And now, dear reader, let us pick up where we last left off, turning to the third section of Sally's Hair.
AH: That approach changes a bit in the third section—the poems there are more political and present oriented. More of the energy feels focused out towards the audience, and because the poems are grounded in a very present reality, they didn’t have the same fluidity of meaning that the meditative poems had.
JK: That is the character of the poems in the third section and I was intrigued and pleased that I had made up a section of poems that were like that. I think that, for example, the poem “To an Audience,” was sort of inspired by a poet I heard interviewed on NPR. He was talking about how when he sits down to write, he thinks about what will pull in an audience and what will appeal to them. And I thought, my goodness, this is the exact opposite of the way I write. I agree with Harold Bloom’s view of poetry as a kind of soliloquy form, a way of talking to yourself. “To an Audience” is sort of a mock-serious poem, it’s somewhat playful, but I thought it would be interesting to write a poem working through some of those issues in the form of a moderation. It’s a little bit modeled on Prospero’s address to the audience in W.H. Auden’s poem “The Sea and the Mirror.” And thinking about privacy versus speaking to an audience, the poem was a way to play with that.
AH: What was it that tipped you over the edge, or in other words, inspired you write these more political poems?
JK: Some of it was the political climate. When I was up for a Los Angeles Times Award a few years ago, I was on a panel about poetry and politics. One thing we all said was that even though none of us were inclined to go out and write a political poem, that if you write about what’s going on around you then it’s kind of hard for the current situation not to work itself into your poems. I remember the most explicitly political one in the collection, called “Poetry and the War,” I started writing when I was in New York in March 2003, just after the invasion of Iraq had just commenced. I was remembering the last time I was in New York was for a memorial for Robert Jones, my first editor at HarperCollins, on September 10, 2001. I almost wound up staying over another night at my hotel on Wall Street then I would have been there on the morning of September 11.
Some of the poems are political in a more subtle way. With “Collected Poems,” I was reading Robert Lowell’s collected poems and I always try to appreciate him more than I do, though there is a great deal that I admire there. When I read his poems I also have the sense of this enormous sense of will manifest and somehow connected that with these themes. So in all I suppose these things came about because, like a lot of people, I have been thinking of the current political situation.
AH: It’s a fascinating idea—what is a political poem? I think that most people think of political poems as particularly noisy poems—
JK: I was at a conference at the University of Pennsylvania and I wrote a little short essay arguing that, at least the way I think of poetry, you can’t write political poems that are intended to influence the way people act. To do that is to write to try to reach and influence an audience, which isn’t the way I think of poetry. You can write political poems in the sense that that’s what you’re thinking about, but that’s what you’re talking to yourself about. I was living in Berlin for the first half of last year and I wrote a lot of poems there. They’re all in ways political and they’re all in ways about Berlin. When you’re there you can’t help but think about where you are and the history of that place.
AH: You name a lot of your influences in your poems, poets you yourself are often compared to, John Ashbery and Wallace Stevens, for example. How do you see yourself in this particular constellation of poets? Where do you see yourself?
JK: I admire those poets a great deal and John Ashbery is one of my formative interests. I first discovered his poetry when I was really just starting to write back in college in the mid 60s. He’s a very important influence though the way I write is somewhat different, in fact there will be a review that will be coming out in the July issue of the Yale Review by Peter Campion that talks about the difference between my poems and John Ashbery’s. But he’s certainly a very important influence. Along those same lines, some other such poets would be Wallace Stevens, obviously, and T.S. Eliot, more than anyone, especially the late Eliot, “The Four Quartets.” Elizabeth Bishop is a poet I admire enormously though I have varying degrees of success in using that influence; Wordsworth, too. Prose writers like Proust and Fitzgerald are actually quite important influences on my style. I’ve probably read The Great Gatsby about twenty times.
AH: That’s the one book—if you ask any American high school senior, I’ll bet you anything that they’ll say The Great Gatsby was the favorite thing that they read in school.
JK: I wouldn’t be surprised—I read it in high school and I remember going to the library and checking out a recording of it. I sat in my room and listened to it on my record player.
AH: You mentioned Wordsworth—is it just because he’s a great poet or does his use of philosophical ideas in poetry appeal to you?
JK: Well, not for that; I like the way he writes. Everyone descends from Wordsworth now—we all take ourselves as subject and I like the way he is his own subject and the development of his mind is something he’s constantly writing about. I like the style very much. The philosophical stretches of his stuff, and Coleridge’s, too: there’s a poem in North Point North that’s in the Oxford Book of American Poetry that begins “I don’t like poems about philosophy, but then what is it?” Since I am a philosopher, various philosophers’ names wander in, the way in which politics wander in, but I don’t set out to write philosophical meditations. Even though they might wind up reading like that, that was never my intention. Those aspects of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s poetry don’t actually engage me the way the more personal characteristics of Wordsworth’s poems engage me.
AH: Both those poets, though, use poetry as a tool to meditate and to work out complex philosophical ideas. Your work gets to be philosophical by chance—it’s not deliberate, and it ends up being a lot easier to read. One can see a philosophy emerge naturally.
JK: Well I’m glad you see it that way because I think of it that way myself. There’s something of that in Eliot, too, because he was classically trained as a philosopher from Harvard, he just didn’t come back and take up a job at the philosophy department there. The philosophy is natural for him in the way that it isn’t entirely natural for Stevens—as much as I admire his poems, he might be working too hard to sound like a philosopher.
AH: I was recently reading a piece in the Christian Science Monitor about X.J. Kennedy. In it, he said he’s only a poet in the moment that he’s creating poetry and I was wondering if you felt that way, too?
JK: Oh yes, very much so. As I say, I don’t write year round, and when I’m working on a poem I don’t know what it’s about until I’m in there working in it. There’s a wonderful little account of when Steven Spender met T.S. Eliot. Spender told Eliot he wanted to be a poet and Eliot was baffled by this, he said, “I know what it is to want to write poems but I’m not sure about what you mean about being a poet.”
AH: Writing at one time a year, do you think this effects a cyclical pattern to your poetry?
JK: I think very much so. There’s the sense of coming back to something after a kind of hiatus and that always gets bound up with the particular seasons. Since I do write abstractly, I try to balance that by rooting my ideas in places, locations, and also in seasons—spring and summer, depending on when I’m writing, or winter if I start a little early.
AH: Being rooted in places and seasons ties into an idea in the title poem and in the poem “The Middle of Experience.” This notion of always being in the middle of experience in life and through memory is both hopeful and optimistic. At the same, the other side of it—the action of forgetting and recreating—struck me as being mournful and melancholy.
JK: There is a certain melancholy air to the poem “The Middle of Experience” because settling my father’s affairs in California occasioned it. While I do still have a sister who lives outside of San Francisco, that was basically it for having a family. There is this odd feeling when you’re however old and you are entirely on your own. Of course, I hadn’t lived with my family in a long time, but I was in regular touch with them and I would come out each year to see my father. Once that’s over you’re free in a rather melancholy way.
AH: It’s similar to what you say in “The Unlasting,” about being astonished when the memory takes over your senses (“And then to my astonishment it did./ Time passed. I found myself remembering a day in college, then another day”). That it has the power to transport you is both comforting and upsetting.
JK: It is quite a vivid thing and it sounds like you have experienced it, too, that Proustian recall, when the earlier experience is unconsciously triggered and overwhelms the present momentarily. It does bring with it a kind of wistfulness and a realization of how separated you are from that earlier experience. It’s back there and even though you can rekindle it, it’s lost and it’s over.
AH: Do you also feel this sense of a negative curiosity about whether the present lives up to the past? I don’t necessarily mean nostalgia, because I think there is something of that too, but more of a question of how good the present is? I think you address this in “The Perfect Life,” where the only way you can define a perfect life is by also defining the fear that lies just over the horizon.
JK: I mean it does a bit but I don’t think of my poems as nostalgic at all, because that always to me implies that the past was in some way better and the present is paling in comparison. I don’t feel that at all, but it’s easy, I suppose, to think that when you were younger that you had this idea of the future as something wonderful where things were going to be revealed and happen and of course they never do. And that’s a kind of odd feeling, though for me that’s not a sad feeling, but more of a puzzling one. There is something intriguing about memory. Way back even before I was writing, when I was running track, it suddenly struck me that when you’re running, your legs get very tired and it’s quite painful, but while you can recall everything about running the race you can never recall what that sensation is like. I began to think, isn’t this odd, that there are certain things that aren’t accessible to memory, certain kinds of sensations, for example. I think that might have been what started my obsession with time.
AH: Yet while you consider time and memory from a variety of angles, you never seem to go back to that one moment where this all began, you go back to several different moments, and ultimately reflect on it more broadly.
JK: Yes. In the recollective poems, for example, they’re all sort of triggered by something that’s not that important in and of itself, like watching the Belmont Stakes in 1973 (“16 A”) or remembering the color of a woman’s hair and dress (“Sally’s Hair”). Then you start to move out from there and the chain of associations forms itself, leading to other kinds of thoughts. The kernel is not of any particular significance but it leads you to other recollections and reflections.
AH: Speaking of “Sally’s Hair,” with what seems like a poem that is somehow not entirely representative of the whole, what was it about that made you choose it as the title for the collection?
JK: I mentioned that I was first going to call it “Piranesi’s Keyhole.” A friend of mine, a poet, Henri Cole, read “Sally’s Hair” in a small pamphlet that had been published in Australia and suggested I name the collection after it. And I agree with him: even though the poem itself is not terribly representative of my work, it does sort of capture what I associate with the recollective section at the end, the small moment recollected spontaneously. All the poems in that section are like that in different ways and it had the right associations; it conveys the recollective and temporal impulse behind the book as a whole, but in a more concrete way than the opening two sections.
AH: I was immediately drawn to the title, I think it has a real aesthetic appeal, but it was interesting going into the collection because it is only in that last section of poems that I really understood how wonderfully it fits the collection. Clearly “Piranesi’s Keyhole” would have been the expected title choice, but—
JK: Yeah, it would sound like, “Oh some more of John Koethe’s meditative lyrics…”
AH: But as you yourself noted, this collection is different. Which is your favorite poem in the collection?
JK: Well I don’t think I could name one, but definitely one of the ones in the last section. I am very fond of “The Perfect Life,” but either the title poem, or “16 A” or “Hamlet.”
AH: Do you think whatever will come next will follow in the direction of Sally’s Hair?
JK: As I said I wrote a lot of poems in Berlin, which I would like to publish as a chapbook at some point, and they will probably make up a section of the next full scale book. I am writing now and I suspect that I will write more poems in the recollective way. But I don’t want to do that right away. I thought I would wait and see. As I say, I write in the spring and summer, so I thought I’d wait until next year or the year after for more of that; I hope they would end up different in character to Sally’s Hair.
AH: Well I look forward to seeing what you come up with next. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you and thank you for taking the time to do this.
JK: Thank you.