01 October 2015

Louis Untermeyer Is 130 Today

 see that the first of October is Louis Untermeyer’s birthday, and by coincidence I happen to be (in a sense) reacquainting myself with this character. The occasion is a parody anthology I’ve been putting together (off and on) for several years—not for publication or anything like that, but just for my own amusement. I mean, Dwight Macdonald’s 1960 collection was great, but new practitioners of the art have come along, and I have my own notions of what should go in it. For one thing, I don’t really give a damn whether the subject of the parody is still current; Swinburne’s takeoff on Owen Meredith is funny as hell, even if nobody still reads the old plagiarist and mishandler of the Indian famine of 1876 today—for one example. Or Jonathan Swift on Robert Boyle. Or Max Beerbohm on John Davidson. And, for another thing, some pretty decent parodies have come along since then—Sean Kelly on Gerard Manley Hopkins, for one. Randall Garrett on Isaac Asimov.
So what does this have to do with Louis Untermeyer (I hear you ask)? Well, the thing is, Louis Untermeyer was a parodist. Not a great parodist, I hasten to add, but still there somewhere in the ranks. Here, as an example, is his take on Robert Frost:

There, where it was, we never noticed how,
   Flirting its tail among the smoothed-off rocks,
The brook would spray the old, worm-eaten bough,
  That squeaked and scratched like puppies in a box.

Whether the black, half-rotted branch leaned down,
  Or seemed to lean, for love, or weariness
Of life too long lived out, or hoped to drown
  Its litter of last year’s leaves, we could not guess.

Perhaps the bough relaxed as though it meant
  To give its leaves their one taste of depravity;
Or, being near the grave itself, it bent
  Because of nothing more than gravity.

And here is a passage from a James Branch Cabell takeoff:
   There was a thin sobbing as a purple mouse perched on the back of a salamander ran in and out of the jewel-weeds. Twice the salamander shed his skin into the waters and twice a faint mist rose from the ripples. Then cried Ortnitz:
   “Now for the end of that final glory I wait and bend a complaisant back, here, where a livid aurora borealis makes all demoniac. Spurning the threat of the headless swallow, I neither doubt, nor deny nor defend; for I am Ortnitz and I—”
   These sonorous strophes were broken by a rumble of voices that issued from his retinue. And Ortnitz, comprehending that the spell was broken beyond promise of repair, retraced his steps ruefully. It may be that he felt betrayed by those who should have understood him best; it is indisputable that his high mood was bedwarfed and, impatient at such belittlement, he turned on his companions.
   “Do you tell me now without dubiety or odd byends of metaphor, what may this turgescible clatter portend?”
But—parodist or no—it’s not his original writing that makes his name familiar to me. No … when I was a kid, and I read everything from almanacs to zoological papers, the name Louis Untermeyer on the cover of a book could always get my attention. While even with the aid of Wikipedia I can’t recall the titles of any of them, I remember him as putting together some of the goddamn best anthologies of poetry I ever read. I spent many a happy hour in school libraries with one of his collections tucked underneath the desk covertly reading Browning or Benet when I was supposed to be coloring maps or comparing and contrasting Pizarro and Cortés.
So, yeah, I owe Louis Untermeyer for that, and on this, his one hundred thirtieth birthday, I fondly remember him. Thanks (I might say) for introducing me to so many great (and some not-so-great) poets and poems. And thanks also for making the horrors of school a bit more bearable. You may be gone—but you are far from forgotten.

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