Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

One Hell of a Ride

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

One Hell of a Ride

Article excerpt

One Hell of a Ride Glyn Maxwell. Times Fool: A Tale in Verse. Houghton Mifflin 2000. 396 pp. $27.00

At my old university, the administration had a practice of deeming the occasional Tuesday "Monday" when a Monday had been missed or had "disappeared" owing to a holiday recess. Listed on the academic calendars as "Tuesday (Monday)," these doubled-up days allowed professors to make up lost time and the university schedule to run without interference from God or State. (Nobody, it appeared, asked where the lost Tuesdays went.) In practice, these days were a recurrent source of confusion, as professors, TA's, and students alike would forget either to attend Monday's classes on Tuesdays, showing up at all the wrong places, or to register that the following day was not Tuesday but Wednesday. Those who had mastered the system were like the Oxford don who, on being told that his college had passed an ordinance forbidding dogs, simply deemed his a cat and carried on as though nothing were different and nobody the wiser.

I find myself remembering "Tuesday (Monday)" whenever I come across that hybrid genre, the so-deemed "novel in verse." The form seems to be proliferating: Brad Leithauser's Darlington's Fall, Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, and Les Murray's Fredy Neptune are only three of the most prominent recent examples. But its popularity has not put to rest, for me at least, a certain bemusement. What do we make of this strange griffin, of its mixed modes and conventions? Where is the border between novel and verse? What about critical standards? Which ones should we apply-those of fiction or those of verse, of narrative or lyric? And if both, should we hold the whole to the highest of those standards, or make allowances-or new standards?

The book under review raises such questions, though its author falls short of calling it a novel in verse: Time's Fool: A Tale in Verse.1 There is, of course, a long and rich history in the West of such works, beginning, one supposes, with the epics-Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the Iliad, Beowulf--and moving on to The Canterbury Tales. And though the twentieth century has been dominated by the quasi-lyrical, non-narrative "long poem"-can The Waste Land in any way be considered a tale? can Patersorit The Bridget-two verse-narratives stand out in our time: Robert Penn Warren's Brothers to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices and Derek Walcott's Omeros. Where does Maxwell fall in this tradition? How has he managed to balance, bridge, or meld the competing, potentially opposing demands of narrative and lyric?

Established readers of Maxwell's work will already be familiar with his interest in mixed genres. he has been brave (or foolhardy?) enough to pen verse-dramas; in a recent collection he includes a verse-epistle to Edward Thomas; and a glance through his selected poems, The Boys at Twilight, reveals a fondness for narrative-dramatic forms: "Tale of the Mayor's Son" and "Tale of a Chocolate Egg" are two examples. The dramatic monologue-"a graft of the lyric on the dramatic," Tennyson's friend Arthur Hallam called it-also makes a number of appearances, as do poems composed in a choric or collective "we" ("We Billion Cheered," "Just Like Us," "Song of Our Man").

None of this is to suggest that Maxwell shuns the lyric. Some of his finest achievements are in that most personal of veins, and his more recent work, in The Breakage and The Nerve, has been less narrative and dramatic than heretofore. Take the lovely and balanced early poem "Either," in -which each line's trochaic final foot stands as a kind offence that the voice trips over, only to find itself in the field of a new line:

A northern hill aghast with weather

Scolds and lets me hurry over.

Someone phoned to tell my father

Someone died this morning of a

Stroke. The news has tapped me with a

Stick. I vaguely knew his brother.

No one knows where I am either. …

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