April 21, 2006
JEFFREY DODD, ZACHARY VINEYARD, & JEREMIAH WEBSTER
A Conversation with Robert Wrigley
Photo Credit: poetry foundation.com
If there is a Frank Lloyd Wright of contemporary poetry, it may be Robert Wrigley. Just as each of Wright's buildings is a unique expression of an organic aesthetic vision, Wrigley's poems are constructed from the material of their moment. And just as Wright's architecture depends on unity of site and structure, Wrigley's books present a marriage between a whole and its components.
But no matter how integrally Wrigley's poems balance music and meaning, he is no iconoclast in the Wright mold. "Poetry," Wrigley says, "can have a redemptive function. It can look at the chaos you see and make a kind of sense of the smallest part of it." From his earliest efforts to the mature work that has earned him an international reputation, Wrigley has consistently sought the redemptive in his poetry. His poems demonstrate the unity of generations divided by national crisis as adroitly as they survey humankind in the natural world. And throughout, Wrigley's vision is sculpted from music and image pressed to their limits.
Wrigley has published seven collections of poems, including Earthly Meditations: New and Selected Poems (Penguin, 2006), Lives of the Animals (Penguin, 2003), and Reign of Snakes (Penguin, 1999), which was awarded the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. His book In the Bank of Beautiful Sins (Pengu in, 1995) earned the San Francisco Poetry Center Book Award and was a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Award from the Academy of American Poets. Wrigley directs the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Idaho. He met with us over lunch at the Palm Court Grill in Spokane.
I am continually caught off guard by our capacity for violence has humans, and yet, in the natural world we see this inherent violence, as you’ve mentioned, in animals. Is violence and inherent part of our nature, and if so, why are we surprised, appalled, and horrified of what we are capable of?
I suppose it’s got to do with free will. When the snake in the trough bites the horse, it’s because the snake feels threatened by this enormous head coming straight at it. When the man in the opening section of “Earthly Meditations,” by implication, finishes off the beaver that’s been hit by a car, it’s because of compassion; on the other hand, he also wants the beaver’s teeth as a kind of souvenir. I think the difference for me is that human beings have a certain moral responsibility because we know why we’re doing it. It turns out to be much less elemental than it is for animals. The animal kills because it thinks, You’re threatening me—I’m going to bite you—you’re a snake. I’m going to bring you down, deer, ‘cause I’m a cougar and I’m hungry. That’s what I do. And the actions we take in regard to those violent acts we commit as so much more fraught—with guilt, say, though also with a whole range of other emotional responses including probably satisfaction for some of us, in some situations.
I got out of the army in 1971, discharged on the basis of conscious objection, but I didn’t not believe in violence. I was not a pacifist. I think war is sometimes unavoidable, and yet we have had this propensity to get into wars in the last half of the 20th century that are wholly misguided.
How is your morality informed? Is it inherent; do we find it in nature?
There’s a Heisenbergian thing that goes on here. The problem with observing morality is that it starts moving. I don’t want to posit any sort of theory that what people need to do is study animals in order to get some sort of refined, more useful, more correct, moral code. I think that’s baloney. We get out moral sense—or perhaps I should say, I believe I’ve got mine—for simply accepting responsibility for my actions and my words. It’s not easy to do, frankly. So much of human existence on earth is about the absolute opposite of harmony. Of course, that’s why I can’t really support a poetry that seeks to merely duplicate the disharmony we see in the world. I’ll just watch CNN, thanks. Why would I want to read poetry that wants to respond to a fragmented and chaotic world by reproducing the world’s fragmentation and chaos? Poetry can have a redemptive function. It can look at the chaos you see and make sense of the smallest part of it. That’s one of the reasons people read poetry at all. After 9/11, poetry sales skyrocketed. What were people looking from in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"? That poem makes so much sense; you could not write a clearer poem. But what in the world does it really mean? Well, it means just what it says, that's what it means. And yet everybody understands how enormous it is. It gives us a sense of the depth of how we might feel and think. That's the kind of solace I think poetry-that art of any kind, but poetry in particular-can offer. And the idea that what we're going to do is generate a kind of art that doesn't make sense, when the rest of the world doesn't make sense, seems intuitively wrongheaded to me. Let's see if poetry can't cure something.
You seem optimistic about what poetry might be capable of. Maybe not Shelley's unacknowledged-legislators-of-the-world optimistic, bur pretty hopeful-
Well, part of me wants to go immediately to Auden's "Elegy for Yeats" and say, "Poetry makes nothing happen." But of course, that line is a lot richer and more complex in the context of the poem, so it would be dishonest of me to say that. My cynical self is aware that the world would just as soon believe that poets didn't exist sometimes. It's not really concerned. But there's another voice in my head that says, Oh, they're actually very interested, they need poets, they value poets, and most of them understand they could never possibly do-or say anything like that, so please continue to bring poets into the world and have poets continue to tell us what we need to hear.
Surely every poet would love to write a poem that would make something happen. But how many poems have? There’s a lot of talk these days about “Howl” and how it was a poem that changed the world. That’s hype. The poem didn’t change the world. It did change the world of poetry and it did change poetry’s relationship with the world and it was enormously important and continues to be so. I think poetry is capable of a lot of great things that will not have a lot of immediate impact but that, long term, can begin to move culture into the direction that might allow us to survive. I guess I am optimistic. And I do think, too, it’s probably possible for poetry to be a larger force in the mass culture of this country. Of course, there’s a reason everybody loves the poet everybody loves—Bill Collins. Billy is a friend of mine, and I value his work, and yet there are people who think his work trivial, schtick, a joke, and they’re missing the point. Billy has an opening, sort of a prefatory poem in every book, and I was looking at the first poem in his new book The Trouble with Poetry, and it’s so much more complex than it seems. It's an edgy and strange and wonderful poem. And most of that level in Billy's best poems is not dawning on the vast majority of people who are reading him; most of it is not being recognized by literary people because they' re too pissed off about all those other "unwashed" folks reading him. I like being in the middle. I like giving these poems their due and seeing what's there. They're not all masterpieces. Can you imagine being the poet everybody likes? It would be a fate worse than death. But just as bad, being a poet that only those with advanced degrees and tenure can read.
So do you think this optimistic view of poetry, of poetry that can cure something in a predominantly secular age, can actually affect humanity?
I don’t know if there’s a conscious impulse on anybody’s behalf to reach in and take the place of religion per se. I think it was Steven’s who said somewhere, Maybe in The Necessary Angel, “When a man has lost his faith in God, He’s got to find something to believe in. I believe in poetry.” And I have always said that, for me, poetry is as close as I come to prayer. I’m a believer in prayer, I’m not a believer in organized religion, which seems to have been co-opted by political interests and brings its adherents to no more than a kind of agenda that ultimately seems destructive, a kind of terrible exclusivity: I’m going to heaven, you’re going to hell. Poetry aims to be as inclusive as it can be. All you have to do is read and it can take something away. At least I hope that’s the case. If you read lots of great poetry, you’ll be a better person for it, though if you’re shit, you’ll probably still be shit. Albeit a well read one, a more interesting one at literary soirees.
What have you been working on lately?
I've got a new book coming out in October-new and selected poems-which has been interesting to assemble. I tried to take the whole body of my work published in books so far, and tried to make a bigger book out of it, a book that includes the sort of trajectory of my own life in poetry, which turned out to be a lot harder than I thought it would be. It's not like a greatest hits. It just isn't. There have got to be other poems in there holding a sort of particular thematic or structural place in that book just as there are in other books.
But then, books of poetry don't get canonized; poems get canonized. All the difficulties of making a book of poetry that has a kind of unity and integrity are going to be lost one way or the other. A group of poems is such a tremendously ephemeral thing. If you're a lucky poet, maybe one of those poems from that book might last; someone might be reading it in 50, 100, 150 years. Maybe. But certainly the book will not. Or only among certain aficionados. That's sort of the curse of being a poet. We wear it well though. We're married to our art, by God! And we understand we're the glory boys and girls of literature. We just are. I mean poetry is poetry-there is no other word like "poet" in the language. You're a novelist, I'm not a poemist. I'm a poet. You're an essayist, you're a playwright? Playwright sort of comes close. There' s just no other word like it, and we all know what's in a name.
I just finished Marvin Bell’s Book of the Dead Man, and I can’t imagine reading one of those poems without the cohesion of progression, or Sharon Old’s The Father and the unity of grief and loss in those poems.
That’s the beauty of the book of poems. And that’s what poets have to do—make the book. You have to be willing to go ahead and do that project, knowing the project is going to be more ephemeral than its individual parts. Whereas a novelist always, or a playwright, gets to aim for the whole of the work being something that might last, even a short story writer, but poems are different.
You were a conscious objector a few years before you made the decision to go to school and pursue poetry, but—thinking about that idea of poetry as a kind of solace, or a sort of salve—was that idea related to the decision you made to be a conscious objector?
You know, it might be. What I’m trying to think about here is, What do I think poetry is capable of? What do I want poetry to do? I am really suspicious of poetry being proffered as a kind of therapeutic device. But on the other hand, I do think poetry is about a kind of sustained and absolutely focused attention, the sort of attention one has to being to those big decisions. I didn’t know if my father would speak to me again after I filed for conscientious objection. It turns out he did; by then he had come around and was convinced of the stupidity of the war in Vietnam. We were brought close by that. We’ve been tremendously close ever since. He’s old now, and frail, but he and I have been closer since that time than we were before. But I had to think long and hard about that soft of decision, because it wasn’t just my father; it was the whole country. You don’t just walk away from a commitment, from a punitive “duty,” and yet, in some cases, you have to. You have to stand up for, well, I guess I want to say, what you believe. That requires the same attentiveness as writing a poem does. You really don’t know that so much when you do it. I didn’t know when I made that decision if I was doing the right thing. And I say in one poem, “I don’t know if I was a coward, or a man of conviction.” I was a little bit of both at the time, quite honestly. I was scared to death to go to Vietnam; why wouldn’t I have been? There again, I knew exactly that this was not the right thing I should do. It was not in my interest. It was not in anybody’s interest. But it might just be that kind of—for a lack of a better phrase—“soul searching” I did before pleading conscious objection in the army was a kind of training for what I do in poems.
You've already mentioned several poets from the Western tradition. Do you see yourself as part of a contemporary tradition that is responding to modernism and what came before it, or do you see yourself more as a Lone Ranger? Or is it impossible to say when one is right in the middle of it?
It's not impossible to say. It may be that anything I say is absolutely of this moment and twenty minutes later I'm going think to myself, Well, that was complete horseshit. That didn’t make any sense at all. But quite honestly, I think the tradition is enormously important. I have graduate students who bitch and moan when I come in and say, "Okay, next week, turn in a poem, and it needs to be at least twenty lines long, and it's got to be iambic pentameter, real iambic pentameter. If you're going to substitute, I want to know why, and you've got to be able to argue on behalf of your substitution." And they all say, "No, I don't want to do that," you know, "my creativity is stifled ." I forget who it was, a French poet, who said-and this is a paraphrase-"Anyone who finds the difficulties of his art too much of a challenge is not a poet. Anybody who finds real potential for creative possibility in those difficulties is a poet."
When students defend their thesis, I frequently ask them, "Where would you place yourself in the tradition? If you could extend the tradition of English poetry on a kind of continuum, where would you fit?" A lot of them use that as an opportunity to talk about who influences them, which is interesting, but not that interesting. I mean, I don't know that we know who we've been influenced by, other than everything we've ever read, everything we've ever heard, the Bible, holy texts of any faith.
I think I have a deep and profound connection to the romantic tradition. I feel my connection to Wordsworth every now and then, but I really don't enjoy his poems much. Some of his work I love, but Keats is my guy. I also adore Byron, who doesn't seem to be a romantic in the same way those other people are. At the same time, I'm clearly and deeply influenced by modernism. Modernism has not gone away. The problem I have with the idea of postmodernism is that it really just seems like warmed over modernism but not written as well. It's like the problem I I have with poets who believe that discontinuity all by itself or disjunction- whatever you want to call it- is somehow a virtue. It is not that it can't be a virtue or that a good poet can't make it into a virtue, but it's no more a virtue than any other kind of quality of apprehension. Eliot may have proved it as well as anybody else; modernism pretty well nailed that disjunctive-ness that we feel in modern and contemporary culture. The idea that we have to keep flogging that notion of discontinuity and disjunction strikes me as a worn out notion. I'm more interested, among the modernists, in Wallace Stevens, who seems to bring to the table a kind of rhetoric that's a lot more closely connected to classical, to neoclassical poetry, than it is to Eliot. I love the long meditations at the end of Stevens' "The Credences of Summer," "Poetry is the Supreme Fiction." I mean I don't know what is going on eighty percent of the time, but I don't care that I don't know. I'm lost in that language and in a very important place.
Some creative writing programs have tried to divorce themselves from traditional literature programs. How do you view the relationship between creative writing and literary criticism and literary theory?
Well, for the most part the English department is a perfectly good place for a creative writing program to live. There's no reason it shouldn't be. There are some creative writing programs that are lumped in with expository writing and English composition; there are others that are sort of placed in a department that includes theatrical studies and so forth. That just seems odd to me, strange marriages indeed. Other creative writing programs exist separately as departments and don't have any connection to the traditional study of literature. In the program in which I teach, I'm aiming to provide students with the kinds of tools they need to enter into that larger tradition, the tradition Eliot speaks of in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” We’re all writing one big poem and you’re writing your line on the end in a sense.
That being said, I also believe that creative writing programs have been the salvation of English departments, some of which got so wrapped up in theory and post-structuralist stuff that they nearly killed off any interest anybody had in being an English major—I mean, in the beginning there was words and I loved words and because I loved words I loved sentences, and lines, and narratives. It’s fine that literary theory existed at Hopkins, or Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Berkley even, but there’s a way in which academic people quit reading literature. They were just reading criticisms. Theory. I've heard of professors offering classes in contemporary American poetry in which there were no primary texts, only theory and criticism. What the hell is that? It's like studying cubism but refusing to look at the paintings. But I also think those days are gone. I think we've turned the corner, and we're going to come back to English departments being populated with people who adore literature, who live it and breathe it, and understand it. It may be one of the things that helps save us as a culture. I think a lot of responsibility for that kind of salvation is due to creative writing classes and creative writing programs where that sort of love of literature was kept alive, while the study of literature got crazy and then got un-crazy again. It's now in recovery, shall we say.
How does teaching assist your work as a writer?
Everybody who writes knows char universities have provided a kind of refuge to writers. You work within a certain flexible time schedule; you arrange classes to meet on certain days and not on other days. In doing so you make it possible to have time to write. But teaching, like any job, expands to fill empty space, so my sense of it has always been that I have to keep my life compartmentalized: These days are for writing and they shall not be for anything else, and the rest of the time I have to be absolutely devoted to the classroom, which is the other "work." Also, as people have long observed, if you really want to learn something, teach somebody else to do it. If you are a graduate student, in English you know that as soon as you teach a freshman composition class. How do you make a paragraph? How do you make a sentence? And to that extent there’s a way in which teaching composition might be one of the best instructive procedures a student can go through in order to become a writer of any kind, because you have to find a way to articulate what it is that makes a sentence interesting, or a paragraph interesting, and in creative writing classes, a scene, a stanza. On the other hand, it can wear you out. Teaching writing is remarkably demanding. And sometimes after a particularly grueling week in which you've got to read an awful lot of student work, you come home and you might have a free evening or the next day might be free but you've got a language hangover. And, of course, writing is the easiest thing in the world not to do. I sometimes find myself on an avoidance schedule, and not writing; that's why I have to keep my life compartmentalized. Time when I write is time when I write. I can't balance the checkbook, I can't grade papers, I can't read anybody else's poems. I can read books and generate ideas, but I have to stay focused so I can teach. Teaching here. Writing there. Where they meet is where the sparks happen. If I'm writing well, I'm a better teacher. If I'm teaching well, it's because I'm writing. And when I'm not writing, I'm probably not teaching well because I'm unhappy. Something's not there.
You broke Reign of Snakes into sections. The section headers of that book, which are really intense lyrics, were originally in a poem called "Earthly Meditations." Why did you organize the book that way?
I don't know that there was any reasoning behind it; it's just what I did. Though how it happened interests me still. I may be the only poet in America who has been selling books on the basis of an occasional word. I mean, my relationship with Penguin has always been such that I have a contract for a book that I haven't written yet. I usually have a title for the book and maybe a few poems, and I have poet friends who think I must be insane for that, but it works well for me.
I knew I was going to deliver this book called Reign of Snakes in the spring of 1998. I had a long sequence of poems called "Reign of Snakes" in the middle of it, but the book wasn't done. Something was missing. So I started going through my journal, looking for something. Anything. An idea, possibly. And I came across this strange poem where the language was torqued way, way up there, where I had just turned myself loose and let the ear dominate, let the sound of the language take the poem wherever it needed to go. And yet something about it jelled; there was a narrative motion in it, a kind of arc, what I would call lateral movement—the real lyrical structure—which is all of those meditations and pure descriptions.
So anyways, this poem was handwritten in my journal. I typed it up, stared at it for, I don’t know, an hour, then showed it to my wife, who’s my first reader, and who’s mean to me because I need somebody to be mean. She said, “Huh, this isn’t like anything you’ve ever written before. Cut the last stanza—it sucks tremendously—but then do some more of this.” So I cut the last stanza, she was right. I think it was a Monday. I was on a Guggenheim, so I wasn’t teaching. I was on a Guggenheim, so I wasn't teaching. Tuesday I wrote part two. Wednesday I wrote part three. Thursday I wrote part four. And then I looked at it thinking, This is insane, I'm going too fast. Friday I kept reading it and reading it and the next Monday I wrote the last part, part five. But then, every place I put this new sequence in the book—I put it, for example, at the end and the book sank tail first—then my wife hit on the idea of dividing it in the book–-her example was Hemingway's In Our Time, how the little italicized stories—interchapters—go between the other stories in that book. I tried it, and it fit. I had to move a few poems here and there, but it actually worked.
I had to go back into the journal for a week or so of examination to see it, but what made that poem possible was an obsession with the late meditations of Theodore Raethke, particularly the "North American Sequence,” which I think is a magnificent poem. It's an autobiographical, Rorschach kind of poetry, astonishing, it’s so language-and imagecentered. So there I was, obsessively rereading Roethke. Every morning before I worked on the new sequence—I knew I was gearing up to finish this big poem—I’d’ pour a cup of coffee, and I’d sit. I lived in the Clearwater Canyon, and I’d watch the river go by. I’d put Dylan Thomson on the tape player, and he would be reciting these poems which frankly don’t make a whole lot of sense, but they’re gorgeous. I listened to one called, “The Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait,” which seems to be about sex and fishing and being lost at sea, but I’m not sure. And I don’t care. It’s a glorious poem. The language is tightened so significantly that you can feel the syllables as you read and listen to the poem. That’s what got me going and that’s what I kept doing.
Are your lyrics influenced by your time at Montana with Richard Hugo?
It is to the extent that Dick Hugo made me understand that you don't ever quit listening to the poem. You've got to make it sing. He used to tell us what Roethke would say: "If you cannot mean, then at least sing." Which seems to privilege meaning—ironically, because I don't think Roethke ever privileges meaning in his poems. But it does set up the formula by which I think I've lived my life as a poet, which is to tell all the truth, but make it sing. And I think, in the kind of writing culture we live in—where so many of us have gone through the academy and apprenticed ourselves to teachers, poets—that we've become aware of the lineage. I'm aware of Roethke being a grandfather to me poetically, but I've always struggled with his poems, to understand them, and in some cases to try and get past them in a way. "Earthly Meditations " is a kind of exorcism. I have friends who think that poem is the best thing I've ever done, by far. And I've got others who just don't see the point. I've even tried to get back into that voice once or twice, but I can't. It's just not there. It's not really somewhere I need to go again. Been there. It's also an enormously self-indulgent poem; I mean, I had a great time with it, but it is what it is—a meditation.
No more self-indulgent than what all of us do every time we sit down to write.
This is true. The world 's coming apart, the country's run by morons, and here I am writing a poem? But it is important to be here. Poetry will not only survive but triumph. And it's in great shape these days, strangely enough, and it's got a lot to do with the academy, with people coming to poetry and developing the goal, not to be poets, but to actually write. There are a lot of people who want to be poets, but you’ve got to get past that the only time you are a poet is when you’re engaged in the process, when you’re making a poem.
Do you see yourself writing the same poems if you'd lived in an urban center? How connected is what you write about to the place you living and teaching?
It’s absolutely connected. When I applied to graduate school in 1974, there were only a dozen MFA programs in the country. I wanted to go most of all to Columbia, because Stanley Kunitz and Galway Kinnell were teaching there, and I wanted to go because I loved and I still love New York City. It's one of the great places on earth. But if I had gone there, I might have well wound up being as in love with that environment as I wound up being in love with the northern Rockies of Montana. I think I would have been more or less the same poet. But the theater of my concerns would have altered enormously. The store of images, my conscious set of images, would have been so completely different that there's no telling what effect that ultimately would have had on me. So I would have been the same and different. How's that for an equivocation answer? I think I could make the case that my concerns as a poet would probably be more or less the same and those concerns- and I think I can say what they are: I'm a poet who is always fascinated by the fragility of life, the mutability of it all, how little time finally there is–and I could have done that as an urban poet. No doubt much of the imagery would have been different, and when your images are different, everything else changes. I mean, it might have even affected my rhythms.
Somewhere in the middle of In the Bank of Beautiful Sins there's a shift from the Mid-western domestic type of setting that characterizes Moon in a Mason Jar and What My Father Believed to a more nature-oriented focus in terms of your images. Is that something you consciously feel that in your work, or do you have concerns that drive you as a poet that supersede the range of images in your theater?
Probably both. There is a way in which, in those books, up through What My Father Believed, I had demons to exorcise. I had to contend with how I came to be the man I came to be, and a lot of that is simply a function of self-knowledge. You get to know yourself as you age, as you watch yourself. But on the other hand, once I got past My Father Believed, it’s like I shifted gears. It’s a complicated book because I was trying to get closer to what I was stalking, which was a deeply disturbing part of my life where I was arguing relentlessly with my father on matters that had to do with politics and war and my own faith, especially in contrast to his. All these things had larger implications to the nation, I thought. Once I sort of exorcised that demon, I didn't quit looking inside in the poems, but there was a way in which I could be more welcoming to what was outside.
And when I did that I was living in an extremely rural place and have lived in rural places ever since. So that sort of stuff rushed in to fill those places, that bank of imagery, that bank of experiences that I draw on when I make poems. And yet I think I'm working the same thematic veins in these poems. What does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a man now, not so much in the culture and in terms of history, but in terms of the natural world? What I've come to admire so much about animals is that they're unfettered with all these cultural things, so absolutely alive in the moment. Wouldn't our world be a lot better, and I don' t know if it is true, actually–I would like to think it might be–but wouldn’t things be a lot less destructive if we were more like animals? But then I think, Naw, probably not; they're always hunting one another down and killing one another and eating one another.
Who are the poets you think deserve more attention?
The recently dead. It’s a bad career move to die. It used to be a pretty good move if you could just die right away. It’s no longer an option. Every third semester I teach a class called “Techniques of Poetry.” The idea is to generate ideas from a batch of texts. I’m teaching Jack Gilbert next week. I’ve taught Lucia Perillo, Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser, Billy Collins, what I call “plain speaking” poets. Last time I did some really fancy people, and these are the people I think right now are being ignored. These are all graduate students, and none of them had read more than a few anthology pieces. Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell. You know, everyone had read “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” which is a great anti-war poem, but nobody had read “The Woman at the Washington Zoo;” no one had read “Two Children;” nobody had read any of those amazing Jarrell poems; and especially, nobody had read any of Jerrell’s criticism. Oh, man. The best, the best critic of modern poetry and mid-century American poetry. But then Berryman, most folks have no idea how to contend with The Dream Songs, you can’t get 77 Dream Songs anymore you have to get the whole Dream Songs and that’s one big pile o’ dream songs. And it’s hard to read that many of them—you start to develop dream song calluses. They had two weeks to get ready for Berryman, but reading 270-plus of the damn things just wore them out, so they had a hard time and Berryman’s book turned out to be the book that did them in. They loved Bishop. And Lowell, who’s problematic, but you’ve got to read Lowell, at least Life Studies and For the Union Dead, but I like the stuff before that. I like The Mills of the Kavanaughts; I like that longish poem in rhymed couplets and iambic pentameter, almost lock-step iambic pentameter, “Falling Asleep Over the Aeneid”—just some of the sentences in that poem are to die for.
And even my own teacher, Robert Hugo, who you’d think people would want to go to—especially, in my case, my own studies—because they’re sort of plugged into that lineage, but not really. That’s too bad. I don’t think his poems are going to go away. They’re going to stay with us. If you go to his selected or collected, the first poem, “Trout,” is amazing. It’s actually almost perfectly syncopated, almost like the tail of the trout is slow water. The rhymes are there and then not there, there again. It’s a poem about identity. That’s why the speaker screams at the end and sends that trout off to oblivion, because it’s like suddenly beholding your own self. That poem’s about poetry, about recognition, about where you get to digging deeply in language and your own imagination. And you can gob to some terrifying and miraculous places when you do. His whole aesthetic is summed up in that poem.
And he’s a poet who never lost it, either, seemingly no matter what he tried.
He never tried to lose it. He spent most of his life unhappy, then got happy the last eight or nine years and died. It’s a bittersweet irony that his detective novel has been translated into French but his poems haven’t. The Triggering Town sold way more copies than his collected poems has. As he used to say, he always thought of himself as a wrong thing in a right world. That’s the weird—in some ways beautiful, in some ways happenstance—fact of the academic pursuit of poetry, of apprenticing yourself to a poet or poets in graduate programs and how it turns out. I mean, Roethke was perfect, absolutely perfect for Hugo, and I didn’t know how well-suited Hugo was for me for the longest tine. I got out of that program in 1976, got my first tenure-track job in Idaho because I desperately wanted to be back in this part of the world. I had taught at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho, for twenty-two years, with a couple of years off for good behavior. I went back to Montana a couple times and taught. I taught in Oregon for a year. I took a year off for a Guggenheim, but it was like five or six years after I left the Montana program that I started hearing… it wasn’t really Dick’s voice, but it was… his ideas that he’d offer in workshops or just when he was talking about other people’s poems. And I remember thinking, Oh, I learned that. I didn’t just think it, and I remember now where I learned that. He still thrills me. And the poems, my heavens. The poems of Richard Hugo: they are the real thing.