Matthew Buckley Smith
Interviewed by Ashley Kim
“The Octonauts” and “The Quick” both have fairly short lines that reminded me of imagistic William Carlos Williams lines. Each line carries the right amount of weight. When writing, how do you go about striking that balance on a line level?
Both of those poems were originally written in fairly straightforward, metrically regular lines. In the ear, “The Octonauts” is a sonnet, and “The Quick” is two quatrains. But something I’ve done a little bit—Josh Mehigan started doing it several years ago, Maryann Corbett and Stephen Kampa talked about it—is taking a finished poem and then rebreaking the lines. Just after finishing up at Hopkins— I wrote almost exclusively free verse before going there, and I was so stubborn it took me another year or two before I started really writing in form. It’s been fun returning to what sort of function as free-verse lines, although the words themselves hold to a pretty rigorous metrical contract. The lines are very strictly prescribed, and then in terms of the typography on the page, I play with them from draft to draft and just see how it feels. Often, the ends of the lines will still be the ends of these shorter lines, but sometimes I bury them a little bit. I try not to fight against the original form but let it get a little bit submerged in the new rhythm. My inclination is to think of the typographical appearance of a poem as being sort of whimsical, like an artifact of our particular moment’s style or type of presentation. The poem itself really is an object of sound, so I don’t feel bad about adulterating the form by playing with how it appears on the page, because that is less important, finally, than how it sounds. That’s my prejudice I guess.
That’s an interesting point that you mentioned sound. I was just reading something on sense over sound, and the argument was that poetry did start as an oral tradition, but over the years, with the invention of the printing press and typed books and text, sense is beginning to have, or maybe hold, more importance. What are your thoughts on that?
Especially when I think about teaching, I often divide my understanding of poems into two major categories, basically, the translatable and the untranslatable. I find that it’s a lot easier to teach the parts of poetry that are translatable. I taught a class for a while, where the only textbook was the Odes of Horace, the wonderful David Ferry translation. He has a great ear, but the sound has very little relationship to the original. Yet the order of the images and the argument make for a pretty powerful formula. It comes across, even if we don’t get to hear all of the peculiarities of Latin sound or syntax. There’s a whole lot of poetry that is translatable, and that is really powerful, but I think that if you take sense over sound entirely you lose not just music or rhyme but you miss all of the weird, blurry alchemy that comes out of language.
I read a couple of your poems that I could find online and the line that stuck with me in “Swan Song“ is the line, “honest love is not lost ardor.” It’s one of those sentences that I love, partly because I said, “Oh yeah that’s true,” even though it’s still hard for me to unpack quite what it means, but it sounds exactly right because of the assonance. It’s the alternation between these very similar but slightly different vowel sounds, and you get a little bit of consonance with “honest” and “lost.” It sounds perfectly true, and it is a simple and direct and emotionally poignant statement that we need at that moment of the poem because, otherwise, the feet begin to lift off the ground. I think about Donne’s “Batter my heart,” and he has this dense, thorny, thematically but also grammatically challenging poem. Then in the middle of it, he says, “yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain.” It’s an extremely simple, straightforward statement that you couldn’t put at the beginning of the poem because it would be boring and wouldn’t have any impact, but at that moment it’s not as simple. The music of it is nice. It’s also the simplicity of the sound, the directness, the familiarity of it. To take sense over sound is fine, but if you need a tidy definition of prose, that’s it. That’s one of the wonderful things about prose; you can translate it.
I wanted to comment on the formal aspects in some of these poems. “Survey of Love” is in the more expected sonnet form, and very fittingly so. “Chez Bovary” alternates between trimeter and hexameter and also employs a fairly intricate rhyme scheme. It reminds me of Erica Dawson and the New Formalism movement and less directly, Greg Williamson’s double exposure form—the line lengths were so different that I felt like I could almost read every other line and get a different kind of reading from that as well. Was that poem an invented form and, if so, how did you decide what that structure should be?
You bring up Erica Dawson and Greg, and I’ve spent a lot of time reading both of them and admire them a lot. I’m definitely very familiar with Greg’s double exposures, and even when he’s not doing strict double exposure, he plays with the superimposition of meaning. It’s a particular kind of irony that’s hard for me to quite identify because it’s not strictly verbal irony. Like in his poem “The River Merchant’s Wife, a Letter,” which is obviously a sort of pseudo- translation of Ezra Pound—there’s a country girl from Tennessee who’s giving the same argument as the speaker in Pound’s poem. By being a sort of copy it ends up presenting itself, and then the opposite of itself. His New Year’s poem—it’s the very last poem in the fifth edition of the Norton—doesn’t contrast opposites, but by sort of taking a screen print and flipping it over, you end up getting something else: “We were all there. At the start…” “We were all there at the start.” That’s certainly in my head when I write. I’m definitely not doing anything as clever there [in “Chez Bovary”].
I have an ongoing slow-motion project I do sometimes. In the best poems, sound and sense or form and content begin to be inextricable from each other. In trying to confront the problem of making the form of a poem perfectly suited to its content, I came to the conclusion that I’m not usually very good at planning it all ahead of time. A device I’ve used is choosing a form or shape and just writing as quickly as I can, 30 poems in that form. I throw away almost all of them, but in a few, the form and the content seem to match up. The more I write the same form, the easier it begins to feel working with it. I’ve done it a number of times with sonnets, blank verse monologues, most recently, and then with these little Sapphic-shaped songs: ABAB, with a very short fourth line, a 5-5-5-2. I figured that next I should do 3-6-3-6-3-6, so that was where that particular shape came from. And then I just try to come up with a rhyme scheme that feels novel or fun.
A follow up question to that is, more generally, what is your relationship to form and meter, and who are some of your formal influences?
My relationship to form is I like it, I enjoy it. I’m not very good at having what people tend to mean when they talk about a poetics or a philosophy of poetry, but mostly my philosophy is I like things that sound beautiful to me and ring true and move me or make me laugh, make me feel something. That’s really all I try to write: things that sound good and that might make me feel something if I were a stranger. That’s about as sophisticated as it gets, and form suits my purposes because it both sounds good and, as plenty of other people have observed, it maybe requires less invention. It’s funny because I think there’s an expectation that formal poems are more staid or conservative or uncreative, which is true in one respect in that the lines are less spontaneous. But being forced to fill out a line in a certain way or to find a certain rhyme is a way of aerating my word hoard. It cross indexes my vocabulary; words are linked to each other that wouldn’t be otherwise, and I end up pulling in associations that I would never come up with on my own in free verse. If you truly have a more generative mind, then it may be that you don’t need that, but I find it very helpful. As far as influences, I have very boring taste. There’s obviously all the old guys and gals that everybody reads. I have a special fondness for Horace—though I don’t really know Latin so that’s not a formal influence. I think he has a wonderful sense of rhetorical form. I don’t know—I love Yeats, Wyatt, Larkin, Housman, Justice.
“The Quick” deftly conflates multiple meanings of the word in both its noun form, as in the living, and as the adjective, as it’s describing the lives of these people as quick, and the poem itself is very short. The noun form is most commonly known in the phrase, “quick and the dead,” from the Christian Apostles’ Creed. “Survey of Love” also mentioned a couple of other faith traditions and weaves them all together. How does religion play into these poems or into your poetry as a whole?
I was raised in a pretty devout Irish Catholic family and community. Most of my family, which was very big, all lived in the same place, so I was surrounded by that. I went to Catholic school and everybody I knew was Catholic for a long time. I don’t go to church and I don’t believe in God now, but it’s pretty obvious it’s cooked in as a way of thinking and looking at the world, spending so many years listening to sermons and thinking about everything in terms of the many-layered nature of reality, where everything has a correspondence to something abstract or something spiritual. Most of my Jewish friends are atheists, but they also deeply identify with their tradition. Being Irish Catholic is in my blood, and I can’t change that nor would I. That’s certainly a big part of it.
As far as the “Survey of Love,” a lot of it was reading stories and trying to retell stories to my daughters. We got a wonderful set of the D’Aulaires’ myths. One of them is a collection of Greek myths, a lot of which are borrowed from Ovid, and the other one is a collection of Norse myths which are just a retelling of the Edda and they’re wild. We’re not raising our daughters religious, but I also I went to high school with a lot of kids who were raised with no religion and didn’t know who Adam and Eve were. They were completely uprooted from a tradition that I want my daughters to have some understanding of. I try to just flood them with gods so that they are very aware of a multitude of meanings and deities and stories and traditions. We’re talking about all these different traditions, and when we hear thunder, maybe that’s just Thor or, actually, maybe it’s Hephaestus and the Cyclopes. [“Survey of Love”] was probably a byproduct of reading a lot of this stuff to my daughters.
All four poems are very invested in philosophical questions of life and death and love. Young children and girls also appear in a couple of these, and you mentioned your daughters—how has this impacted, or perhaps changed, your outlook on these types of matters?
Before having kids, I would have found it easier to speculate about whether one should bring children into this world and how things are going to look once they’re here. Now, it’s more like, well do we have enough diapers to get through the night, did we run out of toaster waffles, or did we remember to brush our teeth, and it’s just humbling on a daily basis. It’s a physically and emotionally demanding job. Days last a really long time but years fly by. It’s strange to introduce my seven-year-old daughter [to you tonight, because] I’m like, “Oh shit, I had a daughter seven years ago.” If anything, I think a lot less about philosophy than I used to. [Having kids] has made it harder to invest deeply in purely abstract questions, but my daughter asks a lot of questions about life and death and meaning. I think it’s pretty common. It was easier for me to think about those questions before, probably more rigorously in some ways, but also less responsibly, because I could just think about them as sort of mathematical objects I was manipulating in my mind; whereas with my daughters, the questions have an emotional value that’s really immediate. I think of the Larkin poem “Talking in Bed”— I think that’s my general rule with them is that I try to find things to say that are not untrue and not unkind. Beyond that it’s hard for me to think very deep thoughts about big questions I guess. It’s a mess and it’s exhausting, but it’s also just a total wonder and a joy.