A Conversation With Dan Chiasson

Dan Chiasson

Spring 2019

Dan Chiasson is the country’s most visible poet-critic, having contributed reviews to Poetry, the New York Review of Books, and since 2007, the New Yorker. In this capacity he has made a significant contribution to the way literary-minded Americans read and appreciate poetry. However, his virtues are not merely curatorial. He is a keen writer, and someone for whom the world of the mind—the creative impulse, figurative thought—is immediately accessible. In other words, Chiasson deals with the imagined, and its relationship to lived experience. While his education and inclinations are Classical, his idiom and tastes are up-to-date; by Chiasson’s estimate, Archilochus and Dickinson rank with Louis Glück and Terrance Hayes in terms of contemporary relevance. His reviews are equally agnostic; he’ll write on anything—but not everything—from Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson’s landmark second collection, House of Lords and Commons, to the fiftieth anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Sylvia Plath’s Collected Letters. The care with which Chiasson treats his subjects, poetic or otherwise, reveals a true generosity of attention and interest, and, like his own poetry, exercises in the possibilities of thought. His four collections to date (The Afterlife of Objects; Natural History; Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon; and Bicentennial) disclose an uncommon clarity from a poet whose work operates within the many intersections of time and the imagination.

I interviewed Chiasson when he came to Sewanee from Massachusetts (where he teaches at Wellesley) to deliver a lecture on the work and legacy of Heather McHugh, recipient of the Sewanee Review’s 2018 Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry. A second conversation followed, some months later, on the phone. Dan is a sharp and generous conversationalist—a cozy, consummate New Englander. I’m always excited to hear how a poet speaks, as the pattern of a poet’s speech often helps illuminate their work. That didn’t happen here. What I did learn from talking with Chiasson is how he constructs a line of critical thinking, which in this case, proved more fruitful. 

—Spencer Hupp 


SRWhere did you start with poetry? What poets and writers did you first cling to as interests or influences?
 
Chiasson: Like a lot of poets of my generation or older, the first poem that really spoke to me was Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I first found it in the back of some ninth- or tenth-grade textbook. I memorized it. Like a lot of dorky, sexually baffled white boys, I saw myself in Prufrock. Around the same time there was a PBS series called Voices and Visions, and I can remember first watching the T. S. Eliot episode in my living room in Burlington, Vermont, on an occasion when I was able to commandeer the one TV from my grandparents, who liked Hogan’s Heroes or Across the Fence, a local show that gave tips on canning berries and such. Then, amazingly, from the same screen, over the same speakers, came Eliot’s voice: “Let us go then, you and I. . . .” It matters, I think, that that poem begins with an invitation. I took the invitation personally.
 
SR: When did you first think to pursue poetry professionally?
 
Chiasson: “Professional” is such a fascinating word. A profession is “a public declaration,” and it relates to the vows taken by members of a religious order. If we use that older sense of the word, I guess I would name several moments.
A beloved teacher died suddenly in high school. Somewhere, in the archives of Rice Memorial High School, there is a yearbook with my first poem, an elegy for him. It was a big literary production, with little notes stolen from Eliot and from Robert Lowell, whom I’d just started reading. But the poem was seen as serious and dignified, a way for the community to think through the loss. I still remember getting a phone call from a classmate, who had always styled himself as our class’s “poet,” essentially surrendering, handing over the laurels—saying, more or less, “you win.” It was my first experience of the po biz. But, of course, elegies have always been essentially competitive: Milton’s “Lycidas” was published in a memorial volume alongside other poems vying, essentially, to be “Lycidas.” So: loss, “profession,” and competition, all present in that first poem.
I lacked a real father, so I was always very susceptible to proxies. The teacher who died was a proxy-father. At Amherst I gained several more, and made myself over to suit each of them. Frost was still very much a presence when I was there: my teachers’ teacher. His aura, though, was channeled as a lesson in how to read. I absorbed his great statements about prosody: “sentence sounds,” the importance of the ear, the proper ambience and inflection for hearing pentameter, etcetera. The English Department had been organized in the sixties and seventies as essentially an institutional framework for handing down Frost’s legacy, and anybody serious there, at the time, in the early nineties, wanted to read Frost, to read what Frost had read and taught, and to hear stories about Frost. It never occurred to me to try to write poems of my own during those four years. It was a kind of seminary, a holy training, albeit one with lots of drugs and sex. I guess there were student poets around, but I didn’t know them. In a way, not writing poems of my own was itself a professional act. It meant I was serious about poetry. These are pretentious views and I was at times insufferable to be around, of that I am certain.
At Harvard, I was adjacent to poets for the first time in my life. Seamus Heaney was there at the photocopier. Helen Vendler, my advisor, helped me ironize my own pieties—as a woman literary scholar at Harvard, one of the first, she’d seen up close the genial condescension of some of the literary men I admired. She would dismiss some part of what I wrote or said, always, as just the Amherst in me talking. I took that to be an investment in the deeper person and a kind of imperative to find a mentor.
That mentor turned out to be Frank Bidart. He read everything I wrote. When I had new poems, I’d drive them over to his apartment in Cambridge. He kept, and still keeps, weird hours, so if it was in the middle of the day he’d be asleep. The protocol was that I would leave the poems in his mailbox. In any case, I would give him the poems, and he would call me back in the middle of the night—as I said, he kept odd hours—and we would talk through them.
Speaking of fathers, proxy-fathers, and so on: Frank’s mailbox had a little taped-on typed-out name on a yellow slip of paper: “Lowell.” This was 1997 or ’98, and the name had been there since 1970 or so when a middle-aged Robert Lowell had crashed there for several weeks, I believe, with Frank. Some kind of dynastic urge was fulfilled whenever I opened that mailbox and slipped my new poems in. I haven’t been to Frank’s apartment in years, but I would be shocked if he removed it. I once mentioned it to him, kind of in passing, in the spirit of a joke, and I could see that I’d made a grave error. The name was not to be treated lightly. I’m older now, and I can see why.
 
SR: Your first, and only, major book of criticism, One Kind of Everything, is dedicated to both Vendler and Bidart.
 
Chiasson: I think of that book as a snapshot of my thinking at the time, which is by now ten years ago. It is the prose elaboration of what I was trying to do with my first collection of poems. The rhetorical source of my earlier poems, the ones in The Afterlife of Objects and Natural History, was autobiographical. At that time, autobiographical content in a poem was automatically seen as a sign of narcissism, insufficient intelligence, ambition. Autobiographical poetry, partly due to its accumulative evolution or devolution over the years, had become synonymous with cheap memoir. I wanted to show in the book—it was my dissertation, and I have to admit, I don’t read every sentence in it, now, with pride—that in apparently autobiographical poetry there was rich linguistic and theoretical content. I also wanted to show that in apparently theoretical poetry there was more personal disclosure than had been examined.
 
SR: Are there any contemporary poets successfully navigating the personal and poetic in the way Bidart does?
 
Chiasson: Bidart has had a huge decade, hasn’t he? And Lowell is newly relevant. Life Studies was crucial, in its way, to a book like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. I think we live in a new vanguard of personal poetry. The subject of the moment is the self in social and political space, and poets from all kinds of unrepresented communities now have an intense and urgent imperative to shape poems that reflect their experiences. A poet like Terrance Hayes shows how interiority might work under really lethal circumstances. jos charles, a trans poet, has created a new prosody for representing embodied thinking. The fronteriza poet Natalie Scenters-Zapico works the seam between languages, cultures, and states of being. Sally Wen Mao, whose book Oculus is about selves and suffering and spectacle. I could go on and on.
 
SR: You would not agree with, say, Roland Barthes or Paul de Man that the author is largely irrelevant to the meaning of a text?
 
Chiasson: No.
 
SR: To you a poem is not an artifact.
 
Chiasson: No, it’s an environment. It’s viewing Emily Dickinson’s scrap poetry in her bedroom, or reciting Frank O’Hara from memory while walking up Fifth Avenue towards the Park. Or saying Ralegh’s “The Lie” over dinner to my kids, who are twelve and fourteen and becoming defiant and political and adamant in all kinds of thrilling ways, and need to know that courage has a literature. Or measuring the progress of the year by reading Ammons’s “Tape for the Turn of the Year.”
I'm fascinated by the inner life as a social fact, a competing fact, as real as the weather or the news.
 
SR: That phrase, “inner life,” reminds me of something you said in your review of W. S. Merwin’s Essential Poems, about “how much goes on inside the mind and how little trace its activity leaves on the material world.” I see this problem as a dominating force in some of your own poems. Am I on to something?
 
Chiasson: Yes, for sure. Poems make something, a thing, a thing of value, moral value, commercial value, out of our emotions. Most poets who have a kind of fiercely tended interiority are also really serious about creating something that has a tangible, durable quality. They want to make a “real thing” from their thoughts. Wallace Stevens is the principal example of that kind of poet. Dickinson would be another that comes to mind. Those are more or less my two favorite poets, and neither one of those poets are particularly confessional. They are not trying to communicate, report, or interpret experience. They are not mainly writing about the way they are seen as men or women, or as gay or straight, or as being from a certain socioeconomic class. They are mainly engaged in the work of planting and harvesting thoughts, creating a kind of world on the page that corresponds to the world in their minds. Obviously, any poet whose primary project has to do with the inner life also notices how much of a disconnect there is between their inner world and their outer life.
I'm not sure if this is quite what you’re getting at, but it’s certainly the case that there’s a distinction in my practice between what the ongoing longitudinal trajectory of my thoughts is on the one hand and my daily responsibilities of being a human being in the world, filling up the car with gas and responding to emails, and so on. Those two lives have almost nothing to do with each other. That discrepancy between the two worlds becomes itself a subject for thought. It is often the case that my poems are interrogating the way daydreaming—which is what I call the inner, creative life—works in the world, especially how it works in relation to others, in relation to the people closest to me.
 
SR: A poet, or poem’s, inner life is often dependent on their experience of time. Your poem “Dreams (2)” features these lines:

What happened to Hibbing, Minnesota,
            they asked Dylan.
And Dylan replied: just time.
            Time is what happened to Hibbing.
 
Imagine outlasting time,
            appearing on the other side
of it, relieved, like
            Wow What Was That All About

People, places, and poems change with time and in time. Talk for a moment on how time works within and upon a poem.

 

Chiasson: Oh, man. Good question.

“Upon” is easier. Normally, the effects are not kind. I see this in my own work: I’ve grown, my sense of language has grown, my values have evolved, I’m more honest with myself, and so, I’ve outgrown a number of my poems. They’re like outfits from old photos. What was I thinking?

I think that’s what Dylan means in my mostly made-up quotation from him (he does say something to that effect in Scorsese’s documentary about him, but I took liberties.) He means: Hibbing didn’t change; time changed around it, and therefore changed it. It became an aspect of the past. For “Hibbing,” substitute just about anything. Time is rapacious if you have an identity, a fixed and settled way of being.

How does time work within a poem? The most obvious thing that distinguishes poetry from prose is that it breaks lines. It starts over fresh in the left margin. It’s invested in beginnings. One could argue that a novel, for all its meaningful digressions and complexities of plot, has one beginning and one ending. You could say that paragraphs offer the novelist opportunity for new beginnings, but not in the radical way that a poem does every time it offers a new line. A poem is willed ending and willed opening over and over again. In forms that have refrains or other kinds of formal repetition, you see how crucial cyclicality is. It allows for a nonlinear understanding of time, a poetic narrative made of returns. I’m very much concerned with that cyclicality, where you find yourself when a cycle begins, what development that indicates, and the strange, bipolar attraction one experiences between the end of one line and the beginning of another.

 

SR: How’d you feel about Dylan getting the Nobel?

 

Chiasson: It’s fine. You’d have to care more about what that prize is; you’d have to essentialize it in such a way that giving it to a singer or a songwriter is some kind of sin. I don’t feel that the Nobel Prize in Literature has ever had such a distinct or honored reputation anyway. To be clear, I do not think Dylan is a poet. I don’t think any of his lyrics really work on the page. Occasionally a phrase or two will work, but they don’t work the way great poems work. But I think there’s something unmistakably literary about Dylan, and there’s definitely a recognizably American mythology around him. He’s one of my favorite performers, so I’m fine with it. To be honest, I like Joni Mitchell even better, so in the silly game of “if-it-has-to-be-a-songwriter,” I would probably have given it to her instead.

 

SR: I think the distinction between songwriting and poetry is an issue of craft. Lyrics are dependent on melody, where poems can exist in their own right. That brings to mind some lines from Yeats: “Irish poets, learn your trade / Sing whatever is well-made.” How do you define a “well-made” poem? Is that even a concern of yours?

 

Chiasson: We know that a lot of apparently well-made poetry is on a deep level unsatisfying. That’s helpful for me in thinking about my own work. I’m an Emersonian: I think poems are records of a mind moving through them. Sometimes moving heedlessly, or dangerously, like a hurricane, sometimes stepping with delicacy and tact. Stevens puts it just right: they’re a “shivering residue” of thinking that has moved on down the line.

I sometimes make a change here or there, to make a poem rhyme, or rhyme more, or to bring a passage closer to regular meter. But a formal poem is no better at trapping the mind’s drift than something in free verse. Forms are nice because they pass the time. You can make a game out of them. Sometimes you end up with a poem.

 

SR: Is there a distinct tone or language to contemporary poetry?

 

Chiasson: There are contemporary ways of tapping into the language we call “poetry,” for sure. There are distinct, culturally and politically marked ways of tapping into it. But the language itself is so durable and transitive. If you’re a reader of poetry from any period, you’re addressed in its language constantly. And you know it right away. It’s a language that is not dependent on the actual language that the poem is written in; it can come across in translation. If you know another language, you find it in that language. And poets are people who want to speak back.

One of the things I’m most blown away by in my line of work is the collapsed temporality of reading a poem. When you read the ancient poets, be they Sappho or Archilochus, you are in some literal way meeting these authors, albeit on the plateau of language. There’s this uncanny sense of simultaneity. It’s most striking the further away the author is, be it in time or in culture. To share in their insights and thoughts, to speak their words, that’s one of the most meaningful experiences a person can have. I feel as a reader that my own love of poetry has to do with the awe or wonder that time can be made, remade, refashioned in the sphere of a poem.

The obvious example in American poetry would be Whitman, who all over Leaves of Grass is directly addressing not just the present reader, but all future readers. When you read Whitman today, you often feel that you’re being quite specifically buttonholed by him, and that his own brilliance has been put in the ground waiting to detonate one hundred and sixty years in the future.

 

SR: There’s a lot of that outward communication in your own poetry. You seem very much in dialogue with the reader. The number of second-person pronouns in Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon might even outnumber the first-person pronouns. What comes from this dialogue?

 

Chiasson: Honestly, it’s all about the “you.” Everyone has an “I.” Great poets shape, out of silence, from nothing, a gripping, weirdly specified “you” that the reader both embodies, as its subject, and overhears, from behind the arras or whatever.

The “I” and the “You” needn’t correspond to two persons. They could be a single person at different phases. My “you” is often Dan Chiasson, as his particular life delivers him to happiness or humiliation; my “I” is the self-made-of-words, arranged on the page, keeping its eye on him.

 

SR: Your poem “Train” is about intellectual capacity and the limits of human imagination. Again, that persistent second-person pronoun: “You can follow the train in your mind / but your mind cannot follow the train.”

 

Chiasson: That’s a poem about marriage. If you’re an insomniac married to an insomniac, you are often in the position of pretending not to notice that the other person is pretending to be asleep; they’re pretending not to notice that you’re pretending at the same time.

It's also very much a poem about keeping time. We were living in Sherborn, Massachusetts, a town in the woods, about twenty-five miles from Boston. It’s very pretty: fields, stone walls, very old houses. The nighttime was very quiet, except for the train. It actually was the same Concord rail that Thoreau writes about in Walden, but he was hearing it when it was brand-new; the tracks had just been laid. Now it’s a freight line. While it was very quiet at night in Sherborn, the silence was regularly interrupted by the train’s whistle. This allowed one to measure time in an interesting way. As a way of passing the time while sleepless in bed, I’d try to hear the sound of the train for as long as possible and figure out when the very moment that silence returned would be. It’s from that experience that I wrote this poem. It’s about the limitations of the imagination and what you do when you discover those limitations, what you do when you discover the bound or limit of your imagination, where you go after that.

 

SR: Can we talk about reviewing?

 

Chiasson: Sure!

 

SR: You wrote a positive review of Ishion Hutchison’s book House of Lords and Commons in the New Yorker. However, you did single out one poem “The Orator,” for condemnation: “the orator is a pretty easy target, and Hutchinson’s vitriol (‘scum,’ ‘rodent’) is comically excessive, his rhymes approaching drawing-room doggerel (‘laps’ and ‘chaps,’ for instance).” Faint praise there, but you defend Hutchinson in the next sentence: “Not everything here is meant to be apt, classic, or anthology-ready.” How do you write about poets you like whose careers are still developing, still underway?

 

Chiasson: I rarely strike that tone. With Hutchinson, I felt strongly that there was real genius, a way around the language, an ear for, and a reverence for, literary English somewhat rare in his generation. It was most evident, oddly, in the trickier passages in that book. With that poem I was remembering something Jarrell said about Whitman: “only a genius could make Whitman’s worst messes.” It seemed to me that these mistakes were an aspect of Hutchinson’s omnivorous appetite for phrase. The lines in his poems are so musical that sometimes the sonic pattern or sonic impressiveness of a phrase will make it so that you can’t hear how unidiomatic it is. Most often his appetite for language and the sound of words and phrases make for really memorable poems.

Poets in their twenties and thirties, just a little younger than I am, are just killing it. The strongest bodies of work cross media, reach out to, and even act as, scholarship and community activism. Many of the greatest poets of that generation tell what it feels like in America to be born in a black body, or to be born in America into a non-conforming gender or sexuality, or to work at the economic margins, or to work while caring for a child, or a parent, or while grappling with illness. Of course, you have to find the language for all of these subjects. But they are not overdone. Women have been having babies for a very long time. The most famous poem about writing with a baby sleeping in the room, however, is Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight.” Coleridge: not known for his parenting skills.

 

SR: Do you worry about “the canon?”

 

Chiasson: No, because there isn’t any such thing. What there is, though, is great poetry from before 2016. Here I probably will end up sounding like an old fogey: I worry that the poetry of the past is being ignored in favor of our contemporaries. I have taught in workshops both at Wellesley and at Boston University. Even my very greatest students, if they’ve read Keats’s “To Autumn,” say, they haven’t read Endymion. They probably have read only excerpts of Paradise Lost. They have not read Sidney.

I do believe that as MFA programs have become one of our main ways of teaching the literary past, the literary past has been shortened. By “past,” some people might mean 1985. They might mean Charles Simic’s first three books. They probably don’t mean Housman or Hardy. They certainly don’t mean Pope or Dryden.

There's a lot to be said about how putting two unlike things together can be revelatory. If you were to show Dante to a student, what they might learn is that their own personal experience isn’t sufficient to writing a poem, that there are massive cultural frameworks and formal frameworks that are understood by most great poets before they sit down to write.

There's just something so rapacious about culture that the new is always blotting out and replacing the old. I think there’s going to come some moment in my life where I just stop reading and just reread, go back and read things that should be read. And that will be my attempt toward a stewardship of the past. I’ve got two kids now, and I can see exactly how the culture is operating upon them. I can see how they’re going to replace me, and by and large it has to do with the mastery of visual media, working with a camera and computer. My sons are both into movies in a really serious way, and both want to be filmmakers, which is extraordinary. Their process of discovery is not dissimilar to a kid thirty years ago going into the library and finding new books to read. It’s great to see, but it still pains me a little to know how much prestige visual media now have over writing.

 

SR: I think it has a bit to do with the screens we carry around in our pockets.

 

Chiasson: Absolutely. And the irony is, those screens can deliver all of literature, everything ever written, and still have bandwidth left to tell you what to do with leftover scrambled eggs. In preparing for this visit I loaded up my phone with books. I’ve stopped carrying physical books in my tote bag on a plane. I’m surrounded by them at home, but it’s dark in New England in February, so it’s pretty nice to have a backlit screen to read from. And it allows you to toggle over to Twitter and figure out if the President has had to resign, and whatever exciting thing might happen next. It’s getting hard to balance.

 

SR: New England people and places have popped up a lot in our conversation. You yourself are from New England, a place with a rich literary history and immense literary baggage. Do you think of yourself as a “New England poet”? Are you in any way burdened by the inheritance of Dickinson, Frost, Lowell, Plath, Hall?

 

Chiasson: I wouldn’t think of it as a burden. We have to think about the pleasures of reading about your own world, your surroundings. A Californian might feel a version of this; a Southerner certainly would. When I went to Paris for the first time, I made a point of reading Proust. And that was just a pleasure, recognizing the features of one’s world within the covers of a book. But New England authors have often had to make do with very little. Henry James made this point in an introduction to an edition of Hawthorne, his great work of criticism on the author. He writes on how Nathaniel Hawthorne came out of a European literary tradition, while being an American and being surrounded by the woods. In lieu of cathedrals and universities and ancient, complex social arrangements, the American writer at the time had little more than a collection of a few houses, wooden churches, and beyond those sparse buildings large and immensely forbidding woods. New Englanders have always made a lot out of not very much in the way of landscape. The ocean might be the great exception, but when you read Thoreau or Emerson, you have to remember that in many ways Concord is a very unremarkable place. It doesn’t offer extraordinary vistas or dramatic changes in landscape. It’s just a mellow village along the banks of a mellow river. And yet these massive spiritual claims are made for that world. In Dickinson, for example, what you get of the landscape are a few plants and birds—some native, some not. What really comes through are the times of day, the angles of the light. There’s nothing already meaningful about the landscape.

And meanings are always ascribed to things by the writer, by their language. I think I’m part of that tradition. I don’t need some grand chiaroscuro landscape balancing in some dramatic way to write poems. I think the New England writers teach you that the mind is always operating on a set of symbols, on a set of phenomena that are not remarkable on their own. It’s the supplementary power of the imagination that makes them remarkable. So that’s the tradition I’m working in. I think of someone like Robert Lowell as being more indebted to New England prose writers than New England poets. He doesn’t sound anything like Dickinson. What he does sound like, to me, is a version of Henry James, or a vulgar, slangy Francis Parkman. In his prose you can certainly see it, but also in his poems. There’s this wit and analysis of social arrangements and of families, of inheritance. That’s a tradition I think travels more through the New England novel, having to do with class and aristocracy, fading ways of life. That tradition I very much love to read about, but none of it appears in my own poetry. I’m not pulling in any way from the drawing room tradition of New England writing. But the tradition of New England transcendentalists and poets from Dickinson to the present day are actively and self-consciously engaged in making symbols and making meaning out of the paucity of their own surrounding world and landscape.

 

SR: It seems the gap between the spoken word and written word is once again closing. There’s a renewed emphasis on how a poem sounds, and how that affects what a poem means. I think it has something to do with hip-hop; Derek Walcott was greatly encouraged that rap music had reaffirmed the place of the heroic couplet in the public imagination. What do you make of this?

 

Chiasson: I had a friend in grad school named Adam Bradley, who’s written a bunch of books that serve as sort of New Critical close readings of rap lyrics. I myself have a piece on rap music for the New York Review of Books in a review of a hip-hop anthology he edited. I feel the same way here as I do about Bob Dylan: the lyrics almost never work on the page. Arguments usually pertaining to poetry don’t persuade me when applied to rap. Rap lyrics are hyper-regular formally. Almost all rap is in 4/4. The rhymes are often intended to shock or surprise, but on the page seem forced or absurd.

However, I do think that rap, spoken word, and slam poetry are remarkable forms of aural performance. When the kind of poetry that I write is read aloud it’s often very boring, and I’ve never found a comfortable way of performing my own poems. When I read, I usually attempt some form of apologetic, moderated emotionality. That is, I try to communicate emotionality in lieu of actually performing it. I try to respect the structures on the page, but often find that I can’t, really, when I read aloud. Spoken word, on the other hand, is having an incredible moment. All of my students are into it. Again, it is an astounding form of aural performance, and making it work on the page is a great aesthetic paradox and challenge. I’m not sure it has to. Still, if it’s going to enter syllabi for courses on poetry, then there have to be distinct ways of teaching it and analyzing it that don’t depend on metrical or formal analyses. Oftentimes in a spontaneous or seemingly spontaneous performed work, the kind of deep imaginative precision we expect in great poems isn’t there, you wouldn’t want it there anyway; those aren’t the order of the day in performance.

The poet Danez Smith, whose book Don’t Call Us Dead was one of 2017’s best, is one of those rare poets whose work I first encountered as spoken word, mostly on YouTube. But when I open the book, the poems I see are just as fantastic as written things. Smith performs them brilliantly, movingly, and arrestingly, but it’s not as though when you read them on the page you have to imagine Smith’s voice for the poems to work. Smith has figured out a way to make those things work in the reader’s mind, which is really what we’re talking about when we talk about the page: what voices work in the reader’s mind, and what voices rely upon a real voice, a real performer. When you are enjoying those poems on your own, you are almost recreating the conditions of that performance.

 

SR: How separate is your work as a critic from your work as a poet? Do they overlap? Are you comfortable with the term “poet-critic”?

 

Chiasson: It’s fine. It’s neutral, I think. There is “a tradition” of poet-critics, most of them, sadly, jackasses. I hope it doesn’t suggest that a person has divvied up his finite talent into two piles, making him somewhat decent at both.

I love what William Carlos Williams said about balancing his work as a doctor and his work as a poet: something to the effect of, “The poetry—it takes no time at all!” Of course it does, but it also gives time back. I’m never more productive in my life than when my desire to write has been sufficiently exhausted.

Writing prose, even when it has a wide readership, is lonely. It’s turns of mind, made in response to earlier turns of mind. An argument is almost a form of math. I try to gussy my prose up to sound like speech, and I think I’m decent at that little magic trick. But fundamentally, prose makes me feel lonely.

Every poem I’ve ever published, on the other hand, has the trace of elation in it. It’s just a joy, a pure joy, to be writing a poem when it’s doing what you want it to do. It’s communal, it’s companionable. Once we have line breaks, we have community.

Dan Chiasson is the author of five books, including, most recently, the poetry collection Bicentennial. He teaches at Wellesley College and reviews poetry for the New Yorker.

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