Its always interesting to know what the established poets who have made
their way from the so-called "print world" think about the "Web
world." What do you think the Internet's potential is for poetry?
The Internet looks as if it is going to be another way to publish and distribute
poetry. Because most poems are compact, portable in a way, or in terms of the Internet,
comprehensible on a single page, they seem suited perfectly for the medium. In addition,
because a recording of a given poem, usually read by the poet, can be attached to the
text, the oral quality of poetry, which I believe is essential, benefits.
I am currently editing a page called Poet of the Month for a website called PoetryNet.
Poet of the Month features four poems and a biographical note by one poet,
sometimes with a photograph. Since December 1997, the site has included work by Robert
McDowell, Kate Daniels, David Mason, Michelle Boisseau, Terri Witek, Wyatt Prunty, Allison
Joseph, Chase Twichell, Diann Blakley, Michael Collier, and Judith Ortiz Cofer. Daniel
Anderson is Poet of the Month for December. In January, it will be Judith Baumel. I can't
imagine being able to do this as simply and effectively in a print medium. Of course, I
have the PoetryNet Webmaster John Canaday to thank.
But my point is that the Internet allows for a simpler and faster process of
publication and distribution. Magazines like your own, The Atlantic Monthly with its
Audible Anthology, and the Academy of American
Poets with its Poetry Exhibits, allow poetry to be heard, as well as read; and I think
this may be one of the greatest advantages of the Internet. The potential for poetry as an
oral art has always been great. The Internet exploits this potential to poetry's great
Speaking of audible poetry, what do you think of Dylan Thomas'
The Caedmon recordings of Dylan Thomas reading were responsible for some of my early
excitement about poetry. One of my high school English teachers had them, and listening to
Thomas read "Fern Hill" and "Lament" and even, on one recording, read
and make comments about poems by Thomas Hardy and John Betjeman, was a thrill. His reading
voice was a gift equal almost to his genius for poetry. Of course, he read just about
everything the same way, with the oratorical volume on high. It took me years to
appreciate the less stentorian voices of poets like Robert Frost and W. H. Auden and
Elizabeth Bishop. Today I own records and tapes of many poets reading their work, and I
listen to them for pleasure and play them when I teach.
Aside from Audible Poetry, there have been many attempts to
popularize poetry. One comes to mind actually: Poetry in phonebooks and city buses and
subways. If you were Poet Laureate, what would you do to popularize poetry?
I admire what Robert Pinsky has been doing, asking Americans to record a favorite poem
for the Library of Congress archive. I think the love of poetry is kindled early, and so I
would concentrate on bringing poetry to young people. If I were poet laureate I would try
to encourage more memorization of poetry in grade school and high school. Perhaps sponsor
a national memorization bee. It wouldn't be like a poetry slam, though it might have that
appeal. It would be an opportunity for young people to recite great American poems from
memory, in a public performance. I would encourage teachers to pay renewed attention to
19th century American verse, like the poetry that John Hollander has usefully anthologized
in the Library of America series.
Speaking of Poet Laureates... what is your opinion of the post?
The title Poet Laureate is misleading, since it conjures up the English post, which has
a lifetime tenure and special requirements vis-a-vis the royal family, like celebrating
its milestones with occasional verses. I believe our position was originally called
Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, and this seems both more accurate and,
well, more American. Nevertheless, I am aware that the new title has an elevation that
attracts attention, even as it plays on America's cultural Anglophilia. I am all for the
post, by the way, whatever the title, and commend those recent laureates like (Rita) Dove
and (Robert) Hass and Pinsky who have used it as a bully pulpit for poetry.
In the poem "The Word Answer'", the reader is met with
adjectives like "dreamy" (from line 5: dreamy wine) and the opening line
"Lightning walks across the shallow seas." Could you discuss these two
components from the poem?
I was trying to imagine an act of creation, in particular, the creation of life, which
I had read may have been a reaction among chemicals set in motion by electricity, in the
form of lightning. As for the "dreamy wine," it was a Keatsian way of imagining
the creation of ferric oxide, for one, and the way it is suspected that many necessary
elements for life came to earth from outer space. In other words, I was trying to give a
deliberately poetic connotation to complex molecular interactions. In part one of the
poem, where these lines and images occur, I was equating "prayer" with
The Answer that is spoken of in the pre-poem quote is the
exertion of influence upon God by prayer. How much of this do you believe to be true. And
from a pragmatic standpoint, what are other ways to seek an answer?
My poem is an attempt to embody in poetry what Barth has already said with marvelous
and profound simplicity. I was simply moved to write what I did because of his insight. I
believe what Barth has suggested is true, that appealing to God through prayer is as if we
brought God into being; actually, it is to bring our own belief into being, but without
it, without that belief, God is like an unknown quantity or seems inert. That takes me
back to the chemical reaction I tried to imagine in the first part of the poem. I think
Barth suggests that the answer to prayer is in the act of praying itself. My poem explores
various ways in which we ask for an answer in prayer and ways in which prayer arouses God
to answer. Frankly, I can think of no other pragmatic way to get an answer from God except
You worked four stanzas with fourteen lines and with roughly ten
syllable lines. How (or why) did you choose to write this poem in this form?
"The Word Answer'" is part of a series of 50 poems entitled Unholy Sonnets
that Story Line Press will publish in 2000. I wrote 20 "Unholy Sonnets" for my
book Questions for Ecclesiastes; they were based, in part, on John Donne's
"Holy Sonnets." These new poems, including "The Word Answer,'" provide
a fuller engagement with many aspects of daily and devotional life. Anyway, each of the
sections of "The Word Answer'" is based on the sonnet form. Parts 1 and 2 are
blank verse, however. Part 3 attempts a rhyme scheme in its first eight lines, based on
very distant aural similarities, "bread/crowd/bad/God" and
"day/facsimile" and the repetition of "answer" at the end of lines 6
and 7. I abandon rhyme in the last six lines. Then in part 4, instead of rhyming, I repeat
the words "God" and "snow" as end words for the first eight lines or
octave and rhyme "snow/slow," "prayer/air," and
"visible/beautiful" for the sestet. As for the meter, I try to be as accurate as
possible with the iambic pentameter, returning promptly to it in a subsequent line, if I
have taken liberties with it in a preceding line.
Obviously a poem doesn't always turn out the way we think it
will. When you sat down to begin writing "The Word Answer'" what were your
thoughts about the direction? Did it go where you thought it would?
I had no idea where it would go. All I wanted to do was to dramatize Barth's insight
into prayer. I had written a couple of poems based on a crown of sonnets, which is a
series of seven sonnets in which the last line of the preceding sonnet is the first line
of the following sonnet, and the first line of the first sonnet is the last line of the
last sonnet. I had written a couple of five sonnet sequences following this mode, and
thought I would do the same with "The Word Answer.'" It didn't work out that
way. That is really all I can say. I had a vaguely articulate notion of what I should be
saying in each part, and after four poems, I believed I was finished. Each of the four
sections surprised me.
I will say that I wrote the fourth and final section on a day when I learned of a
colleague's underhanded attempts to ruin the career of another colleague. It was a bad,
wintry day, and I felt morose and helpless. So that may be why the ending of the poem
summons up images of children making angels in snow, as if this activity could bring real
angelic power into being.
What do you see as the future of your work?
If you mean, do I think my work has a future, then I cant really say; that is, I
have no idea how my work will fare next year or a hundred years from now; All any poet can
hope is that he or she may have, to paraphrase Robinson Jeffers, stuck a poem in the
worlds thought; But if you mean what direction my work is going to take, that is
also hard to say; I have completed a sequence of sonnets, separate from those in Questions
for Ecclesiastes ; Story Line Press will publish the sequence in 2000; its title is Unholy
Sonnets; Currently I am writing prose poems based on St. Pauls epistles; My
poems are much shorter than his letters, of course; they draw their inspiration mainly
from his metaphorical language; His epistles are meant to teach the early Christian church
how to think about itself; Mine are secularized and focus mainly on finding metaphors for
various things, from the fear of death to the desire for eternal life, without any
religious agenda; Theyre meant to be consoling; I hope to complete a book of them,
and think I am over halfway there; Its hard for me to see beyond this current
Youve been honored recently with the Lenore Marshall Prize;
How much validation do you believe comes with an award such as this one?
Thats hard to say, too. I hope I dont need an award like this to feel that
my work is valid; And yet the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize is a terrific honor; It is an
honor in part because of the previous recipients, many of whom are poets I greatly admire.
One of them, Allen Tate who won it 20 years ago, had a long association with Vanderbilt
University where I now teach; so that has had a special significance for me. It is also an
honor to be recognized publicly for doing the work I would do anyway and to have fellow
poets say publicly that they like what I have written, in this case, Questions for
Nevertheless, there is also a certain amount of distraction, I have learned, in winning
something like this, and pleasant as that distraction is, I have to get back to work.
Interview with Mark Jarman
TCR January Feature 1999