THE RIGHT NO: POEMS by William Hathaway; Somondoco Press, Shepherdstown, W.Va., 2012; 104 pages, trade paperback, $15.
William Hathaway’s house in Surry is empty and awaiting a buyer these days, since last year he fled Maine and its cramped winters for Pennsylvania. This move turned a commonly accepted wisdom on its head, in a way: Supposedly it’s young people who are to be prevented from fleeing the state. Hathaway is in his mid-60s but a poet who would be valuable, you would think, to keep around.
He has legitimate industry credentials, I mean. “The Right No” is the latest in a relatively lengthy list of collections, which includes “Promeneur Solitaire” (a letterpress publication of 2005), “Sightseer” (2001), “Churlsgrace” (1992), “Looking into the Heart of Light” (1988) and more, going back to “Gymnast of Inertia” (from his days of prominence at LSU in the 1980s), and into the ’70s. He has maintained a solicited presence in online literary magazines, haunted high-profile creative-writing industry outlets such as Poetry magazine and American Poetry Review and his poems can be found in classroom anthologies and even explicated for lazy students on cheat-sheet websites. He is, to use a phrase once heard when it still had meaning, one of American literature’s gray eminences, certainly not a household name such as Collins or Angelou, but recognized with varying emotional intensities in many literary circles from New Orleans to New York.
Still, there was not much for him here even after 10 or so years in Surry. You have to ride the herd pretty hard in these parts to gain more than polite, eye-contactless hellos at readings and conferences, and the riding has little to do with your actual writing. The arts have in recent decades become by and large a social rather than aesthetic activity. Meaning poetry and art scenes are: 1) social rodeos for anyone who appoints him or herself a poet, painter or musician, and-or 2) vehicles to champion social causes. Hathaway earlier in his life worked the rodeos and the aesthetics successfully together, but by the time he came to Maine the latter had become, in most places, including here, not much more than a clown for the rodeos and a distraction for the causes. In disgust he went all-in for the aesthetics, which is where poetry and art actually live. I mean, he holed up in backwoods Surry, unwilling to ride the herd.
“Unwilling” is the key word and long one of his hallmarks, especially in the latest collection whose title implies it undisguised. “The Right No” unfolds a postwar unwillingness to accept any fashionable pronouncement of any kind on any topic, and also a growing attention to the natural world (“Red Squirrel Morning,” “The House Spiders,” “Black Dikes at Schoodic”) and its edges which turn out to be as double-sided as any human society’s (“Reading Audubon with the Flu”). This poetry reflects an edginess about edginess disguised as art (“Summer Poets”) or as morality (“After the Do-Gooders”). There’s an explicit disbelief in fantasies about the afterlife alongside latent Christianity: “together / we open our palms and together / shrug.”
In these poems, anything that looks or sounds like truth is immediately contradicted by something else that looks or sounds like truth. The expression of it throughout the collection is exquisite, which is what Hathaway made his name on. You can see how, before the scrapping of the aesthetic approach to reading and writing, Hathaway gained a following, and how the whips and scorns in these pages are too sharp for the herd and beside the point for social activists occupied with fighting the civil rights battles of 1964. This is poetry for readers who feel themselves to be, socially and aesthetically, on edge.
It’s now all about money
about which poetry rarely reaches
transcendence. But love must still fester
even under that. Everyone I know
frets if poetry can still matter,
but what about love?