Why do you sometimes introduce yourself as an elegaic poet?
All poetry is about loss—of people, places, moments—and therefore about time, isn’t it? And that means it’s also about those little moments of joy, when the direction of loss is reversed. As for example, in my poem, “Thaw” in Shimmer, when “the fog / in my mouth melted / like spun sugar” and I recollected the name —“even more beautiful / than the tree”—“liquidambar,” which I had been completely unable to summon.
Memory is so often my subject. I love the Proustian moment—some triggering thing—and an entire past world blossoms open. My memories of the past sometimes seem like paintings I can re-examine, in which I can discover new things.
I have an Updike-ian feeling for the way the music, books, and fashions of our prime moment in time flow swiftly into the past, taking our very sense of self with them.
Are any of your collections less elegaic than others? And do you come up with an idea for a collection and then write poems toward that idea, or not?
I’ll take that last question first. Unlike some poets, I don’t choose a subject or theme to explore or write towards, but trust the poems I’ve written over a several-year time period have some kind of connection (or interesting disjunction) that I can discover in the process of selecting and arranging them. I do think a lot about arrangement, and try to create trajectories that will enhance the reader’s experience of a book.
I think all my books are elegaic, as well as in love with the world we will lose. To varying degrees, they all include Wordsworthian recollections of my New York city childhood; they all explore the vicissitudes of aging, its sorrows, comedy, and mysterious blessings; they all contain poems that become “the literary equivalent of placing stones upon grave markers,” as one reviewer of Light Lowering in Diminished Sevenths said. But Shimmer, at least in part, is probably the book in which the personal most rubs up against the political and historical—the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, for example, and the U.S. war in Iraq with its horrific toll on the bodies of surviving soldiers. And it is my most international book, whether I’m incorporating cities I’ve actually visited into poems, or imagining ones I’ve never been to. I have been fortunate to have experienced a variety of places in the world, even Syria—about a decade before the horrors of the current war—when my daughter was in Damascus on a Fulbright. A lover of cities, I found Damascus appealing, with its rooftop patios visible from the one my daughter and her room-mates shared; “I [was] blanketed again / in sums of rich /privacies,” as I say in “Aloft, in a City Again.” In Bird Flying through the Banquet, there is a somewhat greater remove from those now more remote memories of my parents’ declines that dominate Light Lowering in Diminished Sevenths. Proustian recall seems to highlight the figures of my past in key moments, illuminating their characters and culture; and the eye cast on psychological and physical dissolution is sometimes cooler, more impersonal—and more accepting. The only way to respond to political horrors seems to be by throwing up the hands in comic stances. On the other hand, Bird also definitely exhibits and explores vulnerability—perhaps a prerequisite of poetry—in the self and observed others. It celebrates the body and the warmth of erotic attraction into our late years, and the generation coming up, often at the same time as it laments the body’s decline, and pays homage to the generation now gone.
Why did you start writing poetry again in early middle age?
The question might be “Why did you mostly stop writing poetry in college, and afterwards, until your early forties?” I felt super class-conscious at my elite women’s college, and for that reason, removed from the very essence of my first-generation-American life, in a tiny Bronx apartment, with well-intentioned but poorly educated parents who spoke with thick German-Yiddish accents, and certainly did not make intellectual conversation, but tended to curry favor through ingratiation. The family sent me with an elegant and beautiful American-born aunt to my obligatory interview in Massachusetts at the college. My home interview by the white-gloved, circle-pinned and well-tailored patrician ladies of the Smith College Club of New York, which ultimately provided my scholarship, was acutely embarrassing for me. My loving but oblivious mother laid on gentility with a trowel, according to her own cultural mandates; she filled an entire coffee table with fruit, cookies and cake, and continually brought out more food; the ladies took one small cookie each. Writing requires courage, not being afraid of who you are, not being afraid of sticking out. Jane Hirshfield writes of the “fear of public exposure, of being found unacceptable if we speak honestly, if who we really are were to become known,” a “fear of revealing the self,” as an obstacle which writers face. But immigrants are often hell-bent on blending in, fearful of sticking out; my mother, in particular, encouraged representations of our family in my childhood writing that were relentlessly rosy. It was one thing to be surrounded by other lower-middle-class children of New York immigrant families like mine, and quite another, at college, when I was in the company of girls who wore jodhpurs, boarded horses, and were totally accustomed to linen napkins, napkin rings, and silver tea services.
Add to this that the New Critical approach to English literature, my college major, for all its salutary emphasis on complete understanding of the text, tended to treat poems as coldly perfect artifacts, written by a chillingly male canon, out of some rather disinterested motive, as if one’s experiences and passions, and indeed, economic and cultural circumstances, had nothing to do with one’s writing. I was once stared into silence in a professor’s living room where my first seminar in the English novel was held, when I asked about the economic and social context of Daniel Defoe’s novel, Moll Flanders. I knew such things mattered, but they were anathema in the reigning critical religion.
The reasons I was finally able to conquer the fear of revealing the self and return to poetry, as an adult, two decades after college, are complicated; they do have something to do with the sheer passage of time taking me from being a child in my natal family to being a parent in my own, and with having and realizing I had “nothing to lose,” which has been a positive force for good in my life.
Are you a “first thought/best thought” sort of writer, or do you revise significantly?
Occasionally poems arrive virtually whole, pure gifts. But, more often, I go through many drafts. The process does feel like finding the statue inside the block of marble.
As a poet who has done scholarly, critical work, can you say what the relationship is between these two kinds of endeavor for you, if there is one?
Schizophrenic. The faculties involved in doing historical research in particular and in writing poems exist in divided and distinguished worlds. And yet, what I’ve learned intellectually and internalized about how poems I love work enters my own poems in unexpected, unconscious ways. This sort of learning probably falls mostly under practical criticism for the poet, rather than scholarship per se. That “New Critical” approach to literature, dominant when I was an undergraduate, with its emphasis on intense attention to the text and its formal qualities, even if frustrating and perhaps intellectually naive, in its complete removal of art from context, was, finally, not half bad for a fledgling poet to experience, and better than more cerebral and theoretical approaches that virtually ignore the exact words of the text. I really immersed myself emotionally in the poems I analyzed as an undergraduate, with New Critical painstakingness. And they became part of me.
I do respect intellectual work that tries to figure out how literary language and art fit into history, relate to culture and subculture, even to economics; the questions involved are still interesting to me, even if I am no longer actively pursuing answers myself.
Can you say what your aesthetic is?
Thank you for that question! Alicia Ostriker, in a review of Shimmer in Women’s Review of Books 29, No 3, May/June 2012 comments acutely on metaphor in my poems. Thank you, Alicia, for helping me provide an answer!
Judith Kronenfeld moves her poems along like the conductor of a very good, very mature orchestra. Master of the almost-lost art of description (why, one wonders, have so many poets turned their backs on something that can give so much enjoyment?), she plays the instrument of metaphor like a violin. She has leaves whirling in the wind under a streetlight by a bus stop like dervishes, then settling back as if sighing “like a ripple of congregants / into their pews.” She describes “bodiless clothes” at a mom and pop dry-cleaner’s swishing forward on their conveyer, “all potential, all redemption.” A bad day is “black as hell’s /receiving dock.”… In a sequence of poems about a demented and dying father, she intuits
of stimuli erased as if by
windshield wipers then again erased,
again, again, again.
The discovery of a metaphor like this, and the ability to get it into lines that simultaneously break your heart and comfort you with their rightness, is something to cherish….A kind of metaphysical principle undergirds metaphor, insisting on the connectedness of things supposedly belonging to different orders of being, like leaves and congregants, or memory loss and windshield wipers.
Yes, I love the sensory beauty of image and metaphor in poetry, and the way they imply emotion and meaning. And I also like, as Marvin Bell has it, “the voice with a little spit and phlegm in it, the used shoes.” I love turns in poems, and, damn it, I do love final turns with something at least a little bit epiphanic, although when the poem requires it, I can also trail off in a less consequential way. What I bristle at are pronouncements that “final turns” or “epiphanies” are dead or outmoded. Sound and rhythm are hugely important to me, and often seem to be metaphoric in themselves, when I’ve got them right, conveying the nuances of emotion and thought in ways that resist the intellect almost completely. I want to move my readers and hearers; I want to be understood, and I want my poems to repay second, third, fourth readings because those images and metaphors have been crafted and refined into a whole—subliminally or somewhat consciously. I resist highly cerebral theory-driven poetry, often rooted in post-structuralist ideas about language and communication (the infinite regress of meaning, the impossibility of reference, and so on) that are fashionably and somewhat facilely offered as motivations for such writing; I think those ideas are often simplistic or simply untrue. See King Lear and the Naked Truth, or, for a quick fix, “Enlightening Linguistics, Actual Reference, & the Social Nature of Language, or Yes Virginia, There IS a World,” AWP Chronicle Volume 25, Number 2 (October/November 1992). On the other hand, it certainly can happen that a poet will be motivated by such views of the nature of language, and nevertheless produce amusing and rewarding poems.
What have you learned about performing your poetry in the many years you’ve given readings?
Reading poetry well is like acting or teaching in some ways, or even singing (wish I could do that, but I’m usually off key). You have to be in the moment, you have to discover something new, or have just discovered something new in your own work, you have to find ways to freshly connect with the material, to become interested in it again, for whatever reason, no matter how well you know it.