You always draw on your own experience because it’s the material of your life, starting with your childhood. But I look for archetypal ex...
You always draw on your own experience because it’s the material of your life, starting with your childhood. But I look for archetypal experience, and I assume that my struggles and joys are not unique. They feel unique as you experience them, but I’m not interested in making the spotlight fall on myself and my particular life, but instead on the struggles and joys of humans, who are born and then forced to exit. I think I write about mortality because it was a terrible shock to me to discover in childhood that you don’t get this forever.
You’ve experimented with different poetic forms in the course of your career, though your voice has remained distinct. Has that been a deliberate, conscious effort to push yourself by trying different forms?
Yes, all the time. You’re writing to be an adventurer. I want to be taken somewhere I know nothing about. I want to be a stranger to a territory. One of the few good things to say about old age is that you have a new experience. Diminishment is not everybody’s most anticipated joy, but there is news in this situation. And that, for a poet or writer, is invaluable. I think you have always to be surprised and to be, in a way, a beginner again, otherwise I would bore myself to tears. And there have been times when I have, when I’ve thought, you know, you wrote that poem. It’s a very nice poem, but you already wrote it.
In what ways do you feel aging has led you to explore new territory as a poet?
You find yourself losing a noun here and there, and your sentences develop these vast lacunae in the middle, and you either have to restructure the sentence or abandon it. But the point is, you see this, and it has never happened before. And though it’s grim and unpleasant and bodes ill, it’s still, from the point of view of the artist, exciting and new.
Your style has often been described as spare and pared down. Is that the voice that comes to you naturally when you write, or is it something that you’ve developed and polished?
Pared down sometimes, yeah. Sometimes I write conversationally. You don’t work on a voice. The sentence finds a way to speak itself. This sounds so Delphic. It’s a hard thing to discuss, a voice. I think I am fascinated by syntax and always felt its power, and the poems that moved me most greatly were not the most verbally opulent. They were the poets like Blake and Milton, whose syntax was astonishing, the way emphasis would be deployed.
You teach at Yale and have spoken about how teaching has helped you through difficulties you’ve confronted in your own writing. How has teaching shaped you as a writer?