You tend not to write directly about particular historical crises or catastrophes, but surely the war in the Balkans underlies the bleak historical perspectives of poems such as “Reading History” or “Empires,” both from the early nineties?
I’m sure it was in the background. “Reading History” was written after going on a binge and reading a pile of books on Chinese and Indian history. Every few pages, of course, there was some atrocity, some massacre, or some battle in which thousands died, so that got me thinking. “Empires” is a poem about my grandmother on my mother’s side, who died in 1948, when I was ten. She took care of me from when I was very little while my parents were at work. She used to listen to Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and other lunatics on the radio. I understood nothing, but she knew several languages. She got very upset. She could not get over the lies she heard. What’s wrong with the world? she’d ask everyone. Good question. I still haven’t figured it out myself. There have been so many wars in my lifetime, so much killing. I’m as uncomprehending as she was. The ease and arrogance with which so many are sent to their deaths continues to astonish me.
The use of murder to improve the world, for instance, is popular in American intellectual circles as if there had never been any historical precedents. I think about these things all the time.
"All I have is a voice," Auden wrote in "September 1, 1939," "To undo the folded lie." Of course he then later disowned this poem . . . But it seems to me your poems are often motivated by the desire to “undo folded lies," or at least to expose the various complexities that politicians and pundits attempt to disguise from us.
Let’s hope so. Poetry in my view is a defense of the individual against all the forces arrayed against him. Every religion, every ideology and orthodoxy of thought and manner wants to reeducate him and make him into something else. To sing from the same sheet is the ideal. A true patriot doesn’t think for himself, they’ll tell you. I realize that there’s a long tradition in poetry of not speaking truth to power and, in fact, of being its groveling apologist. I just don’t have it in me.
On the other hand, one of the main pleasures of your work, for me anyway, is the way it reminds us of all the ordinary pleasures of life, and urges us, or rather invites us, to enjoy them while we still can--things such as fried shrimp, tomatoes, roast lamb, red wine . . .
Don’t forget sausages sauteed with potatoes and onions! It’s also highly advisable to have a philosopher or two on hand. A few pages of Plato while working on a baked ham. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus over a bowl of spaghetti with littleneck clams. We think best when we bring opposites together, when we realize that all these realities, one inside the other, are somehow connected. That’s how the wonder and amazement that are so necessary to both poetry and philosophy come about. A “truth” detached and purified of pleasures of ordinary life is not worth a damn in my view. Every grand theory and noble sentiment ought to be first tested in the kitchen--and then in bed, of course.