No 36 - 2005
An interview with Mark Halliday
The interview took place at Halliday’s Athens, Ohio home on May 13, 2004.
MS: You read very successfully at the Aldeburgh Poetry festival
in 2003, but I think your work hasn’t been widely available in the
UK, am I right?
MH: Unknown – except that Peter Forbes took nearly a dozen
poems for Poetry Review over a number of years – but that was
amazing to me, and I had no other idea of publishing in England.
MS: So Aldeburgh being a success for you was even better
because you were kind of unknown.
MH: Yeah, it was a good crowd there, it was lovely, that whole
thing. Naomi Jaffa was so great to discover me, I think she just found me on the internet or something.
MS: How did reading in England compare to reading in the
MH: Aldeburgh was more fun than many readings I’ve done because the audience was so big and so tuned in; I haven’t
experienced that so often, a big audience that seems to really want
to be there.
MS: Do you enjoy giving readings?
MH: I love it, and I’m very in favour of the idea even though
often it’s disappointing or frustrating to be in the audience at a
reading. There are so many ways it can not work for you – you sit
there and you don’t understand the poem, sometimes you don’t
even hear the words of the poem accurately; or very often you’re
interested in a line you just heard so you can’t keep your mind on
the next lines. Even if you’re very alert it can be so difficult to hold
in mind the various moves a poem has made, especially if it goes
beyond twenty or thirty lines and has some complexity. So that
what you’re experiencing as a listener in an audience is often just the
easiest kind of gestalt impression of a poem with two or three little
bits in it highlighted, and then I guess you carry that impression away
with you and if you’re interested enough then you look at the poem
on paper, and your sense of that poem is deepened or fleshed out
in some sense by having seen the poet deliver it. So there are all
these limitations and frustrations, but still I love the basic idea, and I
love to be the reader up on stage, unlike some poets. I know poets
who claim to hate it, they claim to feel it’s too frustrating to reduce
the poem to any one dramatic delivery, it’s a betrayal of the richness
of the poem. But that argument can sound pretentious to me.
Also there’s the basic way I love the idea of the poem as a
representation of speech, an imitation of the speech of an imagined
speaker. I know that’s not the only way one can talk about what
poems are, but it’s my favourite way, and I think it applies richly to
many different sorts of poems, not only the kind of talky rant‑like
poems I’ve sometimes written and you’ve sometimes written. I say that the poetry of Hopkins is a representation of a kind of speech. It’s not ordinary social speech but some kind of hopped‑up
amphetaminized semi‑visionary speech, and the excitement of being
a person uttering those amazing phrases is essential to the Hopkins
effect. It would have been right if Hopkins had had his chance to
utter those poems in front of an audience. We know he cared
tremendously about the sound of them.
I love to try to be the right persona or the right speaker for one
of my poems in front of other people. Sometimes you get it right;
more often you feel you haven’t quite delivered it properly. It’s
like being an actor in a scene, you play it as well as you can on that
MS: Your first book, Little Star, was published in 1987. How
did all this poetry business start with you?
MH: Well, like most of us I wrote poems as an undergraduate –
a lot of imitation, a lot of derivative stuff. I got my BA in 1971 and in
the states the dominant poetry scene was what is now called Deep
Image or neo‑Surrealism, and the poets being praised were poets
like Merwin, James Wright, Robert Bly, Mark Strand and Spanish-language poets, and I was impressed by the ‘magic’ of that stuff and
I didn’t know that I had something else I wanted to do. I drifted right
through my twenties, basically the 1970s. Before I graduated in
1971 friends had shown me poems by O’Hara and Koch and they
lodged in my brain somewhere as daring, outrageous things that
people could do and get away with and call them poems – I have
vivid memories of my first contacts with poems by O’Hara and Koch – but I just kind of set them aside. I thought ‘That’s not really poetry’ – so it wasn’t till about ’79 when I looked at them again and realized I really wanted to seriously imitate things they did – mostly in the comic talky colloquial discursive ways of doing poems.
MS: Before that point, had you been writing in that other mode, the Deep Image, this‑is‑what‑poetry‑is‑supposed‑to‑be mode?
MH: Yeah, quite a bit of that; just so many half‑assed imitations.
for example, Philip Levine was much admired by friends of mine and he came through Providence where I lived, and I was impressed with him. He was combining touches of neo-Surrealism with working‑class realism. Lots of archetypal images that supposedly plumb the depths of the psyche. I imitated him; I imitated Galway Kinnell.
MS: Did you publish any of this stuff?
MH: I’m half‑embarrassed to say I did. By 1972 I was sending
poems to lots of little journals and I was so persistent I did publish
four or five poems per year in the early ’70s. But they weren’t
serious poems. I mean, they pretended to be serious, they
pretended to be profound, but my heart was not really in them. I
feel it took me an unduly long time to figure out something I really
cared about in poetry. Some people seem to achieve that, at least
in terms of effort and ambition, by the time they’re twenty‑five. But
for me – well, the next bit of the story is that I went to Brandeis
University for a PhD in English in 1977, and in my first year there I
met Frank Bidart.
MS: I was going to ask, what made you go back to O’Hara and
Koch. Was it this move?
MH: Well, you know how you tell yourself a story that probably simplifies everything. But the way I tell the story, I give a lot of the credit to Bidart. Let’s say I would have matured anyway, even if I hadn’t met him, and would have come around to writing things influenced by O’Hara and Koch; but Bidart seemed to make
it possible. He was a tremendous power in my mind from the day I
met him. Frank had such authority for me as a mentor. He was not
at all the kind of teacher who is basically trying to get you to write
like him. He saw impulses in my writing that tended toward the
comic‑but‑serious effect that O’Hara can get, and the voice that tries
to reveal personality by talking a lot, and he saw a good potential so
he encouraged it; but he was very stern. He disapproved of a lot of
the poems I wrote, and he made me go through many drafts, but
he created in me the sense that there could be real successes and
they would be truly mine. Frank was wonderful for me in that way.
and actually Boston is full of poets who would say something similar.
MS: Bidart isn’t perhaps someone people in the UK would be
too familiar with.
MH: At that time he had two books out and was not too well
known. But he is well known now as a poet unlike any other. Also
recently he is known as editor of the Collected Poems of Robert
Lowell. Frank was a graduate student at Harvard when Lowell was
there, and became a younger friend and a kind of confidant and
advisor of Lowell’s in the period when Lowell was writing sonnets.
Frank was crucial in the process of converting the Notebook sonnets into History. Frank’s most famous poems in his own early books were not like Lowell, they were very long agonized monologues by very troubled speakers – poems that are very exploratory, finding their way through many efforts; there was something in Frank’s work that connected with what I was inclined to do, in that he has speakers who sound like they’re really talking. But, his speakers tended to be miserable and grim and facing ultimate questions of being, whereas I wanted to have speakers just talking about their emotions of the day.
MS: So is that where you made the connection with the New
MH: Yes, as in O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. And when Koch’s book
The Burning Mystery of Anna in 1951 came out in 1979, I was very ready for it, and I loved that Koch voice which is intellectual and smart but also casual and unpretentious and impulsive – in poems like ‘The Problem of Anxiety’ and ‘The Boiling Water’ and ‘Our Hearts’. Then I looked back at the previous Koch book The Art of Love which has the long comic essayistic poems – ‘The Art of Love,’ ‘The Art of Poetry,’ ‘On Beauty,’ and the second Circus poem which I loved.
MS: In your first book Little Star there are already themes
and ideas that recur throughout your work. For example, you look
back at your life, but it’s not a sentimental reminiscence, and it’s not
mawkish or ponderous, there’s always a kind of hard analysis going
on; Nigel Pickard remarked to me that you start with an anecdote,
but then you discuss it in an analytic and revealing way that subverts
the kind of anecdotal poem that you know I kind of shy away from.
Is this a pattern you recognize?
MH: Yes, and in a way what you describe could describe
‘Tintern Abbey’. It’s not exactly an anecdote, but you’ve got a
particular situation that Wordsworth is in and then it opens out into a meditation and then it goes back to the situation. In O’Hara and Koch I love the poems where you sense you’re listening to this smart person who is right in front of you at that moment trying to get perspective on something, work something through, get a grip on something – and I love the dramatic element of that. It’s different from figuring out something about life and then very calmly and with wonderful formal distance expressing your perception. Of course, that can be great in poems as well, but I love the illusion of seeing the person plunge into it and follow where the path of thinking leads. In Little Star there’s a poem called ‘Blind Date’ where I narrate the only blind date I ever had in my life, with quite a few details, but it metamorphoses into a meditation about being young and baffled.
MS: You mention in one poem ‘my endless war with the past.’
MH: Something I like to try is, if you create a context that has a dramatic quality, then maybe your speaker can say things that in
another context would sound portentous or pretentious, but if you
create the sense that a phrase like ‘my endless war with the past’
really does evolve naturally out of what the person is thinking right
on the spot, then I think that can be a beautiful effect.
You know, I love the analogy between a poem and a speech that you might actually hear in real life. There are kinds of poems that don’t fit that model; but I tend to love poems that have that spoken flavour. We need to remember there are situations in actual conversational life in which people are fabulously articulate – maybe not in an efficient way – like right now [laughter] – but people do, over a few beers, let’s say, if they’re having trouble in their marriage or they’re trying to change their lives they do go from anecdote to meditation to comic speculation and then back to the beer, back to a joke – the movement of thought has those different levels. I love poems that show a speaker living through those moves.
MS: The sense of a person speaking in your poems is very
apparent. One of the other things you do in talking about the past
is raising the issue of missed opportunities, that ‘I could have done
that, if only this had happened’ kind of thing.
MH: God knows, a lot of poems are efforts to feel better about oneself. Would you agree? Sometimes you’ll hear someone say disparagingly about someone’s poetry ‘it’s therapeutic’ – I’ve
said that disparagingly about some people’s poems and yet there’s
some version of the idea that is very relevant to one of the purposes
of my poems. For me they’ve often helped me toward a more healthy relationship with my past and with my personality and my limitations. Let’s say I’m writing about my failure with a woman in the past – one motivation is to write so charmingly and humorously as to imply ‘I might not have been cool enough then but hey, now I’m a cool attractive guy.’
MS: You can do anything with words, can’t you?
MH: Yeah, yeah. [Long silence in the cold Ohio night…]
MS: Picking up on that therapeutic thing – you write about loss,
and in particular you often mention losing your mother when you
were twenty‑five. Poems about personal losses can be deadly for
the reader sometimes.
MH: Yeah, you and I were talking recently about the poetry
of trauma. Often nowadays we come across a book of poems all
centred on some terrible event in the poet’s life. I was just reading
one in which the central fact in many of the poems is that this poet’s
sister was raped, and the impact of that on the family. A couple of
years ago Nick Flynn’s book Some Ether circled obsessively around
the fact that his mother committed suicide. Another book I was just
reading is about how the poet’s sister and her kids went down in
a plane crash. Now, I tend to recoil from those subjects; and yet,
as you say, in each of my books there’s been at least one poem
referring to the death of my mother.
MS: But, apart from ‘The Miles of Night’ in Selfwolf, which is
explicitly about your mother’s illness and its impact on your family,
usually you mention her death in passing as a part of what your life
has been made of, it becomes part of a picture of the speaker, and I
think there’s a getting‑on‑with‑life in that, which is more refreshing
and affirming than a whole book about how awful the loss was.
MH: There’s some moment when the fifteen or eighteen
poems about the same loss start to feel like an exploitation of the
subject. It becomes this sort of professional material, very handy,
and it calls for an automatic type of sympathy in the reader.
MS: Another thing that strikes me in your work – ‘Venus
Pandemos’ in Little Star comes to mind particularly – is how they
sometimes stake out a subject and scrutinize it to death, almost.
in that poem you talk about male desire, lust, and you follow the
subject all the way, it’s almost brutal at times, you go at it until you
literally seem to wear out; and there’s no answer there at the end
of the poem, just this process of dogged inquiry.
MH: Well, that’s certainly the kind of poem I wrote a lot in those years of being mentored by Frank Bidart, 1978‑1983 or so. His main poems had that quality of opening up a subject and exploring it to the hilt. There’s a phrase Frank always used about a really good poem, which was that it got to the bottom of something. That was a kind of ideal that he held out, and it encouraged me to write poems like the ones you’re describing, and many of them ended up in Little Star and Tasker Street, the next book. After that, in Selfwolf and Jab there’s not so much of that ‘Here’s my topic and I’m going all the way with it.’
MS: There’s a hint of Koch in there, too, getting an idea and pursuing it at great length. You became friendly with Koch, too, didn’t you?
MH: Yeah, but that was much later. Jill and I went to a reading
by Koch in Philadelphia at the time his Hotel Lambosa came out in
’94, and met him and Karen, we talked after the reading and then
on the phone and we got to know each other. Back in ’87 I had sent
him a copy of Little Star hoping for a blurb, and he had gently said
he wouldn’t do it. But I acknowledge him and O’Hara as influences
on the back jacket of Little Star.
MS: Tasker Street came out in 1992. Where were you then,
what were you doing?
MH: I was teaching high school. By that time I’d taught for seven years at the University of Pennsylvania, 1983‑1990, and been denied tenure. I was in the wrong kind of department, they wanted me to be a cutting‑edge literary critic, which I wasn’t and wasn’t going to be. I’d published Little Star in 1987 and it had no
good effect toward my keeping that job, in fact it may have had the
opposite effect. And then I wrote the book on Wallace Stevens
[Stevens and the Interpersonal, Princeton, 1991] under the tenure
pressure but I didn’t get it together until I was already on the way
out of the Penn job. Starting in Fall 1990 I taught four years in a
Quaker high school in Wilmington, Delaware.
MS: Tasker Street won a prize, as had Little Star. Were these
good prizes to win?
MH: yes, good prizes. But my career had this odd curve because the Penn job was good for a critic or theorist but I wasn’t that, and when I had to leave that job I had a son three years old, and I was separated from his mother but I wanted to stay in the Philadelphia area so I could see him every day. That’s why I took the high school job.
MS: Do you feel that by that time you’d found what you wanted to be doing in poetry?
MH: Yeah. I look back at Tasker Street and still feel very close to those poems.
MS: In some of those you worry about what poems actually do, whether they actually matter. In ‘Reality USA’ you look out from
poetry world and see the ‘real’ world – where women hold down
two jobs to pay for child care and so on. Also in later poems like
‘Cleveland’ and ‘Against Realism’. Whereas in some poems there are poets talking about poets, like ‘Loaded Inflections’ or ‘Shnordink’s Butterfly’. The two worlds seem so separate.
MH: I wish I had more of a natural gift for showing lives different from my own. In my twenties, besides writing poems, I tried quite a bit of fiction – a lot of stories, and even longer fiction manuscripts. They were mostly failures and I gradually gave up. And a deep reason for them not being good was the shallowness of the detail about other people’s lives, any life different from my own. If in a book of poems I have two poems that offer convincing texture
of a life of someone really different from me, I feel lucky to have
But the other thing I want to say, about poems that refer to being a poet among poets, is that to me it feels very honest and true to life, because, you know, look at us – we’re sitting here, this is part of our real life that we obsess about this stuff, and you and I have both spent incredible numbers of hours hanging around with poets, talking about it all, and so that’s our real life, it’s not some ivory tower, it’s real life and moreover we know that one’s readers tend to be people who are obsessed with poetry. That’s what we mean by the expression ‘poetry world’ – it’s a little population but an intense one. So it seems to me it’s just a kind of generous acknowledgment of the actual social reality we share to get all that into the picture. So, if a reviewer says (as has happened a couple of times) ‘Halliday writes too much about being a writer’ I want to say, well, there are obnoxious and boring ways that people do that, but there are other ways also. I like my poem ‘Loaded Inflections’ (in Selfwolf), which is about poets sitting around talking about other poets, because I feel it catches some truth about what we do with our energy a lot of the time.
MS: To me that’s refreshing. But does this small and intense
readership bother you – have you ever got caught up in the drive to
take poetry to the masses, for example?
MH: On the one hand, I’ve often said I want to write poems
that are very readable for any smart imaginative person. I used to
say that my Aunt Dorothy was a good audience because she was
an educated literate person who didn’t follow contemporary poetry
– I wanted to write poems that she could feel the current of, the
emotional issue of. But nowadays there’s a bunch of poets who talk about the need to expand the audience, make poetry a bigger part of the culture. I’ve decided in recent years that that’s hopeless, not something I want to pour energy into. I think it’s always going to be this quite small obsessive audience of people who have this bug, it’s like an infection, you know. You can see it when you teach undergraduates. If I have fifteen kids in a room to do a poetry
workshop, among those fifteen there’s one or two – even three!
– who are potentially obsessed, the ones who will have to keep
reading poems and writing poems year after year. It takes a kind of
fanatical or compulsive attraction to the art. That population is going
to be a poet’s main readership; I don’t worry about trying to make it
MS: And it’s an audience that is pretty much confined to the academic world.
MH: Yes… in the States that is true. We have this creative
writing culture in the universities, the hundreds of MFA programmes, and they offer this sustained life where the students can obsess about writing and about literature for two or three years, and many of them try to keep the commitment alive for years after that. There is a danger in this university connection – I sense it in myself. I can imagine myself (if I lost a self‑critical ability) writing a book in which nearly all the poems would be about being a writer!
MS: But you’re not going to write that book, are you?
MH: I’m not going to let that happen. I have some feeling that
as the years go by, I may look back on Jab as my weakest book,
even though it has some poems I like a lot. In that book I did give
free rein to my tendency to set up an argument between the speaker and an imagined reader. the effect is slightly paranoid, like ‘reader, you are going to think the wrong thing about me and I have to set you straight, I have to protect myself against what you are going to think.’ Maybe I did that in too many poems in Jab.
MS: Jab is also a book where an aspect of your originality makes itself apparent, where you begin to write poems that have made‑up words in them – in Jab the play with language is more up front. there’s ‘The Fedge’ for example, where you talk about all the fedge and the drammel, the shoof shuff and the waf‑waf. I’m reminded of the earlier poem ‘Little Star’ where you say the singer’s voice expresses truth, ‘he could get it across without needing to rely
/ on the mere meanings of words – / he could do everything with
golden syllables!’ I wonder if you’re trying for some of that. Or are
the words in the dictionary just not good enough for you?
MH: Tthat’s a good question. I think a factor in it is impatience with the vocabulary I hear myself using over and over. Maybe there’s a kind of trap that I’ve got myself in through the emphasis
on the talking voice – by emphasizing the real‑life authenticity of the speaking voice I perhaps drive myself more and more toward certain phrases and words I’ve used in lots of poems, and I think the impulse to make up words may be a way to try for a different texture without resorting to ‘elevated’ poeticized discourse.
MS: If you had to describe your poetry, if someone asked you
what kind of poetry do you write, what would you say?
MH: [hesitates…] The first word that comes to mind is ‘genius’.
And the second word would be ‘godlike’… No, the words I always use are ‘colloquial,’ ‘talky,’ ‘conversational,’ ‘argumentative,’
MS: What would you say your poetry is about?
MH: What a personal, intrusive, vulgar question! Let me see. It’s about my sense of life, about the truths of psychological experience that are not obvious and that tend to hover just below consciousness, and the poems try to bring them into the light and
explore them and consider whether understanding of those currents
or truths may help us live fuller, deeper lives – [pause; laughter]
MS: This is an even more personal question, and is out of the blue, but I was wondering about the fact that you have this family life, a beautiful daughter who is eight – does it ground you, does it help you keep your work in some kind of perspective? And does Devon, your daughter, know what you do and have some sense of what being a poet is?
MH: Devon knows that Jill and I are both poets, and she writes
some poems herself; when she was five she wrote the best poem
about a fairy with blue wings I can imagine. But it’s a complicated
question, which I’ve lived through with my son Nick, who is now
sixteen. For instance, you want your children to believe in hard work. But this work of being a poet doesn’t quite look like hard
work, hard labour in the usual sense. Devon is very verbal and says
she will be an author when she grows up, so I realize I will need to think about what she is making of my poems that she’ll see in books and journals around the house. and, specifically, it makes me think twice and three times about my impulse to write about sexual desire, as I’ve done in a number of poems. When I imagine my own daughter reading those, it puts quite a different spin on the subject.
But you asked about a sense of grounding…
MS: Yes, insofar as you have to deal with school and home
and scraped knees and things, maybe it pulls you back from the
university and poetry world somewhat. I’ve had kids, and I always
found that aspect of things kind of healthy for me as a writer.
MH: Yeah, me too. We’re biased, probably. I have very much
a bias in favour of parents. I might not be saying this if I didn’t know
you have two sons, but I do tend to think it’s so humanizing and
tenderizing (so to speak) to be raising kids or to have raised kids. it’s such a huge dimension of life. But of course we all have poet friends who don’t have kids, and they’re not all monsters of selfishness! Anyway, sure, one’s spirit as a parent has to become wider and more serious because you’re responsible for this other life; it forces you out of the centripetal egotism of the poet to some extent.
MS: How does a Mark Halliday poem get written? Is there one
method, or several?
MH: Often it starts with a phrase – suddenly you find yourself
imagining a speaker who might use the phrase, even maybe a silly
phrase, and a shadowy context starts to emerge around it. I have
this sensation – don’t you have this sensation? – of glimpsing the
poem, as if it were over there, about ten feet away, and you kind of
know what it will look like on the page but you have no idea what
the words are. And then, with luck, you find occasion not too long
after that first impetus to jot down some lines and start to shape it.
Of course, I have the feeling that most of them get away, most of
MS: So you get a line, maybe an idea…?
MH: Yeah, or sometimes an image. There’s a moment when
an image comes into your head and it’s redolent, it’s loaded up with
feeling, but then when you try to recover that, if you’ve waited too
long, hours later or the next day, it has turned into a banality. Like,
the other day I had a thought, not really a thought, just an image
of people at their computers around town at the same moment,
their eyes staring so intently at the screens … But as I utter it now
it just sounds like some banal image of separation between selves,
it sounds like an image for a terrible poem. My point is that at the
moment when it popped into my head I felt there was a poem
hovering there, but I lost it. When I’m lucky I grab hold of the hint
and jot some lines, on a napkin or scrap of paper if I’m in a public
place, then soon I work on it in a notebook; then typically I leave it
in the notebook, for some reason I tend to leave it there for weeks
or even months. I kind of enjoy the sensation of the poem waiting
for me there, and also I’m waiting to have a cool perspective on it.
Then I work with it on computer, maybe months after it first got
into the notebook.
MS: Do you show your work in progress to anyone else? To
Jill, for example?
MH: Not as much as you’d think – Jill teases me about that a lot. No, I’m often not willing to face her critique until some later time. Like, I might send a poem to a journal and have it rejected, or I might even read the poem at a reading; then I sense there’s something wrong with it, and then maybe I show it to Jill and get her comments. [Inaudible remark from Jill who is in the next room]
… But I don’t seem willing to face her withering criticisms of each
poem in the early stages. And I don’t actually send poems to friends
that much, do you?
MS: God no. Not at all. I like my friends and would like to keep them.
MH: Years ago I would do it fairly often. not in every letter, but fairly often in a letter to a friend who was a writer I would include a poem. At some point in my forties I came to realize it was oppressive, you know, I realized that my heart did not necessarily lift up when I opened an envelope from a friend and found a poem in it. You’d think that we who love poetry would be so eager to be constantly exchanging poems, but the reality is that a poem, even a light poem or a short poem, has a demandingness – it demands a richness of response which is fatiguing in a way that a letter isn’t, and so it can be kind of cruel to keep dishing out one’s poems in that personal way. And of course the larger example is a whole manuscript, when you get fifty poems in the mail. That’s a burden.
MS: Do you ever find the job of looking at students’ poems a
chore, or wearing? Or just simply depressing?
MH: Yes. But the feeling kind of has a 48‑hour cycle to it. i mean, i very frequently get in a mood where i’m so sick of reading dozens and dozens of poems by students, but two or three days later the batteries have been recharged and it’s okay to face those pieces of paper again. Which is to say you are attracted enough to the problem of poetry – the question of what a good poem might be – that you’re ready to face again a new set of frustrations and disappointments – not only with students’ poems, but with poems
in books. two out of three times, or five out of six, the poems are very disappointing, and so yeah, my sensation is of repeatedly feeling overburdened and maybe depressed about the sheer overabundance of poems in our world, but then it doesn’t take long for the appetite to resume.
MS: Who are the poets you most admire, both contemporary and from way back? The poets you go back to.
MH: What occurs to me is that the going back you’re talking about often happens for me only in the mind, as opposed to actually going to the shelf and getting the book. There’s a kind of shadowy presence of the poems in my head – not that I have them memorized, but a tonality – and when you want to revive your sense of what you’ve loved in poetry you can kind of touch that tone in your head. I know I do that frequently when I want to comfort or reassure myself. the poets that come first to mind are Wallace Stevens and Thomas Hardy (the two poets I’ve written most about), and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, George Herbert… and then, more recently, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O’Hara.
MS: It’s noticeable that while you cite Koch and O’Hara a
good deal, you’ve rarely mentioned John Ashbery in all the time
I’ve known you. You admire and have written a book about Wallace Stevens, and of the three most prominent New York poets, Ashbery is the one who is often described as an heir of Stevens.
MH: Yeah, there’s something puzzling in it. as you say, Ashbery is the one who consciously and thematically and in verbal playfulness looks back most to Stevens – and yet Ashbery is the one I value least. My sense about Ashbery is that he is an amazing phenomenon, he has an amazing power which is much harder to imitate than it often seems. And yet when I use the word ‘power’ I don’t use it in the large sense that would describe a great poet. I don’t think of Ashbery as a great poet because he doesn’t mean enough about life for me. The meanings that one can infer from his work – about how we live in a constant flow of confusion, but that confusion is our protection from the banality of loss and death – those meanings seem to me extremely narrow and extremely repetitious. In stevens I feel that under the playfulness and the sort of pseudo‑philosophical pose of his speakers there are currents of emotion that can be felt. They tend not to be extreme emotions, they’re in some middling range, but there are still different colours of feeling there and I love to see the drama of the emotions trying to express themselves in Stevens while he maintains his decorum and that dignified playfulness of manner. Helen Vendler is the critic who was most useful to me and lots of other readers in making that emotion audible in Stevens. Of course lovers of Ashbery would say the emotion is audible in him too, but I don’t feel that. In Koch and O’Hara you get lots of intensities – intensity of enthusiasm, intensity of desire, intensity of elegy. Ashbery is about avoiding intensity, he’s like an ultrasophisticated sedative. I like poets who feel that being alive is an emergency so we’d better wake up.
Books by Mark Halliday
Little Star (William Morrow 1987)
Stevens and the Interpersonal (Princeton University
Tasker Street (University of Massachusetts Press 1992)
Selfwolf (University of Chicago Press 1999)
Jab (University of Chicago Press 2002)
For Crying Out Loud (Dagger Press 2004)
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The