GC: To begin our discussion, I want to refer to a poem in your new book, the poem "Time." That poem is very interesting because it has many of the elements that I know throughout your work. Even that tiny thread of humor – 'The dog slept through it'– that is very typical Louise. And, I will say, that poem raises some important philosophical questions. I was wondering if your work is used in other places besides literature classes, perhaps philosophy classes.
LG: Well, I have no idea. But it would indeed be wonderful, were that true.
GC: I could teach a course on philosophy using your work, a question like: “Why love what you will lose? There is nothing else to love."
LG: That would delight me.
GC: When you wrote that poem, I'm sure there were fifty drafts behind it.
LG: No, well one of the things that’s very curious is that I seem to have two methods of writing. One is the craftsperson method, which now seems, because I haven’t done it a while, very dear to me, in which the words are labored over; and a sense of agency is created by that process. You actually have a sense of yourself as making the poem. When you write very rapidly, when I write very rapidly, I lose that sense that the poem is mine. I can’t think where it came from. But it’s usually done quite quickly, and altered very little. The poem "Stars," in that same book, is an example of the last process. My last book, The Seven Ages, is like that. There are poems here that were over and over and over revised; taken apart, put together again, but in a very compressed period of time. And then there are poems in which there are recalcitrant words, phrases, things that I feel could be better.
GC: Well, the reason I asked about your process is because the vowels are so musical. That is either from years of hard work, or something that actually could not have been constructed. The vowels in that poem are extraordinary, and it is the motion in the poem. Of course I’m on the other side of the table; I have the opportunity to listen. And I was just thinking how one gets into such a space of comfort, to use vowels that way, and that’s a very musical poem. Also, it has, one of your characteristics, the direct address in the middle, which jettisons where you have been. And as I always say, you’re very mischievous, you lull us along in the poem and then you do something quite unusual. The last lines, with your adverbs, are unusual for you too—"softly," "fiercely"—now that’s interesting. I see they’re in parentheses. I heard them in parentheses.
LG: That interests me.
GC: I have often said you do something no other poet does as well, and it’s not fair to leave you there. You can take the emotion, the very fragile feeling, and you build a scenario around it. You build a house around the feeling. Now that sounds like something everyone does, but no one does it exactly as you do. It is misunderstood as autobiography sometime, but it is fiction, except for the feelings. Where did you get your confidence in story?
LG: Well, that’s a quite curious question.
GC: It’s like fairy tales for adults.
LG: It’s actually a rather profound question, and I fear I will not do it justice. It’s immediately starting my thought. But, I think that it’s—in saying to write, you’re going to write that which most concerns you, which most quickens your mind, and then to turn those subjects over with as resourceful and complex a touch as possible. I am endlessly irritated by the reading of my poems as autobiography. I draw on the materials my life has given me, but what interests me isn’t that they happen to me, what interests me is that they seem, as I look around, paradigmatic. We’re all born mortal. We have to contend with the idea of mortality. We all, at some point, love, with the risks involved, the vulnerabilities involved, the disappointments and great thrills of passion. This is common human experience, so what you use is the self as a laboratory, in which to practice, master, what seem to you central human dilemmas.
GC: In your essays Proofs and Theories, you do have one discussion which I thought was going to answer that, and you call writing “a search for context,” and so that seems in keeping with what you’re saying. So you come with the content, but the whole trick is to find, to build the house, the story, the context for it, and I thought that was a very simple statement, but a very important one.
LG: Well, it’s true. I mean I remember once, a poem I wrote when I was very, very, very young, in my teens that I thought was, at the time, sublime. It was a poem about a dying deer, and indeed it did have some quite beautiful language. The problem was that the beautiful language was harnessed to this deer, about which I knew nothing, so that the poem was sentimental and grandiose. Well it was foolish, it was a, you know, young person’s ardent effort. But, it was clear that the lines had about them an authority, and a sense of what the nature of loss was, and the problem was to give them a home, to put those lines in the mouth of the person who should be saying them, at the moment when they should be said, and it took me many years to figure out the proper setting for the lines. And then it was a persona poem, but it worked much better.
GC: What was the general response of readers to The Wild Iris?
LG: After The Wild Iris, I got a great deal of mail from people who were in the religious life, asking me to write little columns on the deity.
GC: And flowers.
LG: And flowers. I got a lot of horticultural inquiries, and I’m not a horticulturist.
GC: Although we have to admire your knowledge of the natural world. There is knowledge in Wild Iris, which is admirable.
LG: It all comes from the White Flower Farms Catalog. And it also comes from growing flowers.
GC: How do you describe that book?
LG: The Wild Iris was a book suffused with awe, and is deeply lyrical. It was very clear to me afterward I could not do anything more of that kind. I don’t think that that’s how you grow as an artist. I wanted to do something very different. I wanted to write something comic in the largest sense, with the spacious comedy of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. That was my model in which the shrug that forgives human foibles somehow was the informing impulse. The book in which I undertook to do this was a book that was written at a time when a very long marriage was beginning to seem not likely to continue, and one of the problems of the book was that my life was giving me materials that were desolating, and what I felt as an artist was an imperative to do comedy. One of the horrors of the divorce was that I kept thinking it was going to take me decades to write my book, and it did take a while, because it was very clear to me that I had no wish to write a lacerating book about divorce. I had no wish to embody it in verse. I wanted to write my genial, forgiving, tolerant book of adult love. And I had a very elaborate sense of what its structure was supposed to be, which was subsequently set aside, though it delighted me endlessly. What the book ended up by being was a double narrative, in which the dissolution of a contemporary marriage, which is elaborated in a series of petulant, comic conversations and private bickerings, alternates with, is threaded through, with the story of Odysseus and Penelope. And the last thing that was added to the manuscript was a group of poems. Let me backtrack and say that it was clear to me for a very long time that though I thought I had done everything I knew how to do, the book was not finished. It was clear that it was not done. And when something is a single undertaking, as was this book, if it isn’t done, it’s a failure. It’s like a novel that hasn’t worked out. It isn’t that you have ten poems instead of twenty, you have nothing. And I kept thinking, well what’s missing is a sort of somberness, maybe, or a deep sorrow that should be running through this. I had shown the manuscript, in part, to a friend of mine who’s a classicist, and I asked her if she noticed something that she would like to see embodied, or if she noticed an absence, and she said, “Well, you have no Telemachus,” and I said, “Oh, there's no room for Telemachus” (the child of Penelope and Odysseus). And all of a sudden I thought, well, why don’t I try Telemachus. And this was after I had had some good luck with executing an assignment that my friend Robert Pinsky had given me. We do that for each other.
GC: And Telemachus ends up being the major figure in this book.
LG: I love Telemachus. I love this little boy. He saved my book, and the poems in his voice were written very, very, very quickly, over a period of about ten days or two weeks, in busses, and in guest room beds, and elevators. Once I had the sound of his voice, which is to say the sound of his mind, I knew how to finish my book, and I did the poems in an exultant rush, and then got bronchitis for about three weeks, but it was worth it. Anyway, one of Telemachus’ poem, regards his parents' sufferings and ordeals, and offers his point of view. His guilt.
GC: Bronchitis was enough of a price to pay, but I was going to ask you what price you paid for the kind of writing you do, because I think you are the bravest poet I know, and you stop at nothing; you strip veils off, and you let the chips fall where they may. But because you believe in story, you have a safety net. And it is probably what entitles you to go on.
LG: Bronchitis seems like a small thing. It seemed horrible at the time, but even then I thought, well, alright, if this is payback, fine, fine; if this is what I get for not sleeping for ten days, fine.
GC: Your book of essays is a spare, eloquent book; it certainly has less verbiage per page than any other book of essays. You talk about the courage in writing. Well, that sounds like a very obvious thing to say for a writer. I mean we teach courage, we don’t teach language in the classroom. And it seems an obvious thought, but you seem to live it. I imagine that you don’t think about this much when you’re writing, how much courage it summons to get to where you go, to your source. But it is a fact, isn’t it?
LG: It seems to me that there’s no other way to live. I mean, it doesn’t seem courageous. It seems what drives me is interest. I want to be interested. I want to feel my thoughts alive. That doesn’t seem to take courage. It seems fortunate, when that’s permitted. When for some reason or other, I have, I’m in the grip of an idea. That just seems the most blessed and remarkable state I don’t enter all that often.
GC: You’ve been treated very well by the critics, I think. Pretty well.
LG: I agree.
GC: And I must say, better than I gave them credit for. Because sometimes I want to say, “oh, you’ve got that all wrong,” you know, to some critics. But I think that you have been received as a flawless writer; as a writer with very great care given to each word placement. I think that they’ve noticed your diction. I think that every bit of work that you’ve put into it has been surprisingly noticed. And so you must feel okay about that.
LG: I try to stay apart from it, because you’re always appalled, and it’s astonishing to me the degree to which the human ego can feel slighted, even when it’s being praised, if somebody gets something a little bit wrong, and I don’t want to be distracted by my response. My power ends when I get the poem on the page, and after that it belongs not to me, but to someone else, and I can’t control what’s made of it, and I do not want to travel around America telling people how to read my poems. I hope that they will find readers who will read them with perception. I hope that they will be worthy of perception, which is even more crucial.
GC: Well, the thing which you give us is reason to go on, because it is a transcendence, and you can take the ugliest things that we have to endure to be mortal--betrayal, loss, greed even—every human attribute you change, so that you make it work for us, and say: aren’t we lucky that we can go here after we’ve been there. And you make a song, a high lyric song, of all of these really very crude and rude qualities we were born to. And I think that’s enough to do in one lifetime.
LG: Well, I hope.
GC: I want to go back to The Wild Iris. It’s been called one long poem by some people, but I’m not sure I go along with that.
LG: Well, I think I meant it to read as a single entity.
GC: At a single sitting, right?
GC: Didn’t you even say that once?
LG: I say that repeatedly. This is giving the lie to my idea that I don’t want to tell people how to read my books, but in fact I do. The books since Ararat—The Wild Iris, Meadowlands, Vita Nuova, and the new one—all of them, I think, in different ways, are wholes. I always work very hard on organizing groups of disparate lyrics into a shape that would give some indication of a larger ambition than might otherwise be apparent, and then after Ararat, I started writing these book length sequences. Well, at least that’s how they appeared to me. The Wild Iris takes its form from the arc of a summer in a garden. There are three types of speakers. The natural world speaks, and the poems spoken by the earth have the names of flowers: "The Silver Lily," "The Wild Iris," "Field Flowers." Then there are poems in which a human speaker addresses, occasionally the earth, I think, but mostly, whatever—I have no word to describe this divinity, or celestial presence, has animated its life.
GC: Some people call it God.
LG: Yeah, they do, don’t they? Well, I don’t. It’s shorthand. It’s shorthand for whatever is not included in the human, and the natural. Something is left out. And then there is the voice in which that presence responds, usually with impatient disappointment, to the human being. Occasionally with tenderness – exhausted tenderness – it became clear to me at a certain point that the sound of that voice became very like the sound of my mother. Not in its elevations, but in its substance. I should also say that my mother was a great partisan, even very early, of my work, and gave me great encouragement. But she also set a very high standard. And the book is shaped by the failure of these voices always to meet the natural, which addresses the human; the human that addresses the natural, and the Divine, and the Divine that looks at it all and says, “I had better hopes for you than this.”
GC: Life with conditions.
LG: For instance the poem "The Silver Lily" is toward the end of the book. If you are gardeners, you know that this comes, the lily usually— not the daylily, but the Asiatics and so on—bloom toward the end of summer, and in Vermont, where this garden was, at the very end of summer. And oftentimes they don’t even get to bloom because the snow falls first.
GC: You have a title, which says—it’s either a remark or title, “Art in Service of Spirit.” Whether you like to think it or not, you are one of our leading forces in poetry, and I don’t know if that makes you uncomfortable. First of all, you ask the question, or the poems ask the question, do we need a creator? The poems needed a creator. So, is that the answer?
LG: I don’t know the answer!
GC: OK, you just ask the questions. But it is spiritual work, and everything you say about decay and growth—and I have a quote from another source. Well, actually it’s from Wild Iris—“Then white light no longer disguised as matter,” which sums up quite a bit of what you write about. The moving through, the moving through the temporal to the eternal. And I’m sure it’s another one of those things you wouldn’t want to stop and think about as you did. But the spiritual lessons there are very interesting and difficult questions that are raised. In Wild Iris, would it bother you if somebody read it and didn’t know that there were three different personas there, that God was not an element? If they just read them as poems without those three faces?
LG: I think they would be very confused. I don’t know how they would manage to negotiate the book but...
GC: I tried it both ways, as a matter of fact. And the poems work both ways. Much richer as designed. But as poems, single poems, without the subtext, they live. Which I thought was very interesting; it was just an experiment I did. And I did read where you were compared with George Herbert and Emily Dickinson for their attachment to flowers, which I thought was just something to say. You know, critics will say anything. I’ve written reviews, and you can say anything you want. You can twist anything to work.
LG: Yes, I’m aware of that.
GC: We’ll just let that one stay right where it is, okay? Wild Iris is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. And it’s a milestone in American letters. Yes. “When you read something that’s worth remembering, you liberate a human voice. You release into the world again a companion spirit.” That’s from "Death and Absence," which you wrote. Very nice idea, that the reader’s important too.
LG: Well, I think that that was my experience early on as a reader. I was a lonely child. My interactions with the world as a social being were unnatural, forced, performances, and I was happiest reading. Well, it wasn’t all that sublime, I watched a lot of television and ate a lot of food, too. But, when I read, I felt that—especially when I read poems—I felt that the voices on the page, William Blake and T. S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats, were my companions. I felt that they were my—not just my teachers—I felt, these are the people I would be able to talk to. They’re talking to me. My early writing was an attempt at communication with them, a response to them.
GC: That’s nice.
LG: And I think that most writers feel some sense that dialogue with the dead. And when people ask, what do you want, what kind of response do you want to your work, what I want is for Blake to come down from heaven and say, “Louise, you did a very good job.” That’s what I want. And fortunately, I have Blake surrogates who are alive, and their fastidious attention helps me—proves that effort is not wasted, that there are ears that receive. And you want to be such an ear yourself. I think it’s not possible to be a writer without being that kind of instrument for other people.
GC: Consciousness attracts like-consciousness, and you want to be the company of those people who you understand, and who understand you; that is just logical.
LG: And who hold you to a high standard.
GC: Which apparently your friends do. They give you assignments.
LG: They do.
GC: Talk a little about your past publications.
LG: Ararat was the first book that I saw as a whole, and when I began writing it, it was clear to me that either it was going to be a book-length mosaic, or it was a failure. The first poems were little poems about my father’s death, and suburban Long Island. I had struggled for a long time to discover a tone of voice that was colloquial; I seem to have no gift for it. My earlier work is filled with Delphic distances, and it’s not to say that these are not worth something, but it was very plain to me after four books that the way in which I spoke was never present in the way in which I wrote, and it troubled me that I had no access to that other voice. I could imitate other people’s vernacular, I could do an imitation of William Carlos Williams, but that’s what it was, it was a literary act. And finally in Ararat, I learned how to do it. The book was, overall, deeply disliked, though I’m still very attached to it – it’s one of my favorite of my books. But the poems are almost without figure, without beauty, without metaphor.
GC: That is a good book. Ararat.
LG: I like Ararat too.
GC: In your book of essays, the chapter "On impoverishment," you talk about the terror of hopelessness, and how—I know I’m paraphrasing this—you plug into a deeper source, where your recurring themes, eternal themes can renew, and you find your force in that. So the yearning is the hydraulic system under your work. The yearning to write even. In one poem you say, what do I wish for? I wish for another poem. And that’s it, isn’t it?
LG: It sure is.
GC: And when that goes away -- We are cold and naked when that goes away. But having accomplished this pile of books, you know that it will come back.
GC: Most writers say when they sit down to write, “I do not know how to do this thing.”
LG: Well, in fact, you don’t. Because you don’t want to do anything you’ve already done, and you are not any longer the person who wrote those books. I look at those poems, or read them, and think, “how odd, that I wrote them.” I have no sense of having done so.
GC: Alice Walker said, when she finished The Color Purple, she did not recognize it. The characters just walked through her and walked away, she’d never realized she did it.
LG: This is true.
GC: When you look at something you wrote a long time ago, is there ever a sense of embarrassment, because you’re not in that same place now?
LG: Yes. There are poems I don’t like anymore. That’s different. My first book, I feel—Firstborn— embarrassed by, though I was enormously proud of it at the time. I thought it was just perfectly great. Now I look at it and I think it’s thin and unformed, and filled with the wish—animated by the wish to write. It took me about six years to write the following book, The House on Marshland, and I think from that point on, I’m willing to sign my name.
GC: Would you be surprised if some people liked that book better than any other?
LG: No, because they’ve told me so. I wish they wouldn’t, but they do!
GC: What does that mean? It means that it reverberates differently for everyone.
LG: Oh, I think it means that this book is—it’s impeccably pretty—everything in it is artful, compact, delicate. There’s none of the assonance that Ararat is made of. It’s not my favorite, but it’s one of my most likeable, crowd-pleasing books.
GC: People like the truth to be pretty. But I think there’s some strong stuff in there.
LG: Oh, I think it’s a good book. I think it’s a good book. I’m glad it’s not the book I had...
GC: The last book you had written?
LG: Yes, I’m glad of that.
GC: We are at the Library’s bicentennial. This is a repository for the world’s treasures, What was your role as consultant to the Poet Laureate? Were there official duties, or are you just a wonderful guide?
LG: I think Robert Pinsky would not want to think of me as a wonderful spirit guide. It’s not clear what the duties are. Well, let me put it this way. The duties were outlined, and they seemed so appealingly few, that one could hardly credit it. I’m supposed to appear in Washington twice in November and April, and that seems to be the list. And that seemed to be something I was willing to take on.
GC: May I say that we are very happy about that.
From Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Volume 7, Number 4, Winter 2006