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

Advertisements

“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.