David Yezzi on poetry and his latest collection, Azores.
David Yezzi is Executive Editor of The New Criterion and a well-known poet whose published collections include The Hidden Model and Sad is Eros. His essays have appeared at Poetry, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Sun, and The New Yorker. He has earned degrees from Carnegie Mellon University and Columbia University School of the Arts. His latest book is what occasioned this interview.
BC: Congratulations on the release of your new collection, Azores. How many years did it take to produce this nifty twenty? Also, what rate of production qualifies a poet as prolific?
David Yezzi: Thanks, Bernard. My last book (which was my first), The Hidden Model, came out five years ago, so this is pretty much everything since then. Everything, that is, that was worth keeping. It’s hard to know what’s worth hanging on to sometimes. Fortunately, I had a great editor, the poet David Sanders at Swallow Press, who talked me out of a few of the weaker poems in the manuscript. These were poems that had appeared in magazines and so on, so I was a little hesitant to cut them loose. But he was right; it’s a tighter book now. Twenty poems in five years! That’s not what I would call prolific. Some poets turn out a ninety page book almost every year. Now that’s prolific, though it is possible, I think, to write too much. There’s no point in piling up a mountain of poems that no one wants to read. Poetry is so compressed: you can do a lot with a little. It’s like Randall Jarrell said: “A poet is a man who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times.” I’d say you are darn lucky if you get hit once; a handful of times would be earthshaking.
BC: Why the title? Do you regard “Azores” as being your strongest poem? It seemed to me less representative of the whole than the others.
David Yezzi: “Azores” is a sonnet sequence about an ocean voyage, which also explores the limits of the erotic—hence the spicy epigraph from Horace’s Pyrrha ode (I.v) sometime called “To a Flirt.” The sonnets are in a more associative, almost Symbolist vein, and not, therefore like most of the other poems in the book. The poet and critic Adam Kirsch wrote recently in The New York Sunthat the “Azores” sonnets show “both sides of the balance, the passion and the restraint. . . . Like Hart Crane's "Voyages," "Azores" is suffused with the eroticism of the sea. Unlike Crane, Mr. Yezzi concludes by recognizing that "we are not suited to live long at sea," that our "lust for water" is countered by a "fidelity to land." It may be that this tension runs though a number of poems in the book, and I hope “Azores” points toward this tension somewhat.
BC: What’s your favorite poem here? Mine was “The Ghost-Seer.” Further, which ones received the most praise?
David Yezzi: A kind of healthy loathing sets in for me as soon as the poems are published. They’re basically done; they’re as good (more or less) as they’re going to be. I consider each of them as works of the highest genius the day that I finish it, and possibly for a few days afterward. Then more and more I tend to see the flaws. Whatever it was that got my blood going enough to think I was on the right track fades a bit. I still feel okay about it but not as thrilled. That’s good, I think. It keeps me moving ahead, taking whatever works and building on it if possible. It’s like Wallace Stevens wrote to Donald Hall, when Hall asked if he could collect Stevens undergraduate poems: “Some of one’s early things give one the creeps.” Even a poem written five years ago can seem like a voice form the distant past. I’m not sure that speaks very well for their longevity, though.
I’m glad you like “The Ghost-Seer.” A number of people have singled that one out as one of their favorites. It was an excerpt from a verse play I wrote a year or two ago. Originally, it was presented in the manuscript as a scene from the play, with different characters in dialogue. The editor said it just felt wrong to him to present it that way and asked me if I could edit it down to a single dramatic monologue (which is actually how it started). Again, I think David Sanders made the right call. It works nicely now as a stand-alone piece.
BC: How personal are these poems? Asking you such a question calls to mind one of the characters in The Darjeeling Limited who told his brothers that his stories are entirely fictional despite their—and everyone else—knowing otherwise.
David Yezzi: “The Ghost-Seer” comes from a full-length play called On the Rocks. The speaker is a failed painter whose father has recently died. Any details from my own life have been, I think, altered and reshaped, and sometimes transformed completely. So, I guess I’d say very autobiographical and not at all. (Is that what the character in the movie is getting at? I guess I’d hope that my stories are completely true despite the audience knowing otherwise.) I don’t mean to be obtuse: the poems come from my life experience, but that experience needs to be transformed into an aesthetic object that is more than a direct expression of the self, something richer and more resonant than my private experience. Some of the poems in the book actually happened, some are completely imagined. In the end though, I’m more interested in conveying as precisely as possible the emotion underlying a given experience than in making sure that the details are taken directly from my life. In fact, it’s frequently more fun to make things up.
BC: The realism in your work adds to its resonance. I called you “the common man” because your experiences are so similar to our own. Have you been criticized before for the politically incorrect sin of “insensitivity” in regards to language or subject matter?
David Yezzi: Realism has fallen out of favor these days, I think a lot of poets feel that, if poetry has the stamp of the real, it can’t be poetic, i.e. vatic, mysterious, deep, prophetic, emotionally charged, transcendent, etc. I just came across a quote by the poet Mark Van Doren, that I thought was pretty good, and, though he was talking about the early twentieth century, contemporary poetry suffers from a similar anemia: the great poets of the early twentieth century “brought something back to poetry that had been sadly missing in the early years of [that] century. . . a proof that reality is held in honor and in love. The little poets whom the renaissance of more then forty years ago swept into oblivion were first of all unreal; their poems were not about anything that matters; and so their feelings—the ones they said they had—failed to be impressive. They had no genuine subjects.” I love that bit about holding reality in honor and love. An essay I wrote recently in The New Criterion, about the New Critics, touches on this to a certain extent.
BC: Do you think that meter is a consideration for most poets anymore? Have we reached a point in which poetry has become an “anything goes” endeavor?
David Yezzi: Unlike most poets writing today, I have nothing against meter and rhyme. In fact, I like poems that use them to good effect. Most of the poems in Azores are in some kind of accentual or accentual-syllabic verse. But I’m not dogmatic about it. Good poems are hard to write, and it’s important to have all the tools at one’s disposal. Writing a poem that people will read in fifty or a hundred years is almost impossible for all but a handful of poets in any generation. So why not use every trick in the book? Poets should study versification: even if they wind up writing exclusively in free verse, the musical training of meter and rhyme will only strengthen their ability to write verse of any sort. Prosody has strong juju. Poets ignore it at their peril. The trick is to keep the language fresh, musical, and, ideally, memorable.
BC: Speaking of that, let me stray a bit off topic here, but in Roger Kimball’s latest essay—concerning Rudyard Kipling—he mentions that W. H. Auden defined poetry as “memorable speech.” Do you think such a conceptualization of the discipline is more pertinent today than ever before in light of so much poetry being forgettable?
David Yezzi: Yes, memorable speech—Auden was exactly right. And you are right that most poetry is utterly forgettable. Sometimes I forget it even before I finished reading it.
BC: What contemporaries do you admire most?
David Yezzi: I had it in mind a few years back to do an anthology of younger poets. Then the publisher went under. I may do it yet, as it turns out, for another press. I would include, among others, David Barber, Geoffrey Brock, Dan Brown, Ben Downing, Bill Coyle, Adam Kirsch, J. Allyn Rosser, Molly McQuade, Joshua Mehigan, A. E. Stallings, Rachel Wetzsteon, Greg Williamson, and Christian Wiman. They are all wonderful poets, I think. Perhaps the anthology will be back on track at some point. As I say, I think it might.