The Colorado Poet, #27, Summer 2014
Inside issue #27:
Interview: David Rothman
The Book of Catapults
(White Violet Press, 2013)
Bob King: Before talking about The Book of Catapults, David, I want to give you a chance to praise “versecraft.” In the MFA program at Western State Colorado University you direct the “Poetry Concentration with an Emphasis on Versecraft” and a concurrent book of yours, Part of the Darkness, contains a lot of overtly metrical forms. What’s your quick take on the use of, or the necessity, of form in poetry?
David Rothman: Poems differ from prose in that they not only say things, but also do certain things that prose by definition cannot do. To study versecraft is simply to study how to do these things.
The actions I’m talking about are not statements. We can say anything in prose – use any diction, any rhythms, any figure of speech, any syntax, take up any theme or trope. What we cannot do is…write verse, by definition. After all, prose is just a kind of verse – a subspecies of it – its etymology is “pro-” + “versus,” a turning forward.
The language always knows more than we do…
The language always knows more than we do, and what the language is suggesting to us here is that prose is…a verse that doesn’t turn, just one endless furrow plowed by some mad farmer who doesn’t know where his field ends. Again – Prose is a subspecies of verse. As soon as we write verse that does turn – which is almost all poetry, everything but that delicious oxymoron the prose-poem – we therefore face this question of how to make these turns, and why we feel drawn to make them, and what they do that prose cannot do. Otherwise why bother? And as it turns out, there is a lot to talk about there, from all the metrical forms to free verse (which is a form of verse, not a form of freedom…and which must still have an explicitly linguistic basis for its turns), to repeating stanza forms, fixed lyrical forms, and so on. So I’d say versecraft is the technical bedrock of poetry, necessary although of course not sufficient, and if we’re serious about the art we all need to know more than a little about how to do it. This is not a brief for metrical poetry as against non-metrical poetry, which is a bogus and simplistic distinction (I admire, write, and publish free verse as well as metrical work – The Book of Catapults has enough nonce-forms to keep folks guessing for a while…), but rather a call to know as much about the craft as one can.
The short answer to your question is that form in poetry is not only useful and necessary—but inevitable. There is no escape from meter—only mastery.
So – I suppose the short answer to your question is that form in poetry is not only useful and necessary – but inevitable. There is no escape from meter – only mastery. You can’t teach anyone to be a great poet – but you can certainly teach the tricks of the trade. That’s what we do at Western along with also reading and writing a lot of poems. A lot of poems.
BK: I can’t keep from asking about one particular line-form—syllabics. Your poem for Lorca, “News from Grenada,” for example, has a 7-syllable line, as do some others. I’ve used them a lot in the last several years, so this is an answer for me personally. What are the dangers and successes of syllabics to shape the line?
DR: I’m so pleased you caught that about “News from Grenada.” Modern syllabics were more or less invented by Elizabeth Daryush, the daughter of Robert Bridges, who laid the groundwork for his daughter’s invention in Milton’s Prosody, the first book ever to describe Milton’s blank verse accurately (he published three radically different editions of it over several decades as he tried to figure it out….). What he discovered, that no one else had seen before him, was that Milton’s heroic line was astonishingly supple and that Milton was playing variations on so many feet that sometimes his lines felt as if he were counting syllables but not stresses (which is why Johnson once called it “verse only to the eye”).
It was but one small step from that observation to chucking lexical stress-placement equivalences altogether and just counting the syllables, which also then moved English prosody a ways back towards French models, in which the verses are organized differently because lexical stress does not exist in that language. Obviously many poets since then have taken this up – W S. Merwin is particularly good at it and many poems in The Shadow of Sirius are 10-syllable syllabics, just as Bridges described them and Daryush advanced them.
The joy of writing syllabics in English is that although they cannot generally be heard by an audience, they nevertheless provide and provoke measurement for the poet who wants to use them as the basis for making strong lines. That can be powerful and useful, for as William Carlos Williams pointed out, “The crux of the issue is measure.” The dangers are that….they’re technically easy. If one isn’t careful, one winds up carving out one line after another until the crack of doom. And that’s rarely a good thing. I particularly like the way Marianne Moore finesses this by sometimes combining brilliant rhymes with syllabics, as in “The Fish.”
BK: Several poems strike me because they present a specific thing or incident as well as what I’ll call a meditation or a “thinking about” the thing. “An Icicle,” for example, runs 4 or 5 pages and it’s about—one particular icicle. Meeting a snake on a trail in the mountains in “One of the Lords of Life” takes two pages. There’s action and image (“Pebbles tinkled like dice / As I leapt over the fat green snake”) and there’s also meditation: “”Nature does not suffer decay: always new… It unfolds like emptiness.” Some poets would focus entirely on the imagistic quality and hope that wisdom comes out of that treatment and some might deal with the abstractions. What’s your take on the relationship between the physical vivid image or event and the wisdom or meditation it creates or embodies?
I do know that I’m very interested in the articulate energy in poems, so I tend to resist imagism, with its de-emphasis of the loveliness and dynamism of verbs.
DR: That is a difficult, thoughtful question. I’ve never thought about it quite like that. I don’t really have the foggiest. I do know that I’m very interested in the articulate energy in poems, so I tend to resist imagism, with its de-emphasis of the loveliness and dynamism of verbs. Sometimes Imagist-inflected work seems to be all nouns to me and I find that painfully dull. I delight in, love, admire, court, wrestle with and venerate verbs, and I associate their absence with creative cowardice.
On another axis, I also don’t have much interest in pure, self-absorbed abstraction, of which we certainly find no lack about us. So – I suppose I strive for a kind of balance, a set of meaningful relations between ourselves and the things of this world and of the imagination and spirit. That place is where the truths of vitality become more amenable to language.
BK: This question may be related somehow to the previous one. Sometimes a matter of form or a rhetorical structure seems to help create ideas. I’m thinking of “Dandelion” whose 23 lines, with two exceptions are full or slant rhymes with the title (“lawn, lions, ion, fly on,” for example). And “An Apology for Poetry” takes its existence from turning apologia into true apology: “I apologize,” the poems begins, the next stanzas beginning “I’m sorry” and “I know I was wrong.” Are these examples of form creating ideas?
DR: Yes, I think you’ve got it, and I think that’s exactly what happens in the best poems, the ones that last. In my view, it is impossible to read most strong will be an Index to Interviews on the CPC homepage poems coherently without understanding how poems depend on what they do as much as on what they say. How can one fully read, say, Frost’s “For Once Then, Something” – I mean read in a sophisticated way, read the poem as a poem as opposed to just merely a statement – if one doesn’t realize that it is “All composed in a meter of Catullus”? And that part of the tradition of the Catullan hendecasyllable over the course of thousands of years is a response to the poet’s critics, from Catullus through Tennyson up to Frost’s own poem? Frost is very, very precisely and explicitly deploying all of this and it comes directly through the lines and their history in every possible dimension.
One never wants to lose sight of the poem as a poem…but I don’t see how one can begin to read it as a poem until one understands how it was made and how it works…
One never wants to lose sight of the poem as a poem (it’s not a mere exercise), but I don’t see how one can begin to read it as a poem until one understand how it was made and how it works. And I don’t think Frost could have written it without that background himself – so this is the kind of thing I try to do when making a poem, which involves listening and reading as much as anything. I want to emphasize that this may at first sound intellectual, but is actually the opposite – the point is to be highly attentive to the sensuous and imaginative realities and history of language itself and language in art.
One cannot design a new variety of anything – and as Williams pointed out a poem is a machine made out of words – unless one has a good sense of how other similar things work. This is as true of poems as it is of tennis rackets, light bulbs and pasta dishes. Before you can be a chef you have to learn how to cook and that means knowing the names of the spices.
BK: After your prefatory poem “Breaking the Jug,” each section of your book begins with an epigraph from The Divine Comedy: Section One, “A Man Among Beasts,” with one from Inferno, Section Two, “Building an Alphabet,” with one from Purgatorio and Section Three, “The Shape of Water Most like Love,” with one from Paradiso. Did this organization come after the poems or were you really thinking in terms of The Divine Comedy?
DR: I’m not sure when this structure became clear to me, but when it did I couldn’t resist and it evolved organically over time. In fact the other book of poems I published this year, Part of the Darkness (Entasis Press; http://www.amazon.com/Part-Darkness-David-J-Rothman/dp/0985099712/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_y), uses the same device, though less overtly.
Why do this? Well, immature poets imitate; mature poets steal. One way to give a sequence of poems a larger resonance is to connect it in cunning ways to the greatest possible works, to reread, respond and even plunder them. Such creative misreading can generate tremendous energy. I realized at a certain point that my vision in both of these books is broadly comic. By this I don’t mean merely humorous (though I hope there are some laughs in each…) but rather that each moves from the darkness towards light, from crisis to epiphany, from loneliness to love, from hell to heaven, and so I aimed high and appropriated the greatest model for this in poetry that I know.
BK: I’m embarrassed that I haven’t yet come up with a satisfactory reading of the importance of “catapults”—they’re a medieval machine, which could be a sly reference to traditional form or a personal statement. What do you say when asked about the title?
DR: The phrase appears in the poem you mentioned above, “An Apology for Poetry,” which ends with this stanza:
But it’s my fault.
I didn’t realize the words I had chosen
Revealed such a deep failure to listen.
Surely you will speak to me again?
With that mischievous look in your eye?
Just give me one more chance.
I know I can temper my faith in the book of catapults,
My obsession with sunlight on a dial,
My joy in the enchantments of this theodolite,
And attend instead to our mortal days.
I don’t know if I can explain this in a satisfactory way. At the risk of sounding obscure in exactly the way the speaker is apologizing for, I’ll say that he is apologizing to someone he loves for his obsession with the arcane and anachronistic machinery of life (especially language) at the expense of life itself, an attitude which appears to have cost him, or almost cost him, the opportunity to love and be loved. It expresses an aspiration to transcend an operational mode of consciousness in favor of a journey to love.
All the powerful tools of projection, leverage and measurement in the poem (catapults, sundials, theodolites) are nothing compared to the true dialogue and love he seeks. The words aspire to exit to something greater than themselves. In this sense they aim to be self-devouring. I should add that this is a conflict or contradiction I no longer feel. Words are themselves real – but it can take a long time – it took me a long time – to come to understand exactly how that is both
generative and true.
BK: Finally, I do want to ask about your program at Western State. What’s your experience been with MFA poets in a versecraft-oriented program?
DR: The short answer: splendid. A longer answer….More and more I think that creative writing programs should reconsider their relationship with literature programs. Many English Departments around the country are in serious trouble – losing faculty lines, losing students, losing support – while the MFA programs are exploding. I represent the western states on the board of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) and our conference last month in Seattle had over 13,000 attendees, whereas the MLA convention is shrinking every year. This is at least partly because people in English over the last several decades have spent a lot of time and energy trumpeting the death of the novel and its author, the epistemological impossibility of aesthetics, the inevitable aporia of criticism, and a number of other hermeneutics of suspicion, most of which end in “-ism.” And the problem with “isms,” as Mark Strand once observed, is that they tend to become “wasms.”
The MFA programs, on the other hand, celebrate and champion the literary imagination, believe in its vitality, and want their students to be part of that vitality in both a practical and a creative way. In this sense the MFA programs resemble conservatories, art institutes, schools of design and dance academies far more than they do the scholarly humanities programs that seem to be committing intellectual hara-kiri before our very eyes. We train artists, which also of course should include training them to think critically and to live in the world where they must develop the skills to find some kind of gainful employment.
We teach everything from metrics and genre to public speaking for poets, the art of the poetry book review, poetry pedagogy for teachers…[to] the business of editing and publishing, and much more.
So – our own program does exactly that. We teach craft and the practical aspects of living and working in the poetry world. That means we teach everything from metrics and genre to public speaking for poets, the art of the poetry book review, poetry pedagogy for teachers, courses on poetry and music, on poetry and translation, on the history of the English language, the business of editing and publishing, and much more. As far as I can tell – and I think they’re being honest with me! – people are satisfied. It’s a serious, demanding curriculum that we believe gives students the skills they need to grow as poets, critics, scholars, editors, publishers, translators, and so on. Students leave our program ready to write and to work. They’re certainly writing well, and they’re publishing, reading, editing, teaching and on and on. My colleagues David Yezzi and Ernest Hilbert are superb poets and teachers and we all have a great time when we get together for our residencies in Gunnison each summer – I hope some of your readers will take a look at the program, which they can do at www.formalversemfa.org, “World of Versecraft” on Facebook, and of course at Western’s site, https://www.western.edu/academics/graduate-programs/mfa-creative-writing/mfa-creative-writing-general-information.