Sunday, October 9, 2016


The House on Boulevard St. (New and Selected Poems), David Kirby

Some Jazz a While (Collected Poems), Miller Williams

The Year They Outlawed Baseball

The year they outlawed baseball
nobody played.
The next year people said
how it used to be,
the center fielder leaping up the wall.
The next year a few men tossed a few
in backyards and basements
without the gloves.
The ball gives off a sound
hitting the leather
anyone around could recognize.
Still people talked
and that was the end of that.
For years the widows kept scarred and lopsided balls
on the top shelves of closets in back rooms
and thought of showing them to trusted friends.

--Miller Williams

Wit, in English, was an invention of the 16th century. The Romans had it too, but these days only a classicist gets their jokes. Englishmen read Horace, made a few translations, then struck out on their own. Smart people are witty, or can be; less smart people are funny; the unsmart tend to mistake vulgarity for humor. And so on down the line until you get to sit-coms that only machines find amusing.

We know that Ben Jonson had wit; Shakespeare did too, in spades, and all of those great metaphysical poets you may have read in college and forgotten. Remember John Donne's "The Flea"?  Or those double entendres that fill Shakespeare's woodsy comedies?

All of the definitions, as well as the etymology of the word, link wit to both humor and intelligence, "a pleasing aptitude for using language in such a way as to make both intelligent and humorous commentary on the human condition" is my own formulation, based on half-a-dozen respectable sources. I note, without surprise, that the use of the word "wit" has declined precipitously over the past century--soon, I imagine, "wit" will join "civility," "dapper," (a word I love), "urbane," and "sophisticated" on the scrap heap of linguistic history. After all, though we are quite comfortable using words that no longer have any meaning--"truth" for example--at a certain point the jig is up: no referent, no word. And where, I wonder, do we look for wit nowadays? In our poets and hardcore troubadours, where else? Those anachronistic beings who labor to keep the language rich in the face of its diminution.

"In the days after my first marriage collapsed, I thought
              Virtue is gone, in the words of old Sir John Mandeville,
the Clergie is in error, the Devil reigneth, Simonie beareth away,
                                          Suicide carrieth off many, and Drink taketh the rest,
one of whom was me--I was sleeping single
            and drinking doubles, oh year, for I didn't have a clue about love,

not one, only the youthful example of my parents
              and my pre-teen foray into the world of beefcake magazines,
of Grecian Pictorial, MANual, and Trim
                                   with their smiling sailors face down on beachtowels,
their Italian teenagers in posing pouches leaning against
          fake Roman walls, their latter day Houdinis in baby oil and chains....

--David Kirby, from the title poem of his New and Selected Poems

There's no "typical" David Kirby poem, except in his use of saw-toothed margins, moments of seeming gravity ("my first marriage collapsed") followed at once by wry forays into tangential scholarship ("old Sir John Mandeville"...old indeed!), utterly arcane cultural citations (when was the last time you saw the word "beefcake" in a poem?), self-mockery (a consistent feature, varying only in degrees of savagery and affection). I wish I had the patience to type out this or any other Kirby poem in its entirety--they're all a hundred or more lines long, meandering through the inner world of the author as he confronts life's little oddities, like attending the funeral of someone he didn't know ("At the Grave of Harold Goldstein") or noticing a dog with a lampshade around its neck while eating--that is while Kirby eats--a patelito ("Winter Dance Party"). The opening lines of many Kirby poems are like the opening quips of one of the older generation of great stand-up comics--a Bob Newhart, a Shelly Berman, or a Milton Berle rather than like one of those contemporary vulgarians know who they are.

[Aside: I can't help it: though he is certainly much better read (without flaunting it) and is much younger, Kirby's self-doubting inner voice constantly reminds me of Newhart, my favorite neurotic funny man. Those old comics did neurosis well--Rodney Dangerfield and Phyllis Diller, or, going back a little, Jack Benny on radio. And if not neurosis, then harmless craziness as with Jonathan Winters and his star pupil, Robin "Mork" Williams].

Here's Kirby--almost an opening monologue:

 "'Enchantee!' says Mrs. Huntington, extending her hand,
                              which I take, my jaw dropping onto my chest
and my brain going into gridlock
                as I tell myself, Think, Kirby, say something,
anything, but I'm just standing there like an idiot...."

Kirby's poems are loosely constructed, but structured; that is, they have a clearly recognizable form that is disguised by their shifts in tone and swings from formal to informal diction, as in this one, "The Ghost of Henry James," a wry meditation on Henry James and especially on Portrait of a Lady, quite a feat, given the high solemnity of almost all of James's work. Should poems make you laugh? Kirby's do, and in this as well as in the erudition, mingling of high and low diction, the rattling lines and off-beat subjects one can see the debt he has to Albert Goldbarth, perhaps our foremost poetic satirist. (See The Kitchen Sink, New and Selected Poems).

Kirby also writes prose books that amaze with their combination of deep reading, cultural savvy, total coolness and approachability. I recommend Ultra-Talk, with a very long subtitle that includes the names of Johnny Cash and Theresa of Avila. Who wouldn't want to have Kirby for a teacher?

Miller Williams mines slightly different poetic terrain. Where Kirby explores the idiosyncrasies of a Kirby-persona in a highly personal way, with a style that is perfectly suited to his off-beat subjects, Miller Williams is running around in the same world that you and I occupy. The style is quotidian, even bland--William Stafford with a rather more jaded view of the human comedy. Williams has the patient, avuncular tone of someone who has seen it all and decided that wry humor is a better deflector of stupidity than bitterness or cynicism.

One of Those Rare Occurrences on a City Bus

For exactly sixty seconds riding to work
approaching a traffic light going to green
he understands everything. I mean from the outer
curling edge of the universe to quarks,
the white geometries of time, of language,
death and God, the potted plants of love.
He sits there and looks at the truth. He laughs.
What could we want, except for him to laugh?
Understanding all, he understands
he has only sixty seconds, then he returns
to live with us in ignorance again,
and little enough to laugh at. "Do you have a pen,"
he says to the man beside him,
"that I could use?" The man pats his pockets
and shakes his head and shows his open palms
to say that he is sorry. Fifty-three. Fifty-four.

Not a perfect poem--he might have stopped at line 12--but a good one, and typical of Williams's style and voice and world-view. Over and over he takes a look around and sees what we all see--violence and friendship and love and dying--and turns them over in his mind's eye, scrutinizes them, then offers them back to us clarified, intelligently parsed and wittily presented.  There's a searching, spiritual side to Williams, the sort of questioning attitude that reminds me of the metaphysicals. The wit of poems that say something like "Hell, I can't make sense of anything, but here it is, as I see it, and just to make sure I'm seeing aright, here are half-a-dozen things I've also seen that are sort of like this, but not quite." One of the reasons why the poems of Williams and Kirby are so chock-a-block with references and ideas is that making sense of things requires a mighty big tool kit. Any old problem can be torn to shreds with reason alone, but the witty poet understands that the point isn't to analyze the world, or to change it, but to grease it up enough so that it will fit into some sort of order that we have concocted for ourselves. Borges did this with his fictions, perhaps better than anyone else, and I can't think of any writer who matches Borges for wit in the classical sense--but that's the idea: not compiling irrelevant information but recognizing that you have to sort through a great deal of debris to find a way to fit the new fact into the world you inhabit.

Let's add this to our definition of wit: the willingness to directly address our failure to come up with a story that will convince anyone that we know what we're talking about. After all, what's funnier than ambiguity?

Hu's on first?

George Ovitt (10/9/16)

David Kirby is published by Louisiana State University Press; Miller Williams by University of Illinois Press

No comments:

Post a Comment