When Found, Make a Verse of, by Helen Bevington

Cover of 'When Found, Make a Verse Of'I mentioned in my last piece that a review by Langston Hughes led me to her 1961 book, When Found, Make a Verse of. The review, which is reprinted in Essays on Art, Race, Politics, and World Affairs (Collected Works of Langston Hughes, Vol 9), makes it sound pert near irresistable:

One rarely comes across a book that has both guts and charm, but this one has: When Found, Make a Verse of. The people who discovered it then loved it, and those who never saw it missed a lot. Its dust jacket, vermillion red with a black spine, simple white lettering at the very top, and in the upper corner a small medallion, is seductive to the eye, enticing to further exploration. Once open, each piece in the book is short enough to lead quickly to the next piece without strain, and the contents are varied and jolly enough, or dramatic enough, to keep you reading on–and then one–turning pages and still reading when you ought to put out the light and go to sleep.

The critic Gilbert Highet described When Found, Make a Verse of as “the commonplace book of a poet,” but that’s a little misleading. Most commonplace books are collections of excerpts and passages from various sources, and while there are plenty of excerpts here, they’re generally brief and serve mainly to inspire an observation or poem–and sometimes both. I think Hughes provided a better synopsis: “It is rather a collection of the liveliest and oddest and most exciting chosen items from memory and memoirs that you can possible imagine, and about them Helen Bevington sometimes makes verses.”

Bevington tells how she came to this practice in A Book and a Love Affair:

A verse is a verse. Mine were only a kind of notation. The habit of notetaking, an old and private one with me, went back to college days at the University of Chicago when, like Hudibras, I learned to take note, “Transcribe, collect, translate and quote.” I began copying down powerful and enlightened words whenever I found them, calling the first notebook “Chiefly about Life.” It was the beginning of my education.

“When found, make a note of,” said Captain Cuttle in Dombey and Son. “Overhaul the wollume, and there find it. . . . When found, turn the leaf down.”

… Writing a verse meant taking a note and shaping it a little for safekeeping. If the verse turned out ill, the quotation it sprang from was too good to leave around gathering dust. I felt obliged to rescue personally from oblivion such immortal words, to act as it were their advocate–for example, Aunt Mary Emerson’s imperious command: “Be still, I want to hear the men talk.” Or Thoreau saying, “Do what you love. Pursue your life.” Or, Fontenelle: “Quelque fois j’ai dit ha ha.” Or Cummings:

Humanity i love you because you
are perpetually putting the secret of
life in your pants and forgetting
it’s there and sitting down

on it

When Found, Make a Verse of collects perhaps 200 or so of these notes and perhaps sixty or so of the verses they inspired.

Bevington’s verse is, with few exceptions, light verse. She quotes another master, Morris Bishop, who defined three principles for light verse: “strictness of form, incongruity, and logic.” That suggests a product whose lightness belies the effort involved in its creation, and a number of times in her memoirs Bevington refers to rewriting a piece a hundred times or more.

A clue to this perspective can be found in a wonderful story about the artist Clare Leighton:

One afternoon while she was living in Durham we talked of her woodcuts, and she brought out her recent work, spreading it widely over the floor of her living room. It was but a single woodcut, in many versions, of an old Carolina woman in a rocking chair. Clare arranged these prints in progression, dozens of them, all so nearly alike that no one but her could have guessed the proper order. Yet between the first and the last was a beautiful and telling difference. With each revision, she had changed perhaps a single line in the wooden block, seeking always the right tone and texture. Thus the impressions of light and shade became more delicate, the old woman gained slowly in character. That, I realized, was the way to create: to seek clarity over and over and over again.

You can see an example of Bevington’s own search for clarity in the following two passages. The first appears in A Book and a Love Affair, just after the above excerpt on note-taking:

… Yeats said, “People do not invent. They remember.” And as everyone knows, memory deceives. Yet without the power of invention or the imagination of a poet, I would not fabricate or invent: I would remember. I would be a note-taker and remember the notes. Moreover I would remember only what I wanted to, without sadness in it, and not be a preserver of grief. Who would want a memory without a compartment for forgetting?

The second appears under the title, “Ideas for Light Verse” in When Found, Make a Verse of:

I say that I believe Yeats was right about it when he said, “People do not invent. They remember.” Ideas, light as goose feathers, are everywhere, requiring only good eyesight and good hearing to detect them. The only difficulty is that one is, most of the time, forgetful or asleep. What I wish for most, I think, is a talent for experience and a long memory. I grieve for the light and shining events that all my life I must have overlooked and forgotten.

If Bevington had worked a hundred more variations upon this theme, I would happily read them.

I can’t close this piece without quoting at least one of Bevington’s verses, a lovely bit of form, incongruity and logic:

As If

What John Skelton said
Maybe John Skelton knew,
And the devil is dead.–Is dead?

Maybe Max Beerbohm knew
What happiness? when he said
That it’s a four-post bed

In a field of poppies and
Mandragora. Some do
Give the answers, as if they knew

Much virtue in as if.

Such a delicious and wise punch line.

Just as Langston Hughes pulled me into this book, I’ll let him offer those who still need it one last tug of the shirtsleeve: “It is a going-back-to-book to open almost anywhere for sheer pleasure and read something over again–vivid vignettes and sparkling comments in clean clear type with air between the lines on very good paper–a pleasure to both mind and eye, yes. Really a lovable book.”

When Found, Make a Verse of, by Helen Bevington
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961

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