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Interview by Richard Wilbur with Steve Kronen
SOURCE: "Richard Wilbur: An Interview," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 20, No. 3, May-June 1991, pp. 45-55.
Kronen is an American poet and critic. In the following interview, Wilbur discusses his influences, his thoughts on being poet laureate, and his opinions of contemporary poetry.
[Steve Kronen:] For the past four or five years, there has been a range-war of sorts in the various journals between the so-called New Formalists and, ironically, the old free versers. What are your thoughts about this interchange?
[Richard Wilbur]: I'm aware that there is something of that sort going on, and I was recently sent an article from APR by Ira Sadoff, in which he was engaging in one side of the controversy at considerable length. I don't follow all of the poetry periodicals, turning all the pages, but I know that there is a lot of talk about the New Formalism. Some of the young poets whom I know and think well of are associated, by people who engage in this sort of taxonomy, with the New Formalism. Of course it makes them nervous. No one wants to be defined simply in terms of whether he uses meter or not, whether he makes rhymes and stanzas. I think that the best of our poets who work in traditional forms, who make use of traditional forms, would rather be approached, as Mr. Sadoff said, in terms of their vision than in terms of their technical means.
I don't know that I can explain the resurgence of "form" except to say that a certain kind of extremely relaxed, personal and prosaic free verse poem may have run its course, may have tested itself about as much as it can, and that a number of poets now see it as a new and exciting thing to take advantage of the special capabilities of these old instruments—meter and rhyme. You run into people in poetry societies who attribute a kind of intrinsic sanity and goodness and even moral quality to received forms. I do think that that is nonsense. There's nothing essentially good about a meter in itself. And I think it is unfortunate for people to look back with nostalgia toward such poetic means, or to look towards the future in terms of them. They are really timeless. There is nothing particularly dated, is there, about a fundamental tool like a hammer? A hammer is neither of the past nor of the future. And that is how I think we should look at these things.
There was a while in the early part of this century when people like Eliot and Pound and Ford Madox Ford, who were very discriminating about many things, made that sort of error in their discussions of meter and rhyme. Timothy Steele has discussed this very well in a new book of his—Missing Measures.
People like Bill Williams used to say—as a matter of fact he said it to me—that a sonnet written nowadays was a curtsy to the court of Elizabeth I, that to write a sonnet was to commit yourself not only to 14 lines in iambic pentameter, but also to fall of necessity into old locutions, into tired diction. Well, that's not true. It was undoubtedly true of Williams that when he started out as a young poet, he tried to write in meter and rhyme and found himself being old fashioned and altogether too lovely, and therefore rightly moved away from those forms because he couldn't handle them. He couldn't, as Pound said, make them new. Well, we've made that kind of mistake in associating meters with ancient and tired diction and themes for a long time. There are people still making that mistake. And I shall be glad if an energetic movement, tendency, call it what you will, changes our minds about that, and makes it apparent to us that these tools can be used in the freshest way, and have nothing necessarily to do with whatever in the metrical poetry of the last century we would like to repudiate or not do again.
Many of the poets who published their first books in the last ten years or so studied under poets who themselves had written little or no verse in received forms. Can a poet, even if he or she chooses not to write in traditional forms get by without practicing it on studying formal prosody?
I guess my feeling about it is this: that poets who are any good and who do their homework—that is to say, who read the poetry of the English tradition right back as far as they can go, and respond to it—will have been keeping in touch with what can be done in so-called form, whatever their personal practice may have been. A few years ago, Brad Leithauser said in some publication that he thought that one of the many ruptures in culture brought on by the late fifties and sixties was loss of familiarity with meter, loss of the ability to read confidently in meter, to know what metrical poetry was doing. I'm not so sure he was right. Not long ago the poet John Ridland, on the West Coast, offered some of my light verse poems, my children's poems called "Opposites," to one of his writing classes. They're done in rhymed tetrameters, and after he showed them some of these poems and they talked a little about what they were doing, he said, all right, write some of these poems, write some opposites. Most of these young poets, Ridland told me, had not written in meter and rhyme before. He sent me some samples of their work and it was pretty good. They did know what tetrameters were and they could write them, just as people who have been watching waltzers for some time, but not waltzing themselves, can catch on pretty quickly.
I think, by the way—just to put in a parenthesis here, a response to one thing you said—I don't think that the study of prosody, the abstract study of prosody, is of any use to beginning poets. It's a bore. The use of prosodic terminology, it seems to me, is critical and not creative. We need sometimes, in order to talk about how a line of Gerard Manley Hopkins operates, to use terms like pentameter and talk about extra unstressed syllables, but heavens, I don't think anybody ever caught on the writing of meter by any means except infection.
About twenty-five years ago, you stated, "A good part of my work could, I suppose, be understood as a public quarrel with the aesthetics of Edgar Allan Poe. What are the aesthetics of Edgar Allan Poe and have you and Mr. Poe come to terms?
I think the people we quarrel with are always the people whom we're attracted to or people in whom we see something of ourselves. I like the thing that my friend Pierre Schneider said years and years ago; he said that "All satire is confession," and I do think that's true. If I denounce something in a poem, I denounce it because I understand it. And why do I understand it? I understand it because the reprehensible thing I'm pointing to it is something of which I'm capable or even guilty. So, in the case of Poe, I feel an attraction to him. And I think he was a genius and a great innovator in prose fiction, and in the exploration of states of mind and of the warfare that goes on in the soul. Those are the things that draw me greatly.
Is that the aesthetic to which you refer?
No, it's not. I think his poetry is the minor part of his work, and in his critical writing he distinguishes between prose fiction, in which a certain amount of what he calls truth is permitted, and poetry in which the sole object is beauty. And beauty consisted for him—I wish I could quote him exactly right now, I haven't been reading him of late, but I can paraphrase—it consisted for him in "a wild effort to reach the beauty above." Yes, that's how he put it. If poetry is forever renouncing this world and reaching out toward the beauty above, it means that it has a kind of destructive economy. Whatever of a mundane character poetry looks at, it is the business of poetry to destroy, to negate, so as to give the reader and the poet a sense of transcendence, a sense of embarkation toward the beyond. That's a rather exciting idea. It's like John Cage's theories, you know, exciting in themselves, desperately bad in their application.
Indeed, do you see as one of poetry's purposes to destroy and recreate?
No, I'm saying that's Poe's theory, that's Poe's view of poetry. There are various techniques in his work for negating, for putting to death almost everything that he mentions. Almost everything that isn't already hazy and of the spirit, he disintegrates in his poetry. He does this not only by verbal tricks, but also by the hypnotic, chanting character of his poems. They're there to put you to sleep, to put you perhaps into what seems a visionary condition. And I'm just too earth bound a person by nature, and on principle, to find that prescription satisfactory.
I think that we don't understand this world perfectly, and I think that it's reasonable to say that we live both here and in heaven. But we can't write poetry simply about heaven, we can't write poetry simply about transcendent things. We have to work with what's under our noses, and give the creation proper respect. So that's my war with Poe, I think. Have I been clear?
No ideas but in things?
Yes, I've always been fond of that expression, which of course is challenging and extreme. And would lead you away from using all abstract terms, all large concepts, make you embody everything in the Imagist object. It had marvelous results in Williams, and I know that he will always be one of my inspirers, but I wouldn't want to take on his program absolutely.
"Heaven in a grain of sand," to rephrase Blake here?
Yes, that mode of transcendence in which you see everything in itself and also see what is wonderful in it what has symbolic implications, what is divine in it. That's an aesthetic which appeals to me far more than Poe's.
Which was to negate that for the other world?
Yes, to negate the object. You never see any grains of sand in Poe. Never see much of anything.
Before Auden died, you said of him, "At the moment he's the best presence around, our most civilized, accomplished and heartening poet." And in your elegy to him you referred to his civil tongue and that he was the poet of all our cities. Is there anybody you would apply that description to now?
I think there are a number of very good, civilized poets among us. I don't think at the moment that I would vote for one as playing exactly the versatile and civilizing and encompassing role that Auden played. But of course, when I said that about Auden, he'd been at it for quite awhile. We'd had time to steep ourselves in his work, develop a long gratitude, apply to him words like "great," and I suspect that there are amongst us right now a number of poets of comparable stature doing a similar job, being in the broadest sense civilized. I don't think I want to reel off a list of names, though you or I could both think of poets of more or less my generation about whom I'd be inclined to say similar words of praise.
How about my generation?
I don't know the younger generation as well as I used to. For a long while there I was on the poetry board of the Wesleyan Poetry Program, of which I was an initiator, and I read (it seems to me) everything that was being written for many years, and was much in touch, and I'm less so now. All I know is that there are a lot of exciting young talents around. I know of a number of people in their thirties who seem awfully good to me. I don't think that I would right away apply to any of them the sort of praise I gave to Auden. You have to have had a long career before you're given that kind of gratitude. But there's a lot of reason for hope, indeed, enthusiasm.
You use the terms "civilized, accomplished, heartening" when talking about Auden. Do you see that as a function of poetry to civilize and hearten as a stay against anarchy or entropy?
Yes, certainly to civilize. It's a very unfortunate thing, I think, that we have taken off our poets a lot of the burdens that used to be on them. In the Soviet Union, they still look to the poet as a kind of conscience of the country.
An unacknowledged legislator, to wheel out another cliché?
Yes, kind of acknowledged, I think, some of them, as valuable social critics, not as protestors, not this dreary business of protesting. I think that the political role is one that we overdo. But the business of being the conscience of the nation, the conscience of the culture, that's something that the best Russian poets have always performed, sometimes, of course, to the point of protest. And then I think that poets, like all writers, should be continuators and custodians of our culture. I hate to apply the word "should" to poets, but let me say I'm grateful to writers who do that job, who don't simply sit in some room somewhere and complain of the draft and tell us that their dog is sick and that their father is dead. There's more to what poets can do and say than that. Heartening: when I speak of heartening, in connection with poetry, I don't think I mean poets should take on the job that the fireside poets gave themselves in the nineteenth century. So much of Bryant and Longfellow is kindly counsel, religious encouragement, a kind of noble hand-holding. I don't think that poetry is necessarily called on to do that at present. The heartening that a poet ought to do is to be as articulate as possible about his own life, his own feelings, and also about serious matters in which he's involved with the society in general. And so preserve us from inarticulateness. That's the heartening thing poetry does, I think, to have a great vocabulary and to use it as clearly as the subject permits.
When you think of Auden now, Auden the man, what do you think of?
I didn't know him very well. I had just a few encounters with him. When he published his book, Nones, I did a review of it for a little magazine published down at Johns Hopkins. And he wrote me a very pleasant letter saying that he had appreciated what I had said, that I'd caught his drift and that he wished that I had noticed that in his poem, "In Praise of Limestone," he had been using syllabics of 11 and 14. I hadn't noticed that. That was a species of encounter.
Later I met him at the Robert Frost's 85th birthday dinner in New York, at which Lionel Trilling gave the most interesting talk to which so many people objected. At that time, Auden and I discussed martinis and how hard it was to get a decent martini away from home. And at another time, when I was editing a series of paperback books of poetry for Dell, the Laurel series, I got Auden to agree to do one of the books and we had lunch together with an editor from Dell. And Auden was most amusing.
Did you want him to edit a book?
Yes, and he did, in fact, he did a beautiful job of editing a book of nineteenth-century English minor poets. But on that occasion at lunch, we went over English poetry from the beginning, at any rate, from Chaucer. And I would simply say, "Skelton" and he would say, "not bad at all." Or I would name some other name, and he would say, "a bore."
An example of the latter?
I don't remember which authors he considered bores. I should remember, because I kept making notes to think it over. But there were too many poets talked about. The question was, what other authors we should represent in our series. And he was very arbitrary, he didn't give any arguments, but there was clearly spontaneity and conviction in what he said, and that was fun to do. The only other thing I remember about that luncheon was that toward the end of it, speaking of a common acquaintance, I said, well in view of such and such, I think I approve of him. And he said, "What did you say?" And I said, oh dear, that sounds a little smug, doesn't it? One doesn't approve of people. And he said no, certainly not (laughter) I think he did not much care for being judgmental.
He was so strong in his opinions, though I suppose that's different from being judgmental.
He was being strong in his aesthetic opinions, but as for judging people as people, I think that he had a good deal of the quality of mercy.
I suppose that's what you find so civilized in him?
That is one thing about him. I think that, although a lot of people have said that Auden's attending 8:00 mass every Sunday in his carpet slippers because his feet hurt, was mostly an aesthetic thing, that he enjoyed the pomp of it, the forms of it … many people have said that. But I don't think so really, I think that he was a serious, religious sensibility and a serious thinker about such matters. There's a strong moralistic element in Auden. I really think that he wanted to be good, and in fact, I could put in evidence certain of his poems like "Music is International" from that book Nones, which in a clever way does that most dangerous of things, he comes out in favor of kindness.
There was a period in mid to late-nineteenth century when Shelley fell out of favor and later Eliot more or less revived the reputations of Donne and Herbert. Are there any poets you feel have been overlooked, or the other way around, held in regard beyond their merits?
I'm sure that I could, given time, come up with some names on both sides of that I don't know whether I'm spoiling to devalue anybody right now, I'm very glad that Eliot changed his mind about John Milton. Because when people ask me what poet of another time I might like to be, I know that that's the answer. I'm very devoted to Milton except for Paradise Regained, which I can't stomach.
Why can't you?
I simply have never been able as they say, to "dig" it. It's never seemed to me to have the force and the verbal excitement and the technical glory of Paradise Lost or a lot of the early poems, the early short poems. I've been told by many people that when I grew up I would find that the severity of Paradise Regained would appeal to me, the plainness. The plainness in some other poets very much appeals to me. In Shakespeare, who can write a very plain line, and in Dante, and in many another poet of lower degree. But Paradise Regained still seems to me impoverished rather than plain. I hope that I'll come around, because I'd rather like as many things as I can.
What is it in Milton that draws you so?
A superb architectural power, a power to build great verse paragraphs, to take a sonnet and make something massive and energetic out of it.
How does that differ from Shakespeare?
If you compare Shakespeare's sonnets, which are magnificent, with Milton's, I think that the big difference is that whereas Shakespeare works on the whole in delightful, restating quatrains, parallel quatrains, summed up by a final couplet, Milton comes near violating the sonnet form every time he takes it on, continually runs over the ends of the divisions and does this expressively and to some purpose.
He doesn't turn when he's supposed to turn?
He doesn't turn, he will run over into the next line, or he will stop short. What this does, I'm not the first person to say this, is to turn the sonnet into a great paragraph or sometimes two great paragraphs. Often a Milton sonnet will be one sentence, or two sentences. He simply had a great transforming influence on the sonnet. Very few people have taken up where he left off, but as with most forms and modes of writing, when Milton took the form on he transformed it—and well.
So I admire him as a genius in the building of verse structures and I respond greatly to his Baroque sensibility, it's full of concreteness. I know that Eliot indicted him for abstractness, but I find a great deal of the concrete in him, and especially in the muscularity of the movement of his lines. You can't read Milton with any enthusiasm without feeling that you're getting a good workout, a good physical workout, and I very much react to that in him. I react also to something that hasn't recently been noticed very much, to his playfulness. He's a man with an extraordinary linguistic knowledge, who wrote many Latin poems for example, and whose use of English is all full of etymological …
Little plays going on?
Lots of plays going on. There are many more jokes in Milton than is generally allowed. When I think of his etymological play, I always think of what the affable archangel Raphael says to Adam in the Garden, that if human beings will just behave themselves they may be qualified to be transformed into higher creatures and to rise toward heaven by "gradual scale sublime." Now that's just full of Latin word play, gradus, and scala, and sub limen. Milton is just having a good time, a good lighthearted time with the Latin roots of English words. Probably to some of his readers that seems donnish, but to me it seems lighthearted and playful.
This seems to invoke Auden once more, that the poet's first requisite is to simply love playing with words.
I think so. It's serious play most of the time but it is play. And there's no harm in enjoying it to the point of laughter, even in the midst of the reading or the writing of a serious poem. I do think that that's something that was mislaid by many of our earnestly prosaic free verse poets in the sixties and seventies.
An overriding solipsism?
I don't know, I think that too many poets thought that they should, on some kind of principle, speak in the unadorned, unplayful, unclever language of the man on the next bar stool. Perhaps because, in the hands of such poets, the subject matter of poetry became so confessional, so merely personal, any great deal of wordplay struck them as a fancying up of their testimony. Maybe that was what was behind it. I confess, without naming any names, though I'm thinking of hundreds of people, that a lot of the poetry of the sixties and seventies has seemed to me extremely dull in its word choices.
Do you have Ginsberg in mind?
No, I'm not thinking of Ginsberg really. I'm not thinking of anyone of his degree of talent. It strikes me that there's a lot of verbal animation in his best work, in poems like "Howl." It may be that his kind of verbal play has become somewhat formulaic and repetitive in his later work, a kind of jargon. But no, he seems to have a lot more verbal life than the kind of anonymous person I'm speaking of has displayed in the last couple of decades. I'm talking about people who on principle want to talk like regular guys, and for whom to get anywhere above the level of ordinary bar stool discourse is to become too fancy, too arty.
Do you enjoy Frank O'Hara?
I don't read him very much. I read him somewhat during his very early days in Cambridge and I found him lively and amusing, not my kind of thing, but nevertheless I was glad he was there. I think that he belongs to some extent to a school, though I don't like to join those critics who put us all into schools. I used to enjoy, and still do, the work of people often associated with him, Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery. They had a lot of good jokes, a lot of playfulness.
Do you read Ashbery now?
Yes, I do. I find that, though I don't understand him very well, I am often fascinated by taking the trip through one of his poems and shifting from one kind of diction, one kind of literary awareness, one kind of implicit experience to another. I best understood him in one of his books, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, I was delighted when that book came along because, though I've always liked Ashbery, known how bright he was, respected him as an artist, I had not fully enjoyed him until that time. I was able to write him a letter saying "good book."
I brought up Ginsberg not so much because he fulfilled the portrait you were painting, but when the Beats came along, it was such a divergence from what you and Shapiro and Lowell and the poets of your generation were doing that I just wonder what the effect was at that time?
I think it had different effects on different people.
On me. Well, I felt that there was a lot of PR in the Beat movement, so-called. Though Ginsberg was a truly talented person, and Gary Snyder a truly talented person, there was not really a lot of talent around amongst them. And their value was very greatly magnified by a lot of academic people who were really not specifically interested in letters whose approach to letters was very much American studies or sociological in nature. I don't mean to sound as if I were resentful of having been put in the shade by these fellows. I don't think I felt that. I was resentful of being classified by contrast to them. I thought it pretty silly that people like Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder who had their college and university degrees, some of them advanced, were thought to be wild fellows on the one hand, while others of us were classified as academic.
It sounds like you resent that designation.
I resent being put into that slot, because no one says "academic" in a kindly way. And distinctions like "cooked" and "raw" didn't seem to me to make very much sense either. So I was bothered not by the poets themselves, really, but by what silly critics began to do by way of organizing the American poetic scene.
When I went out to the West Coast in 1956, because I was dead broke and had to make some money reading poems up and down California, I went to San Francisco first, and Allen had just read his "Howl" for the first time and it had wowed them as indeed was proper. And almost at once I began to feel that—well, I was someone who had hoboed up and down through California long before it had occurred to the Beat generation to wear blue jeans and ride on trains. I felt I now came there as an establishment figure in a gray flannel suit, reprehended for his academicism and his love of the past and his attachment to meters and all those reprehensible things.
Did you feel frustrated?
Not frustrated, bothered to be classified. Nobody wants to be classified, nobody wants to be limited by a classification. We all like to feel, though it's not true of any of us, that we can be all things, that in some way we can encompass all experience and find the right words. I was troubled to find myself, in the minds of some, a sort of regional specialist and a young fuddy-duddy.
About forty years ago Randall Jarrell wrote a rather scathing review of your work. I'm curious how that affected you at the time, what your relationship was with Jarrell before that, what your relationship was with him after that?
My relationship with Jarrell had been good before that and it was good after, actually.
Were you afraid to look at each other at the next party you were at together?
No. I remember the review, it was in the Partisan Review. It was the review of my second book, around 1950. He said some nice things in it. However, he got going very amusingly on the limitations of the book as he saw them, and I found myself laughing at these jokes that were at my expense; and at the same time I wrote him a letter saying come on Randall, it's all right you see me as having limitations, but why are all your jokes about me comparisons to girls and ladies, why do you say that my translation of Beowulf suggests Marie Laurencin's illustrations for the Iliad, and why do you say that I remind you of a nice southern girl who has been told that her accent is just charming and that she must persevere in it? There were a couple of other instances of that kind of thing. Do you think, I said to him, that there's anything essentially sissy in my poems? You seem to imply it by these comparisons. And he wrote back saying golly, I never meant anything of the sort, those were just the jokes that occurred to me.
That begs the question it seems to me. Why did those jokes occur to him? I wonder if he was being disingenuous.
I don't know. There was always an element of malice in him. He made very good negative jokes about people. But he never had it in for me before or after, and so I simply accepted what he said and was sorry I had written him at all.
We should never write letters to critics about the things they say. I felt foolish to have done so. I think that there may have been some truth in some of the things he said. At the same time, I explained to myself some of his emphases by the fact that Randall himself at that time was embarking on the writing of longish narrative poems, and so, my book having consisted largely of short lyrics, I said to myself, that's why he said I don't try for long gains. He feels that he himself is trying for long gains and he wishes I would. I suppose I tried to explain away some of his criticism. It really doesn't matter, and didn't matter greatly to me then. He and I remained friends, and my book was well enough received for me not to be blighted and to go ahead with my work. I think that the only thing that annoys me now about Randall's 1950 review is that people who write favorable essays on me always feel that they have to start by quoting that essay and then reacting against it. Jarrell's later critical treatment of me is very positive, but no one seems to quote it.
I want to ask you about some other people you knew forty years ago. "Cottage Street, 1953" portrays a Sylvia Plath, who has wished to die. This poem was written about twenty years after your meetings with Plath, and perhaps ten years after she took her life. Was her wish to die or hint thereof in any way evident to you back in 1953?
I saw Sylvia Plath a few times, very briefly, in my life. When I wrote that poem, I think I had perhaps a couple of meetings with her telescoped in my mind. Though the poem doesn't say so, doesn't say I'm trying to remember as well as I can, that's what I was doing. When she was an undergraduate at Smith, she once came to me and did an interview—for Mademoiselle. I believe, I think she also interviewed, at that time, Tony Hecht, and a couple of other then-young poets who were also teachers. I've some slight memory of her at that point, either then or at my mother-in-law's house. I remember her as very slumped and pale, and mute, and withdrawn. And my poem simply goes on that memory, whatever year it may derive from. It's a true memory, but I don't know where it belongs.
Some of the other poets who started publishing around the same time as you did, a little earlier than Sylvia Plath—Berryman, Lowell, Jarrell—also wished to die as it turns out and were granted their wishes. Looking back now, what do you remember?
I remember lots of the behavior of Lowell and Ted Roethke and of Berryman, and I know that it can be described as self-destructive.
Was that evident at the time?
The only person at that time in whom I really felt that I saw a desire to die was Dylan Thomas. We knew him during his trips around America. He stopped and saw us, and we gave or attended parties for him, things like that. I can remember him sitting on our couch and saying, "I am a used up, bottle-shaped rummy, who has been trading for years on his inspirations at age 18, and at the moment I'm riding high, but the world's going to see through me." He felt really quite desperate about himself, both as a person and as a writer at that time and so there was a kind of wish to die operating in him. I hasten to say that he was a terribly lively and entertaining man, and that such things were not what he talked about most of the time. Yet he had those drunken and lachrymose moments in which he felt he was played out and done for.
I never saw this in Lowell. Lowell seemed always to me—though he could be distressed by the onset of a bad state of mind, made glum by that—he seemed to me a man of great energy who was interested in continuing to make and to do. And no, I didn't see Roethke as self-destructive. For our generation, drinking a lot was standard behavior. Though God knows Berryman and Roethke overdid it. I don't think they thought they were trying to destroy themselves. I think they were wanting to have a hell of a time. And I think that for them, as often for me, drinking seemed to be something that poets did. Now, I never thought it inspired me to write poetry. No, never have I thought that I could write good poetry under the influence of booze. I don't even think Hart Crane did, but somehow it belonged then to the life of poetry. As it pretty much doesn't now.
Do you think they were trying to fulfill their own image of what a poet's supposed to be, including this kind of doomed, Byronic quality which eventually leads to death?
There was a little of that. I think. There were times at which I felt that Roethke, a marvelous fellow but not quite a jelled personality, was being Dylan Thomas. There were times when I thought he was conforming to that desperate and delightful pattern of behavior, and it's true that it was thought honorific in those days, since Thomas had done it, and since others had done it, to arrive late to your poetry reading a little drunk, a little untidy.
When I went for the first time to record my poems at Caedmon, a little bit after the Dylan days, the ladies at Caedmon said, "we'll be with you in a minute to make your recording, meanwhile wouldn't you like to have a few drinks," and they gave me a pint of whiskey. This was noon. I don't drink whiskey at noon, never have. That was the expectation at that time.
I always thought that one of the great expressions in English was Lil Armstrong's expression, on a record of hers, "Let's get drunk and be somebody." That's the way I think my generation felt about it, and we did not take a gloomy view of drink. It was something you did to laugh and raise hell, and blurt, and come out with surprising things. And it's too bad that that frayed people's nerves and hurt their health and led in some cases to the hospital and to death.
It didn't lead to death in you; why was your sensibility somehow different than some of your contemporaries?
I don't have enough insight into myself to answer that. No doubt it has to do with my genes, although I did once experience a depression of some depth and had to go into the hospital for it.
When was that?
In '85. My natural state of mind is a cheerful one. I've had a very lucky life. And I've been happily married. I've loved my children. All of the things that could hold you up have happened to me. So I think that I may have stayed away from self destruction for those reasons. I've had other things to do, and any undercurrent of self-destruction that's in my nature has never been allowed its head.
Have you any anecdotes about Berryman, anything that stands out?
I don't know that I can come up with any at this minute. I've told about the time Berryman and I, at a poetry conference in Washington, went to get Delmore Schwartz out of jail. That's on record in a biography of Schwartz.
Do you want to encapsulize that quickly?
Well, it's really a story more about Schwartz than about Berryman, except that I think it indicated a quality of Berryman which many people like his old friend William Meredith have spoken of, his great loyalty to people he regarded as friends and of whose work he approved. He was awfully choosy, indeed snobbish about other writers. But once he thought somebody was a good guy or a good girl and also a good writer, he really stuck with that person. And though Delmore Schwartz had been quite difficult with him at one time or another, when he heard that Schwartz was in trouble in Washington and in the jug for drunkenness and total destruction of a hotel room, he wanted at once to come to the rescue, and I went along to help. I saw at one or another time that kind of loyalty in his discourse, in his behavior. I always felt that though he had a very harsh tongue, it was utterly unlikely that he would ever say anything naughty about me behind my back. I felt that, yes, he had decided that I was okay and that he would always talk accordingly.
Howard Nemerov said something to the effect that he was happy to be the poet laureate but that he wasn't going to write any poems for the queen as it were. When you accepted the laureateship were there any expectations placed upon you and did you have any of your own?
I hadn't any expectations of my own, and certainly no expectation that I would fall into the writing of proper laureate poems. I knew that, if I took the job on, I would be expected to advise the Library as to who ought to record for its wonderful archive of poetry and fiction; and I knew that I would be expected to plan its lecture series, its series of readings and performances in poetry and fiction and drama. And I knew that there would be some ceremonial moments to it. Also, that I would undoubtedly find myself reading at schools and colleges and being visited by delegations of students, that kind of thing.
All that happened, and then there were more things that happened. There was an extraordinary influx of mail. You might not expect that, but from almost every state in the union there came letters from poets, or from people interested in poetry asking me all sorts of things, asking me to say whether they were good poets, to criticize their work, to suggest where they might publish, to identify remembered lines of verse, to give advice as to how poetry could be forwarded in one or another programmatic way.
I take it you felt rather inundated.
I did feel rather inundated. I faithfully answered all of my letters for months. That was both interesting and exhausting. Then, after a while, I threw up my hands and asked my two wonderful associates in the poetry office to screen the mail, and just give me what really needed answering.
As for the writing of poems, the main reason why I didn't take the job on for a second year was that I was inefficient in handling the various demands of the job—which included also, by the way, endless interviews by all the media. I was so inefficient in handling the demands that I wasn't getting any of my own writing done. I'm not very good at jumping on and off planes and writing poems in hotel rooms at night. And so I regretfully quit on it, although I had enjoyed a great deal of the experience.
I had written, in 1985 and 1986, the text of a cantata for the centenary of the Statue of Liberty at the request of the composer Bill Schuman. I had taken on that job, of course, with great horror. It seemed very unlikely that one could do anything fresh with that subject. But after a while I was challenged by it, and I was pretty well pleased by what I managed to turn out in the way of a text. And certainly pleased by Schuman's beautiful, setting of it, which was performed at Lincoln Center in October of 1986. So I had done a laureate thing before I ever went to Washington, and didn't feel that I had to do any more. The situation was facilitated by the fact that Robert Penn Warren, the first person appointed as laureate, had stated that he damned well wasn't going to write any official poems.
Were you grateful for the precedent?
Yes, I was. I think that there's nothing wrong with writing poems that have a national political concern, and I did in fact write a poem in that year against the Strategic Defense Initiative; but I didn't write it as a laureate, I just wrote it as myself. Howard Nemerov has written, though, some occasional poems for Washington purposes. I think he wrote one which was read at the convening of Congress. Of course, he's very good at that. I liked very much a recent essay by Helen Vendler, in which she discussed Howard as a public poet. I think he's always been outstanding in this respect, in this and many others.
In your "A Miltonic Sonnet for Mr. Johnson on His Refusal of Mr. Peter Hurd's Official Portrait," you noted that Thomas Jefferson would have "wept to see small nations dread / the imposition of our cattlebrand," and you admonished Johnson for his "talk of vision" while being "weak of sight." And more recently, you wrote "A Fable" which you just referred to about Reagan's Star Wars. I wonder if you had any words for Reagan or Bush and any thoughts about the course of the U.S. over the last decade?
Of course, I have positions on all sorts of things that have arisen over the Reagan and Bush administrations, and I have very little admiration for Reagan's conduct in the Presidency, and I don't think that Mr. Bush is doing very well. I don't think I'm very likely to write a poem about Bush's stupidity in vetoing the Congressional bill which would have safeguarded Chinese students in America. That's a very special issue which I think I would only address if a happy phrase chanced to occur to me.
Feel free to elaborate right here.
I have my opinions on the matter, no more important than anybody else's. It's something on which I could imagine writing if the right slant came to me. I do think there's no point in writing poems on political subjects simply to go on record on the right side. Poetry had better be interesting always, it had better be fresh always, and so the sort of poem that simply says "don't drop the bomb" is of no interest to me.
There is one thing that I think would be useful for a poet to do. I almost wish that I had been asked to do some sort of song and dance for Congress. If I had, I might have taken the opportunity to be as simple as a poet is entitled to be. Our legislators naturally feel that the whole question of nuclear energy and nuclear arms is a complex one, and I think it's simple and I should have liked to say so. I should have liked to say to them, "Look here, haven't you watched people and seen how they behave, haven't you noticed that when people walk down the street, they bump into each other? Haven't you noticed how cars wrinkle each other's fenders? How utterly clumsy we all are and how high our insurance rates are? We're a fallible breed, and can we possibly afford to have energy sources which cannot be trusted to fallible hands? Can we possibly afford to have arms which cannot be entrusted to the irresponsible or the deranged or the drugged?" I don't have any Gary Cooper visions of what such a speech might accomplish. Nevertheless, I think that it might be useful in a public place to be as simple as that, because I think that something in almost all of one's hearers would respond.
I hope you do write it. You spoke of the Library of Congress before; in 1946 or 1947 there was a schism among poets as to whether Pound should be awarded the Bollingen Prize by the Library, which after all was a branch of the U.S. Government, after Pound's broadcasting for the Axis powers throughout the war. Pound's offense seemed especially egregious so soon after the war and the revelations of Nazi atrocities. More recently there was the Mapplethorpe flap with Helms and the NEA, and I was wondering if you can see any circumstances whatsoever when considerations other than those purely artistic should help determine such awards.
It's a really troublesome question, and yet I know where I have to stand on it. When I was in the Enlisted Reserve Corps in New York in 1942, waiting to go into the army, I had my short wave radio and my directional antennae rigged up down there on Christopher Street, and I used to listen to Ezra Pound's broadcasts from 2RO Rome. He did say all those things that he is said to have said, and they were primitive and disagreeable. And he also, in those broadcasts, showed a positive side, if one could get over the ugly things he was saying and note the positive side of it. He was rather touchingly pedagogical. That was something about him from beginning to end. He was a teacher, best when he was teaching literature, worst when he was teaching politics. He gave little incoherent lectures, and he gave, in fact, assignments. One of his assignments was to go and get Brooks Adams's The Law of Civilization and Decay and read it before the next broadcast.
I did that. I went up to the New York Public Library, took that book out, and read it, and it was a good book, most interesting. Nevertheless my reaction to his broadcasts was pretty negative. They did not have a great deal of redeeming artistic value to them. But as for the Bollingen Prize, I do think that he deserved it for the great art of his poetry, and I can't kick about that. Though I could not, I think, have given him warm personal congratulations. I feel the same way about these Mapplethorpes and—who's that other fellow, who photographed a crucifix through his own urine?
I can't remember his name. [Andres Serrano]
This fellow had been for some time, as I've learned, photographing this or that object through his own body fluids. And it just happened to occur to him, one day, to do a crucifix through his urine. I haven't seen the work on a museum wall, so unlike Jesse Helms, I'm not going to have opinions about the quality of the work sight unseen. I do feel that whatever's good about these artists, and whatever's the matter with them, I have to defend them because we can't have Jesse Helms messing with the freedom of art. I'm annoyed with people who abuse the freedom of art, and who say inhuman things in art. Yet I feel I have to stick by them. This photographer fellow was interviewed by the Boston Globe not long ago, and they did quite a whitewash on him and his artistic motives. I learned from that article, which dimly reproduced the offending photograph, that the title of the crucifix seen through urine was "Piss Christ." Now it seems to me that anyone who gives a photograph such a title is putting a chip on his shoulder and daring you to knock it off, and so I'm not going to join those apologists who say to offended parties, "Oh, how can you possibly be offended?" It was an offensive title, it was meant to offend, and to hell with the guy. Nevertheless, I have to be on his side.
The New and Collected Poems begins with "A Ride." The poem seems particularly Frostian. Was this done consciously or in retrospect, unconsciously, or am I merely projecting my own agenda here?
An English reviewer recently spoke of Frost in connection with that poem and then proceeded to say that the poem wasn't like Frost at all. I think it was the snow and the horse that put him in mind of Frost. I don't think it occurred to me. Although I'm a great admirer of Frost and once knew just about every line of Frost by heart, I don't think that it occurred to me that I might in any way be borrowing from him. One reason for that is that the poem proceeds directly from a dream I had. The poem tells, as clearly as I could tell it, what that dream was like. And it was not a dream about Robert Frost stopping by woods. It was a dream about a mysterious horse and terrible storm through which the horse carried me.
The poem also seemed as Poe-like as it did Frost-like because it had the dreamlike quality to it, that certain mystery around the edges.
Well, that is a thing that I've had in common with Poe. Poe is a great realizer of dream states. And I, who knows why, have always been interested in dreams. Just as John Berryman was—he used to write down all his dreams in a notebook. Yes, I suppose whatever there is in me that responds to the dreamer in Poe is in that poem, and yet I don't think of it as a derivative poem. It seems to me one of my most direct. As you know, Steve, we do not on the whole have experiences and just go write them down. But this was one case in which, although to find words for things always changes them, I pretty much took an experience and stamped it on paper.
Twenty-five years ago you said your then earlier work was more decorative, which was expression of exuberance. And you said there was "less gaiety" in the then-more recent poems, that is, the poems that eventually became Walking to Sleep. How would you characterize the difference in your work between then and now. Has it indeed become even less decorative, less gay?
I think I've become plainer. This is the kind of thing which a nonwillful writer—I'm really not very willful with my work; I don't say "now I shall do such and such"—is not likely to be sure about. An outside critic, someone else, is more likely to be right about it. And yet I have a general impression that I've grown plainer, that to some extent as Yeats said, I've withered into the truth. I find more excitement now than I did as a young poet in the idea of saying something with the utmost simplicity, with perhaps an untranslatable degree of simplicity. As a translator, I know that the hardest lines to translate are those which are most simply put.
What about your poem "Lying"?
Of course, it's true that a number of people have found that poem very difficult. I wouldn't call it decorative, because decorative suggests the nonfunctional, the flossy, and I think that everything in that poem is trying to say something very hard. But it is a sort of torrential poem.
What do you mean by torrential?
A whole lot of data come at the reader very fast. They can be hard to assimilate, at whatever rate of hearing or reading, and I know that I took some pleasure in writing a poem that was going to be like that, that was going to be a bombardment of various instances. Perhaps I felt I could do that in honesty, because the poem is fundamentally simple and is simply saying throughout that all things are really of one nature, that all things are co-natural, that every comparison we might make, that every likening we might make, is justified because everything belongs to one creation. That's all the poem says.
Was it a job description of what the poet does?
I think so in great part although there is in our literature a lot of wonderful nonfigurative poetry. I think I would agree with Stevens that the central thing in poetry is metaphor. I'd agree with Mr. Aristotle that the specific poetic gift is for metaphor, comparison.
Donald Hall has stated that poetry itself is doing pretty well but poetry reviewing is in a bad way. How do you see the state of reviewing now? In this century, Eliot, Winters, and Jarrell all influenced the poetry of their day through their commentary. Do you see anyone fulfilling that function now? And though you've written much commentary, why don't we see any reviews from you?
I have written reviews in the past, but very little recently, that's true. I like to do reviews, they're challenging, and I think it's very important that there be good reviewing of poetry. I've been involved in other things of late, slacked-off on it. I do think that there are some fine reviewers going. I very much admired a review which came out last year in the Times by Richard Tillinghast. It seemed to me that he really grappled with what was going on in several books, had real insight, and some applicable criteria. There's a good piece by Alfred Corn in the latest Poetry, a very brainy job of reviewing and I like the work of William Logan, who very rightly, I think, received a reward from the Critic's Circle last year for his reviewing of poetry.
It's very hard for our reviewing media to find as much good poetry criticism as they would like to publish, and I think that's why the Los Angeles Times, a couple of years ago, said that it was going to cut down on its reviewing of poetry, and instead represent poetry by the reproducing of particular poems in its book section. Not a bad decision to make really, not at all as bad as some people took it to be. For a while there, everyone was belaboring the Los Angeles Times, because its decision was misunderstood. If you actually look at their admirable Book Review, they do still cover a number of important books of poetry, and every week there is a well chosen poem out of some recently published book, put there to speak for itself.
I don't think that poets on the whole make a direct and profitable reaction to being criticized. I've never learned how to do anything from any critic, and never been made either proud or ashamed of myself by a critic. I'm always gratified when somebody of great intelligence pays sustained attention to me in an article, whether or not he likes me. And yet that doesn't have anything to do with what I shall now write. I suspect that this is true of most poets.
Do you find that you write more for the page or the ear?
Nowadays, I know that I write with a fully developed awareness of the poem as designed for oral performance. When I'm writing a poem, I don't think of myself on an art museum stage reading to people, but I've done so many poetry readings now, enjoying them always and had so much to do with the theater through my translations of Molière and Racine, that I can no longer feel about poetry as I did when I was starting out. Then it was purely for the page, and I very often wrote lines that turned out to be not very pronounceable. When the age of the poetry reading came along I had to try to do them from a stage.
Can you think of any poem in particular that struck you that way?
No, I can't this minute, but I know that there are poems in my first book which would be hard to say aloud in this or that passage, there are clots of consonants or conjunctions of s's that would not do well in bel canto. They say that Tennyson used to write a couple of extra lines, if necessary, to avoid a conjunction of s's. Of course, he was very given to reading aloud. If you went to call on the great Tennyson, you had to listen to an hour of his verses sometimes. I've been educated in poetry as an oral art by giving poetry readings (which have become so popular since I began to write) and then I have also been very much involved with the stage. When I sit around translating Molière, I sound every line. Not, aloud, but I sound it in my head, and amongst two or three possible renderings of a line I choose the one that an actor would find best and most expressive to say. By now when I write, I write with sound and pronouncability and dramatic stress in mind. I know that there's a lot of poetry still being written which isn't of a highly oral character and I'm not telling anybody else what to do, but I place a very high value on speakability and dramatic force.
Do you think you came to that conclusion because of your translations which were meant for the stage?
They helped a great deal. I just drifted into this kind of awareness as a by product of my translations of seventeenth-century Classical plays. And also, I suppose, because I got mixed up in Broadway musical theater for awhile, and had to write for music, or with music. That conditioned me to some degree, I'm sure, not, however, a measurable degree. I can't really measure any of these effects. I never said to myself see here, Wilbur, poetry is an oral art. The awareness of the oral dimension of poetry just crept up on me.
Can you lose yourself in your translations in the same way you do with your original work?
Not in the same way, no. Because in a translation, quite obviously, one is leaning all the while on what someone else has said and meant. Of course you have to contemplate the original and you have to bring out of the original its deepest intention, if you can find it. But what you're bringing out when you write your own poetry is something you don't know yet, and something for which there is no original. There is a feeling of arbitrariness in writing a poem of one's own that doesn't belong to the translation art. If I'm translating Molière I'm trying to do well by something which already has its own deserved prestige. And which, if I do it properly in English, will emerge as an English classic. I don't have any of those feelings about producing a classic when I'm writing a poem of my own. I'm just getting something off my chest as clearly as I can.
Because you don't know where your own poem is going and you do know, more or less, where the translated piece is going, is it harder to maintain fervor while translating? Is it easier to keep a pitch of excitement when you're working on your own work as opposed to Molière, or whomever?
I think that's probably true. A poem—if you're at all serious as a poet—every poem is a terrible gamble. Though I find that whenever I start to write I have a pretty sure sense that there is a meaning to be found, that there will be an end to the poem. Nevertheless there's always a chance that it won't be there, the meaning, the end, or that I'll spoil it. And with translation, you never do feel that. Though you have to work with a grasp of the work as a whole in mind, it is a kind of moment by moment battle. To compare great things to small, it's a little bit like solving one corner of a crossword puzzle, to find a solution for some six-line speech in a Molière play.
You know one thing I've found—not in answer to your question, but something I've noticed in the last few days—if I translate a Molière play of 1,100 lines or 1,500 lines or something like that, I find that it's possible to render every thought that's in the original, to be faithful in a thought-by-thought manner to the original, not leaving anything out, and emerge with as many lines in the translation as there are in the play. I wouldn't feel any kind of emotional upset if I found myself writing four more lines than Molière had written, or four fewer. But it just happens that passing over from the Alexandrines of the original to the pentameter of my translations, I can conveniently reproduce each thought as it comes. I'm getting rhymes, too, in the process, and one thought that has occurred to me in the last few days is this: people are always speaking of English as a rhyme-poor language. Sometimes you hear poets say that rhyming is a bad idea, because we haven't enough rhymed sounds in the language, and therefore the use of rhyme compels us to say things we don't want to say. Well, it ain't so. I find that we have enough rhymes in English so that I can be faithful to each thought of Molière as I go along, and rhyme those thoughts as well. I think that's a considerable test of our language's resourcefulness in rhymed sounds, that this can be done if one is patient enough.
That's the fun of it, is it not, to find that rhyme, to work that puzzle out?
Yes, I think if the original is rhymed, good God, why put it into free verse or blank verse and destroy its economy, destroy the kind of punch it has in the original?
Do you enjoy working in French so as to take a break from the typical English pentameter?
If you speak of metrical waves the average Alexandrine comes out to be something like four humps, four waves of voice, and it's not at all as emphatic in its effect as a measure of our highly stressed language is. People have often asked whether I try to reproduce the rhythms and the sound patterns of Racine or Molière in English, especially they ask this about Racine, because he's considered so musical. Well you just can't, because a French rhythm just isn't like an English rhythm. You have to find a comparable English rhythm, and you have to find comparable English music. The effort to imitate French sounds in English verse is ludicrous.
In the same article in which you talk about Edgar Allan Poe and his aesthetic you used three poems of your own to demonstrate your aesthetics, "A Baroque Wall Fountain," "Two Voices in a Meadow," and "Love Calls Us to the Things of this World." Are these three poems still representative?
I think so, insofar as I know myself. I'm always quoting something that Edwin Muir said. He said, "If we could know ourselves, it would be a violation of ourselves." And I think that's true—at any rate, for the poet in connection with his art. It's not wise, it's not good economy, to be too analytically aware of one's own work and its themes. I got fairly explicit about my own work and its themes in that little piece you're referring to, because I'd been asked by Howard Nemerov to write a piece suitable for broadcast by the Voice of America; it seemed to me that what was called for was some very barefaced writing, and that I should be as open as possible about my concerns. I still wonder what that little essay sounded like when somebody broadcast it into a forest clearing in Kenya.
Of the poets of the last 50 years who do you think people will be reading 100 years from now?
I really can't speak about the people of 100 years from now. I don't have a gloomy view of the future. I hope there will be a future. I hope that poetry will still be a necessity to a lot of people then. As for how popular it will be, I cannot guess, really. Donald Hall's figures on poetry are extremely encouraging, very surprising to people who are accustomed to saying "of course, nobody reads poetry, of course people don't buy books of poetry." Well it appears they do read it, they do go out to hear it by the hundreds and they do buy it in the thousands. I'm glad of that. But what their tastes will be in 2090 I don't know. All I can say is that there are a lot of people whose poems seem to have a high quality and usefulness right now, and that I hope such usefulness will be perceived in the future. When I was hanging around the Library of Congress and giving a lot of interviews, I was often asked about the state of poetry, and the future of poetry, and I found myself saying that there were about fifty American poets I knew of whose next poem I would be interested in seeing. If others feel the same, that may indicate a good state of health for American poetry, and may give a good prognosis for the reading of poems in the next century.
Any poets now that you take particular pleasure in reading?
I continue to read, very often, poets of my own generation to whom I'm especially attached, Elizabeth Bishop, for example, I go back to her all the time.
What is it in Bishop that delights you?
A kind of lucidity. Some kind of cleanness of the language. Subtlety, humor.
Any particular poems of hers that you return to more than others?
The one I was saying to myself yesterday as I bicycled across Key West was the one called "Anaphora," from her first book, North and South, the one that begins "Each day with so much ceremony / begins …" and ends with the words "endless / endless assent," which as I told myself, riding along on my bicycle, means both ascent and assent. I never get tired of her work. I go back to Frost. I go back to Williams very often. Somehow Williams's work seems to have on it, as Robert Lowell once said of May Swenson—seems to have permanent fresh paint signs on it.
For me, there's a lot of wheat and chaff mixed in Williams.
Yes, there's lot of chaff. He's one of the few poets I can think of in the modern century who showed again and again that he didn't know what certain words meant. In this he's like Faulkner. Faulkner often didn't bother to look up a word in the dictionary. I can't give you an example, but it would be a long Latinate word.
Are we talking about Faulkner or Williams here?
Faulkner. Oh, I can give an example of Williams. Williams in his poem "Burning the Christmas Greens," which I love, at a certain point, when the greens go up in flame, cries out "Recreant!" He thinks it means recreating and it doesn't, it means something like traitor. He should have looked that up.
Any young poets you're reading now?
I'm reading Stephen Mitchell right now.
His Parables and Portraits.
Yes, I enjoy his work. I'm very fond of the work of August Kleinzabler. Do you know his work?
Yes, Storm Over Hackensack and his new one Earthquake Weather I think is the name.
Yes. Really there is quite a list of fine young poets. It could go on quite a distance. I think I'd better not try to do it, because of the people I'd leave off.
How about poets before my generation or your generation. Milton as you mentioned, anybody else you keep returning to again and again?
Well I'd return to Herbert.
Herbert more than Donne? Why is that? What is it in Herbert?
Well I do, at times, to Donne. Elizabeth Bishop's favorite poet was George Herbert. They had many qualities of clear subtlety in common and there's a kind of sprightliness of soul in both of them which is very attractive to me. There's no end to poets. That's been something I've been grateful for all my life. I was very fond of Coventry Patmore; and who's that guy I'm trying to think of?
Well, of course, of Clare. There's simply been a very wide range of poets and not only in English, but in other languages I dare to venture into in whom I delight and who are part of my impulse to write a poem to see if I can add one more poem. The reason I always recommend to young poets that they go out and get enamored of 50 or 100 poets is that, in my own experience, it is valuable never to have succumbed to one great influence. The only poet who ever seemed to me to threaten me with abolition was William Butler Yeats. I taught him for a while at Harvard. John Kelleher and I taught a seminar in Yeats.
What do you mean by "threaten you with abolition"?
He's a very idiosyncratic poet, and a very powerful one, and I found that while I was teaching him, reading him, and expounding him there were occasional false notes in my own poems, unconscious borrowing. His way of using the word "being" for example. He'll begin a phrase with "Being by Calvary's turbulence," you know that kind of thing. That's a specialty of his, nobody else can do that without falling into his language. And I've always felt that Dylan Thomas's poem "Do Not Go Gentle" was marred by his then-fashionable, then Yeatsian use of the word "rage" in it. It was a little too much a line of its time when he talked about "rage, rage against the dying of the light." Yeats had written so much about an old man's rage … A very overpowering influence. So I found myself not reading Yeats as much as I would have liked to do, just so that he would not get at me and queer my way of writing. Delmore Schwartz once said in the Partisan Review, in an essay on Hart Crane, that it was very nice that Hart Crane had happened once but that if he had become a major influence on American poetry it would have been a total disaster. I think that's true, he's an intoxicating poet. And we can't profit as poets from the people who intoxicate us.
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