David Hamilton is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Iowa, where he taught for nearly forty years. The author of Deep River: A Memoir of a Missouri Farm (University of Missouri Press), Ossabaw (Salt Publishing), and The Least Hinge, he edited The Iowa Review and directed Iowa’s MFA Program in Nonfiction. His latest book is A Certain Arc: Essays of Finding My Way.
Plainspokenness, Playfulness, Alertness to Language
The most important books for me as a writer… I’ll name the Collected Works of Chaucer (or let us just say The Canterbury Tales) and of William Carlos Williams, for whom Spring & All and Pictures from Brueghel stand out. They share a lot, you know: plainspokenness, playfulness, alertness to language and to their immediate world. A lack of pretentiousness, too: ‘Here I am, doing my thing, wouldn’t mind if you took an interest,’ and they’re on with it. Both really stuck to their work, as far as we know, writing late into the night and whenever they could. Both seemed to have loved the world, the natural world, and the opposite sex. Whatever their case(s) in real life, their sexual imagination was delicious. Those plums!
Chaucer was something of an accident for me. My first semester as a full time (assistant) professor, I taught the ‘Tales, filling in for a professor on leave. That was the year of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. What a strange time, in retrospect: taking Chaucer to the SDS (Students of a Democratic Society), or at least to many of their good friends, at a campus where it started and trying to engage, and sustain, both conversations. Once on the list of Chaucer teachers, I stuck with it and taught him repeatedly, not every year but often, occasionally twice a year, for over forty years. So I began to carry him around in my head – my evolving version of him. He became a benchmark for much else.
Innumerable times lines of his have popped into my head, prompted by whatever. ‘What, can I not stand here?’, Criseyde’s line, to herself, when she catches Troilus staring at her: a question I imagine in the mind of a woman with a certain presence, across the room, and not necessarily meeting my eye. Or the Virgin at the moment of the Annunciation: see Antonella da Messina’s version in which, close up, she’s caught reading the startling news in Scripture—no angel—the fingers of her right hand just lifting, suggesting surprise, and maybe even satisfaction, from the news. What? Am I not worthy of this? And the viewer, at least this viewer, feels startled, stunned even, a first step back to recover before, possibly, venturing ahead.
Soon, too, when I started editing The Iowa Review, in an era of metafiction and cresting academic interest in self-referential texts, I took some delight in being not so easily swept away by claims of newness. Chaucer had done it too, over and over. He’ll take time, before he ‘steps further into his tale,’ to describe his pilgrims. The Knight, getting started himself, knows ‘he has a large field to plow’. The Pardoner refers to the Wife of Bath as an authority on marriage. And on and on it goes. By the way, in that Vietnam era, everyone—a great many anyway—wanted to be credited with ‘doing his thing’. Chaucer said it too: ‘Doing hir (their) thinges’. He puts it in the plural, in the Knight’s Tale. He also says ‘newfangled’. It goes from him to Wyatt to my grandfather.
Then there was ‘swyve’, a delicious word we’ve misplaced.
With Williams, well, I still believe his generation and immediate circle, those Modernists, more or less formed the century I have mostly lived. We haven’t outgrown them yet: Frost, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Williams, Moore—a key circle for me. And for many more. And I just feel closest to Williams. Especially his way of suggesting this too can be a poem, why not, this fragment, this wheelbarrow, this paper bag rolling down the street, this cat stepping into and out of a flowerpot, those plums, both the ones in the icebox and the ones an old lady is eating: ‘they taste good to her!’ Perhaps he got the idea from Duchamp, or at least he fortified it. But there it is on his pages… Hey! We can go/look anywhere.
I could go on, as you probably suspect, but let’s pass on to other things…
Mind – Fingertips – Pencil – Page
My choice of words: instinctive at first, as far as I can tell, and thoughtful later. I don’t understand the magic, or the electrical mechanics of the mind that brings whatever word out of wherever to your fingertips, and then to the pencil and page. You didn’t exactly ‘think’ of it. It’s too rapid for thought. But there it is, and you let it stand, or don’t, and that’s where conscious thought comes in. Except whenever you make a substitution, another flash occurs, bringing the alternative to consciousness. I suppose the range of choice is narrowed some by where you have just been and by where you think you intend to go. But we can be deflected, and often for the better. Still, whatever you let stand, you must have in some sense intended. That’s what you confirm by letting it stand, I guess. Don’t you think? Maybe?
Wonderful, foolish and strange
Words are as alive as we. Let me go to Chaucer again:
Ye knowe ek that in forme of speche is change
Withinne a thousand year, and words tho
That hadden prys, now wonder nice and strange
Us thinketh hem, and yet they spake hem so,
And spedde as wel in love as men now do.
Ek for to wynnen love in sundry ages,
In sondry londes, sundry ben usages.
There he is looking back a thousand years, as we look back six hundred to him, and he knows that, over time, words change. Words that had value (prys) once, now we think them a wonder, foolish (nice) and strange. Yet our ancestors spoke them, and succeeded (spedde) in love as well as we do now. I love that bit, with all its ambiguity about how well they actually did, or we do.
Egged on by Language
Are we limited by words? Limits; we’re destined to strain against them. Take Frost, in Education by Poetry. Poetry, he says, turns on metaphor, putting one thing in terms of another, which is pretty much ‘the whole of thought’. But the cool thing about metaphor—’cool’ wasn’t his word and I’m quoting from memory anyway—is that it ‘always breaks down’. The thing thought of is never quite reached by your words, your metaphor for it. You approach but never arrive, and so try again, with another metaphor, that may take you a step farther and perhaps not in exactly the same direction. I wouldn’t call that being trapped; it’s more like being egged on. We’re egged on by language.
And isn’t that a curious word, by the way. Apparently its root, in Old Norse, is close to but not exactly the same as the other ‘egg’, the noun rather than the verb. But I only know what my dictionary tells me, and with less subtlety than its compilers, so I’ll stop there.
It’s less a word than a phrase or clause or sentence. ‘Spedde’ in that line about love might be interesting, but the line makes it so, even more, the context of the several lines preceding it. Egg was interesting, at least for a moment, and looking out the window today there’s snow.
Spedde, from Middle English – ‘success’.
I’ve long been impressed that the Inuit are said to have 20 or more words for it, and we but one. So fresh, so promising, so lovely—at first. So quickly crusted over, old and grimy, adorned with dog shit—like any cliché. Snow, so, no, now. Sow, too, but forget the pig… ‘So’ is ‘sew’ yet snow ‘sows’ more than ‘sews’ the mind; at least so I prefer to think. At least while it’s snowing. Those 13 blackbirds… I wrote a poem once called Twenty Ways To Say Snow. I was marooned in a motel in Grundy Center, Iowa, right after Christmas. The fields outside were fresh with snow. I walked in them and got bored watching bowl games on TV. And so the poem. I don’t think I thought of Stevens at all. Perhaps it would have been better if I had. I might have ‘wons’ something with my lines.
Snow – from Old English snaw, German schnee.
Twenty Ways To Say Snow
Glints on the dog’s back
Breaks up like shale
Dissolves on contact
Pelts us like hail
Damasks the highway
Lines lashes with glue
Lures out the sleigh
Corns stalks show through
Step lightly on top of
Makes power lines sag
Sticks to the shovel
Melts grocery bags
Keeps track of the fox
Slows Owl’s wings
A hedgerow in socks
Gowned cedars sing
Holds Moon to the solstice
Shows hope uncongealed
Don’t spin or it’s ice
It beds down the field
(from Ossabaw, Salt Publishing, 2006, with their permission)
Cinquains with Snow
The way a crow lifts the lid of the wire suet basket
(shaking off a trace of snow) and holds it back
with both feet while plunging his beak
into sweet cake below. The way
the rascal smiles, that old trickster, old Crow.
Walking our dogs through drifting snow—
Dora paws it this way, Ramón that.
Some clause in our contract requires
an endless Sunday Times
spread out for nose and nose.
Just before we left for our favorite bistro
for pot roast (though it wasn’t called pot roast
but “wine-braised beef”) and a bottle of red,
you saw the bloodroot had returned,
shouldering pinecones aside in melting snow.
A blizzard, fox tracks vanish, the meadow under snow
as March returns the killdeer, breezy kayaks
on the wind’s white water. For my uncle,
they always brought back Russia. Then a redwing’s,
hotwinged cry! I skip a step as I remember.