And now, the conclusion to our interview: Wonder, Spirits, The Atlantic Monthly, poetry, and beyond.
AH: Working from your poems, wonder seems to be formed on specific relationship between the hidden and the exposed, the unknown, obscure, and the known, seen. Do you see this as a common tension in the poems? Can you speak to the ways in which you manipulate that tension to create the varieties of wonder in the book?
DB: What does wonder really mean in our day and age, I wonder? On the one hand, it signifies the state of being enthralled and transfixed and mesmerized, and therefore verges on a kind of spiritual awe or mystical transport. On the other hand, it implies a certain muscular form of intellectual inquisitiveness, stoking the desire to explore and discover and comprehend the unknown. So yes, I think there’s an inherent tension in all that. Like I said before, though, I wanted to be mindful that the concept of wonder has a fertile cultural history in its own right: in the heyday of the Wunderkammern, you might say that wonder served as a bridge between spiritual and material conceptions of the world, and played a vital part in the social evolution from folk superstition to modern science during the so-called Age of Reason. I think that’s exemplified in a nifty maxim by the pioneering nineteenth-century chemist Michael Faraday: “Nothing is too wonderful to be true.” I would have been sorely tempted to use that quote as one of the epigraphs of the book, but Lawrence Weschler already beat me to it.
As for the varieties of wonder I want the book to evoke, I reckon I’d place words themselves at the top of the heap. I think one of the most wondrous things of all is human language—this astonishing system of grunts and chirps we’re all hardwired for and that’s constantly making its presence felt in such strange and mysterious ways.
AH: This is now your second book. How did the experience compare to your first book, The Spirit Level? How would you compare the volumes? Is the first as well-fitted to its overarching theme as this one is? Have you noticed any changes in your writing overall? Perhaps within a certain style of poem or on a certain type of subject? Is there something you wanted to do in the first book (but didn’t) that you did in the second?
DB: Ticklish questions. I think most poets want to make advances from book to book – or learn new tricks, if nothing else. Then again, there are plenty of poets who lay claim to a certain style or manner or aesthetic sensibility at the outset and stick with it through thick and through thin. There’s more than one way to skin a cat: I think what really matters is continuing to practice your craft with as much sustained patience and passion as possible, without straining after novelty for its own sake or letting yourself get bedeviled by professional calculations. The pressure is really on when you move from a first to a second book: it’s generally expected that a debut collection will contain its fair share of apprentice work, but in the next go-round the bar is set higher and you’re supposed to have mastered the art of sounding just like yourself and nobody else. But you’re not thinking about such things when you’re in the heat of trying to get the right words in the right order. I figure if I can get the lines working the way I want them to, with as much precision and conviction as I can muster, then the themes will take care of themselves.
What Wonder Cabinet and The Spirit Level have in common is that they were written poem by poem rather than following any grand overarching schema. I want each poem to have its own integrity and vital energy, rather than being a link in a chain. I’d have to say that my two great masters in that regard are Bishop and Larkin: poets justly renowned for their sparing productivity and unsparing fastidiousness whose expressive control was such that their poems are practically never off-pitch. That said, I think there are some notable differences. My poems have become more “peopled” since my first book: I’ve found myself writing more elegies and apostrophes as time goes on, and wanting to make sense of lives other than my own. I work more with intricate stanzaic forms than I used to, and with a greater variety of lyric measures appropriated from the oral traditions of ballads and hymnals. I’ve done all that I can to extend the range of my diction too, seeing if I get the language of the library and the street on more fluent speaking terms. My essential affinities haven’t changed that much (art and animals, landscape and nature, history and Americana), but I’d like to think that the sense and sensibility of the poems gives those perennial subjects a distinctive feel and tenor.
AH: Turning briefly to your work at The Atlantic Monthly in an article you wrote in memory of Peter Davison, the former poet and poetry editor of The Atlantic, you referred to the poems in the magazines as “islands of poetry.” Surrounded by so much else, does any of the magazine’s prose ever effect the way you choose poems to be published? Or are they meant to float in isolation? Does your work reading submissions and editing poetry give you a different perspective on your own work?
DB: I think it’s axiomatic that to be a serious writer of poetry you have to be a serious reader of poetry. That means reading broadly as well as deeply, sometimes with an eye to what you can adapt or borrow or even swipe, and sometimes to steep yourself in all the words and lines that have come before you and bred mutations over time. To read poetry professionally, as a day job, requires a certain kind of patience and stamina, but the heart of the matter is still close reading, paying attention to how the lines are working and trolling for writing that’s skillful, original, and memorable.
The years I’ve spent reading submissions to the magazine has helped me keep my fingers on the pulse of contemporary poetry – and perhaps inevitably, to reflect on the place of poetry in public sphere. Very few general magazines regularly publish poetry nowadays, so at The Atlantic there’s perhaps a special responsibility to seek out work that stands a chance of resonating with readers other than fellow poets. I see the poems as islands in a very literal sense: they’re surrounded by a sea of prose, after all, and unlike the lion’s share of the articles that appear in any given issue, they seldom have a particular topical interest. But that doesn’t mean that the poets that appear in The Atlantic are all Robinson Crusoes, marooned on their remote desert isles and trying to eke out a living in solitary confinement. I don’t plan to convene any focus groups about this, but it’s my hope that a fair share of readers who turn to the magazine to be better informed about current events will happen upon a poem or two that serve to affirm Ezra Pound’s famous maxim that poetry is “news that stays news.”
AH: What is it about poetry that you love, that brings you back to the page, as a writer and as a reader?
DB: The words! The sound of the words, the electrical crackle of language, the verbal music and rhythmical flow of verse lines, the rustle and the ruckus of lines that stick in your head and seduce you into saying them aloud. Prose can do that too, but the verse line was the original technology for remembering things and giving patterns and combinations of words their durable expressive power. It’s like Frost said: “the sound is the gold in the ore.” Of course, words aren’t the same things as musical notes, so the sounds that words make when they’re composed with artful poise and urgency is the sound of human creatures making new and surprising kinds of sense.
Take that now-familiar word: bittersweet. It’s the distilled expression of a certain kind of mixed emotion, and where does it come from? From a line of poetry: it first appears in a Sappho fragment, some 2700 years ago. Did people have bittersweet feelings before Sappho came up with the word for it? Sure they did, but I would argue that only after she fused together those two separate words in a lyric poem did the emotion make any sense. Putting it in a poem preserved the word once and for all, and it might be surmised that were it not for soundcraft of poetry itself, the word might never have come into being. It’s become something of a stock phrase at this late date, I’m afraid, but when it was originally set down on papyrus it was a breakthrough in consciousness and comprehension – the world had a new word and people had a new way of knowing what went on inside them. That’s what keeps bringing me back to lines on the page: hearing language making more of itself and transforming the raw material of thoughts and feelings into the precious metal of true expression.
Many thanks to David Barber for his contribution to CruelestMonth—it has been a pleasure. - AH