Rail: Before I turned on the tape for this interview, you were talking about your personal library and how you are at a stage in your life where your desire to re-read certain texts means you will not have time to read new things. I think of the final two lines of “Thirteen”: “I read three thousand books, / and then I died.”
Ruefle: I recently unpacked 17 boxes of books that I haven’t seen in 22 years. Many of the books were texts I first read in college. I thought I would easily be able to get rid of them. I found myself extremely attached to them. An example would be my old Penguin edition of Ulysses. I know I will never read it again because I don’t have time but I couldn’t part from it. I realized that my wanting to re-read so many of these books again was actually a desire to live my life all over again.
— Mary Ruefle, interview in The Brooklyn Rail, July 2014
In 1958, in July, [Wright] wrote me a letter (I’m sure similar letters went to others) in which he announced that he was through writing poems. […] The first issue of Robert Bly’s magazine, The Fifties, which he read at this crucial point, arrived like a reproach. (He did not yet know Bly.) He told me: “So I quit. I have been betraying whatever was true and courageous […] in myself and in everyone else for so long, that I am still fairly convinced that I have killed it. So I quit.” In the letter he called himself “a literary operator (and one of the slickest, cleverest, most ‘charming’ concoctors of the do-it-yourself New Yorker verse among all current failures) […]”
A day later he wrote again, admitting that “I can’t quit and go straight. I’m too deep in debt to the Olympian syndicate. They’d rub me out.” (This is Roethke talk, who during mania often alluded to The Mob.)
— from Donald Hall, introduction to James Wright, Above the River (1992), p. 29-30
Penelope’s situation (in Homer, of course, it’s a death shroud she’s weaving) seems to me an interesting figure for the predicament of the writer or artist: making something, ripping it up, making something, ripping it up, all the while vaguely hoping for one’s ship to come in, whatever that would mean, with nobody in the immediate vicinity paying much attention.
–Joseph Harrison, note on ‘The Cretonnes of Penelope’ in The Best American Poetry 1998, ed. John Hollander and David Lehman, p.302
The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts, is to make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us. I do not know if such increased awareness makes us more moral or more efficient;I hope not.
I think it makes us more human, and I am quite certain it makes us more difficult to deceive, which is why, perhaps, all totalitarian theories of the State, from Plato’s downwards, have deeply distrusted the arts. They notice and say too much, and the neighbours start talking.
— W. H. Auden (1938) quoted in James Fenton, Auden at Home, The New York Review of Books, April 27 2000
Edited to add: I don’t share Auden’s certainty that poetry “makes us more difficult to deceive”. It’s an interesting assertion, though, and I’m wondering how one might test it…
Every lover of books, scholar or not, who knows what it is to have his quarto open against a loaf at his tea … ought to be in possession of Mr. Coleridge’s poems, if it is only for ‘Christabel’, ‘Kubla Khan’, and the ‘Ancient Mariner’.
–Leigh Hunt, Examiner, 21st October 1821 (source: Wikipedia on ‘Kubla Khan’)
I wonder what it is that made the era so propitious for the production of this kind of story. (HG Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle were at it, too, among countless others.) One could propose a kind of morphic resonance, whereby Freud’s research into dreams a decade earlier had filtered through into an otherwise placid world; or you could suggest that it was the bad conscience of empire at work, undermining the pinnacles of its achievements as they were experienced at home: the church, the academy, the country house. [MR] James and Benson themselves remained, as they used to say coyly in the obituaries, unmarried, and maybe the sense of existing to some extent at a marginal level of society helped them conjure up tales of visitors from unseen worlds. I see Benson as trying to work something out from the unconscious: it’s not unusual for his stories to break the membrane between the waking and dreaming world, as in “Caterpillars”, or the recurring nightmare in “The Room in the Tower”.
— from Ghost Stories by EF Benson review by Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian, 18th October 2016
Soon Lowell walked in with several other dons, was introduced, and read. Afterwards, the don who’d introduced [Lowell] asked if there were any questions and, when no one raised their hand, [Michael] Waters asked Lowell about his confessional poems. At once the don interrupted to explain that Mr. Lowell did not write confessional poetry, and that if that was the sort of question his guest was to be subjected to, there would be no more. Lowell, still at the podium, interjected. If there were to be no more questions, could he read another poem? Fine, the don agreed. “Then I’d like to read ‘Skunk Hour’,” Lowell drawled. “It’s one of my confessional poems.”
— Paul Mariani, Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell (1994) p.390
The whole evangelical look-lovely-poems-are-good-for-you schtick assumes poetry is a precious endangered superfood, somewhere between a vitamin pill and a rare flower.
Wrong. It should be ranked among life-forms that will survive nuclear holocaust: jellyfish, cockroaches, Millwall fans.
Any effective campaign promoting poetry needs to distil this toughness and ask: what immunity does this awkward art carry deep within it that resists eradication? What force lives in a form in which language, selfish as a Dawkins gene, deploys all its armoury to demand space, seize attention, burrow tenaciously into memory?
—Susannah Herbert on the Resilience of Poetry
From a great post by the Executive Director of the Forward Arts Foundation.
“The reason I liked comics was that nobody else did, because it was completely unsupervised…I was given a chance to sneak up on culture by some sort of back door.”
— Alan Moore quoted in A Party in a Lunatic Asylum, The New Yorker, 8th September 2016
Poetry Spotlight: I wonder if you could tell us a bit more about the process of reaching the final order of the book, and how important do you feel the ordering of poems is to how a reader experiences a collection?
Vahni Capildeo: Readers are not to be herded. Even with the best-behaved, most imposing novels, readers will disrespect the chapter order, fall asleep and read things several times over, stop and start again at the wrong place, look at the ending first, somehow randomize the experience.
With Measures of Expatriation, I think I have prepared meaningful surprises for people who are willing to track the indicated paths, but who is to say if or how that would work?
— Vahni Capildeo interview, Poetry Spotlight