Rick Barot's poem "Bonnard's Garden," like a Romantic painting, is filled with images of nature, such as flowers, vines, clouds, shrubs, birds, and deer. The meaning of the poem is obscure, and the language only hints at its subjects, as if the speaker is in a dreamlike trance—or, more accurately, as if the speaker were like the "sleepwalking girl" who wanders, unexpectedly, in and out of the poem. The work first appeared in the literary magazine Ploughshares in the Winter 2001–2002 issue and was then included in Barot's prize-winning first collection, The Darker Fall, published in 2002.
Like a majority of the other poems in Barot's collection, "Bonnard's Garden" is focused on a specific place. The place in this particular poem is described through beautiful imagery, depicting flora and fauna, mysterious intruders, and even a startling scream. In examining such places as gardens, street corners, and other outdoor scenes, Barot, as he has explicitly stated, better perceives himself. Although he often employs elements characteristic of Romantic poetry—such as the emphasis on nature and one's surroundings—and has stated that he is indeed drawn to poetry of the Romantic era, Barot refers to himself as a post-Romantic poet. His influences include William Wordsworth, the great eighteenth-century English Romantic poet; the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who also emphasizes setting; and the novelist Virginia Woolf, whom Barot admires most for her acuity, especially as found in her diaries. Indeed, in "Bonnard's Garden," Barot has produced an exercise in the construction of poetic language.
Rick Barot, the author of "Bonnard's Garden," was born in the Philippines but grew up near San Francisco, California. He attended Wesleyan University, in Connecticut; the coveted Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa; and Stanford University, in California. Upon graduating, he began teaching poetry at Stanford, where he was a Wallace E. Stegner fellow. He next moved to the Pacific Northwest; in the early 2000s, he was working as an assistant professor of English at Pacific Lutheran University, in Tacoma, Washington.
When he first started college, Barot thought that he wanted to become a lawyer. Although he had been encouraged by teachers to follow a writing career, he thought that he needed to tackle something more academically challenging; passing English classes had always been easy, but he did not see that as a reason to make writing his life's work. However, in taking several literature classes as an undergraduate, he started to recognize an underlying passion. After he received encouragement from the author Annie Dillard, who taught one of his English classes, Barot finally took his first poetry-writing class, during his senior year. In graduate school, he began writing some of the poems that eventually were published in his first poetry collection, The Darker Fall, which contains "Bonnard's Garden."
In 2001, Barot received a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. The next year, The Darker Fall was published and won the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in poetry. Barot noted in an interview with Craig Beaven for the online literary journal Blackbird that writing The Darker Fall was like an apprenticeship for him: through the writing of the poems collected in that book, he learned the art of poetry. As of early 2006, Barot was working on a second poetry collection, which was to have an overall theme based on the mythological character Echo, who loved the sound of her own voice.
As in an illuminated page, whose busy edges
have taken over. As in jasmine starred
onto the vine-dense walls, stands of phlox,
and oranges, the flesh of each chilled turgid.
By herself the sleepwalking girl arranged
them: the paper airplanes now wrecked
on the vines, sodden, crumpled into blooms
which are mistaken all morning for blooms.
The paint curls out of the tubes like ointments.
In his first looking there is too much hurry. 10
Dandelions, irises smelling of candles.
Two clouds like legs on the bathwater sky.
Drawn out of the background green, getting
the light before everything else, the almond
tree comes forward in a white cumulus, 15
as though the spring had not allowed leaves.
Last night she asked what temperature arctic
water could be that beings remained in it.
Then the question brought to the blood
inside her cat, the pillow of heat on a chair. 20
His glimpse smudged. As in: it's about time
I made you dizzy. Here are pink grasses,
shrubs incandesced to lace, tapestry
slopes absorbing figures and birds and deer.
Nothing is lean. The lilacs have prospered
into bundles, the tulips fattened hearts.
Pelts of nasturtiums, the thicket the color of
pigeon: gray netted over the blueberry lodes.
Then the girl's scream, her finger stirring
the emerald tadpole-water, the sound 30
breaking into his glimpse for an instant
then subsiding to become a part of the picture.
Not the icy killing water. But the lives there,
persisting aloft. Like the wasps held in
by a shut flower at dusk, by morning released, 35
dusty as miners, into the restored volumes.
The first four-line stanza of "Bonnard's Garden" contains two punctuated phrases: each ends in a period, but neither is a complete sentence. The ornate language describes fragmented images, leaving the reader's imagination to fill in the empty spaces. The word "illuminated" could mean "lit up" or perhaps "made clearly understood." Jasmine and phlox are types of flowers; turgid means "swollen with fluid."
The second stanza is a complete sentence. A "sleepwalking girl" has apparently placed a number of paper airplanes "on the vines," that is, presumably, on the "vine-dense walls" referred to in stanza 1. The planes are "wrecked" and "sodden," suggesting, perhaps, the presence of dew. The word "blooms" is repeated at the end of the stanza's third and fourth lines; no other rhyme structure is present.
The third stanza, two complete sentences followed by two phrases, begins with paint curling out of tubes, implying the presence of an artist; the paint itself is compared to medication. In the stanza's second line, a male appears. Perhaps it is the artist in question, "In his first looking." This artist may be the one mistaking the paper airplanes for blooms, especially in that he looks with "too much hurry." This phrase may be connected with the first stanza's "illuminated page" with "busy edges," as the words "busy" and "hurry" both suggest rapid movements or clutter. In more peaceful images, on the other hand, additional flowers are compared to "candles," and the sky is compared to "bathwater."
The fourth stanza is one complete sentence. An almond tree is perhaps blooming, with the blossoms lending the tree the appearance of a fluffy white cumulus cloud. The narrator wonders whether the "spring had not allowed leaves," assigning a sort of personified power to the season. As the tree is "getting the light before everything else" and as "morning" was mentioned in the second stanza, the reader may infer that the scene is taking place at dawn.
The fifth stanza contains one clear complete sentence and one somewhat confusing one. The "she" in question is likely the sleepwalking girl, the only female yet mentioned. This "she" asks how "beings" could survive in arctic waters. The inferred coldness of the arctic water is then juxtaposed with the phrase, "the pillow of heat on a chair," where the "pillow of heat" seems to refer to the cat. The second sentence suggests that the girl may have asked another question, regarding the temperature of the cat's blood; that is, "the question brought to" might be restated as "the girl next asked about."
In the sixth stanza, the male returns. The first sentence, "His glimpse smudged," may be another reference to his being an artist, as if his perception of something might be made unclear in the same way that an image on a page might be made unclear. In the stanza's second line, one of the characters, seemingly the male artist, is given a voice; he is speaking to someone, perhaps the sleepwalking girl. The words "dizzy" and "smudged" both indicate a lack of clarity. Next come "pink grasses" and "shrubs incandesced to lace," that is, perhaps, grasses and shrubs whose dewy tips are glowing in various ways in the morning light. Given the narrator's attention to the texture of the scene, the word "tapestry" is perhaps used to indicate the fabric-like quality of a hillside, on which birds and deer can be found.
In the seventh stanza, the sense of spring bounty is deepened. The flowers are in full bloom. The narrator associates being "fattened" and not "lean" with "prospering."
In the eighth stanza, the girl screams, with no reason given. At the same time, more calmly, she stirs with her finger the green water, perhaps of a pond. The sound of the scream is described as "breaking into his glimpse," where the word "glimpse" is used for the second time in reference, seemingly, to the artist's surveying of the scene before him. The scream has a permanent effect on the artist, "subsiding to become a part of the picture" that he would seem to be then painting.
The first line in the last stanza ties previous stanzas together: "Not the icy killing water" harks back to the "arctic water" mentioned in stanza 5 as well as to the "tadpole-water" of stanza 8. Thus, pond water teeming with life is set in opposition to arctic water, which would seem to be too cold for most life. The next phrase, "But the lives there, / persisting aloft," may refer to either of those bodies of water. The last statement of the poem is an elaborate one: "Like the wasps held in / by a shut flower at dusk, by morning released, / dusty as miners, into the restored volumes." The wasps, trapped in flowers overnight, are perhaps being compared to the tadpoles, which spend the first part of their lives in water before growing to travel on land. "Volumes" could be a reference to books, which would connect with the initial mention of an "illuminated page."
Nature is prevalent in Barot's poem, in the title itself and throughout the piece. The garden is richly imagined, with phrases such as "jasmine starred / onto the vine-dense walls" and "pink grasses." Barot's narrator wanders in and out of descriptions of the garden, ever returning to the blossoms and wild creatures inhabiting the landscape. As the precise meaning of the poem is somewhat obscure, due to the vagueness of the fragmented statements, the theme of nature most securely ties the pieces of the poem together; if nothing else, the reader will take from the poem a picture of Bonnard's garden. As such, the poem generally communicates soft emotions, as the reader contemplates spring warmth, perfumed air, and the abundance of colors and textures. Natural prosperity abounds; "nothing is lean," as everything is bursting out of the wraps and confines of winter, much like the release of the "wasps held in / by a shut flower at dusk." Nature calms the spirit of the poem, despite references to "busy edges" that "have taken over," "wrecked" airplanes, and "too much hurry." Much like the scream that breaks into the artist's "glimpse," all the jagged corners of distraction eventually subside "to become a part of the picture" because of the soothing garden.
Topics For Further Study
- Sit in a garden—yours or a public one—and write sketches of what you see as if you were painting still-life portraits. Do not worry about creating a story, instead concentrating on the images that you are creating with words. Give life to your sketches, so that when you read them in front of your class, your classmates will be able to envision what you saw.
- Choose one of the stanzas in Barot's poem and paint or draw a picture to illustrate it.
- Choose a poem from Seamus Heaney's Death of a Naturalist and compare it to Barot's "Bonnard's Garden." In an essay, consider how they are alike and how they differ. Which poem presents a more unified meaning? Which poet creates more realistic images? Present your findings to your class.
- Lead a class discussion regarding the significance of the "sleepwalking girl" in Barot's poem. Consider the following questions: Why do you think he included her in the poem? Is she the person who is said to have asked about the arctic water? How might she be related to the artist? What is the connection that she and the wrecked paper airplanes have to the rest of the poem? What is the significance of her scream? Finally, does the presence of the girl add to or detract from the overall quality of the poem?
Barot's poem presents not just nature but a specific time in nature: spring, a time of rebirth and emergence, when flowers and trees are blossoming. Tadpoles are evolving, wasps are escaping, and paint "curls out of the tubes." The sun is rising, and the feeling of cold arctic temperatures is quickly replaced with the warmth of a cat. There is a sense of prosperity in the lilacs, and the tulips are endowed with love in the image of "fattened hearts." Life is brilliant and restored. The theme of spring weaves through the theme of nature, emphasizing the natural world at its grandest moment.
The theme of art is most obviously presented through the image of the painter. Given that he has tubes of paint, the reader can logically assume that he also has an easel, paintbrushes, and a palette. The artist is seeking to capture on the canvas all the riotous colors and forms that are speaking to him, as well as his own emotions. The poet, of course, is engaging in the same exercise when creating his poem. The medium is different, but the poet likewise uses his tools—words, language, and syntax—to create images. He, too, is searching for objects outside himself that reflect the emotions he holds inside. This pattern might also be recognized in nature itself, which can be seen as another form of art: mere seeds and buds are transformed into works of flora and fauna. Poem, painting, and nature can all be seen as creative works of great imagining.
"Bonnard's Garden" is written in free verse, meaning that no regular meter is present; that is, the poet has not arranged his words in such a way as to produce a rhythmic flow. For coherence of form, the lines are all of similar length, with each stanza consisting of four lines, but no other structure exists. Similarly, the lines do not rhyme. If the poet were to read the work aloud, he would most likely allow the lines to flow subtly into one another, perhaps as if reading delicate, well-crafted prose.
Language as Art
In the foreword to Barot's collection The Darker Fall, the poet Stanley Plumly describes Barot's skill at creating art through his use of language, whereby a given portion of one of his poems is in essence an "implicative, animated still life." That is, his work consists of small portraits of scenes featuring clusters of various elements. The lines of "Bonnard's Garden" can therefore be looked upon as sketches, such that the reader should not necessarily dig too far into the words, looking for meaning everywhere. Rather, the meaning of the poem more likely lies somewhere in the poem's greater picture—the sum of the collage of small sketches. Using his skill with language, Barot creates images that readers can visualize; his brushstrokes are words and phrases. His paint is his well-tuned vocabulary and his keen understanding of exactly which word will make an image appear best. Plumly also refers to Barot's musicality, in that each line of the poem has similar weight, just as each measure of a song, to which the listener must pay attention for the same amount of time, has similar weight.
The metaphorical descriptions within this poem begin with the paper airplanes, which are seen as blooms, and the artist's paint, which is seen as ointment. Both of these metaphors turn the original objects into things that carry with them a sense of healing. From the minor tragedy of the destroyed paper airplanes comes something beautiful and pleasant; from the chemicals and water or oil that constitute the paint comes an ointment, a salve or balm that is used to heal. Further, the sky is like "bathwater," where a soak in warm water is certainly restful and relaxing. The cat changes from an animal into a soft "pillow of heat." Finally, the sound of the girl's scream first becomes something that can be seen, "breaking into his glimpse," and then subsides "to become a part of the picture." That is, the sound is transformed into something that the artist paints into his picture, subduing it. These various metaphors soften the poem's edges of harshness, much like an impressionist painter typically softens the edges of real objects, obscuring flaws in order to emphasize beauty.
The poem has a firm sense of place: Bonnard's garden. Readers are never told who Bonnard is, but Barot is undoubtedly referring to the French painter Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), who thus may also be the man present in the poem. Bonnard's garden, like every garden, with flowers and weeds, bushes and trees, animals and insects, is a place in which one revels in the beauty of the season, losing oneself in the elements. The garden is captured on canvas by the painter and through words by the poet. Indeed, like a painter, the narrator of the poem concentrates on the place, watching what is happening, paying attention to whatever demands his focus, and filling his images with emotion.
The Romantic movement originated in the late eighteenth century in Germany and England. Whether in art, literature, music, or philosophy, emphasis was placed on the imagination, the natural world, the emotions, and simplicity. In literature, Romantic authors are noted for their subjectivity and individualism; the solitary life reigns over society life as subject matter, and freedom from rules is very important. As such, Romanticism contrasts with the classical and neoclassical eras, which stressed more formalized language filled with classical allusions that only the elite could understand. Romantic influences can indeed be seen in Barot's poem, with its emphases on the natural environment, simple images, and private life.
Barot has himself specifically referred to the influence of the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770–1850). Wordsworth's "To the Cuckoo" features images from nature similar to those in "Bonnard's Garden." In general, Wordsworth's main focus in writing was on nature, children, and the poor. Unlike his predecessors, he believed in using common language in poetry rather than an obscure vocabulary that only poetic scholars would understand. He also believed that poetry should be infused with the poet's emotions. In his time, Wordsworth was known as a nature poet, deriving so much poetic imagery from the local landscape that tourists were known to flock to the Lake District to see the area's beauty for themselves.
Other Literary Influences
Barot's poem is focused on a particular place, which is fully and lushly described. The poet has mentioned that this emphasis on place was in part inspired by the writing of Seamus Heaney (1939–). A Nobel Prize-winning poet from Northern Ireland, Heaney writes poems that deal with his surroundings. The Nobel Foundation cited his "works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past." In his Nobel lecture, Heaney stated that he found poetry most exciting when it offered a direct representation of the world.
Barot has also cited the insights of Virginia Woolf (1882–1941), one of the foremost writers of the twentieth century, as a source of inspiration. Woolf's work is labeled both modernist and feminist, and her style of writing was considered experimental in her day. Her thoughts on writing and the writing life are elucidated in the extended essay A Room of One's Own (1929), in which she examines the difficulties presented to women of her generation when they attempted to develop their skills as writers.
"Bonnard's Garden" was undoubtedly inspired by the French artist Pierre Bonnard, who is known for his love of color, especially as exemplified in his landscape paintings—which often featured private spaces such as gardens. Bonnard began his painting career in Paris in the 1890s, joining a group of artists who referred to themselves as the Nabis, which in Hebrew means "prophets." Bonnard's work, which included paintings, illustrations, stained-glass windows, and posters, is said to have been heavily influenced by the French painters Paul Gauguin and Claude Monet. Gauguin's influence is particularly noticeable in the bright colors favored by Bonnard, while Monet's impact can been seen in the brushstrokes used by Bonnard in his later years. Indeed, toward the end of his career, Bonnard's intense colors took over his subjects, with his works becoming more and more abstract. One of his most important works is Dining Room on the Garden.
Neither Barot's poem "Bonnard's Garden" nor his collection The Darker Fall has received much critical attention. One reviewer, Brian Phillips, writing for Poetry, compliments Barot's competence as a writer but believes that something is lacking in his work. While he finds no "bad" poems in Barot's collection, he also fails to find a "really good one." Indeed, Phillips finds that Barot's expertise in writing "a certain kind of poem" cannot be challenged, but he sees an absence of risk taking, as the poems feature "steady retreats from the desperate and uncharted." Phillips concludes that Barot might have been seeking approval in presenting this first collection of poems, a "condition" that does not give birth to good poetry.
In his foreword to Barot's first collection, Stanley Plumly praises the poet's relationship with language. Plumly observes,
The first responsibility of poetry is, of course, language … Those who believe in language as an end see language as the end of the experience. Others, like myself and Rick Barot, who believe in language as a means, understand it to be the means to another end, perhaps meaning, perhaps the language of the experience.
Plumly calls Barot's first collection "a brilliant example of language as means, as an art nearly flawless in its transformation of emotional and actual sources," adding that Barot "never permits the anxiety of the content to out speak the scrutiny of his form." Plumly finally discusses the inherent weight of Barot's writing:
Gravity is what gives Barot's poems their quiet beauty. Gravity of the elegy and the love poem, the meditation and celebration, is what secures the lines of the interconnections, the weaves, the overlappings, and the leaps this poet is so fond of.
Hart is a published writer and former teacher. In this essay, she closely examines the language of Barot's poem, which appears to be the author's dominant focus.
Barot's poem "Bonnard's Garden" was published in his first collection, which he once described as a type of apprenticeship; that is, the poems were exercises in which he practiced the language and form of poetry. In the collection's foreword, the poet Stanley Plumly states that the "first responsibility of poetry is, of course, language." Plumly goes on to say that Barot's poems are prime examples of the use of language "as a means" in itself. He also refers to Barot's "linguistic skills" as demonstrative of his "metaphorical and musical intelligence." Barot has mentioned that he sometimes writes a stanza and then puts it away; after time has passed, he might write another stanza, possibly matching it to one previously written. In this way, a poem will come together. Considering these notions of how Barot writes, one can examine "Bonnard's Garden" to determine how these elements work and whether certain passages exist where they do not.
In the first stanza of Barot's poem, the reader arguably encounters the musicality of improvisational jazz—as if walking into a concert performance by the trumpeter Miles Davis or the saxophonist John Coltrane that is already under way. In traditional jazz, a melody, or head, is provided before the musicians start improvising. This not only gives the players a base from which to build their improvisations but also allows the audience to hear that base, which in turn helps them follow the improvisations. If a person were to walk in on a concert without hearing the original melody, the mind would have difficulty grasping that original form; the notes might seem entirely random. The first stanza of Barot's poem feels much the same: rather than a base of complete sentences, the reader finds only fragments. One wants to ask, What is this "illuminated page," with its "busy edges?" What are the roles of the jasmine, phlox, and oranges? The reader might feel as if the phrases are being carelessly thrown out; the phrases are beautiful, the collections of words are creative, and the flow of the beat is smooth, but what do the lines mean?
The question might then be, Must a poem have meaning? Is "metaphorical and musical intelligence" enough? The first stanza might be read as a sketch. The aural and visual resonance of the language is clearly poetic; can the rational mind be content with that fact? An "illuminated page" with "busy edges" is a playful image, and "The flesh of each chilled turgid" is interesting to pronounce. Thus, the reader may view the first stanza as an abstract painting. The image might be abnormal, but the colors and forms are intriguing. When a professional artist paints an abstract picture, the skill is evident, and the feat could not be easily reproduced by a layperson. Perhaps further analysis is unnecessary; the audience can appreciate the work and move on.
The second stanza of "Bonnard's Garden" makes more sense, allowing the reader to more easily visualize the scene and understand what is occurring. A sleepwalking girl made paper airplanes, which were eventually somehow wrecked and lodged on vines; after a rainfall, perhaps, or a dewy evening, the soaked paper airplanes were mistaken for the blooms of flowers. Those images are easy to grasp, and with its steady flow and carefully placed words, the passage certainly sounds like poetry. Yet nothing bridges the first and second stanzas—or the second and third. All that ties the various images together is the garden: the reader finds flowers and fruit in the first stanza, vines and blooms in the second, and dandelions and irises in the third. The setting is secured—and perhaps no more is necessary.
Nevertheless, the third and fourth stanzas have an additional bridge: the artist, who stands and looks around in the third stanza as he squeezes out his paint. In the fourth stanza, he sees a blossoming almond tree capturing the first light. The fifth stanza, however, breaks the established connections, as it can only truly be linked to the sleepwalking girl and the artist, the two people mentioned in this poem. The girl asks a question, with someone—presumably the artist—present to answer. If this stanza features a theme, it is temperature, as both cold and heat are mentioned. This stanza alone feels as though it does not take place in the garden; the setting is night, a time usually not reserved for gardens, and no depictions of nature are offered. Arctic water and the cat's blood are discussed, but they are distant, not forcefully present, as with the flowers in previous and subsequent stanzas.
The sixth stanza is also somewhat removed, but nature again offers a link. The artist also returns, in the form of the pronoun "his." The artist's presence is not very clear. In fact, something about his look is smudged, and the word "dizzy" is used; the artist appears to be either seeing things that are not there or painting a scene that leans toward the fantastic. He sees pink grasses, glowing shrubs, and animals disappearing into the landscape. The words are twisted in this stanza more than anywhere else, especially with the remark, "His glimpse smudged," and with the fragmented statement "As in: it's about time / I made you dizzy." The feelings that arise are similar to those stirred by the first stanza.
The seventh stanza is deep into the garden again, with beautiful words that conjure springtime images so real that the reader can touch them. Indeed, when the poem is deep in the garden—that is, when it returns to the melody that serves as the base for improvisation—no bridge is necessary, as the occasional gaps are not so worrisome. The phrases portray wonderful sketches of garden patches, and that is enough. They are grounded, rather than floating around half-finished; they are planted firmly in the focused place around which the poem revolves.
The girl and the artist return in stanzas 8 and 9, though with little added clarity. Indeed, the eighth stanza begins with a mystery: the girl screams, with no explanation given as to why. Is the water cold? Was she bitten by a tadpole when she stirred her finger in the pond? No one runs to her rescue. She does not scream again. Readers might hear the scream, and it might send a chill down the spine, but it does not appear to bother the artist, who incorporates the sound into his painting. Or does he? The sound subsides "to become a part of the picture." The word "picture" here calls to mind the canvas, paints, and brushes, but the reference could be to the whole garden and everyone in it. Then, the reader might ask again, must clear meaning be present? Imagining the sound of the scream being absorbed into the picture is in many ways pleasing and familiar. The natural world around the girl and man is perhaps so full that the sound is simply swallowed. So much is happening within the scene that the noise is just one more small element—one tiny fraction of a very large picture.
Finally, in the last stanza, the narrator mentions "icy killing water." Each of these three words has connections to other parts of the poem. "Icy" refers back to the arctic waters; the "killing" can abstractly suggest the wrecked airplanes; and "water" is mentioned in stanza 5, when temperature is discussed, and in stanza 8, in which the girl stirs the pond water. Thus, overall, the poem contains several bridges. Some are stronger and more obvious than others—but none, in fact, truly clarify the poem's meaning. The poem is ruled by the language, not by the bridges, as the language creates the images imposed on the reader's mind. Indeed, Barot's poem can be most fully enjoyed in emphasizing those images, even if they sometimes float around with no strings attached to the rest of the poem. Trying to muster a unified meaning, on the other hand, might take a leap of intellectual faith.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on "Bonnard's Garden," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following interview-essay, Hennessy interviews four new gay poets, including Barot, to discover the unique elements of their poetry and to elicit their insight into issues and themes in gay poetry.
All poets—or at least, surely, the best—react to and learn from their predecessors, the ancestors that both taught them and inspired them. Perhaps, then, one way to guage the health of any poetry scene is to take the pulse of poets who are emerging from their apprenticeships, who are staking their claim as the next generation. If one uses this as the measure for gay men's poetry, then the news is encouraging.
I came to this conclusion as I researched for a selected bibliography of new gay poets for my forthcoming book Outside the Lines: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets. I found what seemed a critical mass of new queer poets who had recently produced debut volumes, many of which had won first-book prizes. Their poems were electric, eccentric, challenging, disconcerting, lush and a host of other adjectives. What's more, the new work suggested this next generation had its own ambitions and its own obsessions, both of which draw from past traditions but search for new mediums, myths and structures. Several of these new voices were heartily recommended to me from some of the most established, accomplished gay poets currently writing.
What Do I Read Next?
- Virginia Woolf's diaries, which were published in four volumes after her death, have been a particular inspiration to Barot. Woolf's husband, Leonard, culled extracts from her diaries and collected them in A Writer's Diary (1936).
- Seamus Heaney, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature, is another of Barot's favorites. As with Barot, language and place are important elements in Heaney's work. To compare the two, read one of Heaney's first collections, Death of a Naturalist (1966).
- William Wordsworth has been a third influence on Barot's writing. Like "Bonnard's Garden," Wordsworth's "Upon Westminster Bridge" focuses on a specific place. This poem as well as works by Wordsworth's contemporaries can be found in The Oxford Book of English Verse (1939).
- Barot's writing is often compared to that of Elizabeth Bishop, who was independently wealthy as an adult and spent most of her time traveling around the world and writing about what she saw. Her first collection, North and South (1946), focuses on her time spent in Florida.
- Introducing Romanticism (2000), by Duncan Heath, offers insight into all aspects of the Romantic movement, focusing on the end of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century.
So, to offer a taste of some of the more intriguing and challenging verse being written, included here are brief interviews with four emerging gay voices, all with first books published since 2002. Three of the four won first-book prizes.
They include: Randall Mann, a poet adept at crafting traditional poetic forms but with a brashness that imagines, for example, Dante—on a gay beach in the Seventh Circle of hell wearing a thong; Brian Blanchfield, who produces an oftentimes rich (albeit confounding) poem, charged by a convulsed syntax, frustrated expectations and devious wordplay; Brian Teare, a poet of haunting verse—about myth, sexual awakening and surviving abuse, among other themes—who mixes a breathy lyric impulse with a desire to understand one's origins through narrative's grammar; and Rick Barot, who crafts a complex, elegant verse that is as much about artists and philosophers as it is about desire and understanding the self.
The four poets answer questions about what makes their poetry unique and explore the queer element (whether explicit or implied) in their work. And grouped at the end of the interviews are their insightful (and varied!) thoughts on what issues and themes they see recurring in gay poetry.
Randall Mann, Complaint in the Garden (Zoo Press, 2004) (2003 Kenyon Prize)
[Christopher Hennessy:] Your book contains forms like settings, villanelles, pantoums, sonnets, etc. Your subjects include porn stars, drag queens, AIDS, sexual awakenings and homophobia. Is it energizing to write about contemporary gay subjects in traditional forms?
[Randall Mann:] Yes, just as it's energizing to write a formal piece about, say, the landscape of the American South. (My hope—I suppose this is every formal poet's hope—is that the form of a poem both deepens and complemets its content, no matter the subject matter.) I don't think a traditional form and "titillating" queer contemporary subjects are at cross-purposes; real trailblazers, brave formal poets—Thom Gunn, Marilyn Hacker—have allowed me this luxury.
[Christopher Hennessy:] You write about Florida (where you grew up) in a sensuous but knowing view: e.g. "A shock of pink, the sky / went on forever … the moon / creeping into its corner" and yet "men go here to die." Are beauty and sadness linked for you as a poet?
[Randall Mann:] Inextricably. The sadness of beauty—of the land, of men—lies not only in its mutability, but also in the artist's inability to represent beauty, truly. "A word is elegy to what it signifies," wrote Robert Hass in his great poem "Meditation at Lagunitas": once beauty has been considered carefully, then written, the word, even the best word, cannot help but diminish things in the naming. Something already has fallen.
[Christopher Hennessy:] You write, "I have not forgotten the place from which I come" but there's also "the buried world" and things under the surface in your work. Is it important for poets to both confront and embrace origins, identity?
[Randall Mann:] Not necessarily. I think it might make me a bad party guest were I to dictate the ideas that other poets should confront or embrace. I can say this: My interest lies in the things below the surface—the man who paints his face and slips on pumps not only to change but deepen identity; the porn star who seems perfect on tape but already is succumbing to AIDS—because identity and origins are never simply about one's history, and are never simple. "This is the past, and so it must be true," I repeat in one villanelle in the book, the repetition reinforcing the inescapable irony of this line.
Brian Blanchfield, Not Even Then (University of California Press, 2004)
[Christopher Hennessy:] Your very first poem in the book contains "the raw desire to articulate." I recall that Crane once wrote, "Thou canst read nothing except through appetite." Does that resonate for you?
[Brian Blanchfield:] That poem of Hart Crane's is a choice example of the lover-as-reader theme everywhere in his work, most memorably in "Voyages," in which a tumultuous affair is set on a sheet of ocean where sunlight on waves resembles script and seems literally to underwrite the ecstatic connection between the poem's two lovers. The subtext is that the two are writing their own script, as it were, and when they realize there is no sanction greater that their "appetite" for sanction, their shared language becomes illegible at sea. The often neglected brilliance is in the final section, when the model of transcendence is discarded and we are landed on an island, first place we come to, where the Word is never discarnate or unrevealed; the Word, in the Beginning and as ever, is with Man, let's be clear. I set that hopeful island smack in the middle of my book, and wash despair repeatedly ashore.
I like that your questions conflate reading and writing, which are anyway, like smell and taste, continuous. Nor canst thou, after all, write without likewise being hungry for the word to come. I'm with Roland Barthes who relishes a word for its potential to be put in play.
[Christopher Hennessy:] You have a very playful side, sometimes with a very queer wink: (e.g. "Boy, have you predilections? / Sir, for predicaments."). Is the idea of "play" important to you? With language?
[Brian Blanchfield:] We'll never know whether Frank O'Hara would have been flattered by Ginsberg's eulogizing him as a practitioner of "deep gossip," but if because of my poems I were known as a "profound flirt" or some such, I could live with that. Once I'm dead.
[Christopher Hennessy:] Tarzan, Cujo, a sestina on Scooby-Doo's Velma. References to Freud, Wilde, Auden, Kant. Drawing from obscure films, texts, people. The popular, intellectual, obscure—are they all the same to you when you write?
[Brian Blanchfield:] I suppose they are equally available as potential elements of a poem, as is, I hope, anything that interest and impacts me. But I'm not a writer who decorates or ornaments a poem with multiple and sundry cultural references merely to signal distress in the busy information age or what have you. Generally—or specifically—I'll use a figure such as Moses or Stephen Jay Gould or Godzilla only to activate or motivate the poem's implicit logic. The book contains several monster or specters, and together perhaps they populate the pandemonium I mean to suggest by the book's first part title, "Weremen," a species of creature half-man, half-man [the derivation of "were" is "man"]. I'm interested in examining self-sameness as a sort (perhaps a queer sort) of monstrosity. In "The Same Question," the only question is one that Jane asks Tarzan, making his acquaintance as they mirror each other palm to palm on the bank of a stream: Do you like the difference? Difference? Tarzan, unlike any beast he'd ever seen until Jane, had surely been studying their similarity.
Brian Teare, The Room Where I Was Born (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003) (2003 Brittingham Prize)
[Christopher Hennessy:] Two of your book's subjects are sexual childhood abuse and teenage sexual encounters. What do you hope you bring to these subjects that is new, unique?
[Brian Teare:] In writing about these subjects, I'd hoped for so much, but I'll focus here on narration. Many of the poems feature a first- or third-person narrator observing his own—my own—experience. I hoped this cinematic disembodiment wound allow me, especially in the case of incest, both to capture a struggle to articulate identity in the face of violation, and to explore an extremity of desire.
I'd also hoped using a technique associated with fiction to render autobiographical experience would allow for the reader a certain intellectual dispassion while leaving room for an emotional reaction. As eerily voyeuristic as it can seem, it's a combination I think of as intrinsic to the experience of trauma. Especially in the first half of the book, I wanted the reding experience to mimic a traumatized consciousness.
[Christopher Hennessy:] Your book contains a new take on the myth of Sleeping Beauty and a myth about a figure called the "Milk Father" (who lures young boys to feed from "a row of swollen, hairless teats"). Does being gay help to re-imagine myths or how to use myth in poetry?
[Brian Teare:] I love this question! Being gay doesn't just help me to re-imagine myths, it makes re-imagining myths necessary. Myths—both local and universal—are the genetic code of our consciousnesses. They create us as much as our parents, our own genes. And when I say "myths," I mean Freud and the Bible as much as Zeus and Little Red Riding Hood; I mean the archetypes, stereotypes and ideologies through which we read our identities. So few of these are queer, or even vaguely queer-positive, that to re-imagine them is to re-imagine the basic building blocks of cultural reality, and I want to tamper with the source!
[Christopher Hennessy:] Your poetry uses a longer line and highlights an inherent strangeness of language (and grammar specifically), among other traits. Is this part of a desire to test the boundaries of what poetry can do?
[Brian Teare:] Yes. I want all my poems to test the boundaries of what I think poetry can do linguistically and thematically. An impatience with, or refusal of, what is known is where art and politics meet.
For me, linguistic experiment is tied to knowledge: to try new forms, new ways of using syntax, is to learn about how language, and the mind, work. The harder I push against words, the closer the poem gets to what I don't know, the mysteries at the core of being.
But this is true of writing about new subject matter: It's an uncovering, a discovery. Though we often speak of experimentation exclusively in terms of what a poem does with syntax, the line or the page, there are as many conventions about subject matter—and how we feel about certain subjects—to be tested. For instance, writing a good lyric poem about enjoying anal sex: That too is a resistance, a test of what poetry can do.
Rick Barot, The Darker Fall (Sarabande, 2002) (2001 Kathryn A. Morton Prize)
[Christopher Hennessy:] Plato, Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin, painters Miro, Bronzino and Bonnard, are some of the figures who appear in your book. Beyond the interest as subjects, what do you seek from philosophers and artists?
[Rick Barot:] In many ways, the book is about how to really look at things, how to make art of the world you experience, and, maybe most importantly, how to make a life as an artist. Those figures were muses to me. By their difficulties, and also their accomplishment, they helped me to approach the problems of my own thinking and writing. The Darker Fall is a young writer's book. In it I was trying to learn the hand-eye coordination you need to bring the world to words. Wittgenstein and company were the grown-ups I went to for advice.
[Christopher Hennessy:] In "Riffing," the world is made of "Just one thing and then / another, Tom says, his tongue here and then here. / Each kiss different and yet somehow the same." Is desire its own special language for you?
[Rick Barot:] Those lines are about how the world's multiplicity can sometimes make the world blur into chaos or sameness. It's the artist's job to isolate the specific dazzling "kiss" that gives order to that blurring. About desire—I think of it as the Duracell bunny in the heart and head that makes a person live. Of course it's not something special to me. Everyone has that bunny, that appetite, clamoring hotly inside. But as poet I do try to be more attuned to how that appetite works, the complex ways it can be talked about, as opposed to the perhaps oversimple ways it's rendered in "popular" media.
[Christopher Hennessy:] Does being gay and having been born in the Philippines give you an outsider's perspective, specifically on Beauty? Does this influence what I see as your painterly descriptions of the body, the scenery of the world, landscape?
[Rick Barot:] Wallace Stevens said that "The greatest poverty is / not to live in a physical world." I agree with that, which probably accounts for my "painterly" style. An artist's style, though, is a separate thing from his "identities." I don't have a painterly style just because I'm gay or Filipino. As for being an outsider, all artists are already that. Every artist is born with a kind of queerness. One of the things art does is help the artist process the terms of his distance from the world. At one level that process is just therapy, but at the most ambitious level the art becomes a true, complicated rendering of what the world is about, a rendering only an outsider could supply.
[Christopher Hennessy:] When you read or encounter other living poets who happen to also be gay, are there issues/themes you find that come up again and again?
[Mann:] I'm not certain I am widely and deeply read enough to answer. I can tell you what I like in two living queer poets I admire: the frank, beautiful, unapologetic eroticism of Marilyn Hacker; and the dark, uncomfortable, self-lashing eroticism of the last three books by Henri Cole. (Both poets can also be quite funny.) And though he just passed away, I think my model queer poet is Thom Gunn, who was as comfortable scribbling an epigram about Henry James as he was, say, writing about gnawing a man's armpits. I think queer poetry could use a bit more armpit gnawing.
[Teare:] Sex. Gender. Race. Desire. Embodiment. AIDS. Time. Death. Nature. Beauty. Politics. Injustice. Passion. Loneliness. Though our attitudes toward language and our points-of-view concerning these subjects often differ radically from those of straight writers—and therein lies our necessary and often difficult differences, both within our community and without—we tend to use poetry as it has always been used: to touch each others' lives as deeply as possible.
[Blanchfield:] Poets who happen also to be gay (and alive): a subset at least as varied as all of contemporary poetry, to mind. Isn't it a truism that gay literature is given to the second-person point of view, that in it a "you" character is addressed as if by a watchful angel or by oneself later in life? Consider Jim Grimsley novels. This is developed most interestingly by transgressive writers, often queer, like Eileen Myles in poetry, for whom the "you" (the reader) is someone to oblige and implicate in transactions of control and vulnerability. The reader I want to be is both menaced and blessed.
[Barot:] You used the word "desire," so I'll invoke that here. Desire, its ravishing and costly nature, seems to be the theme that runs through a lot of contemporary gay writing. We're now in an amazing moment where artists can describe gay desire without having to camouflage it as something else. That desire can finally be an open subject matter, and this freedom has given us some recent writing that is scary, truthful, beautiful, and profoundly new.
Source: Christopher Hennessy, "Critical Mass: A New Generation of Gay Poets," in Lambda Book Report, Vol. 13, No. 4-5, November-December 2004, pp. 6-9.
Rick Barot and Craig Beavan
In the following interview conducted January 25, 2003, Barot discusses the journey of the "I," the interior self, through the exterior landscape of the poems in The Darker Fall and goes on to talk about the relatedness and sequence of the poems.
[Craig Beaven:] This is Craig Beaven. It's January 25th, and I'm in Washington D.C. on the campus of George Washington University talking with poet Rick Barot for Blackbird.
Thanks for meeting with us, Rick. I really appreciate it.
I guess I wanted to begin by responding to something you wrote to one of the editors of Black-bird in an email. But before that, I wanted to just give our readers a little bit of history. Your first book is The Darker Fall. It won the Kathryn Morton Prize. It was published by a highly reputable press, Sarabande Books. It was selected by the esteemed Stanley Plumly, and you've held the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. But when the review came out in Blackbird, you expressed surprise at seeing the review, and you said something to the extent that you thought that it had been published and then disappeared. And I was wondering if you could talk about that because it seems to be a pretty common thing in the art form. There's this anticlimactic … there's this build-up of years of toiling, and then publishing sometimes can just be like dropping it in the Grand Canyon or something. It just disappears.
[Rick Barot:] Right, and you don't get the echo. I think it's become a trend that a lot of books, whether first books or second books or third books, don't get reviewed anymore, and so you wonder, how are these books getting out there? I know that the book is selling well enough, and so it makes me wonder, how's it doing that if it's not being reviewed? So in many ways, in terms of the usual reviewing channels, the book hasn't had much of a life. But it … what I said was perhaps a little bit facetious because the book has had a life in terms of a readership, but that readership hasn't been accessed or they haven't accessed the book through reviews. That's interesting to me. I don't know what that means, necessarily, about how the life of a book proceeds without the review.
So the book is out there living and breathing and having a life, you think.
I think so.
That's good. That's reassuring because often you hear poets lamenting there's no readership.
It is out there. I think part of the reason why it has, it's had a life of its own[,] is because I've been giving a lot of readings in the last year. That's one of the things that Sarabande is so great about. They help their [writers] get out there and do readings and promote the book. And so … I would say that I've given at least twenty-five readings all over the country in the last year, and so that has really helped.
I was reading through the book and I was thinking that the most pronounced motif in the book is the evocation of, not landscape, but something much more specific, like street corners, rooms, apartments. And the listing of place names becomes almost incantatory by the end of the book. If you read it all the way through you get all this geography. I was wondering if you could talk about that as a poet, like what about landscape, or what about these places that seems to hold kind of a mythic power, if it's mythic at all.
Maybe this is a high-minded answer, but this is something I've been thinking about. The idea of the romantic lyric has to do with an "I" that's situated in a landscape of some kind, whether that's urban or natural. And so in many ways, the "I" of the book is undergoing some sort of post-romantic journey through the poems of that book. Therefore, the staging is very important and very foregrounded in terms of the urban spaces or the natural spaces or even those in-between spaces. I'm not really sure why I've been enamored of those places, but perhaps it's one way of thinking about it, that in the lineage that I find myself it's a post-romantic world.
So it's sort of like how the self of the poet gets expressed is going to be via this landscape or via this …
A lot of it gets displaced onto the landscape. If you're trying to figure out or imagine an interior place, the coordinates of your interior life, what do you have? How do you map that? You go out there and see what the world has to offer you as mirror for those things. It is a narcissistic activity, looking at these things. But what happens is that the self becomes effaced in the delineation of objects which are outside of itself.
There's a line in your book from the poem "Battersea Bridge," and I think this sort of sums up where you write, and I'm paraphrasing: "Is there a more human habit than this, to stand here looking out, letting our natures yield to all we see, so that the streets … begin to stand for our longings?" So it's the landscape and self relationship?
Absolutely. That poem, which is a sonnet, has two […] ghosts behind it. One of course is Whistler and his nocturnes, but the other one of course is Wordsworth. I'm forgetting the title of the poem, but he's got a wonderful poem, a sonnet, about standing on one of the bridges in London and looking at it ["Composed Upon Westminster Bridge"]. He's got that other great sonnet, "The world is too much with us; late and soon." I'm not thinking about that one, but it's another vision by him, standing on another bridge. That was in my mind somewhere when I was writing that sonnet. Wordsworth was in there, and that line seems to me … it's a romantic line.
You seem to be using the word romantic quite a bit already in the interview and …
I should stop.
One of the questions I was going to ask you about, who you see as your models, or who you read or how you conceive, what you've read that has sort of informed your conception of poetry? In Plumly's introduction he says—I think of the poem "Battersea Bridge"—he says, "postmodern but romantic," and I was wondering, do you see yourself situated in that way as a romantic or in the vein of?
You know what? I would love to say yes, but attached to my saying yes, I am a post-romantic poet, attached to that is a whole lot of baggage that I would be uncomfortable with.
Which is the baggage that you're a strictly conservative, traditional, un-ironic writer or perceiver of the world.
Right. That's certainly not the case with the poems in The Darker Fall. I guess getting back to the idea of place, obviously you're here in Washington, D.C., as a visiting writer, and that's a long way from home. One of the poems in the book is called "The Exile" and the stance of the speaker is of the exile. Can you talk a little bit about that, your relationship to place and its … the idea of loss or desire of place? That seems to be the driving emotion.
You know, Anne Carson has that great book, Eros the Bittersweet, where she talks about the triangulation that happens between the beloved, the lover, and then the third leg being the thing that keeps those two people apart. For me, I wonder if place has some part of that, that idea of triangulation where it's the self and then there's a perceived ideal of the self and then there's the issue of place having to act as a kind of fulcrum for those two things. Once again it's that romantic thing where the place becomes the source of difficulty, and yet because it's an objective barrier perhaps between you the earthly person and you the ideal, perhaps platonic person slash poet, and place gets in the way of that because you have to navigate through the objectivity of that … I feel that I've gotten away from the question.
I was going to ask about place, and then you sent me some of your new work, and you have poems titled ["West 16th Street" and "Iowa,"] and it's like place is coming back, and again it doesn't go away. So it seemed to be such a resonant part of the book or of your work, so I wanted to …
I'd never thought about that, the idea of place. Maybe place is just another word for reality. You know, it's one way of putting a frame on a particular reality that I'm trying to describe in my poems, whether it's Iowa or New York City.
Moving along, I guess I wanted to respond again to something you'd written in an email to me. You said that you're "trying desperately to finish a new manuscript." And I was wondering about that, when the composition becomes desperation or something. where it becomes like it's no longer fun or inspired? Like I'm putting a thesis together, and it seems more mechanical than contacting the muse or anything. How does that work? Does it become a job, does it become business or …?
No, it's never a job because when I write a poem it never arrives when I want it to. It always comes unexpectedly. It is always sort of like being visited by the weather—you don't [know what's] going to come. When I wrote you that, I was basically talking about the fact that the second book is predicated on a theme, the Echo and Narcissus story, and I'm writing a lot of the poems with Echo as a muse behind the poems. And I've been writing this book for more than two years now. And I'm getting impatient with the theme. Not with the work, because it's not finished yet. The reason why I said I'm desperately trying to finish it is because I want to finish it before I get really tired of it, the work and the theme. And I don't want to be repeating myself. That's why I just want to finish it and move on to something else.
Something fresh … I was wondering if you could take us through the process of a poem, from the moment the idea is received to completion. How long does that usually take you? Is this a long process? Do you take years on poems or do they come quickly? How does that work?
It really depends. I'll give you an example of both. The poem in the first book that took the longest to write was a poem called "The Gecko," in which I describe a friend getting a tattoo. And the poem is in three stanzas, and altogether I would say the poem took about five years to write. I wrote the first stanza and then I put it away. And then a couple of years went by and I wrote the second stanza, and then I put it away again. I knew what the poem was going to be about, but the issue I had there did not have to do with not knowing what it was going to be. It was more I was grappling with the issue of narrative. How do you write a narrative poem? That poem taught me a lot about how to … just the issue of information. How do you give information in a poem and still have it be partaking of a lyrical aura? In a lot of the poems that I had written before that poem, the lyric stance had always sort of taken care of the writing. I wasn't interested in doing a narration that was A plus B equals C, but in that poem I was describing a scene in a tattoo parlor, and so the issues of narration were very important to me and very difficult. So that's one poem that took a long time. It's not quite "The Moose," but it's my moose. It took about five years. On the other hand, there's a poem in the book … the last poem I wrote in the book is a poem called "Aubade," which is a pantoum, and that poem literally wrote itself in five minutes. I had all of these lines written down already on a bulletin board that I have over my desk. And these lines, which were discrete from each other, suddenly cohered into this pantoum form. They all just funneled into this poem in one go, and I didn't have to change anything. I think that all poets would recognize those two extremes, the poem that takes you forever and the poem that comes, you know …
So did you really celebrate when you finally finished "The Gecko"? Did you charge through the streets cheering?
No, because I had already lost so much blood along the way I didn't have the energy for that celebration. And the fact is it's not even that good of a poem. You write these poems even if they take forever, learning something from them as processes. And that's something that I learned from that poem: How do you write a poem that's narrative, that has a real narrative grid underneath it, and make the lyrical push out of the narrative instead of the lyrical constructing a shadow narrative out of the stance that it's created for itself.
More of an overt narrative.
Yes, an overt narrative.
Something also noticeable about the work in The Darker Fall, beyond just place, the evocation of place, is the use of sequence. Half the poems … of the twenty-four poems, exactly half are comprised of numbered sequences, and I was wondering if you could talk about the poems' need for that kind of space and the poems' need to just go on thinking and speaking, even when sections seem full and finished?
Right. The book is basically a sort of transcription of my apprenticeship as a writer. And the reason why so many of those poems are in sections is because I didn't know, or I didn't think I knew, how to write a poem by itself in the sense that it could stand by itself. And so a lot of these … some of these, a good number of those poems in sequences were written individually without the thought of the sequence, and what would happen is that I would write a short poem and think that it wasn't good enough to stand on its own. Therefore, I would play around with putting it with two or three other poems, just to see if the accumulation in the sequence would somehow give these poems a weightiness that they didn't have on their own. That's true of a sequence like, let's say, "Passage Work" or "Blue Hours." Those are two sequences where those poems were written years apart from each other, in very different moods, and yet they had enough of the same, perhaps atmosphere, that I could put them in a sequence and call the whole thing a sequence. And then there are other poems of course where the sequencing was very deliberate, like "Eight Elegies."
Yeah, I was going to ask you about that one.
Or "Bird Notes," where I knew I was working with a lot of material that I couldn't encompass into one poem, and I needed the sequencing as a kind of … as an aid to myself.
"Eight Elegies" seems like it really riffs. They're not overt elegies, or they don't seem to be overt elegies, but you have that kind of echoing in the title when you go through and read. It almost seems like the speaker is … the use of sequence there seems almost like the speaker's just trying to say all this stuff to get it out and be released from a burden. That seemed different than the way some of the others, some of the other sequences work together.
Well, "Eight Elegies" was written very late in the manuscript, and at that point I knew exactly what I was doing in terms of the sequencing. All the sequencing I'd done before then was just me fumbling around trying to fill a canvas with very different things. "Eight Elegies" was a very deliberate canvas that I knew I couldn't fill just in one go, and so I made these little pieces and patched it together.
When you're composing, are there certain things you look for, certain conscious places you want to take your poems? The book seems so unified, like such a coherent whole, that I wondered if you sought out things, and are there poems that maybe you love, that didn't make it into The Darker Fall? Does that happen, you leave a lot out?
Yeah. By the time I put the book together it had gone through about three or four permutations, and I would always take things out, even stuff that I had just written very recently, before I had finished the manuscript, because I was thinking of the book as a whole at that point. I wasn't thinking of individual poems anymore. So if a poem, even though it was okay, didn't quite fit the flow that I had in mind, I would … I got rid of it. But it's interesting because the earliest poems in the book were written when I was an undergrad, and so there is a full range of poems in there from the eight or so years of my life when I was writing that book. Then there are a lot of poems from the middle period [I didn't include].
So when you say eight or so years, do you mean from when you began writing or from when you began sort of consciously sitting down to think of a manuscript, or how does that work?
I'm talking about from the very first poems I wrote.
From the first poem you ever wrote.
Which were in an undergrad class I took with Annie Dillard when I was a senior. Those were some of the very first poems I wrote.
What drew you to poetry suddenly your senior year? Were you always an English major or …?
I was conflicted. I started college wanting to be a lawyer. I took a lot of poli sci classes my first few years, and then I started taking more English classes. At some point, I started to understand that just because I was good at something and it was something that I enjoyed didn't mean that I could take it for granted as being, you know, mere pleasure. Because I was always good in English all through high school, I was always told that I should be … I should pursue or think about writing. But it just came so naturally and easily that I didn't think, so why should I therefore study that? But the minute that writing and literature started to speak to my emotional life as a person and not just something that I could do skillfully, where it did seem to mirror what was happening inside, that's when I started to take it seriously as something I could perhaps do and study more seriously. Annie Dillard was very crucial in that. I took a creative writing class with her when I was a sophomore, and as a sophomore, who's a good writer? No one probably is. But she was so encouraging, and also forceful, that she had me beginning to think that perhaps I could do something with that. At that point I was just writing prose, but the encouragement was everything.
So when do you start thinking of a manuscript? I mean, you're writing poetry, and then when do individual poems, I guess, become a collection? Do you know like at what point in the process?
For The Darker Fall it happened, I would say, three or four years after I started writing poems. What happened was that I got a title for myself, a book title, and it seemed to galvanize all of the elements which were already there and helped me, gave me a sort of prescription for how to proceed. And the working title of the book for about three or four years was "City Entries," which is the title of one of the poems in one of the sections. I think it's "Blue Hours." Having that phrase in mind for years on end helped me to write the latter half of the book. The idea of the notational quality of the poems, having all of the sectioning, I got permission for that from the idea of "City Entries," writing a diary. The idea of the city itself became a big informant in the writing of the poems. You had asked earlier about urban spaces. Having the caption before the picture, it helps you to construct the picture. Eventually, of course, I understood that the title wasn't the best title. "City Entries" wasn't the best title, so I got rid of it. But it had helped me move through the journey of the book as a sort of scaffolding.
How did you come up with The Darker Fall, then? Was it sad to let go of "City Entries"?
It wasn't sad because it was like a marriage that was very old and very boring, and to somebody else it might have sounded good, but I was just tired of it at that point. The Darker Fall was suggested to me by a friend who read through the manuscript after it had been accepted by Sarabande and by Stanley Plumly. I had an intermediary title. I had submitted the manuscript as "Night and Hydrangea," which is a very florid title, and Plumly wasn't too happy with that title. And once he started not being happy with it, I started not being happy with it. And so I gave the manuscript to a few friends, and a friend of mine, Brian Teare, who's also a poet, picked out the phrase from the book, from one of the poems in the book. And that's how it came about. I have to say that if I had more time, and more guts, frankly, I would have stuck with the title that I had then, which was "Night and Hydrangea."
"Night and Hydrangea," you like that better than The Darker Fall?
I do like it. It was mine. One thing that I have learned, actually, having published that first book and working [on] a second book now […] that's coming along fairly well, is that you need these necessary illusions to finish the book, but the minute that […] I saw The Darker Fall in between covers, I stopped understanding why I had put things the way they were in terms of the sequence of the poems, the ordering, or even the title of the book itself—it stopped being material. What became important to me was the fact that I had these three or four or five poems in the book that I thought had really spoken truthfully about particular emotional and aesthetic and formal problems that I'd been having, and so you know what, I'm writing poems, but during the time that I'm trying to finish a book, I'm writing a book. But the minute the book is finished, I forget that the book exists. I only care about the four or five poems that I love. And it's always surprising to me—well, it's surprising to other people—that my favorite poems in my first book are not necessarily the poems that people would think of as being, let's say, the most ambitious or being the big poems. It's never about that. It's usually the smaller poem where I felt as though I had totally captured what was in my mind and in my eye.
So it's the few, as you see them, the purest expressions …
The happy few.
Yeah, those are the ones we have to hold on to, right?
But you do need the illusion. For those five or six years when "City Entries" was the title, I had it all in my head. The title was "City Entries" …
Yeah, you're like getting shirts printed up, right?
Absolutely. And the cover art was going to be one of those Ocean Park paintings by Richard Diebenkorn.
Yeah, those are great paintings.
But it didn't happen that way, and I feel no loss.
I was noticing that there's really little personal autobiography revealed, and I was wondering if that's a conscious decision or if that's … or if that comes out of just sort of a theory of poetry, or if that comes out of just hitting the delete button sometimes and just taking personal things out? Was that a conscious decision, or how does that work?
You're talking about the first book. The fact is, I, you know, I'm an Asian American person. I was born in the Philippines. And anybody reading that book is not going to find anything of that in there. The way I've been able to explain that to myself has to do with the fact that it's a very important content, […] the issue of this Asian American identity, and I didn't feel worthy of addressing that as yet. I feel as though my work is going to move into that content a little bit more as I begin to be more confident of my skills as a writer. But the first book, it's really just an exercise book in formal issues and in issues of visual and descriptive acuity. That's the way I think about it. This is not to belittle the book, but it's a book where I'm learning how to write a line, how to write a stanza, how to write sentences which are long or short, how to do those formal things. And so I wasn't interested, frankly, in content in that book. I was interested in exercising the writing muscle in as many ways [as] I could. It was not a conscious pushing away of content by any means. I was just more interested in the gestures that you could do with language, with the writing. The issue of content had to do with form in that first book for me. There are all kinds of things happening in that book that have to do with long lines and short lines, and couplets and quatrains and tercets, because that's what I was discovering when I was starting, when I was teaching myself how to write poems. I would read, let's say Seamus Heaney, his book North, and I suddenly understood what it meant to write a short line. He was working with, I think, trimeters in a lot of those shorter poems, and I started to ask myself: What does it mean for you, Rick, to write a short line? And so I would write a poem in a short line. Or I went through a phase where I was reading a lot of Wolcott, and all of these wonderful pentameters were happening in his work, and so I became interested in writing these pentameter lines. Virginia Woolf [had] a huge influence [on] me, and she has this wonderful thing in her diaries where she talks about how writing is putting words on the backs of rhythms. I really lived by that when I was writing that first book. I was interested in the formal aspects, in the visual aspects. The liability, of course, is that there's a lot of sensibility in the book, and in my 3 a.m. moments I wonder, where's the content?
Well, thanks for doing this with us. I really appreciate it.
Sure. My pleasure.
Source: Rick Barot and Craig Beavan, "An Interview with Rick Barot," in Blackbird (online), Vol. 2, No. 2, Fall 2003.
Barot, Rick, "Bonnard's Garden," in The Darker Fall, Sarabande Books, 2002, pp. 16-17.
Barot, Rick, and Craig Beaven, "An Interview with Rick Barot," in Blackbird, Vol. 2, No. 2, Fall 2003, http://www.blackbird.vcu.edu/v2n2/features/barot_r_040104/barot_r.htm.
"The Nobel Prize in Literature 1995," Nobelprize.org, http://nobelprize.org/literature/laureates/1995 (February 17, 2006).
Phillips, Brian, Review of The Darker Fall, in Poetry, Vol. 183, No. 5, February 2004, p. 293.
Plumly, Stanley, "Foreword," in The Darker Fall, Sarabande Books, 2002, pp. xi-xiv.
Auden, W. H., ed., The Portable Romantic Poets: Blake to Poe, Penguin, 1977.
This collection provides ample material for an overview of English and American Romantic poets.
Hagedorn, Jessica, Burning Heat: A Portrait of the Philippines, Rizzoli, 1999.
Rick Barot was born in the Philippines. Addressing the topics of religion, culture, food, and lifestyles, Hagedorn, a published novelist also from the Philippines, takes her readers on an intimate trip through the country, exposing its contradictions as well as its beauty.
Kooser, Ted, The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and U.S. poet laureate (2004–2005) Kooser draws from the classes he was teaching at the University of Nebraska. His advice tends to be practical, suggesting that poetry should, above all, make sense. He takes his readers through poetic devices and forms and makes the writing of poetry enjoyable.
Lowy, Michael, Robert Sayre, and Catherine Porter, Romanticism against the Tide of Modernity, Duke University Press, 2002.
For students of literature, this book contains a unique exploration of what the authors see as a protest of the modern industrial era through the basic tenets of Romanticism. They follow a trail from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, exploring the prominent writings of each era therein.