Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #13

Looking into the Machinery: An Interview with Jared Smith

(Looking into the Machinery: The Selected Longer Poems of Jared Smith
was published by Tamarack Editions in 2010.)

Bob King: You’ve selected 12 long and long-ish poems for this book that date from 1983 to 2008 and come from at least 7 books. What was the feeling, or what was the idea, to go through your work and make those selections? Is this a kind of retrospective or did you want to see these poems together for once?

Jared SmithJared Smith: Looking into the Machinery was suggested as the title of this selected works by my publisher. I think that he felt that laying the poems out chronologically as we did provides insight into the clockworks, if you will, of craft that I developed over the years in order to fully engage the visions of the world and our place in it that I work with.  Of course, I had been publishing in literary journals for over a decade before the first long poem in this selection was completed, but overall the chronological placement does allow one to be more aware of the interaction between vision and craft. 

Each volume of poetry I have published centers itself around an experiential layer of vision or understanding that I am trying to build into my life in order that I can better understand the world about me.  Within one book, for example, I was questioning in an experiential sense how an individual person relates to all other people within the multitudes of possible lives going on concurrently in our country.  In another book, I was exploring experientially how an individual relates to various complex social and educational institutions.  In another, the interface between heroes, anti-heroes, and real honest down to earth people.  In another, the old fashioned search for meaningful relationships and/or love, etc.  

Each book then had one or two poems which best incorporated the full range of complexity that I was dealing with, or alternatively that highlighted one or another aspect I felt was important but often over-looked.  In this selection, I tried to pull out those one or two long complex poems from each book.  Put on top of each other, as they are if one reads them all, one is I hope left with a multi-layered complexity of vision that is worth hanging a life on.  That said, the vision is still far from complete with this book, and I’m not sure where exactly it will end.  A good poet keeps expanding his or her vision and his or her craft as long as life allows.

BK: Okay, now let’s talk about the long poem. I think “Song of the Blood: An Epic” is the longest in this collection at 37 pages, followed by “Dark Wing: Book II of Song Of The Blood” at 31 pages. How conscious were you of writing A Long Poem? I mean did you get a huge idea and dive in or plan ahead somewhat as to various sections?

J.S.: The actual writing of “Song of the Blood: An Epic” covered a period of at least six years, and I was conscious of what I was trying to do throughout most of that time, though not of how to go about it.  Although my first introduction to serious poetry was through the lyric poetry of such writers as Houseman, Frost, Auden, and so forth tracing back to Wordsworth and Coleridge, I was fairly early on introduced as well to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, as well as to the early Germanic work of The Neibelungenlied Poet, whose work Wagner built his Ring Cycle around.  I even translated significant sections of Homer’s work into English during my first year of college at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. 

Longer pieces allowed the interweaving of those brilliant images and insights into a more protracted meditative frame of mind and discovery. 

Those poets influenced me well before I got around to reading Whitman or more recent American poets who worked on the challenge, though of course those American writers in the end had enormous influence on what I have done or attempted to do.  And I found that while shorter lyric pieces gave rise to brilliant images and sharply focused discovery of insight, longer pieces allowed the interweaving of those brilliant images and insights into a more protracted meditative frame of mind and discovery.  If the poems were long because of need rather than because one was trying merely to make long poems.  The problem became to develop new long forms that would create that long, deep meditative creative growth while not lulling a modern reader to sleep.  A number of poets have worked on that puzzle, of course, and I spent a great deal of time reading them, while also experimenting with new forms myself.  In both “Song of the Blood” and “Dark Wing” I utilized a first person approach where the “I” was in fact any number of individuals who were experiencing different lifestyle experiences and all of whom when combined yielded an American person living at that time and circulating through society…building and feeding it…even as the blood circulates through the human body.  Ferlinghetti, in reading it, referred to it as my “i-view witness of the song in our blood”, and I guess that’s an apt description.  In working on those poems I led many different lives…quitting college, hitch-hiking around the country, selling encyclopedias door to door, riding with a motor cycle gang, going back to college, starting a family, becoming a business executive, and starting to become a poet.  All of the voices of all those actual people went into the Song.  It was very important to get it right because I was trying to live it fully.

  BK: I once taught a course on “The Long Poem” in which we read “Song of Myself,” “Four Quartets,” “The Bridge,” “Paterson,” and some selections from Pound’s “Cantos.” I was exhausted by the end and only did it once, but there has been a certain amount of discussion as to how to write a long poem, or that a long poem can’t really be written. How would you locate the strategies of both parts of “Song of the Blood” in relation to other long poems?

J.S.: It is exhausting.  Writing or reading long poems is a different experience than reading, writing, experiencing, or interpreting shorter lyric pieces.  Long poems open doors that have no walls behind them.  All of those long poems are hugely important works, and have been very important to my life not only as a poet but as a person trying to understand what is around me in my life outside academia.  Each of them is crafted differently from each other one, and that is in part because of the different visions that surrounded them.  I like to think that I incorporate them all where appropriate to my vision. 

You really have to challenge other writers in order to develop the skill to learn from them.

And I see myself talking with those other writers and learning from them: you really have to challenge other writers in order to develop the skill to learn from them.  Whitman’s “Song of Myself” was in part modeled on Joel Barlow’s “Columbiad” from an earlier time, but emphasized the importance and glory and even holiness of the individual man or woman along with their beauty, rather than the celebration of America itself, which Barlow was engaged in.  And Whitman really developed what we recognize as the open flow of the long line we now use in long poems.  He recognized in particular its application to the kind of Transcendental philosophy that he and Emerson and others believed in.  And that Transcendental view is very important to my own philosophy as well. 

Hart Crane and William Carlos Williams in their master works found a sharper imagery set to match modern times—of course being much later writers than Whitman—and developed an understanding of meter adaptation to common speech that would allow them to utilize “the American ear” in applying long line poetry to the complexities of urban rush.  This allowed them to vary the meter greatly and apply it to organic situations developing in the poetry—thereby keeping the reader alert and on edge.  I learned a great deal indeed from that. 

The Cantos,” of course, are also a major, major work, and of a different nature.  They cut across all time and civilizations and kinds of learning that an intellectual of the 20th century might find interesting.  Their meter and style changes radically as Ezra Pound examines and experiences each area he looks at, whether from European or Oriental eyes.  I think that one of the key sections of “The Cantos” is that in which he talks about importing the finest wood and the best materials from each country in the world to furnish a house.  That house, I think, was the house of literature, and he was saying that you have to go wherever you have to in order to attempt building it. 

T. S. Eliot is without question the most lyrical of the long poem poets.

And, T.S. Eliot, of course, not only for “The Four Quartets,” but for “The Waste Land.”  Eliot is without question the most lyrical of the long poem poets, and his work in first defining and then using the objective correlative in his work may have done more to set the stage for contemporary poetry than any other writer ever did.

 BK: You have different ‘styles,’ if I may call them that, or ‘tones’ or ‘voices’ in the longest poems, two of which seem to be the cosmic and the personal. I’m thinking of the difference between lines like “Song burning in earthen fragments, / filling the granite bonds of city, / building the bones of time…” and, after a short space, “I stand upon the edge of Redland California / looking out across the san andreas / and her waters as/ evening pulls the separation of industry / in a yellow wall down the valley from los angeles.”  Are these the two poles of “Song of the Blood” or is another characterization more accurate?

J.S.:     That’s a good question, and you are right that there are more voices than the “i” and the “I’’ which we referred to above—that is the individual and the persona created from all the individuals that are the blood of the country.  I start that long poem with an invocation to the muse, in much the same way Homer did, though not with his eloquence perhaps.  My muse would not be perceived as a God, but perhaps merely as that which is larger than anything I can comprehend.  Within that there are many tones and voices that speak to me, and I try to transcribe them or arrange them with an eye and ear to putting them where they fit experientially. 

The variation in tone and style is also a reflection of craft in that I break the long poem into sections of different meter and speed of perception so that the reader—myself included—will be drawn along with the experience rather than be put to sleep.  In one of the quotes you give, you also note that there is non-standard punctuation with regard to nouns of place: that is because I was trying to suggest that while these were places that effectively met the experience that was being lived through in that part of the poem, those places could be equally effectively met by other cityscapes.  Sometimes the proper noun is important, and sometimes not.

BK: You also use parody be rewriting famous lines, like “Loveliest of trees my family’s now / is drunk with dry rot in the bough” or  “In samsonite did Kubla Kahn / a shapely broad decree/ where all the sinful rivers ran…”  What motivated you to use this technique in the poem?

J.S.: Partly I was playing in those lines.  Partly, however, I wanted to refer the reader to the state of mind that was created by the original and legitimate writer of the lines…a drawing off of the objective correlative created by those famous authors so that I could extend that into a new meaning.  A deliberate cheapening of the richness of those lines because of a cheapening within the feelings for what those values come to now.

BK: Another poem, “Keeping the Outlaw Alive,” is about Doc Holliday—actually it’s in the first person singular spoken by him. Did you enjoy using that persona? Why did you decide to do that rather than in the 3rd person?

J.S.: Yes, I did enjoy it, in that it allowed me to see and experience new things.  One of the important challenges in contemporary poetry has always been to make readers experience the mood and feeling rather than just read the poem.  That is true of the shorter as well as longer forms of poetry.  My first person narrative there was an attempt to place the reader within the mind of that outlaw so that the reader could experience and therefore emotionally understand some of the forces that came into play in Doc Holliday’s life. 

He had a quite tragic life the likes of which would have driven many men outside the law.  He grew up in a home with a classical education including an appreciation of music and the arts, lost that home to an occupying force in the Civil War, went to Baltimore to study dentistry so that he could afford to marry his childhood sweetheart, and there contracted tuberculosis which eventually killed him in Colorado.  After leaving Baltimore and moving west, he spent a lot of time bragging about his fancy guns and marksmanship, and hanging out with the Earp brothers, getting himself into the middle of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but when you study the history, it appears that he never shot anyone in all that time.  He tried, but he wasn’t a very good shot.  He was a victim of the society of his time, and an admirable man in many ways.

BK: You have another character in “The Graves Grow Bigger Between Generations,” a construction worker on the Kinzu Dam along the Alleghany River.  You don’t use his voice but you frequently give him lines using “he’d say” (“That’s what I’m gonna do, he’d say”). This really helps focus on the man rather than, again, seeming to write “about” him. A fairly conscious choice on your part?

J.S.: Yes, and for many of the same reasons, but even more so.  The man in that poem is a typical hardworking American doing what he can to put bread on the table and stay out of trouble, even though he can’t understand the workings of the institutions he is up against.  At one point or another, all of us are there as the world and its technologies change about us.

At one point or another, all of us are there as the world and its technologies change about us. 

What I particularly like in that poem is that the person he is railing against is Andrew Carnegie—who in the end builds the institutions of learning that enable the man’s children to play a bigger role as life evolves.

BK: Do you consider yourself a poet of ideas? I’m not sure what that means, but I’m thinking about the role that nature and science play in a lot of your work but certainly in a poem like “Symmetries” which, you note, was written after reading a book, Washburn and Crow’s Symmetries of Culture. You deal with observable nature, like “weathered picket fences hold back / the cold; cradle the last dust dry husks of grain/ blowing in across Montana plains. But later in the poem you make a leap of ideas onto a different plane: “The pattern / expressed in symmetries / is one thing against the blankness of the infinite.” Can you say something about particularity and generality/abstraction? Or are those the wrong two words?

J.S.: There was for a time following the demise of such poets as Pound, and Eliot, and Auden, and the rise of The Beats and the Black Mountain Poets and other such schools, a turning against intellectual thought expressed in poetry.  Indeed, I find intellectual poetry quite dull for the most part myself, and the focus that Ginsberg, Bly, Merwin, Snyder, Sexton, Plath, and others in all their separate and independent voices brought to things outside the classroom and more deeply rooted in the physical world following the age of those earlier giants was a necessary freedom that had to be endowed upon contemporary poetry. 

Nevertheless, I experience the fullness of life through my intellect at least as much as through my sweat or my sex organs or other physical appetites—and I build patterns of awareness and experiences of great beauty out of intellectual awareness of what is around me.  Therefore, ideas enter into my work along with all the other passions that I love to struggle with…and they evolve as an experiential part of the poetry.

BK: Your background is certainly literary but your occupational experience departs from the usual English-major-to-English-professor march. How has your experience as an educator, a researcher, and an administrator in the energy industry, helped you as a poet?

J.S.: Well, I got on the usual march at the beginning, I guess, but found it wanting and got off.  After earning my degrees in English Literature from NYU and starting out as a teacher in the City College and City University systems in New York, I began to feel that I was in for a long time of trying to answer the same bright questions asked by the same kind of bright young students every year throughout my life…and of having in the end to answer them by saying that it probably  wouldn’t shift the balance of the world however they answered many of those questions.

Poetry was a lot more important than that to me: it was the doorway to new discoveries and new experiences that might give meaning to the hardscrabble business of earning a living each day.  I wanted to understand better why we built the kind of society we did, and why people labored all day in institutions that didn’t care much for them.  The way to do that, I decided, was to take my observational and academic skills back out into the workforce and help shape that at a high level with an eye toward greater humanity. 

The humanity part never quite worked, but I did become director of research and industrial education for an international energy research laboratory, an adviser on both policy and technology to several White House Commissions under President Clinton, and a special appointee to Argonne National Laboratory on matters of national security…so the interest in humanity and the inter-workings of individuals with institutions became manifested in trying to preserve human life  and national security so that people might live long enough to engage more fully in literature and the arts, and civilization might inch forward on the wings of one person or another who was given the time to devote to poetry or the other humanities. 

And what I did learn in all that—what I deeply experienced every day for thirty-five years—was that most people have to spend most of their time working very hard and very honestly in order to make ends meet and in order to meet their family and social obligations once they get outside academia.  The dreams they had, and the creative power they have, don’t diminish, but the amount of time and energy they can extend to cultural activities declines. 

That means that if you are going to write among and about those important people who make up the solid core of our society, you have to make every word count and you have to devote yourself to things other than academic word games or traditional metric forms that date from the Middle Ages.  You have to be a part of their world, living it every day, and grappling with your fangs out.  People are not stupid, and they generally understand that every minute they spend reading a poet’s words, they are giving up time from their own lives to do so.  It is up to the poet to make sure those minutes they give up bring them something else greater back in return.