Recently, I was in another bookstore. One of my weekend duties–albeit self-imposed–is to scout out the competition. I was sitting on the floor. (What happened to all the chairs?) People kept bumping into me on their way from the Teen Paranormal Romance section to the restroom. Meanwhile, I was just trying to enjoy the ambiance of Eighties pop music. (What happened to the string quartets? If it ain’t Baroque, fix it. I mean, honestly, how was I supposed to concentrate on The Iliad and Metamorphoses to the preening strains of Madonna and Sting?) Unable to focus on Homer to The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” (or Ovid to the confessional yearnings of “Like a Virgin”), I turned, in earnest, to a modern version of war time verse.
While I must say the music–Andrea Bocelli–improved, the rhyme did not. Earnest Hemingway’s Complete Poems (Revised Edition) is not a book that celebrates the written word. Rather, it is a strident litany of grievances, neither the tone nor the accomplishment of which improves from the first fledgling effort to the last. If his oddly life-long adolescent preoccupation with proving his manliness weren’t already all too evident, Hemingway’s poems drive the point into the ground. Had I not known otherwise, I’d’ve guessed they were the scribbled angst of a high school quarterback, not the laureled musings of a Nobel recipient.
There’s no getting around his gift for prose. In that ring he was not just OK. He was a real KO, a bonafide bruiser. Left, left, right. All black and blue, with nary a purple punch. If he’d given his poetry the same care he gave his novels, it, too, might’ve been worthy of his reputation. As it stands, it does so on wobbly legs. (The poetry, not the reputation.) But you’ll have to read for yourself these so-called “poems.” I won’t be quoting from them here, as I do not wish to sully this corner with locker-room graffiti. Owing, not to an aversion to bad taste per se, but, rather to bad poetry. And there’s plenty of that, complete with the usual milieu of bullfights, whores, and other easy targets.
Most accounts of Hemingway the man, of which there are many, reveal one who was mean, as in, not very nice. Most efforts of Hemingway the novelist, on which his reputation firmly stands, conceal hard-won effects. Which is to say he was a mean, as in effective, prose stylist, even if (or, especially because) he seemed to lack style. As for Hemingway the poet? Please, if you’ll permit one more meaning of mean: poor.