William Hathaway: Wry Humor And A Dark Vision

Robert Long | December 18, 1997

William Hathaway, the author of six innovative books of poetry, recently joined the faculty of Southampton College, where he is associate professor of English, teaching creative writing and literature in the undergraduate program. He will also teach in the college's new master of fine arts degree program when it gets under way this summer.

Mr. Hathaway is low key in conversation. But he has a capacity to jolt the listener with a sudden remark; he laughs explosively, unexpectedly.

It's the kind of laugh that sets off in the auditor a little bell; it's as if he were more attuned to the absurdities of life than are most people.

The Road Runner

It's a quality one finds in his poetry, which manages to be both conversational and highly wrought; the diction can be formal at one moment and then plunge into common speech. It's the kind of poetry that can exhilarate the reader with sheer virtuosity.

A poem like "After the Beep," for example, is about the cartoon character of the Road Runner. But on a deeper level it's a meditation on life as the poet considers the image of the Road Runner, just having run off a cliff, frozen in mid-air, before plunging to the ground:

This flat planet

with us pinned on it like bugs

spread wide for science

still cartwheels forsaken

out of history.

Teaching Posts

Mr. Hathaway's poems can be utterly hilarious and shatteringly dark within the span of just a few lines. It's a muscular kind of writing, tense, jittery, witty. To read his poems is to set off on a journey and not to know where you will end up.

Mr. Hathaway has taught at a number of colleges, including Louisiana State University, where he headed the creative writing program, and, most recently, the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. He lives in a small house near Shinnecock Bay, just a mile or so from the college. It was a clear cool day in the fall when he led a visitor inside.

Like most poets with college posts, Mr. Hathaway has taught a great deal of freshman composition and literature, as well as creative writing.

"I've taught freshman writing in all of its manifestations," he said. "At Bar Harbor, it was called nature writing . . . they were writing about nature. I taught Romantic poetry under the guise of 'literature about nature,' " he said.

A Family Of Poets

As he approaches the end of his first semester at Southampton College, he said, he finds many of the students "surprisingly sophisticated. There is a core of marine science students who are a group unto themselves." He also finds a difference in "upstate" students - he has taught at the State University at Cortland, and grew up in Ithaca, N.Y. - and "downstate" students.

"It's like the difference between Northern California and Southern California. In a way, a downstater and upstater relate better to a Kansan than they do to each other," he said, chuckling.

Mr. Hathaway was born in Wisconsin but his family moved to Ithaca shortly thereafter. His father, Baxter Hathaway, was a Cornell professor who was a scholar and a poet. He started the creative writing program there. His brother is also a poet.

Parodies Of Kerouac

There were no particular advantages in being raised in what some might consider a "literary" household, however. "What it meant was that there were a lot of books in the house, of course. And we were encouraged to read."

"But it was the same for my father when he was growing up in Michigan. His father was something of a religious fanatic, and they were very poor. But there were a lot of books in that house, too, and people read."

Mr. Hathaway started writing poems, as many people do, in high school. He remembers writing parodies of Jack Kerouac's "Mexico City Blues" with a friend in class one day. The two boys were passing their poems back and forth when their teacher saw what they were up to. "As a punishment, she made us stand up and read them. The class thought the poems were hilarious."

Sound And Sense

"We loved Kerouac and Ginsberg. Their writing is so full of energy. The energy of the poetry and the range of vocabulary made the poems seem at the same time grandiose and terrifically acceptable."

What, a visitor asked Mr. Hathaway, is poetry? "Poetry is a highly concentrated imaginative expression with words. You have both sound and sense in poetry."

Mr. Hathaway's work is highly musical. He sometimes writes in traditional forms - recent poems include a series of sonnets - but he is equally comfortable with free verse.

"I used to sit listening to rock-and-roll on a Buffalo radio station with a book of Robert Graves poems in front of me and try to teach myself how to write formal poetry. That was essentially my early training. I read somewhere that John Keats learned how to write by slavishly imitating Edmund Spenser. So I read Spenser and did the same."

Mr. Hathaway was "not a terrific student," he said. "I did well enough in English classes, but I essentially taught myself how to write poetry."

He has mastered technique over 35 years of writing poetry - and uses complex forms such as the villanelle with apparent ease, although he emphasizes that, for him, poetry is hard work rather than a matter of being handed inspiration.

Simple And Elegant

"I work line by line," he said, and he is very much aware of the "internal structure" of a poem. "Lately I feel like I've been writing in the manner of John Donne - there's a lot going on inside the poem, technically."

For the reader, however dense a Hathaway poem may seem, it also reads simply and elegantly. This is one of the hallmarks of his work.

Mr. Hathaway started teaching when he was 25 years old. "I didn't know anything," he said. Although he was formally educated, he also considers himself something of an autodidact.

Fell Into A Habit

"I like what Robert Frost says in his essay 'The Figure a Poem Makes.' In a way, he's speaking for all poets. He compares the way poets learn things to the way scholars learn things. The poet goes out in the field and wanders around, and burrs stick to him. And that's right on the money. When I read that, I felt very reassured. I used to just feel like a disorganized person."

But Frost made him understand that he was, in fact, doing what all poets do, that experience in the world is as important as what one can learn in an academic setting.

When between teaching appointments, Mr. Hathaway has spent time in all sorts of jobs, including stretches spent in hotels and restaurants. About poetry as a kind of vocation, he said, "I didn't feel a spiritual call to it but I certainly felt that I very quickly fell into a habit, and I've never gotten out of it. I've never felt like getting out of it."

Taking A Stance

"In a funny way, the greatest threat to it has been the exigencies of being a college professor," he said. But he enjoys teaching, and is in the middle of a career that has seen him, during 13 years as a professor at Louisiana State University, create one of the better graduate creative writing programs in the country.

He left Louisiana to teach at Cornell at a time when his father, who was living in Ithaca, was dying from emphysema. Later, he taught at Union College while his wife practiced law in upstate New York. Mr. Hathaway, who is divorced, has three grown children.

About the poems in his latest volume, "Churlsgrace," he said "These are public poems. They take a stance. I see myself as something of a churl. At this point I see myself as something of a pessimist. I don't think," he said, referring to the world in general, "that this is all going to end well. But I do not in any way see myself as being cynical. There's a distinction there."