Preface To "Lives of the Poets"
Light and steady a falling rain
on the York River and now my ghosts,
friends and enemies, arrive again
to look over my bent shoulders
even as I am writing these words
on a yellow pad, on a zinc worktable.
I met some poets, knew some others
better who didn't know me from Adam
and Eve; and therefore I could watch
them sometimes at very close range
and not be noticed. Myself in uniform,
U. S. Army, noticed and yet anonymous,
among the very few who came to listen to
Homage to Mistress Bradstreet's first
public outing, long before Henry
and much more a matter of Keats'
"fine excess" than any jazz and jive.
Thinking even then as I listened
to that knotty syntax, those lovely words,
how once I stood in line directly
behind Berryman in a liquor store
on Nassau Street after a football game.
Clerk to Berryman: "May I help?"
Berryman: "I want to buy a bottle."
"Very good. Bottle of what, sir?"
"I am a poet, my good man.
Don't trouble me with petty details
and distinctions." Clerk nodded politely
and found and climbed a rickety ladder
to the highest shelf from which
he freed a dusty quart of Ouzo,
blew a cloud of that dust away
and, poker-faced, presented it
to the poet as if it were a chalice.
Poet paid and staggered outside
into a softly dimming twilight,
holding his prize like a new baby.
Left me to picture him in the dark
kneeling somewhere, lawn or toilet bowl,
barfing his licorice heart out.
They spoiled you at Princeton, John,
as they have done some others, lucky and not,
including most recently the sly Muldoon.
Randall Jarrell did not feel so honored,
said and wrote (remember?) he felt
like a prize pig wandering around
the county fair. The judges saying
"Go away, pig! What do you know
about bacon?" In Greensboro, NC
Jarrell walked right out of my reading
pleading that it was much too hot
to sit there and listen. He was right,
but I was very young, too young
even to be much wounded until now.
But back then, before that time,
at Princeton these were all there
Berryman, Jarrell, Bellow, Delmore Schwartz,
who, young and foolish as they really were,
seemed older and even more foolish to us,
young and impatient as we surely were.
Merwin and Meredith, Holmes and Cox,
Bink Noll and Kinnell, we were too busy
scorning each other to more than ignore
them one and all. Peace Richard Blackmur,
you were the kindly father to us all.
Peace also to that good man, Tom Riggs,
who may of them all then living have been
the best and most gifted, but died young.
Dylan Thomas came there twice and once
at the Nassau Tavern at a round table
of at least a dozen poets, all ages
and stages, dared them to make a limerick
ending with "Edna St. Vincent Millay."
Nobody among them succeeded on that
occasion, and I remember witnessing
that dozen prominent poets in a row
at the urinals in the Men's Room
when the burly bartender banged
on the door and loudly announced:
"Hurry up, please, it's time!"
A dozen gold streams cut off instantly.
T. S. Eliot, tall as a crane and black
as a crow, found a seat by a student
(me) to listen to a lecture.
On my other side sat Jacques Maritain,
whose star was burning bright.
Student sat still, said nothing,
made not a sound, of breath, belch or fart....
Steady now, the rain is needling
the high tide and the seagulls huddle
wherever they can and keep quiet.
Ghost me, then, gulls and angels
and you dead poets, some of whom,
named in due time, as good or better
than any of these and all of them
near as my left shoulder and as far
away as that lost youth when words
burned like neon, candles, torches,
searchlights flashing across triumphant dark,
the dark which takes the poets, one and all,
into its arms, holds us like Ouzo or hurt children
and gently awards the democratic prizes
of perfect silence, of honorable oblivion.