Wednesday, September 28, 2016

`Scarcely Known But by the Catalogue'

My memory is littered with names, many of them vaguely literary, unattached to much of anything. For example: John Frederick Nims, Dudley Fitts, John Hall Wheelock. At one time, all were big, or biggish, guns in the worlds of American poetry, translation, teaching and criticism. To varying degrees all had influence in the world of literature and publishing, but I couldn’t name the title of a single volume any of them published. I’m not mocking these men. Rather, I’m pointing out the evanescence of literary reputation. Add to them the name of another, a contemporary of theirs: Babette Deutsch (1895-1982). Had we been playing a word association game, and you gave me her name, I would have replied, first, with “poet,” and then with “Avraham Yarmolinsky.” The latter was her husband, whom I knew because he edited The Portable Chekhov (1947). They were a team, like Nick and Nora.

As an experiment I borrowed The Collected Poems of Babette Deutsch (1969), a book that has not circulated from my university library since 1975, and browsed in it for several nights. Deutsch could write but wears her influences like a neon sign. The Modernist brand names announce their appearance – Yeats, Stevens, Eliot, Auden, Moore, Rilke. Her sense of humor tends to be flaccid and she finds sentimentality irresistible. “September” begins:

“This is the month when sun and wind contend
For the possession of that lapis, thinned
To milkiest opal, that is pure bare sky.
A cloud-puff is a milkweed soberly
Shredded by breezes with the fists of boys.”

Deutsch doesn’t seem to find words all that interesting, and a poet indifferent to her medium is asking for trouble – namely, dullness. She's left fashioning poetic gestures rather than poems. I found a few phrases amusing, but no entire poems that were satisfactory. This is sad and disappointing. I hoped to find pleasure in Deutsch’s work. At one time she was well-known and well-reviewed. Instead, I again remembered Dr. Johnson’s Rambler #106:   

“No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library; for who can see the wall crowded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditations and accurate inquiry, now scarcely known but by the catalogue . . .”

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