David Wojahn’s most recent poetry collection, World Tree, was published in 2011 by the University of Pittsburgh Press and was the winner of the Academy of American Poets’ Lenore Marshall Prize. From the Valley of Making, a collection of essays on poetry, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2015. He teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and in the MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts. An excerpt from his review “Devotion and Witness” can be found here. The full review appears in the Sept/Oct 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review.
Your piece in this issue of KR is a fascinating review of two poetry anthologies with seemingly disparate projects. What was your original impetus for pairing these two books in the same piece?
Well, the pairing was suggested by David Baker. I couldn’t help but think it was something of a dare, insofar as there are scarcely any ostensible similarities between the two anthologies, save that both treated highly specialized topics—and vexed ones, politics and religion. As I say in the review, these are precisely the two subjects that etiquette books warn you to avoid bringing up at a Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner. This made for an interesting challenge, and I thank David for presenting it to me. I review poetry more than any other genre, and editors inviting me to review books for the most part allow me to choose the titles I’d like to write about. But I’ve almost always found the process of writing a review of a book or books I hadn’t planned to discuss to be the more rewarding sort of assignment.
Also, I wanted to devote some discussion to the matter of poetry anthologies in general. Anthologies that aspire to be canonical—like The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry—are always imperfect endeavors. They may claim to be comprehensive and diverse, but they rarely are. But thanks to the college book market, they keep getting cranked out, and of course the poems included in them are assigned rather than actually read. As I said in an earlier piece devoted to anthologies, they’re not books as much as “poetry delivery systems.” This situation hasn’t been effected by changes in technology: whether you get your anthology as an expensive print edition or get it digitally, the same aesthetic and pedagogical ailments will afflict it. My screed about anthologies in the review didn’t really have a direct connection to the two books I reviewed in the piece, Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry and Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English. They’re both highly specialized anthologies, and don’t really aspire to be “canonical.” But one of the things I’ve always cherished about being able to review for Kenyon Review is that I’ve been given the space to explore a topic in some detail—and even, sometimes, to explore an interesting tangent. I don’t much like the writing David Orr, the house poetry reviewer for the New York Times Book Review—he just doesn’t seem very conversant with contemporary poetry. But when I read one of his pieces I also find myself feeling a bit sorry for him. How could even the most perceptive critic say something lucid when s/he has to meet a 500-word limit? His reviews end up sounding like a series of strung-together fortune cookie sayings. But, again, that problem isn’t entirely Orr’s fault. There aren’t a lot of print venues that give you a bit of elbow room when writing a review, but Kenyon Review is one of them.
Is there a contemporary poet (or several contemporary poets) who stand out to you as must-includes in any broad-ranging anthology? Why?
If “contemporary” means poets who began publishing in the ‘50s or thereabouts, I’d surely include John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, Robert Duncan, Philip Levine, Jean Valentine, Charles Wright, and Geoffrey Hill. They’re among the most significant poets of our time, but all are/were considerably prolific, and to get a representative selection of any one of this group—at least one that doesn’t just duplicate the selections that appear in other anthologies—would be a major challenge. I’d also be sure to include David Ferry, who strikes me as one of the finest poets at work today, and whose latest volume I reviewed in Kenyon Reviewnot long ago. He’s in his nineties now, and I don’t think he’s been represented in any major anthology. He’s written some magnificent poems about retrospection and aging. Some of them are almost as good as late Hardy or Yeats.
The poets I’ve been the most personally inspired by—Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, George Oppen, Thomas McGrath, Weldon Kees, and George Oppen, poets from what’s come to be called the “middle generation,” born between about 1905 and 1920—probably couldn’t be called “contemporary” poets. But I very much revere them.
Among the poets of my own generation of boomers, I’d surely want to include Yusef Komunyakaa, Linda Gregerson, Tom Sleigh, Jorie Graham, Ciaran Carson, Mary Ruefle, David Rivard, Claudia Emerson, Alan Shapiro, Alice Oswald, Mark Doty, and William Olsen, among others. Some of these figures are well-known, others not so. But I think they’ve each amassed an important body of work.
Among poets born in the ‘60s and later, choosing who to include is more a matter of an educated guess than real discernment. But I know who I like among the various groups. Kevin Young is a poet of incredible invention and energy, and so is Terrance Hayes. I have a lot of affection for the work of Brian Teare, Khalid Mattawa, Jake Adam York, Graham Foust, Joshua Weiner, Matthew Zapruder, and Sinead Morrissey. Lately, I’ve also been reading a lot of a Canadian poet, Karen Solie, whose work blows me away. I’m going to sound old and in the way here, but I find too many first- and second-book poets to be afflicted with a kind of kneejerk irony, a similarly Pavlovian desire for disruption for no particular reason, and an obliquity that seems merely self-protective. I worry that younger poets, more so than in previous generations, read largely work that’s being produced by their own self-styled schools or cliques. To grow as a poet, you have to read in a wide array of aesthetics and styles. David Antin says somewhere that poets suffer when they aren’t willing to widen their “discourse radius.” I like that term.
But I do like the fact that younger poets seem more versed in twentieth and twenty-first century international poetry than my generation ever was. They know essential modernist poets from all sorts of literatures—Transtromer, Milosz, Darwish, Cavafy. This is very important reading.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
I write far fewer poems than I did when I was in my twenties or thirties, but I find myself more or less satisfied with a greater percentage of the ones I do write. And the poems take longer to gel. The notebooks where I jot down ideas tend to be filled with lots of fragments, and lists of possible topics for poems (and I mean topics.) But I use the notebooks mostly as a kind of commonplace book. I jot down passages from books I read—if it’s a passage that intrigues me enough, I have to see how it looks in my own hand. I tend to read more history, nonfiction, science, biography and various oddball stuff than I read poetry, and the purpose of doing this is sometimes merely to preserve special and eccentric facts that intrigue me—I read the other day that Vermeer’s widow had to give two of his most accomplished paintings to the family baker, who’d given the Vermeers bread on credit for many years, and was finally calling in the debt. There has to be a poem in that. The trick is to find some other motif or subject to juxtapose with it. Next year KR is running a poem of mine that’s initially about some glorious and sad photos that were taken of the last known ivory-billed woodpecker. Yet just describing those images wasn’t enough to make a poem. But suddenly the poem took a turn and began talking about the Delta and Chicago blues, and a particular bluesman, Sonny Boy Williamson. The poem became a meditation on extinction in a larger sense—as a musical form, the blues is majestic, but its audience keeps dwindling and no one presently seems to be meaningfully extending or developing the form. The blues are an endangered species veering toward extinction too, which I find immensely sad. It’s the meeting of these two subjects which gave me the chance to finish a draft of the poem, and gave me a challenge for revising it, since the two subjects had to meld and commingle linguistically, not just be juxtaposed with one another. This is also a way of saying that I pay much more attention to the form and the music of the poem than I did when I was younger.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Parenting. My wife and I had twin boys rather late in life—she was 43 and I was 48. That enriched our lives in innumerable ways, and complicated them just as innumerably. This gave me new subjects and a new impetus for writing—when you’re a parent, your children become one of the primary audiences you write for, whether you do so consciously or implicitly, whether your children read and understand your poems or not. (I know this sounds like a rather lofty claim.) On a practical level, parenting causes you to change your writing habits and approaches, sometimes radically; it’s harder to write for long periods of time during a day; I find myself grabbing time to write whenever there’s a lull in parenting tasks or teaching, and to juggle all three of those concerns can require a lot of dexterity.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
When I lived in Provincetown, just out of grad school, I showed my poetry on a number of occasions to Alan Dugan, whose poems I still love. He was a great curmudgeon, incredibly generous with his time, but not someone who meted out much praise. Once, after he’d torn apart some poems and saw how crestfallen I was, he said, “Don’t worry so much about your poems—eventually they’ll get better.” This wasn’t exactly profound advice, but somehow it buoyed me. It reminded me that if you put the proper degree of time and effort into your craft, and keep doing it consistently, the odds are that you will get better. As Auden says, more poets fail from lack of character than from lack of talent. I like to remind my students that if they do the work they need to do, the odds are that in ten years’ time your poetry will improve; in twenty years, it will improve even more. And it’s important to remind them that artistic careers have the advantage of potentially being very long ones—decades, generations. It’s not all over by the time you reach thirty in the way that it is for Olympic athletes.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m about three-quarters finished with a new collection of poetry. A book of my essays on verse came out earlier this year, and I’ve made a good start on another collection of essays. I tend to write poetry and criticism more or less at the same time—the two genres require very different modes of thinking and writing, and I’m grateful be able to switch from one to the other fairly effortlessly. This makes for an effective protection against writer’s block.