Interview: James Ragan

The celebrated American poet talks calamities, triumphs and keeping it simple at Václav Havel's childhood home

Where does a poet fit into today's fast food, rapidly moving, and increasingly illiterate contemporary culture?

If the province of the poet is to frame and illustrate the world around them then the best place for a poet to reside is on the shoulder of policy-making individuals, providing much-needed insight into the world that they are making decisions about.

Bending the ears of politicians and world leaders has become a matter of course for James Ragan as a celebrated poet. His thought-evoking imagery of historical landmarks, such as The Hunger Wall, and scathing social commentary of the sort featured in the poem The Tent People of Beverly Hills have gained him access to rooms previously inaccessible to dissident literati, and he takes his influential position quite seriously, if not serenely.

In his latest collection, The World Shouldering I, he proposes that "the poet has to bear the burdens of the world, but also has to bear the burdens of himself. He's got to live his life and then live the life of the world and carry those burdens."

Born in Pittsburgh to Czechoslovak parents, he scaled the literary ranks, earning numerous doctorates, fellowships and assorted accolades. Ragan is now, for the greater part of the year, director of the Graduate Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California.

But he has returned to the Czech Republic every summer for the past 10 years to teach at Charles University (without salary - an arrangement between himself and Václav Havel), educating both students from his courses stateside and native Czech students by demonstrating the magical prowess of Prague.

Composing poetry at the desk once commanded by the playwright, visionary and former president Václav Havel, he has a vantage point that resonates with the history accompanying such legendary hot spots as Havel's childhood residence.

Leaders and opinion-makers have courted James Ragan throughout his illustrious career, from a milestone invitation extended to him by Gorbachev to read at Moscow's First International Poetry Festival with Robert Bly and Bob Dylan in 1985, to reading for South Korean Prime Minister Dr. Young Hoon-Kong, with stops in between to stock Hollywood's coffers in various production capacities with insightful and unforgettable content in such movies as The Deer Hunter, The Border, and The Longest Yard.

As an artist, Ragan has given poetic delineation to the calamities of our culture as well as to its triumphs. In Lusions (Grove Press, 1997), he attempts a study of violence from the beginning of time through to modern-day terrorism and the moral conundrum of "children killing children" (a reference to the shootings in Columbine as well as to the religious fundamentalism instilled in Middle Eastern children at elementary school level).

The triumphs are the appreciation of the simple things that life inevitably presents us with, as represented in Lusions' last poem, The Astonishment of Living, about his two daughters. He explains that "it's a poem about watching them and their disparateness and there's so much commonality and just using them to announce to the world, 'Look, you've come to allow the astonishment of living after so much death'."

Translation of his poetry into several languages has altered the evolution of his work. "I realized that every time I was translated that there were so many problems with their translating, I thought I might just rethink how I'm using my syntax and how I'm using my language because the rhythms change and I simplified imagery. The sharp images are still there, but I think it's much more accessible."

"The simplicity is what we've got to get back to, everybody ... Just to get back the simplicity. Everything that you think is important. I suddenly realized this is a world I can get back to. When people say 'would you live you life over again?,' I say, 'Yeah, I would, but I would pay more attention to the simple things.'"

There is the argument that simplification might engender a "dumbing-down" technique, to which he counters, "Good poetry should be a multi-balanced language. I do that with all my work now - my levels are two, three deep. I love that. I want to make sure I don't simplify too much."

Hearing Ragan read his work illuminates the nuances of the poems. He will be reading a collection of his works, past and present, and those yet to be published at The Globe on Friday August 6th .

The full version of this interview is online at

Video on YouTube

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