Sunday, July 01, 2007

Paying My Dues

Dated 21 June 2007, the letter welcomes me as a new Member (at the Associate level) of the Academy of American Poets.

One of the freebies is a DVD, The Poet’s View, “a documentary series on great American poets,” directed by Mel Stuart. Mine showcases John Ashbery, Louise Glück, Anthony Hecht and W. S. Merwin. I guess other new members get other great American poets. Each segment presents interviews with the poets in their homes, as well as public readings given in Centre Pompidou in Paris, Yale University & Smith University, Washington D.C., and Johns Hopkins University. Now play Match-the-Poet-With-the-Place.

Of the four poets, Glück makes the greatest impression on me. Whenever she speaks, in an interview, workshop or reading, she weighs her words, tries them out to see whether they match her ideas and her memories. In contrast, the other three poets speak confidently, with little hesitation, as if they are saying something they have said before, to themselves and to others, in countless interviews; they make pronouncements.

Also revealing is the fact that only in Glück’s segment do other poets speak warmly of the interviewee’s poetry. Sure, McClatchy refers to Ashbery’s democratic attention to pop and high cultures. But that remark seems obvious, almost a cliché, beside the length at which Robert Pinsky speaks of Glück’s ruthlessness with clichés, and the feeling with which Frank Bidart reads Gluck’s poem, “First Memory.” Her poetry is not just admired; it is loved.

The following transcriptions make her sound more certain than she does. You have to imagine the pauses, the circling, the longing.

Of her childhood reading of Blake and the songs from Shakespeare—
“It seemed to me this was the language I wanted to speak. These were the people I wanted to be in dialogue with. It didn’t bother me that they were dead. I thought that if my language were good enough, it would reach them.”

Of her teenage struggle with anorexia—
“Anorexia was my way of fighting for the ownership of my body. I wanted to show my mother that it was mine. What I did not realize was that I was going to die. And when I realized I was going to die, I was terrified because I remembered thinking I wanted a chance to write my poems.”

Where her poems come from—
“All I know is that I don’t want the substitute, I don’t want the ersatz, I don’t want the phoney, I don’t want the glib, I don’t want the facile…I don’t want She’s just writing like her old...she’s…we’ve heard this before. I don’t want to do those things. So you wait to make a new sound, to hear some voices in your head that you’ve never heard before.”

Why she dislikes listening to poets read their work—
“…there are multiplicities…of ways that the poem speaks from the page that the human voice can’t reproduce. If you see something on the page, you get a web, a constellation. The way a line ends will send you backward into the poem as well as forward, so that you live in the universe of it.”

Of teaching creative writing—
“What I found in teaching was a way to use that part of my brain that was used in the making of poems even when I wasn’t writing, because I could use it on other people’s work. Moreover, I could learn from that work and I like the idea that I was in the presence always of the malleable, the inchoate, the forming, the evolving thing, as opposed to the finished, the published, the printed, the unapproachable.”

“I’m going to object to age, to ill health, to death, as they occur. But there might be a poem in it. And it’s a poem that I couldn’t write young. That’s a great consolation to me.”


What strikes me is her ambition. An ambition rooted in a will to survive. In this, she is the Plath who did not put her head in the oven.

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