Frank Bidart’s collected poems, Half-light, are this year’s selection for the National Book Award for Poetry. This honor is long-deferred; at seventy-eight Bidart has previously been a finalist for the Award once and the Pulitzer three times. Bidart’s selection, though well deserved, seems untimely. Given his age, his career output is greater than all of the other finalists combined. This makes for an uneven playing field. Fortunately, there’s much to discuss in the four other books on the shortlist. Here I’ll consider two.
Autumn: When I wake up, the light in the apartment is that opaque milk-blue that looks like it ought to be something you can touch. The sun’s rays catch flecks of airborne dust and hold them suspended. I watch as they inch across the floor toward my mattress. My body is heavy. I imagine my limbs weighted down into my bed, leaving an impression in the floor.
I stretch my hand toward the panel of light, and because the days are cooler now, I feel its warmth on my fingers. I have to get up, but nothing in me wants to move.
Before: After my brother’s funeral, I sublet my friend’s apartment in the city. When I arrive, it’s empty. The apartment across the hall is being renovated, and everything is coated in thick, white dust. My shoes leave tracks in it, door to window to door. Later, after I clean, the prints are reversed, the dust I track in from the hallway leaving pale smudges on the floor, marking the steps I’ve taken. I keep cleaning them, but the marks just change position. I leave a trail wherever I go.
I work for Kashkul, a research and arts collaborative at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS). There, with regional and international scholars and artists, I participate in Mosul Lives, a project that gathers stories of daily life in Mosul. In April 2017, as the last Islamic State (Daesh) fighters dug into Mosul’s Right Bank, we traveled to the newly liberated areas, as well as to camps for the recent waves of internally displaced people, mostly lifelong residents of Mosul.
Re: rain, and the long theological stalemate
concerning its origins, a tale Talmudic
in nuance, Homeric in scope: this was classic Lachrymism
vs. vulgar Micturism, paired like the chromosomes
of our tradition. At stake: the nature of heaven.
At issue: the source of life, in rain. In the event,
the conclusive stroke was dealt by the geochemists,
who by the closing years of the last century had amassed
data demonstrating the identity of rain and tears
to the ninety-seventhth part, in a theorem which survived rigorous peer
My brother shows me
the iron-sights. The dark O
of the muzzle. The grip.
Describes the caliber
the diameter of the holes
they hollow, how the copper
jackets bloom. Presses
its weight to my palm, says
they make the real thing
in runs of a hundred
thousand. Ideal, he says.
Light, and cheap.
Lewis Dark lost his wife in a fire. Less than a year later he was living with Vicky, who was divorced and had primary custody of three children, aged four, seven, and ten. People said—sometimes to his face—that she was taking advantage of him in his state of grief; that she was after his money, which he made selling high-end espresso machines to restaurants. People said she didn’t even try to control the children, who ran and shouted through the rooms of his now-crowded home. It was true they were noisy, but Lewis liked noise. It drowned things out, and he wanted to be drowned.
People didn’t know that he had pursued Vicky, not the other way around. He was driving home from work one day when he saw a woman standing at a bus stop, crying. Traffic was heavy and he edged alongside her, registering the scrunched spasms of her face. It had rained earlier in the day and she leaned on a long rolled-up umbrella as if it were a cane. To cruise slowly past a stranger crying seemed to him heartless. At the next light, he turned and circled around the block, but by the time he made it back, the bus had ferried her away.
One might imagine that a book in which every character except the president is dead would be static, but in fact it is lively and moving and sometimes hilarious. There are plot developments, in ways that ramify beyond the death of Lincoln’s son to some of the more important moments in American history. The dead learn something.
Mack and Jean met in the Reno amateur community orchestra. Mack played the violin, Jean the trumpet.
Their conductor was transsexual; Maestra X was her handle. Angular in the face, sort of Persian, Jean thought, in her color and lines, but scarred, too, from acne when she was a teen. Now Maestra only left home for rehearsals and infrequent seasonal gigs. She spent evenings reading Mahler scores while an MC5 or Bowie LP played down the hall, scanning the pages with simple private delectation, as if browsing a cookbook. She wore her hair in a loose bun; her top lip was waxed raw. The Reno orchestra, she liked to say, sounded like a speaker submerged in a toilet bowl. Maestra was talented enough to have had a career in Florence, Vienna, or the Berkshires in the summer if she’d remained “biologically unmarred,” as the symphony board member in Boston had put it the one time Maestra had auditioned outside of Nevada. After the last concert they performed before they moved, Night on Bald Mountain, Jean and Mack each kissed Maestra on the cheek. Champagne backstage in Dixie cups.
Mack had a residency in obstetrics at UCSF, and Jean, her RN certification completed, six shifts a week lined up in the Veterans’ ICU. “So what?” the Maestra asked. “The far side of the Sierras is better?”
They never played music together again.
Mack and Jean married in April and then decamped, circled Lake Tahoe twice before bearing west to San Francisco, down the mountain: Grass Valley, Folsom, Mendocino, a stop in Santa Rosa. By June, they’d found a place in the city, in rimy Noe Valley. Their flat was on the long slope of a hill. The architecture seemed improbable.
Jean sometimes thought she smelled gas in the kitchen. She pictured the knotted pipes underground, imagined them siphoning methane into their home. But the stove’s plastic knobs were always snug in the off position when she checked. Turning away, she felt an almost physical itch of doubt, and checked once more, counting them, until she reasoned she couldn’t be hallucinating: safety was real.
On weekends she walked the city. Mack preferred to lounge in bed, recovering from call, and wanted her there too. Lying atop the duvet, he’d strip off his T-shirt with his pants and toss them against the wall. The fabric limbs, ivory and indigo, grasped out in mid-flight. The piles were visible from down the hall when Jean entered the flat. She was always a little hesitant to undress. Though svelte from the waist up, Jean had stretch marks on her ass. They were ruby colored and they zagged. Mack called her Zebra. At certain posterior angles, in adequate light, she was an exquisite new breed, and he, the Naturalist of San Francisco.
“I’ve found the fauna,” he said. “Now where’s the flora?” Jean turned from hands and knees to lie on her back. She rolled her eyes, but she laughed.
It was 1982: Latter-day LSD, and Haight Street gutter punks sold oregano joints in the lobbies of financial district law firms for a quarter each, a dollar per deal max, ripping off recent graduates from Boalt Hall. In the city parks there was sex of all stripes, spent needles in the grass, microclimates that varied from hood to hood. Swamp weather in Noe might turn to Honolulu by the time you got to Hayes, Alamo Square, the Painted Ladies, and then Divisadero would be the Pacific itself, or, by the next block, the moon.
One ought not to have gone barefoot through Golden Gate Park, but it was done. Soon, to fuck was lethal; the gays were turning pure bone, and dead. Mack and Jean made rounds in their hospitals, came home under navy night skies, and tried, at first, to talk about the victims. But soon they just had to had to had to move on. The wine was red and from close by. The Bay, flushing out past Angel Island and Sausalito, felt like an exit marked in big bright neon. Whitecaps out there. After supper, Mack joined Jean and they walked the streets, buying records from estate sales, makeshift shop fronts set out on blankets before Edwardian-style houses with turrets painted pastel pink and lime green.
Their kitchen’s sienna fleur-de-lis wallpaper curled where they smoked. Mack got a set of free weights and stored them beneath the dining room table. When he dropped them, they put dents in the hardwood floor. Jean spent two nights hand-wringing about their rent deposit. “UCSF considers me a doctor,” Mack said. “My paycheck agrees.” He hung a chin-up bar in the doorframe, and began rising at four to jog every day. Passing by hookers getting off shift, he might recognize a few patients. If they liked their johns enough to walk out to the Apple Inn’s stoop side-by-side, they’d point him out to them: “That’s my gyno! He’s gonna fix what you just got done wrecking.” Or they’d call out, Hi Doctor Mack! He’d wave. The girls he didn’t know often were not girls.
That subsection of town would show up in Jean’s intensive care. She tried to hold their hands at the end, but was usually rebuffed. She could only spare a minute anyway. Too much to do. Nursing was heavy lifting. She wrangled with mean, dickish doctors, old boys who knew how to balance insulin levels, or locate an appendix in OR with an abdomen’s single palpation. But really that wasn’t much. The nurses knew more. The young patients had mothers sometimes. Or fathers might show up to dab a cold rubber bladder against their boy’s brow. The fevers were upsetting, the weight loss nauseating to behold. A father held his son’s withered head like a softball, the whole skull in his palm, looking closely. Siblings asked, Nurse, what if it’s infectious? (a shrug; another RN hailed.) A mother asked, Are these the ravages of sin? (this Jean knew: No.) And, Are you afraid?
I would like to throw her a party. Her. Mary Ruefle! One hundred parties.
Well, don’t overstay your welcome.
Mary Ruefle says, “Lectures, for me, are bad dreams.” Me too. Bad dreams littered with disappointed nuns and playground equipment. I couldn’t run fast enough away from any lecture you could name. I’m confused, in fact, that you’re still here. There are trees outside! It’s almost spring!
It’s more fun, I think, to have a party: some music in the leaves, perhaps some light refreshment. Gin. Raspberry sherbet. Chinese lanterns. A punch bowl. A swimming pool.
All lecture-parties should be BYOB.
Did you bring yours?
I brought mine.
The first Mary Ruefle poem I read was in Skid, a book of poems by Dean Young. The poem was called “A Poem by Dean Young.” Mary Ruefle doing drag? I love that about language. It can sneak up on you in someone else’s togs. It doesn’t even belong to whom you thought it did.
Of course I have written a poem by Dean Young!
More than once I have written a poem by Dean Young.
The relationship between the poet and the reader is always slippery, and Ruefle often seems to be in two places at once. Singing and listening. She is herself, in Dean Young’s clothes, clothes she let him borrow.
I, I mean you, I mean the shadow
of your shadow
Li Po said writing poetry was like being alive twice. Lightning Hopkins said playing the blues in the old days was like being black twice.
Bring your own beatifics. Mary Reufle always does. They include: pot holders, berries, apples, my cracked heart.
Mary Ruefle lived in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, for a short period of time a long time ago. I like to think we lived on the same block, but I don’t think that could have been true. But I want it to be true. Reading is such an intimate experience. Left alone with a hundred pages or so of Ruefle’s perfectly tuned and dazzlingly open poems, and suddenly it’s as if we know everything about each other.
More than once I have stuffed the eucalyptus leaves
in your mouth.
I’m realizing now that all the trees in Mary’s poems I had imagined to be in Portland, Oregon, most likely took place in Vermont, where she’s lived most of her life. If a tree can be said to take place. Here is a poem called “Fall Leaf Studies”:
I wake up, I count my money,
then I have lunch.
After lunch I go
to the window.
The leaves are no longer green.
When the leaves fall,
at the end of summer,
who knows if there are enough
to cover the ground?
Do they themselves
ever actually really know?
They come down slowly
and with many conjectures
after all that yak
and in that bronzed state
They were right when they told us that money doesn’t grow on trees. But I’m struck by the money that is being counted next to this tree. And how the leaves, which are not money, fall and turn to bronze, which could be turned into money. And there we pause. To catch our breath, I think, and to look back at that word “yak.” Often the light thrown across the vocal surface of Ruefle’s poems gives you a false sense of calm that a kayak couldn’t navigate, because the current is real and will sweep you away.
If I had to guess, I’d put some money down on the idea that Mary Ruefle writes most of her poems in winter. Winter is a great season to write poems in. In Vermont it snows blank sheets of paper. Lines float down out of the sky at many angles. You could be walking through a drift of poetry by midmorning—if, that is, you can get out of bed to pull on your boots. I want to bet on winter because so many of her poems mention spring. Is Mary Ruefle a spring poet? Could be. Her lines push up through the world’s hardpan and too-often frozen consciousness like white, yellow, and purple crocuses. The crocus. Not a flower to fuck with.
Here is some spring in four Mary Ruefle poems:
Ah spring! The cedar waxwing with a plume
in his ass, pumping seeds from his mouth
like a pinball machine
spring, ripening to her ideal weight, has fallen
from the bough and into my lap.
For twenty minutes the world is perfect
That old spring prop, birdsong, wafts
through the trees, the trees with their leaves lit
like the underside of the sea.
It is spring. I am the peppermint king!
Spring is in the air even in poems that are not about spring but about autumn, poems which begins with bonfires and woodchucks, but quickly turn away from fall to pass over winter to get to:
On brisk spring nights
I can hear the frogs singing in their disbelief.
Now these are many different kinds of spring, though I think they may share one characteristic. Disbelief. Or a version of disbelief. By which I mean a kind of shocked surprise. My favorite spring is the first one in the list above, because it’s the first time that I’ve experienced spring in a poem that belongs in an S&M dungeon. I am surprised by this, in part because I know many people, some of them poets, who would go to great lengths to find a plume in their ass while they pump seed from their mouths like a pinball machine. And yet not every spring poem makes this desire so clear. I am in awe of this poem as well as in a pleasant state of disbelief, the disbelief of the aforementioned shock, of being shocked awake in fact, tuned up like a fork.
Don’t think I have not eaten
in the most beautiful Chinese restaurant
in the world
Worth a moment also are those spring lines where we followed birdsong out of the air through a tree and onto a leaf, a leaf lit like the underside of the sea. If I were pressed into teaching a class on cinematography and film editing, I might exchange anything Bresson ever wrote for those three lines. (Sorry, Bresson.) A crane shot moves from music in the atmosphere down through a tree and then close up to a leaf dissolving into the bottom of the sea and the music of the seafloor forever, in less than twenty-five words. This movement would take most poets more than a few lines, a few poems, a few books, a lifetime.
The person whom Lightning Hopkins was speaking to was named Peppermint Harris.
Maybe Mary Ruefle is not a spring poet after all but a poet of disbelief. If you have any money left over, you might lay your next bet down on disbelief.
Starfish, champagne, blood, innumerable birds.
Often enough at the end of a poetry reading, there is time for a Q&A, which stands for “questions and answers,” and not, as one might hope, “quaaludes and Ambien,” or even “quartets and Amadeus.” There is a very good chance that the following questions have been asked of Ms. Ruefle before, and in fact are asked over and over again at poetry readings. Still I am interested in them, even though, in this instance, the answers come from poems and not from a person.
Why do you write poetry?
Star Light, Star Bright,
First Star I see tonight . . .
When is a poem finished?
many of these things glint in the morning
sun, weirdly, why do you ask?
Where do your ideas come from?
Basho thought a good life was spent picking up
horse chestnuts from off the ground.
Is “Happiness” a thing?
My job is writing poems and reading them to a cloud.
What’s your email address?
I love you.
But who is the I
and who is the you?
Beavers, roosters, Pluto, John Philip Sousa.
I was in high school at a time when it was still common for boys to tinker around on old cars. Often, this meant taking a trip to Boynton’s Auto Salvage to search for a leaf spring or a set of spider gears among the junkyard’s vast array of abandoned vehicles. One day a friend of mine needed to procure a windshield for a very large old car, and two of us accompanied him to Boynton’s, which, we discovered, had a suitable replacement. The office at the junkyard was cluttered with small parts, old carburetors, ignition coils, ashtrays—the usual. A greasy, burnt-petroleum funk hung in the air. Along one wall was a large chicken-wire enclosure, home to a captured squirrel whose name, I kid you not, was Shithead. He was a cantankerous and uncivilized pet and when the men who worked at the junkyard fed him peanuts in the shell, they had to take care not to get a hunk taken out of a finger.
It fell to a fellow named Ernie, a few years older and imminently more wise, to escort us on our windshield-salvaging mission. The four of us drove up the hill to the domain of dead cars in what was known as the “yard car.” The yard car had no doors, no roof, and no seat-belts; it resembled a World-War-II-era Jeep, though I think it was actually a Yugo. Riding with Ernie in the yard car, squealing down muddy lanes between irregular rows of wrecks, was surreal and terrifying. There were even a few pitiful, menacing dogs chained to trees to keep would-be thieves away. Circling around the junkyard was not unlike Dante’s voyage in the Inferno, with Ernie as our Virgil, except we were winding our way uphill instead of down. When we arrived at the car whose windshield we were going to liberate and raised its hood, there was a six-foot rat snake warming itself on the breather. All parties present leapt in surprise, including the snake.
Removing a windshield requires a screwdriver and a piece of steel cable about the diameter of a piece of pencil lead, sometimes called piano wire. You use the screwdriver to work the wire through the rubber gasket surrounding the glass and then feed it through to the interior of the car. Someone in the front seat takes hold of one end of the wire and another person stands on the hood of the car holding the other end. You proceed to draw the wire back and forth like a crosscut saw, cutting through the gasket all the way around until the windshield pops out. It took us a while to get the hang of this procedure, but eventually we were sawing through the gasket in rhythm and at a pretty good clip. As we zipped along the top of the windshield, Ernie called out, “Aw, boys, we’re shittin’ in tall cotton now!”
I have waited more than thirty years for a suitable occasion to explicate Ernie’s wholly resonant metaphor. A line of poetry it ain’t, but it is a genuinely poetic use of language and, except for a slightly fudged first foot, a darn good go at iambic pentameter. And the occasion was certainly suitable for poetic expression: three greenhorns and a slightly older man, assembled on a hot day in a junkyard with an allegorically named squirrel and a menacing snake to boot. Ernie’s words have survived in my mind all these years partly for their good-ole-boy humor, but also for more serious, dare I say artistic, reasons. What does that triumphant exclamation express? “We’ve got this licked!” “We have this in the bag.” We were succeeding in our task and that success was a pleasure; we were following the normal procedure for removing a windshield from a junked car and it was working. That’s the figurative meaning.
But what does it mean, more literally, to “shit in tall cotton”? That has given me reason to wonder through the years. One can assume that if you needed to relieve yourself outdoors you would want some privacy, so tall cotton would be a plus. And, I suppose, a few cotton balls might come in handy in lieu of toilet paper. If one were a cotton grower, having tall cotton would be a sign of a good season, a good yield, and thus a kind of prosperity. Sometimes, when life is going well, people say that everything is “high cotton,” which in that instance has nothing to do with going to the bathroom. But to say, “Aw, boys, we’re shittin’ in tall cotton now” is to mix two expressions, one of which is standard and the other of which is, shall we say, non-standard. It’s not unlike the famous scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Quince observes that his fellow actor, Bottom, has magically sprung a donkey head on his shoulders. Instead of saying, “Bottom, you’ve turned into a jackass,” which is obvious and flat language, Quince says, “Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated.” Now Ernie’s exclamation doesn’t sound so coarse. In fact, if we imagine it in a farcically charged dramatic context, it becomes perfectly and outrageously poetic.
But here’s another curious thing: cotton hasn’t been grown in Kentucky, where this adventure occurred, since the nineteenth century. My hunch is that the figure of speech originated farther south, migrated north by word of mouth, and lodged in Ernie’s mind. It’s a real figure of speech, that is, one born of local forms of expression rather than literature. I’ve always felt fortunate to have grown up with this kind of language to listen to. I hear it first, and then realize its complexity, its rich use of figuration. I was in college before I learned about metaphors and figures of speech, and how the employment of a metaphor can express ideas through nonliteral means and nuances of meaning on multiple levels at once. Metaphor, simile, alliteration, and other figures of speech allow us to speak with a forked tongue, and therefore, I would add, to think with a forked mind. That is, we can have many thoughts coursing through our brains at the same time, and English gives us the capacity to experience those thoughts as if they were unified. Ernie, the junkyard poet, used a figure of speech very effectively: he wanted to say more than one thing with the same utterance, and it worked—is still working, in the sense that I’m still puzzling over it.
Here’s another country yarn. A few summers ago I spent a day traipsing around old family cemeteries with my mother and my cousin. As the day went on, we found older and older ancestors buried in increasingly remote locations in the southern Cumberland Mountains. We passed by places called Stab, Keavy, Skate, and Plato, a little sparrow-fart of a place where my great-great-great grandparents’ farm was located. These names for places and geography are different from Jonesville or Washington, the origins of which are obvious, whereas Stab and Skate encourage a fair amount of wonder and curiosity.
Our last stop was a cemetery near the community of Hightop, where, down a gravel road and off in a glade, my oldest Kentucky ancestor is buried. He was my great-great-great-great-great grandfather. A roundish stone marks the grave, and carved on it is the following:
KER HE WAS BO.
SEPT THE 29th
1765 DIED SEPT
THE 10th 1810
It looks rather poetic to me, and I love that whoever carved the gravestone was obviously illiterate, able only to recognize letters and reproduce them. And that accidental double-entendre, “hear lies,” fascinates and mesmerizes me. Just as we glimpse the mind of Sappho through her fragments, I feel like I know something about the way this anonymous stone-carver thinks. The epitaph suggests that even at its crudest level, the English language requires structure, and cannot avoid figuration. It’s a painting with words, and for someone who probably couldn’t actually read words, being able to paint with them must have been a satisfaction.
Keep in mind that figurative language is not merely decoration, but rather a way to give structure to thought, and one who deals in figures does not think according to linearity, but by leaps and analogy. For this reason, a good metaphor does not express anything directly. Instead it creates a kind of globe, a three-dimensional structure that houses thought¾and not simply a single thought, but a nexus of thought, a space where multiple shades of meaning coincide and are suspended. It’s similar to a bell: the bell is the house for the sound produced by the clapper; the bigger and more spacious the bell, the more resonant and lasting the sound. And while a figure of speech certainly reveals something about speech, more importantly it reveals qualities of the mind of the person who utters the speech. Figures of speech allow us to be of two minds about something, if not more. As Wallace Stevens says in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” “I was of three minds, / Like a tree / In which there are three blackbirds.”
We have an old tobacco barn at our farm, built more than a century ago, and over the last few months I’ve had the pleasure of rebuilding part of it, revising it. The task has required me to use jacks and long levers and principles of physics, which I have thoroughly enjoyed. In order to make the basic framework more square and plumb, I’ve removed the interior plank walls. Now I can see the big beams and posts and how they were first put together. The dimensions are based on squares that are ten feet on a side, and the angles of the rafters were derived using the Pythagorean theorem. I’ve looked at the lines of this barn as I would study the lines of a poem. The design is lasting, practical, and elegant. The barn faces south in order to get maximum sunlight, and the framework responds flexibly to changes in the weather and the wind, the ground’s expansion and contraction as the temperature changes. It’s not a stiff old stony structure, it’s yielding. Poetic structure, constructed of hand-hewn figuration, is very similar in this capacity.
A figure of speech is not something applied to the surface of language like a coat of paint. As I’ve suggested, a good figure is part of a poem’s interior design; it provides a 3-D structure, like a room or a sphere of language, in which various levels and shades of meaning and even contraries all hum together in a microcosmos. The figure unifies the variety of thought and feeling created by language, but does not seek to resolve the tensions and oppositions implied by that variety. A figure is like a bus with lots of different people on it and a few empty seats; like a boat with a few craggy sailors and a one-legged captain aboard, listing across the sea; like a rickety wagon with a family inside, a baby sleeping in a barrel-half, a woman in a bonnet holding the reins, a man, thinner than the handle of a rake, walking beside the team of oxen, clucking to them to keep going. In short, a well-used figure is never static: it doesn’t freeze elements of a poem but suspends them momentarily, like a little mobile of the solar system with a string of planets swirling around the heavens. Upon encountering a good figure, the reader can’t help but pause to admire and study its mesmerizing effects. Interestingly, while a figure is a primary building block of the larger poem, it also has an independent integrity; it can hold together by itself, even if only as a briefly-registered effect. Consider another example from Stevens:
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
Perhaps figures of speech have a four-dimensional quality, like a tesseract.
If I understand Frost’s notion of “the sound of sense” correctly, then I think what I mean to say about figuration is similar. Just as the figure “houses” a nexus of ideas, the line is the “house” for sound. Somehow—in the best cases—the house of the figure chimes elegantly and resonantly with the house of sound registered by the poetic line. Those lines where figure and sound sync up or coincide really stand out; they are like tones pulsing through the poem and maybe they produce a chord, a series of tones that harmonize with each other. (I think of the harmonies of the Everly Brothers—a very particular but beautiful approach to harmony, a harmony that can be at times paradoxically asymmetric. Beauty tends to like asymmetry.)
Obviously there’s a useful tension that arises from having a loaded line, one that’s pregnant with figuration and ding-donging along, counterpointed by a more humbly written, plain-Jane line. In other words, all lines in a poem need not be great with figuration; that would come across as gaudy wallpaper, gilding the lily, as it were. Notice, I cannot illuminate my observations about rhetorical figures without resorting to them. Go figure.
Let’s stumble out of the musty old barn and see how all of this looks in the daylight of actual poems. We’ll begin with a classic—Emily Dickinson.
There’s a certain Slant of light,
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes—
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us—
We can find no scar,
But internal difference—
Where the Meanings, are—
None may teach it—Any—
‘Tis the seal Despair—
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air—
When it comes, the Landscape listens—
Shadows – hold their breath—
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death—
We’re all familiar with the line, “There’s a certain slant of light.” The opening phrase hints at personification—the physical light is given character. But the sentence goes on: “There’s a certain slant of light, winter afternoons—that oppresses like the heft of cathedral tunes.” Now we have many other figures deployed: two images (the slanted light, the heavy tunes); the hint of personification is now elaborated (the light has become oppressive); a simile that itself is loaded with irony (it is a leap in observation to claim light is oppressive and therefore has weight, and a further leap of the mind to compare this quality of light to heavy music, which is actually made of air); two instances of synecdoche (the certain slant of light implies a broader gloom, and the hefty cathedral tunes stand in for larger order and authority); and maybe more. That’s a lot of figuration for a couple of lines, but I don’t find them overdecorated at all. This is because the accumulated figures are not merely descriptive, but rather interpretive: they transmit not only the scene to readers, but the speaker’s cast of mind in the moment of apprehending that scene. Dickinson is very good at this mind-in-the-moment-of-apprehension business, and her poems reveal a lively, literally inspired mind—a spirit has come into it, because the natural world itself is always in its moment of being. That moment is also always ending, thus the “Heavenly Hurt” and “imperial affliction” Dickinson mentions later in the poem. Dickinson’s use of figures is so rich that her poems not only give us the mind of a singular poet, they also hold up a mirror for anyone willing to think. We see things in that mirror, we recognize them as our own thoughts, our own imperial afflictions. That has to be one of the practical, heart-honing values of reading poetry.
Which brings me to an additional, very practical value in learning how to use figures of speech with facility. Because figures of speech establish structure, they help to organize our thoughts; they give shape and character to the materials of a poem. They deepen thoughts, expand them and give them resonance. Learning to use figures of speech even a smidgen as well as Dickinson helps us avoid writing the all-about-me poem, of which we have too many. The better, more generous poem is profoundly all-about-us: it speaks on behalf of the human condition, some quality of life we all share.
One of my favorite modern poems is “Church Going” by Philip Larkin. Talk about your figuration! The title itself strikes me as a pun, a twist on the more natural-sounding “going to church.” Does Larkin want us to ponder the idea of church “going” away from Western civilization, going the way of horse-drawn buggies and parlor tunes, swallowed by the leviathan that is the modern industrial world? That kind of reflection, and an old-fashioned regard for beauty and polite custom, is all over this poem, which begins in almost mocking understatement and slowly shifts to a more elevated tone. Listen to part of the first stanza:
Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence . . .
The first gesture Larkin makes is that onomatopoetic “thud” of the door, to indicate a sense of finality and emptiness within the church. Then he gives us a list of ordinary, even dull images, as if to say he’s seen all of this before. The phrase “sprawlings of flowers,” though, cuts a deeper groove. Here Larkin has made a verb, sprawling, wear the costume of a noun, sprawlings. And the meaning of the word is shifted under Larkin’s gaze. If something is sprawled it usually means it is spread out, widely dispersed. In Larkin’s use, however, the flowers are bunched up. The rhetorical device of using a word out of its ordinary grammatical context is called anthimeria. You don’t hear that one every day! But “sprawlings of flowers” also is a coinage—what we call a neologism—and also an instance of personification. It’s as if something in the church is dimly alive, a haunting hauntingly echoed by Larkin’s recognition through synesthetic imagery of “a tense, musty, unignorable silence.” The absence is palpable; the silence makes itself heard. Larkin has entered the realm of irony and paradox, which is appropriate, given that the strands of the Judeo-Christian tradition are tangled with paradox. What is stunning to me is how Larkin clusters such a wide variety of figures around a single phrase or a single line. It’s like swallows spinning over a field in summer dusk. Is Larkin just showing off? What’s the point? Perhaps the figurative fireworks are intrinsic to the writing of verse: without this intensity of thought, in which the poet’s mind transforms the outer world and permits the outer world to transform it in turn, the poet would have nothing to say, and there would be no poem.
For a better sense of how all of this can work, consider two lines from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Melancholia”: “Through the trees sighs the breeze / Like a soul in pain.” We have personification here, and a double-image. Most importantly, notice how the simile is buoyed and bounced along by the sonic and rhythmic qualities of the lines: the sighs of the breeze can be heard as well as seen. That means Dunbar is involving the eye and the ear; the human body is swaying with the natural world, which is itself embodied. But the human self is at odds with itself, a state Dunbar captures by inverting the first line’s syntax—the subject of the sentence is delayed, and even when it arrives—“the breeze”—it is ethereal and evasive. By employing figures of speech related to both the interior human self and the exterior world, the poem finally glimpses out onto the metaphysical, and the soul cries out. Dunbar gives us a nice internal rhyme, trees-breeze, but he’s also doing something with that string of sz sounds at the ends of trees, sighs, and breeze. There must be a technical term for this, but after searching high and low I haven’t uncovered it. It is a kind of consonance, because Dunbar is repeating a consonant. If this were alliteration the consonant sound would come at the beginning of the word; in this case, however, the repeated consonant sound arrives at the end of the word. Maybe we should call this terminal consonance.
It’s important to observe that this specialized kind of repetition isn’t mere enumeration; in this case the repetition amplifies the emotional freight. Dunbar sticks those sz-ending words together like cars on a freight train and the rhythmic engine of the lines chugs along, enhancing the lines’ main effect, which is a vision of the speaker’s interior world reflected in the exterior world. Consider the first two stanzas now in full, if only to appreciate the consistency of Dunbar’s rhythm, music, and figuration:
Silently without my window,
Tapping gently at the pane,
Falls the rain.
Through the trees sighs the breeze
Like a soul in pain.
Here alone I sit and weep;
Thought hath banished sleep.
Wearily I sit and listen
To the water’s ceaseless drip.
To my lip
Fate turns up the bitter cup,
Forcing me to sip;
’T is a bitter, bitter drink,
Thus I sit and think,—
The internal rhyme and consonance organize the sound of these lines; the simile, personification, and imagery organize the thoughts of these lines. And each word counts. It’s pretty impressive that Dunbar can render such expansive emotion and effect from a mere eleven words. But that’s partly what figures accomplish—they help us write not simply with focus, but with economy.
For the sake of historical connection, here are a few lines from Robert Hayden’s homage “Paul Laurence Dunbar,” in which Hayden is describing Dunbar’s poems.
Their sad blackface lilt and croon
survive him like
The happy look (subliminal
of victim, dying man)
a summer’s tintypes hold.
The presence of simile registers, of course, but this is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill simile. Hayden is comparing the sound and rhythms of Dunbar’s verse to facial expressions preserved in early photographs. Sound is linked to sight, as if perception of sight comes through sound and perception of sound comes through sight. The crossing of sensory perception is called synesthesia, a trusty figure of speech, favored by the likes of Coleridge and Keats. It lends itself to a dreamy state of semiconsciousness we associate with Romanticism. There’s also some interesting sonic pairing in the phrases “blackface lilt” and “happy look.” We have a rhythmic similarity, because the two phrases have the same pattern of accent. The short-a sound in “blackface” and “happy” gives us a handy example of assonance, and the repetition of l sounds followed by concluding hard consonants in “lilt” and “look” is, of course, alliteration.
But this pair of phrases is even more notable at the level of meaning. In the larger context of the lines I’ve quoted, both are oxymorons, and, eerily, their pairing crosses shades of meaning to produce a deeply embedded use of chiasmus. In fact, a lot of crossing is going on here: sound is crossed with sight, beauty with grief, one oxymoron with another, the present by the past. The crossing is the means by which Hayden interprets Dunbar’s life, yet, the implication is that Dunbar is representative of all African American poets, of African American experience itself. That means Hayden’s reference to Dunbar’s lines serves as a kind of meta-application of metonymy, a device in which a specific thing¾Dunbar’s poetry¾is used to represent a larger thing with which it is associated¾African American poetry.
To wander down a longer path, I’d like to look at one sentence, five-and-a-half lines long, from Edward Thomas’s poem “The Sign-Post”:
The white sun is shy,
And the skeleton weeds and the never-dry,
Rough, long grasses keep white with frost
At the hilltop by the finger-post;
The smoke of the traveller’s-joy is puffed
Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.
Figures are packed in here like sardines in a rolltop tin. Let me attempt to name them. “The white sun is shy” is both personification and imagery. “The skeleton weeds and the never-dry, rough, long grasses keep white with frost at the hilltop by the finger-post” offers further personification and a long-winded, painterly series of three images which convey the entire landscape. The final, sentence-and-stanza-concluding flourish is: “the smoke of the traveller’s-joy is puffed over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.” Metaphor and personification are bound via imagery. Sonic figures¾a little assonance here and there, some alliteration¾are also present, and one could claim that the use of “puffed” is an instance of onomatopoeia. And lest we overlook the obvious, these lines rhyme, which is also a figure of speech, since “straight,” single-minded speech does not rhyme.
These are common figures, but Thomas has a few other cards up his sleeve. The phrase “the hilltop by the finger-post” enacts a kind of parallelism on several levels. The terms “hilltop” and “finger-post” are double-nouns, yet their grammatical similarity quietly clashes with the dissimilarity in scale—the hilltop is vast, whereas the finger-post is small. Also, to describe the grasses as “never-dry” instead of the positive descriptor “always wet” inverts our ordinary perception of the image, a figure known as meiosis.
Considered grammatically, the sentence builds as it goes, gradually amplifying our sense of the scene Thomas is describing. And doesn’t the amplification—the feeling of rising—make perfect sense? After all, Thomas has just walked up a hill. Further, when Thomas refers to “the smoke of the traveller’s-joy,” he’s pointing specifically to the seed cluster that forms on the head of the flower after it has bloomed, which functions as a stand-in for the entire plant—indeed, for a field full of these wildflowers at the end of the season. Using a part to stand for the whole is called synecdoche. The phrase “skeleton weeds” is a very rich example of metonymy—Thomas could have merely said “the dead weeds,” but we understand the idea of death through its stand-in, “skeleton.” There is arguably even a kind of parallelism to be found between the white of the “frost” and the white of the “smoke.” What’s more, the sun is also “white,” which cannot actually be true, but the phrase does give the passage a nice use of an oxymoron. Like Larkin and Dickinson, Thomas often gives us two figures¾or three, or four¾for the price of one. So, for instance, “the white sun is shy” is an example of oxymoron, personification, imagery, and alliteration all in the same breath, the same calm thought. And maybe the clash between the density of the figuration and the serenity of the thought enacts a kind of paradox as well. That would make it five figures of speech woven into five monosyllabic words. Five words a child would say.
Beyond the individual figures Thomas uses is a larger enterprise, which the smaller figures serve like worker bees: to present the landscape in three dimensions, as wholly embodied. The land, the scene Thomas describes, is alive, and the ways in which the humans respond to that world, and what that world asks of the humans in it, is the nexus of considerations running through the center of the poem. There may also be some irony lurking in the shadows. The poem was written on December 7, 1914. World War I had recently reared its ghastly head; the possibility of a doomed world loomed. Thus declaring the world to be a living thing is both an expression of joy and a gasp of grief. This poem, incidentally, is based on an actual walk Thomas took with his friend Robert Frost, who was living in England at the time. The poets’ friendship would soon be reduced to a few letters when Frost returned to America, and then severed completely by Thomas’s death in the war in 1917. Though he is remembered as a “war poet,” Thomas originally was a poet of peace and sanity and insight and joy for the natural world. So it goes, as Vonnegut observed. I offer this information merely as a historical aside; it’s eerily relevant to our understanding of “The Sign-Post” today, but it was only one factor, or potential factor, in the poem’s composition. Though war shadows the poem, the poem’s present is one of friendship, the light of nature, and the conundrum of being alive in this world.
Let’s return to the richness of the poem itself. Even the wildflower Thomas features in this poem has a metaphorical name—traveller’s-joy. It’s also known as “Old Man,” because in the fall it can seem as if it has a silky white beard. Thomas and Frost are the travelers in the poem; only one would live to be an old man. Last, note Thomas’s title: “The Sign-Post” is a general term that allows for both literal and figurative interpretation. Strangely, though, in the first stanza Thomas uses a much more local and figurative term, “the finger-post,” which for me conjures the image of several fingers pointing in different directions at a junction. (“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . . and I—I took the one less traveled by.” Was Frost reflecting on this same walk?)
Let’s look at the full poem to feel how moving it becomes when reflected through the irony of history. The poem’s irony is masked by a tone of understatement—the figure of speech that conveys understatement is called litotes—a coolness that makes the emotion underneath it all the more intense. What Thomas holds back and literally keeps out of the poem makes its presence known by its absence. If my math is correct, in the five and a half lines I’ve excerpted, Thomas uses twenty-eight figures of speech, twenty-eight brushstrokes to paint these lines. Certain figures, such as imagery and personification, are used multiple times. Figuration is not a counting game, of course—using more figures does not make the poem better. But using figures effectively always produces good results, because they transfer the poem from the flat page into the mind of the reader: the reader enters the room of the poem, its three-dimensional space, and has a seat at the table prepared with a bowl of metaphor before him and a nice warm cup of irony. Here’s “The Sign-Post” in its entirety:
The dim sea glints chill. The white sun is shy,
And the skeleton weeds and the never-dry,
Rough, long grasses keep white with frost
At the hilltop by the finger-post;
The smoke of the traveller’s-joy is puffed
Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.
I read the sign. Which way shall I go?
A voice says: You would not have doubted so
At twenty. Another voice gentle with scorn
Says: At twenty you wished you had never been born.
One hazel lost a leaf of gold
From a tuft at the tip, when the first voice told
The other he wished to know what ’twould be
To be sixty by this same post. “You shall see”
He laughed—and I had to join his laughter—
“You shall see; but either before or after,
Whatever happens, it must befall,
A mouthful of earth to remedy all
Regrets and wishes shall freely be given;
And if there be a flaw in that heaven
‘Twill be freedom to wish, and your wish may be
To be here or anywhere talking to me,
No matter what the weather, on earth,
At any age between death and birth,
To see what day or night can be,
The sun and the frost, the land and the sea,
Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring,—
With a poor man of any sort, down to a king,
Standing upright out in the air
Wondering where he shall journey, O where?”
Obviously, more figures follow from the ones I’ve observed in the first stanza. This is pretty much a tour de force, an intricate revelation of craft, and I haven’t so much as addressed the purity of Thomas’s meter—that feature of the poem will have to nibble in the pasture of another discussion. To be interested in listening for figures of speech—and then to stitch such figures into your own writing—doesn’t require one to become eggheaded or stiff. Figuration is just the opposite of stiffness and esotericism—it’s fun, this wordplay, it’s the essence of the craft of poetry. The mind that works in figures is agile and capacious; it isn’t full of papery information, it’s full of machinery, like a block-and-tackle gizmo, Archimedes’s lever, a trusty hoist, a turnbuckle or two, a wedge, a hank of piano wire, a pocketknife. In the hallowed halls of figuration the rational and the irrational meet, the literal and the analogical discover their kinship. The imaginary, the remembered, and the actual coalesce in the dreamy room built by figures on the page.
All of the smaller figures of speech—simile, synecdoche, metonymy, looping gestures such as allusion, and even sonic devices such as alliteration and assonance—derive from two big-daddy figures, namely, metaphor and irony. After all, metaphor draws the language, associations, and significances from one thing and infuses them into something very different, just as some fancy liquor is infused with apricot. And to offer that kind of two-for-the-price-of-one gesture, that doubling of meaning, requires one to utilize irony, not in a cheap, smart-aleck, or reductive way, but irony used as a vehicle for a more expansive vision and interpretation of the things in the world.
In this discussion I have attempted to demonstrate the richness of figurative speech by overusing it, exaggerating it. That’s hyperbole—another figure of speech! Employing figures of speech in a discussion of figuration has not been a chore at all. Instead, it has been an abiding pleasure, a good dog by my side and a fire glowing in the woodstove. I’ve told a couple of stories, one saucy, the other grave, and the parable of the tobacco barn, and in doing so I’ve thrown in every figure but the kitchen sink, every tool in the shed. The whole shebang—whatever a shebang is. And we’ve looked at lines from a handful of poems that use figurative language to great effect. I often think a well-placed figure in a poem is like a stone dropped into a pool of water: the rings of resonance radiate outward, and if the pool were large enough the expanding rings would go on infinitely. And yet, exactly what each figure means or connotes or suggests is often shrouded in a veil of ambiguity. Figures of speech refine and intensify meaning, but they don’t necessarily make it precise or crystal clear. Figures draw blurry lines, by design. Here comes old irony again. The veil of ironic ambiguity is necessary in art and in life—think of that fickle Mona Lisa smile.
“Mama, what is hath?”
“Mama, what is troth?”
Every evening, without fail, Fennimore Peterson took his seat in the tavern, ordered a whiskey, and read aloud the news of the world: a notice about a railway, the first one built in New Zealand; dispatches from Memphis, where troops were beginning to siege the city. Even in the months after the visitors left town, he never found word of what they thought we were, or what it meant. Constable Dolliver would stand in the corner, leaning on a beam, chewing his lower lip. His eyes stayed cold and steady. He was young, then, still impatient, and he often took his leave while old Fennimore had pages left to go.
Time churned on. Fennimore and his generation passed, and the constable retired. Our town grew: the empty blocks were filled, the roads tarred, the first snuffling cars appeared. And when they buried the constable—survived by his wife, and a shame, everyone thought, that the couple had no children—no one spoke of the wings. They just said that he was one in whom we ought to take some pride: our former sheriff and longtime clerk, a man whose steady work and quiet valor had been essential to our town’s survival in its early, tenuous days.
With my beautiful friend I’m in a restaurant, Korean, farm-to-table joint. We had bibimbap and pork fried rice, cocktails with suja, grapefruit, hemlock. I used to hate poems that named places: this went down in Troy, New York.
Good people and bad people. The ones who are bad are bad to themselves, bad in nuance, bad over time, bad in the poles around which
error writhes, obviously
With a flood threatening Collinsville, Illinois, in July 2014, Francesca Williams scrambled to transport her father Dakin’s legal correspondence upstairs from her basement. As she deposited box after box in her living room, a handwritten note caught her eye. Francesca immediately recognized the stationery of New York’s legendary Hotel Elysée, and the penmanship of her uncle Tennessee Williams. Seeing the note triggered a memory—more like a fragment, really, from when Francesca was seven—of one of Williams’s rare visits to St. Louis. Dressed in a crisp linen summer suit, the man she’d known as Tom was kneeling to embrace her.
Francesca began exploring the correspondence. The letters in the boxes depicted the mundane rhythms of Williams family life, but also described hospital stays and nervous breakdowns, the decision to have their sister Rose lobotomized, the years of struggling in anonymity, the intoxication of success and fame, the despair of a career in decline, the drug-fueled paranoia and recurring depression, and the family members’ abiding love and respect for one another. These personal dramas were the raw material that Williams would ultimately transform and recast in the characters of Amanda, Laura, and Blanche.
Francesca, who is herself a playwright, brought the letters to me. I was a friend of her father’s as well as a screenwriter and faculty member of the Film and Media Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis, which both Dakin and Tennessee attended, and I had already written a screenplay based on Dakin’s book My Brother’s Keeper: The Life and Murder of Tennessee Williams. Francesca and I subsequently edited the correspondence and turned it into a play, ensemble, which has been produced in New York and St. Louis. Francesca’s real goal in sharing these letters with the public, however, was to provide a new look at her family’s legacy, one too-often considered merely dysfunctional and tragic. The Williamses were finally a modern family, one that faced the challenges and tumult of life with the same courage, passion, and hope we all aspire to.
And so we talk to each other, write and wire each other, call each other short and long distance across land and sea, clasp hands with each other at meeting and at parting, fight each other and even destroy each other because of this always somewhat thwarted effort to break through walls to each other.
—“Person-to-Person,” Tennessee Williams, the New York Times,
March 20, 1955
When I was in junior high, I was assigned to sit in chapel next to a girl who spent each service picking scabs off her elbows and knees. She methodically harvested the dried blood of each wound and gazed at it, oblivious to the world around her. I thought, Gross, why does she do that in public? But I couldn’t take my eyes off her. When I watch Tennessee Williams’s plays or read his letters, I think of him picking at his wounds in public. They’re our wounds, too.
Williams wanted to be known and loved through his plays, but he left us so much more of himself, maybe more than he intended, in the “somewhat thwarted effort to break through walls” of his loneliness: scraps written on stationery of the Hotel Elysée or the Plaza; fragments of lines on the backs of restaurant bills; postcards from his endless travels; notes on airline stationery of Alitalia or the Concorde; letters, so many letters, scribbled or typed on anything he could find. Each one was like a dry flake of skin, a scab, detritus falling from his body every time he scratched an itch, each one containing some essential bit of his DNA. Writing was the way he scratched that nagging itch, and for a moment the words gave him respite, some peace, though never for long.
A few of Williams’s notebooks are housed in the Archives of the University of the South. Just holding them and reading his handwriting is so private, so personal; it is like looking over his shoulder in St. Louis while he writes. Some of his manuscripts are there, too—The Red Devil Battery Sign, Moise and the World of Reason—strewn with insertions and revisions written on napkins stained with coffee and wine or on the backs of menus from ocean-liner crossings. He wrote a poem on a half-melted lava lamp. Everything he left behind, from his toaster to his ashtray, seems like a message of some kind. Even his small black phone book, with its cramped, handwritten entries for Jackie Onassis, Andy Warhol, and Truman Capote, is fascinating.
Then there are the letters. They’re as carefully crafted and ironic as his characters’ dialogue. Williams’s letters, I’d argue, are the dress rehearsals for his theatre. Each one has an audience, familial and familiar—grandparents, cousin, brother, mother—that responds to his provocations and pleas. Those responses become the dialogue of the drama of his life, by turns condescending and manipulative, comic and tragic.
The letters below are part of a recently discovered cache, only two of which have been published before in excerpts. The Sewanee Review approached me before I began teaching my Tennessee Williams course this fall to ask if I would respond to them, not as a scholar, but as someone who loves Williams’s works and words and who knows his ties to Sewanee. Seeing his handwriting and the font of his typewriter, being able to eavesdrop on the intimate conversations between Williams, his brother Dakin, and his mother Edwina, brings him to life, sheds light on his significance, reminds us of his humanity and his tragedy. The letters remind me why I started teaching Williams in the first place, and why he will continue to “break through walls” and speak to anyone who knows his plays.
The letters and their bits of truth, their various voices and attitudes, allow us to assemble a creaturely version of Williams the way he assembled his own characters out of real life. We read the letters; we watch him picking at his wounds. We can’t turn away.
—Virginia Ottley Craighill
August 30, 1936
Dear Grand and Grandfather:
Dakin and I have just returned from a delightful two weeks at camp in the Ozarks. It was nicer this year than I have ever known it. We had everything, even a mild tornado, by way of diversion and escaped some of the worst heat, according to reports at home. Dakin gained some weight and we are both feeling fine. We produced three plays, which I wrote and Dakin acted in. The last one was an old-fashioned melodrama and for the heroine we had a little Ozark girl that waited on the tables whose accent and manners were just perfect for the part. She pronounced villain as “vill-yun” and was so dumb she didn’t realize the play was supposed to be funny, which made it all the funnier.
It rained just the day before we returned and has been pretty cool here since then. I hope the heat has broken in Memphis also. It must have been awful to have to conduct services in such weather.
While I was away I got a letter from Simon & Schuster publishing company that published Josephine Johnson’s “Now in November.” They said my short story in “Manuscript” was excellent and wanted to know if I were working on a novel and said if so they would like to see it. So I think that I will try to write one during my spare time—just a short one. It is easier to sell a good novel than a good short story. I’ve also had a story tentatively accepted by “American Prefaces,” which O’Brien the short-story critic considers the most promising new literary magazine.
It is certainly lovely of you to offer to send me to Washington. But I don’t want you to do it if it would mean sacrificing things that you need. I think I could complete my work in another year and of course I could get out of the physical education on account of my irritable heart. At camp I met a Washington U. junior who said he wanted me to write for the school magazine and join the Poetry Club. He’s an editor of the magazine. I think my contacts at the University would be extremely helpful. I’m going to get in touch with some newspaper editors pretty soon and perhaps in another year they will have a place for me or something else will open up.
Jiggs and the others are all quite well.
With much love, Tom
At twenty-five, Williams’s insatiable desire for success is already evident, along with the exaggeration of triumphs to loved ones—“They said my short story in ‘Manuscript’ was excellent and wanted to know if I were working on a novel and said if so they would like to see it”—and the cruelty, side by side with the insight into character and dialect: “a little Ozark girl . . . pronounced villain as ‘vill-yun’ and was so dumb she didn’t realize the play was supposed to be funny.” Williams might have learned to pick up on rhythms of speech and dialect by listening to stories told by his black nurse Ozzie or to sermons given by his grandfather Walter Dakin, but where did he get the meanness? Maybe from his father, Cornelius, the hard-drinking, abusive shoe salesman, who called Williams “Miss Nancy.” Or maybe it was always there in his “irritable heart.”
April 25, 1945
Dear T. W.—
I do appreciate your invitation for the 27th. I can’t come, but I appreciate your asking me. The reason I can’t come is that I hate to find myself in crushes of people, just as you probably do. If you ever find time and want to, come and see me at home or call me for lunch at the office.
I’m very glad about the acclaim given your beautiful Glass Menagerie; and while you may not be enjoying it to the hilt—for as an artist you don’t have to give a damn what the public thinks, and may not want to—certainly your mother is now happy in the glow of satisfaction over what she has achieved, in proxy, through you. That is maybe God’s greatest reward to good mothers—when they are fortunate.
Not that I mean you had a wise mother, as distinguished from one of goodness. I wouldn’t know; but few Dakins I’ve heard about or known seemed particularly wise. And in the Dakin heritage you and I have both had much to bear in common. Both of us had father trouble. Both of us grew up in what seemed tawdriness. Both had to escape and then go it alone, as sensitive pieces of machinery that nobody could help because nobody knew anything about the job those machines had to do. So both had to work out any answers they found all by themselves.
The best thing about the Glass Menagerie is its inner evidence of the answers you’ve found for yourself and are still finding. It’s this, more than the people who are galloping to see it, that can make you glow way down inside yourself. I hope it does, and I’m glad for this opportunity to tell you so. In a time full of the terrible failures of men, you have a right to your deep pride.
Edwin F. Dakin
Apparently the Dakin family liked to recycle names, making Edwin F. difficult to trace. He may have been Williams’s second cousin once removed—Edwin’s grandfather was brother to Tennessee’s grandfather, Walter Dakin—but he is never mentioned in any Williams biographies, and this is perhaps the only correspondence. While working for the public relations giant Hill and Knowlton, Dakin convinced the tobacco industry to stop using doctors to advertise the benefits of smoking, but otherwise he managed to live privately, unlike his cousin.
He signs the letter formally, but appears to understand Williams’s family troubles and knew Williams grew up in “tawdriness.” The letter conveys a deep sense of who Williams was, a “[sensitive piece] of machinery that nobody could help.” His cousin, his soulmate, this man who empathized with Williams’s “irritable heart,” didn’t show up on the 27th and never shows up again, which is too bad.
April 23, 1956
Have just returned from visit to Philippine Islands where I had to prosecute a sergeant for stealing $460 from an enlisted man. The Sergeant was convicted and sentenced to two years. While in Manila I attended a performance by the Manila Theater Guild of your Rose Tattoo. The play was a big success in Manila—seats all sold out—and I was lucky to get in.
Next Monday I’m invited to a reception given by the Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, the Madam. In case they haven’t read your plays, this situation will be remedied as I am giving them copies of The Rose Tattoo and Streetcar, as well as my own Nails of Protest! My purpose in giving them the latter book, is, of course, to convert them to the Church!
Never did hear your opinion of Nails of Protest. Did you read it? I thought so—you gave it to Frank or tossed it in a waste can?
I still haven’t been able to see your Rose Tattoo movie. It’s now in Japan—and I’m enclosing a very favorable review from the Tokyo newspaper we get here.
Joyce sent me a clipping about St. Thomas Island which I’m also sending you; we thought you were going there on a visit. Sure sounds like an interesting place. We are trying to save all we can to open up a law practice again as soon as possible and have over two thousand in cash set aside—half of which was received from you for which we are most grateful. I also have a little over four thousand in bonds and hopes (very small) of getting royalties from Nails of Protest. Aunty says that Ed and Jenny Ashe (our Catholic relatives in Knoxville) bought several copies!
Aunty, too, is very appreciative of the help you are giving her. She is quite a gallant person and I am most happy that you are keeping her from being dependent on Dad, who is very rude to her—she says Dad “has it in for me,” and wouldn’t even have dinner with her on his last visit to Knoxville.
Hope you got the small gift I sent for your birthday. There isn’t much available here, but if there is anything you would like in Hong Kong or Japan—I can get it there for you—as I visit there occasionally.
Mother is well and says Rose enjoyed being home for Easter and looked very well in the new blond beaver coat you gave her.
I certainly do appreciate your continuing to keep me on your “payroll”, but if you find it is too much when added to all the other responsibilities you have, Joyce and I can always make ends meet. The Air Force is not very generous with their pay, but at least it is regular.
Hope Kazan did a good job with your new movie and the two plays 27 Wagons and Unsatisfactory Supper were successfully blended. I should think it quite a job—but both are excellent.
The overseas tour has been cut to fifteen months so I may be home for Christmas and am counting on taking Joyce to the next “opening night.”
Lots of love—
Always little brother to the superstar playwright, Dakin’s letter oozes with desire to level the playing fields. How is it fair, the letter fairly screams, for Dakin, the “good son,” who did everything by the book—graduated from college and law school, went to Harvard for an MBA, married, joined the armed forces, was a devout Catholic, wrote his own book—to be forever eclipsed by Tom, the dropout, hypochondriac, homosexual momma’s boy whom Dad never liked? We cringe when Dakin notes that he’ll provide the Kai-sheks with copies of The Rose Tattoo and A Streetcar Named Desire, as well as his own Nails of Protest, as if putting the title of his book in close proximity to his brother’s plays makes them equal.
You can almost hear Dakin’s teeth gritting when he writes that he and Joyce “are most grateful” for the gift of a thousand dollars, and feel his clenched jaw as he describes his “appreciat[ion]” to Tom for “continuing to keep me on your ‘payroll.’” Dakin acknowledged in a letter to Williams from 1977, “It may well be that the only lasting memorial to having lived my life, will be that I was instrumental in enabling you to continue your writing career.” Somehow, it doesn’t seem like enough.
July 20, 1962
Sorry to have been so long in answering your letter about “Mother’s book.” If Mother and you are pleased with it, I am sure I will be, but I do think you had better have Putnam’s send me a copy of the manuscript, for Mother’s sake more than my own. You never can be sure how books of this sort may be slanted. They could be embarrassing to all of us, and I certainly don’t want Mother to be embarrassed.
Of course I am very dubious about having poems I wrote at junior high school published, just as I am dubious about the advisability of ever publishing any of that awful “juvenilia” that Mr. Andreas Brown has gotten together in the basement.
I have written a few good things, just a few, and the rest is better forgotten. I think Mr. Brown means very well indeed. But it would be awful to suspect that, after my death, some book would come out containing all the discards of a life of writing. It might destroy whatever reputation I have made as a writer.
Please get Putnam’s to send me the manuscript right away. We may all need money, but we don’t want it at the price of being made to look foolish in print, publicly, do we?
If the book is friendly, sympathetic, not supercilious or slyly mocking, you know I will be very happy about it and cable an immediate endorsement.
I have been ill and exhausted and depressed or I would have written much sooner. Now I’m back on the beach and beginning to feel a bit better.
Hermione Baddeley was terrific in the Spoleto tryout, and if my continued work on the play goes well, we may try it out in England in a couple of months, touring the provinces first.
Period of Adjustment has scored a hit in London and has been transferred to a bigger theatre, in the “West End.” I will see it soon. The star, Collin Wilcox, is a girl from Knoxville who knew Aunt Ella.
Love to you all,
If your mother were about to publish an unauthorized biography of your life, you might, like Williams, feel some trepidation, even if you didn’t have a literary reputation at stake. Williams’s claim that he “certainly [doesn’t] want Mother to be embarrassed” rings false, as it seems Edwina was not the type who was easily shamed. She apparently never recognized, or never acknowledged, that she was Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, and anyone that deep in denial is not likely to be embarrassed by her own musings on the past.
Williams gets to the heart of the matter, condescendingly using the royal we: “We may all need money, but we don’t want it at the price of being made to look foolish in print, publicly, do we?” It’s an interesting comment coming from the son who used his mother as the model for Amanda, and for Violet Venable. Edwina’s book, Remember Me to Tom, did get published in 1963, and the “awful ‘juvenilia’ that Mr. Andreas Brown” of the Gotham Book Store had gotten “together in the basement” ended up as the invaluable Tennessee Williams Collection of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. Williams wanted control of his life and work, but he left too much of a paper trail to be successful at it, and we, the voyeurs and scavengers, are the beneficiaries.
If anything of a violent nature happens to me, it will ending my life abruptly, it will not be a case of suicide, as it would be made to appear.
I am not happy, it is true, in a net of con-men, but I am hard at work, which is my love, you know.
The letter has been partially quoted before, in an article in the June 28, 1968 New York Times entitled “Tennessee Williams Expresses Fear for Life in Note to Brother” and picked up by John Lahr in his 2014 biography, but looking at the uneven penmanship, one wonders how many manhattans Williams had at L’Escargot before he wrote it, and whether he woke up the next morning and chuckled before sending it, given the penciled note at the top: “melodramatic but true!” Was Williams aware that he was giving his brother a kind of gift, a theory that Dakin could work with and live on long after Williams’s death in 1983?
There’s evident editing: the first “it will” is scratched out and the cramped addition of “as it would be made to appear” heightens the drama, which Williams knew well how to do. Even the exclamation mark in the penciled claim seems more like an ironic wink than an interjection of fear. Maybe Williams knew where this would lead, not to a crime scene or to a murderer, but to a distracting postmortem for conspiracy theorists (not just Dakin), and a morbid fascination with the nature of his death rather than the character of his work.
December 19, 1975
I am somehow managing to keep up with the heaviest schedule of my career, with the aid of various jet planes. Last week I was in Los Angeles to see a preview of Night of the Iguana. Then flew to San Francisco to attend rehearsals and make revisions on a new play called This Is (An Entertainment), which is being done brilliantly by ACT (American Conservatory of Theatre) in San Francisco. Yesterday flew back to New York for the opening, last night, of The Glass Menagerie revival with Maureen Stapleton.
Rose and her delightful new companion went with me, and I am writing with pen so my typewriter won’t disturb them—in the adjoining suite. There has also been a very successful revival of Sweet Bird of Youth. (Dakin saw it with me in Chicago)—it opens soon in New York with the great English actress Irené Worth.
Tonight we celebrate Christmas early—a home dinner for Rose and her (practical nurse companion) Tatiana, who is a titled white Russian lady with whom Rose is very pleased. Then this coming Monday I must fly to Europe for the world premiere of the new Red Devil Battery Sign at Vienna’s English Theatre. It will be brought to the States later. Several producers are eager to do it here. My dear friend Maria is appearing in an important supporting role. I will be there for Christmas. Then I must fly back for the final rehearsals and previews of the play in San Francisco.
The itinerary makes me dizzy—but I have always preferred an active life, as you know.
In February I am invited to Australia for the Adelaide Festival where Kingdom of Earth will be done.
A reporter asked me how I explain all this resurgence of interest in my work and I said “Well, if you just hang on long enough, you are either forgotten or remembered too much.” I’ve been lucky—the plays receive better productions and attention than originally.
After Australia I have promised myself a season of rest—in Key West. And I will gladly visit Sewanee with you.
Rose seems well and happy. I’ll give her a lovely Christmas party tonight. She is the bravest and sweetest person I have known in my life. Nothing is sufficient to compensate for the ordeals she has endured so gallantly. I try to do what I can.
Please come South with me this spring and enjoy the fresh air and peace of Key West.
Everyone remembers you with love.
As I do—always.
If the other letters are comic or melodramatic, villainous or grandiose in their theatricality, this one is purely tragic. The loneliness of his travels echoes in the list of cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Vienna, back to San Francisco, Australia, Key West, the hope of visiting Sewanee with his mother (did he ever?).
Like the rondini, the birds in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone that have no legs and so can never land, Williams flew around the world looking for himself in his plays, to see if he was “either forgotten or remembered too much.” When he writes of “celebrat[ing] Christmas early” with “a home dinner,” the home is a hotel suite at the Hotel Elysée, where he would eventually die. Homeless himself, for Williams it was Rose, placid, empty, the unwitting recipient of all his fierce love and guilt, the sister for whom “nothing is sufficient to compensate for the ordeals she has endured”—ordeals of institutionalization followed by shock treatments followed, ultimately, by a bilateral prefrontal lobotomy in 1943—who was his home. Rose, the “lunatic with tranquil eyes,” was his resting place, his constant torment.
Aug 29, 1977
I just returned here (Key West) for what I hope may be a nice rest period after shuttling back and forth between the States and London since late spring. Of course it’s the rainy season, but everything looks fresh and green.
Among the mail that had come here while I was away was a letter from Dakin, enclosing a highly amusing article he has written for the Washington University magazine and an article about your birthday with a really nice picture of you.
You’ll be pleased to know that I found Rose looking well and in good spirits and health. She walks about ten paces ahead of me and Tatiana, a charming old Russian lady who visits her at Stoney Lodge regularly while I’m away from New York. She is eager to come back down to Key West for a visit as she did last Spring. The problem is that she smokes and drinks Coca-Cola almost continually here. At the Lodge she is limited to six cigarettes a day.
Aside from being tired, I am comparatively well. I do have some evidence of a cataract developing in my right eye, but it’s expected to mature slowly. With strong glasses, I have no difficulty in reading and writing.
The principal problem right now is that the housekeeper, Leoncia, has gone on vacation to New York, taking with her all the house keys. I was able to get in the house only through the assistance of a neighboring locksmith—won’t be able to use my studio till Leoncia’s return from Harlem.
This aging process is far from agreeable—but we’re all in the same boat and must be as philosophical about it as possible.
Please be more careful about avoiding falls. In the sixties I used to keep falling down—due to Dr. Feelgood’s shots—and I acquired an almost acrobatic skill at the practice. But now that some arthritis has set in, I am watching my steps.
There was also a lovely picture and article about you in the Key West newspaper in honor of your birthday. You and Grandfather are both remembered here by all who met you with great affection.
Love to all,
Williams writes to Edwina from a resting place, a house he owned in Key West, but emotional weariness, not just physical exhaustion, permeates the letter. He tries to be hopeful—“everything looks fresh and green,” and Rose is “well and in good spirits and health”—but he counteracts that hope at every turn: Rose can’t come back to Key West because she smokes and drinks too much Coca-Cola; he has another slowly developing cataract; “it’s the rainy season.”
Even at home he’s homeless: the housekeeper has locked him out. Williams eventually gets into the house, he tells his mother, but he “won’t be able to use [his] studio” until the housekeeper returns from her vacation. The studio is where he writes, and writing is how he re-creates home. Towards the end of the letter, Williams talks about “falling down,” but it’s not just a physical fear. Tennessee had been watching himself fall from grace, watching the critics mock his new plays like The Red Devil Battery Sign. In May of the same year, Williams called himself “‘the ghost of a writer’” in a letter to the New York Times. He is a homeless ghost who haunts us still.
All my life I’ve played hard to get.
Picked myself last, so to speak,
Teased myself with possibilities
While learning to abstain,
Lest I become addicted
In a recent essay, John Jeremiah Sullivan notes that nineteenth-century African American stage actors commonly performed in blackface. It is, he writes, “a strange story, but this is a strange country.” The same observation could be applied to Sullivan’s own work. His nonfiction investigations of Disney World, reality TV, American history and prehistory, and, most frequently, popular music, have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, GQ, Harper’s, the Oxford American, and the Paris Review (where he is the Southern Editor), and were collected in Pulphead (2011). Sullivan’s first book, Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son (2004) won him a Whiting Award. In more recent years he has been honored with the Windham-Campbell Prize, administered by the Beinecke Library at Yale University.
Sullivan, who has two daughters, lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, where his wife, Mariana, teaches film studies, but he was born in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1997 he graduated from the University of the South, which publishes the Sewanee Review. Sullivan’s current book project, The Prime Minister of Paradise, dates from his undergraduate days, when a conversation with a French professor sent him searching through the SR archives for an essay about a man named Christian Gottlieb Priber. Twenty years later, Sullivan is still immersed in documenting Priber’s vision of an early-American utopia.
SR first published Sullivan in Winter 2017; his two-part essay “The Curses” explores the origins of the blues. This interview was originally conceived of as a discussion of that story, but soon expanded to cover other aspects of Sullivan’s career. A phone call last May was followed by two in September, and then, in October, an afternoon and an evening spent talking and typing in the attic of a farmhouse near campus. Sullivan’s curiosity, his powers of association, and his singular talent for turns of phrase were on generous display during each of these conversations, as we discussed Spinoza, the idea of literary generations, and how Cabeza de Vaca made it to Mexico City.
SR: “The Curses: Part I” chronicles the life of Columbus Bragg, the black critic to whom the Oxford English Dictionary attributes the first use of the word “blues” to describe a style of music. Where did you find him?
Sullivan: I first encountered Bragg in the pages of the Chicago Defender, the African American newspaper, so in a sense I came up against him raw. I’d never read anything about him in an academic context: there’s been hardly anything written. But initially it was just background. He was one of forty or fifty different characters I’d run across and made a note to learn more about. Then we met again when I saw the OED credit, which had him using that phrase, using “blues” as a genre adjective, in 1914. But even that wasn’t what struck me about him: instead it was the idea that he was asking, in that first usage, about the first blues song (which he identified, idiosyncratically, as Paul Dresser’s “The Curse”). I was amazed to see evidence that this way of thinking had begun so early. The year 1914: by most scholars’ accounts, that’s not too long after you get the first blues song, period. It’s as if the blues as a commercial form and this almost religious desire to understand its roots came into existence together. Bragg, to me, is the initiator of that tradition. He’s being a little ironical in his asking, maybe—we can’t really tell—but even the fact that he can joke about it proves that the idea of the first blues song, as an entity, was already there. Finally, it’s significant that we have an African American critic theorizing about the blues, because that is in diametric contradiction to the typical narrative, which is pernicious but persistent, namely, the tale of the primitive black musician and the sophisticated white critic. Bragg flips the script on that, but does so in the first line of the script. It’s disorienting.
SR: Why were you reading old newspapers like the Defender in the first place?
Sullivan: For years I have been trying to find out how far back a few particular English words, or their usage in certain contexts, can be traced. “Blues” and “jazz” are two of the words. A lot of good work has been done on their etymologies, but when I got into the primary sources, I realized, with joy, that some remained to be done. Even better, I learned that aspects of their earliest appearances were impenetrably mysterious, maybe eternally so. I wound up feeling that the only way to gain any real clarity on it all was to assemble in my head a year-by-year and, when possible, day-by-day understanding of their linguistic gestation. I watched the word “blues” develop in the pan, almost in what we call “real time.” The new old-newspaper web databases make this possible, to put your ear horn into different early American small towns and hear people talking. And you can observe something, doing it like this, that can’t be perceived any other way. It’s related to how words behave and evolve. They can be very animal-like, or organism-like. I think maybe they are so deeply human that they take on a parasitic or symbiotic life, following our species around like the fish that hang out all their lives by the mouths of sharks. It’s an illusion, of course, but not without information in it. I mean how closely certain words hew to uniquely human and idiosyncratic social situations. To understand where “jazz” came from, you have to know about a series of unintentional misspellings that occurred in advertisements in Chicago in the nineteen-teens, and about the fact that when the word “orgasm” started appearing widely in print, in the first half of the nineteenth century, many if not most people assumed that it was pronounced “or-jazzem.” After all, we already had the word “orgy,” with a soft g. Why wouldn’t you pronounce it that way? Why would you ever pronounce it the other way? Well, from orgasm to “jazzem” is a short step, as is the one from jazzem to jism. These are just the preliminary stages, but you get what I’m saying. Etymology and linguistics are sciences that force you to visualize what people did with their mouths hundreds or thousands of years ago, people who are long dead. We can still hear them.
I can really see Christ standing
in the glass kitchen, having a glass
of orange juice. But what he does
next I do not know. Does he say
the world is ugly and people are sad?
Is he fond of quoting Creation?
The view from the house is simple
and gorgeous, a long gold meadow
ending in a stand of birches.
Beyond that is anybody’s guess.