Galway Kinnell and James Ragan

[Kinnell and Ragan appeared as guests of Leonard Lopate on his program "New York & Company," which aired on WNYC Radio (NPR affiliate) on April 25, 2000.
Radio appearance arranged by p h i l o p h o n e m a ™ Ed.]

LL: I think of poetry as a special kind of music -- only, without music. But this Saturday [April 29, 2000], poetry and music will be fused in an exciting new way at the Lyric Recovery Festival™ at Carnegie Hall. Works by Yeats, Rilke, Valéry, Apollinaire and others will be framed by new musical settings in about a dozen languages, real and invented. Pulitzer Prize winner Galway Kinnell and James Ragan will be participating in this international event at Carnegie's Weill Hall.

Galway Kinnell has just come out with a New Selected Poems from Houghton Mifflin and James Ragan's Lusions is out in paperback from Grove Press. So it gives me great pleasure to welcome them both to "New York & Company" today. Hello!

JR: Hello! It's good to see you.

GK: Hello!

LL: So, do you think of poetry in terms of music? Galway?

GK: Yes, I do. It's not the same as music, but it has the music of speech concentrated into a kind of a formal music. It's --

LL: --A song grows out of poetry, doesn't it, a fusion of music and poetry?

GK: Then music per se is added to the words. The words, the words are so heavy with meaning. When they're in a poem they have an extra gravity, and the music that's added to them lifts them up.

LL: Some poets read a lot more musically than others, don't they, Jim?

JR: That's true.

LL: They go from the droners to people who really make you aware of the aural aspect of what they're writing.

JR: I agree. I was just talking earlier about my own background with poetry, how it came about for me as a young man. I grew up in a very Czechoslovakian household and I really didn't learn English until I was in third grade and I heard was the beautiful music that came down to me. It was passed down through the literature of our home. But I remember when Auden first came to my university to read, and he never lifted his eyes from the page, and he read these most beautiful poems that we grew up on and somehow in our minds, even as he droned close to the page, somehow the music of it came through,--

LL: --Now,

JR: --from the words.

LL: --you said you grew up with, what was it Czech, or Slovak background?

JR: Slovak.

LL: So, did you, do you think that the quality of the Slovak language has affected your way of thinking about English?

JR: Yes, I think so. I think from a very early age, we were so aware of it, the musicality of it. I think it was just a natural marriage for me with language. I like what Galway was saying about the sonorities of language, but also those meanings that lift up off the page, that music gives --

LL: --But so many poets also translate. You both have done that. Because of this very factor? Does one language enrich the other?

GK: Well, I think in translation you kind of absorb the other, the music of the other language. But actually, the real trouble, the real difficulty of translation for me is to get the music of the English language into the English translation. If it's a musical poem in German or French, say, and it's got a flat, prosey English version, it's no good.

LL: So, but you can't capture the German music. You have to make it into a -- In that way, translation is never a real translation of the original; it's always an approximation in another language.

GK: Well, I would like it if a translation I did, let's say, of the German, would make a reader who didn't know who wrote it aware that there's a poem in German lying somewhere in the ancestry of this translation.

LL: Mm-hm. Of course some poets, like Pound, translated to get the sound of the original words to the point where the poem didn't mean the same thing when he translated from the Chinese.

JR: Right. A lot of the early-- I know when I translated Russian, Yevtushenko's collected poems, I looked back to a lot of the early translations and found that they didn't even keep the stanzaic structures. I mean, they would just do one long poem and lost, I thought, the breaks, the kind of enjambed breaks that were in the original that I had to then capture.

LL: Yevtushenko used to perform before huge crowds, and people do in other parts of the world. There's a story that Pablo Neruda was once reading in his-- and he-- someone asked him to recite an old poem of his--

JR: I know the end of this story.

LL: Well, you tell it please.

JR: No, this is the same. You do it.

LL: Well, he said that he didn't remember it and he didn't have it with him, and then four hundred people in the audience began to chant it--

JR: --chant it.

LL: --and you wonder, could that have happened in the United States?

JR: Sure.

LL: It could?

JR: Absolutely.

GK: Maybe not four hundred all at once would have chanted it, but in the hall, if this were a poem that had been circulating for a while, someone would stand up and shout out the--

JR: --Right, right.

GK: --missing lines.

JR: Four hundred of my students will chant out "The Bear" by Galway Kinnell, believe me!

LL: Well, we'll take a little break and we'll come back with Galway Kinnell and James Ragan.

[ break ]

LL: We're back with Galway Kinnell. His latest publication is A New Selected Poems published by Houghton Mifflin. James Ragan's Lusions is now available in a paperback edition from Grove Press. The hardcover is still available. Poetry tends to remain available in hard even when it goes into soft?

GK: Well, only until the hard is sold out.

LL: Tell me about this "Lyric Festival." You'll be part of how many people performing?

JR: Well, I think the two of us will be performing in the two segments. Then they have a third segment, is it, Galway, a third segment--?

GK: Basically, there are three--

JR: --Right.

GK: --kinds of things going on. One is that Jim and I will read and then the other thing is that then--

LL: --You read from your own work?

GK: We read from our own work, and maybe from others, and then a number of poems that have been set to music will be sung and then a number of young poets who are unpublished will read in competition for the prize of having read the best--

LL: --"The Lyric Recovery Festival."

GK: "The Lyric Recovery Festival," yes.

LL: Now, there are also some imagined languages that are going to be represented here. Are we going back to the old futurist and Dadaist poems for that--?

GK: I don't know anything about that--

JR: I don't know either.

GK: --unless reference is being made to the poems of one or the other of us that have been misunderstood.

LL: People just think they're not in English! (Laughter) Do you find yourselves writing about the same things again and again? Are there certain subjects that attract you? James, I get a sense that your poems often seek a kind of transcendence through immersion in nature?

JR: Mine do in the sense that in the last book, Lusions, I attempted that. By the time you got to the last section of it, it was almost an antidote to the kinds of subjects I had been dealing with, you know, in the previous portions of the book.

LL: And you thought of it as an antidote?

JR: I did. In all my books there's a change, a growth. I've always tried in all my earlier books to see my world in my time in terms of the books themselves so they come out maybe four or five years apart and always in the next book there's a complete change in the growth that's represented. In this one I wanted to end with what I felt was a sense of solitude, and nature provided that.

LL: For you too, Galway? One of your poems reads -- and it's terrible to read a poem in front of the poet, but I'll start it: "Across gull tracks and wind ripples in the sand..." Do you know, do you know your poems by heart?

GK: I know some of them if I've read them recently, but --

LL: --"Across gull tracks and wind ripples in the sand / the wind sees my footprints / slogging for the absolute / already begin vanishing."

GK: I remember those lines, yes.

LL: You remember writing them?

GK: I do.

LL: You often examine times of human extremity: birth, death, sex. Also, you've said, "I've tried to carry my poetry as far as I could, to dwell on the ugly as fully, as far and as long as I could stomach it."

GK: Hm.

LL: Why?

GK: Well, I guess, I guess what I want to do is write a poem, a poetry that deals with reality, and that means all aspects of human and non-human activity -- or as many as I can manage -- and some of the poems are about the ugly. For example, there's a rather long and torturous poem about atomic weap-- nuclear weapons and it's hard to, it's hard for me not to write about it and it would be hard for me to write about it in a way that would make a beautiful poem. Mine is a very ugly poem.

LL: Well, some poems would shy away from those kinds of themes because they would be seen as didactic. The real trick is finding a way to make it into something that is poetry, that will always be poetry.

GK: I think, I think the poem of great beauty is less true if it's not accompanied by a poem of the worst in us.

LL: Jim, do you also like to write about ugliness?

JR: I have, I think because I come from that tradition of suffering, you know, I come from the Eastern European sensibilities -- and with an Irish name. I-- apparently the Celts had come into that area, so they tracked us back to County Cork, I mean, there's Irish in me. Three of my brothers are married to three Irish girls who thought they were dating Irish boys.

LL: They've done studies, genetic studies and found that you all come from the same ancestry?

JR: There you go! Exactly. But suffering has always been a part of that and, so, much of my poetry goes after those traditions in a kind of, in a global sense, the universality of that. And so, when I can show the beauty, when I can show the joys, it's really, as Galway says, in a counterpoint that, that I want to get that going.

LL: Although there's more of an international sense to your poetry than most poets. Do you have any sense of where they come from? Is it a line? Is it a phrase? Do you say, 'I want to write about nuclear weapons,' and just have it flow off your pen?

GK: Well, I guess for me -- and maybe for a lot of poets -- the first inkling that something's up is when there's something that is said or that one makes up without having thought about it before and suddenly it comes into the mind bearing on a subject and illuminating the subject. But in the case of this poem about nuclear weapons... When I was going into the museum, the atomic bomb museum in Nagasaki, there's a little plaque outside and, written by an eyewitness, and it ends, "A flash, a white flash sparkled" (in the English translation) and that stuck with me: "A flash, a white flash sparkled." I'd never quite thought of it that way and--

LL: --They said, "sparkle." That's important.

GK: Yes. I started writing the poem that night and the phrase keep repeating itself throughout the poem, and so it is the refrain at the end of each stanza in the poem.

LL: You've said that you always have poems in progress, that you carry with you. So, when something grabs you, you go to one of them, rather than another, or are they like unfinished crossword puzzles and you just pull one out and start solving it?

GK: Well, I look through them. Especially if I'm going off on a trip, I take a bunch with me for the airplane trip. What about you?

JR: Well, again, the word "illumination" was very important because that's something I believe in, that it's the insight that's the most difficult to find in the poem. It's a good question because poems really do start from several different origins. They could start with a line, sometimes with an insight that you already know, but sometimes the poem, you chase it until it catches you. Truly, you really have to chase this poem because it persists until you find the insight--

LL: --You have this feeling that something's itching you and you have to figure out a way,--

JR: --Right.

LL: --find a way to scratch that itch.

JR: And that poem will take two years to finish or it could take six months. I mean, those poems persist.

LL: Do you also work on more than poem at the same time?

JR: Absolutely.

LL: You were chosen to read for Mikhail Gorbachev at the First International Poetry Festival in 1985. How were you chosen?

JR: That's a good question. They had Bly, Robert Bly and Bob Dylan was representing Americans. When they asked me to be the third, I felt phoney, you know, how you feel, 'I know why they're there,' but you don't why you're there? And I asked them and they said, 'Well, we wanted Bly to represent the older voice and then, of course, Dylan was folk poetry and you were among a young generation of poets that wrote, we felt--the consensus--poetry of gravity.' Then he said something very important, he said, 'You know,' he said, 'some of the poems of your generation, the poets are writing' what we call, "pimple on the neck poetry".' at any rate what they feel is that. So, that made me feel a little like I was accepted or I should have been there.

LL: Is it different reading for European audiences or audiences in other parts of the world?

JR: It is only in the terms that the audiences are much larger, they're much more committed to poetry, they come up in a world of that, I mean, they recite from memory because many of the poets never knew when they would be jailed, so they really had to know the poetry.

LL: I think for a long time they had to write poetry that could be read between the lines.

JR: Right, the parabolic and the... Exactly.

LL: Do you--? The both of you are working on more than one poem at a time. Do you have any sense of when a poetry is finished? For example, Octavio Paz came here once with Elliot Weinberger, his translator, and he told this hilarious story. He said that Elliot would translate poems and he'd look at them and say, 'Oh, my God, the translation reveals there's something wrong in this poem.' And he'd go back, change the Spanish, which just outraged his Mexican publisher who already had a lot of books in print. But he felt it was necessary; it was like holding a drawing up to mirror and seeing that there was something flawed in it.

JR: Paz also had this wonderful quote, he said, 'We are immersed in the now that never stops blinking.' In that sense poems are never finished for me.

LL: So do you revise them? I know, Galway, you revise--

GK: --I regard every poem as a life's work. I mean, eventually some of them get finished while I'm still alive, but I'm sure that, you know, ninety percent of my poems, could I live another lifetime, would get revised.

LL: And that's what you've done here, isn't it? You altered some of the poems that you'd selected from previous collections between 1960 and 1994. And in picking them out, did you look at them and say, 'Oh, my, I can't allow that to go into the new collected book'?

GK: That's true, but you don't realize that before that happened, these poems appeared in books and, from one edition to the other, I would make changes and, before that, they appeared in magazines, and between the book and the magazine I would make changes. So they've been subjected to many stages of revision.

LL: But James, is that a good way of approaching things? Only poets can do this. I can't imagine a famous... John Updike going back and revising one of his early novels. It's published. It is what it is and it is from the time that he wrote it.

GK: I'm just going to interject here that I believe it was Manet who used to be prevented from going into the museum in his home town -- his paintbox was taken from him and then he was allowed to go in -- because he had been found, when a few people were in the museum, 'touching up' the paintings of his that were on the wall.

JR: (Laughs) That's great.

LL: My guests are Galway Kinnell and James Ragan. They both have books out. Maybe I can ask both of you to read a bit. Do you mind if I prevail upon you in that way? Do you want to begin, Jim?

JR: I'll do that. A poem each or so?

LL: Are these poems you'll be reading?

JR: I'll only read this one today because I've been concerned lately with children killing children. This is entitled, "The Pebble Culture."


LL: And what do you call that poem?

JR: "The Pebble Culture."

LL: James Ragan and now Galway Kinnell.

GK: I'm going to read this poem called "The Music of Poetry" because of the event coming up on Saturday. The speaker is just at the end of giving a lecture called "The Music of Poetry."


LL: Galway Kinnell and James Ragan have been my guests. They'll also be participating in The Lyric Recovery Festival. Thank you very much for being with us today. It was a great honor.

GK: Thank you.

JR: It was a pleasure.