Levan Center for Humanities

     The Norman Levan Center for the Humanities

   Levan Humanities Review

Volume 6, Issue 1, 2018
Death of a Quiz Kid:  L. E. Sissman and

    Postwar American Poetry

Don Thompson
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          American poetry had a good war.  Karl Shapiro won the Pulitzer for V Letter and Other Poems (1944), written in a Quonset hut on New Guinea where he worked as a medical clerk.  Randall Jarrell had washed out of flight school and was a navigation instructor in Arizona when he wrote “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” included in every academic anthology for the next fifty years.  Robert Lowell and William Stafford both did time as conscientious objectors.  Even in combat, unlike WWI, most of the poets whose names endured also survived in the flesh.  Louis Simpson, for instance, fought with the 101st Airborne  in the hedge rows of Normandy.  “Carentan O Carentan”, an early poem, pays homage to A.E. Housman:
        The watchers in their leopard suits
        Waited till it was time,
        And aimed between the belt and boots
        And let the barrel climb.
And Anthony Hecht was among the troops that liberated one of the concentration camps during the invasion of Germany.  The horror of the holocaust haunted him for the rest of his long life:
        No prayers or incense rose up in those hours
        Which grew to be years, and every day came mute
        Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air,
        And settled upon his eyes in a black soot.
            (“More Light! More Light!”)
          Postwar, the vets and the women who had waited for them settled down to a sensible life, making mortgage payments and babies.  It was the era of Levittown housing tracts, gray flannel suits, Eisenhower, and bland conformity—at least according to the stereotypes of social history.  But poetry, reputedly academic and staid, fine-tuning old forms of rhyme and meter long after the modernism of the twenties, was actually a witch’s brew of stylistic innovation.  Let’s say, to simplify (exceptions noted), that there were three main ingredients in the cauldron: Beat/Black Mountain, Confessional, and Deep Image.

          The Beats got all the publicity.  Kerouac and Ginsberg are names as familiar as Joe DiMaggio.  Although they have never received much respect from bien pensant critics, they were above all masters of self-promotion who did some interesting work.  Ginsberg’s Howl is compelling, especially in the first section. Along with “April is the cruelest month”, the most well-known line of English language poetry in the twentieth century is probably, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.”  Allen Ginsberg died in 1997 with a net worth of about three million dollars.
I confess to a fondness for Jack Kerouac, who died out-of-print and poor living in his mother’s house. Today, however, his estate has risen to ten million dollars.  His chronicle of alcoholic deterioration in Big Sur is both repugnant and powerful.  And I’ve always suspected that if Dr. Sax had been written in Spanish by a Latin American, it would be honored as a prototype of Magic Realism rather than sneered at as a loony fantasy.
          he Beats valued spontaneity in writing because it seems so authentic.  They dreaded phoniness, the square and plastic lifestyle of the fifties, and had no respect for prosody.  Poetry ought to be improvised—like jazz.  But improvisation depends on those endless hours of practice that make it seem off-the-cuff.  Some of the Beats knew that; many didn’t have the patience or genuine devotion to the craft.
          Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Book Store in San Francisco (still in business) was a shrine to which I made frequent pilgrimages in my youth.  And Ferlinghetti’s—classic?—A Coney Island of the Mind, published in 1958, remains in print, having sold well over a million copies.  My old copy is now the color of weak tea.  Here’s a riff from “Junkman’s Obbligato”:
        Let’s go
        Come on
        Let’s go
        Empty out our pockets
        and disappear.
        Missing all our appointments
        and turning up unshaven
        years later
        old cigarette papers
        stuck to our pants
        leaves in our hair.
          A clear allusion to W.B. Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” places the poem in atradition, although some critics considered the Beats virtually illiterate.  We recognize at once an anti-establishment attitude—in-your-face, but having a good time, upbeat rather than beaten down.  The call for freedom anticipates the Hippy dictum to tune in, turn on, and drop out.  Better to be a bum than a corporate clone.  An intentional oral quality, even on paper, almost insists that we read it aloud—to jazz accompaniment, of course.
          Black Mountain was a college in North Carolina.  Bankrupt from the beginning and finally shut down by the tax man after a twenty year run, it nevertheless attracted a who’s who of the avante garde to its faculty.  Names like Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage give the flavor.  It also featured many experimental poets who formed not so much a school as a school yard with all its motley and rivalries: Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and so on. 
           Beats were anecdotal; Black Mountain poets tended to be philosophical, historical—the children of Ezra Pound, raised on his Cantos.  But both shared contempt for academia.  Charles Olson was the theorist with his concept of Projective Verse.  He wrote that (caps. in the original, just in case you were nodding off): “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION.”  This is also known as composition by Open Field.  The poet takes whatever comes and builds on it just as a bird building a nest uses whatever it happens to find that seems applicable but not necessarily related to anything else.  In the end, hopefully, everything is connected in the sense that it’s all an integral part of one nest. The master of this method, however, isn’t Olson, but (Bakersfield’s own) Robert Duncan—a poet well worth reading, although he can be precious and difficult to follow.
          These poets expanded the poem in several directions at once.  But also associated with the Black Mountain group were poets who moved in the opposite direction, paring their work down to haiku-like essentials.  Robert Creeley is representative:
        Love comes quietly,
        finally, drops
        about me, on me,
        in the old ways.

        What did I know
        thinking myself
        able to go
        alone all the way.
Very sophisticated handling of simple language, balanced and elegant.  Not at all Beat.  And here’s a taste of Robert Duncan, not easy to quote briefly, but we can get an impression of his more abstract concerns:
        Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
        as if it were a given property of the mind
        that certain bounds hold against chaos.

          The Beats broke with the establishment over style and content; the Confessional poets rebelled against established tone and decorum.  Both represented yet another swing of the pendulum, this time from Classic back to Romantic—from Mandarin to Vernacular as Cyril Connolly puts it.  Or, to use Nietzsche’s dichotomy, from Apollo to Dionysus.
           Although they might insist in a formal interview that the “I” in their poetry was a persona and not necessarily personal, everyone knew they were saying: “This is me and this is how I feel.”  From then on, the ex-spouses of poets could expect the abuse always suffered by those who had gone through a bad divorce from a novelist.  Although the prosody is similar, it’s a long way emotionally from John Crowe Ransom to W.D. Snodgrass.  Ransom’s “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” is lyrical, restrained, austere and a bit grand in mourning the dead girl in “her brown study/Lying so primly propped.”   Snodgrass’ seminal confessional cycle, “Heart’s Needle” (1959), still very readable, is less prudent about revealing the poet’s pain caused by losing his daughter through divorce.  The poem ends with a typical shared custody visit to the zoo:
        If I loved you, they said, I’d leave
           and find my own affairs.
        Well, once again this April, we’ve
           come around to the bears;

        punished and cared for, behind bars,
           the coons on bread and water
        stretch thin black fingers after ours.
           And you are still my daughter.
Confessional poetry is essentially domestic drama.  In fact, many of the first person voices, both male and female, are—well, to avoid the sexism of Queen—outright Drama Royals.  And if Sylvia Plath isn’t an example, the term has no meaning.  Famously, in “Daddy,” she spews:
        There’s a stake in your fat black heart
        And the villagers never liked you.
        They are dancing and stamping on you.
        They always knew it was you.
        Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
           The spectrum is broad, of course, from deeply moving psychological insights into family relationships to self-pity and plain whining.  Robert Lowell spans the entire range himself.  Life Studies (1959) remains the watermark, unmatched.  No one gives specific detail a universal resonance like he does.  Everyone has learned from Lowell just as an earlier generation studied under W.H. Auden.  But toward the end of his career, he produced a lot of self-indulgent blather.  It’s hard to argue that there hasn’t been an embarrassing decline from “Skunk Hour” to “Dolphin.”  And yet, having said this, I must admit that Lowell’s last book, published the year he died, Day By Day (1977), is becoming a personal favorite:
        If I could go through it all again,
        the slender iron rungs of growing up,
        I would be as young as any,
        a child lost
        in reality and loud music.
          Nevertheless, Confessionalism is still a powerful temptation to poets, especially the young who naturally focus on such matters.  It is more common in the literary journals than any other style, waiting for a fresh approach to make its way through the writing workshops.
         Deep Image poetry is, as it ought to be if its name is relevant, enigmatic, difficult to define. It seems to be a great grandchild of French surrealism that grew up in the Latin American branch of the family.  These poets were less doctrinaire, more organic.  The earlier surrealism was almost intentional: the synesthetic scrambling of the senses that Rimbaud called for; the unlikely but calculated juxtapositions such as Magritte’s train engine emerging from a fireplace.  The Spanish-speaking surrealist imagery (on both sides of the Atlantic) was more dreamlike and at the same time more natural.  Those were poets of the coffee plantation rather than the intellectualized coffee sippers of West Bank cafes.  Robert Bly’s translations of Lorca, Jimenez, Neruda, Machado, Vallejo and others were central to the development of the movement.
          Generally, Deep Image poets tended to be rural rather than urban.  Some of the most influential, such as Bly and James Wright, were Midwesterners whose poems arose from their native landscape.   And many of their acolytes, for that reason perhaps, also found inspiration in their own regions, especially the Northwest and far West.
           Classic Chinese poetry was also influential, a characteristic shared with the Beats.  Somehow in those ancient poems, a simple presentation of nature or a commonplace human contact resonate in a way that is often hard to explain.  Jungian psychology was another influence with its concepts of archetypes and the collective unconscious, which provided a rationale for how personal images might somehow communicate.  Original Imagism presented the thing itself in uncluttered language: Pound’s “petals on a wet black bough” remains the textbook example.  Deep Image poetry is—well, deep.  It’s sources are in the subconscious instead of the physical world.

          Rather than attempt a complete critical definition, perhaps it would be more useful to provide some examples because, ultimately, Deep Image poetry isn’t a matter of analysis as much as intuition.  These snippets were grabbed at random from my bookshelves:
        Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
        like a snowflake falling on water.
            (Ted Kooser)
        The weeping in the pueblos of the lily
        Or the dark tears in the shacks of the corn
            (Robert Bly)
        So it is evening
        with the rain starting to fall forever.
            (W.S. Merwin)
        At night I am a jar of fireflies dying
            (Gregory Orr)
        It is dusk,
        It is the good darkness
        Of women’s hands that touch loaves
            (James Wright)
And here is a perfect example, complete—Charles Wright’s “Death”:
        I take you as the moon rising,
        Darkness, black moth the light burns up in.
In short, you know it when you see it.  And as Duke Ellington once said when asked to define jazz: “If you have to ask, you’ll probably never know.”

          Of course, these  ingredients didn’t account for the entire witch’s brew of the fifties and sixties.  The Modernists were passing away—Wallace Stevens in 1955 and William Carlos Williams in 1963, both winning Pulitzers in the last year of their lives.  Robert Frost published In the Clearing on his 88th birthday, ten months before his death.  The Academics, so-called, hadn’t yet retired from their tenured professorships, having produced more criticism than poetry.  And New York City was its own cauldron.  All three of these styles represent a reaction against current standards: a well-crafted poem laced with irony and ambiguity that almost seems to have been written to be analyzed by critics. And in addition to all of  this, there were as always outliers and sui generis voices.  One of these—coming to our subject at last—was L.E. Sissman.
          Ed Sissman represented everything the Beats despised.  One dust jacket photo shows him glowering through the rainy window of a commuter train. Horn rim glasses, pipe clamped in his jaw, he looks as if he’d been sent by central casting to do a bit part as a gray flannel ghost, “unhandsome, awkward, pale.”  Nor as a Boston advertising executive would he get much respect from academe.  His imagery was based on observations of mainstream society, not the deep subconscious.  He was concerned with everyday life in midcentury, middle America, portrayed without excessive angst or anger. Confessional poetry is also middle class for the most part, but Sissman accepts the norms as normal and leaves the skeletons alone in their closets.
His first book, Dying: An Introduction (1968), is filled with life, characterized by cheerfulness.  His persona is a young man at college wearing “white bucks aged to grey” and in the real world; dorm rooms and boarding houses, clumsy attempts at seduction and even clumsier successes.  He writes in blank verse, pentameter couplets, and rhymed stanzas.  He is often whimsical, not light but in no sense dark.  We might use the term vers de societe at the high end of the genre, more like Pope’s “Rape of the Lock” than something by Sissman’s  contemporary, Ogden Nash (if anyone remembers him).
           Most of the poems move along in a workmanlike fashion without much verbal pyrotechnics.  But now and then, Sissman does toss a firecracker.  A man in a vaudeville audience watches a dancer (presumably Sissman’s mother in her late teens) “through two-power pearl Zeiss glasses, in a glow/ of carbon arc limelight;” the walls of an abandoned orphanage are “an archive of curses;” a zoological museum exhibits “mastodons like muddy busses.”
           Oddly, there is nothing much throughout the collection that seems relevant to the title of the book until, second to last, we come to the title poem itself, “Dying: An Introduction.” In this cycle, Sissman’s pentameter decorum shatters into broken lines of free verse, as if a shock has left him struggling to say anything at all.  And yet, as the narrator arrives at his doctor’s office on an autumn day (of course!) that still clings to summer, we get his usual social context in the waiting room—the other patients, the reading matter, the receptionist, a mythical death figure, the “Ugly Miss Erebus.” The doctor finds a lump, “probably nothing, but…” A biopsy is taken a few days later, which when the report comes in, “turns out to end in –oma.”  In the final section, Sissman takes his diagnosis (with the doctor’s too-glib-to-believe hopeful prognosis) out into the world.  “Although November by the clock,” everything seems like spring. College girls pass by giggling and couples lean “together like an A.”  He sees everything now through his “Invisible new veil/ Of finity” as life affirming.  Winter doesn’t look somber anymore, “But as green/ As anything:/ As spring.”  Like Everyman in this situation, Sissman suddenly realizes what really matters.
          And there is no time to waste.  His second book, Scattered Returns, appeared a year later and begins where the first left off, only more so, with “A Deathplace”:
        Very few people know where they will die,
        But I do: in a brick-faced hospital…
He goes on to imagine surgery to remove a “malignant plum” and then his own death:
        I’ll feel my blood go thin, go white, the red,
        The rose all leached away, and I’ll go dead.
He describes his body being rolled on a cart to the morgue where it remains in cold storage until a man from the mortuary
        Will call for me and troll me down the hall
        And slot me into his black car.  That’s all.
This is strong stuff, you could say morbid; you can imagine Sylvia Plath relishing it.  And Anne Sexton.  And as a death poem, it is a long way from Ransom’s “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter.”
          The book is divided into two sections. In the first, “Scattered Returns”, there is an almost manic randomness.  Sissman’s attention flits over everything he notices and settles briefly on just about anything.  He walks the streets of former immigrant neighborhoods now filled with hippies, “smugly fixed
        On the next vein of pleasure to be tapped
        (Pill, body, bottle, music, pain, or speed)
        At unencumbered will, at instant need.
He watches floats in a WWI veterans’ parade in which “the old V-8
        Hispano-Suiza swings the hickory screws
        So slowly you can see them, like the fans
        On soda-parlor ceilings.
The young have no awareness of death; the old try to keep it at bay with memories.  He writes about taking baths, arty women, Greenwich Village in all seasons over twenty years, vacations on the beach from which people return to work like “retrogressing lemmings”—you name it.  It’s as if Sissman wants to observe everything around him while he still has time.  His Bucket List comprises nothing exotic or distant, but those quotidian scenes we tend to ignore—those of us not aware, minute by minute, that we are dying.
          The second section of the book, “War Requiem,” is a tour de force, a long cycle of thirty two poems in blank verse that cover the years from 1929 (a year after Sissman’s birth) to 1969.  He meditates on many significant events in his own life, but also includes those Where-were-you-when? moments we all remember: Chamberlain returning from Munich, the death of FDR, General MacArthur’s tickertape parade, the assassination of JFK. It is a pointillistic mural emphasizing violence and death, including civilian reflections on four wars: the Spanish Civil War, WWII (Sissman was a teenager),  the Korean Conflict, and Vietnam.     Ultimately, he views life in the USA in the twentieth century as
        …a new social contract of surreal
        Withdrawal and avoidance, an absurd
        Theatre without end and without word.
           The third and final book Sissman published before his death is Pursuit of Honor (1971). Now he is a man who knows something most of us don’t.  Turning forty in 1968, he is still wearing a suit and tie among “boots, beards, jeans, granny glasses.” One of the few major poets of his generation who never let his hair grow long, he is hopelessly square (and not ashamed of it), bemused by hip culture.  But he is alert to how quickly fresh youth can stress into early aging. Glamorous-sounding lives turn out to be tawdry up close.  Old people merely go through the motions. Understandably, the mood is often much darker than in his earlier work.  At times, he sings “angry songs/ Of vengeful, mutinous futility.”  Then, he admits, “Sheepish, revenant,/ I crept back into life as into much/ Too large a pair of pants.”  It was hard to keep Sissman down. In the title sequence, “Pursuit of Honor,” he chronicles his comical journey to New York during the summer in an attempt to seduce Honor, a Radcliffe girl who—shall we say, saw him coming.

    Louis Edward Sissman was born and raised in Detroit, the only child of parents who reduced expenses by living on the premises of their small business.  Typically, he spent a lot of time alone, reading and occupying himself with many hobbies.  He was friendly, but never really a close friend.  Anyone who  has ever heard of Sissman knows that he won the National Spelling Bee and was a Quiz Kid on the popular radio program.  In fact, he appeared only once, winner of a competition to represent Detroit on a traveling version of the show.  He always felt that he had been exploited, forced into these activities because he was something of a prodigy, although he was too shy to enjoy them.

           He arrived at Harvard at the age of sixteen and standing six feet four.  Two years later he was expelled for some sort of malfeasance, but returned after spending some time working at odd jobs and gaining maturity.  He graduated a year late in 1949, elected as the Class Poet.  Fellow students John Ashberry and Frank O’Hara, future progenitors of the New York School, rolled their eyes.  Once more he drifted into dead end employment, even selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door, until he finally went to work for an advertising agency—and liked it.  In time, he became creative director for a major firm in Boston.  Along the way, he stopped writing poetry, having failed to get anywhere with it, and did not begin again until the early sixties.

          Then, in the autumn of 1965, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The progress in treatment that had been made by that time gave him ten more years.  He didn’t waste them.  Nevertheless, death claimed him in 1976.  Two years later, the Atlantic Monthly Press released Hello Darkness: the Collected Poems of L.E. Sissman, edited by Peter Davison (the source of the quotations used here.)  It’s a thick book, and the poems themselves are dense, often long cycles—all written between 1963 and 1974.  In addition to the three collections we have discussed, there is a section of posthumous poems, varied as usual in content and tone.  But it’s the final section, titled by Sissman himself as “Hello, Darkness,” that is truly memorable.   

           Sissman’s poetry is always personal, although he tends to observe himself from the outside, usually in a social context, rather than to analyze emotions or seek subconscious sources.  But in this group of five poems, he is as open as any Confessional poet, playing for keeps, restrained only by the strictures of formal verse. These are medical poems dealing with procedures, hospitalization and, ultimately, the process of dying.  They are emotionally raw and powerful.  In the first, “Negatives,” he portrays himself as an x ray image, the moonlike skull, ribs gleaming like aluminum, his hand “like a white batwing/ Caught in a strobe.”  This is followed by a poem dated “December 27, 1966” that describes a night sweat (“—a classic symptom—“) and the feverish chills that shake him: “The unrepairable complaint that rattles us/ To death”  A sleepless nightwatchman waiting for death to come, all he can do—like poets have since Sir Philip Sidney—is to meditate on the rising moon. It seems so beautiful to him, “So ladily serene because so dead,” that his suffering is almost worth it just to be awake to see it once more.

           “Homage to Clotho: A Hospital Suite” refers to the first of the three Fates of Greek mythology, she who spins the thread of life.  The title is perhaps ironic, if not sarcastic, because all around him the third Fate, Atropos, is cutting the threads that Lachesis has stretched out to various lengths.  His, of course, is much too short. “Nowhere is all around us” he begins, stating baldly the fact that all the faux cheerfulness and pastel decor of contemporary hospitals can’t disguise.  We see the “bare stretchers that gape for commerce,” hear a woman, a hospital friend of his, “Shrilling her bosun’s whistle, piping Death.”  He finds that being alone with his dark thoughts at night is much better than lying in bright daylight, surrounded by giggly student nurses while he cries out in pain he can’t control as a needle extracts marrow from his pelvis bone.  Then comes “the young man/ With his snake-handler’s fist of catheters.”  At the end of all this, we almost feel that death is easier to face than all of the humiliations that go along with medical attempts to save us.

           But the nights are long, a sort of practice for that endless night he knows is coming.  And the medications dripping into him from so many tubes do strange things to body and mind.  In the fourth poem, “Cancer: A Dream,” he details a half asleep, half awake hallucination.  He seems to be a minor character in a film in which the “rabble of old props” of his fading life is jumbled together with medical apparatuses, in which medical personnel become stage hands with clip boards summoning him to his next and perhaps final performance—on the center stage.

           The last poem is “Tras Os Montes,” Portuguese for beyond the mountains.  There are three sections.  In the first, we witness the death of Sissman’s mother, dated 1973.  She had been a vaudeville dancer as a young woman, admired for her good legs. But “Of little, less is left/ When we leave: a stick figure of a once/ Quite formidable personage.”  In the second section, we come to the death of his father in 1974, who spent his last few days at Sissman’s home “In his ashen cocoon.”  The final section deals with Sissman’s own death, dated 197-.  We know that it too was written in ’74, the last year in which he was able to write poetry and two years before he died.  Again we have three subsections. In the first, he parts with friends, thankful that the dawn is behind him so that they can’t see his tears.  Next, he takes “a long last walk” with his wife, Anne, as a storm gathers in the distance:
    …I fix your face with a wax smile.
    Our hands articulate our oneness, soon
    To dissipate, in a stiff splay of joints.
These sections are subtitled “In Company” and “A Deux.”   The end of the poem is called “Alone” and in this passage, Sissman takes that long march from his “old country, humankind” across the mountains, past the “deepening scarps/ Like brain fissures” to where the self “falls headlong in/ The darkness of the dust it is part of.” 
And then comes the last word: “FINIS.”

           L.E. Sissman never fit in with the misfits; he was a businessman rather than a bohemian.  His poetry was too restrained for the most part to attract advocates of Confessionalism, too buttoned down for the Beats, too concerned with the particulars of everyday life to satisfy Deep Image poets.  But in the end, he was as autobiographical, as trenchant, as deep as any of them.  And he was always himself.  Sissman stood apart from every school of postwar American poetry, facing death too young with courage, poise, and humor:
        …the lost boy in the burning
        Building of bone—the fat being in the fire—



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Copyright 2018, Levan Humanities Review