Friday, August 03, 2012

`Transformed By Comedy of the Self'

The web site “at Length” asked fifty poets to select “the long poems that interest them” and write about their choices. Predictably, many of the poets chosen for inclusion in “Short Takes on Long Poems” are embarrassingly bad – Anne Carson, Adrienne Rich, Thomas McGrath – but both Erica Dawson and David Yezzi pick Anthony Hecht’s “The Venetian Vespers,” and Robert Pinsky’s choice is a recent enthusiasm of mine, George Gascoigne’s "Woodmanship." His selection is admirably contrary because, for baffling reasons, the editors suggest the contributors “focus on poems from the last 70 years” – a sorry time in general for poetry, and certainly for long poems. Rachel Hadas, to her credit, picks De Rerum Natura by Lucretius. 

I was encouraged to read Gascoigne (ca. 1539-1578) by Pinksy’s former teacher at Stanford, Yvor Winters, who describes him as “one of the great masters of the short poem of the century” (Forms of Discovery, 1967) and judges “Woodmanship” his greatest. In it, the speaker apologizes to Lord Grey of Wilton for his poor marksmanship, which he explains is merely another example of his chronic failures in life. He has failed in philosophy and law, and as a soldier. Gascoigne, in fact, failed as a courtier and was imprisoned for debt. He was a miserable soldier in the Low Countries, surrendering to the Spanish forces who imprisoned him for four months. A collection of his erotic poetry, A Hundreth Sundrie Flowers (1573), was banned twice. Gascoigne’s poem begins in plain-style earnestness and quietly modulates into rueful comedy, creating an Elizabethan schlemiel. Pinsky writes: 

“His way of writing about himself, neither introspective nor charismatic, remains unusual: self-celebration qualified and transformed by comedy of the self.” 

Then Pinsky spoils things: “The closest comparison for me is with Allen Ginsberg.” What a terrible failure of taste and imagination on Pinsky’s part, comparing Gascoigne to a deviant and narcissist incapable of writing a decent line of verse. Rather, remember what Pinsky’s old teacher had written: 

“Gascoigne, Ben Jonson, Greville, Raleigh, Donne,
Poets who wrote great poems, one by one,
And spaced by many years, each line an act
Through which few labor, which no men retract.”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

The linked article goes beyond anecdotal to in flagrante delicto evidence of the misguidedly smug arrogance of the contemporary American academy. All these noted professors were given a straightforward assignment to write a short essay about a long poem less than 70 years old, and only six of the 12 managed to do so–not happy news for education. In my day, such a paper would be graded F without being read. The poems of Warren, Monfort/Strickland, Carson, Hecht, Walcott and McGrath actually qualified, the rest are either too old (even “Jerboa” by Moore was published in 1932) or too short (I love Lorine Niedecker but “Paean to Place” – at a little over 600 words – as a long poem?). I suppose one can come up with all kinds of “dog ate my homework” excuses, like Rich stringing together her similar poems counts, or anything written in terza rima should count, or anything longer than a sonnet technically is a long poem. But these professors seem more interested in comparing these poems to their first sexual experience than they are in actually making such arguments. It’s just blithely assumed they can do whatever they want with this assignment. I tried to find a higher percentage of compliance in the later parts of the series but the next one was 5 out of 12 (giving the poets Kapil and Cha who I’ve never heard of the benefit of the doubt) and I saw on the list names like Lucretius, Gilgamesh and Prufrock and said what’s the use. One guy even managed an epic double fail by proposing a short poem by Robinson Jeffers – which are actually hard to find.

It seems that among all the tools required for a shining literary career one must lose any sense of humility or sense of proportion relating to one’s own accomplishment, much as medical doctors are disabused of emotional and intuitive responses in the long med school slog. This compounds the existing Achilles heel of almost all writers, the basic character flaws of delusions of grandeur and self-importance that separate great from mediocre writers.

The result, as this article wondrously displays, is lying about one’s lies. As one of the poets mentioned in these lists, Czeslaw Milosz, said: “Grow your tree of falsehood from a small grain of truth. Do not follow those who lie in contempt of reality. Let your lie be even more logical than the truth itself, so the weary travelers may find repose.”