on Alan Sullivan

I was invited to speak on a panel at The West Chester Poetry conference this year on the subject of Alan Sullivan.  Alan never failed to move, inspire, challenge, or frustrate every poet who crossed his path.  He did not frustrate me, though I was often startled by his approval of my work, whims, impulses, and poetic obsessions.  He did make sure I knew it when I was letting my ego get in the way of an otherwise good poem. Because he was so exacting and so brutally honest, and because his knowledge and intuition were profound, I allowed myself to believe him when he encouraged me to send my poems to the best journals out there. Alan lived long enough to see my work appearing regularly in Poetry Magazine, and I think it made him proud as a peacock -- though of course he detested the journal itself. I declined the West Chester offer, but I'm glad to have heard accounts from other panelists, and grateful to see the colorful, remarkably honest memoir Aaron Poochigan shared with the group: 

Or Else We Drown in Lies: A Memoir of my Time with Alan Sullivan 
by Aaron Poochigian

Let me start by saying that I loved Alan Sullivan, but honesty requires a disclaimer: we were always wary of each other and for years were not on speaking terms. Halfway between a eulogy and a roast, this memoir will be as forthright with its observations as Alan was with his. While I was working back through what I remember of him, I often felt as if I were in a session with an analyst.

I am blessed or cursed with the habit of associating people on a first encounter with animals. When I first met Alan, he immediately struck my nineteen-year-old imagination as a snapping turtle. Still, his life-style was pretty cool—he lived with his partner in a huge house next to an apple orchard south of town. Even better, he and his partner, at the time, were rabid atheists. Given the Biblical take on homosexual love, this was only reasonable. Their godlessness also seemed super-cool to my sophomore sensibilities: “Woah, these guys are gay and heathens--awesome!” Alan was the first man I met who was perfectly at ease with his homosexuality, neither indulging in what he called “queenie bullshit” on the one hand, nor retreating into shame, concealment or nervous jokes on the other.

As I came to know Alan better, I soon realized that his interactions with others were guided by what I call his doctrine of “original stupidity”: left to themselves, humans (and especially the humans he knew) would inevitably do the stupid thing; he had been placed on earth to stop them. When he first met me, I was badly in need of salvation. After an initial conversation he concluded, from my staccato and halting manner of speech, that my mind was “contorted and convulsive.” Furthermore, I was wallowing in all kinds of romantic nonsense. I liked the poetry of Shelley too much, I liked Walt Whitman even a little bit, my hair was long, etc.

Private and social interactions with Alan were awkward because he did not allow himself the half-truths and white lies that make civil discourse possible. He could at any moment publish some observation or secret that would be embarrassing. It seems that he was aware that people found him prickly. For example, in “Whoso list to hount,” a poem addressed to his partner, he writes “you grieve my want of tenderness or tact.” In Alan’s defense, to his mind, it was not enough merely to know what was right or true; one was obliged to proselytize the truth. Furthermore, because people are stubborn, one has to beat them over the head with it. Otherwise, as he writes in “Going Under:” “we drown in lies.”

By all accounts, Alan was a brilliant but savage editor. I was pretty daft when it came to defending my juvenile verses, but Alan was always far cleverer at destroying them. I could muster sundry excuses, cite archaic precedents, whatever, in defense of a bum line, but he would beat them all down effortlessly with counter-arguments and win in the end by attrition and sheer strength of will—“no, no, that just doesn’t work.” I think it will be of general interest if I lay out Alan’s editorial standards for poetry.

When it came to the outside world, Alan insisted on absolute accuracy of detail when a poet was writing of autobiographical experiences or actual events and verisimilitude when the poet was writing of composite experiences or fictional events. In Alan’s view the poet is obligated to know the natural world intimately, and the resulting accuracy or verisimilitude would contribute to a poem’s credibility. He practiced what he preached. Though Alan came to know the masterworks of English literature well, he was always more interested in studying and writing about the natural world, meteorology and geology in particular. He had a mystic connection with weather, both local changes and cataclysmic events such as floods and hurricanes, and was pleased with himself when his predictions proved more accurate than those of professional meteorologists. He was fond of quoting Bob Dylan’s: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Further evidence of his scientific knowledge, his poem “The Book of Time” is an elaborate conceit in which strata of stone in Utah’s Zion National Park are portrayed as pages in a book:

Rimrocks jut from the desert floor
like spine plates of a stegosaur
lithified in Jurassic mud.
With springtime spate and summer flood
the fitful streams of Zion shape
this lofty-spired canyonscape,
exposing evolution’s Book,
where Mormon elders loathe to look.
Pressed between its leaves of stone,
frond and feather, log and bone
relate, for those who know the tongue,
tales untold since the world was young.
Sprung from its bindings, phantoms rise
with cypress crowns and amber eyes.
Through fossil teeth their secrets pass,
dry winds withering brindled grass.
A breath first drawn before man’s dawn
sighs in the sage: “Read on, read on.”

“The Book of Time,” is, among other things, an injunction to form one’s opinions from what one reads in the book of the natural world. I find a sentence from his essay “Poet of the Antipodes” in praise of A.D. Hope particularly relevant here: “Hope’s omnivorous mind was by no means content to gorge itself only on languages and poetry. He was also a keen observer of the natural world who read widely in the sciences, seeking the meanings and interrelationships of everything he saw.” In “The Book of Time,” geology is itself as good as a foreign language for the knowledge it allows one to access. Though Alan admits in the essay he only had “some Latin and a smattering of French” and, later on, a working familiarity with Old Saxon and Biblical Hebrew, he makes up for his lack of fluency in them by being fluent in geology.

Alan and A.D. Hope are also similar in that their poems tend to be polemical—that is, they are not only “about something” but almost always “against something,” too. “The Book of Time,” for example, both promotes the “reading” of geological strata and opposes, explicitly, “Young Earth” Creationist theory which holds the world is only thousands of years old. Yes, Alan was polemical—polemical, polemical, polemical, in his essays, his poems, his conversation. The polemic was his default mode, and for at least one of his acquaintances this characteristic was frustrating, even when I agreed with him. There are times when some of us would rather just talk than argue.

But back to Alan’s editorial practices. As we have seen, informed and close observation of the natural world is the way to go. This emphasis shows up repeatedly in his work. For example, in an essay on Richard Wilbur entitled “Obscurely Called,” Alan writes: “Keen observer of plants, mites, midges, and stars, Wilbur is descriptive poet nonpareil; yet he never idealizes the natural world. Instead he unites poignancy with asperity”—then, because Alan is Alan, he has to add “a rare combination in our sentimental culture.” Alan also points out how Wilbur’s early poem, “Praise in Summer,” “implicitly critiques fantastical poetry for perverting sense while pursuing sensation.” Given his insistence on realia, Alan had no patience for “magical” realism, surrealism , etc.—he wanted, if not real gardens with real toads in them, at least highly credible gardens with highly credible toads in them.

It was more than his almost encyclopedic knowledge and close observation of the natural world, however, that made Alan a great editor. He was a human polygraph; he could sense instantly when people were lying to or b.s.-ing themselves and others. What’s more, he had a psycho-therapist’s knack for homing in on exactly what you did not want to talk about, what you were unconsciously avoiding. He forced me to be honest with myself, first, about what was not working in a poem. Furthermore, when the draft of a poem lacked honesty or was evasive, he forced me to dig into myself to understand the impulse to write the poem in the first place. Poets, because they are human, are prone to lie to themselves and avoid difficult personal thought. As Alan explains in the final stanza of his poem “The Chameleon Snake”,

mankind machetes the jungle
yet never learns to subdue
his own interior tangle
or steady his shifty hue.

Yes, the “machete” is a good image for Alan’s psychological technique. Working on a poem with him was also a lot like undergoing intellectual water-boarding. This brutality was not sadism, or at least not entirely sadism, but rather pressure that forced me to put the essence of the poem on the page, to confess whatever I, consciously or unconsciously, was holding back. One of his favorite sayings was: “Many tears will have to be shed before you get to the center of that onion.” During the period in which he put intense pressure on my work, Alan became the guiding principal of my poetic conscience, and his was the voice that guided me through the formative years when I was purging my style of affectation, imprecision, obscurity, archaism, and the list goes on.

In fact, his editorial voice became so resonant inside my head, that I still live with it. I tried to capture the experience of living with this mental presence in the poem, “The Mentor”:

The Mentor
i.m. Alan Sullivan

You were a man intolerant of nonsense.
Your voice dug in, expanded and became my conscience.
Now you shock me from beyond the grave.
I should be grateful someone’s still around to save
my moron forays from the Mire of Lies.
Truth is, every time a real hard-ass dies,
the brunt of him just doesn’t go away.
Truth is, you live on, killing all I shouldn’t say.

My relationship with Alan was frustrating, in part, because I chronically failed to develop the mind-set and interests he propounded as ideal for a poet. We can infer these qualities from his poems and essays, in particular the essay “Poet of the Antipodes,” in which Alan sets the Australian poet A.D. Hope in contrast to John Keats. Alan writes “though Keats was himself a consummate craftsman, his argument for self-negation through immersion in the senses has helped to lure generations of poets away from craft and deeper into the mire of self-absorption.” A.D. Hope, in contrast, is an outward-looking poet who serves as a healthy model for posterity. Alan’s admiration for Hope is best summed up in his poem, “The Hardihood of Hope”:

No lapses of despair for Hope
beneath his backyard beech,
no musings of a misanthrope
tortured into speech.
Through science, art, and history
he moves with measured pace,
glimpsing his lost Penelope
in every human face.

The “Penelope” mentioned at the end is Hope’s wife of many years who pre-deceased him. In the essay Alan imagines an “improbable” future in which “pitiless teachers would urge prospective poets to travel the world, master foreign languages, and teach mathematics in trade school as young Alec Hope did.” Implicit here is a criticism of MFA programs—Alan as much as states outright that aspiring poets would be better served by gathering experience and non-literary sorts of knowledge. Again of A.D. Hope, he writes: “when he put aside literary politics to let his mind range freely through art and science, myth and history, [he] wrote some of the most profound and numinous poems of his century.” Alan was always skeptical and at times down-right contemptuous of academia. For example, in his essay “Islands of Order” on Richard Wilbur, he writes: “One can sympathize with this man of mild and forgiving temperament, who desires to steer clear of the virulent literary disputes so characteristic of our time.” Thus, in Alan’s mind, the ideal poet, rather than focusing on merely “academic” or “literary” issues, “ranges freely though art and science, myth and history.”

In sum, Alan championed the sort of poet that combines his avocations and his vocation and has as keen an eye for the outside world as for internal qualities, a polymath and man of culture who may be in academia but is not of it. His vision interests me for a number of reasons. First, contemporary wisdom holds that poetry and science are equally valid but opposite means of expressing truth: whereas science establishes external and objective truth, poetry portrays internal and subjective truth. Alan, in contrast, proposes a unifying theory according to which the poet accepts and integrates both approaches, and I admire the gusto with which he embraced our predominantly scientific and technological culture. In his book “Going by Contraries: Robert Frost’s Conflict with Science” Robert Hass argues that Robert Frost sought to reconcile poetic with philosophic and scientific expression through metaphor. When I reviewed Alan’s poems I found that he also seeks a similar reconciliation of poetry and science through figurative inter-relationships, most overtly in the poems, “The Book of Time”, “Divide and Conquer” on cancer, “Disbeliever” on Stephen Hawking, and quite a few others. Second, this “unifying theory” hearkens back to some of the earliest poetry in the West, that of Ancient Greece, in which not just epics and lyrics were in verse, but also science and philosophy.

Alan also lauded maturity and discrimination, and they should be included as qualities of the ideal poet. Young prodigies, like John Keats and Rimbaud, may be, as Alan says, “gifted” but tend to be self-absorbed, uneven and bad role-models for posterity. Youthful folly was a natural phase to be gotten over, and Alan was most interested in the work of poets like Frost and Hope who waited until they had matured beyond it. Of Greg Williamson’s first book, “The Silent Partner,” Alan wrote in a blog in 2003: “Greg had wisely refrained from publishing until he hit his thirties. By then he had gained the perspective to edit his juvenelia successfully. Most young poets leave embarrassments in their wake.”

Alan also praises industry. Again of A.D. Hope: he “ultimately wrote great poetry by dint of sheer persistence.” Alan was himself industrious—he had a legal pad filled with ideas for poems and other projects and would sit down each day at his desk facing the Red River of the North and work on them. Once during a conversation about the nature of “inspiration,” he asked me: “You aren’t going to be one of those poets who only writes when he is ‘inspired,’ are you?” I have thought quite a bit about that question: Alan was not implying that a poet should sit down and write “uninspired” poetry but that, by getting lost in a theme, a poet can manufacture his own inspiration. He himself had the organization and diligence that completes big projects—books of poems, huge translation projects, an opera libretto and several novels. The poets he admired most are all men of marked longevity with formidable collected works—Robert Frost, A.D. Hope and Richard Wilbur.

What I have taken away from Alan is, in particular, that I have no patience for fluff, nonsense or padding in my poetry. They detract from the immediacy of it, yes, but the matter’s more personal than that—they also nag on me, and when they nag, they nag in Alan’s voice. Early in his reign of terror over my life, he took particular pleasure in reducing my longer “masterpieces” to a quatrain or a couplet, that is, when he didn’t raze them to nothing at all. Though indignant at the time, I am now grateful that he taught me compression and an “essentialist” aesthetic. But, again to be honest, it’s more brutal than that—Alan honed my critical faculty into a blunt weapon: after rapturously building up a work of art, I take up this baseball bat of the mind and beat the hell of my beautiful creation—everything that does not fly loose is strong enough to survive one day, perhaps, its collision with public scrutiny.

Furthermore, without Alan’s influence, I would probably still be writing poems that were “dishonest,” that is, poems that I would think a poet should write, rather than giving voice to sincere emotion and actual experience. Knowledge, precision, candor, industry, discrimination—that’s a lot of abstract nouns, and that’s all they would be, if Alan had not inculcated their praxis into me by his persistence and example. So Alan’s life in letters remains a primary model for me, a life in which one works each day to capture a bit more truth in one’s work, a life which one ends, one hopes, with an impressive body of work.
I would like to conclude with a brief epitaph entitled “The Vigil”:

Because he was as hard to handle
as truth, which we equate with light,
go somewhere dark and hold a candle
for Alan Sullivan tonight.