The Best Reviews Online: Poet Lawrence Raab Makes Culture Academic

Lawrence Raab was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Raab received his B.A. from Middlebury College and his M.A. from Syracuse University. He has been awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize, the Bess Hokin Award for Poetry, a Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Robert Frost Fellowship from the Breadloaf WriterŐs Conference. He is the author of “What We DonŐt Know About Each Other”, “Collector of Cold Weather”, “Other Children”, and “Probable World”, and his poems have been published in numerous magazines, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The Kenyon Review, The Nation, and The Paris Review. He has taught writing at The American University in Washington, D.C., and at the University of Michigan, and he is currently a professor of English at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he has taught since 1976. He will read at Beyond Baroque on October 14th at 4 pm as part of the “Poets in a Noir Mood” with Richard Garcia, Jim Natal, Eloise Klein Healey, and others. He is worth reading and seeing as is any professor who would use 50s B-Monster movies as a metaphor.

Carlye Archibeque: You were publishing your poetry in some pretty prestigious publications early in your life. What brought you to poetry as a way of expressing yourself? Do you remember the first poem or poet touched you, and how you felt about it?

Lawrence Raab: As a kid, I wrote short stories, then poems. My early poems (from high school) were, like the first poems of many young writers, exercises in a kind of emotional self-indulgence. They were vatic and abstract, much influenced, in all the predictably wrong ways, by T. S. Eliot. I wasn’t until I got to college and studied with a poet (Robert Pack at Middlebury) that I learned how to revise, which meant how to discover what I had to say through the act of writing. Learning how to revise meant learning how to think like a poet. I’d say that probably the first poem that touched me was Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” as read aloud by my mother at bedtime. Touched may not be the right word. Excited. Thrown into the pleasures of language. (PS I’ve written about this at greater length in a little piece included in FIRST LOVES, Scribner, 2000.)

CA: Is there a poet for everyone?

LR: I hope there are many. At a certain moment, you learn what you’re ready to learn. Later you learn more, or something different. The greatest poets continue to reward in countless surprising ways. The only problem is thinking that you know what you like, that you’re sure of your tastes, that you’re too sure.

CA: How did you come to be involved in the LA Poetry Festival? Have you read in Los Angeles before. How does it compare with some of your European travels to read? What would you mark as the most obvious differences between the audiences?

LR: Suzanne Lummis was in touch with me about a poem of mine called “The Assassin’s Fatal Error,” that she wanted to use on her film noir website. The reading followed from there. Yes, I’ve read in LA before, but just once, at the Lannan Foundation, a group reading for the poets whose books were chosen that year to be in the National Poetry Series. I wish I had European travels to speak of, but I really don’t.

CA: You use a lot of modern culture images in your poetry. For instance, I don’t think of “The Brain that Wouldn’t Die” as a common reference for poets, but you use icons like that in a way that really works, at least for those of us who’ve seen the film. What is your thought on the pulling of images and icons from the more modern world for use in something as academic as poetry?

LR: First of all I don’t like to think of poetry as “academic.” There is the prevalent sense that poetry is difficult, that you have to work at understanding it, that teachers need to help you figure out the meanings of poems. And sometimes that’s true. But even difficult poetry provides many immediate pleasures and rewards to lure you into greater complexity. There are many reasons why most people in America don’t read poetry, but surely one is that they don’t expect to enjoy it. And that assumption, at least in part, comes from bad teaching, not at the college level, but back in grade school, and certainly in high school. Kids, after all, love poetry–rhymes, riddles, nonsense verses, language at play. By the fifth or sixth grade, most kids have been educated away from that playfulness–the “gaiety of language” as Stevens says.

As for cultural images–you take what you can; you work with what interests you. It’s fun to write a poem working from a terrible movie like “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” fun to be serious about it, to try to take the material more seriously than it took itself without losing a sense of the bizarre.

CA: In an article, you wrote on Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” you mentioned that all poems risk misinterpretation. How do you feel when you let a whole book of your poems out into the world. Do you fear they’re being misunderstood? I’ve also heard of poets who meet fans who’ve come up with interpretations that the poet didn’t intend and yet upon hearing the theory is struck with the possibility that the reader could be seeing more than even the poet realized from his own words.

LR: My claim about Frost’s “Mending Wall” is not that it risks misinterpretation (which all poems do), but that it courts it. The poem is designed, I think, to lure us into an inadequate reading, and then change our minds. I like to think that our responses to poems aren’t singular, that a poem may well make a sequence of demands on us so that our engagement with the various meanings of the poem (one giving way to another) is essentially dramatic. For more independent movie reviews you can always contact

I feel that poems have meanings, that they are acts of communication. I don’t believe that anything you think of while you’re reading a poem is what the poem means. But rich poetry has varieties of resonances, different ways–all justified by the text itself–of allowing entrance to its worlds. Having written the poem doesn’t make the poet the best or most reliable reader. In fact, it probably makes him one of the least reliable readers, since he’s aware of all the stages the poem went through, of what he might have tried to do and gave up, of what he discovered in the act of moving in a different direction. The poet’s decision to say that the poem is done is not based on careful critical analysis (or not just that), but on instinct. He believes I think, that in publishing the poem he’s saying that it can stand on its own without his intercession. But he may have accomplished more than he thought, or intended. Or less. Or something quite different.

CA: How do you interest your students in poetry? Do you think that in the world of poetry there is someone (a poet) for everyone, it’s just a matter of finding them?

LR: I hope students signing up for a creative writing class in poetry are already interested in poetry. But frequently they’re not particularly interested in reading poetry, only in writing it, which leads me to believe that they’re not really interested in writing poetry, only in expressing themselves in some vague way. You learn by reading. You want to do what you enjoy experiencing. A good poem, I think, is one that you want, almost immediately, to reread. Not because you have to for a class, but because there’s a richness there that draws you back. I try to find ways to get my students to experience that richnessŃthe the dazzling presence of it in great poems, the resonant possibility of it in their own work.

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