hen you decided on the title for your new book Cenotaph ["empty tomb" in Greek], were you thinking of the most famous of cenotaphs, the one designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens for the English soldiers missing in the First World War, or were you simply taken by the idea of a cenotaph?
I was drawn to the idea of an empty tomb, something that should be holding something but isn't, that is vacant. In the two earlier books in this sequence, Apocrypha and The Late Romances, there is something of a spiritual crisis taking place in the faith that the speaker of Apocrypha once had in the miracle of the empty tomb, that Christ had died and risen. Now, he sees merely a vacancy. The idea of cenotaph was compelling to me for that reason. When I was writing the actual poem "Cenotaph", I had in mind the poet Hart Crane [1899-1932, author of the famous sequence The Bridge] who died at sea, who committed suicide, whose body was never recovered. When I was originally writing the poem, I had the idea of the poem serving as a cenotaph for Hart Crane. All of that got edited out of the poem. It was much longer. I always think I'm going to write a book-length poem and it ends up being a twelve-line poem.
You mentioned that Cenotaph is the third in a sequence. Do you envision closure to this or is it an ongoing project?
Cenotaph should about do it for this particular project. I've called it a triptych rather than a trilogy, because I want the relationship between the books not to be necessarily sequential but designed in such a way that they can present certain concerns and issues in the way a triptych would in visual art. In the center panel there might be a dominant mood and narrative, but the panels on the sides tell other stories, speak in relation to what is in the center. I do see the center panel as The Late Romances, the book that best represents my current psychic state, the two panels on either side being extremes.
As in a Medieval European altar piece, in which you would perhaps see Paradise on the left panel and Final Judgment or Hell on the right?
Yes. Those kinds of borders are spaces between a paradise and the world, the world and hell, or between the spirit and the body, issues that come up in all three books.
There is a character named Prospero who appears in many of the poems in The Late Romances and some of the later ones in Cenotaph. As I was reading, I was wondering which Prospero you had in mind. The most obvious one would be from Shakespeare's The Tempest, but it seems as if you might have also had in mind Pope Benedict XIV, Prospero Lambertini [1675-1758, Pope 1740-1758], known for his erudition and compassion.
The Prospero of my poems is much like Shakespeare's character from The Tempest. He has been on an island, but now he's back in Italy, which is where the poems take place. He could be a renaissance figure or he could be alive now. He doesn't stick around in Milan because it's full of urban blight, so he travels elsewhere, goes to Sienna. It's a bit foolish, actually, to take on a character like Prospero, who speaks some of the best poetry in the language. I like the notion of Prospero being a demiurge, he and the poet being in a similar position. That is to say they can control their little islands with magic, but it doesn't give them much power in the world at large. He is very self-conscious about the act of making and all of the sleight of hand and trickery, artifice, that's involved. There is the question of art, enchantment, and craft, the etymology of a word like craft, and all that it has to do with the making of poems.
The cover of Cenotaph is the painting The Enigma of the Arrival and the Afternoon by Giorgio de Chirico. Is that something you selected personally?
I did select it. It was actually quite complicated, because the image is in a private collection and up until the last minute we were scrambling to get the rights to reproduce it. I kept fighting for this particular image. I've had that good fortune at Knopf. I've chosen the covers of the three books I've had with them, and that's been wonderful. The covers have really reflected the atmosphere of the poems inside. If you can judge a book by its cover, this is a great book (laughs). Many of these poems were written at a time when I was reading de Chirico's writings and thinking about Italian metaphysical painting; the whole notion of mystery and enigma and the uncanny were quite compelling. There is in his works a sense of being in the modern world, the one in which the artist is living, and at the same time they are archaic, or antique. And I was hoping the poems could capture this. They move back and forth idiomatically between higher diction and a more folk-like diction, with blues songs and Bob Dylan.
You first published "The Metaphysician's Insomnia" in The Wallace Stevens Journal. Did you have Stevens specifically in mind when you were writing that?
Oh, yes. What's odd is that my last two books have been reviewed in a good number of places and almost every review brought up Wallace Stevens. I decided that I should show my hand and write a poem in direct acknowledgment of his poems. His poem "Stars of Tallapoosa" is mentioned in "The Metaphysician's Insomnia". I'm imagining a Stevens-like figure in his late nights staying up, not having a happy marriage. He is certainly a poet who has, at least in the last decade, been absolutely central to what I hear as music in poetry. And I'm particularly taken by the meditative mode that he worked in. One of my favorite phrases from him is when he describes the "essential gaudiness of poetry," and one of the things I admire about his writing is that you are never in doubt that you are in a poem. There's an awful lot of poetry out there that does everything it can to deny its artifice, not to call attention to itself, to actually sound like plain speech. One whole branch of modernism was that attempt to get "chit chat" into the poem. As a writer, the thought of forcing talk--for instance what we're doing now--into my poems horrifies me and is the last thing I would want to do. I must say that the poets I admire tend to have very dense and elaborate surfaces, Stevens, Hopkins, late Eliot.
You mention a Cold Spring Brook in Cenotaph. Should I assume that that is a real place?
Yes. My wife and I have spent the last fourteen or fifteen summers in Connecticut. That's where most of our poems have been written. The house is situated on Long Island Sound, so on the left when you look out the back window is the sound and a beach, and on the right is a salt marsh. There's a tidal creek that runs into the salt marsh, and that's Cold Spring Brook. It is a beautiful thing to look at, more so than the sound, which is really just an uneventful lake. I'm from the midwest originally, so I at first resisted the word brook. We wouldn't use that word where I come from, where it's either a river or a creek.
Who among younger poets do you find impressive?
There's a first-book poet named Jan Weissmiller (In Divided Light), whose poems are, if you can imagine this, a cross between Emily Dickinson and Donald Justice. A two-book poet I like a lot is Barbara Jordan (All This Way for the Short Ride and Channel), the poet, that is, not the Senator (laughter).
How about established poets?
Seamus Heaney and Czeslaw Milosz are two of the best living poets. Charles Wright is a personal favorite. I certainly like Anthony Hecht and Donald Justice. I like Louise Glück a lot. I think she can be uneven at times, but her best are as good as anything out there. Another poet who I think is remarkable but whose poems I hardly understand is Geoffrey Hill. The poems are densely packed.
One of my favorite lines in all poetry is from "The Laurel Axe", the ninth part of An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England: "tremulous boudoirs where the crystals kissed / in cabinets of amethyst and frost."
Yes, yes. I really learned a lot from that sequence. I learned about the possibilities of a line and how much it can sustain, how much complexity.
What of the "state" of poetry today?
I don't think that we're living in an awful time for poetry. I think we're living in a really rich and vital time. I could name endless lyric meditative poets, but there are others like Susan Howe, Michael Palmer, and Jorie Graham, who are really pushing the limits of poetry. I find them all exciting. My only dismay about the poetry business is how much it's like being a minor movie star sometimes. The celebrity aspect of it all muddies things up. It's hard to talk about poet X's poems without their psychobiography weighing it down.
You often take paintings as partial or whole subjects for your poems. This question might be impossible to really answer, but is there a particular period to which you are drawn?
I wanted to be a visual artist when I was growing up. I found I was more competent as a poet, but I continued to dabble as an amateur visual artist. I am drawn mostly to Italian artists. That's where my heart is. Having said that, though, I will say that I love Agnes Martin, the contemporary minimalist painter. I like Ellsworth Kelly. Give me a [religious] icon and I'm happy for hours. I think I'm drawn to anything except the obviousness of what we now call postmodernism, where the only emotional possibility is irony. Even there I sometimes find more humor than perhaps the artist intends. The artist I've been drawn to most recently is Joseph Cornell. His shadow boxes are in some ways similar to my poems. I take an accumulation of fragments, a group of lines, and seek a container into which I can place them.
Are you ever inspired by music when writing?
Yes. The book Apocrypha was written with Miles Davis and [J.S.] Bach's The Art of the Fugue. During the writing of The Late Romances, The Magic Flute was on most of the time in the background. That may be behind the operatic quality of a lot of the poems. I have music on all the time. It drives my wife up the wall. She's a writer as well, and she can't write if there's music on. It's a way for me to distract myself from the self-consciousness of writing a poem. Also, I'm always looking to other art forms for possible ways of shaping a poem. The idea of the fugue has been very interesting. I've tried to find ways with the singular voice of the poem to mimic that intricate knotting of the fugue. I spend a lot of time organizing the books so that they'll read as books as opposed to miscellanies of poems, assume larger symphonic shapes. I mentioned earlier that the idea of the triptych is more interesting to me than the trilogy. I hope one day to convince Knopf to publish the three books as a single volume, Apocrypha, The Late Romances, Cenotaph.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on new poems that are a tonal departure from the earlier ones. My older works were doleful and solemn, elegiac; the new poems are more mischievous and erotic, their sensuousness more toward pleasure than self-recrimination (both laugh). I know that I'm still finding my way. Even though I have about a half-book of poems written, I would usually by now have a working title and be writing poems specifically for that collection. That indicates to me that I've managed to leave the older poems behind.
interview by Ernie Hilbert