At the Clayman Institute’s Autumn Artists’ Salon lecture on October 20th, poet and Stanford English Professor Kenneth Fields shared his poems, his life experiences, and his characteristic dry wit during his talk named, “The Poet as Two Poets”. From his writing method to his career path, Professor Fields demonstrates how different personal experiences can inspire new approaches to traditional practices and open the door for diverse and creative thinking. Sharing stories can be applied as a technique to add a nuanced layer to any discipline of work, and even has parallels to gender research. Storytelling is a powerful way to influence others, and the word choices in our everyday language can often increase or reduce bias. In his lecture, Professor Fields explores the dualities of language and the impact of story through poetry.
After only a few days of life, Professor Fields’ twin brother died. The event has greatly shaped Fields' perspective on life and his work. Through his poetry and novels, Fields explores dualities, change, and the unconventional. He juxtaposes stories from his childhood in Texas with allusions to the classics. He balances long sentences with very short ones. His poems often engage two different ideas, leaving it to the reader to discover exactly how they are related. The contrasts also present themselves in Professor Fields’ poetry workshop and courses, in which he teaches students the collision of academia and imagination, empowering them to broaden their thinking.
When Fields is not writing, he is observing. He stores snippets of language that he overhears or reads in the newspaper and often reuses song lyrics and lines from other poems like tiles in a mosaic. Once, a poet friend of his overheard a man on the phone at a bar saying, “I said I was a fairy, man, not a magician!” Fields later used this whimsical line in a poem.
Below, Fields answers a few questions and shares one of his poems. The title, “Days Happen to Us,” is “a phrase from the epilogue to an episode of the television show, ‘Harry O’ (1974-1976), spoken by David Janssen, the actor who plays the title character.”
Q. How would you characterize your style as a poet? What are your main themes, techniques or goals?
A. I have written most of my poems in versions of traditional measures--I've come to find “formal poetry” restricting, since there are many ways of being formal. I guess among the resources I hope to employ are rhythmical force, psychological insight, associative transitions, and sometimes improvisation. My book Classic Rough News originally had the subtitle “A Book of Impromptus,” but the poet Thom Gunn suggested that I drop it because the term could be misunderstood and because “all poems are impromptus.”
Q. In your view as a poet and mentor of poets, what distinguishes a great poem from a moderately good poem?
A. The term “great poem” is slippery, though I use it all the time, because the poems I consider great would be very different from each other—and this is without meditating on all the great poems to come that will fill us with surprise and wonder. I suppose the poem that rises above the good poem would use all of the appropriate technical resources and strike us with the feeling, the realization, of what it's like to be alive in the world as a human being, or a mensch.