Poets nowadays have their own sort of fame. That is, they are famous and not famous. The celebrated poet’s work may affect thousands, tens of thousands, or in extremely rare cases hundreds of thousands of readers. The poet gets fan mail and maintains a private e-mail address, and from time to time may reach the acme of American public ambition by appearing on television, but at the end of NewsHour. The poet may receive an appointment that promises an upper-middle-class lifestyle and, reaching a certain age, may win a five- or six-figure award. Strangers, even non-literary types, will be impressed, at least when they find out about the TV and the money. But never do tens of millions of Americans tune in just to watch a poet read at halftime.
David Hasselhoff or Kay Ryan to become Meg Ryan. Even most highly successful poets are happily exempt from the pitfalls of massive celebrity. Few of them, for instance, have had to run to the general public to discover what was good for their art, and fewer still have had to run from the general public. On the contrary, it’s plausible that if you’re a poetry fan you may one day face your idol, a genius for the ages whose poems you’ve known by heart for 20 years, over a table in a wine bar.
This odd mix of lofty distinction and approachable humanity extends through the whole field and most of its traditions. Even PBS can’t be bothered with more than one or two big poetry boosters a year—an offbeat look at Shaxper authorship, maybe, or a Ken Burns–style Whitman jamboree. Much of the documenting of poets’ lives is left to men and women with flattened affect who haunt document rooms and write for readers, fit though few, 40, 150, or 500 years after the fact. Big publishers put out relatively few books of history, lore, anecdotes, or tabletalk. Biographies and collected letters of contemporary poets are also pretty rare. But a body of legends exists, even about living poets. It sifts down to us from available official sources and, old or current, also circulates to a notable extent as folklore. For instance, I am lucky to know some people whom I can ask about Bishop or Lowell if I want to. I retain a few scraps of secondhand gossip (but only secondhand) about Anne Sexton, who was “kind of wrapped up in her own stuff,” and Ezra Pound, who was “great till his little far-right fan club showed up, at which point he became an asshole.” It hardly matters that I could guess these things. If it did matter, I could fall back on what R. told me, once. His friend had gone to see Beckett the previous week, and Beckett was complaining about a practical problem at the start of a new play. In it, the friend said, a man was holding his head in his hands. “It wasn’t clear what the trouble was,” said the friend. “But then Beckett explained. ‘No,’ said Beckett. ‘You don’t understand. The man’s head is in his hands.’” In my opinion, this affords a lot more potential for imaginative engagement than Entertainment Tonight and People. You don’t need TV and glossies to develop a body of lore, and we can all help just by gossiping. Poetry legend is more manageable and democratic than celebrity. It is participatory at all levels and simultaneously exalts the human element and humanizes the exalted element.
My friend George Green, a brilliant poet who has written many poems on the subject of poetry lore and
poetic fame, occasionally offers friends an informal literary tour of Greenwich Village. The Tour is a memorable event because George is funny and knows what he’s talking about. But it is also unexpectedly moving, precisely because, as in his poems, he does such a great job of humanizing the subjects, and of putting you, often literally, on the same ground with them. In a small cobbled courtyard off Patchen Place, which must look much as it did then, E.E. Cummings would come from his door, ten feet across the mew, to stand under Djuna Barnes’s window. There, in an affectionate half-mocking tone, he would yell up to his reclusive neighbor and ask how she was getting along. A few blocks east, behind a hot dog place on Cornelia Street, is where Auden lived before moving to St. Mark’s Place. Here, working 8:00 AM–5:00 PM, with an hour for lunch, and with the help of a lot of cigarettes and speed, he wrote “The Shield of Achilles” and “In Praise of Limestone,” among other poems. (Some of this comes from George’s reading, some from people he knew who knew Auden.) Still further east, in a pretty brick building on Waverly Place, Poe first publicly recited “The Raven” at a salon hosted by Anne Charlotte Lynch, which at other times featured Herman Melville, William Cullen Bryant, and Fitz-Greene Halleck. Poe later sold “The Raven” for $14. The poem was so famous that children would come up to him on the street and flap their wings at him.
Similarly vivid and fascinating specimens of poetry lore can be found in George’s poems. His new book, Lord Byron’s Foot (St. Augustine’s Press), is one of the few contemporary collections I know that contains truly great poems about poetry, a theme George addresses with remarkable depth of feeling and insight by simultaneously venerating and humanizing his subjects, as in “On the Removal of the Auden Plaque from 77 St. Mark’s Place”:
Grand, smoky parties, Flagstad in hi-fi,
a car assigned to drive Miss Moore back home—
it might as well have happened in Shanghai;
they’ve taken down the marker and the poem.
The title poem, “Lord Byron’s Foot,” gets across all Byron’s jetsetting and the grand, mythic mise en scène of Cavalchina and the Hellespont, but returns halfway through each of eight sestets to counter the romance and genius with obsessional Rabelaisian references to Byron’s club foot. The result is very funny, but also a profound representation of artistic ego. Other poems meditate on the lot of poets far less successful than Byron; for example, “Hartley Coleridge,” Samuel Taylor’s dissolute, alcoholic son.
The worst thoughts and the worst words, too, all in
the worst of orders, that’s what Hartley had
to go with breakfast there at Rydal Water,
and just as much as anyone back then
he listened hard to spirits and to nature.
But was that really such a good idea?
Or “Stephen Duck and Edward Chicken,” which in a typically seriocomic vein elaborates the careers of poetic also-rans like Duck and Chicken, both subjects of Southey’s Lives of the Uneducated Poets, and also Mary Collier, “The Poetical Washer-Woman” and “Lactilla, the Poetical Milkmaid of Clifton Hill,” among others. And then there is “Poor Collins” (i.e., William):
Poor Collins reimbursed his publisher
for his unsold (and only) book of verse.
Then, like an idle felon flipping cards
into a hat, he stacked his books and flung
the whole edition in the fire. Poor Collins.
George also hung out with Borges once, by a pool, in Iowa.
In the early ’90s I had a job delivering sandwiches in Tribeca. One of my regular customers was a small business owner who, when my co-worker informed him that I liked poetry, told me a couple of stories about his childhood neighbor, Theodore Roethke. I will now tell those stories to you. The small business owner wasn’t much interested in poetry but had clearly been saving these stories for the right occasion. He told me that, as children, he and his friends had tormented Roethke, who liked to lie outside in a hammock, with their toy bows and arrows. Roethke would lie reactionless for several minutes as the kids got closer and closer. The small business owner made a vigorously blank face in imitation of the look Roethke had worn on his face forty years earlier. This face he held even when the kids shot his forehead with their suction-cup arrows. Then, after being taken in by Roethke’s total catatonia, the kids moved closer and closer to him, finally becoming concerned, and no longer laughing. That was when Roethke leapt up with his thumbs to his temples, waving his fingers in the universal sign for crazy, and ululating.
Another time, the small business owner, at age 8, observed poetry students arriving at Roethke’s home, where he held class meetings. Students arrived for twenty minutes, young earnest people wanting to learn from the master. The let themselves in through Roethke’s side door, as they did each week, and gathered in the living room. A few minutes later, after students had stopped arriving, the small business owner saw Roethke tiptoe to the back of his house, bend over, skulk along the hedgerow to a window, where he spied on the students in his living room for a half a minute and then left.
Theodore Roethke died before I was born. But in this case only one mind separates mine from his. The perceptions that go into this history are only second-generation copies. The sense of a genealogy, and the illusion of proximity that accompanies it, may be the forces that make poetry folklore, in general, so appealing. My friend Dick Davis, a British poet and translator who lives now in the US, told me a poetry story, once, concerning this very subject. In the late '60s, Dick was invited to visit the poet George Barker in the house where the British government let Barker stay, in Norfolk. Barker, though he is rarely spoken of now in the US, was then considered a major poet, especially in the UK, where he had been part of Dylan Thomas’s set. He had also been the youngest poet included by Yeats in his Oxford anthology. Dick, then a young poet, somewhat nervous to be visiting an eminent stranger, showed up with his wife, Afkham, and knocked at the front door. When Barker answered, he reeked of alcohol. Before Dick could greet him, Barker grabbed him roughly by the sides of his head, and pulled him close, kissing him hard and very wetly on the mouth. Then he let go and looked in his eyes. “Cherish that kiss, laddy! That is a very important kiss,” the poet bellowed. “Yeats kissed me. Tennyson kissed Yeats. Wordsworth kissed Tennyson . . . That kiss, laddy—that kiss goes all the way back to Chaucer!” (When Dick told me this, of course I kissed him. I’m not sure if he was amused or not.)
Finally, with no formal transition, but relying purely on a kind of kinship, I’d like to end with Thomas Carlyle, speaking to us from 1881 about a meal he had, once, with Wordsworth, et al.
Dinner was large, luminous, sumptuous; I sat a long way from Wordsworth; dessert I think had come in, and certainly there reigned in all quarters a cackle as of Babel (only politer perhaps), which far up in Wordsworth’s quarter (who was leftward on my side of the table) seemed to have taken a sententious, rather louder, logical, and quasi-scientific turn, heartily unimportant to gods and men, so far as I could judge of it and of the other babble reigning. I looked upwards, leftwards, the coast being luckily for a moment clear; there, far off, beautifully screened in the shadow of his vertical green circle, sate Wordsworth, silent, slowly but steadily gnawing some portion of what I judged to be raisins, with his eye and attention placidly fixed on these and these alone. (from Reminiscences by Thomas Carlyle)
Really, what more do we want?