A Letter To Tom about “Rhyme”


Tony Woodman and me at the Gran Prix of Czechoslovakia, Brno, 1963

Dear Tom,
My hunch is that your emphasis on “rhyme” in your previous article is going to be misunderstood. I think it will give those who don’t want to hear you at all the excuse not to read you, and may weaken your argument even for those that are willing to give what you say a try.

Let me say this first: I’m a curious critic because I’m so sophisticated yet so naive and trusting — I know so much (or at least ought to, considering the length and expense of my education) and yet am so obviously an innocent. I deliberately didn’t say ‘ill-informed’ there, because what I do know I know quite well, and my eyes are always wide-open. It’s just that I’ve only been engaged with the history of ‘modern poetry’ since I started writing it at 50, and have never sat in a modern poetry lecture and rarely attended a reading, have scarcely ever even started to read a contemporary literary-historical text, know no editors and only one poet who just happened to come to my house in Chiang Mai last Christmas. And of course I only got interested in ‘Modernism’ when I realized that the 14 precious packets I had sent to Bin Ramke over the years at Georgia probably never even got opened, and that my 8 packets to Tupelo hadn’t deterred its editor from sending me a form letter pretending to be a personal critique of my work and suggesting that just $295.00 more might make all the difference. Then Joan Houlihan scolded me in public (P&W, Nov 2006) for my limited understanding of editing and publishing poetry while praising the very editors who had abused me, and I knew modern American poetry was in deep trouble.

And of course, Joan Houlihan was right, too, in a sense, but I’m still nowhere near ready to concede that the situation she regards as normal is ethically acceptable or conducive to the development of good poetry. Indeed, for challenging just that  I’ve been banned on-line by P&W, The AoAP, and The Poetry Foundation — not a very promising start to a new career, particularly not at 70, but revealing.

So what should you call me, then, and how can my input be useful?

Hardly a “noble savage,” as my style is too perfect even if my content is analphabet. Yet I am a “peasant” in poetry when you compare me with somebody like Stephen Burt or David Lehman, for example — and indeed, one of the reasons I got put “on moderation” (aka censorship) at Blog:Harriet so early was that I annoyed the hell out of people who knew a hell of a lot more than I did. Yes, who was I to strew the nice Harriet ground with metaphors that exploded with such devastating effect, even taking out the management? [Click here for a fatal example]

What I have (and this is all about that word “rhyme,” of course, Tom) is my Rip Van Winkle status, a contemporary poet back from the dead. Because my anomaly is that I was so highly and successfully educated in literature (Columbia, Yale, King’s College, Cambridge, summa cum laude, phi beta kappa, Woodrow Wilson, Kellett Fellow [a whole decade before David Lehman!], C.S.Lewis, F.R.Leavis, Fellow of Christs, you name it) yet I never got educated in modern poetry, not once. So I go straight from the 30s in which I was born and jump straight to 1992 in which I got published for the very first time by Marilyn Hacker in The Kenyon Review — sans mentor, sans prize, sans compromise.

So I can see a lot — and since I’m much too old for success, and nobody is ever going to hire me what’s more give me a prize, I’m free to burn any bridges I want behind me, which is rare.

A “noble non-starter,” I might be called, playing on Joan Hoilihan’s “loser.” Or a “noble non-shopper,” or a “noble non-whopper,” or a “noble non-accredited accomplisher” — because the irony is that my publishing credits are not bad at all, considering my age and when I started, but I have no position and no reputation to advance or defend.

So “rhyme,” then, Tom. I’m sure you know exactly what you mean by the word, and you do know the literary-historical details like the back of your hand. But what you don’t know first hand is the snobbery that lies behind the creation of modernism, the revulsion with which those early 20th century poets around Pound and Hilda Dolittle rejected the late 19th century mush so loved by those who had just emerged from the crude working class.  Because the Hallmark-type “rhyme” was not the actual hallmark of the verse they despised, but rather the feel-good sentimentality which celebrated the feeling you got when you sat down at last to ‘dinner’ together around a ‘table’ or ‘read’ together  in the ‘parlor’ — which factory workers were still not going to do in Britain or America for a long time to come (which is a huge social and educational grey area, of course, and not yet quite out of the bag like what happened to the Native Americans!).

That’s what I know about more than most of you who are reading this and interested in our struggle. Because I was brought up in the 19th century, and I was a snob and mush made me feel unclean too, so I know the feeling only too well. I spent my early years in Gladstone, New Jersey, after all, the Gold Coast, and in my American childhood never met an African-American or a Jew and very few Catholics not descendants of Diamond Jim Brady (my mother’s family in Boston in the 30s didn’t mix with the Kennedys, who were Irish like the servants, and my mother was terribly distressed when I named my second daughter Delia Orlando, the middle name also being mistaken for Italian!).

And to our great credit, but goodness knows why, we ran, my brothers and I — my younger brother westward to Wyoming, myself eastward to Cambridge, and our older brother just really really fast (he was the first American to have a big success in Gran Prix motorcycle racing in Europe until he broke his back in the Northwest 200 in Ireland in 1965.) And I ran, and I kept bees, and I fiddled around with Trungpa, and I sailed, but mostly just fell in love with my wonderfully wrong women — and little by little I sloughed off that good taste and sense of superiority which went along with the family silver (I still have a trunkful somewhere, and enough 18th century willow pattern china to serve you all at once, though goodness knows where that is as well) — and now I’m writing to you like the fool…

No, it’s not the rhyme, Tom — it’s the snobbery of a new intellectual class that is still not too secure and needs to put a lot of distance between itself and the petit bourgeois poetry that makes sense when you finally arrive on the first rungs of the new upwardly mobile America.

And should the ‘petit bourgeois poetry’ of the 19th and early 20th centuries be re-evaluated, then, should that forgotten corpus be restored to grace? Hardly, but the alternative “make it new” movement at the opposite extreme must be re-assessed as ‘petit bourgeois poetry’s’ shadow, in the Jungian sense, so that those aspects of our western poetry traditin that got debased and/or hidden by ‘Modernism’ can be brought out into the open and liberated — like feeling, like music, like value and meaning and even, when its applicable, like rhyme. Indeed, all the underpinnings of Modernism must be fearlessly re-examined, and it’s tendency to sew new clothes for the emperor ruthlessly exposed, as we’re doing — and how the courtiers do kick and howl!

That’s our theme, of course, and it’s a big one, and one for which I think  I’m well-equipped even with just a small “compatty hammer” [click here] in my hand.

Christopher

Advertisements