Many of these poems are “formal”; some use famously difficult received forms like the ballade and terza rima, and others use forms you seem to have invented. Can you talk a little bit about how form figures into your writing process?
Form has a strong gravitational pull on me, but I want to make sure I’m asking the fact for the form, as Emerson puts it. I’m also partial to Marianne Moore’s sly little proviso: “Ecstasy affords the occasion, and expediency determines the form.” I don’t think of myself as a diehard formalist—it’s not as if I keep an assorted stock of fixed forms close at hand like Julia Child’s famous particle-board kitchen wall where all her gleaming culinary paraphernalia dangled on hooks. It’s more of an architectural principle: form follows function, and sometimes the blueprints call for a received form and other times an improvised nonce form as the larger design takes shape. All forms were nonce forms, once upon a time, and I want to see if I can kindle a spark of that original sense of discovery and immediacy in a way that won’t seem dutiful or mechanical: ideally, the occasion and the expediency will come off as a seamless whole.
So why write a ballade? Why subject yourself to the stress and the strain of terza rima (especially in English, where terminal rhymes come a lot dearer than in Dante’s Italian) or the jujitsu routine of a pantoum? I confess that the athletic discipline of such things appeals to my appetite for difficulty, but I can’t recall ever sitting down and musing, “Today’s a fine day for a pantoum.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that! One reason I found myself writing “Ballade of the Golden Arm” was that I’d been devouring Villon and was captivated by how the strenuous rigor of his ballades seemed to be the secret of their ferocious vigor—there’s this tremendous tension between the constraints of the prosody and the release of verbal energy. A ballade is a lyric form built on set refrains, and I also just like playing around with patterns of repetition and recurrence, seeing what can be done with the incantatory acoustics of variation and modulation. As for the terza rima, the motive there was almost purely mimetic: I was looking for a way to animate my treatment of those ancient Inca artifacts known as quipus, which were intricate woven objects employed for record-keeping and storytelling in place of written language. And when it comes to an intricately interwoven stanzaic form, there’s no beating terza rima.
Form isn’t just about line counts and rhyme schemes, of course. It’s the process of wedding a certain sense of line with a certain turn of mind, so as to sustain a certain distinctive tone or quality of speech. Regardless of whether you’re availing yourself of received forms or making it up as you go along, writing with a sense of form means fine-tuning your facility for prosody, which is just a fancy way of saying that you’re paying close attention to how the poem’s lines are working. Otherwise, you might as well be writing in sentences. I figure that’s what Dickinson is telling us when she says, “I Dwell in Possibility—A fairer House than Prose.”
What about the poems in which each stanza is a haiku? What made you want to adopt and Americanize such a non-English form?
"Bambino Sutra" (May 2006)
A poem by David Barber. [with audio]
You’re talking about my “New World Sutras,” a sequence of poems that constellate around archetypal American personas that grip me for one reason or another. There’s a “Houdini Sutra,” a “Satchmo Sutra,” a “Great Stone Face Sutra” (that’s Buster Keaton), and so forth. It was another attempt to get inside the skin of historical figures, this time with an exclusive focus on those who left some indelible mark on the American imagination. But my starting point was discovering that the word “sutra” in Sanskrit literally means “thread” or “line”—in its original religious sense it referred to a pithy verse or aphorism, or a collection of such utterances. As a longtime enthusiast of aphorisms, epigrams, and the like, I couldn’t resist updating this concept a bit, and I was further emboldened by the fact that sutras took all kinds of eclectic forms as they evolved into one of the principal modes of Buddhist and Hindu scripture. I wanted to see what would happen if I tried creating my own kind of hybrid, an amalgamation of East and West, Old World and New World, the ancient and the modern, the sacred and the profane.
Casting the poems in so-called haiku stanzas was an effort to give that fusion some formal grounding. The true-blue Japanese haiku strikes me as virtually an impossible form to transplant into English (the streamlined syllable count is only one element in its highly stylized idiom), but ever since the Imagists latched onto it a century ago it’s been incorporated into the gene pool of American poetry as a paradigm for verbal compression and figurative precision. It gave me a fixed unit of measure to work with, and I got drawn into the technical challenge of using syllabics as a kind of stealth prosody, a notational pattern that insinuates itself surreptitiously in the flexing of syntax rather than in the pulse of accentual stresses. Part of the impulse here was to give voice to a talismanic brand of American ingenuity and ambition as personified by the likes of Audubon and Babe Ruth and the groundbreaking action photographer Eadweard Muybridge, and to do so in a way that lent itself to a gnomic and epigrammatic style of expression. The supple density of the haiku stanza struck me as a handy means to that end.
What’s a Wonder Cabinet, anyway?
I was hoping you’d ask that. I guess it qualifies as yet another arcane fixation, but somehow or another it turned into an animating trope. I’m trading on both its metaphorical connotations and its historical associations: Wunderkammern, or art and curiosity cabinets, as they came to be loosely called, were all the rage in the glory days of late Renaissance Humanism and are now generally regarded as forerunners of modern museums. A wonder cabinet was literally a gallery or alcove where aristocrats with a bent for learning housed their personal collections of natural marvels and strange artifacts, oftentimes unheard-of relics and novel objects gleaned from the terra incognita of the New World on the early voyages of exploration and discovery. The renowned Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, for example, got its start as Elias Ashmole’s private wonder cabinet. That kind of thing is catnip for me.
One of the book’s epigraphs is my favorite thumbnail description of a wonder cabinet, taken from a passage by the polymath English courtier Francis Bacon: “And so you may have in small compass a model of the universe made private … a goodly, huge cabinet wherein whatsoever the hand of man by exquisite art or engine has made rare in stuff, form, or motion; whatsoever singularity, chance, and the shuffle of things hath produced; whatsoever Nature hath wrought in things that want life and may be kept; shall be sorted and included.” In other words, you could also call a wonder cabinet an inspired hodgepodge, a glorious mishmash, an extravagant jumble, a pack rat’s little piece of heaven. So I’ll leave it to readers to determine whether in my case it functions as an honest-to-goodness organizing principle—or merely serves as a rough-and-ready device for indulging my appetite for all things eclectic, antiquarian, and serendipitous.
How did you first come to poetry?
Well, first I tried going down to the crossroads with my pawn-shop guitar, but the devil never showed, so I had to opt for Plan B. But seriously, I can’t recall any sort of scintillating conversion experience. It was an affinity that evolved. Being wordstruck from the start probably had something to do with it. Reading Randall Jarrell’s The Bat Poet at a tender age probably had something to do with it. Liking the sound of certain lines chiming and jangling around in my head probably had everything to do with it. I suspect that’s a pretty common story: getting turned on by poetry before realizing that it’s Poetry, if you know what I mean. Who really knows how the switch gets thrown? It’s probably a safe bet that most formative experiences with art are primal experiences, and what’s primal about poetry is the sound and the rhythm, as distinct from the sense or the significance. I think that holds true when you first start scribbling down lines of your own too: it’s play before it’s work, imitation before it’s self-expression, pure pleasure before it morphs into freighted ambition. The real trick, if you stick with it, is making sure that some vital essence of that original delight remains uncorrupted by professional responsibility and anxiety.
You worked with Peter Davison for many years; can you talk about some memorable moments from that collaboration?
It was my good fortune to be one of the succession of Peter’s understudies during his thirty-year tenure as The Atlantic’s poetry editor—his last “Cerberus,” as he was known to quip. Talk about furthering one’s education! Peter was the consummate lion of letters: an eminent poet, a distinguished book editor, a formidable critic, a great wit, and a force of nature. He had mindboggling quantities of poetry in his head, and an indomitable faith in poetry’s powers. I’ve never known anyone who combined such an exquisite literary sensibility with such savvy horse sense about the hard labor and exacting craft that goes into making good poems. His gusto and generosity of spirit were positively contagious.
Peter and I mostly had an epistolary relationship as editors. My primary job was sifting through the weekly haul of submissions and writing up thumbnail commentaries on the ones that were the strongest prospects for publication. Peter would take it from there, and his editorial correspondence week in and week out was something to behold. I’d love to see the cream of those letters published some day: they’re wonderfully edifying and entertaining, and they’d read like a kind of running symposium on the vicissitudes of contemporary poetics and the vagaries of editing poems for public consumption. His acceptance letters were often suitable for framing, but so were those that dispensed tonic advice to younger poets or offered a piece of his mind on bugbears like wobbly prosody, wayward grammar, or period mannerisms like the rampant use of the first-person indicative. He was a reader on whom almost nothing was lost, and he lavished as much care on the handiwork of unknowns as he did on laureates and old masters. In some ways I feel like I’m still collaborating with him, doing what I can to keep his legacy intact.
What’s your sense of the place of poetry in The Atlantic? What does poetry add to a general interest magazine?
That’s a ticklish question. Historically speaking, poetry has only had a scant toehold in general-interest magazines, even back in their heyday when there were a lot more of them than there are now. And let’s not forget that there are purely expedient reasons for including lines of verse in the editorial mix—to serve as filler for rounding out columns of type. But the custom of running poems in periodicals edited for a general readership reminds us that poetry hasn’t always been thought of as something lofty or rarefied: the poems weren’t just there to lend a veneer of genteel sophistication (though I suppose that might have been the motive in some cases) but as a recognition that they were another kind of reading material that intellectually curious folks took an interest in. As the late Stanley Kunitz once wrote, the true vocation of the poet is to be a generalist, “a person speaking to persons.”
Is that convention living on borrowed time? I don’t think that’s a foregone conclusion, though for all kinds of complicated reasons it appears that poetry doesn’t have as secure a niche as it once had in the collective consciousness. Back in the day people had to memorize wagonloads of poetry in school, and there used to be a fairly robust tradition of composing punchy occasional and epigrammatical verse as a form of editorial punditry, like Calvin Trillin still does in his “Deadline Poet” column in The Nation, bless his forked tongue. It’s not likely we’re going to see a wholesale resurgence of that kind of thing, but you never know. I’m certainly not ready to write off the existence of that semi-mythical creature, the common reader—unlike the unicorn or the manticore, empirical evidence suggests that there’s a population out there that still answers to that description. As for the place of poetry here at the The Atlantic, I have fair hopes that it will continue to occupy the niche it’s always had, marginal but honorable and vital. I’d like to think that readers of all stripes will regard The Atlantic’s poetry not as some ceremonial or ornamental sop to tradition but rather as reliable leavenings of pleasure, stimulation, and surprise. Reading poetry in a general magazine shouldn’t smack of a homework assignment or taking your medicine.