issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > schwabsky
Well Nowby Barry Schwabsky
The way I remember this one story Daniel told, back when I was a student of his forever ago, was that when he was a student at Columbia University after the war, there was a poet on the scene, more or less a generation older, and not formally connected to the university, but who played a sort of guru to some of the young or aspiring poets there. Daniel was among those who frequented this man.
His name was Jose Garcia Villa, and (as I've subsequently learned) he was a Filipino who, having had his poetry condemned for obscenity and published a prize-winning story in his home country, had used the prize money to finance his emigration to America in 1929. In 1941 he published a book with the beautifully telegraphic title Have Come Am Here and indeed he had arrived. These days few remember him, but then he was hailed by such literary notables as Conrad Aiken, E.E. Cummings, and Babette Deutsch.
Anyway, the story went that, years later, and having long since lost track of Villa, Daniel happened to run into him at a cocktail party. "Are you still writing poems?" Daniel asked. "Oh, no, Daniel," came the reply, "I am well now."
I always found that hilarious, as Daniel clearly did, despite or maybe because I didn't quite know what it meant. But now I think I have more of an idea, since Villa's name came up in the recollections of a friend of mine, the writer and erstwhile musician Richard Hell. In his recent autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, Richard describes a poetry workshop with Villa at the New School in the late 1960s. This was the period when Villa had stopped writing, and as Richard recalls it, "He gave his classes as much to preside over a circle" as to offer any specific instruction. "Everybody vied to be as debonairly supercilious, sexually insinuating, and sarcastic about poets of inferior sensibility as he was…. Villa pronounced that I was 'the most poetical looking' and one of the 'sickest, which is a prerequisite for writing decent poems.'"
So Villa hadn't meant, I gather, that because he was well, he no longer needed to write poems—but that because he could no longer write poems, he must be well. And who knows, maybe he was right, I can't say. But I am sure that, for all of Villa's cultivated eccentricity, there was some validity to his fascination with the sickness and health of the poet or would-be poet. I'll go this far: To the extent that the poet is sick, and we can admit that perhaps all are to some degree, their poetry must be made of their sickness, and the attempt to dissimulate it can only weaken their art.
But still, that's not the whole story. Perhaps no one is wholly well, that would be hard to argue. But by the same token, no one (who survives) is wholly ill. And the pretense to illness is just as bad, or almost, as the pretense to health. Besides, even sick people can fake their sickness and those who are well can make a pretension of their wellness. It's confusing and difficult. Anyway, what really made it so funny when Daniel told that story about Villa was its profound incongruity with Daniel's own way of being a poet—with his own way of being, period. His art seems to be a cultivation of health (which turns out to be something quite other than boring normality, by the way). And so Villa's workshop, as Richard describes it, sounds pretty much like the exact of opposite of Daniel's. Somehow it would have been impossible to be supercilious or sarcastic there. I remember a mortifying moment when an unspeakably bad line in something I'd written drew well-deserved laughter from my fellow students, and I learned something from that laughter; but I remember too how Daniel's comments attempted to salvage something from that wretched line, certainly not by pretending it was any better than it really was, but by gently trying to show how its absolute failure was somehow connected to a genuine if misguided attempt to do something that, in some other way or some other context, might actually have been possible to do well. And I learned a lot from that too.
I particularly learned from Daniel to avoid the adolescent pleasures of being so quick to be "sarcastic about poets of inferior sensibility" a la Villa. What makes a different sensibility inferior? When I came into Daniel's seminar I was already pretty well set on my devotion to the aesthetics of the New York School. This was pretty far from his own feeling about poetry, and yet he encouraged me with great generosity, never pushing me to change my ways but only to improve them. I remember him saying that although any poet would want to develop a style of his own, that still, when a good poem comes to you, you'd better count your blessings and accept it whether it's in your style or not. Likewise he accepted a willing student who wasn't in his style, and for that I remain grateful.