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DISCH, Thomas M(ichael)


Nationality: American. Born: Des Moines, Iowa, 2 February 1940. Education: St. Paul's Convent School, Fairmont, Minnesota; Central High School, St. Paul, Minnesota; Cooper Union, New York, and New York University, 1959–62. Career: Part-time checkroom attendant, Majestic Theatre, New York, 1957–62; copywriter, Doyle Dane Bernbach Inc., New York, 1963–64. Since 1964 freelance writer and lecturer. Theatre critic, The Nation, 1987–91, and since 1993, New York Daily News. Since 1996 artist-in-residence, College of William and Mary. Awards: O. Henry prize, 1975, 1979; John W. Campbell Memorial award, 1980; Locus award, 1981; British Science-Fiction award, for short stories, 1981. Agent: Karpfinger Agency, 500 Fifth Avenue, Suite 2800, New York, New York 10110, U.S.A.

Publications

Poetry

Highway Sandwiches, with Marilyn Hacker and Charles Platt. Privately printed, 1970.

The Right Way to Figure Plumbing. New York, Basilisk Press, 1972.

ABCDEFG HIJKLM NOPQRST UVWXYZ. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1981.

Burn This. London, Hutchinson, 1982.

Orders of the Retina. West Branch, Iowa, Toothpaste Press, 1982.

Here I Am, There You Are, Where Were We. London, Hutchinson, 1984.

Yes, Let's: New and Selected Poems. Baltimore, Maryland, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

Dark Verses & Light. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Haikus of an AmPart. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1991.

The Hawk & the Metaphor. Chester, Pennsylvania, Aralia Press, 1993.

The Dark Old House. Edgewood, Kentucky, Barth, 1996.

A Child's Garden of Grammar (as Tom Disch). Hanover, New Hampshire, University Press of New England, 1997.

Novels

The Genocides. New York, Berkley, 1965; London, Whiting and Wheaton, 1967.

Mankind under the Leash. New York, Ace, 1966; as The Puppies of Terra, London, Panther, 1978.

The House That Fear Built (as Cassandra Knye), with John Sladek. New York, Paperback Library, 1966.

Echo round His Bones. New York, Berkley, 1967; London, Hart Davis, 1969.

Camp Concentration. London, Hart Davis, 1968; New York, Doubleday, 1969.

Black Alice (as Thom Demijohn), with John Sladek. New York, Doubleday, 1968; London, W. H. Allen, 1969.

The Prisoner. New York, Ace, 1969; London, Dobson, 1979.

334. London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1972; New York, Avon, 1974.

Clara Reeve (as Leonie Hargrave). New York, Knopf, and London, Hutchinson, 1975.

On Wings of Song. New York, St. Martin's Press, and London, Gollancz, 1979.

Triplicity (omnibus). New York, Doubleday, 1980.

Neighboring Lives, with Charles Naylor. New York, Scribner, and London, Hutchinson, 1981.

The Businessman: A Tale of Terror. New York, Harper, and London, Cape, 1984.

Amnesia. N.p., Electronic Arts, 1985.

The Priest: A Gothic Romance. London, Millenium, 1994.

The Sub: A Study in Witchcraft. New York, Knopf, 1999.

Short Stories

One Hundred and Two H-Bombs. London, Compact, 1966; New York, Berkley, 1971; enlarged edition, as White Fang Goes Dingo and Other Funny S. F. Stories, London, Arrow, 1971.

Under Compulsion. London, Hart Davis, 1968; as Fun with Your New Head, New York, Doubleday, 1971.

Getting into Death. London, Hart Davis MacGibbon, 1973; New York, Knopf, 1976.

The Early Science Fiction Stories of Thomas M. Disch. Boston, Gregg Press, 1977.

Fundamental Disch. New York, Bantam, 1980; London, Gollancz, 1981.

The Man Who Had No Idea. London, Gollancz, 1982.

Ringtime: A Story. West Branch, Iowa, Toothpaste Press, 1983.

Torturing Mr. Amberwell. New Castle, Virginia, Cheap Street, 1985.

The Silver Pillow: A Tale of Witchcraft. Willimantic, Connecticut, Ziesing, 1987.

The M.D.: A Horror Story. New York, Grafton, 1991.

Other

The Brave Little Toaster (for children). New York, Doubleday, and London, Grafton, 1986.

The Tale of Dan De Lion: A Fable (for children). Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1986.

The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars (for children). New York, Doubleday, 1988.

The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World. London and New York, Free Press, 1998.

Editor, The Ruins of Earth: An Anthology of the Immediate Future. New York, Putnam, 1971; London, Hutchinson, 1973.

Editor, Bad Moon Rising. New York, Harper, 1973; London, Hutchinson, 1974.

Editor, The New Improved Sun: An Anthology of Utopian Science Fiction. New York, Harper, 1975; London, Hutchinson, 1976.

Editor, with Charles Naylor, New Constellations. New York, Harper, 1976.

Editor, with Charles Naylor, Strangeness. New York, Scribner, 1977.

Editor, The Castle of Indolence: On Poetry, Poets, and Poetasters. New York, Picador, 1995.

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Bibliography: Thomas M. Disch: A Preliminary Bibliography by David Nee, Berkeley, California, Other Change of Hobbit, 1982; Tom Disch Checklist by Chris Drumm, San Bernadino, California, Borgo Press, 1989.

Critical Studies: "Naturalism, Aestheticism and Beyond: Tradition and Innovation in the Work of Thomas M. Disch" by Thomas L. Wymer, in Voices for the Future, III, edited by Thomas D. Clareson and Wymer, Bowling Green, Ohio, Popular, 1984; "Dystopia or Dischtopia: The Science-Fiction Paradigms of Thomas M. Disch" by Peter Swirski, in Science-Fiction Studies (Greencastle, Indiana), 18(2), July 1991.

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It is a swan dive from the warm sincerity of most American poetry into the cool astringency of Thomas M. Disch's formal negotiations. Disch has produced some of the most wildly imaginative science fiction ever written, an interactive novel on computer disk, children's books about the Brave Little Toaster, and a novelization of the Prisoner television series. The same baroque invention, erudition, and camp black humor are coupled with virtuoso technique in such poems as "At the Grave of Amy Clampitt," the sestina "Prayer to Pleasure," and a villanelle on the death of the universe from heat.

A certain percentage of Disch's poetry admittedly falls into the category of light verse. His work frequently leaves itself open to the charge of empty ingenuity, and he has been criticized as being glib. It is, however, a quality that Randall Jarrell identified as "The Higher Glibness," for although Disch is almost always funny, he is never just clever; there usually is a serious philosophical issue driving the wit. Consider this gem of advice from "How to Behave When Dead," couched in the language of an etiquette manual: "Remember: / sincerity and naturalness / count for more than wit / His jokes may strike you as / abstruse. / Only laugh if He does." Only when "He" is parenthetically described as "a bronze skull gorging on a snake" do we realize that we are not in heaven.

For some time Disch's talent as a poet went largely unacknowledged in the United States. His second collection was published in Britain by the perspicacious Anvil Press because American publishers, for whom sincerity and naturalness may often count for more than wit, were not interested. Perhaps this is because mainstream American readers often have difficulty distinguishing nuances of irony and are apt to be confused and disturbed by moral ambiguity. Poets like Disch, who habitually shift register from the frivolous to the serious and produce titles like "Light Verses for the Vietnam War Dead" and "The Rapist's Villanelle" belong to a minority strand in American poetry.

The strongest current in mainstream American verse demands a program of romantic sincerity couched in open forms, and mainstream critics are suspicious of poets who flaunt technique. The most successful resistance to the status quo has come from those poets directly influenced by Auden—James Merrill, John Hollander, Anthony Hecht, and Richard Howard. Like them Disch is drawn to traditional forms. But in terms of tone and composition he is clearly an heir of the New York school of poets, which included John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, and principally Frank O'Hara. In fact, one way of characterizing Disch's work would be to say that he uses the technique of the Byron of Don Juan as channeled through the voice of O'Hara.

Although he appears to take the challenge of form lightly, Disch is a formalist par excellence. He delights in the restrictions of rhyme, meter, and numerous less conventional rules. In his second collection, ABCDEFG HIJKLM NOPQRST UVWXYZ, for example, all of the poems appear in strict alphabetical order, beginning with "Abcedary" ("A is an apple, as everyone knows. / But B is a … What do you suppose? / A Bible? A Barber? A Banquet? A Bank? / No B is this Boat, the night that it sank …"). The collection ends with a kind of mirror image catalog of alphabetical invention, "Zewhyexary" ("Z is the Zenith from which we decline / While Y is the Yelp as you're twisting your spine."). Both poems are loosely narrative series of associations in rhyming couplets, and both are shamelessly concerned with their own composition, which is exactly the point. This reliance on lists and verbal formulas is a recurrent feature in Disch's work, as in "Slides," which takes the form of comments on individual holiday snapshots: "Marilyn and me / / Charles and Marilyn / / me and Charles / with the sign at the exit behind us. / / And this is the last one. / They say it's a mile deep."

Disch is also a fatally accurate parodist. "High Purpose in Poetry: A Primer," for example, is dedicated to A.R. Ammons in the sense that Don Juan was dedicated to Robert Southey. Disch lampoons Ammons's easy cosmic affirmations: "Only one thing is needed: to speak of matters elemental. / … of anything as basic / As water, fire, earth, or air: to lift it up and say of it, / There! Behold!" Disch is enormously skilled in the art of graceful deflation. In "Skydiver" the grand romanticism of the parachutist's leap is undermined by the poet's description, "and though / That may sound snide or flip, it's just my way / Of talking: I honestly feel amazement, only that." Characteristically, this very assurance puts us at once on our guard, so that we are prepared for the final lines of the poem when Disch praises skydiving as the ultimate expression "of faith in things unseen: the wind, / The mind, the patient skill of seamstresses / Running immense lengths of nylon / Through their clamoring machines."

—Michael Donaghy

Disch, Thomas M(ichael)

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