A few days ago, I wrote about near-forgotten novel-in-verse, The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth — and was surprised to learn that an acquaintance actually bought the book on the strength of my reportage. Such, such is the power of the word. So let me have another go at it. Who knows? Maybe I’ll sell three.
In citing Gore Vidal‘s encomium, however, I somehow neglected the one below it, by his fellow poet, the late James Merrill: “Mr. Seth’s beautifully conventional characters would self-destruct on the page of any prose fiction. But his verse sets them glowing from within, and the result is as humanly poignant as it is mechanically reassuring — in short, a cause for rejoicing.” So true. And a large reason why I found it, despite its slight and commonplace characters, so much more satisfying than his novels. The verse sustains them. Power of the word, etc.
Here’s another strong reason why the 1986 book is so much fun: Nothing keeps happening. It brings to mind what Somerset Maugham said about Jane Austen: “Nothing very much happens in her books and yet, when you come to the bottom of a page, you eagerly turn it to learn what will happen next. Nothing very much does and again you eagerly turn the page. The novelist who has the power to achieve this has the most precious gift a novelist can possess.”
Take this, for example, a random sonnet early in the book, while John waits in a San Francisco Chinese restaurant for his sculptor friend Janet Hayakawa:
John thinks, “It’s not that I’m fastidious. …
I wish they’d turn that music down. …
It’s gross. That calendar is hideous …
(He stares at a distasteful clown.)
… I’ve waited half an hour, blast her!”
Her hands encased in clay and plaster,
Janet arrives at twelve to two:
“So sorry, John, I had to do
This torso. Yes I tried to hurry.
I’m glad you’ve got yourself a beer.
What’s that? Tsingtao? Don’t look severe.
I didn’t mean for you to worry.
You’ve ordered? No? This place is fun!
What’ll you have? It’s family-run.”
Seth’s miraculous gift for playfulness and delight in meter and rhyme overwhelmed his Stanford class, I’m told. One participant confided that the kids puzzled over the phrasing in one of his poems, till they realized he had rhymed all the first words in the lines, as well as the last. One begins to understand how he might be able to write verse at a staggering 600 lines a month for over a year.
In The Golden Gate, his effervescence and ease brims over so thoroughly that he puts his dedication, author’s note, acknowledgments, and even his table of contents into Pushkin’s fleet, four-footed sonnets. I wonder how many people understand his dedication:
So here they are, the chapters ready,
And, half against my will, I’m free
Of this warm enterprise, this heady
Labor that has exhausted me
Through thirteen months, swift and delightful,
Incited by my friends’ insightful
Paring and prodding and appeal.
I pray the gentle hands of Steele
Will once again sift through its pages.
If anything in this should grate,
Ascribe it to its natal state;
If anything in this engages
By verse, veracity, or vim,
You know whom I must credit, Tim.
The mentor he credits is Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele, author of several collections of verse, and a prosody scholar as well, with his Missing Measures and All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing. Tim also edited the Poems of J.V. Cunningham, a kind of homage to the poet who weds emotional intensity to stylistic purity — and who was a major influence for Tim at Stanford. Tim is also the subject of my third-of-a-book interview, Three Poets in Conversation, where he shares space with Dick Davis and Rachel Hadas (who, incidentally, was a close friend of James Merrill.) Years earlier, I did a shorter online interview with him for the Cortland Review.
Here’s Seth’s author’s note:
The author, Vikram Seth, directed
By Anne Freedgood, his editor,
To draft a vita, has selected
The following salient facts for her:
In ’52, born in Calcutta.
8 lb. 1 oz. Was heard to utter
First rhymes (“cat,” “mat”) at age of three.
A student of demography
And economics, he has written
From Heaven Lake, a travel book
Based on a journey he once took
Through Sinkiang and Tibet. Unbitten
At last by wanderlust and rhyme,
He keeps Pacific Standard Time.
That last lines lie — when I interviewed him a decade ago, he was dividing his time between London and Calcutta. Wanderlust had bitten again.
Update: Triumph! Frank Wilson of Books Inq said this morning he is getting a copy of Golden Gate after what he purports is a vacation out in the hinterlands! That makes two copies sold. Any other takers?