DAVID YEZZI interviewed by ERNEST
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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 office—critiquing
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
How was the opera received?
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Has your history as an actor changed the way you compose
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
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
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?
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
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 experience—very
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.
did you first come to the 92nd Street Y, and what did you
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.
me through a typical day, and, as you suggested, night
at the Y.
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
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
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.
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.
As an editor, what do you look for in a poem?
DY: It's important that it
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.
What do you mean by that? What are your criteria at The
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.
The New Criterion generally publishes between one and three
poems in any given issue. Do you receive a large number of poetry
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Do you consider yourself a New Formalist?
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?
Do you align yourself with any particular movement or
Is there a particular poet who inspired you to begin
I was inspired by the most embarrassing seventies poets. I would
write horrible imitations of the poems included in the
Geography of Poets anthology.
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
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
Do you have any predictions about the future of American
DY: For better or worse,
there will be one.