Corea, Maine 04624
June 5, 1979
Dear Mary Jo Salter—
Your letter pleased me more than you can possibly imagine. Since you’re a poet, I wouldn’t be able to say such a thing if it weren’t for our belonging to different generations—and to have evoked such friendliness from a younger poet amounts to nothing less than a milestone. Few things could please me more than to trade poems with someone sympathetic, and so I’m sending along perhaps more than you’ll feel like coping with. I hope you won’t feel swamped, and of course you’re not obliged to read everything in the little book. If you do, you’ll find lots of exercises, throes of self-expression, and all the weight of the grand tradition. Milton, yet! The book [Multitudes, Multitudes] came about mainly because I got to know a young man who was trying, against the tide, to be a letterpress printer; he’s since become a casualty of the economy, and gone back to working for someone other than himself. At the time, though I sent out things occasionally (and got them back), I wasn’t quite ready to go out on a limb and commit myself to being a pro. I think that happened when I read some things in the back room of a pub (an “open reading,“ needless to say) and discovered how heady a pleasure it can be to have an audience. One thing that had held me back, I must admit, was that I don’t greatly enjoy the company of literary types—the more literary they are, the more miserable they seem to be as human beings. This isn’t just a complaint, it’s a lament in the elegiac manner. I’ve been fortunate in my friends, and since I earn my living bookishly (half-time editor for E. P. Dutton, freelancing the rest of the time) I have no illusions about authors. My best-friend-and-severest-critic—with whom I’ve shared a house up here in Maine for several summers now—is a lawyer with an ear for music, who takes pleasure in words as much as I do. A very old friend teaches English in Colorado, and we correspond. I couldn’t have gone on writing without those two. But I’ve yearned secretly for a poet I could write to. Editors, it turns out, are too busy—of course, with all those hordes of poets sending in manuscripts, more poets writing than there are readers, it would appear.
Is it W. C. Williams who’s to blame for the current monotony of manner? This is what Howard Moss says, in a nice thing I just came across in The American Poetry Review (where, it strikes me, monotony tends to predominate unduly). Or is it something more pervasive, a general pulling inside oneself because the environment is so bad out there? The other day it occurred to me that a whole generation has been so deadened by rock music that an ear for the music of words may be obsolescent. “You’re in love with words,” I was told (by a poet, yet) in a tone of accusation. What he meant, I guess, was that I tend to use too many of them. So you can see why your letter, with its sweet and generous compliments for what in some quarters is evidently seen as a defect, meant so much.
As for data: I come from the Midwest, went to Grinnell College a long time ago, and have gone through lots of changes, some of them documented in Multitudes, Multitudes. I’m here in this delectably silent and foggy lobstering village (“The Cove” and “Fog” were written here, and the sundew poem’s subject was discovered here) for six weeks, with some manuscripts to edit but also time for other things. The best-friend-and-severest-critic is writing a scholarly article. We listen to lots of music, and once we’ve settled in we’ll probably be reading aloud to each other. One summer it was Dickens—we finished Little Dorrit here, and were almost too broken up by it to speak. This summer it may be George Eliot. Just at the moment I’m reading Silas Marner for—can you imagine?—the first time. Best-friend-and-severest-critic read it in high school! Before that it was The Mill on the Floss, and before that Adam Bede. While I’ve been writing this, the fog that has been moving in and out since we arrived has been dissipating, the water has turned from no-hue to just faintly blue, and Petit Manan lighthouse has shown itself for the first time. Thank you so much, once again, for writing as you have. I do hope you’ll write again, and send your poems.