“Byron once suggested that `the end of all scribblement is to amuse.’ Auden retorts, in his Letter to Lord Byron, `Art, if it doesn’t start there, at least ends, / Whether aesthetics likes the thought or not, / In an attempt to entertain our friends.’ The notion of such a conversation, witty, eternal, and eternally available, is what I think of as the meaning of civilization.”
This comes from the preface to Epic and Epigram: Two Elizabethan Entertainments (Louisiana State University Press, 1997), a mock-epic poem by David R. Slavitt and his free translations of Latin epigrams by John Owen (ca. 1563-1622). I felt at least on the margins of civilization on Tuesday during a half-hour telephone conversation with the poet Helen Pinkerton, who has been reading Ezra Pound, of all people. She quoted one of Pound’s more influentially pompous injunctions -- “Make it new!” – and said, “That’s one of the worst pieces of literary advice ever uttered. Think of the damage it’s done.”
Not “Make it good!” or even “Make it excellent!” Instead, encourage novelty as an end in itself. Pinkerton writes sparingly, with an eye on the masters – Jonson, for instance, and Melville, and such friends as Yvor Winters, J.V. Cunningham and Edgar Bowers. We spoke at length of Bowers, of the impacted beauty of his early poems and how some of them defy us after decades of reading, though we keep returning to them. She noted the frequent mention of journeys and friends in Bowers’ later work, and wondered if it derived, in part, from the poet’s reading of Horace. Here is Pinkerton’s elegy “For Edgar Bowers” (Taken in Faith, 2002):
“I heard that you were dead, Edgar, and wept.
I thought of times at Miramar we watched
The sun go down, the southern stars emerge,
Hearing the long roll and the crash of surf,
While we sat talking, laughing, drinking till dawn.
“Your ashes lie now by the western sea,
Quiet as those of Winters and Valéry.
“Your poems live, the spirit’s breath and seed.
Hades, who would take all, spare them his greed.”
Conversation again. Pinkerton adds, below the title, “After Callimachus,” a reference to the third-century-B.C. Greek poet. I hear an echo of lines from a Callimachus poem titled “On Himself” in The Greek Anthology (translated by Peter Jay, 1973). The poet was born in Cyrene, in modern Libya, and sometimes called himself Battiades, “son of Battos,” after the mythical founder of Cyrene:
“You're walking by the tomb of Battiades,
Who knew well how to write poetry, and enjoy
Laughter at the right moment, over the wine.”
Pinkerton and I agreed “Autumn Shade” (The Astronomers,” 1965) ranks among Bowers’ finest poems: “Thinking of a bravura deed, a place / Sacred to a divinity, an old / Verse that seems new, I postulate a man / Mastered by his own image of himself.” Bowers’ title recalls Pinkerton’s “Autumn Drought,” an elegy for Winters, her teacher and friend.
Like any civilized person, Pinkerton suggested books to read and said she would mail another packet of essays and poems. Why is Pinkerton so little read? I know at least three readers who have ordered her book based on my enthusiasm, but for each of them hundreds read the brand-name poets whose poems are unreadable. Perhaps John Owen, Shakespeare’s contemporary, had the answer. Here is David Slavitt’s translation of “To My Readers—II, 1”:
“You write for fools if you write to please everyone.
These poems of mine are not meant for the mob.
If I have a few readers, that’s good. If I have
One, that’s even better. And if no one at all
Glances at what I write?
That’s fine and dandy.”
[“Ne placeant stultis, quorum sunt Omnia plena,
Carmina non multis nostra placer volo.
Sat mihi sunt pauci lectores; est satis unus:
Si me nemo legat, sat mihi nullus erit.”]