The reading had been empty and in truth, I was thrilled. I was excited to meet Pinsky and to see Tom again. I had studied with Sleigh when I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth. And in all that time I had never gotten to see him read. Nor would I that night. He was only riding down with Pinsky to introduce him to the crowd at this NYU event. But even that remains a special memory for me. Though there were only eight people in the audience, Pinsky held nothing back, and did a bang up job reading from The Want Bone.
We stumbled out on to the street, the entire audience in our wake. One thing was certain, we were getting a drink, but no one had taken charge. Finally Tom directed me to take control—I was the New Yorker.
I took them to the Cedar Tavern on University Place. I have heard it said that this is not the same Cedar Tavern that the painter Larry Rivers celebrates in his autobiography: the place where the beats and the abstract expressionists and the New York school rumbled. Well, that night it was.
They seated us in the loft at a large round table. Pinsky was gracious and candid. I asked him if he preferred an intimate audience to a crowd. The bigger the crowd the better, he declared. He loved hearing laughter ripple.
I told Tom I had not only read his Hopkins Masters thesis, but had written it out by hand in pencil in the rare book room. He was truly aghast and begged me not to tell him what he had written.
I could honor that request easily because I wanted to talk to him about the form. He had written everything in . . .
And here he supplied the word: “Syllabics.” And he nodded his head.
I will never forget how it dawned on me as I copied his work by hand. I was shocked because I consider Tom Sleigh a master of meter and formal verse. I wrote in syllabics. I had no confidence. I was surprised that Tom had ever written with such trepidation. But back at Hopkins he had.
Tom and I connected largely because we are both fans of poetry who are fascinated by the mechanics of what is going on when you write poetry. At times you can get so hyper aware that you need to start from scratch. For Tom that meant experiments with syllabics.
We talked then about Coleridge. “Christabel,” that unfinished wreck where “in each line the accents will be found to be only four.” Tom seemed skeptical about my declaration that Coleridge’s greatest achievement was the tragic myth he had made from his life. The Romantic had made a god out of the "fragment" as a form and Coleride had given up his shattered life to the cause.
Later I would read Tom’s poem “Ending” about his blood disorder and I came away convinced that Coleridge was much on his mind when he struggled to find a means to convey his illness. Consider--
The neon winced and dripped and burned
The steel bars of the trolley rattling
As they wheeled her off down the corridor;
And compare it with Coleridge in the Rime when he describes the water snakes:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam ; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.
The reader of Coleridge accepts snakes that coil and swim and flash. The reader of Sleigh accepts neon that winces and drips and burns. And Tom echoes again more nakedly when he writes
And then the ink
Coiled and looped to the letters
Of a foreign script
I love talking with Tom about craft. Years before I had asked him to teach me to scan and we had marked up Paradise Lost in his office. I treasure all of our exchanges but that night at the Cedar Tavern is my favorite.
When Sleigh and Pinsky left, the party broke up. I headed over to the East Village with my friend Frank. A former runaway, he had lived for a time with Tom’s mother. He was then at the Tisch School on an Edward Albee award for play writing. Tom had left a lot of his artwork at home and Frank spent the night describing it to me while we walked. Twice he pulled me into open convenience stores in order to prevent us from getting mugged.
--A memory of New York in the late 80’s: Alphabet City, bands at the Darinka, Ben Sonnenberg parties, French psychoanalysis, and Warhol still towering above his entourage.
1. Tom Sleigh won the Kingsley Tufts award in 2007 for Space Walk.
2. The discussion of poetry is at its strongest when it confronts the Romantic doctrine of the sublime. Do you believe that art erases the distinction between life and artifice? If you do then you can understand why Bidart argues that the question of form is a psychoanalytic question. How can form shatter the arbitrary and false policing of life and art? How can form FORCE a new reality, even if only at the level of the individual mind reading? These, properly speaking are the questions of form.
3. I wish there were cool notes here Evie but I’m afraid I have good news. A few more licks on this line edit and its time to shoot this memoir off to copy editing (and get paid). So this is probably the last story scrubbed from Big Sid’s Vincati.
4. Belle Yang: form is tactile. You feel it when you copy out a poem. I used to feel that the pen helped more then a keyboard but now I have no idea. I will do the where I write blog next.
Causes Matthew Biberman Supports