Q: Many writers, poets and novelists alike, espouse a life of “difficulty.” Do you find yourself cultivating a difficult life for art’s sake?
Difficulty is so resonant of modernism to me. That whole idea, the value of all things difficult, is kinda throw-backy and retro. It was the ambition of a generation 100 years in the past, and it’s no longer as persuasive for me by argument. Poetry isn’t just writing about all the problems we have. It’s what I think about things. What I feel about things. When I write a poem, there are surprises and shocks. The poem itself is on the border of intelligibility, and I don’t want to understand too much. That’s the reader’s job. Part candor, part mystery. Poems are meant to be read (hopefully) hundreds of times, and they have to hold your attention
Q: Zadie Smith was here recently, speaking about writing and creativity. She suggests that creativity necessitates a “refusal.” What does the word mean to you?
Yeah, creativity is having a particularly bad stretch, because business and industry have taken it up. Now it’s fashionable to invite writers and artists to the corporate dinners. What Zadie said is just right: There has to be some desire to upset the existing idea of a poem, say, or an essay. Literature, or on a more ambitious level, culture, too. I remember Robert Frost said something about poetry … it involves “getting into danger legitimately so that we may be genuinely rescued.” I’m going to use a horrible phrase now, but our “comfort zone” should be challenged by poetry. The novel directs its mimesis toward social life. The poem — the kind I write — directs itself at the inner life and private speech. It depends on what you write. Either way, the content should challenge.
Q: Your work shows your reverence for Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Tom McCarthy in the London Review of Books recently suggested that writing after “Ulysses” can never be the same. How does “Ulysses” make writing different?
I feel exempted from it’s long shadow because I’m not a fiction writer, but here comes along a book which represents every last aspect of being human, and it comes close, it comes very close, to being right. Being final. He’s made one of the most approachable — on its terms — books you can imagine.
It’s trying to figure out how to represent emotion and experience in language — what writing, in essence, is. As a poet, I feel despair when I read Wallace Stevens. He does it so well that I don’t want to pick up a pen.
Q: Does nostalgia and reading the greats make it harder for you to write?
It makes me despair of doing anything as good, but I’m too stupid to be intimidated by Stevens because I was teaching myself things. My family wasn’t highly literary or indulgent of literary stuff. I had to introduce myself to most poetry and literature. Ultimately I feel alone with my work. I’m 43, almost 44, an age where you start to think about the arc of your career, and I don’t think there is any arc as triumphant as that of Stevens. In terms of career — the production of individual poems, a book — Stevens is the model.
Q: On your Wellesley bio page, you say, “I like to give advice about food.” Can we talk about food?
That’s a great question. Let me give you an anecdote — I think you can print this — yeah, it’s fine. Anyway, I once introduced John Ashbery, and someone asked him, “would you tell me the influence upon your work of food”. He gave an amazing, eloquent and extensive response of all the great meals he’d eaten. Turns out the guy asking the question actually said “Proust.” On another note, my form of cosmopolitanism when I was in high school was to eat. I hung out at a restaurant run by University of Vermont students, where I ate food that wasn’t available at home. I always associated it with expanding my horizons.
Now, my ritual at home involves making dinner. It’s important to cultivate rituals around writing, which accommodate days where the writing hasn’t gone well. Food is great, because my wife will tell me I’ve done a good job, even when I haven’t.
When I think about food, I think about why I’m a critic: I have strong enthusiasm, strong opinions and strong aversions. They need to be communicated, and shared.
I need to share, persuade. Advice about food is continuous with advice about poetry.
Q: You claim you weren’t much of an intellectual in high school. How did you develop a passion for culture?
I owe a lot to Joyce. I started Greek in college, and I had some Latin, but not as much as the kids from Groton, Andover and Exeter. I did Greek because of Ellman’s biography of Joyce, where he mentioned that Joyce scribbled the first few lines of the Odyssey, in Ancient Greek, on a piece of scrap paper. I thought that was pretty cool. In high school, I used to walk around with a copy of Ulysses. I now have a copy from 1922, which has uncut pages. That’s ironic, because here’s one of the original copies of a book that people fought so hard to make public after its ban, and it went unread. To some extent it’s still an unread book. I never really sat down to read it until recently. I think it’s unfortunate the way it opens; the first three episodes are the hardest – the Telemechiad, as they’re called. The book is a compound self-portrait — Joyce was involved in relationships, being a father, grieving: All the things that happen to you whether you plan or not, and these processes work their way into book, which changes as he does. He’s showing his earlier blindness [Joyce’s sight deteriorated as he wrote Ulysses] in the first real character we meet, Stephen Dedalus, before we shift to Bloom.
Bloom has his own lapses, but the main framing lapse is Molly’s. He’s a person who makes mistakes but he’s a person who comprehends lapses.
Q: As a man who makes his living in words, how do you feel about the spread of the word “like”?
It’s funny, one of the hallmarks of being an English professor is that people become self-conscious about their speech around you.
Of course there’s a difference between spoken English versus written English.
The word “like,” in spoken English, specifically in spoken American English, can be used to real expressive purpose. Terry Gross, the NPR host, has this wonderful way, part of her modesty, that she’ll frame a question with a number of “likes,” tics and quirks that seem very expressive and continuous of colloquial English.
When I started lecturing at Harvard, I began to listen to my lectures when they were recorded, and I was appalled by how many “ums” there were in my sentences. One of the most powerful things you can do as a public speaker is pause. You appear to be framing your sentences silently. Even if you have no idea.
Q: You’re fond of the word “fuck,” and as a Joyce fan, you clearly value the power of obscenities. Can a work of art ever be obscene?
Obscene? No. Obscenity can’t apply. You have to imagine that if we have a legal quality for obscenity, it means “having no social value,” which cannot apply to great art. Nabokov’s Lolita is more transgressive a novel than Ulysses and, with some trepidation, I’ve taught it to all-female classrooms. It’s a rare person who can see that it’s value as art trumps all potentiality to offend. In fact, it’s hard to even imagine a work more transgressive than Lolita. To some desensitized individuals it might be mild now, but in the 1950s it was anything but.
Q: Let’s talk a little about your work as a critic. What are your criteria for a good poem?
I think my failure and strength as a critic is that I have no set criteria. I want to be surprised. I’ve read a lot of contemporary poetry, so if I’m surprised and compelled, it’s a sign that something is working. Linguistic imagination is something I appreciate. I start with a blank slate every time I take up a new poem. But poetry is what’s in your ear. Which poems do you have in your ear when you look at a new poem? Which poets? Which ideas?
Q: Many of your poems contain a great emotional intensity, and deal with“love’s sincerity.” What do you think of the culture of casual sex that goes on at a lot of colleges?
I feel like a dinosaur in relationship to casual sex now. I came from the AIDS generation, so I can’t ever really take sex that lightly. The line you brought up is taken from an idea Donne comes up with: You can block out the universe doing certain things — by closing your eyes for example — but you block out forms of verification, like seeing your lover’s face, when you shut down. I’ve always thought that it’s hard for a straight white guy to write about sex.
I’m not entirely sure. Most writing about sex feels sentimental. I think it borders on the identification of woman as aesthetic, as sexual object. It can be done well; sex is another sensory experience, albeit a more intense one. It’s tactile. It seems that Joyce is always on the side of the tactile — taste, smell, touch.
Q: Are you on the side of the tactile?
I think you have to be. You still can maintain temperament, you can be ironic and intellectual, but there needs to be the tactile part in there. You have to be.
Contact Ivan Kirwan-Taylor at