The Pissing Contest

Or, the Life and Opinions of David Slavitt, Gentleman

by Walker Mimms

“In some fundamental aspect most intellectual work turns out to be a pissing contest.”
 

It was a bright November afternoon in New England when the Latin students, all five of us, were ushered into the living room of a professor’s campus apartment for the meet-and-greet luncheon with eminent translator, poet, and novelist David R. Slavitt. He had just arrived on campus and was scheduled to read from his own work in a few hours at the weekly Literature Evening—but first, a conversation with these bright young classicists about his career in the languages of antiquity. The living room had comfortable seating for receptions like these and just before the guests arrived had been fitted with a buffet of sandwiches, desserts, and coffee.

The meeting had been a month or so in the works, and in that month we had all splashed around in the shallow end of his staggering, fifty-year oeuvre, over a hundred books, close to half of them translations. We had read in his Metamorphoses the episodes that we had translated for class; one girl had drafted a list of questions about his De Rerum Natura, a poem she was writing her thesis on; I had picked through his take on Virgil’s second eclogue, which I was translating for my final.

 

“I have nothing to say about my translations. My translations are my commentary.”

 

The host of this meeting, herself an accomplished translator, turned toward our guest and broke the ice with the usual politeness: “Well, it’s a shame we had you visit us at such a dreary time of year. You just missed all the wonderful foliage!”

“The foliage? Why would I want to see leaves? I want to see the trees! When I see a beautiful woman I don’t want to have to imagine her, under all her clothing. I want to see her. Naked!” Amazement, from all. It was at this moment that David Slavitt realized he had secured his captive audience. And we in turn realized what our Latin professor had told us a week or so earlier, that the man was rumored to be, “well…prickly.” And if his reputation was for his prickle, he was a true cactus that day at our idyllic liberal arts college, even for the crown jewels of the student body:

INQUIRING STUDENT 1: I’ve read that you privilege meter and rhyme above other poetic devices?

DAVID SLAVITT: Yes, but perhaps we could take off the lab coat, put down the forceps and scalpel, and talk about poetry like we’re not dissecting mice!

IS2: Have you ever translated prose?

DS: Translating prose, one might as well be a writer’s secretary, his bookkeeper! Where’s the art in that?

IS2: Then how do you think we should go about reading prose in a foreign language?

DS: You learn the language!

IS3: I was hoping you could say a little about your translation of Lucretius? You see, I’m writing my thesis on—

DS: There’s nothing to say! I have nothing to say about my translations. My translations are my commentary.

IS4: How much has your idea of translation changed since you did your Eclogues?

DS: I wouldn’t call my Eclogues translations. I would call them interpretive meditations in the Renaissance tradition.

No one could tell if this was all a big joke. The professors in the room were speechless to interpret him. But not for long: they excused themselves toward the end of the lunch, not without relief, for a mandatory faculty meeting, and we students were left to entertain—or, rather, to be entertained by—Mr. Slavitt.

 

“That was the best way to approach the study of literature, he said, on a sofa, over a plate of cucumber sandwiches.”

 

The rest of the conversation bumbled along in the same fits and starts, but it found the occasional smooth spot. Slavitt was pleased to talk, for instance, about how the Eclogues had taught him more about life than the Aeneid; or how when you you hit your twenties you’re already too old for Look Homeward, Angel and by thirty you’re still too young for Proust; or how he taught himself ancient Greek on the thirty-five-minute train commute to and from his first job out of college; or about his Yale class with Robert Penn Warren, which consisted of Warren reading short stories aloud to a group of students sprawled on leather couches. That was the best way to approach the study of literature, he said, on a sofa, over a plate of cucumber sandwiches.

Slavitt’s reading that evening (henceforth his “performance”) nearly caused a riot. He arranged the performance in the way he has said you ought to arrange a book of poems: like a basket of fruit, the ripest on top and some equally good pieces on the bottom for the skeptical housewife. Bookended by subtle and moving poems like “The Valve” and “Yankees,” however, was not filler, to my memory, but the main course: irreverent banter about poetry readings and professors and criticism. He had reloaded since lunch, and his audience had inflated tenfold. I’m not sure how many knew his work, but it’s a small school, and everyone had caught wind of our conversation that afternoon. They were curious about Act II. He now held captive not only his Latinists but also a few rows of the usual attendees, a gaggle of aspiring poets, and a good chunk of the English department.

   Toward the end there was one for that last group: “The Poem.”

You are about to read a poem,

but the critic comes, austere, a man of authority,

and offers to help you.

You had not supposed that you needed help,

but his tone of voice and his gold-rimmed spectacles

are evidence of his seriousness.

                                                   Why not?

He picks up the poem, sniffs it,

Holds it to the light this way and that,

then he wads it up, puts it in his mouth, and chews it

slowly, contemplatively, and swallows.

You wait for a while as he digests it

and then excretes it.

He offers you a well-formed, not especially malodorous

turd in a blue and white chamber pot.

“This,” he says, “will be better for you.”

If you believe him, you are an English major.

The jeers had erupted by the second stanza, and they flourished well into the pièce de résistance, “One-Word Poem”:

Motherless.

He scanned his audience, locked some eyes, repeated it for us, and, now that the tiresome business of the actual poem was over, announced that we could get to the discussion questions. Here are four of the ten, to be imagined in the voice of a careful oral examiner:

1. Is this a joke? And, if so, is it a joke of the poet in which the editor of the magazine (or, later, the book publisher or the textbook writers) has conspired? Or is it a joke on the editors and publishers? Is the reader the audience of the poem?

2. It is regrettable not to have a mother. Is the purpose of the poem to convey an emotion to the reader? Does the poet suppose that this is the saddest word in the language? Do you agree or disagree? Can you suggest a sadder word?

4. If the assertion of a single word as a work of art is not a joke, then what could it mean? Is it a Dada-ist gesture, amusing and cheeky perhaps but with an underlying seriousness that the poet either invites or defies the reader to understand?

10. Some poems we have read and some that we particularly like, we memorize. You have already memorized this one. Do you like it better now? Or are the questions part of the poem, so that you have not yet memorized it? Will you, anyway? Do you need to memorize the questions verbatim, or is the idea enough?

***

“In some fundamental aspect,” Slavitt has written, “most intellectual work turns out to be a pissing contest.” This line comes from his essay on Harold Bloom. Slavitt quotes him at random:

A baroque pathos seems to be [Geoffrey] Hill’s goal with the ornateness his tribute to tradition, and the punctuation of pathos his outcry against tradition. Hill’s is clearly a poetics of pain, in which all the calamities of history become so many poetic salutes, so many baroque meditations, always trapped in a single repetition of realization …

You get the idea. The topic of Slavitt’s essay may be an often-opaque celebrity critic, but what he’s really writing about, what he was really performing for that day, is the pleasure principle. Poetry pleases us. What else can we ask of it? Why even talk about it?

 

“my afternoon with this profound and pleasurable writer refreshed my faith in the poem and sparked in me a serious interest in his ocean of work.”

 

It’s hyperbolic, of course. But there is still something sinful about the disassembly and discussion of beauty. And sooner or later some overachiever will come along and squeeze Christian imagery out of a Rothko painting. Slavitt took aim at a well-meaning college, with professors about as unpedantic as they come, but it didn’t matter. His target was synecdochical. Any college could have stood in for The Academy, complete with its toolbelt of diagnoses and interpretations, its antiseptic, anapestic scalpels, its tracts on the baroqueness of pathos. All he had to do was stand in for The Poem. Not that he hasn’t been The Critic in his life—he has written countless book reviews, numerous essays on poets, a book-length study of Virgil, with prefaces to each of his translations ... But that wasn’t the role he was playing that day.

Like Sterne’s masterpiece, for those diligent enough to stay with him, Slavitt’s intentions were serious and humane, even vital. Slavitt’s afternoon of hijinks fought against the pissing contestants who contort them, poet and critic alike. Fogeyish? Maybe. Prickly? Oh, certainly. But for this contestant, who has heard one too many poets describe inscrutable verse with, “I write what you would call Difficult Poetry,” my afternoon with this profound and pleasurable writer refreshed my faith in the poem and sparked in me a serious interest in his ocean of work. And the further I wade into it, the deeper the origins of that performance seem to run.

 

“I got to like the routine of absorbing all those movies and then at the end of the week squeezing my brain like a sponge to turn out the reviews.”
David Slavitt was the movie reviewer for the magazine Newsweek in the sixties. 
David Slavitt was the movie reviewer for the magazine Newsweek in the sixties. 

The very beginning is a telling place to start.

Slavitt studied with the poet and classicist Dudley Fitts at Andover then went to Yale where his talents were assumed (“You’re one of Fitts’s boys,” his professors would say). There he debated, published his first poems, and spent his final year as a Scholar of the House, a now defunct program that exempted the brightest seniors from classes and exams and allowed them to write.

 

From there he landed at Columbia for an MA. Even if he didn’t count himself a contestant, a master’s degree certainly threatens its candidate with urological competitiveness. A year of teaching at Georgia Tech sealed the deal. He changed course completely and took up in the mail room at Newsweek. By the end of his seven years there he was writing the film page with a weekly readership of about eight million. “I got to like the routine of absorbing all those movies and then at the end of the week squeezing my brain like a sponge to turn out the reviews.” He averaged about sixty-lines in twenty minutes. It was an essentially frivolous livelihood, he soon admitted, to wake up, put on a suit, and take the train with the rest of the businessmen only to go see The Sound of Music or The Birds. But the reviews were anonymous, which engendered a certain bravery, and he got to goof off. “Austria: The Last Golden Days of the Thirties,” is how he opened a panning of the former movie, the advanced screening of which he had to sneak into in a ski mask, having been banned from Fox screenings for some similar naughtiness. And he didn’t even wait till print to pan the latter, which he told Hitchcock he hated over breakfast.

Above it as he was, this work taught Slavitt two lessons that would shape the rest of his career: how to write for everybody and how to write quickly. Plus, all the while he had been actually writing. He quit Newsweek in 1965 and put out his second book of poetry, The Carnivore, which was well received. Even at this stage his poems show his imaginativeness and his talent for unpacking minute, everyday experience.

 

“He had made it exceptionally dirty—not just sex, but lesbian sex! and incest!”

 

In 1967 Bernard Geis Associates, the pulp publishers behind The Valley of the Dolls and Sex and the Single Girl, approached Slavitt about doing a book, presumably on the strength of his first novel, Rochelle, or Virtue Rewarded (1966). He figured his poetry royalties to be about $2 a year, so he opted for the mountain of cash, on the condition he could use a pen name. He chose Henry Sutton, after a printer’s apprentice Walt Whitman was fond of, and started work on a raunchy Hollywood coming of age story. It took him about three months to write the first draft of The Exhibitionist. And it sold four million copies.

He had made it exceptionally dirty—not just sex, but lesbian sex! and incest! A spat ensued between Geis and his Associates before it was even sent to print. Bennet Cerf, one of the founders of Random House and Joyce’s patron saint in United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, had announced he wouldn’t touch The Exhibitionist with a forty-foot pole. Geis held firm on his new book and lost five partners, including Art Linkletter and Groucho Marx. Geis played up the controversy in an $50,000 ad campaign, taking out glossy fold-outs in the major magazines, holding prize giveaways for the most extravagant bookstore window displays: “The Exhibitionist is so HOT that for the first time we are featuring asbestos book covers!”

 

“The press erupted with charges of literary prostitution. A poet—a good poet—had used his powers for ill.”

 

Slavitt’s name was unveiled in the commotion. Either the secret was too delicious or the press opportunity too perfect—either way, he made the announcement himself, and Geis sent him on an eight-week book tour. “A Calculating Poet Behind a Very Gamey Book,” ran the headline in Life, with a full-page photo of Slavitt, reclining, velvet dinner jacket and bowtie, cigarette and cocktail in one hand, eyes closed, deep in thought, savoring…well, not just financial comfort but the even sweeter spoils of having gotten away with it.

The press erupted with charges of literary prostitution. A poet—a good poet—had used his powers for ill. There was anger not only for Slavitt-Sutton but for Slavitt himself. Thus Tom Wolfe, on Slavitt’s next serious novel: “Ironically, Feel Free lacks exactly the Krazy-Kat verve that occasionally worked in The Exhibitionist … All he needed was to feel free at last—to have a lark, a grand folie, to swing for the fences, to bring up a Henry Sutton roundhouse left from the cheap seats in the service of litterateur David Slavitt.”

The Exhibitionist by Henry Sutton (David Slavitt) sold four million copies.

The Exhibitionist by Henry Sutton (David Slavitt) sold four million copies.

Slavitt defended himself in Esquire, and Sutton in The Kenyon Review. His thesis: Wouldn’t you do it? Half a million dollars was a lot of money. It would send his three children to school and support his serious literary endeavors. He also defended the novel. Yes, it contains lines like this:

The hardness of his body in her and the hardness of his body on her roused her to a pitch of excitement which she had never known before.

But to craft a bestseller, he said, took a fair amount of literary responsibility. Which is true. If Jacqueline Susann could do it, why on earth couldn’t he? And as for Cerf, “that wastebasket in tweeds,” why not put out some schlock once in a while—his preferred term—to fund more poetry?

Slavitt kept the pen name, even adopted a few others, and continued the schlock here and there, well into the ’70s. His next Sutton, The Voyeur, became the first book advertised on a Times Square billboard.

 

“And poetry? Is what holds all this together, what keeps me
more or less together, or at least is a way of changing the subject.”

 

These not-too-humble beginnings help explain the ballsiness, wit, and enormous ability that characterize the rest of his career. If the elitist poet and classicist could ensnare the grocery store pulp-fiction impulse-buyers of suburban America, what could he do with the literati?

Combine this with a personal bitterness toward the publishing industry, which too often rewards salability and gimmicks over literary talent. His later Slavitt books would go on to earn recognition and great respect, and when Garrison Keillor included one of his poems in the bestselling anthology Good Poems the critics nodded and agreed that it was time he became an Important Poet. But it was only the Sutton money that supported him enough to be a writer. In the ’80s, even on the heels of a successful novel, The Hussar (1987) bounced around thirty publishers before it was finally picked up by a university press. “You can’t do worse,” he says looking back, “than this friendly note from a good publisher: ‘Loved the book, had a wonderful weekend reading it, can't understand how we can publish this profitably.’” And just a couple of years ago he announced the end of his career as a novelist when The Duke’s Man (2011) took twelve years to find a publisher.

The whole thing was a dog and pony show, he realized, well before publishers were passing on him. Not just the Geis fanfare but even the industry that churns out poetry, literary novels, and criticism. He gave full vent to this realization in his first important novel after letting the Sutton cat out of the bag, still one of his most important to date. Anagrams (1970) is an ugly and hilarious weekend tour of college Literature Evenings. We stick to two poets in a caravan of writers: the young Jerome Carpenter, a thinly-veiled, rookie Slavitt with one book under his belt, and the veteran John Royle, a National Book Award winner with tenure and a family. Both are disillusioned with the life of the poet, for different reasons. Jerome is a professional ghost-writer of doctoral dissertations for the kind of critics who go on to review his ilk, a “writer in the world of crass commerce” (wink wink). And Royle is losing heart in academia, years deep in a writer’s block, and on the verge of a breakdown. The dreary weekend—full of social climbing, pseudo-intellectual poetry, and boring celebrity novelists—culminates in a televised panel with the writers, which the smiling host interrupts now and then to plug the sponsor, a canned spray cheese. The only way our heroes can possibly survive it is by cutting up, playing with words, swapping names, making a mockery of it, which the book makes clear is their real livelihood.

Anagrams was bitchy, and so was the press surrounding it. Here’s The New York Times on its release:

Books by David Slavitt aren’t actually reviewed. Critics seize upon them as opportunities to snipe at him for his histrionic disdain of them. Muggers, sex maniacs, and murderers may find forgiveness, but there’s no sympathy for Slavitt, who committed literary sacrilege by making fun of what he calls the Quality Lit Biz—and worse yet, making money by making fun.

The sniping only multiplied for Slavitt’s next big book—his first work of translation and the first of his writings to make me sit up and listen. In a way his Eclogues of Virgil (1971) are an extension of the poetic life that formed the center of Anagrams. He wasn’t just being cheeky when he told me they weren’t translations. “Interpretive meditations” really is closer to what they are. You don’t need the Latin en face to detect Slavitt’s departures from the second eclogue, which in the original is a shepherd’s frustrated love song in the form of a wordy, colorful paean to the flora and fauna of his grove. Here’s the first stanza:

The beautiful shepherd, Corydon ardebat

ardently loved. “Ardeo here acquires

a transitive signification and takes the accusative.”

But does it? There is nothing transitive there.

Corydon loves Alexis, a gorgeous boy

who belongs to his master, a plaything, a delice

Corydon goes alone to a dense beech grove,

and there in the soothing umbrousness complains

in shreds of song…

There is only one line of translation here—the first—and even that can’t make it to the line break before the curtain’s lifted. The beeches, the “shreds of song,” the “umbrousness,” the Latin words themselves—these are the only words that poke through. The subject is no longer unrequited longing. It has morphed into a poem about poets and the usefulness of poetry. It goes on to resemble less Virgil’s poem than “What is Poetry About?”, one of Slavitt’s recent verses, a derailed train of thought that starts with a frustrated hunt around his room for his treasured pill-box, then a hunt for a pen he likes, which the cats have knocked off the desk, then an aside on the cats themselves, an aside on Nebuchadnezzar, an aside on Auschwitz, and then, by way of an ending, a glance back to the title: “And poetry? Is what holds all this together, what keeps me/ more or less together, or at least is a way of changing the subject.”

From the Q & A on the evening of Slavitt’s visit, I remember something like: “I figured, Virgil? Not bad. Me? Pretty good.” It still makes me laugh, but it’s pretty much how I see Slavitt’s relationship to the poets of antiquity: a semicircle of them, reclined in their armchairs, chatting over a plate of cucumber sandwiches or maybe savoring in silence some passage Robert Penn Warren has just read aloud. In this picture the one-way flow of time has sprung a leak and flooded a large circular room, like the British Museum reading room which all the English novelists inhabit in Forster’s Aspects:

all writing their novels simultaneously. They do not, as they sit there, think “I live under Queen Victoria, I under Anne, I carry on the tradition of Trollope, I am reacting against Aldous Huxley. The fact that their pens are in their hands is far more vivid to them … That is to be our vision of them—an imperfect vision, but it is suited to our powers, it will preserve us from a serious danger, the danger of pseudo-scholarship.

Slavitt has chosen his clique in the British Museum reading room like we choose our childhood friends in the school cafeteria: Look, there’s Decimus Magnus Ausonius, the fourth-century Christian poet and tutor. He pulls up his chair and hands Slavitt his Nuptual Cento, a wedding poem composed entirely of fragments from Virgil—who meanwhile sulks in the corner, arms folded in protest. 180 phrases crammed into 132 lines. It’s untranslatable, since the intention was for readers to recognize the Latin, but Slavitt takes it anyway. Giggling, he spreads it out on the table, thinks for a minute, cuts it up, and puts the whole thing back together with Shakespeare, who, he explains to his new friend, “is our Virgil, surely.” There are seventeen pieces of Shakespeare in this excerpt, taken from the final bedroom scene which even the Loeb Classical Library omits from its translation:

The ruddiness upon her lip is wet.

Not an inch further? He sticks deeper, grows

with more pernicious root to shake the bags

and make the coming hour o’erflow with joy

and pleasure drown the brim, for one to thrust,

his hand between his teeth. And mark the moan

she makes. Most resolutely snatched, he is

far gone, far gone, to the profoundest pit …

Slavitt’s in stitches as he roots through his bag, opens The Cock Book, or The Child’s First Book of Pornography (1987), his letterpress chapbook take on Dr. Seuss’s Foot Book, and reads page five aloud:

Swarthy cocks, pale cocks,

Harvard, Yale cocks,

nifty cocks, swell cocks,

Duke, Bucknell cocks.

 

Canadian cocks, Australian cocks,

high Episcopalian cocks

Elysian cocks, empyrean cocks,

hard line Presbyterian cocks,

purplish cocks, blue-ish cocks,

uncircumcised and Jewish cocks.

Exotic cocks, staple cocks,

withered little Papal cocks.

Healthy cocks, sore cocks,

clever cocks, bore cocks,

twenty three hundred and fifty four cocks.

More and more and more and more cocks.

Ausonius erupts too, as he reaches for another cucumber sandwich …

That is to be my vision of them, then—an imperfect vision, but it is suited to my powers and it will preserve me, at least now and then, from the danger of the pissing contest and remind me of that day when the words themselves were felt by everyone in the room.


David R. Slavitt is the author of more than 116 books – poetry, novels and reportage. He is the editor of two forthcoming titles from Little Island Press: Merrill Moore: XxX, 100 Poems and Bink Noll: Selected Poems.

Walker Mimms is a writer and musician living in Nashville, TN. 

A longer version of this article first appeared in Artenol magazine (http://artenol.org/walker-mimms.html)