That drone you hear – that pedal point reminiscent of hornets in a jar -- is the whining of America. It never ceases. Complaint has replaced – what? baseball? stoicism? – as the national pastime. We have become a nation of shameless kvetchers. “Complaint quickly tires,” Dr. Johnson reminds us, “however elegant or however just.” Gratitude, expressions of thanks for having more good fortune than most of us deserve, is now judged in bad taste.
Elizabeth Conquest last year edited her late husband’s Collected Poems (Waywiser, 2020). A writer can only dream of having so devoted a spouse. Now she is editing an edition of Robert Conquest’s letters, a volume she expects to total more than 1,000 pages. Liddie sent me birthday wishes on Tuesday and wrote:
“A cousin asked if all this editing made me sad, but it just keeps Bob close. I told her when I think about our life together, Robert Herrick's poem ‘The Coming of Good Luck’ sums it up:
“So good luck came, and on my roof did light,
Like noiseless snow, or as the dew of night :
Not all at once, but gently, as the trees
Are by the sunbeams tickled by degrees.”
Readers like me who know Robert Conquest only from a distance through his roles as poet and historian still mourn his passing in 2015 at age ninety-eight. His documentation of Stalin’s crimes helped change the world. Of how many writers can we honestly say that? We can’t presume to feel Liddie’s loss, though like her husband she is clearly no whiner. The truest way to honor any dead writer is to read him. Liddie not only reads her husband but sees to it that the world can do the same. As historian, Conquest recounts a century’s atrocities. As poet, he has a gift for enjoyment – of women, poetry, the natural world, science, freedom. It’s his job to celebrate, as in “One Way to Look at It”:
“The huge aches they may pant beneath
Should not make poets grind their teeth.
Nor herd into the structured line
The panics of the rooting swine.
Terror and filth subsumed in verse
Must not fall back as shriek or curse:
Unvital and discharging rant,
The lazy egoism of Cant.
“The cipher of a broken speech
Leaves much beyond the infant’s reach,
For language of the fullest themes
Is not disrupted into screams.
--The Greeks excluding from the stage
The squalid orgasms of that rage,
The essence of that bloody hand
Struck generalized, yet still more grand.
“Women, knowledge, landscape, art
Make the good elations start.
With these for power the verse may thrust
Strength on the politics of lust;
View with, not blindness but contempt,
The stinking bilges of the dreamt;
Till, all proportions manifest,
All high potentials starred and stressed,
Life clangs through art, one lambent bell.”