Richard Wilbur is one of the world's most highly regarded poets, and is often considered America's finest poet writing in traditional meters and forms. He served as poet laureate of the United States from 1987 to 1988; his books of poetry have won two Pulitzer Prizes, two Bollingen Prizes, and the National Book Award. Besides being an internationally recognized translator of poems and plays from the French and other languages, Mr. Wilbur has published books of nonfiction prose, published two books for children, and written the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein's score for the musical Candide. He has taught on the faculties of Harvard and Wesleyan Universities and Wellesley and Smith Colleges. He has also served as the president and chancellor of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Poet Paul Mariani conducted the following interview in Colorado Springs during the Glen Workshop: A Milton Center Writing Conferences, which was co-sponsored by Image. Mr. Mariani was the dean of the workshop and Mr. Wilbur the recipient of the 1995 Milton Center Prize, given at the workshop. The prize is awarded annually to a writer who has contributed significantly to the tradition of Christian letters.
Image: Yours is a poetry filled with the things of this world, things closely, precisely, felicitously observed. Can you tell us a bit about your growing up on a farm in North Caldwell, New Jersey, and how that contributed to your way of seeing things?
Richard Wilbur: I think it undoubtedly made me particularly attentive to what you see around a farm—to fruit trees and animals and garden crops, to woods and various kinds of labor. The activities of the farm were interesting enough to be worth hanging around and looking at. I suppose that growing up on a farm as a privileged observer of these activities contributed to making me observant. I also grew up rather solitary. There was just one younger brother, and we were some distance from town. I dare say that that inclined me to interest myself in the natural world, learn the names of things, and, to some extent, learn how things work in nature and in farming.
Image: How long did you live in New Jersey?
RW: I was born in New York City, and my first two years were spent in a New York apartment and on its fire escape overlooking the Hudson River. Then the family moved to rural New Jersey, about twenty miles outside of the big city. I grew up there until I went away to college at sixteen or seventeen. My parents lived in the same New Jersey house for fifty years, so I kept returning there, although I commenced after the age of sixteen or so to grow up in other places.
Image: About growing up in other places: you have a wonderful poem called "Piccola Commedia," in which it looks like you—or the speaker of the poem—is a hobo of some sort. In the poem a young man is traveling through Kansas, where he comes up against a small-town brothel. There's a movement here from the intense Kansas heat into the moral chill of the brothel, a sort of Inferno writ small. Did you yourself take to the road as a young man?
RW: As a young man growing up in the 1930s, I naturally read people who in one way or another glamorized hoboes and the life of the road. Hart Crane for one, of course. But there were others: John Dos Passos in many of his passages interested me in hitching and bumming. So when I went away to college I took two summers off in order to be a kind of privileged hobo. I was privileged in the sense that I had a few dollars in my boot at all times, and if I'd gotten into very bad trouble I could've called home. Otherwise, I had the same experiences that anybody has when he starts riding freight cars around America. That was what I chiefly did. I thumbed rides on the highway when I couldn't find a freight going where I wanted to go.
Image: Did you travel by yourself?
RW: The first time that I went around the country—to forty-six of the then forty-eight states—I went by myself. That took the whole summer. I came back to Amherst College and told some of my friends what an exciting time I'd had, and they felt they had to go on the next go-round. So with two Amherst friends, I made the same grand tour of the United States. It's a good way to see the country. Some of the time, of course, one is involved in a romance with one's self; one is being a knight of the road. But, however callow, a young man who's riding the freight cars is also seeing a lot of things that are valuable to see, and seeing the country in a way in which the tourist doesn't. I saw all cities from the railway yards out. That's not how cities present themselves to the affluent who have cars.
Image: Are there any moments from that seeing of America for the first time that stick out in your memory?
RW: I'm sure I could come up with quantities of anecdotes. It's a little hard to make them spill out right now. I do remember the glory of going over the Rockies by night in a coal car, getting utterly frigid as the altitude grew higher and higher. At one point—this will tell you that it was in the year 1939 or so, when hoboes were not as forbidden as they now are—at one point the brakie of the train I was on appeared and said, "Why don't you come forward and get warm in the cab of the engine?" They would never do that now.
Image:During World War II you served as a cryptographer with the U.S. Army, 36th Division, 36th Signal Company—the old Texas outfit. In the winter of 1943-44 you were with your unit, stalled south of Monte Cassino, as Allied bombers blew St. Gregory's Benedictine monastery to rubble in an attempt to dislodge the Germans. There was a week in there, you have said, I believe, when you were pretty much pinned down by enemy fire, and you then "discovered" Edgar Allan Poe, a figure who has fascinated you ever since. Was there an epiphany of some sort there for you, this literal deconstruction of a Christian edifice and the simultaneous discovery of a gnostic mind, an inturned, self-dwelling, self-immolating, self-transcending imagination?
RW: I wish I could claim such an esemplastic feat as that; I don't remember feeling an expressible relation or contrast between the bombing of the monastery and my detection of symbolic meaning in Poe. But of course one can't confidently recall the consciousness one had in combat circumstances; I've noticed that when men are swapping war stories, the fear, horror, and incredulity have long been edited out, and the talk is mostly of tactics and black- comedy anecdotes. I could tell you how my foxhole-mate and I, running up the slope from Cervaro, dove into a rubbly ditch to avoid an eighty-eight shell, and how he wept to discover that the candy bar in his hand—a Butterfinger, as I recall—was now full of broken glass. But that, and my other funny stories, are no answer to your question. I remember deciphering the message which told our division that the monastery was to be bombed, and on what schedule that was to be done. It sickened me, though at the same time I shared the general belief that the Germans were using the monastery tower as an O.P. [observation post], and were violating the Geneva Convention by placing their batteries too close to St. Gregory's buildings. It surely looked that way to us, day after day. But I have since talked with an honorable German historian who was there as an officer, and who denies it all; we may have been terribly mistaken. When you are living in a hole on a hillside subject to harassing artillery fire, you can never quite escape anxiety, but you do what you can by dozing, sleeping, talking with the other guy, getting absorbed in reverie or reading-matter. I happened to have a paperback of Poe in my knapsack, and I read it with a lively awareness of waking, drowsing, and slumbering, as well as an escapist intensity of focus. What I saw, by way of Poe's repeated symbols and structures—his continual buildup, for instance, toward a terminal whirlwind or whirlpool—was that the stages of his narrative were based on the stages of the mind's entry into sleep. I saw that his story "MS Found in a Bottle" was an account of a soul's gradual transition from waking rationality to visionary dream. I didn't then grasp what I later made out and wrote about—the gnostic myth which underlies Poe's work in toto.
Image: Marianne Moore's poetics of careful, precise observation seems to have influenced not only Elizabeth Bishop's poetry, but often your own. How important was Moore to your development? In what ways do you find yourself writing a poetry with a kinship to Bishop's, and where are the formal and metaphysical divergences between you?
RW: From my early high school days on, I was reading poets like Robert Frost and Hart Crane. But I didn't get knowledgeably excited about contemporary poetry until I was in college and had been taught by a number of wonderful teachers in Amherst's English department, teachers who had the greatest enthusiasm for, among other things, Marianne Moore. The enthusiasm of people I admired was one thing that steered me toward her. But I also felt a natural affinity for her kind of thing: for poetry of close observation, for poetry that acknowledges the importance of things however small, poetry that aims to fuse moral and other thought with the creatures of this world. I felt the same kind of affinity with Elizabeth Bishop, for obvious reasons, when I began to read her a little later on. The same thing in William Carlos Williams has always drawn me. I was also attracted for something like the same reason to the Frenchman Francis Ponge, a great celebrator of objects and creatures. I'm drawn to that in almost any poet. D.H. Lawrence seems to me to be full of shapeless blather a good deal of the time, but I love the side of him that's concerned with plants and animals and with realizing things accurately and feelingly.
Image: So this proclivity for the things of this world clearly predates any definable literary influence? To what then would you attribute it? I know that's a difficult question, but why this concentration on the naming of things?
RW: I don't know whether I can find in my own history an explanation of why I insist upon the mundane, the physical, in poetry. I think that I was always averse to high-minded abstract talk and that I turned from it in school and at church. I found myself most convinced by talk upon any subject which was fully involved in the material and the circumstantial. I still feel militantly that way: the poetry that most appeals to me is the least abstract and the most inclusive. How I came to feel this way I can't really account for biographically. But I'm glad that it happened, because I approve of my taste.
Image: I may be off base here, but I find more of a concentration in your own poems on the things of the world than on people and explicitly social issues. Is this your sense as well?
RW: I think my poetry is not very populous, and especially wasn't in my earlier days. I felt that attention to "the other," whatever nature the other might have, was a kind of preliminary to social concerns, to human concerns. I felt from the beginning of my writing that to pay attention to objects, to what's there outside you, was the exciting thing to do. And I said to myself, when worried about the small human population of my poems, that many of the gestures I was making toward the nonhuman "other" were gestures toward—prophecies toward—the human. I came to include more people and more human situations in my poems as I went along. Partly this had to do with some kind of social maturation that was going on in me. Partly it had to do with the extent to which I was getting involved in the translation of plays, in the finding of English voices for French characters. I was writing more and more about people in the interests of Moliere or Racine, and that led to my being a little more direct about people in my poems.
Image: I can certainly see how the translation of drama would open your poetic world to a panoply of human responses. I can see that in the marvelous translations you've done from Moliere and Racine. And in the range of your American idiom to include translations from the medieval French, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Russian. In translating these voices you have managed to extend the range of your own voice.
RW: Yes, I've often said that a happy byproduct of translation, especially the translation of drama, is that it gives your voice practice in making different kinds of sounds, expressing different kinds of feelings from those which have earlier belonged to you. It makes you more potentially versatile.
Image: You have perfected a certain acerbic wit, especially in your translations from Villon, Voltaire, and Moliere. It seems that you are capable of unleashing this wit in certain of your poems, as in your Miltonic sonnet lashing out at the eyes of a Nazi officer or against President Johnson's arrogance in conducting the Vietnam war. But your characteristic gesture is one of restraint, of holding back a withering fire that we know from your translations you are quite capable of using. Is there any truth to this observation?
RW: I think it is true that I've written only so many poems in which I truly give some aspect of my personality its head, in which I allow myself to be fully angry or fully something else. I think this is because I, like so many other people who began to write poems in the forties, thought of poetry as a balancing act in which one tried to enlist all of one's voices in the rendering of an inclusive view. As I've grown older, and written more poems and gotten more into the translation of dramatic literature, I have more often allowed myself to speak with one of my voices. An example of this might be "Two Voices in a Meadow," where a milkweed speaks first and then a stone speaks in quite another kind of voice. I was very happy to learn in a letter that one of the sisters of a religious order had recently been buried to the tune of my milkweed poem set to music. It had been read over her grave. That was quite wonderful for me because the milkweed's speech is indeed written in one of my voices and was used for the sister's funeral in a genuine and appropriate way. But the other voice—the "slob" voice of the stone, is also one of my voices.
Image: Some critics note that you speak in what they term a "moderate voice," Apollonian, mild with the "mildness" of the bourgeois citizen. My own sense is that Joseph Brodsky comes closer to the truth when he speaks of your poems as masks holding in check deep emotion. Often I find, alongside the light and the comfort and the wit, a sort of paralyzing terror just below the surface, and that your poems are—in Frost's words—"momentary stays against confusion." Beyond that, though, there's something more, a belief in God, a trust in the underlying goodness of the world, in an Other who sustains and informs our world. We discover rather than make that world, and that seems to make all the difference in many of your poems. Would you care to say how it is that Christianity informs your poems? Where would you place your own "religious temper" and "philosophic bent" in an arc which might include, say, at one end the ecstasis of a Hopkins or a Dickinson and—at the other end—the controlled indirections of an Eliot?
RW: I think I belong at the Hopkins end of that arc because I'm the sort of Christian animal for whom celebration is the most important thing of all. I know that, as you say, there is terror in my poems, not so much presented as a tangible scariness but as a feeling that the order of things is in peril or in doubt, that there are holes in things through which one might drop for a long distance. The terror is there and it's countered continually by trust and by hope, by an impulse to praise. When I go to church, what doesn't particularly interest me is the Creed, although I find that I can say it. The Creed strikes me as very much like a political platform of some sort, and I believe that's what it was. What I respond to is, "Lift up your hearts!" It's lines like that in the Mass that belong to me, belong to my kind of religious experience.
Image: Would you tell us something about your own religious background and development?
RW: My father had been raised as a Presbyterian. But since my mother was more devoted than he, we followed her family tradition and went to the Episcopal church in Montclair, where my father liked the sermons but groused a bit about all that kneeling down and jumping up. On some Sunday mornings, when my parents decided for tennis instead of church, I was taken by the head gardener of the farm to a nearby Baptist Sunday school, where we sang marvelous, rousing hymns and were given little tracts illustrated in terrible colors. In high school and college I was connected with organizations (like the Hi-Y Club, or Amherst's Christian Association) which had some religious character, but was not a regular communicant; and I think I had little inwardness during World War II, when I carried everywhere a missal given me by a chaplain in the field. After the war I was influenced by more books than I can name, by the baroque imaginations of Milton and architect Francesco Borromini, and by certain friends who impressed me less by argument than by what they were, and in time I came to be a lay reader, as I still am today. I'm afraid that I'm not very catechistic. Sometimes I happily think and feel within the terms of Anglican liturgy; at other times I remember what Gilbert Murray said about the Olympians, that "the gods were not the gods, but a way of conceiving the gods."
Image: Given the major focus in your poetry for the past half century on the things of this world, would you say that this focus arises out of a sacramental vision of the world?
RW: Yes. As Fr. Hopkins says, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God." I don't often preach, and I don't often quote myself either, but I think that what Hopkins says is implied in certain of my more declarative lines: "We invent nothing...." And: "The world's fullness is not made but found."
Image: Speaking of Elizabeth Bishop before the American Academy of Arts and Letters shortly after her death, you mentioned two strains in Bishop's poems, strains one also finds in your own work. One was the poem which takes place "at the edge of sleep, or on the threshold of waking, lucidly fusing two orders of consciousness." The other was the poem of close observation, the world viewed with a "describing eye, an interrogating mind, and a personality eager for coherence." In your own work, one finds waking or sleeping poems like "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" or "The Ride" or "Walking to Sleep." On the other hand, there are all those poems in which the things of this world are given their exact due: the white-tailed deer, the jack-pine losing "its knuckled grip / On the cold ledge," the spike of thyme "whorled with fine blue / Or purple trumpets, banked in / The leaf-axils." Some critics once saw in Bishop mainly a poetry of surfaces, where you have seen a poetry of sorrow and compassion. Where do you see similarities between Bishop's poems and your own, and where do you find divergences?
RW: I think it's almost inevitable that anyone writing a eulogy for another poet whom he has greatly admired is going to pick out the things he understands best because they have some relation to his own practice. I'm sure that I was praising Elizabeth for things which I've striven for in my own work. I recognize in her poems a preoccupation with sleeping and waking and the states that lie between. I dare say that our shared interest in these states was rooted in our own experiences, in our own interests in things quite apart from poetry. But we both felt an affinity for a certain kind of perception and utterance in the description of those states. She once said to me rather sadly about her own work: "It's all description, no philosophy." I don't think that is true at all. I think she was being needlessly hard on herself, and pointlessly repeating some of her adverse critics. It seems to me that her descriptions, however marvelous, are almost never descriptions for their own sake, that there is always—to quote myself—"an interrogating mind" there, and an inquiring heart. She did not tend to wear her heart on her sleeve, however. Sometimes you feel that the surface of her poems is being interposed between her real feelings and you, and it is up to you to guess at what inquiries are going on on the other side. I think I'm a little less reticent than she, although I'm reserved enough to respond to her reticence, too. Formally, I have no fault to find with her. I think that she writes a freer poem than I do, a poem more inclined to operate upon a reminiscence of this or that meter.
Image: A kind of shadow meter?
RW: Yes. I'm really quoting John Ciardi, who once said that after his early days he had come to write upon the basis of "a reminiscence of the pentameter." He felt that Wallace Stevens's poetry could in good part be described that way. It's a lot of trouble to scan some of Stevens's poems, which are nevertheless fully satisfying in a rhythmic way, and I think it's because Stevens, though deviating from strict scansion, was always in touch with the fundamental music of one meter or another. I think that was also true of Elizabeth. I don't find her going flat and prosaic at any time—or very rarely.
Image: What about William Carlos Williams? Is he working also with the shadow of a pentameter or is he really making a break by creating something new?
RW: You would know better than I, because you've studied him harder than I have, but I would say both. There are certain of Williams's poems, like "The Yachts," which seem to start out very close to a standard meter, and in fact very close to a rhyme system, and then depart to some extent. There are other poems, like "Spring and All"—which begins, "By the road to the contagious hospital"—which seem to be based on some kind of stress norm, and not to be particularly concerned with meter.
Image: Is that satisfying to you or do you find something in you holding back from doing something similar? I know there's an affinity between you and Williams in the attention you both shower on the multifoliate things of this world. But how about what Williams is doing in terms of the line?
RW: When his beats are clear to me—when it's clear to me where the stress should go—I'm entirely happy with his kind of nonmetrical verse, and it seems to me clearly a disciplined way to write. I remember some scanning of early Williams poems by Yvor Winters, which seemed to me fairly convincing. He would find, for example, that an eleven-line poem by Williams had in nine of its lines two main stresses. For me that is a sufficient assertion of a norm and Williams is free to depart expressively from it. I've been formally satisfied by a lot of Williams. I think his high-flying theories about "the American foot" are not very helpful, but his practice is mostly manageable for me, even when he's writing in a triple broken line, which seems to have a kind of quantitative element. Maybe I find it easy to discover a satisfactory rhythm in certain poems of Williams because, after all, I was brought up not very far from his home in Rutherford, New Jersey.
Image: Oh, you mean it's your native idiom you're hearing? That the north Jersey idiom in Williams is similar to your own?
RW: I think perhaps that's true. I once showed the Williams poem that begins "Sweep the house clean" to W.H. Auden. It's a spring poem called "Love Song." It goes, "Sweep the house clean, / hang fresh curtains / in the windows / put on a new dress / and come with me!" It closes, "Who shall hear of us / in the time to come?" I showed it to Auden and I said, "Can you detect the rhythms of this?" He said, "No, I have no idea of the intended rhythm of that poem." Whereas I could hear, I suppose, New Jersey speech, and could hear Williams's own high, hectoring voice speaking in a New Jersey accent. I never had any doubt as to where the stress should be put in the lines of that poem.
Image: What you say is particularly interesting to me because it seems as if you were poised between two worlds. I mean, you write in the predominant English tradition of regular verse—verse forms, metrical patterns, rhymes—and in that sense you share a kinship with Auden. And yet, there's the American side of you which can also hear the kind of thing that William Carlos Williams is doing and appreciate it. Auden couldn't perhaps hear what Williams was doing because of his own North Yorkshire accent.
RW: Yes, I think that's it. With his acquaintance with English stressings of the sentence, Auden simply couldn't find a way to discover a normal pattern in that form.
Image: Let me ask you the larger question then. You find satisfaction with much of what Williams was doing as a poet. But what of the whole free-verse movement? Over your years of teaching you must have come across thousands of poems in free verse. What is your sense of much of free verse? Does it work for you or not?
RW: I suppose that I'm capable of responding to the minimal excitements of free verse because I've read so much of it. When I say the minimal excitement, I mean that there isn't much formal force in most free verse except for the supposed tension that occurs by the breaking of the line.
Image: What has been given up, do you think, in free verse, which has—after all—been the dominant mode in American poetry in this century? One loses rhyme, one loses most traditional meter. Is there anything else you think is lost?
RW: I think that in free verse one loses all sorts of opportunities for power, emphasis and precision, especially rhythmic precision. If you read the poems of Robert Frost, above all the North of Boston poems, you hear the New England voice speaking in its native rhythm. Because there's a loose iambic pentameter going on, you can't misread those poems. You can't fail to read them as if you were a New Englander. If you put enough stresses into a Robert Frost line to have it be a pentameter, then you're going to have to be making New England cadences. Now if someone attempts a poetry of distinctive speech rhythms without a metrical base, I think a good part of the intended emphasis is going to get away.
Image: It is one thing to bring Moliere's wry, urbane, elegant, ironic, and balanced couplets over into English as you have been doing so deliciously for over forty years now—Amphitryon being only the most recent example. But it is another thing—from Williams's perspective—to write in balanced heroic couplets oneself this late into the twentieth century, to lock in on a form which for Williams belongs historically and culturally to the Enlightenment. In 1948, at the age of twenty-seven, you in effect took on the venerable sixty-five-year-old Williams and the free-verse revolution. In your response to Williams's call for a radical free verse and the effective dismantling of the more traditional forms—iambic pentameter, the sonnet, rhymed quatrains, Elizabethan language, syntactical inversions—you spoke of Williams as, like Cezanne, "a practicing master too deep in his own work to talk like a critic." On the other hand, you also spoke about the dangers of formalism—of being overshadowed by the masters who had perfected a particular form, of "poems made out of poetry," or of "utterance without real reference"—the danger of creating and then inhabiting a closed world of one's own making. Since then we have both lived long enough to have seen several revolutions in poetic practice. Now it seems as if formalism were coming back into American poetry. Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with Dr. Williams after 1948? Was there any softening of the sides?
RW: I continued to have a soft spot for Williams's poetry, and I still do. One day in the Fifties, I sent him an impulsive postcard saying that his poems never went stale for me, and that I thanked him for having written them; soon afterward, he showed that card to a young poet who called on him in Rutherford, and I was happy to learn that it had mattered to him. He was always warm when we met, and told me to call him Bill, and was generous about my poems despite his theoretical disapproval. My feeling about meters and forms generally is that for a good poet—a poet who has the strength to take them over—they are undated and indeed timeless. For such a poet, they are simply instruments or contraptions which heighten and empower his words—underlining the shape and steps of the argument, giving it an appropriate music, honing the colloquial movement, hitting the important words hard, charging the utterance in every way.
Image: From your perspective, what did the arrival of Robert Lowell's Life Studies do to the American poetic landscape? Few of your poems are overtly confessional, though several quite good ones are autobiographical—more so than you usually allow yourself to be. There's the poem for your young daughter called "The Writer," and "Cottage Street, 1953," about a meeting between your mother-in-law, a hale seventy-three, and the twenty-two-year-old suicidally depressed Sylvia Plath. There's also the sequence called "Running" and, again, there's "Piccola Commedia." What is your assessment of the so-called confessional or autobiographical mode of so much contemporary poetry?
RW: I am of two minds about the confessional mode. A poem as classy as Lowell's "Skunk Hour" goes far toward justifying it, and I could make a list of admirable unburdenings by W.D. Snodgrass, John Berryman, and other able poets who, in whatever mode they chose to write, would write well. It must be said, however, that confessional writing can conduce, even in the best, to self- dramatization and celebrity posturing, neither of which make for good poems. Confessional poets of real talent should not perhaps be blamed for inspiring the sort of dismal creative-writing poem we have been seeing for three decades: slack, prosaic, self-absorbed, merely personal. Poems have to be based in autobiography; how else should they come about? But if they are to be of any use, they must end by being about everybody. I think of Edwin Muir's poems, which arise from intense personal memories and yet modulate into universal myth.
Image: Again and again in your poetry I find the Gautier quatrain or a variant thereof which Pound used as the predominant mode in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and Eliot for his Sweeney poems. One finds it as early as your first book, in poems like "Tywater," "On the Eyes of an S.S. Officer," "Folk Tune," and "The Regatta." But there are various quatrains as well in your work from the 1980s. One thinks of the variety of quatrains in your New and Collected Poems, beginning with the opening poem, "The Ride" and including "Leaving," "The Catch," "Icarium Mare," and "Shad-Time." What does the form mean for you? Do forms in and of themselves have anything like an inherent musical meaning?
RW: Your question embarrasses me because I'm about to say tonight in a little lecture that I regard poetic forms as having certain inherent capabilities. It would be easy for me right now to talk about the inherent capabilities of the sonnet, for example, or even of the sestina. But as for the quatrain, I don't think I'm prepared to be eloquent about that. I do know that I read T.S. Eliot's quatrains and those of Ezra Pound with enthusiasm, and that they showed me that the little jogging, dancing form of the octosyllabic quatrain is not necessarily trivial in its material, and isn't designed solely for light verse. I perceive from your citations of my poems that I've used the quatrain for quite serious purposes at times. Perhaps one answer to your question might be that the short-line quatrain—I think now of Auden's "As I Walked Out One Evening"—can be a disarming form in which dark and jolting words can be delivered with a sudden, cool mordancy. I first learned that, I expect, from "Sweeney Among the Nightingales," but never tried to formulate it until now.
Image: What was the impetus for you to write such extended meditations as the soliloquy, "Walking to Sleep," and the dramatic monologue "The Mind-Reader"? Are the speakers here dark doubles, like those "others" in Poe's stories, poems which serve as examples of what your own poetry would look like without the restraints and structures you have won for yourself?
RW: The person speaking in "The Mind-Reader" is someone I'd like to testify about a little. He's not altogether a reflection of me, but he's someone whom I can up to a point understand and sympathize with. At one point the original of the mind-reader, the real man in Rome on whom the poem is based, said to a friend of mine that "it's no fun to be a mind-reader, you know. It's no fun to have a mind that's like a common latrine." The invadedness of the mind-reader's mind was what appalled me and made it necessary to write the poem. Thinking about what it must be like to have a mind so vulnerable led me to seek, in vain of course, to imagine what the mind of God must be like, continually besieged by all of us, by all that we have to say, all that we have to confess. That's at the center of the poem really: a kind of amazement at the thought of what a mind must be like that can put up with all of us and still be inviolate.
Image: Thrown a curve once in an interview and asked what poem you would like to have written, you answered—modestly enough—The Divine Comedy. What is it about that poem which places it for you at the heart of Western poetry? Has the poem acted as a template or example for your own practice? Formally? Conceptually? Emotionally? Theologically?
RW: As you observed a few minutes back, there are traces of Dante in my little poem "Piccola Commedia"; it's meant to be amusing on the surface and infernal underneath. I believe that that's my only salient reference to Dante. I admire him and his Comedy for a great many reasons: a brilliant, intricate architecture that's wholly serious, and wholly justified in its intricacy; profound knowledge of the heart and soul; sinewy spareness of style; a superb range of intonations. Still, I'm surprised to have answered that interviewer as I did; my normal answer would be John Milton's "Lycidas."
Image: I understand that you will soon be publishing a new volume of essays. Will it be about the same size as Responses?
RW: Yes, and I suppose it will be called Responses II. That's just my guess. Like the first volume, it's an accumulation of things that I wrote in answer to this invitation or that, this occasion or that. I hope all the material I've bundled together is usable, but I'm not dead sure. So I've put the manuscript in the hands of David Ferry and David Sofield, two friends who are not only discriminating but also honest, and who will tell me "this must go, that must be cut, and your order is ridiculous." That kind of thing.
Image: How far along are you toward a new volume of poetry?
RW: I might have something like half of a book of poems done. At the moment, I'm struggling to recover the habit of writing poems, the habit of turning my experience, as it comes, into verse. It's a habit that you can lose, and I think to some extent I've lost it through concentration on translations in recent years.
Image: Is there any conscious way of recovering that habit?
RW: I don't think so. I don't think that one can force oneself into a frame of mind, but one can force oneself not to do certain distracting things. I've lately been obliging myself, with some discomfort, to sit still and see if something won't come. And a few poems have been coming along. I have hopes of having another book of poems within several years.