Amherst Poets Dream Date: Interview with Dan Chiasson

This past spring, just when I was feeling a bit more connected to writing after a long hiatus, I got a very welcome invitation to join a seminar back at Amherst College on two major American poets who are Amherst grads: James Merrill ’47 and David Ferry ’46. The seminar is going to be led by two other extremely significant dudes, David Sofield—my thesis advisor at Amherst, who despite his young-poet looks has been at Amherst for about 50 years—and Richard Wilbur ’42. After talking about Merrill and Ferry’s work—including, remarkably, upcoming proof pages from Ferry’s Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations, out next year when Ferry will turn 88—we’ll get a reading from Ferry, Sofield, and Wilbur, PLUS an Amherst poet whose graduation year evokes neither WWII nor Vietnam.

That youngest luminary is Dan Chiasson, Amherst ’93, who is maybe 40 and has published a critical study of American poetry and autobiography as well as three books of poems, while holding down a tenured position at Wellesley and reviewing for the New Yorker. While perfectly good copies of Paradise Lost and the Collected Wordsworth are available for free in the lobby of my local library, I have to return Dan’s latest book stat because it is On Hold By Another Patron. Dan can rip the Mannahatta phonebook in half, Whitman-style, and also recently won the Gold Medal Cheese Competition at the Big E state fair in Springfield, Mass.

Leading up to the Merrill/Ferry seminar, I took the chance to contact Dan and ask a few questions about these two poets and his own work. He was the very model of Lord Jeff-like courtesy and good humor in his replies. Somehow our paths never crossed on our way to and from the office of our shared undergrad advisor, Bill Pritchard, so I’m looking forward to actually meeting Dan in person later this week.

JJ:  Getting this chance to talk to you before the Merrill/Ferry workshop comes at exactly the right time to salve or exaggerate my feelings of Classical inadequacy. Reading both these poets, there is an obvious, deep grounding in the classics that informs, for example, Merrill’s frequent direct addresses to readers/audiences to begin his poems. One of his poems, “An Upward Look” (p. 255 in Selected Poems), begins not only with such an address but clearly draws upon…both classical forms and references I can’t identify [grimace]:

O heart green acre   sown with salt

By the departing    occupier

lay down your gallant   spears of wheat (…)

I read poems like this (and of course Ferry as well, not to mention your own work) and want to learn (wish I had learned?) the context, but many readers might not feel that impulse.

I am interested in how you, as a Classics major who teaches English lit to great students with very little Classics background, see us negotiating poems like this that look to the Classics for inspiration/reference as we move ever further away from an elite, classically-educated (or at least aware) readership.

DC: I’m a gleaner when it comes to reading the Classics, despite my remarkable education at Amherst.  Let’s take Pliny as an example. I’ve read perhaps 1/20 of Pliny, and barely looked at the Latin. My sense of Pliny comes in totally through Italo Calvino’s wonderful essay on him. My Horaces are responses to David Ferry’s work, much more than to my cursory reading of Horace in the original, first at Amherst, later at Harvard. Inadequacy is simply what one feels when confronting classical knowledge—maybe inadequacy is related to our essential belatedness in relation to these authors.

I will say though—in relation both to teaching classics-inflected poems and to writing them—that there’s something immediately “real” about, say Sappho or Archilochus, an immediacy all the more striking for its uncanniness.

"Jimmy Merrill at the piano"

JJ: Our assignment for the Amherst workshop on Merrill/Ferry was to read their work and think about how each poet handles autobiographical topics, and consider the difference in their use of the first-person. Merrill frequently conflates the life he constructs within poetic language with his and the world’s “real” life, as in “The Emerald” (p. 130 in Selected Poems) where he recounts his mother taking him to the bank vault to give him an emerald ring “For when you marry. For your bride. It’s yours.” Merrill’s response from his position as a gay man and poet is,

I do not tell her, it would sound theatrical,

Indeed this green room’s mine, my very life.

We are each other’s; there will be no wife;

The little feet that patter here are metrical.

It strikes me that Merrill takes up here a metaphoric strategy for self-description as poet that goes back a long way. I’d be grateful for your reflections on this theme–not necessarily from the Classics perspective but more within the English tradition–indeed this strikes me as indebted more to Donne than to most American predecessors for Merrill.

DC: I’m not qualified to talk about the history of this move. But I love this moment from Merrill, and I think I unconsciously draw upon it whenever I intend the “I” speaking my poems to be the poem itself, as distinct from me, its author, and when, by words like “here” and “this” I intend the immediate language context of the unfolding poem. This is not tricky po-mo self-referentiality, at least not as I intend it. What it does, I think, I hope, is to collapse the distance between author and reader—Whitman says, you know, distance, it avails not, time and place avail not (I’m quoting badly from memory) and I believe that. I think anybody who really loves lyric poetry and sees it as essential believes it: that we meet, when we read poems, in a kind of cross-temporal agora where selves distributed otherwise widely across time all suddenly show up [JJ: a fine evocation of the scene of Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover]. This sense is felt, for me, most keenly in fragments like those that we find in the Greek Anthology—anonymous professions of love, disgust, anger, vitriol, horniness, all of them reaching us in full-color and full-flavor despite their ancientness.

David Ferry

JJ: Turning to your work, I am very taken by your strong interest in what it means to evoke the form and the stance of the poet in Classical works, along with a persistent layering of this stance on top of or next to a very contemporary referentiality to daily distractions, popular culture, and the banality of one’s own failings and desires.

I was struck by “Four Horaces 1: To Dan Chiasson Concerning Fortune,” from Natural History. The poem seems to combine the sincere admonition that there is no shelter anywhere from fortune and death with a much more opaque, outwardly chatty narrative persona who might be reassuring “Dan Chiasson” that “It’s sunny somewhere…the sun is shining somewhere.”

I could not help but read these lines as a reference to September 11th:

…there is no shelter

when the tower falls and the little city surrounding

cries “Eek!” and they start unzipping body bags pronto.

I wonder if this is a reference you had in mind when writing the poem? Or if not, just to our contemporary condition of having events occur that bring out the body bags? In either case, I’m interested in what you think we can draw from these two reference points when dealing with such events: the Horatian Odes narrator that you built on from David Ferry’s translations, and then the ambiguously positive contemporary stance that may or may not acknowledge the depth of shit that Fortune might really hand us unawares.

DC: I was thinking of David Ferry’s translation of Horace’s Ode 1.34, and Seamus Heaney’s later translation of the same poem. Ferry’s was done before 9/11, Heaney’s after. Ferry’s professes no relationship to 9/11—how could it?; Heaney’s is entirely an exercise in drawing out the weirdness in the fact that Horace’s poem seems to directly comment on 9/11. Or seems so to us, in an atmosphere so heavily saturated with grief over 9/11.

The speaker of my Horaces is supposed to be a jerk, kind of a womanizing, louche, pleasure-seeker, and so the affect of those lines (which, you’re quite right, I meant to refer to 9/11) needs to be all wrong—the glibness, the word “pronto,” etc.

JJ: In both Natural History and Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon, but particularly what I’ve read in the latter book, I find an interest in how the most infinite and weighty concerns can inhabit the most minute, everyday, and totally personal or internal space. As you put it at the start of the poem’s second section, “Infinite capacity for love in the smallest detail; / infinite suffering in the innermost reality […]”

This may be completely out of left field but I found myself thinking strongly of Sylvia Plath when reading this and other poems in Where’s the Moon (“When Spring Opens” comes to mind). Plath was fairly bold in terms of making her own traumas and dramas a metaphor for the Holocaust rather than the other way around, and was expert at this sort of compression of infinite pain or weightiness into a small space. For example in her poem “Contusion” she describes how

In a pit of rock

The sea sucks obsessively,

One hollow the whole sea’s pivot.

I’m interested in talking about your sources and inspirations (maybe Plath is among them) when focusing in these recent works on representing the infinite, something that was a big interest of mine when I was writing about Adrienne Rich’s work.

DC: First of all, thanks. I love Plath immoderately, and so I’m sure I learned how to do this partly from her. My moon book’s title and much of its content derives from a single moment sometime around August, 2006, in my son’s bedroom in Sherborn, where we then lived. He used to go around his room saying “moon, moon, moon” before bed, looking out all the windows. When he found it, he would say “there’s the moon.” But partly because once he’d found it, it was bedtime, and partly because of the essential flaccidness you feel when a game ends, even if you are the winner, he always seemed sad he found it. That one night he just put his hands over his eyes and said “Where’s the moon,” then, taking his hands away, exclaimed “there’s the moon.” This is my way of suggesting what all poems do, and what my poems about little objects quite explicitly do, which is to bring the infinite, the enormous, down to the intimate scale—where it can be manipulated, changed, scored, made to mark time, etc. That little invented gesture of Louis’s was an artifact. A poem, even.

JJ: Final question. I know things may seem pretty well set up for you now career-wise, but poetry is a harsh mistress and I wanted to give some friendly advice. Have you thought about penciling in Vermont State Poet Laureate as your post-child-rearing transition career? You are a Vermont native and studied at Amherst in the library named for Vermont’s first laureate, Robert Frost. You’re not scared of mixing the vernacular with the Horatian—take my advice, just throw in some references to Catamount beer as a weakness of “Dan Chiasson.” (By the way, “Horatian” and “Chiasson” rhyme. You can use that one.) Start building up this association with Vermont and pretty soon it’ll be them calling you asking when can you establish plausible residency north of the border.

DC:  Good idea, Josh. If I do become VT poet laureate, I’m having my inaugural ball at Al’s French Frys, Williston Road, South Burlington.

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