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From Dan's Desk

From Daniel Aaron's "Mortuary Airs"

from Daniel Aaron, "Mortuary Airs" (collection of Christoph Irmscher).

Much of Dan's poetry is concerned with death, a subject of endless interest and fascination for him, yet one that he approached without any sentimentality. In the last decade of his life, he was working sporadically on a sequence of poems called "Mortuary Airs," a title explained in the motto he had chosen for this informal collection: "In the years that are left to him, D.D. in his comfortable suite on Death Row listens for the Time-Has-Come signal. Receptors flag as he diminishes, but retrospective juices seep as he hums mortuary airs." 


Friends collected some of these "mortuary airs" and issued a small private printing of 20 poems.  Among them is the one featured here in the original version, typed on a small index card, which Dan handed to me along with a stack of other drafts that were no longer needed:


(A Thought While Running) -

"Can you tell me what it's like to die?"

"I'll try -

But not the 'dying' part: rather

The charm of being dead.


After you've sawn through bars,

Cast off what encumbers,

And sailed past stars

Anonymous as numbers."


The parenthetical title does not appear in the private printing; it helps clarify that the poem originated as one of those imaginary conversations which Dan liked to hold with himself and which would frequently serve as the inspiration for future poems (I will post other examples).


As the poem tells us, once we're through with the tedious business of dying, death might actually fun or "charming." That said, Dan's text, like Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death," remains stuck on the dying part, on all the things one needs go through before such charm can be enjoyed: the breaking of the bars, the casting-off, the traveling through eternities. Yet Dan's cheerful rhymes also suggest that the result - sailing along in the comforting company of anonymous stars, a welcome change from the encumbering prison of individuality - might just be worth the effort.  As fantasies go, not a bad one.

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Dan on Edgar Allan Poe

Daniel Aaron, “E. A. Poe,” unpublished. Copyright: The Estate of Daniel Aaron.

From time to time, Dan sketched out poems that, in a mere two or three stanzas, offered comments on favorite and not-so-favorite writers. Poe was a frequent target of Dan’s interest and wit, perhaps precisely because he never figured prominently in his scholarship. In one of the entries collected in Commonplace Book, Dan recalls reading Edgar Wagenknecht’s Poe biography: “What emerges thus far is the child-man who exhibits very early the shrill precocity of the gifted child but never ‘matures’ into adulthood.” Dan also notes that Poe shed tears over the death of Dickens’s Little Nell, an acceptable response in a world where “the paraphernalia of crying were more in evidence.” Today, the dead are “whisked away.” In Poe’s day, the “moribund man” (Poe) “lay among his relics and heard the music of mortality” (102).


Dan’s undated poem paints a slightly more critical picture of Poe as a writer immersed in space (a reference to Poe’s Eureka), who nevertheless intentionally limits the scope of his grand vision. As if afraid of his own courage, Poe lets his morbid curiosity populate that vast, frightening universe with playthings, “thuggish” fantasies of horror and destruction, which then take possession of him. Dan’s poem captures well the central irony of Poe’s work, where little terrors obfuscate and replace the central fear of annihilation and paint the charnel-house with palatable effigies of mortality.


E. A. Poe


Poet of space and time,

His terrors tossed

In the whirlpool of curiosity.

He braced himself for annihilation,

Contrived wax-work horrors.


Engrossed in hoaxes,

He fell afoul of thuggish fears

Which (over-powering

Their Super-Jailor)

Seized the Prison-house.

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Daniel Aaron’s Passing Thoughts

Daniel Aaron, “Passing Thoughts,” undated. Copyright: The Estate of Daniel Aaron.

Those who knew Dan well also knew that he loved writing poems or “pomes,” as he liked to call them, perhaps remembering Joyce’s Pomes Penyeach. Dan’s poems range from the whimsical to the wistful, from doggerel to deep reflections on mortality, though they are almost always tinged with his trademark self-irony.  As “aggressively unsentimental” as he was (in Andrew Delbanco’s formulation), his poetry never shows traces of self-pity or any desire to embellish reality, even if the result is—which is indeed often the case—unflattering to himself. I will devote the space of his blog to sharing some of Dan’s mostly unpublished poetry, one poem a week. The manuscripts are either at Houghton or in the possession of the family. The copyright lies with the estate of Daniel Aaron. The first one to be featured here is undated, typed on a small sheet of blue paper, 8,5 x 5,5 inches, with multiple corrections in Dan’s handwriting. My transcription reflects the final stage of the manuscript, as I think Dan had intended it, with two exceptions. There is some ambiguity regarding the intended placement of the final line (and perhaps even the section before that). While Dan’s pencil annotation seems to indicate that he wanted it to appear right after the first stanza, his marks are far from clear, and I have left this section the way he hard originally typed it. As it is, it’s a very effective ending, too.


Passing Thoughts



Go turn, body! Go it, soul!

You wax stronger when you both contend.

Spirit, once refreshed by flesh,

Abets as flesh attenuates.


When Death carts off this body

To the Graveyard

(No want of bodies there);

When wars and quakes and epidemics

Stuff ash pits, and grievers grieve—

Will I survey the piles of clay 

And bless what He hath wrought?

Probably not.


Booted look-alikes,

Absorbed in Self,

Studied deshabille,

March to the beat

Of the same drummer.


Some current locutions:

”Let there be no mistake.”

”Wake-up call,” “slam-dunk,” “iconic,” “robust,”

”Thank you for having me.”


Grasshopper to Ant: “I squander time. You can’t.”

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