June 4th, 1958
I’m glad you liked my last attempt at a "blurb"—I thought it was the best one, too.
Since you bravely invite me to "criticise", this will be more or less another version of my first letter. You are very good about accepting criticism (and that’s a great compliment), —but I hesitated for several reasons. One is that I do think you are old enough, developed enough, to know what you’re trying to do. Then I was afraid my letter might reach you just after the book had finally been set up and that you might take it seriously enough to be upset by it. Then I wasn’t/sure it was in its final order—and it was only after I8d written you, too, that it dawned on me that some of the poems were to be omitted. One of my criticisms was that several City poems came together at the end, and I thought they’d better be re—arranged or else one or two should be left out for the next occasion—One or the/other of these has probably been done already; and the omissions include most of the poems I felt least enthusiaism for ("Soothsayers", for one)—so some of my criticism was very stupid—
What I think really doesn’t matter much, you know —and I may well be wrong, or prejudiced. Robert Lowell & I agree completely about so many things and yet often differ as to the merits of a poem or a poet…Also, you are experimental and also prolific—and it isn’t fair of me to pounce on you for something that I may like very much when you get it a stage or two more advanced. I am glad that the book is to be cut some, because another reaction I had to it was that it/seemed a little long for a book of poems, and somewhat uneven—but now that has been pretty much taken care of, I gather. But even as I got it, the MMS has within it an extremely good book, so no matter what gets published, or in what order, you are still the author of that book. I can see it; Howard apparently saw it; and sympathetic readers will, of course. But what I’m thinking of chiefly, as I write this letter, is the hurried critic, who’d usually rather dislike than not, and the details I have in mind are, I think, the kind of thing crittics carp about. It’s the one thing in which I have an advantage over you—I did not start earlier and have slightly more experience of that sort, I think. Or may it isn’t the kind of thing they fasten on, but it’s the kind of thing that makes a certain impression, and then they jump to conclusions about your philosophy of life or something…
I, too, feel that no one ever takes the trouble to criticise—and although one can’t get much help about the big things I think help with little things is always welcome—like mis—use of words, over—use of some words, echoes of other people, just plain lack of grammatical clarity, or bad meter. It sounds smooth or perfectly clear to me, so I make all kinds of allowances for myself. I don’t know what I8d to without Lota sometimes—when she just says she doesn’t understand what I’m trying to say, or that she can’t stand a certain word, etc…
You know already that I don’t care for those forms that look as though the printer had dropped them on the floor, or as if they had started sagging in his hands. For example—I like th first Fountain Piece, but I’m not sure whether ts form indicates a bird, or birds, or even an angel. [hand written] or all 3?
"The Legend of To Rose [verify]" is another. I like "Iris, at the Piano" so much better in its New Yorker form (which just came). As a general rule I don’t see much reason for setting off lines, setting in, I mean, unless it’s to show up a rhyme scheme—which you almost never use. Of course Cummings has a wonderful time disintegrating lines—but that’s his special gift. I don’t quite see why you do it to Robert Frost. I’ve tried and tried and can’t find any special system to it there——maybe I’m blind of course. Cummings almost always (not always) seems to have a good reason for it—
Another detail of form I don’t care for much is the use of numbers for stanzas or lines. Perhaps numbers say more to you than they do to me? But surely anyone who can read a poem can count the lines or sTanzas if he’s interested in counting them…
That is my point about eccentricities of form. I think if there is a novelty in a poem the reader likes to discover it for himself because he likes the poem. He isn’t going to enjoy or like the poem because the eccentricities have been pointed out to him. Any new departure should be forced on the poem from within and be almost against thepoet’s wishes. You must have read Hopkins’ letters—you know how he excuses and explains but finally just can’t help his eccentricities—they are in his own make—up. One thing that makes me feel a bit dubious about some of yours is that you vary them so! One gets the impression that just for fund you’re trying out trick after trick—which is the thing to do, too—but one finally has to settle down with one’s own style. (Even poor what’s his name, the Phillipine—let us do him justice and say he really just has to have those commas between every word. At least it is consistent…) Jose Vialla? The zig—zag ones—poets don’t have to be illustrators, to or just once in a while, maybe—
Eliot has now announced that the notes to the "Wasteland" were a joke. Most of Hopkins’ carefully worked—out accents are really unnecessary—A lot of Wm. Carlos Wms’ wanderings over the page strike me as merely padding. Cummings does get effects of lightness, transparency, etc. with some of his tricks.; but when he reads his poems one gets them without seeing the typography. Well—I feel that zig—zags, stanzas that aren’t really stanzas, numbers, notes, etc., can be all right but very often are all wrong. And of course one should experiment—but not all one’s life—
My next point added to that one will make you think I am a hopeless reactionary and a prude as well, probably. I don’t like words like "loins," "groins," "crotch," "flanks," thighs," "umbilical," etc. (And where you used umbilical shouldn’t it be umbilic", the noun, not the adjective?) Perhaps I shouldn’t discuss this because I see that they ocurr more frequently in those poems you’re omitting so maybe you have changed your mind about them. Also the poems I like best, those I think almost everyone would agree are youur best, almost never use them. "Torso," "armpit," "pelvis", "node," "buttock," "udder" (and can an udder cringe?—it’s been a long time since I milked a cow.)
I am NOT saying this from any Puritanical feeling, I swear. They are in general ugly words that startle the reader in a directly physical way, perhaps more than you realize. We have come a long way in the last 100 years in freedom of speech and writing—but we are still not comforatable with those words, usually. (I’ll go into exceptions later) I imagine that now you’ll say that that’s exactly why you use them, to startle and make the poem "strong, " give it "impact," etc.—and maybe your feelings about nature are as anthro—well, it wouldn’t be [handwritten] pro [/h] morphic, would it—? as you say in "A Lake Scene."
But those words stick out too much and distort the poem. [handwritten] Also [/handwritten] They are, or some of them sometimes are, euphuisms, and that’s what makes them extra—indecent. And you have used most of them more than once in the book. Now, for example —Yeats uses the word (and it’s unspeakable in England) "bum," once in his entire lfe work, I believe. It helps make one of his most beautiful poems—but he saved it for that poem, and until he was over seventy. In his sonnet about Leda he uses the word "loins," too—but for an exceptional case, after all! —and he immediately contrasts it with a vast and remote image, so that it serves a real purpose. One says "A kick in the groin," because it’s the only way to say it; or the "flank" of a horse or a regiment. When you use the word "thighs" in the poem about riding the wooden horse you are perfectly right—but "thighs" of trees, or "thighs" used to make "legs" sounds more beautiful—are somehow wrong.
In "News from the Cabin" the first creature is a woodpecker, sn’t it? If so, —birds don’t have scrotums. Or if you are using it metaphorically, my words above apply, I think. I’d really hate to have you sound like the modern mothers who insist on telling the facts of life to their small children in front of the visitors.
I don’t want you to think I like false refinemnt. That is something quite different—The New Yorker is guilty of it sometimes, and so are you in "The School of Desire." A lot of Picasso, say, or Miro, or in literature, Joyce, is directly sexual and supposed to shock, and it is ART,—Actually I have read a few shocking poems that I thought were good poems, although it is possible there are some, or will be (I think Cummings’ poems, about the cement—mixer, and other such of his, are juvenile), and I’d certainly like to be able to write some. But you can’t do it with just a few words or images here and there in an otherwise normally polite poem! — and [handwritten] at those times [/handwritten] when they aren’t even the real words but those would—be—beautiful euphuisms, it makes matters worse.
(Where you’ve used "crotch" for the doll, in the Chirico poem—that’s all right, too.)
"Loins" is archaic—sounding to me, to (except loin of pork) and Yeats wrote archaically, often in the grand manner—which you don’t!
It’s rather hard to explain and I hope you’ll understand me.
In the "Lake Scene" poem, by the way, do you mean "thwart" as an obstruction or hindrance?— I don’t quite get it. Another word that bothers me, in a poem I think is very good, too, is "figurine" in "Working on Wall Street." The "slabs" suddenly take on curves or some sort of modeling. The image as a whole is wonderful, and accurate, but if you are implying a kind of trashiness, cheapness, etc. it seems to me the irony isn’t clear enough. (At least that’s what figurines in a pink light on a bureau suggest to me!)
You see what I’ve been fuming about is mostly details that have nothing to do with the essential quality of the work—They are things that give a bad impression, I think, and go against the grain of your really best work. Your best effects are much more skilled and evocative, while usually sounding deceptively simple—
I am hoping so much that you get a good reception. I am furious about that Guggenheim—what poets did get them this year? I can’t understand it, really. Who were your other sponsors, if you’d care to say?
That Reading of "At the Fishhouses" is AWFUL. I’ve done some since that are a little better, but not very much. It’s not my line.
Tell me when you start off and do send me postcards. I love them, and I’ve never been as far west as Chicago, you know. And please write to me as soon as you can and tell me you don’t mind my nagging ways—I do want you to have the reception and fellowships, etc., you deserve—
Lots of love, [handwritten] How’s the cat? Lota sends her love—Elizabeth.
P.S. I’m afraid I may have given the impression that I think you want to write shocking poems. I don’t think you do—I think you use those words that I find somewhat offensive in an attempt to give an effect of "the innocent eye" or "telling the simple truth" and "after—all, we–should–be–able–to– use–those–words– quite–naturally…" You do achieve fine effects of "innocence", too—but in poems like "The Cloud—Mobile" which both L and I like very much. I don’t like the word "mobile", though, the world is a little too mobile—conscious right now, I think —and the poem really isn’t about mobiles and is just as good without the word...
L also like the long painter one very much. I liked it but not as much—but that may be just because I felt it was too long, and now I see you’re cutting it, so I’m sure it will be more succesful.
In "The Promontory Moment", which I like so much— you say "prone body" and then go on to describe the eye "wandering" and seeing the scene. Prone is face down, of course—it bothers me a bit, but if the fussy New Yorker let it pass it must be all right—but how is the person lying? In stanza three it’s "over your shoulder." Is he or she lying on his stomach with his feet to the sea, writing?
I don’t want to sound like a fiend—I give this just as an example of all the things you must think of if you want to keep the reader with you without a hitch. As Stravinsky says: "The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free…"My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame of what I have assigned myself for each of my undertakings…it will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more I surround myself with obstacles."
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