The HyperTexts

Tom Merrill Interview with Michael R. Burch

Tom Merrill has been a regular contributor to The HyperTexts since 2005. In 2008 we added Tom to our masthead as THT's Poet in Residuum. This, I like to joke, "is a mysterious office," but Tom's contributions—poems, essays, articles for our Blasts from the Past series, introductions for the pages of contemporary poets, etc.—are always rock-solid and very much appreciated. Some of his poems are, in my opinion, absolutely stellar and rank with the best work we've published. Readers unfamiliar with Tom's poetry can click on his hyperlinked name above, read a very nice collection of his poems, then click their browers' back buttons to return to the interview below.—Michael R. Burch, editor, The HyperTexts

MRB: Tom, first, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. Since you’re one of my favorite contemporary poets, it’s a real pleasure and honor for me to be able to interview you. Here’s my first question: While I like and admire your more recent work, I am also a fan of your earlier work. Was there an early poem of yours that made you think you might prove a poet? If so, can you share that poem with our readers, and tell us a bit about its genesis and the revelation?

TM: Well Mike, it certainly sounds like a simple enough question ..... Now, how to tackle it I wonder .....

I suppose I could say that my own experience tends to confirm Plato's famous observation, that every man's a poet when in love.

I was about Romeo's age when I suffered my first serious bout of lovesickness. It was in Europe, where I was attending school. The cause of the affliction was a new student who showed up one year.

My English class that year was conducted by a professor who was on loan to the school from an American college. He had a rather odd name—which now escapes me—and was also a bit different in his person. While others would
walk into a room, he seemed to sweep into one, as if on the crest of a wave. His every motion was fluid and sweeping. He was a rather theatrical type, a tad flamboyant I suppose one might say, did everything with a swish and a flourish. That's how I remember him anyway. But he also seemed to love language, poetry in particular. I remember that he was busy at the time composing what I suppose could be characterized as a loose translation of "The Canterbury Tales." At any rate, he had us studying Shakespeare and Chaucer, among other poetic eminences.

It was autumn, and every night after evening study period, which we had to spend working in silence at our desks in our rooms, I would go wandering off outdoors, more or less regardless of the weather, to lie down alone on a courtyard ledge and stare—often through blurry eyes—up at the heavens, entreating them to send me my heart's desire. Night after night, I listened for footsteps that never came. It became quite a sad ritual. I don't remember exactly how I managed to get free from my schoolmates and the regimentation imposed on our lives for long enough periods to compose the poems, mostly sonnets, I started writing, but somehow I must've. I don't think there were too many of them, just 6 or 8 things I'm guessing. A couple of the sonnets somehow ended up in a course notebook the theatrical professor had required us to keep and that we had to turn in at intervals for his inspection. I remember feeling quite pleased when my notebook came back with a scattering of exclamatory superlatives—even his handwriting, by the way, was a sort of cursive flourish—adorning the margins alongside the poems. So I guess school sometimes
can, if nothing else, be a place to fall in love, and maybe even begin to be a poet.

Those were probably my first poems written with any serious intent. I remember carrying them in my wallet for a number of years, but they're long lost now, and I remember little about them besides their theme and maybe a few words.

In college I wrote no serious poetry. There was an attempt at parodying Pope (who frankly never appealed to me). It ran to a couple hundred lines, and I remember the comments on it I got from my 18th cent. lit. professor being favorable enough. And I seem to remember reading some other poem I'd written to a gathering of poetry buffs that was held at a theatre there. But I guess the next poem of mine that I'd be at all inclined to call serious, came a while after college, after graduate school actually, during a period of depression I suppose you could call it, when an intense feeling of loss welled up in me one day that seemed to demand painstaking translation into language. Perhaps that one more than any other represented a turning point. I was no longer responding to anything in my surroundings the way I once had, and the poem that finally took shape—I may actually have finished it years later, I'm not entirely sure—was about being cut off emotionally from things that had previously excited, a sort of dirge for the passing of my youth I suppose, for the extinction of certain feelings and tastes I no longer seemed to have (The poem concludes: "But now, the seasons glow and fade / Less shades of ache or joy / And as the world goes by, I miss / Once longing for the boy"..... "the boy" being my younger self I think.) It was a small poem, but I think it had a decent degree of finish to it.

After that, except for the occasional odd effort, I didn't return to poetry until I next fell in love, a ways into the future. I think it was during that period that I began feeling more mastery of my medium, more certainty of my ability to
finish a poem. Love certainly provided me a cause for writing my best. I was also fortunate in finding a small handful of appreciative editors, without whom I might not have continued. Having them provided extra motivation to keep at it. It can help to have the occasional well-placed fan. And many thanks, by the way, for all you've done yourself, Mike, to increase my incentive for writing. I just hope THT readers don't hold it too much against you!

MRB: Tom, it has been one of my “happy thoughts” to have been able to encourage your writing and publish the always-good and often-stellar results. My early experience was “similar but different.” I wrote my first poems out of dreams of love and bouts of despair. I too had a flamboyant teacher, but he wrote me a love poem and I was only interested in girls, love- and sex-wise, so I never took his poetry class and became something of a hermit, poetically, for decades. I never met a “real poet” in the flesh, as far as I know, until I was in my forties. But that may have been for the best, as I managed not to subscribe to certain articles of irrational literary dogma. Your story intrigues me, and makes me wonder if you might share one of those early poems which made you feel like a poet and is still extant?

TM: Well, no teacher of mine ever wrote me a love poem that I'm aware of, although in college, a professor—one I'd never taken a course with—did start plying me with kisses once. His quarters were rather Spartan as I recall, and for some unremembered reason I was there, and we were talking and drinking. I frankly don't recall the incident all that well, except that at some point he was next to me, his arm around my shoulder, his mouth and tongue pressing moist intimacies. Like your flamboyant teacher, he wasn't my type I'm afraid. I might also mention that I unfortunately was quite sexually inexperienced at the time, due in large part no doubt to my belonging to a stigmatized minority. Maybe he was inexperienced too, who knows. It was a bit more dangerous then to let your real desires show. Even today, and in spite of the legal advances in our part of the world, caution is doubtless advisable in many places and circumstances. Anyway, I think I probably just braced myself, and endured my assigned role as tasty tidbit. It probably didn't last long, since he must've felt my unresponsiveness, or perhaps discomfort. It might've injured him more than it did me, if he felt a strong attraction to me. I don't remember how the evening ended. I never mentioned the event to anyone, in fact I'm not sure I remember thinking of it again before now. Booze is of course a hard drug, the only one that is shown favoritism by the state, and maybe he was a little drunk that night. I suspect I probably was. I don't remember if I felt flattered by the advance. It was all so long ago, I wonder if I may only be dreaming it happened. Memory can certainly play tricks. At any rate, the event didn't make me shy of professors. Did you really become a poetic hermit because of your teacher's love poem? Was it a nice poem, I wonder? Have you kept a copy? Did you ever show it to anyone?

I can't help wondering about the identity of that "real poet" you met in your forties. It sounds like a rare find. I met one myself, when I was in my early twenties. She was in her eighties. She lived alone in a house she'd inherited. She was very lonely, having outlived so many of her friends, and was starved for companionship. We ended up seeing each other quite regularly for a few years. She'd published a book of poems, all of which were quite finished, but one of which I found particularly lovely and can still recite from memory today, decades later. Edgar Arlington Robinson had been a friend and classmate of her father, and had been a guest at their house, I seem to remember her telling me. She herself had been at Vassar when Millay was there. In fact she'd won Vassar's English Scholarship, I think I remember her calling it, for a year of graduate study at Oxford, where she wrote a thesis called
Women in Shakespeare but didn't receive a degree, because at the time you had to be male to be awarded a degree there. Instead she received some sort of certificate attesting to her completion of her studies. I remember her phoning me one day and beginning, "Don't say a word Dear! I woke up this morning stone deaf." She said a few other things, I have no idea what, and hung up. The next time she called she began, "Dear, I've never heard better in my life!" Apparently a new hearing aid had done the trick. Oh, and come to think of it, she too made an amatory move on me once, placed my hand on her breast, even invited me to join her in bed. I'm afraid I again was unresponsive. Quite a number of years later though, I did rise to the advances of another lady poet, who also was decades older than I, and we had what I suppose could be characterized as a casual affair, nothing more serious on either side, I think it can safely be bet, than occasional sexual recreation. I had a male lover living with me at the time, who must've found it odd walking in on us in various states of undress every now and then. But he never seemed especially fazed by it. I suppose I might add that neither of these experiences made me shy of lady poets.

As to literary dogma, I'm not sure I have one myself. I suppose I don't think it's possible to be a poet without having a substantial degree of language aptitude. How many could rival one of your own favorite poets, Hart Crane, for syntax and vocabulary? I suppose I also tend to associate poetry with a certain kind of affective nature. I suppose it's my impression that many people who try writing poetry seem to lack any very large inheritance of what I suppose I might call poetic feeling. I know I don't regard everyone as a poet who regards him-or-her-self as one. Soi-disant would probably be my way of thinking of a lot of them. If I remember right, cummings used to call certain poems "good but poor." I think I may have seen my share of ones like that.

I suppose I can't get away without satisfying that early poem request. Well then, here's one I've always liked, despite its perhaps sounding more like, oh, say one of the Benet brothers—Stephen Vincent or William Rose—than like Ashbery (though I'm pretty certain I had no one else's style in mind when writing it):

I Watched

I watched love weather, near as you
   The dagger of the word;
Like pharaoh from his throne I watched—
   From love, no cry was heard.

I watched an eye that gazed its gaze,
   I watched lips firmly still;
I watched a valiant mask, as if
   To watch my dagger kill.

And as a helpless cheek betrayed
   The certain hurt within,
I did not stem the tide, but watched
   Blood blossom on the skin.

And when from love a sound rose up
   That rent my heart in two,
I watched—I watched a thing too weak
   To swear its words untrue.

MRB: First, thanks for sharing one of your early poems. I think it exhibits considerable poetic feeling, as you put it, and good command of language, meter and rhyme for a young poet. It also seems original to me, not really reminding me of other poets, although the cadences and closing stanza make me think of a poet we both admire, A. E. Housman. Other poems of yours that I take to be early (or earlier) work include “Time in Eternity” and “Come Lord and Lift.” Am I right about those two? In any case, they strike me as wonderful poems for a poet of any age to have written. Readers can find those poems, and many others of yours, by clicking here Tom Merrill Poetry.

I think my teacher’s love poem did “encourage” me to become a poetic hermit, although it wasn’t the only factor. I was painfully shy and introverted at the time, and unwilling to be laughed at or rejected, so sharing poems with strangers wasn’t high on my priority list. It was much easier to mail poems to editors I didn’t know; if they rejected me, it would sting less and no one would know but me. My teacher’s love poem did keep me from taking his poetry class and coming into contact with other aspiring young poets, but that may have been a blessing in disguise because I didn’t fall under the spell of the many bad ideas so prevalent in poetry classrooms and workshops in those days (and these).

I think my teacher’s poem was nice in sentiment (or flattery), but more of a hastily-dashed-off “come on” than a poem to be kept and treasured. I seem to remember him writing it on the spot, after reading some of my poems. No, I never showed his poem to anyone, and I don’t remember what I did with it. I did write a poem in response. Not a love poem, but a poem of rather mystical poetic kinship. But I thought it would be unwise to show my teacher the poem, and I think my instincts were correct. My poem was eventually published by Songs of Innocence (an interesting synchronicity), Romantics Quarterly and Poetry Life & Times, so at least three editors seemed to think it had some artistic merit.

The “real poet” I eventually met was virtually my antithesis: he performed before a crowd and seemed to have fans, or at least people requested his autograph. I thought some of his poems were quite good, and the performance of them may have been even better, but I would much rather curl up with a book of poems and a glass of wine and read in solitude, so I doubt that I’ll be rushing off to more poetry readings. The two poets you met would probably have been more intriguing to me, especially if they were in various states of undress!

I would agree that much of poetry boils down to poetic feeling and command of language. Another important factor is imagination. I think we can see those three elements in the work of poets like Hart Crane (my personal favorite), Wallace Stevens (yours), and the great Romantics. An interesting thing about Crane is that I don’t always know exactly what he means, but in his best poems I can usually “feel” what he means. I believe you may have a similar affinity for Stevens, who can seem obscure at times to me. So perhaps there is also an element of magic involved, or shamanism.

Here’s my next question, or three. Your more recent work tends to be what you have called “freestyle composition” or what is more commonly known as “free verse.” But your free verse remains nicely musical and often rhymes, however irregularly. I think many poets today misunderstand Pound’s and Eliot’s original vision of free verse, which was to be vers libre or “liberated verse.” Terms I’ve used myself are “less corseted” and “less regimented.” Would you agree that poetry can benefit from fewer arbitrary rules and more flexible forms? And would you disagree with contemporary formalists who insist that metrical poetry is inherently superior to free verse “just because”? Finally, would you share one of your “freestyle compositions” and let us know something about its genesis?

TM: I've noticed over the years that the poems people single out for special notice are seldom the same. They all seem to have different favorites. But occasionally there's some overlap in poetic taste or appreciation.

I remember Margaret Hillert's sharing your appreciation of "Come Lord and Lift." She was (perhaps still is?) both a poet and a writer of children's books—a whopping number of them, at least 80, had been published when she and I were still corresponding—and that poem was especially meaningful to her because her lifemate and longtime companion had succumbed to ovarian cancer around the time it was published. I probably still have the unhappy letter in which she reported her devastating loss and mentioned how close to home the poem had hit. The hell she was going through, the torment I imagine she was experiencing, may have made the poem seem to speak for her own state of mind. For all I know, others may have appreciated it too, although I don't recall anyone ever mentioning it to me if they did. Well, but I guess it can be presumed that the editor who first published it must've liked it well enough.

"Time In Eternity" I believe you're the first to single out (except, again, for the editor who first published it). That one indeed is an early one, written around the same time as my sonnet "How Only Cold," and inspired by the same experience. Both emerged out of another bout of lovesickness--one I'd forgotten about until just now actually--and are from a sad little series of poems I wrote sometime in my 20s—there were maybe a dozen of them. I had only two from the series published. I have no idea if I still have the others. I'm glad if you like the poem so much. It's probably a pretty accurate representation of my affective nature at its most possessed. Aching for the only thing you desire can cut you off from caring about or even noticing anything around you—can be an inescapable distraction sometimes. It just occupies your mind so totally that you can't think of anything else. My nature hasn't changed much I'm afraid. Lovesickness remains a chronic affliction of mine. I suspect the most severely lovesick poets may seem a tad incredible to some people—or maybe even funny. I sometimes wonder how many people suppose deeply romantic poems must just be exaggerations or maybe even fictions. I remember a newspaper reviewer a long time back treating Browning's sonnets as if they were wholly unbelievable. They were just conforming to the poetic conventions of the era I seem to remember the reviewer confidently asserting. I believe the same incredulous reviewer went on to say what a shame it was that Browning hadn't been born later, when she might've written more honestly or realistically. Well, I guess I'm not so sure she'd have written any less incredibly today. I think she may just have been afflicted with an atypical affective nature, maybe exacerbated by her physical impairments, respiratory and spinal. I guess it's my impression that there's a substantial degree of variation in people's affective natures. Some people appear to be a little harder-hit by things than others. But maybe she'd have stuck less to conventional forms if she'd entered the scene a bit later. Impossible to know.

Regarding Crane and Stevens, well, in the latter's case, it isn't really any obscurity that draws me to him, or any magic felt beneath mystifying language. It's something more like some sense he had that our existence is something awfully like never having existed. We are yet we aren't, is I guess the way he comes through to me. "It is an illusion that we were ever alive....." he writes in one of his later poems. "The words spoken," he continues a few lines later, "were not and are not. It is not to be believed." I've wondered if that sense he had of it all being so essentially unreal doesn't partly explain his insistence on doing everything his own way, however alien to others it might seem: what difference could it possibly make, after all, how anyone writes if no one ever really existed anyway? What can nothing say to nothing. Of course he did try to say everything with considerable finish so at least he wouldn't be mistaken for someone with any shortage of language skills. But I think his understanding of things was ultimately derived from a place without human life. I'm inclined to regard him as a tragic poet fundamentally (which doesn't mean he couldn't be witty—was it Aristotle who observed that melancholy men are the wittiest?). He at any rate was an extraordinarily independent writer—one who made a decision to write in his own unique and very different way regardless, and for whatever reasons. I think for anyone interested in unusually acute poetry, and prepared to understand how being and nonbeing can be hard to tell apart, trying to get to know him might be a worthwhile pastime. I find him particularly serviceable when the void is at its weightiest.

Poetry can be anything it wants to be I think, in capable hands. Why should any singular talent be a follower? Shouldn't it be just the opposite? I'd say that Shakespeare copied nothing but himself, a pretty singular model. Shouldn't any unique talent be the leader, not the follower? Human history could suggest, it seems to me, that there might be better ways to go than always down the same old path.

A free verse piece? Another quite early one then, just to be consistent (complete with line-opening capitals!):

Beyond the Brute Moon

O huge, bloated, Jupiter-moon!
Emblem, perhaps, of bliss and plunder—
Behind your coin of brightness glide
No ghosts,
And what thing under
Such serene reflection
Could but sleep?
O, all is round and well,
Well all around,
And all your lifeless lustre
Holds no wonder;
You glow wakeless whether
Weaving through the silvern satin clouds
Or on the fattest harvest shining
Or slouched and falcate
In the black-walled night,
And deaf to hearts
Pressed like trapped creatures crying.

Beyond the brute moon, faintest sparks;
See how they blur, they yearn;
So under an ocean dark lies love;
Through waters only does it burn.

Its genesis eludes me at the moment. Maybe I thought the moon needed a talking to?

Do I think rules for poetry should be more lax? I hope the most capable poets will always feel free to make their own rules. That's what keeps them unique and intriguing, no? It's the "believers" that are always trying to impose their rules on everyone. Just as I prefer a variegated social landscape, I prefer a variegated poetic one. You'll certainly never hear
me urging more conformity and less individuality either in poetry or anywhere else. It's the rare style, the rare perspective, the rare real individual, that has always captured my attention. I think it might not be a bad idea to entertain a little more skepticism about our beliefs. I guess I'd say that believers seem a tad too sure that whatever they believe—or possibly prefer to believe—must be true. Poetic crusades appeal to me about as much as religious or ideological ones. How many oppressive situations have resulted from fierce attachment to questionable ideas—from one or another gang's trying to impose its fond imaginings on all the rest? Militant insistence on the rightness of any idea can only breed strife, it seems to me. Maybe it's inevitable though. Was it Hobbes who observed that the state of nature is a state of war? Well, but even if Hobbes was right, I think I'd still advise against becoming mesmerized by any too definite notion about how things—including poetry—should or must be.

Do I think metrical poetry is "inherently superior?" Well, I guess I just don't think in such terms. I love many strictly metrical poems. Wylie's "The Eagle And The Mole" has always seemed enviable to me. I love Hardy's "The Dead Man Walking." I love Housman's poem that begins "The laws of God, the laws of man / Let him keep who will and can...." But I also love Stevens' "Madame La Fleurie," which concludes: "His grief is that his mother should feed on him, himself and what he saw / In that distant chamber, a bearded queen, wicked in her dead light." I suspect whatever is inherently superior probably doesn't proclaim itself to be, or probably even suppose itself to be. I would guess that any such type would have a more realistic self-evaluation. I suppose I think the kind of judgment you're referring to is a tad arbitrary and gratuitous. Some things count more for some, other things count more for others. I used to think of traditional Western verse as gaudy compared to Asian. An old friend used to love saying, "Keep it simple." But perhaps that's sometimes easier said than done.

MRB: Tom, I think “Come Lord and Lift” is an exceptional poem, and I happen to know that other people agree with me, since the UN “borrowed” the poem for one of its websites, I’ve also seen other poems of your borrowed by bloggers and anti-war websites, and you are consistently among our most-read poets at The HyperTexts, so I think it’s safe to say that you have fans who appreciate your work. I know I do.

I also love “Time in Eternity.” I think most people who aren’t died-in-the-wool, anti-honest-human-sentiment literary specialists (and thus the antithesis of real poets) will probably like it too. But I imagine most of the specialists will refuse to like the poem because they want to impress other people with their “taste,” “aesthetics,” etc.

I wrote a number of similar poems as young poet, because I dreamed of love but my reality was that most of the girls I liked ignored me, and when they didn’t I was too shy to take advantage of any openings they presented. I think my poems, like yours, were honest poems, and I’m not ashamed to have written them. And I certainly don’t think other people should feel ashamed to read and like them, but of course that seems to be what many literary specialists insist that they do these days, now that love, romance, nostalgia, etc., are verboten according to the Colonel Klinks and Sergeant Schultzes in charge of various Gulags … er, poetry classes and workshops. But of course poets are free to walk away from the concentration camps and/or ignore the dictates of their commandants, so perhaps all is not lost. I hope we can return to this subject shortly, as I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Browning’s reviewer strikes me as someone who doesn’t understand the source of poetry, which according to Wordsworth is powerful emotion. I’m sure millions of people are still able to enjoy poems like Browning’s sonnet that begins, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways …” and of course modern romantics like Hart Crane and e. e. cummings took passion (and sex) to new heights, so if anything it seems the better poets have become more “incredible”—as you put it—which to me seems perfectly fine. Why put poetry in corsets and straightjackets?

Stevens does seem like a tragic poet, and one of the very best. I remember complimenting poems of yours in which you “summon the void.” Such poems of yours are dark, powerful and moving, and I like them, as I like many of the darker poems by Stevens, although I don’t necessarily agree with him that life is ultimately meaningless because of death, if that was what he believed. I have a hard time thinking of my wife’s life being meaningless, or the lives of men and women like Blake, Whitman, Florence Nightingale, Einstein and Gandhi. I think suffering and death are tragic, and I don’t agree with religious people who praise the suffering and crucifixion of Christ, etc., but I also don’t agree with the idea that death makes life meaningless. If I cease to exist when I die, that may be tragic and a blessing, if nothing better lies beyond, but I’d like to think certain things that I did had meaning, such as loving my wife, raising my son, publishing Holocaust and Nakba poetry, being a peace activist, and having written poems that people seemed to enjoy from time to time.

I agree that the better poets are more likely to be leaders than followers.

Like you, I have strong doubts about the need for poets to conform to highly dubious rules. The more I read and write poetry, the less I believe the originators of articles of literary dogma like “fear abstractions” and “no ideas but in things” made any sense whatsoever.

I can hear the pained cries and howls of modern critics at certain lines in “Beyond the Brute Moon.” But it seems like another good, honest poem to me, because who hasn’t looked up at the moon and had such thoughts and feelings? It’s a big universe, with plenty of room for all sorts of thoughts, emotions, wonderings and speculations. Right now I’m sure some of our critics are laughing at us, but who knows—perhaps we’ll have the last laugh?

Now how about an example of your more recent free verse?

TM: Well, I guess it isn't too hard to see how people might find the poem funny. It does sound a tad non-native. I doubt it would ever cross my mind to deliver such a florid address now. I've wondered sometimes if picking up the local tongue doesn't take poets longer than it does everybody else, and if even after gaining some degree of fluency in it, they still can't help sounding a little foreign. Demotic speech may come less easily to poets. Sounding like a fully naturalized speaker may take them longer. I suspect my own English anyway, both written and spoken, has always sounded a little odd to people. I've been working on getting better at it, but I can't help feeling some still think I talk funny.

Well, at least I can make people laugh. Once in a while it's perhaps not entirely at my own expense. Sometimes when guests are over, I'll suddenly push out of my chair and start performing a jaunty imitation of someone's speech and mannerisms, or sometimes just of the spirit of someone's remarks, and it always pleases me when these spontaneous little parodies are greeted with spasms of laughter, as they occasionally have been. Even the targets can find them amusing. But who knows, maybe that only means that
I'm even funnier than whatever I'm trying to make fun of. It wouldn't surprise me. I suspect I'm quite an experience, from a spectator's viewpoint.

I was quite surprised myself when that poem of mine turned up at that UN-affiliated website. I remember looking at the logo a couple times just to convince myself it was the real McCoy. I had never associated the UN with poetry. Naturally I was flattered to see my handiwork advertised under the banner of such a major organization. And I also felt flattered to be advertised by that peace site you mentioned, and to be sharing a page there with Leonard Nimoy. I admit it did seem a little amusing to me at first that one of my poems that had been selected to speak for peace was about autoerotism. I couldn't help wondering if whoever'd picked that poem had been completely aware what its theme was. But maybe whoever selected it knew exactly what it was about, and just decided that its theme was apropos. After all, taking the matter in hand can indeed relieve some tension, and relieving tension can indeed help restore a little peace.

I was also surprised and flattered when a writer recently asked my permission to use a couple of my poems in a novel he was arranging to have published. Every new feather in one's cap brings a brief flush of satisfaction. I'm sure I felt a similar mild rush when W.D. Snodgrass singled out a poem of mine for special notice in a contest he judged for a journal called
Negative Capability back in the 1980s. And I probably had about the same reaction when, in the late 90s, I got the news one night from my mate at the time that some Harvard English professor he'd struck up a conversation with earlier that evening at The Cantab, an old dipso-haunt in Cambridge Mass. that used to host—perhaps still hosts?—weekly poetry gatherings in its basement, had pulled a favorite poem out of her bag to show him that turned out to be something by me. Twinkle—my nickname for said mate—must've been as astonished as I was that a visiting professor at his favorite watering hole would be carrying around a copy of one of my poems. It's still hard for me to believe that really happened.

I suspect you're considerably more up than I am on any gospel according to the "specialists." I'm afraid I'm so un-up on such stuff that I don't even know who those specialists might be. I don't receive any magazines in the mail and I don't go searching the internet for the latest pronouncements on poetry. Nor do I frequent any websites where poetry is discussed, although every once in a while I'll spend a minute or two eavesdropping on such discussions. I operate poetically more or less totally in the dark (at least as regards the latest "how-to" theories or the latest dictums of the alleged cognoscenti). I'm aware that inversions and archaisms are frowned on in most poetry circles today. I guess I'd agree that archaisms are best avoided outside of parody. I'm not sure I'd recommend inversions either, though sometimes they're turned out so smoothly they don't jar me at all, and can even seem elegant. I never really minded them in Millay. I remember liking her sonnet that begins "Into the golden vessel of great song / Let us pour all our passion...."; and ends: "Longing alone is singer to the lute; / Let still on nettles in the open sigh / The minstrel, that in slumber is as mute / As any man, and love be far and high / That else forsakes the topmost branch, a fruit / Found on the ground by every passer-by" (even if it might be a joy to find such a fruit on the ground every once in a while). Those lines would seem to speak also to the question of ruling out the kinds of emotion you mentioned. While poets may have more than one instrument at their disposal, or a greater range of moods and preoccupations to express than a lute might be suitable for conveying, I still don't see how you could rule out such powerful distractions as love and longing without excluding some of poetry's most fundamental inspirations. Has anyone actually proposed doing that? Poetic feeling doesn't seem to be equally distributed, which may be part of the reason that deeply romantic poems seem to strike some people as something approaching the ridiculous. I think it's a mistake to assume that everyone feels or thinks the same way. As I said earlier, I guess it's my impression that people come outfitted with somewhat different affective natures.

I'm not sure I know much about those "literary highbrows" who don't enjoy your poems. Do they write poems themselves I wonder? And if they do, what do you think of
theirs? Would it please you to write the way they do? If it would, I suppose they're bound to have their influence on you. I suppose my own view is that anyone with a real affinity to poetry stands a decent chance of someday producing a reasonably good facsimile of the genre. Some may even end up becoming beacons to others. Since I don't really have a clue what any highbrows are saying is the best recipe for poetic success, I'm afraid I'm not in a very good position to address their pronouncements on the subject. I guess all I can think to add is, who knows, maybe by doing just the opposite of whatever they're dictating, or laying down as "The Way," could yield an even bigger payoff. I wonder if Whitman paid much attention to literary highbrows of his day. It's my impression that he declared his independence pretty emphatically.

I've sometimes wished certain dead poets were still alive. Shared perspective is something I miss in poetry today. Possibly it's my own fault, since I don't go looking. Back when I was more curious and my outlook was perhaps a bit more parochial, I used to correspond with a number of poets. I received long letters on a bi-weekly basis from a few of them. In those days, the mail delivery was a more eagerly anticipated event. One of these penpals was Henry Fischer, a particularly avid epistolarian (to coin a word). I remember his grousing quite a bit about the current poetry scene. He was quite hooked on rhyme and rhythm and didn't like being out of favor. I'm not sure we always saw eye to eye on everything, but it was still nice having someone so interesting and so poetically energetic to talk to regularly. He'd studied under Blackmur at Princeton and in his youth had dreamed of being a poet, but had found the prospect too daunting, I think he told me, so settled on becoming an Egyptologist instead. At the time we were writing to each other he was Curator Emeritus of Egyptology at the MET and had returned to the pursuit of his old dream. He wrote clever poetry. He got out new books with astonishing frequency—I remember I was always receiving the latest one in the mail. Here's a randomly selected example of his typical style from one of them:

The Lost Word

When I got up this morning
I caught upon the fly
A poem that balked at borning,
And so I let it die.

Right-to-lifers may disparage
My antipathy to nurse,
And rescue from miscarriage,
An abortive piece of verse.

But I fear the incubation
Of verses of that kind
Might breed a pullulation
Of what should not be rhymed.

Although a fleeting word
May leave one almost breathless
If it's no sooner heard
Than lost, it's hardly deathless.

So very many poems have seen
The light of day, the dark of ink,
We need not think we misdemean
If one goes down the sink!

XJ Kennedy, another poet with a bent for humor, liked Henry's work and I think referred to him in a blurb he wrote for one of his books as "a national treasure." Our epistolary exchange wasn't exactly the way I imagine it might've been corresponding with Housman, say, but it was a pleasant enough pastime. Henry was something of a specialist in hieroglyphics if I'm remembering correctly, but in any event was a rather formidable scholar, and he was very nice to give me so much attention, and I was grateful for the compliments he paid me on several of my poems. He didn't seem to regard me as a poetaster. He invited me to visit him once—he and his wife lived in Sherman Conn. at the time, before eventually moving to Pennsylvania—but somehow I never mustered the ambition for the excursion. Maybe I thought he'd like me less in person than he did in dark ink. Or maybe I was more caught up in other things at the time.

I suppose that even if death and permanent extinction
do render life meaningless, that's unlikely to keep anyone (including Stevens) from sometimes acting and speaking as if everything weren't destined for oblivion. After all, illusion can be quite compelling. I suppose that life, even when every sign of its failing is in evidence, can still somehow seem irrevocable, like a permanent right, and be easy enough to regard as something more significant than the "brief candle" Shakespeare called it. Stevens' refinement on Shakespeare's candle metaphor in his little poem "Valley Candle" sums up his official view of our memorableness in the great scheme of things pretty characteristically I think: "My candle burned alone in the immense valley. / Beams of the huge night converged upon it, / Until the wind blew. / Then beams of the huge night / Converged upon its image, / Until the wind blew." Hardy, in a more classic style, expresses a cognate idea in his poem "His Immortality," if with less cosmic amplitude. But illusion can prevail despite intellectual acuity. Conviction that something is an illusion doesn't always protect one from its charms. What else is there to live for but illusion, I suppose one even might venture. Well, but onward to that requested sample of my more recent free verse then. Picking one somewhat at random:

Current Attractions Besides Frère André

Living alone in a box before you're dead
can prove a bit of a trial, to wit
how to remove a weight of hours

from early-rise to early-abed
when there's nothing but time ahead,
not even a stint at the treadmill for fun,

hardly a thing but forced absorptions,
self-imposed puzzles or chores,
evasive maneuvers performed to diminish

a sense of infinitesimal progress,
of standing still in a stagnant dimension
stretching to kingdom come.

So happily facing another black morning,
its only stimulant chuggishly trickling
into a stained pyrex pot,

I lugged two bags of recyclables down,
dropped them in their usual spot
beside an ailing tree in the pre-dawn

murk of an amber-lit sidewalk.
And now, hooray, a check to be written
presents itself as another fine way

of slightly budging the clock.
Later I'll probably latch onto other
rare rungs in my climb through the day,

the latest edition of Tass let's say
(as I dub a local free speech organ)
with its monolithic insipid array

of enemy lines to be spied on,
or maybe some noticed urgency,
like recurrent gaps in my liquor stock.

That's about what it's come to
since they banned the entertainment industry,
ran out the only wizards at hitting

the daily jackpot of foreign spare income,
crowned their virtue with a virtual ghosttown,
brought to an utterly derelict end

a nonstop ten-year winning spree
that had showered down riches on everyone.
So now,

with the children safe as can be
in a warm woolly sock of deprivation
where only the rampant fuzz are free,

with pretty much nothing left to see
but strings of tots passing sluggishly
through a sort of spiffed-up cemetery lot,

I'm thinking of starting a free soup kitchen
(for nothing but the company)
as well as an overnight shelter (why not?)

perhaps out of some recrudescent desire
for even a lukewarm body's comfort
as much as to nudge something hot.

Knuckle down to the family life I say,
bow to the dictates of the day,
when things have entirely gone to pot

there's hardly a reason for staying awake
except to join the flock and Baa
or methodically feel inspired to jot

out a ditty, and sing

Perhaps you can tell I still don't mind a bit of rhyming. Maybe the immediate becomes more important the more you see eternal absence ahead?

MRB: I like the poem you selected. I’m a fan of rhyme, so I’m glad you haven’t abandoned it. And I like the looser meter of your more recent work, although I also like the meter of your more traditional poems. I believe we are in agreement that there is no need to draw lines in the sand and fight turf wars over the superiority of formal verse to free verse, and vice versa (emphasis on “vice”).

Perhaps having mortal lifespans does provide an impetus for us to complete our life’s work. I remember reading somewhere that Einstein was still working on his equations on his deathbed. I can certainly think of worse ways to go than writing poems as good as yours, if that’s any consolation!

I don’t think most of us talk to ourselves in the same voice employed by Hamlet in his soliloquies, so I’m not bothered when poets use “non-native” speech, as long as they write well. Being young and full of romantic notions is part of the human experience. Speaking or thinking excitedly, even giddily, about love is something most of us have done, while gazing up at the moon. It seems to me that many poets today feel ashamed of expressing honest human sentiments, so they avoid expressing feelings like rapture, giddiness, nostalgia, etc. In my opinion such poets are voluntarily donning straitjackets that limit their range.

My wife Beth can make me laugh with her parodies of other people. She can do both President Bushes wonderfully well. In the old days, Celtic kings who were fearless in battle still feared the satires of poets. Today rulers around the world must live in fear of comedians. Who knows … if poets make a comeback, we may yet manage to put them in their proper place, by embarrassing them into decent behavior.

I had a moment a bit like your “UN moment” when I read a letter of mine in TIME magazine. It took me a few seconds to understand that I was actually reading my own words, and that millions of other people might also be reading them. It felt strangely surreal to momentarily step out of the obscurity of writing poems for small audiences.

I think Leonard Nimoy is a good man and a good poet to share pages with. I seem to remember reading some unflattering comments about his poetry on Eratosphere or some other similar poetry forum, but I think his poems are both good and moving. Actually, he writes like a saint (the tolerant kind). I consider him to be one of the better poets I’ve published.

I did wonder about an anti-war site using your poem “Working for Peace” when it is rather obviously about autoeroticism. But then “make love, not war” has been a rallying cry of the anti-war movement for decades, so that choice may have been intentional. On the other hand, people get married to the stalker lyrics of Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” and Israeli politicians use Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” to excuse the construction of apartheid barriers, when Frost was obviously mocking the constructors of artificial barriers, so almost anything is possible.

If we’re honest, I think all poets enjoy those “feathers in one’s cap.” I’ve been published widely, and several of my poems have “gone viral,” but I still enjoy hearing what individual readers think about my poems, and I maintain a collection of their comments. Some of my favorites are those of students who chose to write essays about poems of mine. The first time I discovered that students were writing about my poems, I was a bit shocked, since there are so many poems by famous poets for them to choose from. Such things do seem a bit surreal, especially the first time they happen.

When I use the term “specialists,” I’m thinking of poetry experts who seem more interested in dissecting frogs to see what makes them tick, than enjoying their leaps and bounds while they’re still alive.

I agree with you on inversions and archaisms. Archaisms should be used very sparingly, if at all, in modern poetry. If Shakespeare had written using 500-year-old archaisms, he would have been writing in ancient German. Inversions can still work in modern poetry, but poets should avoid using clunky inversions for the sake of end rhyme or “sounding poetic.” Still, in skilled hands magical things can happen, so I would never say “never.” Poets like e. e. cummings have pretty much proven that poetry doesn’t require absolute rules or ultra-precise formulas. But on the other hand, there is rarely an advantage to using Chaucerian language today.

I have heard various poetry experts (the kind with MFA degrees) explicitly ban the word “love” and abstractions from poetry. Many of them seem to frown down on expressions of honest human sentiment: nostalgia, etc. So I believe there is, unfortunately, a bias against certain forms of poetic inspiration in some literary circles, and perhaps most. I think love (especially young love) may verge on the ridiculous at times, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t part of the human experience. In perhaps his greatest poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” one of the most intellectual of poets, T. S. Eliot, didn’t shy away from the zanier aspects of human love. Hart Crane, my favorite poet, wrote one of the greatest love poems in the English language, “Voyages.” It’s a wildly romantic, very far-fetched poem, but who cares, really? Doesn’t falling in love mean enjoying the leaps and bounds, rather than dissecting frogs in some sterile lab?

I’m not generally a fan of poetry written by poet/critics to impress other poet/critics, which seems to be one of the more profuse modern genres. I prefer poets like Blake and Whitman who were able to strike common human chords and set them resonating, without needing ultra-precise formulas. But I have seen good poems written by poets I don’t agree with, and I don’t think we should dismiss poetry on purely ideological grounds. So I’m happy to publish the better poems of poets whose “aesthetics” make me grind my teeth. Investors sometimes say that bull markets climb “a wall of worry.” Perhaps raising the degree of difficulty works for some poets. Who knows … they may build poetic muscle as they scramble over obstacle courses of amazingly bad ideas like “fear abstractions” and “no ideas but in things.” But to me it seems silly to subscribe to articles of literary dogma that make absolutely no sense. Why is it wrong to use the word “love” in a love poem? Why is it wrong to express feelings of nostalgia or romantic exuberance? Why is it wrong to express abstract ideas in poems, since that’s what Shakespeare and Milton did in their great soliloquies? Why is regular meter “better” than freer meter, when some of the best poems in the English language employ looser meters? If we can prove to ourselves that great poems have been written using “forbidden” techniques, doesn’t that prove the taboos are nonsensical?

I like Henry Fisher’s poem. We should think about publishing his work, perhaps enlisting Joe Kennedy’s help.

Your remark about “eavesdropping” intrigues me. What did you hear and gather, when you eavesdropped on online poetry forums?

TM: Well, with regard to sounding native, I guess I really do think that it comes less naturally to poets. Maybe they're born with a funnyspeak gene? I think in my own case anyway, fluency in the local lingo has taken a great deal longer than average to achieve, and that even today, the vernacular is more or less a second language to me (odd as that must sound—and maybe in more than one way). Maybe science should explore the question someday? Well, at any rate, I do the best I can with the genes I'm stuck with.

The only people I know with MFA degrees are painters. I suppose writers must receive them now too. Have they been teaching "creative writers" to avoid using the word love? Well, I suppose the word must mean different things to different people. Was it Erich Segal who said that love means never having to say you're sorry? I find that an instructive definition. We profoundly regret it when we mistreat people we love. We wound ourselves as deeply as we wound them when we lose patience and treat them unkindly. About all we can do when we inflict such injuries on ourselves and loved ones is to ask and hope for forgiveness, and then try our best to suppress the enemy within. I've been in that unhappy position too many times myself. In any event, I guess I'd agree that writers shouldn't just assume that the words they use will mean the same thing to everyone. I guess I'd advise them to individualize the meanings of the words they use as much as they can. It seems to me that the more they do that, the more they define their terms and invest them with particular meaning, the less abstract—the less open to anybody's guess—their words will be. All that seems rather self-evident.

"No ideas but in things" is a line from a WCW poem—"Paterson," isn't it? Has it become the mantra of some poetic school? Wasn't it incorporated into Imagism's program? Does anyone know just what it means? Sometimes I tell people "Eyes are better witnesses than ears." Do you suppose he means something like that? His phrase seems to be the sort of thing that gives rise to no clear idea, in me at least. It would be curious if an abstraction had become a rallying cry for people who would outlaw abstraction. Me, I'd say that individualizing one's personal experience and perspective is what writers should do—and what any good writer
naturally does. I like the definition of love ascribed to Jesus: No greater love hath a man than to lay down his life for his brother. Nor do I believe there's only one way to lay down one's life, or that death alone is what he was referring to. Sometimes people lay down their lives—in the sense of putting everything else aside—for indefinite periods to assist someone they cherish who needs help. Anyone who's joined another person's struggle against some mortal affliction knows the experience. I remember someone who meant the world to me once lamenting, "no one stands by anyone." Standing by someone is in my opinion just what Jesus had in mind. The subject brings to mind an old poem of mine, "For A Stricken Innocent," written during a desperate period in my life:

Thy child who cries to me, Lord,
   Finds no relieving art,
But only helpless anguish,
   As with a bursting heart

I gather to me gently
   Joy brittle and too brief;
O take him up as I do,
   O be a gentle thief.

Well, as I said, it takes some forever to get the hang of the local lingo. "Thy's" a bit retro, no? Not to mention those Oes. Well, as an old friend used to love saying, "It's the thought that counts."

I have no idea if Henry's still alive. If he is, I doubt he'd object to his poems being put on display at
THT. The last writing sample I received from him was a little pamphlet he'd composed called "A Metrical Perspective on Palestine and Iraq." You'd like it. He thought somewhat like you about those issues. In one called "The Palestinian" he writes:

By decree they seize
Our native land,
Digest it by degrees.
And banish or remand
Us if we voice our griefs;
Deaf to our pleas,
They chain our chiefs.
I decry their decrees,
They belie their beliefs.

What have I gathered from my eavesdropping on poetry websites? Well, first of all, I do it very rarely, and never for longer than a couple of minutes. A week or two will go by without my ever thinking of it. So my exposure is minimal. Of course, I know what happened to
you at one of them. Weren't you cast out forever, like Lucifer? I guess it would be safe to assume that somewhere en route to that grand finale you must've struck a nerve. Well, if it's any consolation, I at least don't regard you as the devil. If we don't always see things the same way, we're nonetheless in perfect accord about keeping the conversation open to differing viewpoints.

I've personally never felt at home anyplace where I've gotten the feeling there might be hell to pay for saying what I really think. I like feeling free to speak frankly and I like hearing the frank opinions of others. Honest talk is decidedly more to my taste than speech of the guarded variety. In any society where speaking one's mind is to risk censure or ostracism or worse, many people are likely to keep their own counsel. What I'm pretty certain I'd be doing myself in such a society is dreaming of re-locating to a less threatening milieu. It would frankly be a bit of a personal embarrassment to me if any enterprise operating under poetry's banner were treating freespokenness as a punishable offense. It would give an art I've always admired, and have been personally associated with for quite some time, an even worse name than it's already gotten. The poets I got acquainted with over the years were gracious and inviting people. I never sensed I might forfeit my welcome by speaking to any of them in a forthright way. None of them ever made me feel afraid to say aloud what I really thought—or thought I thought—or in any danger of being shut out if I did so. Others have though, and their stifling company naturally has never been missed.

Both freedom of speech and freedom of association are under attack in many quarters today. For me personally, it's impossible to feel at home wherever the exercise of such vital liberties can diminish one's sense of security. Such places seem to be multiplying, and they're about as alluring to me as Berlin might've seemed to someone like Einstein in the 1930s.

In the world at large, which is a far greater concern of mine than any poetry enclave, it is very dismaying indeed to feel increasingly deprived of a public voice—of outlets for one's individual point of view—and increasingly imperiled because of one's preferred company. I recently was rebuked by a uniformed personage for associating with "people like that." The personage was referring to someone I care about and have gone to great lengths to help. When I spontaneously began objecting, I was summarily cut off: "be quiet and listen" he commanded. Prudence prevailed; but all I was thinking during his unmemorable lecture was how much more welcome in my life and personal environs the maligned person was than the self-righteous bigot could ever be. We are all in grave danger when such brazen types are permitted to wield authority. You might as well put the world in the hands of the KKK. Just as Heraclitus observed, "Bigotry is the sacred disease." Many indeed seem to regard their festering prejudices as sacrosanct.

As to art and criticism at poetry websites, my memory's too dim on the subject to permit me to comment with any specificity. Occasionally I'll come across a remark at one of them that resonates with me. In fact the interview I recently was asked to conduct here at
THT was inspired by a couple such remarks.

I've seen some nicely enough composed poems at some of them. Quite a few of the posted criticisms I've seen have been quite elaborate exercises, and have struck me as a little out of proportion with their subjects, a bit overdone I'd say, as if the critics were more interested in impressing the audience with their erudition and prose style than in anything else. I've often wondered how long it took their authors to compose them.

I wish I could say that more of it had made a very positive impression on me. My hunch is that for many who frequent such haunts, it's just a pastime, something to keep them occupied; maybe for some it's a quest for compliments; perhaps others are just looking for useful suggestions. I think people must make up their own minds about such places and decide for themselves whether they have any uses for them. I don't really have too many myself, but others may. I personally am just as happy reading any mainstream organ. I do that daily in fact, just to discover the latest anti-progressive plots. If nothing else, newspapers at least will tell you what the visionaries who run things are cooking up next.

MRB: Tom, I think you’ve done remarkably well with the poetic genes you’ve been given. As you probably know, I’m more likely to praise a poem here and there, than a poet’s body of work. But in your case, I see many strong poems and a good number of stellar ones. And while I can see your personal vernacular changing and becoming what one might call “more modern,” I continue to like the voice I hear in earlier poems like “Come Lord and Lift” and “Time in Eternity.” So for whatever it’s worth, you have my admiration, and I’m glad that we’ve been able to work together these last few years.

Yes, there does seem to be a strong prejudice against love and other abstractions in some poetry circles. It’s probably not fair to blame WCW, since he used the word “love” in the title of a book of poems he wrote for his wife, if I remember things correctly. Perhaps WCW wasn’t as fanatically opposed to abstractions as some of his disciples. In any case, I see no harm in using the word “love” in love poems, and the poem of mine that incited cries of “no ideas but in things!” and “fear abstractions!” was full of concrete images that fleshed out my idea of “southern-style” romantic love, so I think I did individualize the meaning of love as you suggested.

I like your poem “For A Stricken Innocent,” which reminds me of my favorite poem of yours, “Come Lord and Lift.” Since you’re an atheist and I’m an agnostic, and because we both have severe misgivings about orthodox Christianity, it’s interesting to ask, “What would Jesus do”? I still like to think that Jesus would have compassion for fallen fledglings and stricken innocents, which makes me wonder what on earth he must have thought about God, really. How can anyone with a compassionate heart praise or worship the earth’s Creator, if there is such a being, considering all the suffering innocents endure on this planet? But I do like the idea of Christian compassion, if only we could free it from all the baggage of judgement, hell, intolerance and irrational “morality.”

I agree with you that “Thy” seems a bit retro, although perhaps not in hymns and prayers. After all, the word is still actively used in church services and music. But don’t we exclaim and sigh “oh!” over and over again, even in these modern times? It seems odd to me that poets deny themselves the right to use words and exclamations that everyone else is free to employ on a daily basis. I have no compunctions about using “oh” in my poems, and if I was writing a hymn or a prayer, I wouldn’t worry about using “O” either. As a matter of fact, I once used the formal “O” in a love poem I wrote to my wife Beth. The line is “O, terrible angel” and when I wrote it I was thinking of “terrible” as in “invoking awe.” I think the use of “O” in my poem makes perfect sense, and in your poem as well. I don’t think poetry needs or benefits from rigid absolutes and formulas. I prefer to listen to my ear, mind and heart and let them advise me.

I’m glad to learn that Henry and I share similar views about the situation of the Palestinians. Today we freely admit that what American Christians did to Native Americans and African Americans was wrong. So why not admit that what Americans have done and helped Israel do to Palestinians has been “more of the same,” and try to correct our terrible mistakes and injustices while we still hopefully have the time? In any case, I do hope we can publish some of Henry’s poems. That’s a project I’ll look forward to.

Yes, I was cast out of a poetry forum, like Lucifer being flung down from heaven by the forces of orthodoxy. But I agree with you that it’s best to let everyone have his/her say and try to keep the channels of communication open as much as possible. And I’m reminded that Mark Twain’s mother had compassion for Lucifer and prayed for his salvation. Who knows … perhaps one day someone in a position of power may decide that even the Devil and his advocates deserve something akin to Christian compassion. But I’m not holding my breath, and I have no wish to return anywhere that I can’t speak my mind freely. Perhaps being banished from an autocratic heaven is not the worst thing that can happen to someone who prefers freedom to chains.

TM: Well, as I mentioned, what they're saying or thinking in "poetry circles" these days isn't really my most active area of study. I'm afraid I'm much better acquainted with the newspaper.

Quite a while back though, when I was in my early 30s, I did get inducted into the New England Poetry Club, which I imagine must be one of the older American poetry organizations. It was founded in 1915 by Frost, Aiken and Amy Lowell. As I recall, you had to have at least 10 published poems to be eligible for membership, so I'm assuming I must've had at least that many poems in sufficiently acceptable journals by then. I remember causing a bit of a stir at the induction meeting.

The meeting was held at Boylston Hall, a curious granite edifice that was Harvard's first science building but is currently occupied by its language dept., in a room I don't remember a thing about except that it's called Ticknor Lounge and must've had furniture. Each new member was supposed to recite a sample of his creative handiwork to the assembled literati. The stir was caused when I declined to recite the poem I'd decided to share from the lectern that had been provided for the purpose. One after another the novitiates had been marching up to the front of the class to read their pieces, but when my turn came, for reasons long forgotten I announced, from what I remember as being a comfy club chair, that I'd prefer to recite instead from where I was seated. I think this startled everyone, and I think a bit of a coaxing ensued. I forget what was said back and forth, but I doubt any little tug-of-war lasted more than a minute. All I'm entirely sure of, is that my wayward wish ended up getting indulged—did I plead some physical distress I wonder?—and I wasn't deleted from the program or denied a voice for taking an independent stand (if you can take such a thing while sitting). In fact, so far as I know, I'm still a member today, at least of record, though I never attended another meeting, and I stopped receiving their newsletter shortly after I stopped paying my annual dues (having decided, I guess, that hearing who'd won which prize wasn't interesting enough to pay for).

Oh, and maybe a decade and a half later, I also attended a couple meetings of the NH Poetry Society, at the urging of a friend who was a founding member of that organization. I remember at one of them, a little speedwriting game was proposed by whoever was hosting the event that day. Attendees were told they'd have ten minutes to compose a poem on the spot. Everyone would have to stop writing when the time was up, then one after another the participants would be invited to read to the group what they'd come up with. Well, although I'm no speedwriter, I decided I still could play, and when the clock started, I began composing with the rest of them, rubbing my chin now and then while looking off perplexedly into the distance. Soon enough it was over, and the contestants were called on to share their inspirations. When it came my turn to recite, I began: "Hailed down in an alley off the square / by a man of the times and self-styled / litterateur, / old Professor Chard was detained awhile / his hailer portraying the strictly louche / by squinting at him as through a loupe / and seeming baldly to gauge / the spirit extant in a displaced breed....." and so on through another 12 or 14 lines to the finish. I remember a woman behind me exclaiming (in a rather educated voice) "That was brilliant!" Well,
she liked it anyway. I later heard a story about some poetry convention in NYC that Frost and Eliot had attended as the guests of honor. Someone had proposed that they both compose a poem on the spot and that the company present should then vote to decide which poem was the best. Neither objected, Eliot knuckled down and Frost looked off perplexedly from time to time, both were called on to recite, the vote was cast. Frost won. Unlike Eliot, but like me, he had just copied down some lesser known poem of his from memory.

I'd say those couple of experiences sum up the history of my "poetry circle" involvement pretty completely. Other than that, there were just the few poets I knew personally and the few I corresponded with. I suspect most of them were in Henry's camp. Eunice de Chazeau ventured into free verse though, and produced some attractive examples. I liked the book of her poems she sent me. Her themes were serious and her style was different.

I'm afraid I missed the reviews of your "southern-flavored" poem. I'm sorry if they were unflattering. I just looked up the poem to see how it would strike
me. It seems to revel in exotic metaphor. The second stanza evokes, for me at least, a couple in the sack who can't get their fill of each other. I wonder what Clive Barnes would've said, had be been a poetry reviewer occasionally and not so exclusively devoted to dance and ballet. He was a bit of a critic of the critics.

Me, I never submitted a poem to the judgment of anyone who didn't seem somewhat on my own wavelength. Maybe you just submitted it to the wrong panel of judges? I remember before entering that
Negative Capability contest I mentioned earlier, the one that Snodgrass was judging, making a point of acquainting myself with some of his poems to see if I sensed any feeling in them kindred to my own. I guess I did sense some, since I decided to enter the contest; and apparently I guessed right, to judge by the outcome. I suppose I'd advise a similar approach to anyone thinking of offering his composition to others for a verdict. Best to know something about the judge before appointing him to the bench.

I'd say it's impossible to know what Jesus thought about anything, except by the translated (and re-translated) testimony of others. Of the many remarks ascribed to him, one of my personal favorites is "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." I guess no stones would ever be thrown if that wisdom were heeded. If self-criticism ever became a more popular practice, who knows, peace in the world might even start seeming like something attainable.

Finally then, thanks so much again for your good opinion of my creative writing. Poetry strikes me as an odd passion for the devil. Maybe you'll tell me sometime why Lucifer has spent so many years promoting it. Is there more evil in the art than I imagined? Perhaps all your abstraction is just a camouflage for some wicked purpose? What are you really up to behind all those clematis vines I wonder? The devil can assume different appearances. Are you just trying to fool everybody with all the fancy love talk? Readers beware!

Well, forgive me if I amuse myself. Take care. I enjoyed. Best to both you and Beth.

MRB: I’ve only been to one poetry reading in my life, and it was as if the universe kept flashing me warning signals, like the strobing robot on “Lost in Space” … Danger! Danger! Everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong. My preference is to curl up with a book of poems and glass of cabernet at the end of the day, and perhaps a notepad where I can jot down a few words of my own. If someone else wants to perform one of my poems, I won’t pretend not to be pleased, but my idea of “performance” is for my pen to perform the art of making words appear on paper.

I’m sure I would have done exactly what Frost did: submit one of my better poems that no one in the audience had heard. And Frost probably had an unfair advantage, since he was able to compose poems on his walks, commit them to memory, and not have to write them down until they were ready to be published. It’s a trick that I’ve been able to accomplish myself, after a little practice, as I can now compose poems while walking and commit them to paper later.

I like Eunice de Chazeau’s poetry too, and I’d like to thank you for introducing me to her work. Interested readers can find her work by clicking here: The Poetry of Eunice de Chazeau.

I’m not concerned about particular readers not caring for particular poems of mine. My complaint—and I believe it’s a valid one—is that poets who are mentoring other poets should avoid fostering irrational prejudices against the word “love,” romance, enthusiasm, abstractions, the South (as if all the land north of the Mason-Dixon line wasn’t stolen from darker-skinned Native Americans), etc. What I’m objecting to, really, is what I see as a sort of religious fundamentalism in certain literary circles. Witchdoctors believe and teach things that aren’t true. So do Catholic priests (it is a “sin” to use condoms) and Protestant evangelicals (heterosexuals can be forgiven anything, homosexuals nothing). I think we’re seeing the same sort of irrational thinking being transmitted through poetry forums and workshops, where dogma trumps facts and reason. Very bad ideas are being passed down from teachers and mentors to students, and I find that unfortunate.

I too like the verse about not casting the first stone. But one wonders why Jesus didn’t point out the sexism and hypocrisy of only bringing the female adulterer to be murdered by having her head split open by the hurled stones of religion-mad fanatics. Perhaps the Holy Spirit was having an off day.

I have always liked the verse in which Jesus said that the prostitutes would enter the kingdom of heaven before the self-righteous. One doesn’t hear the Moral Majority touting the infallibility of that verse, does one?

This Lucifer would settle for more tolerance and less religious and literary fundamentalism. Perhaps that starts with listening to our hearts, using our powers of reason, and playing Devil’s Advocate when other people teach us things that make no sense.

Tom, I enjoyed our conversation too, and I want to thank you very much for your time. It’s a shame that we have to wrap up such an interesting conversation somewhere, but perhaps we can visit similar or other themes in the future.

TM: Well, I suppose I might tack on a P.S.

With regard to those literary circles that trouble you so much, I guess what would bother me more than any poetry gospel they might be preaching, is if they were shutting people with different ideas out of the conversation.

I'm not really aware of the contents of any poetry catechism they may be in the habit of reciting. To know about anything like that, I'd need to have seen some sample statements of theirs that might've told me something about the tenets of their faith. But since I don't recall having seen any, unless people were actually firing off remarks like "fear abstractions!" and "no ideas but in things!", which sound to me like pretty strange ejaculations, I don't really have much of a clue as to what they might be giving out as The Word, except by rather obscure indirect evidence. I do know that some prefer rhyme and others prefer free verse, and that almost everybody prefers poetry written in contemporary language.

In general, I guess I'd say that the best way to demonstrate how others think, is to let them say it themselves. You can never be accused of putting words in people's mouths, or of misrepresenting them, if you just quote them. A direct quote provides a solid little specimen for analysis, and can't be a chimera. One is less likely to be pursuing phantoms if one addresses what people have actually said and not what one supposes they think.

But to return to my own main concern, which is being permitted a voice in the conversation, it seems to me that the most resilient sort of society is the kind that accommodates the widest range of thought and opinion and provides an always open mike to everyone with something to say and the courage to say it. I'd personally find it enormously refreshing to come across a little less standard commentary in established discussion vehicles every now and then. The occasional offbeat perspective would be a welcome surprise. It seems to me that one would be more likely to encounter such a perspective where all available viewpoints are welcome on the stage, and where speech is the least subject to regulation. It doesn't seem to me to bode too well for progress when a society's reigning attitude is that every bone of contention has already been shoveled under and laid to rest. As I see it, there's lots of fair game for questioning around, no shortage at all of fond notions and assumptions inviting dispute. I find myself often yearning for some real free speech organs, maybe something like those "alternative papers" that flourished in major American cities back in the 70s, but something in any case in which less predictable outlooks would have a better chance of getting an airing, and stock partisan opinion wouldn't be all one ever encountered. I'm fairly sure I'd be emailing submissions to such outlets pretty regularly if there were any I knew of around today. Well, at least there's the internet, and I hope sites like
The HyperTexts will continue being hospitable to different ways of looking at things, and that its readership will keep growing as long as it stays that way. Though one may encounter mindsets on the internet that are just as censorious as many in the world, at least this breakthrough medium boasts more accommodating forums as well.

My three favorite French expressions are
vive la difference (in its most general meaning), laissez-faire and joie de vivre. I think having a wide-open attitude toward differences, and showing the same courtesy and respect to every species from every quarter, and indeed an authentic interest in the whole menagerie, is almost the definition of class. It's pretty much my definition anyway. As I've said to people occasionally, "class is classlessness."

I'm not really a big fan of uniformity, to indulge in a bit of understatement. As I think I said earlier, I like a variegated landscape, both socially and poetically. Or to put it another way, I'd rather see a load of passengers like Noah's parading past my window than a dull procession of any single type. Homogenous society is invariably insipid.

It's been my good fortune to play host over the years to quite an array of characters, and it's provided an invaluable education. Sampling widely from the human smorgasbord is about the only way to get informed about people. Understanding of
anything can only be advanced by discovery, and can never be advanced when every response to surrounding existence is a reflexive resort to received opinion. Understanding is advanced by adventurousness, by a spirit of gameness I suppose, by people inspired to get at the truth behind the mythos. What breeds ugly expressions like "people like that" is something like militant ignorance, which can sometimes strike one as a hopeless kind of learning disability. As I like saying to people sometimes, "experience isn't just the best teacher, it's the only one." I suppose I might even venture to say that one can't be open to education without being open to experience.

I guess I'll leave you with another favorite observation of mine, from Voltaire: "Who can love life who does not love the vulgar"?

MRB: Tom, I agree, particularly on the need for and advantages of free speech, tolerance and keeping open minds. Hopefully The HyperTexts will continue to allow many diverse voices to each have their say, as long as they speak ably and well. Last year we had around half a million page views, and if current trends continue, we should receive from 750,000 to a million page views over the next twelve months. That's not too shabby for a "dying art" and a small organ of free speech. Readers who are interested in such things can review our rankings of contemporary poets, which are based on data provided to us by Google Analytics, in a more democratic process than the arbitrary literary rankings of yore. You appear high in our rankings of contemporary poets, along with other accomplished writers like Jack Butler, Ann Drysdale, Rhina P. Espaillat, R. S. Gwynn, X. J. Kennedy, Yala Korwin, Robert Mezey, Richard Moore, Luis Omar Salinas and A. E. Stallings. And I also see some of the better younger poets doing well and climbing in terms of page views: for instance, Greg Alan Brownderville, Sophie Hannah Jones, Quincy Lehr, Jennifer Reeser and Sieglinde Wood. The fact that the better poets are being read the most often, and that readers tend to spend more time on their pages, bodes well for the future of poetry, I believe. As Google helps the cream rise to the top, by helping interested readers find the best, most relevant work, the onus is on poets to write well and be relevant. I believe your advice expressed in this interview can help aspiring writers, as most writers will benefit from a more open-minded, tolerant, free-thinking love affair with the Fairest Muse.

The HyperTexts