Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Lives of the Poets
by Alan Halsey

The lines in Live of the Poets all feel found, though I suspect some (most?) of them of having actually been written in the present by the present poet, not me, but Alan Halsey, author of Lives of the Poets (including an excellent handful by Martin Corless-Smith). The whole activity of writing the poem, of living the life of a poet is deftly and hilariously treated in these pieces. That this treatment produces lines filled with desperation, pomposity and madness shouldn’t surprise you if you are a poet yourself or know one. There is also an intimate, sympathetic understanding of the activity of writing. "I had not the Patience to be Silent longer" (MARY, LADY OF CHUDLEIGH).

Many of the names are familiar but many are not. They are all from the past of English literature which (I’ve said this before) Americans tend to think of as our own literary heritage. The book supports my on-going thesis that this English verse both is and isn't the past of our language and poetics -- or poetic as Alan would say.

There is a lot to have fun with here. I have a great fondness for the Lives of the Romantics because they are long, florid, and, well, romantic. One tends to know more about Byron, Shelley and the boys than, for example, Aaron Hill whose succinct little poem appears to sum up a well-lived poetic life.


what we have written correct
Hillarius sung ‘till pity wept

There isn’t a portrait of Aaron Hill in the book but there are many engravings of the poets in the Lives. These images are unmoored from each Life and name of the poet in question, appearing occasionally throughout, but mainly in the front and back in a bewigged, ruffled rogues' gallery that bookends the book. The elegant index provides the key to the lives (more than one for several poets) and the engravings, as well as letting you know which poems are by Alan and which by Martin. The printing and design are at the usual very high level of Five Seasons Press books, and then some. Lives of the Poets is not only wonderful to hold but evokes a distinct time travel experience with its cloth cover, thick paper and classic design. The physical book, whose physicality is very much put before you, resonates with the physicality of writing (and having a life) which is read, interpreted, crossed out and reassembled for the reader's pleasure. The book perfectly presents the Lives much as an antique puppet theater would present Punch, Judy and their old routines in the old way of experiencing them to a happy connoisseur of puppetry. But to make a really parallel case, there would have to be a discontinuous, lifelike quality to the performance which would make it both wildly modern and completely traditional.

The eloquence and subtle textuality the reader of Alan Halsey’s writing has come to expect have ample opportunity to spread out across the lovely pages of the present volume -- and there to fill the reader with all the suggestiveness and possibility that can be wrung out of the words, markings, lives and lines, whoever wrote them.


so stared at (what I ought I can’t) stunning
words for poetry found in old romaunts and my Blake M.S.
to know all our Brotherhood blarneyed Pre-Pre
and Lizzy more beautiful more varying ghostly
broken and dear all glare and change
wrested (written) he buried (whispered) his poems (unrestful)
the recovery of which has taken this shape dearest Janey
things I dare not speak of nor meant to slur
a joyful sight were not everything an omen

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