By Jennifer Dean
Jennifer Dean: In Anatomy of Melancholy, there is a strong sense of a speaker (or speakers) working through ideas. It seems that you approach each subject, each poem, with a question in mind that you're looking to answer in the poem. Was that the case with this collection?
Robert Wrigley: Answers are not common in poems, I don't think. That is, the best poems do not answer questions at all: they provoke questions. I don't seek answers, either as poet or as reader of poems. I'm far more interested in creating some sense of--call it heightened consideration. The world offers up a more or less constant stream of possibilities; the poet just makes (or attempts to make) something of what the world offers. James Dickey used to say the poet was "an intensified man" (he means human being, of course), and while that seems a little hubristic it's also true. Poets have to see very, very deeply. No vision for the poet, no vision for the reader.
Jennifer Dean: So what would you say you were looking at most while writing Anatomy of Melancholy?
Robert Wrigley: Well, this is going to sound V-A-S-T, but I suppose it's simply that thing we call the human condition. Which is joyful and anything but. Robert Burton, clearly, was what we call "depressed" or "depressive." He believed, as he said in his The Anatomy of Melancholy, that melancholy was the "condition of mortality." To be alive, a living human being, is fundamentally to know that you will die. That everyone you love will die. And yet, we go on. What else is there to do?
In my poem, Larkin says "I hate being dead," and who wouldn't (there's a reference to his poem "The Old Fools" in this poem, as well as the more obvious one, to "This Be the Verse")? I love the fact that we go on. I'm baffled by it too. But I do love it. We keep, for example, writing poems, and there's something enormously quixotic, even foolish, about that. As Dick Hugo used to say, be "foolish, but foolish like a trout." Meaning, I think, be alive.
Jennifer Dean: "Be foolish like a trout" in the sense that we occasionally swim against the current? (I am not a fisherwoman; I know salmon swim up-stream, but that's about it.)
Robert Wrigley: I'm a relentless fly fisher for trout. I catch them (which usually involves them being at least momentarily foolish and seizing a fake bug from the surface) then I admire them and let them go. I think the foolishness of the trout is just a sort of absolute ease within its own skin, something tremendously uncommon in human beings. Perhaps this is due to our abilities with language, with ideas and abstractions, with that sense that we not only might die but will die. But the trout, feeling hunger or desire, seeks what will deliver it from, or to, that desire.
Poems are that way for me. It's the lunatic difficulty of the art that addicts one to pursuing it. If it were easy, well, why would anyone do it? So, in a sense, writing poems at all is an essential foolishness. The key in that phrase, however, is the modifier. Essential. Once you're committed to making poems, you will continue to be foolish.
Jennifer Dean: As to Robert Burton's book, how much of a role did that particular work play in your writing? Your book and his deal with the same subject matter, but clearly the take-away message from each is different. Was that deliberate or just a product of your particular approach to poetry?
Robert Wrigley: I can only write my book, my poems. There wasn't much point in recapitulating Robert Burton, and I couldn't do it anyway. I think I probably value sadness and melancholy because they are a kind of affirmation of the condition of life. If you feel melancholy, it means you are feeling something, and feeling—I mean this in the physical, intellectual, and emotional senses--is a validation of consciousness. We know the stage will be littered with bodies at the end of Hamlet, but still we go to see the play. It will make us suffer beautifully, and that's just one of the beautiful things about literature, and the aspiration (also foolish) to make it. Burton may have hanged himself; it's unclear. It's rumor that is unsubstantiated. I think I'm an unlikely candidate for suicide. I also think writing is a way of staving off despair, of confronting mortality and mendacity and stupidity, and also of celebrating the fact of our feelings and experiences.
Jennifer Dean: A lot of people claim their major problem with poetry is that they don't understand what's going on. Your poems are meant to raise questions, but aren't unclear about what's happening or to whom. Is that one of your goals?
Robert Wrigley: It's hard to be clear, and it's especially hard to say what on earth "clear" might mean. Is Eliot clear? Absolutely, although what his clarity asserts is not the least bit reductive. People think they don't understand a poem when they can't reduce it to some sort of bromide, a kind of bumper-sticker length "theme." No, they understand poems, they just prefer a kind of narrow idea of understanding. The poem means what it says, but what it says is no more important than how it says it. So reading poetry is not something to be done in order to receive the information it contains.
Reading a poem is, or ought to be, a whole-body experience. What I look for in poems is delight, instruction, and wounding. Some poems do one of those things; some two; some all three. The ones that do all three are great poems. You might sit down to write hoping to do all three things to the reader, but sometimes you do just one. That's fine. But you should always aspire to do the impossible. A poem that can be paraphrased, or reduced to a theme, is dead on arrival.
Jennifer Dean: The expectations of the reader are a large part of the reading experience, though it isn't something that gets addressed directly in most literature classes. How do you advise your students to approach reading poetry?
Robert Wrigley: I usually tell them there is no reader. Or else there's an imaginary one, sort of the smartest person ever. Mostly what's required of the reader is receptiveness, a massive open-mindedness. Be available. Don't assume anything. Let the poem teach you how to read it; let the poet teach you how to read her poems. If the poem—or even the poet--doesn't work for you, so what? Can you imagine being the poet everyone loves? A fate worse than death.
As for expectations, they need to be done away with. The poem that matters is the one that surprises you, somehow. It may take you where you could not have imagined, or it may express something in a way you could never have thought it would. Same thing for the poet in the writing of the poem.
You know you're getting somewhere when you surprise yourself. But like everything else, there's no simply saying, "Okay, now I'm going to surprise myself." That'd be like saying, “Okay now I'm going to scare myself.” You write your way to surprise, you write your way to a destination you never knew existed, you say what you say in a way you never thought yourself capable of. In theory, that happens regularly. In practice, not so much. It's the journey. It's the process that matters.
Robert Wrigley teaches poetry at the University of Idaho along side his wife, fiction writer Kim Barnes. His collections of poetry include Earthly Meditations: New and Selected Poems (2006), Lives of the Animals (2003) winner of the Poets Prize, Reign of Snakes (1999) winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award, and In the Bank of Beautiful Sins (1995) winner of the San Francisco Poetry Center Book Award. He is the winner of five Pushcart Prizes, and a contributor to The Normal School.