October 30, 2019

The Poetry of Quid Pro Quo on Ezra Pound’s Birthday

By Stuart Mitchner

The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics!
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “The Poet”

Three years ago, Ben Lerner published The Hatred of Poetry (Penguin Random House 2016), claiming that “Many more people agree they hate poetry than can agree what poetry is.” Billy Collins took a more nuanced approach in his 2007 collection, The Trouble with Poetry. Two years into this quid pro quo presidency, however, the quasi quid pro quo to hatred and trouble would seem to be Why Poetry? (Ecco paperback 2018) by Matthew Zapruder, who read at Princeton’s Lewis Center October 4.

I found out about Lerner’s book in a New York Times Op-Ed piece by Alissa Quart making a case for why Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren is wise to have a poet on her team. Noting that “poetry readership is generally up,” Quart cites a National Endowment for the Arts survey showing that almost 12 percent of American adults read poetry in 2017, up from under 7 percent in 2012.

Love it or hate it or who-cares, poetry abounds this month, beginning with the birth of Wallace Stevens (October 2) and ending with the arrival of John Keats (October 31). Along with Ezra Pound, whose birthday is today, October 30, and whose name was once synonymous with the hatred of poetry, there’s Arthur Rimbaud (October 20), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (October 21), John Berryman (October 25), and Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath (October 27).

Poetry and Laughter

Billy Collins is the only writer I can imagine putting the poets of October into a comic fantasy of the afterlife and bringing it off. The onetime poet laureate could take a room full of poetry haters and have them laughing and loving it. I saw him in action 15 years ago during the Dodge Poetry Festival at Duke Farms. The organizers, knowing that few poets could follow him, chose Collins to close the festival. In an article at the time, I imagined him captivating “an audience of dyspeptic Philistines and grouchy poetry critics, with maybe Tom DeLay and the gun lobby in the front row.” Whatever the October 2019 equivalent might be — maybe Mitch McConnell and the gun lobby — Billy would have them rolling in the aisles before he got to the end of the poem about the disgruntled dog coming back from the dead to tell off its  master or the one about the boy presenting his mother with a lanyard he made at camp. I don’t care where you come from or how much you think you hate poetry or anything else, it’s a rare treat to really laugh out loud, to give yourself up to sheer unrestrained euphoria, just letting it out. And when everyone’s laughing, it’s almost impossible not to go with the flow, even knowing that if you read the same poem cold on the page you might not crack a grin.

The first time I saw Billy Collins in action, I sat through a reading by a respected poet who seemed to know exactly what she wanted to say and how she wanted to say it. Each poem was teeming with possibilities but there were too many to keep track of.  Then Billy Collins arrived. A deceptively laid-back reader, the opposite of histrionic, he has a seasoned comedian’s sense of timing. Within minutes, everyone in the room came to life. 

American Music

My guess is that in The Hatred of Poetry Lerner performs a quid pro quo with the reader, saying, if you go along with my premise, I’ll give you something great in return: I’ll reveal the essence of poetry, with hatred as the hook, and I’ll make you love it. It’s like putting Emerson’s line in play: you people think you hate poetry, well, not only do you love it, you’re all poets! You don’t have to read Lerner’s book to know how close he is to poetry. Anyone with any instinct for the beauty of language born, like Lerner, in a place called Topeka already knows poetry’s a force that lives beyond the page. I speak from experience, having spent summers in the same city with my paternal grandparents. When you’re ten years old enduring long boring drives from Indiana to Kansas, you may not have the least interest in poetry, yet you have this instinctive fondness for the state of Missouri that is only partly due to your attachment to the St. Louis Cardinals. The key is the name, Missouri, which is a poem in itself. It took me years to realize that the reason my spirits perked up between St. Louis and Kansas City wasn’t just because of the green rolling hills, it was being in Missouri. On the other hand, if your team is out of the playoffs, Missouri can begin to sound too much like Misery.

The Higher Vaudeville

I’ve just found another way of misusing quid pro quo. Say instead of prompting you to phone up the leader of a foreign country, your love of American names sends you to “The Santa Fe Trail. (A Humoresque),” the poem it was fun to declaim whenever your parents were out of the house. It comes from The Congo and Other Poems by Vachel Lindsay, who once travelled around the country giving public readings, virtuoso performances he called the “Higher Vaudeville.” Even now, looking at  lines like “Hark to the calm-horn, balm-horn, psalm-horn./Hark to the faint-horn, quaint-horn, saint-horn,” it’s hard to resist climbing aboard the Santa Fe, the rhymes pounding like the wheels of the train, over that infectious chorus, “Ho for Kansas, land that restores us/When houses choke us, and great books bore us!” All the italics are the poet’s; in the margins, he gives you prompts: “To be read or sung in a rolling bass, with some deliberation.” A few pages later, you get to the music of the names, “from Memphis, Atlanta, Savannah, Tallahassee and Texarcana” and on through “Topeka, Emporia, and Austin ….”

Trick or Treat

I was ready to write about Ezra Pound when the Vachel Lindsay express steamed into the midnight station. Unbelievable still, to think that my wife and I saw Pound recite “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” at the Spoleto Festival the summer we were on our pre-nuptial hitchhiking honeymoon. This old man looming before us, with his blue eyes magnified by the lenses of his spectacles, his white pointy beard, white hair, craggy face, had shared Lost Generation Paris with Joyce and Fitzgerald, Eliot and Hemingway, who remembered him in A Moveable Feast, “always a good friend, always doing things for people,” Ezra, “who was so kind to people I always thought of him as a sort of saint. He was also irascible but so perhaps have been many saints.” Hemingway’s taken us a long way from the despised poet imprisoned for his wartime fascist broadcasts in a U.S. military camp in Pisa, three weeks of it in a 6-by-6-foot steel cage, which he blamed for his mental breakdown.

You can hear Pound reading on YouTube, sounding, with his stylized histrionics, like Captain Ahab reciting verse from the top deck of the Pequod. Listen to Vachel Lindsay, and you can hear certain town-crier similarities. I’ve always wondered how Keats would sound. Imagine a Halloween reading of “The Eve of St. Agnes” or “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”

Come to think of it, the trick or treat ritual is classic quid pro quo.  You do this for me or else.