Jeffrey Harrison is the author of five full-length books of poetry—The Singing Underneath (1988), selected by James Merrill for the National Poetry Series, Signs of Arrival (1996), Feeding the Fire (2001), Incomplete Knowledge (2006), which was runner-up for the Poets’ Prize, and Into Daylight, published in 2014 by Tupelo Press as the winner of the Dorset Prize—as well as of The Names of Things: New and Selected Poems, published in 2006 by Waywiser Press in the U.K. A recipient of Guggenheim and NEA Fellowships, as well as other honors, he has published poems in The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Nation, Poetry, The Yale Review, The Hudson Review, American Poetry Review, The Paris Review, Poets of the New Century, The Twentieth Century in Poetry, and in many other magazines and anthologies. He lives in Massachusetts.
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Can you speak about the significance of the title Into Daylight? The book cover has a lovely black and white photo of distant pine trees blurred out by snow.
The title Into Daylight came fairly late in the game. The working title had been What Comes Next, which came to feel rather bland, though it did capture an undertone I wanted by referring indirectly to my brother’s suicide and asking how life might go on after such a devastating event. But I like Into Daylight much better, with its sense of coming out of darkness and into the light. It puts the emphasis on the later part of that process (coming into the light), whereas the cover photo, with its slightly gloomy beauty, seems to capture an earlier stage of the process, or perhaps an intermediate stage in which the darkness is still visible. For me, there’s a feeling in the photo of coming out of the darkness but not yet into the full light. So, there’s a correspondence but also a bit of tension between the title and the cover image. I had imagined something more at the other, brighter end of the spectrum—like a detail of big puffy sunlit clouds out of van Ruisdael—but I think the cover serves the book well.
There are numerous references to poets in Into Daylight: John Clare, Edward Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Elizabeth Bishop, W.B. Yeats, to name a few. Paired with poems like “Roofer,” “Work” and “Parts of an Old House” that emphasize tools, construction, and labor, the collection as a whole feels largely about the creative process. Is that fair to say? Is there a particular method in the way the poems were organized?
Yes, that’s fair to say, though it may be part of a larger theme. This book is not really about my brother’s death (most of those poems are in my previous book, Incomplete Knowledge), but about restoring a connection to the world, and to poetry, during the following decade. I needed to find my way back. And, early on in that difficult period, I was drawn to some of the pure, elemental poets like Clare, Thomas, and Bishop—as a kind of basic sustenance, like bread. They might be called poets of the first perception, who, in the words of Virginia Woolf’s character Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse, try to get at “the thing itself before it has been made anything. Get that and start afresh ….” (James Schuyler would be another example, though I didn’t write about him in the book.) These poets helped me find my way back to the beauty of the world, and to the “imaginative awe” that Auden said was the root of poetry, and I was incredibly grateful to them and the other poets and writers I went on to read (like Woolf herself). The homages to other writers scattered through the book might be partly what turned me toward the creative process as a subject in some of the other poems.
As far as the organization goes, I like to look for ways to order the poems that make some kind of sense without being too literal or programmatic. One thing I noticed while playing with the arrangement is that different poems (sometimes on similar subjects) demonstrated varying degrees of engagement with the world, and with language. “Out Back” and “Cross-Fertilization” are examples. Both poems are about flowers (including foxglove), but the first is about leaving the flowers alone, or not meddling with them too much, both literally and on the level of language (by not employing fancy metaphors or embellishments). It’s really a poem about things as they are (as much as that is possible). In “Cross-Fertilization,” on the other hand, the speaker is actively involved with the flowers to a high degree, both literally (transporting them across state lines and trying to pollinate them by hand with a Q-tip) and figuratively, bringing in similes, a pop song, and a slightly outrageous sexual metaphor that takes the poem well beyond an attempt to capture the thing itself. It’s a much more playful poem. In a sense the poems are opposites—that’s why I bookended the collection with them. I don’t think the book moves from one to the other in a linear fashion, but I do think many of the poems can be seen as falling at varying points on the spectrum between contemplative perception and imaginative transformation and/or active involvement. Two other poems that can be paired in this way are “For Clare,” in which the speaker doesn’t get too involved with the rabbit he finds, and “To a Snake,” in which he hurls the snake into the woods with a lacrosse stick. Or: “Light Snow” as opposed to “Shaking Off the Snow.” I see it all as part of the two-steps-forward-one-step-back process of reconnecting with the world. But again, I didn’t notice any of this until later.
All five of your full collections feel very connected to me—reading them together has a memoir-like quality in that several themes and subjects reemerge in all. Do you feel your books have a continuous narrative?
I think you’re right, though the narrative may at times feel a little a discontinuous or intermittent rather than seamless—or perhaps implicit, running underneath the poems as a whole and connecting them with invisible ligatures. This effect is not something I create by design but more a function of the kind of poem I write. For better or worse, I tend to write—and like in the work of other poets—poems that feel as if they have been written out of an actual life. Though I write lyrics as well as narratives—or often something in between—the poems may end up feeling, on one level, like brief chapters in a life, and the books as a whole like accounts of my life during the period when the book was written. But this is only one way of seeing the poems, and perhaps the entry point for deeper readings. I hope the poems are also something more—which is to say autonomous works of art with their own internal compositional structures, bound together by their themes, motifs, metaphors, voice, and sounds. Some of the poems (like “Out Back” or “Light Snow,” for instance) are not really about my life at all, except indirectly, through voice and sensibility. And as I said, I don’t consciously construct the perceived narrative. Instead, I write the poems I am moved to write as they come to me, one at a time.
These poems differ somewhat from your previous ones in that they feel especially present; there’s less focus on recollection. Was that a conscious decision?
No, it wasn’t a conscious decision. I think it has everything to do with the process I tried to describe in answering your second question: the reconnection with the world, and my turning (at least at first) to poets like Clare and Thomas whose work has the quality you are describing. I do think you can find poems like that in my previous books—perhaps most in my first book. But I was much younger when I wrote those poems, and hadn’t gone through certain life experiences yet, so they will feel different—perhaps more innocent.
Can we talk about your poem “Renewal”? It was featured on Almanac earlier this year, and it’s such a marvelous example of your technical skill and poise. Every line is perfectly managed—there’s not a single unnecessary word. And, like a lot of your poems, there’s much kindness in it. Not many writers can transform the Department of Motor Vehicles into a transcendent experience! How did that poem come into being? Are you in a moment where you are getting your license renewed and you start planning the poem right there? Or does it come later, almost as a surprise?
I’m glad you like that poem. It went through a lot of revision, and I put an early, unfinished version of it aside entirely for several years, during which time that particular soul-crushing office of the DMV went quietly out of existence. The poem did come out of an actual experience. While I was waiting there on my hard bench, I was reading a book of poems (by Andrea Hollander, actually), and it was reading those poems and being in a resulting poetic frame of mind that helped transform my bland surroundings. That catalyst dropped out of the poem at some point during the revision process, perhaps making the transformation seem more mysterious. I don’t remember if I actually began the poem while at the DMV—I certainly had enough time to!—but I can tell you that I didn’t finish it until at least five years later. So my answer to the last part of your question is: Maybe both. Sometimes I will stall out on a poem and put it aside until it comes back to me in a different way, from some other angle of entry.
Interview by Joy Biles