The Puritan in Me
It must be the puritan in me that responds to the challenge to purify the language of the tribe. Presumably even the lowliest poet can assist in this job, acting like a small auxiliary filter in the water supply system. I should like to think that my poems, whatever else they have failed to be and do, have been performing this useful service.
But I am not at all sure. I am not even clear as to just what impurities I should be trying to purify out. If it is the living language we want, then I should be favoring the loose slangy lingo of the man in the street and filtering out whatever is precise, elegant, and correct. As I say, I am not at all clear.
Even if I knew what I was supposed to be filtering out, how could I be sure that I was actively connected with the main system and that I was purifying anything beyond my own poor poems?
Several years ago someone tried to put Emily Dickinson through a computer and found that it didn’t work. Not very well, anyway.
I should like to think that incompatibility with computers was one proof of the poet, but I’m afraid that the situation may be changing. Just give the computers a few more years.
In our rejection of the ivory tower we may be overlooking the virtues of towers not ivory.
A tower is not necessarily or primarily for retreat or escape. From a tower one will probably see more of the actual world than from the ground. And in a tower, above the noise and fumes of traffic, one might find the right place for any serious solitary work. Such a tower could be of any convenient material.
Will No One Stand Up for the Adjective?
One should associate with nouns and verbs, we are told, and not with adjectives. With nouns and verbs one can’t go wrong, but adjectives lead to excess. The fewer adjectives the better.
Dear me, dear me, when I think of all the beautiful adjectives I know—the fascinating, delectable, mouth-watering, irresistible adjectives. Must I renounce them all? And must I also eliminate all those little every-day, useful-aboutthe-house adjectives too? If so, how can I make clear that it is hot water I want, not cold water? How can I draw the line between good men and bad men? How can I tell the story of the Three Bears?
A Passable Sonnet
The phrase catches my eye. Just what would a passable sonnet be? And how could one confidently distinguish a passable sonnet from one not passable?
Would a passable sonnet be a correct sonnet that followed faithfully all the regulations? Or might it be a bold sonnet bent on breaking the rules? Would it be a graceful, elegant sonnet facing the past, or a living, breathing sonnet confronting the present?
The phrase comes from “The Academic Revolution,” whose amiable authors suggest that for a Ph.D. candidate in English it might be more to the point to write a passable sonnet than to learn Anglo-Saxon. They do not go so far as to recommend that a passable sonnet be required of the candidates; they merely suggest that he be required to try to produce one. In other words, both passable and non-passable sonnets would pass muster if the candidate really tried.
Caught in a Corner
It was at a cocktail party that a certain woman caught me in a corner.
“What is the difference between a non-poem and an antipoem?” she demanded.
At first I couldn’t be quite sure of what she was saying, such being the noise around me. But by placing her mouth close to mine and repeating the question with assurance, she made herself heard.
“I really don’t know,” I shouted.
“Oh, come now,” she coaxed, offering me a soft dip with crackers, “have a try.”
“May I ask if you are asking for information? Or do you know the answer and are only sounding out my ignorance?”
“I consider that an unfair question,” she retorted. “Not to say impertinent.”
“Forgive me,” I pleaded. “But if I must reveal my ignorance, I’d say that a non-poem was anything not a poem, a poached egg on toast, for example.”
I could see that this answer displeased her violently, but having just filled her mouth with soft dip and crackers, she was unable for the moment to do anything but look angry.
“Whereas an anti-poem,” I continued, “might be a bullet or a puff of poison gas.”
“Isn’t he bright!” she chirped, having recovered her speech. “But can’t you do better than that?”
“I’ll try,” I said. “It seems to me that the difference between a non-poem and an anti-poem is a perfect question for a woman to catch a man in a corner with.”
With a very cool smile she turned her back.
The Death of Poetry
“If poetry is really dead,” I told him, “then my own poetry is dead and I myself along with it—at least as a poet.”
He smiled a little to himself before saying anything. “You still write poems, don’t you, Robert?”
“I still write,” I replied.
“And your poems are still being published? And people still buy your books and read them? As long as that happens, poetry can’t be altogether dead, can it?”
“I hope not,” I said.
“And what is true of you is true of thousands of other poets. If poetry really is dead, its corpse is strangely full of life and kicking.”
“Perhaps poetry is only dying,” I suggested. “Dead or dying—it doesn’t seem to make much difference to some people. But a dying man can do all sorts of things a dead man can’t: draw up a will, make his peace with God, and kiss his wife good-bye. If poetry is only dying, perhaps I can still sing a few small swan songs.”
“Of course you can,” he assured me. “Of course.”
“But if poetry is already dead,” I said, “I do wish they’d give it decent burial.”
Suddenly a new thought seemed to strike him. “Have you ever wondered why this announcement of death comes with such assurance? And so untearfully?”
“No,” I said. “Why does it?”
“Well, take Blank as an example. Having dried up as a poet himself, he mistakes his own death for the death of poetry.”
“Do you really think so?” I asked.
“Or take Double Blank. He still writes, but his poetry belongs to a time long past. Because his sort of poetry is dead, he assumes all poetry is.”
“Aren’t you being a bit unkind?” I asked.
“Certainly,” he said. “The unkindest thing in all the world is truth.”
For several minutes we were both silent.
“But we haven’t touched the real problem,” he mused. “The trouble with poetry is not that it is dead or dying. The trouble with poetry is that it hasn’t died often enough. If poetry doesn’t keep dying, how can it go on being reborn?”
J. P. K.
Suppose Keats had a middle name, John Pennington Keats. Or more Britishly, J.P. Keats. Or possibly, J. Pennington Keats, Jr.
The Trouble with Pegasus
The trouble with Pegasus is not that he is a horse and a very old horse to boot. The trouble with Pegasus is that he is a fraud and a fake.
If the familiar picture of him (such as is used by The Academy of American Poets) has any truth to it, Pegasus never flies, never even gets off the ground. He is represented as a husky beast worthy of plough or chariot, but his wings are those of a cupid.
The Trojan Horse was a fake too, but a fake that was soon found out. Pegasus still enjoys a fairly respectable reputation.
Am I too harsh? There are, of course, ways of defending Pegasus. One can say he was never intended really to fly but only to suggest flight, to symbolize flight, to dream of flying. Pegasus the dreamer, the sentimentalist. But this interpretation leaves him a fake still, albeit a fancy one.
A better defense is to say that once upon a time he actually did fly and kept on flying, but that for many years now his wings have been shrinking till they have become mere vestigial appendices. Pegasus is not so much a fraud as an anachronism.
Perhaps I am too harsh, and of course I am aware that everything I have been saying about Pegasus is being said by somebody or other about poetry itself.
He had called himself a seeker, but when the poem was in print “seeker” had become “sucker.”
He was very young at the time and suffered as only the very young can.
Years later it dawned on him that “sucker” was the better word.
When his poems were rejected by the first publisher he sent them to, he leaped from a high bridge. He was very young and very much the poet.
But he was fished out, brought back to life, and given dry clothing. And since something more was obviously needed, the Rotary Club took him under their wing. They arranged with a local bookstore for him to sit in a show window several hours a day and write poems for sale. It would be good for the poet and good for the bookstore.
The poet did not have the strength to say no. As far as he was concerned he had died and was now living a sort of future life in which he did not know or greatly care how to behave. He submitted.
So they took most of the books out of the window and put the poet in. He sat at a small table with typewriter before him. He sat with his back to the window. People outside could watch his back but could not see his face. They could
watch him write but could not see what he was writing. If
he seemed something of a goldfish, it was a goldfish who never had to look out of his bowl and meet the gaze of people looking in.
Since he had to make at least a show of writing, he began putting words down almost at random. Surprisingly they turned into little poems without much trouble on his part. Some were miniature love poems, others were seasonal observations, others still something else. He tried a few haiku and discovered that though hard to do very well they were not hard to do rather well. Indeed he gained such facility with haiku that he sometimes found he had written one before he was aware of it. He tried a sonnet.
When these poems, neatly typed, were displayed in the window, the crowd outside the window increased. People began coming in to buy. Prices were not too high, neither were they very low, for after all the buyer was not buying a mere copy, but the poem itself, the whole poem, the only copy, with which he was free to do anything he pleased except to publish it.
Before long the poet—such was his newfound confidence—was offering poems written to order, personalized poems. They would cost somewhat more, of course, than the readymade.
From every point of view the project was a success. It was more successful than even the Rotary Club had anticipated. In fact, it was almost too successful, for its very success was its ending. So adept had the poet become in dashing off salable poems that he didn’t need all the time allotted for it. He found time for himself and, without telling anyone what he was doing, used that time for his own writing. His new poems proved better than those in his first (unpublished) book; and when they were submitted to the publisher who had rejected that book, they were accepted. The poet left the bookstore window. He had graduated.
If this seems too fantastic to believe, consider what that bookstore window had done for the young poet. First, it had given him the gratification of being noticed. Second, it had given him a sense of importance, of being needed, of belonging. Third, it had given him abundant practice in his art. And fourth, it had given him the pleasure of earning money from his art.
But this was not all. Though no one had foreseen it or was quite aware of it when it happened, that window had given the poet everything a poet needs. He had a first-rate typewriter and plenty of paper, he had a lamp that shed on him a privacy of light, he had a comfortable chair. Not only was he undisturbed and undistracted, he had the assurance of remaining so hour after hour. Yet all the while that he was busy at his typewriter, undisturbed and undistracted, he knew that close behind him, though unheard and unseen, was his audience, curious, envious, mocking, hopeful, asking him, begging him, daring him, defying him, to write.
In the year that Shelley died Matthew Arnold was born. In the year that Matthew Arnold died T. S. Eliot was born. In the year that T. S. Eliot died…
The Great World
Doesn’t every poet secretly hope that at least one of his poems will one day rise from the printed page and go forth to action in the great world? If it is too much to hope that it will be sung on the lips of armies like the Marseillaise or the Battle Hymn of the Republic, or that it will save a superannuated battleship from demolition as did Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem “Old Ironsides,” then at least that some Congressman from the Middle West, reading his local newspaper at breakfast along with the New York Times, may come upon it as he sips his coffee and decide then and there to enter it in The Congressional Record.
Whenever my poems are called “simple,” they are never called simply “simple” but always “deceptively simple.” Wherein lies the deception?
Being simple to read, do they seem to have been simple to write? Is this where the deceiving lies?
Or do they only seem simple to read? Are they really not simple at all?
Or are they both truly simple and truly poetry, and is it the possibility of this combination that deceives, or rather undeceives, the reader?
Could calling a poem “deceptively simple” be a little deceptively simple itself?
The Robert Poets
Robert would seem a good name for a poet today, at least here in America. Consider the versatile Robert Penn Warren of Yale, the classical Robert Fitzgerald of Harvard, the impressive and weighty Robert Kelly of the circuits, and the towering Robert Bly of Minnesota. Yes, consider Robert Bagg, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Robert Pack, Robert Phillips, Robert Tucker, Robert Wallace, and who knows how many other Robert poets that do not come to mind at the moment? Could it be that the Roberts, by a sort of unconscious conspiracy, are taking over American poetry in the second half of the twentieth century?
Across the water the Roberts that one thinks of first are from the past: Robert Herrick, Robert Burns, Robert Browning, and Robert Bridges. But the present is not unrepresented, for the protean figure of Robert Graves is surely worth half a dozen ordinary Roberts.
The publication of Collected Poems must be an ordeal with the best of luck, an ordeal which most poets, of course, never have a chance to undergo. Putting all one’s eggs into one basket may be dangerous but not so dangerous as putting all one’s poems into one book.
The original books, the little volumes, out of which Collected Poems are made, leave the poet room to maneuver. If his third volume was panned by reviewers, he can fall back on his first and second for support. And he can lean forward on his fourth and the future. Even Selected Poems give him some leeway. But with Collected Poems there is no loophole for escape. He is all there, all sewed up.
If you study the prefaces to Collected Poems, you will see how various poets meet the problem. Sandburg entertains the reader with a long ramble so readable that one overlooks the self-defense. Frost gives us four nuggety pages. Stevens not a word. It is as if there had been a preface to his Collected Poems but he had waved a wand and it had vanished.
Anthologists are by derivation flower-gatherers, but flower-gathering hardly suggests the seriousness of their pursuit. It would be more accurate to liken them to bees, whose seriousness and industry are proverbial.
Like bees they are innumerable. No one knows how many may be working at any time, for anthologists often work secretly for years before coming into the light.
Perhaps they are more like moles or earthworms than bees, laboring out of sight and sound but destined ultimately to change the very ground we stand on. In the long run anthologists can be profoundly subversive.
For after the critics have decided who the real poets are—the pure, the important, the immortal—the anthologists come along with a rather different answer. They are less interested in poet than in poem; and less interested in the pedigree of a poem than in its readability. If critics are aristocrats, writing for the few about the few, anthologists are usually democrats, writing for the many and hoping for a good sale.
They will, of course, include the immortal poets whenever possible; but they are just as willing to include the mortal. Yeats will doubtless be there, but next door to Yeats will be someone we never heard of before. And even Yeats may be reduced to one little eight-line poem to a squirrel.
For a strictly topical anthology, say, about baseball, the anthologist will have to be very eclectic and wide-ranging indeed. Baseball poems must be taken where they can be found, with little help from Shakespeare, Milton, or T.S. Eliot. In a baseball book Marianne Moore will be happily on one page, but just as happy to keep her company will be some newspaper poet, some country versifier.
Thus the critical canon, little by little, gets undermined in spite of the critics, who are, by any count, far fewer than the anthologists.
I remember so well how he looked when he said it and how they looked when they heard it. They had asked him the old chestnut:
“Do you write for yourself or for an audience?”
“Neither,” he answered mildly.
Sputtering surprise. “Well, who—who doyou write for?”
“I write for God.”