To Summon Inheritances

by James Snydal


Skirmishing around questions in a recent essay, Matthew Cornetta 1. tried to sort out ways for Baby-Boomers and their children, raised to live in at least dreams of New Frontiers, to make order from their lives after Ronald Reagan's supply-side disasters and the faulty trial of O.J. Simpson.

God is spoken to in old days in Psalm 61:6: "Thou hast given an inheritance."2 To write poems of our world summons up a reader's connections with it, summons up awarenesses of inheritance. On 1 April 1957, a Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, began her "Requiem 1935-1940" with a memory:

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):

'Can you describe this?'
And I said: 'I can.'
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.3

Many of those who read journals like 256 Shades Of Grey are writers, whose inheritances include fine pages written even in our century, words by people whose work fills a splendid new anthology edited by Carolyn Forche, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry Of Witness. Among her poets, Robert Lowell. Although his best earlier work had been written in free verse, in time, he started to witness his days with blank-verse fourteen liners. The poet spoke to Ian Hamilton of his witnessing (eventually, his Notebook and History):

"I did nothing but write; I was thinking lines even when teaching or playing tennis. ...Ideas sprang from the bushes, my head; five or six sonnets started or reworked in a day. ...I wished to describe the immediate instant. If I saw something one day, I wrote it that day, or the next, or the next. Things I felt or saw, or read were drift in the whirlpool, the squeeze of the sonnet and the loose ravel of blank verse." 4. Work of such craftsmen is neither folly nor a waste.

Some Orthodox Jews, like Elie Wiesel, who even studied the Talmud when a teenage prisoner at Auschwitz, are blessed with importances as they live their days and nights. What are the rest of us to do, though? Even as an old man in Oxford, Wystan Auden continued to fill his days, as in my "Auden In Oxford":

...Wystan worked editing a volume by George Herbert, writing book reviews and making new poems himself. He did not teach, but lived strictly. Long before, he had learned routine, rising at half past six and working till four, having decided what he wanted, then doing it at exactly (without even a laugh or grimace) the same moment every day. 5.

In his final collection of prose, Joseph Brodsky wrote that "literature is a dictionary, a compendium of meanings for this or that human lot, this or that experience. It is a dictionary of the language in which life speaks to man, its function is to save the next man, a new arrival, from falling into an old trap." 6. Perhaps, we should proceed into the next millennium with our inheritances in mind, using much of our time writing and reading pages, assembling and checking dictionaries.

Individual poets do not know their own futures. Some of our coming years will be filled with a variety of social torments, and may we be ready to write of them. On the other hand, if years go well, may both our imaginations and our inheritances thrive.

I close with lines from several poems in Lowell's Day By Day. The first is from "For John Berryman", Lowell's longtime pal:

To my surprise,
John, I pray to not for you,
think of you not myself,
smile and fall asleep. 7.

May we all have such a closeness in our lives.
Lastly, lines from "Epilogue". Even this year, with so many paintings by Vermeer in Washington, D.C., may our witnessing fulfill us:

Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun's illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name. 8.

Works Cited

1. 256 Shades Of Grey: Volume 1 Issue 12 ("Where Do We Go From Here?") pp. 5-8
2. The Holy Psalter from the Septuagint [transl., Father Lazurus; c/o The Diocesan Press Post Box 455, Madras 7, S. India] p.71.
3 Against Forgetting Twentieth-Century Poetry Of Witness: Ed., Carolyn Forcher pp. 101-102.
4 Robert Lowell Collected Prose, p. 272.
5 Chiron Review: Vol. X, #4; Winter, 1991 ("Auden In Oxford") -- p.23. 6 Grief And Reason.. Essays 7 Day By Day, p. 28.
8 Day By Day, p. 127.