“verse being but an ornament and no cause to poetry, since there have been many excellent poets that never versified, and now swarm many versifiers that need never answer to the name of poets” -- Philip Sidney, Defense of Poetry (1595)
I was a hanger on and he wrote cook books. Someone was on leave at Stanford (Denise Levertov?) and the gig had fallen into Ronald Johnson’s lap. He was conflicted: the money was great but he didn’t know a thing about running workshops and besides, he was so close to finishing ARK, an epic poem twenty years in the making.
The drinks at Nancy Packer’s house were cold and free, and Johnson was thrilled not to be working the party. We talked about waiting tables and then poetry. I had never met a poet who had surrendered so fully to Charles Olson’s argument about poetic periods—that the space bar on the typewriter allows you to notate for the reader how to read your work. I felt as if I was face to face with an extinct specimen and Johnson knew it. But he still insisted that for him the only way to write poetry was on a typewriter.
Hart Crane once threw his typewriter out the window because it didn’t know Spanish. We drank to Crane.
And then I asked him about Yvor Winters. I was obsessed with Winters then. No critic makes the case for form more severely than Yvor Winters. For Winters to run from form is to run from reason. It is to embrace madness. It was clear that Winters was haunted by his encounters with Hart Crane. How could a drunk, a homosexual, a suicide, a romantic through and through, have written Voyages (II), a poem Winters considered one of the greatest in the English language? Whatever the achievement, the way of Crane was the way of death for Winters. He told the world so when he panned Crane’s masterpiece The Bridge. In anger Crane burned all of Winters letters. We have the rest. Shortly before he died, Winters destroyed all his correspondence—except for the letters from Crane. Those he saved, evidence of his love and his plea for absolution from Crane’s jump into the Gulf of Mexico.
I wanted to know what Johnson thought of Winters—ideologically an arch nemesis? But how could Johnson talk ill of Winters that night? He was teaching in the Stegner program, the school of Winters. We looked around the room.
I bet we are the only people here who know who Yvor Winters was, Johnson said.
Let’s drink to Yvor Winters, I said.
Johnson eventually finished ARC. In his 1998 NYT obit Robert Creely said ARK will take 'its legitimate place with the great works of the century of like kind: Ezra Pound's 'Cantos,' Louis Zukofsky's 'A,' Charles Olson's 'Maximus' and Robert Duncan's 'Passages.' ''
1) Free verse when its any good is reflexive of a passage through order. Lowell’s elegy for Berryman is best enjoyed when you sense the freedom behind the poet’s moving past a formal stage:
Something so heavy lies on my heart—
There, still here, the good days
When we sat by a cold lake in Maine
Talking about the Winter’s Tale,
In Shakespeare’s broken syntax
2) When I had lunch with Saul Bellow at Dartmouth in 1988 I could recite Dreamsong 14. I asked Bellow what Berryman was like at the end. “Ah, he was a tired old man,” he said and waved his hand. Bellow’s delivery I found soothing. I was long familiar with his speech patterns. As a child, I spent most Sabbaths in Temple where I heard it often. I understood the message: it was all in the voice and the hand wave, straight out of a Yiddish King Lear. Belle Yang: You could draw it perfectly. A broken old man is entitled to jump from a bridge, next question. I prodded for more: Berryman kept the latest Dream Song under glass on the kitchen table.
3) Johnson (Hurray for Euphony):
I'm probably the last typewriter poet, one informed by the keyboard and its possibilities. I can scribble in my notebook, but I only write when I type, and compose by length of line on an 8 1/2" x 11" sheet of paper. This itself, a form. The next poetry will be written on a computer, and as I type this, new forms are being created. One of the things to consider here is "fractals" by which a fragment repeats the configuration of the whole. Would not a computer throw up slant rhyme and correspondences?
4) Ok, and now it is really back into that damn line edit.
Causes Matthew Biberman Supports