"As readers we encounter poems that speak to us, or dramatize our own inner life, at various times, but we all change with age and experience. Are there poems whose voices no longer speak to you?"
"Yes. I think that one of the oddities of being a reader -- and this isn't just in poetry -- is that there are things that speak to you deeply when you are young that, as you get older, no longer seem to have the same hold on you."
"Are there poems that you have never outgrown?"
"Oh, yes. I don't think I could ever outgrow Keats's Odes, which I read as a teenager and which have a tremendous lasting power and poignancy."
"Who read to you when you were young and couldn't yet read yourself?"
"My mother's father came from Latvia. He was the one person in my family who was a reader, and he was the one person that read to me. He also wrote poems. He died when I was eight years old.
"The knowledge that he wrote poems, later, was a great comfort to me. Even though the poems were lost, the fact that he had written them struck me as a reasonable thing that someone could do."
"Would you please retell the story of your encounter with the Brontë poem in his anthology? [See page 96] I've read it in a couple of places."
"I've written about it a few times, most extensively in How to Read a Poem. But I guess also in Responsive Reading. It's a meaningful story to me:
"After my grandfather died, when I was eight years old, I went down to the basement of the house. We had some books there in a library, and I pulled down a book and read a poem that I somehow thought my grandfather had written. I knew that he had written poetry, and it struck me that it sounded just like him, and I was very moved by the poem. It was very consoling to me.
"I never spoke about this experience. I just walked around feeling that I knew, very well, one of my grandfather's poems, which were otherwise lost. I kept this as a kind of vague inarticulate notion...but real to me. Sometime in high school I was looking through a poetry anthology, and I started thinking, 'This poet writes so much like my grandfather.' Then I thought, 'Oh my God! Here's my grandfather's poem.' It turns out it had been written by Emily Brontë and is often given the name 'Spellbound.'
"In a lecture you gave at Wellesley a few years ago, you said, 'The history of poetry is a mausoleum of forms.' What did you mean by that?"
"There are certain forms that spoke very powerfully to readers at a given moment in time, but when that time passed, the form wasn't flexible to the new conditions of life that prevailed, like reptilian creatures that can't adapt to a new environment.
"I would oppose that to certain forms that have been endlessly malleable -- the sonnet, for example. From the time it was first invented, in Provençal Europe, it became a repository for the subject of love, and people have been writing sonnets ever since. There have been times when there were greater sonnets and times when there were lesser sonnets, but the form speaks to something in our condition (in many different languages) that seems to be, if not permanent, at least lasting. No one knows exactly why. Who knows why a particular 14-line structure could speak so much about the nature of love?"
"When did you roll up your sleeves and say to yourself, 'OK, I need to master form?'"
"That happened very powerfully when I was a freshman in college. I had been writing poetry through high school. Well, it's generous to call it poetry. I was writing things down. I had feelings and thoughts, and I thought that was poetry.
"In college I began to encounter poems and read them and think about how they were structured. Then, I tried to imitate how that was done. I began to see that poetry is a form of making, and a poem is a made thing; it's not just a form of self-expression. Now, I'm not saying I mastered it, but from that time I started to become a poet rather than a person who was just writing poetry."
"Are there forms that elude you or remain particularly challenging yet interesting to you?"
"Yes. I haven't myself been able to write a good ghazal [pronounced guzzle]."
"And what is that?"
"It's an Arabic form that was brought very strongly to the fore by a poet, whom I write about in Poet's Choice, named Shahid Ali. Shahid edited a book --Ravishing DisUnities -- of ghazals -- It's a very rigorous form -- very common in the Arab world. Because of the number of repetitions in the form, I haven't been able to do anything with it to my satisfaction; though, God knows, I've tried."
"Poetry seems to be increasingly popular. Does it surprise you, given the country we are?"
"The culture has such a short attention span. And it is a celebrity-driven culture, so it does seem very ill disposed toward serious art. At the same time, it's not surprising, then, that a significant number of people are seeking something more significant, deeper, and more meaningful and that these people are turning to art, in general, and to poetry, in particular.
"On the one hand, poetry is very alien in the larger culture. On the other, people are really trying to make some kind of meaning out of their lives. Some people, at least, are finding that mass culture can't supply all their needs. And so they are turning to other forms of communication, and poetry is one of them."