James Matthew Wilson’s collection of poems, “The Strangeness of the Good,” by acknowledging illness and disappointment and death, tries to see through it, to the mystery beneath. Seeing the mystery leads to the unveiling of the reality, the thing standing beneath all feelings and appearances that alone can make them genuinely good in themselves.
Bradley Birzer: James, thank you so much for talking with me, especially talking with me about your excellent new collection of poems, The Strangeness of the Good, Including Quarantine Notebook.
Maybe we could start with the title. What do you mean by the good (is this the classical good or the Christian good or some kind of synthesis), and what is strange about it? I must admit, I’m immediately reminded of Flannery O’Connor.
James Matthew Wilson: It is just that: the classical and the Christian conception of the good. The good that stands over all, the good that orders things in their nature, and above all, for the purposes of this book, the goodness of being. I’ve stated things backward really. Isn’t it the human calling to look at things that are (at being), to discern within the muck the mystery of form, of the good that makes things what they are? And from there, in discerning the desirability of being, don’t we proceed to see the order of things, and in seeing that order, don’t we at last arrive at a vision of the God who is Goodness itself and who made all things?
I specifically think there are two ways of saying “good” as human beings. A sentimental way, and an ontological way, the classical way. In the book, for instance, “Good Friday, 2013. Driving Northward” describes the experience of seeing things as good in their being, resuming their daily shape as the sun rises and sets them apart from the darkness of the sky: “Where things declare themselves by being what they are within.”
But this ontological affirmation of the goodness of being is different from a merely sentimental one. I recall John Crowe Ransom’s poem, “Miriam Tazewell,” about a woman who finds the world a sweet and pretty garden of flowers. But, when a thunderstorm comes and scatters all her petals, she concludes of the world, “The principle of the beast was low and masculine.” She turns from pleasant sunniness to the permanently embittered. The goodness was not situated in the receptivity to, and perceptivity of, reality but in an assertion of her feelings.
The volume has an epigraph from Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. Darwin, in his Autobiography, speaks of hell as an awful doctrine no decent person should believe is true, because it would be so uncivilized. But, when he first saw the men of Tierra del Fuego, he found them grotesque, monstrous, and was led to observe that “Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow-creatures, and inhabitants of the same world.” Like many a Victorian, his idea of goodness was sentimental, and, like all sentiments, it withered the moment it was challenged by the vision of evil.
So, I challenge my “Good Friday” poem—in order to test it, as it were—with a poem called “Inhabitants,” which, after a mocking, sentimental affirmation of goodness delivered by an Anglican clergyman, concludes with a sketch of Darwin:
Then, you will preach a different sort of text,
Just like the naturalist who turned explorer:
Each painted face he saw left him perplexed,
And made him feel our brotherhood with horror.
Affirming the goodness of all things with a lazy sentiment helps no one and leads us to lie to ourselves—until such time as it becomes inconvenient. To affirm the goodness of being is to accept that however strange, however awful in appearance things seem at times, there is an abiding mystery that calls for our steady contemplation and discernment. It calls for that especially when we do not initially feel it.
BB: Thanks, James. Excellent answer. Can you give us the context for writing this collection? Clearly COVID-19 and lockdown had much to do with it? Did they merely provided the time for writing this, or did they shape the mood of the collection?
JW: All of the above. I had already written most of the poems in the first two sections of the book, including, “Through the Water,” from which the book takes its title. I had a clear sense of the mystery I was trying to explore. What I did not anticipate was what the pandemic would thrust before me. Indeed, one of the poems that gave shape to the book was “First Day of School after Christmas,” where I speak of walking with my teenage daughter, Livia Grace, as we long have done, or until recently did, each early morning, through our village to school.
A father dreads that space,
Wherein comes awkward silence,
Where what was set in place
Seems jostled by some violence
And strips the dawn of grace.
The awkwardness of a child withdrawing from your company, such that there’s estrangement but an estrangement more painful precisely because there’s no possibility of separation, for every father loves his little girl with that deep kind of abiding love that is no mere sentiment, that was one way in which I was thinking about this mystery.
But then, quarantine came, and amid the bleak irritations and death of the era, we were all—my family and all persons—we were all thrust back upon ourselves. It became the perfect way to clarify, as a picture frame will clarify, the strange goodness of domestic life and the way it educates us to read the signs of the world. Poetry always entails a great and patient receptivity to gift, but it was, well, strange to greet the coming of the pandemic and quarantine as such an occasion of focus, of clarity, and gift, giving me a chance to see things that I needed to see about our lives. The poem about going to school wound up finding itself answered somewhat in a poem about quarantine, where I describe the long walks I took every day with the kids. Sometimes Livia would come along and so I wrote,
Our souls indeed slip freely through the world
And touch on everything with their attentions,
As nothing that has being is a stranger,
But rather gives itself to sense or mind.
So, Livia, when we take our walks together,
Wrenches the stroller from my grip and runs,
Her body almost floating down that sweep
Of hillside road unwinding like a ribbon,
Her legs a flash of energy and spirit
That sprint as swiftly back to where I follow.
BB: As I read through your lovely words, I have to wonder about your process of creativity. Ray Bradbury once said that whatever word he fixated upon in the morning is the word that would inform his short story that day. Do you have a similar process of writing? If not, can you explain how you approach your work?
JW: So far as I can tell, there is no process, but many, many ways in which things come. I heard someone deliver a lecture a couple years back where the argument was that Homer was the first poet to affirm that poetry involved technique or craft in addition to inspiration. Prior to that, poets claimed it was all the Muse, all as oracular as the words of the Sibyl. Poetry, as the paradigm of all acts of making, reminds us insistently that art cannot be without craft and technique, but it also consists of a good deal of gift that comes in ways over which we don’t really have control. Inspiration sometimes, and sometimes influence, like the influence of the planets in ancient astrology, wherein one discerns the pull but cannot explain or methodize it.
I write more poems when I am reading more poems, and that’s because reading poems keeps me thinking in verse rather than prose. Sometimes poems seem to come out of other poems more directly, often because I hear a sound in the rhythm that gets my own interior voice moving. But then there are those poems that come more directly by way of a response to the world or some theme that’s come to mind.
Your mentioning of Bradbury reminds me of another pathway by which I write however. I’m the sort of person who will annoy his wife by carrying in silence a punchline around for years, even a decade, and then will suddenly conceive a joke for which it is suitable—and then finally tell the joke no matter the circumstances, because it finally came. So also will I carry a word around with me, waiting for it to find its proper place in a poem. Conversely, the number of times I have had a poem with a gap in it, waiting days or weeks for the right word to come, is more than I can count but a pleasure to recall. For one poem in my last book, The Hanging God, I needed a two-syllable, fore-stressed word in the last line of a sonnet, but the right one just would not come. I had something there, but it was not quite the thing. Then I heard Seth Meyers, on Saturday Night Live, say the word I was yearning for in my ignorance. I don’t watch that show, but somehow I was watching that night and I’m glad.
Since I mentioned Livia already, I might as well toss in that sometimes she asks me to use a word or phrase in a poem, something that sounds portentous to her, like “colosseum of stars,” and then I wait for the poem to wrap like a scarf around her request. The other kids sometimes do that, but she makes a point of it.
BB: I love it, James. Okay, then, what informs your own art? That is, is there other art that shapes yours rather directly? Before you write your poems, for example, do you listen to music or look through photographs or study maps or paintings? Your poetry, to me, at least, has an extremely visual quality to it, but it also flows rather immaculately.
JW: As I mentioned before, it is most certainly the case that the rhythms of other poems keep me thinking in verse and, if all literature is “breaking bread with the dead,” as Alan Jacobs recently reminded us, that is especially true in my case. I know the old liberal education line about the “great conversation” can feel a bit hackneyed, but that’s just how it feels to me. I’m speaking about the world as I find it, but always in light of the tradition, literary and humane, in whose light I interpret that world. Of course, that world conversely entails me in a reinterpretation of that tradition.
Most poets seem to be at their worst if they are too directly influenced by painting. Stevens, for instance, has all these lines cluttered with the names of basic colors off the wheel—red, green, blue—and I think they are, in part, trying to play the role that color does in some abstract painting. But it doesn’t work. Other poets are influenced by music, but that tends to lead to all manner of obscurity without making the poetry more melodic or rhythmic—usually, in fact, the opposite. I often write for music, but that’s very different.
BB: Would you mind talking about some of the themes you employed for The Strangeness of the Good? Obviously, COVID. But what else? There seem to be numerous images of individuality, of loss, of confusion, of place (as in physical setting, such as the cinema or a kitchen), of aging and time.
JW: On top of what I brought up before, I would say that this is a book of reckoning from a position of maturity, by which I mean middle age. My first two books, Some Permanent Things and The Hanging God had pretty clear thematic concerns. In the first, the book primarily attends to the way in which a craft, a well-made thing, gradually leads us beyond itself to a higher and greater mystery, a vision of truth, of the permanent things as Eliot and Kirk put it. In The Hanging God, I was attending more to a specific dimension of that, the great pull of eros which can lead us into the world, and so issues in mere sensuality and lust, but also that same pull, properly ordered, leads us as pilgrims through the world and beyond it. That is a process of becoming actual, as Aristotle would put it: fulfilled and fully formed. That involved going through Calvary and the cross. Hence the book is anchored by a sordid sonnet sequence, my dark Spensarians, that tell a story of a young man’s lust, and a sequence of the Stations of the Cross. In the midst of all that are to be found more tepid souls who are looking for form, for the form that is holiness and salvation, and also poems of the saints who found that form and confer it on us by their heroic virtue and image.
The Strangeness of the Good goes far deeper into the mystery of things, I think, but it also acknowledges the way flowers in the vase lose their color and begin to rot, as in “All Your Life,” which has the rather Robinsonian or Larkinesque quatrain that runs,
And, friends forget your failings soon,
But not your wife,
Who carries them like an old tune—
Or sharpened knife.
By acknowledging illness and disappointment and death, I am also trying to see through it, to the mystery beneath. To do so leads to the unveiling of the reality, the being, that is the sub-stance, the thing standing beneath all feelings and appearances that alone can make them genuinely good in themselves. I think this book really tries to bring us into the view of that reality.
BB: But many of your deepest thoughts are in Quarantine Notebook. Here’s a particular favorite of mine:
Perhaps, a gospel of mere empathy
Is not the panacea for divisions
That fester in the street or voting booth,
But run right through the shivered heart of man.
Perhaps, it’s not the only sort we need.
JW: Yes, that goes back to the distinction between ontological and sentimental perceptions of the good. It is a pet peeve of mine to hear voices in our day talk about kindness, compassion, empathy. They talk about it with literature, which makes me groan. All art is an opening onto being, onto the mystery of things, and being is so polysemous, so rich in meaning, that it could as soon make you fall in love with your fellow man, as when Dante sees Beatrice in the Vita Nuova and immediately feels that no man is his enemy, as it can lead you to contempt for all creatures, as Jacques Maritain once observed. Being is light, but sometimes we see that light as the abyss because it blots out our vision. And so visions of the truth or being or the good are not easy recipes for human kindness. They sometimes excite a terrible hatred, and sometimes excite a wholly just one. Everybody is terrifically nice in Huxley’s Brave New World. They are so nice that God is dead and, along with him, truth. The moment one thinks it is more important to say the nice thing than the true thing, it is the truth itself that has died in one’s heart and been replaced by sentimentality.
BB: As I have had a chance to review your other poetry, I’ll just throw down the gauntlet here—I think you’re our finest living poet. I’m tempted to ask you, “why is this so?” An unfair question, to be sure. So, let me ask it this way: what makes a poet and his poetry great? That is, what distinguishes great poetry from average or mediocre poetry?
JW: Wow. I think this question is not going to give me an inflated head, but it might well paralyze me. I have tried to learn from the tradition. Poetry’s tradition is long and so it gives one many companions, many fathers and mothers toward whom to be pious and, like Aeneas, to walk toward one’s destiny knowing one can only do it because one carries a tradition upon one’s filial back. My sense is that the best poets are those who enter into that tradition. They enter into a larger world. They live in a cosmos far greater than their little private and petty selves. Dante makes explicit what is true of all great poets: the stage of which he writes reaches its limits only at the outer circle where being gives way to non-being; nothing that is real is alien to him.
More practically, Eliot defined the minor poet as one who has written at least one poem that belongs in every anthology, that is like one star in the great galactic sky. The major poet is one who changes often enough, discerns and matures over the course of his life, that he does not write the same poem again and again, but builds, poem by poem, the narrative of a pilgrimage, a journey afoot that starts somewhere and takes us someplace else. The minor poet adds a part; the major poet gives us something of a dramatic and experiential whole.
I know this is what I try to do and detect it even in the most basic workshop kind of ways: If I write in blank verse, the next several poems have to be in rhyme. I’ll cultivate a form for a while, in this book, for instance, there’s a selection of quatrain poems, as I wanted to see what different things I could do with the shorter line quatrains (as opposed to the pentameter quatrain, which I also write in here and elsewhere a good deal). A lot of the poems here challenge and contradict each other, like a Platonic dialogue or, really, a Ciceronian dialogue where there’s more ambiguity as to the position of the author, more of a skeptical willingness to let a part of the truth speak and then another part and not troubling too much that the poem resolves things for the reader. The composition as a whole resolves things by letting the disparate voices become parts of that whole.
I’m just grateful that editors have found my work good enough to let me play in the game. I don’t have any pretentions to being great. I just want to participate in the tradition that has so enriched my life with the memorable, the beautiful, the dramatic, and the true. The poems I write are my way of following faithfully along behind those I love and admire. They are not any assertion that I belong in their company.
BB: Thank you so much for your time, your good thoughts, and your good will, James. I liked you before this interview, but I like you even more now.
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The featured image is “Poem of the Soul: The Flight of the Soul” (1854) by Louis Janmot (1814–1892) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.