issue 26 > nonfiction > zaller
PC: How did you get into writing? Why poetry? Did you read poetry as a child, and if so, what poems were your favorites?
RZ: I began to keep a kind of occasional notebook, typed loose-leaf sheets, when I was sixteen. This evolved into a diary, which I have kept from age twenty-three. At a guess it is two and a half million words long now, although no one has ever read it, including myself. It is part of the deal I've kept with myself as a writer: some of my work is for anyone who wants to read it, and some of it is for no one at all. Perhaps the diary will have readers someday; perhaps not.
It's not out of perversity that I don't read my diary, but because I am always too busy keeping it up to date to look back. On the other hand, I do find it difficult to read what I've written. I think this is true of many other writers. When a play of mine is being performed, as is happening at present, I have to listen to the words at least. That's a little easier. And I don't mind reading my poetry aloud; it is written to be spoken.
I didn't turn to poetry until my late twenties. I had no special exposure to it when I was a child. I liked the Cavalier and Metaphysical poets when I was in college, and the early Romantics. Gradually, I grew into the Moderns. I tried writing poetry in college as everyone does, but I didn't have the slightest idea what I was doing. I actually came to writing verse through my wife, Lili Bita, whose own poems I tried to translate. I figured that if I could create poems in English with someone else's work, I could create my own. Or maybe it was just the time it took for the gift to mature, and this was the spark or push. Anyway, I have written and translated poems ever since. Whether they're good is for others to say. Occasionally, I feel I've done something well.
PC: How did you get interested in Robinson Jeffers (in Robinson Jeffers and the American Sublime)? What makes him congenial to you for study? How do you connect with him as a poet?
RZ: I knew of Jeffers vaguely as a poet no one much read anymore. I picked up a copy of his Selected Poetry by fated accident in the American Library in Athens, and fell right into it. I'd never encountered modern poetry of comparable force, and I would have to agree with Czeslaw Milosz that Jeffers was the greatest English language poet of the twentieth century, although Jeffers himself admired Yeats and of course Yeats is the great rhetorician and incomparable craftsman of modern verse. But Jeffers' rhetoric is uniquely powerful, and I find in him a greater philosophical depth than any modern poet in Englis—the only language I feel competent to venture an opinion about.
Jeffers was not congenial to me at all. I wrote a book about him, The Cliffs of Solitude, to get him out of my system, but whatever success the book achieved, that was not part of it. Jeffers has been inexhaustible to me, and I have never stopped writing about him, exploring him. He is like an angry and compelling god who demands, if not worship, then at least attention. Robinson Jeffers and the American Sublime is my latest act of propitiation; not even my latest, as I've continued to write about him since. What I wanted to do in this book was to connect him to the larger cultural tradition, since he is still often viewed as a figure in isolation, and he isn't. On the contrary, I think he engages the key questions of our time in a way no one else does. His connection to deep ecology is an obvious example, but that's only a beginning.
My own voice is different from Jeffers'. Of course there must be an influence, but when I feel myself drifting too close to him I use an oar and pull away. We do share an interest in the Greek Pre-Socratics. Jeffers is a mystical materialist, and so are they. But of course all poetry begins with the earth.
PC: Could you talk a bit about themes in your work?
RZ: A bit! That is really a job for someone else, not that I'd hang it on anyone. I am interested in forms of authority, and also in those who rebel against them. Who makes rules, and why do people obey them? What happens when each person makes or imagines his own rules? His own world? I've pursued these subjects in various ways: as an historian, as a critic and social commentator, and on stage. They're less a part of my poetry. I believe my impulse there is more lyric. But they sometimes get into the poems too.
PC: You've done quite a bit of work in translation. What is the process of translating something from one language to another? What sort of challenges does the translation of poetry present?
RZ: Actually, I've mainly translated the work of my wife, Lili. Translation is really a way of reading—a grateful way of reading someone who's impressed you. Lili's work is so different from mine that trying to inhabit it in this way gives me a dimension of experience I'd otherwise never have had for myself.
I don't want a reader to feel he's reading me in disguise when he's reading something I've translated. You owe the writer you're translating fidelity, but what "fidelity" means is a question. My great friend and mentor Stanley Burnshaw believed in getting as close to the original as possible, even at the expense of verbal felicity. I hold rather with Julien Green (who was perfectly bilingual in English and French) when he said that translation was not a glove turned inside out, but another glove. If I'm translating a poem into English, the result has to be an English poem.
Is the King James Bible faithful? Yes, in its fashion. Yeats translated Sophocles wonderfully, but you know you're reading Yeats—and not in disguise. Translation on the highest level is a transformative encounter between great minds. Homer doesn't need translators, but his poems are somehow enriched by the great translators he's had.
PC: In Thirty Years in the Rain: the Selected Poetry of Nikiforos Vrettakos, your wife Lili Bita says, "Translation is . . . an act of alchemy, and an offering between two people (the poet and the translator) on a behalf of a third (the reader)." What sort of "offerings" were made in your translation of your wife's work?
RZ: It's a very intimate process when you translate in collaboration with the author, let alone when your relations are, as in this case, entirely intimate! But I try to view Lili's work objectively, as I would that of someone I'd never met. At the same time, I feel I can enter into her thought processes empathetically. Of course, I experience them every day!
Lili and I met Vrettakos, a lovely man. He was virtually unknown in America, though he's been translated into dozens of languages. I can't imagine a man whose work is farther from my own, I mean in tone and style. But I immediately wanted to translate him. I wanted to achieve him in my own words. It was difficult, but immensely rewarding. I took something new into myself. I hope Lili and I gave something valuable out.
PC: Has there ever been a difference of opinion between you and Lili on how something in her work should be translated?
RZ: Oh, very often. But I think she trusts my judgment a little more now. And I always trust her instinct.
PC: What role do poets and translators have in promoting social justice or other causes? How does your work as a writer connect with your role, say, with the board of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty?
RZ: Of course poetry is political, or can be; poetry is the one form that embraces everything. But its job is truth, not opinion, so it is not much good in controversy. Jeffers has some wonderfully appropriate lines on the subject, a response to people who wanted him to speak out for (their) good causes: " If only you could sing/ That God is love, or perhaps that social/ Justice will soon prevail. I can tell lies in prose." Hamlet is suffused with politics, but what are its politics? Pro- or anti-monarchist? You see the absurdity of the question in posing it. Shakespeare was our greatest poet, yet not a single opinion can be inarguably ascribed to him. So, my answer is that poets do not promote causes, even when they speak to them. The same is true, by the way, of teachers. What both poets and teachers should try to do is deepen understanding—their own, first of all. This does not mean avoiding commitment. But when I have something polemical to say, I say it straight out in prose. Byron and Shelley would doubtless disagree, but poetry was something different in their time, a form of public address we have lost. Tom McGrath is a wonderful political poet of recent times, but he is a poet first and foremost—I mean, an image-maker and a truth-teller.
I'm not on the board of PADP now—I served for nine years—but I am still a death penalty activist. Capital punishment is, obviously, the ultimate form of imposed authority, a form that denies the humanity of those subjected to it. I've written about it, of course, as a scholar and for the public media. I plan to write a book about it. Getting to the heart of the death penalty, what it represents and has represented for former ages, what it means to us, is getting very close to the heart of the human mystery itself. It is a very large subject.
The more general question of the social responsibility of the writer is a vexed one. Writers are always engaged with their society and their time. On the other hand, no one can tell a writer what to think or say, at least in a free country. Like other professions, too (most emphatically including the teaching profession), writing has been degraded in recent decades. There's no longer much of a public for a Camus or an Orwell, were one to arise. Camus was vilified in his time anyway. My own principle is simply this: a writer should be free to say anything, and compelled to say nothing.
PC: You're also known as an historian. Would you be willing to share some thoughts on historians and poets as investigators and truth-shapers?
RZ: I hope I'm known as an historian—it's how I make my living. Hegel said that no two arts were more closely allied than history and poetry. With all due deference to a great man, I must disagree. There have been good and even great poets who have been doctors, lawyers, or even insurance men, but I cannot think of a first-rate poet who has also been a historian. So I can only regard myself (however good either my poetry or my history is) as a sport of nature. History does work itself into my poetry sometimes, but only in the sense that it's available to any reasonably well—educated poet—say Cavafy, or Robert Lowell.
You speak about "truth-shaping." That's a slippery phrase, at least for me. The poet is concerned with truth, and he does not shape but—if he is successful—create it. The historian makes plausible arguments based on verifiable data. His result is interpretation, which can be more or less compelling but is never final. This isn't a lesser task, only a different one.
Modern academia specializes in the one-trick pony. You have a "field," and you are supposed to stick to it, like a serf to his plot of ground. This is one reason for the precipitous decline of the humanities, which requires creative thinking across boundaries. That gets harder to do as fields become more specialized, but it's all the more important for that. Freud was a medical doctor. He also created an entirely new profession and discipline, psychoanalysis. Not satisfied with that, he explored philosophy and anthropology. I believe he had the skills of a great detective, and a great literary critic. He fertilized virtually every aspect of modern culture. Exactly what should he not have done?
PC: What are you working on now?
RZ: I've been working on a long study of the seventeenth century, but also some other projects. I don't like to talk about work until it's completed. I'm in the middle of a commissioned essay on Jeffers at the moment. I'm looking forward to the publication of an article on German responses to the Holocaust in Boulevard, which as you know began at Drexel. It's housed in St. Louis now, but it's a great shame Drexel let it get away.
I'd like to go on writing as long as I go on breathing. The one, it seems to me, supports the other. I'll never get through my backlog of projects, because I'm always adding to them. That's all right, though. Life is meant to be a clutter.