Friday, May 22, 2015

`All the Niceties of Melodious Speech'

Sometimes mocking laughter is the most devastating critical weapon:

“I’d rather spend a drizzly weekend in Brixton
Numbering the raindrops on the windowpanes
Than listen to a reading by Anne Sexton.
I’d rather be trapped in a lift with Jeremy Paxton
Than suffer the maudlin refrains
Of Annie’s theatrics but still, I salute her granny,
Stowed as she must be in some columbarium cranny
Deaf to the ranting of her garrulous grandchild.”

Rhyme always helps, one of many reasons free verse is seldom funny or memorable. I had to look up Jeremy Paxton – a newly dead millionaire who nicely complements a poet, suicide and sister in tedium. Strictly speaking, Sexton was not a poet, one of the points Eric Ormsby makes wittily in his new poem, “Apology for Grandmothers.” The epigraph is taken from The Outnumbered Poet (Gallery Books, 2013), the collected prose of the late Irish poet Dennis O’Driscoll: “`Who the hell cares about Anne Sexton's grandmother?’ W.H. Auden supposedly sputtered after a poetry reading.” “Heckled” is probably closer than “sputtered.” In his life of the poet, Auden (1995), Richard Davenport-Hart reports the act of spontaneous criticism took place during the first Poetry International, held in London in 1967:

“`Anne Sexton read an acutely embarrassing poem about her attempted suicide and losing her baby [Auden said].’ Auden’s displeasure with Sexton was manifest. `While she was reading one of her dreadful confessional pieces, Anne Sexton was audibly heckled from the stage by Auden [quoting Charles Osborne, the organizer of the event]. Wystan was rude to her because he found her poems boring (`Who the hell cares about Anne Sexton’s grandmother?’) and because she read them for about twice as long as we had asked her to.’ Backstage afterwards, he reduced her to tears.”

I can’t speak to Auden’s state of mind but one can readily forgive his lapse in etiquette. It must have been a dreary event: On stage with Sexton were Pablo Neruda, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg and Stephen Spender – world-class gasbags all. But Ormsby has other concerns. His poem is an act of affirmative action for grandmothers, perhaps the most potentially sentimental of poetic subjects. Especially he celebrates their speech:

“Language is where our grandmothers began.
Their antiquated natterings gave us
The courage of words; their dribbled
Yet exact articulations,
ever growing dimmer as they aged,
instilled in us some hope of fluency.”

Ormsby traces his joy in playing with language to growing up in his grandmother’s house in Florida. In a splendid memoir, “The Place of Shakespeare in a House of Pain” (collected in Facsimiles of Time: Essays on Poetry and Translation, 2001), he writes:

“I grew up in the 1950s in Coral Gables, near Miami, in my grandmother's house, where, with her heavy furniture, her drapes that obstructed the fierce light of the sun, her antimacassars, and her bone china, she had created a late-Victorian oasis in a subtropical climate.”

In addition to grandmothers, Ormsby celebrates Shakespeare and the power of language and literature to enrich lives:  

“. . . she and her several sisters read and learned Shakespeare by heart, not only to become cultured and well-read but also to learn how to live. Shakespeare taught them thrift as well as eloquence; what they knew of love they had gleaned from his pages, and what they already knew of hatred they found confirmed and given utterance in his verses. He taught them to be circumspect, honorable, and dignified. He tutored them in the protocols of mourning and courtship. He was their master in all the niceties of melodious speech.”

Ormsby’s memoir, though achingly personal, is never confessional à la Sexton. His eyes gaze not on the imperial Self and its grievances but on the things of the world. In “Adages of a Grandmother” (Coastlines, 1992), he writes:

“And I, who used to blame her so,
Now rummage in my pockets for
A nickel’s worth of wisdom for my kids.”

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