By Kristina Pentchoukova

Right from the first email from William Ruleman, I knew that I was interacting with a classicist who upheld traditional English in all manner of communication and behavior. Every email read like a letter. Later, I was honestly surprised by his Southern accent—for some reason, I expected him to have a British accent, so I actually read his emails in a British accent.

I don’t normally think about small talk before interviews because it comes naturally, but I started second-guessing myself about whether it would be appropriate to ask him how he was doing, since the British rarely do this, and then I pondered about if it was too cliché to talk about the weather. But again, to my surprise, Mr. Ruleman was the first to ask how I was doing and the first to ask about the weather. Things were off to a good start!

A professor of English at Tennessee Wesleyan College for 22 years, Mr. Ruleman 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. He’s translated mostly German poetry, and some Spanish and French.

Question: How long have you been writing poetry?

Answer: Actually, I started late. I didn’t really start doing it on a regular basis and in earnest until I was 30. I started out in fiction. I wanted to be a novelist, but when my daughter was born I no longer had the long periods of time for novel writing, and so I turned to poetry and I really enjoyed it. I think it was a wonderful shift for me. Even though I dabble in fiction, I really concentrate on poetry; that’s my love. And my love really goes back to early childhood. My mother read me nursery rhymes, and that’s where my deep love for poetry began.

I remember writing a poem in ninth grade, and my teacher said, “That’s a good poem, you’re talented,” but I was a boy, a regular boy, and I liked to play sports and I liked to chase after girls, I was in a rock band and so forth, so I didn’t pursue it. There were so many distractions. I do remember a poet coming to visit our class when I was in tenth grade. It was the girlfriend of our English teacher, and he asked her at the end of the class, “Does anyone in here look like a poet to you?” and she pointed to me and that seemed to mark me.

Question: What attracts you to the poetry of William Butler Yeats?

Answer: 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.

Question: What is the value of rhyme and meter in your poetry?

Answer: They add a music that just 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, but I think I was too heavily under his influence. And then I got out of writing for a while; and when I went back to writing, 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 them 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.

There’s been so much written that’s so silly about traditional poetry being politically conservative; that’s a lot of nonsense. There are a lot of people who like traditional poetry who are politically conservative, but it’s not a political thing—it’s an aesthetic thing. It’s also a deeply spiritual thing for me. It’s a matter of taste, but it’s also a lot deeper than that.

Question: What languages do you translate from?

Answer: I’ve translated some from Spanish, a little bit from French; I don’t get into it that much. I keep peering at it askance and wanting to get deeper into French. German, that’s where my concentration is.

Question: What is the value of translating old poetry?

Answer: 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, but you want to make it accessible to a contemporary audience and to an English audience.

Spanish is a lot more universal than German, and not as many people know German. There’s just a lot 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 before that era, and even during and after that era, 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.

When you translate a poem, you expand the audience for that poem. I’ve been translated into just one language: Ukrainian.

Question: How do we make poetry interesting for a young audience?

Answer: 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’s 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.

 

 

Featured Image: Photo by Elizabeth Sayle Ruleman

 

 

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2 Responses

  1. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    This is a lovely interview. I do think we can all applaud Mr. Ruleman for defending poetry against the false idea that should never be understood. He who drinks from the fountain of Ireland, to include the lyrical waters of Yeats, is truly where he needs to be. Thank you, editors, for this refreshing interview!

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