A noted teacher and poetry critic, William Logan is the author of numerous poetry collections—most recently, Madame X and an edition of John Townsend Trowbridge’s Guy Vernon, both released in 2012. William’s poem “Winter Before Winter” is featured in issue 37.1 of The Journal. Recently, he spoke with Associate Poetry Editor Jenna Kilic about stanzaic form in free-verse poetry, the role of reading in writing, and his own growing interest in his childhood experiences.
Jenna Kilic: In “Winter Before Winter,” your couplets connect thought to thought or observation to observation, building an argument; they also isolate and therefore augment a series of beautiful images. When you write, how do you conceive the stanzaic organization? How did you see the couplets working here?
William Logan: Dividing free verse into regular stanzas is fairly recent in American poetry—I suspect we owe Stevens that debt. When I was young, tercets and quatrains were common. I long felt that quatrains possessed a grave formality, while tercets absorbed a certain jaggedness of logic in their forward rush. Perhaps I’ve favored those forms too much, but I like the play of sentence against line, line against stanza. I like the astringency of couplets, their sharp-minded melodrama of form; but if overused they empty out everything they touch. Many poets now work in one-line stanzas. There I stop. I’d like to think that the poem conceives its own stanza, but that’s just romance.
JK: I’ve had contentious conversations with other poets about what constitutes a “poem.” Some think a poem is whatever you call a poem. I’ve argued that if you define it as everything you define it as nothing. Since we’ve blurred the lines between genres, how do we now define the term “poem”?
WL: That’s like trying to hit a moving target with a shoe, and not a very good shoe. Why believe that a poem is, say, the “best words in the best order,” if lovely poems by Williams have not-so-good words in not-so-good order? (Unless the argument is circular, a good poem automatically having best words in best order.) Any definition sufficient to corral the varieties of poetry would be ridiculously vague or longer than a Russian novel. I like a definition that doesn’t legislate or criminalize. The philosopher Michael Oakeshott suggested that the poet “does one thing only, he imagines poetically.” That will do.
JK: In Madame X, “Along the Autumn River” addresses the loss of fishing commerce and nature in your boyhood town of Westport Point, Massachusetts. I’ve had similar observations about losses in my hometown and on the river on which I grew up. What is your connection to this town and why does it mean more, say, than other places you’ve lived?
WL: For decades I wrote almost nothing about my childhood, because it seemed as dull, as profitless, as unpromising as most childhoods. Only in the past few books have I had cause to reconsider. My father was a salesman for Alcoa, and in 1955 we moved to Westport Point so he could work out of the Providence office. Westport is a village hard by the Rhode Island border. It had some small manufacturers in the nineteenth century (part of the northern reaches of town is still called Westport Factory), but the Point survived mainly on whaling and fishing. I went to first and second grade in a two-room schoolhouse—the last names of my classmates (Tripp, Macomber) could be found in the census records a century or more before. It was a quiet, unpretentious place; and we were allowed to roam without restraint. The bachelor who lived behind us down the hill suffered our visits with extraordinary grace. When he later murdered a man over the salvage of a boat, my father flew back to serve as a character witness at his trial. By then we lived in Pittsburgh, but we returned summers until I was fourteen. I realize now that what I took for granted has almost vanished from American life. The town hasn’t changed much, but the locals can’t afford the houses unless they inherit.
JK: Many of your poems might be considered erudite, and I’m astounded by how well-researched they are. How do you write the historical poems? Does the desire to write a poem fuel your research, or do you acquire the necessary knowledge and then decide to write the poem?
WL: I hope I’m too wayward to have a method. I’m willing to chase facts if facts are required. On rare occasions, my stray reading has tossed up a topic, though I’ve read hundreds of memoirs and books of letters without an end in view—if that’s a method, it’s singularly unproductive. The letters between the Custers in Madame X and the letter from Charles Dodgson in Sullen Weedy Lakes are based on real letters, with only the adjustments the syllabic form demanded. For the long poems “Keats in India” in Vain Empires and “The Underground” in Sullen Weedy Lakes, I read, then read more. The Keats poem was based on travelers’ journals; it steals a few images from Bishop Heber. “The Underground” required at least paltry knowledge of the intricacies of Victorian banking and the causes of the Crimean War. I’m sure some of the facts in my poems are just imagination, and some of the imagination plain fact.
JK: What advice do you have for poets graduating from MFA programs?
WL: Eat cheaply. Buy more books than you can read. Read more than you buy. Brush your teeth.
JK: Movies. You’ve watched so many, and you seem to love westerns and Japanese films. What is it about these genres? Do you find similarities in your preference for movies and your preference for poems?
WL: No doubt I watched movies on the little Magnavox my parents owned in the fifties, but what I remember are evenings they took us to the Westport drive-in. I used to see 150 or more new movies a year—now it’s barely one a week. I loathe pretentiousness, artiness (I’m not a big Godard fan), and virtually any American movie made in the fifties—all that unbearable social conscience—honorable ideas, but too much hectoring. I loved Bergman when I was young; now I’d rather see Preston Sturges, Ozu, Kurosawa, with a few bad thrillers thrown in. Like Wittgenstein, I find that movies offer escape without regret (he preferred westerns)—unless the movie is awful, of course, as so many are. Bad thrillers excepted.
If my love of movies bears any relation to my love of poems, someone will have to explain it to me.