Poet Ryan Wilson visits campus to teach a poetry workshop. Ryan Wilson | Courtesy

Ryan Wilson is a poet and the current editor of Lit­erary Matters, an online lit­erary journal. Wilson’s first book of poems, “The Stranger World,” won the 2017 Donald Justice Poetry Prize, and his poems, trans­la­tions, and crit­icism appear widely in peri­od­icals such as First Things, Five Points, The Hopkins Review,

The New Cri­terion, The Sewanee Review, and The Yale Review. Wilson is vis­iting campus Jan. 24 – 25 to teach a poetry workshop, and will be giving a poetry reading.

How long have you been writing poetry? What inspired you to begin?

I started playing with words and making little rhymes almost as soon as I learned to talk, and I was always writing little things, but I didn’t commit myself to writing poetry seri­ously until I read T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” during my Freshman year of college, almost twenty years ago. That poem struck me like a lightning-bolt.

Do you find lit­erary cri­tique to be a com­pletely dif­ferent skill from poetry, or do the two play off of each other?  

The two go hand-in-hand. If one wants to be a great musician, one listens — and listens crit­i­cally — to a lot of music. If one wants to be a great bas­ketball player, one watches — and watches crit­i­cally — a lot of bas­ketball games. Sim­i­larly, reading lots of poetry — and reading it crit­i­cally — helps one to develop one’s own craft.

What — or who — inspires your work today?

I’m a poet mostly of farm country and wood­lands. The beauty of cre­ation delights me to no end.

Modern poetry has a ten­dency to be free form, and often dark: is this a ten­dency that you have embraced, or have you tried to introduce a dif­ferent tone with your work?

I’m not sure that “free form” is exactly accurate. The greatest poet of American Mod­ernism, T.S. Eliot, who is often con­sidered a pioneer of so-called “free verse” — “orvers libre” — writes, “Vers libre does not exist,” and goes on to add that “there is no freedom in art.” What he means is that all art is based on pat­terning. While much modern poetry mod­ifies tra­di­tional pat­terning, or invents new kinds of pat­terning, it’s not quite “free form.” Indeed, William Carlos Williams — who is often taken to stand in polar oppo­sition to Eliot — writes sim­i­larly, “There is no such thing as free verse.”

Very often, the illusion of an absence of pat­terning is created by the poet’s using more recondite pat­terning. As W.B. Yeats writes in “Adam’s Curse”: “A line may take us hours, maybe;/Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,/Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” That is to say that the modern poets tend to follow Ovid’s claim from The Art of Love: Ars est celare artem, “The art is to hide the art.” One wants a poem to seem like spon­ta­neous speech, the way a magician wants a long-prac­ticed trick to look easy.

As for modern poems often being “dark,” I suppose that’s so, although there’s a great deal of light in mas­terful poets like Mar­ianne Moore, W.H. Auden, Eliz­abeth Bishop, James Merrill, Richard Wilbur, Derek Walcott, and John Ashbery, as well as in some of our more bril­liant living con­tem­po­raries like Mary Jo Salter, Brad Lei­thauser, and A.E. Stallings. Per­sonally, I’m inter­ested in uti­lizing a wide variety of pat­terns and in poems that wrestle with the angel as Jacob did.

With the younger gen­er­ation increas­ingly encouraged to pursue careers in STEM, business, or medical fields, because of their greater per­ceived use­fulness in the modern world, what defense would you make for writing poetry? How would you respond to those who suggest that poetry is not a viable occu­pation, or that it is not useful enough?

First, writing poetry and working in med­icine or business are not mutually exclusive. William Carlos Williams was a physician, as is the fine con­tem­porary poet C. Dale Young. The modern master, Wallace Stevens, was Vice Pres­ident of the Hartford Insurance Company, and the won­derful con­tem­porary, Dana Gioia, was a Vice Pres­ident of the Kraft Food Company. The poet doesn’t have to be a bohemian, although some poets choose to be bohemians because they find bour­geois sta­bility a bit sti­fling.

While poetry can’t stop a tank, as the Nobel Lau­reate Seamus Heaney once quipped, neither can virtue, yet we tend not to question the value of virtue. Without delving into the­ology, we might mention Aristotle’s concept of the “hexis,” which Aquinas trans­lates “habitus.” The “hexis,” or “habitus,” of virtue is “the good seeking the good,” and the habit of virtue is, for Aris­totle, its own reward. Sim­i­larly, the pursuit of beauty is, on a basic level, its own reward: there is pleasure in encoun­tering beauty, and there is pleasure in making one’s life as beau­tiful as pos­sible. (The Pla­tonist would see the habit of virtue and the habit of beauty as insep­a­rable.) I hope that we haven’t become so abstracted that we disdain the pleasure of beauty.

Moreover, people have an innate need for lan­guage with which to under­stand and to express them­selves: the best poetry is nothing less than the greatest lan­guage recorded in human history. It affords us not only the pleasure of encoun­tering beauty but also the oppor­tunity to know our­selves and our world more fully, more inti­mately, not as ideas but as par­tic­ulars. The imag­i­nation is not an escape from reality but an entrance into the body of it.  

While poetry may not seem as imme­di­ately useful as learning to perform life-saving surgery, self-knowledge and the love of beauty and the human com­munity pro­moted by poetry are important parts of why we want to stay alive at all. In “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” Dr. Williams writes: “It is difficult/to get the news from poems,/yet men die mis­erably every day/ for lack/of what is found there.”

What advice would you offer to young artists, whether writers, poets, or oth­erwise?

Don’t sell yourself short by taking shortcuts or avoiding the dif­ficult. Believe in yourself so deeply that you can be as exacting and metic­ulous in the practice of your craft as the greatest masters were. Shake­speare and Emily Dick­inson and Langston Hughes and Michelangelo and Bach were people, just like you.