Linda Gregerson visited Hillsdale College Mar. 20 – 21, 2019. Courtesy | Linda Gregerson

Linda Gregerson, born and raised in Elgin, Illinois, is a Renais­sance scholar, clas­si­cally trained actor, and science devotee, writes lyric poetry exploring the con­nec­tions between science and art. She is the Car­oline Walker Bynum Dis­tin­guished Uni­versity Pro­fessor of English Lan­guage and Lit­er­ature at the Uni­versity of Michigan, where she teaches cre­ative writing and directs the Helen Zell Writers Program. Her poems, which have appeared in The New Yorker and The Best American Poetry, among others places, have received mul­tiple lit­erary awards. Gregerson has also pub­lished a variety of critical works, including “The Ref­or­mation of the Subject: Spenser, Milton, and the English Protestant Epic,” in 1995. Her most recent poetic volume, “Prodigal: New and Selected Poems, 1976 – 2014,” was pub­lished in 2015. In 2014, Gregerson was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sci­ences, and in 2015 was elected a Chan­cellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Can you tell me more about your interest in science?

“Where to begin? I think poetry and sci­en­tific inquiry have a great deal in common. Poetry worth its name is a form of inquiry. And I’m absolutely enrap­tured by what I under­stand of the bio­logical sci­ences and sci­en­tific research. My sister was a neu­roen­docri­nol­ogist. And actually, when I was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the summer before I began my MFA, I had a summer job with a group of neu­ro­phys­i­ol­o­gists. I was just there as a temp, typing up lecture notes and turning them into actual English, and I was just thrilled with what I was learning. I really do think there’s an enormous amount of sym­pathy between the two dis­ci­plines. Part of it has to do with wonder. … I am per­pet­ually aston­ished by the mystery of living in a body that is so much smarter than I am. A body that handles more things, is infi­nitely more complex — that does things I could not pos­sibly do on purpose, and which I inhabit as a kind of guest.”

“I guess what moves me enor­mously about sci­en­tific inquiry is the gap between what we have by way of cog­nitive equipment, and what it is that our gaze is directed toward. This of course has been dis­cussed in reli­gious terms as well, the dis­tance between the divine tran­scen­dence and limited human appre­hension, but I don’t think we need to go there to encounter that incredible dis­pro­portion in scale. Poetry, in its own way, is after the inef­fable, or the dif­ficult to grasp by other means, that which does not readily lend itself to dis­cursive expla­nation. I don’t think poetry is unrea­sonable, or anti-reason, or mys­tical, in any reductive way. But I do think the expe­rience of standing before the world in wonder and wanting to come to what mind­fulness we can is a very important stance. In my expe­rience, it’s our common stance, common to poets and sci­en­tists alike. I have been the ben­e­fi­ciary of instruction from people who are exquis­itely trained in sci­en­tific research. The magic of that research is the com­bi­nation of apti­tudes it requires: capac­ities for abstract inquiry, for tol­erance of pro­vi­sional thinking, or hypothesis, and also an array of prac­tical skills. The sci­entist needs to posit some premise in order to for­mulate her question, and then to design an exper­iment that might help her refine the question, and she has to be pre­pared to jet­tison that hypothesis if her exper­i­mental results tell her it’s insuf­fi­cient. You have to be invested in order to pursue the question, but you also have to prepare to be cor­rected. I think that’s also a moral stance. You can’t be not-com­mitted, you must be strongly com­mitted and yet pre­pared to be cor­rected.”

Why then did you choose poetry?

“There was, in an odd way, an early kind of tracking. I went to a very small high school in a very small town, and it wasn’t that I was dis­couraged from pur­suing math or science, it was just that dif­ferent kinds of arts were scheduled up against elec­tives in math in science, and so I had to choose. Nobody intended that to be a lim­i­tation — people were doing the best they could — but it sort of wound up that way. But also, the first way I sort of found myself in the world. I used to look at people and think, ‘How do they do that? They look so intact, and I’m so inchoate!’ — though I didn’t know that word. Working in the arts was the first way I found some way of having a self, most impor­tantly through acting in theatre, some­thing I con­tinued throughout college. I didn’t write poetry until two or three years after I’d grad­uated. And I knew nothing about it, I was incredibly bad to begin with. I didn’t know how to read con­tem­porary poetry. I knew how to read John Donne, or I knew how to begin to read John Donne, I absolutely adored John Donne’s work, but I was very baffled by con­tem­porary poetry. So I was a late beginner.

Would you con­sider your style con­tem­porary, or more tra­di­tional?

“I think we have to live in our moment. The world may need another John Donne, but a John Donne pro­vided now would not sound like John Donne of the 17th century. I cannot be John Donne — I would be a very very poor imi­tation. Which does not mean rejecting our mar­velous her­itage, at all. The most pow­erful con­tes­ta­tions in art are those which are in con­ver­sation with that which has gone before us. They may take a highly sub­versive stance, but that itself is a form of honor: it’s con­tinuing the con­ver­sation. So I deeply believe in history, I think it’s essential to our being in the world and to the pro­duction of art of any form. But John Donne wrote in his moment. All the artists I know worth reading wrote in their moment: they were not dead to the world around them. In fact, it’s noticing the world around us that I think poetry gives us the oppor­tunity to do, and demands of us.”

Who are some of the poets who inspire you?

“That’s a question I can never answer. I read as broadly as I pos­sibly can. Some of the first poets I learned how to read at all were the meta­phys­icals. I learned how to piece out a metaphor, follow a piece of syntax, follow syntax that some­times seems to be going off the rails and then recu­per­ating itself: I think that’s thrilling. To that extent, that has been an influence. I try to make sure that my lan­guage is capa­cious: that is, I want it to include all forms of diction, both formal and informal, col­lo­quial and oth­erwise. But I also want some­times to build a syn­tac­tical project that is in danger of col­lapse, and then recovers itself. I think that’s a cog­nitive path.”

What your cre­ative process looks like: how do you go about writing a poem?

“It can start almost any­where. I can start with a piece of lan­guage, one I encounter some­where, some­thing I over­heard on the bus, some­thing I saw on a page some­where, maybe the morning news­paper, some­thing in a piece of lan­guage that makes me very dis­traught or worried: at some level, it’s trying to find momentum that’s already in words. But some­times it might be a picture, a land­scape, a vision of a young child being pushed down the street in a stroller: it can be any­thing. It can be an emotion, a memory, or a piece of a nar­rative — it’s really quite diverse. And then I start to try to gen­erate lan­guage. It sounds very super­sti­tious, but my ear­liest drafts must begin in pencil on a yellow legal notepad, in my atro­cious hand­writing — the fact that I then some­times go back and have trouble deci­phering it seems to me to be useful too, it keeps things kind of fluid. I need to keep it fluid for a while. But then I discard, try some­thing maybe next-door-neigh­borly to it, say that was the wrong place to begin, I need to start at a dif­ferent angle. But then finally I have to start pinning it down, I have to start estab­lishing a very firm syntax, and exper­iment with a stanza pattern which seems to have the right musical rela­tionship to the syntax. Once I’ve estab­lished that, I’m writing into that stanza pattern.”

You’ve also written numerous critical works: is there a par­ticular area or subject that you find yourself coming back to in your ana­lytical writing?

“Poetry. A lot of my schol­arship is focused on Milton, and I never lose interest in that body of work, in that his­torical period and its com­pli­cated inter­section of radical change, emergent political and epis­te­mo­logical models, and of course, often violent reli­gious struggle: the Ref­or­mation in England. The Renais­sance came late to England; the Ref­or­mation came early. And they inter­sected in ways they did not else­where.”

“I’ve written about Ref­or­mation Icon­o­clasm: it’s a subject that interests me enor­mously because of its investment in signs, and the sense that they are of urgent impor­tance — in how we use them, how we con­strue them, how we cir­culate them, how we under­stand them. I never stop being fas­ci­nated, it’s just too, too won­derful. And of course it’s also a period before what we con­strue as the sep­a­ration between science and art, and the­ology and science, before those fire­walls were erected. And I think there’s an enormous amount to be gleaned from that.”

From where do you get inspi­ration for your writing today? Would you say that you write with a message, to provoke some kind of change, or are you more inter­ested in recording life as you see it?

“I probably wouldn’t put it either way. I cer­tainly don’t think poetry is very good at didac­ticism. That explicit mission to teach or instill — that’s just not one of the things it’s good for. And stories alone don’t quite capture what I hope to be doing, although I think some­times a nar­rative or a fragment of nar­rative can be a really important com­ponent of a poem, as essential as voice, or metaphor, or meter. I try to make the poem, in the first instance for myself and therefore, I hope, for a reader, an occasion for simple and con­cen­trated noticing. I’m so keenly aware of how much I’m oblivious to, how much passes me by without my paying suf­fi­cient attention to it. I don’t want, on my deathbed, to think my life has been all a blur, that it’s been lost on me. I’m just trying to keep it from being entirely lost on me. I think shared moments of paying attention are absolutely the most important things human beings can do for one another in any context. And so I also take it very seri­ously that, insofar as a reader is going to attend to my poem, I take that as an honor, I’m grateful for it, and I want to do justice to that.”