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Thursday
Apr142011

1997

Effort at Speech: New & Selected Poems     

By William Meredith

Original and Current Publisher: Triquarterly

Scott Challener writes:

A Stranger in a Thousand Particulars

When William Meredith died in May of 2007, Andrew Rosenheim wrote in The Independent that “If there is such a thing as an American poetry establishment, William Meredith was at its heart, and he is in danger of becoming known for whom he knew, rather than for what he wrote.” I wonder if all of this statement is true. Meredith’s particular genius, as his former student Michael Collier observed, was the genius of friendship. And friendship, Meredith showed, is not who you know but how you know them. He knew by loving. In a letter to John Berryman he confessed, “The only thing I don’t envy is the hard way you have gone about being a great poet,” and then quickly hedged: “But even that perverse and roundabout way is inextricable from the man and work I love.” Meredith’s work is no different: the best poems are not so much an extension of his character (the quality in them Lowell saw and praised so highly) but the making of character. They think and feel through ways of knowing and loving that depend on friendship.

In Emerson’s classification, Meredith was a friend of his friends’ thoughts, not their buttons. Friend of the thoughts of Auden, Berryman, Frost, Maxine Kumin, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Muriel Rukeyser, Robert Penn Warren, and Richard Wilbur, among others, Meredith came to see himself as a kind of Trelawny-figure (the beloved friend of Shelley and Byron). In a letter to Robert Penn Warren, Meredith wrote that the biggest problem in judging someone else’s work lies in getting rid of one’s own style. Meredith seems to have solved this problem again and again, which is all the more remarkable when one considers that his friends were some of the country’s best poets: he was being asked to distinguish the very good from the great, and he excelled at such distinctions without losing the good faith of his friends.

At the same time, ambivalences animate many of the poems Meredith dedicated to his friends, and nearly all of them encourage us to read them as quarrels, often at least in part about differences in style: unlike Meredith, many of his friends stood on the other side of decorum. Meredith’s elegy for John Berryman, “In Loving Memory of the Late Author of Dream Songs,” is a case in point: “Friends making off ahead of time / on their own, I call that willful, John, / but that’s not judgment, only argument” it begins. After Meredith calls his friend “fastidious John of the gross disguises,” he writes “…suicide is a crime / and…wives and children deserve better than this. / None of us deserved, of course, you.” Then he asks:

Do we wave back now, or what do we do?
You were never reluctant to instruct.
I do what’s in character. I look for things
to praise on the riverbanks and I praise them.
We are all relicts, of some great joy, wearing black,
but this book is full of marvelous songs.
Don’t let us contract your dread recidivism
and start falling from our own iron railings.
Wave from the fat book again, make us wave back.

Over the course of several weeks in January and February of 1970 Berryman asked Meredith what he thought of a new clutch of poems (probably part of his last book, Delusions, Etc.). In a well-known letter, Meredith said he had “misgivings”:

I don’t need to add golden numbers to golden numbers: I’m on record privately and publicly as thinking you are the living end, the cat’s pyjamas, and an uncommonly good and generous friend. My bizarre response, then, to this chapter of our friendship is to write you this scoutmaster’s advice about the virtues of self-reliance, self-criticism (‘but take one virtue, without which a man can hardly hold his own: that a man should always reproach himself’) and patience. Don’t it make you sick, when a friend talks to you like that?

Meredith comes off as congenial, generous, funny, self-aware, flirtatious, endearing, and optimistic, and yet before this paragraph he shares serious reservations: “The new poems do not please me as much as the poems of yours I’ve got used to seeing,” he writes, calling their narrative “unsophisticated” and their material unimaginative, “diary-raiding rather than fantasy.”

Meredith’s response invites us to think of him as one of Emerson’s “unknown friends”—the audience for which Emerson said all great poets write—and to think of Meredith’s best poems, whether they elegize, quarrel, remember, or describe, as acts of friendship. In “Parents,” the only poem Meredith rated an ‘A,’ parents are “friends who become our enemies”:

                                    Everything
they do is wrong, and the worst thing, 

they all do it, is to die,
taking with them the last explanation,

how we came out of the wet sea
or wherever they got us from,

taking the last link
of that chain with them.

For Meredith, friendship wasn’t limited to the famous poets he knew—it included not only parents, but also, more importantly, people he would never know. I think it is true for most of us that reading and friendship are alike in the illiteracy they require, whether we call it with Coleridge a suspension of disbelief or with Meredith a relinquishment of style. What makes Meredith special is his willingness to subsume the act of writing to this illiteracy, too. When we read a poem as unknown friends, as Meredith points out in his two addresses as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, we become what all poets and critics are: readers who “look at the work as if it were more interesting than themselves.” If it is true that every truly new poem must tutor its readers in how to read it, then it is also true that all readers are illiterate before a truly new poem.

“The reason for a new poem is, in some essential, a new reason,” Meredith wrote. “The Illiterate,” probably Meredith’s most famous poem, in many ways enacts this reasoning, since although neither friends nor friendship are mentioned in name as they are in many of the later poems and dedications, the friend who is lover is powerfully present in the poem’s enigmatic first phrase.

Touching your goodness, I am like a man
Who turns a letter over in his hand
And you might think this was because the hand
Was unfamiliar but, truth is, the man
Has never had a letter from anyone;
And now he is both afraid of what it means
And ashamed because he has no other means
To find out what it says than to ask someone.

His uncle could have left the farm to him,
Or his parents died before he sent them word,
Or the dark girl changed and want him for beloved.
Afraid and letter-proud, he keeps it with him.
What would you call his feeling for the words
That keep him rich and orphaned and beloved?

“The illiterate is a type of the poet because he cannot or will not make words disappear into easy instrumentality, will not take them for granted,” Linda Gregerson observes. He is also a type of the friend for similar reasons.

In its final lines “The Illiterate” returns us to the primacy of the feeling for the words, not the words themselves. It is this feeling that Meredith translates so excellently in the poem, paradoxically, by not translating it at all. “The Illiterate” stands against the assumption that prior knowledge or knowledge external to the world of the poem alone will allow one “access” to the poem, and against the kind of conscientious reading that makes a singular meaning or interpretation—“what the poem means”—primary. In fourteen lines it makes us attend to the highways and byways in which words mean and are means, in which we keep them and their personal meanings near to ourselves until we are kept by them.

 “To a great heart,” Emerson wrote, a friend “will be a stranger in a thousand particulars, that he may come near in the holiest ground.” Meredith’s sonnet is perhaps the greatest poem about becoming this amicable stranger. His work, taken as a whole, feels to me like a testament to this labor of estrangement and approximation. It is born out of a tradition born of great friendships—the kind of friendships on which much great literature depends—and of a deep, abiding belief in belief—the difficult kind of belief only great friendships can sustain. The sage also wrote: “The only way to be a friend is to have one,” and we who are lucky in friends, as in poems, know it. 

Scott Challener teaches writing in Boston University’s Writing Program and Metropolitan College and Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies, and he volunteers for PEN New England’s Prison Writing Program and 826 Boston. He holds an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers. His work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Narrative Magazine, The Rumpus, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. (Photo credit: Thomas Gearty)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • John Balaban for Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems
  • Frank Bidart for Desire
  • Sarah Lindsay for Primate Behavior
  • Marilyn Nelson for The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems

Poetry Judges that Year: Red Chappell, Michael Harper, Li-Young Lee, Mona Van Duyn, Rosanna Warren

The Year in Literature:

  • Alive Together: New and Selected Poems by Lisel Mueller won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Robert Pinsky was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Other Information:

  • William Meredith (1919-2007) was born in New York, NY.     
  • When Meredith was at Princeton he wrote his senior thesis on Robert Frost.

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