There is no such thing, any longer, as a “mainstream” of American poetry—if there ever was. So each of us is forced, or encouraged, or provoked, to make up our own. In my personal conception of the American mainstream, James Richardson dwells near the center and looms large. His books are, in my view, some of the most beautiful produced by any American writer of the past few decades; they contain echoes of many poets distributed throughout many countries and centuries, yet they always sound contemporary, as if they were written last night—or ten years from now. Also, his work is philosophical, at times overtly so (something I happen to like) without ever being painfully so (something extremely hard to pull off).
Richardson has taught at Princeton since 1980. His first poetry collection, Reservations, appeared in 1977. His latest, For Now, was recently published by Copper Canyon. Like every book published in the past few months, it emerged into a social and cultural landscape its author could not have predicted. Other books have included During (2016), Interglacial: New and Selected Poems and Aphorisms (2004), and By the Numbers (2010), which was a finalist for the National Book Award. The following Q&A was conducted via email during April and May 2020.
ZYZZYVA: Your previous book was titled During, and your new book is called For Now. So it seems a fair guess to say that time is on your mind, and not just any time but this particular moment we live in, the present. And I am wondering if you see poetry, as an art form, as bearing some particularly intimate connection with the present moment.
JAMES RICHARDSON: We’re not surprised when a poem is only seconds long, or shatters into “Thirteen Ways.” But relative shortness would not be the only connection. Poetry is so often at least pretending to break time, or freeze it, or turn it back on itself. We talk, for example, about the “still image.” Metaphor’s a = b is an instantaneous equation very different from the a then b of narrative or argument. And of course there are all the ways poetry historically has found to repeat, return, circle—rhythms, refrains, patterns of sound and syntax—even the Line, which is a repeating form underneath and in tension with the sentence. It’s not that a novel can’t linger in a moment, or that poetry can’t narrate or argue, but it seems that one of its deep urges is to be its own moment, or a series of moments.
Z: I wonder whether this connects in some way with some of the formal things happening in this book that I haven’t seen you do before—for instance, the arrangements of haiku, sometimes three to a page, scattered about the page almost like constellations of stars; sometimes a single haiku on its own page—given that a haiku is commonly seen both as presenting a single image, and as capturing a single moment in time.
JR: Aaron Haspel says, “It takes half a lifetime to learn to read slowly.” Longer than that! As a reader I’ve found myself more and more attracted to short poems with a lot of white space within and around them. Poems that don’t talk too much, poems to linger and be quiet with. Maybe poems that are in touch with what is for me the most essential part of poetry—the drifting and gazing that precede the hard work of actually writing.
I was reading haiku for several years, mostly in the wonderful translations of Robert Hass and R.H. Blyth, before I understood a little how to make my mind slow enough to feel them. Writing them, or trying to, turns out to be a very calming experience, maybe because it feels less like work than like slowing moments and letting them go. You don’t think so much about what you’ve “got.” The fifty or so in this book are what’s left of hundreds and hundreds I half-scribbled and hardly looked at again.
I feel a little cautious about calling these haiku. They’re three lines, they’re very often seasonal, they’re about the right length—there seems to be a consensus ten to twelve syllables works better in English than seventeen. But most haiku float their lines, whereas I probably tend to pause and break them:
Always get the last word.
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Late January, the days
a half hour longer —
this half hour.
Maybe some of mine are secretly quatrains, a form much more natural to English, or anyway to me:
a half hour longer —
this half hour.
And though I don’t think of my little poems as aphoristic, they might have an aphoristic twist in their thinking that corresponds to the twist in their lines. So in my mind they’re “haiku-like,” and I think of them along with the other two- to ten-line poems in the book as “microlyrics.”
Z: Well, there seems to be a tradition among American poets of taking great liberties with haiku, or perhaps with poetic forms in general. Or maybe it’s too recent to be referred to as a “tradition”; I’m thinking of people like your colleague from Princeton, Paul Muldoon. But I like the word “micryolyrics,” and I love your microlyrics: so modest and unassuming, and as you say, surrounded by so much white space, so much quiet. Your poetry has always, I think, had an element of quietness, of soft-spokenness. (To cite titles again: your first book was titled Reservations, your second, Second Guesses.) We seem to have inherited such a bright, flashy, noisy culture—do you see poems, perhaps, as a kind of counter-weight against that, a protected place where we let ourselves be quiet, where we can find quietness?
JR: There’s a part of us, and a part of literature, that wants to absorb the intensity and vitality of the present, and yeah, even the flash and noise. For my part, I read the Times every day, subscribe to a half dozen science magazines, am fascinated by where our language is going, and definitely like hanging out with people younger than I am. (Well, everyone is younger than I am.)
But there’s also an opposing urge to simplify and distill. Possibly that’s stronger in poetry than in other genres. Anyway, it’s stronger in me: I always feel like the experiment of living has already given me more data than I quite know what to do with. It’s been something over 25,000 days, and I’ve never memorized a single one, or figured out what days, or lives, are really for. I’ve never even figured out what kind of poem I should really be writing. When I sit down by a window with a book, usually quietly, I’m trying to settle into what part of Everything is true and essential and touching. The ideas or feelings that seem to come clear, temporarily at least, are small and…quiet, I guess.
I don’t like myself when I’m going on and on. I don’t like using words that haven’t quite earned their loudness and asking the reader to make up the difference.
Z: Of course a small poem can also pack a mighty philosophical punch. I’m thinking of your gorgeous poem “Grid,” for instance. And an aphorism can do the same. You published a collection of aphorisms in 2001, and if I’m not mistaken each of your collections since then has included some new ones. I wonder if the urge toward aphorisms and small poems is related to your urge to write about small things: salt, hummingbirds, paper clips, flies—the little things that make up so much of the everyday landscape of our lives, but which fall beneath our notice, so that we forget to write poems about them?
JR: I do pay a lot of attention to household detail, kind of a ridiculous amount, actually. I like knowing what things are and how they work.
I didn’t notice this till you asked, but those small things—paper clips, flies, salt, hummingbirds— make up longest poems in the book. Of course they’re mostly sequences, poems made out of little pieces arranged in a way that I hope makes narrative or emotional sense. They look at a small thing over and over from many angles—maybe, like “Ode to a Paperclip,” they’re as much about metaphor as about the things themselves.
On the other hand, maybe I’d want the central images of freestanding shorter poems to be more resonant and representative. The haikuists, e.g., return over and over to the season, the time of day, the moon, the mood—the parts of poetry that are worn smoothest from long use. Just personally, I’d exclude office supplies!
The relation between aphorisms and those smaller facts is interesting:
Shadows are harshest where there is only one lamp.
Nothing dirtier than old soap.
Birds of prey don’t sing.
Snakes cannot back up.
Those sound like…proverbs? (But what does that soap one actually mean?) I don’t think all that many of my aphorisms are faux proverbs, but it actually gives me great pleasure to come up with something that sounds a little like Anon. Possibly interesting/possibly obvious: I didn’t start with an idea and look for an image to encode it—I suddenly landed on a fact that sounded like it already meant something.
Same thing with the poem you mentioned:
All energy, to that engineer,
the Soul, is the same.
Today’s illumination might have come,
way back, from either love or pain —
no whiff, when the light flicked on,
of coal or falling water or uranium.
I’m 90 percent sure this started with the light switch. Maybe after one of those solicitations to change some of your power to renewable energy and the whimsy “Wait, it’s the same power lines. How do they know where each electron is really coming from?” (Okay, I do get that). The fact flashed back to a possible meaning for the fact. Or maybe just possibly the image and the idea about the soul already existed in different areas of the Notebook and just leapt together—that happens a lot.
Z: Your previous book, During, included a translation of Rilke’s poem “Autumn Day.” For Now includes a poem titled “Autumn Evening.” I don’t generally think of you as a religious poet, but both of these are composed as religious poems, at least in the sense that they begin by explicitly addressing themselves to the “Lord”; and this makes me speculate about the relation between them. Is “Autumn Evening” exploring what is Rilkean in Richardson? Or what is Richardsonian in Rilke? Or is it the differences that matter more? Rilke’s poems, for obvious reasons, didn’t mention cell phones; more substantively, “Autumn Evening” manifests parental anxiety in a way that seems to me quite alien to Rilke’s work.
JR: Probably evolution has left us with a little module that’s looking around for God. Every once in a while it bursts out Lord, even if, like me, you’re a cell phone a little too far from that tower, connecting connecting.
I’d emphasize the autumnal over the religious, though probably they overlap. My notebook always has a group of poems I think of as “autumnal” whether or not they have anything literally to do with the season, and they usually end up clustered in the final section of a book.
I read “Herbsttag” when I was 17, and maybe, if it makes any sense to say such things, it’s my favorite poem? Line 4, “Befiel den letzten Früchten voll zu sein” is literally “Command the last fruits to be full,” but my version has “Command the last fruits Ripen to the core”—which assimilates it to “And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core” in Keats’s “To Autumn,” another favorite poem. That was my wife Connie’s idea, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Rilke’s too. The third poem in my autumn triumvirate would be Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold,” whose fourth line, “bare, ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang,” is remixed in in Keats’s “Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn.” So: a mini-tradition?
I can’t write those poems, but I keep riffing on them. “Fruit Flies,” in an earlier book, owes whatever it is to those “small gnats” in Keats. And For Now winds up with a poem that takes Line 2 of Sonnet 73 as its title, and is about the autumn of life and, oh yeah, the moment:
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang…
If life is a year, then this is
November, just about the day
I’m thinking it’ll never get cold
and it gets cold; if life is a day,
then now is the darkening, serious
but not quite deep enough to sleep in;
if life is an hour, then I’m near the end
of a story I might or might not
finish in an hour. But life is a minute,
and suddenly looking up
from the page, who can tell
whether it’s the middle or end
or beginning of a minute?