“I get pretty impatient with people who consider any fourteen-line poem to be a sonnet. The turns of thought are crucial, as is the number of turns.”(Carl Phillips, interviewed by David Baker, www.kenyonreview.org)
The interview inspiring these illustrations is a pas de deux of metapoetics performed on campus by two massively degreed* panjandrums.
Altisonant palaver among cognoscenti is devoutly to be shunned by the lay reader seeking insight into poetry’s mysteries. It graces me with what I get from the poetry itself: a sense of being kept on the outside of something that is cold, severe and not obviously enjoyable. (The words are those of Rob Doyle about Peter Handke’s work.)
But here’s my own volta if not volte-face: Well into the interview, Phillips starts pushing back on Baker’s abstruse queries with some sensible responses. My irritable hot take ceded grudgingly to a recognition that Phillips was not blowing all gas.
Here’s the exchange where I glimpsed light:
David Baker: I mean to identify places where the voltas fall, where the poems turn, where and how they open, and where, in the final couple of lines, they recapture or recapitulate each narrative… But just as vivid here is the mysterious primary pronoun “it.” This little word may be easy to overlook, but it seems central to fully understanding the poem. What is “it”? Something grand, like myth? Or something tangible, like a real artifact? Inside “it” we find the whole narrative. Does it matter whether or not we can identify “it”?
Carl Phillips: I can honestly say I have no idea what the “it” is supposed to refer to.
His confession of cluelessness as to the referent of his own pronoun gives me hope that Carl Phillips may have something to teach me after all.
*Carl Phillips has an AB (Bachelor of Arts) degree in Greek and Latin from Harvard, an MAT (Master of Arts in Teaching) degree in Latin and classical humanities from the University of Massachusetts, and an MA (Master of Arts) degree in creative writing from Boston University. David Baker has a BSE (Bachelor of Science in Engineering) and MA (Master of Arts) degrees from Central Missouri State University and a PhD from the University of Utah.
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