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Hunter Discusses Reshaping ‘Shopworn’ Language

July 9, 2007 at 12:00 AM EST
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, another in our occasional series on poets and poetry. Tonight, Paul Hunter of Seattle. His latest collection of poems is called “Ripening.”

PAUL HUNTER, Poet: I’m Paul Hunter, and I’m a letterpress publisher, and poet, and a writer, and an explorer in various ways, and I also make musical instruments, repair them. All of those are modes of expression and contacts with the world.

I mean, for most of my adult life now, I’ve been finding broken instruments or people give me broken instruments, and I fix them, and they get another life. There’s a part of me that’s so cheered by that, and it may be part of the same thing that happens with words, with language, that you take a phrase, you take a phrase, you take a set of phrases that are shopworn, that people have had around them and not recognized, and take them and put them into a context that gives them a sharpened meaning of freshness.

“For the Miracle.”

In the shop its bench work-scarred

long planks run under the window

where grease meets paint meets sawtooth chisel

where an engine would be heaved to take apart

and at one end vise jaws parted

having said the final word let go

and on shelves underfoot rows of coffee cans

to sort by size wingnut from locknut

from wood screw machine screw

bent nail fence steeple hose clamp

and beyond all around broken things

brought here for the miracle

alongside things in their rude beginnings

that may yet be finished and praised

amid things in the way once too often

that may become raw materials

and out of their great beyond serve in turn as

patch or knife blade or chair rung

to be of use once again

My father grew up on a chicken farm in Erlanger, Kentucky. As a kid, we spent a few weeks in the summer on my Uncle Edwin’s farm. And then I started working on farms myself. Most of my adult life has not been spent on farms, but it’s the lens through which I see the world. It formed who I was in a very immediate and real way.

And I think my father let me do it because he thought I would learn a lesson about staying away from effortful drudgery, and I learned exactly the opposite lesson, that most of those people led modest lives, virtuous lives. Those people were substantial and modest in ways that I try to emulate.

“This Failure.”

Say spring too wet for plowing

runs axle-deep into July

or the August oven never quite fires up

before an early killing frost

say it rains the whole summer

or you catch root mold or blight

go a parching year without a drop

There you stand in the field

one with all the others

frail tottering headless at a loss

though still with work to be done

to clear away or turn under

mow rake or burn off this failure

if there is to be another crop

The way that I tell if it’s a poem is, when I’m finished, if it’s still mysterious. Does it remain mysterious? Has it exhausted its subject or, in some way, is its subject perennial and fresh?