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Guest Post by Herbert Leibowitz: NBCC at 35

By Jane Ciabattari

Former NBCC president Herbert Leibowitz offered these thoughts on his time on the board, as part of the NBCC 35th anniversary celebration at WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Performance Space on September 12.

In 1988, at the urging of my friend Morris Dickstein, a member of the NBCC board, I wrote my pitch to the voters as to why they should elect me. I’m sure my platform rhetoric was as dreary and sincere as most such statements. When the final tally was released, I had squeaked in by a margin far tinier than Al Franken’s victory in the Minnesota United States Senate race. I reasoned, correctly, it turned out, that to the vast majority of NBCC members “Parnassus: Poetry in Review,” the magazine I had edited for fifteen years, was as obscure (and unread) as The Book of Esdras.

Most board members, I learned after my baptism by fire in the discussions of books to be nominated, were uncomfortable with poetry, rarely read the stuff, and were generally too timid to venture an opinion about the books of poems up for the poetry prize.  They seemed relieved to cede authority to the gang of three or four eccentrics who regularly reviewed poetry, edited poetry magazines and who believed that poetry was not a tiny duchy in the federation of literature, but its central sanctuary, just as Jews, Muslims, and Christians considered Jerusalem holy and wholly theirs.

In theory, a Board Member needed to be a generalist, but in practice there seldom were more than two or three such scholar-critics. Most people were as uncomfortable with science and philosophy as they were with poetry, so there was a tendency toward balkanization. But the discussions were often fierce and rowdy. Even the meeker, more silent members believed that their opinions were close to infallible and hurled verbal daggers at the “benighted” representative from, say, the Chicago or Charlotte book supplements who insisted they were wrong. Then there were the hedgehogs, knowledgeable and voluble about military history or Iraqi politics, but wallflowers about stylistics and meta-fiction or art criticism. Everybody, though, felt equipped to debate the merits and shortcomings of biographies and novels. Eventually, the art of compromise took center stage, although I doubt anyone would claim that our meetings were models of the art of persuasion.

There was also an informal caste system that lived within the more democratic ethos of the organization. A few academic stars disdained the discussions as not worthy of the High Table at Magdalen College, Oxford.  After all, would a general or king, unless it were Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt bantering with the Welsh infantryman Fluellen, deign to listen to a freelance critic trash Philip Roth’s latest novel as immoral?  Let’s call that attitude by its real name: snobbery. Luckily, nastiness of that sort flared up only occasionally.

When I was a teenager, I would daydream and fantasize about making my debut at the Metropolitan Opera in starring roles. I could never decide whether I would conquer the musical world as Don Giovanni, Hans Sachs, or Boris Godunov. At eighteen, playing a charismatic rake was well beyond my acting abilities: Leporello’s catalogue would have been blank. Hans Sachs was appealing because he was a benevolent poet (in medieval Nurenberg, to my amazement, you could combine the professions of cobbler and poet). I liked and identified with Sachs’s genial melancholy—he didn’t get the girl and neither did I—and his wisdom, of which I had at best only a thimbleful. But in the wake of the Holocaust I couldn’t imagine a Jewish young man like me impersonating a nationalist German, even one with humor and a soul. So Boris Godunov, the tormented Czar, it was.

Little did I know that when I was elected President of the NBCC in 1993 that I would finally get to play Boris. In a variation of the opera’s libretto, a small cabal of NBCC boyars, including two sly daughters of Eris, goddess of discord, hinted that I was a usurper, that I had acquired my throne by committing sinful and unethical acts, never specified. No charges were ever filed, no facts ever documented, and no evidence presented: it was just a spree by Rumor and Innuendo to defame me and Jack Miles, the previous President who supported my candidacy and doubtless lobbied Board members to vote for me.  I must admit that this caused me equal parts of suffering and fury, but I believe that my innocence soon triumphed over the evil twins.

Despite the inauspicious start, I enjoyed my two-year term. For reasons I can’t recall now, we had to leave Vanderbilt Hall at N.Y.U. and find a new auditorium for the awards ceremony and reception. The Ethical Culture School proved a fine venue. I particularly remember three acceptance speeches, two by poets. The first year, Albert Goldbarth won the first of his two NBCC Prizes in Poetry. During his acceptance speech, he held the assembled guests, the cream of the book world, in the palm of his hand, as Homer was reputed to have done in the mead hall.  At the end, Albert had the hilarious, quixotic idea of asking the audience to promise to buy one book of poetry a year as a gesture of support and appreciation of an art underappreciated in America.  There was an enthusiastic huzzah from all sides of the room—but after consulting poetry sales at the end of the year, I had to conclude that despite Albert’s inspired salesmanship, my literary comrades had reneged on their promises. The following year, we gave the poetry prize to Hayden Carruth, a shy, wonderfully humane man and a gifted poet. Instead of acceptance speech boilerplate, Hayden read a lovely poem, written for the occasion, which earned him a standing ovation, and then suffered through the social rigors (and rigamarole) of the reception.

My last and best memory was of James Laughlin accepting the Ivan Sandrof Award for lifetime achievement. During the Board’s heated conversation evaluating the candidates for the Sandrof, I had been taken aback at how many members were unaware that New Directions was the most distinguished avant-garde publishing house in America during the twentieth century. The list of literary innovators who appeared under the logo of New Directions is too long to repeat, but a few names should suffice: Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Octavio Paz, Borges, Celine, Neruda. Laughlin’s speech was as urbane and witty as he was. He read from letters that Rexroth and Pound wrote to him, chastising him for running off to the ski slopes of Alta when he should have been minding the store and peddling their books of poetry. The audience roared with laughter. The mission of the NBCC being to reward excellence and originality in all literary genres, I was proud that I could convince my colleagues that James Laughlin exemplified the taste, integrity, and adventurousness we all strive to emulate and deserved the highest honor we could give.