- Micheal O'Siadhail
I'd like to start with a general and personal question. I get a sense from your work that your second marriage at 44 to Jane Kenyon, your quitting academia at 47 and your move here to Eagle Pond has unfolded a whole new world?
It was a whole new life and I gather from reading the critics who like my things that they think - although I started wri~in? when I was twelve, got serious when I was fourteen, began publIshmg.when I was sixteen, published a book in my twenties - that I fmally began to hit my stride when I was fifty. That's wonderful.' in that I'd sooner that direction rather than the reverse. Certamly the things you mention are what seem important. The first thing w~s marrying Jane, because it was she who led me here. Although thIS is my family place, it was she who had the courage to lead me to come here permanently. There was a marriage of landscape a~d culture. The change in my environment - from the academIc world to this country place - can not be underrated. When I'd been here several years somebody mentioned that my poetry now tended so much to vocabulary, to syntax, and I realized that one of the things I was doing unconsciously was talking to my neighbours and also to some extent talking for my neighbours. I'd never done
that before. Once I found out I was doing it, I became conscious of it as a possible limitation. But I think, more than a limitation, it has been a liberation from the transitory nature, from the constant change of the American academic scene and the kind of false value put upon publication in the university. At that time it seemed there were distortions all around me which I'd lived with all my adult life. Here I live in a land with a changing light over the day and with the seasons and the animals and the plants as opposed to living with, say, the artificiality of a continually laid out lesson to the early adult population in classrooms. It's an entirely different world. The contrast could not be greater. It's certainly been happy for me ,but I think its been very helpful to my work too. Did you find leaving your professorship at Ann Arbor a release and a source of new energy? Or was this a difficult decision? Yes, it was frightening. It was just frightening from a financial point of view. I didn't feel anything else coming here. Before I came here, I perhaps feared that I could no longer write about this place, that it would no longer be the engine of energy that it had been. Of course, the reverse was true. I immediately wrote out of it more than I had before. But I had two children - one of whom was in college, one of whom was not yet old enough to go to college - and I had the usual middle class fears of not providing for them. I've been very fortunate in making a living by writing with a couple of textbooks that sold very well and one children's book in particular that made a great deal of money. Of course, I have also been able to read my poems all over the country for good wages. It's worked out very well financially. When I was first here, I was frightened about money; I had never really been on my own before. I'd been with the credited grade business and the retirement and health insurance that the university provides. It was a new way of thinking. I began to read the financial pages of the papers - I don't mean to say with intelligence, but I began to read them in any case! It was as if what the world in general has to worry about, I began to have to think about also. My first few years I panicked a lot and then the panics gradually decreased. Panics are no good. I'm not in favour of panics, but they were at least related to something real in the world. But I'm pretty calm about it now. I don't know how I'm going to make my living two years from now but I know I will. I didn't worry about missing the university or the culture of the university. I knew better than that! Mind you when I go round to read my poems I go to universities. I touch in on that world and it's very pleasant and sometimes it reminds me of what I got out of. So I haven't left it entirely. You've said in a previous interview that your whole life comes out of the conflict between two cultures: that of suburbia and that of the country. Would it be too simplistic to suggest that at another level this conflict issues in Kicking the Leaves, The Happy Man, and The One Day as a tension between continuity: If we praise trees, let us praise the acorns of generations and disjuncture:
And now when my managers fly to Chicago on Tuesday and divorce in Santo Domingo on Wednesday and cremate their stepchildren on Thursday
without leaving on Friday the names their grandmothers were born to ....
That's the tension and it always was. You know Henry Adams in 1914 talked about acceleration. When you think that he talked about it in 1914, my heavens, he should come now and see it in 1990. There is acceleration not just in the suburbs where I grew up, and indeed where my mother still lives at the age of eighty-seven. The change in the last twenty, thirty years is just extraordinary. There is change here but it's absolutely a snail's pace. One lives among people who have stayed in the same place, who know their connections to the past and therefore implicitly a future. The university is a place of great acceleration. There are good small colleges in the country without a great deal of change. I was at a big state university in the midwest - The University of Michigan _ and that, like most prestigious places or large places or city places, was full of change. There's a constant statement made about universities. If you go to a party, one third of the people in the room were not in the city the year before and one third will not be there the next year. The university has more acceleration than, say, General Motors. It's a nervous place. I like this quietness and yes, the bifurcation was there from the start and if anything it accelerated in my life. It became more intense. When I came to this place I was able to lean back and sigh and look at things that were permanent. This was very important to me. A constant theme throughout your work is this respect for ancestral figures: She closes her eyes to glimpse the vertical track that rises from the underworld of graves,
souls ascension connecting dead to unborn, rails that hum with a hymn of continual vanishing where tracks cross.
Is it fair to say that this respect is the connecting point between your early interest in , say Edwin Muir and Henry Moore or in Remembering Poets, and a poem like Stone Walls where "At Thornley's Store,lthe dead mingle with the living"? Yes, it is so wonderful to be able to live in a society in which you can even consider that. What I have to do is to remember the value of the lateral movement and that's what Rebecca, my sister, in that poem has to remind herself of. After all, her people came across the sea to arrive here and there is value in that. She is so concerned with the vertical herself. Moving back here, I value the vertical so much because it is something that is absent elsewhere. I have to remind myself of the value of the horizontal and I hope I do.
Do you think your struggle with a suburban background makes you more conscious of coming to terms with the brutality of nature. I'm thinking of lines such as:
Quail scream in the fisher's jaw; then the fisher dotes. The coy-dog howls, raising puppies that breed more puppies
to rip the throats of rickety deer in March.
I mean to be conscious of the brutality in nature because I mean not to sentimentalize it (as Bambi is - I'm thinking of Walt Disney's deer). The deer is an animal and the fisher is an animal. The animals, like us, will kill each other. I need to look at that to remind myself that it's a kind of reality and, in large part, linked to my struggle with the suburban, because the suburban, as I define it, is the language of euphemism. Euphemism and uniformity are both the denials of death, the putting of death into a hideous obscene corner somewhere. It's from this ambience that a lot of lies about the natural world emerge. In a way, the suburbs exist in order to deny the natural world and to deny nature and change. It's a denial that, obviously, we can't sustain for a whole lifetime, but we can sustain it for periods. The suburban world is dedicated to that denial. I, in my struggle with it, want to deny the denial. When I come to the natural world, I emphasize not just the beauty of the birch tree but the necessary rotten tree right next to it, which provides its sustenance to the future. Despite what you call 'the successiveness of creatures' I feel there is a thirst for life in your poems: ... though we drink from this cup every day we will never drink it dry There is energy in this. Death is inevitable. You keep fighting it every moment and the fisher may dote but the fisher goes down fighting and so on.
There seems to me to be a juxtapositioning of light and dark?
Tomorrow we eat the body and drink the blood in the community of the white church
for the day's pleasure occupies a pew beside suffering.
Yes. Without the one the other is sentimental.
That sentimentality almost makes it impossible to affirm life, 'to achieve an affirmation in death's face because of death's face'. Am I right in thinking that the house and home stand out as your symbol of nobility and achievement?
We plant; we store the seedcorn. Our sons and daughters topdress old trees. Two chimneys require:
Work, love, build a house, and die. But build a house.
I think of my grandparents as nobly affirming life and resisting depression and despair in this house and then, keeping it, constructing it. By keeping things they constructed a permanence for the future. Yes, the word 'noble' was a word I used a long time ago in the Elegy for Wesley Wells, which you probably remember. But I would still stand by it.
One point I was curious about is the use of italics for the female voice in Shrubs Burnt Away in the 'Inferno section' of The One Day. In The Happy Man this device wasn't used. I must say I found it a great help in sorting out the voices.
I used quotation marks in The Happy Man. I had used quotation marks before for narrative monologues. When this new voice came in I thought quotation marks would do it. I established her as a woman, but it turned out that many people didn't understand that quotation marks meant somebody different was speaking and it confused a great many people. Several people had suggested to me that italics would make it easier. I resisted it for a while but, in between the two versions, I tried italics. I tried it on people who hadn't read it before. It did make things easier, so I decided I liked it. Now I'm ready to take credit for it myself! Jane or Peter Davison may have suggested it but I finally did it. I did want to distinguish the voices quite clearly.
There is an unmistakeable shift towards a subconscious approach in The One Day. I know that you've written that much of it was 'dictated in bursts' and that you hewed it subsequently into 'ten line chunks' but was it in any sense a deliberate stylistic move from, say, the type of sequence you used in Kicking the Leaves?
Well, you know, the first seventy pages of language that became The One Day came before Kicking the Leaves. Have you read the new poems in The Alligator Bride? There are surrealist poems there. The Alligator Bride is a rather surrealist poem. There are poems there that are more truly dreamlike. I use unconscious
materials more obviously, or at least as obviously, as anything in The One Day. In many ways people looked upon The One Day as a piece where I took things that I had learned how to do earlier and put them together so the first and third parts are highly realistic and the middle part is certainly not. The four classic texts have extraordinary exaggeration and mixtures of time scales and so on. I find that poems like The Blue Wing, The Alligator Bride and a number of other middle period things are more Freudian probably than The One Day. I started reading Freud away back in 1953 when I was at Stanford. I met a guy there named Mike Lenenthal who read about Freud and talked about him a lot. I began to read the late Freud: the feature of an illusion and of civilization as discontent. I loved it.
Many years later I went into therapy with a Freudian, a man who was an analyst, but would take, maybe, one therapeutic patient. He took me on for two or three days a week for therapy rather than an analysis, but the Freudian method, the Freudian thinking and ideas were similar. It was extraordinarily important to me. I brought in dreams but I also brought in poems. I didn't bring them in in a manuscript. I brought them in to talk about them. We would talk about a poem as if it were a dream and every now and then he would remind himself - and me - 'This is not a dream we're talking about, this is a poem'. For instance, in The Alligator Bride there is an Empire table and a Chinese carpet. These are not directly part of the narrative line; they're just little details. But when an analyist is talking about a dream, he is apt to say 'What does the table look like?' or 'You said there was a picture on the wall, what was the picture like?' I wouldn't go out and revise the poems therefore, but I think that what happened during the five years of therapy was that I became increasingly attentive to the given details of the nightdream and the daydream. Sometimes there are daydreams that are as uncontrolled as nightdreams and I listened to these dreams. There, like new words, I watched them but I also listened to them and would carry around details that I had observed until I understood that this had become part of my equipment of self-understanding. It was part of my equipment also for understanding others and therefore would become part of poetry, eventually my poetry. I think I did indeed use it.
The poetry of Kicking the Leaves, except maybe for Eating the Pig at the beginning, is largely more realistic and literal. Eating the Pig comes out of a tradition of the work just before it and it
goes into the four classic texts and perhaps moments elsewhere. Certainly, both characters, a man and a woman, have dreams and out of their dreams come images that get worked in later on. Ultimately, they're all one consciousness anyway. The woman and the man, you may have noticed, share a couple of images. That's on purpose and not accidental! I hope nothing is accidental. Nothing is supposed to be, though I'm sure things are. I try to be aware. I begin my poems frequently not knowing what the hell I'm talking about. By the time I end them, I want to know a lot about them. That's why it takes so long.
You often talk about spending years. How does that work? Will you work on different poems over several years?
Yes, I'll work on a bunch. Mostly, for the last twenty years, I've worked every morning on poems. I've worked on four or five or six poems but I've, at the same time, another bunch - maybe another five or ten that are dormant volcanoes. I'll work on the s~me four or five maybe for several months and then get furious WIth them, exhausted, angry. I put them away and bring out others that I have put away for four months and find myself ready to work on them. That's being typical. Nothing is ever as neat as it sounds in retrospect. I was very ill last Fall. I think I'm alright. Since I recovered from that I've been working on more lines at once than I'v~ ever ~orked o~ in my life. I'm not finishing any more qUIckly. I m not gomg to be foolish, but I work right now on maybe hundreds of lines everyday. I work many hours and revise a great deal. I kn?w Henry Moore, when he was in his fifties - just before I knew hIm - had a serious illness with his lungs. He had been gassed in the first World War. Friends who talked to me about him that time said that Henry only used to work about f?urteen hours but when he got sick he started working up to the eIghteen hours or so. I think this is what happened to me. A change happened in my life last year.
In your conversation with Liam Rector you've expressed an imp~t.ience with. the soft-centred 'boost-don't-knock' school of cn~z~lSm a~d ~zth the narcissism at the heart of much poetry w~ztzng, whzch zgnores the canonic texts of the tradition. Do you stzll fell strongly about this?
Yes, I do. There's a lot of it in the United States and I may see it in England also. (I don't know Ireland well enough. I know eight or ten poets in Ireland who are very good but I don't know the ground base. I don't read the magazines.)
There is poetry as a form of behaviour, poetry as a form of political activism and poetry having the right ideas and correct political ideas - even ideas that I'm in favour of - poetry having populist ideas and so on. That has no relationship to George Herbert and for that matter to T.S. Eliot or William Butler Yeats. I just think that poetry comes out of many things but one of the things it must come out of is other poetry. I remember once Seamus Heaney and I were talking about American poetry. He was praising it to a degree but 'it lacks song' he said. The song in Irish poetry is the source, much more than most English poetry. But the lack of song is partly a lack of that sense of literary layering, of going back through the song that rises out of Wyatt and Chaucer. It goes through Dickenson and Whitman too. I think we detach from England at some point but I feel that lack. But then I feel the strong presence of it in certain American poets, in Galway Kinnell, for instance, and many others. I like this period of American poetry.
I'm saying two things that there is boost-don't-knock criticism. There are people who literally say if you can't praise a book don't talk about it. I don't think it's useful to take a bad book by an unknown poet and spend fifty pages saying everything,that's wrong with it. But I think it is very important to take a bad book by a well-known poet and try to stop it. Then it's important to be in earnest.
There is the inevitable question about poetry in our age, one you also posed in an essay: what if literature allows us to play at pseudo-feelings and harden our hearts? How do you answer that question?
You know Geoffrey Hill. Geoffrey is so full of this: 'the tongue's atrocities'. This is something that you find very very few American poets ever considering. Most of the American poets I know whom I admire, like Galway Kinnell or Philip Levine, feel that poetry is this magnificent art that is neglected by too many Americans; they love it so much and they love it in a way that does not include criticism of it as a general thing or even the vision of it as possibly corrupt or corrupting. I think it's because of a sense of being
embattled. If you don't entertain the notion that with your own poetry you might tell lies to yourself that please yourself or that make yourself better in the eyes of others or in your own eyes, you might use it in order to substitute, say for the mourning of your dead, pleasure in the picture of your self-mourning. You need that serious irony. You know irony for Americans tends to mean a sarcastic wise-crack but irony, as I'm speaking of it here, is corrosive enough and unsettling and absolutely necessary to the life of the spirit. You can not be a religious man without being a sceptic and constantly examining your commitment to the spirit. Most American Protestant religious people regard any suggestion of scepticism as just for burning at the stake instead of being an absolutely essential part of faith. So the praise for poetry, the love of poetry, must be equally accompanied by a fear and suspicion of it.