George Starbuck

By Hecht, Anthony | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

George Starbuck


Hecht, Anthony, The Wilson Quarterly


Once upon a time, there was a poetry entrepreneur-cum-anthologist named Oscar Williams who was the maker and breaker of the budding careers of young poets by dint of his powers to include or exclude them from his Little Treasury series of American or Modern Poetry collections. To be included was to be noticed by the major book publishers and in due course to find one's way to a published volume of one's own. To be denied that recognition was bad enough, but to be "dropped," to have Oscar's Oscar contemptuously taken away, was like being consigned to a special poetic oblivion. This terrible fate befell the brilliantly gifted George Starbuck, whose bravura technique probably has no match among English-language poets of this century.

It was not for any incompetence that he was dismissed from Williams's pantheon. It was instead because of what Williams belatedly discovered in a Starbuck poem that he had included in a previous anthology. The poem was called "A Tapestry For Bayeux," and it was about intricate naval operations during World War II. Composed, dauntingly, in dactylic monometer (three syllables to a line, with the accent always on the first), the poem consisted of a dozen 13-line stanzas and had a needlework complexity even at first or second reading.

The wrath of the anthologist was provoked when someone eventually showed him that, along with its other complications, Starbuck's poem was an acrostic, with the initial letters of the first 78 of its 156 lines spelling out:

Oscar Williams fills a need but a Monkey Ward catalog is softer

and gives you something to read.

For all the charm of such a tour de force, simple considerations of length prevent its presentation here. Nor is there room for a double-dactylic poem 124 lines long; nor for a book-length poem entitled "Talkin' B.A. Blues; the Life and a Couple of Deaths of Ed Teashack; or How I Discovered B.U., Met God, and Became an International Figure"; nor for the remarkable "The Sad Ballad of the Fifteen Consecutive Rhymes"; nor for a poem called "The Staunch Maid and the Extraterrestrial Trekkie," subtitled "hommages a Julia Child." This last begins, "Stand back stand back, Thou blob of jelly./ Do not attack/ A maid so true./ I didn't pack/ My Schiaparelli/ To hit the sack/ With a thang like you," and continues four stanzas later, "You shall not lack/ For mortadelle./ You shall not lack/ For pate-b-choux./ You shall have aq-/ Uavit quenelle/ Mit sukiyak-/ I au fondue." There are 14 stanzas in all, observing the same rhyme scheme and form throughout.

Starbuck's work is not confined to high jinks and hilarity. He has written ten some of the most mordant comments on society's flaws and international blunders to be found in contemporary poetry. Of these, "Just a Little Old Song" is a powerful indictment of southern gentility, while "Of Late" seems to me, after many years of reading very bad poems of moral outrage on the topic, certainly the best poem to be written by an American about the Vietnam conflict.

Nevertheless, it is for the astonishing fertility of his wit; his easy traffic with vernacular parlance, regional speech, and idiomatic and demotic melting-pot American; his effortless technique in such forms as the ballade, the clerihew, and the double-dactyl; and his general cheerfulness and lively intelligence that Starbuck is to be read, and is likely to be remembered.

His Who's Who entry tells us that Starbuck was born June 15, 1931, in Columbus, Ohio, studied at the California Institute of Technology (his early aptitudes were in science and mathematics), Berkeley, Chicago, and Harvard. He spent two years in the armed forces and a year at the American Academy in Rome, has been married three times, and is the father of five children.

One catches glimpses of the man himself in the memoirs, letters, and photographs of New England literary life in the late 1950s and afterward. For example, there is a celebrated photograph of Robert Frost at Bread Loaf in 1959, resting against a huge boulder in the midst of a mown field and holding forth to a reverent group of aspiring young poets, including Starbuck and Anne Sexton, crouched on the ground before him. …

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