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

“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.