A Conversation With Meghan O’Rourke by KR poetry editor David Baker
Meghan O’Rourke is one of the brightest new voices in contemporary poetry and American culture. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York, earned her B.A. from Yale in 1997, and that summer began her literary career at the New Yorker, first as an editorial assistant, then in 2000 as an editor. Since 2002 she has served as culture editor for Slate, and in 2005 was named co-poetry editor, with Charles Simic, of the Paris Review.
In April 2007, W. W. Norton will publish O’Rourke’s first book of poetry, Halflife. Readers will find individual poems of hers in the New Yorker, the New Republic, the Yale Review, the New York Review of Books, and her prose in Poetry, the New York Times Book Review, Slate, the LA Times Book Review, and elsewhere.
O’Rourke’s poetry is sophisticated but accessible—remarkably so, on both accounts, for someone so young. Readers will notice an impressive formal range, from short lyric poems—even haiku—to longer narrative sequences. O’Rourke’s poetry makes use of literary allusions, rich tropes, and presents a wide historical range and cultural aptitude; but she is capable, too, of personal narratives that bear great tenderness and vulnerability. These are fairly uncommon traits in the work of younger and emerging American poets. We are pleased to feature five poems from Halflife in the Fall 2006 issue of The Kenyon Review. We are pleased as well for the opportunity to present this interview to our readers.
DAVID BAKER: Meghan, thank you for conducting this long-distance interview for the readers of The Kenyon Review. It’s my pleasure as poetry editor to note that we are featuring five of your new poems in our Fall 2006 issue. That’s where I’d like to start our conversation—with those poems—and then move outward toward your forthcoming book, Halflife, and to your other work as culture editor for Slate, poetry editor for Paris Review, and critic of contemporary writing and culture.
I’m struck first of all, in all five of these poems, by the intensity and spareness of the language. Who are your models for your style? What are your aspirations for your individual poems, like these?
MEGHAN O’ROURKE: Thanks for having me, David. These are great questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them.
My models are always changing, it seems. When I was writing the poems that appear in The Kenyon Review—mostly in 2003—I had been reading William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, Apollinaire, Wallace Stevens, and Louise Glück, among others. In one way, Plath was probably the most overt model. It took me a long time to be able to read Plath carefully; I had always been distracted by the impudence of her emotions, and the way the myth of the life overshadows the work. But as I read more carefully I saw how she was able to compress an awful lot of torque into a few short lines. Consider “Poppies in October.” It starts out with the poet in a mode of amazement—“Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts,” she says of the poppies. But the poem quickly becomes an exclamation of doubt: “Oh my god, what am I…” (You’ve got to love those monosyllables.) I was fascinated by the way the apparent demureness of the opening gave way to such bald intensity, and how the mechanics of the verse powered that.
But—especially as a young woman—you have to get away from Plath’s influence. Wallace Stevens was a useful counterpoint. Harmonium is reticent where Ariel is declarative. And reading Williams was crucial: his superb sense of line, his energy, his strange swerves. I wouldn’t have written “War Lullaby” if I hadn’t been reading Williams.
DB: Yes, I understand the need to absorb Plath and then get away from her. Glück, too, I think. Both are such strong stylists, with a kind of contagious power. Stevens and Williams are also interesting models in your case, since each wrote very long poems and short ones. Your own style, as you’ve noted, leans toward the latter—brevity, concision, the elliptical or elided, the intense and spare. What do you see as the virtues of intensity and spareness?
MO’R: You know, it’s never occurred to me that intensity was anything but a virtue. For so long I have seen it as the primary quality of what language can do. Didn’t Nietzsche once say that he wanted every sentence to explode? That’s how I felt. As a reader or viewer, largely what I look for in literature, or art, or films, is an aesthetic experience so vivid that it becomes experience itself, a kind of high. Saturation, in film; the use of crescendo and decrescendo, in music; the messed-around-with brush stroke, in paintings. This may seem callow to me someday, but that’s how it is now.
Spareness is another matter. I didn’t actually consider spareness a virtue for many years; much of the poetry I loved was big: Walt Whitman, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Anne Carson. When I was first writing the poems here, I was actually trying to write BIG poems that overflowed the vessel in which they were contained. But I kept just producing work that explained too much. Finally, I began to see that the problem wasn’t that the poems needed more but less. If the poem was a river, I had to jump from log to log across it, rather than try to build imposing bridges. And so elision became pleasing. Space became pleasing.
DB: I’m also struck by the very powerful stance of the speaker in these poems. These are far from the typical personal-confessional speaker so common in our current poetry. There are intonations of earlier days—plagues and wars and glaciers—but of course these suggestions also resound with the plagues and wars of our moment. There are also landscapes here, suggestive of places beyond your New York home. How do you think about your stance, your speakers, the sites for your poems?
MO’R: I’m glad to hear that they don’t seem personal. I never wanted to write autobiographical poems. For a long time, I was horrified by the idea of anything connected “literally” to my life. The details of my life seemed so . . . available. In my early twenties, I swore by Eliot’s notion that the poem is not an expression of personality, but an escape from it, and I wrote vague, high-minded poems. This lack of clarity was not a virtue. Gradually I saw that the speakers of the poems did have to reveal what was at stake for them—even if it was not about me.
That’s not to say that autobiography doesn’t shape the work. I wrote these poems in the years after 9/11, and at the time I had the feeling that the world was coming to an end. I remember thinking that if I could just use the right words all the time, the world might become more durable. Many of the poems were about imagining my speakers into extreme places, and helping them find the language to express their dilemmas. I wanted to get beyond the self. To get there, it seemed to me, required a disciplined immersion in the imagination—a way of taking in everything I’d read, and capturing my own pleasure as a reader in not being limited to my historical moment. The intonations in the poems had to be layered, to convey that sense of the ribs of the past sticking through the skin of the present. They also had to move broadly through America, to capture its bigness, its plurality, its contradictions.
Fairy tales seemed particularly resonant as a method for creating tension. “Winter Palace” originally tried to reimagine the Bluebeard story: What if Bluebeard’s wife married him knowing about all the dead wives? I got far away from this literal conceit, but that question—about subjecting yourself to someone with whom you are erotically obsessed—governed the poem. At the time of writing, there was still smoke blowing from the World Trade Center, or there recently had been; in any case, I was still haunted by the smell of the city burning. That crept into the poem, with the horses stomping their feet. Likewise, real plagues or disasters are exactly what you don’t read about in fairy tales, which contain every other kind of horror and trauma you can imagine.
DB: Of these, “The Lost Sister” leans closest toward the “real” of the personal. It is also part of a longer sequence, I know. Can you say a little about that poem and the sequence?
MO’R: That sequence was suggested to me by the poet Ellen Bryant Voigt. It began as a series of distinct poems that I couldn’t finish—poems that, for the first time, I felt I was transcribing rather than writing. For example, I had the opening of the one you’re publishing (“She was very sleepy, she was very grit of gray”). I was attracted to the music. But when I tried to clarify who this speaker was, the voice died. Other fragments arrived; it became clear that in each there was a dead twin speaking to her living sister. But I couldn’t find a way to make this information available to the readers without diluting the focus of the poems. Then Ellen read the fragments and suggested that they were part of a series: two sisters, one living, one dead, in dialogue—an option that would never have occurred to me, I don’t think. As soon as she said that, I knew she was right. I went on to finish the series very quickly.
The one you’re publishing is perhaps my favorite. It’s a poem about memory and the interstitial quality of life when we are very young—how fragmented yet indelible our memories of that period are. It’s from the point of view of a girl who never lived, but who felt closest to her living sister during her twin’s first years of life. Of course, the dead sister also covets her living sister’s ability to experience physical sensations for the first time.
DB: These five poems are included in your forthcoming first book of poems, Halflife. You must be excited. I have enjoyed reading the whole manuscript very much. I know that W. W. Norton is publishing Halflife. But tell me more details about it—when we will be able to find it in stores, what plans Norton might have for it or you.
MO’R: I’m pleased you enjoyed the manuscript. Halflife will be out in April of 2007. I imagine it will be available by pre-order from Amazon sometime before that. I feel very lucky to have Norton as a publisher. They’ve been nothing but diligent about the presentation of the book, and my editor there—Jill Bialosky—offered thoughtful editorial queries, providing just the kind of editing that one sometimes fears is a dying art.
DB: These five poems also seem to me representative of some central movements of the book—the intense and spare style, which we’ve noted, your capability to speak of personal issues but without the pandering or self-important stance that can infect contemporary poets, the oblique but central narrative of maturation—coming-of-age as a woman, as an artist and intellectual, a citizen. Can you talk a little about your own aspirations for the book?
MO’R: It is an oblique narrative, isn’t it? I hope not too much so.
I suppose I can recognize my aspirations now, but while I was writing the book I felt like I was sleepwalking, going in search of something I couldn’t see. I did know that I wanted to write about belief, about speakers who felt the pressures of postmodern irony and skepticism—the pressures of contingency—but who were, fundamentally, trying to hold on to something they thought was true. I also wanted to write poems that in some way ran counter to the governing therapeutic narratives of late twentieth century America—narratives of psychological redemption. Finally, my favorite literature has always been that which deals with the individual’s search for truth, for transcendence, for spiritual peace outside of the conventions of society. And it interested me that this particular desire for transcendence, in Western literature, is strongly identified as a male quest. In such texts, in fact, the female almost always represents an obstacle to the protagonist’s search—or, if not an obstacle, than at best an embodiment of his duties to society, of the routinization of his individuality. Think about Williams’s poem “Danse Russe,” in which the speaker exclaims, after his wife has gone to bed, “I am lonely, lonely. / I was born to be lonely, / I am best so!” I always found it confusing to figure out who I was in that poem—was I the speaker, who gleefully celebrates his solitude, or did I have to be the pragmatic wife sleeping downstairs? Women typically aren’t sent on this kind of quest, and when they are, their sexuality always gets in the way. (Surely that’s why Emily Dickinson was always hiding behind doors.) In some way, I wanted the book to tackle that tension, and to self-consciously comment on it.
DB: Yes, I know what you mean about the female-as-foil to the protagonist. Williams is a good example. I think just now of “The Young Housewife,” that poem where he drives slowly by a house, imagines the lonely woman there as a leaf, then is aware of his running over fallen leaves in his car. So quietly brutalizing.
The issue of transcendence is fascinating, and as you say, is typically gendered into a male quest or proof of power. Many of your poems in Halflife are committed to searching deeper into this world, though, the sensual realization of it. In “The Climber in the Ice,” you insist, “This is how it is. / I can taste the rock, I mean, taste it. . . ” And in your Kenyon poems, the persisting gesture toward the poems’ conclusions is of clarity and particularity, rather than the kind of blurring or erasing other-world-reaching we may regard as transcending. How much are you aware of those kinds of gestures? Do you find a value in the transcendental, or is it an antique trope, best assigned to the past?
MO’R: “The Climber in the Ice” is certainly about dealing with the earth-bound physicality of emotion, rather than with intimations of transcendence. It was inspired by reading of a mountain climber who’d been found in the ice many years after her death. I was interested in that trope—the mountain climber—with its Romantic resonances, and interested in how differently we think about grandeur today, as the product of serotonins, neurobiology, nodes of pleasure in the brain.
I feel fairly conscious of the gestures I make in the poems—at least after the fact!—but surely lots happens that I don’t know about. It’s true that many of the poems are committed to capturing the particularity of sensual experience, but it seems to me that others, such as the title poem, close with abstract, enlarging gestures. The final lines of the first poem in the book are “Look again, and up you may rise / to find something quite surprising in the distance,” for example. These may not exactly be blurring gestures, or the traditional reaching after universals that denoted transcendence for both the English Romantics and American transcendentalists. Then again, as Emerson said, “There is no fact in nature which does not carry the whole sense of nature,” and I suppose it’s his fascination with the way that small facts can become great symbols—even of our intuitions of otherworldliness—that interested me when I was writing these poems. But in a sense that answers your second question: that for me, at least, the old tropes of transcendence do feel antique, which is not to say unusable, or irrelevant, or unimportant, only that we have to earn our usage of them and find new ways to convey our otherworldly intuitions. I suspect it has a lot to do with what one can write about with authority.
DB: OK, authority, or authorship: How did you come to compose Halflife? Some poets write one poem at a time, and just gather them together at last and arrange them into a book. Some poets write with a sense of a book project, from the beginning. How did you put Halflife together?
MO’R: Ah, how I wish I was one of those poets who have a sense of the project from the beginning. The poems in this book date back to early 2002. But until late 2004, I was writing one poem at a time—or maybe, to put it more accurately, one suite of poems at a time. And I had several groups of what seemed to me to be really different work that couldn’t be gathered into a coherent collection. At some point, though, I put them together and cut others and began to see threads of connection. (Ellen Bryant Voigt was again instrumental to this process.) Once that happened, I saw what needed to be filled in, and I began to work with more sense of purpose. I set myself a deadline of finishing in the fall of 2005. That forced me to be quite hard-headed about my time, and to become obsessed with the manuscript, so that I was continually shaping and reshaping it, looking for the larger frame that would house the individual poems.
DB: Then how did you know you were finished? That’s not a trivial question, or problem. I talk to many poets—emerging and established—for whom the finishing of a book is nearly impossible. I may be one of those.
MO’R: It was odd. I had given myself an artificial deadline of November 1, because I usually can’t put anything down unless I’m made to. One day in October, I printed out the manuscript to see how it read with some poems I’d just finished. After reading it, I thought: I’m done. I was surprised. It wasn’t that I didn’t see the book’s flaws, but something about its shape told me I had gone as far as I could with it.
I did try to add work after Norton had accepted the book—about six or seven poems that seemed consonant with the project. But it was as if I’d put too many plants in a room with no windows: all the oxygen got sucked out. I had to take most of the poems back out. Of course, I have made some tweaks, but mostly in poems that I knew were still settling into their shapes.
DB: Our readers may know you for your other work, too. You’ve been the culture Editor of Slate for several years, and have recently also been appointed as co-poetry editor, with Charles Simic, of the Paris Review. First, how do you find the time?
MO’R: Not sleeping? I did have insomnia for a while, which helped. In all seriousness, I have a great staff at Slate, and I’ve been able to scale back to four days a week there. The Paris Review also has a wonderful group of readers, who help out tremendously. Even so, the poems go to both me and Charles Simic—who’s also quite busy—so we’re too slow about getting back to people.
As for my own writing, my father once gave me some good advice. He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation while holding two jobs and raising three kids with my mom, who worked full-time too. Every night he came home from his day job and wrote for thirty minutes before he made our dinner, etc. It took him many years to complete the dissertation, but the day finally came when it was done. One day I was complaining to him about time, and he just said, if you want to, write for thirty minutes a day; it’s not a lot, but you can write a book that way. That’s one lucky thing about being a poet: you can write a book in small installments, if you are greedy enough to seize them.
DB: Let’s go back to the question of culture. You have written about poetry, nineteenth century novels, the movies (OK, film), issues of gender and work, and more. Poetry seems to me to be thriving, yet is also surrounded by a kind of invisible fence; all the poets are inside the yard, yapping to get out, but are out of reach of everyone else walking by. Could you say something about how you see the art today, both as a poet, and as a commentator on the state of contemporary culture?
MO’R: This is an important question—so I’ll try to offer a few sketched-out thoughts. It’s an interesting cultural dilemma, it seems to me. On the one hand, when an art form loses its wider audience and begins to speak mostly to its practitioners, what gets lost is the impulse to relevance, to speak to the public. The rise of the M.F.A. program and the transformation of poetry from a public art to a clubbier one have also corresponded to plenty of aesthetic in-fighting, as one might expect. As an editor at a magazine rather than a professor at an academic institution, I feel fairly distanced from the debates and the gossip, and I still read in an eclectic, less-than-doctrinaire way. Sometimes I fear that this makes me less serious than other poets, who live and breathe contemporary poetry, and at other times I think it’s what has enabled me to continue loving poetry—to love it in a private, internal way that has more in common with how I read as a child (out of hunger and curiosity) than with any certainty that I know what is “right” or the “best.”
As a cultural commentator, though, I always wonder if the poets really are yapping to get out from behind the fence. Yes, I imagine that many poets feel a certain amount of frustration at not being able to make a living selling books of poetry, and a certain amount of frustration—or anxiety—at knowing that our work will reach only a small audience. That’s a real frustration. On the other hand, the M.F.A. system, whatever its faults, has created a thriving, self-sufficient economy, one that allows many, many writers to have time to write, and also provides them with an engaged, literate audience. In a way the whole world reminds me of ants in a sugar bowl—have you ever seen that? Once they get in, they industriously build a series of ant hills out of sugar, delighted to be in the bowl and have all that sweetness at their disposal. They can’t get back out, and yes, they’re separated from the other foods by the walls of the bowl, but why should they complain? They’re in a bowl of sugar.
DB: Your ants remind me of Thoreau’s ants. For him they’re a figure of great industry and selfless contribution. Less delight than devotion and habit, I think. And the work of survival.
MO’R: Yes, absolutely. I don’t mean to suggest anything frivolous by my metaphor—ants have a tremendous sense of industry, and I consider the work poets do to be a true contribution to our society. In fact, it seems to me that poetry actually is more necessary and more relevant than ever, given our nation’s political and social woes, and our age’s distractibility. For one thing, the Internet is a wonderful platform for making poetry more accessible to curious readers—and it’s also the one medium that can fluidly unify the spoken and the written tradition.
DB: That’s the open secret of Slate, isn’t it? As an Internet magazine, it presents work that is both immediately and hugely accessible; and more so, it is all open to active reply. You invite a forum of response. News and opinion as engagement rather than as mere reception. Do you see a similar kind of development or future for online poetry? Do you see any perils there?
MO’R: I’ve been wondering about this recently. Is there any way to make a home for poems online that is different from their home in a book? I don’t think we know yet. I mean, is there a way to write poetry that draws on the visual and the aural, that uses the flexibility of the medium—poems designed for the Internet rather than simply poems reproduced on the Internet? The peril of such a question is that it belittles, in some way, the purity of the form itself. Black print on a white page has served literature well for a long time. But I do believe poets should be open—and curious—about how the Internet might change things, offering a folk culture of its own.
DB: Do you find, do you regularly read, Internet literature or poetry sites? I’m thinking about your reply—to find uses for the flexibility of the medium, as you say. Would you suggest any such poets or sites for our audience here?
MO’R: I do look at a site like “Poetry Daily” pretty regularly, and I like that site as an aggregator of good poems. There is that online journal “Blackbird”. But otherwise, no, other than blogs that touch on poetry (which I do look at sometimes).
DB: You have recently added to your Slate duties, as we’ve noted, by becoming co-poetry editor of the Paris Review. You and Charles Simic have made a fundamental change from Richard Howard’s practice of publishing lots of poets. You are doing portfolios now—several pages of poems—by only two or three poets in each issue. Can you say why that’s appealing to you?
MO’R: The idea came from the Paris Review’s editor, Philip Gourevitch, but both Charlie and I found it appealing. Poetry is intimidating for many readers. We thought that the Paris Review might usefully be a place where readers got to linger a little more in a poet’s world, to immerse him or herself in the motifs and tropes and music and gestures of that author—whether it’s an old pro like John Ashbery or a young poet, like Emily Moore, an emerging writer whose work we recently published. The hope was that after reading five or six poems the reader would come away with the sense of having been firmly introduced to a voice—a full conversation, if you will. The downside is obvious: We miss out on great “one-off” poems, and we get to publish fewer poets. That’s a disadvantage both Charlie and I take seriously. As a result, we’re now publishing groups of single or double poems in every other issue. I hope that this offers the best of both worlds.
DB: I really like that latest idea, single or double poems in alternating issues with the portfolios. The portfolio does permit real attention and the possibility of seeing one poet’s range, but it’s nice to see several poets, too. I know, either way, you must read zillions of new poems now. Sometimes it feels to me as though there are so many new poems that I can hardly see through them—so many poems of every kind and subject, it’s even hard to see trends. But I’d be awfully interested to hear what you may observe as tendencies or trajectories in the newest poetry. What’s going on that interests you most deeply, or what holds the greatest promises? Likewise, would you name two or three emerging poets you are excited about, and tell why their work is distinctive?
MO’R: I can’t see the forest for the trees, I’m afraid. Generally while reading submissions I am less interested in trying to spot a trend than in simply finding a poet whose voice seems distinctive. I do notice a few things happening broadly: the fruitful use of scientific language and tropes—for example, there is a young woman named Jessica Johnson, a science graduate student, I believe, who has written some poems about jellyfish and the moon—imagining the moon as a kind of snail—that we are publishing. I have been impressed with a book I just read by Peter Streckfus, a young poet who recently won the Yale Younger Series Prize. He has a very strange mind, and it strikes me as an original one—his poems appear to have Asian and Buddhist influences, but they’re far more otherworldly than other Asian-influenced poets I know. What is most striking, to tell the truth, is the relative absence of oppositional camps; we don’t live in an age of debate about what Lowell called “the raw and the cooked”; instead, the work I see ranges pretty broadly from the personal to socio-historical.
DB: Now that your own book is about to enter the world, I wonder if you have more to say about the reception of poetry. I mean, especially, those first critical book reviews. You review poetry sometimes yourself. That seems an honorable and imperiled art. What’s the job of a poetry reviewer?
MO’R: It is an honorable and imperiled art, and I wouldn’t call myself one of its true practitioners. There are people who regularly review poetry, whereas I am more like an enthusiast. I mostly write about poets whose work I can be positive about, and I tend to turn down assignments that involve reviewing a poet whose work I don’t like very much. I try to write pieces that explain the gestures and impulses of a given poet and place them in a broader social-historical context, but my hope is that those pieces could be understood by a smart, curious person who doesn’t necessarily read lots of poetry. The model I try to emulate is of the critic as explainer; I’m less interested in trying to promote a kind of poetry than in laying bare the mechanics of a style, so that readers, knowing a little more about what, say, a John Ashbery poem is up to, can draw their own conclusions.
It’s an odd moment for poetry reviewing. Writing about poetry in outlets like the New Yorker or the New York Times—or Slate—is really different today than it was thirty years ago, because the audience has become ever more balkanized, ever more divided between aficionados and readers who don’t know very much about poetry. Figuring out how to write reviews that appeal to both constituencies has been challenging for our literary institutions themselves, it seems to me. I think that’s why we’ve seen an uptick in snarky reviews that poke fun at the world of poetry as much as they tackle issues in the work. Witty viciousness is effective, and we need reviews that aren’t anodyne, but this is only one approach among many.
DB: Yes, I guess witty viciousness is effective, given the vanilla flavoring of so many reviews. But we have a few notable critics for whom viciousness becomes a kind of violence or who are so charmed by their own bile that their reviews are more about them than the work. You know what I mean? Or those critics whose aesthetic seems geared precisely and only to their own poetry.
How does a critic find the right balance of useful and critical rigor without either pandering or extreme brutality? Which reviewers and critics do you find particularly interesting now?
MO’R: I think you’re right that many of our best poetry critics write most (or most favorably) about work that reflects their aesthetic as writers. One problem facing American poetry criticism today is that we have no one making coherent sense of everything happening. Is it possible to do that any more, I wonder? Or do all these different aesthetics out there mean that it is impossible for someone to try to make sense of it all? I wonder.
I do believe, though, that it’s not that hard to find a balance between pandering and extreme brutality. It just requires an extreme fidelity to one’s own aesthetic perceptions and—less hubristically—a willingness to reveal one’s own weaknesses, or impulses, as a reader. Then it’s possible to be straightforward and fierce without being mean.
As for younger critics, among those who write for magazines and newspapers, Stephen Burt—a friend—has always struck me as a thoughtful and astute critic. I have my points of disagreement with him, but he’s smart and always interesting. I think Adam Kirsch is also astute, though our taste is very different; even when I disagree with a piece, what’s clear is that he has a set of aesthetic criteria he takes pains to establish. James Longenbach is wonderful, I think, and I particularly liked his last book, The Resistance to Poetry. There are others, including the older guard like Helen Vendler.
DB: We’ve talked about the specialization of poetry and also about the wider reach of Internet audiences. Most of the readers of The Kenyon Review are not poetry specialists, though they are widely literate and full of curiosity. To those readers—may their numbers flourish and increase—what can lyric poetry bring to them? I guess another way of asking this is: Why read lyric poetry?
MO’R: Well, why not? A lyric poem delivers its payload efficiently. It doesn’t require an extraordinary investment of time on the reader’s part. So you can figure out quickly whether you like something. More important, the lyric poem is the most powerful embodiment of the paradoxes of life and art. Walter Pater once talked about “the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity,” a phrase I like because it contains both the unutterable depth of perception that living seems to contain and the peculiar corollary—that that depth, those perceptions, are unsustainable because we die. Poems have always seemed to me to be the most crystalline reflection of that sensation of privilege and loss. They mimic life, if you will.
DB: That phrase from Pater is incredible. I think it clarifies for me, a little further, some of the power of your particular poems. Splendor and brevity. Your Kenyon poems speak in compressed or compacted terms of complex experiences—family relationships, the tortures and oddities of cultural history, the grief of all this brevity. You say in “Peep Show,” that there’s “no time for this.” The waves are fading, and the girls are “glancing at the clock.” Yet poetry requires of us a deliberate reading, slow and thoughtful. Are there any final things you hope these five poems might extend to our readers?
MO’R: It’s a cliché, but that they might extend a renewed sense of wonder, even mystery. That they might be, as Primo Levi once put it, neither servile nor false; and that by being, in their way, skeptical, ironic, and aware, they might restore the capacity for wonder and for seeing freshly the conditions of our age—or, in a phrase I love from John Ashbery, that they might make a reader experience a “recurring wave of arrival.” That’s what I’d wish for, at least.