1. What is your personal/aesthetic relationship to the poetic line? That is, how do you understand it, use it, etc.
Wow, when Miriam Sagan asked me if I’d be interested in being interviewed, I had expected something—I don’t know—more traditional? When did you start writing? What poets influenced you? At least a few warm-up questions before we got to the more esoteric questions. But what the heck; I opened the door, so now I can’t very well say, “Forget it, go away”
The only thing is: I don’t really know how to respond to questions 1 & 2. Let’s take #1, which is the more difficult of the two, for me at least. I suppose I must have some kind of relationship to the poetic line. I write poetic lines all the time, or try to, so there must be some kind of relationship. But I’ve never really thought much about it, certainly not in these terms. I do think about line lengths, and as I’ve gotten older, I notice that my line lengths—generally speaking—tend to be longer than they were 40 years ago (I’ve been writing a long time: 52 years); I think more in syllabics now, and often end up writing in rough tetrameter or pentameter lines. But I can’t explain why that transition occurred. I have always tried to shape lines that work, that do what I want, that say what I want. As you can probably tell, I don’t really know what I’m saying. So much of what I do—I suspect this is true of many other poets, though I can’t speak for them—I do intuitively, by “feel,” by some kind of instinct. One might call it dumb luck or guesswork, though I think there is something more deliberate about it. But what that is I can’t explain, have never tried to explain that I can recall, and as you can gather from this rambling response, we’re all probably better off if I don’t try to explain. What matters to me is: does my poem work for you? Does it speak to you? Is it any good? The older I get, the less I care to talk about poetry. What I do is in my poems. What I think is in my poems. It’s there for you to see, to read, to make sense of, to come to your own conclusions about what my personal/aesthetic relationship to the poetic line might be.
2. Do you find a relationship between words and writing and the human body? Or between your writing and your body?
Another question I don’t think I’ve ever given any thought to, and find myself wondering: of all the things one might ask me, why this? The only part of my body that I have given any conscious thought to is that I have always composed poems by hand, hand-writing drafts until the poem is well along. I can’t compose poetry on a keyboard. There is something about connecting my brain to the paper by way of my arm and hand and pen that doesn’t translate to a keyboard, whether typewriter or computer. Increasingly, as I’ve gotten older, when I’m writing prose, I tend to move back and forth between pen/paper and keyboard, more a function of laziness and hands that get tired quicker than they used to. But poetry I still draft longhand until the poem is well along to completion, at least of a first draft.
3. Is there anything you dislike about being a poet?
Well, yeh, I don’t make any money writing poetry. I wish more people would read poetry and actually buy poetry. I wish I could fill Madison Square Garden with 20,000 paying fans screaming to hear my poetry. I’m still working fulltime at the age of 68. Being a poet has not put me in a position to buy a seaside home in Bermuda and enjoy the sunsets.
Other than that, though, I don’t really have any complaints. I like being a poet. I get a good feeling when I write a poem that I like. I get an even better feeling when I write a poem somebody else likes. One could do a whole lot worse in this world, and a lot of people do.
The Amish Boys on Sunday
Amish country. January
afternoon. Crackling crisp and clear.
Families in their winter buggies:
boxes, black, on wheels, each buggy
with a single easygoing horse
unperturbed by cars, trucks, traffic
lights, the smell of gasoline exhaust.
A two-lane highway, buggies
on their way to worship, or,
service over, coming home,
in no particular hurry, the very
Amish attitude toward progress.
Around a bend and up ahead,
three Amish boys are walking
toward me on the shoulder.
Two maybe twelve, the other ten,
all dressed in Sunday best:
black pants and coats, white shirts
and broad-brimmed flat black hats.
I’m driving slow, and as I pass,
all three doff their hats in unison
and bow like gallant cavaliers,
grinning like they’ve got a secret
wouldn’t I like to know.
W. D. Ehrhart is author or editor of 21 books of prose and poetry, most recently The Bodies Beneath the Table (poetry) and Dead on a High Hill (essays). A Marine Corps veteran of the American War in Vietnam, he has received an Excellence in the Arts Award from Vietnam Veterans of America, the President’s Medal from Veterans for Peace, and a Pew Fellowship in the Arts. His work has appeared in hundreds of publications including American Poetry Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, North American Review, and the Washington Post Magazine. Ehrhart holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wales at Swansea, UK, and currently teaches English and history at the Haverford School, where he also coaches Winter Track and sponsors the Poetry Club.