Salinger’s Poets

by John Deming

jd salinger

“Corinne, I don’t mix too well–“

These are the words of Raymond Ford, fictional famous poet of the poem “The Inverted Forest” in J.D. Salinger’s novella The Inverted Forest. As a child, Raymond sticks up for wealthy Corinne von Nordhoffen in class, so she walks her dog to his house and invites him to her eleventh birthday party.

He stands her up. Corinne, disappointed, allows a family friend to drive her to Raymond’s house. They find that Raymond and his abusive, alcoholic mother are being evicted, and so they drive the pair to the bus station. Raymond doesn’t show up in school after that, and Corinne doesn’t see him until 20 years later, when she discovers his poetry and hunts him down. They have lunch. Some weeks later, they kiss. The same night, Corinne asks him to meet her friends:

“I have such nice friends,” she told him enthusiastically. “They all know your poetry. Some even live on it.”

“Corinne, I don’t mix too well–”

Corinne leaned forward joyfully, remembering something.

“That’s what Miss Aigletinger once yelled about you into my father’s thing. Do you remember Miss Aigletinger?”

Ford nodded unnostalgically. “What would I have to do if I met them?” he asked.

Ford doesn’t want to reminisce. In fact, Ford doesn’t want to be bothered at all. Corinne marries him anyway. Not long into their union, Corinne indulges the wishes of an aspiring poet and Ford fan, Mary “Bunny” Croft, and allows her to come to their home and meet the poet. Ford is extremely put out. He gives the young woman some feedback:

Ford sat down on the chair between the two young women, pushed it back a little, and immediately asked, “Have you tried to have published any of these poems you have written, Miss Croft?”

Involuntarily Corinne arched her back a little. Her husband’s question was ice-cold.

“Well, no, Mr. Ford. I didn’t think they were–no, I haven’t,” Bunny Croft said.

“May I ask why you sent them to me?”

“Well, golly, Mr. Ford–I don’t know. I just thought–well, I thought I ought to find out whether I’m any good or not…I don’t know.” Bunny’s eyes flashed Corinne an appeal for help.

Ford declines to drink tea with them, and in the ensuing awkwardness, Corinne asks if Bunny Croft’s poems are “interesting.”

“How do you mean, interesting?”

Corinne carefully put cream in her own tea. “Well, I mean are they lovely?”

“Are your poems lovely, Miss Croft?” Ford asked.

“Well, I–I hope so, Mr. Ford–”

“No, you don’t,” Ford contradicted quietly. “Don’t say that.”

“Ray,” Corinne said, upset. “What’s the matter, darling?”

But Ford was looking at Bunny Croft. “Don’t say that,” he said to her again.

“Gol-lee, Mr. Ford. If my poems aren’t–well, at all lovely–I don’t know what they are. I mean–golly!” Bunny Croft flushed and put her hands into her jacket pockets, out of sight.

Next, Ford makes up an excuse about having to meet a friend for a drink. Corinne implores him to offer Bunny at least some bit of “constructive criticism.”

Ford, who had caught a head cold during the drive back from Canada, used his handkerchief. He replaced it, saying slowly, “Miss Croft, I’ve read every one of the poems you sent me. I can’t tell you you’re a poet. Because you’re not. And I’m not saying that because your language is dissonant, or because your metaphors are either hackneyed or false, or because your few attempts to write are simply so flashy that I have a splitting headache. Those things can happen sometimes.”

He sat down suddenly–as though he had been waiting for hours for a chance to sit down.

“But you’re inventive,” he informed his guest–without a perceptible note of accusation in his voice.

He looked at the carpet, concentrating, and pushed back the hair at his temples with his finger tips.

“A poet doesn’t invent his poetry–he finds it,” he said, to no one in particular. “The place,” he added slowly, “where Alph the sacred river ran–was found out, not invented.”

He looked out the window from where he sat. He seemed to look as far out of the room as he could. “I can’t stand any kind of inventiveness,” he said.

Ford is a reclusive jerk, perhaps due in part to what suggests itself as mental illness. He embodies the stereotype of the unstable, frustrated, misanthropic genius–almost as much as  Salinger himself did.

Poetry is a major factor in much of Salinger’s fiction, perhaps most famously in the book that impelled him to shrink from fame, The Catcher in the Rye. Youthful disaffected misanthrope Holden Caulfield tries, late in the story, to explain to his sister Phoebe why he hates school. She asks him what he wants to do with his life, and he replies, “You know that song, ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’?” Phoebe corrects him: “It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’! … It’s a poem.  By Robert Burns.” Holden Caulfield continues,

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me.  And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.  That’s all I do all day.  I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.  I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

What Caulfield wants, then, is to prevent children from eating the apple — from growing up and finding out that nothing is promised, that sex is in fact quite common, and leads to further procreation, and that life isn’t guaranteed to carry any special meaning.

Holden Caulfield hates “phonies,” and it is significant that he wants to protect children from growing up and becoming them, as if there were any other option. It is significant that he has misheard Burns; the real lyric — if a body meet a body, not catch a body — means something entirely different, and is in fact suggestive of casual sex. Holden Caulfield’s interpretation of the poem is entirely a fiction — which is fine, because nobody can be prevented from aging. Everyone ends up something, as Mr. Antolini points out nearer the close of the book:

“I have a feeling that you’re riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall.  But I don’t honestly know what kind. … It may be the kind where, at the age of thirty, you sit in some bar hating everybody who comes in looking as if he might have played football in college.  Then again, you may pick up just enough education to hate people who say, ‘It’s a secret between he and I.’  Or you may end up in some business office, throwing paper clips at the nearest stenographer.  I just don’t know.”

There is terror to be found in the certain annihilation of the promise of youth. Raymond Ford and Corinne von Nordhoffen are children together in The Inverted Forest, and share an incredibly complex evening with clueless adults. It seems like kismet, then, when they meet later in life and marry each other. But Ford, the selfish genius, “finds the pattern and breaks it,” to quote John Ashbery; he runs off with Bunny Croft, the same young poet that he’d skewered in his living room, and leaves Corinne feeling suicidal:

Swiftly Corinne wondered whether doormen and people had sense enough to cover up immediately the bodies of people who jumped out of  apartment house windows. She didn’t want to jump without a guarantee that someone would cover her up immediately…

The Inverted Forest was published in Cosmopolitan in 1947, four years before the publication of The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield muses at one point in Catcher that he is “knocked out” by a book that, “when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

Famously, Salinger was anything but a terrific friend to his many fans, and it is a compelling fact that the poet Raymond Ford is something of a blueprint for what Salinger himself would become. It seems that the notion of being a hermetic writer long existed in the writer’s brain. Not “life imitating art” or vice versa — just one whole perverted reality, as perverted as any reality, really, only in most ways, more salacious. Full of intrigue.

And it is intriguing that Salinger’s misanthropic genius in The Inverted Forest is a poet. The story’s title comes from a line in Ford’s poetry — the line that provokes a “deluge of truth and beauty” in Corinne:

Not wasteland, but a great inverted forest

with all foliage underground.

The lines are an obvious reference to the banner poetic achievement preceding Ford’s generation, T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” It is often said that William Carlos Williams was taking on “The Waste Land” in his book Spring and All, particularly in the “On the road to the contagious hospital…” The narrator of the poem watches a muddy landscape, and watches it well; the longer he watches it, the more it opens itself up to him.

At first, there is a whiff of optimism in the “inverted forest” lines — an “every dark cloud has a silver lining” kind of conceit. But this is backwards. Instead, the pair of lines defies imposing any kind of emotion on any kind of landscape. Calling it a “waste” is to claim to know too much: it is what it is, nothing more, nothing less. Things are what they are defy our ability to understand them; don’t get all worked up.

Ford tells Bunny Croft that he “can’t stand any kind of inventiveness” — to invent is to make something up. Ford favors discovery. I like this idea, because in truth, good poetry has much more to do with scientific discovery than it does with abject “creation.” The poet at work finds possibilities that have always existed. The good poet adds to our understanding of the world, even if only in the abstract experience of reading the poem. To imagine that one is writing a poem in order to “invent” involves a reckless amount of ego.

Too often, poets, or artists in general, try to “do what hasn’t been done,” or to be the leader of some new “movement” they’ve invented — anything to avoid having to sit down and truly discover a poem. Nothing is good simply because it is new, or different, or took a lot of time to assemble. Agenda ruins art. Everyone knows this; but the clock is ticking. For this reason, a theory Salinger espoused late in life becomes very attractive, if really just a romantic ideal: “Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy…I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

According to his Wikipedia page, J.D. Salinger submitted 15 poems to The New Yorker in 1945; all were rejected. When he died last week, a tremendous amount of media came out calling him a “poet,” which is a rather ugly bit of labeling. But it is true that Salinger made some of the most important literary discoveries in our history. His stories were not formula — beginning, middle, end — but instead, significant pockets of time in the lives his characters. They are, to borrow another Ashbery phrase, “stitched on the air materializing behind them.” The works lack agenda, at least as much as they can.

In a tremendous passage in his conclusion to Walden, Henry David Thoreau writes about an “artist in the city of Kouroo” who was “disposed to strive after perfection.” The artist decides to make a staff:

Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life.

His singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth.

Religious devotion to craft might yield eternal life, at least in the sense the devoted artist or scientist will be too consumed to notice his own death once it arrives. This seems vaguely related to something that Dr. Oliver Sacks writes in his book about music and the brain, Musicophilia. Sacks describes “Harry S,” a mechanical engineer who suffered a brain aneurysm and as a result, lost the capacity to feel emotions (“severe compromise of the frontal lobe systems or the subcortical systems” causes this, according to Sacks). But Harry loved Irish songs, and often sang them, and when he sang them, he “showed every emotion appropriate to the music — the jovial, the wistful, the tragic, the sublime.” Sacks continues,

One sees this in some forms of autism, in the “flat affect” of some schizophrenics, and in the “coldness” or “callousness” often shown by psychopaths (or, to use the term favored now, sociopaths). But here, as with Harry, music can often break through, if only in a limited way or for a brief time, and release seemingly normal emotions.

I don’t mean to imply that Salinger was mentally ill. Only that devotion to craft — to the act of craft, and in Salinger’s case, the fictional world it allowed him to inhabit — is a very real way to keep from falling off the cliff. His fiction, like poetry and music, absorb and are absorbed by some kind of energy, the roots of which simply cannot be understood, but can impel one to continue living a life. Salinger lived with his characters and was devoted to them — in particular, to the Glass family. As John Updike once observed in the Times Book Review, “Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. Their invention has become a hermitage for him. He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation.”

But did Salinger despise “real” people? There are lots of accounts of him being a jerk, and they make lowly poet Raymond Ford (“There is no money in poetry,” Corinne reminds us) seem tame in comparison. Yet Elie Wiesel’s famous proclamation that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, applies here. Passion is passion, for better or worse, and a passage near the end of Franny and Zooey might betray a vision of boundless compassion. 

Franny and Zooey Glass, brother and sister, talk on the phone years after the suicide of their older brother, Seymour Glass. Franny, the youngest sister, has been critically depressed by a sense of Caulfieldian meaninglessness. Zooey tells her that once, when he was going to be on the television quiz show “Wise Child,” he declined to shine his shoes because the audience was full of morons, and because they probably wouldn’t be able to see his shoes anyway. Seymour told him to “shine them for the Fat Lady.”

Franny recalls, “He told me to be funny for the Fat Lady, once.” Zooey proceeds,

“I don’t care where an actor acts. It can be in summer stock, it can be over a radio, it can be over television, it can be in a goddam Broadway theatre, complete with the most fashionable, most well-fed, most sunburned-looking audience you can imagine. But I’ll tell you a terrible secret–Are you listening to me? There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. That includes your Professor Tupper, buddy. And all his goddam cousins by the dozens. There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that goddam secret yet? And don’t you know–listen to me now–don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”

What Salinger discovered, at least from what we’ve read, wasn’t a new philosophy on why life contained value. He discovered, among other things, that a population of people is prone to sadness, self-deception and phoniness, but that no singular character ought to take all the blame. 

He discovered a great deal more, and I hope, as most do, that we’ll soon find he discovered even more than that. The New York Times reported last week that a Salinger neighbor claimed in 1999 that the author “had told him he had at least 15 unpublished books kept in a locked safe at his home.” The writer Joyce Maynard, a former love interest, said she “believed there were at least two novels locked away in a safe, though she had never seen them.” And Salinger’s own comment about writing for pleasure rather than publication certainly helps keep hope alive that he kept on carving that walking stick, and that each among us will be all the better for it. If not, it can never be said that he didn’t give us enough.