Merrill Leffler on O.B. HARDISON, Jr.
(October 18, 1928 - August 5, 1990)
Your house should be music.
Welcome it, hold on to it, sweat, let it pour into you
Like an old god making demigods with mortals.
Hold on until your every motion is dance.
For those of us living in Washington in the seventies and eighties, O. B. Hardison was synonymous with the Folger Shakespeare Library. For 14 years, from 1969 to 1983, O. B. (I never heard him referred to as Hardison, let alone Osborn) guided the Folger to the fore of cultural life in Washington--he founded the Folger Theater Group, brought in the Folger Consort which specializes in medieval and Renaissance music, and was instrumental in raising the international reputation of the Folger as a center for Renaissance scholarship. A year after his arrival from the University of North Carolina, he organized the Folger poetry committee, which soon inaugurated a poetry reading series that has become one of the most prestigious in Washington. Library director, scholar, much-admired teacher--and poet. I had read at most a few of his poems in literary magazines but I didn't think him of him as a poet.
I first heard of O.B. when he appeared on a Time Magazine cover in 1966 as one of the ten Great College Teachers in the United States. He came to the University of Maryland to give a lecture--on Hamlet as I remember--which I went to because of the Time article. What I also remember was a packed room and an engaging talk that excited me about my decision to go back to school to study literature--except for a course or two, I had not studied English literature but was working at NASA as an engineer.
By the time O.B. arrived at the Folger, he had published several scholarly works, a commentary to Aristotle's Poetics (1968), Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages: Essays in the Original and Early History of Modern Drama (1965) and English Literary Criticism: The Renaissance (1963). But much earlier, in 1958, a collection of his own poems, Lyrics and Meditations, had appeared. The book is difficult to find, unless you know that it was one of three in Poets of Today V, one of a series that Scribner's was publishing under the editorship of John Hall Wheelock. (Previous books in the series included those by May Swenson, Louis Simpson, Robert Pack and George Garrett.)
Though O.B. was publishing scholarly works and essays on teaching and explorations into culture, technology and art (more on that later), he was still writing poems. In 1977 Louisiana State University Press brought out Pro Musica Antiqua, a second (and last) collection of poems. It was poems from this collection that I had first seen in Carolina Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review and Epos.
If you just leafed through these two slender volumes, your first thought might be ah, an academic poet, a pejorative implying language as dry as dust in your mouth. Just glance at some of the titles: "Ptolemy's Journal," "Colloquium with Isis," "Homage to Alfred North Whitehead," "Pythagoras," "Odysseus in Ithaca" or from Lyrics and Meditations, "Leibniz: To His Coy Mistress," "Lesbia Rediviva," "Descartes I" and "Descartes II," "Bernini's Colonnade," "Via Appia Antica."
But many of these poems are hardly dry. "Star Chamber," set in the 16th century, is a tour de force of rhyme:
The advocate addressed Sir Thomas More:
Sir, no man has the right to be so sure.
You should not seek salvation, but a cure.
The will to suffer justice and endure,
The wish to live in darkness and be pure,
Is treason to the King, and immature.
For five more stanzas, O.B. employs the same rhyming words for a draught of delight. "Odysseus in Ithaca" is a terrific narrative take-off of Tennyson's great dramatic monologue, "Ulysses." O.B. transforms Tennyson's deep seriousness where Ulysses bemoans his aging and the demands of his enforced domestication:
It little profits that an idle king ,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal law unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
. . . .
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle.
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill
This labor, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Here is O.B.'s Odysseus who cannot get his teeth into the cheese because it is too hard and sits in his "back yard under the olive tree":
With nothing more than a pitcher of goat's milk
A slightly rancid piece of cheese
A little shade from the sun.
It feels good in spite of the flies.
. . . .
Let Telemachus worry about the future.
He'll learn, as I did, there is nothing straight.
Everyone is maneuvering for power--
Men with big ships and foreign connections.
Lust is impossible at my age.
Neither living nor dying offers anything especially interesting.
Mixing the high and low takes on a special quality in his work. Take the tile poem "Pro Musica Antiqua," which begins soberly enough with its references to Renaissance instruments:
Listen to the music.
Listen to the sound of the krummhorn, the rebec,
The vielle, the virginial, the viola da gamba,
The scraping and twanging celebration of order.
It is all in the best possible order.
It streams up through the air of your house
And it is like summer,
A kind of sunlight slanting through the dust
Of almost empty air.
The stanza is not so much musical, at least in mellifluousness, though there is the alliteration in the third line which carries us along and then the s's streaming through the rest of the stanza from the fourth line on. Seemingly high falutin' with the krummhorn, the rebec, the viola da gamba, the imperative second stanza exhorts us to "Throw away the dictionary./ Live where you are."
Bang on a pianoforte.
Limber up the drums.
Unleash the saxophones, let everything run wild.
Have voices, too, whole choruses of voices,
Doing the Nibelungelied by ear.
Bang, limber, unleash, run wild. Upset the apple cart, break the expectations, surprise everyone--surprise yourself. And thus the final stanza:
This is the way it should be. Your house should be music.
Welcome it, hold on to it, sweat, let it pour into you
Like an old god making demigods with mortals.
Hold on until your every motion is dance.
Having received, enlarge.
When you let go, you will snore in C major.
"Pro Musica Antiqua" exemplifies not only the mixing of the high and low, the sublime and seemingly ridiculous--from the krummhorn and viola da gamba to snoring in C major--but also something more about O.B.'s mode of making poems: unlike much modern and contemporary poetry, they do not map the self's psyche, at least not directly, for the epiphanies that so many lyric poems still hunger after.
With a few exceptions they do not interrogate memory for revelation. They are not confined by the autobiographical "I" but come at experience slantwise, sometimes through persona poems that engage passion by playing with the language as though it were an electronic pianoforte. In "Happy Spring," for instance, while the poem is written in the first person, the speaker is not the autobiographical "I" at a certain time and place.
I staged the daffodils rather effectively, I thought.
I put them there just for you.
The crocuses came up a little vulgar--
A shade too blue, maybe--
And the grass so green it strained credulity.
It was the best I could do.
I put the sun on a string for you.
To hold it until it burst;
Brought you a bagful of stars.
I made the sky thunder and rain for you
When you were hurt,
And the waters shine where you washed your feet,
And the clouds were pillows under your head
Whenever you slept.
This is a love poem that has echoes of Renaissance exaggeration--the third and fourth stanzas continue the hyperbole:
I wound up all the birds
And set them to go off under your window each morning
(I thought you should wake to music).
Wherever you walk, I put life.
Spirits dance in your breath.
Your voice is the sound of peace in that world.
The poem could end here, but O.B. is a modern poet--the twist at the end opens the poem up to suggestiveness:
Be my guest.
It's a nice little creation as these things go.
What does "It" refer to? The happy Spring? The happiness of the speaker? The poem itself? All three? That joyousness rises throughout many of these poems, as in "Umilssimo to the Moon." How small and ugly I am, the Ulissimo reiterates (there are several poems in Ulissimo's "voice") in the first stanza, addressing the object of its passion, the moon:
Call me a root among flowers
Dark amid iridescence,
A swine among leopards, antelope, lambs
(Such sleek and fleet and soft as you admire),
A crow among swans.
He can descend into his smallness but then moves through it:
But crow (and black as night)
My wings will lift me as no swan's
Up to your silver light,
Or swine, I can lurch through brambles,
Snorting, until I touch your sphere
Where it just touches the great circle of earth,
Or root, a root endures
Sends out more roots, is life,
Is gathered by moonlight,
Is moved inwardly by that light,
Is stirred to rise,
Powerful, sends it thick shoot upward
Until nothing at all can resist its motion
Referring to a poet's work as "intelligent" or erudite, let alone witty with a great capacity for comedy, can be a backhand compliment in American poetry circles, a kiss of poison that suggests the antithesis of feeling, the sina qua none of much of our poetry. By erudite I mean that a number of O.B.'s poems are meditations that may have begun from encountering an idea in a book or essay that triggered the need for an exploration through the poem. That exploration is often embrasive--it often brings together literary allusion and the language of the street.
In a chapter on dada poetry in Disappearing through the Skylight, O.B. quotes Alfred North Whitehead who, in Science and the Modern World, "observes that it takes an extraordinary intelligence to contemplate the obvious. One of the prime tasks of poetry--it may be the prime task [O.B. writes]--is to contemplate the obvious." That is a notion that stayed with O.B. for a long time: much earlier, in Pro Musica Antiqua (1977), he wrote "Homage to Alfred North Whitehead":
You need to confront the obvious,
To stare it down,
To pursue the pickle to the utmost dill,
To see the world as green brine,
Creation as a peppercorn,
Brown, soft, puffy, drowning,
Distilling the sun, yes, and the stars and the moon too,
From the dill-colored firmament.
And then there are those large, green follicles
That bristle against the tongue.
As Dr. White said: "It takes an exception intelligence
to contemplate the obvious."
I say: "Put your money where your mouth is."
Think of the mode of "Pro Musica Antiqua," the mixing of the high and low, erudition and the comic. This is play but it is serious play. In Disappearing Through the Skylight, O.B. elaborates the quote from Whitehead by referring to Coleridge who, in Biographia Literaria, defines the basic appeal of poetry "to be its capacity for awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom and directing it to the loveliness and wonders of the world about us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiar and selfish solicitude, we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand."
The poetry of meditation or contemplation on an idea or object led O.B. to some wonderful discoveries that bridge erudition with feeling--as in two disparate poems, which may be too long to quote in full, "Mysterious Egg" and "King of the World." The first begins with gazing on what may have been a souvenir or gift that he received:
Regard this quartz egg.
Transparent. Made in Mexico.
A fault runs slanting down its middle like a wall.
Philo Judaeus might have glossed it so:
This lesser egg express that greater egg
And that was hatched by the spirit that moved (the Hebrew here
Reads ejaculated) upon the waters.
This meditation takes the speaker on a journey into the creation of the universe, of men and women, Aristophanes in Socrates' Symposium, Original sin, the soul's division from itself--which brings him to himself, the deeply personal:
I kiss this egg.
I ask for some miracle to help those souls.
Let there be a passion hotter than yet imagined.
So hot that fault, grown soft
(Those two souls flowing softly together), will disappear.
So hot this adamantine egg,
Then pliable, will pull itself together,
And out of egg will grown again that sphere.
And yet, I knew no fault. That fault was yours.
You found it with some relics of the saints.
Until you gave it to me
I was Columbus and my world was round.
"King of the World" begins not with a thing but with looking at the self, a first-person narrator that belies my earlier generalization:
I have become what I am.
There is now nothing in me that is not what I am.
All my roads lead to me.
I did not expect this to happen.
The meditation lead him to imagine "If were an oak tree . . .If I were a building . . . If I were the shore" and through ends in gratitude:
Thank you, mother moon;
Thank you, father sun;
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Every road meanders away from the center.
They all, in one way or another, go past your door.
Drive your triumphant car down any of them.
I will welcome you when you arrive.
* * *
So here is a poet who is long out of print--you have to work hard to get hold of his poems, though you'll have a few here. What do we gain from them? Poets often speak appreciatively of another poet's work by saying that "it is good." What does that mean? That it is unique in some way, not often definable but yet meaningful, maybe in ways that maybe we don't even understand? We just know it is.
Horace wrote that poetry should delight and instruct ("dulce et utile"). Delight, we might all agree on, but instruct? What do we mean by instruct? I don't take the word in any didactic sense of its meaning but more in the power of the poem itself, of language breaking through to a vision or understanding that is akin to revelation. I quoted O.B. above referring to Coleridge on the purpose of poetry. I want to end by quoting O.B. who wrote the following about poetry--and of course what he was engaged in trying to do:
"The subject matter of poetry is not man or actions or nature but
always and inevitably is value. Poetry may be defined as a commentary on
value. The implication of the definition is that the poet has a specific
and important area of human experience to investigate. . . He is commissioned
to report the truth about his area of experience in so far as he can discover
it. If he becomes a time-server or a propagandist he is guilty of the same
kind of irresponsibility as the geneticist who modifies the results of an
experiment to make them conform to Marxist dogma [Lysenko]. The truth of
value is stable in the sense that the same ethical and moral problems confront
man eternally. Ancient science is an historical curiosity, but Homer, Sophocles,
and Virgil still speak to us in a meaningful way. Yet there is also a sense
in which the truth of value changes. For a given culture, there is always
a 'best understanding' of the problems of man and society, and the poet
must ceaselessly re-interpret his subject matter in terms of this 'best
TO A LATE-BLOOMING MARIGOLD by O.B. Hardison, Jr.
The last living thing in this garden is a marigold.
In the brown weeds around it I foresee
A spreading stain of mist and drizzle,
Reeds sheathed with ice,
Brown bundles on brown ribbons rolling to a gray-brown distance.
The greatness of a patch of brown grass
Is a splash of orange on a snowbank
Alive and smoking in the sullen air.
A vision as brown as coffee
Dripping through the cracks in the ceiling of summer.
I see the death of a prince.
An old man shuffling, say, between A Street and the A & P
Was not found until morning.
So to this brazenly orange marigold
Drowning by the wall in brown weeds,
Brother, I say, it looks like a hard winter.
I'll sacrifice my heifer next March,
Smash it between the horns and slit its throat.
I only hope, brother, you know your part of the act.
Selected Publications by O.B. Hardison
Lyrics and Elegies in Poets of Today V, edited by John
Hall Wheelock. New York: Charles Scriber's Sons, 1958.
Pro Musica Antiqua. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977.
Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963 (Editor).
The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965; republished 1986 and 1993. (Associate editor, with Alex Preminger and Frank Warnke).
The Quest for Imagination: Essays in Twentieth-Century Aesthetic Criticism. Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University Press, 1971 (Editor).
The Forms of Imagination. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1972 (Editor, with Jerry Mills).
Toward Freedom and Dignity: The Humanities and the Idea of Humanity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972.
Entering the Maze: Change and Identity in Modern Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Medieval Literary Criticism: Translations and Interpretations. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985 (Editor).
Disappearing through the Skylight: Culture and Technology in the Twentieth Century. New York: Viking/Penguin, 1989.
Prosody and Purpose in the English Renaissance. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
O.B. Hardison also published individual poems in Carolina Quarterly, Contemporary Poetry of North Carolina, Epoch, Esquire, Impetus, Lulibulero, New Republic, New Southern Poets, North Carolina Poetry: The Seventies, Parnassus, The Poet Upstairs, Poetry in Review, The Southern Poetry Review, Washington Dossier, and the anthology Washington and the Poet.
Selected Publications by others
Bretensky, Dennis F., The Teaching Legacy of O.B. Hardison, Jr. with Selected Writings on Education. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2002.
Kinney, Arthur F., ed., Classical, Renaissance, and Postmodernist Acts of the Imagination: Essays Commemorating O.B. Hardison, Jr. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.
Obituaries can be found on line at Shaksper: The Global Electronic Shakespeare Conference: http://www.shaksper.net/archives/1990/0017.html.
Thanks to Marifrances Hardison for permission to reprint poems.