issue 30 > slavitt tribute > ridland
A Few Notes on David R. Slavittby John Ridland
The name of David R. Slavitt may not yet be one to conjure with in literary circles, although if he were a magician, let's say, or a juggler, his skill in keeping so many poems, novels, translations, and other works in the air would have drawn gasps of astonishment and awe, as he added title upon title until he has now tossed out for our enjoyment over 100 books.
Up at 7000 feet in the Sierra National Forest in California, where I am beginning to write these notes, I have only a handful of those books. One is called Short Stories Are Not Real Life, in which the stories strike me as so pleasurable (such "easy reads") that they would be vulnerable to attack from Post Modernist critics. But if Post Modernism is dead, long live Post-Post Modernism, which should appreciate the value of Slavitt's transparent stories as belonging in the honorable tradition of "tales." Some remind me of Jorge Luis Borges's "fictions" (to invoke a name as Post-Post Modernist as it is Modernist or Post Modernist, which is to say, Who the hell cares? He was a great writer!). They dare to have such old-fashioned beginnings as these:
"My father used to tell a story."
"A bunch of the guys were sitting around the table, drinking and telling stories…"
"I should much prefer to simply to begin at some reasonable point and go forward until the end."
The narration in the long novella, The Cliff, ingeniously and amusingly plays with the question of voice, involving a fictitious narrator and a teasing series of events which turn out to be only a sub-plot, entertaining us in order to hide the serious main story, of a broken marriage and its consequences, which becomes clear only at the end, demonstrating Slavitt's versatility in handling multiple strands of narrative.
Slavitt has published enough poetry for it to deserve much more serious critical attention than I believe it has received. I enjoy his "Seven Deadly Sins" more than I do Anthony Hecht's more famous set of them, and they are both funnier and more serious than X. J. Kennedy's "The Seven Deadly Virtues." For poems to set out to be funny, and actually to be funny, as all too much light verse isn't, still guarantees they will be consigned to the bottom bin labeled: Light Verse. Slavitt achieves lightness by not trying too hard (and perhaps because some heavy griefs do underlie the foundations of all his work). So we can add poetry, light and heavy, to the list of Slavitt's major talents--and achievements.
I am assuming this issue of Per Contra will be presenting examples of his new poems. Here is an older one, chosen because it's the shortest in The Seven Deadly Sins, and easy to read aloud:
A good party, but it gets late
and only a few in the cozy living room dawdle.
Our hostess offers another coffee,
which I should refuse, having seen our host
stifle a yawn. But it's dark outside and I risk
rudeness, I know, in accepting. But I do.
I know I shall have to go in a little while.
Like a child making bargains about bedtime,
I want a few minutes more. Just a few minutes.
That's all. But read it aloud again, and listen to the quiet, comfortable, loose iambics surging into pentameter in the last five lines, unrhymed but musical while remaining as plain as speech. This is how people talk, or think, when they do it in blank verse. It is a moment worth writing down. And this moment is exactly the same as what Frost maintained was behind "Stopping By Woods": "This is all very nice, but I must be getting along," the difference being that Slavitt chooses to dawdle in the cozy living room with a few people whom he likes, while Frost goes on alone in a cold sleigh.
If I had room to quote the whole of another poem, it would be what must be one of Slavitt's greatest, "What Is Poetry About?" In this he implicitly rebuts the notorious assertion by Theodor Adorno that "to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric" by writing a poem about Auschwitz, just as Imre Kertész, the Hungarian Nobel Prize winner and an Auschwitz survivor, did by writing Fatelessness (and in Dossier K. explicitly rebutting Adorno's remark as "a moral stink bomb that needlessly pollutes air that is already rank enough as things are.") Typically for Slavitt, though, more lines are devoted to finding a pillbox souvenir from a visit to the Lager that a couple of playful cats have knocked out of sight than to the visit itself. It ends, after some apparently digressive lines about Nebuchadnezzar going mad and "grazing like a bull in a meadow," by answering the question in its title:
It's the grass at Auschwitz that is misleading.
A friend of mine who was there, who was really there,
told me that they ate all the grass, not crazy but just hungry.
And poetry? Is what holds all this together, what keeps me
more or less together, or at least is a way of changing the subject.
And, I find, I cannot leave out another amazing poem, which is accompanied by a series of extremely sophisticated, sometimes hilarious and often profound "Discussion Questions" (at the Poets.org website where it can be read):
3. A Formalist?
Slavitt has not written to formula (except for a handful of bestsellers which he hammered out, he admits, to put his three children through college). This hasn't helped him in the serious literary world either, since the operators in that cut-throat marketplace haven't been able to confine him to one booth or another. At the onset, in 1961, he was not a Beat. When writers thus defined by Jack Kerouac were crowing in self-expressive free verse from the top of the dung heap, Slavitt's first book of poems, Suits for the Dead, began with a Sestina. And yet he has not been lauded by the New Formalists, or left behind as an Old Formalist, although he has been writing poems in forms right along. Neither is he a regionalist, although tones of the Northeast, from a boyhood in New York, academic service in Philadelphia, to his present residence in Cambridge are heard in his voice.
Or should that be "voices?" An editor and film critic at Newsweek, such as he was in 1961, could hardly speak with the high Renaissance dignitas of the translator of Dante's Vita Nuova or the sprezzatura of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. Or with the authority of the mature poet David Slavitt in The Seven Deadly Sins. And yet, I suspect, hearing him read a passage from each of these in his rich Northeastern accent, one would nod agreement: that is how each one should be read aloud. His voices are consistently one voice.
Commanding only one language (English) sufficiently to write well in it is a skill we expect from our American writers. Slavitt fulfills this requirement, in spades. But he also holds strong cards in at least half-a-dozen other languages, and has compiled a raftful of translations, mainly published by university presses, with their picky faculty review committees looking over the Director's shoulder. In The Seven Deadly Sins alone, there are translations from French ("Après les Vents, après le Triste Orage" by Jean-Antoine de Baif, hardly a run-of-the-translation-mill standby), Latin ("The Six Elegies of Sulpicia" and "The Phoenix" of Lactantius), and Hindi ("The Hermit and the Mouse" from the Hitopadesa, which I had never heard of before; it's a collection of fables and folktales, very popular in India). There are so many more than this modest handful that Slavitt must be granted a title as one of the most versatile of our contemporary translators of poetry.
5. Speaking Personally
Rather than rehashing further details which anyone can find on Google. I will close with some personal remarks. David's and my first books of poetry were published side-by-side in Volume VIII of Scribner's Poets of Today series, edited by John Hall Wheelock. ("Today" was 1961. It feels like Yesterday.) We never met then, when he was an Assistant Editor at Newsweek, and I an Instructor at the University of California in Santa Barbara. Not until April 2013, did we meet at last, when Rhina Espaillat invited both of us to be Featured Poets at the Newburyport Literary Festival. This meant an exhausting flight to Boston for my wife and me, but we found a good hotel, and no sooner had we settled in than David phoned. Was there anything he could do to help?
With great courtesy towards us, and vociferous execrations of the notoriously dreadful Boston drivers, he drove us (very competently) to a good Italian restaurant, where we dined lavishly. Next day, he drove us to Newburyport, where we were staying in the same quaint and Spartan New England Inn. The Festival was over in one day, and with no reason to stick around, David was heading back to Cambridge. He again generously offered us a ride, which we couldn't accept since old friends were coming up from Melrose to meet us. Nevertheless, fifty-two years after we had made our joint literary debuts, we had finally met and had the chance to become friends, such that my wife and I felt ourselves bereft when he drove away.
Luckily we have scads of his writings to console us.