AN INTERVIEW WITH ELLEN BRYANT VOIGT
Gregory Donovan: There were a couple of things that your poem, Ellen, really put me in mind of, things that it brought to my attention and reminded me about your work. One of them is what I'm going to articulate as an impression that your work is very much using language in the service of a particular effect that you want to have happen in the reader's mind. Now maybe that's describing all poetry, but I don't think it is anymore. I don't think it actually is describing all poetry. For example, in the section of your poem that we're publishing, "The Feeder," where you say "Suddenly there suddenly gone." Ordinarily, I might say to a student, "Now, if you want something to happen suddenly, don't say 'suddenly.'" However, it just shows the difference between a beginner and a professional that what's happening there, of course, is that for me, that's the wing beat of the bird as it comes in and as it goes away. What sort of attention have you put to that and what kind of aesthetic backdrop does that kind of commitment to those sorts of sonorous effects in your poetry, what does that grow out of? Or is that something principled on your part? How are you feeling about that?
Ellen Bryant Voigt: Well, I've always loved best about poetry the music of it. I think that that's our chief tool. And I've come to start thinking about two sorts of music over the past ten years. Before that, I thought mainly about the music of the line and what you could do line to line to line, whether it's a regular line length or whether it's open verse. In the past ten years, I've started to realize that there's this other system, which is the music or the rhythm of the sentence. And that the mind, really, is there to play either with or against what's happening in the sentence. I don't know if that addresses your question entirely, but the music of it, the sounds of it.
I've been re-reading Mr. Frost and what he said about sentences and the sound of sense—the dramatic sentence. So that's what I've been trying to pay attention to. "Suddenly there suddenly gone" is held together by one unit and reinforced by putting that in one line so that then the absence of the punctuation has an effect, right? It's like tempo. You're a musician, so you know what that is. So it's a way of managing tempo, and other places where I want to slow it down, or want to put in a pause that would not exist in the sentence to sort of play off against that. Let's see if I can give you a little example of that. Well, from the same poem: "Suddenly there suddenly gone. / Do they count / if they come not to the back yard but the front."
So that's a way to put a pause into the sentence that it wouldn't have. "Do they count if they come not to the back yard but the front" would be the prose sentence. So this is a way to increase a pause and then also make it possible that a reader might hear a little off-rhyme on "count" and "front." And just the consonants in there will also manage tempo. Tone, I think, comes out of the management of sounds, comes out of the management of the rhythms, the two rhythms—rhythm of the sentence, rhythm of the line—and then the musical effect also of the vowels, and whether they're high or low.
GD: It's definitely in the service of the drama of the poem and of the presentation of its imagery and action. And I think other poets sometimes either just blink that away, they're only paying attention to the meaning of the word and not its musical effect, or they're only interested in the musical effect of the word for its own sake and not in the service of anything outside of that.
EBV: Yeah, well, I'm guilty of having done that when I first started writing. I was so in love with the sounds that the rest didn't matter. I realized this to my chagrin. I had an occasion to go back and look at early drafts of something. I was visiting a class on revision, and when I was looking through the big box that I throw everything into, and I went back to really early drafts—first, second, third drafts of poems—what I saw was that very often I would hear it before I had any language, and I would put a scansion in. And I was a little horrified to see that, because once you hear that relationship between, say, stressed and unstressed syllables, then sort of any word will do, right, to fulfill that. And so that was something that I really had to work on. That was something that I had to learn, was to make sure that it was in service of whatever overall intent of the poem . . .
In this particular poem, "The Feeder," because it's in ten sections, I need the ten, they all sit there at the same dramatic place, right? I mean, it's all looking at the same place so that there's a high degree of reoccurrence that's going on just in the materials of the poem. So then, what's moving? Where are the moving parts? It's got to develop somehow. And it seemed to me that there could be a little development or a little arc in the speaker, the person who tells us this, who is looking for certain things at the beginning, in the first sections, and then is forced to see some other things at the end. So that's a little sort of psychological narrative that allows the poem to move. But another thing that could move would be tone. I don't really have anything comic here, because I'm not a comic writer. But to play with that a little bit, so that there would be some variety from section to section. And also, I hope, some sort of ongoing arc that comes from the development of tone. And, as I've said before, I don't know what else manages tone quite so well as the management of sounds.
GD: You know, there's another effect that I think is really characteristic in your work, certainly in Shadow of Heaven, I think, which has to do with the way in which you're using nature. I think only a wise poet would be courageous enough to exercise the kind of humility that your poems are showing. That is, you're clearly, carefully, and attentively receiving as much as you are dominating the landscape and willing it to deliver some lesson or some illustration. Isn't that the point of your poem, in a way, that it's about taking in what is there and perhaps not noticed unless you're actually exercising a certain type of humility? And it seems, here we are in New England, and of course I'm very much noticing that in driving around here. And, you know, Emerson's spirit hovering over everything. Emerson's important to you more generally. I mean, you refer to him specifically in poems in Shadow of Heaven. But here it seems like he's kind of, in a way, a presiding spirit, is that right?
EBV: Yeah, I think that's probably right. There's another thing I had to learn. I mean, I had to learn about listening and watching and receiving, rather than arguing. I think that I had an impulse for many years to sort of argue with the natural world. Or to argue with whatever set it up and got it going. Maybe some of that's growing up on a farm, seeing some other side of it. I've never been tempted to sort of romanticize in any kind of way. I mean, it's all about will, isn't it, it's about will. I'm a very willful person. So to get to the place where I could listen and sort of receive something and not rage against it. Or want to change it. Or put an imprint on it. So some of that is just years, I think. Some of that is age, and some of that, too, is having some tools in the toolbox that you can bring to that. I've always been one very committed to the technae, to the made thing. Poems are also utterance, and so I think that to develop a set of tools, craft tools that will help one toward utterance and toward vision. Sure, Emerson, yes. Elizabeth Bishop is another one. Elizabeth Bishop is all about listening and watching, right? It's all about listening and watching. And then making a text that is transparent.
GD: I think that's another aspect of the humility that I was talking about. I started out as a poet myself influenced very much by Marianne Moore and then ultimately by Elizabeth Bishop, too, of course. And it seemed to me—or it seems to me now looking back on it—that what they were teaching me was not only humility before the subject, but humility before the techniques of writing as well. That the poet was ill-serving his or her work when the poet was foregrounded rather than the work itself in some fashion.
EBV: And even, I think, beyond that, even with an attention to subject beyond foregrounding the poet. I mean, if you think about something like early Lowell, and the sort of torqued-up music of that, that foregrounds the poem rather than the poet. But it puts the poem, then, between the reader, or the listener, the reader and the subject, or the world, rather than delivering the reader into the world, into experience. That's what I think Bishop was such a genius at. It's not only that she doesn't come between us and the poem, the poem doesn't come between us and the world, so that's what I mean by transparent.
GD: Clearly a very Emersonian word.
EBV: Yes, that's right.
GD: When I lived out west for a time in artists' colonies, and I also went to graduate school out there, I very much felt that that landscape was teaching me things and encouraging [in] me a certain attitude that then carried over into just daily business of life. And I think the same thing is true of New England, and the New England background of Marianne Moore and ultimately of Elizabeth Bishop herself . . .
GD: . . . She came from even further north of us than where we are right now, but certainly northern climes, northern landscapes . . . and there's a certain quality of contemplation that comes out of this region.
EBV: Yeah, I think that that's true. I also think that, you know, if you stay in one place, I mean, the thing that's pretty amazing about Bishop was that she was traveling around, and you have a number of landscapes, then, that become important to her poems. Certainly in Florida, certainly in Brazil. But in Brazil, I mean, once she gets the house, and once she stays in the same spot . . . and I've been in this same spot since 1971 . . . and I think that there's a kind of excitement over the new and the exotic that can come to play in poems, but then there's another thing that happens when it's so absolutely familiar and yet not. The response to it, I think, has to be something like wonder. Because if you look out my back door and see the same things that you saw, except they're not quite, and so that that sense of something circadian, something seasonal, those kinds of changes, and the power behind it, that that's, you know, that's going to take over everything. Or you look out the other way: that used to be an orchard across the road. That was cleared land and that was an orchard. And now it's grown up, first scrub and now we have some hardwoods in it, you know. So that sense of something much larger and exceedingly mysterious, very mysterious. And if you're just sitting still—this sounds very kind of Zen, or something—but if you're just sitting still, then some of that play, I think, records itself on one. Depending on your temperament. For my temperament, it's a good thing. Again, to sort of correct the will.
GD: Those are qualities that you have written about and pondered extensively in the flexible lyric, as well. Is that not the case? And we've talked about this before, trying to understand these terms at all is difficult. I mean, the lyric, that word is one that I've proven to myself and to students has been used so widely, variously that it almost . . .
EBV: It's a vexed word.
GD: It can be used as something argumentative or just . . . it can be used pejoratively.
GD: On the other hand, you don't use it pejoratively.
GD: You're a devotee.
EBV: I am. Yes, I am.
GD: What qualities do you see maybe threatened or misunderstood about the lyric and poetry of our period that we're seeing of late? I think every poet feels like she or he is fighting for something in their work, so that they're advocating for something even if it's simply by example, in their work. But I think, it doesn't feel like that to me. I think every poem is a statement in a larger statement of aesthetics. What do you see yourself fighting for?
EBV: Oh, well. I don't know that I'm fighting anymore. You watch these things come and go. I think that part of the problem with the lyric was to go through that post-confessional period. I think that there was a kind of reaction against that. All of the things that we think of as being properties of the lyric . . . that ability to stop time really is just there so that emotional complexity can come into the poem. If you're moving ahead on the plot line, if you're moving ahead on action and event, it's not that you can't have feeling in a narrative poem—I certainly don't mean to say that—but that simultaneity of several different layers of feeling, and sometimes contradictory feeling: joy and grief at the same time, you know, anger and rue happening at the same time, all of that happening at the same time.
What the lyric can do by holding us in one place, not letting us move—and by place I mean one moment in time—it allows for some of that nuance and some of that complexity to come into the poem. I think that by locating much of that within a single sensibility, or speaker, who puts that in the foreground, puts that sensibility in the foreground, which is the way I see confessional poetry. I think after a while we got tired of that, and, after a while, some of that poetry became mannered. I think about, say, the first two books by Anne Sexton, as opposed to the last couple of books by Anne Sexton. There was a way in which this is not just confessionalism, but this happens very often. You find out something that you can do, and you continue to do it. And I think that there was a reaction against that that said, Oh, please, not another poem in which the poet puts herself foremost and talks about her deepest concerns and ills and whatever.
GD: I've been around long enough to witness a remarkable transformation of students' attitudes towards the work of Sylvia Plath, especially. I mean, Anne Sexton is kind of a different case because she's always continued to stake out a certain territory that's so identifiable and has, I think, in my experience of how I've watched other people experience her work, that hasn't changed a lot . . .
GD: Some things have changed because the political climate and the nature of feminism and all that has grown and changed and developed over the years, but a certain truculence on her part still has that kind of . . . it appeals to readers in the same certain way. With Sylvia Plath, it's almost as if, when students encounter her now—or other readers that I am witnessing them read her work—it's as though they're seeing a completely different person. My most recent experience of watching, or witnessing, some readers take a look at her work, young readers, they were extremely annoyed by her, and found her responses to the world just unconscionable and irritating. And I felt like, Are you looking at the same poem I'm looking at? I can see why you might . . . Their attitude was perhaps summed up in that: Get over it, lady! They seemed to have that attitude, and so drastically different from what young women, especially, felt when I was a young poet and that sense of kinship and identification and a breakthrough of freedom that they found in that work. But that seems to me to be the vagaries of what happens when personality is foregrounded in the work. And I think, actually, she's unfairly characterized that way.
EBV: I think she's very unfairly characterized that way. And I think that, also, you know, we bumped into the age of biography and the age of Oprah. And so that there was a greater interest in her life and the fact that she killed herself than there was in reading the poems as poems . You know, I think we'll pass through this. I think we'll pass through that response on the part of your students, and get to something else, which is, you know, people who have not been inundated with all of the biographical stuff. And also some other way of getting to the collections as she intended them and not as Ted Hughes arranged them. I mean, he arranged Ariel, right?
EBV: And this was not the order that she had in mind. And then he published everything after that. Or we think so. We can't be sure—since he burned some journals, he could have burned some poems. But her poem-making has been occluded from us for quite some time now. I think that what will last with her is intensity, and I think we'll come to the point where the speaker of those poems is no more recognizable to us as a person in the world than, say, the speaker of the Shakespearean sonnets. I think that that will happen, and when that happens, I think, then, we'll be in a place to go back and look at her craft.
GD: That's it.
EBV: Look at the craft!
GD: That's what makes that possible, isn't it? It's her devotion to craft.
EBV: Absolutely, absolutely. But, it's been very hard, I think, over the past fifty years, to read the poems as craft. Instead, they're read as the, you know, the cry from the suicide. And it's not that she just . . . even when she was writing quickly, she was still paying very, very careful attention to rhythm and to sentence structure, and you can see it, by comparing some of the earlier poems that are written. They're incised. They're sort of syllable by syllable. What she started to do with the Ariel poems was to, indeed, write sentence-driven, syntax-driven, poems. It's a very different music. An entirely different music.
So I think we'll come to the place where we do read those in terms of how they were made, and I think that she was a great craftsman and a greater talent than Anne Sexton. I think that Anne Sexton has, well . . . there is that kind of intensity of feeling in the first two books, you can feel the pressure of it. And then, after that, she becomes her persona, I mean, the same persona over and over. And, it seems to me that those last books, the poems are just not as well-made. I mean, not only are we tired of hearing the same stories, but I think that they're not as well-made.
Yeah, these things, you know, there's always this kind of cycle to it. For a while, then, narrative sort of came in to replace this sort of "the narcissistic lyric." I don't think it has to be narcissistic. I mean, do we think of the Shakespeare sonnets as narcissistic? No, we don't. But I think that in kind of reaction against . . . then we were looking for other things, so we went through a sort of neo-narrative period. And then we went through the neo-formalists' attempt to try to foreground more clearly the making of the poems. I mean, I think that that's what a lot of that is about, where rhyme comes back into fashion and strict meter comes back into fashion. Then we have, again, a sort of a move in the avant-garde to take all of the elements of narrative out of the poems, right? Any suggestion of an actual person in an actual place in an actual dilemma, then that gets taken out. And instead we sort of move the language around on the page as John Cage might, right?
GD: Yeah. Or abstract painting.
EBV: Yes. Or abstract painting. Very abstract painting. So these things, they have their own life, and I think that that's good. I think that those pendulum swings are good, because then that allows for other people to come along and make up some new kind of poem, some new way to do this, rather than getting stuck under the shadow of something. I don't think that we have had, in America, the single great figure since Lowell died. Maybe Merrill. Merrill comes pretty close and Ashbery, I guess, comes pretty close. But even with those two figures, I think that if you did a poll, if you took a poll right now, and said, "Who is the greatest living American poet?" I bet if you ask fifty people, you're going to get at least forty names. I mean, I don't think that there is consensus about that, and that's great, because, you know, you think about the generation before mine, and all those people having to write under the shadow of, certainly, Lowell and Berryman and those figures, and they themselves under the shadow of Yeats and Stevens and Williams and . . . where, then, there were only certain kinds of poems that could be written. Now, I think, any kind of poem can be written. And so that's bound to be a very good thing.
GD: You find people, certainly, mixing qualities together. Well that's something that you . . . in your talking about the lyric, though, I've heard you mention that all strong lyric is rooted in the narrative, so it's not exactly a kind of . . . it's not a battle. It's a relationship.
EBV: Yeah, well. Yeah. For me, I use those terms very, very narrowly. And for me, the only thing that makes any sense is to think about the structure of the poem. If you just go right on back to Aristotle, and he pointed out that there are three great structures. One works in time, with time. It is sequential. And it's based on action, and action that has some relationship to character, and has consequences. That's what it can do, better than any of the other structures. The other structures being dramatic structure, where something is enacted and there's a struggle between two equally forceful figures. Or two equal forces, if you want to think of it that way. The antagonistic and the protagonistic forces. And it could turn out either way. We don't know how it's going to turn out. And that's what we watch being enacted. That has an immediacy that none of the other structures can accomplish. Narrative knows that and that's why now, if you sit in on a fiction workshop, they're talking all the time about scene. Right? There talking about scene. And they're saying, you know, "Watch out for too much narrative summary." Well, I mean, I you know, The Iliad is full of narrative summary. But that's what the dramatic structure can do.
Then the lyric structure, as I've said before, it seems to be what it can do, better than the others, is to hold us at one place in one dilemma. And then, what radiates out from that center and from that suspension of time is feeling, complicated feeling. There's no reason why elements of the others can't be brought into any one. Just as narrative has borrowed a whole lot from the dramatic, I think that the lyric has borrowed a whole lot from the narrative in our age, in our time. So if you think about, you know, the sort of disembodied poet of a hundred years ago, where it was all mask, up to what we have now, where there is an identifiable poet, usually first person "I," and the reader invited to think that that is the poet. It's still a persona, I mean, it's still a kind of mask, but that's borrowing from narrative what narrative can do about getting the reader engaged, right? Getting the reader sympathetic. But, for me, a choice for the writer has to do with structure. Do you have a story to tell? Do you have a series of actions? Do they have consequences? Or not?
GD: The quality, though, that you're talking about, to focus on time in poems. In the poem that you've given us, "The Feeder," one of the things that's happening is it's like a string of pearls—they're a series of lyrics. The series aspect of it affords duration.
EBV: That's right.
GD: And development.
EBV: That's right.
GD: And those are narrative qualities . . .
EBV: Yes, they are.
GD: But on the other hand, I wouldn't necessarily call that poem, in any of the traditional senses, a narrative.
EBV: I wouldn't either. Because nothing really happens except birds come, or don't come. So I agree. But again, one can borrow this sort of movement through time, or this change. If you have change, and if it's not sudden—I mean, if you're writing a sonnet, you can put change in there in the volta. It's all one thing and then, Zap!—it's all the other thing. So you can allude to change that way, but it's not change over time. It's not a development. It's not a change in how one views the world, or any of those things. "The Feeder" uses a couple of little seasonal references, right? So that you move to the snow pack, and then you move to March and spring coming. So that little passage of time . . . but I would agree absolutely: I don't think that it's a narrative poem, it just borrows a little piece of the narrative structure.
GD: Well, you know, another element in some of my favorite poems by you is that you will—talking about this borrowing and hybridization—is from the dramatic. And the dramatic effect that I find that I really treasure, and wait to see if students will catch it in your poems, is when you will slip in the snake in the garden. What is that poem in? Is it the title poem?
EBV: Yeah, The Lotus Flowers.
GD: "The Lotus Flowers" is the one that has the snake in the spring. I teach some fiction-writing classes, and I'm telling them, "Okay, Flannery O'Connor has the misfit coming up the road, and the only hint of what's about to happen is it's a big, battered, hearse-like automobile. There's tonal effect, but when it comes to her revealing that they have guns, she just says, "They each had guns." It is just quickly revealed, no drama about that at all. And so, therefore, heightening the drama by understatement. And that's an effect that I find a lot in your poems. And it seems like that's of a piece with a certain rigor about a kind of humility before the material, and before the technique. Does that seem like an accurate . . . ? I mean, you're seeing yourself portrayed badly here?
EBV: No, I think that that's very smart. I think that that's very smart.
GD: The poems are created, at times, to lie in wait for you. It's not misleading—it's not that. It's nothing overtly trying to take you in a direction that it's going to jerk you away from. But it seems like you actually believe there always is a snake in the . . . well.
EBV: Yeah, I do. Yeah, I do. That's true. And sometimes, you know, you're looking at the wrong place. I almost miss them. No, I think that that's a very fair characterization. And I would go so far as to say I think even the narrative poems that I've self-consciously tried to write, they have more of that sort of dramatic structure in them. And they also try to make these pockets of stalled time. The one that you're talking about, "The Lotus Flowers," it's, there's the snake and then a long descriptive passage, right? The narrator doesn't do anything. I mean, this is not D. H. Lawrence and pick up the jug and throw it. And the snake doesn't do anything either. It's just this long descriptive passage—there is the snake, and then the snake is described like the girl with her head on her crossed arms on the sill. So that that, I hope, is a moment of recognition, somehow, that the snake is not completely alien, but there's something of the human, there's something . . . and it's not . . . it doesn't say. This is a child's experience, so it doesn't say what that thing was revealed. But something, I hope, implied that it's revealed through just tempo, pacing—what we were saying—pacing and structure. Because then, you know, after the poem looks at the snake for a very long time, then, you know, I lug the bucket back. So then it just picks up the narrative. And life goes on.
GD: Right, yeah. Using the terms that you were using about narrative creating consequence. Those consequences that are created in narrative have to do with the characters who are involved in those narratives, and so it's going to be a particular consequence for a particular person, arising out of the events in their lives, or events in the poem or story. But it is not the case, however, that your poems are without consequence. But the consequence rises up larger than the individual. This is, very much, it strikes me, like Asian philosophy, in that you go through this keyhole, you go through this small point, and you burst out into a realization that's rather large. And, you know, to use a dangerous term, universal. Or just human. And that strikes me as something that's happening in your poems where you're observing nature.
EBV: Well, I think that that is the presumption of the lyric. And I think even the most confessional, in quotation marks . . . even the most confessional kind of poem that you can think about. The presumption is that the emotional life is what we all have in common. Anybody's story is individual, is unique. Anybody's story, just what happened when. So, you know, you've got all these millions of different stories on the planet, and that can also get us to something universal, too, right? And it seems to me that the presumption there, with the narrative, is you take that story line and it turns out to be similar to other people's stories, to the story of the reader. I mean, the reader can find herself in that story even though the details are very, very different.
So I don't mean to say that narrative is not also reaching for the universal, but I do think that the lyric, because it is focused on the emotional life, that is what we all have in common. I don't care what your story is, and how it's different from my story. Anger is anger. Grief is grief. Joy is joy. You know, what you feel when you're experiencing that is the same as what I feel when I'm experiencing that. So that the lyric occasion is just sometimes it might be highly autobiographical because it's just familiar. It's at hand. But it has within it the potential of touching that third rail. Touches that third rail which is, I think, the emotional life. And that is what connects us all. That's what connects us all. So the more a lyric poem leans toward narrative, the more it borrows from some of those presumptions that you can have idiosyncratic detail as a way of getting the reader involved to get to that point, you know, where the universal thing happens. it doesn't have to do that. It doesn't have to do that. And you can think of poets who actively try to shear away some of that idiosyncratic detail and leave something out there that's almost unauthored.
Think of some poems by Jean Valentine, say, where a lot of the narrative information is withheld, or taken out. It's just, you know, it's disregarded, so that there's something more sort of purely lyric that's coming at it. I don't think that my work does that. I think that mine is over there somewhere closer with that edge with the narrative on one hand and dramatic structure on the other. Where there are two kind of forces at work and either one could win out. You just don't know which one is going to win out. And sometimes one of those forces is that individual speaker poet, however you want to think about it, who is willful, and who knows things or wants to know things or has an argument to make with the world. That can be one of those forces against the world itself.
And there has to be, I think, the possibility that either one could prevail. There has to be the sense that the human mind can get at something, which is very non-Zen, which is very Western, right? That by using all parts of your brain that you could come to an understanding about something full of mystery. Maybe, and maybe not. And that, I think, becomes a kind of enacted struggle. Certainly in the last book, and maybe in "The Feeder," too. I don't know, don't you think that that watcher is a little kind of obnoxious at the beginning of the poem?
GD: Well, you wanted that, right? You wanted that.
EBV: Yeah, uh-huh. We want this, we want this now!
GD: So there's an expectation, yeah. There's a demand.
EBV: We don't want chickadees! Who wants chickadees? No, we want something, you know, extraordinary.