An Interview with the Late Tom Wolfe by Aaron Rench
Mar 27 2019
The interview took place at Wolfe’s apartment in New York City, in the Spring of 2011, for Credenda/Agenda Magazine.
AR: Thanks again for being able to sit down and do this interview. To start, I just wanted to ask you if you could tell me a little bit about poetry that you grew up with, your first recollections of learning poetry. Did your parents read it to you?
TW: I was looking around during the day to find it for you, but there is a poem that is a children’s book, that had the greatest influence on me, so much so that I use a line from it in every book I write. There’s always a line from this poem called, “Honey Bear.”
AR: “Honey Bear.”
TW: And it was by, written by a woman named Dixie Willson and the artwork which is very, in an art nouveau style, was by Maginel Wright Barney. I did not know until years later when my sister, who also loved this poem, began to do a little research. It turns out, Dixie Willson, the writer, was the sister of Meredith Willson who did The Music Man. And Maginel Wright Barney was the sister of Frank Lloyd Wright. And the two of them did not know each other, you know: one wrote the story, the other did the artwork. And I don’t think either one of them knew that the other was the sister of a famous artist. But anyway, this was really a book that was written to read to children before they were able to read themselves. So I must have been four or five, I suppose. My sister and I both, she’s younger than me, were read to by, chiefly, our mother. I couldn’t get enough of it.
AR: Is it collected in a Golden Treasury?
TW: No. It’s hard to find it. You can find it online. Sometimes the copies cost a fortune. Sometimes they don’t. It just depends on the condition. It’s, I believe, anapestic pentameter.
AR: Can you say more about this poem?
TW: The book is a story of a family, mother, father, and a little child. Little child is very young, three or four years old. And the father makes a living by hunting. And it’s well known that there’s a bear in the area, and so they’ve always kind of got one eye out for the bear. And then one morning the father is off hunting and the child is in a crib with a great, marvelous piece of netting over it. And, the pictures are just exquisite. And suddenly the child is missing and there are bear footprints. Of course they panic and the father organizes a search party. And they start going through the woods looking for the bear, and they finally come upon the bear. And he and the little girl are having a tea party and the bear is scooping honey out of a hollow tree. And giving her some and she’s giving him some. And so there’s this beautiful happy ending. You are all set up for it to be a tragedy. And I, it got to the point where I would make my mother read it over and over. And sometimes she would try to leave out parts just to get through it.
I mean, it got a little weary I’m sure. But I’d catch it every time. And I couldn’t repeat the words necessarily but I knew something’s supposed to be there. I’m even trying to remember some of the words, “once upon a summer, in a field by the river, near the dusty woods where the wild things grew.” The anapest, the foot often would be followed by a spondee at the end of the line, like, “wild things grew.” And that’s the same meter as “the Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold.” It’s a rollicking kind of a meter.
AR: A rambunctious meter.
TW: Yeah. And, it was so infectious to me. I just wish I had it in front of me because I’d be delighted to read some of it. But I’ve looked all over. It’s short.
AR: A one-sitting children’s book?
TW: Oh yes. You could easily read it at night when a child is just going to sleep. But, as I say—with rhyme and poetry; fabulous, rollicking meter. And the story was a gripping story with a happy ending.
AR: What was it about the poetry that drew you to it? It sounds here like it was a combination of both the sound and the rhythm as well as the story?
TW: That rhythm, to me, just went right, as I was mentioning, right to the heart. There’s very little intervention by Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area of the left hemisphere. It just comes, streams, streams, because of the music. Now, oddly enough, when my wife and I would try to read it to our children, they didn’t go for it. I don’t know why. You wouldn’t think it would be a matter of taste at four or five years old. Maybe it just wasn’t in a modern idiom. I don’t know. But, I’m sure it had a big influence on me and just, as an indication of what could be done with words. God, I wish I had it here. It had a big influence.
AR: How about when you grew older? You know, throughout the years: did other poets have that kind of impact— times where other poets struck you?
TW: Kipling was certainly one, and particularly the “Barrack-Room Ballads.”
One that I noticed was quoted when we invaded Afghanistan, “when the lion, wounded on the Afghan plain, and the women come out to cut up the remains, roll to your rifle and blow out your brains, and go to your God like a soldier.” [laughs] I mean, only now is the charming aristocracy beginning to realize the virtues of Kipling. He was never forgiven for being for the Empire, instead of against it. He was never a poet laureate but he seemed to be because he found exoticism. He found beauty. He found adventure instead of, the only fashionable thing to do about the twenties was to condemn it, you know? And, I’m trying to think of some others that, well, I remember the period when I just loved Shelley, and Byron, and Keats. I like those three better than Wordsworth. Wordsworth was okay in a pinch.
AR: He’ll do in a pinch.
TW: Not bad stuff. Um, Poe. Poe was from my hometown, Richmond, Virginia. In fact, there’s a place there called the Poe shrine. A tiny, two room building that he lived in it at one point. As I was mentioning, today, Poe would be lucky to be writing jingles for commercials because rhyme isjust not considered fit for the charming aristocracy. Oh, but Eliot had some nice rhyme and poetry at the beginning of his career. Of course, Eliot is quite okay. But poetry was invaded by, not only the forces of the deaf, but by cynicism. Cynicism is such a pall on the arts. I can remember taking a liking to Walter Savage Landor—a British poet—a little after the Romantic poets, a bit stately, you might say, but pretty good, pretty good stuff. I think I got interested in him in college.
AR: What stands out to you in regard to him, besides the stately?
TW: What really stands out is that he wrote a poem about a clean, well-lighted, space which was a phrase that Hemingway picked up—a clean, well lighted place rather. It may be sheer coincidence. I’ve always like Shakespeare, as a poet, but not as a dramatist. I think he has so many faults as a dramatist. This business of reciting endless history of what’s happened so far and describing battles.
AR: Don’t you think there’s an issue of taste? I mean it’s kind of like some creative writing rules, that get sort of entrenched. Like when people criticize Jane Austen for not following the “show don’t tell” rule.
TW: Well, yeah . . .
AR: Obviously, there is some to truth to it, but Jane Austen didn’t graduate from Iowa with an MFA in trying to show and not tell. She is doing something different. There are different tastes.
TW: Balzac doesn’t mind breaking off. He does it actually fairly often, and gives you a little essay about what’s come up in conversation, and it certainly works, in fact it lends a kind of deeper tone, almost as if to say, ‘hey this is worth a little philosophizing. Let’s get into it.’ Well, of course, point of view is something that began to completely take over literature. I mean the use of point of view as a device. Henry James, I guess, is the main offender.
One of the great marvels of The Grapes of Wrath (which, I think, is a much underestimated book) is that you are not inside anyone’s mind ever in The Grapes of Wrath. And yet, I came away with the feeling that Ma Jode and Tom are two of the best realized figures in all of fiction. Also, it’s a book that’s thirty-five chapters of which eighteen I think are little vignettes between the action. The first one that’s really noticeable is the action breaks off and there’s a turtle crossing the highway. And it goes on for about six pages and the turtle keeps getting hit by automobiles and it spins off the road. It pulls itself into the shell. It finally makes it across the road and after awhile you realize it’s the Okies. The turtle represents the Okies. One way or another they’re going to survive. They’re going to get through this, the Dust Bowl of 1936, 35 and so on. Others are just little bits of action concerning characters that aren’t in the story at all. And many of these things make the book seem bigger, it makes the story of the Jodes seem much more all encompassing because there’s so many spin-offs from it in these little interstices, these little interspersed chapters. It’s absolutely brilliant, in my way of thinking.
I just think the salvation of modern poetry—God knows it needs saving—is narrative poetry, rhyming poetry, poetry with a strong meter. Internal rhymes, I think, work so well in poetry. As well as at the end of lines. It’s time for a form of epic poetry. Poetry today doesn’t dare celebrate anything, because that’s too uncynical. I mean you can’t have a “Charge of the Light Brigade” now. The charming aristocracy is just not going to put up with it.
AR: A poet that you mentioned to me before I wanted to bring up...Vachel Lindsay?
TW: Oh, Vachel Lindsay. Yes.
AR: Actually, there’s a story, I guess, of Poetry Magazine. Harriet Monroe, who was the editor back then, was hosting a sort of a literary soiree in Chicago. It was to honor W.B. Yeats. And, before the event began, Harriet Monroe actually gave Yeats a copy of Lindsay’s, “General William Booth Enters into Heaven.”
TW: That’s a great poem.
AR: Yeah. And she gives Yeats a copy of it before the event begins. Yeats reads it, looks at it, describes it as a strange beauty,—his words. And anyways, the event goes on and I guess by the end of this program, people are on the verge of snoozing, and then on comes Vachel Lindsay for the final performance.
TW: You mean the man himself?
AR: The man himself. He was there.
TW: He did a lot of performing.
AR: Yeah, he was there. He comes on and gives this rousing recitation, I think it was of, “The Congo.”
TW: Well that’s the one, yeah, “The Congo.”
AR: With the boom, the boom, the boom.
TW: “Boom lay, boom lay, boom. Then I saw the Congo creeping through the black, creeping through the jungle with a golden track”. He was so musical. Quite intentional. He wanted to turn poetry into pure music, but descriptive, always descriptive of something. He gave all these performances. He made a living doing it. He would be reviewed by the jazz critic rather than anyone connected to the literary page. because they were so musical. There’s another thing that is just gone. It’s gone. I wish I had a volume of his work here. He did one in which he captures the sound of automobiles in California. It’s marvelous stuff. And nobody took it any further than he did.
AR: How would you say that the poetry that has informed you--how have you put it into action in your own work?
TW: I think, often, these things happen without your realizing that they’re happening. I can’t help but believe things like Honey Bear, and Johnny Crow’s Garden (I don’t even know who wrote that) got me really interested in the sound of words. I mean so often I hear the sound in my mind and I never know whether the reader’s gotten it or not. And there’s so many ways you can play with sound in writing prose.
AR: You’d say that that’s an area where poetry has kind of informed your work.
TW: Yeah. Yeah. I do a lot, for better or worse, I do a lot of that. Every time I write it happens; I love it if it seems to me that it’s working. I wish I could turn right to it, a page somewhere and show you.
AR: You mean in your work?
TW: Yeah. The places that I think it has worked.
AR: Well, in The Right Stuff, though, you showed me . . .
TW: Oh you know, in The Right Stuff, the second chapteris called “The Right Stuff.” And it explains what “the right stuff” is. And, there’s a passage in there where I go for about twelve paragraphs, and every single paragraph ends in “the right stuff”, or “that righteous stuff”, or that “un-nameable stuff”, or “the right” something.
AR: A chant.
TW: Yeah. Speaking only for myself, I think it works. I think it really works. And I think, it would work at the beginning of the paragraph, but I think it’s more of a surprise at the end of the paragraphs. I also became, when I went to graduate school, highly interested in formal rhetoric, much of which has do to with poetic devices such as chiasma: “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”.
AR: That’s a major literary device in the Bible.
TW: Is it? I wouldn’t doubt it.
AR: It’s everywhere in the Bible.
TW: I’m so interested in this. I found four hundred and forty-four figures of speech, and I still have them on 5x8 cards, which they are figurae sententiae, figures of thought. And there were tropes. Oh, there’s figures of repetition. And, I think that’s also in Latin. Chiasma is an example. You repeat things in certain forms. And I know that’s had a lot of influence on me.
AR: Yeah. Do you use chiasm in some of your--?
TW: I don’t remember. I wouldn’t be surprised.... Oh and metonymy is so beautiful. Stephen Crane was the master of it. He would describe it, for example, in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, he would describe a scene at a working man’s bar in the Bowery, and there were these men, and the men would come home from work, and without changing their clothes, —the sweaty clothes they had been working in all day— they’d just go attempt to drown their memories in beer, mostly at these bars. And, there’s a marvelous mo ment where a performance is going on on the stage, a piano or something and he would say, “the nationalities murmured their approval.” The “nationalities” is symbolic of “immigrants”and rather than saying, “the immigrants”, he just says, he calls them “the nationalities.” I don’t know why I love things like that so much. But metonymy is a very subtle device. And, oh, at the very beginning of, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, he introduces this Jimmy, who turns out to be Maggie’s little brother, and he’s in the middle of a rock fight. I’ve seen rock fights in Virginia. It used to be a great sport where you’d just, kids would just start throwing rocks at each other. And, yes, you would lose the occasional eye, but nobody ever clamped down and stopped these. Um, in this case, little Jimmy stood on the rock pile defending the honor of Rum Alley. Now, of course, he is not defending the honor of Rum Alley. He’s just a little boy trying to beat other little boys. But there’s something beautiful about,
AR: Taking it up to that level.
TW: Dignified, as if this is a battle of nationalities or peoples over something, over something big. If he had only lived—he died of tuberculosis at only twenty-eight. Um, I have a feeling that he would have been the all time American giant.
AR: Switching gears a little bit. You once said, “I like to give people news they didn’t know was news.” Is there any advice for the poet in that?
TW: Did I say? Well, good. That’s a nice line.
AR: It is a nice line. It’s so nice that I thought, it could be, at least by analogy, good advice for a poet.
TW: I honestly think that poets should think of reporting as part of their job. It’s not just that there’s something nice about verse, it’s that things happen in this world, particularly today, that the greatest poet in the world could never dream up. They are so bizarre. And they’re such rich material that it would improve any poet’s output. I mean even a subject like Paris Hilton. No poet would think of her as a subject. But here’s a girl whose real life takes such a bizarre path. I mean, I was thinking that the problem with fiction, and I’ve written both fiction and non-fiction, the problem with fiction is that it has to be plausible; but nothing else does. We’re not in a plausible age. A novelist could have written a story, the first part of the story of Paris Hilton. You have this beautiful heiress who is caught on a pornographic tape. But the rest of the novel would be about the possessors of the tape trying to extort five million dollars from her, and she’s terrified. She finds some hackers from the university and wants them to hack their way into her father’s account and withdraw the five million. But then they start demanding twenty percent commission which mean that she’d be--oh, it’d be a pretty interesting story. Or, I think a novelist could dream a story—it wouldn’t be very exciting—about a beautiful (I think she’s a beautiful woman) a beautiful young heiress who, without any apparent talent, suddenly is given a ten million dollar television show. But I don’t think any novelist would have been so insightful as to do a novel in which she gets the television show because she’s caught on a pornographic tape. That’s today. That’s today.
AR: The other day, when we talked on the phone about G.K. Chesterton, it reminded me of a line. Chesterton said, “the poet only askes to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” He was very much an advocate of poetry being the thing that actually provided sanity, not, you know, rationalism.
TW: Mhmm, well, any lover of the Bible, of which he was, would go along with that. The first verse of the Gospel according to Saint John: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” That’s definitely poetry.