Monday, June 22, 2009

Philip White

Philip White’s poems have won a Pushcart Prize and have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Republic, Slate, Poetry, Agni, New England Review, Southern Review, Hudson Review, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. His first book, The Clearing, from which “Six O’Clock Flight to the Interment” is taken, won the Walt Macdonald Prize and was published in Texas Tech University Press in 2007. He teaches Shakespeare at Centre College.


Sometimes it seems that everything’s dislodged,
slipping, and all we really know is pain
coming back, along perhaps with glimmers
of places we have been, made visible
by change or changed attention. As, lifted now
through brief turbulence into this routine
sublimity, I feel both freed and lost,
and see the embryonic moon in its swirl
of fluids wobble in inhuman view,
the clouds below like the very earth but scraped
and colorless, a blank moraine, a surface
infinitely formed and varied but by strictures
that elude me. Illusion of a surface,
I should say, because they are only clouds.
There’s room in this cabin to forget them, though,
and the crude thrust forward that unanchors us.
We can close the windows and sleep, or try
again to feel what we feel, or try not to.
I’m going to see my second mother lowered
in the ground, beside her daughter, my late wife,
and in the pause I try to trace strands back
that hardly hold together anymore
or hold me to what’s gone. I have to face
what is at last a limit if not a failure,
the points at which my loves fell from me
and even my pain was lost and what remained
was a mere place, the fields I walked in day
by day. It’s ugly feeling nothing, but worse
to be unaware of it, or to call it moving on
or working through or healing, to mock ourselves
with snapshots, memories, adjusting the focus
and sentiments to suit our needs, as if
nothing at all had been lost or the lost
were only what they seemed to us to be.
Pain may be true, but in time the mind numbs
and wanders, and the dead don’t come. Instead,
random places, the small dark gap in the arms
of the pine that looked inviting from inside
my first grade classroom, or the flat in Hong Kong
where I lay some mornings taking in the tops
of trees below me on the street that seemed
so disappointing but so real, though the spot
I then lay is now two hundred feet in the air
between new buildings. But sometimes simply being
someplace is all we need, and in bare sunlight
on a wall we sense a signature of what is
conducting us, arraying, granting us
entry, moving us from love to love.
After all there’s room for joy here, too.
I try to piece it together, the rocky hill
where the body will be laid, the various cries
and yawps of birds that breed or pass over,
the trees in all seasons, the eroding cliffs,
small tufts or shifting atolls of cloud,
and always the vagaries of light on the cusps
of everything, and a face, maybe, something said.
But why so little of that, of others, here,
of their way of being in this place, of what
they made of the look of things that stopped us,
wrapped us in wonder, from which we took our cues?
As if they were mere scenery, props,
or like that bird back home whose call I knew
too long for it to stay with me; so lost
it was in my surroundings that only drifts
of tone, of rhythm, will come until I find
my way back to that place. But weren’t they
more than that? Weren’t they themselves sometimes,
maybe from the start, a world for us, a field,
and so the dead are like a struck stage, a slate
wiped clean, a cloud moraine above or below
or within which everything takes place
and we will never find ourselves again?

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

After my mother’s death in 1995, I didn’t write much for five years. There were other reasons, but I think it was partly because something about her love of life, her creative and responsive way of being, the mere fact of it in the world, had been elemental for me. I still haven’t written very directly about her, but her presence and her loss are behind virtually everything I’ve written since then. “Six O’Clock Flight” is one of the more explicit poems on the subject, and even so it’s pretty oblique. The immediate impetus for writing it was the death, in 2006, of my first wife’s mother, but that event was just the surface layer of a succession of losses. In other words, the poem, even more than most, started a long time before it was composed.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts? How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print? 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? Was this poem finished or abandoned?

As I remember, there were three major revisions involving deleting, adding, or overhauling large sections of the poem, and about ten or eleven more line-by-line run-throughs involving local changes—all within about a month of beginning to write. I typically spend far longer on a poem—decades, even. I probably would have lingered over this one too, but Texas Tech had solicited a manuscript from me and under deadline I put the poem in my manuscript and sent it off. I knew pretty early on that the poem had a culminating power for what I’d been writing for twenty years, and I thought the manuscript would be stronger for its inclusion, even without the usual time to get a settled perspective on each word and phrase and line. When the manuscript was accepted, the editor didn’t welcome revisions, so the poem was published largely as submitted, in the book, a year after I wrote it. I was basically comfortable with the poem when I sent it off, and fortunately still am. That’s not often the case with poems I haven’t spent a lot of time with. So this poem was neither “finished” in the usual way for me, nor really “abandoned.” More like “released,” “let go.”

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears? How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

I don’t seem to write unless a place, a person, or some intriguing, disturbing, or beautiful object gets tangled up with or catches on an internal need or imperative or driving emotion. I think everything I’ve written was “inspired,” in that sense, by something outside of me. There’s also a happiness of thought or perception that sometimes occurs after mulling or brooding on something for a long time, and a serendipity of phrase that can happen when I’m immersed in the experiential properties of words—their sounds, rhythms, and layers and nuances of meaning, their histories, the ways they interact with each other—and am writing by ear and intuition. But for me those flashes hardly seem like divine afflatus or badges of native genius. They rise out of cultivated habits of openness and attention, even out of long thought and hard study. I’m enough of a Romantic to like the idea of each poem finding its own form even if it ends up resembling or re-actualizing some inherited one, and to recognize in the very phrasing of these questions a familiar complex of anxieties and hedges about craft and its supposed ideological implications. Still, I think all writers, brilliant originals or just plodding laborers like me, “consciously employ principles of technique,” though they may not analyze in real time what they’re doing or remember it later. This particular poem, certainly, emerged from conscious attention to form and craft as well as from hunches, leaps, feeling around in the dark, and trial and error. With regard to form, I responded to evolving intuitions about how the long the poem would be and how the thought and feeling might proceed, how long and connected the phrases and sentences might be, and how stress rhythms, caesura placement, line length, and line end might interact with the syntactical constructions to control the momentum. Although the poem has some of the properties of blank verse, I didn’t start with the idea of meter, or end up with a truly metrical poem.

Is this a narrative poem? Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

The narrative of the flight mostly sets up an occasion for lyrical thinking. The narrative refers to factual events; the shape the thinking takes is fiction. I didn’t merely transcribe what I saw and thought on a particular flight. Behind the generalizing impulse in the poem is layered experience of other trips home to funerals in the years after I moved to the other side of the continent from where I grew up. The poem finds a voice for thoughts that had been germinating over time about those losses, but it also voices other thoughts, some of which writing the poem helped me to have.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

My reading usually takes a long time to percolate down to where the poems come from, and just as long to get wicked up back to the surface, so what I was reading at the moment probably isn’t relevant. I’m just far enough from the poem not to remember what my conscious influences were, anyway. I could surmise some from rereading the poem, but that would be literary criticism, no better than anyone else’s.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader? 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 don’t aim this way in every poem, but I like the idea of writing poems that all the different people in my life, particularly non-literary ones, might find approachable. Even so, I hardly ever show anything to anyone. At some point, of course, I send things out to magazines, and I eventually show all my poems to my wife, Lisa Williams, who is also a poet. Her responses have helped me more than anything else, besides my own reading and thought. Before that, I showed everything to my first wife, who was a very good reader. I’ve also had a few generous friends over the years who have given me criticism and encouragement, but I’ve never been part of a “group” and have only had a few hours of experience in a “workshop.” I usually don’t show anyone my poems until I’ve done as much as I can with them, allowing time for revisiting and reconsideration. What readers tell me may convince me that I’m not in fact finished with the poem, but if I haven’t done everything I can beforehand I don’t want to waste their time.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It’s more loose and meandering in its thinking and more sustained in its rhythms than some, maybe. It’s also longer than most of my poems.

What is American about this poem?

Even if death is the great universal, love and grief, and attitudes toward time and place, self and other, are all tinged, if not shaped, by culture. I’m sure the poem is American in some way. But it doesn’t make a point of it.


  1. What is American about this poem?

    Not to be too simplistic, but the answer lies in the fact this poem is apoem of place. American poetry is deeply rooted in place.

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