Rodney Jones, born in Alabama, is a professor of English at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He has published eight books of poetry, including Salvation Blues (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). Among his many honors, Jones was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award, a Southeast Booksellers Association Award, and a Harper Lee Award.
Because I have known many women
Who are dead, I try to think of fields
As holy places. Whether we plow them
Or let them to weeds and sunlight,
Those are the best places for grief,
If only that they perform the peace
We come to, the feeling without fingers,
The hearing without ears, the seeing
Without eyes. Isn’t heaven just this
Unbearable presence under leaves?
I had thought so. I had believed
At times in a meadow and at other
Times in a wood where we’d emerge
No longer ourselves, but reduced
To many small things that we could
Not presume to know, except as my
Friend’s wife begins to disappear,
He feels no solvent in all the earth,
And me, far off, still amateur at grief.
Walking the creek behind the house,
I cross to the old homeplace, find
A scattering of chimney rocks, the
Seeds my grandmother watered, the
Human lifetime of middle-aged trees.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
The first draft that I have found is from a journal that I was keeping in 1986, but that does not much resemble the poem that was published ten years later.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I did not count the drafts. I know that I went through at least a hundred sheets of paper and looked at the poem on many separate occasions over a period of eight or nine years as the thought behind the poem mutated. Like many of my poems, “Ground Sense” came from a long meditation. As for the poem that was eventually published, it went through only a few drafts. Arriving at those drafts constituted the difficulty.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Inspiration, yes. I do not believe that anything good will be forced by work alone, and some days, as I work, something rises up that seems like revelation, actual insight, passion, the new thing, or, more frequently, part of a new thing. In poems like “Ground Sense,” the grail, the quality I’m after is a fresh and beautiful articulation of an old idea.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I was not happy with any of the previous forms because they did not seem to realize the intuition. Frequently, when I’m unhappy with some technical aspect of a poem, it’s a signal that voice or tone is false. It’s less the revision of a line than a revision of voice that is necessary, and perhaps sometimes, as Rilke put it in another context, “You must change your life.”
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
Rod Smith printed it in Shenandoah, and it must have been a year or more after the poem was finished.
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?
My ideal would be never to send anything out as long as there remains any doubt about what the poem is doing, but, in practice, I find that I often send things out before they are finished and I always regret it, especially if they are published or rejected.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Even in a work as inventive as Borges’ “The Circular Ruin,” fiction depends on fact. The mind stirs a weird brew. This poem postulates a vision of an afterlife that resembles the natural processes as opposed to the more conventional imaginative furniture; this is ground sense, literally and figuratively, and it is derived from actual places and people though I don’t draw a map or present a detailed biographical sketch.
Is this a narrative poem?
No, though a number of narratives inform it. If a narrative is a stream, this is a lake, a gathering of the trickling of many narratives.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I especially remember admiring W.S. Merwin’s Travels, which seems to me perhaps his strongest book, but I read hundreds of poets during the time I was working on this poem. I think there was less a singular influence than multiple influences: maybe bits of the thirteenth chapter of Ecclesiastes and shards of Wallace Stevens and William Stafford, maybe a sprinkling of Thoreau and Emerson.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Publishers always ask that question, and it’s not rhetorical. They want to find a market. While I think about the ideal reader a great deal, and it’s an interesting thought, it’s not a thought that necessarily helps me to write poems. Sometimes I write a poem for one person. Sometimes I write a poem to a stick or a bush. I do not want to beg, or to give orders, or to simply entertain, but I have done all those things, I will do them again. A poem speaks to one person or to no one.
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?
In this case, no one saw any version but the finished one. Over the years, many poets have read my book manuscripts in earlier drafts and offered good and often contrasting suggestions, most notably, Peter Davison, who was my editor for many years. Donald Justice offered invaluable criticism on The Unborn, my second book, and Philip Levine helped me with Elegy for the Southern Drawl. More recently, Michael Collier has been a wonderful reader.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
Though I am a creature of habit, it seems to me that all true poems differ from each other—though it may just be a matter of the same mushrooms growing out of different logs.
What is American about this poem?
Transcendental stuff probably.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
I won’t take any of it back or add to it, so, from my point of view, it’s history.