Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Rik George responds

Rik George: I live with a grand-nephew, two dogs, and a cat. I while away much of my time on the computer, and more on news television (at least until the new season starts). I am a self-identified liberal, a lapsed Presbyterian pastor, the sole survivor of my immediate family (both my kid sisters have died) and aging gracelessly. I’m fond of food, except chicken and fish, and enjoy cooking for myself and my grand-nephew. I enjoy tomatoes, apricots, steaks, burgers, shrimp, and onion sandwiches particularly. Spaghetti and lasagna are among my favorite foods, closely followed by pizza. Vegetables please my palate. Creatures that had fins or feathers when alive do not provide substances I wish to ingest. I am single. Once upon a time I was married to a woman. That was a grievous error. She left after ten years (not pleasantly). Two years after she left I met my domestic partner, Ken, and we were together for twenty-nine years until his death. This “marriage” was far better for me than the marriage I made with the woman. In my lifetime I have been an avid gardener, a computer programmer, a country preacher, a janitor, and, I hope, a faithful son, grandson, brother, pet caregiver, and partner. My physical condition has slowed me down, but has not stopped me.

DV: What were the circumstances of your becoming a poet?

RJ: I don’t remember exactly how or when I became infected with poetry. That occurrence, or sequence of occurrences, is swathed in the dim misty memories of my childhood. I suspect some affinity for rhyme and meter developed in me with nursery rhymes, and grew from there. Certainly grade school with its many verbal activities deepened my interest; rhyming and metered words often provided mnemonic assistance. I did better than most of my peers at studying English. Since I did not have abilities that would translate into peer approval, such as sports excellence, I sought out the approval of teachers, many of whom loved the language. Several of those teachers rewarded extra credit for such things as occasional verse and essays.

DV: Like a craftsman, in your work you obviously take a lot of pride in the "nuts and bolts" of your poetry. Why is formalism so important to you?

RJ: I like to have most things about me decent and orderly. I also appreciate the challenge of matching thought to the strictures of meter and rhyme. I confess, though I have a few “free verse” poems, the undisciplined form (as I think of it) does not satisfy me most of the time. I think meter is inherent in the English language, for example, Whitman’s “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed” is really quite good iambic tetrameter (with one substituted anapest). It grates on me that the whole poem is not in iambic tetrameter. This is a personal quirk.

DV: Like e. e. cummings, Whitman was a lot more regular in his craftsmanship than many free verse advocates realize. But a lot of perfectly constructed poems (metrically, rhythmically, etc.) lack rhetorical force. They need artificially to insert a beat that reduces the force of the meaning or feeling, or that fail to add a needed word or phrase, with the same effect. Should Whitman be excused (be given poetic license), since otherwise he produced such a masterful poem? Are there any "undisciplined" poems or poets you admire? 

RG: Perhaps the best “undisciplined” poems are those of Langston Hughes. I do not condemn Whitman for writing “undisciplined” poems, I just prefer the regularity of more “disciplined” poets. It is a matter of de gustibus. I’m well aware of the drivel that can infect metric verse; it can be equaled by the drivel sometimes passed off as poetry in “undisciplined” work. One only has to look into George Chapman’s Homer to discover the worst sorts of bad verse, or the trifles penned by Colley Cibber.

DV: Overall, I share your appreciation for Hughes but tend to prefer his more "disciplined" work over his jazzy improvisations. But it's interesting that you brought up Chapman. John Dryden and Alexander Pope had already produced popular translations of Homer, in blank verse and heroic couplets, but Chapman presented a much less sophisticated interpretation. When John Keats discovered it he devoured it overnight, then immediately wrote a famous sonnet on it ("On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"); speaking of  the "wide expanse ... That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne," Keats wrote

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Historically, of course, Keats meant Balboa, but his name was a syllable too long, and wrongly accented....
RG: I have, of course, a long familiarity with Dryden, Pope, and Keats.

VD: Do you have any regular writing habits? Do you treat the process like a job, with established goals and a regular schedule, or passively, like awaiting an epiphany?

RG: I do not have any regular writing habits. If I had, I might be more famous and wealthy. I write when the urge strikes (or Muse prompts, or whatever).

DV: You wrote a couple of dozen moving poems ("remembrances") about your deceased sister. It is, of course, easy to empathize with the emotions that prompted that outpouring of grief and despair and, finally, some degree at least of resignation if not acceptance. When you undertook that project, did you have any overarching plan you followed, or was it a case of one poem just following another, organically, without forethought?

RG: I had in mind, writing my poems remembering my sister, only that they would be In Memoriam quatrains. When I had written them, I arranged them in the current order. I had no other principle of organization beyond ordering them in a way that felt right for the time.

DV: How long do you think it took you to write (and organize) them? Do you think the process helped you cope with your grief? 

RG: It took me about five days to write and organize them. They were one of many ways I came to cope with my grief.

DV: Catharsis. Even people who don't have many poetic gifts can probably help themselves get through times of emotional turmoil if they try to communicate (or enunciate) their feelings honestly. So, as a skilled poet, perhaps that process came somewhat naturally for you. But, as a reader and as a former pastor, do you think the sharing of someone else's experience has the same sort of healing effect?

RG: Sharing someone else’s experience may or may not have a healing effect. I learned long ago as a pastor that there are no guaranteed results from most human interactions. As a pastor I was most concerned about letting others express themselves for their relief. Reading something has sometimes eased a sorrow or celebrated a joy for me. There are no guaranteed results in interaction with a printed page; it’s as shaky as interacting with other people.

DV: So Aristotle was wrong? There isn't any cathartic effect? What purpose, then, does art (including poetry) have? Is it merely decorative?

RJ: Aristotle was not wrong; catharsis can and does happen. It’s just not mandatory. Art’s purpose is to be art. It is not mere decoration, because it stirs deeply in the human psyche, but it reflects all the human conditions. Something in the human universe needs to celebrate life beyond feeding and breeding.

DV: So, who stirs your pot? Which poets do you turn to, and return to, as you deal with life's joys and sorrows?

RG: I do not look for verse to help me deal with life’s joys and sorrows. For such coping I need people. I am most fond of A. E. Housman. I most often turn to his verses. After him almost any poet who is regular in meter and form may capture my attention, depending on my whim at the moment. I have, in past times, had periods of enthusiasm for William Blake, Thomas Gray, Pope, William Shakespeare, Alfred (Lord) Tennyson, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Vergil, Homer (not Simpson), Catullus, Horace, once a foray into Dante, a brief flirtation with Petrarch (Dante, Petrarch, and Homer in translation, Catullus, Vergil, and Horace I have read in the Latin). I confess I soon lost interest in the Brownings, Dryden, the Rossettis, William Cowper, Michael Drayton, Piers Plowman, and Geoffrey Chaucer.  I have read different translations of Beowulf with pleasure, and, in college, I read a bit of it in the Anglo-Saxon, along with writings by “Se Halige Andreas” and the Venerable Bede. I no longer have any facility in Anglo-Saxon, and very little of my middle English is viable. Latin now escapes me. I have dabbled a bit in my past with German and Spanish verse, but I have little skill left in those tongues.

DV: A very Classical list. No moderns (except, arguably, Housman), no Americans or Irish, Canadian, Australian or other writers in English. I suspect that is because of your strong preference for poetic order. For myself, I don't relate to rap, but it's rather like calligraphy: I don't have any esthetic grasp of what's good or bad, but I appreciate the artistry (at least on an intellectual level). Have you given up on contemporary poetry?

RG: Consider my age; Housman was nearly contemporary. During my university education even he was too modern for most curricula. When I began studies for a Master’s degree I wanted to write a thesis using Housman’s poetry but was dissuaded and directed to Samuel Johnson’s prayers instead. When I got my Masters in creative writing, poetry, contemporary poetry was not an issue. I’ve had very little exposure to recent verse, recent being anything written since I was born in 1940. I wouldn’t know where to find recent verse.

DV: I wasn't, technically speaking, an English major, but by the time I was a college student it would have been inconceivable to me that American Literature had not always been a prominent part of the curriculum. Apparently it had always been taught in high school, but academia was slow to pick it up until after World War I. For example, the scholarly journal "American Literature" did not even come into existence until 1929. Most professors are "conservative" in the sense that they are less expert in newer subjects than in what they've spent their adult lives studying. But recent verse really shouldn't be so hard to locate  -- any library, for instance (though I don't think you would like much of it). Despite your thesis advisors' discouragement, your interest in Housman has obviously continued. I wonder if Johnson's prayers had any abiding impact on your life, but I'm a lot more interested in exploring your affinity for Housman. In what way does he inform your writing of poetry?

RG:  Dr. Johnson’s prayers had no lasting impact on me. For a time I emulated his prose, and that of Boswell, with the balanced phrases, roughly analogous to the Hebrew parallelism of the Psalms. Religiously I found his theology too conservative to fit my theology. Housman wrote lyrics, not epics, and had a particular affinity for the liquid consonants, especially “l”.  When, at 16, I first encountered Housman’s verse, I had not sorted out my sexual orientation. I have wondered at times since if I found soul-harmony on an unconscious level, although Housman does not address the subject directly; it rises only obliquely in a few verses. Capturing a poetic moment in a few simple words is a skill that still amazes me.

DV: Is there one of your own poems that you think is particularly Housmanesque in terms of subject or style? Could you share it with us and explicate its Housmanian nature?

RG: I have reviewed my verses. I do not identify any of them as particularly Housmanesque. Many of the subjects might have been ones Housman used, but none of them are adapted from him. The verse, Dancing Palms is in stanzas I adopted from Housman. It is a five line stanza in iambic trimeter, a pattern Housman often used. That I tend to use trimeter and tetrameter lines is also something I think I picked up from Housman.

The palm trees writhe in the wind.

     Clouds race across the sky,

Poor deer a wind-born pack pursues.

    The sun is scarred with fogs

     The stars have run away.

Perhaps the night will still the winds,

     Bring quiet to the fronds,

That lash the sky so desperately,

     And make a smooth black road

     For the moon to ride at leisure.

DV: One thing I admire in your poetry (and Housman's also, and Robert Frost's) is the seemingly simple, straightforward, "unpoetic" approach to the subject that actually camouflages a great deal of subtle depth. The clear, unobtrusive imagery. 

RG: I’m flattered to have some of my verses in the company of verses by Housman and Frost. So much of my verse, I now realize, has been crafted with Japanese and Chinese verses (in translation, of course) as prototypes.
DV: It is the same direct expression that I think most translators of East Asian poetry miss, perhaps because of its minimalistic nature. Each Chinese character is not only a symbol for a word, it is a single syllable as well. So, a series of five-character lines is hard for us long-winded Westerners to duplicate in essence. Since my stay in Xian last summer, I've been exploring the possibilities. For example, "Quiet Night" by Li Bai is four lines of 5 characters, which I tried to imitate as 5 syllables:

The pool of moonlight:

frost surrounds my bed.

Look up, the moon's bright.

Bow down, homesick thoughts.

In this case I used off-rhymes to unify the poem (not at all a Chinese convention). Li would have been able to rely on the conventional association of moonlight with family reunions, making an explicit reference unnecessary. So I had to hint at the connection. And I had to try to employ punctuation (the colon) to create a linkage of thoughts. I'm not at all sure I succeeded either in conveying the feeling of the original or even having used enough words to establish a meaningful poem in English. But from my point of view it was an interesting writing experiment.

RG:  East Asian poetry is lost in any translation, I suppose. Perhaps poetry is truly that which is lost in translation. One can only create a new poem in the new language that hearkens back to the original. I do not have any Chinese, beyond one or two words (in my childhood I was told that at seven or eight I was too old to learn Chinese, and there was no place in Denver that taught the language). 

DV: What themes seem to preoccupy you these days?

RG: They are quite often glum, dealing with death, war, and other unhappy human activities. Much of what I have brought forth I have discarded. I did write a two-page denouement of a murder mystery just to have something to read at Kati Short’s poetry reading -- this was an exercise in prose, where I am less confident of my skills.

DV: Rik, you are entirely too modest. And perhaps too glum, though I understand how that thief Grief steals our happiness. You discount the therapeutic value of creation, but I continue to believe that the process can be beneficial and hope you continue the endeavor (even if the resultant work doesn't satisfy your artistic standards.) Meanwhile, I thank you for your time in answering my questions, and I look forward to reading the material that you don't discard. 

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