The book is delightfully organized. In addition to a general introduction to the interviews and essays, each of the interviews is preceded by one-page description of the setting where the interviews took place, the state of mind of the poet, and the relationship of deNiord to the poet and his or her work, many times through a personal story. This provides a wonderfully human touch to these interviews that balances out the brilliant scholarship and life-long preparation on the part of deNiord, as a reader, writer, and teacher of poetry. At the end of the book, the Biographical Notes provides an objective frame of reference for the poets interviewed: Jack Gilbert, Maxine Kumin, Ruth Stone, Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly, and Lucille Clifton.
Right from this first interview, I sensed that these interviews were going to be different from any other interviews I had ever read. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the Jack Gilbert interview was experiencing the little (and not-so-little) quakes caused by the pressure between deNiord's questions and Gilbert's answers--two giant, tectonic minds grinding against one another, sliding along their fault lines, neither one ever buckling under or vaulting above the other's ideas or points or opinions. Each, in their own way, charting and changing the geography of their conversation with the material that the other had provided. Witness the following exchange concerning Gilbert's reticence to publish, the current state of poetry, and whether or not poetry can change anything!
CD: I have heard that you have several hundred uncollected and unpublished poems lying around your house. Do you plan to publish these poems?
JG: That's right. I'm not sure what I intend to do with them.
JG: Well, there are several reasons. One is, I've never had much impulse to publish. I waited fourteen years between my first and second book. Ten years between my second and third book. I love to write poetry, and I love to get it right. Sometimes I'm a workaholic, getting it to where I think it's right. But, I guess one of the things is that I don't believe in poetry today, because it's involved with money so much, and careerism. I don't believe people would continue to write poetry, most of them, if there was no money to be made in poetry. You don't make money directly in poetry, but if you get noticed you get jobs in colleges, things like that. Then you can buy a house and raise a nice family so you can be proud of yourself. But I don't like that use of poetry. I love it, and still love it, in my memory, when there was no money to be made in poetry. When nobody could make money off poetry.
CD: But perhaps you're hiding your light under a bushel basket.
JG: Well, it's not going to change anybody's life.
CD: You just said that a good poem changes a person's life! [In an earlier exchange.]
CD: And you write good poems.
JG: Yes, but that doesn't mean I have to do it all of the time.
CD: Every ten or fourteen years?
CD: The MFA students were deeply moved by your reading last night. [This portion of the interview was held in a dormitory at New England College during one of their Poetry MFA residencies.]
JG: That's impressive. When I give a reading I'm surprised at the people who take it seriously because we live in an age of entertainment. Today's children grow up on electronic games, sports, and other things. But I think generally there isn't time to take things seriously nowadays. I'm not bitter about it. I don't feel like it's sour grapes because I'm lucky enough that I can publish what I publish. But I don't know what you're going to do about the fact that the audience for poetry today is basically not there, unless you're writing a kind of puzzle that gives people a rush of happiness in solving it.
CD: There's a young woman in the program who was thinking about leaving yesterday. She confessed that she was terrified of taking herself seriously as a poet. She approached me about an hour ago to tell me that she had decided to remain in the program. I asked her why and she said because of your reading last night. That was the only reason she gave.
JG: Bless her. That's a very nice thing that you told me.
CD: And because of Jack Gilbert's poems that she heard last night for the first time. She's twenty-one years old and she's been brought up on electronic games. She's a reader also.
[At this point, Gilbert goes into a tirade against the recent failures of poetry, video games, careerism, and MFA programs.]
CD: That is the state of things, but if we had more of your poems wouldn't that be a service to the world?
JG: That's not a fair way to argue.
CD: Why not? Wouldn't it provide an invaluable cultural and social service, as your reading did last night for the students, faculty and guests?
[Again, Gilbert deflects the question into the historical vs. the current value of poetry.]
CD: Well, this student deciding to stay here in this program instead of going to law school--we have you to thank.
JG: Well, it's wonderful and so flattering. It's great to hear. I went to a reading several years ago and after it was over--this is going to sound pompous--several people who knew I was in the audience came over to me and formed a circle, which was good for my vanity. I'm saying this ironically. Then suddenly a man in his early forties, maybe his late thirties, just an ordinary guy, came pushing through this group that had formed around me, and without saying hello or introducing himself said, "I want you to know that you've been keeping me alive with your poetry since 1982." Without giving me time to respond, he pushed his way to the other side and disappeared. I never could find him. But that was deeply moving.
This exchange concluded Part I of the interview, conducted July 10, 2003. During Part II, conducted some time later in Jack's home, deNiord discusses, among other things, the idea (which Jack brought up), of vanity in writing poetry. We pick up the interview with deNiord reading to Jack his poem "Tear It Down," and follow this thread to the end of the interview.
Tear It Down
We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of raccoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not
enough. We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time. We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within that body.
JG: That's very nice to hear.
CD: Do you feel this was written out of vanity?
JG: Yes, but also more a delight. What moves me is hearing what I've done.
CD: You write in this poem, "Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh" and "Rome is better than Rome." Do you feel in some curious way that Jack Gilbert is better than Jack Gilbert when he's writing?
JG: Yes, sure, but I take that for granted. It's like coming across a blade of grass. It's just a pleasure. It's manifest in front of me.
CD: So you feel like a witness that transcends yourself.
JG: I just feel lucky. I don't feel like I own it. I made it, but that's different. It's more about the pleasure that's just there when it's done, whether anyone sees it or not. I see it myself, quietly. I'm not showing anyone.
CD: So you have a very large but selfless sense of your own audience?
CD: This selfless awareness reminds me of Ivan Ilych's death-bed ipiphany in Tolstoy's story "The Death of Ivan Ilych." Ivan struggles to ask for forgiveness from his wife, but in his weakness utters "forgo" instead of "forgive," knowing in the end that it doesn't matter if he's understood.
JG: That's a very nice way to say it. I have so much gratitude and I don't have any regret for it. My gratitude is very simple in this way.
CD: You must get up in the morning feeling very happy.
JG: Yes, most of the time, but I'm also very angry about aging, about not being able anymore to do things I want to do. I don't bother myself about the loss. I feel it, and the anger diminishes. So much has been given to me.
CD: I remember you once telling me when you lived with my wife and me in Iowa for a few months that many poets of your reputations and prestige enjoy flying on planes and going places, but that you're content just to stare out the window of the Greyhound bus.
JG: Yes. I like my memories of being hungry and lost. I relish all those things. The experience of being myself. To be privileged to have been there, in my life.
CD: Like a guest of yourself?
JG: Not a guest, but to have had it.
Both because of the substance of Jack Gilbert, the interviewee, and the preparation, deep insight, and perseverance of Chard deNiord, the interviewer, we are privileged to be the guest of a unique conversation between the two on Gilbert's writing and life, and to have it always, to return to again and again.
Next week: Chard deNiord's interview of Maxine Kumin!