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The Selected Poets: A Special APR Supplement.

James Dickey

All my life I've written about poetry. As I enter the last phase of it, I change my subject from poetry to poets.

Samuel Johnson never got around to writing The Lies of the Poets. JAMES DICKEY was the best liar I ever knew. He was driving me around in Oregon and telling me about being a fighter pilot in World War II. "One day I saw two Japanese troop planes lazing along, no guns, no armor. I shot the first one down, let the other wait. They knew what would happen." Eventually he dispatched the second plane. "Killed a lot of men that day," Jim chuckled. Almost everything he said was a lie. At first I was dim ENOUGH to believe him. When he told me a story about playing college football before the war, he said that an opposing lineman addressed him with disrespect. "The next play," Jim said, "I ruptured his spleen."

When he didn't lie he praised his wife Maxine. She's fat, he said, but--he banged his fist on the mahogany of the bar--"she's hard, like a table!" After Jim did a reading at Western Michigan, the Kalamazoo poet John Woods drove him to Ann Arbor for another gig. The two men spent the night at my house, in a bedroom with two cots. As they undressed, Dickey asked Woods, "Are you homosexual?"

John said "No."

Jim answered, "Too bad."

Jim was one of those people who cannot forgive you if you do them a favor. I heard of his work from my friend Robert Bly, who praised Dickey's poems and with his own press published a book collecting Jim's reviews of contemporary poetry. When I first met Jim I praised Bly's poems. I struck oil--a gusher of disdain, nastiness, and contempt. Anyone who ever did Jim a favor, and promoted his work, was subject to reprisal.

We knew each other because he submitted a poem to the Paris Review, where I was poetry editor. I accepted the poem with enthusiasm. Maybe "submitted" implies masochism, therefore subsequent sadism? Dickey and I wrote back and forth. He was working for an advertising agency in Atlanta, and mailed me a copy of a one-page celebration of Coca-Cola as his "latest work." Somewhere I read his poem, "The Heaven of Animals," and wrote him in praise. From time to time he granted me generous words about my own stuff.

Jim himself had not yet published a book of poems. I was on a committee that picked four poetry volumes a year for the Wesleyan University Press. We had done James Wright, Robert Bly, Louis Simpson, and Donald Justice. We had published my college classmate John Ashbery. At one editorial meeting, I recommended a manuscript from Dickey. All the editors liked it. Although I praised and admired and promoted it, I preferred a new book by James Wright. We chose five poets for four slots and Dickey was fifth. I wrote him that I was sorry. He took it well, or so I imagined.

Months later James Wright withdrew his manuscript because he found it antiquated--metrical, crafty, reasonable--and he had begun to zap into wild, almost-surreal free verse under the influence of Robert Bly. (His eventual new book was The Branch Will Not Break.) When Wright withdrew his collection from publication, the Press cackled like a stricken hen, unable to produce an obligatory egg. To fulfill expectations Wesleyan required a fourth book, and Dickey had been the last poet rejected. It was I who called Dickey to give him the good news. I telephoned him at his office, and he was careful not to sound too grateful.

He never forgave me. Years later Dickey taught briefly at Reed College when its English Department flew me to the campus to talk about contemporary poets. He took me aside when I arrived, and told me that these people--he didn't know why--wanted me not to read my poems but to lecture.

Often Jim Dickey, like John Berryman, was drunk when he read his poems. Sometimes he wasn't. He brought a guitar with him when he traveled, to strum at the party afterward as he chatted with the girls. Often at the after-reading party a visiting poet is surrounded by three coeds, starfuckers who expect him to choose a winner, and once Jim left the usual gathering with the usual student. Later she reported that Jim, back in the hotel room, picked up his guitar and crooned a song complaining that he warn't what he used to be.

Dickey took time away from poetry to write Deliverance, his best-selling novel, and to play a part in the popular movie that followed. He took the brief role of a burly country sheriff. He glared at citified menfolk who had survived a lethal assault in the woods, grunting, "Don't never come hack here again."

Jim's sheriff punched out his line as if he were rupturing a spleen.

Robert Creeley

I met ROBERT CREELEY at the Grolier Poetry Bookstore in Cambridge when I was an undergraduate. He had dropped out of Harvard the term before I matriculated. We chatted happily, and I liked him until I checked out his poems, which at the time sounded like E.E. Cummings. Later, when I was at Oxford, I wrote an essay in which I derided poems by the chicken farmer from northern New Hampshire whom I met at the Grolier. Creeley wrote a fierce letter from Majorca to the editor of the World Review. Twenty years later, I found his For Love and read it with astonishment and joy. A poetry exact in its images and linebreaks, sublime and sensual in the sounds it made. We met, we talked, we made up. Bob Creeley read his poems in Ann Arbor.

When Jane and I moved to New Hampshire, we discovered that Creeley had graduated from Holderness, a prep school not far from our house. Holderness didn't know. When I told them about their celebrated alumnus, they invited him to speak at graduation. Jane and I picked him up at the Concord Airport. On our sofa he wrote a poem, not half bad, as fast as his hand could move. We drove him in jeans and T-shirt to his old school, where the faculty disguised him under cap and gown. His graduation speech was witty, eccentric, smart, and delivered without notes. When I read my poems at his University of Buffalo, years later, we went on the town together. He flew to New Hampshire for a surprise seventieth birthday party that my children contrived for me. He had just done a reading in Denver and flew past Buffalo to rent a car at the Manchester Airport in New Hampshire and drive to the party in Concord. It was a happy time. I loved him and his poems. I never saw him again. He died on the road in 2005.

Louis MacNeice

When I was at Oxford I met Louis MACNEICE. For a while I ran Oxford's Poetry Society, OUPS, and got to choose the poets who read to us. (We paid only railroad fare. Poets charged us for first class tickets, traveled second class, and kept the change.) Dylan Thomas said his poems, Vernon Watkins, Kathleen Raine, Hugh MacDiarmid, Lynette Roberts, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice. When I was fifteen or sixteen I had found MacNeice's "Sunlight on the Garden" and never stopped reading him. After his early death in 1963, he was neglected like all poets after they die. Only the critic Edna Longley attended to him. When I was in Galway a few years ago I saw the MacNeice monument, his lines inscribed in stone, and lately I've noticed expanding response and enthusiasm for his work. "MacSpaunday," the composite name Roy Campbell invented for England's 1930s poets--C. Day-Lewis, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden--was not only Auden. Often one poet of a generation is posthumously celebrated, others ignored. Maybe MacNeice climbs out of his grave.

He came to Oxford, he read his poems, we talked, and I saw him again. My Oxford college was Christ Church, where MacNeice was friend to a German don named Stahl. Whenever MacNeice visited the House to see his friend, he took time to walk over to my rooms. In my early twenties, it was extraordinary to open the door and find Louis MacNeice standing there. Talking with him was not easy, as he often sat in silence, warm and present yet far away. Maybe he was garrulous only in a pub? He was inward; he was friendly. I cannot remember a word we said.


When we were both trying to hail a cab, in Manhattan after the 1956 Eisenhower People-To-People meeting, I met WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS. I began reading his poems when I was sixteen and a teacher loaned me The Wedge. At college I praised him in a long Harvard Advocate review of the first Paterson. Eight or ten years later we both looked for a taxi and I told him how I felt about his work. He grunted in response and stared at the gutter. Although I had grown up admiring modern vers libre poets--Eliot, Pound, Moore, Stevens, H.D., certainly Williams--I had recently published a poetry book that bulged with tidy metrical ditties, as modernist as white lace borders on pink linen handkerchiefs. I embodied reactionary youth. Mud from a passing bus splashed on my trousers.

John Holmes

In 1955 Richard Eberhart taught one year at Wheaton College. At the end of spring term he sponsored a daylong poetry celebration inviting Boston poets. Every moment was crowded with readings and talks, students and teachers. I stood inside a classroom, looking out at the crowd, when suddenly I saw the poet JOHN HOLMES collapsing. His right leg jerked up uncontrollably and his torso writhed as he collapsed. An ambulance took him away. In two hours he was back, his old self, because an accommodating doctor had given him a drink. He told his story. He taught his classes a few hours a week. At home almost all the time, he remained in the cellar of his Medford house, working at poems, writing letters, and drinking Sherry by the case. Today was the first time in years he had gone all morning without alcohol.

John stopped drinking and continued teaching at Tufts. I remember him well--soft-spoken, kind, prolific. He existed at the periphery of that era's Poetry Boston--Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, Adrienne Rich, Richard Eberhart, Ruth Stone, Philip Booth, Robert Frost in spring and fall. We had the Poets' Theater; we had Harvard's Morris Grey readings. Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin were John Holmes' night school students. Boston's nascent PBS station recruited John, Philip Booth, and me for a television series, talking about poetry at a table in a studio. We were listless, we were boring, we were sincere. So were our poems.

Will any of the Boston poets survive? We will hear of Robert Lowell again. Richard Wilbur in 2011 published a superb lyric in the New Yorker. No more. As I write he has died at 96. My literary agent can find no publisher to take on a Wilbur biography. He never killed himself or shot his wife. As far as I can tell, practically no one besides me adores his ecstatic and delicate metrical inventions. In his work he ought to survive but probably like most of us he won't.

Sober John's poems continued to plod into print, patiently wrought, decorous, and dim. A final book came out. The last time I saw him before he died, we sat together in a bookstore speaking of a Boston poet recently dead. We agreed that he wasn't good enough. John went silent and then told me--shyly, with upwelling joy--that in his heart he knew that his poems would last forever.

Stephen Spender

STEPHEN SPENDER was the "Sp" in Mac-Spaunday. Early in the 60s I lived with my family in an English village. I made a few pounds by writing book reviews for Stephen Spender's Encounter, which he edited together with a conservative American named Melvin Lasky. (When it was revealed that the magazine was a Cold War device funded by the CIA, Encounter vanished like Malaysia Flight 370.) On the side Spender accepted editorship of a reference book, The Concise Encyclopedia of English and American Poets and Poetry, to be brought out by the publisher of The Concise Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians. As Stephen told me later, he worried about his knowledge of poetic technique. What did he know about meter? He felt overwhelmed and asked me to be his coeditor and to split the fee. I agreed. I remember nothing of making the book.

Both of us were contributors. Entries about Stephen Spender and Donald Hall were both signed "D.H." A few items were attributed to "S.S." The book was enormous, as you would expect from anything called Concise. It required multiple contributors, and somehow we enlisted eminent figures--Geoffrey Hill, Hugh Kenner, Thom Gunn, Kathleen Raine, John Crowe Ransom, Victoria Sackville-West, Louis Simpson, Richard Wilbur-and another fifty eminent at the time. We paid little. The entries are remarkably thorough although brief, impressive with impressive initials. Who approached the thousand and one eminent contributors? Who chose the thousand and one subjects and categories? I remember nothing.

Something I do remember: when Stephen invited me to join him, he told me that the book would appear as "Edited by Stephen Spender and Donald Flail." A few weeks later, he told me that the publisher had a problem. Because "Donald Hall" was American and the publisher English, my name on the cover would inflate the US import duty. Our collaboration must appear as edited by Stephen alone, the publisher said, and Stephen in his introduction would gratefully acknowledge my assistance.

I said no.

The publisher wrote me directly. Stephen's encomium would bestow unprecedented praise. The publisher said it would be fulsome, apparently thinking that the word meant "very full" rather than "disgusting."

I said no.

The publisher arranged to meet me in London. I asked my English literary agent if she knew what the import duty would be. When we three met, Stephen was mum while the publisher continued to enlarge upon his praise-to-be.

I said no.

The publisher made a final point. "If you are listed as co-author the duty will double!"

"Yes," I answered. "4% not 2%."

Stephen and I publicly co-edited The Concise Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poets.

Stephen talked well on any subject other than poetry. I liked to listen when he spoke about paintings and sculpture--about Matisse and the School of Paris, about Vermeer, about England's Francis Bacon and Henry Moore. One afternoon we walked together to the Leicester Galleries where Stephen would pick up a Picasso print, the author's proof of an etching for a translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses. It was Picasso in a moment of airy lines, fragile and monumental together. I admired it. Stephen said, "I believe they have another." I gaze at my Picasso now, almost sixty years later, on a wall next to my kitchen window.

We saw each other again. Frequently Stephen lectured on American campuses, coast to coast, about "Poets of the Thirties." When he flew to Ann Arbor to read his familiar talk, one of our new English professors picked him up at the airport, drove him to the Union, and carried his suitcase to his room. Stephen thoughtfully asked if perhaps the young man was tired. "Would you like to lie down?"

Geoffrey Hill

In Thaxted a huge late medieval church--sometimes called the Cathedral of Essex--rose from a hill at the edge of the village. The vicar was Father Jack, a high-church communist, fond of bell-ringing, processions, the Soviet Union, and Greek in the prayer service. GEOFFREY HILL, who had been my best friend at Oxford, came to visit us in i960 at our 15th-century house. He and I had stayed in touch by letter, but for years we hadn't seen each other, and now the old friendship flared up. Our house had a narrow balcony that looked over Market Street. On Midsummer Night's Eve we perched there during an annual celebration. The Thaxted Morris men entertained Morris teams from all over England, dancing together where the street widened to become the market. Hundreds of men pranced wearing colorful, bell-covered, theoretically medieval clothing.

Geoffrey knew about our Morris team and had heard of Father Jack. Inside the church, ancient stone columns were topped with carved stone angelic faces, contrasting with distorted hellish human heads screaming at the end of wooden beams. Not that Geoffrey would enter the church at that time, or any church. If he did, he knew that a lightning bolt would destroy the building and him inside it. Like Cowper's castaway, he knew that his damnation was predestined.

When I spoke with Geoffrey about Father Jack, I mentioned that, along with his communist homilies, in his sermons he occasionally approached the Old Religion. As we watched the dancers, night darkened and the moon rose above us. Music from the market quieted as the Morris men stopped dancing. From the church on the hill ran a cobbled path called Stony Lane--masons had lived there for two centuries of church-building--which ended across from our house. We heard faint music start from the church's hill as the midsummer night's sun dropped down. From shadowy Stony Lane down into the black of Market Street marched in single file six men, led by the vicar in green tights playing an eerie violin. After him followed two green men with flutes, a green drummer, another green man walking with a horse's head protruding from his stomach and a horse's rump from his rear, then a last green man carrying a crossbow. Not only the vicar looked eerie. I reminded my gasping friend about ritual murder. "William Rufus told Walter Tyrell to shoot straight ..."

We were calm the next morning over oatmeal when I suggested to Geoffrey that we walk around the fields of the village. Above Stony Lane the land rose slowly toward a disused windmill, and we climbed a narrow path among beetroot. A black cat rushed across in front of us. Geoffrey made a noise. "Don't worry," I said. "It's just the vicar."

Allen Tate

My recollections of some poets are brief. ALLEN TATE always looked grumpy.

Edwin and Willa Muir

EDWIN MUIR grew old. His last book was called One Foot in Eden, which annoyed his wife WILLA because Edwin shouldn't even think about leaving her. They loved each other fiercely, opposite as they were. Willa told me with pride that in their lifetimes they had avoided regular employment. "We have lived by our wits." Edwin and Willa translated Kafka together. (Willa had better German.) She was assertive, bold, worldly, tempestuous. Edwin's poems looked into another universe, hovering with a luminous tender spirit above the earth. He was confrontational only to cant. I was young and full of myself when I told him that poetry was an embodiment of the duality of ... He snapped, "I do not listen to 'embodiments of dualities ...'"

Kenneth Rexroth

New Directions published KENNETH REXROTH'S poems, and I read him with pleasure and excitement beginning in my twenties and thirties. Long poems and short, I admired him and learned from him, his diction and his three beats a line. His radio talks on California NPR made his opinions public. A dedicated anti-academic, he bragged, "I write like I talk." Whatever his taste or careful grammar, I kept on admiring his poems as he kept on being nasty about me and my eastern gang. I thought of a happy revenge. Frequently I wrote essays for the New York Times Book Review, so I asked its editor if he'd like an appreciation of Kenneth Rexroth. Sincerely and passionately and with a devious motive, I wrote an essay to celebrate the poetry of Kenneth Rexroth. I imagined the consternation in California after my piece came out in the New York Times--the shock, the shame, possibly the reluctant pleasure. Mind you, he would not thank me. His publisher James Laughlin, mumbling out of the corner of his mouth, brought me a meager but appreciative word.

Seamus Heaney

SEAMUS HEANEY, Nobel Laureate 1995, was my friend in Ann Arbor, Dublin, London, and New Hampshire. A farmer's son from Northern Ireland, Seamus attended the University of Belfast with Michael Longley--the magnificent Northern Irish poet who won't get a Nobel because Seamus did. In 1972 Heaney moved south to Dublin out of disgust for sectarian violence. Was Seamus really my friend? How many Americans thought of Seamus as a friend? People wrote cherishing essays after he died--who met him only for an hour after a poetry reading, overwhelmed by a man who was being himself. Seamus was friendly by nature, funny, kind, witty, grossly intelligent, and a great poet. That is, he had the luck to be Irish. I've been to Ireland six or seven times, always delighted by the nation's good humor and gregariousness, not to mention its exuberant joy in poetry. The welcoming benignancy of Ireland's people--there must be exceptions like the Cyclops in Ulysses,-exceeds even Italy's or India's. That Seamus died at only seventy-four, a decade younger than me, was the horror of 2013.

He had visited the University of Michigan to read his poems in 1970 and 1974, brought by Bert Hornback, an English professor devoted to Seamus and his work. (Bert knew Seamus well from visits to Ireland. Bert went to Stockholm with Seamus. A devastated Bert attended his funeral.) In Ann Arbor I was stunned by Seamus's work and by Seamus. Much later, Bert had four of us read our poems together--Seamus, Wendell Berry, Galway Kinnell, and me. Saturday morning after Friday night's reading, Bert entertained us at his house with a three-hour breakfast. After eating omelettes we talked about poetry. Seamus defended Yeats against Galway's misgivings. I said some Thomas Hardy poems I knew by heart. Seamus, Wendell, and Galway each added favorite Hardys.

In 1979 Seamus with his wife Marie and their children visited Jane and me in New Hampshire. The two older boys were shy and quiet, but the little girl Catherine, only seven or eight, sat beside her mother on the sofa, their feet not touching the floor, the two of them singing Irish airs a cappella that filled the room with a delicate sweetness. That afternoon Seamus took a walk along the abandoned railway across Route 4. He came back holding in his hand a railway spike, which he took home to Dublin and kept in his study. When I was recovering from a cancer, Seamus sent me a broadside of his poem "The Spike." It hangs by my bed inscribed inside an orange wooden frame.

The first day of my last Dublin visit, Seamus arranged for me to read my poems at The Winding Stair, a bookstore that took its name from a collection by Yeats. Afterwards the audience and I crossed the Liffey on the Ha'penny Bridge to fill the large second floor of Madigan's pub. The crowd included every young poet in Ireland. I sat against a wall while the poets of Eire took turns sitting beside me. Across the room Seamus and Marie stood quietly, no one drooling to stand alongside the famous poet and his wife. When the Heaneys left the pub I went off with Theo Dorgan and Paula Meehan to talk poetry and drink until dawn. The next day Seamus and Marie had me to dinner and told about driving home the night before. When they reached their car--they had parked illegally--policemen had attached to their rear wheels something resembling a Denver boot. Marie approached the constables, who were disabling further cars, and revealed her husband's identity. The impediment was removed. Seamus said, "It was the best thing that prize ever did for me."

The next morning I saw him for the last time. He walked me through the Glasnevin graveyard, past the grave of Michael Collins and other heroes of Ireland's liberation, past Gerard Manley Hopkins' bones in the collective Jesuit plot, past the grave of Yeats's Maud Gonne. At the pub beside the graveyard we drank our last Guinness together.

Joseph Brodsky

Another Nobel Laureate was JOSEPH BRODSKY. I met him at lunch in an undergraduate beer-hall in Ann Arbor, just after he was smuggled out of the Soviet Union. The night before, I stood humiliated beside him on a platform. He said his poems in Russian with a furious intensity, a cavalry charge of poetry, to an audience of a thousand students who understood nothing except that they heard a great poet. My chore was to follow him on the platform saying the inept translations of an Englishman, doodles of rhyme and meter that traduced Brodsky into Hallmark. Next day the professors who smuggled him out of Russia took me to lunch with Brodsky because I was the local poet. Someone must have told him that I wrote mostly vers libres, which he loathed, because he never addressed me. Undergraduates jerked their heads around as he bellowed the names of Soviet poets: "Voznesenky is shi-i-it! Yevtushenko is shii-it!" Someone at the table mentioned W.S. Merwin, who wrote free verse. He shouted "Merwin is shi-i-i-it!"

But if Akhmatova loved Brodsky I must love him too.

E.E. Cummings

Only once did I lay eyes on E.E. CUMMINGS. (People are cute and write e.e. cummings. The signature printed on his Collected Poems is E.E. Cummings.) He was judging an undergraduate poetry contest, listening to half a dozen Ivy League competitors, and his face never looked as if he heard anything. He was sullen, unsmiling, dour--possibly because he was judging an undergraduate poetry contest.

Tom Clark and the Lower East Side

TOM CLARK was the best student I ever had. As a senior at the University of Michigan he wrote a forty-four page paper about the structure of Ezra Pound's Cantos, replete with Chinese characters--Tom's back hurt from carrying Chinese dictionaries--and Greek neatly ball-pointed. What he wrote was not the last word--the last word will never be spoken--but his paper went further into Pound's structure of improvisation than anyone else had done.

Fifty years later, Tom's poems are strong, short, plain, and never worked over. After Ted Berrigan died Tom wrote a brief elegy which I praised. Tom told me it was "the usual fifteen-second poem." Tom has written many books of poems, many prose books about baseball. In 2005 Coffee House Press published a three hundred page selection called Night and Shade, beginning with a poem I have loved forever.
    Like musical instruments
   Abandoned in a field
   The parts of your feelings
   Are starting to know a quiet
   The pure conversion of your
   Life into art seems destined
   Never to occur
   You don't mind
   You feel spiritual and alert
   As the air must feel
   Turning into sky aloft and blue
   You feel like
   You'll never feel like touching anything or anyone
   And then you do

Tom is first a poet but also a painter, I neglected to say, and one of his paintings makes the cover of Night and Shade. He draws graph-paper lines on photographs, then identical squares on canvas which he fills with color. When we last read poems together, San Francisco 1989, Tom hung a painting on the wall behind us, an oil of Marilyn Monroe stretched out in languor. Fifty-one percent of the audience was not amused. Returned to New Hampshire I commissioned Tom to paint a portrait of Reggie Jackson for Jane, who was a baseball fan. Two decades after her death, Reggie still hangs laughing and triumphant in her empty study.

When he graduated from Michigan Tom won a fellowship to a Cambridge college where he worked with Donald Davie, a professor and poet friend of mine. (Davie wrote me that Tom was the best student he ever had.) Later in Paris at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, Tom found a magazine--wittily titled Adventures in Poetry--assembled by second-generation New York poets, including Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett. In England Tom had been dropping acid every other day, and now he undertook a new obsession. He emigrated to join the East Village and its poetry. He joined Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett, Anselm Hollo, Joe Brainard, Peter Schjeldahl, Anne Waldman, Larry Fagin, and ... you haven't heard all these names? The editor of The New Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse suggests that minor poets tell you more about an era than major poets do. It's possible that these poets are not so minor as Andrew Marvell. A book dealer tells me that in the rare book market they are hot.

The Second Generation of New York Poets, after Ashbery and Koch and O'Hara, began when Ron Padgett emigrated from Oklahoma first to Columbia and then to the lower East Side. When Padgett was still in his Tulsa high school, he edited a poetry magazine which inspired Ted Berrigan, an Army veteran temporarily in Oklahoma on the G.I. Bill. Ted left Tulsa for Manhattan with Ron, Kenward Elmslie, and Joe Brainard. Together they made magazines like the Adventures in Poetry Tom discovered in Paris. Along with other East Village publications, it was mimeographed on legal sized white paper and the pages stapled together.

Ron and Ted together brought out a book called Bean Spasms. Joe Brainard wrote I Remember, a long poem followed by I Remember More, and more, and more ... "I remember chicken noodle soup when you are sick." These poets' public space was St. Mark's church, where they did frequent and multiple readings. Anything could make an East Village celebration. Ted Berrigan's wife was Jewish so Ted held a Seder. Some of us drank Manischewitz, others a generic dry red. Joe Brainard was an artist before he became a serial rememberer, and illustrated the poems of his friends. Another artist to the gang was George Schneeman, who sent me the annual gift of a Schneeman image bearing a pasted 5c year-by-month calendar. Over my Glenwood range, I nail a red-checked shirt wearing 1968's lumpy January on top of eleven further months. In the bathroom I hang two of George's collages, four inches by six, one foregrounding the white-hatted Dutch Cleanser icon. Once I watched a squad of East Village poets gather to frame George's collages, passing around aluminum struts and cardboard mats.

In 1969 Tom Clark, Ted Berrigan, and Ron Padgett flew to Ann Arbor for a three-headed poetry reading. On campus in those years, performances of poetry filled up cafes and warehouses and rectories. Elsewhere were happenings, teachins, Poets Against the War, fucking in the streets, marches on Washington, pills, and The Pill. I was between marriages, hanging out with students who tried to convert me from bourbon to pot. Before the three-headed reading the East Villagers toked me a cigar joint, and on our way to the auditorium we stopped at a pizza place for supper. It was the best pizza I had eaten in my entire life!

When Jane and I moved to New Hampshire Larry Fagin and his girlfriend visited us and sat on the living room rug gazing with open mouths at the TV set above them. I bump into East Village poets even today. When I see Peter Schjeldahl's elegant art criticism in the New Yorker, I remember a squalid splendid flat on the East Side. Not long ago, I ran into the best poet of them all, Ron Padgett, when I read my stuff in Vermont where he spends the summer. Padgett is a superb translator of French poetry, but he is not only a translator. In Poetry Yasmine Shamma reviewed Ron's eight hundred page Collected Poems. Mostly I am too feeble to lift the book, but early in the day I struggle and manage.

Poetry's young new editor recently told me in a letter that he had just bought two poems by "old Tom Clark." Ted Berrigan was the East Villager I knew best after Tom. One term at the University of Michigan, I arranged a teaching job for him. I won't forget his arrival at the English Department's September cocktail party. His hair flowed past his shoulders down his back, and above his red corduroy pants a bright yellow shirt billowed under a sumptuous green velvet vest. Tenured professors wore three-piece gray flannel suits while the department chairman stared at Ted aghast. Ted stayed for a while at my house in a room upstairs, and when he moved out he apologized. "Sorry I took your pills. They made me great poems."

James Wright

In my mid-twenties, editing poems for the Paris Review, I scouted the best younger poets by reading literary quarterlies. Especially I looked for poets as young and as new as me. In 1955 I wrote JAMES WRIGHT soliciting his work, he sent me a bunch for the magazine, and our friendship began. After many letters exchanging many poems, Jim and I met in the flesh at an MLA conference when both of us were looking for university jobs and our poems were largely unknown. At a hotel bar we were drinking beer when an acquaintance of mine dropped by. I'll call him Zach. He is long dead and I remember only his repeated shtick. I introduced him to Jim the poet, and Zach stuck out his hand while he transformed his face into a visage of extravagant awe. "I, I know ... I know ... your work!" Jim fell for it like all of us.

Jim died when he was fifty-three. A few years later I introduced his posthumous complete poems, Across the River, talking about the work that I loved and about Jim's scattery life--poetry, depression, the army, college, depression, marriage, prize-winning poems, fatherhood, depression, alcoholism, divorce, emptiness, remarriage, depression, early death, unforgettable lines and stanzas. Drunk or sober, exuberant or depressed, Jim was always passionate about literature. He knew page after page of Dickens by heart. On weekends, when he taught at the University of Minnesota, he often took a bus three hours to a tiny town called Madison, in Minnesota at the edge of North Dakota, where Robert and Carol Bly lived without electricity or running water. Robert edited The Fifties which became The Sixties and for one issue The Seventies, while he translated Neruda and Trakl and constructed his own inventive, dreamlike poems. In his magazine he promoted expressionist, almost surrealist work, while Jim was still writing crafty, straight-shooting, metrical quatrains. Jim understood from Robert that his work was old-fashioned.

The Blys encouraged Jim's visits but Jim could be an annoying guest. He drank all night, taking part in literary argument, and in the morning forgot everything said. Carol Bly was one of nature's practical jokers. Robert came from Norwegian farmers and dinner had to include three food groups. Beef was expensive, so Carol made meatloaf using canned dog food. Pard. She dealt with Jim as inventively as she did with Robert. In the winter Jim slept in the sub-zero chicken house, and woke to stand over the Bly's wood-burning kitchen range thawing out his removable teeth, frozen in a tumbler. One summer night after Jim fell asleep Carol slipped into the chicken house and substituted for Jim's dentures century-old false teeth, yellow fangs wobbling from faded gray plastic gums, which she had found in a junk shop. In the morning Jim mumbled, "I thought I had slept for a hundred years ..."

After several years of visits to Madison, Minnesota, Jim's The Branch Will Not Break appeared--free verse with extravagant images and metaphors, a manner or strategy suggested by Spanish and Latin American modernists. Image and narrative leapt from topic to topic, illuminating the one by contrasting the other. I think of his "Lying in a Hammock...." After a visually exact chronicle of the natural world, the poem ended, "I have wasted my life"--and we saw how he said what he meant. His imagination expanded before our eyes, even by way of a linebreak: "I burst / into blossom." Learning from Bly, doing Bly better than Bly, Jim shocked the poetry universe with his new work, his best work.

Afterward, now and then, Jim sent me an old-fashioned, reasonable, narrative, metrical poem. "Don't tell Robert," he said.

Jim stayed with me in Ann Arbor when we were both between marriages. We sat across from each other talking and drinking. I noticed something wrapped on the table beside Jim's chair, and with my usual bossiness told him, "Eat your sandwich." Obediently he unwrapped it and spoke in mournful measure. "Every morning I wake with a cold hamburger beside me."

DONALD HALL is the author of over 50 books across several genres, including 22 volumes of poetry. He was the 14th Poet Laureate of the United States, and his many honors include two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and the Robert Frost Medal. This piece will be part of a book called A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in July, 2018.
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Author:Hall, Donald
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Autobiography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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