The goal here is not really to determine the why
behind a poet’s lack of reputation and readership.
But it’s such a puzzle – this business of a rising star failing to rise –
that the temptation to try to solve the puzzle always lurks in the background.
Not many people know that Michelangelo was a prolific and accomplished poet, writing more than three hundred poems across the entire span of his creative life. He tried, near the end, to organize one hundred of his poems for publication. But one of the two friends involved in helping him with this project died before it was completed, and a first edition of the poems was not published until sixty years after the artist’s death, under the supervision (and high-minded tinkering and “sanitizing”) of Michelangelo’s grandnephew. “Sanitizing,” according to the translator John Frederick Nims, meant taking out “anything that might have reflected discreditably on the family or fame of Michelangelo: “Love poems addressed to a signor were revamped to fit the madonna of tradition; dubious political or religious views were amended.” His poems, to put it bluntly, were “made respectable.”
Did they dedicate themselves to mentoring and thus forget (or express contempt for) the process of self-promotion? Did they battle with good-old-boy systems? Did they know the right people, and – if they did – did they use the right people in order to get ahead? Did they quit poetry and move on to anything less disappointing or better paying or fresher or simply different or…? Did they suffer poetry fatigue? Were they simply in the right place at the wrong time, wrong place at the right time? Did their gender or ethnicity present stumbling blocks? Were they shy? Were they, ultimately, satisfied by poetry, or would they rather have been fishing, playing the trombone, painting? Was publication enough? Did they – or do they, for those who are still alive – want more?
We can almost see the children’s game being played out on the playground there, but the poem has the combination of eeriness and sing-song cadences that Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” and James Fenton’s “Out of the East” have. Mistral’s poems for children are not always sweet and catchy, nor are they hyper-kinetic with wordplay. They might be called quirky and – at their darkest points – unsettling. That’s true, too, of the oddest and most haunting nursery rhymes we have in English (think “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”)
This is the pleasure of Jandl’s Reft and Light. Not only does it introduce us to Jandl’s originals, it goes on to show us how any poet trying to wake up tired words can do so by putting an improvisational spin on them… What Jandl’s wordplay accomplishes in general is a toning up of the poetic muscles. Over the years it has provided me with several good workouts, and it has been a reminder that recess is part of the kinesthetic education of a poet, too.
It’s true that the poems in his first book (The Garden is Political, 1942) were called “mannered” by one critic who was, most likely, eager for the diction of poetry in the 1940’s to to be looser and more modern. It’s true, also, that Brinnin’s work does not sound loose; his language is denser, more opaque than the broken lines of prose that became more and more popular as the 20th-century progressed. Not many authors survive the curse of being called old-fashioned. But whatever the reason for the mannerisms some critics accused him of, Brinnin’s poetry pleases me in the same way Shakespearean monologues and sonnets please me: they’re the product of someone with large things to say, someone using his or her intelligence to put pressure on the English language to be simultaneously truthful and beautiful.
By the end of my time spent with Langley’s work that afternoon in the library, I was smitten. Here was a poet whose poems combined so many of the qualities I search for: precise attention to details of the physical world, control of rhythm, love of language, large-heartedness, confidant risk-taking, and an ability to balance ideas with images and sounds. Contemplative, yes, but not confessional. Both serious and seriously playful. Neither undemanding nor obtuse. Big plus: a modern, original, identifiable voice.
It was Reid who was instrumental in getting the work of both Neruda and Borges in front of English-speaking readers. About translating Borges, Reid was less lyrical than he was about Neruda: “Translating Borges was, for me, like learning a private language….” He refers to Borges’s skeptical and questioning tone, concluding that Borges’s poems were more interdependent than Neruda’s, linked as they were by a “recurring heraldry of symbols – chessboards, maps, knives, mirrors, coins, labyrinths, tigers, libraries….”
Though the poem seems grounded, literally, in dirt and dust, it’s filled with airy abstractions like “love” and “the soul,” the past, the future, truth – all words I would warn a student of poetry away from because abstractions tend to make a poem ungrounded – that is, they make nothing available to the reader’s senses. But are those abstractions airy? In an odd way, they feel heavier than the dust in Jacobsen’s poem – they stand as things to cherish and revere, and they impart a kind of biblical solidity – a religion of abstractions – that readers can get tangled in or bogged down by. Compare that abstract solidity to what is real and what the heart, maybe unwillingly, understands in Jacobsen’s poem: the ephemeral dust-to-dust nature of our bodies, ending without even “skeletons to whiten,” without perfection, without time – we are the “utterly perishing.” We own that condition, it’s ours, and it’s precious. Death is, after all, what makes life meaningful.
That said, there are a surprising number of novelists who started out as poets. Thomas Hardy wrote poetry throughout his life and considered himself a poet despite the fact that he published no poetry until he was 58 years old, having gained fame with his novels – Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure – long before that. After the publication of his first collection of poems, he did not write another novel. James Joyce first published poetry; some might even make a case for sections of Ulysses and all of Finnegan’s Wake reading more like poetry than prose. D.H. Lawrence was a poet before he turned to fiction. Vladimir Nabokov published four books of poetry before ever attempting a novel. John Updike’s first book was a collection of poems, as was one of his last, published posthumously. In between, he published six other volumes of poetry, a fact which surprises quite a few of those MFA students mentioned earlier.
It’s hard to imagine a woman writing and publishing that poem if she wanted to be remembered for her children’s books. And since there is little to no critical writing about her, it’s hard to get a picture – both literally and figuratively – of who this woman was. Clear definitions of artists makes things easier for people who like to pigeon-hole their art. The goal here is not really to determine the why behind a poet’s lack of reputation and readership. But it’s such a puzzle – this business of a rising star failing to rise – that the temptation to try to solve the puzzle always lurks in the background.
If you have only one book of Montale’s work on your shelf, it should be The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale 1925-1977; the entire collection is translated by William Arrowsmith. It’s still possible to get the poems in individual volumes: Ossi di seppia (“Cuttlefish Bones”), Le Occasioni (“The Occasions”), La Bufera e altro (“The Storm and Other Things”), Xenia and Satura; it’s interesting to see how different translators handle the original Italian (poets Charles Wright and Jonathan Galassi take on the task with different collections, and Ghan Singh both translates and analyzes Montale’s work.) But The Collected Poems, set out in the chronological order in which the poems were published, offers both Italian originals and English translations (on facing pages for easy comparison) and it is carefully indexed with both Italian and English titles of poems, making individual poems easy to find. The real genius of this collection for anyone interested in translation is the section containing William Arrowsmith’s notes…
I offer up the photo of Ponsot with her children in the lead position as a visual explanation of her atypical career trajectory. The adjective “undersung” attached to her name might be explained by the hyphenated adjective at the beginning of the biographical notes in Contemporary Authors Online: “In the course of her career, Ponsot has published several widely-spaced collections of her work…” [emphasis is mine]. Spacing, it appears, can be everything.
Francis is definitely undersung, but it’s not as if his work is unknown among poets. If you read enough poetry, you eventually make your way to some of his poems. And he got a sprinkling of fine awards. He was invited to participate as a fellow in the Breadloaf Writing Conference after the publication in 1936 of his first book, Stand with Me Here. In 1938 he received the Shelley Memorial Prize (contemporary winners include Robert Pinsky, Ron Padgett, Lucia Perillo and Yusef Komunyakaa.) But nearly twenty years elapsed before the awarding of that prize and his Rome Fellowship, and almost thirty more years passed after that honor before the Academy of American Poets named him, in 1984, the recipient of a Fellowship Award, citing his “distinguished achievement.”
But in poetry, you might be better served by ignoring the voices that discourage the light (verse, that is) in favor of the dark, or that denigrate the light in favor of what is “heavy.” As in “Wow, that’s heavy, man.” For “heavy,” you’re expected to understand significant and serious; it weighs something and is important and has a chance at entering The Canon. It should not (repeat: should not) make you laugh. And it probably should not come wrapped up in anything sneaky that makes you think what you’re reading is dandy candy but then turns out to be good for you. That’s not fair. Enter the poetry of George Starbuck, once named “the thinking man’s Ogden Nash.”