Issue 130, Spring 1994
e. e. cummings once wrote a nasty little jingle:
mr. u will not be missed
who as an anthologist
sold the many on the few
not excluding mr. u
I don’t know what had roused cummings’s ire; he was fairly well represented in Untermeyer’s anthologies. Untermeyer sometimes overlooked a great poem; seldom a good one. He did print some of his own poems, which were not terrible — also his several wives’ poems, which were. Still if not forgivable, that at least seemed unavoidable. Personally, I was indebted to him and had found him lively, witty and engaging.
Besides, he was missed; Oscar Williams took his place. Reviewing Williams’s Little Treasury of Modem Poetry, Randall Jarrell remarked that “the book has the merit of having a considerably larger selection of Oscar Williams’s poems than . . . any other anthology. .. . It takes great courage to like your own poetry almost twice as much as Hardy’s.” At the anthology’s next printing (not even the next edition), a copy turned up in Jarrell’s mailbox. In it, he found a marker at the place where his own poems had been.
Largely because of this exclusion from Williams’s collections (soon standard for college courses) Jarrell is still less well-known than such contemporaries as Robert Lowell or Theodore Roethke, though, as I see it, he was a stronger poet. It is sharply ironic that Williams continued to use exactly those poems by Hardy and Whitman —both dismissed by Eliot and in disrepute —which Jarrell had singled out in earlier essays. Thus, Jarrell was able to salvage the reputation of two marvelous poets through his influence on Williams; himself he could not save.
Untermeyer had published his wives’ poems. Williams had had only one wife —dead some years before I met him —but he went more than double to promote her. Her poems were in his anthology; her picture (doctored, I am told, to improve the complexion) inside the back cover, cheek by jowl with Pound, Yeats and Eliot.
My friend, the novelist, poet and critic, George P. Elliott, once encountered Williams at a cocktail party in New York. Obsessively punctual, George was the first to arrive; Williams, the second. They had to talk to each other.
“Well, Mr. Elliott, I enjoyed your anthology,” said Williams, referring to a collection George had recently edited. “I see only two things wrong with it: you don’t have any poems by me or by my wife.”
No rejoinder suggested itself; Williams continued: “You do know the poems of Gene Derwood?”
“Well, you wouldn’t mind if I sent you a copy of her book?” George lied again, wondering what to do with this copy. Just then, someone really important entered the room, and Williams started toward him. But then he turned back, his hand extended: “And I hope I’ll be able to include some oi your poems in my next anthology?”
Shortly after my first book, Heart’s Needle, appeared, I realized that we had neglected to send Williams a copy, though he had expressed an interest. I wrote my publisher, Knopf, asking who should take care of that. They, who loved to appear above such considerations, replied that they didn’t know, but it certainly wasn’t them! I knew Williams’s reputation, yet he’d done me no harm and his support might be important. I asked Knopf to send him a book, charge it to me, and put in a card “Compliments of the Author” — I couldn’t get myself to sign it.
It was like dropping, at one step, from a concrete sidewalk into waist-deep muck. Every week something new arrived in my mailbox—Williams’s book, Derwood’s book, a recording for which Williams had coerced various literary figures to read her poems, postcards displaying her hideous portrait busts of Dylan Thomas, of Robert Frost, of Williams himself, each marked “On loan to Harvard University until the year 2000,” photo-postcards showing Williams with important personages. One day, a specially odious card arrived showing him with Dylan Thomas, both squinting against a strong light as though they had just crept out of a pub or from under a log. My stepdaughter carried this into the house as if with tweezers, saying, “Ooooooo! When did they die?”
I think I did not begin to suspect the varieties of decadence that surround the “po-biz” until I was invited to the National Poetry Festival held at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. during the early 1960s. All the poetry commissars were there—editors, anthologists, directors of writing programs— all scheduled to read their poems to each other. There were also poets. J.V. Cunningham said, over a glass of bourbon, “It’s just like a cozy MLA meeting; dogs sniffing each other’s haunches. Only, here, no one knows what job he’s brownnosing for!” Randall and Mary Jarrell surveyed one of the official meetings with disgust, then alarm, when they noticed a lady reporter from the BBC carrying a Nagra tape recorder. “We’ll grab her,” he said. “You run with the recorder. No evidence of this must ever get out of the country!”
I would not claim that poets, gathered at such conferences, or out on the poetry-reading circuits, are less lecherous (or less anxious to seem lecherous) than other traveling salesmen. Farmer’s daughters and poetry groupies lurk in many a landscape. It is necessary for an artist to keep open his or her senses and emotions —a doctrine unfortunately liable to narrow and self-serving constructions and in no case conducive to calm relations with spouses and lovers. And such unquiet relations make one only the more susceptible to temptations. Many male poets feel they must live down the image of artist as wimp, or else live down to the myth of artist as hero maudit, perishing of debauch, drink or dementia. That suicidal myth was helping decimate the poets of the generation before mine —say, Dylan Thomas through John Berryman—who, in turn, passed it on to the women poets of the next.
One knows, more or less, who will be invited to conferences; everyone waits to see who the invitees will invite. Some arrive with wives, even their own, as did Richard Wilbur here. Some appear with more or less permanent lovers; Delmore Schwartz brought a very young woman with whom he then lived in Syracuse. (As his dementia deepened, he kept a number of young women in scattered apartments throughout that city.) Williams usually appeared at conferences with one of the most voluptuous-looking women I ever met. Tall and rangy, she had long blond hairs growing on the rims of her ears. A ceramicist, her name suggested descent from the minor Hungarian nobility. Some years later, I ran into her on the streets of San Francisco and enjoyed the unearned appearance of splendorous debauchery by riding around town with her in a fire-engine red MG and turning up for breakfast at Fanny’s Floating Restaurant in Sausalito. Williams, though alone on this occasion, took her to several MLA meetings where he introduced her as a medievalist; it was said she had received offers from two major universities.
Others bring their hopes. You would encounter both the polished seducer totting up his scorecard and the rougher “good ol’ boy” who pinched hard, apparently fearful that his brutally lewd propositionings might be accepted. Often, too, the mischief-maker who, if he liked you, would try openly to seduce your wife. And restless wives. Early on at this conference, I was approached by a somewhat older, gifted and attractive woman poet whom I had always liked. I wish I could say that a sense of honor, not the absurd glamour of the young, dissuaded me.
When I first arrived in the D.C. train station, I ran into a young girl, a student I’d known at Wayne State in Detroit. She’d been sleeping on the station benches and subsisting on coffee and apples while waiting for a train which was still two days off. Once I was signed in and settled, I went back to invite her to the conference —there would be lots of food and drink, she could hear and meet the big-name poets and, mean-while, stay with me in the hotel. This, of course, made everyone furious —and I did nothing to dispel their assumptions. I’d have been delighted if something sexual had developed; it didn’t. She enjoyed the conference; I enjoyed her company—and the envy it provoked. I overheard someone saying, in tones of outrage, “He’s got a girl even younger than Delmore’s!”
Such envy is easy to rouse and can serve as a substitute for recognition of one’s work. Once, at the request of a colleague, I escorted a handsome young women, whom I’d barely met, to a conference at Colgate University. This so enraged James Dickey and Norman Mailer that they nearly had a fistfight with each other—each apparently seeing me as an unworthy opponent. In San Francisco, I once took a lady —also very handsome though nearer my own age —to a party. Days later, an argument erupted over whether she (actually the daughter of a Greek gambler) had been a countess or a princess. My impression is that casual sex can easily be overrated; its reputation and the resulting jealousies offer surer, though no less dangerous, delights.
As for Delmore and his young girlfriend, they got into a quarrel in their Washington hotel room -he was already far into paranoia and madness. When she fled down the hall to spend the night with Richard Wilbur and his wife, Delmore began breaking up the furniture and was catted away by the police. I asked Richard the next day what had happened; he said only, “Delmore. He hutt his room.” Meantime, John Berryman, drunk and outrageous as usual, had gone down to the station to get Delmore out, but (perhaps jealous of his notoriety) had instead got himself thrown in, too. We had to persuade Richard Eberhatt, a former Navy lieutenant commander, now clad in a business suit, tie and ponderous respect-ability, to go down and liberate both. One of the more amusing sides of all this was to receive, several weeks later, a letter from Berryman (assuming my ignorance of backstage maneuvers) telling me how he had rescued Delmore.
Whether he rescued Delmore or not, Berryman did save the conference, providing its only really creditable moment: the first general public reading of The Dream Songs. The audience was electrified; Allen Tate, who did not habitually applaud others’ work, shouted “Bravo, John!” Otherwise, the meetings crawled on in disgrace; most of us busied ourselves otherwhere.
I had gone off on a strange project. Back in Detroit, a friend and I had been writing a play about the local John Robert Powers Modeling and Talent Agency where she had been a teacher. In connection with this, we had interviewed a number of people once connected with the school —including a lady who unwittingly told me how she had murdered her husband. I’d had to block all response so completely that the information itself vanished from my mind for several days. Now, in Washington, I decided to try the local Powers School to see what facts might be co-opted for our play.
Two poets from the conference, Anthony Ostroff and Oswald LeWinter (a master of disguise and gentle con games), jumped at the opportunity. We took, for ourselves, names of editors at The Saturday Evening Post, looked up the address in the phone book and set off for the beauty school. This, sadly, came to nothing—the school itself, apparently, was so deep in corruption (or at least in debt) that it had closed its doors, and its owners had quietly disappeared. A neighbor told us that someone came in the dead of night to collect mail.
Our attempt to con the con artists had fizzled out. Yet there on the street outside the locked beauty school we ran into Oscar Williams, out on a project of his own —a phonograph record of poets reading their own work. I should probably have felt honored that he wanted to include me; what I did feel was suspicion. I had made one recording for the Library of Congress which was poorly engineered and on which I had read abominably. I wanted time to find out about the quality of this recording, opportunities to re-record, who else might be involved. And whether anyone I trusted more might be doing a competing record. I thought I had the perfect out; I told Williams I couldn’t commit myself until I finished a recording I’d promised for my British publisher. This was true enough, even if not the true reason. Apparently satisfied, he invited us all to a party at his hotel suite that evening after the final poetry reading by Robert Frost. Perhaps we could talk about it then, he said; I hoped, foolishly, he might forget about it.
In the meantime, fiercer events were unfolding which suggested that even if we arrived at Frost’s reading or Williams’s party, none of us might survive to tell our friends or families. Our luncheon with Jacqueline Kennedy that day was suddenly canceled—rumor had it she was in a cave somewhere in a western state. Soviet ships carrying nuclear missiles were steaming toward Cuba; American war ships were steaming toward them. If they met in mid-Atlantic, World War III would almost certainly begin; Washington would be wiped out in hours.
Not surprisingly, this cast a greenish and terminal glow over the remaining meetings and cocktail parties. At one of those, I met for the first and the last time, Robert Frost, eighty-eight and obviously in his last months. We spoke for a few moments but said nothing. He did not mention, and perhaps did not recall, that a few weeks before he had attacked me (though not by name) during his reading in Detroit. Some of my students had asked him about my interpretations of his poems; from the platform, he had issued scathing remarks about academics who claimed “Stopping by Woods” had something to do with death or suicide. Two days later, however, he had read the same poem in Ann Arbor, about forty-five miles away, then looked up, startled, at his audience and said, “Well, now, that does have a good deal of the ultimate about it, doesn’t it?” An Oedipal moment —he had so long misrepresented his own poem that he’d forgotten when and why he wrote it. Yet, like Oedipus, he was capable of piercing his own smoke screen. After that encounter, then his more recent appearance at Kennedy’s inauguration, I was naturally curious about what might happen at his reading at the Library that evening, an event with even more of the ultimate about it.
After the cocktail party where the young lady and I had met Frost, we all had to find dinner. Earlier, I’d been approached by a reporter from Time who wanted to interview me and suggested we all go out to eat on his expense account. As we piled into a cab, the driver said, “I guess I’ll get my uniform out of mothballs.” I thought, “You won’t have time to change your socks!” But then I decided—already quite drunk, trying to shut out the air of general sleaziness and impending doom — that at least I’d die in my own uniform. Stopping the cab, I got out and tore a long vine off the high stone wall of some institute’s garden, wove and awarded myself, like Lövborg, a crown of vine leaves.
The cab took us—where else? —to Trader Vic’s. Entering, I handed my crown of vines to the hatcheck girl. She never blinked; with a straight pin, she attached a small cardboard number, then set it on the shelf beside the homburgs and military dress caps. In a flower-festooned concrete nook, sitting with a young woman I scarcely knew but with whom I was ostensibly sleeping, I ate coconut-coated shrimp and drank, through two-foot straws, too much hooch from a vast gardenia-decorated bowl—paid for by a magazine I did not respect but whose praise I wanted, via the plastic card held by a man whose name I did not know. Meanwhile, from upstairs, we could hear the voice of John Kennedy saying on television that we would soon know whether western civilization might continue. As we left, I fished the gardenias from the empty bowl to pin on the young lady’s dress, but forgot to reclaim my crown of vines. Sometimes, when I am back in Washington, I imagine it still sitting forlorn among the fedoras and uniform caps of another generation.
If that had seemed lurid, Robert Frost’s reading entirely outdid it. By this time, I was even more drunk and —as with my Powers School interview of years before —did not dare register what was happening until a day or so later. Frost began, as he almost never did, by reading someone else’s poem: “Shine, Perishing Republic” by Robinson JeflFers. The title alone might have outraged his audience but they were so pre-conditioned to reverence that nothing else could reach them. Moving to his own poem, “October,” he drew special attention to its relevance for the current autumnal crisis:
0 hushed October morning mild.
The leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
His next poem, “November,” developed that figure:
We saw leaves go to glory, . . .
And then to end the story
Get beaten down and pasted
In one wild day of rain.
We heard “’Tis over” roaring.
A year of leaves was wasted.
Oh, we make a boast of storing.
Of saving up and of keeping
But only by ignoring . . .
By denying and ignoring
The waste of nations warring.
He said that this was no waste “if it’s toward some meaning. But you can call it waste, you can call it expense. Just for this evening.” Then he added a new line to his own verse:
By denying and ignoring
The waste of nations warring
And the waste of breath deploring.
This was a direct slap at those whose attitude toward the crisis differed from his own. In him, it produced an immediate exhilaration and pugnacity, not against the Russians or Kruschev (whom he called “the greatest ruler in the world, you know, the almighty”) but against the liberals, most of his audience. They had often criticized his politics (e.g., his saying that no one should get rid of the poor since he needed them in his work); throughout the evening he kept gibing at their attitudes in general and, specifically, toward this crisis. He spoke of “Dover Beachcombers” and those who “would rather fuss with a Gordian knot than cut it.” He went on to say that “every liberal that I know of has a tendency when his enemy works up against him .. . to try to remember if he isn’t more in the wrong than the enemy .. . a liberal is a person who can’t take his own side in a fight.” As the evening went on, he came to be pumping himself up and down at the lectern like a rooster about to crow. Breaking into what seemed a laugh, he referred to that fearful crisis exultantly, “You didn’t want to just fade out, did you? Why not go out in a blaze of glory?”
After he had received a standing ovation and everyone started to leave, he returned to the podium and called us all back to hear some inconsequential comment. Again he received a standing ovation and everyone started to leave. And once again, he called everyone back for another empty comment and a third standing ovation.
Meantime, R.P. Blackmur, sitting near me, was growling loud obscenities: “You dirty old bastard! You rotten ... ” I did not understand, though I’d heard Blackmur had never liked Frost. As we surged out of the hall, myself leading the young girl by the hand, I heard myself (to my own astonishment) singing loudly an old Scottish ballad:
She was trantin’ and dancin’ and singin’ for joy;
She’s vowed that very night she would feast Inverey;
She hae laugh’ wi’ him, danced wi’ him, carried him ben;
She was kind wi’ the villain that had slain her guid man.
I had no notion why either Blackmur or I were behaving so badly. Days later I asked myself why I had been singing that song—“The Baron of Brackley.” Earlier in the song, Brackley, head of the clan Gordon, had been urged by his wife to ride out and fight against a pack of hired cattle thieves and gallows birds who finally butcher him. Now, triumphing in his death, she spends the night with Inverey, the leader of that gang. Only when I had recreated the song did I realize how betrayed I had felt by Frost’s speech and his attitude. Of all the people in that packed hall, only Blackmur had recognized that Frost was not only triumphing over those of his audience he thought over-scrupulous in conflict, but laughing at the probability of that audience’s imminent death. Now he would not have to die alone; he had had his full career; they would not. Mean-time, they were so worshipful that he could mock them to their faces and receive, in return, not one but three standing ovations.
From Frost’s reading, as if it weren’t enough, we went to Oscar Williams’s suite. There we found Richard Wilbur and sat, literally, at his feet, feeling he was an island of sense and reason in our wide sea of sham and corruption. Before long, though, Williams himself appeared and began badgering me again to commit myself to his recording. I reminded him of my earlier answer—that I must first fulfill my commitment to my British publisher. “Well,” he said, getting up, “Mr. Snodgrass is talking through his hat again.” This held just enough truth to infuriate me. I followed behind him, saying loudly, “We want our coats; we are going home.” To my surprise, he turned suddenly affable, put his arm around me and said, “Oh, come now; surely you can take a joke. Come on back and have a drink.” Wandering back to Richard Wilbur, happily bemused, I thought I had won. Williams, it seemed, must think me either a very good poet or else very influential to back off from me in his own hotel suite. Very seldom have I been able to summon that kind of immediate aggressive response; apparent success made me quite smug.
A week or so later—back home with my wife and children, the poetry festival and the Cuban crisis safely, I thought, behind me —I found in my mailbox a letter with no return address but postmarked New York City. Inside was a snapshot of the young girl and myself sitting at the feet of Richard Wilbur. The only comment, scribbled on the back, seemed conciliatory, yet there was also a clear, if unspoken, message: Get frisky, and I can cause you a lot of trouble, I had wondered, earlier, how Williams convinced so many well-known people to record his wife’s turgid poetry; that no longer seemed so mysterious. It did begin to seem that I —a dabbler in corruption, one who liked the look of profligacy—had no business challenging professionals.
Others learned at greater cost. The Hungarian ceramicist, tough and savvy, could take care of herself; she was easily a match for Williams. Rumors said, however, that others close to her, shyer, less wary, more vulnerable, got pregnant and were dumped. Whether that was true or not, and though I scarcely feared that son of conception, I clearly could bring into the world things one wouldn’t view with pride; others near me, too, could be damaged. If Dickey and Mailer recognized me, instantly, as hors de combat, I had to recognize that I was no match for Williams, either. In any market, the small investor is, by definition, the losing investor.
It seemed a telling coincidence that that conference had been held in Washington, D.C. If people do deserve the governments they get — can anyone really be that undeserving? — they must also deserve their literary culture. A people unable to produce a society where loyalty might tend downward as well as up, unable to produce a statesman or ruler concerned with their welfare, could hardly expect to produce a literary politician more gifted or devoted. Yet many of us thought it needlessly shameful that such a man as Williams should so much define the quality of our literary life—which poets would be read, which acclaimed, which would get awards and grants, which would have a “career.” We were sure that “mr. double-u would not be missed” and hoped for the day he would die or be superceded as a power. Naive, learning nothing from the deposal of mr. u., we assumed that after Mr. W., things would have to get better.