Thursday, October 9, 2008

An unfair dismissal of a Walter Savage Landor epigram

By Ted Burke

Slate's poetry editor (and former U.S.Poet Laureate) Robert Pinsky joins those of us on the Poems Fray forum to discuss his most recent selection for the weekly poem, Walter Savage Landor's "On Love, on Grief". I don't think much of epigram, but I take my hat to Pinsky for rolling up the sleeve to discuss the poem with the board's regular participants. It's a pleasant surprise to have an editor descend from the mountain and shoot the breeze. He seems like a good chap.

On love, on grief, on every human thing,
Time sprinkles Lethe's water with his wing.

Slight, compact, dense with associations that come in the form of end notes or paragraphs of prefatory remarks, this epigram does little for me as a piece of writing. What pleases one person as euphonious phrasing , an ideal aligning of vowels and consonants that keep a beat and a lift, I find instead to be sing-song and nearly trite.

The verse has an appeal for the classicist, the marm, the relentlessly erudite who recognize what is disguised by Sandor's compressing sensibility and who take a special joy in excavating the terms and elaborating on original context and usage, but this effort seems , to me, to be in service to cracker-barrel distillations of kinds of wise adages that have become cliches and platitudes; Shakespeare's quips continue to surprise, Oscar Wilde skewers us continuously , Donne can still be counted out to make you consider present circumstance in larger terms, but this?
Two lines that seem like the joined limbs of a twig, caught in the Lethe's waters, battered along the shoreline, battered by rushing rills, drowned in the crashing foam.

A forum participant, a resourceful writer writing under the name Mary Ann, posted a counter example of an epigramtic poem where what is seen is more important than what one thought about what was seen:


by Howard Nemerov

Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned into pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.

There came a moment that you couldn't tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.

The Nemerov poem is disciplined enough to leave the abstractions alone and concentrate instead on the details and their movements, in their space, in their context. Although no poet can truly escape the trap of loading their images with the subjectivity that attends their word selection, Nemerov at least keeps his rhetoric under control and comes as close as one might at a poem when perception of the thing itself is before us. Sandor sounds poised to settle an argument with a verse that tries to make all parts of a problematic sensation surrender to a harmonious relativity, while Nemerov isn't interested in debating points but rather in seeing what's in front of him, understanding it , perhaps, without his regular filters in place. This is all that Pound extolled, that we have to rid ourselves of the lard and concentrate on the right words to get the perception right, in the sharpest focus.

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