Q. I wonder whether you'd mind also commenting on "Mantis," and the poem interpreting it [All, 1923-1958, pp. 73-80]. You seem to be concerned here with the sestina as the ideal expression of the "battle of diverse thoughts" or associations arising in the poetís mind upon his encounter with a mantis.
A. I never said it was the ideal form of expression. You have to be careful with this sapless guy, you know. Actually, I was trying to explain why I use the sestina, and there are a lot of old forms used. I suppose there are two types of natures. One is aware of the two-hundred-year-old oak, and it's still alive and it's going to have some use to him; the other one is going to say cut it down and build a supermarket. I'm not inclined to be the latter, nor do I want to imitate a traditional form, but if that thing has lasted for two hundred years and has some merit in it, it is possible I can use it and somehow in transferring it into wordsóas I said in "Aleatorical indeterminate"ómake something new of it. And the same for the form of the sestina. Musicians have done that with fugues; there are some today who try to do counterpoint or traditional harmony, but most wonít even talk in that terminology. Ultimately itíll come down to silence or sound, words or no words. And where are you going to get them? Where does language come from? Are you just going to make it out of a mouthful of air? Sometimes, but most of the time you donít; thereís a world already there; it might be a poetic form that is still useful.
Now the so-called "modern" will say you cannot write a sestina anymore, that Dante did it and it's dead and gone. But every time I read Dante, it's not dead. The poet is dead, but if the work is good, itís contemporary. Thereís no use in writing the same sestina as Dante, because in the first place, you couldnít do it, except by copying it word for word and believing it's yoursóan extreme case. What is possible is that L. Z. or somebody else could write something as good as it. Well, Williams came along arid said, "No, we've got to get a new poetic foot," and while he did wonderful things instinctively, I wish he had omitted some of the theory. Pound was more sensible. What kind of meters can you have? Well, what we've had throughout the history of poetry: you can count syllables, or your language is stressed and so you will count accents, or else you have a musical ear and know when so much sound approximates so much sound and there's a regularity of time. You want to vary the time or have no time sigatures . . . whatever the case, it'll have to hold together. So there's no reason why I shouldn't use this "old" form if I thought I could make something new.
"'Mantis,' An Interpretation" is an argument against people who are dogmatic. On the other hand, I point out that as it was written in the nineteenth century (and some "contemporaries" are nineteenth century), the sestina was absolutely useless. It was just a facilityólike that of Sunday painters, who learn to smear a bit of oil on canvas. They're not Picasso; Picasso has used every form you can think of, whether it came from Greece, Crete, or Africa. But what I'm saying in "íMantis,' An Interpretation" is not that the sestina is the ideal form; rather that it's still possible. Williams said it was impossible to write sonnets. I don't know whether anybody has been careful about it. I wrote five hundred sonnets when I was young and threw them away. Then I wrote A-7 and a canzone, which is quite different from the sonnet, as Pound pointed out. A very intricate form.
Q. I didn't mean to imply that the sestina was the ideal form of expression per se. I thought that for the particular experience that the poet was having with the mantis on a subway, his undergoing a process of "thought's torsion," the sestina was most appropriate.
A. Someone else might have done it differently, but for me that's what it led to. I have that kind of mind. Somehow, you know, the thing can become kind of horribleóto connect a thing with everything. But how can you avoid it? And it's not that I want to be long-winded; I want to be very concise.