the law and the legislatures will say they thought it up when it comes to term

Art is a political force for Whitman, but....we are not speaking of politics in the conventional sense. Art does not organize parties, nor is it the servant or colleague of power. Rather, the work of art becomes a political force simply through the faithful representation of the spirit. It is a political act to create an image of the self or of the collective. It has no logos power, but the law and the legislatures will say they thought it up when it comes to term. In an early letter Whitman writes that "under and behind the bosh of the regular politicians, there burns....the divine fire which...during all ages, has only wanted a chance to leap forth and confound the calculations of tyrants, hunkers, and all their tribe." The work of the political artist creates a body for this fire. So long as the artists speaks the truth, he will, whenever the government is lying or has betrayed the people, become a political force whether he intends it or not, as witness American artists during the 1930s or during the Vietnam war, Spanish artists during their civil war, South Korean poets in recent years, all Russian artists since the Revolution, Bertolt Brecht as Hitler rose to power, and so forth. In times like these the spirit of the polis must be removed from the hands of the politicians and survive in the resistant imagination. Then the artist finds he is describing a world that does not appear in the newspapers and someone has tapped his phone who never thought to call in times of peace.


- Lewis Hyde, from The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.


not linearly but radially

Eamon Grennan: I always have a shadow narrative. A phantom narrative or a shadow narrative, for me it’s a sort of grounding.Maybe the best deflection of a poem being abstractly about something is to locate a story, an action, which will carry the facts, and the facts will then offer you some abstractions. In more recent work I’m trying to get rid of narrative and just deal with what I would call lyric fragments. But there’s a fractured aspect to any narrative I have. 

Student: Why is it important to fracture?

Grennan: Because I don’t feel that the narrative itself is what I’m after. I’m not attempting to tell that story; I’m attempting to embody the procedures of that consciousness. I suspect what I’m trying to do is work not linearly as narrative but radially. To work out of a center. To radiate out along spokes of implication and spokes of connection rather than proceeding on a line of narrative. That gives it another kind of spatial shadow. 


- Eamon Grennan, in conversation with Pearl London and her students in 1995, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011). 


expressing myself is not important to me

Pearl London: I think you’re never content unless the meditation elicits, finally, the merely personal connection for you—and then, at the same time and in the same breath, you also say, “It doesn’t seem necessary for one to equate the I with myself.” Is that a contradiction? 

Charles Simic: No. Because if I can write a poem that works, and if in the process of writing this poem, everything I started to say—you know, quote unquote—became its opposite, and I don’t sound like myself, I couldn’t care less. My views are like anybody else’s views. I think this about that, and I think this about something else. I’m not that smart or unusual. Expressing myself… it’s not important to me. What is important is to have a poem that seems to work. If it works, that’s what matters. Who made the famous comment about like a click of a box, a wooden box? 

Student: I think it was Auden.

Simic: It was Auden, right. One of those wonderful, well-made boxes, and when it closed it has that wonderful click. There’s a sense of something well made in the arts. Given what I had here and how it turned out, it came together in a certain way; it works. I don’t think, finally, if one has any sense, that most of one’s poems truly work. If I look at most of my poems years after having written them, I can see they could have been a little better. Shoddy goods, you know? Sometimes awkwardness is inevitable and important. But there it is.

- Charles Simic, in conversation with Pearl London and her students in 1995, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).  


a sound that is just pure telling

I would like to make a sound that is just pure telling. I was sitting on my back porch a few months ago, and I was listening to the wind for a long time until I realized: that’s the sound I want to make. I don’t want to write about that, I want to do that. Whatever that is—the wind in the trees. We’ve heard that sound before. It’s oceanic; it’s huge; it’s on the verge of meaning. If you listen long enough you feel there’s definitely meaning there. Then you realize it’s just wind in the trees. I want to make that kind of noise. That big. That elemental. That dark. That fresh. That raw. That mysterious. Right on the verge of human meaning. Entirely nonhuman. I would like to make a noise like that. Full of sound and fury—and maybe signifying nothing, I don’t know. It’s that sound I want to hear.


I would like to be right at that place where meaning itself is being made; to hear language at that level. I know many poems that have a lot of content but no meaning; and I know many poems that have a lot of form but no content. I would like to do away with all of that and go straight to meaning. Just meaning staring at you from the page.

- Li-Young Lee, in conversation with Pearl London in 1995, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).  


the kind of peril that gets enacted in poetry

Pearl London: In “This Hour and What Is Dead,” you write “Someone tell the Lord to leave me alone.” How did you reconcile that with your own ideas about God? 

Li-Young Lee: The God I was addressing in that poem was very much the God of my father, which is a God of the Old and New Testaments. A very Christian God. A very patriarchal figure. Already very embodied. Kind of entrapped and encrusted with anthropomorphic features. 

Right now I’m wondering about the possibility of writing a religious poetry. A genuinely religious poetry. Because I feel we live in an age of secular poetry. 

London: Can one write a really religious poetry today?

Lee: I’m wondering about that. Maybe not a religious poetry but a poetry whose spirituality isn’t ironic. Which is genuine, sincere, hungry. It would have to be the real thing. I’m just curious what that would look like, what that would sound like. Because for me secular poetry isn’t enough. 

Student: It’s really hard, because in Herbert and Donne’s day there were shared assumptions about what the furniture of religion was. But now there aren’t any. So if you write a poem that is open to a lot of different assumptions it might be rejected by some people because it says “Jesus” if you’re a Jew, or… 

Lee: So it would have to avoid using the signposts that we recognize when we say religion. And the poem would have to proceed by an intelligence that is entirely new, distinct from the intelligence that we use in a secular poem. That’s what I’m interested in: what is that new intelligence?

London: I have a very good friend—he’s a brilliant critic—and he maintains that there is only one important religious poet writing today. He says it is A. R. Ammons. Because, he says, Ammons sees the universe as an absolutely integrated, coordinated system of relationships between people, between atoms and stars, between all of the phenomena of nature. He’s seeing this as an utterly bound-together world in which man and atom and stars all have a relevance and a real meaning for each other. And that is, for him, godlike. 

Lee: I think Ammons is a very great poet. I have a real quarrel with him, though.

London: What?

Lee: He’s too rational for me. His poems proceed with a great, brilliant, rational mind. And for me… there’s no peril in there. The irrational and the rational together make the kind of peril that gets enacted in poetry.

- Li-Young Lee, in conversation with Pearl London and her students in 1995, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).  


I’ll always be late for my own life

Pearl London: I must say that The City in Which I Love You is a wonderful odyssey of interiority, a pilgrimage in search of the self. What’s extraordinary to me is that if one compares it with some of the great pilgrimages in literature—like Byron’s “Don Juan”—there’s so little solipsism in your pilgrimage. Don Juan’s world is completely centered around himself; and your world isn’t that centered. What do you think is the explanation? 

Li-Young Lee: Writing for me is an act of love, and poems are shapes or forms of love. It seems important for me that the poem graduate—from a lower form of love to a higher form of love; from a sense of personal love to a kind of indifference or impersonality. 

I found that as I was writing The City in Which I Love You I was interested in who was actually there, writing. I’m interested in the evolution of the personal pronoun “I” in literature. Not only in literature, but in our culture—what is the “I”? Who is it? 

London: That’s very important. Because one really wonders to what extent the “I” embraces a whole community of people, of ideas. 

Lee: What became interesting to me was the very inexactness with which we live every day with this self. At some point I thought, I’m going to have to be a little more naked. I thought an actual self with all the inexactness and all the confusion of memories, that was more interesting, that was somehow more true, more naked, than very neatly trying to assemble this Frankenstein monster and saying, “This is me.” That somehow felt dishonest to me.

London: Do you now feel—now, grown and father of two children and so forth—do you now feel a sense of identity which is utterly your own? 

Lee: No. No, I don’t. I feel more than ever that there is no “I.” That’s where I am today—I might feel differently five years from now. All the versions of personhood—that my parents have given me, the culture has given me, my brothers and sisters, wife, children, friends—one is greater than all of those versions. And that greater someone can’t be nailed down with a pronoun like “I.” 

London: “I” could be a universe.

Lee: Then that “I” is the “I” I’m interested in writing toward. That “I” which is the universe. I’m trying to move toward an ecstatic state in which the small “I” is extinguished and merged into a larger “I.”

Part of me does feel that if I keep writing and living according to afterimages, then I’ll always be late… for my own life, somehow. If I’m living dependent on who I thought I was, who my parents told me I was, all of those things seem to me cumbersome—they’re obstacles toward something more immediate, something more naked. For the longest time I’ve walked through the world thinking, Well, I’m this, I’m that, while there was always a voice inside of me that knew I was nobody. In the way that Emily Dickinson said, “I’m nobody; who are you—are you nobody, too?”

- Li-Young Lee, in conversation with Pearl London in 1995, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).  


what it feels like to cross the street

William Matthews: [My low boredom threshold]’s been a real advantage to me. Having a high boredom threshold would be a different advantage to a different kind of poet; you have to use what you’re given and make an asset of it. That’s what an artist is. You’re born with a limp and figure out a way to run fast with a limp. If you think, I don’t like the sound of my voice when I do this, that’s information … it’s exactly the information that you need. I mean, the thing that I feel more and more as a writer and as a teacher of writing is that you really have almost all the information that you need to solve your problems right in front of you. Within four feet of you. If you can teach yourself to look around and find it. Don’t let the clues go by. It’s really everything you need. 

Pearl London: For all the great splurging of language, there is distillation all the way through. We mustn’t typecast even William Matthews.

Matthews: That’s why I’ve never wanted to write a novel.

London: Why?

Matthews: The low boredom threshold. The distilling is the fun. To write a novel well—I have a couple friends who are good novelists and I love what they do and admire it enormously, it’s just very different from what I do. When their characters cross the street it’s a good street and they know what the stores are, they know what people wear on that street; and I don’t care. I want to write a description of what it feels like to cross the street and I don’t care about the stores and I don’t care what the people are wearing. I mean, in a sense, everything is distillation.


- William Matthews, in conversation with Pearl London in 1994, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).  


I’m not particularly interested in ideas

Pearl London: Coming back to the body of the poetry, wouldn’t you say that right from the beginning, all of the poems—somewhere, somewhere—are living in a moral universe. 

William Matthews: I think of the issue of equilibrium, both as a sense of personal poise or balance and also the notion that you can’t deal fairly with the world if you don’t have the ability to make yourself equal to people. These are notions that have seemed to me important. And it seems to me that in writers like Stevens and Nabokov and Bishop the real love is for the ability to experience the physical world. And to make connections by means of elaborate linguistic patterns that imitate in some way the profusion and inventiveness of the creation. In one sense it’s about order, but in another sense it’s about the unbelievable diversity of the world that we can apprehend with our senses. If you imagine what an expiring Nabokov or an expiring Stevens is most annoyed at, at three minutes before death, it’s “I’ll never make another metaphor.” They’re not thinking, “Oh, my idea of order turned out to be really interesting.” I’m not particularly interested in ideas—which have wrecked lots of poets. I think they ruined Ezra Pound. His fascination with ideas turned a great lyric poet into a kind of raving village idiot.

 - William Matthews, in conversation with Pearl London in 1994, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).  


the burden and the splendor

Pearl London: We live in a society that is deeply aware of its uprootedness, of loss, of alienation in all forms and shapes. You often use the word "praise: in your poetry, and you quote Auden's "affirming flame." The feeling we can we can find in your three books is of something deep-seated, something very shared and rare in this society. But I ask myself, What is there to praise that is so powerful? With all of the ineptness and all the wounding in society, does this praise come from your sense, as you put it, of “surviving the nightfall”?

Edward Hirsch: Well, you’ve raised the idea of alienation. And loss. I believe that that’s the beginning of poetry. Poetry begins with alienation, and poetry speaks against our vanishing. The lyric poem in particular seems to me to have the burden and the splendor of preserving the human image in words, as the most intense form of discourse. Poetry speaks about and against loss in its root function. I see the writing of a poem as a descent. The descent is psychological. That which is darkest in human experience. It can be in yourself, it can be in others, it can be in the death of someone you love. It’s a descent into the unconscious. You try to unearth something. You try to bring something to the light.


- Edward Hirsch, in conversation with Pearl London in 1993, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).