“The Carols” brings up many interesting ideas, including the idea, or question, that religion might be less about celebrating God than about facing humanity—including mortality, suffering, and isolation. Can you speak to this idea? What “reality” is it that we doubt and need validated, and why might people choose a place of worship as a place to look for validation? Do you think that art, including poetry, is another kind of church, or gathering place, where people come to see our reality mirrored in others?
Let me put my cards on the table: I find Jesus fascinating, but cannot call myself a Christian because I have trouble believing he’s the son of God. I grew up without any religious framework in my life, and sometimes think belief is more tenable for someone raised in a religious household. I’m pretty sure I was never baptized, and as a boy I periodically attended a Unitarian Fellowship that was more like a great books discussion group crossed with a civil rights action committee. I never really read a Bible until I took an Old Testament class in college, at which point I became fascinated by how good the storytelling was, especially in the King James Version. So I tend to enter places of worship only for weddings, funerals, concerts and the like, and my poem “The Carols” is about one such occasion. Nevertheless, I don’t mean to mock other people’s beliefs, only to recognize that one of the beautiful things about religious communities is the regular admission of our common humanity. How this honoring of the other gets perverted by religious hatreds is another matter and a source of real anger and anguish for me.
Do I think art is another kind of church? Not quite. I wrote a dissertation on Auden, who believed that the poem could never really be a religious document. The religious life was something one lived outside of art, in the trials and joys of daily actions and meditations and relationships. That life might be influenced by poetry, but the poem, to Auden, was essentially a secular object, a symptom of materialism, even paganism. What I like about Auden’s view is that it reminds us that good writing can’t save us—we also have to try to be decent people. Probably Auden takes it too far, but like him the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor would react with rage whenever anyone suggested that the Sacrament was a metaphor. The miracle was real, damn it, and her characters inhabited a world of real beliefs and distance from belief.
There’s a way in which Emerson bridges this divide, telling us that ugliness is a symptom of our separation from essential things, essential beauty. Beauty is the creator of the universe, he says, and when we don’t see this it is because we have fallen away from the truth. The poet’s job is to reconnect us to that truth.
Well, I am a deeply skeptical creature, and I have trouble going even as far as Emerson, my fellow Unitarian. I think the poem is, in Frost’s words, “ a momentary stay against confusion,” part of a lifelong struggle not to give in to chaos or entropy. One is trying to be articulate, to create moments of articulateness in which others might share, but that is a far cry from building a church. One other part of your question has to do with our need to have other people in our lives in order to believe in our own reality. This is half of what I really mean. That is, I need to be loved, or desire to be loved, but I also need to love others. I cannot imagine the vacuity of life without the love of others. The things I can assert are these: the pleasure and pain of the body, the joys of good food and wine and companionship, delight in beautiful language and music and other forms of art, astonishment at creation in its multiplicity. Generally, they suffice.
In many of these poems is a deep reverence for things, people and ways that have passed on, that are in danger of passing on, or that seem distant (like the knowledge of how to smoke salmon and the child that became the man). There is also in these poems the desire to acknowledge these passings, and to preserve what can be preserved—knowledge and memory, for instance. This seems related to the theme of dealing with our own humanity, as well as to another theme of yours: trying always to be present. The idea of being “present,” as opposed to—and sometimes in addition to—being “outside” surfaces in “The Carols,” “H. M. S. Discovery,” and “The Winter Beside Myself.” What do these terms mean for you? What is it that draws you to these very human themes of passing, preserving, being present, and being outside?
I like that phrase of yours, “a deep reverence for things.” I love it when Aeneas says, “There are tears in things,” and suspect that I’m really an animist. I grew up with a lot of exposure to the wild, a lot of freedom to let my imagination run, and think that despite my lack of traditional religious training I am reverent in my irreverence.
People who have skill interest me a great deal. My whimsical poem about muscovite remembers relatives (and an Indian woodcarver) who knew how to smoke fish. Fishermen, carpenters, mechanics, good writers or painters, and perhaps most of all musicians—people who can make functional and beautiful things are enviable to me. People who can dance well, who can do anything well, are more arresting than people who simply want to get rich (the most boring of the ambitions) or who do sloppy work.
I do think poetry is related to all other activities that increase our awareness, from yoga to athletics to the other arts to cooking a good dinner. Poetry is that awareness in words, you might say, which makes it a lesser art form, in my view, than music. Music at its best seems not to need the mediation of language but speaks straight to the nervous system. As for feeling outside of things, well, I have spent a good deal of my life feeling that. For a long time I was fleeing domesticity, traveling restlessly, and when I was young I never let friendships get below the surface. I am the classic child of an alcoholic, though thankfully now a long-recovered one, and simply could not take real intimacy with people, so I was alone a lot, even when I was married. I’m getting over that, and the sense of being an outsider is not always a bad thing for the artist. You can focus on the work, often to the detriment of other important things, and you can learn how to concentrate and shut out distractions. It is hard, though, to balance this with the openness needed to keep growing and to lead a decent life. One learns and struggles like anyone else. One falls down and gets up and falls down and gets up, and there are lovely times when it seems one walks like a dancer. They don’t last very long.
Luckily, I have been married more than twenty years to a woman who has both feet on the ground and is not afraid to tell me when I am acting like an idiot.
I also think poetry is related to our need for intimacy, not just skin and touch, but also hearing and being heard. There’s a level at which inner dramas, whether our own or other peoples’, provide necessary illumination. This kind of reverence, this kind of honoring, would also suggest preservation rather than destruction, so I think some kind of reverence for the old ways is unavoidable, and perhaps that is related to my affection for time-honored techniques like rhyme and meter and narrative.
In several of these poems is an element of uncertainty, presented truthfully and forthrightly. “Are You There” hinges on uncertainties; “Self Portrait with Muscovite” tells a story with more than one “maybe”; “The Carols” questions the motivations of church-goers; and “H. M. S. Discovery” includes the line “Ghosts, glimpses, guesses,” then describes things seen but disappeared (almost) before they were identified. What is your aim when including so much uncertainty, in various ways, into these poems? Why do you include uncertainty in your work in so many different forms?
Uncertainty, yes. In my verse novel, Ludlow, I have two characters, the Greek immigrant Louis Tikas and the young girl named Luisa Mole, who feel a similar absence and need other people in order to feel real themselves. It’s as if they doubt the validity of their own existence or have trouble believing they have a right to exist. I think I have suffered from this neurosis myself, and have had some struggle to overcome it. There’s a way in which Ludlow, which is often read as a political book, is in fact an existential one. The United States as a nation is predicated on questions of identity: what is a person, who has the right to exist in this place? A great deal of my writing seems to have been obsessed with such questions over the years, and I have no doubt this is rooted in the depths of my own psychology.
Why do I include uncertainty in my work? Because uncertainty is at the very core of my being, my sense of reality. I think it was Keats who said he was certain of nothing save the holiness of the heart’s affections—I adore his letters to distraction. And I’m fond of Chekhov’s statement in a letter: “My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom—freedom from violence and falsehood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves.” In a sense one needn’t be certain of more than such things as these two espoused. What will happen to me when I die? I haven’t the faintest idea, but I’m not going to bet I can behave like a jerk and be saved at the last minute by converting. I am going to try to lead a good life and try to maintain enough health that I don’t become a burden to others at the end—that last is one of the fears I try not to dwell upon, since Alzheimer’s runs in my father’s side of the family and addiction in my mother’s.
I think I am not unlike many other poets in the sense of the fleetingness of this life, the desire to apprehend experience even as it falls away from us. The ephemeral nature of things, the way we are dying even as we live and the final closing of our accounts—these are the pressures that give meaning to all art.
You just began your term as Colorado’s Poet Laureate. What does your position entail? What do you plan to accomplish in this capacity? In what ways should we encourage the reading and writing of poetry in our communities? What successes have you seen and/or accomplished in this regard?
I just gave a speech in which I talked about the roots of the word laureate. You know, Apollo was chasing the nymph, Daphne, and she begged to be saved from him and was turned into the laurel tree, which the Greeks call daphne. This is the tree that gives us the bay leaf for our spaghetti sauce—more proof of the relationship between poetry and food. But Apollo made the laurel his leaf, and thereafter the best poets were crowned with the laurel. When you think of the ancients, you realize their poets had a strong relationship to community. Sappho may have spoken to a school of young women. Aeschylus and Sophocles fought in the wars before earning their bays. The plays of Aeschylus are essentially communal things—about the city, the community and the bringing of justice to mankind. Those of Sophocles are often about notions of piety in relation to the secular city (I’m thinking of Antigone, in which the doomed heroine is a religious conservative and the bad guy is a secular tyrant). In this sense, it was poetry that taught us about justice, about belief, about being a person, about the nature of the city and the nature of the gods.
Thinking this way helps me understand that the poet has not always been a rebel or outsider, though of course the ancient world had such figures, like Hipponax. I think the alienated poet is essentially an Enlightenment or Romantic figure—remember Coleridge expressing the conventional fear of the dangerous poet at the end of “Kubla Khan,” for example—moving through Baudelaire and Rimbaud to a generation like the Midcentury American poets, so many of whom were mentally ill or suicidal, to the Beats, despite the fact that Ginsberg became a millionaire who pontificated on talk shows.
I say all this because it is with some misgivings that I allow myself to be in any way an “official” poet. I keep remembering Robert Burns’ scathing greeting to King George III in “A Dream,” mocking the very idea of the laureate.
Again having said this, I think poets laureate can be helpful to teachers and libraries, which is mainly what I hope to do. I’ll be giving talks and readings and workshops, but mostly I plan to do this in the company of other poets, spreading the word about the diversity and strength of poetry in our state. I want to help libraries augment their collections and find ways of using new technology to make poetry more broadly available. I want to support primary and secondary school teachers, the most important workers in any civilized society, in their efforts to buttress what they do to prepare students for exams and go beyond that to the education of the whole person, heart and mind, empathy and intelligence. And I want to help young people discover models of eloquence they can look up to in a world so ridden with shoddiness.
How to do all this? Well, I have some good support, not just from other poets, but also from organizations like Colorado Humanities and Colorado Creative Industries, and I’ll be contacting organizations for libraries and teachers very soon.
I get to read a poem at the opening of the legislative session, which ought to be fun. I get to promote the work of Colorado’s great, nearly forgotten poet Thomas Hornsby Ferril as well as other fine writers. I get to travel widely in the state and learn more about where I live, which can’t be a bad thing. And in four years I will quit and let some other worthy person take my place.