I suddenly began rather to admire Frederic Prokosch twenty years ago when he visited me on the Hudson River where I lived. I took him to a party attended by a number of hicks and hacks and hoods from a nearby outpost of Academe. Naturally, they regarded Prokosch with contempt. They knew that he had once been famous in Amnesia but they had forgotten why. Anyway, Auden had won. And Auden had said that there can only be on poet per epoch.
A great deal was said about poetry; and some of it was said by poets. Teacher-poets, true, but poets nevertheless; winners of prizes (“They got more prizes now than they got poets” Philip Rahv, circa 1960, Amnesia). Prokosch was entirely ignored. But he listened politely as the uses of poetry in general and of the classics in particular were brought into question. Extreme position were taken. Finally, one poet-teacher pulled the chain, as it were, on all of Western civilization: The classics, as such, were totally irrelevant. For a moment, there was a blessed silence. Then Prokosch began to recite in Latin a passage from Virgil; and the room grew very cold and still. “It’s Dante,” a full professor whispered to a full wife.
When Prokosch had finished, he said mildly, “Those lines are carved in marble in the gardens of the Villa Borghese at Rome. I used to look at them every day and I’d think, that is what poetry is, something that can be carved in marble, something that can still be beautiful to read after so many centuries.”
“Those lines are carved in marble in the gardens of the Villa Borghese at Rome. I used to look at them every day and I’d think, that is what poetry is, something that can be carved in marble, something that can still be beautiful to read after so many centuries.”
From “Frederick Prokosch,” by Gore Vidal. Appeared in New York Review of Books on May 12, 1983.