Luke Hankins

Riding Westward:

An Interview with Carl Phillips

Carl Phillips is the author of nine books of poetry, including
Quiver of Arrows: Selected Poems, 1986–2006, Riding Westward;
The Rest of Love, a finalist for the National Book Award; and The
Tether, which won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. His other
books include a translation of Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Coin of
the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry. Phillips’ many
honors include the Theodore Roethke Foundation Memorial Prize,
the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Male Poetry, an Award in
Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, fellowships
from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Library of
Congress, and, in 2006, the Academy of American Poets
Fellowship, given in memory of James Ingram Merrill, for distinguished
poetic achievement at mid-career. He teaches at
Washington University in St. Louis. Phillips says that writing is a
survival technique when life gets intolerable. “It’s almost like
breathing,” he said. “I think it’s a way of creating a wedge between
myself and aspects of the world that seem unbearable…I think
that poetry is supposed to disturb us out of our assumptions. I
think it is easy for us to become complacent with how we live.”

Luke Hankins: I have a friend who once said that T. S. Eliot’s idea
of the objective correlative has been taken to an extreme in contemporary
American poetry, has become an aesthetic doctrine that
has ceased to be effective because of such strict insistence upon it.
(Looking at Eliot’s poetry, especially his late work in “The Four
Quartets,” don’t we see how little his concept of the objective correlative
really applies to his own poetry?) This discussion reminded
me of your collection of essays, Coin of the Realm, in which you
say that we are today in danger of losing our ability to engage with
abstraction (because of an over-dependence on a concrete “objective
correlative,” perhaps), and that this handicap is wrapped up in
an aesthetic or cultural posture which discounts beauty and authority.
How might poets—and how do you—try to address this danger?
Do you feel that these tendencies are continuing, or are they
showing signs of suffocating themselves?

Carl Phillips: For me, it’s instinctive to grapple with abstraction—I
wouldn’t say that I am consciously trying to address the dangers of
discounting beauty and authority. I suppose that, merely by writing
the way I do, about the things I write about, I’m offering a counterweight
of some kind. Part of what seems to lie behind a resistance
to beauty is the fear of nostalgia and naïve sentiment, I think;
and of course, a healthy distrust of authority seems essential. But
that shouldn’t mean that we can’t have a sense of an opinion from
our experiences—that’s authority, but not fascism. There’s a difference.
Without authority, I can’t believe what a poet is telling me.
And without an acknowledgment of beauty in its various forms, a
poem doesn’t speak to me of the real world.

LH: As we have touched on, in the opening essay in Coin of the
Realm, you remark upon a resistance among contemporary
American poets to the idea of beauty (and abstraction in general).
One cause of this resistance is, you claim, a mistaken view of beauty
as “inorganic—without the capacity for evolution.” I wonder if
there isn’t also another problem, which the idea that beauty needs to
evolve belies—and that is the fact that modern and contemporary
poetry and theory operate largely upon the assumption that humans
today are significantly different than humans a millennium or even a
few centuries ago. It can make one sick at heart to hear people talk
or write about being modern, people who seem to have gotten it
into their heads that they are too advanced, or too traumatized by a
“fragmented” modern world, to experience genuine wonder in the
presence of things that have always provoked that reaction in us.
We are not suddenly beyond beauty—not even beauty in the same
things that were beautiful four thousand years ago—are we?

CP: No, we are not beyond beauty, whether it is the beauty of centuries
ago, or of the present moment. I’m not even sure what it
would mean, to be beyond beauty—to have outgrown it? To be
somehow too wise for it? The world may be fragmented—actually,
it always has been, nothing new about that— but who said there
wasn’t beauty in the shards? I was out working in the garden yesterday,
when the cathedral bells started ringing—it seemed to me a
beautiful moment. That doesn’t change the fact of suffering in the
world; it coexists with that fact. I think people worry that a concern
with beauty is a form of being blind to the realities of life,
modern or otherwise. But beauty is one of those realities of life.

LH: All writers have precursors, aunts and uncles that they have
grown up with and admire who influence their internal sense of
music. You have referenced John Donne and George Herbert before
as influential for your work—two uncles that perhaps show their
influence most in your grappling with paradox, your devotion to
mystery, and in your willingness to make authoritative statements.
However, your poetic line—in its length, in its linebreaks, in its
rhythm—often seems influenced by other, more recent aunts and
uncles. If I were to trace a formal lineage backward, I would do so
through the Black Mountain School (particularly Robert Duncan,
tonally, and Robert Creeley, structurally) to William Carlos
Williams. How do you tend to trace your lineage? Can you talk
about particular ways the poets I’ve mentioned, or others, have
influenced your work, formally or thematically?

CP: My poetic lineage is a little uncharacteristic, I think. The writers
you mention—Williams, Creeley, Duncan, Herbert, Donne—
are writers with whose strategies I see certain affinities, but I can
honestly say I hadn’t read any of them until I had already written
my first book. Actually, I had read Williams’ selected poems, and I
remember being astonished that one could write about such seemingly
ordinary things in a seemingly easy, clear way. Other than
that, and an addiction to Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath (in that
order) in college, I think I had read no “contemporary” poetry. My
syntax comes, I believe, from my having studied Greek and Latin,
and German—all of them inflected languages—from very early on.
I really think those languages influenced the way I think, so that my
sentences tend to come out the way they do in my poems quite naturally—
I don’t spend time trying to twist things around, I just
instinctively hear them that way. And the line seems to get informed
by the syntax, somehow… Thematically, I think the Greek tragedians
had the most influence over me, initially—the ways in which
they grapple with the irresolvability of so many kinds of human
conflict—the ways in which the seemingly impossible becomes possible:
murdering one’s children, say, or finding oneself married to
one’s mother… Many years later, I found a used anthology of the
metaphysical poets—that, and studying them with Geoffrey Hill,
led to my fascination with the tension between the sacred and the
profane. But I have to admit, my interest in the sacred and profane
was also something I was pondering, thanks to an unlikely combination
of reading Iris Murdoch and becoming fascinated with
Madonna when she first started appearing on the pop music scene.

LH: The title poem of your latest collection, Riding Westward,
describes a tragically comic cowboy, trying but failing to conform
to all the clichés (“standing there, / like between his legs there’s a
horse”), and singing old, well-worn songs:

                                        he starts up singing again,
          same as every night, same song: loneliness
          by starlight, miles to go, lay me down by
          the cool etc.— that kind of song, the kind
          you’ll have heard before, sure, somewhere…

Earlier in the poem, the cowboy writes in the dirt “lines, circles /
that stop short, shapes that mean nothing.” With these references
to singing and writing, it’s hard to read this poem without thinking
of it as a portrait of the poet. Is this indeed a kind of portrait of the
artist? Also, how does this cowboy relate to the speaker of the
Donne poem (riding a horse, yes, but no cowboy) from which your
poem (and the entire collection) derives its title?

CP: Yes, I did intend the poem “Riding Westward” to be a self-portrait.
Not at first, but I soon realized I was doing a sort of self-parody,
which seemed appropriate after a book of poems that spent so
much time agonizing about guilt, suffering, sexual restlessness.
Contrary to what many might think, I have a sense of humor, especially
about myself, and I found it amusing to do the parody. Of
course, it ends up being a little more serious at the end—and that’s
when the title came to me, from the Donne poem, as you mentioned.
With that title, it seemed that the poem also became a bit of
a comic way of thinking about devotion and the self—comic, in the
way that Donne can be comic… I mean for the poem to be a kind
of contemporary echo of Donne’s poem, to get at the idea that the
wrestling for the meaning of devotion—and the human resistance
to certain kinds of devotion—are resonant in contemporary life.
For what it’s worth, whenever I imagine an alter ego for myself, it’s
always a toss-up between a cowboy and a sea captain.

LH: Many of the poems in Riding Westward seem to indicate that
your poems are transitioning to a more sonnet-like form.
Compared to your earlier collections, the layout of the poems in
Riding Westward is often less fragmentary, there are fewer poems
with short (trimeter or tetrameter) lines, and many of the poems
are basically shaped like a sonnet. Now, I’m simply using the sonnet
as a point of reference—I know what sonnets are, and that
you’re not writing them—but I don’t think it’s insignificant that
many of these poems physically look like sonnets on the page. The
new poem published in this issue of Asheville Poetry Review,
“Lighting the Lamps,” is a good example of what I mean: there
are, the way I count them, 15 lines, which are written roughly in
pentameter (give or take a beat here and there). It’s interesting in
this context that the poem speaks overtly about form, about pattern:
“Doesn’t pattern require—to be seen / as pattern—not just
repetition but, as well, eventually, / the interruption of it?...” Are
your poems starting to interrupt the sonnet pattern?

CP: I think I stumbled into something different, stanzaically, when
I wrote my poem “Custom,” which appears in The Rest of Love.
It’s 13-line poem, with these lines that gradually expand and then
contract toward the end of the poem. And it’s a single stanza. After
that poem, I began writing more poems around that line length,
and also got more interested in the “dropped” line, where a line
continues, but is broken and then dropped below. I have become
increasingly impatient with fixed stanzas, especially the short-lined
tercets that I used for so many years. None of this has been conscious,
just an evolution—one that gives me hope, since I worry
that my poems don’t change that much from book to book. My
obsessions, anyway, remain my obsessions.

LH: Seamus Heaney has an essay about Wordsworth and Yeats in
which he describes two approaches regarding the way a poem’s
music is crafted. Wordsworth, according to Heaney, allows his
internal musical impulse to govern and drive his lines, so that they
become mesmerizing and incantatory, whereas Yeats wrestles with
that flow, struggles upstream against it. Do you feel that this framework
applies to your composition process? Do you identify more
with the Wordsworthian or Yeatsian approach?

CP: Hmm, tough question. On one hand, I’d say I fall into the
Wordsworth side of that description—there’s definitely an internal
sense of sound or music that drives the lines into looking the way
they do. But there is a stream—not of sound, I think, but of what
I’ll call moral stance, or notions of what one’s moral stance “should”
be—that I am constantly wrestling with. It has more to do with
what I write about, rather than with how I write it… Although it’s
true that maybe that wrestling is partly behind the wrestling that is
involved in negotiating the syntax of some of my lines…

LH: Guilt is a recurring theme in your poems, and “Hymn” (from
Pastoral) is one of your poems in which the speaker feels guilt. At
the end of the poem, the speaker uses the metaphor of a stone to
describe his condition:

          And I a stone that, a little bit, perhaps
          should ask pardon.

          My fears—when I have fears—
          are of how long I shall be, falling,
          and in my at last resting how

          indistinguishable, inasmuch as they
          are countless, sire,
          all the unglittering other dropped stones.

Guilt, here, seems an almost impossibly complex situation. There is
at once guilt (“should ask pardon”), resistance to guilt (“a little bit,
perhaps”), and accusation (“dropped stones” being dropped by
someone, or some One). The speaker’s ambivalence raises the question
of who is being addressed, and whether that “sire” is ironic,
sarcastic, or utterly sincere. I think the poem’s power relies on the
uncertainty the reader feels—on the simultaneity of these various
attitudes. Is this part of your strategy when dealing with the concept
of guilt in your poems?

CP: Well, you give me a lot more credit than I deserve, for having a
strategy at all. I really don’t go into the writing of a poem with any
strategy, except maybe that I have a line or a few words written
down, and I intend to build a poem around them. The uncertainty
that you speak of—I think it’s entirely reflective of my own uncertainty,
on the fact that there is a simultaneity of various attitudes
inside me, when it comes to an abstraction like guilt. I think this is
the kind of thing that I must have gotten from those Greek
tragedies—so often in them, guilt is without clarity, without resolution.
No one is entirely wrong, but no one can seem to do right
without simultaneously causing offense. To go back to your question,
this isn’t a strategy on my part—but I do think it is an example
of how a poem can have authority about an abstraction, namely,
by avoiding taking a single stance on such a complicated issue…

LH: Can you talk about the speaker or speakers of your poems?
Do you consider your poems to be in the voice of one consistent
speaker, or does the speaker change from poem to poem? How
much does this matter, one way or the other, for your writing
process and for readers of your poems?

CP: I’d have to admit that the speaker is probably almost always
myself at some level in my poems, as the addressee often can be. If
there is change from poem to poem, from book to book, it’s the
change that would be reflected by my sensibility as it evolves over
time. At the same time, though, I’m very conscious, at the point of
revision, of the need to make sure that a reader could in a sense
become the speaker, could have access to that lens and have the
chance to see the world credibly through it, if only for a moment.

LH: In one of his essays, Christian Wiman discusses prose written
by poets as a means—conscious or no—of staving off “silence.”
Do you identify at all with this description of the function of writing
prose as a poet?

CP: No, I don’t find that my own prose is written as a means of
staving off silence. Every one of my essays has been written as an
assignment given to me—a lecture I had to deliver, a request to
contribute to a book on George Herbert, etc. Far from staving off
silence, I find that writing prose all but renders me silent. I have
never enjoyed writing prose, and I balk at it each time, even though
I continue to say yes when asked. Masochism, I guess. A benign
form of it.

LH: In 2000, Asheville Poetry Review printed a special issue that
highlighted “10 Great Neglected Poets,” and we’re working on
another one for 2010. Are there any poets from the past century or
so that you feel are neglected? Why do they deserve more attention
and recognition?

CP: This may seem odd, but I think Marianne Moore is very neglected.
It’s as if people find her antiquated—and yet I find her to
be pretty radical, doing what she does with syllabics, the risks she
takes in terms of being so sophisticated in terms of sensibility—she
risks seeming inhuman, at times… I also think Louise Bogan is
hugely neglected. The poems are so spare, and can seem almost
clever—maybe that’s what people resist, along with her underlying
belief in something like true love, even as it eludes her.

LH: Thank you for this conversation. As a parting word, can you
offer us a quote from one of your favorite poets?

CP: It’s part of a much longer line, from Howard Moss’ poem,
“Rules of Sleep”:

          …intimacy is only another form of separation.