Interview with noted poet and faculty of Texas A&M international university, R W Haynes



Alok Mishra: What is a poet? Who is a poet? I am sure every other poet has something different for this question, what’s your take, sir?

R W Haynes: From the anonymous limerick scribbler to the writer whose verse has made his name a household phrase, a common impulse is that a sense of a certain power of language manifests itself in poetic creation.  Some birds chirp while others improvise cantatas.  I have three dogs who do not howl when ambulances pass, even though all the other dogs in the neighbourhood have pointed their noses at the sky and commemorated the emergency.  Aristotle suggests that definition should not seek to comprehend but rather to remind sufficiently.  While I write poetry and have had a good bit of it published, and though writing poetry is necessary to me, I don’t think I’ll start wearing a hat with “POET” printed on the front of it.  That may change, and I certainly don’t mind seeing such hats on others, but I like to think that writing poetry is something all of us wish (even if subconsciously) to do.  Some of us are less able than others to suppress that desire. Some lucky few can combine poetry with a job that makes them a living, as Shakespeare did, but most of us have modest muses who reward us privately or with the kind appreciation of a non-commercial audience.

Alok Mishra: When did you start writing poetry? How did it happen? Did you realize impromptu that you can write, or it was a gradual discovery?

R W Haynes: My mother Sarah George Westbrook Haynes wrote poetry and hoped her children would, too.  Some of us did.  My father wanted to be a novelist, but his war wounds and a career in education intervened.  One of my older brothers encouraged me, and I suppose I never doubted that writing poetry was part of my life.

Alok Mishra: In Elizabethan age, poets had to flatter the throne; in neo-classical age, it was all about denouncing the artificial life; in the age of Eliot and others alike, it was all about mourning. To you as a poet, what the motive of this age seems?

R W Haynes: I doubt fundamental human concerns have changed very much.  Aristotle, if I may mention him again, proposes that we all ultimately desire happiness, and that suggestion still works pretty well, as most people want to be loved, well-fed, well-clothed, and well-sheltered.  Many get their motives twisted all to hell and mistake money or physical satisfaction or reputation for happiness, but the poetic path doesn’t go in that direction, at least not for any distance.  We see technology’s sweeping effect today, but our electronic ingenuity offers no key to happiness.  It does make it possible for a writer from the Flatwoods west of the Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia to put his words before an audience half-a-world away, and I’m glad of that.

I hope that those who love literature will also hate tyranny, ignorance, and greed, and that they will turn to nature—the essence of life—as an object of devotion, drawing from its benign influence an ability to resist the chaos of meretricious, deceptive, and obtuse communication that bombards us from all directions.  We certainly have more of that cacophony than our ancestors did.

Alok Mishra: As modern poetry develops, it is seen that rhyme & music have been overtaken by message and emotions. Do you believe in rhyme, sir? What’s your view about the importance of music vs importance of message in poetry?

R W Haynes: I once had a university course under Marshall McLuhan, who famously maintained that “the medium is the message.” Borrowing his phrase, one might argue that the formality of a medium corresponds to a formality of message.  But what if form itself incorporates departures from tradition or habit or what is to be expected?  Eliot’s poem “Prufrock” surely seeks to make fragmentation an essential ingredient of its formal manifestation.  Well, not to get into “theory,” the graveyard of the brain-dead, I’ll note that most of my published work looks mas o menostraditional and employs rhyme and some scheme of meter, but that’s only because what comes to me requires that kind of formulation, or has so far.  Who knows? Tomorrow I may put red chicken-tracks on the page while reciting the alphabet backwards. I probably won’t, but one great pleasure of writing is that of experiencing a fascinating flow of new thought, the origin of which I’ll call Musical.  And surely one’s taste in Music can happily change.

McLuhan’s own medium was often the joke.  He once came into class, looked around the room, and intoned, very dramatically, “Is there someone else, Narcissus?” Perhaps the poet’s medium should be grounded in the assumption that there is indeed someone else.

Alok Mishra: Do the poets of your choice differ as a reader and as a poet yourself? Which poets have inspired you?

R W Haynes: The English poetic tradition has had most effect on me, though that tradition itself originates in places outside England and ranges through developments some of which are still in process.  I suppose that what I have liked most has been reasonably wise and honest as well as successfully musical and suited to the state of awareness of a moment. Chaucer, Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, John Donne, Hopkins, and Dylan Thomas have been special favourites, with the Americans Pound and Stevens throwing in their two cents’ worth on the west side of the Atlantic.

Alok Mishra: As a reader today, what would you prefer to read – a novel or a volume of poetry? Do you think that readership of poetry has fallen? I would like to know your views about it.

R W Haynes: I don’t like to read poetry by the volume. My neurons aren’t infinitely volatile, and strong poems take energy to read. Weak poems should arguably not be read in bulk, either.  Of course, we have issues with how many people read poetry, but perhaps those issues are not clearly understood.  Is it possible that too many people are engaged in the poetry business? Not everyone is destined to play a musical instrument or paint portraits.  Though the idea of having everyone rejoice in the Muses is pleasant, there is also something slightly ludicrous about the prospect of laurel wreaths on all brows.  Isn’t it OK to let poetry find its own audience and its own poets? Does the dramatic profession need Nick Bottoms?  Plato wrote a dialogue about a rhapsode named Ion, who was apparently quite skilful in acting out Homeric poetry, but Plato certainly wasn’t making Ion, who was actually rather a foolish man, a paradigm for emulation.

Alok Mishra: How can a poet help society? Being practical about the modern situation, what would be your answer?

R W Haynes: In so far as poets add to the quality of human understanding or experience, they appear to do no harm.  In so far as poetry contributes to the development of wisdom, surely it makes individuals better citizens and more sensitive and responsible members of the human family.  Ignorance is the great enemy of life, and poetic force at its best works against ignorance.  Yet there is sometimes in poetry a corrective force which can focus on human weakness with an effect that might seem cruel.  Homer’s Odysseus cudgels the rude Thersites into silence, and poetic satire seeks a similar effect.  At times we are made better, perhaps, by first being rendered less bad.  At times, the satiric impulse can be overwhelming, and, at such times, perhaps, the poet must defer to it.  It works to establish truth by exposing falsehood, and, when it is inspired, it enforces justice.

Alok Mishra: Sir, as you have been in the field of teaching as well, what do you think of the poet W H Auden? The poet who travelled from UK to USA and did not get a Nobel Prize.

R W Haynes: Not getting a Nobel Prize, I can safely say, should not cause anyone a great deal of anxiety.  I’d like to have seen my mother get that award, and I’m sure she would have enjoyed getting it and it wouldn’t have changed her a bit. Actually, if I thought about it, I’d be more troubled by who did get the Nobel than by who didn’t.  Of course, I’m somewhat jaded by a lifetime of academic politics, and I have little faith in the way awards are generally dispensed. The normal process tends to dispense with ethical (or qualitative) considerations altogether, and it seems unlikely that any committee will agree reliably on any poet’s true achievement.  I didn’t read Auden very attentively at all until I had my first English class, which was in graduate school, and the supercilious nature of the instructor of that course seemed to me somehow connected to Auden’s verse, and it seemed to me then, at least briefly, that both Auden and the instructor should be beaten like dogs.  What seemed especially odd was that Auden seemed most honest and effective when imitating Yeats in his very good poem paying homage to that fine poet.  Weep not for Auden, I’d say.  Save your tears for those blown to bits by Mr. Nobel’s ingenuity.

Alok Mishra: These days, people from non-English nations are also contributing to English Poetry. Moreover, the digital revolution has given every aspiring poet a chance to display talent to the world without any restriction. How do you see this?

R W Haynes: Earlier I mentioned that perhaps not everyone should be a poet.  Yet I am very glad that those who have a poetic vocation or inclination can avail themselves of new opportunities to let their voices be heard in the online world.  The gatekeepers of publication have often played envious or arrogant political games with their power.  Just think of Hopkins and Emily Dickinson and the way their work was treated.  Since I live and work in academia, I have no illusions about the extent to which bullying, credit-grabbing, misappropriation, bias, malicious misrepresentation, professional sabotage, credentialed illiteracy, managemental incompetence, and a host of other unfortunate habits and attitudes often poison the springs of literature, and we are fortunate that the internet has happily opened alternative opportunities for new voices and new inspiration.

Alok Mishra: You have a book to be published in 2016, please tell our readers about that.

R W Haynes: The volume of essays I have just edited is titled Critical Insights: Horton Foote, and it will appear from Salem Press in March, approximately on the hundredth birthday of the late playwright.  This is my second book on this remarkable writer, and it features both the work of established scholars and that of some gifted newcomers to the consideration of Foote’s eighty-plus plays and screenplays.

Alok Mishra: I would like you to give a message to the young poets who are willing to be popular and expert in poetry.

R W Haynes: It is a pleasure to greet you, young poets, and to encourage you to find strength and love and inspiration and eloquence in the work of the Muses.  It is an honour, of course, to accept this vocation and to take on the responsibility of delivering the words that our work requires.

As you already know, few of you will find financial happiness in this work, and you may at times need miracles of memory to achieve what you wish, but the Greeks recognized Memory as the Muses’ mother, and she knows that in the busy battle of life you will find time to turn to her.  As you create in accord with nature, and as you share your creations with those who can benefit from them, you will find a satisfaction (perhaps at times a grim one) that nothing else can give you.  When your Muse speaks, listen.  When you can throw a benevolent monkey wrench into the diabolic mechanism of tyranny and ignorance, may your Muse bless you!