Rodney Jones on the Sectioned Poem
from Third Coast, Spring 2012
Rodney Jones, born in Alabama, is a professor of English at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. His previous collection, Salvation Blues, received the 2006 Kingsley Tufts Award. Imaginary Logic is his ninth book of poetry.
Rodney Jones's poems have been called generous, accessible, well-wrought... spots in time, keenly intelligent, mournful, compassionate, deeply sane, secular depictions of the sacred, and he has been categorized as Southern, Southern Gothic, narrative, peasant, Midwestern, lyrical, confessional, post-confessional, post-modern, and surreal. While all of these terms might be true (some more than others), they are no more than symptoms of an elusive poet who subscribes only to what Carl Denis calls "rich verbal exuberance." Deceptive in their complexity and wildly imaginative, these poems offer the Dickensian sweep of one American man's life. You might meet the Garnett brothers elbow deep in a car engine, Buddy Pittman explaining the behind-the-scenes dialogue undertakers and ER doctors share, or just a man, Bob Woolf, wearing a suit. But you might also find the didactic, associational "Pastoral for Derrida" or a meditation on poverty and kindness in "The End of Communism." Yet Jones's poems operate at their height not when they are discussed in high-ceilinged classrooms (though they should be), but when they are enjoyed for the pleasures of their energy, their formal accomplishment, the felicity of a well-made phrase. And it is the sectioned poems scattered throughout his catalogue that not only strike such varied notes, but also leave me with a sense of wonder. These expansive sectioned poems served as the focus of our conversation, which stretched from late December 2011 to early February 2012. Perhaps the poem "Elegy for the Southern Drawl" was the first of his sectioned poems to receive thorough attention, but each of the poems we discuss in this interview amaze from line to line and section to section, especially when he delivers readers to a soundless, fathomless world between thoughts, then leaves them there.
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Shea: You've taught poetry for about thirty years, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt recently published your ninth book, Imaginary Logic, and you've been fortunate enough to live a writing life that has allowed you time to work steadily and to read widely. Based on your experience, can you take the temperature of contemporary poetry and perhaps talk about what has caught your attention?
Jones: Every year it seems like there's something that arrests me, often from a poet that I already know and respect—last year, for instance, Louise Gluck's A Village Life, or, the year before, James Tate's Ghost Soldiers—but, just as frequently, a book from someone who's been around for years that I haven't paid sufficient attention to—Mary Ruefle's Selected Poems or Don Paterson's Rain—and work from younger poets—Kathryn Graber's The Eternal City, or Timothy Donnelly's The Cloud Corporation, or Ange Mlinko's Shoulder Season. I'm not into movements or schools. Those are for fish. American poetry is not a factory or an argument. I prefer poets who fail the standards of other poets of my previous affections. I look for aesthetic freshness, narrative brilliance, imagination, bold language, dramatic intensity. I don't care if a poem is tragic or comic or a mixture. Anything that doesn't embody individual character bores me.
Shea: I love the phrase "fail[ing] the standards of other poets of [your] previous affections." Is there a project at which you'd like to fail next?
Jones: What I was getting at was the most important thing: originality, which might also be construed as character. We can't judge Rilke by the standards of Neruda. The greatest poets write from a necessity that forms style and carries from book to book, but their new poems fail to be the old poems. The poems that I'm writing now are to a large degree fictive and in third person, so I am working out of ignorance and wonder, and I hope to always do that.
Shea: Our conversation is going to focus on the sectioned poem, so I'd like to begin by asking why write a sectioned poem?
Jones: Why not? There are as many reasons for breaking poems into sections as into lines or stanzas. For me, one is the charm of juxtaposition, of creating an aesthetic relation between sections. Another is that I feel compelled by all that is open, incomplete, fragmentary. Often I like to think of creating a sequence of sections that do not relate directly to each other but that collectively relate to a tangential subject. That way I get two aesthetic satisfactions: unity and disjunction. The Duino Elegies and Four Quartets perform these kinds of magic for me.
Shea: Speaking of fragmentation, the immediate quality that jumps out when I read "Elegy for the Southern Drawl" is fragmentation, and with that comes a lack of transition. We see fragments of culture, we hear fragments of voices, and the sections—or fragments—of this poem simultaneously keep their distance from and collide into one another. Can you talk about some of the important writing decisions you made while organizing this poem?
Jones: The poem, as a whole, is a collage of homely anecdotes. In arranging the related anecdotes, I wanted to juxtapose a spectrum of registers because speech is anything but monochromatic. We talk not only to our direct cultural counterparts, who empathize, but for eavesdroppers who may be less trusting or loving, and we also do the reverse. My drawl is a kilt, a stink, a badge, a signifier of allegiances that I do not necessarily feel and may wish to deny, but there it is. What the hell can I do about it, try to sound like Harvard South? Like any vernacular, or any choice of diction, the drawl hurts, shames, and comforts. The writing decisions that relate to your question had to do with honoring that personal shame by not making the writing too cool, too ironic. I wanted to embody the drawl, not just to stand outside of it.
Shea: Can you describe the moment of writing when you realize that you're moving into a poem that will be comprised of sections? Can you describe that moment of discovery?
Jones: Often my sectioned poems begin in journals, and when I'm writing in journals, I concentrate very hard, but when I feel a corner or a wall, I put down an asterisk and jump. It's that dumb. At other times, I need to find another angle. I sense disequilibrium and intuitively seek a balance: often a relief, or shift of perspective. In all cases, I want the separate sections to be in conversation with each other in a way that the individual sections do not address.
Shea: You talk about journaling in an interview you did with Blackbird a few years back, and you say that it's "very important to work with certain limitations, if you're thinking about using it for poetry." Can you talk about those limitations? Are you setting Roethke-like parameters of six iambic pentameter tercets with aba rhyme schemes, or are you shooting for something less restricted formally?
Jones: I was referring to the journals that gave birth to the poems in Things That Happen Once. I wrote those journals in prose form, without lines. My intent was to have fun making beautiful, original, focused sentences, but I limited myself to a consciously rhythmic language. I wanted both freedom and structure, and, more than that, improvisational delight, and I found it. I wrote nearly three hundred pages, and then I looked back at those pages like ore. I marked the best parts with a highlighter and began refining. I had thought that they would become prose poems, but the rhythms were so exact that they seemed to demand lineation.
Shea: I've heard you say that you came to the poems in The Unborn with something of a lyric contract, if you will—a desire to write poems that, first and foremost, please your lyrical and rhythmic sensibilities—whereas the poems in Apocalyptic Narrative arose from journal entries. This is not to say that "Apocalyptic Narrative" doesn't do these things, only that you came to the poem differently. If we can travel back a few years, can you talk about any differences you might see in the poet who wrote the poem "Decadence" versus the poet who wrote the poem "Apocalyptic Narrative"?
Jones: When I wrote The Unborn, I was recently divorced, a new father, and in the early days of the love of my life. It seemed to me that I could try anything because nothing but the best poems mattered. The draw of the poems was at once visceral, erotic, and metaphysical. "Decadence" was the poem in which I began to learn to write the long, sectioned poem, and when I look back at it, I see not only a texture that I relish, but a problematic closure. I hadn't learned how to dismount. And yes, you're right. I did come at "Apocalyptic Narrative" in a different way. Actually, the poems in Apocalyptic Narrative did not grow out of journal entries but out of a number of wild, sometimes insanely inventive improvisations. For instance, the poem that became ''Apocalyptic Narrative" started as a freeform romp called "Laugh Track for the Apocalypse." It was unabashedly noisy and a lot of fun, but its easy absurdities were dishonest. Revising the poem meant backing up and meditating on how our experience on this planet might actually end, as well as why most of us perversely glorify all things apocalyptic. A layering and a furthering, then, and a more refined sense of music. As in "Elegy for the Southern Drawl," I needed to find a meta-sense that included irony but that did not subscribe to irony as an encompassing aesthetic. The joker's wild, but it's not the only card in the deck.
Shea: Avoiding the "encompassing aesthetic" seems to have returned us to your earlier point about achieving unity and disjunction, and this is one of the great qualities of "A Whisper Fight at the Peck Funeral Home." In that poem you present us with a linear narrative, but sections of that poem also depart and explore more meditative but related material. These departures strike me as instinctive recognitions of the need to create space. Perhaps improvisational musicians do this best, but can you talk about the importance of when you need to leap in a poem and play a set of completely different notes?
Jones: What a wonderful question. The omnium-gatherum, the base of the poem is place: the scene at the funeral home, which holds the reunion and the family and community history that country funerals always embody. The place was the setting for a number of linked narratives: the argument over the eyeglasses in the second section; fragments of other funerals in the third and fourth sections; the story that the undertaker told; the story of my grandfather's mother, and a number of other fragmentary anecdotes—but the whole of the poem is more a meditation that forms from these linked narratives than a narrative per se. That is why I began with a meditative section, and why, throughout the poem, I return to the meditative stance. Pure narrative is like crabgrass: because it is a mimesis of happenstance, it chokes out other possibilities. "A Whisper Fight at the Peck Funeral Home" is a poem that resists the domination of narrative with digressions, but as you suggest, the digressions were triggered less by logic than the intuitive sense that the poem needed regular breaks from its essential gravitas. It is a sad business, reconciling the dead with the living, and it demands both the quick emotion and the long thought.
Shea: "Five Walks for the Nineteenth Century" and "The Poem of Fountains" strike me as the most uniquely structured sectioned poems you've written. "Five Walks ..." because it's the only poem in which the individual sections are named, and "The Poem of Fountains" because there are so many sections, each being quite short and falling into a consistent firm. Can you talk about the evolution of these poems?
Jones: "Five Walks ... " is less of a collage and more a linear sequence, which is part of the reason that I only reprinted one of the walks, "The Masters," in Salvation Blues. As for "The Poem of Fountains," the idea behind the poem—that the disastrous presidential tenure of George W. Bush bore some relation to my tenure as the vice-president of the Lilac Basin Sewage Corporation—was so absurd that it demanded extreme formal invention. In the early drafts, I kept trying to write it as a straight narrative, and the poem kept thumbing its nose at me. Finally, the tonally parallel, haiku-like sections—each of which presents a flat statement or a mock-objective notation of information—seemed inalterable. If nothing else, working that light poem through its many drafts was a measure of sanity in an inane period.
Shea: Since you are in your house and I am in mine, perhaps you could send us off with a comment about the great sectioned poem in Imaginary Logic: "The Previous Tenants." In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard says "the house, even more than the landscape, is a 'psychic state,' and even when reproduced as it appears from the outside, it bespeaks intimacy." Can you talk about how the space of your home became subject?
Jones: I'm glad that you brought up Bachelard. After writing the poem, I was rereading The Poetics of Space and was struck by how much of the poem relates to his themes, but nothing was further from my mind when I was writing it. From the day of the memorial service for the wife when I heard the grown son's childish eulogy and learned that the wife had written a letter to her dead husband and buried it in our yard, I was haunted. It was both a practical haunting, outside of time, and a necessity, and the poem came to me in parts that seemed of a piece with a natural obsession that had nothing to do with poetry. The work of the poem was convincing the ghosts to stand still long enough to let me describe them. At times, the poem seemed like a conscious essay. At other times, it was an intimate, nearly hallucinatory encounter. I saw the previous tenants in the deer in the yard, and I saw the rips in the screen wire on the porch where the wife had sat as runs in her stockings. It was difficult to establish the sections in a meaningful sequence because, just as Bachelard suggests, the house had become internalized, and the poem surrounded me. Perhaps this is why the closure is as much surrender as resolution. The notion that I return to repeatedly when considering the life of another person is respect: that I must imagine as nearly as possible that I am that person, but, at the same time, that I must realize that if I were that person, I would be exactly that.
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About the Interviewer
Timothy Shea received his MFA in poetry from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and he has studied at the National University of Ireland Galway, and at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's University Belfast. Most recently, his poetry has appeared in Poetry London, Poetry Ireland Review, and Manchester Review.
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