This excerpt is used with permission from The Paris Review.
Hirsch:You've said that you average about six poems per year. Why so few?
Meredith: Why so many? Ask any reviewer. I remember one particularly wicked review of Edna St. Vincent Millay whose new poems weren't as good as they should have been. "This Millay seems to have gone out of her way to write another book of poems." You're always afraid of that. That could be said, I believe, of certain people's poems. So I wait until the poems seem to be addressed not to "Occupant" but to "William Meredith." And it doesn't happen a lot. I think if I had a great deal more time it would happen more often because I would get immediately to the typewriter. But it might happen eight times a year instead of six- not much more than that. 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 which is not astonishment of reality but astonishment of insight. It is for me, as a lyric poet, to make poems only out of insights I encounter. Robert Frost used to say, "How many things have to happen to you before something occurs to you?"
Hirsch: How do you usually start a poem?
Meredith: It starts with insight which gets a few words close to the ground and then the words begin to make specific the insight. Once they start growing the words are seminal- I suppose it's like the bacteria of growth. I can hardly remember a poem in which the words are not particular words, often very bleak, simple words.
Hirsch: Do you think writing a poem is a specific engagement of a mystery?
Meredith: I would say exactly that. It is the engagement of a mystery which has forced itself to the point where you feel honor-bound to see this mystery with the brilliance of vision. Not to solve it, but to see it.
Hirsch: In a memorial poem to John Berryman, "In Loving Memory of the Late Author of Dream Songs," you write that "Morale is what I think about all the time/ now, what hopeful men and women can say and do." Why morale?
Meredith: I suppose it seems to me that the priestly function of artists in a society is to administer spiritual vision and that the obvious deficiency of a fragmented and confused society is in confidence....My real concern is, in the first place, that we ought not to be solemn and, in the second place, the response to disaster, even cultural disaster, is an impersonal one and the personal obligation is to mental and spiritual health. Of course, it always has been.
Hirsch: Playfulness and humor also seem to be an integral part of your poetic stance.
Meredith: I learned about playfulness from W.H. Auden, who talks about it all the time. But the example of playfulnes that I found in Frost was the great attraction of Frost for me. I could see that he played games with words, a sort of Hide and Seek with the reader, and therefore the poems were never as earnest as English teachers said they were. People who are basically humorous are constantly misunderstood in an instructive way. My social career is littered with ill-calculated humor. One doesn't want to say, "I live on the verge of despair and terror and I'm perfectly safe because I'm roped off by humor and good cheer." But sometimes, it's the only way to talk about things. Humorlessness is a positively morbid quality that certain people have. This is not the same as not being witty, it's not the same thing as not using humor in a particular instance. It's a solemnity which puts blinders on your awareness of ridicule and absurdity. I'm always suspicious of humorlessness.
Hirsch: Lowell's poem, "Morning after Dining with a Friend," describes a dinner which you had with Lowell near the end of his life. It also refers to your first meeting. How accurate is this poem, and would you talk about your relationship with Lowell both as a person and as a poet?
Meredith: The poem, like everything he wrote, is terribly accurate, but the remark about the language of the tribe is changed in mode from declarative to optative. What I actually said was, reading a new batch of poems he gave me that evening, "I feel that with every book you have come a little closer to the language of the tribe." And that's what I say I said in my poem....so he thought, and he may have been correct, that I was saying, "You've got a long way to go." I wouldn't have the insolence to say that then or now, but what I might have meant was, if you can write this much more accessibly every year you will eventually become as useful as Frost as well as as great as Lowell. That's what I must have had on my mind but I surely didn't urge him to do anything.
Hirsch: Three of the poems in "The Cheer" deal with Berryman, "Dreams of Suicide," "In Loving Memory of the Late Author of Dream Songs," and "John and Anne." Berryman seems to be a key figure to you both as a person and a poet. Would you talk about your relationship with him?
Meredith: He and I were more familiar than I ever felt myself to be with Auden, Frost, or Lowell. I was intimate with Lowell but not familiar. We were close friends and the warmth was there, but my mind is not the size or shape of Lowell's and I was always aware of this. Berryman was wonderful: anything you didn't know that was necessary to follow his argument he would fill in. He didn't expect me to be anything but bright. I have a postcard from him, written when I was doing a piece about the sonnets at his request. I had asked him to identify a source. He wrote me back with the information and the rest of the postcard says, "Really, Meredith, what will you pretend not to know next?" I was familiar with him. You had to accept his undignified behavior in a way that was comfortable for him and you had to do that naturally. Not everybody could do it. I naturally felt that his dignity was never lost.
Hirsch: Does Meredith's Hazard owe anything to Berryman's Henry, the protagonist of Dream Songs, beyond the fact that they're both working at a time when, in the words you quote from Berryman, "The culture is in late imperial decline?"
Meredith: I think it owes something in the sense of playfulness in the character. I put three of these poems together and sent them to Berryman and they didn't interest him at all. He was polite about them but I think that all he could see was that anything I could do he had done better. Maybe that clarified for me that I ought to distance myself more from the diction of Henry.
Hirsch: There is a powerful impulse in your work to move beyond the misgivings, grievances, and despair of so many of your contemporaries. Do you see your work as a dialogue or as an alternative to the work of contemporaries like Lowell and Berryman?
Meredith: I see it as a dialogue because it relates me to the writers that I admire and know personally. We have different things to say in our poems, we have different visions, so that, in essence, it's a dialogue. I don't think that their visions are wrong and mine is right. Mine is corrective of one thing and theirs is corrective of another. It's the distortion of art. I distort to see the truth and they distort to see the truth.
Hirsch: In poems like "Politics" and "Nixon's the One" and "On Jenkins' Hill" and "A Mild-Spoken Citizen Finally Writes to the White House" you develop an unusual civic stance for a contemporary poet, a kind of "poet as concerned citizen" approach to the political scene. Does that characterization seem accurate to you? And does this attitude signify a new kind of openness or political engagement in your work?
Meredith: I believe it represents an openness that I've always felt and acted on but never found much way, before this, to talk about in poetry. The lyric poem is often so private. For example, my intention in writing "The Wreck of the Thresher" was to write a public poem about my feeling of disappointment in the hopes of the United Nations. When I was writing that poem I remember seeing it change from a rather pretentious public statement to the very private statement it turned out to be. It occurred to me that this is simply a demonstration of what Auden said in the "Dyer's Hand," that we don't trust a public voice in poetry today. I would say that my concern about politics is precisely the concern of a Joan Didion or a Denise Levertov but that my stance is very different, so it doesn't appear to be the same. There is a spectrum of political opinion and a spectrum of political involvement. I stand with regard to involvement where those two women stand, but in the political spectrum I'm much more Jeffersonian-I'm nearer the middle.
Hirsch: Throughout your work, you continually exhibit and also prize the civic values of modesty and formal restraints. Why do you think these are so important?
Meredith: They seem to work for me and I think they're neglected. They're part of the picture, but they're a part of the picture that, first of all, isn't talked about very much and, secondly, that I think I know something about.
Hirsch: Theodore Roethke once said, "In spite of all the muck and welter, the dark, the dreck of these poems, I count myself among the happy poets." Do you want to be one of the happy poets?
Meredith: I would like "The Cheer" to seem like someone who would say, "Yes. Without any reservations, I say yes." I speak about other things with reservations: things that I would want to change, things that I wish hadn't happened, things that we need to do and that we're not doing. But there are people who involuntarily give off an aura of "No," and those seem to be the people I quarrel with. It is inevitable to quarrel with that which you consider damaging in life.
Created using: Lightning HTML Editor Version 2.20.1997