Talking of Many Things: An Interview with Richard Greene
Inspired by the opening lines of Longfellow’s “Evangeline”, “This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, / Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight”, Richard Greene began writing poetry in the 8th grade. After College and law school he embarked on a 38-year, global career in international development, at the U.S. Agency for International Development, first as a lawyer, then a program planner and manager and later as an independent consultant. During that time he worked in almost 40 countries for periods ranging from a few weeks to four and a half years, but wrote little poetry, though he later drew on his overseas experience in many of his poems.
His first overseas assignment was to Laos, his last consulting contract in South Africa and his longest assignment to Ecuador, covering three continents. Toward the end of his international development career he began again writing poetry intensively. His first poem at that time was about Lake Titicaca in Bolivia where he was doing a consulting job on a rural development program. That first renewed effort is brief but worth quoting: "the lake / astonishingly blue / in the mouth of nevados / that poke like teeth / through the dry land // a creature in whose throat / one sees the cosmos". Now in retirement, he has published three short, topical books, The Broken Guitar: Poems of War, Becoming Old: Poems of Aging, and Painting with Words: Landscapes in Verse, and one full-length collection, To Talk of Many Things: Selected Poems. His poetry has been described as lyrical but contemporary, educated but not ostentatious…informed by social consciousness and an acute sensibility to the realities of life and the imperfections of human nature…leavened with wry humour. He lives in Nyack, New York, a suburb of New York City.
What moves you to write? I notice that several of your poems appear to be related to the weather. A sequence of short poems published in Quill & Parchment, for example, have snow as their subject. Some of the poems in your chapbooks are related to war and to the aging process. What subjects are you most passionate about?
I write about anything that moves me, in a positive or negative way. I can't say that I'm more passionate about any topic, though many different kinds of emotion are involved in my poems, running from feeling for natural beauty to disdain for reprehensible human behavior, through amusement, with much in between, not excluding those classical topics of poetry, love and death. My passion relates to individual poems, not topical categories.
Who are the writers who have influenced you the most? Can you see their influence reflected in your work or in the manner in which you approach your work?
I largely march to my own drummer, but I suppose it's fair to say that the strongest influence on my poetry was the early Eliot poems, up to Prufrock. I was imprinted like a chick by those poems in my mid-teens. I suppose you can see their influence in the simple and straightforward character of my poems, though their influence on me was limited by their being mostly negative in feeling, while the majority of my poems express positive sentiments. Before Eliot embraced medieval religiosity he said, in effect, that feeling had no place in poetry, but his pre-religious poems are intense with feeling. He just confused negative feeling with no feeling. His later poems went in a very different direction, toward esoteric allusions and subjectivity, a style that defined modernism and continues to define postmodernism.
What do you see as the role of a poet and what does poetry mean to you?
Poets have different and sometimes inconsistent roles. I see my role as a poet as evoking my feelings in a way that stimulates similar feelings in the reader. As to what poetry means, I think you're talking about the role of poetry, which, like poets, has various roles, including to amuse, as Billy Collins, to challenge, as much post-modern poetry, and to move emotionally, which is what most of my poetry is about.
What do you think are the advantages of taking up poetry in later life?
The advantages of taking up poetry later in life are, as I see it, that you care less about what other people think and so are more likely to be free of the tyranny of fashion and more concerned about substance than form or style. Not to say that I neglect style. I'm very much concerned with the music of my poetry, but I have no interest in forms of rhyme or meter and none in writing ghazals, pantoums or villanelles, for example, or even sonnets.
I think I read somewhere that at one stage, you took up the daunting challenge of writing a poem a week. Was this difficult or did the practice come easily to you?
I never took up a challenge to write a poem a week. At times I wrote a poem or more a day, but not as a task I set myself. I wrote poems whenever I encountered a thought or feeling that felt like a poem to me that had significant emotional content. I remember composing poems while swimming at the Y, not because I preferred to do it that way, but because I didn't want to lose the feeling I was "writing" about while engaged in my health enhancing exercise. Generally writing poems came easily to me, though occasionally I encountered problems with saying what I wanted to say in a way that satisfied me.
Several of your poems are quite short. Is this a format that you find particularly challenging or does it simply suit your purpose? Do you find that a short poem is often more powerful in its overall effect than a long one?
As far as I'm concerned some poems are suitably short, others suitably long, and length has no other relevance to their effectiveness.
Do you think that engaging in poetry encourages us to slow down and experience what could easily be missed in life?
I hadn't thought about it, but yes! I do think that engaging in poetry encourages us to slow down and experience what is often missed in life.
You lived abroad for many years. To what extent do you feel that that experience has enriched your poetry?
While my broad overseas experience has enriched my poetry as a record of life experience and provided readers with some exotic and perhaps thought-provoking material, it hasn't much affected the style of my poems.
To what extent do you find consolation in poetry?
I don't find consolation in poetry so much as clarity about my feelings, which can neutralize negative feelings. It's a sort of therapy. If you're clear about negative feelings and their source, they lose much of their power over you. By the way, this involves being honest with and about oneself. If you try to cover up your deeds and motivation, you become their prisoner.
What lessons have you learned from writing poetry? Do you have any pieces of advice to pass on to other aspiring poets?
I don't know that I've learned lessons from writing poetry, other than about how to write poetry, but I have learned much about myself. My advice for aspiring poets is beware of fashion and emphasize substance over form, or style other than musicality. So many poems are substantively uninteresting and/or marred by stylistic tics and are consequently destined for a landfill, or should be.
In Memory of
Another World War II pilot gone.
Obit on a back page of The Times
“Pilot who downed Yamamoto dies at 84.”
A photo of three lean young men in khakis
looking as if they never could be 80
posed in front of a fighter plane
Pacific palms in the background.
He began high school about the time I was born
and I began it the year he downed the infamous admiral.
My cousin Bob was a fighter pilot in that war,
so much a part of my adolescent imagination,
and it’s almost as if the young man in the photo,
now, unbelievably, deceased,
were my kin.
Obit the same day for Percy Goring, 106,
last British survivor of Gallipoli.
When I was a boy it was the last veteran of the Civil War
and, when a young man, the Spanish American.
For earlier generations it was the Revolutionary
the Hundred Years, the Punic, the Persian,
always one within reach of living memory,
and always some last veteran
nostalgia for old wars.