“The internet has made it easier
for metrical poets to find each other.”
Interview by Sara London, Poetry Editor
Robert B. Shaw is the author, most recently, of A Late Spring, and After (Pinyon Publishing, 2016). Among his previous six collections are Aromatics, a co-winner of The Poets’ Prize, and Solving for X. He is also the author of Blank Verse: A Guide to Its History and Use, for which he received the Robert Fitzgerald Award. He recently retired from his position as the Emily Dickinson Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, where he taught for thirty-three years.
London: “Enigmas of Weeding,” in the July 2018 issue of the WTP magazine, seems quintessentially Robert B. Shaw: It’s metrical in its rhythms, there’s a rhyme scheme, it reflects on a topic of seemingly modest essence (“more or less tangible things” as Rachel Hadas put it), it casts a descriptive eye on nature, and it’s tonally wry. Ultimately, there’s a movement toward the transformative, and, in this poem, the speaker’s “sponsoring intelligence” moves into the realm of metaphor and meta-poetry, or ars poetica. As with weeding, there are “phrases tried and dropped,” and the “parsing of dubious shoots” in the process of establishing some kind of order. (Isn’t that our perpetual battle!) Can you identify some of the most “fertilizing” aspects of your formal method, and perhaps say a little about our literary culture’s receptiveness to formalism today?
Shaw: I’m not sure that “method” seems the right word for all the fumbling around that I seem to do in writing a poem. There is less conscious control, or at least less awareness of it, than one might think. Speaking of formalism as a personal inclination, I am predisposed to be sensitive to patterns—to perceiving them and, as best I can, to communicating and amplifying them with patterns of my own: patterns of imagery, of sound, and ultimately of sense. My aim is to make my formal devices seem naturally connected to my subject, no matter how calculated the interweaving comes to be in the later stages of writing. At first, of course, there is just a lot of trial and error and groping around. And throughout, I’m concerned with keeping the language at the right level: for me that usually means more like conversation than like oratory.
I admire plenty of poems that are not written in meter, and I wrote at times in free verse when I was beginning to work at it seriously in the seventies. More and more, though, I became aware of the availability of so many more technical resources than I was using, and although metrical forms are sometimes spoken of as confining, for me they represented a wider array of possibilities. If you have been doing your best with only a hammer and a few nails, happening on a fully-stocked toolbox is going to excite you, even if it takes some effort to master the tools.
This was not an especially popular view in the seventies. It was some years before the New Formalists came along, and of course it is now a few decades since the New Formalism has been new. I think traditional verse forms, while they are by no means in the forefront of critical attention, have more reach and appeal for poets and readers than they did when I was starting out. Students are often surprisingly interested in them. There are more media outlets. There are conferences centered on formalist poetry. Probably most important, the internet has made it easier for metrical poets to find each other. One no longer has to feel alone.
London: Your most recent book, A Late Spring, and After, contains elegies for Hilary, your late wife, and I’m wondering if current work might be forged out of a new sense of self. Is that so—does one’s perspective and/or sensibility change? Also, with an impressive bounty of published poems and books behind you now, do you think your poetry has shifted as you’ve aged?
Shaw: About one’s sense of self altering, I am not so sure. Introspection reminds me that the same crimps in my character that used to annoy or mystify me in my twenties are still there. But I think that one’s outlook or perspective would be bound to change over time, even if it were not affected by events as significant as bereavements. Once you find yourself feeling differently, you are likely to see things differently.
One change that I can document is a greater readiness, in recent years, to write in a way that is openly autobiographical. In my earlier books, nearly all of my poems with narrative content were to a greater or lesser degree fictional. In my latest book the elegies for my wife and other poems such as those about my parents are as true as I could make them. I don’t feel this to be particularly courageous—the people are dead and won’t misunderstand or be upset—but I think it presents interesting challenges in self-presentation for the writer. When the I of the poem really is the I who is writing it, it does things to the tone.
London: I’m reminded of two terrific and very personal poems from the recent collection that express a deep sense of loss, yet employ a wit that leavens and complicates the tone. In “The Tally,” you reflect on losses that happened for you in quick succession. “One, two” becomes a refrain in the poem: “One, two: each blow hit home. / Each left the house more quiet. / Each time, the patient loam / Obtained some profit by it.”
And in “The Loss of the Joy of Cooking,” despite the missing recipe and the kitchen counter’s “empty side,” the speaker “push[es] ahead” to make a meal (a sputtering onion “faltering as its fund of hoarded tears / dissolves”). But the beloved’s absence, “the unlisted ingredient,” throws “the best efforts out of balance,” and “Nothing now tastes the same.” Your title’s punning allusion prepares us for some humor, yet mourning is “joy’s” opposite. Can you say something about the ways in which you think about humor when you’re writing? It seems to me that it serves your work as a sort of master spice.
Shaw: I certainly think that humor can be a useful ingredient in a poem whose subject matter may not in itself be funny at all. The old-fashioned term “comic relief” comes to mind. But it’s not as simple as seeing comic and tragic as sheer opposites and attempting to balance them against each other. To me what is often unsettling about human experience is the extent to which these things seem uncannily intermingled. Sometimes what we might call humor is hard to distinguish from irony. Maintaining some awareness of this is one way to keep writing from sliding into sentimentality. If we feel the joke is on us, that may not be fun, but it may be a step forward in adjusting ourselves to reality. As John Gay wrote: “Life is a jest; and all things show it. / I thought so once; but now I know it.”
London: You taught for thirty-three years at Mount Holyoke College and I much enjoy your poem “Letter of Recommendation,” a wonderfully humorous admission of your failure to remember a former student. It ends: “What could be sadder? (She remembered me.) / The transcript says I gave Miss A a B.” At MHC, in addition to teaching poetry to a generation of students, you met many noted American writers who came to campus as visitors. Can you share any particularly memorable encounters?
Shaw: Every year at Mount Holyoke the Kathryn Irene Glascock Intercollegiate Poetry Contest brings to the campus six student poets who read their work before a panel of three eminent poet-judges. Personality quirks as well as literary brilliance are on display for a weekend. I served on the committee overseeing this event every year I was at Mount Holyoke, and I often dealt with the correspondence. It certainly widened my acquaintance.
The vignettes that stay with me are too numerous to tabulate, but here are a few: Amy Clampitt, reading for us despite being in great pain from the cancer that eventually killed her. Mark Strand, at the judges’ reading, reading entirely from a collection of his short stories, not a single poem. James Merrill, speaking of his disaffection toward Ezra Pound: “All this talk about breaking the pentameter—it’s always suited me just as it is.” John Ashbery, needing a quick ride to the drug store because he had forgot to bring his toothbrush. Alan Dugan, handing me a set of written comments for the contestants that were savagely dismissive—so much so that my colleagues and I “forgot” to give them to the students. Wyatt Prunty, flying himself to us from Tennessee in his own small plane. Sometimes poets were memorable for not coming. Derek Walcott bowed out two days before the contest so that he could go instead to Sweden to see a performance of one of his plays. And one year Geoffrey Hill sent me a handwritten letter (it looked like fifteenth-century calligraphy) declining our invitation and explaining, politely but firmly, that he thought such contests were moral hazards for poets in their formative years. I’m glad not too many of the poets we invited shared his scruples. Most of them were generous with their time and attention, and brightened things up for us with their talents each spring.
London: As an undergrad at Harvard, you studied with Robert Lowell. What remains most memorable about that experience? Who else influenced your early writing experience?
Shaw: I had the unusual luck of studying verse writing with both Robert Lowell and Robert Fitzgerald, who, although he was best known as a translator of Homer, was a fine poet in his own right. Lowell was affable and amusing in class, but was noticeably happier when he was reading a poem from the anthology rather than one of ours. He was extremely good at pointing out the weaker passages in student work, but he didn’t have very detailed suggestions about what might be done. He would just say, “I think you should cut out the first six lines,” while Fitzgerald might point out in the same passage one or two words that could be exchanged for alternatives. I came to feel that, at least for me, the Fitzgerald approach to revision worked better than the Lowell penchant for excision. Lowell had a genuine charisma, though. Sometimes when I read poems that I recall him discussing, it seems to me that I hear them in his voice, and even catch a whiff of the endless cigarettes he chain-smoked. A good many years ago I published an essay in the Yale Review, called “Learning from Lowell,” in which I tried to corral as many of my memories of him as I could. I have written about Fitzgerald as a teacher as well. I knew Fitzgerald longer than I did Lowell, and he had a more extended influence on my writing, as we developed a close friendship over several years. I dedicated my first book of poems to him.
London: Who are you reading lately? Can you recommend a few books or poets that are especially important to you?
Shaw: One of my oldest and best friends, Margaret R. Ellsberg, has edited a recently released volume called The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selections from His Poems, Letters, Journals, and Spiritual Writings (Plough Publishing House). There have been books bringing together Hopkins’s poetry and prose before, but this one is remarkable for the overview it gives of Hopkins’s imagination and memorable handling of language in whatever genre. I enjoy reading Hopkins, but like most poets I realize it would be crazy to try to write like him. He stands out like a unicorn among the rest of us donkeys.
Also recently I’ve enjoyed a young poet’s first book: Pleasures of the Game, by Austin Allen (Waywiser Press). Allen is one of the more adept writers of traditional verse forms to appear in the last several years. His grasp of prosody and his control of tone are so assured that he can be funny, intellectually acute, and emotionally piercing all at once. I found myself relating to the title: my interest in team sports is less than zero, but Allen’s poems on that topic gave me as much pleasure as some people get from their season tickets. When he writes a poem like “In Mudville,” a piece that succeeds in being disturbingly memorable while using the verse form of “Casey at the Bat,” it is clear that Allen has a notable talent, and also the daring to make the most of it.
Information about Robert B. Shaw’s latest books of poems, and an interview by Timothy Steele, can be found at www.pinyon-publishing.com
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