Fire from an Open Hand: An Interview with Eleanor Wilner

by Julie Swarstad Johnson

Eleanor Wilner, recipient of the 2019 Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement from the Poetry Society of America, published her first book of poetry when she was forty-two. She has published eight collections of poetry across her career, but until this year, her earliest work has remained in a drawer; now, Gone to Earth: Early and Uncollected Poems 1963-1975 adds those first poems to her distinguished catalog. In this interview, conducted by email, Wilner reflects on the transformations our earliest writing can undergo, the corrective possibility of communal myths against culture-wide violence, and what art offers us.

Julie Swarstad Johnson: In your prefatory note to Gone to Earth, you describe the experience of writing a poem as “what the ancients called the muse, what Wanda Coleman called ‘zoning,’ a term [that] signals the opening to another zone or state of being.” Once the poem is finished, the poet becomes one of its readers and encounters it in a new way. As you came back to these early poems, fifty years on, did you become a reader of these poems in a different sense, given the greater separation across time? Had you returned to these poems in any significant way prior to this time?

Eleanor Wilner: At the time I wrote these, I think I read them with amazement at the work of imagination, and as guides, sometimes admonitions—a way forward through troubled times. And yes, altered by all these years, I read them now with different eyes, disinterested really, as if I were (and perhaps am) a different person, no longer with a personal stake in them. Yet, like old friends I hadn’t seen in years, I felt glad to see them; they had served me well.

To your second question: no, I had not returned to reread these poems in all the years since I wrote them. Perhaps because they did the work they were meant to, and so could be left behind.

A few of them, however, seemed fundamental to the work of poetic imagination and had remained in memory, not word-for-word but in their imagistic action. But when I unearthed them for this book, I discovered that those I remembered as illuminating and key to the process that followed, memory had simplified, made more emblematic—removing some of the ambiguities, the cross currents and complexity. In short, time and distance tended to exaggerate the positive, life-serving side of what transpired in the poems, which, in the long run, turned out to be true to their effect. And why shouldn’t hindsight create its own version of what mattered most?

JSJ: These poems, like your later work, frequently occupy a mythic and sometimes surreal space. Do you consciously work to balance the literal and metaphoric as you write, or is that another symptom of zoning—the blending of the personal and transpersonal, the particular and the mythic?

EW: I think the mythic realm and its figures of communal memory live within us (possibly in our DNA as well as texts and living memory—who can say?), but it is only in their connection to our lived situation that they become fruitful. And malleable.

No, there is no conscious attempt to balance the literal and the metaphoric; this happens when the writer gets out of her own way. What happens is that I perceive the page as a space in which a scene unfolds as I write, as if I am somehow simultaneously witness and enabler of what is happening. And embodied language is the necessary medium for this experience.

JSJ: You also note that these poems came against the backdrop of passionate engagement in the antiwar and civil rights movements, although direct references to racism and the Vietnam War are few. However, throughout Gone to Earth, you describe the natural world with language that mirrors the violence done on and to it. Am I right in reading the poems in Gone to Earth as more oblique in their reference to violence than your work in later books? If so, what shaped that approach and any later transition for you?

EW: I think of Dylan Thomas’s famous poem (written when he was nineteen), “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” which was for him, as it was for the boy in my poem “March Return,” a spring force that he also felt as his “destroyer.” Indeed the life force, on which all continuation and growth depend, signifies mortality, as Thomas’s poem encounters it.

The images in the poems, written when I was young in the 1960s, depict how that force was felt when, insulted and thwarted, it was turned inward on an armored, defensive self: “Again the spring steals in— / another March, / an enemy grenade / tossed inside / our living canisters / of steel.” These images suggest another poem from that time, “An Agony. As Now” by (then) LeRoi Jones, which helps explain why he became Amiri Baraka: “I am inside someone / who hates me. I look / out from his eyes.” I think here, too, of a well-known statement by the Australian Aboriginal activist Lilla Watson: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Well, that was then, and that was how it felt, perhaps, to contain both the source of desire and its denial, to be both watched and watcher—though there was a third eye that was seeing them both through imagination’s power, and beginning to imagine a way out. And, as your question suggests, this destructive violence that came from subjugating life was to become thematic to many of my later poems, but on a more social, historical level—when the ethical imagination, freed from self-concern, had become more and more a witness to what we had been trained as a nation not to see. That blindness has been deadly, and, as recent events once again demonstrate, its price is the complete loss of your footing in reality, and, with it, all ethical moorings.

Now, asked to look back, I reach for why this historical violence has so deeply engaged my imagination from early to late—and disturbed even my sleep. I recall my earliest years during World War II, and, when I was eight years old, seeing two indelible images whose horror would direct, forever after, an urgent need for both awareness and change: the photograph on the cover of Life magazine of the ruined faces of the so-called Hiroshima Maidens, and the captured Nazi films of women dying in the showers of a concentration camp, shown on American TV—unbearable, voyeuristic images that undid everything “good girls” had been taught.  It would be necessary to reimagine the world, taking this into account, while refusing to accept it.

JSJ: These earliest poems called to mind to a much more recent poem, “Ars Poetica, 2017,” which asserts that art allows us to pass on the transformative power of a “double vision” that sees both peril and promise. Has your sense of the poet’s role as a dreamer for the community shifted over the years, through the many, ongoing crises of our age? Do you write from the belief that poetry can offer a way to begin again, even if those who hear the poem are few?

EW: My confidence in the poetic imagination, which engaged me in my youth, and on which—with trust in its greater powers than those of any individual—my own practice has always depended, has been seasoned by long experience and those many crises of which you speak. But in no way has that undermined my sense of its value as an ethical force, spirit’s guide, evaluator and maker of meaning—ultimately, changer of consciousness. I think you have heard me deride Shelley’s self-aggrandizing statement that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and change it to “poets are the translators of the unacknowledged world.”

There are two worlds, one of doing and one of making, the activist’s and the artist’s, and they operate by different rules and demand different kinds of actions. I do agree with Muriel Rukeyser that “poetry prepares,” that it can prepare us for positive activism. But strategic action in worldly terms requires obtaining power, while the practice of an art, oppositely, requires its relinquishment.

Of course, the vision of a young poet involved in what was going on in the 1960s (“to be young then was very heaven”), a time experienced as mutual social and personal change and embodied in the poetry of Gone to Earth, must read differently from a poem written, like that “Ars Poetica,” as I turned eighty. And, though my muse insists we can change the way we see the past, with new eyes, altered by all that official history left out, and by what we now know—what can’t be changed are the damages: “the names on the shining black wall of the Vietnam / Memorial, the text of exactly what war has accomplished.”

When “Ars Poetica, 2017” turns, it turns back to the making of art, to Greek myth, having been driven from the first by the epigraph from Betty Adcock’s poem: “to grasp, like Prometheus, the fire—without / the power to give it away … ” And I think now, though I hadn’t before, that I must have had somewhere in mind those famous lines of García Lorca’s: “Yo tengo el fuego en mis manos” (I have the fire in my hands). The poem does, in fact, celebrate how art matters, likening it to the fire of the gods—a gift too hot to hold.

It would seem that art has something to offer us that might, after all, turn the fist into an open hand. My poem “Ars Poetica, 2017 is, I think, a late-life defense of what art offers to life, as it lets it go.

Eleanor Wilner’s Gone to Earth: Early and Uncollected Poems 1963-1975  is available now from Crooked Hearts Press.

Published on January 12, 2022