Panel: Poetry and 100 Years

14th Annual UND Writers Conference:
"The Centennial Year"
March 25, 1983

© 1983 Richard Howard, The Estate of James Ingram Merrill, and the University of North Dakota

[Video of this panel is also available.]

[Please note, unless otherwise specified, poetry is presented with published line breaks:
for proper spacing and formatting, please consult printed source.]

Michael Anderegg: Welcome to the Friday Panel, the fourth and final panel of this Fourteenth Annual Writers Conference. Before I introduce our panelists, I would like to thank our sponsors, which is usually done.

[someone turns the microphone on]

Michael Anderegg: Ah! Amazing. Okay. This is a good appropriate time to thank our sponsors when the microphone is on—the Office of the President, SAC, and Columbia Mall, and John Little would also especially like to thank Ursula Hovet for, as he put it, "saving his ass." Maybe I shouldn't have waited until the microphone was on.

Our panelists today are James Merrill and Richard Howard. Both of them will be introduced to you fulsomely, I assume, later on today. Richard Howard is reading at 3 p.m. and James Merrill at 8 p.m., both right here, I believe. So I don't want to steal the thunder from the introducers from later on today. I will merely point out that James Merrill and Richard Howard are probably two of the most distinguished "men of letters" in America today. And I use the phrase "men of letters" advisedly, an old-fashioned phrase perhaps. James Merrill is, of course, a poet, but he has also written novels and plays. Richard Howard is also a poet, but he is also a critic and a distinguished translator. Both gentlemen, for those of you who are interested in such things, have won the Pulitzer Prize for their poetry. The topic that was chosen for today, I'm not sure, I think John Little chose it, was "Poetry and 100 Years." Did you choose it?

Richard Howard: Well, I intimated to John that since the University was having its centenary, we might bind ourselves to it with that particularly hoop.

Michael Anderegg: Okay. So, obviously we are tying in to the centennial and as some preparation for this topic, and I will turn over the panel to our guests in a moment, I tried to find out what happened a 100 years ago that might be appropriate to mention. I found out that Edward Fitzgerald, Ivan Turgenev, and Emerson, and Longfellow died, as did Karl Marx and Richard Wagner. That Franz Kafka was born in 1883, as was Benito Mussolini. Not sure how appropriate that is. The year before, 1882, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce were born. Gertrude Stein was nine years old. What else? The year, if we go forward a little bit, 1885, we find D.H. Lawrence and Ezra Pound born both in that year. There were other things that happened, the Brooklyn Bridge opened; twelve people were trampled to death in all the excitement, and Hiram Maxim invented the first fully automatic machine gun. So there you are, just a small sampling of what happened in 1883. But the topic "Poetry and 100 Years," I think suggests a number of things, among them perhaps the poetic tradition out of which poets write. And so, I'm just going to leave it very simple at that and I'll begin by asking both panelists to speak to the topic however they wish to do so and after that I will open up the discussion to the audience.

Now we have a microphone standing there in the middle, but I realize that a lot of people are too shy, too, or whatever to come up to the microphone, so I'll be entertaining questions from anywhere in the audience and I will repeat them, so everyone can hear and so they can be recorded. I will also entertain written questions, if you wish to pass them forward to the front row and someone will collect them. So beginning with, and I should indicate that on my extreme right is James Merrill and on my near right is Richard Howard, and I'll begin with Richard Howard.

Richard Howard: Culture is too much for us and we split it up as best we can in order to deal with it. One of the ways that we split it up is by time and by measurements of time. Lewis Mumford suggests that modernity begins with the invention of the clock, the public clock, and until we had public clocks in cities we did not reside in modernity. Most of us are aware that we, we need to periodize our experience in various ways. The Germans in their terse and sparkling fashion have probably a single word that means the impulse toward periodization in art. But I looked it up and tried and tried to learn it, but it's too hard to say, so I'll spare you that. But one of the ways we have found, in a more intimate and domestic way, we have the fifty minute hour, the classroom, the courtroom period, as I say, the psychoanalytic hour, such notions are entirely artificial, but they are convenient. The century is probably the most distressing convenience that we have devised in that it tends to blur and distort our sense of time and of, especially in the arts, in a very particular way.

I'm very pleased. This is the first time I've ever been on a panel when the moderator moderated. When the moderator suggested something that would be useful to the panel and I'd like to express my gratitude very quickly. Those dates and those names were precisely what I was, I had rather diligently prepared myself to offer. I no longer need to do that, but I, I'm, I'm happy to say that this notion of the 100 years this entirely really discrepant entity. I had a teacher once, Jacques Barzin, who used to say that the nineteenth century really most characteristically consisted of what happened between 1789 and 1800 and between 1900 and 1914 and that everything else in between there wasn't really the 19th century at all. Such was a way of indicating to us, as students, that these are entirely artificial conveniences. These are myths, centuries, and I thought when John Little called and said what would you guys like to talk about. There has to be a poetry panel. I thought that since the university was itself celebrating this myth of 100 years that we might discuss the notion of poetry and 100 years as the period in which, for some reason, what we call modernity somehow occurred.

We have been living for the last 100 years within the myth of modernity and there is some likelihood that one of us could probably put his hand or hers on her heart and his and—that sounds rather awkward [unclear]—and say when modernity began. We like to know the inception of our myths and how long they last. And we like to see them die out. And I think we see with modernity and we hear lots of murmurs and mumbles—now I do because I translate books about them—that we are now past modernity. But if there is such a thing as post-modernity, and if we squeak through past 2000, will we be in it? If there is a post-modernity, wasn't there a pre? And, as I will read in poem this afternoon, doesn't the post have to feed on the pre and, if so, when might we say that modernity actually begins?

I'd like to ask James that, but before I do, I want to offer a candidate myself for modernity. And the way we do it, I think, most often is to go to the authorities for when things begin. As we have gone to authorities for the notion of a century, for instance. Or as when we reach one o'clock today or whenever this is felt to adjourn, it will, there will be an authority. It will be the clock on the wall and the fact that you all begin filing out knowing that this time must be up.

So, I go to an authority to suggest the beginning of our modernity. I go to the poet that the syndics of Oxford University went to when the Oxford University Press, the most successful and prestigious academic publisher in the world, consulted when they, in 1936, said we have every other kind of book. We have an Oxford Book of Spanish Verse. We have an Oxford Book of English Conversation. We don't have an Oxford Book of Modern Verse. And they, they simply went, in 1936, to what they felt was the best English poet. The poet most likely to recognize what was perhaps, in 1936, even a preposterous proposition that is that there was such a thing as modern verse and that the two words were not in conflict. And they said to W.B. Yeats: "choose us the Oxford Book of Modern Verse." Yeats accepted and a year later the book was published.

Does, most of you will probably know what the first modern poem, number one, in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse is, but I'm not going to, in my jolly way, test you. I'm going to tell you. The first poem in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse is a piece of prose. It seems already that we have a statement being made about our modernity, right away. Yeats did not have quite the courage of his invention there. He set up the piece of prose as if it were, God help us, free verse that climaxing of movement that had begun in the century in which we're talking about free trade, free love, and, finally, in 1936, free verse, as Gertrude Stein said about all those little magazines that died to make verse free. We, Yeats set up his passage of prose, which is one of the greatest pieces of prose in the language, as the first poem in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse and the passage of prose was indeed a description of an already existing work of art.

I think that's the second point I want to make about our modernity is that it begins with a contradiction of its mode, that is it's prose, and it's determined to be verse. That it's art, which is concerned with an already existing work of art, and it is, of course, as many of you know—I see lots of nodding faces and a few wreathed in smiles—it is the description of the Mona Lisa by Walter Pater. The celebrated purple patch that begins the section that Yeats chose to versify "she is older than the rocks among which she sits." This passage was a kind of Bible for symbolist poets from the '80s on and it was written, I might point out, in 1863, but it reached its great popular appeal during the decade, another myth of the naughty '90s, the satanic Symbolist period. And as Mr. Auden has pointed out to us, it is but a step from the satanic to the suburban and, by 1910, that step had been taken. And it was impossible, I think, for modernism not to react against some of the more churchly and organ tones of a piece like Pater's description of the famous painting by Leonardo, but that is one candidate and, in many ways a very good one, for the first modern poem.

And our modernity may, for instance, as poets, take its inception from that celebrated figure described in prose and described as a matter of fact, not as if she were a painting, but as if she were a reality. She is the emblem of what we might call, what the Greeks call, ananke or necessity and which Leonardo has figured for us as the female will. I think that a nice way to begin by saying that our 100 years is the 100 years in which modernity is invented, that here is one way of saying modernity begins. It is often thought to have ended.

I would like to ask James, who is as I can see clawing for the microphone, I would like to ask James when he thinks modernity ended. Since I have offered a notion of when it began.

James Merrill: I think it ended when we began to write. Well, I mean, I think it ended with what you call the University Wits at least for the purposes of American poetry. Suddenly there was, thanks to Mr. Eliot's criticism and the famous book of Brooks and Warren called Understanding Criticism, there was a violent swerve back towards a kind of manageable work a nostalgia for Elizabethan or post-Elizabethan lyric modes. And these were even, the process was somehow ennobled I think by Eliot's very clever phrase about the disassociation of sensibility that occurred, as somebody pointed out, somewhere in the dotage of Andrew Marvell, so that we could have our cake and eat it too. We could feel that we were being modern because we knew that our sensibility were disassociated, but we could also feel that we were reliving a very grand period of the mature of our language of and the sprawling works or the jagged works or the extremely difficult works that constitute the high modern period of Stein and "The Wasteland" and Pound was somehow put on hold while we recovered more stanzaic effects, more metaphysical effects.

Richard Howard: It was splendid to have it pointed out that Kafka and Virginia Woolf and Joyce and Pound are of a moment, and that their births occurred within a year or two of each other and at a moment when Whitman and Melville were still alive. Whitman and Melville die within a year of each other in 1892. And it is important to realize and this in line with my suggestion that the centuries are myths that there is a kind of, that one thing grows out of another imperceptively and that it is only an accident that we choose to think of our modernity as one that would exclude for instance Whitman and Melville, while concentrating on, on Kafka and Joyce who are exactly the high modern water marks. And yet those figures were, were, there is a temporal process of imperceptibility going on there that reminds us, I think, that we need notions like that of a hundred years in order to make manageable what is otherwise a kind of a great soft whoosh into which we risk vanishing all together. If we don't mark off by periods the literature and the culture of the art by which we give some sign that we've been alive, for most of us it becomes a vast confusion and not a very fertile confusion. We need these myths of discretion and separation in order to confer order and most of us are content to abide by those rules that is twentieth century so that 1900, which actually is a very bad year to choose for modernism, becomes nonetheless when most of us take courses that begin to discuss what we call the myth of the modern. And I think the twenty-first century, will probably, if we get there, will probably be a very bad time in which to talk about the end of modernism, which I suspect James is right in saying modernism probably ended about the time when we begin to write, after the second world war. Howard Nemerov once gave a series of lectures called "What was modernism." And in his....

James Merrill: "What was Modern Poetry?", I think it was called.

Richard Howard: Yeah. And he refers to all the difficult works that, as James so carefully said, jagged and sprawling that lie about in our literary landscape and to which he has added one that is so shapely and smooth.

James Merrill: And so long.

Richard Howard: Well uh, length need not be either jagged or sprawling and you have, I think there are some ways that the Changing Light at Sandover is a post-modern work rather than a modern work. Has that already been suggested? In the reviews? Or haven't you looked at the reviews?

James Merrill: I've looked, but I don't remember.

Richard Howard: Ah yes. There speaks the aristocrat. But would you like to enlarge on my entire assumption?

James Merrill: [shakes his head no].

Richard Howard: Well, that leaves me free.

Michael Anderegg: Well perhaps, one other fact that I meant to mention about 1883 could lead into another question and then I'll turn things over to the audience. Robert Browning was still publishing in 1883, which is remarkable when you consider he was born in 1812 and actually he had been publishing poetry for fifty years in 1883. And I know that Robert Browning is a particular favorite of Howard's. And the question that this leads to perhaps is a question of influence. Of the poets who've been writing in the last 100 years, how have they influenced your work, both Richard Howard and James Merrill.

Richard Howard: As one pointed out yesterday, in a similar though perhaps less tense gathering, we felt that one gathered one's the notion of one's work from a very large possibility. One of the joys of speaking and writing a major language was that it existed for a very long time. And one had a choice, one could move about in English for a very long time and was not limited in this way so that one could select one's ancestors insofar as one wished to have them at all, from a very considerable range. But it is true that for the young poet, a new poet, those writers who are still alive or who have died within the parental period, that is who are contemporaries of his or her own parents, are often the poets that tend to be what we call influential.

And uh, it was perhaps not all together an accident that a poet like Browning—there is no poet like Browning. He is the most original figure to have appeared in English poetry between Wordsworth and now—that Browning was a colossally helpful and enabling presence for me for instance. I wanted to tell just one quick story about him. You say he was still publishing in 1883. He was publishing a little book called Asolando, [at the time, the lyric]. The old man had had by this time a very various career as a poet. He had been very unpopular in his youth. He had married a poet who much more popular than himself and had been rejected by the public, when he was a young man, for his best work. As Carlyle said about Browning, comparing him to Lord Tennyson, "Alfred knows how to jingle." And Browning didn't.

[break in the tape]

charm. Browning was violent and jagged and difficult and allusive. But by the end, he had held on long enough, so that something wonderful happened to that little book. He went back to England for the publication of it, after stopping in Venice and visiting his son and daughter-in-law, an American woman, a millionairess. And when he got to England, he was not feeling well; he had caught a Venetian cold. And he went to bed and that morning...I want you to think of Browning, who was the last, along with his exact contemporary Walt Whitman, one of the last of the great poets who looked like God with the wonderful white beard and he was lying in his bed with a Venetian cold with the beard out over the counterpane. And they said, "Mr. Browning, your new book that was just published this morning sold out within hours of its publication, all 5000 copies, first edition of Asolando." And the old poet smiled, crossed his hands on the counterpane, said "How gratifying," and died. I think that the influence of Robert Browning that I wish to espouse.

Want to talk about the poets that influenced you in the last 100 years?

James Merrill: I'd better say yes. I'd like to say something though about really influences of other languages and maybe it's wrong to confuse modernity with internationality. But if time and space are one, it seems to me that there are periods in literature where there has been a very fruitful influence on English poets from abroad. I suppose beginning with Chaucer and Spenser and the Italian poets and certainly in our century, the past century, modernism would be in a way inconceivable without Eliot's readings in French and in Dante, Pound's readings of the troubadours and Chinese. This kind of thing happens at different periods in history and I should imagine everyone concerned feels if not extremely modern, extremely international I think at the same time.

I read myself a lot of French poetry and part of my aspiration when I started to write was to reproduce certain effects that I found in Mallarmé for instance or even in the jingling of French poets, the ones who set to music so beautifully by [Floret] and Debussy. Verlaine, Henri de Regnier, people like that a very limpid almost singable line.

Richard Howard: You mentioned that Wagner died 100 years ago this year. That's an important figure. If I had to say three or four daddies of modernism, they would include Whitman, Wagner, Nietzsche, and Walter Pater. Of whom, I am happy to mention Pater first, because he was an English speaking writer. But think it is extraordinary to discover how Walt Whitman, who is the American figure that most of us have to come as Ezra Pound said we have to come to terms with him. Pound took a very long time and wrote a very curious poem about which I think some of you will know, "I make a pact with you Walt Whitman. I have hated you long enough." He is the American poet, or the American writer I think that helps us establish a sense of our presence within the language as a new one. And he comes to use that veterinarian phrase "out of Emerson" in a particular way. And there really is a line, a descent, a lineage, an ancestry, which as Americans who are said to be almost uniformly poor in such things, I think we can seize upon and even reject with a kind of meaningfulness that runs or brims from Emerson to Whitman to Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost to maybe twelve poets writing today. And it's a genuine course of poetry which we can follow the way English teachers have been following something that they call "the line of wit," for instance, that runs, as we have been told, from Ben Jonson to Donne to Milton etc. etc. and finally peters out in Dryden and Pope, if anything can be said to peter out with Pope.

James Merrill: Byron.

Richard Howard: And well yes, it does lead to Byron, and there, perhaps. Or turns into light verse in the nineteenth century. But we have a lineage, we have a heritage, and we have an American line, which indeed is one that in the last 100 years became, with Walt Whitman, manifestly available. And had also, it was the first time that an American writer had a really major effect on Europe. I know someone is going to say Poe, but Poe did not have a major effect on Europe. He was enjoyed and read in Europe and he was translated by Baudelaire, but I'm talking about an effect as really a maker, a creative effect. And Whitman is really the American figure who has such an effect and who along with Wagner really creates something like what we're calling modern sensibility and I would feel that in the last 100 years, since the death of Wagner and the death of Whitman three years later, we are in that era, which has nothing to do with 1900 or the beginning of the twentieth century, it was already there.

Michael Anderegg: All right, I would like to entertain questions from the audience now. As I say, you can come up to the microphone and being sure to be heard by everyone or you can speak out and I'll repeat your questions or comments. Come, come now don't be shy.

Questioner 1: Good Day.

[microphone feedback]

Richard Howard: That wasn't a question.

Questioner 1: Oh.

Michael Anderegg: That was a cry.

Questioner 1: This building is being tested for fire emergency systems today. Did anyone notice that on that door? I was prepared for something to go off when Mr. Howard was speaking and I wasn't disappointed. R.S. Crane says literature of the last 100 years is written no longer for the republic, but rather for a republic of letters. He is referring of course to the change in attitude toward writing. Poetry no longer then becomes valued as a social gesture or a shaper of behavior. And I'm interested in both of your attitudes towards language and literature. Specifically, who is your audience and do you in fact maintain an unimpeded mind as Woolf says is so necessary. There is a lot of questions right there.

James Merrill: Maintain a what?

Questioner 1: An unimpeded mind that is so necessary for an artist. That you're able to distill your own anger, sense of outrage, whatever, so we can understand it. One of those good old questions. But I'm mostly interested in your attitude towards language and its usefulness; literature its value, in a social and political context.

Michael Anderegg: Thank you.

James Merrill: Well it's very interesting that the most hermetic of poets, I'm thinking again of Mallarmé, had that wonderful phrase which Eliot translated in the Four Quartets: "Donner en sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu," to purify the dialect if you try. And I would say that no matter how large or how small your audience is that you're helping in this process. By purification, I don't think it means that you don't use words like "laser" or "nylon," but that you find ways of accommodating the changes in culture and bringing it into a literary language. Snodgrass was so pleased when he had a lot of experience as a male nurse and he got all of his hospital terms into a poem and it mattered to him. He was proud that he'd used "catheter" for the first time in an English poem, as far as he knew.

Richard Howard: And yourself.

James Merrill: Uh, I don't know. I think it's...One thing I feel that has mattered to me constantly is to use as many clichés as I possibly can, because it seems to me that these encapsulate a kind. Everyone, I mean, everyone is used to the idea that every verb is a dead metaphor and many nouns are, but it seems to me that these are dead truths and that they can be dipped in water and made to shine or held to the light and made to glow. I can't think of any examples right now, but innocent readers have said to me, that line is banal. It's flat. It's something that everyone says. But if you said it in a certain way and in a certain context it says a good deal more than it will have said for decades.

Richard Howard: I have a suspicion that the capacity to do that, to transform what every body knows into what no one has ever thought of before but has always said is indeed an energy and of our modernity and if it is something that you have specialized in it has something to do with also something that we feel to be very characteristic of the language now as we use it. It is going to be language, rather like history and nature in the nineteenth and twentieth century as we know them, it is going to be language itself that reveals to us the truth hitherto unsuspected or unavailable. I think your question asked something about, spoke to the notion that poetry no longer affords us, I'm translating, a social gestus, and I'm of course not sure how much of a social gestus poetry afforded the nineteenth century. We tend to have pieties about it, which it has been something of my endeavor to explode. A figure like Browning, who is now a school poet and not much read except in schools, was, as I have said, an explosive modernist figure, disliked, un-admired, except by very few for a very long time. And it was not the history of the acceptance of what we now call the great English poets, especially from the nineteenth century on, is a rather disconcerting history because it takes fifty years from the appearance of the fine work until its acceptance within the tribe and I think most of us suffer from a kind of historical guilt about that. We don't want to miss the next Rimbaud and, as a consequence, we take up Gregory Corso.

James Merrill: I remember though in the '40s spending a summer in a rented house in Maine, and there were a lot of books there, including a complete Browning, a complete Tennyson. And the look of those books was unlike anything one sees on a shelf nowadays in somebody's house. They had been, every page had been read dozens of times and I suspect read aloud because those books might have gone back to days before radio, certainly before television where the evenings entertainment, I mean, they had nothing better to do, as we have now, than to read books aloud to each other.

Richard Howard: When we say that the social gestus of a period is no longer ordered or even entertained by the practice of poetry whether read aloud or written, exchanged, published, I'm not sure that were entitled to mourn this fact, I think we're merely entitled to observe that there has been a mutation, a vast one, in our public and perhaps our private manners. I don't think it's a terrible thing or a sad thing.

James Merrill: Not a bit.

Richard Howard: And, no.

James Merrill: No, I mean the audience that relies exclusively on television would've been a non-reading audience in the nineteenth and eighteenth century to begin with.

Richard Howard: And uh. Although poets, when they get together, like to discuss the fact with each other that no one reads poetry, I am not so sure that we can lay the flattering unction to our souls that anyone ever did. I'm very, I tend to be rather dubious about it. I think, therefore, that your question or the, or that question which you pointed out has its own tradition, that question has a mythological status that is: was poetry ever quite the organizing goddess among us, that, or divinity, that we like to say that it was. I have a feeling that that's a kind of misplaced piety that we are attaching to, as we say to put ourselves in countenance or at least give jobs to English teachers.

Michael Anderegg: On that note, is there another question? Paul.

Questioner 2: [unintelligible]

Michael Anderegg: I'll try to repeat that.

Richard Howard: No, I think it was heard.

Michael Anderegg: Was that heard by everyone?

Unknown: For the tape.

Michael Anderegg: For the tape, okay. For the tape, I'll just repeat the last part. The questioner asks James Merrill if he is supposed to read James Merrill's 560-page poem as he reads Mallarmé.

James Merrill: Of course I would like to be read with great care and devotion. I'd like people to give up everything and follow me, but, uh. As Richard whispered in my ear, that the title of that, of that, I mean you might think that "Prose pour Des Esseintes." was anything but a poem but in fact it's a poem in very beautiful quatrains. And....

Richard Howard: When I spoke of that notion that the first modern poem was a piece of prose, very highly figured and elaborately rhythmed, but nonetheless written as prose and should preferably preserved that way, Yeats really betrayed Walter Pater considerably by setting it up as that awful thing free verse. The enemy. But I wanted to, I think you give me the opportunity to loiter for a second over what prose means, most of us I don't think know. Prose is a, prosa, was originally a verse form and that's why Mallarmé's poem is called "Prose pour Des Esseintes." He wrote several of them, poems called prose. And it's confusing to see that word, but prosa was a poem of varying line lengths that was inserted into the Catholic ceremony, usually after the mass, but before the congregation was dismissed in the Middle Ages. And it comes, it is the past participle of the old Latin verb "provertere," which means to move forward and prosa is really that which has moved forward, having moved forward. And you hear in the word proverete the same root of the word verse, the sense of turning. Now verse, as we know, always turns back. I had a chance to say that yesterday that verse always implied some kind of recovering or recuperation or return, a repetition element; whereas prose, even though the word has the word, the sound "vertere" in it, turning, it means a turning forward, a going on, a kind of linear sense and to that degree I think we might even resolve the apparent contradiction of reading a poem called prose and reading a 550-page poem. And one might say, "plus ça change, plus c'est la même prose."

Michael Anderegg: Any, yes, yes. While you're getting to the microphone, I would just like to announce briefly that KFJM AM will broadcast this open mic session tomorrow morning at 10 a.m.

Questioner 3: Okay. Working?

Michael Anderegg: I think so.

Questioner 3: Okay, I'm a student in journalism. And in high school I read a quote that I kind of take as a goal for my studies and it was from Joseph Pulitzer. And he wrote that his idealistic goal for the editorial page, and he says that every issue of the paper presents an opportunity and a duty to say something courageous and true. To rise above the mediocre and conventional, to say something that commands the respect of the intelligent, the educated, the independent part of the community, to rise above the fear of partisanship and fear of popular prejudice. And I was wondering if you have a certain goal with your poetry, for both poets.

James Merrill: I think to write poetry ideally implies many of those virtues of, it seems to me as I say somewhere in my long poem, one of the cleanest uses of power that is available to people in this world. But if it's a matter of calling on yourself, as a poet, to be courageous and universal it's not going to work. I mean you cannot make a courageous statement once in a year, let alone once every day, on the editorial page without a certain happy connection of circumstances and outside events and a purity of response towards them. Certainly part of the poet's business is to keep responses pure or in Herbert's phrase, "new, tender, quick," but we're not always at our best.

Richard Howard: About having an ideal or a goal toward which one orients oneself as one continues, I think the notion of continuing itself is for me something of the ideal. The sense of how, what is it about working at all, as a writer, that enables you to go on working. And for me it has been some sort of connection to the past; and I have found that the dialogue with the great dead is the one that enables me to continue writing. And that's what interests me, that is the ideal is the sense that there is some kind of persistence in the impulse and the effort and that it goes on. And I feel that it goes on because it has been and that there is some kind of relation among the different verb tenses there that is enabling. And I think that is the thing, the carrot that is held out in front of me on the end of a very long stick. I see that people are beginning to do what I said they would.

Michael Anderegg: Yes.

Richard Howard: Getting up and leaving that must mean something.

James Merrill: Simple hunger pangs.

Michael Anderegg: The five to one bell has rung and people are heading for class.

Richard Howard: There is still a question.

Michael Anderegg: We can continue certainly, sure.

Questioner 4: Before you escape, I wonder if you would talk a little bit more about the "innocent reader." Do you think an innocent reader is one that has no connection with tradition?

Richard Howard: I wanted to say that the "innocent reader" is the guilty reader. The innocent reader is the one that does not know that he does not know, and or she. And that is the reader that is really the endangering and jeopardizing reader not only for poets, but for a country a culture and a per, a moment. I believe what is called the "innocent reader" is what we mean by the uninformed reader or the reader who has no prejudices or who thinks that the reader has no prejudices. I think that's the most dangerous notion of all is when we mistake culture for nature. We think that we are merely speaking out of our nature, when of course we are always speaking out of culture. And this is the most dangerous ideology of all, and it is the one we must always be on guard against, I believe.

James Merrill: But many innocent readers feel guilty if they don't understand every reference on the page. I would like to absolve them of that guilt.

Richard Howard: Me too.

James Merrill: Because, just as at a party when people are talking, you're not going to understand all the references. The conversation depends on phrases like "I have this friend" or "when I was in such and such a city" which you haven't visited. You take this as part of the opaque dabs in the conversational picture. And they're there as much for their own sake as for the secret life that they also contain.

Questioner 5: I would like to flip this ahead a 100 years assuming there will be people to talk about poetry.

Richard Howard: I wonder if people every so often said that as we now.

Questioner 5: Oh, I'm sure. Probably during the seventeenth century.

James Merrill: Chekov's students were always saying it. We are miserable, but think of the power [dies] a hundred years hence.

Richard Howard: No but, I wonder if so often people were saying if there are going to be a 100 years.

Questioner 5: Probably during a blizzard one time. What would you want a panel of people discussing poetry of a 100 years prior to say about the poetry and poets Richard Howard and James Merrill? You can reverse roles if you'd like.

James Merrill: I would like them to say that Richard Howard died at a great age with his beard coming over the counterpane with news that his latest book had sold out.

Richard Howard: I, in a 100 years, I have, really have no doubt at all it is not really any kind of an ideal I know quite well what will be said about the poetry of James Merrill. And I know that it that the work will be read as long as we have any American poetry that is read at all. And that the American poetry and the people that talk about it the way that we talk about it now will be comfortable talking about that considerable body of work. I am happy to think that they may pass over in silence some other bodies of work, but I am eager to contribute to the discourse that will build up a sense of reference to the poetry of my friend on my right and I don't think that it will be a difficult matter. I think that the only difficult matter is, sometimes, living with the sense that you are being insisted, as it were, inside a classicism of your moment that you are a living legend and all of that. And I've noticed that James has various ways of getting out of it, of defusing the idea not just the praise, but the kind of certainty that I'm talking about. I envy that and I would like to acquire the same skill. I don't think that I'll need it in quite the same way.

Michael Anderegg: Any further questions?

Questioner 6: For those in the audience like myself who are a little bit like myself too short sighted to see a 100 years down the line, could you gentlemen take a couple of minutes and relate what your most important message is for people today? Especially attending writers' conferences, I know you [probably] go out of your way to do things like this. What do you want people to leave a writers conference knowing?

James Merrill: Well, when I listen to Richard talk, I feel that I'm in the position of many people in the audience that the vastity and the immediacy of his views of the past of the past writers with whom he hosts his dialogues is a wonderful example to have to have this, and I think for all of us it is to some degree a present affair, but at a less conscious level in our heads, and probably in yours when you're writing, but to be able to lift it into conscious and articulation and to see that this is possible, I mean, that is what I would be, would've been thrilled by and still am, if I'd been an undergraduate or a graduate student, whether in the middle of the country or in one of the urban centers.

Richard Howard: Your question about what we, the message we want. I have to just ignore James' compliments. There's no way to deal with that.

James Merrill: That's how I feel with you.

Richard Howard: No way to deal with that. The question about wanting to leave you with a quick disposable tissue.

James Merrill: A tissue of lies.

Richard Howard: A salad of illusions. There's one thing I make my living as a translator and I, there's a wonderful phrase that Goethe says about what translation is that really applies very nicely to writing itself, in a way, and it has to do with that nature culture opposition that I brushed over just now in that Goethe says one hopes to make, to put what was inside outside. And I think most of the time we spend bringing what was outside in, that's how we live. But as writers certainly as translators, and occasionally as writers we are able to make what was inside outside and I would like that to be the sense of my undertaking.

Michael Anderegg: Any further questions? We'll take a couple more.

Questioner 7: I wonder if you'd like to respond the statement that Europeans tend to think in terms of time, whereas Americans think in terms of space, geographical space.

James Merrill: Well maybe it's my readings, in Europeans like Proust that has made me extremely conscious of time and time is almost a space-time in his sense. No, I can't respond to that distinction.

Richard Howard: Responding to space or which becomes responding to place in America has been a matter of some visionary difficulty because we have such thinness of reference. Miss Stein's famous remark, which I think you could all hear coming as speak, is the celebrated one about "there is no there there." And I think that is one that Americans have struggled with fruitfully. I mean it is a valuable struggle the sense that we inhabit, as T.S. Eliot said in his essay on Henry James, that, like Turganev, we live in large flat country where not much as happened and out of it James and Turgenev made a great deal. And I think Turgenev might be an example on the other side of a European writer who responds more to space than to time, and it's because he's a Russian writer. And I'm not sure that that remark doesn't have to be qualified very intensely by a lot of exceptions on both sides.

James Merrill: And by considerations of regionalism, which is always, more a conscious decision, I think, for a writer than a matter of accident.

[break in tape]

Questioner 8: ....that is valid and then I would like Mr. Howard's comments on the workshop and why it sort of ran the way it ran.

James Merrill: Well, I think that any area, I mean you uh, any area is a valid arena. I have never stopped being surprised at how much life resembled schools I went to that there were people who took all the public roles and private roles in a school situation that one sees now writ large in national and international affairs. What?

Richard Howard: Oh, he's trying to prepare me to answer.

James Merrill: So that to be the sage or the poet of one's community is both valuable to the person who takes that role and valuable to the community. Maybe, I don't know. I myself wanted to be read in New York, as well as North Dakota.

Richard Howard: I think you uh, cheapen the possibilities of your work by saying you don't care what people think about your work in New York. I think you also patronize your community by saying that. Patronize it in the bad sense. I think that you demean your fellows by saying that you write only for them and that you do not care what people think about it outside this region. But and I suspect by your remarks and the tone in which they were delivered that you are much more concerned about the fate of this book than you are about what happened in the workshop, yesterday. Now yesterday was not a workshop. Yesterday was an exhibition for 300 people and, as such, could not be conducted the way a workshop is conducted and we had no intention of doing so. It is quite true you say, as if James confessed to you, that he had not seen the poems for two weeks. Do you think that those twenty-five poems would take more than two minutes to read? For an experienced reader? Well you're mistaken. There was absolutely nothing about those poems that required two weeks preparation or study. I was, I had read them two weeks before, it's quite true and I was prepared to talk about them in detail, but I felt that that would not be a valuable thing to do for 300 people that is a value with the poet preferably one to one.

James Merrill: Yes.

Richard Howard: And, if failing that, and for the conveniences a group, maybe 10 people at the most. It was not a workshop situation. It was, as I say, an exhibition situation and, as such, I felt that the poems could be used as a springboard for some general observations about the practice of poetry by beginning poets. I, in fact, would not talk about the details of those poems in front of a large group of people and I, nothing would induce me to do so. My suggestion is that if you wish to have a session called, how shall I say, not a workshop, but some kind of open discussion of new poems, you do it by a kind of question and answer procedure. I don't think that you can do it, unless you break it up into very small groups, that anything for the poets will come of it. I was not happy with that undertaking, and I take it you weren't. But I don't think that it was quite such a destructive enterprise as you are suggesting. And I think you're more worried about sort of how someone like me is going, not me specifically but, what you're, I think, calling "New York" is going to respond or fail to respond to an about to be published book. And I'm sorry about that, but I don't think you're right in suggesting that you don't care about what happens to the book outside of the region in which you live. I think you care very much.

Michael Anderegg: Brenda?

Questioner 9: I'm not sure how to answer or how to ask this question.

Richard Howard: Neither are we.

Questioner 9: Um, what passions are important to you as individuals to develop clarity in your poetry?

Michael Anderegg: Did you all hear that question? What passions are important to you as individuals to develop your poetry?

Richard Howard: Did you say clarity at one point? Yes. Well, it's interesting that you asked what passions are important to you as individuals. If they are passions, they are only important to us as individuals. You were suggesting, I think, that there are passions that might be important to us as something besides individuals. Now insofar as are individuals, perhaps we can nourish, entertain, or participate in passions, if there is something that affects us beyond being individuals, insofar as we're not individuals and we spend most of our times being not individuals, we are really most of the time both more and less individuals than we fear to be, or hope to be. I don't think passions really come into it. I think passion, if I follow you, is a very special and privileged state, which is only something that, as individuals, that we have access to under very exceptional and rather patiently sought, nourished, fertilized undertakings. And I don't think that it's something that can be proposed as a kind of permanent diet. And I think in terms as one does as a working, as John Ciardi unfortunately used to say, "practicing poet," terrible phrase, I think one has to look for something else to keep one going. Poems have been written on mountaintops during thunderstorms, but not good ones. And I have a feeling that if you're looking for the continuity of poetic practice, it isn't in your passions that you seek it out, it's somewhere else and I speak that way knowing that at 3 o'clock I'm going to try to exhibit what will appear to be the passions, as well as the non-passions of a man of 53, and I accept the risk. Do you want to say anything?

Michael Anderegg: Okay, I think that will be all for today. I would like to make a couple of comments. I would like you to turn in your evaluations as you leave. And uh.

Unknown Speaker: I would like to remind the audience that those who were not here today at the workshop this morning that it went well, and I think that we learned a lot from the visiting artists that were here. Thank you.

Michael Anderegg: Okay. Thank you very much.

[Transcription completed by Dr. Crystal Alberts, 30 June 2009.]


Contact Information

Crystal Alberts

Associate Professor of English

Director, UND Writers Conference

276 Centennial Drive
110 Merrifield Hall, Stop 7209
Grand Forks, ND 58202