An Interview With C. Dale Young

Interview conducted by Justin Bigos

Justin Bigos: I’d like to start by talking about beauty. I am currently taking a poetry workshop in which the teacher, on the first day of class, asked us: “Is beauty something you think about in your poems?” I was kind of struck by the question – as if a poet could possibly not think of beauty, not just in his or her own poems but in the poems of others. Carl Phillips has written in an essay, “The point of the poem is not to say anything about beauty, but to enact the vision of it” – “to see it.” So, the student now asks the teacher: Is beauty something you think about in your poems, in the poems of others?

C. Dale Young: Many have written about beauty, but I always return to Stephen Dobyns and his extraordinary book of essays Best Words, Best Order. In that collection, he has a phenomenal essay on the problem of beauty. In that essay, he quotes a passage by Dostoyevsky in which one finds the following:

“Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed and never can be fathomed, for God sets us nothing but riddles. […] The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the Devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”

I return to that quote often because I don’t know exactly what beauty is, and I firmly believe one cannot know it without the juxtaposition of the ordinary. Someone once tried to convince me you could only see the beautiful if you had seen the grotesque, but I disagree. I believe to see beauty one must also see the ordinary out of the corner of one’s eye. So, in the drafting, the getting the poem down, I do not think of beauty. But in revision I do, and at that point I am also keenly aware that to have beauty one must also have the ordinary. If a poem is filled with nothing but the beautiful, it becomes a kind of grotesque. In the end, I strive not for beauty but for elegance, remembering that elegance arises from simplicity and not from the beautiful. Reliance on the beautiful, reliance on detail, gives rise not to elegance but to the baroque, something which if taken to the extreme is grotesque.

JB: I like your emphasis on the common, the ordinary, even the peripheral. It does seem that poets who have an aversion to “beauty” may think of it as necessarily precious. And in that way the beautiful becomes “sentimental” – another word poets tend to hate. I think of your poem “The Bridge,” which begins, “I love. Wouldn’t we all like to start/ a poem with ‘I love’? I would.” The poem moves from this playful ars-poetica opening to a love poem, and the poem ends on the image of the speaker and his beloved holding hands, and how they look together like the Golden Gate Bridge. The poem definitely flirts with sentimentality, and in its flirting it feels defiant – and so the ending is a kind of middle finger to those who would deny – well, the things we’re talking about: beauty, feeling, joy, which are found in common, everyday life. So: what the hell is going on? Seriously, where does all this doubting of our own emotions come from? Is it worth thinking about? Or should we just get our work done and not worry about it?

CDY: It is, I would argue, a good thing to doubt our emotions and how they are used in poems. If the poem arises wholly from a single emotion, the likelihood the poem will be flat increases significantly. “The Bridge” started because many years ago I noticed that there were parallel lines in the word “parallel.” I just loved that. When I was much younger I falsely believed that the love poem was in essence a dead form; I believed this out of a kind of laziness when I was a graduate student. What I realized with time is that the love poem isn’t dead but just incredibly difficult to pull off. I wanted to write a poem about the fact I love so many things. I wanted to be playful. In the end, I believe it is the playfulness that allows me to pull that poem off. If I had opened the poem with what comes at the end, the poem would have spiraled into utter sappiness. For every force there must be an opposing force. Poems are much like that basic idea in physics.

JB: In rereading your latest book, Torn, I was struck again by the grace, the exactness, of the diction and syntax. The poems feel made, in the best sense of the word. And yet, there are moments in which the voice seems to crack a little, to give way to something vulgar – again, in the best sense of the word. I am thinking of a poem like “The Cutting Room,” in which the speaker says, “I speak what I know. I speak with a filthy mouth.” I love that line, and its careful placement in the poem. And yet the “filthy mouth” is not foul as much as it is physically filthy, dirty, of the earth, of the body formed by earth. That’s what I mean by the best sense of vulgar – the low, the against-the-ground, where all of us really live whether we admit it or not. We have spoken of beauty – can we speak of the vulgar in the same breath?

CDY: Well, this is another facet of what we are talking about when we talk about beauty. If by vulgar you mean common, then yes, for me a poem like “The Cutting Room” cannot exist without the common. A poem in which a falling glass becomes a falling heart, a heart that does not break but turns to dust, is a poem heading for disaster. The speaker of that poem has to be angry, has to say something rather common to offset the pseudo-surreal transformation of the glass into a heart. Tone and diction can do an incredible amount of work to ground and stabilize a wildness of image, something I have marveled at in the work of Sylvia Plath. But yes, the common is absolutely necessary to execute the moment of transformation in that poem, which could be seen as an attempt to enact the beautiful. Without the common, without the modulation of tone, that poem would be just a sequence of images enacting a kind of Ovidian transformation. And that may be beautiful, but it would also be immensely dull.

JB: In “Corpus Medicum,” a poem of eros, faith, and doubt – connecting the world of medicine an