“For me, the promised land, always seeming just beyond my reach, is the poetic masterpiece, that perfect union of words in cadence, each beckoned and shined and breathed into place, each moving in well-tried harmony of tone and texture and meaning with its neighbors, molding an almost living being so faithful to observable truth, so expressive of the mass of humanity, and so aglow with the beauty of just proportions that the reader feels a chill in his legs or a catch in his throat.” James A. Emanuel, in “The Force and the Reckoning”
Read the above passage slowly, please. Then read it again. This is what poetry is all about.
And a poetic masterpiece is what opened the door to my friendship with James Emanuel. (Though I know that he, with his incredibly high standards, may not have believed that he had written a true masterpiece yet.)
It was 1999, and I was looking for a currently living, currently working American writer in Paris, someone to balance the picture of American expatriates in Paris for my students, to disabuse them of the notion that Paris as a place of refuge and artistic nourishment for American artists had ended with the “lost generation.” I knew there had to be American writers still living and working in Paris, I just didn’t know who they were or how to find them.
Odile Hellier helped. She told me about James Emanuel, among other American writers living and working in Paris. I took down his name, and when I was back in Brooklyn I went to the library and found a copy of Whole Grain, a collection of his poems. I took it home, sat down on my stoop, and started to read. Before long I came across a poem that stunned me with its force, a poem I felt with a visceral shock. “Oh my god, this is a great poet,” I thought. I determined right then and there I would try to see if I could get him to read his poems to my students when I was in Paris the following summer.
The next summer he did indeed come and read to my students. He was so wonderful, not only such a wonderful poet, but such a warm and wonderful human being, so good with my students and so clearly delighted to be with them, that after that first time, I promised myself that for as long as he wanted to do this, I would ask him every year. And for the next 13 years he met with my class nearly every year, only missing a couple of times, when health concerns prevented him.
That was the beginning of what turned, slowly and gradually, from a friendly, ongoing professional relationship into a precious friendship as well. He was a highly intelligent, deeply wise and compassionate human being with a wonderful sense of humor. The tragedy he had experienced in his life had left its mark on him, but it had not made him bitter. One of the most impressive things about him was that he was able to bear that tragedy without ever succumbing to bitterness. That, and his ability to laugh, genuine, deep, joyful laughter, without ever denying the burden of the tragedy–nor, I believe, ever being free of it entirely, not even for a moment.
James loved children. This is clear enough from his poetry, but it could also be seen in the way he enjoyed being with my children. He delighted in the little things: I remember how he laughed when I told him, one rainy summer in Paris, that our boys, then aged 5 and 7, were fine, “But they’re getting frustrated when we go out, because they always want to hold the umbrella.”
A few years ago, my son Sammy and I visited him in the hospital, where he was recuperating from something. (He never dwelt on anything as mundane as his own health, so we actually never learned why he was there. He was just there, “getting better.”) We had a nice conversation about this and that. At one point Sammy was telling James how frustrating it was to have French people dismiss his ability to follow conversations (“Bah, il comprend rien,” he mimicked, with a pretty good imitation of a Gallic shrug, and a disdainful toss of the head.) “He’s got the inflection down just right,” James said, chuckling sympathetically.
But he also shared with them, in a most serious and profound way, the most important thing he had to offer: the gifts of poetry, and of true friendship. When Sammy was in third grade he he had done a report on Langston Hughes. I thought James would enjoy it so I sent him a photocopy. He responded by writing a poem “For Sammy, at 8.” To me it is of a piece with poems like “Wishes for Alix” and “Daniel Is Six.” Sammy and I both treasure that poem, and we always will.
Then, when Sammy was 15 he wrote a poem I was proud of, and I sent that to James too. This time he responded by returning the poem to Sammy, with appreciative remarks and a few editorial suggestions. (Much like James had done in similar circumstances, Sammy acknowledged the validity of some of his suggestions, and rejected others.)
My friend James Emanuel died, in Paris, on September 28 of this year. He was 92 years old, and his health was beginning to decline. So I could not be surprised by this news, but of course I was saddened by it. I wish he had lived a little bit longer, long enough to enjoy the pleasure of receiving more of the accolades that he and his poetry deserve, and that will surely be forthcoming. It was beginning to happen: he was invited to read his poetry at the American Embassy in Paris last summer. And though he has always had his admirers in the world of poetry–people like Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes among them–there should have been much more of that kind of thing in his life than there was.
In a conversation we had last summer, I was talking about how as you get older, it is annoying that so many times you can’t remember, of this famous person, or that, whether or not they are still alive. “I guess in a way it doesn’t matter,” I said. “It’s not so important whether or not they are still alive. What matters is what they did.”
James nodded his head in an approving way he had that always made me feel pleased I had said something he appreciated.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it doesn’t really matter that he’s no longer with us–for those who were closest to him, of course it does matter, a great deal. His friends and family will miss him, so much.
But his work is still with us, and that is more important than the sadness of his passing. If you haven’t had the chance to read his work yet, I hope you will. It is quite a gift to all of us that he left behind.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Each summer she teaches a literature course in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY (“Paris: A Literary Adventure”). She also teaches culture and literature courses at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. You can learn more about James A. Emanuel in this tribute to him, as well as other articles published by France Revisited and on this blog.
A few of my favorite quotes about one of my favorite places in the world…more to come…
An idiosyncractic, beginning list of titles of books written (mostly in English) about France, or that take place in France (outside of Paris.) For books about Paris, see my Paris Bookshelf.