Saturday, February 22, 2014

`No Harm in a Little Coherence'

A publisher sent me unsolicited the first book of poems by an impossibly young poet, judging by his photo on the back cover. He wears one of the approved young poet’s uniforms – shaved head, unshaved chin, designer glasses and the sport-coat-over-T-shirt combo. His parents invested a lot of money in orthodontia. The contents of the book, in which the first-person singular predominates, are less pretty. I’ll resort to vagueness so as not to lend him unearned attention, but our young poet has two subjects – himself and his sensitive reactions to various approved subjects, including Lady Gaga and the Palestinians. And he has two modes of discourse – emaciated, Creeley-like fragments and lush, plummy prose and prose-like poems. The latter tend to be applied to landscapes and female bodies. Not one line or thought in the volume will surprise an attentive reader and I defy anyone to memorize a single line, not counting the three that consist entirely of “I.” 

In 1978, C.H. Sisson published The Poetic Art (Carcanet Press), his free and very amusing rendering of Horace’s Ars Poetica.  The poem is written in the form of a letter to Lucius Calpurnius Piso, the senator and consul, and his two sons. As Sisson explains in his notes, “Nobody knows who they were. The poem itself points to their being a family who dabbled in literature. No doubt they were well-to-do.” Here are lines 14-24 as translated by Sisson: 

“Begin a work as if it were going to be serious
And decorate here and there with a modern image
Presenting the utmost secrets of the unconscious
Or else some scene of spectacular sexual interest
Or something putting the white man in his place.
Thank you but not just now. I see you’re enlightened;
But it isn’t you we are after at the moment.
It’s nice sometimes to stick to objective matter.
Funny that someone should start off telling a story
And end up treating us once more to himself.
Whatever you do, no harm in a little coherence.” 

The first five lines, of course, are a set-up, a Swiftian booby-trap laid for the credulous, right-thinking reader. As Sisson says, drolly: “It can be assumed that Horace did not think that his advice would make poets of his correspondents. The irony of this situation has sometimes been missed.” The translator compares it to Ezra Pound’s “A Stray Document” in Make It New (1934). In his notes to the passage above, Sisson writes, perhaps especially to young poets:

“Because a book must be a whole, there is no place in it for `purple patches’—beautiful descriptions of beautiful things put in for their own sake. They will get in the way of the development of the story or the argument or the main drift of the poem…It is easy to excite a momentary interest with the commonplaces of sex or politics. Only the writer should not imagine that because his reader responds to such things that he is responding to a poem; or indeed that he has written a poem at all.”

1 comment:

George said...

There is also Lewis Carroll's "Poeta Fit, Non Nascitur"