INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT PETERS
*(an excerpt) By Linda Lerner
For over thirty years, poet, critic and performer, Robert Peters, has
n nearly every facet of contemporary American poetry. A maverick who defies
easy categorization, he holds a Phd in Victorian literature and was a Professor of
English at the University of California at Irvine, before he retired. With his "life-mate," Paul Trachtenberg--in their third decade together--he now lives a fulfilling
life, but not without having paid a price. His poems reflect much pain and
suffering--the death of his four and a half year old son, Richard, from meningitis;
the suicide of his friend, Gary; the price that comes from choosing to live
unconventionally--both in his personal and intellectual life.
In an attempt "to protest the dulling of the literary arts in our time" he has written
such books as THE GREAT AMERICAN BAKE-OFF series, and HUNTING
THE SNARK, (now classics) which include commentaries on most living poets.
Emphasis is on those who don't collect all the prizes, dominate the M.F.A
programs or crowd the major reading circuits; those who don't think and write
according to what is currently programed fashionable.
*(The completed interview will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Chiron Review.)
L.L. Can you recall when you first developed a strong interest in poetry? Was there
someone or something in your early schooled years responsible?
R.P. My Northern Wisconsin farm mother named me "Robert Louis" after Robert Louis
Stevenson. I was born on Oct. 10, 1924. Neither of my parents were educated; in
fact, my father's meager schooling consisted of a first and second grade at a North
Dakota prairie school. Mom had a year of high school. As a child I owned three
books: Stevenson's A CHILD'S GARDEN OF VERSES ; Defoe's ROBINSON
CRUSOE; and TOM SWIFT AND HIS SKY TRAIN. The latter pair of books
bored me. I loved Stevenson's poems.
My full commitment to writing verse arrived when my four-year old son Richard
died of a one-day meningitis in February 1960. Earlier, throughout college and
during my early academic years, my idea was to find a sinecure at some mediocre
college (like Ohio Wesleyan University where I taught in the late fifties) where I
would teach rote composition and literature courses and devote my energies to
writing a great Melvillian novel!
But, to maintain my sanity and deal with the shock of Richard's death, I wrote
poems, beginning on his death day. The poems eventually became SONGS FOR A
SON, chosen by Denise Levertov for a series of poets she was then editing for
W.W. Norton. The book appeared in 1967. The poems were much influenced by
Tennyson's great elegy "In Memoriam," by Theodore Roethke's "The Lost Son"
and by William Carlos' Williams' early poems .
L.L. How did you learn your craft? Who were your dominant influences?
R.P. l learned my craft in the late sixties, after my move in 1966 from Wayne State
University to the University of California at Riverside. Encouraging was an
exchange with Dickey who appeared at UC Riverside for a reading. I showed him
"Kittens," the longest of the early poems, on my having denied my son pets,
fearing that their inevitable deaths would be too harmful for him. Dickey gave me
a hug and said something to the effect: "You don't know how original you are."
The gift of his "touch," more than any single influence, encouraged me to believe
in my writing. He was the first professional to see my work.
Another influence was Robert Bly's SILENCE IN THE SNOWY FIELDS, for
which, as a Midwesterner I felt much kinship. I imitated Bly's lean style and his
acutely, almost hand-hewn observations of persons and nature.
L.L. As both a critic and a poet, can you comment on why there are so few poet critics,
as opposed to the past, with writers like Winters, and Brooks.
R.P. Linda, there has never been a dearth of poet-critics. Moreover, the pair you
mention, Winters and Brooks, were mediocre poets. We've had terrific poet-critics: James Dickey, with his seminal POET AS SUSPECT, assessed the new
poets of the 50's; Kenneth Rexroth wrote incisive and original assessments of
writers in many cultures--in a few pages, Rexroth was able to say more of moment
on a writer than lesser, non-poet critics could in pages. William Carlos Williams
wrote original criticism, as did Thomas McGrath, and James Wright; Thom Gunn
writes masterful essays on a host of contemporary poets.
True, none of these poet-critics has enjoyed the clout in academic circles that
Helen Vendler, Marjorie Perloff, Harold Bloom and Alvarez have, stamping their
imprimaturs on the hairy flanks of conservative poets and pounding drums for the
boring but now defunct Language Poetry. University and College Writing
Programs need their canon-makers, and these people generate their prizes, obscene
money awards, and academic sinecures. Vendler canonizes largely through her
Harvard connected anthologies, pieces in the NEW YORKER, and book
collections of her essays. Her poets all write well, are intellectual and fashionably
sad, and sound the way good conventional poets should. Vendler, Perloff, and
Bloom determine who makes the Norton anthologies.
L.L. Craft, in many ways, is like one of those glass balls with infinite prisms--turn it one
way and you get one thing, turn it another, the image changes. What Bukowski
called a well crafted poem, Wilbur wouldn't. What does craft mean to you?
R.P. To me a well-crafted poem may be either rhymed or unrhymed, in free or closed
forms. One of the best crafted of all poems is Tennyson's blank verse lyric "Tears,
Idle Tears." Most poetry I see today requires drastic surgery. Poets, young and
old, who write in currently popular journalese modes are particularly inept.
Keeping "day books" and journals, favored during the seventies, remains a blight
on the body poetic., generally formless poems.
L.L. How do you feel about the new formalism resurging today? Is it, in your opinion,
a reaction to the freedom first advocated by the Beats? Or something else.
R.P. For me, very simply, the New Criticism gave me permission to treat poems as
"artifacts," as though they were as self-contained as Swiss watches. One studied
their parts, disassembled them, and then put them back together. What a relief this
was from dwelling on biographical and sociological details, or on picking themes
from the Bible and Homer and tracing them in Keats or Shelley. I loved the literal
line-by-line readings, non-contextual, that Brooks and Warren encouraged.
All my professional life I've loathed the efforts of critics to make a "science" of
poetic analysis. I see the new isms as a threat to our primary affective responses to
poems as living, breathing, organisms.
My guess is that the New Formalists, Structuralists, and Post-Structuralists, have
nothing to do with the Beats; for, having taught at U Cal Irvine for thirty years,
where these folks now dominate the literature departments, I've seen better
evidence that they've read much Beat poetry--or Bukowski, for that matter. I was
suspect for including Ginsberg's "Howl" in my poetry courses. And I recall my
frustrations trying to get the resident academic poets in the Writing Program to
sponsor appearances by Ginsberg, McClure, Corso, and Bukowski. They weren't
even ready for Clayton Eshleman who might "upset our students," a senior poet
informed me. When, on my own, I invited Bukowski to read, he was boycotted by
the Writing Program folks.
L.L. Is there a connection between it and the political correctness (P.C.) craze currently
dominating our lives?
R.P. I loathe Political Correctness; it stifles, thwarts, and maims originality. For being
good little PC fledgling poets, graduates of MFA programs find editors for their
mediocre books who have also gone through similarly mediocre programs. Some
even go on to direct their own PC programs. Though I'm left-wing in most
matters, I heartily approve of the Republican effort to dump the NEA fellowships,
particularly the individual grants for poets and fiction writers.
The NEA has been a major perpetrator of Political Correctness. If I were czar
I'd abolish all writing programs, throwing hack poets into the streets to sell
broadsides in order to survive. Neither Ben or Sam Johnson knew such sinecures.
I'd also abolish Poet Consultanships to the Library of Congress and all Poet
Who remembers Robert P. Tristram Coffin? He won tons of prizes in the 30's and
40's, was lionized, appeared syndicated in major newspapers, was dog-eared for
immortality. He's utterly lost today, his own mediocrity finally sinking him. Fifty
years from now who will remember Daniel Hoffman, Robert Hass Rita Dove
Alan Dugan Mona Van Duyn Mark Strand. Mark Van Doren, an arbiter of taste
and literary tzar, is remembered today primarily because his son cheated on the
Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar TV program.
There have been a few fine appointments--James Dickey, Robert Bly, John
Ashbery. But these are rare. The Pulitzers are generally given to politically
correct, academic poets. Look at this year's roster: all three of the nominees have
long Iowa Workshop connections, and all three enjoy prestigious academic
appointments. The last time I really got excited about a pulitzer winner was in the
late fifties when D Snodgrass won it for HEART'S NEEDLE.
L.L. Gerald Locklin, in an interview in HOME PLANET NEWS, said that he "abhors
political correctness. It is paralyzing the universities and the literary world." He
goes on to say, "I think you should just write what you can, no matter how
unfashionable, and let the cow chips fall where they may." Would you comment
R.P. Locklin is right. I saw lots of violets and buttercups sprouting from cow dung
piled up on the old Wisconsin farm where I spent my childhood. Yes, let the chips
all where they may.
(If anyone wants to receive free copies of Robert Peters' books, write & send
postage to him at 9431 Krepp Dr. Huntington Beach, CA, 92647)
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