OF JONATHAN HOLDEN
was conducted by e-mail in January, 2000.
critics of poetry who maintain that public interest in poetry is
What is your opinion on this? Do you feel this decrease is
to people's waning interest in reading in general, or do you think
possibly, people are not taught to read and appreciate modern poetry
in the first place, thus making interpreting poems too difficult to be
enjoyed as "entertainment"?
like serious reading, has always been a marginal art.
about "decline" are clichés and somewhat tiresome. The
place for poetry has been the place where all serious reading happens
the university: with the democratization of higher education has come,
inevitably, the democratization of poetry within what Robert Persig
in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance "the church of
are many different styles of poetry. The "style" which I pursue
founded by Pound and Eliot around 1914, "The Modernist" movement
÷ a movement
that was originally elitist but which, in 1956 with the publication of
Ginsbergâs "Howl" and in 1959 with the publication of Robert
Studies, threw off the yoke of Eliotian "impersonality" and, with
confessional poets like Plath and Sexton and Snodgrass, became more
American poetry became personalized, and that is the dominant vein in
university poetry. (Iâve likened it to secular prayer, in
places: prayer within "the church of reason." Like all serious
it requires indoctrination.)
comment in The Fate of American Poetry that there is a lot of
being written today, and stated that there is more poetry being
and written today than at any other time in the history of American
Is this a good thing, or a bad thing overall?
on. Most of it is, like most things, mediocre, but a small
of it is miraculous. As Randall Jarrell famously said: "A poet is
a man who stands outside in thunderstorms hoping to be struck by
and if he is lucky he may be struck three or four times in a lifetime."
are becoming very popular. Most poets do not really hold these
in very high regard. I can certainly see how they represent what
can happen to poetry when it is written strictly for reading
What is your opinion on poetry slams? How do you think they will
affect poetry in the future? What do you tell your students about
but have little to do with poetry as I know it. One of my former
students here, Taylor Mali, has gone high in the slam world.
of American Poetry you make a strong case for poetry's movement
the page. In a sense you maintain that poetry is meant to be
on the page first, and that oral readings are second place in
Why do you feel this is so?
of mine to like books. The idea that one can open a book and hear
a voice is amazing to me. It doesnât require
so much heartrending "music" can be encompassed in a mere book will
amaze me, and this is why poetry, like prayer, will never die.
seems to maintain an almost completely opposite point of view. On
his Favorite Poem Project website, he is quoted several times in
defense as an "oral art," and maintains that it must always retain its
oral quality. What is your opinion on this?
I agree with Pinsky, though thereâs a famous tradeoff between the
qualities of a text and the imagistic potential. The two
are almost mutually exclusive. Most of the best imagistic poems
read aloud well. In the ideal poetry reading, the audience would
have studied in advance each poem being read. Since this is rare,
many poets, when they read aloud, will compensate in one way or
trading off literary values for performance values.
similarities between poetry and mathematics. Can you explain the
or similarity between poetry and math in a way the mathematically
and mathematics" analogy was simply to demonstrate, for those with some
mathematical sophistication, that both languages "measure" things.
on the Valparaiso University campus recently made the comment that you
single-handedly stopped the overuse/abuse of poems written in second
with one essay you wrote in which you basically said everyone ought to
"knock off the second-person thing." What do you think of that?
"The Abuse of the Second-Person Pronoun," was in response to a
fashion popular in the seventies; but what I said then still holds.
you to want to make poetry a principal part of your life and
When did you begin to write poetry? What evolutionary process did
your writing career go through from the beginning to the present
poetry as literature. But every serious student of poetry as
has wanted to make poetry; to get a job such as mine is
You have to win prizes and be in the right place at the right
I happened to win an important prize when I was a graduate student at
University of Colorado ÷ The Devins Award. At that
every college and university in the country was looking for poets as
creative writing boom happened. The Devins Award guaranteed me a
job teaching creative writing at the college level, a vocation which I
had always envisioned. I was lucky; for as my celebrated father
physicist) explained: "Many are called, few are chosen." Creative
Writing (like a career in, say, show-biz) is fearsomely competitive.
you then, and who inspires you today? What poets do you consider
to be particularly influential in American poetry ÷ in the past
Richard Hugo states that poets learn by first mimicking poets they
For an aspiring student of poetry, what poets do you strongly recommend
wrote a book about the poetry of Dick Hugo and a book about the poetry
of Bill Stafford, I canât say that either of them influenced my
Iâm influenced by particular poems by many different poets
÷ by the poems
which I know by heart, going back to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton,
Iâm influenced by The Tradition. My advice: if you have
part of a poem which you have studied, and if you like the poem a lot,
memorize the rest. This is what composers and conductors do
do you suggest to someone who wants to learn about the history of
for me is the famous one, The Anatomy of Criticism by Northrop
students changed over the years? Are they more or less
about creative writing in general? Has the quality of their
their perspective, or their subject matter changed greatly?
and students go. Occasionally, one will be a genius. The
of talent remains the same over the years.
a poem, how do you prioritize its content or form? How does the
take shape for you? Do you decide you are going to write a
couplets, or free verse first, or do you just sit down to write and see
what takes shape? How do you pick your subject matter? What
exercises (if you still have to do those at this point in your career)
do you use to "get yourself going?"
finds its way via a unique route. Iâve written fixed form
predominantly, "free verse" poems, though Eliot was right when he
that "no verse is free for the man who does a good job," by which he
that in every accomplished "free verse" poem one hears the echoes of
prosodies, especially iambic pentameter.
an agenda regarding content, although I guess youâd say that I
Wordsworth, a poet of memory: my way of working is to imagine some
which really happened, to relive it in my imagination until I may
forget where I am. Usually, at that moment of composition,
a particularly memorable way of phrasing something. Then
back later and more coolly play with language for the experience.
I donât use exercises to "get myself going." The route of
is sui generis ÷ absolutely unique.
been working on a longish poem about the paintings of Edward Hopper,
I decided to compare to grand opera, and Iâm bringing into the
poem a part
of an opera libretto by Paul Valery, called Cantate du Narcisse,
telling the story of Narcissus and Echo. I had translated the
from the French as an undergraduate at Oberlin, and suddenly, over 30
later, writing about Hopper (who loved opera and who was quite
I can make use of my translation. I use Hopperâs famous
one example. As I said, every poemâs genesis is sui