Poetry As Metaphor

by Lloyd Schwartz | October 2017

I’d almost forgotten the interview I did with a young Romanian journalist in Sibiu two years ago. So it was a pleasant surprise to have it turn up on YouTube—just a short excerpt from the full-length interview, but surely the best part. Being part of that international festival, in that enchanting Transylvanian city in the center of Romania, was one of the happiest experiences of my life. And the interviewer got me to articulate things I’ve thought for many years without perhaps ever actually putting into words.

Since the early 1970s, I’ve been writing poems that mainly avoided metaphorical language—mostly dramatic monologues and dialogues in a colloquial style. What made them poems, in my mind, was a quality I hoped they’d share with any successful poem—that each poem became its own metaphor.

Back in 1971, I had to make a big life decision. I was a graduate student working toward a Ph.D. in English but I also had serious ambitions to be an actor. Theater in Boston and Cambridge was very exciting in those days. My acting colleagues included Tommy Lee Jones, Stockard (then known as Susan) Channing, John Lithgow, Kathryn Walker, and James Woods, along with some equally brilliant actors who didn’t go on to become famous. I was getting good roles (Scrooge, the Mock Turtle, Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard, Beckett’s Krapp) and good reviews. And I was continuing to write poems—mainly short lyrics about unhappy love affairs.

Then I was offered a job at Boston State College, teaching in its new “extended day” program. Which essentially meant I’d have to give up working in theater at night. Probably some combination of lack of courage to devote myself entirely to the chance-taking of an acting career and the genuine commitment I felt to an academic life, a life of teaching and writing, made me decide to take the teaching job. I continued to do some acting on the radio—a public radio show aimed at older kids called The Spider’s Web, in which a small group of actors read entire books. But no more live theater.

And then something happened to my poems….

I had wanted to write a poem about sex, but something that wasn’t necessarily about myself. The poem finally came to me in the voice of a made-up female character. It was called “Estelle’s Testimony.” It was suddenly exciting not to be writing in my own voice, but I had no idea it would open a world of so many new possibilities. Years later, when I had enough distance to see the larger picture, it occurred to me that writing this kind of poem was like acting a part.

For me, acting was always both an escape and an expansion—on the one hand an escape from my own boring or depressing self, and on the other, extending myself into becoming someone I could never be in my own life. Why couldn’t I do this—as Chaucer and Browning and Frost and Eliot and Elizabeth Bishop had done—in a poem?

At a time when short, gnomic, “deep image” lyrics were what you found in most literary magazines, there seemed few venues for the publication of a dramatic monologue. I thought the only possibility might be a journal I loved: Ted Solotaroff’s American Review (which was in the format not of a literary journal but a paperback book). Richard Howard was the poetry editor, and he had recently won the Pulitzer Prize for his volume of dramatic monologues. That journal always seemed open to the unconventional and liked to include young poets who hadn’t been published before. I sent out the poem and to my amazement, Richard Howard accepted it! My first poem in a national magazine—and one I really admired. That issue included new work by Philip Roth, Malcolm Lowry, Mark Strand, Philip Levine, Harold Brodkey, and Richard Howard—“Wild Flowers,” his famous poetic dialogue between Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman. Boston’s Richard Hoffman, my friend since we appeared together in that issue, was listed as having only one previous publication.

I started writing more monologues and dialogues, some with totally imaginary characters and some based on real people, people I knew. I think some of them remain among my best poems. Robert Lowell, whose legendary “office hours” I’d been attending for years, finally seemed to like something of mine. John Ashbery, for a brief time the poetry editor of Partisan Review, took one of the longer, more playful and edgier monologues (might this have been the first poem to include the word “fucking” in that august journal?). Rosellen Brown took a monologue in the voice of a retired librarian for her issue of Ploughshares called “Men Portray Women, Women Portray Men” (could such an issue be published today?).

Not that publishing these new poems was always easy. One editor, intrigued, kept asking to see more poems. Over the years, I sent him nearly every poem I’d written, but he never accepted any of them. One editor wrote back that his editorial board thought a poem I’d submitted was too depressing. I thought it was comic.

Maybe it was really both. One of the possibilities that’s built into writing in the voices of other people was a quality Elizabeth Bishop used to call “mixty motions.” Some of the funniest things that happen to people may be also the most touching. What could be funnier than Gracie Allen interviewing possible new wives for George Burns because she mistakenly thinks she’s going to die—or more poignant? Could this be a subject for a poem? Why not?

“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn” a minor character in All’s Well That Ends Well pronounces. And that quality is something I’ve continued to pursue, trying to expand the monologue form into dialogues and more extended narratives—including conversations with my mother, or my dying father. Several of my more recent poems are made up completely of quotations— things real people have said that I’ve either overheard or read. The language isn’t metaphorical, but I hope the poems are.

Photo Credit: Michael J. Lutch

Photo Credit: Michael J. Lutch

Lloyd Schwartz is Frederick S. Troy Professor of English and teaches poetry in the MFA program at UMass Boston. He has published four volumes of poems, including These People; Goodnight, Gracie; Cairo Traffic; and, most recently, Little Kisses (University of Chicago Press, 2017). A noted Elizabeth Bishop scholar, he has edited Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art (University of Michigan Press, 1983), the Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters (2008), and the centennial edition of Bishop’s Prose (FSG, 2011). The longtime Classical Music Editor of the Boston Phoenix and classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air, he's now also Senior Editor of Classical Music for the web-journal New York Arts and Contributing Arts Critic for Boston’s National Public Radio station WBUR’s the ARTery. His honors include an NEA grant in Poetry, a Pushcart Prize, inclusion in The Best American Poetry and The Best of the Best American Poetry, three ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards for his writing about music, and the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.