“Who was it that said, ‘To be human is to be a conversation?’” Pearl London asks Philip Levine.
“I don’t know, but I’ll say it,” he replies.
This week I’ve been reading Poetry in Person : Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America’s Poets, edited by Alexander Neubauer (Knopf 2010).
Those poets— Philip Levine, Maxine Kumin, Robert Hass, Muriel Rukeyser, Louise Glück, James Merrill, Derek Walcott, C.K. Williams, Robert Pinsky, Ed Hirsch, Frank Bidart, Li-Young Lee, Charles Simic, Eamon Grennan, and many others—were interviewed in a course called “Works in Progress,” taught for more than two decades by Pearl London, at the New School.
London’s class, largely ignored by students when she began teaching it in 1970, became a “coveted destination” for winners of the Nobel, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer, and for eight U.S. poet laureates. (The students came after all.) The poets not only came to class to talk with London and her students, they came as many as five times to get “examined, dissected, valued and exposed” for recent or unfinished work that in some cases became their best-known.
“Within four walls for an hour and a half every other week, London quietly brought a generation to light, the best poets and poetry of the last quarter of the twentieth century,” editor Neubauer writes.
“This is a course concerned essentially with the making of the poem, with the work in progress as process—with both the vision and the revision,” London wrote in letters when asking poets to come to her classroom. “In a sense, the shaping spirit of the imagination is what it is all about.”
Some of the selections here (portions of fewer than a quarter of extant interviews are included) don’t detail the revision process; the talk is more general, on context, reactions to other poets, the writing life, how ideas came, and so on. The most useful interview for poets learning their craft might be with Derek Walcott, who offers in-depth explanation of specific choices for at least four drafts of his poem “XLVIII” from Midsummer.
At least one of the poets seems ambivalent about the idea of being examined or dissected at all. Rukeyser invites students to speak (“Anybody want to talk?), but it’s a challenge and a trick. Apparently without allowing for exchange, Rukeyser quickly goes on,
I myself have never talked after hearing poems. I’ve been silent. And I know that in schools and colleges, criticism and showing-off talk is considered a very high form of response to poetry. I have thought making a poem is a higher response to poetry, making love is a higher response to poetry, silence is a higher response. Criticism may be well down the line, maybe number 17. But I’m inviting questions of criticism or anything you like, and this is all out of character for me. I’ll keep quiet now.
She sounds like my mother, who said she hated baseball but that if I really wanted to play she’d come to every game. I never played baseball.
Because the interviews are edited, the book truncates and makes briefer and lighter the experience, obviously, of being in London’s class. The portions chosen as representative also don’t read like shaped craft essays on a topic or theme, as they do in the excellent book series Poets on Poetry  from The University of Michigan Press. Except in cases of certain longer and more fluent passages, they don’t have the concentrated presence of what I’ve called the recursive self. But the poets are usually brilliant—all the more admirable given the impromptu context, even if, as with any speaker or teacher, they have their stock phrases and pet topics long-prepared—and London’s style is that of the best teachers: democratic, curious, sensitive, engaged, a little wily, holding up for admiration the deserving yet not holding back on informed judgments. That is, she models what she expects of her students, her poets, and their poetry.
"[I]t seems to me that the invitation of poetry is to bring your whole life to this moment,” Rukeyser says to London’s class.
Pearl London was the daughter of M. Lincoln Schuster, cofounder of Simon & Schuster, and she married a lawyer who defended artistic expression. She wrote poetry herself from an early age (Orson Welles read her official poem of the 1939 New York World’s Fair over the radio) and earned a master’s in English from NYU, but despite rumors and hints of her own book one day, she never published one and any manuscripts have gone missing. (“[T]his brilliant selection of her conversations with other poets…is, finally, you might say, that missing book,” writes Robert Polito, Director of the New School Writing Program , in a postscript.)
It’s well known: Teaching often drains vital juices, even if it’s the thing you were meant to do. Worse, brilliance, if and when it does occur, remains afterward only in a few memories. Imagine if Brando had acted twice a week for three months in performances for only 12 at a time, no cameras allowed. If not for the discovery of a hundred audiotapes hidden in boxes in London’s closet, after her death in 2003, only bits and pieces of these performances would exist in the minds of the few who were there on a given day. Besides, not all of us can go to schools where such opportunities exist, and this book is a rare reminder of and insight to what is often lost whether you were there or not.
Transcribing tapes is an act of translation too; choices are made, such as ignoring pauses for consideration, verbal stumbles, tics, uncertainties, confusion, chitchat, and the like. Even more importantly is setting typographically what in poetry would be line and stanza breaks—the breaths and phrasing—and their emphases. It’s odd, given the various poets’ backgrounds, that the voices in these interviews begin to sound alike in their erudition. Some, such as Maxine Kumin, are more conversational—nearly equal space is given on the page to her and London—while others, such as Philip Levine, need only a brief prompt from London to deliver a formal lecture.
Topics are all over the place, as one might hope of any good discussion. (Derek Walcott: “Can I say something [off topic]?” London: “You can say everything.”) But the speakers tend to return to the main thing, choices and fate in the act of writing. It’s instructional to hear the same topic articulated in different ways:
Muriel Rukeyser: “It’s very hard to talk about the rewriting that goes in [poems] because the major rewriting is likely to be in the matter of sound, the sound that is deep in the structure, almost a crystalline structure of sound in the poem.”
Robert Hass: “The patterning of vowel sounds, the patterning of breath, is the way a poet actually reaches into and takes over your body while you’re reading and experiencing his poem. The terrific simple example of this is that wonderful old poem of Keats, ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’…. I think I swooned when I read it…’She looks at me and she did love / And made sweet moan.’”
Amy Clampitt: "…I think most poets [such as Keats] who do write sonorous poetry do not do it by any science but simply hear echoes—one word will suggest another because of the sound.”
There are facsimiles here of some of the poems discussed in class, and even multiple drafts in a few cases, but you’ll need to keep a dozen other volumes at hand to get the most from this book. Online searches will find some of the texts or allusions, such as Frost’s “Silken Tent,” not reprinted here, which Glück and London argue over .
One bit in the book particularly struck me, since writing for a periodical—or just periodically—can lead to habits that become crutches or routines or the only doors out. Glück says:
[W]hat happens is, you learn to write a poem that breaks stanzas in a certain way, that takes certain kinds of linguistic, syntactic turns to stand for closure. […] You look at a tree, and you turn that into a tree poem, and you look at a rock, and you turn that into a rock poem. They all have the same arc. As soon as you can recognize a consistent shaping principle, recognize that a certain kind of sentence is always a cue to you for an end, then you’ve got to resist the cue.
She says when she realized some of her endings were “summaries” or the poems “bulletproof,” “I had stopped learning, because I could convert all I saw only into one kind of truth. And it was no longer interesting. So I wanted to see what I could do when those habitual devices were refused.”
This act of process and the supreme challenge it offers inspires both highs and lows. Derek Walcott, after detailing why a phrase of his, which the class loves, is all wrong, goes on to explain why his combination of the words “vague sea” was the perfect choice, based on “a French word, vague, which is wind [agitation of the water]”:
I was exultant after I got it, and I went up to a friend and I said, “Jesus, you know…I just got it, ‘the vague sea.’” Again, the idea of blur and mist and melting. Because you have vague, which is the wind and the sea, then you have “vague,” which is a sea itself being blurred, right? And what may work for it is within the tonal quality of the two words, the sibilants. “Vague sea.” It’s like one word “vaguesea,” one stroke almost, a small stroke.
Walcott starts to say he’s always trying to get the “effortlessness that comes…” but then cuts himself off.
“There is no rest, really, there is no rest, there is just a joyous torment all your life of doing the wrong thing.”