This is an interview of Robert Bly, the well-known poet and peace activist, that I never got around to publishing. I found him absolutely engaging, provocative, and magnanimous.
From Vietnam to September 11th: An Interview with Robert Bly
by Philip Metres
One of the things that struck me in the Paris Review interview was your recollection that your first poem called Tojo a bad man. That seemed like an illuminating anecdote about your poetry—that you felt like poetry should be active in the world, that it should protest against abuse of power. And it was this interesting link between your work with the antiwar movement and the men’s movement; that he was a “bad man” was the language that you used. What is your sense of the connections between artistic vision and the political vision that seems to be underlying it?
Do you have a copy of The Light Around the Body? Some of it was written after the Vietnam War began, but it was begun several years before that. For example, the epigraphs from Jacob Boehme in “The Various Arts of Poverty and Cruelty”: “What a distressing contrast between the radiant intelligence of the child, and the feeble mentality of the average adult.” What I’m trying to say is that the background of my writing depended less on so-and-so being a bad man as the reading of Jacob Boehme: “When we think of it with this knowledge, we see that we have been locked up, and led blindfold, and it is the wise of this world who have shut and locked us up in their art and their rationality, so that we have had to see with their eyes.” In other words, I was looking at the contemporary American world to see if it fitted with the Jacob Boehme idea, which is that there is a part of this world that is caught always in darkness and evil. It is not unlike the Gnostic view, which I mention more and more; they believed that there are two gods, including a demiurge (a god of this world who is evil). I put it recently in a poem: “what are we going to do with the stories the old men tell…that this world is actually a prison.” Therefore, when I was doing this book, I was looking at capitalism and its relationship to that. [Reads the first poem]: “Merchants have multiplied more than starry heavens….” That’s actually a line from the Old Testament. So I was trying to write those, and then I was amazed how we went straight into the Vietnam War.
So, in a way, through another angle, you were seeing the Marxist critique of the war, that there were interests in copper and tin, etc.
I was trying to take the criticism of capitalism seriously, as a truth, and everybody obeyed their parts in the play. So that’s how I entered it. I mean, I didn’t enter into it because I got excited about protesting. I was already there trying to describe it, when I watched it happen.
One of the most fascinating elements in the Vietnam-era poems, in The Light Around the Body and particularly in The Teeth Mother Naked at Last, is the way in which you were juxtaposing images between the domestic American scene and what was happening in Vietnam: “it is because we have new packaging for smoked oysters that bomb holes appear in the rice paddies.” That method suggests the radical sameness of humanity in a mystical vision. That the ways in which we conduct our lives—that the oyster cans themselves—are connected to the bombs falling in the rice paddies.
That’s exactly right. And that gave me a huge chasm to leap over again and again. Which made it a lot of fun. And I think I made many of those chasms which didn’t work and I had to take them out. But the ones that did work, they’re kind of convincing.
It works both in an anti-logical way, and in a supremely logical way. And in some ways, that seems to replicate the problem of the war, which was that people were so rationalist about it and yet there were all these ways in which the war was being conducted in all of these unconscious ways.
Robert MacNamara is a classic example of that, just a nice rationalist boy. He did well for General Motors, and then the next thing?! Oh, Jesus. If they’d have hired insane people to do it, those lines wouldn’t have been as effective.
So in some ways you’re using logic to deconstruct it.
I’d like to ask you more about the American Writers Against the Vietnam War, about its founding, its principles, etc.
Well, I think I went down to Luther College to give a reading, and that was the first time that I’d said anything about the war. This was 1966. And then I went on to Reed College, where the students were much more alert. I organized the first one, and invited Ferlinghetti to come, and maybe Robert Lowell. That was the first time we actually did anything as a group of poets from different schools. It was March 5th. The New York Times and all kinds of people were there. I was amazed myself, by how little visibility there was of protest. As soon as that was over, I said, let’s do it. Let’s have an American Poets Against the Vietnam War.
Did you have to do any of the publicity for these events?
No, we didn’t do anything like that. But a lot of them I knew by this time. And I’d call them up and say that we’re going to do a reading at such and such a place, and they would come. It was all done completely on the wing. Have you seen the collection we did? The main problem was that people wanted to give readings like this, but didn’t have the material. So I gathered up some of the things that seemed to be most effective in our given readings, and I got a guy in New York who would help find cheap printers. And I gave it to him. Do you know the story behind this [blacked-out] page? I used to go and see e.e. cummings, who was there in the Village. Cummings was always glad to see me…but then he died. And I’d always thought of him as anti-war. So then I went to New York and brought a copy of the book, which contained his poem “I sing of olaf” to his widow. I said I’m really sorry that I didn’t ask your permission, but would it be alright to put cummings’ poem in the anthology and she said, “NO! ABSOLUTELY NOT! Cummings knew the communists would never stop.” And so I showed her the book, and she said, “you must destroy every one of those, otherwise I’ll sue you.” So then I went to the same man, and I said what can we do? And he said, they can’t do anything as long as those things are out. He hired a bunch of Puerto Rican women who stayed up all night cutting out and blacking out all the offending material. And we had to block out cummings’ name here. That only made it more interesting in a way. So that’s the way that went.
So this book itself was created to do other readings.
They would call me, and I’d try to copy these damn poems and I thought that doing the book would be cheaper.
I like the fact that in the book you have poems, historical quotes, contemporary political quotes—something from Hitler in there…
And Hermann Goering. Well, it’s not unlike the situation now, you know. Only Bush is saying totally insane things, if you put them in a book like this, you’d say, wow, find an asylum for this guy. Goering: “well, of course people don’t want a war. Why should some poor slob on a farm want to waste his life…. All you have to do is to tell him they’re being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exploiting the country in danger. It works the same in any country.”
It’s stunning how contemporary those lines are.
We printed a couple other versions later, without the cummings quote—I think they were gray instead of blue.
So once you saw that this initial event was, and how subsequent events were, was it formalized or was it always ad hoc?
It was always ad hoc.
You mentioned the fact that there were poets from all sorts of schools at these readings. One of the interesting things that came out of the readings was that poets who might not even read each other’s work were standing side-to-side.
It was a wonderful first step, because the academic poets were in there along with the leftist poets. Of course, I remember we were going to do a reading in Minneapolis. I wanted Lowell to be there, then I called Berryman and said, “we’re going to do something here tonight, would you like…” and he said, “NO! Absolutely not. You are a criminal. It’s because of people like you that everyone is going to die.” I was shocked. It turned out that he had spent all morning arguing with his students about how bad I was, and how bad the anti-Vietnam War protests were. They were stunned. I guess they all sort of stood up and staggered out of there. So not everyone was with us.
Something that David Ray is still mad about is William Meredith’s critique that anti-war poets had torn the country apart. How did you negotiate the Scylla and Charybdis of dissent and national loyalty? Did you feel that you had to accommodate to a certain view, or appeal to certain American ideals.
We didn’t. And I remember we were doing a reading somewhere, and a bunch of doctors up in the balcony halfway through, they shouted out, “you guys are just cowards, that’s all. You’re just afraid to go and fight.” And I said, “this man next to me, his name is Louis Simpson and he was in the Second World War, in the Battle of the Bulge, I think there were 98 people of a hundred that were lost. Do you want to talk to him?” So we paid no attention to those people. Well, yes, I think…my own father wondered if I was a traitor or something. And, you know, all my aunts and everything were asking if I was a communist. We knew we were doing something that was just.
You didn’t identify with the Communist Party?
No. That’s why I put in Jacob Boehme in the book, we were just old American protestors. There’s a long history there.
One of the really clear things that emerges in The Light Around the Body, you seem to be setting in juxtaposition two elements of American consciousness—the Puritan and the transcendental viewpoint. It seems like you have a longstanding argument against the Puritan spirit, that you saw the Puritan spirit continuing.
Yeah, I tried to drag in the Puritans once in awhile. I know it came in explicitly in “Johnson’s Cabinet Watched by Ants.” So it puts it into a Hawthorne “Young Goodman Brown” scenario. [Reads the poem].
Tell me about the ants and the toads at the end of that poem.
Someone asked me about it just two days ago. One of the things that you are going to do when you’re writing a poem is that you have to keep the language from going into the excessively rational. All political arguments are rational. There isn’t enough flavor in the language if you do that. So one way to do that is what the Chinese do: to try to make sure that the universe itself is. “Ants are gathered down the old creek….” You almost believe that the ants may be able to sing! There’s a little bit of wit here. Other people would simply bring in the toads trembling, but since I like a little bit of opera, I have ants singing. But basically it’s the same idea, that we’re not alone in this universe, and you’ve got to pay attention to what’s happening to the animal world.
So you really meant to open the poem out beyond a discourse about humanity. Students of mine wanted to read the animals symbolically; like, the ants stand for regular people, and the toads stand for wisdom figures.
There they are trying to take that physical world of the ants and toads, and bring it into the symbolic world of human beings. That’s no crime, but it is undoing what I was trying to do in the poem.
Another question about your activism. Obviously, your readings were quite successful in getting the message out and creating an experience where people would begin to see this other tradition.
I remember going down to southern Minnesota, maybe Mankato, and they had a number of events about the war, which would have been run by political science professors. They were talking about the Geneva Accords, which was worth talking about. The problem was that students were feeling a tremendous emotional upset. And so when we came in doing poetry, it was like hearing someone scream onstage. Which was important for them to hear. And that’s one reason that the reading became so powerful, because it isn’t quite proper to talk in a calm rationalistic way. So in the poetry there was much more yelling and feeling and screaming. Emotions came in, and a little bit of insanity.
Which was a measure of reality.
Yes. Something that came up in my interview with Ray Gonzalez regarding those readings. [Reads from The Bloomsbury Review interview the following:
Gonzalez: You are one of the few writers who have spoken harshly against the Bush administration and its response to September 11, calling the New York attack “the first sacking of Rome.” This has brought silence from some of your recent audiences, but it reminds me of your long poem, ‘The Teeth Mother Naked at Last.’ I have found four versions of the poem: in the original City Lights edition, in Sleepers Joining Hands, in your first Selected Poems, and recently in Eating the Honey of Words. Though it might fit the times, you rarely read it in public anymore, but you keep tinkering with it on the page. It’s like you can’t leave it alone. What does this poem mean to you more than three decades after it publication?
RB: I still like the poem, and I read it once in a while. If there are a lot of young people in the audience, most of them will not understand what was going on at the time of the Vietnam War. Despite September 11, they do not know the tremendous amount of grief we were suffering. Sometimes I will speak at a university and a faculty member, trying to shame me, may ask how I feel now about my Vietnam poems. I answer: ‘I’m sorry I didn’t write more of them.’ With shocked expression, he may ask, ‘Why didn’t you?’ Well, we didn’t believe it would go on for so long. We never planned for more poems because we couldn’t accept that something so vile would go on for years, but it did. A great deal of ‘The Teeth Mother Naked at Last’ was written spontaneously on stage during those times. I would take newspaper articles and read a bit on stage, composing lines to fit the horrible news. I would check the tape of the reading and in that way find out what I had said. Sharing it with an audience, the give and take between poet and the audience would bring things that would never arrive if you were just sitting down composing alone. ‘The Teeth Mother Naked at Last’ is the only poem I have created with that ancient relationship between poet and audience. The dark times of the Vietnam War gave us that bond, the union only poetry could give us. The poet and the people were feeling the same thing at once, at that moment, and the long poem came to us. Maybe that is why I keep working on it. There is something not quite settled in it, and it may never get settled! Toward the end of the poem there are the lines,
Now the whole nation starts to whirl,
The end of the Republic breaks off,
Europe comes to take revenge,
The mad beast covered with European hair rushes through the mesa bushes in Mendocino County.
Pigs rush toward the cliff.
The waters underneath part: in one ocean luminous globes float up (in them hairy and ecstatic men);
In the other ocean—the Teeth Mother, naked at last!
Lawrence Ferlinghetti and I were riding in a car, and I recited those lines and Ferlinghetti said: ‘you know you really are insane.’”]
That’s what that quality—what did we say a moment ago—that insanity is a mode of reality?
You’ve answered my next question, which regards what things people read during these anti-war readings—if they were just poems, if they were poems directly about the war, or poems that were not directly about the war, like Anne Sexton’s reading “My Little Girl, My String Bean,” that took on a new context in light of the event…
It was more like that. Some of them didn’t write anti-Vietnam war poems. But they would take poems, even by Hardy or someone like that, and people would just say, whoah.
So these readings differed from the institutional readings in their greater give and take with the audience—
The headlines were ahead of us, so to speak. Things we could hardly believe we’d find in the paper. And the audience had already read that paper. So they didn’t want us to do Samuel Johnson. That’s the way it is in the old epic poetry, you know. They still do some of it in Yugoslavia. They’ll say, we’re going to have a county fair, will you come down and do some stuff. Maybe, how long? Well, maybe twenty minutes, we could give you $200. But the thing is that we want you to do the Eliot or whatever it is that you do, but one of our young men got in a bar fight and was killed last month, and we were wondering if you could put that in the poem. So you put the guy in the bar, you can even put his name in it if you want to. Because that ties the audience into a group. That’s what this was like. Things that happened that very day, if there was enough landscape in the poem, you could do it.
So there was a productive feedback loop between you and the audience. How did the audience participate in the construction of that experience?
Well, you know, they would sometimes interrupt the poem by clapping or shouting, and other times someone would shout out something. Like: “How about when they did that?” Poetry audiences have become polite; they think they are there to listen.
It certainly was a different time. I can’t imagine a more different moment, when many students seem to feel very cowed by September 11th.
This is an important question; why is there this silence? This is a ghazal I’ve been reading at poetry readings. [Reads “Call and Answer”]. And I probably wouldn’t have said that ten years ago. I would have said, “we allow others to rob the house,” but now today I am sad to say we are ourselves robbing the house. That’s a little bit of feeling of the Vietnam poems. And so I read it out in Houston the other night, the audience was so nostalgic. I just said, the president is not only pitiful, he’s stupid. And the whole audience clapped.
The dangerous part is that he’s so certain about everything.
That’s that American idiocy, that the Europeans notice. The world is very unsteady, uneven, everyone in France walking down the street so depressed, and then some American comes by with an idiotic smile. [Laughs]
What sorts of things came out of the Vietnam War readings for you? What heartened or disheartened you?
Not so much the effect it had on others, but as on ourselves. Number One was the realization that we had that old function and relation to the audience that we heard about poets having in the past. That’s one reason why poets of my generation are still working so hard—Galway, Denise, Adrienne. It’s like a car going into gear. A lot of young poets who have not had that experience feel like they’re spinning their wheels, or they’re writing only for a few people, or they’re self-obsessed. They just have not had that connection with the audience, that old one in which the poet and the audience invigorate each other. That was one crucial thing. And secondly, it made us proud because we did better than the fiction writers. I remember one time we were giving a reading in Chicago, and by that time they wanted fifteen people to read. So they wanted this fiction writer, and people started to leave. He was doing the best he could, but the prose wasn’t up to that.
So it was about the intensity of the language.
And the ability of poetry to adjust itself. To say something in one line and very different in the next. Fiction is a kind of a trance. It’s a nice trance, when you get into it, but you have to get to the other side. And the third thing was exactly what Ferlinghetti said to me, that “you know you really are insane.” That insanity was all right. And that’s a very old tradition. That all made us much bolder.
Did you participate in any of the marches, like the March on the Pentagon in 1967 with Lowell and Mailer?
Yeah, yeah, I was there too. We did all that. Going back to that situation in New York—how surprised people are when you lift your voice in public. And I said, yeah, that’s fine. I said I got arrested a number of times, and one time I was thrown in a wagon with Dr. Spock and I got in some good questions about my kids free on the way to jail. Ginsberg and I were arrested a number of times, and one time we were arrested sitting-down at an induction center in New York. Ginsberg was in one cell with about twenty others, and I was in another with about twenty others, and we had a great time, singing all night and doing poetry and stuff. Allen was very good with that.
That’s a good segue into my next question—I’d like to hear some of your memories of other war resister poets, and how you see them participating in the tradition of war resistance.
Just because you’re a pacifist doesn’t mean you can’t lift your voice, don’t you think?
How about William Stafford, who did very different things in poetry than you?
Well, Bill was way ahead of me with that stuff. You know in the Second World War he was a conscientious objector. To him, we were sort of, like…well, he’d been walking in this march a long time. We were sort of like people who, when the gorillas and the ice cream arrived, we’d joined. He was sort of glad to see us but wondering where we’d been all this time. But this was a whole route of his life, not to participate in war at all. We all admired that in him tremendously. You could say that this war wasn’t a shock to him, but it was a shock to us. Have you read Down in My Heart, his memoir? Bill had thought this all through, and we waited until the pie hit our faces. And then he always distrusted certain forms of loud talk. He’d forgive me for mine. I was writing a poem the other day for Bill, asking him what it’s like in heaven, and he says, you know, many times, Robert, I had to defend you. I’m a coward, but I remember several times when they were getting on your case and I said something.
I can imagine him saying that, in his very polite way—
but with a lot of power underneath. In other words, he would feel it. He would warn me, so to speak: don’t make so many generalizations, Robert. But there was always a tremendous affection with it. I remember one time driving up to Fargo to see Tom McGrath. He was one of those who went through the really tough times during the Red Scare. So, now he was back near where he was born, and they wanted him to give a talk at his high school, but then people wrote on the board “McGrath is a Communist,” so he never got invited back to his high school. We asked him to give a reading, and he said, certainly, but we could tell from the sound of his voice that he thought we were kind of retarded. That experience put us in touch with the older generation, who had really fought for justice.
What about George Oppen during that time? Obviously he was one of the poets involved with the Communist Party, who had stopped writing for so many years.
No, I don’t remember him well. I think that some people had been scared so much they didn’t want to put their head out there anymore.
Perhaps that’s why people like Stafford were so judicious about their words. Can I ask you about Robert Lowell? Unless you have more to say about Stafford. Lowell seems like such a different route, even though he also was an objector.
I’m still thinking about Stafford. Well, Stafford was sane and Lowell was insane. That’s a big difference. Stafford thinks about the implications in everything he does. In his poem “Ask Me,” for example, you see it. He says, the river doesn’t come from just here, it comes from way back up there.
That sense of needing a language at one point in the river, but knowing that there is the previous energy behind it.
That’s right, and the previous energy in his life is what led to that place right here. That shows no hysteria, a recognition that people really do want him to confess more, but he’s not going to do it. He’s very sound. A great poet. So, anyway, you ask about Lowell. Lowell tried to enlist and then when they started bombing Germany, he decided to refuse. That was brave. In his own poetry, he didn’t do much there. But he was so willing to go to Washington and participate in marches and walks, and that meant a lot to us who were a little younger, the way he put himself out in that way.
He got some heat for his outspokenness. One of the critiques of poets who got involved in war resistance is that it was stylish to do so, but it seems to be a misunderstanding of the situation.
I never heard anything like that in terms of Lowell. He had something that Bill didn’t have, and that was that he was fanatical about his position. At parties, he would go around, saying who was one, who was two, who was three, and so on.
He was very interested in power.
One time I drove to Iowa City and hung around with Lowell. We were both fans of William Carlos Williams. He and Tate were Lowell’s literary fathers. I went to see William Carlos Williams one day. He said, come on in, kid. Just sit down. And he was walking around, saying God damned son of a bitch. God damned stupid son of a bitch. God damned stupid fucking son of a bitch. So I said, what’s the matter. Cal Lowell called me, he said could I come over this weekend. Why didn’t I hear that in his voice, God damn it? I said, Cal, I have three babies to deliver this weekend. Could you come next weekend? He said sure. I just got a call from Chicago, that they picked him on the street and he’s showing people the stigmata in his palm. Why the fuck could I not have heard that in his voice? I’m a God damned stupid son of a bitch.
So I visited with Lowell in Iowa City, and he was there with a bunch of poets, and they were sitting there making fun of William Carlos Williams. I couldn’t believe it. And I said, wait a minute. And they turned and looked at me as if I were a cockroach. That was that kind of literary life, in which if Williams is down right now, and someone else is up, then you betray him. So I had to do, I had to say something. Then I showed Lowell a poem from my first book, in which I mention a county in Maryland. And Lowell said, what county was that in Maryland? I said, I don’t know. Well, you need to find out what county that was, and then go there and look it up and find out who was murdered there. Put that in the poem.
That’s Lowell’s method, isn’t it?
Yes. The poem is okay as it is. So, anyway, we met each other a couple of times. And then he published Near the Ocean and I wrote a review called “Very Far from the Ocean.” He was doing a lot of bad shit then. Then I went to an antiwar thing, and met up with him, and introduced myself, and he said, WHAT? I never expected to see you here. After the terrible things you said about me. Just like a little boy. So I just turned away. So he acted out of a sense of justice from his Catholic conscientious objection, but also out of the feeling that he was a New England cultural hero above trash like Lyndon Johnson. There is a class system there. Compared to Stafford’s strong roots. I don’t remember anything else. We always invited him, but I never felt close to him.
How about Denise Levertov?
I used to visit her in New York. I’d bring people over to see her. I brought Don Hall over to see her, back when [the poetry world] was all split up. She said, I can’t believe it, I met Don Hall, I can’t believe it.
Why was this so surprising?
Well, because she and Creeley, etc., were this rebellious group, and…
that whole split, the New American Poetry group and the academic poets?
Yeah, it was really deep. I’d bring people over to meet her, and she trusted me. That was good, because we decreased some of that animosity. I admired her a lot. But then I put out an essay, which is in The Wrong Turning, in which I showed how all of them had something in common, as opposed to the inward material of Lorca, and she was just furious with me for putting Williams in there with Eliot and Pound. And she never really forgave me for that.
It’s stunning how deep that schism was. Today, it seems like young writers now, in a way, have greater access to all those opportunities. You can look at the lyric tradition, you can poach from the experimentalists. I don’t sense the same bitterness of the divides.
You could say that. You could also say that the older poets felt deprived because of the domination of Eliot and Pound. I was one of those. And Creeley and others felt deprived, and found their niche, as it were, on the mountain of Olson, in order to climb up. That’s also called passion and survival and love of literature. Robert Creeley said something interesting. He said, you know, what you need to be a writer: you need friends that you can stay up with until four in the morning talking. Then you need an older man who is your hero whom you would never meet. Charles Olson was that for them—of course they met him, but it applies. And that older man would determine your group, so to speak. What happened with the poetry workshops in the colleges is that has been destroyed. And your teacher was only a few years older than you, whom you’d meet in the bar. This is very weird psychology, but that’s the story. Then it brings in this sort of idea that we can bring in this or that but we’re not defending any of it. Creeley was doing the classic young man warrior thing of defending Charles Olson. I used to make fun of them in one of my magazines: “Be sure to be the first on your block to get the Charles Olson ring, in which you can measure your breath.” Creeley thought it was funny, but one day, I was at the Y in New York, and they told me Olson was there, saying “I’m gonna cold-cock that sonuvabitch,” speaking of me. But that’s part of the sort of French joy in these conflicts. It’s the absence of that that’s missing now. Things are homogenized, and teachers are younger. I thought that was good: you need someone who is older than you whom wouldn’t dare go and knock on their door.
Who was that person for you?
There were all those Spanish poets. Lorca, Vallejo, Ortega y Gasset, and Charles Olson [laughs]. I think that literary life grows by these fights, and it isn’t good that we don’t have them out. It doesn’t mean that we are more advanced today. I don’t know, it’s hard to imagine how deprived people felt at that time. You go to college, no one would teach poets that you like. All you’d learn is Eliot. Everyone was suffocatingly convinced in their own viewpoints. “So I said to my friend John (which was not his name). John, I said, the darkness surrounds us. What shall we do against it? Shall we and why not buy a goddamn big car. Drive, he said, for Chrissake look out where you’re going.” That’s the mood of the early antiwar poetry. You leave aside the Richard Wilbur line, the Robert Lowell line, and you do what you have to. There’s that feeling—the darkness surrounds us. When the Vietnam War came, it was more like a different kind of darkness, but we’re still in battle and we’re not going to just stand back.
I just met Jerome Rothenberg in St. Petersburg, who seems to be a parallel figure to you on the other side of that divide, doing translations of European poets, etc.
Oh yeah, we were good friends. Then he went over with these bad writers, and I stayed with the good writers! But he is a wonderful man and I love everything he does, in general. Just because he went out to California, otherwise we would have been doing more stuff together.
And both of you use various instrumental accompaniment to your reading.
I don’t do that anymore; I used to play the dulcimer and the bouzouki. You can do it in a Vietnam reading with your intense voice. So I played some instruments, but never took the time to learn them. A friend wrote to me and said, I used to think you were God. But then I realized that God would not play the bouzouki as bad as you. I thought that was wonderful. But I still do a great bit of it. Now I have good musicians play with me. I recently was at the Dodge Poetry Festival. 20,000 people come to this event. It’s tremendous. If you tried that in France, you’d get 42 people. So there is something good about the United States in the way that we’ve been opening up poetry. There were twenty of us there, and the oldest was Stanley Kunitz, who was magnificent. All he is now is nothing but a nose, an old hawk. He got up and he read very slowly. And he talked about walking around the Harvard Library and found a book on the floor. It was Gerard Manley Hopkins, and he read “Pied Beauty” and was amazed. That festival was an astounding testimony to what a great love affair Americans have with great poetry. And there were a lot of others there, including Amiri Baraka, who made an ass of himself, as you probably have read.
What did you make of his 9/11 poem?
Whitey did everything, the face of pyramids fell off because of white people. It’s just endless. And those stupid lines about the 4,000 Israelis who didn’t go to the World Trade Center that day. But that proves he took it off the Arabic internet, because he would have said Jews if he had. I already had enough with him already that day by that time. We had a roundtable with Coleman Barks, Ed Hirsch, and Amiri. Amiri used to be LeRoi Jones, and we had our tiffs back then as well. But we liked each other basically. Anyway, we all had to discuss whether we liked to read poetry in private or hear it. We each had five minutes. Then Amiri decided to take it over. The model of it was Coleman Barks’ translation: “out beyond the ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing there is a field.” Amiri said “there is no field out there.” And that was the end of the imagination. He said, “all there is is wrongdoing, that’s what you guys are doing.” Then Coleman said something, and Amiri put him down, then Ed Hirsch said something. But it wasn’t right to not say anything. My antiwar experience helped out here. So I waited until he insulted Eliot as a reciter of poems. I said, no you’re wrong about Eliot, and I imitated Eliot. And he insulted someone else, and I said you’re wrong about that too. You can’t criticize the man, but you can criticize the opinion. And then I said, you know I’m really sick of this big wind blowing through this tent, and piling up the leaves in the corner. You can’t answer a metaphor.
My friend has this theory that Baraka loves to play the antagonist, and that’s his way of engaging with people.
My daughter was out there, who said he was going to get into trouble and my son said, no that’s perfect for him. That’s exactly what he wants. He’ll have a great time! Anyway, that whole split. I’m just trying to give you a feeling about how much energy it brought in—as long as we didn’t hate each other.
I just worry that the split between language poetry and everybody else creates a kind of solipsism of two groups. That we only talk with our group, uninformed by dissent. That’s my worry. It seems like in your generation there was conversation.
Yes, we respected each other. The language poets are classic capitalists, trying to sneak in on the edge of something radical. But they can’t make a single statement that’s political. To me they are pretty worthless. They have ruined the Boston Review. I have noticed that the people who are making a group are really academic language poets. There’s a psychologist Robert Moore, who’s a psychologist out in Chicago. I asked him why no one lifts their voices these days. He said, well, I’ve been reading Kierkegaard. And Kierkegaard talks about five different kinds of despair. And one of them is the despair of not even knowing you’re in despair. And then the despair of believing that you can never be anything but ordinary. And I think there’s a lot of that in the failures of speaking out. Michael Ventura, who was brought up in an orphan asylum in upstate New York. He says, you know, we used to drive forty miles to see a French movie. And we used to talk about it the whole way back. Now, the French movies are unrented on the video store shelves. I think there is something about the effort it takes to get there. The second thing is that the fact the French movies are no longer something extraordinary. We felt extraordinary going to those movies. There is nothing you can go to where you feel extraordinary. The despair that takes over the language poets is related to the despair that has taken over everyone—so they don’t object to Bush. They feel small, they feel ordinary. In the Sixties and Seventies, when we had these fights, everyone felt extraordinary. Now, people feel little. There is more despair than you would believe.
What would you advise young poets how to go about making poetry part of the conversation for peace and justice?
What sort of blockages do you feel?
The one challenge that I feel as a writer is if I feel like I have too much certainty about something, that I might violate the possibility of openness in a poem. How can I speak out with conviction, without killing the experience of the art?
I think that one of the things that shows our despair is the loss of interest in mythology and Joe Campbell. The fact that you can tie into Beowulf and the Jewish prophets somehow. The reckless use of language in which you can bring in the unconscious—it’s such a ludicrous term, really—but all of that was an incitement to find that language. That’s what the capitalists hate the most. You won’t find a metaphor anywhere on television. So that’s what my answer to you would be: to rediscover your reckless metaphor. The dumbing down of language, by the poets themselves. Too much about your own family. What’s happened is that you get immediately exciting poems about mining your own disasters, but you’ve cut some link in the process. In my book, The Sibling Society, I talk about how no one becomes an adult anymore. One idea I develop is that there is a vertical line and horizontal line. The vertical line is the one from God that cuts down to the very heart of being. The horizontal line is the one that poets like Anne Sexton, where you go to the Laundromat, and then you see something, and something happens, and tell the whole damn thing, and that’s it.