a writer has to dare to be an idiot

To continue to grow, a writer has to dare to be an idiot, to be reckless, to be wrong. We forgive the foolishness of the young - we even find it charming - more than we do that of the old. Poets are supposed to die young, suicide is best, or if it's too late for that, they're expected to abandon the stage before they drool on the page in public, before they become an embarrassment to themselves and their readers. If they have the gall to continue, we insist that they act and speak with gravitas. Epithets like the following attach themselves to the should-be-admired, grey-haired purveyor of words: wise, sententious, gracious, dean-like, dignified in comport and speech. Fuck that, I say.

- Lorna Crozier, from her essay "Running/Writing For Your Life" in the Summer 2021 issue of The New Quarterly.


a skeleton, not a cage

Pearl London: I've been reading your work sheets you sent us and was so delighted about "The Hunt," that beautiful sonnet, and as I was thinking of Seamus Heaney's "Glanmore Sonnets," and then the China sonnets that Auden wrote, I asked myself, "Why the sonnet today? What does the sonnet offer you?" When Bob Hass was here last time he said to us that the patterned form implies a patterned society. No matter how Elizabeth Bishop deviated from the thing - nonetheless, inherent in the sonnet is a kind of pattern. But we certainly don't live in a patterned society. Every day becomes less patterned.

Molly Peacock: Patterned form comes from the premise that the form is the outside of the experience. My premise is that form is the inside of the experience, as a skeleton, not a cage...

You might think of the sonnet as a wave. In the traditional Shakespeare sonnet, there's a part of the wave that goes out, then it crests and comes in. I don't think of the pattern as societal; I think of it as deeply internal both psychologically and physically. I have a physical sense of this form that is quite different from saying, "Oh, this form is not useful for us now because we do not live the way people lived in the fourteenth century." Indeed that's true, but we have the same physiology, and if not the exact psychology, we are certainly as human.

 - Molly Peacock, in conversation with Pearl London in 1992, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).  


the rhythm of the line and the rhythm of the sentence

Pearl London: I want to come back to the whole relevance of rhyme and form for the poet writing now. Because after all we are writing in a time of great tension and great dissonance, and that voice must also be heard. I thought about T.S. Eliot, who said, "Rhyme removed, much ethereal music leaps up from the word." Now, how are you going to answer to that? Take away the rhyme and then you get this ethereal music. And he also says, "The rejection of rhyme is not a leap at facility; on the contrary, it imposes a much severer strain upon language." How do you decide at what point rhyme is going to fulfill your meaning and your purpose?

Molly Peacock: I think he's right - for his own work. He combined rhyme and unrhyme. But the point that rhyme has for contemporary writers now is that very often free verse ignores music. The workshop aesthetic says that the notion of revision is excision. You have to take anything extra out. Get rid of it. [Imitates voice of workshop instructor] "Get rid of that syllable. Why have you got all those articles in there? Take out those "a's," "and's", and "the's."

London: You sound just like Pearl London.

Peacock: And that's wonderful advice to get the student to really see the underpinnings of the language. But if you constantly overapply it, what happens is that you lose those unstressed syllables. And when you lose unstressed syllables, you begin to lose music. I've done some investigation into the metrics of free verse. And looked at the percentage of stressed to unstressed syllables, say, in a free verse poem. It's fascinating. There are always more stressed syllables in a free verse poem - the ones I've looked at. Especially in poems that have a medium to short line. Say Louise Glück - 75 to 80 percent of her shorter lines are comprised of stresses without the relief of unstressed syllables. Getting from one line to the next feels like a very heavy experience. Part of that comes from the technique of excision. But for Glück this technique works so well because it's also an emotional formulation.

I began to be interested in shaping a line to retain my initial impulse in music. Because I found that when I revised, I lost the feeling. That part of the poem is very unconscious, the music coming out of you - that's your voice. I began to see these lines and the rhymes as a way to preserve my voice, the freshness of my own speech.

The system of the line in a poem is entirely different from the system of meaning. The line is strictly musical. The system of meaning in the poem is the system of the sentence. Prose only has one system - the system of the sentence. That's it. It can be very beautiful and lyrical and rhythmical, but just in terms of the sentence. The poem has the line, the rhythm of the line, and the rhythm of the sentence. So there are two types of music that are being dealt with. Very often in free verse, though, the poet goes only toward the rhythm of the sentence, and the rhythm of the line simply supports the rhythm of the sentence.

London: Of course, this is what Wallace Stevens meant when he said, "A poem means in two ways." It has content - it conveys its meaning through content - and its content conveys its meaning through language. That's what you are saying is very often shortchanged in the free verse form.

Peacock: Right.


- Molly Peacock, in conversation with Pearl London in 1992, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).  


there's something about the human mind that becomes exalted

Student: You're using a line that's not common. In a sense you're at the cutting edge. How much concern do you have for where modern poetry is and where you'd like to push it? Or is it just your own concern about what you want to do?

C.K. Williams: It's more and more just my own concern about what I want to do. One of the benefits of becoming a middle-aged poet is that you really can't worry about that very much. I still have to struggle with the other questions: What have I done? Who am I? What is my audience? Although the basic struggle is always with myself. When I started writing that long line, people said, "That's not poetry, that's prose." And it was futile to argue. First of all, I didn't have the technical means to argue - I probably still don't. I just knew it was poetry. It's very satisfying to me to have people now accept that it is.


Pearl London: Let me throw out something that Charles Simic said. I wonder if it disturbs you - as I have to confess it disturbs me. How would you reply to this: "For me , the feel for the line is the most mysterious aspect of the entire process. It took me years to realize that the line is what matters and not the sentence."

Williams: That's not a conflict, that's the history of poetry. That's just Charlie Simic's development. Everybody develops in a different way. The history of poetry is the tension between the line and the sentence, that's how it differs from conventional speech; it organizes language artificially. The line is an absolutely arbitrary unit, and that's what's fascinating about it. Just as in music it's absolutely arbitrary that we have a scale that has eight notes in an octave and some of them are divided into half notes - in India it's divided differently. Once you set up a convention, then there's something about the human mind that becomes exalted in the tension between the normal consciousness and the consciousness that is submitting to these arbitrary conventions. And in poetry the line is an arbitrary convention.

 - C.K. Williams, in conversation with Pearl London and her students in 1988, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).  


the whole language

A writer who is not a minority thinks about the audience as people very much like him- or herself. On the other hand I am very much aware of the fact that my audience is of a number of cultures, a number of economic classes, and a number of colors. Black poets are always aware that the audience is very colored. 

I feel strongly a responsibility to my art, to my sex, to my family and to my race. And I feel a very strong responsibility to humanness. I don't know why I should feel it. Everyone does, I suppose. I often get asked when I am going to break out of black things and write real poems. Am I always going to feel bound? And yet I feel that I am freed by my culture because I do think about the whole language.


 - Lucille Clifton, in conversation with Pearl London in 1983, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011). 


when it is said, it is renamed

Pearl London: Yeats in A Vision had written about the moon as that "yellow curd of moon," and at that moment it seemed absolutely visual and right and even exact. And then he took it out and he put in "brilliant moon." Because, he said, "I cannot let it become so theatrical." 


Derek Walcott: There's a poem by Larkin that I quote very often, and he says, "If I were asked to construct a religion, it would be of water." And the poem ends, "Where the many-angled light would congregate endlessly," which is lovely. A glass of water, the element encased in something, is the clearest, truest kind of simplicity, elemental in its simplicity.

A writer like Rilke, at the end of the Duino Elegies, saying that what a poet lives for is ultimately to arrive at the point where when he says "house, bridge, fountain, gate" it is itself. It is like the thing Blake arrived at. Blake as an old man could write as an experienced child. The simplicity in Blake that Yeats went for, and every great poet arrives at, is finally when you can use nouns, and those nouns are reborn in the experience and life of the poet's work. That when it is said, it is renamed. To take out the "yellow curd of the moon," which is Pre-Raphaelite or mid-Yeats, and simply say "the brilliant moon" is so cliché that it is stunning. You don't think he would dare say something that any guy walking out on the beach would say. "Wow, what a brilliant moon."


- Derek Walcott, in conversation with Pearl London in 1982, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011). 


a pornography of wishing

There is no formula, to the life or to the work [of writing], and all any writer finally knows are the little decisions he or she has been forced to make, given the particular choices. There’s no golden recipe. Most things literary are stubborn as colds; they resist all formulas—a chemist’s, a wet nurse’s, a magician’s. There is no formula outside the sick devotion to the work. Perhaps one would be wise when young even to avoid thinking of oneself as a writer—for there’s something a little stopped and satisfied, too healthy, in that. Better to think of writing, of what one does as an activity, rather than an identity—to write, I write, we write; to keep the calling a verb rather than a noun; to keep working at the thing, at all hours, in all places, so that your life does not become a pose, a pornography of wishing.

- Lorrie Moore, from her essay "On Writing" in See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism, and Commentary (Penguin Random House, 2018). You can read the whole thing here.