William Henry Harrison, and Other Poems
When searching on Google for David Slavitt, one is likely to be asked whether “David Leavitt” was meant instead. This digital insult is apt. Leavitt is a much younger writer who started his career with hoopla and seems to have run aground. Slavitt, meanwhile, continues to publish superb books to little notice, as he has done for decades: poetry, fiction, essays, and translations from Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, and Portuguese (poetry chiefly, and classical Greek drama).
Slavitt is not indifferent to neglect. Now resentful, now resigned, now defiant, he registers a range of moods. He is by no means obsessed with fame or the lack thereof; neither is he all sweetness and light. He is conscious of his outsider statusnot based all these years in academiaand perhaps it gives him a certain freedom that some of his peers lack.
His course was set early, and in a curious way. In the 1960’s, under the pseudonym “Henry Sutton,” Slavitt wrote a novel called The Exhibitionist (1967), which has variously been described as sleaze and soft porn. The book sold several million copies. In his everyday life, he taught a bit, reviewed films for Newsweek magazine, andmostlywrote and translated. The best place to start for a sampling of his poetry is Change of Address: New and Selected Poems, published in 2005 by Louisiana State University Press. That same year, Northwestern University Press published Re Verse: Essays on Poetry and Poets, a superb volume. Among his novels, Lives of the Saints, published by Atheneum in 1989, is exemplary. A reader who likes it will want to read more of Slavitt’s work.
Honesty in writing is an elusive goal. Those who set out most explicitly to “tell it like it is” are almost certain to fail egregiously. All writing will fail to some degree, but the writer who manages to convey at least something of the “real” in all its contradictions leaves readers with a mysterious conviction that justice has been done, the adventures of the peculiar self revealed, the lineaments of the world rendered adequately to the perennial wonder and confusion of our common life.
In that sense, Slavitt is a splendidly honest writer, as anyone who has read his unforgettable 1982 poem “Bloody Murder” will surely agree. Cold grief, controlled rage, and a piercing sense of absurdity (“After the burglar bludgeoned my mother/ to death with a bathroom scale and a large/ bottle of Listerine, the police/ recommended Ronny Reliable’s/ Cleaning Service”) are fused with metaphysical wit, unassuagable loss with dailiness.
The title poem of William Henry Harrison, and Other Poems offers in its own way a persuasive linking of incongruous realities. It is a prose poem in eight parts, jokey, fragmented, a series of jottings. Like several similarly prosy pieces in this slim volume, it is particularly alert to absurdityincluding, in this case, the odd resonance of Harrison’s name.
The principal “joke” about Harrison, as Slavitt observes, is that he gave the longest inaugural address of any American president (an hour and forty-five minutes), hatless, without coat or gloves, on a very cold dayand, so the story goes, caught the chill that turned into pneumonia and killed him a month later: “It’s what you know about him. It’s probably all you know about...
(The entire section is 1387 words.)