The cat's taking notes against
His own household. He watches.
That's the first thing about poetry: You can't tell where you'll find it.
William Meredith, the new consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, was talking about his craft the other day. "A poem," he said (cautious in the face of such a bald question from the Press), "is the operation of language with an emotional charge that can't be accounted for rationally."
The consultantship is formally for 1978-79 but sometimes is extended for a second year. It is one of those very visible landmarks in the life of American poets, the kind of accolade that can be almost embarrassing to someone as old-shoe as Meredith. ("I'm going to start believing I am now a Major Poet," he chuckled.)
There are others: the Ford and Rockefeller grants, most of the time, the discipline of rhyme and meter. Yet he loves to quote Randall Jarrell's comparison of Whitman and Tennyson, celebrating the richness of expression in Whitman's free verse in contrast with "how much Tennyson has had to leave out," with his tyrannical rhymes.
As Ezra Pound said, "Verse may have form as a tree has form, or as water poured into a vase."
The second thing about poetry is that, though it is everywhere, it must be coaxed into view. Anybody can say that moonlight is poetic. But how to say it without sinking into some dreadful cliche about "silver" or "pale" or fanciful references to wan ladies?
A Meredith line:
Moonlight washes the west side of the house As clean as bone ....
Who would have thought there was so much energy in the word "washes"?
Meredith, 59, flew in World War II and Korea, won the Air Medal with oak leaf cluster (which he doesn't like to talk about), and only recently quit flying for pleasure. Often his view of the world comes literally from high above, as "the lakes that lie on bayous like a leopard," and sometimes he finds beauty in the spectacle of war itself: A delicate red chart of squares, abstract And jewelled, from which rise lazy tracem, And the searchlights through smoke tumble up To a lovely apex on some undone friend.
The poetry may be there, waiting to be perceived, but you have to know how to look.
Like a lot of people, Meredith played with words all through his youth, got to be the class poet (1940) at Princeton, worked briefly for the New York Times as copy boy and reporter, later was opera critic for the Hudson Review.
After the was he had a year as Woodrow Wilson fellow, and taught at Princeton, University of Hawaii and Connectinut College, where he has been establihed since 1955. Then there were his four years at Breadloaf Writers Conference in Vermont, notable for a speech he made deploring the endless infighting and backbiting among certain colleagues.
it can be even harder to be a poet in academia than in a bomber. Exactly when, in fact, did he start putting down "poet" on forms where it says "occupation?"
"I was serving in the Aleutians for a year in 1942," he said, "on anti-submarine patrol. The weather was terrible and our commanding officer, being an intelligent man, didn't make us fly when there was no change of our seeing anything, so we had lots of free time. There were things you could do: athletics, drinking, all sorts of recreation.I got really interested in reading and writing poetry. I'd been playing at it before.
"I guess the commitment came when some friends sent a manuscript of mine to Archie MacLeish."
As it happened, MacLeish was searching for new talents.He had to pick someone for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and in 1944 the book he picked was Meredith's "Love Letter from an Impossible Land." And he wrote a glowing introduction.
"It made a great difference to me," commented Meredith, who has a knack for understatement. Since then he has written five other books, published an edition of Shelley and a celebrated translation of Apollinaire's "Alcools."
He works slowly. If he completes six poems a year, he is content. He believes in luck, and in the visions that come when the ego is turned off and the mind lies quiet.
"Set down rationally," he writes, "revelations sound like hallucination: this bush by the side of the road flared up and a voice spoke out of it - we very rational people feel foolish recounting it. But this is what happened: a series of associations, and the words they inhabited, came to me uninvited but because I was in a state of unself-centered attention."
The statement comes from his intense short essay, "The Luck of It," in William Heyen's "American Poets in 1976."
He hopes to "do things that are in character of me" during his stint as consultant. Probably he will spend some time with teachers of poetry, for he is almost as devoted to teaching as to poetry. For 10 years he ran an Upward Bound program for inner city youths in New York and Hartford. It is an expression of his quiet belief that "just as we neglect the resources of form in poetry, we neglect the resources of the establishment forms of society and government."
"The Union of Concerned Scientists is my cause now," he said, and it si no coincidence that he is staying for the time being with the Stewart Udalls in McLean, Udall being active in the nuclear power issue.
Yet, he was "one of the last to see the light" about Vietnam, and he resisted the line taken by many liberal poets because he resented the shrillness, the brick-throwing, the "misinformation and dishonesty" of some war critics that helped bring a division among Americans unequaled since the Civil War.
A line about Richard Nixon: He cannot shake his unpopular conviction That his nation has bitterly misspoken itself.
And this mordant comment about the social underpinnings of our symbol-ridden politics: In August somebody said the VWs Must be coming off the line in Stuttgart With McGovern Shriver stickers. But Nader was right: in collision With a fat American machine they're murder.
Poetry, as the man says, is everywhere.