October 21, 2012

from A CONVERSATION BETWEEN ALAN SHAPIRO AND ALAN FOX IN CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA, FEBRUARY 20, 2005

Note: The following is an excerpt from a 19-page interview,
available in-full in Rattle #23.

FOX: You mentioned the relationship between art and poetry and music. Can you say more about that?

SHAPIRO: I think that, as Walter Pater says, all poetry does aspire to the condition of music. Music, pure feeling, pure crystallizing structure, that’s what we all want. But words of course have meaning and refer to a world beyond words, and what I mean by music is just that unforgettable something I was talking about earlier. I want to write poems like the ones I love to read: the ones that make you want to memorize them. I don’t think there’s a lovelier expression or metaphor than to learn something “by heart”—to have some poem lodged in the heart so deeply it’s part and parcel of your body and your spirit. It’s finally an utterly sensual experience. To know something “by heart” is to know it in the most intimate way, in the mouth, on the tongue, in the ear.

FOX: Mm-hm.

SHAPIRO: Maybe music is a poet’s metaphor for rhythm. I’ve become truly interested in the music of sentences. I love sentences and the way the shape of sentence can express the shape of a thought or the shape of a feeling. We think about poetry as being primarily image and metaphor or rhythm. We almost never think of poetry in terms of sentences. We think of sentences as belonging to prose. But, for me, a sentence has always been a musical device, a profoundly expressive instrument. Sentences are like little novels, little novels made of grammar. In all good poems the shape of the sentence bears some relationship to whatever the sentence is saying. In the Old Testament, God’s authority is partly a function of his grammar. The Ten Commandments, the reason that’s compelling is because they’re, well, commandments, imperatives–thou shalt not, thou shalt not, thou shalt not. If God were, say, a Unitarian, he might have written the Ten Suggestions. And it would have gone something like: Well, thou might consider not killing; on the other hand I could imagine circumstances in which it’s impossible not to kill, but on balance, it’s probably better not to kill than to kill, but what do I know, I’m only… (Fox laughs.) You know, the lack of moral certitude is reflected in a, in a highly qualified syntax that’s stopping and reversing itself, qualifying itself then qualifying the qualification. And so, the shape of the sentence is the shape of a consciousness in action.

FOX: Mm-hm, mm-hm.

SHAPIRO: And that’s what I read for. You know Robert Hayden’s poem, “Those Winter Sundays?” Beautiful opening sentence in that poem: “Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, and then with cracked hands that ached from weekday labor in the weather made banked fires blaze.” Now, that sentence goes on for four-and-a-half lines. And, he could have shaped it so that he told us what the hands were doing before he described the hands. “Sundays too my father got up early and made banked fires blaze with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather.”

FOX: Mm-hm.

SHAPIRO: But he didn’t. He, he tells us that even on Sunday when he didn’t have to, that beautiful “too,” the father would get up early. And then, with these hands that have worked all week long and are cracked he makes a fire for his family so they shouldn’t have to wake up in a cold house…it’s only at the very end of the sentence that he tells us what the hands are doing. So, by the time we get to what the hands are doing we realize the amount of sacrifice they’ve had to make, we appreciate more keenly the father’s dedication to the well being of his family. And no sooner do we register that insight (partly) from the structure of that sentence, that we get the next short sentence telling us, “No one ever thanked him.” The power of that sentence is a function of the long sentence that precedes it.

FOX: Mm-hm, mm-hm.

SHAPIRO: It’s just so beautifully done. The images in this poem aren’t particularly striking. The verbs aren’t especially active, but the lines are powerful and memorable mostly because of the syntax and how it varies and how it’s drawn through the lines. The artistry resides in the shifting from a long, compound sentence to a short, simple, declarative one. So that’s something that I have been interested in for years, the music of sentences and different kinds of sentences, the short sentence, long sentence, simple sentence, compounds and complex, complex compound, periodic sentences. And the different kinds of expressive work that those different sentences can do—I mean, think of Whitman’s catalogs? Beautiful, long catalogs, in which every detail is grammatically equal to every other detail. He’s the democratic bard of the open road, right?

FOX: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And so he’s trying to project an aesthetic, he’s trying create an aesthetic that projects an image of human equality, a catalog. No grammatical subordination. And yet every single line is rhythmically distinct from every other line. So you have a beautiful enactment of respect for individuality and a commitment to equality at the same time.

from Rattle #23, Summer 2005