It has taken me a long time, too long, to write about the American poet Peyton Houston. It’s now been almost twenty-five years since his death; when a great person dies, there is no shade. It is as if a storm wind has passed by; not only has all foliage been ripped from the trees, but nothing will grow again, seemingly, for years. Everybody stumbles around, numb.
The debt I owe Peyton is immense and lifelong. I was introduced to him at his grand Italianate villa in Greenwich, Connecticut, overlooking Long Island Sound, at the end of Christmas vacation my second year at Yale. This would’ve been early January, 1977. I’d never met a great poet. He was also a very successful corporate secretary, which explains the villa, the wall of books, the enormous view. It doesn’t explain the generosity. A few months later, when it was obvious what our friendship had become, I asked why he was being so generous. He said, simply, “Because you’ll be writing when I am not.” Now, at sixty-one, I understand.
His poetry is not superficially “pretty.” It is often difficult and not easily come to, nor easily forgotten. It quite contentedly goes its own way.
Thus, at age nineteen, mid-way through my sophomore year in college, I got taken under the capacious wing of a superb older poet, tallest of my personal saints, who lived only an hour from both Yale and New York City (where I lived for six years after graduation) and for nearly twenty years of correspondence gave me the kind of word-by-word, beat-by-beat tutelage a young poet can only dream about.
Peyton was white-haired and gangly—six-foot seven—firmly in the Wallace Stevens and Charles Ives tradition of American businessmen / artists. Because of his height, he carried himself gingerly, as if doorways might betray him. His voice was low and imposing, his hands immense. A Princeton graduate, he’d read everything, and absorbed it all. I’ve never met anybody with his breadth of deep knowledge and openness of spirit. He had no interest in froth or the superficial, the ambitious, or the fashionable. He had little time for novels, which drew me (he loved Melville and did not like Dickens), and he felt a gravitational pull toward the classics—ancient Greek and Latin. Homer was, I think, his favorite poet. He knew all the translations.
When I met him he was in his final years as a corporate secretary for a Fortune 100 company, Wheelabrator-Frye. He lived for part of every week with his Southern wife, Parrish, and a vast wall of poetry facing “the last quiet finger of the sea,” but he commuted weekly to Exeter, New Hampshire, to the corporate offices. There he’d taken a small apartment downtown.
Though I visited him often at his home in Connecticut, and house-sat for him and Parrish several blessed Julys while they went to Europe, most of our contact was by correspondence. His letters were very detailed in their criticism of my work. He was able to make specific suggestions that embodied the spirit of what I was after. He seemed to value sense over sound, which was at first not my way at all.
He believed in a life of daily discipline and in the long view. He wrote tinily every morning in an enormous red ledger: never was a calendar more fruitful. Many of his poems had come to patient completion only after years. He believed firmly that art wasn’t meant to be easy but a challenge for everybody, that your task as creator was “to say the unsayable in order to know the unknowable,” that you got somewhere by painting yourself into a corner, that all joy comes out of difficulty. He seemed able to restore a word’s intrinsic, original value merely by pronouncing it meticulously. He taught me, most of all, to listen and to read carefully, to examine what I was reading or hearing.
Though I had a good natural ear, it had never occurred to me to pick apart syllabically where the stresses and emphases and tensions fell within every line. I thought of myself as strict about gauging the quality of my poems, but I had no broad or deep knowledge of the difficult art’s historical and technical spectra on which to draw, just a series of intense stylistic crushes. Peyton generously gave me what I lacked, and instilled a sense of poetic rigor. My allegiance is known to close friends—all these years I have kept writing poetry. It may be my strongest work; the decades have reinforced my belief that poetry is the highest, most expressive state language can achieve. To practice it even clumsily is of immeasurable value for anybody who aspires to write well.
He settled for me, too, the complex question of the creative ego. How to face the problem of not feeling sufficient to the challenge? Such self-doubt might never have bothered Picasso, say, but from time to time it sure bothered me. The answer, I learned from Peyton, is not to make your ego as strong as it can be but rather as fine, so you slip through the difficulties, as he put it, like a needle through a wall of rock. Keep your focus not on you but always on the work at hand.
Peyton directed my work habits, and my thinking about art, incalculably. He impressed upon me an ability to severely cut what I’d done, to leave in only what was dynamic, alive, essential: an ideal work contains a minimum of words, the bare truthful minimum. He taught me not to be afraid of simplicity while seeking a pressure of ideas, and to be on guard against striking a pose or shouting for effect. And that the whole should have the appearance, after all the tireless rewriting, of being spontaneous, of inventing itself right before an audience’s eyes.
From him I got a strong conviction that art, no matter how it may surprise or shock us, must always be logical and never arbitrary in its willed architecture and development. From him I got a strong sense of how compelling a force structure can be in any work, and how organic that structure must be—that the tiniest detail, no matter how ornamental it might seem, must reflect the entirety, and give a sense of resonating and flowering across the total. That every word, every beat, must be gone over again and again, questioned and prodded and thrown back into the smelting furnace. That you must always be on guard against the banal, the tired, the ordinary, the routine, the convenient, the done-before.
Finally, he taught me how hard it is to get anywhere in the arts, for quality has little to do with “success” and this shouldn’t matter—that you created something beautiful was enough and must remain enough. We are measured by what we can perceive and what we do with those perceptions, not by the zeros on a contract.
And that you must know the tradition, the work of our predecessors—our former colleagues—very well, and not be afraid to use that tradition. And renew it radically in making something fresh and yours.
Where, then, should the newcomer start reading? The most accessible of his books are “Occasions in a World” (1969) and “Arguments of Idea” (1980). The most challenging is probably his exploration of the sonnet as an architectural form, “Sonnet Variations” (1962), his first book in thirty years. Indeed, Peyton felt that poets publish too much. He liked to take his time with a book and be sure that each poem belonged within the whole.
Lastly, the curious reader should try the three long and ambitious works that occupy a single volume of prosody—“The Changes / Orders / Becomings” (1990). These were his main concentration in the last quarter-century of his life.
I still hope to see into print a collection of his correspondence with me, a “Letters to a Young Poet” that would be both as inspiring as and more pragmatically useful than the famous Rilke volume. When I was wrestling with a sonnet sequence of my own in the late ’70s, Peyton made clear that he considered rhyme as primarily for structure, not for music. I believe that what he looked for in poetry, as in all art, was foremost the cross-play of tensions. This is aptly visible in a form he invented and called a “plural poem,” in which stanzas run down the left side of the page, and other stanzas run down the right side of the page, and each line reads across as well—thus, there are three ways to read a plural poem. Peyton wrote many hundreds, but published only two.
Peyton believed, most of all, in the power of the Imagination as the most powerful and exacting tool we have, more reliable than the intellect, for examining the this of experience and the world around us. He believed that the Imagination must be trusted, not avoided, and makes its own laws. “It is that which is not but will be understood.” Poetry, he felt, was constantly under-rated, treated as a mere cultural pleasure, not as our clearest lens.
When you’re a young writer—no matter what sort of writer—the hardest part is believing you can do it. The self-conviction might take ten years, or twenty. Sometimes others’ belief matters more than your own. I see now, four decades later, how much Peyton’s belief in me carried me through Yale, which I loathed. Right up until the end, which for him came suddenly, unexpectedly, and swiftly in Puerto Rico on vacation with his wife, he gave me the strength to go on.