David Orr: Lost in the Archives, Spring 1974


On Poetry

W. H. Auden.

The best thing about The Paris Review, aside from the editors’ formidable liquor stash, is the magazine’s sense of history. Sure, there are older American literary journals (The Yale Review was founded, no joke, in 1819), but The Paris Review has had a consistent idea of itself for longer than many publications that predate its debut in 1953. Of course, that consistency makes some aspects of the magazine vulnerable to, oh, for example, parody. But it also makes The Paris Review’s archive a useful tool with which to survey an art—and one’s personal response to that art—over several decades. So for the next month or so, that’s what I’ll be doing for the gracious and impeccably shirted Lorin Stein, and the equally gracious (and presumably impeccably shirted) Thessaly La Force.

Let’s begin at the beginning, which for me was the spring of 1974.

In the poetry world, this was a season of uncertainty and transition, as seasons in the poetry world so often are. The popularity of the “deep image” style associated with James Wright and W. S. Merwin was just beginning to wane; John Ashbery was on the brink of arriving at his full prominence (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror would complete the only hat trick in the history of the major poetry awards in 1975); and W. H. Auden, whose hand both stirred and hindered several currents in American poetry, had died only a few months earlier. In fact, Auden is the subject of the “Art of Poetry” interview in the Spring 1974 issue, lending a poignant touch to that meticulously casual series. This being Auden, things get pretty droll pretty quickly:

INTERVIEWER:  Do you have any aids for inspiration?

AUDEN:  I never write when I’m drunk.


INTERVIEWER:  Have you read, or tried to read, Finnegans Wake?

AUDEN:  I’m not very good on Joyce.  Obviously he’s a very great genius—but his work is simply too long.

It’s tempting to keep on quoting Auden, because he so thoroughly understands a poet’s duty to be entertaining. But in looking through these pages, I find myself drawn not to the interview with Auden, delicious as it is, but to the poems that close the issue, which are by Pablo Neruda.

Yes, Pablo Neruda. Let me confess two things. First, although I neither speak nor read Spanish, that didn’t stop me from toting around Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair when I was twenty-two or so, and proclaiming from it like a quiveringly earnest version of William Shatner. Really, any young dude—and it’s always a young dude—who has a copy of this book should be forced to turn it over until he reaches a responsible age, or at least to balance his reading by spending quality time with something of equal and opposite heft, like the U.S. tax code. Second, because of the aforementioned youthful toting, I have a hard time even reading the name Neruda now without wincing. So it’s nice to be reminded in this issue of what a brilliant poet the real Neruda actually could be. Here’s the beginning of “The Citizen,” translated by Alastair Reid:

I went into the toolshops
in all innocence
to buy a simple hammer
or some vague scissors.
I should never have done it.
Since then and restlessly,
I devote my time to steel,
to the most shadowy tools:
hoes bring me to my knees,
horseshoes enslave me.

We—or at least, I—often associate Neruda with Whitmanian reach, but it’s worth remembering that he had a drier, tighter mode as well (this poem makes me think of Zbigniew Herbert, actually, except for the inadvertent pun on “hoes bring me to my knees,” which I’m going to lay at the feet of the otherwise excellent Mr. Reid). Neruda goes on to describe his fascination with the machinery (“For in the addict’s dream/ sprout stainless steel flowers”) and the strange, old beauty of the tool shops (“They have a whale’s heart,/ these toolshops of the port—/ they’ve swallowed all the seas,/ all the bones of ships,/ waves and ancient tides/ come together there …”). “The Citizen” ends:

… I’ve never got away from
the aura of toolshops.
It’s like my home ground,
it teaches me useless things,
it drowns me like nostalgia.

What can I do?  There are single men
in hotels, in bachelor rooms;
there are patriots with drums
and inexhaustible fliers
who rise and fall in the air.

I am not in your world.
I’m a dedicated citizen,
I belong to the toolshops.

Which is where all poets belong, however far they may stray.

David Orr is the poetry columnist for The New York Times Book Review and the author of Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry. He will be blogging from time to time about poetry from The Paris Review’s back issues.