David Bergman is the author most recently of The Poetry of Disturbance: The Discomforts of Postwar American Poetry (Cambridge, 2015). His latest book of poetry is Fortunate Light (Midsummer Night’s Press, 2013). He teaches at Towson University. An excerpt from his essay “The Pleasures of Poise” can be found here. The full essay appears in the July/Aug 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “The Pleasures of Poise”?
I have been thinking for a while about the kinds of pleasures that have gone out of style in poetry, including gorgeousness and whimsy. I read poems because they give me pleasure but I think we increasingly teach poems and literature as social documents. So the essay was directed at three different audiences—other poets, other readers, and other teachers—to argue for the importance of pleasure in general and poise in particular.
You focus on the remarkable humor in Theodore Roethke’s “I Knew a Woman,” as well as the work of Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and Vijay Seshadri. Could you talk a little bit about the relationship between humor (especially gallows humor) and poise? Are there other authors you admire who use humor especially well?
I have just been writing about brain studies that look at what the brain does when reading poetry. Reading poetry stimulates the pleasure circuits of the brain, the same circuits activated by food and sex. One study showed that reading poetry stimulated a part of the brain associated with “tolerance of uncertainty.” Apparently we need a region of the brain so that we can live with all the threats we face. Humor is one of those ways, and gallows humor is especially useful in tolerating hopeless conditions. The grimmer the situation, the more we need to joke about it, even if the jokes seem in bad taste. Poise is the art of grace under uncertainty. Milton pictured Satan in Paradise as a London dandy taking snuff. That’s a very humorous way (in a poet not known for his humor) to portray the source of the downfall of mankind. Milton’s Satan has the poise of Charlie Chaplin about to step on a banana peel.
Funny poets: Wallace Stevens, W.C. Williams, Marianne Moore, and Edward Field.
If an unestablished writer is trying to achieve poise in his or her work, do you have suggestions for how he or she might incorporate lessons from your essay? Are there lessons from, say, Elizabeth Bishop that might be applied, or do you believe this kind of balance is not meant to be prescriptive?
No prescription. I think poise is very difficult to achieve, especially if you’re young. It comes with maturity. This reminds me that one of the major literary attributes honored in the 1950s was maturity. We live today in a youth obsessed culture, which is one more reason I wanted to honor poise. In directing workshops, I used to see that many of the problems in the poems could be solved if and when the writer grew up. But telling someone to grow up is one of the most useless pieces of advice one can give.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
Writing prose has changed a good deal more than my writing poetry. In poetry I always start in longhand even though my writing has become increasingly illegible even to me. But those unreadable words are like Rorschach blots leading me to new ideas.
My prose used to be quite stiff and correct and elaborate. Dissertation can do that to a writer. I’m much looser now. I write prose directly on the computer and then have as much fun with it as I can. As I told my students, if you’re not having fun writing, your audience won’t have any fun reading. I write some very dark poems; sometimes they scare me, but even the scariest poem is fun to write or I wouldn’t write it. Even with this interview, I’m trying to have fun so that readers will have fun, too.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Other people. I’m really rather reclusive. I lack the social poise I value in the essay. But people are infinitely interesting. I come away from my social encounters full of ideas. Perhaps that’s the reason I keep my distance from people, because when I am with them, I’m glued to every gesture and every change of tone.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
Best: (1) Make the last word of a line count. (2) Learn to type. (I never did.)
Worst: Grow up!
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m editing The Cambridge History of Gay American Autobiography, a 600 page tome. I’m also working on a book tentatively titled How to Find Pleasure in Poetry. And I’m always fiddling with another book of poems. I’d like to have fun writing a murder mystery.