Wildflowers

By Richard Howard b. 1929 Richard Howard

for Joseph Cady

Camden, 1882

Is it raining, Mary, can you see?
I hear rain. Is the road black, is it shining?   
                              Dark, I can see for myself.
Put on my red tie,
       red has life in it—most men I know   
dress like undertakers making sure they look   
                              mournful enough to manage
their own funerals
       No accounting for taste: we should be   
grateful for that. Help me get to the window,
                              I want to see Mickle Street.   
Don’t you hear it now,
       something like rain, off in the distance?   
My ear, maybe, is playing me tricks again;
                              there was a rushing, like rain   
when it moves closer
       and starts a millstream in the trees. No?   
I guess my senses must be losing their touch.
                              It was nothing. then, nothing   
more than a tantrum
       of the boneyard: best for me to hold   
still in this chair and listen to my beard grow.
                              Now if hair was poetry,   
then your Walt Whitman
       would be a great success. I wear out
trying to come to terms with the wrong weather—
                              what you might call speaking terms.
I don’t want to talk
       to much else. You tell them to go home,   
Mary, no visitors today—or one, just one:
                              what else is a red tie for?   
Some English poet,
       keeps me up, coming all the way here   
from California, Colorado—coming
                              to ask the usual questions.   
I don’t like questions
       that require answers: English questions.   
That’s a country of things answered. London is
                              a city of things done with.   
Brooklyn is different,
       New Orleans, Washington they’re my cities   
of romance, all the cities of things begun.
                              I may have been deliberate,   
even laborious,
       but I never looked for finish. Here,
where’s his name? Bucke wrote about him after
                              hearing one of his lectures.   
I had it somewhere.
       You let him in, Mary: no one else,
no one ... I’m slipping—here it is, here’s the name!—
                              slowly, maybe, but slipping.   
Who can say he has
       hold of what might be called a standing?   
That’s what they do say, though, all these visitors—
                              they write, they call, and they stay:
it makes a problem
       Doctor says: bar them. I can’t. I won’t.   
Still, they bother me. One young fellow walks in,
                              says, “Walt, I should like to   
read you my epic
       and have your opinion of its worth.”
“Thank you,” say I, “but I’ve been paralyzed once
                              already.” Suppose someone   
took it in his head
       to come and sit here and say nothing!   
someone who knows even the first syllables
                              of the great speech of silence ...
Today’s visitor,
       maybe, will mind his tongue, maybe spare you
the trouble of putting his latest tribute
                              on the shelf with all the rest.
Give me enemies
       rather than these disciples of mine.   
Best thing I ever heard of Browning is how   
                              he disapproves of all those
Societies. Not
       that I quote Browning, or care for him,   
or read him: I’ve tried Browning on every way,
                              but he don’t fit. Tennyson—
now he has his place,
       a local English place: I don’t see
how the world could make much use of him elsewhere—
                              but the others: I conclude
most literature
       was written on all fours, and the rest
on stilts!
                        ... There, Mary, the bell. I did hear that!   
                           I know my own bell, don’t I?   
Go on, go on down,
       bring the man up ...
                              In here, Mr. Wilde.
This room is not such a ruin as it seems:
                              I find most things I search for   
without much trouble—
       found Dr. Bucke’s letter with your
name, for instance. Found my red necktie as well.   
                              Come in, you cast a shadow   
where you stand. Come in,
       the chaos is more suspected than real.

                              I suspect no chaos: I am convinced of
                              the cosmos in your company, Walt Whitman!
                              I greet you, sir, as America’s great voice.

Well, you’ve come to be disillusioned, have you?

                      Disillusioned? Not after Colorado!
                      Red rocks are a foolish place in which to look
                      for inspiration, but a fine one to forget   
                      you ever had any. Disillusioned, here?
                      There is no one in this wide America
                      of yours whom I love and honour half so much.   
                      I came to see you without the illusion
                      of a ground-glass lens between us, Walt Whitman!

                              Look your fill, look close enough   
and you may even
       see my beard growing: I fear I have
been photographed until the cameras themselves
                              are tired of me. The real man   
by now is a poor
       replacement—you and a good proofreader   
must puzzle me out: I don’t feel worth my weight   
                              in feathers, not even quills.

                              Not pinions but pens! It must be so, for   
                              every prophet, I discover, reads his proofs.   
                              Do I disturb you when you are not yourself?   
                              Your health is not all it might have been today?

My health is hell,
       and heaven is the first moment after
constipation. There is no purgatory ...
                              Here, come round, no this way—stand   
where I can see you.
       Dr. Bucke gave me no clue ...

                           ... A doctor is all very well when you are,
                              but only thenthen they can offer comfort!   
                              When one is ill, doctors are most depressing.

                                                 Bucke’s
not that breed: he tends the mad, in Canada—
                              a kind of medical mystic,   
he lets me call him,
       and his letter gave no hint you were   
such a great boy! I feared a man wizened
                              by the frost of worldliness,   
but for all that fur—
       it is fur, isn’t it? Not a mane?

                                  You are the lion, sir, between the two of us.

Well, you’re no lamb, judging by the look of you.   
                              From the set of your shoulders,   
one would say you had
       the America I AM in you somewhere ...

               In Boston they took me up, or on, for Irish;   
               in Baltimore, for British—in each city
               they seem ready to take me for what I am.   
               But I am not a boy, sir. Is it my fault   
               if I seem young because I look behind me,   
               and you as old as you do because you look
               so far ahead? Future of mind, you have that,   
               where presence is the most one hopes for. I saw
               a man in the West whose twig bends near water—
               I call on you as one consults such a man.

You know how to say
       the remembered, if not the right thing.
If I can’t speak poetry, I can inspire it—
                      I swim in your flattery, son.

                      Better swim than drown, in any element.   
                      Never heed our ages, Walt (may I call you   
                      Walt? I must be Oscar to you). We meet here   
                      as prophets: at east in Zion, without age,   
                      without agitation, and I hope to find
                      you feeling the better for that.

I am as you see:
       incarcerated in this one chair.
What is prophetic about that?

                                                                              What we share.
                      The gift of prophecy is given to all
                      who do not know what will happen to themselves.

                              You may be Ezra—
                         I know; day by day I learn:
the trouble with me
       is not what I do but what I don’t
feel. My fingers are dead ...

                      O put them in mine, Walt. Doctors prate of chills,   
                      but I think any man who has survived your   
                      American newspapers is impregnable.   
                      And your décor! I have been dashing between   
                      coyotes and cañons, only to discover   
                      one is a ravine and the other a fox—
                      I don’t know which, I believe they change about.

                           So it would have been
                      with me, a like confusion
if I had ventured
       abroad: foreign landscape, foreign livestock!   
I am homesick enough right here in Camden.
                      America is the one   
country you can be
       homesick for while you are in it—one
big case of homesicknesses. I would have frozen
                      solid if I had taken
Tennyson’s offer.

                      You would have discovered that Lord Tennyson   
                      believes himself constituted to protest   
                      against all modern improvements: he regards   
                      (I think I should warn you, Walt) America   
                      as a modern improvement—one of the worst!

       You give the literary man a touch   
of frostbite over there, and he is never
                              quite the man he was, after
London has set in.
       I do not regret never getting
myself to England: how would England have helped
                              or hurt the Leaves, for instance!

   The leaves—ah, Leaves of Grass! I have always thought
   spears your word, my dear Walt—Spears of Grass: you are   
   a naked man, you know, bearing a naked spear ...

Leaves is what I wrote
       and what I wear, if my nakedness
must be covered. Spears! I want no defences.
                              All this fear of indecency,   
all this noise about
       purity and the social order
is nasty—too nasty to compromise with.
                              I never come up against it   
but I think of what
       Heine said to a lady who had   
expressed some suspicions about the body:   
                              “Madame,” Heine said to her,
“are not all of us
       naked under our clothes?” I say so,   
I got it all said in the Leaves, Oscar. Sex
                              is the word when you mean sex,
discredited here
       with us, rejected from art, but still   
the root of our life, the life below the life.

                      You are with the prophets, Walt, when you speak so.   
                      I can imagine Isaiah, hearing you ...
                      In Idaho, Isaiah would have been as
                      you appear: Isaiah in a red cravat.

                              Spare me Isaiah, spare me   
the responsibility.
       The Leaves is a this-side book, Oscar.   
And as for landscape, all we need is grit,
                              the body’s grit, not to fall,   
as Emerson fell,
       short of earth: after the shadow, not
the fact. Grit is the guarantee of the rest—
                              coyotes here, castles there.

                      A this-side book? Some love it on that side, Walt;   
                      some worship. In the scriptures of modern Europe
                      I can cite no verses—though I’ve brought you mine,   
                      bound to order in grass-green (I have noticed   
                      the public is largely influenced by the look
                      of a book. So are we all. It is the one   
                      artistic thing about the public) ... These are   
                      First Poems, an offering honored to be held   
                      between your hands—warmer now, are they not?
                      I was saying, Walt, before vanity came   
                      between us (though I do not wish to appear   
                      to run vanity down), I was saying that   
                      I can conceive of no Bible worthy, save   
                      yours and Baudelaire’s, to prepare mankind
                      for an identical body and soul. Leaves   
                      of Grass, Flowers of Evil: our sacred botany!

Is that meant to be
       a joke, Oscar—flowers of evil?
What grows out of the ground ... It is a mystery,   
                              and had better remain so.
I am glad to have
       your book: don’t apologize for First
Poems. Books are like men, the best of them have flaws.   
                              Thank God for the flaws—if not
for the flaws, Oscar,
       love would be impossible.

                                     I think it is, Walt, flaws and all, unless   
                                     you link the temperament of a vampire   
                                     to the discretion of an anemone ...

                              Is that
the evil flower you speak of—anemones?   
                           Even sea-anemones?

                      Les Fleurs du Mal—poems by Charles Baudelaire,   
                      Walt: the greatest moralist to sing in France   
                      since Villon was imprisoned.

Do moralists sing?
       I thought they expurgated poems.   
French or Hebrew, it is all one to me:
                           prophets, moralists, bibles   
make me uneasy.
       I want picnics and the freedom to loaf,
a jolly all-round good time, with the parsons
                              and police uninvited.
I have always been
       a first-rate aquatic loafer, could
float on my back forever ... Indecency
                              is always invoked against
floating and growing.
       What kind of a gardener is your
Baudelaire? Are his flowers indecent, like mine?
                              Were some plucked up by the roots?

       The book was censored, the poems were called obscene   
       when they appeared—a short while after yours, Walt.   
       Their interest is not that they were suppressed   
       by a foolish official, but that they were
       written by a great artist.

“Foolish officials”
       can be interesting too, Oscar,
I found that out. Secretary Harlan took
                              the Leaves so seriously
he abstracted them
       —the proof sheets, it was, not the book yet—
from my desk drawer, at night, after I had gone,
                              put them back again, neat, and   
next day discharged me!
       It will not do to fly in the face
of courts and conformity; it did not do
                              at all well for me, Oscar.

                                                            I shall cross that bridge   
               after I have burned it behind me. I know
               it is not my past people so much object to
               I do not yet have a past—but my future ...

And they objected
       to Baudelaire? What was it he wrote.
Oscar, can you say it out? I never could
                              say mine ... I never commit
poems to memory:
       they would be in my way.

                                 If I cannot hear Walt Whitman’s Calamus   
                                 from his lips, I am happy to be the first   
                                 to bring Baudelaire’s artistry to his ears.

                                 I have heard
a good deal with these ears, son. I find it hard   
                              to imagine a shock
in that direction.
       Even the Leaves are no longer said
to be lewd: nothing is harder to keep up
                              than a bad reputation.
Try a flower
       on me, Oscar, try me with a bloom
from the wicked bed. Speak it in English, though—
                              I can neither hear nor read
a Frenchman’s language.
       Speak your piece, Oscar, I am all ears
to meet my fellow-evangelist ...
                                  And I all eagerness, Walt. Not until
                                  you permit a poet a mask does he dare   
                                  tell the truth ...

                              I dared.
                           Do not suppose that the Leaves
is a mask. It is the man,
       the life a man can live in language.
He must tell it himself—no disciple can.

                                                             Is it not incredible then,
                           that the prospect of having a biographer   
                           has tempted no one to renounce having   
                           a life?

                           There can be no renouncing,
you have to get on
       with it. Do get on with it, Oscar.

                                    My memory will serve to recite
                           but not to recreate the music: I translate   
                           line by line, trusting the mystery. It is
                           an early piece, no less perfect than the late:   
                           only mediocrites progress—masters
                           revolve.

I was never quite so certain of myself,
                           Oscar, that I could afford
to revolve. To write
       on and on, to the end, even if
in senility ... To make a complete record—
                           there’s more to say, always more ...
Now let me hear it.
       this crudity of your Baudelaire.

                                                 It is a poem entitled “Spleen.”

“Spleen”? In the way of resentment? anger?
                            Well, we are not forever
Patted on the back—
       sometimes we are kicked in the behind ...
“Spleen,” then. Say on.

               “I am even as the king of a rainy country,   
               Rich but impotent, senile though still young,   
               Who wearies of his courtiers’ flattery
               Nor hunts with hawk or hound, nor heeds the while
               His subjects starve outside the palace walls.   
               His favorite fool no longer brings a smile   
               To cruel eyes incredulous of doom.   
               The royal bed becomes a royal tomb,   
               And ladies who might find all princes fair   
               Game, no longer gaud themselves enough   
               To win a glance from this cold skeleton.   
               His alchemist turns lead to gold, yet fails   
               To draw the dark corruption from his soul.   
               And even bloodbaths in true Roman style   
               (Such as old warriors regard with shame)   
               Cannot relume a living corpse whose veins   
               No blood but Lethe’s livid absinthe stains.”

                              “... king of a rainy country ... ”
                              I know what that means, Oscar:   
I live by the sound
       of rain, imaginary rainfall.
And I am used to defections—how often
                              young enthusiasts grow old,   
yes, old and cold too.
       Still, if the world is unjust to you.
you must take care not to be unjust to the world.
                              I don’t get much beyond that   
with “Spleen”: what I hear
       is a sickly sensuality in it,   
the sensuality of convalescence—
                              you might call it that, you might ...
I don’t care. It’s all
       too bad to be true. “Livid absence”?

                      No, absinthe, Walt, a liquor brewed from wormwood.

I know absinthe—in New Orleans a man drank it,
                              or said he did. I saw him   
dip his fingers in,
       wet his eyebrows, eyelids, faint dead away.   
So his “Lethe” is real ...
                                          It is a way of getting rid of the real.

                                 Bad riddance! It sounds
                              as if the man could pity   
himself alone, not
       seriously pity other men.
Is it not verse written of malice prepense,
                              all laid out, rhymed, designed on   
mathematical
       principles—is it not a machine,   
a kind of enslavement?

                              Yes, it is Art, it bears the fetters of Art.
                              Ah, Walt, and you make no slaves—only lovers.
                              I shall not be so foolish as to defend
                              one genius from another. Disaffection
                              is inseparable from faith: I often
                              betray myself with a kiss. Surprising, though,   
                              you are not more taken by the Criminal ...

                              ... the Morbid, you mean?   
                              I am not taken by that.

                              Americans I have met are certainly   
                              great hero-worshippers, and always
                              adopt their heroes from the criminal classes ...

The Leaves is a book
       written for criminal classes.

                                  How on earth do you come to such a notion?

I don’t come to it—it’s the case; the others   
                              have no need for a poet.

                                     Are you in the criminal classes yourself?

Certainly, why not?

                                     I was hoping you might get me in as well.   
                                     Only the utterly worthless can be reformed—
                                     I feel beyond reform—I want only Form.
                                     Is it not Form, Walt, that keeps things together?

                              I keep nothing together.   
Look around: have I
       ever kept anything together?
Body and soul, that’s all I keep together.

               You keep them splendidly. That simplicity   
               has been the great enclosing secret for you.   
               All the same, along the way, I should suppose   
               there were distinctions, even in criminal   
               classes ... Our failure is, we form habits ...
               In Idaho, Walt, they took me to visit
               their prison—apparently a model one.
               There was all the odd prey of humanity
               in hideous striped suits, making bricks in the sun.   
               I saw one man, a murderer with steel eyes,   
               spending the interval before he was hanged   
               in reading novels—a poor apprenticeship,   
               I thought, for facing either God or Nothing ...

                      It was for just such a man   
I wrote Leaves of Grass:
       a man reading in a jail, as well
as any other man who cares to read me.
                      No one was ever bad enough   
to be put in jail;
       he was, or might be, bad enough to be   
put in a hospital. But all this judging
                      is not a habit—more likely   
it is a disease.
       I don’t hold with judging, measuring,   
weighing this offence against that penalty.
                      Breaking loose is the only thing,   
opening new ways.
       But once a man breaks loose, or starts to,
or even thinks he’ll start, he should be sure he knows
                      what he has undertaken.   
I expected hell.
       I got it. Nothing that has occurred   
came as a surprise: probably more’s to come   
                      That won’t surprise me either.

               To me, Walt, it must come as a surprise—life
               is so often nothing more than a quotation.
               Most people are other people. Surprises
               change life: I have more, I am sure, than I deserve,   
               but it is always nice to have a little more
               than one deserves ...

There is no “deserves,”
       Oscar. I never weighed what I gave   
for what I got, but I’m glad of what I got.
                      What did I get—do you know?   
Well, I got the boys,
       for one thing: the boys, hundreds of them.   
They were, they are, they will be mine. I gave myself
                      for them: myself. And I got   
the boys. Then I got
       the Leaves, not spears but Leaves of Grass.   
Without the boys—if it had not been for the boys,
                      I never would have had the Leaves,   
the consummated
       book, the last confirming word.—Oscar! ...
What are you doing down there? Have you lost   
                      your seat or your senses?

                                              Walt, you’ve gained another boy.   
               It will not give you another poem for
               the Leaves, but I want to ask something of you.   
               A favor, Walt ...

I reckoned there must be a reason for you
                      to visit another kind   
of model prison.
       More than to give me your book, and more   
than to get me down to Baudelaire’s level.   
                      I think I know the reason,
I usually can guess
       why a man comes to see me. You want
more than a handshake with Walt Whitman, you want   
                      to know what you must give up!
you see me here, alone
       in this chair, at this window, you take
my hands to ward off the chill, and you wonder   
                      how to go about giving
yourself away ...

                                    Walt, you must bless me, I want   
               to take your blessing with me. I cannot leave   
               you my book, it is not the book I must write
               for Walt Whitman—that poem will come, bless me   
               and it will come, from a deeper place than these ...
               Let me have my book again.

       What, Indian-giving? Do you know
the sense of that, boy? Taking back what you give!

                      I have nothing to give you—yet. Here, for now,   
                      Walt, my buttonhole—the tribute of a flower ...

                      Not an evil one, I trust!   
Even on your knees,
       Oscar, not a flower of evil ...

                              One harmless heliotrope, Walt, for your   
                              hand on my forehead ...

I dressed many a wound, Oscar, with this hand
                      which can feel nothing now:
but the boys I nursed
       had suffered their fate: yours is yet to come.
Take my blessing with your book, boy. They’re both yours.

                                                 You have instructed me
                      past hopes—past fears. In you, Walt, I discover   
                      how a desire becomes a destiny. To give
                      myself away! Not to make sacrifices
                      but to be one. To be, somehow, holy, like you—
                      Walt, what else does sacrifice mean?

I am a sick old man on Mickle Street, boy,   
                      I am not a holy man;   
or all men are. Then
       you understand me? Or maybe I   
understand you now. To me, you see, the Leaves
                      is an essential poem—
it needed making,
       like an essential life needs living.   
Maybe yours will be an essential life—
                      one needing to have been lived!   
Give me the best man
       over the best books—books are not facts,   
merely the effort to master facts. I say
                      effort because I’m not sure   
of much else ...

                                              ... Life, Walt, you make me sure   
                   of life! Your hand—I am truly your boy ...

               Kiss me,
       and catch your trolly, I’ve lectured long   
enough. You must read the writing on the wall,
                      or the page, or on the face,   
by yourself, Oscar.
       You must find it, you can’t be told it ...
My own preference is for texts that can be
                      carried in the pocket.

                  Walt ... You have scored a triumph for America
                  I came, I saw, I was conquered! Not by fame,   
                  though anything is better than virtuous   
                  obscurity—not fame conquered, but life,
                  your life, your immortality!

               Not
immortality,
       Oscar, identity: call it that   
and we are one.

                                                                              You’ve won.   
                              Walt. I am with you, and so I leave you,
                              with gratitude and honor and all my love.   
                              Good-bye ...

               Good-bye son. Mary Davis!
                      Show Mr. Wilde how to go—
the trolly is at
       the end of Mickle Street ... Give him one   
of our umbrellas if it’s raining still.
                      ... Thank you, Mary, that’s enough.   
No, I don’t want you
       fussing, I want to empty this room.   
I can still see him, in front of the window,
                      a dim reflection of Oscar,   
talking about art.
       I can still hear him, as if he’s there.   
The North his needle points to is only art.
                      Art is always only art.   
But a great boy, still,
       a great manly boy. While he was here   
I think I found the haystack in his needle ...
                      Did you notice if he left
a green book downstairs,
       on the table by the door? Nothing
there? Well, that’s the right thing. Put this in water—
                      this “harmless heliotrope,”
leave it by the bed ...
       There are some things too big for the world—
they crowd it out at the sides. They need more room   
                      than Camden can supply them,
or Canada either—
       Look at that color! Can anyone
state the whole case for the universe? I need   
                      a nap, Mary, get me back
into bed, I want
       time to myself, now.

Richard Howard, “Wildflowers” from Two-Part Invention (New York: Macmillan, 1974). Copyright © 1974 by Richard Howard. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: Two Part Invention (1974)

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Poet Richard Howard b. 1929

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Subjects Relationships, Arts & Sciences, Growing Old, Poetry & Poets, Social Commentaries, Living, Friends & Enemies, Reading & Books, Philosophy

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Richard  Howard

Biography

A distinguished poet, critic and translator, Richard Howard holds a unique place in contemporary American letters. Howard is credited with introducing modern French fiction—particularly examples of the Nouveau Roman—to the American public; his translation of Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal (1984) won a National Book Award in 1984. A selection of Howard's critical prose was collected in the volume Paper Trail: Selected . . .

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SUBJECT Relationships, Arts & Sciences, Growing Old, Poetry & Poets, Social Commentaries, Living, Friends & Enemies, Reading & Books, Philosophy

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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