A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
My poems, whatever their other springs may be, flow from the meter of my inner voice in creative conflict with an ineradicable sob.
When my breathing is interrupted by a hitch I know, after decades of introspection and recollection, where that hitch is coming from and why that sob will return: it’s one of the many hauntings of the abused child.
So when I started writing poetry at 14 I first had to confront my conviction that it would be vulgar and impolite of me to presume on the great body of poetry I had already encountered. But I had been reading Edward Fitzgerald’s enthralling and misleading translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and, while I loved it, it offended my Protestant upbringing. Wouldn’t it be fun to respond quatrain by quatrain, I wondered? I would scan the lines, study the meter, and come up with a Calvinist retort.
I had another motive. I was miserable. Nothing was going well except my studies. I was living in an angry, boozy household inclined to mock others, and something in me instinctively saw mockery as cheap and ignorant. But I didn’t know this reservation was honorable. I didn’t know I had any honorable traits. So I pursued my Rubaiyat project with the same ruthlessness with which I ‘d once stalked a tormentor with a baseball bat in boarding school. I knew my ruthlessness, but I couldn’t see the slightest virtue in it except perhaps when cornered.
My Rubaiyat was a debacle, but I learned a great deal. I understood scansion and some basics about meter, but not rhythm and cadence, and I certainly didn’t understand where they came from. Nor had I encountered any of the great modernists, with the exception of W.B. Yeats. There was time. I was 14. But it was something of a race with an approaching fiasco that occurred years later when I was a junior at Columbia. Nothing in my Calvinist outlook or Fitzgerald’s Khayyam equipped me to understand that molestation and abuse might someday cause periodic bouts of amnesia and crippling depression. Decades later I recognized that my shallow breathing and relentless sob would become the very tools I used to make a poem—painful, blinding, desperate decades. Still more time would pass before I understood that I had adapted these broken, impaired tools to the arcane uses that would characterize my poems.
All that began in a dusty second floor office at 215 East 19th Street in Manhattan when I was 14. Behind me were glass cases in which my stepfather’s taxidermy specimens were displayed—tigers, polar bears, leopards, snarling, baring their teeth. And beside me would sit my stepfather, signing checks in green ink with his silver inlaid pen. He loved poetry and music and art. That was our bond. He also loved Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat, not Khayyam’s, which was far from that famed line, Take the cash and let the credit go. How Dominick Guccione loved that line, a line I had, to my credit, regarded with suspicion from the start. Khayyam was a Sufi and no Sufi would have said it, except perhaps to characterize something antithetical. I didn’t know that then, but I did suspect that line, believer that I was.
The fiasco at Columbia struck years later in mid-May on 116th Street across from the famed Butler Library. Whatcha doin’, Howie, I said to my friend Howie Pechevsky. Sitting on this bench eating an apple, he said, grinning at the absurdity of my question. I looked west towards the subway. I didn’t know where I was going. I had set out with a purpose, but lost it. I couldn’t remember my name or where I lived. I put my books down on a bench. They were bound with a belt. I covered them reverently with my baseball jacket. That was the last I ever saw of Columbia until I was an old man. I did remember where I worked, or one of the places where I worked. That’s how it is with spotty amnesia. You don’t know what you’ve forgotten until you need it.
That ineradicable sob became contrapuntal over time. The hitch began to define my ideas about meter. Once I realized, thanks to T.S. Eliot, that one could synthesize the long history of meter while not adhering strictly to one meter or another in a poem, I began to regard the sob and the hitch as friends, not intruders, not molesters. Unlike the Christian idea of embracing the enemy, it was more like accepting that one’s handicaps conceal blessings. For a long time a seven-syllable line, somewhat in the manner of French syllabic prosody rather than Anglo-Saxon accentual prosody, was my hallmark. I explored the arcane significance of the number seven, which seemed to come to me naturally. I saw that the sob and the spondée were collaborators. As for the spotty amnesia, it too had its virtues. Had my subconscious deliberately thrown out what I didn’t need? Did I need that name, that address? These were promising corridors of inquiry, but it’s taken me a lifetime to go down those dark passages. My recent book of poems, Nothing True Has a Name, is one result.
Just as I had not seen any virtue in myself as a child or as a youth, so I failed to see any mastery or even aptitude in me as a poet. As much as I knew about prosody, I put it down as a distraction. In my thirties I abandoned poetry altogether, though I continued to read and study it, employing scansion as a kind of passion, like chess.
Then in my late sixties I came to understand that my reservations about my own abilities were as mean as the reservations of others about me when I was a child, mean and irrelevant. So what? Why did I love poetry? Why did I love to write it? Renown? Or something much more humble? It was life-support, a way of surviving and generating light when there was none, a way through whatever daunted me, as ineradicable as that sob, as fundamental to me as my hindered breath. And then, only at that point, I began to breathe more deeply, more steadily. My lineation now ran like mercury across the page. I intuitively grasped what Eliot had so elegantly demonstrated, that the uses of meter and the history of meter and the sum total of our knowledge about it, are inherently different. I was still a long way from discovering Charles Olsen’s ideas about projective verse and the formative role of breath in poetry.
But something more was coming: I had fathomed the abandonment of meter by William Carlos Williams much more quickly than Eliot’s insights about synthesizing the history of meter. When I wrote the novella Saraceno—my first work of fiction—I wanted to write something almost as good, if I dared, as Glenway Westcott’s The Pilgrim Hawk. Then I dared even more as Saraceno took shape. I dared to think I might at least fashion a decent homage to Ernest Hemingway’s austere masterpiece The Killers. Years later when the acclaimed writer Dan Baum read Saraceno he called it an extended prose poem. My mind turned to my 16th year, two years after my engagement with the Rubaiyat, when I sat next to Dr. Williams at brunch in my Aunt Irene’s apartment on West 15th Street. Irene—the artist I. Rice Pereira—seated me next to the good doctor from Paterson because she knew he would be kind to me. Gone was my beloved Uncle George. Irene’s second husband, George Wellington Brown, a naval engineer, replaced by Uncle George II, George Reavey, an Irish symbolist poet, first publisher of his friend Samuel Beckett, translator of Dr. Zhivago, and the British cultural attaché in Moscow during the war. I liked this new George. a poet, after all, but not as much as the old George, and Irene knew. It was quite a party. It has everything to do with Saraceno. George danced the famous Cossack Kazotsky Kick and brought paintings down from the walls, which did not please Aunt Irene, not least because she had painted some of them on layers of rippled glass, a technique for which she is famous.
Dylan Thomas, nearing his end, was the rather demonic bartender. His lovely wife Caitlin was helping the hostess, drifting among the tightly grouped guests like sea spume. It was Aunt Irene’s annual brunch for people she detested—forgive me for not tattling their names—and Dylan, Caitlin, Dr. Williams, and a few others were in on the stunt. I hated it, as Irene knew I would. I was fully prepared to like its victims and in many cases did like them. Old Uncle George would have never stood for it. His upper-class Boston mentality would have considered it sleazy. It struck me as chilling. Somehow I was emboldened to tell Dr. Williams. He studied me carefully, as a doctor might. It never occurred to me he might be thinking, What a judgmental little prick. But that’s not what he was thinking. He patted my hand and said, Well, just because you and I know about it doesn’t mean we have to be complicit, does it? That was it, the origin of Saraceno in a pat of the hand and a few reassuring words.
The novella has nothing to do with that party. It’s about a Hell’s Kitchen thug with a magical gift for friendship. But it never would have been written had I not encountered Dr. Williams that sunny Sunday afternoon in Chelsea. He was astonished that I was familiar with his poetry. He had begun publishing the landmark Paterson in 1946 and I had read two of the five ultimate volumes. I’m not very good at memorizing poems, I told him. Little did I know that was a foreshadowing of the Columbia fiasco. Neither am I, he said, it’s not a bad thing, you know, because you encounter the poem again and again from a fresh perspective.
Our encounter sent me deep into his work, and once Paterson had been fully published in 1958 I was something of an aficionado, having read it twice during my years in the Navy. The rhythm, the cadence of Saraceno comes from that exploration of his poetry.
When he left that party, having drunk precious little while a rowdy Thomas was busy snockering guests with knockout slugs of booze, Dr. Williams told my aunt, You have an extraordinary nephew, Irene. She didn’t tell me that until I was in my 30s and had abandoned the making of poems. I was too much in awe of her to ask her why she had withheld that remark.
Copyright 2018 Djelloul Marbrook