Terence (Terry) Culleton, who taught English at George School for thirty-nine years before retiring in 2019, reflects on his journey as an author and poet. He is the author of three published books of verse, A Communion of Saints, Eternal Life, and A Tree and Gone.
What experiences have influenced your art?
“Hmm. Lots of different things, I’d say. My early Catholic education, quasi-medieval as it was, introduced me to language, imagery, and theological concepts all of which conduced to a sense of mystery, which is, in fact, the province of poetry as distinct from prose. In high school and college, I studied Greek and Latin and was introduced through those two languages to different tonalities and linguistic sounds, as well as to diverse approaches to syntax, all of which fed my ear for the music of English.
As for meaning and content, my mother’s death when I was twelve turned me inward and made me question what I had till that point assumed to be the “rightness” of everything, a skepticism that was fed by the politics of the time, especially those surrounding the Vietnam War and Civil Rights. I also taught myself how to play the guitar and, along with various experiences in the other performance arts, that introduced me to how transcendent an effect music and rhythm can have on the soul, no matter how unhappy, and music became a lifelong love which has infiltrated my relationship to language and form in poetry.
Most specifically, though, reading, reading, reading—as much great poetry as I could find—Shakespeare, Keats, Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, Richard Wilbur, Eliot, and many more—Marlowe, Herrick, Burns—Seamus Heaney, Gerard Manley Hopkins—and the great English and American novelists—George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, Austen, Dickins, Joyce, Twain, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and on and on and on. Reading is the single overarching way to learn how to write.”
Where do you draw your creative inspiration?
“I’ve committed a lot of poetry to memory. Last time I counted it was somewhere around eighty-five or ninety poems, including a number of old Scottish and English ballads. When I walk the dog or if I’m driving somewhere, I’ll often recite some Shakespeare or Keats or Yeats, or Emily Dickinson, and the fire gets lit. It almost always comes down to the music. An image, something I’ve seen, or some memory from childhood will be stuck in my brain, and the feeling I have about it, or for it, will just naturally call for language and music. I never write toward an ending or to set up a pre-ordained conclusion, and I avoid political verities and other forms of dogmatic or formulaic thinking. I almost always start with the music of what feels like a first line, without any sense of where it’s going or even, sometimes, what it means or is referring to. I write with my ear all the way through. I let my ear find the thought.”
What influenced your decision to publish your poetry?
“My poems are like my children. I bring them up, raise them, and the form that process takes is constant, and I mean constant, revision. Some poems I’m now just getting to think of as finished are pieces I started twenty-five or thirty years ago. I’ve revised them upwards of a hundred times or more, and, frankly, when I reach the point where there are no more revisions to make, I’m a little sad, since that means I have to say goodbye and send them out into the world. It’s like a child. You never want your child to leave, but you also know that’s why you brought the child into the world in the first place—so he or she could live their own life out in it, independently of your will anymore. No more revising. It’s just a natural thing. I believe my two sons make the world better just by being in it as the men they are. And that’s what the hope is for the poems, once you finish them—that, if only for one or two people, they’ll make the world better or clearer or more beautiful. That’s why you publish. It’s as Emily Dickinson said. Each poem is a kind of love letter to the world. Kind of like a letter in a bottle you send out, not knowing where it will wash up. But you mean every word of it. It’s a love letter. Even the dark or angry ones are love letters. Publishing is just putting the cork in the bottle and tossing it into the waves.”
Tell me about your experience with publishing. What were some of the challenges and exciting moments?
“The fun thing about publishing is working with an editor. Writing is highly solitary. One collaborates only with one’s subject matter, or with the formal elements one has chosen to adhere to, or, if you’re lucky, with a visiting muse, although they always come unannounced. In the performing arts, collaboration is as much with fellow artists as with these sorts of things, and other people give you new thoughts about what you’re doing or think you’re doing. You get fresh perspectives. Writers don’t have that flesh-and-blood collaboration. When you finally get to the publishing stage, though, editors can provide that kind of input, as well as book designers. I always take editors’ suggestions for emendations or for sequencing changes very seriously. I don’t always accept them, but I often do, and when I don’t, I’m careful to explain my reasoning and I stay open to their thoughts. It’s like a gift to have someone who loves literature enough to run a press and go through all the business of publishing other people’s stuff—it’s a real gift to get their input, which is always thoughtful and always has the poetry’s best interests in mind.
Designers, too. For my second book, when I looked at the designer’s idea for the cover I thought immediately, no that can’t possibly be the cover. Then I went out somewhere and read the whole thing through with the cover and interior design elements right there in front of me, and I began to see what the designer was getting at. I ended up really liking her ideas. It was a gratifying moment.
The other happiness that comes from publishing is when somebody contacts you after reading the book and you hear from them that the poems got through to them and meant something powerful to them. That’s the greatest feeling of all—when a person, just a reader, not an editor necessarily or even another writer, but an ordinary person going about their life trying to make things better in the world—when somebody like that really connects with a poem and feels that their own life, if only just on that particular day, was enriched by it. That’s the whole reason I write—to provide some sort of spiritual or intellectual or emotional thing to people, the beauty/truth thing, as Keats put it—to have been able to proffer something along those lines to folks who seek it out and open themselves to it.”
What is your writing environment? Where do you feel most creative?
“I used to write a lot in coffee shops, and I also like to write while travelling—on a plane or train or in a hotel somewhere. One’s lifestyle is stripped down when travelling and it’s natural to focus on creative activity. Mostly, though, and especially since Covid, I’m up in our third-floor attic. That’s a great place to write. The happy thing about writing is that you don’t really need a dedicated space. Painters and sculptors need studio space, performers need halls and theaters, or rehearsal rooms. You can write pretty much anywhere, though. All you need is a pen and paper. Sometimes you don’t even need that. Wordsworth in the early days didn’t write his poems down till he had finished them in his head.”
Do you have a message for your former students that you would like to share?
“Only that I miss them dearly and to this day what I remember most fondly about my wonderful years at GS is the joy of walking into a classroom full of George School students and launching into a book discussion with them. I tell people all the time that if you love teaching there can be no better place to do it than GS. The collegiality among the faculty, the extraordinary integrity of vision on the part of administrators, and, most of all, the brilliance, sensitivity, and playful humor of the students—all these things make GS a perfect learning atmosphere and a great environment for exploring the mysteries inherent in the human condition.”
Is there a specific poem or excerpt that is meaningful to you that you could share?
“Do you mean one of mine? If so, the last sonnet in A Tree and Gone might be a nice one to include. It’s actually located at GS along the horse paddock near Tate House, where my wife Nancy and I lived for several years. I used to walk along there at night sometimes and visit with the horses. At that time, too, I was reading a lot of James Wright, and his poem, “A Blessing” was a real fave of mine. So, I called mine “Blessing” in homage to Wright’s poem. Here it is (mine, that is):”
— after James Wright
A red roan Appaloosa moseys to the rail
and pokes her nose across at me to snuff
some sweet hay in my fist, switching her tail
as her eyes cross to focus on the stuff
the better in the dim air. Stars are out,
a few at least, and, too, the orange moon
has cleared the trees. It shines here on her snout
as she draws up her lip. The ground is strewn
with clumps of hay placed for the eating. She
prefers instead to nuzzle at my hand
as if these tufts pertained to mystery,
as she to me pertains, stunned where I stand
unclenching all, here, now, only to live
for giving her what isn’t mine to give.
From A Tree and Gone © 2021 by Terence Culleton. Published by Future Cycle Press. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Are there future projects you are working on?
“I’ve been branching out into prose, both fiction and essays. I have a novel in the works and possibly a collection of essays exploring the connections between literature, music, religion, history, and certain aspects of psychology. My publishing has been in poetry and will continue to be for the next few years, but I’m hoping to bring the prose material out within five or ten. This is a late development for me. I never thought I’d be a proser, but I surprised myself and have been loving it.”
You can learn more about Terry at terenceculletonpoetry.com.