George: Good evening and welcome to the Lehigh Valley Arts Salon. This is George van Doren, your host this evening.
With us today, we have Ernest Hilbert who is the author of Sixty Sonnets, also the editor of Contemporary Poetry Review, and the host of the blog E-Verse Radio. He’s going to be talking about his book, Sixty Sonnets and about the poetic process and other things as we venture along the way.
So, we’re going to begin by having him read from one of the sonnets and I’ll let him start.
Ernest: Thank you, George. This is a poem called “Prophetic Outlook.”
Crooks run the whole world, and the Dow just fell.
Crap rules the airwaves. All your best plans stall.
The air is dirty, and you don’t feel well.
Your wife won’t listen. Friends no longer call.
Sad songs from youth no longer cast a spell.
Cancer research has run into a wall.
Some inflated hack just won the Nobel.
You witness clear signs of decline and fall.
The neighbors are cold, and your house won’t sell.
Your cat has bad teeth. Your paychecks feel small.
Maybe you’re really sick. It’s hard to tell.
Up ahead, traffic has slowed to a crawl.
The world didn’t just start going to hell.
You just noticed for the first time, that’s all.
George: You know one of the things I really enjoy about your poetry is your kind of sarcastic sense of humor, and maybe we can talk more about that later as we get through here and how that appears in the poems. But, one of the things I wanted to talk to you about is what is your poetic process, how do you go about writing a poem like that or any poem?
Ernest: Well, I never sit down with any sense of deliberation to decide to write a poem. I think the important thing is to be sensitive to things that do inspire and so—something I read in a book or a magazine, something I see on the street, a story someone tells me, something that has happened to me happened to a friend, a loved one or an enemy—these things will sort of boil for a little while. I keep them in my head, I don’t write them down usually. I used to rush to write things down afraid that I’d forget them. Now, I just turn it over in my mind, find the appropriate sort of musical or aural structure for it and slowly work out a rhythm and a musical sense in my mind and eventually commit it to paper.
Once I do that, then a different process begins. First, it’s an additive art so to speak like sort of piling clay onto a—onto a pedestal, then it becomes a subtractive art, for instance when block of marble is chiseled down until you have the shape that you want. And then, another, sometimes painful process begins, I show it to my “readers,” so to speak, and this is a small group of people whom I admire and who have particular skills; one’s a fiction writer, and one doesn’t write poetry but likes to sometimes read it, and one is an editor for a magazine.
And then, they each put in their different opinions, what should be cut. Sometimes they say just throw the whole thing away, there’s no way this will ever work, and I often do consign it to the dust bin of my own history. And, other times, very, very rarely they’ll say, well, you nailed it. But usually it goes through quite a few changes over a matter of weeks or months before I show it to magazine editors or consider even putting it into a manuscript that would become a book.
So, it’s not like the way a novelist or a non-fiction writer in general, a biographer for instance would have to work where you have to sit down every day and commit yourself to so many hours every day, must have a thousand words, must have two thousand words every day. I can’t write poetry like that, I have a feeling some people do sit down and force themselves to write just to get it.
Someone once said a lot of contemporary American poetry feels like it didn’t want to be written. Someone decided they were poet and then they therefore had to write the poems. If I don’t write for a few weeks or a few months, it doesn’t bother me, there’s no sense of writer’s block. When something comes I’m in the right state of mind and it stimulates me, then I go ahead and I try to find the appropriate words and the appropriate order as they say to make a machine that works and it is called a poem that will convey the sense of something that happened; the emotional sense, the psychological sense—perhaps tell a story perhaps make an argument, what have you, perhaps just entertain.
George: So, when you begin, obviously there’s an idea when you actually begin to write with paper and pencil or with a computer or however you choose to write, does that present itself as a line of poetry, as an image? Does that vary from time to time?
Ernest: Well, it has to exist as a line or just as even a couplet, but it exits as language. You know one of the great lines is “poetry is not made of ideas; it’s made of words.” You can have a great idea and a terrible poem issues from it. It has to be first and foremost, those are the materials you’re working with and there should be a real voice behind it, a real sense of emotion or urgency or, you know, and the intellectual aspect is not something to be first to one side at all. That can be—it can be very cerebral.
Some people wrote very cerebral poems, like Wallace Stevens. They work on your mind, not on your gut. I’ve always said it should be sort of your mind and your gut and even a little bit lower sometimes to create a good—a good solid poem. And so, it does present itself to me as words, but sometimes as an image that must be forged into a specific line of words.
George: Well, that sort of leads us in the direction of why sonnets in general and why your particular type of sonnet which is—I don’t know if it’s entirely unique, but it seems certainly unusual compared to most sonnet forms.
Ernest: Well, I mean the sonnet is an old, old form. It came about in the early Renaissance in Italy. It means in Italian literally “little song.” And it was originally used in a courtly tradition, usually to praise a woman’s beauty, to express desire, submission to the woman, and that’s how it stayed for quite a long time. I mean, Shakespeare turned it around, made it a bit more ironic; “my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” and his point was she doesn’t have all these qualities, but I love her anyway, which is something we can relate to a little bit more.
But why the sonnet? The sonnet never seen to be a terribly ambitious form for quite a long time. Shelly would have disagreed with that. I mean, some people do try to encompass great ideas and grand themes in the sonnet. And I think that you can actually portray a whole human world in those fourteen lines that take about one minute to read, give or take a few seconds. And, also, it helps to focus your mind to create a structure, a sculpture that works in a particular way. I think it also relates to the song, the three-minute folk or rock or what-have-you song.
So, I put the book together when I was titling the poems. I thought of it almost like an album. Here’s a song. Not every song written by even a great like Bob Dylan is particularly good, but if you do enough of them, sooner or later, before you know it, one is really going to appeal to people. So, instead of sitting down and trying to write the Great American Poem or this Big Long Poem that contains so much . . . people are crushed by their own ambitions. They set out to make poetry so serious and mean so much and they go on missing the mark, and I don’t think the poems relate to their ears anymore, and they themselves probably wind up hating the poem.
So, I thought, if I’m going to start with a very modest ambition, this poem is about getting drunk one night and regretting it the next day. This poem is about someone who feels the world has turned against him in little and big ways and then, he realizes his anger is almost comic. As you pointed out there is a funny edge and some people say, well, I love the anger of that poem. And then someone else says, oh, I love how you’re sort of making fun of people who get angry, as if they’re the only person who’s ever suffered. So, people—you want to forge something that has many facets, people can see it from different directions.
You mentioned that I have a variation on the traditional style; the sonnet is a fourteen-line poem. The most famous, of course, being the Italian, which is an octave, eight lines, followed by a sestet of six lines, and each of those has a particular rhyme scheme and each would have a rhetorical flourish and then a volta, or a “turn” it means in Italian, where you turn back on the original sentiment and that creates a structure. And then, of course, the Shakespearean is three quatrains followed by the closing couplet. Mine is basically two sestets followed by the closing couplet, retaining that aspect from the Shakespearean sonnet.
I started out writing that form simply because I thought I want some kind of variation to make it my own, but the strict construction is my own innovation, if you’d call that. I never named it anything and the—the poet and writer Daniel Nester sardonically referred to it as the Hilbertian, or as a joke, the Hilbertian Sonnet which is meant to be a bit pretentious. But, since then, a lot of people have written them and a lot of magazines have started publishing poems that people submit that are in, you know, consciously in this form, and I’m very pleased by that and flattered.
[0:09:57] And so, this way I could be a little original and a little traditional at the same time without, you know, feeling like I’m being old fashioned or just being progressive. It brings it all together. I like the high and the low and the fast and the slow and all different things combined; the humor and the tragedy because human life does contain all of those things.
George: You know we’ve spent a fair amount of time talking about the form and what it does and so forth and I often think that talking about poetry is like talking about music. We really need to hear some to get an idea of what it’s all about anyway. And, I was hoping you could take a little bit of time and read for us at least a few sonnets from—from your collection that you particularly like. And, also, if you care to, you know, go—go in the direction of reading some—some additional sonnets.
Ernest: Okay. Well, I did bring two that I think will—would make an interesting point to not run by me. But, they’re very well known and everyone’s heard them a number of times probably, but it’s always worth hearing these again.
And one is a William Shakespeare Sonnet XXIX, which is known as “When in Disgrace with Fortune.” And, it’s not so much—it’s not a romantic love poem; it’s a little bit earlier in the sequence than those, but it’s about friendship. And the basic sentiment is that when everything is going wrong in my life, when I remember the times I’ve had with you and your friendship, everything’s okay, and I wouldn’t trade my place with the luckiest man in the world.
And, he does it in this incredibly elegant and beautiful way. So, I’m just going to take a moment to read William Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXIX.
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
It is a beautiful way of saying something very simple.
George: Yes, indeed it is.
Ernest: Something a little bit more complex is Percy Byshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” It is one of my favorite sonnets and it is one of the most famous sonnets, and it’s on a political—vaguely political theme. This is the age of revolution and tyrants. This is the age of Napoleon. Shelley was a political radical.
And, this poem is in a sense comforting because it shows that even the greatest despot will . . . his works will turn to dust. The irony of this is a “traveler in an antique land” travels to a desert and finds the trunk or the legs of a great mighty statue that fell down saying “look on my works and despair.” Who remembers who this king was; the tyrant is gone, everything he did is gone, all that remains is the sculpture of his—his evil likeness in the sneer on his face.
The British museum had recently brought over some of the large torsos of Ramesses II, I believe. At the time, Shelley had seen these giant torsos in the British museum—they’re still there—and was inspired to think of that as expression of political—political power and might. So, this is Ozymandias. And, by the way, Ozymandias is the name of this made-up tyrant who did not—he never actually existed.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
[0:15:11] I’m going to read a poem called “AAA Vacation Guide.” I was inspired by this: Someone showed me a photograph of a billboard that was on I-95 back in the 1970’s, and it was a large black billboard with white lettering. And all it said is, “PHILADELPHIA ISN’T AS BAD AS PHILADELPHIANS SAY IT IS” to try to get you to stop between Washington and New York to actually go into Philadelphia, and it was sponsored by something called the Philadelphia Action Network, whatever that was, which was obviously tasked with raising the profile of the city.
I thought to myself it was very funny because the fact you even had to say that speaks, speaks volume and also the fact is wouldn’t the people who live there know? [Laughs] So, Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is. And this is a little poem about songs and about the way we romanticize places.
I want to preface this by saying I don’t mean it in a mean way toward any of the places that I put as places you might not want to go. You know the character Satan in Paradise Lost, for instance, travels into Eden and can understand why he doesn’t feel better and he realizes “which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell,” or hell is in me. I’m paraphrasing. And the Roman writer, Horace said, “You can change the skies, but not yourself,” meaning you can travel to another place and you still might be carrying what’s in you. So, we can make any place a very nice place and you can be miserable in beautiful vacation spots too.
But this is a poem; it’s supposed to be light-hearted. It’s called “AAA Vacation Guide.”
Paris in the Spring, Autumn in New York,
Singers pair a city with a season
As though it belonged to it all year long.
They should try to put a few more to work:
Trenton in winter needs a good reason;
Scranton in summer seems so very wrong.
How about Cincinnati in the spring?
Autumn in Passaic, or in Oakland?
Some cities just lack glamour and appeal,
And there is no point arguing the thing.
No one reads through stacks of brochures to spend
A honeymoon in Allentown. Let’s get real.
Most places on the map, you must believe,
No one wants to visit, only to leave.
George: Yes. Once again, you know, I really I think that there’s humor in so many things and yet, they’re serious at the same time. The other flipside of that is I often wonder—I remember driving through the White Mountains and being, you know, just amazed at how beautiful they were and awe-inspiring, and I thought, you know, I bet the people who work here just get up and it’s just like, you know, being back in the Lehigh Valley back home, you know, let’s just, ah, I’d like to go some place really beautiful for vacation.
Ernest: Sure. Sure. I mean you figure that gondola guys in Venice are probably sick of Venice, right? [Laughs]
George: Yeah. One more affair. When do I get off?
Ernest: Exactly. Exactly. Okay. Another poem that you mentioned that you had enjoyed when you read the book is called “Calavera for a Friend.” This appeared in The New Republic. And a quick footnote, on the Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, calavera has several meanings. One is that it’s a small sugar skull like a candy and you swallow it and, in essence, sort of swallowing death or destroying—destroying conquering death almost.
But also, a calavera is a short humorous poem in which you imagine someone dead, usually a famous person or possibly a family member and you imagine them being dead, so this— but it’s meant to be funny. Mine is not really funny, it’s actually very serious poem. It’s called “Calavera for a Friend.”
When your heart is scorched out, the unruly world
Will seal around you as a dark ocean
Behind a ship at dusk—the wake will fade
And spread wider, until fully unfurled.
Love reserved for you will slacken. Your portion
Of commerce ends with the last deal you made.
A stranger will take your job, buy your home,
Maybe wear your shirts and shoes, and the books
You cherished will be thumbed by new readers.
[0:20:00] Young tourists will roam everywhere you roamed.
Some small items might remain, artifacts,
Footnotes, fingerprints, cuff links, little anchors,
Small burrs that cling: initials carved in a tree,
Your name inscribed where no one will see.
George: I guess what applies to “Ozymandias” applies to the rest of us as well.
Ernest: It does. And it’s a sad and serious poem, and it’s about what happens. Philip Larkin has a wonderful line about death, the thing—things that made you—you start to fly apart from each other and, again, I’m paraphrasing. And so, what happens when you’re gone is the world seals around that space you made and fills it in with new things.
George: Yet, in the poem, when I said life, I mean there’s a—there’s a regret of that situation and there’s obviously an expression of the importance of that person because you have chosen that person to . . .
George: . . . to write about and so that that doesn’t lessen . . .
George: . . . the importance or the connection.
Ernest: Right. And so, the poem is something that we shore against our ruin to quote—to quote T.S. Elliot from The Waste Land, and sort of like a balm against suffering against death, and even if it is transient and a small human gesture, it is all the more beautiful for that. I’m not just talking about my own poem when I say that, but that is one of the great things a poem can and should do is remind us that we’re human and that, you know, even little gestures like that can be very meaningful.
If there’s time for another, you mentioned you like “The Retired Literary Critic.”
Ernest: Okay. A lot of people like him. This is “The Retired Literary Critic Pauses in His Sunday Reading.”
I still wonder who declined in this room
Before me, in this rented antique house,
As chips of light fleck the blown curtain.
The ceiling is like the lid of a tomb.
Who slept off a drunken soiree or doused
Lice with witch hazel? What trivia passed then?
The May afternoon remains cool and sad.
The bed is old and sunken to the side.
On this crude rostrum, hope is not enough.
I once loved a girl with dark hair. I had
Years to be happy. When did I decide
What was consequential, what was mere stuff?
Late cries rise like lost balloons from the park,
And day sinks into magnifying dark.
George: Thank you very much. I really think, one of the things I thought we would talk about is, you know, what makes poetry work and, you know, how does it connect? But, I think that hearing the poems and hearing you talk about them really answers that question of how poetry works is the wonderful sound of the poems and the meaning that they hold married together.
Thank you very much for being with us today. We, once again, we had Ernest Hilbert with us, the author of Sixty Sonnets, editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review, and the host of E-Verse Radio.
Thank you very much once again for taking the time to spend with us.
Ernest: Thank you, George, I really do appreciate it. I had a great time.
[0:23:51] End of Audio