“Ultra-Talking” With Poet Mark Halliday

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Ohio University writer Mark Halliday was named Distinguished Professor in 2011 for his contributions to the field of poetry.

The author of five books of poetry and numerous essays on the craft, Halliday has received many awards for his work, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rome Prize.

Kentucky poet Jeff Worley recently interviewed Halliday about his creative process for Ohio University’s Perspectives magazine.

You’ve been publishing poems and books of poems for nearly a quarter of a century. Where does the initial impetus for a Mark Halliday poem come from?

Often it starts with a phrase I overhear—poets are notorious for eavesdropping wherever they go—and first drafts come out sometimes on napkins or odd scraps of paper. Usually the next step is to copy this rough draft into a notebook, improve it a bit over the next few days, and then put it on the computer.

Are you eager to type it up so that you can see the line breaks and the shape of the poem on the page?

Oh, no. Sometimes I wait months and months before I commit it to the computer. I kind of enjoy the sensation of the poem waiting for me in a drawer, and this cooling-off period allows me to have a more objective perspective on it. Also, I figure if I haven’t put it on the computer, I don’t know for sure yet it’s bad [laughs]. The saddest thing to me about this process is the feeling that most poems get away, most of them dissolve because I don’t catch them quickly enough.

Do you have a clear sense of audience for your poems, and has this changed any over the years?

I want to write poems that are very readable for any smart, imaginative person. I used to say that my Aunt Dorothy was a good audience because she was an educated, literate person who didn’t follow contemporary poetry. And as a writer of what I hope are accessible poems, I’m hostile to the view that accessibility guarantees some crippling limitation.

There’s no doubt your poems are easy to read, but what might jar some readers is when you mix “high” and “low” diction together in a poem. For instance, in your poem “Enchanted Field” [from Keep This Forever], you use the phrase “Jamesian nuance” and a few lines later “Teletubbies peejays.” In “Special Heads,” a reference to admiring Bunuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is followed by the line, “Da dink da da dink da da dink da da dink.” Can these very different levels of diction successfully coexist for a reader?

This is one of my favorite moves, these surprising shifts in levels of diction. I like to go from sounding intellectual/academic to chatty/quotidian and slangy in the same sentence; I feel it keeps the reader alert, and signals an aversion to pretension.

And you very freely just make up words when you want to. Isn’t the dictionary good enough for you?

That’s a good question. I think a factor in these inventions is an impatience with the vocabulary I hear myself using over and over. Maybe there’s a kind of trap that I’ve got myself in through the emphasis on the talking voice—by emphasizing the real life authenticity of the speaking voice, I perhaps drive myself more and more toward certain phrases and words I’ve used in lots of poems. I think the impulse to make up words may be a way to try for a different texture without resorting to “elevated” poeticized discourse.

Well, it seems to me that in your poems you committed from the beginning to what might be termed “heightened speech,” poems that effect artful, unpremeditated speech.

I think that’s true. I love the analogy between a poem and speech that you might actually hear in real life. I tend to love poems that have that spoken flavor. We need to remember there are situations in actual conversational life in which people are fabulously articulate and move from anecdote to meditation to comic speculation and then, perhaps, to a joke—the movement of thought has those different levels. I love poems that show a speaker moving through those levels of language.

But what about poetry’s conventional calling cards—metaphor and image? Don’t they get left behind in this approach?

You know, in general I tend to resist the idea that poetry is attained by loading up each line or phrase with rich imagery or unusual phrasing, because this diminishes the convincingness of the voice—that is, the illusion that the poem's speech comes from a real speaking person.

An interesting development in American poetry in the past decade or so is the narrator who goes beyond what we might hear in even the most intelligent, creative everyday speech, a poem which you’ve characterized as “ultra-talk.” What is this exactly?

Yes, I invented this term when I reviewed David Kirby’s The House of Blue Light a few years ago. The poems written in this style are spoken in a wry, exuberant, talky, accessible style. They typically include detailed anecdotes, bits of pop culture culled from past and present, explicit references to books the narrator has read, and allusions to historical and literary figures. The art comes in weaving all these strands together. In this book, Kirby says, in effect, “These seven or eleven things are swirling in my head, I feel an emotional circuit among them, and this poem is trying to light up the whole circuit.”

Doesn’t this description apply equally to your own poetry in, say, the last three books?

[Laughs] I suppose I wouldn’t argue with that accusation. You could say ultra-talk is an experiment in lowering the pressure. It’s a jab, in a subtle way, perhaps, at theory-clotted verse and poems that are self-consciously too “precious.”

Yet you give a nod to more traditional approaches and forms occasionally when, for example, you use patterned end rhyme in a poem.

When I use end rhyme, it tends to be humorous. I have trouble taking myself very seriously if I’m keeping a rhyme scheme going, and sometimes rhyme can prevent a poet from saying what he feels is really true. Rhymes can boss you around, can put you in a straitjacket. If I’m on the trail of something thoughtful and serious, I want to use free verse.

Why write poetry at all?

One reason people write poems is the sense that there’s something interesting and important going on inside a person that isn’t visible or in any way apparent from the outside. Poets have a sense that something is missing and believe a poem might speak to what’s missing.

Life is a constant mystery.  To live in a prudent and practical and efficient manner is often wise, but at the same time it involves ignoring the huge clouds of mystery (emotional, psychological, moral, spiritual, cosmological) that surround us. Poems are one way to express awareness of, and shape a response to, the mystery. As Frost said, “a poem is a momentary stay against confusion.”

Photo by Robb DeCamp/Illustration by Christina Ullman

Listen to Mark Halliday read selections from his works on WOUB's Wired for Books.