AUTHOR INTERVIEWS SELF!
DONALD: So you are going to interview yourself? How does that work?
DON: I’ll ask myself questions and then try to answer them.
DONALD: Your newest book is STARS THROUGH THE CLOUDS: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams, 2nd edition (Lantern Hollow Press, 2020), xx + 445 pages. $17.99. paperback. Why poetry, of all things?
DON: A number of reasons. First, we live in an age not very hospitable to poetry. Robert Frost said that the ultimate ambition was “to lodge a few poems in places where they will be hard to get rid of.” I’ve published quite a few poems–in places where they are easy to ignore. If I believe that some of my work deserves to be preserved, then it’s up to me to try to give it a more permanent form. Second, at this stage of my life my poetic production is slowing down. After half a century of writing verse, when I start a new piece now I usually end up saying, “Nope, already did that, already used that idea.” I hope I’m not done writing poetry, but the volume is going to decline, because I don’t want to end up like so many poets in the last phase of their lives, doing cheap imitations of their younger selves. So whatever I have done is starting to take a shape as a whole that is verging toward completeness. Finally, there is a wonderful publishing venture started by one of my former students and some of his students (does that make them my grand-students?). Lantern Hollow Press actually wanted to do the book, and the first edition of Stars Through the Clouds was their first volume to see the light of day. For all those reasons, it seemed like the time was ripe.
DONALD: You say our age is not hospitable to poetry. Why not?
DON: There is no market for poetry–or that’s the perception among most editors and publishers. And they are not entirely wrong. The market was killed by the last three generations of poets and the editors and critics who promoted them. They by and large could not tell the difference between poetry and fractured prose, and they thought incomprehensibility was actually a virtue. They basically didn’t know what poetry is, and as a result they have taught the current generation of readers very effectively to believe that poetry is nothing that could possibly interest them.
DONALD: What is poetry?
DON: It is not easy to define, but some of the greats have taken stabs at it that, taken together, can give us a good idea. Dr. Johnson said poetry calls the Imagination to the aid of the Reason. For Pope, it is “Nature to advantage dressed: / What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” For Wordsworth, the poet is “a man speaking to men in the language of men,” in language elevated by meter, metaphor, etc., but still a language intelligible to normal people (this would be news to most contemporary poets!). In that language the poet gives us “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion recollected in tranquility.” I would add that poetry adds to prose a level of structure and meaning of which prose is not capable by making the line, not just the sentence, a significant element. If you do this well, you can write something that justifies the loftier definitions of Johnson and Pope.
DONALD: What are you trying to achieve in Stars Through the Clouds?
DON: I want to give people a reason for reading poetry again, to prove that poetry can still speak powerfully to human minds and hearts. I want to preserve and transmit the glimpses of beauty, truth, and goodness that I have been granted to see. I want to show that Wordsworth was right about the poet as a man speaking to men. I want to return the craft of prosody and form to the writing of poetry. I want to make a start in rebuilding an audience for poetry, for the great poets of the past as well as myself and those who will follow me.
DONALD: Pretty grandiose schemes, eh?
DON: Yeah, I guess so. But it’s what I want to do. And since not many other people seem to be trying it . . .
DONALD: What poets from the past are some of the biggest influences on Stars Through the Clouds?
DON: I learned an awful lot from Robert Frost about how artfully to combine classic forms with contemporary language. I studied the form of the sonnet under masters like Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and Keats. George Herbert is a model in the way that he used every conceivable form devotionally in The Temple and showed how to be intelligent without falling into unnecessary obscurity. Charles Williams gave me a lot of the ideas for “Tales of Taliessin,” though I do not much resemble him in style. C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien did more than anyone else to influence the way I see the world.
For a number of poems either about Lewis and Tolkien or inspired by their work and their ideas, go to https://smile.amazon.com/dp/173286800X?ref_=pe_3052080_397514860 and order a copy of STARS THROUGH THE CLOUDS: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2020). (This commercial brought to you by Mr. Tumnus’ Library.)