Fady Joudah in Conversation with Marilyn Hacker
Marilyn Hacker is the author of twelve books of poems, including Names (Norton, 2009), Essays on Departure (Carcanet, 2006) and Desesperanto (Norton, 2003). Her essay collection Unauthorized Voices, was published by the University of Michigan Press in the fall of 2010. Her eleven volumes of translations from the French include Marie Etienne’s King of a Hundred Horsemen (Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 2008), which received the 2009 American PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s Alphabets of Sand (Carcanet, 2008) and Hédi Kaddour's Treason (Yale University Press, 2010). For her own work, she received the American PEN Voelcker Award for poetry in 2010 and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She lives in Paris.
Fady Joudah is a poet, translator and physician who lives in Huston, Texas. He has translated a Selected Poems of Mahmoud Darwish, The Butterfly’s Burden (Bloodaxe and Copper Canyon) and is preparing a Selected of Ghassan Zaqtan for Yale University Press in 2012. He was the winner of the 2007 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, for The Earth in the Attic (2008).
FJ: You are recognized as an innovative formalist poet, an activist writer, and one of the foremost translators of French poetry, with a long list of honors over four decades of writing. Let's start this conversation by addressing the first of these ‘identities’. What is your take on the place of traditional form in contemporary poetry—what is oddly called ‘received’ form?
MH: I don't know that ‘traditional’ OR ‘received’ form is the way I'd put it—how about ‘metrical poetry’ or poetry in fixed meters, since all poetry is metrical? Sometimes poets invent metrical forms: Hayden Carruth, Gwendolyn Brooks, Dylan Thomas and John Berryman come instantly to mind—in fact, someone , or some series of someones, came up with just about any form we can imagine, in any language. A form is ‘received’ if someone else used it before you: that’s all.
And as to ‘tradition,’ after a hundred years of open form poetry in English, and somewhat more than that in French—we could make a list of the dates for other languages, all early twentieth century—surely that has become as much a tradition as anything else!
My own inclination toward metrical poetry came simply from the things I most enjoyed reading when I was in my teens and early twenties, a desultory list including the names above—except Carruth, whom I discovered later—and others: Baudelaire, John Donne, Shakespeare, Verlaine, the earlier Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Yeats, Edna St Vincent Millay, Hopkins, e.e. cummings, Keats, Byron, especially ‘Don Juan’, Marianne Moore's syllabics, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop and Auden. Which didn't mean that I wasn't also reading the ‘later’ Rimbaud, Paul Celan, Pound, Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Jack Spicer, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Sylvia Plath (whose earlier, also powerful, work is in meter), Adrienne Rich—who found her sea legs and her voice when she put an end to what was, for her, an apprenticeship in fixed forms. I still find Anne Sexton's first books, from her thirties, her strongest work—she, like Lowell, used metrical forms to investigate madness.
But I do not have prescriptive ideas about metrical form versus open form! I can speculate about why it appeals to me, but I would not say to any young (or not young) poet that that was the only interesting way to write. Some of the poets I most admire—Hayden Carruth, cited above, Muriel Rukeyser, just for example—veered back and forth in their work from highly crafted open forms to Whitmanian expansiveness to metrical poems, indeed long sequences of metrical poems, depending on the exigencies of what was being written.
What, to your mind, is the reason behind what I conceive of as an implicit disdain for metrical poetry in the US?
I could respond to this both directly and indirectly...indirectly, in saying that the disdain for or disinterest in metrical poetry in North America varies, depending on where you look (and read).
It is interesting that both the Black Arts movement and the women's movement in the United States, both of which valued highly the (revolutionary!) participation of poets, were sometimes prescriptive towards even those poets who embodied their ideals, because of their aesthetic rather than their ideological choices. (I got flak for it too: it’s more than an abstract issue for me.)
The two major African American poets of the generation born during the First World War, Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden, were taken to task by young militants for use of metrical forms, use of high modernist indirection, use of literary and historical references—writing a poetry that did not directly address the struggle and engage the common reader. Yet both these poets were writing about contemporary black American life and—in the case of Hayden, especially—black history. Brooks proclaimed a kind of mea culpa, and a desire to write for the revolution. It may or may not be as a result that she wrote much less from then on, although her engagement was clearly sincere. Hayden, who once said that he wanted to be a black poet in the way Yeats is an Irish poet, suffered more, was vilified (where Brooks was, frankly, patronized), had to leave a position at the historically black Fisk University...and yet he was a poet who examined, questioned, claimed the African American past, and present, as writer and witness.
When one looks in 2011 at the work of contemporary African American poets, it is striking that many have reclaimed the ‘tradition’ of Hayden and Brooks, both in the use of historical material and that of strongly marked metrical forms (received or invented): Marilyn Nelson, Kwame Dawes, Rita Dove, Elizabeth Alexander, Major Jackson, Evie Shockley, Dante Micheaux, Terrance Hayes, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. Though they, too, do not see their aesthetic ancestry as linear. And surely one of the most brilliant contemporary poets, displaying a peacock's tail splendor of forms ‘received’, borrowed, invented or smuggled across a border, was the late and regretted Aga Shahid Ali, polyglot immigrant from Kashmir.
Do you see your own relationship to certain metrical forms, the sapphic form, or the glose, to name only two examples, as an experiment or journey?
When I think about it, the use of many metrical forms has been, for me, a way of entering into a conversation with other poets, contemporary and long gone, who have used those forms, sometimes dramatically diverging from their use of them, sometimes not.
Besides the ‘novel in verse’ aspect of Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons, which is its virtue if it has one, the riffs on & responses to other sonnet sequences, Shakespeare, of course, but also Meredith's Modern Love, Berryman's Sonnets, Lowell's The Dolphin, and Adrienne Rich's Twenty-One Love Poems, are an unmistakable part of the text—or were for the writer!
Oddly enough, or maybe not, the poem that ‘catapulted’ me into writing my first poem in metered sapphics (as far as one can approximate quantitative meter in English), was a poem in sapphics by James Wright, ‘Prayer to the Good Poet’ (addressed to Horace) that begins:
Quintus Horatius Flaccus, my good secret
Now my father, a good man in Ohio,
Lies alone in pain, and I scarcely
Know where to turn now.
Fifty years he worked in that bitter factory.
He learned how to love what I found so ugly.
Ugliness. What is it? A bitter
Taste of one body.
I worked once in the factory that he worked in.
Now I work in that factory that you live in.
Some people think poetry is easy,
But you two didn't.
I say ‘oddly’ because Wright’s Sapphics were written after his ‘conversion experience’ to—marvelous—open forms, and its diction and syntax are much more those of his open form poems than those of his earlier ‘formal’ ones. ‘Elevens’, in Going Back to the River, addresses Wright, as he addresses Horace, after he too had died:
James A. Wright, my difficult older brother
I’m in an airplane over your Ohio.
Twice a week, there and back, I make this journey
(This Journey was a book title of Wright’s.) And later:
You knew a lot about airports and rivers,
and a girl who went away in October.
Fathers, brothers and sisters die of cancer.
Still, we are strangers.
It was after that that I became more conscious of other poets using sapphics. Aga Shahid Ali almost surely got the idea of using sapphics from James Merrill, but Shahid used that meter more than Merrill ever did, and I think played many more riffs on it. So there is now a poem in English sapphics on the lament of Sitt Zainab in Damascus before her murder—itself part of a prolonged elegy for the poet's mother.
Perhaps the most direct ‘conversation’ was using the ‘paragraph’ form invented by Hayden Carruth—despite its name a 15 line poem or poem stanza with an intricate rhyme scheme and a fixed variation from three to five mostly iambic feet per line—for a sequence (‘Paragraphs from a Day-Book’) in Squares and Courtyards. Carruth and I were having a voluminous correspondence in the late 1990s—ours was a friendship almost entirely composed of long distance paper letters. It seemed to me that any form or metric was, somewhere, first thought up by someone, and its inscription in the literature beyond one poet's work would begin with a second poet's use of it. Besides, I liked the form and it was a challenge.
The glosa is a conversation within itself, as the poet is meant to construct four stanzas out of a quatrain by someone else, each stanza ending with one of the lines (in the right order) of the quatrain...
As a young poet you spent several years living in England, and I know you continue to be involved in the literary world in the UK. Why does there seem to be a greater acceptance and utilization of these formal poetries there than in the US?
I lived in London for the latter half of my twenties (after being in San Francisco for much of the earlier half) and the tolerance you note for metered poetry in England, Scotland and Ireland may have encouraged me to listen to my own penchant. As did the support of Richard Howard as an editor—whom I did not know personally at that time, but who responded with enthusiasm as an editor to my ‘over the transom’ submissions. And I would add, the friendship of Marie Ponsot, whom I was lucky enough to have met as a potential peer, not as a student encountering a teacher, when I was sixteen.
But as far as the difference in reception, if there is one, of poetry in metered forms in the United States and in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, I can't claim any expertise on this—and it also seems to me to be a question, not even of ‘generations,’ but of decades. During the lifetimes of Auden, Lowell, Bishop, James Merrill, Randall Jarrell—as well as Robert Hayden and Gwendolyn Brooks—could the same question have been asked?
The perspective of a British poet on the issue of distance and communication between members of different poetic communities might be different! But I think there is a greater distance between members of different poetic schools in the United States than in the UK and Ireland: people tend, in the States, to have read less of what does not conform to their particular aesthetic, whether it's a question of the ancestors, of new books, or of the latest issues of literary magazines. Perhaps because there are too many poets, journals, schools, tendencies, in the United States to keep up with them all. A distinguished specialist in the Objectivists—Zukofsky, Oppen and Reznikoff—may not have read Rukeyser (my observation after a conference in which I participated) and not know that Rukeyser's ‘Book of the Dead,’ with its integration of documentary material into a long sequential poem addressing a contemporary social issue, preceded Reznikoff's Testimony, and that it is highly likely Reznikoff read the earlier book (if only as another New York Jewish socialist poet!). Not that I'm locating Rukeyser among the so-called formalists, but she wasn't part of the Objectivist circle, so contemporary poets and scholars interested in the latter often don't read her. I don't believe the distances were as vast in the 1930s and 1940s as they are now.
There was also the ‘conversion experience’ of the 1950s and 1960s that saw American poets who had worked in meter turn increasingly to open forms. The Black Arts poets associated this with race revolution, but Robert Bly's influence on James Wright was not dissimilar. Wright was one of those rare poets whose genius developed in widely differing poetic structures. Adrienne Rich (I think) flourished and flourishes in open form in a way she might not have staying with fixed meters—though those structures echo in many of her finest poems—whereas the use of meter seemed to be essential to the project of Gwendolyn Brooks.
It interests me that a significant number of British poets working (brilliantly) with meter are class or ethnic outsiders. In Tony Harrison’s work, whose major subject has always been social class and language, there is an explicit dialogue between the very marked local (Leeds) working-class dialect spoken by his parents and himself as a boy, and the language of ‘educated men’ that made a poet of him. By ‘explicit,’ I mean that he sometimes uses both registers of language within a poem or sequence, often addressing each other in personae, and this within the structure of a Meredithian 16 line sonnet or iambic pentameter quatrains, incidentally demonstrating that the meter is equally useful and musical in dialect. (Can you imagine the possibility or impossibility of doing this in a poem in Arabic, where a similar linguistic divide—I think—exists?)
Then there's George Szirtes, who arrived in England from Hungary with his parents and brother at the age of eight; Mimi Khalvati, who was sent from Tehran to a boarding school on the Isle of Wight, six years old and speaking only Farsi, which she rapidly replaced with English; Patience Agbabi, British-raised Nigerian, who combines ‘spoken word’ and stage work with a virtuosity in European forms, most often in dramatic monologue dealing with various forms of social and sexual outlawry (she has a butterfly the size of an eagle tattooed across her shoulder blades, and is currently the Poet Laureate of Canterbury.) And there’s the recent success of Dajlit Nagra’s Look We Have Coming to Dover!, with its witty and sometimes merciless use of personae observing contemporary Britain in Punjabi dialect-inflected English, interspersed among equally pertinent standard English poems.
Why suppose that ‘meter’ necessarily means high diction? All popular oral poetry that I know of—in English, in Portuguese, in French, in Spanish, and I believe in Arabic—is metered. I would agree that poets like Nagra, Harrison, or Nelson, using certain recognized forms as well as demotic diction, are ‘mixing’ deliberately to have the implications of both—but even something like the quatrain ballad in English (which morphs into the blues) has a more complicated relation to levels of diction.
In your most recent book, Names, the diction dances between deceptively simple poems (I am thinking of the renga poems, the sapphics, and some of the ghazals) and complex, layered intellectual arguments and references, especially in your ‘Letter to Alfred Corn’, the glose poems and the two Akhmatova poems.
It’s perceptive to note in the book a deliberate play between poems whose syntax and references are multi-layered and those—like most of the poems in the title sequence, the renga sequence excerpts, some of the ghazals & the poems for Mimi Khalvati—that might be characterized as having a simple diction.
It seems to me that this is a ‘pendulum’ present for a long time in my own work: between simple and complex syntax; between demotic and elevated language as well. I like (to read as well as to write) language as it’s spoken in poems. I also like the juxtaposition of spoken language, sometimes at its most basic, pithy, vulgar, and the music of metrical forms, as in some of the more explicit poems in Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons. I think of Marilyn Nelson’s use of black dialect in historical narrative poems, always interjected into an uninflected narrative: the speech register changes, but the form/meter does not, which I think is both a valuable demonstration on the linguistic level and an unexpected pleasure for the reader.
But I also confess to enjoying the play of syntax of the Kateb Yacine sequence, that sometimes seems, deliberately, as complex as the arguments of the aging Arab exiles theorizing in cafés whom it mentions; something similar could be said of the two poems about Akhmatova, and the epistolary poem to Alfred Corn (responding to one he wrote to me), and goes back, when I think of it, to creating a voice that sounded peculiarly Jamesian for a speaker who is revealed to be Harriet Tubman in an epistolary-narrative poem in Assumptions. In Names, there are also outside ‘interlocutors’—Joseph Roth, Paul Celan, Anna Akhmatova, Mavis Gallant—and a dialogue with the writers' own work. Akhmatova's ‘guest from the future’, for example, seemed also pertinent to the poem at hand, a reference a reader might (I would hope!) or might not recognize.
Do you see this oscillation between dictions as a continuum or legacy of modernism?
The ‘embedding’ of recognizable popular diction in the poems of Eliot and Pound, and also in those of William Carlos Williams, is part of the heritage of American poetic modernism—with the signal difference among those poets that Pound’s and Eliot’s ‘popular’ or bourgeois personae are usually caricatured, while Williams’ are evoked or quoted for the most part with a fraternal empathy. But they have in common the recognition that ordinary spoken language is part of the stuff of poetry. There’s an oscillation between those stances in the work of the poets that followed them. Whether card-carrying modernists or not, American poets increasingly admitted spoken language into their work, and listened to it in its different registers, often, learned to listen like dramatists. Richard Howard used to cite Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues (those of the book Men and Women in particular) as one of his exemplars, but if one compares the registers of dialogue in Howard’s poems to those of Browning, you’ll find (or I thought I found) that the accuracy of created speech, whether the speaker is Edith Wharton, a septuagenarian German Jewish immigrant psychiatrist or a Chinese American fifth grader from Chicago, is on another level, and has become part of the excellence (a tour de force excellence, if you will) of the poem. For Browning, the speaker of the monologue was the medium of the plot and the lyricism that could be drawn from it, while for the contemporary poet, the verisimilitude of speech, contained in poetic form and structure, is part of the poem’s achievement.
Does that mean we have never really ‘exited’ modernism?
Who is ‘we’? A word like ‘modernism’ is a critical label that can be extended or constricted, used to praise or used pejoratively…‘Modernism’ itself (the word, I mean) now has the ironic implication of ‘that which is,’ I suppose, ‘outdated’: one is necessarily ‘post’ something. For me, the idea of poetic schools and movements is more useful in criticism, as the centrifugal force of an essay or a thesis. For poets writing poetry, the utility of a school/tendency—apart from friendships and publishing venues—is the possibilities it opens to them of techniques, forms, foci, ways of envisioning and embodying a poem. Collage is useful, disjunction is interesting, multilingualism is rich, documentation fertile—in different ways for different poets, just as the sonnet or terza rima might open new fields. I’d like to see someone write about the use of art history and urban history in the work of Richard Howard and of Cole Swensen—for example—and get beyond an ‘avant-gardiste’ ‘rear-guardist’ dichotomy that doesn’t seem productive.
So how does this multiplicity and heterogeneity affect the unity of a poet’s ‘voice’, or of a poetry collection? Is a poet who writes in one ‘voice’ doomed to be boring?
The idea of unity in a poetry collection (or book of poems, when its unity makes it other than a ‘collection’) is interesting, in part because it can mean so many things. Some of the books of contemporary poems that have most impressed me have a clear structure that’s anything but ‘collected’. I’m thinking of Suzanne Gardinier’s The New World, George Szirtes’ Reel, Yvette Christiansë’s Castaway, Khaled Mattawa’s Tocqueville, Jorie Graham’s Overlord, Marilyn Nelson’s The Homeplace, Hayden Carruth’s The Sleeping Beauty, Alfred Corn’s Autobiographies, Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, Tony Harrison’s The School of Eloquence, Cole Swensen’s Ours, Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette…
In English, the impulse, stamina, and breadth of imagination to create a book of poems that’s at once made up of individual, memorable, lyrics and narratives and embodies as well the arc of a narrative, a theory, a hypothesis, a world-view, isn’t limited to any one school or aesthetic tendency. And that, in turn, isn’t surprising when you look back at the history of the long poem or book-length poem amongst modern English language poets: just among Americans, that includes the Four Quartets, the Cantos and Paterson; then H.D.’s Trilogy and Helen in Egypt—but also Gwendolyn Brooks’ Annie Allen, Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony, Robert Lowell’s History, John Berryman’s Dream Songs, and James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover. Some of these are books that could be characterized as having the ‘epic’ impulse, which has also to do with the creation and interpretation of history; others reclaim for poetry the narrative territory of the novel. Sometimes there’s an overarching formal unity binding the text—HD’s irregular couplet poems formed of a single sentence, for each part of the World War II Trilogy, or Lowell’s blank verse sonnets; sometimes the unity of theme or thrust of narration enable the poet to use a variety of forms and sources (documentary sources as well in the case of Williams, Rukeyser and Reznikoff).
You have neither claimed to transcend the political nor submitted to it. Do you think your engaged or activist poetics poses a problem, provokes discomfort, for your readers?
More American poets are politically engaged than one would think, looking at that little ‘world’ from the outside. On one hand there’s the self-defeating (I think) squabble about what kind of poetry is appropriate for political response or analysis, on the other, there’s the extra-literary indignation when a poet has gone too far. I recall with amused dismay a newspaper opinion piece taking me by name to task for a poem in an anthology (called Poets Against the War, after all), saying I ought to go and live in Algeria with my friend Saddam Hussein. The writer must have known something about Iraq and the Maghreb beyond my scope! Often enough, writing what you know is a political poem means that you also know it will be direly imperfect. Denise Levertov’s poems against the American war in Vietnam are among her best known, but not, I think, among her best poems. June Jordan’s interior or dramatic monologues and observations of urban life usually make a stronger statement than her polemics. Adrienne Rich has often been put in the peculiar position of having certain poems read by hostile critics as separatist-feminist polemic when that was neither the subject nor the stance of the text. And we recall Paul Celan no longer being able to abide ‘Death Fugue,’ and Auden excising ‘September 1, 1939’ from his official collected works. But does a poet resist the compulsion to write an overtly political poem because she/he can guess that it won’t be the most indelible of his works, or not the one by which she would later choose to be remembered? For a reader, does the Mahmoud Darwish of ‘Identity Card’ inform the reception of poems like ‘Hand Tattoo’ or the ‘Dice Player’? But then, for a poet like Darwish—as for the later Akhmatova, for Robert Hayden—the existence of any poem can be read as a potentially explosive political statement, whereas for poets of the otherwise-silent majority, whichever majority of nationality, race, class or gender that is, a poem that does not risk a kind of overstatement risks being read as quiescent.
And how does translation fit into all of this? Your achievement in that field has been tremendous, not just limited to translating per se but to the intersection of poetics, cultures, and languages in your own poems. Doesn’t translation also illuminate the often unnecessarily politicized boundaries of cultural aesthetics?
It seems to me that the work starts more humbly, or maybe more full of hubris. If one has got the privilege of reading more than one language, translation is at once the closest possible reading of a poem, and a jumping-off point toward the creation of a new poem in the ‘receptor language’. Practically speaking, it’s a way of keeping one’s hands thrust into the clay of language while leaving ego and id back in the garden shed….
Still, essential things like word choice, sentence structure, sometimes choice of tense, are only partially determined by the original text; and what determine those final decisions, that make the music and the underlying sense of the (translated) poem, are the very preferences and appetites the translating poet has tried to put aside—as well as the exigencies of the second language. I have translated poets not only because their work ‘appealed to me,’ which is obvious, but because in reading them I found myself, at some point, rendering a poem in English as I read it in French—‘trying it out’ for a possible plethora of reasons. (One could say that translating poetry was in itself a ‘form’ that both shapes choices and opens up possibilities that would not have occurred to the writer without these particular strictures.) Three of the poets I’ve translated extensively have a marked interest in various (playful, unorthodox) possibilities of poetic form—an interest which, I might add, is even more eccentric in France than in the United States. They all have an interest in narrative—likewise, often unorthodox, playful, exploded—and that, too, is ‘eccentric’ in much contemporary French poetry. Quite a few (of this dozen or so) are ‘multinational’—born in Lebanon, Tunisia, Poland ; grew up in Vietnam—and are translators themselves, of English, Arabic, German, Yiddish, Hebrew, which means that just as I riff on echoes of other languages’ poetries in my own work, so very likely, do they. And I try to hear and sound their echoes when translating their poems.