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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