by Marty Demarest
It turns out that poets are just like the rest of us. It's just that they talk about poetry a lot more. Or at least that's the conclusion one gets from Tod Marshall's book, Range of the Possible, a collection of conversations with poets.
Marshall, who teaches at Gonzaga University, wisely limited the poets whose interviews he has selected for inclusion. Most of them come from a specific heritage (they were all born, with one exception, somewhere in America in the 1940s and 50s), and have concerns close to Marshall's own interests (modernism, religion, the poetic line).
Occasionally, these views contain a wonderful degree of insight. Laura Mullen discusses the profound and almost inescapable influence of T.S. Eliot that many poets feel, but also notes, "I really distrust him, but I still love him." Christopher Howell also effortlessly describes a stereotypical poem as an "Iowa poem -- a 37-line smoothy, which, at the end, lit up a cigar."
More often, however, the comments that emerge during the course of these interviews are banal. It's surprising to read Gillian Conoley making observations about language like, "it also fails quite frequently and perhaps then we realize that it has its own life, the procreant force, highly associative, and very linked to human consciousness." Late-night coffeehouse talk like this could be forgiven if the majority of the poets interviewed by Marshall didn't spend so much time complaining about boundaries between poetic styles and "schools," only to turn around and place their own work within specific traditions and contexts.
What is clear in Range of the Possible is that Marshall may be the most wonderful person to discuss poetry within America. He continually develops the thoughts and ideas of his subjects, furthering them gently with his own observations, all without making the interview seem like an intellectual tennis match. He's equipped to go anywhere -- be it a discussion of literary competition prizes with Li-Young Lee, or dropping Goethe quotes into his conversation with Robert Hass. And by the time he wraps up a discussion with the statement, "I see your point," it becomes obvious that Marshall is far from normal. He's the poetry teacher you never had until you read this book.