This book [Darkening the Grass] is so full of compassion and insight. It’s a very serene read, and yet you are writing about challenging and traumatic events. Can you talk a little bit about the process of writing this book, and about finding that balance? I’d especially love to hear you talk about the sequence of poems, “Each Day.”
Thank you for your words about my poems–I’m solitary by nature and outside of the academic and poetry world so any time I get a response such as yours I feel very happy.
I’m glad you mentioned finding a balance in Darkening the Grass. I’ve never turned away from traumatic events, be they illness, death, war, or the conflict in relationships, but I try to find another side to them, or an extension of them, which, hopefully, will create a balance.
I seek the hope, joy, love, and this drives me to go beyond all the blackness out there. There is tension in unpleasant situations and that tension leads to an energy which can be creative or destructive.
I try to transfer it into the making of poems. I’ve been married for over thirty years and we still fight, but without our fighting we would be like two knives cutting through cream cheese, and what poetry gets written without conflict, without passion?
You ask about my sequence of poems “Each Day” which centers on a ninety-year-old man, who was a neighbor. After he died his wife told me he had been bedridden for a week and she checked on him frequently. Then she said, “Do you know what Bill said to me? He said, ‘Every time I see you I fall in love all over again.'”
It was this which urged me to write “Each Day,” what I saw and what I imagined about his life. Poetry is poetry and not truth, it’s an art, and very little of art is a true depiction of what has occurred. There’s an imaginative truth, which can be greater than the truth of experience, in that imagination lets you go into places where you have never been. I hope “Each Day” captures the character of an old man, his feelings and thoughts that are personal as well as universal.
I am completely with you, or with Bill, in these poems. And I love your use of nature as a metaphor, a focal point, and a presence. In section IX of the poem, “Each Day,” for example, Bill is watching this cat as it catches a finch. The cat turns and looks at him as if witnessing the witness. I particularly love that moment. I wonder if you could talk a little about the use of nature in your poetry.
I was glad you liked that poem, as it’s one of my favorites.
All of us are a part of nature, and animals witness us as we witness them. I rise at four a.m. to write, it’s my favorite time without a single distraction or intrusion, and then I go for a walk, often before sunrise. I live near woods and a meadow where I’ve seen deer, coyotes, bears, and on one occasion a beautiful wolf. The wolf came out of the woods just as I was passing–both of us stopped, its tail rose like a plume of smoke, and with six yards between us we peered into each other’s eyes. I felt no fear, and sensed the wolf was curious. Then it turned and walked back into the woods–those ten seconds are memorable. I feel very comfortable on these early morning walks. I hope the use of nature in my poetry is as natural as I feel when I am close to it. Of course, nature can be violent and destructive, and so can we.
This goes back to the balance I look for in all things and in all places. Edward Albee wrote a play called “A Delicate Balance,” and that balance is difficult to maintain, in poetry and in our lives. Sometimes we have this balance naturally. Most often we have to work to attain it, but that work can be a sanctuary and salvation if we give ourselves to it.
And the poem, “The Wolf,” you talk about this wolf. And the wolf, at least the wolf in the poem, inspires both memories of birth, the birth of your son, and thoughts of death. In the fourth stanza, you write:
The wolf sits on his bed.
Its eyes reveal nothing
Of truth, of lies,
And he watches it draw closer,
Smells it breath of ashes
And clover, hears its heart
Drumming his name.
I especially love the last line:
Wherever the wolf has gone,
Outcast, cut off
From all thing human,
It waits for the dark to return.
I was wondering if you would say a word or two about that poem. And about those who might have influenced you along the way.
I am delighted that you liked my wolf poem, as I think it’s one of my better ones.
Do you write poetry, stories, novels? Your sensibility makes me think you do, but good readers also have my high regard.
I was consumed by books as a child and have never forgotten the Big Bad Wolf, Jack London’s White Fang and the werewolf howling beneath a full moon in that dark screen. A wolf must be in my unconscious from where this poem emerged, and using a wolf allowed me to go into places with my imagination where experience never would. Writing in the third person can also open and extend imagination into places where the “I” might never go, and this is also a way of exorcizing demons, finding a persona to do so with.
Ted Hughes has written about animals, and they’re wonderful poems. He was a poet with enormous depth, range, and passion. Yeats, Auden, and Dylan Thomas are poets I continually return to and find enriching; Richard Wilbur and Derek Walcott are the contemporary poets I Iike, both of them exemplify truth and beautiful language. My favorite novelists are Tolstoy, Hardy, and Melville.
Do you also read philosophy? Or religion? I was reminded of Thich Nhat Hanh, especially when I was reading the poem, “Cutting an Orange,” in which you ask, “If I can love this orange, what heights, / What horizons can I aspire to?”
Yes, I’ve read a fair amount of philosophy and religion, and it began in the most unlikely of places–The Marine Corps where I served four years when I was eighteen. In whatever free time I had, which wasn’t much, there was always a small library on base, and that’s where I began with the dialogues of Plato, and then a paperback that I still remember–Huston Smith’s The Religions of Man. One thing leads to another so my list of influences is very long. What was wonderful is that it began at a very impressionable age.
I still read Emerson and am almost finished with his journals, selected and edited by Joel Porte, a simply wonderful book. I imagine the influence of philosophy and religion has always informed my poems, though not often consciously.
You’re right; it’s there in “Cutting an Orange,” which I hope says a great deal about my feelings about marriage without stating them.
It’s easy to make declarative statements in poetry, but for me the best poetry is where the statements are between the words or in the layers. I would love to read the early drafts of Emerson’s essays, as I imagined he overstated like most of us. Condensation in poetry is something I work at because I have found that this leads to depth.
What could be more condensed that Shakespeare’s sonnets, and with a modern poet I think some of Robert Lowell’s poems are tremendous–here’s the first line of “Colloquy in Black Rock”—“Here the jack-hammer jabs into the ocean”–I find that extremely powerful, and his work was certainly informed by religion and philosophy.
It makes sense to me that you would be reading philosophy and religion while in the Marine Corps. While reading your poems, I kept thinking of the Buddhist practice of looking directly at what is, whether it is war, old age, or the first light of the morning. Did you also start writing poems when you were in the Marine Corps?
No, I started when I was out of the Corps and living in New York City–in those days you could live cheaply there. I had a quiet room in the back of a rooming house right next to Riverside Drive for twelve dollars a week.
It was an exciting time for poetry in the city. I heard John Berryman and Jean Valentine read at The Guggenheim Museum; I was very moved by her first book Dream Barker and got in touch with her and she was kind enough to invite me for tea. Galway Kinnell and James Wright read at a church somewhere above Columbia University and Allen Ginsburg read at The New School. At The 92nd Street Y I heard W.H. Auden, George Barker, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Stanley Kunitz, James Dickey, Lawrence Durrell, Ted Hughes, Thom Gunn, and May Sarton. When Auden read you couldn’t find a seat, people were sitting in the aisles.
Then I went to the Gotham Book Mart and bought their books, and all the time I was reading about poetry. Eliot, Auden, Barker, Valery, Rilke, Muir, and Hughes wrote insightful essays and books about what they believed poetry should be. Auden defined poetry as “memorable speech,” and Poe said poetry was “the rhythmical creation of beauty.” Those words are embedded in my brain.
That is so interesting. How did your career evolve after that?
I never thought of poetry as a career; it has always been something I’ve had to write. My father left when I was two, my mother worked, and I was raised by my grandmother. As soon as I could read, books became my world, and they were beautiful illustrated books of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Swiss Family Robinson, Alice in Wonderland and The Call Of The Wild. When I was nine I asked for a bookcase for my birthday, at ten a desk, at eleven a typewriter; it was a Royal Portable and now I use an Olympia Portable.
Typing came in handy because I worked for an Office Temps agency when I got out of the Marine Corps and landed in the copywriting department of The MacMillan Company. Ruth Brown Murray, one of the great ladies of publishing, liked my work and hired me to write book jackets and space-ads for The Times.
One day I walked into Arthur Gregor’s office, he edited their poetry list, and asked if he would read my poems. Gregor, a fine poet, wanted to publish a book called Four Young Poets and include my work. However a new managing editor overruled that–I mean, MacMillan had published Yeats and Marianne Moore and was not interested in unknown poets. But Gregor encouraged me and suggested I submit to the better journals and soon Carolyn Kizer accepted poems for Poetry Northwest and then Andrew Lytle took two for The Sewanee Review. Throughout the years I continued to publish in such places as The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Ontario Review, The Yale Review, The American Scholar and The New Republic.
When I was sixty-seven Stephen Haven of Ashland Poetry Press chose my first book The Joyful Dark for their McGovern Prize. My wife Mary, a perceptive reader, saw a poem by Robert Cording on Poetry Daily and asked if I had heard of him. Twenty-five years ago I read his first book Life-list and have admired his work ever since. Then Mary asked, “Have you heard of CavanKerry Press?” I said no and she said they were having an open submission period. I asked how much for their submission fee and when Mary said twenty dollars I said, “Forget it.” Her reply was quick, “Don’t be stupid!”
So I sent and was fortunate that the people who read my manuscript liked it. One night after dinner when I had had too much wine the phone rang and it was Joan Cusack Handler saying she wanted to publish my book. I remember going on and on and then apologizing and Joan said, “A lot of poets go crazy when they get a call so don’t feel bad.”
I’d love to close the interview with a poem. Maybe “Cutting an Orange” because we’ve been talking about it?
CUTTING AN ORANGE
Each morning I cut an orange into halves
And the halves into quarters, trying to make
Each segment equal, cutting evenly, precisely,
Beginning the day with this small claim
To order. You turn from a dream
At the noise I make in the kitchen.
Valencia, Seville, I whisper,
As though we were making love,
Then place the wedges on a plate,
This orange which has been picked
In Florida, then shipped north
And unpacked by alien hands.
If I can love this orange, what heights,
What horizons can I aspire to?
Can we eat it together,
Facing each other in Massachusetts
With nothing else between us?