IMAGE: Ernest Hemingway Complete Poems (Bison Books)
As a frustrated poet myself, I am always intrigued to see when famous writers of prose fiction choose to explore the verse form. There are, of course, numerous examples of writers who have crossed over with grace. Thomas Hardy’s hilarious ‘The Ruined Maid’ is a long way from his narrative’s fateful chewing up of the luminous Tess Durbeyfield. Raymond Carver (who I think I will no doubt return to and rave about one day) offers soulful and elegant verse that is a fine extension of his rich fiction. And if I’m completely honest, I prefer D.H. Lawrence’s poetry to his prose – I get infinitely more from his ‘Piano’ than his Rainbow (although the flood chapter is impressive).
Perhaps one of the most surprising transitions from one medium to the other is seen in the work of Ernest Hemingway who, although not the most accomplished poet, I find has a unique and bold take on the form. For anyone interested, there is a nice edition of his collected works edited by Nicholas Gerogiannis (here). This volume is worth checking out, not only for the fine introduction, but for the inclusion of some of Hemingway’s handwritten manuscripts, which contain hilarious doodles of fat grinning cats and weird bunny-eared creatures in the margins. For anyone just curious, a small selection of Hemingway’s verse can also be viewed online (here).
Not surprisingly (for a man who used to teach Ezra Pound to box in the hope of toughening him up), Hemmingway proves to be an unsentimental poet. These works are often satirical or playful harsh. The poem ‘Lines to Be Read at the Casting of Scott Fitzgerald’s Balls into the Sea from Eden Roc (Antibes, Alpes Maritimes)’ certainly stands out. Likewise his poem ‘To a Tragic Poetess’ (an attack on Dorothy Parker, who he considered an overly-theatrical pseudo-tragic …and who didn’t return his typewriter) is absolutely vicious, as its epigraph will attest: ‘Nothing in her life became her like her almost leaving of it’.
One of the works I most enjoy however is also one of his earliest, a short humorous piece titled (or not titled) ‘[Blank Verse]’.
‘[Blank Verse]’, by Ernest Hemingway (1961)
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What I really like about the poem (aside from the obvious audacity of stripping out the most basic units of any literary work: nouns, verbs, conjunctions), is that the final sentence – if indeed it can be called a sentence – is left hanging open. The final line contains a comma, but no full stop. Not only does the work contain no linguistic datum, but in its absence, it only projects further, compounding emptiness forever after in an anti-sentence that can never be concluded.