James Longenbach and the Whole Human Contraption

1 2 3 4

[p. 2 of 4]

[Longenbach continues]... I read them in the spirit of Oppen's sensibility—I don't really care what they're about; his politics are not what attracts me to the poems qua poems. Now, poems can't help but to be meaningful (this is Joyce's point), but what attracts me to both Marvell and Oppen is their diction. Both of them were influenced by or connected to poets of the plain style (think of Ben Jonson or Thom Gunn), but both of them write just to the side of plain style; that is, while the diction is often breathtakingly simple, you feel that the restrained diction is employed in order to suggest something other—something spooky or mythic—than what the language of the poem also clearly denotes. It's as if the restraint establishes a verbal decorum in which the clear sense of what is being said raises the mysterious specter of why it is being said.

LRS: Let's stick with politics for a moment. In one of your essays on John Ashbery you quote him as writing, "All poetry is against war and in favor of life, or else it isn't poetry." Do you think that is the case?

Longenbach: I don't think Ashbery's remark is literally true, but you have to remember the context in which he was forced to make it. After Frank O'Hara was killed in the mid sixties, Ashbery eulogized him as a poet who refused to align his poetry with any social or political "program"; Louis Simpson subsequently attacked Ashbery for "sneering" at the conscience of poets who thought of their poems as part of the work of protest against the Vietnam War. Responding to Simpson in turn, Ashbery needed to make the remark about all poetry being against war, but he also said something much more challenging: "Poetry is poetry. Protest is protest." The implication here is that a poem has no inevitable relationship to any ideological position. Even to say that all poetry is against war is to give poets the benefit of the doubt—to assure us that the time we spend fiddling with words really is useful after all. Nobody deserves that assurance.

LRS: In the dispute between Simpson and Ashbery, presumably, they were talking largely about the subject matter of poems—poems overtly against the Vietnam War, or those that made no mention of it. How did the terms of this disagreement over the political function of poetry shift in the '70s and '80s?

Longenbach: I'm not sure if the terms have shifted in any fully coherent way, but I do think that the ways in which American poems have been identified as political have always been manifold and often contradictory. For some people, a poem is political if it makes a political statement; it's political in the same way that an email might be political. For other people, a poem is political if it disrupts poetic decorum in aggressive or counter-intuitive ways. Now, a particular poem might indeed have a political function in either of these ways—but only at a particular time and in a particular place. It's impossible to predict a poem's effect reliably, and it's impossible to assert categorically that a poem written in any particular style will automatically perform cultural work. Too often, political claims for poetry are borne of a kind of narcissism—a poet's way of cheering himself up.

LRS: Let's return to the idea of mystery through clarity. When you described Marvell's and Oppen's diction as spooky or mythic earlier, I thought of the role of the oracle in mythology—of oracular speech. Not so much for its quality of pronouncement or portent, but for the idea that great mystery, disquiet, and contradiction proliferate in simple phrases. But how do they? Clarity, simplicity, and restraint aren't enough—a million emails a day exemplify all of these, too, without managing to suggest much else. Could you give an example of how a poet you have learned from navigates the fine line you spoke of earlier, between clarity and mystery?

Longenbach: I would put it a different way: I don't think there's a line between clarity and mystery; I think clarity is mystery, as opposed to confusion. Think of the most well known phrase from Marvell: "a green thought in a green shade." There is nothing difficult here, nothing knotty; my nine-year old daughter could read the line easily (and probably she'd have a better answer for this question, too). But the resonance of that clarity is immense, and all the critical ink that's been spilled over it has yet to exhaust the line's capacity for provoking wonder. The immensity of the unsaid is invoked because the line is so very clear about what it does say. I don't think this is a special quality, really; to my way of thinking, all great poetry—or all the poetry that grips me, anyway—partakes of this quality. How is it that we know that what might seem like two of the dullest lines ever put down on paper—

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry

—are the beginning of one of the great poems in the English language?

LRS: Well, you've just pointed to a poet—W.B. Yeats—who rates Mystery very highly. You've written a book, Stone Cottage, about Yeats and his relationship with Ezra Pound, and you've spent a long time with Yeats's poetry. Are you conscious of what you've absorbed—as a poet—from his work? Or of what you've learned more through rejection than absorption?

Longenbach: Where to begin? I've gotten different things out of Yeats at different points in my life. At one time, it was the way Yeats organized volumes of short poems, making an inevitably yet continually surprising coherence out of a collection of lyrics. At another time, it was his way of making stanzas. I don't know of another poet who drives syntax through stanzas with such quiet, tense energy (I'm thinking of moments like the end of "Dialogue of Self and Soul," where the combination of tetrameters and pentameters seem to lift off the page, they're so vigorously a part of the larger design).

I wrote a lot of pentameters once, and Yeats was, along with Stevens, crucial for me—not so much because of the pentameter as such but because of this way of orchestrating syntax into larger shapes. Then, later on, when I turned more and more to what we call free verse, I found in retrospect that while I thought I was getting Yeats out of my ears, I was really getting him into my ears in a different way. That is, I've thrilled most recently to Yeats's diction—the luminous simplicity of all those Anglo-Saxon words in "The Wild Swans at Coole" ("The trees are in their autumn beauty"), and then the devastating way in which that simplicity is punctured with the line: "Mysterious, beautiful"—a trimeter made out of two Latinate words. It's almost like a foreign language stabs the poem.

I think this incredible control of diction, this drama of diction, is bound up with the quality that perhaps distinguishes Yeats's poems most: the sense that they are simultaneously mythic and earthbound. Though I'm not in the best position to say, I suspect that this quality is what I've absorbed







  {buy the by}

purchase selected works by James Longenbach:


Fleet River



The Art of the Poetic Line

The Resistance to Poetry

Modern Poetry after Modernism

Stone Cottage

Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things

{download printer-friendly version of this interview}

home > interviews > james longenbach
1 2 3 4

home | contact | about | terms | privacy

© copyright 2005 – 2014 loggernaut.org