Caitlin Doyle is a poet whose recent honors include the Amy Award in Poetry through Poets & Writers Magazine, a Tennessee Williams Scholarship in poetry through the Sewanee Writers Conference, the 2012 ALSCW Fellowship (Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers) to the Vermont Studio Center and a Literary Grant in Poetry through the Elizabeth George Foundation. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in several publications, including The Atlantic, The Threepenny Review, Boston Review, Black Warrior Review, Measure, Best New Poets 2009 and The Warwick Review. She also has a professional background in film and screenwriting, having written and directed short films shown at various festivals. Ms. Doyle is currently at work toward the completion of her first book-length poetry manuscript.
Your poetry, perhaps in contrast to the prevalence of free verse in contemporary poetry, has been recognized for its skillful use of formal elements like rhyme and meter. Besides the musical quality derived from rhyme and meter, are there other reasons why you find yourself drawn to formalism? What would you say to claims that either one of those approaches, free verse or formal poetry, is aesthetically superior to the other?
Yes, there are reasons beyond musicality that draw me toward the traditional technical elements of poetry. After all, rhyme and meter don’t have an inherently larger claim on the power to produce sonorous language than any of the other tools available to a poet. Poets writing both “formal poetry” and “free verse” have so many ways beyond metrical patterning and the pairing of rhyme-words to make a poem sing. Examples include alliteration, assonance, the rhythmical interplay of syntax and line-length, and the resonant blending of varied diction registers. I put the phrases “formal poetry” and “free verse” in quotation marks because, though they serve as terminology to make a general distinction between two kinds of aesthetic approaches, I share the belief of many poets that the terms lack sufficient nuance. The best “free verse” possesses formal limitations and guiding principles, just as the most gripping “formal poetry” contains freedom and innovation.
Making the claim that one aesthetic approach in poetry is inherently superior to another is like arguing that one instrument in an orchestra produces better music than all of the other instruments. To argue that, objectively speaking, a violin creates a greater sound than a viola or a cello is to leave out a key consideration: the subjective reality of who is playing the instrument and how he or she is doing it. Much like any structural feature of written language, such as syntax or meter, an instrument is an inanimate tool, possessing no intrinsic degree of value until somebody engages with it. What determines the quality of the music isn’t the instrument but the way that it is put to use in the hands of a specific individual.
There’s a quote by the poet Donald Hall that strikes me as providing an illuminating framework for this discussion: “The form of free verse is as binding and as liberating as the form of a rondeau.” A rondeau is a received poetic form with strict structural requirements that dictate the division of stanzas, the number of syllables per line, and the arrangement of rhymes, among other things. What I admire about this quote is that Hall doesn’t simply say “the form of free verse is as binding as the form of a rondeau.” In other words, he doesn’t just make the point that free verse possesses formal principles. He also ventures that free verse is “as liberating as the form of a rondeau,” which could seem like a surprising statement when one considers that a form as stringent as the rondeau does not appear, on the surface, to qualify as “liberating.” With this assertion, he acknowledges the sense of unrestricted license that can come from writing within tightly established boundaries, the freedom that can be found when one allows form to lead a poem’s content in unexpected directions. Essentially, Hall’s quote highlights the way that all good poetry, whether free verse or poetry that uses traditional formal elements, relies on the tension between limitation and liberation.
Your free verse is just as skilled as your formal work. I’m thinking particularly of your highly memorable “Self-Portrait With Monkeys” (The Threepenny Review) and your playful and haunting poem “If Siegfried And Roy Had Never Met” (Black Warrior Review). Do you find that your process and your thematic tendencies differ in relation to whether you’re writing free verse or formal poetry? As a second part of this question, can you talk about how you came to develop your attraction to formal verse in the context of today’s free-verse-dominant contemporary poetry world?
Whether I’m composing a free verse poem or a piece containing traditional formal elements, my process is very similar. My goal is to find a balance between artistic control and openness to the unknown, guiding the language toward my desired effects while also allowing the piece to take on its own agency. I love the way that structure and content can pull against each other with a tension that ends up taking both in unexpected directions, an experience that’s central to my working methods. I feel most successful as a poet when my final product is something I could not have foreseen yet still contains a sense of the core emotional impetus that first set my pen into motion.
When it comes to thematic tendencies in both my free verse and my work that possesses formal properties, I am frequently driven by subject matter surrounding the spaces left in human life by a wounding, a lack, a loss, or a sense of incompletion. Writing about such spaces in my own experience and in the lives of others, frequently the lives of well-known public figures, galvanizes my pen. I am interested in exploring the role of both lyric and narrative impulses in reaching toward filling those spaces.
To answer the second part of your question, I’ve never felt that there was a moment in which I consciously chose to possess an interest in the traditional formal features of poetry. As a writer, you are shaped by what you read, and as a human being, you mostly choose to read what attracts you, a process of selection that isn’t always explicable or definable. I’ve found that a writer’s aesthetic leanings are often as unaccountable as any other inclination in an individual’s life, springing as much from natural disposition as from other motivating factors. Why does someone choose the red bike in the shop instead of the yellow one? Why does someone listen to a certain radio channel in lieu of different options?
I’ve been drawn to the traditional formal elements of poetry since early childhood, having started out my reading life with rhyme-rich poets like Christina Rossetti, A.E. Housman, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Edgar Allan Poe. I felt hypnotized by the way these writers used traditional formal elements to combine regularity and surprise, to create a dynamic interplay of repetition and variation, setting up my ear for expectations that sometimes met with fulfillment and other times met with unpredictable subversions. Of course, back then, I couldn’t have articulated such effects with absolute clarity, but I sensed their great power.
Your creative background includes work in film, with your short films having been shown in a variety of festivals. I am interested in the fact that you’ve taught poetry classes that incorporate aspects of film into the curriculum; most recently, as the Emerging Writer Resident at Penn State University, you taught a course that incorporated screenwriting and poetry. Can you talk about the experience of teaching the two genres together? Is there a particular piece of cinema that you find useful when it comes to teaching students about the role of imagery in poetry?
I relished the opportunity to design and teach a course focused specifically on poetry and screenwriting at Penn State because I’ve always felt that the two genres illuminate each other in a vivid manner. Since students tend to have much more experience with watching movies than with reading poems, I’ve discovered that using film as a doorway to poetry allows students to enter the rigors of finely tuned language in a way that feels exhilarating to them. Film provides a particularly strong resource when it comes to teaching students about the centrality of imagery in poetry, highlighting the way that poets often use images as their primary method of conveying meaning and evoking responses in the minds and hearts of readers. Ezra Pound’s notion of the image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instance of time” really comes alive for students when they watch a segment of film that creates its narrative, emotional, and tonal effects primarily through the accumulation and juxtaposition of carefully chosen images.
When it comes to identifying a piece of cinema that’s particularly useful as a lens through which to discuss the role of imagery in poetry, I find a brief three-image silent sequence in Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M to be very effective. Leading up to the segment, Lang spends the movie’s initial scenes building tension around the fact that a young child name Elsie has not come home at the regular time after school. The child’s mother grows increasingly nervous as the hours pass. We watch as Elsie, who has been walking down the street bouncing a ball, meets a strange man who complements her ball and buys her a balloon. Then the silent sequence begins, featuring the following three images in succession: a shot of an empty dinner plate on the table set by Elsie’s mother, a shot of Elsie’s ball rolling out of the bushes and slowing to a stop, and a shot of Elsie’s balloon, which has floated out of her hands, becoming ensnared in a power line.
I emphasize for poetry students the way that Lang doesn’t choose to directly show the stranger abducting the child but instead evokes that fact through a series of ominous and charged images that make the abduction all the more affecting for viewers. We ascertain through just a few haunting images both the narrative reality of what has happened and the emotional tenor of the event. I’ve found that students better understand the way that imagery functions in poetry after watching this excerpt from M.
Though I tend to view the ever-common “show-don’t-tell” Creative Writing dictum as overly limiting because many of the best poems tell as well as show, I do think the basic idea of “showing” rather than “telling” is an important one for beginning poets to assimilate. To that end, film provides a marvelous vehicle for helping a student grasp how to enact ideas, emotions, and experiences rather than explaining them.
There are a lot of debates about how to properly teach prosody, which is the study of versification (particularly of metrical structure). In fact, it is common today for most students of English and Creative Writing to go through their entire schooling without learning prosody. Can you talk a little bit about your own education in prosody and give some thoughts on how you think it might be most effectively taught?
None of my most memorable teachers of English or Creative Writing taught prosody with a handbook full of rules and metrical terms. The best teachers I had rarely said the words “trochee, “dactyl,” “catalexis,” or “amphribach.” Rather, they emphasized the power of rhyme, meter, and received forms by the direct act of exposing us to superlative poems that engage traditional formal elements. I ascertained way more about the skillful use of rhyme and meter by having to read, memorize, and recite Thomas Hardy poems for Derek Walcott’s class in graduate school than if I had taken a course that focused on versification terminology and scansion exercises.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that young poets shouldn’t learn how to scan poems and how to recognize and use the proper metrical terms. They certainly should take it upon themselves to do so, either by seeking out a class or mentor that can offer that kind of technical training or by learning the material in a self-taught way with the help of some good prosody guides (Alfred Corn’s “The Poem’s Heartbeat” is a particularly useful text in that regard). But I think that, when it comes to assimilating the principles of prosody, it’s ultimately more useful for students to focus on actual poems than on other forms of instruction. The approach of my best literature and writing teachers in high school, college, and beyond seemed to confirm what my own early reading experiences had suggested: the most effective and enjoyable way to gain an education in poetry’s craft components is to absorb them directly through immersion in the works of powerful poets.
In other words, if you want to develop the ability to engage poetry’s traditional formal heritage with skill, I think that your best bet is to learn from the inside out, through inhabiting the words of those with true formal mastery – letting the rhythms of their language enter your mind, heart, and body – rather than trying to learn from the outside in via instructional materials. The important thing is not that you can read Yeats’ Among Schoolchildren and say “he’s writing ottava rima stanzas, combining strict iambic pentameter with instances of significant metrical variation, and employing a mixture of enjambment and end-stopped lines.” What matters is that you can feel the effects of his technical decisions resonating in your core. What matters is that you can register in a visceral way how the poem’s formal features embody the tension between unity and disunity in human life – and that you can absorb from him a sense of how you might use traditional formal properties of poetic language to shape your readers’ sensory experience of a poem.
In American Creative Writers on Class, your poem “Paris,” which wonderfully considers Paris Hilton’s European codified first name pared with the commodification of her surname, seems to suggest that we all take a closer look at the issue of inheritance and privilege. In reference to class and poetry, what interests you or upsets you in the world of writing and teaching poetry?
When it comes to class issues in the world of poetry, what most occupies my attention these days is the financial situation surrounding adjunct professorship. A large number of emerging poets pay the bills by holding adjunct positions, usually teaching English Composition classes or Creative Writing courses. More often than not, these sorts of positions entail an over packed schedule, abysmal pay, zero health benefits, and the absence of a voice in university matters. It’s not uncommon for adjuncts to teach more than a full-time load, spread out at multiple campuses, and still barely earn a living wage. Considering that adjuncts in all fields comprise the majority of university faculty in this country, the lack of institutional respect offered to them, financial and otherwise, is an upsetting reality. In order to become competitive for tenure-track opportunities, emerging poets who work as adjuncts must garner notable magazine publications and produce books, yet their teaching and grading load is often so large that they can’t find the time and energy for creative production.
It distresses me to think of how many gifted writers in the emerging stages find themselves continually stunted by this system. Their status as members of an over worked and poorly compensated academic underclass results in an impoverishment of higher education and also potentially of the nation’s literature. I don’t mean to overdramatize the situation. Adjunct professorship is just one of many difficult financial circumstances impacting young people who choose to devote their lives to writing and it only pertains to those pursing an academic career track. Of course, it has been difficult for most writers throughout history to balance making creative work with paying the bills, and when it comes to the pursuit of artistic expression, many people have lived in far more limiting conditions than those faced by today’s typical emerging-writer-adjunct-professor. But nonetheless, given the large number of brilliant young writers currently holding adjunct positions, whether in the hope of long term tenure-track prospects or just because of an immediate need to cover living expenses, it’s hard not to feel that the circumstances of adjunct professorship comprise an important point of concern in the poetry world.
Thinking of T.S. Eliot’s famous quip, “Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity,” what aspects of writing your first book of poems make you feel most anxious?
My answer to this question is related to your inquiry about class issues in the poetry world. What makes me most anxious as I shape my first book is the fact that, as far as job prospects in the literary realm, there’s a considerable amount of incentive for an emerging poet to put out a full-length collection as quickly as he or she can manage it. Having a published book is particularly important when it comes to finding a university teaching position that offers financial security and the chance of tenure-track advancement. As a result, young poets sometimes end up rushing out their first books in order to achieve a sense of professional stability, later regretting significant quantities of the work they included in their debut collections. It can be very self-limiting to subject artistic maturation to an artificial chronology.
I worry about the ways that the current structure of the professional market in the poetry world can hamper the gradual and laborious development of a poet’s particular set of gifts. What would have happened if Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens, who published their first books at thirty-nine and forty-three successively, had not allowed their work to progress at its own pace?
It’s important to me that I resist the often very compelling professional and financial temptations to publish one’s first book quickly. I feel it’s essential that I produce the collection according to my own internal timeline, respecting the fact that I’m not a particularly fast writer. Poems take shape slowly for me. What matters to me is not that the book comes out a year from now as opposed to three years down the line. The crucial thing is that I feel confident about the manuscript having reached its fullest fruition before I seek publication for it. Of course, it can be just as damaging to hold off on publishing a collection because of pressing one’s work up against unrealistic expectations, waiting until every poem meets some standard of unattainable perfection. There’s no such thing as an absolutely flawless book of poetry. So, for me, the goal is to find the balance between bringing the manuscript to as complete a realization as possible while also knowing when to say “it’s time to let go and release this into the world.”