Poetry as Tangible Language

Poetry as Tangible Language

Jeffrey Harrison is the author of six books of poetry. In addition, a volume of selected early poems, The Names of Things, was published by The Waywiser Press in 2006. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Bogliasco Foundation, among other honors. His poems have appeared widely in magazines and journals, as well as in Best American Poetry, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Poets of the New Century, The Twentieth Century in Poetry, and other anthologies, and featured regularly on The Writer’s Almanac, American Life in Poetry, Poetry Daily, and other online or media venues. He lives in Massachusetts. See his work in WTP Vol. VII #7


Interview with Jeffrey Harrison

By Sara London, Poetry Editor


London:  I love the humor in your poems, and there are of course times when certain facts un-tickle one’s vision and call for poetic sobriety. Recollections of your late father are the focus of your sixth collection, Between Lakes, which is coming out next fall, and loss and grief are not new to your work. Ruminating on the raw and unruly surprises death delivers is a time-honored tradition for poets, and your new work continues this legacy with vivid, anecdotal resonance. I think of the lines in these poems as both releasing and reining in emotion. Was writing this book helpful? Did it re-channel or change your process, or your thinking about writing in any noteworthy way?

Harrison: I like your phrase “both releasing and reining in emotion,” and I hope that’s true of these poems. You’re describing what may be an essential tension in writing poems about what James Merrill called emotionally “hot” subjects. Maybe it’s the tension between Lowell’s “Yet why not say what happened?” and the restraint we see in some of Bishop’s or Larkin’s poems, where we feel the power of the emotion being held back. One tries to find the right balance for each poem.

I’m not sure how coherent I can be in answering your question about whether writing the book was helpful. People also asked me this question about my book Incomplete Knowledge (2006), a good portion of which was about my brother’s suicide. In my last book, Into Daylight (2014), there’s a sestina called “Essay on a Recurring Theme” that wrestles with this question, turning it over and over without coming to a definitive conclusion. And I do think the question is unresolvable yet always in play, as it was in writing the poems about my father. Needless to say, there’s a difference between writing about the suicide of a brother at forty-seven and the death of a father by cancer at eighty, but on a larger scale the issues are the same. Such poems are written out of both an emotional and an artistic need, and those needs are tangled together in the writing of each poem. The hope is not really to untangle them but, in wrestling with them, to figure something out while also making something worthy of being called a poem, one from which a reader can take pleasure or nourishment.

London: In so much of your work, nature is a presence—bullfrogs, foxglove, mayflies, thistles, wisteria, always trees and lakes. You have a keen eye for the green world, and you’re a clear descendant of the great, sharp-eyed observer Elizabeth Bishop. Do you ever feel, in these days of accelerated environmental devastation, a new urgency as a poet drawn to natural settings? Or is it more that nature keeps offering up a sort of psychic encouragement (the “confetti of summer’s arrival / swirling over the lake”)?  Maybe it’s neither—maybe (in an act of “negative capability”) your eye and soul simply swim out to the lake, or the bud, or the bug, or they to you?

Harrison: I grew up outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, in what used to be “the country” (though now sprawl has encroached), and I spent my childhood summers in the Adirondacks, so I bonded with nature early. But this question too can’t be answered easily or definitively. The quickest answer would be “all of the above.” It is human nature, or perhaps the nature of a certain kind of poet, to look for correspondences between the world around us, often the natural world, and our own lives, even though we know that nature is indifferent to us and doesn’t carry human meanings. So this becomes another kind of balance to find—for instance, between the awe that Auden says is the root of all poetry and the stark awareness that there may be no meaning there at all, or that the meanings we find there are our own, and ever-shifting.

It’s not always wonder or solace one finds in nature, but also terror, and emptiness. Yet I have sought solace there in times of grief, as I have also turned, at those times, to some of the elemental nature poets of the first perception—the ones who try to get at “the thing itself before it has been made anything,” as Woolf has Lily Briscoe think in To the Lighthouse—like John Clare and Edward Thomas, for a kind of basic spiritual sustenance. I love your phrase “psychic encouragement,” and I think that is part of it for me. Nature lends itself so…naturally to metaphors of growth and creation. And there is so much beauty to be found there, and I’m drawn to that and want to celebrate it. Every once in a while you see something you’ve never seen before—like an amazing effect of reflected bands of light moving over marsh grass—and you want to somehow emulate it in language and share it with others. But of course, you’re not just sharing the thing you’ve seen but also your particular perception of it, the language it has inspired, and the imaginative transformation that has occurred in the process of writing. (I feel compelled to add that I also love cities, and walking in cities, where discoveries of all kinds abound. Some self-identified urban poets make a point of saying they don’t “like” nature, but I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. William Carlos Williams was just as good with broken glass as he was with flowers.)

As for the urgency you refer to, I do feel it, but I haven’t often expressed it directly in my poems. I’d like to think I address this issue indirectly, by reminding readers that the natural world is rich and various, and that it’s something we should cherish and take care of. And these days, because of the internet, smart phones, and social media, to which so many voluntarily cede so much of their lives, I sometimes feel that people need reminding of more than that: that we live in a physical world at all, and that nature actually exists. Poetry brings us back to tangible language and solid ground. It provides an alternative way of seeing that has become more and more necessary to keep the imagination alive. Perhaps this is a twenty-first century version of what Stevens said about the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.

London: Who do you tend to read or re-read these days for inspiration? Have any newer poets “taken the top of your head off” (as Ms. Dickinson so graphically put it)?

Harrison: I tend to like the kind of poetry that feels like it’s written out of a life; in which a particular sensibility encounters the world and then encounters the page, where something more happens; in which that something is expressed in a voice that feels like it’s speaking to me and sharing the whole experience rather than hoarding it, showing off, or walling the reader out. I first had that experience reading Bishop’s Geography III in college. I instantly felt like I knew her. For a contemporary example, I’ll mention my friend Jessica Greenbaum, who has a very particular way of encountering the world and expressing it in words that I always find exhilarating.

When I discover something new it is often actually something old that I’d somehow missed. For instance, in my late forties I finally read To the Lighthouse and fell in love with Virginia Woolf. I still have a lot of her to look forward to, but I’ve re-read or re-listened to To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, Jacob’s Room, and A Room of One’s Own multiple times over the last decade or so. More recently, through a friend who died this past February, I discovered Ikkyū, the iconoclastic fifteenth-century Zen monk, in a translation by Stephen Berg. The poems are almost all couplets, but even in that short space they are full of twists and surprising details (sex, getting drunk) that one doesn’t necessarily expect from Zen poetry. I was also recently inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s book A Field Guide to Getting Lost—this is of course a book of essays, not poetry, and I don’t know if it affected my poetry directly, but it put my head in the same space that good poetry does.

London: Discovering so many inspiring authors (new and old), and having the time to read them, was one of the most valuable facets of my MFA years. Some members of our WTP community are writers considering an MFA degree. Thinking back to your Iowa Writers’ Workshop days, would you say that being in grad school importantly influenced your career as a poet? Would you do it the same way again?

Harrison: The greatest thing about it (besides just being young) was the sense of total immersion, of having two years to think and talk about poetry, in class and out of class with the friends I made there. It allowed me to focus and get serious. I also did my first teaching there. So, I would recommend it, though obviously it isn’t necessary, and many writers do just fine without attending a program. Who knows if I would do it in the exact same way again—I didn’t really have a coherent plan at that point, I just knew I wanted to keep writing poetry. It may all be different now, with Facebook and everything, but I don’t think most of us were thinking so much about our “careers,” though there was some of that going on, and maybe more over in Fiction, I’m not sure. Of course, we wanted to get published, but I didn’t allow myself to submit any poems to magazines for the first year and a half. Then, late in my second year, I submitted a batch of poems to Poetry magazine and one got accepted—so in that way it tangibly affected my career. But I think most of the effect on my career was more indirect, based on everything I learned there, and the writing I did, much of which ended up in my first book.

London: Your forthcoming book includes some ekphrastic poems. Poets have been in dialogue with the visual arts since ancient times, so you join a rich tradition. Are you conscious of a distinct shift in approach when writing poems about art?

Harrison: The ekphrastic poems I write come to me as unpredictably as my other poems. I haven’t written all that many of them. Something has to “happen” (besides just love or admiration) in the encounter with the work of art and on the page—otherwise the poem can feel like an assignment. As with a poem about nature—or any poem, really—description is not enough; there needs to be some kind of imaginative transformation, some other dimension. For me that other dimension has sometimes come when I feel and explore some kind of personal connection. One of the ekphrastic poems in my next book, “Sharing a Painting,” is partly about a specific painting by Piero della Francesca, but it is just as much about the shared experience of looking at the painting with a friend. In “Girl Carrying a Suitcase,” about a photograph by Garry Winogrand, the personal connection begins in the second line, when I realize the girl in the photograph is about the age of my daughter and (in the lines that follow) of my wife when I first met her.

Younger in the photo
 …………than my daughter is now—
 …………………….eighteen or nineteen,

the same age as my wife
…………when I first met her—
…………………….she would now be not quite

old enough to be my mother,
…………more like an older cousin
…………………….I saw only in summer

and would steal glimpses of
…………or find ways to be near…

Over the course of the poem, I think my sense of connection with the girl increases to the point where I imagine meeting the seventy-something woman she has become. I suppose “Lost Photograph,” which appeared in Woven Tale, is in some sense an ekphrastic poem, though the photograph is remembered. And there’s another poem in which the photograph is dreamed—I’m not sure that qualifies!


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