Celebrate the Life and Work of Paul Violi by Andrew McCarron (part 6)
PART TWO: LABORE
Always up for a beer and a good laugh, Paul Violi was generous, witty, warm, and energetic, and he attracted and charmed people over the years. A cluster of memorials in the months following his death from pancreatic cancer prompted an outpouring of affection from stunned family members, friends, fellow poets, and students. A private man, Paul kept his diagnosis, which he had known about since January of 2011, from all but a small circle of friends and his family. The day after his death on April 2nd, Tony Towle and Charles North sent out an email to his friends, colleagues, and former students informing them. The testimonials that poured in over the weeks and months that followed celebrated the various facets of his expansive personality. He was a family man and an epic socializer, a gregarious worker and reclusive writer, a great humorist and quiet dreamer. Paul travelled the world but had a regional quality to him that fit comfortably in the Hudson Valley, where Ann and he raised their two children. Whether chopping wood in a plaid shirt, or sipping wine in a sports coat at a book launch, Paul possessed a genial ease that women loved and men respected.
Paul knew from an early age that he was a writer, composing his first story at the age of thirteen. After realizing that he had borrowed the plot from Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” he moved to verse and mostly stayed there. He liked the intensity of poetry and was initially drawn to the sentimental quatrains of the Irish poet and friend of Byron, Thomas Moore (1779-1852), but found lasting literary heroes in the satirical poets of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the early modernists. Paul couldn’t say why it was he’d always felt he was a writer, but quoted the Roman poet Juvenal’s phrase, cacoethes scribendi, which translates “an irresistible urge to write.” It was just something he’d always felt at home doing. Consequently, it didn’t bother him that most of his adult life was spent bouncing from one job to another. As long as he could provide for his family, the absence of an all-consuming career meant that he had more time to read, write, and hang out with his writer friends.
As a reader, Paul was generally unimpressed by a good deal of modern poetry, whether the “deadening” language exercises of LANGUAGE poetry, or the self-aggrandizements of confessional work. On several occasions during our interviews he voiced a particular distaste for poetry that was too serious or self-referential. “You get these poets, and I mean all the time,” he explained wryly, “and they’re funny, charming, complex people. But for some reason when they get up to read it’s always in a serious, self-obsessed voice. And then as soon as they’re done the voice disappears, which leaves you wondering what happened to the rest of them!” Paul lamented that current literary directions seemed to undervalue the craft and intelligence it takes to either surprise people or make them laugh: The major journals, magazines, and poetry presses were publishing work that languished in real and manufactured trauma, as if life weren’t traumatic enough. He felt similarly about so-called activist poetry. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said one evening over beers at the KGB Bar in Manhattan’s East Village. “I’m all behind nuclear disarmament, but I don’t need to read a book-length poem to be convinced.”
Enthralled by the ethos of experimentation that pervaded the New York School, Paul mined day-to-day experience for poetic material, following William Faulkner’s notion that the writer’s job was “to create out of the materials of the human spirit something that did not exist before.” Materials existed in everyday happenings like ordering a sandwich at a deli, and within seemingly innocent textual forms like the index of a biography, television listings, or an apology note left on a car after a fender bender. As he put it, “Everyday goings-on, or reading, especially history, provide a lot of nuggets, something that sets me off.”
His objective wasn’t merely to reflect upon the value of his experiences, but to transpose those experiences into something beyond the realm of personal concern. Otherwise, poetry ran the risk of becoming a testament to one’s self-absorption. His frequently anthologized poem “Index” is a good example of his general method of making a poem. The idea came to him while reading the longwinded autobiography of “an egregiously self-indulgent man” whose name he conveniently claimed to have forgotten. Paul couldn’t help but notice that the author’s egotism had even seeped into the index. “A different character came to mind,” he explained, “one who was not quite the master of his fate, and an index, with its fragmentary lines, suggested a way to catch both the quick, haphazard changes such a character would endure and his increasingly scrambled perception of them. As I assembled the poem it began to resemble a chronology.” The poem lampoons the twists and turns of an egomaniacal artist’s struggle with his own faltering legend and by doing so implicitly pokes fun at the figure of the celebrity artist in contemporary culture.
Paul’s imaginative gift was most apparent in this ability to create new poetic forms from familiar linguistic contexts. In a Newsday review of Splurge, David Lehman pointed out this aptitude: “Paul Violi is the most inventive poet around. His poems can take on the form of television listings (‘Triptych’) and zany definitions (‘Rifacimento’); he can speak with the voice of a veteran fortune-teller (‘Dry Spells’) or that of a racetrack announcer (‘Exacta’). The results are vital, brash, and often very funny” (Newsday, 12/19, 1982). Humor and absurdity are defining features of his work, and characterize the jovial way he learned to read his work publically. More than any of his poet friends, perhaps excluding Billy Collins, Paul was a crowd pleaser and his readings could easily reduce a room to sidesplitting laughter. Take the end of “Counterman” from Overnight (2008), the last collection of poems he published in his lifetime. The first half of the poem chronicles the speaker’s difficulty ordering a simple “roast beef on rye, with tomato and mayo” from the man working the deli counter. The customer behind him has more luck despite a comically outlandish order:
Roast beef on whole wheat, please,
With lettuce, mayonnaise and a center slice
Of beefsteak tomato.
The lettuce splayed, if you will,
In a Beaux Arts derivative of classical acanthus,
And the roast beef, thinly sliced, folded
In a multi-foil arrangement
That eschews Bragdonian pretensions
Or any idea of divine geometric projection
For that matter, but simply provides
A setting for the tomato
To form a medallion with a dab
Of mayonnaise as a fleuron.
And—as eclectic as this may sound—
If the mayonnaise can also be applied
Along the crust in a Vitruvian scroll
And as a festoon below the medallion.
That would be swell.
You mean like in the Cathedral St. Pierre in Geneva?
Yes, but the swag more like the one below the rosette
At the Royal Palace in Amsterdam.
You got it.
Despite a lifelong affinity for humor and cleverness, Paul didn’t like being introduced at readings as “funny” and nothing else. And anyone familiar with his eleven books knows that in addition to being comical, his work is at times tragic, philosophical, and touchingly reflective. Some poems of his are capable of strong passion, and others of surprising tenderness. The coda to his long poem “Sputter and Blaze,” for instance, demonstrates the rich emotional ecology that he was capable of achieving:
Now on this cool narrow lake
your absence at evening
below the immeasurable in-between of twilight
I lie in parentheses
amused by how I can trace
in the glistening lines of this canoe
such a dear part of you
and between night and day
sweep up an armful of immediate odes
imagining I can lay them
before you and say
here sift through these in the nibbling dark
there are more too many
for me to follow as they drip
off the dwindling light…
Considering that a coda is the concluding part of a statement, the poem’s form is significant. Unpunctuated and without a single stanza break, this poeticized finale possesses an openness and verbosity that verges on the comical. Together, the ironic form and tender, image-rich content convey an experience of deep emotional complexity. As a form of life, it is simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and haunting.
A similar depth can be found in my personal favorite, the long poem “Wet Bread and Roasted Pearls,” first published in The Curious Builder (1993). The poem begins in a specific place—a Metro-North Hudson line commuter train stalled in the long, dark tunnel leading into Grand Central Station. Restless, the poet/speaker gazes down at a crossword puzzle in the newspaper that he is absently holding. He begins to fill in the “maze of blanks” while thinking over a recent episode of marital discord, which culminates in a moment of real or imagined erotic reconciliation:
in darkness and the curve and line
of your spine, your neck
your chin, your ears, your
legs and breasts and my open hands
—Hands, rough, callused,
sliding over your taut silk
they sound like breath.
The poem captures the amorphous, non-linear way that memories surface and coalesce in response to external triggers—illustrating what Tony Towle meant when he wrote of Paul’s ability to “[slip] between internal perception and external observation so easily that they become one.” An everyday crossword is magically transformed into a template that weaves together disparate and fragmented feelings, thoughts, perceptions, and recollections into a single fold.
Every passing moment, no matter how mundane, was a candidate for inclusion in a poem. And Paul seemed to know from an early age that the more experiences he was able to pack into his life the better his writing would be. Indeed, his life and poetry were reciprocally linked in a feedback loop. He turned to his experiences for poetic material. And so, the more experiences he had the better, actualizing Frank O’Hara’s advice to live as variously as possible. The family time he spent with Ann and their children, the dizzying teaching schedule that he kept up through his mid-sixties, the late night dinners with friends and colleagues, the countless cigarette and coffee breaks, and the other pastimes and relationships he pursued around New York City enabled him to find his next poem forming on the horizon. The alternative for him was a creative wasteland, a routinized life of predictable rhythms, stasis, and psychic death.
Whereas the events of his life provided him with material, the act of writing helped him to manage the ups and downs of life. In 2002, Paul published a collection of prose pieces called Selected Accidents, Pointless Anecdotes. In many of the sketches, a sense of absurdity defuses the tension of threatening and/or compromising circumstances. Examples include giving a poetry reading to a small audience of “sub-verbal” and “semi-verbal” adults at a community library that yields “a nod and a nervous laugh, a loud snort and two full smiles”; a road rage altercation with an officious urban cyclist while driving up Hudson Street that concludes with the cyclist inadvertently peddling into an open dumpster; and the predicament of teaching a writing workshop and nearly breaking down into hysterics and ridiculing a student who reads a heart-on-the-sleeve piece about a job he had once as a rent-a-clown. Many of Paul’s poems mitigate danger and tension in a similar fashion. For instance, “Extenuating Circumstances” (2007) chronicles a conversation between the poem’s speaker and a police officer after being pulled over for speeding on the Taconic Parkway. Although a routine traffic stop is not nearly as dangerous as other obstacles, the Taconic is a notoriously hazardous road with a high annual mortality rate, and Paul is driving at night through wintry conditions with several drinks in his system. Despite these dangers, the poem is brimming with entertaining humor. The second half reads:
…If we accept that a parkway
is a work of art, the faster
we go the greater the tribute
to its power of inspiration,
a lyrical propulsion that approaches
the spiritual and tempts demands
the more intrepid of us
to take it from there.
That sense of the illimitable,
when we feel we are more the glory
than the jest or riddle of the world
that’s what kicked in, albeit
briefly, as I approached
the Croton Reservoir Bridge.
And on a night like this, starlight
reignited above a snowfall’s last
flurry, cockeyed headlights scanning
the girders overhead, eggshell
snowcrust flying off the hood,
hatching me on the wing
like a song breaking through prose,
the kind I usually sing
through my nose:
So much to love,*
A bit less to scorn
What have I done?
To what end was I born?
To teach and delight.
Delight . . . or offend.
Luck’s been no lady,
Truth a sneaky friend.
Got the heater on full blast,
Window jammed down,
Speedometer dead wrong:
Can’t tell how fast I’m going,
Don’t care how far I’ve gone.
“The jest or riddle of the world” plays off Alexander Pope’s “Glory, jest and riddle of the world” (“Essay on Man,”1734). Written in heroic couplets, Pope’s poem was meant to vindicate the ways of God to man. Likewise, Paul exhorts the patrolman to interpret his speeding as a forgivable peccadillo within a divinely perfected order. So much of Paul’s work is redemptive in this manner. The travails and mishaps of living are transposed into ripe occasions for laughter, elegance, and loveliness. He rakes and sifts the muck and silt of the world for diamonds that he holds up with a life-affirming grin, challenging his readers to stop taking themselves so seriously when there’s so much beauty out there, and so much to laugh and shrug about.
A poem from Overnight (2008) called “Brief Lives…” is an outstanding example of redemption Violi-style. The piece is based on the life of a Polish dwarf named Joseph Boruwlaski, who was born in 1739 and lived “to be almost 98, a record for a dwarf.” The reader learns that he is buried in Durham Cathedral “Under a slab marked JB. / In St. Mary-the-Less Church / A memorial tablet says he faced changes / In fortune with cheerful resignation.” The poem then proceeds to itemize events from his remarkable life story—e.g., being taken in by aristocrats after being orphaned at the age of nine; being taught violin by the musical masters of his day; being given a diamond ring by a young Marie Antoinette; being “continuously fondled by ladies” and marrying one; being named a count by King Stanislaus II; touring the courts of Europe and Asia Minor with his wife; and being deserted by his wife, whom he outlives by decades. Here are the final thirteen lines:
Long after she dies he still complains about his wife,
How when he annoyed her she would put him
On a high shelf and leave the room.
The actor Stephen Kemble (who
At 476 pounds played Falstaff
Without stuffing) becomes a dear friend.
Both of them die on the same day.
He travels often in his life, as far as Lapland
And Nova Zembla, where fascinated natives
Keep him awake day and night,
And in their songs thank the sun (which they
Politely decline to believe is a star)
For allowing them to see this man.
Although I am not suggesting that Joseph Boruwlaski is Paul Violi, there were similarities between the dwarf’s story and Paul’s—mainly, the epic, fun-loving tone with which the narrative unfolds. Paul tried his best to face changes of fortune with the same “cheerful resignation” that was attributed to Boruwlaski. In Paul’s only 9/11 poem, “September 13, 2001” (also from Overnight), he takes a cab uptown to teach a class two days after the September 11th terrorist attacks. There’s no mention of 9/11; instead, the poem constitutes a reaffirmation of the city at a moment of profound fearfulness and uncertainty. Here it is in its entirety:
“When you leave New York, you’re not going anywhere,”
Del tells a bunch of customers leaving The Grange.
Leaving New York…? What a strange notion.
I’m out the door, too, uptown to teach another class.
Cabbies so annoyingly polite they throw me off my stride.
They’re stopping at stop signs for Christ’s sake.
On Commerce Street a building, narrow, tower-like—I
Never noticed it before—a great flaming rooftop grove
Of birches soaring in the wind. Phoenix…Phoenicity…
Is there such a word? Felix…Felicity—Anyway,
Something for this city to set its watch by.
Uptown early enough for another coffee, I stop
At the West End, keep a weak joke about Oswald Spengler
To myself, and ask Jay to translate what he’s chalked up
On the slate board behind the bar. Veni, Vidi, Velcro:
“I came, I saw, I stuck around.”
Despite the unspeakable calamity of 9/11, Paul, the poet, was busy using his imagination to generate affirmative possibilities in a world that teetered on the brink of terror, anxiety, and retributive anger. The message chalked up on the slate board behind the bar, Veni, Vidi, Velcro (“I came, I saw, I stuck around”), is a fitting mantra for a man who stuck around and made it okay to laugh again. But behind the laugher, there’s an occasional melancholy beneath the work. It’s the melancholy of someone who laughs to avoid collapsing into bitterness, silence, or tears. Although subtle, this muted pathos (present more in the totality of poems than in specific images or themes) tempered Paul’s tendency toward slapstick.
As he sat in his Putnam Valley office and composed his poems over the years, he busied himself with an existential project that became increasingly vital as the economic and mortal realities of his life became harder to laugh off. As an adjunct at The New School, NYU, and Columbia, there was always a threat of losing a course, which was problematic because Ann and he depended on the income. His son, Alex, who’d been born with congenital brain damage that kept him from learning how to read or write, was having trouble finding enough employment to support himself living in Brooklyn. And Helen, his daughter, was diagnosed with breast cancer and spent the years leading up to Paul’s death in and out of remission. She gave birth to twins before Paul died and then ended up dying roughly a year after her father’s funeral, leaving Paul’s widow, Ann, devastated.
As noted, Paul chose not to discuss personal struggles much during our meandering conversations. Other than alluding to his ongoing financial concerns, and a suggestion that he could have been a better husband and father, he kept his private life to himself. Similarly, his most heartfelt poems, written in response to beautiful and tragic experiences alike, seldom revealed their sources. And his erotic poems never included the name of the beloved or the circumstances that inspired their composition. I pried at times, but never to any avail. Being sensitive to his comfort level, I chose not to push much. But I walked away from our conversations feeling that a good deal had been left unsaid. At first I wondered whether beneath the humor and inventiveness there stretched an uncharted country of struggle and grief that he purposefully kept from his poems. Even if this was the case, however, the poems he chose to write remain a more accurate testament to the shape of his existence than anything lurking in a shadowy realm below.
Andrew McCarron in a poet and teacher born and raised on the Hudson River. He currently teaches English and also runs the Religion, Philosophy & Ethics Department at Trinity School in Manhattan, New York. In addition to a collection of poems, Mysterium (Edgewise Press, 2011), his book-length study of Charles North, Tony Towle, and Paul Violi, Three New York Poets, will be published by Station Hill Press in late 2014, and his psychobiography of Bob Dylan will be published by Oxford University Press in 2015.
* Formatting differs from the original.
For a biography on Paul Violi, see Andrew McCarron piece here.