|Countdown to New Year's: Round 1, Day 1|
Donne VS Ginsberg
I am introduced to John Donne by our mutual friend, Ben Jonson, who refers to John as “the first poet in the world in some things.” John arrives for our date with a single rose wrapped carefully in what I see is a section of a map—he assures me it is, as I suspect, “a metaphor,” though he refuses to say for what—and a few blank pages for “whatever the evening inspires.” Though John was dismissed in his time by fellow poets—including fellow CTNY competitor Samuel Johnson—as everything from crude and uncouth to talentless and without merit, it was in the early 20th century that appreciation for his work was “rehabilitated” due to appreciation among Modernist poets and readers.
Allen Ginsberg arrives at our meeting spot—an open, hilly field that we’re only told is somewhere along Ireland’s coastland—looking mildly uncomfortable but toting a few notebooks and pens. He presents one set to me somewhat unceremoniously but surprises me by mirroring John’s words: they are, he says, for “whatever the day inspires.” As different as the two poets are, I’m more surprised by Allen, who spends most of the quiet date—we mostly sit and discuss poetics, and work off of each other’s words to compose lines about our landscape and ideologies—steeped more in observation than discourse. When I ask him during a quiet moment how he would like me to remember him after our time together, he states that it’s hard to put the breadth of all he has been thinking and feeling into words, but he has always been someone busy at work “articulating feelings in company.” Even his date “rival,” John, nods in appreciation of the subtlety of this. By the end of our time together, I’m most impressed by the latitudes of both poets’ emotional inner and external discourse; both have worked to woo less with oversentimental speech and more with the quiet, and haunting, and powerful language of feeling spoken in silence.
At the end of our time together Allen hands me a thin notebook in which he has hand-written a copy of “Kaddish.” John bids me unroll the map around the rose, and on the back I see he has written out “An Anatomy of the World.”
Toomer VS Cowper
I’m flown back stateside to meet up with Jean Toomer in Harlem. I’m escorted to our meeting place—a small, dimly-lit and mostly abandoned, jazz café that echoes the cultural warmth of a much earlier time—by Bernard Bell, who urges me to consider Jean strongly, if for nothing else than the “haunting, illusive beauty” of his language and poetry. Though he died as a recluse, I’m assured by many of his admirers that he spoke to the world with a depth of emotion and haunting portrayal of culture that spoke volumes both about him as an artist and the world which he wrote. When we meet, Jean comes across as shy, a still lake on the surface, but apparent in his eyes is the bubbling emotion and inner thought of a flowing river. Most of his time with me is, like Allen in the date before his, spent in courteous and curious silence, but every so often he speaks his appreciation of the atmosphere, the gentle music, the history into which we both seem to have stepped as cautious voyagers.
William Cowper has arrived before both of us; he stands out like a sore thumb in the setting, with his powdered hair and mildly stern countenance, but arises and bows with a pleasant air as Jean and I approach. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who recommended William for this challenge, declared him “the best modern poet” in his introduction, and urged me not to be too quick to judge his outwardly serious demeanor. When we all sit, he begins to speak immediately of how this place speaks to him of the soul, and I’m afraid Coleridge may have steered me wrong, until he speaks of his brief affair with a woman named Theodora … suddenly his words take on a deep emotion and it becomes clear that almost above all else he speaks fluidly and fluently that language of emotional complexity that soon has both Jean and I enraptured. During a brief pause for sandwiches, I watch as both poets silently observe each other and the room, and realize that for all their apparent differences they both share the same deep fascination and emotional connection with the world around them that makes the time with them at once subtle and intense.
As we prepare to part ways, Jean presents me with a gently folded sheet of paper onto which his poem “Storm Ending” has been typed. William bows before leaving, and only inclines his head toward a rolled leaf of parchment onto which is written by hand in semi-smeared ink a copy of his “Light Shining out of Darkness.”
Shakespeare VS Borges
In the early evening I walk into Central Park and smile as I hear a performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” underway. I wander slowly toward the sound and smile broader when I spot William Shakespeare standing on the outer edge of the crowd, watching with mild awe and unspoken amusement this modern representation of his work. He kisses my hand when we first greet each other, and soon leans toward me and whispers, “In my time, these all would have been men” in an amused tone as he watches a young actress take on the role of Helena. The play is almost over when we meet, but it is clear that William has been here for some time, engaging as much with his play as he does with the crowd and sights around him. William is mildly attentive, but seems distracted by almost everything he sees—everything from a man selling soft pretzels to a couple rolling by on roller blades draws his attention from our conversation and his own play. We spend most of our time together joking and laughing, culminating in my uncontrolled laughter when William loudly yet humorously boos the end of his own work.
As the play ends, we are joined by Jorge Luis Borges. Jorge was recommended to the competition by André Maurois, who wrote me a letter of introduction in which he stated that Jorge was a great writer on the merits of his works’ “wonderful intelligence, their wealth of invention, and their tight, almost mathematical style.” He is as amused by our surroundings as he seems by William, and both settle into a deep literary conversation that leaves me, though a bit excluded, mostly in awe. Borges quickly takes the lead as we walk our way through the expansive park, weaving us along paths and off of them into trees and places we’re sure we shouldn’t be but journey into boldly nonetheless. It is almost the end of our time together before I realize I have hardly interviewed these two poets at all; they have enthralled me in their own questions of each other and the world around them, and in their discussions which themselves weave intricate worlds of wonder. I’m only mildly disappointed that I haven’t had more time to pick either of their brains, but mostly elated that they have both laid their minds so clearly before me anyway.
As we part ways, William carelessly tosses me a half-balled sheet of paper onto which he has scrawled “O Mistress Mine Where are You Roaming?” in a careless hand. Jorge hands me a more carefully written copy of “Sleep.”
Your Turn: Which three poets do you think won the day? Which poems spoke to you, and why? Are there any frontrunners so far in this competition that you hope make it to the end?
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