L. E. Sissman Sissman, L(ouis) E(dward) (Vol. 9) - Essay

Sissman, L(ouis) E(dward) (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sissman, L(ouis) E(dward) 1928–1976

An American poet, editor, and essayist, Sissman wrote long, traditional verse. In a time when most poets were experimenting with free verse and other unconventional forms, Sissman clung to stanzaic verse, the iambic foot, couplets, and sonnets. He was a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and wrote a column, "Innocent Bystander," for The Atlantic Monthly. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 65-68.)

[Dying: An Introduction,] composed of thirty-nine poems, some of them in several parts, one of them quite long, has a submerged narrative quality that gives to the whole a wonderful and eloquent coherence. It begins with the return from college after his freshman year of a young student, high-spirited, full of good humored self-criticism and a very comic sense of borrowed literary language, to his family's home for the summer holidays. It goes on through the terrors and giddy joys of adolescence to jobs, love affairs, recollections of previous love affairs, and much else, to end just outside a doctor's office with a gentle and muted and frightening acceptance of mortality. And while the wit is always there, the style or the point of view seems brilliantly to change with the maturity of accumulated experience. I do not by this mean for one minute that the later poems are superior to the earlier; I can best illustrate what I'm getting at by quotation. Here, first, is the last part of a poem in four parts, which recounts the nervous and unskillful preparations leading to what seems to be a first sexual encounter.

     Later, as racy novels used to say,
     Later, I turn to see the westering sun
     Through the ailanthus stipple her tan side
     With yellow coin dots shaped to fit her skin.
     This Sally now does like a garment wear
     The beauty of the evening; silent, bare,
     Hips, shoulders, arms, tresses, and temples lie.
     I watch her as she sleeps, the tapering back
     Rising and falling on the tide of breath;
     The long eyelashes lying on her cheek;
     The black brows and the light mouth both at rest;
     A living woman not a foot away.
     The west wind noses in at the window,
     Sending a scent of soap, a hint of her
     Perfume, and the first onions of the night
     Up the airshaft to where I lie, not quite alone.

This is good enough to speak for itself, but I will labor a point. The excellence of the Wordsworthian adaptation lies not merely in its splendid wit, but in a special aptness to the language and the occasion. For the whole poem is directed to the incredulity of the young man, who cannot quite believe that this is really happening to him, "A living woman not a foot away." And that touching youthful instinct to dress up one's own experience in high-class literary garb has always been a way of making this experience more real to one's self. It must be real, if all those famous men wrote that way and became immortal. Compare this, then, with the following lines from a later stage in the "hero's" development.

     We issue from the meat of Pineapple Street,
     Skipping in unison in the jet rain to
     The cadence of our footsteps left behind
     Just momentarily as we bound on
     To water, laughing, soaked, four-legged and
     Three-armed, two-hearted, Siamese, unique,
     And fifty put together. On the Heights,
     We embrace like trenchcoats on a rack at Brooks.
     You taste like lipstick, wine, and cigarettes,
     And, now quite irrecoverably, you: …

The difference between these passages is not merely a difference of dramatic situation; it is that the poet has grasped that difference with the keenest emotional sense of the occasions, and in both cases, with wit and gravity, has set them down. (pp. 215-17)

Anthony Hecht, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1968 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXI, No. 1, Spring, 1968.

Reviewing L. E. Sissman's first collection of poems when it appeared two years ago, I find I wrote: "His sensitivity to sex and relationships, to decadence, and to the revelations of autobiography is less confessional than nostalgic, and more an illustration of the illness of our age. The details of his life are not intrusions, but small tragedies." Dying: An Introduction was an astonishing book; those long poems about Harvard seemed to penetrate some desperate nerve of sadness, to breathe in the close air of decadence. Still, his subjects were so relentlessly Eastern, their dramas so aristocratic, and the language so worn-out! Usually rhyming, composed in dry pentameters, these chronicles of a dissatisfied life were saved by their commitment to portrayal. Most of them were published in The New Yorker, where they were probably read by an audience that either knew people like those whom Sissman was describing, or who were themselves those people. Nostalgia! like Camus, Sissman was learning that "Men die, and they are not happy."

Scattered Returns, his second book, possesses that aura of exhaustion which derives from bringing what Robert Bly would call, after Groddeck, "News of the Human Universe". The voice is always Sissman's, the condition always one of dolor. Self-conscious and cynical, bored by his own mannerisms, Sissman seems even more uncomfortable in the ambiance through which he listlessly moves than in Dying: An Introduction. Boston and New York are again the sources, lost acquaintances the subjects, and dissipation the attraction of these poems. (p. 131)

Scattered Returns engages a voice so casual, so tuneless, that the depression which pervades each page is in danger of being overlooked. Not the shrill agony of despair, but the flat surfaces of the unfulfilled are what characterize his diction. The experience reminded me of reading a score without hearing any of the music performed; we are forced to compose the work in our heads.

In his first book, Sissman borrowed familiar lines from other poems, usually with the intention of self-parody; here these suggestions of the echoic betray what can only be taken for fatigue. The first line of "Upon Finding Dying: An Introduction, by L. E. Sissman, Remaindered at ls." steals a line from Wordsworth ("I wandered lonely as a cloud in Foyles") that he used in a poem from his previous collection. The "Three Derivative Poems," from which the book has taken its title, are no more than apologies for his sullen style. (p. 132)

[Cynicism] is everywhere in Sissman's language: in the worship of names and proper nouns, improper puns, vague dialogues. Infatuated with his own intelligence, he is fond of exhibiting an effusive worldliness, a Weltanschaung which gazes out with benevolence and an exquisite condescension on the sordid humanity swirling beneath his window.

That he celebrates Patrick Kavanagh, the Irish poet, in "An Annotated Exequy," and writes an elegy for Evelyn Waugh reveals the way in which Sissman assumes the literary posture. The poem about Kavanagh is both eloquent and sympathetic, eager to celebrate the odd virtues of the dead, but within its complex chronicle of a lost and wasted life lies the aesthetic which he lives by:

          … the serious business of what
       An artist is to do with his rucksack
       Of gift, the deadweight that deforms his back
       And drives him on to prodigies of thought
       And anguishes of execution, bought
       At all costs of respectability
       And all expense of nice society,
       Until, alone, he faces homely him,
       The only other tenant of his room,
       And finds the world well lost.

Sissman shares a convincing sympathy with that texture of life which seems always to escape him, the denials, accusations, and nervous disorders suffered by the artist in the act of living out his chore. Arthur Symons wrote of Gautier that he "had a way of using the world's dictionary, whose leaves, blown by an unknown wind, always opened so as to let the exact word leap out of the pages, adding the appropriate shades." Sissman occasionally possesses this artless chiselled rhetoric; but where he siezes on the cautious word the subtlety of thought eludes him. Indecision falls like a shadow across the page, obscuring the intention. What comes to mind is Riviere's admonition that confession was on the verge of being taken for sincerity.

Most of the book is taken up by "A War Requiem," the long poem (36 pages) which comprises Section II; the epigraph consists of one of Andre Chenier's finely-wrought sonnets quoted in its entirety, and reminds me of Sissman's longing to imagine his own depravity. These are lines Baudelaire could have written as well as Chenier: On vit; on vit infame. Eh bien? Il fallut l'etre;/L'infame apres tout mange et dort. From New York in 1929 (Sissman was born the year before) to the New Year, "Twelfth Night, 1969," the poem is a brilliant excursion through America between the Depression, World War II, and after.

"And so the raid/On the inarticulate, as Eliot said,/Begins again." Sissman has gleaned lessons from this raid, and, as in Berryman's "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet," the portrait is both intimate and vast. The blurred edges of history converge in a confusion of Eliotic notions, "till the rising town's/Unhuman voices wake us, and we drown." (pp. 132-34)

James Atlas, in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1970 by Chicago Review), Vol. 22, No. 1, 1970.

What struck me at the start when I first read L. E. Sissman, and again when I read him now, is his prosody. [In Pursuit of Honor it] is mostly blank verse but with occasional rhymes, irregularly spaced, and the lines endlessly, relentlessly contain exactly ten syllables in unresolved iambics. But his periods are not tailored to this precise convention. Overlap is frequent, and lines often land with a bump on some weak element…. I get a sense more of stiffness than the flexibility of a Milton or Cummings…. But Sissman's matter interests, he has plenty to say. He has memories, scenes, stories, people, and he has the language for them. (p. 505)

Richmond Lattimore, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1971 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIV, No. 3, Autumn, 1971.

I liked Pursuit of Honor. I liked, first of all, reading poems with lots of good words. It is not insulting or humiliating to have to look up words in a dictionary. It is, far from that, enriching, edifying, education and fun. "Superheterodyne," "stertorous radamacues," "pinxit," "inspissate." All new words for me…. I like the way too, that the words are put together in the poems. (p. 292)

I like meter, too, and the use of assonance and alliteration and puns and hyperbole, and understatement and all that. I like the craft, the technique. And why the hell not?

"The Big Rock-Candy Mountain," a poem to the memory of a half brother who died in 1969 at the age of sixty, opens the volume. In the first section, the America of the "Wobblies, Okies, wetbacks—driven and drawn/To cross the land and see it" is described with a bittersweet hindsight.

The Okies, et al, were "visionaries with prehensile hands" who would "select a tree to lie out under: a Pound Sweet, a Cox's Orange Pippin, a pecan," but now they are "dispersed," "transshipped to death or terminal respectability." In this America his half brother was a "young man on a Harley-Davidson." (p. 293)

Here is a man with something to say who can say it well, a man who can relate a clear and thoughtful picture of the normal world, but beyond that, as in this little envoy, the poet can transform the picture of the normal world into a vision, not a giant or saving vision, but a poised and very human vision such as one may expect, from time to time, from the art of poetry.

Sissman's wit permits him, and his reader, to cope with the waste of the "partial fires" that style so much living. "The New York Woman," "The Dump: A Dream Come True," and, for that matter, most of the poems that make up the body or this book are poised (poised between the sympathetic and the comic) portraits of men and women who are fired partially, who are, therefore, at least partially waste and wasted, and yet live on. But in "Empson Lieder" and "Big Rock-Candy Mountain," Sissman goes for the complete fire. In his half brother's death and in his own vision of the dead man sleeping soundly "on the last night of your way/Out of a rifled and abandoned land," the waste is left behind.

In "Law Song," which begins the "Empson Lieder," Sissman muses on his own, and our, mortality: "we are such/Short-timers, really, re-upped for a hitch/Indefinite in length, but not too long./You will therefore please forgive my haunting song." Then in Part II ("Even Song,"), the poet, dead and gone to heaven, allows himself the exquisite joy of murdering those enemies of life, those enemies who, having no fire, are "skin that shrills." For them, there is no wit, no sympathy. No, no sympathy or wit for those

      Who'd cant incredibly through a half life,
      Who'd twist on valiantly for penny gains,
      Who'd trade you in on something more courant,
      Who'd flee from those whom sometime they did
      seek …

The poet, from heaven, murders these with a thunderbolt in the best lex talionis tradition. But even here, after the murder, there is a sardonic wit. The poem ends, "They died, of course./Up here I heard the fat tires of the hearse/Fizz on the icy streets without remorse." So, Sissman's accomplished craftsmanship and mastery of poetic art which, in itself, I am thankful for, again when he speaks of "the complete fire," which is death, goes beyond wit and learning and skill to a powerful and convincing art that does what art is supposed to do, make us know how painfully and beautifully human we are. (p. 294)

Marvin Bowers, "Beyond Wit," in Modern Poetry Studies (copyright 1974, by Jerome Mazzaro), Winter, 1974, pp. 292-94.

[L. E. Sissman] is not a big-time celebrity writer but a working writer. He is not driven to write by ambitions to glory; instead, he writes because it is his calling and because it's a way to make a living. And because, through the years, the life of a working writer can add up to a satisfying, respectable identity.

That, at least, is the main impression one gains from "Innocent Bystander," a compilation of Mr. Sissman's essays published regularly …, along with samples of his verse. The working writer reveals himself to be a jovial fellow, but also a tasteful fellow genuinely in love with words, and, ultimately—when confronted with the prospect of his own untimely death—a person of equanimity and good sense.

His prose is not uniformly good. Some of his essays, served up over the past five years or so, seem trite (blasts at pornography and television programming). Others seem hoked up to meet his deadline (an account of a day's drive into Manhattan).

But when it is good, it is entertaining, wise or provocative—very good indeed….

And there are the two remarkable essays that detail his feelings after learning that he has Hodgkin's disease. "It is like, I should imagine," he writes in the first, "being the first man to see for himself … the proof of the theory of the curvature of the earth." And in the second, he concludes, "I have been looking down at the curvature of the earth, at the trajectory of my life and death, from a new perspective: from the perspective of a tangential line lifting, straight as a contrail, away from the earth and myself and all the other things and people. It is, and has been, a lonely journey."

In an essay on writers, Sissman calls writing "the art of throwing hard—and accurately." He says that a writer, like a pitcher, must practice and work hard and sacrifice. "What I'm talking about is not just idle self-expression; it is the pursuit of perfection." His book reflects a deeper notion: Whether one achieves the perfection or not, the meaning and joy of life lie in the pursuit.

David C. Anderson, "The Work of a Working Writer," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 21, 1975, p. 22.

That [L. E. Sissman] was a poet of unusual distinction was not widely appreciated when he died in the spring of 1976 of the illness that inspired some of his best writing. It was not that he was unknown…. But he had not yet acquired the kind of readership his work had earned him. Which was doubly ironic: for he was not only an excellent poet, but also one of the most accessible poets of his generation. It was as if the very clarity of his writing acted to obscure its quality and power….

The title poem of ["Dying: An Introduction"] is a little masterpiece—the first of several that he wrote about the discovery and treatment of his illness (Hodgkin's disease), which, he knew, was likely to be fatal, but which elicited from him, without any trace of mawkishness or false drama, an extraordinary sense of life. This is Sissman describing in "Dying: An Introduction" the first hospital examination procedure:

                    My narcissistic eye
          Is intercepted deftly by
          A square nurse in a gas-green gown
          And aqua mask—a dodo's beak—
          Who hands me a suit to put on
          In matching green, and for my feet
          Two paper slippers, mantis green:
          My invitation to the dance.
          I shuffle to the table, where
          A shining bank of instruments—
          Service for twelve—awaits my flesh
          To dine.

And these are the lines that come at the end, amazingly, after the pathology report and the talk of treatment—subjects that give him no trouble as a writer of verse—when the poet is alone on the city street:

            Through my
       Invisible new veil
       Of finity, I see
       November's world—
       Low scud, slick street, three giggling girls—
       As, oddly, not as sombre
       As December,
       But as green
       As anything:
       As spring.

If there are anthologies of poetry being assembled a generation hence, I find it hard to believe that at least one of these posthumous works—"Homage to Clotho: A Hospital Suite," from this recent New Yorker group—will not figure prominently among the poems of the 70's. The poem runs to 128 lines, and this is the opening stanza:

       Nowhere is all around us, pressureless,
       A vacuum waiting for a rupture in
       The tegument, a puncture in the skin,
       To pass inside without a password and
       Implode us into Erewhon. This room
       Is dangerously unguarded: in one wall
       An empty elevator clangs its doors
       Imperiously, for fodder; in the hall,
       Bare stretchers gape for commerce; in the air
       Outside, a trembling, empty brightness falls
       In hunger on those whom it would devour
       Like any sparrow hawk as darkness falls
       And rises silently up the steel stairs
       To the eleventh and last floor, where I
       Reside on sufferance of authorities
       Until my visas wither, and I die.

I know of nothing quite like this in recent American poetry; in neither his style nor his choice of subjects did Sissman conform to prevailing literary fashions. His was the kind of originality that does not sail under the banner of originality: the voice is so natural, the objects so real. He wrote with precision, fluency and wit about the ordinary experience of his world, which is recognizably our world.

But that was the rub, perhaps. Sissman was a man of the middle class, and he did nothing in his writing to disguise the fact. As "The New Yorker" observed in its unsigned obituary, "He liked smart cars, the suburban life, English novels, old-fashioned metres." Although alert to its cruelties and contradictions, he was nonetheless comfortable in the world he inhabited, and very wise about it, and he hated leaving it. As a writer he wore no masks.

In Sissman's poetry, conventions are observed and decencies upheld. There is a powerful rage to live, but there is no private madness or personal violence, and no appeals to paranoia or the apocalypse. There is, however, a great deal of tender feeling, comic perception, mordant description, vivid character, dramatic incident and tough-minded tuition, even in the face of death. There is also a lot of suffering of an unpicturesque kind—the kind that takes place in hospitals—which Sissman had a remarkable gift for picturing. Society has a place in this poetry, and so does the civilized self, which is not despised. Nature is lovingly evoked, but so are cities. The lyrical is never divorced from the quotidian, and both are given their due. Intelligence is not automatically abjured; it is, in fact, admired. (pp. 3, 16)

Poetry has for so long been reserved, at least in theory, for writers who abominated the norms of middle-class life and identified their vocation with a headlong flight from them, that a poet like Sissman was taken for something he wasn't…. But the true poet is always unexpected, and Sissman reminds us that he is as likely to be the man stepping off the Boston shuttle with an attache case on his way to the office as a college professor or a Bohemian dropout. Sissman's distinction lay in his ability to write about the world other poets rejected. He had a voice, a style, a vision, of his own, and he will be remembered when many flashier, more violent and more "relevant" poets are forgotten. (p. 16)

Hilton Kramer, "Late Returns," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 3, 1977, pp. 3, 16.