My formal association with Chronicles began in February 1986, when, at the suggestion of its editor, I wrote an obituary of Philip Larkin. Looking back at the history of my loves, I explained that I had decided to buy and edit The Yale Literary Magazine because “my ambition in life was to find the poet born to translate Rilke into English and publish him.” At that time, my ambition remained unfulfilled, although its pursuit did lead me to the living wellsprings of English poetry, with Larkin, whom I had discovered in a secondhand bookshop near Amir’s Falafel on Broadway, as my forked stick: “The trees are coming into leaf” (the book opened at random) “Like something almost being said.”
A few issues back, incidentally, Chronicles fulfilled that ancient ambition of mine by publishing Rilke’s “Autumn Day” translated by Alban Coventry. Apart from one or two forgotten translations by Ludwig Lewisohn in the 1940’s, this is the only Rilke poem that will live happily ever after in the English language. From Lewisohn’s “Angels” (as I remember it), for comparison:
But let the wings be spread.
Awakened wind comes
As though God with his
Broad sculptor’s hands has
turned the pages
Of the dark book of Origin.
But the fulfillment of an old ambition passes unnoticed, as in a dream. Alban Coventry has given me an English “Autumn Day”; Chronicles has become in many ways what The Yale Literary Magazine was prevented from being; Philip Larkin is famous. What next?
Next is Charles Causley. Between 1979 and 1982, The Yale Literary Magazine published eight important new poems by Causley (“New Year’s Eve, Athens”; “Sleeper in a Valley”; “Seven Houses”; “Singing Game”; “Returning South”; “Beechworth”; “In a Melbourne Suburb”; “On Launceston Castle”), when the only collection available to American readers was David Godine’s Charles Causley: Collected Poems 1951-1975 (Boston, 1975). Like Larkin, Causley was a revelation to me in 1975, and it was no coincidence that in the first issue of The Yale Literary Magazine (well, the first of Volume 148, actually) his poems followed Larkin’s. In 1984, everything we had published was included in the British collection Secret Destinations (New Poems), brought out by Macmillan. Finally, later this month, Godine is bringing out Causley’s poems from the last decade under the title of that interim collection: Secret Destinations (Poems 1977-1987). It is wonderful, in this issue’s poetry section, to be able to give our readers a preview of this long- overdue volume.
I saw the poet in February, at the opening of “Causley at 70,” an exhibition of paintings, sculpture, manuscripts, and books put on at the University of London to define the spiritual universe of this man. On a past birthday, Larkin addressed his Cornish friend in “A Birthday Card”:
Dear Charles, My Muse, asleep
Offers this doggerel instead . . .
Ah, Charles, be reassured!
Make lasting friends with all you do.
And all you write; your truth and sense
We count on as a sure defence
Against the trendy and the mad.
The feeble and the downright bad.
I hope you have a splendid day.
Acclaimed by wheeling gulls at play
And barking seals, sea-lithe and lazy
(My view of Cornwall’s rather hazy)
And humans who don’t think it sinful
To mark your birthday with a skinful.
It was in this spirit that the birthday exhibition opened, although throughout the evening the poet was drinking water.
Larkin and Causley: no two poets could be less alike. And yet in one respect they are similar: both are quiet publicly. This is impossible in America, where withdrawal into private life is synonymous with oblivion, but England still offers her poets nooks to crawl into and think in, sometimes among the “barking seals, sea-lithe and lazy”—who am I to improve on Larkin’s vision of Cornwall?—though often far less picturesque. This is one reason why your poetry editor writes from misty Albion, and why so many of the poets to appear in these pages are British.
American influence—in the form of the worst that New York has to offer—is increasingly felt, however. The nooks are disappearing one by one, bulldozed by U.S. publishing conglomerates, asphalted under Madison Avenue banalities, and walked on by visiting Columbia professors. This, in turn, affects judgments of poetry, poets, people, and life.
A few years ago, Stephen Spender, the English poet New York loves best, was a guest at a dinner party given in his honor by a friend of mine, a marvelously gifted poet in his own right, who, for reasons no discerning reader of poetry needs to have explained in this day and age, has been published in two magazines in his whole life: The Yale Literary Magazine and Chronicles. Apart from having written two or three dozen poems that will live long after the magazines which published them have been forgotten (compared to Spender’s two or three, in my view), this friend of mine has something of a reputation as The Last Gentleman in New York. He wanted to show his work to the celebrated Spender, but did not want to take advantage of a guest. In the end, after a few days’ soul-searching, he dropped off a sheaf of poems at the hotel where the celebrated personage was staying. To make a long story short, he has not heard from him since.
I was introduced to Spender at the Causley exhibition and reminded him that he had never even thanked my friend for dinner. “He is the man with that big apartment on Park Avenue?” said the celebrated personage uncertainly, adding as a kind of interrogative afterthought: “And he writes a lot of poems?” My friend’s name is Rudolph Schirmer, and the mind of one deserving the title of poet should have generated more interesting associations. In 1937, Charles Causley’s first work, a play called The Conquering Hero, was published in America by Schirmer’s. But I have digressed. Welcome, to Chronicles, Charles Causley.