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[page 4]


A Conversation with
Leslie Monsour  


by Alex Pepple
















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Leslie: I care about poetry as a poet, not as a formalist. I think argument, contradiction and conflict of opinion are healthy for any art. Right now, the formalists are trying to revitalize poetry the way the modern poets of Pound's generation were trying to do after World War I. The different "schools" of poetry should always maintain an open dialogue. As with politics, nobody wants a one-party system. Let the people decide; but if one party becomes too powerful and begins stamping out the smaller parties, then the state of the art becomes very unhealthy. That's where it is, now, I believe. The Academy of American Poets, The Poetry Society of America, and most English departments dictate that free verse is the established, honored way to write true poetry. They ignore formal verse, and being ignored by these institutions is pretty deadly. There's an amusing poem on this topic in the May, 1999 issue of Poetry. It's by Paula Tatarunis, and it's called "Schools." Tatarunis pretty much takes every "school" to task in her blank verse poem: imagists, formalists, free versers, didacticists, narrativists, avant garde language poets. Perhaps you can get permission to reprint it. I was at a lunch not too long ago, given by some folks who call themselves the Los Angeles Association for the Humanities, or something like that. The topic of the luncheon was "Poetry Wars." What the "wars" were supposed to be about, was never clearly established. The discussion went nowhere. But, at one point, one of the guests, who hosts a literary interview show on National Public Radio, commented that the poetry readings he's attended lately have been unbearable because of the poets' tortured delivery. That "tortured," incantatory style, is, I believe, a kind of posturing trap that free verse poets, since the Beats, have fallen into, in lieu of meter. Of course, when metrical verse is recited, the meter shouldn't sound like a should purr along like a well-tuned engine. I don't know that there's a common meeting ground for all of this; I don't think there should be. There should be lots of styles and philosophies. I do think we can learn from our differences, and we can certainly add to the vitality of the art through ongoing dialogue and informed, intelligent criticism. Above all, we shouldn't ignore each other.
Yes, Tatarunis was also a featured poet at the Poetry website. 


         by Paula Tatarunis

       All day they stream past, petitioners
       for understanding, accolade, critique.
       I read them all, a vast anthology
       of jumbled genres on a common theme:
       affliction. So I parse, interpret, scan.
       I graph dysrhythmias, dysmetrias;
       I eavesdrop on caesuras for unsaid
       murmurs, gallops, rubs, snaps, flutters, clicks.
       The perils of misreading harrow me
       beware the treacheries of metaphor!
       the elephant that squats upon a chest
       is not a burning heart or waterbrash.
       Just take the imagists. Their heads explode.
       St Elmo's fire flashdances on their limbs.
       They float, they swim. Knives twist within their flesh.
       They're ball-and-chained by lead, filled with concrete.
       Butterflies inhabit them. Their pipes
       are wrong, and clogged. Their systems freeze and crash.
       Invaded, they resist; defenses fail.
       What they need, they think, is you to flush
       it out of them, whatever it is, doc.
       The formalists present minutiae,
       in alphabetical enjambed iambs—
       pentameter's ten digits, five lub-dubs—
       from acne, backpain, catarrh, dandruff, eye-
       strain, flatfoot, gas pains, hangnail, itchiness,
       the jitters, kinks, lethargies, migraines, nose-
       bleeds, obstipation, panics, queasy retch-
       ings, styes and tremors, ulcers, vertigo,
       to wandering womb, xerosis, yaws and zits.
       Free versers, on the other hand, wax Walt
       Whitmanic: their barbaric yawps celebrate and sing
       incantatory songs of themselves, songs
       of the breath as it wheezes and rales through them,
       the short breath and long breath, the breath that is moist or dry,
       songs of the blood, the thick- and thinness of it, its heat, its
       songs of the gut, its rippling coils, the dark burden of its secret
       songs of the muscled limb, inflamed with toil or the languid 
       thrash of love.
       Didacticists, of course, will always add
       their theories of omission or commission:
       slept in a draft, got their feet wet, caught a chill,
       forgot their overshoes and oversoul,
       ate too little roughage, too much ham,
       should have pumped less iron or pumped more,
       Mea culpa, meus morbus they intone,
       certain you'll absolve them back to health.
       Narrativists enshrine a fleeting pain
       within an epic of chronology
       I woke at six—I'm a morning person—
       brushed my teeth, ate oatmeal with a pat
       of low-fat margarine, the kind that has
       the dancing turkey on the tub, on sale
       for .99 at Johnnie's, by the time
       you tune back in it's afternoon, the pain
       has come and gone; they're vacuuming the rug,
       the doorbell rings, the kettle's whistling,
       you try to interrupt—where did you say
       that pain was?—loquacity steamrolls on
       through supper, TV, bedtime, dreams, alarm
       clock going off at six. Try Tylenol,
       you say, your fingers crossed. Call if it's worse.
       Then there's the avant garde. The cutting edge.
       The text Munchausens off the sizzling page.
       Hypoglossalalia muscles in,
       between John Cagey silences, the din
       and Sturm of wild unsound, unsense.
       O, there are stranger dysphasias, Wernicke,
       than are dreamt of in your neurologies,
       mutant L=A=N=G=U=A=G=Es that cacophone
       far off the beaten geographic tongue,
       where elephants explode and overshoes
       fibrillate with longing—El Dorado,
       Shangri-la, Eden, Heaven, Hell—you name it,
       it's yours. And that's, of course, the joke. You nod.
       You say, "I understand." You really don't.

Alex: Charting the course of neo formalism since its inception to the present, how much has it changed in your assessment? What overall growth, or loss, has it experienced?

Leslie: The poetry conference at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, which will have its sixth session this June, has been doubling and tripling in attendance during its brief existence; so it's pretty clear that interest in traditional verse is increasing tremendously. The more poets who study and practice writing in rhyme and meter, the better, in my opinion. I've said "more isn't better," but if poetry is to be revitalized, it will take the strength of numbers, especially when free verse has swept over everything and remained unchallenged for so long. We owe a great debt to poets like Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, X.J. Kennedy, Thom Gunn (to name a few — add J.V. Cunningham and Philip Larkin to the list, though they're gone), who held the fort, so to speak, during the siege. If the trend continues, the danger is that there will be as much bad formal poetry as free verse, but there's room for that, I think. Contemporary poetry is getting a good workout with formalism as its fitness manager; meter tones up the language, keeps it in shape; it even builds character!

Alex: What do you think about prose on poetry, essays, reviews and criticisms? How much do these help poetry? Are they featured in enough quantity and quality in contemporary journals? How much of it if any do you yourself write and publish?

Leslie: There is not much informed, intelligent criticism devoted to the works of formal poets. I'm amazed when a reviewer will pretend to be concerned about "form." For instance, in the latest issue of Poetry, John Taylor reviews a collection by the poet, Sidney Wade. Of a particular poem, he writes, "...the poem concludes with a surer sense of meter," and supplies these lines as an example of the "surer" meter: "I can see you very clearly now, your long tall frame,// the shine of those little lights on the cool wet pavement,/ the dark and tender neighborhood we inhabited for a time." These lines don't scan. Mr. Taylor mentions meter as if it meant something to him, but I don't think it really does. He shouldn't bring up meter at all. This is all free verse. I don't mean to say John Taylor shouldn't review books; I enjoyed his essays very much. He's a pleasure to read. But a discussion of meter doesn't apply to these works. This comes up a lot. I think, sometimes, essayists want to appear to be paying attention to versification...but it doesn't fly when they're dealing with free verse. What am I doing to correct the situation? Not much. I haven't written any reviews...except for I sent in a brief e-review of Tim Steele's excellent and very important new book, "All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing." (The title, by the way, is from Robert Frost's poem, "The Mountain.") Here's my review: 

"All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing"  is of far greater significance and value to poets and students of poetry than any of the other "how-to" guides, handbooks, manuals, and critical studies to date. It is painlessly thorough and brilliantly supported by a rich selection of examples; its author is a master of clarity, eloquence, and graceful scholarship. In 1990, Tim Steele gave us "Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter." Now, in 1999 he gives us this new treasure. These works are the bookends of the decade. Poetry simply doesn't stand up without them. 

It's a blurb, not an essay, but that's the nature of Amazon. Why don't I write some critical prose? I guess I'm chicken. Tim Steele has an epigram which suits me to a tee: "Here lies Sir Tact, a diplomatic fellow/Whose silence was not golden, but just yellow." I've been getting pretty bold in this interview.

Alex: You have been courageously honest! Today, the common means of entertainment gravitates around the movie screen and TV — the evening news, the talk shows, the sitcom... So, although more poetry is being written, less of it is getting read by anyone other than a poet. Can poetry matter or play a useful role in today’s society? How can we manage, still, to find and give pleasure with poetry?

Leslie: I think there are a lot of ways in which poetry can bring pleasure and enrichment to public life. First of all, there could be more light verse. Calvin Trilling writes a funny, topical poem every week for The Nation. Gore Vidal said some verse on the radio the other day about Pat Buchanan; it went something like this: "He swears allegiance to the fetus and the flag/ But shows disdain for the Jew and the fag." The meter is off a bit, but the couplet is far more effective and memorable than, "Buchanan cares more about patriotism and the right to life than the rights of minorities." There's room for a lot more of this in poetry. Formal verse lends itself to humor in ways that free verse does not. Rhymes can be hilarious. R.S. (Sam) Gwynn is one poet who sees to it that laughter accompanies applause at poetry readings. Poetry's so versatile and generous, it lends itself to serious events, as well: anniversaries, memorial services, inaugurations...poetry provides comfort, while it elevates the occasion. Recently, I've been consulted by two friends who wanted to read a poem for a memorial service. In both cases, it was formal verse that helped the gathering find an uplifting, inspiring, and positive expression for their memories. As in Emily Dickinson's poem, "After great pain a formal feeling comes," formal poetry is more satisfying to the ear at commemorative events, because rhyme and meter make the language memorable. People are able to carry lines away with them, in their hearts. Traditional verse is made to be learned "by heart."

Alex: Is there any useful effort made to advance rhyme and meter in writing programs? Is close to 100% free verse a want in technical competence, or, an ideology that sees formalism as a bad thing for modern poetry?

Leslie: I've talked about this in a general way. With respect to my own individual education, I've learned more, by far, from Timothy Steele than any other poetry instructor I've had — not only from his classes, but from his books, as well. Last year at the West Chester conference I had a workshop on rhyme with Brad Leithauser, which was very useful. I can't resist recounting an experience from one of my earliest poetry workshops, and it's fairly typical, I think. I was at the Napa Valley Poetry Conference in may have been 1986. The faculty included Robert Pinsky, Carolyn Forché, Carolyn Kizer, Sandra McPherson, Jorie Graham, Gerald Stern, Steve Kowit, among others. I had workshops with several of these poets. On the first day of her workshop, one of the poets challenged us to recite the first line of any eighteenth century poem. I said, "The curfew tolls the knell of parting day," which is the opening of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard."  Our instructor, who is considered one of our most important poets, told us this line was a good illustration of how NOT to begin a poem. She told us a poem should open with a line that will bring people to a halt before they leave the room, something that'll keep them from running off to meet their bus. I mentioned this to a friend recently, and he wondered if Shakespeare's,  "Shall I compare thee to a summer day?" would elicit an impatient, "Yes, yes, that'll be fine; I've really got to run." Perhaps a good opening would be, "Your zip's undone." It's only in hindsight that I've been able to see the harm being done to poetry by the way it's taught in workshops. I have a friend who is able to audit John Hollander's undergraduate class at Yale, and it sounds pretty interesting. I'd like to be able to do something like that. Hollander's aim, he says, is to instill knowledge of poetry that will do away with the need for workshops. I'd like to have been exposed to more truly remarkable teachers. I think there are more opportunities for that on the East Coast.

Alex: Can you discuss your own process for coming up with new verse — from idea, to draft, to choosing a known form or devising your own, to revising until you have a final product?

“Schools” first appeared in POETRY. Copyright © 1999 by The Modern Poetry Association. Reprinted by permission of the Editor of POETRY.




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