Michigan poet Thomas Lynch visited Michigan State University’s Residential College of Arts and Humanities last month for its Fall Reading Program. The Milfordbased writer and funeral director is the author of several books of poetry and three books of essays and has been featured on PBS and the BBC, as well as in The Atlantic and The New Yorker.
I’ve heard it said recently that poetry is a vocation not a profession. What do you think about that?
Well, I love the use of the word “vocation,” because it dwells so much on the heard voice, you know, calling. I think that for most poets it sounds like almost a haunted voice. The only other good thing I heard about poetry is from a priest, who had a vocation, who said after I had published a book of poems to keep in mind that this is like prophecy. Most of the time, you’re just trying to keep your feet out of your mouth, but every once in a while you’ll say something useful, then you’re a prophet. It’s the same with poets. Most of the time you’re just gob sheets, but every once in a while you’ll give out with something useful. Then you’re a poet.
Because you have this other kind of life, do you make any kind of distinct separation between where you write and work?
No. I write where I can. But no, I think that experience of separation would be very much an American experience, where poetry is seen as something out of the mainstream. Poets are seen as odd; we want to be wary of them.
Well, they seem like loafers who get situated in cushy jobs, who live in an echo chamber so small that only themselves and the two other people who have read their poems take them seriously at all, which is a particularly American experience. We think of poets in our experience, like elements of good infrastructure. It’s nice to have them out there, isn’t it? But we don’t take them seriously. We don’t hang them, we don’t shoot them, we don’t arrest them, we don’t read them. We give them healthcare benefits, fellowships, stipends in universities and leave them to the few people who collect around them in a kind of personality cult. That’s a unique experience in America, so you do not have a sense of the great American poetry. For novelists not to read the current poets in the UK would be a slight, because, that said, poets are like electricians or plumbers or porters on a train.
They are working people. So when my cousin Nora would say to her neighbors in the townland, ‘”Ahh, he’s at the poetry business,” it was as if I were farming or doing pharmaceuticals.
You were doing real work.
I was doing real work, exactly right. Here it’s flighty and those people should be medicated. It’s very much like that portion of the death certificate where it asks for a usual occupation. And often times for generations of women before your own, they would answer, “Oh, she was just a homemaker.” And I’d say, “Well you do that for a week and then you come and tell me ‘just a.’” It’s much the same with poetry, and yet there is this sense that people are poets and writers — if you write poetry, you’re playing in a different end of the pool of than other people who are playing with words.
You are both.
Well, I intend to be. I love work and words, but poetry is a different thing. I can’t imagine doing the others without having poetry. And I always say this: “You don’t have to write it, but you must read it.” If you intend to work in language, you must read poetry, because it’s like trying to understand agriculture without doing dirt.
When I write I have to read first, even in the same block of time. Do you find the same to be true when you write?
Yeah, reading makes you want to write. It is karaoke, you know. We hear things that make us think, “I could do that. I could sing that better, or I’d like to have a go at that.”
What is it that you read that brings you into writing?
I read whatever comes across the desk. I’ve never had a bad experience with books. I don’t read that much fiction, but fiction is pretty compelling to me. When I read it, I think “God bless that person for having done that.” I’m reading books now written by an infantry marine in World War II, and the books are old but they’re part of a project I’m working on.
Tell me a little bit about your education.
I majored in playing cards and the grill. But, yeah, I had more English classes than anything else. Until I went to mortuary school, and then I got some science.
When did your poetic education start?
I met a poet, Michael Heffernan, at the university in 1967. Heffernan was writing poems and typing them out. I have thought about this since, and I lived in a house and among people for whom language was a weapon and a balm. We loved debate and contention. Poetry for me, even the liturgical poems — “Angel of God my guardian dear to whom God’s love commits me here” — the whole rhyme and meter of that stuff, the way it made sound before it made sense, to me, was very seductive. And my grandmothers, who on Sundays would get a little liquored up and argue politics, you know, I just loved the sense that they were fearless about any subject, most of which they would borrow from whatever the priest had to say; they would always disagree.
Of course. Here they were, devotees of a mannish church, having their way on Sunday afternoons after a little drink had been taken. Listening to them hold forth about sex and politics and religion — the idea that language was powerful and magical and able to do things that math couldn’t do really struck me as something. So then when I met somebody and they said, “That impulse or instinct that you have, read Yeats, read Joyce and Beckett and the rest.” You know that was enough for me.
(Stephanie Glazier is assistant to the director at the MSU Center for Poetry and an office assistant in the RCAH dean’s office. She received a bachelor’s in English from MSU in 2008 and is enrolled in the low-residency program in creative writing at Seattle Pacific University.)