Phillip Lopate (center) speaks with admirers at the New SchoolPhillip Lopate is best known as a master of prose, penning more than a dozen novels, essay collections and anthologies in his 40-year career. He also writes for magazines about his great loves, namely film, architecture, and travel.
But as a young man in New York in the ’60s and ’70s, Lopate wrote poetry. He befriended many New York School poets while studying at Columbia University, read for a poetry anthology, and published two books of verse before moving onto prose.
At last Wednesday’s New School forum moderated by David Lehman, Lopate revisited “the poetry years” and discussed his latest book, At the End of The Day: Selected Poems and an Introductory Essay. His greatest hits are here, alongside an insightful essay about life as a young writer in New York (a must-read for anyone interested in the New York School).
“Emotionally, I’m embarrassed about some of these poems because they are a young man’s poems – I was very horny,” he joked, getting laughs from an audience of thirty MFA students. “I wrote a lot of poems about breakups. It seemed like a good poetic subject.”
Lopate penned many of the poems while wandering the Upper West Side, catching films at the New Yorker Theatre between classes . He was a bachelor then, contemplating themes of domesticity and cosmic aloneness among the well-furnished brownstones. His stripped-down verse deftly combines humor, depression, sexuality, and spirituality, themes that resonate at any age.
Audience members enjoyed Lopate’s reading of “Furnished Room,” which states “you/ have to return to your furnished room/ with the tall ceilings/ which are unusual for their antique molding/ but why does one need such a high ceiling?/ Better to live under the bed than to have that high ceiling!” Later in the poem, he expands this notion by asking, “am I really lost/ for good/ under the furnished stars?”
He also read “Creating a Space,” in which the speaker clears a space for a loved one, be it God or a woman. It reads like a single person’s psalm or Zen meditation.
Lopate explains: “I had been reading [the Indian mystic poet] Kabir and a lot of Sufi poems. There was a lot of Buddhism in the air, and I was interested in that kind of discourse.”
David Lehman, a longtime friend and fellow Columbia alumnus, asked Lopate about his notorious “distrust of metaphors and similes.”
“I like to think I use all 88 keys,” Lopate said.
“That’s a metaphor!” Lehman interjected, getting laughs from the crowd.
Their repartee ignited a discussion about the anti-poetic tradition as a corrective to poetic diction. One student asked how to handle sentimentality in poetry at a time when irony is prized over sincerity, and Lehman and Lopate emphasized the importance of balancing the two impulses.
“I don’t feel there should be a big separation between mind and heart,” Lopate said. “Once you understand they’re integrated, once you understand how close they are, you won’t worry so much about sentimentality.”
“There’s a difference between sentiment and sentimentality,” Lehman noted, adding that a distrust of the latter should not obscure the importance of the former.
Lopate encouraged young writers to take a few years off between undergraduate and graduate school to gain life experiences that will fuel later work. And he shared five tricks he uses to propel his own writing “when the cupboard is bare.”
They’re so good, we’ll share them with you too:
1. Use multiple genres to elevate your writing. For example, write a poem first to establish a rhythmic base, and then turn it into a prose piece.
2. Ask questions about what you just wrote. As Lehman pointed out, Lopate is “always qualifying.”
3. Fuel your creativity with research. Lopate focuses on “what I’m reading now, seeing now, thinking about now. I’ve fallen in love with research.”
4. Indulge in another art. For Lopate, it’s cinema. “I can sit through almost any movie, but I can’t read every book.”
5. Save a new insight for the end of your piece.
-- Stephanie Paterik