The Cortland Review


Mark Jarman
J.M. Spalding interviews the poet.

John Kinsella
The River - Initial chapter of John Kinsella's   autobiography series at TCR.

Mark Jarman


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Interview with Mark Jarman

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It’s always interesting to know what the established poets who have made their way from the so-called "print world" think about the "Web world." What do you think the Internet's potential is for poetry?

The Internet looks as if it is going to be another way to publish and distribute poetry. Because most poems are compact, portable in a way, or in terms of the Internet, comprehensible on a single page, they seem suited perfectly for the medium. In addition, because a recording of a given poem, usually read by the poet, can be attached to the text, the oral quality of poetry, which I believe is essential, benefits.

I am currently editing a page called Poet of the Month for a website called PoetryNet. Poet of the Month features four poems and a biographical note by one poet, sometimes with a photograph. Since December 1997, the site has included work by Robert McDowell, Kate Daniels, David Mason, Michelle Boisseau, Terri Witek, Wyatt Prunty, Allison Joseph, Chase Twichell, Diann Blakley, Michael Collier, and Judith Ortiz Cofer. Daniel Anderson is Poet of the Month for December. In January, it will be Judith Baumel. I can't imagine being able to do this as simply and effectively in a print medium. Of course, I have the PoetryNet Webmaster John Canaday to thank.

But my point is that the Internet allows for a simpler and faster process of publication and distribution. Magazines like your own, The Atlantic Monthly with its Audible Anthology, and the Academy of American Poets with its Poetry Exhibits, allow poetry to be heard, as well as read; and I think this may be one of the greatest advantages of the Internet. The potential for poetry as an oral art has always been great. The Internet exploits this potential to poetry's great benefit.

Speaking of audible poetry, what do you think of Dylan Thomas' famous recordings?

The Caedmon recordings of Dylan Thomas reading were responsible for some of my early excitement about poetry. One of my high school English teachers had them, and listening to Thomas read "Fern Hill" and "Lament" and even, on one recording, read and make comments about poems by Thomas Hardy and John Betjeman, was a thrill. His reading voice was a gift equal almost to his genius for poetry. Of course, he read just about everything the same way, with the oratorical volume on high. It took me years to appreciate the less stentorian voices of poets like Robert Frost and W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Bishop. Today I own records and tapes of many poets reading their work, and I listen to them for pleasure and play them when I teach.

Aside from Audible Poetry, there have been many attempts to popularize poetry. One comes to mind actually: Poetry in phonebooks and city buses and subways. If you were Poet Laureate, what would you do to popularize poetry?

I admire what Robert Pinsky has been doing, asking Americans to record a favorite poem for the Library of Congress archive. I think the love of poetry is kindled early, and so I would concentrate on bringing poetry to young people. If I were poet laureate I would try to encourage more memorization of poetry in grade school and high school. Perhaps sponsor a national memorization bee. It wouldn't be like a poetry slam, though it might have that appeal. It would be an opportunity for young people to recite great American poems from memory, in a public performance. I would encourage teachers to pay renewed attention to 19th century American verse, like the poetry that John Hollander has usefully anthologized in the Library of America series.

Speaking of Poet Laureates... what is your opinion of the post?

The title Poet Laureate is misleading, since it conjures up the English post, which has a lifetime tenure and special requirements vis-a-vis the royal family, like celebrating its milestones with occasional verses. I believe our position was originally called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, and this seems both more accurate and, well, more American. Nevertheless, I am aware that the new title has an elevation that attracts attention, even as it plays on America's cultural Anglophilia. I am all for the post, by the way, whatever the title, and commend those recent laureates like (Rita) Dove and (Robert) Hass and Pinsky who have used it as a bully pulpit for poetry.

In the poem "The Word Answer'", the reader is met with adjectives like "dreamy" (from line 5: dreamy wine) and the opening line "Lightning walks across the shallow seas." Could you discuss these two components from the poem?

I was trying to imagine an act of creation, in particular, the creation of life, which I had read may have been a reaction among chemicals set in motion by electricity, in the form of lightning. As for the "dreamy wine," it was a Keatsian way of imagining the creation of ferric oxide, for one, and the way it is suspected that many necessary elements for life came to earth from outer space. In other words, I was trying to give a deliberately poetic connotation to complex molecular interactions. In part one of the poem, where these lines and images occur, I was equating "prayer" with consciousness.

The Answer that is spoken of in the pre-poem quote is the exertion of influence upon God by prayer. How much of this do you believe to be true. And from a pragmatic standpoint, what are other ways to seek an answer?

My poem is an attempt to embody in poetry what Barth has already said with marvelous and profound simplicity. I was simply moved to write what I did because of his insight. I believe what Barth has suggested is true, that appealing to God through prayer is as if we brought God into being; actually, it is to bring our own belief into being, but without it, without that belief, God is like an unknown quantity or seems inert. That takes me back to the chemical reaction I tried to imagine in the first part of the poem. I think Barth suggests that the answer to prayer is in the act of praying itself. My poem explores various ways in which we ask for an answer in prayer and ways in which prayer arouses God to answer. Frankly, I can think of no other pragmatic way to get an answer from God except by praying.

You worked four stanzas with fourteen lines and with roughly ten syllable lines. How (or why) did you choose to write this poem in this form?

"The Word Answer'" is part of a series of 50 poems entitled Unholy Sonnets that Story Line Press will publish in 2000. I wrote 20 "Unholy Sonnets" for my book Questions for Ecclesiastes; they were based, in part, on John Donne's "Holy Sonnets." These new poems, including "The Word Answer,'" provide a fuller engagement with many aspects of daily and devotional life. Anyway, each of the sections of "The Word Answer'" is based on the sonnet form. Parts 1 and 2 are blank verse, however. Part 3 attempts a rhyme scheme in its first eight lines, based on very distant aural similarities, "bread/crowd/bad/God" and "day/facsimile" and the repetition of "answer" at the end of lines 6 and 7. I abandon rhyme in the last six lines. Then in part 4, instead of rhyming, I repeat the words "God" and "snow" as end words for the first eight lines or octave and rhyme "snow/slow," "prayer/air," and "visible/beautiful" for the sestet. As for the meter, I try to be as accurate as possible with the iambic pentameter, returning promptly to it in a subsequent line, if I have taken liberties with it in a preceding line.

Obviously a poem doesn't always turn out the way we think it will. When you sat down to begin writing "The Word Answer'" what were your thoughts about the direction? Did it go where you thought it would?

I had no idea where it would go. All I wanted to do was to dramatize Barth's insight into prayer. I had written a couple of poems based on a crown of sonnets, which is a series of seven sonnets in which the last line of the preceding sonnet is the first line of the following sonnet, and the first line of the first sonnet is the last line of the last sonnet. I had written a couple of five sonnet sequences following this mode, and thought I would do the same with "The Word Answer.'" It didn't work out that way. That is really all I can say. I had a vaguely articulate notion of what I should be saying in each part, and after four poems, I believed I was finished. Each of the four sections surprised me.

I will say that I wrote the fourth and final section on a day when I learned of a colleague's underhanded attempts to ruin the career of another colleague. It was a bad, wintry day, and I felt morose and helpless. So that may be why the ending of the poem summons up images of children making angels in snow, as if this activity could bring real angelic power into being.

What do you see as the future of your work?

If you mean, do I think my work has a future, then I can’t really say; that is, I have no idea how my work will fare next year or a hundred years from now; All any poet can hope is that he or she may have, to paraphrase Robinson Jeffers, stuck a poem in the world’s thought; But if you mean what direction my work is going to take, that is also hard to say; I have completed a sequence of sonnets, separate from those in Questions for Ecclesiastes ; Story Line Press will publish the sequence in 2000; its title is Unholy Sonnets; Currently I am writing prose poems based on St. Paul’s epistles; My poems are much shorter than his letters, of course; they draw their inspiration mainly from his metaphorical language; His epistles are meant to teach the early Christian church how to think about itself; Mine are secularized and focus mainly on finding metaphors for various things, from the fear of death to the desire for eternal life, without any religious agenda; They’re meant to be consoling; I hope to complete a book of them, and think I am over halfway there; It’s hard for me to see beyond this current project.

You’ve been honored recently with the Lenore Marshall Prize; How much validation do you believe comes with an award such as this one?

That’s hard to say, too. I hope I don’t need an award like this to feel that my work is valid; And yet the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize is a terrific honor; It is an honor in part because of the previous recipients, many of whom are poets I greatly admire. One of them, Allen Tate who won it 20 years ago, had a long association with Vanderbilt University where I now teach; so that has had a special significance for me. It is also an honor to be recognized publicly for doing the work I would do anyway and to have fellow poets say publicly that they like what I have written, in this case, Questions for Ecclesiastes.

Nevertheless, there is also a certain amount of distraction, I have learned, in winning something like this, and pleasant as that distraction is, I have to get back to work.


Interview with Mark Jarman
TCR January Feature 1999


2002 The Cortland Review