Friday, May 10, 2013

`Mustering the Best Words'

Thanks to Dave Lull for passing along an interview with L.E. Sissman published in the Jan. 9, 1972, issue of Book World. The interviewer is Robert Lasson, identified in the tagline as “an ex-advertising copywriter.” Sissman is working as an associate creative director for Quinn and Johnson Advertising in Boston, where they meet in Joseph’s, “an elegant Newbury Street restaurant.” Lasson asks about Sissman’s “dichotomous life,” writing poetry and ad copy. The poet answers: 

“Copywriting should always be precise, true, purposely literal. Poetry should always be ambiguous—i.e., capable of being read different ways at different levels. You work for compression but you're building a skyscraper on your little plot. Obviously, I don't mean copywriting should be devoid of humor, nuance, or colloquialism, but I think it ought to give the reader as honest an account of the good points of the product or service as possible, and without equivocation or weaseling.” 

By 1972, Sissman has published three books of poems – Dying: An Introduction (1968), Scattered Returns (1969) and Pursuit of Honor (1971). Seven years earlier he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and in another four years the cancer would kill him. No mention of the disease appears in the interview. Lasson asks if writing ad copy and poetry are in any way similar, and Sissman answers: 

“You bet! Copywriting is evanescent and poetry is, the poet hopes like hell, perduring, but there are a lot of similarities otherwise. Copywriting teaches you to say exactly what you mean in the fewest possible words the first time around and under pressure of time [as does journalism]. This is a valuable lesson for the poet. The only other main difference I can think of is that in advertising you’re externalizing by using your own tone of voice as the carrier or radio wave to reach the ear of the prospect with the facts about the product; in poetry you use the same tone of voice to internalize or express your own reaction to character and event to the ear of the reader.” 

I’m impressed by Sissman’s utter lack of defensiveness in discussing his job in advertising. According to the kneejerk Manicheanism of the “poBiz” and its camp followers, advertising and poetry are matter and antimatter. They cannot coexist and each betrays the other. That one of our best poets also wrote ad copy for a living (one would love to know which campaigns he worked on) says less about “selling out” than it does about a gift for language and pride of workmanship. Asked what advertising does to language, the poet replies: 

“Nothing, except, sometimes, to put the laxer grammar of spoken English into written English, to the horror of assorted purists and other nice-Nelly busybodies.” 

Lasson asks about the current state of poetry (John Berryman had committed suicide on Jan. 7, two days before the date on that issue of Book World). Sissman replies: 

“Poetry is in a mess. Millions of schools are all pressing their dubious claims; about which nobody cares except their own disciples. Lots of fruitless, angry arguing and goring of other people's oxen. Hope lies in a few genuinely talented people of various schools—or no school--who follow the nose of their own gift. Yes, most kids are more visual, less verbal, which may result in more great films [The Godfather premiered two months later], less great verse. But that’s OK, too. I don't think that verse in general or the English verse tradition in particular are about to die unless the whole human race is. Which is more than likely, of course.” 

Marianne Moore would die a month later and W.H. Auden the following year, but Sissman, Anthony Hecht, Edgar Bowers, Philip Larkin, Richard Wilbur, Geoffrey Hill, Donald Justice, Helen Pinkerton, J.V. Cunningham, Elizabeth Bishop and Thom Gunn were still at work. I remember that time as very good for poetry and literature in general. On the day Sissman’s interview appeared, the New York Times Book Review published Israel Shenker’s interview with Vladimir Nabokov. Shenker asked: “What are the literary virtues you seek to attain--and how?” and Nabokov answered: 

“Mustering the best words, with every available lexical, associative, and rhythmic assistance, to express as closely as possible what one wants to express.”

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