The Interview — R. S. Gwynn by Luke Stromberg
LS: So you never went through a phase of writing free verse poems? Probably because free verse has been the dominant mode in American poetry for decades, most younger poets I have talked to who write in meter, rhyme, or received forms describe writing in free verse as fledgling poets. I remember being drawn to metrical poetry early on but not quite understanding what it was! My first introduction to meter was certainly not in a creative writing class. I feel that, even when poets begin by attempting to write in meter, their professors steer them toward free verse instead of helping them write well in meter.
RSG: The first poem I wrote was an English sonnet, which I proudly showed to my sophomore English prof: “‘Within this burning pain inside my breast?’ C’mon, Gwynn.” I switched to free verse for a time, though I continued to play with meters. When I got to graduate workshop, well, it was the late 60s, and I dabbled with free verse, surrealism, “deep image,” and other then-fashionable modes. But a few years later, when I was on my own, I decided to go back to meter; the first sonnet I was pleased with, “Scenes from the Playroom,” was reprinted in a textbook, and for years I’d get inquiries from freshmen asking me what it was about. “Naughty children,” I’d reply. Anyway, somewhere along the line I figured that I’d better stick to form; it wasn’t hard for me to write metrically and find rhymes. I think I have managed successfully to forget how to write “free verse.” I need Frost’s net.
LS: When you write a poem, do you typically have an idea first and let it suggest a form or meter, or do you decide to write a poem in a particular form first and let it shape the content? Do you even have a typical method, or does it depend on the poem?
RSG: Most of the above. If you’ve read thousands of sonnets you begin to see the form as a “frame” for certain kinds of experience. You may be right and end up with a passable sonnet, but sometimes your mind runs on outside the frame and you end up with a very different poem. Some kinds of forms — the ballad for narrative, the villanelle for repeated experiences — tend to suggest a vehicle for certain types of subjects. But more often I just start with a line or a tune that pops into my head. In the last decade or so I take a tape recorder when I make long drives, and several of my poems use that oral-first, type-later process.
Early in my teaching career, I thought that I’d have to create a certain amount of poetry to validate myself. So I’d spend evenings at my desk — fruitless for the most part — trying to force the process. Now that I’m old and don’t have to rise to anybody’s expectations, I just wait for things to come to me. When they do, I might be consumed by them for a couple of days. Now, of course, I do think more and more that the latest one I finish may be the last. But I keep the door open.
I would say that the hardest kind of poem for me is the one that arrives complete, with the last line staring me in the face. Then I have to figure out how to get to that last line, which is not the easiest thing in the world. I love the challenge of translating poetry, for the original author has told you exactly where to go, but in a different language. You want to do credit to that author by thinking that he or she may have done it this way in English.
LS: You’ve translated poems by François Villon and others. I like that your Villon translations, for one, stick to the original rhyme scheme. I’ve read other, more cowardly translations . . .
RSG: Villon was a starting point for me. In college, I was intrigued by Rossetti’s famous translation and by a Wilbur version of the same poem in Poetry. I bought Galway Kinnell’s selected Villon, and was immediately challenged; Kinnell justified his free verse by saying something like “rhyme and meter are dead hands that were better not applied to any poetry.” Talk about hoisting a battle flag! A kindly professor agreed to let me do some translations as an independent-study project, and I immediately headed for the library and checked out a middle French dictionary that was covered with dust. I ended up translating “Le petit testament” and some of the ballades. Three of the latter were taken by a magazine shortly after I graduated.
I’m no linguist, but I have studied Spanish, French, and German. What usually gets me started is reading what you call a “cowardly” translation of a great poem. I wouldn’t use that term, but I do think it’s important that a translator “carry across” some elements of the form of the original, no matter how vexing. For me, Wilbur was our best poet-translator; he knew that Molière and Racine would be pale shadows without their rhymes. David Ives recently had an off-Broadway success with his version of Alexis Piron’s La Métromanie, a farce written in Alexandrine couplets and translated into English heroics.
LS: Does it annoy you to constantly be associated with New Formalism?
RSG: Not really, but the “movement,” if ever there was one, was pretty brief. It got some attention for overlooked poets, and Dana Gioia put many of them in contact with each other. I was mainly amused by how some critics saw it as somehow aligned with Reaganesque policies. Moi? As a mere name, “New Formalism” sounds more accurate than some other proposed titles, “Expansive Poetry,” for example, as long as you take the “new” strictly in generational terms.
LS: You’re also known for your parodies and light verse. Why do you think light verse has fallen out of favor?
RSG: One of my first and favorite poetry collections was by John Updike, and most of it was published in The New Yorker. Look at the magazine now. It’s full of very sophisticated cartoons by geniuses like Roz Chast, and the “Shouts & Murmurs” feature gets a laugh from me now and then. But the poetry usually confirms the prejudices of those who don’t “get” poetry. You’d think those thousands of readers would appreciate a poem that doesn’t leave them feeling defeated week after week. As for parody, only pretty good and famous poems should be parodied, but readers don’t know many good and famous poems. Writing a parody of a lyric that was pretty bad in the first place doesn’t make sense. I mean, how could you write a parody of the most recent inaugural poem?
LS: Sometimes the distinction between your light verse and so-called serious poetry is a bit blurry. Some of your most memorable poems are darkly satirical. For example, the first stanza of “The Ballad of Just Deserts” from your collection Dogwatch reads,
They wear their pants too low.
They move and drive too slow.
They have no place to go.
They deserve it.
They hang around in a crowd.
Their music is much too loud
And shouldn’t be allowed.
Oh yes, yes, yes, they deserve it.
This reads almost like light verse — Not only is it slyly mocking, but it’s heavily rhymed and playful sounding — yet it’s also unnerving. The subject matter is really intense! Is this still light verse?
RSG: I’ve taught a lot of Greek drama over the years, and I like the idea of choral voices, which I’ve used several times. So here I tried to evoke a Chorus of Deplorables, who were united in their privilege and prejudices. Robinson, a poet who has influenced me immensely, uses such choral voices in some of his darkest poems — “Richard Cory” and “Eros Turranos,” for example. Nobody would confuse those poems with light verse; they evoke the katharsis of tragedy, which I think of as a collective “Whew!” when the curtain goes down. Even Oedipus the King is structurally not much different from farce, and the Chorus survives the mayhem.
LS: Your dark satires have always reminded me a bit of the songwriter Randy Newman. I’m thinking of songs like “Political Science” and “Sail Away.” Are you a fan?
RSG: I did follow him for a time, but I think I’ve told you that I stopped buying Rolling Stone when U2 was on the cover, c. 1980. I also have a strange problem: I simply cannot memorize song lyrics. Poems, I can, but I just black out on songs. This is a little sad because I find that carrying songs around in your head is far superior to having them on a Bluetooth play list. As you know, I thought John Prine one of the great songwriters of my generation, and at rare times I thought our respective takes on things clicked.
Sam and Donna at the Brooklyn Museum
LS: Yes, we both love John Prine! Some of your poems actually read like song lyrics. Even if I didn’t know that you have a fondness for classic musicals, for instance, I think their influence is obvious in your work. You clearly love the Great American Songbook. In fact, I remember hearing you sing at least one of your poems (I think it was “The Professor’s Lot”) during a reading. Your book No Word of Farewell: Selected Poems 1970-2000 also takes its title from Tom Paxton’s song “The Last Thing on my Mind,” and references to musical artists pop up throughout your work. Who are some of your other favorite lyricists?
RSG: My best college course was a senior seminar on the Metaphysicals, many of whom wrote songs and song-like poems; the next generation went even further with the Cavalier poets. George Herbert was a serious lutenist, and his poems often use stanza/refrain techniques. No “poet” is better than W. S. Gilbert at meter, rhyme, and surprising diction. In America, I see Berlin, Porter, Hart, Hammerstein, and Sondheim as masters of their craft. I don’t want to get into the whole Dylan thing, but I listened to his first two records a lot because my elder brother got suckered into the Columbia Record Club, which sent you 6 free albums and then hounded you for life. We had a lot of old records around the house that Daddy played over the speakers at the drive-in before showtime. It was mostly 50s hit parade stuff, but there were some bluegrass and blues mixed in. In high school, my friends and I were great fans of Flatt & Scruggs and we played at a couple of student gatherings. There is something intensely poetic and weird in lines like “If the ladies was squirrels with long, bushy tails, / I’d load up my shotgun with rock salt and nails.” I do have a couple of poems that I sing; I got the courage to do so from the great Joe Kennedy.
Songwriting and poetry are related genres, like painting and photography. But they’re not the same; reading lyrics without music would be like studying sculpture by looking at photographs of statues. My brother Andy is a songwriter and guitarist, and we sat down one night and played with musical settings for some of the poems in Dogwatch. It was fun but ephemerally so.
LS: You have written a lot of reviews of contemporary poetry and have put together multiple anthologies for Penguin and Longman for use in the classroom. Do you think your reviews and your work as an anthologist have had an effect on your poetry? How?
RSG: Most of my prose has been in the form of single reviews or omnibus “round-ups.” Fred Morgan and Paula Deitz gave me quarterly space in The Hudson Review for a good while, as did George Core in The Sewanee Review. One fine day a deadline loomed that I couldn’t meet, and I just quit, being glad that Robert Archambeau could succeed me at Hudson. The Sewanee, as I knew and loved it, is no more.
Like many poets who write reviews, I practiced petty larceny when I read, finding something here and something else there that I could use, mutatis mutandi. Looking back, I think I found more that I didn’t want to do than I did; most poetry collections are really not very good, and I often said to myself, “Well, I’ll never make that mistake.” I could make a long list of mistakes as I see them.
I did enjoy making anthologies, and I thought at one time that I’d have a steady post-retirement income from them. But the textbook business has become a horrible mess, what with sales of used editions, bookstore rentals, and the outrageous hikes in permissions fees in recent years. I am proud of introducing some writers to a wider audience; Jim Hall’s “Maybe Dat’s Your Pwoblem Too” is a poem that many love, and I may have anthologized the first short story by Susan Perabo. My only rule of thumb was to make collections that I would enjoy teaching. In doing so, I studiously avoided some big names who can get by without my help.
LS: Who are some of your favorite poets among your contemporaries?
RSG: A wonderful generation preceded mine — Kees, Justice, Hecht, Kumin, Wilbur, Snodgrass et al — but have all fled into the realms of light. They never disappointed.
At the risk of hurting some feelings of people I’ve never met, I’ll limit myself to those I know personally. The late Michael Donagy, a great performer, was a revelation. A. E. Stallings and Timothy Steele are nearly flawless poets. George Green, Juliana Gray, and Hailey Leithauser offer the kinds of surprises that turn a book into a valued gift. Chelsea Rathburn and Erica Dawson would make my team. Quincy Lehr does the Juvenalian mode better than anyone. There is a poet from Lower Darby, Pennsylvania, who has impressed me and who should have a book by now; a neighbor of his does and wrote an exquisite sonnet about a guy who feeds his girlfriend’s cat into a woodchipper.
LS: You must mean Ernest Hilbert. I don’t know who this character from Lower Darby is. I’ve only heard of Upper Darby . . .
RSG: I’m 73 and can be excused for getting my Darbys confused. Of course, there’s the late Leon Stokesbury, with whom I traded poems and insults for decades; his students Mac Gay and Sara Pirkle have written strong books. I stand by any blurb I’ve ever written, but I like to think that I’ve written my last one. If Hardy and Larkin are contemporaries, I salute them as well.
Oh yes, I do like Billy Collins. We all have guilty pleasures.
LS: Thank you, Sam.
Luke Stromberg’s poetry and criticism have appeared in Smartish Pace, The Hopkins Review, The New Criterion, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Golidad Review, Think Journal, The Raintown Review, The Dark Horse, Cassandra Voices, and several other venues. He also serves as the Associate Poetry Editor of E-Verse Radio. Luke works as an adjunct professor at Eastern University and La Salle University and lives in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania.
Sam reading at Otto's Shrunken Head, NYC
Sam with granddaughters Maddie and Caitlyn
Sam, his son Ty, and his mother Thelma, c. 1995
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