Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Life is short but so is art

It’s probably the November spirit, the stripped trees exposing the vacant nests hidden all summer long, that takes me here.

Looking up at the books on my shelf, I can spot among the other thin volumes, those by poets who have fallen into disuse, like buildings for which there is no repurposing. Howard Moss, poetry editor of The New Yorker for forty years, John Nims, editor of Poetry, and others, mostly dead white male Easterners (L. E. Sissman, William Meredith, Howard Nemerov, and Karl Shapiro, for example). These poets were once at the top of their game, and it was their game. They wrote smart, cool, somewhat buttoned-down poetry, full of subtle emotions and ideas that skated over the lines like ice dust.

John Ciardi (pictured) was one of them. He was the director of Bread Loaf, poetry editor for the Saturday Review, host of a regular television segment on CBS, had another such show on NPR, was a favorite on the lecture circuit, and wrote children’s books and textbooks, compiled dictionaries and anthologies, and translated the entire Divine Comedy into a mock terza rima (axa, bxb, cxc), which lets Dante’s true terza rima resonate but allows for the meaning to be rendered into the less pliable English.

He was a large, gruff, opinionated man. He got himself in trouble for panning Ann Morrow Lindbergh's book of poems in a review and fifteen years later got himself kicked out of Bread Loaf for not keeping up with the times. Two years after his death in 1986, the University of Arkansas Press brought out a book of his love poems that were featured on a Valentine’s Day show of Bob Edwards’ Morning Edition. The book sold out within days.

Ciardi wasn’t a great poet. He was a popular poet who wrote good poems. As were many others of his generation. Subsequent generations have had and will have their good poets, poets like these whose careers will be made as impresarios like Ciardi, or gatekeepers like Moss and Nims, or prize-winners like Meredith (Yale Younger Poets, National Book Award) and Shapiro and Nemerov (Pulitzer and Bollingen). Good should be good enough.

I once was invited to dinner with a well-known contemporary poet, one who, following in Ciardi’s footsteps in many ways, had made it to the top of the Po-biz ladder, commanding princely sums for lectures, appearing regularly on television and radio. He too was translating Dante. When I asked him if he consulted Ciardi’s version, he said that he looked at it for laughs.

Perhaps that’s the right attitude to take for such an enterprise as the one he had set for himself. My preference is one exemplified by another large, gruff, opinionated poet, Yvor Winters:

To a Young Writer

Achilles Holt, Stanford, 1930

Here for a few short years

Strengthen affections; meet,

Later, the dull arrears

Of age, and be discreet.

The angry blood burns low.

Some friend of lesser mind

Discerns you not; but so

Your solitude’s defined.

Write little; do it well.

Your knowledge will be such,

At last, as to dispel

What moves you overmuch.

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