L.E. Sissman: poet of the century

Thanks to Patrick Kurp I discovered L.E. Sissman, my new favorite 20th-century poet (edging out William Meredith by the barest nose of a nose). Kurp is of course a far better critic than I (I’ll take him any day on compiler theory, however), and I incorporate his post by reference.

The quality that, for me, makes Sissman greater than the great, is his complete naturalness of voice. Ours is an age of faux-unaffected verse, of contrived pseudo-simplicity. When you read Sissman you feel the difference.

Of course, today’s ironic style has its pleasures. But one of the powers that real sincerity grants you, quite unavailable to the undergraduate wit, is the power to write verse with content. Cavafy was a master of such directness, but his poems are concealed from us by language and history. Sissman died in 1976, but since our wreck of a culture has done little but rot since then, time has only exposed his prescience.

Here’s a poem by Sissman – published posthumously, and probably not one of his best – that illustrates the point:

Notes Toward a 25th Reunion

“And what do you do?” Mrs. Appoplex,
Fat dam of some dim Story Street savant
In baggy Marimekko muumuu and
Barbaric Inca necklet, asks my wife
At some dream sherry party packed with ham-
Strung academics swaying gently in
The wind of Babel. “Why, just cook and fuck,”
My wife does not, so sweetly, tender in
Reply, although I wish like hell she would.
Whose world is real, for Christ’s sake, anyway?
Their sculpture gallery of images
That move mechanically in circumscribed
Tangents and – this is a recording – talk
In selfsame selfsongs all the livelong day?
(I must say I have just enough of a
Foot in that world to see its tiny point
Flash in the haystack of irrelevance.)
Or my free-form theatre of absurd,
Unaugurable happenstance, in which –
For gain, my lads, for gain – we businessmen
Risk all upon a nutty and divine
Idea of weal and on our con-man’s skill
To sell it to each other, I’ll back that
Frail matchstick pyramid of barest will,
On which to balance, one exposes all
To the black, hithering eye of the abyss,
As realer than the static autoclave
Of academe, full of blunt instruments
Becoming sterile as they sit and steam.
And yet, when I return in steaming June
To my Reunion in the pullulant
Hive of the Yard, I’ll look with shuttering
Eyes on my unknown classmates, businessmen
Who have no business with me, and greet
The likes of Mrs. Appoplex and her
Effete levée with a glad, homing cry.
The question is, what kind of fool am I?

What’s amazing about this poem is that it is completely direct. It has no hidden meanings at all. There is zero Empsonian ambiguity. It is almost light verse. It is funny at several points, and Sissman’s characteristic eloquence (once an ad man, always an ad man) is on display. And it contains a complete dramatic arc.

Yet it also makes a point – and an unanswerable one. You can see why Sissman is untaught, unknown, and out of print. Fortunately, you can get his collected works for $2.98 at Amazon – and I strongly recommend you do so immediately. If you don’t think poetry is your thing, no one will change your mind like L.E.. And maybe if we can drive the price up to $40 or $50, someone will notice.

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