I have seven days of surprises for you. The theme of this week is gratitude, and I am most grateful for people like Chard diNiord who has edited a book on the history of post-World War II poetry in America titled, Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs (Marick, 2011). This book of interviews with seven senior American poets--Robert Bly, Lucille Clifton, Jack Gilbert, Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Maxine Kumin, and Ruth Stone--and essays on Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell’s correspondence, James Wright’s poem "To the Muse," and Philip Levine’s poems "The Simple Truth" and "Call it Music," presents a view of the bold and original epoch in contemporary American poetry after 1945. In their wise and always engaging responses and commentaries, deNiord's subjects reflect candidly on their careers and the unprecedented big tent of American poetry today.
Chard is the author of four books of poetry, most recently including The Double Truth (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011). His poems, interviews, and essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, Best of The Pushcart Prize, Ploughshares, Salmagundi, and of course, The Best American Poetry. He is the co-founder of the New England College MFA Program in Poetry and an associate professor of English at Providence College.
Beacause I so desperately want to spend this week giving my own view of the recent past, present, and future of some of what's "best" in American poetry, I sent Chard a few questions I had after reading these interviews and essays. In memory of Lucille Clifton and Ruth Stone, here are those questions, and here is how he so graciously responded:
Chard: This project evolved more unwittingly than consciously. As the Program Director of the New England College MFA Program from 2001 to 2007, I invited many senior poets to read at our winter and summer residencies, including Galway Kinnell, Jack Gilbert, Donald Hall, Gerald Stern, and Maxine Kumin. After interviewing Jack Gilbert during his visit to the New England College MFA Program in 2004, I interviewed Gerald Stern soon afterwards. I felt both enormously privileged and lucky conducting these interviews, while resigning myself to the impossibility of doing justice to the magnitude of each of my subject’s careers. I also realized that these poets were now saying things in their eighties and nineties about their work, their lives, and the state of American poetry that they hadn’t said before; they had distilled their thoughts and feelings into incisive, often one sentence opinions or insights, as well as abiding uncertainties that emerged spontaneously in the course of our conversations. One interview led to the next, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was chronicling essential American history from the Depression to the present, along with memorable commentary about each poet’s work. With each poet, I came to see that survival was synonymous with succeeding beyond expectation. My ambition grew with each interview, and although I knew I was undertaking an impossible project of interviewing as many major American poets in their eighties and nineties who would agree to meet with me, I proceeded under the illusion that I would get to them all one day.
I included essays on Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, James Wright and Philip Levine to complement the interviews, to serve as further but acknowledged incomplete reading about this indomitable generation of poets born between 1925 and 1930, poets for whom enormous agones of physical and emotional hardship, poetic sea changes, cultural revolution, political upheaval and economic ruin instilled their poetry with “memorable speech.” My omissions are glaring, I know, including such giants as John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, W.S. Merwin, Louis Simpson, Richard Wilbur, John Haines, Hayden Carruth, and Gary Snyder. But I hope to reach many of them for a second volume of interviews.
I first came across Elizabeth Bishop’s letters to Robert Lowell in Robert Giroux’s One Art: Letters by Elizabeth Bishop. I remember being particularly intrigued by her use of Thomas Hardy’s phrase, “little mischief,” in her letter reprimanding Lowell for plagiarizing his wife’s and daughter’s letters in The Dolphin. I remember feeling that this phrase reflected precisely what Lowell had called Bishop’s poems, namely, “delicate bombs,” only in the moral sense, and which must have exploded in him with some emotional force since he considered Bishop to be one of his dearest friends. But typical of Lowell, he did not respond to her criticism on this matter, proposing to her instead, which she might have interpreted as his oblique agreement with her disapproval of his mischief. My reaction to Bishop’s letter” —as well as to her elegy for Lowell titled “North Haven”—has remained the same since I read it. In fact, I have grown to appreciate her “delicate” chastisement even more after reading “North Haven” in which she upholds her moral view of what she called Lowell’s “rearrangements,” while simultaneously grieving the loss of her close friend’s genius and friendship.
Bishop always envied Lowell’s innate eloquence and aristocratic head start, while Lowell ironically envied Bishop’s sound judgment, lack of pretention, and powerfully spare style. I find it fascinating that Bishop maintained her affection for him, despite his “rearranging” (Bishop’s euphemism for Lowell’s plagiarism) and refusal to engage in an ethical discussion about such matters as plagiarism. It is a testimony to her affection for Lowell indeed that she never allowed her envy for his facile fame and Miltonic gift to compromise either her genuine affection for Lowell or her concern for authorial integrity. With regard to my personal feelings about Bishop’s scolding of Lowell over his plagiarism, I feel she acted less as a schoolmarm than a true friend. While I agree with Eliot that “good poets borrow, great poets steal,” I think poetic theft should be carried out unabashedly in the open, as opposed to the furtive manner in which Lowell pilfered his wife and daughter’s unpublished letters. It’s the difference between “flattery” and mere exploitation.
My other two essays in the book on James Wright and Philip Levine attempt to probe the recrudescent voices and duende that typify each of these poet’s work within the fame mongering din of our contemporary culture.
Jericho: What is your own personal relationship to the poets you interviewed? How did you decide to do these interviews and to compile them? Why did you think of this as an important project to see through? Will you discuss your process for scheduling poets and preparing questions and transcribing?
Chard: I already knew the poets I interviewed, with the exception of Lucille Clifton and Ruth Stone. I initially intended to interview senior poets who lived in New England for practical reasons, since I live in Vermont and I didn’t have the means to travel widely. But Providence College, where I’ve taught for the past fourteen years, provided me with a grant that in enabled me to interview Lucille Clifton in Columbia, Maryland and Robert Bly in Minneapolis. I initially called most of these poets, explained my project to them, and then simply asked them if they’d like to do an interview. They all agreed without hesitating. I also mentioned to each new prospective subject after publishing my first few interviews in the American Poetry Review that the editors there had expressed encouraging support for my project and were likely to publish their interview as well, which turned out to be the case. I have written brief introductions for each interview in the book, describing the circumstances, setting, and interview process with each poet. I felt this series of interviews was important for both historical and literary reasons since they capture crystallized insights and opinions about not only these major poets careers, work and lives, but their historical epoch as well that included more. My response to several of these poets who responded to me over the phone, “Oh, you just want to interview me because you know I’m going to die soon,” was, “No, I’m interested in what you have to say about anything—poetry, the current Zeitgeist, politics, your fellow poets, MFA programs, death, new beginnings, your children, etc.—at this stage in your life after writing poetry, much of it ground-breaking, for sixty years.”
In setting up these interviews, I simply arranged convenient times to meet and used a digital recorder, except in the case of Jack Gilbert, whose second interview I wrote out in longhand since I had forgotten the power cord and batteries to my tape recorder. Fortunately, he spoke slowly enough for me to capture his every word. Student assistants in the English office at Providence College transcribed the interviews; I then edited them and sent them to the poets for final review and editing, a process that sometimes took over a year.
Jericho: Were there times that you thought of this project as one that was taking time away from your own writing? Did you notice certain changes in your work as you went about conducting these interviews?
Chard: I resigned myself to the fact that this project was taking time away from my own writing, but I felt that both the time and intellectual energy I spent seeing it through provided me with a rare perspective and writerly knowledge that would ultimately benefit my writing in ways I couldn’t imagine. Each interview required many hours of preparation, and I occasionally over-prepared, allowing my knowledge and theories about poems override questions I should have asked spontaneously. I don’t feel any of these interviews has influenced or altered my own work, but provided me with wise new ways of viewing my work and career. With each poet I interviewed and wrote about for this project, I realized they had found implosive new language for “making new” that despite its familiarity fifty years later still resonated as original, visionary, radical, and prophetic in the wake of the great Modernists. No mean trick. I also realized that their poems emanated as much from their characters as the muse and the circumstances of their lives that “hurt them into poetry.”
Jericho: What was your most surprising interview? Your most difficult? What things were different from what you expected of the way these poets live and write?
Chard: While all these interviews were surprising in some memorable way, I was most surprised by Ruth Stone, who unfortunately died just a few weeks ago. I didn’t know Ruth before I interviewed her and really didn’t know what to expect when I showed up at her rundown, three-room apartment on Waybridge Street in Middlebury, Vermont. She didn’t open the door at first, fearing, I think, that I was a scam artist. My wife sat on her porch while I went for a brief walk in the hope that she would eventually open her door. While I was gone, she looked out her kitchen window and saw my wife sitting in one of her metal chairs. Although nearly blind from a botched eye procedure, she could still make out figures and colors. She emerged from her apartment in a flannel shirt and corduroy pants and sat next to my wife, taking her hand and immediately engaging her in conversation. I was overjoyed when I returned from my walk to find her sitting there in such an ebullient mood. My wife, Liz, then introduced her to me and we began talking. She was 93 at the time and more alive, witty, poignant, funny, kind, colorful, candid than anyone I had ever encountered on a first meeting. She answered my questions as if she had never been interviewed before, although she had dozens of times. She took no credit for her poems, attributing them to a cosmic muse who sent them to her from across the universe. I thought her a bit mad, but the more she talked the wiser she seemed and much larger than life. She also displayed a photographic memory throughout the interview, reciting several of her poems, some quite long, flawlessly. Her speech resounded more like a song than speech and she seemed only to gain strength as the interview entered its third hour. Not only was I surprised by her vitality and intelligence, but her enormous capacity to contain equal depths of humor and tragedy.
All the interviews were difficult at the start as I had to learn within the first few minutes of each interview how to interact comfortably with each poet. Robert Bly interrupted his interview after only twenty minutes to take a knap, leaving me wondering if he would return, and Galway Kinnell found the transcript of his first interview unsatisfactory and invited me back for a second interview. I probably spent the longest time with Lucille Clifton, who seemed to sense that she was giving her last interview. I had no idea she was ailing, although she expressed concern about an imminent cataract operation. She died two weeks later.
All of the poets I interviewed lived in houses they loved, with the exception of Ruth who had recently moved from her beloved rural home in Goshen, Vermont to an apartment in Middlebury, Vermont. Ruth Stone surprised me with her confession that she didn’t read much poetry so she “wouldn’t write like anyone else” and felt more like a transcriber of her muse than a poet. Lucille Clifton surprised me when I asked her if she was working on any new poems and she responded, “What kind of question is that?” Maxine Kumin surprised me when she professed that she didn’t think she had been that radical or political in her early poetry. Galway Kinnell surprised me with his contentment with the remoteness of his home and abiding love for silence. Donald Hall surprised me with the impeccable accuracy of his vast memory and his still inconsolable grief over the loss of his wife, Jane Kenyon, sixteen years ago. Robert Bly surprised me with his abiding need for a church community, despite his longstanding eclectic interest in Sufi mysticism and Jungian psychology. And Jack Gilbert surprised me with how far down the list he placed poetry on his list of life priorities.
Jericho: Other than the proximity of their birthdates, what would you say these poets have in common? Did you feel that there is a sense of community among these poets? Did they happen to mention one another in interviews?
Chard: All these poets survived the depression, World War II, and childhood without antibiotics. They also all shared a similar courage to make new, to defy the convention of their parents and teachers to create new forms and a new poetic American language for the time in which they lived. While these poets did express a strong sense of camaraderie and community, as well as deep respect for each other’s work, they also acknowledged both tacitly and explicitly the inherent competitiveness they felt as prominent American poets.
Jericho: Did you get any sense of their views on where poetry is heading? Did they seem at all disapproving of or excited about younger American poets? Collectively, what are the major contributions you see this generation you interviewed giving to this endeavor we love so much?
Chard: These poets, for the most part, seemed less concerned about where poetry was presently going than where they had come from and their next poem. They all seemed quite excited about the younger generation, but were disenchanted with the glut of poetry online. None were fans of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry or knew that much about performance or slam poetry, but enthusiastically welcomed the relatively recent diversity of American poetry. They were careful to reserve any judgment about the younger generation, acknowledging that they had gained much of their poetic strength and confidence by challenging the conventions of their time in the fifties and sixties, just as many younger poets are doing now.
Jericho: Did you get any idea that there were regrets? If so, did they happen to have regrets in common?
Chard: Yes. Each poet had his or her regrets; many focusing on the common theme of missing their children during the heyday of their careers when they were so often away on reading tours or teaching gigs. Many also wondered with less regret than chronic curiosity whether they would be remembered.
Collectively, these poets represent a courageous generation of visionary writers who conjured original, memorable expression with both private and public voices that defined an American epoch of radical social, cultural and political change during the latter half of the twentieth century. They are poets who trusted their aesthetic instincts outside the walls of academia, although most received strong formal educations. Only a few attended writing programs, relying instead on travel, translating European and South American modernists, political activism, and their own wits to survive the hardships of the first half of the 20th century and then transcend the enervating influence of their forefathers and mothers in the second half with innovative forms, the nerve to fail, and heartrending voices that reverberate still.
Jericho: As you know, I am a particularly huge fan of Maxine Kumin and Lucille Clifton. I remember once seeing Clifton at a Q&A that went on for hours. When the moderator would tell the audience, “One last question,” Clifton would interrupt saying, “Oh no. Let them all ask. I love answering questions!” Was she still in this sort of spirit when you met with her? How long before her death did you visit her? Did she seem any more or less ill than you expected?
Chard: I interviewed Lucille two weeks before she died. Yes, she had an indomitable spirit that kept her going far beyond what most people could have physically endured. She talked to me for about three hours, and when the interview was over she got up and walked me halfway across her living room. I realized after she died that that was about as far as she could walk that day. The image of her smiling at me as I looked back to say good bye remains indelibly in my memory. Even though Lucille was the youngest person—she was 73—I interviewed for this project, I feel she was every bit as wise and experienced as the six others I interviewed in my book. She had informed me over the phone a few months before her interview that she was not well, which prompted me to schedule an interview with her rather than wait. Ilya Kaminsky also strongly advised me to interview her sooner than later.
Jericho: While Maxine Kumin continues to be widely read and though she’s won major awards, I always think of her as an underrated talent. I don’t remember anyone teaching her poems during my MFA or PhD programs. Still, I think of her as one of the recent and most consistent great formal geniuses. Did she recall her relationship as friend to Anne Sexton as a hindrance to her own recognition? Do you think she cares at all about any of these matters?
Chard: Any MFA or PhD program that is not teaching Maxine Kumin is committing an egregious curricular oversight. I discovered in going back over Maxine’s work, particularly her poems in House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate, that she was writing poems every bit as radical and ground breaking as her friend Anne Sexton, although she had a greater inclination to adhere to a formal style than Sexton. I think because she’s been so unabashedly diverse in her literary endeavors, writing prolifically throughout her career in such genres as children’s literature,YA, the memoir, criticism, and fiction, that graduate students may not take her seriously enough as a poet. But one would be hard-pressed indeed to find another poet of her generation who has written as many accomplished, exquisite, truthful poems that shift with equal aplomb from a public to private speaker, and back again.
Although I think she was indeed overshadowed by the drama of her fiend, Ann Sexton’s life and death, I think she has cared far more about the loss of her friend over these many years than worried about any possible hindrance Sexton’s more famous career may have been to hers. Maxine’s beautiful elegies, especially her poem “How It Is,” testifies to this.
Jericho: Where were you when you heard that Ruth Stone had passed? Did she get to see a manuscript of the book before she died?
Chard: I was at home in Putney, Vermont. Marcia Croll called me two days before Ruth died on November 19th to tell me that Ruth didn’t have long to live. I think her heart just finally gave out. She was lucid almost to the end. I attended her green funeral a week later at her house in Goshen, Vermont and wrote an obituary for her that appeared in the London Guardian last week. As one of her four executors, I feel enormous responsibility in helping oversee her legacy. Yes, fortunately Ruth did have a chance to hear most of these interviews and essays before she died.
Jericho: What’s next for you, Chard? Tell me about your latest book and about what you’re writing or editing now.
Chard: I am working on a new book of poems titled Interstate, as well as contemplating a second book of essays and interviews with seven or eight prominent American poets born in the thirties. I would also, as I have mentioned above, still like to interview many of those major American poets in their eighties I missed the first time around.
More about Chard diNiord
Jericho Brown worked as the speechwriter for the Mayor of New Orleans before receiving his PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston. The recipient of the Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Krakow Poetry Seminar in Poland, Brown is an Assistant Professor at the University of San Diego. His poems have appeared in journals and anthologies including, The American Poetry Review, The Believer, jubilat, Oxford American, Ploughshares, A Public Space, and 100 Best African American Poems. His first book, PLEASE (New Issues), won the American Book Award.