Monday, June 08, 2009

`The Gentlest Whisper'

No wonder the masses trample each other fleeing poetry. In “The Goblin and the Poet,” verse comes off as the opiate of the holier-than-thou. The production the boys and I saw was adapted from a story by Hans Christian Andersen and performed with Bunraku-style puppets, with puppeteers dressed like ninja beekeepers. The story pits a miserly shopkeeper and his wife against the poet who lives in their garret. Between them comes a goblin who likes butter in his porridge but is tempted by the poet’s noble sentiments. At one point, the word “creativity” floats across the stage.

Chosen to illustrate the wonders of poetry and seduce the goblin Nisen (Danish for goblin, not an automobile) are a haiku by Kobayashi Issa and “Stars” by Langston Hughes – very multicultural. Though the play is set in 19th-century Denmark, the first line of the latter poem is recited without fear of anachronism: “O, sweep of stars over Harlem streets.” The greedy grocer, a cartoon embodiment of mercantile Philistinism, dismisses poetry as “a waste of time,” and says, “I get all I need from the daily newspaper.”

The audience of mostly mothers and preschoolers was restive. About two-thirds of the way through the show my 6-year-old, in a stage whisper, said: “This is really boring. Can we go now?” I was tempted but worried we might wake the audience. We stuck to our seats. The shopkeeper would have approved: I got the tickets for free.

I’m reading William Logan’s most recent collection, Strange Flesh, which includes “Cedar Key after Storm,” written in memory of Donald Justice. The year he died, 2004, was rough on some of our best poets. We lost Anthony Hecht, Czeslaw Milosz and Thom Gunn. Justice was a poet of memory and twilight, and of exquisite craft, who worked in small forms and has never been sufficiently recognized as one of the chief experimental poets of the era. One feels he could have done anything in poetry except write it pretentiously. Read the final stanza of Logan’s poem and know he is speaking simultaneously of the poet’s final illness and of his work:

“Your voice was the gentlest whisper,
Your health had gone so fast.
Of all the things you were,
Perhaps that would be the last.”

Justice and Logan would be unlikely to find a place in the scheme of “The Poet and the Goblin” or in most popular understandings of poetry. Consider “The Thin Man” from Justice’s 1967 collection, Night Light:

“I indulge myself
In rich refusals.
Nothing suffices.

“I hone myself to
This edge. Asleep, I
Am a horizon.”

No comments: