This week, Robert Pinsky's monthly discussion poem in Slate is Ben Jonson's poem "Ode to Himself," wherein we are to consider the artful side of complaining. Kvetching, though, is a limited art, and one who thinks they might wish to make a career of being the nag-as-truth teller should think of the monotony of the guise promises. There comes a time when you can no longer notice any shortcomings you haven't already mentioned in previous columns, plays, novels, essays, poems even, and the things you come to critique fall into template mode.
You notice this quality sneaking into your writing. I call it" hearing yourself talk."That means that you find saying things you've said many times with utmost conviction, but now have noticed that your verve and sureness of position are badly flagging of late. You can predict the following clause and condition in a review you're composing--and the understandable is to make your language more elaborate, that Bloomian anxiety that makes one try harder to make their ideas unique. The uniqueness that a reader will notice, though, particularly readers a generation or so removed from your aspiring lifetime, will be the structure, the style, the antiquated rhetorical and vocabulary of your complaints against the way things happened in your period. All else become a matter of explication, a humbling thought when one considers that our quest to obey the critical rule of writing--be straightforward--will not likely withstand a few decades of changing lexical usage. For the Jonson poem, we have a reverse Whitman here, a savaging self-appraisal that might provoke you to punch another man had these exact words been spoken by him.
The problem, though, is that these words aren't told but written, and they rhyme. They clamor and clash and ring in harmony when the author's skill is so determined. They are an elaborate construction whose rhetorical infrastructure has traveled, to my ear, not well at all. The saying goes that no one can insult us to the diminishing degree that we're able to run the same number on our egos, as our own stories are the ones we needn't research; it's an intimacy with which one can elaborate upon at length, with examples of personal unworth becoming expressed in evermore clever disguises and unexpected twists in one's trail of self-criticism. What is left, through the decades, through the revolutions, assassinations, changes in convention and tastes, is a museum piece, a textbook example, an intricate, well preserved yet lifeless husk whose meaning has to be explicated, which is to say that it cannot be felt due to the brilliant configuration Jonson brought to bear on his attempt to lower his ego's profile.
The poem is more evidence of the playwright's fabled assholism. It does much the same thing as the title character in Edmond Rostand's Cyrano De Bergerac, when the hero, blessed with a big nose, responds to a weak insult to his beak with a series of sweetly stinging jabs of his own, at his own expense. This is a particularly effective little device of plain-spoken, self-directed invective that reveals a purposeful defense. If you're going to insult my nose, your barbs had better be this sharp... One might also consider that Rostand's story gets underway without a conceit-cluttered obstacle course slowing the traction and that the bittersweet ironies surrounding De Bergerac's temperamental genius--poet, wit, swordsman--doesn't get caged inside a fanciful virtuosity of the tongue. This is something akin to a grand statue one sees erected in town squares all over America and Europe, baroque creations that are admirable for their scale and technique, but whose existence is faintly ridiculous given that the passion of the inspiring event as ebbed from the collective memory.
It's not just yesterday's Avant-Garde that ages poorly, but also proficiency that, in time, only outsmarts its topic. Jonson's ode is like those statues, grand, impressive against history's stacked bulwark, but tarnished, battered, dinged, and leaving you what audiences saw in work that was so busy trying to provide its own musical score as well as idea that could spark a debate among the readership (amongst themselves or with the author) that was beyond the vain convolutions.