The novelist Garth Greenwell was still an undergraduate when he took the poetry class that changed his life. Though he had been studying opera, the course affected him so profoundly that he decided, instead, to pursue a career in the literary arts. Since then, poetry—and, more broadly, the sound and rhythm and syntax of language—has been his obsession. “I’m a very unreligious person,” he told me. “But when I look at the weird shape my life has taken, it seems like the life of someone with a devotional temperament looking for an object of devotion.”
One writer in particular, the American poet Frank Bidart, made an impression on the young Greenwell, and has remained an especially potent source of inspiration. In a conversation for this series, Greenwell explained how a line from Bidart’s prose poem “Borges and I” illuminates the complex relationship between artists and the traditions that shape them. For Greenwell, being influenced by another writer is never a shameful sign of unoriginality. Instead, it’s a decision to take part in a charged, almost erotic conversation across the ages—and can be a source of a radical, transmuting power.
In Greenwell’s latest novel, Cleanness, an American teacher—apparently the same unnamed narrator featured in his celebrated debut, What Belongs to You—looks for connection in a grim Bulgarian city. Across nine chapters that resemble linked short stories, his doomed relationship with a young man is juxtaposed against a series of encounters with strangers. Explicit and yet brimming with psychological insight, by turns menacing and tender, the novel explores a poignant human irony—that sex can be self-destructive even as it is self-affirming.
Garth Greenwell teaches fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His work appears in venues such as The New Yorker, A Public Space, and The Paris Review, where he’s published an extensive interview with Frank Bidart. He spoke with me by phone.
Garth Greenwell: I first discovered Frank Bidart when I was studying vocal performance at the Eastman School of Music. In the first semester of my junior year, I took a course with the poet and critic James Longenbach at the University of Rochester, who very kindly let me into his poetry workshop, even though I had never taken a writing class before. One of the books he had us read was Frank Bidart’s Desire, and the experience of encountering Bidart’s work was absolutely overwhelming. It convinced me that poetry was the most noble thing one could devote one’s life to.
I’m drawn to the seriousness and relentlessness of Bidart’s work—the sense that he is using the best tools he has, and inventing new tools, to ask the most important and difficult questions he can of life and of himself. To read him is to experience someone writing utterly without defense, with a kind of lacerating honesty. There is one line in particular, from Bidart’s prose poem “Borges and I,” that for years has been a kind of motto for me: “We fill preexisting forms and when we fill them, we change them and are changed.” It’s a refrain that’s helped me develop my sense of what artistic innovation is, and what it means to innovate in a meaningful and exciting way.
It has always been my prejudice—I wouldn’t want to present this as any sort of objective principle—that one is incredibly unlikely to make something great in a particular medium if one doesn’t know the great things that have been made in that medium before. When one, say, writes a sonnet, when one fills up that form, of course the form conditions how one can think within it. But one wrestles with the form too—one tries to stretch it, to make it accommodate new thinking, new feeling, and the form is changed by that. The sonnet is not the same form after Shakespeare, not the same form after Milton, not the same form after Hopkins. At the same time, you, the artist, are also transformed. This sense of reciprocity with the past—that the past and the self are not monoliths but dynamic things that change through their encounter with one another—is the idea of tradition that strikes me as most beautiful and most true.
I think that’s why Harold Bloom’s concept of the anxiety of influence has never quite rung true for me. This violent idea that for a writer to make something original, they have to find faults with previous writers and disfigure them somehow, has just never been my sense of what this conversation across time is like. Harold Bloom was a great genius, and there’s no question that this is a model that is true for some artists. But I wonder if it’s not so much a model that queer writers adopt. I don’t want to speak for anyone other than myself, but my feeling about the queer writers of the past is a feeling of such gratitude and homage and collaboration—a sense that they made my life and any art that I can make possible. The last thing I would want to do is sever myself from that, or somehow demolish it to clear a field for my own work.
Instead, I’m drawn to the image that Bidart provides: that the past provides a structure that accommodates—that makes possible—one’s own work. To me, that’s a beautifully different idea of what tradition might feel like. It’s not an anxiety. If anything, it’s more like Eros. It’s about emptying oneself out to be filled up by the transforming substance of the gods, and then somehow becoming a substance oneself, one that pours into this broader container that is divinity. That kind of beautiful confusion is straight out of mystical discourse, whether it’s Plotinus or Marguerite Porete. This way of thinking about how people and works of art interact and affect each other is not about aggression or violence but is, instead, a kind of erotic intermingling.
Real art is always made at the very edge of your capacity. When I’m writing a sentence, my feeling is not that I am making this well-wrought thing, or that there’s some ideal shape that I’m working towards as I write. What I feel, instead, is that I’m in a kind of difficult negotiation: at once willing a sentence into being while also trying to be as receptive as possible to an energy or organic force that is independent of my will. I’m writing a sentence the way one rides a horse, trying both to steer and to follow the sentence where it wants to go. Art making for me is this weird attempt to strike a perfect balance between willfulness and passivity.
When I find myself surprised by what I’m writing, what actually is that? What is the external force I’m trying to be receptive to? It’s not a kind of mystical thing, although the way I describe it might seem that way. I don’t feel, like Milton did, that the Holy Ghost is whispering in my ear. But I do think that language has a history, and that schooling oneself in the history of various traditions also means incorporating wills other than one’s own. If you’ve memorized, as I know Frank Bidart has, countless poems from the tradition of Western poetry, that creates magnetic nodes in you—a sense of how language moves, certain syntactical patterns that are attracted to each other. Much of the act of making art is about acceding to or resisting that pull.
James Longenbach, my first poetry teacher, gave me the only really helpful technical creative-writing advice I’ve ever received at the end of that semester when he had been so generous to me. He said, “So, okay. You might have some talent, but who cares? Talent is meaningless.” He said, “If you’re serious about this poetry thing, you will spend two years only writing in blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter—and you will also scan every line of Milton’s Paradise Lost.” That’s such an extreme thing to say to a student, but I was the kind of student to go and do it. I spent two years only writing iambic pentameter lines. I’m not sure that I scanned every line of Paradise Lost, but I scanned hundreds and hundreds of lines, and thought really hard about how their rhythms were working.
Those rhythms are so deeply ingrained in me now. I remember something that happened when I first started doing public readings from What Belongs to You. Reading aloud is part of my composition practice, and very much part of my revision practice, but it was only when I was reading in front of audiences that I realized that there are lines of pentameter in my prose. That doesn’t happen because I say to myself, ”Oh, this clause needs to be iambic pentameter.” I’m saying to myself, “This needs to feel right,” and I’ll tinker with something endlessly until it does. And I think those iambs are in my prose because those rhythms are deeply associated, for me, with a certain feeling of authority that I wanted particular moments in the novel to have.
That’s a great example of how this works: Iambic pentameter is not something that my agency has invented and is intending to impose. It’s something in the language itself, in my sense of the language, that exerts a kind of pressure when I’m writing. Syntax does that too. Before you write the first word of a sentence, you have almost infinite possibility—but with each word, the possibility decreases. A sentence exerts an increasing pressure of inevitability as you’re writing. Sometimes what gives pleasure in writing is giving in to that inevitability—and sometimes, instead, it’s slipping free from that pressure by trying to open a door in a sentence, and allowing it to escape from where it seemed it would inevitably go.
This dialogue with the past doesn’t feel antagonistic. It feels collaborative. I think of Jessye Norman, one of the earliest singers I fell in love with, someone whose voice is part of the equipment of my inner life. She took forms that were hundreds of years old, and filled them with the glorious substance of her voice—and Strauss will never be the same, Wagner will never be the same, because we’ve heard the way she transformed them. And we have been transformed in turn by listening to her.
That’s why working with preexisting forms is not a sign of unoriginality. We need preexisting forms so we can fill them and change them and be changed. We look to the past for sources of greater richness, greater depth—something I think queer people, in particular, do. Queer aesthetics are often invested in mining the past for resources that allow us to imagine a future. That, to me, is what the conversation of art is about.