Stephen Dobyns (born 1941)
Stanford Mohr Poet 2011
Stephen Dobyns

Stanford Colloquium
The Jean & Bill Lane Lecture Series

Margaret Jacks Hall, Building 460,
Room 426 (Terrace Room), Stanford University

Tuesday, February 15, 2011, 11:00 am-11:50 am

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: The Terrace Room (4th floor) of Margaret Jacks Hall was filled for Stephen Dobyn's Poetry Colloquium. I arrived at 10:40 am and sat in my usual seat in the second row at the extreme left side next to the pillar. Stanford's Creative Writing Director Eavan Boland told the audience how we enjoyed Dobyn's Reading (January 31, 2011). She mentioned that Dobyns will have a new book Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry coming out on April 26, 2011 [Palgrave Macmillan]. This will be a companion book to his earlier Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry (2003). Below are my notes scribbled during Dobyns's Colloquium. Web links and reference in [brackets] are my additions with "(?)..." indicating gaps in my notes.

Dobyns: Good to see you. What to do in this colloquium? Quite a few answers. I'll say something on what I'm writing and what guides me. In his essays [Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982], Philip Larkin says that poetry is making a small machine of words that sets up emotions. Wordsworth defines poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility" [Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802 Edition)]. For Larkin, "poetry is emotional in nature and theatrical in operation" ["The Pleasure Principle"]. The theatrical element is essential in poems. Editors look for reasons to stop reading. Larkin's subject matter is timid [?]. What's important is the emotion. Not subject matter— pretext. Writers believe in virtue in their subject matter. The need is element of emotions to be communicated. Write about a chair as easily as yourself. "I" is persona of poem. Writer's sense of "I" is subjective sense.

Rilke wrote a letter to his wife Clara on Cezanne after seeing a Cezanne exhibit in 1906. He had been Rodin's secretary in 1901. Rilke came to the conclusion that Rodin is sentimental compared to Cezanne. In his paintings, Cezanne says "Here it is." That has helped me in my writing. In another letter, Rilke tells his wife about Baudelaire's poem "A Carcass". There's the body of a dead woman in the gutter. Baudelaire's description of this scene is humorous with bugs going in and out of the carcass. At the end, he says to a woman, "this is going to be you someday". Things that are ugly may be the subject of poetry. Beauty is not confined to truth and prettiness. Baudelaire shows that a poet can't turn away from any subject. Otherwise he'll fall from grace all the way through.

What constraints in my poem? Want to be approved. Don't want to be influenced by my background and education. What am I limited by? I seek to get better. Am I limiting myself in any way? Poem makes the rules. Writer is servant of the poem. Don't force it. If you bring in the intellect, then you'll falsify the poem. Readings are done (?)...

The German Gottfried Benn [1886-1956] wrote in the early part of the 20th century. He was a doctor who likes to write about art. [His poetry offers an introverted nihilism: an existentialist philosophy which sees artistic expression as the only purposeful action. He appears in John Berryman's Dream Song 53]. Suzanne Langer was an aesthetician and philosopher. [Langer's Philosophy in a New Key (1941) expounds that there is a basic and pervasive human need to symbolize, to invent meanings, and to invest meanings in one's world.] Poetry is the symbol of affective life. A poem should carry the emotion. What keeps it within us is the emotional impact. Art communicates this emotion. Poem creates image through the metaphor, like Larkin— "anytime, my place".

Wordsworth's poem on his daughter— He sees a sunset and is suprised by joy. His daughter is dead— she's gone. He has forgotten his daughter and apologizes for this. Far more than grief can communicae that. Grief is like carrrying a millstone and cause angina. Language connected through metaphor. Poem is non-discursive element in the right side of the brain. Use left side of brain to interpret. W.S. Merwin in Asian Figures— "Life / Candle flame / Wind coming" [This too is an analogy with the fourth element missing: Death. By asking how and why, we discover that fourth element. A figure such as this illustrates one of the major elements of a poem. It is a linguistic construct that brings together three disparate elements and leads us to infer a fourth in an image, which we may term a metaphor." Dobyns, Best Words, Best Order, p. 333] Wait, don't argue with your wife at bedtime...(?) sardines threatens (?) Don't understand poem. Syllogism doesn't do that or anecdote. This blends with Larkin and Rilke. Write with the totality of the human being, not just hair-brushed self. What is it to be good or bad (Baudelaire). Those things keep me involved for a long time. Maybe a year for revision. Like to imagine there is free will. If things were determined, I wouldn't write. Poem creates nilhism. Langer's final argument is that art civilizes us, teaches us about empathy. Imagination comes out of the right brain. Hypothesis comes out of the right brain. Shut off the right brain, then there's no humor. Larkin says "there are no horses in the bar. I write to bear witness to the world." Good there are many writers. Underlying reason for poem— How does one live? These are the things that keep me writing and guide my writing.

Q&A Session: (11:28 am)

Q: Can you say something about long lines in a poem?

Dobyns: My new book [Next Word, Better Word] discusses this. Probably from the breath. Control rhythm to set up counterpoint of breath with rhythm. Match my breath and lung space. C.K. Williams lines— like effect of it. Line break is extremely important to me. I fiddle with it a lot.

Q: Can you tell about your relationship to Robert Frost's poem with longer line?

Dobyns: I've never like Frost. He ended his Paris Review interview [Summer-Fall 1960, No. 24] with "Every poem is from the animus." ["When they want to know about inspiration, I tell them it's mostly animus."] I don't know the man behind the poem. I like Frost's poem "Out, Out—" where a boy loses his hand on a buzz saw. It's in iambic pentameter. "People standing by the seashore" (?)

Q: Could you speak about irony and self-censorship?

Dobyns: In Athens "Irony" is a metaphor. When you speak in irony, you're not responsible. It creates tension. Humor comes in and we don't know the degree of seriousness. Same with irony.

Q: Many of your poems have comedic structure. Have you studied this?

Dobyns: Most of us like humor and slapstick. We're given something that have no sense. Like ter? that tries to blow. Both humor and horror creates surprise. Dark being the tenor. Humor being the vehicle.

Q: In your book Best Words, Best Order, you write about poetry as suspense.

Dobyns: You're not reading a poem for narration— "Casey at the Bat" [by Ernest Thayer (1888)] and "The Highwayman" (?) [by Alfred Noyes (1913)]. Fiction needs suspense to make you read. Poetry uses surprise. Long sentences and enjambed line create tension. Short sentences and end-stopped lines create rest. Comic element creates large surprises. When you're listening to me, you anticipate the next word and line. Poem plays on the anticipation. Cliché deadens surprise. Need to go back and forth between anticipation and rest in a poem.

Q: What's the difference between poetry and prose?

Dobyns: Main thing is the line break in poetry. There are all sorts of form. Can see this in prose also. Henry James writes in iambic pentameter, then semi-colon. His sentences begin with subject, verb, object. A poem exists on the page as text and in the air as sound. Poem is not just for meaning. It is not vehicle for information. Discussion of form and content— form gives information as well as context. Trochee [metrical foot used in formal poetry consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one] creates jumps in poem. Bit of meter creates sense of nuance. Off-rhymes and meter to make nuance in poetry. The sense of nuance separates poetry from prose.

Q: Irony undermines a reader's expectation. In your poem "Tomatoes" [January 31 Reading], I was expecting a gardener creating "man-eating tomatoes" but you had a surprise ending.

Dobyns: Surprise rather than shock. My business is not "moral shock".

Q: The "Turd" poem that you read did have shock value.

Dobyns: Yeah. Sure. It describes an event that I experienced. I can't say BM [bowel movement].

Q: Could you say more about creativity in the right and left brains?

Dobyns: The right brain is the source for music. The formal elements of the poem come from the right brain. The analytic and syntax come from the left brain. You can ask the simile's meaning "A liar is like an egg in mid-air." ["try to particularize your sense of a liar by saying how fragile and short-lived the lie is... your mind draws on its knowledge of eggs, and imagines a temporal context. The egg in midair exists in one moment of time. In order to understand the simile, you have to imagine a past and future." Dobyns, Best Words, Best Order, pp. 17-18]

Q: Say more about revision is self-deception.

Dobyns: When I'm revising, I ask myself "Why use this or that word?" Where have I muted my language? I'm from the middle class and we're taught as children to mute our voices. This amounts to self-censorship and self-deception. I ask myself "Can this image be understood?" I want the poem to be done. I want the reader to say "You've changed my life." I'm a liar. I may be lying to you now.


Afterword: The colloquium ended at 11:50 am. Buffet lunch of salad, sandwiches, desserts, and fruit drinks were served in the hallway. After Dobyns finished talking with a poet, a friend snapped this photo of Dobyns and me together. This will be a treasured momento of the wonderful workshops with Stephen Dobyns this Winter Semester at Stanford where I've learned so much.

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