So you’re walking along a city street, minding your own business, and you run smack into Robert Hass or Seamus Heaney. Quick, what do you do? Realistically, if you’re 99.9% of the population, including me, you look daggers at the guy and go away swearing under your breath.
If you’re me and if by some miracle you do recognize one of the best-read poets of our time, you probably–knowing me–help him up, dust him off, and scamper away red-faced.
Not so Sheri Donatti, the artist-girlfriend Anatole Broyard shared an apartment with as recounted in his lean, zippy Greenwich Village memoir Kafka Was the Rage. On West Fourth Street in 1946, Sheri crashed into W.H. Auden:
She fell backward, and as she did, she grabbed Auden around the neck and they went down together, with him on top…. She clung to Auden, who was sprawled in her arms. He tried desperately to rise, scrabbling with his hands and his espadrilles on the floor. He was babbling incoherently, apologizing and expostulating at the same time, while she smiled at me over his shoulder, like a woman dancing.
Besides making me laugh, this passage always strikes me in two sobering ways. First, it takes for granted the celebrity of poets. Second, it seems to presciently emblematize the way poetry readers find themselves, more and more, holding onto the form and its cultural currency for dear life.
Poets, of course, have some control over their own cultural currency. We can argue (and probably will, eventually) about whether Buffy the Vampire Slayer is art, but this poem by Stephen Burt (it’s the second of three on the page), inspired by BTVS, certainly is. You should read Burt’s fine Randall Jarrell biography, too.