"Good enough for Yeats, Frost, Larkin..."

Jason Guriel talks to one of American poetry’s best-kept secrets 

"IN RETAINING HIS baptismal name, the American poet Daniel Brown is being either commendably guileless or very canny. There is always the chance that some bookshop browsers will buy his excellent slim volume Taking the Occasion under the impression that he wrote The Da Vinci Code. But, no, few prospective buyers browse in that part of the bookshop. If they did however, they couldn’t do better than to pick up his little book and start reading."

 Photo used with permission of the author.

Photo used with permission of the author.

That's Clive James on an American poet called Daniel Brown—quoted at such length because James is one of those rare, useful critics not especially blinded by name brands. You can trust James' blurbs; they haven't been cooked in the low-grade heat that reputations throw off. Indeed, Daniel Brown (pictured right) barely has a name—he doesn't head a creative writing program, and isn't especially laurelled with the sort of awards lesser talents depend on. Nevertheless, his accomplished poems are among the most readable and entertaining in contemporary American poetry. (I'd deploy some cliche like "consummate craftsman," but we have a forthcoming essay by Brown that quarrels with our culture's overuse of that word "craft.")

I recently had the pleasure of exchanging e-mail with Brown, who lives in Baldwin, New York. He replied to my questions with thoughts about his atypical career (atypical for a poet, anyway), his various influences, perfect pieces of classical music, and irritating trends in contemporary poetry.     


JASON GURIEL
You’ve taught music, you’ve worked for IBM—you seem to have skirted the MFA Industrial Complex, where most poets reside and some even make a living. Was this a conscious choice? Did you ever take or teach a creative writing course?

DANIEL BROWN
Less a choice than a triumph of inertia. I started writing poems when I was a grad student in musicology; poetry was something I was doing “on the side.” So when I eventually left musicology for the IT field, I’d already grown accustomed to poetry as something roped off from my “real” life—the breadwinning one.  And that’s where it’s stayed. 

I did take one creative writing course as an undergrad—but in fiction. I remember telling the teacher my goal was to be a storyteller, and him responding that my stuff “wasn’t exactly Zane Grey.” (I seem to recall knowing who Zane Grey was—and thinking the teacher had a point.) I took some poetry workshops in my 30s, but only in the hopes of being discovered by a “name” poet and/or a girl. If you have an ounce of compassion, you won’t ask me how things went on either front. I’ve never taught creative writing.

GURIEL
So many poets seem to wind up in academia, which can be a bit of a hothouse. Do you think being at a place like IBM made a difference to your poetry life? 

BROWN
Haydn said that thanks to his long-term employment at the Esterhazy estate in the Hungarian sticks (rather than in Vienna with every other composer and his uncle) he was “forced to become original.”  You won’t catch me claiming originality, but I’ve been known to refer to IBM as my own private Esterhazy. (Anyplace not a college would probably have served me as well in this regard.)

GURIEL
Who have been your influences—poetic or otherwise?

I took some poetry workshops in my 30s, but only in the hopes of being discovered by a ‘name’ poet and/or a girl. If you have an ounce of compassion, you won’t ask me how things went on either front. I’ve never taught creative writing.

BROWN
My main poetic influence was Frost.  I can’t think of a close second. I’d read the usual few anthology pieces of his in high school, and liked them well enough (though no more than some anthology pieces by others).  It wasn’t until my early 20s, when I read Randall Jarrell’s marvelous essays on Frost, that I “got” his greatness. Who’s to say I ever would have without Jarrell’s help?  I’m hard pressed to think of anyone, on the page or in person, to whom I owe more. Even in that first flush of enthusiasm for Frost, I didn’t try to imitate him—which didn’t stop my early poems from positively reeking of him. I’d like to think they came to reek of me—of New York more than New England, for instance. But there never won’t be (and may there never not be) something Frost-like in them. He was the first of many poets I grew to love—Herbert, Dickinson, Whitman (again via Jarrell), Yeats, and Larkin could be singled out. But Frost was the one my gosling self “imprinted” on.  

As far as non-poetic influences, two come to mind: stand-up comedy, which I think can be so close to poetry as to make the difference not worth mentioning, and classical music, whose masterpieces provided me with the purest models of perfect artworks.

GURIEL
Name a couple of perfect pieces of classical music.

BROWN
There’s a sense in which every well-made piece of music is perfect, in so far as music is a matter of pattern. Removing even a single note from such a piece is like removing a tile from a mosaic; changing a note can be like replacing the tile with a wad of gum. That said, one piece of classical music that comes to mind as being extra perfect (if you’ll excuse the illogic, and the unfairness to myriad others) is Prelude #9 from Book II of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. Gem-like, self-contained, modestly-scaled—like the best sort of lyric poem.

GURIEL
What about popular pieces?

BROWN
With all the same caveats in force, the piece that comes to mind, tonight at least, is Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” Not, lest I be run out of town, that any number of rock masterpieces couldn’t be as properly adduced.

GURIEL
You published your first book, Taking the Occasion (2008), in your late fifties. Many debuts double as yard sales; that is, they empty the previously unpublished writer’s cupboards. They flog warm-ups, exercises, experiments, found poems, sestinas, you name it—as if to demonstrate chops or some admirably wide range of vision. But Taking the Occasion came in under sixty pages, and was focused, its poems often built from quatrains. Were the poems written over many years? Did you write much poetry in, say, your twenties? Thirties?

Something I’m surer of is that if my poems are atypical, it isn’t because I want them to be. It’s because they say things I can imagine myself actually saying to people, poetry to the side.

BROWN
They were written over many years—mostly from my thirties through my fifties. I didn’t write as much in my twenties, mainly because I was too busy with my graduate music studies. Plus, only toward the end of my twenties did I realize that the non-poetic stuff on my mind was fit for poetry.  This realization opened copious new veins of subject matter, which I’ve been mining, or bleeding, ever since. It also brought about my de-Frosting, both in matter—no more treating of “country things,” which what did this New Yorker know about anyway—and in manner: now that I was saying things I really had to say, I found myself saying them as I—i.e., not Frost—really would. The brevity of my first book bespeaks nothing more virtuous than my wanting to save some poems for a second one (should “my public,” a notional construct if there ever was one, demand it). I’m glad you think the first book is focused, especially since I confess to trying in it for, in your pinning of the impulse, “an admirably wide range of vision.” But I was also trying for a consistent poetic personality, which in this case meant a personality consistent with my real one.   

GURIEL
It seems like the majority of American (and Canadian) poets put out first books quite early. Is this a problem? (I certainly wish I had waited longer.)

BROWN
Only for their readers. Seriously, in an ideal scene, poets would wait until they “find their voice” before publishing their first book, but the reality is that poets can’t know they haven’t found their voice until they do find it—by which time that first book may long since have scuttled out the door.  

GURIEL
Clive James wrote a lovely thing about your poems. He noted that Herbert “transmitted the complex pleasure of being able to argue closely: the progress of the argument was the spine of the story in poem after poem. Daniel Brown does the latest version of that…” Can you talk about the importance of argument in your work?

...[I]n an ideal scene, poets would wait until they ‘find their voice’ before publishing their first book, but the reality is that poets can’t know they haven’t found their voice until they do find it—by which time that first book may long since have scuttled out the door.

BROWN
I can’t overstate how much Clive James’s liking for my work has meant to me. That said, I would amend his very flattering words (a comparison to Herbert? from Clive f-ing James?!) the slightest bit. I readily plead guilty to trying to have a “spine” in my poems. But the spine needn’t always be an argument. It can also be a narrative, a description, or a train of thought that’s non-argumentative; that’s untethered to intention. But what any such “spine” does is lend support to a poem’s particulars. In doing so, it takes the pressure off them to constantly astonish. It allows for the possibility of quieter moments that derive interest and power from their relation to the poem’s larger concerns. (Frost once penned the self-injunction “quieter” into the margin of a draft.) I discuss this sort of quietness at greater length (if not nearly as much as it deserves) in one of a series of entries on the Best American Poetry blog
 
GURIEL
You take issue in those blogs with the subject-less poem in contemporary poetry. Is there another trend that bothers you?

BROWN
A couple of trends, actually; not in poetry but in books of poetry: a vogue for the book as “project” (aka, the “theme-driven” book), and the related vogue for the division of books into themed sections. It’s not so much that these approaches can’t be very effective, as that I see them taking poetry away from the enlivening variety of the book-as-miscellany that was good enough for Yeats, Frost, Larkin…. (Larkin memorably compared the organization of such a book to the bill of a vaudeville show: open with the comic, then bring on the stripper, the Irish tenor, the animal act….)

GURIEL
I love that line, “good enough for Yeats, Frost, Larkin.” So many contemporary poets seem to think they need novel packaging.

BROWN
They would know.

GURIEL
Poets are cult artists on their best days, at least in their own lifetimes. But your smartly-constructed, reader-oriented poems seem to me especially, if admirably, out of step with contemporary American poetry. Do you feel that at all? 

BROWN
I remember discovering the poetry journals at college and thinking, “If that’s what’s in them, I’ll never be”—meaning both “they’ll never take my stuff” and “I wouldn’t want them to.” (What made me think I’d ever get through this interview without sounding self-pitying and arrogant?) That thought has never completely left me, for all that some of those journals have published me and that I do a poor excuse for a cartwheel whenever something of mine appears in even the scruffiest of them. So I do have some feeling that my poems are “out of step,” maybe even especially so. But not, or not only, in being “smartly-constructed” (which I’ll take your word for) or “reader-oriented” (which they’re at least intended to be). While well-made, reader-friendly poems are hardly prevalent in America or anywhere else these days, it’s not like they haven’t staked out a place. But I’m not sure my poems aren’t somewhat anomalous even there, in (to return to terms I used earlier) both their matter, which seems to me less “poetic” than the norm, and their manner, which seems to me talkier than the norm (especially for formal poems, which most of mine are). Something I’m surer of is that if my poems are atypical, it isn’t because I want them to be. It’s because they say things I can imagine myself actually saying to people, poetry to the side.


JASON GURIEL co-edits Partisan. His recent work appears in The New Republic.

DANIEL BROWN's latest book is What More? (2015). His work has appeared in PoetryThe New Criterion, and Parnassus.