Make it New, Again

Hannah Sullivan on failure, form, and paying attention to the ordinary.
Portrait of Hannah Sullivan.

Like many writers, the British poet Hannah Sullivan is also a literature professor. In her academic life, she studies literary innovation and revision and the ways in which other poets strive toward newness. In her poetic life, Sullivan is equally interested in brand-new forms and those that recur or reinvent themselves. The works in her T.S. Eliot Prize–winning debut, Three Poems (FSG, 2020), which has just been published in the US, shift between styles and rhyme schemes, held together by Sullivan’s intellectual rigor and her clear, conversational poetic voice.

The collection’s opener, “You, Very Young in New York,” looks with nostalgia at the existential angst of young adulthood. In the first stanzas, Sullivan’s you is “waiting to get older. / Nothing happens. You try without success / the usual prescriptions, the usual assays on innocence: / I love you to the wrong person, I feel depressed.” But as the poem continues, that impatience gives way to joy. “The thing about being very young, as you are,” Sullivan writes, “is the permeability / Of one person to another.”

That permeability reappears in the second poem, “Repeat until Time,” whose speaker is less porous than literature itself. The poem’s epigraph is Heraclitus’s famous maxim that “On those who step into the same rivers, different and different waters keep on flowing. …” Literature, in “Repeat until Time,” is “different and different.” Sullivan travels from Heraclitus to Henry James to her own changing poetry; the poem morphs and transforms across its 17 sections, growing up like the you in its predecessor.

In Three Poems’ last poem, “The Sandpit after Rain,” Sullivan wrestles in tandem with the human transformations of birth and death: pregnancy on the one hand, the loss of her father on the other. “Repeat until Time” is grounded in the life of the mind, but “The Sandpit after Rain” is bodily and often medical. “The blur of oxytocin after labour is called joy,” Sullivan writes toward the poem’s end, “[b]ut it is only like the morphine someone dies enjoying, / And everyone else is vaguely embarrassed by.”

Three Poems offers pain and pleasure across the experiential spectrum, from eczema and Taco Bell architecture to C-sections and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Our interview was conducted via email, often punctuated with apologies for delays because Sullivan, her young son, and I were all going back to school.

I love the moment in “You, Very Young in New York” when you write “the senses, laxly fed, are self-replenishing.” That struck me as both a fact of youth and a fact of being an artist—would you agree on either front? Or do you think that’s a more broadly human fact?

I’d like to think it’s a broadly human fact. The problem seems to be how to keep our senses quick and shockable, easily imprinted, when adult daily life has become routine. Wordsworth says his identity over time is premised on always being able to find fresh pleasure in seeing a rainbow (“my heart leaps up”). But are rainbows too rare and transitory to become boring?

I’m sure one of the purposes of art is to rejuvenate our perceptions about the most mundane things in life. Modernist writers often did this by metaphor, by showing us some exotic or strange feature (e.g., “petals on a wet black bough”) in an ordinary event (a crowd coming out of the Metro station). Can we do it instead by keeping our focus firmly on what’s in front of us? When I was writing the poems in this book, I was pretty keen on the snapshot, unstudied aesthetic of 1970s American color photographers like Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld. There's a luminous passivity about the way people are caught at an instant in time—crossing the road, under contrails, in front of passing cabs—that has something in common with imagism, I think, but without the need for “superposition.”

Your work shifts in and out of rhyme, particularly in “You, Very Young in New York,” reminding me somewhat of reading plays, including—but not only—Shakespeare’s. Was that an echo you were looking for? What purposes does rhyme serve for you?

I didn’t have Shakespeare’s plays in mind when I was writing that poem, but I was interested in the effect that different verse forms (long unrhymed lines, long irregular rhyming couplets, terza rima) might have on the process of looking. Sometimes it’s hard to say which comes first. There’s a long scene in “You, Very Young in New York” about sitting in an office in a consulting company making a spreadsheet and finding your mind wandering. I’m not sure that I intended this, but it’s true that the loose off-rhymes on polysyllabic words have a playful effect. Not bitingly satirical, I hope; more a sort of open-mouthed wonder at the complexity of modern urban life where unlike things find strange affinities.

Last week the New York Magazine said Queens was getting hip:
At Club 19, ‘Manhattan transplants chill and sip
Cold hoppy Krušovice, whisky sours, and Staropramen.’
On Fridays, a pop-up serves tonkotsu miso ramen.

Recently, when working on a poem longer than any of the poems in Three Poems, I’ve become more interested in prose “proper” and what it might afford that verse can’t. Part of this is about changing the pacing and relieving the mood, but are there also certain kinds of forensic, sober description that prose does better? One reason Shakespeare used prose is to insert letters without unrealistically versifying them. But in my new poem, in which I’ve been working with various kinds of documentary materials from the enquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire, I’ve often found myself adding line endings and versifying. Maggie Nelson’s adaptation and (at least) re-lineation of Jane’s diary in Jane: A Murder (2005) showed me a route here.

How did you settle on the second person for “You, Very Young in New York?”

I’m not really sure. I hadn’t used it before. It was there from the start, but the very first draft also contained a couple of I pronouns, with the I calling out across the years to you, a former self. I think this was useful scaffolding because it helped me imagine the tone as, in the first instance, a mixture of wry amusement, regret, admonishment, and a kind of impotence (what use is self-talk if it focuses on the past?). But because the former self you disappeared and was folded into the I, there’s also something nostalgic and commemorative about recording the various ordinary, silly things that it did. At least that’s how I feel when I read the poem out now. Perhaps it makes the attitude less judgmental?

You is also useful in modern English because it blurs easily between the singular and plural and into the territory that used to be occupied by the pronoun one. In fact, I wonder if you is now the most natural pronoun in modern English for writing about a general state of affairs? It’s certainly the pronoun of recipes, instructions, magazine articles, the on dit. (Imagine how absurd it would sound if Larkin had written “they fuck one up, one’s mum and dad”! But he is talking about all of us, not his own past self in particular.)

In “Repeat until Time,” you write “Failed form is hectic with loveliness, and compels us longer”—an idea I love. How do you, or could one, write toward failed form? Is it possible to make failed forms on purpose in poetry?

Maybe it’s because I’m older, and failed forms seem more abundant (the EU flag waving outside the library window, the stars wearing off; my wrinkly forehead; my babies’ clean-soled pink feet, sweaty in school shoes), but I have to say I feel some qualms about this statement now.

On the whole, artistic forms surely please us because they repudiate the general principle that things degenerate into disorder and meaninglessness. A well-made plot resolves disorder into order, the sonata form involves a recapitulation, a Shakespearean sonnet ends with a punchy couplet. These aesthetically pleasing devices help (as many of Shakespeare’s couplets remind us!) ensure the work’s survival. It’s also true that some objects or systems seem too simple or too “classical” to be beautiful now, and a slight increase in complexity, via asymmetry or some other kind of imperfection, makes them more interesting to look at for a long time. A row of newly planted evergreens is dull; a pollarded plane tree in a square in a French provincial town is more compelling. So too are the brown trees lolling outside the front door after Christmas, waiting for the recycling truck. But in the pollarded plane and the used-up Christmas tree, there’s still a lot of un-failed, purposive form visible. I would be happy to make a poem that had something in common with a pollarded tree, but I don’t want to make myself a pile of sticks. Perhaps the question isn’t how to fail, because failure’s pretty inevitable in writing, but how to identify something to fail at?

Is there any response to Brexit and/or Trump in the first and last lines of “Repeat until Time,” which are, respectively, “When things are patternless, their fascination’s stronger” and “It is hard to say if there is progress in history”? Were you thinking about failed political forms as well as failed artistic ones?

I’m pleased (I think) if the poem seems to say anything about, or to, Brexit and Trump, but I wasn’t thinking about contemporary politics when I wrote it. I was interested in different kinds of repetition, particularly in the relationship between repetition and failure. The most obviously political part is the scene in which Henry James is dictating letters in beautiful weather at the start of the 1914–18 war. He apprehended the outbreak of war immediately in narrative terms, realizing that it meant “the wreck of our belief that through the long years we had seen civilization grow and the worst become impossible.”

What’s the relevance of this? Well, James, like us, lived at the end of a long period of liberal capitalism when it was easy for the people around him to assume that “things,” as the Tony Blair 1997 election campaign told us by repeatedly playing the D:Ream song, “can only get better.” But of course, that is not a law of nature—quite the opposite! I think we could learn from James’s historiographic flexibility. I find myself sometimes retreating to a disbelieving cry of rage about it all (Brexit/Trump): “This can’t be happening,” but of course it can and is. How can we be optimistic enough to try to make things better without being naive about our own skill or the likelihood of success? This balance between optimism and realism seems to be a perennial problem in writing and revising too.

In “Repeat until Time,” you present two realistic aspirations for artistic newness: “saying the same thing again in a different form” and “saying something new in the same form.” Do you feel comfortable in that framework? How do you, as a poet and as a reader, relate to the dream of “saying something new in a new form”?

There’s certainly a bleak exhaustiveness about the way this section (only four lines) runs through all the possibilities! On rereading it now, it seems as if the poem’s anxiety about never being able to do anything new has managed to shut it up altogether. But the next section (a sonnet about gentrification in the Mission District in San Francisco) picks up a bit. As a teenager, I worried that there was something dispiriting and banal about the way that my generation was aping my parents’. But of course, the meaning of standing outside a dive bar in vintage Levi’s smoking a glass pipe filled with Jack Herer after a day spent coding in Silicon Valley is produced by the fusion of old and new and by the conscious act of cultural replay.

I still can’t help finding the Poundian rallying cry “make it new” seductive. But I’m more aware than I used to be as an unpublished writer that “newness” is constructed relationally; it isn’t an innate property of any poem, and it’s impossible to control whether readers will find what you’re doing “new.” Even if it is, on the day you’re doing it, the lag time between writing and publication changes things. And, as a reader, you re-encounter things—novelty is partly a function of the passion with which you do that. I got very excited about the big, overripe, ore rotundo style of Wordsworth’s Excursion a year or so ago—poems like that, or Tennyson’s “medley” The Princess, seem genuinely experimental to me now.

A simpler answer: there haven’t been enough published female poets, ever. There are more published poems by men describing attending or watching a baby’s birth than poems by women describing the experience of giving birth, so I am committed to (trying to) write about some of the less-well-traversed things in my own experience. But it doesn’t seem to be a case of low-hanging fruit. You might think it’s easier to write a good poem about a C-section than, say, the pain of lost love, because there are just far fewer examples in the poetic tradition. But that also creates problems. When I tried to write about a C-section in “The Sandpit after Rain,” I found it hard to dislodge the top-down filmic perspective where all the focus is on the baby emerging (the images we’ve seen on TV, in films) from my own memory, even though I knew that I’d seen, both times, only a small flash of red-soled feet and heard a cry and then had to wait ten minutes for my husband to bring the baby in his nappy and clothes for me to look at. I was really more preoccupied with being sewn up.

Twinning of grief and joy, as in the line “birth and death happen on adjacent wards,” strikes me as the core of “The Sandpit after Rain.” How did you work with those emotions as opposites and/or as mirrors as you wrote?

I think it was birth and death themselves whose twinning interested me. I wrote “The Sandpit after Rain” in the summer of 2016: my first son was one, and my father had died exactly six months before he was born (to the hour, implausibly enough, given that my son was two weeks late). Well: the coincidence of dates might not really be very implausible, but it motivated the poem.

Whenever I read the flat description of the C-section out now (the rather rhetorical line “who wants to be born” is one of the only lines in the book that reliably gets a laugh), I feel I went pretty far in the direction of the clinical and numb, so there isn’t much emotion, certainly not much joy, in that scene at all. And the description of death was difficult to write because I wasn’t sure to begin with how to deal with the unclinical, messy, almost carnivalesque sense of disorder and crisis, fluids and blood, the body doing its own thing, in the room, or (more difficult again) with the vague sense of relief that it would soon all be over and done with. It was the days and weeks before my father died and, of course, after, when grief seemed the dominant emotion.

Alan Watts described 20th-century life as what happens “between the maternity ward and the crematorium,” and that phrase was in my mind when I was writing. They’re the two certain events of our lives and the only days (sometimes, horribly, day) under 24 hours. Yet they’re also nonevents because no one has any memory of undergoing either experience. Giving birth seemed as close as one might come to the mystery, partly because you’re seeing a previously invisible and silent, but not unfamiliar, being emerge screaming and formed into the world and partly because there is a small kind of death in being reduced to one person after being two. Absurdly, I felt sorry that my second son was going to miss his own birth when the caesarean was delayed because I knew he was always asleep for an hour around 10AM. And I suppose this is where the two events have absolutely nothing in common. The birth of a healthy full-term baby is a neurologically “trivial” event, I’ve read, continuous with previous experiences, but death is not.

In “The Sandpit after Rain,” what’s the relationship between bravery and indifference? Is it brave or cowardly to remain, like the “saltwater eel in the suburban restaurant,” “forever / Chosen and not yet chosen, neither living nor dead”?

This is a really interesting and tricky question. This passage comes at the end of the first part of the poem, in a period of suspense: the season is turning from winter to spring, the baby isn’t emerging, nothing’s actually happening. So this little list of jussives, “think, think” is a kind of hopeless prayer. Maybe if I can think about this, I’ll get somewhere, I'll have this baby. In fact, bravery never works out in this poem. An elective C-section requires only that you lie there calmly, waiting and ignoring the sound of your flesh being cut.

The image of the eel? Like many people, I find those crowded tanks of sea creatures in restaurants fascinatingly repellent. I’m not a vegetarian, but the question of what it means to pick out one living creature over another (to eat it, for one’s own short-lived pleasure) is a good argument for being one. On the other hand, the tanks are a kind of death row—the eel has no chance of being released, the conditions seem horrible, and from the (of course) human perspective, who wants to be picked last for anything? The poem imagines people working in the restaurant industry, sophisticated eaters, choosing to “do it half-sashimi style, half dry-fried-spicy.”

There’s a lot of material in “Sandpit” about waste and what happens to things when they reach the end of their useful life. In many cases, e.g., the image of a jar of sand from Petra, with the careful layers of color, flying from the shelf and breaking or cherry blossoms lining the car roofs or possibly a dead human body, the answer is nothing. There’s no useful other thing; all the use that there was has been used up. But the eel? From our perspective, as people who eat in Chinese restaurants with fish tanks, the eel’s point is providing us with dinner. And the tanks are also meant to bring good luck, prosperity, good feng shui to the business. I realize now how much there is in this poem about superstitions. In this period of six months (“to the hour”), when I was often in hospitals, I surprised myself with my craving for rituals, tricks, little maps of all kinds that might make meaning out of chaos.

More generally: I imagine that bravery must involve willfully rejecting the most terrified, instinctive, selfish parts of our minds rather than being indifferent to those feelings. And that requires a degree of freedom (the eel is just there, not knowing what might lie in wait). In my new poem, “Tenants,” there’s quite a lot of material about post-partum anxiety (which serves a useful function, in one sense, of focusing close attention on the baby’s survival) and also about urban “terror” in London in 2017. But when does this sort of anxiety and self-protectiveness become cowardice? If you’re a new mother with a small baby, pretty much anything you do on behalf of the baby seems to be acceptable.

When I was reading the transcripts of phone calls from the Grenfell Tower enquiry, I was astonished that some people, who lived on the upper floors of the building, were urging the 999 operator not to try to send firefighters in to save them because the conditions on the staircase were too dangerous. That’s bravery, isn’t it? And the firefighters who went in anyway. And the operators who stayed on the line when they knew the callers had no chance of surviving and who heard their screams—after a period of unconsciousness—when the flames arrived.

Originally Published: January 27th, 2020

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator from Washington, DC. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books, and her criticism appears online in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the Poetry Foundation, Public Books, and more. Lily is a PhD candidate in fiction at the University of Cincinnati. She is a two-time...