Utter the word “earthling,” and you conjure images of aliens who want to be taken to our leader. Or, you think of the David Bowie album. But in talking to writer James Longenbach about his new poetry collection, Earthling (paperback, Kindle), it seems he uses the word in the way it was originally intended. Well, and the Bowie way, too.
Photo Credit: Adam Fenster
How would you describe the poems in Earthling? Are they haikus about personal matters, free verse about nature…
Though we associate it with 1950s science fiction, the word “earthling” is one of the oldest words in the English language. It’s our original word for a ploughman, a keeper of the earth. The poems I’ve gathered together with this title focus on ordinary life in the 21st century, but in a way that makes ordinary things seem primal, mysterious, a little strange. As if we were each of us the first earthling, looking up with bewilderment at the world around us. Even if it’s just a parking lot, even if we’re walking the dog. The tone of the poems, it seems to me, is what communicates this perspective, and the tone is dependent on the particular kind of free verse I’ve employed. For instance, lines that are almost always end-stopped — that is, the syntax ends where the line ends — help to give the utterance a kind of blank matter-of-factness, even when I’m saying something harrowing, and especially when I’m saying something mundane, which may then also seem a little funny, I hope.
That said, I didn’t make a set of conscious choices about how I would end up writing these poems. Every new book of poems throws you back down to the bottom of the mountain, no matter where you’ve climbed in the past, and you start groping, waiting for some line or passage that sounds interesting, fresh, alive, and then you try to figure out how you did that so that might do it again. These poems are the result of eight years of such productive groping; it seems like it ought to be easy, but it’s very difficult to sound like yourself.
So is there either a theme that ties all the poems in Earthling together, or some other commonality between them?
I think the tone I’ve described is what ties the poems of Earthling together most strongly, but certainly there are particular themes associated with that tone. Most prominently, the effort to come to some kind of terms with mortality, to understand what it means to inhabit the Earth so that one day we will leave it behind. The first three poems in the book, culminating in the longer poem, “The Crocodile” — which is, in a round-about way, about the death of my mother — establish this theme, and the remaining poems spin a variety of variations. Often it is most difficult to find a way to talk about the simplest things, making fundamental emotions feel real, but that’s, in my experience, what fuels compelling poetry.
The theme happened to me. I’m not good at having ideas. Usually I don’t produce interesting writing that way. And certainly, as I often tell my students, you can have all the great ideas in the world, all the richest experiences, and still not write a good poem. I need to write, and by writing see what I discover, see what the act of making sentences produces in me. Sometimes I need not to write, too; waiting, brooding, that’s sometimes crucial, especially if the alternative is simply to repeat oneself.
Once you had these poems, how did you decide what poems to include in Earthling?
Deciding what poems to include is complicated, and even more complicated is deciding the order in which the poems should appear. This ordering is absolutely crucial to every successful book of poems, since a book of poems must truly be a book, an experience that unfolds from beginning to end with the combination of surprise and inevitability that also distinguishes a single poem. Over time, I must have worked through fifty or sixty different tables of contents before I settled on the final arrangement. Now it seems impossible to imagine moving a single line; the whole structure would collapse.
And once you had all these poems collection, you decided on the title Earthling?
As I said, the poems often invoke the more primal, archaic meaning of the word, but I wouldn’t want the ghost of David Bowie to go away. That specter of the more familiar sense of the word plays into the wry humor of the poems, the sense of every human being as a little earthling lost in the bewilderment of his own back yard…
Writers hate talking about their influences, but is there a poet or book of poetry that you feel had a big impact on the poems in Earthling — both in terms of what you wrote and how you wrote it — that was not an influence on the poems in your previous collections?
I don’t mind talking about influences, really; I’ve been influenced by a few writers I deeply, deeply admire — Marvell, Yeats, Oppen — writers who somehow manage to write with extreme clarity and simplicity while at the same time creating poems that are unfathomably complex. I like it when very simple language feels spooky and weird, just as very simple experiences may also feel that way.
I should also say that, in the particular case of Earthling, a great influence was the fact that, during a long illness I endured over the course of its composition, I reread all of Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time, and the astonishing drama of insight that constitutes that endless novel helped radically to push my thinking, and my sentences, in new directions.
What about non-poetic influences, such as prose or lyrics? Anyone in those realms have a big impact on the Earthling poems?
Indeed, as I’ve just said, Proust’s prose — not just the insight but the warp and woof of his syntax — entered me deeply.
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a particular pop song lyric that influenced me, but I adore such lyrics, and I think about them all the time. “Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play” is gummy, predictable writing that would never hold up in a poem, but “I met a gin-soaked bar-room queen in Memphis” is an iambic pentameter line with a rhythmic vitality that Shakespeare would have envied. Not that “wop bop a loo lop a lop bam boom” is not also a great, great line…
I’m surprised you didn’t mention Bowie.
I revere David Bowie. Even when he’s at his most outlandish, there’s something quietly elegant about him, and even when he is as close as he ever came to being a pop star, there’s something deliciously strange. The lyrics even to a big radio hit like “Modern Love” — “I catch a paper boy / But things don’t really change / I’m standing in the wind / But I never say bye-bye” — have the combination of high clarity and weird elusiveness that you feel when reading great lines of poetry.
That said, what he’s doing is not the same thing as poetry, and, as is the case with Dylan or Patti Smith, you need — you want — the whole package of the music. I think that, as a kid, I learned how to love the charismatic combination of clarity and elusiveness in language from listening to pop songs; when I turned to reading poems, even very difficult poems, I recognized a familiar tone, a feeling.
A number of the poems in Earthling were previously published in The New Yorker, Colorado Review, and The New Republic. But are they the same versions, or did seeing them in print somewhere else make you want to revise them?
Some of the poems got changed slightly between their publication in periodicals and their appearances in the book, but nothing drastic. Yet I would take this opportunity to say that the support of certain editors of magazines has been crucial. You never know if what you’re writing is any good, not if you’re really putting yourself out there, and an editor’s confidence can be very consolidating. Paul Muldoon’s [The New Yorker] response to “The Crocodile” was crucial for me; Wendy Lesser’s [The Threepenny Review] suggestion to change the title of a long poem was equally so.
Now, Earthling is your fifth poetry collection, but you’ve also written six books of literary criticism — including The Virtues Of Poetry, The Art Of The Poetic Line, and The Resistance To Poetry — and you’re an English professor at the University Of Rochester. How, if it all, does thinking about literary criticism so much impact your poetry?
Every poet is a great literary critic, but not every poet likes to or needs to write down the literary criticism. By this I mean that you have to have read at least a hundred great poems in order to write one decent one, and you need to have thought hard about those poems. Not simply about what they’re about, but about how they manage to make what they’re about feel permanently surprising, something you want to hear again even after you know the poem intimately.
But I also like writing literary criticism because it gives me something else to do; I like the discipline of writing clear, helpful prose sentences, especially ones that honor things I love by describing them intimately.
Finally, if someone really enjoys Earthling, which of your other books would you suggest they get next and why that one?
While I’m fond of all my books, I inevitably love the most recent one best. So after Earthling, I think I would recommend turning to the next-most-recent collection, The Iron Key.
I would also like to think that my books about poetry seem written by the same earthling who wrote these poems; my recent The Virtues Of Poetry represents an effort to describe as plainly as possible how certain aspects of poems work, but in a quiet way it is also a kind of autobiography, an account of how I think and feel through poems. I’m not the kind of poet who believes that poetry needs cheerleaders, and I wouldn’t ever demand or even expect anyone be interested in poetry, but for people who are interested, I hope that I’ve had something quietly useful and moving to say.