Campbell McGrath Reads Czeslaw Milosz
Campbell McGrath joins Kevin Young to discuss “Realism,” by Czeslaw Milosz, and his own poem “The Human Heart.” McGrath has published several poetry collections and received fellowships from the Library of Congress, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation. His latest book is “Nouns & Verbs: New and Selected Poems.”
Below is an automated transcript of this podcast episode.
Kevin Young [00:00:06] You're listening to The New Yorker Poetry Podcast. I'm Kevin Young poetry editor of The New Yorker magazine. On this program we ask poets to choose a poem from the New Yorker archive to read and discuss, along with one of their own poems that's been published in the magazine. My guest today is Campbell McGrath who's published nearly a dozen collections of poetry and whose honours include fellowships from United States Artists, The Library of Congress, The Guggenheim Foundation, and The MacArthur Foundation. Thanks so much for being here.
Campbell McGrath [00:00:35] It's my pleasure, needless to say.
Kevin Young [00:00:37] So the poem you've selected is "Realism," by Czeslaw Milosz. Tell us what in particular drew you to this poem as you're browsing through the archive.
Campbell McGrath [00:00:47] Well you know I didn't even need to browse through the archives. I remember this poem from The New Yorker even before it becoming you know a poem in his books that I read again and again and again.
Kevin Young [00:00:59] All right let's hear it. This is Campbell McGrath reading "Realism" by Czeslaw Milosz, translated from the Polish by the author and Robert Hass.
Campbell McGrath [00:01:09] Realism by Czeslaw Milosz
Kevin Young [00:02:54] That was "Realism" by Czeslaw Milosz. Translated by the author and Robert Hass published in the April 11th, 1994, issue of the magazine. So I love that reading but I also know why you admire this poem. It seems to me that all the ness it talks about the lasting this the greenness the trees. I can see that in your work A and B also it's a kind of primer on what poetry does isn't it.
Campbell McGrath [00:03:23] It's just a poem that is so intelligent and so many different ways and isn't making a big deal out of its intelligence isn't even trying to prove anything to us except you know running through this set of thoughts inspired by looking at some old Dutch still life or still lives and then suddenly saying well what does it mean that this version of art versus you know I love in the middle where he comes to abstract art is brought to shame even though we deserve no other that actually. Well I almost stopped it. You know even in the reading of it I almost laughed aloud at that line like —
Campbell McGrath [00:03:59] There's a humor in the poem his humor sometimes is, well it's often understated. How would you describe it?
Kevin Young [00:04:06] I think understated. Yeah. He's not. I mean I can think of so many of his poems and you don't. They're not they don't laugh out loud. I mean in this one it's over. I mean even just that you know like the Jerkins of the rustics. I mean yeah.
Kevin Young [00:04:18] That's a great line.
Campbell McGrath [00:04:20] I feel sure they were laughing him and Robert Hass in the translation like you know that's the tone in which you're you're using the language of that time but you're also kind of realizing how there's it just a comedy in those words to us nowadays.
Kevin Young [00:04:34] Well what about translation Do you think about it yourself or do you do translations. How do you approach this because I think that is another thing that you know it's a beautiful partnership between Milosz and Hass through many decades they translated Hoss has spoken so well about that process for him and discovering that connection.
Campbell McGrath [00:05:00] I wish for our hearts would translate my poem into Robert Hass poems. I mean Milosz was was a crazy genius or whatever you want to call obviously but like nonetheless to have had Hass be your translator is a pretty amazing thing cause you definitely read me was poems and you hear Hass' voice as well which is such an incredibly deep grounded voice with all this.
Kevin Young [00:05:22] It's so interesting.
Campbell McGrath [00:05:23] Again intelligence and images. I mean because has translations of haiku are just as brilliant and are crossing all these bounds.
Kevin Young [00:05:31] Well I think the other thing I like just to get back to this philosophical quality that you're talking about is there's these thuses and therefore is which again kind of mark the poems of vintage or it's thinking about vintage. But there's also a quality of if this then that that isn't it's unexpected. You know there's a lot of leaps between therefore you know it's not well, therefore I enter those landscapes Well not necessarily but sure you do. You know he, uh, thus abstract art is brought to shame. There's a there's a mind at work behind that.
Campbell McGrath [00:06:04] Absolutely. That's that's what comes to me you know in this poem is like wow what a mind. I mean it's what you feel in Elizabeth Bishop's poems is like wow there's that mind again. I mean like three sentences I think I could pass you know at random say that's Elizabeth Bishop's mind it's so smart has a particular way of examining and addressing the world Milosz's is different but deeply recognisable as a person who moves through the world as they write both imagistickly, there is a world, he's setting it down. Always though the ideas and the thoughts that might occur that have occurred become part of the text even as he's exploring and depicting the world he's also thinking it through and they become interwoven on the page and that's just breathtaking kind of way.
Kevin Young [00:06:48] That's well put. In the beginning there for that means we shrug off what we have been told for a hundred, two hundred years that you know you could almost stop there.
Campbell McGrath [00:06:59] Right.
Kevin Young [00:06:59] And then he says though we lost much of our previous confidence. OK. You know that's another wait hold up. We had confidence we lost and then so now we agree. Do we? You know, that those trees outside the window which probably exist only pretend to greenness and treeness. And that kind of quality of language that he's saying the world is always in a way translated and that this this art is itself a translation is really fascinating.
Campbell McGrath [00:07:28] Yes. I mean you know it's a poem about visual art. Theoretically it's just about visual art obviously always a poet when writing about visual art is using that as also a metaphor for literary art for poetry. It's like saying yeah look I'm going look at Dutch paintings I know those are two hundred, three hundred years old and that's now antiquated we don't do that anymore. You know we're so modern we make modern art. And yet what the heck look at this. I mean how can I not see it and feel like our art is brought to shame by the perfection of that art. Not that everything needs to be that still life. But like when you see it you like but there's something about this isn't there that you just say there's something. It's incredible and brilliant and perfect in its its attention to the world. I can feel that too when I look at a Motherwell painting or some Jackson Pollock say. But its notion of attention or different I'm not. I mean I think for sure me which is a more conservative Art. Art critic.
Kevin Young [00:08:27] Yeah. Exactly.
Campbell McGrath [00:08:29] I loke all versions of that.
Kevin Young [00:08:29] If we only had Dutch art. Yes that's right.
Campbell McGrath [00:08:32] I'd say Well what happened. I mean.
Kevin Young [00:08:34] Right. But he is saying look here I think poets are often saying look at this overlooked thing. But he's also saying this wasn't once overlooked. And so that's an interesting collaboration. All this is here eternally just because once it was. That's a really interesting idea which is that art is of course always wrestling with is how do I capture this moment but also capture it forever.
Campbell McGrath [00:09:01] It's you know and that too is the notion that artists would resist or deny now and you know in our more cynical age it's that's the Shakespearean notion you know along with this. Yeah. If I I. Hey you're eternal if I write you in this poem because art is eternal. Wow. I mean Shakespeare believe that and I guess the Dutch masters believe that to now.
Kevin Young [00:09:22] You don't believe it.
Campbell McGrath [00:09:24] I am I don't you know. I mean I think it's all going underwater and I don't think.
Kevin Young [00:09:29] You do live in Miami. So there is I mean that notion behind apoloclypse, welcome it is that what you're saying?
Campbell McGrath [00:09:36] I mean I mean as a species we're not eternal so how can anything we make be eternal? But I mean if there is or anything eternal that we as human beings do I do believe it's art.
Kevin Young [00:09:45] Okay. Well and Milosz is interesting because there is a part of this poem that I thought was very Catholic in the Big C sense. I mean it's also trying to think about the little c catholic in some way but he's also talking about a very specific kind of wonder. He calls it splendor certainly incomprehensible. You know that's a is a lot of very Catholic notion is that something that strikes you here?
Campbell McGrath [00:10:13] It might be you know I was I was thinking of it aesthetically. You know I mean there's nothing splendid about you know the fish being cut up on the board or the you know the half of a melon right in those paintings.
Kevin Young [00:10:24] Yeah right.
Campbell McGrath [00:10:25] I mean the thing itself you'd be like it's a half a melon, whatever I don't you know get it away. Perhaps you'd say. It's the depiction of it that actually makes it better than the reality.
Kevin Young [00:10:33] I see.
Campbell McGrath [00:10:34] I mean in other words if you were.
Kevin Young [00:10:35] It's not inherent in the object.
Campbell McGrath [00:10:36] I don't know. I mean that's what I think this question's that because like if you were given the tray of objects that this Dutch master is going to pick like that you know a dead grouse and I've chopped up fish and a melon and a lemon you.
Kevin Young [00:10:49] Gherkins.
Campbell McGrath [00:10:50] You might say no thank you. Yeah. And yet when you look at in your eyes you say you know you're drawn in suddenly I mean I'm in that landscape just with those little tiny ice skaters.
Kevin Young [00:11:00] Yeah and yellowish eyes which is a great detail.
Campbell McGrath [00:11:03] Just drawn out there because it's that person's attention to that world is so convincing that I feel as if I can endure it.
Kevin Young [00:11:10] Mm hmm.
Campbell McGrath [00:11:11] And I think he's saying that's something that like and even if you were to say I love Jackson Pollock it doesn't create a world that invites me into it. I'm responding to it some different way. I think that would have been what Milosz might have said.
Kevin Young [00:11:23] Interesting. Here he's saying rejoice give thanks and then he says one of them already who vanished long ago. He joins this lost ness and I think that. But he's also talking about lasting ness. And I think we you know this is something I end up writing about a lot as we're more interested in what's gone than what lasts sometimes, you know and maybe that's the difference.
Campbell McGrath [00:11:47] Yes I mean and also again Milosz's whole life was colorized by the notion of European-ness. I mean that you know he he came from a part of Europe that was distinctly European and yet at the edges he was the edges of European culture that's how he always felt himself. You know from that kind of Lithuanian Ukrainian Polish border land. We've been part of Europe a long time and yet we've always been an outskirt of Europe we're not Paris we're not. You know he always knew intellectually he is of Western civilization whatever that means. And the Catholic Church even which is not that for millennia the centerpiece of that notion. And yet then he ended up liveing the second half of his life in Berkeley. At another at the far other edge of Western civilization looking over another ocean and kind of therefore I think was constantly attentive to well what what is this thing that he knew he really had come from and yet could now look back on and so when you see the Dutch Masters, well they knew what it was. That's you know whatever Western civilization is. That's it.
Kevin Young [00:12:43] Yeah. So he feels like he's grabbing hold of solid thing but then he ends. And our song soared up like smoke from a censor and that reaches back into ritual and-
Campbell McGrath [00:12:54] It does.
Kevin Young [00:12:55] The church.
Campbell McGrath [00:12:56] It really does. It makes it spiritual and it also makes that we is that we you know, Milosz and every other artist who's ever existed. All of us as human beings who are attending to the moment whatever it might be.
Kevin Young [00:13:09] Or is it really the Western? And that's the question I think the poem thinks about a little bit is can everyone make that leap or should one? You know. And you know your poem that we're going to look at it the minute it goes internal where where this poem goes external. But I also I wonder if that smoke isn't more fragile than Milosz even intends it to be. I mean the smoke goes away right.
Campbell McGrath [00:13:34] Yes. Again I think he was also aware that he was writing at the end of a tradition. I mean you know the Catholic Church being central to his world view and he's even buried in a church in Krakow. But you know if he'd lived even 20 years 15 years longer I wonder what his you know the church that I'm sure he had some skepticism about has itself been kind of reduced in the way that I you know has been reimagined now through this whole different lens of what it has has been. You know I mean I'm.
Kevin Young [00:14:06] Did you grow up Catholic?
Campbell McGrath [00:14:07] I didn't really. My parents grew up Catholic Irish Catholics. They had kind of were suspicious of it by the time I was brought up I was baptized. And then I you know only when I visited family members my aunts are known. And so the family.
Kevin Young [00:14:18] You could have been Pope I was baptized Catholic too so I could be Pope one day.
Campbell McGrath [00:14:23] See.
Kevin Young [00:14:23] These are still a chance.
Campbell McGrath [00:14:24] These are valuable credentials. It's like having an EU passport.
Kevin Young [00:14:29] Well it's like having a British press for Brexit is coming.
Campbell McGrath [00:14:34] Yeah you're right.
Kevin Young [00:14:35] Now in the November 3rd, 2003, issue of the magazine The New Yorker printed your poem "The Human Heart," which we'll hear you read in a moment. Is there anything you'd like us to know about this poem. Anything that comes to mind.
Campbell McGrath [00:14:48] It's not exactly representative of my poems or if you read my you know Selected Poems there's not too many that look like this poem I stumbled into this poem and it has remained very meaningful to me.
Kevin Young [00:15:01] Here's Campbell McGrath reading his poem "The Human Heart.".
Campbell McGrath [00:15:06] "The Human Heart" by Campbell McGrath
Kevin Young [00:16:09] That was "The Human Heart" by Campbell McGrath. So I'm struck by the form as well. When you say it doesn't look like this, do you mean the rhyme that creeps in the. What I love about it is just when you think you know how it's going to exactly rhyme I feel like it shifts on us a little bit.
Campbell McGrath [00:16:26] Yeah. Well I mean I like I love rhyme. I mean you like rhyme too. Yeah sure. I mean it's just.
Kevin Young [00:16:31] A confession. Let's confess.
Campbell McGrath [00:16:33] Yeah. I mean you know.
Kevin Young [00:16:34] Rhyme is OK.
Campbell McGrath [00:16:35] Right. Right. I mean I I I feel bad for the weird corner Rhyme has been sent to stand in now by poets. I'm like you know like if you ask graduate students to write a rhyme poem they're really think that they're being tormented in a way. I'm like that. Come on. This isn't. I mean rhyme is so creative I mean…
Kevin Young [00:16:53] Let's face it rhyme was done really badly for a while. I mean I think if you read late 19th century poems in the American you know scene and read broadly you come away saying maybe we should have disposed of rhyme.
Campbell McGrath [00:17:05] Absolutely. No I agree. That's what I myself seldom really do it
Kevin Young [00:17:11] But you know that you know we can mark rhymes return in some way and I think we have you know slam poetry to thank for that and hip hop and many other rhymes that thought about internal rhyme and thought about different kinds of rhyme than the kinds of end rhyme that you know that had da-da-da-da-da-da-da that had kind of dominated for you know. It felt like eons.
Campbell McGrath [00:17:34] Absolutely. Then that got blown up with its antithesis with like modernism like not only we're not going to rhyme. You don't even know what I'm talking about. Like ok then that that was another alienating gesture.
Kevin Young [00:17:46] Poets get in their own way I suppose.
Campbell McGrath [00:17:47] The few people who had stuck with poetry as readers said well now I'm really done it doesn't rhyme and I don't understand it. And even if it does rhyme it's a greeting card rhyme. So I guess greeting card rhyme is of no value to us.
Kevin Young [00:17:57] Right. See I was thinking you were going to say that your other poems don't do this kind of thing where they think about this big idea, but they all do in some way. And here you are you know addressing or bringing this we much like Milosz but then also to this piece of anatomy that of course is more than that it is amber gries and clay, ochre. It is maverick intricacy. It is the lights of the casino and the coyotes eye. A great line. What brought you to do that you said it was a little different.
Campbell McGrath [00:18:30] I liked the notion of this poem going with the Milosz poem that they're both they're both poems that are doing this gesture of thinking for a we. Speaking for we. Which is again a gesture we're skeptical of in this modern age and I think rightfully so. But this is a poem I felt like. Now I'm I feel something to be true and I just want to say that I think this is a thing you know. If I'm wrong I'm wrong whatever I don't mind. But I'm so skeptical of things and maybe cynical too that I seldom you know posite a thing is definitely no. I'll I'll I'll probably undercut it and offer the alternative in my poem as well.
Kevin Young [00:19:05] Sure.
Campbell McGrath [00:19:06] It's like no no I think this thing is true that the heart isn't something we're given we build it we think and you know I mean even now I don't mean biologically although we do build our own heart biologically too I suppose anatomically but so many things that we talk about like a community the heart compassion. These are not like passive things that we receive. These are these are things we need to construct through active participation, engagement. And like I guess at the certain moment where I was just startled to see to suddenly that came into shape in my mind like oh oh it's this you know it's kind of an argument poem with people who felt differently. Like no no you don't have to do that it's just you don't like that if you don't do it then you are heartless or then you are failing. Well then I said OK so what does it mean we have to build the heart. Okay that's interesting thought.
Kevin Young [00:19:58] Yeah because you don't start there you and I don't think you could yeah I think it's much stronger to say here it is it's built of these strains to each other elements. I think what's one of the functions of the rhyme in the poem is you're, a rhyme is always connecting these two ideas and I feel that rhyme is saying these two things aren't just sounding like they are alike you know and you manage to to by making the rhymes let's call it strange you moonlight in cordite. They are full rhymes but they feel very different they're unexpected and I think you know you're you've come pretty close to the orange the difficulty of orange not rhyming with anything with flange there.
Campbell McGrath [00:20:38] Oh yeah. Yeah right about that I that's I mean I don't I don't think I was conscious of orange being the unredeemable word but you know I mean it's I could have changed the fruit I suppose you know but but I like oh.
Kevin Young [00:20:48] But you like oranges.
Campbell McGrath [00:20:49] I do like oranges and blood oranges too because this is the heart we're talking about I think you're right to be a little bloodier you know. The fact that it's called a blood orange makes it to me a great thing to bring into the heart it's a great thing and cordite and moonlight I agree that's the most you know that's the most rhyming of opposites that therefore somehow makes you who makes you consider them as a pair and they're so you know different at so many levels and rhyme does do that. It pairs those two words at least for you in your consideration for a moment even if it moves forward.
Kevin Young [00:21:18] Were you conscious of starting with the more slant of the rhymes and then moving into a fuller rhyme or at least visually a fuller rhyme. You know Clay and rain and funnel and Whirlpool are perhaps the least rhyme-y of the rhymes and that's what starts us off and then we get obstinance and circumstance which don't necessarily rhyme in American English. And within that agency and intricacy. These are all great words that I can't necessarily get into a poem. But here you have them paired up and I was wondering how that works. Maybe another way to put it this is how I would say it if I was talking to students is how how does that work in the poem.
Campbell McGrath [00:21:57] Yeah. No I think I think it's exactly true that the poem I certainly wasn't consciously saying I will build this poem with this you know ABBA rhyme scheme. These like kind of different length lines but it showed up just in the musicality let's say of clay funnel and I'm like oh that's not even musicality that's almost that's the kind of slant rhyme. And then I said Oh well I like that and I think that's important part of this poem. And then as I got to the end I said it really needs to, I think the rhyme needs to, especially in the last stanza be what blocks the poem down. So it has definitely moved and it's in its last two stanzas towards much something much closer to a true rhyme.
Kevin Young [00:22:34] Well that's a truer for you sentiment. As you're saying you're saying you're building this thing right. It kind of mirrors the building that you're saying the human heart does. And here you know I would just point out something I really love: dust in us. I mean you know great amazing but then there's also this these slant rhymes dust, heart, chest, accinents continence I should say.
Campbell McGrath [00:22:57] Yeah.
Kevin Young [00:22:58] Which is to say the consonants are the same and this hard ending that ends with the softer us really lovely I think.
Campbell McGrath [00:23:06] Yeah. And in stanza thre we get World Casino old Solano and I remember at one point saying like well let's just call all four of those playing in the same sandbox.
Kevin Young [00:23:17] Right, right.
Campbell McGrath [00:23:18] Wait didn't you kind of switch from ABBA ABAB. Yeah whatever you do. Let's call them all. They're all talking to each other within oh even if really. That's actually which is the rhyme scheme.
Kevin Young [00:23:29] I mean I find this a lot when you talk to people about poetry is sometimes you know I'll ask people what a sonnet is and they'll say letters like this is the rhyme scheme and they'll describe it. And I'll say, well actually I mean what's the inner workings of a sonnet. You know what does a sonnet do. You know because it almost doesn't help you either as a reader or as a writer to sit down and say I need to you know have this pattern instead you have to say Oh I'm writing love poems and they're they're kind of short. They're kind of to the same beloved you know who may be abstract or there and I need to find that form that does that and there's the sonnet for you.
Campbell McGrath [00:24:07] Right. No. I agree the sonnet is an incredibly brilliant form because of its structure not because of its rhyme scheme in fact unripe sonnets are just fine with me that it's that it's at 8 and 6 or else the 4 4 4 2 which is it you know you know however both versions and the turns and the notion of its is it a call and response is it an answer and an amplification. You know what if any of those versions and yet with the stricture of you can't I mean I am a maximalist so then I you know or if at line 13 I've have more to say I'll just blow it up and write twenty nine lines but no no no no no.
Kevin Young [00:24:40] You've got to get it in.
Campbell McGrath [00:24:41] You've got to fit the painting within the frame and that's that's a that's a lovely thing about sonnets and this is not a sonnet but it has essentially you know that's not too much bigger than a sonnet.
Kevin Young [00:24:49] Right.
Campbell McGrath [00:24:50] And it's basically the loveliness of forcing yourself to live within the limits of the canvas. You know because we don't have to of course we don't have to rhyme. We don't have to stop at 14 or 20 or 40 lines.
Kevin Young [00:25:03] Right.
Campbell McGrath [00:25:03] But to find your way to that restraint and understand how it it helps enhancing by shaping and limiting the poem is great when it happens.
Kevin Young [00:25:11] Yeah. So I want to talk about maxilimism which has come up for me a lot and thinking about it but also thinking about you know your broader project your selected poems that you recently had and you've written a lot of books that think like books you know, they're books length poems or they're poems that add up to a book even your first book "Capitalism," has that great. I mean first of all you know "Realism," "Capitalism," you know wouldn't accuse you of having some isms in your work but also there's this way in which you're trying to think about these big systems in these little ways.
Campbell McGrath [00:25:50] I Really believe in the book. I mean most poets and I or a certain many poets have. The poem is the. And of course it has to be I mean you know I mean the line has to be the line each line has to be a thing and then his poem has to be a thing but then not all poets. The book is a thing and doesn't have to be there are just collections. So that's that's 42 really nice poems.
Kevin Young [00:26:10] Right.
Click Here: Celtic Football Shirts
Campbell McGrath [00:26:11] I don't necessarily make the collective entity particularly important to me. The poem is the unit that matters and without letting the poem somehow not matter I still focus on the book. The book to me is really important. I just love me I think because I love books. And yeah that's where before I love poems, I love books.
Kevin Young [00:26:29] Yeah that's a good way to put it.
Campbell McGrath [00:26:30] So I mean even when I feel like I have a lot of good poems here in my hands I don't necessarily feel like it's a book until something happens that makes it be a book.
Kevin Young [00:26:39] And did that happened with the selection?
Campbell McGrath [00:26:41] The new and selected was selected was was really fun to do.
Kevin Young [00:26:45] Good.
Campbell McGrath [00:26:45] You know I'd been suspicious about it long time. I mean I remember discussing with you how did you survive your New and Selected Kevin? And you did.
Kevin Young [00:26:54] Mine was selected and uncollected. So I decided I will put the new part off for a while.
Campbell McGrath [00:27:00] You're actually right but that made it new by the way. And also that's what I think a new and selected needs to be you can't really just be the greatest hits album because we have all those songs so we don't need to have them in a new configuration. Something has to make it a book. I thought it was very brilliant turn to turn on its head the notion of having outtakes to say no actually by putting them in it becomes new. You know we've actually remixed it and it's become something different that was very interesting. Thank you. You're welcome. My version was to put the new which is you know is that. Yeah. OK well you know four fifths of that book have come out of previous books but then with the new it's still …. You know you can still apprehend the whole body of work and see something different. Then I repackage it to you it.
Kevin Young [00:27:41] So you put it like prose poems to go I mean tell us what you did.
Campbell McGrath [00:27:44] Yeah I mean.
Kevin Young [00:27:45] For those who haven't don't have it yet because I know they'll run out of.
Campbell McGrath [00:27:49] Absolutely for sure they will because especially the audiobook because you know you can working out listening to me read the poem you can.
Kevin Young [00:27:56] Did you read every poem?
Campbell McGrath [00:27:56] Fall asleep. Yeah.
Kevin Young [00:27:58] That's amazing.
Campbell McGrath [00:27:59] It was really fun and.
Kevin Young [00:28:01] It was fun.
Campbell McGrath [00:28:01] It was I found that to be really fun. Oh interest. I mean as a couple.
Kevin Young [00:28:04] I read Brown and I was I was already.
Campbell McGrath [00:28:07] Ready to get out of there.
Kevin Young [00:28:10] Well it just was it was exhausting you know. But I think you point to something else to that. The poems live aurally hourly they live aloud.
Campbell McGrath [00:28:19] I think that they should. All writing partakes of the sentence which is a great thing. But you know and even agreed. What do we all do going to be great novel. You don't necessarily need to hear aloud. I mean it isn't enhancing the experience. It might be nothing wrong with it. The poem needs to kind of move from two dimensional to three dimensional when you hear it aloud. I mean a good poem has that built into it right. It's not. It's the text it's the meaning it's all the stuff we could talk about. And yet when you hear the language read you're like oh there's this other thing it takes on another shape or kind of reality in the world. That's great. So that was fun part of it too and they were you know they were older poems for me to use I was really living the best for them like oh I can't read this poem aloud right now a lot of here's the thing. I mean it's going back for 35 years I think I said there were a couple poems or you know in college.
Kevin Young [00:29:09] Yeah. So when in fact I saw because I did my research on you that your first poem in the author was 1989. Is that right?
Campbell McGrath [00:29:18] Yeah I was just out of graduate school and on a whim I sent a couple of poem to the New Yorker and Alice Quinn was the poetry editor then and I just thought these were historical poems with two little poems she took and she published them in the Thanksgiving issue because they're kind of it's called "What They Ate" and "What They Drank," and they're about pilgrims early Americans in the American landscape and and food.
Kevin Young [00:29:40] Early settlers at least.
Campbell McGrath [00:29:41] Settlers. I mean you know whatever. I don't know it was based on some of those early colonial history books exactly. And they were a little rhymed sonnet-esque poems in fact and.
Kevin Young [00:29:50] I love those poems.
Campbell McGrath [00:29:51] Took them and me and put nice like wow that was very exciting.
Kevin Young [00:29:54] So that that was 30 years ago.
Campbell McGrath [00:29:56] That was 30 years ago.
Kevin Young [00:29:57] So you have a long relationship with the New Yorker and that's come you could go for Merwin. Merwin had a seven decades long you know relationship with The New Yorker that blew me away when I realized that. And I started thinking about like you know is that possible now that you can have this relationship across time with your work with one publication.
Campbell McGrath [00:30:19] Well I mean you know The New Yorker is is it I mean there's no I mean you know there's no other or at least highly visible publication. But I mean even when the New Yorker changes poetry editors as it has with your arrival you know a year or two ago and you know Paul Muldoon it it it's a more of an evolution right. Whereas Poetry magazine has been basically recreated really dramatically several times with its change in it because it's a real change in the philosophy not just the editor choosing different poems there's a new worker has a vision of poetry that has carried on for all the very real differences.
Kevin Young [00:30:56] Right. Well that's what I think is interesting about Merwin specifically is he went through many changes and yet there was this place where he could enact those changes and obviously those changes are happening in real time which is to say he's we're publishing the poems he's Writing for the lice as that's happening or carrier of ladders or the poems that are changing for him. You know there's a stable place that can render them public.
Campbell McGrath [00:31:23] And I think Bishop did that too. You know in you know a couple generations shifted a little earlier you know through the through the mid century 20th century. Like what percentage of her poems The New Yorker I mean 50 percent sometimes you know I mean.
Kevin Young [00:31:34] She had one of those exclusive contracts first read which you know one wishes still existed both as a poet and as an editor to be able to first see poems and Plath I think had one of those.
Campbell McGrath [00:31:48] It make sense like with Bishop though because he you know it was only going to be 20 finished poems over a ten year thing.
Kevin Young [00:31:55] And we read her corresponds with the New Yorkers which I read long before I was you know here I was like what a great correspondence and what a – is sort of the dream of a literary connection because I remember and I'm sure you do too when you would send poems out and there was no body. Oh you don't like you didn't know who that person was they were just a masthead person right and you would end up striking up these somewhat long you know soon it switch to e-mail but not you know kind of recently.
Campbell McGrath [00:32:23] Yeah.
Kevin Young [00:32:23] And so you I had a good I don't know 10 years or more where I was writing with people back and forth and even the early days of e-mail you might not even meet them right for a time.
Campbell McGrath [00:32:32] Absolutely.
Kevin Young [00:32:33] I mean have we lost that a little.
Campbell McGrath [00:32:35] Well I mean it changes like I mean you and I Kevin we couldn't have a first read contract anybody because they'd have to read dozens and dozens of poems that we're writing. I mean you know which you know it makes job envy is that self-criticism I don't know. I mean you know what can you say. We're producing poems there. I think they're all good poems by the way but you know.
Kevin Young [00:32:55] Sure.
Campbell McGrath [00:32:55] I don't think anyone at The New Yorker or elsewhere it needs to read every single one of them and Labor over making some decisions not even the least.
Kevin Young [00:33:00] Sure.
Campbell McGrath [00:33:01] So but things change it or whatever. You know what I have that relationship with my editor Dan Halpern. I mean I have it not at the level of a magazine but at the level of the book which is I've already said is a thing I really value. I mean I've had a 25 year relationship with my editor Dan Halpern and before that it was my teacher. So you know I have that relation with him in terms of the book thinking about the books where the new books talking about it and in fact the human heart. I mean Dan doesn't you know read my work line by line and edit it very often anymore because you know it would be makes little sense to you. But I remember distinctly when I submitted the book that the human heart was in which is Pax Atomica. It was somewhere it was somewhere kind of the middle of manuscript Dan said to me that's the central poem you know that needs to go right. And I moved it right to the very front of the book. I said it Dan says anything I make quite sure it's true and I immediately implement it.
Kevin Young [00:33:53] Isn't it funny when you read like manuscripts by up and coming writers or people who are trying to find their first book you really realize how often people don't realize what their best poem is and you know this can last to your tenth book of course. But it's fascinating how we have that blind spot sometimes like we don't even know what we're doing or why actually. Maybe this is all of human existence. Well especially with a poem you strike gold and then you're you're looking around in the river still and any like you know what. Actually this is the poem you have missed it.
Campbell McGrath [00:34:28] My my most recent poem The New Yorker a few months ago which you Kevin you know selected is a poem that I had I wrote a few years ago and I the first time I read it people were just like that poem is amazing like is it I thought it was just one of five poems I was reading I didn't give it any special attention right.
Kevin Young [00:34:46] Right.
Campbell McGrath [00:34:47] But people loved it you know. And I guess it's a poem really built to be heard aloud.
Kevin Young [00:34:51] Yes there's that part too but.
Campbell McGrath [00:34:53] It elevated in my own eyes like oh that's that's a good poem I need to like attend to that. And I haven't been.
Kevin Young [00:35:00] I think attending to one's music is the larger point.
Campbell McGrath [00:35:04] Yeah it it's great. True. That's great.
Kevin Young [00:35:07] Campbell thank you so much for chatting with us today.
Campbell McGrath [00:35:09] Oh, it has been a great pleasure.
Kevin Young [00:35:11] "The Human Heart" by Campbell McGrath as well as Czeslaw Milosz's "Realism" can be found in New Yorker dot com. Czeslaw Milosz's "New and Collected Poems 1931- 2001" was republished in 2017. Campbell McGrath's latest book is "Nouns & Verbs."
Tag: You may subscribe to this podcast, the fiction podcast, the Writer’s Voice podcast, and the Politics and More podcast by searching for “The New Yorker” in your podcast app. You can hear more poetry read by the authors on newyorker.com and on the New Yorker app, available from the App Store or from Google Play. The theme music is “The Corner” by Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah, courtesy of Stretch Music and Ropeadope. The New Yorker Poetry Podcast is produced by Jill Du Boff of newyorker.com, with help from Hannah Aizenman.