Thursday, July 16, 2020

'Help Me to Improve These Lines of Verse'

I seldom read reviews unless I already know and trust the reviewer or the writer whose work is being evaluated, and yet I know readers who organize their reading lives around the reviews posted on Amazon. I find them uniformly unhelpful, badly written and dense with superlatives, whether “best” or “worst.” They read like noisome steam vented from a boiler, but then I found an interesting exception.  In a 2016 review of the paperback edition of The Collected Poems of Henri Coulette (1990), the late Robert Mezey writes:

“I am amazed to learn that no one has written a word about this book. Henri Coulette was one of the finest American poets of the second half of the 20th century. The great Polish poet, Zbigniew Herbert, regarded him as a major poet, and Donald Justice, his coeditor, thought him one of the four or five best American poets of his time.”

I doubt Mezey was genuinely "amazed." Few people care about good poetry or poetry in general and there's no reason they should. Mezey and Coulette (1927-1988) were friends. In 1990, Mezey and Donald Justice edited the posthumous Coulette collection published by the University Press of Arkansas. Does that make Mezey’s Amazon assessment friendship-based nepotism? Perhaps, but it’s also true. Thanks to David Sanders, who years ago gave me the Coulette Collected, I’ve become a late-life convert. Few recent American poets are so much fun to read as Coulette.

Mezey died in April and Dana Gioia wrote his obituary for the Los Angeles Times. Another generous friend, this one in Fredericksburg, Texas, sent me a box of books on Tuesday, including a signed copy of Mezey’s Collected Poems: 1952-1999 (University of Arkansas Press, 2000). In it I find “After Ten Years,” which is written “after Borges,” obviously very loosely:

“Now that the sum of footsteps given you
to walk upon the earth has been fulfilled,
I say that you have died.  I too have died.
I, who recall the very night we made
our laughing, unaware farewells, I wonder
what on earth has become of those two young men
who sometime around 1957
would walk for hours, oblivious of the snow
that slashed around those street corners like knives
under the lamps of that midwestern town,
or sit in bars, talking about the women,
or decades later, stroll the perfumed streets
of Pasadena, talking about the meters.
Brother in the felicities of the Herberts,
George and Zbigniew, and of Chivas Regal,
and the warm rooms of the pentameter,
discoverer, as we all were in those days,
of that timeworn utensil, metaphor,
Henri, my tipsy, diffident old friend,
if only you were here to share with me
this empty dusk, however impossibly,
and help me to improve these lines of verse.”

High among the virtues, near to love itself, is loyalty.

1 comment:

TC said...

Such a lovely homage, a lovely sentiment.

“Now that the sum of footsteps given you to walk upon the earth has been fulfilled,I say that you have died. I too have died."

Thanks for sharing.