While it would be nearly impossible (for me, anyway) to track down specifically what this poem is referring to, it doesn’t matter. The clues in the text lay out a narrative: Poem published, critical attack, Henry succumbs, lies down in a grave while the critical dogs of the world bay at his corpse and pee on his headstone. Something like that.
Doggedly one writes on. He did it. I’m doing it. But I’m awash in reservations today. I’m going to quote from a review of a collection of critical essays, from one of his former students, which captures my misgivings, for this day, over this whole project I jumped into. I swing back and forth. This is a “back” day, feeling fed up with narcissism in all its guises. To quote: “After decades of living with him, so to speak, I have come to regard him as a spoiled brat.” He came to class drunk and smoking, shivering and sweating, having been shepherded there from the rehab hospital by a caretaker, who would escort him straight back. He bullied his students, celebrated the bullies and narcissists and near-criminals in the class, ignoring or ridiculing the others. This report was toward the end, the professor having been eviscerated by decades of relentless substance abuse. In spite of it all, when he got on a roll, he was electric.
In this poem, he looks to be getting all maudlin and drama-boy about one of his poems that got criticized, and you know, jerk he could be, if he “published his girl’s bottom” in the staid pages of an old weekly—and, wait, excuse me, published his girl’s bottom? What does that even mean? The potential for a misogynistic reading of that line is almost breathtaking, but there it is, and if there’s a resultant criticism of the atavistic jerkitude such a statement seems to be exposing, well go figure, huh? DS 113, another reviewer claims, is a record of one of his early classroom encounters with feminism. I didn’t pick that up, but no one else does either. But, maybe the drunken old boys of literary fame’s first rank from back in the day, of which he was a card-carrying member of the club, found all that incipient feminism a bit disconcerting. When revolution starts building pressure, the status quo power usually attempts to screw down the lid. If women are in the next stage of saying “enough!”, then humiliation of them has utility as a counter-force. Publish them girls’ bottoms, go ahead. That’ll teach her. This gets under my skin today.
My intention in this blog, really out of sheer ignorance, was to pull these poems and my responses to them in my direction—like, it’s my blog. I’ve done some and I’ll do more of that. But I’m aware today that there’s a kind of sordid magnificence to The Dream Songs in the aggregate that I was completely innocent of, but that has its own horrible draw and power and is difficult to overcome. But they’re still sordid. This sickens me some. The only thing that saves them at all is that they’re frankly sordid. On one level there’s a “screw you if you don’t like it” ethic, but at the same time there’s this disgraceful groveling in response to criticism, which folds right back in to the “screw you” and leavens it further, so that disgrace is held out as a challenge and a tormented virtue. “You think that’s disgraceful? Just watch this, fucker.” That kind of thing. Geez. As long as you write about it, anything goes. And what weirds it all beyond belief is that this is not just all floating out there some fiction in language and in print. It’s lived. It’s embodied in the person, it’s the foundation for the poetry. The art feeds the living madness, which feeds the art, and it takes on an emergent form like a tornado. There is no life for its own sake. That got shot early. The poet’s life matters most in abject subjection to the art.
The other thing that saves it is that life and the 60s have some pretty sordid details. Do we wallow in it? I’ve tried three times to read Naked Lunch because of its infamy, and because I wanted to read the scene that inspired Steely Dan’s name, the best damn musical act of the 70s (along with Joni Mitchell, for different reasons). I never made it to Steely Dan because the nausea of that novel overwhelms me every time I stick my nose in it. I understand that it matters as a novel because the record of the sickened, ruined, magnificent imagination of the heroin addict is compelling, and there are apparently enough readers out there with the stomach to endure the thing. Not me. I came up short, and I have no intention of trying Naked Lunch a fourth time. Now, I’m getting the connection between Naked Lunch and The Dream Songs, the life-record of the brilliant, devastated alcoholic destroying himself who nevertheless maintains windows of feverish clarity where he lays it all out there. DS 46 stands out as among the great poems in English, I think. Many of the others meld into a long, stifling recording of the squirmings of a self-abusive, narcissistic, misogynistic, demonic Peter Pan. But you know what? We have a world full of these people, don’t we? Biography, history, literature, and philosophy, I have this dopey expectation that they ennoble us. Sometimes instead they get dragged right down into the mud and the horse dung. Whether they ennoble the dung or not, I’m not ready yet to say, but I got a nose full of it. One last thing: Apparently, when B. finally jumped from a bridge, his final poetic gesture, the autopsy revealed that the fall wasn’t what killed him. He suffocated from his face buried in the mud. Figures. Reading that detail today is what triggered this whole rant. Now, I’m glad that’s off my chest. Time to go somewhere and breathe. It’s spring out there, after all.