Wantling More

In the Enemy Camp: Selected Poems 1964-74
, William Wantling
(108pp, 12, Tangerine Press)

American poet William Wantling (1933-74) led a life of extremes. Much of his poetry reflects this. Born in Peoria, Illinois (a town which would come to represent the kind of conformism that Wantling detested), he was a soldier in the Korean War, became a heroin addict on his return to civilian life, and spent almost six years in San Quentin prison for forgery and possession of narcotics. It was in prison that Wantling began to write. His early poetry already reflected a need to transcend immediate circumstances as well as to confront them. Take his poem 'The Awakening', for example, dated December 1962 in my autographed copy of the collection of the same name, and first published in a limited edition of 200 by Turret Books in 1967, and which serves as the opening piece for In the Enemy Camp:

   I found the bee as it fumbled about the ground
   Its leg mangled, its wing torn, its sting
   I picked it up, marvelled at its insistence
       to continue on, despite the dumb brute
       thing that had occurred
   I considered, remembered the fatal struggle
       the agony on the face of wounded friends
       and the same dumb drive to continue
   I became angry at the unfair conflict suffered
       by will and organism
   I became just, I became unreasoned, I became
   I observed the bee, there, lying in my palm
   I looked and I commanded in a harsh and angry shout
       STOP THAT!
   Then it ceased to struggle, and somehow suddenly
       became marvellously whole, and it arose
       and it flew away
   I stared, I was appalled, I was overwhelmed
       with responsibility, and I knew not where to begin.
When Wantling was released from prison in 1963, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill to become a university student. He went on to be awarded a BA and MA in English Literature. At the same time, his poems began to appear in magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. His work was featured in Penguin Modern Poets 12
, alongside that of Alan Jackson and Jeff Nuttall. Critics such as Edward Lucie-Smith, Walter Lowenfels and Cyril Connolly supported his work, while Christopher Logue selected Wantling's collection The Awakening as his recommended book of the year for The Times Literary Supplement in 1967. Upon obtaining his MA, Wantling became a university lecturer, and to all accounts was an excellent teacher. Nevertheless, he still had to fight an ongoing battle with alcohol and drugs, and experienced periods when he just could not write at all. He died of heart failure in May 1974 at the age of 40.

Since his death, his work has on the whole been ignored. As John Osborne points out in his introduction to In the Enemy Camp
, 'Wantling has more than enough masterpieces to mean that his reputation ought to be assured. Yet all his individual collections have long fallen out of print. He is excluded from every one of the standard anthologies of modern America poetry'. One can only speculate as to why this is: opprobrium regarding some of his subject matter (e.g. hard drugs, prison, petty crime, prostitution), or the fact that his total output was relatively small (though no smaller than that of many other poets who have entered the canon of English literature and whose reputation rests on a handful of poems), or the inconsistent quality of his poetry (a point I shall return to). In any case, the publication of this Selected Poems 1964-74 by Michael Curran's Tangerine Press makes a good start at redressing the balance.

I have mentioned the 'extreme' subject matter of some of Wantling's poetry. One of his chief concerns, however, is to explore the very nature of poetry itself and to ask how language can make art out of experience while still in some sense remaining true to it. This is tackled directly in 'Poetry', where Wantling admits that he can 'fit words / together to give people pleasure // and even sometimes take their / breath away', but that 'it always / somehow turns out kind of phoney'. He then goes on to describe a fight in a prison yard, which results in one prisoner dying from stab wounds. What 'could consonance or assonance [...] do with something like that?' Some might immediately judge Wantling's question to be nave. However, as Edward Lucie-Smith pointed out in his introduction to the Rapp & Whiting publication of The Awakening
(1968), the prisoner 'dies with the bright froth of lung-blood on his lips. His breath has been taken away from him as well, and one of the problems which he leaves behind him when he dies is how to turn the event into art without violating its essential ugliness'.  In this poem, Wantling attempts to do so with techniques such as use of prison jargon, vivid and stark imagery, the use of harsh-sounding monosyllabic words ending in 't', and a 'breathless series of enjambments' (Osborne; italics mine).

It is Wantling's attention to technique (as well as his concern with the transcendent) which distinguishes him from the better-known Charles Bukowski, with whom he is sometimes associated. Wantling can use rhyme and half-rhyme so skilfully that you don't notice he is using them unless you pay particular attention. Take 'Dirge in Spring', for example, a poem about the unintentional destruction of a hare's young, 'blind from new birth':

   Crouched in the lair
   soft, without will,
   they dream. The doe runs
   fast over field, turns
   before the plow, urging
   the man to take her dare.
   He is blind to her. Without concern
   or rancor, he rips the soft dream.
   His plow a high scream
   in her ear, the doe runs on.

In this poem, Wantling concludes by going beyond his concern for the hare to ask about the man who is driving the plough. What responsibility, if any, does he have? This is a question which the poet leaves us with, challenging us to think for ourselves.

In much of his poetry, Wantling expresses an existential commitment to exploring humankind's possibilities of freedom and choice when they find themselves in situations over which they have little control or where there is great pressure on them to conform, as in this brief poem, 'Letter from Kickapoo (pop. 250)':

   hiding out
   from the heat here
   this time
   they want me
   for Living without Believing
   for Working without Slavery
   Playing without Patterns
   and Loving without Misery

   please don't give me away?

There is, then, at the heart of Wantling's poetry a continual search for authenticity. However, as John Osborne makes evident in his introduction, Wantling uses all kinds of literary artifices along the way. To be sure, the poems can be brutally direct in their descriptions; Wantling does not pull his punches. However, they are also full of literary references. To give just one example, the following four-line poem takes its title 'Things Exactly as They Are' from Wallace Stevens' long poem 'The Man with the Blue Guitar' (which in turn, of course, was inspired by a Picasso painting):

   Things exactly as they are
   Are Paradise
   But it's always so quiet
   When the crickets die

Osborne in his introduction gives many other examples of Wantling's references to other texts,  including the use of found texts,  stating that some of Wantling's poems amount to no less than evidence of a 'literary kleptomania'. He goes on: 'elements of humour, allusion, irony, collage and ventriloquism [...] frustrate lazy conflations of author and protagonist: Wantling constructs the poems; the poems construct their narrators'. Yet they are often presented in seemingly casual, almost throwaway language, as in the poem 'Lemonade 2c' below. In reality, Wantling  redrafted and kept honing his work until he found the effect he desired. Anyone who writes will know the skill and craftsmanship required to produce a poem as simple, yet as powerful as this:

   Kathy was my
   first customer
   naturally, I
   turned her on
   she put her
   cool hand in
   led me to her
   dark & sweaty
   kissed me
   Lord, how our
   lips trembled
   how bitter-sweet
   & cool
   that lemonade

It is true, however, that there are one or two weaker poems in this selection. Occasionally, Wantling's poetry can descend into a banal melodrama of the self, for example:

   Today I forgot how to cry
   Every day, in every way
   I'm getting flatter and flatter

        (from 'Essay on Being 35')

Well, yes, most of us go through moments like this, but perhaps this is one poem that should have stayed amongst Wantling's notebooks. At the same time, there are a few poems of Wantling's that I think should
have made it into this selection, for example 'Rune for the Disenchanted', 'Initiation', 'For the Peyote Goddess', 'For a Girl Who doesn't Like her Name', or the extraordinarily powerful 'At the Market Place' (readers who are interested can find these poems, along with others, in Shadowtrain. With that gripe out of the way, In the Enemy Camp remains a brilliant gathering of poems. It deserves a wide audience. If only more people actually knew of Wantling's poetry, I am sure more would buy it.

Before I forget, I should add that In the Enemy Camp
is beautifully produced (for editor Michael Curran, the look and feel of a book is everything), and that as well as John Osborne's insightful introduction, there is an interesting foreword by musician Thurston Moore, who draws connections between Wantling's poetry and punk rock. Perhaps it is best here to leave the last word with the poet himself:

   Sweetest of what I leave behind
   is the flesh of a girl, after that
   a dawn sky empty save for the
           Morning Star
   but also an icy beer, a midsummer after-
   noon, someone to laugh with me
        Ian Seed, 2015