EDWARD BYRNE

 
 

 INAUGURAL LECTURE
 

(Presented April 6, 1999: Published in The Cresset, Spring, 2000)



[The Inaugural Lecture was reestablished in the Valparaiso University College of Arts and Sciences in 1991 as a means to recognize colleagues who attained full academic rank and to acknowledge that this achievement carries with it a distinctive role in leading the scholarly pursuits of this academic community.  The lecture is public recognition of these notable achievements by outstanding teacher-scholars of the College.] 
 
 

WRITING POETRY: ART, ARTIFACTS, AND ARTICLES OF FAITH 


 

I want to start today by remembering to keep a promise.  I gave my word to my classes this semester, one of which I will be meeting in about two hours, that I would begin today's talk by repeating to you some of the same words of caution that I always give to them: "Never completely trust what any writer says about his or her own work." 
    I won't go so far as John Barth, who is famous for saying that no one "should pay very much attention to anything writers say."  Nevertheless, it is clear that writers are often unsure, sometimes even incorrect, in understanding or interpreting the ways that their works are inspired, created, or received by readers. 
    E.M Forster probably spoke for most writers when he said, "How do I know what I think until I see what I have written?"  However, one could go even further and suggest that many writers continue to be uncertain of exactly what they have expressed in their writings long after the words have reached the page.  Carl Sandburg reflected this uncertainty held by many writers when he once commented, "I've written some poetry I don't understand myself." 
    A story about T.S. Eliot's understanding of his own poetry also mirrors Sandburg's view.  According to academic legend, perhaps something akin to an urban legend, when Eliot served as the Charles Eliot Norton Lecturer at Harvard in 1932 — where his responsibilities included remaining in residence and delivering an open lecture about literature to the university each month throughout the school year — he once sat in on an undergraduate course in modern poetry being taught by one of the junior faculty.  The day he attended the class, the students were discussing their interpretations of Eliot's enigmatic poem,  "The Waste Land."  The students noticed Eliot's conspicuous presence in the back of the classroom and knew who was listening intently to their conversation. 
    As many of you know, T.S. Eliot was a figure who was easily recognizable, especially at Harvard in 1932.  Poet and biographer Donald Hall once described T.S. Eliot as sophisticated, debonair, very British in dress and demeanor.   Hall also has written that many were unaware of Eliot's terrific sense of humor: one of Eliot's heroes was Groucho Marx, and Eliot was known for sending gift exploding cigars to literary critics who wrote negatively of his poetry. 
    As the Harvard class session's discussion of "The Waste Land" concluded and the students filed out the classroom door, apparently one student gathered enough courage to approach the intimidating persona of Eliot and ask him a question.  The student said, "Mr. Eliot, we were just discussing your work, "The Waste Land."  May I ask why you were so interested in what we had to say?"  Eliot's Groucho Marx-type response to the student: "I came to find out what I meant."  If one reads T.S. Eliot's more academic prose about his inspiration and writing of "The Waste Land" ("I wasn't even bothering whether I understood what I was saying.  To me it was only the relief of a personally and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmic grumbling."), clearly there was much truth in his humorous response to the student. 
    Back in January, when Dean Trost asked me about planning the substance of my talk for today, I reported that I was a poet and I thought I would be reading some of my most recent works to give everyone an idea of what kind of poetry I was producing.  He suggested that would be fine, but he also thought it would be interesting for others if I discussed how the act of teaching, some of the subjects I teach, my academic pursuits, my interests, and my experiences may inform, influence, or inspire my poetry. 
    I have to admit I hesitated when he made this request.  Like most poets, I would prefer the work speak for itself rather than contribute to distraction or dilution of the work by my extended explanations, interpretations, or background information.  I again was reminded of T.S. Eliot — this time I recalled his description of a poetry reading as "a kind of indecent exposure," and I was sure that to discuss the process and product in a reading in any detail would surely be an academic version of exhibitionistic flashing. 
    However, after thinking about the Dean's suggestion a little bit more, I realized this would provide a chance for me to systematically discover for myself what influences and informs the works I have written.  After all, although W.H. Auden once lamented the interest in information about writers' biography and work habits when he observed "it is a sad fact that a poet can earn more talking about his art than practicing it," I thought there could be significant value for me in an exercise of self-reflection about my practice of poetry, and I appreciate this opportunity. 
    Unfortunately, in January Dean Trost also asked that I submit a title for today's lecture, even though I hadn't yet decided what I was going to say.  This brings me to my first disclosure about the process of writing poetry: almost always, I decide upon a title after the poem is written! 
    Thankfully, the Dean gave me some time to consider an appropriate title.  As I did, I realized the various elements which inform or influence my poetry could be grouped into three headings, and with my fondness for alliteration and assonance, I decided upon today's title: "Writing Poetry: Art, Artifacts, and Articles of Faith." 
    Gore Vidal has written, "teaching has ruined more American novelists than drink."  Since I am not a novelist and, thankfully, I do not drink very much, I cannot speak with experience about Vidal's assertion.  Nevertheless, I believe I can safely say I question his statement.  Perhaps there is some difference for novelists simply because of the sheer volume of words and blocks of time needed to produce a novel.  However, I do know a number of novelists who comfortably combine writing with teaching, and I believe that teaching can be rewarding for a writer of any genre. 
    In fact, I think it is interesting to see Robert Lowell's view of combining writing with teaching, especially since his generation of poets was the first to engage in both activities on such a large scale in developing university creative writing programs.  Lowell stated: "Almost all the poets of my generation, all the best ones, teach . . ..  I think it has undoubtedly been a gain for them." 
    One of my own former teachers, John Ashbery, has concluded that one benefit of teaching is that "you are forced to bring a critical attention into play when you are reading students' work that you would not otherwise, and that can help when you return to your own writing." 
    Richard Wilbur has expressed his view in a similar manner: "I think the best part of teaching . . . is that you can't read passively because you have to be prepared to move other people to recognition and acts of analysis . . .."  Wilbur believes being pressed to talk about literature and writing in the classroom can counter the solitude and quiet of the writing process itself.  He reports: "It is good for a writer to move into words, out of the silence, as much as he can." 
    It would be an understatement to say that my years of teaching — not only literature and writing, but also film studies and special topics courses — have had an impact on the ways I view poetry and the style of writing I have chosen for expressing myself.  Repeated readings and analyses of authors' philosophies of writing and their works of literature have allowed me to test, reevaluate, and strengthen preferences in the style and form my own writing explores. 
    For example, by examining various definitions of poetry with my creative writing students every year, my belief in the simple, yet insightful definition offered by Robert Frost still stands firm.  Frost described "the figure a poem makes.  It begins in delight and ends in wisdom."  In a more comprehensive description, Frost declares writing of a poem "begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and it ends in a clarification of life — not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion." 
    Frost says elsewhere, "we enjoy the straight crookedness of a good walking stick."  And isn't there great truth in this?  A twisted walking stick made of a broken branch is just as effective as a straight store-bought cane, but so much more interesting.  Likewise, one might suggest readers enjoy the journey to the end of a piece of literature as much as they feel rewarded by the goal eventually achieved at the conclusion of that work of art.  I always try to keep this in mind when writing my poems. 
    Robert Penn Warren, in his important essay on poetry, "Pure and Impure Poetry," appears to complement Frost's statement.  Warren suggests: "Poetry wants to be pure, but poems do not.  At least, most of them do not want to be pure.  The poems want to give us poetry, which is pure, and the elements of a poem, in so far as it is a good poem, will work together toward that end, but many of the elements, taken in themselves, may actually seem to contradict that end, or be neutral toward the achieving of that end." 
    Throughout his writing, Robert Lowell seems to suggest those contradictions and elements that are "impure," in the sense that Warren identifies them, exist in poems exactly because the best contemporary poetry reflects life, which is itself an impure process.  In his poem "Night Sweat," Lowell writes: "one life, one writing."  Those elements in poems which reflect experiences or emotions from our lives are what I refer to as "artifacts" — the manmade objects which act as reminders of moments in personal or social history. 
    Coincidentally, three writers who have greatly influenced my writing of poetry are Robert Frost, Robert Penn Warren, and Robert Lowell — my literary trinity.  The three "Bobs" I like to call them.  (My wife insists that if I were complete in my list, I would add Bob Dylan as well.)  Though I would be the first to admit the following is a much too general characterization, one might say I have learned the use of nature as metaphor from Robert Frost, the ambitious use of language to express emotion from Robert Penn Warren, and the integration of personal experience with art from Robert Lowell. 
    I also recognize my own poetry as part of a continuing narrative in literature, sometimes in conflict with and sometimes complemented by the works of writers from the past.  In his famous — some may say infamous — essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," T.S. Eliot declares: "no poet, no artist of any kind, has his complete meaning alone."  In my teaching of literature, I am continually confronted with the
truth of Eliot's statement.  Consequently, I find myself engaged in a form of "anxiety of influence," as critic Harold Bloom labels it, in an ongoing literary tradition that sometimes appears to have exhausted all possibilities of novelty.  Despite Harold Bloom's prediction of anxiety for the writer or T.S. Eliot's warning about the conflict between tradition and individual talent, I must admit I have yet to respond the way Wallace Stevens did when asked if he ever read much of Eliot's poetry.  Stevens's reply: "I can't read much of Eliot or I wouldn't have any individualism of my own." 
    In addition to the influence of writers I admire, painters and works of visual art, as well as music, especially jazz, also have shaped my poetry.  Ernest Hemingway once confessed, "I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers . . ..  I should think one also learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint."  James Whistler thought of his artwork as "the poetry of sight."  My
study of painting, particularly landscape and impressionist works of art, has aided me in understanding composition and placement of details in the images that fill my poems.  I am very fond of the Luminist painters who depicted subtle variations in landscape or seascape paintings, especially any gradual differentiation of color or light in images of sea or sky.  I always advise my creative writing students to stop off at the art museum almost as often as they visit the library. 
    I am a great fan of the acoustic jazz music popularized during the 1940s, 1950s, or early 1960s — by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, as well as various other instrumentalists — and which many continue to practice today.  I appreciate the way these musicians can take the familiar pattern of any standard song and play stretches of freer improvisation against those regulated riffs.  I view my poem as a verbal composition similar to this form of jazz.  Therefore, one will find in nearly all my poems a contrast between structure and unconstrained expression, attempting to create an undercurrent of tension.  Some poems are written in non-rhyming, non-metered syllabic lines; some poems are presented in patterned free verse; and some poems are comprised of free verse lines packaged in the repetition of regularly numbered sections. 
    As a film critic and teacher of film studies, I also have developed a sense of narrative that is reflected in many of my poems.  In fact, quite a few of my newer poems contain sections that act much like portions of a film sequence with crosscutting from location to location or time period to time period, and with differing viewpoints presented similar to the way one sees a movie scene from various camera angles or through more than one characterâs eyes. 
    Using epigraphs in my poems, I often pay homage to these influences on the art of my poetry.   Also, any reader of my poetry, especially those works written in recent years, will recognize numerous allusions to painters, works of art, jazz musicians, and films, all of which add to an atmosphere I am hoping will affect the mood of the reader and evoke emotional responses. 
    Henri Matisse once wrote in his painter's notes, "I am unable to distinguish between my feelings for life and my way of expressing it."  Once again, I believe Robert Lowell's blending of art and life in his poetry has had an impact on my own work.  Still, I do not consider myself in any way a "confessional" poet, as critic M.L. Rosenthal labeled Lowell — along with Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass, and others.  (Indeed, even Lowell resented the term, regarding it as a demeaning misnomer.)  Nevertheless, as I mentioned previously, I do believe my poems, as autobiographical or as fictional as they may be, are manufactured artifacts of a personal or social history. 
    As a result, I must conclude that Matisse's observation of his art parallels my own, and I acknowledge that my poems also display "my feelings for life and my way of expressing it."  The resolutions at which I arrive in my poems are articles of faith.   John Gardner wrote in his book of criticism, On Moral Fiction, a book from which I teach every year, "we recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values."  As a teacher, I have emphasized the connection a study of language and literature has to the development of one's understanding as to how humans acquire and express intellectual or emotional reactions to the world around them, as well as their own ethical and spiritual convictions.  I have continually explained to students the notion I share with John Gardner that  "good books incline the reader to — in a wide and slightly optimistic sense — morality," toward an affirmation of life.  I believe there is evidence throughout my poetry that each poem I write is an article of faith, an affirmation of life. 

 

 
 

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