Saturday, April 11, 2020

Ernest Hilbert

Ernest Hilbert is the author of Sixty SonnetsAll of You on the Good Earth, Caligulan, which was selected as winner of the 2017 Poets’ Prize, and Last One Out. He lives in Philadelphia where he works as a rare book dealer and book reviewer for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. His poem “Mars Ultor” was included in Best American Poetry 2018, and his poems appear in Yale ReviewAmerican Poetry ReviewHarvard ReviewParnassusSewanee ReviewHudson ReviewBoston ReviewThe New RepublicAmerican Scholar, and the London ReviewVisit him here


Chuckling gulls luft up to swipe and hang 
In muggy air over the riverside’s 
Deadfall—jagged white as a splintered ice-flow.
A tern goes and returns like a boomerang
Across the scene. An Eastern Kingbird glides
Beside a dock cemented with guano.

The dock’s slats tilt down, disappearing at the end 
To rot in slow water. Nearer, a marsh wren 
Sways on a thorny stem. From the northwest, 
Curving along the broad river’s bend,
The startled dart of a fierce-winged merlin,
Scouting out or returning to its nest. 

Four decades ago I plied these waters 
With my father—he at the helm, running 
In early haze between black-tar banks:
“Jibe ho!”—the aluminum boom swings as my father’s
Hand draws the tiller, the wake’s V following—
A metal rattle as my father cranks

The winch—the thrill of holding on as we heel
And the sideways world is wind and bulrush,
Ghosts of petrified white cedars standing
Apart out in the endless mud, our keel
Roiling the black bottom. In the murky hush
Of dusk, we arrive at the familiar landing . . . .

Beyond the sandy downstream knolls, behold 
A summer flotilla of tundra swans. 
In strobing depths beneath the broken dock, 
Elegant Venetian galleys of gold-
Finned pickerel row through rays to bronze,
White perch arrowing silver around a rock

To the sun-ruled surface where stratocumuli
Loom in to warn of an advancing storm. 
A sad and majestic eastern red cedar 
Bushes over the brown current, berry
Clusters dusty-blue, a funerary form
Leaning to its mirror in the lessening light.

Fires smolder, far off. The ancient rough-shield 
Shell of a diamondback terrapin bobs 
On a soaked log sideways in the slow stream. 
Scum from brackish water dims its battlefield
Polish. All that floats here—flaked bark, knobs
Of old limbs, cola cans—drawn as if in a dream

Toward the Great Bay and the sea beyond. 
I lie in bed under cresting waves of wool, 
Steering my ivory sloop with sails of ice 
In the New Jersey sunset—a reed my wand;
Its tufts a dirty, living gold—the pull
Of memory, time-consumed sinking of sights

Once solid. The stars are out already,
And I go down where swamps sieve water shed 
By the pine-stands and tangled low scrub, a sight
That gathers around the cloud-flood horizon—I see
Everything, all around, going red a while, led
To my bedside in the last of the light.

When was this poem composed? 

Good question to start with. I’m obliged to leaf through my hand-written journals for the months between May 16th, 2013 and October 19th, 2018. Up until the first date, and after the second, I kept my journal digitally. I used hand-written journals in order to find out how a mechanical pencil differs from a mechanical keyboard when setting down thoughts. I see that “Great Bay Estuary” was one of the last poems written before the publication of my fourth collection, Last One Out, which appeared in March 2019. It appears in a chapter devoted to memories of family and youth. I mention the poem in my entry for Monday, August 5th, 2018: “I have been working on a poem called ‘Great Bay Estuary.’ In some ways it is an enlargement of my poem ‘Mullica River,’ from All of You on the Good Earth, but it is much more, I believe.” I mention sending it to the editor and his accepting it, “so I put it into Last One Out as the last poem of the opening section.” More on that to come. 

How did it start? 

Strangely, it probably started with the poem mentioned in the journal, the sonnet “Sailing the Mullica River (Great Bay Estuary) 1978,” which served as a kind of sketch or draft. This was entirely unplanned. I only noticed the similarities after I completed the later poem. The sonnet appeared in 66: The Journal of Sonnet Studies, a magazine run by Zachary Bos out of his Melville Avenue address in Boston, in the summer of 2009, ten years before “Great Bay Estuary” appeared in print. The poem appeared again in 2013 in my second book, All of You on the Good Earth. As you can see, it contains the very title of the later poem in its title, nestled between the primary title and the date. In part, the poem reads: 

Terns dowse beaks in their echoed images.
Jet fighters soar and glint over arcades
Of scorched black pines. The white sail snaps, billows.
Greenheads swarm in the shaping dusk and buzz.
Our prow stirs the black mud, splits sulking grass.

The earlier poem employs my standard sonnet form, which consists of two sestets rhyming ABCABCDEFDEF followed by a couplet, GG. The sestets are employed (without the final GG couplet of the sonnet) in “Great Bay Estuary.” The earlier poem turns on tangible images imagined in an elevated musical register, which is where it most strongly resembles the later poem aside from the rhyme scheme. 

My father died in 1992, so these poems look back over great distances to days spent sailing with him and his friend, a history teacher at the high school where they both taught. It was a modest boat they owned together and kept docked up the Mullica River in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. The boat was a Sailstar Corinthian 19, with a long keel hull. It was probably around twenty feet long, maybe a six foot beam, with a fractional sloop rigging, which is a shortened foresail. It was named Strömming, which means small fish in Swedish. I believe strömming are specifically herring fished in the brackish waters of the Baltic north of the Kalmar Strait, which is fitting for a boat that sailed the brackish waters of a tidal river and bay. I grew up hearing of the adventures they had on the boat. Once, a sudden squall hit them, and while trying to shelter in Forked River wound up dismasted by the bridge for Route 9. They were rescued by the Coast Guard. My dad grew beards in the summer when sailing, but he shaved before school started again, except one year when the principal saw him the day before class and told him to shave the beard. That year he kept it. 

The figure of the sailboat making way in a tidal river occurred to me as an ideal figure of a life colored by memories: winds that fill the sails likened to the events in life that move us to feel more deeply; the keel roiling black mud, stirring up sediment and filling the water with debris and organic matter, which I correlate with the deep particles of memory that long ago settled but can be stirred again. The Strömming is not much as ships in literature go—the Argo, the Pequod, the We’re HereStultifera Navis—but it serves a function in the poem. It is a vessel in both senses of the word—a craft, moving across water and time, and a container, holding memories. The Strömming appears in the poem twice, first as its historical self and then as its mythical or dream proxy in the “ivory sloop with sails of ice,” an object in life recalled in memory or dream, and as art. The poem is also elegiac. For some reason, I’ve always been alert to elegiac qualities in literature. Even Beowulf can be read as a lament for a departed age of heroes and high adventure. 

I learned from reading the Romantics that any image in a poem must carry its own weight and that it changes tone in relation to any others. It is there to carry some symbolic weight or create emotional texture. Wordsworth acknowledges the importance to the poet of being able to “supply endless combinations of forms and imagery.” This is the vivid sensation he urges poets to obtain. Wordsworth is also the great poet of memory and reflections on youth and mortality that accompany age. His early work, his best, has become more important to me as I grow older, but I find the work of the other major English Romantics have as well, even Shelley, if only for the staggering beauty of his lines and his reach for the sublime. 

How many revisions did this poem undergo? 

I didn’t keep careful notes regarding revision of the poem. I revise a great deal and very quickly. I like to get the raw material up on the slab and then work it, either subtracting as if chiseling a block of marble or piling it up like clay. That’s an imprecise analogy, but my point is that the actual work of it, rather than the pure revelation of the creative experience, comes with the long work of revision. It takes some time, and I’ll either feel it’s done and ready to show to editors or decide that it falls short. If I don’t think it works, I place it in what I jokingly call the “vast archive,” where I keep everything from whole poems to jettisoned stanzas and even single lines clipped out of poems. 

How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts? 

When I see that a painter like Willem de Kooning painted “Woman I” from 1950 to 1952, I can only assume it doesn’t mean he worked on nothing else for two years. I imagine it going behind some other canvases, being pulled out, worked on, put back again in some combination until he felt done with it. I am usually working a number of poems at once, dozens. Sometimes I change something, and then make a note in the next revision to put it back the way it was, and then make another note during the next round to make the change again, which fits Faulkner’s assertion that literature is the human heart in conflict with itself. It’s comical, but it shows the struggle between moods or artistic instincts that remain in opposition. I can’t answer your question with any precision, though I’d think this one underwent changes for a few months before finding its final form. 

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears? 

For me a poem is part mystery and part practice. I use many techniques and approaches. The truth is I don’t even plan a poem in any particular way most of the time. I start with what feels right in the act of writing itself. Once a spark strikes I’m ready to burn whatever is at hand to keep the fire going. A single feeling, intensely experienced, can carry a long way. I try to be completely open to new ways of doing things every time, while still learning from what I’ve done in the past, whether that means building on experience or learning what to avoid. To answer the question directly, both parts always matter. The poem was halfway “received” and the rest of the way fashioned from “sweat and tears.”

The poems in my earlier books followed Emerson’s notion of a poem as “not metres, but a metre-making argument.” They tended to have a rhetorical thrust. I wrote in an Audenesque, Horatian mode, discursive, philosophical, sometimes humorous, argumentative, though I realize that I was doing that in sonnet form primarily. Something about the sonnet form must lend itself to the rhetorical gesture, not least the presence of a volta and the overall concision of the form. Of course there is more to what Emerson said than is usually quoted. He went on to say that a poem is “a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.” That is more relevant to a poem like “Great Bay Estuary.” 

I am usually moved to make notes toward a new poem only when the poem comes to me as an image combined with memorable sound to capture it. I don’t know why or how it happens. It tends to happen when I’m taken out of my daily rounds by illness, travel, exhaustion, extreme situations, emotional distress, emergencies and crises, a hangover. As Shelley put it so memorably in his Defence of Poetry, it is an art that “purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.” When I was young I attempted all sorts of methods to prod myself into writing, though the result was only hundreds of pages of poetry I’d file away and forget. I tried automatic writing of various kinds, chance operations, cut-ups, variations on passages written by others. I goaded myself into authorship because I felt I couldn’t very well call myself a poet if I hadn’t managed to put any poetry down. I put the cart in front of the horse, but those were early days.

At some point I realized with sadness and embarrassment that I didn’t know how to describe the world around me very well. I was writing gaseous, abstract poems in my 20s. I didn’t know the names of trees, types of stone, geographical features, weather patterns. I wasn’t versed in architectural or biological terminology. Alfred Appel, a student of Nabokov’s, relates an anecdote that really shook me when I first encountered it. He tells of an occasion at Cornell when a student entered Nabokov’s office and appealed for help becoming a writer. Nabokov is said to have pointed out the window and asked “what is the name of that tree?” When the student came up empty, he supposedly remarked “then you’ll never be a writer.” Harsh words from a professor by today’s standards, these nonetheless were a powerful corrective for me. I began to gather books about trees, sea life, minerals, birds, weather patterns, parts of man-made objects to learn about everything to which I was already seeing and reacting but couldn’t name. This provided me the resources I needed to make poems more concrete, gain more control over them symbolically. I finally got the gist of “no ideas but in things,” the directive by William Carlos Williams. I understood what Wallace Stevens meant when he wrote in The Necessary Angel, “the imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real.” 

In “Great Bay Estuary,” the images are drawn from deep memory deeply considered, what artists refer to as le dessin de mémoire, learning a scene or pattern so well that it may be spiritually interpreted with imaginative dynamism at a later time. After all, this poem is twice removed from the scene. It is a description of myself remembering it. 
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

I mentioned the sestets of iambic pentameter with an ABCABC rhyme scheme lifted from the double sestets of my own sonnet form. This came naturally. It is likely that the stanzas of Keats’ great odes were adapted sonnets. He wrote to his brother not long after writing “Ode to Psyche,” “I have been endeavouring to discover a better Sonnet stanza than we have. The legitimate does not suit the language well, from the pouncing rhymes; the other appears too elegiac, and the couplet at the end of it has seldom a pleasing effect. I do not pretend to have succeeded. It will explain itself.” Like Keats, I jettisoned the couplets, though rather than fashion an attenuated sonnet I pulled out a component and proceeded to use it as a basic block. I embed internal rhymes as well, to give a sense of lift to certain passages. I also situate some rhymes to create a certain fluency with each other. For instance, in this stanza, A and B are close enough to sound off each other: 

The dock’s slats tilt down, disappearing at the end 
To rot in slow water. Nearer, a marsh wren 
Sways on a thorny stem. 

“End” rhymes later with “bend” (coronal stops) and “wren” slackly with “merlin” (coronal nasals) but we get “stem” (labial nasal) in the middle to lift the sound up and keep it going. 

I invented the word “luft” for the poem. It provided precisely what I needed in terms of onomatopoetic presence. “Luft” is German for “air.” It doesn’t exist in English, at least until now. It’s an example of sound trumping sense. I had to use that word. “Lift” didn’t work. I wanted “luft.” It was the sound I wanted, so I used it. No one seems to be confused by it or wonder about the word. From context, and from the music, the reader understands what is meant. 

Also, I wanted to include the four classical elements of water, earth, air, and fire. The water draws all that has died or is dying toward the bay and the sea beyond. The earth is home to the grasses and trees and the shores that create, with water, the shape of the river. The air conveys clouds reflected in the surface to which the fish rise as if touching them. The wind moves the grass and nourishes the distant fire, which is the burning of deep emotion, its smoke smudging and altering the colors of the sunset as we look back in time. 

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

Not particularly. It came to me without any effort. I simply began writing. It had been simmering for decades, probably. That’s the only way I write poetry. As I’ve explained, it’s a variation, albeit in longer form, of an earlier poem prompted by the same memory. Once I began, it came easily because I felt physically placed in the scene. I was seeing, and it was all around me. I was there. I felt it. Years ago I reviewed Helen Vendler’s Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats for a New York newspaper. I wrote at the time about her “useful observations on Whitman’s tendency to restate an idea by adding a more subtle second description of a particular scene.” 

At the time I wondered why he wouldn’t go back to remove the earlier, presumably prototypical passage in order to leave only the improved, or at least reimagined passage. She argues that both parts belong in the poem. In this case I have two entirely different poems, and the second does not eclipse the first, though I believe it improves on its theme. I suspect many poets revisit themes, images, sounds, events, or emotions throughout their careers. One can draw profitably from the same well a whole lifetime. I have a very real fear of not only drying up as a writer but becoming a bore, repeating myself. However, sometimes it takes repetition to find completion. You hope the water you draw remains fresh. “Expect poison from the standing water,” Blake warned.

It is a painterly poem, a landscape. Matisse (writing about still-life, a form at which he excelled) instructed his students that what is most important is the “emotion of the ensemble, the interrelation of the objects, the specific character of every object—modified by its relation to the others—all interlaced like a cord or a serpent.” It flows through description. To a reader of prose, description can seem like an impediment to narrative progress and engaging dialog. I’ve met people who tell me they only read the dialog in novels and skip everything else. In a poem like “Great Bay Estuary,” the description is the very essence of the poem, the point from which all else proceeds. I’ve always hoped a poem could work as a spell. Poetry works as we expect magic to. A good poem transforms the reader, inspires fear or hope, brings sadness or instills courage. It transports the reader to other places, other times, into another person’s life and experience. It lodges in the mind and survives on the tongue, changing the way the reader speaks. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is. 

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print? 

Not terribly long, as these things go. It was less than a year before it appeared in The Hopkins Review Volume 12, Number 2, Spring 2019, and in Last One Out, which came out in March 2019. 

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 subject to the same weaknesses I observe among fellow poets. I do get excited when I manage a serviceable first draft of a poem. It’s new. That’s exhilarating. But it’s still molten, really, and it needs to be shaped as it sets. My urge to share it right away is more or less satisfied when I show it to a handful of friends who read my work first and whose work I read in return. Even in that case, I try to let it sit for a while before showing them. I know that when I’m working on it, I’m going to keep making small changes for a while, and the next day I might reorder or even remove a stanza, make bigger changes along those lines. It’s a waste of everyone’s time if I start putting the poem out in the world too soon. They wind up commenting on something that’s no longer in the poem or has already been changed.

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

Well, the honest memory would be one of sheer boredom. New Jersey summers are sweltering, humid, buggy. To navigate a river like the Mullica a sailor is compelled to tack a great deal as the waterway wends its way through the barrens. It’s a slow progress to the bay, and you’re constantly rocked by powerboats making their way out. It’s hard as a boy to stay focused if you’re not actually involved in what’s going on. I wasn’t old enough to do much to help the older men handling the sails and tiller. I couldn’t wait till it was time to eat lunch or do anything to break up the monotony. Yet I have very distinct memories of the sights. That’s the fact. The fiction is that my memories move me greatly, not least because I miss my father so much. I miss my childhood, and even those times spent in boredom or agony take on a new light in memory when the world was till before me. They stand out and become memorable. The poem is both wistful and, I hope, majestic in its way. That’s the fiction, if you will.  

Is this a narrative poem?

No. It is a poem about memory, and it engages in world-building of a type. It’s not a still life, because you’ll notice everything, even the trees and sky, are in motion or suggest motion. The two greater motions in the poem are the sun sinking in the west, leaving a dazzling array over the forest fires so common in the barrens, and the slow pull of the river toward the bay and the ocean beyond, carrying wreckage with it. The river moving east is the endless, sometimes almost imperceptible pull of time toward the vast mystery of death. The sunset in the west is the looking back, engrossing oneself in deep recollection, the magnificent colors changing everything. 

The poem moves back in time even within itself. It begins in the afternoon and goes into dusk, when “in the murky hush / Of dusk, we arrive at the familiar landing . . . .” which I hoped might remind the reader of Charon poling across Styx to deliver the newly dead to the underworld. The reason I use an ellipsis to end that stanza is that the reader is moved back as the clock is reset to afternoon and the lambent glow of sun on and below the water:

Beyond the sandy downstream knolls, behold 
A summer flotilla of tundra swans. 
In strobing depths beneath the broken dock, 
Elegant Venetian galleys of gold-
Finned pickerel row through rays to bronze,
White perch arrowing silver around a rock

To the sun-ruled surface where stratocumuli
Loom in to warn of an advancing storm. 
A sad and majestic eastern red cedar 
Bushes over the brown current, berry
Clusters dusty-blue, a funerary form
Leaning to its mirror in the lessening light.

It is only then that, grammatically speaking, I introduce the imperative mood with “behold,” which chimes with “gold” and “swans” with “bronze” and “dock” with “rock.” There is so much to see! I was not ready for the night, so I pulled the clock arms back, as one can in a poem, though never in life, except through the twin magics of art and memory. 

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

Although it was not at the front of my mind while writing the poem, I realize a principal influence is Elizabeth Bishop, who could imbue a landscape or still-life with symbolic resonance. She said to Richard Wilbur “neither of us has any philosophy. It’s all description, no philosophy.” They were discussing religion, but it holds in terms of poetry. Her spirit hovered over my poem. One reader suggested I suppress the poem because he felt it was too Yeatsian, something I don’t see at all, and I think it must have to do with the reed as a wand toward the end of the poem, in the eighth and penultimate stanza. Another told me he placed it in the realm of Hart Crane, as he saw an almost reckless reaching after beauty. I do like the notion, as Crane himself put it, of practicing “invention to the brink of intelligibility.” Neither Yeats nor Crane was in my thoughts at all when I was writing, though. 

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader? 

When I was in graduate school a friend asked me that question, and I was baffled. It had never occurred to me to consider it. I still devote little energy to the question. Today, insofar as I imagine a reader, it would be one attuned to the sound of a poem, even when reading silently—something Jon Stallworthy emphasized when I studied with him at Oxford. The musical or aural qualities of a poem are not strictly limited by its being heard out loud. A poem must consist of memorable language, as Auden put it, and there are many ways to achieve that. Another characteristic of my ideal reader would be an ability to recognize ambiguity, to understand how a word or phrase could be read in more than one way—not in a mutually exclusive ways—also the manner in which rhymes by themselves might undermine the apparent intention of a poem, little puzzles and clues like that, which are integral to my way of making poems. 

A friend recently remarked to me that he felt we are the third and final generation of poets who came of age under the influence of the New Critical method of not only reading but thoroughly rereading a poem in order to examine it along different lines and gain a deeper, more powerful understanding of it over time. If I can read a poem—or for that matter a story or novel—and notice nothing more in subsequent readings than the first I consider it of less interest than one that yields deeper meaning over time. This is a very old-fashioned way of reading, I believe. In that way, I am out of touch with the times. My ideal reader may hardly exist at all, when I pause to think about it. I sometimes find it best not to think too much about it. 

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?

Yes, of course. Always. I even sent it to one to ask technical questions about sailing terminology. I like to get my facts straight as far as possible. There is a small circle of poets with whom I share my work with before sending it out to editors. Advice ranges from “toss it out” to “you might want to change this one word.” It’s just advice. I always tell people it makes no sense to be offended by criticism. You are free to accept the advice, ignore it, or take it in a new direction. Someone might offer a change that inspires you to recognize that you aren’t satisfied with an element of a poem. Rather than take their advice, you change it in an entirely different way, but your attention was directed to the problem. That’s the important thing. I love working through my poems with others. It’s usually through electronic mail, though I also have people over to the house to have some drinks and read out new material to each other. It gets hazy after a certain point, but it’s fun. 

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours? 

It fits easily into my current style, which is much more attentive to images and setting than my earlier poems. I’ll be turning fifty next year, so it shouldn’t be surprising that memory and history become more important. It is said that one becomes old when one thinks more about the past than the future. That hasn’t happened for me yet, but I can feel my mind tilting in that direction. After all, there is so much in my life that I’ve hardly slowed down to think about. It just goes by. The days are used up, or survived, and forgotten. People and places, events, recur in dreams or suddenly come to me as if from nowhere, from years ago. 

I have far more years in my wake than I can hope to have ahead of me, and that changes the way I think. It energizes, in a way. After all, as James Joyce recommended, “better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” As for this poem, I think it’s a culmination of a style I’ve been working toward for years. I don’t know if there is any path forward from here, at least in this style. I have other paths to choose from. I’ve never circumscribed myself creatively to a single type of poem. Even in the years when I wrote principally in the sonnet form I applied as many different approaches as possible to the form in order to keep it moving forward. This poem satisfies an impulse I felt a long time. It’s the only one of its kind I’ll write, but it fits neatly into the style of poems I’m writing today in a broad sense. 
What is American about this poem? 

It shares more in common with nativist American modernist styles like those of William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens than European strains one finds in Eliot, for example. There is no literary allusion or philosophical angle to the poem. It is set in the region of America where I grew up. The landscape is very much with me still, though I’ve been a city dweller my whole adult life. Much as Auden’s childhood limestone stayed with him, the pines and the marshes are with me. I grew up on the rim of the Pine Barrens, one of the largest freshwater marshes in the world. The flora and fauna do not appear as decoration in the poem. They are the very substance of the poem, the living world alive in memory. There is a tradition that comes down to us from Whitman, who attempted to capture the variety and largeness of America with long catalog poems. That was in mind as I wrote, the fullness, the bigness, the variation, perhaps the impossibility of capturing it all.

Was this poem finished or abandoned? 

It was finished. I’m familiar with that Paul Valéry comment, but I don’t know if I accept it as pertinent in all cases. You can reach a point with perfectionism in which you are no longer improving a poem, only continuing to change it, perhaps losing the initial feeling that made it live. You might weigh it down or clip it too much. You have to be careful. I understand the larger philosophical sense that a poem is never “perfected” but simply stops changing. I feel satisfied that this poem is as good as I can make it. Perhaps the ghost of Valéry could spruce it up. I’ve done all I can. Thank you!