from The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Winter 2011
This feature, 4x4, which appears in each issue of the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, consists of four of the issue's contributors answering the same four questions, here the Review's exchange with Dennis O'Driscoll. The questions appear first, followed by the four sets of responses.
1. Let's start this off with an old question—that of influences. Someone told me once that, of the writing she admired, there were two kinds: the kind that made her want to close the book quietly in awe and then never write again, and the kind that made her want to jump up and go write right then. Something about that phenomenon resonated in me (I can think of a few examples of those kinds of writers for me), and I wonder if other poets might categorize their influences similarly. Can you give us some examples of the poetry that moves you, or stymies you, or whatever it does to you? Why do you think that might be the case?
There are rare poems—most of them hallowed and canonical—which are incontrovertibly, incontestably great. That they are beyond argument is registered viscerally by the reader: in breath catches, heart palpitations, psychic surges. Any critical account of such poems—ringing the changes on form and content, rhythm and image—will fall well short of conveying the full readerly cataclysm, the best measure of which is pulse rate rather than metre. This is not to belittle criticism—a vital and enlivening discipline, which transforms the solitary experience of reader and writer into an illuminating dialogue—but simply to concede that there is nothing even the sharpest critic can say about a great poem that the work itself, outgrowing all critical cages, will not exceed.
Any poem accoutred with unusual éclat or shimmering with irrefutable wisdom will stand out in an identity parade of poems, arresting my attention, irrespective of its style or subject matter. Subject matter can be a lure in itself, of course, especially if it touches directly on some aspect of the reader’s own life. For instance, workplace poems invariably excite my interest. Having been, for thirty-nine years, employed by Ireland’s equivalent of the IRS, I would devour David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King were it a fragmentary poem rather than an unfinished novel.
Imagistic flair is another inducement; simile and metaphor are poetry’s most economic, synthesising, multi-tasking tools. Exploration, however oblique, of big existential and philosophical questions will test the mettle of writer and reader alike. Meaning of life stuff. Poems pondering God and faith, cosmology and infinity, poems that gaze outward or blaze inward. Poems that convey mystery, that are perched on the cusp of the liminal. Unconfessional poems. Poems that do not ‘take reality for granted’, that do not assume everything to be knowable, that have the humility of Emily Dickinson’s ‘Nature is what we know— / Yet have no art to say— / So impotent our wisdom is / To her Simplicity.’
Great poetry and trite poetry exert a similar effect: both kinds impel me to write. Not the writing of poetry, but—however inadequately—of criticism: in a spirit of celebration or repudiation, as the case merits. Unless we audit what we read, and champion what we truly admire, some of the finest voices of our time and of times past will be silenced by neglect, elbowed out of the way by the charmingly aggressive networkers and shouted down by the loudmouthed attention-seekers.
Hardly ever has a poem prompted me ‘to jump up and go write right then’. But, in the presence of great poetry, I have so often felt that I ‘want to close the book quietly in awe and then never write again’ that my continuing to write at all can only be reckoned—like Oscar Wilde’s notion of second marriage—‘the triumph of hope over experience’.
2. I asked you just now about poetic influences, now I'll ask about another kind. Almost every writer I know has some kind of relationship to music. Writers like Yusef Komunyakaa, Robert Pinsky, and William Matthews have famously grappled with jazz (some both in and out of the poetry); Rita Dove's most recent book seems not only an elegy for a lost violinist, but also very much a book about 18th-century art music; Paul Muldoon has written on Elvis Costello and Van Morrison, Terrence Hayes on Antony and the Johnsons and Fela Kuti. Could you describe for us your own relationship with music? Do you play an instrument? What music moves you, or moves you to write? Can you guess why?
Even in the days of vinyl, my collection of records never threatened to engulf my storage space or buckle my living room shelves. The entire ‘collection’ would have fitted snugly in the slimline briefcase that was among the tools of my bureaucratic trade: a dozen recordings of poets presenting their own work was the full extent of my holding. The ‘Cadences of Summer’ recitative of Wallace Stevens. Theodore Roethke chanting ‘The Lost Son’ (‘Ask the mole, he knows. / I feel the slime of a wet nest. / Beware Mother Mildew. / Nibble again, fish nerves’). Dylan Thomas’s sonorous inauguration of Under Milk Wood, his libretto for spoken voices, at New York’s ‘Y’ in 1953 (‘It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters'-and-rabbits' wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea’).
I never owned any recording of music on vinyl (single or LP), hadn’t bothered to invest in a record player, and relied on friends’ equipment to give my circle of poets the odd spin. I did break out and buy a tape machine—together with a goodly number of musical recordings—during the cassette era. And I sometimes made recordings of concerts—Thomas Arne to Anton Webern—from BBC Radio 3. I have remained securely wedged in the same musical groove from the start, the classical one, and can see no reason to relinquish it. Plainchant to baroque, romantic to contemporary, music for me always represents foreground music. I listen sparingly, usually late at night when—eyelids semi-shut, doors of musical perception at their most open—I inhale every note and nuance of Schumann lieder or Purcell opera. I identify entirely with Richard Wilbur’s ‘C Minor’, at the beginning of which Beethoven is switched off during breakfast; the poem ends where—for Wilbur, as for me—music meaningfully begins:
There is nothing to do with a day except to live it.
Let us have music again when the light dies
(Sullenly, or in glory) and we can give it
Something to organize.
I cannot read and listen, let alone write and listen—though many people can scarcely manage one without the other. I have been on notice since my Shakespeare-studying schooldays, in a childhood home devoid of phonograph or musical instruments, that ‘The man that hath no music in himself, / Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, / Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.’ But, though scarcely musical at all by comparison with my downloading wife and iPod-shuffling friends, I am not so treasonous as to countenance a life without music. BBC Radio 3, the source of my musical initiation and education, is still my number one pre-set, a regular stopping-place in my nightly routine. My meagre ensemble of CDs—dominated by poetry and drama though I admit it to be—includes recordings of Tallis’s Spem In Alium and Schubert’s Winterreise.
I have written several poems about music; two of them—unsurprisingly, with late night settings—are entitled ‘Nocturne’. Mnemosyne is the muse of poetry and the mnemonic power of music is immense; it is not coincidental that the most memorable poems are, of course, scored with distinctive musical and rhythmical properties. I owe my own earliest memory to its musical association: a recollection of being hospitalised for the first of my two skirmishes with severe pneumonia. Blank, feverish weeks they were, in what I assume to be 1956 or 1957, when I was two or three years old. I can date this memory because the nurses, going briskly about their thermometer-and-chart routines, would croon the hit tune of that time—Doris Day’s ‘Que sera, sera. Whatever will be will be.’ My poem, ‘Background Music’, celebrates the harmony between the spheres of memory and music.
3. The poetic line has been described as the 'unit of meaning' in a poem, or the 'unit of attention.' The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics has a many-paged entry on 'line,' the length of which alone speaks to the difficulty of defining something seemingly so basic. Some poets define the line purely in terms of form—the requirements of meter and rhyme—others as a kind of visual cue (Charles Wright's now ubiquitous 'dropped lines' for instance), others as clear reminders of the exigencies of speech (Bishop or Glück perhaps) and still others in wholly other and more conceptual ways. How would you define or describe your conception of 'line'? Has it changed over the course of your writing life? Do you see it changing still?
I agree entirely with Marvin Bell that ‘A line might be a unit of rhythm, syntax, or breath...or it might be a unit of thought, or time, or even a visual unit.’ Neither as reader nor writer, however, do I consciously think in terms of ‘units of attention’. As a reader, I notice the lineation of a poem mainly when it draws attention to itself through its skinniness (Kay Ryan, James Schuyler, William Carlos Williams) or lengthiness (C.K. Williams, Ciaran Carson, Jorie Graham)—or when a line is broken clumsily. Yet, how adroitly, or awkwardly, the line is handled is not the issue which, as it were, makes or breaks a poem (unless, for instance, it mars a received-form pattern). If the poem’s other features are sufficiently redeeming, the poem will easily survive its ramshackle lineation. Indeed, rickety lines may—intentionally or otherwise—lend the poem an air of spontaneity or nonchalance. Anyway, some poems—Dean Young’s, say—move so fast that you don’t have time to linger over the lines, which flash past like telegraph poles glimpsed from a train window.
That a change of line-length can radically transform a style has been demonstrated by many poets across the ages. The English poet, David Harsent, recalls a period when—as a young poet noted for pithy, intense, short-lined poems and sequences—he was ‘restless’, ready to take a new direction: ‘I was talking about this with [the poet / editor] Ian Hamilton over a meal one day, and he said, “Try lengthening your line.” That was all. I don’t know what he’d seen or intuited, but it proved crucial. Just that. Lengthen your line.’
My own lines expand or contract from time to time, on a purely pragmatic basis, as rhythmical or verbal considerations demand. It is as if the poems alternate at will between binge eating and binge dieting. In general, the prosier the poem, the longer my line will be. Spare and succinct writing benefits from a short line that accentuates every word. Nearly every great poem I know is set out in conventional lineation; the hyperactive lineation increasingly found in contemporary poetry is, with some enterprising exceptions, a kind of visual rhetoric: novelty in the service of triviality; eye-catching distraction from mind-numbing content.
4. The romantic tradition (both the American and European ones) has left us with a concomitance of writing and solitude. The popular figure of the poet is one who sits somewhere alone—sometimes cocooned in nature, sometimes prostrate before the sublime, and still other times holed up in a room, ears plugged, phone unplugged, world unplugged, etc. Could you talk about your conception of the 'solitude' writing might or might not require? Some writers have eschewed the traditional paths of family just to write, others have toddlers crawling all over them. But either way, it seems a kind of aloneness might still be required, in the end, for the art to happen. Is it spiritual? Is it selfish? Is it merely practical? What are your thoughts on this solitude, or whatever you might term it, and how do you work it into your life?
I agree with the poet Fleur Adcock that ‘Sitting is for when you’ve got the poem going or you’re revising it, trying to perfect it. But the original impulse needs to come out of movement.’ Her remark nicely complements the footslogging Wordsworth’s notion of the poem stemming from ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’. I love tranquillity, revel in isolation, thrive on solitude; but a blank page—however long and silently pondered—has never ‘spontaneously overflowed’ into poetry for me. If my mind is blank, the page remains defiantly blank. During my civil service years, I regularly came home with starter packs for new poems: images, ideas and scrawled phrases deriving from office chatter and work routines, city sights and sounds, hypnagogic reveries on the daily bus commute. Tellingly, and ominously, the first poem I wrote at home, after my retirement in 2009, was about the backyard wall in the direct sightline of my desk. The writing seemed, in every sense, to have hit a wall.
I have since discovered, to my relief, that there is life after work—and poetry too. The writing was not on the wall for me, after all. Much as I luxuriate in seclusion—having spent so long in the frenzied world of tax bureaucracy—I still venture frequently from home; and it is these expeditions (on literary, medical or social missions), though often undertaken with heavy heart, that stimulate many of my poems nowadays. My desk is where those stimuli are recorded and ordered, mediated and set to verbal music. The Muse—susceptible to cabin fever as she is—does not like to be hemmed-in, and yearns to stretch her legs, be allowed out for a breath of fresh air. As Kathleen Raine remarked, ‘It is in battling with life and tasks that one becomes a fit person to speak in poetry. A poet must in some way engage with the world. I don’t think an ivory tower is a good place to write poetry.’
That solitude is a luxury, not a necessity, is evident from the urgent and powerful poems composed in hellish gulags and congested prisons, in the rat-and-rainwater trenches of World War One, on the forced march on which the thirty-five-year-old Miklós Radnóti (great poems in greatcoat pocket) met his brutal end: death-stalked poems that would never have been written had their imperilled authors insisted on solitude. Frank O’Hara whipped up toothsome work on a lunchtime stroll ‘through the noisy splintered glare of a Manhattan noon’.
Many poets claim that train travel quickens their imaginations; others, oblivious to honking trucks and cellphone chatter, find street cafés conducive to composition. Charles Simic: ‘I have always written in restaurants. It’s highly recommended… People-watching is my favourite occupation and there’s no better place for that than a restaurant when one is dining alone.’ From an obituary of the long-exiled Spanish poet, Tomás Segovia: ‘After Franco's death...[he] set up a second home in Madrid, and he could often be seen writing his poetry in the well-known Café Comercial, saying "I need noise to concentrate".’ The poet and novelist, Gerard Woodward, can ‘write anywhere—trains, pubs, chemical plants, in the middle of riots’. Like waste-to-energy technology, poetry may actually convert noise into inspiration: Philip Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’ (‘stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown / The jabbering set he egged her on to buy’) was written in fury and frustration at ‘the gabble gabble gabble’ of his landlady’s ‘filthy radio’.
Unfortunately, much of ‘the music of what happens’ is scored in gratingly cacophonous arrangements, and there are days when one wishes that someone would invent a power drill that chimed like church bells, or that children might screech as birds sing. Inner silence is what is ultimately important, I suppose. Total absorption and concentration. But outer silence is a delight in itself, especially if broken only by a robin solo, or the reassuring tread of a loved one descending the creaky stairs. And, though it never hurts to keep an emergency stock of ear plugs beside the fluorescent Post-its and the peppermint Altoids, the loudest din of all may arise from the tweets, texts, e-mails and friendly Facebook messages screaming silently for instant attention, and rendering true solitude impossible.
About the Author
Dennis O'Driscoll was born in Tipperary, Ireland. His latest books include a collection of poems, Reality Check (Copper Canyon, 2008), Quote Poet Unquote: Contemporary Quotations on Poets and Poetry (Copper Canyon, 2008), and Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008). His awards include a Lannan Literary Award and the E.M. Forster Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He worked for almost forty years in the Revenue and Customs Service in Ireland.
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