Scavenger Loop (2015), and Never-Ending Birds (2009), which was awarded the Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize in 2011. His six books of prose include Seek After: On Seven Modern Lyric Poets (2018), Show Me Your Environment: Essays on Poetry, Poets, and Poems (2014) and, with Ann Townsend, Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry (2007). Among his awards are prizes and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Mellon Foundation, and Society of Midland Authors. He holds the Thomas B. Fordham Chair at Denison University, in Granville, Ohio, and is Poetry Editor of The Kenyon Review.
into flight, the name as velocity,
a swift is one of two or three hundred
swirling over the post office smokestack.
First they rise come dusk to the high sky,
flying from the ivy walls of the bank
a few at a time, up from graveyard oaks
and back yards, then more, tightening to orbit
in a block-wide whirl above the village.
Now they are a flock. Now we’re holding hands.
We’re talking in whispers to our kind, who
stroll in couples from the ice cream shop
or bike here in small groups to see the birds.
A voice in awe turns inward; as looking
down into a canyon, the self grows small.
The smaller swifts are larger for their singing,
the spatter and high cheeep, the shrill of it.
And their quick bat-like alternating wings.
And the soft pewter sky sets off the black
checkmark bodies of the birds as they skitter
like water toward a drain. Now one veers,
dives, as if wing-shot or worse out of the sky
over the maw of the chimney. Flailing—
but then pulling out, as another dips
and the flock reverses its circling.
They seem like leaves spinning in a storm,
blown wild around us, and we their witnesses.
Witness the way they finish. The first one
simply drops into the flue. Then four,
five, in as many seconds, pulling out of
the swirl, sweep down. So swiftly, we’re alone.
The sky is clear of everything but night.
We are standing, at a loss, within it.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I remember, in this case, specifically. I started this poem in the late summer of 2009. I revised it through early summer 2010, and it appeared in Lisa Russ Spaar’s column in Chronicle of Higher Education in October 2010. I’m still pleased with this poem; it serves as the opening poem to my volume, Scavenger Loop, and it provides the title for my forthcoming book, Swift: New and Selected Poems.
The birds—the chimney swifts—are real and local. Every summer for decades they assemble in my village in Ohio, and especially in August and September they perform this dusk flight, gathering from all over the village into a loose cloud, then slowly into a tighter funnel circling and dipping lower over the big chimney of our old post office. At sundown, in twenty-thirty minutes, they swoop down one at a time, in increasing numbers, and disappear into the flue and spend the night, dozens, hundreds, packed in the three-story big brick stack. The poem started by watching, evening after evening. Often still I stand there on the corner across the street, alone, and then sometimes people join me. We are quiet. We watch them. We wish we could fly. The swifts, like bats, fly with alternating wingbeats, one wing up when the other’s down.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I am pretty slow and obsessive. I don’t count revisions, but I imagine this poem took a dozen large-scale revisions and maybe three dozen more with tweaks. The early poem was in unmeasured lines in eight-line stanzas, with no sections. Then it was in couplets. I kept sharpening, pressing it into syllabics. There were two or three spots where the phrasing evaded me. About a year elapsed between first partial draft and final version. There is no hurry in poetry, right?
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I believe inspiration comes to us when we are working. In + spirare = to breathe in, to be breathed-in-to. Much of the detailing of this poem was observed. It was not given. It was received. The tone of “Swift” is part of a larger tone I try and try to achieve—something like a quiet and very precise attention. Something about presence and the proximity of something other than myself, that other breathing thing. I don’t have words for what I mean; I don’t want them. I want the poem to go in search of that tone, as an achievement of syntax, phrasing, all the musical possibilities of the language, an achievement of discovery and that odd ancient newness of a real poem.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I cannot really separate principles of technique from aspects of subject. One enables the other. Of course I employ technique. The fundamentals of syntax, word choice, lineation are all technique. I have been trying to work in syllabics for many years, more than twenty. I like the rhythmic fluctuation alongside (or within) the regular mathematics of syllabics. That is, I don’t want a bouncy recurrence of rhythm, but instead a dynamic tension set up between the regularity of syllabics and the variable rhythm of my own sense of music. A tension between the math and the music of the thing. That’s it.
What else was I thinking about, regarding technique? Pattern of image; line and stanza and (in this case) section; music music music in the form of harmony, repetition, counterpoint, modulation, key change. I wanted this poem to sound like a viola on the two lower strings. That’s the quiet pitch of the swifts in flight.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
I take notes by hand. I write drafts on the keyboard. I print drafts out and revise by hand and in my head, and then revise on the keyboard. I walk around with multiple drafts in my folder and in my head. I take my time. That is not unusual in my practice.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I think there were just a few months, maybe three or four. This particular venue—Lisa’s column in the Chronicle—had a pretty quick turnaround. The more usual wait is a year or two between a poem’s being finished and its journal appearance, and sometimes longer. As I said, there is no hurry in poetry.
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?
I am slow. I will not send a poem off for some time, months. I have been too hasty at times, and usually regretted my haste. I don’t have rules about this. I write fewer poems these days and try to respond as I can when editors may be so kind as to invite me to submit. I’m holding a couple of poems right now, waiting, checking to see if they are really ready to be seen. One is about a month old, and one—which I keep fiddling with, tiny changes, back and forth—has been “finished” for about six months. You know, you make a tiny change somewhere and that effect may ripple far off.
Some of my caution, or patience, derives from being a poetry editor. I read thousands upon thousands of poems a year at The Kenyon Review. People are writing too many poems; or, I mean, are sending too many out to journals. Instead of writing five new poems, I wish they’d write one new poem and revise it five times or give it five times as much time to settle.
We are too busy making products and not poems, not poetry. So many of the poems I read are just not quite finished, at least to my sense of it all. One more draft, I think over and again. There is no hurry in poetry. There is, to be sure, hurry in our hearts, hurry in our professional identities (with all those resumes and professional reviews and applications). Hurry in our need for validation and attention. But the art of poetry is far more patient and far more demanding than the profession of poetry.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
I don’t know. Some of my poems are close to actual, close to being autobiographical experience or memory. Are they fact? Some of my poems are made-up, mostly.
But really, these are not a useful binary, in my way of thinking. The putting of a word onto paper makes it an artful, and fictional, gesture. And a word on a page is, of course, a real thing, a materiality, an art-in-fact, artifact. A work of art, a poem, is more interested in being an authenticity than a fact; more interested in being artful than make-believe. They are always both.
Is this a narrative poem?
All poems are narrative poems. Yes, “Swift” is narrative. It is also lyric.
I intend to write more about this distinction sometime soon. I think the dichotomy set up between narrative poetry and lyric poetry is, alas, a false one, another false and misleading binary, though I understand its history and its use. To the Greeks a narrative poem was an epic; a dramatic poem was a choral play; and lyric poem was a relatively shorter poem to be sung with a lyre or lute. Now, of course, we have the novel instead of the epic, and the play instead of choral drama. And our poetry has the potential to maintain and employ all of these attributes—of story, of song, of performance, of communal memory, of intimate personal insight.
But back to that binary and my dispute. What I think is this: To be a poem a thing must have vivid lyrical qualities. These may be sonorous qualities, they may be discordant, they may be coherent, they may be wildly jagged. But a poem is a lyrical form of language. Poems are lyric.
Poems are also narrative. All language is narrative. The fundamental relationship between subject and predicate is narrative. A narrative doesn’t necessarily require a long, sustained storyline or chronology. But time passes in the interstices between word and word, thing and act, and this temporal passage—whether it is almost instantaneous or epochal—contains story. Pound’s little verb-free “In a Station of the Metro” is a narrative poem and a lyric poem.
“Swift” has other narrative aspects, of course, too. It uses those things we tend to assign to fiction, like characters and setting and action. But I hope its lyric qualities are as vivid and rich as its narrative ones, in balance, in this case, two wings alternating into flight.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I do remember some of what I was reading when I wrote “Swift.” I read all the time, both for my daily pleasure and for the professional pleasure and task at The Kenyon Review. I was reading Stanley Plumly at the time, whom I read often. I’ve learned more about syllabics—and the dynamic rhythmic possibilities of syllabics—from Stan and from Marianne Moore than from any other poets. I was reading, I believe, Carl Phillips’ Speak Low; it had just come out, I believe, in 2009 when I started “Swift.” I was reading Dickinson poems, her bird poems, of which there are scads. I was also reading those weird little Cesar Aira novels during those couple of years. Go figure.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I write for myself and strangers. That’s Gertrude Stein. I’m with her. I write to attend to the music in my heart and my head, and I write—or aspire to write—in such a way that someone I don’t know may read and find purposeful music in my poems. I write for Dickinson and Keats, too. Relentless readers with endless patience and infinite soulful wisdom.
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 wait a while. I don’t show early drafts to anyone. I know what to do. I know where I tend to mess up or get hasty. I know from all the Kenyon Review poems what most of the day’s clichés are.
Then my first and best reader is Page Starzinger, my partner now of more than ten years. She is relentless and understanding. She knows those habits of mine, too, and her aesthetic and critical senses are sufficiently different from mine that she pushes me out of my comfort or my go-to stances. My background is music and hers is visual art. That’s a good difference.
And yes, I have a small group of dear trusted other readers, whom I turn to at different times for different things: Stan Plumly again, Carl Phillips, Jill Bialosky (my blessing-of-an-editor), Linda Gregerson, Ann Townsend, Terry Hummer, sometimes other folks. But these particular friends have helped me for years, decades, and each brings a different set of questions to the page. Poetry, such a private individual art, depends on others. I love that.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I don’t know. I’m not the right person to make that assessment. It’s different because it’s about swifts rather than deer or cornfields or my neighbors or ecological degradation?
What is American about this poem?
I can either ignore this question or write a book.
I am American, my idiom is American, and it is specific to my Midwestern life, my village life, all those other aspects of identity that make up a self or selves. The aesthetic is probably a version of latter-day Romanticism, wishful semi-post-Capitalism, devout naturalism—spooky action-at-a-distance—and some other isms. I write a lot about American poetry and poets. I guess I’m one.
There’s a lot more to say, about hopefulness, or community, or privilege, or awe, or music. But the more I explain the poem the farther it seems to me.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
The version of “Swifts” I read in public these days is slightly different, revised since it appeared in Scavenger Loop. There’s one rascal phrase I keep adjusting. I read it different ways, depending.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?