know, until I was in my
forties. But that may have been for the best, as I managed not to subscribe to
certain articles of irrational literary dogma. Your story intrigues me, and
makes me wonder if you might share one of those early poems which made you feel
like a poet and is still extant?
TM: Well, no teacher of mine ever wrote me a love poem that I'm aware of, although
in college, a professor—one I'd never taken a course with—did start plying me
with kisses once. His quarters were rather Spartan as I recall, and for some
unremembered reason I was there, and we were talking and drinking. I frankly
don't recall the incident all that well, except that at some point he was next
to me, his arm around my shoulder, his mouth and tongue pressing moist
intimacies. Like your flamboyant teacher, he wasn't my type I'm afraid. I might
also mention that I unfortunately was quite sexually inexperienced at the time,
due in large part no doubt to my belonging to a stigmatized minority. Maybe he
was inexperienced too, who knows. It was a bit more dangerous then to let your
real desires show. Even today, and in spite of the legal advances in our part of
the world, caution is doubtless advisable in many places and circumstances.
Anyway, I think I probably just braced myself, and endured my assigned role as
tasty tidbit. It probably didn't last long, since he must've felt my
unresponsiveness, or perhaps discomfort. It might've injured him more than it
did me, if he felt a strong attraction to me. I don't remember how the evening
ended. I never mentioned the event to anyone, in fact I'm not sure I remember
thinking of it again before now. Booze is of course a hard drug, the only one
that is shown favoritism by the state, and maybe he was a little drunk that
night. I suspect I probably was. I don't remember if I felt flattered by
the advance. It was all so long ago, I wonder if I may only be dreaming it
happened. Memory can certainly play tricks. At any rate, the event didn't make
me shy of professors. Did you really become a poetic hermit because of your
teacher's love poem? Was it a nice poem, I wonder? Have you kept a copy? Did you
ever show it to anyone?
I can't help wondering about the identity of that "real poet" you met in your
forties. It sounds like a rare find. I met one myself, when I was in my early
twenties. She was in her eighties. She lived alone in a house she'd inherited.
She was very lonely, having outlived so many of her friends, and was starved for
companionship. We ended up seeing each other quite regularly for a few years.
She'd published a book of poems, all of which were quite finished, but one of
which I found particularly lovely and can still recite from memory today,
decades later. Edgar Arlington Robinson had been a friend and classmate of her
father, and had been a guest at their house, I seem to remember her telling me.
She herself had been at Vassar when Millay was there. In fact she'd won Vassar's
English Scholarship, I think I remember her calling it, for a year of graduate
study at Oxford, where she wrote a thesis called Women in Shakespeare
but didn't receive a degree, because at the time you had to be male to be
awarded a degree there. Instead she received some sort of certificate attesting
to her completion of her studies. I remember her phoning me one day and
beginning, "Don't say a word Dear! I woke up this morning stone deaf." She said
a few other things, I have no idea what, and hung up. The next time she called
she began, "Dear, I've never heard better in my life!" Apparently a new hearing
aid had done the trick. Oh, and come to think of it, she too made an
amatory move on me once, placed my hand on her breast, even invited me to join
her in bed. I'm afraid I again was unresponsive. Quite a number of years later
though, I did rise to the advances of another lady poet, who also was decades
older than I, and we had what I suppose could be characterized as a casual
affair, nothing more serious on either side, I think it can safely be bet, than
occasional sexual recreation. I had a male lover living with me at the time, who
must've found it odd walking in on us in various states of undress every now and
then. But he never seemed especially fazed by it. I suppose I might add that
neither of these experiences made me shy of lady poets.
As to literary dogma, I'm not sure I have one myself. I suppose I don't think it's
possible to be a poet without having a substantial degree of language aptitude.
How many could rival one of your own favorite poets, Hart Crane, for syntax and
vocabulary? I suppose I also tend to associate poetry with a certain kind of
affective nature. I suppose it's my impression that many people who try writing
poetry seem to lack any very large inheritance of what I suppose I might call
poetic feeling. I know I don't regard everyone as a poet who regards
him-or-her-self as one. Soi-disant would probably be my way of thinking of a lot
of them. If I remember right, cummings used to call certain poems "good but
poor." I think I may have seen my share of ones like that.
I suppose I can't get away without satisfying that early poem request. Well then,
here's one I've always liked, despite its perhaps sounding more like, oh, say
one of the Benet brothers—Stephen Vincent or William Rose—than like Ashbery
(though I'm pretty certain I had no one else's style in mind when writing it):
I watched love weather, near as you
The dagger of the word;
Like pharaoh from his throne I watched—
From love, no cry was heard.
I watched an eye that gazed its gaze,
I watched lips firmly still;
I watched a valiant mask, as if
To watch my dagger kill.
And as a helpless cheek betrayed
The certain hurt within,
I did not stem the tide, but watched
Blood blossom on the skin.
And when from love a sound rose up
That rent my heart in two,
I watched—I watched a thing too weak
To swear its words untrue.
MRB: First, thanks for sharing one of your early poems. I think it exhibits
considerable poetic feeling, as you put it, and good command of language, meter
and rhyme for a young poet. It also seems original to me, not really reminding
me of other poets, although the cadences and closing stanza make me think of a
poet we both admire, A. E. Housman. Other poems of yours that I take to be early
(or earlier) work include “Time in Eternity” and “Come Lord and Lift.” Am I
right about those two? In any case, they strike me as wonderful poems for a poet
of any age to have written. Readers can find those poems, and many others of
yours, by clicking here
Tom Merrill Poetry.
I think my teacher’s love poem did “encourage” me to become a poetic hermit,
although it wasn’t the only factor. I was painfully shy and introverted at the
time, and unwilling to be laughed at or rejected, so sharing poems with
strangers wasn’t high on my priority list. It was much easier to mail poems to
editors I didn’t know; if they rejected me, it would sting less and no one would
know but me. My teacher’s love poem did keep me from taking his poetry class and
coming into contact with other aspiring young poets, but that may have been a
blessing in disguise because I didn’t fall under the spell of the many bad ideas
so prevalent in poetry classrooms and workshops in those days (and these).
I think my teacher’s poem was nice in sentiment (or flattery), but more of a
hastily-dashed-off “come on” than a poem to be kept and treasured. I seem to
remember him writing it on the spot, after reading some of my poems. No, I never
showed his poem to anyone, and I don’t remember what I did with it. I did write
a poem in response. Not a love poem, but a poem of rather mystical poetic
kinship. But I thought it would be unwise to show my teacher the poem, and I
think my instincts were correct. My poem was eventually published by Songs of
Innocence (an interesting synchronicity), Romantics Quarterly and
Poetry Life & Times, so at least three editors seemed to think it had some
The “real poet” I eventually met was virtually my antithesis: he performed
before a crowd and seemed to have fans, or at least people requested his
autograph. I thought some of his poems were quite good, and the performance of
them may have been even better, but I would much rather curl up with a book of
poems and a glass of wine and read in solitude, so I doubt that I’ll be rushing
off to more poetry readings. The two poets you met would probably have been more
intriguing to me, especially if they were in various states of undress!
I would agree that much of poetry boils down to poetic feeling and command of
language. Another important factor is imagination. I think we can see those
three elements in the work of poets like Hart Crane (my personal favorite),
Wallace Stevens (yours), and the great Romantics. An interesting thing about
Crane is that I don’t always know exactly what he means, but in his best poems I
can usually “feel” what he means. I believe you may have a similar affinity for
Stevens, who can seem obscure at times to me. So perhaps there is also an
element of magic involved, or shamanism.
Here’s my next question, or three. Your more recent work tends to be what you
have called “freestyle composition” or what is more commonly known as “free
verse.” But your free verse remains nicely musical and often rhymes, however
irregularly. I think many poets today misunderstand Pound’s and Eliot’s original
vision of free verse, which was to be vers libre or “liberated verse.”
Terms I’ve used myself are “less corseted” and “less regimented.” Would you
agree that poetry can benefit from fewer arbitrary rules and more flexible
forms? And would you disagree with contemporary formalists who insist that
metrical poetry is inherently superior to free verse “just because”? Finally,
would you share one of your “freestyle compositions” and let us know something
about its genesis?
TM: I've noticed over the years that the poems people single out for special notice
are seldom the same. They all seem to have different favorites. But occasionally
there's some overlap in poetic taste or appreciation.
I remember Margaret Hillert's sharing your appreciation of "Come Lord and Lift."
She was (perhaps still is?) both a poet and a writer of children's books—a
whopping number of them, at least 80, had been published when she and I were
still corresponding—and that poem was especially meaningful to her because her
lifemate and longtime companion had succumbed to ovarian cancer around the time
it was published. I probably still have the unhappy letter in which she reported
her devastating loss and mentioned how close to home the poem had hit. The hell
she was going through, the torment I imagine she was experiencing, may have made
the poem seem to speak for her own state of mind. For all I know, others may
have appreciated it too, although I don't recall anyone ever mentioning it to me
if they did. Well, but I guess it can be presumed that the editor who first
published it must've liked it well enough.
"Time In Eternity" I believe you're the first to single out (except, again, for the
editor who first published it). That one indeed is an early one, written around
the same time as my sonnet "How Only Cold," and inspired by the same experience.
Both emerged out of another bout of lovesickness--one I'd forgotten about until
just now actually--and are from a sad little series of poems I wrote sometime in
my 20s—there were maybe a dozen of them. I had only two from the series
published. I have no idea if I still have the others. I'm glad if you like the
poem so much. It's probably a pretty accurate representation of my affective
nature at its most possessed. Aching for the only thing you desire can cut you
off from caring about or even noticing anything around you—can be an inescapable
distraction sometimes. It just occupies your mind so totally that you can't
think of anything else. My nature hasn't changed much I'm afraid. Lovesickness
remains a chronic affliction of mine. I suspect the most severely lovesick poets
may seem a tad incredible to some people—or maybe even funny. I sometimes wonder
how many people suppose deeply romantic poems must just be exaggerations or
maybe even fictions. I remember a newspaper reviewer a long time back treating
Browning's sonnets as if they were wholly unbelievable. They were just
conforming to the poetic conventions of the era I seem to remember the reviewer
confidently asserting. I believe the same incredulous reviewer went on to say
what a shame it was that Browning hadn't been born later, when she might've
written more honestly or realistically. Well, I guess I'm not so sure she'd have
written any less incredibly today. I think she may just have been afflicted with
an atypical affective nature, maybe exacerbated by her physical impairments,
respiratory and spinal. I guess it's my impression that there's a substantial
degree of variation in people's affective natures. Some people appear to be a
little harder-hit by things than others. But maybe she'd have stuck less to
conventional forms if she'd entered the scene a bit later. Impossible to know.
Regarding Crane and Stevens, well, in the latter's case, it isn't really any
obscurity that draws me to him, or any magic felt beneath mystifying language.
It's something more like some sense he had that our existence is something
awfully like never having existed. We are yet we aren't, is I guess the way he
comes through to me. "It is an illusion that we were ever alive....." he writes
in one of his later poems. "The words spoken," he continues a few lines later,
"were not and are not. It is not to be believed." I've wondered if that sense he
had of it all being so essentially unreal doesn't partly explain his insistence
on doing everything his own way, however alien to others it might seem: what
difference could it possibly make, after all, how anyone writes if no one ever
really existed anyway? What can nothing say to nothing. Of course he did try to
say everything with considerable finish so at least he wouldn't be mistaken for
someone with any shortage of language skills. But I think his understanding of
things was ultimately derived from a place without human life. I'm inclined to
regard him as a tragic poet fundamentally (which doesn't mean he couldn't be
witty—was it Aristotle who observed that melancholy men are the wittiest?). He
at any rate was an extraordinarily independent writer—one who made a decision to
write in his own unique and very different way regardless, and for whatever
reasons. I think for anyone interested in unusually acute poetry, and prepared
to understand how being and nonbeing can be hard to tell apart, trying to get to
know him might be a worthwhile pastime. I find him particularly serviceable when
the void is at its weightiest.
Poetry can be anything it wants to be I think, in capable hands. Why should any
singular talent be a follower? Shouldn't it be just the opposite? I'd say that
Shakespeare copied nothing but himself, a pretty singular model. Shouldn't any
unique talent be the leader, not the follower? Human history could suggest, it
seems to me, that there might be better ways to go than always down the same old
A free verse piece? Another quite early one then, just to be consistent (complete
with line-opening capitals!):
Beyond the Brute Moon
O huge, bloated, Jupiter-moon!
Emblem, perhaps, of bliss and plunder—
Behind your coin of brightness glide
And what thing under
Such serene reflection
Could but sleep?
O, all is round and well,
Well all around,
And all your lifeless lustre
Holds no wonder;
You glow wakeless whether
Weaving through the silvern satin clouds
Or on the fattest harvest shining
Or slouched and falcate
In the black-walled night,
And deaf to hearts
Pressed like trapped creatures crying.
Beyond the brute moon, faintest sparks;
See how they blur, they yearn;
So under an ocean dark lies love;
Through waters only does it burn.
Its genesis eludes me at the moment. Maybe I thought the moon needed a talking to?
Do I think rules for poetry should be more lax? I hope the most capable poets will
always feel free to make their own rules. That's what keeps them unique and
intriguing, no? It's the "believers" that are always trying to impose their
rules on everyone. Just as I prefer a variegated social landscape, I prefer a
variegated poetic one. You'll certainly never hear me urging more
conformity and less individuality either in poetry or anywhere else. It's the
rare style, the rare perspective, the rare real individual, that has always
captured my attention. I think it might not be a bad idea to entertain a little
more skepticism about our beliefs. I guess I'd say that believers seem a tad too
sure that whatever they believe—or possibly prefer to believe—must be true.
Poetic crusades appeal to me about as much as religious or ideological ones. How
many oppressive situations have resulted from fierce attachment to questionable
ideas—from one or another gang's trying to impose its fond imaginings on all the
rest? Militant insistence on the rightness of any idea can only breed strife, it
seems to me. Maybe it's inevitable though. Was it Hobbes who observed that the
state of nature is a state of war? Well, but even if Hobbes was right, I think
I'd still advise against becoming mesmerized by any too definite notion about
how things—including poetry—should or must be.
think metrical poetry is "inherently superior?" Well, I guess I just don't think
in such terms. I love many strictly metrical poems. Wylie's "The Eagle And The
Mole" has always seemed enviable to me. I love Hardy's "The Dead Man Walking." I
love Housman's poem that begins "The laws of God, the laws of man / Let him keep
who will and can...." But I also love Stevens' "Madame La Fleurie," which
concludes: "His grief is that his mother should feed on him, himself and what he
saw / In that distant chamber, a bearded queen, wicked in her dead light." I
suspect whatever is inherently superior probably doesn't proclaim itself to be,
or probably even suppose itself to be. I would guess that any such type would
have a more realistic self-evaluation. I suppose I think the kind of judgment
you're referring to is a tad arbitrary and gratuitous. Some things count more
for some, other things count more for others. I used to think of traditional
Western verse as gaudy compared to Asian. An old friend used to love saying,
"Keep it simple." But perhaps that's sometimes easier said than done.
MRB: Tom, I think “Come Lord and Lift” is an exceptional poem, and I happen to
know that other people agree with me, since the UN “borrowed” the poem for one
of its websites, I’ve also seen other poems of your borrowed by bloggers and
anti-war websites, and you are consistently among our most-read poets at The
HyperTexts, so I think it’s safe to say that you have fans who appreciate
your work. I know I do.
I also love “Time in Eternity.” I think most people who aren’t died-in-the-wool,
anti-honest-human-sentiment literary specialists (and thus the antithesis of
real poets) will probably like it too. But I imagine most of the specialists
will refuse to like the poem because they want to impress other people with
their “taste,” “aesthetics,” etc.
I wrote a number of similar poems as young poet, because I dreamed of love but
my reality was that most of the girls I liked ignored me, and when they didn’t I
was too shy to take advantage of any openings they presented. I think my poems,
like yours, were honest poems, and I’m not ashamed to have written them. And I
certainly don’t think other people should feel ashamed to read and like them,
but of course that seems to be what many literary specialists insist that they
do these days, now that love, romance, nostalgia, etc., are verboten according
to the Colonel Klinks and Sergeant Schultzes in charge of various Gulags … er,
poetry classes and workshops. But of course poets are free to walk away from the
concentration camps and/or ignore the dictates of their commandants, so perhaps
all is not lost. I hope we can return to this subject shortly, as I’d like to
hear your thoughts.
Browning’s reviewer strikes me as someone who doesn’t understand the source of
poetry, which according to Wordsworth is powerful emotion. I’m sure millions of
people are still able to enjoy poems like Browning’s sonnet that begins, “How do
I love thee? Let me count the ways …” and of course modern romantics like Hart
Crane and e. e. cummings took passion (and sex) to new heights, so if anything
it seems the better poets have become more “incredible”—as you put it—which to
me seems perfectly fine. Why put poetry in corsets and straightjackets?
Stevens does seem like a tragic poet, and one of the very best. I remember
complimenting poems of yours in which you “summon the void.” Such poems of yours
are dark, powerful and moving, and I like them, as I like many of the darker
poems by Stevens, although I don’t necessarily agree with him that life is
ultimately meaningless because of death, if that was what he believed. I have a
hard time thinking of my wife’s life being meaningless, or the lives of men and
women like Blake, Whitman, Florence Nightingale, Einstein and Gandhi. I think
suffering and death are tragic, and I don’t agree with religious people who
praise the suffering and crucifixion of Christ, etc., but I also don’t agree
with the idea that death makes life meaningless. If I cease to exist when I die,
that may be tragic and a blessing, if nothing better lies beyond, but I’d
like to think certain things that I did had meaning, such as loving my wife,
raising my son, publishing Holocaust and Nakba poetry, being a peace activist,
and having written poems that people seemed to enjoy from time to time.
I agree that the better poets are more likely to be leaders than followers.
Like you, I have strong doubts about the need for poets to conform to highly
dubious rules. The more I read and write poetry, the less I believe the
originators of articles of literary dogma like “fear abstractions” and “no ideas
but in things” made any sense whatsoever.
I can hear the pained cries and howls of modern critics at certain lines in
“Beyond the Brute Moon.” But it seems like another good, honest poem to me,
because who hasn’t looked up at the moon and had such thoughts and feelings?
It’s a big universe, with plenty of room for all sorts of thoughts, emotions,
wonderings and speculations. Right now I’m sure some of our critics are laughing
at us, but who knows—perhaps we’ll have the last laugh?
Now how about an example of your more recent free verse?
Well, I guess it isn't too hard to see how people might find the poem funny. It
does sound a tad non-native. I doubt it would ever cross my mind to deliver such
a florid address now. I've wondered sometimes if picking up the local tongue
doesn't take poets longer than it does everybody else, and if even after gaining
some degree of fluency in it, they still can't help sounding a little foreign.
Demotic speech may come less easily to poets. Sounding like a fully naturalized
speaker may take them longer. I suspect my own English anyway, both written and
spoken, has always sounded a little odd to people. I've been working on getting
better at it, but I can't help feeling some still think I talk funny.
at least I can make people laugh. Once in a while it's perhaps not entirely at
my own expense. Sometimes when guests are over, I'll suddenly push out of my
chair and start performing a jaunty imitation of someone's speech and
mannerisms, or sometimes just of the spirit of someone's remarks, and it always
pleases me when these spontaneous little parodies are greeted with spasms of
laughter, as they occasionally have been. Even the targets can find them
amusing. But who knows, maybe that only means that I'm even funnier than
whatever I'm trying to make fun of. It wouldn't surprise me. I suspect I'm quite
an experience, from a spectator's viewpoint.
quite surprised myself when that poem of mine turned up at that UN-affiliated
website. I remember looking at the logo a couple times just to convince myself
it was the real McCoy. I had never associated the UN with poetry. Naturally I
was flattered to see my handiwork advertised under the banner of such a major
organization. And I also felt flattered to be advertised by that peace site you
mentioned, and to be sharing a page there with Leonard Nimoy. I admit it did
seem a little amusing to me at first that one of my poems that had been selected
to speak for peace was about autoerotism. I couldn't help wondering if whoever'd
picked that poem had been completely aware what its theme was. But maybe whoever
selected it knew exactly what it was about, and just decided that its theme was
apropos. After all, taking the matter in hand can indeed relieve some tension,
and relieving tension can indeed help restore a little peace.
also surprised and flattered when a writer recently asked my permission to use a
couple of my poems in a novel he was arranging to have published. Every new
feather in one's cap brings a brief flush of satisfaction. I'm sure I felt a
similar mild rush when W.D. Snodgrass singled out a poem of mine for special
notice in a contest he judged for a journal called Negative Capability
back in the 1980s. And I probably had about the same reaction when, in
the late 90s, I got the news one night from my mate at the time that some
Harvard English professor he'd struck up a conversation with earlier that
evening at The Cantab, an old dipso-haunt in Cambridge Mass. that used to
host—perhaps still hosts?—weekly poetry gatherings in its basement, had pulled a
favorite poem out of her bag to show him that turned out to be something by me.
Twinkle—my nickname for said mate—must've been as astonished as I was that a
visiting professor at his favorite watering hole would be carrying around a copy
of one of my poems. It's still hard for me to believe that really happened.
suspect you're considerably more up than I am on any gospel according to the
"specialists." I'm afraid I'm so un-up on such stuff that I don't even know who
those specialists might be. I don't receive any magazines in the mail and I
don't go searching the internet for the latest pronouncements on poetry. Nor do
I frequent any websites where poetry is discussed, although every once in a
while I'll spend a minute or two eavesdropping on such discussions. I operate
poetically more or less totally in the dark (at least as regards the latest
"how-to" theories or the latest dictums of the alleged cognoscenti). I'm aware
that inversions and archaisms are frowned on in most poetry circles today. I
guess I'd agree that archaisms are best avoided outside of parody. I'm not sure
I'd recommend inversions either, though sometimes they're turned out so smoothly
they don't jar me at all, and can even seem elegant. I never really minded them
in Millay. I remember liking her sonnet that begins "Into the golden vessel of
great song / Let us pour all our passion...."; and ends: "Longing alone is
singer to the lute; / Let still on nettles in the open sigh / The minstrel, that
in slumber is as mute / As any man, and love be far and high / That else
forsakes the topmost branch, a fruit / Found on the ground by every passer-by"
(even if it might be a joy to find such a fruit on the ground every once in a
while). Those lines would seem to speak also to the question of ruling out the
kinds of emotion you mentioned. While poets may have more than one instrument at
their disposal, or a greater range of moods and preoccupations to express than a
lute might be suitable for conveying, I still don't see how you could rule out
such powerful distractions as love and longing without excluding some of
poetry's most fundamental inspirations. Has anyone actually proposed doing that?
Poetic feeling doesn't seem to be equally distributed, which may be part of the
reason that deeply romantic poems seem to strike some people as something
approaching the ridiculous. I think it's a mistake to assume that everyone feels
or thinks the same way. As I said earlier, I guess it's my impression that
people come outfitted with somewhat different affective natures.
not sure I know much about those "literary highbrows" who don't enjoy your
poems. Do they write poems themselves I wonder? And if they do, what do you
think of theirs? Would it please you to write the way they do?
it would, I suppose they're bound to have their influence on you. I suppose my
own view is that anyone with a real affinity to poetry stands a decent chance of
someday producing a reasonably good facsimile of the genre. Some may even end up
becoming beacons to others. Since I don't really have a clue what any highbrows
are saying is the best recipe for poetic success, I'm afraid I'm not in a very
good position to address their pronouncements on the subject. I guess all I can
think to add is, who knows, maybe by doing just the opposite of whatever they're
dictating, or laying down as "The Way," could yield an even bigger
payoff. I wonder if Whitman paid much attention to literary highbrows of
day. It's my impression that he declared his independence pretty emphatically.
sometimes wished certain dead poets were still alive. Shared perspective is
something I miss in poetry today. Possibly it's my own fault, since I don't go
looking. Back when I was more curious and my outlook was perhaps a bit more
parochial, I used to correspond with a number of poets. I received long letters
on a bi-weekly basis from a few of them. In those days, the mail delivery was a
more eagerly anticipated event. One of these penpals was Henry Fischer, a
particularly avid epistolarian (to coin a word). I remember his grousing quite a
bit about the current poetry scene. He was quite hooked on rhyme and rhythm and
didn't like being out of favor. I'm not sure we always saw eye to eye on
everything, but it was still nice having someone so interesting and so
poetically energetic to talk to regularly. He'd studied under Blackmur at
Princeton and in his youth had dreamed of being a poet, but had found the prospect too daunting, I
think he told me, so settled on becoming an Egyptologist instead. At the time we
were writing to each other he was Curator Emeritus of Egyptology at the MET and
had returned to the pursuit of his old dream. He wrote clever poetry. He got out
new books with astonishing frequency—I remember I was always receiving the
latest one in the mail. Here's a randomly selected example of his typical style
from one of them:
The Lost Word
When I got up this morning
I caught upon the fly
A poem that balked at borning,
And so I let it die.
Right-to-lifers may disparage
My antipathy to nurse,
And rescue from miscarriage,
An abortive piece of verse.
But I fear the incubation
Of verses of that kind
Might breed a pullulation
Of what should not be rhymed.
Although a fleeting word
May leave one almost breathless
If it's no sooner heard
Than lost, it's hardly deathless.
So very many poems have seen
The light of day, the dark of ink,
We need not think we misdemean
If one goes down the sink!
XJ Kennedy, another poet with a bent for humor, liked Henry's work and I think
referred to him in a blurb he wrote for one of his books as "a national
treasure." Our epistolary exchange wasn't exactly the way I imagine it might've
been corresponding with Housman, say, but it was a pleasant enough pastime.
Henry was something of a specialist in hieroglyphics if I'm remembering
correctly, but in any event was a rather formidable scholar, and he was very
nice to give me so much attention, and I was grateful for the compliments he
paid me on several of my poems. He didn't seem to regard me as a poetaster. He
invited me to visit him once—he and his wife lived in Sherman Conn. at the time,
before eventually moving to Pennsylvania—but somehow I never mustered the
ambition for the excursion. Maybe I thought he'd like me less in person than he
did in dark ink. Or maybe I was more caught up in other things at the time.
I suppose that even if death and permanent extinction do render life
meaningless, that's unlikely to keep anyone (including Stevens) from sometimes
acting and speaking as if everything weren't destined for oblivion. After all,
illusion can be quite compelling. I suppose that life, even when every sign of
its failing is in evidence, can still somehow seem irrevocable, like a permanent
right, and be easy enough to regard as something more significant than the
"brief candle" Shakespeare called it. Stevens' refinement on Shakespeare's
candle metaphor in his little poem "Valley Candle" sums up his official view of
our memorableness in the great scheme of things pretty characteristically I
think: "My candle burned alone in the immense valley. / Beams of the huge night
converged upon it, / Until the wind blew. / Then beams of the huge night /
Converged upon its image, / Until the wind blew." Hardy, in a more classic
style, expresses a cognate idea in his poem "His Immortality," if with less
cosmic amplitude. But illusion can prevail despite intellectual acuity.
Conviction that something is an illusion doesn't always protect one from its
charms. What else is there to live for but illusion, I suppose one even might
venture. Well, but onward to that requested sample of my more recent free verse
then. Picking one somewhat at random:
Current Attractions Besides Frère André
Living alone in a box before you're dead
prove a bit of a trial, to wit
to remove a weight of hours
early-rise to early-abed
there's nothing but time ahead,
even a stint at the treadmill for fun,
hardly a thing but forced absorptions,
self-imposed puzzles or chores,
evasive maneuvers performed to diminish
sense of infinitesimal progress,
standing still in a stagnant dimension
stretching to kingdom come.
happily facing another black morning,
only stimulant chuggishly trickling
a stained pyrex pot,
lugged two bags of recyclables down,
dropped them in their usual spot
beside an ailing tree in the pre-dawn
of an amber-lit sidewalk.
now, hooray, a check to be written
presents itself as another fine way
slightly budging the clock.
I'll probably latch onto other
rungs in my climb through the day,
latest edition of Tass let's say
dub a local free speech organ)
its monolithic insipid array
enemy lines to be spied on,
maybe some noticed urgency,
recurrent gaps in my liquor stock.
That's about what it's come to
they banned the entertainment industry,
out the only wizards at hitting
daily jackpot of foreign spare income,
crowned their virtue with a virtual ghosttown,
brought to an utterly derelict end
nonstop ten-year winning spree
had showered down riches on everyone.
the children safe as can be
warm woolly sock of deprivation
only the rampant fuzz are free,
pretty much nothing left to see
strings of tots passing sluggishly
through a sort of spiffed-up cemetery lot,
thinking of starting a free soup kitchen
nothing but the company)
well as an overnight shelter (why not?)
perhaps out of some recrudescent desire
even a lukewarm body's comfort
much as to nudge something hot.
Knuckle down to the family life I say,
to the dictates of the day,
things have entirely gone to pot
there's hardly a reason for staying awake
except to join the flock and Baa
methodically feel inspired to jot
ditty, and sing
Perhaps you can tell I still don't mind a bit of rhyming. Maybe the immediate
becomes more important the more you see eternal absence ahead?
MRB: I like the poem you selected. I’m a fan of rhyme, so I’m glad you haven’t
abandoned it. And I like the looser meter of your more recent work, although I
also like the meter of your more traditional poems. I believe we are in
agreement that there is no need to draw lines in the sand and fight turf wars
over the superiority of formal verse to free verse, and vice versa (emphasis on
Perhaps having mortal lifespans does provide an impetus for us to complete our
life’s work. I remember reading somewhere that Einstein was still working on his
equations on his deathbed. I can certainly think of worse ways to go than
writing poems as good as yours, if that’s any consolation!
I don’t think most of us talk to ourselves in the same voice employed by Hamlet
in his soliloquies, so I’m not bothered when poets use “non-native” speech, as
long as they write well. Being young and full of romantic notions is part of the
human experience. Speaking or thinking excitedly, even giddily, about love is
something most of us have done, while gazing up at the moon. It seems to me that
many poets today feel ashamed of expressing honest human sentiments, so they
avoid expressing feelings like rapture, giddiness, nostalgia, etc. In my opinion
such poets are voluntarily donning straitjackets that limit their range.
My wife Beth can make me laugh with her parodies of other people. She can do
both President Bushes wonderfully well. In the old days, Celtic kings who were
fearless in battle still feared the satires of poets. Today rulers around the
world must live in fear of comedians. Who knows … if poets make a comeback, we
may yet manage to put them in their proper place, by embarrassing them into
I had a moment a bit like your “UN moment” when I read a letter of mine in
magazine. It took me a few seconds to understand that I was actually reading my
own words, and that millions of other people might also be reading them. It felt
strangely surreal to momentarily step out of the obscurity of writing poems for
I think Leonard Nimoy is a good man and a good poet to share pages with. I seem
to remember reading some unflattering comments about his poetry on Eratosphere
or some other similar poetry forum, but I think his poems are both good and
moving. Actually, he writes like a saint (the tolerant kind). I consider him to
be one of the better poets I’ve published.
I did wonder about an anti-war site using your poem “Working for Peace” when it
is rather obviously about autoeroticism. But then “make love, not war” has been
a rallying cry of the anti-war movement for decades, so that choice may have
been intentional. On the other hand, people get married to the stalker lyrics of
Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” and Israeli politicians use Robert Frost’s
“Mending Wall” to excuse the construction of apartheid barriers, when Frost was
obviously mocking the constructors of artificial barriers, so almost anything is
If we’re honest, I think all poets enjoy those “feathers in one’s cap.” I’ve
been published widely, and several of my poems have “gone viral,” but I still
enjoy hearing what individual readers think about my poems, and I maintain a
collection of their comments. Some of my favorites are those of students who
chose to write essays about poems of mine. The first time I discovered that
students were writing about my poems, I was a bit shocked, since there are so
many poems by famous poets for them to choose from. Such things do seem a bit
surreal, especially the first time they happen.
When I use the term “specialists,” I’m thinking of poetry experts who seem more
interested in dissecting frogs to see what makes them tick, than enjoying their
leaps and bounds while they’re still alive.
I agree with you on inversions and archaisms. Archaisms should be used very
sparingly, if at all, in modern poetry. If Shakespeare had written using
500-year-old archaisms, he would have been writing in ancient German. Inversions
can still work in modern poetry, but poets should avoid using clunky inversions
for the sake of end rhyme or “sounding poetic.” Still, in skilled hands magical
things can happen, so I would never say “never.” Poets like e. e. cummings have
pretty much proven that poetry doesn’t require absolute rules or ultra-precise
formulas. But on the other hand, there is rarely an advantage to using
Chaucerian language today.
I have heard various poetry experts (the kind with MFA degrees) explicitly ban
the word “love” and abstractions from poetry. Many of them seem to frown down on
expressions of honest human sentiment: nostalgia, etc. So I believe there is,
unfortunately, a bias against certain forms of poetic inspiration in some
literary circles, and perhaps most. I think love (especially young love) may
verge on the ridiculous at times, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t part of the
human experience. In perhaps his greatest poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred
Prufrock,” one of the most intellectual of poets, T. S. Eliot, didn’t shy away
from the zanier aspects of human love. Hart Crane, my favorite poet, wrote one
of the greatest love poems in the English language, “Voyages.” It’s a wildly
romantic, very far-fetched poem, but who cares, really? Doesn’t falling in love
mean enjoying the leaps and bounds, rather than dissecting frogs in some sterile
I’m not generally a fan of poetry written by poet/critics to impress other
poet/critics, which seems to be one of the more profuse modern genres. I prefer
poets like Blake and Whitman who were able to strike common human chords and set
them resonating, without needing ultra-precise formulas. But I have seen good
poems written by poets I don’t agree with, and I don’t think we should dismiss
poetry on purely ideological grounds. So I’m happy to publish the better poems
of poets whose “aesthetics” make me grind my teeth. Investors sometimes say that
bull markets climb “a wall of worry.” Perhaps raising the degree of difficulty
works for some poets. Who knows … they may build poetic muscle as they scramble
over obstacle courses of amazingly bad ideas like “fear abstractions” and “no
ideas but in things.” But to me it seems silly to subscribe to articles of
literary dogma that make absolutely no sense. Why is it wrong to use the word
“love” in a love poem? Why is it wrong to express feelings of nostalgia or
romantic exuberance? Why is it wrong to express abstract ideas in poems, since
that’s what Shakespeare and Milton did in their great soliloquies? Why is
regular meter “better” than freer meter, when some of the best poems in the
English language employ looser meters? If we can prove to ourselves that great
poems have been written using “forbidden” techniques, doesn’t that prove the
taboos are nonsensical?
I like Henry Fisher’s poem. We should think about publishing his work, perhaps
enlisting Joe Kennedy’s help.
Your remark about “eavesdropping” intrigues me. What did you hear and gather,
when you eavesdropped on online poetry forums?
Well, with regard to sounding native, I guess I really do think that it comes
less naturally to poets. Maybe they're born with a funnyspeak gene? I
think in my own case anyway, fluency in the local lingo has taken a great deal
longer than average to achieve, and that even today, the vernacular is more or
less a second language to me (odd as that must sound—and maybe in more than one
way). Maybe science should explore the question someday? Well, at any rate, I do
the best I can with the genes I'm stuck with.
only people I know with MFA degrees are painters. I suppose writers must receive
them now too. Have they been teaching "creative writers" to avoid using the word
love? Well, I suppose the word must mean different things to different people.
Was it Erich Segal who said that love means never having to say you're sorry? I
find that an instructive definition. We profoundly regret it when we mistreat
people we love. We wound ourselves as deeply as we wound them when we lose
patience and treat them unkindly. About all we can do when we inflict such
injuries on ourselves and loved ones is to ask and hope for forgiveness, and
then try our best to suppress the enemy within. I've been in that unhappy
position too many times myself. In any event, I guess I'd agree that writers
shouldn't just assume that the words they use will mean the same thing to
everyone. I guess I'd advise them to individualize the meanings of the words
they use as much as they can. It seems to me that the more they do that, the
more they define their terms and invest them with particular meaning, the less
abstract—the less open to anybody's guess—their words will be. All that seems
"No ideas but in things" is a line from a WCW poem—"Paterson," isn't it? Has it
become the mantra of some poetic school? Wasn't it incorporated into Imagism's
program? Does anyone know just what it means? Sometimes I tell people "Eyes are
better witnesses than ears." Do you suppose he means something like that? His
phrase seems to be the sort of thing that gives rise to no clear idea, in me at
least. It would be curious if an abstraction had become a rallying cry for
people who would outlaw abstraction. Me, I'd say that individualizing one's
personal experience and perspective is what writers should do—and what any good
writer naturally does.
I like the definition of love ascribed to
Jesus: No greater love hath a man than to lay down his life for his brother.
Nor do I believe there's only one way to lay down one's life, or that death
alone is what he was referring to. Sometimes people lay down their lives—in the
sense of putting everything else aside—for indefinite periods to assist someone
they cherish who needs help. Anyone who's joined another person's struggle
against some mortal affliction knows the experience. I remember someone who
meant the world to me once lamenting, "no one stands by anyone." Standing by
someone is in my opinion just what Jesus had in mind. The subject brings to mind
an old poem of mine, "For A Stricken Innocent," written during a desperate
period in my life:
Thy child who cries to me, Lord,
Finds no relieving art,
But only helpless anguish,
As with a bursting heart
gather to me gently
Joy brittle and too brief;
O take him up as I do,
O be a gentle thief.
Well, as I said, it takes some forever to get the hang of the local lingo. "Thy's" a
bit retro, no? Not to mention those Oes. Well, as an old friend used to love
saying, "It's the thought that counts."
I have no idea if Henry's still alive. If he is, I doubt he'd object to his poems
being put on display at THT. The last writing sample I received from him
was a little pamphlet he'd composed called "A Metrical Perspective on Palestine
and Iraq." You'd like it. He thought somewhat like you about those
issues. In one called "The Palestinian" he writes:
By decree they seize
Our native land,
Digest it by degrees.
And banish or remand
Us if we voice our griefs;
Deaf to our pleas,
They chain our chiefs.
I decry their decrees,
They belie their beliefs.
What have I gathered from my eavesdropping on poetry websites? Well, first of all, I
do it very rarely, and never for longer than a couple of minutes. A week or two
will go by without my ever thinking of it. So my exposure is minimal. Of course,
I know what happened to you at one of them. Weren't you cast out forever,
like Lucifer? I guess it would be safe to assume that somewhere en route to that
grand finale you must've struck a nerve. Well, if it's any consolation,
at least don't regard you as the devil. If we don't always see things the same
way, we're nonetheless in perfect accord about keeping the conversation open to
I've personally never felt at home anyplace where I've gotten the feeling there might
be hell to pay for saying what I really think. I like feeling free to speak
frankly and I like hearing the frank opinions of others. Honest talk is
decidedly more to my taste than speech of the guarded variety. In any society
where speaking one's mind is to risk censure or ostracism or worse, many people
are likely to keep their own counsel. What I'm pretty certain I'd be doing
myself in such a society is dreaming of re-locating to a less threatening
milieu. It would frankly be a bit of a personal embarrassment to me if any
enterprise operating under poetry's banner were treating freespokenness as a
punishable offense. It would give an art I've always admired, and have been
personally associated with for quite some time, an even worse name than it's
already gotten. The poets I got acquainted with over the years were gracious and
inviting people. I never sensed I might forfeit my welcome by speaking to any of
them in a forthright way. None of them ever made me feel afraid to say aloud
what I really thought—or thought I thought—or in any danger of being shut out if
I did so. Others have though, and their stifling company naturally has never
Both freedom of speech and freedom of association are under attack in many quarters
today. For me personally, it's impossible to feel at home wherever the exercise
of such vital liberties can diminish one's sense of security. Such places seem
to be multiplying, and they're about as alluring to me as Berlin might've seemed
to someone like Einstein in the 1930s.
In the world at large, which is a far greater concern of mine than any poetry
enclave, it is very dismaying indeed to feel increasingly deprived of a public
voice—of outlets for one's individual point of view—and increasingly imperiled
because of one's preferred company. I recently was rebuked by a uniformed
personage for associating with "people like that." The personage was referring
to someone I care about and have gone to great lengths to help. When I
spontaneously began objecting, I was summarily cut off: "be quiet and listen" he
commanded. Prudence prevailed; but all I was thinking during his unmemorable
lecture was how much more welcome in my life and personal environs the maligned
person was than the self-righteous bigot could ever be. We are all in grave
danger when such brazen types are permitted to wield authority. You might as
well put the world in the hands of the KKK. Just as Heraclitus observed,
"Bigotry is the sacred disease." Many indeed seem to regard their festering
prejudices as sacrosanct.
As to art and criticism at poetry websites, my memory's too dim on the subject to
permit me to comment with any specificity. Occasionally I'll come across a
remark at one of them that resonates with me. In fact the interview I recently
was asked to conduct here at THT was inspired by a couple such remarks.
I've seen some nicely enough composed poems at some of them. Quite a few of the
posted criticisms I've seen have been quite elaborate exercises, and have struck
me as a little out of proportion with their subjects, a bit overdone I'd say, as
if the critics were more interested in impressing the audience with their
erudition and prose style than in anything else. I've often wondered how long it
took their authors to compose them.
I wish I could say that more of it had made a very positive impression on me. My
hunch is that for many who frequent such haunts, it's just a pastime, something
to keep them occupied; maybe for some it's a quest for compliments; perhaps
others are just looking for useful suggestions. I think people must make up
their own minds about such places and decide for themselves whether they have
any uses for them. I don't really have too many myself, but others may. I
personally am just as happy reading any mainstream organ. I do that daily in
fact, just to discover the latest anti-progressive plots. If nothing else,
newspapers at least will tell you what the visionaries who run things are
cooking up next.
MRB: Tom, I think you’ve done remarkably well with the poetic genes you’ve been
given. As you probably know, I’m more likely to praise a poem here and there,
than a poet’s body of work. But in your case, I see many strong poems and a good
number of stellar ones. And while I can see your personal vernacular changing
and becoming what one might call “more modern,” I continue to like the voice I
hear in earlier poems like “Come Lord and Lift” and “Time in Eternity.” So for
whatever it’s worth, you have my admiration, and I’m glad that we’ve been able
to work together these last few years.
Yes, there does seem to be a strong prejudice against love and other
abstractions in some poetry circles. It’s probably not fair to blame WCW, since
he used the word “love” in the title of a book of poems he wrote for his wife,
if I remember things correctly. Perhaps WCW wasn’t as fanatically opposed to
abstractions as some of his disciples. In any case, I see no harm in using the
word “love” in love poems, and the poem of mine that incited cries of “no ideas
but in things!” and “fear abstractions!” was full of concrete images that
fleshed out my idea of “southern-style” romantic love, so I think I did
individualize the meaning of love as you suggested.
I like your poem “For A Stricken Innocent,” which reminds me of my favorite poem
of yours, “Come Lord and Lift.” Since you’re an atheist and I’m an agnostic, and
because we both have severe misgivings about orthodox Christianity, it’s
interesting to ask, “What would Jesus do”? I still like to think that Jesus
would have compassion for fallen fledglings and stricken innocents, which makes
me wonder what on earth he must have thought about God, really. How can anyone
with a compassionate heart praise or worship the earth’s Creator, if there is
such a being, considering all the suffering innocents endure on this planet? But
I do like the idea of Christian compassion, if only we could free it from all
the baggage of judgement, hell, intolerance and irrational “morality.”
I agree with you that “Thy” seems a bit retro, although perhaps not in hymns and
prayers. After all, the word is still actively used in church services and
music. But don’t we exclaim and sigh “oh!” over and over again, even in these
modern times? It seems odd to me that poets deny themselves the right to use
words and exclamations that everyone else is free to employ on a daily basis. I
have no compunctions about using “oh” in my poems, and if I was writing a hymn
or a prayer, I wouldn’t worry about using “O” either. As a matter of fact, I
once used the formal “O” in a love poem I wrote to my wife Beth. The line is “O,
terrible angel” and when I wrote it I was thinking of “terrible” as in “invoking
awe.” I think the use of “O” in my poem makes perfect sense, and in your poem as
well. I don’t think poetry needs or benefits from rigid absolutes and formulas.
I prefer to listen to my ear, mind and heart and let them advise me.
I’m glad to learn that Henry and I share similar views about the situation of
the Palestinians. Today we freely admit that what American Christians did to
Native Americans and African Americans was wrong. So why not admit that what
Americans have done and helped Israel do to Palestinians has been “more of the
same,” and try to correct our terrible mistakes and injustices while we still
hopefully have the time? In any case, I do hope we can publish some of Henry’s
poems. That’s a project I’ll look forward to.
Yes, I was cast out of a poetry forum, like Lucifer being flung down from heaven
by the forces of orthodoxy. But I agree with you that it’s best to let everyone
have his/her say and try to keep the channels of communication open as much as
possible. And I’m reminded that Mark Twain’s mother had compassion for Lucifer
and prayed for his salvation. Who knows … perhaps one day someone in a position
of power may decide that even the Devil and his advocates deserve something akin
to Christian compassion. But I’m not holding my breath, and I have no wish to
return anywhere that I can’t speak my mind freely. Perhaps being banished from
an autocratic heaven is not the worst thing that can happen to someone who
prefers freedom to chains.
TM: Well, as I mentioned, what they're saying or thinking in "poetry circles" these
days isn't really my most active area of study. I'm afraid I'm much better
acquainted with the newspaper.
a while back though, when I was in my early 30s, I did get inducted into the New
England Poetry Club, which I imagine must be one of the older American poetry
organizations. It was founded in 1915 by Frost, Aiken and Amy Lowell. As I
recall, you had to have at least 10 published poems to be eligible for
membership, so I'm assuming I must've had at least that many poems in
sufficiently acceptable journals by then. I remember causing a bit of a stir at
the induction meeting.
meeting was held at Boylston Hall, a curious granite edifice that was Harvard's
first science building but is currently occupied by its language dept., in a
room I don't remember a thing about except that it's called Ticknor Lounge and
must've had furniture. Each new member was supposed to recite a sample of his
creative handiwork to the assembled literati. The stir was caused when I
declined to recite the poem I'd decided to share from the lectern that had been
provided for the purpose. One after another the novitiates had been marching up
to the front of the class to read their pieces, but when my turn came, for
reasons long forgotten I announced, from what I remember as being a comfy club
chair, that I'd prefer to recite instead from where I was seated. I think this
startled everyone, and I think a bit of a coaxing ensued. I forget what was said
back and forth, but I doubt any little tug-of-war lasted more than a minute. All
I'm entirely sure of, is that my wayward wish ended up getting indulged—did I
plead some physical distress I wonder?—and I wasn't deleted from the program or
denied a voice for taking an independent stand (if you can take such a thing
while sitting). In fact, so far as I know, I'm still a member today, at least of
record, though I never attended another meeting, and I stopped receiving their
newsletter shortly after I stopped paying my annual dues (having decided, I
guess, that hearing who'd won which prize wasn't interesting enough to pay for).
and maybe a decade and a half later, I also attended a couple meetings of the NH
Poetry Society, at the urging of a friend who was a founding member of that
organization. I remember at one of them, a little speedwriting game was proposed
by whoever was hosting the event that day. Attendees were told they'd have ten
minutes to compose a poem on the spot. Everyone would have to stop writing when
the time was up, then one after another the participants would be invited to
read to the group what they'd come up with. Well, although I'm no speedwriter, I
decided I still could play, and when the clock started, I began composing with
the rest of them, rubbing my chin now and then while looking off
perplexedly into the distance. Soon enough it was over, and the contestants were
called on to share their inspirations. When it came my turn to recite, I began:
"Hailed down in an alley off the square / by a man of the times and self-styled
/ litterateur, / old Professor Chard was detained awhile / his hailer portraying
the strictly louche / by squinting at him as through a loupe / and seeming
baldly to gauge / the spirit extant in a displaced breed....." and so on through
another 12 or 14 lines to the finish. I remember a woman behind me exclaiming
(in a rather educated voice) "That was brilliant!" Well,
she liked it
anyway. I later heard a story about some poetry convention in NYC that Frost and
Eliot had attended as the guests of honor. Someone had proposed that they both
compose a poem on the spot and that the company present should then vote to
decide which poem was the best. Neither objected, Eliot knuckled down and Frost
looked off perplexedly from time to time, both were called on to recite, the
vote was cast. Frost won. Unlike Eliot, but like me, he had just copied down
some lesser known poem of his from memory.
say those couple of experiences sum up the history of my "poetry circle"
involvement pretty completely. Other than that, there were just the few poets I
knew personally and the few I corresponded with. I suspect most of them were in
Henry's camp. Eunice de Chazeau ventured into free verse though, and produced
some attractive examples. I liked the book of her poems she sent me. Her themes
were serious and her style was different.
afraid I missed the reviews of your "southern-flavored" poem. I'm sorry if they
were unflattering. I just looked up the poem to see how it would strike
It seems to revel in exotic metaphor. The second stanza evokes, for me at least,
a couple in the sack who can't get their fill of each other. I wonder what Clive
Barnes would've said, had be been a poetry reviewer occasionally and not so
exclusively devoted to dance and ballet. He was a bit of a critic of the
never submitted a poem to the judgment of anyone who didn't seem somewhat on my
own wavelength. Maybe you just submitted it to the wrong panel of judges? I
remember before entering that Negative Capability
contest I mentioned
earlier, the one that Snodgrass was judging, making a point of acquainting
myself with some of his poems to see if I sensed any feeling in them kindred to
my own. I guess I did sense some, since I decided to enter the contest; and
apparently I guessed right, to judge by the outcome. I suppose I'd advise a
similar approach to anyone thinking of offering his composition to others for a
verdict. Best to know something about the judge before appointing him to the
say it's impossible to know what Jesus thought about anything, except by the
translated (and re-translated) testimony of others. Of the many remarks ascribed
to him, one of my personal favorites is "Let him who is without sin cast the
first stone." I guess no stones would ever be thrown if that wisdom were heeded.
If self-criticism ever became a more popular practice, who knows, peace in the
world might even start seeming like something attainable.
Finally then, thanks so much again for your good opinion of my creative writing.
Poetry strikes me as an odd passion for the devil. Maybe you'll tell me sometime
why Lucifer has spent so many years promoting it. Is there more evil in the art
than I imagined? Perhaps all your abstraction is just a camouflage for some
wicked purpose? What are you really up to behind all those clematis vines I
wonder? The devil can assume different appearances. Are you just trying to fool
everybody with all the fancy love talk? Readers beware!
forgive me if I amuse myself. Take care. I enjoyed. Best to both you and Beth.
MRB: I’ve only been to one poetry reading in my life, and it was as if the
universe kept flashing me warning signals, like the strobing robot on “Lost in
Space” … Danger! Danger! Everything that could have gone wrong, did go
wrong. My preference is to curl up with a book of poems and glass of cabernet at
the end of the day, and perhaps a notepad where I can jot down a few words of my
own. If someone else wants to perform one of my poems, I won’t pretend not to be
pleased, but my idea of “performance” is for my pen to perform the art of making
words appear on paper.
I’m sure I would have done exactly what Frost did: submit one of my better poems
that no one in the audience had heard. And Frost probably had an unfair
advantage, since he was able to compose poems on his walks, commit them to
memory, and not have to write them down until they were ready to be published.
It’s a trick that I’ve been able to accomplish
myself, after a little practice, as I can now compose poems while
walking and commit them to paper later.
I like Eunice de Chazeau’s poetry too, and I’d like to thank you for introducing
me to her work. Interested readers can find her work by clicking here:
The Poetry of Eunice de Chazeau.
I’m not concerned about particular readers not caring for particular poems of
mine. My complaint—and I believe it’s a valid one—is that poets who are
mentoring other poets should avoid fostering irrational prejudices against the
word “love,” romance, enthusiasm, abstractions, the South (as if all the land
north of the Mason-Dixon line wasn’t stolen from darker-skinned Native
Americans), etc. What I’m objecting to, really, is what I see as a sort of
religious fundamentalism in certain literary circles. Witchdoctors believe and
teach things that aren’t true. So do Catholic priests (it is a “sin” to use
condoms) and Protestant evangelicals (heterosexuals can be forgiven anything,
homosexuals nothing). I think we’re seeing the same sort of irrational thinking
being transmitted through poetry forums and workshops, where dogma trumps facts
and reason. Very bad ideas are being passed down from teachers and mentors to
students, and I find that unfortunate.
I too like the verse about not casting the first stone. But one wonders why
Jesus didn’t point out the sexism and hypocrisy of only bringing the female
adulterer to be murdered by having her head split open by the
hurled stones of religion-mad fanatics. Perhaps the Holy Spirit
was having an off day.
I have always liked the verse in which Jesus said that the prostitutes would
enter the kingdom of heaven before the self-righteous. One doesn’t hear the
Moral Majority touting the infallibility of that verse, does one?
This Lucifer would settle for more tolerance and less religious and literary
fundamentalism. Perhaps that starts with listening to our hearts, using our
powers of reason, and playing Devil’s Advocate when other people teach us things
that make no sense.
Tom, I enjoyed our conversation too, and I want to thank you very much for your
time. It’s a shame that we have to wrap up such an interesting conversation
somewhere, but perhaps we can visit similar or other themes in the future.
Well, I suppose I might tack on a P.S.
With regard to those literary circles that trouble you so much, I guess what would
bother me more than any poetry gospel they might be preaching, is if they were
shutting people with different ideas out of the conversation.
I'm not really aware of the contents of any poetry catechism they may be in the
habit of reciting. To know about anything like that, I'd need to have seen some
sample statements of theirs that might've told me something about the tenets of
their faith. But since I don't recall having seen any, unless people were
actually firing off remarks like "fear abstractions!" and "no ideas but in
things!", which sound to me like pretty strange ejaculations, I don't really
have much of a clue as to what they might be giving out as The Word, except by
rather obscure indirect evidence. I do know that some prefer rhyme and others
prefer free verse, and that almost everybody prefers poetry written in
In general, I guess I'd say that the best way to demonstrate how others think, is
to let them say it themselves. You can never be accused of putting words in
people's mouths, or of misrepresenting them, if you just quote them. A direct
quote provides a solid little specimen for analysis, and can't be a chimera. One
is less likely to be pursuing phantoms if one addresses what people have
actually said and not what one supposes they think.
to return to my own main concern, which is being permitted a voice in the
conversation, it seems to me that the most resilient sort of society is the kind
that accommodates the widest range of thought and opinion and provides an always
open mike to everyone with something to say and the courage to say it. I'd
personally find it enormously refreshing to come across a little less standard
commentary in established discussion vehicles every now and then. The occasional
offbeat perspective would be a welcome surprise. It seems to me that one would
be more likely to encounter such a perspective where all available viewpoints
are welcome on the stage, and where speech is the least subject to regulation.
It doesn't seem to me to bode too well for progress when a society's reigning
attitude is that every bone of contention has already been shoveled under and
laid to rest. As I see it, there's lots of fair game for questioning around, no
shortage at all of fond notions and assumptions inviting dispute. I find myself
often yearning for some real free speech organs, maybe something like those
"alternative papers" that flourished in major American cities back in the 70s,
but something in any case in which less predictable outlooks would have a better
chance of getting an airing, and stock partisan opinion wouldn't be all one ever
encountered. I'm fairly sure I'd be emailing submissions to such outlets pretty
regularly if there were any I knew of around today. Well, at least there's the
internet, and I hope sites like The HyperTexts
will continue being
hospitable to different ways of looking at things, and that its readership will
keep growing as long as it stays that way. Though one may encounter mindsets on
the internet that are just as censorious as many in the world, at least this
breakthrough medium boasts more accommodating forums as well.
three favorite French expressions are vive la difference
(in its most
general meaning), laissez-faire and
joie de vivre.
I think having a wide-open attitude toward differences, and showing the same
courtesy and respect to every species from every quarter, and indeed an
authentic interest in the whole menagerie, is almost the definition of class.
It's pretty much my definition anyway. As I've said to people
occasionally, "class is classlessness."
I'm not really a big fan of uniformity, to indulge in a bit of understatement. As I
think I said earlier, I like a variegated landscape, both socially and
poetically. Or to put it another way, I'd rather see a load of passengers like
Noah's parading past my window than a dull procession of any single type.
Homogenous society is invariably insipid.
It's been my good fortune to play host over the years to quite an array of
characters, and it's provided an invaluable education. Sampling widely from the
human smorgasbord is about the only way to get informed about people.
Understanding of anything can only be advanced by discovery, and can
never be advanced when every response to surrounding existence is a
reflexive resort to received opinion. Understanding is advanced by
adventurousness, by a spirit of gameness I suppose, by people inspired to get at
the truth behind the mythos. What breeds ugly expressions like "people like
that" is something like militant ignorance, which can sometimes strike one as a
hopeless kind of learning disability. As I like saying to people sometimes,
"experience isn't just the best teacher, it's the
only one." I
suppose I might even venture to say that one can't be open to education without
being open to experience.
guess I'll leave you with another favorite observation of mine, from Voltaire:
"Who can love life who does not love the vulgar"?
MRB: Tom, I agree, particularly on the need for and advantages of free speech,
tolerance and keeping open minds. Hopefully The HyperTexts will continue
to allow many diverse voices to each have their say, as long as they speak ably
and well. Last year we had around half a million page views, and if current
trends continue, we should receive from 750,000 to a million page views over the
next twelve months. That's not too shabby for a "dying art" and a small organ of
free speech. Readers who are interested in such things can review our
rankings of contemporary poets, which are based on data provided to us by
Google Analytics, in a more democratic process than the arbitrary literary
rankings of yore. You appear high in our rankings of contemporary poets, along
with other accomplished writers like Jack Butler, Ann Drysdale, Rhina P.
Espaillat, R. S. Gwynn, X. J. Kennedy, Yala Korwin, Robert Mezey, Richard Moore,
Luis Omar Salinas and A. E. Stallings. And I also see some of the better younger
poets doing well and climbing in terms of page views: for instance, Greg Alan
Brownderville, Sophie Hannah Jones, Quincy Lehr, Jennifer Reeser and Sieglinde
Wood. The fact that the better poets are being read the most often, and that
readers tend to spend more time on their pages, bodes well for the future of
poetry, I believe. As Google helps the cream rise to the top, by helping
interested readers find the best, most relevant work, the onus is on poets to
write well and be relevant. I believe your advice expressed in this interview
can help aspiring writers, as most writers will benefit from a more open-minded,
tolerant, free-thinking love affair with the Fairest Muse.