Ron Smith is the Poet Laureate of Virginia. Through his teaching and writing, he carries the mantle of poet with pride and humility: proud in the creative process of poetry, humble in how he presents himself. An influential teacher, Smith has influenced thousands of students over his tenure in the classroom. His quizzes alone are the stuff of legend. His poems soar into the stratosphere, referencing history I didn't know existed. The man has forgotten more about literature and grammar than I've ever known. He has a new book forthcoming from LSU Press: The Humility of Brutes. At 6 pm, on March 19, at Victory Hall, in Scottsville, VA, Mr. Smith will present Dante's Inferno: Where Art and Poetry Collide, giving a reading and Q & A session, in concert with artist Michelle Gagliano, who has painted thirty-four paintings to correspond with each Canto.
You once drove a car featuring a license plate that read "PAGLEAS." From that plate, I have always remembered the seven deadly sins. And after re-reading "The Inferno," I realize I have a dim prospect for the afterlife. It's rough stuff. When I saw Michelle's paintings, I knew you would appreciate them and I thought, "What a great evening this could be--how can we get these two together to talk about art and poetry?" What are your thoughts on the deadly sins, Dante, hell, art, and poetry?
Well, I have recently created a new set of Seven Deadly Sins--but that poem speaks for itself so I won't comment on it here. It will be published in Blackbird soon.
But: My first thought about the traditional SDS is that, if viewed properly, the list provides a reasonable, if rough, guide to living a decent life. Of course, as a 21st century human I don't agree with the implied absolutism of the conventional interpretations. For instance, anger is a perfectly justified response to injustice and wrongdoing and can be a tool--or fuel--for responding to such things. But, yes, nursing one's anger is (almost certainly?) a bad idea, because of the long-term corrosive effects of anger on the angry, not to mention its tendency to cause reflexive acts of violence.
Pride (which is to say, arrogance) is sometimes held to be the worst of the sins and I think I agree, since so much vice and bad judgment flow from the prideful.
Lust? A marriage without lust would be a paltry thing indeed, wouldn't it? Of course, lust without kindness, lust without love, lust unregulated by some rational control can lead to catastrophic behavior.
Gluttony and Sloth--do I have strong feelings about them? I don't, though I admit to being a bit of a Puritan when it comes to work. Which is I why I love those unPuritan Italians so much. I need more of what they've got. Gluttony seems to me to harm the glutton more than others, so meh.
Avarice is certainly harmful in all places and times--but ENVY, now that's the one I have a hard time understanding. I am always shocked when I witness an ugly burst of envy. When people say, "I hate you" in what they think is a joking way because, say, you're on your way to Italy, I am always shocked, though I try not to show it. Maybe I'm in the minority here. But I think that from envy flows great evil. Envy is the enemy of empathy. From those without empathy: cruelties of every kind.
As I contemplate your question about Big Sin here in 2016, the question seems odder and odder to me, certainly odder than it apparently did to Dante. Do people go to literal Hell (or psychic hell) for lust or anger? Should they? I understand the need to monitor and regulate one's inner states, to the extent that is possible--but the mere fact of Jimmy Carter's confessed "lust in my heart" surely should not imperil his soul. One consequence of religion's emphasis on such matters is good: It makes us introspective, sharpens our awareness of our inner lives. And one consequence is horrendously bad: It makes us afraid of our own minds. Now, there's a Hell for you.
Dante is a staggeringly great poet. The Comedia is a poem of vastness and awe but also penetrating, often astonishing detail.
Maybe all this is all too philosophical or too didactic. But you asked. So, let me end my answer with this quotation from Bertolt Brecht: "Sin is what is new, strong, surprising, strange. [Art] must take an interest in sin if the young are to be able to go there."
Is a poet (or any artist, really) obligated to teach?
No. The artist as artist is obliged to create. The teacher as teacher is obliged to teach, which is to say, to inspire more than to instruct. Artists who view teaching as beneath them definitely should not teach.
Your poem "The Old Crabber Has Gone Deaf" begins with the phrase "Oboe ghost sounds..." Please tell me about that. How did it come to you...and how did you turn three words into a poem?
The phrase "oboe ghost sounds" came to me out of the blue as I walked to work. I heard the words in my head and was as startled as delighted. I assumed I had read them somewhere. But, after some research, I concluded that my subconscious had written them. I thought the phrase was so haunting that I conceived the poem to house it, the way a cathedral is built to house a relic. For some reason I turned to synesthesia as the context or explanation for the line, then created (or imagined or was possessed by) a character with a spectacular case of synesthesia. Next, I simply recorded what the character did and how he did it. This is ridiculously simplified--but there it is.
You have called Cormac McCarthy's book The Road a poetic novel. I understand what you mean, but would you please expound on this idea?
I mean merely that it is, as Coleridge said (defining poetry), "the best words in the best order." The story and the characters are gripping and affecting--but what makes it a poem is that its language is precise, powerful, and memorable. The language is as tight and sensory and evocative as the language in the best poetry.
Alcohol and writing seem to be common bedfellows... (Fitzgerald: "Too much champagne is just right." Cheever: "The excitement of alcohol and the excitement of fantasy are very similar.") The excesses of Hemingway and Faulkner are legendary. And this is not singular to the western world: the poet Xiuxi Yin claimed, "Once drunk, a cup of wine can bring 100 stanzas." Where do you stand on this idea?
And Horace said something like no man can be a poet who drinks only water. I'm not sure what he meant. I don't think alcohol enhances creativity. The more Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Faulkner and Tennessee Williams drank, the less they wrote that was worth reading. Alcohol seems to me to function as a pain-killer more than as an imagination-booster. Yes, it can lower a writer's inhibitions; still, there are better ways to do that, healthier ways. But pain . . . . Writing for six hours, say, about traumatic experiences and emotional conflict can produce plenty of psychic pain.
I see a great correlation between the creative processes across many disciplines: art, poetry, music, cooking...in your writing, do you draw inspiration from other areas outside of reading? I know you are a fan of reading and books, in general. Where else do you find the muses?
I think everything pushes me toward poetry. Everything.
Do you cook? What is your favorite thing to cook? To eat? I would love to read (or write) a poem about the great Roman dish, Rigatoni con la Pajata, that features pasta with veal intestines, where the mother's milk, still in the intestines, cooks into the dish and creates a creamy sauce. This could be the poetry of gluttons...
The only thing I really cook is charcoal grilled steak and various forms of breakfast (not usually in that order). Taking pleasure in food is not gluttony, by the way, any more than taking pleasure in sex is lust.
You are the Poet Laureate of Virginia. Could you give us an idea of what the title entails? Is there an office of the Poet Laureate? Are you mandated to write poetry about Virginia? You have mentioned writing poems featuring the state--I imagine cardinals and dogwoods, piedmont and tidewater...but that seems too obvious. "The Old Crabber Has Gone Deaf," I think, could be called upon to represent a certain aspect of our Commonwealth, don't you? My children are tired of hearing me say, when driving around the back-mountain roads of Nelson County, "Children, we live in a beautiful state."
We do live in a beautiful state. And a state with deep historical roots (as Americans measure depth, anyway). The Poet Laureate is required only to encourage the arts in Virginia, especially the art of poetry. Lately I've been doing what I always do, except a lot more of it. The only real change is that I have the opportunity to bring poetry to more people, especially people who ordinarily wouldn't encounter it. Recently, I read poems on the floor of the Virginia Senate and the Virginia House of Delegates. Poems to politicians, poems into the heart government. We need more of that, don't we?
Agreed. Please talk about travel versus staying at home.
Travel wakes up the mind, sharpens the eye. Staying home can dull the mind and eye. But staying home can lead to deeper forms of meditation, contemplation, rumination. The best poems about travel may well be those that bring the travel home to examine it in the ordinary light of day. To dream the extraordinary into the ordinary.
When is a poem finished?
Well, not when it is perfected--which is almost never. Finished? A poem is finished when the poet has run out of resources. "Finished" like "perfect" is relative.
You are the editor of Aethlon: The Journal of Sports Literature. Tell me about that...we can certainly add sports to the list of creative processes. I say watching a good baseball game is like reading a great poem. I play in a band with a huge baseball fan--we spend much time discussing the art of baseball. (I mention baseball because I love it, but--obviously--there is art and sacrifice in all sports.)
You can be a great baseball player without words. You can be a great poet without a bat or ball or glove. The precision and skill, the joy in doing difficult things well--the discipline required to perform well and please oneself--poetry and baseball share these things. But sport cannot magically create a poem any more than falling in love can.
Our language constantly evolves--even as I write this interview, I am constantly asking myself, "Is that right? Does that sound okay? What is the rule here? Am I getting my point across?" Well aware that I am interviewing a man of letters...it's a little nerve-racking. (Or even nerve-wracking...) How do you experience the change in our language? One thing I notice is the dismissal of subject-verb agreement: I hear "There's lots of reasons this could happen..." And by some highly educated and intelligent people. Am I being an overly sensitive grammarian? My daughter certainly thinks so. "Papa--you know what they mean. Stop being so picky."
I love the fact that language is always changing. And I love the fact that a poet can change the language.
What I don't love is carelessness, lack of attention.
What is your prognosis for the future of our youth? Are you seeing some budding poets? I would love to see the practice of apprenticeships re-emerge as part of our education. What kind of world do you think your grandchildren are inheriting?
I'll confine myself to talking about poetry here. I believe our children and grandchildren are poised to write great, joyful poems. But you need to know that I believe that in all ages children are poised to write great poems. Technology does not have to hinder. It can help. I wish our future poets good luck.
And, finally, please talk about family and relationships. I have a theory that every book we read has something to do with relationships--our relationship to self, nature, god, the world, other people...in the end, everything boils down to relationships.
Without people, no language. Without language, no real thinking. Without thinking, no real feeling. Without a web of connectedness, no wholeness. Whitman celebrates connections. Eliot laments their absence. Each is a great poet.
The Old Crabber Has Gone Deaf
Oboe ghost sounds on the sea:
milk globes less than moonbeams
flare green when he lifts his traps
then fall shrill to strings.
His eyes have drowned
the tide's old grumble,
have brought pure sounds
out of the cranky waves,
sounds leaked in, somehow,
through the scratch of the old Philco,
through ears that never listened,
into the mesh of this rusty head.
Light sings to him now
like nobody ever did before.
Bell of moon on the water,
tinkle of stars on a heave of dark.
A crab goes by, sideways,
flat hands shushing
the flashlight's clang.
He traps each blue crab
with its hunger,
still hums it toward
the uniform transformation
But he won't eat
his catch anymore, is tired
of the crunch his thumbs hear
in the claw.
In yellow buzzes of kitchen light
beautiful women sit with sore fingers
all along the bay.