In May 1965, Amherst College student Tom Fels ’67 interviewed three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Archibald MacLeish. The below interview, conducted at MacLeish’s home in Conway, Mass., is adapted from their conversation, a portion of which originally appeared in the town newspaper the Amherst Record.
Archibald MacLeish, one of the best-known American poets, playwrights, and public intellectuals, was born in Illinois, and educated at Hotchkiss and Yale, later taking a law degree at Harvard. After participating in World War I, he forsook the life of an attorney to focus on poetry, making his living for several years as an editor of Fortune magazine. Under President Franklin Roosevelt, he was for five years the Librarian of Congress, and later, during World War II, an assistant Secretary of State. After the war he taught at Harvard for thirteen years before taking the position of Simpson Lecturer at Amherst College (1963-67). MacLeish was the author more than fifty works of poetry, nonfiction, and drama.
Tom Fels is a curator and writer based in southern Vermont. His work in the arts includes exhibitions at the Getty Museum in Malibu, CA, and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, as well as numerous articles and books. He is the author of two books on the 1960s, Farm Friends and Buying the Farm. Fels met Archibald MacLeish after the poet’s delivery of his convocation speech at Amherst College’s Frost Library in 1963. This interview was the first of many that have played a part in Fels’s writing and research. Among the latest is a conversation with MacLeish’s fellow former Harvard faculty member Daniel Aaron in The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture (June 2013).
Listen to a recording of the interview here, or scroll down to read.
Tom Fels (TF): The Arts seem to be moving very quickly now, both in novelty of style and amount of productivity on the part of the artist, and a corresponding interest and patronism by the public. It seems to me that you have been fairly consistent and I wondered if you thought of yourself as someone coming through time, from the twenties, or someone existing now.
Archibald MacLeish (AM): That’s a very good question, a very difficult one to answer, because so far as work goes there’s only now. There’s this day which you start out in the morning, and which you hope will last long enough to let you get through to the end of it with what you’re capable of doing in that day – and you’re always building on the past. Every now and then I catch myself thinking of myself as a much younger man than I am – I’m 73 – and I think of myself with almost infinite expanse of time ahead of me, which is idiotic, of course. But what this means in terms of your questions is that that period in the late twenties, early thirties seems to me to be not far away; I feel as though I could walk back around the corner and the saloon door would be there.
TF: I thought that perhaps as a teacher you might like to comment on the fact that the attitudes of students have also changed. It seems to me that perhaps either professional aspirations or a pressure to “do well” – that is, to get out of college, to “get going” – are responsible for more reading, and perhaps better reading, on the part of young people.
AM: I’ve seen what I think you’re talking about. Students are much better in this generation – yours – than ten years before you – the years I knew at Harvard, starting in ’49 [and] going down through the early sixties, and a couple of years at Amherst. Students are much, much better than they were in my day at Yale. Now, this wasn’t a bad time at Yale; this was a period in Yale’s history that produced more writers than Yale has produced since. That is, you start with Sinclair Lewis, and it goes through to Steve Benét and Thornton Wilder. There’s quite a lot of good writing coming out of [this time]. But students weren’t even remotely comparable with what they are now. Now, why this is so, I don’t know – I think it perhaps is, as you say, the sense of pressure. Or it may simply be [that] the events of the two wars and the events since the last war have brought people to life; their minds have begun to work. Or it may be that school education is better. John [Hersey] is going to be the master of Pearson College [at Yale], and he remarked when he was questioned by the Times about his going that he was going with a feeling of unabashed selfishness because students seemed to him to be the liveliest people in the world at the moment and he’d like to be among them. I agree!
TF: That was something I was going to ask, except that it seemed that you would naturally have your choice … The question was, more or less, if you had your choice, would you be with students? But you don’t spend all your time with students.
AM: One reason I was very happy to be asked by Cal Plimpton to go to Amherst was that after my retirement from Harvard, I found that I missed association with youngsters immensely. It isn’t only that their minds are more imaginative, but all experiences are new to them, so they’re new to you again, and this is wonderful.
TF: Do you see that more in poets, young poets, or in all students?
AM: Now, I’m talking about the general run of students. My writing class at Harvard, of course, was a constant delight because that was twelve, fifteen people whom I got to know extremely well over the course of the year, and some of who would be real writers. That was lovely. But I wasn’t thinking of that; I was thinking of students as a whole, [as] people you run into. There are stupid ones, as there always have been, and probably always will be, but the average is way up.
For example, a girl I’m thinking of at Radcliffe – I won’t name her because her name is very well known – was in a course on poetry that I was teaching. I learned more from that girl about Emily Dickinson than I have ever been able to teach myself or than anyone else has ever said; she simply was on the same wavelength as Emily. Her mind worked that way, and she could see and understand immediately what [Dickinson’s] relationships were and what [her] references were. Now, that’s an unusual case, but that sort of thing is always happening.
TF: What does poetry itself mean to you, so much that you can spend your life in it?
AM: That’s awfully difficult, not to say impossible, to answer. It’s like saying to a fish, “What’s it seem like to be in the water?” He’s been in the water, that’s all he knows. You’d have to tell him what it’s like to be in the air. You spend your entire life in the practice of an art, and it’s always so natural to you that you can’t really talk about it very much.* I can tell you about the rewards, but that isn’t the answer. The rewards are the infinite and inexpressible delight of having gotten a piece of work done that you never thought you would get done: this is a gift. You didn’t do it, it’s a gift – and you’re just as innocent and grateful for it as a child with an apple, and that goes right on. That’s part of it, but that isn’t really it. The real excitement is the excitement of the pursuit of the attempt to master a means, the end always being clearer to you. All this mystery out here, this thing that turns green and then brown, then turns bare, then goes away, and goes round and round; this is something you have to stop and understand and hold, and poetry is the only means I know of doing that. Science can simply tell us what, never why.
TF: I’d like to ask you specifically about a growing social conscience both in students and adults. For example, you spoke at the University of Massachusetts at the teach-in to protest the Vietnam War, and I wonder if the growth of social awareness and a social conscience affects you as a poet and as a person?
AM: I think the significance of the teach-ins has been almost entirely misunderstood. They’ve been talked about, particularly in Washington, as though they were debates on foreign policy. Well, that’s not what the teach-ins were. What they really were – the reason they were so moving, so touching, so extraordinary – was that they were a searching of the national conscience. What was significant about the meeting in that auditorium at the University of Massachusetts was nothing that anybody said on the platform; it was those benches full of people waiting and waiting the entire night. Something had moved them; they couldn’t be silent; they had to either speak themselves or hear someone else speak. It’s tremendously heartening, tremendously moving, and very exciting, particularly among students who, like ours, usually keep silent on public issues. Now, this is the result, I think in part, of the civil rights business. The undergraduates at Amherst who went down to Selma and went down to Montgomery brought back with them a pride which was a proper pride. They brought back the knowledge of experience – and they were a center of interest, a center of concern; they affected the entire college. The student life of the country has been affected by this, and the country has been largely affected by it.
Now, you ask how this touches me. Of course, my life goes through the two wars, the depression between the two wars, and the early social struggles of the thirties, so … this is all warp and weft of my experience, and for that reason all the more exciting to me to see it reappear. For thirty years nobody marched at Harvard in anything, but this has moved them again, and I think it’s a tremendous thing – a wonderfully exhilarating, exciting thing. I just hope it lasts.
TF: I want to ask you a chicken or the egg question about your poetry: [whether or not] a poem comes to you as an idea or a form first. For example, I heard a poet say the other night that he was stuck on sonnets for a long time, and I took this to mean not that he could only write sonnets, but that his thoughts sort of came out that way naturally. This is something quite foreign to me.
AM: Well, the first part of that question I can answer easily. A poem is not a thought put into verse; it is not an idea put into metrics. A poem is the attempt to get at a significance or an emotion, or some sort of formulation of experience which you vaguely feel is somewhere in those rhythms and somewhere in those words. Sometimes one has the great gift, the great happiness, of having the two things come at once: the phrase comes, the rhythm comes, the pattern comes, and it carries the meaning with it. But for me at least, most of the time it’s slow labor, very much like the labor of the sculptor, of chipping away and chipping away and shaping and forming, until suddenly you get the girl who’s in that stone. She wasn’t there in your mind until you found her. You didn’t have an image of a girl and go around looking for a piece of marble that you could put her into. You had a piece of marble, and the thing came out of it.
Now, somebody says he’s stuck on sonnets. The only thing that would mean to me would be [that] metrical forms shaped in his ear as he was working [and] had become, by habit and by practice, a fourteen-line eight and six combination which gave that awkward unbalance that becomes the beautiful balance that you get in a sonnet. That’s all I can think of, unless this was one of those unfortunate creatures who gets an idea and then writes a sonnet to illustrate it, in which case God help him.
TF: You have written fairly consistently, and yet you have done a lot of different things in your life – jobs which in fact would seem even stifling to what I would consider a poet, and I don’t know how one can have the offices in the federal government that you have had without losing a lot of the experience that you would need to write poetry.
AM: You have to start out with a practical fact, which is that at least in the world we live in you can’t lead a normal life – marry a woman and have children – by writing verses. The only man I’ve known in my life who could support himself by his verse was Frost at the end of his life, after a long period of time when he damn near starved. His solution to the problem was farming, which didn’t work; then teaching, which worked but not too well; then readings, which worked beautifully, and then by this point he could support himself by writing verse.
I started out with the quite ridiculous idea, as I shortly found out, that you could practice law and write. Well, it just can’t be done. So I gave that up, [and] then I tried journalism and poetry. This led me into government, and during the time I was in government, which was also the years of the war, I was unable to write. I was not only Librarian of Congress, I was doing a great many other things at the same time. But although it’s quite true that this provided no time to write, it is not true that it provided none of the experience from which writing comes. Quite the contrary – it produced an involvement in human things, [which] is the experience out of which poetry comes: it’s the human experience, the satiric, everything. Public life may be boring, but it is never dull.
All these attempts of mine to make combinations of things so that I could bring up a family, which I’m devoted to, [and] live with a woman whom I love – all these have been less satisfactory in themselves, but if I had to do it all over again I wouldn’t change any one of them. I’ve read plenty of critics of my own work who can tell you just where I went wrong – it was by getting involved in this and involved in that. I just don’t think so. I think you take your life as it comes along. The whole question, the real question, is what comes first, and what has always come first with me is the art I try to follow.
*Four decades later, Amherst alum David Foster Wallace would use a similar analogy in This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (2009). Originally presented in a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, Foster Wallace’s fish ask “What the hell is water?” to open the writer’s discussion of the importance of the liberal arts in cultivating an awareness beyond the limits of one’s own reality.