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Commentary on
“The White Hills of the Ebro”

Conversation Pieces

Brady Harrison

In the Introduction to Conversation Pieces: Poems that Talk to Other Poems, editors Kurt Brown and Harold Schechter note that, in the course of an evening’s conversation about some of their favorite poems, they “quickly realized that there was an entire genre of poetry that had never, to our knowledge, been represented in anthology: poems that respond to earlier poems—that argue with, elaborate on, recast, poke fun at, or pay tribute to their inspirations” (18). Citing Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” as the poem “that inspired this entire tradition,” they not only include, in the opening section of their anthology, Sir Walter Raleigh’s celebrated rejoinder, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” but also John Donne’s response, “The Bait,” C. Day Lewis’ “Song,” William Carlos Williams’ “Raleigh Was Right,” Ogden Nash’s “Love Under the Republicans (Or Democrats),” W.D. Snodgrass’ “Invitation,” Douglas Crane’s “Covenant,” and Greg Delanty’s “Williams Was Wrong.” Although we could cite any number of further replies to Marlowe’s poem—some folks point, for example, to the Rolling Stones’ “Live with Me” from Let It Bleed as the Glimmer Twins’ contribution to the conversation—these poems talk back and forth to one another, and the poets clearly enjoy giving one another grief and riffing on the shepherd’s promises and pleas. As Brown and Schechter write, as we read poems in conversation with one another, “we can hear one artist talk back to another in admiration or exasperation, praise or mockery, gentle rebuke or bitter disagreement” (18), and I find the play, humor, and intelligence of such exchanges delightful: as readers, we get to watch a room full of poets—some living, some dead—raising their glasses and seeing who can outwit and outwrite the others.

Call it a high—and sometimes low—brow form of taking the piss.

Of course, Brown and Schechter are not the first ones to notice literary works in conversation with one another. Back in the day, Harold Bloom, for example, argued, in The Anxiety of Influence,

“Poetic Influence—when it involves two strong, authentic poets,—always precedes by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main tradition of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, wilful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist.”

In Bloom’s (rather astounding) theory, the younger poet, whether they know it or not, is always in conversation with the great, earlier poets whom they admire, and is always in the process of rewriting, via distortion and misinterpretation, the work of their forebears. The younger poet, Bloom contends, stands in something like an ambivalent Oedipal relationship with the strong poets of previous eras in their hopeless attempts to come up with something original.

According to Bloom, young poets have their work cut out for them.

For my own part, I have engaged in a bit of poetic misprision of my own. For the last several years, in the process of teaching courses on Montana literature and film, I have been collecting poems that talk—or talk back—to the work of Richard Hugo, perhaps the poet most identified with the Treasure State. To date, I have taught works by Mandy Smoker Broaddus and Heather Cahoon, among many others—how many poets have written back against “The Only Bar in Dixon,” itself already a conversation piece in dialogue with poems by James Welch and J.D. Reed?—and I once penned my own bit of mischief about the photo of Hugo that hung on the wall in the Department of English’s seminar room (when the Department of English was permitted to have a seminar room; now we meet in a sub-basement utility room without windows, heating, electric light, or air):

Hugo on the Wall

I get weary of you staring down at me,
whiskey in one hand, cigarette in the other,
scowling, as if the booze didn’t sit well:
dude, lighten up—& hardluck towns
don’t exist to pull your trigger, &
I never understood the line about
a Buick & that forward a gear. Who
drives a Buick—crap cars—my Tacoma
has a 5-speed: that’s 5 forward gears
& a reverse, call it 6 gears, total. I
married a towering blonde from
California—but the Central Valley & not
L.A., so that was a bit of a rip-off—
the last good kiss I had was last night.

Maybe you’re not so bad, just had
issues like any orphan from a town
where it rains all the time. Tonight,
I’m going to sneak into the classroom,
smash the glass & drive to Milltown
in time for closing. Then, it’ll be you
& the lovely goat staring through
plexiglass at the drunks & kayakers
hoping they won’t have to go home.

(Badlands Literary Journal)

In truth, I’m a loyal and enthusiastic fan of Hugo’s work—I come from a blue collar, working poor world, myself—and readers who know his work will recognize my revising and tapping on lines and images from The Triggering Town and several of his classic poems in The Lady in the Kicking Horse Reservoir, including “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” “The Milltown Union Bar,” “Driving Montana,” and others. I admire Hugo’s work a great deal (even as I have serious reservations about his representations of women and others), and when my writer buddies, Steve Davenport and Rick Canning came to visit one year, we drove out to Harold’s in Milltown to have a drink, or two, in Hugo’s honor. (Hugo, I think, would have felt at home in Davenport’s poems and essays about Gasoline Lake, his hometown in the Illinois bottomlands along the Mississippi. As Davenport writes, “whiskey cleans the whiskey glass”; Hugo would have known what he meant.)

If poets can talk back and forth among themselves—Marlowe never had a chance to reply to Raleigh, having met a bad end in 1593: if the circumstances surrounding his death remain mysterious, what we do know that he was stabbed above the right eye, killing him instantly—prose writers can also take up, revise, respond to, mock, and more, the work of earlier writers. In grad school, I took a seminar—a few, in fact—from Bob Parker on whether we could generalize about the history of the American novel, and we read a mix of canonical and non-canonical works. As Parker pointed out, American writers have, on many occasions, rewritten Nathaniel Hawthorne’s most famous work, The Scarlet Letter (warning: spoiler alert). In As I Lay Dying, for example, Faulkner—perhaps suffering from a profound case of the anxiety of influence—shows his greatness—and for my money, superiority—by twisting and turning Hawthorne’s unhappy love triangle of Hester Prynne, Roger Chillingworth, and Arthur Dimmesdale into the far more twisted and grotesquely comic tale of Addie, Anse, and the Reverend Whitfield: Hester has her Pearl; Addie has her Jewel. Likewise, Kathy Acker revisits The Scarlet Letter in her punk, cut-up/collagist novel, Blood and Guts in High School—Acker often tilts against canonical American texts, taking aim, variously at Huck Finn and Neuromancer, among others—and revises and distorts Hawthorne to suit her own purposes. Hemingway, infamously, wrote back against Sherwood Anderson in his satiric (and just plain bad) first novella, The Torrents of Spring, and we could cite many more examples of fiction writers reworking earlier texts.

Which brings me to my own reply to Hemingway’s brilliant short story, “Hills Like White Elephants.” Like a lot of lit profs, I’ve been teaching this story for years, and even if it’s just a few pages long, it does so much so well that there’s more to talk about than we can possibly cover in class. In the first place, we can use the story as an occasion to talk about Hemingway’s iceberg theory of fiction—outlined, naturally enough, in a few paragraphs in his book about bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon—and about his minimalist techniques and prose. Then, we can talk about how effectively he uses the camera eye point of view, dropping us, in almost real time, into the lives of the two characters sitting at a table in a train station, facing perhaps the most difficult decision of their lives (at least to that point). The reader, as if watching a play, eavesdrops for a few moments; if we read closely and well, we soon discover the source of the conflict between them. This conflict, of course, allows us to talk about the Hemingway hero, that person who, no matter what sort of pressures they may be under, tries to maintain their cool, their grace. The young woman—we don’t even know her name; he calls her by the diminutive, “Jig”—tries to hold up against the American’s constant bombardment, but what will she do? Will she stay with him? What will her decision be? The story ends, and we arrive at one of those infamous aporias: can we really tell, by the end, what course of action she will pursue? Will she give in, or follow her own course? Men Without Women,is it?

Since, I think, we can’t tell, the reader may or may not choose to ghostwrite the rest of the story. For my own part, I didn’t want to write a parody—the temptation to mock Hemingway’s prose style and character types burns brightly. I wanted, instead, to write—if I could—a serious reply: what happens to Jig? What shape did her life take? Was she happy about her decisions? Did she have a good life? I think of the story as an homage to a writer I admire a great deal—I number The Sun Also Rises among my top ten all-time favorite novels—and I wanted to be respectful of both Hemingway and the young woman. How well my story works, I cannot say, but I can say this: it was fun—if a little heartbreaking, given its subject matter—to write the story (I wrote it one morning on a terrace in, of all places, Florence), and while I don’t have any desire to sit down and have a drink with Hemingway—I’d buy a glass or two for Melville, the Brontës (though I don’t imagine, given Branwell’s travails, that they imbibed much), or Shakespeare—and while I don’t, like Morley Callaghan, have any desire to punch him out (though I would very much have liked to see that sparring match in the gym in Montparnasse), it was a pleasure to look, again, as deeply as possible into such a profound, well-told, and moving story.

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Brady Harrison’s short fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including AethlonHigh Desert Journal, The Long Story, and Short Story.  He is the author, editor, or co-editor of several books, including the collection The Term Between and the forthcoming novel A Journey to Al Ramel. He has lived in France and Ireland, as well as in Missoula, Montana. Visit Brady’s webpage.

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