“I believe I am a better poet than a novelist;” Richard wrote in an essay for Contemporary Authors, “and that some of my best poems are scattered in magazines and newspapers and the drawers of my desk.”
The Complete Poems of Richard Elman is presently being made ready for publication. Here, three of his books of poetry, The Man Who Ate New York (1975), Homage to Fats Navarro (1978), and In Chontales (1980), are reprinted. Cathedral –Tree-Train and Other Poems (1992) is in print may be ordered from Junction Press in the link provided.
Richard’s poetry and prose belong to the same protean imagination of a writer who listened to the rhythms of colloquial American speech inflected sometimes by Spanish or Yiddish or the dialects of the Caribbean. Wherever he lived, in New York City, upstate N. Y., Stony Brook, Long Island, and wherever he travelled –- to writer-retreats in the Georgia Sea Islands, or the Madeleine Islands in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, or on journalist assignment to Nicaragua, or on teachings stints to Tucson, South Bend, or Knoxville -- he drew the natural world of his surroundings in painterly poems that are keenly observed, exuberant, meditative and often transcendent. Over the twenty years of our marriage, Richard’s poetry coursed through our lives like the breath of life, intensifying love and laughter, and slowing down time into moments of heightened perception and feeling. His poems marked the formal celebrations of our family—the birthdays of our daughters Margaret and Lila, wedding anniversaries and holidays, and he also crafted poems about intimate, ordinary, and everyday occurrences, including his final illness and impending death.
His poems vary in style, tone, and seriousness. There are antic limericks and bawdy ballads, sonnets written in iambic pentameter and free verse, hilarious parodies, dramatic monologues, and a sustained elegy for his friend from college days who died by his own hand, the artist Keith Sanzenbach.
The earliest published poems are from 1956, a year after Richard graduated from Syracuse University where his talent had been recognized by his teachers Donald Dike and Daniel Curley; there, he became editor of the literary magazine, “Dilemma.” But he began writing poetry even earlier during his senior year at Midwood High School in Brooklyn, N. Y. where he grew up. Encouraged by his teacher Rose Ribicoff, he read Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and Hart Crane, whom he admired, he said, “above all because he’d lived in Brooklyn and wrote his major work about its bridge.” Crane would reappear in Richard’s later work as a Public Affairs Director at WBAI-FM, Pacifica Radio, where he produced documentaries such as a sound montage about Ford Maddox Ford and another about Hart Crane “told almost exclusively, in the voices of those to whom Crane confided, or with whom he had been caught off guard—voices telling their story, almost as if they were struggling to the surface after being drowned with Crane, those silent gestures and clotted laughs, nearly thirty years after the poet’s death.” Richard tried to use what he learned from radio and the experience of working with human voices in his fiction which became “terse and colloquial, as unliterary as I could make it.” His novel, Fredi & Shirl & the Kids (1972) was one result. He also became interested in writing poetry in a new way. “And as I felt freer to use the range and pitch of the language, it came to me that I really didn’t have to sound like my beloved Sir Thomas Wyatt to make a poem.” Richard’s early poems of 1956 are, as he suggests, reminiscent, in their wit, formal diction, meter, and restrained quatrains, of the Metaphysical poets; at the very least, they reveal his knowledge and mastery of traditional poetic forms. In, “Confession To E,” a suitor reproves his beloved for being aloof. “I horde the ways I feel like Dresden cups/ So that I feel each posture of affection./ Then adding scalding pride for your inspection/ I touch each one and tip it to my lips.”
The style of these early poems may have been influenced by Ivor Winters whose poetry workshop Richard attended at Stanford University, where he won a post-graduate fellowship in creative writing. Winters undermined whatever confidence as a poet Richard had garnered as an undergraduate, and criticized Richard’s “Brooklyn ear. …It wasn’t very long, before I began to feel that every impulse that had impelled me to write poems was counterfeit. … Winters “was actually able to make you feel your inept poems were high crimes and misdemeanors, treasonable acts. He would raise his voice in anger and tremble and attack you where he knew you to feel weakest and most insecure. In his thrall we were stripped of the necessary autonomy of error. Hardly the way to encourage creative experimentation, such as one might expect from a workshop.” Though Winters had recommended him for a Royal Victor graduate fellowship, Richard felt discouraged and couldn’t see himself pursuing a doctorate and becoming a traditional academic. He left Stanford, joined the army and began to write free-lance journalism for magazines ranging from Cavalier to Commonweal, the Nation, and The New Republic. He married his college girlfriend Emily Schorr. They had one daughter, Margaret, and divorced in the early seventies.
I met Richard in November 1976 on a train, the Amtrak Hudson line. Dark-complexioned, in his forties, tall and stooped like a question mark, he eyed me for what seemed a prolonged time, and took the seat in front of me. After awhile, he introduced himself. His voice was deep and rich. I mistook his name for the Joyce biographer, and when he waved his hand, as if to dismiss my apology, I noticed his long elegant fingers and his rings, a worn silver and turquoise on his index finger and a Zuni on his ring finger. Changing the subject, he pointed to the large and beautiful abandoned stone buildings along the shore that had been textile mills when New York manufactured everything and the Hudson was filled with barges.
“I live in Ft. Edward, near Glens Falls,” he said, “and the canals there connect the Hudson all the way up through the St. Lawrence Seaway.” I floated along happily, listening to Richard’s talk, feeling pleasantly engulfed by his presence, and the expansive sound of his voice and his story.
The poems in his collection, The Man Who Ate New York (1975), are enmeshed with my memories of that first meeting, the sound of Richard’s voice, and later, listening to him read aloud at poetry readings. “October Visit” takes place in Fort Edward “beside the old barge canal” where the poet William Bronk, Richard’s close friend lived; as the friends walk along familiar ground, “where Bronk knows the names of every dogwood in the field,” Bronk’s bleak mood -- “I’m 56. I feel like zero”-- is projected onto a flock of black crows whose early migration south seem to presage Bronk’s fear of an early death. “This morning when I went to mow the lawn there were two fat old black fellows standing there.” … “In the cold Hudson Valley air he has trouble breathing,/ walks alone every morning at 6 to his lumber mill/ doing loud breathing exercises until he sounds/among the silent streets just like a crow.” In the poem Richard laments the way his friend “is going from me I feel I don’t know where,” and affirms his love for him. “I love you the woods love you as you have loved us all.”
In the end, Bill outlived Richard by two years. They first became friends in 1965 after Richard had reviewed a book of Bronk’s early poems. Among Richard’s papers there were over one hundred letters from Bronk, some containing poems of Bill’s written in his tiny meticulous long-hand. They exchanged poems, and news, and bolstered each other up against inevitable doubt. In a rejoinder to Richard’s complaint that he felt “all used up as a writer,” Bronk wrote on 29 December 1980: “Don’t you know that to feel all used up as a writer is what a writer ordinarily feels like? I think I’ve felt that way every time I wrote something or failed to write something for the last forty years or so. Of course it scares us; how else? We need to run
Whether Richard “ran scared” or wrote through or in spite of his fears, poetry seemed to flow out of him. It was the first thing he wrote in the early mornings after waking when he was fresh from sleep and his head was clear; it didn’t matter if he had a deadline or was on assignment, or was also working on a novel or longer work, he began the day by writing and revising poems. He also liked to read aloud from work-in-progress to get a reaction; during the early years of our marriage when our daughter Lila was little and, between work and motherhood, I never seemed to have a moment to spare, he’d telephone me from his office number downstairs in the basement in order to seize my attention and force me to stop whatever I was doing upstairs to listen to what he’d just written: “Do you have a minute?”
“Radiant blue grey
clouds above the cold
earth remind me of
the sounds of Fats Navarro
blowing inside the car.
As this vamping wind
shivers my fenders
Long Island seems
sanctified and clear:
holy the earth, these
trees silver and gold
with leaves like ingots
kernelled on their boughs,
this sudden glistening solid
state which static interrupts
metallic bliss. These sounds
are light, inside is out, the
glow as real as any
images of pain he may have
ever known: this hard Bop light. . .
Today along the Parkway
Fats pierced the Fall of
all of Heaven with his
trumpet sword of delight;
a brand new gusting first snow
darkened the air as silver
dust that, tarnished, split
the frozen hills it touched
like soft ripe orange melons.”
The poem above, “Driving Home,” is included in Richard’s 1978 collection, Homage To Fats Navarro. Another, “Chet’s Jazz,” recaptures a night in the Village we heard an aging Chet Baker play. “The jamming together of fragments/ puffed through a failing wind/ reiterates such sounds as can extenuate/ the hurt lips on the caved-in face. / ‘If you could see me now.’”
Like many poets of his generation, Richard connected with the transcendent pleasures of Jazz, and noted how “the hard bop jazz of the fifties;” influenced others as well as himself. In his essay, “Gil Sorrentino,” Richard recalled: “It was the early cadenced riffs of his free syllabics I once found very appealing and wrote about with praise, the poems in The Darkness Around Us, for example, and even the later more contemplative poetry in Oranges, and it turned out I was not the only person who thought highly of this poetry.“
On September of 1978 Richard travelled to Nicaragua on assignment for GEO Magazine to cover the Sandinistas’ Revolution against the Somoza dictatorship. He documented that and subsequent visits to Central America in the non-fiction work, Cocktails at Somoza’s: A Reporter’s Sketchbook of Events in Revolutionary Nicaragua (1981); however, the people and their plight continued to preoccupy him and take on imaginative forms in a spy novel, The Menu Cypher (1982), and a collection of poetry, In Chontales (1980), where the poems, “In Chontales, Nicaragua,” “Calle El Progresso, Nicaragua,” “The Ballad of the Boss’ Son,” and “Leaving Nicaragua” mark how differently the rich and the poor experience war: “Her children/all grow thinner, life/ is a short pain between/oblivions.”
The collection, Cathedral Tree Train (1992) is named after a painting by Keith Sanzenbach, an artist Richard befriended when they were both students at Syracuse (1951-55); after graduation they moved to California—Keith to San Francisco, and Richard to Palo Alto. They kept in touch through phone calls and letters and saw each other on occasion. In 1964 Keith shot himself. By then Richard was living in New York City. The two had lost touch, and it wasn’t until a decade later, in 1974 that Richard learned of Keith’s death. The elegy, “Cathedral Tree-Train,” a long serial poem, is a meditation on their friendship, the drug- soaked mood of those years when “jazz musicians and abstract-expressionist painters were the risk-fueled heroes of American artists,” and the misery that dragged Sanzenbach, like an undertow, towards self-destruction.
Richard’s library is full of books of poetry written by his contemporaries. Tucked in between the books are clusters of letters written to him or folded up manuscripts of reviews he wrote. I am struck by how much he read and wrote about poetry. On one random visit I find a manuscript of a review of a book by Barbara Herrnstein Smith on Poetic Closure: A Study Of How Poems End, a review of Breaking Camp by Marge Piercy, “The Art of J.V. Cunningham,” and a review of Allen Ginsberg’s Journals: Early Fifties, Early Sixties. In Namedropping in addition to the poets I’ve already mentioned there are essays on his encounters with Thom Gunn, John Ashbery, Grace Paley, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Alfred Kreymborg, W. H. Auden, Roberto Soso, and Ernesto Cardenal. Among the poems in this volume are also translations by Richard of poems by Cardenal as well as the 13th century troubadour, Rutubeuf. He wore his erudition lightly.
Descending the stairs to the basement and Richard’s study, I have felt sometimes like Eurydice among the songs of Orpheus. Now, thankfully, before too long, all of Richard’s poems will be brought out into the light.
Much that we know about each other is
only what we agree to say to one
another. We leave much back, many
things, certain things. I know
that, as you must too.
I leave you missing you already.
You are always in my thoughts, you
and Lila, and when I feel loveless
it is for missing you too much.
I cannot say more. I know we must
have confidences, the things we can
never say, small adventures of quotidian
life, the street, the office, or
the fantasy we can never share,
but this much I can say to you,
my sweetest love: I have never wanted
to be loved by anyone else as you
have loved me, and I am grateful, profoundly
and simply touched by your presence
in my life.
Take care of yourself in my absence,
and let us have a grand reunion
together on my return.
I shall always remember your
(This essay has been adapted from my Introduction to the Complete Poems)