I’d Like to Make You Smile
May 30, 2014 | by Kate Brittain
But it’s not this random
life only, throwing its sensual
astonishments upside down on
the bloody membranes behind my eyeballs,
not just me being here again, old
needer, looking for someone to need,
but you, up from the clay yourself,
as luck would have it, and inching
over the same little segment of earth-
ball, in the same little eon, to
meet in a room, alive in our skins,
and the whole galaxy gaping there
and the centuries whining like gnats—
you, to teach me to see it, to see
it with you, and to offer somebody
uncomprehending, impudent thanks.
It was a beautiful move on the magazine’s part, taking Meredith’s wonder and gratitude for his beloved and letting those words refer to the poet himself. When the verse is turned to epitaph, it becomes Meredith who teaches us to see; his lucky appearance in the room of our lives demands that we bow our heads, or else lift up our eyes, and stammer what thanks we are able to articulate.
I met Meredith nine months before he passed away, at Bread Loaf’s annual writers’ conference, to which he’d been invited as a special guest and at which I was a student. He’d taught on the mountainside campus in the late fifties and sixties, first in the English program and then at the conference, and now he’d returned to read for us in their Little Theater, a long, skinny rectangle of a room, the walls white, the chairs wooden, the light—admitted through banks of mullioned glass doors to either side of the audience—everywhere. It was more like a chapel than a theater.
Meredith read only a few poems, supported at the podium by his partner, Richard Harteis. For the remainder of the event, he sat in the front row, audience to a tribute whose meaning no one could have missed, while Harteis, Michael Collier, and Thomas Sayers Ellis offered up anecdotes and praise and read their own selections of Meredith’s work. Here was a dying man, a man who was loved.
He’d come close to death before, decades earlier. In 1983, when Meredith was just sixty-four, he suffered a stroke that left him immobilized for two years, and after that still saddled with expressive aphasia, a condition that, in a cruel irony, impaired his ability to translate thoughts into speech and writing. Only slowly, by way of intensive therapy, did he work his way back to the land of language, speaking again and even, eventually, continuing to write poetry.
That day on the mountain, I’d never heard of William Meredith. Against my expectation—of nothing; I’m always expecting nothing—here was something like awakening: I sat up when he read; I leaned in. Now I was listening.
Despite his Pulitzer and his National Book Award and his Guggenheim Fellowship, despite the fact that his first collection, Love Letters from an Impossible Land, was selected for the Yale Younger Poets series, Meredith doesn’t seem to have sustained readers’ attention the way his contemporaries have—poets like Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, and Muriel Rukeyser, with whom Meredith was close and to whom he is frequently dedicating his verse.
Why? Meredith was mannerly at a moment when raving and confessionalism were at the fore. He found his voice in form; he spoke composedly. And there’s a modesty to the character of his poems that makes him, perhaps, hard to lionize. He’s too polite to be showy, too interested in the world outside to cast himself as the star of the show.
Here’s the first half of “Accidents of Birth”:
Spared by a car or airplane crash or
cured of malignancy, people look
around with new eyes at a newly
praiseworthy world, blinking eyes like these.
For I’ve been brought back again from the
fine silt, the mud where our atoms lie
down for long naps. And I’ve also been
pardoned miraculously for years
by the lava of chance which runs down
the world’s gullies, silting us back.
Here I am, brought back, set up, not yet
There’s a lot of “looking around” in Meredith. In his 1983 interview with Edward Hirsch for The Paris Review—conducted, by chance, shortly before his stroke—Meredith characterizes poetry as “the engagement of a mystery that has forced itself to the point where you feel honor-bound to see this mystery with the brilliance of a vision. Not to solve it, but to see it.”
Life’s astonishments come hand in hand with its malignancies, he wants us to remember. Still, he isn’t interested in fetishizing misfortune. “It’s our style now that a poet is taken seriously in proportion to his tortures,” he tells Hirsch, “particularly if his tortures can be blamed on himself.”
But Meredith doesn’t want to wallow. He refuses to use the world’s suffering (or his own) as an excuse to ignore its abundant wonders. In the face of what troubles us, he wants us to look life in the eye, to make that near-impossible effort at speech. “Morale is what I think about all the time / now, what hopeful men and women can say and do,” he writes in “In Loving Memory of the Late Author of Dream Songs,” a poem that appears, along with “Accidents of Birth,” in his 1980 collection The Cheer.
In that book’s title poem, addressing the reader as his friend, he puts it more bluntly:
Frankly, I’d like to make you smile.
Words addressing evil won’t turn evil back
but they can give heart.
Giving heart, persuading us to smile, this is Meredith’s modest work. And this, I think, is what he means by “the cheer”: that which sustains us as we struggle toward our own articulations of anguish and awe and gratitude. “The cheer is hidden in right words,” he says. And, like finding the right words, it’s no easy panacea.
Toward the end of that Art of Poetry interview, referring to Roethke’s remark that “In spite of all the muck and welter, the dark, the dreck of these poems, I count myself among the happy poets,” Hirsch asks Meredith if he, too, counts himself among the happy.
Meredith replies, “I would like The Cheer to seem like someone who would say, ‘Yes. Without any reservations, I say yes.’”
Kate Brittain lives in Brooklyn. Her writing can be found at Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Tin House’s blog, The Open Bar.