blackbirdonline journalFall 2018  Vol. 17 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Remembering George Garrett

Let no man write my epigraph.
     —George Garrett
Why a story? Good question. Well, sir, I take this from the old Judge, who may have been my father. God alone knows that now. May or may not have been my father, but sure enough was my teacher, my mentor, my role model in ways that nobody else was or ever could be. And one of the things this old Judge was forever and a day saying was that our stories are who we are. Not that our stories reveal who we are in the fullest sense. And not that our stories can be translated, like something in a foreign language, like a foreign film with subtitles, into the simple clarity of a simple statement. But that our stories are who and what we are, nothing more or less. And that we are nothing more or less than the sum and substance of our stories, whether these be jokes or tales of woe or a judicious mixture of the same, a little of both. It’s not a matter of fact and fiction, he would say. In our stories, our true stories, fact and fiction are one and the same.
     —George Garrett,
The King of Babylon Shall Not Come Against You

May 25, 2018: the tenth anniversary of the death of George Garrett. Over that decade, from time to time, one or another of his books has come again to hand and revived treasured recollections as well as meditations on connections between his fiction and poetry and his unforgettable self.

In the library at St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School near Sewanee, Tennessee, there is a freestanding glass-fronted case containing a few hundred volumes of the poetry published in the United States over the past forty or fifty years. Its arrival there represents a confluence of several of the main currents of the career celebrated here; its continued use by the young students, and the somewhat less young faculty, stands as a small but durable representation of George Garrett’s behavior as a teacher. St. Andrew’s-Sewanee is descended from three schools; one was the former Sewanee Military Academy, from which Garrett graduated in 1946. The present school is what exists to receive the loyalty of the military academy’s alumni; it happens also that some friends of Garrett’s established fine teaching careers there. So there they stand, a collection of poetry books—later supplemented by books of short stories—many of which he himself carried in and out of classrooms or pulled down from his shelves at home for the delectation of visitors, a great many of them students. If you ever sat in the Garretts’ living room, and recall that that was where you first heard a poem by Vassar Miller, maybe, or John Ciardi, then the chances are good that you can go to the library at St. Andrew’s-Sewanee and catch sight of a thin spine that will remind you of that moment. Meanwhile, even now, teenagers have their brushes with the cabinet; it is typical of Garrett’s unusual balance between hope and despair that he wagered generously on the depth of a few of those encounters, however negligible many others may be.

From Sewanee, Garrett went on to the Hill School and thence to Princeton; as a young man he also served in the Active Reserves of the US Army Field Artillery for six years in the 1950s, two of them overseas. By the time that hitch was over he had been married for four years to the talented and charming Susan, “without whom there would be nothing,” as he said in a dedication thirty-one years later. (She herself died January 2, 2016.) By 1958, he had his MA from Princeton and had begun a stint as an assistant professor of English at Wesleyan University. His first book appeared in 1957, ten years after his first publication, a poem in the Hill School student newspaper. On a single day in 1961, there appeared Abraham’s Knife, his third book of poems; Which Ones Are the Enemy?, his second novel; and In the Briar Patch, his second book of stories. Student, then, and soldier, husband, professor, father, poet, short story writer, novelist. There were more genres and even a PhD to come, but for then, that was a gracious plenty. He was thirty-two years old.


When George Garrett arrived at the University of Virginia in the fall of 1962, as associate professor of English, there was a small group of students who knew that part of his teaching load, and ostensibly a chief reason for his having been hired, would be creative writing. At Virginia, this was a discipline that had up to that time been taught intermittently, maybe every three or four years, by someone or other whose interest in the specialty usually exceeded his credentials. It is true enough that William Faulkner’s death that summer had ended his engagement as the University’s writer-in-residence, but the terms of his appointment had not obliged him to teach any classes or to read any student work. So there was happy anticipation of the semester when one could earn a little credit for what one had been unable to keep from doing anyway.

We have lived long enough in the era of institutionalized creative writing that it is hard to recapture the days when it had a marginal place in our curricula. For one thing, students schooled exclusively in the workshop mode are puzzled to hear how little student work was given public airing in Garrett’s classes. It seemed a classroom like any other: thirty-odd desks in rows, a larger desk at the front of the room, some twenty young men in the desks, and then in strode Garrett, swinging a leather attaché case in one hand and attending to a lit cigarette with the other. “Rat finks!” he said, by way of greeting, and placed the attaché case on his desk. Thus began an hour often given to lecture, sometimes anecdotal, perhaps arising from his experience with writing The Young Lovers, a film produced by Samuel Goldwyn Jr.

A subplot in that film, which is set on a university campus, is the pursuit of a young woman (Deborah Walley) by a young man (Nick Adams). A scene that was never shot—in fact never made it out of rough draft—has the two of them drifting out of a noisy party room onto a balcony; out there, the Adams character looks soulfully into the distance and recites part of “When I have fears that I may cease to be,” which he has recently encountered in a class. Goldwyn, when he read those pages, came into Garrett’s office and said, “What the hell’s going on here, Garrett? This doesn’t sound like Nick at all.”

“Well, Sam, it’s a quotation from the great British Romantic poet John Keats, a poem Nick’s just seen in a class.”

“God damn it, Garrett, I got you out here to do original work!”

To belabor the lesson in this anecdote is to risk the ignominy that goes with explaining jokes, but it matters that Garrett’s stories were useful, or potentially so, as well as entertaining. Originality counts for a lot among young and would-be writers, who often have only the dimmest notion what it might actually be. It takes some time to come to terms with seeing that Joyce and Eliot, for two, were great and knowledgeable quoters of their predecessors. In Garrett’s classroom, students were in touch with a mind constantly and speedily at work; both precept and example came at them faster than they could absorb most of it.

There were other times when Garrett’s classes focused on aspects of verse technique, such as the daring shifts of tone close to the ends of several poems by Sir Walter Ralegh, or of prose technique, such as narrative voice, point of view, characterization, and the like; once in a while in that connection Garrett would make an assignment. For example, write four paragraphs about an apple—one from the point of view of a fruit vendor, one from that of an artist, one from that of a hungry man, and one from that of a botanist. This last one, whether the students liked it or not, was going to require some research—a fact which Garrett was careful not to mention.

Not, that is, until the office conference, which turned out to be where Garrett did the bulk of his commenting on student work. Over the years Garrett’s former students have reported that these sessions were encouraging, that he was quick to find what was working in a piece and cautious about being too specific concerning its flaws. This approach kept the students engaged in the process, happy and eager to work, and stunned at the amount of reading Garrett could accomplish without seeming to do any.

As the hard core of the writing group solidified, Garrett found ways to help some of the students toward publication. In 1963 there appeared an anthology, New Writing from Virginia, which contains a preface by Garrett, an afterword by Richard Wilbur, thirteen pieces of prose, mostly fiction, and twenty-three compositions in verse. The authors include eighteen undergraduate students (one of them from Hollins), four graduate students, a law student, and four faculty members. Garrett’s preface says, in part:

In spite of the fact that the University of Virginia has had a series of distinguished Writers-in-Residence, including William Faulkner, Stephen Spender, Katherine Anne Porter, Elizabeth Bowen, Nancy Hale, John Dos Passos, Glenway Wescott, Peter De Vries, and Richard Wilbur, the writing of fiction and poetry has been largely a furtive, underground activity. For one thing, most of these distinguished figures, with some notable exceptions, have been well-guarded by the faculty and about as accessible to the young students as the small, brooding bronze of Thomas Jefferson on the range. (It was explained to me by one Senior Member of the Faculty that “there couldn’t be more than five students who would profit by association with the writers anyway.” Which may be so. I hope, however, that this book will show that there are more than five students who are seriously interested in writing.) For another, as the world knows, our system of education is not much concerned with the cultivation of imaginative capacities. This largest part of our total life, body and soul, is kept discreetly out of sight like a drunken uncle.

Nevertheless young people will go on painting pictures and sculpting, if only an annual sad-eyed snowman, and singing and dancing and writing poems and stories. These young writers have been writing all along. Some will continue. Some will no doubt find more profitable ways to waste time. A few may achieve some reputation, and perhaps one or two will be “professionals,” meaning in this day and age fully dedicated part-time writers.

A year or two later, Garrett began to put together another anthology, more ambitiously conceived and aimed. Though the occasion for it may have been the response to a student story that contained characters too recognizable for the comfort of the class, soon enough the game of writing a story or a poem that somehow included a girl in a black raincoat attracted an array of writers that, if anything, is even more startling now than it may have been then. Poems by Donald Justice, Carolyn Kizer, and William Jay Smith, among others; stories by Leslie Fiedler, Shelby Foote, and William Manchester, among others. The youngest contributor was Annie Dillard, then a junior at Hollins College. The Girl in the Black Raincoat was published in 1966 by Duell, Sloan, and Pearce.

It was a few years later still that Garrett became involved in the founding and early days of the Associated Writing Programs and in the administration of its Intro Journals Project; he edited or co-edited at least five Intro volumes of writing selected from entries submitted by professors in member writing programs. It seems obvious now that New Writing from Virginia was a precursor of that series, and that, as the academic stance toward the discipline of creative writing has changed, some of the changes are attributable to Garrett’s acts and words.

Notice throughout this career the balancing, or perhaps careening, between two attitudes toward establishment literary values. At various times Garrett felt strongly subversive of prevailing notions in English departments, publishing centers, the editorial boards of magazines, and so on. At other times the game, and the matter of seeing how the others want it played, was more entertaining to him, or more to his immediate purpose, than subverting it. Either way, he regarded traditional notions and values with an extraordinarily energetic blend of deep respect and deep skepticism. There is a magical appropriateness to the arc of his teaching career, with its somewhat dramatic departure from Virginia in 1967, the years of distinguished but brief appointments thereafter, at Hollins, South Carolina, Princeton, Bennington, and Michigan, among others, and then, in 1984, to return to Virginia as the Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing. A year later, Princeton University came to the wise conclusion that the first two-thirds of Garrett’s Elizabethan trilogy fulfilled the dissertation requirement for the PhD he had all but finished in the late 1950s. Garrett submitted to an open defense of these books before a distinguished panel from the Princeton English Department and was awarded his doctorate.


In the mid-1960s, Garrett had constructed behind his house in Charlottesville a small building containing a study and a bathroom. Near the end of his first appointment at the University, the shelves in that study were nearly filled with books about the figures, events, and ideas of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and the visitor to those premises was likely to be treated to a disquisition upon Elizabethan road construction, horsemanship, or navigation, for examples. By then he was well launched on what is widely considered the central project of his career as a novelist.

It is tempting, in looking back over a series of books by one author, to see them in sequence, as following one upon the other, but in doing so we risk overlooking the many ways in which every novel is a unique occurrence, rather than a calculated predecessor of the work that follows it. Garrett’s first novel, The Finished Man, is traditionally realistic, unusually mature and achieved for a first novel, but notable more for success within known limits than for innovation. His second, Which Ones Are the Enemy?, is also fairly straightforward formally, though its first-person narrator is, in his own words, “a born loser” whose voice gives this novel a sound so different from the first that at least one editor is said to have doubted that the two books were the work of the same writer. Garrett’s third novel is the richly tragicomic Do, Lord, Remember Me, the story of a southern tent preacher who is sincere in his beliefs amid the venality of his entourage. R.H.W. Dillard, in his book Understanding George Garrett (1988), provides a careful analysis of the two published versions of the novel (British and American) and of the shorter fictions later made from excised portions of the manuscript.

After the publication of Dillard’s book, one of Garrett’s last novels, The King of Babylon Shall Not Come Against You (1996), takes up a few threads from Do, Lord and weaves them with a wealth of new material in a gripping novel about a fictional crime committed in Florida on the same day as the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The book is also a detailed and multivocal meditation on the nature of celebrity and of political reality in the period between the crimes and the presidency of Bill Clinton. The range of voices, of political, moral, and spiritual conditions and stances, is exceeded in Garrett’s oeuvre only in Poison Pen (1986), in which one R.C. Alger, a character invented by the character John Towne, takes on dozens of personae in outrageous letters to actual famous people—or to their names, anyway—which is the point. Among many other things, these two books are daring experiments with the uses of ephemera as ingredients for art. “Only the dead,” Garrett once said in a class, “write more for posterity than for the readers of their own time.”

But to return to the first three novels: it is going too far to consider these very different books as somehow preparatory to Death of the Fox, but it is clear that each in its way provided opportunities to explore and severely test conventional ideas of novelistic technique and structure. Pushing against limits was for Garrett a pursuit valuable in and of itself, as well as for the often surprising discoveries made thereby. An important and recurring theme in Death of the Fox is the value of acting decisively in the presence of uncertainty. On page 344 we find it said of Ralegh as a younger courtier that “his deep-grained satirical sense let him bear uncertainty,” and throughout the novel Ralegh lives up to his sobriquet—the Fox—by surprising those who must deal with him; he is often found wearing, saying, or doing something other than the expected. Gradually—for, as Garrett says in his poem “Salome,” “All the world knows / truth is best revealed / by gradual deception”—we come to see that Ralegh sometimes surprises himself as much as anyone else. Through a deep faith in ultimate and unknown outcomes, Ralegh has been able to diminish his interest in immediate outcomes, and in this he is in sharp contrast to those immediately surrounding the business of his final condemnation and execution.

It has been noted many times that the opening chapters of Death of the Fox portray the struggles of three men—the king’s attorney general, King James, and Ralegh—as they try to go to sleep. The first two are spinning their wheels in preparation for what is coming, trying to foresee in order to forestall. Ralegh is remembering. This is an oversimple description of these pages, but it serves to introduce a way of conducting oneself in the midst of trials that a Christian man would emulate if he could. Ralegh reveals himself to be that, among other things, in his colloquy with Dean Tounson in the novel’s penultimate chapter. The dean is there to examine the state of Ralegh’s soul, and he is full of selfish doubts and fears, not knowing what the king hopes to hear, not knowing how to read Ralegh. And in a fine small miracle of theological dialogue, Ralegh reminds Tounson what it is to believe.

There is another thread worth teasing out of the rich tapestry of these Elizabethan and Jacobean books, and faith in a sound foundation and in God seems a good point at which to start. The writing process, as many of us know from our own experience, is most pleasurable when most open to possibilities that surprise even the writer. Garrett’s faith in such possibilities had one of its more vigorous demonstrations at a reading he gave in 1966 in St. Louis, where he appeared with two younger poets who were there because Garrett had persuaded Washington University to invite them. These two younger men went for a walk the afternoon before the reading, but Garrett stayed in the hotel to work on something new he hoped to get into good enough shape to read.

The stage was small, and behind the podium—more like a music stand—stood a row of three stools. The two poets not reading at any point in the evening could sit there and look over the shoulder of the poet who was reading. Garrett came in due course to the stack of yellow legal paper containing his new poem. Many correspondents have seen such pages from his hand and recall that even in prose he rarely got more than fifty words on a page. You could read them from across the street. So the two other poets watched as the new poem’s pages flew from one side of the podium to the other. Then the rhythm was broken by one page, which stayed in place a little longer, long enough to arouse curiosity. A slight lean forward for a better look, and there it was: a few lines of verse at the top, a few at the bottom, and a scored-off space in the middle containing the words “IMPROVISE HERE.”

In the days of his first appointment at the University of Virginia, Garrett and a small group of other young faculty members began to respond satirically to various acts, utterances, and memoranda from the department chairman, a great scholar of surprising insensitivity to the outrageous inappropriateness of some of his own figures of speech. Phony memoranda circulated, cryptic messages were posted on bulletin boards, copies of the magazine Urban Nudist were surreptitiously planted where unsuspecting professors would unwittingly reveal them when they removed from a particular drawer the grade book that always came out during student conferences. At last came a directive from the chairman that there would be a cessation of “these japes and pasquils.”

Turn, then, to page 275 of The Succession: A Novel of Elizabeth and James, where the Messenger—he who rides from Edinburgh to London to carry the news that Mary, Queen of Scots, has been delivered of a son—is recalling his days as a student at Cambridge, in the College of St. John the Evangelist:

Required also to obey many and various rules. Though always free as old Adam to disregard. To risk the consequences, fines, and loss of privileges. And, for certain offenses, to risk the humiliation of a public whipping in the Hall. Which rules and consequences never served wholly to inhibit him (or most of his fellow students) from their full share of japes and pasquils. Times of drunken bell pulling. Times of panting flight from proctors and porters. Times of (strictly forbidden) swimming in the Cam.

Again, in that creative writing classroom one day, Garrett regaled his students with a few quotations from the work of Julia A. Moore, who wrote under the somewhat less euphonious nom de plume The Sweet Singer of Michigan and who is the object of parody in “Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots,11:07 AM Dec’d,” Emmeline Grangerford’s poem in Huckleberry Finn. Moore was widely known as an infelicitous poet, and in her preface to her second book, Garrett said, she wrote this: “Let them scoff as may, literary is a work very difficult to do.” Well, Miss Moore did write “Literary is a work very difficult to do,” but she did not employ the opening clause, “Let them scoff as may.” Garrett evidently wished that she had. Here is how it turns up in The Succession, on page 391; the speaker is an actor:

Look about you, sir, and consider that thirty years ago I did not own more than my wits and a pewter spoon. Let them scoff as may. Their betters will live in almshouses endowed by me. And as for themselves, a lucky few will end their days in a spital house. And their bones will rest in unmarked graves!

And here, a brief passage from page 268 of The King of Babylon Shall Not Come Against You; the speaker is Verna Claxton, an unusually vicious young woman: “I don’t give a hoot what everyone else in the rest of the world thinks. Let them think what they please. Let them scoff as may. This is addressed to the only three people I really care about—me, myself and I.”

More fleetingly, The King of Babylon Shall Not Come Against You nods in various ways toward various old friends. On page 78 the narrator, Billy Tone, is said to have written “naughty” novels under the pseudonym Harry Diadem—a main character in Calder Willingham’s Eternal Fire. On page 190 we find twin brothers, fresh out of the Air Force, named something like Bush or Bash—not Bausch, quite, but still. And the prosecutor of the Florida crime is named Edward Cooke, who brings to mind Sir Edward Coke, an early prosecutor of Ralegh.

These are very small moments of private or semiprivate lightheartedness in the midst of a fictive creation of tremendous fecundity, energy, intricacy, beauty, and wisdom. Whereas Death of the Fox and The King of Babylon Shall Not Come Against You are rather closely plotted—with several important characters trying all at once to understand and to deceive one another—The Succession, no less carefully made, casts a wider net, many of its characters reporting to us from several very different times and places, from Edinburgh in 1566 to London in 1626. On any given page, what is likely to be most absorbing is not the classic narrative question what will happen next, but rather the richness and depth of what is happening at the moment.

In various narrators’ descriptions of landscape, of country and city surroundings, food, costume, music, feasts for the senses, the point of view all but vanishes in the profusion of fully realized detail. And in that withdrawal of the narrators’ personalities, not total because their voices are distinct, there is a humbling generosity of spirit reminiscent of Faulkner’s response to a question about the writer’s life. It’s all there in the books, he said, there isn’t any use in looking anywhere else. Those of us who were close to George Garrett, who cared for and about him as the man he was to us, will resist that notion for thousands of reasons. Still, it might be all right to hang that idea here like a lantern on a post, for others to see by.


Now, for those readers who are practicing poets, a suggested exercise. Comb your memory for brief bits of craft wisdom you have picked up in the past year or so. Shoot for ten or a dozen of the kinds of principles that get laid down during consideration of workshop pieces or in guest columns in writers’ magazines. For example: keep the voice consistent; beware of one-word lines; watch out for conjunctions and prepositions at the ends of lines; whatever you do, watch out for poems overtly about poets and poetry. Once your list is finished, read the work of some good living poet in search of passages that subvert or violate the principles you have set down. Too much trouble? Maybe so, but a little serious research might be a good way to solidify the easy dictum that rules are there to be tested if not broken—itself easy enough to forget during intense consideration of a poem that has been in existence for only a few hours or days.

In any case, happy the experimenter who draws the poetry of George Garrett for such an exercise. For there you can find not only various underminings and disobediences, but also a profound knowledge of what the resources of poetry in English have been. It is not only as a writer of fiction that Garrett studied the poetry of the English Renaissance.

The three poems considered here are all in the first section, “New Poems,” of Days of Our Lives Lie in Fragments: New and Old Poems 1957–1997, published in 1998 by LSU Press. They are all self-conscious about the speaker’s writing a poem or reading poetry from the point of view of one who writes it. They are “Anthologies,” “Anthologies II,” and “By the Book: A Train Poem.” The first of these might need a somewhat gingerly approach, as it ends with a list of names, one of them mine.

“Anthologies” teeters between eulogizing and satirizing the many poets who used to turn up in anthologies now available only in libraries. The opening stanza is a casual-sounding introduction with a first line that goes by almost too fast:

Not only the pleasures of dust,
of dry, stained pages and the out-of-date
card that proves nobody has even checked
this one out in a decade and not more
than half a dozen times in my whole lifetime.
THOMPSON, JR. . . . .

Each of the remaining four stanzas ends with a similar roll call of anywhere from four to seven names. They vary a little in their power to ring faint bells in the memory—or, indeed, loud gongs of recognition in certain convergences of the poem with readers who have certain kinds of knowledge. There is a generation or two of poetry readers who still recall Oscar Williams, a successful anthologist of the mid-twentieth century. His anthologies, including Immortal Poems of the English Language, were among the very few that gave any space to the poems of his wife, Gene Derwood. Another kind of reader might recall, or decide to look on Google to discover, that Alfred Hayes, whatever his poetry was like, wrote several film scripts, including A Hatful of Rain, and was twice an Oscar nominee. His best-known verse effort may have been the lyrics to “The Ballad of Joe Hill,” which had well-known performances by Paul Robeson and Joan Baez, to name two; the song has the authenticity of the nearly anonymous ballad, and Hayes’s name is rarely associated with it.

Here in the library stacks, the poem says, these names have their almost imperceptible durability. The last stanza turns inward:

But what of all the unfamous others, ourselves
I mean, still alive and on fire and in love
with the taste of words and the making of poems?
Who will come here afterwards to blow the dust away
and disturb the peace and oblivion we have earned?

Garrett wrote this ending for the poem when it was decided that LSU Press would publish an anthology dividing some 225 pages among these seven poets, this group of good friends.

One could bog down deeply here, glossing the names in Garrett’s rollcall of the nearly forgotten yet helplessly preserved, but one more is to the point. Among those mentioned at the end of a stanza is one who shall remain nameless here, but whose first collection appeared in a volume of Scribner’s Poets of Today series, a remarkable venture published mostly in the 1950s under the editorship of John Hall Wheelock. Each volume contained three first books; in the end there were eight volumes. Garrett was among the poets who started there, as were May Swenson, Louis Simpson, David Slavitt, and James Dickey.

Also several less prominent poets, about one of whom it came to be said—no one seems to know how accurately—that he moved to Paris and more or less retired. Each afternoon he would go to a café and work for a while on a poem; at an hour that had become traditional, a few friends would gather at his table. The poem would make its way around the circle to mostly admiring response, and when it got back to its author, he would lift the plastic sheet of the Magic Slate on which he had composed it, and the poem would vanish forever.

There is, in short, a kind of joy available to the poet who can contemplate with equanimity the likelihood that his or her work will settle into the vast anthology of rarely or never-read work, having done the little best it could among the friends or cherished enemies for whose sake it was made. To be sure, some of those acquaintances might have been other poems; Garrett has often written movingly of what it feels like to participate in the great conversation. That is one primary theme of “Anthologies II.”

It opens with a stanza quietly at war with itself over whether to be metrical or not; the insistently conversational diction leans it one way, the lineation another:

In this fat book I find
a signature, my own, my name
done in my same hand, but different.
I could not make it that way now.

The next line is fourteen syllables, followed by three hexameters; such things can be smuggled in by using numerals to designate years—six and five syllables in four characters each:

Summer of 1947 it would have to be.
The copyright is dated 1946—
A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry:
The Best Poems of the 20th Century.

Here, then, is Oscar Williams once more; the poem goes on to remind us of the small oval portraits of the poets that graced the covers and endpapers of his little treasuries and of the obscurity into which some of the poets have since dropped, if they weren’t already there:

Does anyone alive still miss Gene Derwood
with those wild eyes and that funny hat?

In the present, maybe fifty years after the book’s publication, the speaker tends toward amusement at the frailty of the poetic ambitions represented in the poems and portraits, but at the end of the poem he recaptures much of the attachment the book held for him when he first had it. Not that he quite discovers that he should still feel the way he did then, but that he understands the appropriateness of his feelings both then and now:

The child who believed he was a man
and scribbled my name in the flyleaf here
went forth like Ransom’s “Captain Carpenter”
to read his way through the book of wounds.

And this book sitting on its dark shelf
for years, a buried treasure of shining words,
a safe house assigned to all the dead poets
he loved and cherished at first sight.

By the way, it is easy to recall here that Garrett was emphatic and explicit with undergraduate students who wanted to think about things that writing might bring them—employment, reputation, and so on. The one worthwhile reason for trying to write serious literature, he said, is to experience whatever pleasures there are in the act of writing itself. Everything else is in the hands of inscrutable forces, and maybe even that is, too. And here is a snippet, a fact that fits neatly into this exact space: two poems whose last lines are ten-word pentameters about the encounter between human corpses and carrion birds are Ransom’s “Captain Carpenter” (“And made the kites to whet their beaks clack clack”) and Garrett’s “Buzzard” (“This bird comes then and picks those thin bones clean”).

“By the Book: A Train Poem” moves through three substantial free-verse stanzas from an apparently direct setting aboard the Crescent between Tuscaloosa and Charlottesville to a meditation on some of the impurities that are always leaching into poetry. The first stanza devotes itself mostly to the tarpaper shacks, the glimpsed black boy on a bike, the abandoned refrigerators and kudzu visible from the train window. The second notices the extinction of steam locomotives and the elegance that went with them—the dining car, for one. This stanza is framed in literary reference; the first of its fifteen lines is “Those singing trains of Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe,” and the last recalls Richard Wilbur’s description of dining car waiters “carrying their trays (as Wilbur put it) ‘tipfingered.’” In the middle of the stanza there is a passage that pushes the poem toward its more nearly satirical conclusion:

O dark green curtains, upper and lower, of Pullman cars
and a lazy look out the window at the stereotypical
man straddling a mule, himself barefooted
in bib overalls, a straw hat, patiently waiting
for our train to pass by his life and times.
We have all seen him there or remember it that way.

It is a considerable leap from the one-letter “O” to the “stereotypical” at the end of the very next line, but by such strides Garrett brings us to the questionably inclusive “We have all seen him.” The poem may not be aimed at those of us who have not, nor at those of us who—when we see the name Wilbur—think first of Charlotte’s Web or a Wright brother.

Indeed, the last stanza opens with references to recent clichés of poetry criticism:

This new train is asking for at least a casual line,
if not exactly for “longer-lined capacious forms.”

From there the poem enters a complex paradox with possible loopholes; it evades paraphrase as thoroughly as anything written in such an apparently guileless diction and style, its only obtrusive artifice being a nine-line single sentence:

And I hereby solemnly promise that the solemn name
of Heidegger will not appear in person in poem or train,
Heidegger or Kierkegaard, either, who was never once,
whatever else, on the Crescent from Tuscaloosa
up through blue mountains to Charlottesville
or woke up on a sleeping porch in central Florida
to listen to freight trains whistle and pass by
like carloads of mythical sirens and Rhinemaidens,
calling his name, promising almost everything.

At first it seems that the speaker is solemnly promising not to do exactly what he is doing, but a second look brings us the unusual idea of a name appearing in person. The passage enables us to hold simultaneously in mind the presence and the absence of these derided philosophical references, whose point is that there are poems that mention Heidegger without giving much evidence that their author has read much of his work. Or enough of the other poems that mention him. If one could read all the poems that have already been written about Frida Kahlo, how likely is it that one would write yet another? At least as likely as one’s deciding one more time that the moment has come for a line beginning with a one-letter “O.”

Throughout George Garrett’s poetry, there are dozens of poems directly treating the pleasures, perils, triumphs, and disappointments of what is sometimes called “the literary life.” Even at their most bitterly satirical, they rejoice in the possibilities offered in the nervous prohibitions set forth by those so worried about making mistakes that they can’t do anything right.


Over the years a distinguished array of commentators have considered many aspects of George Garrett’s facts and fictions. Among the matters that have often come up, and will again, is the tireless, constant generosity with which Garrett looked out for others. In October of 2002 he appeared in Norfolk, Virginia, to give a poetry reading at Old Dominion University. Much as he had done in St. Louis in 1966, he brought with him two younger poets, Kevin McFadden and Thorpe Moeckel, and gave each of them shares of his own time at the lectern.

He had public and private explanations for this. From the stage he announced that this was something he looked forward to doing often in his new capacity as poet laureate of Virginia. Later at a reception he smilingly told a few people that he was having trouble driving at night and had used this method to acquire a couple of dependable chauffeurs. Both of these explanations have obvious cogency; anyone can see how reasonable they are. And, on reflection, anyone can also see how rarely people act this way.

It would be hard to guess how many hundreds of people throughout his adult life benefited from Garrett’s acts of generosity, many of them disguised as employment. He helped us into print, sometimes going so far as to earn co-authorship on a project without taking credit for it or withdrawing a book of his own from a publisher to make room for someone else’s. He also helped people into gainful employment and into new ways of doing what we are trying to do. So many of us are grateful to him that something else often said of him is probably true—that he had more books dedicated to him than any other living writer. Some of those books may even come to be found in that glass-fronted case at St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School. It is good to think of a later generation of readers making that kind of connection, just as many of us now have to draw ourselves up short now and then as we make the intricate and startling transition from the recollection of a hilarious time on the phone with George—now, alas, no longer available—to a consideration of Garrett’s many extraordinary books—available as long as we can read.  

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