I’d written since I was a child, but when I went to Vassar I was going to be a composer. I’d studied music at Walnut Hill and had a rather good teacher. I’d had a year of counterpoint and I also played the piano. At Vassar you had to perform in public once a month. Well, this terrified me. I really was sick. So I played once and then I gave up the piano because I couldn’t bear it. I don’t think I’d mind now, but I can’t play the piano anymore. Then the next year I switched to English.
It was a very literary class. Mary McCarthy was a year ahead of me. Eleanor Clark was in my class. And Muriel Rukeyser, for freshman year. We started a magazine you may have heard of, "Con Spirito." I think I was a junior then. There were six or seven of us -- Mary, Eleanor Clark and her older sister, my friends Margaret Miller and Frani Blough, and a couple of others. It was during Prohibition and we used to go downtown to a speakeasy and drink wine out of teacups. That was our big vice. Ghastly stuff! Most of us had submitted things to the "Vassar Review" and they’d been turned down. It was very old-fashioned then. We were all rather put out because we thought we were good. So we thought, Well, we’ll start our own magazine. We thought it would be nice to have it anonymous, which it was. After its third issue the "Vassar Review" came around and a couple of our editors became editors on it and then they published things by us. But we had a wonderful time doing it while it lasted.
When I went to Vassar I took sixteenth-century, seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century literature, and then a course in the novel. The kind of courses where you have to do a lot of reading. I don’t think I believe in writing courses at all. There weren’t any when I was there. There was a poetry-writing course in the evening, but not for credit. A couple of my friends went to it, but I never did.
I had a theory at that time that one should write down all one’s dreams. That that was the way to write poetry. So I kept a notebook of my dreams and thought if you ate a lot of awful cheese at bedtime you’d have interesting dreams. I went to Vassar with a pot about this big—it did have a cover! -- of Roquefort cheese that I kept in the bottom of my bookcase....
I’d like to be a painter most, I think. I never really sat down and said to myself, I’m going to be a poet. Never in my life. I’m still surprised that people think I am.... I started publishing things in my senior year, I think, and I remember my first check for thirty-five dollars and that was rather an exciting moment. It was from something called "The Magazine," published in California. They took a poem, they took a story -- oh, I wish those poems had never been published! They’re terrible! I did show the check to my roommate. I was on the newspaper, "The Miscellany" -- and I really was, I don’t know, mysterious. On the newspaper board they used to sit around and talk about how they could get published and so on and so on. I’d just hold my tongue. I was embarrassed by it. And still am. There’s nothing more embarrassing than being a poet, really.
Just last week a friend and I went to visit a wonderful lady I know in Quebec. She’s seventy-four or seventy-five. And she didn’t say this to me but she said to my friend, Alice, “I’d like to ask my neighbor who has the big house next door to dinner, and she’s so nice, but she’d be bound to ask Elizabeth what she does and if Elizabeth said she wrote poetry, the poor woman wouldn’t say another word all evening!” This is awful, you know, and I think no matter how modest you think you feel or how minor you think you are, there must be an awful core of ego somewhere for you to set yourself up to write poetry. I’ve never felt it, but it must be there.
The word creative drives me crazy. I don’t like to regard it as therapy. I was in the hospital several years ago and somebody gave me Kenneth Koch’s book "Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?" And it’s true, children sometimes write wonderful things, paint wonderful pictures, but I think they should be discouraged. From everything I’ve read and heard, the number of students in English departments taking literature courses has been falling off enormously. But at the same time the number of people who want to get in the writing classes seems to get bigger and bigger. There are usually two or three being given at Harvard every year. I’d get forty applicants for ten or twelve places. Fifty. It got bigger and bigger. I don’t know if they do this to offset practical concerns, or what.
I wanted to write a villanelle all my life but I never could. I’d start them but for some reason I never could finish them. And one day I couldn’t believe it -- it was like writing a letter. There was one rhyme I couldn’t get that ended in e-n-t and a friend of mine, the poet Frank Bidart, came to see me and I said, “Frank, give me a rhyme.” He gave me a word offhand and I put it in. But neither he nor I can remember which word it was. But that kind of thing doesn’t happen very often. Maybe some poets always write that way. I don’t know.
I never wanted to teach in my life. I finally did because I wanted to leave Brazil and I needed the money. Since 1970 I’ve just been swamped with people sending me poems. They start to when they know you’re in the country. I used to get them in Brazil, but not so much. They got lost in the mail quite often. I don’t believe in teaching poetry at all, but that’s what they want one to do. You see so many poems every week, you just lose all sense of judgment.
As for readings, I gave a reading in 1947 at Wellesley College two months after my first book appeared. And I was sick for days ahead of time. Oh, it was absurd. And then I did one in Washington in ’49 and I was sick again and nobody could hear me. And then I didn’t give any for twenty-six years. I don’t mind reading now. I’ve gotten over my shyness a little bit. I think teaching helps. I’ve noticed that teachers aren’t shy. They’re rather aggressive. They get to be, finally.
But there’s no stopping somebody like James Dickey. [William] Stafford was good. I’d never heard him and never met him. He read one very short poem that really brought tears to my eyes, he read it so beautifully.
I’m not very fond of poetry readings. I’d much rather read the book. I know I’m wrong. I’ve only been to a few poetry readings I could bear. Of course, you’re too young to have gone through the Dylan Thomas craze....
When it was somebody like Cal Lowell [Robert Lowell] or Marianne Moore, it’s as if they were my children. I’d get terribly upset. I went to hear Marianne several times and finally I just couldn’t go because I’d sit there with tears running down my face. I don’t know, it’s sort of embarrassing. You’re so afraid they’ll do something wrong.
Cal thought that the most important thing about readings was the remarks poets made in between the poems. The first time I heard him read was years ago at the New School for Social Research in a small, gray auditorium. It was with Allen Tate and Louise Bogan. Cal was very much younger than anybody else and had published just two books. He read a long, endless poem -- I’ve forgotten its title -- about a Canadian nun in New Brunswick. I’ve forgotten what the point of the poem is, but it’s very, very long and it’s quite beautiful, particularly in the beginning. Well, he started, and he read very badly. He kind of droned and everybody was trying to get it. He had gotten about two thirds of the way through when somebody yelled, “Fire!” There was a small fire in the lobby, nothing much, that was put out in about five minutes and everybody went back to their seats. Poor Cal said, “I think I’d better begin over again,” so he read the whole thing all over again! But his reading got much, much better in later years.
I suspect that some of the stories I’ve written are actually prose poems and not very good stories.
I can write prose on a typewriter. Not poetry. Nobody can read my writing so I write letters on it. And I’ve finally trained myself so I can write prose on it and then correct a great deal. But for poetry I use a pen. About halfway through sometimes I’ll type out a few lines to see how they look.
William Carlos Williams wrote entirely on the typewriter. Robert Lowell printed -- he never learned to write. He printed everything.
Two or three years ago I taught a course in prose and discovered my students were watching the soap operas every morning and afternoon. I don’t know when they studied. So I watched two or three just to see what was going on. They were boring. And the advertising! One student wrote a story about an old man who was getting ready to have an old lady to dinner (except she was really a ghost), and he polished a plate till he could see his face in it. It was quite well done, so I read some of it aloud, and said, “But look, this is impossible. You can never see your face in a plate.” The whole class, in unison, said, “Joy!” I said, “What? What are you talking about?” Well, it seems there’s an ad for Joy soap liquid in which a woman holds up a plate and sees—you know the one? Even so, you can’t! I found this very disturbing. TV was real and no one had observed that it wasn’t. Like when Aristotle was right and no one pointed out, for centuries, that women don't have fewer teeth than men.