Thursday, March 26, 2015

`Teach Us Prose Writers How to Write'

“If it were up to me, no one would be allowed to write prose without having read—and preferably also tried writing—a certain amount of poetry. Beyond the pleasure it gives, it teaches you how to husband your words, how to make them say things more lapidarily and graphically, and, above all, how to make them sing.” 

Like many benignly misguided young men, John Simon aspired to be a poet. According to his introduction to Dreamers of Dreams: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Ivan R. Dee, 2001), he penned his first verse at age six, in German, and continued in other languages as he acquired them – Hungarian, Serbian, French and English. He published only those in English, in the Paris Review and other journals in the nineteen-fifties, but never as a book. In English, Simon became a critic, one of the smartest, funniest and most entertaining around. Simon was usually good in his own right, especially when writing about movies, but also in contrast to the other name-brand film critic of the time, Pauline Kael, whose taste was deplorable, whose prose was a mess and who has been beatified by admirers since her death. Simon continues in his introduction to Dreamers of Dreams: 

“It may sound presumptuous, or even preposterous, to assert that there can be music in the review of some humdrum movie or run-of-the-mill play. But if you choose your words lovingly, pay attention to rhythm and cadence, know how to use simile and metaphor—not to mention other tropes—you can enrich and enliven your prose. What you write may still be hogwash, but at least it will be attractive hogwash.” 

As befits a polyglot, Simon, who will turn ninety in May, writes in Dreamers of Dreams about Rilke, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Celan, but he also covers Oscar Wilde and E.R. Dodds as poets, the art of translation, James Merrill and the banalities of the so-called New York School (Ashbery, Koch, O’Hara, Schuyler). He includes a review of Philip Larkin’s Selected Letters (1993) that is a model of effective quotation, and concludes of that poet: “He is witty about everything, including himself, whom he never tires of lampooning. A curmudgeon, then, but an oddly likable one. . .Griping about the world, deriding others, depreciating himself, or just telling about daily doings and dawdlings, he is never deserted by humor.” 

In his introduction, Simon devotes five and a half of its nine pages to a brief, informal anthology of work by little-known poets he has admired. Most of the names were new to me: Humbert Wolfe, Harold Monro, John Pudney, A.S.J.Tessimond and Edward N. Horn. The last was American, the others English. Horn is the most obscure and in some ways the most intriguing of these poets, and Simon says he was “as unknown as it is possible to be.” His only publication was “a slender, privately printed volume drolly entitled Poems for Small Apartments” (1941). Horn was “a businessman whom I once met at the house of a high school friend whose relative he was.” Two of his poems appeared in the July 1940 issue of Poetry, and Simon includes two of Horn’s “untitled miniatures.” Here is the first: 

“In the tub we soak our skin
And drowse and meditate within. 

“The mirror clouds, the vapors rise,
We view our toes with sad surprise; 

“The toes that mother kissed and counted,
The since neglected and unwanted.” 

Here is the other: 

“Pussycat sits on a chair
Implacably with acid stare. 

“Those who early loved in vain
Use the cat to try again 

“And test their bruised omnipotence
Against the cat’s austere defense.” 

The second is especially good, suspended somewhere between light verse and J.V. Cunningham. One of Simon’s virtues as a critic is the generous elasticity of his tastes. Though he admits that “there are not many modern poets worth writing about at length,” he makes room for Horn in an unlikely guest list including Paul Valéry, Richard Wilbur, Eugenio Montale, Zbigniew Herbert and the “charming bard” Don Marquis. He says: “I do think poets are needed by a society to keep language adventurous, to write pithy and pregnant things that people can carry about with them without benefit of briefcases or even pockets. And perhaps also to teach us prose writers how to write.”

1 comment:

Marly Youmans said...

"Benignly misguided": that is amusing, so long as it is about somebody else.