Sortes Vergilianae

With sporadic regularity, I read a poem early in the day, after recording my dreams; it’s the skeleton of a writer’s routine. My darling these months has been John Berryman. Berryman, so I was once told, used to write a draft first thing each morning, then put a sheet of glass over the paper. After half an hour or so he would decide if it was a keeper, or not; and perhaps scrawl some second thoughts on it; then he began drinking bourbon. That has the feel of an apocryphal story, that might have been invented by Suetonius to discredit one of the Twelve Caesars. Here is Dream Song 74:

Henry hates the world. What the world to Henry
did will not bear thought.
Feeling no pain,
Henry stabbed his arm and wrote a letter
explaining how bad it had been
in this world.

Old yellow, in a gown
might have made a difference, 'these lower beauties',
and chartreuse could have mattered

'Kyoto, Toledo,
Benares -- the holy cities --
and Cambridge shimmering do not make up
for, well, the horror of unlove,
nor south from Paris driving in the Spring
to Siena and on ...'

Pulling together Henry, somber Henry
woofed at things.
Spry disappointments of men
and vicing adorable children
miserable women, Henry mastered, Henry
tasting all the secret bits of life.

The poem will resonate in different ways for each reader: my Cambridge is not the same as his, but it does shimmer, and its winters are bitter, too. I can’t parse ‘old yellow’ — is it that kitschy film about a boy’s dog that the bad dad wants to shoot? — and a bit like Pound, beauteous pregnant pieces of finery are woven into the text like an embroidered section in a wedding dress (or ‘gown’), luminous amidst the plain white. This is different from the way I learned to read poetry, cutting my teeth on Horace: humanist philology pretends to arrive at stable meanings, delivering sense out of obscurity and, of course, textual corruption. It is like a crossword puzzle, if the crossword is a bad pun that makes you groan, and poetry breathes the esprit of the salons: there is that moment of illumination, the arrival of definitive understanding. I have read little poetry in proportion to prose, because the instability underfoot — as in this fine song — left me bristly and intolerant. Once, in Cambridge, we reflected on a talismanic graffito on a bridge over the Cam, with just that magical indeterminacy. Much the same goes for the jagged syntax (other passages bristle with it more), which makes us taste the words more richly, in a way that may be quite different for each reader. Traction begins to engage when you read your way into the poet’s voice; at least, so it has been for me, as certain tics become familiar, and affection displaces irritation. Rather than things falling into place, it’s like making a new friend.


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