LET’S BEGIN by talking about meaning in poetry. It’s always the dragon at the gate whenever you approach the subject. Every poet, I suppose, tries to define for himself what poetry is all about. It’s an absolutely feckless enterprise because no definition is ever quite right. The one of mine I like best is that poetry is language surprised in the act of changing into meaning.
Yes, I quite agree with that.
Maybe you’d like to elaborate on the nature of poetry, on how it seems to you to differ from other uses of language.
Most animals, and not only the so-called social animals, have some kind of code by which one individual member of the species communicates with another about certain vital information, whether it be about food, sex, territory, or presence of enemies. But such a code in animals never develops into what I would call speech. All code statements, so to speak, are in the third person and the impersonal. The kind of use of language in which poetry is interested, which I would call speech, comes from the fact that we’re not only individuals of the species; each of us is a unique person who can say “I” in response to the “thou’s” of others, and we desire voluntarily to disclose ourselves to each other and to share each other’s experiences. So I know that if a writer on linguistics starts by analyzing code statements like “the cat is on the mat,” he does not understand speech or cannot understand poetry. If you want to understand poetry, you must begin with phrases of command and obedience, summonses and responses; you know, like “Adam, where art thou?” “Lord, here am I” or “Go get thee up.” This kind of thing.
You must begin with proper names and you must begin with the firstand second-person pronouns. You’ll notice that the firstand secondperson pronouns have no gender. The thirdperson pronoun does, and therefore strictly speaking should be called impersonal, It is convenient, grammatically convenient, and conventional enough, if I am talking to another person about somebody who isn’t there to refer to them as him or her. But if I think of somebody as him or her, then I’m not thinking of them as a person but as an individual object.
Proper names are not translatable. Suppose that I have to translate a novel from German in which the hero’s name is Heinrich. In translation I should retain the name Heinrich. I should not call him Henry, and this is, I think, because we use words in this impersonal way. Suppose that I ask someone the way to the next bus stop. He does not enter into it at all as a person. This is simply a piece of information I require. And in some languages it’s a convention actually to use iHe third person in formal conversation. Instead of saying, “Do you know the way to the next bus stop?”, one might equally well say, “Does the honorable citizen know — could the honorable citizen tell his humble servant the way to the bus stop?” If I use the words “I” and “you” in both cases, it carries, with a real “I” feeling, the sense of being responsible for, or holding somebody responsible for, the information. And I think it’s very important if you want to understand poetry to see the different ways in which we can use language.
Unlike the musician, we don’t use notes, we don’t sing to each other. We don’t draw to each other either, but we do learn language. This has its advantages, in that you cannot invent a purely private verbal world. A person reading a poem may not happen to know the meaning of a particular word, but he can always go to the dictionary and look it up. On the other hand, of course, lots of people will admit that they don’t understand painting or music. But quite a few people, because they’ve learned to read the newspaper, automatically assume that they know the English language, which of course is not necessarily true, and sometimes they blame poets for being difficult when they themselves simply do not know their own language well enough.
On the question of obscurity I would say that there is a legitimate kind of difficulty and an illegitimate kind. One element in poetry — it isn’t the most important one, but it certainly exists — is the riddle element, the element of not calling a spade a spade. Think of all those nursery rhymes like “Little Nancy Etticoat in her White Petticoat, the longer she lives the shorter she grows,” and of course the answer is a candle. Well, you know, this is fun. And that element does exist in poetry. I don’t know if any of you are crossword-puzzle addicts, as I am. Well, one time you look at the clue, you cannot solve it. All right, the next morning you look to see the answer. Sometimes you say, “Of course, I ought to have seen that. What a fool I was.” Occasionally you say, “No, I don’t think the clue was fair.” And roughly speaking, if you’re talking about the difference between legitimate and illegitimate difficulties in poetry, I would say it’s comparable to this kind of thing you get in crossword puzzles.
I wonder whether we may not have lost something in the language by not being able to say “thou.”
Yes, it’s unfortunate, I think, that in the English language we have lost it. Because for one thing, when you want to talk about this particular sort of philosophical idea of the I-thou, it all sounds a little affected in English, and of course in other languages it doesn’t at all. And certainly with the new Roman liturgy, they’re having terrible difficulties because they’ve got all these you-whos which sound like yodeling. The American-English translation of the Mass is appallingly bad.
The I-thou relationship, I think, is central to an understanding of what the poet is about. In modern poetry, don’t you feel, the poet is practically always involved in an I-thou relationship rather than in an I-yoit relationship?
And I think that, actually, this was always so. In earlier societies, which were more homogeneous, it could sound as if you were addressing the collective, but I don’t think the poet ever did. Suppose that you go to a concert. There may be a thousand people at a concert listening to a piece of music. In actual fact each one of them has to hear that music separately. If you ask, “What does a poem mean?”, it’s the outcome of a dialogue between the words on the page and the particular person who happens to be reading them, and of course the meaning of the poem is slightly different for every person who reads it. There are limits governed on one side by the words, on the other by the reader’s experiences and interests. But when people ask you what you meant by a poem, that’s nonsense. It’s not a question of what I thought, it’s a question of what I really said, and what the poem says to you. I’m out of it by this time. After all, you can’t ask the dead these questions. People do ask the living.
I want to go back to the question of the relationship between the poet and his audience, and I’m going to quote a few sentences of yours on this subject. You’re talking about modern poetry and you say:
The characteristic style of “Modern" poetry is an intimate tone of voice, the speech of one person addressing one person, not a large audience; whenever a modern poet raises his voice he sounds phony. And its characteristic hero is neither the “Great Man" nor the romantic rebel, both doers of extraordinary deeds, but the man or woman in any walk of life who, despite all the impersonal pressures of modern society, manages to acquire and preserve a face of his own.
Yes. I think, myself, that the moment you start to live in a world as noisv as ours, the only possible way to get anything across is to speak very quietly. Because you can’t possibly compete, if you try to say anything in poetry, with the noise around us. And if you talk quietly, maybe you will be heard. Otherwise it just sounds like advertisements or anything else — you can’t tell the difference. And I think on the question of who is the hero, it’s often very unfortunate for people that what is conventionally the hero of poetry is the man of action. That has now almost been destroyed by technology because as long as St. George could kill the dragon himself it was a personal deed; the moment he drops a bomb on the dragon, his actual deed consists in pressing a button. And this makes it very difficult to use great men of action as subjects for poetry. If you think of the people who really do change our lives, in that context the real men of action now are the scientists. But unfortunately the deeds of scientists cannot be expressed in words, as a rule. They would have to be done in mathematics, and that we poets can’t do.
Couldn’t we though, conceivably, take from scientists some of their own acts of the imagination, such as, let us say, the grand quest of modern astrophysics, or the principle of uncertainty, and incorporate them into the whole mystery of our being?
Up to a point — but if you try to describe what a scientist really does and the way in which he thinks, this is almost impossible to put into language, because he’s dealing with nonarticulate things to begin with. He doesn’t have a dialogue with nature. As for a man of action, he does things towards other people, and traditionally he certainly has to speak to them. I was delighted with a story I came across the other day which shows the point which physics has reached. There was a very distinguished physicist who was reading a paper. And after it was over an equally distinguished colleague got up, and he said, “We’re all agreed that your theory is crazy. What divides us is whether it is crazy enough to stand a chance of being right. My own view is that it’s not crazy enough.”
To get back to that question of the poet and the public. A few weeks agoI was a participant in a Read-in for Peace in Vietnam, where several poets read from their work. One of the things I noticed was that the poets who addressed themselves directly to the public, the ones who made a frontal attack on the whole problem of the war and the peace, came off rather badly.I think this is almost inevitable in the nature of the problem of the modern poet. And in general it seemed to me that those who were a little more oblique or indirect, who did not make a public declaration, actually had more to say that was meaningful, at least to me.
Yes, I think that’s true. Of course, in poetry dealing with political subjects there is the particularly difficult problem of knowing enough, having enough personal firsthand experience of what one is talking about. For one example, Yeats was able to write great poetry about the Troubles in Ireland. But then you must remember that the scale on which these operations went on was so small that he knew all the leaders personally; he knew where all the events were happening in places he had known from boyhood. That’s one thing. The other thing, certainly in regard to poetry, is that in the case of any really serious social evil, it is conceit and absolute folly for poets to imagine that by writing poems about it they are going to change things.
In the case of a serious evil there are only two possibilities: first, and most important, direct political action, and maybe, up to a point, straight journalistic reporting of the facts. You can’t write a poem about Auschwitz; it’s absolutely impossible. The facts are far too awful, too appalling. What are you to say? — nothing. What you want to know is, what happened? And then on the other hand, you want political action to stop it from happening; but I think that it’s essentially frivolous when people start writing poems of protest on this kind of thing. I don’t think that they do so because they imagine that they can make things happen by doing so. It is just possible that if you live in a dictatorship, where there is complete suppression of expression, suddenly one word a poet says may be of importance. If you live under a reasonably democratic freedom of speech as we do here, nobody’s going to pay attention to what you say.
In a dictatorship it would seem to me that the poet almost inevitably has to write a public kind of poem, a poem that can be read from platforms and soapboxes. This is the only art that will be tolerated, because a private art, a secret art, is considered dangerous, subversive.
If I lived under a dictatorship, I’d write children’s stories. I’m sure one would get a lot in.
Now I’d like to quote two short passages from your writing:
A writer can neither love nor hate the public; either he must be obsessed by it, as a speculator is obsessed by the stock market, or he must not think about it at all.
That’s number one. Number two is perhaps my favorite among all your aphorisms:
A man has his distinctive personal scent which his wife, his children, and his dog can recognize. A crowd has a generalized stink. The public is odorless.
Well, perhaps I should explain what one means by the difference between a crowd and the public. A crowd is a large gathering of people in a small space, who can of course be moved by demagogues to start rioting, and do various things. To be part of a crowd, or to be a member of the public, is simply what all of us are at moments when we are nothing in particular. So that ids a sort of abstract nothing. I don’t have to go into any particular space to belong to a crowd; and I can just turn on my TV set and very soon become part of the public. Now, obviously when people say, Who do you write for?, it’s really a nonsensical question because you cannot know the people; all you can do is to put your books out. Actually, most of the people you think about when you write are dead. You imagine people, poets in the past, people you admire very much; you imagine their ghosts looking over your shoulder. You ask them, “Well, do you think it will do?”
Also, of course, you hope somebody will read you after you are dead, people who are not yet born, so this question “Who do you write for?” is really irrelevant. It’s rather interesting on this point, that sometimes you write a poem for a particular occasion, a thing I very much enjoy doing. In this case you are writing for an absolutely definite audience about whom you know. The actual result is that it’s very difficult for anybody outside that particular circle to understand what you have written. You immediately begin allusions; you know, allusions which will make the people laugh because they are concerned with the occasion. But the occasional poem written for a particular audience is apt not to be understood by a general audience.
Could we turn now to the place of accident in the writing of a poem? I recall, for example, a passage in your Letters from Iceland where you wrote to Christopher Isherwood about a poem that you had sent him. And you said in your letter that his misconstruction of one of your lines — “ports" for “poets” — was an improvement on the original.
Originally I had written “The poets have names for the sea.” And then I think Christopher Isherwood misread my handwriting and thought I’d said “ports,” which I felt was much better, so I changed it. But this can happen. One mustn’t make a religion of chance; you’ve got to have a sense of whether it’s providence or not.
There’s a very good example of that quoted by Rossini. There’s a chorus in his opera Mosè where there is a very striking change from G Minor to G Major or something. Well, in a letter to a friend he explains how this happened. He was writing the thing out, and he wasn’t very well at the time, and by mistake he put his pen into the medicine bottle instead of the ink and it made a blot. Well, he brushed it off with sand. When he looked at the stain afterwards, it looked like a natural, and he got the idea of the change of key. It doesn’t happen this way very often, of course, and obviously ninetynine times out of a hundred it would just be bad, but these lucky accidents can occur. And after all, what is involved is the whole question of form.
Valéry is very good on this, I think, when he says, “A poet is somebody whose imagination is stimulated by absolutely arbitrary rules.” You’ve got to find a word, such and such a character, such and such a prosodic value rhyming in such and such a way. And suddenly it makes you think of things you wouldn’t think of otherwise, which is what is so fascinating about writing poetry: the language — the possibilities of language — suggests things to you that you hadn’t thought of. Another way of putting it is also a remark of Valery’s; he said that “formal verse is the art of a profound skeptic.”
Speaking of bad accidents, I can recall one in my own experience. I once wrote a poem called “ Among the Gods,” which was a sort of love poem and at a very high level, I thought, but it was published in Botteghe Oscure and set up by Italian typographers, and it came out “Among the Dogs.” And all through the poem, wherever I had “Gods” it appeared as “dogs.” And the curious part about it is that nobody as far as I know ever knew the difference.
Yes, that could happen. Oh, yes, there are a number of misprints nowadays, and the real reason for these misprints is the typewriter. Before the typewriter was invented people sent in their work handwritten, and every printer had people who could read handwriting. When you look at Balzac’s manuscripts, for example, you wonder how on earth the printers ever did what they did. All right, the other thing is that nearly all authors and scholars are very bad typists. When I type I constantly make mistakes, getting letters the wrong way round and so on, which I certainly couldn’t make if I was writing by hand. Well, of course this goes to the printer; the printer doesn’t worry, he says all right; and in the mistakes go. I’m sure there are far more typos now than there were before the invention of the typewriter.
Do you ever compose on the typewriter?
No, not to begin with. I find it useful, when I’ve done a draft, to type it out because it looks so bad; the typescript is so hideous that you immediately see faults that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise because everyone is rather narcissistic about his own handwriting, you know. Incidentally, the best way to find out what you really think, to test a poem by somebody else, is to write it out by hand. Your hand is constantly looking for an excuse to stop; if there’s anything wrong you will immediately notice it.
In going over Theodore Roethke’s papers — Roethke died in ‘63 — I was impressed by the number of poems by other poets that he had copied out in his own hand. This is the greatest tribute anyone can pay. There must have been, I think, close to twelve hundred poems that over a lifetime he had copied out in his own hand. He used to say, “I don’t really feel I get into a poem until I write it out in my own hand.”
That’s very interesting.
One aspect of this matter of the language of the poem and its interpretation is the curious temptation that readers have to put more into your language than you, at least, think that you have given to it. It was Louis MacNeice who said, if I remember correctly, that there was an early poem in which you had used the phrase “snow in bedrooms” — do you remember that?
I believe so, yes, I think it was.
And that he or a friend had written to you because they had quarreled about the meaning of this phrase “snow in bedrooms,” and the question was, did it mean virginity or chastity, or did it mean sterility. It was very important apparently to find out, and you replied, “Well, I meant that stuff that blows through windows.”
Well, yes, of course all these other things are perfectly permissible. The only reason you can say an interpretation is wrong is if you think that a line means something which will make nonsense of another line. An interpretation has to make sense in the poem as a whole. But then, of course, you’ve got to know the use of, the ways in which people can use, words. To give an example of a false interpretation: a friend of mine was teaching “The Eve of St. Agnes” by Keats, and in this poem there are two lines: “The wakeful bloodhound rose, and shook his hide, but his sagacious eye an inmate owns.”
So my friend asked one of the girls in the class, “What do you think this means?” She thought a bit, and said, “The poor dog was blind. Some lunatic had punched its eye out and kept it.” Well, of course this is because the unfortunate girl only knew the word “inmate” in one sense and “owns” in another, and so she concocted this view. But for the poem as a whole, this could not be a correct explanation.
Once in a classroom I gave the students a poem that seems to present no great difficulties of interpretation, Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and I asked them to write a little commentary on what was going on there. I was amazed at the ingenuity of their labors. One of the favorite constructions — I don’t know where they got this — was that there was a physician on his way home — he had apparently been visiting some dying patient — and he felt obligated to go back and prevent her from kicking off. All the events of the poem were completely lost because the poem had not been read at the level of its presentation.
Yes, because there’s nothing said about doctors, you have no right to bring this in at all. And in regard to symbols, you should never start thinking about symbolic meaning until you take the obvious meaning first.
I’m going to quote one of your paragraphs from The Virgin and the Dynamo, an essay:
The subject matter of a poem is comprised of a crowd of recollected occasions of feeling, among which the most important are recollections of encounters with sacred beings or events. This crowd the poet attempts to transform into a community by embodying it in a verbal society. Such a society, like any society in nature, has its own laws; its laws of prosody and syntax are analogous to the laws of physics and chemistry. Every poet must presuppose — sometimes mistakenly — that the history of the language is at an end.
Well, now, that’s a mouthful.
I think it’s an exciting mouthful.
Let me explain first of all what I mean by a sacred being or event. The characteristic of what I would call a sacred being is that it arouses, quite involuntarily, in the person who’s confronted by it, a feeling of awe that is the essential thing. It may range all the way from absolute panicked fear to joy. A sacred thing doesn’t have to be beautiful; an octopus could be a sacred being. It doesn’t have to be good; a witch can be a sacred being. The test is whether, automatically, it arouses a feeling of awe in you. Now there are certain beings which have been, I think, sacred in all cultures. For example, the sun, the moon, death, absence, nothing, and so on. Others may be sacred only in a certain culture, like kings, or to a limited group — possibly to Latin teachers Latin is a sacred being. And so on. But I think that poetry does actually arise basically from the stimulation of the imagination by these things, which you then feel have to be celebrated in some way. There are all kinds of possibilities, of course, because you can get the sacred colliding with the profane, the sacred joining the profane. Then you get all kinds of comic possibilities coming in through this.
Now, in regard to the question of the community or the society, perhaps I should explain what that means. A society is an organization of a number of separate things into a whole where each part is subordinate to the whole and has a particular function in our lives. Most society is organized in order that we may live, earn our living, and so on. And it has a definite structure and at any rate an optimum size. A community on the other hand can be any size you like; the best definition I know is by St. Augustine, when he says it’s a group: “a community is a group of rational beings united by love of something other than themselves.” This might be God, it might be music, it might be stamp-collecting; it doesn’t matter what it is. Now, you make a community of music-lovers. Well, you can’t just sit around loving music like anything; you think you have to make it. For that purpose you create societies like a string quartet or a symphony orchestra, which have definite structure.
And as I see a poem, the various feelings are united and reconciled in this thing, but it has a structure, can be looked at as a society with a structure. Let’s say you can analyze it: this line has so many syllables, the rhythm is of such and such a kind, it’s rhymed in such and such a way, all these kinds of things. Now, when you’re writing a poem, there’s always a sort of tension between two things. On the one hand you have a crowd of disorganized feelings and thoughts, and you try to find the kind of form, or I’ve called it a society, which will embody them. Vice versa, I can start with a certain kind of form and try and find out what feelings and thoughts it can take.
I think that in practice when one’s writing, one works simultaneously both ways. One starts modifying form in relation to what one has to say; and vice versa, in relation to form one excludes certain things. One says no, this is for another poem, it’s not for this poem. And it’s extraordinary —• I’m sure this is the experience of everyone who writes poetry —■ what can happen. Let’s say you start writing a poem in octosyllabic quatrains. You get absolutely stuck. Suddenly you see that the fourth line should be six syllables instead of eight, and the whole thing comes out right. This is a mysterious thing, but it’s simply a matter of actual experience, don’t you agree?
I certainly do. Don’t you think that one of the difficulties of the modern poet is that the sacredness of things, the sense of that sacredness, has been lost. The world of the city is hardly, one can say, “charged with the grandeur of God.”
You have to find it in funny little places; you may suddenly as a child, you know, find that a vacant lot is invested with infinite sacred importance for you. One of my sacred landscapes, for example, when I was a child, was the grimmest kind of industrial landscape between Birmingham and Wolverhampton—I thought it was absolutely marvelous. I’m sure these things can always turn up, provided you’re willing to be open to them and recognize them when they happen.
Likewise in a century of wars one can hardly believe too much in the sacredness of life insofar as it is being honored in one’s own time.
You have to find the validity of that one life or those two lives or five or ten that you happen to be most affectionate about and make a universe out of them, out of that whole network of relationships.
I’m still looking at your essay entitled The Poet and the City, which provoked this part of the conversation, looking at a passage of special interest:
In my daydream College for Bards, the curriculum would be as follows:
1) In addition to English, at least one ancient language, probably Greek or Hebrew, and two modern languages would be required.
2) Thousands of lines of poetry in these languages would be learned by heart.
3) The library would contain no books of literary criticism, and the only critical exercise required of students would be the writing of parodies.
4) Courses in prosody, rhetoric, and comparative philology would be required of all students, and every student would have to select three courses out of courses in mathematics, natural history, geology, meteorology, archaeology, mythology, liturgies, cooking.
5) Every student would be required to look after a domestic animal and cultivate a garden plot.
In regard to cooking, I think that has to be absolutely obligatory for everybody. We live in a world now with no servants, and every boy and girl if they’re ever to eat well has got to learn to cook. Otherwise they’re condemned to cafeterias because the good restaurants are for businessmen with expense accounts, and if you want to eat decently, you’ve simply got to learn. I’m sure that every boy and girl of fifteen should be set down with a cookbook and made to learn. This is apart from poetry.
May I interrupt you to say that I pride myself on being something of a chef, but one of my difficulties is that I will not follow a recipe. I feel that I have to create something original each time I make anything.
I’m not good enough for that. I’m what they call a plain cook, though I hope, as Countess Morphy said, that plain cooking is too good to be left to plain cooks. But one of the good points that I raised in this essay is first of all about parodies: I find it fantastic to expect people of undergraduate age to write critical essays on Shakespeare or Chaucer or whatever you like. How can they possibly do anything but just look up in a book what someone else has said? On the other hand, I do know that if a person can write a good parody of an author, they’ve really got inside that author’s skin. That’s why I think it’s an important exercise.
Now, I was well brought up about language, I think, but very badly about mathematics, because in mathematics we used to learn, by heart, such rhymes as “minus times minus equals plus/the reason for this we need not discuss.” which is all wrong, of course, in mathematics. But in poetry or literature the thing is that you can’t really start to think about a work till you know it very well. You can know a lot of poetry by heart even before understanding it. Learn it first, and then you can think about it. It’s always a great mistake to try to think what a poem means before you’ve got it formally right in your head, and know how it sounds, how the lines go.
I had an interesting experience with this once. A colleague and I had done a translation for television of Mozart’s Magic Flute. Well, we rewrote all the spoken dialogue in couplets. Now, naturally, most of the speaking parts were taken by singers. There was one part, because it was a nonsinging part, which was taken by an actor. Well, in twenty minutes we taught those singers, who had never spoken verse before in their lives, how to do it. The actor, who had acted in Shakespeare, we never succeeded in teaching, because he wanted to think about what it meant before he listened to the beat. A singer knows what a beat is, and this is how you have to start. So we could teach the singers who’d never done it in their lives before to speak verse beautifully in twenty minutes, but we could never teach the actor. And incidentally, as far as teaching is concerned, you know, if you made people learn more by heart it would be so much simpler to correct; you could put it through a machine.
And the other very valuable thing about it — and this I think is awfully important with people before a certain age — is that this shouldn’t involve them in questions about taste; it should be questions of fact. After all, if somebody has learned a poem by heart, and he makes mistakes, it’s impossible for him to say that he hasn’t made the mistakes. But the less one asks about whether a class likes something or dislikes it, the better, I think. I myself, if I take a class, say, I want you to understand there’s no democracy here. I am Papa, and you may say what awful things you like outside the class, but inside the class you won’t volunteer an opinion unless I ask for it. I find it works all right.
I remember your saying that a society which was like a good poem would be a terrifying form of autocracy, something to that effect, and that a poem which was like a democracy would be shapeless and incoherent.
That’s true. It’s fatal to try to make analogies between politics and art. Obviously when I write a poem, I’m dealing with words, and if I don’t want a word, I can chuck it out and put away the dictionary. Of course, the equivalent of that in politics would be just killing somebody or exiling them. But words, luckily, arc not human lives, and so it’s a different problem. The type of organization a poem requires depends on the fact that the words are immortal, so to speak, or potentially immortal, living in the dictionary, and they don’t mind if you don’t use a particular word this time.
I’m a believer in specialized knowledge for the poet — that is, knowledge in a chosen area which is apart from prosody or the whole question of literature. My own favorite reading is in horticulture and zoology, I would say, and I much prefer reading books in those categories than most poems.
I quite agree. I take no literary magazine. I do take the Scientific American.
I remember one time — I think it was 1961 —you said your favorite piece of reading for that whole year was an article in Scientific American on cleaning shrimp.
The particular kind of shrimp that cleans other fish. It was fascinating. And certainly the most interesting book I read last year was The Ambidextrous Universe by Martin Gardner, who is one of the mathematics editors of the Scientific American.
You have often written about poetry as a game. Will you elaborate on this concept?
Well, first of all, art — and science too, for that matter — are gratuitous activities, however much we may learn. Nobody can be compelled to write a poem; nobody can be compelled to read one. This is not a thing like food, something we must have. It’s something you do freely, because you wish to, and which you read freely, because you wish to. So, you see, this immediately gets into the game area for being a gratuitous thing. Sometimes in the past, of course, there lias been poetry which had a utile value as well. For example, it’s easier to memorize something if there’s rhyme, and in an oral culture you get poetry being used, as we use it for “Thirty days hath September, April. June, and November,” where it has a utile value as well as a gratuitous one. But essentially I would say that it shares with all other kinds of games this gratuitous element in being done for its own sake because you enjoy it. It is read for its own sake because you enjoy it.
Then there’s a question of the submission, as in a game, to rules. After all, when you play bridge, or you play chess, there are certain rules and you are free within these limits; and it’s precisely the relation between your freedom and the limits where the. skill and fun come in. That’s roughly, I think, what I’ve been saying. That anything that is not necessary to lile participates in the nature of a game. And in particular, too, when you get this combination of freely submitting to rules chosen by yourself or chosen by a tradition of our culture.
So much of it depends on the playful sense of language that the poet has.
Very often it’s true in poetry, perhaps always, what an old lady says in one ol E. M. Forster’s novels: “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?”
A poet without a sense of play has a curse put on him: he must try too hard to be sincere. You once quoted Stravinsky to the effect that “most artists are sincere and most art is bad; though some insincere (sincerely insincere) works can be quite good.”
I think that’s true. I think one should assume that one is sincere as one assumes one is going to sleep. What you do have to worry about, I think, is that what you write should be authentic that is to say, written, if you like, in your own handwriting and not a forgery.
One can, unfortunately, write poems which one suddenly realizes are forgeries. The poem may be quite good. That isn’t the question. The question is, “Should I have written it?” And in that sense sincerity is, of course, important, except that you should assume generally if you’re interested enough in the subject you’re doing that this problem won’t arise, but it does sometimes. And one should never bother about trying to be original, because the moment you start thinking about being original, it means you’re not thinking about the work to be made. You’ve got your eye on other people. “Well, I mustn’t do what they do. I must do something else,” and that of course is almost bound to result in failure.
The real search is not so much to be original as to find one’s own voice and one’s own style. Once one finds the style, then anything one says in it tends to fall into the world of his own nature.
The search for originality of thought always ends in disaster because you are likely to say, “Well, you must like this because I did it,” you know, With children that always means bad behavior. and in art it usually leads to bad art, I think.
What the artist is seeking is his own voice, don’t you agree? Where is he most likely to find it? How is he going to correct that general voice which is not his? How can he modify it in order to establish it as his own?
I think only by being absolutely certain about what he’s interested in. I don’t mean those interests that he shares with other people. But he has to be with himself. Each of us does have a unique perspective on the world — he can’t help it, that’s how we are born. If in addition he has the gift of expression, which a poet must have, the problem solves itself, I think. It doesn’t solve itself if you watch what other people are doing, or persuade yourself. “I should be interested in this,” when in fact you’re not a damn bit interested.
The temptation is to listen too hard to the voices around you, whereas perhaps the voice you are really seeking may find its sanction in the whole tradition — that is, not in the present but out of the past.
That’s why I don’t read works of literary criticism. In actual fact you will get periods when things go on fairly smoothly finding your own voice. All it requires is a slight modification of the work of your immediate predecessors. Then there will come periods when there is a sort of violent change; when people can find no help in their immediate predecessors. When that happens, I think you usually find that they find their clues as to what they want to do in writers either of an earlier period or even of another culture. For example, Eliot has told us how he discovered what he wanted to do first of all by a study of the late Elizabethan dramatists like Webster and Tourneur, and then of the French Symbolists like Laforgue. Other people have gone to Chinese and Japanese poetry, and so on.
Perhaps we can apply this criterion to the reading of poetry as well as to the writing of it. Try to find thosevoices that you most want to hear, not those that you are told you should love. I think that’s an important matter.
Exactly. Often one’s pets actually are people one knows are quite minor figures. Very often one would rather read them than the greatest people. One should always know exactly what one likes reading. At the same time, it’s perfectly possible to say, “I can see this person is very good, though not my cup of tea.” One must not say, “Because I don’t like it, it’s bad.” That’s conceited. Sometimes, of course, you can say not only “I don’t like them,” but also “I don’t think they’re very good.” But one should be willing to distinguish between one’s personal taste and one’s judgment, and naturally, be willing to extend one’s personal taste as far as one can.
In creating a poem, do you sometimes find that it begins to say something other than what you expected?
Yes. A poem may suddenly take different proportions, or you may start something which you think is going to be quite a short poem, and you suddenly find out it has to be a long one. Or vice versa: you may think something’s going to be quite long, and it ends up as four lines. This, you judge, is simply how it has to be. It’s not a question of what you meant to say, but what you do say. Naturally you don’t let a poem go, as a rule, till you are satisfied that it is as you think it should be.
Isn’t there an area of the poem that is actually given to you, that you have to accept? And isn’t part of your power the ability to seize on the opportunity given to you?
Yes, sure. On the other hand, very often one finds one’s first ideas are not one’s best.
You use a variety of verse forms, from villanelle to free verse. Does the subject determine your choice of form?
As a rule. Sometimes it’s fun to use a certain form, you know, and then see what you can say in it. Other times you’ve got ideas buzzing around in your head, and suddenly you realize that this is the right form for expressing them. It can happen both ways, I think. Naturally you’re always interested in seeing what possibilities there are, because very often through thinking about a form it docs begin to suggest to you certain ways of looking at life.
The question of free verse I know puzzles a good many people. Will you comment on free verse?
Well, I can’t write in it. I think my ear isn’t good enough. I think there are very few people who can get the lines to fall right. I always am counting syllables, but that may be just my weakness. I have no theories about it at all; the proof is simply the result. Obviously some poems in free verse come off frightfully well and others not so well; the same can happen, of course, with strict verse. I have certainly no theories about free verse except that I personally find it difficult or impossible to do.
Could you share with us some of the secrets of revising poetry?
I think people vary; somebody like Housman apparently worked everything out in his head, and then he sort of just wrote it out with very few revisions. Other people — myself, for instance — suddenly get something down and it’s absolutely dreadful, and gradually you get it into shape. With regard to revisions one makes several years later, there are two things involved. You may decide, I just don’t like this poem now and throw it out. Or one can revise — I revise a lot. At any rate, I don’t try to change either the thought or the emotion. I make my revision if I think the verbal expression is either slovenly or obscure or harsh on the ear or something of that sort.
Yeats said that he knew that he was through with a poem because it came right “with a click like a closing box,” but I don’t think many poets hear that click.
Well, as you know, Yeats was a very slow worker. The first drafts are always bad, you can see that. With regard to how long one should go on revising, I agree with Valéry: “A poem is never finished, it’s only abandoned.”