L. E. Sissman
Louis Edward Sissman
To an outsider L. E. Sissman may seem an unlikely candidate for an award winning poet. Born Louis Edward Sissman in Detroit on New Year’s Day in 1928, he had an enormous vocabulary and love of facts. His vocabulary led him to victory in the National Spelling Bee in 1941 where he “bested some poor little girl from…Kentucky on an easy word (‘chrysanthemum,’ as I remember).” Two years later at the age of fifteen he became a Quiz Kid on national radio, which he later describes as an exploitation of American children by their teachers and parents.
After that Sissman was accepted to Harvard University. At sixteen years old and a gangly six foot four inches tall, he was the youngest person ever to be accepted Harvard. He, however, wasn’t emotionally ready for college and was kicked out two years later in 1946. Though his first attempt at college life was unsuccessful he realized he had found his home in Boston.
For the next year he worked in the Boston Public Library and spent his free time writing poetry and growing up. In 1947 he was readmitted to Harvard and graduated cum laude in 1949. While there he was awarded the Garrison Prize in poetry and was elected class poet. He was also married for the first time in 1948.
During the 1950s Sissman spent some time in New York, where he unhappily worked at Prentice-Hall as a copywriter and copyeditor. After that he worked at another New York publishing company, and when it went under, he returned to Boston. For the next few years Sissman worked at many odd jobs, such as campaigning for John F. Kennedy, and selling vacuums, until he was hired by an advertising company, and was hooked for life. He also found happiness with his new wife, Anne, and settled in Still River, a small town in Worcester County.
He continued to work in advertising exercising his wit and “verbal dexterity,” along with a knowledge of products and how things worked for the rest of his life. He also began writing poetry again. By 1964 he had compiled a typescript of poetry called Homage to Cambridge.
In 1965 Sissman was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. This news changed his outlook on life and the mood of his poetry, in which he speaks about his family, his home, and many other things including school, and death. He felt that this disease introduced him to a new chapter in his life: death. From this point he wrote poetry “incessantly, as if his life depended on it” according to Edward Hirsch. In his own words, “Instead of a curtain falling, a curtain rose. And stayed up, revealing a stage decked in light.” It was during this time that he published his first book, Dying: An Introduction (1968).
He wouldn’t let his illness keep him from living life. He continued to work as the Creative Vice President for Quinn and Johnson Advertising in Boston. He also wrote many book reviews for The New Yorker and nearly sixty monthly columns for The Atlantic Weekly. Many of these columns, which depicted everything in his life from being a Quiz Kid to selling Deshler vacuums in Northern Vermont, were later published in a collection entitled Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the ‘70’s. Poetry continued to flow out of his pen until 1974, when his “Muse left his body.”
For the next two years Sissman battled with Hodgkin’s disease until he passed away at the age of forty-eight. His death, however, did not bring an end to his poetry. His final collection, Hello Darkness, was published in 1978.
- Typescript Homage to Cambridge 1964
- Dying: An Introduction, 1968
- Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the '70's, 1975
- Scattered Returns, 1969
- Pursuit of Honor, 1971
- Hello Darkness, 1978
- One learns from Sissman's example that the whole of poetry is available to us for our own use, our own enchantment.
- — Edward Hirsch
- We were not, either by temperament or experience, meant to live in paradise.
- — L. E. Sissman