Breaking Into Words: A Conversation with
Rattapallax Editor-in-Chief, Martin Mitchell
(Part Two of Two)

by Nicholas Johnson, Senior Poetry Editor

(In the conclusion of a two-part interview, Mitchell discusses the question of 'accessibility' in poetry, the re-emergence of its lyrical qualities originating from Neo-Romantic music, and the 'almost perfect' poem.)

NJ: Poets keep getting, and giving the advice to "make it new."

MM: I think the poem has to have a new way of saying things you've heard many times. So there's this tension between novelty and the traditional-habitual. Just has to be the same old thing, the same damned old thing, said in a new way, because everything is the same thing… and that's what the voice in a poem does. It makes us hear it anew.

accessibility -- necessary but dangerous

About the poets I mentioned before, I would like to re-emphasize the work of Philip Miller, who's not as well-known as the other ones—not that they're incredibly well-known. But Philip Miller, I just don't understand why his work is not better known. Because he's even more accessible than the others and he has something to say to all of us that we would each recognize.

NJ: So you value accessibility.

MM: It's a dangerous thing. It's a necessary but dangerous thing. Accessibility kind of means mediocre in a way, depending on how you think about it.

NJ: And accessibility is in now, right?

MM: Well, I'm glad it is. Because it wasn't for a while. Like in music. Poetry seems to lag behind music. Accessible music was out for many decades. You had twelve-tone music, which was written by composers for other composers. Later composers, and the audience, lost interest in it, so they bypassed it and went back to previous music. And that happened to some extent in poetry. So I'm all for the new accessibility in music, and now, in poetry as well.

NJ: But you're not against having to read a poem more than a few times to 'understand' it?

MM: No. But I do think of the person who doesn't have the patience to read it several times. It's my job to read it several times. Not the average reader. That average reader needs to get it, get something, at the first reading, otherwise that reader will put it down and not take it up again. No, I think the poem should be profound and should have something to say, but something about it should reach the reader immediately. Should be apparent at the first reading. Should grab the reader.

NJ: The music and the voice can grab the reader, the images can grab the reader.

MM: Yes. And that's what will make the reader go back and read it another time. Not, I will read it another time because I don't understand it the first time. Something in the reading the first time should make the reader think, oh, well, I don't quite get that, but there's something about it I like, so I'll go back and read it again. And not be put off by it.

NJ: I wanted to ask more about what you were saying before:  That poetry lags behind music.

MM: Yes. There's the new Romanticism in music. It's renounced the twelve-tone or serial music of the last fifty or sixty years or more, beginning with Schoenberg. To put it simplistically, it was music written for other musicians; there was no audience for it.

NJ: Like poetry written for other poets.

poetry needs to have something desperate to say

MM: Well, yes. Poetry written for other poets. Poetry written for academics certainly. Poetry written out of poetry workshops that have nothing desperate to say. It was just an exercise.

NJ: You just said, poetry that has nothing desperate to say.

MM: Right. Poetry needs to have something desperate to say. The person needs to have a reason to write. Not an exercise.

NJ: That sounds subjective.

MM: Not an exercise. That is subjective.

NJ: It's personal.

MM: Yes. Personal. It should be more than an exercise. I mean, there's good poetry written that demonstrates some form and there's nothing wrong with form, but it needs to have something to say.

NJ: Going back to music of the recent past. Could you name a few musicians, composers, who do that? I have a great interest in Romanticism. And what Matthew Arnold said about poetry: We're still in the Age of Romanticism. I keep saying this. It's not an original idea of my own. M. H. Abrams says it. Even though there were backlashes, reactions against it.

'quoted' music of the past

MM: John Corigliano was one composer. His father was the concertmaster of The New York Philharmonic. And there are several composers at The Manhattan School of Music who have become very important. They're known as Neo-Romanticists, and they've gone back to tonality over the last twenty or thirty years, beginning with George Rochberg.

He started something in the 70's and 80's where he 'quoted' music of the past. He would write twelve-tone music, but in the middle of a string quartet, you would hear bits of Mahler. They were going back to 19th Century music. Rachmaninov. Music with tunes.

NJ: Melody is making a comeback?

MM: Right. Melody was out for a while because people couldn't come up with new melodies. They had all these incredible theoretical arguments for why they used the twelve-tone theory, but it's basically that they ran out of tunes. And if you run out of tunes, and you start writing other kinds of music, and you do that for fifty years or so, after a while you get to the point where people have forgotten the tunes, and the Neo-Romanticists can come up with tunes again. Because nobody remembers.

So they have no tunes. Thank God for lack of memory. Music is back with melody, and that's what appeals to the average person. Instead of composers writing music for each other, very academic, technical, even admirable music—I mean you could analyze it to death—now we have music that appeals to the average person because it has a tune. And that's happening with poetry too. Accessible poetry.

NJ: The accessible. That might be what makes poetry matter today. And formal poetry. It's made a comeback too.

MM: It was out since the 40's and 50's. There were a few who persisted like Richard Wilbur and W. D. Snodgrass.

NJ: And Thom Gunn. Marilyn Hacker.

MM: Well, they don't go back that far. They [Wilbur and Snodgrass] were formalists who persisted through the Beat and Confessional periods. And nowadays, in poetry at least, you get a mixture of very different forms and which make it very nice and interesting. I don't think there are so many labels anymore. So in that way, music is quite different.

NJ: But I can tell by reading the poems in Pivot, when you were editor, that you like poems with imagery, you like poems with a noticeable structure of sound, and occasionally you'd take something quite different.

MM: I also have a weakness, a personal weakness, for Surrealism. That was big in the 60's, early on, with Diane Wakowski. It was quite an important influence in poetry at that time. With Stephen Stapanchev too, the former poet laureate of Queens. And Andrew Glaze. I like their work a lot. It adds a spice to poetry.

NJ: You see the melodic coming back. You published the work of Michael T. Young when you were editor of Pivot. He's got a book out now with Rattapallax. He knows how to do more than write a musical line and use an image. [See review of Transcriptions of Daylight, Archive Jan'01. Eds.]

MM: Michael T. Young is an exception… to anything else. The ingredient in his poetry that I find sorely missing in any other poetry being written, is heart. He writes from the heart. His poetry is sincere without being the least bit corny. And that sincerity, that heart, is the most valuable thing.

NJ: That's the phrase we were looking for when we were talking another time about sentimentality:  'from the heart.'

MM: Sincerity that works without being sentimental.

NJ: You've talked about novelty as something attractive in poetry, humor, poems from the heart.

the novelty trap

MM: Robert Stock used to say novelty is overrated. In his poetry he never tried to write anything new. He just came to the decision, as the expression goes, 'nothing new under the sun,' so he used to write variations of things he knew already existed.

But he was a tough taskmaster. Very demanding of the people he had to his clinics—his informal workshops at his house every weekend in Staten Island. At the house where The Perils of Pauline and Birth of a Nation were filmed—long since gone. He was self-taught, with a vengeance. He quit school at the age of 14, and went on to learn absolutely everything by himself. So he was ruthless to the rest of the poets who showed up.

Because he thought novelty was overrated, he contented himself with writing new versions of things that had been said before. Which is a good disciplinary measure really, because so many poets think they are writing things for the first time, and it's a presumption that doesn't work and leads them into a trap of a kind of false originality. It's very monotonous and boring.

NJ: The obvious question is, how do you get out of that trap?

MM: The only thing I can say to that is kind of useless. They have to have the experience. The experience of writing and living.

NJ: Writing and living? What about the experience of reading?

MM: No. Writing and living. Reading isn't much of an experience. I did a lot of reading early on, but I had no experience. I got out there and finally had some experience, and that was more important than all the reading I had done. That's what you need to appreciate the voice in a poem.

the 'almost perfect' poem

Just to have the experience of living lets you understand what they're saying and doing. You can see that they've lived and you've begun to live, so you can have some impression of how much they have lived. And they're putting it across, they are putting it into words.

And Phil Miller talks about that, about that very thing in a poem called "The Flesh Made Word." (Reads Miller's poem, from Rattapallax 6.) To me that's an almost perfect poem. The breaking into words. All that he goes through. I'm just speechless after that. It's just what you look for when you read poetry. Something as good as that. It has something very urgent to say about how we live. And it has something to say to everybody—that could appeal to anybody who might read it—and it's so well-said too.

There's so much craft and discipline to it:  "the skin's slap or squeak or rasp," has such sound to it. All those wonderful monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon words: "hiccup, belch, and fart; yawn, sneeze, and snore."

NJ: It reminds me of Galway Kinnell's "The Music of Poetry," the flesh trying to break into words. It's the same idea. Words coming from the body. The origin of language.

MM: That's something ultimate in poetry:  the flesh breaking into words.

The Flesh Made Word
Philip Miller

Ah, whisper of the breath
as uphill today I puff a ghost or two
into early frost,
and later, exhausted into my chair
with its own arms and legs,
the creaks and cracks of my bones,
the thud thud of my blood
and then a blue, skipped beat,
dropped for a moment as the flesh poises
before a world that almost overcomes
the synapses' silent snap,
and when I rise again
the popping sound my knees
and elbows utter,
the skin's slap or squeak or rasp,
all day this difficult discourse,
and oh, of course,
hiccup, belch, and fart;
yawn, sneeze, and snore,
now a humming in the brain
or ringing in the ears,
a nerve cell or two
giving up the ghost:
ah, murmur in the heart,
that flutter and flap —
the flesh publishing,
trying hard
to break into words.

~ . ~ . ~