Tuesday, March 26, 2013

`Woven With His Jollities'

For a couple of guys talking about illness and death, we did a lot of laughing. In a one-hour telephone conversation we covered Steve’s cancer, the death of parents, the suicide of a former colleague and a friend of Steve’s diagnosed with AIDS. If you live long enough, these things happen, and you’re still around, after all, to talk about them.  I was humbled enough to keep my cardio misadventures out of it, and have drawn two conclusions based on our conversation: 1.) Without laughter – the raucous, impolite, tears-on-the-cheeks variety – there can be no true friendship. Such laughter is rooted in trust, especially in this age of ersatz sensitivity. 2.)  A conversation with a friend feels resumed, even if you haven’t spoken in years.  It has an effortless spontaneity about it, as if after a momentary interruption. No prelude or breaking-in period is necessary, and one is never at a loss for words. Anything goes, and probably will. 

Later in the evening I was reading the copy of E.A. Robinson’s Collected Poems (1929) I’ve written about before. The brown newspaper account of the poet’s death remains glued in place on the front endpapers, as is the letter to the editor from Mrs. C.B. Porter of Old Town, Maine, protesting the alleged neglect by her state’s readers of Robinson’s work. Rather huffily, the editor replies to Mrs. Porter with the usual romanticized defense of the misunderstood artist: 

“[Robinson], born at Head Tide, Me., is now proclaimed to have been America’s foremost poet. But there were not many people living in his native state who recognized him as such or who ever heard of him until his death was reported. Recognition has come to him as a literary genius after his death [Robinson won three Pulitzer Prizes for poetry]. All his life he lived in poverty. His poetry brought him little money [Tristram (1927) was a poetry bestseller in the age of Eliot and Pound]. He had to work at various jobs to get a bare living [unlike the rest of humanity?].” 

One suspects Robinson would have been bemused by the exchange – the defense of his work after his death and the allegation of its neglect. Consider his poem “An Old Story”: “I never knew the worth of him / Until he died.” Robinson’s humor was muted but vivid, New England-style. Among Robinson’s early sonnets is “Thomas Hood”: 

“The man who cloaked his bitterness within
This winding-sheet of puns and pleasantries,-
God never gave to look with common eyes
Upon a world of anguish and of sin:
His brother was the branded man of Lynn;
And there are woven with his jollities
The nameless and eternal tragedies
That render hope and hopelessness akin. 

“We laugh, and crown him; but anon we feel
A still chord sorrow-swept, -- a weird unrest;
And thin dim shadows home to midnight steal,
As if the very ghost of mirth were dead --
As if the joys of time to dreams had fled,
Or sailed away with Ines to the West.” 

Steve and I agreed that “having a good sense of humor” is not the same thing as laughing – bitterly, helplessly – with a friend.

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