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.
SR: Where 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.