A Conversation About Hemingway
Stephens wrote this poem in 1986, and revised it a little in October 1992. It appeared in volume XXXV of Spectrum, in 1993. It’s a talk, and belongs with the others gathered here.
Occasion: The review by John Updike in The New Yorker,
June 30, 1986, of The Garden of Eden
‘How nice it would be to have a Heracles who suffered
but did not behave so badly!’
—Karl Reinhardt, on Trachiniae, Sophocles
I was just resting; no, come in, come in.
The coffee’s almost ready. Take a chair.
FRIEND [glancing at open New Yorker he has picked up
from an end-table and talking toward the kitchen]
I see you’ve made some marks in the margin here.
Some look emphatic. — Now the reviews begin,
I see, the papers having done their spread
On this new major semi-Hemingway.
A Moveable Feast, then Islands in the Stream
Tampered with and not being what they seem,
Now this one. Well, the other two books sold.
What’s in him, though, that makes the papers care?
Why don’t other big leaguers of that day —
Picasso, Joyce, Stravinsky, Yeats — compare
With him at making the papers? He’s just as dead;
A.S. [bringing the coffee];
Somebody told me Rilke said
Fame is misunderstanding. That would do
For part of a quick answer. — The other greats
You name used up their lives in the art they served,
Hemingway didn’t. In this he was alone.
[Gets up and begins pacing]
— Picasso said, ‘When I was young, unknown,
And poor, only a few could understand
What I was doing. Now that I’m famous, old,
And rich — it’s still the same!’ A common fate
In every art, I think. Hemingway led
(And in celebrity, one of the nastier fates,
Which some would claim he courted and deserved) —
Well, they forget, forget — a small-town kid
Who, once in Paris, soon had the respect of Pound,
Who dined and drank (and then drank on) with Joyce;
Was soon composing sentences so clear
And quiet that they were like atmosphere
You breathed along with his people; and you see
Them at their doings, catching in each voice
The tones and turns of the feelings coming through;
You are nearby. Word of this gets around;
Recall his charm, and physical presence, too.
Take that for granted, and yet Hemingway led
A life still more uncommon than suspected
By many yet. — Yeats’s choice* he rejected
And chose both life and art, both unperfected.
Remember in Green Hills of Africa
His talks with one Kandinsky?
— Well, I recall
a labor-recruiter and intellectual
Declaring that the life of the mind is best;
Recall he spoke with some complacency
Of his slightly shady business practices.
Full of opinions. He drew Hemingway
Out on the better writers of the day
In Paris, and who is best in America,
While needling him off and on on why it is
He should be out there trying to shoot kudu —
He, an intelligent man, a dichter, too?
All the while, Hemingway’s preoccupied
With the failed hunting of the day just past,
With time growing short, with worry about the weather,
And now to this last question has replied
That it’s his aim to write and hunt kudu —
There’s a lot of other things he loves to do,
He adds — make visits to the Prado, say.
Kandinsky sees an opening, in this duel
He’s been so set on taunting his host into,
And asks, ‘Is one not better than the other?’
The answer’s quick and quiet and concise:
‘One is as necessary as the other.’
(Kandinsky slips it with a misconstrual.)
— Do you remember what Joyce said on this?
[Goes to bookshelf, brings back a
book, leafing through it]
I think I can find it quickly — here it is:
‘We were with him just before he
went to Africa. He promised us
a living lion. Fortunately we
escaped that. But we would like
to have the book he has written.
. . . He writes as he is . . . He’s
a big powerful peasant, strong as
a buffalo . . . And ready to live
the life he writes.’
[looking up from the book]
Joyce adds, with his aloof incisiveness:
‘He never would have written it if
his body hadn’t allowed him to
That should be in italics, or capitals.
[then reading on]
‘But giants of his sort are truly
modest; there is much more behind
Hemingway’s form than people know.’
. . . Hemingway in a letter early on
In Paris said of his own mind, that
‘when it is working’ [note the proviso here]
‘is a good, delicate instrument.’ Joyce is one
To see that his friend was using ‘delicate’
In the complete range of its meanings there.
But as you find in his biographers —
And how they multiply in recent years —
He abounds in things that get half-understood
(Curious, for all they’ve learned, how little they see)
Apart from all he wrote —
both bad and good.
Then, none of the others looked like movie stars,
To make them and their art newspaper bait;
He did. — I see you’ve made some notes, also.
And have you read the book?
A.S. [continues his pacing]
the good. — I sometimes think photographers
Must have accompanied him everywhere . . .
I haven’t seen the book. It wasn’t in,
When I last called the bookstore, tho’ I dread
Word that it’s here. A great ability
Sagging and woozy — painful to see. But look,
He didn’t want this seen; now that he’s dead
We gather round the thing and gawk . . .
Tho’ happy for the unexpected wealth,
I felt a little unclean when I read his letters.
Those are private. — And another thing:
[Nodding at the magazine still in FRIEND’s hands]
You’ll learn that somebody named Jenks
Assembled this from mounds of manuscript
That would fill two shopping bags. A tight-lipped
Note to the Reader tells us of ‘some cuts.’
So as I read along I’ll wonder, ‘Jenks!
Jenks! Where are you in here, Jenks?’
I mean, he shuffled the book together in perfect stealth.
Leaving out what? And putting which parts where?
Drag the collaborator into view,
If he will not come forward and come clean.
For naming Jenks, John Updike has my thanks.
Critics with information fill a need.
Proprieties apart, you see the book
To be a bad one well before you look.
A.S. [sitting down at last]
It will not be that simple. Even tho’
Across the River and Into the Trees was bad,
Think of the Venice and its wintry beauty
He brings you to: you can’t find it elsewhere.
Other things too — touches, but master touches
Among the deliquescings — I’ll be glad,
For all that’s amiss and dubious, to have read
This book — flinching at the whats and buts
And whoses and if onlys, the dismay
The book as a whole will result in. Hemingway,
Managed by Jenks, legs wobbly, will be there.
FRIEND [continuing to glance through the review]
The hero’s evidently in the clutches
Of women made from ex-wives of the writer.
‘The Sinister Sex,’ as Updike states the theme —
A.S. [sits back, sticks out his legs]
That title, and below it ‘Hemingway’
In the first sentence, made this reader wary.
Maybe he has it right, I couldn’t say,
As yet. But would it be as simple as that?
(Was Catherine sinister? Hadley sinister? Brett?
The young woman in Hills Like White Elephants?)
Nothing else is, even in bad Hemingway.
As Pilar said of Pablo: ‘I suppose
If a man has something once, something of it
Always remains.’ (And Pablo, by the way,
The more you contemplate him, will demand
The more of all the brains you can command
To find out all of what he is, and does.)
— The ex-wives themselves, you know, have left us word
More favorable to the man than what we’ve heard
From the outside.
FRIEND [having glanced a little further in the review]
Ah, here’s a sex-survey:
Sex in the life and art of Hemingway.
Evidently the fellow was retarded.
In this book, tho’, he’s catching up at last,
Escaping the repressions of the past,
His guilty innocence in part discarded.
Hemingway lib is what he celebrates,
Yes. The old story. It’s the legendary
Personage, not the writer Hemingway,
The times require. Belief in the real thing,
The thing the serious writer really does,
The changes you find it bringing on inside
Your moment-to-moment experience of it, quickly
Fades — fades in me; you leave with a memory —
A separate experience.
Which joins the every-day
Jostle of things.
The legend has that strength.
It drains a human life away at length.
The works of a great artist ought to all
Be labeled: Contents Immortal. PERISHABLE.
The legend not the man supplied my sickly
Joke a while back about the wobbly fighter.
Legends are hardy, keep their power to sting.
(Think how Yeats feared he could not escape
What malicious eyes had shown him was his shape.
Oblivion, Borges said, is best of all,
Once the work’s done, for the individual.)
Then too, you see, with Updike it’s the cat
Reviewing the dog, and though no cat is brighter
(The breed is sociological, in his case:
The cat’s-gaze chronicler of his age and place)
The dog, you must expect, is gonna be,
When the cat’s finished with him, simplified.
Cat calls dog ‘the old poser,’ I see.
A.S. [stirring cold coffee]
A mistake, I think; for what he was prey
To was self-consciousness, in his celebrity.
In a few weeks I report back to duty
At the small classroom where I teach his stuff.
I may use that review on opening day —
It’s a deluxe Hemingway-critic kit
Of topics, notions, terms . . . I treasure it.
Nothing is missing, each machined cliché
Gleams in its velvet-lined recess, enough
Is arranged there in Updike’s handy prose
For all it suits us to believe and say —
Here, let me see it. — Can I warm that up?
Would you want some of that cake? It’s getting on
Toward four o’clock.
FRIEND [putting magazine down]
Yes please, half a cup,
Some cake too, since the lecture has begun
I’ll stay on for it . . .
A.S. [disappearing, calling from the kitchen]
Well, see how it goes,
Before deciding . . .
[brings in tray, picks up magazine
and glancing at it continues]
Here’s the pathology
Of our man’s psyche brought out early on
For public viewing —
[interrupting self, raising a finger]
I trust you to suppose
And see I’m hardly singling out this piece,
It came this morning, that’s all. Any one
Of dozens of commentaries would suit me
As well for hooks to hang my own thoughts on.
A bonus is the sparkle of his prose.
His lights are not my lights. Nevertheless
The man’s a pro, and savvy chronicler
Of certain goings on, in certain quarters
I avoid, myself. But I would hate to miss
A piece by him; tho’ novelists as reporters —
But where was I?
A beauty of an issue. That a great
System of fissures ran through his character
Hemingway took as portion of his fate.
The place he was born in he was never of:
His sense of fate was like an ancient Greek’s,
Glimpsing the shadowy Necessities,
A close student of Zeus and his techniques
In favoring and destroying each of us.
(The classicist Donald Sutherland alone
Saw that his outlook was Mediterranean.)
A reading of the letters shows you this
In case you should have missed it earlier.
— None so self-strong; none so self-dangerous
You’ve made a line for the man’s epitaph . . .
None so self-knowing all the while, almost,
Till near the end. — I want a photograph
[gets up and while approaching the
Although too soon that clear self-knowing took
The wrong turn into the self-consciousness
That hurts the writing in the later books
And plagued his life in that celebrity.
The man became, to himself, a personage.
We’re taught self-knowledge is the ultimate
In wisdom. I don’t know, I am inclined
To take the Thurber title, Leave Your Mind
Alone, as the sound rule. Just see that
It does its job, bears its share of the weight . . .
A.S. [back now, with the book opened]
Here it is. Hemingway as his own ghost.
You see he’s already gone. The dark eyes
Are dark in the sense of lightless, too — ghost beard,
With a faint, dazed, apologetic smile —
The body wasted — thin shoulders, scrawny neck —
The residue is what? The little guile
(See how the dead gaze is a bit askance)
He used a few weeks on to have the wreck
Taken away and put where it should be.
FRIEND [contemplating the photograph]
That it’s all over for him’s plain at a glance.
And that he killed himself I think must seem
To many just the logical extreme
Of all he really stood for, out at last
In all the papers, every news broadcast . . .
We psychological moderns tend to see
In human nature that alone as real
Which the poor conscious mind fails to conceal.
When you say we you don’t mean you and me.
You mean the we of sociology,
And demographics. Your ‘human nature’, tho’,
Like nature elsewhere in its occupations
Is subtle, intricate, predictable —
A sort of mechanism; other than
The fully human. It’s what Frost had in mind
In judging himself to be ‘clever enough
To beat my nature,’ although knowing well
A decent percentage, as in baseball
With some tough losses over the long haul,
Is what you try for — a low E.R.A.
In battling the old psychological man,
As we may call him. He’s what Hemingway
As a young man, alert for indications,
Called ‘a son of a bitch,’ the one who ‘always goes
By the rules.’ While on the other hand you’ll find
A good man is hard to understand. He goes
By what? The human intelligence, I suppose,
Which isn’t guileful. — What were we talking of?
FRIEND [again looking at the photograph]
The suicide. That beard’s like a fog above
Solid black starting where the neck should show,
That you called scrawny, and going on below,
Filling the loose-hung clothes. There is a head
Set on a shadow body.
A.S. [at his bookcase again, pulls down another book]
Old Gensei said
(This is from Burton Watson’s great translation):
‘My mind contemplates the Dharma of No Birth,
my mouth intones rhymeless poems
my mother’s old and I’m sick most of the time —
if I weren’t happy, I’d be a fool for sure.’
What we’ve been speaking of is suffering, and
What Gensei says here is, suffering doesn’t matter —
To the sufferer, even. It’s the pure negative
In life; some life subtracted. Understand,
This isn’t Stoic — it’s metaphysical.
Suffering tends toward zero on the scale
Ontology lays out for what exists,
And what it leaves us with is what we live —
Till you are shadow filling out your coat.
For life is action, and, dare I say it? good.
So Gensei, wise and happy, understood,
While everything we care about will scatter
For pure annihilation at the end.
So the young Hemingway also understood.
‘Forget your personal tragedy, we are all
Bitched from the start,’ he wrote to a new friend
Given to crying. And he also wrote,
In an early letter to his editor,
‘There really is, to me, anyway, very great
Glamour in life . . .’ The statements make a pair,
Shouldn’t be separated.
FRIEND [leans forward in chair, in lecturer's posture]
— Your ancient Greek
Saw that. And taking two of the words that mean
‘suffering’ and ‘doing’ or ‘acting’ (dran and pathein):
To be flat opposites, he yoked the two
To make a proverb, so — Drasanti pathein:
Doers must suffer. (Onlookers, and the meek,
Await the outcome, dwindling as they do . . .)
— Donne has a pair of lines on suffering:
‘Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For he tames it, that fetters it in verse’ —
Making the cure a matter of brute force?
Donne’s force is in knowing. A quieter great man,
Borges, speaks of a poem he had written
In great unhappiness (he has been smitten
And the girl feels nothing but indifference
And lets him know it). ‘And,’ he says, ‘of course
After I wrote it I felt a kind of relief . . .
When a writer writes something, he’s done what he can.’
What he gets done there is a special thing:
Matching the anguish with trained intelligence
In the particular art he’s been drawn to,
Grants each the scope to exercise its force,
Till each adds to the other’s education . . .
— The way you’re talking shows your occupation.
Poems by a Donne, a Borges, are events.
Well, the Greeks linked up song and suffering
And understanding. Their art’s contemplative,
The thoughts and feelings live in it
With the whole spectacle brightly lit,
So we can see their people as they live —
Terror and wonder visible in their plight,
Disaster throws a blazing-out of light
Over the watchers. The thing gets understood.
A.S. [his eyebrows slightly raised]
Well, more or less. Better to say it should.
It’s up to us . . . which brings us back, maybe
From the Greeks through Donne and Borges to Gensei —
Large understander, in his modest way,
Who like your Greek saw our whole tragedy
And was a happy man . . .
FRIEND [looking at his watch, gets ready to stand up]
There’s my cue:
It’s getting late. — Sophocles, too, they say
Was a happy man. It’s on the epitaph
Which Phrynicus wrote for him in a play.
A.S. [who has begun leafing through the book of photographs again]
I’ve wondered, looking at this last photograph,
See — winter-dead trees, and the darkness for a backing,
And, back to camera, Hemingway looking off —
Has the photographer caught him unaware?
In this three-quarter view his shoulders square
But no exaggeration in his air,
None of the self-consciousness you find
In photos from early on right to the end.
The white beard juts into the darkening air.
He is alone, nobody sees him there,
His bearing says. — Or maybe he’s been aware
Of the picture-taker. Or even still may be,
But it doesn’t matter to him any more.
As I was starting out to say before,
It may be, here, that his rule, ‘Not to ignore
But to despise whatever bad end there could be,’
Is still, after all that’s happened, somewhere in view
Off in the widespread ruins of his mind.
I leave the speculation up to you.
It would be fine to know you have it right.
I think of what the old editors, when perplexed
By a partly indecipherable text
Or one where only parts remained, would write:
Caetera desunt — that is, The rest is lacking.
— I have to go.
A.S. [standing too, now; looking out the front window]
It’s getting dark. Good night!
Perfection of the life, or of the work.’
© 2017 Alan Stephens Poems. All Rights Reserved.