A text, or an epigraph, for what I am going to say: some lines from John Ciardi’s poem about the Birdman of Alcatraz who was, among other things, a trickster of sorts. These words are from Ciardi’s poem “Snickering in Solitary”:
In every life sentence
some days are better than
others; even, sometimes,
better than being free.
And one other, the basic ethical and aesthetic principle I have tried to live by and act on all my life as a writer and find firmly stated in these lines by W.H. Auden, from his poem “The Cave of Making.” Which is an elegy for another good poet—Louis MacNeice:
Even a limerick
ought to be something a man of
honor, awaiting death from cancer or a firing squad,
could read without contempt: (at
that frontier I wouldn’t dare speak to anyone
in either a prophet’s bellow
or a diplomat’s whisper).
In the fall of 1940, a dark and dangerous year for our civilization. General Sir Archibald Wavell, commanding an ill-equipped, ragtag-and-bobtail force, an Army of Anzacs and Indians, South Africans and Scotsmen with, at its core and center, a few impeccably cool battalions of the Brigade of Guards, a force which could still be called, then, without irony or apology, Imperial, attacked a much larger force of what was very likely the best equipped army in the world (now that the superbly equipped French, together with their extravagant claims to civilization and culture, had collapsed like a shack in a hurricane). Wavell attacked and drove Mussolini’s army out of Egypt and halfway across Libya, taking more prisoners in the process than the total number of all his own forces. Even allowing that it was an Italian army, it was a stunning victory, a brief bright moment in the dark times on either side, before and after.
At the moment of Wavell’s triumph, Winston Churchill, prime minister, sent a simple message: “Matthew 7:7.” In immediate response to which Wavell signaled to him, with the same cheerful irreverence: “James 1:17.”
That is. Churchill to Wavell: “Ask and it shall be given to you; seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you.”
Wavell’s reply had been, then: “Every good and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”
I stand here grateful for your good gift and astonished that it has come to me.
And although a shifty and sneaky shadow of myself (who may be real) keeps whispering in my ear the 11th verse of the last chapter of the Book of Job—”Then came there unto him all his brethren, and all his sisters, and all that had been of his acquaintance before, and did eat bread with him in his house: and them bemoaned him and comforted him over all the evil the Lord had brought upon him; every man also gave him a piece of money and an earring of gold”—that other part of me which I had rather call the real, the true self, is, at this moment, reminded most of the first words of Queen Elizabeth upon being told that her sister Mary was dead and gone and that she, Elizabeth, last of the Tudors, was now Queen of England, Ireland, France, Defender of the Faith, etc. She turned to the Psalms and said, “This is the Lord’s doing and marvelous in our sight.”
You can see that my mood is mainly celebratory. I am grateful to all of you who are here, grateful to The Ingersoll Foundation and especially grateful to the judges, even as I am admiring and envious of their courage and independence. By which I mean to say, more or less seriously, that had their responsibility fallen on my shoulders I doubt that I would have chosen me for this award. It is not a matter of being deserving or undeserving. None of us, not even among the high and mighty, can ever be called fully deserving. Some, I suppose, are utterly undeserving. But, I must confess that I think and hope I have not lost all sense of the power of humility by saying that I do not feel I am one among them, either. Truth is, as Joyce Gary more eloquently put it in his preface to The Horse’s Mouth, speaking to the point of whether Gulley Jimson was a “good” or a “bad” artist, neither justice nor injustice has any true place in the arts. The arts, all of them, high and low, crafty and profound, have always to do with creation, The Creation. And secular justice, that concept carried over from the world of stone Caesars with fat lips and broken noses, has nothing to do with the energy and ineffable motion and direction of Creation. Though’ we are one and all almost endlessly fascinated by the doomed attempt to apply the rules of secular justice, or injustice, to the arts, so much so, indeed, that it sometimes may seem that we think and talk of very little else, we know in our hearts (as we have to; for we live always in Creation) that except for the fool whose heart is softened by every sort of sentimental denial, and the knave whose heart is as hard as a mailed fist, none of us can believe that there is any appropriate application of the ideals or practice of secular justice, of punishments and rewards, to the arts. The Elizabethan image of Fortune’s wheel—O long before Vanna White appeared to impersonate the spirit of pure greed!—is a more accurate model. The wheel goes round and we rise and fall, win and lose. As old Job, already mentioned, neatly put it, “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Put it another way. I am as happy as a kite dancing on a string in an April breeze to receive this award and attention, but I hope and pray I am not foolish enough yet (dotage will follow soon enough) to imagine I earned it. Or that I belong in the company, the visionary company, if you will, of those six others who have been honored here before me. If I may revert for a moment to the snickering Birdman of Alcatraz, I may be allowed to parody some genuinely heroic words:
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Borges and Ionesco, Naipaul and Percy, Anthony Powell and Octavio Paz—
Be in our flowing cups freshly remembered . . .
I toast and salute them one and all, feeling, however, a lot less like Harry and more like Ancient Pistol. Nevertheless he, too, was there with his part in the play to play.
My reasons for a respect, close to awe, for the foundation and the judges are more simple. There is a strong element of discovery here, and discovery seldom, if ever, is characteristic of honors of any kind awarded in the arts. It is a bold gesture, bordering on the outrageous, not to select someone already established as officially honorable. Have you ever noticed how the general officers of the Eastern Bloc nations, as well as many a fierce-looking leader in Latin America and the Third World, and now, too, I am sorry to report, some of the peacetime military leaders of our own nation, are draped, top-heavy, with row after row of ribbons representing more medals and decorations than a body could wear at one time? We know very well that these things do not necessarily represent heroism or betoken valor. We know very well that heroism and valor undeniably exist with and without these tokens. But it is our habit safely to continue to honor those who have already been established as worthy. No harm done, and it is a hard habit to break, especially in this peculiar age where we find ourselves, an age where publicity and notoriety have equal billing with whatsoever things are good and true and beautiful and of good report.
In a world full of much-decorated and high-ranking officers (albeit, in this case, officers of the literary establishment) you have elected to honor an enlisted man from the trenches. I thank you kindly for it. And I accept it, in some part, at least, for all of the others, my brothers and sisters, fellow hard laborers in the vineyard whose work is often not only not as well-known as it ought to be, but also is not” noticeably inferior in quality and value to the work of many of their most celebrated contemporaries. There is more democracy in the arts than anyone, and least of all the most honored and celebrated artists, chooses to admit. Even the absence of any strong sense of community feeling does not prevent all our errors and accomplishments from being communal, a communal enterprise. We are, as John Berryman wrote in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, “on each other’s hands who care.”
When I go back to the trenches to join the others I shall carry with me more than my own private good feelings and more than the lighthearted joy which comes from the lifting of the spirits, flagging a little if not yet cast in weary lead, of a sixty-year-old man who had long ago tossed away idle hopes the way veteran soldiers used to discard their gas masks on the battlefield (keeping the container because it was waterproof). It will also be my bounden duty to share with my fellows something of your warmth and good will and recognition.
Here I should surely move to a close, on a note of celebration and gratitude, a Nunc Dimittis, as sincere if somewhat more modest than Simeon’s. But I would be remiss not to say a general word or two about the state of the art (as I view it) at this time.
Plurality and diversity may (or may not) be positive social qualities, or buzzwords anyway, highly valued by the society at large. But in the American literary arts, where there is true diversity and plenty of plurality, the factions are fighting each other to the death. Fortunately for one and all the battles are almost exclusively on what Kierkegaard called the aesthetic level of reality. They very seldom rise to the next, the ethical level. Because their hearts are turned towards the buried treasure of aesthetics, they are all too often ethically—that is, socially and politically—primitive and as alike as peas in a pod. We need not look to our writers for much political and social wisdom or even the excitement and challenge of individual eccentricity. As for truth, which is, after all, inward and spiritual, we have to be honestly aware (as so many of our writers are not) that we all live together in the selfsame social world, sharing not merely experiences but judgments and follies, as well. As a nation, as a society, our outward and visible problems are not beyond solving. But our inward and spiritual weaknesses, our true faults and flaws then, are more intractable. For instance, we have become accustomed to, inured to, atrocity. Nothing, not the continuing Passover or the Slaughter of the Innocents can raise our eyebrows in shock and surprise. The pain of strangers is meaningless to us. Yet at the same time we are desperately, sentimentally afraid. As I wrote once, long ago, in a poem:
We have lived too long with fear. We take
fear for granted like a drunken uncle,
like a cousin not quite all there
who’s always there.
We are compassionate in the abstract and without much charity.We are sentimental and self-pitying in the particular. And we are not even ashamed of it, because we have lost our capacity for shame. We luxuriate in the bubblebath of private guilts and lack the essential common and communal ‘sense of shame without which there can be no community of secular justice. Even the most brutal Caesars were capable of some shame. Without shame there can be no conscience. Without conscience there can be no true compassion, only the illusory comforts of youth and beauty, of good health while it lasts. No wonder that the words—”and there is no health in us”—were struck from the general confession in The Book of Common Prayer. They are too painful and exact to utter even in prayer.
There is one more thing that should be said about the state of the literary arts in the two generations of writers in America since World War II; namely that, like the larger society, having freed themselves more or less from the inhibitions of ethics and religion, many of our most successful and celebrated artists have been busy seeking to manage and to control not merely the present—or, like commonplace totalitarian leaders, revising and reshaping the past to make it suit and fit their present purposes—but also, with what earlier generations would surely and immediately have identified as unmitigated hubris, have urgently sought to manipulate and control the unborn future, making it a colony, a captured possession, an extension of the present. That is, they are trying relentlessly to create and write their own history before it happens. That they will fail goes without saying; though precisely how they will fail to administer the unimaginable future, can be taken as an interesting mystery. Equally interesting, here and now, is the cockeyed form of innocence which allows them to imagine that they can possibly succeed.
All aesthetic claims aside, the artist is not charged with any priestly duties. We must work out our own salvation and do so separately and diligently. But the artist can, if he will, spare us somewhat from the heavy yoke of abstraction from Creation. And the artist can also, like others in the active vocations (which is to say the practice of the arts is not essentially contemplative), the artist can offer us the example of his continuing performance, of risking by doing. As an important character in Saint-Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars says: “What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step, but you have to take it.” Not a great claim, but a huge demand, if you think about it.
I have tried, as one must do in an elegy for an admired artist, to put much of all of this into image and poetry, in a poem in memory of John Ciardi, an old friend I wish (for all kinds of reasons) could be here with us tonight. Here it is:
Even as, inch by living inch,
I contrive to chip and cut and carve
myself into various and sundry parts—
first, of course, the fingers
and toes, then ears and nose,
these offered, as it were, in words
of The Book of Common Prayer, to be
“a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice.”
Eyes before sex, arms before legs,
next the thin peeled skin and last
the bloody mess of muscles and meat,
fat and the lonely internal organs.
Must we all be universal donors, John?
Too much to wish for.
Better (and you knew it and said so,
so well, so many times)
to spend skin and bones, to pay
out blood and breath upon,
the wholly unimportant poem:
something reasonably simple and simply
(while memory continues) unforgettable,
you and I one time, late on my front porch
in York Harbor, Maine, drinking
stone fences—your special favorite,
applejack and apple cider, all
the fumes and essences of Eden;
two old guys, feeling no pain,
beneath the brightly reeling stars
while nearby, shiny and smooth
as a blacksnake, the river is rising up
to high tide, inch by living inch.
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