Thursday, March 28, 2013

"Dear Assen Poop": the lost art of letter writing


A good friend has started a collection of fountain pens. He has ten so far, those ancient instruments that require filling up with ink and which can put indelible stains on one's seersucker sleeve. I'm only assuming he hasn't adopted such sartorial splendor as of yet. If he does, I'll be the first to tell him he's carrying things a bit too far.

His decision to take pen in hand, though, is understandable. There's a permanence to the ink-written page that the vagaries of cyberspace can't yet match: if there's a 
there, there, it can be accessed and downloaded, but it can't be tear-stained as a letter.

I wish him great success, and look forward to his future musings. I certainly hope his new avocation leads my friend to enjoy new ways of personal expression. I was certainly amused to read his post-script, tacked on the very last line as an afterthought: 
"Do you read all those books you list on your blog?"

Well, it is the blogger's unfortunate curse to appear as though he does nothing but read, or report on nothing but what consumes him; I've been to
 math and IT websites that appear to be nothing but equations and problem-solving that leave me mystified. Reading literature, like understanding math, is years' worth of cumulative effort, and leaves a lasting impression, like layers in a rock formation worn by river water.

So much of writing is submerged in effort no one sees, and then, once a book is published, in the personal connections a writer makes with the reader. Larry McMurtry, author and screenwriter
 (The Last Picture Show, Hud, Lonesome Dove) once suggested -- facetiously, but what a concept! -- that novels ought to come packaged like DVDs are now, tricked out with extras: drafts of scenes, rejection letters from publishers and wickedly demoralizing letters from lovers and friends, unsolicited advice from well-meaning strangers, editor's disagreements, different endings, false starts.

It would mark the total deconstruction of the novel: read the published version of what the author actually succeeded in finishing, and then be amazed that the thing ever got written in the first place.

Disagreements and arguments: A collection of an individual's letters can trace the personal and artistic development of a writer, and his friendships. Here's the first selection from The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams, which he wrote to his mother in 1902, when he was 19 and in his first year at the University of Pennsylvania: "Today, Sunday, it has rained continuously. I went to church today for the first time at the Y.M.C.A. here in the college ..."

Of course the best art of literary letter writing depends on the familiarity between writers, and when two egos clash the results can be a spectacle for the unsuspecting reader fifty or more years on. During World War II, Williams was incensed to hear of Ezra Pound's broadcasts from Rome, during which the Fascist-supporting poet would start a sentence by stating "as my friend Doc Williams of New Jersey would say ..." Florence, Williams's wife, feared for the poet's safety.

In November, 1956, the good doctor's pique at the politics of Ezra Pound led him to lob the following missile at the icon of twentieth century poetry. Pound, who as a supporter of Mussolini during the war was found incompetent to face trial for treason in the U.S., was then incarcerated at Washington's St. Elizabeth's Hospital from 1946 to 1958. Williams wrote:

Dear Assen Poop: Don't speak of apes and Roosevelt to me -- you know as much of the IMPLEMENTATION of what you THINK you are proposing as one of the Wops I used to take care of on Guinea Hill. YOU DON'T EVEN BEGIN TO KNOW what the problem is. Learn to write an understandable letter before you begin to sound off. You don't even know the terms you're using and have never known them. At least you have found a man in ZWECK 2 (ward) who is conscious of the DIFFICULTIES and who, unlike you, has an intelligent understanding of those difficulties and how to present them.
You're too damned thickheaded to know you're asleep -- and have been from the beginning. You are incapable of recognizing what you mean to present and and to hide your stupidity resort to name-calling and general obfuscation. Do you think you will get anywhere that way -- but in jail or the insane asylum where you are now? Mussolini led you there, he was your adolescent hero -- or was it Jefferson? You still don't know the difference.

 But you personally do write poems that are at best supremely beautiful. I'm afraid that for the moment I'll have to let it go at that. I'll go on reading what I can and when a glimmer of brilliant exposition comes through the fog of your verbiage I hope I will still be alive to recognize it.

When Williams died, in 1963, Pound sent a brief note from his home in Italy: "For you he bore with me sixty years. I shall never find another poet-friend like him." I hope my letter-writing friend takes Williams' bracing precedent to heart, and has the fortitude (and good sense) to address me as "Dear Assen Poop," should I fall out of his favor. It would be quite an honor. 

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