Individual Voices / Natural Forms

Winter, 2006

Doren Robbins

Interviewed by Carmine Giordano

How much of your poetry is conscious message or social critique? 

For me, social critique or any form of ethical reasoning is sometimes embedded in the language symbolically, at other times it is forthright. The distinction favors the direction, but it depends on the tone of the particular piece of writing. For example, in the poem "Natural History," which was selected for the Poets Against the War anthology that Sam Hamill put together, I never mention a specific war or country; however, the historical moment of the Bosnian War corresponds to the speaker's compassion and fear for the insect caught in the web to such an extent that helpless fantasies of mass graves appear in the interior monologue of the narrative. It is not a forthright condemnation of the age, as in Yeats' ironic-moral Christian outrage in "The Second Coming". It is about compassion for the victims of sadistic humans and their destructive institutions. From the perspective of class, race, women, etc., it has always been the time of the "rough beast", whose time (WWI-specific time) Yeats believed had come to Western Civilization. Yeats was a great poet, but in the context raised here he is a great "elitist" Christian poet.

A more recent reflection on the 9-11 incident, "Night of Nine-Something" , begins with my neighbor having multiple orgasms on the other side of the wall from where I am writing. It then shifts to reflections on Ronald Reagan's colon problem, which is a reflection on the symbolic meaning of his heartless "shit-problem," etc. Then reflections on the horrible event flow into the monologue. Both pieces reflect cultural disassociation from Humane Values, which junior high school social studies, eastern or western civilization teachers in my time called barbarism.

The poem "The Garden Now" is a shaky acceptance of our war-surrounded-past-and-current-concentration-camp world condition. There is an element of absurd recognition and shock in how the speaker is affected by the common death of a wren, the concentration-camp torture of children, and the decay he himself is experiencing as well. There is also a self-acceptance in the fact that reality in general is unaffected by an absurd-elegiac poem, but that the speaker will go on responding to the experiences that incite emotion on this level.

Which writers have influenced the content or style of your poetry?

At this point I'm on my own; others will have to determine the extent of "influence". Because it is a separate issue I am not responding specifically to form in the writers I mention, but to poets whose form and content is relevant to me. And I am only responding to poets.

Every writer that has an emotional effect on me is an influence. It depends on the styles that interest you and the values you construct about style, as well as what you feel compelled to express, and the form you personally develop to contain_expression.

It always comes down to passion, and to temperament. If there is such a thing as "Naked Poetry", it is passion that strips poetry into a radical _expression. Temperament determines rhythm. My literary values are concerned with the language of emotional lucidity and the corresponding rhythm and imagery that evoke the meaning I am obsessed with. My imaginative _expression sometimes demands language that isn't precious, other times the language might have elements of the exquisite. For me, inappropriate language does not exist. But there are millions of unsophisticated or shallow readers. Just as love poems demand sensuous direct language to accompany the complexity of erotic emotion, war poems or poems about alienation demand their own form of tell-like-it-is language to be convincing.

Though the canon of great formal poetry in English (Chaucer, Wyatt, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Blake, Yeats, Owen, and Dylan Thomas) is an ongoing language-soundtrack in my memory, The Song of Songs poet, The Jewish Prophets, Sappho, Catullus, Villon, Whitman, Rimbaud, Cavafy, Lawrence, Cendrars, Vallejo, Artaud, Hikmet, Auden, Pavese, Roethke, Neruda, Para, Rukeyser, WC Williams, Ginsberg, and Rich are among the poets whose literary values I connected with, more or less. Translations of Chinese poetry by Waley, Rexroth, and Chaves have also been influential.

Late in my development I went back to school with the purpose of becoming a creative writing and literature professor. I studied with Marvin Bell, Larry Levis, Gerald Stern, and Phillip Levine. Each one of these poets is dear to me as a person, as an artist, and as a teacher. But during the most important years of my development I read and absorbed everything by Kenneth Rexroth. The majority of classic and modern writers that are the subjects of Rexroth's remarkable essays have influenced me the most.

Through his own poetry, translations, autobiographical novel, essays, and generous personality Rexroth remains a great teacher and a lasting example of what an educated, politically humane and fearless free spirit can live to accomplish and celebrate in the course of a full life. The values he placed on literary craft, political justice, attunement to place, self-sacrifice, erotic passion, humor, mysticism, fraternity in general, learning in general, and self-knowledge in particular, are those that preserve what is creative and useful to the endurance of individual imagination and the human community. A great teacher.