Later this month, life-long North Carolinian Fred Chappell will turn eighty-five. He’s a rare writer who pivots from writing good novels – see his “Kirkman Tetralogy” – to turning out some of our funniest poems, though you’re unlikely to mistake him for a writer of “light verse.” See his four-volumes-in-one Midquest: A Poem (1981). Chappell taught for forty years at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He earned the right to mock the vanities of poets and academics, as he does in “The Sorrows of Intellectual Life” (2003, the year before Chappell retired), subtitled “freely imitated from the Seventh Satire of Juvenal.” The Roman poet’s theme is one of Dr. Johnson’s – the unreliability of patronage. No wonder Johnson wrote two imitations of Juvenal. Here is Chappell:
“But don’t expect the envied Guggenheim
If you’re some retro wretch who writes in rhyme.
Those prizes go to New York poets who
For years have shagged each other black and blue.”
Like all the best comic writers, Chappell knows nothing is funnier or more hopeless than cold, bleak reality. He concludes the poem:
“Best stay as you are. Spend your vacation
Reading up the history of our nation.
Read Lincoln’s speeches and John Adams’ letters,
Peruse the thought of those who were our betters;
Memorize the feats of Washington;
Savor the freedoms our citizen-soldiers won;
Inform your students when our patriots died;
Hoard your pennies; pretend you’re satisfied.”