Derek Webster: An Interview with David Solway

David Solway is a Canadian poet living near Montreal. He started his poetic career in the early 1960s, when Louis Dudek published Solway's In My Own Image in the McGill Poetry Series (Leonard Cohen's Let Us Compare Mythologies began the series six years earlier). More than a dozen volumes followed, and a Selected Poems came out in 1982. Solway has gone through several phases as a poet - imagist, beat poet, expansive formalist - but it was Modern Marriage (1989), a book of sonnets written as postcards from Greece and rural Quebec, that cut a wider swath beyond mere formalism and seeded a new growth in his reputation, to which Bedrock (1993) and Chess Pieces (1999) have only added. Saracen Island: The Poetry of Andreas Karavis (2000) is another twist in this poet's restlessly switchbacking aesthetic. With The Lover's Progress, his most recent book, Solway takes on the persona of a modern Casanova, cast into the moral narrative of William Hogarth's 18th century engravings, A Rake's Progress. A book of essays on the work of David Solway has just appeared from Guernica. I interviewed the poet in his home in Hudson, Quebec, where Solway spoke about the poems published in this issue of Slope - and poetry generally - in the wake of the terrorist bombings.

DEREK WEBSTER: A colleague of mine believes that post-modern poetry has ceased to exist as a meaningful aesthetic since the bombings, because people have turned to Auden and Yeats for consolation, and not Jorie Graham. Do you think anything has changed since September 11? If so, what do you do with a genius like Celan?

DAVID SOLWAY: Stop the tape. That's almost an impossible question to answer. I'll do what I can. . .You're familiar, of course, with Adorno's famous injunction to the effect that "After Auschwitz, it is impossible to write poetry." This was Celan's problem with Adorno - that statement affected him deeply: how to continue writing in a meaningful way after an event that had reduced the value of writing to almost nil. Your question actually begs itself-the question should really be, is it possible to write poetry after September 11 - not post-modern or deconstructive poetry, but meaningful poetry?

In my own rather circumscribed case, I've had tremendous difficulty concentrating on my so-called creative work. I sit at the writing table, ponder a sentence or line, search for a word, and find that my thoughts inevitably begin to wander to the twin towers. If Yeats wrote "The Tower" today, it would have to be called "The Twin Towers" - and in that case, how could one write it? Events have a way of overwhelming the creative impulse of the insignificant individual - what we all are, in a certain sense. To go on writing as if nothing ever happened is, first of all, highly dubious - a function of our radical narcissism - or, in the case of Toni Morrison, as I've heard, to promise to have an elegy ready for a certain date, to broadcast it to the nation. . .is perhaps even worse. Because what one is doing then, to sanction one's continuing desire to write, is to try to turn an incommensurable event into a subject for poetry. This can only happen with the passage of time. What happened in New York will only be assimilated a decade from now. To write about it in a way that does not sound self-indulgent, or frivolous, or exploitative - a form of spiritual capitalism - is not possible in the immediate present. Adorno was wrong, it is possible to write poetry after Auschwitz-some of the greatest poetry that has ever been written has been written post-1945. But perhaps it was not possible in 1946. . .

To return to your question, though. The post-modern impetus has not been discredited by September 11: it was discredited right from the very start. It was always a non-poetic, self-justifying, essentially critical way of trying to fill a creative vacuum. Most of these deconstructive, post-modern writers and critics and so-called poets were blessed with a certain kind of free-floating talent - or even genius - but with no legitimate venue or vehicle to locate it in. Hence the pomo pastiche. Intelligence without an address. What you've called the post-modern or deconstructive mode was inherently impossible right from the start-except we did not know that. The real question is Adorno's: is it possible in our time to write poetry from the heart? Of course it is possible, but the point is, you can't do it now.

WEBSTER: I don't mean to quibble, but I can't help thinking of Abraham asking God how many virtuous people in Sodom and Gomorrah it would take to save those cities. When does the reflective nature of poetry take over from the immediate event? At what point does spiritual capitalism become spiritual empathy?

SOLWAY: Good question. There is no specific, quantifiable answer. We don't know, in advance, when that rubicon will present itself so we can cross it into seriousness, significance, genuineness and honesty - it could be ten years, five years, fifteen - we don't really know. It asserts itself somehow as a function of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. I do know that if Toni Morrison or anyone else promises an elegy to be delivered, say, two weeks after September 11, that elegy is a form of spiritual capitalism and should never have been attempted in the first place. It does not credit her, nor does it credit its reader.

You mentioned people turning to Auden and Yeats. . .these are, for the most part, people who have rarely read them, but because they find themselves in a devastated, precarious state of mind, they - we - will seek anything that can possibly help us recover our sense of equanimity, even some sense of the deeper nature of what has taken place - what Unamuno warned and taught us about, the tragic sense of life, which many of us seem to have lost, ironically, in times which are irreversibly tragic.

After one of these axial moments in history, we have to face up to seriousness and significance again, so we turn to the poets. . .I'm sure many people not reported in the news have turned to Hallmark cards, or decided to bury their heads in the sitcom-sands, watching as many Seinfelds as possible to take their minds off what happened. Other people turn to Auden and Yeats, but I don't believe it is a meaningful turn. It would be so only if they consulted Auden and Yeats in times that were not catastrophic.

WEBSTER: Isn't that a bit hard on people?

SOLWAY: Of course it's a bit hard on people - what's wrong with that? Hey, what was hard on people was September 11. I'm not really being hard on people - radical Islam is. I'm just saying, let's not overdo or exaggerate what we think poetry is or signifies - if we're going to ask or answer such questions, let's try to be as candid as we possibly can. If we're reading poetry after these events, we're only seeking a way out, more historically justified than watching a sitcom, but still a very sophisticated attempt at evasion.

WEBSTER: Consolation, then, isn't one of poetry's primary purposes?

SOLWAY: I wouldn't put it that way, but the reading has to be consistent to be genuine. I read Hopkins for consolation, and Yeats, especially for the consolation one needs as one grows older. But poetry is a universal consolation, not a throw-away phenomenon. Poetry is not a styrofoam cup that's served its purpose once you've put your money into the coffee machine, because you wanted a coffee at that particular moment, and then you throw the cup away. . .poetry is ceramic, it's the cup that brims in Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale," right? It's an heirloom or heritage object that's meant to be with us always. . .we inherited it from our grandmother, who got it from her grandmother. . .it's not something we access like our e-mail because something specific has happened. That's why I distrust the immediate turning to even great poets like Auden and Yeats. I don't believe it's a genuine impulse, but I do believe it's an expression of a genuine need. I just don't think the need and the impulse have come into sync with one another.

WEBSTER: The title of your poem, "Hans Grunewald": is that a detail from real life, or did you choose that German painter's name to suit your poem?

SOLWAY: Actually, I changed it a little [the man's real name is Greunwald] because it's easier on the tongue.

WEBSTER: It's a very fortuitous change. The image and idea in that name - the collision of Grunewald the painter, the horribly dark, medieval Christian theology his paintings represent, and the Grunewald of this poem, set in the middle of winter, on a snowplough, with a supplicant speaker -

SOLWAY: I compare him to a kind of god, up there in his snowplough cab - ruining the world for us, actually!

WEBSTER: I felt this poem's description of a Canadian winter in all its northern bleakness was fresh, original, and something I hadn't read before.

SOLWAY: It's completely fortuitous, but who knows, on the level of the unconscious, there may have been something bunting me in that direction.

WEBSTER: It's a very different setting from "The Mastlight" -

SOLWAY: Ah, yes. Turned down many times by editors of journals.

WEBSTER: Both poems hold the themes and qualities of your poetry at large: the contrast of ancient and contemporary worlds, mythologies of science and religion, metaphor as a kind of prison from which we have to see the world, and expressing all that is a very conscious, dramatized self. Not a meditation by the poet, but by a speaker.

SOLWAY: The real question here is, as Frost says, "What to make of a diminished thing." That, for me, is the subject of "The Masthead." I'm glad you pointed out the contrast of ancient and modern - bringing Agamemnon to the Super Bowl. A lot of poets have done the same thing, but I like to do it on the level of technique as well as names. "The Mastlight" is in rhyming couplets, like Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" - which when you hear it recited by James Mason, you don't hear the rhymes at all. It's what all good poets know: poetry is a conflation of contemporary speech and an archaic, hierarchic language. It's got to be both!

WEBSTER: You seem to consciously enjoy the play of diction and vocabulary between high and low, ancient and new. What is the place of the old mythologies in our world?

SOLWAY: Well, there are no ancient mythologies: all mythologies, if we still happen to remember them, are by virtue of that fact current. Only strange-sounding names and certain devices and inventions are not. The ancient Greeks didn't have cell-phones. The sun as a chariot, the idea of Phaeton, is still with us. And as Buckminster Fuller commented, we still see the sun going down, even though it's the world that's turning. He said he felt the earth moving backward beneath his heels. However, a chariot - Plato's myth in the Phaedrus - is still what I see.

WEBSTER: You would be a rare exception.

SOLWAY: No, I'm not.

WEBSTER: Come on, how many people see a chariot when they see the sun going down. . .

SOLWAY: You don't have to see a chariot literally, you see something moving across the heavens: rising, so to speak, achieving stasis for a moment, making a pit stop or taking a rest at a watering hole, and then proceeding on its journey to descend into some other dimension of the universe and to leave us in darkness. That's what we see. We're still looking through a mythological lens. There are certain paradigmatic dreams, to take another example, that we all have. Every one of us has had a dream about falling. . .

WEBSTER: Speaking of falling. . .one of your poems is "Thirteen ways of Looking at a Man with a Hat," a poem ostensibly about an air balloon disaster -

SOLWAY: - in Australia, I think it was 1991.

WEBSTER: Why walk in step with Wallace Stevens?

SOLWAY: At first, I didn't know why. When I read the article in the newspaper, I felt that I would want to write a poem about that, though I felt apprehensive also, because - to go back to our earlier discussion - I find it very difficult and even disingenuous to write about a disaster immediately after it has happened, to capitalize on it. So I felt a bit guilty doing it and I have never done that again.

WEBSTER: Yes, there is a sense of self-disgust, melancholy, and a fatigue with even the act of writing a poem and literary tradition itself-here, it all seems so useless . . . yet it's finally life-affirming: your last stanza is the only flash of color in the whole poem.

SOLWAY: Yes, a yellow sunbrella.

WEBSTER: It's like you're saying, we're not bound to some wheel of used words, endlessly repeating.

SOLWAY: Yes and no. Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is really a poem about disaster. It deals with the immanence of darkness. Stevens was able to extract beauty from terror because he wasn't referring to the suffering of any particular individual. To refer to the suffering of collective humanity, as an artist, allows one to wax eloquent. But I was being specific-domesticating the blackbird, in effect-and that made me feel guilty. The poem, ultimately, is not about the man in the hat, in the gondola of the hot air balloon, but about me under my 'hat' - the sunbrella - on a very stable structure, a sundeck, that was not about to collapse.


SOLWAY: The question I posed myself was, "How could I write a poem about the guilt of being a poet?" That is to say, someone who turns into words what is essentially disastrous or catastrophic. How could Yeats write those poems about the Irish revolution, which involved his friends - name their names, rhyme them? Somehow we must transcend that guilt, and we do it in our art, to a certain extent, but we must remember that as in many medieval constructions, almost everything we build has a corpse thrown into the foundation.

WEBSTER: That's terrifying!

SOLWAY: Yes it is, and the only way to diminish one's guilt about it is to allow for a lapse of time, so that the event becomes not personal any longer, but historic.

WEBSTER: You seem to have gone full circle. You went against your instincts, and opinion today, and yet the result was a successful poem, based partly on the tension in yourself.

SOLWAY: If it is a successful poem, it was written by a highly unsuccessful human being, a moral failure. I acknowledge that candidly.

WEBSTER: In that case, maybe we should fail morally more often. At least take the risk.

SOLWAY: From time to time, perhaps. But it becomes justifiable only if the completed artifact influences people beneficially, which is always unpredictable.

WEBSTER: It seems what you're portraying is a poetic life of seriousness, strenuous activity, and taking great care with every word one puts on the page.

SOLWAY: That's what poetry is.

Derek Webster is Slope's Canada editor. The founder of the new literary journal, Maisonneuve, he lives in Montreal.