I. During my senior year in college I wrote a long-poem called The House of Land. Once upon a time the poet finished his career with the long-poem or commenced one in mid-career, but I decided to begin with one. I think at Bard College I wrote over one-hundred pages, but during the following years I rewrote and shortened the work. Wallace Stevens wrote Paule Vidal on June 18, 1952: “Usually, at my age a poet starts to write a long poem chiefly because he persuades himself that it is necessary to have a long poem among his works.” Of course, Stevens must have been facetious here for he had already composed many of the greatest long poems of the century. In 1986, my first year in Connecticut, Spectacular Diseases of Peterborough, England published my long poem with a thoughtful introduction by the novelist and poet Toby Olson. For years I thought or I recalled that I lifted lines – just a couple – out of Stevens’s “The Comedian as the Letter C” and used them in my poem. In the winter of 2014 out of curiosity I went back and looked for these lines. It took me a few moments. For they are not from “The Comedian,” but from “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” On page 19 of my poem I wrote:
Unless I know the ground
upon which my feet are to stand
I can say nothing of the sky.
These hills, this mountain-
laurel in black clay, this
patter of the white-tail,
We haven’t seen when we thought we saw.
Summer exiles from the Chapel of Holy Innocents.
I probably just quoted more than I needed to, but I wanted to get to that chapel name which I have always loved. That really is the name of the Bard College Chapel. We may not have been either as holy or as innocent as we should have been.
And in Part II of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” – It Must Change, section five, one reads:
Long after the planter’s death. A few lines remained,
Where his house had fallen, three scraggy trees
with garbled green. These were the planter’s turquoise
And his orange blotches, these were his zero green,
A green baked greener in the greenest sun.
These were his beaches, his sea-myrtles in
White sand, his patter of the long sea-slushes.
So I didn’t exactly quote from Stevens, but just repeated a bit of the rhythm of the lines. And I like the fact that Stevens mentions here a “planter’s death” and what “remained” because in my poem I refer frequently to a historical figure named Yahley – a name I thought neat partly because it could so easily be confused with Yahweh (God) – whose ruins in the Ramapos of New Jersey I would hike by as a teenager and yes there were some “scraggy trees” as well as the remains of a foundation. Stevens, too, as a young man hiked in these hills though more often a bit south of my often trod paths. “The foundation lies buried beneath the skin,” I wrote in my long-poem. So I had here an actual place ground as well as a poetic ground on which to stand or to leave.
I had excellent teachers of English and History in high school. One history teacher once invited three politicians to speak to us. Senator Hightower speaking for the Republicans had the most political clout but I found him somewhat dull as did my classmates. Jim Bouton, the former Yankee pitcher, spoke on behalf of the Democrats. For me, he seemed too frivolous a voice though the crowd loved him. The third speaker, Jarvis Tyner, a vice-presidential candidate for the United States of America spoke on behalf of the Communist Party. After the speakers finished, some of us went up on the stage to ask questions. Most students went to Bouton, some to Hightower, and one to Tyner. I thought he had wisest words; the sharpest mind. After that day I bought a subscription to the Daily World.
Perhaps at that time a file began somewhere in Washington D.C. with my name on it. But I threw the Feds a curveball by signing up for some student group to support the re-election of the President. For several decades I saved the issue of the Daily World that proclaimed “Nixon Resigns – Was Deal Made?”
What does this have to do with poetry? Three things: the relationship of the disciplines of history and poetry has been a constant concern for me; a playful contrariness has characterized my art and my scholarship; and soon after this high school political assembly and discussion my first poems were published.
I think the first one appeared in the Daily World. It concerned a northern New Jersey group of people abused, discriminated against, and exploited for centuries. But I can’t be sure. My first poems might have been published in Charles Plymell’s Cold Spring Journal or Maureen Owen’s Telephone. In both, if I recall correctly, I had a concrete or visual poem and a short lyric inspired by another poet: Walt Whitman and Terry Stokes.
I gave up on the accentuated visual aspects of the poem, but stuck with the wide-ranging reading and the short lyric or philosophical musing. While in college I added two other broad sorts of poems to the lyric – the notebook poem and the project poem – and these categories continue to the present. My most recent work has a project poem called “Day by Day” and my 2012 book Parallel Lines contains a notebook poem, “Scarf.” For a project work certain rules are established at the start and a length of time at least for a gathering of words and lines. A notebook poem simply organizes idea and phrases from a notebook, sort of man with a notebook (instead of with a movie camera).
Sometimes I worried that the historian and artist must be kept separate. When I began teaching I told colleagues I would not teach creative writing, as if teaching it would cheapen it in some way. I began an early essay published in Boundary 2 perhaps in 1980 with this claim: “The poem is primary. All theory secondary.” I may still believe that – though not so rigidly and yes I did teach creative writing for more than thirty-years. I took sustenance in a simple phrase. Susan Howe once told me – many years ago – to refer to her as a poet-scholar. I also like the title of Denise Levertov’s book of essays: Poet in the World.
I did not ever see myself as a social activist poet but always a poet active in the world. During college I started a literary magazine, Tamarisk (along with Debbie Ducoff; later we became husband and wife). During graduate school, along with Eli Goldblatt and Gil Ott, I hosted some Philadelphia poetry readings. In Hartford I’ve hosted readings but also written a host of commentaries for the newspaper on affordable housing, immigration, as well as the poets of Connecticut from the Revolution to the present.
I think rather than fret about the anxiety of influence I have embraced influence. It is interesting to note that tribute poems depend to a large extent on knowledge of the subject and therefore the audience for such poems must be limited (though what poem except perhaps a Presidential inauguration poem does not have a limited audience?).
“Time will stand still for a few weeks as the weather itself stands still in August before it removes to Charleston, where it will stand still a little longer before it removes to some place in South America like Cartagena, which is, I suppose, its permanent abode – the place where all the catbirds go, not to speak of the other birds which live in our garden for a while” – from a letter by Wallace Stevens.
Stevens wrote that letter at home in Hartford (July 27, 1949). You might have heard that in 2014 the Episcopal Church put the house at 118 Westerly Terrace up for sale. There was a realtor’s open house and many of us went that day to see the house once more, now empty of the Rev. Pendleton’s family’s furniture. The emptiness gave a different sense of the house and this emptiness we paired with greetings to friends. How can friendship be known and expressed outside of language? You’ll recall that a first offer for the house came from a group who thought they might change the residence into a historic house museum of sorts – an ambitious, courageous, and perhaps foolish plan, one conceived much too quickly and under the pressure of possibly losing the opportunity, the deal. Well, it did fall through and the house remains in private hands – perhaps as it should or so The Hartford Courant editorialized at the time. Once Jim Finnegan and I went to see the belongings of Stevens that are warehoused elsewhere in Connecticut. His bed was remarkably small, “penitent” as I say in a poem, small, especially for such a large fellow.
“The bed of old Wallace Stevens is less than you’d imagine…” — so I begin my poem “House for Sale” (published in the Wallace Stevens Journal in 2015 and in my book Second Thoughts, 2017, page 6), a tribute poem. And another such poem, a Stevens’s tribute poem, “An Ordinary Evening,” (the Wallace Stevens Journal 2007; the Visiting Wallace anthology, pages 7-8; and in my book Parallel Lines, 2011, pages 24-25) recalls the poet as an elderly man and ends with poet “recalling / The hikes he took last spring.” And so what inspires us in our early twenties, may stay with us and continue to do so in our mid-sixties.
The house is not built,
not even begun.
This house is a cloud,
this bliss of stars,
a princox of evening:
June evening, a green
evening sighted as if
young and without any
scent or shade. This
house half-dissolved in
Dennis Barone retired from the University of Saint Joseph after the spring 2020 semester. He is the author most recently of Second Thoughts (Bordighera 2017), Beyond Memory: Italian Protestants in Italy and America (SUNY 2016), and Sound / Hammer (Quale 2015). He has also edited books such as Garnet Poems: An Anthology of Connecticut Poetry Since 1776 (Wesleyan 2012).