DAVID: You begin the first poem in your new collection, Roll Deep, with the words “My midlife journey”—not to brag, but I caught the allusion right away—and in the final poem you speak of planting “winter vegetables in July.” (I’m no gardener, so I don’t know when you’re actually supposed to plant parsnips up here in Zone 1, but I do know that July’s midway toward winter, or maybe a little past.) Not to start off on a grim note—I’m writing this literally in August (figuratively in, what, late October?)—but we both seem to have one ear cocked at time’s winged chariot. (To me, it sometimes sounds like a low-hovering chopper, and sometimes like I’m only hearing things as I go about my business.) And both of us tend to tip our hats to the departed masters—Wallace Stevens and Charles Mingus (among others) crop up in your book; Dickens and Frank Sinatra (among others) crop up in mine—as if we’re seeing our work, or wishing to see our work, as part of some long continuity. Are we delusional? Is anybody going to value the work we value in a hundred years? Okay, make it six hundred, the distance between us and Dante. Or do you care? Sorry to be so heavy—I’m just in an autumnal mood.
MAJOR: That query came fast and straight over the plate and it’s quite easy to go grim after a Dantean opening, which I’m thrilled you heard right away. Let’s see. I have been thinking somewhat about this question but only as it relates to the “humanities” writ large, that which endures especially as it reflects the journey of the human and evolution of consciousness, not in relation to my own poems, which is to say mostly as a reader. One of my many rituals of bookstore carousing, after having ravaged the poetry and rare books section, is to amble over to the “Classics” shelves, where I am more deferential and awe-inspired. Here I wonder: what holes in my slipshod education can I fill? Recently I picked up a tattered copy of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther at The Montague Bookmill. This notion of a story or poem’s usefulness and permanence beyond the author’s lifetime seems almost handed down as a virtue of the best literary work—almost without critical self-reflection, except for that spate of feminist critics who argued that an (often male) author’s quest for literary greatness and longevity was in proportion to the size of his ego, that there was a place for less ambitious and quiet imaginative acts in language whose function was to make the lives of those living here and now better and more fulfilled rather than those in the far off future. The late Philip Levine once told me we are lucky to get even one poem in the Oxford Book. Delusion is good. Here’s why: I see nothing wrong in leaving some evidence, some small residue of our life on earth, which is a way of joining our sound to the language and memory of the tribe. In this regard, language is empirical. Each author’s interpretation of our folly and spinning on earth is mediated through his or her own experiences and imagined in language and form which accretes and accumulates. One can only faintly hope it is then curated and finds it way into some future anthology. If not one with the kind of imprimatur of an Oxford; we hope then for some rescue by a scholar enthused by our work; because of such activism I’m reading Lola Ridge. Who knew?
My linking and riffing off Dante and others and your allusions to the Chairman of the Board Sinatra and Charley D is probably owed to our mentorship to writers and musicians far greater than us. It’s a strategy I inherited early, a kind of call and response with our intellectual inheritance. Keats gives pounds to Homer via Chapman. Music from my youth also showed me the way; in the fall of 1987, when I listened to “Killing an Arab,” the first cut of The Cure’s album Standing on a Beach, with that sinuous, surf rock guitar playing, I happened to be reading Albert Camus’s The Stranger for my 2nd period English class. Whoa, that was a gift. Digable Planet’s album Reachin: A New Refutation in Time & Space alludes to a Jorge Borges essay and one of their rhyming couplets manages to get in Salvador Dali, Erich Fromm, and Sartre. I used to love those moments of recognition and slyhood. Did you know the punk band The Dead Milkmen was named after Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon? So, it’s what we do.
Plus, this last comment: what calls us to affront the notion of mutability and that which irritates us into artful speech is less the desire to be read six hundred years from now, but more, and correct me if I am wrong, the quest for an authentic sound or utterance as refracted in the sentence or language itself. It’s a spiritual addiction that almost always inevitably leads to intransience.
Speaking of sound, I heard a famous writer say that after composing the first sentence of a story, he hears the other hundred or so sentences after that one—i.e. the sentence as tuning fork. Was this the case with the opening sentence of your novella “Banishment” in A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me? It’s a sentence that seems to accumulate and foreground the interior drama that will unfold later in the story. What is your general advice about the opening utterance of a story?
DAVID: I didn’t know that about The Dead Milkmen. Good information. If we were more boring people, we’d be mentioning Bob Dylan and the Possum (I don’t mean George Jones) in this connection. But yes, that is what we do, and I find these hommages and shout-outs moving, when I don’t find them irritating. I’m not hankering after Greatness, and in six hundred years I won’t be around to appreciate being the beneficiary of the sort of rescue mission that gave us back Dawn Powell. What does make me sad—I don’t know why I care about this either, but I do—is the prospect of the Williamses (Hank and William Carlos, and throw in Ted, too) and the Wolves (Howlin’ and Virginia) all vanishing forever. Woolf does a wonderful job of worrying about this in To The Lighthouse, but for now we’ve got To the Lighthouse, so maybe I should just shut up.
At any rate, yes, it’s mostly the quest for (or at least the fumbling after) something that sounds right that gets me up offa that thing, when I manage to do so. I envy that famous writer, even if you’re just making him up. (I assume you’re not, or you would’ve been artful and said “she.”) If I get a first sentence that sounds right, I don’t hear a damn thing except a voice saying Now what? Or maybe You’ve already painted yourself into a corner. That said, I usually can’t make the next move, and the next, until that opening sounds right, and I almost never change it after the piece is done—though I’ll change anything else. Is that how you work? This doesn’t qualify as advice: it’s just what I happen to do, and I don’t necessarily recommend it. What might pass for advice is probably too obvious, even too crass, to state, but: the first sentence needs something (a sound, an image, a fact, whatever) to engage the reader, or the reader won’t keep reading. Also—and this is the point you made about the first sentence of “Banishment”—you want the opening to suggest somehow the mood, the tone, of what will follow, and also the subject or content. There’s some “general advice”—so general as to be borderline useless. I know a wonderful beginning when I hear it, be it plain (“I had a job and Patti didn’t”—Raymond Carver, “Vitamins”) or fancy (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”), but I can’t deduce a formula that will help me begin my next piece, or that would help anybody else. Which is a good thing, right? If you weren’t surprised—and I’d say blessed—by that initial utterance, would you bother to sit down to write? And if every beginning of every novel, poem or story were wonderful, wouldn’t you get bored with wonderfulness?
I don’t know if you heard Katy Simpson Smith’s excellent lecture at Bennington a couple of years ago—she was then getting her MFA; since then she’s published a fine novel, The Story of Land and Sea—but she talked about some of her favorite beginnings in fiction, music and film. What are some of your favorites, of course including poems? Do you generally prefer fast and straight over the plate? Or do you like the first-pitch curveball outside that makes the batter lean in—not in the Sheryl Sandberg sense—and sets up the fastball in on the hands?
MAJOR: Openings are acts of persuasion. I like to be seduced into a poem or story, not so much inveigled or heckled for that matter like much of what I encounter with some performance poetry or overly conceived experimental poetry, but those opening lines or paragraphs should work to establish authority through insinuation of form and lead to a worthy encounter with language and for my tastes, in particular, figuration. I’m a straight sucker for metaphor and how layers of meaning beguile. So, let the first pitch come swerving outside. Let it insinuate and sing. Let those opening notes linger a bit then open up into a performance heretofore heard or experienced. One of my favorites is a little discussed poem by A.R. Ammons. Here’s the opening, and I encourage you to read this whole gem. Whew!
I don’t know somehow it seems sufficient
to see and hear whatever coming and going is,
losing the self to the victory
of stones and trees,
of bending sandpit lakes, crescent
round groves of dwarf pine:
for it is not so much to know the self
as to know it as it is known
by galaxy and cedar cone,
as if birth had never found it
and death could never end it:
Ammons grew up in rural North Carolina and raised on a tobacco farm. I do not know if people still speak like this in his native state or elsewhere in America, but damn do I love the music in that opening and throughout the poem, pitched between a kind of vernacular speech, probably Appalachian, and the didactic or professorial, which later he undermines or disavows, but nonetheless, a sweet syrupy wisdom comes through, how he negates his opening negation by establishing a certain kind of power. Of course, he knows; the sound of the poem is so weighted toward an elemental awe and wonder at nature’s beauty. “Hegel is not the winter / yellow in the pines,” he says, then later “stranger, / hoist your burdens, get on down the road.” Some call it voice, but it’s a worthy strategy for any writer, to approximate the timbre and speed of a character in a story or speaker in a poem. Ammons’ opening denial “I don’t know” has that gorgeous caesura, a charged pause, right after, a kind of lyric, thoughtful drift, which then allows him to launch into this sinuous performance of linguistic echoes (known/cone) and (never found it, never end it). Even, “holly” and “entity” are meant to signify on or resonate with holy and entirely. Sorry to explicate a poem this round, but got all excited. I’ve more openings that ring my bell. How about you: any opening sentence that makes your Top Ten?
DAVID: There’d be a lot more than ten, but the opening of that Ammons poem reminded me of the opening of Coleridge’s Dejection ode. (Sorry to trot out such an old warhorse, but it got to be an old warhorse for good reason.) First that epigraph from “Sir Patrick Spens” (or “Spence,” as he spells it)—
Late, late yestreen I saw the new Moon,
With the old Moon in her arms;
And I fear, I fear, My master dear!
We shall have a deadly storm.
And then, after this bit of antique artifice, with the “yestreen” and the jog-trot meter, the poet breaks into speech:
Well! If the Bard was weather-wise, who made
The grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spence,
This night, so tranquil now, will not go hence
Unroused by winds . . . [and so forth]
It’s that “Well!” that gets my attention, that establishes a voice and an attitude—not unlike Ammons’s “I don’t know,” right? I don’t know how Coleridgeans explicate or paraphrase that “Well!” but to me it suggests a dramatic situation. The epigraph isn’t merely stuck-on—the “Well” tells me that it’s the occasion for the poem. The poet’s actually sitting there reading the ballad on a calm evening, he fetches up on that image of the new moon and the old moon, and thinks Huh—whaddya know. That’s just how the moon looks right now, and if this old bit of lore is right, we’re in for it. And I assume Coleridge is also announcing a new, more plain-spoken sort of poetry: a man speaking to men, as his bud Wordsworth put it (not meaning any offense to women, but I’m afraid managing to give it). In place of the ballad meter, all-purpose iambic pentameter; in place of the old high-flown rhetoric (“I fear, I fear, my Master dear!”), a simple, conversational “Well!” True, the poem goes on to become more rhetorical than the anonymous Bard ever thought of being—and true, I sometimes can’t help hearing that “Well!” delivered in the voice of Jack Benny. Still, that opening gives a good shock to my system, and takes me right into Coleridge’s head.
But how about closing, Major? Here’s one from my Top Ten. It’s the end of Hemingway’s story “After the Storm,” a monologue by a sailor who was the first to come across a sunken liner after a storm in the Caribbean and tried unsuccessfully to break into it and plunder it. These are the last few lines:
“The captain couldn’t have known it was quicksand when she struck unless he knew these waters. He just knew it wasn’t rock. He must have seen it all up in the bridge. He must have known what it was about when she settled. I wonder how fast she made it. I wonder if the mate was there with him. Do you think they stayed inside the bridge or do you think they took it outside? They never found any bodies. Not a one. Nobody floating. They float a long way with life belts too. They must have took it inside. Well, the Greeks got it all. Everything. They must have come fast all right. They picked her clean. First there was the birds, then me, then the Greeks, and even the birds got more out of her than I did.”
It’s not just an accurately rendered voice, but an inadvertent self-portrait of a double-sided character: we get his stoicism (to die is to “take it”) and cold-bloodedness, but also a flash of human empathy for the people on the ship—from which he quickly backtracks into comically bitter resignation (“even the birds got more out her than I did”) in order to preserve an image of toughness and cynicism for his listener, whom he’s just been trying to involve in his sympathetic identification with the dying men: “Do you think they stayed inside the bridge or do you think they took it outside?” (And, as in the Dejection ode—sheerly by coincidence—the turn is marked by the word “Well.”)
Got any endings on your Hit Parade?
MAJOR: Old warhorses or not: I will take those readings of Coleridge and Hemingway any day, or night preferably. As writers, we trust that an audience will possess cultivated ears to pick up such nuanced voicings; there’s such character-building going on, such portraiture that’s achieved in these writers’ (and others of equal greatness) dialogue or interior monologuing. I hear what you mean: the stoicism, cold-bloodedness, but above all that, empathy coming in ever so slyly in the sailor’s words.
I bet old man Papa labored like bejeezus to nail that final sentence, in sentiment, rhythm, and structure. You hear that “Well,” and I solidly hear “more out of her than I did” which performs its ending, a completion in sound, just below a culminating mic-drop, but not so ostentatious. There is not much lingering or thinking “what does he mean?” but a hitting it on the nail finale. I wonder if such virtuosity is instinctual or just plain luck.
Lately, I have come to regard indirection or the last line as “game-changer” as one of the great rhetorical gestures, especially in poetry. We can talk all day about associative leaps, how a writer will move or cast a roving eye across a sweep of objects or observations, and how the poem creates its own logic and charged moments of perception and how it mimics the actual human mind in action, lost to its inability to focus too long on any one object except by force of concentration. I like traveling along with such a writer who wants to, in Matrix-like fashion, teleport in poems especially if she can truly pull off such mental mimicry.
Yet, for my ducats, I’d rather a poetic structure in which a narrative is established or a mood ascertained, then the last line or utterance suddenly, like a band unexpectedly changing chords or pitch or speed, goes to some other field or dimension, but somehow by a strand of glorious implied relationship, shimmers in ambiguity and meaning, a kind of faux tangent, but it means nonetheless because it is language we are dealing with here and its possibilities are being exploited.
Of course, James Wright’s Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota is one such poem that makes an example of what I’m getting at here: “I have wasted my life” which of course intentionally echoes Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo “You must change your life.” Both of these are excellent illustrations of poems that break away from their core scene or established modes.
Conversely, too, maybe not so quite valued, but nonetheless performative is the ending that willfully deflates. In fact, instead of reaching for the transcendent like Wright or Rilke, the poet minimizes or reverses and obliterates their rhetoric. Melissa Stein’s poem Ring is a brilliant specimen in this regard, a lovely lyric in which the speaker, I think, attempts to find analogues or some figure to account for the instability of the world around her, but then ends the poem on “All this / to say I’ve / taken off my ring.” Almost as if abandoning the project of the poem to embellish and lyricize, one hears the needle on the record coming to a stop.
Closing up here: coming round and getting to our initial discussion of sound and echoes and allusions and longevity: here is a sonic ending that figures and calls up Dr. Williams iconic poem This is Just To Say. I hear it, even if she didn’t intend it—be still my sensitive ears. Call it ego or not: we’d be lucky to make a sound in a sentence or line that is so grafted in the imagination of future writers that its sample, however faint or brash, is easily identified by some sensitive reader.