Truth, beauty, and goodness are the terms by which we understand the whole of reality and the terms that give coordinates to all of human life. And so, if you want to live well, you need to know what truth, goodness, and beauty are…
I sat down with James Matthew Wilson over a beer after his reading at the Newburyport Literary Festival in Massachusetts. Dr. Wilson is the author of six books, most recently Some Permanent Things (2015), The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking (2015), and Vision of the Soul (2017). The interview lasted forty-five minutes and has been edited for brevity.
Daniel Rattelle: So you’ve recently been named poetry editor for Modern Age. How’d that happen? What’s new with the journal?
James Matthew Wilson: Well, it happened to me. I was contacted out of the blue by the new editor, Peter Lawler, and was asked to serve as poetry editor. First of all, that was great because I love Modern Age and what it stands for. The previous poetry editor David Middleton is a real hero of mine, and one of my favorite living poets, and in fact, one of the first editors to take interest in publishing my work. So, I immediately said, yes, because to step into his shoes would be such a great honor.
I think that the journal has been around for fifty years. It’s always been an important, small intellectual journal, in some ways modeled on T.S. Eliot’s Criterion, but more explicitly conservative in politics. I think under Lawler’s editorship it’s going to become—without changing its basic mission and style and depth—it’s going to become an even more prominent and, I hope, therefore influential magazine on contemporary conservative thought. In some ways, it had sufficed for Modern Age to be “just” a scholarly journal, but now it’s going to be a scholarly journal that’s seeking to enter into the broader public realm; this is great because, though there are many more decent outlets for conservative writing than there were even ten years ago, most of that hasn’t escaped the general simplifying of our culture. So, to have a very systematic—a genuinely scholarly—in-depth magazine committed to thinking about questions of policy and culture from a conservative perspective is even more needed now than it was a decade ago.
Right. Um, so as regards your own poetry, I wondered if you could talk a bit about your method for composing these long, narrative poems. What goes into them? How do you sustain tension?
The verse letters you mean?
The verse letters, and then you’ve got a couple of others too.
Yeah. Well, when I wrote the verse letters, I was loading up the form with a specific and fixed set of conventions that I knew were going to guide me through the long process of writing them. One was that I wanted them all to be the same length and in four parts, but wherein the four parts never repeat the same length divisions. So, the last poem, the “Verse Letter to John” for instance, that’s the only one of them where all four parts are roughly the same length. I did that as sort of a grand finale, having varied the lengths carefully in the previous three, thinking now it was time to have an even—kind of—chronicle. So finding suitable formal conventions was one thing that I was thinking about as those poems were first coming into my mind.
The other one was I wanted the form, as a verse letter, to be something genuinely capable of absorbing first-person meditation, memoir, narrative, lyric, and the discursive or the expository essay. And to do each of those things always with a kind of dialectical movement from one thing to its opposite. If I began with a kind of story, I would move in subsequent moments to a more essayistic style. And what I have found is that in writing those as much as in writing any sort of short poem, the crucial thing is to move continuously and nimbly in dialectic with yourself. Either in dialogue, in the Platonic sense of dialogue, with yourself, so that something new is always coming into appearance, just as something old is about to reach its completion.
That’s so abstract. Let me put it this way: The themes I wrote on, in every instance, had a clear, unified resolution, just as everything has, somewhere, a clear, unified resolution. But every clear, unified resolution is always hidden behind apparent contraries. And so, I just had to let those contraries onto the stage and speak as long as they had to, as long as they needed in order to resolve themselves by their own internal logic.
All right. So the dates attached to the verse letters are—some of them are quite some time ago. I wondered if you’d retouched, uh, or revisited, or edited them for their inclusion in Some Permanent Things?
Yes. I re-edited massively and there’s still one line, unfortunately, in the final verse letter that’s not right, and I just missed it as I was revising for the book. Ideally, I like to publish every poem in a magazine, in a chapbook—or at least have it published in some intermediary venue—before it’s finally published in a book. And that’s because the experience of going through proofs with an editor, and then actually seeing the poem printed as published, immediately clarifies what else needs to be done to it. Of the Four Verse Letters, only one of them first appeared in a magazine, and so that helped that one prior to its publication as a chapbook, but it was actually upon its publication as a chapbook that I said, “well, time to start over.” I went through them all again. Happily, I had very good poets whom I respect as readers of that book and some of these wrote me notes with suggestions. Helen Pinkerton, in particular, sent very specific lines, or very specific corrections to particular lines, and I saw, “yes, that’s a marked improvement” and immediately added them, knowing that somewhere down the line they would appear again. I don’t consider any poem—I know that Timothy Steele has said that, at a certain point, poems no longer belong to him but belong to their readers, and with the first chapters of The Fortunes of Poetry for a particular reason I felt much the same way, but as a rule with my poems, I don’t think that’s the case. Against all hope, I’m trying to work and work on a poem until it might possibly last. If something in Some Permanent Things required revision I would revise it before it was published in a selected poems. But, except for one line that’s been on my mind, I haven’t found anything that I want to change.
I noticed while rereading Some Permanent Things that you don’t seem as concerned with colloquial language as some other folks—as in, you use polysyllabic words more than many formalist poets. So I wondered if you could talk about that for a bit.
That’s been on my mind lately. I was rocking my daughter to sleep the other day, actually, and found myself thinking about the Plain Style, and how, for instance, in Shakespeare we find a brilliant fluent speech that never thinks about either plainness or colloquialism, because its always seeking to answer, “what is the best possible way that I can phrase this?” In the classical plain style—the classical plain style isn’t necessarily more colloquial, just a bit more reserved. In contemporary poetry, especially New Formalist poetry, we see a real concern with not a classical plain style, but a colloquial plain style. Most of which is to the good, but there’s a price to be paid. In the classical plain style, you still generate very memorable lines. In fact, they’re often deep and sharply epigrammatic. In the colloquial plain style, individual lines are often very forgettable. Poets often only allow, say, if they’re writing a sonnet, for the final couplet to make a fine turn.
I follow Yeats’s practice of recognizing that many lines, actually, have to be quite plain, precisely because you want the opportunity to suddenly tighten the rope or crack the whip when you’re ready to give a line a perfect epigrammatical or lyrical expression. You need to be able to do that freely, and over the course of the poem, and write plainly in order to be able to pull that off, so your reader can tell the difference.
But beyond variety of effect, there’s another reason to note levels of style. The whole reason, through modernism and postmodernism, that the colloquial was admitted into poetry was to allow poetry to give representation to as much of human experience, including the experience of the intellect, as possible—and most of the experience of the intellect requires a polysyllabic vocabulary. And so that is actually, in its own way, a very colloquial way of speaking. It’s the colloquium of the mind.
So I do think that I have, in the classical sense, a more golden style than most contemporary poets, but I think it’s only because it’s a style that’s adapted to the subject matter.
So what went into writing Fortunes?
Do you mean in terms of time?
Just like how did you decide to write a “young man’s polemic?” Describe the process of writing it.
So, as I think I mention in the preface, I was at the obstetrician’s office, waiting for my wife, and flipping through literary journals, and every one was worse than the previous one. And here I was without a position for teaching literature, I think I had a couple poems accepted, but nothing had appeared yet—maybe a couple things—and I just thought, “maybe there’s no place in the world for someone like me.” So we got home from the doctor’s office and I went into the same office that’s described in my poem “A Prayer for Livia Grace” and I jotted down a bunch of notes. I wasn’t sure where it was going to go, but I had a magazine that had agreed to publish pretty much any prose I wrote, so I knew I had a place to send it, and I just started writing. I intended it to be just one long essay, maybe as long as a hundred pages, but I didn’t have a sense of what it was going to be—I intended it to be just one long, sustained Jeremiad. [Mr. Rattelle laughs] And the longer it went on, the more I began to see its parts dividing into chapters, and I thought, “okay, maybe this will be a book of some kind.” And so I started dividing it into chapters, and I had to divide it into chapters anyhow because the magazine was publishing it serially, and I got as far as the very borders of the end of the negative critical side of its argument, and then I saw where it had to go next. But, you know, I got a professorship and we moved down south for a while, and I didn’t have a chance to sit and continue. That’s just as well: I probably couldn’t have said the things that needed to be said, at that time, about the philosophical account of poetry. I would have known a lot of it, but I wasn’t ready to make that argument in any sort of definitive form. And that was great, because those serialized pieces, because they were on the internet, got a lot of readers over the course of years. Years went by, and every few months I would get some note from somebody out of nowhere saying, “when are you going to finish this?” or, “has the last part of this appeared?” and so on and so forth. I’d write back always, “thank you, I’m so glad that you enjoyed it. Yes, I’m going to finish it. I just don’t know when.” A few years ago I started to finish it up. I just started revising what had been published so far with the intention of building up the momentum from editing that I needed for writing the final bit. I’m glad that even then, that didn’t happen because I still probably wasn’t ready to write the final part.
Only when my publisher contacted me, more or less mysteriously, and said, “would you finish writing this and publish it with us”—only then was the timing perfect. Only a week before, at Dana’s [Michael Dana Gioia] conference on the Catholic Imagination, at USC, I had delivered a talk on the nature of poetry. Dr. Gioia said it was a “book in little,” and, yes, when I looked at it I saw, indeed, “this is the final chapter of Fortunes of Poetry.” So I spent the next summer deepening and refining the argument on the first eleven chapters of the book. Then, in late July, when I sat down to write the chapter “What the Muses Give Us,” with its “Seven Notes Toward the Definition of Poetry,” I had just been mulling them so long— sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously—that they came immediately. I wrote the whole fifty pages in maybe a day and a half. And, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done; none of it depends on me, it’s all a matter of drawing on the wisdom that our tradition teaches us. It’s just that nobody had quite bothered to distill or draw together these insights in this way before and I think it will be helpful to anyone who wants to understand what poetry does—of its essence.
So you argue passionately and persuasively about how poetry is a craft and the work that goes into it, but also you’ve spoken in the past about—especially when you’re writing lyric poetry—about waiting for inspiration. I wonder if you could talk about how those two things intersect or…fight each other.
Well, the first thing to affirm is that they do intersect. I, like you, began my writing career desiring to write prose fiction, and in fact did a great deal of it, and the pleasant thing about being a prose fiction writer is that a project is always larger than a day or two’s work. If I had an idea for a story, I could wake up every morning and sit down for two hours, and do my writing for the day, having woken up with the agenda already set.
An awful lot of my poems have sat unpublished and I’ve revised them over more than a decade. In Some Permanent Things, there’s a poem that I wrote soon after graduating from college. That July. I know this because it’s about being at a circus, and I went to a circus that month. With that poem (“Barnum”), I went back and looked at it again and again for years. And, I may have sent it to magazines, probably not. But, if I did, I still knew it wasn’t done, I just didn’t know yet what needed to be done next. Then finally I got the lines right and got it published. I’m sure it was at least fourteen years old by the time it was published. By the time Some Permanent Things, appeared it was sixteen.
Happily, because poetry is a craft, you become a craftsman over time with practice, and so most of my poems now don’t take so long to find the right word. If I don’t have anything to write on a given day, I’ll just go back and look at some poems and try to make them as good as I can, even if they’ll never be publishable. If somebody someday comes across them, and says, “here’s the literary remains of James Matthew Wilson,” I wouldn’t want it to have left something to be ashamed of being seen. But you have to wait for the proper phrase, subject, theme, or idea, or image suddenly to float to mind and seem right.
So what do your early drafts look like? How does a poem start for you?
Well, when I first started writing, I much more consistently—maybe because I started as a prose fiction writer—I more consistently would write prose notes, and any longer project, like the verse letters, still gets prose notes because I need to see the form of the ideas before I begin to arrange them into sections, much less lines or stanzas. But, first of all, now I find writing in rhyme and meter generative of ideas in a way that I wasn’t aware of when I was first writing poems—that I would have been scared to try out when I was younger. So, it’s much more typical for me just to write a line of a poem and think about what it wants to become from there in terms of stanza and in terms of the sense of the poem. But because of that I really need to use a pen and notebook paper; I need the practice of having my hand in close contact with what I’m doing, to keep me thinking about what‘s occurring. Once a poem’s been drafted, I’ve been surprised at how easy and, in fact, pleasant it is to revise on the computer, but I never compose on a computer precisely because I need to be in patient and close contact with the words inside that draft.
Great. You mention in the book [Fortunes] that it would appear we’re in a golden age and you seem to be advocating for something of a revival of New Criticism, and do you think that can happen in today’s academy? And how?
Universities haven’t been universities for a very long time. The crazy events that have occurred in just the last year indicate that the fundamental betrayal by universities themselves of their own mission is coming to a kind of apotheosis of unintelligence, and destruction, and therapeutic idiocy. But the happy thing is, for a long time, the people who most needed to pay attention to the damaging decline of our intellectual life have in fact mostly been paying attention, and so we have had, for several decades, places at the margins of our civilization and our culture that have kept awake. They have been trying to give a new birth to our intellectual and educational life, and in those places, such birth is occurring.
There have been entire ages of human history marked by decline and decadence without any living spark, and wherein all that was good of western civilization was locked away in an archive, to be rediscovered only later and in different times. In our day, that’s not the case; we actually have living institutions, however small and poor. And, fortunately, we also have, not just marginal parts of the academy being reborn, but also the primary and secondary schools entering a renaissance with the massive growth of classical schooling. That makes far more difference than even the best college professor could. If you have children who are formed with real imaginations, with a real capacity for wonder, and philosophical reflection, which most schools try to drum out of children as soon as possible. If you have, as we have, hundreds of thousands of children being reared that way, it will be good no matter how awful the culture at large may be, because all of those children are being raised with a brilliant educational sensibility, and also a sense of themselves as being signs of contradiction. And so, they’re not going to be—without knowing what’s happened—to be suddenly absorbed into the mainstream culture. If they are so absorbed, it’ll be a conscious decision, because they’ll think it is somehow better. But, in the meantime, they’re lights in the darkness and very bright ones, I think.
So you’ve just come out with a new book, and I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.
Well nobody owns it yet.
Exactly. So can you tell me a little bit about that?
The great discovery of my life when I was first—having been poorly educated in a large, state-run university, that was trying to produce functional idiots—when I actually read philosophy for the first time, when I actually read Plato and Aristotle, and then Thomas Aquinas, I realized two things. One is that the wisdom that the world has always known, and only our age seems to have forgotten, sees that metaphysics is the first philosophy. You have to know what being is in order to know what anything else is, and everything else has to be known in the light of being. And two, there are three properties of being—well there are more than that, but the three that are most important are truth, goodness, and beauty. Now, if you said the phrase “truth, goodness, and beauty,” a hundred years ago, it would’ve had the ring of a platitude. In our age, it sounds like an uncovered ruin, like “what is this that’s covered in the vines?” It turns out that these are the terms by which we understand the whole of reality and the terms that give coordinates to all of human life. And so, if you want to live well, you need to know what truth, goodness, and beauty are. It took me long enough to discover that, and so I thought “it shouldn’t take everybody so long to realize.” I tried to write a book that would be a genuine recovery of what these terms mean. And so, The Vision of the Soul is an argument for what it means to talk about a good and what the good for human life is, which turns out to be the contemplation of the divine beauty. The middle section of the book, accordingly, is about—first of all—the function of art, and, above all, “what does it mean to say the word ‘beauty?’” I propose that our tradition has put beauty at the very center, but it has seldom sought to understand what beauty actually is. And so, though I’m drawing entirely on the sources of the tradition, I think I’ve found a way to explain the nature of beauty, of what it means to speak of form and splendor, and of integrity, proportion, and clarity—all of which are the classical definitions of beauty. What does it mean to talk about these things? The Vision of the Soul I think gives—not a wholly satisfactory—but as satisfactory as I’ve been capable of giving to date, accounts of those things. I have another book on beauty that’ll have to be eventually, uh, ironed out. So finally…
[Robert Shaw shows up. Talks to James for a minute]
Sorry, where was I? And finally what does it mean to speak about truth? The focus of the book is not so much “what is the nature of truth” as what is the relation of the human person to it as a knower-of-truth? My real concern here was twofold. One was to reintegrate how-we-know-through-narrative and the way we know through reasoning, and to show that these are actually deeply interrelated. And, second, to show that human life is a pilgrimage, a story with a logic of its own, towards the truth. There’s a deep entanglement of our will, our eros, our desire, and the truth itself. And that may be the most pressing point the book makes for our age, because ours has difficulty understanding knowledge as the object of desire. It tends to think of knowledge as a useful but unlovable fact, or as just an impossible thing, rather than as the object of our longest, most sustained romance.
Yeah, yeah. You mentioned earlier [in our pre-interview conversation] that you have another book of poetry somewhere in the pipeline. Is that a full manuscript? Is there anything you can tell me about it?
Yeah. It’s going to be called The Hanging God and it begins and ends with eight poems that are ordered intelligibly but with an eye toward variety. At the center of the book—in fact, this is the source of the title—is a series of fourteen Spenserian sonnets, a narrative poem, about the total desolation of the soul, and then that’s answered later in the book by a fourteen part poem that’s fourteen parts precisely because that’s the number of the Stations of the Cross.
Is that the same series of Stations that you collaborated with Daniel Mitsui on?
Yeah that’s it. And those two moments in the book, the fourteen Spenserian sonnets and the fourteen stations are the axis of the book, and everything else is ordered around them.
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