Poetry in Person

Nearly three decades of informal classroom chats with some of America’s finest poets.

Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America’s Poets Edited by Alexander Neubauer Knopf 352 pp., $27.95

In the fall of 1970, Pearl London, a teacher at the New School in New York’s Greenwich Village, introduced a poetry seminar that offered students not only lively discussions of works by famous contemporary poets, but access to the poets themselves. She was ambitious in her guest wish-list, which included Pulitzer Prize-winners and even a Nobel Laureate or two. Most accepted her invitation.

She made the same request of each poet: Please bring in drafts of poems not yet published. “This is a course concerned essentially with the making of the poem.... with both the vision and the revision,” she wrote to them. “In a sense, the shaping spirit of the imagination is what it is all about.”

John Ashbery, Maxine Kumin, Galway Kinnell, and Paul Muldoon are among the luminaries who visited her classroom over the years. London’s death in 2003 meant that these intimate conversations (occurring over nearly three decades) were forever gone.

With the publication of Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America’s Poets, editor Alexander Neubauer shares a selection of that fascinating material with the public for the first time.

London had made recordings of all her seminars, and when she died, a trove of more than a hundred cassette tapes were found hidden in her home. Thrilled at the discovery, Neubauer transcribed and edited these classroom conversations. They reveal poets bluntly assessing their work, speaking in an unguarded fashion, conceding their vulnerabilities and concerns as they might never have done during formal interviews, which often seem stilted.

“Every time I have something hard to tell or difficult to write I invariably find myself setting up the most elaborate stanzaic patterns to do it,” Maxine Kumin tells students in 1973. “As if that gives me permission to tell the truth and to say the hard things.”

In a 1978 visit to London’s class, Philip Levine admits that his forthcoming book (“7 Years From Somewhere”) is his most autobiographical, borne of a time in midlife when he came close to dying, and when “I ended certain relationships that were punishing and giving me nothing.”

Edward Hirsch speaks beautifully of the act of writing a poem as an unearthing of the unconscious, and as “a descent,” noting that poetry starts with a sense of alienation and “speaks against our vanishing.”

“If I look at most of my poems years after having written them, I can see they could have been a little better,” says a wry Charles Simic in 1995. “Shoddy goods, you know?”

James Merrill reveals that his preference for the pronoun “we” rather than “I” in his poems was shaped by Rilke, who invited readers “into a community of shared suffering, or shared sensitivity. I couldn’t wait to accept the invitation. I loved the feeling I got from those first-person plurals, as if one were being consoled and elevated at the same time.”

In 1979, Louise Gluck, just 35 years old, had published two well-received collections but was 14 years away from winning the Pulitzer Prize. She analyzes poem drafts down to her use of articles (“the,” “a”) and specific imagery choices. She expresses repugnance at the “communication of the self” impulse in writing: “The issue of ego is a sensitive one,” she says. “I think that most contemporary poetry is horrifically disfigured by it.... There’s a swagger in it that offends me greatly.”

And the civil rights activist and poet June Jordan, who died in 2002, describes as “appalling” and “elitist” the notion of being unreadable, which W.H. Auden once claimed was a virtue. She argues that “if you are a poet who has some chance of being remembered.... you have to be accessible to people on the first reading or first hearing on some level.”

With her probing questions and astute interpretations. London comes off as a charming, deeply perceptive moderator. (She always came to class armed with stacks of notes, quotations, and questions.) The daughter of M. Lincoln Schuster, cofounder of the publishing house Simon & Schuster, she knew just when to push back gently and when to offer effusive praise. She dissected poems as brilliantly as the poets themselves, and like a good therapist gently coaxed them into being open with her. “I feel unmasked!” exclaims Hirsch during his session. “I want to put my jacket on.”

In a postscript to the book, New School writing program director Robert Polito writes of London, “Have I ever met anyone, especially someone not herself publicly a poet, so conversant, appreciative, besotted, obsessed, even so simply gaga about contemporary poetry?”

The 23 transcripts of “Poetry in Person” allow anyone to drop in on these wide-ranging, inspiring, and irreverent conversations. London’s delight at talking shop with poets is infectious, and this book is an extraordinary gift to poetry readers and aspiring poets alike.

Carmela Ciuraru is the author of several anthologies, including “Poems for America.” She is writing a nonfiction book for HarperCollins.

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