In 1977, a week or two after Robert Lowell died, I was reading one of his books on an airplane. The passenger next to me was a pilot from a different airline, in a courtesy seat on the way to his next assignment, he explained. He asked me about my book, and when I showed him the author’s name, he said:
“Didn’t I just read something about him in the paper?”
“Well, he died last week. Maybe you saw an obituary.”
“Yes, that’s it. He seemed like somebody who should’ve been famous.”
“Famous” is relative. The pilot was on the borderlands of those who might apply the word to Robert Lowell. “Famous” is also a matter of degree. I have been asked:
“Grandpa, are you famous?”
“Only a little bit.”
“Fame is a fickle food,” writes Emily Dickinson, “upon a shifting plate.” The word “fame,” she suggests, has a sleazy undertone. When the pilot and I had that conversation about Lowell, I remembered a saying of the Roman politician and writer Cato the Elder. He said he’d rather have people ask why there was no statue of him in Rome, than why there was one.
Fame varies over time. For decades, the two most important kinds of performer in the U.S. were: bandleader and crooner. One person stood out as the most successful at filling both roles. Vaughn Monroe (1911–1973), as a bandleader and crooner, was in a class by himself. On Saturday nights, NBC Radio broadcast Monroe singing with his band, in live performances from a different college campus every week. His records sold in the millions. Tall and handsome, Monroe appeared in movies and on television.
He had an unusual hit song, “Riders in the Sky,” a minor-key, up-tempo cowboy ballad about “ghost riders” galloping high up in the storm clouds, “chasing the devil’s herd,” as he sang in his deep voice. When I was in elementary school, many of us kids knew the lyrics, about the “mighty herd of red-eyed cows … a-plowin’ through the ragged skies, and up a cloudy draw,” and the spooky refrain, “Yi-pi-yi-ay, yi-pi-yi- o.” Our parents danced to Monroe’s music, including hits like his “Racing with the Moon.” Vaughn Monroe was at a pinnacle of fame.
Also born in 1911, a few months before Vaughn Monroe, was Elizabeth Bishop, today possibly the most celebrated and widely read American poet of her generation. During her lifetime, Bishop was admired, but with a sometimes condescending note of praise for her “good eye,” consigning her to the category “woman poet.” Along with refusing to have her work included in anthologies of poetry by women, Bishop felt that in some ways she was not taken quite as seriously as her male poet friends John Berryman, Randall Jarrell and Robert Lowell.
The wheel turns. At the moment I am typing these words, many thousands of people around the world are reading poems by Elizabeth Bishop, such as “One Art,” and “At the Fishhouses.” Hundreds of thousands, possibly more, would recognize her name. They may be quoting her work or discussing it on Facebook or Twitter. Only a handful of scholarly souls interested in the 1940s and 1950s are thinking about Vaughn Monroe and his music.
Terms for Bishop’s enduring reputation might be “vertical fame” compared to the singing bandleader’s “horizontal fame.” I don’t mean to diminish Vaughn Monroe, or the reputation he enjoyed, as a “fickle food,” as Emily Dickinson puts it, upon the “shifting plate” of his radio show, his university appearances, and “Riders in the Sky,” which I had by heart in grade school.
Poets think about such things. In his 1975 poem “A Magic Mountain,” Czesław Miłosz considers the idea of his own fame:
So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?
Fame will pass me by, no tiara, no crown?
Did I then train myself, myself the Unique,
To compose stanzas for gulls and sea haze,
To listen to the foghorns blaring down below?
The title alludes to the sequestered asylum of Thomas Mann’s novel, but the Magic Mountain of the poem is Berkeley itself, the Bay Area with its absence of real seasons—and by implication, Berkeley’s apparent freedom from the historical agonies of Europe. Miłosz quotes a Russian-born Berkeley colleague about their fatally bland new setting on the Bay: “Where so little changes you hardly notice how time goes by. / This is, you will see, a magic mountain.” In the temperate present tense of California, fame had passed by the exiled Professor Miłosz, whose name did not appear in the tormented, false and tyrannized official histories of Polish poetry. No tiara for him, no crown. Not even a mention in the official encyclopedia.
In 1980, my first year in Berkeley, Bob Hass and I had set a September date to meet with Miłosz so we could discuss working with him on English versions of his poetry. A possibility, I felt, to enlarge my own writing as part of the move from East Coast to West, to collaborate with two poets I admired, one a good friend from Stanford days and the other from a different language and an earlier generation.
But a faculty meeting at St. Mary’s College came up for Bob, so we had to cancel. We picked a new day about a week later. Then I had to cancel that second date—and before we could reschedule, the newspaper stories appeared. Czesław Miłosz had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. A crown, a tiara.
The crown coincided with a statue—not in Cato’s Rome, exactly, but lines from a poem by Miłosz were inscribed on the monument in Gdansk commemorating the uprising that unified Polish workers and students in the Solidarity movement. “Fame,” in the phrase of his poem, had not “passed him by,” after all.
For Hass and me, the Nobel news included a half-serious “Oh shit” element. Those two appointments we had canceled made it feel awkward to ask Czesław for a new appointment—as though only now did we have time for him. Might we never work with the older poet we admired? Eventually, the meeting took place and Bob and I began making English versions from literal trots provided by Miłosz and Renata Gorczynski. They were the two bilingual members of a group Miłosz suggested naming after the poet’s Berkeley address on Grizzly Peak Boulevard. Grisleigh Peake, he mused, could be the pseudonymous author of any published translations.
I remember Elizabeth Bishop complaining about the reprinted copies of her poem “The Fish” she would see posted in many bait-and-tackle shops: pirated editions, she said, violations of copyright, with her not getting a nickel from them. Thom Gunn said that whenever he saw his poem “Night Taxi” posted in a cab, he felt flattered. Two apparently opposite responses, but again the same wry sense of recognition and the imperfections of that shifting plate.
In Berkeley, Czesław could take sardonic pleasure in a Polish newspaper photograph of people lined up for a block, around the corner from a bookstore in Warsaw, where the Soviet regime had banned his name for decades. The people in the picture were queued up waiting to buy the authorized, quickly produced, government-approved edition of his poetry.
Miłosz in his seventies laughed at that picture in a way that bewildered me a little, back then in my early forties. It took me a while to understand how the candid pleasure of a stroked ego might blend with a skeptical amusement at worldly shallowness. Public acclaim, like public neglect, reflected mindless currents tangential to art, along with art itself. A European poet thirty years older than me was demonstrating his fatalistic, undeluded understanding of public attention that he enjoyed.
One day, I came home to see Miłosz sitting on the living room sofa. My daughter had let him in, explaining that I was on my way home. I had thought he was still away from Berkeley, on a trip to Poland and Italy. I sat down next to him and he showed me a new poem in typescript. It was one of the English trots that Renata and Czesław would create, for Bob and me to try refining the poem’s idiom and rhythm. The new poem that day was in sections, three or four typed pages in Czesław’s clear but hasty English. He asked me the usual question for such moments between poets:
“What do you think?”
I began to stall and mumble, not understanding some of what I had just read. Maybe I tried to specify a passage I wasn’t clear about. Whatever I said, Czesław responded with a remarkable sentence.
“The Pope,” he said, laughing at his own argument by authority, but also meaning it, “likes this poem very much.”
Pope John Paul II was Polish. As Karol Józef Wojtyła, a devout young man who wrote poetry, the future Pope would think of Czesław Miłosz, already an admired literary figure, ten years older than Wojtyła himself, as famous. My sketchy knowledge of that history did not help me know what to say next, about a supremely eminent authority liking Czesław’s poem.
A few years ago, visiting a very good liberal arts college, I met with a class of English majors. Trying to be helpful, I explained to them that in a poem quoting “Julius Marx,” I was referring to Groucho: Julius was his birth name. Through the haze that can come with being a Distinguished Guest I detected a blank.
“Groucho Marx,” I said to that room of high-achieving Americans in their late teens or early twenties. “Groucho. You do know who Groucho is, right?”
In a group of maybe thirty students, four or five had some idea of who Groucho was. From their parents or grandparents, I presume. Not one of them had seen so much as a clip from Horse Feathers or Duck Soup. Julius Marx, born in 1890, was the same age as my grandparents, but for me he was kind of eternal. For these students, he was kind of the same age as me.
Julius (“Groucho”) Marx had a mutually admiring exchange of letters with T. S. Eliot. He inspired the anthropomorphic stork that still imitates his voice to market a brand of pickles. He influenced nearly every American comic, past and present, white and Black, male and female, for generations. Most of them could do an impression of him. One of his famous quips, the one about not wanting to be a member of any club that would accept him, was a credo in relation to the white-Protestant-only country clubs and fraternity houses of my youth. Elizabeth Bishop declined to have her work included in anthologies of woman poets, for reasons that went back to the condescending or ghetto-like anthologies of poems by women, books that she recalled from her youth—a variation of the Groucho principle.
But Groucho Marx was not, in the generation of those English majors I talked to, famous. From the magic mountain or provincial time of my own generation, I tried to make a comparison for them by suggesting some figure at the peak for them, some icon of the present moment whose eventual oblivion might shock them someday in the future, when they were my age and talking to college students. The best I could do was Harry Potter or Princess Leia—possibly dated already.
The shifting plate can include locality, as well as publications, movies, hit records, podcasts, electronic media and their successors. Czesław Miłosz did great work while living in the magic mountain of Berkeley, but eventually he left it for Kraków. He felt more at home there.
Berkeley turned out to be a magic mountain for me, too. I learned a lot from the translation work with Czesław and Bob. I wrote the computer entertainment Mindwheel and I published my books History of My Heart and The Want Bone. Two of my three children graduated from Berkeley High. But after ten years I returned to the East Coast, where I felt more at home … or, to put it another way, where the passage of time felt more real to me.
Emily Dickinson sought approval, and she did write those lines about fame. But at root, I have concluded, the real masters have above all a total, consuming devotion not to fame or profit or pleasure but, rather—surprisingly, some would say— to difficulty. Fame is a coincidental by-product of what makes certain people crave the bottomless difficulties of their profession or art. Working for excellence becomes addictive, as with a sport or a video game. An infinite difficulty, pursuit of never-complete mastery, can become a supreme need.
When Sandy Koufax, the unsurpassed baseball pitcher, talks about pitching, he does it in the first-person present: “I start with my foot on the rubber at this angle.” Watching a game at Camden Yards, he saw a pitcher I won’t name leave the game for a relief pitcher with two outs in the sixth inning. The guy had given up only three earned runs—not a bad outing. He was respected as a good starting pitcher in the American League. But Sandy frowned up at a TV monitor showing a close-up of the man’s face.
“Why is he smiling? His team is behind, four to two. And he’s smiling? That’s why he’ll never be any good.”
When we were both invited to the White House—it was a reception for notable American Jews—Sandy and I noticed how one of our fellow guests was visibly, totally unimpressed by him, and by me. His line of work and mine equally held no interest for someone invited to the event for having produced an extremely successful kind of figure-enhancing underwear. While our amused wives watched, Sandy tried explaining to the girdle entrepreneur who I was, and I tried explaining who Sandy was. Both failed. Baseball and poetry were equally meaningless on the shifting plate of business, or of fashion, with their different skills and difficulties. Politely, the entrepreneur drifted away.
Writing a good poem is, for poets, the supreme and most desirable difficulty—a difficulty all the more magnetic (and fearsome) because it takes a new, unanticipated form, every time. The fearful, obsessive and addictive sweat of difficulty is the generator.
Cato the Elder, in the saying I like, does not deny that, yes, he would appreciate people asking why there was no statue of him in Rome. Even better would be a statue, everybody appreciating why it was there. Cato does not doubt what he or anyone else has done for Rome. What he doubts is the famous-making power of the institutions and fads, the random committees and tweets and money deals and ulterior politics, that raise the statues.
It’s too bad but not tragic that Elizabeth Bishop got more recognition after she died than in her lifetime. She did win prizes. And I believe she would be indifferent to the fame of the most popular American poet ever. His book sold a million copies when that number meant a lot. He had not only a much-syndicated newspaper column and a popular weekly radio program, he even had his own show on NBC television, in the early days of the medium. Edgar Guest (1881–1959), author of A Heap o’ Livin’ and Just Folks, was as well-known as Vaughn Monroe.
Elizabeth Bishop would not have coveted the fame of Edgar Guest for one second. Like Miłosz, she courted a higher destiny than sales or prizes. The distance between her art and Guest’s popularity is a crucial terrain. In Bishop, I hear plain language of a kind I have heard all my life, deployed as a way to confront mystery. In Guest, I hear an exaggerated affectation of ordinary speech, a calculated appeal to the anti- intellectual by an expert populist entertainer.
In his most famous poem, “A Heap o’ Livin’,” Guest engineered a rural dialect and misspellings that might be called hyper-real Americana. In a bit of biographical comedy, or yet another score for the immigrant strain in American art, Edgar Guest came from England. Born in the industrial city of Birmingham, he entered the United States as a young Brit at the age of ten, and grew up in Detroit. Maybe he constructed his rustic dialect poems with hints from vaudeville or the movies. He has had his successors, and equivalents in poetry, as in the other arts and in the public life of every period, of course including the present.
The same part of me that imagines President Grant buying whiskey from my grandfather is aware that Mark Twain anticipated and derided Edgar Guest and his “It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home.” Twain made fun of “A Heap o’ Livin’” and its admirers long before the poem was written, just as he anticipated and parodied professional wrestling and academic literary fads. While many others were watching the cornball television show of Lawrence Welk, Mark Twain would be tuned in to a different channel, watching Sid Caesar.
Twain created the maudlin young poet Emmeline Grangerford, epitome of American taste in one of its forms. In the same book, he created the revival meetings, Donald Trump rallies and (in effect) reality TV shows staged by his characters the Duke and the Dauphin. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Emmeline Grangerford’s poetry and those two fakers appear, is sometimes banned, while the Duke and the Dauphin are in Congress.
When my daughter Caroline was five or six years old, she used the word “famous” in a conversation with Robert Lowell, who was at our house for some reason I forget. His hair at the time hung down in long, gray strings, mostly at the back.
“You look like somebody famous,” Caroline said, to my surprise. Then she added, “Benjamin Franklin.”
“He was a terrible man, a very bad man,” said Lowell.
Caroline didn’t seem to notice that remark. She was still thinking.
“I mean, not like Benjamin Franklin but like a Christmas ornament my friend Heather made out of Play-Doh, that looked like Benjamin Franklin.”
That threw Lowell off his stride. “Well … he was a terrible man,” he repeated, uncertainly.