WB: That’s where I’ve been lucky. I didn’t have to use the poems as a way of feeding myself. And it’s a tremendous conflict or problem for any young artist. I mean how do you feed yourself? How do you live? Maybe it’s somewhat less for poet because a poet doesn’t need space and doesn’t need materials. A painter, a sculptor, a musician. . . . Even a musician has to have a place with a piano or something of that sort—very difficult to work without some kind of living quarters where you have a piano. A poet doesn’t need anything, but there’s a kind of similar problem because of the fiscal circumstances. There’s no money in it for a long, long time, and then there isn’t a lot usually unless you consciously go after it and write to sell. Or paint to sell and so on. And it can be destructive. It can be the end. . . . With all the maneuvering you have to do in order to get connections, get the right gallery and critics on your side and so on. I have the luxury of being absolutely independent from that. Certainly some of the attention I get is from you and from Norman and Henry and so on, you people who are teaching and reading. And whether I would have been able to go on with no notice at all. . . . I have no respect for the American Book award, and yet I suppose that the fact that it was there is helpful. . . . I got a little of it without trying very hard, but it was very minor, and it was in a very small circle. Probably a great deal of it through Origin, and there are ways in which I owe a lot to Cid Corman. . . . If it hadn’t been for Corman’s Origin, I don’t know where I would have been published. And a lot of the subsequent publication came about because my work was seen there. George Oppen saw my work there and got his sister to publish The World, the Worldless. If your name appears in certain places, then. . . .
Well, I think most magazine editors have no independent judgment at all, don’t know what they’re doing, and they would publish because they’d seen him in somebody else’s magazine: well, this guy must be all right. And in many cases, this guy is not all right. This guy is an absolutely terrible poet, but he’s been published here and there, so he must be all right and is accepted by all sorts of people that have no feeling about poetry or anything else. Oh, this guy’s good—yeah, I’ve seen him—he’s being published in lots of places. They have absolutely no feeling about the work at all. And I don’t think any of my response has been on that basis. I think you happened on my work and actually liked it because it did something to you, and I think that’s the same thing that happened with various people. Nothing is ever pure in itself, but I think that is largely true. Such acceptance as I’ve had is very small, and I don’t care whether the most respected critics are reading it at all. I’m not writing for Helen Vendler. I’m not writing for Harold Bloom or whoever superseded them, if somebody has. . . . I’m writing for my fellow humans, most of whom don’t care either.
EF: One final time. Are words other than the things they name? WB: Well, they mean an awful lot of things, most words in English anyway—as anybody who does crosswords is aware of. I don’t know. Are they? What else do you want them to be? But are words other than what they mean? One problem about them is that we don’t know what they mean. We think we know what they mean, but I have had literate people totally, as far as I’m concerned, misread a poem that I’ve written. I don’t understand. . . . How the hell did he come up with that? I didn’t mean anything like that, and I think that I’m a fairly direct speaker in a poem, and I think that clarity is something that I usually achieve. But often it’s a quite different clarity from what I intended. And I think it’s fair to say it’s a misreading of the poem, not simply that the poem has a reading that I didn’t intend. I don’t feel that.
EF: I don’t believe one has complete control of language. It devises its own patterns.
WB: Oh, very much so in my own experience although I don’t think that is the experience of a lot of other writers who work and rework a poem. My poems come to me in their own language, and if they were not in that language, they would not have any force. Sometimes before I get it written down, the language kind of slips, and I think: I don’t know, that is not it, that’s not it. I’m saying something which is intellectually more or less the equivalent, but it is flat—it doesn’t work. And then if I’m fortunate, it will come back to me: oh, yes, that’s the way the poem is, and it’s simply a matter of changing the tone or changing the language—which would not be the case if it were a neutral kind of idea. . . .
WB: But you go back a few steps to what was said earlier about the words being in charge, the words taking control of expression. . . . I have repeatedly had the experience, when the poem gets written down, of saying, oh, God, no, I don’t mean that—but hesitating to change the meaning because it seems to me the way it has to be said—and then only later, maybe the next day, two days later, the next week: yes, I guess that’s what I do mean. But the initial rejection of what the poem is saying because it seems to me something that I don’t particularly want to mean, a meaning that makes me uncomfortable or embarrasses or contradicts something else I’ve said or whatever. Having to accept that when I’ve lived with it for a little while. . . . Admitting, yes, yes, I guess that is what I mean.
ostmodern Poetry, edited by Edward Foster (1994) Copyright © 1994 by Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics.