A Poet’s Reckoning with What Poetry Can Do

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The poet Diane Seuss and I began a recent conversation by talking about the burdens of companionship—or, at least, how those burdens are manifested through affection for a pet. Seuss lost her dog Bear during the pandemic. When we spoke, by phone, she was at home in Michigan preparing her new dog, Stella—whom she described as “cool, interesting, complicated”—for a trip to the vet, by calming her with treats and showering her with affection. Of Stella’s many anxieties and complications, Seuss said, “After Bear, I really wanted to get a dog that was, like, a support animal.” Then she sighed and laughed lightly. “I didn’t get that.”

Seuss, who turns sixty-eight this month, is a good poet with whom to settle into a conversation about comfort and endurance, about romance and love’s worth. The many accolades that have been attached to her work testify to her technical brilliance, her sharpness of language on a line-by-line level, how she can connect several ideas and images in a single stream. (In the poem “There is a force that breaks the body,” Seuss writes, “Joy / which is also a dish soap, but not the one / that rids / seabirds of oil from wrecked tankers, that’s / Dawn / which should change its name to Dusk.”) What has always drawn me to Seuss, though, is the crispness of her emotional acumen. She can be harsh—even, perhaps especially, to the speaker in her poems, but she isn’t unforgiving. She has excelled at finding a kind of dry humor that doesn’t diminish her weighty themes. She is a writer who seems unashamed to work through her thoughts as they come: thoughts about grief (Seuss lost her father when she was seven), about the limits of nostalgia and the value of the past and the romanticization of place. In the poem “Folk Song,” Seuss writes of “this town which inhabitants speak of with endearments / as if it were a child. As if it’s not like every other brat.”

Seuss was born in 1956 and raised in Niles, Michigan. Her people were “barbers and telephone-line operators,” she told me. “Real working class.” She studied art at Kalamazoo College and got a master’s in social work from Western Michigan University. She raised her only child, a son, as a single mother while doing and teaching social work, shaping poems in her head on the job. She started teaching poetry at Kalamazoo in 1988 but didn’t publish her first collection, “It Blows You Hollow,” until a decade later.

Seuss is currently having an overdue run as one of our most decorated contemporary poets. Her third collection, “Four Legged Girl,” from 2015, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her next book of poems, “Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl,” was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the L.A. Times Book Prize. A follow-up, “frank: sonnets,” was released in 2021 and won a Pulitzer.

Her most recent collection, “Modern Poetry,” takes its name from the first poetry book Seuss ever read. The collection—sometimes playfully, sometimes with earnest curiosity, sometimes dismissively—tries to answer the question of poetry’s utility, and does so by sweeping through multiple forms, summoning the dead (a dead parent but also dead poets). At times, it reads like the internal monologue of someone who is interested in what might save them but who seems to sneer at the answers before they even arrive. In “Allegory,” Seuss writes, “Isn’t it funny / to imagine hope, not much / more than a toddler, / wielding rage in its fist like a / cudgel?” Seuss is a matter-of-fact speaker, patient with the development of her words, often punctuating ideas or half-sentences with a slow and sweet laugh, a sense of humor she attributes to her Midwest upbringing. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

There are times in “Modern Poetry” when it read to me like you were trying to maybe write towards a complicated relationship with the form of poetry itself—an approach that sometimes feels like writing almost in opposition to what one learns about art-making.

During the pandemic, I got very, very alienated. And I was alone through the whole pandemic—except for my mom, who is now almost ninety-five, lives in Niles still, and I was pretty much the only person who could help her out.

That alienation, and then Bear died, led me to really asking the question, this thing, the one thing—poetry—that I’ve stayed with. I have failed at marriages and love and even friendships. And one thing that I have stayed absolutely true to, I began to question its efficacy, its capacity to mean in the midst of this crack. So when I finished “frank: sonnets” and had followed the sonnet form so loyally, I knew that I needed to turn a corner, as one must, into the next book or sequence or whatever. The thing that came to mind is to write in free verse for the most part, to write past the obvious ending in free verse into more discursive poems. And then to even allow for, though not all the poems in “Modern Poetry” do this, something like rhetoric or argumentation, which has never been a strong suit of mine. So I like walking into my weakness and seeing what happens there. And that led me to the primary question of the book, I think, which is “What has poetry been, and what can it still be for me, if anything? Does it have the capacity to keep me here on the planet?” It was that dire.

Is the purpose of chasing that question to find an answer to the question? Or is it perhaps to find a way to expand your approach to making the work? Or did you find both?

I did want an answer because I really did feel that I didn’t know how to move forward without something like an answer. But I think, more importantly, it was an aesthetic question, and it pressed me into a whole other kind of poem—poems that address not just poetry but myself. There are several poems you probably notice where I talk to myself. I call myself Diane.

I sort of split off from myself and address myself. So in confronting poetry I was confronting myself. Both of those moves required a different kind of poem than I had ever taken on before, and maybe a new kind of confidence. In tracing my educational path—spotty, at best—which I do in the book, I guess I was trying to work with myself to say, “Even a cobbled mind can address these big questions, and I need to address them.” And maybe getting the various awards for “frank” emboldened me in a way that I might not have been otherwise to move my authority into a new . . . I would never have used the word “authority” in relation to me in the past, but I felt that I had been conferred with a kind of authority that made asking the questions for myself a viable process, and that maybe there was some value for poetry, for my own poetry at least, in asking questions that really had me and poetry up against the wall. It seemed important.

I’m also interested in the aesthetics of quote-unquote everyday life, as expansive as that is, that show up in your body of work. In all of your books, there’s a kind of everydayness amidst some real complications or real vibrant moves elsewhere. I’m wondering if some of that is because of your early life as a working-class writer. I know that you were a therapist at a point, and you were teaching creative writing while being a therapist and raising a family and doing all of these things that I think people might suggest act against a writing life. But, as we know, so much of the writing happens in our heads, and so much of the writing I think can happen while we are tending to what some would consider mundane. Are you still someone who is processing a lot of writing as you are moving through what some would consider the quotidian movements of your life?

Certainly, by necessity of raising a son who had a severe addiction, going through divorce, teaching in the way that I taught—and therapizing, when I did that, that I had to be able to at least carry on conversations with myself internally just in order to get through those things. And because I was already so habitual in hearing the music, hearing the capacity of a particular phrase or line to move into a poem, it just became normal for me to walk the dog and think lines that I then would stick on the page when I got back and worked, or chopped the broccoli, or diapered the kid, or whatever.

Being in movement, being in the midst of everyday life, is my main jam, I guess, as a poet. Then there’s another part to that, and that is . . . it counters loneliness to be able to hear my thoughts separate from my actions. And I’m a person who believes in loneliness—I’m a person who believes that loneliness is a rich experience. I don’t want to interrupt the loneliness. I think for me it’s essential to being able to write. But, still, it hurts, and to be able to hear myself in poems in my head, no matter what I’m doing, has been a comfort.

“Modern Poetry,” like all of your work, is so richly populated. Keats hovers over it, specifically. How do you make the decisions about who populates your work and in what capacity they serve?

I’ve often found my dead writing companions to be nettlesome presences. I’m not sure Frank O’Hara would’ve liked me. And in “Modern Poetry” somebody sent me a facsimile of Keats’s death mask, and it felt very tender and very, again—sort of visited me in my monastery. And I’ve always been compelled, especially by his poem that he wrote at the end of his life—it’s called “Late Fragment” or “This Living Hand”—and that notion that he’s demanding our attention to bring him back to life again. That’s a very old, deep fantasy of mine, because of losing my dad so young. That to attend to the dead is to revive them.

Keats becomes a presence, interestingly enough, that carries this thing that’s happening in the book—that the dead come to a sort of objectivity about love and the living. And that is something that I’ve noticed in myself, that maybe as a result of losing a lot of people but also being a single mother to a kid with some really difficult issues, that part of me had to get cold. It’s a loving coldness, but it’s cold or sculptural or stony or urn-like, in order to do what I had to do to keep us alive.

You have now lived several lives without your father and have undoubtedly grieved throughout those lives. His presence in your work is sometimes loving, sometimes confrontational. Because of the age at which you lost your father, how do you think about the sheer amount of tenure you’ve had writing about a person who can maybe become more of an idea than a fully formed person as the time passes without them?

Well, I think that the magical thinking of a child—that to continue speaking of and to him would keep him here with me in certain ways—followed me into poetry. One of my teachers, the year after my father died, told us to write our parents’ names and birthplaces or something, and I said, “I can’t do this because I don’t have a father.” She was very stern, and she said, “You have a father. He’s dead, but he’s your father.” And something about that really stuck. I still have a father, but through time, through a writing life, the poems were less about reviving him or keeping him here.

And suddenly at this age after, as you say, so many incarnations of having a relationship with him through language, it struck me that the dead aren’t maybe that interested in the living. And, in fact, the mortal daughter, the mortal body, the life story is burdensome to them, a load. And for the first time I thought, He’s probably moved on, like an ex or something. I guess I could finally live with that possibility enough to imagine it. And, at the age I am, I’m also finally imagining what it will be like when I’m not here.

Of course, yes. Teaching people how to mourn in your physical absence.

Which I don’t even like to think about, but c’est la vie.

I find that interesting, that you say you don’t like to think about it. In your work, there’s such a matter-of-factness about endings that seems very closely considered. I know so much of our writing is easier to project on the page than it is in our own brains, but how do you make peace with closure in your work? And even the way you play with multiple types of closures in your poems: it seems like there’s a fixation on closures from a craft standpoint, but is that perhaps somehow building an emotional distance from closure in real life?

Well, yeah, closure or lack thereof is one of the grand operatic themes of my little life, and how through such a long time I think poetry primarily served the function of keeping me from having to say goodbye to various people. People could live in the poems in certain ways that admittedly, as you suggested earlier, I get to control. So I began to be interested, I guess, in endings of poems sort of not coming through—certainly not redemption arcs or arcs that tie things up. I became interested in endings of poems that allow for open-endedness in the same way that I feel about . . . I don’t think I believe in closure—I don’t know. Do you?

Probably not. Not in any real sense. I think some of that is because of the songs I grew up loving. I grew up loving writers like Springsteen, who’s so averse to closure in his songs. I grew up on the punk scene, and I feel like punk music is averse to clean closure. It’s short, fast, and loud, but the exits are not clean.

I think that’s something we share—I came into poetry largely through music, and I still do. All I have to do is put on music and I know where I am, poetry-wise. When my mom and dad got married, he went to college and got a teaching degree, and he became a guidance counsellor. So one of his close students, who I think had a big crush on him, came over the day after he died and brought my sister and me the first Beatles album. And I experienced that as a trade-off, like, I lost my dad but I got these four men, boys, and their music, and it really went from there. It helped. And I’d imagine having them over for dinner. I made them meat loaf and baked potatoes.

The first poem I read from your new book was “Romantic Poetry,” when it was published about a year ago. I love that poem, and it makes sense in contrast, particularly with the poems that it rubs up against in the book: “High Romance” and “Love Letter” specifically. But I also remember feeling confronted by this kind of approach, too, because I think my work has been defined as romantic. I would self-identify as a romantic. But if I’m thinking about what it means in a material sense in my living, it’s hard for me to track that, particularly now as someone who I think has been not entirely lucky in my pursuits of actual romance. And so I’m starting to unravel what it means to carry this—I don’t want to call it a burden—but sometimes the burden of being a romantic yet not being able to enact it in a way that has quality material results. And so I’m interested in your approach to romance in the book, and how it perhaps reflects a life.

Yes. And actually at some point a switch flipped and—maybe this is part of the book’s interest in objectivity—I became pretty cold about my previously romantic obsessions and connections, and I became much more capable of being objective. I remember one day I was at a coffee shop during that time, and there was an interesting-looking, -acting, -conversing person in the line, and we talked. And I suddenly thought, I don’t need to do anything about this. I don’t want anything about this. This is nice. Bye. And it was a great freedom from containment, or from needing to make something happen. It was just a relief.

And so in the book, to be honest, it’s mysterious to me the connection between the modern and romantic poetry-wise, and then my exploration of romance as a trope or the romantic in myself. I really let myself go in that poem, where I am young and I go to Italy and make out with Keats’s death mask and leave my lipstick marks on it, and then I’m holding him and listening to the fountain. Part of me thinks, God, Diane. But that’s where I’m beginning to remember what poems can be and do for me. In that poem, I’m in New York in the beginning, and I go to Italy, and there’s something that is capable of transporting me back in time but also into a different kind of present tense, a romantic intensity, a holding that I haven’t allowed myself in a long time. And I think poetry can uncover the layers of cement that build up around us and transport us there for a moment. I had somebody in my arms. Isn’t that a trip?

Do you feel like one ever stops the pursuit of grieving? Because it seems like the thread that I’m interested in through your entire body of work is that grief shows up and manifests itself and re-manifests itself. Do you feel like your grief is evolving with you as you age, or do you feel like there’s an exit strategy for the grieving?

I think in my poems grief is synonymous with connection. To give up the grief is to give up the connection. And I think grief can be a very lively feeling and pursuit. My mom, she’s not a conventional person, but one way in which she is is that she takes her responsibility for the graves very seriously. And she makes sure there’s flowers on Memorial Day and that the graves are cleaned up and the bird shit is washed away. And she really takes that to heart. And I love that ritual for her. And I know that there will probably come a time when I need to take over that ritual, even though it’s not necessarily in my nature—but the poems are my version, maybe, of cleaning the bird shit up.

It’s back to Keats—“This living hand, now warm and capable,” you know, “would, if it were cold in the icy silence of the tomb, so haunt thy days.” I love it that he’s saying here at the end, “I hold it toward you.” That just in those lines he demands your lifeblood through your attention to the poem. And I think my following of grief, my singing of grief is part of the job of keeping the lifeblood flowing. And the end of “frank,” for instance, where there’s “The legacy I seek is through kisses. Who will say of me, I kissed her?” I mean, what is more romantic than that, than a legacy through touch, through kissing? So at some point I’m going to have to ask others to keep me alive through grief, or at least attention, and maybe even by cleaning the bird shit off the grave. But I want to live forever in that regard. I want eternity. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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