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The Silences

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DocCon
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The Silences

Post by DocCon » Mon Apr 15, 2024 3:56 am

From this weekend Paris Review e-news letter:

Photograph of William Meredith by Dorothy Alexander.
This week, we’ve unlocked an interview from the archive selected by Elisa Gabbert, whose poem “Life Poem 1” appears in our new Spring issue, no. 247.

By this past September, I had not written a poem, or, really, even had a thought in the form of a line, which is how poems tend to begin, for more than two years. I loved poetry no less than I always have, but I did not feel like a poet, and I worried I might never write a poem again. It was one of those periods that Tillie Olsen called a silence. Louise Glück called them silences too: “I have had to get through extended silences,” she wrote in her 1989 lecture “Education of the Poet.” And in her Paris Review interview, published last year, she described the particular difficulty of these necessary gaps: “It doesn’t feel like a sanguine experience of sitting quietly while the well fills up. It seems like an experience of desolation, loss, even a kind of panic. The thing you would wish to be doing, you can’t do.”

I was going through a hard couple of years, and poetry seemed like medicine—reading it, yes (I read all of Jean Valentine’s work during this time), but I wished to be writing it too. Glück’s word wish feels more accurate than want—the outcome felt that unattainable. I also wanted mentorship, something like spiritual guidance, and did not seem to know who to ask. A monk? A life coach? I sought it indirectly, through the diaries of writers (writers so often complain in their journals when they are not writing! See Kafka, in 1914: “I have written nothing for a year, nor shall I be able to write anything in the future”), and I sought it in interviews with writers, particularly writers who are older than me, and preferably dead. Glück said the master, in a master/apprentice relationship, is representative of “stubbornness,” “persistence” and “sometimes a kind of majestic fatigue”! Yes, I thought when I read this, I want advice from someone more tired than me, because time itself is knowledge. Who is wiser than the dead?

I first encountered the Review’s interview with William Meredith through a part I heard quoted by the poet Ed Skoog. I think about these sentences all the time, though I’m barely familiar with Meredith’s poetry. They follow Edward Hirsch’s question “You’ve said that you average about six poems per year. Why so few?” Meredith’s answer startled me, and has stuck with me through my silences:
Why so many? … I’ll say this because it may be interesting or important: I think it is because poetry and experience should have an exact ratio. Astonishing experience doesn’t happen very often. Daily experience is astonishing on a level at which you can write a poem, but astonishing experience would be the experience that is not astonishment of reality but astonishment of insight.
“Astonishment of insight” is the thing—it’s the thought that makes a poem a poem, for me. Meredith has so much to tell me about truth and knowledge (“At the higher reaches of our experience we don’t know the things that we say … if you tell enough lies, you’re bound to say something true”); about mood and bearing (“Most of the time that I was with Lowell and Berryman, they were happy. They had the happiness of seriously engaged, useful people. That’s the impression that I think a biography ought to give”); about persona (“I felt that many of the experiences that I wanted to comment on would be more interesting if I could give them to somebody else with a different opinion”); and about mentorship, friendship, poetship—how Meredith found in Muriel Rukeyser a “human model of what a poet could be.”

Meredith had a long career—he won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1943, at the age of twenty-four, and kept writing (if slowly!) well into his sixties. His last collection of poetry, Effort at Speech, including poems he wrote after a stroke that caused expressive aphasia, won the National Book Award. He died in 2007, near his home in Montville, Connecticut, where he lived for many years, I only recently learned—less than ten miles from my husband’s hometown of Norwich, where I lived for a period myself. It was, in fact, the place where I waited out much of the recent silence, and where the thought did eventually come, in the form of the poem that appears in the Review’s latest issue, no. 247. It’s about, insofar as a poem is about anything, my wish to break the silence.

—Elisa Gabbert

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