One Question Interview: James Pollock

02Jan23

James Pollock has published poems widely in many journals and his awards include the Manchester Poetry Prize and the Magma Editors’ Prize. He’s the author of You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada (2012) and the book of poems Sailing to Babylon (2012) but his most recent book of poems (on everyday technology) is called Durable Goods (2022). 

These are carefully crafted and imaginative poems about everyday items. Recently I came across a couple of Auden quotes, including the idea no one can create a work of art “by a simple act of will… but must wait until what he believes to be a good idea for a work comes to him.” And “there is only one thing that all poetry must do; it must praise all it can for being and for happening.” With all this in mind, how long did it take to write a collection like this, and could you elaborate on the value of turning your attention to everyday objects?

Thanks for your question, Alex, and your kind words.

I’ll tell you how I got the idea to write Durable Goods. I was sitting in a meeting at my college with my English colleagues. We were discussing some randomly-selected essays from our first-year College Writing classes, to decide whether or not our students were learning what we wanted them to learn. 

An essay by one of my own students was projected on the screen at the front of the classroom. The student’s name, and my name, had both been removed, but I recognized it. A couple of my colleagues began criticizing the essay for being written in first person, arguing that we should be teaching students to write academic arguments in the disembodied, disinterested voice of reason, not the subjective voice of an interested person. To my mind, the disinterested voice had certainly been conventional for academic writing throughout most of the twentieth century, but my view was that for some decades it had been gradually superseded by a more embodied, culturally-specific, first-person point of view, at least in the humanities, and I saw that as a good thing. In fact, I spent a lot of time in my classes encouraging students not only to write about things they cared about, but to write in first person, and to bring their own identities and experiences to bear.

I left the meeting feeling thoroughly annoyed and baffled, and as I passed a drinking fountain in the hallway, and gazed at it for a while, filled with emotional heat, it suddenly struck me that I could write a poem by imagining my way into the subjective existence of a drinking fountain, and all at once I felt tremendously excited. It felt very much like something Keats writes about in one of his letters, where he describes feeling despondent, and then, seeing a bird outside his window, “take[s] part in its existence” by a joyful effort of the imagination, “and peck[s] about the gravel.” 

I realized that I could write a whole book of poems about such things: not birds or flowers, but tools and appliances and machines. So the idea for the entire book came to me all at once, standing in a hallway, staring at a drinking fountain. 

After that, to answer your question, it took me about three years to write and revise the book, although I wrote most of the poems over the course of two summers when I wasn’t teaching. 

As for the value of turning my attention to everyday objects, I have two answers for that.

First, I’d say it’s a way of moving past autobiography in English-language poetry. I’ve written some autobiographical poems myself, and of course there are a lot of wonderful poems that have come out of this Wordsworthian tradition that Keats calls “the egotistical sublime”; but I’m interested in finding ways to do something else in poetry. Keats identifies an alternative tradition of the “chameleon poet”—that is, the kind of poet who, like Shakespeare, disappears into the subject of the poem—and that tradition strikes me as the most exciting way forward in our own time. Of course, there are various ways of doing this: dramatic monologues, for example, or certain narrative forms like the verse novel. For lyric poetry, one way to do this is with the thing-poem, which is descended from, and related to, the riddle. This is the approach that excited me when I was writing Durable Goods.

Another way to answer your question has to do with the value of engaging imaginatively with technology. When we use the word “technology” today, we tend to mean recent computer technology—blockchain, smart phones, quantum computing, artificial intelligence—and we forget about all the older technologies we use all day long, so that they have become almost invisible to us as technological: umbrellas, mirrors, teaspoons. It’s all just hardware, appliances, “products,” and before long, junk. In other words, most of us live immersed in a thoroughly disenchanted world of objects that we use and then throw away. Even though these things often help us, and sometimes hurt us, and require our care, we tend not to think of ourselves as having relationships with them.

The poems in Durable Goods, in adapting the thing-poem tradition to tools and appliances, bring an imaginative animism to these things, so they become enchanted subjects in their own right, not just disposable objects. When William Blake writes, concerning a thistle, that “With my inward Eye, ’tis an old Man grey, / With my outward, a Thistle across my way,” that’s a Romantic thing-poem, a visionary animism of Nature. There’s a whole tradition of thing-poems in modern poetry, too, including poems by Eduard Mörike, Rainer Maria Rilke, Marianne Moore, D.H. Lawrence, Francis Ponge, Eric Ormsby, and others. In Durable Goods, I’m innovating on that tradition by writing, not about plants or animals, or even works of art, but tools and appliances and machines.

As for your first quotation from Auden—his assertion that no one can create a work of art “by a simple act of will . . . but must wait until what he believes to be a good idea for a work comes to him”—I agree. Still, I try never to forget that Rilke learned the opposite, or at least a complementary, lesson when he worked for Rodin in Paris. In Rodin’s words, “Il faut travailler, toujours travailler,” or in English, “One must work, always work.” So, practice is crucial, too. It certainly had a profoundly beneficial effect on Rilke’s poetry, which improved rapidly from that point on, as he started to write the two volumes of New Poems, where most of his thing-poems are to be found. Whereas before—when apparently he was always waiting for inspiration—his poetry was relatively vague and sentimental. Later, when he received the inspiration for the Duino Elegies, walking along the wall at Duino Castle—I believe the story is that he had some distressing financial business to take care of, and then suddenly he heard the opening lines of the first elegy—he was ready for it; he had the technique he needed to turn the inspiration into a masterpiece, because he’d been practicing for years.

Still, today I would revise the lesson Rodin taught Rilke, at least a little. Yes, writing Durable Goods was a great deal of work, involving endless drafts, endless revisions, trying to make it all feel effortless. But really, it wasn’t work so much as play. It gave me great pleasure to write these poems, imagining my way into the experience of a ceiling fan, and then a sewing needle, and then a framing hammer. Each poem was like a new game of backgammon or chess. There were certain rules I set for myself, like iambic pentameter lines, rhymed quatrains, and so forth. Sometimes I’d win, sometimes I’d lose—that is, sometimes the poem would fail—but if I lost, I could always just clear the board, or part of it, and start over again. 

Finally, that second quotation from Auden strikes me as clearly wrong: “poetry must praise.” Tell that to Juvenal or Catullus or Alexander Pope! Not to mention Paul Celan. Anyway, I reject commandments about “all poetry,” especially if they try to restrict the freedom of the poet—in this case apparently to forbid all poetic satire and invective. As for my own attitude toward the things I write about in Durable Goods, I think it’s fair to say the aspersions I cast in that book, however playful, are sown almost as thickly as the praise.



One Response to “One Question Interview: James Pollock”

  1. Well, that is a darn good response or responses to your question. As for the business of what is the best approach to writing poetry, both have a place. You can wait for inspiration or have it arrive unexpectedly; or you can plug away and yes,sometimes poems are made and sometimes are not as you saw and polish your poem(s).


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