Delaware Suite Room, Marriott Wardman Park | February 5, 2011

Episode 34: Like It's Still Going On: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Reading & Discussion

(Frank Bidart, Sally Dawidoff, Vijay Seshadri, Kevin Young) The Civil War is the single most consequential event in the history of our country, and the single most resonant. Even now, it preoccupies American poets. The panelists will read from their work and discuss the fraught lineage into which they have placed themselves.

Published Date: October 5, 2011


Speaker 1:

Welcome to the AWP podcast series. This event originally occurred at the AWP Conference in Washington, D.C. on February 5th, 2011. The recording features Sally Dawidoff, Frank Bidart, Vijay Seshadri, and Kevin Young. Now, you will hear Sally Dawidoff provide introductions.

Sally Dawidoff:

Hi, welcome. In his book, Confederates In The Attic, Tony Horwitz tells a story of a young man who was murdered in Tennessee for an incident involving the Confederate flag. The Confederate flag murder. And that happened in 1995. What the victim's father said was, "They say that war ended a long time ago, but around here, it's like it's still going on." For those devoted to or offended by the Confederate flag, in a sense, it's like it's still going on. But for many more Americans in different ways, it is. When the poet Allen Tate, who was born 34 years after the Civil War ended, sat down to compose his seminal Ode to the Confederate Dead, for him, it was a potent event. When Tate's friend, Robert Lowell, accepted a request to read a poem at the Boston Arts Festival in 1960, for him, the Civil War was a live and painful issue. And the writers before us today, Frank Bidart, Vijay Seshadri, and Kevin Young, are here because for each of them in some way, it's still going on. They aren't done with the war, or it isn't done with them.

It goes without saying that the Civil War was consequential enough for continued mourning and attention. Four years, nearly three quarters of a million dead. And needless to say, the central difficulty has not been resolved. Still, the attention from contemporary poets is notable. What is it about this war? Perhaps these writers saw the Civil War as a way to muse upon their country's ills, as Melville put it in a wartime poem. Edward Hirsch said of Tate's ode, "The poem universalizes from the situation of the South in the middle and late '20s to the larger condition of the modern world, and Tate found his world chaotic and degenerate."

Or perhaps they have written to excoriate their country's ills. As Lowell wrote to A. Alvarez when the book For The Union Dead was coming out in 1964, "American poets are now free to say what we want to, and somehow what we want to say is the confusion and sadness and incoherence of the human condition. It may be a more miserable time, more than others, with the world liable to blow up."

Perhaps our panelists agree with Edmund Wilson who wrote in the same period that, "If we would truly understand at the present time the kind of role that our own country is playing, we must go back and try to see objectively what our tendencies and our practice have been in the past." Wilson's conclusion was, "America devours as much as we can, like a sea slug of vigorous veracity."

As J.D. McClatchy has suggested, "If our best poets argue with history, it is the better to provide the moralities of vision." Or perhaps the war gives them a way to talk about where they themselves stand. What has become of the Civil War, and what has become of us? Today, 150 years and two months before the war began, we will hear five texts, four poems, and a prose memoir that call it back. And we'll see an ongoing engagement with the event itself, and with its myriad meanings, public, political, historical, cultural, moral, familial, personal. The past isn't really a foreign country, as L.P. Hartley said, not when it happened right here, not when with persistence, both baffling and understandable, it is still going on.

So, we're going to hear five readings and then a discussion, and then toward the end we'll take some questions from you if you have any. Let me introduce the writers. For those of you who aren't familiar, I'll say a couple of words about Allen Tate and Robert Lowell, though it's hard to say just a couple of words about them, especially Lowell. We're going to hear a work by each of them, and then we'll hear a work from each of the poets here.

Allen Tate, American, 1899 to 1979, a Kentucky born poet, a founding editor of The Fugitive, and a member of The Fugitives, who are remembered mainly for two causes, traditionally formal poetry and nostalgia for the agrarian South. Robert Lowell referred to Tate's killing eloquence, and he said, "The only one that really got deeply and closely under my skin was Allen Tate."

Robert Lowell, 1917 to 1977. He's remembered of course as a confessional poet, but his writing ranged widely, both formally and in content. He moved through his decades with allegiance to traditionally formal poems, then to a confessional mode, then to more public poetry. "I am learning to live in history," he once said. And in an essay written at the end of his life, Lowell wrote that, "Looking over my selected poems about 30 years of writing, my impression is that the thread that strings it together is my autobiography." How much to tell, of course, was an argument between Lowell and Tate.

Now, the poets before us. Frank Bidart is a poet and editor whose most recent collections of poems are Watching the Spring Festival and Star Dust, both National Book Awards finalists. His honors include the Wallace Stevens Award, the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award, the Shelley Award, and the Bollingen Prize in American poetry. Bidart co-edited and introduced Robert Lowell's collected poems. He teaches in the English department at Wellesley.

Vijay Seshadri is a poet and essayist. His poetry collections are Wild Kingdom and The Long Meadow. The latter won the James Laughlin Prize. Other honors include the MacDowell Colony's Fellowship for Distinguished Poetic Achievement. Seshadri reviews books for the New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review, et al., and directs the graduate program in creative nonfiction at Sarah Lawrence.

Finally, Kevin Young is the author of seven books of poetry, including Dear Darkness and Ardency, recently published. Young is also the editor of five anthologies, most recently, The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing. He is Atticus Haygood professor of poetry and curator of literary collections in the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at Emory University.

We will begin with a recording of Allen Tate's Ode, read by the author.

Allen Tate:

Ode to the Confederate Dead.

Row after row with strict impunity, the headstones yield their names to the element. The wind whirs without recollection. In the riven troughs, the splayed leaves pile up, of nature the casual sacrament to the seasonal eternity of death. Then driven by the fierce scrutiny of heaven to their election in the vast breath, they sough the rumor of mortality.

Autumn is desolation in the plot of a thousand acres where these memories grow from the inexhaustible bodies that are not dead, but feed the grass row after rich row. Think of the autumns that have come and gone. Ambitious November with the humors of the year, with a particular zeal for every slab, staining the uncomfortable angels that rot on the slabs, a wing chipped here, an arm there. The brute curiosity of an angel's stare turns you, like them, to stone, transforms the heaving air till plunged to a heavier world below.

You shift your sea-space blindly, heaving, turning like the blind crab. Dazed by the wind, only the wind, the leaves flying, plunge. You know who have waited by the wall the twilight certainty of an animal. Those midnight restitutions of the blood you know, the immitigable pines, the smoky frieze of the sky, the sudden call. You know the rage, the cold pool left by the mounting flood, of muted Zeno and Parmenides. You who have waited for the angry resolution of those desires that should be yours tomorrow, you know the unimportant shrift of death, and praise the vision, and praise the arrogant circumstance of those who fall, rank upon rank, hurried beyond decision, here by the sagging gate, stopped by the wall. Seeing, seeing only the leaves, flying, plunge, and expire.

Turn your eyes to the immoderate past. Turn to the inscrutable infantry, rising demons out of the earth. They will not last. Stonewall, Stonewall and the sunken fields of hemp, Shiloh, Antietam, Malvern Hill, Bull Run. Lost in that orient of the thick and fast, you will curse the setting sun. Cursing only the leaves crying, like an old man in a storm.

You hear the shout. The crazy hemlocks point with troubled fingers to the silence which smothers you, a mummy, in time. The hound bitch toothless and dying in a musty cellar hears the wind only. Now that the salt of their blood stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea, seals the malignant purity of the flood, what shall we who count our days and bow our heads with a commemorial woe, in the ribboned coats of grim felicity, what shall we say of the bones unclean whose verdurous anonymity will grow? The ragged arms, the ragged heads and eyes lost in these acres of the insane green. The gray lean spiders come. They come and go. In a tangle of willows without light, the singular screech owl's tight invisible lyric seeds the mind with the furious murmur of their chivalry.

We shall say only the leaves, flying, plunge and expire. We shall say only the leaves whispering in the improbable mist of nightfall that flies on multiple wing. Night is the beginning and the end. And in between the ends of distraction waits mute speculation, the patient curse that stones the eyes, or like the jaguar leaps for his own image in a jungle pool his victim.

What shall we say who have knowledge carried to the heart? Shall we take the act to the grave? Shall we, more hopeful, set up the grave in the house, the ravenous grave? Leave now the shut gate and the decomposing wall. The gentle serpent, green in the mulberry bush, riots with his tongue through the hush, sentinel of the grave who counts us all.

Sally Dawidoff:

Next we will hear Robert Lowell's For The Union Dead, read by Lowell's editor, the poet Frank Bidart.

Frank Bidart:

There's an epigraph to the Lowell poem, and it is the Latin epigraph that is affixed to the memorial by Saint-Gaudens that this poem is about. The original says, "He leaves all behind to protect or preserve or save the state." And Lowell changed "he" to "they." They leave all behind to protect the state.

For the Union Dead.

Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam.

The old South Boston Aquarium stands in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded. The bronze weather vein cod has lost half its scales. The airy tanks are dry. Once my nose crawl like a snail on the glass. My hand tingled to burst the bubbles drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish. My hand draws back. I often sigh still for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom of the fish and reptile.

One morning last March, I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized fence on the Boston common. Behind their cage, yellow dinosaur steam shovels were grunting as they cropped up tons of mush and grass to gouge their underworld garage. Parking spaces luxuriate like civic sand piles in the heart of Boston. A girdle of orange, Puritan pumpkin colored girders braces the tingling statehouse, shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry, on Saint-Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief, propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.

Two months after marching through Boston, half the regiment was dead. At the dedication, William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe. Their monument sticks like a fishbone in the city's throat. Its colonel is as lean as a compass needle. He has an angry wren-like vigilance, a greyhound's gentle tautness. He seems to wince at pleasure and suffocate for privacy. He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely, peculiar power to choose life and die. When he leads his Black soldiers to death, he cannot bend his back.

On a thousand small town New England greens, the old white churches hold their air of sparse, sincere rebellion. Frayed flags quilt the graveyards of the grand army of the Republic. The stone statues of the abstract Union soldier grow slimmer and younger each year. Wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets and muse through their sideburns. Shaw's father wanted no monument except the ditch, where his son's body was thrown and lost with his niggers.

The ditch is nearer. There are no statues for the last war here. On Boyleston Street, a commercial photograph shows Hiroshima boiling over a Mosler Safe, the Rock of Ages that survived the blast. Space is nearer. When I crouch to my television set, the drained faces of Negro school children rise like balloons. Colonel Shaw is riding on his bubble. He waits for the blessed break. The aquarium is gone. Everywhere, giant thinned cars nose forward like fish. A savage servility slides by on grease.

Sally Dawidoff:

Now the poet Vijay Seshadri will read an excerpt from his memoir, The Nature of the Chemical Bond.

Vijay Seshradi:

I unfortunately have to talk a little, to explain what I'm reading. I think all the other poems we're hearing are acts of memorialization. This is an excerpt about... It's a memorialization of the act of memorialization, so it's one step removed from the lyric gestures you've heard so far and will hear again. And it's really a part of a piece that's about my father. And when we came here, my father came here in 1955 to get his PhD in physical chemistry, which is why the piece is called The Nature of the Chemical Bond. And then he came back to India and retrieved us in '59, and we moved to Canada, and we were there for two years, where he was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Research Council.

And then he got a job at Ohio State, and we moved to Columbus, Ohio, and he developed through the course of those early years in Ohio a fascination with the Civil War. And it seems more improbable than it actually is, because when we got to Columbus, it was the 100th anniversary, and I realized looking back that there was a lot of publication, there was a lot of activity, and my father is, and very much was so more even then, a product of a very positivist Third World attitude. And I mean positivist in two senses, in terms of logical positivism, which means that he was really committed to empiricism, but also positive in the most more general sense, in that he thought that there was a way in which to engage the world that was ahistorical, that we were kind of post-historical. And that was kind of the belief of Indian intellectuals and Third World intellectuals from Africa, from Asia, of his generation, and they thought that science was going to lead them out of the past and out of history.

And so I always thought it was very strange as a child that I was being dragged to Civil War battlefields. And I mean, I didn't think it was that strange. I thought, "Oh yeah, everybody goes to Civil War battlefields." And I hated it. And the first part of the piece is about how much I hated being in these cars with my sister throwing up in the back, as we were on our way to Antietam or the Wilderness or Shiloh. But subsequently, I realized that it was really coherent, and at the time when the Bush administration was contemplating invading Iraq, and was in fact planning to invade Iraq, this was in 2003, I said, "Wow, this really fits into something."

And it fit into something for me because I started looking at the Civil War and remembering these things, and it fit into a vision of violence. And this Civil War, whatever else it is, is preeminently the most violent episode in American history. I mean, shocking in its violence. So, I'm going to read this, and I apologize ahead of time for taking more time than all of this great poetry, but there was no way I could excerpt it in such a way that it was smaller. It's just one page. And before the point at which I'm reading, I discuss my father's... The kind of science he does, his obsession with it, and then this section starts.

When he took a break, he turned to the great rebellion, a socialist of the mild Fabian Congress Party variety. Nehru and the vegetarian George Bernard Shaw were among our household gods. He might, if asked, have described the war as a socialist war, prosecuted, whatever the concomitant or efficient reasons, to eliminate capitalism's most vicious practice, chattel slavery. No-one was around to ask him, though, except me, and I couldn't have framed such question, so he was required to confess nothing.

I can't remember his ever telling me anything about the Civil War that carried the faintest odor of morality or politics or interpretation. He seemed to accept unquestioningly the then and still prevalent notion of the war by which the imperatives of the North were balanced by the valor and passion and superior skillfulness of the underdog South, lifting the conflict beyond partisanship, beyond good and evil, clarifying it until it became a smooth, simple drama whose meaning was contained deep within itself. He fell in step with the thinking about the war that saw motives as local, and the deeper causality subsumed by tactics, strategy, movement, battle lines, salience and bridgeheads, preponderant forces and materiel, clemencies and inclemencies of weather, and chaotic missed chances and coincidences.

In the books he read in the brochures he collected, there was no interest in justification, no question of right or wrong. Everyone was forgiven in the end, except that small gallery of characters that includes Vallandingham, Quantrill, and John Wilkes Booth. This was perfect for him. It gave scope to his instinctive empiricism, and his discomfort with generalities, which were suspicious with hidden and untenable assumptions. The Civil War was as fundamental, as immutable, as the submolecular realm, a modernist war made for the modernist he was then, and still is, as clear and impenetrable as aligned by Wallace Stevens or a Calder mobile. It referred to nothing but itself.

Wrapped in its structures, though, was a human heroism, pure and appalling and desperate, so pure and appalling and desperate that it too seems immutable. This was something my father understood. These were the desperate frequencies that set his atomic particles vibrating. He had been orphaned of his father at an early age in a cholera epidemic that almost took him away at the same time. He'd also survived smallpox. His family had been thrown into poverty in a humiliating dependency. They hadn't experienced the most terrible Indian destitution, but India has many destitutions, and they always heard one or another coughing and shuffling outside their door. His education had been financed entirely by the scholarships and fellowships available in what was then the princely state of Mysore, which may have been the most advanced of the Indian princely states in the decades before independence, and in the world beyond.

If the massive silence that lies at the center of his psyche is any indication, his character had not only been defined but pretty much exhausted by frugality, anxiety, and constant labor. His one chance, his one grace, had been science. He once said to me, in wonder rather than bitterness, "If I hadn't found science, I would've been nothing."

Hundreds of thousands of men throwing themselves against the merciless fire of a technology that had left the tactics of their officers far behind. The desperation, "Fundamental and astounding," Lincoln called it, meaning that even he had no words. The self moves beyond dread and terror and confronts its essential poverty and nakedness and isolation. This my father understood, too well, and too immediately. The conflict was vivid to his moody, wordless fatalism, his sense, so strange in the bountiful middle America of the early '60s, that all choices narrow to one choice, which wasn't a choice at all, but was construed as such by our incorrigible gift for deceiving ourselves into thinking we're free.

And so, the following, suitably edited to disguise their violence, became the bedside anecdotes of my childhood's middle years. In the twilight of early May, a mistaken fusillade from his own men cuts down Stonewall Jackson, out scouting enemy lines. Lee, my father says, will miss him at Gettysburg. The citizens of Cherbourg come down to the Keys to watch the Alabama and the Kearsarge trading broadsides in the harbor. Eventually, my father says, the captain of the Alabama will strike his colors and then throw himself overboard. Forrest's cavalry harasses the flanks, exploding out of the woods and forcing the Union soldiers to scatter across the deadfall in the scrub. In one half-hour, after a blundering delay by his generals, Grant loses 7,000 men, dead or maimed.

Kevin Young:

Hello. I'm Kevin. I want to thank Sally so much for organizing this, and it's a pleasure to be here. I'm going to read my poem, which is called For The Confederate Dead. I suppose you can see by the title that it's arguing both with history and with poetry, specifically Robert Lowell, who I'm always arguing with in some way. And, what else to say about it? I have a book by this title, which I had always had this title, after I wrote the poem, I thought this is going to be the name of the book. And it was so hard to write a poem saying that. And I called up my publisher and said, "I don't know if I can do it. I mean, I'm going to get letters from reenactors, they're going to find out I'm Black." It was like a whole... So I made them put some Black people on the cover.

And interestingly, I think people understood that, at least the whole book, I don't know if it's in the poem specifically, that I was interested in the idea of confederate in its original meaning, an ally, a friend.

So, this poem is For The Confederate Dead. It has an epigraph from Whitman. "I go with the team also."

For The Confederate Dead.

"These are the last days," my television says. Tornadoes, more rain, overcast, a chance of sun, but I do not trust weathermen. Never have. In my fridge, only the milk makes sense, expires. No-one, much less my parents, can tell me why my middle name is Lowell. And from my table, across from the Confederate Monument to the Dead, that pale finger bone, a plaque declares war, not civil or between the states, but for Southern independence.

In this cafe, below sea and eye level, a mural runs the wall, flaking, a plantation scene most do not see. It's too much around the knees, height of a child. In its fields, Negroes bend to pick the endless white. In livery, a few drive carriages like slaves, whipping the horses, faces blank and peeling. The old hotel lobby this once was no longer welcomes guests. Maroon ledger, bellboys gone, but for this.

Like an inheritance, the owner found it, stripping hundred years at least of paint and plaster. More leaves each day. In my movie, there are no horses, no heroes, only draftees fleeing into the pines, some few who survive, gravely wounded, lying burrowed beneath the dead, silent until the enemy bayonets what is believed to be the last of the breathing. It is getting later. We prepare for wars no longer there. The weather inevitable, unusual, more this time of year than anyone ever seed. The earth shudders. The air... If I did not know better, I would think we were living all along a fault. How late it has gotten. Forget the weatherman whose maps move, blink, but stay crossed with lines none have seen. Race instead against the almost rain, digging beside the monument, that giant anchor, till we strike water, sweat fighting the sleepwalking air.

Sally Dawidoff:

And finally, Frank Bidart, reading his poem To The Republic.

Frank Bidart:

To The Republic. This is poem is dated 2005.

To The Republic. I dreamt I saw a caravan of the dead start out again from Gettysburg, close packed, upright in rows, on rail car flatbeds in the sun. They soon will stink. Victor and vanquished shoved together. Dirt had bleached the blue and gray, one color. Risen again from Gettysburg as if the state were shelter, crawled to through blood, risen disconsolate that we now ruin the great work of time. They roll in outrage across America. You betray us, is blazoned across each chest. To each eye as they pass, you betray us. Assaulted by the impotent dead, I say it's their misfortune, and none of my own. I dreamt I saw a caravan of the dead move on wheels touching rails without sound. To each eye as they pass, you betray us.

Sally Dawidoff:

Lowell said once that he'd always wanted to write a Civil War poem. So, question for each of you. Did you? For you, Vijay, today we'll make that poem mean prose memoir.

Vijay Seshradi:

Yeah. The thing about that memoir was that I never really wanted to write it, even though I knew it was a topic. Because I always saw the Civil War as being confusing, because I got into such detail before I could see the big picture, before I could see the kind of lyric moment that it was, or strive toward that lyric moment. And when I was writing it, what I found was I was engulfed by the factuality of the war. And there's a tremendous factuality to the war, because there's so much great historical writing about the war, and there's so much fiction about it. And the war was memorialized as soon as it ended, at Appomattox Court House. The officers, after Lee and Grant signed the terms of the surrender, started taking away all the furniture and stuff like that, to keep as relics. So the act of memorialization was almost... It even begins almost with the war.

And I didn't know what to do with all that interpretation that existed, and all of those attitudes towards the war. But as Frank's poem makes clear, if you really delve into the history of the Civil War, and I went back and read a lot of stuff before I wrote the memoir, I felt like, "God, this is just about killing." You almost feel about Whitman that... Well, when Whitman wrote the epigraph that Kevin uses, he understood death as this transcendental fact. It fit into... But when he went to the Civil War and saw what death really was, it shocked him. And he was never the poet he was after the war that he was before the war.

So, it was a subject I just didn't want to get close to at all, simply because it's just all... For me, it's just an epic of death. I mean it's just amazing. It's just horrifying. It's horrifying. The First World War is... So, no, I never wanted to write a Civil War poem, and I never will write a Civil War poem.

Kevin Young:

I love that. That was [inaudible 00:38:03]. I don't know if I wanted to. I think the idea of the memorialization that Vijay mentioned was more what I was interested, in some weird way. How do you write about memory, or how do you remember a thing that is painful to remember, but also it's a sort of anchor, as I say in the poem? And quite literally just in daily life, you pass these giant monuments, and you wonder about them.

This was in Athens, Georgia, where there's literally that mural in a cafe. And the problem of that, he uncovered this thing, do you cover it back up? It's sort of offensive, but is it history? Those kinds of questions came to me, as much as wanting to write about the war, I want to write about the memory of the war, and the ways in which it's still happening. And I think Frank's poem imagines that so viscerally and brings it to life as a present day occurrence, and I think it's the dailiness of it that I want to get at, not the distant thing. But also, how do you praise a thing that you're unsure of? That was also, for me, part of the poem.

Frank Bidart:

I think one would like to have something to say about everything important, but I certainly never felt I had anything to say that was... Any insight that was commensurate to either the great poems that had been written, or the event itself. And I love Lowell's poem, certainly not my favorite Lowell, but I thought it was a great poem. I do think it's a great poem. I've never liked the Allen Tate poem. To me, it's a poem full of ways of avoiding actually confronting the fact of the war, and what the war was about, and it's what Adrienne Rich would call bullshit rhetoric, a lot of the time. There are great phrases, but then that makes it all the more dangerous and [inaudible 00:40:42] horrible.

But I feel very ambivalent about Tate, his writing, altogether. And it seemed to me amazing and wonderful that Lowell could write a poem that was not false, and authentic, that partly sprang from the Tate poem. And at the same time, as I say, I didn't feel I had anything commensurate to say, nor do I now feel that I have anything commensurate to say, but I had a dream, and it was a dream where I saw these figures. Now, that doesn't necessarily make it a proper subject for a poem, but I was really quite overwhelmed by seeing these figures ripped out of the ground and put on these flatbeds, and that both sides of the war had become the same side.

And I have not dated most of my poems, but 2005 I dated this poem, because to my mind it is really about the world created by the Bush administration, and the sense that something catastrophic had happened to America and America's place in the world. And if a state is partly shelter that has been crawled to through blood, many, many people have suffered and died in order to give us the structure that we can be here today and speaking out of, and we don't expect people are going to come in with guns and shoot us or stop us from speaking, and all the million things, the ways in which a state can provide an order and pattern and security in life. All that had really been threatened by, I think, the incompetence and stupidity and arrogance and greed of the Bush years.

And so for me, in a way, the event which this dream gave me was the two sides becoming one, the blue and gray had become one color. And they were accusing contemporary America. And I think that theme of the past coming back to accuse the present is a very old one, is a very fundamental one, it's in the Lowell poem, but I think it was central to my feeling about the meaning of that dream. And I tried to build into the poem a sense that America has always had this very pragmatic, somewhat cruel side. The lines, "Assaulted by the impotent dead, I say it's their misfortune and none of my own," that echoes a song called Git Along, Little Dogies, where the cowboy says to the dogies, who are after all being led off to get fat in order to be sold and slaughtered, "It's your misfortune, it's none of my own." And so that element of the American past and the American psyche I wanted also to build into this figure that America was cutting in the world.

Kevin Young:

I had a question. Do you think Lowell liked Tate's poem?

Frank Bidart:

Good question. Yeah.

Kevin Young:

Because I think he's rewriting it to such a degree, and he's also accusing the past, that is Tate, which is his own personal poetic past. I mean, he's camped on the Tates' backyard, in a tent. "Come, sure, visit us," and then you've got a kid living in the backyard.

Frank Bidart:

That's right. That's right.

Kevin Young:

And I think there's something really powerful about his engaging that and rewriting. And for me, it was a daunting task to try to write about these two figures. But the Tate poem, it sounds so different. I mean, hearing him read it, I liked it less and less.

Frank Bidart:

I mean, Lowell I think was extremely ambivalent about Allen Tate. I mean, he was grateful to Tate. Tate had been his teacher. He had learned a lot from Tate. Tate introduced his first book of poems. And the rhetoric of Lowell's first trade book, Lord Weary's Castle, was indebted in part to Allen Tate, though it was certainly indebted to many other things and more important things. On the other hand, I know he felt great ambivalence about Tate, both as a person and as a writer, and he did not live his life imitating Tate's work, or his life.

I think Tate was in some ways a frightening figure to Lowell. When Lowell wrote the manuscript of Life Studies, he sent it to Allen Tate, who had been his friend, and he sent it to T.S. Eliot, who was a friend and had edited his poems for Faber & Faber. And Eliot said, "This is the real thing. I want to publish it." And he did. And then the book, in fact, came out from Faber & Faber before it came out in America. Allen Tate told him to put it in a drawer and try to forget it, and in a couple of years he would be ashamed of it. So, I think he had a lot of ambivalence about Tate.

Kevin Young:

Yeah. I wonder why?

Sally Dawidoff:

Is it safe to say that was mutual?

Frank Bidart:

Yes. For example, late in Lowell's life when he was working on the sonnet books, he wrote some sonnets about Tate, and about the death of one of the twins that Tate had had. And I think they're... Well, the image of Tate in the poems is mixed, but it is certainly not in any simple way an attack on him. But Tate was tremendously upset that Lowell presumed to write a poem about the death of Tate's child. And when I read the poem, it does not seem to me a transgression, but Tate was very proprietary, and somehow it was an indiscretion of Lowell to write about the death of this child, which was an accident. What am I trying to say? I think their relations were rocky. I know that.

Sally Dawidoff:

He came around about Life Studies. He ended up writing, "It's a magnificent book," maybe giving in. And I think that he was very worried about what it meant. I think he read the book and thought, crazy. So I think that was part of it.

Kevin, you said that in your poem you're arguing with history and with poetry, and something that is unique about the group of you is that all of you are looking back to Lowell and/or Tate. We see it subtly in Vijay's prose memoir. Vijay, you put a prose memoir in the middle of a book of poems, as Lowell did.

Vijay Seshradi:

Well, I knew that everybody who read the book and knew the Lowell book, they were all going to immediately remember Life Studies. But the impetus... I don't know when I first read Life Studies, but I'm pretty sure I read The Sea And The Mirror by W.H. Auden before I read Life Studies. And I think that's where Lowell got the idea of putting a section of prose in a book of poetry. And I love the texture of The Sea And The Mirror, so it was always in my mind because of that.

Writing that book, or writing that prose memoir, really involved... The way in which Lowell was involved was this. Somehow I've always been very sympathetic to the father in 91 Revere Street, because he is so deconstructed in some way. I mean, he is just taken apart step by step. And of course it's a masterpiece of American prose, but I always come away feeling like, "Gosh, he should be a little nicer to his dad." And in some sense, that was the one impetus. To the extent that it's about fathers, to the extent that... The rhetorical texture was something that I appropriated from Auden, not from Lowell, but what I got from Lowell was a desire to do something for my father that would make him heroic, rather than take away those elements. Because of course you remember Lowell's father is a military man, and the long arc of that memoir has to do with his being demilitarized in some way, and it's a process of emasculation that's gone into in great, great, exquisite detail.

And I think that was the impulse. And in relationship to the Civil War, what really comes back to me about the Civil War, and when I was thinking about this coming down here on the train, I felt like, "God, it's an eruption of the existential situation into history. It can't really be contained by ideas of the Republic, because it in and of itself..." And I think that is something that my father understood about that war, that it was so big and huge, and all our responses to it are going to be incommensurate. I mean, I think Lowell really comes close to doing something, but in relationship to what actually happened, what was actually going on on the battlefield, if we could ever reconstruct it in our minds, we are going to be totally horrified. It's just a horrifying...

So, the fact that at a certain point in the unfolding of violence itself, the individual has to come to recognize. I mean, for me, the real... There are lots of great Southern texts about the war, and the South has a wonderful literature about the war. The Northern text that really means a lot to me is of course The Red Badge Of Courage. And of course Henry is completely confused in The Red Badge Of Courage, if you remember it, and he runs away from the battle at the beginning, and then in the process of the book, he runs towards the battle and he becomes a soldier. But everything that's happening around him is confused, and there's no historicity to it. You don't really know what battle it is, and you don't really have a sense of people moving in historical space, but people moving in a kind of existential space. And Crane's poetry is like that, too. He's a wonderful poet.

So, that was what I was thinking of in relationship to all of the different ways you could approach it. And I guess in a sense it's sort of what both of the poems that Frank and Kevin read are doing too. They're existentializing something historical. You know what I mean? Or am I going [inaudible 00:53:43]?

Kevin Young:

Quickly, for me, I guess what I took from Lowell, and it's interesting you talk about existentializing. I think of it as that mix of the personal and the public history that Lowell does so well in that poem. And I frankly love Notebook, his sequence that I think imagines that so well. And that's one of my favorite books of his, because it is that mix, which I think is particular and peculiar. But I also wouldn't want us to forget that he's writing about seeing the Negro faces on the television rise like balloons. He's writing about another historical moment that is directly related to the Civil War, and directly related to the Civil Rights Movement, and he's watching. And so there's this beautiful... To me, it's an honest poem about putting your nose to the glass, and not seeing, and also seeing, and not being able to do something, but also... That to me is so powerful in the poem, and it's so honest.

A poet I admire and have edited, John Berryman for instance, wrote terribly about race in the same period, and thought because he used one form of dialect and got away with it, he could write really bad poems about race. And so, I think we can't forget that. And obviously as an African American poet sitting down to write this poem, Lowell was an example, to be able to write about this complex thing in a personal way. And also, I have his middle name, I guess, so it seemed like lurking there. But I guess I would hate to think that we're talking about the past only, because Lowell is not, to me, and that's what's powerful about that poem. And as I recall, he read it at... I don't remember where he first read it.

Sally Dawidoff:

The Public Garden in 1960.

Kevin Young:

Yeah. And that public quality of the poem too, I think, is really important to the poem's vector, where it's going. And I guess to try to write a short, epic poem, which is what it feels like, and you read it so well, honestly, it was amazing to hear you read it, because you got that sense of gravitas that he brings to the page. And I think the war deserves that, but I don't think it's impossible to write about it. I think it's necessary.

Frank Bidart:

Let me say, when I introduced the poem, I meant to mention that it was written just a couple of years after Little Rock. And so, the drained faces of Negro school children, he's talking about something the whole country had just experienced, which is also to say that all the issues about the war were not over. The monument sticks like a fishbone in the city's throat. In a way, that's almost the central lines in the poem. And it's a fishbone that's not out. It's not out. It's still not out in this country.

Sally Dawidoff:

It strikes me that all these are public texts, and in some way very personal at the same time. And it seems to me that it may be that the war has given you an opportunity to talk about your own American-ness. And I wonder if, Kevin, you'd say something about that first.

Kevin Young:

Yeah. I mean, I think that's right. It's hard to name it, I guess. I think the poem tries different ways of naming that. The movie, the scene, the idea of seeing things, or... I think it's "seed" instead of "seen." The spoken quality of the language that I think Lowell engages in, and I think there's a way that Tate almost does that interests me, especially in those little couplets. That's the part I love in that poem. I wish there were just little couplets. But anyway, so for me, there was exactly that American-ness. But the other thing is an ambiguity about that whole process, and where does one belong, and what's the name of the damn war? Is it the war between the states, Southern independence? There's too many names. And I think that idea of naming it was in there. And what I love about Lowell's poem is that ambiguity at the end, the savage servility, which is not so ambiguous, but it hasn't decided where we're going yet.

Frank Bidart:

Well, I don't read enough. And I have to admit, I had never read either Kevin's poem or Vijay's piece before I prepared for this. And I have to say, I was amazed. For me, the guts of being able to write a poem called For The Confederate Dead was just astonishing, and the fact that he carries it off. I particularly love these lines. "In my movie, there are no horses, no heroes, only draftees fleeing into the pines, some few who survive, gravely wounded, lying burrowed beneath the dead, silent until the enemy bayonets what is believed to be the last of the breathing." And that's really taking on the violence, the fact, the materiality of the war, and absorbing it into one's own writing. It was just quite terrific. And when I read Vijay's piece, I have to say, I kept thinking, "I've never written anything that's good about my father." It's really amazing, really quite profound. So it's been an honor, been a pleasure to be a part of this.

Sally Dawidoff:

Let's take a question. Go ahead.

Speaker 9:

Thank you, all. I was really excited for this panel to be part of the program. I wouldn't want us to miss the greater moment, on the cusp of which we are, which is that we are about to enter into four years of remembering this Civil War during a time when we will have a national election on our first African American president, and in which some very right-wing reactionary political groups are already preparing the message for how America will understand the Civil War 150 years later. And my concern is, I don't see enough of the liberal arts stepping in to help shape that message. And I think the way that you framed it, perhaps, how does reflecting on the war give you a chance to talk about your American-ness, is a very good way that we can step publicly into the conversation that is just about to happen, and perhaps help lead a conversation that is one that heals, rather than one that is bent on a deeper fracture of good order than we are already experiencing.

So, I just really want to encourage it, because I think it is about to blow apart, and if we don't step up publicly with some sort of conversation about what the Civil War means now, we are going to be seeing much greater violence than we are already experiencing along rural and urban and North and South and white and non-white lines. I would love for any of you to talk about... [inaudible 01:01:42]

Vijay Seshradi:

I definitely have something to say about this. I think, okay, there is the Unionist response, a more perfect union, and then there is the fissiparous tendency of America, which was first fully enacted in the Civil War, and is continuing now, and has kind of returned. The ghosts of the past definitely have come back. And one part of me feels that, if you are thinking about a more perfect union, as represented by the Obama presidency for example, or progressive ideas or legislation that we all live under, like Roe v. Wade, you're going to enact in some way or another now again the same historical circumstances, which we are enacting. I mean, this is so much about states' rights, the Tea Party and all of that stuff, and Arizona, and now they're trying to pass a law in Arizona that will allow people to bring guns on campus.

Speaker 9:

And church.

Vijay Seshradi:

Yeah. Think what would happen at Sarah Lawrence, if somebody did that. [inaudible 01:03:01] I'm terrified. I mean, I'm going, "Oh my God." But I think the issue is, this is America. It is schizoid in this way. And that's what's interesting to me. Like other people, say, "We got to fight," and I always say, "God, but it's so interesting, this. It's so long, it's enduring, it's the character of the country." And the Republic is a schizoid Republic, and it will always be that way. And isn't it hopeless to try to integrate and unify it? I mean, would it ever be possible?

Kevin Young:

So, you're anti-integration? Is that what you're saying?

Vijay Seshradi:

Well, no. I'm...

Kevin Young:

You heard it here [inaudible 01:03:40] pro-segregation, this guy.

Vijay Seshradi:

No, in the Kleinian sense. I'm talking about... I'm not talking...

Kevin Young:

I know. I'm [inaudible 01:03:47] teasing you.

Sally Dawidoff:

Go ahead.

Speaker 10:

My question is for Mr. Young, about just how the Civil War fits into being an example of homicidal wistfulness, and being the problem of nostalgia, and how that relates to when you're making a poem, and how personal nostalgia influences that. And when you're connecting the personal and the historical, what the moral importance of that is, or what you think about that?

Kevin Young:

That's a great question about nostalgia and history and what your moral responsibility is. I mean, I think nostalgia is such a powerful engine. I've been recently writing about soul music and that idea, but I think that one has to be a little careful, but it's such a powerful both impulse in the South. I think it's very much something that drives Southern public talking about it, or any country song you've ever heard that's on the radio right now. But also it's something personal you have to wrestle with. And I guess I see nostalgia sometimes as fighting against history, and as a useful way, and then sometimes as a form of history and retelling it in a new way. So, it's a big question I can't quite answer in the time allotted, but I think it's a great question.

Sally Dawidoff:

I think that's the time that we've got. Thank you all for coming. Thank you all so much.

Speaker 1:

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