Reading the great poems of witticism

This site is an invitation to read the best poems of wit in English. It is a sort of  “greatest hits” collection comprising those works that, as a lifelong reader, I have found the most memorable and the most quotable. Also the most enviable. We wish we could have written them.

Many of the pieces in this compilation are great exemplary works in their use of extended metaphor. Also in their use of what T. S. Eliot has called metaphysical wit in his essay on the poetry of John Donne. So this is a weblog focusing on John Donne’s influence (also that of other classic wits) via Eliot and Auden and their modern literary inheritors.

My favorite poets of wit are:

– Sir Walter Raleigh in the 16th Century, also, of course, William Shakespeare;

– John Donne in the 17th century, also John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who was so outrageously irreverent;

– Jonathan Swift in the 18th century, also Robert Burns;

– George Gordon, Lord Byron, in the 19th century;

– And in modern times W. H. Auden, who restored so much of classicist discipline to modernism, plus John Crowe Ransom and Yvor Winters who taught the younger generations of poets so well;

– Also Karl Shapiro among the many good poets publishing during the Forties and Fifties post-war era, who were a “greatest generation” of ironists;

– W. D. Snodgrass and Robert Lowell in the Sixties and after;

– And in the late 20th century poets like Marilyn Hacker, formalists who were exploring the uses of verse forms and revivifying them.

I also love the masters of light verse, like R. S. Gwynn, like John Updike before him.

Of course, they are all here, just a poem or two from each, in my digital “copybook” of great works.

In assembling this online collection I am hoping to promote some discussion of witticism in poetry, and my essential point for discussion is that wit leavens the language of poetry with realism. It balances the flights of poetry’s eloquence with the realities of human struggles and downfalls. It thus gives poetry greater credibility and relevance.

This blog site is essentially a proposed print anthology in manuscript. It is “in process,” as well.  I’m still crafting it. Many of its discussions of poems are currently being written and re-written. The manuscript is being organized and edited on the web.  MDM

“As for the soul, I tell you what: it’s there, but it’s the mortal part”

From THE PETTY TESTAMENT OF PETER THE CLERK
~ by John Holloway

First, for my body: my will
(Which I now formally declare)
Is, it be stripped of clothes and leather
And, with no fuss, be laid quite bare
Less than a foot below the soil:
To which by action of the weather
It may revert; for it’s no harm
To put things back where they come from.

Item, for my immortal part,
Being unsure of its size and feature,
I leave this question in abeyance,
Till I can better grasp its nature.
But some time after I depart,
Why, go ask at any seance:
If I find I cannot go
To tell you– cadit quaestio.

But I suspect that all this kind
Of talk is upside-down; and when
We die, the immortal body fuses
Into a worm, into a hen,
A root, leaf, blossom– this I find
Likelier than metempsychosis.
As for the soul, I tell you what:
It’s there, but it’s the mortal part.

Item, I now bequeath my wife
All the things no one else will want:
Bits from my pocket, souvenirs, scraps
Of paper, first drafts, things that don’t
Make sense unless you know the life
They fitted in to. Then perhaps,
When you do know, can make the most
Sense, and re-make the meaning best.

And to my children I bequeath
My name; and bid them keep it clean:
Not one half lacquered, one half rust,
Which is, I fear, what I have done,
But keep it trim and tidy with
A modest, half-indifferent trust
In down-to-earth things, common sense,
Just as I hoped I might do, once.

Item, my money, let it go
To those who’ll spend it in one day,
Or those who’ll let the pittance lie,
Thirsting for interest. Either way
It’ll do no harm at all, I know.
Or have it foisted lavishly
On those I hate; and let them fret
All night what they’ll get out of it.

Item, whatever friends I can
Still muster, I leave lonely folk:
Yet doubt that this will serve their ends;
For the blind groping of the root
To find its soil, strikes everyone
At first for lack of, then through friends.
And mine (though I’m glad to call
Them friends) aren’t more than typical.

To poets I leave every work
I have of learning: for the pure
Blaze of the flower, up from the earth
Makes verse. But let them use manure.
Gossip, plain women, drink and smoke,
Will breed, they’ll find, a monstrous birth.
I leave all verse to men of letters:
That they may plainly tell their betters.

To my employers– viz., the State,
I leave this list of the mistakes
That I committed while their clerk:
Only by observing that it makes
A longer list by far than that
Of slips they noticed in my work.
Whence I infer, nosce teipsum …
Of which I think the point escapes ’em.

Now for the sins I must confess:
Fearing infection, I once kept
My clean cat from a filthy child
Who suddenly read my thought, and wept.
Twice, I made love turn lust: as less
Arduous to please, and easier to jilt.
And three times (or maybe oftener still)
Made a good plain man seem a fool.

But I owe a stricter penitence
(Or the trim garden’s rank, unweeded)
That once, for prim convention’s sake,
Like a rat, I slunk from all I needed
Offered in one grave gentle glance:
Although I thought my heart would break.
It didn’t though. And kind Time has
Slobbed it to rights, the way it does.

And now, alas, what is there left
Of all things that once were mine?
For every book and every friend
And every vice and virtue’s gone
Like things left on the beach, that drift
With the blind tide away from land:
Only, I think that it will be
Some little time before I die.

For in my thirtieth year of age,
A boaster and a loud-voiced man
Often enough, I Peter, clerk,
Being none too sound or healthy in
The mind or body, on this page
Thus write my will; and just remark
That when this bitter winter’s gone,
I shall, next year, be thirty-one.

##

Cadit quaestio (literally “The question falls”) means essentially “The matter is resolved” in legal parlance. Nosce te ipsum is translated as “Know thyself” in philosophic literature. Viz. means “Namely” and is an abbreviation used by scholars. Clerk in this poem is pronounced “Clark” in the English way and it rhymes with remark. Clerk here means “Scholar,” in the old medieval sense.

Metempsychosis is the legend that the soul is imprisoned in the body, it is freed after death to commune with immortality for some time, but then it is ultimately transmigrated into a future newborn babe.

John Holloway proposes the opposite. The body is eternal, as it becomes part of the earth. The soul is temporal, and it dies with the brain.

Holloway, a Cambridge scholar, consciously emulates the classic testament poems of Francois Villon in the 1400s, and he uses Villon’s ballade stanzas of eight tetrameter lines. Here they rhyme in an abc-bac-dd pattern.

“A Degas dancer pirouettes upon the parting of his hair”

MUSEUM PIECE
~ by Richard Wilbur

The good grey guardians of art
Patrol the halls on spongey shoes,
Impartially protective, though
Perhaps suspicious of Toulouse.

Here dozes one against the wall,
Disposed upon a funeral chair.
A Degas dancer pirouettes
Upon the parting of his hair.

See how she spins! The grace is there,
But strain as well is plain to see.
Degas loved the two together:
Beauty joined to energy.

Edgar Degas purchased once
A fine El Greco, which he kept
Against the wall beside his bed
To hang his pants on while he slept.

“My wisdom, ripe with body’s ruin, found itself tart recompense for what was lost”

I DREAMED THAT I WAS OLD
~ by Stanley Kunitz

I dreamed that I was old, in stale declension
Fallen from my prime, when company
Was mine, cat-nimbleness, and green invention,
Before time took my leafy hours away.

My wisdom, ripe with body’s ruin, found
Itself tart recompense for what was lost
In false exchange, since wisdom in the ground
Has no apocalypse nor pentecost.

I wept for my youth, sweet passionate young thought,
And cozy women dead that by my side
Once lay; I wept with bitter longing, not
Remembering how in my youth I cried.

“She died a dozen times before I died who could not die so frequently”

NYMPH AND SHEPHERD
~ by Donald Hall

She died a dozen times before I died,
And kept on trying, nymph of fatality.
I could not die but once although I tried.

I envied her. She whooped, she laughed, she cried
As she contrived each fresh mortality,
Numberless lethal times before I died.

I plunged, I plugged, I twisted, and I sighed
While she achieved death’s Paradise routinely.
I lagged however zealously I tried.

She writhed, she bucked, she rested, and, astride,
She posted, cantering on top of me
At least a hundred miles until I died.

I’d never blame you if you thought I lied
About her deadly prodigality.
She died a dozen times before I died
Who could not die so frequently. I tried.

##

The multi-orgasmic capacity of a woman in ecstasy is seen as a series of “petit morts,” or little deaths, by her astonished and admiring lover. A brilliant use of the villanelle form.

And having brought them to that famous height…he pushed them through the open-standing window”

from A POEM FOR JULIA
~ by Anthony Hecht

And I recall certain ambassadors,
Cuffed all in ermine and with vests of mail,
Who came their way into the town of Prague
Announced by horns, as history tells the tale,
To seek avoidances of future wars
And try the meaning of the Decalogue,
But whispers went about against their names.
And so it happened that a courtier wit,
Hating their cause with an intemperate might,
Lauded his castle’s vantage, and made claims
Upon their courtesy to visit it,
And having brought them to that famous height,
To witness the whole streamed and timbered view
Of his ancestral property, and smell
His fine ancestral air, he pushed them through
The open-standing window, whence they fell,
O in a manner worthy to be sung,
Full thirty feet into a pile of dung.

##

The Defenestration of Prague in 1618 triggered The Thirty Years’ War. (The upper floor of the castle tower from which the victims fell was, in fact, seventy feet above the ground.)

“The delicacy of difference between the beans I count and one uncounted bean”

THE FINAL MORBIDITY OF THE INTERIOR EMBEZZLER
~ by Henry Taylor

“It may seem morbid of an embezzler to keep a memorandum, but many of them do. It may be mere neatness.”  Wallace Stevens

I’ve made a little sluice-gate in the flow
of cash across the spreadsheet on my screen.
Amid torrential chaos and foreseen
disasters it maintains its small and slow
on-off diversions, so my work can show
the delicacy of difference between
the beans I count and one uncounted bean,
and where the latter might invisibly go.

The hollowed shoe-tree, the hermetic jar
are gadgetry I might revert to yet.
There is the money of the thing, the far
secure retirement years, the deep-hedged bet,
but I love working where the unknowns are
and writing down what I need to forget.

##

Henry Taylor parodies the grandiloquent title of one of Wallace Stevens’ most knotty and abstruse poems, “The Final Soliloquy Of The Interior Paramour.”

While a great poet, Stevens was also a highly placed executive in an insurance corporation. Thus Taylor refers here to morbidity, foreseen disasters, torrential chaos, and sluice-gates diverting the flood. Almost all these insurance-related terms are being punned upon.

Diversions refer to an embezzler’s illegally diverting funds. Morbidity is a severe degree of unhealthiness. Making a memorandum means keeping a record. And, of course, bean-counting is accountancy.

Morbidity here is psychological, a sort of death-drive, or “thanatos,” in the bean counter’s overly punctilious record keeping. A fatal compulsion. Accountants are notoriously driven to be fastidious about showing their work.

“Beauty is momentary in the mind…but in the flesh it is immortal”

PETER QUINCE AT THE CLAVIER
~ by Wallace Stevens

I.
Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the selfsame sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.

Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,

Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna.

Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders watching, felt

The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.

II.
In the green water, clear and warm,
Susanna lay.
She searched
The touch of springs,
And found
Concealed imaginings.
She sighed,
For so much melody.

Upon the bank, she stood
In the cool
Of spent emotions.
She felt, among the leaves,
The dew
Of old devotions.

She walked upon the grass,
Still quavering.
The winds were like her maids,
On timid feet,
Fetching her woven scarves,
Yet wavering.

A breath upon her hand
Muted the night.
She turned —
A cymbal crashed,
And roaring horns.

III.
Soon, with a noise like tambourines,
Came her attendant Byzantines.

They wondered why Susanna cried
Against the elders by her side;

And as they whispered, the refrain
Was like a willow swept by rain.

Anon, their lamps’ uplifted flame
Revealed Susanna and her shame.

And then, the simpering Byzantines
Fled, with a noise like tambourines.

IV.
Beauty is momentary in the mind —
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.

The body dies; the body’s beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden’s choral.

Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death’s ironic scraping.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.

##

Here rendered in metaphysical poetry is the story of Susanna from the Book Of Daniel, Chapter 13, in Apocrypha.

Beauteous Susanna is plotted against by corrupt Hebrew elders. They have spied on her bathing in her gated, walled garden. They each try to seduce and molest her. As they are influential at court, they coerce and threaten her: they might make invidious accusations against her wifely virtue if she does not succumb. She cries out against them, bringing servants rushing to her aid — the elders then falsely accuse her of lewd and adulterous conduct.

Eventually, Daniel saves her reputation, demonstrating in court that the elders are lying. The elders are put to death by the court, at which they had been councilors. (Stevens relies on our having awareness of the Biblical literature. I, for one, certainly had to look it up.)

Susanna’s beauty is an immortal memory for her husband, who knew her in the flesh. For the spying elders, it was a fleeting conception, followed by death.

“I shall continue till I die to pay in cash for what I buy”

DOGGEREL BY A SENIOR CITIZEN
~ by W. H. Auden

Our earth in 1969
Is not the planet I call mine,
The world, I mean, that gives me strength
To hold off Chaos at arm’s length.

My Eden landscapes and their climes
Are constructs from Edwardian times,
When bathrooms took up lots of space,
And, before eating, one said Grace.

The automobile, the aeroplane,
Are useful gadgets, but profane.
The enginry of which I dream
Is moved by water or by steam.

Reason requires that I approve
The light bulb which I cannot love:
To me more reverence-commanding
A fishtail burner on the landing.

My family ghosts I fought and routed,
Their values, though, I never doubted:
I thought their Protestant Work Ethic
Both practical and sympathetic.

When couples played or sang duets,
It was immoral to have debts:
I shall continue till I die
To pay in cash for what I buy.

The Book of Common Prayer we knew
Was that of 1662:
Though with-it sermons may be well,
Liturgical reforms are hell.

Sex was, of course — it always is —
The most enticing of mysteries,
But news stands did not yet supply
Manichean pornography.

Then conversation was an art,
Like learning not to belch or fart:
I cannot settle which is worse,
The Anti-Novel or Free Verse.

Nor are those Ph.D’s my kith
Who dig the symbol and the myth:
I count myself a Man of Letters
Who writes, or hopes to, for his Betters.

Dare any call Permissiveness
An educational success?
Saner those classrooms which I sat in,
Compelled to study Greek and Latin.

Though I suspect the term is crap,
If there is a Generation Gap,
Who is to blame? Those, old or young,
Who will not learn their Mother Tongue.

But love, at least, is not a state
Either en vogue or out of date,
And I’ve true friends, I will allow,
To talk and eat with here and now.

Me alienated? Bosh! It’s just
As a sworn citizen who must
Skirmish with it that I feel
Most at home with what is real.

##

Manichean theology, in the early centuries of Christianity, was a dualistic view of the body as a source of evil and the spirit as a source of good.

A construct is a broad unproven conception, often just a working theory. As much as it appears to be an attempt at synthesizing the data of experience, it is a product of one’s cultural background and its underlying assumptions. It is an artifact of one’s society and one’s time.

The Edwardian Era was a time of unusual prosperity, peace, and leisure at the turn of the century, before the First World War, in Auden’s native England. One of the chief constructs of Edwardian times was that civilization had reached an apex of glittering style via a leisure class of country homes with servants, and it would remain always thus. All of which was shattered by the war. The servants joined the army and were slaughtered in the trenches, and the country estates were unable to prosper amid modern mass-commerce and industry. Now the great country houses are mostly museums for the public’s amusement.

The anti-novel, in the postmodern era of the 1960s and after, dispenses with linear narrative sequence and other novel-writing conventions, instead depicting some of the raw flux of life as is.

The Generation Gap of the 1960s was an opposition between the patriots of the Forties and the anti-war pacifists of the Sixties, their offspring, with all that entailed.

“A Pentecostal hair-do with a woman underneath looked in, copying down my scrawl with a tight grin”

THE CLASSROOM AT THE MALL
~ by R. S. Gwynn

Our Dean of Something thought it would be good
For Learning (even better for P.R.)
To make the school ‘accessible to all’
And leased the bankrupt bookstore at the Mall
A few steps from Poquito’s Mexican Food
And Chocolate Chips Aweigh. So here we are–

Four housewives, several solemn student nurses,
Ms. Light– serious, heavy, and very dark–
Pete Fontenot, who teaches high-school shop
And is besides a part-time private cop
Who leaves his .38 among the purses,
And I, not quite as thin as Chaucer’s Clerk–

Met for our final class while Season’s Greetings
Echo subliminally with calls to buy
Whatever this year’s ads deem necessary
For Happiness and Joy. The Virgin Mary,
Set up outside to audit our last meetings,
Adores her infant with a glassy eye.

Descend, O Musak! Hail to thee, World Lit!
Hail, Epic (‘most of which was wrote in Greek’)
And hail three hours deep in Dante’s Hell
(The occupants of which no one could spell)–
As much as our tight schedule might admit
Of the Great Thoughts of Man– one thought per week.

I’ve lectured facing towards ‘The Esplanade’
Through plate-glass windows. Ah, what do I see?
Is that the face ‘that lunched a thousand ships’
Awash with pimples? Oh, those chocolate chips!
Ms. Light breaks in: ‘Will this be for a grade?’
It’s a good thing the students all face me.

One night near Halloween I filled the board
With notes on Faust. A Pentecostal hair-
Do with a woman underneath looked in,
Copying down my scrawl with a tight grin
That threatened she’d be back with flaming sword
To corner me and Satan in our lair.

Tonight, though, all is calm. They take their quiz
While I sit calculating if I’ve made
Enough to shop for presents. From my chair
I watch the Christmas window-shoppers stare
At what must seem a novelty, and is,
The Church of Reason in the Stalls of Trade–

Like the blond twins who press against the door,
Accompanied by footsore, pregnant Mummy,
Who tiredly spells out for them the reason
I am not price-tagged as befits the season,
Explaining what is sold in such a store
With nothing but this animated dummy

Who rises, takes the papers one by one
With warm assurances that all shall pass
Because ‘requirements have been met,’ because
I am an academic Santa Claus,
Because mild-mannered Pete’s strapped on his gun.
Ms. Light declared she has enjoyed the class:

‘They sure had thoughts, those old guys,’ she begins,
Then falters for the rest. And I agree
Because, for once, I’ve nothing left to say
And couldn’t put it better anyway.
I pack the tests, gather my grading pens,
And fumble in my jacket for the key,

With time to spend and promises to keep
And not one ‘hidden meaning’ in the tale,
Among those drifting schools of moon-eyed teens,
License and credit pulsing in their jeans,
Who circle, hungry for the choice and cheap–
Something of value, soon to go on sale.