An Interview with Rachel Hadas

by Gloria Glickstein Brame

Where else can we find sublimity but in the world in which we live?
--Rachel Hadas

Following is the complete text of an interview
which appeared in the Spring 1997 issue of

© 1997 by Gloria Glickstein Brame

As a poet who has traveled worlds others may only dream of, Rachel Hadas has produced a body of work which reflects the astonishing variety of her life. Whether she is translating the classics, citing favorite lines from beloved writers, recalling an emotionally rich experience with a close friend, or marveling over the experience of bathing her young son, Rachel brings vivid immediacy to the life of the mind as well as to the ordinary realities of everyday life. Through her leisurely autobiographical essays and elegantly-crafted verse, she explores the very nature of what a poet is and how a poet lives. The work as a whole is concerned with transformations and metamorphoses, mortality and loss, rebirth and renewal--themes which have fascinated and, at times, haunted her personal life.

The daughter of one of the world's eminent classical scholars, Columbia Professor Moses Hadas, Rachel spent her childhood in the rarified atmosphere of literary high culture. But the early death of her father, while Rachel was still a girl, shocked the calm of this world. And her life soon took an extraordinary turn when, in her early twenties, she married a young Greek man and moved abroad to live with him on his native island. There Rachel was ultimately arrested and imprisoned on charges that she set fire to an olive oil factory--the victim of xenophobia gone mad in their peasant village.

Yet, even before her twenties were done, her life transformed once more: she began what were to become lifelong and artistically important friendships with poets James Merrill and Alan Ansen; and she returned to New York City to pursue her graduate studies and to know early success as a poet and writer.

Now in her late forties, Rachel has long-since established her standing at the forefront of American letters. She is Professor of English at Rutgers University (PhD. '82, Princeton); author of twelve books (poetry, essays, and translations), as well as innumerable book reviews and scholarly papers. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Governing Board Member of the National Book Critics Circle, Board Member of the Poets' Corner at Cathedral St. John the Divine; and the recipient of a vast array of prestigious awards, including the Ingram Merrill Foundation Award in Poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Literature Award. Her personal life, too, has transformed since that eventful sojourn on a remote Greek island: she and her second husband, George Edwards, a gifted composer, live in quiet comfort with their son on the Upper West Side of New York, not far from where she was raised.

Rachel's latest book, The Double Legacy: Reflections On a Pair of Deaths (Faber and Faber, Boston and London, 1995), unsentimentally explores sentimental terrain: the deaths--only weeks apart--of her mother, Elizabeth Chamberlayne Hadas, and her dear friend, Charles Barber.

In this interview, Rachel once more meditates on the balance between the vagaries of fortune and the bounty of being a poet.

GGB: As a whole, your oeuvre is preoccupied with the fundamental questions of mortality, metamorphosis and rebirth. Biographically speaking, you seem to have risen from your own ashes (literally and metaphorically) more than a few times. In "The Dream of Divesting" (Mirrors of Astonishment), you wrote "When it's finally time to go away,/how much of myself shall I shed?/Happy the empty suitcase;/happier the empty head." How much of yourself have you shed thus far in your own life?

RH: As far as rising from the ashes, I was tried for arson only once! But of course we do shed our successive selves in our lifelong trajectories, more like rockets than like phoenixes. Or do we? I live within a 15-minute walk of where I grew up. We spend summers in the house where I spent them as a child. The dining room table where I did my homework is now where my son does his homework. Continuity seems to be the theme. But continuity demands, if not rebirth, at least readjustment. Humanly speaking, I often fail to make the adjustment and so am hopelessly nostalgic for what cannot return. But art is where I am more courageous. Poetry enables me to face up to changes, if not to rebirths.

Another thought on the rebirth of the self is Oscar Wilde's wise comment, "It is impossible to change one's life. One merely wanders round and round the circle of one's personality." It strikes me for the first time that this may be a rather infernal image. Yet one can also imagine the personality as a park through which one meanders, always getting home for supper. Certainly some personalities are more varied and spacious than others.

GGB: And what of the relationship of that park-like personality and art? Can one separate the artist from her art?

RH: This is a point on which I am emphatically wishy-washy! If our selves keep changing, the whole matter surely becomes more complicated. Many of the literary-critical debates in our time can be defined as taking positions along a continuum, from "Yes, of course one should separate art and artist" to "No, no, artist and work are inseparable."

Personally, both as a reader and a writer, I am not concerned with the literal truth of a poem's contents. I know that any poem may float free of the facts of a life. But I do think that a temperamental link persists between the writer's style and his/her personality--unless the writer utterly lacks any personal voice, in which case I'd soon lose interest in the work.

My Rutgers colleague, David Hoddeson, describing his undergraduate years in the 50's, uses a good image: the New Criticism (so-called) put a frame around the poem; author and a good deal else remained outside that frame. Eventually, the pristine text inside the frame came to seem too limited, too cut off from the world and the person from whom it took its being.

And yet how pristine was that text, really? The students had been reading lyric poetry all along; they already had a good deal of information about authors, literary periods, and so on. Whereas for students now--reading big fat anthologies with double columns of print where poets are usually arranged in chronological order--the poet's "life," reduced to a short paragraph, is usually literally the introduction to the work, and naturally may seem more interesting, or at least more comprehensible, than the often difficult poems which follow the clear prose of the bio.

Such an arrangement clearly gets things backwards, but the severe separation of artist and work has problems too. So I think one negotiates back and forth, wishy-washily, fitting one's choice of response both to the nature of the work and the nature of the occasion. If you're writing a scholarly study of a writer, you will most likely connect the life and the art. If you know the writer, you can't help connecting them. But if you encounter a solitary poem in a magazine or anthology, then you can remain as ignorant as you like about the author's biography.

GGB: The Double Legacy is a highly personal work--a series of contemplative essays on the deaths of two key figures in your life: your mother, Elizabeth Chamberlayne Hadas, and your friend, Charles Barber. In what ways did these two individuals shape or influence your poetic imagination?

RH: Well, my mother did the shaping. She was a wonderful mother and my love of poetry--of all literature, really--has everything to do with the feast she set before me. Charlie came along too late in my life (I was almost 41 when we met) to shape my imagination in that way, but he fed it and certainly thus influenced it, in the sense of inspiring poems (in fact he continues to do that) and enlarging my thinking in various ways.

If my mother was the principal person who introduced me to literature, Charlie, many years later, became with miraculous swiftness and remained for the two and a half years of our friendship my partner in a dialogue which in a sense continues even now, almost five years after his death.

GGB: One of my favorite lines is in "On Dreams" (Mirrors of Astonishment), where you write, "FAX me your dream." We'll politely assume this isn't just a technological nightmare but expresses both some ineffable longing in you for a profound psychological immediacy with people you love and also a kind of despair at its impossibility. Do you think this impossible longing for perfect communion always existed, and was tragically deepened by your adult experiences?

RH: I think you're right on the mark when you speak of my ineffable longing and despair. I think these twin feelings probably motivate and permeate much of my poetry. Are they simply part of my temperament, or do they result from my father's early death and my premature sense of the yoking of love and loss? Are these feelings why I'm a poet or has my poetry heightened them? Such questions suggest certain answers but cannot be answered with finality or certainty.

I would demur at your use of the word "tragically." I've had a good many deaths in my life, but so does everyone, sooner or later. I have also had and still have a lot of love--a wonderful family and many friends--and work I adore and that absorbs me. Not everyone has that.

GGB: In the introduction to The Double Legacy, you say that you've omitted the small details of your daily life, largely because your everyday life was in abeyance during the period of your mother's and friend's illnesses and deaths. But your work, generally, is filled with small details--from the minute renderings of how it feels to be a nursing mother in A Son From Sleep to accepting your role as "Official Extricator of the Real from Everything That Isn't" (in "The Child Inquires Whether a Story is Real," from Living in Time). Is the commonplace, for you, an aspect of the sublime?

RH: As Freud may have said, sometimes a cigar is only a cigar--and sometimes the commonplace stubbornly resists transformation. But in general, of course, where else can we find sublimity but in the world we live in?

Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning" comes to mind here. "Divinity must live within herself:/Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow...." as do James Merrill's words about Montale. Merrill observed that Montale's domestic imagery opened out into the uncanny: a hen or ladle or envelope "can take you straight from the kitchen garden to really inhuman depths." Much poetry, though of course not all, works some such alchemy. The sublime in the commonplace is a good touchstone for quality in poetry-- not Ginsberg's "The asshole is holy" but Whitman, certainly. My poem "Little by Little," from the early 80s, treats this theme, though I don't remember being aware of it at the time: "Let nothing be too big or small to say or see...."

Mind you, the commonplace detail--the band-aid on my burned hand, the cat yowling--is not necessarily sublime. I don't aim for sublimity in poems any more than I strain to avoid it. I distrust poems that seem to be obsessive litanies of detail. Nor do I warm to poems that sweep or swoop grandly over the terrain without focus.

Whatever my intentions have been, the poems I've written that deal with accessible, often everyday subjects by way of concrete detail have been among my most popular, though I'm certain that rhyme and meter have something to do with this response too. Whereas earlier poems of mine that seem too abstract--no matter how carefully written--now bore me. Many of them apparently bored me years ago, since I didn't collect most of them into my books.

GGB: Passages and transitions are another major preoccupation in your work. Pass It On is a structured meditation on transitions of all kinds, including seasonal ones. Do you see your own life as passing in seasons? And if so, have you reached spring yet?

RH: Keats has a sonnet ("Four seasons fill the measure of the year") in which spring comes first. I'm 48; wouldn't I be autumnal or something? Born in November, I adore autumn and tend to feel itchy, grubby, and distracted in the spring, which is part of what the phrase "spring fever" has always meant to me. A recent conversation with the Richard Wilburs confirmed this sense of the term, though Dick didn't agree with my feelings about the season; I believe he's a spring man. His wife did, though.

There is also, thank God, the Indian summer provided by teaching. Every fall, my autumn encounters the students' spring. I would like to maintain my autumn for a long time before winter. But spring? I feel as if that's over, if indeed it ever happened! My springs seem to be vicarious: my students', my son's.

Another way of looking at time in one's own life is as space. In the fall of '88, when I turned forty and was away from home at an artists' colony, I had a vivid sense of myself as on an island, able to look forward and back. There was time ahead, but enough time had accumulated behind me so that I could see it. It was a peaceful feeling, this isolation. Both past and present were calm silver seas. I think periods like that recur in a life--I hope so.

GGB: In Living in Time, you speak of a "moratorium" which occurs in the lives of many successful woman artists--a time when their creative lives are at a standstill while the women attempt to decipher their personal identities (and destinies). You write that you felt your years in Greece were such a moratorium. Do you feel a life has only one such moratorium? Was this period of standstill a necessary part of your development as an artist?

RH: Let's give credit for the moratorium idea where it's due: to Carolyn Heilbrun's use (in her Writing a Woman's Life), of Erik Erikson's concept, which Heilbrun extends, as Erikson did not, to women.

In the sense that the moratorium is a period of fertile inactivity, a sort of incubation, preceding a career, I'd say that once the career takes shape, the moratorium as such does not recur. But of course there are periods of latency, or blockage, or exhaustion, or just pause, between phases of any creative career. With luck, though, one phase or project often seems to give rise fortuitously to another. I know I'm not the only artist to have experienced this sense of reprieve or renewal.

Still, between the peaks are troughs. May Swenson has a wise iconographic poem, "HOW EVERYTHING HAPPENS (Based on a Study of the Wave)," on this subject. The troughs often feel desperately arid and flat while one's in them, but it's not so bad if there are other things cooking at the same time--thinking about a course, correcting papers, writing a book review, weeding the garden, or just reading. During such periods of pause, the middle course--between waiting for inspiration to strike on the one hand and forcing oneself to crank out work on the other--can be difficult to steer. My husband George Edwards, who is a composer, has always been for me a model of how to combine industry, patience, and an intuitive trust in one's own inscrutable rhythms.

Right now I'm not exactly in a moratorium, but, putting together my New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 1998), in time for my fiftieth birthday, I do find myself in a retrospective mood where my own work is concerned, rather than brimming with fresh inspiration. It's especially fortunate, then, that some god with a great sense of timing dropped a present in my lap a few months ago. "Helen," the Euripides play I recently translated for the University of Pennsylvania Greek Tragedy series, is going to be staged here in New York later this spring, and I'm very excited about it.

GGB: The essays often weave intellectual tapestries whose threads are the thoughts and ideas of an astonishingly wide range of artists and scholars, living and dead. It is as if you are conducting a constant dialogue with these other voices. How important to the artistic process are these dialogues?

RH: You know the answer: extremely important. Crucial. The idea of dialogue makes its way into the form of essays such as "The Farewells" (in The Double Legacy) and into the very title of my AIDS anthology, Unending Dialogue: Voices from an AIDS Poetry Workshop. The phrase "unending dialogue," by the way, is from Kenneth Burke. (I'm not great at thinking but I have a good memory for phrases. My husband has been known to call me an idiot savant.)

GGB: Friendships with poets--James Merrill and Alan Ansen, in particular--seem also to play a critical role in your aesthetic and emotional life. Are friendships among poets different from other friendships?

RH: Friendship can be serendipitous in the same way as an unexpected project: someone will fall into one's life, apparently from heaven (though sometimes they turn out to come from some other place).

David Kalstone's book, Becoming A Poet, about the friendships between Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, and between Bishop and Robert Lowell, is a wonderfully subtle and tactful exploration of just how friendships between poets are different from other friendships. I think it was Bishop who wrote something about poets' keeping warm by writing to each other.

Mark Rudman, for example, who lives across the street from me, now shows me more work than I show him; but there was a time when we'd shove things under one another's doors weekly. Nor is it only a matter of sharing the work. In my experience, poets respect one another's struggle (a struggle invisible or uninteresting to most people) and are incalculably helpful to each other in ways they may not even know about at the time. A subordinate clause, an observation, a suggestion--something clicks.

Both from personal experience and from my knowledge of literary history, I think it's clear that poets nourish each other--what Bishop meant by keeping each other warm. They learn from one another's work and lives. Of course, they--may I say "we?"--are suspect as friends in that anything may go into a poem, including an argument, an unkind observation--anything. ("When they ask about inspiration," said Robert Frost, "I tell them it's mostly animus.") But once it's in the poem--if the poem lasts--the friendship, or that moment of it, however difficult, is encapsulated, preserved.

Merrill says in his memoir, A Different Person, that whereas human relations, like a picnic that may be rained out, are forever at the mercy of bad human weather--misunderstandings, contretemps, a bad mood--literature is not. I can think of plenty of people (many of them poets) I'm fond of with whom I nevertheless don't want to spend a lot of time. Well, poems aren't like that. They are always perfect companions. If you're not in the mood for them and leave for a while, they don't complain. Lyric poems are so deliciously self-contained, so free of the canine panting of narrative, which wants to tug you onward for a few more pages (another kind of pleasure).

I seem to have moved from talking about poets' friendships to considering poems themselves as friends. Fair enough. Every poet I know is aware of an uncomfortable pull between the gregarious and solitary sides of his or her nature. You love people, but need to get away from them in order to write your poems, which are often about unrequited love, or like letters to absent friends...and so the spiral or cycle goes.

GGB: In light of the themes of metamorphosis and transition in your work, it seems natural that you would also be an avid translator of several languages. Other Worlds Than This contains highly original translations of an eclectic assortment of poets--from Tibullus and Seneca, to Victor Hugo and several Symbolist poets, and ending with translations of Greek poet, Konstantine Karyotakis. Is the art of translation for you another way of changing yourself, even as you change the work of others?

RH: I love the double sense I have in translating of serendipity and surrender. Translating is also--among other things--a way of negotiating a dry passage: taxing one's verbal skills while pouring oneself into a formal vessel not of one's own choosing. Forcing myself to render ideas and feelings as skillfully as I can, I forget to worry about my own lack of inspiration.

Am I saying that whatever one thinks one is doing at the time, any project that seizes the imagination turns into another version of the self, another chapter in the ongoing oeuvre? Something like that.

I'm proud of my translations. Maybe I'll be remembered (if I am, which is a huge if) in the future as a gifted translator who also had a career as a poet.

GGB: What appeals to you most about translating the works of classic writers?

RH: What's not to like? At the very least, one reads the text with fresh urgency. Or one may even be reading it for the first time. Either way, it exercises a pull. Some of Baudelaire's poems, which I translated in 1990 and 1991 when my friendship with Charlie was very intense, seemed to have been originally written about the relation between AIDS and eros. And Euripides' "Helen," a magical play, is about female identity and, not coincidentally, survival, reinvention, rebirth. It's about a happy marriage. GGB: In "The Cradle and the Bookcase" (Living in Time), you use sumptuous personal essays and poems to explore your life as a reader--shifting points of view from scholar to artist, mother, wife, and daughter. Is reading as important to you now that you are in your forties as it was to you when you were a girl? Do you read for the same reasons now as then?

RH: I read with less intensity and certainly less retention now than I once did. I read for different reasons, or for a greater variety of reasons, than when I was a child. But I think reading at any age satisfies a variety of needs and appetites. One reads for so many different kinds of pleasure, from escapism, vicarious thrills of all kinds, to information, aesthetic delight, narrative pull, amusement, entertainment--full circle. Furthermore, when various subliminal uses or purposes combine, and a nugget of text floats to the mind's surface, reading turns out to be not a pastime but a substance and a method. In a way, reading is not just food for thought; it is thought. John Hollander has said that writing is a more difficult form of reading.

As plenty of people have said, books are one of the great inventions; are more fun to take to bed or the beach than computers; are beloved of children. Alas, it is also manifestly true that the peace and quiet needed for reading, as well as the function of reading as a source of information and recreation, are both under siege.

GGB: As a teacher and a mother, what is your hope for future generations of readers?

RH: As a teacher, I would stand on my head if it encouraged my students to read. I read to them, with them, we read aloud. Teaching at Rutgers gives me a chance to reread books that can never be worn out (like the Iliad, Walden, Jane Austen's novels), and a chance to try out in the classroom books that gave me a frisson when I heard them read aloud, like David Ferry's superb version of Gilgamesh.

Poetry brings things together--sometimes very unlikely things- -and teaching gives one a chance to show how that works. This fall, teaching Gilgamesh, I had the courage for the first time to juxtapose part of one of Charlie Barber's poems with the ancient lines brought to life by Ferry. Whether it was the doomed Enkidu's dream of the House of the Dead or the AIDS sufferer dreaming of death as an office building in Lower Manhattan, weren't the similarities greater than the differences, and didn't the language leap lightly over millennia? And as a teacher, a mother, a whatever, I got to spread this feast out for the readers.

To read poetry by Rachel, visit THERMOPYLAE.

The above interview appeared in the Spring 1997 issue of ELF: ECLECTIC LITERARY FORUM magazine. ELF is "an international quarterly of significant contemporary literature," which publishes poetry, short fiction, essays, literary book reviews, interviews, photography, humor, and ethnic lore. Gloria is an Advisory Editor.


copyright © 1997 Gloria G. Brame

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