Sunday, December 30, 2012

`More Entertaining Than He Was Serious'

“Slant” conjures Dickinson; “madding,” Gray. “Fruitfulness” and “clammy” are forever Keats’. The personal stamp of some poets is so indelible, so poetically DNA-specific, as to lay claim not only to stanzas, lines and phrases but individual words. Perhaps this is the ultimate memorability, to wield a word so forcefully that readers, centuries later, recognize its ownership. One can hardly imagine this happening today, as Joseph Epstein suggests in his review of a new book about Yip Harburg: 

“I wouldn't be the first critic to say that the real American poets of the past century were our lyricists. If memorability be the standard, they defeat the poets resoundingly. I walk the streets with dozens of song lyrics in my head and, with the exception of the verse of Philip Larkin, not a single line from a poem written after 1960. Which makes one wonder, in the realm of creative fantasy, if it would have been better to write `Over the Rainbow’ than `The Waste Land’ or `It's Only a Paper Moon’ than `Sunday Morning.’” 

My father-in-law attended St. Andrew’s College in Ontario, Canada’s largest all-boys boarding school. His bookshelves in the basement hold a dozen volumes, all published by Oxford University Press, he was awarded as academic prizes. Among them is The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1918, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. First published in 1900, this edition dates from 1949. The paper is translucent onion-skin. And the cover is leather. A bookplate at the front says J.M.P. Wood won the “Writing and Spelling Prize, Lower School,” in “A.D. MCMLI.” 

One can quibble with the selection. Quiller-Couch devotes twenty-two and a half pages to five poems by Matthew Arnold, but leaves out “Dover Beach.” He includes two poems by Dr. Johnson, neither of them “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” Donne gets three pages, Herbert four. But I’m struck by the number of poems Quiller-Couch includes that I hold in memory. Not every line, but rhythmic fragments, starting with the first in the collection, “Cuckoo Song,” by the prolific Anonymous (with parodic assistance from Ezra Pound).  And John Masefield’s “Captain Stratton’s Fancy,” with these familiar lines: 

“Oh, some are fond of red wine and some are fond of white,
And some are all for dancing by the pale moonlight,
But rum alone's the tipple and the heart's delight
Of the old, bold mate of Henry Morgan.” 

Before I read the poem again, I couldn’t have given you more than “rum alone’s the tipple,” but that would have been sufficient. And there’s Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” which stirred me as a boy and still stirs me: 

“Sunset and evening star,
   And one clear call for me!
 And may there be no moaning of the bar,
   When I put out to sea.” 

Epstein tactfully describes Harburg’s politics as “sentimental leftism.” In fact, when it came to politics, the lyricist was downright stupid. But I can recall and sing, without straining, six or eight of his songs, just as I know lyrics by Kipling and Masefield. Epstein writes:  

“Art anchored in politics is almost always art condemned to early demise. And so should Yip Harburg's less ambitious art have been, except for his great good luck in having been far more entertaining than he was serious.”

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