Q: Was being a woman a detriment along the way in your early career?
A: Yes, with some people. One had to have one’s study card signed by the department chair. I walked in and introduced myself: “I’m Helen Hennessy.” His immediate reply: “You know, we don’t want you here, Miss Hennessy. We don’t want any women here.” That was my welcome to Harvard graduate school.
Hearing from a friend, 13 years later, that I still remembered that encounter, he stopped when our paths crossed at the MLA and brought it up. I tried to say that it was water under the bridge, but he insisted: “No, I was wrong. I apologize.”
There were lunacies everywhere that went with being a woman. When I arrived to teach at Cornell, for instance, I couldn’t have lunch with my husband because women faculty were not permitted to be members of the Faculty Club. It was exclusively male. That was in 1960. The following year, largely because of lobbying by some admirable men in the club, we were admitted by a vote of 52 to 48. A narrow victory.
Q: Your first book was published while you were at Cornell. Can you say why you wrote books on single poets (Yeats, Stevens, Herbert, Keats, Shakespeare, Heaney, Dickinson)?
A: I can understand poets only one by one: They are too idiosyncratic to be lumped together.
Each book had a polemical purpose: to declare that Yeats’ “system” had powerful poetic implications; to argue that Stevens’ long poems were not “ponderous and elephantine”; to contest the belief that Herbert could be appreciated adequately only by a faithful son of the church; to show that Keats’ odes had been insufficiently well read, and were in fact interconnected as a series; to assert that Shakespeare’s sonnets, all 154 of them, not merely the famous ones, deserved individual commentaries; to offer an alternative to the Irish political criticism that had neglected Heaney as a poet; and to suggest that Dickinson’s harsher and more difficult poems could, and should, be read by a wider public.
Q: All these years later, after decades of poetry scholarship, what still sustains you?
A: What always did: reading, thinking, writing, teaching. And life itself: bringing up a son, seeing tragedy in the family, being granted friendship — all of life feeds into one’s responses to poetry.
Q: Is your sense of the state of the humanities as hopeful and expansive as it was 20 or 30 years ago?
A: We’re going through a kind of convulsion, at the moment, in which we are thought of as useless.
Q: Is that connected to how English and related subjects are taught?
A: Elementary and high school literary education in the United States is pretty awful, for many reasons, historical and cultural. Poetry is taught in the schools in a completely irrational way — a unit on this and a unit on that. There’s no rational progression to advanced learning in the subject. Science and mathematics textbooks have progressions that reinforce each other, whereas poetry “units” are not progressive, do not build on each other, and present a sanitized curriculum. In many schools, my students tell me, poetry has been dropped altogether.
Q: Yet poetry and the arts can be so liberating. You once referred to first studying literature as an escape from “religious incarceration.”
A: In the Roman Catholic community in which I was raised, girls had no possibility of leaving home. I had no independent means. And, in a Catholic home, the only conceivable futures for a girl were to be a nun or a nonworking mother or an elementary school teacher or a spinster caring for aging parents. If you married, your husband would be a good Catholic, and you would have “as many children as it pleased God to send you.” That was the way it was put. I didn’t want to be any of those things.
I had never been out of my childhood environment. I knew nothing of the world, and had in effect been raised in the Middle Ages. I couldn’t imagine what my life might become. I had no role models for single life except the nuns. I didn’t know any women who were living a life that entailed the kind of thoughts and reading that I was already engaged in. I just didn’t know where you went if you were that sort of woman. My parents always intended me to go to college, but never spoke of a later career in the world.
Q: But on the other hand, you talked about growing up in perhaps a self-created world in which words had great power and meaning very early on. I think you talked about, what, saying your first word at age —
A: Nine months. [Laughter.]
I think [awakening to words] is like awakening to any other precocious appetite.
I once asked Seamus Heaney what he did with the part of his mind that wrote poems before he wrote poems. Right away came the answer, “marquetry”: little pieces of wood all fitted into little puzzle shapes. And of course that’s exactly like the surface of a poem. You have to get all the words dovetailed and matching and get the right sizes together and the right colors in the right place.
But then [Heaney] paused, and I saw that marquetry wasn’t the whole answer. And then he said, “Fishing: the leisure of trawling around the bottom to see what, if anything is going to make a jerk on the line.” And I thought that a wonderful answer: marquetry and fishing, surface and depth.
Q: You have referred to the structure of lyric poetry as concentric.
A: Well, it’s concentric and vertical, I would say. It’s like a well: You have to keep going down in the same place. You don’t arrive anywhere, as in linear narrative; you’re not fighting anything, as in drama; but you are trying to get down deeper, to explore and evacuate a site of feeling.
Q: That goes along with your idea of lyric poets as inventors, constant reinventors of our beautiful poetic genres.
A: I was just saying that in class about Seamus. No genre escaped him unchanged —the sonnet, the elegy, the pastoral, the villanelle, the journey poem, the protest poem, the poem of the invisible.
Elegy is such a well-known form, but who before Heaney would have elegized bog bodies as he did in “The Grauballe Man”? To take those arresting bodies that have been dead for hundreds of years and write about them as sculptural and tragic: Nobody had done that before.
The Catholic tradition out of which Seamus came assigns the dead to an afterlife; but Seamus portrays them as bodies slowly decaying in the earth, partially preserved into an eerie beauty by the tannin and the peat. … His poetry is always a rebellion, but a rebellion within the tradition: one afterlife against another.
Q: Somewhere along the line you decided that you weren’t a poet yourself.
A: I wrote poems from the time I was 15 until the time I was 26. And I took them seriously; I made them as good as I could. But then — it must have been when I was in graduate school — I came across a sentence of Coleridge’s talking about “that perpetual reverie in which I live.” I thought, “What can that mean, to live in a perpetual reverie, to inhabit an incessant internal dream?”
I think I didn’t know what a life of reverie was. I was, as they say these days, a task-oriented person. It gives me a sense of completion of the day to have finished something. But of course true art is never finished: the imagination is for artists a place of alternative life. I don’t have that kind of imagination: I have a more analytic mind, which is, I suppose, why math and science appealed to me in my youth, and why literary criticism became my natural field.
Q: You’ve lived through an era in which poetry was taught differently, perhaps better than it is now. Are we missing something?
A: I don’t feel as though things are better or worse. Present or past, for any art, there are many responders, as with wine: There are expert wine tasters, with much experience; and then people who like a good wine; and then people like me who can’t tell one wine from another. In every field the mediocre are around, the incompetent are around, the gifted are around.
Q: Yet the humanities seem to have less power in our culture than they have ever had.
A: In learning, everything depends on reading. Whether you’re going to do science or history or anything else, adult intellectual accomplishment depends on being able to read widely and well and with enjoyment.
Judging by the results from the schools, few children are proficient in reading at the fourth grade. They don’t read fast, they don’t read with understanding, they don’t read with appetite. If you’re not a good reader by the time you’re in the fourth grade, you’re probably never going to be one.
I wish we could have, for the first four grades, the children taught “reading” in every conceivable form: singing, putting on plays, reciting, looking up words in the dictionary, memorizing, reading aloud, being read aloud to. They could learn verbal rhythm by marching and singing and dancing. For the first four years, the chief aim would be perfecting reading, in all these ways. Then the children could undertake other subjects — when they could actually read history, read geography, read science.
If we could induce children to read with pleasure, and to feel the connection between thought and expression, their education could progress. … With immersion in reading practices, all becomes possible.
Q: Did you ever imagine yourself doing anything else?
A: I seriously thought I might be a doctor. I would have enjoyed the act of diagnosis. Any medical case is a puzzle until suddenly the elements come together and click into shape just as poems do.
Q: Why lyric poetry now? You discovered a “why” in your youth. Is there still a “why”?
A: Yes, because it is the most precise articulation of “the history and science of feeling” (Wordsworth). It is a ground of reality. God knows television and video games can’t be the ground of emotional reality.
Lyric poetry still seems to me, in its seamless fusion of imagination and technique, the symbolic ground of a comprehensive and constantly changing enactment of the life of consciousness.
Q: You know, I’ve come to think of that as being the fundamental gift of the humanities — to defy the idea that there is one truth.
A: Art is anti-ideological from the start. When ideology dominates, you publish Pravda. As our poet A.R. Ammons says, [poetry] is like water going through your fingers — “uncapturable and vanishing.” And people don’t like the uncapturable and the vanishing, by and large; they respond to more solid direction, whether religious, moral, or political.
Q: Practitioners of the humanities have to sell the idea of that handful of moving water, shaped briefly to the hand, and then gone. But what about colleges and universities faced with shrinking humanities faculty departments and research money?
A: In our pioneer country, useful people were prized, and useless people were not. The dissenters who came here were not from the aristocracy. They didn’t bring over the amusements of the elite, the court entertainments of music and madrigals and masques. Those things seemed to the dissenters to be dissolute practices of the indifferent aristocracy. There was a deep suspicion here of the arts and secular learning as distractions that took people away from God and religious duty.
Q: Do you think embracing the humanities, embracing enduring forms of art and culture, is something that America will grow into?
A: Yes, after we’re a thousand years old. Europe is a thousand years old, and has become proud of its cultural patrimony. We eventually will be proud of ours.
We don’t teach our great poetry in the schools. We don’t teach our great art in the schools. We don’t teach our great music in the schools. We don’t yet have a sense of an American aesthetic and scholarly achievement that we must transmit as part of our being in the world.
Q: Yet the decline of interest in the humanities seems to be international.
A: That’s the result — though not necessarily a linked result — of modernity and democracy. Modernity requires usable engines, from atom bombs to space stations. And democracy is thought to require that you not teach anything that not everybody can understand.
Q: Has the rise of visual culture taken a toll on the humanities?
A: Yes: Everyone can look, even if not profoundly. But not everyone can read, or read complicated texts.
Q: That form of looking, that incessant presence of things to look at, moving things to look at, seems to be anti-reverie —
A: It’s anti-reverie and it’s also anti-literacy and anti-conversation. You can’t be reading while you’re looking, and you can’t be looking while you’re reading. Nor can you converse intimately while the screen is occupying your attention. Nor can you write while you’re watching something visual. On the other hand, both the Web and TV offer so much to bright children who don’t find those texts or images at home or at school. A smart, hungry pupil can have the best public library in the world at hand. That can’t be bad for America.
Q: There is this inbuilt hunger to learn. You can’t crush that.
A: No. Students may be learning in different fields in different eras. In Shakespeare’s time the main way you could advance was to be trained verbally. The indispensable skills were oratory, eloquence. These days, not even the “best” schools offer that intense training in language: social status is not gained by translating Greek and Latin.
The studies that are prized in the way of learning now are indeed the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] subjects, just as the arts of reading and writing were praised and prized in the Renaissance. Our era will discover new aspects of learning: You won’t get Shakespeare’s plays, but you may get the explanation of dark matter. I don’t regret this, as long as there’s support for earnest students of any bent.
Q: Even if that something isn’t poetry, perhaps?
A: There were whole centuries without much brilliant poetry. Whenever warfare occupies the resources of the state, there is less support for the arts, less patronage available for poets. Poetry may suddenly become important again here, as it did during the political troubles of Ireland and Poland not long ago.
Q: You refuse not to have hope, don’t you?
A: I just have faith in the gene pool. The gene pool is always casting up musicians, poets, people who want to create theater, as well as scholars and teachers.
Q: Is there something that you’d like to add about where you came from?
A: An intellectually hungry and often dissatisfied and rebellious young person will look around for wherever there is fosterage — libraries, teachers, concert halls. But you have to start with a yearning for knowledge and delight.
Interview was edited for clarity and length.