Douglas Basford "Everything anticipates. My love.": A Preface with Comment on Williams, Agee, Pritts, Merini, & Platt
Miller Williams, Time and the Tilting Earth, LSU
James Agee, Selected Poems, Library of America, ed. Andrew Hudgins
Nate Pritts, The Wonderfull Yeare, Cooper Dillon
Alda Merini, Love Lessons, Princeton, tr. Susan Stewart
Alda Merini, I Am a Furious Little Bee, Hooke Press, tr. Carla Billiteri
"Tilting at windmills" is one of my favorite phrases of all time. I'm a big fan andrather unhappilypractitioner of futile effort. For example, I remember as a grade school kid I used to plunk down before my father's homemade tv cabinet, made of unstained wood and set on casters, reveling in the VHS recording I had of Don Quixote, the ballet. I played and replayed every scene with Mikhail Baryshnikov, noting and annotating the choreography on sheets of lined 3-punch notebook paper, dreaming that one day I could do the leaps with two twists, the grand pirouettes with such grace and panache. (Check it: tell me you wouldn't want to be able to do this, or this, or this.) Of course, I quit ballet not much after being trucked around to other cities in the South as one of the only boy dancers who could pair up with budding ballerinas. Let's just say that Tennesseean junior high ended a lot of other childhood hobbies, and not just mine.
The cacophonous crescendo of the music as Don Quixote is carried aloft by the windmill and "thrown" to the ground I can still hear today, though I no longer have the video and no one seems to have posted the clip on YouTube or elsewhere. In thinking through that motion, a galloping charge diverted into circular momentum, I started to see how often the intersection of linear and circular appeared in things that I loved as a kid. My father and I shared a love of steam locomotives. I loved that drawing a slash could distinguish a zero from an "o." Analog clocks interested me more than digital watches. I dug the sound of the solid metal ball running up the two rods in Shoot the Moon. I got myself in serious hot water as a young Boy Scout whimsically equating various symbols of major religions and political ideologies, many of which had the intersection of circles and lines. If people couldn't see eye-to-eye on things, I at least loved comparing the lines of peripheral vision in sketches drawn of man, cat, and mouse from above. In sports, I marveled at Dr. J, Magic Johnson, or Michael Jordan palming a basketball and holding it out at arm's length, gawked as Olympians spun their bodies about just right to fling a discus, shot put, or hammer across a field, and pitied poor Charlie Brown forever being stripped bare by his opponents landing stick to ball for punishing line drives that punched his body skyward into a lazy rotational lob in which his clothes seemed to come off by centripetal force rather than by the initial blow. I loved the juxtaposition of the linear radii, diameters, and chords one could draw on circles and the irrational number pi needed to calculate the circumference. Tangents, though, became my enduring interest, particularly when much later I came across Seamus Heaney's "Station Island" sequence, where in the last section, the shade of James Joyce impresses on the pilgrim Heaney to "live at a tangent."
Of course, in talking about lines and circles, I can just hear Eric Idle snickering and sidling up to me, "Sticks and holes, eh! Nudge, nudge, wink, wink!" My, what a phallogocentric imagination I have. Lovely, that.
I liked immensely the disequilibria that rollercoasters battered me with at Six Flags, Hershey Park, and Busch Gardens, but I always felt more aesthetically drawn to watching rides with geometric shapes, even if they were a bit tame. To the best of my memory, I don't recall riding any tilt-a-whirls, however. "Tilt-a-Whirl" makes neither the Oxford English Dictionary nor Webster's. It is a brand name, yes, as I'll discuss below, but that hasn't stopped us from xeroxing or wearing macintoshes. I'm sure the dictionary folks have their reasons.
They say "tilt" comes from the Old English tealt, meaning unsteady, shaky. The earliest record (though I could be mistaken) appears to be in the 8th- or 9th-century Old English abecedarian "Rune Poem," lines 63-66:
Lagu byþ leodum langsum geþuht,
gif hi sculun neþun on nacan tealtum
and hi sæyþa swyþe bregaþ
and se brimhengest bridles ne gymeð.
The 11th-century manuscript in which this poem appeared is among those that perished in the Cotton Library fire of 1731. What we have was the result of that ever-useful scholarly habit of copying things from archival material. Always back up your files, they say! Here's Bruce Dickins's translation from 1915:
The ocean seems interminable to men,
if they venture on the rolling bark
and the waves of the sea terrify them
and the courser of the deep heed not its bridle.
Given that it has been posited that the Rune Poem was originally mnemonic and didactic, that seems like a fair translation, though one wonders if "rolling" really does tealtum justice. There have been interpretations of the poem on the whole on religious grounds, namely that it shows distinct Christian influence. It's hard then not to read this against Matthew 8, Mark 4, or Luke 8 where the unnerved apostles are not so grimly determined to keep their ship from foundering as the last line suggests they should be. The key word here in locating the Christian reading is "seems": the ocean only seems "interminable" or, as we see below, "two-faced and brazen." It's only with Christ's famous scolding "Oh thee of little faith" that the apostles' attitudes shift. In the wrong way, as always: they "wonder" who this man is that has control over nature instead of contrasting the inconveniences of mortal life with the glory of the kingdom to come.
Regardless, in terms of the lyrical power to generate the very terror the poem describes, I prefer John Estes's version of this section which appeared in the translation journal Two Lines:
Lacking metes and bounds, the open-water seems
two-faced and brazen to seamen who reckon
with it; storm-swells tilt their hapless ships, scares
them stiff when the wave-horse's reins go slack.
Nearly six hundred years later Marlowe takes up the nautical application to ships tossed by a storm in Dido:
With twice twelve Phrygian ships I plough'd the deep,
And made that way my mother Venus led;
But of them all scarce seven do anchor safe,
And they so wrecked and weltered by the waves,
As every tide tilts 'twixt their oaken sides;
Which gets picked up again and again in Milton, Pope, DeQuincy, and so on. Coleridge does not, however, use the word in his "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," interestingly enough.
Not that "tilt" wasn't used in other ways in those six centuries, but it's really with Shakespeare that we see the potential power of "tilt" as a psychological metaphor. It comes late in The Comedy of Errors, as the abbess Luciana and her sister Adriana are discussing how the Antipholus they think they know (as Adriana's husband) has made a pass at Luciana. Adriana pleas with her sister imperiously:
Ah, Luciana, did he tempt thee so?
Mightst thou perceive austerely in his eye
That he did plead in earnest? yea or no?
Look'd he or red or pale, or sad or merrily?
What observation madest thou in this case
Of his heart's meteors tilting in his face?
Such inexplicable behavior in her ostensibly loyal husband leads Adriana to seek the assistance of an exorcist. If nothing else, it's a reminder that centuries ago unexpected activity in the heavens was distinctly unsettling. Generally, The Comedy of Errors can't hold a candle to his other comedies, but this passage shows a glimmer of his brilliance, being a characteristic adaptation of astronomical language.
Unsurprisingly, "whirl" also has ties to the vicissitudes of fortune. It comes from the Old Norse hvirfill (circle, ring, esp. crown of head, top, summit, pole of the heavens) and the Old Teutonic χwerðil (to rotate). In the Northumbrian dialect, however, hwærflung implied error or vicissitude, being related to hweorfan (to wander). So folded into the history of the word is an interesting tension between meandering and circumambulation, between forward progress (back in 888 Aelfred's translation of Boethius takes it to mean to proceed, turn out, happen) and circularity. Life, friends, is boring, as in boring a hole, repeatedly, annoyingly. We must not say so, as the poet says.
The Tilt-a-Whirl was first invented and built by Herbert W. Seller in 1926. The Tilt-a-Whirl might seem to most amusement park attendees quaint, fainter than a tempest in a teacup. Certainly, images from the company's website are saturated with pastel and primary colors. Likewise, the reining opinion has also been that poems in received forms, metered and rhymed, are somehow "safe" or unadventurous. In his patent, however, Seller describes an "undulating" circuit which individual cars will move, accompanied by a rotational eccentricity that passengers will not "in any way" be able to figure. His ride has caught the eye of chaos theorists, in fact. To our great benefit, I would suggest that what we have been publishing for the last two years has abided by that rule of unpredictability contained within and magnified by the formal constraints of the poems.
In this issue of Unsplendid, it turns out that there is a completely unintended showing-forth of tilt-a-whirls. Amy Casey's painting tilt-a-whirl, more so perhaps than many of her paintings, sets houses everywhichway against a backdrop of what appears to be the reddish glow of sunset. In the aftermath of the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes, it's hard to look at some of her other paintings and not be affected by the sight of the rubble that the house-rope-chainlink-fence contraptions are supposed to avoid. The phrase "tilt-a-whirl" makes two other appearances in our pages, in one of Joanna Pearson's poems and in the contributors' notes, as Kate Bernadette Benedict has fairly recently launched Tilt-a-Whirl, a second sort of offshoot from her journal Umbrella. If I'd a-seen it coming, this miraculous convergence, I would have held onto Caitlin Doyle's "Carnival" for this issue as well!
Below I review recently released books by Miller Williams, James Agee, and Nate Pritts, but I do nevertheless hereby welcome you to our third year of publishing! Hope you have a nice ride.
The first paragraph of James Agee's film review column for The Nation on Sept. 13, 1947, read as such:
The Italian-made Shoeshine is about as beautiful, moving, and heartening a film as you are ever likely to see. I will review it when I am capable of getting any more than that into coherent language and feasible space.
True to his word, he returned to it for the Oct. 11 issue, but you wouldn't know from the sincerity of either reviewstunned rapture in the first or self-admitted "humanistic" and sober discursus on the film's social sensibility in the secondthat he had already given Time a full review before the first of them. It was far better than either, in fact, achieving characteristic Ageean lyricism in recounting the story of two adolescent friends caught up in a black market deal run by one's older brother. Both are swept up for questioning by the police, locked up in separate cells and each begins down a path of his own:
Pasquale is tricked into informing; neither boy ever quite understands how they have been betrayed. The seraphically charming Pasquale dwindles into a corrupted, potential criminal. The stolid Giuseppe grows into a grave embodiment of vengeance.
It all ends tragically, of course, and predictably, but Agee's attentiveness to language there ought to be a lesson to us all. Just listen to the passagethe subtle alliteration that nimbly turns a sentence like Fred Astaire on one foot, the skittering internal -al/-le rhymes that parallel Pasquale's gradual descent, and how "potential" almost disappears as a consequence. And there is such restraint there too. You can sense a crouching tiger in Agee's prose, and know full well he can unleash a torrent such as that 200-word sentence in the intro to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and the next breath exhale the least, finest whisper.
It is, perhaps, not fair to compare critics of today to the star power of the magazines in the past, but the fact is that what graces our precious few book review pages remaining in major newspapers (the Washington Post Book World having fallen on the chopping block) practically begs to be set side-by-side with the vocal range of an Agee. In an earlier issue's introduction, my fellow editor Jason Gray has already pointed to the shortcomings of Joel Brouwer, whose otherwise keen discussion of Robert Pinsky's complex public position was greatly marred by his self-admitted limitations as a prosodist grappling with what was so clearly not Pinsky's "sturdy blank verse" but rather erratically iambic and heterometric at best, free verse at worst.
Brouwer has improved since then, though his review of Miller Williams's latest poetry collection, Time and the Tilting Earth, was about as graphically formulaic as you can get.
First paragraph: the claim to fame (Arkansans embracing Arkansans, a Grammy-winning daughter who claims she got her music from her mother and her words from dad).
Interlude/Segue: say fame ought to be enough for yet more fame.
Second paragraph: generalize about poet's accomplishment in new book.
Third paragraph: a couple more vague offerings about the book in question.
Fourth paragraph: lengthy quote from essay by poet, but say he doesn't follow his own advice too well.
Fifth paragraph: at long last quote a smattering of unrevealing lines, and 10-40 you're outta there.
Good work if you can get it. Ok, the formula is not necessarily the problem so much as (1) the overreliance on others' words, and (2) the empty description when he stepped out on his own. Let's take the second paragraph:
But Williams isn't finished making poems, and that's a fact for which we should be thankful. His latest collection, "Time and the Tilting Earth," offers many pleasures. Chief among these are Williams's way of entwining the pure earthiness of language as it's spoken with rigorous metrical precision, and, analogously, his affection for the quotidian, with an insistence on confronting unanswerable but unavoidable existential problems. In poem after poem, he mingles the low and the high in both form and content, bringing a sense of cleareyed practicality to life's big questions and a keenly honed poetic technique to the cadences of Arkansas porch talk.
Leaving aside our reservations about Brouwer's recognition of "rigorous metrical precision," these insipid generalizations could apply to just about any mainstream poet, no better than a gushy dust-jacket blurb. What sort of poet doesn't confront "unanswerable but unavoidable existential problems"? I'm sorry, that's just poor writing. I'll grant Brouwer the benefit of the doubt, however, as it's possible he had some thick editorial thumbs stuck in his blueberry pie.
I had originally toyed with the idea of writing a review in as many words as Brouwer was given in the NYTBR, including the elucidation of my complaint, but then thought better of it. I'm not one for such bombast, for one thing. For another, Williams deserves more space than that, but not always for the best of reasons. I'll begin with the worst of it and round out with the best.
In fact, Williams seems to want us to read that way, anyway. In the first poem of the book, "An Unrhymed Sonnet," twelve lines' worth of unqualified and flaccid questions ("What is existence? What does it mean to be? / How did existence come to be from nothing?") can't be rescued by the snarky couplet placing the speaker in the barber shop:
I'm sorry. I shouldn't ask these questions here.
Pleasejust go ahead and cut my hair
It's a hell of a risk, these days, to assume readers will wait patiently as you unfold the unremarkable beginning and middle of a joke whose punchline is not a knee-slapper. (Or would that be "is a knee-slapper"?) Williams does seem keenly aware of the art of humor, how now there's an art to incorporating buzz-killing self-consciousness into a joke, an artfulness to abrading the laughter before it starts.
Williams stumbles badly in the book when he makes pronouncements about writing. After a lifetime of writing we expect wisdom from him, but instead we get something in a poem like "In a Bar after a Poetry Reading" that sounds resentful but stunted. Juvenal, at least, when complaining about the poets babbling away on the stage and getting all the adulation and approbation, let loose such a virulent string of satires about the whole of Roman society that what might initially have seemed peevish and petulant"When will it be my turn?"we know he was righteously indignant. "It's harder not to write satire now," Juvenal implores us, "Satirist, hoist your sails!"
In the poem in question, Williams instead offers a fuddy-duddy complaint about "obscurity":
The sum of the parts is greater than the whole
when what we're talking about is literature
poetry in particularand how extremely
important it seems to be when it's obscure.
A token brushstroke of second thought rounds out the quatrain, "Although to say this seems somewhat unseemly," but it's no rapier-rejoinder to Berryman's destined-for-greatness rail against conventional wisdom I've already misappropriated above. Instead Williams throws a featherweight sucker punch about a famous poet (Ashbery, most likely?). Yes, the punch: "it's hard to be understood and make that look easy." Maybe it's true, but puh-lease, how can we not wince at such an exasperatingly reductive and rehashed line? Some might rise to his defense and say that it was a persona, that it was only a man sitting in a bar after a poetry reading. I'm not convinced by that, though. Williams is better than that, and ought to be above it, too. Salvage the lines "Whatever has control / will say whatever serves by being said" from the poem, scrap the rest, I say, and weave them into an entirely different scenario.
Williams feels like a latecomer rather than a groundbreaker at moments where he ought to be stronger. Some poems sound like derivatives of a young Gwendolyn Brooks, who hit it out of the park in A Street in Bronzeville (1940) with "the preacher hides behind the sermon" and "the old marrieds" (not to say anything about her famous later "The Bean Eaters").
Being someone who has long sat within the nebulous boundary where science and poetry overlapped—and early on had abuse heaped aplenty from both sidesI am wary of Brouwer's mention of Williams as biology teacher, and frustrated that he so conveniently moves onward without a sense of how that divide might actually be interesting or problematic. Howard Nemerov recognized this as fruitful material in his preface to Williams's first book, A Circle of Stone:
This balance is explicitly discussed in "The Associate Professor Delivers an Exhortation to His Failing Students," where the failure on both sides is set against the scientific or theoretical probability of the failure of the human entirely (according to the best of our knowledge, we never did come down out of the trees); and all this balanced with the minimal hope at the end that Prometheus ("some impossible punk") will, or did, anyhow, bring down fire from heaven.
The "balance" to which Nemerov refers is what he takes as the absolute equilibrium of "hope and hopelessness, sarcasm and tragic resignation, social protest and religious abandonment to despair," with each element knowing no fathoming. We can get something of this from a few lines of the poem itself, which, of course, is hardly "formal" in the received sense, but which move with a conversational sharpness and sly humor:
The day I lectured on adrenalin
I meant to tell you
as you were coming down
slowly out of the hills of certainty
empty your mind of the hopes that held you there.
Make a catechism of all your fears
and say it over:
I won't repeat his elucidation of the fears, but let you anatomize amongst yourselves.
In Time and the Tilting Earth, Williams continues to pepper his poems with scientific bric-a-brac from positrons (whose apparent backwards movement he hitches to a reversal of time) to NASA scientists brewing new self-propagating life. But too often he returns to his old standby, that elementary physics equation F=MA. When it first appears, I believe, in 1971's The Only World There Is, it becomes a figure of quasi-divine force, the poem's speaker, again the Assoc. Prof., musing on how a slowly moving truck can still "break you / quick," wanting to find some way to ram home his lesson, er, rather, his *ahem* love:
if you turn your head
as a matter of course
dismiss my class
if you turned your body and
what I could do
with such a sudden force
with such a mass
While the teacher-student attraction makes me recall a slightly creepy poem by Beth Ann Fennelly about the eyes-locked-in-eyes moment she has with attractive students (Fennelly getting a nice blurb from Williams at some point), this "force" ends up far more terrifying, for like Louise Glück's "Clear Morning"where the God-gardener-poet thunders "I am now prepared to force clarity upon you"Williams is tapping into the prophetic furies of the Old Testament throughout The Only World There Is.
Now, however, with F=MA appearing in this latest collection, Williams has played that card once too often and the metaphor has lost its force. I worry, too, that his knowledge of science will seem limited. Case in point: "Digital Sex" just doesn't hack it, with the doggerelled "floppy" disk as an impotent male member sounds like a joke out of a computer geek book I had in junior high. Speaking of jaunty doggerel about science, it's hard not to turn to Frost as counterpoint and master. His epigrams on science were grounded on an extensive interest and reading and the clarity of his thinking is unshakeable, or almost so. I find almost nothing in Time and the Tilting Earth like the weird power of Frost's last book, In the Clearing, nothing approaching the wacky philosophizing of "Kitty Hawk," and nothing like Frost's snappy and brief epigrams (Williams's sometimes run for more lines than necessary, diluting their impact). This is not to say that I wish this to be Williams's last book, not at all. I just think he can do himself some favors by returning to his strengths, and I think that means heeding Allen Grossman's cry: "Stop writing as if Modernism never happened!"
Here's where Williams succeeds: in unexpected parallels, whip-smart reversals, and ambiguities that open chasms before which we stand vertiginous. You can trace these trends all the way back to So Long at the Fair (1968), which is mostly free verse, but his heroic couplets in "In the Beginning" loll about and then strike like vipers. "God talked to himself like a man with a need," he projects, breaking the line, "for friends." And better still, one of the best brief summations of the human-divine relationship in the Judeo-Christian vein, with God having been figured as a farmer, tilling and planting: "The ground broke back." In this volume, the title poem, "Time and the Tilting Earth" also takes its time, drawing us into its unhurried vagueness (remember, vago in Italian connotes the beautiful), holding us before a riveting image of the anonymity of the photograph once out of the hands of a family member or friend:
Here, holding a box the size of an ice bucket,
someone takes a photograph of someone.
Here someone files the colorless picture away
in a wooden box that one day leaves a hinge.
Not even what contains the record of our being will survive in any recognizable formthis makes me catch my breath in the way that Metaphysical poems about death do. But on the side of life, elsewhere Williams sharply notes the extent of our existence in a way I'm not liable to forget: "behaving towards paychecks, a wedding, a child." Williams plays at inertness sometimes, his noncommittal stance in "Epithalamium" being that of choosing not choosing, what must be termed the modern epithalamist's dilemma: how do we speak with joy about a "life commitment" when half of marriages end in divorce? Williams's evenhandedness in hedging his bets is direct and honest.
When I'm at my most forgiving of Williams's serene poems, I think it's because I hear behind them the distressing force that he appears to claim is the guiding light of his poems, as we can see in the last four lines of "Form and Theory of Poetry" in Distractions (1981), where he would have us hold in mind both the building up, halt, and reversal of winds in a hurricane and the arrival, seating, and departure of traffic in a football stadium for a game:
Think in the eye of a hurricane, then, of Tittle,
Thorpe and Namath, Simpson, such acts of God.
At a football game, think of the gulf coast,
Biloxi, Mississippi blown away.
The levity, embarrassment, and encumberment of O.J.'s subsequent history aside, this holding in mind of two situations, hurricane and game, as we read and write poetry, strikes me as a downhome country-fried "Pied Beauty," shot through with exhilaration and mournfulness. Even when he tilts towards a touch of characteristic weirdness he emerges by the end on terra firma. "Ours" begins with that Arkansan interest in the extraterrestrialthere are two such poems in Time and the Tilting Earth, and I can't help but recall C. D. Wright's Deep Step Come Shining, with its reference to alien abductionsand levels us with the wordless prayer of "a woman in Houston fretting about her husband."
You won't find any aliens in James Agee's Selected Poems, edited and introduced by Andrew Hudgins, but plenty of the sort of poignant observations that Williams salvages his poem with. Agee's empathic imagination is famous enough that I won't revisit it here, but I will say that anyone who has not read Agee's poetry will be stunned, I expect, by the tenderness and delicate touch.
Nothing like the instant you know what your angle is. Take Schuyler Green's eureka in Gentleman's Agreement (1947). "When I wanted to find out about a scared guy in a jalopy, I didn't stand out on Route 66 and ask a lot of questions," he beams, recalling his m.o. for one assignment. "I bought some old clothes and a broken-down car and took Route 66 myself! I lived in their camps, ate what they ate! I found the answers in my own guts, not somebody else's!" Played by an uncannily awkward Gregory Peck, "Phil" Green has a reputation for what is now dully dubbed "immersion journalism" (Barbara Erhenreich and Ted Conover being recent practitioners). Given his signature method and new assignment—to "blow wide open" genteel American anti-Semitism—what took him so long to realize he would pretend to be a Jew for six weeks?
The film won an Oscar for Best Picture, a box-office hit for director Elia Kazan and Darryl F. Zanuck, the crusading producer of Fox, but James Agee minced no words. He panned a batch of like-minded films released on the coattails of the Second World War, lambasting the "safe fearlessness" no better than to "Come Right Out Against torturing children." It's tempting to read Agee's complaint as envy, since his own major "immersion" piece, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, had lurched and stumbled into print, only to sputter in sales at the war's outset. What's more, he had written memorably for Fortune an impressionistic piece entitled "The American Roadside," detailing life in motorists' camps, and could have been upset at being fictionalized. But his harsh words for Zanuck and Co. came before he had seen the movie.
Laura Z. Hobson, author of the novel from which the film was adapted, likely knew Agee's Fortune work, moving as she did in New York journalism circles. Agee never mentions her but would have appreciated how she wrote out of the discrimination she was born into, but might have bristled at the seamless assimilation she commended. His subjects, tenant farmers in the Deep South, were so far from New York high society as to guarantee no such thing. Although Agee's diffidence gained the trust of the families, his painful self-awareness of the untraversable distance between writer and subject metamorphosed him and Walker Evans—"two angry, futile and bottomless, botched and overcomplicated youthful intelligences"—into treacherous spies. Unsurprisingly, his poems are governed by how two terms so often used interchangeably—ethics and morals—achieve both distinctness and inseparability.
To hear Genevieve Moreau tell it, the tragic death of Agee's alcoholic father, whose affection for his son contrasted with his wife's cold piety, left the boy associating loose morals with love and warmth. This dualism was greatly complicated by Agee's correspondence with his schoolmaster Father Harold Flye and by experience. Do we see empathy in purely ethical terms? misdoings in moral terms? He worked through such questions most achingly in his poems. That Agee wrote poetry ought surprise no one, given his lyrical prose, but against his autobiographical fiction, film reviews, screenplays (e.g. The African Queen), articles, letters, and party conversation, it remains his least visible genre. Hardly arrived at Harvard, he had declared to Father Flye that his calling—"unhealthy obsession" or not—was to write "poetry in the main."
Robert Fitzgerald, Agee's classmate and editor of the posthumous Collected Poems, recognized that Agee's most productive period in terms of poetry came in the Thirties. Like Hudgins's, his layout for the collection put Permit Me Voyage (1934), the only book of poetry published in Agee's lifetime, at the front of the text. The remaining poems Fitzgerald drew into two lots, one the likely group that would have formed Agee's second collection, had he had more life to live, and the other, relegated to the back of the book, were those he judges Agee would not have been ashamed to have appear in print.
Permit Me Voyage draws its title from Hart Crane's "Voyages" sequence, and indeed they share an intensity of poetic vision. Both sought, as Agee put it, to "give the language of poetry the peculiar sort of variety and vitality it has generally lacked since the Elizabethans." Crane's mission statement is more memorable, perhaps: "to ransack the vocabularies of Shakespeare, Jonson, Webster (for theirs were the richest)." They also loved their Victrolas cranked, Crane in his apartment (sometimes to the great irritation of his neighbors) and Agee working late at night in the office. Here's Agee in a well-known passage in Now Let Us Praise Famous Men:
Get a radio or phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen to a performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony or of Schubert's C-Major Symphony. But I don't mean just sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then get down on the floor and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking. Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body. You won't hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it. As near as you will ever get, you are inside the music; not only inside it, you are it; your body is no longer your shape and substance, it is the shape and substance of the music. Is what you hear pretty? or beautiful? or legal? or acceptable in polite or any other society? It is beyond any calculation savage and dangerous and murderous to all equilibrium in human life as human life is; and nothing can equal the rape it does on all that death; nothing except anything, anything in existence or dream, percieved anywhere remotely towards its true dimension
But enough of the boisterous. Save the cascading prose prayer "Dedication," the lyric poems in Permit Me Voyage are stellar, harbingers of the preternatural calm and superb control he managed all his life. In later years he could write "Lullaby" with startling restraint and the lightest of breath, "Sleep, child, lie quiet, let be" stitched through an epigram sharpened by decades of wrestling with his father's death behind the wheel: "And everywhere good men contrive / Good reasons not to be alive." There is learned earnestness to his great "Epithalamium," which might make us yearn less for Marlowe's mild solicitous shepherd and more for Wyatt's sharp-tongued nymph. A tremendous Elizabethan sequence of twenty-five sonnets suggests he wished to imp his human love into the wing of divine love, but is shot through with anxiety about what was being asked of him by his God: "Is there indeed a God who can redeem / The love we know as a dawn-tinctured dream?" and, as if it would help us to know what to do, "What are his laws?"
"Three Cabaret Songs" and the impressive "Theme with Variations" point to Agee's conviction about the relationship between composition and poetry that few have taken far. The startling "Lyric"—which begins "From now on kill America out of your mind. / America is dead these hundred years"—at first seems anti-Whitmanian, but Agee brings the boat around by the end, poison lifting like a mist, healthful air at last to be breathed: "Millions are learning how." The aptly titled persona poems, "Period Pieces from the Mid-Thirties," rips open with autobiographical content ("Mumsy you were so genteel / That you made your son a heel"). Similarly, as the tenth of a series of lyrics from 1937, "A Nursery Rhyme," laments lost innocence in Blakean language: "Nebulae not grieved for Zion / The blown seeds of a dandelion."
The crowning achievement from this period, though aborted by Agee himself and curtailed for this selected poems, John Carter was an epic in Byronics, intended to show the manifestation of pure Evil in the world (the initials J.C. being ironic). Hudgins rightly claims that Agee lost interest in his subject after stanza 10 because his talent was first for lyric, satire second, even some eight pages in, having the speaker clamp down the first of many digressive sub-narratives, "I'm rather sick of Leonard; so are you." But I would also say that there is a Shandyean unwillingness to bring us to the actual birth of the protagonist, as Borges noted about Sterne's novel, for that would imply having to deal with the subject's death. Agee attacks his subject with relish, giving us the humble banality of Evil's origins, situating that banality in narrativity: "In medias New York State stands the Homestead; / In medias that, in medias modest gloom, / Is a large room: in medias that, a bed:" which is not where Carter is born, not yet, but we come upon the parents in medias coitus.
Robert Fitzgerald found the poem "undergraduate" but included the entirety, as well as the Guggenheim proposal that was denied funding. Hudgins errs, I think, in leaving out the latter, and in curtailing the poem, leaving us with only a taste of accomplishment. In particular we lose a passage in which Agee leaps into persona and chatters out: "Jesus is all for Progress: Man, don't doubt!" The persona is John Carter's adversary, Bruce Barton, the real-life ad man who invented Betty Crocker, garnering most repute for The Man Nobody Knows (1925), a hybrid self-help book and guide to modern Christianity. Christ, in Barton's words, "picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business, and forged them into an organization that conquered the world." This sold like hotcakes, reverberating a half century later in Laurie Beth Jones's god-awful Jesus, CEO.
Rather than justifying God's ways to man, Agee wants a God who will condone his behavior:
I want a god less Paraclete than Pal:
One who can understand that certain itch
That leads a man to cheat and chase a gal:
Impress a bitch by being a sonofabitch.
At the time, Agee had been adulterously courting Mia Fritsch, spurning his then-wife, Via, crowing that he'd bought the latter a so-so Christmas gift and a positively wicked garment for Mia. Carter, more a stand-in for Agee than has been generally admitted, is capable of destroying "whom he pleases according to that person's idioms of thought and content." As such society shows its immorality most in individual displays of antipathy.
Byronics may well be impossible in the 20th and 21st centuries, even though they lend themselves to the I'm-one-level-more-ironic-than-you sarcasm everywhere to be found now. Maybe Jon Stewart's next book should be an "epic" in ottavo rima! Jesting aside, I think it's high time that poets of our generation take up a challenge to write these book-length poems, and what could be better than to meet Byron on his own turf? (I have heard that one of our contributors, Elizabeth Hadaway, has completed a verse play in ottavo rima.) Agee, for his part, goes after pieties in this poem in a way that he could never have done in his prose or his shorter poems. He also veers into anti-Semitism, which Hudgins told me was an additional reason to cut John Carter short. There's an impasse for you, though. I can't imagine reading Eliot without knowing of the debate over "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar" or "Sweeney among the Nightingales," and what should Stephen Jay Gould have done when he discovered that awful letter French scientist Louis Agassiz wrote to his mother expressing his disgust at seeing African Americans for the first time? Do we or don't we publish these things?
I have no simple answer to this, but instead I'll quote a couple octaves from the Collected Poems that Hudgins left out. The first ribs Christian mystics/monks, one St. Wilfred, who having abjured the sight of the opposite sex goes anti-social to the fullest degree:
He smeared himself with all that made him loath,
Gums of the civet, asafoetida,
Ordure of beast and bird, he got them both,
And both with these and else his flesh did mar,
And stewed himself also in his own broth,
That those who saw not knew him from afar
And cried out "Mercy on us, Holy Man!"
And when he close approached them, they ran.
And Agee later bounces through some heretical lines that, were they not but a boulder's throw from an anti-Semitic remark, probably would appeal to Hudgins's own brand of wicked humor:
Now shall I tell you of their quaint religion?
I'd almost rather not: but they believed
The Holy Ghost a gaseous sort of pigeon,
But that the Son of God was not conceived
By ornitheological miscegen-
Ation, but maybe lawful, maybe thieved
By night, and needed no celestial urging
To trot about and call his ma a virgin.
The inventiveness of the rhymes and the rollicking, sacreligious satire are sent off the tracks by "miscegenation," now seen rightly as off-color.
Just as the term "failure" dogged Crane's The Bridge and Agee's John Carter for their unattainable ambitions, "failure" concludes Agee's selected poems: his late attempt at libretti for songs in Leonard Bernstein and Lillian Hellman's operetta Candide. The last of these, reuniting the title character and his beloved Cunegonde, was to a tune (later used in West Side Story) the composer himself said was impossible to set words to. The lines are deceptively simple, and one hears in the last line all the agony of loss and complicated faith: "One, in Love's sane hand."
Nate Pritts's new book The Wonderfull Yeare may well involve tilting of the head back to unleash a torrent of sound, as we find towards the end of Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,
It became clear that it would be between an eighth and a quarter mile away; and this became remarkable to us because at that considerable distance we could nevertheless hear, or rather by some equivalent to radioactivity strongly feel, the motions and tensions of the throat and body, the very tilt of the head, that discharged it.
But it is not a sound that one would hear except when you hear a person muttering to himself, cursing himself for past shortcomings and bad decisions. The title comes from the Thomas Dekker masterpiece of 1603, a part-prose, part-verse chronicle of the plague in England, beginning with a tender portrait of the queen succumbing. Like Dryden's more famous Annus Mirabilis sixty years later, the title is the quintessential rosy-colored glasses: it's a year of miracles because things could have been worse.
The recursiveness of language in "Endless Summer" builds a stifling momentum, as in the second quatrain here (lines long enough to require turning the text 90 degrees clockwise, just for this poem):
endless & I said things like "If I ever see you again"
but I'll never see you again I never saw you again I made sure of that
& I circled the lake I went in circles the lake was endless it was
summer I fucked up too much time & I never saw you again & I
And here is a segment of the first of the "sonnets for fall":
& the whole world brand new again
& me & you naming everything
in an attempt
at an original relation
but I just can’t see myself
Even though there is a time-worn tradition of punning on fall and The Fall, I find in Pritts great possibilities for the development of the lyric poem and of the sonnet as a record not of seductive progress but self-perpetuating sentiment, language repeating itself to such a degree not that it abrades meaning but that it instead leaves an abrasion that constantly reminds you of its presence, like a patch of scraped skin. Pritts is not afraid of the expressive, nor of what might appear to be embarrassing. In this way, he reminds me a great deal of Aaron Kunin (see The Sore Throat and others, being his binary hand alphabet "translations" of Maeterlinck and Pound, which thrive on Silvan Tompkins's identification of shame as the most visibly uncommunicativeand hence repetitiveof the emotions). Kunin might say, "I can say 'I' with more quotation marks around it than anyone on the planet," but together I think it's fair to say that Kunin and Pritts are the closest to the raw spirit of the Renaissance of most poets writing today. I say this with all admiration, not because they seem to be able to work back to a time before what Elioterroneously or notcalled the "dissociation of sensibility" ended the Metaphysicals' rein. No, that distinction comes instead, I think, from the sheer risk involved in opening oneself and one's feelings to extinction.
This is where Pritts's best line of the book resounds: "Everything anticipates. My love." The semiotic and hermeneutic possibilities here are very 17th-century, as is the self-exposure. The ungrammatical breakage of the sentence into two fragments leaning against each other for support emphasizes the precedence of "everything," a kind of Wittgensteinian play on language predating the self? "Anticipate," it should be remarked, originally meant to take possession of. It is not merely that everything presages and prepares for the speaker's love, it also takes possession of it almost even before the speaker knows he loves.
Alda Merini (1931-2009)
I'll conclude on a somber note, with a tribute to a poet whose words echo in my mind in two languages. A month-long residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute entwines Unsplendid and the late Milanese poète maudite Alda Merini together. At just about the same time that I achieved that unanticipated sublimity of inhabiting her voice as I translated, I put the finishing touches on the first issue of our journal and posted it.
Merini's passing in early November of last year at the age of 78 came near the end of my own Wonderfull Yeare, during which I lost a close friend and three family members, including my father-in-law, who was born and died in the exact same years as Merini. Alas, I had never had the chance to meet her. She was apparently unfailingly warm with visitors and generous with her work, always granting permission to translate to those who asked. The year following my time at SFAI found Merini hospitalized and unable to receive visitors or even to sign her own name to permissions to reprint or translate her work.
Merini's free-verse aphorisms don't truly qualify as received or nonce forms (being more of an invented subgenre). I can't call them by any name other than aforismi, the first half of the title of the collection I first found them in: Aforismi e magie. Aphorisms and Charms, or Aphorisms and Spells. There may be short free-verse lyrics in the collection that are nominally the "magie," but the aforismi nevertheless exert their own magnetic and dizzying influence. A handful of my translations are here and here. These are not the rarefied tones of La Rochefoucauld. They are not Frostian, Cunninghamian, or Wilburian epigrams, whose sharpness depends on a critical distance sometimes mildly daffy in its self-deprecation, sometimes willing into existence the Cartesian dualism of body and soul. Merini's, on the other hand, are volatile, cutting, warm, scolding, sardonic, nostalgic, and both tarnished and untarnished by the omnipresent threat of the return of the mental illness that sapped away much of her adulthood. After suddenly emerging as a literary prodigy early on, she was hospitalized until the 1980s, at which point she began to write in such quantities that publishers could barely keep up.
Pious and heretical, virginal and street-smart, tender and sneering, wounded and
defiant, Merini rakes her editors, lovers, and psychiatrists over the coals, all the while embracing them un po' troppo fortamente. Though I'm hesitant to bring her into close conjunction with Plath, both nevertheless suffered immensely from psychological torment, and I can almost hear Merini admiring "The tongues of hell / Are dull" if for no other reason than the tongues of earth, like hers, are far from it.
At long last, Susan Stewart's translation of Merini's selected poems, Love Lessons, is out from Princeton, as is Carla Billiteri's cool fine-press collection of Merini's aphorisms, I Am a Furious Little Bee (Hooke Press). Both are beautiful productions.
While I'm on Italian poetry, I'll reiterate our call for Italian translations, deadline Mar. 31. We're interested in gauging what translators and poets are finding of value in Italian poetry written in traditional meters, rhyme, etc. Any era, any region, translations of poems and essays on Italian poetry are welcome. Have a look at the guidelines here.
Of Sweetes and Beere
I'll conclude (for real, this time) by looking back to just before Dekker's book was published. In 1594 and 1602, respectively, Sir Hugh Platt (sometimes spelled Plat), who was mostly known for his writings on gardens, published two books suitable for this mid-way point between St. Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day. The second of the two, Delightes for ladies, to adorne their persons, tables, closets and distillatories, is a handbook with a prefatory poem some of whose lines
Of ſweetes the ſweetest I will now commend,
To ſweetest creatures that the earth doth beare:
Theſe are the Saintes whom I ſacrifice
Preſerues and conſerues both of plum and peare.
Empalings now adew, tuſh marchpaine wals
Are ſtrong enough, and beſt befits our age:
Let piercing bullets turne to ſugar bals:
The Spaniſh feare is huſht and all their rage.
Of Marmelade and paſte of Genus,
Of musked ſugars I intend to wright:
Of Leach, of Sucket, and Quidinia,
Affording to each Lady her delight.
I teach both fruits and flowers to preſerue,
And candie them, ſo Nutmegs, cloues and mace:
To make both marchpaine paſte, and ſugared plate,
And caſt the ſame in formes of ſweetest grace.
make me want to finally use that almond paste that's been sitting in our cupboard for months now. Late night baking, anyone?
The first book, The jewell house of art and nature (Divers new experiments. Diverse new sorts of soyle. Divers chimicall conclusions concerning the art of distillation. The art of molding and casting. An offer of certaine new inventions), follows more closely on Platt's agronomist leanings. He apparently wowed Sir Francis Drake with his methods of preserving food, but unfortunately his recipes and techniques in either book aren't composed in verse! Nevertheless, here's a parting shot on how to pour your beer, in case you were wondering how old the tradition of holding the glass at an angle might actually be:
It is also very good to tilt your beere, when the Vessel is little more then halfe drawn off, for so you shall draw your beere good euen to the latter end.
I'll drink to that! Here's a toast to the authors in our issue and to you our readers! Slainte!
Mar. 2, 2010