Withstanding the Ravages of Time: An Interview With Poet William Ruleman
William Ruleman is helping lead the revival of classical poetry. In addition to serving on the Board of the Society of Classical Poets, he has been a professor of English at Tennessee Wesleyan College for 22 years and specializes in the poetry of William Butler Yeats. His first two books of poetry were published by Feather Books of Shrewsbury, England, and his translations of Stefan Zweig’s (1881–1942) early novellas and stories appeared in 2010 from Ariadne Press.
Kristina Pentchoukova: What attracts you to the poetry of William Butler Yeats?
William Ruleman: There’s just so much rich, deep feeling in his poetry, and there’s a great deal of wisdom too. It’s wisdom born out of experience and pain and struggle. He talks in one of his later poems about the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” That is where all of his poetry comes from; it comes from deep pain, it comes from agony, and he takes the unhappy experiences in his life and transforms them into something beautiful. He’s just a wonderful poet.
Ms. Pentchoukova: What is the value of rhyme and meter in your poetry?
Mr. Ruleman: They add a music that sometimes for me is lacking in free verse. They add a richness. They add a depth. They add an extra dimension. So much of free verse is just flat—it just doesn’t have music.
I did go through a period in which I wrote a lot of free verse. I got to the point where my style was constricting me. I was very much influenced by W.H. Auden in my early years, and I loved his eloquent style and his wittiness, and he did experiment with a lot of poetic forms. I think I was too heavily under his influence.
And then I got out of writing for a while. When I went back to it, my writing was very free, but some of those poems I have not even published yet. Some of them I have gone back to and put in traditional forms.
There was one I wrote about a great uncle of mine. He used to recite the “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” when we were children. He wasn’t a university professor or anything like that, he owned a hardware store, but he just loved poetry. I wrote an elegy to him, and it was during that free verse time. I did count it in quatrains, stanzas of four lines, but it was very loose and it was not full rhyme. Over the years, I kept working with that until I got into the Tennyson “In Memoriam” stanzas, and it worked, because it was an elegy.
I had to put them into forms that would keep them intact. I want them to last a long time. When I’m just having a conversation with somebody and letting words spill out of my mouth, I’m not expecting those words to last. I’m not expecting them to have resonance or to withstand the ravages of time.
Ms. Pentchoukova: What is the value of translating old poetry?
Mr. Ruleman: It’s curious how you can read the translations of Homer and they sound more contemporary than reading Chaucer or Shakespeare. It’s curious, but it’s to resurrect a treasure. The poem is still living, and you want to make it accessible to a contemporary audience and to an English audience.
There’s a lot [of poetry] in German that people aren’t aware of. I just keep finding new poets, and of course the tragic thing is that when people think about Germany, they think about Nazism and the Holocaust and all that. But there are hundreds of German poets from even during and after that era [who were] totally innocent of all that.
And another thing I started noticing when I started reading German Romantics—I got involved with them—is that their tone largely defies what we think about the German character. We think of Germans as being stiff and formal, but there’s a lightness and there’s a tenderness in so much of the poetry of the German Romantics that’s wonderful.
Ms. Pentchoukova: How do we make poetry interesting for a young audience?
Mr. Ruleman: I just go into the classroom and I just radiate my love for it, and that’s all I can do. I show my love for it when I teach it. Then when I write poetry, it’s a bit personal. I don’t really think much about an audience. I know there are poets who do, but I write for very personal reasons. I write to speak to those who have come before me and those who coexist alongside of me and those who will come after me.
I don’t think of a poem as a riddle, something to be unlocked. There are just so many absurd misconceptions about poetry. I had a friend tell me once, “Well, I know it’s not a good poem if I can read it and understand it the first time around.” That’s just such a sad, distorted view of what makes a good poem. Certainly, you do want it to resonate, but you can’t predict that. You just have to work with it and make the best living, breathing artifact that you can, and then go on to the next poem.
The great are often shunned by their own age,
While even the noble dead are sometimes mocked,
And eras are damned when none who sees is shocked
By scads of scorn spat on a sacred page.
Today the sneering cynic’s deemed a sage.
The door to love and beauty’s never been locked,
Though years have passed when not a soul has knocked
But chose to dwell in a crass comic’s foul-smelling cage.
Yet there are those still called to higher things
Than raucous crowds’ applause and glib success.
Yes, some know better how to spend their days:
They work to shape a soul that ever sings,
A spirit stirred to soothe, inspire, and bless,
A nature moved to sing and pray and praise.
A Strange and Sweet Unrest
“Awake forever in a sweet unrest . . .” -John Keats, “Bright Star”
She stands at the windowpane, no one in sight,
No one behind her in the silent room,
No human form to be seen in the sultry night;
And, for a moment, she feels steeped in gloom.
Yet somewhere distant, someone thinks of her,
Feels the pangs of love pound through his breast;
And all through her being, she feels something stir:
The traces of a strange and sweet unrest.
And she may never know the source of it,
May simply brush her languid locks and sigh
As lonely night birds sing and moth wings flit
Against the glass and moments tick on by.
Yes. She may never know what happened there.
Yet love still met her on that dead night air.
Kristina Pentchoukova writes for the Society of Classical Poets (ClassicalPoets.org). You may send your comments, feedback, and, of course, poetry to [email protected]