The Interview — Grace Schulman and Alfred Corn in Conversation
AC: I’d only been in three Southern states before spending the summer of 1964 in Avignon, in a French-language program established by Bryn Mawr. The program was followed by visits to Italy and Greece, concluding with a few days in Paris. Then, in 1965, I came to New York to begin graduate studies in French literature at Columbia. I lived in the city for roughly three decades in total, interrupted by a Fulbright Fellowship year in Paris and four years in New Haven. For me, New York was the equivalent of a university without walls, a trove of cultural information and sensibility. By the time I met Richard Howard I was solidly informed about European culture and also considered myself a New Yorker through and through, including assimilating the Jewish inflection the city had. Do you see your Jewish American background as influencing what you write?
GS: Yes, Judaism is a rich heritage for an artist. I had one of the first bat mitzvah ceremonies in New York. At eighteen, I visited Israel and hitchhiked with a sabra I met, seeing the country from the backs of trucks. Judaism laces my poems, together with my conflict about belief.
Of course, all religions are one. Derek Walcott writes that in his Caribbean waters, he hears slave songs and synagogue chants repeatedly. Once, I stood on a street corner in downtown New York and heard, simultaneously, chants vaulting from a church, a synagogue, and a mosque. Black spirituals, with their praise and sorrows wailed, shouted, sung up to God, struck the high notes of Jewish davening. In cathedrals, much of the liturgy harmonizes with the prayers I’ve heard in synagogues. I’ve tried to convey that equivalency in my poems. As for my main man, Gerard Manley Hopkins, if he hadn’t been a Jesuit, I’d guess him to be a Hasid.
AC: Stevens says, “It is the belief that counts and not the god.” I can see the sense in that. Still, faith in its broadest application is indispensable, I believe. I never quarrel with those who say they dislike “organized religion” and prefer a private spirituality. That said, it’s good to add to that spirituality an actual congregation, a body that shares many concerns and a joint constructive purpose. One result is that congregants participate in the unfolding of each other’s lives. It can be a way of enlarging our sense of what human life on the planet is.
It’s superfluous to say that Jewishness is an historical identity, without any necessary congregational affiliation. Probably only a third of those murdered in the Holocaust practiced Judaism formally. So I’m wondering if the astonishing sweep of Jewish history speaks to you?
GS: Yes, that’s just it. The will to survive. It’s written into the tradition: “Therefore choose life, that thou and thy seed shall live.” Or l’Chaim, the Hebrew toast to life. That and zakhor, which means “memory.” The Kaddish, prayer for the dead, has in it no word of death; instead, praise.
But there’s no congregation for me. Instead, I go in search of belief, finding miracles in daily life: crest of a wave in sunlight, the smell of cedar burning, Ben Webster’s tenor sax, Billie’s tones. Matisse was an unbeliever, and yet he built a chapel that led many visitors to God. Perhaps only with a sense of religious history can one afford to be an unbeliever.
Then there is the question of art as a displacement for religion. Do you think that art can assume the role that religion once had?
AC: Yes, I think it can, for individuals who bring to art the dedication that others bring to religion. For those, art engages the passions and offers experiences that could be termed redemptive — instructive, consoling, sensuous, and revitalizing. But that can be true for only a percentage of any nationality when you consider that most people don’t have the opportunity or even the desire to learn about art (excepting popular art). And even among the percentage of those who can, we find strong disagreement about what is valid in art. If a benefit of religion is the capacity to form a community, we’re forced to see that artistic communities tend to be small. In today’s poetry scene I’ve heard the term “balkanization” used to describe the bewildering number of factions now current, each of them clinging to some aesthetic tenet setting that faction apart from others. It seems we’ve passed the time when a poet like Eliot or Bishop could count on assent from nearly the entire audience.
GS: About your first point, I’m drawn to the artist’s transformation of religious experience. That happens to us in life, as well. My grandfather Dave, a cantor’s son, sang the sacred leha dodi (“My Beloved is Mine”) to the tune of “There’s Only One New York,” a tune he’d heard sung in a New York burlesque house by “Bessie Beatty in tights.” And didn’t Dante change the order of the Christian notion of hell to suit the structure of his Inferno? Beautiful music has come from gospel songs, though with a difference from the gospels. My Biblical poems are altered from their original sources.
How has travel affected your poems, Alfred? Do you miss it now?
AC: Oh, enormously. Different language, different landscapes, different food, different architecture and cityscapes. The sense of history stretching back for centuries or millennia. One journey involved a stay in Jerusalem and visits to Galilee and the Dead Sea. It was as though mythography had suddenly turned into actual life. I lived several years in London, too. But let’s not forget these United States (currently disunited). I’m one of the few who’ve been in all fifty states, some of them only briefly; but I’ve lived in eight of them, constantly sifting what I was seeing as a possible source for new work. One of my poems is titled “Cannot Be a Tourist.” Why can’t I? Because it seems I immediately begin acting like a permanent resident, learning the language, forming bonds with the locals, seeing how it could all be felt as “home.”
The long poem “1992” (published in Autobiographies) gives an account of travels in the United States rather than in other countries. The very down-to-earth characters I portrayed in the poem occupy a diversity of social class, gender, orientation, and ancestry. To paraphrase the Latin poet Terence, I want to say, “I am American and do not regard anything American as foreign to me.”
How do you confront social problems as a poet, Grace?
GS: I’m saddened by the suffering of others: men and women, hungry, without jobs, and sick. Dying alone. I write knowing that the only answer to public misery is silence. And yet, silence demands a form, a sound, as well as words. There’s no such thing as perfect silence. This has been my dilemma. I think of the Eastern European poets — Herbert, Szymborska, Mandelstam — and of their irony, their skill in conveying desolation in near dreamlike ways. The art of the Greek tragedians can’t console when faced with a starving child.
Grace and Jerry Schulman
AC: All of which leads us to a subject much debated at present: is poetry “instrumental”; can it play a role in changing society by influencing the hearts and minds of its readers? One faction says, “No, not at all,” citing Auden’s proof-text “Poetry makes nothing happen.” The opposing faction is convinced it can. What’s your view of that question?
GS: How that line has lingered, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” It should be read in context, though, to get its full meaning. Auden is memorializing Yeats, whom “mad Ireland” has “hurt” into poetry. Ireland doesn’t change, for “Poetry makes nothing happen.” But then he affirms, “it survives / a way of happening, a mouth.” So yes, it survives. Just as song survives. In my poem “Because” I write “those / who no longer speak of pain are singing.” No, it may not stop pain or make peace happen, but it survives, a way of happening. That’s my hope for the language when I write my poems.
I don’t know about others — only what’s right for me. Nazim Hikmet wrote on his way to being arrested that he didn’t know how much he loved the world. We are all on our way to being arrested, and I write not to change the world but to love it with everything I have.
Do you have the impression that your books have “made things happen?”
AC: I don’t know that I’d want to shoulder that responsibility. Yeats in “Man and the Echo” speculates whether things he had written might have sent people to their deaths, and it is likely that his writings did make some things happen, good and bad. Just as it is likely that the poetry of the Beat Generation did contribute to the formation of the 1960s counterculture and the activism that ended US engagement in Vietnam. Poetry in general doesn’t have a huge readership, but many novelists and journalists read poetry and they have a wide audience. I don’t rule out a “ripple effect,” with poets living up to Shelley’s designation of them as “unacknowledged legislators.” At least this much is true: sending a humane and ethical message is no guarantee of aesthetic excellence. But I can well imagine an “engaged” writer like Sartre saying, “It did its job. And if that came at the cost of aesthetic excellence, too bad for fine art.” I have no objection to political content in poetry, nor do I consider it an indispensable component. We write what we must, what we can. And the rest is the madness of art. Also, the madness of the reader.
GS: Tell me about your methods of composition. Do you get up at dawn each morning or write to the stars or write when the graces fall upon you? Sometimes you write in freer rhythmic cadences; sometimes, perfectly, in received form. Do you deliberate on this? Or is it organic to the poem?
AC: There’s no method whatsoever. I don’t attempt to write every day or have any long-term program. I write when stimulated to write, never planning in advance. As for the nuts and bolts of composition, the results include poems using meter, rhyme, and verse form (or syllable count), but also poems written without meter and rhyme. I never say to myself things like “Today I will write a sonnet” or “Today I will write a poem without using traditional prosodic devices.” I simply start out and gradually arrive at the poem’s final draft. It sounds haphazard because it is. I hope you have a clearer method than mine, Grace.
GS: In juvenile years, when I fell in love with poetry and began trying to write seriously, I wrote a sonnet every day for one year. My first ones closely followed the iambic meter. Later, they relaxed into freer rhythms. Much later, I found Hopkins, my heart’s truth, and again I wrote a sonnet every day, landing on strong stresses within the iambic pentameter. In “A Retrospect” Ezra Pound admonished to compose in the rhythm of the musical phrase, not in the rhythm of the metronome. Nowadays when I write in received form I find myself fighting it, beating against its constraints, much as Hopkins does, and though I write in freer lines now, I find confidence remembering the initial footwork of formal experimentation.
I earned my PhD before writing departments were common. In graduate school I was urged to concentrate on scholarship and eschew my own poems during my training. I didn’t obey. I continued writing, and even went out the back way, so to speak, and attended workshops with Léonie Adams and Stanley Kunitz. After I finished a dissertation on Marianne Moore, I wrote my poems unfettered and heard my own voice come through in different ways. When teaching, I emphasize repeatedly the coexistence of past and present.
I write every morning. It’s been a lifelong pattern. Does enjoyably reading the poems of others contribute to your own writing, Alfred?
AC: Yes. When we spoke earlier about our first steps toward the vocation, I mentioned poets whose works fired me up to write. That process has continued to the present — perhaps more subtly. To return to the topic of writing every day, I never wanted poetry to be a job, a painful duty that I was obliged to perform as regularly as any wage slave, but instead a pursuit approached with eagerness, impelled by deep sadness or overflowing joy. Also, there have been times when I began writing in morning light and submerged myself in what felt like a trance, an entire day slipping by until hunger pangs told me it was time for dinner. Once in motion, I don’t like to stop.
You’ve often said that the thing in poems that you consider essential is “urgency.” Can you expand on that a little?
GS: It’s never a job, except in revision. More like prayer. Marianne Moore told me, “Ezra Pound said never, NEVER, to write anything you would not say in moments of utmost urgency.” The context was her drive toward naturalness, even after — and perhaps because of — her meticulous effort to get it right. I think too of Whitman crying out, “Dazzling and tremendous, how quick the sunrise would kill me if I could not now and always send sunrise out of me.”
Thinking of Moore’s quotation, I wrote an early poem: “In the Country of Urgency, There is a Language.” It was based on a visit I made to her bedside where she lay recovering from a stroke. She spoke only in monosyllables (I called them stresses and light syllables) which nevertheless expressed profound thoughts from a deep well. This became my metaphor for language — the difficult task of finding words to convey complex inner states. Plato says it best in the Phaedrus — too bad the writer can’t show up along with his words on the page. So — I write under an internal gun, racing with the sunrise that would kill me.
Do you often ache to say a thing you couldn’t explain — except in writing? And have you a technical way of handling it, such as metaphor, imagery, verse forms? I’d say your poems in quantitative meter, alcaics and sapphics especially, convey that urgency — and that perhaps the line, with those dactyls, has something to do with it.
AC: The temptation is always strong to give an exalted account of what we bards do, too noble, really, too ethereal for life on earth. I can think of poems of Moore’s that are not so much urgent as playful — and fully appealing on that basis. Her poems “A Carriage from Sweden” and “My Crow Pluto,” for example, are full of charm. I suppose our most consequential poems are the urgent ones, Grace, but I like an oeuvre that breaks through to life in all its facets — the grand, yes, but also the ordinary, the amusing, the annoying, the sensuous, and even the flummoxed and frightened. We see that in Shakespeare, who gives us Lear’s elevated parting speeches but also Falstaff’s joking cynicism, as well as the absurd bombast of Holofernes and the hapless banter of the rude mechanicals. I’d rather read a brilliant comic poem than one that palled while straining to speak in the tongue of angels. “To life!” as the hallowed toast goes. Life in all its variety.
GS: Urgency is language. Drawing forth whatever is in you. Its loss would be unimaginable. In these times of grief and loss, we still have language, and that’s reason enough to give praise.
Alfred Corn at Wuzhen
Alfred Corn age five
Grace with students
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