“A poem has secrets that the poet knows nothing of.”

29 May 2013
8:19 PM


Some gems from The Paris Review:

Mr. Caldwell, what first interested you in becoming a writer?

Well, I was not a writer to begin with; I was a listener. In those early decades of the century, reading and writing were not common experiences. Oral storytelling was the basis of fiction. You learned by listening around the store, around the gin, the icehouse, the wood yard, or wherever people congregated and had nothing to do. You would listen for the extraordinary, the unusual; the people knew how to tell stories orally in such a way that they could make the smallest incident, the most far-fetched idea, into something extraordinarily interesting. It could be just a rooster crowing at a certain time of night or morning. It’s a mysterious thing. Many Southern writers must have learned the art of storytelling from listening to oral tales. I did. It gave me the knowledge that the simplest incident can make a story.

– Erskine Caldwell, from The Art of Fiction No. 62 (Interviewed by Elizabeth Pell Broadwell, Ronald Wesley Hoag)

…A poem has secrets that the poet knows nothing of. It takes on a life and a will of its own. It might have proceeded differently—towards catastrophe, resignation, terror, despair—and I still would have to claim it. Valéry said that poetry is a language within a language. It is also a language beyond language, a meta-medium—that is, metabolic, metaphoric, metamorphic. A poet’s collected work is his book of changes. The great meditations on death have a curious exaltation. I suppose it comes from the realization, even on the threshold, that one isn’t done with one’s changes.

Does the increased accessibility of the poems in The Testing-Tree indicate a significant change in your aesthetic?

At my age, after you’re done—or ruefully think you’re done—with the nagging anxieties and complications of your youth, what is there left for you to confront but the great simplicities? I never tire of birdsong and sky and weather. I want to write poems that are natural, luminous, deep, spare. I dream of an art so transparent that you can look through and see the world.

– Stanley Kunitz, from The Art of Poetry No. 29 (Interviewed by Chris Busa)

…My earliest poems were a way of talking to somebody. I suppose to myself…

Where does a poem begin for you? Do you take notes for poems? Do you get up in the middle of the night?

They begin in different ways, and over the course of my writing life the process has changed. When I was a kid speaking poetry I never wrote it down; those poems began with a phrase and then I would try to employ the vocabulary and the structure of the phrase to create a fabric of repetitions. When I started writing poetry at eighteen, the poems seemed to spring outward from a visual image. It was that precise visual image I was out to capture, that’s what excited me; the poem became the means for pushing forward the images I wanted the reader to devour. Then Yeats set me on fire. I mean the language is exalted, yet it sounds like somebody talking and singing at the same time. I thought, This is it. And I still kind of feel this is it. This is the perfection of form. It’s got speech, song, it’s high rhetoric and yet it doesn’t sound remote or false. A poem like “Easter, 1916.” I said, Jesus Christ, this is so much what I want. It doesn’t matter about his stupid attitudes. He wrote one poem about his daughter, such a sexist poem. But it’s so beautifully done. I remember telling a woman friend of mine, “Isn’t this an incredible poem?” And she got very angry with me; “It’s so sexist,” she said, “look at this!” I said, sure, it’s like Eliot’s anti-Semitic stuff, “the Jew squats on the windowsill”; fuck you, Eliot, but the poem is exquisite. Then somewhere in my forties I hit a kind of phase of automatic writing. I would really be taken, sort of seized, and just write the stuff! It would just come pouring out, hundreds of lines. Then the process of making a poem became quite different: it became seeing what was inside this great blast of language and imagery, and finding the core.

Do you feel there’s some sort of integrity in the poetry world because there isn’t the lure of money?

It’s not that we have the sort of sharks you’d find in Hollywood or in the cocaine business or in a professional sport like boxing. There are ways that the satisfactions and needs of the ego can get to you and corrupt you. We don’t necessarily need money to corrupt ourselves.

How have you avoided that?

…Do it the hard way, and you’ll always feel good about yourself. You write because you have to, and you get this unbelievable satisfaction from doing it well. Try to live on that as long as you’re able. Don’t kiss anyone’s ass. Wait and be discovered or don’t be discovered. I think I did it the hard way. I didn’t kiss anyone’s ass; I waited a long time; I didn’t go to a school that would give me advantages. I didn’t publish a book that anyone read until I was forty. But to be utterly honest, I think if something hadn’t happened about then I might have become a very bitter man. It was getting to me. If I’d had to wait until I was fifty I don’t know what lousy things I might have done.

– Philip Levine, from The Art of Poetry No. 39 (Interviewed by Mona Simpson)

This is one those times when I wish we were neighbours, and we could talk about so many things until the wee hours.




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