Wednesday, July 04, 2018

'We Can't, for That, Omit Their Praise'

Poets no longer seem to have much fun. They’re a dour crowd, twitching with resentments, earnestly wooing the Muse and writers of blurbs, comporting themselves with all the right emotions – sensitivity, sincerity, tolerance – but for what? No one takes them seriously and no one laughs. It wasn’t always that way. One thinks of poets as various as Byron and Stevie Smith, complicated people and amusing writers eager to amuse. Happy to be in their company was Tom Disch, who ended his life on this date, July 4, Independence Day, in 2008. That the funniest poet of his generation should commit suicide was no surprise to his close readers. No one courted death in his verse so ardently as Disch. He titled his 1991 collection Dark Verses & Light.   

The year before he died, I unexpectedly discovered Disch’s final collection, About the Size of It (Anvil, 2007), on a shelf in Borders, now as dead as Disch. A happy jolt of excitement connected me to my adolescent self, and I recalled finding Disch’s novel Camp Concentration on a library shelf in 1969. In my experience, it is the only work of science fiction worth reading more than once. About the Size of It is pure pleasure, unlike most contemporary poetry. Even at his most savagely satirical (especially on the subject of other poets), Disch is having a romping good time. Here is “Systems of Mourning”:

“The Irish hire keeners, the English mutes.
Some hobbyists will bronze the loved one’s boots.

“Revival theaters devote entire weeks
To proofs that Elvis Lives and Garbo Speaks.

“Vikings consign their chieftains to the waves,
And Amy Clampitt visits famous graves.

“Sorrowing bees return to ruined hives,
And Hindus burn their neighbors’ grieving wives.

“A dog will mourn his master like a serf
By pissing on the dear departed’s turf.

“Some weep in silence, others cry out loud,
And Susan Cheever sells her father’s shroud.”

In his review of About the Size of It, Eric Ormsby captures Disch’s tone precisely, its fine calibration of ferocity, wit and sheer imaginative anarchy. Disch is seldom heavy-handed, even when flaying his target. Ormsby writes:

“Mr. Disch is an unusual poet. He is mischievous and elegant in equal measure. His poems can be hilarious yet aren’t really ‘light verse.’ You have the feeling that the marvelous timing, the clever rhymes, the melodious stanzas, are not produced for mere effect but serve to channel a tremendous exuberance. Mr. Disch clearly has great fun writing poetry and his pleasure is contagious.”

“Exuberance” is a rare quality in writers, one we associate with Dickens and, on occasion, Joyce, not contemporary poets. Anthony Hecht and James Merrill had it, sometimes. High spirits are best expressed metrically, in form. The rest is gushing, and Disch never gushes. Here, from Yes, Let’s: New and Selected Poems (1989), is “Entropic Villanelle,” in which he celebrates the falling apart of things in a notoriously difficult form, and enjoys himself immensely:
“Things break down in different ways.
The odds say croupiers will win.
We can't, for that, omit their praise.

“I have had heartburn several days,
And it's ten years since I've been thin.
Things break down in different ways.

“Green is the lea and smooth as baize
Where witless sheep crop jessamine
(We can't, for that, omit their praise),

“And meanwhile melanomas graze
Upon the meadows of the skin
(Things break down in different ways).

“Though apples spoil, and meat decays,
And teeth erode like aspirin,
We can't, for that, omit their praise.

“The odds still favor croupiers,
But give the wheel another spin.
Things break down in different ways:
We can't, for that, omit their praise.”

Never has a suicide made us so happy to be alive.

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