Scholarly article on topic 'On Poetry and Becoming: A Conversation with Paul Hamill'

On Poetry and Becoming: A Conversation with Paul Hamill Academic research paper on "Languages and literature"

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Academic research paper on topic "On Poetry and Becoming: A Conversation with Paul Hamill"


DOI: 10.2478/abcsj -2013 -0010 On Poetry and Becoming: A Conversation with Paul Hamill

ALEXANDRA MITREA Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu

I had the honor and the pleasure of meeting Paul Hamill during the semester he spent at Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu as a Fulbright grantee. Time went by very quickly - as it always does - and before I realized it, he was already saying goodbye, presenting me with several volumes of his poetry. Only then did I become aware that, caught in the innumerable tasks of the day to day, I had failed to find the time to talk to the man and the poet Paul Hamill, to talk about things that really matter, at the end of the day. This interview is a recuperatory project meant to do justice to a poet who, during his stay in Sibiu, contributed significantly to our department's cultural life. He very graciously agreed to an e-mail exchange of ideas which has resulted in the interview below.

When did you start writing?

I started writing poetry in graduate school. I had been a science major in the first years of college, but loved books and was not promising in the laboratory, so I switched to literary studies, rather naïve about what professors of literature actually do. Entering graduate school at Stanford, I wanted to learn to write poetry, liking its intellectual power and also assuming that I should be like the scientist who must learn the practical laboratory art as well as theory.

I applied for a seminar with Yvor Winters, a famous critic and teacher of poetry writing. In order to be admitted, one had to submit a sheaf of poems, so I wrote for several months and brought a group of poems to his office. He scanned them quickly and said, "These are as bad as possible. Vague ideas, undistinguished rhythms..."

"So I can't get into your course?"

"Oh, you can come in."

I discovered that I was one of only four students because many other, more likely students avoided Winters as a curmudgeon: in addition,

he believed in very formal verse, requiring meter and preferring rhyme. The other three students were already accomplished poets: one was future U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. The little I submitted to the class that year was awful, and Winters said so: I kept trying to be poetic: I wrote about eternity, death, the endless ocean, the moon, goddesses, vague stirrings of love or depression. But one day, in a hurry, I wrote an accurate description of a lone fisherman in a small motorboat checking lobster traps near the shore of Cape Cod. The class and Winters thought it excellent, and I learned that poetry can be - usually should be - made from direct observation of moments of life. If one describes what one sees accurately it will seem creative to readers, because many people see only stereotypes, and many others who see life clearly cannot describe what they see with the same freshness as their vision.

After a few years I won Stanford's annual prize for poetry, but thought of myself as one who could write poems but would not find writing poetry central to my path in life. I was not a Poet with a capital P, a figure with a special role or claim within the culture. In later years - I published slowly - I was forced to think of writers like Andrew Marvell as my model: he wrote wonderful poems but had careers as a government bureaucrat and later as a legislator: poetry became for me, as perhaps it was for Marvell, a relief from mind-numbing routines and a way of thinking about, sometimes relishing, the world.

Why do you write? What does it mean to you to be a poet? The answers to those questions change over the years. Poetry is sometimes how I think about my own life; but sometimes it offers the pleasure of telling a story - an adventure in lush use of words or paradoxes of character. I have not had a full-fledged "career," e.g. supporting myself by teaching poetry or by performing, and now I rather wish I had done so, but I was able to be part of the confraternity of poets, meeting individuals who knew a great deal of truth about life and were endlessly interesting - the middling poets and the good ones were engaged in life and observant of it.

How do you write your poems? Do you toil over them, or do they come to you in a flash of inspiration? Is poetry inspiration or perspiration, or both? Writing poetry becomes a habitus, a habitual skill that (like playing music or tennis) one can do well or badly, and stop to analyze when one is failing, but on the whole involves an automatic-seeming flow. I may have trouble starting a poem or struggle with sections and arrangement of a longer piece, but the really difficult parts turn out to be passages where I did not quite understand what I meant to say. Most of my poems are stories or arguments or descriptions and have a pretty clear end point. I do tinker with the last details endlessly, however.

Where do your ideas come from? Books, texts, everyday life? Yes, any of these. I often write down a phrase or title or image in a few words and know there's a poem hidden in it. Then the poetry unfolds as I write, or I write and write and write (badly) to get down all of my associations with the subject, and discover that some part of my scribbling is worth keeping.

Your poetry takes an absorbing interest in mythology. Why do you constantly focus on mythology?

Mythology is interesting in part because each mythical allusion is rich with multiple implications. This is especially true when a familiar myth presents a character type in the multiple dimensions that humans have and objects or ideas usually do not. A psychologist will identify a few diagnostic characteristics of (say) the young girl in the Theseus myth, Ariadne; but if I can take a fresh look at her she is a love-addled but clever teenager who loathes her family, is headlong and steadfast in her passions and so on, with complexity and a potential for growth. A mythic name is shorthand (and more) for the complex human type: but one has to see the mythic character or event in some fresh way.

Has the digital age in which we are living marked your poetry? In what way?

Two ways. Word processing allows endless easy revision and movement of sections of a longer poem; I think we are seeing more discursive poems

these days. Secondly, poetry is increasingly published on line: a current poet has quipped that the published book is essentially a calling card, which the poet can bring to in-person readings. On-line publishing and poetry blogging are clearly the current trend.

How do you envisage the relationship between a poet and the society in which s/he lives? During the English Romanticism or the American Transcendentalismpoets were expected to contribute to society on an elevated plane. It was felt that poets could interpret issues with a sense of clarity that others didn 't. What do you deem to be the role of a poet today? The early modernist sense that one should ignore most of (bourgeois) society, and that conventional good sense is more or less contemptible, still retains a good deal of power, so that although we celebrate poetry in schools as a civilizing moral influence the typical poet may or may not have any real claim to ethical or moral authority: rather, he or she claims an honesty that is often missing in public life and in social conventions.

Especially after World War II, and during the Cold War, the great gift of poetry was to present a voice of authenticity: perceptions, feelings, stories that sometimes were powerful simply because they were not submitted to a censor, neither to the official censors nor to the internal censor of conventionality. Sometimes, of course, the poets were explicitly prophetic - Ginsburg, Yevtushenko, the Nuyorican "slam" poets - but authenticity seems to me the key value. Carolyn Forche's great anthology of international poetry against tyranny, Against Forgetting, reflects this realization that the poets' gift is sometimes to speak the truth (perhaps just his own lyric mood) when politics or convention or the buzz of media suppress it. In a less threatened context, poets of extremely exact observation combined with something like meditation include Jane Hirshfield and Chase Twitchell among my favorites.

Over time, the prophetic performers and the insistent avantgardists who reject all politics or economics as hypocritical, or who don't have the degree of education or specialization necessary to speak to complex real world issues, tend to become self-indulgent and irrelevant. This has been an issue since the Romantics: the humorist Peacock famously criticized the Lake Poets, Wordsworth and his peers, for claiming moral authority

while engaging in the morally inoffensive activity of walking up and down hills. However, there are many current American poets who manage complex social issues well and somewhat directly (I think of Hass, Pinsky, Komunyaaka, and Paul Allen): they don't submit to stereotypes of what a poet should or should not understand of the practical world, but they don't preach in the Victorian mode.

I should add that one of my interests and pleasure is to consider topics or to use language - perhaps slightly technical or academic - that we use in our grownup lives but that may not be found often in poems: tools in a hardware store, shopping a flea market, and so on.

Do you write with a specific audience in mind? What is your audience and what do you make of its horizon of expectation?

People who have read a fair amount of literature, especially poetry, tend to like my work; sometimes it also appeals to those who have read a fair amount of history or philosophy; on the other hand, some of my topics don't especially interest readers who like more mystery, line by line, or riffs of surprising phrases that may or may not clarify a theme (e.g. John Ashberry). I try to make the ambiguities in my poems those of life, not those of language, and there are readers who love the music of word and symbol for their own sake more than I do.

What else do you enjoy doing when you are not writing poems? I deeply enjoyed my experience as a Senior Fulbright professor last year at Lucian Blaga University in Sibiu, Romania. My wife Kristin and I have settled in Charleston, South Carolina, a beautiful seaside city, but we have been surprised by how much we miss the generous-spirited and hospitable Romanian people whom we met.

I currently spend my days writing, walking the beach, dreaming about buying a sailboat, catching up with long timer friends, and crabbing to stock our freezer with chowder. Kristin and I also stay busy keeping up with our six grown children, scattered from coast to coast of the United States as they pursue diverse careers, and with seven vigorous grandchildren.

The Hadean Raisin by Paul Hamill


How much of what we do Is easing the small pain Or frantic restlessness, Having no salve for worse. Mother says, "So-and-so Is laid up. Drive me, We'll make a chicken soup run."

We bring in the hot bowl As if we begged for a moment's Recognition of hunger, A robust herb stored dry In the patient's memory That steam of bones and celery Will bring to life, brief heat For what may be a cold Or a knell! We bear it in Like a tradition, witness To the dailiness Of the neighborhood Of mortality.


Mother is losing her bearings and I am varnishing The rudder of my little boat with the slow stroke Of one bemused that sadness is not storm, unsure What part of loss to grieve. No hope of patching up Her memory, nor of walking which she loved. We know The course from here, however slow, by heart and chart.

So elegant, the balance among sails, keel, wind And water that maintains a course where everything Is flow! So elegant, the habit of the brain And sense, day-sailing down the surface of a life! But now she is adrift for good, though still in sight.

I had the novice's mania when I got that boat,

A short fat sloop like a potato-wedge with sails.

I daydreamt tacks and reaches and traced charts, yearning

For intimate release into their world. In motion,

A sloop's a wing thrust up as if a tilting gull

Swept through two elements, the lower wing transformed

By sudden evolution to a leaden fin.

Creatures designed to ply across such borderlines

Are complex, even grotesque, yet take the grace of the flow

They struggle with. It is what one would ask of grief.

I sailed into my dream of sailing as I learned To bicycle: tilting, bumping, adding speed and risk To earn simplicity. I marveled at the rigging, Cat's cradle humming to its world. I watched regattas Wheel like flocks, then one boat growing small in distance, Weaving into the wind like a calm and private soul.

What an old pleasure is refinement of a tool!

Tuning the instrument, seeking the faster edge, We go a little mad absorbing what absorbs us, Until we navigate half-consciously. But then, How many ways the rigging of the mind can fail.

Because it is a drifting out, not casting off, Her voyage does not seem the thing it is, but I At quayside weep and laugh at once, and mean to sing: For sorrow must be tuned like the good craft it is.


The woman of eighty-five moved calmly in her kitchen, Cooked for herself, made plans. She'd call a friend aged ninety:

Do you need anything? Remember, I'm gone next week, I help out while they harvest. Now ninety herself, she founders In the tide of the ordinary.

As arts of life decline We say, We are not selves by skills, not those alone. What difference does it make, if names once prompt to the tongue Dissolve, a child becomes his uncle? All the years I lived at distance, we deferred long talks to visits: Holidays and vacations when old love flowed back As certain as the tide, which rises in all weathers. Like a lost sailor's dog, my heart by habit feels Her sinking as deferral, and will not understand.


A wake, and it would. At elders' deaths the talk Changes by circles. Just past the casket, speech Is simple, quiet. It asks the spouse's health, Perhaps gives simple tribute: "A real lady."

A few steps further, sympathy has shadows:

"Hardly anyone kept in touch...." "At the end

She wasn't herself...." A half room further off,

Talk knits the world back up. "That's not her son!

Well, twenty years...." "Kate, meet my cousin Margie...."

"I'll be here soon enough with my bad ticker."

"Still selling cars?" "Say, did you hear the one..?"

A newcomer to the style walks in, appalled

As the noise grows to hubbub. She who is grieved for,

The center of inattention, lies tightly permed,

Sunk deep inside a dress she chose herself

Before she wasted. Says someone: "She would have loved this."


What ends when an old woman dies? The fan above the funeral sermon hums To grids, cities, other expressions Of discontent. Mourners drift: Is this suit Too tight? Was that her neighbor? They struggle back, then think, idly, That of course they will die: which sets them Adrift again. So hard to imagine The hive and tapestry

Of the world as it weaves itself! —Currents that ran in her And run in us, and grow a little Even by our thinking of them. Can we resent their indifference? Or that because we cannot imagine The endless shuttle we know no more Than if she left the room? Process

Of sense ebbs, of course, and humor (Deeper than judgment), and the fine Appetite her friends always praised. Near the end she asked, "Are my sisters And brother dead? Ah, I thought so." How terrible real time-travel is, Lost moth flitting around the fabric!

Not that nothing ends for the mourners: The collective heartbeat skipped is the crack In which churches takes root. But who Would ask What ends? One whose grief Has trudged to a distance from which the weaving Is only a fact noted and death another, Crow-shadow on a field of moonlight. Doors open: the rumble of traffic outside,

Random and ceaseless, comforts and appalls. A tapestry is thread on thread enclosing Emptiness, just as a forest canopy Closes behind a bird that slips inside.


For a creator of quiet He is amazingly loud. His old truck thunders arriving, His chain saw howls in bursts, Limbs splinter, thud. A largo Of thunking axe-work follows, Then clanking chains, and last Crescendos of the chipper, With random crashes and crackles Like shots in a jungle skirmish.

So at lunch it is strange To hear peace fall: The tree man Sits with a sandwich and thermos In the truck's shade, music Soft from a radio. Small birds Flock and weave in the brush pile Where insects were dislodged, While light from the canopy Of high leaves wanders cloudlike.

I wonder if he tastes The space he makes for others? They will come on to fill it With play or loneliness, Whatever they have brought. He makes a sort of nest For any of them, seekers And sleepers and escapers.

So many arts make shells! - Or arbors, if you will -Arrangements built by pruning As much as planting, green spaces To shelter one routine Or free a soul from others. The makers often wonder What lives will move among The lives and things they shape.

Often these days I think Of my mother, dead this year. Stories her children tell Are a sort of forest grove That no one walks the same. The life that shaped the grove

At first has ceased to tend it: Our versions are more like shells We used to find by the sea. The hollows of the deep ones Were filled with ocean roar: The sound of our own blood, Impenetrable life.


(Boston, Massachusetts)

The unlikely word insists like a knocking ghost: Hades: a state of dreamlike lingering When dreams are done with.

Like Irish emigrants Crowded and patient on the offshore island Where deep-keeled ships would pack their holds For final disappearance, shades in Hades Would drift and mill till they forgot Bitterness with its root, desire: fading As the living forgot them. Heroes paused longest, Strolling with ghosts of comrades, but for the humble The dwindling was stale and familiar, like the stairs I creaked up as a boy to Hannah's flat.

Whenever a spirit in Hades is called up

To the eyes of the living, hell-visitors or dreamers,

It bears a sign: a dress or wound that stands

For its whole fate. The young wife dead in childbirth

Might wear her wedding dress, a judge his robes.

Drowned sailors stream with brine, a warrior's wound

Gapes raw. Hannah bears a dark tall funnel

With nuggets of black raisin.

Some Back Bay kitchen-sergeant taught the look Of perfect batter to the shy Kerry girl, Who raised a calf to buy her steamship ticket To spinsterhood and life "in service." Handfuls Of flour, boiled raisins, cinnamon, dark sugar And slabs of lard, and then the smell of doneness From a slow black oven birthed a tall funnel, Glazed by its own seeping sugars To a mahogany dark as Yankee floors.

That cake was the one thing her arguing clan, Which sprouted across Boston thick as eyes In a sack of potatoes, agreed was perfect - as near To a private sacrament as Faith allowed.

One day in old age she came to my mother weeping, Holding a ring and two hundred dollars. "My godchild, Your legacy, - All I could ever save."

Than her needless shame is how memory Robs the poorest sooner than the rest: Even my pity is coin of poverty.

It must be true that smell and taste are the last

Sense-memories to fade, that lover's touches

Dissolve to the scent of a room and hair and skin.

The aura of spice cake lingers while the face

And bun, stout arms and thick-brogued voice have blurred.

Summoned from her eternal tenement

She bears a gift more vivid than herself.