An Interview with Anne Stevenson
Anne Stevenson, though American, has spent most of her life in England, receiving high acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic for her poetry. She is author of six books of verse including her long epistolary poem, Correspondences: A Family History in Letters (OUP, 1974), and her last volume, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation: Minute by Glass Minute (OUP, 1982). Taxus has just published her satiric poem, "A Legacy," which first appeared in the TLS, April, 1983. Stevenson also has written a critical book on Elizabeth Bishop.
I was born into an academic family. My father was a philosopher, C. L. Stevenson, and I grew up in New Haven where he was teaching at Yale. Later (1949) we moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he taught at the University, and where I went to high school and college. But I remember New England very clearly: The Sleeping Giant in New Haven, the dingy elementary school; chiefly my impression of being outside of things, and stupid. I was ill a good deal during my childhood, so I missed first and second grades. Unwisely they put me up into third grade before I'd learned my multiplication tables. Although I didn't like school, I discovered that if you were good and quiet in class you were allowed to sneak to the back of the room to read. By the time I left Junior school I was quite well read - I'd gone through some of Dickens, all of Jane Austen, most of Walter Scott, Fenimore Cooper and Robert Louis Stevenson. My father was an amateur pianist, and we always had chamber music in the house. I learned the piano and then the cello, and when I went to the University of Michigan I majored in cello, until I discovered I'd never be good enough to be professional. Then I turned to languages and history.
Although I didn't study English at college, I was greatly inspired by early Medieval anonymous poems: "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day", "A Lyke-Wake Dirge" - all those poems were in the Auden and Pearson five volume anthology my mother gave me one Christmas. I began writing Elizabethan sonnets and lyrics, even a dance drama which I called a Masque.
I also wrote the libretto for an opera: Adam and Eve and The Devil. When I left the university I wanted to be an actress, a poet, a dancer and a musician. But I married right away - an Englishman - and became a London housewife. What a fall! The transition from being an independent person at Michigan to a businessman's wife in England was like falling from Paradise, if not into the Inferno, certainly into Purgatory. I think that 'fall' had a lot to do with my writing poetry later. As Marianne Moore has remarked, "Poetry is after all, personal." At least the impetus must be personal.
When I returned to the University of Michigan as a graduate student after my first marriage, I studied with Donald Hall who suggested that I write a book for Twayne's United States Author Series. I had been reading and teaching contemporary poets, and Elizabeth Bishop simply seemed to be the best - apart from Marianne Moore. It was just luck, my choosing her. Perhaps it was because she has a sense of humour; I like poets to have a witty edge. But what Elizabeth really taught me was how to look at the world, how to see things as they are, not necessarily as emblems or symbols. After corresponding with Elizabeth Bishop, I had the impression that she was really a humble poet. She didn't feel big enough to reach out to great philosophies. She was wary of religion but couldn't absolutely reject it. And she didn't want to give any of herself away. Having closed down the transcendental and personal sides of her self (at least in her writing) she was left with the world as it is. The reason her poems are so good, I think, is that when she writes about the world of appearances she implies those other territories. Her writing occurs in a hugespace that resonates and resounds.
After that little book on Bishop I wrote a lot of Elizabeth Bishopy poems. Most of them were included in my first book, Living in America. And some of those went into my second book, Reversals, which Wesleyan published in 1969. Re-reading that collection I see now how much Sylvia Plath affected me, too. Perhaps in that book I was unconsciously trying to conflate the two poets. I was certainly bowled over by Ariel. Here was an area of experience Elizabeth Bishop hadn't been able to touch. Elizabeth lived in a grand house in South America. I, like Sylvia Plath, was an American wife in England. Elizabeth Bishop never had children. I had three. In those days it was fashionable to consider oneself mad, and I really did think I would go mad for a while there. But of course I didn't. Reading Ariel brought home to me that mine wasn't an individual angst. When I look back to my life in the '60's I am filled with horror at my lack of responsibility. The whole cult of the ego's rights and freedoms I subscribed to then now seems a kind of monstrous selfishness. Of course I was filled with guilt about my mother, who sacrificed her talent to her family. And here was I, sacrificing my family to my ambition. Yet, for a poet, it's difficult to choose away from poetry. It's quite obvious to me why most women poets never married: Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Stevie Smith. They knew the choice had to be made.
Had I stayed in America, undoubtedly I would have been a different poet. How different I can't say. It's impossible to speculate on one's alternative selves. I don't think, though, I'd have abandoned what is to me the central line of women's poetry in America: Dickinson, Moore, Bishop. Though I first began to write under the influence of Yeats and Frost, I feel I look back on a line of women - who look at things in their particular way.
Well, I can tell when a poem is coming. That pregnant feeling!
It's something like turning the circle on the top of the salt cellar until the salt comes out. You just have to get the holes matching. You know that feeling, when you think: "Ah, this is the kind of situation which will give me a poem."
Correspondences began as a personal book (resolving an enormous amount for me) but as you work into something, inevitably it becomes more impersonal. Unless you are a skilled craftsman, like Sylvia Plath, straight confession is doomed to failure. It's better to start thinking of the shape of the poem, the sounds the words make and so forth. Of course, you don't have to adopt a fixed form. The content declares the shape and viceversa. That's where the fun comes in. A poem isn't a poem for me unless it fixes its own pattern. Even in Correspondences, the monologues are carefully patterned. And I used a lot of internal rhyme.
After that book I lived in Dundee, in Scotland. Mercifully, that was a hardening up period. The Scots are romantic but tough-minded poets, working (many of them) in a classical tradition. I began to desert my Whitmanesque ways (or Lowellesque ways, perhaps) and rethink the problem of style. Most of the poems in Enough of Green are sternly Scots; while Correspondences is freer, more American. Later, when I was a fellow of LMH at Oxford, I began writing criticism and doing research with the result that I wrote badly. Affectedly. I've thrown most of what I wrote in Oxford away. In 1979, when I moved to Hay-on-Wye, in Wales, I loosened up again.
Minute by Glass Minute is a romantic book, but Wales is a romantic place. I don't, of course, know Welsh, but I know enough about the language to hear its musicality. And the Anglo-Welsh poets I admire - Gillian Clarke, Roland Mathias, Tony Conran, R. S. Thomas - they are all affected by Welsh tradition. So I rather gave myself to Wales and the Wye Valley. It's not unlike New England, except there are fewer trees and shorter snowstorms. Since then, I've moved to the Northeast, and here, I expect, the sterness will come back. Oddly enough, this past summer I've found myself writing lyrics and songs. I sometimes feel my poetry is too difficult and intellectual. The thought comes first, instead of the music. The songs are a release from too much moralizing (a fault of mine), though I'm working on a long poem on the lines of 'Green Mountain, Black Mountain' in which the themes weave through each other. I think, really, I've left Elizabeth Bishop's sphere of influence and am out on my own now. Or rather, I've returned to a voice I recognize as my own.
I've always had a sense that there's a voice I can grab hold of like Ariadne's thread, but whether it's English or American, I don't know. I suspect at the bottom it's American - just as my AA shoe size is still American. I still have American feet. Apart from seeing myself as part of a woman's tradition, I tend to favour the more formal side of American poetry. I like Frost and Emily Dickinson, Wilbur, Hecht, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, my young friend, Jay Parini. Recently, though, I met Robert Creeley and was most impressed. What's important is not whether you're formal or 'free', but whether you succeed in doing what you set out to do. Authenticity and energy are what matter. Imitation is always weak. The danger for English poets lies in a kind of Edwardian wistfulness - or in cleverness. Shy of emotion, the English back away into description or wit. The hazard for Americans, of course, is over emotion. And excessive, boring egotism. I suppose I work in both traditions and inherit the weaknesses (and I hope some of the strengths) of each. I try to keep an open mind and write like myself.
Well, I don't like the word 'influence' - as if you couldn't do anything without a crutch. But the poets I admire most in England are mostly my seniors: Geoffrey Hill, Peter Redgrove, Anne Ridler, E. J. Scovell. I suppose Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney are about my age, but they had a long headstart. Penn Warren, in America, seems to be the last of the Romantics and I do like him. But influence? I don't know. What I do know is that younger poets get much too much attention these days - prizes and so forth - before they've had any experience to write about. In England technical skill abounds, but to what purpose? I think of the parable of the foolish virgins, wasting the oil they should be conserving for the arrival of the bridegroom. There are people I know I have learned from - John Wain, for instance, and John Fuller, whose marvellous technique is so enviable. And I have lots and lots of respect for many of my friends - Gillian, Alison Brackenbury, Fleur, Carol Rumens, Ruth Fainlight, Jenny Joseph - what a lot of good women poets there are!
The Hysterical Women's Movement
That was all a bit of a put up job. I'd written a review for the TLS in which I said that women had become less hysterical recently, and were writing better poems out of a calmer atmosphere. Sylvia Kantaris took the opportunity to question whether the women's movement had been hysterical at all. Well, I think there's been a lot of hysterical writing, and I said so. I should know. I'm a professional hysteric myself! Ask my husband. But yes, I do think women writers are underestimated by most male critics. Women are writing so well these days, perhaps the men are a little on the defensive. Or perhaps they'd prefer the poetry game to be run like a tennis tournament: the women play the women and the men play the men. And sometimes we have mixed doubles. What a lot of fuss about nothing. Oh, how I do wish we could stop thinking women, women, women all the time! Either we're good poets or we're not. There can't be two sets of rules.
I'm not sure I know what you mean. I dislike isms. Lets talk about style. Or particular poems. It's true that during the twentieth century style in both poetry and prose has been subject to violent experimentation. There has been a continuous process of fragmentation, of distortion, of breaking the icons of the nineteenth century. Now, it seems to me, we should begin to think of putting things back together again. A return to some sort of tradition in poetry is needed, but there's no way to go backwards. Obviously we have to travel outwards on the gyre (to borrow from Yeats). But yes, it does seem that poets are turning to classical forms more, training themselves in sonnets and sestinas, learning the old ropes. Oddly, the Americans may be leading the way. The Americans were first to break out into Modernism, it figures that they'll be the first back in harness. It doesn't seem to me that the Martians are going anywhere very much. They're entertaining themselves on a siding somewhere off the main track. Or to employ a different metaphor, they'll soon be seen as so many glittering comets in a huge galaxy of stars. Because they're not really interested in language, only in effects.
Stevenson's Own Verse
My weaknesses? Some reviewers of my last book think I'm pretentious and bossy. I Iike to think I'm only taking a risk; but yes, there's an American temperament behind what I write an over-intellectuality sometimes. Like my children's uncle, Harold Elvin, I'm mainly interestcd in masterpieces. I mean, I don't have time to read second and third rate stuff. I don't read the literary reviews, or even the Sunday papers. So I suppose you could say I was arrogant. And then, I'm often too interested in the form of what I'm writing. I get so wound up in rhythms I forget what I'm writing about. I admire poets like Frances Horovitz who can do anything with a free form and still sound authentically pure. I go in for craft too much, at the expense of the heart.
As you know, I write a great deal about reflections, about glass - what Elizabeth Bishop called 'the surrealism of everyday life'. Perhaps this is because the T I write as is not really the T I know, or other pcople know. It's not exactly a persona, this T in the poems. It's more a reflection in a mirror. And oh, how I'm drawn by mctaphysical speculation! Half the time I don't sound serious about things which seem to me very serious. So I think my tone may be more callous than I am. Actually, I'm often on the verge of tears - the experiences I feel nearest to always move me to tears. And yet poetry - any art, really must fundamentally be 'gay'. Yeats said it, you remember, in 'Lapis Lazuli.'