Life Is Expensive
By T. Avery Blockhart
New Bath Press; 356 pp.
T. Avery Blockhart, who took his poetic inspiration from big business, market data, and investment patterns, wrote more than seven hundred poems. But in an interview just months before his death, in 2008, he claimed he could not remember a single one, only that he wrote “with money, about money, and for money.” Then, in a move that his many critics saw as representative of his views on humanity and personal property, Blockhart produced a solid gold watch from his breast pocket and slipped it into in the interviewer’s cup of hot chowder.
At times one feels an entire generation has grown up knowing Blockhart only through such stories (and certainly Fritz Engleton’s four-hour film about the chowder incident was crucial in this regard). But “Life Is Expensive,” a new collection of his poems, edited by his longtime actuary, Roscoe Baum, may return the focus to his actual writing.
A characteristic Blockhart poem included detailed footnotes: pie charts, YTD graphs, and seemingly irrelevant information on ruble-exchange rates. It is easy to forget the anger engendered by Blockhart’s early poems; in the introduction, Baum reminds us that in addition to accusing Blockhart of elitism, furious readers frequently polluted his moat.
Born in 1933 to independently wealthy Greenwich Village unfired-pottery makers, Blockhart had no need of an income, and was said to have spent his youth in the pursuit of leisure and art at his parents’ insistence. In his 1998 memoir, “Unbalanced Accounts,” however, he recalled a tormented childhood during which, he says, “I was required to spend hours upon hours in a candlelit room – though we had electricity – pausing only to further suffer the entrance of my parents, who would burst in occasionally to force feed me cups of rancid coffee, which they said was a purgative, and tiny, ridiculous pastries.”
As for his creative process, Blockhart divulged little, but his habit of reading Auden’s “O Tell Me the Truth About Love” before beginning his own work is occasionally evident, as in this much-lauded 1974 poem:
When it comes, will it tug at my collar
Just as I’m peaking my wealth?
Will it shatter the strength of the dollar,
And leave me in poor fiscal health?
Will it wallop my boldest prediction?
Will its shifting be gradual or swift?
Will it impact my Fortune subscription?
O tell me the truth about inflation.
Blockhart will always be remembered for the way he pestered his fellow artists and poets and teased them about their money troubles. Once, while in conversation with the faux-minimalist Johansen Velps, Blockhart put in a call to his broker in New Jersey, listened jubilantly to news of a big oil merger, and declared, “Velpsy, the poet in me knows the march of time leads each man to his death. But for financial reasons, I can’t wait till tomorrow.”
As he aged and his assets increased, Blockhart showed a growing awareness that his privileged upbringing and financial stability made him the envy of his peers. The weight of this realization found expression in verse, as indicated by his last poem, published posthumously in Business Week. Like so much of his work, it stemmed from his experience filing taxes. But unlike his early poems, which flaunted his wealth, it hinted at Blockhart’s misgivings about the unusual and less-than-generous ways he used his money:
My conscience beats so loud a racket!
I fear my racing heart is ill.
For he belongs to the highest bracket
Who blows his nose on a ten dollar bill.
Gregory Beyer is a writer living in New York. His journalism, essays and reviews of actual books have appeared in The New York Times.