McClatchy shares poetic reflections

Walking up Prospect Street is indicative of a journey into the more scientific world of Yale. And yet, past Sloane Physics and Kline Chemistry laboratories, 314 Prospect St. houses the office of J.D. McClatchy GRD ’74, editor of The Yale Review, a literary quarterly.

McClatchy is an adjunct professor of English who divides his time between editing and writing poetry, literary criticism, and prose, in addition to editing the Review. His latest book, Hazmat, is expected to come out this fall.

The Yale Review has published original works by contemporary writers — from Virginia Woolf to Vladimir Nabokov, from Robert Frost to Eudora Welty — since 1911. McClatchy has served as editor of the publication since 1991. Under his direction, the Review has presented up-and-coming writers, explored the broader movements in American thought, science and culture, and reviewed new books in a variety of fields.

McClatchy spoke of his own writing as a continuing craft.

“I am a craftsman who does with words what a shoemaker does with shoes,” he said. “Creativity can make writing either easier or more difficult, but it depends on how one shapes it.”

McClatchy attributes much of his creative achievement to his graduate work at Yale. He said his studies with Harold Bloom taught him how to become a better reader, which undoubtedly made him a better writer.

“Reading is a form of writing,” McClatchy said. “One does not work well without the other. It wasn’t until I was a good reader that I thought it possible to write anything I could risk showing someone.”

While he was a graduate student at Yale, the Vietnam War was in full swing. As an alternative to wartime pressures, he decided to teach for three years in Philadelphia, during which he began immersing himself in contemporary poetry. Upon his return to Yale, he changed his focus from Renaissance literature to contemporary poetry.

“I became a writer because I wanted to make things up,” he said.

From that point on he began to develop his poetic voice. For the past 20 years McClatchy has been a prolific writer of poetry, librettos and criticism. His work has not gone unnoticed — he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1999, received the American Academy Arts and Letters Award in Literature in 1991, and received the O. Henry Award in 1972.

McClatchy said his life experience has allowed him to incorporate reality into his writing.

“The older a person becomes the more scars he acquires, the more irony and wisdom he has to bear,” McClatchy said.

The passion that poetry can evoke in people is what McClatchy said he tries to convey most to the students in his upper-level English seminar, “The Writing of Verse.”

“I try to give students a sense of how difficult the art of poetry is in order for them to learn the difference between what is good poetry and what is not,” McClatchy said. “I want students to feel that poetry can be a source of energy and passion. In a world where we are bombarded with images from all sources, poems are private place to which one can return.”

He does not seek to convert those who are not fans of poetry.

“The people for whom poetry matters, it matters,” McClatchy said.

McClatchy includes poems with more bodily connections in his new book, Hazmat. Drawing on the drama of betrayal and decay present in reality, he focuses on the interplay between history and private life. McClatchy tries to examine that relationship, which he calls “the shadow of events,” from the inside.

Seth Lobis ’04, an editorial assistant at the Review, said the careful attention McClatchy pays to his writing is evident in all of his endeavors, including his work at The Review.

“I met J.D. McClatchy during my freshman year at Yale, and over the last 10 years I have been continually inspired by his energy and intellectual exuberance, amused by his sharp wit, and emboldened by his ferocious commitment to excellence in all things,” Lobis said. “These qualities proceed from a certain power of imagination, which Coleridge called ‘esemplastic.'”

McClatchy feels similarly about his students.

“I have an unparalleled affection and admiration for the Yale community,” he said. “The level of intelligence of the Yale faculty and students, as well as the inquisitive, determinedness of them all promotes an exhilarating environment that strongly supports and fosters the growth of the intellectual.”

McClatchy is also pleased that poetry has grown in popularity.

“Over the last 20 years there has been an upsurge in interest in poetry,” McClatchy said. “It is the eighth most popular interest ahead of football and tennis.”

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