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William Empson

Of Beards and Weirdness

In England in the sixties and seventies I was often out and about leading the literary life, and I met a surprising number of my heroes without really seeking to. The real surprise, each time, was that they were all in character. One night in Hull I was performing a cabaret act in the student bar and it turned out that the dour adult figure sitting at the back was Philip Larkin. Later on he told me that he was so deaf he hadn’t heard a word, and I was too dense to ask him why, in that case, he had come. In London I saw a lot of Kingsley Amis and he was almost never not irascible. He could talk enchantingly for hours about abuses to the language but if he caught you abusing it he would always give you what for on the spot. Robert Lowell was in London for a while and I had several opportunities for observing just what a handful he could be. I thought he was a nitwit, but strictly in the sense that he was normally something else, and turned dippy only when the wind changed.

William Empson was well-known to have been wildly eccentric from the beginning. It would have been a tough reputation to live up to at a first meeting, but when I finally did bump into him in Cambridge one night he effortlessly soared off the scale of weirdness into a realm I had not previously encountered. He was giving a reading in the Cambridge Union and I—still a graduate student, so it was a great honor—was one of the support readers. A few lines into his first poem he started explaining it, and his explanation became so abstruse that he shifted from side to side. He was on the point of walking in circles when I offered to help. As I remember things now, I would read a stanza of the poem and then he would start explaining again. It all took forever and gave the audience plenty of opportunity to study his beard, which was at that time in a phase when it all occurred below the level of the chin, as if he had stuck his head through a rug. We support readers were cut down to about five minutes each but he was very kind about a poem of mine, and started explaining it to me.

Since I thought the world of his work, I took this as a high compliment. But he wasn’t yet through with his largesse. From a side pocket of his jacket he produced a crumpled plastic sack which had obviously been in there for some time. The contents were well crushed, but with typical precision he identified them. “Would you like a crisp?” I took a few fragments and chewed. They tasted very old, like flakes from the wall of an ancient Egyptian tomb. I was beginning to get the idea that the verbal titans might not necessarily be models of sanity. Later on this perception came in handy for the vital and continuing task of not setting unreal standards of normality for yourself when you are engaged in an activity quite so strange as pushing words together into patterns and expecting people to listen to them.

I have never met the greatest of my heroes, Richard Wilbur. Everything I have ever read about him contributes to the picture of a man who can start his career staring German Panzer divisions in the face and yet still achieve work that is a miracle for its clean, sane poise. Once, in London, not long after I arrived there, he gave a reading at the American embassy and he was so preppy, so perfectly Phi Beta Kappa, that he glowed like an icon. As I write this he is getting old but in his latest photographs he still looks like a film star: one of the sane film stars, like James Stewart. Yet knowing what I know about all my other heroes, I won’t be surprised to hear that when they clean out his attic they will find it full of plastic bath toys.

There again, Empson’s principal advantage had been that there was nothing to discover. Quite early in his adult life he had established it as standard practice that he would make sexual advances to people of either gender as long as they never washed, for example. Nothing came as a surprise except, on the night I met him, one thing: the batty, hair-framed face was fully concentrated on you as if you yourself were one of the scientific phenomena in one of his marvelous poems. If you were still at the stage of doubting your own identity, it could be unsettling to meet someone who seemed not to doubt it at all. He was really tremendously interested in what I thought of the crisps, so I chewed my mouthful with a show of connoisseurship, thinking: Try to say something interesting, this guy is a genius.

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Poetry magazine

  • Critic, author, poet, and lyricist Clive James was born in Sydney, Australia, and educated at Sydney University and Cambridge University. James is the author of several collections of poetry, including Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958–2008, Angels over Elsinore: Collected Verse 20032008, and the satirical verse epic Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through the...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

William Empson

Of Beards and Weirdness
  • Critic, author, poet, and lyricist Clive James was born in Sydney, Australia, and educated at Sydney University and Cambridge University. James is the author of several collections of poetry, including Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958–2008, Angels over Elsinore: Collected Verse 20032008, and the satirical verse epic Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through the...

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