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Poetry is as much about not saying something as it is about having something to say. There are words that come too easily to us, words that, once we have uttered them, we realize are either meaningless cliche, or simply do not say what we mean with any exactitude. They are commonplaces, or shorthands meant to avoid the truly difficult. 

Reams of bad poetry rhyme the thoughts we believe we share, or worse, believe we ought to share: emotions that are expected rather than actually experienced; ideas that were once current that have outworn their truths; expressions we overheard rather than discovered. 

And so, we struggle to find the real, the exact, the fresh, and instead, out on paper appears the tired, the familiar, the trite, and we scratch out the lines and try again. It is what we don’t want to write that drives us.

As T.S. Eliot write it in “Burnt Norton,” “Because one has only learnt to get the better of words/ For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which/ One is no longer disposed to say it.”

Each attempt at a poem is, in Eliot’s words, “a raid on the inarticulate.”

You can see it in a page of his draft for “The Wasteland:” Lines penciled through, sharp comments scribbled in the margins, even a heckling at himself — “Perhaps be damned.” 

Allen Ginsberg liked to preach the wisdom of the first draft. “First thought, best thought,” he repeated, like a mantra. Yet the published draft of his best poem, “Howl” is a mass of rewriting and crossing-outs. One tries very hard not to waste our time by saying something that is boilerplate, that is obvious, that is inelegant or imprecise. 

Which makes a successful poem all the more powerful. 

There are two ways in which poems can be essential. The first and easiest is that it delights us. These are poems we carry with us for life the way we remember a lovely tune. They are fun to recite and we very likely have memorized at least a few lines. 

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stevens. “Kublai Khan” by Coleridge. “This Be the Verse,” by Philip Larkin. A whole Palgrave’s Treasury of poetry that over and over, we come back to. 

They can be light, but they can be serious also, take us along with them past everyday concerns. Some are longer, some are just ditties. Robert Herrick’s “Whenas in silks my Julia goes,/ Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows/ That liquefaction of her clothes.” 

The bulk of poems that give us pleasure fit into this category. 

But there are other lines that more than delight, hit deep into the most central part of our selves and smack us with a kind of revelation. The first group — that delight us — are poems that we date, but these others are the poems we are married to. They speak to us with the clarity of a gong and hammer our nerves flat, and leave us moved and our our bodies full with emotion, ready to burst like an overfull water balloon. 

You will have your own candidates, poems that whisper in your ear something that can make you weep. They are poems that feel not simply true, but personal. Those that crash into me won’t likely be the same ones that hit you. But if you love poetry you must certainly have your own list of “holy of holies.” Here are a few of mine:

There is no poem I reread more than William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” I know; I know. Wordsworth can be tedious. One thinks of Rossini’s smackdown of Richard Wagner: “He has beautiful moments, but godawful quarter-hours.” But those bits. It is like taking the red-eye to New York and you are bored and sleepy most of the way, but just as the sun rises over the eastern horizon, the plane banks and the blast of light through the window blinds you with brilliance. 

There is a reason he has the fourth most quotes in Bartletts after Shakespeare, the King James Bible and John Milton. 

The “Intimations Ode,” as it is usually known, is his poem that speaks to me most heartbreakingly. I don’t share his strained Platonism about life before birth, but the central description of how childhood comes “trailing clouds of glory.” The world is lit from within when we are young. Now that I am 71, that transparency of light is clouded over as by emotional cataracts. But I can clearly remember the brilliance. And Wordsworth’s poem is not only about the “splendor in the grass,” but also about the comfort of that remembering.

No poem speaks to me more personally, more directly, more heartbreakingly. Unless that poem is…  

Three things are central to human life: Love, loss and death. One poem has them all and tears me to shreds each time I read it. Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” 

Yes, we need food, shelter and air to live, but life gives back always those three pillars: love, loss and death. In Whitman’s poem, the speaker remembers childhood when he came to know two sea birds, a mating pair. They came back to Long Island each spring from migration, until one year, only one came back. The sense of loss is palpable, and painfully familiar. The recognition of the loss, and of the death that caused the loss, drives the speaker to poetry. 

This poem has always moved me deeply, but now that my wife of 35 years has died and left me alone, the poem is nearly unbearable. This is what I mean about a poem speaking personally. It is no theory I feel on rereading it, but the recognition of truth. 

Then, there is Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” It is perhaps the most pessimistic poem in the canon. It recognizes the abject aloneness of life, and the slim but necessary comfort of sharing that aloneness. 

The speaker calls to his share-mate to look out the window at the English Channel and consider the “eternal note of sadness,” and the “ebb and flow of human misery.” He muses on the loss of any sense of divine order or providence and posits the only help is that they “be true to one another.” For the world offers nothing permanent or positive beyond that.

It is such a beautifully written thing, that the misery in it almost comes across as transcendent. The receding waves of the Channel on the beach shingle makes a hissing sound that makes the whole thing utterly palpable.

Conrad Aiken is usually thought of as a minor poet, and most of his work is known only to scholars nowadays. But one of his poems speaks to me as much alive as Wordsworth or Whitman, and that is his poem about death, “Tetelestai.” 

The title is the Greek word that the Christ spoke as his last on the cross: “It is finished.” In Aiken’s poem, he parodies the grand trumpets that blast at the death of heroes and the triumphal cortege that celebrates the heroic life, but then pleads that even a profoundly ordinary man — meaning himself — deserves the same ceremony, the same sense of importance. 

Say, he says, “two great gods, in a vault of starlight/ Play ponderingly at chess, and at the game’s end/ One of the pieces, shaken, falls to the floor/ And runs to the darkest corner; and that piece/ Forgotten there, left motionless, is I.”

Yet, he pleads, he has had the same emotions, the same drives, the same failures, as the trumpet-hailed hero. Does he not deserve to be remembered for these things? Of course he is being ironic on one level, but underneath, he is certainly sincere — Each of us, after all, is the hero of his or her own life, the center of the subjective universe. 

It is a poem of sadness, of frustration, of recollection of a life too insignificant to be grieved, yet, deserving of grief. 

The last poem I will mention here in detail was written in German by Joseph von Eichendorff in 1841. It is a poem I would not have come across in my normal reading, but it is the text set by composer Richard Strauss as the finale of his “Four Last Songs,” one of the most intensely beautiful and heart-piercing cycles of music ever written, lush, shadowed, personal. Strauss wrote it at the very end of his own life and his text choices — the Eichendorff and three poems by Herman Hesse — are each as full as a cup  brimming over. 

There are many translations — at least as many as there are recordings of the Strauss songs and printed on the CD insert — but for me, most fail be either being too literal or too conventionally “poetical.” So, I made my own translation, which for me carries the weight of the poem as I feel it in the music. I give it here:

There are other poems I could mention that move me as these five do. I love the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales; Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden;” Auden’s “September 1, 1939;” Yeats’ “Lapis Lazuli;” “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. There are others. And I continually find new ones to add to the list. 

Poetry can say with precision what we mean to say but our words fail us. Yes, it can also camouflage our fuzzy thought with pretty words, but those are the words I said a good poet fights to shake loose from. Poetry is not vague clouds of unclarified smoosh. The best is made by intense thought and concentration, and a fear of uttering cant, the commonplace, the banal. 

When the useless marble is chiseled away, the David is left for us to marvel at, and recognize as ourselves. 

frim suit

T. Baxter Frim rode to work on the subway each day, wearing a blue suit so dark it might as well have been black.

It was a heavy, wool suit, with stripes barely visible, and a vest with a watch pocket. He did not own a pocket watch; he would have thought it an affectation. The suit smelled in the rain, but he kept it neatly pressed, with  cuffs.

You might think he was reflexively conservative, but along with the suit, he never wore a hat. And this was five years before Kennedy’s hatless inauguration. Frim was ahead of the world on this one issue.

But this is not a story about the suit, but about a man who would choose to wear such a suit.

Born in Quidney, Vermont, he was trained as an accountant, but found his life’s work as an actuary for the New Haven and Manhattan Indemnity Corporation. When he was 45, he started writing poetry.

It was an unusual avocation for an actuary, perhaps, but none of his coworkers knew about it. The only one who did was his wife, Marie, and she didn’t think about it much.

He had a few pieces published, in “Garden Monthly,” the “National P.T.A. Journal,” the “Melville, Alabama, Weekly Star,” “American Steel Smelting News” and his hometown newspaper, the “Quidney, Vermont, Record.”

Other than that, he had a shoebox full of rejection notices. He kept it in the bottom of his bedroom clothes closet, and popped a new slip in every second or third month.

His life, such as it was, was happy enough. He laughed reasonably often, had a ready pun on occasion, and genuinely loved his wife. His coworkers liked him and he rose steadily, but not spectacularly, at the firm. At the age of 52, he had his own office and a secretary, who we’ll call Hazel.

Everyone who knew him called him Ted. His first name was actually Theophrastus, but Ted seemed to work better.

It was a Monday morning and Ted was crumpling paper and throwing it over his shoulder. One after the other, the rubbish collected on the floor behind his chair.

He started writing again, and wadded up the paper once more.

“It reads like it was written by a committee,” he said to himself.

He was writing his resume.

Since he had turned 50, he had felt the intestinal rumblings of hormonal change in his body. He told himself it was nothing, the way one might say, “It’s only the house settling.” Harry wanted to get out of his job, although he wasn’t sure what he wanted.

He also knew that if he ever wrote the resume the way he wanted it, he probably wouldn’t mail it anywhere.

Ted had felt something like this once before, and quashed the feeling by joining the Army. It was just before Pearl Harbor. He thought a tour in the military might show him a wider corner of the world. The recruiting officer had promised that the Army had need of accountants.

But, instead, they made him a quartermaster and sent him to Kansas.

Just before he left Vermont, he married Marie. They had met at a party at school, and he saw her at the edge of the room, with eyes like a cow’s, looking ready to drip tears. He thought she looked ineffably beautiful.

She was, in fact, in the middle of a trauma that tested everything she had been brought up to believe. She had followed her high-school sweetheart to college when he received a football scholarship. He was the star quarterback and he squired Marie around until their second year, when he came out of the closet.

“I’m queer,” he told her.

“Take some Bromo Seltzer,” she replied.

When he made her understand what he meant, she refused to believe it. She followed him around, trying to figure out how to cure him, and at the very moment Ted had spotted her at the edge of the party, she had spotted her man in a dark corner with his arms around the neck of a young sociology instructor. She could taste the metal of electricity in her tongue, and there was a ringing in her ears.

By the end of the year, she had married Ted and one of her first letters to him in Kansas said, “Great news — I’m in the family way.”

In Kansas, Ted discovered something: a 33 percent markup over wholesale made the wholesale a 25 percent discount. There was never any actual difference in the cost, but it could be like looking into opposite ends of a pair of binoculars. And it meant that when he wrote up his reports, he could use whichever figure, higher or lower, made his case sound better.

Ted had few illusions about the Army.

The Army confirmed Ted’s realism by awarding him a medal for his cost-cutting bookkeeping methods. But it didn’t hurt, he knew, that he was able to supply a certain colonel with his favorite scotch.

(Ted really got the medal, though he never knew it, for running one of the less corrupt units in the war. Officially, though, his medal was for bookkeeping.)

When the war was over, Ted was honorably discharged and returned to see his daughter and wife and take a job at NHMI Corp.

By way of footnote, his daughter will have an interesting life, herself. When she is 16, she will move in with an unpublished novelist who will never be published. At 18, she will get religion and become Presbyterian. That will last a year until she decides to go to vocational school and learn library science. By the time she is 24, she will be running the San Diego city library and all its branches. At 40, she will suffer a one-year marriage to an undertaker. At 52, she will move in with an unsellable painter, also 52. They will live happily for several years. There will be no grandchildren for Ted and Marie.

Meanwhile, T. Baxter Frim rode the subway every day down to 59th Street and walk crosstown to the office. During his lunch hour, he would eat a roast beef sandwich on a kaiser roll, drink a pint of milk and scribble verses on the back of bits of waste paper.

There are stories of businessmen making good in the poetry world, men who rose to vice president in charge of new accounts while transforming the course of English-language poetry at the same time. Ted was not one of them. His knowledge of literature, and his abilities were modest. He liked the verse of Eugene Field and Ella Wheeler Willcox. His own work tended to be sentimental and sincere, and nothing made him happier than to come across a clever rhyme.

It isn’t everyone, after all, who needs to be Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot. Not every artist needs to be Picasso, not every musician needs to be Horowitz. There is pleasure enough in small things, performing the rituals of art and poetry, and partaking, in a tiny way, of the giant river of art. The writing was the most satisfying part of Ted’s life, aside from his love for wife and daughter.

And who is to judge Ted’s talent? Perhaps there is more honor in trying than in succeeding. Certainly, there is more satisfaction in the writing than in the having written. If it was a private pleasure, not shared with the larger reading audience, so be it.

At night, after dinner, while the rest of the family watched Red Skelton or Dinah Shore on the Emerson, Ted would transcribe his lunchtime verse and rewrite it, editing it and honing it to the best of his modest abilities.

Marie knew he wrote, but she never bothered him about it, and had never read any of it. He never offered it.

So, when he died, she was surprised by his will.

He had left a condition.

Ted had followed the normal procedures for a will. He left his estate, such as it was, to his wife, with a nice, honorable portion for his daughter.

But he had left the condition.

To quote the document verbatim, it read, “Before the aforementioned party of the first part may have possession of any of the worldly goods left by the party of the deceased part, she will have to arrange for and complete the process of the publication of all the extant rejection notices received by T. Baxter Frim during his long and industrious reign as the laureate of Quidney.”

Her lawyer told her that it wouldn’t take much to fulfill this codicil. That a small run by a vanity press would easily fulfill the requirements, and then she could take possession of the bequest.

But Marie wanted to do right by her late husband, and took the shoebox around from publisher to publisher. No one would take her seriously. Just when she thought she would have to rely on a vanity press, she got a phone call from Viking. An editor there had thought about the problem and believed he had an idea.

The editor organized the contents of the shoebox and later that year, Viking published a volume titled, “The Poet’s Alienation.” It was subtitled, “The Exploring Years, 1946-1965.”

There wasn’t much hope for the book, but Marie was clear for the money.

Then Tom Wolfe reviewed the slender volume in the “New York Review of Books.” He called it “a reflection of our age,” and sales skyrocketed.

All the college professors were discussing a newly found creative genius. The public demanded T.’s earlier writings.

Then came, “The Rainbow’s Eye,” the complete poetry of T. Baxter Frim. With it, “The Collected Letters of Baxter Frim.” Several biographies, ranging from the cheap paperback, “The Passion and the Poet,” to Dr. Everett Bonamy’s expensive hardcover, “T. Baxter Frim and the Contemporary Poetic Situation.”

Marie had many invitations to interviews for famous magazines. Even Ed Murrow called. But she refused all such requests and accidentally created a legend.

She was headlined in all the articles written about her as “the mysterious devoted martyr to the poet’s art.”

Just before she died, three years ago, Marie Frim stipulated in her will that the manuscript of the biography she had written of her late husband should be  burned. She figured that would ensure its publication. It became an instant success and sat on the “New York Times” bestseller list for 28 weeks.

And T. Baxter Frim’s daughter donated his blue wool suit to the Library of Congress.