Lloyd Schwartz is the Frederick S. Troy Professor of English and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts–Boston. His poems have been selected for The Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, and Best of the Best American Poetry. His recent publications include the Library of America edition of Elizabeth Bishop and Music In—and On—the Air, a collection of his reviews for NPR’s Fresh Air. He is senior editor of classical music for the online journal New York Arts. In 1994, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. An excerpt from his poem “Unexpected Oracles” can be found here. The full poem appears in the Nov/Dec 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was the first phrase you recorded, and when did you decide to collect these in one poem? Did you borrow from other listeners, or did you hear all of these lines on your own?
I was on campus at UMass Boston, heading to class, when I passed someone who was saying to his companion: “Hey, that’s something you can be fucking proud of your whole fucking miserable life.” A minute later I ran into the chair of my department and enthusiastically quoted what I had just overheard. I already knew I wanted to use it in a poem, and that the poem would be made up of things I overheard. The vast majority of these lines I overheard myself. A few were quoted to me by friends. And some, like the Gertrude Stein epigraph, are quotations I’ve read. That was something I always wished I could use. I tried to use it in “Unexpected Oracles” and it didn’t work, but it seemed perfect—indeed oracular—as an epigraph.
This poem is full of wisdom, of course, but it’s also very funny. Are there any poets you might recommend who use humor in their work?
Frank O’Hara, of course. The Elizabeth Bishop of “Filling Station.” A lot of Ginsberg (especially his poem with the title from Catullus: “Malest Cornifici Tuo Catullo”). Catullus. Chaucer (but only in the original Middle English). Mark Halliday (practically every poem). Jill McDonough (check out “Accident, Mass. Ave.”). Joyce Peseroff (see “The Hardness Scale” and “Making a Name for Myself”). David Trinidad. The Alexander Pope of “The Rape of the Lock,” but even more so “The Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” and “The Dunciad.” The Byron of the early cantos of Don Juan. Andrew Marvell. Of course, the humor in all these poets stems from some deep and poignant understanding of the human situation. A kind of tenderness that even pops up in the midst of Pope’s savagery. One of Robert Pinsky’s most moving poems, “Impossible to Tell,” is an elegy for a friend; but it’s also one of his funniest poems, with two hilarious full-fledged jokes in it. No wonder it’s Lisa Simpson’s favorite poem.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
I started out writing lyrical poems. Or more accurately, I started out, when I was a senior in high school and first fell in love with poetry, especially Keats and Frost, writing anti-lyrical poems—comic, satirical, silly—because I never thought I could write like Keats or Frost. But the more serious I got, in college, the more conventional my poems became. At the same time I was also, more and more, admiring fresher, less conventional poems, like James Wright’s “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave,” with its shocking, thrillingly flat opening line “(“My name is James A. Wright, and I was born…”) and Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Man Moth,” with its mesmerizing, heartbreaking narrative (the Poet as Buster Keaton—though I didn’t know that at the time). I was also reading Yeats—especially late Yeats—listening to his tonally complex “speaking voice” and working on my undergraduate honors thesis on this subject. But my own poems tended to be short and in a more conservative lyric tradition. I tried to write a series of sonnets based on the Odyssey. In graduate school, I was becoming more impatient with poems that seemed rhetorically inflated and stuffed with stock “deep images.” I was impressed and moved by the psychological and philosophical ambitiousness in the poems my classmate Frank Bidart was writing (poems he came to regard as failures and wouldn’t want anyone to see now). I was becoming more interested in writing narratives, using colloquial language, in some cases as a deliberate response to some of this self-conscious lyricism. Which brings me to the next question:
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Since I was a child in school plays, I wanted to be an actor—not least of all because theater seemed such a communal effort. In college, I was repelled by the egotism of the undergraduate actors and wanted nothing to do with them. I stopped acting until after I passed my graduate orals exam and one of my undergraduate honors students challenged me to audition for a theater group I’d come to admire—brilliant directors and wonderful actors, some of whom everyone by now has come to admire (Stockard Channing, John Lithgow, Tommy Lee Jones). I auditioned and got several small parts in the first production of an exciting summer season—a rock musical version of Aristophanes’s Peace. And I got a good review. My parts got bigger in each succeeding production that astonishing summer (Trojan Women, Measure for Measure, In the Jungle of Cities), and I was on my way to featured parts in Chekhov, Elizabethan comedy, Jacobean tragedy, more Brecht and contemporary satire, even (on a radio show for children called The Spider’s Web) Ebenezer Scrooge. When I got a job teaching at night, I had a huge decision to make about whether to continue as an actor or as an academic. Out of some combination of fear and dedication, I chose the latter.
But without really understanding why at the time (although it’s obvious to me now), my poetry took a radical turn. Instead of short lyrics, I started writing dramatic monologues, and this opened up an entirely new vista of possibilities. Since I could no longer play a character on stage, I could now escape (or extend) myself in my poems. The poems in my first book, These People, were mostly monologues and dialogues. And it seemed I was more myself in my poems than I had ever been before, though it was a self filtering through the prism of “other” voices. My main objective as a poet was now to write as convincingly as possible in what Wordsworth called “the language really used.” And to inject our ordinary spoken language with drama. I think almost everything I’ve written since then has been a development or an expansion of those impulses.
In my latest book manuscript, that desire for a kind of accuracy of speech reached an extreme in two poems: “Lucifer in New York,” which is a collage of spoken or printed responses to 9/11, and “Unexpected Oracles,” which is a collection of overheard quotations that somehow resonated with me, organized into something—a poem, I hope—that has even greater resonance (maybe especially about the nature of art) as a whole than as its individual components.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
Early in my career, I submitted a poem to an editor who championed my work. He told me that what was wrong with my poem was that the lines were too long. They were, in fact, unusually long lines, and I knew that was odd. And coming from a respected authority, the advice seemed right. So I tried over and over again to shorten the lines. But to no avail. I kept making the poem worse. In frustration, I tried another draft with lines even longer than the original ones, and suddenly everything started fitting into place. When I sent it out again (not to the same editor), it got immediately accepted. How wrong the original editor was, I thought. But it was I who was wrong. The original editor knew there was something wrong with the line lengths. He was right about that. And it was my job to understand what the real problem was—like understanding an oracle. So I tell my students that when I or someone else thinks something in their poems doesn’t work, we may be right, but that the opposite of what we suggest as a remedy may have the greater truth. If you’re doing something wrong, cut it out—or do more of it! If your lines are too long, make them shorter—or longer!