Sunday, April 07, 2013

`A Polite Resistance'

How I miss happening upon a new poem by Tom Disch, who took his own life on Independence Day 2008, at age sixty-eight. I think of him, somehow, as “mine,” perhaps because he was never great, but always good and funny and memorable. His best poems are light without being light verse, that qualification that carries a hint of condescension. He titled a 1991 collection Dark Verses and Light. “Lightness” as I intend it suggests essential seriousness without self-seriousness, wit without earnest intent, Mozart not Wagner, a mingling of humility and virtuosity. Such poetry, by definition, cannot be pretentious or cloying. In 1995, Disch collected some of his reviews in The Castle of Indolence: On Poetry, Poets, and Poetasters. In “Death and the Poet,” a subject he returns to obsessively, he writes:

“Poetry, like so much else that is beautiful, is ephemeral. A butterfly, a nightingale, a sip of wine. It slips away, the particular joining the general. How many marvelously apt haikus have been written—and lost before the sun came up? Several million at least. Any poet must be prepared to see his work arise and vanish in the same morning mists.” 

Rare mature judgment in anyone, most of all a poet, that species most inclined to self-involvement. One of Disch’s sub-themes is the preening pride of poets, whether Charles Olson (“a liar, a drunkard, a leech, and a cheat”) or Amy Clampitt, about whom he wrote “At the Grave of Amy Clampitt” while she was still alive (“she is a monument / At last among the multitude that she has visited”). In the quarterly journal Modern Age, Helen Pinkerton recently reviewed Grace Notes: Poetry from the Pages of First Things, edited by Paul Lake and Losana Boyd. Disch’s “The Great Hall,” a poignantly fanciful vision of the afterlife, is collected in the anthology. Pinkerton doesn’t mention the poem, but what she says of the collection in general applies to most of Disch’s verse: 

“All the poets included understand the art of poetry—that is, as a medium capable of serious statement about human experience in one of the many forms available in the English-language tradition. There are no poems that do not make sense—no exhibitionist confessions or pretentious experiments in `vertigo’ or `self-deconstruction.’ Moreover, nearly all the poets prefer traditional English meters, and some are masters of it.” 

No one would call Disch’s verse stuffy, retrograde or old-fashioned, yet it’s rooted firmly in English poetic tradition. He’s a satirist, a lineal descendant of Juvenal and Catullus, whose humor usually carries a barb. Free-verse satire is almost oxymoronic. As a poet if not a novelist, Disch is never predictable but neither does he go out of his way to defy expectations or provoke simply for the sake of attention-seeking provocation. In “A Stroll Through Moscow” (About the Size of It, 2007) he writes: 

“Isn’t a polite resistance
To unthinking hostility my first duty, my appointed
Task? Isn’t it, in point of fact, the `work’
Of a writer to do whatever’s done, to join the queues
For cabbage, drink kvass, and share such pleasures
As are commonly available?”

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