Monday, October 08, 2018

'I Put on No Laurels'

The hubris of size still afflicts writers, Americans in particular. Pound produced a repellent, incoherent botch. Other poets subsequently aped him: Crane, Williams, Olson, Lowell and Berryman. The novelists, of course, were not immune to bloat: Gaddis, McElroy, Barth, Pynchon and Wallace, among others. Like zeppelins, their books are swollen and empty, and inevitably crash. The phenomenon is not new, nor exclusively American. Read the famous letter Keats wrote to his friend Benjamin Bailey on this date, Oct. 8, in 1817:

“The high Idea I have of poetical fame makes me think I see it towering high above me. At any rate I have no right to talk until Endymion is finished—it will be a test, a trial of my Powers of Imagination and chiefly of my invention which is a rare thing indeed—by which I must make 4000 Lines of one bare circumstance and fill them with Poetry; and when I consider that this is a great task, and that when done it will take me but a dozen paces towards the Temple of Fame—it makes me say—God forbid that I should be without such a task! [….] Did our great Poets ever write short Pieces? [….] I put on no Laurels till I shall have finished Endymion […].”   

Knowing what he was soon to produce – the odes, inarguably short poems – the letter is embarrassing to read. With Endymion, he largely wasted his time. The opening line is itself a thing of beauty, though ridiculous as a statement of truth. We’re obliged to read the poem because Keats wrote it, and diligent readers will discover gems along the way, but it’s still lousy. It’s interesting to note that the last collection published by Berryman during his lifetime, Love & Fame (1970), takes its title from the final line of a Keats sonnet.

I’ve read one recent exception to the size-as-morbid-obesity problem faced by poets:  Aaron Poochigian’s book-length Mr. Either/Or: A Novel in Verse (Etruscan Press, 2016). I read it last Thanksgiving Day and again recently, and I suspect one way to avoid the long-poem curse is to have a lively and flexible sense of humor. Poochigian is a classicist and translator of Greek, and simultaneously has a sensibility steeped in popular culture. He has composed a page-turner (a claim I would normally avoid) that is very funny and never reads like self-indulgence.

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