August 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

La Principessa

Lazy Sunday watching videos of Paul Ryan having seniors arrested for talking back at a rally; babying a sick headache with lots of tea and honey; and remembering last night with Jay and Andree, who delight me even when the evening starts as follows: “I’m pretty depressed,” I say. “Me too,” Andree replies. I looked at Jay glowering on the couch and ask, “Are you depressed too?” “No, I’m really pissed off.” “Want to tell me about it?” “I don’t think so. I’m pissed off at my wife.”

Ah, I thought to myself, just the people I want to be with! Then Charles arrived and we ate delicious food and the men played music and Andree and I talked in the kitchen about the intersection of depression and ennui (she lives in France). And by the time they drove us home we were all celebrating our baby step into curmudgeonhood. And I remember being young—ripe, starry-eyed, full of desire, planning to be a ferocious old witch…perhaps feebly ferocious…

I’ve had more ageless fun recently reading writers’ letters for a Cathedral project. Katherine Anne Porter is delightfully crisp describing registering to vote in Republican Saratoga Springs in 1944, where she was busy stirring up the Democratic minority. All her letters are crisp, even when she writes about depression and ennui. Her eye for the joys of life is exceeded only by Wallace Stevens, who comes across as one of the happiest of men—constantly delighted by the weather, flowers and trees, the city, the evening light, his wife, daughter, neighbors, friends, books…

“…And then I came home, observing great masses of white clouds, with an autumnal shape to them, floating through the windy-sky. I wish I could spend the whole season out of doors, walking by day, reading and studying in the evenings. I feel a tremendous capacity for enjoying that kind of life—but it is all over and I acknowledge ‘the fell clutch of circumstance.’ How gradually we find ourselves compelled into the common lot! But after all there are innumerable things besides that kind of life—and I imagine that when I come home from the Library, thinking over some capital idea—a new name for the Milky Way, a new aspect of Life, an amusing story, a gorgeous line, I am as happy as I should be—or could be—anywhere. So many lives have been lived—the world is no longer dull—nor would be even if nothing new at all ever happened. It would be enough to examine the record already made, by so many races, in such varied spaces….” (From a letter to his wife, 1909.)

For drollery, there’s no one better than E.E. Cummings. In a 1918 letter to his father, on why he enlisted though he hates everything about the military.

“…because I am he who would drink beer and eat shit if he saw somebody else do it, especially if that somebody was compelled to do it. And I would think myself partially cheated of the expensive adventure of the universe did I not take a chance…
I reiterate (in my coyly paradoxical style) I should think myself equally cheated if I allowed my humanly-sentimental-mind to interfere one iota with the sealed letters of sensation brought to my soul by these eyes, these ears, this nose and tongue.

So no one would be allowed to take my place? And come here in my stead? And enjoy the privilege of dying (or, more correctly, living for) democracy? …no one shall come out of the valley and the mountain with the same music in his eyes as me. Nor shall that music please, nor shall it exalt the old ideals, but it shall discover a hideous ecstasy whereat the players of other musics shall fall into the gummy latrine of destiny, and the last note of my song shall pull the chain upon them, and they shall be perfectly swallowed, and god help the sea anyway.”

So passes another day when I got nothing called work done, but managed to avoid giving into my various afflictions. I must go and feed the felines dinner now, or be inundated with needling paw-pats and pseudo-loving mrows. (Charles suggests that before I leave for California, I make all his meals and freeze them in plastic containers, since he’ll be feeding the cats…)

The Plain Sense of Things

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

Wallace Stevens

In for a Penny

June 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Ezra Pound at William Carlos Williams’ house, 1958. Photograph by Richard Avedon.

After working all morning yesterday, I spent the early afternoon eating vanilla toffee energy bars while listening to the thunderstorm and saying silly things to the cats that made me feel like the dear, dotty, occasionally murderous old ladies so prevalent in British fiction. Then I did a more leisurely kind of work, reading poets’ letters in preparation for a Cathedral American Poets Corner show celebrating the USPS issuance of “10 Great 20th Century American Poets” stamps (7 of the poets in the Poets Corner made their cut).

This mostly consisted of the irritating practice of poking around in Google books, using various search words (poem, woman, love, want, bastards, money, never) to get pieces of letters such as this one from William Carlos Williams to Ezra Pound, after Pound wrote to him saying that T. S. Eliot was moving back to the States, teaching at Harvard, and since he’d likely feel lonely, would Williams kindly write him a note of welcome?

“Dear ez

Pussonally Eliot can go to hell before I welcome him to these shores. But since your letter is so damned decent, not to say generous, I’ll ignore the proff rather than tell him what I think of him. If I must get culchah I’ll take it from someone else. For I’m sure he will pizen a generation from his mere sickly presence—even in New England. Apparently he is sick from what you say. That would enlist my interest as a physician– if he weren’t a writer as well. No. To hell with him. Harvard without him is bad enough.

But I won’t kick him in the stomach. I suppose there’d be no use trying kicking him lower.

Jesus Christ, you’ve got a nerve asking me to do a thing like that, now that I think of it. I think you’ve been abroad long enough. I’d suggest that you come over here as Eliot’s valet.”

The letter goes on, I believe, but without buying the book I can’t say how.

Pound had a habit of writing in a rich multi-lingual but mostly early 1900’s American slang, which Williams always tried to meet up to, but never quite could. I’d give you a sample of Pound—he’s quite delicious—but don’t feel like copying it out. Maybe another time. Reading all these letters for this project is going to be one of the best parts of the summer.

June 25th and 26th are important anniversaries, so I did a little remembering. Rain, cake, wine, sex, somebody falling off a banquette, somebody getting too drunk (that could be me), somebody playing guitar too long, somebody asking me if I wanted to have babies with her husband, somebody leaving (repeat). Kind of want to shoot myself in the head, kind of want to go back to the wet grass, ocean view, dog & children…

You know how they say (some say) that the past, present and future are all part of a great many-dimensional matrix, that if you happen to be the sort of being with those powers—or a writer, pretending to be— you can slip your finger or tilt an eye wherever you want in the time stream? Well, this is undoubtedly another one of those pretty lies, but it gets easier to think you can do it the older you get. Once the future is eliminated as a source of worry and desire, the whole everything-happens-at-once thing starts seeming almost natural.

I wonder if I would feel this way if I had any ability at all to bear being in the moment. It’s not that I don’t know how. It’s not that it’s frightening, exactly. It’s just so goddamned big. And you have to either be alone there or slip through other people’s skins, which, again, I kind of know how to do, but that really is frightening…

Poets’ letters can have strange effects. Just warning you.

In this poem, David Lehman parodies Ezra Pound’s rants in the Cantos

With Tenure

If Ezra Pound were alive today
(and he is)
he’d be teaching
at a small college in the Pacific Northwest
and attending the annual convention
of writing instructors in St. Louis
and railing against tenure,
saying tenure
is a ladder whose rungs slip out
from under the scholar as he climbs
upwards to empty heaven
by the angels abandoned
for tenure killeth the spirit
(with tenure no man becomes master)
Texts are unwritten with tenure,
under the microscope, sous rature
it turneth the scholar into a drone
decayeth the pipe in his jacket’s breast pocket.
Hamlet was not written with tenure,
nor were written Schubert’s lieder
nor Manet’s Olympia painted with tenure.
No man of genius rises by tenure
Nor woman (I see you smile).
Picasso came not by tenure
nor Charlie Parker;
Came not by tenure Wallace Stevens
Not by tenure Marcel Proust
Nor Turner by tenure
With tenure hath only the mediocre
a sinecure unto death. Unto death, I say!
Nature is constipated the sap doesn’t flow
With tenure the classroom is empty
et in academia ego
the ketchup is stuck inside the bottle
the letter goes unanswered the bell doesn’t ring.

–David Lehman

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