Tuesday, July 25, 2017

`Its Grave a Greasy Window'

I found “Old Newspaper Clipping in an Old Novel” in Michael McFee’s That Was Oasis, (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2012):

“It flutters to the table
but leaves behind a silhouette,
a yellowish-brown rectangle
its newsprint pressed into
the front endpapers for decades,
an inkless stain, inverse bleaching,
the author’s obituary scissored
by faithful librarian or fan
casting a shadow bookplate,
its grave a greasy window
we can’t quite see through.”

McFee’s poem sparked a memory. I own other editions and rely on them for handy pleasure and memory confirmation, but periodically I borrow Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Collected Poems from the university library. The 1,018-page volume was published by MacMillan in 1929. It’s not pretty. The cover is a purplish brown but the spine is intact and the book has the dense heft of a loaf of whole-wheat bread fresh from the oven. It doubles as a reliquary or portable shrine, which is the reason I enjoy holding it. The book’s front endpaper is inscribed “Katharine Keats Braithwaite, Christmas 1929.” Pasted on the front pages are four newspaper clippings, brown and brittle but intact and legible, reporting Robinson’s death on April 6, 1935. Judging from fragments of stories and ads on the backs of the clips, they were cut from a Boston newspaper, probably the Herald. The main story, accompanied by a mug shot of Robinson, carries three headlines in a one-column format:


“Maine Native Thrice Won
Pulitzer Prize for
His Writing”


This is the only time I’ve seen “thrice” used in a headline. Here’s the lead of the Associated Press story: “The living ranks of the great moderns of American poetry and literature, who achieved classic fame with the turn of the century, dwindled further today with the death of Edwin Arlington Robinson.” Consider the poor rewrite man who fashioned that touchingly awkward sentence. Three paragraphs down we read:

“Only Edgar Lee Masters, Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay are now left of the little group of ranking poets who won acclaim in the 1900’s.

“Amy Lowell and Vachel Lindsay, two others outstanding, are dead.

“They, with Robinson, first began to achieve real prominence in 1914. Harriet Monroe of Chicago, who published a magazine called `Poetry,’ early printed their works and the works of others of their contemporaries and played a large role in building up their popularity in the United States and England.”

Seldom are journalists literary scholars. Our overworked A.P. man would have cobbled together his story from earlier clips he found in the wire service morgue. There’s no mention of Pound, Eliot or the revolution they unleashed, which had the unwarranted effect of rendering Robinson, one of our finest poets, old-fashioned in the eyes of the novelty-minded. Then our nameless editor authors a sentence mingling biographical truth and critical half-cliché: “Robinson was shy, a shunner of publicity, but a poet who wrote in the simple language of the world.”
A little searching disclosed that Katharine Keats Braithwaite was the daughter of the poet and critic William Stanley Braithwaite (1878-1962), and probably owes her unlikely middle name to him.

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