In a tragically shortened career, L. E. Sissman managed to create a substantial, if not major, body of work that illustrates the way in which very traditional forms can be harnessed to intensely autobiographical, often mundane material to produce poetry of a high order. Confronted in his late thirties by death as an immediate, oppressive reality—“Very few people know where they will die,/ but I do: in a brick-faced hospital”—his verses dwell, too excessively at times, on the clinical details of standard medical procedures, hospital dramas, burnishing them with wit, irony, and a sheen of erudite lyricism: “My awesome, glossy x-rays lay me bare/ In whited spaces: my skull glows like a moon/ Hewn, like a button, out of vivid bone” (“Hello, Darkness”).
Sissman was both modest and precise about his aesthetic stance: “I write traditional, scanning, stanzaic verse, with special emphasis on iambic pentameter and the couplet.” However, this adamantly conservative commitment to conventional techniques, which included a playful tendency to paraphrase admired contemporaries and past masters in his work, was fused with a refreshing willingness to take advantage of the new thematic freedom featured in the confessional lyrics of Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, fellow New Englanders who also favored, in the main, a formalist style. Consequently, despite an early, lifelong allegiance to W. H. Auden and that poet’s deft merger of private...
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