This summer in our digital edition, Little Star Weekly, inaugurated an occasional series, a correspondence on poetic means in the English of here and there (England and the UK) by Rowan Ricardo Phillips and Glyn Maxwell.
Read Glyn’s first installment in Little Star Weekly here, ensuing correspondence below.
I’m in New York. And now that I’ve made you jealous I can strike that off of my bucket list. Wish you were here. Anyway, your sitting up in your hotel king-size in Boston wading in the undulating thick of this ocean-wide question [do American and English poets read each other?] reminds me of Walcott in his poem, dedicated to Michael S. Harper, “The Arkansas Testament”—the eponymous poem of a book that, I’m just recalling now, I bought while I was at Oxford. Coincidence. We don’t have to talk about that poem now but it is a great poem for thinking through this as a situation of poetry. Going back to my thought … We’re constituted by and constituents of our coincidences. And it may be at this point but mere coincidence that American and UK poets share a language. I like to think not––I’m a strident optimist, after all––but the esprit de corps of the two, their very sense of purpose and being, feels to me so distinct. But why? My family is from a former British colony, Antigua, and I was the first in my family born here (by “here” I mean New York). That was 1974. I recall asking my parents once why they moved to New York instead of London, which seemed the more familiar tether, and they answered, “Well, we remembered the people who had moved to New York sent back envelopes with money, while people who moved to London sent back envelopes asking for money.” And just like that: simple epigrammatic remembrance, and I’m a different poet. If I grew up in London what type of poet would I be now? What percentage of my reading would have been different? I’m comfortable in English going back to Chaucer. Some of that is from my training. Much of it is from my mother. Regardless, the difference in my American self and my UK self I imagine would have come with the nineteenth century (registers of Whitman, Dickinson, and the spirituals) and then into what was an incredibly loud and at times very cool twentieth century. Glyn, in the grand scheme of things—seven centuries in our language alone—
the difference we’re then talking about just isn’t that much. But it’s a loud difference, is it not. And yet it certainly feels like much because we’re not yet our history. This no matter how much contemporary canonization attempts to goad you into thinking otherwise. I want to second everything you’ve said except for your feeling nerves at potentially saying whom you like. I, too, avoid this as much as I can but I push out with it instead of feeling any internal anxiety about it. It’s so rare to come across a really great poem; one you don’t love but rather—let’s be honest about this—one you envy. I’m grateful for them and grateful even more when I’m surprised to find them. What I’m saying is that we can over-articulate what we see ourselves as being part of–these are my contemporaries, I’m coming out of this tradition, I’m sticking it to that tradition—and so, until I feel otherwise, I prefer to shut up about it. The worst thing that can happen to a poet is to have the voice leveraged. Poetic relations aren’t a game of tag, poetic relations are strange. I hear a little bit of Stevens in what I just wrote and what better moment to bring this up: Stevens’ collected poems was published in the UK in 2006. Two thousand and six! To put this in perspective, Antigua had been independent from England for twenty-four years before Stevens’ collected poems were published in the UK. Hurrah for de-colonialization coming before Stevens, but there’s really little chance of UK poets finding a common ground to stand on with American poets without a sustained and varied look at Stevens, who was so much greater than Harmonium America
didn’t have to wait long at all for Larkin or a number of his contemporaries who were not his equal. And while I do not mean at all to imply that understanding Stevens is understanding American poetry now, I no doubt do mean to imply that when two generations pass after the death of Stevens before his complete poems come to press in the UK we poets are not in a rush to understand one another. And must we be? Honestly, I find the finding, the discoveries, quite fun. And sharing our appreciation is a simple letter or email away. Some of the presumption of the problem is that as nearly everything else now is about our accessibility, our poetic relationships (workshops, readings, conferences) should be increasingly more so as as well. But a little bit of difficulty doesn’t hurt, does it? And accessibility is a terrible object for poetry.
Blimey, I didn’t know that about Stevens. Two generations. The absurdity of the delay! I felt the converse, though, in the nineties. I had trouble finding Louis MacNeice or Edward Thomas in the Frost Library at Amherst. The Frost Library! Bob’s best friend Thomas! And at the time—and still, though I study the situation less than I used to—I felt that they were the two strongest British Isles poets that American poetry (well, young American poets, which was my business at the time) could learn from. This isn’t postcolonial mind-frame bullshit—Stevens mirrors that, Hart Crane seemed unknown to us and we’ve nothing like Whitman. Can’t fit them lines in our country. Anyway, I thought (and still think) that Thomas had a conscientiousness towards breath, and the relationship between light, breath, and thought, that surpassed even Frost’s. Frost is a genius, but he always will be learning me something, while Thomas can sound a mind simply moving through the air taking in oxygen who knows why. That’s not a better poetry, but it’s distinct. And of course America
isn’t missing Frost, even if so many cluelessly use him as a road not to be taken. I taught an MA student lately; he’d spent two terms immersed in the postmodern and was pretty much unreachable. I told him what I think about (I mean can hear in) “Acquainted With The Night.” He gave me this basilisk stare and said: “Oh you’re making that up.” I was trying to show him what meter does, vowels, rhymes, punctuation, how things actually affect the body. Nah, just making it up. Clearly I had no game, no key, no system, no wink or shrug. Anyway, our Thomas is distinct from your Frost and I still think poets need both.
MacNeice is distinct from Auden—by light years—yet he labors in Auden’s shadow. While Auden muses from above, MacNeice endures the mess below, the chaos, the detail, but you can hear him strolling,
swaggering, stumbling through it (that’s the “rough” jazzy meter and rhyme working), so it’s not the inanimate clutter of so much “free” American work. [Editor’s note: read Auden on MacNeice in Little Star Weekly here] “Free” verse is always saying “look at me, I’m a different new animal, oxygen schmoxygen!” So let’s see how much of that survives. T=H=E=Y S=A=I=D W=H=A=T??? Literary Enron, the infinite hedge. There go fifty more campuses I’ll never see…
But I don’t care for most new poems I read because I want to hear how time feels to a living thing, and a living thing breathes in and out, walks up and down, the pupils change size, the bones start to creak. Old forms are that: natural realities made into writing. I love intelligent repetition in poetry. You do it in The Ground. The ludicrously overlooked wonder Schnackenberg does it, working away at an implacable form because the form is a form of grief. Alice
Oswald does it on our shores, astoundingly, in Memorial. Runs it by us again like bulletins, the terrible things run by us again like bulletins. I can only believe in a patterned discourse of that kind if I know—if I can hear—that the poet would give it to me straight if s/he could—but either beauty or terror bars the way, chokes the voice, sea-changes it.
Pointless saying I miss New York—take that as read, Rowan—but let’s make a date to watch Arsenal on some midtown big-screen next time I’m over. We now have eleven of the world’s silkiest midfielders, even in goal—why don’t we win everything? … Oh, I see.
I’m slow, so so slow, to respond for lack of a moment to think aside from my having made a mental note to remember to say, “You’re right, Glyn.” You’re right, Glyn. (You’re certainly right about Schnackenberg and Oswald [see letter #3]: beyond recommended reading). You’re right about everything here except for the part about cutting off fifty more campuses due to your ideological trespasses: academic programs love being told they’re doing it all wrong; especially when it’s delivered wrapped in an accent. (I know, I know … Who’s got the accent? But I digress.)
You have nothing like Whitman, true, but you have Blake. And Blake was multifoliate, more varied in his vision than Whitman, who bounced up and down on top over the same ideas until they heated up and reached critical mass. Whitman was also an editor of himself like few before or after. American renewal, parthenogenesis, etc. But come to think of it, American poetry seems to work via explosions; someone bursts onto the scene. Their British counterparts seem in their branching out more filial and organic (with apologizes to Byron who, as we all know, one day woke up famous). But British and American poetry seem, in general terms, to share a tendency toward appropriation and a subsequent retroactive search for the source—our poetry rarely finds itself in the sun of its source. Whether the English ballads (where did those come from again?), ghazals or free verse (a.k.a. vers libre), the egg tends to get lost in the omelette. Which makes sense since the English language is like that, too. Poetry is the creative elaboration of a syllable, set to syllables—it is an idea set to an idea of music. And when a poet maintains in the vowels, rhythms, phrases, and punctuation something that feels feral and utterly necessary, I feel pushed back toward a first idea even as my mind hurtles toward the future implications to which the poem’s presence in and of itself alludes. I was about to bring up Dylan Thomas here and in particular how I can read “Fern Hill” every day all day, because it always feels to me like it’s making new space for its language in the ways I’ve just described. But maybe that’s too willful a turn; it seems so.
Non-sequitur #1: I’ve enjoyed watching from a distance as The London Review of Books published August Kleinzahler seemingly poetry issue after issue. The LRB is the LRB and Kleinzahler’s poetry is so puckishly, robustly American; even his two home towns, Jersey City and now San Francisco, practically bookend the continental US.
Not quite non-sequitur #2: It is always pointless to say that you miss New York, but never pointless to say that you plan to come find me to take in a game. I’m always up for a game.
Not at all non-sequitur #3: The repetitions in The Ground are all intentional. I’m fascinated by the differences between
repetition and accretion: the work as a whole hoped to contain as much of the latter as the former.
Non-sequitur #4: Auden awarded Robert Hayden the Hopwood Prize at the University of Michigan in 1941. This gets no mileage anywhere, but the idea of the 1941 Auden reading the 1941 Hayden is a great allegory for the synergies between British and American poetry that hibernate between all of this hoo.
Rowan, I gaze west and you east and what we see is almost infinite air and water and stars, perhaps it’s no wonder we range so widely and homelessly about—maybe poets are all like the birds sent out from the ark, finding either nothing or the twig that means the World! Or we wash up on the same imaginary islands with which our dreams have dotted the North Atlantic. Let’s keep mooring among those islands, after Little Star and the NSA have stopped listening. And now you’ve mentioned Blake and it’s the middle of the night here, so my world spins down to a single day in a village with an east side and a west side. My native town was built in 1920 in empty fields either side of a railway; it was the dream of more or less
a single pioneer. He was an idealistic socialist who thought life could be lived decently and kindly in a green place that was sort of city, sort of countryside. How’s that for a metaphor: as I get older it means more and more to me that my gate into this life was the dream of that single hopeful soul, Mr. Ebenezer Howard. He emigrated to Nebraska, tried to farm, failed, came back bursting with ideas about urban planning. He died on Mayday 1928, the day my father was born. It doesn’t take much fate to give an agnostic a Holy Ghost! [editor’s note: Maxwell’s radio play about the founding of his native town aired on BBC Radio last fall.]
But how can I relate to space? America feels like the house next door, and the east side of Welwyn Garden the far side of the earth. The poem “Birthplace” which I put in my last book was all about that, and my shorthand introduction was always “here’s my shot at ‘Fern Hill.’” I’m glad you mentioned D. Thomas, after I’d done my obligatory quiet English bow to the namesake Edward. But they were both Anglo-Welsh, and so am I. Dylan—the Celtic three-fourths of my blood—is out of fashion with those who know only fashion. People who have no ear say “I can’t hear anything.” When someone trashes Dylan Thomas I know I’m in the presence of the ordinary. What saves poetry from time is music. No living poet has written a poem that will outlast “Do not go gentle into that good night,” not one. The deity Time will tell you that, but I’ve turned fifty now so I’m saying it myself.
Because DT knows the vowels and he knows how shapes we make in the gut and throat and jaw directly relate to signals in the brain. I hope I do this sometimes, I know you do. My whole writing life, people tell me when either they’ve heard me read or they’ve read my work out loud—“oh I totally get it now!” Always, all the time. And I feel like saying “Well,”—and here’s a beautiful American sound we didn’t know we needed—“DUR …”
So I sign off with Arsenal top in England (am I dreaming?), Barcelona top in Spain (no it’s real), the sun coming up, a new play about to open, and I’ll see you before long, either in my heavenly otherworld New York, or that beloved Orc-haunted Hobbiton I know as England.
Read the rest of the correspondence here.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ second book of poems, Heaven, appears this month. Glyn Maxwell’s most recent book is Pluto, and his Collected Poems came out in 2011.