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Obit/Didactic

By Ange Mlinko

It was about a year ago that I read with Paul Violi at Pace University. Today—shocked—I see his black-framed photo on Silliman’s blog. A blogging category I neglected to put on my list: Obituary.

There’s something about breaking bread with a person, especially a person whose poems you’ve read with pleasure, that gives you a feeling of affection for him. That’s where the sense of a “poetry community” comes from, I know—even though I don’t really believe in a poetry community, any more than I believe you can know someone through their poems or blog posts (so much of it given over to social grooming). Yet Violi kept his illness private, justified in what I infer is his belief that poets aren’t family; information doesn’t belong to the internet.

Daisy has said everything I wanted to say about abstract craft talk, but if I had to generalize, Violi’s well-known Counterman offers a pithy preceptorial. It takes the measure of reality as the distance between a deli sandwich and the Cathedral St. Pierre. A deep bow to Paul Violi today.

Pleasures of the Didactic gave me pause. While you make an excellent point, Alicia, about didactic children’s songs—I heart, heart Schoolhouse Rock—I know in my own work I’m under the sway of two well-known aphorisms about poetry: John Keats’s “we hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us” and Philip Sidney’s “the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth.” Sidney of course didn’t think this was incompatible with poetry having an ethical function—but it is incompatible with the kind of didacticism I associate with overtly political poetry; or even the sort of somber moral force-field I associate with, say, Anthony Hecht or Robert Frost.

Which brings me back to Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. In an extraordinary penultimate chapter, we are privy to Elizabeth at the pearly gates. Yes—it is Judgment Day for Elizabeth Costello, and Coetzee’s stand-in for St. Peter, “a man in shirtsleeves, writing” tells her she must “make a statement” if she is to be admitted to the afterlife. “A statement of what?” she asks. “Belief. What you believe,” he replies. But what if one is not a believer?

“The man shrugs. For the first time he looks directly at her. ‘We all believe. We are not cattle.’ For each of us there is something we believe. Write it down, what you believe. Put it in the statement.”

Elizabeth Costello is stumped: “It is not my profession to believe, just to write. Not my business. I do imitations, as Aristotle would have said.” But the rest of the chapter records her turmoil as she wrestles with the question of what being a writer has to do with beliefs. This goes to show how uncomfortable our most exacting verbal artists are with the didactic, I think. And with its absence.


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, April 6th, 2011 by Ange Mlinko.