Thursday, July 06, 2006

L. E. Sissman

I read Anthony Hecht's poem "To L. E. Sissman, 1928-1976" week before last (in his Collected Later Poems, a magisterial, in both senses of the word, volume) without knowing who the dead dedicatee is, and promptly forgot the name though not the poem. On a trip to the local secondhand bookstore here in Brooklyn Heights, I picked up Sissman's first volume of poems, Dying: An Introduction, because of its beguiling use of meter. After reading and enjoying most of it, I was surprised to find the same name topping Hecht's poem to which I returned, Later.

Here's a section showing how Hecht praises Sissman's poetry:

Dear friend, whose poetry of Brooklyn flats
And poker sharps broacasts the tin pan truths
Of all our yesterdays, speaks to our youths
In praise of both Wallers, Edmund and Fats,

And will be ringing in some distant ear
Whem the Mod-est, last immodesty fatigues,
All Happenings have happened, the Little Leagues
Of Pop and pop-fly poets disappear

To join with all their perishable lines
The Edsel, Frug, beau monde of Buzzard's Gulch,
The wisdom and the wit of Raquel Welch,
"And connoisseurs of California wines."

How quickly Hecht moves from Sissman's poetry to a a Parnassian dismissal of Pop poetry is breathtaking indeed. I do enjoy the punning "Brooklyn flats" and "poker sharps" and the turn of phrase in "ringing in some distant ear." What about the man himzelf, Sissman?

It's hard to extract something good from Dying because most of the poems achieve their effect through narrative drama and psychological shading. His imagery does not dazzle or puzzle. His narrative poems are written in supple blank verse or heroic couplets; the few lyrics showcase a beautiful mastery of stanzaic form. He is heavily influenced by Larkin and Eliot (heh, my heroes too!). The first poem, "Going Home" has a Larkin epigraph: "Home is so sad. It stays as it was left...," and the penultimate poem, the title poem, another line from the Lark: "Always too eager for future, we/Pick up bad habits of expectancy." But Sissman does not have the cynical world-weariness of the Lark; his spirit, though humorous and witty, is mild and meek. For me, his most moving and successful (are the two the same?) poem in this collection is the Eliotically titled "Sweeney to Mrs Porter in the Spring." The poem reveals as great an empathy for women as its referee's antipathy. The extract begins in the middle of stanza 4. Splendid is the name of the bar, where Mrs Porter waits for Sweeney to join her: "Just look at Mrs Porter

Preparing to unfold,
In the dark bar, a letter from her daughter,

A beauty operator in Ladue,
And to remasticate the lovely tale
Of ranch and Pontiac, washed down with ale
Cold from the Splendid bowels, while waiting for
Her unrefined but true
Love's shape to shade the frosted-glass front door.

(skip a stanza)

She, like a pile of black rugs, stirs to hear
His two-tone horn just outside, heralding
The coming of both Sweeney and the spring.
Inside, he greets her as before, "Hi Keed,"
While Wilma lays his beer
and whiskey down between them and gets paid.

His knotty fingers, tipped with moons of dirt,
Lock on the shot of Seagram's, which he belts
And chases with a swig of Knick. Nobody else
Could comfort them except their old selves, who
Preserve, worn but unhurt,
The common knowledge of a thing or two

They did together under other moons.
Now the Splendid night begins again,
Unkinking cares, alleviating pain,
Permitting living memories to flood
This country for old men
With spring, their green tongues speaking from the mud.


L. E. Sissman is born on New Year's Day, 1928, in Detroit....He attended Harvard College, was "thrown out for laziness and insubordination," was readmitted, won the Garrison Poetry Prize, and graduated with honors. He worked at all kinds of jobs, from Fuller Brush salesman to Prentice Hall copyeditor... In due course he entered advertising.... He and his wife live in Still River, Massachusetts (from the back cover of Dying: An Introduction).

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