Interview// Play for Mortal Stakes: A Conversation with Richard Kenney

by Jake Uitti | Contributing Writer

At a glance, the award-winning poet, Richard Kenney, can seem like a book hard to crack. His prowess with language, his oratory muscles, his years nose-buried in highfalutin tomes—all of these might suggest a question-and-answer interview would prove more mind-boggling than equal-footed back-and-forth. However, in reality, Kenney is a warm chap, as willing to explain an idea at length as he is to sit quietly over a cup of tea and ponder whatever words linger in the grey area between the conscious and unconscious. A world-class writer, Kenney is, perhaps above all else, a teacher, a guide. In this way, he embodies the literature that he’s fallen in love with. At its best, he’ll tell you, literature is a way to learn how to be. And in Kenney’s presence, that road map is laid out on the table, compass beside it.

I caught up with the poet to ask him about myriad things in celebration of the recent release of his book of poems, Terminator (Knopf).

When did precision of language become a priority in your life?

The question stops me short, it really does. Precision!—when did that word recommend itself to the interior commissars of my maturation, as a value? Clearly, it’s a value. And as George Washington was precise about the cherry tree—that is, he didn’t say, “I did a thing. My bad,” but rather specified he’d done it with his little hatchet—the word begs to have something to do with exactitude in truth-telling. When a poet doesn’t understand, he may be inclined to poke through the crust of the perplexing word, to see where it came from. Hatchet, indeed: precision is cutting-off, cognate not only with incision and excision, but also with scissors and suicide. How does cutting get us to the truth? Cutting to the truth? To the bone? I don’t get it, quite.

Meanwhile, when in a poem titled, “Lying,” Richard Wilbur notices:

How the shucked tunic of an onion, brushed
To one side on a backlit chopping-board
And rocked by trifling currents, prints and prints
Its bright, ribbed shadow like a flapping sail—

he follows with a puzzled truth: Odd that a thing is most itself when likened.

How can that be? How can a metaphor be precise? And yet I can’t imagine any scientifically certified, bleach-dipped, super-scrupulous, accurate-to-the-ninth decimal denotative linguistic description of a scrap of onion-skin on a cutting board that could be more precise than Wilbur’s. Read Basho, or Issa: the smell of the coffee, the stoniness of the stone—what philosophers call qualia—somehow come through. And yet the most “precise”—insofar as that means scrupulously accurate, insofar as that means not lying—the most precise prose would fail to carry the qualia. This is the famous mystery of poetry.

Richard Hugo famously wrote, “You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings everything.” That sounds good: poets are permitted to play fast and loose with the facts, as long as they get at a deeper, emotionally authorized truth. Wouldn’t that be poetic precision? How does that square with scientific precision?

A more troubling corollary question: What can we make of a man who, by the six hundred and first day of his presidency, had told five thousand lies, as reported by The Washington Post? And whose many supporters will vote for him again, because they genuinely feel he’s the only candidate out there who tells it like it is? Who tells the truth? These people aren’t denying his lies; they know he plays fast and loose with the facts. They believe he tells a deeper, emotionally resonant truth. AOC has begged the same variance, on the same grounds. Is this poetic truth? Where’s its razor? That’s an interesting question.

Is there a lineage, feeling or craft you’re trying to keep alive with your work?

Not as a conservator. I do feel membership in a lineage, in the sense that I’ve thrown my life at a calling that goes all the way back. Poet is a tarot card, in the iconic tinker-tailor-soldier sense. I have the theoretical illusion that I’d find better company in a time-vault stocked with historical scribblers than I might in many contemporary settings. The U. S. Senate, say.

But I infer that your question really has “formal poetry” in mind. I feel zero responsibility for staving off its extinction. I don’t plant sonnets like I’ve planted trees in a salmon-rehabilitation creek bed project. The forms can take care of themselves. They’re not at root quaint cultural artifacts, they’re Darwinian solutions to questions posed by human neurology. The elements or affordances of the art never change; their local iterations respond to history. The twenty-second century may or may not produce new novels or sonnets; presuming Homo sapiens holds steady as a species, it’s a sure bet that people in the twenty-second century will respond to the qualia of the world, as evinced in the literary affordances of image, music, tone, and story.

What do you worry about when you write a poem?

I don’t think I worry when I’m actually writing a poem. I’m nowhere, then. I don’t exist then. Later, re-reading what happened, judging and weighing and revising—then I worry. I mostly worry that I won’t be up to it, that I won’t be able to crack an impasse. Robert Graves wrote somewhere that the Muse—and Graves was quite literal about his!—that the Muse may give you a stanza for free, but then it falls to the poet to make the necessary remaining stanzas by hand. The challenge is to do it well enough that an intelligent lay-person wouldn’t be able to detect who wrote what. It’s a little like a Turing Test, come to think of it. One naturally worries his hands won’t be up to the hand-work.

How important is maintaining a sense of play in your work?

Crucial! Two of my favorite poets insist on this. Foremost, Frost insists that poetry is play for mortal stakes. I take that to heart. I quote that to all my students. And at the end of his famous essay, “The Poet in the City,” Auden writes:

The peasant may play cards in the evening while the poet writes verses, but there is one political principle to which they both subscribe, namely, that among the half dozen or so things for which a man of honor should be prepared, if necessary, to die, the right to play, the right to frivolity, is not the least.

The gratuity is crucial. As soon as you’re selling something—yourself, for example—your pain, let’s say?—or political revolution, or laundry detergent—your Muse will wrinkle her nose and stalk off for better air, on a higher slope of Parnassus. The encouraging voice that takes her place? Don’t trust it.

How do you think about the concept of death today compared to when you first started to write?

It seems a good deal closer.

Do you believe in an afterlife?


When you walk into a bookstore, where do you go first?

I probably drift to the popular science shelf—usually pretty close to the entrance. Then I go to the poetry shelf, if I can find it. It’s nowhere near the entrance.

What is your relationship to the notion of magic?

It’s been important to me in the lifelong head-scratch concerning the nature and function of poetry. One writes poetry long before one knows what it is. I don’t claim to know what it is, but I have inklings, and magic informs them.

Maybe worth noting we’re not talking here about literal whackadoodle wiccanism or Harry Potter hermeneutics, though both those fascinations bloom by the same laws. We’re talking about what an anthropologist would call magical thinking, or magical theories of reference. Maybe it’s easiest to note the stages of my education in these dark arts.

First and many years ago, I was interested to be convinced (by an article in Science News referencing Hitler’s Hat, if I remember aright) that even thoroughgoing rationalists routinely participate in magical thinking. Our lives are shot through with it. We don’t want to wear Hitler’s hat. We carry pictures of loved ones, and would take it hard if those were used as dart-boards. We wear clothing and jewelry that once belonged to loved ones, and we wouldn’t sell these items for twice their value. Insofar as these can’t be 100% rationalized by appeal to “sentiment”—and they can’t—they may stand as simple instances of imitative magic and contagious magic, respectively. Together, they fall under the general rubric of “sympathetic magic.”

Second step was (at Bob Hass’s recommendation) to read Roman Jakobson’s essay titled “Two Types of Aphasia.” Here Jakobson notes that those two kinds of sympathetic magic correlate with the two most important poetic tropes. Contagious magic maps to metonymy; imitative magic maps to metaphor. About this time I was introduced to Lakoff and Johnson’s work on conceptual metaphor, and their advocacy of a theory of mind that’s come to be called “embodied cognition,” in emphatic contradistinction to the so-called “computational theory of mind.”

Third step was (better late than never!—alas for thin education) to learn that all this had been prefigured by philosophers, starting with Aristotle, and generalized and codified by David Hume as the fundamental Laws of Association. These are contiguity, similarity, and cause and effect. Same for magic, same for poetry. (Same for science, for that matter—point being, the mind has only a few tricks for getting from one lilypad to another, and those tricks operate in all domains of human thought.)

Fourth step was to hear Amos Tversky give a lecture about what he called “cognitive illusions,” and subsequently read his partner Daniel Kahneman’s book titled Thinking, Fast and Slow, a lay summary of their Nobel Prize-winning work together. The book amounts to an experimentally vetted partial architectural plan of human unconscious cognition, and as such, I think it’s chock full of radical affirmations of literary technique. I mean, I think it goes some distance toward explaining why literature works at all, and why literary thinking is fundamental and ineradicable in humans, everywhere and always.

“Unconscious” is a word with too many fingerprints on it. Scientists nowadays tend to speak of the “cognitive unconscious,” so-named in order to distinguish it from that dark, desire-ridden, demon-haunted Schwartzwald of the old Freudian Unconscious. The cognitive unconscious is simply the lower half of the iceberg of thought: that aggregate of perception, emotion, muscle-memory, tacit calculation and physical response of which we’re unaware—all the “decision-making” done by the body-brain on our behalf, to which we have no direct conscious access. And as with the iceberg, it’s most of it. Psychologists call this “System One,” in distinction to “System Two,” the tip of the iceberg, the intellect, the faculty of conscious calculation and thought.

Kahneman and Tversky use the term “heuristics”—rules-of-thumb—to describe the quick, automatic operations of System One. Magical thinking is a subset of those. Others include the so-called representativeness and availability heuristics, the narrative fallacy, the pattern and coherence illusions, the cause-effect illusion, the what-you-see-is-all-there-is illusion, the confirmation bias (just to list a few of their designations, several of which have by now entered common parlance).

All of these chilly-named curves of thought are aspects of what might in another church be called “Poetic Logic,” or “Poetic Reasoning.” What contemporary psychologists study under the aspect of “priming,” and “ideomotor effect” may in that other church serve to illuminate the ancient ligatures of “word-magic.”

Language is a “digital” medium. Emotions, like all physiological processes, are smoothly analog. How do words touch body, where all emotion lives? How could they? Words are no more The World than numbers are. But if I say you have spinach in your teeth, even though you know it’s mid-afternoon and you haven’t had spinach since Easter, your tongue will search for it before you think those thoughts. If as you’re getting dressed I tell you there’s a tarantula in your shoe, you’ll address the shoe a little differently. You know there isn’t—we don’t have tarantulas around here, and you’re accustomed to jackass remarks from your friends—still, your blood-pressure will show a measurable response. Why? Because, whereas the intellect is naturally skeptical, System One is fundamentally credulous. Its default condition is belief. It’s not hard to imagine why: the reasons are Darwinian. And if that isn’t a gloss on Frost’s First Law of Poetry—that the figure is the same as for love—then I’m a vermilion poodle and Poetry never made anyone feel a thing.

So: a galloping summary suggestion of what’s been for me a decades-long crawl on hands and knees, across disciplinary frontiers for which I held no passport. I can’t imagine it’s all that coherent, in redaction. Your fault, Jake, you asked. I will say it’s been a thrilling crawl, abetted by many friends and brilliant former graduate students. Let “magical thinking” be the banner for all these cognitively occulted processes. Poetry wouldn’t work without them.

Do you imagine a specific audience for your work?

I don’t think about anything when I’m writing, certainly not an audience. Later—during the worry phase!—I think about my friends. Will they like it?

Is there an overarching lesson about people you’ve learned by writing poetry?

They don’t love it? Joking aside, and begging pardon for my temerity in responding at all to a question of this gravity, I can say I’ve learned things about language, which is much of what makes humans human. I believe I’m learning that certain operations of the “cognitive unconscious”—see above—seem strangely congruent with the deep laws of poetry. I guess that shouldn’t come as a surprise, since those laws must have evolved over time to mirror the occulted parts of our intelligence. One result is, I probably have more respect for poetry as an instrument for spelunking the puzzle of human nature at seventy than I had when I was twenty. And that comes as a surprise. I don’t mean that as an encomium for contemporary poetry, let alone my own. All that said, I’ve surely learned more about people from reading poetry than from writing it. One of the famous functions of literature is to teach us how to live and I think it can.

Who was the first poet you wanted to emulate?

Frost, I guess, and then Yeats. The Yeats spell is hard to break. Dylan Thomas, praised for a particular poem, I forget which, replied that he appreciated the compliment, but he didn’t write the poem, Mr. Yeats did. And Philip Larkin, in the introduction to a re-published edition of The North Ship, reports that the author has since recovered from the Celtic fever, and is resting comfortably—something like that. I don’t have the book in front of me.

Why do you think poetry isn’t as popular as pop music?

Not as much fun?

What do you enjoy about rhyme?

Everybody enjoys linguistic echo; it’s just a local instance of broader categories of melodic and rhythmic echo, and those appreciations are deep in the species. Everybody loves music, that’s just a human thing. Of course, not everybody likes every kind of music, and not everybody likes that kind of music in their poetry. When it’s done well, I like it a lot, like I like saxophone or the moon over the Bay of Naples, done well.

The more interesting way to take the question would implicate the practice of rhyming. And I like that, a lot. I can’t explain the pleasure—what pleasures can we ever explain?—but I smile like a fool when the rhyme comes, and it’s spot-on, illuminating a meaning I never meant. The surprise of it. And of course it helps me write when I don’t know what to write next. It has forward thrust.

In composition, rhyme is like a random-number generator built into an algorithm designed for surprise: it breaks the tyranny of the intellect, it flummoxes the word-sorter, it suggests solutions ninety-nine out of a hundred of which would prove fatal to the poem, but in the case of that last percent, you couldn’t think it up on your own in a hundred years. It’s an instrument for thinking, like arithmetic, or syllogism, or the memory-palace. It’s an atl-atl: it throws the mind farther than it can think.

Can you share one writing tip you picked up along the way that’s made the whole endeavor easier?

When I was starting out, a teacher rehearsed the most obvious advice imaginable: read. Your writing comes more from your engagement with language than from the ornamental adventures of your life. Reading Moby Dick will do more for your poetry than stowing aboard a tramp steamer to Fiji.

Maybe also this: you need to know something about the technical specs of your intelligence. For example, what hours are good for what? I almost never crack through a poetical impasse after eleven AM. The early hours, before the fresh snowfield has been besmirched by the news, the to-do list, my monkey-mind, my students, my children, my idiot President—those are the hours for poetry, for me. On the other hand, I can write prose in the afternoon. That kind of thing.

How do you approach writing a last line?

I’ve never thought of it, as though it might be an approach. But I’m sure my best last lines have come by surprise. Whoops!—I guess that’s it! I guess this poem’s done.

And this one, too.

Richard Kenney was born in Glens Falls, New York, in 1948 and is the author of five books of poetry: The Evolution of the Flightless Bird, Orrery, The Invention of the Zero, The One-Strand River, and Terminator. In 1987 he received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship. He is currently professor of English at the University of Washington and lives with his family in Port Townsend, Washington.

Jake Uitti is a Seattle-based writer whose has been featured in the Seattle TimesWashington Post, and The Monarch Review.