An Interview with James Matthew Wilson

By Matthew Sawtelle

Think in verse and poetry will follow if you trust it to lead the reason toward form.” - James Matthew Wilson

Writing poetry is challenging; it is a craft that can only be learned through practice, through writing reams of bad poems. It is an art steeped in tradition, and thousands of years of poetic achievement stand in judgment over every new work. To write poetry is to be in conversation with the poetic tradition, and this conversation demands much from the poet striving for genuine craftsmanship. James Matthew Wilson is one such poet. Recently, I had the chance to ask Dr. Wilson some questions about his writing process. This interview hopes to give a glimpse into the ways in which the poetic craft is put into practice by one of the most well-respected American poets writing today.

James Matthew Wilson is a distinguished poet, critic, and scholar of literature and philosophical-theology. He has published six books and chapbooks of poetry, the most recent being The Strangeness of the Good. He is the Founding Director of the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at the University of St. Thomas, Houston, where he also serves as a Professor of Humanities.

Has running an MFA program taught you anything about writing poems?

Aside from that poets do not always make the best administers of programs, you mean? Yes, it has indeed taught me several things, the most important one perhaps being the way prosody, rhetoric, wit, and invention in a poem are all one, but they can still be separated out in reason. To think through a line and see that one aspect is just great, but another needs work, is very rewarding in itself and it also suggests how much writing is primarily a craft that can be thought through in community and developed piece by piece.

It has also clarified for me the things I want to share with others and see reflected in the work of others. Much of a poet's voice is an individual project, cultivated for this or that poem and also for the larger arc of a career in poetry that should unfold as a story of many parts. But there are some things that I want those who study with me to learn: a serious and proper understanding of versification; the way in which form and subject complement each other like body and soul and also the way they become truly one in the actual poem; the way poetry as craft is a humanizing discipline but as an encounter with being has intrinsic to it a vertical dimension that goes well beyond the human; it is an art of humility and transcendence. There is also satisfaction in taking in hand the works of other poets and considering how each particular poem can become more properly itself. I write in meter and rhyme and want others to do the same, but not all others intend to do so, or at least not all the time. The counsel of helping others craft their poetry does not involve impressing general principles upon them, but in looking at the poem they have written and working with that.

Have you noticed any changes to your style or writing process since starting the program?

Starting a program from scratch over the course of a few months is not easy, unfortunately. I have given more time to that than to writing in the last few months. That said, because what we are teaching in the program is so good and indeed so inspiring, I've written quite a few poems, mostly fairly modest ones in comparison with three more ambitious poems I've had planned out these last two years and finally am on the cusp of undertaking. When I hear poetic meter in others' work it gets me thinking in meter and then new poems come. That's been happening a great deal precisely because teaching in this program gives me occasion to revisit so many marvelous poems from the tradition. We recently discussed George Herbert's "The Flower," one of my favorites (and Coleridge's as well). Its wonderful stanza got me writing a poem called "Planting the Perennials," one which not only borrows the stanza but which echoes some of Herbert's concerns in his poem.

Do you remember when you fell in love with poetry? What first compelled you to write poems, and what encouraged you to pursue excellence in the craft?

I began my writing life as a fiction writer. I went to the University of Michigan specifically for its Hopwood program in writing and forged there close allegiances with other writers of stories and novels, all of whom have gone on to publish good books. In the midst of all this, however, one day a professor explained how the iambic pentameter line worked. It was confusing and a mystery. I tried writing a single line. That night, I wrote thirteen more and in the end I had a sonnet. For the rest of the week, I wrote a sonnet every day. I love crafting the poetic line. Some years later, I discovered that it was indeed my first love. I abandoned fiction fully expecting never to be a good poet but at least to be able to do what I much enjoyed. Providentially, I have been able to make of that pleasure a true craft and of the craft both a way of life and a service to others.

Who were some of the most formative influences in your development as a poet? Were there any mentors, communities, or works which guided or continue to guide your poetic work?

I have been very fortunate in my mentors. I wrote Timothy Steele out of the blue to ask what poets I should be reading. He answered by mailing me a packet of wonderful books. Later, I got to study meter with him and also to use his guide to prosody in teaching poetry. Dana Gioia has been a most generous mentor and probably has played some role in nearly everything I've been able to accomplish, including the books I've published. Dana and Tim were both formidable influences on me in their work long before I knew them as people. So also have been Auden and Wilbur, Helen Pinkerton and Yvor Winters, and in a way, Allen Tate and Robert Lowell. Of these names, of course, I only met Wilbur a half dozen times; Pinkerton and I wrote each other every week for a decade until the time of her death.

Consider a poem of your choosing that you recently composed.

What inspired you to write this poem? How does inspiration for poems usually come?

My poem "The Bones of Men and Women" will appear shortly in Forma. It is a modest poem but it comes from a source that others may find interesting. A doctor whom I know, not well, but enough to say hello to, once remarked that the bones of women have a curvature to them that makes it easier for them to cradle infants without their arms becoming tired. Men do not have that same bone structure. This led me to reflect on the ways our bodies are the incarnation indeed of so much about our souls, our being as persons, and our purpose in the world. Consider how the ballerina, with her dance, with her pose, figures in the body the eternity of beauty, or how the Blessed Virgin bore the eternal logos in her womb. Two exceptional moments in the bones of women, but also indicative of something about women in general. The poem consists merely of my effort to list just those ways in which the bones of women and then the bones of men figure forth something about male and female as a natural fact.

When you began writing this poem, did you follow a writing routine that you regularly employ? Are you able to describe some of the practices that help you write consistently?

On longer projects, I often gather notes, plot out structures and outlines, and prepare for the poems perhaps for years before finally writing the first line. The majority of my poems, however, come through my hearing an echo of meter and its coupling with something that I think needs saying, often in part in response to some other poem or to an aspect of reality that needs to be manifested and understood. The only thing to do is always have a clipboard with completely blank pages on it. That's how I take notes when I am reading, and having the blank page makes me feel at leisure to scribble a line or two in margins before, if some sound or idea catches flame, I flip to a new blank sheet and begin to write a poem.

How important was revision in the composition of this poem? How did you know when the poem felt “finished”? Do you follow a standard revision process?

I usually write a poem long-hand, as one generally ought to do with metrical poetry, as the meter itself really resonates in the body and is tracked by it. Often, I copy the poem again, to make a fair copy and revise along the way. Then I type it up, read it over, and print it out. Then I revise again and, finally, hand it to my wife, to get her first response. That usually results in significant further revision. In all of this, the most important thing is to read the poem aloud several times. Any sign of severance of the spoken voice from the written word is a betrayal of the art. The test of a poem is always the test of its sounding on the air.

Did you share the poem with others before it was finished? What role do others usually play in your writing process?

As I say, my wife is my first reader -- of all my poems and a good measure of my prose as well. That only began about six years ago and my writing since that time is much, oh, much, better than it was before. A poem needs to be studied and revised in the light of its audience, and my wife happens to be an especially gifted audience for seeing a poem for its worth. I think it helps that she has no interest in writing poetry.

In the process of writing this poem, did you ever feel stuck or frustrated? How do you work through difficulties or roadblocks in the writing process?

It often takes me awhile to figure out the form of a poem, the first stanza in particular. Once that is done, I am often taken aback by how quickly the rest of it comes. Finding the form, just as Michelangelo found the form of his sculptures in the raw block of marble, takes time, but it is a thing that happens. There's a right form for every poem. When it is found, the poem comes quickly.

How would you teach someone how to write a poem? Are there any practices you would encourage them to adopt?

Well, I do this for a living in part, so I have more than a thought or two. Poetry is a distinctive art form because of its measured speech. Even plain, mundane statements can become poetry when they are measured, brought to order, and speak with the slightly elevated power of verse. So, start there. Free verse poets often have a distinctive voice or some peculiar style or subject on which they hang their lives as if from a single bough. I hear rhythm, meter, as have most metrical poets throughout history, and allow that to guide the important stuff of life and thought toward its form. So, to learn technique is to make oneself fluent, as one becomes fluent in a language. When one is fluent in a language, one suddenly discovers things that need to be said that were not really there before, except inchoately and unformed. Think in verse and poetry will follow if you trust it to lead the reason toward form.

Do you think that your poetic writing process has influenced the way that you approach writing in general? Have any practices or habits from your poetic writing process served you well for writing in more formal or academic modes?

Oh yes, absolutely. My trust in writing poetry or prose is in the absolute truth of form. Formulating speech is the test of the idea. The abstract, as it makes its appearance in the concrete, is subject to judgment. That was my conviction in poetry and, when I began a fairly long career as an essayist and critic, that became the rule of the prose art as well. Rhetoric can be deceiving, of course, but when the writer himself uses the act of writing as the test of his own ideas and intuitions then the authenticity of the speech becomes the measure of the authenticity of the idea as adequate to truth. Beauty is the splendor of truth.

Do you think teaching students poetic composition can improve their writing in general?

Most certainly. I've seen it happen about a hundred times now, in my relatively brief career instructing aspiring poets. During my years teaching undergraduates, I often got to apprentice students with no previous experience or interest in verse writing. By the end of my time with them, they could all write a competent poem in rhyme and meter. In many cases, the poems may not merit publication, but they were still good poems. A professor would never let a student graduate from college without that student's being able to write a good prose essay. So also should everyone have enough competence in metrical composition to be able to craft a poem for suitable occasions, such as for the proposing marriage to one's future wife.

How do you still wish to grow as a poet? Do you have any poetic heroes or models who inspire you to further hone your craft?

T.S. Eliot made many fine observations about the life of poetry. They generally hold up better than those of others, even if they often sound a bit mandarin and peculiar to his modernist age on the face of them. One is his definition of the major poet as a poet who continuously develops, chapter after chapter, over the course of his career. Each book must be a new setting out in a new direction. My routine in thinking about poems naturally attempts something of the kind. If I write a poem on one subject, I know the next poem should be on something very different. If I write blank verse for awhile, the next poem or poems must be in rhyme. I veer from long lines to short, from rhetoric to music, trying to make each poem achieve something I have not done before and perhaps something I didn't think was possible. This has been particularly the case in my efforts to write at least some poems of true devotion, praise, and joy. The models for such a poetry are scarcer on the ground than poets of tragedy and elegy, of serious wit, or of satire. It's been my aim to recover and to make new some of the divine wit of Herbert and Donne, but also the humane clarity of Jonson or Winters. And some of the humorous charity of Auden. I admire also the disinterest of Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, the effacement of self in search of the truly interesting and the universally significant.

December 2021