Arthur Gregor: Expressing the Inexpressible.
Until now, when I've had the good fortune to come upon the work of Arthur Gregor, and I have to tell you I immediately and unhesitatingly welcome him to join my select and personally laurel-crowned few. Indeed few is a keyword here, for this poet writes for that category of readers whom Stendhal, via Shakespeare, addressed as "the happy few," the best, the highest, the most exigent, the most appreciative. It is perhaps significant in our day that elite has become a derogatory term for some people, and so much the worse for them. Gregor is a species of Rilkean poet examining his sensitivities in spite of, but in the context of, an insensitive world. His oeuvre is not aimed at any majority which wallows in bebop, rap, beatnik teachings of how any bland words scribbled on the back of an envelope constitute poetry, nor for that matter at Academia, though the ivory tower could surely have field days explicating his work. Gregor's poetry at its best is as carefully wrought as a Mozart quartet, a silver saltcellar by Cellini, a Bach fugue - in short, is Shakespeare's "caviar for the general."Interview
(c) 1999 Leslie Schenk
What attracted me most, at first, was the diamondlike clarity of fragments I came across: "The turmoil in the water is often in / the surface that is thin";1 "the bird seems not to move, / seems painted on the air."2 Such brilliant imagery seemed to me embedded in obscure circumambient ore, the obscurity not Gregor's but my own inadequacy at grasping underlying meanings upon first readings. But that which is immediately assimilable, I know from my love of music, is not necessarily of the greatest value. Whatever is expressed by Liszt's cascades of notes is soon exhausted, whereas two or three simply tinkled notes by Mozart can take almost as much art from the listener or interpreter to resuscitate as the art required to have composed them, and moreover last not only a lifetime but are forever new. So, by my reading them over and over again, poems by Gregor which at first seemed to me obscure became clearer and clearer until I realized that what he is doing is writing around what is intrinsically inexpressible, and the reader receives not so much a verbal message as an electric spark of recognition, precisely and specifically, of a message which cannot by itself be verbalized. I would submit this is an aim, and even more an achievement, of the very highest order: a heightening of awareness on the part of both writer and reader. The shortest example I can find is this final stanza of "Process of Recapturing":
The process of recapturing
is both this letdown and
this gain: you learn
what cannot be again, but that
the essence of what was -
if not its form - is in what is.3
"What on earth is he talking about?" I asked myself the first time around. But after several readings I understood what he meant by "recapturing," and felt what he meant by the whole. I still cannot satisfactorily spell out what he is talking about, but I feel it and know it, having somehow learned it. And now I find it difficult to believe I didn't grasp this illumination from the start.
Gregor was born in Vienna in 1923, and was already fluent in English when his family fled to America in September of 1939. By the late 1940s he was already publishing poems, and thereafter he contributed steadily to such periodicals as the New Yorker, The Nation, Sewanee Review, Southern Review, the New Republic, Esquire, Harper's, Commentary, Hudson Review, Kenyon Review, the Quarterly Review of Literature, Botteghe Oscure, New World Writing, et cetera. To date he has published ten books of his poetry,4 four of them by Doubleday, plus three books for children, a memoir,5 a novel,6 and three produced plays; and, to boot, many contemporary anthologies include his poems.
In 1984, after having spent several summers in Europe, Gregor bought a house smack in the center of France, where there was and still is a considerable anglophone community, and he has spent all his summers there ever since. Then in 1998 he decided to live permanently in France. He now has a small flat in Paris for winters, and spends the rest of the year down in the country just east of the Loire chateaux region.
I have made it my business to meet Gregor in Paris. We quickly hit it off, and he agreed to my interviewing him for WLT, which published part 5 of his undoubted masterpiece, "The Poem of Heaven Within,"7 in its Autumn 1988 issue, something of a feather in the journal's hat. The role of this work in its author's life and career may be compared to that of Four Quartets in Eliot's, where the fire and the rose are one, but most particularly in the awareness of something mysterious in our lives that is beyond rational explanation. In Gregor's usage, in that sequence and elsewhere, this something is not necessarily a carnal emotion, a godhead, a religion such as Christianity, or even a philosophico-religion such as Zen, with added glimmerings out of India, but perhaps all of these and more, intertwined in various ways. Love is such an abstruse and debased word that most of us hesitate to use it to cover this "something else" we are aware of; but Gregor gives it a new meaning, a meaning beyond any dictionary definition, in the last of his "Dichterliebe":
He carries no instrument but
moves through the night as if
a small harp hung across his chest.
All is silent about him, and yet
it is silence he seeks. To shed
his body, his body must be
received by love. He knows
that to know his body
it must be shed, and that
to know it is to see it
dissolve in love. This is
what music tells him,
what the marks of the wave in the sand tell him,
what the scent, the breath that rises when
the body lies exhausted and fulfilled,
when there is one last beat
and that one about to give out:
what love tells him.8
Prior to our interview, Gregor kindly lent me a portfolio of clippings relating to his career. One normally takes blurbs with a grain of salt, but these clippings were in fact complete book reviews in reputable journals from which blurbs were later extracted. They hit nails on their heads more accurately than I can possibly do.
Stanley Kunitz: "I have read these pages . . . several times and at each reading have discovered new depths and beauties for my reward. How elusive these poems are, as the spirit turns in them, and yet how replenishing."
Thomas Lask, New York Times: "Mr. Gregor's technique is unobtrusive. His craftsmanship always lies below the level of meaning, in the way a ship, her engines unheard by the man on the shore, glides effortlessly on the waters."
Josephine Jacobsen, The Nation: "Gregor's most impressive accomplishment is his ability to make the spiritual intensely apprehended by the senses."
Hayden Carruth: "The plight of human spirituality in this actual world, the special poignancy of our era of self-eroding values - these have been Arthur Gregor's poetic concerns for years. Now . . . the greatness of his vision becomes fully evident, fully controlled; it is as if the sublime, as Longinus defined it, had somehow become alive again in our time."
The New York Times Book Review: "Several critics have applauded Mr. Gregor for the dignity and spirituality of his verse, and these qualities are in ample evidence throughout."
James Finn Cotter, Hudson Review: "Echoes of Rilke's Duino Elegies and Eliot's Four Quartets can be found and comparisons made, but on its own merits this poem (the eighteen-part 'Poem of Heaven Within') joins the august company of great meditative verse."
Philip Dacey, Prairie Schooner: "Gregor is famous for his expression of the tension in man created by the opposing lures of the postlapsarian world and the absolute world of Otherness. . . . These poems can perhaps be read singly but they gain considerably from each other, like chapters of a narrative."
[And most cogently of all] Theodore Weiss: "I find the . . . long central poem 'The Poem of Heaven Within' a consummation of all that Arthur Gregor has stood for. A rhapsody, a fervent meditation, almost all of it delivered in one sustained breath, I am reminded of Stevens . . . Eliot . . . and behind them the spiritual reach of Dante. A poem so undeviating, so resolute, before its impulse and its purpose would be extraordinary at any time, but it is especially remarkable now when the daily and reductive hold sway."
At first sight, Arthur Gregor might be taken for any unassuming and therefore unprepossessing senior citizen sitting on a bench in Washington Square, feeding pigeons. As he warms to his subject, though, in his comfortable flat in the 7th Arrondissement of Paris, between the Esplanade des Invalides and the Champs de Mars, a passion visibly takes over until he becomes as illuminated as an Old Testament prophet, and his pitch becomes incantatory accordingly, some of his words almost visibly italicized. In what follows, he at times pounded the table between us to emphasize his beliefs about the art of poetry and the situation of poetry in America today. Pigeons would have flown away.
"What brought you to poetry in the first place?"
"Well, that's not easily pinpointed, but even as a very young child I had a sense of something marvelous and extraordinary. I already knew I was going to do something in the arts, not necessarily poetry. When we fled Austria and arrived in the States in 1939, I found myself in an environment totally alien to me. I clearly recall walking through the streets of Newark, New Jersey, which was not then what it has since become, with autumn leaves floating downwards all around me, and experiencing a distinct sense of rhythm that I felt I would one day have to put into words. My first year I had to work, for I was initially the only one in the family fluent in English, but having entered high school at around eighteen, I graduated after one year, and was encouraged to write poetry instead. I discovered T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and wrote more and more. I graduated college in 1945 and immediately got a job as an engineer, but that terminated a few months later. I joined a poetry workshop at New York's Jefferson School. In 1946 I did nothing other than write steadily, and I actually began to publish that same year. In 1948 I enrolled in a course taught by Horace Gregory, who told me, 'You are reaching way up.' Both courses were practically entirely directed toward me, above the heads of the other students."
"And these were the poems that led to your first book, Octavian Shooting Targets?"
"Not yet, but that came about quite quickly. At twenty-two my first published poem appeared in a weekly magazine still widely read in those days, The New Masses. The editor really took to my work, and he published a double-spread poem called 'Upon Looking at a Sketch at an Exhibit,' thoroughly influenced by Eliot, and later several other poems. The New Masses was politically committed."
"Did you ever get into trouble for appearing in it?"
"I don't know. Something happened when I returned from India in 1955. There was a knock on the door and the FBI came to see me. Why had I been to India? Had any communists approached me? Well, they hadn't, and that cleared things up, but I suppose some suspicion of my loyalties was recorded somewhere. Well, it was a communist journal, but widely read, especially in the 1930s. Most intellectuals were published there in those days. My first appearance in a major magazine was in the Saturday Review of Literature early in 1947, then Poetry awarded me its 'First Appearance Prize' and printed further poems later on, and about a dozen magazines accepted poems that same year. But when you ask what made me write poetry, deep inside myself I simply knew I had to and knew I was going to be doing just that."
"That early, did you have other models besides Eliot and Stevens?"
"In some ways William Carlos Williams, but I think basically the major model for me was Bach."
"How can Bach influence the wording of poetry? Unless perhaps in form."
"Form doesn't influence wording. Bach gave me what was there. What was in Bach was what I believed should be in art, in any meaningful expression."
"It's not easy to name. A very uplifting, deeply moving experience, a sense of something very beautiful being conveyed, something deeply human and stirring, not so much in an emotional sense as in some sense a recognition."
"Ah well, as I read through your poetry, I often feel that you do not hit nails on their heads so much as write around certain things. So that the effect on a reader is indeed a little bit like the effect of Bach on listeners: things are conveyed to them that you cannot - or certainly I cannot - define."
"I'm very glad you say that, because that's how I think it should be, and I hope this is conveyed in my work. What attracted me enormously to Stevens is that the element around which the poems revolve is never stated as such, but is present, present and strong, and if you read him enough you eventually see the thread that runs through all his work. It's not what is said but what the said implies that counts."
"This troubled me in my early reading because I sometimes tried to put a name to what you were talking about and I couldn't. Afterward, as I read more and more, I realized you were speaking about something numinous -"
"But available. Love for love."
"You can talk all around it with words like numinous and available, but you cannot say precisely what it is?"
"No, you cannot."
"It's not human love, it's not love to or from a god, it's -"
"It's certainly love."
"But not in the accepted definition of love. It's greater than that?"
"That's a big subject. To me there is really only one love. Love is expressed in many forms, but I think love itself is one solitary thing. Just as life is life, love is love. I think love is the greatest -"
"Yes, but are you speaking of love between two persons, are you speaking of love for a deity, or of that deity's love for mankind?"
"Love for love."
"Like the song we used to hear, 'Falling in Love with Love'?"
"Yes, it's perfectly legitimate. Love loves love. Whatever its expressions, aspects of it interest me enormously, and are touched upon in my poems. I think if one reads them attentively, one can come to see what I'm aiming for - it is hinted at so often - which doesn't mean it can be named as such. I must say, I know what the poems are about. I know what I'm aiming for. And it has been very hard to accomplish. One of the reasons I love Bach so much, also Stevens, is that I feel there is a deep, deep conviction behind everything, a certitude, an authority."
"Well, we're both speaking about the same thing, what the reader feels; but the trouble is that usually when I don't know what a poet is talking about, as in John Ashbery, it doesn't become poetry for me, whereas in your things if I don't know what you're talking about, it doesn't matter, because I still get a poetic message, I am moved, the artistic experience is transmitted."
"You may not know literally what I'm talking about, but you know what it is in a nonliteral sense."
"I couldn't possibly name it."
"But that's often true, if I may say so, of great poets, not that I put myself in their company. A truly great poet who intrigues me enormously in this way - because in a literal sense he is so clear - is Robert Frost, but at the same time his literal reality implies something totally beyond itself. He was an absolute master of that. If there is a problem with Wallace Stevens for some readers, it is because they cannot get into his work. In a literal sense it is not immediately accessible, whereas Frost in a literal sense is immediately accessible, a magnificent quality."
"I find that to get really inside your poetry I have to read each poem several times, which I think is a species of praise."
"Well, I don't want to be obscure."
"Obscurity is something else. In obscurity you have no reaction at all."
"Or you wouldn't know where the poet is going, which I hope does not apply to me. I always direct a poem to this reference for which there is no word."
"I did feel, between your first book and the books gleaned for Selected Poems, there has been an almost tangible shift, something like a simplification of language but not a simplification of thought. To the contrary. In some ways I felt you were moving forward, but in other ways I wondered whether something was being lost, perhaps because I was so completely knocked out by the early poems."
"Oh, you were just dazzled by my imagery."
"That was not enough for me, you see."
"Could you talk about that a little bit, please?"
"As I mentioned a moment ago, an inner certitude was extremely significant to me from the start, and I knew I had to achieve it, but I didn't know how to bring it about, because I lacked the experience, or a full-enough recognition of it. My second book was Declensions of a Refrain, published in 1957, written almost immediately after I returned from a highly meaningful journey to India, without which what followed couldn't have happened, because it gave me precisely the experience of what I had always somehow deeply believed in. If you're going to ask me what it is, I can't even hint at it, but it is essentially a love of the living reality, whatever that is."
"And how did this come about in India?"
"I really can't tell you. But it happened. I had been vaguely interested in existentialism, like everyone else in the early 1950s, when all sorts of movements became modish in New York. D. T. Suzuki, the Zen spokesman, gave lectures and I went to those, and I went to hear Krishnamurthy; but India or Vedanta I knew nothing about. There is no school or system as such that interests me. But one day I went to see Albert Finney in Luther, the play. I was twenty-seven or so, and I remember walking through the East Side, which seemed ever so desolate to me, even though the East Side was supposedly the choicest part of town. The Third Avenue El was still running, with lined-up bars below it. After seeing that play, I said to myself, 'If there's anywhere or anyone on this earth who represents the conviction, the commitment, the certitude, the inner experience that Luther obviously must have had, I would crawl there on my hands and knees.' And what I had deeply needed and desired for my work actually came to me in India - no, don't ask how - but it was my need to master poetry that made me seek the source of authority. This was between my first and second book. And from then on it was really work, work, work. As you know, I've published a lot, but the amount of work I have not published is many more times the amount I have published, because it took a ong time for me to attain the required technical facility to deal with what I wanted to deal with."
"How would you describe the effect your Indian sojourn had on your writing?"
"An enormous effect. My second book was technically weak, but technically I came into my own with my third and fourth books, Basic Movements in 1966 and Figure in the Door in 1968. Since I had been to India in the mid-1950s, you can see it took me years to achieve the technical approach that enabled me to say what I wanted to say. In a word, the turning point was my experiencing exactly that which I somehow hoped to experience and which in myself I always knew existed."
"So that it was a confirmation of a suspicion?"
"Absolutely. And what I experienced was myself."
"Have your best poems been published, or are they gathering dust in a drawer somewhere?"
"Oh, the best have been published. The others were preparatory to my assimilating what I experienced, what I came to know, that which was totally abstract. Well, you can't write abstract poetry. I have been accused of being too abstract, but I don't believe I am. The great challenge is to translate something ultimately abstract into available terms and thereby make it available."
"As far as I've read in your work to date - and I'm not yet up with the latest things - your 'Poem of Heaven Within' seems to me your masterpiece. Would you call this a summation of that illuminating experience of yours?"
"Yes, definitely, I would. And it's definitely my most important poem."
"I have to tell you it's not easy to read; in fact, it's quite difficult to read."
"But it's technically dazzling, if I may say so. And it's full of essence. But it took me forty years to be able to write that poem."
"You were at what age when you wrote it?"
"Sixty. And that poem was written here in France. It was in Secret Citizen, 1989. I've always had a very strong feeling about home or homesickness, which is hardly novel. That's something certain poets are burdened with. Novalis, whom Musil quotes in his extraordinary [novel] Man Without Qualities, says philosophy is nothing but homesickness. Or is it Heidegger? Anyway, maybe I for one lost my sense of homeness when we had to flee from Vienna around the time I was fifteen. I think in all of us there's a homesickness for something."
"In other words, the U.S. did not become a second home for you?"
"Second home, yes, but only a second home. I never felt deeply at home there."
"And sixty years after arriving in the States, you now reside in France?"
"I've often had dreams on the subject of home, and one night I dreamed I was in an Austrian countryside, a place I used to go to when I was very young. And the morning after that dream, my great friend, Hanna Axmann-Rezzori, whom I'd been visiting regularly in the Loire Valley since 1975 - and this was in 1983 - telephoned to say there was a little house for sale down there, would I be interested? I bought the house, though it was in horrible condition, redid it, and when I went back in 1984, the first year I could spend a full summer there, that was where 'The Poem of Heaven Within' was written. The odd thing was that where my dream took place was in the Austrian province called Burgenland, meaning the land of castles, and the Loire Valley is of course another land of castles."
"Was that before you wrote the lines 'Thirty years of this and nothing has changed. . . . Thirty years and I am not at home in this'?"
"I wrote that in California."
"Before you bought the house in France?"
"Because that something still missing had to do with the U.S. not becoming a real home for you?"
"Absolutely. The U.S. as a non-home is a very big subject, which I know all too much about and experienced all too thoroughly - why it hasn't evolved, and so on. Native-born Americans have said it all along, Whitman for one, and Emerson too addresses the question -"
"Why America hasn't transformed itself into an atmosphere where the spirit is at home. That's why so many of us run away. It explains why France and Paris had an enormous colony of American writers in the twenties, why Pound established himself in Europe, Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and earlier than that Henry James, Edith Wharton."
"And again at Saint-Germain-des-Pres in the late 1940s."
"And the reason is that the spirit is simply not at home in the USA."
"And how does this manifest itself?"
"If the spirit is at home, you have a sense of unity, man united with creation, man linked with the universe. Kenneth Clark describes the period of Saint Francis as a love that enlists and transforms the forces of nature. That's a very significant statement. Emerson too speaks a great deal about man having to absorb nature in himself. Another principle in our tradition is that man is God's co-worker, which makes for yet another sense of unity in the human reality."
"Absorb nature rather than trample it down to make money out of it?"
"Absolutely. Why do we love the French countryside so much if it isn't because man has husbanded this land, has loved it, has lived with it, has reverence for it? He wouldn't harm it; it does nothing but good for him. I mean that is France, that is the French countryside."
"Well, even inside Paris, you constantly see market baskets filled with flowers. Everybody goes home with flowers."
"Right, and I think the pope said something in New York City, which I can't quote exactly, 'You've created this magnificent city, now you have to humanize it.'"
"Well, to get back to what happens when you are creating new poems, how do you know you have a new poem coming to you? What's the process?"
"It's very mysterious. Something originates within and drives you from within. I've never forced myself to write. I've written because I've felt impelled to do it. Less so nowadays."
"Does a title come to you, or words in a certain order?"
"I'm essentially a lyric poet, but in two ways. One is the shorter poem, which I love for the form. I love giving it form. And then there are the long poems I need to write in order to develop larger themes. The long poems come with an opening line and then just go on."
"Not necessarily the title?"
"No. For example, the title 'The Unworldliness That He Creates'9 didn't come to me beforehand. The phrase happens toward the end of the poem, and I thought it would make a good title. But the first line came to me in Portugal: 'Alien in environments he has come to for the first time / he is nevertheless at home.' Another line that came to me before the title, 'Magician,' in my latest book, The River Serpent: 'Out of dim reaches he rises,' a rather charged line, I think. Some lines just come."
"Do you revise, revise, revise?"
"How do you know when a poem is finished? You've heard what Valery said? 'You never finish a poem, you abandon it'."
"No, Auden said that."
"Then Auden took it from Valery."
"Of course it's never finished. But you do reach a point when you feel you can't do any more and can't improve on it. Many poems I've simply given up on because I couldn't get to where I would have liked them to go."
"Years later, do you ever need to revise a poem you thought was finished?"
"Oh yes. One day I will want to put together a more or less Collected Poems and then I'll be doing some revising, but not very much."
"Collected or Selected?"
"I don't know yet. Well, it won't be Collected, because I've published poems I would not now include. I mean to collect work I wish to keep."
"Selected then. How have contemporary poets taken your work, with what reactions?"
"I've had better reactions from the older than from the younger generation. I'm sorry I never met Wallace Stevens, but I met his daughter once, when I was in my late twenties. Holly was introduced to me at a cocktail party without my knowing she was Stevens's daughter, and she said to me 'You're a poet, aren't you?' I said 'Yes, I write poetry,' and she said 'I have something to say to you that should please you.' I said 'What?' 'Well, my father came to me with a magazine in which you had some poems, and he said to me, "Watch this man".' Also, I met Marianne Moore when I was an editor at Macmillan responsible for publication of her Collected Poems, and I had a very positive response from her. Look, I was widely published in those days, when most magazine editors were my contemporaries. They published over two hundred of my poems. The young have been kind and I think there is a recognition of the quality of my work, but I'm not so sure there's an acceptance of its essence. Things in America can be popular and appreciated and lauded for a short time, but obsolescence sets in, and the public clamors for something new, forgetting 'old' things."
"Do you have as high a percentage of acceptances among your submissions as you used to, or are they rarer nowadays?"
"Well, I don't send out as much now. I think I'm still held in firm regard, really because of the quality of the work itself, and there are some contemporary poets like Hayden Carruth, James Dickey, and many others who have written very appreciatively about my work. But I am not part of any mainstream, not part of any school, not part of any clique or group -"
"I've never understood how a poet, by the nature of his calling the most individualistic thing you can be, can belong to a school or clique."
"But it has happened. Look at what Robert Bly created in the early sixties. Today there is one younger poet I do feel a sense of identity with, and I think he's very good indeed: Charles Wright. He now has a substantial reputation in America, and he's a poet who touches the spirit. Ashbery, whom you mentioned before, knows what it's all about; he knows what poetry can do and should do, but he will not commit himself to the intense direction that poets like Hart Crane and Stevens took, to get to the imperceptible, to get at the unsayable, to come out and try to say it, to praise it, to be in league with it, to be the spokesman for the unsayable. He won't do it because the age would not accept it. The age is cynical, the age is antispiritual, the age is materialistic, the age is ego-oriented, the age dismisses value. Helen Vendler says she's not interested in meaning!"
"Ah well, she happens to be my bete noire."
"All right, but she's now very important."
"But that's an evanescent importance."
"Look, Leslie, there has been a change in America. Take somebody like Robert Lowell, a very influential figure. He started out as a highly spiritually oriented poet, and then he gave all that up. He was influenced by the Russian poets who came over to America and by what Ginsberg did. Lowell's book Life Studies was wonderful, but it was also a complete turnabout. A word that applies to poetry like no other art is transcendence. Poets like Hart Crane, Stevens, and my great friend Jean Garrigue were poets who took language toward that which language can only imply but never express, and that's transcendence. We have a transcendent reality which resides deep inside ourselves, and we know when we're in its presence and we also know when we're not. Now, our age is not in its presence. America is totally commercialized and materialistic, as reflected even in its poetry today, but has not always been. All the great poets of our century were born in the latter part of the last century, came to maturity around the time of the First World War, and they were without exception poets with great vision, with great transcendent illuminations. This
is true of Frost, Pound, Marianne Moore, even of William Carlos Williams. This is not true of a poet whom you like and I absolutely understand why, E. E. Cummings, who concerns himself with worldly matters. His heart is in the right place, all right; he's against hypocrisy and so on, but his is not a poetry that in itself tries to illuminate something, which was the great tradition in American poetry until the 1950s."
"Don't you think it's very peculiar that although poetry has received more encouragement since the 1950s than it had ever received before, hundreds of prizes, poetry magazines, creative writing courses all over the country, there is an awful lot of poetry being published that is simply not worth reading?"
"But there's not much of an audience."
"But some of the younger poets do not even know good English."
"They don't know good English, they don't have a subject, and they don't have a direction. The so-called confessionalism of the 1950s, brought on by Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, was a turning away from looking at a god within to a disturbed ego within."
"It's masturbatory; it's examining your own navel."
"Frost made a wonderful remark. He said, 'Griefs, yes. Grievances, no.' And it has become mostly grievances."
"And petty. Traditionally, it has been the function of art to provide an opposition to established societal values if those are against the best of human interests. Stevens said something like, 'In an age of disbelief, man must fall back on his own fundamental glory, and from it create a style of bearing himself in reality.' Since Rothko and Roethke, our artists and poets (except for the rare exceptions like Charles Wright) have not lived up to this grave responsibility and obligation. They have simply neglected or forgotten that the source of art and dedication is inwardness."
"If there's not much of a market for them, as you say, can it be because there's not much to be found in many of today's poems? Yet people are still reading Frost, still reading Whitman, still reading Shakespeare like mad, more than ever even."
"And always will. And Emily Dickinson and Rilke."
"What do you think is going to happen with the Beats."
"Oh, that's finished. There's nothing to go back to. Look, the poem has to live on the page, nowhere else."
"You mean in the mind of the reader."
"Of course, but it gets into the mind of the reader through the page. I mean the obligation of the poet is to make it lasting, make it solid. When I think of Rilke, I think of a poet who on the one hand was ever so solid, ever so firm in his form, and yet his verse flowed like water. Both aspects have to be there."
"You can still read Rilke in the original German? In translation he's - "
"Any poet in translation is -"
"Except Cavafy. Cavafy still works."
"Yes, it's amazing. Except that we don't know what he's really like in the original, and his use of Greek is supposedly marvelous. We get none of that from translations of Rilke either, although his use of German is extraordinary. Look at the mother of all American poetry, Emily Dickinson. She did something with the American language, although there's not that big a difference between literate American and British English. There really is a certain something about American speech, witness Robert Frost, but which Emily Dickinson was the first to grab or almost to define. She is read now more than ever, yet she published only four poems in her lifetime, and those anonymously. Only that which has inner value and is beautifully expressed will be read and read and read."
"I can read Williams, but wasn't his influence perhaps nefarious?"
"His influence has not been good. He himself was a poet who never gave up, never tried to get away from the essential demands of great poetry. But he is misread and misused, as is Auden."
"How is Auden misused?"
"Well, Auden is praised because he brought everything down to earth, down to quotidian existence. This suited the age, and still suits the age. But his deeper interests are ignored, rarely touched upon. You can't praise him only because he deals with ordinary subjects."
"One difference between him and many poets today was his delight in language, whereas the latter seem to be merely conversing over a backyard fence."
"Well, Auden was one of the great talents, and indeed maybe he was almost too talented. He could spin out poems in masterful fashion with an extreme facility. They just spilled out of him."
"Oh, I think he worked at it."
"Of course he worked at it, but you know there is such a thing as a facility for forms. He had a tremendous facility for traditional forms."
"But isn't negligence of forms making new poems less than they used to be?"
"The revolution that came about through Pound and Eliot is for me the basic foundation of the best in American poetry, and that revolution came about because forms were hitherto used religiously but with empty, sloppy language. Their vers libre came from French poetry, from Laforgue in particular. But there's no such thing as free verse, really. It's called that because it doesn't comply with strict conventional forms. What happens in free verse and which is so demanding and liberating and such a great challenge is precisely that you have to give each poem its own form, but a form has to be there. A poet lets his material dictate the form. That was my initial struggle for years."
"But nowadays there is usually no form whatever, there's practically nothing there, just words dripped onto a page a la Jackson Pollock or prose cut into strips and piled one on top of the other. True, something sometimes happens, but not much."
"The word properly used is form."
"The word. The word properly used is form."
"I see. And do you think your achievements in this field are going to be remembered? You were publishing widely, but the last few years less so."
"I haven't written as much the last few years, but still one appeared in Boulevard and another in Ploughshares recently, one in The Nation just now, and another in the Paris Review soon. My latest book came out in late 1994, and, well, perhaps ten books of poems are really enough."
"You've had a great deal of renown, but some people today seem not to have heard of you, people who would normally be expected to have done so."
"Americans of my generation certainly heard of me. But that's what happens in America. Once-celebrated artists are quickly pushed aside, and new ones come along and don't want to know anything about you. So my fate in that regard is the same as everybody else's. But anyone of my generation writing poetry certainly knew about me. There is no continuity in America in that sense."
"You've spoken of the revolution by Pound and Eliot, but surely they were building on tradition?"
"And how! They went to tradition in order to revise it, to revitalize it."
"Yes, but as a continuation of tradition with its own zigs and zags, whereas there are people who write as though they don't know there ever was a tradition, let alone what that tradition was."
"That's right. But in poetry the great modern tradition utilizes the language of the age, the tone of the age. The modern tradition established by Pound, Eliot, Williams, Moore, followed by that superb poet Elizabeth Bishop, was based on fresh and new language, in a tone appropriate to our age, but the forms were there. Look at any poem by Marianne Moore. The form is almost too much. It's almost off-putting, it's so strict. As I've said, the word is form, but most poets today don't use words in the way Dickinson or Eliot or Frost used words. The word has to reverberate in order to give off what the word contains."
"I've seen a contemporary poem which began with like followed by a comma."
"I'm not surprised."
"Does this have to do with the celebrated 'dumbing down' of America, which, by the way, the whole world is busily imitating?"
"Probably, but that's a complex subject, because the other side of it is that great art has been made available to the masses in a way it never had before, and that has enormous importance."
"Indeed. Think how many people can hear Bach today compared to -"
"Exactly, and look how many great pianists are playing today, and the richness in all the performing arts. We can't tell yet, but I think all of this in time may prove very positive, the arts spreading out as they are. Right now we're suffering from how spread-out it is, which implies a leveling, but in time it may be different. When I was a child in Vienna, if you mentioned Hofmannsthal's name, any concierge would know who he was, not necessarily the work but they respected the name, an important phenomenon. And maybe that will happen again."
"Ah, but that's what I'm worried about. Young people today seem to me to know nothing except 'today.' When I joined the American colony at Saint-Germain-des-Pres, we were all aware of what had happened in poetry and fiction in previous generations. That was what we talked about at the sidewalk cafes. I feel young people today don't know, let alone care about the past."
"Because there isn't a past for them. That's the problem in America: who pays attention to the past?"
"Then how can what you just predicted ever come about?"
"We can't know, but it might. Maybe some geniuses will come along -"
"Because there are always reactions? Maybe one day tomorrow's youth will react against today's youth and return to forms and even rhyme, who knows?"
"Right now things are very peculiar. What gets all the awards and praises is a poetry that is unintelligible. I won't mention names, but there are poets who have been given Pulitzer Prizes and yet their poems are incomprehensible to any reader who loves Frost and gets something out of him."
"Some of this depends on how you define poetry, and I would not know how to do that, but inter alia it is certainly a heightened use of language. An emotion is transmitted or stimulated or created in the reader by the poet. Well, some poems scattered throughout our little magazines today have nothing to do with that."
"Language has to do with precision. Precision has to do with thought. Thought has to do with subject. And all of that has to do with one's relationship to oneself. This doesn't exist at the moment with the people you are talking about, whose poetry offends you, and rightly so: they don't have this sort of connection with things. That's a symptom of the times, but that will change, I'm absolutely convinced. One of the greatest periods in world poetry happened in America with the coming of the modern tradition and all its great masters. Above all, Eliot influenced poetry around the world. Then we had a generation of poets, to which I belong, who were still very good technically, still serious and so on. Now I don't know where it's going with the Beats having demolished things. And there's an obscure new academicism, too. That's happening not only in poetry but in the other arts. There's a certain kind of music being written which can appeal only to people who are composers themselves or part of an academy. But I am not a pessimist, and I think great art will always exist; great artists will always be with us, and art will not be killed."
"Many youngsters today think they liberate poetry by peppering it with scatology, dirty words -"
"There's no interest in any of that. There will always be some solid poets like Charles Wright, but there won't be many. Right now, everybody thinks it's easy to be a poet, which is absurd. I have never performed what is required of 'successful' poets today, which is to promote myself, create a public for my poems. I've done only what I felt I had to do, which was do my work and send it out and get it published. But when I recently gave some readings in New York, I must say the response was most rewarding, most touching."
"When was that?"
"Two or three years ago. Even in an unflattering review of my memoir in the New York Times, the reviewer started by saying, 'Arthur Gregor has a considerable following . . .'"
"Are your books still in print?"
"The Sheep Meadow books are."
"And the Doubleday?"
"Doubleday never keeps books in print very long. Those went out of print within two or three years. The whole poetry situation has changed. When I was in publishing in the 1960s, there were many small but good publishing houses. They were not what we now call small publishers, but they all published poetry, in those days still a highly confined reality. There weren't many people writing it and no creative writing courses."
"Do you think writing poetry can be taught?"
"No. Well, the forms, the techniques can be dealt with, yes; you can describe the difference between a sonnet and a sestina or a villanelle."
"But all that can be learned by yourself. All you have to do is open a book."
"Meanwhile, Archibald MacLeish said, 'A poem should not mean, but be'."
"Well, that could be applied to your poetry, no? Look at 'Magician'."
"I often treat that lack of spiritual presence in the American reality, and there is in America a strange school of thought, to which John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara belong, aiming to knock down, to tear down what might be considered such lofty considerations."
"Frank O'Hara did have his moments, it seems to me. - And now, how about summing up your aspirations: what you have tried to do and what you would like still to do, a kind of general outlook on your oeuvre?"
"Well, I think I have certainly tried to embody a sense of what the human heart is all about, and I don't mean sentimentality. I've always wanted to move readers. An enlightening experience for me is still today to go to a performance of music or an opera I love and see how people are moved by it, and this moves me in turn. I want people to say 'Yes, how really lovely, how beautiful!' That's not what poets want right now, but it's what I've been after, and whether or not I've achieved it is not for me to say. If I have written poems I no longer like and wouldn't reprint, still others, I think, hold up well and will stand on their own."
"I find fewer images in your later work, though there are still some: 'events that astonish us because they are foreknown,' 'a death announced but not an heir,' 'the unseen throbbing like air following a burst of bells.' These can be compared favorably to anything in your earlier work."
"Those are from 'The Poem of Heaven Within,' the very long poem I wrote in one stretch of a month or so, in eighteen parts. At one point I thought I had finished it, and then I sat beside the waters of the Loire and a further part just came to me, quite different stylistically. And then I knew it was really finished. One cannot say I've written about America in a visual sense, because I don't think America's visual reality stirs the imagination. Certainly New York doesn't. But I have written a lot about what is missing in America, as in an even longer poem, 'Embodiment,' in three sections - 'Nearness,' 'Departures,' 'Return' - plus a 'Coda.' Even from those titles you get the idea. But if there are fewer extractable images in my later poems, it's because I'm just not interested in being splashy with imagery. My first book was a discovery of and a fascination with juxtapositions of imagery."
"Can it be you've been influenced by some contemporaries, in that your language has become less heightened and more conversational?"
"It may be. When you've written ten books and you have a subject, which I know I have, and have approached it in various ways, possibly it's natural that things become more colloquial; but my subject matter has not become colloquial. All I'm interested in is a well-made poem that strikes a chord, and I would like that chord to move people, to touch something familiar inside them. That too is part of the challenge of art, to touch the deeply familiar."
"E. M. Forster said Proust is constantly telling you things you already knew but you didn't know you knew."
"Frost does the same thing."
"As a last word, I have to tell you, so does Arthur Gregor."10
1 From "The Calm," in Figure in the Door.
2 From "Reply to a Friend in New England," in Figure in the Door.
3 In The Past Now.
4 A complete list of Arthur Gregor's published books of poetry:
Octavian Shooting Targets, New York, Dodd Mead, 1954.
Declensions of a Refrain, Poetry London/New York Books, 1957.
Basic Movements, New York, Gyre, 1957.
Figure in the Door, Garden City (N.Y.), Doubleday, 1968.
A Bed by the Sea, Doubleday, 1970.
Selected Poems, Doubleday, 1971.
The Past Now, Doubleday, 1975.
Embodiment and Other Poems, Riverdale (N.Y.), Sheep Meadow, 1982.
Secret Citizen, Sheep Meadow, 1989.
The River Serpent and Other Poems, Sheep Meadow, 1994.
5 A Longing in the Land, New York, Schocken, 1983.
6 Parallel Lives, unpublished.
7 The lead poem in Secret Citizen.
8 In A Bed by the Sea.
9 In Figure in the Door.
10 Arthur Gregor's manuscript collections: Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University; Berg Collection, New York Public Library.
Leslie Schenk resumed his writing career in late 1993 after a long
hiatus in United Nations service around the world. To date, he has had over seventy short pieces accepted for publication in the U.S. and the U.K., including several essays and book reviews in WLT. Five book- length works, including the novels Saint-Germain-des-Pres and Cory O'Lanus for President!, are due out in early 2000.
RELATED ARTICLE: Spirits, Dancing
Having put yourself on the way,
it is inevitable that you
should reach here. If in
your thoughts you've had
the notion of reward
as you fought to come this far,
banish them. And,
as penalty for entering,
shed the attitudes of worldly men
regarding us and this
celestial sphere where now
your spirit begs to enter.
From the extremity
to which you've come, you see
us sway as in a dance.
It is no sign that we
are happy. To be happy
is being a step removed
from happiness. Which we
never are. Nor are we sad.
Sorrow is man in the world,
and we, the total expression
and awareness of his state,
What seems to you,
who were taught to feel
we must fulfill
where the world has failed,
must turn to good the bad,
must invoke permanence
for material whose law
and will it is to die -
what seems to you, driven here
by urgency, a dance
is nothing but the pain in the world
which we like a mirror contain.
To sway is to depart
as branches from a stem,
as shadows from foliage
thick and dark -
and to depart is what is pain.
What you must know before
you enter this domain
and learn the ways of which
we shall not speak is this
first truth of what you are:
a sorrow, a sorrow
begging for home. Or you
would not have come this far.
- Arthur Gregor
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|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2000|
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