Daniel Halpern on Hyam Plutzik's "Letter from a Young Poet"
NEW AMERICAN POETRY
David Lehman | April 20, 2016
The new, just-published edition of Hyam Plutzik's Letter from a Young Poet (Watkinson / Trinity College / Books and Books Press, 2016) is a welcome event. Plutzik (1911-1962), the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, studied at Trinity College in Connecticut and at Yale, and later established himself as a beloved professor of English at the University of Rochester. A poet ripe for rediscovery, Plutzik wrote the ambitious book-length poem Horatio in which Hamlet's confidante takes to heart the injunction to absent himself from felicity awhile and give a true account of the events that wrecked the royal court of Denmark. Begun while Plutzik served in the U. S. army during World War II, the book narrowly missed winning the Pulitzer back in 1962. Plutzik's acclaimed collection Apples from Shinar appeared from Wesleyan in 1959 and was reissued by the same publisher on his centenary
While in residence at a Connecticut farmhouse as a young man, the Brooklyn-born poet found himself bedeviled by an aggressive woodchuck about whom he wrote, "There was a sort of agony in his desire. . .[and] I saw in this brutish creature the kin and symbol of mankind, bestial in form but aspiring to heaven." From this quotation alone one can sense the spiritual connection that the poet felt with the prince of Denmark, who wonders at man, the "paragon" of the animals, who yet amounts to nothing more than a "quintessence of dust."
Letter from a Young Poet -- perhaps inspired by Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet and by the ideal of literary mentorship -- was written just before the United States entered the second World War. The poet is buried in Queens, New York, with this simple epitaph on his gravestone, the concluding lines from one of his own poems: "Nothing can be done / But something can be said / At least."
We are pleased to post, with permission, Daniel Halpern's foreword to the new edition of Letter from a Young Poet. – DL
It's slightly ironic that it took twenty-nine year old Hyam Plutzik seven years to compose this novella of a letter to his college professor at Trinity College, Odell Shepard. An outpouring of heart and soul, to be sure. A young man's Biographia Literaria, a biographical ars poetica, sent to a man who, it's never clear from the letter he wrote in response, was more of a projection of Hyam's youthful self than true mentor or confidante, but whose remembered existence allowed Hyam to pen so openly such an impassioned and insightful epistle of his literary dreams and ambitions. Ironic, because Professor Shepard's return letter, three pages to Hyam’s seventy, was never sent.
In Hyam's fervid letter, he addresses the concerns of an artist coming to terms with the world he's inherited. The prose is filled with determination, philosophic wonderings, thoughts on the nature of the artistic endeavor, enveloped throughout with a youthful ambition, a hopefulness, an admixture of self-confidence and self-doubt that in Hyam’s voice never rings contradictory. Large issues, and minor details, the sometimes temperate meanderings of a young artist, trying to come of age. He writes, "A friend of mine the other day, when I taxed him with certain venomous fanaticisms in literature and the arts, said that it was in his nature to have them; while I (he added) had a natural mellowness of character and had never said anything malicious about any man. The mellowness is a premature sign of old age perhaps."
Reading this letter reminded me of the sensibility I discovered when I was Hyam’s age, opening Edwin Muir's Autobiography. A plain-spoken intellectual memoir that braids the life of the mind with the quotidian. Hyam writes, "The things most people take for granted I do not take for granted. The realm of sense, on whose existence my neighbors seem to rely implicitly, I know is a film as thin as a dragon-fly’s wing."
It's clear that during the seven years it took to get this letter onto the page, Hyam grappled with his art and his past, however brief the span of that past. Of course, the weight of those particular years far outweigh our later years of dailiness repeated and ground down through gravity’s routine, as he was well aware. Sadly, he would leave this world at the age of fifty, in his prime and quickly becoming one of our major post-World War II poets.
So this letter is an attempt to define his life at twenty-nine, to fix his place in the world, physical and intellectual, so that he might move on. An overview of the years since leaving Trinity College with unfinished business left behind. I was curious to read Professor Shepard's letter, in order to find a clue that would reveal what his old professor represented to him—or at least Hyam's memory of him. My question: Why did Hyam select this man as the beneficiary of his heartfelt ruminations? Hyam ends his letter with a touching (and trusting) post script: "I have changed or crossed out nothing, you see. And the many things divulged I allow to remain."
Seventy-five years later, we have no way of knowing how closely Shepard had grasped the substance and tone of the remarkable letter he had received. In his unposted reply, was he purposefully adopting a more restrained voice to counterbalance Plutzik’s youthful enthusiasm with the gravitas and wisdom of an elder scholar? The highlight of Shepard's letter is the following passage regarding the nature of writing, of the writer/artist: "... and hence comes that feeling of being 'superfluous'... and a sense of utter solitude as a mask of his genius, and soon after, despairing of communication, he comes to write... For himself alone, in a prolonged soliloquy." Was Shepard invoking what Rilke wrote forty years earlier in his letter to another young poet, "Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself."?
The notion of mentorship feels, in some ways, a somewhat dated notion. The speed at which our worlds now spin seems to obviate the time collaboration requires. The handing over, the sharing, the openness of informed conversation between experience and inexperience, tradition and ambition. Raw talent and proven artistic accomplishment. In any case, it makes me happy that Hyam never saw the response to his expansive missive.
As for epiphany, ambition and the quotidian, he writes, "I see the world as a cloud shielding us from Truth. The cloud changes and twists and thins out, and sometimes momentary gaps appear in it, and for a moment we catch an outline of a form beyond, and then the cloud closes, and soon the experience itself becomes unreal and we return to the vegetative life of everyday, and until the soul is (by subtle preparation) ready for another groping toward the real, we live like other people—in their world." Had Hyam, too, read Rilke? Had he come upon, “Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don't know what work these conditions are doing inside you?”
Along with the seriousness of a young man’s articulation, there is, throughout Hyam's letter, a beguiling if somewhat submerged humor, aplayfulness, often at his own expense. He tells us, simply, that he intended to write "an epic... concerning a leaf that hung on a branch just outside my window. Unfortunately, the leaf fell down before I could get started, so the whole thing entered the realm of the might-have-been, from which no traveler returns."
He comes across in these pages as grounded, wise beyond his twenty-nine years—and for sure, impatient and intolerant. He writes, "... at the age of 23 one’s impatiences are more urgent than they are later on; one's intolerances are at their height; one can detest things more vividly."
Hyam's letter is a song of the self and the soul. He found a transparent mirror through which he could locate and articulate the place where he found himself standing after seven years in the wilderness of his own making. That mirror might have been the illusion of his teacher. And Hyam reports back: "Who is this creature of flesh and bone that, on a world whose position in the universe and in the gradation of things no Copernicus will ever completely explain, walks among things of dimension, color and texture and booms forth sounds like a veritable frog in a marsh?"
One of the discoveries to be made in this text is the particular type of observation that Hyam makes palpable for us, and which he makes good use of in his later poetry. The following passage, and the six lines of verse that follow, from his poem entitled "Seventh Avenue Express," give a sense of himself in the “city.” There’s something reminiscent of Weldon Kees' memorable Robinson poems, and even certain atmospheric passages from Hesse's Steppenwolf. Here is Hyam in NYC, reporting on what he finds around him. A portrait of the city that is at the same time a projection of the self onto the landscape ahead.
I saw the world-city as an obscene but fortunately evanescent island in a dim sea. And the people in it? Well, in a poem I once wrote there was a character (obviously myself), whose picture may perhaps give you an idea of what I am trying to say. What did he think of the city and the people in it?
He thinks he knows them but he knows them not.
He does not know himself, nor does he know
Her he embraced, or who has heard his voice
Over the table and the pungent smoke.
He calls a name and knows not who he calls.
He seeks himself by strange and devious ways...
One could say he has found some profound part of the meaning of his letter in the lines of this poem. I'm reminded of a memorable comment by the British poet Thom Gunn, which seems apt here: "He has a most unusual freshness of vision which enables him to be the master of two worlds, the natural and the supernatural... His imagery is both astonishing and appropriate..."
Mentorship notwithstanding, it would seem that, in fact, Hyam served a number of masters—not all of them literary—as he developed his poetic skills. Reading this letter you will find sources for the poems that would later be written, along with his poetic methods of perceiving the world, and his understanding of himself as an occupant of that inherited domain, momentary as it was to be. —Daniel Halpern