ROBERT J. BERTHOLF: What is the relationship in your mind between musical forms and lexical forms in a poem, or what is the process for translating musical form into poetry?
THEODORE ENSLIN: Well, I am not sure that it is actually a process of translation. I think that the same principles apply to both music and poetry and that ideally they are one art. I think this is something that becomes apparent to any poet who has been trained in music earlier. It will surface in one way or another, perhaps not in the way that it has with me. But think back to a poet whose work I would like to like much better than I do, Sydney Lanier. Lanier was a trained musician. He was a virtuoso flutist, and late in his life—which was quite a short life, but this was about the last thing that he did—he wrote a book with an intimidating title, The Science of English Verse.1 I think that Johns Hopkins keeps all that stuff in print because Lanier taught there for a long time. The book itself is not nearly as intimidating as the title. He is much more concerned with simple, melodic structure than I would be. But it appeared to him, as it did to me, and as it has to many others, that many of the same things that enable one to think, as we say, musically, are equally valuable so far as poetry is concerned. The same kinds of thinking—I won’t say laws, because a law is merely an expedient, something that works—appear in musical and poetic composition. A rule is something that works well a number of times. People like to make rules. But if you try to superimpose rules on thinking about music and words that don’t apply, they will simply make things awkward.
But I did have a rigorous musical training in composition and that informed what I was trying to do in poetry long before I had any idea that this was going on. I am very glad that it happened that way. If I had talked too much about it too early, I don’t think it would have been nearly as valuable and it could very easily have become extremely pedantic. But as I started writing things—that is, things that I would still own—I became increasingly aware of the fact that there was a great deal of material that I could not deal with in the usual ways. For instance, I wanted to write something antiphonal, I wanted to get that spatial sense of sound, and I was attracted—as many, many people have been—to the possibilities of a concert hall such as the nave of St. Mark’s in Venice, where the so-called Antiphonal School arose. The Gabrielis and their great students (Monteverdi and Schütz in particular) is where that came from.2 Well, I thought, yeah, this is a great idea, the idea of an echo, but spatially moved out so that it would be apparent in the readings of such a piece. Could that be done? And I tried something which I called “Antiphony”, I guess it must have been in about the middle ’50s. And it didn’t work. I didn’t have the means to do it. I did do it, however, about 22 or 23 years later and it did work. I had it performed twice, once at Bowling Green in 1989.3 It is based on the consideration of a rock, geologic rock, and it comes back again and again in the series of echoing and returning sounds, and in a kind of percussive sense of rock, of something against which you can’t push much of anything else.
BERTHOLF: Was there recurrence of sounds of words?
ENSLIN: That was one thing that I wanted to experiment with. Then there were others, it seemed to me. You could take some of the older forms, musical forms, things like the ricerari, various things; and you could produce something using some of the really very shadowy rules which are supposed to control these things. People who actually use most of those forms were never as fussy about them as later musicologists have become and very often the forms get mixed, and you can’t distinguish one from another [laughter]—some ricerari are actually chaconne. So I have experimented with that. The most successful one, I think, was one that I called “Rondo.”4 And it is a rondo. Because of the rather difficult nomenclature I would take a specific piece to model these things. This “Rondo,” for instance, is based on an actual rondo in Mozart’s Divertimento in E Flat, K. 563.5 That was something I could work with. Both through actual music study and later an interest in antique medicine, I ran across something which has fascinated me for years and which I have tried to deal with in various ways. I never really came to a place where it actually satisfied me. We are accustomed now to thinking of meters, when there are any meters, in particular in contemporary music, as things that are divided by 2, 4, 8, 16, so forth and so on, but never a denominator which is an odd figure. OK. Apparently medieval musicians did not think that way. It is almost impossible for us to get away from what we hear in our heads to an experience of music that is based on the other system. They had one that was based on a triple meter. In other words, you could have as your signature something like 6/3.
BERTHOLF: Very odd.
ENSLIN: It is very odd. It was based on a mystical notion of the trinity, the triune function of the body; that is, the voluntary and the involuntary system, and then the place between. The place between makes the three. One of the most famous examples of this is the piece of music that almost everyone knows, but which is probably done completely wrong: La Folia. No one knows who composed it. It probably was Iberian, possibly Portuguese. It is sometimes known as the Follies of Spain [Folies d’Espagne]. Many, many composers have used this and used the descant to the original melody as a basis for all kinds of things. One of the most famous examples is the wrongly named (but I think that he knew he was doing it wrong) Variations of a Theme of Corelli, of Sergi Rachmaninov [op. 42]. [Sings.] That was used by literally hundred of composers. It was not an original Corelli.6
BERTHOLF: Mendelssohn used it.7
ENSLIN: Mendelssohn, yes, he did. Also in the twentieth century the one Danish composer whom I really like, Carl Nielsen. Nielsen used it in an opera called Masquerade, and Bohuslaw Martinu used it in both his fifth and sixth symphonies.8 I have tried again and again to be able to get to this very early poem of mine in a collection which has the rather ominous title The Poems.9 There is “The Dance Poem,” and again and again it alternates 3, 3, 3. That was a very crude way of trying to deal with this. Later on I did write in “Triptych”10 a section called “La Folia” that deals with and maybe had a little bit of this in it, if it is read right.
BERTHOLF: How then in a given poem could you produce a major theme and a secondary theme, or how could you produce a contributory structure in language?
ENSLIN: You would have to do it, again, by a sort of osmosis. You would have to go back. Well, I had done experiments with simultaneous sounds. That really doesn’t work that well for very long except for special effects. As far as poetry is concerned, I think that you can get a sense of original movement that way. Poets have usually had troubles when I talked about them. But then I talked to musicians who are not particularly involved with poetry, particularly not contemporary poetry, and they seem to have no trouble at all. They say, yes, I can see what you have done.
BERTHOLF: Musicians reading your poetry can understand that this is a contributory structure? Can you give an example?
ENSLIN: Well, I would have to read something, I guess, to do that. As a contrapuntal sound you have to recall the initial sounds, which change somewhat, which go from one word to a similar word. It is called “Scale in the Woods”:11
Leisure tam, a cut of wood, timbere in these woods, a tone of many tones, of tones timber cut in these woods leisurely sound a lesion in sound in wood told as a wedge on wedge one cut above another whet of the saw timbere as pile piled on wood, likeness and not alike, no lesion in the act, the act of the lesion opened less in the wound that opens leaves itself a lesion, long after timbere, sticky pile is gone.
BERTHOLF: This is an irrelevant question. One could make up, if one were not on this theme about musical poetry, one could make up that this was, in fact, a language poem that was of fractioned semantic units to produce total units and, therefore, was producing self-reflexivity in the language.
ENSLIN: There is one great difference, however. I do attempt to make a recognizable coherence out of all of these things, which I believe very much offers clarity, the beauty in clarity.
BERTHOLF: In order to do that something has to recur.
ENSLIN: Yes, it recurs in “Scale in the Woods.” If you listen to somebody piling cord wood, you will hear this kind of tam, the sound, particularly if the wood is cold in the winter, it is like a xylophone which after all is wood. And I attempt to reproduce this in a satisfying way. I hope it will be satisfying to someone else.
BERTHOLF: This is my own speculation. I found this in Wallace Stevens once. One can create two structures inside of a poem by a little, metaphoric sense and one can play from the literal sense a change of metaphoric meaning to produce a total effect of meaning which is not necessarily sound, but a contrary meaning structure. Yes, I think you can. Have you ever tried to do that?
ENSLIN: Not exactly, but that is something that I have thought of. This is something that I would like to try now. If you listen to much Gregorian chant, you realize that there are many scales. Actually they were called modes, the so-called church modes on which these things were based. They are roughly equivalent to white key scales on the piano.
OK, if you go from middle C to the next C, that is OK, our C-major scale, but on the other hand it is also the Ionian mode. Now another one—equally satisfying but with a completely different color—would be from D to D, which is the Dorian. E to E is the Phrygian, F to F the Lydian, and my favorite is G to G, the Mixolydian [also a mode called Locrain]. All of those have a different color. We use or have used predominately, particularly in the nineteenth and late-eighteenth centuries, not much more than so-called major and minor. There are all kinds of gradations in between. The popular notion of minor is as rather somber, or complaining: not particularly affirmative. The major scale is much brighter, and so forth. Well, why not try and use a similar coloration in the use of words? I think this is going to be a beast to do.
BERTHOLF: How can you produce a C-minor poem? [Laughter.]
ENSLIN: OK, that is exactly what I want to find out. In other words, that the poem should make reasonable sense. That the poem should not be simply a game, that it should not be done simply to move these things, but that the color, the choice of words makes a color in the reading of this poem which corresponds to what the poem is saying, what its mood might be.
BERTHOLF: You are talking about combining, separating. You are separating those two, but you are combining those two.
ENSLIN: Yes, I want to separate them first and then bring them together again. Yes, exactly. I want to do both.
BERTHOLF: Have you tried to do this?
ENSLIN: No. Not as such. I think there are places where inadvertently I have done things and I have been pleased with the results of what I really hadn’t thought of.
BERTHOLF: I thought I found some of this in rhyme.
ENSLIN: Rhyme, well, there may be. But then again, I dealt with the issue with those late sequences and I simply say, yes, in a way this is equivalent to what the minimalists are trying to do in music. I base this not particularly on music itself—though I might use musical means to achieve it—but I think that minimalist music is quite appealing to a broad spectrum of a listening public, a public that isn’t necessarily trained in music. I think the reason for that is that this is how we think and speak at the present time.
I think that these things are, and speaking of it in this way is more or less the same as the unknown person who asked Williams, “Hey, doc, where do you get the language for your poems?” And he says, “Out of the mouths of the Polish mothers that I treat.”
And that seems to be valid and perfectly reasonable—that we do use the language that we have. We can heighten it and do all kinds of things, but what you start with is what is counted, and if you try to fake it you fail. I have often said that if suddenly a composer of the stature of Mozart should appear and try to compose music in the style of Mozart and was able to do it technically, it would ring false. You couldn’t do that. You would have to be able to think that way. Mozart thought in the forms of the sonata, but he didn&rsquot know the word and he didn’t know the forms were sonata forms. The sonata form is something that I think could relate back to the poetry of the eighteenth century.
BERTHOLF: You call it this in Forms?12
ENSLIN: The so-called sonata form could be found, say, in Pope.
BERTHOLF: In Pope’s well-known poem “Windsor Forest.”
ENSLIN: Yeah, you could find it everywhere. Mozart and Haydn didn’t use the term, they didn’t know the term.13 It was simply how they thought.
BERTHOLF: This is a very interesting point to me. That a sonata form has a beginning, a middle, and an end, in an absolutely closed structure. I am going to come back to Forms again, to rhymes again. And “Blackberries”14 is an endless poem. It is never going to stop. You are going to be writing it as God is calling you.
ENSLIN: [Laughter.] I promise you I am going to quit. I think I am getting much more interested in it now than I have been for a number of years.
BERTHOLF: I am interested in musical structures that are closed because they are redefined, and structures like Morton Feldman’s,15 that you can make up, but Morton Feldman’s composition is going to go on long after the piano stops.
ENSLIN: Oh, yeah.
BERTHOLF: The concept of the twentieth century has taken a closed structure and somehow transformed it into one that continues.
ENSLIN: Yes, but there are plenty of precursors to this sort of thing. When you first started saying that, I am trying to think, what is that symphony of Mozart’s? That presupposes, that goes on and on again, because in the last movement it has a coda and then two or three measures that are repeated, and so it floats off. And it is not in any way that crisp finality that we come to associate with this.
BERTHOLF: The London symphonies of Haydn have these characteristics.
ENSLIN: Some of them do. Though Haydn was one of the most experimental composers who ever lived. He dared do things that neither Mozart nor Beethoven did. And I can prove that to anyone who could follow an analysis.16 “Ah, Haydn,” I said to Cid Corman in 1951, “I guess, you know, Olson would not have had to have written “Projective Verse”17 if he had studied Haydn. He doesn’t need to talk about organic form. All he has to do is to analyze a Haydn symphony.”18 It is all right there. The whole idea that the form is dictated by content, the whole thing. This changes with every example.
BERTHOLF: In this regard we are making a big leap here. Let’s land and rehearse that one. Your reading of “Projective Verse”—if Olson knew anything about music, or paid attention to Haydn’s quartets and symphonies, he would have already had it down. What would he have found that would have precluded his writing “Projective Verse?”
ENSLIN: I will give my music analysis teacher, Francis Judd Cook at The New England Conservatory of Music, the credit for this. Judd Cooke studied with Donald Tovey.19 Cooke was a marvelous man. You don’t need to pinpoint particular works by Haydn or anyone else. What has become known as sonata form by musicologists is a formal structure into which you pour material. That was absolutely anathema to Cooke. He said it’s not done with bows or a cookie cutter. Haydn himself never knew the term. It did not exist. It was simply the way he thought. Yes, there is an introduction, a primary theme, and a secondary theme, which are developed in particular ways, and there is a coda. Every one of these things is completely different inside. What you find is that the nucleus of the works was something that occurred to Haydn or to Mozart, and many others at that time. But they never thought about sonata form. It was simply that the material itself dictated what the form would be. So it became a kind of organic structure. It has been dictated by the material. The material is in some ways different every time, of course.
BERTHOLF: Content is an extension of form, and the blessed reverse is also true.
ENSLIN: That’s true.
BERTHOLF: In “Projective Verse,” Olson wrote “One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception.”
ENSLIN: Exactly. That’s what those guys did. And it was very clear to me when Cid showed me in typescript one of the first drafts of “Projective Verse.” That is what I said to him. That was one reason why I was so excited about Olson’s thrust. I’m tired of the codified types of poems which certainly were everywhere at that time. This would be a way of breaking away from that and doing something new in Ez’s sense of making it new.
BERTHOLF: Olson also talks about getting rid of “the lyrical interference of the individual as ego.”
ENSLIN: The ego is there. You can’t avoid that. You try to make it something that is not ME, but the “I” is everywhere. You picked up on that in my work.
BERTHOLF: The Weather Within poems were the turning point.20
ENSLIN: Yes, when I wrote those poems I wrote them from the poems themselves and conversations with George Oppen. The book is dedicated to Oppen. I wanted to give it to him, but then he died.
BERTHOLF: That sequence grows out of conversations with Oppen?
ENSLIN: Yes, conversations with Oppen and out of things in the poems themselves. Of course, we came to different conclusions at certain places. It was very sad. I wanted to give it to him and then he died.
BERTHOLF: Did Taggart know that about those poems when he wrote about them?21
ENSLIN: Yes, I think he did. I always appreciate what he wrote about the poems because Oppen and Oppen’s thinking were very important to him.
BERTHOLF: Who were you studying composition with?
ENSLIN: I studied composition with Nadia Boulanger,22 but she was not at the Conservatory. She was across the river in Cambridge and she taught through something called the Longy School of Music, which still exists but which was founded earlier  by George Longy, who had played oboe with the Boston Symphony. When she came over to the States in 1938 she joined the faculty and taught there until 1945. A former student of hers, Melville Smith, was the Director when I studied there. The reason was that music students were beginning to feel that they needed conventional credits. They needed credentials to make their way in the music world. When people like Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson studied with her they didn’t need credentials, and they still didn’t need credentials in New York.23 But that was where she taught.
BERTHOLF: What did you learn from her that you transferred to poems?
ENSLIN: Well, I don’t know how to point to actual specific things. But certainly the whole slant of that training has informed my approach.
BERTHOLF: What kind of training was it?
ENSLIN: It was a very rigorous, European training with various parts ofsolfege, solphege sight singing—the ability to simultaneously beat two rhythms at the same time and to keep the lines separate.24 Sixteenth-century counterpoint, and the beginning of harmony, but never to think harmonically.
BERTHOLF: What is the point of this?
ENSLIN: If you think harmonically, you think vertically. And you do not really make the connections. If you think contrapuntally, it is a question of voice leading. That is in every part of the composition, not simply the melodic line, but the other contributory lines. You are making the constant progression. I would say that was very difficult for me to assimilate at the beginning. As I became better at it, I was not writing anything I would save, but I began to hear that way. And I think that I do hear that way now. That certainly is very important.
BERTHOLF: Now what about the conflict of Stravinsky vs. Mahler, Cambridge / Boston 1941–1944? There was the new music—Stravinsky, Weber, Berg, Schönberg, the Second Viennese School. But you were dedicated to Mahler and to the high romantic tradition in music.
ENSLIN: At that point Stravinsky was a very cosmopolitan composer. He tried everything and that was a part of that period. Picasso, who was his great friend, did the same thing in art. He wanted to go in every direction. Stravinsky made many pronouncements, like the one concerning Beethoven.
BERTHOLF: What exactly did Stravinsky say about Beethoven?
ENSLIN: That was at a dinner at the Athens Olympia. He conducted almost every spring in Boston. Mademoiselle Boulanger was known as the teaching end of Stravinsky, because he never taught. She published the great news. That was when he was composing The Rake’s Progress.25 He used to take us little guys out to dinner, usually at the Athens Olympia. He was sitting at the head of the table, and slammed his hand down on the table: “Gentlemen, Beethoven was a rotten composer.” Why would a man of that stature and knowledge say a thing like that? I think my eventual realization was probably right. He was saying: “At this point I am composing in a completely different way and I cannot listen to that music.” This happens to every bona fide master. You can’t be fair at all points. You can make statements of this sort which tomorrow you can negate in every way. You can’t listen to something that is not germane to what you’re doing at the moment. Stravinsky was famous for these kinds of delightful quips. He was a very sharp man.
BERTHOLF: What about the opposition from fellow students to your infatuation with Mahler?
ENSLIN: The students listened to anything Stravinsky said. The Master has said this is universal truth. But he was always free to change his mind. I was also interested in Thoreau, that nature writer.
BERTHOLF: So Mahler and Thoreau got put in the same pot.26
ENSLIN: That’s it. So finally in the 1950s Stravinsky decided he was going to do serial work. He pronounced that if anyone wanted to know anything about twentieth-century music they better listen to Anton Weber. That upset many, but there were some, like Aaron Copland, who composed pantonal music. There’s quite a lot of it.
BERTHOLF: What did Nadia Boulanger think of your fascination with Mahler?
ENSLIN: She was exasperated because I would bring up things as I did that famous time in a master class. She would take examples of different kinds of movements. She asked about a particular kind of cadence. I can’t remember whom she had as an example but I did know that Mahler had done the same thing, so I interjected, “Mademoiselle, Mahler did …” She stopped and raised her finger and said: “Young man, you have Mahlerial fever.”
BERTHOLF: When you were writing music, were you writing poems at the same time?
ENSLIN: Oh, yes.
BERTHOLF: Now what is the difference between writing a poem and writing a musical composition?
ENSLIN: I never found one. Once I had a technique I was sufficiently informed to more or less know what I was doing. So it was as easy to do one as the other. The reason I gave up composition was that once I could move around I realized that I had nothing to say. I could compose in many styles, but when I got done, what I had, if it was any good at all, was what I used to refer to many times as “beautiful, useless music.”
BERTHOLF: You finally had something to say in words.
ENSLIN: Yeah, well, at least I kidded myself and I have continued to do so all my life. No one has come forward yet, and said authoritatively, what maybe I should say to myself. I don’t know. Maybe I take a little credit. I never tried to insist upon my voice or that I must “find” myself. I dislike that in students anyway. I think that your voice, the finding, is there or it isn’t.
BERTHOLF: Well, people have a voice whether they have found it or not.
ENSLIN: Yeah, but I mean something that is distinctively their own. I never tried for that particularly, I was never sure that I would have it. The first time that I became aware that maybe I did was in a conversation with Denise Levertov. This was quite late actually, ’54 or ’55, something like that.
BERTHOLF: In Maine?
ENSLIN: No, it was in New York. I showed her some poems of a high-school student who deferred to me for a while, and I said, “Do you think these are good?”
And she said, “Yes, but it sounds like you.”
“It sounds like me?”
“Yes, of course, of course, I can tell a Ted Enslin poem.”
Well, maybe there is such a thing as that. I don’t think that I ever consciously thought of it before.
BERTHOLF: You never associated your poems with self-identity?
ENSLIN: No, I didn’t.
BERTHOLF: Do you think that Wallace Stevens ever did?
ENSLIN: I don’t know, I doubt it.
BERTHOLF: I doubt it too. What about Williams?
ENSLIN: Oh, yeah, Williams did. [Laughter.]
BERTHOLF: Early in his career Williams associated self-identity and the success of his poetry. He was, as it were, in a contest with Stevens and Eliot and others. When Eliot published his long poem “The Waste Land” in 1922, Williams was devastated. Eliot had broken apart what Williams viewed as American coherence in poetry. He spent the rest of his career reclaiming that coherence and so also himself.ENSLIN: Yes, well, of course, the only reaction he could have to it was that it was a calamity to American letters and you had since sent it back. Something that some people applauded and some deplored.
BERTHOLF: What is the first date of writing the first Forms? 1951?
ENSLIN: 1960. Actually that is hedging a little bit, because I did work onForms, the first part of Forms, through the decade of the ’50s. But it wasn’t until 1960 that I really did, and I revised that early stuff a great deal. Actually, Forms, if you remember, is much fussier—so far as the various columns that I used, and I even used the conductus idea—than the three people that I wanted to follow. Very strange bedfellows by the way. Mahler, Thoreau, and Slocum, and I can’t imagine … having the three of them in the same poem. [Laughter.]27 It would be very strange. But anyway, I modified a great deal and then I realized that what I wanted to do with this thing was to extend it as far as it would go and then if I did it honestly, I certainly should not revise things of that sort. That is, I would pass on from one period to the next and then, OK. Even if it were something ridiculous, it is not a fight to go back and try and fix this up.
BERTHOLF: Don’t leave this for a second. Now, you are saying here that you wrote the poems in Forms and then revised them before publication?
ENSLIN: Yeah, but actually, you see, I am not thinking of it as poems, I am thinking of it as a continuum. I have never actually called any of that structure—Forms, Synthesis, Ranger, “Axes”28—I have never been comfortable with calling it a poem or series of poems. It is a long working.
BERTHOLF: A long working … i n g.
ENSLIN: Yeah, a long working. In a number of cases, there are poems that would become embedded in this that I have taken out and published separately. You have seen some of the manuscripts. OK. Tucked in, there will sometimes be a poem, and then on the side it will say “Axes,” and such and such a number, and it may have a 4 on it, which means that I am going to do something else with it. I will take that sometimes, using it, embedding it, sometimes developing it in a totally different way.
BERTHOLF You could have three or four versions of the same poem.
BERTHOLF: You take them as valid versions of one idea?
ENSLIN: I don’t do this as much now as I used to, but I was never as happy as when in a single day I could use something that might be a separate poem, but the germ of which would also get somewhere in the long working, perhaps into some kind of sequence that I was working with, because that has always been an important part of the work, and then perhaps I could use the same thing in correspondence. I always liked being able to explore all of this.
BERTHOLF: I first became aware of people doing this when b. p. nichol did this in The Martyrology.29 At the bottom of the page, he would include alternative lines and give them asterisks, so he was building in the alternatives for reading the poem right at the bottom of the page. So in order to recognize this, these were two different poems published at the same time. That was fabulous. He recognized almost the instability of the words written and that they could modulate into something else.
ENSLIN: Armand Schwerner does that within The Tablets as well; there are three or four different lines.30
BERTHOLF: We are getting there. I will have to read The Tablets more carefully if that is the case. Would you have known of Schwerner’s example?
ENSLIN: Yeah, as a matter of fact I have talked to him about it. I think one of the most important principles for all art is that of variation, and by variation, I mean maybe this is done consciously all the time and probably shouldn’t be. But if you set up material in a particular way, variation does not mean that you simply repeat varying pitches or put the melody in another place, but again and again you repeat and use the material completely. You could take the same material and set it up in a different way, and you would have another set of variations. But I think this is something I did the first time in Bowling Green, that was the thing I brought out at the end. I said, “Think of something that would be a constant.” And I don’t know nearly as much about visual arts as I think I do about musical poetry. But I surmise exactly the same thing there.
BERTHOLF: Well, any time there are variations of versions of music, it is the same kind of structure. I have always thought of it as a way to exhaust a theme.
ENSLIN: Absolutely, to exhaust it. If the set of variations is complete, that is exactly what it does. Using it set up in this way, you can’t go any further. That relates to when Schönberg was teaching at UCLA.31 He had his students compose variations, very often on both Handel and Carl Philipp Emanual Bach, but he never had them try Johann Sebastian because Johann Sebastian had already done it.32 It was all done [laughter] in the Goldberg Variations of course, the greatest set of the eighteenth century.33 But in many, many other instances the Bach was not something that could be fun. Haydn could have done the same thing, but he was a very lazy man and very fluent.
BERTHOLF: I’m intrigued by your use of musical terms and musical form. I would like to mention the poem you call “Glass Harmonica,”34 written in the 1950s but not included in The Work Proposed35 (1958). This is an obvious reference to Mozart’s Adagio for Glass Harmonica in C Major, K. 356.
ENSLIN: That’s perfectly correct, but I was thinking of Through the Looking Glass.36 You remember that in the first lines there is something about a mirror. Once one got through the mirror, one would be in a country where the ghostly sound of the glass harmonica would be a matter of course, that would be the music of that country. It would also be cold. I’ve had some experience with cold. So it becomes what it says it is. It can be misinterpreted very easily but I don’t think it should be. I was very much interested and quite taken with the fact that Denise Levertov liked that poem a lot. She thought it was a very fine poem.
BERTHOLF: You were aware that you made a variation of Williams’s triadic line part way through?
ENSLIN: Yes, I was quite aware of that.
BERTHOLF: And it comes out then making a pun on the very structure you are talking about—
sound not a sound
in the quiet north country—
The lines remain only an image of sound, and they never become a visual image. It seems like in a poem about music a visual image is an impediment.
ENSLIN: I agree.
BERTHOLF: Now, “The Diabelli Variations,” written in 1959 but not published until 1967.
ENSLIN: Actually it was published in 1960 in The Quarterly Review of Literature.38
BERTHOLF: But not as a book.
ENSLIN: There are three poems, and the middle one I have long considered my first real attempt at sequence. “The Log of the Divided Wilderness”39 is an early attempt of what I didn’t really develop again until the late 1970s. I was always interested in sequence from the time as a kid I first discovered Rilke. The Duino Elegies certainly, but actually the Sonnets for Orpheus, and also das Stundenbuch, Poems from the Book of Hours. There’s a very bad translation of that, by the way, by Babette Deutsch.40 That idea intrigued me. Many times there are poems which can be complete in themselves and yet can be sometimes enhanced, certainly directed, by other materials following or preceding, and eventually that gets into my pet theory of variations.
BERTHOLF: What’s the difference between a sequence and a variation?
ENSLIN: A variation usually implies—this is taking it pretty literally from music, although it has been done many times in poetry; Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”41 is a good example—variation in itself implies a root, a theme, a nucleus, whatever you want to call it, or it could be a melody in strict musical terms. One takes that material and sets it up in a particular direction. It’s as if you were saying, “I’m here now and I want to be over here. Now how do I get there?” That part of the development is pretty formal. The point being to take that material and in some way use it up, use it in every possible way according to the place you want to take it. You could write another set of variations on the same theme and that would be completely different. Now, a really successful set of variations is, interestingly, The Diabelli Variations of Beethoven.42 There are thirty-three variations on what he considered a very little, silly theme. That is often a part of it. The nucleus, whatever it is, is not a wonderful thing in itself. It allows itself to be pulled apart and put together in various ways. The common notion of variation has always been that the theme is stated and then it is in a different register, in a different instrumentation. That is not variation. That is simply an elaboration of the material. Schubert was perfectly capable of writing good variations and he did sometimes.43 I think he was so intoxicated by those wonderful melodies, and he had every right to be, that he didn’t want to fool around with them too much.
BERTHOLF: The idea of exhausting melody or the theme is interesting because it shifts the weight of the poem from what’s being said to the process of forming it. In musical variations, the process is the underlying structure. The process of doing it is more important than the substance of what’s being done. This becomes a fundamental principle of literary seriality—you have to enter a process in which there is no conceivable terminus. Let’s hold off on that until we get to Nine.44 Now, what happens in a poem called “A Chromatic Fantasy?”45
ENSLIN: There was a very obvious reason for calling the piece “A Chromatic Fantasy?”. Bach has several pieces that could be called that. Chromatic means that every note of the octave is used. For me it came out of a walk on this road. There were twelve old houses including this one and I thought of them as the twelve notes. I thought also of the older idea of modulation; that is, going from one key to another. The original idea of that was, for example, if you are in the key of C, then relative to C is G, in other words, the dominant. You can slide from the key of C to the key of G with almost no notice at all. You can do it the other way, but if you’re going down it would have to be a fourth, so that’s the sub-dominant. So anyway, the dominant and the sub-dominant are the closest consonants to an original key. Something like C D is almost unthinkably remote, and there are very few instances in music until the Second Violin Concerto of Prokofiev.46 The Second Violin Concerto starts in G minor, laid out for the violin, and it is answered immediately by the orchestra in the key of F. It was unthinkable before, and actually he was criticized for it. It can work very, very well. Our ears now are tuned to a much wider way of marching from one key to another. The old houses were almost always built on high ground. I counted the houses, twelve. What was the closest relation to music? You could go from C to the key of F. It really did work, and it sparked me to write the poem. That’s why it’s called “A Chromatic Fantasy?”
BERTHOLF: You also experimented with the rondo and concerto. Have you ever tried to translate a musical rondo into a literary form?
ENSLIN: Yes, I certainly did, in the poem called “Rondo,” again from Music for Several Occasions. When I used those musical terms I was almost always specific. In the piece I was thinking of Mozart’s K. 563. Musicologists are very fond of talking of things like sonata form, but the great practitioners like Haydn and Mozart never heard of the term. It was simply the way they thought, and it is different in every instance. Haydn wrote 104 symphonies and every one of them is different. And it is a way of thinking rather than an absolute set form. I was thinking of the rondo which is the last movement of Köchel 563, which is the big Trio Divertimento by Mozart.47 I had great fun doing it. I think it is pretty much put together as a rondo. The main point is that the initial theme, the initial nucleus comes back again and again, usually in not too different a form than it was at the beginning. It will change somewhat, however.
There is an interesting story in the writing of that. I thought it was going to be a very difficult thing to do. I sat at a table and set out seven pieces of paper. I wrote it in seven minutes, the whole thing, and I never changed anything, not a word.
BERTHOLF: Again, you are emphasizing that in that adaptation you are focusing on the process of music and literature instead of on what’s being said.
ENSLIN: Yes, I suppose I am.
BERTHOLF: The other poem that interested me is “Concerto for Solo Voices and Chorus.”48
ENSLIN: I hoped that a certain section of that poem would make a concerto. It is more or less concerto grosso in the old style. But there are separate voices that are distinguishable, but which at the same time would not disturb the whole movement of the piece. That again was based on a specific piece—Opus 6 of Handel, one of the concerti grossi.49
BERTHOLF: Are there other forms?
ENSLIN: I went on experimenting using various poems. I used a motet. There is a poem in Case Book,50 called “Sonata for a Sextet.” The “Sonata for a Sextet” was pure self-indulgence. There is a sextet, a string sextet of Brahms,51 that I love, which is String Sextet no. 1, op. 18. I studied the score of that thing. I used to say I don’t know if I ever could have done it, and I know I couldn’t do it now, but when I got done I think I could have written that Brahms sextet down from memory backward. But anyway, that piece is sort of a tribute to it and a sense of the movement of each of the four movements of that sextet.
BERTHOLF: Then there is “Passacaglia.”52
ENSLIN: You can’t do too much if you are going to have a true passacaglia. Passacaglia is an eight-measure theme in the base about which everything else is built. The last great one of the nineteenth century is the fourth movement of the Fourth Symphony of Brahms.53
BERTHOLF: Passacaglia comes back as a primary mode in your late work. So we come to Nine, poems written from 1993–2001. The last two, “Ring” and “Keep Sake,” are 2000 and 2001. These are the major poems of the period.
ENSLIN: I have my greatest affection for them.
BERTHOLF: Near the beginning we started talking about sequence, and we have talked about several different kinds, rondo and passacaglia. What is the relationship of these musical forms to the sequences in Nine?
ENSLIN: I played around with a great number of those things in early attempts at musical forms, but I was not insisting on any one at a specific time. They vary tremendously. You can go from “Autumnal Rime,” which is the first one, to “Ring.”
BERTHOLF: How have you adapted the passacaglia process to “Autumnal Rime?”
ENSLIN: It’s not really done quite that way. There are hints of it, yes, hints of a base melody throughout, but it is broken up into various parts. It has always amused me when I’ve read it. People seem to wonder whether the funny sections—and there are some funny sections—whether they could show that this was serious work. Yes, it is serious work, but it’s also fun. If you want to laugh, go right ahead. “There is a box lying on this table,” that one and the rewriting of a popular song by John Skelton,54 “Mannerly Margery,” these are very funny, and coming where they do, I think they leaven the lot, because that whole sequence does get serious. It is not very far from “Margery” to my commentary on the Holocaust, “Ignis ossium.” You can’t do that all the time. To make it as serious as it is, you had better have another sense of things. There is humor in this world too. Like the thing from a year ago, One Day and How It Was.55 “There is a magic in this world and I intend to find it.”
BERTHOLF: You start out one poem in Scripturals,56 “Let it be a garden,” as if the poem is propositional. It could be anything, a frog, a tree, or a rock. These poems are variations of propositions, a garden once, and then a tree or a frog, and then finally, what is the message of the poem? Is it talking more about the process of conceiving what the proposition is, and finding out what the implications are as it goes forward, or is there some deeper message that we are all missing here?
ENSLIN: I don’t think there is anything very deep about it. The title explains it all, One Day and How It Was. These various things, perfectly normal things, did happen and I was able to use them. The same things happen in Nine.
BERTHOLF: When you say “Let it be a garden,” you are making a proposal, and then you run through the gates, and the flowers, and the blooms, etc. It looks like you’re exhausting the original proposal, and when that original proposal is exhausted you go on to the next one. The process has not been exhausted, just what you chose as the garden this time. So theoretically, the sequence could be endless.
ENSLIN: Theoretically, yes.
BERTHOLF: Theoretically, but what causes the termination to these nine sequences, what makes them stop? For example, what’s the stopping point of “Autumnal Rime?”
ENSLIN: That sequence has 33 sections. Section 32 is as an end to the piece. In a piece of music you might have an apartatura chord come back four or five times. Beethoven sometimes extended it.
BERTHOLF: The interesting thing about the late Beethoven quartets is that they stop, they don’t conclude. They don’t have a structural beginning, middle, and an end. They don’t have a structural conclusion. I don’t see the poems in Nine having a structural conclusion. Why don’t they?
ENSLIN: Maybe because I chose not to do it that way. I did in most instances get a sense of what the development was—yes, I am here, and I want to get to there, and I don’t want to overshoot.
BERTHOLF: When you start a sequence, do you conceive a termination?
ENSLIN: In some cases I did, in some not.
BERTHOLF: How do we tell the difference?
ENSLIN: The three that go together as Sequentiae57 are “Sea Change,” “Petals,” and “Conservator.” I actually thought of Sequentiae as a possible end to all the sequences. But I wanted nine, and that again is from a musical superstition. It was not just Beethoven, but it was Bruckner,58 Schubert, and it was Mahler (well, he didn’t finish the tenth). If you try to go beyond, it would kill you. Dvorák is another.59
BERTHOLF: Do you have a final statement about music and poetry?
ENSLIN: What I learned as a music student has been invaluable to me in poetry in many, many ways. And I am very glad that I was not aware of that in the beginning. It became more and more apparent to me. Ah, that’s what you’re doing, you’re using all the stuff that you learned with Nadia Boulanger. Quite true. It annoys me when poets, some very good ones, use musical terms, which they do all the time, and they really don’t know what they are saying. They are not accurate. Their ear is not really tuned. Cadence, that’s a beauty. There are many different kinds of cadences. Whether the poets are aware of it or not, they have used one or another, sometimes many.