Bruce Boone and H.D.

H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) by way the Beinecke Rare Books Library

When thinking back to Sagetrieb’s long legacy of special issues devoted to single authors, one would be remiss not to remember the journal’s devotion to the modernist poet H.D. (1886-1961), of which four issues were devoted solely to scholarship on her work (more than any other single author).

In the first of these special issues, Sagetrieb 6.2 (Fall 1987), edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Bruce Boone wrote a spiritual exegesis on H.D.’s work entitled: “H.D.’s Writing: Herself a Ghost.” While the piece is brief in page count, its probings into the mind and work of H.D. run deep. It begins with Boone acting as host to the spirit of H.D. The piece then slides into a kind of interpretive channeling  of both text and of life, making what seems to this reader an argument for a reading of the life-text (or body of texts) that could only be done by a true devotee:

Do you believe you’re dead when you’re dead? Far from it! she’d answer — returning from Egyptian Karnak to London, presenting in exclamatory haste her great discovery to her friend Pearson — London is Karnak — you know? Meaning partly the Blitz is  going on outside her window. When a roof falls down on you in London, this reveals something (think of Virginia Woolf resolving on, successfully attempting suicide because of an intuition that comes to her: this is WWI all over again!) And when ruins come to light in the sand — that’s when you know something.[...] Negating vampires emerge from the tomb in the form of H.D.’s mystical wish that meaning exist where none is or can be. [...] Experience means the present for the French author. For her, a glistening goal

In closing, and in true homage to H.D., Boone reaches out, and through, to the historical and epistemological limits of thought, the slips and hollow of interpretation. He then asks:

Will those who read these words of mine when I’m dead one day empty them of the meaning I intend for them — in fairness proportional to me — as I’ve done with her?

Duncan and Sagetrieb

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(by way of The Poetry Foundation)

In keeping with our celebration of the work of Sagetrieb, and with the recent release of Lisa Jarnot’s biography Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus and the publication of The Collected Early Poems & Plays, it seemed apt to look back at the special issue of Sagetrieb 4.2-3 (Fall/Winter 1985) which was dedicated to the life and work of Duncan. Contributing authors included Robert Creeley, Ronald Johnson, George Butterick, and many others.

In addition to remembrances of, essays on the work, and what were then unpublished documents by Duncan, this issue included an interview conducted by Michael André Bernstein and Burton Hatlen. We find in this interview Duncan, near the end of his life, speaking openly of the many strifes and trials undergone by him and his fellow Black Mountain poets in the name of poetry. He also speaks at length about his writing process, and in the selection below he speaks directly about the collage method learned from his lifelong partner Jess Collins:

RD: Certainly the collage method is how I saw Pound. Well, when I say “certainly,” I think Pound didn’t see himself using the collage method. There is a good deal of the reincarnation method in The Cantos. Collage is not reincarnation: it is the fact that everything is in the universe so you know that way out beyond your understanding of it everything has a harmony and I don’t think that is something Pound ever . . . nor do I, either, surely none of us do, have a full picture at the present moment. [. . .] Let’s say we’ve got a photographic level which is always very important but I think that photographic level leads to other levels of the spirit.

Later Duncan talks too of the strong influence (or counter-influence) of Pound on his own line and syntax:

RD: When I sent Heavenly City, Earthly City to Pound, he wrote back and said, “Why do you still have to go through that? I thought I went through all that, and you would never have to do it.” And yet in my talks with Pound, the one thing I wanted test him on . . . I knew that he had rejected Finnegans Wake with disgust, absolute disgust, and I knew why but I wanted to ferret it out. Because where Pound has an uncompromised line, I have a constantly compromised line and finally break syntax so that there’s not even a commitment to syntax, and that means every phrase can be compromised by the coexistence of other phrases.

A Letter to the Editor from Robert Creeley

In Sagetrieb 9.1-2 (Spring-Fall 1990), in response to an interview with Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley corrected some misstatements on Levertov’s part regarding his early response to William Carlos Williams, The interview was conducted by Terry Crouch, my colleague at the University of Maine, and was published in the previous number. Here is the passage at issue:

Crouch: Creeley said that he . . . based much of his early style on Williams, and then was amazed when he heard Williams read and found that he didn’t pause at the line-breaks.

Levertov: I have something to say about that. I don’t know when Creeley first heard Williams read, but the recordings, I think, all post-date his first stroke. And that must be taken into account because he no longer had complete control. I don’t think that Creeley heard Williams read much before I first met Williams, because he hadn’t met Williams more than a year or some months before I first met him, I’m pretty certain. And at that time Williams didn’t have much control of his voice. He paused involuntarily, and had difficulty getting to some words. The other thing is, and you can only take my word for it, because there aren’t any living witnesses, but when I would read, at his place, poems of his own to him, Williams fully approved of the way in which I read them, and I always read them paying strict attention to line-breaks. And so I would really take issue with Bob about that.

The involuntary pausing that Levertov mentions would seem to indicate, if anything, an increased attention to the line break. But whatever; his style of reading can be discovered on one’s own from the recordings at PennSound. Williams suffered his first stroke in 1951; there are recordings of “To Elsie” from 1942, 1945, 1950, 1950, 1952, 1952, 1954, and 1955 (follow along with the text). PennSound has also collated before and after readings of “This Is Just to Say” and “The Red Wheelbarrow.

Creeley’s letter to the editor identifies the 1942 reading as the crucial one for his reception of Williams, and he singles out the performance of “The Wind Increases” as the formative one for his poetics. The full response is reproduced below.

Page One:

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Page Two:

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Celebrating Sagetrieb

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Cover for the first issue of Sagetrieb, Spring 1982

Our next publication, about which more news will soon follow, is a Festschrift for the late Burton Hatlen, guest edited by Demetres Tryphonopoulos, combining Paideuma 40 and Sagetrieb 20. The latter journal has been dormant for several years, its planned last issue left languishing when Burt fell ill; but Sagetrieb deserved a better conclusion than this mere petering out, and we are pleased that our celebration of Burt’s life and work will include a version of his last editorial project: a collection of essays on George Oppen. The Festschrift also includes an essay on Sagetrieb by Kaplan Harris, acknowledging the good work performed by the journal and the end of the era in which that work was performed.

In the coming weeks, as we await the arrival of the Festschrift, we will celebrate Sagetrieb by noting some highlights from the issues. Their tables of contents and covers can be seen at our Sagetrieb blog (link).

This celebration of Sagetrieb will be informal and improvisational, ranging freely across the run of the journal in no particular order — we’ll be pulling issues off the shelf at random, so to speak. But to get things started, here are a few choice sentences from the inaugural issue, from the section titled “The Biographer.”

Cid Corman remembering Louis Zukofsky:

Like Olson he wanted to play teacher and critic to me. And as with Olson — I balked. It has simply been a thing with me to do my own dirty work.

Fielding Dawson with respect to Charles Olson:

He wanted to be used the way he liked — with advance warning. He wanted what he wanted in the way he wanted. I bet his mom spoiled him.

Grattan Freyer, from “Montale and His Friends”:

On one occasion it was announced at the Giubbe Rosse that everyone would take the day off and go for a walk in the country. I pictured a twelve-mile hike at the very least. We walked, six or eight of us, about three-and-a-half miles out of Florence to a little country inn, where we all ate an enormous meal in the open air. The conversation en route to the inn was about what we would find to eat there, and on the way back about what we had eaten.

Freyer’s essay ends with two translations, one of Montale made with the poet’s help, a lovely version of “Eastbourne”:

“God save the King” intone the trumpets
from a pavilion erected on piles
which line the passage of the sea as it rises
obliterating footprints
of horses in the wet sand
of the shore.

Coldly a wind assails me,
but a shimmering lights up the windows
and the whiteness of mica in the rocks
glistens.

BANK HOLIDAY . . . The long wave of my life
slides back
escaping, too sweetly, declining.
It grows late. Noises fall apart,
closed in softness.

They go in bath-chairs the mutilated,
accompanied by long-eared dogs,
children unspeaking, or dotards. (Perhaps
tomorrow all will seem a dream.)
And you too
will come, prisoner voice, liberated
spirit wandering,
bleeding voice, lost and given again
to my evening.

As a hotel-door revolves on its sections
brilliantly
— another responds with returning beam —
a merry-go-round enthralls me, which overturns
everything within its circle. My homeland!
I listening recognize your breathing,
I too stir myself and the day is thick with living.

Everything will seem in vain: even the power
which in its blinding flux brings together
the living and the dead, the trees and the breakers
and unwinds itself from you, for you. the holiday
has no pity. The band
blares out again while in the early darkness
a grace unfolds itself unarmed.

Conquering evil . . . The wheel does not rest . . .
You also knew about it, light-in-darkness.

On the burning land, whence you are
vanished at the first stroke of the bells, remains
only an enormous burning brand for what once was
BANK HOLIDAY.

James Wright (image by way of 9 Poetic Fingers)

James Wright (image by way of 9 Poetic Fingers)

One does not turn to James Wright for laughter, so it came as something of a surprise to find him writing a tribute to the Italian satirist Giuseppe Gioachino Belli. The tribute appears in Wright’s last collection, the posthumous This Journey (1982), and was fashioned in Belli’s own favored form, the sonnet, making it the second to last of Wright’s half-dozen and the first after many years, indeed the first after “Saint Judas” (1959), the celebrated title poem of Wright’s last book in which traditional form was the rule.[1]

Half a dozen is not a large number, but Wright made his mark in the sonnet before abandoning the form: his “Saint Judas” is one of 92 poems from the previous century chosen by Daniel Bromwich for American Sonnets (2005), a slender anthology from the Library of America.[2] Inspired by Belli or not, Wright’s return to the sonnet in This Journey, a book composed at the end of his life — he was dying of cancer at the time — must have functioned for the longtime reader of his work as a kind of rhyme, both well-prepared for and unexpected, yielding to a need, or at least desire, for formal closure, while offering up the pleasure of surprise.

The rhyme, it should be said, is not a couplet, but an envelope, coming after two decades of free verse, drawing a link between one kind of last book and another. The subject too creates a kind of envelope rhyme, drawing a link between two temporally disjunct figures: Wright wrote his doctoral thesis on Charles Dickens (and so, presumably, had an appreciation for humor, if not the gift or inclination to produce it), while Belli, a contemporary of the novelist, had Dickens’s ear for dialect and a comparable sympathy for the poor. Call it an off-rhyme, as Belli’s sympathy was not displayed with tenderness but outrage. His humor was decidedly populist: Belli brought a low comedy to bear on high subjects, most notably the popes (drawing the admiration of James Joyce), and expressed himself in the vulgar tongue of his native Trastevere — the language of Rome, Romanesco. Wright had his own love of the vulgar but his method was very nearly the opposite: he brought a high sense of tragedy to bear on the low — it was the darkness in Dickens to which he was drawn; and he expressed himself, even in free verse, in “a conspicuously mannered style” (quoting here from a review of This Journey) “derived neither from speech nor from traditionally fluent writing.”[3]

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Piazza Giuseppe Giacchino Belli in Rome (photo by Dr Martinus)

Given all this, it is not surprising that Wright should discover a tragic comedy in Belli. The one poet disdained, the other pursued, a project of dignification, but the two shared a deep appreciation of indignity’s power, though that power was mobilized in very different ways. Wright reflected on it, Belli conferred it. Wright’s tribute to Belli closes the circle, reflecting on the indignity conferred on Belli himself. This topic of reflection might, in other hands, at other times, produce something other than a tribute, but Wright had good reason to identify with Belli beyond the bare fact that both were poets. As his title indicates, Wright’s sonnet concerns the poet’s embrace by posterity, and Wright was aware, of course, in composing it that this embrace would soon be his own. Contemplating Rome’s monument to Belli, Wright saw that such tributes are a mixed blessing, and so decided to add his own prayer to the mix — his own inscription, as it were, on the monument to poetry that the sonnet itself represents:

Reading a 1979 Inscription
on Belli’s Monument

It is not only the Romans who are gone.
Belli, unhappy a century ago,
Won from the world his fashionable stone.
Where it stands now, he doesn’t even know.
Across the Tiber, near Trastevere,
His top hat teetered on his head with care,
Brushed like a gentleman, he cannot see
The latest Romans who succeed him there.

One of them bravely climbed his pedestal
And sprayed a scarlet ᴍᴇʀᴅᴀ on his shawl.
This afternoon, I pray his hidden grave
Lies nameless somewhere in the hills, while rain
Fusses and frets to rinse away the stain.
Rain might erase when marble cannot save.[4]

Not quite a prayer for oblivion, the poem extols the hidden and nameless, preferring the valet-like service of the rain (which fusses and frets over the dirtied gentleman) to the magisterial efforts of the stone. The stain here is not sin, but insult, yet that final word “save” does suggest a contrast between the humility of Christ and the majesty of the Church, a contrast with no small significance in Belli’s own poetry. The ironies are clear, so clear one might not take care to notice that this Christ-like rain is not tendering its care to Belli, who lies elsewhere, but to the Church — if I might put it that way — erected in his name. A river divides Belli from his posterity, and Wright, standing on this side, has already passed over in his care to the other.

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Ray Johnson cover for The Roman Sonnets of Giuseppi Gioachino Belli (Jargon Press, 1960) (image by way of With Hidden Noise)

Wright is not a poet with any presence in the NPF’s publications, and I find only one session in which his work was discussed at any of our conferences, but a few months ago, visiting Jamestown Community College, I found myself in a lunchtime conversation with the brother-in-law of Wright’s widow, and since then I’ve done some modest dipping in and out of Wright’s work. (The brother-in-law, I should say, was the president of the college, which made this the most interesting conversation I’ve ever had with an administrator.) Wright, in turn, led me to Belli, whose link to the NPF is, paradoxically, much stronger: Harold Norse’s lively translations were published by Jonathan Williams with an introduction by William Carlos Williams. That introduction is primarily concerned with language: Belli’s Roman dialect and the American idiom with which Norse created his translations. Williams is charmed by the use of such language by “the sonnet, of all forms, so used to being employed for delicate nuances of sound and sense.” I suspect he would not have had much use for Wright’s poem, though his summary of Belli’s accomplishment captures well the complex relation of high and low that Wright shares with Belli, and that Wright captured in his own way in his tribute:

The times were crude, especially so for the underdogs with whom these sonnets deal, but not so crude that they could not see themselves, in their imaginations, in high office. Belli saw it also and he knew how, politely, to bring them down — and up ! — to their betters by a knowledge of the language.[5]

A fair summary of Wright’s accomplishment too.

Notes

1 [Back to text] I take the figure six from Above the River: The Complete Poems, ed. Anne Wright (1990). Three appear in Wright’s first book, The Green Wall (1957): “To a Troubled Friend,” “To a Fugitive,” and “My Grandmother’s Ghost.” After these comes “Saint Judas,” and then, after long pause, two last sonnets appear in This Journey: Wright’s tribute to Belli and “May Morning,” the latter an experiment in which a rhymed and metered sonnet is run together as prose (as noted by Kevin Stein in James Wright: The Poetry of a Grown Man, 138-39 and 198 n. 21, crediting Michael Hefernan with the discovery). Conceivably, Wright also thought of “Listening to the Mourners” as a sonnet. Its fourteen irregular, unrhymed lines appear in Shall We Gather at the River (1968).

2 [Back to text] I mean the century leading up the anthology itself.

3 [Back to text] The reviewer is Alan Williamson, writing for The New Republic. See James Wright: The Heart of the Light, ed. Peter Stitt and Frank Graziano, 411.

4 [Back to text] Wright, Above the River, 325.

5 [Back to text] William Carlos Williams, “Preface,” The Roman Sonnets of Giuseppi Gioachino Belli, n.p.

Footnote to an Obituary

I guess this is our week for citing the New York Times. Yesterday I was going through the half-read papers, filling the recycling bin, and I noticed the following obituary:

Published on December 14, 2012. Click on the image for a legible text — or go to the online version (link).

Published on December 14, 2012. Click on the image for a legible text — or go to the online version (link).

The name rang a bell, but I am not an opera buff, so I guessed a Frank O’Hara reference. Which was close: Gloria Davy sang the libretto that James Schuyler wrote for Paul Bowles, about which my colleague Paul Bauschatz wrote a fine essay, “James Schuyler’s ‘A Picnic Cantata’: The Art of the Ordinary.” It appeared in The Scene of My Selves: New Work on New York School Poets, edited by Terence Diggory and Stephen Paul Miller, a book brought out by the NPF in 2001 (link).

The picture of Davy in the Times was taken four years after the premier of the Schuyler-Bowles collaboration, which occurred on March 24, 1954. Four singers performed: Davy and Martha Flowers were the sopranos; Mareda Gaither sang mezzo-soprano; Gloria Wynder, contralto. Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, who commissioned the piece, played piano. There was also a percussionist, Al Howard. Columbia then released a recording with this delightful cover:

Cover by way of Discogs (click here for album info and on the image for legible text).

Cover by way of Discogs (click here for album info and on the image for a larger view).

As the arrows indicate, Davy is sitting beside Schuyler, on his right, in the back row of the car. His libretto, apparently, also appears on the cover, bearing a dedication absent from the text in Collected Poems: “to Mrs. William Esty” —  arts patron Alice Swanson Esty. Her paper are kept at Bates College, and there’s Schuyler material included there [link]. I’ll have to make a day trip.

Paul Bauschatz

Paul Bauschatz

Schuyler’s libretto — his poem — is divided in six sections, the action of which is easily summarized: a surprise visit from friends, who propose a Sunday drive and picnic, then the planning of the picnic and the drive itself (section I); arrival and lunch (II); a reading of the Sunday paper, beginning with horoscope (III), followed by advice column (IV) and garden section (V); then the packing up and return home (VI). Given how much of this matter is supplied by a newspaper, it’s appropriate, I suppose, that the New York Times led me back to Schuyler’s poem. Or maybe not appropriate; but ironic, since the Times had no use for this text in ’54, characterizing it as nonsense, adding: “Absurdity can sometimes be delightful, but this … is merely absurd.” A judgment I find hard to fathom: Schuyler’s poem is a hymn, so to speak, to  “The Art of the Ordinary,” to quote the subtitle of Bauschatz’s essay. Yes, there are dizzying moments, especially if one wants to differentiate characters amid the lovely bubbling of voices. But absurd? Nonsensical? As Bauschatz notes, “Schuyler’s typical poetic practice presents an ordinary mind or minds, somewhat befuddled, trying to organize or make coherent sense of ordinary events in ways that also let us, his readers, partake in the organizing process.” The Times, obviously, had no interest in partaking.

Not in the fifties, anyway. A 1992 revival was more fortunate in its reviewers, with Bernard Holland bestowing his approval, after a fashion: “thin to the point of triviality, … this glassy-eyed account of four women on a picnic has a zany and wholly winning ingenuousness.”

Four women, one of them, once upon a time, Gloria Davy. I clipped her picture yesterday, and put the rest of the paper in the bin.

“methenamine eases the urine”

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From the December 11, 2012, edition of the New York Times (link)

Belatedly posting this odd sighting of Ezra Pound, which appeared in the letters column of “Science Times,” the Tuesday section of the New York Times. It responded to an article (link) that reported that antibiotics were proving ineffective in treating urinary tract infections in men, with harmful side effects when the treatment was prolonged. The letter writer, Ronald Macaulay (Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at Pitzer College, Claremont, CA), noted that methenamine is readily available as an alternative. His letter concludes: “Ezra Pound gave thanks for the benefits of methenamine in ‘The Pisan Cantos,’ in the days before antibiotics were common.” Not your expected authority, although I suspect no other literary figure has ever mentioned the drug (the OED, for instance, gives the same reference in its definition, the only non-scientist so cited).

Pound’s thanks for the drug comes in the first of the Pisan cantos, in a passage that is often cited, though not for this particular line:

and Mr Edwards superb green and brown
in ward No 4 a jacent benignity,
of the Baluba mask: “doan you tell no one
I made you that table”
methenamine eases the urine
and the greatest is charity
to be found among those who have not observed
regulations (74/454)[*]

The_Pisan_Cantos_300_452As Richard Sieburth notes in his annotated edition of The Pisan Cantos, “Mr Edwards” is Henry Hudson Edwards, an African American serviceman and fellow prisoner. On account of his race, Edwards is figured here as a Baluba mask, an African artifact of the sort Pound learned about from Leo Frobenius. The table, made from crate, is immediately linked to the “methenamine”: two instruments of kindness that Pound upholds with his allusion to Corinthians. “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” Greatest, perhaps, because it came to Pound from outside, faith and hope having been his inner resources. Charity, perhaps, for the rhyme with “benignity,” which, in light of the drug, can be seen as an easing of the poem’s own malignancy, an easing of the infection of anger (the gift table having served as a writing surface).

I find it meaningful that Pound credits the drug itself with charity, not the medic who dispensed it: my thought is that he wanted to avoid associating his guards with kindness, Perhaps, too, he wanted to hint at an Axis benignity. Only nine lines before, a German pharmaceutical factory is mentioned: “and the Farben works still intact.” This is the infamous I. G. Farben, broken up after the war for its role in various war crimes; and since its name means “colors,” there may be a tie-in too, poetically speaking, with the charity of Edwards, especially since Edwards is then described in terms borrowed from the German “works” of Frobenius.

The Wikipedia entry for the underlying chemical describes methenamine as a “white crystalline compound” having “a cage-like structure,” noting further: “It sublimes in a vacuum at 280 °C.” A description that serves quite nicely for the poem too.

Note

* [Back to text] Unfortunately, the indentations in the poem are lost in this blog format. Clicking on the linked reference will take you to a reproduction of the page.