CD: I’m curious to know when you first started to write poetry.
SS: Childhood. I was seven, or eight I guess. Seven would be good. Soon I started to save poems. My grandmother Caddie was influential because she had a typewriter (unlike my mother or father). She typed up my early efforts on her pokey little Underwood portable. I had begun to write; some of her typescripts still survive.
CD: That must’ve been second, third grade!
SS: Yes. Hitler’s invasion of Poland remains a key because I was moved by that, through Caddie’s reactions; the Blitz and such mighty events. I recall standing in bright afternoon sun with Caddie at the front door of our house; she waiting for the evening paper; when the paperboy brought it to her, she unrolled it to the headline—and gasped. I asked what it was; she said, “Hitler has invaded Poland. He has started the war.” As well, about this time, I found Powers Dept. Store. (Of course this was thanks to Caddie; did she know she was child-minding?) They had a book department with a little alcove of “fine” editions as well as a shelf (behind glass) of rare books. One or two of these I coveted, a Tennyson for example (it was housed in a box), his Poems of Two Brothers. His first book—the brothers wrote it when teenagers. I asked Caddie for that for my birthday and she obliged. I treasured it for years—and sold it only to help pay graduate school bills.
CD: Had you read his poems somewhere?
SS: No. Of course, growing up in a quasi-Victorian household, I’d heard the bard’s name and seen it on a book spine or two. But it was years before I read that collection. Since it did not discriminate between one brother and the other’s work, eventually I looked in a volume of his poems alone. Another was the vastly popular suite of poems by Alice Duer Miller called The White Cliffs, rhyming narrative propaganda on behalf of the British, who in 1940 expected invasion. I saw that it was published during the Blitz, and it was poetry. I don’t remember it, but I wrote a poem called “There Will Always Be An England” which rhymed and was perhaps two or three quatrains. Later came “The Fairy Dewdrop Maiden,” inspired by Tennyson, an effort of scant merit indeed.
CD: That’s intriguing…. I’m curious why you even responded to poetry, and to Tennyson in particular, and to The White Cliffs. I mean, what happened? Was it the music? Was it the content?
SS: The music and the content I suppose. Mind you, I didn’t sit down and plot out exactly what I would write. I just did it. I did realize very early that poetry was deeply important to me. It was mine. Or perhaps because lyrics were brief and I didn’t have to read those long narratives. Just right, maybe, for a kid too young for Shakespeare?
CD: You learned to read when you were six or so. And there was something about poetry as opposed to other children’s books or stories that appealed to you. But right away?
SS: Yes. In a childish way I liked the idea of reincarnation. I came to dream or imagine that I had been a poet in another life. Thus, a matter of retrieval. By the time I got to puberty I knew that poetry was a path for me. And maybe, thanks to Arthur Waley, that I had been Chinese. Yet just as I don’t read Waley translations anymore, I slowly outgrew those fantasies of another world.
CD: If you felt that you had been a Chinese or Japanese poet, because of your interest in…
SS: Never Japan. Always China. And I know my folks—they just couldn’t figure me out, and they didn’t like that. And they said, “What is this China stuff?” My parents used to go to New York on business; they drove because my father loved to drive. Thus they could bring stuff back like Yankee warm-up jackets. I asked for a book called Chinese Art, an English publication, an introduction for the Burlington House Exhibition of 1936-37; put on in London to raise money for the regime of Chiang Kai-shek. They brought me the book, and it made some difference in helping me along. The Minneapolis Art Institute had a good Chinese section and I used to like to look at those things, but not at the time when I was first interested in China.
CD: When did you actually start reading Chinese poetry? Did the sense of having been a Chinese poet come even before you started reading Chinese poetry?
SS: You’re being very detailed. I did not read poetry in Chinese for years—until I studied with Phebe Chao at Bennington.
CD: It’s fascinating that your interest in Chinese poetry and also your love for books, especially beautiful books, has continued throughout your life. It wasn’t something you discovered in college, or graduate school, or later on, but this goes way back. Your parents must have thought you were precocious.
SS: I think they were pretty annoyed by it.
SS: Of course. I don’t know what they really felt, but I read a lot and I was yes perhaps a bit precocious. I was reading Proust in the big two volume edition…that would’ve been when I was thirteen or fourteen.
CD: Swann’s Way?
SS: First I read Combray. My parents called me to a conference.
CD: Like you’d been a bad boy?
SS: Yes. They actually did not want me to read Proust because they had heard things about him. They were sitting on a sofa in the living room. I still remember sun coming through the windows, shades drawn on either side of them, so there was light through the translucent shades. I was standing, they were sitting. And one or the other said, “we realize that you are an unusual young man, and we’ve decided that you are an intellectual”.
CD: They said the word ‘intellectual’?
SS: Yes. I didn’t know what that meant, though I’d heard the term before.
CD: Said in a derogatory way?
SS: Yes. And they went on, “Now it’s alright to be an intellectual, but we don’t want you to spend too much of your time on it and hang around reading books, and so on.”
CD: You were around thirteen then?
SS: Yes. I had done something wrong. All they said was they didn’t want me reading Proust. So I didn’t read anymore Proust for a long time. And still I have never finished it [chuckles].
CD: Was Proust really considered that controversial a figure?
SS: I think Proust was back then because the word on the street or the golf course would have been that he at the very least had led a suspicious life. Needless to say, they didn’t bring that up and I would have had no idea what that meant. But there was something untoward about Proust, and that was just one of many forbidden things … During the Second World War we had what were called “bible girls,” who helped out at the house and lived there, because my mother was working for the Red Cross and my father went every day to his business. The Northwestern Bible School was run by Billy Graham and where he got his start as a public figure. There was a German refugee who came to live with us; her name was Edith. Very nice. Tall and thin. She taught us to count to ten in German: “eins zwei drei vier fünfsechs seiben acht neun zhen”—. When my mother found out that this had gone on, Edith was fired on the spot.
CD: Because those were war years?
SS: Yes. There wasn’t much reasoning behind their responses. Mother’s father had died very early; he was a physician in a rural setting, and he rode off one night never to return; it was hard to find what happened, but probably he had had a heart attack or a stroke. So mother was brought up by her mother, Clara, whom we called Caddie. I think there was a lot of protectiveness in Evelyn’s mother for her daughter. She had a narrow view of what could be accepted. They were from Iowa, where it was illegal to teach German from the First World War until 1950 or so because of the two wars. Yet there were so many settlers with German roots; the largest ethnic minority in Minnesota was German, not Scandinavian.
CD: So here you are reading Proust and identifying with Chinese poetry and poets, which was, understandably, upsetting to your parents. But rather than conforming to their wishes and playing football you continued reading literary novels, maybe secretly, and writing also, throughout high school.
SS: Yes. Soon however they took me out of public grade school, with my brother, and sent us to Blake School, a country day school, hoping to give us a good education. Mother at one point was in charge of the parent-teacher-group at Robert Fulton—our public grade school—and didn’t think too much of it. It was a strange place. For example, my kindergarten teacher, Miss Easthagen, loved by all, nevertheless hanged herself one weekend—at the school. Happily I had gone on to first grade.
CD: You received a rigorous classical education?
SS: Well, in a way, yes. It was a good education. The school required Latin, a modern language, and the usual English and math and so on.
CD: And you were writing also at that age?
SS: Scribbling, yes.
CD: And thinking of yourself as a budding poet?
SS: No I didn’t. There were other aspects—musical. My mother played the piano. My father danced. My brother took up the clarinet, I took up the accordion; then piano. It started out because I didn’t want to do the piano since my mother already did. I played the accordion for a while, but then I turned to the piano because I wanted to play pop music. My uncle Bill, who worked for my father when he returned from the West coast, had been a bar room piano player and knew Joplin; he taught me how to play ragtime. Then I found sheet music for it, which I took to my piano teacher, and I learned how to play “Maple Leaf” pretty well, really.
CD: You had music, too. Your father was in what business?
SS: He manufactured women’s clothing.
CD: He probably wanted to steer you in some sort of business direction.
SS: He wanted me to go to business school and inherit his company, as it were. No one foresaw that there would be a Korean War or anything like the draft; and the world began to change.
CD: You were too young to fight in World War II.
SS: I was thirteen.
CD: So you were draft age by the Korean War, and that was also just when you were entering college at Yale where you were also in the ROTC program.
SS: This was 1951; everyone was hot-and-bothered by the Korean conflict. If you weren’t careful you might get drafted and go to Korea; we didn’t want that. So I did it, partly to please Dad, and because there was a classmate of mine, Dave Adams, who was doing it too. So we joined, it was eight weeks, and you got a rating out of it for the summer before college. There was a Naval Air station at the airport; my summer turned out to be a boot camp. I was too young for it, I eventually realized, it was a little brutal. I was just not ready. I succeeded in it, but I saw some things that at seventeen I should probably not have had imprinted on my mind. Some of those were described in certain poems.
CD: Can you think of one poem in particular?
SS: Just a minute while I look. . . . so I went down to New Haven and was a freshman there. I joined the NROTC, thinking, in my ignorance, I could transfer 424 90 59, my serial number in Minneapolis, to Yale and the NROTC there. Golly gee whiz! The Naval lieutenant in charge came over to me and shouted, “You’re already in the Navy!” And I answered that I was in such and such a program. And he said, “No. You’re already in the Navy and you applied to our NROTC, and we took you. But you can’t be in two branches of one service at the same time, so you are in trouble.” And so on. This bureaucratic snafu went on all through freshman year and finally, through string-pulling and whatnot, the captain my father’s friend did this and that and I was discharged from the NROTC program at the end of freshman year. This status problem persisted until I got out of graduate school. Meanwhile, I made some friends among those driven fellows, chosen officers-to-be but not in Korea, like Jerry Dole, later of Readers Digest; or Pete Wilson, who became Governor of California. And then, hero’s pledges: I realized I wanted out of NROTC anyway, not to sign all those moral promissory notes to glory, so to speak. It took a while. And then I got drafted.
CD: You got drafted after all that?
SS: Well, I sure did. Sept 12, 1955.
CD: Is there one poem here that you can read a little bit from? That would be great.
SS: This is the third part of my poem “Tyros” which recounts a boot camp scene from that time.
In boot camp once they were
marched to sick bay; seated
in a scoured lobby to wait
for vaccine and a wanton
Yellow fever shot
should they be sent to Asia.
It was one more hurry-up-
and-wait line, ennui of mud
on boots drying to powder.
And strapped to a gurney there
in the hall, on center stage,
untrousered, a man lay, prone.
The very agenda of pain,
of power, grew manifest.
.The doctor was to do
.his spinal tap soon now
and obedient, they sat
receiving this bit of training
by means of visual—and soon
audible—aids as the doctor
held up the needle, long
as a dipstick, checking it
by the strip of fluorescent light
in the hall painted neutral grey.
Dispensing with anesthetic
he went to work and eased
the needle home. The gasps
of pain grew more, tormenting
the ammoniated air,
though in modesty the man
had turned his face to the wall
away from the boys’ eyes,
bug-eyed recruits who followed
orders, waiting turns
to step up, as the Captain said,
step up, step up like a man.
That’s from Thanksgiving Over the Water, which came out in ‘92, if I remember, so almost …
CD: Thirty, forty years after, so you’re remembering this with impressive detail.
SS: That’s something that you don’t forget. I was at an impressionable age.
CD: You must have feared being deployed to Korea.
SS: Yes, that was the big thing that folks were trying to handle.
CD: Did you have a college deferment, or how did it work then?
SS: I didn’t have a college deferment—I was very innocent then. I just got on the train and went down to New Haven with my footlocker; I got settled, and one thing led to another. I got a deferment later. You were allowed to miss only four Reserve meetings; if you didn’t go to meetings, they threatened you with being called to active duty. But for some reason I wasn’t very worried about that, because, you know, when you’re eighteen, anything can happen and you can deal with it.
CD: So all of this was going on, this military musical chairs, while you were in your freshman year and after, trying to adjust to Yale.
SS: Yeah, but the great wave of experience of going to college was wonderful, I just was eating it up, and I was very busy and hard at work. So I didn’t worry about that too much. I loved the courses I was taking, except for naval courses, which were either silly or incomprehensible.
CD: Was your interest in China still there?
SS: I wanted to major in East Asian studies. I really wanted to until somebody, probably my professor Chitoshi Yanaga (I was taking a course in the history of the West Pacific rim) said that “in order to major in Asian studies, you have to pick a country, and if you want China, you must take two years of intensive Chinese, and that will largely eliminate taking anything else.” I had gotten interested in English, I was writing poetry, and I had “gone out” for The Yale Literary Magazine, and so on. I decided that China would have to be postponed, because time lacked. A normal load was four courses, and devoting two of them to one language would not be feasible.
CD: So you ended majoring in English, but you were studying Chinese on the side?
SS: No, I didn’t have the time.
CD: Anyway, you clearly continued to enjoy Chinese poetry and Chinese culture.
CD: I’m just trying to figure out that abiding interest and association.
SS: Nobody ever has, so it must be that my grandmother, although she didn’t have money, seems to have done well enough to give a little bit of help; she said I could get something in New York if it was in the $100 range. I found a Chinese painting, which in those days cost $100 even for a signed piece. When it arrived at Pierson College mounted of course on its scroll it was too long to hang in my room, which was too small for it anyway, since it was about the size of your dining table. So I returned it and traded it for a Veracruz head. Sad, since I loved that 16th century scroll, a wise man in the snow; and it was worth something even then.
CD: So you started writing poetry more in earnest at Yale where you were a member of Manuscript, a literary Secret Society.
SS: I was a member of Manuscript senior year. A “secret” club. It ended up not being secret; they tried by example to break open and end secrecy in the secret societies. They invited faculty, women, made them honorary members, and they challenged the boring Masonic Victorian elitism of the 19th century societies, so Manuscript isn’t secret anymore.
CD: You really started writing seriously at Yale, more and more seriously, as you went through your years there.
SS: Yes I was trying to write serious poems, but I was doing what Keats called “making plans.” No great poet ever wrote a more downbeat introduction to a poem than Keats to “Endymion”, and it is very interesting. His mind shines through, but he says in effect, “this is horrible, why am I publishing it? But maybe I am still making plans.” I guess that was happening to me—it’s a wonderful phrase for it. [To] “die away, a sad thought for me, if I had not some hope that while it is dwindling, I may be plotting, and fitting myself for verses fit to live. This may be speaking too presumptuously, and may deserve a punishment: but no feeling man will be forward to inflict it.”
CD: I’ve never made the connection here before. “Fitting myself for verses, fit to live” is almost the exact same phrase that Dickinson uses when writing to Higginson, “tell me if my verses live”, remember? I wonder if she’d read that.
SS: I am not an Emily scholar, but yes, I guess someone of her sort would’ve read “Endymion” as a matter of course. Then there’s this … he had another paragraph added here I think is so interesting: “The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is healthy. But there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment—the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted. Thence proceeds mawkishness and all the thousand bitters, which those men I speak of must necessarily taste when going over the following pages.”
CD: He thought there was too much juvenilia in “Endymion”?
SS: Perhaps; the point is, he feels just miserable. This happens at a time when his brother Tom’s inherited TB has come to the fore. If it were not for Tom, we could think of Keats as expressing Romantic irony—that perilous pull between self-abasement and self-confidence.
CD: So he’s about twenty-three or so when he wrote it.
SS: Yes and Keats knowing that he’s… got much to do and to face, he begins thus: “Knowing within myself the manner in which this poem has been produced, it is not without a feeling of regret that I make it public.”
CD: Well he’s not feeling good about “Endymion”.
SS: To put it mildly. Very “down” as we say. On the other hand, this response might be a good example of Romantic irony. You know, the first title of “Sleep and Poetry” was “Endymion”. It’s been so long since I’ve read a biography that I can’t tell you; the first book in 1817 was badly received, but nothing like how badly “Endymion” was received. “Endymion” was 1818, then “Isabella” and “Saint Agnes” were published later.
CD: But back to that passage about “mawkishness” and that sort of nebulous period between childhood and adulthood. He quickly emerged from that around the age of nineteen or twenty. Do you relate to that period yourself?
SS: I think we all should.
CD: When you were at Yale or beforehand?
SS: I think there’s a period of enterprise which every writer imagines or feels, that can never be fully finished. It’s like giving love—you can’t stop being there. I feel that, in terms of Keats’s categories, I was pleased with the poems I wrote, and I hoped I could write that purely after college. The Academy of American Poets felt that way too, because I got their Yale college prize in senior year. Same year as Sylvia Plath at Smith! Then I needed to build bigger and better foundations. About the time when I got to Black Box, which came after The Thread, New and Selected Poems, I felt a freedom or maturity or something like it just to write that collection.
CD: Which contains a tremendous amount of recollection and thinking about poetry and how you came to be writing poetry. But it was published in 1999, long after your time at Yale and Harvard.
SS: I’ve doubtless spent too much time in my life being a graduate student and then teaching and advising, or doing the kind of counseling you once did. But I can’t apologize for that or deny it—I mean, that’s what I did. I chose.
CD: You had to support yourself as well.
SS: Yes there’s always that. As Frost said, “That too, that too.” Plans have to be made.
CD: You were also beginning to write seriously at a time when the literary culture in this country, especially in poetry circles, was pretty formal and academic in the fifties. There was a lot of pressure then coming from critics to write within the tradition of received forms.
SS: No doubt. “Overseas Highway” (a poem I wrote on my own when an undergraduate) comes to mind; it owes a debt to Hart Crane but not to academics; a debt to a Midwest summer digging ditches—not to Yale. I read Crane on lunch breaks. “Overseas Highway” was a lyrical presentation in rhyme, beginning as pastoral. It relates an experience that occurred. It might have been a rhymed version of some experience in Lowell’s Life Studies or the like, though it was composed a decade before that.
CD: You could read a little bit of it if you want.
SS: One section:
……….Beside the nearly shadeless shadow
Of a twig-laced Poinciana tree,
On the cordial shore, their El Dorado,
They wondered by a sun-white sea
Of the ocean’s multiplicity,
What Pleistocene, unhurried day
Cast the sea so carelessly
Back from their shallow place of play.
Anointed, unmindfully they lay
Burning on the altar-golden shore,
Oblivious in their careful way
To the always silence and the sometime roar.
CD: Lowell had a big influence on you, but not until you were at Harvard, right?
SS: That’s much, much later.
CD: Was “Overseas Highway” the poem that won the Academy Prize?
SS: I think it was. There was another poem as well. Then in Cambridge, I felt that I was moving on, and “New England Graveyard” was the first poem I published in—as they say—a “big” magazine, in this case The Atlantic.
CD: So Stresses in the Peaceable Kingdom, your first book, came out when you were still a graduate student at Harvard?
SS: Just after. That collection came out in the summer of ’67, when I was going to Japan, and everyone said, “Oh Jeez, stay here so you can push the book!” And I said, “But I’m committed to going to Japan. I’m a Fulbright teacher there and I can’t renege. It’ll wait ‘til I get back.” I was invited to go that summer to Breadloaf as a Fellow too; I had to turn them down. Craig Wiley wrote me a very nice letter and said, “Sorry you have to give up this pleasant occasion for something important like that.”
CD: That was a momentous year for you. You went to Japan, and you were nominated for the Pulitzer and National Book Award as well.
SS: Yes and soon I met Virginia and had left Harvard. I hadn’t thought about it, but moving away from North Bennington just last year reminded me of the departure from Harvard for Japan.
CD: And Harvard had become such a cultural home for you.
SS: Yes. Good old Jack Bate, he was chair of the department. When he offered me the job at Harvard, he said, “Now you know a lot about poetry, and you’re a pretty good poet in our view, but don’t ruin your career by staying at Harvard. You sure as hell won’t be able to write poetry here.” I took that to heart, perhaps too much, but in any case he said, “now I want to make clear you have this job; but it’s not good for more than three years.” He also said after my orals—we ended up walking into Harvard Yard—“Sandy, I understand they opened a good vein and you bled well!”
CD: When you were writing Stresses in the Peaceable Kingdom in the mid sixties while you were still at Harvard, a momentous sea change was occurring aesthetically in American poetry as a kind of reaction formation to the rage of formal verse that followed the modernists. Allen Ginsberg published Howl in 1955, James Wright The Branch Will Not Break in 1962, Galway Kinnell his groundbreaking book What a Kingdom It Was in 1962, and Robert Bly Silence in the Snowy Fields in 1962. Bly’s magazines also, The Fifties and The Sixties, wielded strong iconoclastic influence on your generation, “letting the dogs in” as Bly liked to say at the time, by which he meant such poets as Pablo Neruda, Garcia Lorca, César Vallejo, Antonio Machado, Juan Ramón Jiménez, along with other European and South American modernists. Young female poets were also breaking onto to the scene. Anne Sexton published Starry Night in 1961—the year after she had taken the same workshop as you with Robert Lowell at BU— and then To Bedlam and Part Way Back in 1962. Sylvia Plath’s Ariel came out posthumously in 1965. The tightly wrought, often exquisitely formal poetry of the fifties had been abandoned by a new fiercely subversive group of younger poets who had started out as formal poets but turned to free verse in a very American rebellious manner. Robert Lowell wrote in 1960, just before the publication of many of the books I mention above: “Poets of my generation and particularly younger ones have gotten terribly proficient at these forms. They write a very musical difficult poem with tremendous skill…It’s become a craft, purely a craft, and there must be some breakthrough back into live.” So, it was a heady, innovative time to say the least, but also one that must have been terribly confusing for those poets who had placed such high stock in formal poetry.
What were you thinking specifically in the midst of all this aesthetic upheaval? You knew Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton; you studied with Lowell at Harvard. You were trying to find your own voice and style as a young poet yourself with the strong tradition of formal verse pulling you one way and the exciting new wave of free verse poets pulling you another.
SS: I was trying to keep my nose to the grindstone, as it were. I’d just say, keep the blinders on your horse, because if you don’t have blinders on your horse, he’ll see all the stuff coming at him, you know? The optical term for the horse is a ‘prey animal’—that is, it’s the prey of others, and its eyes are on the side, always checking things out; as opposed to an attack animal, which has its eyes in front so it can focus like the big cats. I couldn’t think about what was going on everywhere. I held off for a while, probably until Lowell, looking at a suite of poems I was writing set in Boston and Cambridge, and each in one form or another; said, “Where are you from, anyway?” In that peculiar voice of his. “Ah don’t think you’re from Boston.” I said, “I grew up in Minnesota.” He said, “Well, I think you should write me some poems about Minnesota then. Something you know about.”
CD: You wrote “Hiawatha”.
SS: In fact I’d been writing that before. But probably Cal’s words and “Hiawatha” were contemporaneous, and I don’t suppose I took Lowell’s word for everything.
CD: Those are beautifully wrought poems in Stresses in the Peaceable Kingdom.
SS: Thank you! People these days want to shake and rattle.
CD: What did you think about a lot of the free verse that was being written in the ‘60’s? You were not really doing that, but there were enormously accomplished poets who were, such as Lowell by that time and Wright and Plath?
SS: Oh yes. I liked it very much. But it seemed defeating in a way. I thought of Lowell as relying to an extent upon his ornate family. I liked his poetry very much—beautifully written. I think about “Skunk Hour” all the time because we have skunks. I was in MacLeish’s seminar; he was a good influence on me—a pretty big one—I tried several times to truly talk with him and I finally did. It was only when he said to me privately how other people in that class were not doing quite so well. One got a certain amount of momentum from the luster of being in Robert Lowell’s class; but MacLeish’s seminar was more altitudinous yet.
CD: Who else was in there with you?
SS: A novelist named Carter Wilson was in that seminar and had been in my freshman Gen Ed A class and that seemed rather weird, but then Jonathan Kozol was as well, and he was a respected critic, having just published The Fume of Poppies—a quotation from Keats by the way. I was going to leave Harvard because there was no avenue for my creative work. I had met Bill Alfred and saw him maybe once a week on Athens Street. He would go out to the kitchen to make us martinis and then come back and say, “I was gone so long you probably thought I was boiling a rhinoceros. Here you go!”
CD: I didn’t know he had a brogue like that.
SS: Oh, he could put it on, and he did, after all he was Irish.
CD: He was in the Theater Department, wasn’t he?
SS: He was a Professor of English. They didn’t have a Theater department when I got there. He taught Old English. He was very much an Anglo-Saxon specialist. Later he moved over into the theater. I think, he was supposed to be the heir to the elderly F. P. Magoun, but then he was drawn into the theater and they hired someone else. He said “I think you should have a workshop to go to and some contacts. I’ll arrange this with Cal, and you can go in and sit in on his course at BU.” So that’s where I went. It wasn’t until I had come back from Japan that I would come up to go to Cal’s class, when he was quite out of his box…I can tell you stories about that…but those who were in that BU seminar with me included George Starbuck, Anne Sexton, Kathleen Spivack, and a couple of other people. I went fairly regularly, and if you have access to Peter Davison’s book, The Fading Smile, Poets in Boston, 1955-1960, from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath…
CD: That’s a beautiful book. There’s a passage in that book about Lowell sharing the first drafts of “For the Union Dead” with his workshop at BU. He quotes one of your eloquent journal entries on this class at length, which is worth re-quoting here:
It was long trip by subway and trolley; the distance seemed to evaporate the exhausted formalities of Harvard so that the ambience of Lowell’s classroom—relaxed intensity—meant a refuge that was faintly exotic and very welcome. Casual discussions on class poems were buttressed by comparison with earlier poems, obscure or great, recalled by Lowell, smoking cigarettes at all times, gesturing above the poems he addressed. He singled out individual lines to dissect; to excoriate and often then, surprisingly, to praise—almost in the same breath. The tone of those hours was set, dominated by Lowell’s soft, tentative voice with its educated Boston vowels skewed by the Southern drawl and punctuated by periods of thoughtful stillness. The only writers whose work I knew were Anne Sexton, a regular, and George Starbuck, a rare visitor because he worked at Houghton Mifflin.
It is midday, bright and warm, early May 1960. Today the class meets in a room facing the Charles; Cal sits in front of the high window, his hulking silhouette a dark outline against the blue sky beyond. He has been asked to read a poem at the Boston Arts Festival in June, and though he dislikes commission work and is diffident about what he has done, he has written a poem he would like to share with us, get our views on. It’s about to go into The Atlantic and final changes must be made. He passes duplicated copies of a four page text around the seminar table; for an hour we make a few comments (mostly from Sexton on my left) but largely listen, rapt to hear Cal read and then talk about what he is trying to do in “ Col. Shaw and the Massachusetts 54t.” Several think the title too topical and specific, going along with Cal’s worry as to its “footnoteishness.” By fall the poem will be called “For the Union Dead.”
SS: More of those final pages were quoted from me than the quotation marks show. But that was a big experience there and we felt very honored. Lowell went off the deep end in ’59 , but before he did it was not difficult to mine what there was worthwhile in what he had to say. The two remarks which I remember that he made to me—the first, you recall, was, “You’re not from Boston! Why are you writing these poems about Boston?” The other he made lying on a bed in Quincy House. Kathleen Spivack and I went over to see him. Cal knew that Kathy had recently had a miscarriage; so he started to talk about Alan Tate and how he had been involved with a quondam nun. They had twins and one strangled—caught in the bedclothes trying to climb out of the crib. That was an unkind, not to say gross, thing to bring up. Then Cal said he was to going to Israel, and he would write poems about Israel for Kathleen. I had recently returned from Japan; he asked me, “where’s your collection of poems about Japan?” I said, “Not done yet, Cal,” and he said, “if you won’t do it, I will—since I’m going to Japan after Israel.” Which of course he never did. But he was urging me onward, and I didn’t forget it: “If you won’t write that book, I will.” So he also was behind people he knew, trying to expand relationships.
CD: What kind of impression did Archibald MacLeish make on you?
SS: Archibald MacLeish didn’t make such an impression on me because he, well I think that he was rather depressed, because in and of himself he said “I can’t make the fire light.” It’s like going down to the farm and trying to start a fire with twigs and blowing on it and just not making it, it wouldn’t go. He had already done J.B. and it was pretty much the end of his poetical career, but otherwise those people were people who just happened to be in my way so-to-speak. I thought taking those people in order might make it, saying so and so impressed me very much and helped me go along, and then when it came to Bly we argued in letters for a long time and he shat all over me and I said well, if that’s the way you want to be, ok.
CD: Because he…
SS: Well he thought I needed to, I suppose, become much more of an obedient cohort to his feelings. I had sent some poems first to The Fifties and then to The Sixties and he said this is not good. I had met him when he came to Harvard to give a reading. Bill Alfred introduced him and said he was a very unlikely Harvard person, but he was really great. There was this aura in Harvard Hall One, which was filled with people, that he had prevailed upon—that would be the word, he had prevailed upon—Bill Alfred to get him a reading and introduce him and so on. I was ready to leave Harvard because I wasn’t terribly impressed and I wanted to go to Iowa, where you went. I must have gone and seen Jack Bate, who was the chairman then. He was so nice and a great scholar and a very wonderful teacher and he was from Minnesota of course. He said that this isn’t my business but I don’t think that we want to lose you, so I think you should go and talk to Bill Alfred. That was how I met Bill Alfred and he invited me down for a drink near Harvard Square, 31 Athens Street. I took some poems for him and he read them and he said, “these are pretty good. I’m too busy teaching Old English and all these other things, but why don’t you go down to BU and join Cal Lowell’s class, that’s the best one in town.” I said I would like to go but I’d never met him, couldn’t even pick him out of a crowd if I didn’t see his photograph in a book, and he said “don’t worry about a thing, I’ll arrange it,” and so he did. And I went down there and that was his famous seminar and there were all these interesting people there and it was very interesting. And so then at some point, I’d given him poems I’d written that involved the subway, some pretty good poems, and he said, “you’re not from Boston, you’re not from around here, why are you writing these poems? I want you to write about what you came out of.” He was in a harsh mood; he got very dictatorial. I finally realized that that was extremely good advice, at least for the time being, and that’s where “Hiawatha” came from. I could point out the book that the poem’s in, my first book that was written as a result of that meeting with him, it was coffee and cigarettes for an hour and that was basically it. I came up and visited that class, anyone was always welcome once they’d been there, when I was teaching at Brown and I had just gotten back from Japan. He had become very much more dictatorial and it was more of a performance and it was strange. In each case it strikes me that circumstances brought to me those people who were an influence, those poets I could work around that to Allen Ginsberg and the Beat poets and so on. Mostly scissor and paste, I may be forgetting somebody but, you know, “well if you want to do this you just have to go and see so and so.” Bate and Alfred said “you don’t want to go to Iowa,” and I sort-of did because my family was all from Iowa and my parents weren’t terribly well. I was just trying to go down that road and find out what I could do.
CD: When you say cut and paste and work yourself towards Ginsberg, you mean after meeting with Lowell and writing about your own roots in Minnesota, you felt you could incorporate Ginsberg’s raw Whitman-like style and voice into your own work?
SS: Well sure, but the thing was he came famously to Harvard and he was not allowed to give a Harvard-wide reading but he took over the Lowell Common Room and gave a reading there and then he stayed for two weeks along with Peter Orlovsky. They were staying just down the block from where my quarters were, cramped as they were, when I first went to Dunster House and I could look out my window down that street. They were staying at Sidney Goldfarb’s, if I remember correctly. I wrote some sonnets about that, one in particular where I met Allen up in Harvard Square, because that’s where he went to talk to people all night long, and I talked everyone into going home. Ginsberg still seems to have been out in front of everyone. Ginsberg will always be an exception of sorts because he was driven, to begin with, by religious obsessions and his desire to explore the concomitantly human spirit and psyche. I speak of a vast tide of poetry being published.”
CD: So, Ginsberg came to Harvard after writing Howl and if I remember correctly, Lowell in the very early sixties once commented that he wished he could write like Ginsberg.
SS: I never heard that but I bet he said it. Ginsberg was pouring out all these poems and he was one of those people who didn’t see any barrier between his psyche and yours or anybody else’s. If he had ever met Lowell, I’m sure he had but not for an extended period, I don’t know, Lowell might have been too huffy. Allen was just like somebody you have known for a long time, and he always made things sound so simple. But I was referring to his having seemed out of his window at Columbia and his religious quest. Because he was still wearing his neckties and suits and he was trying to bring those two sides of himself together. But that was a formative moment for me because I had sort of poo-pooed Ginsberg for a long time but then he seemed like a shining light after you spent three hours with him talking about this and that. And another time when I had been to MOMA and was just walking down 53rd Street, I heard this voice from a great distance shouting “Stephen! Stephen!” and I thought, I wonder who that is, you know, who that Stephen is, because nobody knows me down here. Finally it got closer and closer and I turned around and it was Allen Ginsberg, breathless, and he said “I saw you back there, cup of coffee, come on.”
CD: Can you describe the ambivalence you felt toward Ginsberg’s work?
SS: I wanted to be able to write so much with such apparent ease, and join the crowd, but then I could not.
CD: Have your feelings changed over the years?
SS: Well, coming up to the present, Bill Morgan just gave a talk at Chapel Hill on “Kaddish” and when we were talking about that before he left I said I thought that “Kaddish” was his best poem, his strongest poem. It is an elegy, and it does the things an elegy is supposed to do, and Bill said “I guess I agree with you, thank you for saying that because that’s something I can get at. They asked me to talk about this, his mother, who had mental problems and died alone in a mental hospital.”
CD: Yes, Naomi.
SS: Naomi. Thus he had an occasion built in for writing “Kaddish.” That’s one thing that I could not do because my mother was jumping up and down saying, “Where I come from people don’t say ‘either’ they say ‘either’.” So what I think has happened for me, at long last, is that I’ve become willing to write out of the person that I am.
CD: I think you must have first realized that when you were at Harvard and in Lowell’s workshop at BU after meeting Ginsberg, namely, that you couldn’t write like Ginsberg as much as you enjoyed the ease and frankness with which he wrote about political and social subjects. But you’ve experimented with many different forms.
SS: And writers. But I don’t think it was at Harvard, I didn’t really know what I was doing at Harvard other than the technical business of graduate school. I think that that’s when it sort of came to me, who I was, when I got married, you find out who you are and some of it is just giving up things. Another circumstance that I thought about, running through these things, was when I was in Japan at a poetry conference. I had read Riprap, which was basically all Gary Snyder had published. I read through that many times and I admired it and “Mid August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout,” for years was a poem that I had always taught in this way or that way because it does so many things so simply and it was such an accomplishment. I was a little late getting there off the train and there were maybe a hundred people there and I found a seat and I sat down and I realized I was sitting right behind Gary. He had already done his talk and he had this big notebook and I could see, without really being nosy, because he was small and those chairs so crammed together, and he kept writing the word humility. “Remember humility.” And that was not unimpressive. And then everybody stopped for dinner. I didn’t know you had to have a ticket for supper and so there was nothing for me to eat and Snyder gave me his dinner and he said, “I can’t eat this.” It was chicken or something like that, I don’t know, it was a pretty good meal from a Western point of view. He was being Zen. We had talked and he was going to talk again and he didn’t want to eat.
CD: When was it that Jack Bate advised you to leave Harvard?
SS: That had happened when he was still Chair in ‘63, and he had offered me the job and said, “Don’t get any big ideas! You’re a pretty good poet, I hear. But you can’t stay at Harvard, and I wouldn’t recommend it.”
CD: Who were you reading mostly then?
SS: I was reading the Romantics. I took the courses you had to take, one in each period.
CD: You’ve maintained an elegant formal voice over the years that’s also become increasingly plain-spoken, like Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads, only in contemporary American English. You have gone back to him again and again throughout your career as a lifelong influence?
SS: A great poet is a foundation for building any house of writing; for me, it’s writing poetry. I’ll be anecdotal again and say that, just as I was leaving Yale, I met a junior named Mark Reed; he was working for Frederick Pottle, the Boswell scholar, and had been given the task of doing a chronology on 3” x 5” cards of everything that was known of Wordsworth’s life. Then he ended up at Harvard in graduate school; actually, he got there first since I was in the Army. Reed once opined that Wordsworth was the greatest poet of the nineteenth century in any language. And I said to myself, “now there’s taking a stand!” Thus I began to study him and other Romantic writers. It was a journey, and I know teachers at Harvard were perhaps stuffy compared to those performers at Yale. I took Romantic poets first, with Douglas Bush; he was tired and about to retire. But then there was Jack Bate and all these other men who at length one discovered. It was an influence on me to identify with Wordsworth. I was more than deeply impressed by “The Prelude.” I had not warmed to the Lyrical Ballads, but the more autobiographical Wordsworthian texts I studied, the more I understood that he was questing quietly for some kind of salvation; some way of living in the world; while exploring larger and finding—confirming—ultimate, larger truths. I found this Romantic framework very moving and almost, I might say, familiar. Of course, later on in one’s career, there you are—teaching and ending up at a college where you can (eventually) choose anything you want to teach. You’re not limited to Milton, for example. For some people, all they ever do is to teach a specialty. So among other subjects I tackled, such as Asian culture and Homer, were the Romantic poets. I probably learned much more eventually about Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley and Coleridge by teaching them than I knew from a student’s glimpse. As they say, “if you want to learn about something, teach it.”
CD: But there’s a big difference between being impressed by a poet and reading him for literary reasons, which is particularly pertinent in relation to Wordsworth and his peripatetic poetry. You reprise many of Wordsworth’s themes and strategies in your work, particularly the strategy of encountering anonymous wise men in your local environs, like Wordsworth’s leech gatherer in “Resolution and Independence” and Coleridge’s ancient mariner, and recording not only their stories, but their wisdom as well.
SS: When am I doing that?
CD: There are many examples in your work of such encounters—for example, the beggar in your poem “The Tack,” Stephen Fels in your poem “Around Our Table,” Robert Frost—not so anonymous—in “Place and Fame,” the beachcomber in “Beachcomber,” the man in “Man in the Open Air,” Myron in “The White Oak of Eagle Bridge,” and Malcolm Cowley in “Survivor Walking,” to mention only a few.
SS: Good grief!
CD: I find it wonderful and telling that you didn’t take a more confessional route as many of your peers did, choosing to adhere so strongly to the more Romantic notion, which doesn’t obviate the self but, in a very English way, concentrates on public subject matter, the “other” rather than the self, for enlightenment.
SS: When I first met Anne Sexton—what a beauty!— she was pretty wild in her manner, as well as extremely gifted. My response to this combination of traits was not to be articulated back then. Her work was not well directed, nor her figures always adequate. And why not go around and talk to people in the fields, though I can’t think of a poem in which that takes place. There must be some permission, some “why not?”; a device to speak through someone else. You could say that probably the most “Wordsworthian” of the poems is “The Tack,” written long after all of this back in Cambridge; but that poem has Coleridge, and certain points of reference in the outer world that give the voice of the poet a presentation of inner thoughts, awarenesses, and what has been discovered.
CD: And contemporary influences at the time?
SS: I suppose the fact that John Berryman had taught my brother and was living about six blocks from us in Minneapolis meant that I was enthralled by his wonderful “Henry” poems, but I realized that I couldn’t do that. I was just trying to keep eyes peeled but I didn’t have anyone that I particularly wanted to be or copy. There was Starbuck’s Bone Thoughts; and Anne Sexton’s To Bedlam and Part Way Back.
CD: In addition to Sexton you also meet Peter Davison in Lowell’s workshop.
SS: Yes, a fine poet who I think also influenced me. I’d send him poems and he’d say, “Not this! But that!”
CD: Was he the poetry editor of The Atlantic then?
SS: Yes, and he was a very good editor, but I quarreled with his judgment. I think a lot of it was “who is in” in the academic situation; by now we have 300 MFA programs. I thought a lot about becoming a poet who was a legitimate poet—I don’t know fully what I mean by that, not a bastard poet. Poetical legitimacy meant you needed to find a path for yourself and continue on it. There are always going to be these kinds of influences, to which you must say “no, that’s not for me, I’m doing this.” Russell Banks said that you have to understand the difference between your work and your career. Your work is what you are working on; and it’s right before you; your career—you can’t determine your career. You completely control your own work, but you can’t control your career—for example, who ends up hiring you, or who reviews your book. What you’re not in control of includes, also, the fact that when you are in school, it just so happens that Archibald MacLeish is teaching there, or Cal Lowell is sitting around in Boston trying to figure out where he’s going.
CD: In addition to writing your own poetry and attending Lowell’s famous workshop, you were also writing your dissertation on the 18th century novel at the same time.
SS: Yes. Sterne, Fielding; then Scott, Austen, Radcliffe, The Castle of Otranto and so on. I got my Ph.D. in ’63, which is when I started to teach. Then I left in ’67; originally I was going on a Fulbright to Egypt; they had an apartment for me near the University of Alexandria and a maid had been engaged. Then a telegram came from a Mrs. Hatch at the State Department, saying “Suggest you resume your position.” The Seven Day War was raging in ’66. So I called and said, “I’ve rented my house; stopped teaching; I’m all packed—what do you suggest?” She said, “We’ll look around for you.” I ended up in Japan.
CD: There were several poets just ahead of you who were breaking new ground—poets like Galway Kinnell , Allen Ginsberg, Robert Bly, James Wright, John Ashbery, Ruth Stone, James Merrill, Donald Hall, Howard Nemerov, whom you replaced at Bennington in 1969—all of whom were about ten years older than you.
SS: I think of them as being a generation ahead of me.
CD: Even though they were only ten years older?
SS: Ten years might be a long time!
CD: Did you converse with them? Did you read their work?
SS: I loved Galway’s work but didn’t meet him for years—not until I got to Vermont. Because he was somewhere else. I met him at a gathering at Goddard College Yes. New York. Now Howard Nemerov—he was at Washington Univ. in St Louis: we met at Harvard, in a state of mutual inebriation; inadvertently I said I was a better poet than he, which dumbfounded us both. I was sorry about that. He smiled; I apologized.
CD: You must have been impressed with his exquisite formal work, not to mention his wit.
SS: Indeed. He wrote a book I liked greatly called The Salt Garden, which was dedicated to one S.M.S. I didn’t know who that was, but those are my initials, so I could fantasize that S.M.S stood for me.
CD: You have really followed a unique path in the latter part of the twentieth century, as far as your contemporaries and other poets are concerned. You taught at Harvard; went to Japan; spent your career teaching at Bennington, maintained an accomplished and stunning formality in your work, while also writing innovative free verse.
SS: Thank you!
CD: I’m curious to know what influence Japan had on you specifically in 1967. How did that Asian lens on the Northeast, and the U.S. in general, provide “a unique distance from your own isolation”? I’m borrowing Philip Larkin’s line here from his poem “Talking in Bed.”
SS: Well, I just kept on going. I began to write as soon as I got to Japan, and most of it was in journal form because it was all so strange. It was clearly a deeply different culture and I was making all sorts of judgments. A friend from Minneapolis who was there, and a linguistic genius, Bob Cote, picked up the various Japanese modes of address; class dialects and all. I would tell Cote what this or that meant and how impressed I was. He looked at me studiously and replied, “You should write down all these things because you know more now about Japan than you ever will again.”
SS: Cote was modestly putting me in my place with that. But still, everything was contradicted. If you think this, just wait and it will be that.
CD: Returning to your attitude toward formal verse in the early sixties, I’m curious about why you’d not want to continue writing in form exclusively if you were so accomplished at it, as well as successful, receiving Academy prizes and publishing in reputable journals. I could quote from many poems, but here is just one example of your fluid, plain-speaking style in blank verse from the opening of “New England Graveyard”:
Back of the church the busy forsythias bow
And scrape to May and all these blessed stones
Stiff in their careful finery of words;
The mess of markers makes me go and browse.
SS: Well, I never assumed that I was that good at it, and one of the only avenues that I had to go down and get to the Judgment Bureau was quarterlies and magazines. I think that the tide had really shifted to a more popular and less demanding sense of what a line was, what a whole poem was, and so on. What it then comes to is what is the theme and what is the occasion of the poem? I think poetry is a very serious thing; it is a serious art form, maybe the most serious, because it uses words and, as Eliot said, “I have to use words when I talk to you”, and that’s what we have forgotten. We can’t talk to each other without using words that mean important things, and I thought that poetry had to be considered as a vessel for the continuing understanding of the important terms of our existence and of our hopes and our loves. I think that with the free verse that began to take over, along with Allen Ginsberg and others in the mid-‘60’s…
CD: And also mid to late 50’s. Howl was published in 1956.
SS: Well, Ginsberg would always be a kind of exception because he was driven in the first instance by religion, or religious questions anyway, and his desire to explore the spirit and the psyche and so on. I had, not to speak of Allen but of the vast wash of poetry being published, a sort of a love/hate relationship because you wanted to be able to do that and join the crowd, but then you couldn’t. So, what I think has happened at long last, and with much water under the bridge, is that you have to be willing to do what you are able to feel comfortable with, that is to say, what is true to yourself.
CD: Every poet goes a little bananas, don’t you think?
SS: Oh yes. I’ve been bananas frequently.
CD: When did you go bananas?
SS: The first time I ever saw Bly was at Harvard when I was a graduate student and in Harvard Hall I, and he was giving a reading and the room was just packed, and Bill Alfred introduced him and said that he had been one of his favorite students long ago, and that it was so hard to think of him having gone to Harvard. He was wearing one of his get-ups, you know, very colorful South American things, and it was very interesting, but I wondered, What was going on here? I remember that clearly.
CD: This was after he’d published Silence of the Snowy Fields?
SS: Yeah. I was always convinced that he had prevailed upon Bill Alfred to get him a gig at Harvard. He did go to Harvard, that’s right, and it’s sort of in the same way that Robert Creeley went to Harvard, and he only had sight in one eye, and he gets up and…I don’t know…He was a kid from Arlington, Massachusetts and it was very hard to get adjusted to the grandeur and pretensions of Harvard. I felt that way myself.
CD: Yeah you must’ve.
SS: And Bly, goodness yes.
CD: Both you and Bly are from Minnesota, and James Wright was also from the Midwest and Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, but lived and worked in Minneapolis as well in the early and mid sixties, and of course, John Berryman, who was at the University of Minnesota from the mid fifties until his death in 1972. But perhaps Alan Grossman, who lived just down the street from you in Minneapolis, was your most influential local influence.
SS: Yeah. We went to the same school. There was a little touch point there because he loved old books. He refused that school ethic of ra, ra, ra, ra! Just refused it and went off to Harvard then.
CD: If I could step back a minute at this point from your biography and view the body of your work. There’s a fascinating progression in your work that moves from themes of topoi or commonplaces in your first two books to a sharper focus on others—your children, neighbors, your father, proprietors, etc.— in an objective way that resists the popular confessional impulse of your generation.
SS: Oh really? I’d like to hear it.
CD: In the first couple of books, Stresses in the Peaceable Kingdom and Roofs, you write a lot about places, such as “Hiawatha” and “New England Graveyard.” Also “Duck”, “Dissolve” and “Declension,” where you are often, it seems, dealing with subjects outside yourself. Again, you’re not being confessional in the least in these books and poems—and you often struggle with the idea of yourself, or the self, in poems such as “Some Flowers” where you declare “we plunge ahead, as the light/ Changes, against ourselves.”
SS: There’s a spiritual traffic sign.
CD: In your poem “Intersections,” you write, “We do not belong to ourselves.” And “Et Quid Amabo,” the full title being “Et Quid Amabo Nisi Quod Aenigma Est,” which is from de Chirico, meaning “But what will I love if not the enigma?”
SS: Meaning the face.
CD: So on the whole, I think there’s this wonderful notion of the enigma and the face being one. There’s a fascinating struggle with the self in a lot of those early poems. The places, as I mentioned earlier, the lyric—but not lyricized experience only, just almost the pure lyric in poems such as “Dissolve,” or “Wild Ducks.” Then with Thanksgiving Over the Water, you really start placing others before you. You do a little bit in some of the early poems, like “Her River,” which is a fascinating poem, but again that’s…
SS: Lowell loved that.
CD: It is mesmerizing—like a dazed lover talking to himself in shock about what’s happened, with that wonderful double refrain—“people are so careless with each other/ It takes so long I don’t know what it means”—that repeats with slight variation in every stanza. But beginning with Thanksgiving Over the Water, suddenly there are elegies, there are poems about children, there are poems about little animals—the poem about the mole funeral, or “Her Yard” with your daughter playing by herself in the backyard. Beautiful elegies also in your fourth book Riding to Greylock. I’m thinking in particular of “Command Performance” and “Station 41” about your father, “Bridge of Abandonment” about Anne Sexton, and “The Second Law” about an AIDS victim.
SS: I’m very happy and rewarded that you can say those things.
CD: These are mid-career poems.
SS: Yeah and Harry Ford, my editor at Knopf then, called up and said, “Ok, what’s your title, Stephen? I’m going to do this book Monday.” He designed all those books and then sent them down the funnel at Knopf, and I didn’t have a title for that collection, and I finally took that piece of the Liturgy—it’s from Baptism—and you make me think that it is appropriate after all.
CD: Thanksgiving Over the Water.
SS: Yes. I do like that but I don’t think anyone else did.
CD: You once mentioned humorously that someone thought the book was about a man with “prostrate difficulties”…But no, there are so many other poems: “Earth Day Story”, “The Tack” is the best example. Let’s see, “Charlie” and…there are just too many to mention here, but suddenly you’re incorporating voices of others in the poems, and of course your poem “Nativity” about Clare’s birth. William Blake once said that “there is no more sublime act than to place another before you.” You follow this strategy repeatedly in your last four books, Overlook, Weathers Permitting, Surface Impressions, and Black Box, which you once mentioned to me was your favorite.
SS: Yeah, it’s a favorite, although probably the thing that was most important for me to write was Surface Impressions, which also had a title problem.
CD: Your ambition has increased with each new book. In the book-length poem, Surface Impressions, as well as in many of the poems in Black Box, and others also, such as “Allegheny,” “Station 41” and “Nativity”, which you wrote in the eighties, you take on larger and larger themes in long poems that grapple with such subjects as apocalypse, birth, environmental disaster, and death.
SS: Someone said, “There are many poems that it is important to write, and fewer poems that it is important to have written.” There’s a third part to that… “And there are fewer still that it is important for others to read,” meaning that if you’ve written a poem, it is there for other people to read.
CD: Could you just talk a little about your book Surface Impressions, which marks a bold departure from your previous books.
SS: It is a poem in eight parts, in which I just let myself go and wrote what came into my mind, because I had a deep feeling that I had to say something and I didn’t know what it was.
CD: You found out?
SS: And I found out.
CD: What was it?
SS: I wanted to be able to write a poem in which everything was somehow embraced, and came out with…Well I think that the beginning and the end sort of say it. Buzby was the name of my next door neighbor’s dog. They’re taking down the cross from the church and it’s in pieces in the garden. That’s sort of what happened to Christianity. The beginning goes back to childhood when they put you out in order to remove your tonsils, and you blew up this great big balloon that had laughing gas, or some kind of thing that left you completely out of touch with the world or in a new world, in which you’re trying to understand what is going on. Then our daughter wanted to go, and she joined the Peace Corps and was eventually sent to Madagascar, so I wanted to include that as a limit. Imagine being in Madagascar, because we were trying very hard to keep up with this person…Our daughter, who was at the opposite end of the globe, literally, and in this fascinating place with all these species that didn’t exist anywhere else in the world. Something like a third of the species alive in the world are native to Madagascar. I just put myself in the place of her being there. So that’s the kind of thing that makes me think of Defoe, or someone like that, just taking a journey and experiencing as much as you can of what it is. There are a lot of little hints, or little images, dropped through it, sort of religious items like triptych, and so on. Then there’s this scene in the Native American bar in downtown Minneapolis, which is not a nice place to go, but the Chippewa are notoriously subject to alcoholism and everyone was drunk all the time there, and I went down there, and who should I find but Alan Grossman! I was trying to decide whether it was this way or that way, and [inaudible] a sort of life as I had known it so far, without getting into the military. It also tries to gather together a lot of the concrete images of a life like cufflinks.
CD: So it’s really kind of a memoir of sorts?
SS: Well that’s a very misused term these days, isn’t it? Everything is a memoir! “I want to write a memoir because I can’t get my novel to work!”
CD: Well, so you’d been waiting to write that book for a long time. You didn’t know this, it seems, but had been working toward writing a book length poem, especially after your children left home. I think you had also just retired, or were about to retire, when you started to work on it.
SS: I didn’t retire until 2004, and this was published in 2002.
CD: After your children left home and you stopped writing poems about them and pastoral subjects—I’m thinking about such poems from the late ‘70’s, ‘80’s and ‘90’s as “Some Flowers”, “Egyptian Onions”, “Ray’s Garden Shop” and “Condensation,” you begin using the third person pronoun much more in your books Black Box and Weathers Permitting, Surface Impressions, and Overlook.. I’m curious if you made a conscious decision to avoid using the first person singular in those poems and for personal or strategic reasons started using second and third person pronouns.
SS: I don’t know about that, but I do know that I was conscious of having too much natural history in my poems, and finding a flower or weed or animal…
CD: A lot of pastoral imagery. Also a lot of macadam in such poems as “After a City Shower,” “Letter from Stony Creek,” “Condensation,” “Northway Tanka,” “Around Our Table,” “Thanksgiving Over the Water”…
SS: Oh God.
CD: These all have images of shining roads in them.
SS: Well a shining road is different than a shining path. But yes, trying to get on with it and all at that point. I had a feeling that I had written too much about nature, and “Little flower, I pluck thee out of the cranny,” as Tennyson would say.
CD: But again, you have to write about what you have to write about.
SS: But there was an effort to get more human drama into the other poems, and I guess Surface Impressions is partly what that’s using as a way of getting at that.
CD: But you also had many poems like “Ray’s Garden Shop” where you just confront another and listen to him. I have to say that this isn’t so present in a lot of your earlier work; it’s as if you discovered gold in a strategy of encountering others in the poems in Thanksgiving Over the Water where you begin, really for the first time in any consistent way, to place others before you, prompting you to incorporate colloquial speech into your poems, whether it’s Ray in his garden shop or the beggar in “The Tack” or Myron in “The White Oak at Eagle Bridge”—your neighbors, in many cases. These recounted encounters influenced your style in a way that increased your verbal velocity—made your lines more spoken, but still poetic, without sacrificing the elegance in your voice. I was wondering if you were aware of this turn that occurred in your work in the ‘80’s and early ‘90’s.
SS: Not in any memorable way, but that’s very good of you to point this out. The encounters perhaps give too much gilding to my humble blooms. Of course, I was aware that you can’t really adopt others’ speech habits, unless you want to pretend to be Robert Frost, a whole other kettle of pretense. Centrally, I wanted to get away from iambic pentameter.
CD: But you never really do.
SS: Well, look at “Ray’s Garden Shop,” which consists of 28 syllabically correct haiku.
CD: I stand corrected, but there is still an iambic stress there.
SS: But isn’t the English language iambic? There’s only two meters: strict iambic and loose. Didn’t Frost say that?
CD: Your early poem “Hiawatha” is the only example I can think of where you follow the Finnish poet Elias Lönnrot’s use of trochaic tetrameter in the Kaleva, as Longfellow also did in his “The Song of Hiawatha.” But you’re right, your lines are mostly iambic.
SS: It comes from long and, I suppose, careful readings and stuffing oneself with the five-beat line, the basic line in English. Of course, if you look over what is happening—out in the world—at this moment, you’ll have no sense of that rigor, because they haven’t read the work of great writers, it’s not in the mind’s ear for them. They don’t have a sense of tradition, and I have found it hard to make a connection with poets not shadowing forth any tradition, or the tradition, whichever.
CD: Could you elaborate a bit on this connection?
SS: There are two major traditions in the language, whether it’s Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Frost, and so on, Many poets when I was, shall I say, maturing, were writing without a tradition or just pouring out feelings and reactions or they’re consciously fighting against any familiar manner of exposition or response. A lot of poetry being written today in America is in some ways sitting back with Marianne Moore and Zukofsky and such, who are making a specific attempt not to write in a given meter.
I have started to read again the Aeneid as translated by William Morris. He was doing it in six-beat lines and fourteeners, and rhyming it, fecklessly changing back and forth whenever he felt like it, well not carelessly, but carefreely moving back and forth. In the long run, that doesn’t seem to work in contemporary English. You can’t make up a work of any length in six-foot or seven-foot or longer lines. And Morris is a good poet. I guess in some sense, if you have an ear, which some contemporary poets lack, at least in this country, the ear is trained or has grown into a certain ability—or shape or conception—of how the language is heard. Then it just stays dormant. It is annoying when you read poets who are trying to do something with English that they don’t really know how to do. I was just thinking, though, of Whitman and later Jeffers, and what those wonderful, great poets have is a style of voice, which we’re all told to find when we go to one of our populace of poetry degree programs. Whitman or Jeffers, who just come to mind, have a floor or base in the standard meter. They wrote in it just to show that they could, and then they moved onward…like Emily Dickinson.
CD: But meter and form…the echo of it is still very strong?
SS: The echo of it is there, although the rest may not be.
CD: It seems to me that you make a very strong argument for that connection to the legacy of poetry and present work, including you own in your poem “Thatch”, where you conclude:
When men stopped watching them—began to live
In the high wattage of what they were doing.
Once everyone knew thatch, like dark, like fire,
Presences under foot, or overhead
And fossil, to be killed, like dust. Now he knows it:
.Strong as wire, tender almost, a life
.Surprised, because it was there all the time
.Shy, smiling, asking with its dead lights.
So, if “Thatch” is a metaphor, in a way, for form here, it seems that form suffers the contumely of contemporary critics over and over again but somehow holds up throughout the ages.
SS: Well, very good sir! “Thatch” is a metaphor there, yes.
CD: But an extended metaphor.
SS: “Thatch” gets to be very thick and smelly and not waterproof either.
SS: I can’t remember if it was in England or Japan, where they use thatch too, and they change it rigorously every eighteen years.
CD: I just thought that maybe you were writing almost unconsciously about form…which may be the best way to write about something you’re feeling so strongly about all along.
SS: Only if you knew the years I spent trying to get out of that. It suddenly makes me think of a person who spent his life in the military and it’s very hard finally to quit it.
CD: It’s interesting that you say that, because you’ve really seem to have had a “lovers’ quarrel” with form. I think every healthy poet should have a “lovers’ quarrel” with how or what he or she is writing. But you always seem to come back to writing what you have to, and what you’re hearing is your breath, it’s who you are, and it’s your initial influences and how they encouraged you to write, from Wordsworth on.
SS: We had better write, in the long run, from what we must write. That’s a point very well taken, and if you have … nothing shows up more quickly than writing without purpose, without inspiration.
CD: I think you’ve tried that, and everyone tries that, and you have to. I mean, it can be very healthy at times. But in re-reading all of your books…
SS: What a task!
CD: No, it’s been a great pleasure. I hear you coming back not so much to a line that you can’t escape, but a way of hearing, which is a better way of putting it.
SS: Yes. When I am writing, one does hear it, and then one writes it down. It’s reasonably ineffable—I don’t see how to explain it without taking hundreds of words, and even then that wouldn’t do it. But you have a sense of being, as it were, “in the groove”, or that you must take this down because a voice is speaking, though you don’t want to say that that actually happens, and you feel inspired to write something down. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what it means—it just does.
CD: I was wondering, at the beginning of your career, if you didn’t have some strong reaction to those, say like James Wright or Robert Bly, who were making such fun in their magazine, The Fifties and The Sixties—of people who were writing academic poetry, some strong reaction that was at odds with what they themselves were doing. They were obviously trying to introduce a lot of European and South American modernists into American poetry. Wright broke away from form in ’61-’62 with his book The Branch Will Not Break, and you have a wonderful, it seems to me, parody of what he’s doing in your poem “Tom and Henry, Camping Out,” when you write:
…We knew if we could step out
Of our bodies they would fill up with those
Which mimics these lines from Wright’s poem “A Blessing”:
Suddenly I realize
That if I could step out of my body I would break
SS: Really, I never considered that. When I was in college after sophomore year, I got a job in Minneapolis with the Gas Company digging down to the gas mains and sealing where they leaked at their joints. I spent every lunch hour reading Hart Crane. The other workers were friendly but not, at the end of the day, “compatible,” as one might say.
CD: Would you say you took to him with the same ferocity as you took to Wordsworth?
SS: Was I ferocious with Wordsworth? But Crane is different. There’s a sort of fustian quality and lots of excitement about big words and MUSIC, music, music in his poetry that is just absolutely splendid.
CD: But you must have felt that you could write enough like him to try.
SS: You can always try to equal but really can only try. If you use Beethoven for inspiration it doesn’t mean that you’re going to write like him.
CD: Phil Levine has a wonderful story about trying to write like Dylan Thomas at the beginning of his career and failing, but in his failure also realizing that his natural style was much plainer and more narrative. He claims that Hart Crane and Dylan Thomas are the two most gifted musical poets of the twentieth century.
SS: Not Stevens?
CD: He didn’t mention Stevens, but I think he could have.
SS: I loved Dylan Thomas and liked Stevens a lot, but of course he—we shared a name—died on my birthday in 1955. I fantasized, well, his spirit entered me. Bullshit!
CD: Yes, Stevens, Crane, and Thomas were really the three, and I’m not being terribly deliberate about this, but I think the influence is obvious here. Here’s a stanza of Crane’s from “O Carib Isle!”:
The tarantula rattling at the lily’s foot
cross the feet of the dead, laid in white sand
Near the coral beach—nor zigzag fiddle crabs
Side-stilting from the path (that shift, subvert
And anagrammatize your name)—No, nothing here
Below the palsy that one eucalyptus lifts
In wrinkled shadows—mourns.
And here’s a stanza of yours from “Oyster Cove”:
The macadam is flaking and the lilac
Too big to bloom
Fingers a cobweb of smoky light from the terrace,
Grazes the sun-chalked cedar shakes. And no surprise.
Gone the lady, to Athens or Anjou. Her sunroom
Oozes silence. The paisley over the back
Of a wicker rocker. The pedals of her grand hover
Above the calm sea of the tiled floor…
There’s a very similar elegance and exoticism there.
SS: Well, ok, but I wasn’t thinking of that, it was perhaps from the ear’s subconscious. The “crashed glass”, and then there’s “wicker rocker”—onomatopoeia. I feel that this poem is well written and does what it tries to do, but, at last, it’s showing off a bit. I remember feeling that way; and that it was written to offer an explanation to those who kept wanting to know what a pergola was, and a gazing globe.
CD: Was it the pergola in this one?
SS: Yes, and I actually thought that that poem was trying to explain the feeling of pergolas, and then more folks at that time were asking what a “gazing globe” was.
CD: I think the danger of trying to emulate Crane or Thomas is showing off. You get seduced by language in a way where “sometimes the violin knows it’s a violin,” as Lorca said.
SS: I would agree, yes. But with Crane it isn’t showing off so much—he’s doing what he can do…
CD: Just so easily.
SS: Doubtless through his horrible hangover, he’s trying to make everything fit together in some way.
CD: Yes, with such extraordinary music in his language. Unequaled really.
SS: Unequaled…yes it’s beautiful. I taught a class with Alvin Feinman and he got quite fierce in defending the utter greatness of “The Broken Tower.” Alvin after all was the one who suggested Crane’s phrase the visionary company [of love] to Harold Bloom as the title for his key critical study of Romantic poetry.
CD: If we could go back to some of the early poems and the decision you made in the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s essentially to remain a formal poet. You have obviously felt the pressure throughout your career to write in free verse, as many of your peers have, while at the same time understanding the importance of remaining connected to the legacy of poetry and traditional English poetry.
SS: Well said.
CD: I know that you have been very enamored of John Ashbery throughout your career, who hasn’t written very formally, although he did write several beautiful poems in received forms early on in his career before he started writing exclusively in the fluid, insouciant style of free verse for which he has become so famous.
SS: My Ashbery indoctrination began about 1971. He was brought up to Bennington by Georges Guy to interview for a job and I had to introduce him, hence to read him, and to get a discussion going with the students. That was where it started, but not before that. Of course that was back pretty much at the beginning of his career. Now: in some degree the “new imagination” of Robert Bly was Spanish in origin, and that makes me think that the reason Spanish became so popular, not only in the Southwest where it had a right to be, but it was a language that you could excel in, if you had to take a language; Spanish was relatively easy. So Spanish spread rapidly, and now of course there are Hispanics living everywhere. Thus it was not so difficult to write poems out of one’s experience of the South American poets, the Latin American poets.
CD: Neruda was probably the most popular.
SS: Yes, Neruda and Paz in particular, but others as well, and it was an opening of a door where your work could be open to all. So there’s a difference there between what’s going on in the tradition of the English language and what’s going on in the tradition of the Spanish language—and the Spanish language of Latin America had been, if I’m not mistaken, somewhat simplified and lyricized by not being part of the peninsular Spanish tradition of tightly written formal poetry. I can’t elaborate on it further because—Spanish is not my tongue. That may have something to do with it. Robert Bly has Spanish and I assume Wright did.
CD: Wright had more German.
SS: Of course, German—that’s how Franz Wright got his name. But then Wright was living at Robert Bly’s.
CD: They lived together on Bly’s farm near Bly’s friend William Duffy in Pine Island, Minnesota. But it’s interesting because if you think about Wright and Bly, Wright could write in form magnificently, as we see in The GreenWall and Saint Judas, those first two books of his that came out in the fifties, and he writes circles around almost everybody. Bly was never a great formalist—he just never had a great ear. He found his voice after going to Norway in the early sixties, then in 1962 publishing Silence in the Snowy Fields that contained spare, free verse poems. So they were two very different poets. Bly revered Wright for his manifold gifts as both a formal and free verse poet, but they were really very different poets. I’m so fascinated by what you were doing at the same time in the early ‘60’s, maybe later ‘60’s, when Bly and Wright and Kinnell were trying to let the dogs in. A lot of confessional poetry was being published in free verse at the time as well. It was in fact the heyday of confessional poetry. Sylvia Plath had published Colossus already and Ariel was published posthumously in 1965. Anne Sexton was writing up a storm and Robert Lowell had also begun to write confessionally after being influenced by his student W.D. Snodgrass’s Pulitzer Prize winning volume Heart’s Needle in 1959. I think it’s fascinating what you said earlier, that you felt writing in form was like the military to you in a way, which was so hard to get out of. It was difficult for you to write outside of form, but at this point you must feel like you had made some peace with it. I’m not sure; I’m presuming this.
SS: With the military or with form?
CD: With both actually.
SS: Yes, I made peace with it, but it is an interesting figure. I spent years trying to get out of the military—literally—and I’ve spent years trying to get out of the formal verse.
CD: Do you know why?
SS: Well because I wanted to live my life!
CD: As Robert Lowell claimed, free verse helped one to do…“create a breakthrough back into life.” I feel, as your reader, that I’m entering your later poems—those since the publication of The Thread in 1998— in media res. I have to figure out exactly where that point is. You avoid the first person assiduously, which in turn forces you to “live” in the other, as if you’re wary of being too solipsistic or narcissistic in creating a self-absorbed without a transpersonal speaker.
SS: I think that I would say it’s more painterly to have a he or a she there in that. I try to make it all the more impersonal in some way.
CD: But again you’ve always been that way. It’s interesting that you haven’t used that style as much, though if you go back to the early poems, you are reluctant to use the first person or talk about yourself in an “American” way—it’s American to say “I did this” or “I went here” or “I, I, I”.
SS: Well, you know, I think that has to do with poetry workshops where the kids were saying “I went to the bathroom” and so on, and I remember I kept telling a lot of students, also in Gen Ed A or the basic composition courses, you know, I had these little ideas for how to write poems, and I said, “Don’t use the first person. Just steer clear of it, and after a while…and so on.” But then you see that for people like Lowell or Shakespeare the I is never the true I.
CD: But in addition to saying what I just did about the arc of your work, I also find this tendency occurring throughout your work of concluding with profound observation—what Richard Howard aptly calls in his blurb for Black Box “sweet reason and/or beautiful imagery.” Of course you have that influence of going back to your undergraduate days at Yale of reading a lot of Chinese and Japanese poetry, and learning to appreciate the power of imagery. You wrote a book, Netsuke Days in 2003 in which you rely on evocative imagery entirely in one brief poem after another. This book didn’t, in my opinion, receive enough attention. Here are two of my favorites from this collection:
Icarus: his two white legs
sticking out of the
sea, making a victory sign.
Get what you ask for
by and large
according to the sticker—
….smarter than your son.
SS: The Japanese are so conscious of not belonging that they have no Emersonian self-reliance. My friend Takano was always said something like that. “We can’t stand alone—we have to do what we are told to do.” He ended up by being the chairman of the English department at this huge university, yet he was arrested falsely for demonstrating, even peaceably, and he was in jail for a little while. He got out and he didn’t have anything to do with anybody. But they feel so strongly like that—like they are part of a group, of a complex, of a family
CD: Well you say this in “A Short Account of the Japanese”—“Still in step, arm in arm, the Japanese do nothing, not even skiing, alone.”
CD: The full line, or the full sentence, about “ourselves” in your poem “Intersections” compares our intractable if ironic foreignness from ourselves in this metaphorical way: “We do not belong to ourselves;/ even the night soon belongs to a morning.” So that’s the kind of profound observation, or “sweet reason” that Richard Howard was talking about and you are able to pull off repeatedly in the endings of your poems with the belief that images, unlike explanations or telling, contain what Ezra Pound called “intellectual and emotional complexes in an instant of time.” Another poem in which you do this so successfully is “Stony Creek.”
SS: You gave me that poem, sir.
CD: Well, no I didn’t—you wrote it.
SS: Yes, but you took me there.
CD: Yes, I took you there, but you found the words for it and this conclusion: ”Lichens peel, and you see in;/ the light on the water trembles, rises.” So there are many poems like this where you are admirably patient with the image, realizing its power. That there is no more telling you can do or should do at that point in the poem. The showing is absolutely enough. I think you learned this from your immersion in Japanese and Chinese poetry during your Fulbright and beyond.
SS: I’m sure that yes I did, but if somebody gives you the right substance, and you don’t know about it, you can see down into stone from rock, and that’s been a very important image for me.
CD: Right. To quote one more poem, “Station 41,” which is an elegy about your father and concludes also with a powerful image.
The mottling and the cyanosis had begun.
I would not comprehend the urgency,
He was so strong, headstrong; strongest of men,
He’d stay among his three at least till one
At bedside, daughter or son,
Hugged him to speech, to bless
From his high wilderness
His child, but toiled then, now with joke, now rage.
At last it was mine to be next: to disengage
And sing, as the tenor, called to his loveliest
Work, brightens the stage
Alone and sings, by the dark hall possessed.
Such beautiful music. The occasion isn’t overwhelmed by verbal showing off or sentimentality. There’s an exquisite mastery of form here also that’s in the service of the occasion, enhancing the pathos of your father’s passing, and your concomitant awareness of being “next.”
SS: So at the last section of that poem I felt that I had finally gotten there.
CD: I mentioned to you earlier that I’m fascinated by your religious sensibility that is never overt in your poems. Maybe there are a few examples that I’m overlooking—can you think of one where you address the subject of religion directly?
SS: “Ray’s Garden Shop”.
CD: In which Ray says near the end of the poem:
He dropped to his knees
and said, I don’t know
what your beliefs are, I don’t
……….want to offend you
but I believe that
heaven and hell are right here
………on this earth. Mind you
I’m no atheist
but, see, after flesh-and-blood
……….it’s bye-bye baby.
friend, just look, this marvelous
……….stuff growing away
right on the shoulder
right in the oil and sand and all
……….this dust. He bent his
old dry body down
and held a head of dust-white
me to see.
I think that speaks a huge amount about the dialectic that runs throughout your work. You’ve been an Episcopalian throughout your life, and yet here in this poem you have this gardener speaking in a kind of double way about not being an atheist, on the one hand, but believing that “heaven and hell are right here,” as he points to a flower—the hen and chicks— nobody really notices by the side of the road.
SS: You have to pay attention, as you know, to what one writes about and what one does not. That is different from saying what I write about and what I don’t write about. You can’t get away with it, because it somehow lacks seriousness, it lacks wit, it lacks attractively displayed perception.
CD: You mean religious writing?
SS: Yeah. I mean, it’s just straight out of a prayer book, or something, or an event from the Bible, which is already handled better in the Bible. I think that sometimes…well, Archibald MacLeish did well with Job in JB.
CD: What about Eliot’s “Four Quartets”?
SS: Well that’s very different: a. because he gets away with it, and b. it’s deeply personal, and Eliot, as he is quoted in one of his letters to I guess John Middleton Murry, is, as far as he’s concerned, damned and going to hell because he couldn’t do right by Vivian. He was in a place, as we say, where he felt very stiff and depressed and so on, and he worked very hard at publishing in order to do a good job there, but he was not having a real life there. So he was able to deal with that, and then “Little Gidding” was very much his state of mind, and he quoted Julian of Norwich’s famous aphorism, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well,” and the big charming part of that was when he writes to Virginia Woolf, “Come to tea on Wednesday, tea on Tuesday, or dinner Wednesday night.” She writes back, “You must come on Wednesday for dinner.” He writes back and says, “That is wonderful, and I can teach you the basics of the Grizzly Bear, and a couple of other dances that I can’t remember the name of after dinner.” They danced later, which was unimaginable for Virginia Woolf or Eliot, but he was known as a great fan of the burlesque theaters, and the minstrel shows. In Boston, we used to go all the time! When I was teaching twentieth century poets at Brown, I’ve no memory of doing it, but I danced up on the stage or podium and did a little Charleston or something, and I did things for this rather large crowd I had there, and it was just an act in passing, and I think talking about “Four Quartets” and so on, there were those two sides of Eliot. As I’m always saying to myself, “Well, X could get away with that because of his experience and because of his craft.”
CD: Well you have both.
SS: Well, maybe I don’t have the confidence, who knows.
CD: It’s interesting because your views seem to be different from your religious tradition, or the deity of your religious tradition. You know, the traditional view of God within the Episcopal tradition is at odds, say, with the Muse or what your speaker says in “Ray’s Flower Shop.” There’s a freedom that you must feel when you’re writing poetry outside of the religious tradition—you put words in your speakers’ mouths that are consistent with your Episcopal faith, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily feel contradictory or “schizy” about what you think or believe. Do you ever feel that your writing is your religion?
SS: No. It’s not a religion; it’s literature.
CD: The difference is?
SS: It’s a question of degree, I guess. I don’t know. The difference is that poetry is what you can do and religion is what somebody else can do with more power and with more perspective than I could possess.
CD: You say “somebody else” meaning the Church?
SS: The Church, the whole history of the varied histories of the religions. I think it’s possible to find in Christianity a sort of way to understand how some religions seem to be, or practices seem to be truly pagan or something of that sort. At the same time, in Japan it’s a religious world in some way. The Japanese believe that no religion is a final club—you know what I’m saying? All of the Christians in my society are all finalists who can’t…you can’t be a Baptist and also be a…there’s a community of Lutherans in the Episcopalians, but I don’t care about any of that stuff. But they have the Shinto practices, and the Buddhists, of which there are six different sects—sometimes very different—in Japan. They also allow people to be Episcopalians and so on. They don’t care about that—it’s all the same. I don’t quite feel that I live in that world because of the intolerance of…I mean, the United States has a society that I know is one of the more intolerant ones.
CD: I’m thinking of certain poets besides, let’s say Eliot, who tried through their poetry to reach or to achieve some sort of salvation in the act of writing itself, outside of the traditions of various religions. I’m thinking of “A Dolphin” by Lowell or maybe “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” by Williams or “Trial by Existence” by Frost, and Coleridge’s “The Ancient Mariner,” where poets, not so much through religious avenues or with religious language, attempt to work towards some sort of salvific goal in their poems.
SS: Coleridge had a terrible time facing anything, and one feels his religious concerns, starkly so when he was young, finally leveling off into a kind of, well, not complacency, but a treaty with the world in which he lived, when he found that he could be happy in a situation where there was a doctor to care for him and to give him the occasional shot of morphine or whatever. He talked a great deal about metaphysical ideas and organizations of the world, but he became a very, or what I think is a very agnostic, very civilized agnostic person, who just lived his life up in northern London and enjoyed the birds and the bees.
CD: Before we end I’d like to ask you about the state of American poetry. Where would you begin?
SS: I can’t imagine the rattled poetry competition, with thousands of submissions, coming up with a winning poem called “Ode to the Mother of a Dispossessed, Crazy, Lesbian Daughter”, and have the runner-up be a poem called “Jane’s Garage Sale.” It just makes you think oh goodness, how we have become involved with the socio-political questions of our time, or the minor economic front of having a tag sale, or something like that. But where is the serious and accomplished writing, rhetoric, meaning, and ground of the poetry that exists as an important part of our lives? Where is it in those things? It’s like people have focused their snapshots better and call that “art,” or something. So I think that there are just as many, if not more, very good poets writing today as ever, but it’s very hard to put your finger on them because we have this explosion of topical forgettable poems.
CD: The “Big Tent” of American poetry? The explosion of MFA programs, and schools here and there and journals and publications and small presses publishing everything under the sun.
SS: Yes publishing has become terribly easy—anybody can do it, but it can’t be distributed. I got a subscription to Poets & Writers just to behold what’s going on, and it’s just unbelievable! You can apply for a scholarship if you’re someone who writes about uninhabited country—places in Minnesota, for example. There are all these kinds of things in there.
CD: So you feel that there is a real dearth of knowledgeable arbiters these days.
SS: Publishing is a business. The technological breakthrough that has occurred over the past thirty years, which enables anybody with a few hundred dollars to publish a pamphlet, has created a surfeit of poems in the open market. But then, how does it get distributed? Well it doesn’t, except online. I for one have absolutely no idea how this is all going to pan out—I think the idea of what I would define as poetry, classical poetry, or great poetry, would be very different from a lot of students. I’m auditing this course in the Baroque and there are very bright kids in there. This kid I was sitting next to had his little machine out. I said, “Please don’t do that, especially when you’re right next to me, because it gets confusing with what I’m trying to say.” “Oh I was trying to find…” But the last Friday he came up to me in class—he’s really such a very nice and bright person—and he said, “I wanted to thank you,” and mentioned, “I saw your poem in The New Yorker, and isn’t that just great?” I said, “Well, it’s very small, but thank you very much!” He said, “And it was so funny!” I guess it was funny, but I don’t know in what regard.
CD: Well, I guess I’m a little curious about how you feel, as someone who has aspired to write memorable poetry, has worked his whole life on mastering form and inventing your own forms, creating your own memorable language with a clear connection to the legacy of poetry, and has been mindful of the music and the meaning and imagery in your poetry in a way that connects, again, to the legacy of poetry but in a way that you’ve tried to “make new” yourself, and has spent your whole life doing, fifty years or more, publishing widely and receiving a lot of acclaim and are now witnessing a poetry scene that has become more and more demotic, while at the same time creating a very blurred line between synchronic and diachronic writing. I guess my question is what’s a poet to do? What’s a poet with your interests and your kind of talent and your record to say to the director of an M.F.A. program today. What do you do or say?
SS: We can’t possibly know what effect the death of privacy and birth of an electronic-everything will have on us. I think that what one can only do, or must do, is simply carry on with his or her project. Since the age of eight I’ve been writing poems and I probably will continue, although I have to get settled a little bit. One always goes through dry places—another one of my “desert places” are everywhere. I think it’s part of our lives. I don’t really approve so much of how these writing programs, all apparently, as far as I can determine, are telling their students “you must write every day.” Well, that doesn’t mean you should write poetry every day; you need to keep your books, write your checks. But I’m not sure that you should; there should be many days when you don’t. If you feel life is not worth living, if you do not have a stream of poems coming out all the time, you get some pretty bad work, and I can give you a list of names. You can come to some of them yourself.
CD: If you were going to talk to a young writing student today and had to tell him or her the importance of reading, of connecting himself or herself to the tradition of poetry, what exactly would you say to them about why that’s important?
SS: Well, I’ve told innumerable college students whom I’ve taught just to do that, and I’ve written many, many reading lists out and so on. I used to always recommend that you should not go to an MFA program. If you just want a degree, and can afford it, then fine, but if you have other needs then you should go to graduate school in biology or something so you’ll learn a different set of terms and rules and everything. I think that’s the wise thing to recommend, but it does seem to me at times that all the people I’ve most thoroughly told not to go to MFA school did.
CD: Because they felt they had to?
SS: Well, it’s something to do, and of course, MFA’s authorize those who take them to become semi-authorized authors. “I’m a legitimate poet or essayist or fiction writer,” whatever that means. It puts a seal of approval on one’s effort to become a writer. If you’re already a winner in that regard then no problem, but, you know, I don’t suppose it does any harm until the numbers approach millions.
CD: But why read Coleridge, Wordsworth, Donne, Shakespeare when I’m enjoying writing the story of my life right now?
SS: Yes, well they tell you that the great human experiences have always been duplicated on a smaller, lesser plane and a smaller scale than they were originally done. You have to imbibe the tradition.