Late in Queen Victoria’s century, a young Jesuit seminarian set the following entry down in his notebook:
“April 27, 1871….Mesmerized a duck with chalk lines drawn from her beak sometimes level and sometimes forward on a black table. They explain that the bird keeping the abiding offscape of the hand gripping her neck fancies she is still held down and cannot lift her head as long as she looks at the chalk line, which she associates with the power that holds her . This duck lifted her head at once when I put it down on the table without chalk. But this seems inadequate. It is most likely the fascinating instress of the straight white stroke.” 1
Most of us will recognize the author of these lines thanks to those gorgeously inscrutable bits about “the abiding offscape of the hand” and the “fascinating instress.” They are in part the evidence of Gerard Manley Hopkins trying his damndest not to be a poet. Before he came to study at the Jesuit College of Stonyhurst, he had burned all of his youthful verse, regarding it as a distraction from his true calling to the priesthood. But as we know, Hopkins was unsuccessful in his desire to resist the poetry itch. A few years into the future he will give up his efforts to suppress his creative urges (he was apparently much more successful at suppressing the sexual ones, but that’s another story), and break his long poetic silence with the most unreadable great poem in the language, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” From that point on, Hopkins would be a majestic poet but a mediocre priest. During his Stonyhurst years, he can’t write poetry, but he can certainly write like a poet in his notebooks. He watches a field of bluebells waver in the light, comparing them to “the spots on a snake.” He goes ga-ga over a peacock’s train, as mesmerized by its finery as his duck was by the chalk line: he feels himself being stared at by a thousand eyes that “fall into irregular rows” when the peacock spreads his train. When the peacock lowers his train, he likens the eyes to “scales or gadroons.” Gadroons!—an architectural term for “a band of convex molding ornamentally carved with beading or reeding.” The description goes on–lavish, maniacal, ecstatic: “the outermost eyes, detached and singled, give with their corner fringes the suggestion of that inscape of the flowing cusped trefoil” that he has seen in certain paintings. None of this makes us see the peacock anew; the passage doesn’t make the familiar strange; it’s too fastidiously wacky. Descriptions such as this, like so many passages in Hopkins’ poems, have little to do with accuracy of seeing—there are no images akin to Bishop’s characterization of fireflies looking exactly like champagne bubbles—but everything to do with intensity of seeing. No one else has seen the world quite like Hopkins; he out-surreals the surrealists. Yes, the purpose of this looking is devotional, evidence that the world is charged (and charged and charged) with the grandeur of God, a pantheism that many of his fellow Jesuits would have found a bit heretical. Be that as it may, the immediate effect of reading Hopkins’ encounter with his duck is plain, visceral, jaw-dropping astonishment. It may not bring me to a greater closeness with the Almighty, but it somehow helps to restore my faith in the things of this world—what bizarre delights it offers!—and my faith that a writer can see this bizarreness so uniquely is similarly restored. I may not hear Louis Armstrong rasping about what a wonderful world this is, but the mere fact that Hopkins hypnotized a duck and thought enough of the action to record it—for himself, if not for posterity—is enthralling.
At the same time, neither we nor Hopkins are ever content to let sleeping ducks lie. Hopkins immediately seeks to explain the whole business. Some unnamed “they”—experts on duck hypnosis, presumably–have gone before him in this experiment, and the duck seems to associate the chalk line with the power of the unseen hand that held it down. We see Hopkins mulling this theory over. Clearly part of him is inclined to give it some credence, and we suspect it is because the possibilities of religious allegory are so obvious: God is the hand and we are the ducks. Even unseen and when not overtly wielding His power, His Hand Hath Stroked our feathers. If you leap to this interpretation (and Hopkins was certainly likely to have done so) that invisible hand seems both a burden and a consolation. This ambivalence is precisely the one explored in one of the greatest lyrics of our language’s other essential devotional poet—George Herbert in “The Collar,” who initially sees his clerical collar as not much different from a yoke put on an oxen. So Hopkins is God’s Duck, Herbert God’s Ox. Yet at the same time, Hopkins is questioning this whole premise. “This seems inadequate. It is most likely the fascinating instress of the straight white stroke.” I take this to be Hopkins lingo for saying that duck finds the chalk line pretty.
Inadequate it seems to me, too, much as I love this notebook entry. And so I recently wrote to my friends Dawn Cooper, who is an internationally recognized animal trainer, and her husband the novelist and poet Clint McCown. I quoted the notebook entry, wanting to see what they thought of what the subject line of my email called, “the duck thing-y.” Here’s Clint’s reply:
Dawn wrote out an explanatory email about the duck thingy, but it got devoured by the universe when she tried to send it to me. So I’ll summarize as best I can from what she told me.
She said research has been done on ducks that connects visual stimuli to involuntary physical responses. She surmises (by piecing together five or six separate studies) that somehow their optic receptors can lock onto something like a white line because it can be mistaken by their little duck brains for markings on a duck of the opposite sex and they freeze into a particular duck pose–head lowered in submission to show willingness to get together and have baby ducks. So as weird as it sounds, a duck’s brain seems to be hardwired for forcing the body to strike and hold a particular pose if confronted with a white line stimulus. I guess a white line is the equivalent of duck porn. So as strange as the Hopkins passage is, it falls within the realm of what has actually been observed and studied in ducks.
What a world. Hopkins thinks it’s all about God, scientists think it’s all about sex. I think it’s all about design flaws.
So, dear reader, it gets curiouser and curiosuer. A few days later, I encounter the following passage by another author, one also much concerned with religion and wildlife:
Great day w/bear management wildlife biologists; much to see in wild territory incl amazing creatures w/mama bears’ gutteral raw instinct to protect & provide for her young… She sees danger? She brazenly rises up on strong hind legs, growls Don’t Touch My Cubs & the species survives & mama bear doesn’t look 2 anyone else 2 hand her anything; biologists say she works harder than males, is provider/protector for the future…Yes it was another outstanding day in AK seeing things the rest of America should see; applicable life lessons we’re blessed to see firsthand. 2
This is a Tweet posted from her Blackberry by Sarah Palin, not long before she resigns her position as Governor of Alaska in favor of whatever future career she is plotting for herself. There is obviously a desire on the governor’s part to identify herself with the mother Grizzly, rearing up menacingly to protect her young from the lampoons of insidious Leftist Antichrists such as David Letterman, or from attacks by various disgruntled State Troopers, Levi Johnstons, and former McCain staffers. She manages, too, to put in a plug for Alaska tourism and a dig at the wimps who reside in the lower forty-eight, all in the space of a passage that, if you’re counting, is only three words longer than Hopkins’ duck opus.
The differences between these two authors go without saying: one is a genius, by all accounts a tortured, deeply insecure, and deeply humble soul. The other is cunning, crafty, but by no means a genius and by no means humble. But is it equally obvious to state an even more troubling contrast between the two passages: one is set down for the writer’s private consumption, edification, and insight (or inscape, to use Hopkins-speak); it is set down in a bound paper notebook, in the pencil that Hopkins favored over ink, and in a hand that one of Hopkins’ editors complains is “minute….frequently smudged, and at times almost illegible.” Illegible, perhaps, but also tangible, designed so that the eyes may see what the hand has done, to paraphrase Robert Lowell. The other is spewed out, presumably in situ: the Governor rearranges her bobby pins as Mama Grizzly snarls, as the park ranger warns that they’d better make a run for it, and as they do she still is furiously texting on her Blackberry, employing all the irritating mannerisms of text-speak rather than the glorious oddity of Hopkins-speak: the ampersands, the number two substituted for “to,” the almost-Teutonic tic for compound nouns like “provider/protector.” And these musings are going out in real time to her equally demented worshipful minions. Texting of this sort is purely a mode of self-gratifying performance: it has little to do with more intimate and authentic communication. Buddy in Orange County is watching it all unfold on his computer screen, to which he’s affixed a “NoBama” sticker. “Come here right now, Edna,” he’s telling his wife, “Sarah’s being trailed by a Grizzly!” Yes, it’s absurd, but it’s also demagoguery. Experience is turned to fodder for the blogosphere, and the import of the message is twisted and xenophobic, following in the tradition of the barefaced paranoia of Father Coglin’s radio rants of the 1930s, or Pound’s lunatic radio speeches from Mussolini’s Rome. No, Blackberrying will not cause you to think like Sarah Palin, let alone like poor old Ez. But what I want to offer in these pages is a kind of homage the force behind Hopkins’ stubby pencil and his cramped inscrutable cursive. I want to offer what I fear is an elegy to the handwritten word, as it’s set down in a unlined blank bound sketchbook, or the green lined pages of a pocket-sized moleskine, or a yellow legal pad, or a Blue Octavo of the sort that was so dear to Kafka. I want us to praise the notebook—both in and of itself and for what it tells us about the workings of a poet’s mind, and for how it helps us to chart the process of inspiration turning to what in time becomes a finished poem. I seek to make this offering before the handwritten notebook becomes yet another “dead format,” and before the kind of discourse, inclusiveness and attentiveness which is can represent disappears entirely from our consciousness. And make no mistake, reader, this disappearance is inevitable. We will still write our observations and our poems on some form of media, but as our methods change our consciousness will change as well, and not always to the good. Give me Hopkins’ duck, and let the Grizzly use her “gutteral raw instinct” to sense that genuine danger lurks within that black thing with the tiny keyboard in the human female’s hands. Seize it from her now, Great Beast; give her a chance to flee, but then tear those microchips to shreds with your claws.
Don’t make me out to be a Luddite here. I suppose you could say my stance toward this whole business is Janus-like. As I write this, I can turn to my bookshelf and see a stack of bound notebooks, going back to the mid-1980s. (There are a good many others in storage in the attic and in the closet of my office at school…) I fill one, or sometimes two of them per year. Like many writers, my choice of materials to write with derives from habit, superstition and compulsion. I’m not as anal retentive as Thomas Mann, who would not do any writing before a visit to his manicurist, nor or as charmingly sweet-tempered as Keats, who would always put on his best suit before embarking on a letter or poem. But I am set in my ways: I can only write on black, hard-bound, 8 1/2 x 11 unlined artists’ sketch books. For many years I preferred to write with a black micro-point felt marker called (embarrassingly) “Le Pen.” Since these are now hard to find, I now make do with another felt marker—the Uniball Vision Unique. I write nothing in cursive, since I often can’t read my own left-handed scrawl, a problem I attribute to the Catholic Church: in second grade, my parents sent me to parochial school for a year. I’d learned to print with my left hand, but a nun named Sister Immaculata forbade the use of what she termed The Devil’s Side, and I was forced to make do with my right hand. This, among other things, ended my parents’ flirtation with private schooling, and the following year I went back to the public school and the Devil’s Hand. But the damage was done: my cursive always looks like gibberish. I must confess that I love the way the notebooks occupy their couple of feet of bookshelf space, along with several black spring binders filled with finished or abandoned poems. (These binders, like Le Pens, are now somewhat hard to get hold of; I’m told that only one company–Elbe-Cisco of Fall River, MA—continues to manufacture them.) Yet the notebooks are propped up not by a bookend, but by a Bose Soundock on which the newer of my two i-Pods rests (The first ran out of space for my music library, and its 164 GB successor is loading up fast.) And of course the words you are reading are being typed out on a laptop, from which I’ve just called up my friend Clint’s Duck Thing-y email and pasted it onto my text, along with Palin’s insufferable Tweet. I am also calling up the archives of the online journal Blackbird—in part because they contain a brilliant uncollected poem by the late Larry Levis that I plan to paste into my text as well, in part because the archives also contain a video, c. 1992 or thereabouts, of Levis reading the poem (that I will play while the i-Pod is also chiming out the Drive By-Truckers), and in part because the poem will testify that I am not alone in my Janus-like condition regarding new media vs. old.
The Levis poem is entitled “Poem Ending With a Hotel on Fire.” It is close to six pages in length, and, like so many of Levis’ later efforts, it is something of a loose baggy monster. The poem veers from seemingly improvisational free association to an almost-prophetic self-possession. Here’s the opening passage:
Poor means knowing the trees couldn’t care less
Whether you carve the initials of your enemies
All over the trunk’s white bark,
Or whether this sleep beneath them is your last.
In the contorted figures meant to represent their sleep,
The statistics never show the deep shade in the park,
The mother appearing in the dark of someone within whose
Sprawled arms clear gin and black tar mingle
To compose the blood’s unwriteable psalm.
The blackening church bells say the poor are wrong,
So does the traffic stalling on the bridge; so does the lazy swirl
Of current underneath it all, a smile fading in the dark.
What I love is the way you would whisper against
The current, into the dark,
“But what you mean by poor is…some figure & concealment
By which they are forgotten. But the figure itself is a kind
Of poverty. I don’t mean just…money. I mean poverty
In the widest possible…sense.” There was the sound
Of crickets in a ravine I listened to so closely one evening
It became only a vast chirring, then a thing not there, then
The roar of a fire. It was like being, or pretending to be,
Without speech. To be without speech means no one
Listening, & that the flames scaling the neighborhood
Can not even pretend to. This is
Where the poor are not permitted to see themselves…
We can’t help but hear the voice of Hopkins in Levis’ strangely numinous descriptions of “the vast chirring of the crickets” and “the blood’s unwriteable psalm.” But the poem is about protest rather than praise, lamenting impoverishment as both a social injustice and a spiritual condition. It also seems to be a poem of lost love, describing a “you” who appears to be both a real individual and a muse figure. The poem continues on for several stanzas before introducing its first moment of sustained narrative. With a third of the poem finished, we are finally told of the hotel fire alluded to in the title:
Once in a hotel in Cincinnati, I saw a woman decorated,
Like a kind of human Christmas tree, in money. All down
the buttons of her blouse & in fact all over her blouse & skirt,
The men, for whom, I heard later, she had been hired as
A private dancer, had pinned twenties, hundreds, fifties,
Rolls of smaller bills—& as the alarm blared its one note &
The beige smoke—billowy, calm signature of whoever had set
The upper floors on fire—began filling
The corridor, we arrived at the elevator in the same
Moment, & waited—I in shorts & a faded t-shirt with three
Naked Jamaicans on it who were, once, The Itals,
And she in the most expensive dress I had ever seen—
And when the elevator didn’t show we ran down the steel
Stairs that seemed to ring and ring with our steps.
Later, in the lobby bar, her purse so stuffed with bills
The bartender simply said, “It’s cool,” & raised both hands
Above his head when we tried to pay, she would talk only
Of her one obsession, which had nothing to do with money nor
Swaying to music, nor men,
But with purebred Abyssinian cats, the trouble she went to,
Taking them—traveling with four howling cages behind her
In the back of a station wagon—to shows all over
The Midwest. The worst part though, she said, was that
The shows were rigged, the judges were paid off….
The anecdote of the fire and the speaker’s subsequent encounter with the woman is as consummately outlandish as the poem’s free-associative opening. As the speaker continues his conversation with her, she seems progressively more demented, claiming, among other things, that the corrupt cat show judges have even tried to frame her on murder charges. But then the narrative shifts again. We’re given a lengthy description of a gang of drugged-out teenagers as they set the hotel ablaze in a kind of warped prank. The description of the conflagration is grimly humorous, lushly detailed, and, well, pyrotechnical. And the passage leaves us completely unprepared for the tonal shift which occurs when the dancer returns to the story. Now the poem reverts to the associative method of its opening. As the poem concludes, the imagery is militantly (but eccentrically) apocalyptic:
…the doors opened onto flames.
In the photographs she showed me the Abyssinians looked
Emaciated, &, though I couldn’t say why, like a species that
Had survived its own extinction. Their pale eyes suggested
Nothing at all. They looked back like the face of famine,
Their thin, ridged spines older than even the ancient
Illustrations of cats on tombs, cats that had been the pets
Of kings & now slept beside them in the straight-jacketed,
Dry, whirlpool of bandages they had wrapped kings in so that
They might descend without distractions. Did the doors
Of tombs open onto flames? The faces of the cats
Caught in the photographs would never tell.
Their gray fur was like blurred print or the blank, chirring
Blizzard on the t.v. set above the bar. Nothing would tell.
Once in a blizzard in a foreign city, having lost my way,
I wondered what it would be like to be one of those—blind
Drunk, high, or homeless—who would have
no alternative except
To freeze to death, & thought how, after the initiation of pain,
They say it is like being lulled to sleep, the way the snow
Appears to faint as it swirls in the locked doorways of shops,
The way this would be the last thing that appeared to you
There, before whatever was left of you became gradually
Confused with a small part of the upsway
Of snow & wind.
It is all a matter of confusing yourself with something else:
The soul curls up in a doorway, & lets the snow swirl around it.
And…not just money then, but…poverty, I thought,
in the widest
Possible…sense of the term, would
Be…But then I knew what it would be.
For a moment I could hear the cats howling in their steel cages,
Their thin spines turning in circles.
Tattoo on a forearm & shriek of the wind, & no figure drawn
In the night’s silent contemplation by which
The poor might be forgotten;
And not you beside me in the dark but only a dry fern & a Bible
In the room, the rain beginning its long descent onto the roof—
Its sound the chirring of crickets in a ravine.
I could almost hear…No, I could only imagine
hearing it. And that
Is what it has become:
Having to imagine, having to imagine everything,
In detail, and without end.3
Perhaps it is an abnegation of critical responsibility to quote a passage as long as this. But the poem’s ending resists excerption, and perhaps even analysis. Suffice to say that all of the poem’s wildly disparate motifs return, and with an even greater degree of rhetorical and associative intensity. Ultimately, the vision of the poem’s closing is not so much one of apocalypse as of damnation. (References to Dante abound in Levis’s later poetry: note the allusion to Canto I of The Inferno in “Once in a foreign city in a blizzard, I lost my way….”) Here is The Fire Next Time as prophesized in the King James. And the vision of the afterlife conveyed in the final lines, of eternity as a state of endlessly stillborn creation, both astonishes and horrifies.
“Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire” was written at the same time as the poems which comprise Levis’ great posthumous collection, Elegy, which was edited by Philip Levine and published the year after Levis’ death in 1996. The book was unfinished. When Levine assembled the manuscript, he made the decision that the only poems from Levis’ final years that would be included in the volume were ones which the poet had published or sent to journals. Levine regarded all the others as unfinished, and therefore not candidates for inclusion. Yet my colleague Greg Donovan, who was among those who discovered Levis’ body—he’d suffered a heart attack, his body found beside his writing table; he’d died while at work on a poem—made a careful examination of the tote bag where, in three of those black spring binders from Elbe Cisco, Levis kept typed manuscripts of poems presumably destined for his book. Greg feels that “Elegy Ending with a Hotel on Fire” was intended to be the new collection’s closing poem.
I would not be surprised if this were the case. All of the key stylistic and formal gestures of the later Levis are confidently on display. There’s the long undulating line with its couplets and tercets and Levis’ suave fourteeners. And of course there’s the searing chiliastic grandeur of the closing. It seems less a poem about finality as it does a writer’s final statement, a work in the tradition of Villon’s “Great Testament” and o Tichborne’s terrifying self-elegy, composed in the Tower of London on the eve of his execution. Here’s something left among Levis’ papers, written on the back of an envelope:
I think I might build eternity into a poem, one brick, one brush of the pen at a time, an argument against one contradiction or the next, until it stares out, like the sphinx, past everyone but me. After all, I wrote it. I’m 47. My mind, my thought, has never felt so passionate, so shapely or as free of ideologies. Poetry underwrites consideration for all else. I am what made me. I am not 4
Levis was 49 at the time of his death, and we should assume that this passion and freedom from the merely ideological remained with him until he began to set down that final poem he was at work on at the moment of his death. Clive James, reminding us that the terror and totalitarianism of the past century all derives from ideological fervor, defines ideology as “premature synthesis”—Levis would have agreed with this. But other things, including, sadly, much about his writing process, will not be ours to discover. Earlier this fall I found myself in Virginia Commonwealth University Library’s special collection room, rummaging through Levis’ recently donated papers to find drafts for “Poem Ending With a Hotel on Fire.” A few months before that, Larry’s friend Mary Flinn–who had kept his papers in storage for some dozen years–his son Nicholas, his sister Sheila Brady and I stood with head librarian John Ulmschneider to survey the papers; they took up fifteen boxes. One held a pair of cowboy boots and a leather jacket, which Nick took from the box and tried on. I knew Larry Levis only very slightly; I was privy to this event because I now hold the job he once had. But there was something both majestic and bittersweet about the moment. Now Larry’s literary remains would be available to scholars in the way that we hope an important writer’s work should always be. But what comprises any life—at least when it’s stuffed into a set of cardboard boxes on a couple of tables–seems bewildering and paltry.
Bewildering: on that fall day I looked through five boxes of Elegy-era material my bewilderment only intensified. The Levis holdings have yet to be “processed’ by the library, so they remain only very loosely organized. Tucked among drafts of poems were things like checkbook deposit slips, poems by Larry’s students, his annual report to the department chair, copies of letters to Phil Levine, that astonishing self-appraisal scribbled on the back of the envelope, and sheet after sheet of yellow legal paper, on which poems seem to have been started. Levis’ handwriting was bold and assertive, but just as illegible as Hopkins’. And nowhere could I find anything that seemed to be an first or early draft of “Hotel on Fire…” Because the holdings had yet to be processed and a former student of mine was manning the special collections desk, I was given privileges that no other special collections library would permit you. No pencil-only-on-a legal pad for my notes; in fact, I had with me my black notebook and my Le Pen, jotting down in it whatever seemed important—titles of uncollected poems, passages on the legal pads that later made their way into published poems. But there was nothing at all that seemed to suggest the genesis of “Hotel on Fire…” Yes, there were several typescript drafts of the poem, but most had only a few words changed. I then performed another special collection no-no and called Greg Donovan on my cell, wanting to know if he’d seen any early drafts of the poem. The problem, said Greg, was one that the survivors of most of you who are reading this would encounter if you were suddenly struck dead. While at home, Greg said, Levis did his writing on legal pads. But he had no home computer; the poems were all revised on the computer in his office. And like so many of us, Levis apparently kept files of individual poems, but no drafts of them—within the files, the poems seem to have been obsessively revised but with each new version an older version disappeared. Greg recalled that some of those files were copied onto disks, but couldn’t recall what happened to the actual computer, which was likely carted away by Technological Services when Levis’ office was reassigned, We know from some of the other Levis holdings that the poet would often do some serious mix and matching when he composed, cannibalizing a passages from a draft of one or more poems to later use in another, but whatever of this was done in “Hotel on Fire…” it seems we may never know. That this is a great loss there can be no doubt. We have the product: and in the case of “Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire,” that product is one of the most notable poems of one of the best contemporary poets. But have only inklings of how it got to be that way. And, as writers, perhaps even more so than scholars, something in us wants evidence of the process as well as the product. And sometimes the way a writer changes a single word in a poem’s successive drafts brings us to all manner of intriguing speculation. For example, we know from the unabridged version of Curtis Bradford’s magisterial study of Yeats’ poetry manuscripts, Yeats At Work, that the poet struggled for a long while with the ending of his late poem “News from the Delphic Oracle,” perhaps the most extreme example of how the randy side of Yeats–which grew so prominent after his monkey gland operation, though it was doubtless only the placebo effect that accomplished this–commingled with the mythic and occultist side of his writing. Yeats was Levis’ favorite poet, and a passage as wild as this would surely have appealed to him:
Down the mountain walls From where Pan’s cavern is
Intolerable music falls.
Foul goat head, brutal arm appear.
Belly, shoulder, bum,
Flash fishlike; nymphs and satyrs
Copulate in the foam.5
Yeats’ toyed for a long while with using the f-word in place of “copulate,” a pretty radical decision for the 1930s, and if he’d done so the poem would surely be better known than it is. But fuck would have fucked things up. The alliteration would have been over-the-top, and effect would be comic thanks to the strong accents on fuck and foam. “Copulate in the foam” just sounds better, despite the Latinate Big Word, and the presence of four unstressed syllables in a row. Only Yeats could find a way to make a line with three times as many unstressed syllables as stressed ones sound engaging. This is an example of a little thing that is really a big thing: it invites into Yeats’ writing practice, to the attention to minutiae that most poets find fascinating, for it’s always the minutiae that counts the most in revision.
As with revision, so with poets’ notebooks. As we see the minutiae accumulate, we see the evidence of mental agility, of junk and bric a brac—a conversation overheard, a lyric from The Basement Tapes; of Ur-poetry–an image set down to make use of later, a line from Unamuno you can’t wait to steal; of something you recall your parents or dead wife saying decades ago, or your eight-year-old saying on the previous day. The beautiful weird fodder that has to be put down even though you know it’s unlikely to ever make it into a poem. It’s a place where it somehow seems important to set down that the real reason William Randolph Hearst wanted to tried to get RKO to shut down the production of Citizen Kane was not because the movie satirized the newspaper magnet’s career, but because Welles had somehow discovered that “Rosebud” was the pet name Hearst had bestowed on the clitoris of his mistress, the actress Marion Davis. And these are things that go in the BOUND JOURNAL, not into “Daily Journal” program that comes with Microsoft Outlook, not onto your laptop while you sip a latté at Starbuck’s. The eyes have to see what the hands have done; the hands– not the keyboard. True, Auden warned that there’s a danger inherent in handwriting your observations: he allowed that you should go to the typewriter as soon as possible, for “most people like the look of their own handwriting in the way they enjoy the smell of their own farts.” But Auden had it wrong. The notebook is where the gorgeous slag of experience can reside; the flakes of gold and uncut diamond can as often as not glitter out from it, but they can seem even more astonishing when they are yet to be polished or carved or placed in a setting. Charles Simic very sagely remarks that “our culture’s need to pigeonhole everything is defeated” in a writer’s notebooks. “Spontaneity rules here. The writer incorporates chances and makes do with the unforeseen. The head of a poet is more like a town dump than a town library.” This seems very true to me, and Simic further states–on somewhat more shaky ground, but I’d like to believe him–that the computer will likely not replace “the fetishism of the notebook.”6 And, ironically, a byproduct of that fetishism may be durability–as we see from the example of Larry Levis, there’s a good chance that if you write something down on paper it will have a better chance of surviving into the future than if it were set down electronically. It’s sadly appropriate, somehow, that if there are any remaining drafts of a poem as apocalyptic as “Hotel on Fire,” they exist inside an archaic form of a Mac, and lie buried in a landfill.
Before going on, let me clarify a couple of things. I regard poets’ notebooks as work in a hybrid genre, as often as not mixing poetry, observation, aphorism, and the elements of a commonplace book. They are not to be confused with the more systematic (and often tedious) shape of diaries. Nor are they to be confused with the sort of prose that people who say they are “journaling” tend to write. When you “journal” you are not only abusing the language by turning a perfectly good noun into a perfectly awful verb–in the way that evangelicals talk about getting together to do some “fellowshipping,” or disgruntled Facebookers “unfriend” somebody—but you also are also apt to use the work for navel-gazing and solipsistic self-analysis. There’s nothing wrong with such endeavors, but they tend to be unliterary, inward looking rather than outward looking in the way a decent poet’s notebook has to be. The journals I kept in my teens and twenties possessed an almost toxic level of such solipsism. As the years went on, however, my writing in the bound books changed quite a bit—less woe-is-me, and more observations, first drafts of poems, more less-than-brilliant aphorisms, more quotations from other writers, and in fact the quotations from other writers have over the years taken up the majority of space—as rightly they probably should.
The problem, however, with poets’ notebooks is not so much what we do with our individual efforts in the genre, but that the published examples of these documents have always been a frustrating mixture of the spectacular and the prosaic, of lucidity and flatulence. What poets leave behind in their notebooks can show us a writer who is better at jotting there than he or she is as a poet. David Ignatow is a fine and uncompromising—though severely limited—poet of economic and class struggle. Yet the way his poetry addresses his key themes seems tepid when compared to the dogged ferocity of his published notebooks. Frost is among our great poets, but the portrait of the writer that we draw from his recently published notebooks is very much like the one that is rendered in Lawrence Thompson’s still controversial semi-authorized biography—bitter, vainglorious, deeply engaged by the world’s minutiae but all for the purpose of a sort of grim social Darwinism. Writers we deeply admire can seem lessened thanks to their notebooks, while writers we dislike can grow enormously in stature. Rene Char is much esteemed in his native France, regarded as perhaps the most ambitious and the most intellectually rigorous writer to emerge from the surrealist movement. Yet Char in his poetry has always seemed to me a cold fish. Not so the Char of Leaves of Hypnos, the poetic diary he kept during his years as a fighter in the French resistance, a book that seems to me one of the most bracing meditations ever set down on the relationship between aesthetics and social engagement. (Hypnos was the Roman god of sleep, and also Char’s code name among the Maquis …) Consider the bedazzling associative affectedness of the following entry:
Stars of the month of May….
Whenever I lift my eyes to the sky, nausea drops my jaw. I no longer hear, rising from the coolness of my eyes, the moan of pleasure, murmur of the woman ajar. An ash of prehistoric cacti makes my desert fly into pieces! I’m no longer capable of dying…
Cyclone, cyclone, cyclone…. 7
Now consider the enormous urgency and necessity of an entry which follows only a few pages later:
Horrible day! I was witness, some hundred meters away, to the execution of B. I had only to press the trigger of my Bren gun and he could have been saved! We were on the heights overlooking Ceriste, arms enough to make the bushes creak and at least equal in number to the SS. They unaware that we were there. To the eyes around me everywhere begging for the signal to open fire I answered no with my head… The June sun slipped a polar chill into my bones
He fell as if he didn’t make out his executioners, and so light, it seemed to me, that the last breath of wind could have lifted from earth.
I didn’t give the signal because the village had to be spared at any price. What is a village? A village like any other. Did he perhaps know at that ultimate instant? 8
And there’s Greece’s George Seferis, whose poetry, the cachet of his Nobel Prize notwithstanding, has always struck me as an oil and water mixture of Eliotic self-importance and Mediterranean sensuality—he’s a suntanned Prufrock in a bikini brief. Yet his Days of 1945-1951: A Poet’s Journal, is a book I’ve gone back to many times. Written shortly after his return to Greece after his escape to London in World War II, it’s comprised of fragments of poems that are better than his finished poems, the notes for a long unfinished essay on Cavafy that is perhaps the most perceptive criticism ever written on the Alexandrian master, and general speculations on a poet’s vocation that have stayed with me for decades: “In essence, a poet has only one theme—his living body.” “Suddenly you discover that you’ll spend your entire life in disorder. It’s all that you have. You must learn to live with it.” “Why does one write poems? Why, although there are such secret things (for him who writes them) does he consider them more important than anything else in life? This vital need.”9 You get a sense that Seferis regarded Days of 1945-1951 not as fodder for future poems and essays, but as a distinct work in its own right, something he shares with the sadly neglected Black Mountaineer Paul Blackburn, who came to think of his poetic journals—he called them The Journals–as his greatest poetic legacy. This seems to me the case as well, and Blackburn was certainly a much more accomplished improviser than a first-thought-best-thought peer such as Allen Ginsberg. Here, for example is the work’s penultimate entry/section, from July 1971. Blackburn, at 45, is dying of esophageal cancer. He’s taking a flight from the East to the West Coast, a sadly valedictory journey, it seems. Readers below a certain age will find this implausible, but in those days they let you smoke on the plane, at least for part of journey:
10:36 the sign goes on, I don’t get to
finish the 2nd cigarette, and
at 10:36 1/2 we’re air
borne, bound to separate
elements, bound by seatbelt in air
or grounded in snackbar, o we’ve
been there before. I think
I’ll drink, and read, then sleep.
Try to rip off the airlines, will we? They’ll show us.
Five minutes before 11, we cross the Mississippi
Iowa, Nebraska, small white clouds far below (we’re
some 26,000 ft. Then over
Rock Spring. Wyoming, the Continental Divide
coming up. Groundspeed
What a gas, maybe
Louie Armstrong & I
die, back to back,
cheek to cheek, maybe the same year. “O
I CAN’T GIVE YOU
ANYTHING BUT LOVE
1926, Okeh a label then
black gold print, was
one of my folks favorite tunes, that year
that I was born . It is still true
& Louie’s gone down &
I, o momma, goin’ down that same road.
Blackburn’s prediction proved right. He survived Stachmo by a few months, but not as far as 1972.
One reason why the notebooks of Ignatow, Char, and Seferis have the impact they do is that their authors were involved in their publication and arrangement, or, like Blackburn, left fair typescripts. This is not always a good thing: the Simic comments I quote from above come from an introduction to a volume called The Poet’s Note Book: Excerpts from the Notebooks of 26 American Poets. The intro is far more compelling than the notebook entries themselves, although they present work by a wide range of contemporary poets–among them Marvin Bell, Rita Dove, Carolyn Forche, James Merrill, William Matthews, and Donald Justice. But it’s all rather dull, self-serving and sanitized. The book is in essence a set of cherry-picked fragments, aphorisms and pensees designed mainly to make their authors look smart rather than to reflect their minds at work.
But these writers in some respects fare better than those whose posthumously published notebooks were edited by the wrong hands. Theodore Rotheke’s Straw For the Fire, a selection of the poet’s journals edited by his student David Wagoner, is a bizarrely Oedipal affair. Wagoner does a serviceable job of selecting Roethke’s prose—there are wonderful notebook jottings on process and teaching and some manic aphorisms that bring to mind Blake’s Proverbs of Hell. But Roethke, like Larry Levis, often composed his poems by knitting together fragments that originally were set down in his notebooks. At some point in the editing of Straw for the Fire, Wagoner seems to have decided he could do much the same with the pieces that Roethke had left on the cutting room floor, fashioning entirely “new” poems from them, to which he’s bestowed appropriately Roethkian titles along the lines of “The Mire’s My Home,” “Father-Stem and Mother Root,” “The Things I Steal From Sleep,” and “My Flesh Learned to Die.” You wouldn’t be surprised to come across a poem with one of these titles in The Lost Son or The Far Field. But are these pieces mainly Roethke or mainly Wagoner? The whole enterprise is ghoulish, much in the way that recording companies find ways to make dead singers keep coming up with new material. You know the drill: John Lennon and Buddy Holly have their gorgeously raw home demos turned into lushly orchestrated drivel. And somehow from the grave Jimi Hendrix releases several times as many albums than he ever released during his lifetime.
At least Wagoner was, in some perverse way, attempting to be discerning. On my desk beside me is a phonebook sized monstrosity called Portrait of Delmore, the notebooks of Roethke’s fellow middle generation poet Delmore Schwartz, who in his day was regarded as the figure who would leave all his contemporaries in the dust—all the Lowells, Berrymans, Rukeysers, Jarrells and Bishops. The notebook entries dating from Schwartz’s early career, roughly until the late 1940s, are intriguing, but only just so. When Schwartz’s mental illness and drinking and drugging become more pronounced, the work is excruciating, the fragments of poems mostly trite, and the self-appraisals agonizing, especially as Schwartz obsessively, for almost two years, contemplates the aftermath of the failure of his marriage to the novelist Elizabeth Pollett—who some twenty years after Schwartz’s death takes it upon herself to became the editor of the volume. Pollett’s introduction to the volume is reasonable and tender—she states that, “in editing, my main principle was readability, with emphasis on any underlying dramatic themes.” [xv]. Yet what are we to make of an entry such as this, from May 14, 1959?
Eight Dexedrine with a lift for an hour, during which I copied pages of Rilke. Then the bleakness and the emptiness came back. I walked twice to the park, stopped, the second time, at the Riviera—Liz Cooper was there, with her young shiftless friend Bill, and Wolfe O’Meara. And by 4 I had hurried to the White Horse, where I drank five, six, seven, or eight gin-and-tonics. Jeanne Adams came in and sat next to me and leaned against me. Later Zoe Broadwin—Harvard 1947—came in and greeted me as Delmore. But Jeanne kept me from talking to him, questioning me about why I was depressed. I argued with Dick Bagley (film maker) about Joyce—I was really arguing with some feeling that he has about himself which he projects into modern literature and art. Tom Clancy (folk singer, actor) defended Joyce too, and then left me in the middle by praising O’Casey (whom I have not really read). I began to feel maudlin as Bagley left after buying me a drink and calling me “one of the major poets of the century”! And I threw up (as I had on Tuesday, in the morning), after taking two s.t.s.” (628)11
It breaks your heart–and what could Pollet have been thinking to let this out into the world? And this is certainly not the most abashed or self-lacerating of Schwartz’s journal entries. In a final notebook that he was keeping when his body was found—he’d died from a heart attack in a skid row hotel elevator–Schwartz writes, “The poisonous world flows into my mouth/like water into a drowning man’s.”12
Yet for all the damage that can be done to a posthumous reputation thanks to publications such as these, there are also some splendid examples of poetic justice being served. The critic Ruth Limmer devoted much of her career to preserving the literary reputation of Louise Bogan, a poet whose highly polished lyric precision now seems admirable but dated; she’s much better than the other woman formalists who emerged in the 1920s–Millay and Teasdale seem lumbering and saccharine in comparison. But Limmer’s Journey Around My Room— which she subtitles a “mosaic” of Bogan’s notebook entries, fragments of an autobiography, and drafts of poems, some collected, some that had previously existed only in manuscript—is a volume of aching beauty, a far more complex and revealing portrait of Bogan than is evidenced in her published verse, and a foundational document of 20th Century feminism. Limmer’s strength as an editor is a gift for surprising but sensible juxtapositions; the entries, maxims, and poems are not beholden to chronology, but Limmer eschews the uncomfortable one-upmanship that so troubles us about Straw for the Fire. In the following entry, Bogan both belittles and aggrandizes her habit of notebook-keeping:
The keeping of a journal may become a futile and time-wasting occupation for a writer. Temptation toward the inconsequential detail, the vaporous idea, and the self-regarding emotion are always present and can become overwhelming. But whatever I do, apart from the short cry (lyric poetry) and the short remark (journalism) must be in the form of notes. Mine is the talent of the cry or the cahier.13
Yet this entry is directly followed by a passage on the nature of time and longing that has a gracefulness and psychological wisdom that rivals Proust:
“My time will come,” you say to yourself, but how can you know whether your time has not already come, and gone? Perhaps one afternoon the verandah in Panama, with the Barbadians whetting their sickles on the hill below, the Chinese gardens green, the noise of the breakers beyond the hill below, the crochet in your lap, and the cool room shuttered and the sheered bed—perhaps that was your time. (But it was too early.) Or mornings in the sunny room in Boston, when the children cried loudly from the public school across the way, “A prairie is a grassy plain,” and you sat on the low couch with your books and papers about you, happy and safe and calm: perhaps your time was then. (But you didn’t see it at all.) Perhaps it has been spent, all spent, in streetcars, drinking gin, smoking cigarettes—in connubial love, in thousands of books devoured by the eye, in eating, sewing, in suspicions, tears, jealousy, hatred, and fear. Perhaps it is now, on a dark day in October, in the bedroom where you sit with emptiness in your body and heart; beside the small fire, drying your hair—older, more tired, desperately silent, unhappily alone, with faith and daydreams (perhaps luckily) broken and disappearing, with the dreadful pain in your shoulder which presages dissolution, infection, and age. Perhaps this very instant is your time—pretty late—but still your own, your peculiar, your promised and presaged moment, out of all moments forever.14
Typing this, I am dumbfounded by the absolute mastery of Bogan’s prose rhythms. How can she shift so seamlessly from densely lapidary description to the most heart-rending bald directness? The phrasing, the very punctuation, is immaculate. Yet this is also improvised, someone jotting in a notebook a “cry” that she has just belittled as lachrymose. Limmer has stage-managed all this, but you can’t read the two passages without bowing down before a sensibility and talent which none of us can come close to matching. Could Bogan have done this had she access to the “daily journal” function on Outlook, or on one of those dinky laptops the size of postage stamps that are now all the rage with my students? I wonder. Nor would this have been possible, I daresay, as a blog post on http://louboganthecrier.com. (“My time will come u say 2 urself, bt can u know whether yr time is gone…WTF?!”) But mostly I marvel at Bogan’s artistry.
I want to close with a brief look at two recently published poets’ notebooks that seem to me of the first order, the equals of Char, Seferis, and Bogan. One is a poet whose opinions about notebooks we already know: Charles Simic, whose The Monster Loves His Labyrinth is evidence of a formidable poet writing at his full powers. I have to confess to mixed feelings about Simic’s verse; the best of it is indispensable, but much of it seems written on automatic pilot; the mystery, genius with metaphor, and baffled sense of the world as an immense oxymoron devolves in the lesser poems into mere whimsy and self-imitation. I find Simic’s prose more consistent; his books in the Michigan Poets on Poetry series depart from the series norm of bottom-of-the drawer occasional prose and are substantial pieces of writing, both the autobiographical sketches and the essays on contemporary poetry. These latter pieces, which often appear in the New York Review of Books, show Simic to be perhaps our best poetry reviewer since Jarrell. And I should also mention Simic’s Dime Store Alchemy, a series of meditations on the boxes of Joseph Cornell that leaves most of the work on Cornell by art historians in the dust.
The maxims, parables, scraps of verse, one-liners and absurdist parables of The Monster Loves His Labyrinth manage to combine the quizzical imagination of Simic’s poetry with the searching intelligence of his prose; the hybrid genre of the notebook is in several keys ways the ideal mode for Simic’s unique sensibility. Having been born in the former Yugoslavia on the verge of World War II, but coming of age in Chicago, Simic has always been a poet whose Eastern European irony and cultivation fuses with a deep appreciation of the American vernacular and equally deep intolerance for our various national hypocrisies. Although he dwells on the cusp between two cultures, the mixture has never seemed a strained or unnatural one. The mix is abundantly in evidence in one of the book’s first entries, which is funny and savage by turns:
I didn’t tell you how I got lice wearing a German helmet. This used to be a famous story in our family. I remember those winter evenings just after the War with everyone huddled around the stove, talking and worrying late into the night. Sooner or later, it was inevitable, someone would bring up my German helmet full of lice. They thought it was the funniest thing they ever heard. Old people had tears of laughter in their eyes. A kid dumb enough to walk around with a German helmet full of lice. They were crawling all over it. Any fool could see them!
I sat there saying nothing, pretending to be equally amused, nodding my head while thinking to myself, what a bunch of idiots! All of them. They had no idea how I got the helmet, and I wasn’t about to tell them, It was one of those first days just after the liberation of Belgrade, I was in the old cemetery with a few friends, just kind of snooping around. A couple of German solders, obviously dead, lay stretched on the ground. We drew closer for a better look. They had no weapons. Their boots were gone, but there was a helmet that had fallen to the side of one of them. I don’t know what the others got, but I went for the helmet. I tiptoed so as not to wake the dead man. I also kept my eyes averted. I never saw his face, even if I sometimes think I did. Everything else about that moment is still intensely clear to me.
That’s the story of the helmet full of lice.15
The whole passage dwells within various liminal places: are these the rhythms of prose or of poetry? They’re flawless either way. The prose is transcultural, veering from a language distinctly East European–the second paragraph has the parable-like phrasing of Isaac Bashevis Singer—to the pure Huck Finn Americana we get when the child Simic purloins the helmet: “I was in the old cemetery with a few friends, just snooping around.” And of course this is funny as hell and tragic: what is a dead man? The source of a trophy, a souvenir, a toy. But the dead man also retains some powerful mojo: don’t look him in the face, whatever you do, and if you desecrate his resting place, a kind of King Tut’s Curse will follow. Imagine little Charles, triumphantly affixing the Wehrmacht helmet to his head: it’s way too big; it slides down toward his chin, even as he tightens the strap. And how hungry those lice must have been, having sucked every drop of the blood of the dead private’s scalp some days ago. Yet this riotous mixture ends on a different and unexpected note, asking some of the most vexing questions about the nature of memory itself: “I never saw his face, even if sometimes I think I did. Everything else about that moment is intensely clear to me.”
Much of the book’s first section dwells upon Simic’s similarly grostesque episodes from his Serbian childhood and his immigrant’s consternation at American culture, especially as seen from the vantage point of what seems an endless series of shitty menial jobs, jobs that offer opportunities for Grand Guignol theatrics every bit as unhinging as the helmet story. Yet Simic always mixes his absurdities with tenderness. Near the end of the section, he offers this entry:
The face of my daughter lit by a table lamp while she sucks a finger pricked by a compass. A drop of blood already fallen on the black letters and numerals of the difficult homework, as she worries to hand it in, just as it is, to the stern old nun who’ll make her stand in front of the class waiting for the verdict…The spring day bright with sunlight. The nun’s small dark fist clouding the answer.16
The Monster Loves His Labyrinth is divided by Simic into five sections, one largely autobiographical, another devoted (mainly) to thoughts on the art of poetry and literary reputation, another primarily aphoristic (showcasing the writer’s signature gallows humor) and a final section concerned primarily with aging. The volume, like a good book of poems, takes pains to see that these thematic categories aren’t too rigid, as the placement of the passage above attests. (And, for what it’s worth, there’s an hilarious passage in the book about Simic showing his early poems to Louise Bogan….) Good writers’ notebooks are partly a display of literary chops, partly a glimpse into the author’s mind and writing process, partly a form of wisdom literature. Simic’s Monster is all of these. Reading it is a great delight, enough so that it makes me want to read all of Simic—both the poetry and the prose—another time, this time equipped with a more discerning sense of what his mission really is.
Monster was published within a few months of Stephen Cope’s edition of George Oppen’s Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers. You couldn’t encounter two writers who are more different. Simic is composed of irony, contradiction, guffaws, and sudden flashes of pathos. Oppen is, with the possible exception of Eliot—at least in the work he allowed to be published and not the King Bolo and suchlike material; not the un-Eliotic Triumph of Bullshit—the most humorless of America’s great poets. But great Oppen surely is, and if you have any doubts about Oppen’s importance the Daybooks will convert you. And, what’s more, The Daybooks are physically, formally, and temperamentally unique documents, completely so. Although he is usually lumped with the Objectivist School of poets, and maintained long literary friendships with Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reiznikoff, Cope rightly characterizes Oppen as the essential American “iconoclast,” not a member of a school but a party of one. He may share with the other Objecitivsts an obsession for clarity of expression and a fastidiously laconic method; he also shared their social consciousness, but whereas the leftism of Zukofsky seems merely literary, Oppen was the genuine article. As a labor organizer and a Communist Party member, Oppen paid a price for his social activism, and his writing paid a price for it too. Not long after publishing his first collection in 1934, Oppen voluntarily undertook a poetic silence that lasted almost twenty-five years, feeling that the writing was at odds with his political organizing. He fought in the infantry in World War II, and when his political affinities imperiled him during the McCarthy era, he spent a good many years in a kind of semi-voluntary exile in Mexico. Oppen’s return to writing poetry coincided with his return to the United States in 1958 and a shift from doctrinaire Marxism to an unaffiliated leftism. In the ‘60s he enjoyed his most productive period, publishing three collections, among them the Pulitzer-prizewinning Of Being Numerous in 1968, one of the key long poems of our time.
Oppen began keeping his Daybooks around the time of his return to the States, and though they are undated, his five extant daybooks seem to have occupied him for some fifteen years, until shortly before the onset of the Alzheimer’s that eventually silenced him. The daybooks are typed but contain extensive handwritten notes and corrections—they seem to have begun in improvisation but kept evolving—not with an eye toward publication, but toward a quintessentially Oppen-ish clarity. It’s possible that Oppen worked on more than one of the daybooks at the same time. As the facsimiles of some of the manuscript pages included in Cope’s edition attest, the daybooks were odd-looking affairs, “makeshift books bound by Oppen using various ready-to-hand materials (pipe stem cleaners, nails and wood, paste, glue.” 17 They sometimes contain passages and phrases which also appear in Oppen’s published poetry, but in key respects they are an entity of their own, the place where this most thoughtful of poets kept honing his thoughts, and consequently Cope has developed a highly elaborate—but still quite readable—system for replicating passages of Oppen’s strike-outs and handwritten revisions, for passages he later underscores or sets off for special emphasis, etc. We get, in other words, the down and dirty of intellectual endeavor as it morphs to lyric endeavor, sometimes in statements and pensees, sometimes in passages of verse, sometimes in combinations of the two. What is Oppen’s general goal in the project? Again and again, it seems to be the fundamental problem of getting at truth through the means of the general unshapely-ness and untrustworthiness of words. Most of us think about this problem, but unlike so many of his modernist predecessors, Oppen was skeptical of any synthesizing system of aesthetic principles; this famously modest writer saw such systems less as philosophies than as displays of hubris. At one point in the daybooks, for example, he suggests we can do without Wallace Stevens and his supreme fictions. For Oppen, the struggle is more fraught than that, as this passage so well illustrates:
The poem: correcting, one hears a word or a line as wrong, as against some idea of the good, the perfect—Correcting word by word, line by line, toward a concept which you hold and never experience?
The music of the poem does seem to be “out there,” extant—
the sound toward which you are working
But why in the mind? Where most clearly it is
Newton: the moment of excitement was the grasp of necessary truth. And the thought: I AM SAYING WORDS TO MYSELF BUT THOSE WORDS MUST REPRESENT THE TRUTH OF THINGS OUT THERE WHERE I HAVE NEVER BEEN AND CAN NEVER BE
That words must be true, the syntax must work! And words, something one has learned as an infant, something the nurse used–! They can be constructed like number into necessary truth!
Of the transcendental truth some things come—well, floating down in fragments like leaves of a tree–.As, numbers, which seem to act on necessary truth. Do words? Do we lack a transfixitive syntax?18
It’s the same relentlessly earnest and deeply sober depth of speculation that readers familiar with Oppen’s poetry know so well. But whereas the poems seem chiseled by their ideas, the daybooks seem to genuinely worry over them. More than many of his generational peers, Oppen was highly read in 20th Century European philosophy, especially Heidegger and Wittgenstein. Like Wittgenstein, Oppen’s preferred stance is skepticism, and his preferred mode is minimalist. But the searching and quizzical tone of the daybooks is far different from Wittgenstein’s maddeningly lapidary aloofness. And even at his most philosophical, Oppen, unlike the apolitical Wittgenstein, insists that the problems of philosophy and writing are also problems involving the need for social justice:
My “symbols”—I do not quite agree that they are symbols. The man who holds in his mind some rare thing—a crocus, an owl—and uses it to state a meaning has indeed found himself a symbol. But I speak of the things I see, and that I see everyday, because my life is lead among them, because I have no life free from them, and must obviously find meaning in them, if I am to find meaning. at all.19
This brings to mind the stunning 27th section of Of Being Numerous.
It is difficult now to speak of poetry—
About those who have recognized the range of choice or those who have lived the life they were born to–.It is not precisely a question of profundity but of a different order of experience. One would have to tell what happens in a life, what choices present themselves, what the world is for us, what happens in time, what thought is in the course of a life, and therefore what art is, and the isolation of the actual.
I would want to talk of rooms and of what they look out on and of basements, the rough walls bearing the marks of the forms, the old marks of wood in the concrete, such solitude as we know—
And the swept floors. Someone, a workman bearing about him, feeling about him that particular wordlike a dishonored fatherhood he has swept away this solitary floor, this profoundly hidden floor—such solitude as we know.
One must not come to feel that he has a thousand threads in his hands.
He must somehow seem the one thing;
This is the level of art.
There are other levels
But there is no other level of art.20
Oppen’s Daybooks start in such strata, in their acceptance of the fact that we build our writing lives out of an essential unknowing. Yet we are blessed to also begin this process upon some foundation that may be ancient and neglected, but which is also ultimately sound and communal: the level of art. That place underground may not be the landfill or the town dump, after all; it may instead be the buried palace walls, the flattened ramparts of an ancient city, the Mycenae where Schliemann, slogging in the mud, suddenly lifts up the hammered golden mask of Agamemnon. The place where it all has ended so that it all may start again. Our notebooks, I would submit, are the closest material things we have that replicate such places, where we get on our knees and dig into the mud with our hands, where we sweep away the “solitary hidden floor,” where Hypnos stays up long into the night, cleaning his weapon by oil-lamp, then filling another leaf of his album; where Louise Bogan tells us she knows why the Ninth Circle of Hell is icy because she “has laid her living hand upon it”; where a certain Monster within a certain Labyrinth marvels at the fact that he doesn’t believe in God but is still “afraid of opening an umbrella in the house” ; and where, to our eternal good fortunate, a serious young man–who does believe in God–keeps trying to hypnotize a duck.
1. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems and Prose, W.H. Gardner, ed. (London: Penguin, 1953), p. 123.
4. Elegy, Box One, Larry Levis Archives, James Branch Cabell Library Special Collections, Virginia Commonwealth University.
5. William Butler Yeats, The Collected Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1956), p. 324.
6. Charles Simic, “Preface,” Stephen Kuusisto, Deborah Tall and David Weiss, eds., The Poet’s Notebook: Excerpts from the Notebooks of 26 American Poets (New York: Norton, 1995), p.xi.
7. Rene Char, Leaves of Hypnos, trans. Cid Corman (New York: Grossman, 1973), p. 54.
8. Char, p. 138.
9. George Seferis, A Poets’s Journal: Days of 1945-1951, trans. Athan Anagostopoulos (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974), pp. 44, 53, 54.
10. Paul Blackburn, The Journals, Robert Kelly, ed. (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1975). p. 154.
11. Delmore Schwartz, Portrait of Delmore, Elizabeth Pollett, ed. (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1985), p. 628.
12. Schwartz, p. 648.
13. Louise Bogan, Journey Around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan, a Mosaic, Ruth Limmer, ed. (New York: Viking, 1980), p. 91.
14. Bogan, p. 92.
15. Charles Simic, The Monster Loves Labyrinth: Notebooks (Keene, NY: Ausable Books, 2008), pp. 3-4.
16. Simic, p. 17.
17. Stephen Cope, intro to George Oppen: Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), p. 14.
18. Oppen, p. 174.
19. Oppen, p. 158.
20. George Oppen, New Collected Poems, Michael Davidson, ed. (New York: New Directions, 2002), p. 180.