Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Topography of the Heart (Part 2)

Poet Henry Reed spent part of 1963-64 at the University of Washington as a visiting poet-in-residence, and seemed immediately to take to the light teaching load and the English Department ways (comical pissing-and-moaning was just his way of dealing with daily existence!)--so well that he was brought back off and on till 1967 in professor/lecturer capacities, with one full year as a Visiting Professor.

I graduated in English Lit in the summer of 1964 but went straight on for a Master's, from 1964-66, so I was present during his time at the U.W., first as one of his many students and then as a Teaching Assistant in the Department, herding my own groups of kids through Freshman English and helping a couple of literature professors, including Henry, as an assistant reading poems and papers, administering tests, whatever was asked.

I remember him having us read poets like Yeats and Eliot and Marvell and then try our hand at certain forms or styles. My poor specimens somehow passed muster, however, and we quickly became something more than teacher and student, albeit less than close friends. Usually Henry kept company with or was hosted by the big guns in the Department like Robert Heilman, Arnold Stein, and William Matchett, and Dorothee Bowie, who was much more than the English Department's nominal secretary. But he was especially happy when Elizabeth Bishop came in for a few weeks; the two outsider poets saw a great deal of each other for a too-brief time. (Thanks to Henry, I was invited to meet and have tea with Miss Bishop, a cherished memory still.) He went regularly to the Seattle Opera too and dragged me along once--can't remember what we saw but, then, opera was wasted on me in those days(mostly now as well).

Henry's Seattle time was actually lived in irregular pieces, with him going back to England for a few months and then reappearing at the U.W. for another temporarily-funded teaching stint. We corresponded during those absences of course, and I still have six or eight of his warm and gossipy, carefully handwritten letters, complete with witty emendations added here and there.

And somewhere along the line, when our second child was born in 1967, my then-wife Sharon and I asked "Henny" (that's what our toddler son Glenn called him) to be godfather to Krista; he gulped, I expect, but generously accepted the charge. A Master's was all I could afford to pursue by then--with two children and an at-home wife--but I stayed on working at the University Relations Office till late 1967, by which time Henry had returned to England from his final Seattle stay.

He resumed his life as highly regarded BBC writer and translator of (mostly Italian) literature, and he began drinking heavily. He had tippled routinely over here, but the work regimen kept him upright and prepared, most of the time. I believe that Henry knew he had been blessed and damned with a certain limited success--known for a few poems, but better known and regularly paid as a radio playwright, the writing of which drained his creative energy for the rigorous craft of poetry.

Our letters slowly trickled to a halt, though he did manage to inquire after Krista and send her a small gift each Christmas for the first few years. When I finally got over to England twice in the late Seventies and early Eighties, he wouldn't allow me to visit, nor would he come out for a meal or even a drink. I was experiencing in a small way what all of his friends had come to know: Henry had become reclusive and drink-sodden, with his health dwindling away and no one allowed to interfere with his slide. He died in 1986.

Five years later, English poet Jon Stallworthy assembled a Collected Poems, which took Henry's one full book A Map of Verona and his Lessons of the War chapbook and added all the other singly-printed pieces from his later years as well as some unpublished works. (This book has just been republished in a paperback edition available from Carcanet Press in England.) A handful of those poems do show him at his best including a long dramatic monologue titled "The Auction."

Critic Frank Kermode reviewed the book in The London Review and, in passing, wrote a decent capsule assessment of Henry Reed the man: "He was gentle, melancholy and funny, and without conscious effort gave one a strong sense of his unaffected dedication to poetry, not least to Italian poetry; and also tacitly but powerfully, a sense that his life, though marked by a great deal of idiosyncratic achievement, was radically disappointing..."--to the world of literature and to Henry himself.

Henry's poem "Unarmed Combat" ends with some words akin to his own epitaph:

"... so that when we meet our end,
It may be said that we tackled wherever we could,
That battle-fit we lived, and though defeated,
Not without glory fought."

He left me a better poet, maybe a better man for having known him. As well as a taste for good wine, he also gave then-wife and me a splendid little "inner landscape" painting by local artist Wes Wehr, inscribed on the back "To my dear Ed & Sharon with three years' love, Henry." And he left me too his six-volume boxed set of The London Shakespeare, a 1957 edition of the complete plays, bought not because he was teaching Shakespeare but just to have at hand during his days and nights in Seattle.

"Every serious poet needs to read Shakespeare," Henry remarked to me once, "for a repeated lesson in humility."

((For an astonishing, near-complete examination of Reed's life and work--scholarly but fun as well--see the Reeding Lessons blog I have bookmarked way down below. And thanks to its dedicated host "steef" for awakening old memories!))

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