A version of this interview originally appeared in The Epoch Times

by Evan Mantyk

A widely published translator of ancient Latin texts, a former high-ranking government bureaucrat, and an incredible poet who just released his book Wonder and Wrath last September, A.M. Juster is a man at the confluence of big ideas, important people, and the written word.

Under his non-poet name, Michael J. Astrue, he headed the Social Security Administration for both the Bush and Obama administrations. He is not unlike the great epic poet and government official John Milton (whose Latin works Juster has translated). Juster is perhaps best summarized as being a true scholar. Among major poets today, he is unique in that he has stayed true to the traditional style of consistent rhythm (technically called “meter”) and often rhyme.

As president of the Society of Classical Poets—a relatively new organization that has become a humming nexus of traditional poets who once worked alone—I jumped at the chance to have a conversation with A.M. Juster on the state of poetry today and what he’s up to.

Evan Mantyk: You are regarded as among the leading poets still practicing traditional English poetry, also known as formal poetry or classical poetry. Have you seen an increase or decrease in interest in traditional poetry?

A.M. Juster: The public continues to love meter and rhyme, as is evident from the success of [the Broadway musical] Hamilton and so-called performance poetry. Nevertheless, Big Poetry—academia, the major literary organizations, and the historically important journals—has been suffocating formal poetry more than it has ever done before. I am optimistic, though, that the internet will provide a way to break our literary monopolies and give more people more of the poetry that they want.

Mr. Mantyk: If it is so suffocating, why do you choose to work in traditional poetry?

Mr. Juster: In college I wrote the poetry that Big Poetry was promoting, but eventually found it unsatisfying and stopped writing poetry altogether for about a decade. In my 30s, I realized that I could write the kind of poetry I loved rather than the poetry that others wanted me to love, so that’s what I set out to do.

Mr. Mantyk: In my reading of history, in the mid-19th century there was a split between the famous American poets Henry Longfellow, who used meter and rhyme, and Walt Whitman, who went toward free verse. The poetry establishment today has fully embraced Whitman and generally abandoned Longfellow. But the Longfellow line includes Frost—perhaps the last American poet, other than children’s books authors, who was a household name. This Longfellow line could offer a way forward for poetry to regain esteem in American culture. What do you think of this assertion?

Mr. Juster: I agree. Big Poetry would deny that the move away from formal verse caused the decline of public interest in and support for poetry, but the evidence overwhelmingly contradicts that view.

Mr. Mantyk: Is it promising that the inaugural poem for Biden this year contained rhyming and seemed more coherent than the poem for Obama’s inauguration in 2009?

Mr. Juster: Yes, it is promising. Amanda Gorman had the almost impossible task of writing a public poem on short notice under incredible pressure. While I have some reservations about the poem, it is the best of the inauguration poems—better even than the poem Robert Frost wanted to read, but couldn’t because the bright sunlight blinded him. The best sections of her poem were those that embraced the music of rhythm and rhyme, sometimes in a very clever way. When the poem became more prosy, it became more preachy and sagged a bit.

Mr. Mantyk: Unlike Democratic presidents, Republican presidents have never had poetry read at their inaugurations. Is poetry by nature elitist and taboo to the Republican establishment?

Mr. Juster: In countries from Ireland to Vietnam, poetry is a passion of the people, as it used to be in this country. I would tend to agree that Republican political types tend to look at poetry as an alien activity, but that’s a mistake. They should remember that the first great Republican political figure, Abraham Lincoln, wrote poetry.

Mr. Mantyk: You are nearing the end of a monumental poetic feat: translating all of the great Italian poet Petrarch’s poetry into metered and rhyming English, something that’s never been done before. You said before that you were planning to complete the first draft translation by Labor Day. Did you meet your deadline?

Mr. Juster: Yes, with about two weeks to spare. I’m editing and working on the notes and other collateral material now, and I have hired an “internal external reviewer,” … to give it a once-over before I deliver it all to Norton, probably in March, a month or so ahead of schedule.

Mr. Mantyk: What impressions or revelations about Petrarch has the up-close experience given you?

Mr. Juster: It is clearer to me that translators prior to 1950 tended to see Petrarch as a “courtly love” poet, which is a misreading, and thus they rendered his powerful confessional poems into formulaic and anachronistic language, often with little regard for what his Italian actually said. Later translators approached the poems differently, but seem to have been bewitched by skilled “literal” translations of philologists, and as a result they lost the music and many of the more subtle meanings of the poetry.

Petrarch wrote these poems in Italian rather than Latin to reach a broader readership, and thus I think that vernacular—but not slangy—language is critical to this effort. Translators have also tended to overlook Petrarch’s wry humor, love of paradox, and freshness of language. That freshness is particularly hard to imitate because Petrarch has been imitated so widely that some of his pioneering imagery now seems clichéd.

Mr. Mantyk: The Library of Congress has treated Joy Harjo as the first Native American poet laureate of the United States when clearly based on historical records this title belongs to William Jay Smith, who had Native American heritage. Why would the Library of Congress do this?

Mr. Juster: The original mistake was clearly made out of ignorance—I know because I called the office that sent out the press release and initially they seemed to think it was a prank call—they didn’t believe me that William Jay Smith was a former Poet Laureate. After they checked Wikipedia or whatever they did, you could tell that they knew that they had blown it.

If they had simply confessed their error, one would have to be charitable. What is appalling is that they spent the weekend trying to decide how to fix it, and decided to tough it out by viciously denying Smith’s heritage. I am proud to have spent the money to have a leading Native American genealogist document the fact that Smith was in fact a direct descendant of a Choctaw chief who signed major treaties with the United States government.

At the very least you would expect the Library to apologize to his family and highlight his many achievements, the most important of which was his helping to bring the infamous Trail of Tears into our national consciousness, but the Library did not have the guts and integrity to do so.

.

.


NOTE: The Society considers this page, where your poetry resides, to be your residence as well, where you may invite family, friends, and others to visit. Feel free to treat this page as your home and remove anyone here who disrespects you. Simply send an email to mbryant@classicalpoets.org. Put “Remove Comment” in the subject line and list which comments you would like removed. The Society does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or comments and reserves the right to remove any comments to maintain the decorum of this website and the integrity of the Society. Please see our Comments Policy here.

6 Responses

  1. Margaret Coats

    Everyone interested in formal poetry does well to become acquainted with Petrarch, one of the world’s greatest lyrists. I will buy the hardcover of Juster’s translation as soon as the book is out! My paperback copy of Robert M. Durling’s good but entirely unmusical prose version fell into two pieces from overuse several years ago.

    Thanks, gentlemen both, for doing this interview that tells of Mr. Juster’s other interests and achievements. Reading this post is worthwhile simply to learn of William Jay Smith.

    Reply
  2. Paul Freeman

    Very informative interview.

    I wrote my first Petrarchan sonnet a few weeks back. I now have an immense amount of respect for Petrarch.

    Echoing Margaret, that snippet about William Jay Smith is jaw-dropping.

    Reply
  3. Brian Yapko

    A very fine interview which gives interesting insight into the Whitman-Longfellow divergence. I know very little about Petrarch and this makes me interested in learning more. I agree with Margaret and Paul — the information about William Jay Smith is both fascinating and shocking. I am deeply disturbed by the refusal of the Library of Congress to own its mistake.

    Reply
  4. Andrew Benson Brown

    I enjoyed Mr Juster’s presence at the online symposium last year, and am an even bigger fan after reading this. Will definitely be picking up the Petrarch volume when it’s out. And bravo for calling out the woke establishment’s hypocritical practices.

    Reply
  5. Geoffrey Smagacz

    Your observation about the divergence of the Whitman and Longfellow schools is interesting. That’s a new idea for me. But how, when and why did writing formal verse become political? Why are 98% of the poetry venues viscerally opposed to formal verse?

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      The Longfellow school can give an answer. We know that poetry venues, to maintain their own status, worship grant money and academic prestige. But as well, their reading is shallow. Longfellow spent the middle years of his poetic career doing important translations, and editing volumes of translations by his friends, to encourage widespread reading of classic poetry. Let’s hope Juster’s Petrarch will benefit us.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.