Alicia Ostriker’s thirteenth collection of poems, the Book of Seventy, won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award for Poetry. Her 1980 anti-war poem sequence The Mother/Child Papers was recently reprinted by the University of Pittsburgh Press. As a critic, Ostriker is the author of Stealing the Language: the Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America and other books on poetry and on the Bible. She has received awards from the Poetry Society of America and the Guggenheim foundation, among others, and was twice a National Book Award finalist. Ostriker lives in Princeton, teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Poetry program of Drew University, and obsesses about poetry, religion, and politics.
—for David Lehman
Ten thousand saw I at a glance
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
Going into hell so many times tears it
Which explains poetry.
The day the war against Iraq begins
I’m photographing the yellow daffodils
With their outstretched arms and ruffled cups
Blowing in the wind of Jesus Green
Edging the lush grassy moving river
Along with the swans and ducks
Under a soft March Cambridge sky
Embellishing the earth like a hand
Starting to illustrate a children’s book
Where people in light clothes come out
To play, to frisk and run about
With their lovers, friends, animals, and children
As down every stony backroad of history
They’ve always done in the peaceful springs
—Which in a sense is also hell because
The daffodils do look as if they dance
And make some of us in the park want to dance
And breathe deeply and I know that
Being able to eat and incorporate beauty like this
I am privileged and by that token can
Taste pain, roll it on my tongue, it’s good
The cruel wars are good the stupidity is good,
The primates hiding in their caves are very good,
They do their best, which explains poetry.
What explains poetry is that life is hard
But better than the alternatives,
The no and the nothing. Look at this light
And color, a splash of brilliant yellow
Punctuating an emerald text, white swans
And mottled brown ducks floating quietly along
Whole and alive, like an untorn language
That lacks nothing, that excludes
Nothing. Period. Don’t you think
It is our business to defend it
Even the day our masters start a war?
To defend the day we see the daffodils?
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
The situation is that my husband and I were living in Cambridge, on Carlyle Road, just a few steps from Jesus Green across the Cam River, in spring 2003. Just as it says, the poem essentially begins the very day we started bombing Iraq. Shock and awe—that is what the bombing campaign was called. I’d been demonstrating against the war (along with multitudes of English people), hoping right up to the last minute that it would not happen. So I was depressed, and went to photograph the daffodils to cheer myself up. Cambridge in general, and this bit of river and riverbank, and bridge, and park, in particular, is ravishingly lovely in springtime. So I took the photographs, went home, and my laptop has three versions of the poem dated March 19, 2003.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
July 31, 2003 is the date of the sixth draft. And I’m sure there were more when it went into manuscript form. I fiddle with poems a great deal, but I don’t necessarily keep records of all the fiddling. The poem started out in triplets and at some point went into quatrains, which for me feel more stable, less angular than triplets. I wanted some amplitude to convey the pastoral quality of the green. But the basic shape of the poem, the pastoral description followed by the abrupt turn to “this is hell,” then “taste pain,” and the following twists on down to “what explains poetry,” was there right from the start. After “this is hell,” the composition really ripped along. Most of the revisions are in the opening part. I’d been reading David Lehman’s The Evening Sun, and learned from it that David at one time lived very close to where I was living—hence the dedication. I’d also been reading Jack Spicer, which accounts for the bitter epigraph and the turn to bitterness in the poem.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I believe in inspiration, but I tend to associate it with more spiritual poems than this one is. Some sense of coming from a realm that is other than physical. So, though I roughed this poem out quickly, I wouldn’t call it “inspired.” It was so close to just being a record of what I was experiencing and feeling. The “sweat and tears” part was important also—getting the phrasing right, the cadences right.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
Often I have to struggle to find a metaphor or simile that I think a poem needs. In this case it was that hand illustrating the children’s book. Making that first line into a neat pentameter—the neatness almost mocking, given what it says—“The day the war against Iraq begins”—was intuitive. So was the movement into enjambment and abrupt caesurae, at the end, where I needed to fuse the feeling of pastoral with the feeling of anger and pain. That complicated synthesis. And the turn toward the reader near the end was a way to push the poem into a rude intimacy, to involve the reader more fully in the pastoral and the pain. But most of what I do in revision is listen to the music, the cadences, the assonances and so on, until what sounds somehow “off” sounds “right.”
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I have no clue. My record keeping is pathetic.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
Oh, it varies.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
This one is 100 percent fact; it just translates my brainwaves on March 13, 2003 into English.
Is this a narrative poem?
Not really. It’s not exactly a lyric either, though it has elements of both narrative and lyric. I see it as a meditation.
At the heart of this poem is the specter of morality, the idea of right and wrong. Is all good poetry in some way ethical or just?
I’m not sure what a “specter” of morality would be. Is it something we should be afraid of? Does morality jump out of a closet and say boo to us? Does it wear a white hood? I hope this poem is not preachy. Its theme is not “right and wrong,” its theme is happiness and pain. Part of this of course is the gap between peaceful pleasures and the stupid and cruel wars—both evidently part of the human condition.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Besides Lehman and Spicer, there’s Bob Dylan, obviously there’s Wordsworth. The “hell” intervention comes out of Spicer by way of Marlowe’s play “Dr. Faustus.” When Faust is surprised that Mephistopheles is not in hell, Mephistopheles replies, famously, “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.” A great line. But there’s also Whitman describing a shipwreck saying “All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well, / I am the man. I suffered. I was there.” What can it mean to say that one tastes suffering and pain and that it tastes good? That is a deep mystery, a deep gift Whitman offers, this acceptance of experience no matter what.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I like to think that some readers will catch the quotations and allusions, but I also like to think that readers who don’t get that aspect of a poem—its conversation with the past—can still resonate with the poem as a whole.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
I have some friends to whom I show work, but nobody giving consistently reliable advice. My husband reads my prose, and I take more than half his suggestions, but alas, he doesn’t feel capable of critiquing poetry.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
Could we skip this question? I wouldn’t know how to answer it.
What is American about this poem?
Well, its author is American, to start with. And perhaps it is enthralled with the English springtime scene the way only an American can be—though British poets have historically been fairly gaga about their pastoral past, they are probably mostly ironic about it now. But obviously the poem is American in its critique of America. Adrienne Rich in “Atlas of a Difficult World” writes:
A patriot is not a weapon. A patriot is one who wrestles for the soul of her country as she wrestles for her own being, for the soul of his country (gazing through the great circle at Window Rock into the sheen of the Viet Nam Wall) as he wrestles for his own being. A patriot is a citizen trying to wake from the burnt-out dream of innocence.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
It was finished.