Monday, June 04, 2007

William Meredith, 1919-2007

William Morris Meredith, Jr. passed away last Wednesday. I like to recognize the passing of poets here on BillyBlog, for obvious reasons.

He was born on January 9, 1919 (an auspicious 1/9/1919 date) and holds the distinction of being one of the few poets I have ever heard read, and not had the wherewithal to get something signed.

This was due to my seeing him in the infancy of my time in New York, before I became the obsessive signature-obtaining poetry collector. In my defense, however, I am sure there are people far worse (or better, depending on your perspective) than me.

Anyway, I did hear Meredith read, along with four other poets, at an event at Barnes & Noble for all the nominees of the 1997 National Book Award.

This was an amazing event, which doesn't occur anymore. At multiple B&N's in Manhattan, prior to the Awards Ceremony, the nominees in each category would join in a reading at a store, simultaneously, in the middle of the day. So, while William Meredith, John Balaban, Frank Bidart, Sarah Lindsay and Marilyn Nelson were reading at the Barnes & Noble in Chelsea, the fiction nominees (including Charles Frazier, Cynthia Ozick, Don DeLillo, Ward Just and Diane Johnson) were reading in another store. The event was mirrored in two other stores for Non-Fiction and Young People's Literature, as well.

This type of reading made Novembers in New York particularly exciting for me, especially when they changed it up and switched it from a multi-location reading to a group signing. All nominees, at the Barnes & Noble flagship store in Union Square, seated at tables, doing nothing but chatting and signing books. Finger sandwiches and beverages included. Signatures, I swooned, ripe for the plucking.

All good things must come to an end. Several years ago, this smorgasbord gave way to an all-author reading at the New School the night before the ceremony. While just as potentially amazing, this is a long event. I think I've managed to attend one. All the authors don't necessarily show up, and whether you can get to someone for an autograph is a crap shoot.

"Wait, BillyBlog," you may patiently be wondering, "isn't this about William Meredith?"

Sure, sure, but there's always back story and digressions with me, so here you go.

Just an entry from my journal on November 17, 1997, back when I was short on detail when it came to documenting readings. Nonetheless, when I heard Meredith had passed, this story sprang to mind:

Attended a poetry reading today -- all 5 Natl. Bk Award Noms. Met Bidart and Balaban. Cool guys. William Meredith gets up there - close to 80, feebled by stroke, once-lost speech shakily returned & reads well considering. Finishes, applause. Takes a few steps. Falls backwards onto the floor. Collective gasp, then gets up & waves! More applause....

Still astonishing to remember watching this old man, just having read his poems, then falling backward onto the floor as the fifty-plus audience members bolt upright to see if he is okay. He is resilient and puts us at ease with a wave. The next night he won the National Book Award for his volume Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems.

Here's the title poem from the award-winning collection:
Effort at Speech

For Muriel Rukeyser

Climbing the stairway gray with urban midnight,
Cheerful, venial, ruminating pleasure,
Darkness takes me, an arm around my throat and
Give me your wallet.

Fearing cowardice more than other terrors,
Angry I wrestle with my unseen partner,
Caught in a ritual not of our making,
panting like spaniels.

Bold with adrenaline, mindless, shaking,
God damn it, no! I rasp at him behind me,
Wrenching the leather from his grasp. It
breaks like a wishbone,

So that departing (routed by my shouting,
not by my strength or inadvertent courage)
Half the papers lending me a name are
gone with him nameless.

Only now turning, I see a tall boy running,
Fifteen, sixteen, dressed thinly for the weather.
Reaching the streetlight he turns a brown face briefly
phrased like a question.

I like a questioner watch him turn the corner
Taking the answer with him, or his half of it.
Loneliness, not a sensible emotion,
breathes hard on the stairway.

Walking homeward I fraternize with shadows,
Zigzagging with them where they flee the streetlights,
Asking for trouble, asking for the message
trouble had sent me.

All fall down has been scribbled on the street in
Garbage and excrement: so much for the vision
Others taunt me with, my untimely humor,
so much for cheerfulness.

Next time don't wrangle, give the boy the money,
Call across chasms what the world you know is.
Luckless and lied to, how can a child master
human decorum?

Next time a switchblade, somewhere he is thinking,
I should have killed him and took the lousy wallet.
Reading my cards he feels a surge of anger
blind as my shame.

Error from Babel mutters in the places,
Cities apart, where now we word our failures:
Hatred and guilt have left us without language
that might have led to discourse.

You can read two other poems from the volume here. Listen to an eight-minute appreciation from NPR here. The New York Times obituary here.

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