Thursday, September 08, 2011

`From Lyrical to Lofty, and Can Be Satirical'

I was already reading A.M. Juster’s translation of The Satires of Horace (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008) when my copy of Grace Notes: Poetry from the Pages of First Things (2010), including three poems by Juster, arrived in the mail. Among those anthologized is “Rejection Note for Paradise Regained,” Juster’s account of how John Milton’s publishers responded to his follow-up to Paradise Lost:

“Loved that first book—it’s got no equal—
but, Johnny, we don’t love your sequel.
If you would only take a chance
on self-help or a gay romance,
we’d let you keep your last advance.
Phony conspiracies would do
if you could find a hook or two—
like someone famous who won’t sue.
Marketing knows you’ll see the light,
and thinks Da Vinci is just right.”

The author of this Perelman-worthy parody of Madison Avenue-speak, “A.M. Juster,” is an incomplete anagram of the poet’s given name, Michael J. Astrue, who since 2007 has served as Commissioner of the U.S. Social Security Administration. The pen name echoes “jester” and “adjuster,” and implies that its bearer is juster than Donald Justice. Writing last year in First Things, Paul Mariani says:

“Michael J. Astrue is the best poet ever to hold a truly major appointed position in the American government. And A.M. Juster is the best senior civil servant of whom American poetry can boast.”

For too long, even the most well-heeled, long-tenured American poets have slummed in la bohème, playing countercultural dress-up, leading “the life of anybody free / of burdensome, depressing aspirations.” How good to know at least one poet, bearing a striking resemblance to a svelter A.J. Liebling, holds down a grownup job and earns his keep, while writing rigorously crafted and sometimes very funny verse. In one of his epigrams, “For My Ambitious Colleague,” Juster writes:

“Your uphill climb will never stop;
scum always rises to the top.”

Formal verse honoring the demands of meter and rhyme encourages humor, and free verse is seldom intentionally funny. Juster takes his place among contemporary poets with a taste for elegant wit, among them Fred Chappell, David Slavitt and X.J. Kennedy. Another Juster epigram, “Rationale”--

“Poems are best
when compressed.

“I detest
the rest.”

--is even terser than Kennedy’s “Terse Elegy for J.V. Cunningham,” though written in a similar spirit. Not surprisingly, all of the poets mentioned have translated Latin poetry. In his “Translator’s Note” to The Satires of Horace, Juster says his aim was to fashion “a faithful version of the Satires that was fun to read” (a welcome deployment of “fun” in this context), and writes:

“I have chosen to use rhyme, even though the Romans did not, because it is so embedded in our expectations of humorous poetry. The combination of rhyme and meter creates rhythms that lead to the expectation of a punch line, and the anticipation of the punch line is a key element of humor.”

Not only is Juster’s Horace rhymed, unlike the original, it’s composed in iambic pentameter couplets, eschewing the Latin hexameters. The resulting conversational feel encourages the wit, as in “Satire 10”:

“You need to be concise, so that a thought
can run on without ever being caught
in bombast battering our weary ears.
You must create a style that veers
from grace to giddy, runs from lyrical
to lofty, and can be satirical,
while limiting your zeal and holding back
your point of view. A joke can often hack
through knotty problems more emphatically
than something stated diplomatically.”


Dave Lull said...

David Yezzi writes of punch lines and sonnets and of other aspects of "the relationship between poetry and joke-telling" in his essay "These are the poems, folks" in the latest New Criterion:

WAS said...

On "Countercultural Dress-up" (After Horace)

Unreconstructed liberals persist
in thinking SSA should still exist,
for grownups know that taxes must be paid
so fat and ugly bankers can get laid.

Professors live like Roman Senators;
they open togas up for sophomores
and pine away for Ginsberg and Horace,
they ones they couldn't bugger up the ass.

Empires need their slaves and their patricians,
how else to assume S/M positions?
Where Christians once were entertaining foils
now Muslims are devoured for their oils.