Happy Birthday, Edwin Honig

Edwin Honig, who turns 91 today, took an interest in the figure of Orpheus. One of his books is titled Affinities of Orpheus. I am speculating that his interest may have originated in the death (from cancer) of his young first wife in the early 1960s, which he took very hard. (I'm sure there are others who have more definite information on this.) This dimension of mourning, loss & shock in Honig's poetry is fairly pervasive - he was also obsessed with the death of his brother, a young child hit by a truck on a Brooklyn street. The experiential/biographical shades, with Honig, into the symbolic & the allegorical (he wrote a massive critical-historical study on allegory, with the excellent title Dark Conceit). Orpheus (as we have been exploring here) is the symbolic or allegorical figure for the poet and for poetry : a figure through whom poetic myth mythologizes itself.

Honig may have identified - emotionally, experientially - with the figure of Orpheus. For me, on the other hand, Honig in a sense represents the figure of Hermes. Hermes, the messenger, the guide, the communicator, who leads Orpheus to Eurydice. For me, the figure of Honig is rather "hermetic" in this sense : he helps me knit together various disparate threads of my own knowledge & experience. A poet-teacher & mentor, he was a guide & source of encouragement as I entered that (shady) world. & now as I look back so much later I note several "affinities" which are still at play in my thinking about poetry.

For example, there was Honig's connection with John Berryman (the title of the first edition of Affinities of Orpheus was Shake a Spear with Me, John Berryman). Berryman was only a few years older than Honig; both of them shared a scholarly passion for the Renaissance dramatists (Berryman's focus was Shakespeare; Honig's, Ben Jonson & Calderon). & Honig brought Berryman to Brown University as a visiting professor in the late 60s (Berryman lived briefly at his home in Cranston). After Berryman's death, Edwin asked me to organize a memorial reading at Brown.

Then, there is Honig's introduction to the important anthology he co-edited with Oscar Williams, the Mentor Book of Major American Poets. Here Honig describes what is distinctive about American poetry in terms of that tradition's down-to-earth this-worldliness, its celebration of the particulars of things in nature and of ordinary life for its own sake. This emphasis, as I have pointed out elsewhere, rhymes with the program of the Russian Acmeists : anti-Symbolist, aiming for the clarity of things-as-they-are (Gumilev's "chaste" vision). (See, by the way, the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert, for a Polish take on this "way of seeing").

But how would one reconcile the "mythic" Orpheus - the visionary/Romantic/lyric poet, the shaman, the antagonist of disenchanted rationalism - with this down-to-earth, practical, transparent, "realist" aspect of American writing & culture? I suppose this may be somewhere near the perennial crux of the "problem of the poet" in America...

But if we look at both the Russian Acmeist phenomenon (again, Gumilev's concept of "chasteness", the integrity, the dignity, the quiddity of things on earth), and at the characteristics of the original Orpheus - who was connected with Apollo - maybe we can recognize something like an answer... let me sketch it something like this : Orpheus (ie., the poet, and poetry) is the manifestation of the integral harmony pre-existing in life, in things. Orpheus sings (expresses, shapes, imitates, celebrates) this order. And celebration as such changes our perception of the nature of that order. Like M.H. Abrams' Romantic "lamp," the human eye of poetic vision humanizes reality as a whole (see, in this regard, Mandelstam's concept of "domestic hellenism"). Even a poet as "disenchanted" as Zbigniew Herbert still proposes a moral order of humanizing wonder : an eye for the poetry of the ordinary (& of the marginal, the powerless, the weak) as opposed to the rhetoric of power, and the power of rhetoric. (Herbert famously said he believed, contrary to everyone else, that poetry should "make men sober.") In Herbert, in Gumilev - and in Honig's introduction to perhaps the classic anthology of classic American poetry : here perhaps we are beginning to make out the lineaments of a poetics which is both cosmopolitan and deeply, truly American; which is both Orphic-visionary and normative, of the everyday.

For her heart was a mediterranean cradling the earth
- E. Honig,, "For an Immigrant Grandmother"

Happy Birthday, Edwin.