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Pompeii and Circumstance
Harper’s reader Richard Schlesinger, seeing the poem – which was first published in Poetry – objects:
“How mediocre does the prosaic imitator sound, when set beside his betters […], how banal the ideas, the words, the very language the so-called Language Poets champion compared with the poetry being riffed on.”
Schlesinger compares Auden’s much loved poem “Musee des Beaux Arts” (“About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters…”) with Bernstein’s, concluding that “Even the irony lacks iron.”
Bernstein’s published reply: “I […] will try to do better next time.”
He says that “Pompeii” was actually stimulated by poet and New Criterion executive editor David Yezzi’s view of Bernstein’s book Girly Man, published in an exchange with Ange Mlinko in the May 2007 issue of (you guessed it) Poetry. Yezzi, Bernstein points out, “liked it about as well as Mr. Schlesinger likes my poem.” Indeed, Yezzi compared the book unfavorably with one by Morri Creech that he praised for being, as Frost put it, “content with the old-fashioned way to be new.” Yezzi produced as evidence a poem of Creech’s containing these lines: “So once a man lost sight, / near Pompeii, of history’s beginnings, / caught in some lavish now // of appetite…”
“Malcontent that I am,” Bernstein explains, “my ‘Pompeii’ has its satiric origin here.” So much for riffing on Auden!
And it’s L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, OK?