James Longenbach and the Whole Human Contraption

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[p. 3 of 4]

[Longenbach continues]... most from Yeats. Or found in myself by gazing in the mirror of Yeats. Looking especially in my most recent work, I discover that I've written poems that strike me as terribly intimate, even mundanely so, and at the same time weirdly mythic, archetypal, as if they were taking place simultaneously around the corner and across the bar.

LRS: I find this, too, in the poems of your new collection, Draft of a Letter—this intricate mingling of the mundane and the mythic. In "Death and Reason," there's a moment where a bird, an unseen presence, is beckoning in the trees—but the trees are behind a shopping center. In "Abacus," the speaker invokes spirits of the natural world, but in the midst of the invocation, he runs a stoplight, and then sits, "fingers / On the keyboard self-delighting." Yet, if Yeats is a shadow presence we can feel in the movement between the two worlds of your poems, Petrarch's role is overt. How has the work of a fourteenth-century Italian come to figure in your own?

Longenbach: Yes, Petrarch is the presiding figure of this book. I came to love Petrarch much later than I came to love Yeats, and only recently I've been living in Petrarch's world—often quite literally, visiting the various places where he lived, especially the extraordinary (if now sadly overbuilt) town of Fontaine de Vaucluse in the south of France. This is where the river Sorgue suddenly erupts up out of the ground—millions of gallons of water just pouring from the earth, creating a wide river out of nothing. The place was crucial to Petrarch, both physically and metaphorically, and it became the location of my book.

As did Petrarch's writing—all of it—not just the poems but the letters, the dialogues, the essays. The sense of a complete human being that I get from this body of work—someone ravaged, kind, haunted, flawed, generous, selfish, seeking—is immense. I don't know of many other writers who managed to get the whole human contraption down on the page so unpretentiously. Also, like Yeats, Petrarch is a poet who works and thinks through contraries, and, in ways large and small, my book is designed around a series of oppositions between self and soul, joy and reason, and so on. I didn't plan this; it just happened. Reading Petrarch, I feel like a small part of something larger even than Petrarch—a way of being in the world that makes a love of language feel like a love of rivers and hills. I'm almost embarrassed to say that the poem "A Different Route," which is set in Petrarch's landscape, came to me as a dream, but it did. I woke up and wrote it down.

LRS: Petrarch, and the mention of Pound earlier, leads me to a question about ambition and renown in poetry. Petrarch, when he is 37, is made poet laureate at a special ceremony in Rome. Here is a deeply ambitious poet—in fact an international star—concerned with earthly glory and skilled in self-promotion, but whose work is, as you suggest, the richer for its many flawed and human strains. And I think of Pound, this towering figure of modernism who built his tower out of such unwelcoming materials that young poets today often excuse themselves from trying very hard to enter it. It's Pound the advocate, Pound the influence, Pound the guide and tastemaker who may come to mind instead. As a critic, you've had the task of assessing and reassessing not just poems but reputations. As a poet, you know the taste of ambition. There are American critics who've had the role of kingmaker in the past quarter century, but I wonder, in a fragmented poetry community, if that time has passed. What do you see as the role of ambition in poetry today, and what are its fruits? Can there be another Petrarch, or another Pound?

Longenbach: Petrarch was, especially as a young man, immensely ambitious. But the fact that he was successful has, for me, nothing to do with his real greatness, which rather depends on the humility—the acute sense of his smallness—that I feel in the writing. In a way, the whole of the Canzoniere is about his journey from a poet of the will to a poet of submission, and, while I'm not particularly religious myself, I find the final poems of the sequence almost unbearably beautiful.

In other words, I'm very interested in Petrarch's or Pound's place in the history of literature, but I'm not very interested in their place in the history of taste. No literary critic has ever had much to do with a poet's place in the history of literature—that can't be determined by reviews and other forms of gossip. (I say this as somebody who's written a lot of reviews.) So while a critic might for a moment help to determine a writer's place in history of taste, the moment really doesn't matter. Now it's snap crackle prose poems, twenty years ago it was mordant quatrains—it's only another moment before the pendulum swings back, alas.

What matters is the unproscribable exception, and if you really care about the next great poem, you don't really care who writes it. All we can do is try to be part of a climate that might make great writing possible. And in that climate, reviews matter if you learn from them how to listen to poetry—not because the reviewer has power.

So yes, I think the next Petrarch is probably in our midst. If the little history of taste collides with the big history of literature (as it did in Petrarch's case), then we'll recognize her. If not, you and I won't live long enough to know whether or not her greatness will be recognized.

LRS: What about Pound? How do you see his place in the history of literature stacking up against his place in the history of taste? It's hard to argue for Pound's greatness on the grounds of his humility...

Longenbach: Yes and no. There are a number of Pounds, and, while you can't do without any of them, I think the most genuine Pound is the one who writes with immense rhythmic delicacy in the lyrical lines of the Pisan Cantos or the delicate quatrains of "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley." Pound associated that delicacy with his alter-ego Mauberley partly in order to get rid of it—to devote himself to the big boy epic of the West. But the delicacy never goes away, and part of the great drama







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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

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