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The poet's life in America is not an easy one. True he has no proscenium arch to contend with and no one in his right mind expects a poet to do box office business or pack the house. Alan Sherman accepted. But as the mad assist points out there are good writers in America. A minor poets if you will who are lancing up the language and the symbols for the serious poet they write their odes to a jar of baby food or a bucket seat convertible or a cigarette with a swinging filter. Being an American poet Lewis Simpson realizes all this jazz and writes poetry anyway. He is a living talking refutation of Plato's observation that poets are a great and wise things which they themselves do not understand. Simpson understands all right. He understands true they truism that you will find poetry nowhere unless you bring some with you. This is a hip professional who won the 1964
surprise for his book at the end of the open road. What did you attempt to do at the end of your. Well when you're writing poems of course each poem has its own meaning. But the book as a whole had an overall idea which was sort of argument I was having with Whitman and I felt that one of Whitman's ideas which was a constant material expansion had come to an end and that something new had to happen. And I was sort of arguing with Whitman in a few coins and saying that America had come to the end of this movement that he had seen and that now we have to turn inward. And then this turning inward which I saw in historical terms also. Was paralleled in the poems themselves by my own turning in wood to a portrait of the image and sort of sort of a slight surrealism rather than a point three explicit statement you see.
Do you have an example from your work of this process of turning inward walk Whitman stops I guess and you begin. Well yes I think it's very short little Ford called American Poetry is relevant American poetry whatever it is it must have a stomach that can digest its rubber. Call your rainy and noble calling like the shark. It contains a shoe. It must swim for miles through the desert uttering cries that are almost human. You see that koan it describes something which is still moving but it's digesting all sorts of strange objects and upon itself is rather surrealistic. Cause you know poetry is never a thing you can explain terribly explicitly in prose terms and and my book have a framework of ideas but
what I would that I wasn't limiting myself to this might we draw from this to be the general concern for contemporary poetry. You're say you're not alone in terms of trying to do this kind of thing. What what is the nature of contemporary poetry is it. Is it moving to the initial realistic area. Well there are many different movements going on now and of course the first well let's say there are many points who belong to no movement at all who are absolutely individual. And I suppose ultimately every foot does become absolutely individual even if he begins with a movement often a groupoid is nothing more than a group of friends you know and they help each other in the younger years and read each other's work and they continually agree upon certain things later they love to split up and go in opposite directions. But you can see these little nuclei all over the country of people who agree on certain things. Incidentally it makes for some very interesting Wachter to be between these groups. Usually they
they don't read each other's work or they would say a good word for each other. They're not there I don't find I'm afraid the poets like all artists are not terribly generous. And that is because they I think they're fighting so hard to realize their own identity. I'm going to say this is a pretty much just pretty much an isolated existence here. I mean you you have set yourself apart as the others have set themselves apart to comment on a more isolated example than a lot for example in New York and I imagine on North Beach in San Francisco there are groups that meet a lot and read in cafes and on. I don't think probably they feel terribly isolated they get a great companionship out or something so much of a physical isolation they may meet together but in terms of the celebration they are apart from Oh yes mother. Now you mention New York and North Beach. Let's get into these regional differences. Is there a west coast school is there a Midwest and you your.
Well I never been inside the West Coast military movement enough to know if it's really a school I've seen from outside and it seems to me to be as I said a group of people who know each other and stick pretty closely together. There is in there is there are in San Francisco a group that you know meet and support each other. And there are new york such groups I'm sure there are New Orleans too and so on. This is very helpful to younger writers. There's a great difference between San Francisco as a whole and New York as a whole. But forgetting the separate little groups the whole atmosphere of being a writer I think in San Francisco is different than it is in New York. I think San Francisco writers suffer from provincialism that this day this was it whenever they hear this it drives and while there are good things about being provincial and there are bad things I think the good things are that you you aren't just one of a faceless mob you have a sense of certain
importance and so on the other thing the bad things are that well I never yet heard of The New Yorker writer going around saying this is the best place in the world. This is the cultural center of the world. I never heard of a writer in Paris say or in London but I hear it all the time. Well I wonder are you yourself having been born in the West Indies and coming out here to San Francisco in general in Berkeley at the University of California campus in particular. What and I think you have in part to characterize this west coast atmosphere or attitude I have in my short two years they tried to verbalize what it is that I see as a difference in terms of an attitude here on the West Coast. I guess provincial or parochial might be a word which might use their horizons are limited by the Sierras and nothing east of them is worth considering. But it's a pretty curious split they have on the one hand they say that nothing east of the series is worth considering but on the other hand they spend a lot of time considering and they are
much more concerned actually about for example some of his good writers have have a good touch of paranoia I think that there's a conspiracy to toot toot down put them down and they're more concerned about what goes on over in the east and the people in the East are a lot of the time they have this curious split of us saying we're self-sufficient you know human handholds having an icon for what's going on over there. It's very funny that much pop culture conscious here and they are right. It's a real serious business culture you know as they are concerned with this culture or if we might use in terms literary movement what is their concern is it more a polemic or is it a political reaction. What veins do they follow or to react to this culture or write about it. Well there's a lot of political activity here but I don't think it's that I think that. There's a sort of mystique of that of the west coast among the
poets and so on you know. There Well there's one good thing about it I like very much they're much more concerned with their environment than the East Coast but it tends to be I mean they the good west caused quite a man like Gary Snyder for example is vitally concerned with the nature and nature is an old fashioned word but I still think it's one of the only important things there. In our lives and Snyders poetry is very powerful because he has such a strong relationship and is in all sorts of minor poets in the Bay Area you see this consciousness at the Bay of they see the sky of the hills and to their poetry which makes it a more alive and meaningful poetry. Now my quarrel with the East for example particularly in New York I don't see how anyone could survive as a poet. There you see there is nothing there is no one meaningful environment I have long ceased to find it in New York City the jungle goes and dredge up some Kordek image with well-meaning Yes but it's an it seems to me but that then your point is living on its
nerves. It's liable to be a poetry of first of all poetry of negation and approach of disgust is bound to become ultimately I think a point to discuss. You sing much poetry poetry of despair are or are don't poets in many instances lead lives of quiet desperation. Well we've had a lot of this barren literature happily for a long time and I think it's I think it's getting the literature tends to shrink and shrink and shrink you get little pellets of disgust. I think maybe we need and I think what the public feels too that's why people don't read poetry anymore. Need a point which is not only merely an ache out of disgust which everybody can utter. You need a poetry which produces something some powerful emotions. I don't see how a man living in New York in those cubicles all the time which is what you ultimately wind up in a looking. When I walk down the street New York I see things. Mind all the time now you can react to that you can write about it. But as a matter of fact New York has never been a very productive place for a writer. It's a place where writers
go to to market their product but I don't know what it's limiting. This is not true of this area I don't think. Not to me and I suspect that you see a man like for me to get away from porch for a while. Faulkner was roped down in the middle of the Mississippi you know and wrote these wonderful books there. When he got to be an old man they welcomed him in with a laurel wreaths on Madison Avenue in New York. But that's not what he wrote about and I find New York because of that appearance. Sure discussed almost. There's nothing that there is no connection for one thing between the thing that the psyche of the poet in New York and and the physical really meaningful physical environment which is which is around us all the way here. And it's true of the Midwest too in all sorts of places in America in the world within the San Francisco court might not be completely accused or attacked for his provincialism in terms of reacting
to the provincial major which he writes you know that's what I meant by saying it was to the good things about it this is the good part of it. I think it's better I think the other side of it is very bad. I think that the constant awareness self conscious awareness of our culture on the on the on the in the put on the part of the Provincial is a sad thing but I think that their involvement in their environment and so on is very good. Might I ask you about the image that the general public has which is I dare say false of a poet as a man as a person as a contributing member of society he is certainly not one who is lost up in the garret writing you know by the skylight reports of people. How do they live. How do they support themselves. I think very few points support themselves by writing poetry in fact actually not you know. Several lawyers who work as I do in universities for teach school
some of them no doubt do well I know several who have other jobs I have I know two here who are technical one is a carpenter. He's a reg'lar carpenter. He writes poetry at night and so on. And another is an insurance salesman and he works in insurance office these two men do these two things. But you in a way CTs are better off than out of the CC because boards don't fool themselves that they're going to make a living by writing poetry so they never really disappointed that way whereas now there's always think that they're going to someday make a living writing novels which they won't you know unless they're very and that's a terribly bad novelist or very blocky good one. But poets earn a living and also as we learn some of them just don't earn a living at all. They you know they get along on a minimal income. THEY DOn't EVEN HAPPENING come. But this in this means that they're going to have a rather difficult life. Very nice to me just difficult because there are all sorts of lies but they're never going to be able to have
normal relationships and or a certain amount of freedom of movement and so on. When might we say that the statements made by the poet. We shouldn't use the word honest but I was about to ask are they more honest or are they more significant statements in that they are not motivated by commercial pressure. Yes I think that a mercenary ploy would be a very sad and strange animal. I don't know any. I know many points were criticised for for having sold out because say they publish this stuff in places where it's a group B would never dare would never want to publish. But that's a very small amount of selling out when you consider what the world is like and who maybe is not selling out maybe just publishes it in The New Yorker magazine because he wants to you know it's a small thing but courts don't aren't going to be overwhelmed by commercial
temptation. No you're right. And you already University. What do you see your your interest is writing but what do you see your interest as a member of the staff of university. What is the place of the university as far as your particular discipline is concerned what you attempt to do. Well first of all let me say that be absolutely frank with you the university I teach because it gives me an as much freedom as I could use really. That is I can earn a living without having to to write anything I don't want to write you see. And I teach and I teach fairly honestly I think I work at it now when I'm teaching. Very little of what goes into my writing is ever brought into play in my teaching it's a different process entirely. For example teaching is a rational verbalizing rational thing. You're using your rational mind all the time in teaching to explain. When you write although your rational mind of course has to
be there it's certainly not the police. The first thing you have to let go when you write and be a little you know unconsciously. There's a little that you can be rational later on. Now when I teach the only thing I can give the Union University is that I can teach the students how to read how to read poems read plays novels with a certain amount of what I think is appreciation and understanding of what the author put into it. In fact I think that the only thing that the writer in the university can bring the one thing he can bring to the teaching of literature which the ordinary scholarly man cannot is that the writer knows something about the process of writing and he can explain a work of art with a little more courage a little more imagination quite often than the ordinary academic professor can. The writing has a sort of participating way of reading a book and he helps the student to see and get inside this thing as a participant or as the scholar
is liable to maybe all concerned with the dates of folios and historical movements and so on and not to feel his way into the work of art the way that we write it can teach a student and I think this is valuable and I think this justifies having writers in the universe. I think that this is a valuable thing and also you see the writer in the university gives the student an idea of the connection between real life and the book. Otherwise I've seen this happen you know students think that a book is something done by dead people and has nothing to and the like it talks but could never example have anything to do with the like in their little town. I think if they talk about a writer who is talking to them in the flesh and they can also see his works in a book they begin to understand that their literature and life are very immediate present day thing and may be of great importance to them missing not just dead stuff. Now you as a poet in the classroom might be accepted certainly by your students by
your colleagues. What about the acceptance of a poet in general in this country per se as compared with Europe. Is he in a better position today than he was in past years or is he just about in the same position. I'd say he's in about the same position because if you're talking about certain small areas like the university or North Beach in San Cisco The Village in New York points a certain acceptable. But as far as the general American public goes they are absolutely ignorant of what a poet is. They're mystified. They don't really care and I mean by the general public not just people who are not literate but I mean even professional educated people. Now I think that I mean in the suburbs where you find people who've gone through college they still would know nothing about American poetry and not pay much of either. This would not be true in Europe and Europe a man who was a doctor or a lawyer would know a Frenchman for example one normal year a German would know
all the works of Schiller even if he had never written a word himself. He would know that as part of his and he wouldn't think it a special thing to know or various Thetic occupations be part of this generally being a human being in America. Art has always been for historical reasons relegated to the school teacher you know and the school marm. And it's because I have a little theory which is that because Americans have been mistreated in by you know not mistreated but taught by women in a little school house you see and have put three handed to them by women. And all this hard stuff ham down their throats by women when they grow up and become men they reject those who becomes a very interesting problem. They reject always the sissy stuff having nothing to do and also because there's an economic reason for it. The country was built faster it was built you know built by people who were won in violent reaction against Europe and everything that the European the court supported are part of the thing they remember them LOL. Rarely seen an Irish the classic thing they wanted no
part of it. And secondly they were not only in reaction against all that but they needed manual labor they needed and they needed people to build things with their hands engineers and so on. I'm sure that for example Israel today is something like that I'm sure the premium is you know the premium is not the pan of the arts in Israel probably it's been a good car injuries. President is this felon even compounded in a sense in the arts have always been thought of as an aspect of the leisure class or for art were something that you participated in if you didn't have anything else to do. Quite different from the Europeans attitude of art being part of a total life existence not something which was relegated to a pleasurable experience if you had time to have a pleasurable experience. Yes of course we've not had much time in America where we have not had the time for art to become a part of everyone's life. It takes a couple of
generations. I feel great and very hopeful about this because I think that for example I can see it in the teaching of poetry in college you see if these kids who are learning about poetry now grow up and they never write poetry that doesn't matter if they should their children grow up. These parents were coming out of college at this moment when their parents they will be tolerant of this. They will understand something about poetry you see 20 years from now but it takes a few generations for this to happen. And America hasn't had much time. It's very frustrating isn't it as some person put it that America appears to be in possession of much more leisure time than they have ever had. Yet one doesn't know what to do on a Sunday afternoon. You say it it takes generations what has to happen for a person people groups to have a serious confrontation with themselves in terms of saying am I getting the most out of life that I can get out of life and to make time for
these things which you say will I and I know what has to happen with this rather depressing thought. You need disasters. This is what makes me think. I said this to a class A few years ago. I was quite shocked and I said it is that people always talk about supporting the arts. I don't think they are cheats. I don't think they do. Arts are not a luxury you see in America people think art is a luxury. It is not a luxury it is a necessity. And at any period in the world's history when there has been a disaster or depression the curious thing is that the arts are not the first the arts are not depressed in fact at such times they come to the fore. I can think of examples of this for example in America during the Depression there was a great deal more serious thinking and reading and writing then there. I would say well you can't measure these things but the impression one gets from reading history and from what one knows of that period is it was much more thoughtful and artistically creative than for example the Eisenhower period which is a period for me symbolized by a monstrous
tailfins and in the place of the mind and you know affluence of sheetmetal. But it's a country of people I think also on the Sunday afternoon you mention it people get bored you know when people get bored enough they must think you know you get disgusted I mean if you put someone in front of a television set seven hours staring at it they'll even get sick of television you know and I think that causing hardship disasters and war horse people think now that put you know a killer position of sort of seeming to be hoping for disasters. But I don't think one has to I think they are occur automatically anyhow and the people come to think. In the closing moments Mr. Simpson might you again turn to some of your own works a piece which might exemplify the kinds of things we were talking about maybe expanding the ideas across the continent here.
Yes well I have a poem is the first poem in the book and it talks about the outward movement the movement westward which Whitman talked about and the turning inward which I think is necessary now. And it also talks about New York and San Francisco and compares them a little. But there's one more point I'd like to mention here which in the last in the last times I point out which is I don't think I'm a prophet and that we don't know what's going to happen but these movements that are occurring now outward movements have and those that we can see this but what is called in California. Here I am troubling the drain caused with my New York face bearing among the realtors and tennis players. My dark preoccupation There once was an epic of clatter voices and banjos Tennessee Ohio rising like incense in the sight of heaven. Today there is an angel in the gate. Live back Walt Whitman.
There on the fabulous raft with the king and the Duke for the white row of the Marino faces the rock turn around the wagons here lie back. We cannot bear the stars anymore. Those infinite spaces let the realtors divide the mountain for they have already subdivided the valley rectangular city blocks astonished rather terse in Babylon. Cortez intend to plume and bears the same old city planner that we cannot turn or stay for though we sleep and let the reins fall slack. The great cloud wagon moved outward still dreaming of a Pacific. On the American Journal produced at the University of Wisconsin radio station
WAGA contributing editors Jack Summerfield New York John Campbell of San Francisco Jay Fitz Minneapolis and Studs Terkel who appears as a courtesy of WFAA empty a Chicago original percussion pieces. A man interlude played by Don vaguely Jay columns and Tom vaguely technical operations Bob told the script by George you killing your host is Carl Smith. A grant from the National Home Library Foundation has made possible the production of this program for
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The American journal
Theatre and poetry, part 2
Producing Organization
WRVR (Radio station : New York, N.Y.)
WHA (Radio station : Madison, Wis.)
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
This program, the second of two parts, includes an interview with Louis Sullivan about poetry.
Series Description
This is an informal, "magazine" style interview series on the fine arts.
Broadcast Date
Fine Arts
Media type
Composer: Voegeli, Don
Host: Schmidt, Karl
Interviewee: Simpson, Louis, 1923-2012
Producing Organization: WRVR (Radio station : New York, N.Y.)
Producing Organization: WHA (Radio station : Madison, Wis.)
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 65-13-2 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:28:57
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