Christopher Bakken is the author of two books of poems: Goat Funeral (awarded the Helen C. Smith prize by the Texas Institute of Letters for the best book of poetry in 2006) and After Greece (for which he won the 2001 T.S. Eliot Prize in Poetry). Bakken is also co-translator of The Lions’ Gate, a selected poems of the contemporary Greek poet Titos Patrikios. His poems, essays and translations have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as The Paris Review, PN Review, Literary Imagination, Ploughshares, Gettysburg Review, The Hudson Review, and Parnassus: Poetry in Review. He served as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Bucharest, Romania, in 2008. He is Associate Professor of English at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.
When William Blake came fashionably late
to parties he’d blame it on archangels,
prophecies broadcast between the leaves
of ordinary trees in the orchard:
those who restrain desire do so because
theirs is weak enough to be restrained…
As in Martinsville, Wisconsin, when we
allowed Mike Meinholz to get in the car,
surely a mistake, since the wheels would start
churning up the twelve-packs of Budweiser
he never restrained himself from drinking.
We all have our excuses for wanting
to avoid conversation with mortals,
to restrain ourselves from the fools we are
in the neon light that only darkens
with beer, fears we can never quite drown.
One hundred people trapped in one small town
with just one bar, one church, and one butcher.
Expect poison from standing water,
bewildering Blake would probably say,
if he’d been around to help drag the drunk
from my Impala, down our steep driveway,
to the back lawn where he would sleep, where we
stood that night without the assistance
of good sense, grass, or Romantic verse,
and heard, I swear, a voice come from below
where the woods dropped into the gulley:
a woman in pain, we thought at first,
which nearly made us run the other way,
but then it shrieked like a snared rabbit,
or was it some keening itch branches scratched,
or nothing but a dull thud in the chest,
nothing but what we wanted it to be, then,
some housecat that couldn’t find its way down,
some worried awe that barely held us up,
some trembling thing in a tree we couldn’t see.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
According to my notebook, my first draft was written in the second week of October, 2007. I’d spent the morning reading Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, mining his ecstatic parables. And for some reason I’d just listened to the Dead Kennedy’s “California Űber Alles” for the first time in about twenty years. So I gave myself the assignment of writing a poem containing lines from both Blake and Jello Biafra (has there ever been a stranger pair of prophets?).
Thinking about the Dead Kennedys got me thinking about my old friend Mike Meinholz, the drunk punk hero of this Wisconsin poem; then Jello departed from the poem forever, probably for the better.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
In the act of composition, I’m primarily a metrical writer. The poem’s first line came out in ten syllables and it hasn’t changed at all since that first draft. Once it was clear the poem was going to have a backbone of narrative, blank verse felt organically right (Wordsworthian nostalgia is a kind of foil here) and the lines filled out very quickly thanks to that self-imposed architecture. My first finished draft was almost the exact length of the poem printed here.
Since iambic pentameter felt too tidy and stately for this subject, however, I spent a good deal of time in later drafts ruffling the metrical surfaces, futzing with a lot of angular substitutions in the hope that the poem would proceed down the page with more anxious spontaneity.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Well, I should answer “yes,” if only because this poem is about inspiration at some level, though the primary source of inspiration in Martinsville, Wisconsin was fear: the kind brought on by isolation, religious belief (or lack of it), alcohol, and the unknown.
There’s no doubt William Blake “received” his poems, had them dictated by various daemonic sources, and he seemed to make sense of those voices. The “we” at the end of this poem is attempting to do something like that as well, with ambiguous success.
As for my own poems: beyond the occasional flash of backyard sublime, I pretty much depend on hard labor to carry the day.
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?
It went out about two weeks after it was written. It sent it to Ploughshares (along with a batch of two or three other Wisconsin poems) and B.H. Fairchild plucked it from the slush pile for an issue he was editing for the following spring.
Normally I let poems sit and marinate for a long time before sending them out, so that was an unusually short trip from draft to print. I don’t have any rules about this—some poems just arrive at their “finished” form sooner than others.
Is this a narrative poem?
I confess: I think it is. Though with only a beginning and middle, it’s more a meditation built upon the flimsy bones of anecdote.
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?
Terrence des Pres, distilling what many others had suggested before him, said that the poet has two duties: praise and dispraise. A certain kind of ethics is involved there, I suppose, and occasionally poets are qualified to guide others in the pursuit of what is sacred, and away from what isn’t. I turn to Dante and Whitman and Milosz (to name a few obvious examples) if that’s what I’m looking for.
But I’m not sure there is an ethics of the imagination—and I persist in the Romantic idea that the imagination (not theory, or morality, or autobiography) is the provenance of poetry.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Gertrude Stein said she wrote for “herself and strangers.” That about sums it up. I certainly don’t write to please anyone in particular, though I do keep in mind that my metaphysical family—comprised of the dead poets I love—is out there listening. I try not to make an ass of myself in front of them.
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 think of myself as a survivor of the workshop years. For a long time, workshop saved me time—others helped me see the mistakes I was making before those mistakes became too ingrained. Beyond that, however, I’m not sure how much it helped me to have a group of people try to come to some consensus about my drafts.
I always learned much more from individual readers I trusted, those who helped me learn to edit myself (that’s ultimately what one should learn from workshop, though that’s not usually what happens). Richard Howard helped show me how to do that early in my career.
Sometimes I share my work with other poets, especially if I’m feeling stuck. Alan Michael Parker saw a draft of this poem shortly after it was written, as did Corey Marks. Both of them have a somewhat different approach to poetry than I do, so their perspectives are often really helpful. I also show drafts to David Mason, whose ear for meter in particular I find invaluable.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours? What is American about this poem?
I’m answering these two unrelated questions together since they are related in this case. My first book, After Greece, accounted a vision of my Promised Land, one very far from my birthplace. And my second book also emerged from some imagined Mediterranean place, though its adventures in psychedelic pastoral were leading me (I see now) back toward my Midwestern roots.
I never consciously avoided writing about Wisconsin, though I never had much inclination to do it either. “Drunk” was one of the first poems in which I openly engaged my rural American upbringing and about half of my new manuscript continues in that vein.
One hundred people trapped in one small town
with just one bar, one church, and one butcher.
That pretty much sums up what it felt like to live out in the dark fields of the republic. They might be the most hard-headed “American” lines I’ve ever written.
Also, any poem with a Pontiac in it qualifies as an American poem, no?
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Finished. At least for now.
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