Monday, November 28, 2011

Ted Enslin Letters

I corresponded with the late Ted Enslin for something like 18 years, beginning sometime in 1993, or possibly 1994. I received his last letter on July 6th, 2011. I knew it would be his last. “Well,” he had written, “I think my condition is terminal. How long is a question. Personally I hope not very long. The past week was a stinker.”

Ted did not identify his illness or go into details about his limitations, though I had a pretty good idea, having been witness to my father’s death, mother’s death and that of my father- and mother-in-law. Ted’s evident acceptance of death was impressive, but not surprising. It was obvious from our years of correspondence that he was not only accustomed to reality but welcomed it. His poetry testifies to a no-nonsense worldview that exalted the world’s stony reverberations in a language of percussive penetration and solidity. His words were simple but carefully placed, pulsed, like the purity of notes in a composition by Eric Satie.

Ted loved music, Mahler especially. He had had a rigorous training in composition, and studied under French composer, conductor, and teacher Nadia Boulanger. Poetry provided a means for musical expression in lexical form. He believed that the same principles apply to both music and poetry and that ideally they are one art. “I became increasingly aware of the fact,” Ted remarked in an interview with Robert J. Bertholf for Web Conjunctions,

that there was a great deal of material that I could not deal with in the usual ways. For instance, I wanted to write something antiphonal, I wanted to get that spatial sense of sound, and I was attracted—as many, many people have been—to the possibilities of a concert hall such as the nave of St. Mark's in Venice, where the so-called Antiphonal School arose. The Gabrielis and their great students (Monteverdi and Schütz in particular) is where that came from. Well, I thought, yeah, this is a great idea, the idea of an echo, but spatially moved out so that it would be apparent in the readings of such a piece. Could that be done? And I tried something which I called "Antiphony", I guess it must have been in about the middle '50s. And it didn't work. I didn't have the means to do it. I did do it, however, about 22 or 23 years later and it did work. I had it performed twice, once at Bowling Green in 1989. It is based on the consideration of a rock, geologic rock, and it comes back again and again in the series of echoing and returning sounds, and in a kind of percussive sense of rock, of something against which you can't push much of anything else.

Ted was a prompt letter writer. I would sometimes take as long as two months to answer a letter. But when I did, I would have a letter from Ted in less than a week.

Ted’s letters were all identical in size: the envelope was 6 ½ by 3 ½ inches and the letter itself was most ofen a small single sheet of paper, 5 ½ inches in width and 8 ½ inches in length. They were always typewritten. Ted used a manual typewriter. When I held one of his letters, my fingers could feel the little impressions the typewriter keys made on the back side of the paper. I don’t know where Ted managed to find ribbons. He lived in a rural part of Maine, less than a mile from the seashore. He was married to an artist named Alison Enslin, but was in all other respects a hermit. He had little use for society. We shared a contempt for American culture, its militaristic hardness and brutality, its cheerless pragmatism and inability to appreciate or value anything that didn’t involve money.

Ted was particularly contemptuous of doctors. “Of course, for me, doctors, and their inane ‘tests’ are unthinkable.” Fortunately, Ted was in remarkably good health for most of the years we wrote. He must have been pushing 70 when we began our correspondence, and he frequently mentioned swimming in the Atlantic. I often complained about the cholesterol lowering medication I had to take, and he would respond by letting me know that his cholesterol level was well below 200, which was probably the result of his love of seafood. He remarked in his last letter that he always had a fondness for big Dungeness crabs, and that he’d “eaten a good clam chowder a few days ago, and haddock yesterday.”

“I have always preferred fish, shellfish, etc. to meat,” he remarked in an earlier letter. “No moral preference. I simply like seafood more. I was that way as a child. Whenever I had the choice I invariably picked seafood. Something of a merman, perhaps.”

He did not like snow. He did not like winter. Maine winters especially. “Ah,” he remarked in a letter dated 1/11/11, “but I wish I could go to Belize as I used to. Not possible now for many reasons. To go alone is unthinkable in my physical condition.”

In May of 2011 it was still there. “Yes, 130 inches of snow, what I call our white filth, is a bit mind boggling, but we are used to anywhere between 70 and 80 inches a year.”

I would sometimes remark on the deplorable ignorance and decay of America’s public schools, and there, too, Ted had a lot of contempt. He referred to himself as an autodidact: “I have always been an autodidact, and started early. Standard schooling was an utter waste on me, and I rejected it. Actually some of it was harmful to me. Despite Horace Mann, and others, I often think that public schooling in this country should be abolished. Much money saved for better purposes. The best teaching is one on one, and I am sure many others have been injured by this usual crap.”

Ted’s letters were always a comfort to me. A kind of compass heading. He proved that one could live independently of society’s suffocating bureaucracies and soul-killing commerciality. He was outside the politics of the literary academies and conventions where everyone shows off their wares and jockeys for publication opportunities. He did not own a computer. He was his own man, all the way.

Whenever I went to collect the mail, I recognized Ted’s letters immediately by their modesty of size. I could tell immediately that they weren’t bills or requests for money. I liked that.

Ted’s pleasures were as modest as his letters. He liked smoking a pipe, reading, listening to music, and drinking a glass of whiskey per day. I sensed in his letters a profoundly New England character, a love of honesty and craft and reverence for nature, for economy and the deeply gratifying pleasure of a skill achieved by hard learning, be it carpentry, music, or fishing.

Ted had had a long history with New England. Ted’s great-grandmother was first cousin to Lydia Jackson, Emerson’s second wife, and William James second son, William “Billy” James, chose Ted as a model for a number of his paintings.

I once made inquiry about Ted’s view of the afterlife, of the supernatural, and Ted answered that “my interest in paranormal evidences comes through a number of instances in my own life, which can’t be explained in ‘normal’ ways. Of course all of the evidence is colored by the way in which people think at particular times. I don’t think of ghosts in white sheets, or accounts from some pie-in-the-sky paradise. Rather, I think that there is a residuum from experience and knowledge similar to archaeologist’s soils – carbon dating etc. All of us have a bit of that kind of sensing, though it is limited, and often stunted by ‘practical’ thinking. But there are other senses, and people like Aunt Nora have them in a developed degree. Ivan Tolstoy once told me that it is mathematically demonstrable that man’s knowledge has added to the weight of the earth. I think he was thinking in the right direction.”

I will miss Ted’s letters. I have become so accustomed to receiving them. They have been a part of my life. More than an adjunct; more like a tide. A coming and going of thoughts and convictions, opinions and images. Lives shared. Feelings contrasted and shaped according to the notes of one another’s words.

I never actually met Ted. Never even spoke to him on the telephone. Yet I feel I knew him deeply. I must have, because I feel his loss deeply.

The impulse to write him remains. I suppose in time that feeling will dissipate. And, like now, I will find myself writing about him, rather than to him. There is a world of difference between those two prepositions. On one side is life, and on the other, the complete unknown.


Ed Baker said...

I took photos of Ted in his loft in 2000 when I visited.. a couple where
he is beside the table with the typewriter that he used...telling me "tall tales" between his chuckles

also some photos of him and friends at the Lorine Neidecker 100 th (on my site)

cheers, Ed

martin marriott said...

What a fine man. An important man. I feel some men need space, and in that space is their dignity, and their example. When I think of his letters to you, from one geography to another, and over the years as the world unfolded beneath you both, I am filled with happinness for the bond you have with this man. How fortunate you were, to have known him, to know him. And how happy he must have been, to know that you saw him.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Martin. I appreciate hearing that.

- John

Steve Potter said...

Hey John, I knew of your correspondence with Helen Adam but was unaware you were pen pals with Enslin as well. Pretty fantastic. That must be quite an archive of missives stocked away.

He'd been on my must read list for years but I've only gotten to reading his work at any depth since his passing. Have "Then, And Now" out from the library. Was due back today. Don't want to part with it but guess I'll try to be a decent library citizen and get it back tomorrow for whoever's next on the Hold list. Happy that there is a list waiting to read him! Especially enjoying the selections from the "Diabelli Variations & Other Poems" and also the "Views."

Anonymous said...

The letters I found, cleaning out my attic, are extremely beautiful. 1965. I can't read his poetry, because it's all hand-written, and my eyes aren't good. I'd like to give them to someone else to read.