Poetry seems to pour out of some people. They find themselves in flow and the words show up in their minds and on their pages. Many rewrite and revise, but the poets can't always go back and trace their own steps. Before computers, drafts were kept, providing clues to the process.
In a fascinating book, Poetry in Person: Twenty-Five Years of Conversation with America's Poets, edited by Alexander Neubauer, readers have a rare chance to hear what some of the most celebrated poets had to say about their early creativity.
In 1970, Pearl London, the daughter of the co-founder of Simon & Schuster, set up a seminar at the New School in Greenwich Village and invited poets to bring and discuss drafts of their work with a small audience.
London retired in 1998, and when she died in 2003, boxes of notes and drafts and recordings were discovered in her Manhattan closet. Transcripts of 23 of the recordings of interviews were chosen to appear for the first time in this book. Having interviewed a clutch of poets myself, I found these conversations intelligent, enlightening, and startlingly fresh and humble.
WHAT THEY SAID
Maxin Kumin, Robert Hass, and Eamon Grennan all talk about the use of abstractions in poems, such as "beauty" and "death," of how careful you have to be ("wily" says Hass) to avoid them.
Asked if he puts adjectives into a poem to fit a certain rhythm, Edward Hirsch replies:
I do. And I realize that's always a mistake. Because you're filling the form. If you're filling the form to fit the rhythm, filling with words, the words aren't working. You hear a music, but you have to make sure the words are doing the work, not the underlying musical structure.
Charles Simic was asked why he broke one of his lines after "weed-choked."
"In the rear of a weed-choked, / Rat-infested" . . . what happens is that if you brreak the line in free verse, the next line receives a kind of emphasis. If you had "In the rear of a weed-choked, rat-infested" you would not experience the "rat-infested" to the same degree. . . . One of the strange things about poetry is that if we have a longer line we tend to read it faster. If it's a very long line it becomes a rhetorical line, and the visual details get blurred.
London noted that Eamon Grennan's most recent book at the time of the interview in 1996 used the image of "light" 31 times. She wondered what that might tell us "about the mind that's hiding in the words. "Well, it's not hiding for long, clearly," replied Grennan. "I don't know, except probably in another life I at least wanted to be a painter. The attempt to describe light, I suspect, is a painterly ambition."
A student said to Grennan, "Instead of saying 'a street of violence' you'll say 'a snipered street' -- that's poetry."
I'll let Grennan's response act as one statement of the poetic enterprise:
It's that kind of compression that incorporates a spectrum of response into a single noun or noun-verb that suggests, for me, anyway, that the language is alive. And unless the language is trying to get off the page in some way, then it becomes description. And I don't think poems are about things. I think they are coming out of things.
Poetry in Person is also available as an audiobook.
Copyright (c) 2011 by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.