Archive for the 'House Red: Literary and Intellectual' Category

Writing about writing…a lot of foolishness out there…

A lot of foolishness gets written about writing, not all of it flowing from the pens of dunderheads. Two instances have come my way recently, one passed along by a friend, the other happened upon. Michael Lind blithely declares that poetry is a hobby or niche craft, no art at all, while designating cinema and television, pop music, genre fiction, and punditry or political commentary major arts. William Giraldi tells us that writers “yearn for…whole continents of fans, invitations to claim and cash fantastical checks.”

Perhaps I am not only out of the mainstream but even most side streams here. Both propositions strike me as sketchy. Let us begin with Michael Lind, whose biosketch at the New America Foundation portrays a man of impressive credentials and accomplishment:

…co-founder of the New America Foundation, along with Walter Mead, Sherle Schwenninger, and Ted Halstead. Lind has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic and The National Interest. Lind is a columnist for Salon and writes frequently for The New York Times and The Financial Times. He is the author of numerous books of history, political journalism, fiction, poetry and children’s literature.

Offering anecdotal evidence, Lind asserts that poetry is a craft, not an art, because it has no audience other than it practitioners:

In the course of numerous readings of my own published verse, I gradually came to the conclusion that almost everyone in the audience at a poetry reading is a poet or aspiring poet. My guess is that a majority of people who read poetry also write poetry.

The guess is unexceptional. Whether it is based on anything more than an impression, and its relevance if accurate, are subject to debate. Do all poets see what they are doing in the same light? Do all belong to the same category in anything other than an exceedingly general sense so amorphous and vaguely demarcated that it explains nothing?

Individuals write poetry for all sorts of reasons, among them as a kind of therapy, a quest for fulfillment, ego gratification, and aspects more commonly associated with the notion of poetry as an art. We read poetry too for all sorts of reasons. Poetry offers amusement and entertainment, and at its best pleasure of more elevated nature captured by Samuel Johnson’s formulation of the sublime as “that comprehension and expanse of thought which at once fills the whole mind, and of which the first effect is sudden astonishment, and the second rational admiration” (quoted in W. Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson, Counterpoint, 1998, p. 541).

As for audience, there is a tradition of poets’ complaints that they are not appreciated. Chaucer’s biographer Donald R. Howard gives this instance from the 14th century:

French court poetry implied an image of the poet’s role and status at court. This image became bitter too. The poet presented himself as a valued member of the court whose duty it was to speak to the prince, or the lady, or the assemblage of courtiers, most often saying what they wanted or expected to hear, saying what he was bidden to say or what he deemed to please. The poet’s place at court was as an adjunct, and it wasn’t necessarily an honored place: patronage was bestowed capriciously, admiration and rewards were given but meanly. The poet Martin le Franc, having presented to Philip the Good as fine a bound copy of his poem Le Champion de Dames as he could afford, wrote that it was not only ignored but used by various members of the court for a mat or a footstool. (Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World, E.P. Dutton, 1987, p. 135)

I draw on two bits of my own anecdotal evidence that today’s audience for poetry, while by no means extensive, may not be as limited as Lind assumes. Public broadcasting in its various guises, national and local, NPR and public television, is at some pains to appeal to a young and hip audience, for instance, with references ad nauseam to PBS’s presence on Twitter and other social media. Stories about poetry and poets are a regular feature throughout the year, not just during National Poetry Month, and not just by way of Garrison Keillor. It is a reasonable presumption that these stories are presented because the PBSers believe there is a genuine audience for them, not solely as a public service. Beyond that, my experience at poetry readings differs from what Lind describes. It is not at all unusual to find in my small audience people who do not consider themselves poets but nonethless appreciate poetry, whether reading it or hearing poems read in performance, and indeed consider its presence an important component of their lives.

Popularity, the size of the audience, is Lind’s criteria for distinction between major and minor arts and between arts and crafts. This is in line with a general leveling of such things that is one mark of our culture, where popular appeal, under the guise of democratization, putting it to a vote by way of Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers, is the measure of value. Expression of appreciation for expertise, skill, and talent that rises above the run of the mill is liable to draw charges of elitism, as does writing that places intellectual demands on the reader. Do we really want to claim that pop music, genre fiction, and punditry are major arts? I can only conclude that Lind and I are using the word “art” in quite different senses. The comparison is not even apples and oranges; ’tis more like apples and broccoli.

“Another word for a craft is a hobby.” Am I being nitpicky when I point out this is just not so?

craft : an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill (the carpenter’s ~) (the ~ of writing plays) (~s such as pottery, carpentry, and sewing)

hobby : a pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in esp. for relaxation (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition)

One might well pursue poetry as a craft or hobby and derive pleasure and satisfaction from it, quite possibly without the frustration, anxiety, and despair that may accompany pursuit of poetry as an art. Though they may bear the same name, these are qualitatively and categorically different pursuits.

Lind acknowledges in a lonely one-sentence paragraph near the beginning of his essay that “[t]he assignment of an art to one or another category has nothing to do with its quality. It is merely an assessment of the relationship between artist and audience.” A paragraph at the close opens with a statement better declared at the outset: “This is a horizontal ranking based on audience, not a vertical ranking based on quality or importance.” This is all rather odd juxtaposed with the rest of an essay devoted to the trivialization of poetry.

Poetry’s popularity and the make-up of its audience are topics deserving of consideration. Lind goes off the beaten track when he makes these criteria for a classification of arts, crafts, and hobbies. Popularity may not be altogether irrelevant to status as art. It is, however, a far more minor criteria than Lind suggests, and insofar as it is relevant, the audience for poetry seems to me to be wider and more diverse than he recognizes.

Now we come to the venerable pages of The New Republic—which has itself gotten some interesting press of late, but that is another matter—where William Giraldi’s review of H.J. Jackson, Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame, opens with this titillating paragraph:

Writers live lives of curious contradiction. Their work succeeds only by means of a monastic interiority and lonesomeness, and yet they yearn for that work to deliver them the very things most likely to murder it: whole continents of fans, invitations to claim and cash fantastical checks. They’ve heard the warning that says celebrity is one of the toxins which contributes to a writer’s artistic contamination, but they can’t help themselves—writers spend lots of time being overlooked, and thus lots of time fantasizing about the opposite predicament. There’s no such thing as a writer who yearns to be ignored.

The last sentence I buy. The rest is plain silly. For starters, anyone writing poetry with dreams of whole continents of fame and fantastical checks is certifiably delusional and could do with counseling by a trained professional. Certainly I sometimes fantasize about generating income as a writer sufficient to buy freedom to devote the best hours of each day to study and trying to write poems, which entails freeing myself from the necessity to sacrifice a significant portion of my life to wage work. I would love to find a wider audience for my poems. But continents of fame? fantastical checks? No, my dreams are of an audience somewhat wider than what I now have but nothing like what writers of popular novels and pop songs are after. That kind of popularity would be cause not for celebration but rather a deep questioning about the quality and worth what I am up to.

The body of Giraldi’s review is more substantive, with interesting accounts of the ephemeral and often happenstance nature of literary fame. Maybe the opening paragraph is intended to be nothing more than a teaser. He goes off the rails again when he says that our new Keats is Steve Jobs or someone like him because the world no longer cares about literature as it when Wordsworth, Jane Austen, and Keats “were undergoing their immortalization…. The cultural emphasis has shifted from one incarnation of creative brilliance to another.” There is an art appropriate to business and one to software design, as there is an art appropriate to poetry. To speak as if they are the same or equivalent, as if this is merely a shift from one incarnation of creative brilliance to another, does a disservice to each.

He nails it when he credits Nadine Gordimer with the best writing advice ever given, though others have expressed a similar sentiment:

…”a serious person should try to write posthumously,” by which she meant aim for the greats—entrust them as your gold-standard guides on the path to your own quality.

Why do some of us write or paint or dance or sculpt? It may well be that one does better to seek meaning by finding a place in family, community, and conventional work that contributes in some fashion to personal satisfaction and the greater good than in the vagaries of art. This changes nothing. Whether brass wakes to find itself a trumpet, or one chooses who one will be, scarcely matters. One goes at it because that is who one has come to be.

…Who alive can say
‘Thou art no poet—mayst no tell thy dreams?’
Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions , and would speak if he had loved
And been well nurtured in his mother tongue…
—John Keats, “The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream”

Poems: My Boulevard of Dream

“My Boulevard of Dream” came not long after I came to Portland in 1998. The city was fresh and new. A routine stroll could be a gateway to the marvelous.

My Boulevard of Dream

I stroll—downtown—in the spirit
of André Breton and the Surrealist boys,
1920s Paris, score
a copy of Le Monde diplomatique
at the tobacconist,
reading as I walk,
moving my lips as I read,
parce que mon français,
it’s not so great,
so even the hard case
wearing a belt of chains,
a necklace of syringes,
tattoos on her lips,
sees me a mumbling my thoughts to myself person
and crosses to the darker side of 9th Avenue.

Then a chance encounter
with a gaggle of kids
outside the pizza joint
just up from Reading Frenzy,
a girl with buttered hair
and ten pounds of baubles
offers to set herself on fire
for five dollars,
and a boy who could be my nephew
leaning on his yellow trumpet
tugs her jersey shirt and says
in a voice that cracks and breaks
early on the way to manhood,
sit down and eat.

It’s standing room only
at the coffee room at Powell’s,
so I continue on,
the Pearl District,
the galleries, the lofts
—elegant dining
out on an old warehouse loading dock
just up from the streetcar tracks,
a chill winter of a Portland afternoon,
drizzled out and overcast.

Around the corner from the fine wine shop,
concrete decor, très nouveau chic,
I step into Torrefazione,
order cappuccino, a double,
and settle at a table in the corner.
The ghost of Isadora Duncan
looks over my shoulder
and tugs my scarf
while I try to catch the words
that blow through my mind
and write them down
in the breath of the storm
that rises up in the unnamed
place beyond the fury
of what we think and feel and see.

I look from my journal
where the black ink scrawl
lays open my heart
and gaze out the window,
the river flow of humanity,
all those long Modigliani faces
and finely turned ankles,
but for the tattoos
straight from a 19th century European novel
where nothing is explicit
but everyone knows precisely where babies come from.

Perhaps Vivaldi is on the stereo
or Puccini,
and what gets me,
the joint is more elegant than bohemian, okay,
but it is still a coffee joint,
and Vivaldi.
I know it is too much to expect
Jean-Paul Sartre on speed
penning Critique of Dialectical Reason
at Café Deux Magots,
but someone could be sketching furiously the scene
or reading Beckett in French
or at least The New York Review of Books.

Au contraire,
it’s a cell phone and triple skinny latte crowd
out to gentrify my boulevard of dream.
A refrigerated barista
with a boyfriend from Topeka,
her cerulean blue toenails
and hieroglyph eyes,
eyes me like I am maybe
a sex fiend wannabe
or third-rate poetry geek
took a wrong turn
bound for the demimonde,
while a skinny woman,
cubist cheekbones, sun-drenched hair,
dressed like she is waiting for Mick Jagger,
dances delicate fingers on the lip
of the espresso cup
like she might have been my cousin,
she could have been my twin,
her eyes are all ennui
and see
into the life of things
and the furious pass’t the years
threaten to become.

At the table one over,
blow-dried, buffed, and suave,
immaculate t-shirts, designer jeans, Nike Air,
two fellas who spent the morning
at soccer practice with their daughters
before they hit the gym
talk startups and dot.coms
like they have stock options for brains.
The one with the diamond
in his left ear lobe,
cell phone in a leather holster on his hip,
the office—wherever—he is
and forever—
pulls a laptop from his briefcase and logs on
to do a deal.
It gets him off.
He takes a sip
from his triple skinny latte
to mellow out
and mentions how on the way home
he wants to pick up some flowers
because tonight he is going waltzing
with Matilda on her birthday

I think maybe I do not belong—here—
among these people—but
who among us knows enough—
to know enough—to know—much.
Too many are the secrets held in the heart
and concealed from the self,
how we make ourselves who we are
upon this chiaroscuro boulevard
in light and shadow—bound.

“My Boulevard of Dream” previously appeared in Tryst and Quill and Parchment, to whose editors grateful acknowledgement is made. Minor, nonsubstantive edits have been made since previous publication.

Poems: Each Day a Gift

“Each Day a Gift” dates from 2006. The prefatory stanza came from what was going on at the time and fixed itself in my thoughts. I had no idea at the outset what to do with it. The rest of the poem came later. I do not recall if I had the opening in mind as I wrote the poem proper, or if I tacked it on later because it seemed to fit. I wanted the poem to conclude on a note of resoluteness without false hope or phony optimism.

“Each Day a Gift” previously appeared in Quill and Parchment.

Each Day a Gift

She was fresh out of detox,
what I soon found would be
an ongoing affair,
the day I turned in my work ID
and office keys.
I put the knife to my throat
the night before.
“I pulled it back,” I told them.
“I just can’t do this anymore.”

The bounce of hair caught my eye, her bare legs,
the loose red skirt, and a smirk of a smile,
as she pulled back a chair, turned her eyes to
the Toulouse-Lautrec print there on the wall
near the door, and asked did I mind, as if
she knew I might, but it did not too much
matter. The place was packed, a déjà vu
kind of crowd on a je ne regrette rien
kind of afternoon. I raised my eyes from
the Sunday Times and said nothing. She took
it for an invitation and sat down.
I was thinking, if only I could be
a lone sparrow silhouetted against
the unbearable blue of evening sky,
to harken rain that might now wash away
the stain of tears from all we once held dear.

“I have been on the wagon for a week.”
The words spilled from her as she sipped coffee black.
“I do not care for it much. You can sink
in your despair or swim in your dreams, paint
a different color on your rainbow, find
a name you can use to say who you are
and what it means. One day you learn it does
not matter who you used to be. You are
just another grievous angel swept up
in a flood of fire. The cross I was brought
to bear is gone. It did not fit my needs
anyway. So what would your story be?”

Before I could answer, she said she knew
a better place, where the coffee was dark
enough to make way for the darkest mood.
I said it sounded good to me and made
my way with her out to the street, the sky
a brilliant blue, the air soft-bright and breezy,
a snowfall of cherry blossom to dust
the dragon boats stretched out along the river.

A man whose studded ears drooped to his collar
asked could I do with a good suicide
assistance guy, as he brushed stringy hair
back from his caved-in face with a limp hand
missing a finger or maybe it was
two, then suggested he could fix me up
with a woman who would do what I like.
I asked if I must choose one or the other.
He said, “It’s your life. You do what you want . . .
Some of the time, anyway.” Then the sky
grew dark with clouds that of a sudden came
and rain poured down in silver sheets that drove
us on to huddle in the gloom beneath
the bridge, where the dark protected me from
so much I knew it was best not to see.

A poet has no need of suicide
assistance, she pointed out with a smile.
All a poet needs is a bridge above
a bit of river, a boat in the Gulf
where he might remove his jacket, fold it,
place it down just so, jump into the blue,
a noose, a revolver with a bullet
in one chamber, a razor blade for blood
to scrawl one last poem on the dirty wall
of an unremarkable room in this
shabby tenement we call life.
They say everything has its season, but
when your seasons run together and all
to hell, it’s a fine mess that’s left us, Ollie.
Each day you pull back from it all,
step away from the bridge, the boat, the noose,
the revolver, the razor, and the rest,
anchor your spirit, this clod of a self,
to this patch of dark earth, this bit of dirt
and treachery your poor words are thrown up against.

The rain stopped. She stepped
out into the fragile, shivering light,
her pale, slender fingers reaching for mine.
“I am not here,” she said, “to reassure
anyone, not even myself, you know.
I could do with a face-lift for my soul.”

The little sparrow sang and broke your heart,
a fog of cigarette smoke, dream, and whiskey
coloring the night she brought just for you.
These gifts are always suspect when they come
from poets and chanteuses, but you take them
anyway, a beauty bitter and dark.
I followed her and followed her again.
There was nowhere else to go, just a promise
of mountains to the east and a pale moon
that clung to them in full daylight, Childe Roland
to the dark castle bound and must go on.

I cut my teeth on the ten thousand dreams
and left blood on typewriter keys that flashed
in the sun of mornings that will not dawn
again, gone, like a book we must have read,
a line of poetry or a melody we
almost remember when it slips like time
through our thoughts, with only hints that remain
of what was brilliant, green, gold, vermilion.
We take what we have and make what we can
of it, this dark earth, the encircling sky.

She waits for the bells that ring through the fog
where a green horse holds a clock with no hands
and the bridegroom there with his heart in his throat.
A Russian painting of geranium
bloom endures whole in her heart far beyond
its fade and passing, a bloom rich and deep
as a low-country door born from the brush
of an anonymous master somewhere
in the sixteenth century. She goes on . . .
while I navigate that drunken boat down
the delirious river, back to where
I have never been, claim those lines that hold
in my spirit like a brushfire, cleave to
the vision, make each day a gift once more.

 

Project for the Winter Term: Chaucer

I have taken up Chaucer as a project for the winter term. One thing led to another, as things have a way of doing. A few weeks back as I perused the Hot Titles display at the downtown branch of Multnomah County Library, A Burnable Book caught my eye. Hot title, indeed. The book turned out to be a mystery set in London in 1385. Poet John Gower is approached by his friend, courtier, diplomat, customs official, and fellow poet Geoff Chaucer, who tasks Gower with finding a mysterious book circulating about London that prophesies the death of Richard II and threatens to undermine the kingdom. The tale involves grisly killings and all manner of intrigue, subterfuge, plots, counterplots, and convoluted machinations whose unfolding make for a suspenseful read. For all that the greater pleasure lies in the wealth of social and historical detail, with a cast and characters drawn from all levels of London society, nobles and aristocrats, tradesmen and commoners, church officials, mercenaries, prostitutes, among others. Author Bruce Holsinger is a literary scholar and professor of English at the University of Virginia who writes writes on these matters with authority, concluding with a note about sources on which he drew for his fascinating portrait London culture and daily life toward the end of the fourteenth century.

Geoffrey Chaucer is one of far too many figures in the literary tradition with whom I have at best little more than a passing acquaintance, thus a fine candidate for the winter project. I began with Donald R. Howard’s Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World, which is a joy to read. Not all that much is known about details of Chaucer’s life, not even for certain that Chaucer the king’s servant is also Chaucer the poet, known best for The Canturbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde. As Howard nutshells it,

The records of Chaucer’s life tell us about the affairs, largely the comings and goings, of a Geoffrey Chaucer who served the king’s court. There is nowhere in them any indication that this Geoffrey Chaucer is the same one who became famous even during his own lifetime as a poet, writer, translator, and scholar. Once could almost suspect there were two Geoffrey Chaucers, as in a metaphysical sense there were. The argument for his oneness is an argument from silence: if there had been two Chaucers in the king’s court, one a courtier, diplomat, and public official, the other a poet, both with the rather unusual Christian name of Geoffrey, someone surely would have noted the coincidence. There is, for hard evidence of his oneness, a single passage in his poetry (The House of Fame, lines 652–660) where the poet, called “Geoffrey” by the amusing Dantesque eagle that carries him into the sky, almost certainly refers to his duties as Controller of the King’s Custom and Subsidy of Wools, Hides, and Wool Fells in the Port of London. (Howard, Preface to Chaucer, xi–xii)

As is to be expected in these circumstances, Howard engages in a bit of conjecture: Chaucer might have seen this, could have read that, may have done or thought the other. This sort of thing can be annoying which indulged to excess. Howard keeps it to a minimum. Educated guesswork is supplemented by a wealth of social, cultural, intellectual and political history. We encounter figures we know from Shakespeare: Richard II, John of Gaunt, Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke, later to be Henry IV. Disquisitions on courtly love, chivalry, and French court poetry are of interest in their own right as well as for their illumination on the milieu in which Chaucer lived and wrote.

I found this note about French court poets amusing. Ah, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

French court poetry implied an image of the poet’s role and status at court. This image became bitter too. The poet presented himself as a valued member of the court whose duty it was to speak to the prince, or the lady, or the assemblage of courtiers, most often saying what they wanted or expected to hear, saying what he was bidden to say or what he deemed to please. The poet’s place at court was as an adjunct, and it wasn’t necessarily an honored place: patronage was bestowed capriciously, admiration and rewards were given but meanly. The poet Martin le Franc, having presented to Philip the Good as fine a bound copy of his poem Le Champion des Dames as he could afford, wrote that it was not only ignored but used by various members of the court for a mat or a footstool. (Howard, p. 135)

The challenge lies not in study of Chaucer’s life and times. That part is just reading, and quite enjoyable. The poems themselves, at which I have made only the barest beginning, are another matter. It remains to be seen if I have discipline and focus to work through the Middle English, trusting that a pleasure deferred will be my reward at the end.

References

The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer. Ed. by John H. Fisher. Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1977). 1034 pp.

Holsinger, Bruce. A Burnable Book. William Morrow (2014). 444 pp.

Howard, Donald R. Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World. E.P. Dutton (1987). 636 pp.

 

Poems Page: I Could Swear I Hear Song

“I Could Swear I Hear Song” was penned in the summer of 2011. Its genesis is the daily commute to my place of employment. Each morning I leave home at 6:20 and walk five blocks to the bus stop at the corner of Belmont and SE 34th Avenue. When there is enough light, I read until the 15 Belmont shows up. When it is raining, as it often is this time of year, I take refuge under the awning outside Hoda’s.

The bus takes me across the Willamette River to downtown Portland, where I get off on Washington at SW 5th and walk three blocks to the MAX light-rail stop at Pioneer Courthouse. Generally I have about ten minutes to wait for the Yellow line train, which runs back across the river before turning north to deliver me to my place of employment. (Though ’tis counterintuitive, the commute is slightly faster this way than by sticking with buses and trains on the east side of the river.) The area here, in front of the courthouse and directly across from Pioneer Courthouse Square, is well lit. I either read or watch people as they scurry past on their way to downtown workplaces or to other light rail and bus connections.

Just under an hour passes from the time I lock my door until I log on to the work computer and chain myself to my cubicle for the duration. Those of us who board the bus at 34th find seats. People who catch it closer to the river may have to stand, but only for a few minutes. I spend about as much time walking to the bus or train stop and waiting as I do on a vehicle.

I look at the commute as time for reading. My journal from September 2011 indicates that Ulysses and a biography of James Joyce are among the books I was reading during the period when the poem was written. Recently a biography of Aleksandr Pushkin and Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard occupied me on bus and train. Presently I am having a go at Jean-Paul Sartre’s War Diaries. Lest anyone get the mistaken impression that my reading is more high-brow than it is, I should note that I go through more than my share of crime novels that can be read with half my brain tied behind my back.

Sometimes people catch my eye, in particular the regulars on the bus day after day. Something about this one’s features or that one’s dress, style, comportment, gesture, is intriguing. I wonder what his story might be, what she is thinking. Who are they? As the poem makes evident, for the most part my attention is drawn to women. For this there is an obvious explanation rooted in sensuality and sexual attraction that is no doubt part of the equation, but I think not all of it, a thought that is perhaps a reflection of my reluctance to reduce any aspect of human nature to a single explanation. Be that as it may.

The poem is an account of imagination’s transformation of our ordinary comings and goings into something enchanted, a small enchantment, but enchantment nonetheless. If the poem is successful, it will be not just an account but also an occasion of this transformation, not just a description of enchantment but also a small wellspring from which enchantment may flow.

I Could Swear I Hear Song

There is a morning bus
with women bound
for work and school,
for all I know, perhaps,
romantic rendezvous,
baristas and bank clerks,
anarchists, interns,
teachers, gurus, CPAs,
art students, attorneys,
hooligan babes.

Complexion latino, Nordic,
ruddy, café au lait, noir,
hair blonde and gray,
blue streakt, pink, henna colored, green,
braided, curled, pony-tailed, buzzed,
arms and legs tattooed,
ears and eyebrows pierced,
and not tattooed, not pierced,
brightly colored scarves furled
around pale necks,
suits, leather jackets, jeans,
long, loose-fitting dresses,
short, tight skirts,
barelegged, black tights, fishnets,
running shoes, boots, heels,
they are tough and tender-eyed,
laconic, laid-back, loony,
reticent, somber, thoughtful, gay,
hip, nonchalant, chic,
toting backpacks, book bags, yoga mats,
intent on graphic novels,
zombies, Zadie Smith,
collected works of Adrienne Rich,
anatomy books,
sketchpads, iPhones.
Thumbs twitch in syncopated frenzy
texting and twitting and gaming.
What secrets do they share?
what gossip? what banality?
what intimations of beauty?

They are my age
and my niece’s age
and my niece’s daughter’s age.
If they notice me at all,
it is only in passing.
This is as it should be.
What matters,
I am not dead to their charms
nor immune to their mystery,
desire no more dead in this heart
than in those hearts that beat
with the rhythm of the river,
the trochaic wash of wave onto shore,
the fall of light onto page,
the rhyme of leaves
shivering with amaze.

Across the bridge
curling in to the city center,
they gather their things,
button coats, zip jackets, pull scarves tight,
pour from the bus at each stop,
heels clacking along shadowed sidewalks,
across broad plazas, past
food carts and opium dens,
bound for whatever beyond
the day may hold.
I could swear I hear song
that stains blue the air
and catches winter light
the wind blows back across the river
with tambourines and guitars
that glint in morning sun
and quiver with yearning.

“I Could Swear I Hear I Hear Song” previously appeared in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, to whose editors grateful acknowledgement is made.

Memo from the Editorial Desk: Poems Page

The website now features a page where poems will be posted with the hope that they prove to be of interest. The page will be updated periodically—in theory, on a monthly basis; we shall see how that goes. Several short poems or a single longer one will be featured, “longer,” it goes without saying, being a relative term.

“Notes to One Who Is Far from Here” is the first featured poem. The poem dates from circa 1985, penned when I was in my early to  mid thirties. When possible I will date poems more precisely, generally the year in which a poem was written, to offer whatever context that may provide.

Notes to One Who Is Far from Here
Clouds burst apart and spill
at sunset like watercolors
on the edge of the sky
while jazz washes the street
like it’s raining burgundy wine,
and a kind of beauty
that takes away your breath
hangs in the air
like your voice in the fog
and for a moment lingers there.

Poems once sang,
rejecting metaphor,
embracing an Absolute
composed of triangle and rose.
The poems are more contemplative now.
Perhaps it’s a stage of life.
Maybe we’ve all changed.
Peut-être . . .

In dusk’s demi-darkness and twilight mood,
there stands a young girl from Peru.
She is lost in a painting by Chagall
or someone like him.
On a long summer evening,
as night grows slowly darker,
I imagine you are with me.
We are walking to the theatre
where Children of Paradise plays.
You chastise me for never having learned French,
and your voice with its traces of Spanish tones
makes even English sing
bright and clean as the moon
shining on your skin.

See how much I recall! You loved Vallejo the poet,
and told me Gregory Corso had my style!
But Buddenbrooks was difficult to understand fully,
too much high culture –
See, I remember.

Ah, dreams and sticks and paper cups
and dragonflies fluttering in the breeze.
I passed through a night
that was beautiful and still,
but I was running too fast
to see what was there.
The fireworks and rockets
exploded in air
and tears fell like leaves in autumn
till they covered the ground at our feet.

Now I am reduced to visioning you
as on a screen in the cinema
seen in a fog of Draculan castles
on Germanic hilltops where lines of poetry
mingle with Marxist slogans
while we dance to the ringing notes of an old guitar.

You and Yannos once told me
you did not think of me as an American.
I liked that.
Now you are in Europe,
and I in an America
still foreign to me as any Nepal
or Madagascar of my imagination.
I confess sadly, I wrote you a poem once
was too foolish
and shy to tell you who it was for
or what about.
So I pen another now
and I’ll make it a gift to you
some day when we stumble upon one another
in a Parisian cafe or upon the rocky coast of Greece
or even the mountains of Nicaragua
peut-être.
You will greet me in French
and I will amaze you by answering
and we will both laugh so hard
the mountains will tremble
(it will be my first laughter in years),
and I will compose a poem
that sings for you
and the wind will blow your hair hanging
darker than night enveloping your face
and the sun will crash into the sea
while towers of the city rise up
like mandolins ascending into the sky.

“Notes” previously appeared in Quill and Parchment and the anthology Ouroboros, to whose editors, Sharmagne Leland-St. John and Benjamin Fisher, respectively, I would like to express my lasting gratitude for the support and encouragement they have shown me over many years.

 

The Tennyson Project

…I have tried to confront greatness directly: to ask what makes the author and the works canonical. The answer, more often than not, has turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange. Walter Pater defined Romanticism as adding strangeness to beauty, but I think he characterized all canonical writing rather than the Romantics as such.—Harold Bloom, The Western Canon

We wade into treacherous currents when we take up the canon, canon bashing being a fashionable pursuit within what Bloom calls the School of Resentment: too white, too male, too dead. By all means let us celebrate greatness wherever it may be found. The loss is ours when greatness is marginalized, forgotten, or never known, whether out of bias, ignorance, or benign neglect. It does not follow, though, that all who are excluded belong, no more than that we would be well served by consigning the canon to the waste bin of history alongside patriarchy, slavery, and the like.

The canon is not writ in a password-protected, read-only document, much less stone. Standards and authority on which canonical status rests are fodder for debate and disputation. That is the character of the intellectual adventure. It is fine to ask, and to ask indignantly, Who made Harold Bloom, or Helen Vendler or Frank Kermode or Camille Paglia or Kenneth Rexroth, the arbiter? No one did, of course. What authority they have is by dint of the persuasiveness of their thinking on these matters, thinking that comes from a love of literature and life devoted to reading and study, not that we are compelled to buy wholesale whatever they may be peddling. In the end we make our own critical judgment and choices, having read as widely and thought as well as we are able, aware that our knowing is always partial and inadequate.

I have not much interest in argument about whether a particular individual belongs in or out of the canon, nor in rankings, lists of top ten, twenty-five, one hundred poets, novelists, baseball players, what have you. There is a core around which general consensus may be found, allowing for curmudgeonly exception, while at the edges membership tends to be more contentious. Among other things the canon is a compendium of writers whom I might find it worth my while to check out. There is not time enough in our lives to read everything we want to read, much less devote serious study to what merits it. We must pick and choose on the basis of something. The canon is one basis. People whom I have read, whose opinions I respect and thinking I find persuasive, consider these writers and their works to comprise the best that has been thought and said, to borrow Matthew Arnold’s phrase. This does not mean that I must have the same regard for a particular writer as Bloom or Paglia or Rexroth, nor that they are the final word on the best that has been thought and said. The canon is simply a good place to begin. We can take up the argument from there.

So, Tennyson. No doubt I read something of Tennyson in school and smatterings after, although none of it comes to mind as having made any impression until a chance encounter last winter with the concluding  lines of “Ulysses” quoted in a mystery novel (Matthew Pearl, The Dante Club):

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are, —
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

I was moved to commit the passage to memory and turned to the poem, where Ulysses has handed his kingdom over to his son and is exhorting his old pals to set off with him on one last adventure. Acknowledgement that time demands its toll on us, utterly at odds with contemporary American sensibility, is coupled with refusal to give in. Made weak by time and fate, we remain strong in will. That which we are, we are. The sentiment is all the more potent for being expressed with the lyricism for which Tennyson is noted and in some eyes unsurpassed among English poets. He is sufficiently well ensconced in the canon for me to wonder if I might be missing something.  Bloom puts him the most accomplished English poet since Milton and Pope, while T.S. Eliot finds in Tennyson “three qualities which are seldom found together except in the greatest poets: abundance, variety, and complete competence…. He had the finest ear of any English poet since Milton.”

Thus was born the Tennyson project, not that I had need of another project. The dining room table is a mess of projects in progress and assorted states of dissolution and partial abandonment: Being and Time, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, and Aristotle’s Rhetoric for the Heidegger project; the Beckett letters; the Corso letters; the notebooks and journals that chronicle desperate attempts to rekindle a poetic spirit all but destroyed by what must be done to earn a living. An excursion to Powell’s turned up Robert Bernard Martin’s biography Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart and the Norton Critical Edition of the poems. To date I have read several shorter poems and am slogging through “In Memoriam,” not much taken with any of it apart from “Ulysses.” Of the poems, more anon. The life is another matter.

Alfred (1809–1892) was the fourth son of twelve children, the first of whom died in infancy, and was followed by four more boys and four girls in the family of George Tennyson, an embittered provincial clergyman, and Elizabeth, “easy-going, unworried by details, and more than a little feckless about running the household.” Martin refers to “their disastrous life together” (p. 15). George was forced by his father, also George, into the clergy by way of profession. The elder George was an old tyrant whose correspondence reflects “three recurrent concerns: money, filial ingratitude and disobedience, and health” (Martin, p. 8). He never cared for his first-born son and namesake, depriving him of what would have been his due as elder son by making the younger Charles his major heir.

Dysfunctional is hardly an adequate description for the Tennyson clan, a collection of alcoholics and opium addicts, poseurs and pretenders to nobility, misfits and layabouts afflicted by epilepsy and gout, hypochondria, and varieties of lunacy, to which Alfred was not exactly an exception. His great-grandfather married a woman from a well-do-do family of aristocratic origins and a legacy of “aberrant mentality” (Martin, p. 2) that would be passed down accordingly. Alfred’s grandfather did well for himself by way of connections from his mother’s family, acting as agent or legal adviser to big landholders in the county. Much to his father’s disappointment, the younger George married a beautiful woman with no money. He drank heavily, threatened his wife and children with physical harm, was subject to delusion and black depression, and became increasingly unstable with the passing years. This was the poet’s heritage.

Tennyson was educated at Cambridge, matriculated at any rate, for though intelligent he showed little more interest in his studies and making his way in the world than had his father. As poet though, he was precocious from an young age, and with his brother Charles, not without talent himself, in 1827 published a collection titled Poems by Two Brothers. He soon impressed his circle at Cambridge with his talent. That circle included Arthur Henry Hallam, the great friend of Tennyson’s youth, who himself impressed everyone as the most brilliant of the group.

While determined that poetry was his career, the only occupation to which he was ever inclined, young Tennyson was generally indifferent to publication. A thin skin for criticism and anxiety about rejection had something to do with this, as did a tendency to indolence that ran in the family. Encouraged by Hallam and friends, who readily proclaimed his genius, Tennyson put out Poems, Chiefly Lyrical in 1830 and Poems in 1832, albeit after hedging and procrastination. Neither volume produced much by way of sales, the latter earning only vicious criticism from the likes of Edward Bulwer (later Bulwer-Lytton) and the Quarterly Review‘s John Wilson Croker, infamous for his brutal review of Keats’s “Endymion” two decades earlier.

Nonetheless, Tennyson early on acquired a reputation as an up-and-coming poet. It was an era when eminent people traveled in the same or least concentric circles. Among friends and acquaintances were numbered some of the leading lights of the day, Edward Fitzgerald, Thomas Carlyle, Robert Browning, Hallam’s friend William Gladstone, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Makepeace Thackeray. Tennyson met Wordsworth and was acknowledged by him as the premier poet of his era.

His was something of a vagabond existence during the 1830s, what was described as “a kind of genteel vagrancy” (Martin, p. 288), crashing with friends, sprawled on chair or sofa, feet propped up on the furniture, indifferent to decorum, incessantly smoking the cheapest and foulest tobacco from a dirty little pipe. While not well off at this time, Tennyson was by no means as impoverished as he seems to have thought himself using his wealthy friends as a measure. He received an annual gift of £100 from an aunt and in 1843 Fitzgerald began giving him £300 annually. Martin writes,

Apparently it never occurred seriously to Tennyson that he might take any employment, although Carlyle and Fitz were constantly assuring him that his poetry would be vastly improved if he had some other occupation. An argument on the point would have been graceless at best while accepting Fitz’s help, but it was hard to swallow the advice from a man like FitzGerald who had never done a day’s work in his life.

At the bottom of a common attitude like that of Carlyle and FitzGerald lay a covert disbelief in the value of poetry, an assumption that it could occupy no more than a segment of the mind of a reasonable man. Because he was physically, and sometimes intellectually, slothful, Tennyson was constantly being confronted by those who thought he would be better occupied by taking more conventional employment and leaving his poetry for hours of leisure. Had he taken the advice of such counsellors, Tennyson would never have written any more poetry, for with him it was the whole concentration of a life or it was nothing. (Martin, p. 270)

Although priggish and puritanical in matters of sex, Tennyson was to a degree dissolute in other respects. He smoked prodigiously, a habit frequently commented on, and by 1835 he was drinking more than was prudent, as Martin has it, and did so until near the end of his life when he gave up port because of his gout. Friends remarked that Tennyson found alcohol necessary; “[Coventry] Patmore said that he needed at least a bottle of port daily for stimulation, although he was not particular about its quality but simply bought whatever was available at the nearest public house.” (Martin, p. 321)

Fitzgerald once wrote that “Alfred Tennyson has written to announce that he will pay me a visit here: and I have written back to stipulate that it shall be a very short one.” He offers this description from 1840:

When I got back to my lodgings, I found A. Tennyson installed in them: he has been here ever since in a very uneasy state: being really ill, in a nervous way: what with an hereditary tenderness of nerve, and having spoiled what strength he had by incessant smoking &c.—I have also made him very out of sorts by desiring a truce from complaints and complaining—Poor fellow: he is quite magnanimous, and noble natured, with no meanness or vanity or affectation of any kind whatever—but very perverse, according to the nature of his illness—So much for Poets, who, one must allow, are many of them a somewhat tetchy race—. (Martin, p. 250)

Another sketch comes from Carlyle, describing the poet for Emerson:

One of the finest looking men in the world, a great shock of rough dusty-dark hair; bright-laughing hazel eyes; massive aquiline face, most massive yet most delicate, of sallow brown complexion, almost Indian-looking; clothes cynically loose, free-and-easy;—smokes infinite tobacco. His voice is musical metallic,—fit for loud laughter and piercing wail, and all that may lie between; speech and speculation free and plenteous: I do not meet, in these late decades, such company over a pipe!—We shall see what he will grow to. He is often unwell; very chaotic,—his way is thro’ Chaos and the Bottomless and Pathless; not handy for making out many miles upon. (Martin, p. 242)

As it was, fortune turned for Alfred in middle age. In 1850 marriage followed fast on the heels of the publication of In Memoriam, his elegies for Hallam, each event a resounding success, bringing with it family, celebration as England’s greatest living poet, the poet laureateship.

Eliot had it that Tennyson was one of those poets that crop up now and then who “by some strange accident expresses the mood of his generation, at the same time that he is expressing a mood of his own which is quite removed from that of his generation.” Perhaps my temper is just not in tune with the temper of Tennyson or of his generation, and never with Eliot. Tennyson made friends and favorable impressions readily. While his family history and circumstances make for good reading and the circles within which he traveled are noteworthy, he does not strike me as particularly intriguing personally, intellectually, or as poet. I am surprised that I do not feel greater sympathy for a man so determined to devote his life to his calling as poet. I would think that would be right up my alley. Maybe the life would hold more for me if the poems held more—and vice versa. As it stands, the project is worth taking on but not delving into much more deeply unless I happen on in the poems something  of Bloom’s strangeness that I have not found thus far. I remain open to the possibility.

References

Harold Bloom, The Western Canon. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994.

T.S. Eliot, “In Memoriam,” in Tennyson’s Poetry. W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.

Robert Bernard Martin, Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart. faber and faber, 1983.

 

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch
by Donna Tartt
Little, Brown, 771 pp.

There is nothing quite like being gloriously lost in a book, the kind I might take to bed to read just a few pages before dropping off at the close of a wearying day, only to be still at it fifty pages on, thinking, good grief, I need to put this down and get to sleep. The kind where brimming over with enthusiasm I might gush to a friend, “You’ve got to read this!” The kind that when the copy read was borrowed, I nonetheless feel a tremendous urge to purchase a copy for my own bookcase. That kind of book.

I cannot take up the topic without engaging in fond memories. From teenage years, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and The Lord of the Rings. On to college and after, Dostoevksy’s big four. The Plague by Albert Camus. On the Road, at least six readings while in my twenties. Some retain their magic with the years. Dostoevsky is rich with new wonders each time I go to him. Not so Kerouac. I have picked up On the Road several times in recent decades without going far with it. I do not see myself returning to Asimov. There are also any number of books and writers I read with considerable pleasure without experiencing quite the same enchantment, some of which I consider quite important. Samuel Beckett halloos out to me here with a different enchantment.

The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s first novel, made quite a splash when it was published in 1992. Whatever I may have read about the novel at that time did not draw me in. Tartt’s second novel, The Little Friend (2002), passed me by without notice, as did The Goldfinch, despite considerable hullaballoo that accompanied its publication as “perhaps the most anticipated book of the fall [2013] season, a 771-page bildungsroman that has been called dazzling, Dickensian and hypnotizing.” (Julie Bosman, Writer Brings in the World While She Keeps It at Bay: Donna Tartt Talks, a Bit, About ‘The Goldfinch,’ The New York Times, 20 October 2013).

The Goldfinch popped up on my radar this spring when Sylvia Lindman recommended it and loaned me her copy. I take her recommendations to heart, but as usual I had a number of things going at the time, so did not plow into The Goldfinch right away. First I polished off two Scandinavian crime novels checked out of the library—Jo Nesbø, The Redeemer, and Arnaldur Indridason, Hypothermia, lest anyone get the mistaken impression that my reading is all highbrow foofaraw. The Tennyson project, the Being and Time course, and Posthumous Keats (Stanley Plumly) were moved to the back burner.

Little did I suspect how far back Tennyson and the others would be pushed as I became gloriously lost in The Goldfinch. When was the last time a book took me like this? I cannot recall. Tartt goes after grand themes and big ideas—love, friendship, loss, how it is that art speaks and matters to us, meaning of life and, more particularly, as she noted in an interview with Charlie Rose, what is the good life, the life truly worth living—and she pulls it off. Tartt is adept at creating dramatic tension by foreshadowing an inevitable denouement where things will not turn out well for people about whom we care, while precisely what that outcome will be and how things will play out to reach it remain to be seen. At the same time, there is a remarkable display of erudition and learning that never comes off as pedantic, pretentious, or in any way forced; rather, this aspect comes out every bit as naturally as the most ordinary of descriptions, stuff the author knows and the characters would know, and for the reader almost always provocative and interesting.

The novel opens with the narrator holed up in a hotel in Amsterdam, where he dreams of his mother for the first time in years. “Things would have turned out better if she had lived…. Her death was the dividing mark: Before. And after.” This leads to an account of events on the day of her death fourteen years earlier, when Theo, the protagonist, was thirteen. The tale unfolds at its own pace with an accumulation of detail that draws the reader into the world of Theo and his mother, their personalities, relationship, and lives, without ever dragging. To the contrary, we turn the pages quickly as we can to find out what will happen as tension builds moment by moment to remarkable effect.

From the death of his mother, Theo’s memories take us through his life from New York to Las Vegas, back to New York, and finally Amsterdam. He is bright, a gifted student who does not always apply himself, as they say, with a knack for making choices that may not be the best, not that he has much by way of adult guidance or role model. His life takes on a life of its own, never altogether in his control, marked by pain, loss, regret, a litany of betrayal. The Goldfinch lost a bit of its luster about three-quarters of the way into it as Theo’s actions became ever more problematic. Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley comes to mind, though Theo is more sympathetic and, for all his flaws, at a far remove from Ripley the amoral sociopath. He is caught up in classically noir, or maybe just classic, circumstances not of his own making that severely constrain his options, yet what happens is also partly consequence of acts for which he bears responsibility and partly simple human frailty—sometimes we just mess up. He is responsible for his actions and he is at the mercy of fate and chance. Because he is engaging and likable, I want him to be a better person than he is, almost cringing as I watch him follow the path of least resistance to one poor choice and foolish move after another. My journal note at this point, as I thought I might have to revise my estimation of the book slightly downward, concluded, “A fine novel nonetheless, just slightly less enchanting at this stage.”

The tale found its way again in short order. All sorts of outcomes are imaginable as the climax approaches. Each that I could imagine was at least a bit of a letdown in one way or another. Tartt nailed it. The Goldfinch is nothing less than a tour de force. Those who rank Donna Tartt with the finest writers of our time get no argument from this quarter. I look forward a go at The Short History as soon as I make some headway with the ongoing projects.

memo from the editorial desk

Minor edits were made to this essay after it was posted. The edits were not substantive.

Something Draws Us In

…It comes, I tell you, immense with gasolined rags and bits of wire and old bent nails, a dark arriviste, from a dark river within.—Gregory Corso, How Poetry Comes to Me

Gregory Corso’s Gasoline comes with this epigraph and an introduction by Allen Ginsberg, who characteristically waxes enthusiastic about his friend:

Corso is a great word-slinger, first naked sign of a poet…. He wants a surface hilarious with ellipses, jumps of the strangest phrasing picked off the streets of his mind like “mad children of soda caps.”

Corso’s poems display a love of language and joyous playfulness whose capacity to amuse and amaze light up the everyday world. He does not transport us to an enchanted realm so much as he opens up the enchantedness of those realms where we customarily find ourselves.

Jack Kerouac catches some of this in a passage from the early pages of On the Road, when he speaks of

the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

That “awww!” expresses something of what first sparked my enchantment with poetry, as when Corso describes a weird happening in Haarlem:

Four windmills, acquaintanceships,
were spied one morning eating tulips.
Noon
and the entire city flips
screaming: Apocalypse! Apocalypse!

We find it in surrealism in these images cited by André Breton in Manifesto of Surrealism:

The ruby of champagne. (Lautréamont)

A church dazzling as a bell. (Philippe Soupault)

In Rrose Sélavy’s sleep there is a dwarf issued from a well who comes to eat her bread at night. (Robert Desnos)

Poems speak to us through elements of rhythm, rhyme, figuration, form, and other means, with the power to persuade through the emotions apart from or even against rational argument and literal meaning of the text. Ginsberg’s exclamation, “But what is he [Corso] saying? Who cares?!” is facile and apt to divert us from more important points. That initial “awww!” does not come to much if a poem delivers nothing more. A strong poem has something to say, although this something may lose all power to move us when stated explicitly. It may defy explicit statement altogether.

Something draws us into a poem, some intriguing element that leads us to read on. Maybe it is Corso’s word-slinging, the striking surrealist image or metaphor, the rhythm of the lines, or other aesthetic elements, alone or in combination. Whatever it may be, while this immediate pleasure is not enough by itself to make a poem memorable or strong, it must be enough that we are intrigued to go on, to plough through passages in the longer poems of Wordsworth or Keats that are anything but enchanting or wrestle with the cognitive difficulties presented by Emily Dickinson, deferring immediate pleasure for the promise of a greater reward.

There is more to the poems that genuinely matter than the “awww” of an initial enchantment, however much we relish it, and however elusive those deeper pleasures may be.

For Poesy alone can tell her dreams
With the fine spell of words alone can save
Imagination from the sable charm
And dumb enchantment. Who alive can say,
Thou art no Poet—mayst not tell they dreams?”
Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved
And been well-nurtured in his mother tongue,
Whether the dream now purposed to rehearse
Be poet’s or fanatic’s will be known
When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave.
—John Keats, “The Fall of Hyperion”

 

Ginsberg and Snyder Part II: Engaged Lives

I wrote Ginsberg and Snyder: hipsters, poets, scholars… in precipitous haste because I wanted to post it before Gary Snyder’s appearance at Reed College on 7 February. Following are a few additional comments and observations.

The relationship between the life and the work of any artist is a tricky business. If memory serves, Gregory Corso said that if the poet is interesting, the poem will be interesting. I am unable to locate the source, which I thought was either the Unmuzzled Ox interview from the early 1980s or maybe Neeli Cherkovski’s Whitman’s Wild Children but found it in neither when I skimmed through them. If not Corso, someone must have said it. Be that as it may, the proposition does not bear scrutiny. It is not uncommon to come across interesting people, and nice people, decent, upstanding, intelligent people, whose poems are of little interest. Turn the statement around, though, and it may be more generally accurate. If the poems are interesting, the poet is interesting. The ways in which the poet is interesting are as varied as poems and people. John Keats, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Emily Dickinson led quite different kinds of lives and may be interesting in quite different ways, though with the common ground that their thoughts, intellectual and spiritual, as always in a broad sense of that term, and their sense of themselves and their poems is always an aspect of what is of interest.

This topic can hardly be taken up today without getting into the matter of character. To be able look on the artist and the work with equally high regard is a wonderful thing. It is also a luxury. Artists are as flawed as the rest of us. We could start with Corso, who means much to me as a poet, but if you had him over for dinner you might be well advised to strip search him before he left. As poet John Berryman, no moral avatar himself, put it, Rilke is a jerk. We need not go into Shelley and Byron; that could occupy volumes. The uncomfortable fact of the matter is that if we reject the work of artists whose lives are less than exemplary, we deprive ourselves of much art that matters to us greatly.

We read biographies and letters of poets for much the same reasons we read poems, criticism, philosophy, history, and much else, because we want to know, not because we are looking for role models. If we find a life inspirational, so much the better, but ’tis almost a happy accident, not in the nature of things. As the saying goes, nothing human is foreign to us. The shadow of Keats’ life hovers in the background when I read “…in spite of all / Some shape of beauty moves away the pall / From our dark spirits”; as does Emily Brontë’s in the lines “I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading / It vexes me to choose another guide.” With other poets and other poems, the life may illumine not so much.

Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder are poets of engagement. Theirs is not a poetry of ivory tower or enchanted vale, nor of libraries and lecture halls, though I think it fair to surmise they must have felt at ease in these places, for they read and studied widely. Concerns and themes that animate their work as poets crop up time and again in the letters. Poetry and the life are an integrated whole as they take on the project that occupies us all, making a place for ourselves in the world and being accountable for it. What is it to live a good and fully human life? How am I to go about it in a world of human values mangled by inhuman economic and political systems in thrall to wealth and power, in face of all too human fear, ignorance, weakness, and greed, amid dizzying extremes of wealth and want? What am I to make of this human creature I find myself to be? And what of this community of which I am bound to be part? What am I to stand for and how do I stand for it? What is to be done?

We do not turn to poets for answers to these questions. Nor, I think, do we turn to them as role models except perhaps insofar as their striving is our striving, their falling short our falling short. Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder continue to matter because in their lives and in their words they bear witness to the spark that is human spirit, this thirsting, questing, aching, ever unfinished creature that each of us is.

There is what Snyder refers to in the preface to the selected letters and elsewhere as the real work, “working out the details, trail routes, land-management plans—and that’s what the ‘real work’ is.” What is to be done is to do as best we can, without false hope or illusion, yet never submissively resigned to fate. Says Snyder, looking back, “It was all just dust in the wind, but also, the changes were real.”

 

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