Sterling's Talk

By Ed. Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine

On this page, commencing with our next issue, George Sterling will talk each month with the readers of the Overland about matters that interest him. Note that we do not say he will talk about matters that interest you. For it is the mark of a poet that he insists on talking about matters of interest to himself. The rest of us fumble along trying to find out what other folk are interested in, and that is why nobody ever wants to hear anything we say. But your true poet talks about things he knows about and cares about, and the result is that everybody is interested at once.

You who turn to this page may be interested in stocks and bonds, or in the great ferries that run between the Pacific Coast and China, or in the playing of Helen Wills, but you will not find Sterling trying to humor your whim. What does he care about your stocks or bonds or steamships or your tennis, that is, unless he does happen to care about them at the moment, and if he does we'll wager he'll be so true a poet that you'll think his whole discussion of your favorite subject is but star-spangled lying, as Sterling's friend, H. L. Mencken once said all poetry was. For it is another mark of the true poet that he either lies sound asleep, ignoring your pet subject entirely, or else wakes up with such a roar about it that you run away under the mistaken impression that he is roaring about something entirely different from the thing you've been versing yourself in for years.

Some poets are unsociable chaps who go down in the bottom of a well and pull in the cover over their soul like a gopher retiring into the fastnesses of his runway with your favorite lettuce plant. Others love the shining lights of cities and the many-colored souls of men and women and children, always thinking of oceanic phosphorescence, and planetary fire, as the merest background for the movement of these same wonderful many-colored souls. Those of us who have heard Sterling talk over the table know that he greatly admires poets of the unsociable type, who bury themselves in their art.

"That is the way to do," he will say. "But I always loved life so much."

The love of life is an engaging trait, and we are all amateurs of that art in one fashion or another. So we all like to hear a man talk who has loved life so much that he found it impossible to dwell in solitude and silence. And those of us who know Sterling's verse know that it is full of qualities which only a soul capable of suddenly creating a hushed solitude about itself could ever have created. Did not one Californian even go so far in the recognition of this quality in Sterling as to refer to him as "star-cold Sterling"? For there is much in his verse of a high and lonely quality; many of his stanzas are awash in seas chill but beautiful, and again and again he has soared in his rhymes to the vast interplanetary spaces. Pehaps that is why he so enjoys, by way of contrast, cheerful conversation and joyous reminiscence.

Reminiscence! It lies pulsing at the heart of all pood talk. It is the quality that makes dull talk so incredibly tiresome; it is the quality that makes good talk so fascinating. It might well be argued that the reminiscential mood is the very foundation and origin of all true literature. There is, for one thing, that famous definition of poetry, that it is "emotion remembered in tranquility." Then there is that hidden realization we have all had, while laughing and talking with friends, that whole areas of our lives which we habitually think of as dull and to be taken for granted, are as a matter of fact exciting and memorable museums of life, with one knows not how many pale Galateas preparing to leap from stone to vivid beinig with many a jolly Pygmalion running about and announcing that the big snow is now on, ladies and getelmen. But most of us discover this interestingingness of our own past for ourselves, but are quite unable to convince others of it. We are garrulous when we had thought, to be panoramically vivid we are pumping up moribund trifles when we had thought to be flinging the search-light upon details startlingly significant.

But to some few fortunate beings is granted the privilege of summing up and expressing a whole era in the idlest play of their conversation. Such people have been so much in the center of the life current that they cannot talk about the weather without giving you glimpses of stranger weathers of the soul that they have shared with great men now gone, or wandered off into mysterious silence, like Sterling's friend, Ambrose Bierce. Sterling is one of these fortunate beings. He has experienced so fully the life of our Pacific Coast, has been so at the center of this life, that his talk is golden talk, bustling with great names and full of those "winged words" beloved of Homer.

The art of printing—grateful as we must feel to our Chinese friends for inventing it—is constantly in conspiracy against the art of talk, making formal what was free as air, making pompous what was jovially indecorous. In this page of Sterling's Talk, our poet is going to match his wits with print, and is going to talk rather than write. Oh, it can be done! Even type will bend, even print will get out of the way, if there be but enough life in the talker. The use of the word reminiscence will not mislead those who realize how swiftly the procession of life moves, and how soon the true imagination relegates all occurrences to echoing corridors of time, there to be viewed through a fascinating haze. Sterling is not old in years, but how many changes have come over both the body and the spirit of his California since he compelled the attention of lovers of poetry! The Carmel where he lived, and where he wrote so much famous verse, is not the Carmel of today. The San Francisco he loved for years is not the San Francisco he loves now, though perhaps these two San Franciscans be but two lovely poses of the same noble figure in the dance of life. But all of these changes have found vivid utterance in the lives and characters of interesting men and women and as Sterling lives on into the newer days he is constantly thinking of bits of life in those slightly older days which do much to explain and make still more interesting the events of these newer days. Consequently it is no old-fog garrulity which characterizes Stuffing's Talk; it is the present more vividly lived, more beautifully illuminated by reference to a past still warm still breathing, each one of these past moments being in its relation to the present like Browning's famous "one Pan ready to twitch the Nymph's last garment off" and to emphasize for us the significance of what is transpiring at the very moment we draw breath and laugh and weep.

Almost everyone feels that there was a breath of warmth and life about San Francisco in the immediate past which is now departed, whether to make room for something more vital and beautiful we do not know. But certainly something is gone. The nature of this thing we adumbrate with the hackneyed and elastic word, "Bohemia." We say that things used to be more Bohemian than they now are, or that in the good old days there was a truly Bohemian spirit in the whole west, with San Francisco the capital of that spirit.

One admirer of Sterling's has written roundly that:

"There's no Bohemia here. It's dead. But there's a wreath on Sterling's head."

—bearing out this very point of ours, that Sterling's talk sums up and ex

presses so many of these things that if dead, we wish to mourn with cheerful ritual of reminiscence, and if still living, wish to discover. Perhaps that gorgeously Bohemian poem of Sterling's which we printed in the last issue of the Overland, describing the adventures of the white-armed flapper Juno, who danced upon the grapes piled high in a highly modern and chemically pure bathtub, may contain some clue to the present whereabouts of Lady Bohemia. At any rate, we are sure that there is one place where she will dwell, and that will be on this page, henceforth dedicated to Sterling's Talk.

From: Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine (1868-1935); Nov 1925; Vol. LXXXIII, Number 11; APS Online pg. 410