This interview was conducted by website author David Kieran, Connecticut College Class of 2000, on Tuesday July 21, 1998, in the library of William Meredith's home in Uncasville, Connecticut. Also present was Richard Harteis.

Kieran:
You have often referred to yourself as a "B" poet. Is there any poem of your own that you would consider an "A" poem?

Meredith:
"Parents", I think.

Kieran:
"Parents?" I like that one too. I was just talking about it because someone was telling me that they were annoyed with their parents, and I said that the only reason that they were annoying was because they were your parents. Everyone gets annoyed with their parents.

Meredith:
That's right. It was a very good poem. Two hours work. Usually I have to write them over and over. But two hours for that one. That poem came from a dinner I had with Janet Gezari, and she had her parents over. Three parents, and I loved them,... I thought of them, all three of them, as very interesting women and men, one of whom made clay models. Mr. Gezari's mother was an artist, a very good artist. And he (Gezari's father)was a very good businessman. It was Thanksgiving, once, and there were six people: it was amazing because different generations have very interesting perspectives.

Kieran:
When you were younger, did you think that your parents were, as you said, "tacky?"

Meredith:
Tacky. Very tacky. End of story. Forty, sixty, seventy years of tacky. I can't explain why. But something tacky happens to all adults. I'm tacky; upstairs in heaven is tacky also. Even when you get to heaven, you're still tacky. It's funny. It's a very funny world. I think a million years ago it was also tacky. For myself, I won't be a child again; it's so awful. But ants, ants are very interesting creatures. There's a queen ant, working ants, playing ants. Hundreds of thousands and millions of years old, too. Sometimes moles, blind moles, they're happy also. I don't know why they're happy, but they are.

Kieran:
In your other interviews you've talked about useful poetry and that you consider yourself a useful poet. What is a useful poet, and why are you a useful poet?

Meredith:
I am a useful poet because I write to ordinary people, not intellectuals. Intellectuals don't care anyhow.

Harteis:
Accessibility is important. Not pretentiousness, not a stilted quality. Useful in a sense that people read it. People find it useful in a sense that people read it. That it isn't just in the libraries. That somehow people find it useful for them to either give them pleasure or help them in their grief or even learn something. I think that William's poetry is sometimes didactic. He has political poems which indeed have a message and are pretty heavy handed about that message. I think William is one of a few poets who can get away with this because of his age, the tone and his generation. When he writes a formal poem about the wreck of the Thresher, which is a public grieving poem about a tragedy, not many people can write in this sort of rhetorical way, speaking for a nation. I think that William has this ability, that, opposed to other poets, given his war record, his own sense of himself, he has somehow chosen on occasion to write political poems about Nixon, or about what our country has done in electing Nixon. So essentially a useful poet, he would say, would be someone who was read.

Kieran:
What should a common person be able to take away from a poem? What purpose does a poem serve?

Meredith:
Pleasure and enjoyment. Poems are interesting because the reader enjoys them.

Kieran:
What about instruction or pedagogy? Should the reader learn something from the poem? Should the poem be instructional? Or is enjoyment what you're really getting at?

Meredith:
Enjoyment first, and then subtle involvement in the poetry a little bit later. But enjoyment first.

Kieran: And how in your poems, or in useful poems, how is usefulness manifested in the style, the diction, or the formal qualities of a poem?

Meredith:
Well, rhyme and meter, and off rhyme and off meter. The poem about the dying men in the sinking ship, I talk about that. I know ABC form, and that's not required for other people because other people send the message. But I like the form. Both the form and the content.

Kieran:
Are they equally important, or is one more important than the other?

Meredith:
I think pleasure in the form, because there is clarity in the form itself. It's halfway form or three quarters of the way form.

Harteis: What you say is a function of how you say it. Form and content can't be separated.

Kieran:
You often use common language in your poems. What is the value of that?

Meredith:
Daily life is very powerful. Common words are used by common people. They can grasp the facts of it.

Kieran:
What other poets do you consider useful? I know you've said Frost was a useful poet.

Meredith:
Wilbur is a useful poet; Cal Lowell is not because he had a high intellect, but he was a beautiful poet. I learned all about high up, interesting things, but I like real poetry better.

Kieran:
Is that what you mean in the quote about the language of the tribe? Lowell was a good poet but he had a long way to go towards the language of the tribe before he became useful?

Meredith:
Yes. I think Lowell and I were a little bit different. He would get so involved with the story and not the image. Find the image first and then the story. I said it to him in Spain once. I said, "I can't read it." And he said, "What's the matter?" I see it a little bit different now than before because William Meredith produces the image. Lowell was a very high up character. I'm a lower character.

Kieran:
So the image for you comes after the idea for the poem, or do you see the image and think of the poem?

Meredith:
I really don't know about that. Well, thirty years ago I knew it because it came from a little bit higher than me, somewhere in the sky above. I knew it, and I liked it, and only I could get the results of the translations. Only five times a year, but very upward and outward and beautiful image over and over again. I can't say why that is. I think concentration is part of it, and also something, God, or something else, presents an image that I don't know here, but something happens to me and the image is here. I don't know why that is. Something occurs to me and something happens to me very slowly. For instance, forty years ago I was very timid, so I talked very strangely. And then fifteen years ago, I talk straight. Upwards. Upwards. I learned how to speak because something happens - always interesting words occur. More and more, they're common words. Not uncommon, but common.

Kieran:
Just to go back to this idea of useful poetry, can you name a poem of yours, or a few poems, that you consider particularly useful? I know we talked about "Parents" earlier.

Meredith:
Yes. A+ or A for that one. I'll show you. (Meredith went to the bookshelf and retrieved his copy of Partial Accounts: New and Selected Poems.) "In Memory of Robert Frost." There are two missing words. I scratched them. There are two lines missing. I struck them out because they weren't important.

Kieran:
And that was before it was published?

Meredith:
No. After.

Kieran:
Between the time it was in Earth Walk and the time it was published in this book?

Meredith:
Right.

Kieran:
And what made you change your mind between the first time and the second time?

Meredith:
It's a very good poem, but there was a slight ambiguity there, so strike it out. Two lines.

Kieran:
What grade do you give the Robert Frost poem?

Meredith: B-. And this one.("In Front of the Cave," Adapted from the Bulgarian Poet Nikolai Hristozov.)

Kieran:
This is your translation?

Meredith: Yes. I adapted the Bulgarian poet. It's the same thing, but English rather than Bulgarian. Beautiful poem. But also this one is especially good in Bulgarian but not as good in English. Periods, commas, other things. Here. (Hands book over)

Kieran: "The American Living Room: A Tract." Why is this a good poem?

Meredith:
Read it. (laughs.) A tract. In the fifties and sixties very scanty poems. I pick them thoughtfully and I don't really like them, or it. But, here's a good poem. (In memoriam Stratton Christensen) Stratton Christensen was twenty-four years old, and he died in flight school. He had gone to Harvard. This one here (Effort at Speech) is a good one because of the old rhyme-two thousand years old. Da dada da da dada dada da da. Da dada da da dada dada da da. I can't remember the rhyme scheme, but it's tricky rhyme.

Kieran:
Well, it almost looks like it doesn't have a rhyme, but it does.

Meredith:
Yes. Two thousand years ago.

Kieran:
I'd like to ask you a little about Hazard. You say in the beginning of the book that Hazard's resemblances to you are fewer than you would have liked. Why do you want to be more like Hazard?

Meredith:
Well, he has two children, for instance. And a wife. Also Hazard has jumped from an airplane. I didn't do it.

Kieran:
But you wrote about it.

Meredith:
Not the same thing. Other things. The wife. I can't say the wife. Richard and I are friends only. But different things. And I like [Hazard] extremely much. He was born in 1919 also, and [I like] his parents. They are a wonderful thing, parents. I love and hate my parents. Both of them. I like them more and more, better now dead than alive. I think he's a very straight man, very shy, gentle, horrible with money. And Nellie Keiser Meredith was small, but strong. I don't know why that is, but something is lacking now. And I'm sad, because I'm stronger and stronger.

Kieran:
And are your parents Hazard's parents?

Meredith:
No.

Kieran:
What kind of a person would you say Hazard is?

Meredith:
Me, but a little bit surer and stronger.

Kieran:
Would you like to be stronger like that?

Meredith:
In time. I'm stronger now than before, you know. I am a thoughtful fellow, but I can't say things because Richard is busy busy busy. But I'm talking much better and also thinking through things here. I'm a strong and healthy person...I don't like indecisiveness. These things are not interesting to me anymore. Eighteenth century furniture is not interesting to me. Small things rather than large things interest me more. It's difficult, but I am slowly better now because thinking about it --and I can't talk--but thinking about it totally, I think that better thoughts occur to me now than before. I think I thought physically interesting [thoughts], but I couldn't say them at all ten years ago. So I think when I don't talk and very interesting things occur because I can't say them. But I meant them. Now I mean them, too. I don't know why either of those things occur. Very strange for me. I go fifteen years and then talk again. I can't really say the reason why. I think the body, the brain is completely damaged there. But little by little, more I talk better. I talk better everyday, so things are improving.

Kieran:
Would you say that the things you've written about in your later poems are trying to accomplish different things than you were trying to accomplish in your earlier poems?

Meredith:
Yes. I think so, because I know more and more larger issues now than before. I can's say what I mean exactly. More sure of myself and my place in the world, and I talk better words because it was make believe thirty years ago, but twenty years later image is fixed and clear and very hard nosed. Difficult because...learning how to speak requires very much thought, and I know what I think now. I think also that you and I talk together all right. Not really all right, but somewhat all right. And I think more and more sure of myself now and other people don't know that, and I can't explain that either.

Kieran:
I've been reading all of your letters to and from your friends. Tell me about what it was like knowing Berryman, Lowell, Penn Warren, all of those people. How did you get to know them?

Meredith:
I don't know. Lowell I met at the opera. Lowell and I were together at Harvard.

Kieran:
Out of all of the poets that you knew, which one do you feel closest to?

Meredith:
Three poets. Every one very close to me. I think Lowell, Berryman, and Red Warren. They taught and learned from me.

Kieran:
It seems like you and Warren sent a lot of poems back and forth.

Meredith:
Yes, poems. But Red Warren. Not me.

Kieran:
You wouldn't send him poems, but he would send you poems? Why do you think he chose you to send his poems to?

Meredith:
Because·I can't say· because bad and good... Red Warren is not good about that, so William Meredith judged them. I can't say why that is. So I tell him why it is. It was a beautiful thing. Red only, not me, sent them and I said yes or no.

Kieran:
Do you think that you influenced his poetry at all?

Meredith:
No, I think all I did was "yes" or "no". This one is good, this one is bad.

Kieran:
But you didn't change the way he wrote poetry?

Meredith:
Yes, also, but carefully. There was a ten or twelve year difference between us. Sixty and seventy two.

Kieran:
In one of the letters you wrote to Warren you say that the biggest problem in judging someone else's work is getting rid of your own style. How do you do that?

Meredith: I don't know about that. I don't remember that one. It's true, though.

Kieran:
How did you do it?

Meredith:
Will, I guess. Red was a very likable man, and a very interesting man, and he exercised every day, and Eleanor and I would plod along in the sun and he would swim. Good swimmer.

Kieran: How did you meet him?

Meredith:
I really don't know that answer. It was a long time ago. I sought him out.

Kieran:
How about Berryman?

Meredith:
A very wonderful man. Berryman was twenty-five years earlier and thought completely different. We were fighting all the time, and then Berryman at the Bread Loaf conference was a very close friend. He was drunk, and I was also drunk, most of the time. But I would rest sometimes and Berryman would come after me at three O'clock in the morning and say a poem. A Princeton man, a very good man. People upstairs would yell, "Quiet please!" His wife was a beautiful woman. Kate was a beautiful woman. But day by day, more and more downhill, and suicide. I am sad about that.

Kieran:
You came to Conn. College in 1955. What made you want to teach there?

Meredith:
Connecticut College asked me to teach.

Kieran:
What are some of your favorite memories about the school?

Meredith:
Well, five courses once because [a faculty member] was sick and dying. So I taught five courses at once. Very hard going. One time went to France and studied because I had a scholarship.

Kieran:
What was your favorite course to teach?

Meredith:
Three courses. English Composition and two others; 19th century, I think.

Kieran: Did you like teaching the basic courses?

Meredith:
Yeah. A little bit. Higher students better. But my favorite? I can't say because I can't remember.

Kieran:
Do you think the college changed for the better when it went co-ed?

Meredith:
Yes. Life changed. Thirty or forty boys only, one time. Different viewpoints, boys and girls. And Charlie Shain is my friend, and so I do what he says. He was a good president.

Kieran:
What makes a good teacher?

Meredith:
Caring for principles and also students. One by one rather than a whole flock of them. Fifteen minutes for the first, and then afterwards I'd talk one by one. Students, in one by one relationships, were more comfortable, and they said things interesting to me, and also slightly altered your viewpoint. It was a model of everything because there were new principles and the old principles were a little bit faded. And then you wise up, when you're sixty years old. Wise up!

Kieran:
Are there any students that you remember particularly? This one on one relationship seems very important to you.

Meredith:
Yes. There was a West Coast woman, (Cecelia Holland). Very educated woman. Very classy woman. As a college student she had written a two hundred-page novel already. And Michael Collier. Gayl Jones was a wonderful student.

Kieran:
Well, Collier is a pretty big name now.

Meredith:
A good name, too. He is very hard working and very interesting. I admire him extremely much. I did then. Twenty-six years ago.

Kieran:
Did you help him get started?

Meredith:
Not really. A little afterwards. I didn't know that twenty years afterwards I would respect him so much. In his college days he was a very concentrated spirit. I can't imagine being like that.

Kieran:
What advice would you have for prospective teachers?

Meredith:
Teaching is very good. I live in very good style. [George] Willauer and Richard [Harteis] are good examples. Students are beautiful, wherever you go. I like students and I am amazed by students; there are good students and bad students, interesting students and amazing students.