Brian Culhane won the Poetry Foundation’s 2007 Emily Dickinson First Book Award, which provides $10,000 plus publication and promotion of a manuscript for an American poet over 50 who’s never before published a book. His winning manuscript, The King’s Question, was published by Graywolf Press last fall. Culhane, whose poems have been published in the New Republic, the New Criterion, Antaeus, and the Paris Review, teaches film and English at Seattle’s Lakeside School.
Tim Appelo: The glory of England is that TLS reviewers are capable of using the phrase “one of our more promising 50-year-olds.”
Brian Culhane: Not in America! It tends to be 30. The cult of youth: Delmore Schwartz, Sylvia Plath. I think there’s something to the idea that a poet, in particular, burns with emotion, and we associate that kind of emotion with the 20s and 30s. The Yale Prize is very prestigious, and the door clangs shut at 40. You get a lot of antsy mid-30-year-olds looking at the clock. So the Poetry Foundation award really is one of the few that recognizes that some poets get off the ground more slowly.
You earned an MFA at Columbia, and studied the epic and the history of criticism for a University of Washington PhD. Your poetry is grounded in the classics. On your way to writing about that subject, did you go through other distinct literary phases?
A Miltonic one in my 20s. His sonnets led me to write early poems that were gnomic and dense. One falls under the spell of these great presences. I wrote a long poem called “The Bridge” in allusive, crabbed lines on a metropolitan theme and handed it to my roommate. He said, “Didn’t Hart Crane write a long poem called The Bridge?” Stanley Kunitz was my thesis advisor. He’d scrawl on a poem, “This is Lowell. The worst of Lowell.” I also had the good fortune to have James Wright as my teacher: a puffy face and slit eyes and big thick glasses—a minatory presence, even though he was a gentle man. I’d written an exam on a typical Wright question: “It has been said that poetry is no better than push-pin. Explain.” Wright was quoting Jeremy Bentham, who argued that both poetry and push-pin, a child’s game kind of like the modern pick-up sticks, are equally valuable if they produce the same degree of pleasure. On my exam, Wright wrote, “Cool-hane, no one will ever take your ideas seriously until you learn how to spell.” I’d gone to Manhattan private schools when they didn’t teach spelling.
Some of your last lines are intentional echoes or quotations, like “Sailing to Byzantium” in “The King’s Question” and Pound’s Canto CXX in “The Last Canto.” In the latter poem, you move from Pound’s “stoneweight” book in your lap to a painter of bison on the rock wall of an Altamira cave.
The endings of poems are mysterious: Frost’s idea of a poem as an ice cube on a skillet riding on its own melting. The melting in “The Last Canto” was rather strange. It set me thinking about the artist as a very ancient figure, who was as misunderstood in the age of the mastodon as any modern artist. It’s not Pound who’s saying the words at the end of my poem, even though I’m quoting his final canto (“Let those I love try to forgive / What I have made”). It’s rather the artist who turns to his friends and family, who often rue his calling, to say this apology.
“The King’s Question” refers to Croesus, who (Herodotus says) asked the oracle at Delphi what would happen if he invaded Persia. The oracle said he’d destroy a great empire—only he didn’t realize it’d be his own, not Persia. But in your poem, Croesus’s question is lost; we don’t know what it was. Why?
The past throws out to us lifelines, messages. What is left out is interesting. The poem imagines that we didn’t ever hear that story, and that would make sense—Sophoclean dramas were all lost, except for a handful. Why did I change what we know from Herodotus's story of Croesus? Most of his history is taken from oral tradition, which can easily change in the retelling. Maybe Herodotus got the story wrong. Was that really the question Croesus had in mind? Is that what we would ask the oracle in our own lives? How many questions do we have in us, great ones?
Today, we’re not writing questions and sticking them into the wall at Delphi anymore. In the Manhattan neighborhood I grew up in, the correlative for the priestess talking with the vatic utterances was the psychotherapist.
I love that the shrink is knitting.
That brings up Clotho.
One of the Three Fates of Greek mythology, spinning the threads of life. Spinning your fate. Your fate seems to have been spun by libraries.
I like libraries, and tend to do my best research when I’m not researching. I spent years in a library researching a dissertation on the epic. Once in a while I’d simply wander the library and pluck a volume, and become inspired—it was one of those aleatory combinations of time, place, and book. All first lines are accidents.
Many of your poems read like a scholar’s reverie.
You write in “Library”:
Of an infinitely circular Library of Babel
Borges saw as self-referential: nooks
Corridors, dead ends, twisting stairwells:
Bibliographic cargo cults and infidels.
You go on to compare libraries in this poem to the supernatural cargo cults formed by remote Pacific islanders awed by World War II GIs dropping crates full of wonders from afar.
I’m misconstruing, comically from one perspective, tragically from another. What we cast off, what washed ashore because of the wars we fought with machines, these people could make no sense of. I’m also alluding to the coming tide of change, which the islanders can’t do anything about.
The poem “Library” is also about dividing up a late father’s library in his apartment. Is it autobiographical?
Yes. My father was a Disney animator. He worked on the company’s first two feature films, Snow White, and Pinocchio. My dad animated the dwarfs marching home in Snow White. My mother met my father in Hollywood. She was a radio actress working with Cary Grant and Orson Welles. She was terrific at foreign accents.
A great influence for a poet.
She read Walter de la Mare to me at seven: “His horse in the silence champed the grass of the forest’s ferny floor.” I just loved “champed,” a terrific word. The way she recited it was very theatrical. And I was smitten.
Your father must’ve cast a big shadow.
He was born in 1908, had four wives, and had me very late. He never graduated high school, but he taught himself enough classical Greek to read the first page of Homer. He had a massive library. So he was an important influence, but he was also, um, daunting.
The poems show it wasn’t smooth sailing. But I want to talk about your formal aspect. I was trying to work out the rhyme scheme of “Library.”
The last stanza is ABCAC(off-rhyme)DDC(off-rhyme). Justify if you can, sir, your rhyme scheme.
Well, every rhyme scheme is arbitrary. Frost is right, it’s sort of a game, and it’s a good game to have as a poet.
Your rhyme scheme has to do with what you want to emphasize, right? “Petrarch’s Epistles,” “Father whistles,” “lackadaisical firstborn,” “years I’ve left to mourn.” But it isn’t a formal tum-pum.
That’s right. Poets who are drawn to form—such as Anthony Hecht or Robert Lowell—and who write longer poems tend to have intricate stanzaic structures, such as Lowell’s “Mr. Edwards and the Spider.” It’s like watching a very good juggler. Like W.C. Fields, who was famous for juggling a cigar box and a bowler and a cane. I don’t like to slavishly follow my own choice for a rhyme scheme. The rhyme should come out of the feeling in some way.
You’re the spawn of Hollywood, and teach film. Is your art cinematic?
Great question. I guess I’d like it to be. My poem “At Wallace Stevens’ Grave” draws on the early history of film.
For the wonderment
Of those watching the flicker of the first projector,
And sucking in their breath and letting out their breath:
Our modern frieze.
In early films, people were fascinated to see time go backwards, to see the diver enter the pool, and fly, in reverse, back onto the board. I was fascinated that narrative was a relatively late development in film.
How did Wallace Stevens enter into it?
I find the disavowal of narrative in the modern long poem interesting. You’re in the middle of one of Stevens's long poems, and you think: Where was the beginning again?
How old or new is the work in your book?
“Estrangement in Athens” is my first published poem, which makes it about 30 years old. About a quarter of the poems were written in the last four years. I’m happy that no book came to fruition until now. The book is a lot better for being winnowed. There's a pressure on poets to publish too early.
Now that you’ve done this, does that change your practice?
No. The muse is an intermittent visitor. If I could speed up the process, I would. Maybe when I’m 75 there’ll be another prize—for the second book of a poet who’s not published a second book until he’s 75.