- Photograph by Jonathan Williams
- PAYING RESPECTS
- All Souls 1999
"The famous old places are grown quite obscure. For some time I have been trying to ferret them out." Kaemon, the painter, said that to Basho, the poet, in Oku-No-Hosomichi (Back Roads to Far Towns). If you are quite lucky, you can still find the way to Emily Dickinson's grave behind Burger Chef and the Gulf station in Amherst.
Poets are the sign-painters for Elysium. They are alive to add to beloved traditions and to celebrate the Great Dead. However, because it seems there are as few poets around worth killing as other people, it is sometimes Just Plain Folks who write the epitaphs. In fact, one of the great epitaphs of the Western world is a few yards off the Appalachian Trail as you hike along Iron Mountain, in the country dividing North Carolina and Tennessee. A stone monument honors one Uncle Nick Grindstaff with these words:
Turns out Uncle Nick was a hermit ("they say he went to Harvard University, and then took to drink after his ladylove died out West") and lived on the mountain for over 40 years, with an old horse and a dog or two. The citizen who kept the general store down in Shady Valley, Tennessee, where Uncle would buy his meal and bacon twice a year, wrote the words. Somebody had to. Nick Grindstaff was a special man, with a story no one ever quite knew. What gets me, of course, being the sanguine democrat I occasionally am, is that a shopkeeper, who probably never heard of the word poet or read a line of what they call "poetry," could get those words to work like that. Makes me think that Johnny Appleseed and Walt Whitman actually did plant friendship by the rivers of America when I see language that good. If anyone is thus emboldened to put on his L.L.Bean "Maine Guide Shoes" and traipse up to the Iron Mountain, please keep on along the Blue Ridge five or six days to the northeast. Climb to the cemetery above Marion, Virginia. You will feel you're in the God's Acre of Our Town, looking out over all the firmament. You'll stand before Sherwood Anderson's grave, carved by Wharton Esherick. The granite spiral bears the line:
LIFE NOT DEATH IS THE GREAT ADVENTURE
During a quarter century of poetic folly, I have become more and more goliardic, peripatetic, and simply bizarre. Notice the increasing unworldliness in the answers to three famous American questions: (1) Where were you when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died? I was playing soccer at St. Albans School... (2) Where were you when Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard Round the World? I was helping Dan Rice build the science building at Black Mountain College...(3) Where were you the weekend of the Cuban Missile Crisis? I was walking in the English Lake District, looking for the graves of Beatrix Potter and Kurt Schwitters.... (I failed with both. Schwitters was reported to be in the churchyard at Ambleside. The stone is there, I failed to find it. He has since been exhumed and his body buried in Germany. Miss Beattie was definitely not at Troutbeck Church, as three ancient tweedy informants blithely assured me she was. Her ashes are scattered in a wood at the highest part of Hill Top Farm, her property at Sawrey near Hawkshead. Still, Troutbeck Church is worth it for the lovely William Morris/Burne-Jones stained glass window in the chancel.)
Once I drove to a columbarium in Reno, Nevada, looking for a pigeonhole with Robinson Jeffers' name on it. I didn't find it. The ashes were later scattered on the Pacific- apparently, against California law at the time. The family had first shipped the body out of state, and then done what they wished to with the remains... Kenneth Patchen's ashes, too, are mixed with the ocean at Half Moon Bay... Marsden Hartley wished to be mingled with the confluence of the Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers in Maine. You can just about find the place in a seedy industrial quarter near Brunswick.
I must have by now 300 slides of the resting places of human beings I much revere and whose works and persons nourish me. I have Mr. Charles E. Ives in Danbury; Carl Ruggles in Arlington, Vermont; MacDowell at the Peterborough colony; Gottschalk in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn; John Philip Sousa in the Old Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC; Stefan Wolpe at the Springs near East Hampton, Long Island. But, not yet Stephen Foster, or Charles Tomlinson Griffes, or George Gershwin. Or, Scott Joplin, though I recently heard he is in St. Michael's Cemetery in Queens- not far from Whitman's birthplace at Huntington, not far from John Coltrane's grave.
Jazzmen's graves must be among the most elusive of all. Bunk Johnson's, in New Iberia, Louisiana, is unmarked. He is buried in a white Catholic cemetery through the collusion of Weeks Hall (the eccentric master of the great house called "The Shadows on the Teche") and the parish priest. Charlie Parker is buried in a black cemetery east of Kansas City. When I paid my respects, there were withered yellow chrysanthemums beside the grave, left, I found out, by Dizzy Gillespie and his quintet, who came out to the cemetery the week before and played dirges for Bird.
Is all this "morbid?" I hardly think so. It can only be moving and instructive to see H.D.'s stone in the Moravian acre at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Hilda Doolittle Aldington, it is. Or, Franz Josef Kline's in Wilkes-Barre. Or, Hart Crane's father's in Garrettsville, Ohio, with its mention of
HAROLD HART CRANE, LOST AT SEA
on the west side of the monument... Sir Herbert Read's headstone, in the yew-filled yard of St. Gregory's Minster at Kirkdale on the North York Moors. says
KNIGHT POET ANARCHIST...
Charles Olson has a curious black slate, of the 17th century kind with memento mori, in the Catholic fishermen's cemetery in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The stone is crumbling already... Edith Sitwell's, William Morris's, Kenneth Grahame's, Walter Sickert's, and Stanley Spencer's stones are all wonderfully incised and lettered- and quite hard to find. (I have to go back to Grahame's in Oxford, because, stupidly, I didn't know that Walter Pater was within a hundred yards.)
Do not merely seek out "The Great" It meant something to me- and perhaps to them- to find Adelaide Crapsey in Rochester, and H.P. Lovecraft in eldritch and hyperborean Providence. Said Basho: "...hard to locate anything now, but that moment, seeing the thousand-year-old monument, brought back sense of time past. One blessing of such a pilgrimage, one joy of having come through, aches of the journey forgotten, shaken, into eyes."(That translation by Cid Corman, who has done so much to restore to us the live words of poets so monumental as Matsuo Basho.)
Who can tell me where Albert Pinkham Ryder lies? Or Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton? Or Charles Demuth? Or Mary Cassatt? Or Grant Wood? Or Marin? Or Arthur Dove? Or Stieglitz? Or Henry Clews? Or Nathaniel West? Or James Thurber? Or George Ade? Or Arnold Schoenberg? Or Harry Partch? Or Raymond Chandler? Or Art Tatum? Or Charles Reznikoff? Or Lorine Niedecker? My address is simply P.O. Box 10, Highlands, North Carolina 28741. I'm likely to be at home, unless off on my next mission- an important one for latter-day scat-singers: the Rev. Charles Dodgson (Guilford, Surrey?); Edward Lear and his cat Old Foss (San Remo?); and Christian Morgenstern (someone suggests the grounds of Rudolf Steiner's Institute in the hills outside Basel?). May some other pilgrim attend Eddie Guest and Poets Nice People Like. R.I.P.
(New York Times Book Review, December 19, 1976)
Addendum, 1998: Albert Pinkham Ryder, James Thurber, Jelly Roll Morton, and Lorine Niedecker are in hand. I am still missing the others.