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Atlantic Unbound | June 14, 2001
A conversation with the poet and playwright Glyn Maxwell
lyn Maxwell was born in 1962 in Hertfordshire, England. He studied English at Oxford before coming to the United States in 1987 to study poetry and drama at Boston University with the Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott. He has lived here ever since, but his poetry straddles the Atlantic with its language and themes, dually inspired by the work of Robert Frost and W. H. Auden.
The voices in Maxwell's poetry combine broken sentences, private vocabularies, and the hesitations of everyday speech with a dry and patient formalism. Those voices sustain 400 pages of terza rima in his latest book, Time's Fool. (Terza rima, the three-lined stanza form invented by Dante Alighieri for the Divine Comedy, follows the rhyme scheme aba bcb cdc, and so on.) Set in Hartisle, England, this "tale in verse" is narrated by Edmund Lea, an updated incarnation of the Flying Dutchman, who can only disembark from a hellish train ride once every seven years. Stranded on the train as the result of a struggle with a mysterious demon, Edmund lives perpetually at the age of seventeen, his existence reduced to sporadic glimpses of a world that is receding ahead of him, as he outlives the people and places he once knew.
Hear Glyn Maxwell read two of his poems, originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, and an excerpt from Time's Fool.
Excerpt from Time's Fool (2000)
"Poem in Blank Rhyme" (July 1991)
"Rumpelstiltskin" (January 1992)
Reading Time's Fool aloud is like listening to the music of Prokofiev. Nothing comes to a logical conclusion; when a moment seems about to resolve, it modulates into something stranger and stronger than expected. Yet nothing appears out of place. Thoughts move quickly, but syntax, lineation, and rhyme become footholds for the poet's ideas. In the terza rima form Maxwell finds a refuge from his stark view of the chaos in human speech.
Maxwell has published four previous books of poetry: Tale of the Mayor's Son (1990), Out of the Rain (1992), Rest for the Wicked (1995), and The Breakage (1999), the centerpiece of which is a series of letters to the English poet Edward Thomas, who fought and died in World War I. Maxwell has been awarded the Somerset Maugham Prize and the E. M. Forster Prize, and The Breakage was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize and the British Forward Prize for best collection.
I spoke with Maxwell over lunch in Amherst, Massachusetts, this past February.
I know you are a big Frost fan. Was coming to New England a pilgrimage for you?
|Glyn Maxwell |
It looks as if there was some kind of method to it, but it was actually an extraordinary lightning bolt of luck that brought me to Boston in 1987. I'd never been to America—I'd started an M.Lit. at Oxford and then changed my mind—and I thought I wanted to go there. I'd started getting poems published while at Oxford, but I was on the dole, and I wanted to have an excuse to carry on writing. I wrote to a few universities in the U.S., and the response I got from B.U. said, "We have Derek Walcott here." I'd never heard of him, so I looked him up and found one poem in a Caribbean anthology. He really hadn't dawned on the wider literary establishment in Britain in 1986, but I liked him, applied, and he liked what I sent him enough to facilitate my getting there, because I couldn't actually afford the cost.
It was an amazing year, because I started to read contemporary poetry, which I had really run shy of in Britain. I hadn't liked anything I'd seen. I was reading Byron and trying to write like Byron. I hadn't reached Auden. I wasn't even sure I wanted to be a poet. I applied to B.U. as a fiction writer as well, and as a playwright. Because of Derek, I ended up studying poetry and plays. Between 1987 and 1988 I was studying with Walcott, and looking back, there couldn't have been a better place for a young poet to be. All the best poets in America would be passing through, and Derek would introduce me to them. The first published poets I met anywhere at all were Walcott, Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, and Thom Gunn. There couldn't have been a better place. But it was an accident.
The market for long poems, at least in America, is dominated by translators—people who use Homer and others as mouthpieces for what they themselves are doing. What is the place of today's original long poem?
It sounds a bit precious, but I never thought about it in a market way. I'd been carrying around in my head the idea that I really wanted to do the Flying Dutchman story, that if I only did one huge adaptation of something it would be this. I thought of everything—radio, sitcom—I thought of really messing with it, doing it as a joke. Then I thought of doing it as a play, because I write lots of verse plays. Half of what I do are these plays, but they're very difficult to get published without being performed, and they're very difficult to get put on. I really wanted to tell the story, and I didn't want to write another verse play that no one knows I've done. I wanted to publish it. So I decided it would be a poem, and I didn't care how long it was. Faber & Faber had a real problem with it, so I changed publishers.
It's been said that the contemporary novel is a better cultural analogue for epic literature than is a long poem. Why wasn't this book a novel?
In 1992 or 1993 I took a pathetic advance, which was useful money to me then, to write a novel. They couldn't sell my verse plays for love or money, so they said, "If you take this money could you write a novel?" I took it, and was quite excited at the time. I remember I saw Derek at a literary festival in Wales, and I told him this, and he said, "You're a whore! You're a whore! Give the money back! Give it back!" He was sort of joking around. But he was serious when he said, "There's nothing poetry can't do. Why do you think this story has to be told in prose?" Now, I completely agree with that. There isn't any story I can't tell in verse. In fact, the word I didn't want to use in connection with Time's Fool was "novel," even though the publishers wanted to say it's a "novel in verse." This is going to sound precious, but I'll say it anyway, because I do feel this. I was trying to work out why it isn't a novel in verse, and there's an easy answer: novels aren't written in verse. I don't believe in the "novel in verse." I believe that a novel is written in prose. But I also started believing quite strongly that it wasn't a novel because it wasn't made up, because it was true, which does sound unbelievably pretentious. Novels are made up, novels are fiction; this is verse, this is the authority of the language.
Time's Fool incorporates a lot of epic conventions. Is it necessary to be derivative? Is it impossible to write a long poem that escapes the epic tradition?
I don't think it's impossible, but I didn't feel that I could do it. It's very difficult not to incorporate these stories that won't go away. In Time's Fool, it happens in a conscious way. Time's Fool is about being on a track somewhere and reaching a point where it all goes dark. That first line, "When the train stopped I started and woke up," is supposed to sound a little bit like the opening of Dante's Inferno. Then, what can you do but be parodic? The Dante elements have to be parodied. Have you read my poem "The Tale of the Chocolate Egg?" It's like "The Rape of the Lock" in that it's supposed to have a heroic feel about something that's trivial. If you acknowledge that, you can dust yourself off and keep on walking.
One of T. S. Eliot's basic points about terza rima is that without the intrinsic assonance of Italian, it becomes conspicuous and unwieldy. How do you think terza rima functions in English?
I think Brodsky said English didn't have enough full rhymes for terza rima, so you use half rhymes, and even quite faint rhymes. Terza rima seemed to be the strongest form to take a poem of this length, because it had to be stanzaic. Terza rima approximates to thought, or the place where two elements—thought and light—connect. The first line of a terza rima is already an echo—it's an echo of the middle line from the stanza before—so it's a thought that's being processed, using rhyme as a metaphor for thought. So the second line is a new rhyme, the new light striking you, "What about this?" The last line is the last echo of the previous thought, so you get what I call the fourth line, the white space, which allows you to continue the process. Each break between the stanzas carries a charge, not only of the meaning that's just come by but of the rhyme that's buried in the stanza before. For me it's an eternal form; like DNA, it can absolutely reproduce itself. I didn't see how couplets could do that. I didn't see how quatrains could do that.
Also, the poem is in terza rima because it's saying, here's a contemporary story about a man in hell, a man in hell who progresses to some sort of purgatory, and gets about that far, which I thought at the age of thirty-six was all I could do. If there's a heaven to progress to, I'd have to be quite old to do it—to find the form, the metaphor.
What about form and rhyme in America? Why do they have so many enemies here?
What I feel about rhyme is everywhere put better by Auden and Frost and Brodsky. Auden said something like, "Blessed be metrical form for freeing us from the fetters of self." When you abandon form, you are thrown back on yourself, or your particular experience or CV, and that's all you've got. And yes, if you have a very original mind, then that's going to get you somewhere. If you're Ted Hughes or Sylvia Plath or William Carlos Williams, it's going to go somewhere, it's going to be interesting, but if you're not...
When you rhyme, you're somehow engaging with something that's older than you are, that's older than your history, that's older than anything you really understand or experience. You engage with a source of power; you're plugging into Dante, plugging into Coleridge. There are so many examples of beautiful work achieved using these methods, it's very difficult for me to understand why two or three generations turned around and said, "We don't need that because our generation is different, our century is worse than anyone else's, more fragmented." I don't get it. I don't accept it.
When you talk about terza rima, you talk about stanza and rhyme structure as being something close to thought, something close to a natural pattern. What I sense in your poetry is a careful attention to how what we say constantly fails any written standard, that there's some mental force that erodes our efforts toward any grammatical or "correct" language. Do you consciously investigate language as a clue to how people experience reality?
Absolutely. That's it. The terza rima moves too fast for Edmund, it's faster than he can be eloquent when he's talking to other characters. He can't think that fast. Now, this is why I write plays, because you're creating characters and drawing a ring around them with a compass, saying, "This is how far their eloquence goes." This is my life's experiment, continuing to write pentameters as drama. In Shakespeare, in the golden age of pentameters as drama, essentially all the characters are eloquent, which has to do with the cast of Shakespeare's mind and the style of drama at the time. The forms in my plays are quite traditional, they tend to be five-acts, or have that shape, and the pentameter is a demotic sort of pentameter, but the characters move at different speeds, so some of them are deeply uneloquent and inarticulate. Then I suppose you add in the Beckett strand, where they become eloquent in their inarticulateness. Perhaps I'm trying to bring those two things together, so you have characters struggling for the words to match their feelings, but having to move at the pace of the passing lines, which is the earth jolting by under their feet.
In The Dyer's Hand, Auden divides all the great writers into Alices and Mabels, quoting Alice in Wonderland, where Alice says, "I know everything, and I'm not at all like Mabel, because Mabel doesn't know anything." It's not qualitative; a lot of the writers who don't know anything are equals of the ones who know everything. It's an attitude. I think Joyce is a Mabel in Auden's reckoning. Auden doesn't mention Shakespeare, but I think Shakespeare is a Mabel, too. Whereas Auden himself, although he doesn't say so, is clearly an Alice—he knows everything. And these days there aren't that many Alices around. I think Brodsky was an Alice.
This is perhaps where the whole revolution against form in America starts: form accords authority to the speaker, and if the speaker doesn't necessarily have that authority then the use of form feels somehow fake. In my case, I started out working in tough forms because I had very little to say, so I was just using complex forms in order to learn how to do it. I was trying to make an Auden sound but without having Auden's opinions or knowledge or understanding or intellectual breadth—just the facility of expression. I was essentially a Mabel dressed up as an Alice.
What about Frost? You wind up falling between Auden and Frost.
Frost—well, that's what happened next. I realized that the Auden sound wouldn't work for me, because I wasn't like that and didn't have that authority, so I shifted into writing plays, where no one has authority. (The writer has authority over structuring the story, but none of the speakers knows the truth about anything, no one is telling you the way things are.) What I found in Frost is somebody who's coming on as a Mabel who actually knows an awful lot, but his authority comes across as home-grown. And then perhaps I veered off into Edward Thomas, whom I think of as our Frost who died, who perhaps would have been more formally experimental than Frost was and—who knows?—traveled further than Frost did. Frost reached his limitations when he tried to be a playwright, when he wrote those masques. Frost's voice is too strong for him to be able to disappear into characters.
But he does in North of Boston.
That's where it's working to perfection, in that book. Somehow it works perfectly, those dialogue poems, but after that, perhaps with all the accolades, his voice overwhelms him in some way, and he ceases to hear it. Edward Thomas seemed to me a purer voice in some way, but Thomas didn't live long enough or write long enough to have any fame. In Auden what's really going on is thoughts, ideas, pieces of ideas. With Frost what's really going on is breath, and daylight—how seeing something changes the breath slightly—and I think Edward Thomas is the same. In Frost the breath between his lines is amazing. I feel stanzas are pulses of life and pulses of thought and lines are like breaths, and that's why I persevere with pentameter—I do feel it as a breath, I do feel it as a beat, a kind of unit. I think of lines as units of any poem much more than thought or idea.
What are you working on next?
Mary Queen of Scots. I'm writing a play about Mary Queen of Scots, and I have written a play about the last victim of Jack the Ripper, and those are both being done in London on the Fringe, and they're both plays about women named Mary being butchered, which is pure coincidence. I've been experiencing how much I love putting plays together.
Is that a problem being in this country? My impression is that Britain might offer more opportunity.
I've got some addresses in New York I could take some plays to, but I don't see it happening. Even the very first one I wrote, which was in Derek's class, even when he got some actors to do it in his theater, he turned to me and said, "They can't do this. You've got to do this with English actors. Take it back to England."
A lot of people are very skeptical about what they see as the professionalization of poetry, the addiction to MFA programs, at least in this country. After all, so many people come out of these programs each year, but not so many poets. You went to an MFA program. What's your stance?
An MFA program is only as good as the poets who are teaching it, and those poets have come from other MFA programs which are only as good as the poets teaching them. Nothing is going to come out of the blue. I don't think the purpose of an MFA program is to create poets; it's to create citizens who have a better appreciation of what's worthwhile and beautiful. I think the programs are quite good for the poets who teach in them. But I think it's totally out of hand in this country. I think the ideal is somewhere between what's happened here and what's happened in Britain, which is still skeptical about the whole notion. I think it should be something that occurs in about ten places. And it should be rigorous. It's been said before and better, but the problem that America faces artistically is that it's a great democracy compared to most others. But when the democratic spirit is transferred to the arts, it's a problem.
Tocqueville pointed that out—that democratic art is chaotic by nature.
Chaotic, or organized into MFA programs with the same end as chaos, really, the same achievement. It's not that America doesn't have any towering examples of how to write great poetry, it's that it wouldn't know a towering example if it saw one, because it doesn't permit towering examples.
That goes back to America's feud with form.
America has arguably the greatest poet of the last century, Frost, staring it in the face, and yet American students come to my classes, and I say we're going to learn some Frost, and they look at me like I've taken them back to preschool. It's shocking.
When Frost was eighty-seven, Lionel Trilling celebrated him at a famous dinner as a terrifying poet. Frost looked bemused, and everyone else was offended. "What do you mean Frost is a terrifying poet?" Well, Trilling seemed to be more incisive than anyone else at the time: Frost is a great terrifying poet of the abyss. And I think Trilling won the argument. A lot of the best poets regard Frost as the best there is. Instead of "Stopping by Woods" or "The Road Not Taken," they should give students "Directive" in school, or "Design," the Frost that's saying, "What if nobody made any of this? What if this flower here is too small to have been designed by anyone?"
Richard Wilbur once said that "Design" contained his favorite last line: "If design govern in a thing so small." He said it was the most devastating line of poetry in English.
I'm trying to think of a better last line than the one in "Design." You know what Frost's favorite line of Shakespeare was? (This is where Frost should have been a playwright, because what he gets out of the pentameter in things like "Home Burial" should have begun an entire dramatic movement in this country.) His favorite line of Shakespeare is when Hamlet has been told about ghosts, and he says, "So I have heard, and do in part believe it." That was Frost's favorite line of Shakespeare, and I understand that, because it's a beautiful line, and it's a Frost line—because it's so human, so breathed, and entirely timeless. It's not your English or my English. It's not Danish. It's certainly not Danish.
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More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
More on poetry in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
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John DeStefano, a former editorial intern at The Atlantic Monthly, is a freelance writer based in New York City.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.