The Test of Time
Four Poets Look Back on Their Early Work
By The Editors on 7.14.10
The recent publication of Gerald Stern’s Early Collected Poems: 1965-1992 made us curious about how poets feel about their early work. Would they agree with Pericles when he said, “Time is the wisest counselor of all?” We got in touch with Beth Ann Fennelly, Eavan Boland, Linda Pastan, and Stephen Dunn and got the scoop on how they react to their early poetry now that a few years have passed.
Beth Ann Fennelly: Open House in some ways feels written by a different person, although it’s only ten years old. I can only imagine how Gerald Stern feels when viewing poems he wrote 40 years ago! Sometimes when I look at those poems, I feel the bemused affection one feels looking at old photographs—I recognize myself a bit, but Lord, what was I wearing! And why didn’t someone tell me to comb that cowlick out of my hair?
Eavan Boland: I think most poets need to be careful about their early work. It can all too easily feel like a friendship you’ve grown out of. It’s hard not to feel distant—and not just from the poems you’ve written but also the poet who wrote them. I try to be practical about it. I think of first books in general as part of a written record, a sort of tracking device that shows where a poet began. As such they have a real value. The worst thing you can do is try to re-write or polish that early work. That becomes a kind of forgery.
Linda Pastan: Though my subject matter changes as I age, I seem to have found my “voice” fairly early. I still feel quite attached to many of the poems in my earliest books.
Stephen Dunn: About half of it holds up. It should be said that all of the poems in my first book were written after I was thirty.