Archie’s Letters

Archie’s Letters

I got distracted this evening looking at some letters by Archibald MacLeish. There’s a letter from February 1930 that I suspect must have been written to Hemingway while he was residing in Piggott, Arkansas:

Dear Pappy:

Thanks for the warning about the mosquitos. Its a damn shame. I had wanted Ada to be near you and Pauline. But I can still take advantage of her father’s generous offer to put her up at Daytona and she’ll have the sun there if she doesn’t have anything else.

Met Dotty Parker Saturday night and think she’s swell. I have always been afraid of her because I thought she was the kind who would be affectionate to you with her right hand and murder you with her left. But she was so fine in talking about the Murphys and you and all her friends and so damn wise and intelligent about people that she took me in about eight minutes. She may be serving me up cold at the minute for all I know but I doubt it and if she is it doesn’t matter anyway . . .

The mosquito is the Arkansas state bird, and Hemingway spent a lot of time shuttling between here and Florida from 1929-32. Nice to hear that “Dotty” Parker is swell too. But that’s not really what I was up to here. I wanted to note a couple of MacLeish’s thoughts on Conquistador for Loren, in case he doesn’t have the letters lying about. In a letter to Robert Linscott in October of 1931, he was stinging over the failure of an earlier book, New Found Land to sell:

. . . I can’t help feeling that had New Found Land appeared in a regular edition and had been pushed it would have sold extremely well. What reviews I saw were favorable & the book was a book of short poems. As a matter of fact, if Hart Crane is not misleading me, the Bridge sold in the same year very very much better. Comparisons are ridiculous but what else is there in the world?

. . . After all, books of verse have been advertised in America— have been pushed. You know & God (if it isn’t an anti-climax) that I loathe blurbs & have no desire to see my name like Edna Millays with “Immortal Poetry” over it. But there are things that a publisher can decently do for a book which a poet can’t do— unless the poet is Amy Lowell & as rich as Amy & as gifted in self-publicizing. And those things H.M. [Houghton Mifflin] have never done for my books. Because you lose money on a book of verse anyway, you will say. But isn’t that a vicious circle?

But this is futile. I certainly can’t, & don’t wish to teach H.M. their business. But I have worked on Conquistador for many years. I believe it is going to be a really good poem— but certainly not a popular one. And I want to see it well treated by a publisher— not just issued with an item in trade paper & allowed to sell itself if it can. . . .

Mentions of Conquistador appear for years before this— MacLeish wrote everyone he knew asking if anyone else had ever done a long poem on the topic. He wanted it to be original. Evidently, Pound criticized it severely (but in good spirits). There’s more to be quoted from there, if I get the time. My favorite phrase about Pound from the letters was: “Pound is a unicorn who turns into an ass every time you look at him too closely.” I was curious about how MacLeish thought of the poem, because it is not nearly as “accessible” as most of his poems. I found the answer in a letter written to his mother, on the occasion of the death of John Hillard— a meditation on death written in February of 1930 which quotes approximately the opening line of Conquistador:

What I must do is step aside into the quiet & think. By thinking one begins to see. It is strange. Only by ceasing to see can I see. Myself I do not love but unless I behold myself once in these windows. I am nothing & never lived & the roar of the wheels will roll over me. Over us all. Over us all. And all that was young & lovely in the world. I am not afraid of death. But I pity it. I pity its silence. I sat for a long time in the vault of poor Harry Crosby. He had shot himself. He lay on a narrow couch under a dark red cloth. He had made a great noise with his death. But already I could hardly see his face. I had to turn back to see him.

I am hurting you with these words. Forgive me. Believe me. I am not what you think. I am an evil person. I take no happiness in anything on earth but the sonorous sounds of certain words. It is a very wrong thing. Poetry is not always in me & sometimes coming out. I go to it as a man goes to what he loves & is ashamed of. I go to it out of my life. I come back ashamed. You do not understand. Do not try to. “How do the winds follow unfortune”— I write that & my heart is smooth. What at all have I written? Well, I am a poet. I do not describe myself by this word. I do not speak it. No one speaks it to me. But I am that thing. And it is agony. It is not wisdom like a quiet light in the brain, nor wisdom in the ankles of the body. It is no wisdom. It is thirst. Only with this wine— And only I can make this liquor. Out of what? Out of— Oh be still, be still. I do not write letters such as this. I am not to speak so. Never answer it.

I once said things much like this when I was working fervently as a photographer. I never felt like it was a good thing either. It just was.

1 thought on “Archie’s Letters”

  1. Conquistador seems to me to be a pivotal poem in his works, Jeff. It marks a fairly clear transition in his poetry and it seems to have a number of the themes that you brought up earlier that first inspired me to go back and take a new look at his poems.
    I’m in the midst of gathering a number of important quotes from the poem before presenting them thematically on my site.
    I don’t have MacLeish’s letters, and I was fascinated with the sense of despair in your last quote. Somehow MacLeish seems more “distant” from his work than this quote would imply.

Comments are closed.