Friday, February 24, 2012

American Literary Review: An Interview with C. Dale Young

Justin Bigos:
I'd like to start by talking about beauty. I am currently taking a poetry workshop in which the teacher, on the first day of class, asked us: “Is beauty something you think about in your poems?” I was kind of struck by the question – as if a poet could possibly not think of beauty, not just in his or her own poems but in the poems of others. Carl Phillips has written in an essay, “The point of the poem is not to say anything about beauty, but to enact the vision of it” – “to see it.” So, the student now asks the teacher: Is beauty something you think about in your poems, in the poems of others?

C. Dale Young: Many have written about beauty, but I always return to Stephen Dobyns and his extraordinary book of essays Best Words, Best Order. In that collection, he has a phenomenal essay on the problem of beauty. In that essay, he quotes a passage by Dostoyevsky in which one finds the following:

"Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed and never can be fathomed, for God setsus nothing but riddles. […] The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the Devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man."

I return to that quote often because I don’t know exactly what beauty is, and I firmly believe one cannot know it without the juxtaposition of the ordinary. Someone once tried to convince me you could only see the beautiful if you had seen the grotesque, but I disagree. I believe to see beauty one must also see the ordinary out of the corner of one’s eye. So, in the drafting, the getting the poem down, I do not think of beauty. But in revision I do, and at that point I am also keenly aware that to have beauty one must also have the ordinary. If a poem is filled with nothing but the beautiful, it becomes a kind of grotesque. In the end, I strive not for beauty but for elegance, remembering that elegance arises from simplicity and not from the beautiful. Reliance on the beautiful, reliance on detail, gives rise not to elegance but to the baroque, something which if taken to the extreme is grotesque.