Gregory Orr


A Conversation With Gregory Orr

Gregory Orr’s writing is at a crossroad-more than one to be exact. A poet who has notably and exclusively worked in free verse, he now has a sequence of poems in one of the stricter forms imaginable: the villanelle. He also is writing a memoir at a time when this genre has become beleaguered with “lowest common denominator” simulacrums — though Orr has luckily brought to the form the same kind of intense, eloquent concern towards kinship, personal identity and memory that he evidences in his poetry.

It was his poetry that first caught people’s attention. His first two books, Burning the Empty Nests (1973) and Gathering the Bones Together (1975), constellated their poems with images that managed to be stark and sensual at the same time. The effects were sometimes haunting, sometimes playful — and, more often than not, both. Later work — including The Red House (1980) and We Must Make a Kingdom Out of It (1986) — moved into more narrative forms, exploring a synthesis of the surreal and the ordinary — even the mundane — that becomes the most prevalent in his latest collection, City of Salt (1995).

Gregory Orr has also been one of the more astute poet-critics of late, and his ideas on the nature of the lyric, among many other subjects (for example, he has also written a book introducing readers to the poetry of Stanley Kunitz, his teacher at Columbia), have certainly gained a strong foothold within the discipline — especially his essays collected in Richer Entanglements as part of the Michigan Poets on Poetry series. Indeed, if many poets are noticeably reluctant to delve too far into criticism, Orr has demonstrated criticism’s redeeming (and human) qualities, giving poets working out of a wide range of traditions new vocabularies with which to interact with poems — in ways that don’t inhibit conversation but rather fosters it. No small feat in the ’90s, when the world of poetry can seem as fractious as ever.

Above all-and this is where conversing with Gregory Orr right now is especially rewarding — he is a writer in transition with his craft. Whether it’s a matter of writing in a fixed formed, or exploring an “old” myth in new ways (as in the four poems from a new poem-cycle on Orpheus and Eurydice, which appear after the interview) Orr seems to reside at more than one vantage point simultaneously, a position that can only be advantageous for whatever uncharted territory he chooses to enter next.

The following conversation took place in June 12 of 1997, in Charlottesville, Virginia, with the use of an ancient, Geiger counter-like behemoth of a tape recorder. —Alan DeNiro, Charlottesville, Virginia, December 16, 1997


Alan DeNiro: Rumor has it you have been working on some villanelles. How do you see this form, what it can do in terms of the context of your entire body of work, particularly with the last books?

Gregory Orr: The first thing to realize, maybe even for myself, is that temperamentally I’m a free-verse poet. But this shifting to a villanelle form is not like Wright and Merwin and Adrienne Rich; people who started out as formalist poets shifting towards free verse in the fifties. It’s not something like that in reverse. I haven’t become a formalist poet. What interests me about a villanelle has, in some weird way, less to do with the form than it has to do with the function. It has to do with the fact of the repetition, the formal repetition of the villanelle’s lines. This is an emblem for obsession, for recurrence, for a theme circling around again and again — a subject trying to find its way through or beyond. And it seems to me that the villanelle is perfect for that, perfect for dramatizing obsession. It also seems to me that it’s a perfect instance of my understanding of what happens in poems: that some disturbing or vitalizing disorder is being met by some ordering power. Often that disordering is thematic, and often the ordering power is formal in some way or other, and that what you get when you read a poem is the interplay. Not chaos becoming cosmos but the poem enacting disorder and order. That’s what’s vital about a poem to me. And what that tells me about the villanelle form is that with this enormous ordering power, the repetition, the restricted rhyme and so on, with all that formal power on your side you’re invited as a poet to bring in a comparable amount of thematic disorder. So that to me the most compelling and interesting villanelles are ones that take on great disordering themes. Dylan Thomas’s “Don’t Go Gentle,” or Bishop’s “One Art” that finally, when she gets down to brass tacks, is about the loss of love. Or Michael Ryan’s “Milk the Mouse,” which is about child abuse. I think the first villanelle that I wrote was about my father who is dying; it’s about the complicated and difficult relationship we have. Somehow the villanelle was the right form to do that, and then I got into this thing where it was fun to write them. Suddenly I discovered how much fun it was, and that fun still involves moving around very disordering kinds of subjects, but not all of them painful. Some disorder is erotic disorder, or some is joyous disorder. But what I’m doing I don’t know. That I’m writing villanelles I know. I may have written ten of them, but where it goes I have no idea. The idea of a book of villanelles appalls me, mine or anybody’s.

AD: But can you see them as a definable part of a book? Or do you see them working separately? Or is it too early to tell?

Orr: Well, there’s something a little pleasantly baffling about myself at the moment as a poet, which is that City of Salt really seems to me to finish, to close the books, on certain autobiographical themes in a way. Certain obsessions seemed to have been given their final expression. Where to go next? Which is always the question after you finish a book. What I’ve also done is written a book-length sequence on Orpheus and Eurydice, so that’s forty poems’ worth of retelling the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. What I’m going to do with that, I don’t know. Whether the villanelles have anything to do with these other poems, or whether these are just two directions and maybe what I’m really into is a third direction, I don’t know at this point. But it’s very embarrassing to write villanelles for me, because I really am a free-verse poet. But it’s also fun for that same reason. I don’t have to play by the rules. I don’t take the rules seriously. Well, I take the formal rules seriously, but without taking the project seriously. Being a formalist poet is not an article of faith for me.

AD: A lot of contemporary poets see two camps, the formalist poets and the language poets. Many poets want to polarize in that way. But if you look around at any journal it seems like a lot of contemporary poets feel they can adopt what Julio Cortazar called chameleonism, in a way like Keats’s negative capability. That poets can appropriate certain formal aspects, but they don’t feel necessarily wedded to them, that it depends on what the specific project is.

Orr: Well that sounds good. It sounds like the end of ideology. It’s always seemed very peculiar to me that free-verse versus formalist conflicts could still be going on, and yet they are. There is still this intensity around the issue of formalism — though my own feeling about disorder and order doesn’t mean I get cranked up about the issue. Obviously we’re all doing the same things as far as I can tell, and we just have different emphases. I like the idea that people, especially young poets, feel utterly free to go where the project seems to dictate.

AD: Going back to the villanelle, in a class I once had we talked about Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking,” and how he used the restraining form of the villanelle almost as a trope of madness: obsessive compulsive disorder, repetitious counting, checking to see if the lock is locked twenty times. Of course, there wasn’t a specific psychological “disorder” necessarily, just a continual looking back.

Orr: The only distinction I would make is that in the obsession in your example the repetition is absolutely circular. There’s endless repetition and no progress. This is the neurotic circle. It seems to me what lyric poetry is always trying to do is to work from the sources of obsession, which is to say from deep psychological urgencies within the self, toward some transformation of obsession into a spiritual principle. To move from the repeating circle to the ascending or descending spiral. For me, in a poem like “The Lost Son,” Roethke is the perfect example of the imagination as the transformative power. If we had to talk clinically about Roethke you’d say, “manic depressive, bipolar disorder.” The clinical condition would begin in mania and then go into enormous, equally desperate despair. But how does Roethke arrange “The Lost Son” sequence? He reverses the order that fate has given him, of mania first and then despair. He begins, “At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry.” He begins in despair and he ends in a tentative joy, with a kind of tentative affirmation: “A lively, understandable spirit / Once entertained you. / It will come again. / Be still. / Wait.” By reversing how it happened to him in life, he’s created a redemptive structure. See what I mean? He’s discovered some spiritual principle that you can extract from, basically, agony. That, to me, is what the lyric enterprise is all about.

AD: Talking about “The Lost Son” reminds me of your own work with lyric sequences, as in Gathering the Bones Together. How does one get the loose strands to all cohere? How does a poet get a long lyrical sequence to gel and yet not be formulaic?

Orr: It’s complicated. I know I can only write out of a lyrical mode, and that the lyric mode is what history, since the Romantics, has urged on us as the only really plausible choice we have. But, though this historical quirk inspires me because that’s what seems temperamentally right for me, I can’t help writing a lyric poem — especially writing what I have mostly written, which are very short lyrics — without envying the scope that’s possible in the larger poem, a scope that is built into narrative, moving further through time. You get lyric intensity with a short lyric, but you don’t get scope, you don’t get the possibility of presenting focused successive moments in time. And so the lyric sequence is just something that you really want to do to claim more territory. And, also, because you know it’s just more exciting to hold together a larger shape. How can this be done? I guess what I feel the lyric seems to tell us is that you don’t need to connect up all the dots for your reader. That in fact one of the reasons why we can’t take a lot of pleasure in narrative poetry anymore is because in narrative we seem to be moving from A to B to C to D to E to F, and that’s like stepping stones that are placed too close together in a stream; it just makes you really uncomfortable.

AD: Instead of from A to Q. . .

Orr: Yes, and we’ve been trained so much in reading lyrics now that you know you can do it that way, go from A to Q, and the reader can move that way, also. So I think then it becomes possible for there to be present all sorts of different unifying principles that can be musical, of the loosest sort of recurring character. I think all that we really ask is that each of the sections become its lyric self, which is to say a focused moment. And also what’s nice about a sequence is that these focused moments can also become more and more fragmentary because they are going to appear with other fragments, and so you get that effect you get with old mosaics that are sometimes dug up in which you see only patches of the subject matter and, while there are blank places, you can still get a sense of the whole, still get a sense of the intensity. There’s a great one of Alexander the Great fighting Darius, King of Persia, and you just see half of Alexander’s face, and the Persian king with this sword. It’s just wild. You don’t need everything filled in, you don’t need the whole canvas sketched in. The fragment itself has enormous integrity.

AD: As with Sappho or somebody like that.

Orr: Absolutely. It’s hard to read Sappho fragments and not feel all the gratifications you get from a lyric. Or the nature of haiku for that matter. They are whole, and yet by Western standards, they are fragments. We’re still in the process of digesting what we consider to be the lyric fragment that comes from Japanese poetry.

AD: I forget where I read it, but that entire question concerning “what is a short poem, what is a long poem” doesn’t pertain to a wide variety of cultures. A long poem in Japan could be fifteen lines, and a long poem in America seven pages, while a long poem in India would be hundreds of thousands of lines. It’s interesting when those kinds of expectations hop from one culture to another, how they’re taken in.

Orr: And one of the pleasures is that we can, no matter what some might say, borrow from these other cultures. Japanese poetry is entirely lyric. There isn’t a narrative to be found in 1500 years of poetry — it’s all lyric. Ditto, in a sense, for most of Chinese poetry, which is one of the reasons why it took three or four hundred years to translate Chinese poetry, even though Europeans had already learned Chinese and translated Chinese philosophy. But they didn’t translate Chinese poetry into European languages until the mid-nineteenth century because they didn’t recognize it was poetry. Why? Because it was lyric, often nature lyrics, and we in the West had to go through the Romantics before we could recognize the value of Chinese poetry, even recognize it as poetry. Whereas here in the West the lyric is always justifying itself, in other cultures it’s the center of the game.

AD: A form almost always has to be embedded in a time. In eighteenth century Augustan England you’d be hard-pressed to find a sonnet anywhere. That particular form, that particular compaction, didn’t seem to fill any need within the sensibilities of the age.

Orr: It’s so interesting to think of poems in historical context, especially when poets start screaming about the way poems must be written. It’s just a kind of myopia not to realize that different historical periods need different modes, and also that different poets need different modes, need to work in different ways.

AD: In terms of historical mode, how do you feel about the French surrealists and what they were doing in terms of twisting around the lyrical mode? Has their work particularly affected yours?

Orr: The French surrealists were important to me as a young poet mainly because — among other things — the classic definition of surrealism in the First Manifesto calls for combining a waking reality and a dream reality. This was so wonderful to me because by insisting on dreaming reality the surrealists were insisting on the inner world of emotion, the inner world of imagination, which is what I take dreams to be, the power of liberating the imagination to create its own stories following dream reality and dream rules. That was such a freedom for someone coming from the Anglo-American literary and poetic tradition, which is, ultimately I think, anti-imagination. To me surrealism involved an enormous infusion of imagination, the freedom of imagination and the urgency of the inner world. Georg Trakl and the Expressionists were important to me for that same reason. In fact, Trakl for me was more emotionally immediate, but with the French surrealists it was the idea of surrealism itself that was important. The disordering project the surrealists started on had to do with formal patterns, logical and linguistic patterns that they wanted to break. And for me that had less urgency than the emotional disorder of someone like Trakl, where the weirdness, the strangeness, is psychological — it’s the inner anguish. But I think both projects go together.

AD: What did you mean earlier when you said English poetry is anti-imagination?

Orr: (laughing) Is that what I said? I just think it is. I mean, Blake is a visionary poet. But when you get to Wordsworth — whom I love — it’s back to the world again. Then, God help you, you get to Tennyson and Browning. The Romantics had brought in the world of the irrational, the world of the visionary — with Blake, and I think with some of Keats. With them, the world of imagination is the proper vehicle for urgent emotion. At least for me it seemed that way, and the way I got to it was through the surrealist poems early on. But that feeling doesn’t dominate nineteenth century English poetry. Instead you see it by going over into Baudelaire and Rimbaud in French. They kept it alive; that whole intense irrationalist strain of Romanticism moved out of England pretty quickly into France and survived up into the surrealists. And I think even in France it has had to struggle. The French are as trapped in notions of rationality as any culture. I think after the surrealist intensity was over it got kind of squashed there as well, but I won’t swear to that.

AD: Even for the surrealists, the idea of entering into the dreamland was replaced by a sort of Marxist paradigm, a rationalist agenda of some sort. If you look at someone like Desnos, he wanted nothing to do with that. For a while he was “marginally” communist and then just dropped out of the loop and got scorned by “official” surrealism.

Orr: Well, there was that crazy moment of exuberance where Breton says, “Marx says change the world and Rimbaud says ‘Change the mind, change consciousness.’ For us those two orders are one in the same; we can do both.” And you think bull shit. You can’t! And it certainly didn’t fool the Marxists for long. They threw the surrealists out. But to change consciousness, that is a project for the imagination. I don’t know how to say it except that describing the world doesn’t seem to me to be enough. And the visionary intensity you see in Rimbaud, the compulsion to change consciousness or to urgently manifest what it feels like to be yourself, that’s the lyric project as I understand it, to try to make meaning out of radical subjectivity. Imagination is your friend in that sort of project.

AD: You’ve lectured on the politics of the lyric, talking about how the lyric itself was literally invented, or embedded, in culture by the invention of the alphabet — not a political act in terms of any specific ideology, but in terms of how poetry became a tool of communication between different social units.

Orr: Well, here you have the Greek alphabet, where suddenly around 750 BCE, and for the first time in human history, anybody could learn to write. That’s an enormous power, because that means people who aren’t allowed to speak, who aren’t allowed to get up in an assembly and talk, who don’t have a vote or aren’t part of a power structure — that means in theory at least these people could write. They could express what the world seemed like to them. We really do see that in some of the early Greek lyric poems. We see it in Sappho. Nobody sounds like her. All that happened with the alphabet. And that to me is a form of politics, a subversive form of politics because it gives a voice to the voiceless. And then that voice goes out seeking other kindred voices, seeking response. That’s a different world, a changed world.

AD: And it wasn’t that the lyric wasn’t composed before that, but just that it was it purely occasional, that the act of transcription transfused one lyric with other—

Orr: Yeah, and those occasions were incredibly urgent, but they were urgent in individual ways, whereas the over-culture preserved only what was important to it, the warrior values, the social system, how to treat guests and stuff like that, for which the narrative is the appropriate form. But the lyric, these ephemeral lyrics you were talking about that vanished quickly in oral culture, they tended rather to center around love, really wonderful, passionate, particular love poems, and they also centered around poems of grief, personal poems of lament, not the choral lament when somebody big dies, but the lament of the individual involved-the mother of the child, the wife of the dead man, a son lamenting for the mother — though usually it was the women who lamented. These lyrics involve the great mysteries of what it is to be a human being: love and death. These are what the lyric dramatizes. And to give these mysteries expression and to give them space — which is what the written lyric does — is a political act. One of the first things the great Greek city-states did when they started writing down their constitutions was to prohibit and restrict mourning rituals and laments, because the women were doing it and were letting out too much emotion. It was disrupting the peace. That’s what the poetry of the lyric does. It disrupts the peace in the interest of urgent feeling. That’s a noble project. It’s an anarchy in the service of the anguished soul.

AD: And I would assume you draw a lot from those early lyrics.

Orr: I think so. I’m also trying to write a book about the matter. I don’t think you’d have to call it a polemic, but it’s about the lyric, about survival and healing and politics, though politics in some sort of humanistic sense. It’s not politics with a program.

AD: You’re also working on a memoir. Or it’s done.

Orr: I wish! I’m writing it now.

AD: So where are you in the revision process?

Orr: Yeats says somewhere that “the trouble with prose is that revising it is endless, whereas a poem comes right with a click like a box.” I always thought that click meant something to do with meter or something simplistic, but now I don’t know. All I know is there is something endless about the revising of prose.

AD: Or else the click is faint, or there’s more than one lock on more than one box.

Orr: Yeah, Yeats is probably kidding himself somehow. But, anyway, certainly the prose is killing me! In some odd way it seems like the other things we were talking about, like another branch of the same enterprise, which is just an autobiographical version of chaos and anguish and which, for me, moves toward the discovery of writing poetry as a kind of power to order all of that confusion and make sense out of it. I guess the only specific thing to say is that I’ve structured the first version of the memoir around the time of choice when I was eighteen, a choice between poetry and politics in the sense of working for the civil rights movement in the South in ’65. I thought to myself, “This is the fast train-history, political action. I’ll take the fast train,” rather than poetry, which seemed a much slower train. At least to me. When I was a young poet I just didn’t know what the hell I was doing. It was so hard to write. Even though I thought poetry was the answer I just didn’t know how to do it. And I thought, “Politics looks fast and exciting. I’ll do this.” But the trouble was that ending up in jail in Mississippi and Alabama was just a matter of discovering there was as much violence and chaos in the political world at that time as there had been in my family background, so that it was just more of the same. So I thought, “Let’s do poetry.” Poetry, even if it was slower, seemed a lot easier.

AD: And transformative as well?

Orr: I hope so. That’s what I was trying to do, at least. What I remember from being a young poet is having older poets say, “Those young lyric poets, all they want to do is express their feelings.” No. You don’t want to express them. You want to transform them. You want to be free of them, but you also want to give them some beautiful, urgent form. It’s not like you just want to spill your guts. The process of spilling your guts as a young poet, that’s not your project, that’s your fate — but you just don’t know how to write poetry yet. You don’t know enough — how to shape, how to discover form. I’m not talking about fixed form. I could never have worked with the sonnet. The type of form I’m talking about now is some inner constellation of the lyric, some centripetal power found there. But the impulse isn’t to express, but to transform. You feel that as a young poet long before you can do it. I can remember reading young Yeats when I was a young poet, early Yeats, and remember thinking “This guy’s just a self-pitying jerk.” But, still, I would read the poems and they’d make me weep. They were just so beautiful. The guy’s just a jerk, but the poems aren’t! That’s one of the things that seems to make poetry so alluring — that you’ve made something beautiful out of a mess. The mess happened to be, in my case, my life, or how I was or how I felt. And the project was to make poems that were beautiful and moving out of a life so essentially confusing.

AD: So what are you doing with the second revision? Is it more of a stylistic revision, or are you playing with the narrative structure?

Orr: Nobody wants the politics. No editors want to hear about ’60s politics as far as I can tell. What they want is family, so I’ve got to center the memoir back into the family more. But I hope to God they’re not after something from Oprah or Ricki Lake or something like that. You know what I mean? If things go wrong in a memoir there’s this kind of voyeuristic, exhibitionistic enterprise at work that just seems stupid to me. I mean, I could fall for it too, but I don’t want to do it. I could even be interested in looking at someone else’s life like that, but it’s not what I want to write. At the same time, some editors are trying to persuade me, “Yeah, but there’s more in that family story that you haven’t dealt with.” And I can believe that, because it’s very painful for me already. But what dismays me is the lack of interest in the politics that comes later. For me, going out into the world, into politics and into poetry, was going from family into wider-meaning schemes. And I’m thinking that if I can write the first part, if I can do it right, I bet I can write the second one about politics and poetry my own way. It’s a major pipe dream.

AD: In terms of the literary tastes of the time, the memoir genre seems to be selling pretty well. . .

Orr: It’s interesting. The memoir form seems right to me because it’s a lyric form, it’s a personal testimony. It’s like Thoreau saying at the beginning of Walden, “This book is like any other book you’re going to read, except you’re going to see a lot more of the first person in here.” He also says, frankly, that we tend to forget that it’s always the first person speaking, the “I,” and so Thoreau is saying, ‘Don’t think I’m egotistical. I’m just talking about myself because that’s what I know. I don’t know what anyone else knows because I’m not them.” So, in some sense, that lyrical, autobiographical testimony contained in the memoir seems to me really wonderful and legitimate and interesting. The problem is that publishers are now being driven by TV talk shows, driven by their need, their greed. They need a mass audience — and they look to something with a mass audience like TV, and they learn that the sleazier you get the wider the net, so the more fish you catch. That’s sad, but you see it — even the editors in New York admit it. But the great memoirs and autobiographies are not going to come out of that kind of stuff.

AD: Whitman, of course, said great poets deserve great audiences, and an article I read recently said poetry sales are up 20%. And this maybe came about by a core group of people getting off their asses and just promoting poetry, just saying, “Look, there is a market for poetry. There are people who care about it.”

Orr: I think this hunger in our culture for poetry is real, though some of it is taking place at a very unsophisticated level. But that’s where everybody starts, at an unsophisticated level. Taste is something you grow into; you become sophisticated the more familiar you are with poetry. A friend of mine worked with Bill Moyers on The Language of Life, a PBS special coming out of the Geraldine Dodge Festival. If you can put poets and poetry on TV, it doesn’t seem weird to people, it seems to make sense. Poets are weird, and poetry is weird, only as long as it’s made weird.

AD: Or deemed weird. . .

Orr: Or deemed weird, exactly. And, partly made weird in the teaching of it in high schools, the poor teachers who don’t get it and don’t like it and are forced to teach it. That’s where the tragedy happens, because that’s the place our culture, our screwed-up culture, has chosen to make sense out of poetry — in high school. Most of the teachers have no idea what’s going on in poems, so few of them have a clue as to what poetry’s purpose is, so they can’t do it. They feel terrified by it: “Am I smart enough, am I sensitive enough?” That’s not it! It all goes wrong there and it’s hard to get it back.

AD: And teachers use poetry as a useless endeavor, as in “This poem is a symbol of,” instead of showing it as a way in which language can articulate strange things, things a high schooler is going through.

Orr: And it’s just the right place to be teaching it this way because, as you say, they are kids and they know what chaos is, because they are going through it now in spades. They understand what chaos is, so they understand the urge for form. Everybody at some point in their lives writes a poem. When do they do it? Well, when they fall in love. But what does that mean? They fall in love and write a poem. Why the hell do they write a poem? Why don’t they just buy a box of candy? Well, they buy a box of candy, too. But they also write a poem. You’ve got this enormous emotional chaos called falling in love, right? Total chaos. And maybe it’s joyful chaos and maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s agony, maybe we fell in love with the wrong person or they’re not very good at loving. The fact is you decide to write a love poem and it’s because you’re trying to order that chaos. There it is, that’s the story of poetry in a nutshell. The chaos is still in the poem, with the disorder and the ordering as an interplay, a dialectic. Sure, this interplay won’t be in the poem if you reduce it entirely to cliches — which most people sadly do — but even that is still a testimony to the enterprise at work.

AD: A quick question. In one of your notebooks there’s a quote by Valery: “Nothing leads more certainly to perfect barbarity than an exclusive attachment to the pure spirit. I have been intimately acquainted with this fanaticism.” What do you take from this notion of “pure spirit?”

Orr: What do I take from the Valery quote? Well, I take something historical, something that has to do both with literary and social history, and also something psychological. In terms of literary history, what I take from it is Valery having gone as a young poet to Mallarme’s afternoon poetry gatherings. So there’s Mallarme. He’s the master of the pure poem in France, the poem where he says, “I want to have in my poem the flower / that’s missing from all bouquets.” The pure flower, the ideal. This disembodied idealistic impulse is in French poetry, and its opposite is Rimbaud, the totally impure poem, the poem that’s down there in the mud and the tangle and chaos of the world and the body, in the anguish of the body. So Valery is coming out of Mallarmé. He’s moving toward T.S. Eliot, he’s moving toward the tyranny, it seems to me, of ideas. This happens when you get too far from the body, yield too much to the impulse toward purity, which we all have, poets especially. But when you yield to that impulse totally, you begin to become less and less human by going further and further from the anguished body, and further from other people’s bodies too, from other human beings. So that by the time you get to 1937, you’ve got somebody like Eliot following this purity trip. This is later Eliot. It’s 1937, and we’re sitting at the University of Virginia, right? 1937, maybe even 1938, and he’s giving a lecture here at the University of Virginia in which he says, and I more or less quote — he’s talking about the idea of a Christian society, ideals, principles, and order — “No society is safe when it has too many free-thinking Jews in it.” Now, historically, we’re in 1937, the Nazis are in power, the whole hideous anti-Semitism story is starting to happen politically, yet Eliot can totally ignore the implication of his words because he’s living in this notion of a pure idea: “I don’t have anything against Jews, it’s the idea of free-thinking Jews that threaten the purity and coherence of Christian culture, that disturb order.” That’s perfect barbarity. That is purity of spirit right next to pure barbarity — because Eliot knows what’s going on. Kristallnacht has happened already, all the anti-Semitic walls have already risen up in Germany. This is something you have to watch out for: human idealism can quickly become barbaric and evil through detachment. And I think that’s what Valery is talking about, really. That you can just become inhuman in the process of striving for purity. And it’s an old habit. I think it’s even built into the lyric because we’re already disembodying the experience by turning human anguish into language. So even we poets are involved in the disembodying. But what I want to do, what my heroes do, is to bring things back into the body, so that you get someone like William Carlos Williams who says: Okay, I’m stupid and Eliot’s smart, but at least I didn’t say this. I’ll stay with the people, stay with the human, stay with what the Shakers say, “Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free. Tis gift to stay down where we ought to be.” Staying down on the earth versus that purity. Or, what about Heidegger? He’s a great philosopher, but he’s an unrepentant Nazi. Not like I’m fixated on Nazis, but it’s a good example, historically. “It’s not my problem since I was thinking about pure, important things like ideas.” Meanwhile, not far from the ranch. . . I guess I think that if poetry becomes pure, the lyric becomes pure, then it might as well become a religion, and then it is going to authorize all the pure horrors that pure religions authorize. And we have to learn from that, to keep the lyric at the individual, intimate level where that’s not possible. I mean Eliot would never have done anything mean to an individual Jew. Never. But, the idea. . .

AD: Then, a few decades later, someone like Ginsberg writes “Howl.” He takes a form, a Biblical form, and thrusts it out with all of its human — but at the same time, in a weird way — divine aspects.

Orr: Absolutely. Wonderful. And it’s all very much down into the anguished bodies. As you say, Ginsberg comes out of that Biblical form, and he comes out of Whitman. Whitman is the great person in America for bringing things back into the individual, that we are a matter of bodies, for better or for worse. And the loyalty of the lyric and the loyalty of the poet is to these bodies. I think that’s what Plato was about when he said, “Get rid of the poets. If you let the poets in your city, then it’s nothing but pleasure and pain. You’ll never get this city ruled by reason.” Well, the city ruled by reason is the totalitarian state. But we the bodies are ruled by pleasure and pain. That’s what we are. At least that’s what the lyric says, which doesn’t mean we have no concern with moral issues, but they have to be understood in terms of human scale, of intimacy.


Return to Interviews