Spring 2012

Walter Conrad Arensberg’s Anagramania

Wordplay, madness, and modernity

William H. Sherman

Adding machine printouts for Arensberg’s alphanumeric evaluations, ca. 1946. Courtesy the Huntington Library. Photo William H. Sherman.

While Wallace Stevens devised “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” his friend Walter Conrad Arensberg literally found billions of ways of looking at Shakespeare. Stevens’s modernist masterpiece was first published in the 1917 anthology of Others, the small magazine co-founded by Arensberg: to find the poem, we need to turn to the end of the collection—past T. S. Eliot, past Marianne Moore, past Carl Sandburg, and past the five poems by Arensberg himself that open the volume.1 When Stevens and Arensberg graduated from Harvard in 1900, it was Walter rather than Wallace who served as class poet; and by 1916, with two books under his belt, his career was off to a promising start.2

Arensberg’s new poems in Others marked the most radical of departures: with titles such as “Ing” and “Arithmetical Progression of the Verb ‘To Be,’” they set out to do for the word what Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase had done for the image.3 Indeed, they were produced between the word- and chess-games he played with Duchamp in the New York apartment where the artist had his studio and where the Arensbergs presided over the legendary salon that laid the foundations for one of America’s greatest collections of modern art—which would eventually house most of Duchamp’s oeuvre (including all three versions of the Nude) alongside world-class specimens of cubism, futurism, surrealism, and primitivism.4

By 1921, when the Arensbergs moved to Hollywood, Walter’s poetic project had taken another dramatic turn. Just as Duchamp stopped making art to play chess, Arensberg stopped writing poetry to play with the words of Renaissance poets. He gave up his interest in taking apart his own language and began rearranging the texts of first Dante and then Shakespeare, in an obsessive search for hidden signatures, submerged structures, and cryptographic messages that would occupy him for the rest of his life.5 Much of Walter’s work (and his wife Louise’s money) would be channeled into the so-called Baconian cause: in pursuit of proof that Shakespeare’s plays were written by Sir Francis Bacon, the couple created the world’s largest private library of rare books by and about Bacon and gathered both their art and their books under the umbrella of the Francis Bacon Foundation. But Walter insisted that these activities were part of a larger interest in patterns that cut across time and meanings that lie beneath the surface: as he and Alfred Kreymborg put it in their motto for Others, “The old expressions are with us always, and there are always others.”

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