Friday, January 8, 2010

Changing Coordinates

This will be simply an announcement. I am changing the location and name of my blog. The new name is "Topics and Events," and it can be found at

See you there.

Alfred Corn

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Metaphor, Masks, Coding

Everyone knows Yeats’s preference for “the quarrel with ourselves” as a source of poetry superior to the rhetoric made from “the quarrel with others.” I’ve said several times in print that I prefer poems that are straightforward to poems that wear a “mask.” So it occurs to me to quarrel with myself on this theme, to perform what Chairman Mao called “autocritique.” I doubt the result will be poetry, but it may bring some clarity to a subject poorly demarcated and seldom well thought out.

I’ve noticed that people are more likely to cooperate with a directive placed indirectly than directly. A direct recommendation or command is likely to be resisted. But if the suggestion is indirect, is coded, there’s a greater chance of a positive response. Hence the advertising industry’s “hidden persuaders.” Keats’s rejection of poems that “have designs on us” doesn’t reference specific titles, but we can all think of examples of texts that seem coercive, seductive, or designed to foster complicity. In truth, almost every poem has this aspect, but the degree varies. Rarely does the poet “spit in the eye” of readers and attempt to alienate them. And even this can sometimes be analyzed as an elaborate, reverse-psychology method of commanding assent. And make no mistake: reading isn’t a purely pacific process but instead a species of sparring or outflanking, an effort to neutralize the resistance that we all bring to any phenomenon, actual or broadcast or written, that we encounter. In view of all this, indirect suggestion is probably a cleverer way of securing reader endorsement than straightforwardness.

Any art, and certainly poetry, will include a ludic or game-playing dimension. Decipherment is fun and challenging in the same way that the Times crossword puzzle is. The poem that just lays all the cards on the table doesn’t offer us the Scrabble-Chess-Go component of a conscious art and won’t stimulate as much adrenaline as those games do.

Constructing “masks” and devising metaphors able to suggest a subtext requires ingenuity; and ingenuity deserves praise, even if it isn’t quite in the same league as magnanimity.

The reality is that many writers have things they urgently wish to convey and yet dare not out of fear that their concerns will be ridiculed or condemned. Indirection allows them to communicate their sense of a topic while providing an escape clause. If ridicule or condemnation is aimed at the subtext of a coded work, authors can always evade and say, “That’s not what I meant. You’re reading things into it.” Of course the disguise is less courageous than going for broke, but it isn’t realistic to rely on courage in human affairs, given that it is the least widespread of all admirable qualities.

In countries where censorship is the rule and imprisonment a possible consequence of publishing texts critical of the regime, masked or metaphoric treatments of political topics is the only safe way to take them up. Meanwhile, there are laws against libel everywhere, and coded communication allows for the expression of libelous sentiments, yet without the risk of prosecution.

Oscar Wilde: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell the truth.” Why “least himself when he talks in his own person”? I suppose what Wilde means is that the public persona is tidied up for public consumption. If you meet strangers on the street, chances are they will behave in a friendly fashion. But if they get behind the wheel of a car, the relative anonymity thereby provided frees them to behave as aggressively and rudely as they like; and if they like being aggressive and rude so much, that must be who they really are. The true person hidden away is like the picture of Dorian Gray, not nearly so presentable as the man who shows up for tea in his morning coat. Using masks allows us to present ourselves as we actually are; it gives an unidealized portrait of our actual natures, something we generally have difficulty discovering, either to ourselves or to others. And if one value of art is to awaken us to truth, then masks are a convenient avenue to the truth about self. Considering this dark side, we could adapt Eliot’s comment and say, “After such self-knowledge, what forgiveness?” But without self-knowledge, we don’t know what needs forgiving. Better first search out the truth, and then see about the forgiveness problem afterwards.

Finally, for all that metaphoric texts point us toward a partly concealed meaning, they can never do so with 100% accuracy. There will always be room for interpretation and doubt. Readings of a truth told “slant” will vary from reader to reader. Hence the text takes on the aspect of an oracle, vague, suggestive, not fully circumscribed by semantic boundaries. The poem becomes a Rorschach test, its weird, tortoise-shell symmetries productive of multiple responses, according to each observer. Engaging in this process we become like those who, as described by Horatio, listened to and tried to interpret Ophelia’s disjunctive glossolalia (Hamlet, IV, 5): “They aim at it,/And botch the words up fit to their own thought.” And this vague, cloudlike, metamorphic kind of textual encounter is for many readers the esthetic experience, one that outweighs all others, even the apprehension of memorable lines like, “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Solstice and Holly

We got about two feet of what St. Francis called “Brother Snow” last night, just in time to welcome the year's shortest day. When the world turns white everyone is reassured by any color remaining, which must explain why evergreens figure so prominently in homes and churches this time of year. My particular favorite is holly, partly because of the unusual form of the glossy leaves and partly because of the extra of its red berries. The plant was sacred to the Druids and associated with ceremonies for the winter solstice. The property of holly leaves to resist dying in cold weather puts it with other evergreens like ivy and the conifers that offer steadying remembrances in what French poets referred to as “la morte saison.”

Among Henry VIII’s poems is one about holly, focusing once again on its enduring green as a way to suggest the permanence of love in adversity.

Green groweth the holly, so doth the ivy
Though winter blasts blow never so high,
Green groweth the holly.

Clearly the pre-eminent color of the Renaissance in England was green, and we can think of other examples besides the lovely song “My Lady Greensleeves” where it appears. That tune was adapted for a well-known carol, almost as familiar as “The Holly and the Ivy,” a text that sounds as though it could have been written by Henry as well, considering its references to the running deer and the crown. But the origins of this carol are uncertain. In any case, here is a good rendition of it:

At some point after I met Holly Stevens (in New Haven, around 1977, I believe), it occurred to me to wonder why her poet father had given her that name. Its similarity to “holy” is obviously one answer, but I also remember seeing the holly tree planted (shortly after Holly's birth) outside the house on Asylum Avenue in Hartford, where the Stevens family had lived. So the tree itself mattered to the poet, at least enough to give his daughter this name. One of his best-known poems is “The Snow Man,” an austere meditation giving us the concept of the “mind of winter,” the only sort of consciousness equipped with enough fortitude to contemplate the nothingness of bare, unrelieved reality and not be crushed by it. Other operations of consciousness (and other poems) could bring into the wintry mind the green of the imagination (in Stevens, imagination is most often associated with that color) and if green, why not an evergreen? So there is a figurative aspect to the name he gave to his only child, a name epitomizing his own hopes as a human being and as a poet.

As for Holly herself, she was a forthright, likable person, reserved but steady, and a respected member of the literary community in New Haven during the years when I lived there. I recall going out to her house in Guilford, not far from Long Island Sound. On the walls of her sitting room hung several of the 20th-century French paintings her father had collected (bought sight unseen, by transatlantic order placed with an agent), including the still life he took as the point of departure for his poem “Angels Surrounded by Paysans.” The painters were not famous names; the only one I recognized (and only just) was the Breton (later, Paris-based) artist Pierre Tal-Coat. Nevertheless, to see images that had fired Stevens’s desire to write was impressive and even moving.

Holly had had a period of rebellion from her parents, marrying a man they didn’t like and meanwhile working in a wartime factory—her reasons quite defensible, I’d say. But after Stevens’s death, she became the curator of his literary legacy, editing posthumous collections of his works and sorting out his archive, which she placed with the Huntington-Hartford Museum in San Marino, California. The Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale might have seemed a more fitting repository to most observers, but Stevens was a Harvard man, and in those years the Beinecke couldn’t compete with other institutions interested in acquiring poets’ papers. Years ago I gave a reading at the Huntington Museum and had the chance to see a few of the Stevens holdings. It’s easy to laugh at bardolatry, whether the bard in question is Shakespeare or other poets of unusual stature. Still, there’s no getting around the strange sensation stirred by seeing a holograph copy of a poem or letter written by a poet you revere. I felt as much when I saw one of Keats’s letters at the Beinecke. “This living hand…” as he says in a memorable poem.

If readers can absorb a huge shift of literary scale then I will mention the fact that about two decades ago I deposited my own archive at the Beinecke, the transfer negotiated by Patricia Willis, who may be known to you as the Marianne Moore scholar and editor of Moore's works. I no longer had room to store the two dozen boxes accumulated and began to be afraid that things might be lost in the frequent moves that characterized my life, then and continue to do so. The papers will be safer there than any place I can think of. A safe haven in New Haven’s ivied university. That’s my view of a library: as a protective greenhouse where the leaves and folios don’t wither, even if they’re not holly or ivy or spruce or pine. An alternative to the Snow Man's "nothing that is.”

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Letter from Sam Hamill

In response to the appeal described in the previous blog entry, Sam Hamill has sent the following letter:

Dear Friends, Colleagues, Compañeros:

Gray and I have been very deeply moved by your generosity and expressions of solidarity.

It is welcome news that Gray has been pronounced cancer-free and that I am in good enough shape to postpone any further angioplasty or stent implants for at least a few months. In the spring, we will put our house on the market and hope that it sells and that we can find a smaller home in Anacortes, close by doctors, hospitals, and without the burden of a mortgage.

I am still altogether capable of giving readings and lectures, but my steadily declining hearing makes it all but impossible to teach conventional writing workshops. For public conversations I often need a “hearing-ear person.” I am presently planning a weekend in Chicago in April, and will return to Vietnam (with Joiner Center colleagues) in May, and to the Joiner Center (at UMass, Boston) in June. These odd gigs and paychecks are all we have to counter exploding medical and prescription expenses. We thought we could get by on our modest pension from Copper Canyon Press and Social Security, but ever-increasing medical costs combined with skyrocketing property taxes have been devastating.

Now that we have crossed this particularly rugged mountain, I hope to resuscitate a writing (and possibly translating and editing) life. I have all of you to thank for this possibility—otherwise, Gray and I would both be wrestling with checkbooks and credit plans and the saddles they place on our wilder (healthier) imaginations.

To realize that we have such friends in the world is at once humbling and exhilarating. Our gratitude is eternal.



Thursday, December 10, 2009

Thanks to All Contributors

I didn't post anything here about the appeal Marilyn Hacker and I worked on to raise some funds for Sam Hamill and Gray Foster after both had faced serious medical problems and expenses, but I'll mention it now. The onset of Sam's illness came a few months before he was eligible for Medicare, and Gray is still not eligible. Sam, who with Tree Swenson many years ago founded Copper Canyon Press, was publisher there until a few years ago. In addition to producing widely respected volumes of poetry, and translations from Chinese and Japanese, he has taught writing workshops intermittently, and we recall as well that he inaugurated the Poets Against the War initiative beginning in 2002, its website still up and running. Nowadays hearing impairment prevents him from continuing to teach, and clearly what he should be doing is his own work, health permitting.

Anyway, in mid-November Marilyn and I launched an appeal, and there has been a wonderful show of support for Sam and Gray. Two institutions came forward, there was a benefit reading in Cambridge, and 102 individual donors sent checks. Marilyn and I are grateful to them and can report that the result has made things much less precarious for Sam and Gray. Here is the list of donors.

The Poetry Foundation
The Fund for Poetry
Benefit reading organized by Dan Wuenschel in Cambridge, MA

Individual contributors

W. Yake and J. Barreca
Dan Wuenschel
Franz Wright
C.D. Wright
Eleanor Wilner
Doretta Wildes
Afaa Michael Weaver
Anna Warrock
Laurie Wagner-Buyer
Sophia Wadsworth
Tino Villanueva
Michelle Valladares
Valerie Trueblood
Ellen Tabios
Yerra Sugarman
Michael Spence
Larry Smith
Jordan Smith
Brenda Skinner
Grace Schulman
Willa Schneberg
Walter Schiff
Mark Schafer
Bruno Ruhland
Stanley Rubin
David Romtveldt
Bertha Rogers
Hilda Raz
Donna Pridmore
Robert Pinsky
Britt Peter
Lee A. Perron
Eunice and Vincent Panetta
Thomas O’Leary
Naomi Shihab Nye
Sheila Nickerson
Emily Tan Lin Neville and Bert Stern
Marilyn Nelson
James Moore
Ifeanyi Menkiti
Askold Melnyczuk
D.H. Melhem
Heather McHugh
Kathryn Maris
Stefi and Fred Marchant
Douglas Manson
Richard and Angela Mankiewicz
Elizabeth Macklin
Liza Lowitz
Adrian Louis
Jeanne Lohman
Frances Lindsay
Rachelle K. Lerner
David and Jan Lee
Dorianne Laux
Yehia Lababidi
Caroline Knox
Bill Knott
Kenneth Knabb
Judith Kitchen
Stephen Kessler
Nancy Kassell
Fady Joudah
Bonnie Jones
Donna Hollenberg
Bob Holman
Michael Hogan
Jane Hirschfield
James Henle
Robert Hass and Brenda Hillman
Joy Harjo
Ian Haight
Marilyn Hacker
Donald Gutierrez
David Groff
Samuel Green
Carol Gordon
Daniela Gioseffi
Celia Gilbert
Daniel Gerber
Harris Gardner
Geoffrey Gardner
Kim Garcia
John Adele Foley
John Fitzpatrick
Ruth Fainlight
Kevin Cutrer
Jerry Costanzo
Alfred Corn
Martha Collins
Yvette Christianse
Elizabeth Carter
Mary Frances Carney
Deborah Buchanan
Sarah Browning
Henry and Joan Braun
Linda Bierds
James Bertolino
Gerald and Denise Bergman
Margo Berdeshevsky
Judith Bebelaar
Jennifer Barber
David Barnhill
Bob Baldock

Because my administrative and typing skills aren't the best, there may be mistakes, and I would appreciate it if any were pointed out. In any case, it has been a lift in spirits to do this, and Marilyn and I thank you all.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Poetry, Aesthetic and Moral

Though I went again to New York this month and again engaged in pursuits that might be interesting to report here, to vary the texture of the blog I think I will focus instead on an article by D.H Tracy in the current (December 2009) Poetry. In his essay, titled "The Moral and Aesthetic, Recently," Tracy is taking up the issue of aesthetics and ethical content in poetry, his point of departure, poems by Frederick Seidel and Robert Hass, but also citing poems by Adam Kirsch, Anne Winters, and one of mine titled "Coventry."

The ethical aspect of poetry, its role in shaping character, was considered a given in the classical period, but Tracy believes it didn't resurface in the Western tradition until Shaftesbury. I think it comes earlier, explicitly in Jonson, who spoke of "the impossibility of a man's being a good poet without having first been a good man." Nor can the ethical aims of 17th century religious poets like Donne, Milton, Crashaw, Vaughan and Herbert be overlooked. But perhaps Tracy is referring to critics, not poets, when he makes this observation. (Incidentally, I've read articles by Tracy for several years now and find him one of the best of the younger critics, well read in the tradition, judicious, and in command of an elegant and elevated prose style.)

So then does poetry have an ethical dimension that is at one with its aesthetic nature? I see no reason why it can't. Begin by observing that "aesthetic" derives from Latin and Greek aisthesis, which simply means "sensation." An anesthetic is a chemical that deprives you of all sensation, especially pain. Yet an art that consists solely of pleasurable sensation is experienced as somehow lacking, at least, by most readers. "Oh, for a life of sensation rather than thoughts," Keats exclaimed in one of his letters. But he never attained to that, and we're glad he didn't. What he did attain was a poetry filled with sensations, but, in addition, thoughts a-plenty, so that he is immeasurably more than the figure Yeats imagined as a young man with his nose pressed against a sweetshop window.

By the late 19th century the battle lines were drawn on this question, with Arnold on one side claiming an ethical role for poetry, which he called "a criticism of life," and on the other, the Esthetic School, notably Pater, Wilde, and George Moore, who argued that art had no obligations to fulfill, no social function to perform, except to embody to perfection the canons of art itself. This view has been epitomized as "Ars gratia artis," a post-classical Latin tag coopted with enormous economic irony by MGM Pictures. Closely examined, though, the phrase "art for art's sake" has almost no meaning. It is quickly deconstructed, beginning with the notion that art is a conscious entity, separate from human subjects, a Platonic Idea that expects things to be done for its sake. Art is made for people, not for Art, whoever he might be; and people have many needs and expectations, including the desire that the import of experience be clarified so that human beings are given the insights and means to choose more vitally and effectively.

But a poetry that consists of a series of commandments hasn't generally won an audience of adherents. It is almost true that, given modern habits of self-assertion and antinomianism, bald injunctions demanding good behavior are likely to be met with anger and negative obedience. Hence the recommendation that we avoid "didactic" poetry, often phrased in reviews as a sneer at "preaching." We might also recall that a culture's sense of "good behavior" changes over time and that much of what might be praised as good behavior in 1859 would now be ridiculed or despised. I sense that even Marianne Moore doubted she'd got away with the line, "So he who strongly feels, behaves."

On the other hand, we believe Flannery O'Connor means it when she says that for her art is best when "the author's moral sense coincides with his aesthetic sense." What she doesn't tell us is how to manage this, I mean, apart from the implicit lesson of her fiction itself. One clue might be Willliams's "No ideas but in things," which can be revised for our context here as, "No moral insights detached from observation and sensation." Ethical inferences must be arrived at after considerable observation, the resulting emotions, and then reflection on them; if presented to us pre-cooked, we are likely not to accept ethical directives. All the more, considering that these are most likely going to cost us something, maybe our very lives. (Or the ethics we arrive at may, on the contrary, help us realize we've been wasting our lives in a pointless, destructive conformity to moral norms we don't actually believe in.) Anyway, we like to feel that the author didn't begin with a priori moralities, but arrived at them after undergoing a series of direct, concrete experiences, their significance, and significance for decision, emerging only gradually. "In dreams begin responsibilities," according to Rilke. If the poem is insufficiently perceived and dreamt, it might not lead us toward any sense of responsibility--indeed, may (if only temporarily) turn us against any sense of obligation at all.

As for the poem "Coventry," I'm not certain that it has any persuasive ethical power; I don't know how I would go about determining whether it did. But since Tracy's article appeared, I've had queries about it, especially among my Facebook friends, who are intrigued by the excerpt and interested to see the whole poem. Which, meanwhile, is found in a book (titled Autobiographies)now out of print. Given that I control the rights to it, I've decided to make the poem available--along with the (ethical) request that no one circulate it without asking permission. There is one more reason: the excerpt quoted by Tracy in has a couple of errors. These are minor, but of course for poets, "God is in the details," and we always insist that the text be printed as we wrote it. See below.


Even if not sent there, some would go
just to visit a byword for banishment, or
nod and smile at Tudor cottages
verifying their age among highways
athrottle with the local Jaguar—
nine centuries ago the route of (do
they know for certain?) Godiva’s midday ride
through narrow, cobbled streets. Still there, and nude,
a statue on a civic pedestal,
she serves as patron for the recent mall.

St. Michael’s ruin has no plans to recover
from the blitzkrieg fires of 1940,
visibly content with its roof of sky,
a brownstone sheepfold with fence of ogives,
tracery drained of blood-red or river-
blue glass. A few steps north, in autumn sun,
the adjunct modernist cathedral proves
by inscription that Britten’s sharp baton
rode lightly above the War Requiem
as, borrowing the tenor of Peter Pears,

Wilfred Owen back from the fields of France
grafted his words onto the older hymn
under the eyes of a merciful giant.
The clash of arms turned music of the spheres
to counteract a deadly expedient
how many thousands now cannot denounce.
Black swallows rise and circle as bells chime
the congregants inside at Evensong,
as if war’d been a roughhewn cornerstone
in the edifice of Common Market peace.

Et lux perpetua luceat eis:
Owen, Britten, Pears, all three moved out
of earshot to that other Coventry,
attendants of the blessed lady, prompted
perhaps by music’s blinding insights. Is it
because an icon forfeits all privacy
that every bystander at last is tempted,
eye at keyhole or shutter?—this means you,
Peeping Tom, and I, and you, oh,
on fire to see the last thing we will ever see.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

New York Friends and Thom Gunn

It’s the familiar paradox: when your days actually do bear retelling, i.e., when you’re out there doing things and seeing people, you don’t have time to write about them. I haven’t added to these pages because my two weeks in New York (plus a weekend in East Hampton) didn’t leave me a free hour. I got into town on October 15th, staying on the Upper West Side with Karen Clark and Jonathan Bernstein, who invited friends James Byrne and Sandeep Parmar to dinner that first night. James is spending 2009-2010 in New York, enrolled in the MFA program at NYU and Sandeep is doing post-doctoral research on the British modernist poet Hope Mirlees. After so many encounters in London, meeting them in New York added a new thread to the text of our friendship.

Next day Karen and I went to see the Blake exhibition at the Morgan Library, which might sound like an exercise in déja vu, after the Tate Britain. The difference is that the Tate’s prints are on permanent display and therefore have to be kept behind thick plate glass in semi-darkness. At the Morgan the prints were well lit and right there on the wall, allowing for up-close inspection. Given that many of the works are small, the pleasure of focusing on detail was magnificent. Also, quite a few items included were drawings, watercolors, or holograph mss. from the museum’s holdings, including the Job watercolors, which are among Blake’s most successful. There were a few works as well by Blake’s contemporaries or followers, the group that called themselves “the Ancients.” For example, Fuseli and Samuel Palmer. To be immersed for an hour in early English Romanticism is an experience not easily described or matched.

It was only a short walk from there to the CUNY Graduate Center, the plan being to attend a reading from Michael Montlack’s My Diva anthology, which includes an essay I wrote about Billie Holiday. Michael hadn’t known I was going to be in New York and already had a full slate of participants (Mark Doty, Wayne Koestenbaum, Christopher Murray, Jason Schneiderman, and Richard Tayson); but, when I said I would attend, he asked me to read at least a short poem. The choice seemed obvious: “Billie’s Blues,” which includes some comments about my “diva,” arguably the greatest jazz singer of the 20th century. I’d never actually met Michael face to face, and the event also was an occasion to renew friendship with Wayne Koestenbaum, whom I hadn’t seen for nearly two years. I made appointments to meet both Michael and Wayne for the following week.

From there I took a cab to the New School to join Marilyn Hacker for the annual awards ceremony and dinner of the Academy of American Poets. Marilyn had flown in from Paris just to attend, as Chancellors of the Academy are generally expected to do. We had a few minutes to catch up before proceedings got underway. She’d received her first copy of her new book, titled The Names, most of whose poems I’ve read with enormous admiration as they were written and published. We found a seat down front in Tischman Auditorium, and, while people were milling around, I had a chance to speak to Jean Valentine (this year awarded the Wallace Stevens Prize), Frank Bidart, and Kay Ryan, whom I’d seen only once before, several years ago, when we were both participants in the West Chester writing conference. The ceremony went like clockwork, each award accounted for in an introduction, then followed by readings from the recipients. Afterward, drinks and snacks were served in the hall outside, and I spoke to several poet friends I hadn’t seen for a while, Marie Ponsot, Carl Phillips, Rita Dove, and David Baker, for example. It was a chance to exchange news—to me one of the main reasons for attending events like this. The reception was followed by dinner at the Café Loup, and Marilyn and I, by the luck of the draw, were seated at the same table as Tree Swenson, Director for the Academy and an extraordinarily intelligent and friendly person, whose work for the Academy deserves special commendation. After our dinner Marilyn, Marie and I took a cab uptown together and summed up what we’d seen and heard during the evening.

After my weekend in East Hampton with Walter Brown, one of my oldest and closest friends, I came back to New York and stayed in his loft in SoHo (described in blog entries for March 2008). The following week I devoted to revisiting favorite places around the city, seeing friends (Jaime Manrique, Michael Feingold, Elizabeth Macklin, Michael Montlack, James Byrne, Ben Downing, David Shapiro, Wayne Koestenbaum), and having a look at three special exhibitions at the Met Museum: Robert Frank’s photographs for The Americans, a ravishing assembly of Watteau paintings having to do with music and theatre, and a blockbuster show of American paintings billed as American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life 1765-1915. Many familiar pictures in the latter show, including Eakins’s homoerotic picture The Swimming Hole, which I first saw many years ago at the Amon Carter Museum in Texas. One Winslow Homer painting in the show I’ve often admired for its handling of color and chiaroscuro depicts African-Americans celebrating carnival; Homer is one of the few 19th century artists to depict African-Americans in non-stereotypical ways. And our greatest water-colorist.

I saw one more Met exhibition, in the company of David Shapiro and his wife Lindsay. In the Asian wing, it gathered works by the 18th c. Chinese painter Luo Ping, juxtaposing to them works by his mentor Jin Nong and others by his family members. Luo Ping belonged to the group known as the "Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou," and his images justify the designation. David knows a whale of a lot about classical Chinese art and gave me a running commentary about it as we strolled among the vitrines. He has a particular liking for the “scholar’s rocks,” bizarrely shaped but natural mineral formations used as objects for reflection in Chinese culture. But David’s conversational style is digressive, so he also spoke of music (he plays violin expertly) and friends like John Ashbery, Meyer Schapiro, Jasper Johns, and Kenneth Koch, for all of whom he provides a special perspective. When you have as much learning as David, it’s only natural that the abundance will spill over in conversation. We went for coffee afterward, whereupon David presented me with several of his lovely and, I guess, “eccentric” collages. Not sure what I’d done to deserve them, I was nevertheless touched, and pause here to look them over again.

I had been invited by a poet named Alex Dimitrov to attend a meeting of a group of young gay poets he formed and named "the Wilde Boys." It was held at the apartment of Tom Healy, whom I remembered from his days in the MFA program at Columbia. I was glad to see Tom and again and to hear that he had just published his first collection, titled What the Right Hand Knows. (Tom gave me a copy and now that I've read it I can recommend it as one of the most startling and original first books I've seen in a long time.) Among the guests were pals David Groff and Mark Bibbins, not seen for a couple of years and both prospering. It was also interesting to meet John Stahle, editor of the magazine Ganymede and a poet himself. The younger poets I didn't know but found them all bright and sophisticated, a whole new crop of talent that clearly will soon be publishing their first books. It made me wish there had been an equivalent group when I started out, but gay poetry in those years (excepting Duncan,Ginsberg, and Gunn) was mostly marginalized and unmistakably a career disadvantage. I'm glad the current generation doesn't have to confront the poorly concealed hostility we had to put up with back in the day.

On October 28th, I participated in an event celebrating the poetry of Thom Gunn, sponsored by the Poetry Society of America. The coordinator of the event, Joshua Weiner, is the editor of a recently published collection of critical articles about Gunn, titled At the Barriers, where an essay of mine about Gunn and existentialism appears. All the program participants had in fact contributed to the book—Joshua Weiner, Wendy Lesser, Robert Pinsky, Tom Sleigh—with the exceptions of Elaine Equi and Robert Polito. I enjoyed talking with everyone before and after the program, when we all went to dinner (again, at the Café Loup, which seems to be the preferred venue this year). I had a long conversation with Alice Quinn, now the Director of the P.S.A., whom I first met when she was an editor at Knopf, an early architect of their celebrated poetry series. During the years when she was poetry editor for The New Yorker, she was also my colleague in the Writing Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia. One achievement of hers from that time was to plan a program of poets from England, Ireland and Scotland, in collaboration with the magazine and the Writing Division. It brought poets over that I hadn’t known about beforehand, and I count the event as one of the factors that led to the decision to go and live in Lonfon. One of the poets invited was Thom Gunn. In fact, it was the last time I saw Thom. To conclude this blog, I will append the comments I made for the PSA program. The poems of Thom’s I read after presenting the comments below were “The Hug,” “The Vigil of Corpus Christi,” and “The Girls in the Next Room.”


Remembering Thom

The example of Pound, Eliot, Auden, Hughes, Plath, and Thom Gunn suggests that results are likely to be good when American poets go to live in Britain or British poets come to live in the United States. Thom Gunn has meant many things to me, and his expatriate courage is one of the reasons that during the last decade I’ve lived in London as much as I have. I say “courage” because of course home may decide to take offence when you go away, and you sometimes find that away’s welcome is mixed. It’s not a choice for the faint-hearted, and Thom was certainly not that.

I first met Thom in October or possibly November of 1982. At that time I was living, with J.D. McClatchy, at James Merrill’s apartment on East 72nd Street in New York. Thom and I had begun a little correspondence—letters on my side, postcards on his. Possibly you remember his poem “Interruption,” in which he says, “I manage my mere voice on postcards best.” When he wrote that he was planning to be in New York, I asked him to drop by for a drink. I knew what he looked like from book-jacket photographs, plus one drawing that depicted him in a tank top, a clothing choice that would be startling even now, twenty-seven years later. He struck me as handsome in a craggy, unadorned mode; he wore jeans, a leather jacket, and of course no tie.

I wouldn’t say he was so very warm during that first meeting, though certainly keen-witted. It might have had something to do with the fact that we were in Merrill’s apartment; they weren’t friends, though I think he had a qualified admiration for Merrill. It was a reserve that could plausibly be extended to anyone he perceived as being a follower of his very famous American contemporary. We exchanged comments about not much in particular that I can recall. He asked at one point where the toilet was, and I gestured toward a door off the next room. Although he closed the door, while he was there I could hear him whistle a little melody, not one I recognized, but spirited and quite in tune. And then he left.

Exchange of letters (on my side) and postcards (on his) continued. And then in Oct. of ’84, I had a reading date at Berkeley so I proposed meeting in San Francisco the day before. The suggestion was accepted. I’d always been a fan of San Francisco, ever since my first visit in the summer of ’69, in the aftermath of its years as epicenter of the “Counter-culture.” I took a bus from the place I was staying in the mission District, went along Haight Street past Ashbury and Fillmore, all the Victorian gingerbread painted in Flower-Power colors, liquidambar trees trimmed perfectly spherical along the sidewalks. And the signature fog hanging in the air. A turn up Cole Street, past Parnassus, Waller, and Alma to number 1216, where I rang the bell. Steps bounded down the stairs and Tom threw open the door. He was suntanned and offered a closed-mouth smile, with creases at the cheek, his black hair salted with white. His voice had an original timbre, breathier and higher in pitch than you might expect, and American-tinted British in accent.

He said we should hurry out to a restaurant directly before it closed. We took a five-minute walk to an unpretentious café with ferns levitating at the window, sat down, placed our orders, and gazed at each other. I noticed he wore a delicate gold earring and looked a little heavier than he’d been two years earlier; but I on the other hand had been working out regularly and was quite fit, as didn’t escape his sharply observant dark eye. Truth to tell, Thom and I were never altogether easy with each other, both of us a little intimidated, I think, though the reason for that is hard to state. Imagine a couple of tom cats circling each other, intrigued but wary.

After lunch we walked back to his place, entered, walked up a flight of stairs. A series of rooms opening on something like a central atrium. His partner Mike Kitay had assembled a collection of commercial graphics, metal signs and posters advertising soft drinks and whatnot. These were displayed along the walls instead of the usual cutting-edge paintings expected in poets’ digs. In the bedroom was a glass case filled with pop figurines—comic-strip characters and American folk heroes like, say, Paul Bunyan or Billy the Kid. We sat and talked for a while, but the previously mentioned wariness prevented conversation from getting confessional, though it was cordial enough. Thom said he’d be in New York the following month and we promised to meet.

But in fact we didn’t. I don’t recall any further meetings except for a public encounter when Thom came to participate in a celebration of British, Irish, and Scottish poetry that The New Yorker co-sponsored in the late 1990s with the Graduate Writing Program at Columbia, where I was teaching.

If I’d lived in San Francisco, I think we’d have been close. But I didn’t and that was that. I reviewed one of Thom’s books in the years following and suspect he didn't much like it, never mind that the comments were favorable. I can imagine him feeling I was too young and unseasoned, that I hadn’t yet earned the right to praise him; which was plausible enough. Meanwhile, the year he won the Brandeis Poetry Prize, he was unable to attend the ceremony in Boston, and I was asked to accept the award for him. I recall sending him a letter about the event, concluding with a tercet in iambic dimeter that went this way: “Isn’t it fun,/Being a pun/For Thompson Gunn?”

I had a few more postcards from him and faithfully read whatever he published, even the blurbs he gave younger poets, some of which provoked a puzzled “What?” from me. I speculate that Thom was a soft touch where his friends or even acquaintances were concerned. He also gave me a comment for my book Autobiographies, one sure to have been equally puzzling to my fellow blurbees. Thom had unpredictable taste, one that could make room for Fulke Greville, Ben Jonson, Mina Loy, and Robert Duncan. I like it that he was unpredictable, hard to pin down. He had the courage of his convictions and his convictions could change. I wish, how I wish, he were here now.