“Worth Taking the Trouble to Say”:
A Conversation with James McMichael
by Mark Dow
James McMichael (b. 1939) is the author of the book-length poem Capacity, a 2006 National Book Award finalist. His previous volumes of poems include The World at Large: New and Selected Poems, 1971-1996; Each in a Place Apart (1994), Four Good Things (1980), The Lover’s Familiar (1978), and Against the Falling Evil (1971). He has written two books of critical prose: Ulysses and Justice (1991) and The Style of the Short Poem (1967). Among his awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and the Shelley Memorial Prize. He is the director of the Master of Fine Arts Poetry Writing Program at the University of California, Irvine. Mark Dow studied with McMichael from 1984 to 1986.
Line, Stanza, Poem
Mark Dow: Let’s start by talking about the line and the stanza in Capacity, which, correct me if I’m wrong, is a version of the line and stanza in “The World at Large”?
James McMichael: It is. In “The World at Large” the form is a one-, two-, three- and four-line stanza. Capacity adds a five-line stanza to the mix. No one of the five stanzas is repeated until each of the other four appears. The form’s like Schoenberg’s 12-tone system, in which no one note recurs until all the others have been heard from.
MD: Did the idea come from Schoenberg, or is there—
MD: Is there a precedent in English poetry?
JM: Not that I know of.
MD: And what does it do for you?
JM: It helps me keep the poem moving and varied. And it feels democratic.
MD: What does that mean?
JM: That no stanza is disadvantaged in favor of any other. Equal representation, even-handed distribution of stanzas. Letting them all feel as if they’re part of the team.
JM: I like to think the stanzaic form is consistent with how varied the length of the line is.
MD: Could you say more about that?
JM: The line can make its way onto the page as a single syllable or maybe as many as up to fourteen. Once the variety in terms of line-length is established, it can be sustained effectively only if the phrasing is made to fit with it in such a way that each line is exactly the length that it needs to be.
MD: So that even though you’re writing “free-verse,” it’s still making demands.
JM: The more demands the form imposes, the more it helps me edit what has to be thrown away in favor of phrases that will do what needs to be done.
MD: Can you talk about the development of your sense of the line? There’s a shift from the line in Four Good Things, which is going back a ways already, to what recently looks more fragmented, though I’m not quite comfortable using that word.
JM: Four Good Things is big monoliths of verse-paragraphs. They’re indented. They go on for pages sometimes. In Each in a Place Apart, the poems are given their own page or pages, as they’re not in Four Good Things. But the line in the two books is the same, and there are no stanzas. After Each in a Place Apart, I wrote a couple of poems in couplets, “She” and “Pretty Blue Apron,” so there’s something like a stanza again in those poems, but not exactly.“The World at Large” was the only other poem I wrote prior to Capacity. In it, I was back to stanzas. Its stanzas helped me feel as if I might do something formally that would let there be a different kind of fluidity than there was in those big-block verse-paragraph sets of lines in the earlier books. The material in “The World at Large” felt pinched since life in Greenland is limited to the margins. As I wrote it, I had the sense that I was training myself to write in a minimalist way about the parts of the world that are the British Isles.
MD: Each in a Place Apart seems to come as close to prose as you can and still be poetry, and still be line. Does that—
JM: That sounds right. It’s a story. And we tend to expect a narrative to be prose.
MD: Why do you write anything as a poem, as opposed to writing it as something else?
JM: The line. Having lines to write lends itself to my having a scrutiny that I missed when I was writing a book of prose on Joyce’s Ulysses. The closest I could come to finding a substitute for the line was the paragraph, and it was so extended that I didn’t get much help from it. I had to teach myself how to write a paragraph. But even that didn’t help me have the book feel any more finish-able than I suspect prose ever is. Robert Pinsky once said: You can finish a poem, you can’t finish prose. There’s something of that in place in terms of how much more patience I’m going to have with what I’m writing if it’s going to be something that turns up in lines.
MD: I think there’s a real emperor’s clothing thing going on: the “line” in most of the verse I see isn’t really doing anything. On the other hand, poets who really do use the line often explain what they’re doing in terms that don’t have much to do with what they are, in fact, doing—though they may need to tell themselves whatever they’re telling themselves in order to get it done. I had the chance to ask A. R. Ammons about this in connection to William Carlos Williams [Pequod #43, 2000], and Ammons said, oh, Williams once gave me an explanation he’d written about the variable foot. Then he laughs and says, it didn’t make a whit of sense. Do you happen to have a sense of what that variable foot is, of whether it really was something new, or—
JM: I don’t. I wouldn’t know how to put what he said about it together with what does and doesn’t seem to work for me in the lines themselves.
MD: Why was that little Williams poem [“This is just to say”] compelling enough for you to include in The Style of the Short Poem? That’s a short book in which you didn’t write about too many different poems.
JM: I was really young [laughs].
MD: Fair enough. Because it doesn’t seem—
JM: It’s not something I’d do again.
MD: You wrote a blurb for Doreen Gildroy’s first book in which you say that her poems remind us what it is that a lyric poem can do that no other medium can. What is that?
JM: I think I’d have to answer the question in relation to Doreen’s two wonderful books, The Little Field of Self and Human Love. They seem to me to be lyrical in a way that no other genre would encourage a writer to be, insofar as there’s an isolate-ness, the sense of a first-person singular singer wanting to see if it isn’t possible that the song could be heard by someone else. I can’t imagine that what she’s up to in those books could get itself said in any other form. In that way, her poems seem exemplary of what poetry is there for.
Radio, Paragraphs, Levinas, Joyce
MD: Was there a moment in your life when you became interested in writing poems?
JM: Edgar Bowers was my teacher when I was a sophomore. He’d written poems I knew and admired. I had some other wonderful teachers at UC Santa Barbara, but what they wrote was critical prose. One of the courses I took with Bowers was an introduction to poetry. The other was world literature. Taking those courses with him, I got interested in writing in a way that felt as if it was what I wanted to learn how to do and to keep doing. I worked harder in those courses than I’d ever worked, and I got C’s in both.
MD: Where did your sense of language, or of what it can do, come from, aside from poetry itself? You were telling me the other day about the minister in your family’s church.
JM: Two things were formative for me. One was the radio shows. The kids’ shows came on at 4:30 and lasted until the grown-up shows came on at 7. (Those lasted until 10.) Cisco Kid and Red Rider, Sky King. The Lone Ranger. Lux Radio Theater, which was on every Monday night at 6, distilled a current movie and gave a dramatic reading of it with sound-effects. There was The Shadow, The Whistler, One Man’s Family and a whole range of shows (including comedies). I listened to it all. Its infusion into my life was daily and unignorable. I loved it. I lived from it. The second formative thing for me was Ganse Little. He was the minister at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church. I’d hear his sermons from the balcony with the other members of the boys’ choir. He’d invariably put together something important and followable. What he found to say sold language to me in a way nothing else, including the radio, did. I’ve never gotten over it. It was a foundation I could build on with whatever literary affectations [laughs] I wanted to cultivate. When I was a senior in high school, I went down to Nash’s Department Store and bought the Modern Library edition of Ulysses because it was a very famous book. I’d borrowed my dad’s Oldsmobile to go buy this book, and driving home, on a Saturday afternoon, I stopped on a residential street in a place that would seem to lend itself to my getting into it. I opened the book up and started reading it and I lasted for about seven minutes [laughs]. But I had the book, and I could say to anybody who asked that I’d bought it.
MD: When did you come back to Ulysses and last a little longer?
JM: Not until I had been teaching at Irvine for a couple of years. I saw Joseph Strick’s film of Ulysses. Strick cast Milo O’Shea as Bloom, and that was all it took for me to want to read the book.
MD: What about the undergraduate course on it that you took with Hugh Kenner?
JM: Kenner at that time was still in the mode of seeing Ulysses as The Wasteland—as everything having gone sour, because how could it have done anything other than go sour if the hero is a Jew? That was how he was reading Ulysses. It made the book a little less available [laughs]. But much later in his career, in the 80s, he dedicated a book to Leopold Bloom. And it was heartfelt, no irony, nothing. He got completely won over.
MD: What made you feel the need to write a book yourself about Ulysses?
JM: I loved it so much that I wanted to do it. I felt an intimacy with it that I didn’t think I did enough with in the classes I taught, though it was wonderful to have it in common with people who were interested in it and who came to love it themselves. There was a lot I felt I could learn about my relation to it if I held myself to writing sentences about it. And the time that I’d spent reading Levinas prior to beginning to write the book made me feel there were things that hadn’t been said about it that I thought Joyce himself would be glad to have said. I also didn’t know what to write poems about at that point. And so, having told myself that if I were ever to write something about Ulysses I would need to be at least 38 because Bloom was 38, I decided that was what I’d take up next. I’d written four poems after I’d finished Four Good Things about my marriage with Linda, and they all turned out to be poems about quarrels. I didn’t understand why that’s what I was writing about when I had the good feelings about her and about the marriage that I did. So I had to accept at that point that I didn’t know enough about what I wanted to write poems about next. I turned to the book on Joyce, which took me years and years, mostly because I didn’t know how to write prose. I was working on the Joyce book when you were a student at Irvine [in the mid-80s].
MD: You mentioned Emmanuel Levinas [1906-1995]. What is it that you wanted to say about Ulysses through Levinas that you felt Joyce would like to hear?
JM: Both Joyce and Levinas have an uncanny ability to call up what it feels like to me to be alive in a world with other people in it. I can’t think of any two writers who seem as attuned to what goes on in one’s life from minute to minute, especially in the way that our lives involve other people. Throughout Ulysses, Joyce’s attentiveness to what another person is has about it an intensity I haven’t found in anyone other than Levinas. The matter of other persons than oneself seems so relentlessly the point in both Levinas and Joyce that I wanted to see what I could say about how the structure of Ulysses manages to articulate what it’s like to be “with any as any with any.” The narrative of Ulysses is given to us by a God-like intelligence absolutely indifferent to everything that’s disclosed. The narrative invites us at every turn to be clear on what we’d be giving up if we ourselves were God and not the limited intelligences that we are. The finitude, the exigencies of moment-to-moment life with other people register in Ulysses with a magnitude unimaginable to me in any other structure than its own.
Philosophy, Hendrix, Applause
MD: But I know that you don’t like Ulysses just because it’s a vehicle for those philosophical issues. So I don’t—
JM: You’ve got characters who turn up throughout Ulysses who become recognizable because they wouldn’t say or do anything other than what they say and do. In this way, there’s something at work in Ulysses that is not conceptual in the way that philosophy is conceptual. Though it can be conceptualized, it’s the book’s insistent moment-to-moment evocation of what goes on in any given day that I get pulled back to again and again and again. I’m able to remember some phrase from Ulysses and I’m pleased by it to a degree I wouldn’t be if it were itself less recognizable because of what happens in front of me from day to day. To get at it and say something intelligible about it requires concepts, but it’s the nuts and bolts phrases that I feel are as a good a model for literature as any I know.
MD: Are the lines between genres—fiction, poetry, philosophy—useful or interesting to you, or simply irrelevant?
JM: To me they’re irrelevant. I think Joyce and Levinas each found the medium that he could best put to work so that he could place back outside of himself onto the page what had imprinted itself on him because he was alive in the world with other people in it. Neither made a mistake in terms of vocation. Each knew what he had to do and did it, and I love the results.
MD: Levinas says that philosophy is as much an attitude as it is anything else. And it seems to me that in Capacity you’re using the mind and using the compression that the right kind of poem makes possible, even makes natural, to get at questions often considered to be philosophers’ questions. Are there questions that Levinas or others pose that you think you can get at by writing lines, or does it just so happen that that’s what you write?
JM: I think it’s more of the second. It was schizophrenic of me to have gone from writing poems to writing prose about something other than a poet or poets. I’ve questioned the wisdom of having written the book on Ulysses. But I can’t get around the fact that at that time in my life there was material I wasn’t addressing in my poems that I wanted to get at any way I could. I think I was going through a kind of self-instruction in writing that book. I was exposing myself to matters I didn’t yet know how to make room for in poems. In what I can find to write from now on, I want to do something that I myself can sense as gratitude for what I’ve learned from all the people I’ve learned from, including writers living and dead. If I’ve just heard a wonderful performance of Mahler’s Das Lied Von Der Erde, I’m restless to let everyone responsible for what I’ve heard and been moved by hear back from me and all the rest of us who are in the room. I’ve taken in what they’ve made, I’ve been touched and enlarged by it, and—until I applaud—something’s drastically out of balance. There’s that moment between the last note of a piece of music that part of you wants to be silence so the silence itself can be over and you can begin to applaud.
MD: You told me a long time ago that our applauding after a performance is a way of participating in it. Which sounds like what you’re saying.
MD: Though I wish that people wouldn’t applaud for at least a certain amount of time after a piece of music ends, because I love to hear the silence right after the music.That’s everything, in a way, like the beginning, when the music starts out of seemingly nothing. I’ve been listening to Soile Isokoski, the Finnish soprano, sing Mozart arias. There’s a way in which the first note that comes out of her is—
JM: Puts you on notice?
MD: Well, it’s that one second ago it wasn’t there, and now it is, yet it doesn’t seem to have had a beginning. Because even though it’s radically different from what was just going on before, it doesn’t seem to disrupt anything.
JM: But that makes me think of how I don’t know a musician who improvises who seems less as if he’s just soloed than Hendrix. It’s as if what he’s done, which you could describe in no other way but to say it’s a solo, has some other kind of feel to it. I don’t understand it. My friend Peter Atkinson has said about Hendrix that everything is easy for him. Maybe it’s that that lets his soloing feel to me like some other kind of operation.
MD: Does it have something to do with the seeming naturalness of it? Because it’s not that he’s not performing—he’s very much performing, right?
MD: I don’t think I’d get what you’re talking about if I hadn’t seen, as well as heard, him play—on recordings, I mean. There’s a kind of naturalness.
JM: Yes. You said that when Isokoski’s voice presents itself it’s as if it hasn’t started. That makes me think that what follows the last bit of it that reaches your ear has in it something that rhymes with what was there before you had the first onset of sound.
Bowers, Winters, Larkin, Crane
MD: When you write poems, do you have any reader in mind? Do you think of the reader at all?
JM: No. It seems to me that writing is a contract with people who speak the same language as you do. Your part of the contract is to get as much into what you write as you can, to be as clear as you can be about it and get out.
MD: Yvor Winters was one of your teachers at Stanford.
JM: He was. He had been Bowers’s teacher, and that’s why I went to Stanford. I learned about Winters through Bowers.
MD: And then you decided that you wanted to study with Winters?
MD: And what years did you do that?
MD: Some of the people with you there were Robert Pinsky—
JM: Right. Robert Haas came. And Ken Fields and John Peck. And John Matthias.
MD: What did you learn from Winters? Why did that time matter?
JM: He was a lovable man and a brilliant man. He was very tired by the time I got there. I’d read his prose and his poems before I’d gotten there, and re-read them, and loved many of the essays, and I was shaped by his writing in ways I’m probably not ever going to be aware of. What happened for me while I was at Stanford wasn’t helped by the mistaken assumption I came there with. I’d assumed that what I’d learned as an undergraduate was going to be improved upon enormously once I was in graduate classes. If there was improvement, it came from my peers and not at all from the instructors in the classes I took. I’d had uncommonly blessed teachers as an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara. Bowers, Homer Swander, Benjamin Sankey, Marvin Mudrick, Hugh Kenner. What I learned from them about how to read I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. Once I was at Stanford, nothing about Winters was disappointing to me, but I think most of what I learned from him I’d learned by the time I got there. Stanford was a wonderful place for me to have gone to school at that time. I can’t imagine having begun a career in writing and reading with the same kind of appetite for it if my peers there hadn’t been such wonderful people to talk to about the things that we had in common. We all knew at the time that we were going to turn into a diaspora. Only in a few cases have I managed to stay in touch with people I was there with.
MD: What did you learn from Winters before you got there? Either through Bowers or through Winters’s own writing?
JM: It would have been through Winters’s own writing. I could see the ways he influenced Bowers, and influenced Bowers’s line, which was an iambic line. I think the one thing that I never got over in my reading of Winters’s prose was the inescapability of distinguishing good writing from bad writing, or good writing from writing that’s a little less good. Having the detectors on all the time to identify parts of a piece of writing that aren’t up to the rest of it—that was something it’s hard to imagine would have implanted itself in me with the kind of insistence that it does if it weren’t for Winters. In that sense, I can’t imagine having gotten into this line of work without his influence.
MD: What was your dissertation about?
JM: My dissertation read Hart Crane, Stevens, Roethke, Pound and Williams as having (in their different and singular ways) a deep distrust of the relation between words and things. My interest was to describe how that distrust led them into the rhetorical properties (the diction, structure and sound) that make their poems what they are.
MD: Is the so-called plain style something that you have consciously admired? Do you see yourself as part of that tradition?
JM: I don’t, but maybe only because I’m at such a remove from the way it first had its impact on me. I’m sure it’s effected my allergy to the figurative. I get to a point in a phrase I’m writing that if I find I may be inclined to say “it’s like,” I seize up and wait until the impulse goes away. My feeling this way about it can only be connected to Winters’s feeling that the Petrarchan is overblown, and that the plain style is the mode that is to be preferred and practiced. I may sense that I’d be at risk of turning into Hart Crane at his worst if I didn’t manage to keep it plain. And then in spite of this sense, there I am being as moved by Hart Crane as I am by Dickinson. Not all of him, but the parts of Crane that I love get to me as much as anything in verse.
MD: Could you say more about Hart Crane?
JM: “Down two more turns the Mississippi pours.” It’s the lines. A lot of how the best of his lines moves me goes back to Crane being the poet that got to me first. Hopkins was there for me early too, but I got over that fast and haven’t been back. But Crane, “Repose of Rivers” and “I left the village for dogwood”—from that point on in “The Dance” in The Bridge—it’s as affecting as anything I’ve ever read. And then I think of other poets who keep good company with Crane for me in that way. Dickinson’s one, Larkin at his best is one, Milton. And in terms of the way the lines move, many parts of The Cantos.
MD: Didn’t you a teach a course on Larkin and Dickinson?
JM: I did.
MD: That just seems so surprising to me, to have Larkin in the same room as Dickinson.
JM: Not to me [laughs].
On longer evenings,
Light, chill and yellow,
Bathes the serene
Foreheads of houses.
A thrush sings,
In the deep bare garden,
Its fresh-peeled voice
Astonishing the brickwork.
It will be spring soon,
It will be spring soon—
And I, whose childhood
Is a forgotten boredom,
Feel like a child
Who comes on a scene
Of adult reconciling,
And can understand nothing
But the unusual laughter,
And starts to be happy.
It’s called “Coming.” [Long pause.] How does somebody write a line like “Down two more turns the Mississippi pours?” Where does that come from? The simplicity of it. And it’s periodic. You wait for the verb.
MD: It’s a little like what you were saying about Hendrix. It has that naturalness to it.
Mark Dow’s work has appeared recently in PN Review (UK), Circumference: Poetry in Translation, and RealPoetik, as well as in Threepenny Review, Boston Review, Miami Herald, and SLAM! Wrestling. He has been a finalist in the Yale and Colorado Prize poetry competitions, is author of American Gulag: Inside US Immigration Prisons (2004), and co-editor of Machinery of Death: The Reality of America’s Death Penalty Regime (2002). He teaches at Hunter College in New York. (3/2008)