The following interview was conducted with poet Thomas Rabbitt via email in the spring of 2004 and is paired with a miniature anthology of Rabbitt’s work. The author of several books of poems—including Exile (1975), The Booth Interstate (1981), The Abandoned Country(1988), Enemies of the State (2000), and Prepositional Heaven(2001)—Rabbitt has retired from his teaching career and currently lives and writes in Tennessee. In 1972, he founded the MFA program in creative writing at The University of Alabama. In Fall 2004 NewSouth Books will release American Wake: New & Selected Poems.
—Dan Albergotti, Associate Poetry Editor
Dan Albergotti: An interview with Thomas Rabbitt in a journal called storySouth may seem a little odd. Few would characterize you or your work as “Southern” in any traditional sense. Nevertheless, it’s pretty clear that the region has exerted a significant influence on your poetry. Certainly much of your early work seems haunted by your Southern surroundings—the poems of Exile and many of those in The Booth Interstate—and a number of the poems from a much later book, Enemies of the State, are explicitly set in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. How have the South in general and Tuscaloosa in particular affected your work? And do you still find yourself thinking about your time in the South when you write?
Thomas Rabbitt: “Haunted” might be just the right word. Certainly one of my earliest Tuscaloosa poems, “Researching Lost Time,” is a kind of ghost story, written before the poems of Exile, though published in my third book. The poem had its genesis in a kind of willed vision on a stormy night, ghosts under the pecan trees in my backyard, and the result was an even more willful effort to dig the romantic dirt out of which grow the magnolias and the piney woods. The title shows that I was trying to play Proust’s game, which was surely beyond my capacities, just as the traditional South was – and still is – beyond my ken.
Exile, my first book, wasn’t so much set in its environment as set against it, my reaction to a culture in which I felt more alien and rootless than I usually do. In the early 70’s the town of Tuscaloosa was dominated by the University and the Gulf States Paper Mill, the two largest employers. Both of them put out a terrible stench – Jack Warner, owner of Gulf States, is supposed to have said that it smelled like money. To me the miasma over the town smelled like the decay it was – academic, commercial, environmental – and I was snob enough and stupid enough publicly to rail against it, to confirm my foreign and temporary status. I stayed twenty-six years and my colleagues would have said I went native.
I might have grown up a bit between the first two books, for the “Southern” poems of The Booth Interstate aren’t as angry or as crazy. By then I had moved out of the town and into the county, the country, where I found the people and their landscape more to my liking. People simply assumed that I was at heart a redneck. They weren’t right of course, but I didn’t mind the characterization. I liked the privacy of the country, the freedom of the landscape, the unpretentiousness of the people. They seemed still to have a culture, if not a civilization, and while I never believed I could be a part of it, I was able to live out on the land without feeling oppressed by my neighbors’ values and expectations. And because I raised and showed horses, as did many others out in the county, I made more friends there than I did on campus or in the town.
DA: It’s interesting that you mention moving to a more remote section of the county. I’ve noticed that you often write about place, and it’s frequently about dissatisfaction with place. Since retiring in 1998, you have lived in New England, in Ireland, and now in Tennessee. I’m wondering if you’d say it’s in your nature to be something of an “exile,” to move from place to place to place, to resist settling in one location permanently.
TR: I suppose I’ve always felt deracinated. Others might say deranged. I was four years old the first time I ran away from home, I guess because it wasn’t home enough. Some place else has always seemed to draw me. I spent twenty-six years moving around Tuscaloosa County – six different places, each with the promise of a new landscape, and all the time I wanted to be elsewhere, anywhere different. The irony of course is that from the beginning I really wanted to leave Alabama, but I stayed with the job. I had some wonderful students and so I loved the teaching. And, until near the end, my colleagues were reasonable people – or maybe I became less reasonable. Still, I was restless; every few years I moved to another farm, another potential homestead. I would revise my new surroundings, build or rebuild barns and fences, plant roses and lilacs, dream of perfection, then abandon the effort and move on. There’s likely an unflattering psychological explanation – that I’m running away from something, probably myself.
When I was a kid I annoyed my father by telling some friends of the family that we Rabbitts were originally Irish tinkers, when in fact my father’s people were landed peasants. I didn’t then appreciate the difference or the complexities of a system which forced younger sons and unmarriageable daughters off the land, into the cities and onto the dole, or, more likely, into exile. Since living in Ireland I’ve learned that one is supposed to call tinkers “travelers” and that exile is a pervasive condition leading to a fondness for sentimental songs and the drunken state in which they are best appreciated.
DA: I’m glad you brought up a fondness for song there because I wanted to ask you about your work in the “little song.” Your early books were dominated by the sonnet—or at least “sonnet-like poems” if anyone wants to quibble about the fifteenth line of the Exile form. Were you drawn to the sonnet from the beginning of your writing career? What about that old form holds (or held) a particular appeal?
TR: When I was an undergraduate I had the delightful chance to meet and talk with Muriel Spark at a dinner party. Someone asked her why her novels were so episodic, written in tiny vignettes. She claimed that, while she was writing, she was constantly interrupted by the telephone so that, when she got back to her work, she would have lost the thread and need to pick up a new one. It was a charming explanation, but likely a devious one as well. No one thought to ask her why she didn’t leave the phone off the hook. I imagine that Muriel Spark found that her “form” suited her and her material.
Is that too a devious response? Some poems in my third book, The Abandoned Country,were written before the poems of Exile, and some were written after that book and before The Booth Interstate. The impression created by the first two books – a false one – is that I worked exclusively in a sonnet-like form and then pretty much became an occasional sonneteer. I have always worked in whatever form the poem seemed to want. Maybe I went through spells of attention deficiency and couldn’t write anything longer than fourteen lines. I wrote Exile in its present order, roughly a poem a week for a year, and didn’t write anything else while I was doing it, but that’s the only such instance. And that book is really one long poem with two voices or personae, a husband who rants for the first two sections and a wife who responds in the second two. If at the time I thought of the Exile poems as sonnets, as little songs, it was only so that I might force the form in order to take advantage of its resources, especially the effect of momentary completion. They have no metrics or rhyme schemes. They really are what Richard Howard, in a fairly ambiguous review, even for him, called “clumps of language.” Maybe I was then a semi-formal L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poet wearing for my disguise an old tux and new riding boots.
While I do not consider myself primarily a writer of sonnets and do not want to be labeled as such, still I sometimes find the form congenial, as poets have for hundreds of years. It can combine the miniaturist’s eye with the aphorist’s ear, the telling detail with the force of brevity. When it works. The true formalists would decry my abuse of the form, my loose iambics and looser rhymes, my failure to adhere to Paul Fussell’s fussiness, but obviously I don’t care. If the sonnet is indeed the “moment’s monument,” I’d prefer my headstones to seem less marmoreal and more organic, markers made of wood rather than stone. Fourteen lines – roughly 140 syllables – isn’t a lot of breathing room, so I tend to punch holes in the form, to avoid the sealing couplet, to keep all the delightful appurtenances of poetry as light as possible, to keep the bondage and discipline relatively painless.
DA: Yes, I see that urge to break traditional expectations in your work. In fact, when I read your poems, I feel the influence of a group of rule- and form-breakers, the early Modernists. Fragmentary narrative, transition by association, revelation through allusion, and such. Do you see the American Modernists as your natural literary forebears?
TR: I’m going to sound facile again. I see everyone I read as my literary forebear. I had an interesting education, both in the Boston public schools and from the Catholic Church. I was an altar boy in the days when the responses were in Latin. Because there was no parochial school in my poor parish, I attended the Elihu Greenwood Elementary School where mostly Catholic spinsters taught what they considered the basics. I seem to remember a good deal of time spent cutting pictures out of magazines and reciting “Hiawatha.” Then, for six years, I went to Boston Latin School. I learned the ten uses for the objective case in English and how to scan Latin poetry before I could scan English poetry. Indeed, I read more Latin poetry than English and never heard of the Romantics or of any Modernists until I was in college. I suspect that the Latin School authorities thought that Keats, Shelley and Byron were suspect, probably unmanly, which would have been dangerous at an all boys school, so we read the male Browning and Tennyson, a bit of Scott for the fluff, some Burns for the Scots Gaelic. We got a heavy dose of Shakespeare, just the plays, and Sheridan and Goldsmith. But nothing modern or contemporary, not even Frost, unless we read it on our own during the summers when we had time.
At Harvard I discovered these huge gaps in my reading and tried to fill them. I went mad for Milton, Spenser, Keats, Hopkins, Eliot and Dylan Thomas. I read Yeats and Frost, but didn’t really “get” them until later. I began as a philosophy major, but in the early 60’s Harvard’s philosophy department lost Raphael Demos and Paul Tillich, which left the dreary logicians in charge. So I switched to English and I’m still trying to catch up.
I began writing poetry when I learned to read and write. My first poem was called “My Dog” and was memorable only because I didn’t have a dog. So I was a perverse Platonist early on, a lying poet. I became serious about writing poetry in my last couple of years at Latin School, but what I wrote was terribly abstract and unsophisticated, mystical maunderings in what I then understood to be vers libre. Though Harvard distrusted creative writing courses, they were offered and I took as many of them as I could get away with: versification with Theodore Morrison, poetry writing with Robert Fitzgerald and twice with Robert Lowell. I was very shy and never spoke in class, but I wrote. In our first conference, Edgar Rosenberg, my first creative writing teacher, looked up from the batch of poems I’d given him and said, “Mr. Rabbitt, you’re a poet.” I said, “Thank you,” and he said, “Don’t thank me; I had nothing to do with it.” At the time I believed he was simply being funny; later I realized what he had meant.
I know I haven’t really answered your question. I’m trying to surround it, but not doing that very well either. When I was a kid reading Shakespeare, I discovered that I could focus on the text and move through the thorniest language if I read aloud. Suddenly the plays were easy, though my siblings (I was the oldest of ten) thought I was nuts. In college I had to wait until my roommates were asleep. Aloud, “Ode to a Nightingale” had me in tears. “The Waste Land” blew me away. It wasn’t difficult; I just listened to the voices and was moved. Eliot was, to my eighteen year old judgment, the master. Some of Pound, some of Stevens, affected me in the same way. And then much of Yeats, early to late. But the American modernists (if that’s what they are) who have been most influential are the five major figures who came into their own at about the time of WW II – Roethke, Jarrell, Lowell, Bishop and Wilbur.
I believe that poetry, using the resources of language and image, the fusion of ear and eye, explores the overlapping territories of intellect and emotion. I suppose this aesthetic makes me an heir to the modernists, not really one of them, but not a post-modernist either, except by historical accident, just as I am not really a “formalist” or a free-verser.
DA: Well, the best writers always defy easy categorization, don’t they? But I’m interested in something you said there at the end, about not being a post-modernist either. One of the typical distinctions that has been made in differentiating Postmodern from Modern art is the embracing of popular culture on the same plane with high culture. And I notice how high- and pop-culture allusions rub shoulders in your poems. I’m thinking about some of the Howdy Doody references in Exile and your poem “On the Old Pop Charts” in Enemies of the State alongside allusions to Yeats, Poe, Berryman, Eliot, etc. Do you consciously mix such allusions, or is it natural? And if it’s natural, does that indicate a shift in our artistic consciousness that perhaps developed in the latter part of the last century?
TR: “The Waste Land” mixes allusions to popular culture and high culture, though Eliot surely made it clear which he valued more. The critical categorizations might depend on whether or not we consider one culture more worthwhile than another. I certainly do, which is why I haven’t owned a television for more than twenty years. But I also subscribe to the notion, perhaps Joycean, that it’s only all material. Whether that be done consciously or naturally – an odd sort of distinction! – I do believe that we build our art out of the materials at hand. I remember my first creative writing teacher, Edgar Rosenberg, telling the class that he didn’t think one could write a poem about a garbage can. Of course I took that as a challenge and learned that my “garbage can poem” wasn’t about the garbage can – actually it was a poem set in a sewer and it featured myself and a goldfish I had inadvertently let slip down the drain. In the slimy dark the fish had flourished, whereas I – posing as Rimbaud, another hero of my youth – had to reexamine my guilt and my chosen environment. And now, as I recall this, the poem sounds more interesting than it was. And I’ve digressed again. I suppose my point is that early on I made a conscious decision to use “unpoetic” materials, but it was an easy and therefore probably very natural decision to make. I still tend to use whatever is at hand and I don’t worry that my breeding program might be producing mules.
I am not a scholar or a critic; I haven’t the learning or the discipline. I tend to distrust generalizations about literary periods and movements. Probably because all art, when successful, is alike, the differences between works of art seem to me more interesting and more valuable than categorical or programmatic similarities. I suppose one could come up with a theory about Cezanne, Gauguin and Rouault’s use of line, lump their works together under some sort of label, and then dismiss them as cartoonish or exalt them for their planes of color. I’m being simplistic and silly, I guess, to cover for my failure to consider questions of shifting artistic consciousness. In any case, I tend to distrust the general level of consciousness and so I don’t care what others think art is or what they consider appropriately artistic.
DA: Your new book, American Wake: New & Selected Poems, is forthcoming from NewSouth Books. Looking back over your career to assemble such a collection, were you struck by any surprises from that perspective? Did you recognize anything about your work that only such a broad view could reveal?
TR: Yes. A few poems are better than I remembered them and a bunch are worse. I suppose that, over the years, I’ve become more self-critical and maybe therefore a better writer, but I’m not sure at what cost. A friend said that my later poems seem more serene, but I doubt it. The anger and grief are just more deeply buried.
DA: Well, certainly anger and grief have dominated your books thematically, but even your darkest poems imply the redemptive power of art and the imagination, at least to me. That leads me to this question: do you see poetry as therapeutic in any way? I don’t just mean to the writer here.
TR: How can I answer for anyone but myself? And for myself, the answer is no. I don’t find writing my own poems or reading others’ poems “therapeutic” if by the word one means healing or soothing, a kind of aesthetic chiropractic. Like poor maligned Prufrock, poems disturb the universe just by being – by wondering do they dare to exist at all. I suppose that through a few convolutions one could demonstrate the curative powers of such disturbances, but I don’t believe I go to poems for spiritual acupuncture or psychological realignments. Maybe when I find myself emotionally bound up in the life of the woman in Jarrell’s “Seele im Raum,” I’m dosing myself with a stiff draught of empathy and maybe that is a form of therapy, for there are those who would say I need all the empathy I can get, but I don’t consciously enter a poem in order to be healed. I believe, with Auden, that “poetry makes nothing happen” – Stevens’s “nothing that is not there/and the nothing that is” – the “nothing” out of which the universe is supposed to have been created, which is the literal meaning of the Latin root of that word, creare, in the divine sense to bring form out of nothing.
DA: When you founded the MFA program at Alabama, the idea of graduate writing programs was still a relatively young one. Now there has been an extraordinary proliferation of such programs. Do you think the large number of graduate writing programs today is a good or bad state of affairs?
TR: I have been away from all that for almost six years. Back in 1998 I thought that too many creative writing programs existed to provide cheap labor for universities and cozy nests for their faculties. I heard of too few really good teachers, in the tradition of Roethke and Hugo, and too many who were merely hustlers and careerists, looking to swap favors – readings, reviews, publications – with their peers at other programs.
When I retired from Alabama, a bitter former colleague wrote a letter to the university’s president and raised hell because I had been publicly proclaimed the founder of the MFA program. According to this fellow, he and one of his students had come up with the idea before I arrived in Tuscaloosa, so I shouldn’t get the credit. My chairwoman, a timid bureaucrat, agreed, even though I pointed out that not everyone who believes that peace is a good idea wins the Nobel Prize. I had been hired at Alabama to begin an MFA program. I have no idea who first thought it would be a good thing, but I realized soon enough that the department was critically short of graduate students, its MA and PhD programs were moribund, and something new was needed. But, of course, Alabama wanted to do it on the cheap, with two faculty members and no financial aid. I set up the program, I wheedled and connived and, with the help of many others, saw it prosper. From the beginning my first allegiance was to the students. They were there to write, not to teach freshman comp or fill my colleagues’ seminars; however, if teaching and taking other courses had to be the price they paid, I was determined to make that price as low as possible and the experience worthwhile. In those days the program was academically more rigorous – 24 hours of graduate-level literature courses, a foreign language requirement, real comprehensive exams – but, as a result, a fair number of our students found decent teaching jobs. Still, the writing was what mattered, and a great many of our students succeeded. I’ve lost track of how many books they’ve published or prizes they’ve won – a couple of Yales, a Juniper, most recently a Storyline Press award, to name but a few.
So, the short answer is that, if an MFA program meets the needs of its apprentice writers, good; if many programs do so, even better.
DA: Well, certainly the program at Alabama has become one of the best, and you must be proud of that, even if the road was rocky along the way. For that and for the fine books of poems you wrote while in Tuscaloosa, the South is in your debt. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me and for your candor. Our readers at Thicket and storySouth will appreciate this, I’m sure.