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MARK JARMAN (1) - JANUARY 1999 FEATURE  

  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE

Mark Jarman
J.M. Spalding interviews the poet.

John Kinsella
The River - Initial chapter of John Kinsella's   autobiography series at TCR.

Mark Jarman

Mark Jarman (Photo by Rebecca Walk)Mark Jarman is the author of five collections of poetry. He has also written a book-length, narrative poem, Iris. With David Mason, he has edited Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism, and with Robert McDowell, he has written The Reaper Essays.  Jarman's awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. His book The Black Riviera won the 1991 Poets' Prize. Questions for Ecclesiastes was recently awared the Lenore Marshall Prize. 

His book of criticism, The Secret of Poetry, is forthcoming from Story Line Press, as is his next collection of poetry, Unholy Sonnets—of which poems appear in The Cortland Review Issue Four.   He teaches at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Interview with Mark Jarman

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J.M. Spalding
: Mark, first let me say that it is a pleasure to do this interview with you. Today I’ll start off with an easy one: What is the first thing you notice about a poem?

Mark Jarman: The first thing I notice about a poem, if I am reading it, is its shape on the page. After that, I notice all sorts of things. I wish I could claim that, like W. H. Auden, I looked first at what the poem was doing technically. But that's not altogether true. I read the poem and expect it to move me. For that to happen I have to notice everything, of course, consciously and unconsciously. In one poem it will be an apt and surprising metaphor, in another it will be a particular way with rhythm. My experience of listening to, rather than reading poetry, is distinct in some ways. If I am listening to a poem for the first time, without the text before me, especially if the author is reading it, then I notice a quality of voice, rhythm, and surprise. And, as when I read a poem on the page, I expect to be moved by what I hear.

What are some poems that move you?

Many poems move me, so many that it would be hard to make even a short list. Aptness and perfection in poems move me as I suppose they move anyone who cares about such things. But I also greatly admire those poems which are not perfect, but nearly perfect, as they render human imperfection or, more precisely, show themselves to be products of human imperfection. I'm thinking of Emily's Dickinson's "After great pain, a formal feeling comes—" (poem #341):

After great pain, a formal feeling comes—
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round—
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought—
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone—

This is the Hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go-

This poem moves me because it appears that the poet has not decided exactly how to represent this kind of grief. Though the images all have numbness in common, they embody variously stillness and movement, rather like the indecisive motions of characters in a Beckett play or a Bergman movie. The uncertainty of the form also moves me, because of the exactness in which each part is executed. It begins uncharacteristically for Dickinson with two iambic pentameter couplets, though the first half-rhyme is typical of her rhyming. The middle stanza seems to lose its way as she heads back to her preferred form, common measure. The stanza is five lines instead of four, lines three and four should form one line of iambic tetrameter, not two of dimeter, and the fifth line is extra, and it includes an imagistic surprise, with its crystalline paralysis. Amazing. The final stanza is just as much of a departure, beginning with a trimeter couplet, in which "Lead" and "outlived" rhyme only by the sheerest indulgence. The final two lines form one of the most powerful iambic pentameter couplets in the language. The poem is perfect in each part, but as a whole it is a mechanism of incongruities. I think of the voice at the end of Beckett's The Unnameable, saying, "I can't go on. I'll go on."

Poetry that makes me believe in a place or a landscape moves me. One of my favorite poems is W. H. Auden's "In Praise of Limestone." The end of the poem is incredibly moving, because he admits to knowing nothing about what he calls "a faultless love" or "the life to come," but when he tries to imagine them, he hears "the murmur of underground streams" and sees "a limestone landscape." I suppose it is when a poet admits to being human that I am moved, but especially when he or she tries to imagine something more than human.

In "Education by Poetry," Robert Frost says that poetry is the philosophical attempt to say matter in terms of spirit and spirit in terms of matter, to make what he calls "the final unity." But he adds that it is an attempt that fails, because ultimately all metaphors break down. I am moved by poems that recognize the limitation of their expression, even as they try to transcend that limitation. The end of Brenda Hillman's "The First Thought" from her book Bright Existence is a wonderful example. Describing the birth of her child, she turns suddenly to the reader, and asks, "don't you love the word raiment? / Dawn comes in white raiment. / Something like that." The humility and beauty of an inadequate phrase—"Something like that"—moves me much more than a simile that might make a greater claim. Nevertheless, I think there is no other way to say what Hillman says here. To me it is as apt and perfect as one of the Beatitudes, for example, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." I find the Beatitudes and all the poetry of Jesus intensely moving, too.

You have made your living as a teacher. Could you talk about some of the rewarding experiences you have had teaching?

Perhaps the most rewarding experience I have had as a teacher was learning that I liked to teach. That was about the time I turned 40. I had been teaching since college, actually, when as a senior I taught an undergraduate-directed poetry writing class (a special feature of my college at the University of California, Santa Cruz). Then, I taught as a teaching/writing fellow in graduate school at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. One of my students there was the poet Nancy Eimers, an undergraduate at the time. Teaching professionally was something that happened because I needed a job after graduate school, applied for a few, and was lucky to be hired by a branch of Indiana State University in Evansville (now the University of Southern Indiana). The course load was killing, three freshman composition courses and one creative writing course per semester; I was totally unprepared for that kind of work. Nevertheless, I had some talented students, one of whom, Barbara Hass, has gone on to a career as a fiction writer. While it was gratifying to have talented students like Nancy Eimers and Barbara Hass, during my first years as a teacher, teaching still seemed merely like a way to make a living while I wrote. And it continued to be that way through many positions: a visiting lecturer position at the University of California, Irvine, where two members of the graduate poetry workshop that I led were Garrett Hongo and Yusef Komunyakaa, three years at Murray State University in Kentucky, and my first nine years at Vanderbilt University, where I now teach.

At Vanderbilt I have also been fortunate to have some talented students, especially the poets Greg Williamson and Terri Witek, but as I say, it was not until six years ago that I realized how much I enjoyed teaching and how rewarding the experience of teaching was to me. Perhaps turning 40 endowed me with a paternal air of authority, making it easier for me and the class to believe what I was saying. I have been privileged at Vanderbilt to teach poetry writing classes and classes in literature, including upper division classes in contemporary poetry and a graduate seminar in the poetry of Robert Frost. Teaching has been rewarding to me because I am basically an incorrigible student; I want to know the answer and I want to be the one to give the answer, which is one of the reasons why I don't think I'm as effective as many of my colleagues who are dedicated teachers. Still, it has become a great pleasure to me to see young people learn to articulate their thoughts about poetry, as well as to begin to learn the craft of writing it.

Mark, you were born in Mount Sterling, Kentucky. Could you talk about that environment and how it influenced you as a young writer?

My parents left Kentucky when I was two. My father had gone there to attend seminary at the College of the Bible in Lexington (now Lexington Theological Seminary). They were Californians, and when my dad's course work was done, they returned to California. While in seminary my father served a little church in Sharpsburg, a town of 400 people; the hospital where I was born in the larger town of Mount Sterling

later burned down. It would seem, then, that Mount Sterling and environs had little or no effect upon me. But my father was and remains a good amateur photographer and took many, many pictures of his parishioners and recorded their lives and the life of the church he served. When my sisters and I were growing up, we looked at these pictures as slides he would project on special occasions. All of my early memories of Kentucky belong to those slide shows.

I grew up in Southern California, living there from 1954 to 1958, then from 1961 to 1970. During the three years from 1958 to 1961, my father took us to Scotland where he served a church of our denomination in Kirkcaldy, a linoleum factory town on the Firth of Forth, an estuary of the North Sea. Those were important years, too, and I have written about them in a number of poems, including those in my first book, North Sea, which was published in 1978. Southern California is my landscape, however, and I think of Santa Monica Bay and Redondo Beach, where my family lived, as the setting for many of my poems and as the environment that most influenced me as a young writer.

Ironically, with regard to your question, I did reach back to my years teaching in Murray, Kentucky to write my book-length poem Iris. Murray is on the western side of the state, and Sharpsburg on the eastern side, and the regions are quite different. The area around Murray is flat and agricultural, bounded on three sides by rivers and lakes; it is tobacco and corn country. By contrast, Sharpsburg is hill country. I devote quite a bit to the environment of Murray in Iris. I began the book here in Nashville and finished it in England, where I taught for a year. It's a book about the South and about California. The title character is based on my maternal grandmother, who was from Mississippi, and some of my students at Murray State University. I am sure some of my parents' memories of Sharpsburg made their way into the poem, too. But as you can tell, my environment has changed often.

That is a long answer to your question. It is a curious phenomenon of American life that we rarely grow up where we are born. I have always envied people who stayed put.


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