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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Paul Muldoon on how to read poetry

I've seen Paul Muldoon read several times (and even had the honor of hosting him as a reader for the launch of Poetry in Person-skip to 45:00 for his bit) and each time I'm struck by how contagious his passion for poetry is.  It seems that his visit to Pearl London's class was no exception. In this clip he talks about how we all must learn to read poetry, and it makes me want to double the intensity, and the attention, that I bring to my reading.

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Poet Paul Muldoon and his methods of work


The following audio clip from Poetry in Person:25 Years of Conversation with America's Poets (Knopf, 2010) represents poet Paul Muldoon speaking about methods of work.  In it, among observations about how "shape is made in the world," he refers to the importance of revision.  Or lack of it, in his case.  Interestingly, he says that for him revision is "the exception, not the rule," of his working state.  Compare that to fellow Irishman James Joyce, who could spend weeks on a sentence, not necessarily creating new words but famously tinkering with their order.  Which perhaps explains how Finnegans Wake took 17 years to complete.  Muldoon's absence of the revisionist's compulsion has allowed his to become one of the most productive and important poets of our generation.

Born in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, Muldoon published his first book of poems, New Weather, (1973) when he was just 21 years old. It immediately caught the attention of Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney. In 1995, he was still seven years away from the Pulitzer Prize when he visited Pearl London's class in New York. He brought along with him 13 draft pages of his poem "Cows," from his volume The Annals of Chile. It was a book that caught all of his most recognizable traits: word lists and wordplay, breaks of form, wit, shifting technique and the widest net among all poets for the sounds and catchphrases of other poems, other poets.

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