Wrestling with Loss: Hirsch, Grennan and Matthews on Loss as the Basis of Poetry

This seventh post, from a series of eight, draws from an archive of recently discovered audio recordings of America's most important modern poets, taken during Pearl London's renowned poetry seminars at the New School. The most compelling moments of these conversations were transcribed and published in Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets (Knopf), named by CSM "One of the ten best (nonfiction) books of 2010." The clips used below are all taken from the audiobook companion to Poetry in Person, offering extended, thirty to sixty minute cuts of eight of the best conversations.

"Poetry begins in loss, begins with alienation, and speaks against our vanishing." So Edward Hirsch tells Pearl London when he visits her poetry seminar in 1993. The poetic experience, as Hirsch tells it, is "an encounter with the worst," a kind of confrontation with negativity and darkness, in which one tries to find "something" to bring back out into the light. Here's how he puts it:

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"Orpheus and Eurydice,"Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein-Sub, 1806

Hirsch calls Orpheus's decent into hell the "archetypal poetic experience," as he attempts to recover his dead wife by going into the underworld after her. Ultimately, however, Orpheus's story ends not with triumph over loss but with the doubling of it; having convinced Hades to allow him to bring Eurydice back to the upper world, he violates their agreement by looking back at his wife before they have completed the journey out of hell. If the poetic experience truly is modeled on Orpheus's journey, then although the poet may "try to bring something to the light," he will never entirely succeed; he will think he has triumphed over loss, only to have it slip, devastatingly, away.

The metaphors that other poets use to discuss loss are likewise colored with a sense of almost certain failure. Seamus Heaney once described Elizabeth Bishop's poetry as one that "ingests loss and transmutes it," and Eamon Grennan notes that Heaney's poetry does the same thing. But Grennan says that he doesn't think of his own writing in quite those terms—his poetry is the narrative account of the "act of wrestling" with loss. This is how he explains it to London:

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Quite bluntly, Grennan says that his poems often record his inability to absorb, to "transmute" loss. And William Matthews says his poems are grounded in a loss that one tries to obscure with a "ground cover, or even a magnificent topiary garden"—but, as Matthew's says at the very end of this clip, "I can always see it through the leaves:"

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Writing the Parent: Muldoon, Clifton, Hirsch and Matthews on family poems

This sixth post, from a series of eight, draws from an archive of recently discovered audio recordings of America's most important modern poets, taken during Pearl London's renowned poetry seminars at the New School. The most compelling moments of these conversations were transcribed and published in Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets (Knopf), named by CSM "One of the ten best (nonfiction) books of 2010." The clips used below are all taken from the audiobook companion to Poetry in Person, offering extended, thirty to sixty minute cuts of eight of the best conversations.

In her conversations with the poets who visited her classroom, London was never afraid to probe into the forces that drove them to write, including their background and upbringing. In the course of these conversations, many of the poets spoke of their parents, both as they were in life and as they are continually reimagined in their poetry. Lucille Clifton, for instance, spoke candidly with London about both her mother and father and talked about the early influence of her mother on her as writer:

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Interestingly—tellingly—this is not at all how Clifton herself writes; her poems rarely feature rhyme, or even standard capitalization and punctuation, tending instead towards a bluesy, colloquial cadence. Her mother may have made Clifton recognize that poetry "was a thing one could do," but it didn't mean that Clifton would do this thing her mother's way.

Here, parental influence is often painted as something to be resisted rather than absorbed—and this tension is even more pronounced when the mother or father becomes the poetic subject. When London speaks with William Matthews about his poem "My Father's Body," she complains of the absence of personal details.

Here's their discussion, and below is the excerpt in question:

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The ashes will be scattered,
says a hushed man in a mute suit,
in the Garden of Remembrance,
which is out back.
And what's left of a mild, democratic man
will sift in a heap with the residue of others,
for now they all belong to time.

Matthews explains that it was his father's "mild, democratic" nature that seemed most durable and that "touched the most people." He elegizes his father using the terms one might for a public figure, rather than more intimately paternal qualities.

Paul Muldoon speaks to the difficulty of capturing a parent through poetry when London asks him about "Brazil," a poem from Muldoon's prize-winning collection Annals of Chile (a wonderful recording of the poem, read by Muldoon, is available here). Although the poem provides, doubtlessly, an intimate portrait of the parent, Muldoon still laments that his mother comes across as "too cold" in the book.

Here's Muldoon's conversation with London:

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Hirsch offers a compelling take on the issue of family in poetry when he and London discuss his poem "Family Stories." He complains that readers of "Family Stories" came to think of him as a "family poet."

Here's what he says:

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He saw the poem as an excuse to think about stories and the way they function, operate. But for his reader, the "Family" overtook the "Stories"—the content and subject matter of the poem overwhelmed Hirsch's examination and experimentation with storytelling. This line of thinking offers one intriguing explanation for the complicated place of the parent in poetry;  that it's not the writer's Freudian focus that makes the parent such a problematic poetic subject, but rather that conscious care must be taken with the subject for fear that the reader will seize hold of the parental figure to the point of missing the nuances of a work.

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A Poet’s Poet: Robert Frost

This fifth post, from a series of eight, draws from an archive of recently discovered audio recordings of America's most important modern poets, taken during Pearl London's renowned poetry seminars at the New School. The most compelling moments of these conversations were transcribed and published in Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets (Knopf), named by CSM "One of the ten best (nonfiction) books of 2010." The clips used below are all taken from the audiobook companion to Poetry in Person, offering extended, thirty to sixty minute cuts of eight of the best conversations.

One thing I was surprised to find, as I started listening through the tapes of Pearl London’s classes, was how often the name Robert Frost came up in her conversations with poets.  Frost has fallen out of favor with the academy in the decades since his death, relegated to Hallmark cards and middle school pick-your-favorite poem assignments. Here, however, he seems to have become a poet’s poet, celebrated for verse, prose and a very modern mood of darkness.

Paul Muldoon, for instance, is not only an admirer of Frost, but also, quite literally, an inhabiter of the same space; he has spent thirteen summers, so far, at Frost’s old cabin.  He and London discuss several observations of Frost’s: that poetry is a “feat of associations,” and that a poem be a "momentary stay against confusion."

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Comparing Frost to Auden, William Matthews said he was drawn as a high school student to the modesty and distinctly American quality of Frost’s poetic voice.  Like Muldoon, Matthews spent a summer at the Frost estate, and he remarks to London that the place felt very isolated, deliberately so.  Finding the corollary in his poetry, London notes the “Hopper-like quality of insularity” in Frost—calling up another artist that was mentioned frequently by the poets in London’s class.

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London again brings up the darker side of Frost in her discussion with Edward Hirsch, mentioning the large number of empty barns and wintry landscapes in Frost's work.  Hirsch points to Frost’s haunting “Desert Places” when trying to describe his conception of the absolute—an “absolute erasure,” a “terrifying invisibility”—and recites the last stanza of this poem for London:

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They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

They also discuss the popular misconception of Frost as a pastoral poet—“our Frost,” Hirsch says, referring to the modern poet’s Frost rather than the layman’s Frost, “is the darker Frost, and that Frost is unblinking…remorseless in his willingness to look at the darkness.”

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Formal Help: Muldoon, Rukeyser and Hirsch

This fourth post, from a series of eight, draws from an archive of recently discovered audio recordings of America's most important modern poets, taken during Pearl London's renowned poetry seminars at the New School. The most compelling moments of these conversations were transcribed and published in Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets (Knopf), named by CSM "One of the ten best (nonfiction) books of 2010." The clips used below are all taken from the audiobook companion to Poetry in Person, offering extended, thirty to sixty minute cuts of eight of the best conversations.

In their use of rhyme, metrical regularity and other formal elements, modern poets are remarkably divided. Marilyn Hacker and Molly Peacock, often associated with the New Formalist movement of the 1980's and '90s, are known for their work in the sonnet, villanelle, and other traditional forms.  Other poets write in what Muriel Rukeyser calls "notebook jottings". Lucille Clifton, for instance, is famous for her short, unpunctuated, spare poems, avoiding capitalization, meter and rhyme as well. These stances, of course, aren't static—James Merrill's formalistic first books gave way to a sprawling, three part epic collected in The Changing Light at Sandover. From the conversations that take place in Pearl London's class, however, it's clear that all poets must confront the question of form and position themselves somewhere along the spectrum, even if their positioning changes from one poem to the next.

When the poets speak with London about form, they often use a rhetoric of assistance, with three distinct ideas of how forms "helps": it can aid the poet, it can aid the reader, and it can aid in the internal working of the poem itself.

Paul Muldoon, for instance, talks to London about how he constructed a form that served as "a little box" in which to construct "Incantada"—a poem written in honor of a friend that had recently passed away.

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Muldoon admits that this is not how he usually writes, but he still offers a notable instance of how form can assist the poet in the construction, at least in this case, of a particularly difficult poem.

Edward Hirsch, discussing form, talks about the inverse of this process, describing how his poems sometimes push through from one form into another as he writes them.  Hirsch brought "Wild Gratitude" into the class in several drafts, revealing that the poem was a single block of text until the very last version, where it was broken into the stanzas that it retained as a finished poem.

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Hirsch says that he thinks form is “a series of expectations—it’s a contract that you set up as a musical form, a series of patterns and expectations and fulfillment and thwartings and movement, and that your task is to work through the form so that the reader can follow that.” Form is oriented towards the reader, rather than the poet.

And yet, it isn't as if words are dropped like blocks into a form built to hold them, or that words are forced, at the last stage of revision, into a form that they weren't written around. The words, as Hirsch says, must "enact and push" the form, the rhythm of the poem, and, as Muriel Rukeyser adds, "a sound structure" that is something you must "fuse with the literal meaning" of words:

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I could go on with further clips—every poet included in the audiobook talks about form in some sense—and I may include a "Part Two" to this post later in the series with some other clips.  Until then, I'll direct you to this meditation on form from George Szirtes, published in Poetry.

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Pinsky and Hirsch on adjectives

I read through a revealing and rich Robert Pinsky interview from SmartishPace—with his answers to about 25 questions submitted by readers. One reader asked for Pinsky's view on adjectives, and Pinsky replied with his characteristic blend of wittiness and insight:

A basic way to make a passage more vivid is to try it with all the adjectives and adverbs taken out. It's remarkable how much bolder and more physical the passage—especially if it's descriptive—can become. And you can deaden something you like, as an experiment, by addings some adjectives. Fulke Greville begins his elegy for Philip Sidney: "Writing increaseth grief; silence augmenteth rage." What if it were: "Mere writing eventually increaseth my severe grief; stony silence immediately augmenteth frantic rage."?!

Reading his answer reminded me of something Edward Hirsch remarks in his visit to Pearl London's class, about how adjectives can be effective if they do work for the poem, rather than just adorn it. He uses examples from his revisions of Wild Gratitude, the typescript of which he brought with him to the seminar.

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Pearl London: What about adjectival? How do you feel about adjectives? I always keep saying they are the stuffing in a big Victorian sofa. How do you feel about them?

Edward Hirsch: Well, I mean to some extent you're right in the sense that they don't usually do much work and that you're trying to have the language work for you, and that Pound is right to put them under prescription. Although when I say, "though I slip my hand into Zooey's waggling mouth", I don't say "into Zooey's mouth". "Waggling" seemed to me to do something there, it seems to do some work, whereas "the small clink of milk bottles" isn't doing any work. So you go back and you go, well "clink" does the work, you don't need the "small".

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And…Edward Hirsch on how to read poetry

On Friday I posted a clip of Paul Muldoon discussing how one should read poetry. Over the weekend, I stumbled across an online version of the first chapter from Edward Hirsch's How to Read a Poem (and Fall in Love with Poetry)--a great read to get warmed up for National Poetry Month in April.

 

 

 

 

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Inspired by Edward Hopper

This second post, from a series of eight, draws from an archive of recently discovered audio recordings of America's most important modern poets, taken during Pearl London's renowned poetry seminars at the New School. The most compelling moments of these conversations were transcribed and published in Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets (Knopf), named by CSM "One of the ten best (nonfiction) books of 2010." The clips used below are all taken from the audiobook companion to Poetry in Person, offering extended, thirty to sixty minute cuts of eight of the best conversations.

"All I really want to do," Edward Hopper once said, "is paint light on the side of a house." The famous American realist's attention to light and the mood it creates—his work will be featured at the Whitney until the end of April—continues to influence a range of artist, poets included. Both Edward Hirsch and Eamon Grennan discussed Hopper's influence in the course of their conversations with Pearl London.

During Hirsch's visit, London comments on the imagery in his poetry and brings up, as an example, his description of Hopper as "brutal as sunlight" in the poem "Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad (1925)."

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Hopper, says Hirsch, uses sunlight as a metaphor for remorselessness, "exposing that which might prefer to be hidden." In the poem, the house "must have done something" to be left so alone, but that "something" is never named.

"House by the Railroad" 1925. Oil on canvas. 24 x 29 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

But the man behind the easel is relentless.
He is as brutal as sunlight, and believes
The house must have done something horrible
To the people who once lived here

Because now it is so desperately empty,
It must have done something to the sky
Because the sky, too, is utterly vacant
And devoid of meaning. There are no

Trees or shrubs anywhere—the house
Must have done something against the earth.
All that is present is a single pair of tracks
Straightening into the distance. No trains pass.

As the poem continues, the house "begins to suspect / That the man, too, is desolate, desolate / And even ashamed." There is a sense that the source of shame is not important, because anything scrutinized so closely will eventually offer up its own particular point of shame; what's central, in the poem, is the very ubiquity of guilt.

Grennan doesn't dwell on Hopper as long as Hirsch, only making reference to a poem he once worked on, about Hopper's "Sun in an Empty Room," that ends with the line, "Tomorrow, I'll talk away the wall."

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"Sun in an Empty Room" 1963. Oil on canvas. 28 3/4 x 39 1/2 inches. Private collection.

"Sun in an Empty Room" is, Grennan says, "lovely"—it's clear that Hirsch wouldn't use this adjective to describe "House by the Railroad." And yet both poets seem to point to the same Hopper-esque capacity of light to become a subject in itself. For Grennan, light has a prelapsarian quality, and this too is what Hirsch suggests—how light emphasizes the faults of the fallen man, of a fallen landscape.

 

 

 

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American Poets on American Poetry

This first post, from a series of eight, draws from an archive of recently discovered audio recordings of America's most important modern poets, taken during Pearl London's renowned poetry seminars at the New School. The most compelling moments of these conversations were transcribed and published in Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets (Knopf), named by CSM "One of the ten best (nonfiction) books of 2010." The clips used below are all taken from the audiobook companion to Poetry in Person, offering extended, thirty to sixty minute cuts of eight of the best conversations.

"You might say, 'Oh, to be pure would be so much more poetic.'  On the contrary.  Your poetry is the poetry of the mix." So Robert Pinsky tells Pearl London when their conversation turns, as so many of hers do, to the question of what it means to be an American poet, and what makes poetry American. And Pinsky is not the only one to pick out heterogeneity as a defining characteristic; each poet that she speaks with describes the "Americanness" of their poetry as entangled with both their personal history and the history of the nation. Edward Hirsch, for instance, discusses how his Jewishness "jostles with" his idea of himself as an American.

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As a Jew, Hirsch looks backwards into the past; as an American, he looks to the future. Variations on this formulation are offered by many of the poets. Regardless of background, each tackles the question of American poetry by looking back to his or her ancestry and looking forward to how it can and should influence them—as if being an American is something that is always reached for, moved towards, but never accomplished.

Muriel Rukeyser articulates this relationship in reverse—being an American, she says, allows us to make choices about our personal history and gives us license to "choose our own ancestors."

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An American's  lineage is likely divergent from the history of the country, transforming the past into a place of potential and allowing us to take ownership over historical events to which we have no ancestral connection.

If Rukeyser and Hirsch are concerned with the poles of past and future, then Robert Pinsky focuses on the space between—on his present self, as he's been shaped and is still being shaped.

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For Pinsky, being American is characterized by having a mix of competing cultural identities; it is not a pure state but necessarily a dappled one. This is true both on a personal and a national level: "biographical facts...themselves are parallel to cultural truths."

This "mix" is articulated in poetry through the various American dialects and languages. As Lucille Clifton says, "The American language is a wonderfully vital and alive thing—it will only die if we kill it, I think. But it seems to me that we can keep the language alive and that we can use the whole thing of it."

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For more on American poetry, take a look at American Poetry Society website, where over a hundred poets have weighed in on the question, "What's American about American poetry?"

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