When I was a child growing up in a drab college town in Indiana, our family received an annual New Year’s visit from a vivid woman named Erika Strauss. Erika was related to the Jewish foster family, originally from Berlin, with whom my father, himself a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, spent the war years in England. Afflicted with almost total deafness as a teenager, Erika had also fled Germany and spent the war trapped in occupied Holland. There, she survived by pretending to be a demented deaf-mute in the household of a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church.
The high point of Erika’s visit to our house was the old European New Year’s ritual known as “Bleigiessen,” or lead-pouring, for the performance of which, by candlelight, Erika wore a bright gypsy kerchief about her unruly red hair. With a pair of tongs, she held a small tin cup filled with bits of lead over a hot burner. When the lead had liquefied, she poured it, with a quick flip of her wrist, into a pot of cold water. There, the molten lead assumed strange, spidery shapes. These Erika would interpret, like tea leaves, with one batch for each of my two older brothers and one for me.
Her wayward voice, waxing and waning with little explosions of consonants, intensified the already uncanny mood, as she confidently predicted what the new year held in store for each of us. A piece of lead twisted into the form of a little boat meant a long journey. Something with leg-like extensions suggested we might be getting a new dog. Mossy bits of metallic impurities meant money, lots of money.
This memory of Erika pouring lead by candlelight was triggered for me by a chance reading, over the holidays, of some lines from Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, regarding the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in random shapes: water stains on old walls, clouds, inkblots, and so on. “What we read into these accidental shapes,” Gombrich writes, “depends on our capacity to recognize in them things or images we find stored in our minds.” To see a butterfly in an inkblot, for example, requires “some act of perceptual classification—in the filing system of my mind I pigeonhole it with butterflies I have seen or dreamed of.”
Suddenly, I thought I discerned a pattern in Gombrich’s own words, which I arranged quickly, and verbatim, into a “found” poem:
FROM GOMBRICH’S ART AND ILLUSION
Fortunetellers may continue to read
Significant shapes into birthmarks or tea leaves,
Or study the forms of lead cast in play
Or in earnest on New Year’s Eve.
Travelers will see stones in animal shapes,
And legends will always be woven round rocks
In human form. At all times natural objects
With a striking resemblance to familiar things
Have been collected as lusus naturae and regarded
With awe. But unless a craftsman has put such a stone
Or pearl into its appropriate setting to complete the image,
Few artists take cognizance of these accidents.
These lines, I realized, were an example of the very procedure they described: a found poem about finding patterns in unexpected places.
Found poems are, of course, nothing new in literature. Perhaps the best known examples in recent American poetry come from Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. In his poem “The Scream,” Lowell tried “versing,” as he called it, a short story of Bishop’s about growing up in Nova Scotia, and later made a sonnet from two passages from Glenn Gray’s The Warriors. Bishop arranged some lines from Trollope’s American journal into a remarkable double sonnet about Washington during the Civil War.
During the rest of the holidays, with their predictable interruptions and distractions, I found myself coming across other “poems” of this kind. Reading in this serendipitous way was a bit like pouring lead, and I found, in the process, an unexpected lyricism in some of my favorite writers of prose. A few stray phrases lifted from Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers gave me an incisive portrait of the revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin, and what struck me as a summation of Berlin’s own distrust of utopian schemes of social engineering:
Bakunin’s thought is almost always simple,
shallow, and clear; the language passionate,
direct, and imprecise.
The glib Hegelian claptrap of this kind,
all these naïve fallacies, form the substance
of his sermons urbi et orbi;
and in particular of his fiery allocutions
to the fascinated watchmakers of La Chaux-de-Fonds
and the Valley of Saint-Imier.
But my favorite found poem from my holiday reading may appear to describe the opposite political tendency, a hint of the arbitrary authoritarian nightmares that had bedeviled the uprooted youth of both my father and Erika Strauss. The lines, selected and rearranged, come from a couple of pages about the cruel Bohemian general Albrecht von Wallenstein in C.V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War, first published in the ominous year of 1938. (I was happy to learn, in Anthony Grafton’s forward to a new edition of the book, that Wedgwood “worked tirelessly for refugees in England during the Second World War.”)
A PORTRAIT OF COUNT WALLENSTEIN
(“Van Dyck never set eyes on Wallenstein.”)
Wallenstein’s tastes were sumptuous but somber,
His entourage impressive for its exactness
Rather than any ostentatious expense.
Tall, thin, forbidding, his face in the unexpressive
Portraits that have survived is not prepossessing.
No great master painted him, and the limners
Who attempted his saturnine features only agree
In a few particulars, the heavy jowl, the thick
When Wallenstein became great there was no detail
Of his conduct or appearance that did not become
His ungovernable temper, his disregard
Of human life, his unsteady nerves, his immutable
Chastity, his faith in astrology.
He cultivated the spectacular, dressed in a bizarre
Mixture of European fashions and relieved his dark attire
With a sash or plume of unexpected
And violent red. In his pale, dry face
The equally vivid color of his lips
May perhaps not have been nature’s work alone…
Born under a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter,
Wallenstein’s stars gave him a peculiar mixture
Of weakness and strength, vice and virtue.
Changeable in his humors, quarrelsome,
Friendless, and cruel. So far the analysis
Of Johan Kepler
From the position of the stars over Hermanice
At four in the afternoon on September 14th 1583,
When Wallenstein was born.
To Kepler, the stars—especially with powerful and dangerously unpredictable men like Wallenstein looking on—had to be seen to behave like the orderly workings of a Swiss pocket watch.
Our friend Erika was a different person by daylight. Without her kerchief and her prophetic voice emerging from the flickering candlelight, she was a bumbling old woman, afflicted with various illnesses and disappointments, who moved through a silent and often incomprehensible world (toward the end of her life, she cataloged Dutch manuscripts for Princeton University Library). We took turns sitting beside her on the sofa, school slate in hand, answering her questions with written messages, then lifting the upper sheet to make them disappear.
Frustrated with the slow exchanges on the slate, Erika from time to time would try to read our lips, a skill she had only imperfectly mastered over the years, with results sometimes as fanciful and bizarre (“You are married? What? You are buried?”) as her interpretations of the molten lead in the tin cup, refigured by its sudden plunge into the cold water.
(Inkblots from Kleksographien by the German Romantic poet Justinus Kerner, 1890)