Rhyme and Reason
Katha Pollitt’s debut collection, Antarctic Traveller, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry in 1982. She was also awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship for her poetry. This June, Random House will publish The Mind-Body Problem, Pollitt’s first collection in twenty-seven years. In addition to her poetry, Pollitt is an award-winning critic, columnist and essayist. Adam Gopnik spoke with Pollitt about her poetical and political selves, her writing process and the poets she most admires.
AG: You write frequently, not to say fluently, about politics and public life. But your admirers wait eagerly for your poems to appear, and mourn the spaces between their appearances. (At least one poem in this collection I have carried back and forth, in typescript – true typescript, to date it! – across several oceans and decades.) Any rhyme, or reason, to this difference between rhyme and reason? Is there a Political Pollitt and a Poetic Pollitt, or a Charismatic Katha and a Cloistered Katha? And do your personal essays, like in your 2007 collection Learning To Drive, both ruminative and pointed, occupy the middle ground? Or did they take up some of the poetic space for a while?
KP: If I knew the deep and serious answer to that question, I would probably have published a lot more books. For me, poetry and politics come from different places most of the time. I don't think of columns and articles, or indeed prose generally, as requiring the kind of focus on the word that poetry does – the individual word, in all its connotations and denotations, its sound, its colour, its relation to the other words, the echoes it sets up, the multiple meanings. To me, that’s what poetry is about. Words in a column, however elegant, clever or pungent, are much more functional. If the draft comes out too long for the space, you cut it and five minutes later you may not even remember what you took out. If it’s too short, you put in another example or a quotation from your research. For me, each poem comes in its own form, even if it’s a traditional form like a sonnet. And the relation to the reader is very different from political writing. Can you imagine Yeats’s editor saying, ‘Bill, you need to remind the reader who Fergus is?’
There is not a lot of explicitly political poetry that I love. Berthold Brecht would be an exception. Lowell wrote some great political poems, and, of course, Auden. Adrienne Rich has written political poems that are original and profound, and others that seem to me not so interesting as writing. Mostly, I think that if you can say it in an article, or a leaflet, or a letter, or an email, then do so! It’s not going to make much of a poem.
In the personal essays I had more fun with voice, tone, reversals of expectation and colourings of feeling than I could have in a column. I could leave a lot of things open and ambivalent – some people really didn’t like that! One thing I did that was sort of like writing a poem was to see how much space I could put between one thought and the next, one sentence and the next. How much I could leave out and still tell the story.
More deeply, your political writing is full of sane, progressive prescriptions and programmes – sound advice, bracing truths and briny tossings. But your poems seem at least to say, to this reader, that time is relentless, and life therefore relentlessly sad, and that all, if not for naught, is not for much: ‘So what good is it? Let’s be sad, wear melancholy like an old brown sweater…’ A couple of your poems suggest that the most we can hope for is a few small pleasures saved and savoured. Is it possible to be both practical-minded and poetic? Is the authority of sadness in your poetry at all at odds, in your own mind, with the essential optimism of your political writing? If life is this sad, does it really matter if Democrats get elected? (A version of this question, asked to yourself, is, I suppose, at the heart of ‘Trying to Write a Poem Against the War’.)
Both aspects – the hope and the sadness – are true. We could have a much better world, country, way of life, although I’m not sure the Democrats are going to get us too far along the way there. Think of what people go through when they are sick and have no health insurance, when they can’t afford college, when they are raped or abused or unjustly imprisoned or have no way to make a decent living or are caught in war. There are so many wrongs we can do something about, that other countries have, in fact, gotten much farther with than we have. But even if tomorrow America turned into the somewhat idealized Scandinavia that Nation readers would love to live in, there would still be the central human predicament. Not just death, decay, the passing of beauty, unrequited love, unrealized ambitions and all that, but the poor fit between human consciousness, and, well, I don’t exactly know what to call it – reality? We want life to have more meaning than it actually possesses – that is the human tragedy, or maybe I should say tragicomedy. That’s what my poem ‘Signs and Portents’ is about: the ways we try to impose patterns on essentially random experience, whether it’s seeing faces in the wallpaper, or constellations in the stars, or God talking to us, when, really, it’s just us talking to him.
Some of your lines have a combination of ease and power, simplicity and conclusiveness, that equal Larkin. For example, your observation in ‘Old’ that ‘Death can’t help but look friendly / when all of your friends live there’; or the girl in ‘Silent Letter’, ‘wondering how to write so that what she writes / stays written’. The poems, in other words, seem wonderfully easy to read; are they, therefore, horribly hard to write? (And if you could say something about the wonderful scheme of the wrs in ‘Silent Letter’.)
I never know how long a poem is going to take. Some I’ve fiddled with for months or even years. ( And then there are those lumpish, sluggish, confused ones that lie there muttering in draft after draft till I give up on them). Every now and then, one takes just an hour or two, and why, I’d like to know, doesn’t that happen more often? What am I doing wrong the rest of the time? When a poem is finished I often think, well, that wasn’t so complicated, was it? Why all that fussing and fuming? Perhaps my original idea was something I barely understood, and so could not express, and the process of writing is basically figuring out what I mean.
‘Silent Letter’ is a poem about my daughter, who is also a writer and goes through some of these same struggles. It looks in a somewhat humorous way at a curious fact about English, which is how many words that begin with wr contain the idea of effort, struggle, strenuousness: writhe, wriggle, wrack. And, of course, write. The big silent struggle that must not appear on the page.
Larkin again. I know that you admire him, and hear echoes of Larkin in your work, which often seems Larkinian in ambition, and in achievement. How did a reactionary Englishman become a north star for a radical American?
Well, I love Milton too, the grand old patriarch of english poetry, and Hopkins, the tortured Catholic, although I’m not a Christian. A poet’s official ideology is less important to me than his or her imaginative and emotional qualities, the vision that exists at a deeper level and what they do with language. What I love about Larkin is his blend of qualities that don’t usually go together: melancholy and humour, rage and stoicism, obscenity and purity, pathos and distance. It’s in his prosody, too: the apparent plainness of the diction heightened by form and startling images. He is simultaneously anti-‘poetic’ and poetic. Larkin is never doing just one thing in a poem, either verbally or emotionally. He’s always going after both the traditional and the contemporary. He’s always asking, in the great making and unmaking that is modernity, what survives? That’s not a question with a left or right. And often his answer is quite ambiguous. Take ‘High Windows’, which is about the unravelling of sexual constraints over the course of his lifetime and starts with typical Larkinian comical-hostile obscenity: ‘When I see a couple of kids / And guess he’s fucking her and she’s / taking pills or wearing a diaphragm’. You can’t get more colloquial than that! But at the end of the poem, he says ‘Rather than words comes the thought of high windows’ and the endless blue sky, which he evokes in the purest language. Is that an image of ecstasy and freedom? Blankness and emptiness? Oneness with the infinite? The ultimate futility of human existence? Maybe all that, and more.
Larkin’s reputation was badly served by Andrew Motion’s biography, entertaining as it was, which let everybody dump on him as a racist womanizing Thatcherite full of hatred and spite. But only a few poems seem written by that person, so I just put them aside. I think there’s a lot of self-awareness in the poems that Larkin doesn’t get credit for. Again and again, in ‘Dockery and Son’, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, ‘Aubade’ and many other poems he asks, why can’t I do the ordinary human things – marriage, children, being part of a community, accepting death, just getting on with life – that seem so easy for other people? What is the matter with me?
I notice , in some of what I take, perhaps wrongly, to be newer poems , a kind of minimalism, almost Japanese, Issa-like.
I like restraint in poetry – suggesting by implication, the sense of feeling simultaneously withheld and present, diffused throughout the poem like droplets of water in mist. I’ve always been drawn to Eliot’s rather mysterious notion of the ‘objective correlative’, which I interpret as the thing out there that represents and expresses what is within. Sometimes you can do that very simply, which gives that ‘Japanese’ effect of using nature to evoke something else. I’m not that interested in nature for its own sake.
Much of your prose-work has been taken up with feminism, its triumphs and discontents. (Years ago, you lectured me, quite rightly, for referring to women poets as ‘poetesses’.) But are there specifically women poets who matter a lot to you? Is there a tradition to claim , or would you not want to?
Wislawa Szymborska is probably my favourite contemporary poet. She has that Eastern European disabused sceptical humour, that bittersweetness I want for my own poems. She takes on the largest subjects and brings them right down into daily life. Elizabeth Bishop was my teacher, and I love her poems – well, everybody does. It’s interesting that of that generation – Lowell, Jarrell, Roethke, Berryman – she is the one who is now most discussed and read and taught. I don’t think during the lifetimes of these poets it looked like their posthumous reputations would turn out the way they have. So far. Bishop was very opposed to the idea of a female tradition, or of being grouped with women poets. She wouldn’t let her work appear in all-women anthologies. Sylvia Plath, on the other hand, whose poems I also love, very much measured herself against other women poets, whom she saw mostly as rivals. I think women poets definitely have some things in common – their experiences as women, their position in the ‘marketplace’ of poetry, the way certain subjects or stances are controversial in women’s writing but not in men’s. But that is not the same as a self-conscious poetic tradition. It’s not like, say, being an Irish poet. A woman poet doesn’t have to wrestle with the legacy of, say, Emily Dickinson, the way an Irish poet, even today, has to confront, or get around, Yeats. I admire a lot of women poets who to me seem too different to place under the same umbrella – Sharon Olds and Kay Ryan, for instance.
Your essays have been much admired (and, correspondingly, criticized) for their personal address and confessional candour. Your poems though, seem, if anything, more ‘essay-like’, as Billy Collins says, full of ‘the profusion of the world’. It occurs to me that you were coming of age as a poet just as the Lowell-Plath confessional school was at its height; is your poetry in part a reaction to it, with it, against it?
When I was young, I was horrified by the intimate revelations in Lowell, Plath, Sexton, Berryman and others, even though I loved those poems and missed the personal in Bishop and Marianne Moore. I was such a Puritan! I tried instead to filter my private experiences through other subjects: they are there, but not explicitly. Now those confessional revelations don't even seem so intimate. We’re living in a changed world.
The big , dumb question: Why write poetry at all in contemporary America?
I write for people who like poetry. The people who don’t like poetry are on their own.
Photograph of Katha Pollitt by Christina Pabst