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The Real Predicament
Christian Bok’s post here is a sad reminder of a persistent problem with poetry reviewers and bloggers: the dismissal of “cerebral” work and the exaltation of a crude notion of the “emotional.” Bok’s reviewer is a tad less obvious — he requires a “predicament” if not outright confessions — but still, it seems to me a code for emotional blackmail.
I’m reminded, actually, of a single sentence in this review of Robert Hass. After telling us that Hass’s poems “focus on the natural world, his private experiences, and the people and places he knows best,” the reviewer complains, “Hass’ work has a demure, sometimes evasive strain: He’d been publishing for 30 years or so before readers learned about his mother’s debilitating alcoholism.” I almost keeled over. Dear Reader, do you expect to know all about my mother too? Nobody told me this when I started writing poetry at 15, after Gerard Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot. Nobody even told me at my MFA program! Is it too late to go to law school?
I know of a poem that addresses the problem of art, emotion and confession …
SAUL PINKARD ON THE FORTUNE OF MUSICIANS
Did Samuel Scheidt hit the bottle once too often?
Or did his patrons in the Dutch Baroque decide
That Tafelmusik troubled their digestion?
Since 1610 his music had been popular.
In 1625, whatever might have been the cause,
Scheidt had a fracas with the aldermen.
In 1633, the plague. Forwarned
and holding herbal bags to nervous noses,
The bigwigs in their wagons quit the city.
Humble Scheidt was not forewarned. His wife
And all his offspring perished in the plague.
All his offspring, and his wife, they died.
The boil in the armpit. Sudden agonizing fever.
An old enchanter crazed with helplessness.
And the fresh dead, the handbell, the pushcart.
Scheidt in his compositions could of course
Not tell of this. Music is discreet.
To the smiler Boccherini, to Berwald the Bore
Patrons tender envelopes. However jealous
Syndicated cynics and the gods may be,
While fishier troopers oftentimes cry havoc,
The artist hides underneath his wings
What follies of his own or busy interlopers
Have scored across his back: the stripes.
Of course, some might say there is a paradox here. The poem tells outright what music cannot: the terrible story. And it’s true, poetry can tell, can narrate. However, it’s possible that it loses something by doing so. This poem moves me, but it is also pathetic and constrained by its moral. I treasure it for its final three lines, which point elsewhere: they point toward the music that results from those secret stripes. I trust secret stripes. They’re honest.