Monday, November 20, 2023

'He Worked His Weaponed Wit'

A reader is displeased: “Oh my aren’t you witty?” He/she was offended by something I had written a long time ago about Robert Bly. Granted, criticizing Bly is like shooting fish in the bathtub with a bazooka. I was a little ashamed of myself but that passed. My consolation is that X.J. Kennedy comes to my rescue with “On Being Accused of Wit” (Dark Horses, 1992): 

“No, I am witless. Always in despair

At long-worked botches crumpled, pitched away.

A few lines worth the keeping, they are rare.

Blind chance not wit entices words to stay

And recognizing luck is artifice

That comes unlearned. The rest is taking pride

In boring duty. This and only this.

On keyboards sweat alone makes fingers glide.


“Witless, that juggler rich in discipline

To whom the Virgin might have dealt short shrift,

Flat on his back with beatific grin,

Gracing the air with slow-revolving gift;

Witless, La Tour, that painter none too bright,

His draftsman's compass waiting in the wings,

Measuring how a lantern stages light

Until a dark room overflows with rings.”


Dark Horses is Kennedy’s finest collection. It includes the best poetic tribute to J.V. Cunningham I’ve read -- “Terse Elegy for J.V. Cunningham,” first published in The New Criterion in October 1985, barely six months after Cunningham’s death:


“Now Cunningham, who rhymed by fits and starts,

So loath to gush, most sensitive of hearts --

Else why so hard-forged a protective crust? --

Is brought down to the unreasoning dust.

Though with a slash a Pomp’s gut he could slit,

On his own flesh he worked his weaponed wit

And penned with patient skill and lore immense,

Prodigious mind, keen ear, rare common sense,

Only those words he could crush down no more

Like matter pressured to a dwarf star’s core.

May one day eyes unborn wake to esteem

His steady, baleful, solitary gleam.

Poets may come whose work more quickly strikes

Love, and yet -- ah, who’ll live to see his likes?”


Thank you, dear reader, for giving Kennedy, if not me, the opportunity to work his “weaponed wit.”


Richard Zuelch said...

Read the linked piece on Bly. I was interested in your comment that C. S. Lewis is a writer you're not interested in. I find that surprising. Setting aside his Christian writings, you're not interested in his literary criticism? Not even his big book: "English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama" (1954; recently reprinted [2022] by Harper One [they even took the trouble to re-typeset it)?

Surely you might reconsider. Lots of good stuff in Lewis.

Thomas Parker said...

The Discarded Image (on the medieval worldview) is also a fine book. As for his fiction, Till We Have Faces (his last novel) is very powerful; Lewis considered it his best book. It stakes out his position in a much more oblique - and I think more effective - way than his more overtly Christian works.

I've never read any of Bly's criticism, but the silly men's movement stuff makes me think of something Evelyn Waugh said - "When the water holes ran dry, people sought to drink at the mirage."