The Last Morning
Alone in the camp, all others dumb
with the humming sleep of the reeds
and the dew so thick in their hair
it flashes like brilliant insects.
I get up and go down to the river.
The current skeins the bottom stones
with pale, early light, the cold flow
that cries the sea-borne salmon
come, my friend, come and be still.
In the earth, tree roots are listening.
Taking two stones, I pound my shirt
like a woman whose knees are slick
after long kneeling; the arms float
away from me and the chest swells.
It is that easy to begin a passage.
Later I sit naked, clothing the trees
with shirt and pants that want wind.
It is then across water a wolverine
come to drink and a trout dimples
the silence like the soul rising. I
begin to hear not far away the crash
of dammed water and a beaver's bark.
I think unaccountably of an early snow,
children with black, hungry eyes, men
cutting arrows where the elders bud.
In full glare of sunlight I came here, man-tall but thin
as a pinstripe, and stood outside the rusted fence
with its crown of iron thorns while
the soot cut into our lungs with tiny diamonds.
I walked through houses with my grain-lovely slugger
from Louisville that my uncle bought and stood
in the sun that made its glove soft on my hand
until I saw my chance to crawl under and get past
anyone who would demand a badge and a name.
The guard hollered that I could get the hell from there quick
when I popped in his face like a thief. All I ever wanted
to steal was life and you can’t get that easy
in the grind of a railyard. You can’t catch me,
lardass, I can go left or right good as the Mick,
I hummed to him, holding my slugger by the neck
for a bunt laid smooth where the coal cars
jerked and let me pass between tracks
until, in a slide on ash, I fell safe and heard
the wheeze of his words: Who the hell are you, kid?
I hear them again tonight, Uncle, hard as big brakeshoes,
when I lean over your face in the box of silk. The years
you spent hobbling from room to room alone crawl
up my legs and turn this house to another
house, round and black as defeat, where slugging
comes easy when you whip the gray softball over
the glass diesel globe. Footsteps thump on the stairs
like that fat ball against bricks and when I miss
I hear you warn me to watch the timing, to keep
my eyes on your hand and forget the fence,
hearing also that other voice that keeps me out and away
from you on a day worth playing good ball. Hearing
Who the hell . . . I see myself like a burning speck
of cinder come down the hill and through a tunnel
of porches like stands, running on deep ash,
and I give him the finger, whose face still gleams
clear as a B&O headlight, just to make him get up
and chase me into a dream of scoring at your feet.
At Christmas that guard staggered home sobbing,
the thing in his chest tight as a torque wrench.
In the summer I did not have to run and now
who is the one who dreams of a drink as he leans over
tools you kept bright as a first-girl’s promise? I
have no one to run from or to, nobody to give
my finger as I steal his peace. Uncle, the light
bleeds on your gray face like the high barbed-wire
shadows I had to get through and maybe you don’t remember
you said to come back, to wait and you’d show me
the right way to take a hard pitch
in the sun that shudders on the ready man. I’m here
though this is a day I did not want to see. In the roundhouse
the rasp and heel-click of compressors is still,
soot lied deep in every greasy fingerprint.
I called you from the pits and you did not come up
and I felt the fear when I stood on the tracks
that are like stars which never lead us
into any kind of light and I don’t know who’ll
tell me now when the guard sticks his blind snoot
between us: take off and beat the bastard out.
Can you hear him over the yard, grabbing his chest,
cry out, Who the goddamn hell are you, kid?
I gave him every name in the book, Uncle, but he caught us
and what good did all those hours of coaching do?
You lie on your back, eyeless forever, and I think
how once I climbed to the top of a diesel and stared
into that gray roundhouse glass where, in anger,
you threw up the ball and made a star
to swear at greater than the Mick ever dreamed.
It has been years but now I know what followed there
every morning the sun came up, not light
but the puffing bad-bellied light of words.
All day I have held your hand, trying to say back that life,
to get under that fence with words I lined
and linked up and steamed into a cold room
where the illusion of hope means skin torn in boxes
and even the finger I give death is words
that won’t let us be what we wanted, each one
chasing and being chased by dreams in the dark.
Words are all we ever were and they did us
no damn good. Do you hear that?
Do you hear the words that, in oiled gravel, you gave me
when you set my feet in the right stance to swing?
They are coal-hard and they come in wings
and loops like despair not even the Mick
could knock out of this room, words softer
than the centers of hearts in guards or uncles,
words skinned and numbed by too many bricks.
I have had enough of them and bring them back here
where the tick and creak of everything dies
in your tiny starlight and I stand down
on my knees to cry, Who the hell are you, kid?
-For Betty Adcock
Neck like a coathanger unbent, abandoned
almost, the look of a closet,
patches of cloth, paper, dust, the last
steps imagined, gone,
no ripple where she stands, gray or blue
depending on the slant sun, one
of the invisibles, as a friend
calls the women poets of
the South. Lake flat as paper, the day’s end
electric at her feet, steel nerve unturned,
turning, eye wide, she prefers
to hold her ground
alone, six-foot wings, the swift flicking
her mouth is--
a small, silent lightning.
BIO: Dave Smith is the author of seventeen books of poetry, including, most recently, The Wick of Memory: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2000 (Louisiana State University, 2000); Floating on Solitude: Three Volumes of Poetry(University of Illinois, 1996); Fate’s Kite: Poems 1991-1995 (1996); Cuba Night (Quill, 1990); three books of criticism; and two works of fiction. Among Smith’s many honors are fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, an Award of Excellence from the American Academy and Institute for Arts and Letters, the Prairie Schooner Reader’s Award, and nominations for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, for which he was twice a finalist. Smith is editor of the Southern Messenger Signature Poets series of Louisiana State University Press and for many years was co-editor of Southern Review. He is presently Elliot Coleman Professor of Poetry at Johns Hopkins University and has previously taught at the University of Utah; the State University of New York at Binghamton; the Summer Creative Writing Program at Bennington College in Vermont; the University of Florida; Virginia Commonwealth University, and Louisiana State University. He taught Elizabeth Morgan and Gregory Donovan.
An Interview with Dave Smith by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Typically, selecting poems to feature is pretty easy: I simple dog-ear the poems I find particularly good in whatever random book of poems I happen to be reading and go from there. But you were different— you were one of the first poets I was told to read, and, thus, I had countless poems to choose from rather than a more limited selection.
So I decided to think about the qualities I cherish most in your poems and to find a small selection of poems that would, hopefully display them. This, of course, was an equally difficult task, but I quickly found that in all your poems you display three main properties that draw me to your work: a love of the world, of the word, and of the transformational power of story telling.
Before we go into these poems as individuals, would you mind sharing your thoughts/impressions regarding these properties. Are they as important to you as they are to me? Are your ideals for a poem the same as they wee when you were a younger poet or have they changed over time? That sort of thing…
Dave Smith: I don’t think I love the world any more than anyone else. I am not politically very conscious, not acutely given to a social consciousness; I don’t lobby for environmental progress or against shards of broken satellites falling from the sky. The malice and poltroonish behavior of politicians, the corruption of ordinary citizens, the daily evil we know and endure is, well, the world, and I don’t possess the saintly selflessness to love that in abstract form such as Jesus of Nazareth and Al Sharpton do. A part of my temperament is conservative, medieval, belligerent. But I do love the world that is wildly, natively, and idiosyncratically alive, and so resplendent in intense self-hood only the best artists can evoke what James Dickey called “the little more.”
I think every person feels, in best moments, that little more, and wants the power to convey it to another, perhaps even as agent of conserving it. Seamus Heaney refers to the poet as one of the “venerators.” Musicians venerate; painters venerate; film makers and architects venerate. Poets do this with words, their sounds and their bricks. A poet loves the color and texture and weight and airiness, the tensile strength and useless delicacy and wicked weaponry of words. I love them for all the things they can do but I am uninterested in word games (etymology excepted). I do not work crossword puzzles. I am not dazzled by a poem which merely embeds a surprise word, as so often lights up verse writers. I love words the way a plumber loves quality copper, as something necessary but having secretive, approachable qualities and uses. There is a story by John Updike in which a plumber, summoned by a man whose old house has problems, crawls with his client into the open space under the house. There the two of them lay on their backs with the plumber’s light playing over intricate joints of copper and lead, the system of flow made visible. The plumber “reads” what his client cannot decipher yet, which old father made which elbow and juncture, and when, and with what style, quality, and wisdom. Plumbing, in Updike’s metaphor, is transformed into a vital language. The plumber, venerable and disciplined, is now artist, keeping with us the human story complexly layered.
Some poets write about the world. Some enact it. My imagination is totemic, even historical. I believe life is random beyond the cause-effects we identify in science, philosophy, religion, even art. Yesterday a few miles from where I sit, a 14 year old boy took a grapefruit across the street from his own row house and gave it to an elderly house-bound woman, an errand his mother gave him. In minutes, coming home, someone, so far unknown, shot him dead. We can adduce the socio-political circumstances, the historical shadows, the likely human configurations that left him bleeding to death before his home steps. We cannot say why life goes this way, not finally, not in that instant, that day, that place. Things happen randomly, awfully. Art, however, is not random. It is potential, an image, and it must have its logic or it is finally useless.
I consider every image, every act resonates with statement, perhaps multiple, even contradictory. The way we know statement is the shape of narrative. We tell ourselves to the world and we tell the world what we know. You called my writing “transformational” and that seems, upon hearing it, grand. I tell stories, short ones in poetic form, in order to shape life’s options, to enact choices. Poems do many things, as everyone knows. For me, the poem’s primary act is to give pleasure, the next to yield discovery, the next to store what is known. If we spoke of making bread, would you say “transformational”? Making poems is as vivifying as making bread, as necessary. People who are not poets make poems all the time. But they don’t mark the act, the language, as special; they do not publish. They may be unaware of what they do, it is so habitual. And, in the poet’s view, they are amateurs, as a woman is who wraps her sink joint with duct tape and hope. What poets do is the work of an elitist, like it or not, but it is not different in kind from what all do. We express narrative shape in idiosyncratic language to grasp, understand, and express what reveals itself to us. The value of a poem lies in the intensity and durability of what we call, casually, its beauty–but beauty comes either as statement or enactment.
I don’t think what lured me to poetry, fundamentals such as I mention here, has changed much from the days when I covertly read poems in serious English courses.. Did I love Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” less when as a college freshman, age 18, than I do today, now aware of forces contingent on the man writing in the last minutes of 1899? I did not understand why I loved it so well, but I loved it then as now. Styles, poetries, I read as a would-be poet could be correlated to changes in how I have written; change comes to anyone who lives and thinks about experience and seeks to make an accounting. Good poets make deliberate choices, hence changes in verbal structure; they also trip into the unexpected. How much change is overt in comparison to change that is less visible? One tree that stands exposed to the light in my front yard grows much more robustly than its nearby twin in another tree’s shadow. Changes are, to me, mysterious and I try to comprehend them in poems.
You ask if my “ideals” are the same now as when I was a younger poet. “Ideals” means thin ice to a poet. I want to write more clearly than I have. I want to display how the world manifests joy, though I do not want to falsify the evidence of my senses. I want a poetry with the solidity and the dreamy vision of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I want to be the Michael Jordan of poetry.
AMK: You are one of those poets who, it seems to me, is ever-present in his work. I don’t read “Roadhouse Voices” and think that Dave Smith isn’t the one talking to me. Sure, you might have made the whole thing up, and, sure, there’s always some degree of separation between poet and speaker, but you’ve certainly put yourself into this story of life, death, upbringing, hard work, etc…and the result is a certain sort of personality within the lines and within the story itself that I don’t think could exist without Dave Smith the poet as Dave Smith the speaker.
Similarly, now that I look more closely at the most appealing properties of your work (a love of life, language, and stories), it occurs to me that these are properties of a poet rather than of poems themselves, which, many argue, are separate things.
But I’m not so sure this is true…what do you think?
DS: There was a man who was a carpenter, teacher, magazinist, real estate developer, bar bon vivant, and Brooklyn resident who was called, and signed documents, by the name Walter Whitman. There was later a visionary dreamer, nurse, poet, sexual myth who was not often seen in any real neighborhood whose name is Walt Whitman. In his great poem “Song of Myself” he is precisely “Walt” and there is little he doesn’t tell you about himself (“that lot of me and all so luscious”), his habits, his details, though much is embedded in the riverine rush of the poem. Many readers have insisted the narrator of that poem is a “universal I” and not Walter himself. This is what poets mean who say that when we compose we enter a sort of trance, becoming a second self, an “other.” Then we revert and take out the garbage or attend an Obama rally. The poet is always in and out of the poem you read, two selves. What we may say of the fusion of those selves is surely dangerous, partial, and slippery. The best of what a man or woman is, with cooperation of fate and luck, goes into the poem. I think we readers respond to that character as we would to meeting someone new. Poems attract us by flirtation, often by an erotic signaling. The best engagement is, as Miss Dickinson said, physically evident on the back of your neck.? Is the poem more than adequate? Is the moment auspicious? Well, read more, submerse oneself, as Joseph Conrad says, and judge. Reading is judgment. We experience another’s story and compare it to our own. We do, in this sense, transform experience. Thus, too, we become more fully individual selves.
AMK: I just love “The Last Morning.” It’s a wonderfully simple story of transformation and of the emotional power of that transformation.
But this simplicity is not in and of itself simple. We have the simplicity of the narrative: “”Alone in the camp…I get up and go down to the river.” Then there’s the simple beauty of the language: the dew flashing “like brilliant insects,” the cold water calling to “the sea-born salmon,” the dimple the trout makes in water “like the soul rising.” And, finally, there’s the statement of its simplicity: “It is that easy to begin a passage.”
But we all know that to experience such a transformation into the past and into the lives of others is no easy task. The result, I think, is a poem that speaks more to the desire that such a traverse from one life and into another could be so easy…a poem that seems to emit more from dream than from reality. What do you make of this?
DS: It may appall you to hear me say that I did not remember the poem until you mentioned it. I don’t recall having written it, or any circumstances prior to it. The poet Lyn Emmanuel introduced me for a reading not long back by reading part of a poem whose title and author she did not cite. I was astonished to find it I had written those lines. “The Last Morning” feels familiar, like a person I once knew, but back so far memory hazes. You read the poem as a dream of desire. I can’t disagree, but all I can say is that I was the person who made the poem, who stood in its saying, in the writer’s tranced self. I cannot claim to know more of it than any reader may know.
AMK: What do you think of simplicity in poetry? Is it something to be suspicious of as a reader? Is it something to fear as a writer?
DS: I don’t think it exists in fact. The term describes the confident, utter, objective quality we feel in some styles. It means a lack of confusion. It may refer to a visionary field where much has been pared away, not offered to the reader; it may mean a decoded sequence of events, a narration of minimal character and subdued or quieted consequence. But what appears simple is never so. Multiples of factors are prominent: decisions, fields of choice, partiality and contradiction in image, syncopation in rhythm, etc. Every poem is a scene of shadows playing, puppetry. Beyond what may be observed, as Plato says, more operates, and behind that more yet. Language, our only tool, is a calloused set of fingers, as Howard Nemerov once remarked; skin which has had its feel impaired by long and continual usage. When Updike’s plumber lies down to reveal the flow-chart of pipes and joints, he self-reflexively plays upon simplicity apparent to the least eye and he attends to sophisticated, complex engineering. The philosopher Snoopy says “Happiness is a warm puppy.” Simple. Every child understands. But isn’t happiness the ultimate mystery? Ask any poet, any country-western musician. The older I get, the more I want a poem to be simultaneously plain and complex, undeniably multiple and singular as a pine cone is.
AMK: “Roundhouse Voices” is a poem that covers an immense landscape of experience.
First, we encounter a young man’s rebellion. Then, we’re told the story of the roadhouse itself as a key aspect of this young man’s upbringing. Then, we start to see this as a story about memory and death, the language moving us back and forth in time, place, and perspective. Eventually, we realize that the real story is about the language we use and how, in the face of death, this language changes, which in turn changes how we see ourselves; our relationships with others forever altered, our stories and memories ever-movable. The result is a poem in which the language transforms from a tool used to tell a story and into an element of the story itself.
What do you think of this reading?
DS: Any poet would be delighted to have his or her poem described by your phrase.
Wallace Stevens remarks somewhere that every poem is about writing poetry. How could I disagree with the corporate giant, the attorney of prodigiously gifted poems? But your question hides, really, another question, which is, was I deliberately writing about writing poetry when I composed it? Well, no. Then, yes. The poem is a funeral elegy, which you know is a distinct form. “Lycidas” is such a poem. So is “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” That form, historically, seeks an opportunity to address large, resonant issues. I knew it had something to say about death’s mystery–why we die. In the face of death which we cannot change, what good is any art, any language? The poet views language as active faith. In crisis faith is sorely tested and often appears of no consequence. If language lies, what good is a poem, the instrument of faith? Or the poet, who is priest of this faith? In “The Roundhouse Voices” I think I tried to compose answers to questions I could not resolve. For the religious believer, faith is its own answer, its own value; it cannot be proven. Perhaps in my poem the speaker seeks to claim what despair seems to prevent. If I am correct ( I am now years away from memory of what I may have meant to do), the poem perhaps attends more to the insufficiency of language than the actual writing of a poetry, even its tiniest decisions. But perhaps they are synonymous.
AMK: Can you tell us much about the writing of this poem? How you managed to
combine all of the voices you heard as a poet with the voices of the past and of the speaker and of the various presences within the poem? No doubt this poem was taxing…
DS: Much, as I say, is now lost to my memory. In 1974 I had a dream, a small one. When I woke I remembered an image of a group of men lying head to head, their legs pointed outward so they seemed spokes in a wagon wheel. I tried but could not make a poem of this image. Perhaps because I knew nothing of the men. My habit is to keep drafts in the drawers of an old desk my sister gave me. When I cannot make a poem live, into a drawer it goes. At some point I bring it forth and try again. This wheel image stayed in for some years, looked at but saying nothing. Then it spoke. Or someone did. There arose a story of a man traveling to the place of ancestors where someone had died. This had happened to me, too. I had grown up in eastern Virginia but my parents were from Cumberland, Maryland, 300 miles and different cultures north. When elders died, my parents drove home for the funerals and I was put in the care of a family member so as not to be gloomed by the experience. My uncle Lloyd, foreman of the B&O roundhouse in Cumberland, sometimes took me for car rides or took me fishing. Once we played softball in that building where train engines came for repair. You can see such a building in Baltimore. The huge engines would rotate on a wonderful hydraulic table, become repaired, then rotate to the door out, and away they would go, redeemed spirits. I recalled that place as having sooted glass ceilings with occasional star-like holes. Uncle Lloyd had probably broken a rule by letting me into such a secret place, but there was no guard except himself. It was all joy to me. Joy is not easy to write about, as it is not easy to come by.
When I began to tell the softball story, I saw the wedges of men were really slots for trains taken into the sanctuary. I saw, too, what I have just implied, the spiritual character of the place which was a conduit for men’s lives. I brought in the story of my uncle training me to swing properly, according to his lights, for a home run. The man mourned was my “Uncle” Melvin, a lodger who lived with my grandparents for most of his adult life; he happened to be a train engineer, its driver. Somehow I knew this was the single and yet multiple story of my male ancestors, a tribe who failed while doing what they were fated to do, but who might be admired. Without elegy or eulogy or even the least memorial of words. I was the last of them, and the only one who worked in words instead of metal, fire, and faith. Another way to speak of this poem, but presumptuous, is to say it wants to define heroic action even as it presumes heroism changes nothing. I like to think the poem seeks to know what is heroic in ordinary actions, which is why it asks who we are, individually, what should be our duty, our obligation if we are not to dishonor self and tribe.
AMK: “Roundhouse Voices” is a cool poem to look at, particularly in contrast to “The Last Morning” because, while both poems are about transformational experiences, “Roundhouse Voices” displays in a much more active way how this transformation occurs when language and story collide. The result is a much more difficult poem to read, at least for me.
Since I’ve already asked you about the simplicity of poetry it seems appropriate to ask the same questions of you regarding the hardness of poems.
Should we question difficulty when we read poetry? Should we fear it as writers of poetry?
DS: Only if we want readers. Few real poets seek deliberately to be obtuse or vague. Some choose a language whose referential ability is diminished in favor of qualities that may make a different, even better experience, or that simply please the poet. G.M. Hopkins is difficult that way, but he seems less so when we have been taught his mysteries. So, too, Emily Dickinson. The fact is that life is complex and we want language commensurate with that complexity; few of us achieve it. We settle for a lesser expression. But not less difficult, only less transparent. We know when the water is muddy, but pleasures we struggle for as we try to be clear are compelling. The best writer fears nothing. But awareness is another matter.
AMK: What were your main objectives for “Roadhouse Voices?”
DS: To write a poem I would enjoy reading. To write a poem someone else would enjoy reading.
AMK: I first encountered “Blue Heron” at your reading at The Ropewalk Writers Retreat in Indiana. I remember you saying that you didn’t think it was necessarily a very good poem…but then you read it, and I thought it was one of the better poems you read that day.
Looking at it now, I’m still struck by that opening metaphor, the heron’s neck “like a coathanger unbent” and how it’s followed by a visual description that extends the metaphor throughout the first stanza but that doesn’t take over the entire poem. Instead, the poem moves onto another metaphor/imagistic moment, its invisibility like a friend’s description of “the woman poets of / the South,” which moves the poem into a more social/political sort of poem that, I think, is subtle, beautiful, and worth writing.
So this has bothered me quite a bit since then because I keep wondering if I’m missing something (which, I must admit, I find myself thinking to myself more and more these days about the poetry I red)…
As I write this question, I realize I may be putting you in a bit of a spot, but what do you not like about this poem? Do you have a problem with social/political poems? Poems that make an overt statement? Something else?
DS: Sometimes people say things they don’t mean, speaking when nervous or distracted, as I spoke when reading that poem for the first time. I like “Blue Heron” well enough. It is not for me to say my poem is good or not good, though I may harbor judgments. The reader holds that job. If it has a socio/political expression, I do not object. Poems need to make statements. It is dedicated to Betty Adcock, a fine poet, who once said to me the women poets of the South are “the invisibles.” She is unquestionably correct. My poem notes that blue herons, though solitary and gentle birds, rarely share territory. They may drive off one of their kind who attempts to intrude in a chosen space. Quiet as they may be, they are formidable when confronted. My poem tries to praise the strength and solitude of the invisibles, which herons mostly are.
AMK: What are you working on these days?
DS: I used to write relentlessly, hours and hours. Now, as a department chairman, with far less time to be a poet, my poems come more slowly. I no longer have the opportunity to force words to the page, tear them apart, re-type, and forge on. I still write a poem when ti comes. I have published another essay on Whitman, have obligations to write more essays, and am editing with my friend Robert Demott a collection of essays and photographs by writers on their bird-hunting dogs. I have an idea for a fable, maybe a book for my grandsons, maybe something else. I don’t know. I am trying to recover the pleasure of play in writing, which has much to do with entertaining oneself and little to do with the business of being a poet, and publishing, a sad enterprise now.
AMK: Thank you.
In Search of Poetry, an essay by Jim Duffy
As poets go, Dave Smith is not what I expect. He’s more down-to-earth. He’s disarmingly matter-of-fact. Yet this is a two-step Smith performs with an almost formal flair. It’s likely a Southern thing. He doesn’t just come from Tidewater Virginia; he carries the place with him wherever he goes. You can catch Smith showing this off now and again, if you listen for the way he delivers his best punchlines with an extra pinch of drawl.
But what is it I expect a poet to be like? Brawling bohemian? Inscrutable intellectual? How the heck would I know? It’s been 20-some years now since I packed away my liberal arts degree and got about the business of life. It’s not like I go to poetry readings. It’s not like I even read poems.
Smith is the Elliott Coleman Professor of Poetry and chairman of the Writing Seminars. He came to Hopkins four years ago from Louisiana State University, where he had been the co-editor of the Southern Review. He’s written more than 25 books. He’s won Guggenheim and NEA and Lyndhust fellowships. He’s twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
The winter morning I call at his home is uncommonly warm. I find the poet standing outdoors in a rather menial pose, hosing down a fenced-in side patio where the dog likes to roam. He greets me with a wave, then makes his way around front to let me in.
Smith pours us coffee, then leads the way upstairs to the converted bedroom that serves as his office.
At the outset, I remind Smith of things I’d already told him in arranging this get-together. I tell him how I’ve lost what connection I had with poetry. I tell him how I suspect the same has happened to lots of other folks going about the business of an adult life.
Perhaps, in a meandering talk, he and I might find some little way to spark a reconnection to that literary world?
The rest of this story is built from his side of the conversation we had there, with pieces of it pulled out and rearranged into an order designed to unfold in a more reader-friendly way.
Beginning: The Poet
Where to begin? It’s always a difficult matter, isn’t it? I come from a country town, out of a family of people who were not readers—or not conventional readers. We had two magazines in our house: Sports Illustrated and Hot Rod.
I studied those things as a boy. Looking back now, I can see that those magazines had something in common—a high degree of figurative and imaginative language. Think about it. Such language is absolutely necessary in articles on tri-carburetion and high-lift camshafts. Anybody who’s followed Sports Illustrated over the years knows about its incendiary level of vocabulary and diction.
Those magazines are probably where my initial attraction to language comes from.
I didn’t have a clue what college was all about. Nobody in my family had been to college. But I decided to go off to the University of Virginia. The amazing thing to me from the very first day was how people were constantly telling you what you could do instead of what you couldn’t do. I’m writing a paper I’ve got to deliver at Oxford next week on Walt Whitman, so I’m thinking of Whitman’s famous lines:
“Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!”
It was like that, a complete revelation that life could be different. And I found poetry. But poetry to me was so frightening at first that I did everything I could to avoid it. It always seemed that my fellow students had the answers, and I didn’t.
I graduated in 1965. Vietnam was incipient. I thought I might go to law school. But my father had died, my mother had remarried, and there was no money.
Then I was drafted. I had signed up to go through Officer Training School, but I was going to be drafted before I could get a space in class. That’s the military for you. The draft board said I should find a high school teaching deferment. I must have called 20 high schools that didn’t need an English teacher.
At the last minute a small high school in Virginia asked me if I could teach French.
Then they asked if I could coach football.
Actually, I had played football in high school.
It was in this period that I met the woman who would become my wife. Suddenly I didn’t want to go into officer training school. So I stayed on teaching. In my second year there, I started to write poetry. I have no idea why this happened. I do know that it was bad poetry.
Beginning: The Poem
There is one poem that I guess I could talk about. It’s illustrative of things I care about in my poetry. Maybe this is an immodest thing to say. Maybe it’s something I don’t really know how to say. So I’ll put it this way: This is the most famous of my poems.
My mother thinks so, anyway.
It’s called “The Roundhouse Voices”
Who am I? That’s always the big question in poetry. Whitman wrote “Song of Myself.” He didn’t write “Song of Yourself.” Now, let’s admit that less enthusiastic readers from the beginning have said, “‘Song of Myself’? Isn’t that a little egotistical?”
And it is, except to say that all he’s trying to say is what we’re all trying to say: Who am I?
Sometimes, I think about it like this. I’m not good at parties. I always kind of stand off against the side and wait for people to come up, and the whole time I’m thinking, “What am I going to say to this guy?” And then what I say is: “Where you from?”
That is to say: Who are you? Who are your people? It’s the most fundamental question, even when you make it sound like you’re asking how the weather is. This is how we orient ourselves, by saying who my people are and where my people are from. This is what you’re always doing in poetry, trying to orient yourself in a world of flux and mystery.
My parents were born and raised in Cumberland, Maryland. My grandfather worked there for the B&O Railroad as a foreman of the backhouse. My Uncle Lloyd, his brother, was the foreman of the roundhouse.
Later, after the Depression, my grandfather came to Baltimore for a while and then went down to Portsmouth, Virginia. This was about the time my mother was graduating from high school. She went with him. My father followed her. So I was born in Tidewater Virginia, 300 miles from Cumberland.
When people in the family would die off, my grandfather and my mother and my father would go by car back to Cumberland for funerals. They would take me along. I was quite a young boy for some of this, so often enough, someone would be detailed to take me out to the roundhouse and look at trains. My Uncle Lloyd, he’d actually bring a softball, and we’d throw it back and forth in the roundhouse.
In my memory, this roundhouse is a huge building. I don’t think it was all that huge, actually, but the imagination remembers things figuratively rather than literally. I remember a glass ceiling. The glass was all sooted over, yet it had holes in it through which the light would shine like stars.
To me, this seemed magical. That my uncle was in charge of it, this seemed like another world.
It’s funny, how “The Roundhouse Voices” came. I had had a dream of six men lying head to head like spokes to a wheel. I didn’t know the men. I didn’t know why I saw them. Only, there they were. I wrote a poem of 22 lines around this. It didn’t work. I put it in my desk drawer. I thought I’d come back to it.
Becoming: The Poet
This is one thing you wouldn’t expect about the world of poetry: People tend to be almost abjectly generous to those coming up.
I was still on a deferment when I went off to graduate school at Southern Illinois University. I lived in St. Louis, which had a very active poetry community. Don Finkel was a poet there at Washington University who was publishing at the top level of American poetry. I had never heard of him.
But I went to a reading of his one night, and then I decided to call him up. I’m a 22-year-old student, saying, “Can I have lunch with you?” He talked to me that day for at least two-and-a-half hours. His generosity was overwhelming.
Eventually, I reached the end of my deferments, and I was drafted. I thought, “Well, I’ll give this poetry foolishness up now.” I went into the Air Force, and I was stationed in the finance office at Langley Air Force base, three miles from where I’d coached high school football. It was my home country. That was some mitigation for the horrors of being in the military.
I found myself in a world where any real connection with the arts is very unlikely, but I began to read and write poetry at night. I used the local library in an interesting way. I’d go down the aisles, looking for the thin books. Thin books are either poems or plays. If it was a play, I’d put it back.
I had a small book published as I was getting out of the Air Force. I didn’t even understand the difference then between big presses and little presses or serious ones and garage ones. Some guy in Pennsylvania accepted the book, and for a week I was elated.
But I was moving so fast at this point, making such rapid gains. Almost in a matter of days I started to see how bad my book was. I tried to get it back from the guy, but he wouldn’t give it back. It wasn’t published in that many numbers, and in the end, I owned most of the copies.
I suspect there are some still out there, though. If I see one now, I buy it and hide it away.
I was back in graduate school after that. I went for a year, then dropped out and taught at little colleges, then went back and finished my PhD at Ohio University in 1976. I published two books during that time, but I continued not to think of myself as a poet who had any right to be on the big national stage.
Then I wrote a poem called “Cumberland Station.” It was a funeral elegy about my Uncle Melvin. He’d been a diesel engineer. The poem was about the old Queen City Railroad Station, which again I remember as being a very imposing building with this huge set of stairs that you walked up, and then there was this glistening, almost senatorial marble floor. It was very like a church.
When I started writing this, I hadn’t been back to Cumberland in more than 20 years. I don’t know what I was trying to do in it, just say something about a place that I missed and the life that was there and how I had been disconnected from it and all that.
When I got done, this felt to me like the first real poem I had ever written.
My next book was called Cumberland Station. When it was published, what I heard was great silence. That’s usually the way it goes. A friend of mine said once that publishing a book is like spitting in the ocean and listening for the echo.
Then one day I got a letter from Professor Helen Vendler at Harvard. She said she was reviewing my book, and she enclosed a copy of the review. It was very laudatory. I knew enough about who Helen Vendler was to know that this was a real signature of approval. It felt like a higher power saying, “Okay, you can join up now.” That was very releasing for me, in a strange and powerful way.
But it gave me a big head. I had to work through that. It’s a hard thing to learn, that you really are better off as a writer if you just pay attention to the writing. We’re all human. There’s gratification in publishing, in getting the notices, in getting the prizes.
When I work with good students, I try to tell them how, ultimately, the gratification is in the doing of the work. Once a poem is finished, it really has nothing much to do with you anymore. You have to learn a distancing. It’s the same as it is with a potter. He makes a pot. He sells it. He doesn’t know where it goes from there. He doesn’t care. He’s too busy making the next pot.
Becoming: The Poem
“The Roundhouse Voices” should have been in Cumberland Station, with the other railroad poems. But it didn’t come until maybe a year later.
It came in a funny way. I kept taking it out of that drawer I’d put it in and looking at it. I did this over the course of 11 years. It’s not like I was writing it every day, but I have enough drafts of it to show you that I was active on it during each of those years. The whole time, it wouldn’t go anywhere.
Then the memory of my uncle taking me out to the roundhouse and playing softball came to me. I started trying to integrate that with the original image of the spokes, but the whole thing with the spokes just fell away. It was like a door I went through, that’s all.
You have to let the language seduce you. You have to let it flow along to a point where it opens up. “Hey, I didn’t know I was writing about that!” Sylvia Plath has a poem where she talks about throwing the reins of the horse onto the horse’s neck and just letting the horse run. Sometimes, you let the poem take you.
There’s a danger in that, too. It leads to the romantic idea of the visionary, the seer who simply takes what comes. That can be as bad for a poem as over-determining it.
The poet Robert Haas has an essay in which he talks about the way every poem is both an act of listening and an act of making. The difficult part here is that the proportion varies with every poem. In one poem, you listen x amount and make y amount. In the next one, those amounts might be reversed. Sometimes you have to labor harder to get a piece done. Sometimes it just comes to you.
I realized I was writing another funeral elegy. This one was about my Uncle Lloyd and how he had taken me to the roundhouse.
At some point I put a guard around the roundhouse. You couldn’t get to it without passing this guard, and he’s asking questions: “Who are you?” So we’re back to that big question in poetry, right?
The roundhouse never had a guard when I was there. Where did this come from? Well, my father and virtually everybody else I knew in Virginia worked for the military or the government. Just to get in the gate on the way to work, you had to get past a Marine. Every place was secret and guarded.
Somehow, I transposed that to the roundhouse. This made it a place with some kind of secret about it, a place where something transformative was going to happen.
Robert Penn Warren is my poetic hero. A great deal of what I know, I’ve borrowed from him. He was speaking of the novelist Joseph Conrad when he said that a work of literary art is a laboratory, in which character is tested and re-tested, in which you submit people to certain circumstances and see if they will behave as you expect them to.
When I first read this, I thought, “Well, that’s sort of baloney, isn’t it?” But with true neutrality of imagination, it’s exactly right. These characters don’t behave the way you expect them to.
It’s like the answer is in there, somewhere. It’s in this set of circumstances. It’s in these characters. But the fact is, when you’re in the middle of writing, you don’t know what the answer is.
Now if I’m a literary critic I can sit back with “The Roundhouse Voices” and say, “Ah, you’re writing about the Virgilian guide, the man who takes you to the land of the dead and brings you back.” Or I can say, “This is like Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights.” But I didn’t think about all that stuff. All I was doing was telling a story about going to the roundhouse with my Uncle Lloyd.
Being: The Poet
People always say, “Well, what do you write about?” I don’t have a clue. I don’t know what I’m writing about until I see what I’ve written.
You know, a student once said to me, “Why does Robert Frost always write about birch trees?”
I said, “Well, what kind of trees would you write about?”
He said, “Pine trees.”
I said, “Well, Frost writes about birch trees because he lives where birches are.”
Some of what you write about is given to you, by virtue of life. Some of it is chosen. But you can’t set out to make a poem say something didactic or polemic. You’d be better off writing a sermon or an editorial.
The things that poetry talks about are very common human experiences. Certainly you can portray these things in novels, in movies, in songs. But I’m not sure that anything can deal with them as nakedly and with as much resonance as a great poem can.
Literary pundits are forever saying poetry isn’t important anymore, that there are no readers, blah, blah, blah. But when we most want to say something pithy and smart—when we’re giving a talk at church or giving a toast—we go to a poem. Either instinctively or because of the way we’ve been taught, we know that a poem represents language at its most compressed, at its most volatile, at its most emotional, and in its wisest form.
That feeling people have about poetry, it hasn’t gone away. I think people still hunger for poems.
It’s come to me after 35 years that I am a poet. But it’s also come to me that no matter what, I would have been a teacher. I have a son who’s a lawyer and who hates the law. He whines about it daily. In light of that, I’ve been thinking how there have been times when I wasn’t pleased with my colleagues and times when they weren’t pleased with me. There have been rough patches. But there has never been a single day when I regretted being a teacher.
The first thing I can give students is confidence. I’m fairly brutal in my workshops. But I can only be that way after I have given them the confidence to know that they can be good, that I’m telling them the truth in appreciation of what we both know they can do.
They need to be willing to take the risks of failure and to know in advance that however they fail, there will still be a chance to succeed beyond that moment of failure. That’s something I had to learn the hard way.
Being: The Poem
I was a long time in getting aware that what I had written in “The Roundhouse Voices” was, in a way, like a “Song of Myself.” Only it was in a funeral elegy. It had to do with my family, with railroad life, with Appalachian culture. It had to do with what it means to be Southern and with the slow dying out of that Southern culture of manners, this idea of appropriate and decorous behavior.
All of that is brought into the poem, I think. And what you discover at the end is that the speaker who says at the end of the poem, “Who the hell are you, kid?”—this time, it’s the kid saying it. He’s standing outside. The funeral is over. The man is dead. But he feels like he’s still not prepared to answer that question.
I think this particular poem has layers of resonance that I just haven’t managed in other poems.
People have said to me, “Why don’t you write another poem like that?”
Well, hell, I’d write ’em every day if I could! But you know, it’s not like you get the formula down and then you just stamp them out, one after the other.
Jim Duffy is a writer based in Cambridge, Maryland.