Referred to as “one of America’s most original, influential, and productive of lyric poets,” Carl Phillips is the author of a dozen books of poetry and two works of criticism. He was born in Everett, Washington in 1959, and his family moved frequently around the United States. He earned a BA from Harvard, an MAT from the University of Massachusetts, and an MA in creative writing from Boston University. Before teaching English at the university level, he taught Latin at several high schools. He is Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, where he also teaches creative writing.
A classicist by training, Phillips often employs classical forms and makes allusions to classical literature, art, and music. While in his teens, Phillips began to write poetry. "I was a nerdy kid," he told Lawrence Biemiller in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "Maybe it has to do with creating your own world. For some people it's easier to create a world that you can rely on, that travels with you." Phillips entered Harvard University on a scholarship, where he studied Latin and Greek.
Phillips received critical acclaim early in his career. His debut book In the Blood was the winner of the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize in 1992. Alfred Corn, writing in the Kenyon Review, described the style of In the Blood as metamorphic: "As with symbolism, words are used in associative rather than logical ways, constantly shifting ground and modulating context so that the central subject is never made baldly explicit. The poems (most of them) will support several interpretations, though no single interpretation perfectly." Also at the Kenyon Review, David Baker noted that two frequent qualities of Phillips' poems are "lucidity and mystery."
The sea was one thing, once; the field another. Either way,
something got crossed, or didn't. Who's to say, about
happiness? Whatever country, I mean, where inconceivable
was a word like any other lies far behind me now. I've
learned to spare what's failing, if it can keep what's living
alive still, maybe just
awhile longer. Ghost bamboo that
the birds nest in, for example, not noticing the leaves, color
of surrender, color of poverty as I used to imagine it when
I myself was poor but had no idea of it. I've always thought
gratitude's the one correct response to having been made,
however painfully, to see this life more up close.
– from 'Brothers in Arms'
Publishers Weekly called Phillips's collection Pastoral (2000), "brilliant" and stated that it continues to, "echo the sorrow, alienation and eros of bodily existence" found in other of Phillips' work. Philip Clark in Lambda Book Report noted the poems "pleasantly disorienting effect."
When he speaks of deserved and undeserved as more
than terms – how they can matter, suddenly – I can tell
he believes it. Sometimes a thing can seem star-like
when it's just a star, stripped of whatever small form of joy
likeness equals. Sometimes the thought that I'm doomed
to fail – that the body is – keeps me almost steady, if
steadiness is what a gift for a while brings – feathers, burst-
at-last pods of milkweed, October – before it all fades away.
– from 'Stray'
Writing about Double Shadow (2011) in the Chicago Tribune, Troy Jollimore says, "the perpetually shifting textures and shardlike quality of Phillips' language are reminiscent of John Ashbery. Unlike Ashbery's playful universe, "Phillips' is a somber, autumnal landscape, one that is illuminated by moments of ephemeral, ethereal beauty." Jenny Mueller, reviewing Speak Low, writes that the work "brings echoes to the reader's ear of such 20th-century eminences as Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, T.S. Eliot and Rainer Maria Rilke. As in Rilke, Phillips' lines give his language a near-sculptural form, something like a fountain. The poems are structures of alternating firmness and give, as the sense spills from line to line."
At Divedapper, Phillips states that:
For me, all poetry is a way of bringing together psychological and emotional shards that, when brought together, seem to point to something like a way to move forward, or to at least understand where one has been, and maybe learn something from that. I don't think of poetry as therapy, but it certainly has been a space, for me, where I can wrestle with ideas and demons and, for a moment, lay them to rest.
In an interview at the Kenyon Review, Phillips said that he thinks of, "all of my books as a single, sustained kind of meditation on – oh, on the ways in which the forces of being human (desire, for example, loss, conquest) shape a sensibility over time."
this dog – that
I mostly call Sovereignty, both for how sovereignty,
like fascination, can be overrated, and for how long it's
taken me, just to half-understand that. Pretty much my
whole life. Mortality seemed an ignorable wilderness
like any other; the past seemed what, occasionally, it
still does, a version of luck when luck, as if inevitably,
gets stripped away: what hope, otherwise, for suffering?
– from 'Musculature'
Reconnaissance, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2015
Silverchest, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2013
Double Shadow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011
Speak Low, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2009
Quiver of Arrows: Selected Poems, 1986-2006, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2007
Riding Westward, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2006
Rock Harbor, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2002
The Tether, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2001
Pastoral, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, 2000
From the Devotions, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, 1998
Cortège, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, 1995
In the Blood, Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1992
The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, 2014
Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, 2004
For Carl Phillips, Poetry Is Experience Transformed – Not Transcribed, All Things Considered
Poetry magazine podcast for June 2015, PoetryFoundation.org
Carl Phillips reads 'Custom', PoetryFoundation.org
Carl Phillips reads 'Lustrum', PoetryFoundation.org
Carl Phillips reads 'Radiance Versus Ordinary Light', Poetryfoundation.org
A Conversation with Carl Phillips by David Baker, Kenyon Review
Interview with Carl Phillips, Divedapper