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Poetry amidst the Kultursmog: An interview with David Yezzi

By Bernard Chapin
web posted July 16, 2007

David YezziDavid Yezzi is Executive Editor of The New Criterion and the former director of New York's Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y. He is a well-known poet whose published collections include The Hidden Model and Sad Is Eros along with the Zoo Anthology of Younger American Poets; a compendium he edited. His essays have appeared at Poetry, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Sun, and The New Yorker. He has earned degrees from Carnegie Mellon University and Columbia University School of the Arts.

BC: First off, let me ask about you poetry. Why should people bother to read it? What unique advantages does it offer over other literary genres?

David Yezzi: Well, I'm not sure that people should bother to read most poetry. A lot of what gets written in any age is complete dreck—perhaps now more than ever, since so many of the people writing poetry don't read it (as a recent report from the National Endowment for the Arts showed). The real thing is extremely rare: As Randell Jarrell famously put it, "A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times."

John Huston has a great sequence in his screenplay for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre that gets at the scarcity of 24 karat verse. Walter Huston, the director's father, is talking to Humphry Bogart and a group of deadbeats at the Hotel Oso Negro about prospecting for gold. He could have just as easily been talking about prospecting for poetry. Houston says: "Answer me this one, will ya? Why is gold worth some twenty bucks an ounce?" He describes it this way, "A thousand men, say, go searching for gold. After six months, one of ‘em's lucky, one out of a thousand. His find represents not only his own labor but nine hundred and ninety-nine others to boot. That's, eh, six thousand months, five hundred years scrabbling over a mountain going hungry and thirsty. An ounce of gold, Mister, is worth what it is because of the human labor that went in to the finding and the gitten of it."

It seems a relatively easy prospect on the face of it. As the poet and critic Yvor Winters defined it: A poem is a statement in words about a human experience, with special attention paid to emotion and to the connotative aspects of words. A real bonanza—a great poem—achieves an indelible and memorable expression for feelings connected to a human experience. The greatest poems are worth waiting for (and wading through a lot of the inferior stuff for). In many cases, it is not until a poet gives voice to a particular emotion by rendering it in words that one can experience it fully for the first time.

BC: Who are your favorite poets? Likewise, which ones do you find to be the most overrated?

David Yezzi: I recently led a seminar on W. H. Auden at the West Chester Poetry Conference in Pennsylvania and heard a reading by one of my very favorite contemporary poets, Kay Ryan. Ryan is hilarious and completely no nonsense. Her poems are not for those, as the renaissance poet Fulke Greville put it, on whose foot the black ox (of melancholy) has not already trod.

The British poet Geoffrey Hill is someone that I'm always interested in, even in his more difficult later books. He is a very great poet, perhaps the finest now writing in English. Interestingly, he has been without a publisher in this country in recent years, despite encomia from Harold Bloom, John Hollander, Christopher Ricks, and many other prominent critics. Yale University Press stepped into the breach last year and bought out Hill's latest, Without Title. Yale will publish his next book in 2008, I believe.

There are many fine younger poets whom I admire: Ben Downing, John Foy, Joshua Mehigan, A. E. Stallings. We've also had the good fortune at The New Criterion to publish a number of excellent younger poets who won the New Criterion Poetry Prize: Bill Coyle, Geoffrey Brock, Adam Kirsch, and forthcoming this fall a terrific book by Jill Allyn Rosser called Foiled Again.

In terms of the overrated, critics like our own William Logan are superb at sticking a pin in the bubble reputation. It's true that sometimes the balance needs redressing. With three kids (a five-year-old daughter and twin two-year-old boys), I feel like I have less and less time to spend on the overrated—I simply don't read poets that don't grab my attention and hold it in the din of squalling toddlers. Vita brevis.

BC: Is poetry dying? If so, what factors have brought about its decline?

David Yezzi: A perennial call goes out sounding the decline of poetry, but it seems to me that things are much as they have always been—though where the next Shakespeare is lurking I hardly know. As I've said, there's never very much of the genuine about. One difference in recent decades, however, has been the loss of the tools themselves. Traditional verse technique is no longer required to be a revered poet and well-paid professor of poetry. In fact, quite the opposite is the case; metered verse and rhyme are now seen as clear indications of a poet's lack of feeling.

Fortunately, poems have always been written in traditional verse, even in the free-verse heyday of the later twentieth century. I suspect they always will be. Good poems are nigh impossible write, and any poet who abandons certain time-tested and powerful tools and techniques (on political or aesthetic grounds) does so at his peril. Formal verse technique is strong medicine—the most precise instrument we have for calibrating shades of meaning and emotion. Doing without it is not just playing tennis with the net down (as Robert Frost said) but playing without a ball. I'm not opposed to free verse, but I am opposed to those who are reflexively for it to the exclusion of all else.

A few years ago I wrote an essay on this subject for The New Criterion.

BC: When I was in college we used to go down to a bookshop in Cleveland Heights and hear readings but now I find that many of these readings are termed "spoken word." What exactly does spoken word mean?

David Yezzi: I've read poems at the Bowery Poetry Club and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York—both bastions of what I think of as "spoken word." I'm not sure that I know what the term means beyond poetry read or recited to an audience. Poetry "slams"—a kind of hipster version on the old Welsh eisteddfod, I suppose—are increasingly popular. I've never "slammed," though I once judged high-school students in a recitation contest, in which they memorized and recited well-known poems. I wish more teachers encouraged their students to memorize poems.   

BC: A couple of years ago I saw at the Chicago Book Fair a compilation of Tupac Shakur's collected poems. What do you make of the way in which rap is now considered poetry?

David Yezzi: We are at a point in the arts, I think, where the question isn't so much, "Is it art?" or "Is it poetry?" Basically, if someone says it is, then I'm inclined to concede the point. I would then hasten to get on with the business of answering the more important question, "Is it any good?" I must admit that I haven't read the late rapper's poems or heard them read out (which might even be more to the point for a rapper).

Geoffrey Hill has criticized rap in his book Speech! Speech! for what I take to be his aversion to language wielded as a cudgel, to a timber in rhetoric that strips language of subtlety of expression and espouses a modulated violence in words. I suspect that a poet like Hill, who has devoted his life to perceiving how even the most minute aspects of language have had life-or-death consequences in our history, would naturally recoil from rap's steamroller approach. Perhaps I've misread him, but I can see how that might be the case.

BC: I notice that you've made audio files of poems. Is this "delivery system" (if you will) a viable approach for saving poetry or at least expanding its readership?

David Yezzi: Yes, I've done recordings for The Atlantic Monthly, The Cortland Review, and Salon. I'm not sure how many people listen to them, but I do believe that poetry readings in general (whether live, on the radio, or recorded) do get poetry out to an expanded audience. I certainly cherish the recordings I have of Auden, Richard Wilbur, Marianne Moore, Geoffrey Hill, and many others. Yeats, of course, was a real crooner. There's even an old wax cylinder recording that people believe to be Walt Whitman reading a few lines from his poem "America." I suppose .mpgs will soon seem woefully outmoded in much the same way.

BC: How politicized is poetry nowadays? How much has politicization of the academy corrupted the art form?

David Yezzi: I recently participated in an exchange with another poet in the June issue of Poetry magazine in which, to my surprise, a number of old political hobbyhorses got paraded around the paddock.

The political entrenchment of the academy has been reported in all it's gruesomeness by my colleague Roger Kimball, editor of The New Criterion. I would only add that things are equally entrenched from an aesthetic standpoint. It's not that masters degrees in poetry, which function as excellent cash cows for universities across the country, are completely worthless. I have one myself, and I can say that they are only almost completely worthless. They do have one serious downside however: students seeking preferment begin to write like their teachers. They then graduate with a degree that is really only useful to teach creative writing in a program much like the one from which they have just graduated. Their students learn to write like they do and so on. This has had quite a deadening effect on contemporary poetry in general, I think.

BC: Thanks for your time, David. ESR

Bernard Chapin is the author of Escape from Gangsta Island and a soon-to-be released book on women. He can be contacted at veritaseducation@gmail.com.


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