Jay Rogoff
September 2008


Jay RogoffJay Rogoff’s most recent book of poetry is The Long Fault (LSU Press, 2008).  His earlier books include The Cutoff (Word Works, 1995), which won the Washington Prize for Poetry and is set in the world of minor league baseball, and How We Came to Stand on That Shore (River City, 2003), which addresses family history and immigrant experience.  He has also published a chapbook, First Hand (Mica, 1997), and, in collaboration with the printmaker Kate Leavitt, Venera (Green Eye, 2001), a limited-edition artist’s book, handmade and handset by Leavitt, and featuring her four-color intaglio prints.  In 2011, LSU Press will publish his next book, The Code of Terpsichore, a series of poems concerning dance.  

Rogoff’s work appears in many journals and magazines, most recently in Agni, Literary Imagination, Ploughshares, Poetry London, Salmagundi, and The Southern Review, among others.  He frequently publishes criticism and reviews in such places as The Georgia Review, Salmagundi, and The Southern Review, and an essay about his poetics in relation to Emily Dickinson’s appears in the Fall 2008 Emily Dickinson Journal.

A frequent guest at Yaddo, he has recently completed a book-length poetic sequence on Paris in 1870—the Franco-Prussian War and the siege of Paris as viewed through the artistic ferment of the period, especially the ballet Coppélia.

Jay Rogoff teaches at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he lives with his wife, art historian Penny Jolly, and serves as the daily reviewer of the New York City Ballet’s annual summer season for The Saratogian newspaper.

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Making Something Happen

Poetry is a peculiar species of virtual reality.  Unlike film, painting, or music, it relies only secondarily on the immediate seduction of sense perception, what we call its “music.”  As an art whose medium consists of language, it must appeal to the reader’s imagination, which it enlists in constructing the illusory world (and “illusory” is a positive word here) of sense, feeling, and idea the poet creates.  Even the music of poetry always depends on its sensuous contribution to our understanding of the poem’s imagined world.

As a result of these facts about poetry, three objectives have crystallized in my own practice:  poetry must express a human content understandably; it must offer the pleasure of a work simultaneously aesthetically well-constructed and emotionally absorbing (here musicality makes its contribution); and it must extend its concerns beyond the sphere of daily human life, even when daily life is its nominal theme.  In other words, poetry must want to matter, and it must make people care to read it.   W. H. Auden famously wrote, “Poetry makes nothing happen,” but he worked his entire life as if it could change the world.   My new book, The Long Fault, does explores individual life, but as focused through multiple lenses:  the disasters of human history, the triumphs of human creativity, and the intensities we bring to human interaction. 

Grappling with these important issues has paralleled my lifelong wrestling match with the dark angel of poetic form.  I work in a great variety of forms, both traditional and experimental, and the pleasures and potential of meter and rhyme have made up part of my poetic experience since I wrote my first poem as a child, an imitation of Dr. Seuss.  Form, any form, traditional or experimental, is artifice but not ornament.  It is the physical and imaginative manifestation of the feeling the poem wishes to express, the fitting container for the elusive liquidity of the work.  Some of my forms are obvious, some less so.  “The Guy Who Passed Me Doing 90 MPH and Playing the Trumpet,” for example, is written in a very strict form (though few readers are likely to recognize it) because that form’s demands dovetailed happily with the poem’s impulse and its impulsive unfolding.  Yet I also write free verse because some poems demand it, and I agree with Robert Lowell, who could not imagine a poet who has written in both forms and free verse entirely giving up the one for the other.

My work often alludes to or uses other works of art, but the challenge I undertake in such poems extends far beyond description.  I am not in the least interested in poetry that satisfies itself with being a species of arts criticism.  Just as much as Keats’s nightingale or Donne’s hair-bracelet, an artwork in a poem, even when the poem pays homage to another artist, becomes a means, an entry into the poem’s larger imaginative concerns and obsessions.  Several poems in The Long Fault use paintings, music, sculpture, or architecture to arrive at a fuller realization of the human possibilities of the poem at hand, of art in general, and of life in its dazzling and bewildering particulars.  My next book, The Code of Terpsichore, forthcoming in 2011 (if we live), extends these imaginative explorations to dance, another symbolic world, fraught with the tantalizing and agonizing gulf between human bodies and desires as perfected in the ideal realm of ballet, for example, and the actual, clumsy bodies and desires possessed by those of us sitting abashed in the audience.   Yet those too break hearts.  By weaving together the imaginative world of the arts with both the factual historical world and the urgent emotional world of our daily lives, I hope to create imaginative experiences for the reader that create that best illusion of feeling true, aesthetically startling and satisfying at the same time.

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