Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Leveling the Spirit

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Leveling the Spirit

Article excerpt

David Barber. The Spirit Level TriQuarterly Books 1995. 81 pp. $29.95 $12.95 (paper)


"Some things are truly lost," laments the bibulous telepathist in Richard Wilbur's poem "The Mind-Reader." A sun hat skitters from a parapet and somersaults out of view, a pipe wrench flies from the back of a pickup and slides into a ditch, "a book / Whose reader is asleep, garbling the story, / Glides from beneath a steamer chair and yields / Its flurried pages to the printless sea." As someone whose life's work may be measured in inches of shelf space, Wilbur must have relished the tart irony of including this waterlogged volume in his catalogue of the deleted, a libricide that serves, I think, as a figure for the fate of nearly all printed matter. Something there is that doesn't love a book, Wilbur's image counsels us, that wants it drowned or not at all. Despite the best efforts of culture (and its enlightened outposts, the megastores), life tends toward printlessness, whether by Alexandrian conflagration or merely the fact that art lasts only as long as our faulty memories for it. If hardly anyone reads a poem anymore, how fully can it be said to exist? The vast principality of Oblivion, unlike so many of the world's more popular destinations, requires no visas or duties, no green cards or lotteries; quite the contrary, it liberally bestows citizenship on all who wash up at its melancholy borders.

Some literary works are so truly lost that even St. Anthony, x-ray-- visioned patron of mislaid car keys, cannot contravene their disappearance. Take for example the true story of a poet whose second book his publisher has slated for production, an occurrence even more rare than having an inaugural volume go to press. What passes through the poet's mind as advanced copies begin making the rounds? A keen expectancy, to say the least-a state of agitation somewhere between proleptically accepting the National Book Award and standing under the widening shadow of a Steinway piano. Whereas a first book gains one membership to the guild, a second suggests stamina, a sense of being screwed to the sticking place, and demonstrates enough chops to curtail accusations of flash-in-the-pan-- ishness. Two books tempt an author to pencil poet in his passport, to consider himself an emigre who, though born and raised in Oblivion, has successfully claimed asylum in the republic of letters.

Now what if, in the midst of this reverie, the telephone rings? An unspeakable snafu has intervened, a tragedy along the lines of the one that befell Frank Kermode when he mistook garbage men for professional movers and allowed his personal library of manuscripts and rare books to be chucked out with the trash. The bad news: All of the newly packed cartonsful of the poet's book, the entire print run, have been sent inadvertently to the shredder. As unlikely as this sounds, such was the whinging mischance of the poet Henri Coulette, whose second book of poems was never reprinted. Only after his death, when Donald Justice and Robert Mezey edited Coulette's collected work, did the poems rise like Dantean souls out of the acid-free pulp to have their say.

Of course, tragedies of comparable magnitude happen all the time, albeit in less dramatic fashion. Such a fate regularly claims most first books of poetry, which rain like Perseids in the literary skies, streaking briefly, faintly, through the thin atmosphere of public regard. With such bleak prospects for success or acknowledgment of any kind, the question arises as to why more people than ever seem intent on mastering the rules of what Eliot famously deemed "a mugs game." For many with the dour fortune of bumbling within its compass, the contemporary poetry world has long awaited a clear-eyed satirist-a muckraker or insurgent naysayer-who will adjust the balance between the passed-over deservers and the overpraised self servers. Enter the critics, who, if they do not incline to tout the emperor's Ungaro, sate themselves on ransacking the gilded atriums of his eminence. …

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