A Conversation With Linda Gregerson by KR poetry editor David Baker
Linda Gregerson is one of the most original and vibrant of contemporary American poets. Born in 1950 and raised in Cary, Illinois, she received her B.A. from Oberlin College, M.A. from Northwestern University, M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, and her Ph.D. from Stanford University. Currently she holds the Frederick G. L. Huetwell Professorship at the University of Michigan and teaches in the M.F.A. program for writers at Warren Wilson College. She also teaches frequently at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, in Gambier, as well as at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference.
Gregerson’s poetry collections include Fire in the Conservatory (Dragon’s Gate, 1982), The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep (Houghton Mifflin, 1996), Waterborne (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), and Magnetic North (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). For her poetry she has been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and she has received the prestigious Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize, the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine, and many other distinctions.
In addition to the contributions of her poetry, she is an influential literary scholar. Her The Reformation of the Subject: Spenser, Milton and the English Protestant Epic, appeared in 1995 from the Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture, and Negative Capability: Contemporary American Poetry, was published in 2001 as part of the Poets on Poetry series from the University of Michigan Press.
David Baker: Linda, thanks so much for the chance to talk about your two
poems in the new Kenyon Review. They are splendid poems, both of them, and
we are very glad for the opportunity to print them. I’d also like to use
this occasion to talk about your forthcoming book of poems, Magnetic North,
and to range further into other interests of yours, like teaching,
Renaissance poetry and scholarship, the theater, more.
But let’s start with “Over Easy.” This is one of my favorite new poems of
I have a few specific questions about this poem, but I wonder if there’s
anything you wish to say about it first-about its origin or impetus or
whatever you might wish to say to begin.
Linda Gregerson: Well, in the first place, you are very kind to overlook
the speaker’s comments on the Ohio landscape, not to hold them against me, I
mean. And I should also say I regard that landscape – northern Ohio,
northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin, southern Michigan, not the lushness
and lovely elevations of points further south and north, but the
sectioned-off flatness of farmlands and shopping malls-as my unerasable
imaginative home. But yes, the origins: a car trip, and perhaps the purest
sensuous incitement I’ve ever tried to get down on paper. At which I flatly
failed, by the way. It was that radiant sliver of limpid tangerine: I could
taste it in the back of my throat, and it brought such pure enchantment.
Midwestern Proust. I spent ages trying to identify the sense-memory, which
was multiple and mildly mortifying: a dress I had in high school, a pair of
fishnet stockings, a lipstick (it was the sixties, remember; we all looked
ghastly!), and a sort of sherbet-on-a-stick we used to call a “Push-Up.”
Quite a farrago, and of course I had to ditch it all. But I tried to keep
the impetus, that primitive thing that comes before speech and way before
DB: There are things in “Over Easy” that resonate with your larger body of
work-the family narrative, the voice concurrently tender and intellectual,
the persisting turn toward conscience or toward something like social
connection or civic adhesion. But rarely in your poems is the speaker,
simply, moving. Have you noticed? Here she’s in her car with her
daughters, blasting the stereo, as they range across those “scabrous fields”
of Ohio. Your poems are nearly always underscored by a tension between
velocity and impediment, to be sure; but the velocity is usually
intellectual. In “Over Easy” it’s also literal, physical. She is on the
LG: Ah, you don’t overlook the comment on the landscape! But you’re right
about the movement, and I’m afraid it doesn’t speak well of me that I’m so
rarely able to imagine a speaker in physical motion. I suffer from the can’
t-chew-gum-and-walk syndrome: it takes something remarkable to make me
notice the world if I’m trying to move through it. The beginning of the poem
is meant to be more than a little at my own expense.
DB: I guess I asked about movement because I think one of the central
things about this poem is its trope of dispersal, “our sorry dispersal.”
Physical movement and losing control-like that important image of the egg,
broken and running. This is the anxiety or the fear over a loss of
influence. So much speed, so much time passing quickly. It’s also the
parents’ abiding nightmare, isn’t it?
LG: I’m not sure I’d call it “nightmare,” though God knows nothing makes one
feel the passage of time more keenly than staking one’s heart to a child.
But your larger insight is deeply right: beneath the domestic comedy is
meant to be something darker. It’s an appalling confession the speaker
makes, to wish to “be rid of” any parcel of time in this brief life, and yet
we do it all the time. Perhaps the fear of tedium is one of the most
durable legacies of scabrous fields.
But I cannot blame the fields for my own failures of attention. The
Reformers I study in the other part of my life would have said that boredom
is a sin, and that seems to me to be much closer to the truth. “Sorry
dispersal” is Augustine. Or rather, it’s Augustine by way of a marvelous
essay by Margaret Ferguson; the other italicized parts of the poem are
Augustine altogether. I felt quite driven to Augustine as I tried to
capture that preternatural transition of sunset and silhouette. There’s a
passage in the eleventh book of the Confessions where the author writes a
sort of phenomenology of time. His example is the recitation of a psalm,
the passage of the verse through expectation, attention, and memory. I
think it’s no accident he draws his example from a sacred poem. The great
mystery, of course, is that cusp we call the present, which has always
escaped me, except, perhaps, in the context of a poem or the voice of a
child. The keenest edge of mortality, yes, but blessing rather than
DB: Perhaps blessing and nightmare? That seems to be the dynamic tension
that turns inside your work. “Over Easy” is remarkable for its turnings, as
one scene, one image, one idea, morphs into the next. You seem to do such
things so naturally. I know, Yeats’s lesson in “Adam’s Curse” reminds us
that the natural is an achievement of great labor. The apparent ease with
which you turn your poems must be a result of that kind of work.
“Prodigal” offers an even more stunning transfiguration. How can a young
woman, a girl with such plenty and such hope, be driven to such hopeless or
impoverished behavior? The first magic of the poem derives from how you
adjust her portrait from “the plentiful mass” of her hair to the shock of
her cutting herself.
LG: Cutting, anorexia, all these ghastly varieties of self-harm: they are
not chiefly practiced by children who cannot get enough to eat or have just
seen their village burned by hostile forces; they are diseases of plenty.
And they are real. Real suffering. We cannot make them go away by pointing
to their unreasonableness.
DB: This poem connects in my imagination to others of your poems that
represent, and speak in behalf of, the young in their afflictions. In “The
Resurrection of the Body” we witness a young helmeted boy, bashing his head
against the wall of his hospital room; in “For the Taking” we find a young
girl sexually abused by her “bad uncle.” Elsewhere there are children ill,
stricken, helpless, speechless. Here you render such pathos and tenderness
(“I’ve known her since her heart could still / be seen at work beneath //
the fontenelles”) for the young cutter. The tension of paradox again: Her
fortunate lot in life, this well-to-do American girl, is also the cause of
her shame and her suffering. Would you like to speak to this major impulse
in your poetry?
LG: One of my friends, a sociologist, said to me once in another context
(she was teaching a course on Disability and the State) that a culture can
be measured by the way it treats its most vulnerable members. Somewhere
prior to analysis, somewhere very elemental indeed, I feel the world can be
measured by how it treats its children. I cannot bear the harm we do to
them; it makes me wild with grief. And there’s nowhere else to go with such
grief-I mean one can, one must, try to do some practical good in the world
but it’s always such a pittance-so I go to words.
DB: Words indeed. The second and third stunning transfigurations of “Prodigal” come toward the end, when the young girl hurting herself turns
into words herself, taking the scissors “to that perfect page,” and then
turns, again, into the very world, into “her other body“: the maternal or
feminized earth, of which we are all a part, destroying ourselves. The
whole world is cutting itself to pieces in its shame. I was simply not
prepared for the complexity of this trope. Yet it felt, even on first
reading, entirely right. How did this ending come about? Was it early or
late in the process of composition when you determined how the poem should
LG: It was very late. I was stuck for a long, long time. It’s always the
hardest, and the truest, part of composition for me: reaching a point where
the poem needs to go more deeply into itself by going elsewhere.
Authentically elsewhere, somewhere I haven’t pre-plotted. I often find that
point by writing slightly beyond it, into a fulfillment that’s too
predictable. So I have to cut back to the precipice and be stranded there
for a while. It’s a very uncomfortable place; it drives me crazy. And it’s
where the thing either does or does not become a poem.
DB: Let’s set aside, for now, the issue of subject matter, but let’s talk
some more about how something becomes a poem. Readers of your work-those
many of us who’ve followed your poetry especially since The Woman Who Died
in Her Sleep in 1996-are likely to be fascinated by these two poems, as by
nearly all the poems in your forthcoming book, Magnetic North, for their
adventurous ranging-out into more formal variety. In your last two books
you developed and perfected a sinuous stanza form, a very flexible, spacious
indented triad stanza.
What did that triad permit you to do, or to explore? And why have you left
it to move into further kinds of formal designs? How do all of these formal
tactics or practices help your writing, as you say, to become a poem?
LG: That tercet quite flatly saved my life. Before I found it, and I found
it simply by playing around with a thousand variants, I had written in “block stanzas,” everything flush left, and had become very unhappy indeed
with the result. Those rectangular blocks were deeply falsifying, I
thought — for me, that is. They were airless; they completely obscured the
cadences I’d tried to embody in syntax. The tercets were the first formal
vehicle I found that seemed to me to be properly flexible, and true.
Especially important was that second, deeply indented line, the “pivot line” as I conceived it, often only a single metrical foot long. It gave me a kind
of skeletal resistance, something that syntax could work against, and thus
it became a true generative proposition, not just a kind of packaging. The
lineation produced the poem.
And as with any codependency, it got to be too much. I began to worry that
I knew that stanza too well, knew not only the music but the shape of the
cognitive or affective discoveries it tended to incite. So I’ve tried to
DB: In all of your poems, the sinuous form and stanza permits you a kind
of play. There must be a formal corollary between the concrete artifact of
your style and the rigor or method of thinking itself. Your sentences and
lines unwind, unpack, ravel and unravel, in and out. This feels like a mind
at work, musing, pressing. How do you decide on a poem’s form, especially
in Magnetic North, where there are so many different technical
strategies-strategies of line, syntax, stanza? At what point in the
composing do you settle on shape?
LG: I have to decide very early; I simply can’t write the poem without a
provisional shape for the stanza. So I locate the early phrasing, the
language with which the poem is to begin, and try to “score” it against
(that’s a telling confession, no doubt: against) a pattern of lineation.
And I throw it out and start again-it has to be on the computer by now – and
fiddle with it endlessly until I have something I think will accommodate the
pitch of diction, the relative pacing, the formality or informality of the
voicing. Line five never, ever gets written until lines three and four are
firmly in place.
The first poem I wrote for this new book, the poem called “Elegant,” is all
over the page; I expect the excessive ranginess was part of a not too subtle
effort to convince myself there was “life after the tercet.” But it also
felt, and feels to me, that the form is somehow suited to the subject, to
that blessed little roundworm, C. elegans, and the remarkable story of its
embryonic cell lineage. I had in mind a particular graphic-the breakthrough
paper that mapped the thousand-and-ninety cells of the embryo and the
divisions that produce them was accompanied, in the pages of Developmental
Biology, by a twelve-page chart: it looks like a kind of musical score. But
I also had in mind the movement of hypothesis and revision that is so
beautiful a part of scientific method.
Most of the new poems are more obedient formally: they have a more
predictable relationship to the left-hand margin. Though obedience is a
relative thing: I am so wedded to asymmetry, it is to me so necessary and
native a vocal element, that working in couplets feels wild.
DB: Asymmetry, yes, I see that. Your rhetorical argument and your
technical form both tend to unspool, and wind around, and go-in-search-of.
But I also note the formality of your method of closure. I guess it’s not
exactly symmetrical closure, but certainly and frequently a kind of dignity
or classical enclosing. I feel quite the opposite, at the end of your
poems, than I do at the ending of other poets’ scattered or asymmetrical
lyrics. I mean, about your endings, the frequency of a final line or
phrasing in perfect iambic tetrameter or pentameter. Or your occasional sly
internal rhyme at the end. The poems often snap shut like a Shakespearean
As I scan through Magnetic North, I count only four poems of the book’s
eighteen that do not end in a long iambic phrase. Now the iamb is the
normative rhythm throughout your poems, but often very loosely so. These
endings, though, really formalize the iambic phrase and serve as a
remarkable closing gesture. “And then she blows the candle out,” finishes
one. “I think I’ll call this mercy too”; “It’s wholly premise, rather like
the crusted snow”; and even “Elegant” with its “excessive ranginess,” as you
rightly call it, concludes with “this thread of in-the-cells remembering
made it so.”
LG: My cover blown! But you’re entirely right of course, and “classical” is
the generous way to put it. I work inside a tightly bounded metric; it’s
all I can do to vary the pattern with dactyls and anapests or to end a
clause on an unstressed syllable. That’s one of the reasons syntax is so
important to me: if the syntactical units expand and contract, if they can
be made to move with variable pressure, then there’s something at odds with
DB: Sure, that makes sense, the way the syntax can assist in varying the
meter. Your line breaks, too, the uneven procedure of the form, the
indentions-all those tactical aspects are part of the poem’s internal
argument with the regularity of its rhythm.
LG: Yes, thank you, that puts it very clearly.
DB: Let’s talk more about Magnetic North. I have been fortunate for the
chance to read the book in manuscript and in galleys, to prepare for this
conversation. The book delights me for its range (of subject matter and
formal architecture, as we are exploring) as well as for its lyrical beauty.
You are working at your height. How do you write books? A poem at a time?
Or do you conceive of a book’s identity early on? How did you put this
LG: I’m sure if I were a better person I would work more conceptually
earlier on, but in fact it tends to be poem by poem at first. And then, if
I’m lucky, the poems begin to talk to one another, and I begin to think of a
larger arc, and then the last part-the half or third at the end-is written
into the larger shape or trajectory.
DB: You mean that some of the final poems come along to you with a fairly
clear place in the book? Or that you sense the kind of thing you want a
late-written poem to do, in its relationship to the other extant poems?
LG: It’s usually a question of proportion, as in, “another splotch of yellow
in the lower left, please.” One of the last poems I completed for Magnetic
North was the quasi-title poem, “De Magnete.” In that case, there was a
very clear place the poem was required to fill, but it was a conceptual
place, not a slot in the sequence.
DB: Can you say what that conceptual place-that idea-was at the time,
before you wrote the poem? Did it feel like a gap of some sort? That’s a
fascinating kind of awareness.
LG: As I mentioned, the first poem I completed for this volume was a long
poem, “Elegant,” which takes as its subject the investigations of three
physiologists, John Sulston, Robert Horvitz, and Sydney Brenner, who happen
to have won the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 2002. I’d located my
title-Magnetic North-perhaps a third of the way into the writing of the
book. After some missteps, I’d finally located the cover art: a beautiful
white-on-white construction by the German artist Günther Uecker. This
painting-it is a painting of sorts-consists of hundreds and hundreds of
nails pounded into a wooden panel, the whole of it painted white, and the
nails projecting two inches or so from the front of the panel. So that the
real painting consists of shadows and light: the myriad shadows cast by
these little white poles, shadows which seem to organize themselves in
patterns but patterns that alter completely when the light source alters.
The links among all these elements-the little roundworm and its cell
divisions, the microscopy that gives us access to them, the magnetic pole
and its ties to navigation, the love letter (scientific and painterly) to
partial views, the critique of partial views, the cold beauty of a world
that only tenuously aligns with our ability to construe it-these links were
vivid in my mind but largely implicit in the manuscript. I needed something
with a more explicit link to the title of the book especially. A horrifying
baggy monster of motives. So I started reading: about the history of
navigation, polar exploration, the search for the magnetic north pole, the
general science of magnetism. And when I came to William Gilbert and De
Magnete-he published that book in 1600!-I finally had something that, I
hoped, could touch the chords I needed to touch without getting hopelessly
tangled in them. That unit of the personal-one man’s biography, one man’s
evolving method, one man’s curiosity-can be hopelessly sentimentalizing and
simplistic, of course, but simplifying units are also very powerful; they
give us a through-line; they’re hospitable; I’ve learned not to scorn them.
DB: What do you want this particular book to do for its readers? It will
have readers, I am certain of that.
LG: I hope the poems catch something of our common grief for the world as we
‘ve harmed it, and our common gratitude for all the goodness we haven’t yet
managed to expunge. I hope-I feel like Blanche DuBois, relying upon the
kindness of strangers-I hope the patient reader will find, in the quarrel
between velocity and stumble, woven surface and fissure or tear, some
fleeting approximation of the present tense. I hope-it’s outrageous to hope
this, but every writer does, I think-I hope the poems, or some piece of them
somewhere, even for a tiny bit, can stall the rush to oblivion.
DB: I learn things when I read your poems and your books. I wish that were
true more often of the poetry I read. Poetry is not information, to be
sure. As Daniel Tiffany reminds us, “Only a fool reads poetry for facts.”
Yet poetry can contain and pass along knowledge, wisdom, as well as song and
the processes of thinking. You seem pretty fearless in your thinking, in
the ways your poems include historical data and narratives, medical
treatments, specific scientific information, to say nothing of your
recreations of theatrical performances and art installations. I tend to
think of your work as more inclusive than not, more impure than pure. Is
that a fair depiction?
LG: The world is so rich with the cumulative textures of material practice,
the intricate dynamics of our own and other people’s daily labors, the
tenuous workings of human memory-it seems a pity if poetry is to leave them
DB: Then what is the relationship, in lyric poetry, between purity and the
impure? Or is that a misleading dichotomy from the start?
LG: Certainly there are poets who work on what seems to us the purer end of
the spectrum: those for whom the distillations of personal experience and
lyric tradition or the rigors of philosophical meditation constitute a
durable and continuous medium. For the rest of us, those who treasure the
disruptions and “contaminants,” the poem has to justify its existence in
other ways. What keeps the poem from being merely secondary or
after-the-fact? Ekphrastic poetry has a long and honorable history, but I
think it should always be uneasy on this ground. The neurophysiologists
whose work I all but worship don’t need my little lyric after all. But I do
think the world needs more of neurophysiology (and history, and equine
dentistry, for that matter) than its practitioners and professional
explicators are in the habit of providing (they have their own good work to
do). I think there are rhythms of thought, fragile propositions about the
intersections of human understanding and human habitus, robust intersections
of the pragmatic and the sublime, that science shares with art, and I love
the thought that poetry can learn from and do homage to its near cousins.
The great thing about “facts” (and the scientists are much more
sophisticated skeptics than the poets are) is that they put up resistance.
Resistance is good for art, and for thinking in general.
DB: You have worked as a teacher for a long time. Your permanent position
is at the University of Michigan. What are the specifics of your position
there? What do you teach?
LG: My scholarly training is in Renaissance literature, and Michigan has
always been wonderful about allowing me to teach an array of courses in that
field as well as courses in creative writing. At present, I’m teaching a
graduate course with a colleague in the history department on “Religion and
Empire in the Early Modern Atlantic” and also an undergraduate course on
DB: I’m not even going to ask the obvious question, which is how you manage
to balance your teaching and your teaching and your writing and all your
other familial and professional commitments. Still, I know you also are
generous in your willingness to teach elsewhere-at the Bread Loaf Writers’
Conference, for instance, or the Warren Wilson MFA program for writers, or
at our own Kenyon Review summer workshop. How do you find the time? Can
you explain why people seem to be turning in substantial numbers to these
kinds of opportunities to study and to write poetry?
LG: I adore teaching at Bread Loaf and Kenyon and the Warren Wilson
residencies; their intensity always astonishes and invigorates me. It’s
quite remarkable to put aside everything else for a week or two and immerse
oneself in the written word and a community of people who care so deeply for
it. Writing itself is generally solitary; Judith Grossman once wonderfully
described the process as a chronic “social insult.” So one hungers for a
kind of antidote, I think: some form of being-alone-in-company, or frankly
taking a break from aloneness. Pragmatically, of course, many writers spend
their working days in other pursuits, and the chance to receive intensive
feedback on manuscripts, to share ideas and strategies and reading lists, is
DB: At Michigan you come into close contact with some of the finest young
poets in the country. It’s an impressive program, personal in its size and
kind of contact. What are the students like these days? Can you
characterize their writing, their reading, their interests? If it’s
possible to summarize a new generation of poets, what might be some of their
strengths and weaknesses?
LG: The students are wonderfully varied in their methods and aesthetics.
Some are working on a shattered page, in fragmentary syntax, with
conspicuous debts to contemporary music and visual culture. Some are
working in a much more restrained and classical vein. Many of them have
decided to test the parameters of their own “found forms” by writing from
time to time in a received or inherited form, even in rhyme. One is working
on a Pushkin-style novel-in-verse. Several are experimenting with
performance modes or collaborations with visual artists, videographers,
musicians. Many poets now, not just the young but especially the young, are
compelled by mixed genres. The possibilities are terribly exciting.
The challenge, predictably enough, lies in tempering all this burgeoning
possibility with some meaningful form of stricture. One wants the gorgeous,
expanded palette of color and movement but one doesn’t want to be a
perpetual dilettante. The expansion of methods must somehow lead to
freshening or intensification rather than a watering-down. The problem is
daunting and thrilling at once: how to locate the hard edge, the limits,
the embodied grammar that will give this new work its own center of gravity.
DB: How does one teach someone else to be a poet?
LG: I suppose one teaches everything but that. I try to encourage in my
students a meticulous attention to the elements of poetry: to syntax, image,
idiom, cognitive pacing, tone. To punctuation, for heaven’s sake. I try to
teach them to be wary of paraphrase: to hunt down and banish all those
poetry-impersonators we all let into our work from time to time, those
moments of reporting-on-discoveries-made-elsewhere. I try to encourage them
to think on the page. The real poets are those who make use of it all:
they hone their craft to accommodate a single, foundational motive, a sort
of cognitive hunger. Mindfulness, you might call it, or good faith
DB: Linda, one of the other primary forms of your own curiosity involves
the theater. You were an actor some time ago, and for years, in Herbert
Blau’s company Kraken. Many of your poems find their narrative centers
literally inside a play. I think of an older poem like “Target,” with its
juxtaposition of Medea and the crisis in Serbia or of “A History Play.” “Eyes Like Leeks” follows Thisby from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the
selfsame Thisby who recurs in your new poem “No Lion, No Moon.” In fact,
your new book features a number of dramatic scenes and tropes-from plays old
LG: The theater taught me how to think. That is, it taught me about
embodied thinking. So it was and is foundational. And the
play-within-a-play in Midsummer Night’s Dream! Right up there with the Book
DB: Even beyond your literal application of dramatic works, the stance or
position of the voice of your poems sometimes feels projected in something
of the way I imagine an actor’s persona must be impelled and clarified. It
has to do with articulation, I think, and projection. How do you think
about the relation of the theater or performance in the sphere of the lyric
poem, with its typical meditative or unvoiced voice?
LG: An actor discovers where to go by going there; she begins with a gesture
and then it fills. The ones that fail to fill, you scuttle. In other
words, the process is pure induction. It becomes a kind of sense-memory,
and I find it a useful antidote to the ways in which “emotion recollected in
tranquility” can lapse into paraphrase. We all wash up on this phenomenon
from time to time, I think: one may begin with intensest feeling, but if the
poem chiefly reports on intensities discovered off the page, the poem
remains forever secondary. The lyric poem has to be at risk in the present
tense; actors, alas, know all about this.
DB: Your other academic life is as a Renaissance scholar. Your book, The
Reformation of the Subject, examines the early modern epic-both Spenser’s
and Milton’s. And other recent critical work looks at Isabella Whitney,
among others. What again might you say about the application of your
scholarly period to your poetry? Or vice versa? Your poems seem so, well,
contemporary. Do you think about, or even engineer, some kinds of overlap?
Do you exploit any kinds of difference? I’m thinking beyond the occasional
allusion and reference to the Renaissance in your poems.
LG: This brings us back to your previous question, actually, about voicing
in the lyric poem. I’m increasingly convinced that this was the great
contribution of the sixteenth-century English lyricists, Wyatt especially,
which we see coming to such remarkable fruition some eighty years later, in
Marvell, Shakespeare, Donne: they experimented with quasi-dramatic gestures
of voicing as though these were another kind of trope. Quasi-dramatic:
quite separate from the evolution of the Renaissance stage or those later
consolidations we call dramatic monologue. Wyatt simply does not sustain a
continuous meditative fabric: he allows the lyric surface to be disrupted
by the symptoms of personality. He devises the lyric “self” as a kind of
intermittent back-formation. He opens up this wonderful, porous
rhetoricity, a perpetually shifting contract of expectation between speaker
and auditor. I don’t-I couldn’t possibly-mimic any of it directly, but I do
find analogies in the fabric of contemporary American poetry, an effort to
push the extra-referential aspects of language toward a kind of
DB: I am really pleased to thank you here for another variety of your
scholarly work-that is, for your participation in a new book I have
coedited, with Ann Townsend. Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry has just
been released by Graywolf, and of course you know how proud and grateful we
are to feature five new essays of yours in this book, a study of some of the
fundamental modes of the lyric poem. You have written on the ode, the love
poem, the sublime, and the problems of time and of people in the lyric
LG: Radiant Lyre is a great joy to me because of the way in which it
emerged: as a kind of public conversation among people who care deeply
about the practice and the history of lyric. That engaged conversation is
exactly what criticism is at heart.
DB: I agree. An engaged conversation is the essence of criticism. It is
also-in a different way-the essence of poetry. We tend to regard the lyric
poem as a personal, even private utterance. But in Radiant Lyre, your essay “Life among Others” speaks very persuasively of the social engagement, the
social identity, of the lyric. As you say, “The lyric poem is a form of
social speaking. . . . It emerges as singular in the process of social
encounter and social thinking-through.” I take it that social encounter and
thinking-through are not merely references to narrative-or to poems with
people in dramatic circumstances-but also to poetic form and troping
themselves. Is that what you mean? The contours and references, the very
substance of a poem are embedded in our social memory and our social
exchanges. The self is part of that social fabric.
LG: Yes, indeed: poetic form, like language itself, is a rich and
sedimented legacy. We don’t make it up from scratch. We may seek to expand
or alter the range of possibilities, but we never work outside the basic
social fact. There’s a theoretical crux at stake here too: I’m among the
many people who found it terribly exciting when post-structuralism
encouraged us to be skeptical about the post-Enlightenment valorization of
the individual. Writers in a number of disciplines began to debunk the
notion of an intact inward essence that was ontologically if not temporally
prior to culture; they began to speak about the self, or subjectivity, as an
effect rather than a premise. It was all rather exhilarating, and of course
there was a serious political critique at stake as well. And, as is wont to
be the case with All the New Thinking in any of its guises, the insight was
largely a revival of an older understanding. Poetry has always known that
the subject is a made thing: made by longing for another, made by sorrow
and the friction of daily getting-on-with-it, made above all by speech.
DB: Poet, critic, teacher, reader, scholar. You are many things. What do
you see happening in poetry right now? Emerson says the genius is someone
who can see today. What can you see? What is not happening in our poetry
that, perhaps, should be?
LG: On the one hand, I’m quite heartened by the sheer plenitude of
contemporary American poetry, its formal and cultural and methodological
range. Performativity is at the heart of it, I think-just a minute ago, I
called that quality “extra-referential,” but perhaps I’d do better to call
it compounded reference. So much of the most interesting poetry at present
involves an aggravated tension among the various motives and allegiances of
language: words as serviceable instruments, words as social glue, words as
symptoms, words as smoke screen, words as sympathetic magic. I’m thrilled to
see how many poets seem to care about history again, how capaciously the
lyric poem is being used to expand our range not just of cultural reference
but of cultural recognition. In the beautiful elegy for his mother, “From
Amherst to Kashmir,” Agha Shahid Ali finds a way to create for all his
readers a site of common mourning, a kind of psychic home-and this in the
vocabularies of Shiite Islam.
That said, I think we still, we Americans, suffer from underdevelopment
when it comes to poetry and the contested, large-scale differentials of
power we often refer to as “politics.” Poets are dreadfully behind the
writers of fiction in this regard, more so than the varying aptitudes of
literary genre would require. We’re desperately afraid of moral
earnestness. But why should that be the reigning specter? We need somehow
to enlarge and deepen the terms of engagement.
DB: Yes, we do, Linda. And that is what I think your poetry succeeds in
doing for us all