‘Tis the season of readings and lectures! This Monday, April 8th at 7:30 pm in BC 163, poet and critical writer James Longenbach will be visiting UP. He has written four books of poetry and five books of criticism. His publications appear in magazines such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The New Republic. He also regularly reviews poetry for both The Nation and the New York Times Book Review. In addition to writing, James Longenbach is also an English professor at the University of Rochester. Below is an interview with Longenbach that will no doubt inspire you; both to attend his lecture, and to continue writing and studying literature to find fulfillment.
Q: When did your interest in poetry begin? How did you cultivate it throughout your life?
A: I didn’t really become seriously interested in poetry until I was an undergraduate; before then, I’d been focused on music, I’d played piano, built a harpsichord. Then I realized there was a way to express yourself that didn’t depend on an audience–you didn’t need always to be heard. I liked the privacy of poetry, the way you could develop your skill in secrecy. One of the greatest freedoms American poets have is that people don’t generally pay much attention to poetry; this is a gift that novelists and painters (who must sell their work, making money for the publishers and dealers on whom they must depend) don’t generally have. Nobody expects a poem to make a buck, thank goodness, so poets have been more immune to clutches of capitalism. You’re free pretty much to do what you want, or what you must, even if it is unfashionable, even if it doesn’t sell.
Q: What made you start writing critically?
A: Really, all poets are literary critics, in the same way that all painters study great paintings; you have to be devoted to the history of your medium, you have to love it, in order to figure out how to use it yourself. Not all poets write down their literary criticism, but I’ve found that I like to do that; I like the rigor of making absolutely lucid prose sentences. It makes me a better poet; the work of writing sentences organized in lines becomes more vivid if you spent some time trying to write good prose.
Q: What is your typical writing process (for both poetry and critical writing)?
A: I try to write every day, in the morning; most days I don’t. You read, think, observe, stay open, but, as Wallace Stevens once said, it is not every day that the world arranges itself into a poem–and he meant to imply that that was a good thing, too. Writing is more fun than not writing, but you want ultimately to have very high standards for what constitutes a poem. And you want to maintain them without censoring yourself. It’s a delicate balance, always in need of recalibration.
Q: Do you believe that poetry writing is a discipline that can be taught and honed?
A: Absolutely. It’s virtually impossible to take a poetry workshop, one that demands that you write, read, and respond to what you read every week, and not become a better writer. As a teacher of writing, you’re not teaching people how to feel or be, though feeling and being are important; you’re teaching them how to manipulate the medium of the English language into beautiful and forceful patterns. Every human being experiences devastating emotions; we usually don’t need help with that. But we do need help with learning how to make linguistic equivalents for those emotions. Nobody would ever imagine writing a poem if we didn’t also read them, and probably need to read about a hundred good poems for every decent poem we manage to write.
Q: Why is English a discipline worth studying in college and graduate school?
A: English is worth studying because the poems and novels and essays written in English over the last thousand years are beautiful things; to know them, to be able to recall them, to be able to experience them again, more richly, is one way of being aggressively alive. Beyond that, meticulous attention to language is mind-work of the first order: to learn how to discuss a short, complicated poem in clear, forceful prose sentences involves the cultivation of almost universally applicable skills. That said, however, I wouldn’t want to deny the perfect uselessness of being an English major–I’d want to embrace it; American culture demands at almost every second that we be useful, and this is great limitation, especially when one is young and discovering the world.
Q: What can students attending your lecture at UP next week expect to hear?
A: I’m going to give a lecture called–this won’t surprise you–“The Medium of the English Language.” We all can imagine pretty easily that a painter does one thing with oil paint, another thing with water color–the mediums have different limitations, therefore strengths. My lecture is about our language as a medium–how it determines the kinds of effects that we’ve come to expect from great English sentences. I’ll be talking about poems by Shakespeare, Jonson, Keats, Yeats, Moore, and Ashbery; also passages of prose by Henry James and James Joyce.
Q: What is your favorite work that you have written?
A: I guess that my favorite thing I’ve ever written is always the thing I’ve written most recently; that would be a long-ish sequence of poems called “The Climate of Reason.” But I’m still very fond of my most recent book of poems,The Iron Key. I also like very much my recently-published prose book, The Virtues of Poetry; writing it felt like the writing of a poem or collection of poems–once I found the form, the shape, the book wrote itself. The argument was secondary to the finding of that shape.
Q: What is one book/poem recommendation you have for students?
A: Just in the last few days I’ve been rereading D.H. Lawrence’s great book of poems, Birds, Beasts, and Flowers. Lawrence sometimes gets condescended to, as if he were a poet who just threw impassioned thoughts down on the page and moved on; but really he is a meticulous craftsman of the first order. These poems are just as fresh and weird and alive as anything being written right now. I’m stunned all over again by them.