James Longenbach and the Whole Human Contraption

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[p. 4 of 4]

[Longenbach continues]... of the Cantos is the work we must do in order to discover it over and over again. The poem is a wreck, a calamity, a provocation, but I don't see how any poet can avoid coming to terms with it. That would be like standing at the foot of the Rocky Mountains and trying to will their disappearance.

Which is to say that Pound is hard to like; he is an affront to anyone's taste; he exists to confound. But his place in literature seems to me crucial. From the start, I've loved other poets more than I've loved Pound, but probably I've spent more time reading him than any other modern poet. Even when I was very young, I felt instinctively that I had to do this in order to read any of his contemporaries. I even had a hand in editing the twelve-volume edition of his uncollected prose and poems. Quite a slog. But I learned so much from the effort—not just about Pound but about the entire swoop of literature, especially the history of prosody. I've always felt that the deeper I go into Pound, the farther away from Pound I must rove—I've never felt attached to a Poundian tradition or enclave. He's somewhere in every line I've written. Maybe I shouldn't say that. Should I say that?

LRS: I won't tell. What poet's criticism do you find most worth reading? (Or what critic's poetry, for that matter?)

Longenbach: Elizabeth Bishop once said that because no poet can write poetry all the time, poets can choose between spending their time writing literary criticism or drinking—it really doesn't matter which. There's something to that, and very little of the criticism written by poets finally stands up as lasting prose, unbolstered by the contiguous body of poetry. And then there are the unproscribable exceptions. Probably I'd say that Marianne Moore writes the most exciting literary criticism of any poet in the last century or more. Of course Pound and Eliot and Frost wrote brilliant essays, but the complete body of Moore's prose is an astonishing thing to work through—smart, lively, surprising at every turn yet also inevitable. And completely her own. I feel, reading Moore's prose, as if I'm reading Ruskin's prose or Hazlitt's—it's the work of a truly gifted prose writer who happened also to write brilliant poems.

Maybe it's also worth saying, since I know lots of people don't agree, that I don't like Randall Jarrell's prose very much (though I do admire his poetry immensely). It's showy, narcissistic, and it hurt people; Muriel Rukeyser was rendered incapable of writing for several years after Jarrell's cutesy-nasty review. Art doesn't need that, and it's a shame, these days, that this sort of reviewing is encouraged by literary venues designed somehow to increase the attention paid to the poor, beleaguered world of poetry. It's all taste, once again, not literature. Moore's prose serves literature because it is literature. So does William Empson's: there's a great example of a critic, or a writer known primarily as a critic, who also wrote blistering good poems.

LRS: You are a poet, scholar, and critic, a dedicated teacher, and, of course, a father and husband (of the terrific novelist Joanna Scott)—how are you dividing your time these days? How do you choose between your interests and all of the potential projects you might undertake? I guess this is the 'what-are-you-working-on' question, but I'm curious to know, more generally, how you allocate your energies.

Longenbach: I see that there's a note pad on my desk: the pages say "I'm so busy I could scream." I do like to be busy. But I would say that I can't really "choose" between my interests; the interests choose me in different ways at different times. Last spring, I finished the new book of poems we spoke about, Draft of a Letter, and since then, poems have not been the center of my immediate attention. They could be—I've had a few sparks—but writing poems right now would be a will-driven activity, and I need to wait until the poems demand to be written; otherwise I'd end up repeating myself rather than discovering something new, something I can't yet do well. It's weird how ephemeral the feeling of true accomplishment is—it's as if you discover a new rhythm, a new structure, only to know in a short time that you can't use it again.

So I've spent the last few weeks working on a little book called The Art of the Poetic Line that I'm supposed to write for Greywolf. In a kind of childish, petulant way, I wasn't looking forward to beginning it, but I've actually found myself possessed by this project. I'm beginning with a passage from King Lear that is prose in the quarto text but poetry in the folio text—nobody knows what it's supposed to be. It's wonderfully elucidating of the work that line does; in fact, when I thought of this passage, then the whole book seemed like a revelation to me. The last chapter is about prose poetry, the relinquishment of line being powerful in the way that the relinquishment of rhyme or meter can of course be.

Some things cannot be done without, however, and so long as you've mentioned Joanna, I should say that her input into everything I write is crucial; for twenty-five years we've shared every draft of everything we've ever written—ever since we were undergraduates banging away on two typewriters in the same room. I show work to other people, but her eye is a part of me that I couldn't imagine being without. And even this arrangement feels like something I was chosen by, a gift; how could one really choose the shape of one's life?

Tonight I've been chosen by a production of Cole Porter's Anything Goes: for weeks our daughters, who are both in it, have been walking around the house singing "You're a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare sonnet, you're Mickey Mouse." The dance move for "then get up and shake your halo" is sidesplitting. I wish I could demonstrate. I love the feeling of being in the midst of the act of writing a poem, but when I can't do that, hanging out with the kids is better even than literary criticism. I also planted a lot of pachysandra yesterday—very satisfying, all those neat little rows.






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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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