John Hoppenhthaler has asked me to post a definition of the haiku, but there is more complete information on pp. 294-6 of the fourth edition of The Book of Forms. This is part of it:
By various stages the term "haiku" — a corruption and blending of the dissimilar words "hokku" and "haikai" — came to denote an independent tercet of 5-7-5 syllables. The haiku dropped all hankas, glosses, comments, and elaborations. It became a poem which had as its basis emotiveutterance, an image, and certain other characteristics as well, including spareness, condensation, spontaneity, ellipsis, and a seasonal element. A distinction has sometimes been made between the haiku and the senryu, though both have exactly the same external form. The senryu is an inquiry into the nature of humankind, whereas the haiku is an inquiry into the nature of the universe.
60 on the 60's (1969), the anthology of poetry edited by Robert McGovern and Richard Snyder, covered the issues of that decade of civil protest and public war. There was cause during those years for anguish on the part of many, including those to be found inhabiting the American academy. The editors, in their "Introduction," wrote, "This book, then, is a celebration of the dignity of human sensibility in the face of war, assassination, poverty, alienation, exploitation of nature, fear of extinction, and other shocks of our evolution. It is a collection of song, which should make it an optimistic record of history. Where there is song, however painful or even despairing, there is hope for human salvation. The themes developed in this volume have not been devised by the editors; rather, the unity of feeling about our world derives from the nature of poetry and poets. While the writers in this book demonstrate a spread of generation, a distinction of race, religion, and sex, there is little gap in sensibility" (5).
Poets represented in the volume included Gwendolyn Brooks who wrote on "Martin Luther King, Jr.," Daniel Berrigan, S. J., who in future years would serve time for his non-violent civil protests against the military draft and the Vietnam conflict; Robert Bly on the "March in Washington Against the Vietnam War"; Denise Levertov who two years earlier, in 1967, had edited an anti-war anthology, Out of the War Shadow, for the War Resisters League; Richard Wilbur, who contributed "A Miltonic Sonnet for Mr. Johnson" — that is, Lyndon Johnson, President of the United States of America; Robert Lowell on "R. F. K." — the assassinated brother of President Kennedy, and many others. Not represented in the book was LeRoi Jones — or Amiri Baraka, as he was by then known.
However, my poem titled “An Open Letter to Le Roi Jones," originally published in TheNew York Times Magazine, May 25, 1969, did appear in the anthology:
AN OPEN LETTER TO LEROI JONES
“Nobody sings anymore.” — from Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note by LeRoi Jones.
When we were younger, when words were the things we loved;
when men were men, evil and good;
when there was hope;
when you could speak to all, though few would listen;
when I could speak to you, though I did not know you;
when I did not know you were black, but only that your words were black on a white page;
when the page spoke and did not scream;
when there was a way for minds to touch across great distances;
when I read you and, perhaps, you read me in the magazines only the young and the hopeful read;
when time and life meant something more than now they mean;
when there was art;
when we meant to change the world with reason and love;
when there was infinite possibility, in art as in life –
then the world stayed the same, and we did not change it;
then we grew older, and now we are bitter;
now you speak bitterly, to bitter men, and the words are black in your mouth;
now bitter men hear, but do not listen’
now the words you say are the old words – we have lost our art;
now we say what has always been said,
now everyone understands – there is comfort in what we say;
now what we avoided when we were poets has come to pass:
now we are clichés, and our words mirror us;
now you are a black man and I am white – only the colors remain, the colors of our words and pages:
now we do not speak, we only harangue;
now we do not tell what could be, but only what is, what always has been;
we have lost ourselves in slogan;
we have lost our art in the web of words;
we are devoured by unreason, by the spider within;
we have forgone that which is human: mind, love, and art:
“Nobody sings anymore.”
We are no longer poets.
“Amiri Baraka,” who died today, Thursday, January 9, 2014, was exactly my contemporary. Everett LeRoi Jones was born in 1934, a native of Newark, New Jersey, where he attended school and began college at the Newark branch of Rutgers University. He transferred to Howard University subsequently and took his B. A. there in 1954. He was a member of the U.S. Air Force after the Korean War, from 1954 to 1956. He married a white Jewish woman in 1958, was divorced in 1965, and married again the following year. His teaching career included holding academic positions at the New School for Social Research in New York City from 1961 to 1964 and shorter stints at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Columbia University, and San Francisco State University.
Even in his first full collection of poems Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note published in1960 (two chapbooks preceded it), Baraka's characteristic themes — distrust of and hatred for the caucasian world —were well developed. The Dead Lecturer, Jones' second book, appeared in 1964; Black Art in 1966, Black Magic: Poetry 1961-1967 in 1969, and It's Nation Time in 1970. By the publication in 1972 of Spirit Reach, Jones was "Amimu Amiri Baraka" and well-established as the premier black militant of the world of poetry, but he was also establishing himself as a playwright; he had written two books of fiction — a novel and a collection of short stories, and he had edited or written many other titles, most of them on social issues. His Selected Poetry was published in 1979.
Baraka has inspired more scholarship since 1973 than any other black poet in America. "If Baraka is a villain in the eyes of whites," Theodore Hudson wrote in From LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka: The Literary Works (1973), the first study to appear, "he is a hero in the eyes of the current generation of black nationalists and their sympathizers. No one so captures the cultural sensibilities of young black cultural revolutionists. He has great drawing power on predominantly black campuses. There is no doubt that among young black readers he is the most consistently read of all the current black writers" (37).
Baraka never wrote formalist poetry like that of Robert Hayden or Gwendolyn Brooks. His earliest work was line-phrased prose, and it remained so, though as his work matured Jones sometimes treated prose in the manner of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, as in the "A New Reality Is Better Than a New Movie!" the first part of which is quoted:
"How will it go, crumbling earthquake, towering inferno, juggernaut, volcano, smashup, in reality, other than the feverish nearreal fantasy of the capitalist flunky film hacks tho they sense its reality breathing a quake inferno scar on their throat even snorts of 100% pure cocaine cant cancel the cold cut of impending death to this society. On all the screens of america, the joint blows up every hour and a half for two dollars an [sic] fifty cents. They have taken the niggers out to lunch, for a minute, made us partners (nigger charlie)
surrogates (boss nigger) for their horror."
But it was the proposition of William J. Harris, in his book The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic (1985), that it is difficult to pin the poet down because of his Protean transformations "of avant-garde poetics into ethnic poetics, of white liberal politics into black nationalist and Marxist politics, of jazz forms into literary forms. Baraka's entire career is characterized by such transformations.... Because it emulates a transformation process typical of jazz revision, I call Baraka's method of transformation the jazz aesthetic, a procedure that uses jazz variations as paradigms for the conversion of white poetic and social ideas into black ones" (37).
Particularly Black Mountain ones. Harris pointed out that Baraka was "influenced by the Projectivist School; no one, however, has made it clear how profound and lasting this influence has been. The main source of influence is the great white whale of American literature, Charles Olson" (35). This insight explains Jones' sojourn for a summer in the Little Black Mountain of S.U.N.Y. at Buffalo in 1964. "From the Projectivists," Harris continued, "and from Olson in particular, Baraka absorbed his sense of the poem as open form, his sense of line, his sense of the poem as a recorder of process, and his conception of the poem as definition and exploration. For instance, speaking of form, Baraka...said [in Donald Allen's The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, p. 425]: 'There must not be any preconceived notion or design for what a poem ought to be. "Who knows what a poem ought to sound like? Until it's thar" says Charles Olson...& I follow closely with that. I'm not interested in writing sonnets, sestina[s] or anything...only poems'."
In this respect, then, Baraka's primary literary influences were those of a renegade white academy rather than those of Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, or Gwendolyn Brooks, who worked out of a tradition of black formalism deriving from, on the one hand, mainstream English literature and, on the other, black musical forms. But at this point Baraka's practice approached those of his older black contemporaries. Harris maintained that "Baraka...blackens the white avant-garde poem with scatting — a jazz singing technique that substitutes nonsense syllables for traditional lyrics — and by creating poems more suited to oral than written presentation. Scatting occurs when singers imitate musical instruments. Baraka uses scatting both to incorporate black rhythms into his poems — to make them familiar — and to break down conceptions of what the elements in a poem should be to radicalize poetic form" (107). The example Harris uses is
these warm street shoobies
my soul gets off behind
from Black Magic (144). Another that also shows the Olson influence is the first strophe of "Like, This Is What I Meant! from Selected Poetry:
Poetry makes a statement
like everything poetry
makes a statement
Poetry is a being of words
a being of language flicks
produced by the life
of (DAH da da Dah!)
But here is where we differ
from Funk & Wagnalls, Empson
& the rest of assorted bourgeois functionaries
of the inherited
"Take Class Struggle
as the Key Link", sd Mao, "Act according
to the past principles" (294)
Here is much that is frustrating to many readers about the 1960s: the in-group jargon, including shorthand words ("sd" for said), imitation Ezra Poundisms-via-Olson of a low order, such as allusions to "Funk & Wagnalls," "[William] Empson," the British New Critic; "Thaddeus Dustface," who may or may not be an "Academic Poet," and Chairman "Mao" Tse-Tung; the idiosyncratic arrangement of phrases on the page, which Harris and others would excuse as "jazz," and the "scat" syllables that Stephen Henderson made much of before Harris did. A comparison of Baraka's early work with his late will not show, in the opinion of some critics at least, an improvement. Unfortunately, he did not transform Olson's prosodic peculiarities into his own style as successfully as Hayden and Brooks combined black ethnic traditions with English language formal techniques to make a poetry as effective as any written during the period of protest.
On December 5th, 2013, my fellow Iowa Workshop classmate, the Engish/Canadian poet Christopher Wiseman, sent me this email message:
You may already know this, but Jean Justice wrote to tell me of the publication, by University of Nebraska Press, of A Critical Friendship: Donald Justice and Richard Stern, 1946-1961, edited by Elizabeth Murphy,…
Apart from the correspondence, started by a chance meeting in N. Carolina in 1946, there are apparently some unpublished poems by Don in it and lots of stuff about their writing teachers, etc. I have ordered it, as if I would not order anything to do with Don, and thought that you might be interested if you hadn't heard about it.
Lew, could you perhaps mention it in your blog as you have a much wider circle of American writer friends than I do and I know a lot look there? I'm just sending this to you because I know first-hand how much you liked and admired Don, and how you love his poetry. Please pass it on to all who may be interested, unless you feel it's a bit soon as it'll be a few weeks before deliveries begin. I still think Stern's novel GOLK has an amazing title.
Jean Justice has moved into a retirement home in Iowa City as the house was getting a bit too much for her. A wrench.
Best wishes, as always,
A chance meeting in the University of North Carolina campus library in 1944 began a decades-long friendship and sixty-year correspondence. Donald Justice (1925–2004) and Richard Stern (1928–2013) would go on to become, respectively, the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet and the acclaimed novelist. A Critical Friendship: Donald Justice and Richard Stern, 1946-1961showcases a selection of their letters and postcards from the first fifteen years of their correspondence, representing the formative period in both writers’ careers. It includes some of Justice’s unpublished poetry and early drafts of later published poems as well as some early, never-before-published poetry by Stern.
A Critical Friendship is the story of two writers inventing themselves, beginning with the earliest extant letters and ending with those just following their first major publications, Justice’s poetry collection The Summer Anniversaries and Stern’s novel Golk. These letters highlight their willingness to give and take criticism and document the birth of two distinct and important American literary lives. The letters similarly document the influence of teachers, friends, and contemporaries, including Saul Bellow, John Berryman, Edgar Bowers, Robert Lowell, Norman Mailer, Allen Tate, Peter Hillsman Taylor, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, and Yvor Winters, all of whom feature in the pair's conversations. In a broader context, their correspondence sheds light on the development of the mid-twentieth-century American literary scene.
Don Justice was my favorite teacher in the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop in 1959-60, and when my book titled Awaken, Bells Falling: Poems 1959-1967, (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1968) was published, I dedicated it to Don and my undergraduate instructor at UConn, John Malcolm Brinnin. I modeled my classroom style of teaching after Don’s at Iowa, and my practical criticism of student work after John Brinnin who was the best personal critic I ever ran across:
for John Brinnin and Don Justice, on a line by Joel Sloman
If it is true that
“the sea worm is a decorated flute
that pipes in the most ancient mode” —
and if it is true, too, that
the salt content of mammalian blood
is exactly equivalent
to the salinity of the oceans
at the time life emerged onto the land;
and if it is true
that man is the only mammal with a
capacity for song, well, then,
that explains why the baroque
worms swims in our veins, piping, and why
we dance to his measure inch by
equivocal inch. And it explains why
this song, even as it explains nothing.
While I was teaching at the State University of New York College at Oswego (1965-1996) Don came to teach at Syracuse University, about 40 miles away, so our families got to see quite a fair amount of each other while he was there.
One day while we were visiting the Justices I was explaining to Don the four parallel systems of Hebrew prosody – synonymous, synthetic, antithetical, and climactic parallelism – and in order to illustrate them I wrote “The Study” in Don’s home. Thus, the poem below is a picture of Don’s quarters, not of mine, although I incorporated it in my long series titled The Inhabitant, Poems by Lewis Turco, Prints by Thom. Seawell, (Northampton, MA: Despa Press), which Conrad Aiken called “The best new poem I have read in something like forty years” when it was published in 1970. Although the book is long out-of-print, all of the poems in it (but not the prints by Seawell) and the poems in Awaken, Bells Falling, cited above, are collected in Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007, Scottsdale, AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2007:
For Donald Justice
The lamp is standing in the corner of the study: a tree with a crown of light rises out of the braided rug.
The Inhabitant's books form two walls which rise, like the voices of a thousand men, two-thirds of the way
toward the tall ceiling.
He is not thinking of poems under cover, of periodicals with pages curling like leaves under fall trees. The
Inhabitant is watching the lamp, for it is a tree which puts forth beams instead of limbs.
The tree leans away from its source. Its eccentricity is that of bias.
This is the Inhabitant's room; he shares it, for the moment, with Corelli and the lamp, but the study falls
away from the bole, as the Inhabitant has fallen away from his pages and his youth. The lamp
keeps the chairs and shelves from flying too far from an axis.
Behind the shading fabric there are filaments which flame at a touch. The tree in its foliage burns at the
center of things.
This is where the Inhabitant lives. These things are his — these books, this music upon which the
lamplight falls, upon which he too, once, threw a radiance now eaten by wires tapping the sources
of silence and desuetude.
The lamp, rising out of the study's braided rug, keeps the Inhabitant from flying too far beyond peripheries.
Light, he muses, uses oddly the things we use.
Many years later I had a dream about my old friend, and when I woke up I remembered it and wrote it down; I collected it in The Gathering of the Eldersand Other Poems by “Wesli Court,” a.k.a. Lewis Turco, Scottsdale, AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2010:
LINES TO BE ETCHED ON A WINDOW*
For Donald Justice
Clearly, you may see clear through me,
As though I were not here.
While I was still a graduate student enrolled in Don’s workshop at Iowa I wrote literary epitaphs for many of my classmates, including Don and Paul Engle, director of the program, as well. In 1964-65 I wrote a long satire of contemporary poetry titled “Odds Bodkin’s Strange Thrusts and Ravels,” published in two parts in two issues of The Oberlin Quarterly. I reprinted the satire in The Collected Lyrics of Lewis Turco / Wesli Court 1953-2004, Scottsdale, AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2004, and I included some of them also, after Don’s death, in Wesli Court’s Epitaphs for the Poets (Baltimore, MD, BrickHouseBooks, 2012):
Everything in “The Vision” is true and accurate, as I remember it. What you read as your eyes walk through it is what happened. It was a true, if weird, vision, and what I decided to do with my life after I experienced it is what I have done:
By Lewis Turco
It came upon me while I was on the crapper
of my father’s parsonage, my eyes
boring into the porcelain of the tiles
before me on the wall. The tiles were white.
They spread across the vacancy of time
That seeped into my mind and filled that blank
jug of puberty with a vast Mont Blanc
of sorrow and ennui. On that crapper
I saw that I would have to fill up time
with something more than the nothing that met my eyes,
the emptiness that seeped out of those white
ranges of porcelain whose trackless tiles
led finally to death. I feared those tiles
worse than I feared my death, that ultimate blank-
ness waiting for me on the snowy white
crest of age. I saw life was a crapper
that had to be filled with something. If I closed my eyes
perhaps I could dream myself to a better time
than this one snowing before me. There was no time
to dream. What could I do? I could fill tiles
with words. I could write. I filled my eyes
with reading every day; I could fill blank
sheets with my own words. I rose off that crapper
thinking I might pave my way with white
sheaves laden with stories, poems — I could write
my way to death by filling my living tome
with endless lines of type till I came-a-cropper
at last and alas! perhaps, on the devil’s tines,
if I kept my gaze steady and didn’t blink,
and if I did not try to romanticize
my life with gods and demons, with the sighs
of wishful thinking, with the little white
lies of religion that covered up the blank
of existence with the stuff that fills a crapper.
I pulled myself out of the abyss of tiles
Ready to take on life and move in time.
I’d use my eyes to read. Perhaps in time
I’d use those words to write, to fill up tiles
With something more than blankness on that crapper.
Since I wrote this poem it has become the first half of a double sestina titled “Double Vision” which may be found in The Gathering of the Eldersand Other Poems by “Wesli Court,” a.k.a. Lewis Turco, Scottsdale, AZ: www.StarCloudPress.com, 2010, ISBN 978-1-932842-43-2, trade paperback, 115 pp.
you ever walked into a room with some purpose in mind, only to forget completely
what that purpose was?
the doors themselves are to blame for these strange memory lapses.
Psychologists at the University of Notre Dame have discovered that passing
through a doorway triggers what's known as an “event boundary” in the mind,
separating one set of thoughts and memories from the next. One’s brain files away the thoughts one
had in the previous room and prepares a blank slate for the new locale.
goodness for studies like this -- It's not age that causdes such lapses, it's
that damned door!
Burns had the
first television set in our gang. In
1949 Paul and I would go over to Bill Burns' house to watch the few programs
available: "Your Show of Shows," "The Milton Berle Show,"
and "professional" wrestling with Gorgeous George and others of less
colorful ilk. Not that it mattered much
on the fuzzy black and white screen.
Paul and I were
sophomores in Meriden High and Burns was a year ahead of us. The 1951 Annual says that he was
"...short, quiet, and witty...likes to read science fiction and is a fiend
for chess and checkers...claims that French verbs are his worst enemy...hopes
to attend business college after graduation." When he phoned me during the summer of 1991 I
recognized his voice, though I hadn't heard it for nearly forty years, and when
he stood in my livingroom in Oswego, New York, I recognized him. He'd filled out some, but he still looked
a girl from New Haven," he said.
Not the New Haven just down the Merritt Parkway from Meriden, but the
one in Upstate New York, not more than twenty miles from my home. "We've been coming up here for
years. I've called you lots of times,
but this is the first time you've answered."
I told him Jean
and I spent most of our summers in Maine, and that it was a shame we couldn't
have gotten together sooner. We sat and
had a beer, chatting about old times and catching up on family matters. He had three kids, never went to any sort of
college but was a paramedic for a while after the service, and wound up in
Wallingford, Connecticut, the next town over from Meriden, where he worked in a
plant as a technician.
about his liking to read science fiction was a reference to our high school
"science fiction reading club."
"I've still got one of those Fantaseers cards," he said.
lettering on black plastic?"
I told him that
one day a year or two ago I'd gone up to my garret study and begun to rummage
around, just on the off-chance I'd made a folder of Fantaseer memorabilia. I checked my files and found the club's
Constitution, a list of members, and a chronology of the events of the first
eighteen months of our two and one-half year existence. On that occasion my wife, Jean, had said,
"It's a good thing you have the soul of a clerk." Not just the soul, which I'd inherited from
my mother, but the training as well -- I'd been a yeoman in the Navy. The
Fantaseers was formed in January of 1950 at a party held at the home of one of
our classmates -- I can't remember who that was now. The first of the four charter members was
Peter, whose I. Q. tested out at 165.
His entry in The Annual says, "'Goose' is one of the few students
who owns a coveted berth in the National Honor Society...his weaknesses include
movies and ping-pong...a strong player on the soccer team...will go to college
and study engineering." He was
voted "Most Likely to Succeed" in our senior year.
next: "'Luigi'" -- actually, my father's name "...a real
personality...the co-Editor whose originality and hard work helped make this Annual possible...Lewis has brightened
many a class with his endless supply of 'corn'...a sparkling tenor...would like
to attend Bucknell University."
Voted both "Class Prankster" and "Class Wit."
Lindsey is the
third. He has no entry in the yearbook
because he skipped his senior year, went to both Yale and Harvard on Ford
Foundation Fellowships, skipping his master's degree and going right from his
B. A. to his Ph. D. and becoming a famous academic in an esoteric branch of
fate, although I've seen him once in a great while, I do not know, was the
fourth. "'Phin,' the salesman par
excellence...able manager of the basketball team...one really cannot appreciate
'Phin" without knowing him intimately...member of National Honor...another
science-fiction advocate...UConn's gain will be our loss." Phineas had been my best friend during the
year or so that my family had lived on Newton Street when I was in early grade
school, but when we were reunited in high school he had no recollection of our
The next member
entered in the Constitution was Burns who gave the Fantaseers their motto:
"There's nothing like good clean fun, and this is nothing like it";
George was a Congregational minister's son; "One of the boss-men of the
class...the competent and industrious co-editor of the 1951 Annual, who spent hours making this book
possible...skilled pianist and member of Special Chorus...active member of the
German Club...a debater...a man with a future" who followed in his
father's clerical footsteps.
Pierre was the
son of a Danish nurseryman in Kensington, not far away down the Chamberlain
Highway, and a French mother. He had no
entry, either, because his family had moved out of Meriden before his senior
year. He attended Princeton, worked in
New York for many years in a wine importing company, if I'm not mistaken, and
has now run the nursery for years since his father's death.
Johnston was a
neighborhood friend of mine and a senior; Martin, was the only person ever to
have been drummed out of "The Black Thirteen"; Paul ("I think he
died of AIDS," Burns told me) was our homeroom's "...man of
distinction who makes himself heard...a humorist and salesman who enjoys
Wagner...plans to go to Teacher's College to learn to educate future scholars
in general science and skulduggery."
David, whom I
barely remember, was a senior, "...friendly and ambitious...Art Editor of
The Annual...a hard worker with a determined spirit...has real artistic
talent...a biology student...a go-getter...intends to be a science
teacher." Arthur was "...the
popular co-editor of this book," The Annual for 1952, "a Herculean
job which he filled adequately...is an accomplished dancer and an artist of the
keyboard...President of the German Club...'Art' intends to go to college and is
sure to make good." He became a
"Quiet...somewhat introspective...hobbies center about camping, chess
playing, philosophy, science fiction...member of Rifle, Chemistry, Biology, and
Physics Clubs...pet peeve: French idioms!...future plans: University of
Connecticut, then a teaching career."
Actually, he joined the Navy with me, then attended Cornell for a while,
City University of New York for many years to finish his degree while he worked
as a journalist, and finally he became an evangelical.
"...the likable boy who cooks his food over a Bunsen burner and drinks
from a test tube...the best chemist of them all...an honor student...'Jack'
should make his mark at Wesleyan." He did.
He paid for his tuition by commercially breeding angel fish during his
high school years, but he ended his own life.
was Ben, a senior and "A top ranking student and diplomat...a real booster
for the U. N. ...a hard worker and a good
leader... elected member of National Honor Society in his Junior
year...likes reading, classical music, and opera...plans to attend Colgate
University...we consider Ben the man most likely to succeed." He became an Episcopalian minister, the
fourth member of The Fantaseers to take religious orders.
Constitution of the organization was adopted in March of 1950, and our library
established in my house -- the parsonage of the First Italian Baptist Church on
Windsor Avenue -- in April, for we were ostensibly to be a science-fiction
reading society, not a fraternity, for fraternities were banned by the
school. I was elected Book Custodian,
one of two club officers, the other being Treasurer. The last amendment of the Constitution said
that "There shall be no set number of members, no restrictions, but that
was either forgotten or deliberately violated, for we eventually called
ourselves "the Black Thirteen" at a later stage and held our
membership to that number.
As might have
been predicted, our club soon became primarily social rather than
literary. Though no dates are attached
to the individual items in the Chronology, here are some of the several
outstanding events: "Antecedent Action" -- I believe that refers to
the party where we were conceived; "Begin[n]ing of club"[;]
"First meeting of club[;] Entrence [sic] of Burns and [Pierre],"
which must refer to their being inducted; "Ripping down of
fence[.]" (I don't recall who made
these notes, but the spelling is bad and I won't be pedantic about correcting
the errors; from here on I'll do it silently.)
referred to was composed of trash -- bedsprings, old boards, anything and
everything, and it had been erected by a neighbor of mine across the large
weed-overgrown vacant lot behind his house.
This field had never been turned into a back yard with a lawn, nor even
a garden. We used to cut through it to
get to a street that dead-ended at the lot, and when the neighbor put up his
fence, which was both an eyesore and an offense to us, we had to go a very long
way around or climb over it.
I am startled
to look over the records now and discover that this episode occurred so early
in the history of The Fantaseers; specifically, in the early fall of our first
year. It was intended as an initiation
ceremony for Marty, a sophomore (though none was required by our Constitution),
and we all participated in it. Our great
mistake was to split up afterward: half the club retreated to my house, the
other half sat in Pierre's car across the street, in front of the Venice
Restaurant where a cruising police car, called by our neighbor, stopped,
interrogated the passengers, and took down names. Though I wasn't one of those caught, it fell
out that, as the club's chief officer, I had to go to the neighbor to apologize
and to make restitution for the fence. I
believe the sum came to something like $10.00, and I assume we all contributed.
the first and only member of The Fantaseers to resign, as of October first of
1950. I think his mother made him drop
out. In any case, he was a friend of
mine, but not of the other members, and not literary in any particular
way. The club must have taken out its
frustration over the incident of the fence on Marty, whose idea it was, because
he is the only member ever to have been ousted.
The entry in the club diary read, "RESIGNED, as of November 10,
1950 -- by Request **** Martin D-----s, Member." Several members were suspended from time to
time for non-payment of the dues with which we purchased science fiction and
fantasy books: David, in January of 1951, Arthur in April, Peter, Pierre, Paul,
and Lindsey in May, but the suspensions were always lifted. Other items, many
of them lost in the dim regions of the Vale of Lethe, read, "Sending of
horse crap to Phineas; Breaking of window at Venice; PEARL STREET; Turco's
accident with Pierre's car." I
remember none of these except the last.
father had established his plant nursery in Kensington the family moved there,
but Pierre never broke his ties with his old friends. He was the only Fantaseer not a student at
Meriden High. Of course, he had to have
a car under the circumstances. Before I
had my own, on occasion I go out to practice driving Pierre's dad's stick-shift
truck on the dirt roads of the nursery.
When I got good enough, Pierre would let me practice with his
One day we were
parked across the street from my house, beside a mail depository. I got behind the wheel and Pierre walked
around to get in on the passenger side.
Just as Pierre opened his door, my foot slipped off the clutch and the
car jerked forward. Pierre jumped out of
the way in time to avoid being caught between the door and the mailbox, but the
door hit the box and was sprung.
speaking, this episode had nothing to do with The Fantaseers except that it
involved two members, but many of us saw nearly everything we did in terms of
the club, or the Sportlanders Barbershop Quartet in which I sang lead, or the
Fantatnafs, which is what we called ourselves when we were joined by the
Reesatnafs, the girls in our group.
Those were certainly my personal parameters; schoolwork almost didn't
enter into consideration.
Intellectually, I was concerned nearly exclusively with reading and with
my own writing. I knew very early what I
wanted to be.
That's why I'm
embarrassed now to read the misspellings in this list of Fantaseer events, for
I've always thought of myself as an excellent speller, and it must have been I
who typed this list because I recognize the elite typeface of my father's old
Underwood Standard typewriter. How could
I forget it? Every week I sat at the
keyboard hunting and pecking out stories and poems, many of the latter
published in The Morning Record in
Lydia Atkinson's Wednesday poetry column, "Pennons of Pegasus." If I had spent my writing time on homework I
would very likely have been a member of the National Honor Society like a
number of The Fantaseers, which did not include Paul or Burns.
continues: "Flashbulb lighting."
A classic Fantaseer event! I had
a flashgun that I could set off without the camera. One Friday evening several of us got into
Pierre's car and began cruising, a great American teen-age pastime. We motored up to Hubbard Park on the farthest
western edge of town and drove around Mirror Lake slowly, peering into the
windows of the automobiles parked there.
When we at last found a couple making out in the back seat we cruised
slowly past, I leaned out the window and set off the flashgun, and Pierre
floored the accelerator. We got to West
Main Street quickly, but there was so much traffic that, by the time we entered
the stream, our victim's car was right behind us.
We beat about
country roads for a while, but we couldn't shake our pursuer, so we changed our
strategy. "Head for downtown!"
Burns yelled. On Friday evenings the
stores stayed open late and when we got to the business district we began doing
circles around Crown Street Square until we got stopped at a light, the furious
lover right behind us, revving his engine.
It happened that we'd pulled up next to another high schooler's jalopy
on our right, so I leaned from the window again and yelled to the driver -- it
may have been Don Wescott -- "How about cutting off that guy?" I
pointed with my thumb. "He's chasing us."
put his car into reverse, stuck his left rear fender and bumper in between our
pursuer and us, turned off his engine, pulled the keys from the ignition, threw
them on the floor and began hunting for them.
The light turned green and we were off in a blare of horns and curses.
who'd been chasing us had taken down Pierre's license number and evidently got
his home address from the motor vehicles bureau. He called and, when Pierre answered and
identified himself, asked, "How much do you want for the
negatives?" Pierre had a hard time
explaining that there were no negatives because we had no camera, only a
flashgun. "I don't think he really
believed me," Pierre told us. We
all wondered who he was and with whom he'd been out that night.
muffler at hunting lodge; Play rehearsals" -- this referred to the Salem
Witch Trials playlet I wrote for The Fantaseers to enact during the annual
Senior Skit Day at the high school. "Robes at First Congo; Burning alcohol
in Congo basement" -- good grief! I
don't remember that at all. "Priest
act in Kensington."
needed black choir robes for the play, and we could have borrowed them from my
father's, or from George's father's church.
We chose the latter, and while we had them we decided to put them to
double employ. Out near Pierre's nursery one of the roads where I had learned
to drive was used, like the Mirror Lake road, as a lover's lane. One evening The Fantaseers went out, parked
some distance away, cut through the woods where, before emerging, we put on the
robes and formed a wedge behind Paul, who was the guidon-bearer. He carried a crucifix made of crooked
sticks. Ben came next, portly and
archiepiscopal, the only one of us wearing a surplice. Flanking him a step behind came Burns to the
left and me to the right, bearing lighted candles. The rest fanned out behind with prayerful
We walked into
the middle of the road and began marching down it. Paul intoned, "Repent ye, sinners, and
be saved!" Ben waved his blessings
over the automobiles with their stunned occupants. Burns lifted his candle and made the sign of
the cross over the lovers lying stunned in their autos, I sang "Jesus
Loves Me." The tapers flickered in
the summer zephyrs, everyone chanted or called out to the sinners lining both
sides of the dirt track -- we raised a glorious and cacophonic din unto the
As the phalanx
approached two cars on either flank the headlights blinked on, the engines
croaked to life, and, wheels spinning, the vehicles roared off into the
night. It was as though we were starting
a serial drag race. Soon there were no
cars left on Lovers' Lane, and the Fantaseers glowed with good feeling. "Just think how many souls we've saved
tonight," Burns said with that Irish grin sitting under his nose. "At least temporarily."
The next entry
is "THE PLAY," of which I have a photo taken by a senior, Howard
Iwanicki, who became a photographer for The
Morning Record. Ben is seated in the
makeshift judge's bench, laughing insanely as he snips the heads off a string
of paper dolls. He has on one of the
black choir robes, as does Arthur who is standing beside him to his right as an
officer of the court, I suppose, holding one of those long-handled window poles
they used to have in the old school buildings.
Both of them are wearing new mop heads as wigs.
Burns is the
witch, evidently. He is sitting, dressed
in rags and chains, his chin in his left hand and his elbow on his knee. Behind
him, dressed entirely in black and looking like a flat silhouette, stands Jack,
the headsman. Paul lurks to his left,
also in rags, gotten up as a hunchback with a crooked walking stick. I'm next, sitting down, in my father's old
swallow-tail coat and raggedy white pants.
Peter and George are next, in the jury box, the latter dressed in what
appears to be a white sheet.
By the time I
was in high school I knew my mother's family, the Putnams (my middle name is
Putnam), were somehow connected with what went on in Salem Village in 1692, and
this play was my first attempt to write something about it. However, it wasn't until I was in my forties
that I researched the subject and wrote an enormous, still unpublished,
1200-page manuscript titled The Devil's
Disease and subtitled, "A Narrative of the Age of Witchcraft in
England and New England 1580-1697."
I know more about the Putnams and their witch-hunting now than I would
have wished to know in 1951, I think, including the information that I am a
descendant through my mother of Constable "Carolina" John Putnam who
was jailing his fellow townsmen during the witch hunt.
of Fantaseer events continues.
"Jacklighting at the Tower" had to do with the spotlight my
mother had won at CUNO Engineering Corp. where she was a stenographer for years
during and after the war. As my parents
never owned a car, she had stuck it in the bottom of a trunk. I'd asked her for permission to attach it to
my first jalopy, a 1940 Chevrolet tudor sedan, but she had refused me, which I
felt was unreasonable as she had no earthly use for it herself. So I expropriated it. I disguised it by putting a tennis racquet
cover over it, and she didn't notice it for months.
I don't know
what it was we were jacklighting -- certainly not animals. The "tower" was Castle Craig on
East Peak, a lookout above Hubbard Park that had been privately build by an
eccentric man and then either donated or bequeathed to the city. We used to drive up there all the time for rituals
and romance. One Christmas Eve Ray and I
and Tony, the tenor in the Sportlanders Quartet, tried to drive up to West
Peak. We had been sneaking home-made
wine from Tony's father's cellar, so it wasn't till we got half way up the
twisting climb that we realized we were driving on glare ice. We had at last noticed because the car had
stopped and was beginning to drift backward, despite the fact that its wheels
were still spinning. I stopped, put on the emergency brake, and stepped out of
the car to assess the situation. My feet
skidded out from under me and I fell flat on my back in the middle of the
road. I was stone sober in an instant.
managed to get the car turned around and headed downhill again, but I couldn't
control it and we hit the guard rail, denting the fender so badly it scraped
the tire. We pulled the metal away from
the rubber and, after heroic labors, managed to reach the city streets around
midnight. Both Tony and Ray were
Catholics, but we knew that George's father was conducting a service at that
hour, so we drove downtown, parked, and staggered down the middle aisle to the
only pew that was unoccupied, way down in front. I thought we'd pulled it off, but in fact
everyone knew we were drunk, it turned out.
Jean, my future wife, was in the conPeteration with her family that
night. When we talk about it these days
she still gets that look on her face.
reads, "Burns works at Kresge's" with Curt and me. Curt was the
baritone of The Sportlanders -- so named because our sponsor (I think he bought
us music) was Al of Al's Sportland. I
don't think I ever met him. Curt was our
contact. The three of us were stockboys
at the five-and-dime, as I recall, unless I was still a busboy at the snack
bar. Not much later in the chronicle
there is an entry that reads, "Burns works at Palace," that is, the
Palace Theatre on West Main, a few blocks up from Kresge's. Burns was always a slow mover, though he
would have preferred to call his actions "deliberate," I'm sure. He must not have lasted long as a stock boy,
but he looked like the archetypal usher with his round, flat hat, red uniform,
flashlight and freckles. He made a
ceremony of it when any of The Fantaseers showed up for a show.
interesting item: "Bev naked on bed."
Why don't I remember Bev? Perhaps
I wasn't present. Burns, when I began
this past summer to reminisce about one of our adventures, said, "I wasn't
in on that one." And so not all of
our "common memories" are common. A fond recollection turns into
something other than the warm sharing of remembrance. Suddenly, there's a blank place where we
thought someone was standing. Here's one
I don't recall: "Burns in Hubbard Park fixing motor in rain assailed by
A major item --
I shall reproduce it exactly: "Ben mispells Fantaseers on Jubalee
Program." That's worth the whole
list, it seems to me. "Ben pushes
Burns into ten feet of water," and Burns couldn't swim. "Burns meets Tut on way home from
Hubbard Park" -- Tut was no doubt the "bruiser" who had accosted
Burns earlier. He was tall, not big, but
scary enough for all that -- one of the town bullies, of no particular
occupation and a small-time gang reputation.
[gasoline indicator] needle stuck: 2:00 [a.m.] in Kensington. My mother won't speak to me for 9 months." And little wonder at that. "Pierre's party in Sept.: Paul hanging
from rafters. Sugar in Turco's gas tank," and a new carburetor for Turco.
"Graduation party: Class of '51."
The ranks of the Fantaseers were considerably depleted by the end of the
summer. We lost Burns, George, Dave,
Ben, and, of course, Lindsey to Yale a year early. "Burns has chance to go
to Arabia; Trip to see 'King Lear'; Holding court in room 8; Burns and Peter
playing cards in auditorium till school closes; Burns works in Beanfields;
Until the sea shall give up its treasures.
Hot Dog Roast in Burns' yard; Mrs. Turco's opinion of Paul and Burns;
Burns, Paul and Ben go to shack in woods; Burns changes site of Meriden
Library." That one is a real
and Reesatnafs go on midnight hike to tower" -- Castle Craig again. "Locking Burns and George in
safe...Burns and Paul make Peter eat Pizza until he spews; Trying to teach Ben
to cut out paper dolls; Trying to teach Burns to snap his fingers...."
Obviously, this list isn't in chronological order after all, since the play was
over and there would be no reason at this point to teach Ben the art of
No such list exists for our senior
year, but the incident that Burns didn't remember in 1991 was the
quintessential Fantaseers terrorist action.
The reason he wasn't involved, I now realize, is that he had graduated
and gone his way. When the Class of 1951
had disappeared into the mists those Fantaseers who remained inducted new
members including a replacement George, as I recall. One good-natured but not very bright
sophomore, Bobby, wanted very much to join, and he began hanging around with
us. He became a sort of mascot, but he
had no interest in reading, just in deviltry, so he was never made a member.
Bobby fed us
the information that there was a car that parked every Wednesday night on a
deserted stretch of road out by Black Pond on the East Side near where he
lived. He had followed the occupant, a
man, who cut through some woods to visit a house whose occupants were two young
women. He would stay for a time, come
out, walk through the woods back to his car, get in, and drive off. We were intrigued. Our outraged "moral" sense was
activated, as it had been in the lover's lane incidents.
I worked as
high school correspondent and morgue files clerk for the Record in my senior year, and one of my jobs was to pick up
,"mats" at the railroad station each night. I got to know the railroad men, and when the
Fantaseers' plan began to jell, I asked for and obtained a railroad flare. I thought I knew how to start it by scraping
its head on a hard surface, like a Lucifer match.
One night the
Fantaseers went up to Black Pond and most of the club members hid behind a
stone wall that flanked the spot where the car was parked. I hid my car up the road, and Ray and I got
ready to go into action when we got the flashlight signal from the others. When
the light flashed, that meant that the owner of the car had come back and was
about to start his engine. I was to
plant the lighted flare in the middle of the road to stop him. What happened after that was to be played by
ear, I guess. Ray was my lookout, but he
never warned me because he never got a signal.
I heard the car coming, dashed out into the road, squatted, began madly
rubbing the flare against the macadam, and jumped out of the way just as the
automobile came roaring past. I was
angry and derisive of my colleagues in terror, who had remained hidden behind the
wall. They resolved to do better next
a leaf from the lover who had chased us down from Hubbard Park to Crown Street
Square the year before, called the Connecticut Motor Vehicles Department. He said that a car with such-and-such a
license plate number was parking on private property, and he wanted to get a
name and address to inform the offender he'd best park elsewhere. Then he went to the Meriden City Hall Clerk's
office to find the names of the women living in the house in the woods. Paul assembled a considerable dossier on the
principals. He found that the man was
married and lived in Plainville, an adjoining town. Paul even scouted the neighborhood.
This time there
was to be no flare. We all hid behind
the wall, I with my trusty flashgun, Paul with a flashlight and his dossier,
the rest with their courage screwed up.
The plan was that we'd all rise, holler and make lots of light and
noise, and hightail it off across the pastures.
To make sure the parker had some trouble roaring down the road as he'd
done last time, we let half the air out of his tires, and Paul pulled his old
But the boys
were out to prove their manhood. When
our victim arrived, we rose up as a body from behind the stone fence. Paul called out in stentorian tones,
"John Doe, 2121 Adams Drive, Plainville, Connecticut!" The man stopped in his tracks, his hand on
the car door. My flashgun fired. Following the plan, Ray and I headed off
across the field. When my flight was
arrested by an electric fence I grabbed in the dark with my bare hand, I
cursed, turned, and saw in the moonlight a row of Fantaseers standing at the
low wall. Paul was still unreeling his
list of facts. The man was immobile. I began to walk back, but before I arrived he
jumped into his car and took off...as best he could.
We were in no
great hurry. We strolled in a leisurely
manner to my hidden car, got in, and followed the fleeing vehicle -- down East
Main to Broad Street, where we decided to peel off and go to Plainville by a
back route. It was as though it were
planned: as the man pulled into his home street, we pulled out of the next
street up and fell in right behind him again.
My spotlight was on, and we played it over his car. He pulled into his driveway, jumped out of
the car, and ran inside. He lived on a
little circle, and we cruised around it hooting at him, shining the light on
the front of his house, and then we slowly pulled away. As we did so, we noticed a police car driving
past us. Before we turned the corner, we
saw it stop in front of our victim's house.
Bobby said he never saw the man again.
other escapades after that, as for instance when we tried to make a huge torch
out of Castle Craig by soaking its stone-and-steel construction with kerosene,
but the Adventure of the Black Pond Parker was both the crest and the trough of
our careers as Fantaseers. When he
graduated, Bobby joined the service, I heard, and when he was discharged he and
another young veteran held up a gasoline station and fled across the state line
where they ran out of money and held up another place. They were caught, tried as second offenders,
even though they'd not been convicted of the first offense, and were sentenced
to some incredibly long incarceration for armed robbery -- if my memory serves,
it was life, and when they'd served their minimum sentences, they were to be
extradited and tried for the first crime.
never ran into anybody," Burns said, because for years I worked the second
shift. When I was awake, everybody else
was sleeping, and when I was asleep, everyone else was awake." He'd heard about Paul's death, but had not
run into him. He'd heard about Jack's
alcoholism, the loss of his job and his family, his suicide.
known about Peter's exceedingly successful appearances on "The Price is
Right" and "The Wheel of Fortune" before he was divorced a
second time, could no longer find a job, and was reduced to asking for
long-distance collect-call handouts from his friends.
have to get together again next year," Burns said.
a lot to catch up on."
Just as he was
leaving my wife came in from shopping. I
introduced them. "Do you remember
me?" he asked, giving her his patented Irish grin. She assured him she did. "I'd like you both to meet my wife,"
Burns said. "She went to Meriden
High, too, a few years behind us. She's
looking forward to it," I said, shaking his hand. We waved to each other as he drove away down
the hot August streets of Oswego.
Things, the work of dust and summer flies, upstairs
over the other rooms, lying where they were created under the covers of trunks.
The mathoms, original art of shadows drowsing in boxes: dresses and shirts worn
by the seasons at their balls and weddings; the toys mice play with; mirrors
reflecting upon solitude; cords and scissors.
the Inhabitant moves slowing among orderly rooms; his wife is a comfort,
his child little trouble, and the cat is kindly for the most part.
In the attic it is quiet; rain touches the roof and
falls slowly from the eaves.
If the Inhabitant intrudes at odd times he does not
notice the machine amid the clutter. It
stands in a corner behind a rack of clothes in shades of brown and yellow, a
red flower printing itself now and again on some fabric fading into the slanted
He is mildly surprised by the numbers of mathoms.
At times it is hard to remember: a photo in a gilt frame, a ribbon, someone's
They are worth an hour's musing in semi-darkness,
the hum of a wasp on the ceiling, street sounds muffled. The machine is never
discovered: the only mechanism to intrude — lightly, nearly beneath any
threshold — is a mower in the hands of a distant neighbor.
When the door of the mathom shop is closed and the
Inhabitant leaves the print of his footsteps for a moment on the wooden stair,
things pause. There is no movement, not even of time. The mathoms listen until,
downstairs, carpets and rugs swallow the noises of living, until the furniture
Then the machine clicks on: the clock dial begins
to turn; dust feeds the cogs. It is making things, making them slowly, out of
the debris of afternoons and the streetlamp suicides of evening moths.
It takes forever, but the mathoms accumulate, sift
into the corners like drifts, send up an aroma as of the slowest burning — the
scent of must. Under the mathom shop the Inhabitant senses — at most, perhaps —
a vague weightlessness overhead and, now and then, the cat acts strangely.
This is the opening of the first chapter in Dialects of the Tribe: Postmodern American Poets and Poetry:
CHAPTER ONE, THE ACADEMIC POETS
Syntax — word order in a sentence — and
diction are related, they depend upon one another, but they are not the same
thing. Syntax is concerned with the form
of the sentence; diction has to do with its tone and style — a "manner of
diction is a manner of speaking designed specifically for writing in the genre
of poetry. For instance, in ordinary
middle-class speech one might say, "A thought of grief came to me
alone." In this sentence the syntax
is "normal": the subject comes first, then the predicate. But in Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of
Immortality..." the syntax is reversed: "To me alone there came a
thought of grief." The two
sentences say exactly the same thing, but its tone has been "elevated"
through syntactical inversion.
Poetic diction has nothing to do with
mode — prose or verse. Walt Whitman
wrote in prose mode, but his diction was the same elevated poetic diction that
William Wordsworth used in verse mode.
Opening Whitman's poems at random, one may find examples everywhere:
Section 4 of "The Return of the Heroes," for instance, opens with
this line: "When late I sang sad was my voice." This passage in normal syntax would be
written, "My voice was sad when I sang late[ly]"; or, in middle-class
diction, "My voice was sad when I sang recently," or even, "When
I recently sang my voice was sad."
Much more interesting was the idiosyncratic poetic diction of Emily
Dickinson, as in the poem that begins, "Of Course — I prayed — / And did
God Care? / He cared as much as on the Air / A Bird had stamped her foot
In every era there are always two sorts
of poetic diction: that to be found in what David Perkins in the second volume
of his A History of Modern Poetry
called a "period style," as we have here been discussing in terms of
the nineteenth century Romantic style, and any number of "idiosyncratic
styles" invented by individual poets.
Such writers we call "stylists." The 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins
sounded little like his contemporaries; here is the opening of "Hurrahing
in Harvest": "Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks
arise / Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviours / Of
silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier / Meal-drift moulded ever and
melted across skies?" Clearly, this
is "poetic diction," but in Hopkins' case it has less to do with
rearrangements of syntax than with effects on the sonic
level of language and with vocabulary.
The English-language Neoclassical
period of the eighteenth century also had both its period style and its
idiosyncratic styles. Alexander Pope exemplifies
(we are told) the best of the period style, as in lines 259-60 of the
"Essay on Man": "What if the foot, ordain'd the dust to tread, /
Or hand, to toil, aspir'd to be the head?"
To flesh this passage out in ordinary prose is to illustrate the
difference between ordinary and elevated language: "What if the foot,
ordained to tread the dust; or the hand, ordained to toil, aspired to be the
head?" Poetic diction is generally
intended to intensify the aural experience; perhaps, however, in the hands of
most poets what poetic diction actually does is to mask inanity.
Samuel Johnson's contemporary
Christopher Smart sometimes wrote in the poetic diction of the Neoclassical
period style, as in Section VII of "Hymn to the Supreme Being":
"Yet hold, presumption, nor too fondly climb, / And thou too hold, O
horrible despair!" Considerably
before Whitman he also wrote poems in the prose mode; however, in those poems
Smart's poetic diction turned away from the period style and became
idiosyncratic, as in "Of the Sun and the Moon": "For the Sun's
at work to make me a garment & the Moon is at work for my wife. / For the
Wedding Garments of all men are prepared in the Sun against the day of
acceptation. / For the Wedding Garments of all women are prepared in the Moon
against the day of their purification."
Here, the syntax is normal, but the form of his sentences is based upon
the schema anaphora (the repetition of an initial word or phrase), and the
sensory level of the passage is unusual and arresting.
Another poet of that period who wrote
in both prose and verse mode, William Blake, had his own poetic diction, but it
was the same or quite similar in both modes.
The syntax of this so-called "pre-Romantic" style was more
ordinary than that of the succeeding Romantics, as in the beginning of "A
Little Girl Lost" from Songs of
Experience: "Children of the future age, / Reading this indignant page,
/ Know that in a former time / Love, sweet love, was thought a
crime." This was a verse poem, of
course, but "Creation" is prose: "I must create a system, or be
enslaved by another man's. / I will not reason compare [an inversion: 'compare
reason']. My business is to
"In the ten years following the
Second World War," James E. B. Breslin wrote, "literary modernism,
like an aging evangelical religion, had rigidified into orthodoxy. In fact, with the publication of the widely
used second edition of Understanding
Poetry (1950), modernism had been codified into a textbook. The most conspicuous feature of the writing
produced by younger poets Robert Lowell, James Merrill, W. S. Merwin, Richard
Wilbur, for instance — was their revival of the very traditional forms that
modernist poets had sought to dismantle; the predominant mode became the
well-made symbolist poem. Yet in the
modern era, the very existence of an identifiable mode, much less its
perfection, is self-discrediting, so that during the fifties the predominant
mode came increasingly to feel limited, excluding, impoverished" (xiv). By
the end of the decade it seemed to many readers of contemporary poetry almost
as though Modernism had never happened.
The reaction against Modernism had begun
as early as the 1930s in the work of the British poet W.H. Auden and his Oxford
University contemporaries including Stephen Spender and C. Day Lewis, but the
reaction was not a revulsion against the poetry of Eliot, Pound, Yeats, and the
other high Modernists so much as it was a feeling of frustration with the
apparent impossibility of continuing to explore the outer edges of
twentieth-century expression. Auden's
first collection Poems appeared in
1930, and in it can be perceived the beginnings of the post-Modernist period
Auden and his group in the pre-World
War II period blended traditionally formal verse structures with an urbane
conversational style, as in Auden's "What's the Matter?" — "To
lie flat on the back with the knees flexed / And sunshine on the soft receptive
belly / Or face-down, the insolent spine relaxed, / No more compelled to cower
or to bully, is good; and good to see them passing by / Below on the white
side-walk in the heat, / The dog, the lady with parcels, and the boy: / There
is the casual life outside the heart." Perkins wrote, "to understand
why the poetry of the thirties took the direction it did, we must keep in mind
the situation in literary history of these poets born between 1907 and
1917. They were the first generation for
whom the development of modern poetry from the 1890s was what it is for us —
history, tales of the tribal elders" (v. II, 120).
The "Fugitive" poet and New
Critic Allen Tate's complaints about Auden's style in a review of his 1941 book
The Double Man put it clearly. Tate's
assessment is that he "can see in it a great deal that is brilliant and
entertaining, and in the sonnets much that is brilliant and moving; but in
passage after passage the main poem, 'New Year Letter,' slides off
into...parlor magic — or in places it dissolves into the annotations, of which
there are 87 pages to 55 of poetic text" (202). Tate ended his review by noting that
"Auden has a complex, even a very rich mind; yet his passion for
autobiography brings him back always to the question: What does it mean to
me? Perhaps he will not be able to tell
us fully what it means to him until he no longer asks the question. Or maybe until he asks the question: 'What
does it mean?'" (204). That is to
say, what does it mean to the human race, not merely to Auden.
Louise Bogan was kind in her
description of the prevalent style: "By the middle forties a modern poetic
style in English had come into being, broadly workable and capable of a variety
of applications. This style was a
composite one, derived from many sources.
But, since very nearly all of the sources were genuine, the end product
was itself authentic. It was a style
which tended to veer, it is true, toward verbalism on the one hand, and extreme
condensation of meaning and idea, on the other.
At its worst, a core of over-compressed thought was surrounded by an
envelope of over-inflated words. It was
a style rich in allusion, and its tone could vary from conversational flatness
to high incantation. Its best
practitioners, old and young, had insight into the nature and possibilities of
the poetic means, and kept these flexible, according to the nature of the
poetic end in view" (98).
This became what was known as
"academic poetry" in the United States, and it persisted even into
the so-called "free verse" (prose) poems of the post-war generations:
here is the contemporary poet William Stafford in "Adults Only": "Animals own a fur world; / people own
worlds that are variously, pleasingly, bare."
None of this sounds at all like the
poetic diction of Auden's contemporary, the idiosyncratic Dylan Thomas who owed
more, perhaps, to Gerard Manley Hopkins than to anyone else, as in "Hold Hard, These Ancient Minutes in the Cuckoo's
Month," which is also the first line.
The poem continues, "Under the lank, fourth folly on Glamorgan's
hill, / As the green blooms ride upward, to the drive of time;.." nor does
it sound like Theodore Roethke in Part 2 of "The Visitant":
"Slow, slow as a fish she came, / Slow as a fish coming forward, / Swaying
in a long wave;.." or John Berryman in "Old Man Goes South Again
Alone": "O parakeets & avocets, O immortelles / & ibis,
scarlet under that stunning sun / deliciously & tired I come / toward you
in orbit, Trinidad!..."
In the latter days of the Modernist
Movement preceding World War II, the formal study of poetry written in
traditional verse mode, as distinguished from the innovative Modernist
"free verse" prose mode, was commonplace in the high schools of the
United States. Poetry is a genre or “kind” of writing, like fiction or drama; it is not a "mode," for any of the
genres may be written in either of the modes, prose or verse — The Oxford English Dictionary defines verse as "metered" or measured
language," and prose as "unmetered"
or unmeasured language. What is measured
in language is in most instances syllables, whether stressed or unstressed or
both. Poetry written in verse utilizes metrics, but poetry written in both
verse and prose use rhyme, figures of speech, and the other techniques and
elements of writing to be found on its four levels: the typographical (page
layout), the sonic (besides meter and rhyme such techniques as assonance,
consonance, alliteration), the sensory (figurative language), and the ideational
levels (subject, theme, treatment).
of the first chapter, “Academic Poets,” in Dialects of the Tribe: Postmodern American Poets and Poetry is
devoted to these poets:
*9. Louis O.
Essays on these and on many other 20th
century poets, may be found here:
Wesli Court Self-Interview Wesli Court is interviewed by Lewis Turco about his new collection titled The Gathering of the Elders and Other Poems.
Traveler's Moon Photograph by Adel Gorgy
Three Poems “Domestic Duties Scorecard,” “Leftover Shakespearean Gnomes,” "Tsunami Strait."
The Virginia Quarterly Review "The Mutable Past," a memoir collected in FANTASEERS, A BOOK OF MEMORIES by Lewis Turco of growing up in the 1950s in Meriden, Connecticut, (Scotsdale AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2005).
The Tower Journal Two short stories, "The Demon in the Tree" and "The Substitute Wife," in the spring 2009 issue of Tower Journal.
The Tower Journal Memoir, “Pookah, The Greatest Cat in the History of the World,” Spring-Summer 2010.
The Michigan Quarterly Review This is the first terzanelle ever published, in "The Michigan Quarterly Review" in 1965. It has been gathered in THE COLLECTED LYRICS OF LEWIS TURCO/WESLI COURT, 1953-2004 (www.StarCloudPress.com).
The Gawain Poet An essay on the putative medieval author of "Gawain and the Green Knight" in the summer 2010 issue of Per Contra.
Fenn College - School of Arts & Sciences Lewis Turco's first creative writing class, with Loring Williams (left) and James L. Weil (right): the beginning of The Cleveland State University Poetry Center