“All Lovely Things” — Conrad Aiken

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“Herman Melville” — Conrad Aiken

“Herman Melville” by Conrad Aiken:

‘My towers at last!’—
What meant the word
from what acknowledged circuit sprung
and in the heart and on the tongue
at sight of few familiar birds
when seaward his last sail unfurled
to leeward from the wheel once more
bloomed the pale crags of haunted shore
that once-more-visited notch of world:
and straight he knew as known before
the Logos in Leviathan’s roar
he deepest sounding with his lead
who all had fathomed all had said.

Much-loving hero—towers indeed
were those that overhung your log
with entries of typhoon and fog
and thunderstone for Adam’s breed:
man’s warm Sargasso Sea of faith
dislimned in light by luck or fate
you for mankind set sail by hate
and weathered it, and with it death.
And now at world’s end coasting late
in dolphined calms beyond the gate
which Hercules flung down, you come
to the grim rocks that nod you home.
Depth below depth this love of man:
among unnumbered and unknown
to mark and make his cryptic own
one landfall of all time began:
of all life’s hurts to treasure one
and hug it to the wounded breast,
in this to dedicate the rest,
all injuries received or done.
Your towers again but towers now blest
your haven in a shoreless west
o mariner of the human soul
who in the landmark notched the Pole
and in the Item loved the Whole.

 

David Markson on Lowry, Gaddis, Vonnegut, Etc.

From David Markson’s 2007 interview in Conjunctions:

Harlin: Incidentally, you wrote your M.A. thesis on Malcolm Lowry, a relatively unknown writer at the time, and became very friendly with him. What was the impulse behind writing him?

Markson: A great percentage of the people in the world haven’t had this experience, but sometimes you read a book, and it’s almost as if it’s been written for you, or you’re the only one who really understands it. The impulse—creatively, artistically, spiritually—was to say, “Be my daddy. Be my father.” It took a letter or two, but obviously I struck a chord. He had done the same thing. As a young boy in England, he’d written to Conrad Aiken, he so admired Aiken’s poetry. I became friendly with Aiken, too, through Lowry. When Malc died, we got back in touch, and when he was in New York he would come to dinner. He kept a cold-water flat—are there still such things?—up on the East Side.

Harlin: You also became friends with Dylan Thomas and Kerouac.

Markson: The Dylan Thomas thing was a fluke. I don’t think I’d ever met a writer. Back then, I was only in correspondence with Lowry. Thomas did a reading, and on impulse I went backstage. You can’t imagine how popular he was or how highly thought-of he was, even though he was a legendary troublemaker. Out of the blue, I said, “How would you like to have a couple of drinks with some graduate students?” He said, “Yeah, I’ll meet you.” One thing led to another, and we had, at most, nine or ten evenings together. Kerouac was sheer chance and non-literary. My next door neighbor at the time, on 11th Street in the Village, was a recording engineer, and he was friendly with Jack. They used to listen to jazz together. In fact, this guy, who’s long-since dead, was one of the first to lug that old-style heavy equipment up to Harlem to record it. Jack loved it, and he’d go with him once in a while. He lived right next-door. Frequently, we’d go from apartment to apartment drinking together. Sometimes, Jack would come to New York, and this fellow, Jerry, would be away, so he’d ring our bell. For about two years—I’m guessing a dozen, fifteen times—the doorbell would ring, never a word in advance, and there he’d be, drunk as hell all the time. Generally he’d stay the night. One time he borrowed a T-shirt. He came back a week later, and we’re sitting in the living room, and I’m recognizing the outer shirt from a week before. I saw this filthy T-shirt and said, “You son of a bitch, is that the shirt of mine that you put on here a week ago?” And he said, “Well, I had a shower.” Then he stopped coming around; I guess he was in Florida. We just lost track of him, and the next thing I knew he was dead.

Harlin: There’s also William Gaddis.

Markson: I thought The Recognitions was—Lowry being English—the great American novel of that period. That’s the only other letter I wrote to a writer, but it was different from the Lowry one. When The Recognitions came out, it was shat on by every reviewer. They said, “How dare he write so long a book? How dare he deliberately try to create a masterpiece?” I wrote this casual letter, saying, “Screw them. Some of us out here know what you did.” When my wife and I went to Mexico for three years, an editor came down there, and Aiken had given him my name. We had him to dinner, and all I did was talk about The Recognitions. And this guy said, “Shut up already. Tell me about Mexico. I’ll read it when I get home.” And he did. The Recognitions came out in 1955, and this would have been about 1961. One day I get a letter there: “Dear David Markson, If I may presume to answer yours of”—whatever it was—”May 16, 1955.” It turned out that this editor, Aaron Asher, had come home, read the book, and decided to resurrect it. There had never been a paperback, and he put it in print, and it brought Gaddis back to life.

Harlin: Anyone else?

Markson: Kurt Vonnegut I’d known for about forty years. We weren’t that intimate, but for the last twenty years, he and I and two other people had dinner twice a year. And Joe Heller. We weren’t buddy-buddy, but I knew him before Catch-22. If you’re writing, who do you know? If you’re a lawyer, you know lawyers. If you’re a dentist, you know dentists. If you’re a writer, you know other writers. Heller was working in public relations. I remember when we came back from Mexico, one of the first people I saw said, “Hey, Joe Heller finished his book, and it’s great.” This all probably sounds very exotic. In fact, a book just came out recently called Sleeping with Bad Boys, by a woman named Alice Denham. She had been a Playboy centerfold, but she was the only Playboy centerfold who was the author of a short story in the same issue. I can say this, because she’s admitted it in her book, but she slept with everybody. She slept with James Jones, with Gaddis, a long list. She and Heller, for some reason, they would just neck or something. And she and I had an affair at one point. In fact, she refers to me as one of her favorite lovers. The Times review reported that she’d slept with this one and that one and then quoted something about each person. After my name, “the novelist David Markson,” was “stud lover boy.” And here I am seventy-nine years old! I still run into Alice; she lives a couple of blocks from me.

 

“Soliloquy on a Park Bench” — Conrad Aiken

“Soliloquy on a Park Bench” by Conrad Aiken

The model for the afternoon hour was an Italian boy–about her own age, she thought. His face had a heavy beauty, sombre as that of the sleeping Medusa, particularly in profile; seen fully, it was a little stupid. But his torso was what most delighted her, and this she drew with careful strong strokes, luxuriating in a new sense of precision. Her pleasure in this was exquisite, was prolonged. “Extraordinary!” she murmured, and found herself oddly frowning at the dark beauty of the skin, the well-muscled shoulders, and arched ribs, in the April sunlight that slanted from the half. shaded window. She was sorry when the hour was over. Miss N, thrusting off her apron, paused beside her and asked if she were going “down town.” She repressed a shade of annoyance–though she liked Miss N–and replied vaguely that she “had some things to do.” This was not true, and she felt a slight contrition when she saw that Miss N was unconvinced and a little hurt. However! . . . She put on her hat and escaped into the soft afternoon.

The parkway invited her–it was vague, it was hazily green with new leaves and buds, the muddy river gleamed sleepily here and there as it curved among flat gardens and under small stone arches, and the drowsy quackings and laconic comments of waterfowls seemed only to add to the immense and melancholy stillness. She caressed affectionately, with a fugitive hand, as she walked, the low stone wall that led to a ridiculously conceited little bridge. She slid two fingers over the white flank of a birch. Further on, she touched her palm, and scratched it, against a barberry frond, on which two elfin red-peppers still hung. . . . Why had she rebuffed Miss N? . . . Well, really, one wanted, sometimes, to be alone. Particularly when one was–what? . . . Her eyes wandered from the word, she paused to watch a duck stand on his head in the still water, and then walked on absorbed. The benches here were too crowded. A nursemaid scolded a child, lifting an angry round eye from her knitting. A small boy was digging in the gravel with a bit of broken glass, murmuring “It’s like this–it’s like this.” A bored perfumed lady waited patiently for her Pomeranian; which suddenly twinkled after her as if on wire springs. . . . The bells in St Matthew’s Church began striking five, and it seemed to her that the slow deep tones hung afterwards among the trees and over the water like a mist. White and purple crocuses were sunning themselves in a corner by a wall–absurd! She felt suddenly like laughing at everything, and then, just as suddenly, for no reason, felt unhappy, as if she had a bird shut ,in her heart who wanted to escape. She found a deserted bench and sat down, at the end nearest the water. Grackles made scraping sounds in the maple tree over her head–scolding at sparrows. Cruel birds, grackles! . . . Who was it that had told her of seeing a grackle pursue a sparrow tirelessly till he had worn it out, and then stab it to death on the ground? . . . How horrible, and in April . . . There was a grackle now. He walked awkwardly by the water’s edge–a bedraggled fellow, getting on in years; but what a beautiful iridescence on his black feathers! . . . It was Fred Thomas who had told her. He always came out to smoke his pipe here after lunch. A curious, a nice thing for a man to do, an unexpected concession–as if the grackle should pause and admire a crocus! She laughed to herself, and half shut her eyes to make a picture of the water, with a round cold cloud in it, and part of the stone arch of a bridge. Continue reading ““Soliloquy on a Park Bench” — Conrad Aiken”

The Worst Poetry I Have Ever Read

At the home of some good friends this past weekend, reclined nicely in a warm armchair, the warmth of various ales coursing through me, I picked off the shelf by my right hand a crumbling first edition of Modern Library’s A Comprehensive Anthology of Modern Poetry, edited by Conrad Aiken. I opened at random and found a small and perhaps undue joy that my stochastic flipping led to sections 10 and 11 of Song of Myself—maybe my favorite parts of Walt Whitman’s longassed poem.

Do you recall these bits? The trapper’s wedding? The runaway slave? The twenty-eight bathers and the woman who spies on them? I read them aloud to the room, ostensibly to the people in the room, but maybe just to myself. Walt Whitman’s storytelling is at its best when he moves most away from himself, when he puts on different hats, wears different ears, strolls around America a bit. I love his free verse in spite of—or even maybe because of—its swollen scope, its tendency toward bombast or even hamminess. O Walt! Get over yourself!—but not really, never change! Song of Myself is one of my favorite novels, or one of my favorite epics, or one of my favorite monologues—whatever it is, it’s one of my favorites (especially taken with doses of Emily Dickinson’s strange potions).

I don’t really know a lot about poetry, despite teaching the study of it in certain literature survey classes.

But hang on, it seems I was telling a story, or at least teasing out an anecdote, or at least going somewhere with all this: So, after riffling through the anthology a bit more, my friend says, Hey, if you want to read some really terrible poetry, check out that book to your right. Here is the book:

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I had never heard of Walter Benton or his (unintentionally) hilarious volume This Is My Beloved until that moment. So what is it? Combining the worst elements of Whitmanesque free verse with a downright silly conceit that these are diary entries, This Is My Beloved attempts to be the erotic record of a passionate love affair. Benton tries to keep his language sultry, sexy, and sensuous without veering into pornography, but the results are bizarre and grotesque. Here’s an entire page as evidence:

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“Your breasts are snub like children’s faces”?!

“…your lips match your teats beautifully”?!

And my favorite: “The hair of your arm’s hollow and where your thighs meet / agree completely, being brown and soft to look at like a nest of field mice.” A nest of field mice! Women love to be complimented on their matching pits and pubes, followed by a simile comparing said regions to a rodent’s hovel.

Indeed, Benton loves animal similes for his lady—later he writes: “Yes, your body makes eyes at me from every salient, / promises warm, lavish promises— / curved, colored . . . finished in a warm velvet like baby rabbits.”

But it’s not just the rabbits and mice that are gross. Lines like “We had loved hard—it’s all over your throat and hair” are simply queasy, bad writing. Or this nugget: “The white full moon like a great beautiful whore / solicits over the city, eggs the lovers on / the haves . . . walking in twos to their beds and to their mating. / I walk alone. Slowly. No hurry. Nobody’s waiting.”

Or this snippet:

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It’s just really, really bad—I mean, at least when Henry Miller is gross, he’s deeply, earnestly gross, abject even, depraved perhaps (recall the famous lines: “I have set the shores a little wider. I have ironed out the wrinkles. After me you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St. Bernards. You can stuff toads, bats, lizards up your rectum. You can shit arpeggios if you like, or string a zither across your navel”).

So, to return to my little story, we read most of Benton’s book aloud, doubling over laughing at times at just how wonderfully awful it is. And, wiping the tears from my eyes, I went to my trusty dusty iPhone to do a little background research—surely the world knew of this awful, awful poetry? Surely folks were getting the same giggly fun as happy we from poor Benton’s lurid verse?

And here, really, comes the occasion for this post, the real reason I write: It turns out that folks love this book—in a sincere, earnest, serious way. No fewer than four audio recordings were made of the book, all set to music (the most famous seems to be by Arthur Psyrock); the book has near-perfect five star review averages on both Amazon and Goodreads; and, perhaps most shocking of all, the book has been continuously in print since it was first published in 1949—it’s in its 34th edition (prestigious hardback with prestigious deckle edges, by the way). And of course you can buy an ebook version! (Unlike, say, Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual). Even worse, hack crooner Rod McKuen cites Benton as a major influence, so we have that to thank him for as well.

I don’t know. Am I wrong? Is Benton’s stuff actually good? I mean, I’ll concede that I enjoyed reading the book, but only inasmuch as it made me laugh so much. I don’t know. I already admitted I don’t know much about poetry. (As I write this, I pause to watch and listen to Richard Blanco read his inauguration poem “One Day”; I have no idea if it’s good or not). Benton’s verse seems so hammy, clumsy, indelicate; too earnest, too priapic, tripping over its own boners. It reads like a bad cribbing of Whitman and Miller, with an occasional lift from Hemingway. Even worse, it strikes me as amateurish, as the sort of thing that a teen might scrawl in his Moleskine only to cringe at later before hiding it somewhere. I just can’t believe that this book has been in continual publication from a major house (Knopf) for more than a half-century.

But maybe I’m misreading. Maybe I’m cynical. Maybe the poem is beautiful and profound and not icky solipsistic dreck. But I doubt it.

Charles Olson/Conrad Aiken (Books Acquired, 6.09.2012)

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Charles Olson’s Selected Writing (New Directions): In all seriousness, why don’t more publishers go for simple covers like this one? Love it.

A scribbling:

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Also, had to pick up something by Conrad Aiken after reading about his influence on Malcolm Lowry:

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