November 2000

Anne Stevenson


Anne Stevenson is the author of over a dozen volumes of poetry, including this year's Granny Scarecrow, The Collected Poems, 1955-1995, Four and a Half Dancing Men, and Correspondences. She is the author of several volumes of literary criticism as well, and also of the controversial Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Stevenson was writer-in-residence at the University of Dundee, 1973-75, a fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, 1975-77, and writer-in-residence at Bulmershe College, Reading, Berkshire, 1977-78, and the University of Edinburgh, 1987-89. She was also a Northern Arts Literary Fellow at Newcastle and Durham, 1981-82 and 1984-85.
Anne Stevenson is decidedly a British-American phenomenon: she was born in Cambridge, England; reared in the States; and educated at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The U.S. citizen returned to Britain after her bachelor's and master's degrees (she studied with Donald Hall) and has lived, variously, in England, Scotland, and Wales in the decades since. She is the author of over a dozen volumes of poetry, as well as additional books of essays and literary criticism.

The Washington Post praised the "penetrating, skeptical intelligence" of her poetry. Peter Levi, in Britain's Poetry Review, described her "terse brilliance," "moral wit," and "hard-bitten objectivity.... The stinging winter sunshine in her poems is what we need and seldom find elsewhere," Levi wrote.

We met earlier this year in her home in the amazing, breathtaking city of Durham, England. Its gray Norman citadel rises massively, magnificently out of an outcropping of rock and green hill, blending castle and university and cathedral into a single silhouette with the rushing Wear River at its base. This town near the Scottish border has been the poet's home for over a decade.

For me, the visit amounted to a pilgrimage. The name "Anne Stevenson" has been a familiar one ever since my own university days in Ann Arbor: Stevenson serves as a sort of patron saint for literature students at the university, just as Arthur Miller had done at the drama department. Moreover, both of us had won Avery Hopwood awards while at the university, although Stevenson's three awards ('51, '52, and '54) were rather an astonishment. By comparison, Miller and I were only awarded twice.

Stevenson won praise from another alumna—The New Yorker's Janet Malcolm, author of Silent Woman, the highly acclaimed study of scholarship about Plath. In that book, Malcolm lauded Stevenson as the author of Bitter Fame, the controversial Plath biography.

Despite the accolades (Malcolm had said Stevenson's was "by far the most intelligent and the only authentically satisfying" Plath biography), the book won her scores of enemies and tended to put her own acclaimed poetry in eclipse. A dozen years since the book's publication, Stevenson seems to take her own bitter fame in stride.

Our interview, conducted at her home—in the small, tidy parlor, which is dominated by a big shiny piano, fresh flowers, and a kilim carpet—was not without difficulty. She had just returned from an overnight stay in the Lake Country at Grassmere, where she gave a reading the night before at the Wordsworth Museum—in fact, she hadn't even had time to change clothes.

More importantly, the poet has grown mostly deaf over the past years, a handicap she comments upon wryly in a recent quatrain:

I've lost a sense. Why should I care?
Searching myself, I find a spare.
I keep that sixth sense in repair
And set it deftly, like a snare.

Nevertheless, Stevenson lived up to her feisty reputation. As fellow transatlantic poet Alastair Reid noted, "She has a whim of iron."

Cynthia Haven

Interview with Anne Stevenson

Cynthia Haven: You've had a long career—your first book was published way back in 1965, under the auspices of Generation at the University of Michigan. How do you think you've changed as a poet since then?

Anne Stevenson: I suppose, over the years, I've become more conscious of what I can and what I can't do in poetry. And I hope I've learned not to think of myself as the center of the universe. It's apparently very hard for people to swallow that they aren't all that important. Don't you think it's better to open one's eyes to the objective world than to become a slave of ambition and desire? But I'm not very good at saying such things in interviews. If I could, maybe I wouldn't have to write poetry.

CH: Could you describe your daily schedule?

AS: Practically nonexistent. I used to do a great many readings and arts councilings and that sort of thing. But my husband prefers a quiet life, and I myself have found that for writing, I'm better off not scooting around too much. As a consequence, my new book, at least in my opinion, is one of my best.

CH: Your new book was published in Britain?

AS: Granny Scarecrow came out last May. It's published by Bloodaxe Books. Oxford stopped publishing poetry at the end of last year. Bloodaxe is, fortunately for me, based in Newcastle Upon Tyne, just a few miles from my home in Durham. [Ed. Note: Bloodaxe is one of the preeminent British publishers of poetry.]

CH: You attended the West Chester Poetry Conference this summer. Was that the first time you participated in a U.S. poetry conference since your move to Britain decades ago?

AS: Yes, and I had pretty cold feet about going.

CH: Why?

AS: Partly because I'm seriously deaf. But I went in company with a good young English poet, Chris McCulley. It was a deal. I was supposed to keep him from drinking alcohol. He was supposed to do my hearing for me. [Stevenson laughs]

CH: So you haven't been back much to the U.S. as a poet?

AS: Well, I gave a few readings early in June—two in Wisconsin, one in Ann Arbor, and then took part in one in West Chester. I don't much like traveling around giving readings. I sometimes wonder what people get out of listening once to poems they don't know. Even when my hearing was better, I know I missed most of what was read on such occasions. I admit I do quite enjoy "treading the boards" if the audience is sympathetic and small enough.

CH: What did you speak about at West Chester?

AS: In my "master class" I tried essentially to make a distinction between rhythm and meter. The former is a physical-cum-musical concept; the latter has to do with prosodic forms. People forget that memorable rhythms are not always metrically exact. Mainly I used examples from poems that I thought would be familiar to the students: poems from Shakespeare, George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, and most of all from G.M. Hopkins, whose ideas about sprung rhythm can be shown to apply almost universally. I also drew attention to Ivor Gurney's experiments with form and rhythm, and to the elegant free verse of my friend Frances Horovitz, who, alas, died of cancer at forty in 1983. And, yes, I quoted nursery rhymes and pop songs. It's surprising how much so-called traditional poetry is not metrically exact—especially if you count stresses per line instead of feet. Once you know what a foot is in a line of poetry, it's good to get away from the straightjacket of over-strict meters. Poetry has to either sing or talk—almost naturally. Otherwise, it gets boring.

CH: Yet you've written much verse in very traditional meters…

AS: Well, I suspect there isn't really such a thing as free verse. Or if there is, I don't think I've written any. Readers may not always realize how formally constructed my poems are—but I assure you, not a single line has ever been passed over as accidental or unconsidered. Let me show you a poem that illustrates what I mean.

[Stevenson reads her poem: "Trinity at Low Tide"]

Sole to sole with your reflection
   on the glassy beach,
your shadow gliding beside you,
   you stride in triplicate across the sand.
Waves, withdrawn to limits on their leash,
   are distant, repetitious whisperings,
while doubling you, the rippling tideland
   deepens you.

Under you, transparent yet exact,
   your downward ghost keeps pace-
pure image, cleansed of human overtones:
   a travelling sun, your face;
your breast, a field of sparkling shells and stones.
   All blame is packed into that black, featureless
third trick of light that copies you
   and cancels you.

As you must have heard, there are a great many assonantal sounds there: beach, leach, repetitious—obviously echoing words or echoing noises. "Repetitious whispering" is onomatopoeic. "Doubling you" and "deepens you" are chiming, rhythmic phrases. Since there are eight lines in the first stanza, all of different lengths, the second stanza has to repeat or reflect the same number. The poem is, among other things, about reflections. Then the "you..." noises are important as are the repeated "c's": cleansed, copies, cancels, and the rhyming of pace and face. The effect is of rhymes running all through the poem's wave-like rhythms. I wanted them to reproduce the sound of water lapping against the shore.

CH: It also conveys what one critic called your "nervous echo, the insistent double, the recollecting mirror." He said: "this doubling develops into something between a persistent motif and a personal signature." But it's interesting you use terms like "echoing" and "chiming" where many would use "internal rhyme," or "alliteration."

AS: I rarely think of terms like alliteration, internal rhyme, et cetera. Either a poem sings or it doesn't. I am conscious of the line endings, yes, but I never analyze what is happening when I write. That comes later. As Elizabeth Bishop put it, it's too easy to talk the life out of poetry. My model is, anyway, music: that is, poems come to me in musical phrases or cadences. Some of my poems are probably just musical toys.

CH: So how do you begin a poem? How does a poem come to you?

AS: Sometimes a line just appears, but most of the time I see something or hear about something, or even read something that makes me sit up and say, "I'm sure there's a poem there." Once I've drafted a first stanza—the one, say, in the poem I just read—I usually decide to carry through the pattern it sets up. I don't know how long the poem's going to be, of course. Sometimes I don't even know what the poem is going to be about. But by the time I've worked my way around a few drafts—it usually takes me, oh, I would say twelve to fifteen drafts to write a short poem like "Trinity at Low Tide"—and by the time I've found a rhythm that seems right, and I've got an idea running smoothly through it, then the poem sort of comes together of its own accord. The process is not unlike solving a crossword puzzle. No, not really the same, because most of what happens is unconscious, and most of the time you work on a poem—say, for a couple of days, very hard—getting nowhere with it, or losing the thread completely...and then, you wake up one morning and the whole thing works!

So writing a poem is like conducting an argument between your unconscious mind and your conscious self. You have to get unconsciousness and consciousness lined up in some way. I suspect that's why working to a form, achieving a stanza, and keeping to it—deciding that the first and third and fifth lines will have to rhyme, and that you're going to insist on so many stresses per line—oddly helps the poem to be born. That is, to free itself from you and your attentions to it and become a piece of art in itself. Heaven only knows where it comes from! I suppose working out a form diminishes the thousands of possibilities you face when you begin. And once you've cut down the possibilities, you can't swim off into the deep and drown. Well, it's a very, very strange process.

CH: How did you begin writing poetry?

AS: I suppose my father read lots of it to us. And I have always loved ballads and songs. Those are what I wrote as a child, you know—ballads and songs. I knew a great many by heart, though I couldn't recite them now. And when I got to high school, I had very good English teaching, and I spent my summers writing poems and practicing the piano and cello. At the time, I wanted to be a musician. My father was a good amateur pianist.

CH: And you began as a musician, didn't you?

AS: Well, in my teens and for two years at Michigan, I studied the piano and the cello, but I was never very good. My hearing is so bad now I don't try to play the cello, but I can still hear enough to enjoy my piano. Music and poetry developed together for me, and despite my deafness, I still believe that music is the finest of the arts.

But maybe something else goes into making a poet: you could call it a resistant discontent with the given thing. I've never been a quick learner, and in grade school my teachers thought I was slow, even stupid. One problem may have been, even then, unreliable hearing. And not being able to hear may have made me the kind of person who has to think about everything hard before taking it onboard. Being slow to understand can be an advantage, and perhaps I learned at an early age how to make the baffling world make sense. 

CH: Music is very much evident in your poetry—in its composition and sounds, even its subject matter. I am particularly fond of "Kosovo Surprised by Mozart" which appeared in Britain's PN Review earlier this year and later in Granny Scarecrow. Can you describe its origins?

AS: "Kosovo Surprised by Mozart" was written, as the title indicates, in April, 1999, the day after I had listened to Bernard Roberts in Harlech play K 533 in F Major. Roberts gave a series of recitals that spring centered on classical—18th, early-19th century—piano music at a time when the horrors of Serbia's invasion of Kosovo were, in Britain, nightly "entertainment" on the television. The elegance of Mozart's music has always struck me as a true artist's response to squalor, evil, and human folly. One doesn't wallow in violence and cruelty, one rises above it! Very unfashionable point of view today but, nevertheless, mine. Out of Mozart's short, sad, in many ways squalid life, arose all that magnificent music; it survives still, bringing to those who can hear it great joy today, though Mozart the man was buried more than 200 years ago in a pauper's grave.

The horrors of Kosovo on the television were symptomatic of humanity's willingness to inflict, record, and accept misery. It's easier to wallow in a cinematic hell—there before you on the screen at the flick of a switch—than to listen and understand the passionate compassion Mozart imparts through those "inky dots," but, really, nothing is more boring than sustained violence, nothing more degrading to the spirit, which is why, to a few, Mozart's music is like a redemption, despite the continuing defeat of the beautiful and good in a world, past and present, of terrible yet ephemeral events.

The theme of "Kosovo Surprised by Mozart" is that of "The Miracle of Camp 60"—a poem about the chapel built by Italian prisoners of war in Orkney during World War II. Art of any kind, if it really is art, moves us towards sympathy, understanding, and a release of the spirit, just as Aristotle taught in the 4th century B.C., and as W.H. Auden and Wallace Stevens, with their very different beliefs, taught in the 20th century A.D.

CH: The Dictionary of Literary Biography said you have "a fine sense of the complicated differences between American and British poetry, and [embody] the traditions of both in a poetry that achieves definition because of its allegiances, and distinction because of its intense and relentless individuality."

AS: Who said that?

CH: J.E. Chamberlin of the University of Toronto.

AS: Indeed. Well, that's quite good—a bit academic.

CH: How do you combine those sensibilities? And how do you see the differences?

AS: That's not for me to say. That's for somebody else. I think I'm vain enough to believe that if anyone took time to study my poetry, they might find quite a number of things to say about...well, the kind of things I say.

CH: Do you see an affinity between your native Michigan and the north of England where you live now?

AS: Probably. The south of England, Oxford and Cambridge, are a bit like Harvard and Yale, aren't they? That ever-present, coolly assumed superiority. I'm sure I'd rather live in an environment where there aren't quite so many tropical fish, as it were, crowding the fishbowl, mostly bent on eating each other. I don't thrive in a community of egos. Not at all. I feel the Midwestern part of me is the healthiest part—you know, feet on the ground, common sense. But I need a lot of space, too, in which to think. I need to read a lot. I don't just mean reading poetry, but reading novels and books on science and history, lots of biography. I wonder how poets ever have time to read enough when they're flying all over the world giving readings.

CH: It's good to have time for mulling.

AS: Mulling, yes. You have to mull a lot. You have to be in touch with yourself, with your deeper self, to write poetry. Having to project yourself, as I do at readings, cheats me from being in touch with the self that writes the poems. There's one of me that's a "projector"—an actress, if you like—but the me that writes poems is a more difficult person. If I give too many readings, or even see too many people, I find myself behaving in ways that I fancy might please them. Afterwards, I feel rather dirty and nasty, as if I'd betrayed somebody behind her back.

CH: Maybe that's what ate Sylvia Plath.

AS: Sylvia Plath felt the same. I know she did.

Her journals analyze her social discomforts again and again. It's clear she found people exhausting, but she needed to impress them, too. Then, when she got to Devon and there weren't any people she much cared to impress, she became depressed and miserable. I don't think that's so surprising, mind you. Probably for Plath, as for me, poetry was the only language through which she could approach her emotional truth. Alas, the truths in her case were so devastating they killed her.

CH: Did you know Jane Kenyon? Of course you must have. She grew up in Ann Arbor, too.

AS: I knew who she was.

CH: But she was married to Donald Hall. Didn't your paths cross?

AS: Donald Hall was married to somebody else when I was in Ann Arbor. Jane was a little younger than I was.

CH: Tell me a little bit about your connection with Donald Hall. He encouraged you to write your first book about Bishop, Elizabeth Bishop (Twayne, 1966).

AS: Yes. He introduced me to poetry, really. I owe Donald Hall a great deal. I took his course in contemporary American poets. He was intelligent, inspiring, a fine teacher.

CH: At the University of Michigan?

AS: Yes. I was a graduate student. It must have been 1960, 1961.

CH: One thing Sylvia Plath, you, and I have in common is that we all left university, moved to England, and married Englishmen.

AS: There's lots else we have in common. [Stevenson chuckles.]

CH: Yes. But of the three of us, I was the only one who went back. Why did you first move to England?

AS: I was born in England. I was born in Cambridge.

CH: I thought you were born in Ann Arbor.

AS: No. I was born in Cambridge, England, where my father [Charles Leslie Stevenson] went to study philosophy with [Ludwig] Wittgenstein and G.E. Moore, among others, after he'd taken a first degree at Yale. I was born in Cambridge, in January, 1933. That's why I was in such a hurry to get back to Cambridge after I'd graduated from Michigan.

CH: And your first husband was from Cambridge, yes?

AS: During the war, my family adopted two English girls from Cambridge as part of an Anglo-American university scheme to send the children of English dons to the States—to escape the bombing and the Nazis' very possible invasion. Robin, my first husband, was the younger brother of these girls. He must have been nine at the time (I was seven), and he lived with a banker's family just up the street. Much later, when we were both at university—he was at Cambridge and I was a senior at Michigan—we met again one summer and decided it would be nice to seal the family bond. So I came to England, actually, to marry Robin Hitchcock. The marriage was not a great success, but we have an awfully nice daughter and two lovely grandchildren to share between us. We're still on good terms.

Robin was utterly unlike Ted Hughes; they had almost nothing in common, but there was a curious connection. Robin was the son of the Queen's College rector who had died during the war. His widow, through the kindness of the new incumbent, was invited to stay on in the rectory and support herself by taking in lodgers. Ted Hughes's best friend, Lucas Myers, happened to be one of the lodgers. Luke tells the story of Ted's nights in the St. Botolph's chicken coop in his appendix to Bitter Fame, but even though Ted was around now and again, I never met Sylvia Plath. We were nearly the same age, but by 1955, the year Sylvia came to study at Cambridge, I was already married and living in London.

CH: Why do you think people are still fascinated by the Plath legend? With the release of the unabridged journals this year, we can see it is still pretty much a national obsession—still, after forty years, on both sides of the ocean.

AS: Don't ask me. Maybe because everybody loves a romance. Why do they still get excited about the woes of Tristan and Isolde? The Hughes-Plath story is another desperately tragic tale. It will probably never disappear from 20th-century mythology.

CH: In a recent San Jose Mercury article, I argued that the frenzy seems to arise from very different national ideologies, and very divergent attitudes about personal responsibility, psychological health, and human relationships.

AS: You think so?

CH: Coarsely put, the English attitude seems to be that Plath needed to take responsibility for pulling herself together and be "a good wife."

AS: Well, she was a good wife. Maybe too good. Oh, it's very complicated. I think I've told the story as well as I can in Bitter Fame. Put coarsely, Sylvia was completely unable to accept failure. If her marriage failed—that was it, forever.

I've read an interesting article recently by a psychiatrist who puts a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of Ruth Beuscher, Sylvia's therapist. Ruth Beuscher, who later became a pastoral psychologist in the Church, was young and inexperienced when Plath first met her. It was Beuscher who persuaded Sylvia to have electrical shock treatment the second time, and, of course, that shock treatment became a central trauma to Sylvia later on. In Boston, Beuscher gave Sylvia "permission to hate" her mother—rather extreme, don't you think, to give an impressionable girl permission to "hate" her mother, even though this particular mother, by doing right may actually have perpetrated wrong? A more mature psychiatrist would have realized that the hatred of a mother and the love of the father aren't so simple as the Electra complex formula would have them be. Sylvia clearly took everything Ruth Beuscher told her to heart. Finally, when Ted Hughes was having an affair, and Sylvia got wind of it in Devon—it wasn't much of an affair; I don't excuse Ted, but you can see why he might have made a bid for liberty just then—it was Beuscher again who advised her to break with Ted immediately. Don't try to patch it up, Beuscher almost ordered. She'd been through a divorce experience herself, and she knew that, once caught straying, a husband could never be trusted to be faithful again, so Sylvia set up on her own.

CH: You're taking a very English point of view. You patch things up. You make do.

AS: No. I'm not taking an English point of view. Heavens, I've been through three divorces, but I do think what you need when a marriage is going wrong is a trial separation. You don't just jump into divorce right away. If you're a psychiatrist advising someone, you try to help them put it together, especially since it was such a close marriage, a marriage of two souls—two children to think of, too. No, I don't think mine is an English point of view. It's just common sense.

CH: Yes. The English are very big on common sense.

AS: Well, maybe. But whatever it was, it was an unhappy situation for Sylvia.

CH: American thinking is much more final, much more all-or-nothing. He broke a commitment, a bond—that's the beginning and end of it.

AS: Yes. They divorce at the drop of a hat.

CH: Exactly.

AS: [Laughter]

CH: It's funny—I can describe the points of view on both sides of the Atlantic, but I feel like I'm somehow welded into one side of the debate; it's part of my hardware. I wonder if the ferocity and rancor of the debate is because Sylvia Plath is so American.

AS: She was American.

CH: Her ambition, her drive, her determination to have everything perfect—it's so Emersonian.

AS: Yes, yes, yes.

CH: She's the daughter of America—she's Daisy Miller.

AS: Yes, yes, yes.

CH: So when we see her go down—all of us are going down, with her.

AS: But I will say this about Sylvia Plath: she always tucked that pocket of air between herself and her poems. Her poems are powerful because she was essentially an artist before she was a woman or an American or anything else. When she wrote, she had this wonderful hard-headed objectivity. It was when she wasn't writing that she betrayed herself. But we can agree with Olwyn Hughes [Ted's sister and Plath's longtime literary executor] that as an artist, she's unassailable. That's why her poems are so powerful; they are much more, very much more, than self-expression. They express the agony of betrayal as well as any poems I've ever read. They are wonderful, but the gap between the girl and the artist was enormous. To me, her talent was so much bigger than her personality, it must have been very difficult to carry all this power of language and yet, in the end, realize it couldn't save her.

CH: In a sense, what was American in her destroyed her.

AS: Yes, destroyed her. Yes. Her ambition destroyed her, in a way.

CH: That New England perfectionism.

AS: Yes. I remember that. Once, at Michigan, I got a "D" in a history exam and was nearly on the point of dropping out of college altogether. You would have thought the world had come to an end.

Perhaps one reason I agreed to write Bitter Fame had to do with Sylvia's Americanness. I felt I knew her in a way Ted didn't. So when Olwyn Hughes began bitching about Sylvia, telling me how absurd she was and how she expected Ted to do this and expected Ted to do that and completely ruled the household, I said, "That's just the way Americans are." [Laughter.]

Well, possibly, England was a disease Sylvia suffered from. I did, too, but I was more cowed by it. And then I got out of one English marriage and went straight into another! I suppose over the years I've learned to take myself less seriously. Surely, part of the skill of survival is to laugh at yourself, to realize you've made mistakes, that everybody makes mistakes. What the Hell!

CH: Certainly your book was colored by the tone of its appendices. Dido Merwin's is so venomous…

AS: Yes.

CH: And Lucas Myers' is so anti-American.

AS: No, I don't think he was, really.

CH: Oh, he says some pretty offensive things.

AS: Yes, maybe he was trying to be more English than the English.

CH: T.S. Eliot had already won that prize. But I think those accounts gave Bitter Fame a flavor. It gave an inevitability to Sylvia Plath's story—she does seem a sort of Daisy Miller through it all. Even Hughes's Birthday Letters reveals a remarkable amount of national stereotyping: "You were a new world. My new world. So this is America," "long, perfect American legs," "your exaggerated American grin," "an American girl, being so American." One wonders: Did he see her?

AS: Of course, he wasn't in any way a stereotype of southern England. He was very, very much a product of Yorkshire, and that's another complication. I've always had the highest respect for Ted as a poet and a man because he never kowtowed to the establishment. He didn't become an academic; he wasn't ambitious, except to write poetry; he wasn't ambitious for position. I think he was pleased to be asked to be poet laureate, but he wasn't working at it. He certainly didn't work at literary politics at all; he had nothing to do with that; he was horrified by it. And I'd have to say Sylvia, too, was of a mind with Ted. They both were dedicated—seriously dedicated—artists, but, of course, their very dedication and their lack of self-knowledge... I don't think Ted knew himself at all in those early days, and Sylvia seems to have absorbed advice from everybody: from Ted, from Ruth Beuscher as a young child, from her mother, so it was awfully hard for her to find herself, and I think she did have a—how do you put it now? A weak sense of identity? I did, too, when I came to England. So you go to everybody for advice and take it from everybody you respect, and then they betray you. How very Henry James. It is Henry James. It struck me right away that Sylvia's was a Jamesian story.

CH: You wrote three poems for Sylvia Plath. Were they written at the time you were writing the biography?

AS: Yes. Yes.

CH: So those poems are your own say?

AS: That was my own say. I think they more or less say what I had to say.

CH: They're wonderful.

AS: Hmmm?

CH: I think they're marvelous.

AS: You do? I'm glad. I thought at West Chester, maybe, I should read the long one. I didn't, finally.

CH: The one where you call Plath "the pure gold honey bee" and "the fiercest poet of our time"? That's too bad!

AS: I don't know. Oh dear, every time I think about Sylvia Plath I groan. I'm so tired of the whole saga!

CH: I'll bet you are. It will all be coming out again with the new journals, the revelations from Emory University [where Hughes's papers are archived], and with the biographies of Ted Hughes, by Elaine Feinstein and Diane Middlebrook.

AS: They're welcome to do what they do. I'll never write another biography about a living person.

CH: And yet, you yourself have written: "Writing a biography of Sylvia Plath convinced me that poetry today is at a turning point. Nostalgic wistfulness, individual self-pity, political idealism, angst, fury, vindictiveness, all the emotional magnets of the Romantics, are, in the last analysis, fictions. They have been replaced in poetry, in the twentieth century, chiefly by abstract experiment with language, which, of course, is starvation fare for poets." So where is the balance between subjectivity and objectivity?

AS: One has to maintain a distance, an air pocket between the poet and the poem—a pocket of objectivity. The poem isn't an expression of what you could say better in ordinary language, or in theoretical language.

CH: Do you think the imbalance has resulted in too little technique—too much self-expression—in poetry?

AS: That's right.

CH: In your rather crusty on-line response to Poetry Society of America's "What's American About American Poetry?"—a questionnaire sent to 300 American poets—you said there was "Too much talk, too much hype, too much putative democracy, too much ignorance, too much self-indulgence, too much encouragement, too much follow-the-leader conformism, too much self-consciousness, too much seek-to-establish-your-identity, too much theory of language, too much academic anxiety, too many writing programmes, too many king-and-queen-making critics, too many competitions (mediocrity assiduously crowning mediocrity); enfin, too many poets."

Would you care to elaborate?

AS: Too often when I read new poetry, English or American, it all sounds alike. There are few individual voices. And the poems tend to be one- or two-dimensional, ignoring subtleties and nuances. Plop, plop, plop—in the indicative mood, allowing for few shadings or innuendoes. You don't have to say everything you mean in a poem. In America, especially, there is too much earnestness around and very little word play. Get the words right, and the earnestness will take care of itself.

Nowadays, of course, "creativity" is a fashionable word. I once heard Hugh McDiarmid say outright, "Don't encourage them; discourage them." I tend to agree. I sometimes wonder if workshops actually do much good. Everybody's so afraid of hurting each other's feelings. Good criticism means you have to hurt people's feelings. Poetry isn't just a matter of learning technical tricks. Since most of the poetry people bring into workshops is personal and sloppy, applying "group technique" to it encourages a negative approach. I mean, you learn primarily what not to do: not to overuse adjectives, not to fall back on cliches, not to be sentimental, and so on. Unfortunately, this communal process of cleaning poems up and polishing them for publication results too often in just what you'd expect: processed poetry that lacks individuality and passion, or as Frost put it, "That Wildness whereof it is made."

And then, the social categorization so ubiquitous today is destructive: women, race, class, age groups. Elizabeth Bishop remarked to me once that if you don't stay well away from the gray world of ideology and theory, you will never become a poet. Emily Dickinson—not a bad thinker, you'll agree?—developed her ideas through an acute awareness of what was around her in the world, whether it was a fly or a flower.

CH: Why do you think there are there so many poets today?

AS: Because they are given jobs—academic jobs in creative writing! I admire Dana Gioia in the way I admire Wallace Stevens because I, too, believe that if you're good at writing poems, that's something you do for love. As Frost wrote, poetry is both a vocation and an avocation. Dana, I realize, does lots of organizing and journalism to make a living, but he began as a businessman-amateur. You should say somewhere in the course of this interview that, in my view, Dana has done a great deal for poetry in America by single-handedly taking meretricious power-seeking by the scruff of the neck and shaking it, and, boy, did it need shaking! Perhaps now, though, he should think about quitting the battlefield for a while and go back to his plough. That's one trouble with the American way of success—you get going on one of these high-flying swings and you can't jump off. It's amazing to me: I never would have been able to maintain the kind of schedule Dana does. Here I am, exhausted today after a single reading in Grassmere last night.

You're going to have a hell of a job putting this interview together. But I hope you're at least making some sense out of my mutterings.

[Stevenson goes to a bookshelf, gets a copy of 1998's Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop.] You know, I think this book is better—at least it means more to me—than Bitter Fame. As you know, I was impressed and influenced by Elizabeth Bishop far more than I was by Sylvia Plath. Goodness, Bitter Fame was a struggle! After writing it, I became disillusioned with the so-called poetry scene both in England and in the States—so much commercial betting and marketing goes into it, so much taking up with this poets' group or that.

CH: You have decried "poetry's decline in the greater, sacred world of what matters."

AS: In the long run, I suppose one has to say that, these days, poetry isn't important to most people. Then you see that it actually is important, but to comparatively few. First you have to understand how little—materially—it matters. Like any art, the real stuff comes about through our human confrontation or quarrel with ourselves as Yeats said, but in later life, serious poets have to find and explore that "sacred world of what matters" pretty much for themselves.

CH: Poetic form has become such an important issue in the last fifteen years…

AS: Oh, I'm glad of that, because frankly, poets of late have been getting away with—if not murder, then surely verbal mayhem. Visual artists, too, over the last three decades have been getting huge prizes for producing nonsense. When the theory is there to be seen, the art usually isn't. It's no secret that "The Emperors New Clothes" has become the prevailing myth of the age.

CH: In Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop, you note a letter you received from Elizabeth Bishop in 1964. In your words, "she quoted Gibbon on the decay of letters in imperial Rome, acidly implying that, in New York, the literary pundits of the twentieth-century had fallen to a comparable low: 'A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators, darkened the face of learning, and the decline of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste.'" You imply, there and elsewhere, that things have not improved.

AS: No, not improved.

CH: What would it take to alleviate your pessimism?

AS: I suppose...oh, I don't know. I'm a Democrat politically, of course. I have a strong, liberal sense of what is due to people as individuals, but I do believe that writing poetry is not something everybody needs to indulge in. Encouraging more and more people to express themselves and, above all, to publish poems or put them on the internet, does tend to thin the blood—of literature, I mean. People forget how to read. They forget that you need to develop a strong degree of attention to read intelligently the poetry of, say, Auden or Yeats, or even Roethke and Elizabeth Bishop. You need to be sensitive to all the sounds, rhythms, echoes, et cetera, that constitute a poem to know what's going on in it. If nothing is going on except the promulgation of some one-dimensional idea or personal experience, if the so-called poem is nothing but a cut-up piece of not-very-interesting prose, then it isn't poetry at all. It's not asking anything of the reader, except perhaps fellow-feeling or sympathy.

On the other hand, it seems to me that poetry shouldn't be an elitist art: that it should, in some way, appeal to the culture it reflects. The trouble is that our culture is so degenerate now—think of the garish, vacuous nature of most television shows—that it easily breeds degenerate poetry. Through television, language has become a thing of grunts, clichés, and sound bytes. People are not encouraged to concentrate. My grandchildren have a hard time in this respect. Anyway, all these factors reinforce each other: poor concentration, lack of knowledge, and an immense amount of technology that enables you to communicate much more quickly and gives you much less time to think about what you do communicate. Sometimes I get the feeling that thought, consideration, understanding—accumulated wisdom—might disappear altogether, so I'm pessimistic. I'm afraid I don't think we're living in a good time for poetry. Much of it isn't art at all, has nothing to do with art. Instead, it has to do with the politics of getting on—with fame, jobs, money, life-style. Poetry ought to stand apart from all of that. It ought to constitute a critique of all of that.

CH: And yet there has been much talk of a poetry renaissance in the U.S. Do you think that it's simply that the bar has been lowered?

AS: That's right. Lowering the bar. Exactly! Set it so low you can step over it—easy! I like your expression, "lowering the bar." Pretty soon there'll be no bar at all, and that's interesting, you know, because Americans are so demanding of themselves in other fields. In sports, you have to be almost super-humanly good to get anywhere these days. And musicians today have to have very, very high standards of performance. But so far as creativity goes, we've hit rock bottom—in some places, it's become no more than a form of therapy. Please understand that I have nothing against therapy—but if you encourage people to write purely for the good it may do their psyches, you shouldn't expect automatically to discover poets. Oh, yes, luck could turn up another John Clare or David Gascoyne or Ivor Gurney, but

CH: You've been poet-in-residence at a number of universities. Didn't you teach creative writing on occasion?

AS: Yes, of course. But I thought of myself rather modestly as someone who could advise less-experienced writers—a sort of poetry coach. I mostly worked with individuals, and much of my advice had to do with what to read or with poetry that might help guide them. These days poetry courses are expected to produce prize-winning pupils and a blaze of creative glory all around. I don't think I could bring myself to teach creative writing again. I do, of course, correspond with a few—trusted!—poets. We exchange critiques and so forth, but friendships between like-thinking writers has been common since poetry began. It's the commercial aspect of the creative writing craze—teaching people to write for money—that puts me off entirely.

CH: Why?

AS: Because it isn't really a subject. I would happily teach composition, grammar, sentence structure, other languages (if I knew enough), philosophy, English literature, world literature, even journalism, but not—not creative writing. Did Byron or Shakespeare, for that matter, ever dream of enrolling in classes in creativity? Did Auden or Frost? Consciously trying to teach people to be poets is, in some way I can't really put my finger on, destructive. The Muse, I suppose, really isn't all that nice! She hates rules, hates conformity, favors her special pets, gleefully drives worshippers to drink or drugs, happily drives other worshippers to suicide, is politically completely unreliable, and, being an unmitigated snob, she takes flight as soon as she hears the word "creativity." Goodness, how she detests the word and makes fun of it over drinks with her cronies!

CH: Do you have any advice for young poets today?

AS: Study the poetry of all times carefully, but on your own or with chosen friends. Also study history. Study science. Study philosophy or psychology if you must. Study languages and the way they work. Study literature. But above all, learn to teach yourself. Follow your own nose and keep well away from the traps set by most university courses in literary theory—and in bogus creativity.

Cynthia L. Haven, a literary critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, has written about poets and poetry for newspapers and magazines throughout the U.S., including the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Stanford Magazine, and The San Jose Mercury.  She has written two books on education, and has published essays, poetry and translations.



Anne Stevenson: Poetry
Copyright © 2000 The Cortland Review Issue 14The Cortland Review