In 2003 I was invited to read at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival on England’s east coast. At the welcome party I was buttonholed by the Festival director, who said she had someone she wanted me to meet. Moments later I was saying Hello to Mark Halliday, and he’s been a friend ever since. We hit it off immediately, and went on to spend most of the weekend in each other’s company, sharing our enthusiasm for the work of Kenneth Koch, as well as a passion for being rude about 95% of all the other poets in the world. The highlight of the weekend (if you discount our readings, which were, of course, sublime) was when we were in a coffee shop (I think it was a coffee shop; it may have been tea) and standing at the counter ripping with great pleasure into one of the Festival’s other poets, only to realize that “he” was standing within earshot just behind us. Oh, how we laughed.
The following Spring I visited Mark and his family (the poet Jill Rosser, and their daughter Devon) at their home in Ohio. Since then he and I have collaborated on over a hundred short plays “inspired” by Koch’s short plays, as gathered in his One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays. They are not as good as Koch’s, of course, but they are nevertheless (as Mark has mentioned many times over the years) works of some genius. Some of the plays are very short, and some stretch to two or four pages or even more. Mark has a tendency to want plot lines (or what claim to be plot lines) to develop, whereas I usually think that by the time we’re approaching the bottom of page 1 it’s time to get out – and I’m usually the one who brings things to a close by, for example, having the actors/characters decide it’s time to go home. On one occasion, in a play called “Chess”, in which the characters are the chess pieces chatting to one another during a game, a dog dashes into the room and upsets the table and sends all the pieces crashing to the floor. Curtain.
Mark and I are very different writers in many ways. At Aldeburgh we had, and have continued to have, somewhat opposing views on the place of the anecdote or “real event” in a poem, and I think he thinks I’m sometimes too whacky. Then he goes and writes stuff like this:
Fragged and pre-emptingly disnerved am I
by megrims forthrising from the down-sucked
gravity-humbled fungal-damp discompositional
demotion/dismissal of disremembered claimants.
Their non-negotiable odor-sad weary-trope defunctness
sticks in my aspirational craw.
which is not exactly typical of his work, but you know…. Too whacky?
The other side of Halliday is much more connected to the dictionary you have on your bookshelf. Several poems in Thresherphobe, his most recent collection, are undoubtedly prompted by the fact that the author is getting old – and, although ageing can sometimes be a tiresome subject to read about (especially when you are old) Halliday treats of it with a characteristic charm and wit and a light touch that is hard to find elsewhere – especially in Poetry World. In an essay on Koch in Pleiades (which you can read here) Halliday spoke of Koch’s own ageing, and how it had affected his work – about decades in which the splendidness of being young and brilliant naturally tends to giveway to other truths of disappointment, regret and loss. Thanks to Koch's honesty, that concession is a crucial part of the story presented by his work across the years. However, what never disappears from his poetry is the palpable and contagious feeling that to be a poet is great luck. The poet's vocation often induces anxiety, yes, but the anxiety is part of an adventure not to be missed
Yes, to be a poet is “great luck”. Halliday, like Koch, knows that to do this stuff is a lot of things, and one of them is, believe it or not, “fun”. In his own poetry, whatever the subject matter, that knowledge is never far away. He’s at his finest when the two strands of his genius (the dictionary and the extra-dictionary) combine, as they often do, in varying degrees. Sometimes that combination is just one word, or even only a name, but it always counts. In a poem in Thresherphobe entitled “Spunktilio Awaits the Biographer” the poem itself is relatively straightforward, though it comes with a typical dose of amused and/or bemused self-awareness:
Where is the biographer? The biographer is delayed.
I have been ready for the biographer since I turned sixty-three
as a ripeness had arrived by then, a kind of fullness of
richness of ramifications of everything I had ever written or said.
Ripeness continued then in its red-orange-blue radiance
for some years – some several – until
a slight fading became detectable – and then unignorable –
when I was sixty-eight –
It’s a cool poem and, let’s face it, that “Spunktilio” alone is worth getting out of bed for, isn’t it?
But this is not a review of all Halliday’s poetry, or of his usually disregarded other career as a great writer of short plays (if someone helps him), but rather to draw your attention to “Prayer for Kenneth” (Koch, naturally), his poem in Decals of Desire #2, which you can find here. I shall not quote the poem in its entirety because (a) I think that’s not “done” here and (b) it would severely reduce the number of reasons for your visiting the magazine’s website, so let me restrict what I say to this:
the very least one might ask of a poem so titled and “for” someone of Koch’s vitality and invention and (here comes a cliché I might regret) lust for life should be that it reflect something of those qualities. In this poem, Halliday prays that
the zany yet thoughtsome magus MacShane Depew
bestir himself to fashion a beauteous woman
and, over the course of the next seven lines, incorporates elements of western Finland, Tibet, Siam, Neapolitan opera, as well as Monica Vitti and Brigitte Bardot into this fantasy woman, and prays that:
….. Depew send her springing into the absence where Kenneth waits
to amaze him generously with her throbby bounty
till he feels an oceanic completion of his long quest to reach
the glow at the core of desire
But the poem does not end there. A “beauteous woman” may well be a recurring presence in much of Koch’s poetry, but Halliday knows why. The poem ends pointedly and movingly with mention of Karen, Koch’s wife and, finally, his “whole sufficient life”.
Koch once asked me what it was about his work I liked and, momentarily stunned by having to answer such a question from one of my poetry heroes, I said that it made me want to be alive. Koch said he reckoned that would do. Halliday’s fine poem will more than “do” as a fitting prayer for one of the greats.
Decals of Desire #2, something of an Abstract Expressionist/New York School “special”, and featuring among others Tony Towle, Charles North and David Lehman, is <a href="http://decalsofdesire.blogspot.com">here</a>.