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From Dan's Desk

When the Knives Are Sharper

From September 1962 to June 1963, Daniel Aaron lectured at the University of Warsaw, one of the first U.S. scholars to visit Poland on a Fulnbright grant. The mood of the country was marked by disappointment and apathy, as any hopes of liberalization stirred by the elections of 1957 had now evaporated. A Polish intellectual Dan met at a party told him the following parable meant to describe the situation of the country's elite: "Some chickens [were] complaining to each other about their hard lot—how hard they work, how many eggs they produce—yet they are maltreated and killed. An old cock tells them not to look at the dark side. After all, he says, at least today the knives are finer and sharper." The weather didn’t help. In January 1963 one of the severest cold waves to hit Poland in several years paralyzed Warsaw: temperatures sank to minus 27 degrees Celsius, and there was no hot water and heat, a challenge for Aaron's wife Janet, who had arrived by now. 


At least during the first few months of this stay, Dan's mood matched that of his environment. In the journal he kept during the year, he noted, without offering details, how guilty he felt about his own selfishness, his "monstrosity," likely a cryptic reference to his marital situation. His isolation exacerbated by his halting command of Polish, he jotted down a mordant epigram: "To Ezra Pound said Robert Frost: 'He who immigrates is lost.'"


With time, Dan grew more comfortable in his new surroundings, embarked on some cautious friendships with Polish colleagues, and continued to teach his "parcel of unremarkable students." As his understanding of Polish culture grew—the Poles made, he decided, lousy Marxists, and their country was not a nation at all but "a sprawling collectivity of idiosyncratic individuals held together by some sort of political mystique"—he also felt more ready to confront the "raging hell" within himself. Characteristically, his thoughts about such matters found their outlet in lines of witty verse:


Said Peeping Tom to Doubting Thomas

"Can a liar keep his promise?

Are women whom I spy through glass

As soft as cotton, hard as brass?

Is the cop who hauls me in

Himself completely pure of sin? 

Tell me, friend of Christ, about it."

Said Thomas with a groan, "I doubt it."


"I doubt it" was one of Dan's favorite turns of phrase, a deflating comment often uttered as a response to particularly elaborate academic theories presented to him, a death knell to many an enthusiastic scheme that he had deemed too complex to be helpful. But in this poem Dan is not only the eternal doubter (a reference to the Apostle who needed to see Christ's actual wounds before believing in the resurrection of Jesus) but also his unsavory double, the voyeur who inserts himself, from a distance, into other people's lives and derives pleasure from seeing what he's not supposed to see.


No one is free of sin—that was perhaps not a particularly original message for an Americanist reared on a steady diet of Hawthorne and Melville. But in another short poem written during the year in Warsaw and not included in his journal, Dan adds a further twist. Just because I and you understand each other (and each other's flaws) doesn't at all mean that the circumstances that divide us, that separate East and West, Poland and the United States, or, for that matter, husband and wife, have been eliminated. Wherever two people get together in awkward if earnest companionship, there's always a third present, an unsettling experience T. S. Eliot wrote about in the last section of The Waste Land: "Who is the third who always walks beside you? / When I count, there are only you and I together / But when I look ahead up the white road / There is always another one walking beside you... (ll. 360-64).  Dan's untitled short poem, composed (according to his own note) while "asleep, June 8, 1962," captures that same experience less portentously, more succinctly, and more memorably: 


If I were you

and you were me

Who would the other fellow be?


Quotations taken from Daniel Aaron's Polish Journal, 1962 (Daniel Aaron Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University) and from an unpublished typescript in private possession. 


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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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