Lyric and Narrative

Poet Linda Bierds talks about her career, her new collection of poetry, and her perpetual quest to capture "the grand ineffable"

book cover

Flight: New and Selected Poems
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Linda Bierds
Putnam Adult
224 pages

Linda Bierds, whose poetry has appeared regularly in the Atlantic since the 1980s, has enjoyed a prolific and successful career; her work has earned multiple Pushcart Prizes, grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Macarthur “Genius” award in 1998. Her latest book, Flight, a collection of new and selected poems, showcases work from her seven previous collections of poetry, distinguished by a precise and musical voice, a passionate eye for detail, and a distinctive, decades-long exploration of the lives and voices of well-known artists, scientists, and historical figures.

Bierds depicts these figures not posing for their textbook portraits, but caught in private moments that highlight their unique ways of seeing the world. Often they appear as children: Galileo as a boy cuts through a hailstone with a violin string; a young Benjamin Franklin uses a kite to pull himself across a pond; and a young Charles Darwin studies a fire and perceives animal shapes hidden in its flames. Many of these youthful scenes contain the seeds of later achievement, and the poems offer an original perspective on the figures and their work. On a more basic level, the poems also capture and celebrate childlike moments of wonder, finding profound glimpses of mystery and connection in the flux of everyday life.

As the title implies, Flight is a hopeful book, for the poems suggest not only that the insights of extraordinary figures are our common heritage, but also that the raw materials of those insights are all around us, accessible to all. Together they gesture toward a faith in human potential – a belief in the idea that, as Bierds’s Gregor Mendel puts it, defending his experiments against accusations of heresy, we are all “on the widening arc / of some grand design.”

I spoke with Bierds at her office at the University of Washington, where she teaches English and creative writing, and she elaborated on her thoughts by e-mail.

—Sarah Cohen

linda Bierds
Linda Bierds
(photo courtesy of
the Rockefeller Foundation)

How did you first get into poetry?

I think my love of poetry began when my mother read A Child’s Garden of Verses to me. I wasn’t yet old enough to understand the words, but I loved the cadences and rhymes. I had a typical 1950s public school education: poetry always as a too-brief unit within a larger course. The focus was often on 19th- and 20th-century poets, and I was drawn to Whitman and Frost and cummings, as most young people were. Dickinson frightened me a little with her brilliant, cold eye.  She still does!

What drew me equally at that time—enchanted me, really—were the intricate, quick-step then change-up lyrics I found in musicals—particularly “My Fair Lady” and “West Side Story.” When I was twelve, I memorized all of the lyrics to “My Fair Lady.” I still know them for most of the shows in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.  I loved imagining Lerner and Loewe side by side on the piano bench—it’s harder to think of Bernstein and Sondheim there—Loewe casting out a little melody, Lerner filling it with words.  Language and constraint, of course. Although they actually worked back and forth, when I imagined them together, melody always came first.

I wonder if, even as an adolescent, I somehow recognized in those musicals the pleasing tension between individual song and the surrounding narrative. That tension has become a central focus for me as a poet. When I was in graduate school, I took an advanced degree in fiction, not poetry.  After I graduated, I began my “great short story.” And began it. And began it. The work of contemporary poets kept drawing me away. One day I ran across a book by Norman Dubie, In the Dead of the Night. When I saw what he was doing—fusing narrative and lyric, focusing on history and the non-personal, oftentimes writing in the voices of historical characters, but not in the vernaculars of their time—well, I’d seen most of those techniques used in poetry throughout the years but I’d never seen all of them used simultaneously. I was excited by what Dubie was doing and began my own somewhat parallel journey. I never returned to writing fiction.

Do you find your training in fiction showing up in your poetry?

Oh, yes—especially early on. I think that Flight reveals a gradual movement toward more techniques of the lyric. My early poems were composed using a lot of fictional devices: I approached time and transition differently than I do now; I often resolved poems in the way that fiction might resolve its project; and I was very focused on trying to place the reader in a physical setting, using the backdrop and images of the time.

Why did you find poetry to work better than fiction for what you wanted to say?

I’m always hoping to combine the lyric and narrative, and writing poems allows for the economy that introduces mystery and the “grand ineffable.”

How do you choose a specific historical figure to write about?

It’s different for each, so perhaps some examples would give the clearest answer. When I wrote a poem about Robert Schumann, “Traümerei,” I was working at the Women’s Information Center on the UW campus. I was an editor there and read press releases we received for our monthly calendar of events. One release, from a public television station, was about a special they were running on Robert Schumann. It mentioned that Schumann had a mental disorder which, at the end of his life, caused him to convert virtually all sounds into musical notes—and which also led to his death in an institution from starvation. Those facts collided for me, and I thought, I must investigate this man. So that was an instance of being stunned into writing a poem by a fact. The poem didn’t come from any previous interest in Schumann; had that fact been about another musician’s life, I still would have done the investigation.

In the case of The Ghost Trio, the idea for the entire book came from looking at an article on pottery that mentioned that Charles Darwin had married a member of the Wedgwood family. I thought, Hmmm the Darwins and Wedgwoods, art and science, each in its way drawn up from the soil. It was that unformed idea, that little kernel, that served as a hook. It asked for investigation, and the entire book developed from that initial delving. Later, in doing the research, I found wondrous images. In the Victoria and Albert Museum I saw a hollow wig stand with a little trap door where the face would be—it held wig powder—and a pair of ice skates made from the jaw of a sheep. Both were so practical and yet simultaneously mysterious and evocative—the little door, the little teeth biting into the boot sole. And they were circa  Erasmus Darwin’s time, even though they weren’t necessarily part of Darwin’s own life. In both cases I wrote the image into the life of the character, rather than having research into the character’s life provide the image.  They were visual representations of musings appropriate to Erasmus Darwin as I understood him.

In the historical poems, how important to you is strict accuracy?

I want to be certain that things like sheep-jaw skates and wig stands could exist in a character’s life. I want the trees in my poem to be the trees in a character’s city, and the wood to be the wood that really was used to make a spectacular violin. I try hard to have that accuracy of image, and, given a choice, an image that is aurally rich as well. A visual and aural vividness.

That said, Erasmus Darwin had not seen sheep-jaw skates as far as I know. One day I received a letter from England from a member of the Darwin family who had seen the two poems when they ran on facing pages in The New Yorker.  He thanked me for them and “for your interest in my family” (as if there are only few of us interested) and mentioned my “imaginative use” of the objects. He knew exactly the role those items played within the poems—why they were there.

How much do you research and think about a character’s personality and way of thinking – his or her own take on events?

In the majority of the poems, and there are exceptions, it isn’t the figure’s personality that I’m as drawn to as what the figure represents to society or civilization. When I wrote The Profile Makers, for example, I selected characters—from de Silhouette to Daguerre to Mathew Brady to Thomas Edison—because they all worked in one way or another with “the captured image;” drawing, photography, x-ray. That book began when I saw a note in a museum catalog saying that glass-plate negatives from Brady and his crew were used to replace broken greenhouse windows. That image, light passing through the bodies of civil war soldiers to nurture hot-house plants, launched the book for me.  All of its characters represented aspects of the book’s central inquiry. Nonetheless, I hope they do come across as human, and I wouldn’t give a character opinions or conclusions that aren’t documented.

How do you decide whether a poem will be in the first or the third person?

It’s not a decision I make before starting a poem. I’ll often experiment with both points of view in trying to find a poem’s voice and tone. Writing in the first person, in the voice of an historical character, is less challenging to me than writing about that person. But it can also be more energizing for me—more fun. My first person “character” poems often reflect the movements of an internal monologue, the speaker’s thoughts shifting without formal transitions, as the mind does when processing both thought and sensory input. That type of first person voice isn’t asked to be responsible to a logical or linear progression, and that freedom often results in surprises. The voice is frequently searching, its impulse to speak stems from discontent, and all of these factors yield a certain immediacy or tonal urgency that isn’t found in my third person poems. The latter, because they’re offered by a seemingly omniscient speaker who is absent as a participating character, progress in a far more balanced way. Their voices aren’t fired by discontent—they are tellers rather than subjects. The reader senses that these voices know the poem’s full “story” from the outset, and the entire poem, its tone and pacing and resolution, is colored by that omniscience.

Do you feel differently about the figures, or about the poems, depending on the point of view?

That’s an interesting question. I’m thinking about two poems I’ve written on Marie Curie, one in the first person, one in the third. The poem that’s in Curie’s voice, “From the Orchard,” is in sections, its lines jagged, frequently enjambed. Curie flits from one image to the next as her story emerges through accretion of the disparate. The third person poem, “Thinking of Red,” is in seven six-line stanzas, with lines of about the same length, and the story progresses linearly. I think of my relationship to Curie as “parental” in “Thinking of Red” and “collegial” in “From the Orchard.” Those aren’t quite the right terms, I know, but “parental” is to “omniscient” as “collegial” is to the first person or “borrowed voice”—a point of view in which poet and subject merge.

I was interested to notice that most of the figures in the poems are men. Does that enter into your thinking at all?

I’m drawn to figures who have been highly and dramatically engaged in our journey as a civilization, particularly in science and art.  That they are men or women is less important to me than their roles in altering our history.

How do you think about the shape of a book as whole? Do you have a sense when you get into a character that this is going to be a whole book?

It varies, although not extensively, from book to book. As I mentioned, The Ghost Trio and The Profile Makers both were launched by a single stimulus. Usually, after I’ve finished a book, I’ll write poems for a year or more without a sense of how they might be part of a future book. Then something will startle those poems into at least a potential conversation with one another—with First Hand, it was the cloning of Dolly. From then on, for another two years perhaps, I’ll write poems that join the conversation. I hope that the poems work together the way shards in a kaleidoscope do—free-standing parts of a greater whole, distinctly different in shape and color.

At that point do some poems get left behind?

Usually most poems that I’ve spent a significant amount of time on make it into a book, although they may be revised radically along the way. If my process is too programmed, the book will feel static, so I like to bring in rogue poems that enter the conversation from a different angle, but still echo a central inquiry. The structure of the book is a tool that helps me compose, the way formal structure can help us compose: it guides my thinking. It’s a much looser method than composing in a formal structure, of course, but when the poems start to align, that alignment helps me to see ligatures as well as gaps. I’ll write in my journal You need more of this in the early section or You need more of that here, and then try to write to that need.

What about the new poems in Flight that aren’t part of a separate book?

It was hard to let the new poems enter this collection before my next book is finished. I have a sense of where this next book is going: Venice will be a focus, because it’s such evidence of civilization’s ability to create beauty and destruction, and we’re losing it because of what we’re doing to the earth’s physical systems. But that’s just a kernel of the book, and it will be important for me to gather many new poems together so that I can see more clearly the ones that are failing. I already know that certain new poems need revision. Others will join them, I’m sure.

I realize in saying this how much I need the structure of the overall argument of the book to help me see the flaws in individual poems. It took me all these years to have a New and Selected—it’s drawing on seven books. I think the reasons I resisted the format so much are, first, that it required me to abbreviate books that I had conceived of as a whole, but also that I knew that certain poems in the new section would grow stronger over time. They are finished enough to make an appearance, though. In time they may illustrate a process, and I wanted to include them.

How does form factor into your writing process?

For me, the poem almost always asks for the form. Rarely does formal structure create subject for me. In First Hand, the poem “DNA” about the double helix, for example, really wanted a pantoum. A sonnet crown seemed appropriate for the way my life and Gregor Mendel’s circled back on each other in the same book.

Is that also true of the poems with looser forms?

Yes.  Most of the poems that I write using looser forms—and there are many—stem from the poem’s mission. With the Curie poems I mentioned earlier, line lengths and stanza patterns were as different across those free verse poems as tone, pacing, and point of view. Their missions were different and asked for different presentations. That said, more and more I find myself resisting my old “ragged” structures and striving for poems that are balanced visually. I enjoy that constraint. Nonetheless, I realize that these choices influence how the reader receives and interprets the poem, and I don’t want to fall into patterns simply because they’re pretty.

The visual arts play such an important role in these poems. Do you make visual art yourself?

No, I’m dreadful at it. But whenever I have a free afternoon, and especially if I’m traveling, I often go to galleries and museums. I can’t tell you how many poems in this selection have begun from paintings, although a poem is not always held so tightly by a painting that I need to acknowledge it.

What is it about paintings that you find particularly inspiring?

The fusion of matter and vision—the slow fusion of matter and vision. (Though photography inspires me too, and there the fusion is instantaneous.) The end result is, of course, that condition of transcendence that has always drawn people to art, but I’m also inspired by the process, the melding of the artist’s insight, the conditions of light, read or applied, and the materials at hand. My poem, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaas Tulp,” is about these ideas: Rembrandt coating his canvas with the glue of rabbit skins, mixing his pigments, then painting the body of a cadaver, the body of death made eternal by the oils, sulfurs, and roots of the living world.

Many times inspiration comes from an interaction between my journals and a painting.  My journals are filled with what I call orphaned images, images divorced from contexts or metaphor. Sometimes I’ll have one or two in mind as I’m looking through a book of paintings. Now and then the possibility of an odd alliance stirs. I read once that hunters used to wrap their horses’ hooves in sackcloth to quiet them during the hunt. I was thinking of that while looking through a book of van Eyck’s paintings. I stopped at his painting of the Arnolfini marriage. What sounds might the bride and groom be hearing outside the window on the painting’s left wall? Horse’s hooves? My poem “The Wedding” grew from the fusion of that unrelated journal entry and van Eyck’s painting.

I was struck also by all the Northern European settings of these poems. Is there something about that location that’s especially inspiring to you?

I’m not sure why the Northern European painters are the ones I’ve turned to so frequently. Before I wrote that very early poem on “The Anatomy Lesson” I hadn’t been interested in Rembrandt; I associated him with darkness and a kind of off-putting gravity. That changed. Now I think he’s unparalleled as a painter. I also admire the Italian Gothic painters, Vivarani, Giambino, and—swing forward five centuries—the German Expressionists, and so much in between. But the painters who most frequently inspire poetry within me do seem to be northern European:  Rembrandt, van Eyck, Vermeer, Durer.

I’m not an art critic and can only speak to this in a personal way. For me, the combination of the northern cultures, landscapes, weather and light creates a certain tone within the paintings that attracts me, whether the scenes depicted are indoors or outside. I’ve only been to their regions once, but I spent my very early childhood in Alaska, and I believe that exposure to snow and ice was a primal experience for me  In my early book, The Stillness, the Dancing, there is a concentration on ice and the frozen regions, and the way that snow takes away the definition of the world. Certainly my poem in the voice of the artist Hendrick Avercamp was written because I was drawn to the metaphoric implications of his paintings of skaters on frozen rivers. And I wrote “The Geographer” in part because I was fascinated by how the Dutch dried their flat, flooded fields. And Vermeer!—a “spiritual” use of light that, it seems to me, could not occur without all of the above.

There are a few poems in the book where an “I” appears who seems to be autobiographical. How do these poems take shape, as opposed to the others which are more impersonal?

There are “I” poems that seem identifiable as me, but the vast majority of them aren’t autobiographical. For example, there’s one poem called “Memento for the Hours” whose speaker goes into a storage room chilled by an underground brook. There are cut flowers and apples and she sits there with her mother. The poem is set in the 19th century and comes from reticules, folklore, ancient refrigeration techniques. Still, many people who read that poem will say to me, oh Linda, your romantic childhood:  a brook running under a stone house, and you and your mother sitting there . . . but actually, I grew up in Seattle. My father was a vice president for Alaska Airlines. One of my friends from high school read my “rural-setting father poems” and said “I don’t remember Mr. Bierds on a tractor!”

Some poems in Flight are based on my own life, but I wrote them more to enhance a book’s mission than to experience the benefits of autobiographical self-expression. My own life just doesn’t interest me very much as a subject for my poetry.

Do you enjoy other people’s poems that are self-expressive?

Yes, absolutely! I’m glad you asked that, because it can sound as if I’m saying, Just take that whole segment of the poetry world away. I do enjoy reading seemingly autobiographical poems—in fact, probably more than I enjoy reading I-absent poems. I’m just inspired by other sources.

What do you like to read in general?

I read a tremendous amount of contemporary poetry. I subscribe to a number of journals and part of my workday is devoted to them. In my free time I read novels and occasionally non-fiction. I’m reading Edward P. Jones’s The Known World right now.

I was imagining you devouring science journals.

Only during research. The triggers for my science poems come from less predictable places. Archimedes was not able to discover his theory of buoyancy by reading about buoyancy—he had to get into the bathtub. So it isn’t by poring through the journals that I come up with these poems; I’m in the tub, so to speak, and an image or a rogue idea comes, and then the research begins. And I only do enough research to help me make that particular poem. I have no deep knowledge of science; I’m sure what I have would be laughable to a real scientist.

Do you find that teaching influences your writing?

Yes, but not in terms of style or subject matter.  I teach graduate and undergraduate workshops almost exclusively.  I see my role for the students as that of a serious reader of their work.  I try to show them precisely what I am receiving from their poems and why—how the techniques they’ve used and the decisions they’ve made about structure, image, sound, voice, and so on affect my reading of their poem.  I try to instill in them, in addition to practical skills, a sense of responsibility for those choices, and above all a sense of responsibility to the reader.  And the discussions we have in class help me be responsible to my own readers.