ISSUE 32
June 2006

David Yezzi

 

David Yezzi David Yezzi was born in Albany, NY, in 1966. His books of poetry are Sad Is Eros (Aralia Press) and The Hidden Model (TriQuarterly/Northwestern University Press). His libretto for a chamber opera composed by David Conte, Firebird Motel, received its world premiere in 2003 and will be released on disc later this year. A former director of the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y in New York City, he is executive editor of The New Criterion.

DAVID YEZZI interviewed by ERNEST HILBERT

This is transcribed from an interview I recorded with David Yezzi in Dressing Room B at the renowned Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. Yezzi was attending the rehearsals for the stage adaptation of Glyn Maxwell's book The Sugar Mile, which Yezzi produced.

 

 

  Triple Threat?

Ernie Hilbert:  You are a bit of a triple threat, so to speak. You've been described as a “poet, actor, and editor.” Do you feel that this enriches or scatters you?

David Yezzi: Scatters. I spent a long time studying to be an actor and realized after years that I wasn't really cut out for it for any number of reasons. I had been writing poetry all along, though splitting my attention has meant that I probably wrote and (more importantly) read less than I might have otherwise. Having said that, the theater has a very rich literature of its own. I certainly benefited from studying the plays of Shaw, Shakespeare, what have you.

 EH: Do you feel your extensive work as an editor serves as an anchor or a complement to your artistic endeavors?

DY: I feel like they're separate. When I’m writing a poem, I’m working with a specific set of tools. I guess if there is a unifying thread, it might be what T.S. Eliot referred to as “sensibility.” Everything you do, every aesthetic experience you have, everything you write in poetry or prose, every work of art you take in and judge informs your sensibility. I think it's difficult to separate the sensibility you bring to writing poems from the act of selecting poems as an editor. You bring the same opinions and aesthetic guidelines to that work.


It seems that the greatest writers are those who have the ability to talk about the greatest range of human experience in the most versatile way. They are the ones who hang on for many years. Those who typify a style or register a brand fall away. They are in danger of self-parody and dated irrelevance.


EH:  You received an MFA in poetry from Columbia University. What were your impressions of the MFA program there?

DY: I enjoyed it. I got quite a lot out of it. Having studied theater as an undergraduate, I was playing catch-up a bit in terms of my exposure to literature, particularly contemporary literature. So it was useful for me, but most importantly, and I think this is probably the case with MFA programs in general, I took away the relationships with writers whose work I value and with whom I'm still in touch and able to share work. That has been very sustaining and an ongoing benefit of having been at Columbia.

EH: Whom do you stay in touch with?

DY: John Foy, who has a book called Techne's Clearinghouse with Zoo Press before Zoo's very high-profile implosion recently. Also, a poet named Ben Downing, who is co-editor of Parnassus: Poetry in Review—whose book The Calligraphy Shop came out from Zoo a few years ago. Ben is an extremely skillful and talented prose writer as well. He has been reviewing books at the New Criterion, which has been delightful for me as an editor there and very good for the magazine.

EH: Do you have any opinions about the proliferation of MFA programs in poetry in the US?

DY: Only insofar as the proliferation creates a careerist environment that takes the focus off of study and places it on mutual admiration and logrolling. Careerism can inhibit honest discussion of poetry and foster, artificially, styles and schools as poets group together for mutual advancement.


If one sets out to register a brand name, so that their poems typify a school and are immediately recognized as theirs, then you're almost better off creating an absurd extreme. Though in so doing you have basically taken yourself out of the running for a more complete and more enduring expression.


EH: Were there any particularly memorable moments at Columbia?

DY: My general sense was that it was better than waiting tables, which was what I was doing at the time while looking for acting work, though the economics were completely perverse, because I was at least making some money in tips; now I'm still paying Sallie Mae for my student loans.

The most memorable moments were actually in a seminar taught by Edward Taylor, who had been a student of Yvor Winters. He taught many of the same poets that Winters taught, especially the Renaissance poets. Exposure to that started a longer trajectory that led me to Stanford after Columbia. There I was able to work with Kenneth Fields, who had been a protégé of Winters, and learn more about Winters's legacy, such as it was. The Stanford students didn't really remember Winters, but there were definitely people who had worked with Winters, like Helen Trimpi, whom I met when I was in San Francisco, and Edgar Bowers.

EH: You mentioned that you studied Renaissance English poetry in your MFA program. Did that strike any of the students as peculiar or irrelevant in an MFA program?

DY: This class wasn't actually a part of the MFA offerings. A lot of the MFA classes were designed so as not to put too much strain on the students, who were meant to be off “creating verse.” They're not supposed to be bogged down by going to the library and actually reading books.

For me it was an opportunity to fill in some huge gaps, so I took a number of classes outside of the writing division. Edward Taylor taught in the English department. I took Shakespeare and Renaissance poetry with him. This was not only my first experience with many of these poets, but also with Winters, since Taylor had been his student at the same time that Thom Gunn was there.

  Working at Parnassus

EH: You worked at Parnassus: Poetry In Review in the early 90s for the legendary Herbert Leibowitz. What was that like?

DY: It meant everything to me, as someone who had spent years in tights twirling around the stage. I really needed to pick up some skills. Herb very generously gave me that opportunity. Not only was I learning the workings of an editorial officecritiquing manuscripts, putting together mailings, dealing with copy and layout, proofreading, Herb also gave his staff opportunities to write reviews, and that took a while for me to grow into. The first reviews I wrote for the magazine were in tough shape. Herb always polishes everything to a shine, so whatever I lacked he was able to add in the editing.

I did a number of reviews for him and Ben Downing. Of course the office itself was a scream. It was one room on Union Square with frayed oriental carpets and old filing cabinets. Underneath the desks were piles of papers, and occasionally we would excavate and discover a submission from five years earlier that no one had responded to, or we'd discover the long-lost essay that everyone had been searching for under someone's lunch. This was before computers. We had IBM Selectric typewriters, I think, and we kept the subscriptions on three-by-five index cards, and it was all typeset out of house. Of course all that's changed now. The office has moved up to 89th Street. It's typeset in house. They have computers, and it's a state-of-the-art operation.

EH: How many were on staff there?

DY: There was Herb. He was a one-man show. He line-edited everything. Ben Downing and I were working there as assistant editors. There was Star Black, whom you may know as a photographer and poet. She would swan into the office a couple of times a week to boost morale. It was a small outfit. There may have been one or two other people. But we were mostly work-study students from Columbia.

EH: Leibowitz is thought of as a perfectionist. Is this true?

DY: Anyone who has ever been edited by Parnassus knows that they will probably have to do three or four drafts. No question of grammar or diction is too small or two subtle for the editors. I was at a meeting of the New York Institute for the Humanities, and Susan Sontag brought the proceedings to a halt, as I think she was used to doing—when she opened her mouth, there was a sudden hush, and everyone craned around. She said that as far as she was concerned Parnassus had been hugely influential for her, a magazine she had always looked to for excellence in literary standards. It depends on whom you talk to. If you've just been edited by Parnassus, you might wonder if the rather small honorarium they are able to provide is worth all the trouble. Certainly, as a reader, every piece is perfectly polished, and so it is unique in that way. I don't think there is another magazine functioning today that is as exacting.

EH: Did anyone ever storm off, any contributors break off because of this exactitude?

DY: Oh, yes! People have decided it's too exhausting. I think it says as much about the writer as the magazine. A lot of the regular contributors, like Eric Ormsby, David Barber, and William Logan are writing at a level at which they're not put through their paces so much. In fact, they are very open, and even grateful for the suggestions that are made. I think that's generally the case: the best writers are the easiest to work with and appreciate good editors making their writing even better. One poet actually, having been rejected, sent the same poems back to the magazine and demanded that they be read again, as if we had missed some hidden beauty.

EH: And did you miss something?

DY: No. [Laughs] I think they caught the measure of them the first time.


Language has an incantatory power. The sonic qualities of language go to the very roots of our experience of poetry. But something is lost when the poet favors one particular effect to an absurd extent. After a few lines, when it's clear that the poet's not coming back to include any other effects, then it becomes often ridiculous and self-indulgent. You want to feel that the poet is in control of the complete spectrum of effects and can use them for our delight and any other purpose, from catharsis to instruction to verging on prayer.


EH: You set out for California for a time as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. What was that like?

DY: That was 1998-2000. I had never been to California. My sister lived in San Francisco, and when I got there she was waiting at the door with a bag of food from Trader Joe's. I felt like I had entered some sort of magic realm. It was extraordinarily beautiful. Not just in the city itself, but five minutes outside of the city in any direction you're in a national park, the beach, a redwood forest, you were in the mountains. And Stanford itself, unlike San Francisco, was eternally sunny. I was amazed when I got to Stanford: these big quads surrounded by cloistered walks. There were these gorgeous tan nineteen-year-olds riding bicycles and wearing these beaming smiles, and I thought these people are insane. I had never seen anything like it. It was extremely pleasant and seductive. My wife and I had just married the month before and packed up everything to head out to San Francisco for two years.

EH: You helped found the San Francisco theater company, Thick Description. How did that come about?

DY: The people who founded Thick Description: Tony Kelley, the director, Rick Martin, the lighting designer, Karen Amano, a writer and actor, and myself, were in New York in 1998, and Rick, Tony, and I had all been at Carnegie Mellon together and started doing shows in New York. Karen and Tony were from the Bay Area, so after a year of dealing with all the difficulties of producing theater in New York, they very smartly set up in San Francisco where the company is thriving under Tony's direction.

Rick Martin works with them regularly and has also worked with me at the 92nd Street Y in New York. When I was out in San Francisco, I wound up acting in a show Tony directed, a Brecht play call the Visions of Simone Machard, and it was at that time that we wrote a grant proposal and got funding to do a new opera with music by David Conte. I was commissioned to write the libretto. That was performed in 2002. The CD of that opera, The Firebird Motel, is coming out this year.

EH: Regarding your work as an opera librettist, are there specific virtues and frustrations associated with this sort of collaborative musical endeavor?

DY: The librettist is in every way the second-class citizen. It's really about the composers. Contractually, the composer is the primary consideration and the librettist is merely support. But I had never done it before, and Conte was on his third or fourth opera, so I was just happy to be a part of that and to write dramatically, since I had trained as an actor. For years poetry and writing for the theater had been separate, and this was a very exciting way to bring them together. I learned a lot from the experience.

EH: How was the opera received?

DY: It was reviewed by a handful of San Francisco papers and also online. I think the largest criticism was that it was too melodramatic. I wanted to load the story with a lot of action rather than lyrical or contemplative elements. That was certainly something that always appealed to me in classic opera. Another thing that I learned doing it is the time it takes to do things on stage. I also learned a number of technical things, such as what constitutes a rhyme when it is set to music, what kinds of meters and rhythms work when sung.

EH: You have a record contract?

DY: This is another way in which the librettist takes a back seat in these projects. Schirmer publishes David Conte and they release his work on their label Arsis. I have a contract insofar as his opera is being released on disc.

EH:  Are there any working librettists you particularly admire?

DY: One libretto I really admire is Alice Goodman's libretto for Nixon in China. She is, of course, married to Geoffrey Hill. There are some stunning lyrics in that opera. It is hard to get access to the libretti of working librettists. The opera must be released with a CD that contains the booklet. One of the foremost working librettists is J.D. McClatchy, who is collaborating with Ned Rorem on Our Town and with Lowell Lieberman on Miss Lonely Hearts. I haven't seen those libretti, but I would be quite keen to. Dana Gioia wrote a terrific libretto for Nosferatu, which has been published, and which I recommend.

EH: What about James Fenton?

DY: I think he was right to get a percentage of the gross when he wrote lyrics for Les Misérables, because that is the gift that keeps on giving. I read Love Bomb, his collection of work set to music. But that is my only exposure. I've never seen his work performed, but he is an extraordinary poet.

EH: You are also interested in poetic drama, or dramatic poetry, however you like to phrase it. Have you written any yourself?

DY: I did a short piece for Thick Description back in 1988, an adaptation of an Irish fairy tale. As Wallace Stevens once said to Donald Hall upon being asked for permission to reprint poems from the Harvard Advocate: “Some of one's early things give one the creeps.” I am working on a verse play now, largely in blank verse, though other meters come in at various points. It is potentially a full-length drama. I'm about halfway done.

EH: What defines poetic drama written for the stage? Is it strictly the formal considerations? We know that most poetry is written without any formal restraints. When defining a dramatic work as “poetic” drama, what are we really talking about?

DY: It's a particular pitch, as Geoffrey Hill might put it, a certain attack, a certain note struck linguistically. There is a way in which I think plays by David Mamet and August Wilson approach poetic drama, even though they are written in prose. I suppose I'm not entirely satisfied with works that announce themselves as verse drama but are written in free verse such that the audience does not feel the presence of the line or of an underlying meter. To be verse drama, you need to have a metrical contract that carries the music of the play and allows the dramatist all the tools that poetry allows the poet in terms of modulating the means of expression.

EH: You've been instrumental in getting other dramatic works produced. For instance, you are currently acting as producer for the stage adaptation of Glyn Maxwell's book of poetry The Sugar Mile. Do you see yourself doing this in the future for other authors?

DY: The adaptation for The Sugar Mile was Glyn's idea from the beginning. As director of the Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y, I expanded the number of poetic dramas and dramatic readings. I selected and directed an evening of scenes and monologues from Shakespeare with Rosemary Harris, Brian Murray, and Philip Bosco. I worked with Katherine Walker, who directed a number of adaptations by Ann Carson of Greek dramas. Certainly Glyn is at the forefront of poets writing verse drama. That was a natural fit. Going forward, it is something I will continue to work with the Y on, helping to present a reading of Edna St. Vincent Millay's Conversation at Midnight with Paul Hecht next year.

EH: Who else is writing poetic drama today?

DY: Aside from Glyn, I can't think of anyone for whom it is a major or even a regular part of his or her output. 

EH: Has your history as an actor changed the way you compose poetry?

DY: Not much. It may have led me to an interest in dramatic monologues. The poem's being spoken is so essential. If you think of Larkin's “Church Going,” you feel as though someone is just talking to you, yet the careful modulation of expression and emotion and sound are everywhere in the verse lines. That is what makes the poem as great as it is, but it wouldn't be half so good if it didn't seem spoken to you as if by a friend.

EH: In the UK a few years ago, as part of a project sponsored by various arts funding groups, professional actors recited well-known poems at different venues. Although results were thought to be mixed, do you think that this is an idea whose time has come and that might work in the US?

DY: In my experience, actors are crap at reading poetry. They can't resist insinuating their own egos into the work, and that is very distracting. I think that not every poet is a great reader of his or her own work, though I will say that poets can sometimes be extraordinary readers of their own work. My favorites are Larkin and Auden, whose voices I cannot separate from the poems now that I've heard them read. They have extremely expressive voices, and I can't imagine what an actor could add in those cases.

Ideally you wouldn't want to hand over poems to actors. The person who wrote the poem can tell you more about the poem than anyone else. It's not that a clever actor couldn't open up a poem in surprising ways, and it's not to knock actors. Paul Schofield's King Lear is one of the most extraordinary experiences. 

EH: Are there any poets who have been notably poor performers of their own work?

DY: There has been a lot of interest recently in poetry read aloud. Books have been issued with CDs of poets reading their work. As a general rule, when poets don't show off their work to its best advantage, it's because they've somehow latched onto a music that runs against the natural music inherent in speech. As we talk, you can hear a rising and falling intonation in our speech that lets us know everything from the fact that this sentence is going to continue on to the fact that this sentence is about to stop. The hundreds of expressive cues that we give each other when we speak naturally are sometimes wiped away and replaced by some insane music that relates not to meaning but to the poet's idea of what “poetry” sounds like, and that is deadly.

EH: We hear recordings of Dylan Thomas and W.B. Yeats in which their recitations resemble songs. We hear cadences and notes are even struck. One hears this in the famous recordings of “Fern Hill” and “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” for instance. Do you think that is more natural for a Welshman or Irishman or is it that they were writing in an era in which poetry had more of an affinity with song?

DY: It depends on the poem. Yeats can get away with singing "Lake Isle of Innisfree" because it lends itself to that kind of music. “I will arise and go now . . .” There is a repetition that one can tap into that might lend itself to elevating it that way. But you wouldn't do that with “Church Going.” Imagine: “Once I'm sure there's nothing going on I step inside . . .” That would be ludicrous. I think it depends on the poem.

Certainly if anyone could get away with it Thomas and Yeats could. Thomas's poems were so musically rich that there is a way in which he almost gave priority to music. For him to sing them is less of a leap than with a poem that sits more naturally in a conversational mode. I would say that unless you were Thomas or Yeats you'd probably want to stay away from that kind of thing. The person who does it beautifully, of course, is James Fenton, who virtually sings poems like “Jerusalem” to great effect.

EH: Is there a danger when courting this songlike quality in a poem that one might privilege sound over sense? Is that, in fact, a danger one should worry about?

DY: It's not a danger unless the aesthetic unity is lost, which is to say that nothing is impossible, but the proper effects must be employed at the proper time to the proper ends. For Lear to intone “Howwwwll, howwwwll, howwwwll” is clearly prioritizing sound over sense, but only for half a line, then we return to sense. So those are all useful effects, and none should be excluded. By the same token, none should be favored to the exclusion of the other.

EH: One could wind up with an aural expressionism that blotted out rhetorical clarity and therefore meaning outside of strictly stylistic meaning and surface?

DY: Language has an incantatory power. The sonic qualities of language go to the very roots of our experience of poetry. But something is lost when the poet favors one particular effect to an absurd extent. After a few lines, when it's clear that the poet's not coming back to include any other effects, then it becomes often ridiculous and self-indulgent. You want to feel that the poet is in control of the complete spectrum of effects and can use them for our delight and any other purpose, from catharsis to instruction to verging on prayer.

EH: You mention range, but isn't that an outdated way of thinking about poetry? Stylistic extremities define the oeuvres of many very successful contemporary poets. They almost become a brand of their style, which allows them to stand out and gain some distinction in a very crowded field. The idea of a poet trying a whole range of themes and techniques is not one we encounter very often today. Are you talking about what ought to be rather than what is?

DY: It depends on what the highest value is. If one sets out to register a brand name, so that their poems typify a school and are immediately recognized as theirs, then you're almost better off creating an absurd extreme. Though in so doing you have basically taken yourself out of the running for a more complete and more enduring expression.

It seems that the greatest writers are those who have the ability to talk about the greatest range of human experience in the most versatile way. They are the ones who hang on for many years. Those who typify a style or register a brand fall away. They are in danger of self-parody and dated irrelevance.


One wants a poem to be as universal and enduring as you can make it. The best poems outlive the specific occasions of their making. Good poems are often the reasons we even recall what those circumstances might have been.


  Dramatic poetry and more

EH: Do you feel that the dramatic element is something missing from poetry today?

DY: There is almost no one writing in the dramatic mode. I wish more people were. I enjoy what Glyn Maxwell and others are doing. Translations from the Greek return to the dramatic. Christopher Logue's adaptation of Homer can be easily adapted for the stage. Anne Carson's translations of the Greeks are among the best, in my experiencevery rich in character and contemporary speech.

But what about dramatic content in the lyric poem? That is also something we don't see much. Hardy was a master of this. That seems to be largely missing from contemporary poetry, in which the drama has shifted from external characters, or the poet and another character—Frost is a great example of this—has been replaced by the solipsistic drama of the inner self. This results in undramatic, bland, vestigial narratives in a surrealist idiom in which post-modern drama is brought in for the juice it provides but not as an authentic or workable structure. They poach on drama just as another way to energize associative strategies that have to do with self-expression. I think a return to drama in lyric poetry would be very salutary.

EH: How did you first come to the 92nd Street Y, and what did you do there?

DY: I ran the poetry center for four years. I was working at NYU with a group of writers called the Institute for the Humanities and heard there was an opening at the Y. I thought they were interviewing for an assistant position. I thought it might be fun to be an assistant at the Poetry Center. I was halfway through the interview before I realized that they were interviewing for the director's position! I tried to nod and smile, and six interviews later they offered me the job. It was both fun and exhausting. When my wife and I wound up with twins this past summer it became untenable. I couldn't be out so many nights.

EH: Run me through a typical day, and, as you suggested, night
at the Y.

DY: On a Sunday, I would get up at 6:30 or 7AM, read the book that was being discussed that day and write an introduction of several pages. We had an 11AM lecture, then a book signing and a lunch. On a Monday we would get in at a reasonable hour and prepare for the evening, which would go to 10:30, or even midnight. It was a breakneck pace. We were there all the time. I was thrilled to have done it, but I'm actually thrilled to be back in an editorial position.

EH: You are the executive editor for The New Criterion. From your position at an admittedly conservative arts review, how do politics relate to poetry in America?

DY: Usually to the detriment of poetry. A couple of years ago there was a big blowup at the White House led by Sam Hamill, who threatened to protest Laura Bush's literary tea. Hamill decided to mount a demonstration against the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. I reflected at the time that when poetry and politics intersect, the quality of the poetry often suffers. One wants a poem to be as universal and enduring as you can make it. The best poems outlive the specific occasions of their making. Good poems are often the reasons we even recall what those circumstances might have been. The poetry that arose from Hamill's collective against the war was really of the most perishable kind. I think it's dangerous when poets get drawn into the gravity of politics. It usually results in weak verse.

EH: Why is it that one would have trouble finding right wing or Republican poetry in quantities that you find it with causes related to the left or progressive politics?

DY: [Laughs.] I don't think that you get to call yourself a poet and a Republican in this country. I don't think they issue the paperwork to people of a conservative bent. Clearly the double badge of honor in the literary and academic communities is poetry and left wing politics. As I say, I've never quite seen the necessity of this particular pedigree from a poetic standpoint. It seems like the priority should be on creating an enduring object from language and weighing and participating in the political process as a citizen apart from one's work as a writer.

EH: Separation of art and politics?

DY: The desire to influence people through one's words is not mysterious. Clearly, people who have established themselves as writers are able to get attention from the media in a way that the average citizen might not. I think that people make a mistake to assume that a poet is going to have a greater understanding of political complexity than someone who doesn't occupy a chair of creative writing and publish a slim volume of verse every three or four years.

EH: Before you were the executive editor of The New Criterion, you were the poetry editor. Do you still have a hand in selecting the poems?

DY: I select the poems. It is important to the magazine to publish strong poems, which is something that I hope will continue to be associated with The New Criterion. William Logan just won the National Book Critics Circle Award for his book The Undiscovered Country, which is made up largely of the verse chronicles from The New Criterion. We publish three to five pages of poetry in every issue. We do a special feature on poetry in our April issue, featuring critics such as Adam Kirsch, Dana Gioia, Denis Donoghue, Eric Ormsby, and poets such as Alicia Stallings and Brad Leithauser, just to name a few. 

EH: As an editor, what do you look for in a poem?

DY: It's important that it be good.


If you think of Larkin's “Church Going,” you feel as though someone is just talking to you, yet the careful modulation of expression and emotion and sound are everywhere in the verse lines. That is what makes the poem as great as it is, but it wouldn't be half so good if it didn't seem spoken to you as if by a friend.


EH: What do you mean by that? What are your criteria at The New Criterion?

DY: Not to sound too pessimistic, but there is a way in which most poetry disqualifies itself within a few lines. I would like to say that there are more good poems coming into our offices than we can use, but the truth is that we're always diligently on the lookout for good work. We sometimes solicit work from poets we admire so that we can fill the thirty to fifty pages a year. There's just not that much good verse out there.

EH: The New Criterion generally publishes between one and three poems in any given issue. Do you receive a large number of poetry submissions?

DY: I would say that we don't receive a large number of submissions from people who actually read the magazine, and that may be epidemic. Most people who write poetry either as a pastime or as a vocation are drawn into the gravity of the Satanic tablets like Poets Market, and that's the closest they ever get to a literary journal, and that is immediately clear from the way they write to us, the address they use, the person they address. The poems announce themselves as poems written by someone who hasn't read the magazine.  

EH: Do you prefer poems that employ meter and rhyme or do you go for free verse? Or is that not a consideration?

DY: We publish poems both in meter and free verse. I hope I'm not telling tales out of school if I say I was speaking with Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine, and he told me he wishes he could publish more poems in meter. There just aren't that many out there.

The effect of the last several decades, in which metrical poetry has been shunted to the side, has meant that very few people can write a decent metrical poem. It's almost as if there's been a cultural atrophy in our ability to create that particular kind of musical language.

EH: Is there a corollary between poetry any other art? For instance the ability to draw?

DY: That came up as an example in a piece I wrote about the absence of formal training in writing programs. The corollary would be an art school in which you didn't learn to draw. From what I can gather, that is very much the case in many places. Having said that, however, there are certainly artists who come through school learning to draw, for instance at the New York Studio School. With regard to meter and verse technique, we may be approaching a time when that needn't be the central question. There are younger poets comfortable working in verse forms, for whom it is no longer about being or not being a formalist, simply writing the best poems they can.

EH: Is this because form in poetry has become depoliticized?

DY: I think it is less political than it has been. There was a time when iambic pentameter was deemed a reactionary misogynistic practice, and it's horrible now to think that those accusations were wielded against some of our greatest poets.

EH: Is there anything to that position or is it a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, in a time of political upheaval and rapid social change?

DY: I think it's kind to say that. I think it's just throwing out the baby.


I was recently asked to do something on National Poetry Month for the Wall Street Journal, so that's some indication that there is a wide interest from a cross-section of the population we don't think of as poetry readers. People like Garrison Keillor and Billy Collins and Dana Gioia and Robert Pinsky have helped bring poetry to a wider audience. But that doesn't tell us about the state or health of poetry now. We'll have to wait a hundred years to have a sense of the vitality of the age.


  Selecting poety

EH: As a critic, how do you first approach a poem? Say I were to hand you a book of poetry to review for a newspaper or magazine. Would you do background research on the poet or would you dive right in and see what you found there on the page first before anything else influenced you?

DY: I would dive right in. I would take it one word at a time. You can know what you've got after a very short time. To arrive at a take on a book that is responsible or useful you need to go through a process of taking the smallest aspect of the work and relating it to the whole work and the poet's work as a whole and then relating that whole project back to the particular, so that you have something that's not just a collection of your biases.

EH: How important are meter and rhyme to poetry today? Do you use them?

DY: I do, but the only thing that is important is that they be good poems.

EH: Do you consider yourself a New Formalist?

DY: No.

EH: What is a New Formalist?

DY: I think it's almost a generational thing. That's suggested by the anthologies that carry New Formalists. Their battle is different than the battles we are waging today. I think that the New Formalists came up at a time when it was really an entirely outside occupation to write poems in meter and rhyme. And while it's certainly not the mainstream these days, I think it's much more acceptable thanks to the New Formalists. I think that it's important for younger poets to move past the particular battleground of form.

EH: Would it be unusual for a poet to write in both form and free verse within a single book or even to alternate between books?

DY: It happens all the time, and usually with the most interesting poets. Geoffrey Hill has mastered both formal and free verse. Yvor Winters went the opposite direction. He started out with free verse in the Imagist vein and wound up writing highly formal Augustan couplets, whereas most poets in the 20th century, like Robert Lowell, started out with formal poetry and wound up with free verse. What would be rare would be to have a great poet who never wrote in form: Elizabeth Bishop, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney, W.H. Auden. Weaker poets are the ones who only write free verse.

EH: What about John Ashbery? He's considered immensely influential and possibly the most important living American poet.

DY: He is a master of tone. He may be the great 20th-century master of tone. No one can do what he does. His epigones fail miserably, so clearly he has a unique gift, but I can't think of a single poem that I would want to reread or memorize. That is a much-discussed litmus test when it comes to Ashbery. In the end, he is a weak poet. It is a striking accomplishment but exhausted after three poems, and how can that define a major poet?

EH: Do you align yourself with any particular movement or poetic group?

DY: No.

EH: Is there a particular poet who inspired you to begin writing?

DY: I was inspired by the most embarrassing seventies poets. I would write horrible imitations of the poems included in the Geography of Poets anthology.

 

 

EH: What living poets do you admire?

DY: When Geoffrey Hill publishes a book, I have to read it. I can't let any of his work out of my sight. There aren't many poets I feel that way about. Richard Wilbur. Anthony Hecht and Donald Justice, both of whom recently passed away. There are younger poets as well. I would always be extremely keen to see what Alicia Stallings is writing. David Barber is someone I follow. Adam Kirsch. The good news is that we're not lacking for necessary poets.

EH: What is the state of poetry in America today? Is it as poor as some say? Or is it as flush and healthy as others suggest?

DY: It's more widely visible than ever. I was recently asked to do something on National Poetry Month for the Wall Street Journal, so that's some indication that there is a wide interest from a cross-section of the population we don't think of as poetry readers. People like Garrison Keillor and Billy Collins and Dana Gioia and Robert Pinsky have helped bring poetry to a wider audience. But that doesn't tell us about the state or health of poetry now. We'll have to wait a hundred years to have a sense of the vitality of the age.

EH: Do you have any predictions about the future of American poetry?

DY: For better or worse, there will be one.


 
Ernest Hilbert is the editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review. His poetry has appeared in The New Republic, American Poet, The New Criterion, Boston Review, LIT, McSweeney's, American Scholar, Verse, Volt, and Fence. He writes for a variety of publications, including The New York Sun, Scribner's American Writers series, and the Academy of American Poets. Hilbert received his doctorate in English Literature from Oxford University, where he earlier completed a Master's Degree and founded the Oxford Quarterly. As a librettist, he is a frequent collaborator with the composer Daniel Felsenfeld. He is an agent and auction director at Bauman Rare Books, the largest high-end antiquarian and first edition dealer in North America.

 

David Yezzi: Fiction
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