You write about a profusion of topics, but the natural world, and your sense of wonder about it, is a reoccurring motif. Do you think your family’s long history in bucolic Hardin County, Tennessee is a catalyst for that? What else continues to draw you to the natural world?
Much of my childhood was spent in the woods, sometimes for weeks at a time. Family friends owned 2000 acres, and we camped, hunted, fished, and walked all over that corner of southeast Hardin county. Being in nature—far removed from town—imprints upon the mind a deep silence as well as a sense of time as both passing and abiding.
In Restoring the Narrative, I have a sonnet about riding an inner tube downstream. A few lines into the poem, I say,
The moments felt like retrospect,
and my form was fitted to the changing place
I made of water heading someplace else.
No voice to answer or to reckon with.
A quiet from the core of time.
So when I speak, sometimes I speak from there,
that sense of drifting through surrounded on
all sides by wilderness and nothing said.
That “quiet from the core of time” stays with me always. It haunts my words. It haunts my heart. What does the self mean? Or, for that matter, what does the mind mean? What does meaning mean? Why am I me, and for how long, and for what purpose? What is this vast quiet through which I drift and out of which I “speak”? If anything, the woods (we never called it “the natural world”) have always been a reminder of eternity eavesdropping on my passing through.
Can you remember the first poem you fell in love with and why?
I can remember being in the sixth grade and standing on a ladder in my elementary school library, reading poems by William Wordsworth. I’ve returned many times to those opening lines of The Prelude, lines which talk about a breeze and about “blessing.” I grew up in church, so “blessing” was part of my vocabulary even if a lot of other words in Wordsworth’s poem were not. Early on these lines appear:
the soft breeze can come
To none more grateful than to me
I sometimes tell my classes that we are descendants of language—that we issue out of specific words we have read or heard in our lives. Words take root in us. Their seeds bear fruit. I suspect that whoever I have grown to become is, at least in part, traceable to that word “grateful” in Wordsworth’s poem, an idea I later came to know as central to Lou Gehrig’s famous speech, and a word which—when I read it in Mark Jarman’s introductory description of my first book, Fall Sanctuary—literally brought me to tears. From Wordsworth we learn, too, that the child is father to the man, and I often think about how the child I once was, the child I still am, has become a kind of father figure in my life, teaching me how to exist in the world, impressing certain values upon my mind and heart that I am—in unfathomable, incalculable ways—still growing into.
What other poets and poems have been the most influential?
While in high school, poems like “Fern Hill,” by Dylan Thomas, “Kubla Khan,” by Coleridge, “anyone lived in a pretty how town” by cummings, and “The Road Not Taken” by Frost were among the poems that first mattered to me. Their music, I now see, was what held me in a trance. I think they offered me a different way to conceive of myself in the world, a different way to imagine what language could do or be.
Once I went to college, though, I found so many poets whose presences of mind have become part of my own being. Among the first influences I found—through literary journals—were poets like Albert Goldbarth, William Kloefkorn, Dave Etter, Richard Jackson, William Stafford, James Wright, and Mary Oliver. Over time, I found poets like Tomas Transtromer, Wislawa Szymborska, Pablo Neruda, Wendell Berry, Gerald Stern, Carl Dennis, Dave Smith, Yannis Ritsos, and countless others.
In graduate school in the early nineties, I read Czeslaw Milosz with great affection. In fact, my first book, Fall Sanctuary, begins with a poem that is a response to his poem “A Task.” He says,
In fear and trembling, I think I would fulfill my life
Only if I brought myself to make a public confession
Revealing a sham, my own and of my epoch:
We were permitted to shriek in the tongue of dwarfs and demons
But pure and generous words were forbidden
Under so stiff a penalty that whoever dared to pronounce one
Considered himself as a lost man.
My poem, “In Fear in Trembling,” (with echoes of Kierkegaard and the Bible) is a way of establishing, to one degree or another, part of what my own poetry hopes to be. I want to speak “pure and generous words,” even if they are “forbidden,” even if they are dismissed or ridiculed; and I refuse to consider myself “as a lost man” in doing so.
I’ve written about the idea of joy in a previous interview, but maybe the idea bears repeating: in many ways I think that my own poetry, for almost thirty years now, has been a way to explore joy as if it were a philosophy, as if it were the deepest wisdom we finally reach. In fact, I wrote and then delivered an essay many years ago (at Hillsdale College) about joy as wisdom in literature. Frost says that poems should begin in delight and end as wisdom, but I think that, given the right circumstances, delight is wisdom. Joy is wisdom. Humility, empathy, forgiveness, tenderness—these, too, are wisdom, and sometimes poems can become a way to explore their dimensions. Looking back through my five collections, I might venture to say that joy is the sanctuary within the fall; joy is one of the notes I wish to emphasize within my praise book; joy is one of the ways to restore the narrative; and joy plays a central role in the small revolution I’ve been working to advance for three decades. In my most recent book, No Other Kind of World, why can’t joy be the substance of no other kind of world I can possibly imagine, if only as a way to push back against the world’s horrors, griefs, injustices, hypocrisies, diminishments, disappointments, and decay? When I was 14, my favorite song (“Scarlet” by U2), had only a single word: “rejoice.” I suppose so much of my mind’s structure has been shaped by that song’s arrangement of drums and piano around that defiant and illogical and holy and immense word.
Another compelling facet of your poems is your references to a non-judgmental faith background. How has your faith influenced not only individual poems, but your aesthetic as a totality?
I’ve always thought that truth is an invitation, not a condemnation. Whatever I am about as a writer obviously has roots in my faith and in my life-long reading of the Bible. Philippians says to think on whatever is true, honest, just, pure, and lovely, and I like to think that anyone who studies my poetry might find evidence that I’ve taken up and meditated upon these words. I’ve done the opposite, of course, as everyone has, but overall poems are a form of prayer for me.
The epigraph to Fall Sanctuary is a favorite passage from Luke 24, which states:
And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus
himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they
should not know him. And he said unto them, What manner of
communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are
This moment occurs on the road to Emmaus after Jesus has risen. In addition to the power of what occurs within the passage, I’ve always thought the language was particularly beautiful and haunting. I chose this passage as a way to frame the argument my poems hope to make—that our language, our communication with others, is incomplete and lacking intimacy because we don’t recognize that we walk in the presence of the divine.
In the poem “Non-Person” (from Small Revolution), I state, “If I have set as my task/the overthrow/of a language…” I’ll admit those words sound grandiose, but I’ve always been drawn to the small and large ways that one person’s language can literally change another person’s language. There is a Bible story about how, after a period of time, once the church of Sardis moved in, the Lydians had all but forgotten their old language. That’s an interesting premise to consider. How can a people forget a language? Or does the story mean that they forgot a certain way of speaking, of approaching the world? In “Naysayers,” I say the following:
we’re long past words
like fulfillment, revelation,
but we could always revisit them
to see what might have been
I like the idea of overthrowing a language, of finding a new way to speak to one another, of stepping closer and closer to a boldness about speaking “pure and generous” words within a shared intimacy. As the description on the back cover of Fall Sanctuary states, “These poems demand to know whether joy, reverence, gratitude, and empathy can exist with fullness in an age that privileges irony, suspicion, cynicism, and ridicule…Such is Hardin’s sanctuary, with hymns and prayers voiced unabashedly.”
Again, I refuse to consider myself “as a lost man.”
Two decades ago, my wife returned from a conference and told me that one of her colleagues had said, after finding out that I was a poet, “Oh, how wonderful. He must write you love poems all the time.” My wife replied, “No, he doesn’t write love poems.” Of course, I objected and said that all of my poems were love poems! That conversation led to my writing a whole series of poems with titles like “Love Poem for the Absolute,” “Love Poem for the Beginning and End of It All,” “Love Poem for Moonlit Backyard,” “Love Poem for My Being Here at All,” and spacing these throughout Fall Sanctuary. I can’t believe almost two decades have passed since I began those poems, but in recent years, I’ve seen a lot of poets using similar titles with “Love Poem for…” as a stem. At least four books that I know about have featured them as a structuring device. Maybe, in some small way, I altered the language toward love!
You have a recent book out, Small Revolution. Can you discuss the genesis of that book conceptually? How long did it take you to put the book together, from the first poem you wrote until the book came to fruition as a tangible finished product?
The earliest poems in this collection—several in fact—were written in 2000. The majority of the others were written between 2000 and 2005, with only a few coming along later. The ideas and poems in this collection always mattered to me, even when more than a decade passed and they remained unpublished. I referred affectionately to the book as my subversive naiveté book. I wanted to write poems that began with a small but ultimately complicated premise, a poem that sounded simplistic, even playful, while moving along through considerations and implications and then leaving an aftershock, a torque, an undercurrent.
Of course, I tinkered with the book’s arrangement off and on. For years the first poem in the book was “To Fellow Poets” because I liked a particular question in the poem: “Are we burnt out yet on being burnt out?” The poem begins with the idea that “so many of us want despair,” as if out of pain and suffering, out of struggle, we find wisdom. In the poem (and in the book’s arc), I saw myself as a quiet voice asking if we could “be naïve enough/to be naïve again.” That was what I considered to be the “small revolution.” It would begin in being naïve—it would begin with a different language. It would begin with “Yes,” a word of affirmation, a word of agreement, a word of acceptance.
Since it would be a “small revolution,” very likely it would go unnoticed. It would be subversive. It would, as I say in the poem “Non-Person,” be whispered, an “insinuation/set loose” and moving freely throughout the world. Somehow stillness would be rhymed “with every other word.” It would fall “in love/with everything/[we] couldn’t see.” It would belong to those who “read by lamplight,/fingers poised to turn a page, lingering there/in the premise-rich quiet between two worlds.” It would blow “seeds into everything” and alter how we live and move and have our being.
Later, I liked the idea of beginning the book with “these hostile times” and moving through “the realm of the possible” with stops along the way to visit finches and Neruda’s questions and “so many plurals in a singular self” and all the things that might “aid in our beliefs.” Yes, I’m aware of “the obvious decline/of civilization toward malcontents,” but I still believe in hymn books and all the space inside a Hopper painting and “the hopeful care of others.” I still believe that the great fiction of our “true story” is that we are surrounded by serendipitous moments, which we tell no one about. Instead, we sit down in city diners and speak of sports, weather, and politics, but we don’t say “one word/about moonlight over cornfields/or that small bloom fish make/kissing the sky of their world.” We exist between this world and the next one, yet there is “a gladness” inside us only sometimes we listen toward. I may begin my book with an awareness of “these hostile times,” but I end with “a mouth full of syllables/endless as the leaves from which/I learned to hear applause.” I still believe there is “good news” as the book’s title poem says, and it, too, is part of the small revolution.