Dan Chiasson on the Poetry of Reading and the Darkness of Endless Summer

How do you turn lived experience into words?

Maggie Millner
Headshot of Chiasson

Frank Bidart once wrote that any work of art one has “the temerity to try to make” must sooner or later confront its own “unending incompletion.” Dan Chiasson’s poetry takes up Bidart’s obsession with unfinishedness, both as a theme and as a procedural, performed quality of the work itself. A longtime professor and prominent critic—he is the poetry reviewer for The New Yorker—he writes with an acute anticipation of his readers, strewing allusions and witticisms like breadcrumbs through the poems. Reading any of his five books, I feel I am encountering a writer in love with his medium, one willing to perform his virtuosity and neuroses in equal parts.

Chiasson’s new book, The Math Campers, extends his interests in prosody and process. The collection contains many truncated narrative attempts, in the form of ekphrastic poems, epistolary snippets, Q&As, and a third-person prose account of a poet at work. There’s also a speculative play about a group of children who try to devise a machine to make summer last forever. This narrative is later recast in the book’s title poem: a rhyming, episodic, quasi-crown of quasi-sonnets, published as The Yale Review’s “Poem of the Week.”

The Math Campers’ formal complexity seems to mirror Chiasson’s dubiousness about the possibility of translating lived experience into words. Subjectivity, after all, is difficult to nail down; it is as plural and prismatic as our working memories or our social media personas. (Even before the internet, poets were grappling with the irresolvable question of how to bear witness to their own self-witnessing.) In this book, as in prior work, Chiasson auditions a variety of modes, slipping with bright humor and a light hand between inherited and invented poetic forms, and looking to both his forebears and his children for guidance when doubt inevitably encroaches. In the end, perhaps, the work is less unfinished than simply—optimistically—ongoing.

I corresponded with Chiasson over email in early September.

Maggie Millner, senior editor

Maggie Millner In the first section of your new book, in a poem in four parts called “Must We Mean What We Say?”, a third-person narrator describes a poet at work and quotes excerpts of that poet’s work throughout.

I’m curious who this third-person narrator is to you, Dan Chiasson, the poet? What is her relationship to the speaker of the poems?

Dan Chiasson This section began with a desire to represent both the events leading up to publishing a poem—dreams, daydreams, drafts, variants, all the process stuff that gets effaced with the final version—and those events that follow its appearance in the world (a reader encounters it, grapples with it, marks it up, brings her own experience and imagination to interpreting it).

I could think of ways to show the writing process, but I needed a way of showing the reading process, since both reader and writer create the poem. Both play their role. I spend a lot of time in the position of “reader” (and critic), so I’m fascinated by how much of poetry is constructed by strangers, even long after the poet’s death.

I wanted the feeling of a narrative: the “page-turner” effect of prose narrative. Verse narrative is its own quite different thing. Calvino has a great essay called “Levels of Reality in Literature.” I needed levels; the prose represents one stratum, the poetry another—though which is deeper, I can’t say.

My breakthrough was to re-watch Chris Marker’s great film, Sans Soleil, in which a woman narrates letters and correspondence she’s been getting from an unnamed “he”; when I sat with that woman’s voice, I had my structure.

MM Can you say more about how being a critic has changed your relationship to your own poetic process?

DC For this book, I was thinking of how contingent poems and poetry are upon reception. The chance encounter, under stolen circumstances, with a poem you might not have read, in a book you might not have ever picked up. It can change you profoundly. And it can change the poem, in that a reader’s imagination has been catalyzed, and he feels some passion to express what he’s felt. I’m a critic of the books that happen to move me, that I happen to see. Obviously, I feel a responsibility to see and be moved by as much new work as possible, but it’s still all so fluky. For my poems in others’ hands, and for their poems in mine.

That’s why I’m tracking and tagging my poems all the way into an imagined reader’s hands in this book. I want to represent that post-partum reality, that a poem doesn’t exist until received by someone, who can then speak to its power.

MM I’m reminded of Ben Lerner and Allen Grossman here, and their idea that an “actual” poem can never live up to the potential of capital-P Poetry. I’m thinking especially of Lerner’s assertion that, while a poem is a necessary failure, “lines of poetry quoted in prose preserve the glimmer of the unreal”—because, as fragments, they retain some possibility of transcendence.

Is this long, prosimetric poem The Poem? Or is there a primary Poem on which this document merely comments?

DC That’s a great question. In an earlier book, Where’s the Moon, There’s The Moon, I have a poem where a child reads a book that I’ve yet to write, called The Moonkeeper’s Son. I may try to write it next, and it may be a children’s book. Here, too, there’s some unwritten poem I’m asking the reader to imagine, and this poem has outtakes and excerpts from it. I may, in the end, write it. But not yet.

MM Is it fair to say that all the poems in this book are obsessed with the question of where poetry itself comes from?

DC Thank you; yes. The book ends with an astronaut viewing the universe, which “elaborates its origins” in deep space. Biographical, cultural, linguistic, formal—all of these poems fixate on my, and their, origins.

Frank Bidart’s idea of “embodiment” is hugely important to me—that ideas don’t really exist until their form is revealed; that poems rewrite existing scripts and, in doing so, find within them new pitches of meaning and beauty.

MM How did you first encounter Bidart, whose name shows up several times in these pages?

DC I first saw Bidart in a PBS documentary about Robert Lowell. I was in my living room, in tenth grade.

When I arrived in Cambridge to go to grad school at Harvard, I looked him up. A very intense and transformative mentorship began, in which my poems would come to life under his attention. He’s one of the models for the prose interlocutor in Section 1. Writing under his direction, I could see that my poems were literally incomplete until he read them.

In one section of the book, set at James Merrill’s apartment, I discover all of Bidart’s books on Merrill’s shelves, with Frank’s inscriptions. I quote from an email exchange we had that night.

MM Yes, Merrill, Bidart, and so many more! As you wrote this book—which is also concerned with the experience of being a father to two sons—were you consciously thinking of literary inheritance as a kind of family-making? Of the correspondence between influence and paternity?

DC Fathers and sons: Bidart, Merrill, Lowell, Eliot—lots of dudes in this book! Yes, literary ancestry means a lot to me, since my own relationship with my father was nonexistent, severed soon after birth.

I remember once, around 1998, dropping a poem off at Frank Bidart’s apartment. He stays up all night and sleeps during the day. Our protocol was for me to put my poem in his mailbox. He would call me late at night, having read it.

Well, there on his mailbox was a small slip of yellowed paper, scotch-taped, the name: “Lowell,” leftover from when Robert Lowell lived there for a period of time, I believe a month or so. In the seventies. I was very moved.

MM The title poem concerns a group of kids at summer camp who try to create a machine to make summer last forever. Ultimately, the campers both fail and succeed in their efforts; they don’t stay kids forever, but they do begin to witness a rapidly warming planet: an anthropogenically prolonged summer.

Are we all these campers, in a sense, trying to forestall disaster?

DC The title poem has a sort of YA conceit. I may try to write it, actually, in another form, for children or teens.

The plot is this: at a summer camp for math geniuses, a group of fifteen-year-olds hack into time to make the summer endless. It’s set in some mash-up of Greensboro, Vermont, a beautiful town where we go in the summer, and Lake Waban, on the campus of Wellesley College.

In New England we fetishize the arrival of fall; and so fall, as it comes later and later, has become an index of the climate emergency.

My sweet campers want the summer never to end, because they’re all in love with each other. That they may get their wish, expressed as a nightmare, is absolutely the dark irony I intended.

MM How did the writing of this book—given the increasingly apocalyptic cultural context—compare with that of your previous books?

DC I dated the poems in this book, for the first time ever. They were compiled between the fall of 2017 and the spring of 2019. It was a period when my mind seemed permanently clenched. I became a news vacuum, riding the cycles of the day. It was, for me, the only way not to give in to despair. But the poetry I was writing in this time needed to happen in the mind’s understory, not in my conscious mind, which I’m afraid I’ve turned into one of those mechanical claws at the carnival, only instead of stuffed bears it tries to clutch every new fact and insinuation in news.

MM Given this context, how do you think about the social impact of your work—both your poetry and your criticism?

DC The social dimensions create both roles, in that a poem or essay has to be received, let in, like a guest at the door. A poem without readers is just doodling, like in the margins of a phone book. Once you realize that your words are literally in others’ hands, a profound awareness of justice follows. That awareness has no one expression or register. We find it in poems that shout and poems that whisper, and everything in between.

Maggie Millner is a poet and a senior editor at The Yale Review.
Originally published:
September 18, 2020


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