The Pissing Contest
The life and opinions of David Slavitt, gentleman
By Walker Mimms
It was a bright November afternoon in New England when the Latin students, all five of us, were ushered into the living room of a professor’s campus apartment for the meet-and-greet luncheon with the eminent translator, poet, and novelist. He had just arrived on campus and was scheduled to read from his own work in a few hours at the weekly Literature Evening – but first, a conversation with these bright young classicists about his career in the languages of antiquity. The living room had comfortable seating for receptions like these and just before the guests arrived had been fitted with a buffet of sandwiches, desserts, and coffee.
After the handshakes, once plates were in the laps and cups in the hands of the small group of students and teachers seated opposite him, there was a beat of expectant silence, FULL STORYthe kind that occurs in the presence of greatness. The meeting had been a month or so in the works, and in that month we had all splashed around in the shallow end of his staggering, fifty-year oeuvre, over a hundred books, close to half of them translations. We had read in his “Metamorphoses” the episodes that we had translated for class; one girl had drafted a list of questions about his “De Rerum Natura,” a poem she was writing her thesis on; I had picked through his take on Virgil’s second eclogue, which I was translating for my final.
The host of this meeting, herself an accomplished translator, turned toward our guest and broke the ice with the usual politeness: “Well, it’s a shame we had you visit us at such a dreary time of year. You just missed all the wonderful foliage!”
“The foliage? Why would I want to see leaves? I want to see the trees! When I see a beautiful woman I don’t want to have to imagine her, under all her clothing. I want to see her. Naked!”
Amazement, from all.
It was at this moment that David Slavitt realized he had secured his captive audience. And we, in turn, realized what our Latin professor had told us a week or so earlier, that the man was rumored to be, “well ... prickly.” And if his reputation was for his prickle, he was a true cactus that day at our idyllic liberal arts college, even for the crown jewels of the student body:
Inquiring student 1: I’ve read that you privilege meter and rhyme above other poetic devices?
David Slavitt: Yes, but perhaps we could take off the lab coat, put down the forceps and scalpel, and talk about poetry like we’re not dissecting mice!
Inquiring student 2: Have you ever translated prose?
David Slavitt: Translating prose, one might as well be a writer’s secretary, his bookkeeper! Where’s the art in that?
Inquiring student 2: Then how do you think we should go about reading prose in a foreign language?
David Slavitt: You learn the language!
Inquiring student 3: I was hoping you could say a little about your translation of Lucretius? You see, I’m writing my thesis on –
David Slavitt: There’s nothing to say! I have nothing to say about my translations. My translations are my commentary.
Inquiring student 4: How much has your idea of translation changed since you did your “Eclogues”?
David Slavitt: I wouldn’t call my “Eclogues” translations. I would call them interpretive meditations in the Renaissance tradition.
No one could tell if this was all a big joke. The professors in the room were speechless to interpret him. But not for long: they excused themselves toward the end of the lunch, not without relief, for a mandatory faculty meeting, and we students were left to entertain – or, rather, to be entertained by – Mr. Slavitt.
The rest of the conversation bumbled along in the same fits and starts, but it found the occasional smooth spot. Slavitt was pleased to talk, for instance, about how the “Eclogues” had taught him more about life than the “Aeneid;” or how, when you hit your twenties, you’re already too old for “Look Homeward, Angel,” and by 30, you’re still too young for Proust; or how he taught himself ancient Greek on the 35-minute train commute to and from his first job out of college; or about his Yale class with Robert Penn Warren, which consisted of Warren reading short stories aloud to a group of students sprawled on leather couches. That was the best way to approach the study of literature, he said: on a sofa, over a plate of cucumber sandwiches.
They were impressive stories, told with elegance, warmth, and comedy. And the barking, well, the barking began to amuse – some of us, anyway. Well, me, anyway. What the dialogue above can’t convey is the sense of play it had. This bulldoggish man of letters always teetered quite gracefully on the fence between a bawdy inside joke and complete seriousness. He smiled a lot. He insisted on plain speech. He cracked jokes with us all afternoon, and I think we took them in good humor even if they were all sharp digs at academia, of which we were an undeniable part. Maybe our fall jackets resembled lab coats a little too closely, or our pencils medical instruments.
Comprehensible, in his own voice
The college’s English department had recently received a big endowment to be spent on bringing important poets to campus. And the department was doing a good job of organizing a representative sampling of current American verse. That is to say there were (a) some poets who took sincerely Frost’s dictum that a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom; and then there were (b) some poets who, at the podium, would preface a poem with the information that it had come into being from the poet’s own boredom, or another that it was an “erasure” of one of John Cage’s lectures on “Finnegans Wake”; and there were (c) some poets who had poems about James Franco and selfies; and then there were (d, e, f, and g) a great number of poets who insisted on signaling each line break, sometimes each foot, with the infamous, lofty upward inflection, the affected Poet’s Voice.
My friends and I would take seats together in the sometimes-full lecture hall and stay for the allotted hour, but in most cases we’d sulk off separately, back to our dorms, after hearing someone we found impenetrable and deliberately obscure. We didn’t consider ourselves stewards of contemporary poetry – as for me, I still don’t – but we were serious readers. We were all grateful that important poets, however we ranked them, had been brought within walking distance. And we were all grateful, especially now, for the chance to see Mark Strand’s wonderful reading. But more often than not, after we applauded we would step out into the cold night with little more than the familiar pang of end-times disappointment with the current state of poetry, which, sure, can be the listener’s fault but is unavoidable in some cases and always disheartening for anyone willing to give a poet – or maybe poetry – a fighting chance.
Slavitt’s reading that evening (henceforth his “performance”) nearly caused a riot. The first confusion was that his poetry was comprehensible (not the same as easy). The second was that he knew how to read his poems: he read to you, not above you, in his own voice, taking his time and looking up from his sheaf in a way that suggested he was actually talking to you, which he was.
Here is “The Valve,” one of the openers of the performance:
The one-way flow of time we take for granted,
but what if the valve is defective? What if the threads
on the stem wear thin, or the stuffing box or the bonnet
ring leaks, or the joints to the pipe ring fail,
and there’s a backwash?
And then old loves,
meeting again, have no idea what to do,
resuming or not resuming from where they were
years before. Or the dead come back to chat.
Or you are reduced for a giddy moment to childhood’s
innocent incompetence. You look up
as if to see some hint in the sky’s blackboard.
But then, whatever it was, some fluff or grit
that clogged the works, works free, and again
almost as before, and you try to get on with your life.
The music and grace of the first five lines disguise not a flowing river but a page of the Home Depot catalog as the continuum of time. (How else does time progress if not irrevocably, down a drain?) We continue in a loose iambic, but at the last line the pace somehow skips its way off into something different – the meter suddenly anapestic! – and before we know it, we’ve skipped off differently too, like a pipe unclogged – then done. An effortless display of lyrical muscle, the kind usually saved for the reader, sharpened pencil in hand, ready to read back through and tick off the feet that this piece of fluff or grit has disrupted throughout.
He arranged the performance the way he has said you ought to arrange a book of poems: like a basket of fruit, the ripest on top and some equally good pieces on the bottom for the skeptical house guest. Bookended by subtle and moving poems like “The Valve” and “Yankees,” however, was not filler, to my memory, but the main course: irreverent banter about poetry readings and professors and criticism. He had reloaded since lunch, and his audience had inflated tenfold. I’m not sure how many knew his work, but it’s a small school, and everyone had caught wind of our conversation that afternoon. They were curious about Act II. He now held captive not only his Latinists but also a few rows of the usual attendees, a gaggle of aspiring poets and a good chunk of the English department.
Toward the end there was one for that last group: “The Poem.”
You are about to read a poem,
but the critic comes, austere, a man of authority,
and offers to help you.
You had not supposed that you needed help,
but his tone of voice and his gold-rimmed spectacles
are evidence of his seriousness.
He picks up the poem, sniffs it,
Holds it to the light this way and that,
then he wads it up, puts it in his mouth, and chews it
slowly, contemplatively, and swallows.
You wait for a while as he digests it
and then excretes it.
He offers you a well-formed, not especially malodorous
turd in a blue and white chamber pot.
“This,” he says, “will be better for you.”
If you believe him, you are an English major.
The jeers had erupted by the second stanza, and they flourished well into the pièce de résistance, “One-Word Poem”:
He scanned his audience, locked some eyes, repeated it for us, and, now that the tiresome business of the actual poem was over, announced that we could get to the discussion questions. Here are four of the ten, to be imagined in the voice of a careful oral examiner:
1. “Is this a joke? And, if so, is it a joke of the poet in which the editor of the magazine (or, later, the book publisher or the textbook writers) has conspired? Or is it a joke on the editors and publishers? Is the reader the audience of the poem?”
2. “It is regrettable not to have a mother. Is the purpose of the poem to convey an emotion to the reader? Does the poet suppose that this is the saddest word in the language? Do you agree or disagree? Can you suggest a sadder word?”
4. “If the assertion of a single word as a work of art is not a joke, then what could it mean? Is it a Dada-ist gesture, amusing and cheeky perhaps but with an underlying seriousness that the poet either invites or defies the reader to understand?”
10. “Some poems we have read and some that we particularly like, we memorize. You have already memorized this one. Do you like it better now? Or are the questions part of the poem, so that you have not yet memorized it? Will you, anyway? Do you need to memorize the questions verbatim, or is the idea enough?”
(I was saddened a year or so later to discover a companion poem from the same collection, “William Henry Harrison and Other Poems,” which did not follow in the performance. “Poem Without Even One Word” uses the same formula, but its ten questions, with liberal references to John Cage’s “4’33”” and Rauschenberg’s erasure of a de Kooning drawing, address only a blank space beneath the title.)
The Q & A followed some sputtering claps, though not from the row of creative writing instructors in the back who folded their arms in protest. By now Slavitt was at peak momentum. On his Portuguese translation? Well, he wasn’t a native speaker, of course, but his housemaids who helped him certainly are, and you should see what they do with silver! (Chaos in the crowd.) On Virgil, again: “Augustus should have listened to him. He should have burned the ‘Aeneid’! That boring, pious book!” (Consternation.) Did he like to visit the places that had produced the authors he translated? “Of course not, those places are filled with foreigners who don’t speak English!” (The moderator, standing, falls into the wall behind her in disbelief.)
“In some fundamental aspect,” Slavitt has written, “most intellectual work turns out to be a pissing contest.” This line comes from his essay on Harold Bloom. Slavitt quotes him at random:
A baroque pathos seems to be [Geoffrey] Hill’s goal with the ornateness his tribute to tradition, and the punctuation of pathos his outcry against tradition. Hill’s is clearly a poetics of pain, in which all the calamities of history become so many poetic salutes, so many baroque meditations, always trapped in a single repetition of realization ...
You get the idea.
The topic of Slavitt’s essay may be an often-opaque celebrity critic, but what he’s really writing about, what he was really performing for us that day, is the pleasure principle. Poetry pleases us. What else can we ask of it? Why even talk about it?
It’s hyperbolic, of course. But there is still something sinful about the disassembly and discussion of beauty. And sooner or later, some overachiever will come along and squeeze Christian imagery out of a Rothko painting. Slavitt took aim at a well-meaning college, with professors about as unpedantic as they come, but it didn’t matter. His target was synecdochical. Any college could have stood in for The Academy, complete with its toolbelt of diagnoses and interpretations, its antiseptic, anapestic scalpels, its tracts on the baroqueness of pathos. All he had to do was stand in for The Poem. Not that he hasn’t been The Critic in his life – he has written countless book reviews, numerous essays on poets, a book-length study of Virgil, prefaces to each of his translations, which reveal a fluency with the literary-historical climate of the ... But that wasn’t the role he was playing that day.
My memory has shelved Slavitt’s performance next to my reading of “Tristram Shandy,” another literary circus wacky enough to repel some of its own ticket buyers. That book hurt its fair share of feelings. In 1760, a gag in the first volume involving the winding of a clock and sexual intercourse elicited a sulfuric little pamphlet called “The Clockmakers’ Outcry Against the Author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.” And 255 years later, in 2015, my request for an email address elicited a polite but firm message from the coordinator of these events that she had wiped her files clean of Mr. Slavitt’s contact information
But to return to Bloom: What happens when the critic glances upstream, only to recognize the very subject of his treatise, legs spread, with his own fly unzipped? You get either Slavitt’s discussion questions or a manifesto of the recent “conceptual poetics” movement. One year separates the two. Can you tell the difference?
Conceptual writing is more interested in a thinkership rather than a readership. Readability is the last thing on this poetry’s mind. Conceptual writing is good only when the idea is good; often, the idea is much more interesting than the resultant text.
A strong misreading of a poem, Bloom has famously pronounced, is itself a new poem. Well, why not skip the middleman? Why bother with the words when it’s the idea that counts? The result: a book-length transcription of the complete AM radio traffic coverage from an especially congested 24 hours on the Brooklyn Bridge, which the author (also author of this manifesto) was kind enough to explain to his audience at the White House before he excerpted it for the 2011 presidential poetry reading. Never mind the words, but how does it compare to Hart Crane’s poem of the same bridge? To Whitman’s of the Brooklyn ferry?
Who can piss farther? You or the poet? On your mark, get set –
All this and more were fixed in the crosshairs of Slavitt’s performance. Like Sterne’s masterpiece, for those diligent enough to stay with him, Slavitt’s intentions were serious and humane, even vital. Slavitt’s hour of poetry pleaded for the beauty and pleasure of the written word, and his afternoon of hijinks fought against the pissing contestants who contort them, poet and critic alike. Fogeyish? Maybe. Prickly? Oh, certainly. But for this contestant, who has heard one too many poets describe inscrutable verse with, “I write what you would call Difficult Poetry,” my afternoon with this profound and pleasurable writer refreshed my faith in the poem and sparked in me a serious interest in his ocean of work. And the further I wade into it, the deeper the origins of that performance seem to run.
Pay attention to the poems
The very beginning is a telling place to start.
Before the book reviews and professional criticism, fifty-five years before his performance for us, there was a master’s thesis. On his prep school mentor, the poet and classicist Dudley Fitts. Slavitt looks back, if not with shame, at least with a serious cringe, for that essay. In a recent reminiscence he quotes more than enough to catch a glimpse of the lab coat:
The referential technique that pervades the poetry ... is another part of this “new writing,” for by implication it equates literature, words, and language with what might be called primary experience ...
It’s not preposterous, not wrong, but it certainly gets uncomfortable. Slavitt had studied with Fitts at Andover, then went to Yale where his talents were assumed (“You’re one of Fitts’s boys,” his professors would say). There he debated, published his first poems, and spent his final year as a Scholar of the House, a now-defunct program that exempted the brightest seniors from classes and exams and allowed them to write.
From there he landed at Columbia for an MA. Even if he didn’t count himself a contestant, a master’s degree certainly threatens its candidate with urological competitiveness. I think he’s so squeamish about the Fitts essay now because his subject, the first person to take him seriously as a writer, was dear to him, and his intentions were pure, but the requisite academic surgery wasn’t. “I wish the kid would shut up,” he says, reading his former self, “and just pay attention to the poems.”
A year of teaching at Georgia Tech sealed the deal. He changed course completely and took up in the mail room at Newsweek. By the end of his seven years there, he was writing the film page, with a weekly readership of about eight million. “I got to like the routine of absorbing all those movies and then at the end of the week squeezing my brain like a sponge to turn out the reviews.” He averaged about 60 lines in 20 minutes. It was an essentially frivolous livelihood, he soon admitted, to wake up, put on a suit, and take the train with the rest of the businessmen, only to go see “The Sound of Music” or “The Birds.” But the reviews were anonymous, which engendered a certain bravery, and he got to goof off. “Austria: The Last Golden Days of the Thirties,” is how he opened a panning of the former movie, the advance screening of which he had to sneak into in a ski mask, having been banned from Fox screenings for some similar naughtiness. And he didn’t even wait till print to pan the latter, which, over breakfast, he told Hitchcock he hated.
Above it as he was, this work taught Slavitt two lessons that would shape the rest of his career: how to write for everybody and how to write quickly. Plus, all the while he had been actually writing. He quit Newsweek in 1965 and put out his second book of poetry, “The Carnivore,” which was well received. Even at this stage his poems show his imaginativeness and his talent for unpacking minute, everyday experience.
Asbestos book covers
In 1967, Bernard Geis Associates, the pulp publishers behind “The Valley of the Dolls” and “Sex and the Single Girl,” approached Slavitt about doing a book, presumably on the strength of his first novel, “Rochelle, or Virtue Rewarded.” He figured his poetry royalties to be about $2 a year, so he opted for the mountain of cash, on the condition he could use a pen name. He chose Henry Sutton, after a printer’s apprentice Walt Whitman was fond of, and started work on a raunchy Hollywood coming-of-age story.
It took him about three months to write the first draft of “The Exhibitionist.” And it sold four million copies.
He had made it exceptionally dirty – not just sex, but lesbian sex! and incest! A spat ensued between Geis and his associates before it was even sent to print. Bennett Cerf, one of the founders of Random House and Joyce’s patron saint in “United States v. One Book Called Ulysses,” had announced he wouldn’t touch “The Exhibitionist” with a 40-foot pole. Geis held firm on his new book and lost five partners, including Art Linkletter and Groucho Marx. Geis played up the controversy in a $50,000 ad campaign, taking out glossy fold-outs in the major magazines, holding prize giveaways for the most extravagant bookstore window displays: “‘The Exhibitionist’ is so HOT that for the first time we are featuring asbestos book covers!”
Slavitt’s name was unveiled in the commotion. Either the secret was too delicious or the press opportunity too perfect – either way, he made the announcement himself, and Geis sent him on an eight-week book tour. “A Calculating Poet Behind a Very Gamey Book,” ran the headline in Life, with a full-page photo of Slavitt, reclining, velvet dinner jacket and bowtie, cigarette and cocktail in one hand, eyes closed, deep in thought, savoring ... well, not just financial comfort, but the even sweeter spoils of having gotten away with it.
The press erupted with charges of literary prostitution. A poet – a good poet – had used his powers for ill. There was anger not only for Slavitt-Sutton but for Slavitt himself. Thus Tom Wolfe, on Slavitt’s next serious novel: “Ironically, ‘Feel Free’ lacks exactly the Krazy-Kat verve that occasionally worked in ‘The Exhibitionist’ ... All he needed was to feel free at last – to have a lark, a grand folie, to swing for the fences, to bring up a Henry Sutton roundhouse left from the cheap seats in the service of litterateur David Slavitt.”
Slavitt defended himself in Esquire, and Sutton in The Kenyon Review. His thesis: Wouldn’t you do it? Half a million dollars was a lot of money. It would send his three children to school and support his serious literary endeavors. He also defended the novel. Yes, it contains lines like this: “The hardness of his body in her and the hardness of his body on her roused her to a pitch of excitement which she had never known before.”
And many, many passages, which he took special delight in concocting, like this:
His body was even more beautiful without clothes on. She gazed at him because it was almost as if he had dared her to. There would be no more embarrassment, no more modesty, no more walls between them. She finally understood the beauty of all the statues she had studied in Art 237. His body was a study of planes, angles, and curves which she could appreciate all the more if she looked at him through half-closed eyes.
But to craft a bestseller, he said, took a fair amount of literary responsibility. Which is true. If Jacqueline Susann could do it, why on earth couldn’t he? And as for Cerf, “that wastebasket in tweeds,” why not put out some schlock once in a while – his preferred term – to fund more poetry?
Slavitt kept the pen name, even adopted a few others, and continued the schlock here and there, well into the ’70s. His next Sutton, “The Voyeur,” became the first book advertised on a Times Square billboard.
‘Loved the book’
These not-too-humble beginnings help explain the ballsiness, wit, and enormous ability that characterize the rest of his career. If the elitist poet and classicist could ensnare the grocery store impulse-buyer housewives of suburban America, what could he do with the literati?
Combine this with a personal bitterness toward the publishing industry, which too often rewards salability and gimmicks over literary talent. His later Slavitt books would go on to earn recognition and great respect, and when Garrison Keillor included one of his poems in the bestselling anthology “Good Poems,” the critics nodded and agreed that it was time he became an Important Poet. But it was only the Sutton money that supported him enough to be a writer. In the ’80s, even on the heels of a successful novel, “The Hussar” bounced around between 30 publishers before it was finally picked up by a university press. ‘’You can’t do worse,” he says, looking back, “than this friendly note from a good publisher: ‘Loved the book, had a wonderful weekend reading it, can’t understand how we can publish this profitably.’” And just a couple of years ago, he announced the end of his career as a novelist when “The Duke’s Man,” published in 2012, took 12 years to find a publisher.
The whole thing was a dog-and-pony show, he realized, well before publishers were passing on him. Not just the Geis fanfare but even the industry that churns out poetry, literary novels and criticism. He gave full vent to this realization in his first important novel after letting the Sutton cat out of the bag, still one of his most important to date. “Anagrams” is an ugly and hilarious weekend tour of college Literature Evenings. We stick to two poets in a caravan of writers: the young Jerome Carpenter, a thinly-veiled, rookie Slavitt with one book under his belt, and the veteran John Royle, a National Book Award winner with tenure and a family.
Both are disillusioned with the life of the poet, for different reasons. Jerome is a professional ghost-writer of doctoral dissertations for the kind of critics who go on to review his ilk, a “writer in the world of crass commerce” (wink wink). And Royle is losing heart in academia, years deep in a writer’s block and on the verge of a breakdown. The dreary weekend – full of social climbing, pseudo-intellectual poetry and boring celebrity novelists – culminates in a televised panel with the writers, which the smiling host interrupts now and then to plug the sponsor, a canned spray cheese. The only way our heroes can possibly survive it is by cutting up, playing with words, swapping names, making a mockery of it, which the book makes clear is their real livelihood.
The novel is crammed with wordplay. Like one of its central scenes, it is itself a game of anagrams. The chapters volley back and forth between Jerome and Royle’s streams of consciousness, and we see them constantly inventing, constantly punning, constantly wrangling the stuff of their lives into verse. This lands the book somewhere between “Ulysses” and Randall Jarrell’s liberal arts school comedy, “Pictures From an Institution.”
Compare “The Exhibitionist’s” bedroom narration to that of “Anagrams.” Royle with his mistress:
He could use a little of that post-coital tristesse. Bonjour, tristesse. Bonjour, monsieur. Voici le mamelon de ma melon. No, it didn’t work. Melon was masculine. De mon melon. Come to think of it, mamelon was masculine, too. Insane language.
And later, with his wife:
Royle lay on the bed, watching Jill get undressed, and wondering whether scrotal/sacerdotal had ever been used as a rhyme. It was too neat to use seriously, but it could nestle cozily in the middle of a limerick. About Graham Greene?
There once was a writer named Greene,
who confused the profane and obscene.
He went from the scrotal
to the pure sacerdotal ...
Clean? Too obvious. Been? Weak. Manichean? Yes!
Unquoted tidbits of the canon rush through their thoughts, and it’s dizzying to keep up: Royle on his mistress, “If pussy be the food of love, eat on!”; Jerome on nervousness, “He had screwed his courage to the chucking point”; Jerome, via Yeats, on his lost sheaf of poems, “Oh that my briefcase were in my arms, and I in bed again!” Jerome’s chapters even chronicle an entire composition: the book opens on one word and closes, two days later, on the full, completed sonnet.
It’s a nonstop life of the mind, warts and all. And the book actually works: Our heroes are human enough, their interior lives rich enough, to keep the endless games afloat. It’s a convincing glimpse into two hyperactive poetic minds. They’re fictional minds, but one recognizes them both to be parts of Slavitt’s. It’s not just the autobiographical signposts – Jerome’s deafness in one ear, his interest in translating Lucretius, the game of anagrams that Slavitt recreates from a match he played with Vonnegut (a sore loser, it turns out, in real life as well as in the book). More than these, one recognizes the actual character of the author’s thought.
Take Jerome, trying to be respectful at one of the poetry readings:
... he roused himself from that nursery’s truckle bed and forcibly brought himself back to Edmund Hall, sat up straighter in his chair, and listened with his guard high, parrying, trying to ward off the thrusts of imagery, the feints of wit, the fancy footwork of the prosody, and the sudden saber slash of vision ...
I met someone like this in another Slavitt novel, “Aspects of the Novel,” which is part commentary on E. M. Forster’s wonderful little book of the same name, part infinite digression. The narrator is even closer to Slavitt in biography and in tone, even busier mentally than these poets, but his novel is almost plotless. It’s a rumination on various familial uglinesses that resulted from tiny infractions over the years – salmon mousse, reserved for a dinner party, is eaten prematurely, a wedding is postponed, a wedding photographer gets pushy in pursuit of a good shot, etc. The narrator invents an entire peanut gallery of imaginary characters – these are his protagonists, born mostly of puns – to comment on the uncomfortable aftermath of these incidents.
It’s a good novel. And even though it doesn’t have as solid a table for its anagram tiles, it made me laugh, it touches the profundity Slavitt’s capable of, and it made Jerome and Royle more real, not just as a Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom for the ’70s but also as a cracked mirror for the performer I met, some 40 years after these poets were created. The Shandean diversions, the sex jokes, the life overflowing with verse – these are all classic Slavitt. As well as the explosive creative energy, which for our heroes makes it to the page only in trickles, if at all, but for our author will develop into a work ethic almost unheard of in his time.
Making money, making fun
“Anagrams” was bitchy, and so was the press surrounding it. Here’s The New York Times on its release:
Books by David Slavitt aren’t actually reviewed. Critics seize upon them as opportunities to snipe at him for his histrionic disdain of them. Muggers, sex maniacs, and murderers may find forgiveness, but there’s no sympathy for Slavitt, who committed literary sacrilege by making fun of what he calls the Quality Lit Biz – and worse yet, making money by making fun.
The sniping only multiplied for Slavitt’s next big book – quite slim actually – his first work of translation and the first of his writings to make me sit up and listen. In a way, his “Eclogues of Virgil,” published in 1971, are an extension of the poetic life that formed the center of “Anagrams.” He wasn’t just being cheeky when he told me they weren’t translations. “Interpretive meditations” really is closer to what they are. You don’t need the Latin en face to detect Slavitt’s departures from the second eclogue, which in the original is a shepherd’s frustrated love song in the form of a wordy, colorful paean to the flora and fauna of his grove. Here’s the first stanza.
The beautiful shepherd, Corydon ardebat –
ardently loved. “Ardeo here acquires
a transitive signification and takes the accusative.”
But does it? There is nothing transitive there.
Corydon loves Alexis, a gorgeous boy
who belongs to his master, a plaything, a delice ...
Corydon goes alone to a dense beech grove,
and there in the soothing umbrousness complains
in shreds of song ...
There is only one line of translation here – the first – and even that can’t make it to the line break before the curtain’s lifted. The beeches, the “shreds of song,” the “umbrousness,” the Latin words themselves – these are the only words that poke through. The subject is no longer unrequited longing. It has morphed into a poem about poets and the usefulness of poetry. It goes on to resemble less Virgil’s poem than “What is Poetry About?”, one of Slavitt’s recent verses, a derailed train of thought that starts with a frustrated hunt around his room for his treasured pill-box, then a hunt for a pen he likes, which the cats have knocked off the desk, then an aside on the cats themselves, an aside on Nebuchadnezzar, an aside on Auschwitz, and then, by way of an ending, a glance back to the title:
And poetry? Is what holds all this together,
what keeps me
more or less together, or at least is a way of
changing the subject.
So why inflict this on Virgil?
The usefulness of poetry, Slavitt argues, and the life of the poet, are the real subjects of Virgil’s ten pastorals. The “Eclogues” are allegories, he says, in which the shepherds stand in for poets and their little rural competitions for the goings-on of the Lit Biz which thrived even in Caesar Augustus’ Rome. Contemporary readers would have recognized the stand-ins and the pastoral form as tropes, mostly pilfered from Theocritus, and a delightful and satirical double meaning would have emerged from the poems. But for 20th-century readers? How do you translate that?
Slavitt’s crisp little preface lays out the ground rules pretty well. When reading a translation, you’re necessarily reading over someone else’s shoulder, so why not embrace this third party? No, this person can’t be trusted, but if you want trustworthiness, you learn the language! “I wanted the same thickness,” Slavitt would later say in defense of the anachronisms in his “Orlando Furioso”; “I don’t care whether it’s flour or corn starch. I want the sauce to be about that same consistency.” Current English slang was how he felt he could reproduce the texture of Ariosto’s 15th century Italian, its hilarity and chattiness. And to tear through the cardboard pastoral allegory of “The Eclogues” is how he felt he could reproduce their spirit, the “hum and buzz of implication,” to borrow Trilling’s phrase, that has almost silenced in the two thousand years since it vibrated Roman readers. “If you were ever a living, breathing poem,” Slavitt recalls asking these poems, which made no sense to him upon first reading, “what could you conceivably have been about?” This is how they answered.
At first I thought this was arrogance. I still do, especially when Sam Vaughn, Slavitt’s editor at Doubleday, replaces Gaius Maecenas, Virgil’s first patron, in the “Georgics” (appended to his “Eclogues” in a reprint the following year). But my attitude toward the arrogance changed when Slavitt’s poems enlivened my reading of Virgil’s puzzling “Eclogues.” The charges of sacrilege are fair – there were many – but in a way, so is Slavitt’s premise that a literal translation can’t acquaint us with the spirit of a poem unless you use it as a trot alongside the original.
His next major translation, Ovid’s “Tristia,” is far more literal, but it’s still a Slavitt composition. “I’ve tried to be Ovid,” says the translator, “which is, I admit, a crazy thing to attempt – but then all translation is always crazy to attempt, probably because that very transformation is what it requires.” Again, cue the outrage, but, again, Slavitt’s result is compelling and a pleasure to read.
These are deeply sad poems. Augustus, we still don’t know why, had exiled Ovid to Tomis, in what is now Romania. The “Tristia” were Ovid’s attempt to regain his good favor. (It didn’t work.) They are pleading letters home, written in verse by the greatest living Roman poet, once a national treasure, from a place where his native tongue counts for nothing. He is
... writing not for fame but solace, to work
my woe into an artifact, that change in its nature
a kind of distraction better even than comfort.
He sends off the first letter,
... free of one worry most books have
(and poets): the love of fame, the hope of pleasing,
the craving for honor and fortune ...
it’s like a game for children
for which I remember the rules and strategy but
cannot quite recall the point of it. Why bother?
This resembles the Latin, but the tone is also pretty close to Slavitt, whose output in those days was entering the confinement to small university presses from which it hasn’t really emerged. “The Hussar” was still in its humiliating ping-pong tournament for a publisher. And in this period, he tosses around one of his favorite quotes with more frequency, Nabokov’s admission that “I write for myself, my wife, and a few friends.” When life is painful – his mother had been murdered just a few years prior, his poetry tells us – and when your audience is now countable on one hand, the poetic instinct is not for immortality. Poetry’s highest offer is solace, a way to hold your life together.
So we get Ovid via Slavitt, and vice versa. “After all,” he says of the poems, “the Latin text remains, and faithful translations exist for those who want them.” Go learn the language, no critical commentary, translation is futile. Encase the poem in its original language, its original beauty, and if you must render it for whatever reason, at least keep your satellite in orbit of its planet instead of elbowing it into the same coordinates. It’s Slavitt again, barking his hyperbole from the mountaintop – his Shandean performance, outrageous and hilarious and instructive all at once.
From the Q & A that evening I remember something like: “I figured, Virgil? Not bad. Me? Pretty good.” It still makes me laugh, but it’s pretty much how I see Slavitt’s relationship to the poets of antiquity: a semicircle of them, reclined in their armchairs, chatting over a plate of cucumber sandwiches or maybe savoring in silence some passage Robert Penn Warren has just read aloud.
In this picture, the one-way flow of time has sprung a leak and flooded a large circular room, like the British Museum reading room which all the English novelists inhabit in Forster’s “Aspects,”
... all writing their novels simultaneously. They do not, as they sit there, think “I live under Queen Victoria, I under Anne, I carry on the tradition of Trollope, I am reacting against Aldous Huxley. The fact that their pens are in their hands is far more vivid to them ... That is to be our vision of them – an imperfect vision, but it is suited to our powers, it will preserve us from a serious danger, the danger of pseudo-scholarship.
An imperfect vision, yes. But there’s Slavitt. Sprawled on his armchair, gossiping with Virgil about the crap you have to put up with to be a writer, then leaning over and chatting with Sterne about where they store the out-of-print back stock that hasn’t sold (Sterne’s ten cartloads at the bookseller’s, Slavitt’s lockerfuls in a storage unit not far from home).
Since the “Tristia,” Slavitt’s translations have poured out exponentially (they’re in the forties at this writing). Newsweek was pretty much his last job, other than sporadic adjunct positions over the years. He lived off the Sutton money for a while and started writing furiously. Like Jerome and Royle, Slavitt conducts nearly every corner of his life in his art, pronouncing each syllable with relish. Even the nasty bits: his lengthy panning of Vonnegut’s “Deadeye Dick,” for example, airs not only his artistic but his personal grievances with the author; “The Cliff,” his fiftieth book, boasts his recent Rockefeller fellowship on the dust jacket blurb but trashes it from the first page to the last; and his moments of bile and belittlement and fear that seem to have accumulated with age are chronicled in his poetry collections like a directory (the poems “Caution,” “Plodders,” “To His Reader,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Robert Lowell,” and “Satisfaction” are excellent recent examples).
This incidental autobiography is partly why his translations are so ... Slavittian. But that’s also because his group of armchairs is so close together. He has chosen his clique in the British Museum reading room like we choose our childhood friends in the school cafeteria. I end up forgiving Slavitt his many licenses with these poets simply because they seem to have so much in common. In other words – like the debate club moderators who watched the young Slavitt file in with his Yalie team in full Boy Scout regalia, sipping glasses of milk to emphasize the purity of their stance – I’m convinced.
Look, there’s Decimus Magnus Ausonius, the 4th-century Christian poet and tutor. He pulls up his chair and hands Slavitt his “Nuptual Cento,” a wedding poem composed entirely of fragments from Virgil – who meanwhile sulks in the corner, arms folded in protest. 180 phrases crammed into 132 lines. It’s untranslatable, since the intention was for readers to recognize the Latin, but Slavitt takes it anyway. Giggling, he spreads it out on the table, thinks for a minute, cuts it up, and puts the whole thing back together with Shakespeare, who, he explains to his new friend, “is our Virgil, surely.” There are 17 pieces of Shakespeare in this excerpt, taken from the final bedroom scene which even the Loeb Classical Library omits from its translation:
The ruddiness upon her lip is wet.
Not an inch further? He sticks deeper, grows
with more pernicious root to shake the bags
and make the coming hour o’erflow with joy
and pleasure drown the brim, for one to thrust,
his hand between his teeth. And mark the moan
she makes. Most resolutely snatched, he is
far gone, far gone, to the profoundest pit ...
Slavitt’s in stitches as he roots through his bag, opens “The Cock Book, or The Child’s First Book of Pornography,” his letterpress chapbook take on Dr. Seuss’ “Foot Book,” and reads page five aloud:
Swarthy cocks, pale cocks,
Harvard, Yale cocks,
nifty cocks, swell cocks,
Duke, Bucknell cocks.
Canadian cocks, Australian cocks,
high Episcopalian cocks
Elysian cocks, empyrean cocks,
hard line Presbyterian cocks,
purplish cocks, blue-ish cocks,
uncircumcised and Jewish cocks.
Exotic cocks, staple cocks,
withered little Papal cocks.
Healthy cocks, sore cocks,
clever cocks, bore cocks,
twenty three hundred and fifty four cocks.
More and more and more and more cocks.
Ausonius explodes too, as he reaches for another cucumber sandwich ...
That is to be my vision of them – an imperfect vision, but it is suited to my powers and it will preserve me, at least now and then, from the danger of the pissing contest and remind me of that day when the words themselves were felt by everyone in the room.