note on Cynthia Haven
L. Haven was born in Detroit and educated at the University of
Michigan Ann Arbor , where she studied with the late Joseph Brodsky
and earned two prestigious Avery Hopwood Awards for Literature.
After receiving her university degree, she moved to London and
worked at Vogue, Index on Censorship , and a short-lived
Third-World newsweekly on Fleet Street, the World Times .
Currently, she is a literary critic at the San Francisco Chronicle
and writes regularly for the Times Literary Supplement,
the Washington Post Bookworld, the Los Angeles Times
Book Review and the Cortland Review. Her work has
also been published in Civilization , Commonweal
, the Kenyon Review , and the Georgia Review.
Her interview with Thom Gunn appeared in the Georgia
Review, spring-summer issue, 2005 . She has been
affiliated with Stanford University for many years, and is a regular
contributor to its magazine.
Recipient of over a dozen literary and journalistic awards, she
has written several non-fiction books. Her most publications are
Joseph Brodsky: Conversations (University Press of Mississippi,
Jackson, Mississippi, 2003/Adelphi Edizioni, Milan, 2005), Peter
Dale in Conversation with Cynthia Haven (BTL, London, 2005),
Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations (University Press of Mississippi,
Jackson, Mississippi , 2006) and "Timothy Steele in Conversation
with Cynthia Haven", in Three Poets in Conversation: Dick
Davis, Rachel Hadas, Timothy Steele (BTL, London, 2006).
extract from the interview
the last century, we watched some of our most celebrated poets
sinking into suicide, alcoholism, nervous breakdowns, and bouts
of madness. You've said in the past that poetry is not only, as
Eliot termed it, 'a mug's game', but for some, a game of Russian
roulette. But your life, like Richard Wilbur's, has been eminently
sane 30 years of full-time teaching (many of them running
a big department), as well as writing, editing an important poetry
review, translating, raising a family, and so on. How have you
seems to be that I've always tried to follow a saying of Dr Johnson's
to the effect that if you are idle you should not be solitary
and if you are solitary you should not be idle. I became a workaholic
to fend off the occupational hazard of manic depression. The second
answer is that I married Pauline, a down-to-earth, eminently sane
woman. Nevertheless, I think the incidence of madness among poets
and of the other evils you mention may be somewhat exaggerated.
One in eight hospital beds here is psychiatric, I read somewhere
recently. It's probably about the same percentage of disturbance
Perhaps I take a bit of a dismissive view
of this because Alvarez in the Sixties and Seventies was pushing
his theories about extremism in literature - which seemed about
as far and fallacious as romanticism could go. Ian Hamilton's
introduction to the Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry
has more statistics about the assumed prevalence of aberrant behaviour
among poets, but they don't really show it as a necessary or majority
professional qualification, though his figures, of course, only
refer to mentions of such problems with poets included in the
Perhaps post-war influences were more
unbalancing than usual, but history has always been an ongoing
catalogue of horrors. Valéry's psyche was odd enough but
he remarks that everyone in the world has been happy and unhappy
and that extremes of joy like those of sorrow have not been withheld
from the grossest and least singing of souls. Life may be hell
for more than just writers and artists and the freedom to act
within those hells may be more circumscribed to most ordinary
people. At the same time, one remembers Plato on madness and poets.
And there may be 'normal' ways of being mad. An American psychologist
in the Seventies remarked that anyone who appeared normal in America
must be mad. You could say the same here.
U.S., most poets, particularly important ones, have university
appointments. This system has other obvious weaknesses - Dana
Gioia pointed out some in his much-attacked essay, 'Can Poetry
Matter?' Instead, you've been a schoolteacher, which would certainly
be an anomalous situation in the U.S., though I understand it
is less so in the U.K.
A good few
writers do school-teaching here, if only in their beginnings or
as stop-gaps, though quite a number are full-time, as I was. Auden
springs to mind, though he liked it for largely non-teaching reasons
- the easy adulation of boys. If you're a creative writer, wherever
you teach or work will lead to compromises. The long vacations
initially look like untrammelled time purchased for writing. It's
never as accommodating as that, but at least it's easier than
working year round in an office or factory - or chasing commissions
The lack of hassle over money was the
biggest benefit for me. Several of my friends and contemporaries
who went freelance had very difficult lives in that respect. It
meant I never had to write anything I didn't want to write. Also,
I hadn't much time to spend, as you may do when freelance, moping
about over whether another poem was ever going to turn up.
University teachers may have more chance of proselytizing for
their own work and sending disciples out to preach but that too
has drawbacks. I was never much bothered by budding poets wanting
an instant stamp of approval for their latest. The odd parent
occasionally tried it.
was asked if he taught creative writing, Joseph Brodsky used to
say, 'No, I teach creative reading.'
I don't really believe you can teach or be taught creative writing.
If would-be writers haven't sufficient nous and commitment, if
they don't have that inner determination that they are writers
and know what they want to achieve, then anything that a creative
writing course is likely to give would merely lead them to a species
of imitation. Keats said that the genius of poetry must work out
its own salvation in a man. He was right. However, a good creative
writing group might mend a few holes in your literary education
or awareness. After all, even such an apparently simple thing
as rhyme is to a large extent learnt, and not just a question
of sound. There are culturally acquired components to it and it
varies subtly from language to language. The structure of sonnets
can be learnt but not how to write 'Leda and the Swan'. Any aspiring
writers in a creative reading group may acquire something from
that type of information and may also read something new, or something
old in a new light, that will make them admire and do otherwise.
In an interview
with Ian Hamilton (Agenda, 31.2, 1993) you said, 'Well,
with teaching I am kept away from writing most of the time. But
things happen under pressure in the mind that one's barely conscious
of, I suppose.' That sounds rather indefinite and 'iffy'; do you
have any more definite observations about those 'things that happen'?
endeavour to make poems is 'iffy'. The initiation of a poem seems
to be largely below the level of consciousness. Sometimes, when
working flat out in education and with Agenda, I'd feel
a sort of mind pressure, a presentiment that a poem was 'out there',
about to settle, and in a day or so a word or two of it, a rhythm
or image would land. You learnt to make space for the landing.
Who can say whether those work pressures more or less released
the subconscious mind to get on with poems - prevented the literary
intelligence from intervening too early? Or whether there would
have been more or different poems if I had been freelance?
In the same interview, you said, 'it's a kind of lunatic concept
to have a career poet because you can't base a career on what
is virtually a form of "luck".'
every poem was an epitaph - hardly a career prospect. It's what
you do with that 'luck', the donné, that counts. No job
fully protects you from the fecklessness of it. Sometimes a poem
would 'turn up' while I was teaching. It was a rare piece of luck
to be able to set the class a piece of work while enough of it
could be jotted down. I like to work in absolute silence, which
is hardly what a classroom has to offer. (During invigilations
the odd epigram could be managed. There are about a hundred or
so unpublished ones.) A poet's luck may depend on a sort of vigilance.
On the other hand, poems may be like those things forgotten in
'senior moments'. They often come back into the head when you
stop fretting about them. As I said, the biggest benefit a job
gave was in not having to worry over money too much. That, I think,
improved my luck.
another comment you made then: 'Poetry isn't subject to the will
and the intention, and one has to wait and one may wait for ever
and nothing come.' It's pretty close to the idea of inspiration
and the muse, isn't it?'
I was distantly
referring to Shelley's 'A Defence of Poetry': 'A man cannot say,
"I will compose poetry." The greatest poet even cannot
say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some
invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory
' Also to Coleridge's famous attempt to define
the act of composing in Biographia Literaria, chapter 14.
Then there was Keats, who said poetry should come as naturally
as the leaves to the tree. All three, of course, were romantics,
but the classical Valéry's experience seems to run parallel.
(Nothing said about poetry is ever a hundred-percent true. Most
poets have experienced picking up an old discarded draft for lack
of a donné and finding it suddenly take flight. Hardy did
quite a bit of that.) Once the words start coming, the literary
intelligence kicks in, and sometimes it does so too soon. But
until something 'arrives' you just have to be patient. You can't
will a donné into existence. You have to be alert for it
to surface anywhere, anyhow and any time. Trying to force it seldom
works. Once arrived, as Coleridge says, it comes under the will
and understanding and is retained under their irremissive, though
gentle and unnoticed, control.