Interview with Ernest Hilbert - Part I

Ernest Hilbert is one of the finest poets writing in the formal traditions of U.S. and European poetry. He is a master of craft, measure and music. Beside two remarkable collections of poetry - Sixty Sonnets (2009) and All of  You on the Good Earth (2013) - Hilbert is a writer of opera libretti and an antiquarian book dealer.  His poetry and criticism have appeared in publications around the world, and his poem, 'Domestic Situation,' has taken on the status of cult classic, widely performed and anthologized.

This is the first part of a long interview I conducted with Hilbert over the course of a year in 2013 - 2014. 

Jonathan Creasy: You are a poet, editor, and critic who has lived and worked on both sides of the Atlantic. How has this influenced your writing life?

Ernest Hilbert: I lived in England for several years in the 1990s when I attended Oxford University as a graduate student in the department of English Language and Literature. It was a bewildering conversion for me. I still dream about it. I went from a fleabag apartment with unreliable heat in the city of Philadelphia, where I washed dishes at a German restaurant for a living, to something very different, “that sweet city with her dreaming spires,” as Matthew Arnold saw Oxford from Boars Hill in his Theocritan poem “Thyrsis.” That’s a bit lush, but it was an enormous change for me. I may as well have been sent straight out of the solar system altogether to the far reaches of the galaxy. It was not only a climatological shock but also a cultural one, though I quickly united with like-minded students. Now that I look back on it, we all hailed from the upper-lower-middle class, to modify Orwell’s phrase. 

When I first arrived in Oxford, I still brimmed with enthusiasm and the first foolishness of youth. I immediately, and rashly, went about joining a rowing team, courting and allowing myself to be courted by the campus socialist party, taking the position of Welfare Officer in the college’s Middle Common Room, and I thought, why not start a literary magazine? Isn’t that what one does? So I set about, with a Danish gentleman named Christian Heller-Schoenberg, to create a small literary magazine called the Oxford Quarterly Review, later simply the Oxford Quarterly. It was never issued in a quarterly fashion, but it was not too grubby as small, short-lived magazines go.

I realized early on that I could use letterhead with the address of our Oxford college, St. Catherine’s, to solicit submissions from first-rank authors, and while a few, like Stephen Fry and Harold Bloom, courteously submitted regrets, most responded with something. In the first issue I managed to get an essay on film montage by David Mamet, and Christian called Australian poet Les Murray for a poem. They had met once in Denmark and gone out to bars together. I realized that the mere mention of Oxford conferred an aura of respectability. New and feeble as we were, we had some prestige. We managed to assemble a respectable group for the advisory board by assuring them they would have no duties and that no money would be requested, so the board included Iris Murdoch, Marjorie Perloff, and Seamus Heaney, who would receive the Nobel Prize for literature mere weeks after accepting our invitation. 

I spent an afternoon in the Bodleian Library (where I spent most days) pulling down big volumes that contained the home addresses of famous authors. I shot off letters, asking for poems, and they started to fill my post box in the porter’s lodge. For the second issue, which I dubbed a special poetry issue, I assembled the most laughably mismatched group of poets you can imagine. My tastes were eclectic partly because they were unformed. I reveled in the strange bedfellows we set down in that issue. We had Charles Wright, Charles Simic, W.D. Snodgrass, Galway Kinnell, Carolyn Kizer, Donald Justice, Philip Levine, John Hollander, Marilyn Hacker, Anthony Hecht, Louise Gluck, and Jorie Graham. The magazine then merged with the London Quarterly and put out a few more issues in which I, now strictly poetry editor, published poems by Andrew Motion, Mark Strand, Charles Tomlinson, Adrienne Rich, Christopher Middleton, and Michael Hamburger. 

Once I moved to Manhattan, where I continued to revise my doctoral dissertation nights and weekends, I started working for the punk and beatnik magazine Long Shot, which was founded by Danny Shot with assistance from Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka. Danny introduced me to the fertile and sometimes lurid literary nightlife of the city. After a year with Long Shot, I left to serve as poetry editor for publishing giant Random House’s new online literary magazine Bold Type, which served largely to promote the work of authors in the publisher’s vast stables, but I also managed to bring in some poets from outside the fold. Much like the word Oxford, Random House easily opened doors. Editors like Deb Garrison also gave me access to living legends like Kenneth Koch and Mark Strand as well as members of my own generation like Kevin Young for interview purposes. I also worked as the literary editor for a website and magazine called, and I was able to focus my editorial energies on rising members of my own generation. I published Matthea Harvey, Timothy Liu, Matthew Zapruder, Wells Tower, Joshua Beckman, Alexandar Hemon, and Joe Wenderoth, and I made acquaintances that endure to this day. 

I later went on to serve as editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review for five years, which is all a blur now, though I somehow recall soliciting, editing, and publishing a few hundred reviews and essays by a number of critics of modern poetry. My own blog, E-Verse, which enjoys around 40,000 readers, sometimes publishes new and previously published poems. But I don’t think I’ll ever want to work as an editor again. Too much work, too little reward. Over the centuries writers have complained of editorial duties that drained their time and kept them from their own writing. I’m very jealous of the little time I have to write. 

But I realize now that I’ve hardly answered your question. I have retained many connections in England, and I have delivered readings in London and Oxford. With the help of poets like Katy Evans-Bush, who was raised in the US but is now all but British, I like to publish poems by English poets on E-Verse in an effort to bring them to a larger audience in the US. I am sometimes surprised by how little American poets know about their contemporaries across the water. It seems inexcusable. I don’t know if a similar state of affairs persists on the other side. 

JC: How do you approach the sonnet form, which you’ve used in two books now?

EH: I had in mind both John Berryman’s Dream Songs (1955-1968) and Robert Lowell’s poems in Notebook (Blue 1969 and Red 1970) and History (1973). Seamus Heaney refers to Lowell’s “blunt-edged force” in those poems. I felt that force and was greatly moved by it. Both Berryman and Lowell use patches of meter for effect, but the poems are not composed in regular meter. 
Considerable variation is needed when collecting sixty poems of the same kind in a collection. In All of You on the Good Earth, I often scramble the double-sestet rhyme scheme. I was inspired in this by Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” which I believe is possibly the greatest of all sonnets, or at least the greatest of all sonnets not devoted to the theme of love. 

I place the volta in a variety of positions (Benjamin Longfellow examined the three principal placements at length in a critical paper about my first two books). I use first, second, and third person points of view. The speakers are male and female, old and young, rich and poor. To address another part of your question, I practice a subtractive art. I tend to start with a larger spread of words, language, images, sounds, and then I work them down slowly into measures, or lines, with a selection of effects, different kinds of rhyme, internal and terminal, consonance, assonance, alliteration, but you would never, or at least rarely, call the finished poem “chiseled.” They are rough poems, with heavy lines and loud rhymes. I work many variations on the form, including abbreviated (though not, strictly speaking, curtal) sonnets of twelve lines, as in “PAST PRESENT FUTURE,” from All of You on the Good Earth, which ends abruptly at twelve lines (it’s also cast in shorter, iambic tetrameter lines) in order to suggest that no one can truly know how events will turn out. I also use Meredithian or caudate sonnets of sixteen lines, to provide a sense of great breadth, as in “Unlorded,” which will appear in a planned third or fourth collection. “Unlorded” is also an example of a poem set entirely in iambic pentameter in order to suit the deliberately regal—though purposely ironic—language. 

I sought to broaden the role and capacity of the sonnet for a new generation of readers. Most poets immediately “go full Elizabethan” when writing a sonnet, and many anthologies of allegedly modern sonnets contain poems that could as easily have been written a few hundred years ago, so far as I’m concerned. Their time would be better spent devoting time to memorizing and reciting the sonnets that already exist in that tradition, rather than simply duplicating them. I am compelled to manage an enormous amount of chaos and complexity in my poems, and having any form at all is a great help. The influences are various, in music as various as Wagner, Mingus, and the black metal band Venom, in literature Lowell and Berryman, countless others. I listen to recordings of stand-up comedians, in order to get a sense of their rhetorical flows and flips. I like poems with teeth. When I encounter wispy boutique poems of the kind that are popular in some quarters these days, I come away unsatisfied. I feel as though they are escapes from reality rather than a heightening of reality, which is what I prefer. I like poets who put themselves into unusual or even dangerous situations in order to wring from those experiences poems that explain what it means to live. I like the strength and force of poems by Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, both of whom made enormous impressions on me when I was starting out. I like the rich telling detail of Amy Clampitt’s poetry, the fineness of detail and emotional investigation in Elizabeth Bishop’s work. The ferocity and ingenuity of poets like these mean a great deal to me as a poet. A poem that really got me when I was an undergraduate is “Beginnings” by Afaa Michael Weaver, from his third book, My Father’s Geography, when a boy learns to fight back and bloody other boys, and “The world became many houses, / all of them under siege.” Each is a small tributary. They affect a confluence that I suppose could be described as my artistic instinct.

JC: How does a seemingly constrictive form enable you to cover so much ground in the poems? 

EH: It’s hardly as restricting as you might suspect. The fourteen line poems I used for Sixty Sonnets (2009) and All of You on the Good Earth (2013) were jokingly dubbed “Hilbertian Sonnets” by comedic essayist Daniel Nester. MacArthur Foundation Fellow A.E. Stallings describes the form as “a decasyllabic line that allows for the roughed-up prose rhythms of speech.” She also points out that my “sonnets tend to conclude in true iambic pentameter, the tradition that haunts rather than dominates these poems.” The New Criterion explains that “the speaking voice trump[s] the metrical grid” and that this “irregularity gives the voice its verve.” I’ve always loved the way Donne wrote in a rough, heavy meter. Henry Hallam pegged Donne as the “most inharmonius of our versifiers, if he can be said to have deserved such a name by lines too rugged to seem metre,” though it’s also worth noting that Thomas Carew admired Donne’s lines for their “masculine expression.” I see something similar in Paul Muldoon’s book Maggot, though his lines lengths are more variable than mine. There is also the example of the Jesuit poet and archaeologist Peter Levi. Bill Coyle has identified a parallel between Levi’s lines and my own, citing Levi’s “way of moving in and out of iambics, but (nearly) always keeping a syllabic constant.” Marybeth Rua-Larson remarked that my sonnets are “more contemporary and sonically stretched” than traditional sonnets, while critic Christopher Bernard prefers to call them “loosely formed sonnets, a form that Hilbert has made his own.” Oscar Wilde’s Algernon Moncrieff quips about his piano technique, “I don’t play accurately—anyone can play accurately.” It’s an audacious bit of aesthetic humor, but I think it serves to make the point. There is much left to be done in the sonnet. It is suited to our age. It has suffered periods of decline, such as the 18th century, but it always returns. In the prologue to his 1976 collection La moneda de hierro (The Iron Coin), Borges lamented that it was no longer possible to write Pindaric odes or diatribes in verse. I believe he may be right, but only until disproven. Who knows what makes tenor of an age or what persuades us of what is, historically speaking, possible and what is not. In the same prologue, he is happy to note that the sonnet is not exhausted of possibilities, nor is what he calls Whitman’s “estrofas libres” or free strophes, what we would call free verse in general. 

Also, it’s important to remember that there are many dimensions of meaning in a poem. Even rhyme can be pushed beyond acoustics, in a sense. In the third stanza of the poem “Glacier,” which will appear in Last One Out, I provide two rhymes with a ghostly allusive third. The first rhyme is terminal, the second falling midway through the second line: “Tilted like a wave that swells and will take / A million years to break.” Several lines later, the stanza ends with “What furnace abandoned this dark form?” A line like that immediately summons the second line of the fourth stanza of “The Tyger” by William Blake, the most frequently anthologized poem in English, so the mind rushes to the author’s name and in so doing creates a third link in the rhyme chain: “Take / Break / [Blake].” I am enormously gratified when a reader remarks upon it. It’s all a bit Joycean, sure, but the poem works without the recognition. It’s an example of the sort of thing I like to embed in poems for those who read on that level. Many do. My ideal reader always does. Too often poems are read in a two-dimensional manner. One should be in 3D whenever possible, if only because so much more is possible. There are countless methods of communicating in a poem. Sound and rhythm are merely the beginning.

A poet must appease the twin deities of sound and sense. It is easy to lean too closely toward one or the other. Auden, for instance, has been criticized for sometimes embracing sound at the expense of meaning. For instance, his poem “Journey to Iceland” contains the wonderful line “the ports have names for the sea.” Auden had written “the poets have names for the sea,” but the first edition contained “port” as a misprint. Auden preferred the sound of it, as do I, and retained it for future printings. Auden has been an enormous influence on me, even if that influence is not always immediately apparent. His love of sound may have had a somewhat deleterious effect on my own writing, but I believe that poetry must say something beyond what can be easily parsed in prose. It needs to push just a bit beyond and tease the mind out of thought. It must become music. When composing, I rely sometimes on an acoustic shift to unleash energy at the elemental level of language, letting sound lead sense but not destroy it. I love the verse music of Tennyson, what Willard Spiegelman calls “the mouth-filling vowels,” even if the diction and themes can come off as cloying to our postmodern sensibilities. Also, the heavily stressed Anglo-Saxon verse and its occasional modern applications by poets like Geoffrey Hill and Seamus Heaney.