Saturday, March 15, 2014

`His Rucksack of Gift'

“I loved your stuff, and the way
it came from nowhere, where poetry
must come from, having no credentials.” 

I like the idea of poetry or any writing coming from nowhere and arriving without credentials – that is, unsanctioned, unofficial, non-aligned, representing only the writer, his self-chosen tradition and his gift. Writing has grown so partisan and identity-hobbled – most poems might as well come with an abstract, to save you the time of reading the whole thing – that we’re poleaxed when we meet an autonomous human being in print. The lines above are from a sequence of three sonnets titled “To Ed Sissman,” written by his friend John Updike on Sept. 20, 1977, eighteen months after L.E. Sissman’s death from cancer, and collected in Facing Nature (1985). Of late I’ve read some remarkably stupid things written about Sissman’s poems, including an old review in which the critic faults Sissman for not being Robert Creeley, a well-known writer of skinny stacks of anemic prose. This is from later in Updike’s poem: 

“You told me, lunching at Josèph’s,
foreseeing death, that it would be
a comfort to believe. My faith,
a kind of rabbit frozen in the headlights,
scrambled for cover in the roadside brush
of gossip; your burning beams passed by.
`Receiving communications from beyond’: thus
You once described the fit of writing well.
The hints hang undeveloped, like
my mental note to send you Kierkegaard.
Forgive me, Ed; no preacher, I—
A lover of the dust, like you,
Who took ten years of life on trial
And lent pentameter another voice.” 

Of course, Updike is now dead more than five years, also of cancer. In “Patrick Kavanagh: An Annotated Exequy” (Hello, Darkness: The Collected Poems of L. E. Sissman, 1978), a celebration of the Irish poet after his death in 1967, Sissman writes of the writer’s solitary integrity:
                                    “But he got
On with the serious business of what
An artist is to do with his rucksack
Of gift, the deadweight that deforms his back
And drives him on to prodigies of thought
And anguishes of execution, bought
At all costs of respectability
And all expense of nice society,
Until, alone, he faces homely him,
The only other tenant of his room,
And finds the world well lost.”

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