Sissman, L(ouis) E(dward) (Vol. 18)
Sissman, L(ouis) E(dward) 1928–1976
An American poet, editor, and essayist, Sissman, in a time when most poets were experimenting with free verse and other unconventional forms, 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 CLC, Vol. 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 65-68.)
"Hello, Darkness" contains the three volumes of verse Sissman published in 1968, 1969 and 1971, plus 39 poems never before collected. Of these, some are light verse and casual metrical jokes scribbled to friends; but most are in the usual Sissmanesque mode—moments remembered or envisioned with a fascinating specificity, set forth in a dense but dancing blank verse varied by spurts of rhyme, liberally besprinkled with epigraphs and dedications, and frequently arranged in suites of linked episode. Or arranged, perhaps, like snapshots on the pages of an album; among the many petty modern skills that engaged Sissman's intelligence was that of photography, and a hardedged, highlighted, deceptively factual quality balances the elegiac tone of his running, randomly accruing verse autobiography. Elegy deepened, as his long-foreseen death neared, to anguish. His last poems, written before the muse deserted him in 1974 as abruptly as she had descended in 1963, maintained, through the medical humiliations suffered by the slowly dying, his alert eye and exuberant fancy; such a maintenance now appears, on the last pages of his life's work, heroic….
[Sissman] was like no one else, with his benign discursiveness, his nonacademic base, his nostalgic obsession with the 40's. Though he aspired to be a Hopper of words, he seemed less American than British, kin to Auden, Betjeman, Larkin. The crucial influence upon his packed, sometimes convolute...
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William H. Pritchard
"Dying: An Introduction" … was my introduction to Sissman's work, encountered by chance while leafing through a magazine; and I remember being surprised and disturbed by it—my realization being that this was not just something "made up", that the poem's "I" was indeniably speaking of its creator's "appalling" experience. Yet the final section of "Dying: An Introduction" was called "Outbound" and felt oddly and poignantly exhilarating. Released from the doctor's office, Sissman, now introduced to his own death, walks a Boston November street that, of all things, smells like spring. Meeting some college students he is thrown back to his freshman year at Harvard, twenty-one years before, when he discovered for the first time "the source/Of spring in that warm night". So it is with truly a new lease of life that he now, two decades later, sees the November evening, the street, the college girls "As, oddly, not as sombre/As December,/But as green/As anything:/As spring"….
"Dying: An Introduction" became the title of his first volume in 1968; it was soon followed by Scattered Returns (1969) and Pursuit of Honor (1971). Since these were the years when many American poets (Ginsberg, Levertov, Bly, Rich) were using verse to express their detestations of the Vietnam war and the state of the union, and when both zany and portentously toneless voices expressed themselves without reference to any metrical pattern, Sissman's wryly intelligent humor (employed mainly in rough-and-ready iambic pentameters, with occasional bouts of rhyming) looked formally old-hat and insufficiently national or global in its aspirations. At least it did to some of my college students who found his second volume too clever, too...
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The late L. E. Sissman inherited from the post-war literary generation—which would really almost have been his own, had it not been for a long poetic silence—the love of impeccable pentameters, word-play, conceit, and allusion. Sometimes … Sissman loved these things far too well…. Usually his gamesmanship is of a [fine],… delicate kind, as in the lines about an adulterous couple pipe-dreaming of a future where "Bach plays/Behind them all their minuends of days," and where the reader hears "minuet," "diminuendo," and (to my ear) Prufrock's "butt-ends of my days," over the récherché literal word—"in arithmetic, the number or quantity from which another (the subtrahend) is to be subtracted"—in a wonderful shimmer of illusion and reality. Nevertheless, Sissman's brand of cleverness gave his poems a certain vers de société lilt that could not always be sloughed at will.
Sissman's posthumous well-wishers have, I think, exaggerated in suggesting that he was the only poet of his time to turn to bourgeois themes. What was unusual—since it is a virtue far more characteristic of fiction writers than of poets—was his indiscriminate curiosity about how life is lived on the surface. His poems are full of the kind of details we all feel we have noticed without noticing—like the poet's father shaking his hand at the train station, "fraternally … in the firm, funny grip / Of the Order of Fathers and...
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Sissman was perhaps the best formal poet of our time; the voice is quiet, controlled, moving. Whether these poems [in Hello, Darkness] will live (save for the very few readers still dedicated to intellectual verse) is problematic; I would like to believe that they are strong enough to survive, but I would not be surprised if they didn't. Quite simply, Sissman was out of tune with his time—which is no sin for poets, but carries its price: Nobody listens. If one is to force oneself to read a book, then … this is it. The pleasure of the line, the rhyme, the game of making poems, may just be enough to make you ride along. (p. 118)
Joel Oppenheimer, "The Last of the Old Bunch," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1978), Vol. XXII, No. 51, December 18, 1978, pp. 117-18.∗
Sissman's poetry, like his life, is singular and problematic. Possibly a good many Harvard graduates now executives in advertising agencies write verse; some may have published it; one or two may, like Sissman, have discovered themselves stricken with a fatal illness (in his case, Hodgkin's disease). But surely no one else, after such knowledge, could then go on to write a poem in which a biopsy specimen (it "Turns out to end in -oma") is described as "my / Tissue of fabrications." Nearly all of Sissman's poems were written after the discovery, and nearly all of them are, at least by moments, funny, sometimes outrageously so. How is this to be accounted for? Auden said that wit demanded imagination, moral courage, and unhappiness: "an unimaginative or a cowardly or a happy person is seldom very amusing." Sissman is a witty and amusing poet indeed; and he must have fulfilled the conditions mentioned. But the laughter afforded by [the poems collected in Hello, Darkness]—once the reader knows—is of a peculiar kind: it is as hard to hold as dry ice; it chills, it burns, and vanishes in white smoke.
Without the resources of wit, irony, and moral detachment a writer cannot successfully treat the subjects that attracted Sissman. (pp. 407-08)
["At The Bar, 1948"] points to other Sissmanian earmarks—his punning and extended conceits. Verbal play is of course "popular," even vulgar…. But Sissman doesn't...
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