I did try to write stories in college, because I was interested in writing, and I was interested in the sound of language, but I was just no good at narrative and at fiction. When I discovered the lyric poem, that advanced not by narrative steps but by blocks and layers of imagery, I said, "Gee, I probably could do that. So let me try that."
I was in the army serving in Italy in 1959. I read a poem that I really liked in the location in which it was written by a man named Ezra Pound.... It was a poem called Blandula, Tenulla, Vagula. And it really hit me. A friend of mine who was already writing poetry, named Harold Schimmel, had given me selected poems of Pound and said, “When you go out there read this poem out on the peninsula.” And I did and I was totally taken with it, you know?… And so I read more of Pound and then sort of read whatever I could get my hands on.... But that’s when I started when I was 23 years old.... which is very late for a poet -- most poets start about the age of 3, I've come to find out. And they have a whole stack of poems that they wrote before kindergarten. But that was not my case.
I finally found something I could do: which was writing poetry. If I did it well or not I’ve never known, but I could do it. And so that’s what I did: I sort of didn’t do anything else once I discovered poetry.
I used to play golf a lot and I loved golf. I got to the point where I would play golf and if I had a couple of bad shots, by the second or third hole I’d just forget about golf and I’d be thinking about the poem I was writing which is not a good thing if you’re on the golf course.... I don’t know why I’m so prolific; I just had nothing else to do and so I sat down and wrote.
You know, it’s been a lifesaver for me, and you have to read it seriously before it gets to you, it gets through to you. Because poetry you know is a kind of separate language: it’s a language that, how can I say, says less and means more. And so the contracting of language into some kind of musical instrument is really quite necessary I think no matter how extensive a musical play it has or how sort of simple a musical play it has.
I do like words. I like the music of words. I like the music of poetry. I like the music of language. I have no capacity for music itself although my mother was quite musical and my first cousin, her brother’s two boys are Johnny and Edgar Winter who were quite famous in their day the albino rock and roll singers, and so there’s been music all through my mother’s family but I didn’t get any of it: I got my father’s Austrian tone-deafness.
Theodore Roethke said, “You want to write? There’s the library. You’ve got to go in and read.” And that’s what I always suggest to people because they really don’t read much: they read current stuff and what’s hip; but they’ve got to know everything, you know? You’ve got to know everything. I didn’t know everything but I tried, you know, I tried to read as much as I could....
Any poet who is any good is formal in his own way: he writes his poems formally but to the drum that he hears, not exactly the drum he’s been given, which is your received meters and received structures and that sort of thing.... If you’re smart you’ll know all the other stuff, then you can do what you want to because you’ll know what you’re not doing. It’s very important to know what you’re not doing and why you’re not doing it.
And a library plays a huge role in any writer’s life: that’s just a fact, because you go to it for sustenance, you go to it for some peace and quiet, and you know you go to it so you can steal things from other poets where nobody can see you. You know every poet you read influences you; if it’s only for five minutes or for a couple of years. There’s a time in your writing life when every week you have a new favorite poet because that’s the one you’ve read that week.... I think my two favorite poets would be Emily Dickenson and Gerard Manley Hopkins.... Emily Dickenson’s content, subject matter, what she wrote about, the kind of impossibility of transcending this ordinary life and knowing that that was impossible, and that struck a bell with me. Hopkins: I love the music of his poetry, I love the way he wrote actually and his strange and enthralling kind of metrics, and he was a big influence on me for a while I guess for a long time. The difference between Carlos Williams and Gerard Manley Hopkins is gigantic but they’re both great poets, you know, and Williams is quite spare and Hopkins is quite lush. So however you feel called to do it is how you should do it. Actually you should try everything, you know: you should try everything if you’re a poet and see what you like. And if you don’t like it you don’t have to do it: I mean you’re not a bad person if you can’t write.
I’m a closet painter, but I can’t paint, and so I’m stuck with what I have, which is language. I’m very attuned to what I look at, and landscape is something that’s quite ravishing to me and seductive. And I’m always looking at and thinking about how the exterior landscape reflects the interior and vice versa. And almost all my poems begin with something I’ve seen, something observed as opposed to some idea I have for a poem. Most of my poems start with me looking out the window or sitting in the backyard as dusk comes down, and what that sort of translates into -- into my thinking at the moment. The subject matter will change, what I’m looking at and what I’m thinking about and so on and so forth. But the content, which is language, landscape and the idea of God, particularly the last one, is unchanging, unvarying. And it’s behind all of my poems, even the ones that may not look like it. It's always been the idea of landscape that's around me, that I look at; the idea of the music of language; and then the idea of God, or of that spiritual mystery that we doggedly follow, some of us, all of our days, and which we won't find the answer to until it's too late -- or maybe it's not too late. Maybe it's just the start, I don't know.
We have more to say when we’re younger. We have better things to say when we’re older, not necessarily more. As one gets older, one tries to do more with less. I was much more loquacious when I was younger. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t have a clue.