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Attending to the Night
A new selection of poems by the late L. E. Sissman revives the sound of a distinctive postwar American voice. Sissman's friend and longtime editor looks back at the poet's career

by Peter Davison

March 17, 1999


L. E. Sissman
Poems from The Atlantic Monthly, also appearing in Night Music (Mariner, 1999). With readings by Peter Davison recorded specially for Atlantic Unbound.

The Tree Warden
(June 1965)

The Museum of Comparative Zoology
(January 1967)

Love-Making; April; Middle Age
(January 1968)

Tras Os Montes
(May 1978)


The poetry of Louis Edward Sissman speaks to us out of midcentury American life with all of the poise and formal elegance of W. H. Auden yet with the joie de vivre of Sissman's Harvard contemporary Frank O'Hara. Sissman was born in Detroit in 1928, sporting a "trick intellect" that soon made him a national spelling champion and one of the radio moppets on "The Quiz Kids." At the age of sixteen, already 6' 4" and 200 lbs., he entered Harvard College, his first time away from home. He found the place so intoxicating that within a year or so he had been kicked out and had taken a cooling-off job in the Boston Public Library, where he studied, among other things, the pages of The New Yorker -- not only the articles but the advertisements. In time Sissman returned to Harvard, graduated with honors in 1949 as Class Poet, married a literary and somewhat unstable woman, and started out on the postwar ordeal of the Job Search -- first in Boston, then in New York. The search ended in cordial failure in every literary profession he could imagine (proofreading, copyediting, even sales). Crumpled, he returned to Boston, his spiritual home, and before long found the advertising profession, where he was an instant and complete success. After his first marriage broke up he married again and moved to the country outside Boston, where he began to chronicle, in splendid poetic particularity, the events of his life, ordinary as they were.


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nightmbk picture For the next decade, from 1964 to 1974, Sissman wrote poems (short and long, narrative and lyric, celebratory and nostalgic), mostly about the life of professional and business males in peace and war, in Boston and New York. A characteristic Sissman poem is written in blank or rhymed verse and tells a story. "Did Shriner die, or make it to New York?" is the sort of question asked, as in his poem "To Happenings in Boston." In the poems "In and Out" he told the story of his checkered college career. In "The Marschallin, Joy Street, July 3, 1949" he portrayed a Beacon Hill grand dame presiding over Boston. In "A War Requiem" he tried to narrate the story of his life and its origins, ranging back to the First World War and approaching the imminent escalation in Vietnam. In "Dying: An Introduction" Sissman recounted, with clinical accuracy and autobiographical objectivity, the discovery that he had Hodgkin's disease, an illness he knew to be routinely fatal.

In a remarkably short time Sissman's poems began to appear in The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker. Both magazines solicited not only his verse but his prose: he wrote book reviews for The New Yorker and a regular column for The Atlantic. Three books of his poems came out, in 1968, 1969, and 1971. In 1971 a volume of his Atlantic columns was published under the title Innocent Bystander. He suffered cyclical bouts of Hodgkins Disease but kept gamely at his writing and his profession; when he received a Guggenheim Fellowship he merely took a six-week elongated vacation and returned to his commuter train and his creative vice presidency at Kenyon & Eckhardt Advertising. But the energy began to fail.

By 1974 Sissman could no longer write poems. In March, 1976, he died, having just delivered his last Innocent Bystander column. As his literary executor I discovered in his files a number of penciled yet polished poems, mainly dedicated to that most difficult of tasks, the contemplation of his own dissolution. These poems, culminating in the austere and affecting "Tras Os Montes," stand as powerful and uncompromising witnesses to the approach and arrival of death. They were published posthumously in magazines and in a volume of collected poems titled Hello, Darkness (1978), which won the praise of such critics as Hilton Kramer, John Updike, and William Pritchard, and also won the poetry award of the National Book Critics Circle. Since then Sissman's poems have been much published and widely anthologized, and I've recently edited a new selection of his poems, titled Night Music.

Sissman's position among poets of his time is anomalous. He did not follow the genius-in-the-garret route to poetry, nor did he come to teach fledgling poets in workshops, or indulge, or even tolerate, the excesses of either the Left or the Right in the 1960s. He was that very ordinary figure: a hardworking professional middle-class man, a northeastern liberal Democrat given to householding, marriage, and interesting hobbies like photography and sports cars -- and also to something that went beyond both professions and hobbies: the calling of poet.

The influence of Sissman's poetry has now survived into a second generation. The poet Brad Leithauser, born after Sissman graduated from college, declared in The New Criterion that "[Sissman] can serve as a model to every contemporary poet." And Edward Hirsch, in the foreword to Night Music, states, "He provides an example of wit schooled by feeling and deepened by experience, of intellect coming together with restrained but warm underlying emotion, of poetic freedom enabled by expertise."


Poems by L. E. Sissman from The Atlantic Monthly, also appearing in Night Music (Mariner, 1999). With readings by Peter Davison recorded specially for Atlantic Unbound.

The Tree Warden (June 1965)
The Museum of Comparative Zoology (January 1967)
Love-Making; April; Middle Age (January 1968)
Tras Os Montes (May 1978)


Join the conversation in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More on poets and poetry in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Peter Davison is the poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly. His numerous books include The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston, 1955-1960 (1994) and The Poems of Peter Davison 1957-1995.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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