Edward Field decided to become a poet when he was a young man just out of basic training. He served in World War II as a navigator on bombing missions in Europe, and after the war, briefly assayed an acting career—while also working as a typist. Meanwhile the poet in him blossomed, and in 1963, Grove Press published Field’s first poetry collection, Stand Up, Friend, with Me. Since then, his many published works have included the poetry collections Variety Photoplays (1967), A Full Heart (1977), New and Selected Poems, From the Book of My Life (1987), Counting Myself Lucky (1992), and After the Fall (2007). In addition, he has edited poetry anthologies and co-written fiction with Neil Derrick, his partner of almost six decades. In 2005, Field published a literary memoir, The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag: And Other Intimate Portraits of the Bohemian Era, and in 2008, Kabuli Days: Travels in Old Afghanistan. His papers are held by the University of Delaware.
Terry Stoller spoke with Edward Field in February 2017 about his decision to become a poet, his first “teacher,” the effects of New Criticism on poetic language and subject matter, his pursuing his own direction with his writing, the challenges of being a gay poet in the early days, and the blessings of his later years.
Terry Stoller: You’ve written that you were inspired to become a poet just after basic training. The Red Cross gave you a care package that included a book of poetry. Had you not been exposed to poetry before that?
Edward Field: Only in school. We had to learn “Old Ironsides” by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!/ Long has it waved on high …” That was about my level of poetry. And of course we all know poetry from popular songs. However crappy they are, lyrics are poetry. I think I once tried to write different lyrics to a popular song. But there must have been stuff bubbling way down underneath.
You come from a rather artistic family. Your father was a commercial artist.
But he painted on his own. He took us on painting trips in the summer.
And you and your two older sisters had a musical trio. Do you see the seeds of your choice to become a poet somewhere in your family background?
I think it was actually that I didn’t know what else to do. I really had no idea what I was going to do with my life, and people kept asking me. So when I read the book of poetry that a Red Cross lady gave me during the war, I felt this must be what I’m made for—because nobody else wants to do it. It’s not a career that anyone would ever recommend. It just seemed right for me because I felt completely out of any career track.
You never considered music? You were on a radio program with your sisters.
I played the cello, and I really didn’t like the cello. It was too big for me when I was a little kid, so I always felt it was not my instrument. I was given it because one sister had the violin, and she was the star. She played most of the tunes. My other sister was at the piano and was used to accompanying, but she also played piano solos. But cello music—my cello teacher didn’t give me any music I was crazy about.
When your father took you on painting trips, he might have also encouraged you to be artistic.
I had no artistic talent. There were six children. Three of them could draw, and three couldn’t. It’s something you’re born with, and I could not draw anything. I remember once I had to do a poster for school of a sailing boat, and I got my sister Alice, who could draw, to do it. One of my twin brothers could draw, and two of my sisters could draw. And it didn’t seem to matter whether you looked like my father or not. It was made a big deal of that I looked like my father. I was his family. And my mother preferred the children who looked like her family. She was fair, the Poylisha, and he was dark, the Litvak. He looked like an Arab. I once saw a picture of a sheik standing on a sand dune in the Negev desert—my father perfectly.
Was there one particular poet in the anthology the Red Cross gave you that made you think, This is what I want to do?
A bunch of them did. I especially loved Rupert Brooke’s poetry. And I think there was a poem by someone else that said, “Lest we forget — lest we forget”—that hit me. One of my army buddies later said that the best poem is The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. I had never heard of him, and I don’t think he was in the anthology. My first military assignment was as a clerk on an airfield, but I wasn’t very happy there. So when across my desk came a flyer saying they urgently needed people to go to the aviation cadet program, I jumped at it and was accepted. The cadets were mostly college educated, and my best friend in the program had gone to Cornell or Yale, and he told me about The Waste Land.
What did you think when you read that poem?
Couldn’t make head or tail out of it. Back then, I was still reading Rupert Brooke and had discovered George Barker. I was crazy about him.
You have said your real introduction to modern poetry was on an airbase in England.
Yes. I met a published poet who had gone to Columbia and was voted the most likely to succeed in his class, which included Allen Ginsberg. His name was Coman Leavenworth. And it was from him that I heard about Dunstan Thompson because Coman used to go to London to the Gargoyle Club, which was a literary hangout, and he would come back and tell me about all the writers he’d met.
What were you learning about contemporary poetry that you related to?
That was what was being published. The other poetry was by dead poets. Modern poetry was what was going on, so of course I was interested in what was going on. When you’re young, you’re automatically drawn to what’s hip, the scene. Then I heard about all the poets in London. And I read Dunstan Thompson’s poetry and was staggered. It was so clever and impressive.
Were you writing your own poetry then?
I was writing too, but I can’t remember what I was writing at the time, and I never saved any of it. When I read the anthology on the train, I immediately started writing poetry. And it was nowhere. It took years and years and years to find my own voice and to learn how to write poetry. The technique of poetry is often simple—like not repeating words and just being consistent. There are obvious things you have to learn that never occurred to me—to look at the words critically.
Back then people didn’t go to school to learn poetry. Poetry was something you learned yourself, though Greenwich Village poets were never considered quite up to the mark, for some reason. There were famous Greenwich Village poets like Maxwell Bodenheim, but they never quite made it in the modern poetry world. Except Edna St. Vincent Millay, but she was a little special, a very good poet in an old-fashioned way. You couldn’t dismiss her, but she did write heavily romantic verse. That was considered unacceptable. Everything in modern poetry was hard-boiled. The language had to be tough. I remember once I showed a new poem to May Swenson. She said, “Soul? What soul? Where is it?” You couldn’t use words like that anymore. That was romantic language from the Victorian era. There was a new style of poetry being written from the early part of the twentieth century by poets like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore. They all came quite early—and Yeats, of course. He was one of my big influences. He was an old man already. But his poetry got really good when he had the “monkey balls” operation. After that, his poetry changed from a romantic flowing line to intense hard language, marvelous language that had nothing soppy in it. He was really very tough. It’s amazing how his poetry changed after his operation.
Can you talk more about the language you use and how that developed?
You learn to use words plastically. That’s the hard thing to do. When you’re first writing poetry, it flows out of you. All of that is suspicious in modern poetry. What flows out of you has to be worked on, looked on with a cold eye. And modern poetry looks on the language with a cold eye. It becomes something very different. The Beats returned to pouring it out, but they had been through the discipline of modern poetry. Most people have to read a lot of poetry before they can write it, if it’s going to be the new voice. A lot of the themes that were standard in poetry before my generation were useless to us.
I think of Robert Friend, an American poet I met after the war, as my teacher. And I couldn’t understand what he did because he rewrote and rewrote until things were perfect. That rewriting is part of the change in tradition that happened at the beginning of the twentieth century. Poets used to brag about how many times they rewrote a poem. I heard that Randall Jarrell wrote 125 versions, Theodore Roethke, 250. You never gave up, and theoretically, the poem got better. You kept finding a stronger language and discovering your form. That was a big thing that happened in poetry. You did pour your heart out in the beginning, but by the end of the revising, it was somewhere else.
The way I learned from Robert Friend was, we met every day at a café in Paris. This was in 1948 when I had dropped out of NYU and taken a boat to “become a poet.” He would look at what I wrote, and he would say, This language is weak. He would rub his fingers together, like he was feeling the fabric of my words, and he would say, This is not convincing. I only caught on when he showed me the latest draft of the poem he was working on, and I saw what he had done with the language made it original, his own. Now I never think of the language. I just know when it’s what I want. But that was where I learned to write poetry.
You were a navigator in World War II. And you wrote a poem about a bombing mission when your plane was shot down and you wound up in the North Sea. When did you write that poem?
I wrote it much later.
That poem, “World War II,” is included in the anthology Poets of World War II . It’s a remarkable poem. It’s visceral and so moving, especially the section where you talk about the choice you made to survive at the expense of another airman. Had you been thinking about writing it for a long time?
The longer I write, the more I realize the material is just me. You don’t look for subjects outside yourself, and I’m not a philosopher. Putting philosophy into poetry is very difficult. You’ve got to be a Wallace Stevens. Everything that happens to you is your material, and so eventually the war story came out.
Another thing that happened in poetry was you were finally allowed to write about yourself. Part of that I learned from the New York poets, like Frank O’Hara. You write what’s there. That’s very hard to learn. After my first book was published, I taught poetry workshops. You have to tell students: I don’t want any sunsets. Sometimes I’d say, I want you to write about what you’d say to your mother if you could tell her what you’ve never been able to say to her. I would give assignments like that because young poets don’t know what to write about, and mostly it’s sentimental gush.
So the war wasn’t something you felt a need to write about at first?
Gradually, you realize what you have to write about. I don’t think I appreciated how the war and the army affected me, how important it was in my life. One, I should have known when I came back to civilian life that I was crazy. I should have gone to the VA for psychiatric treatment. If I had, I would have gotten a pension.
We’re talking about your work being autobiographical, and you’re very frank about being gay. That probably wasn’t easy to do when you started to write poetry.
You didn’t say you were Jewish, either. Karl Shapiro was really the first poet that published a book called Poems of a Jew . But that was radical. The poetry world was very anti-Semitic. There were Jewish poets like Delmore Schwartz, but it was never something you could write about. Part of the problem I had publishing my first book was my frankness about being gay, being Jewish—that was not acceptable at the time. I got twenty-five rejections before my first book was published.
When you started writing, were there other poets who were open about being gay?
Dunstan Thompson was very explicit about his gayness in his poetry, and that was during the war. And then afterward he got religion and disappeared. Back then it took courage for a publisher to publish my first book, which was so open about everything. But I got a publisher that welcomed that sort of thing—Grove Press. Still, it was always difficult for gay poets who wanted to be published in the New Yorker or even intellectual journals like Partisan Review.
If it was difficult to get published, what gave you the courage to continue?
I just did it. I didn’t fit in anywhere anyway, being a grown man without any other ambition. I worked at little jobs and lived all over the city. In New York, you used to be able to live very cheaply. Isn’t that strange? Even the Village isn’t the Village anymore. It’s really amazing to see how it all changed.
You’ve seen a lot of changes over the years, particularly for the LGBT community. Only recently has same-sex marriage been legalized. Did you ever think there was going to be this openness and acceptance?
The thing is, I didn’t need it because the Village always accepted gays as well as blacks. In the Village, whites and blacks socialized normally. You could be Jewish in New York, too—a great relief after growing up where I did, Lynbrook, Long Island. And in the city, gays were everywhere, and even prominent, like in the theatre. So it was never that big a problem here, except that the authorities did horrible things like raiding gay bars and arresting people.
After the success of your first book, Stand Up, Friend, with Me, in 1963, you traveled across the country doing poetry readings. Were you comfortable everywhere you went?
It was fun being shocking. And I did discover that people laughed at my poetry. I never knew it was funny until they laughed. So the touring was good. By then, there was the new freedom; the hippies were everywhere. I could be a New York poet, which gave me a little freedom. I did run into some odd things. I gave a reading in Youngstown, Ohio—I guess at Youngstown State—and after I read, a woman who was a psychology teacher jumped up on the stage and said, “Yes, we must be free!” And then they carted her off. I guess I was a little too far out for Youngstown.
Going back to language, you’ve said you use the vernacular in poems because you want to connect with people.
I’ve always felt that. I want to be understood, though modern poetry once stood for obscurity. There are two poets that were very influential—one was W.H. Auden, who introduced humor into poetry. In the old days, poetry was divided into light verse and serious verse. No humor was allowed in serious verse. Auden wrote what he wanted. He was witty, and he put in jokes. And when I went to Greece in 1949, people introduced me to the poetry of Constantine Cavafy. Cavafy wrote in the vernacular. Greece has three forms of the language. There’s the classical, the formal language used in newspapers and books, and the demotic, the way people speak. It’s like Yiddish. It’s very intimate. Cavafy was so radical, he used that language for his poetry. That was revolutionary. Here in the English-speaking world, too, modern poetry used very formal language. The New Critics enforced a seriousness, a formality. Everybody worked on their poems very hard, but it didn’t allow any room for humor or being Jewish or gay. All that stuff was personal, beneath contempt. So I went off in my own direction when I discovered that you could. I am Jewish, after all, and come from simple people.
Does Yiddish affect the way you use language?
I don’t speak Yiddish. My parents spoke Yiddish-inflected English. I used to think I was writing for my mother, so I kept the language simple. But that wasn’t really it. It was really finding the language of feeling. Because even though you have to have this grip on language for poetry, I needed plenty of room for feeling. It used to be called sentimentality, and you had to avoid sentimentality, which meant that you couldn’t write about anything personal. But sentimental doesn’t have to be cheap sentimentality. Jewish culture is reflected in my poetry and even awkwardnesses in my language.
You’ve talked about feeling damaged because of your difficult childhood. Do you still feel that way at age 92?
I’ve gone on living, right? You live with it all. After all, your history is your history. You can’t really wipe it out. I was in primal therapy, which does try to wipe out your past by going back into it. And you do discover amazing things, but you don’t erase it. I do yoga, and I do it in the mirror, which is a technique I read about from a master. It’s a very good technique because you really look at yourself and see what’s going on. I have an exercise: I stand on one leg, and I look in my eyes. When I stand on my right leg, I look in my right eye and I see fathers, all the men extending way back. I can’t not see my father when I look at my face. I see my father there, and then I see all the fathers in our history. I am a product of an infinite past of fathers in me. From them, I get power, and so I feel my own father is not all important. He is just one of them. He slapped me a lot and hit me and beat me. But now I can put that in perspective.
You’ve had a very successful life. You’ve been able to pursue your dreams and be who you are. Doesn’t that necessarily mean you are not damaged?
Overcompensating for the damage is a very useful way of using it. And I’ve also written about it a lot. I can see how the war helped me. Being in the army was wonderful after being in my hometown of Lynbrook, where they despised me for being a Jew. I found a world that accepted me. Guys liked me.
I didn’t know that Lynbrook was anti-Semitic.
Before the war, the German American Bund was very big on Long Island. My town had a railroad going through it, and on one side were the Jews and on the other were the goyim. There were swastikas on the light poles. There was a campground right behind the house where the young German American Bund members had rallies. Generally, we were unwanted. Jews who moved in on my block moved out almost immediately. The first day I went to school, a teacher came in and said, “Who is the new little Jewish boy?” They just didn’t want us.
In some poems, you deal directly with the political. In your poem “Credo,” you write, “What good is poetry if it doesn’t stand up against the lies of government …” On the other hand, you’ve said the poetry world is “tiny and powerless.”
It’s true that poetry is not actually a forum for political discussion, but since we’re writing it and we’re being honest, I think it’s also a place we must speak out about the lies we’re being fed by our politicians. Even that can be poetry. I don’t think there’s any limitation.
I was going to point out that we have poet laureates and that poetry is taught in school.
They teach my poems in schools. One of my poems has been an exam question.
It’s called “Icarus.” It’s been reprinted lately all over the place. Sometimes a student writes me and says, “Can you explain this poem? I’m supposed to write about it for my class.” I try not to give it all away. After all, they are supposed to be thinking.
Do you want to give me a hint about “Icarus”?
Why I wrote it—it’s not about him—but the reason I wrote it was that I adored Stephen Spender. He was one of my favorite poets—and then he became such a reactionary and went back on everything he believed in. His magazine, Encounter, was funded by the CIA, and he was part of the anti-Communist right in the postwar witch hunt, and it was so ugly. So I wrote “Icarus” about somebody who falls from grace, and in the end, he’s just an ordinary person instead of a hero.
You told an interviewer that you believe in poetry that “spills the beans.” What do you mean by that?
If you say things that aren’t usually said, that’s spilling the beans. Poetry should say what we’re not saying and maybe shouldn’t. You do find yourself spilling the beans and talking about your anxieties, private life, or whatever it is—what’s not on the surface, what’s hidden. There’s always more to reveal.
Did you get into trouble with people for spilling the beans in your literary memoir, The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag?
I lost a couple of friends. I actually showed one of the poets what I was going to write, and he made me change it. He made up a different story—and when he saw it in print, he said everything I said about him was lies. And one friend said, Vile, vile, vile. They want to own their own material, and I think that’s something I violated.
Are you still writing daily?
No, I can’t. I always write notes for poems, but I don’t have the time to work on them anymore. My life is different.
Is that hard for you?
Yes, but I’m doing something else just as important. Taking care of your loved one is something you have to do.
In The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag, you wrote about some Westbeth friends like Tobias Schneebaum and Herman Rose who are no longer with us. How does that feel?
For everybody to be dead? You actually get used to it. Men of my age are quite rare. Women my age are common. I was thinking I’d love to be part of a forum of men in their 90s talking about our lives and our problems, and I looked that up on Google. Doesn’t exist. Women—a million articles about women in their 90s. Nothing about men in their 90s.
Do you want to tell me anything about what it’s like to be in your 90s?
I’m about to turn 93, and it’s terrifying. But, as you said, I’ve had such a wonderful life. Everything has worked out beautifully. It’s really been so extraordinary, and it’s still wonderful. But I would like to go on, finish all my unfinished poems and publish my collected poems. I have that job to do. And there’s another book of my memoirs that I’ve started. The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag is my literary memoir. So I want to write a personal memoir. It’s called The Men in My Bed. I do have a lot of stuff to do. I could write for another ninety-three years.
Any final thoughts?
I’m living with my partner, Neil Derrick. It’s such a blessing. At my age, most people are alone or are going to be alone. It’s heaven to still be together, after all we’ve been through. He’s the only person I can talk with who understands what happened in the fifty-seven years we’ve been together. We’re still two different people, and I love that. And in addition, we’re so lucky to be living in Westbeth.
Sources for poetry excerpts:
“Icarus” in Stand Up, Friend, with Me by Edward Field. New York: Grove Press, 1963.
“Music Lessons” in Counting Myself Lucky: Selected Poems 1963-1992 by Edward Field.
Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1992.
“World War II” in Variety Photoplays by Edward Field. New York: Grove Press, 1967.
Headshot photo credit: Frankie Alduino; photos and poetry excerpts courtesy of Edward Field.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2017 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council