BooksWeekend

“Reckless sympathy, scorn”: Paul Violi’s Last Poems

by Barry Schwabsky on July 5, 2014

Violi, Tame Magpie

Paul Violi’s poetry has rarely been taken as seriously as it should be. Probably that’s because he never took the spirit of seriousness as seriously as many people do, especially when it comes to poetry. His erudition never wears an academic gown. According to Charles North and Tony Towle, the editors of The Tame Magpie, a posthumous gathering of poems left unpublished at Violi’s death in 2011, our poet was ambivalent about being labeled (as they are) a second generation member of the New York School: “Pound, for example, was as important to him as the French modernists,” they point out; “so were Coleridge and Keats.” That’s as may be. But for me, French modernism aside, enrollment in the New York School seems easy enough; you just need to pledge allegiance to John Ashbery’s dictum that “art is already serious enough; there is no point making it seem even more serious by taking it too seriously” while still bearing witness to what one of Violi’s personae, Guiraut (or as Violi spells it, Giraut) Riquier, the last of the troubadours, bluntly calls “the difference between buffoons and true poets.” By the standard of just-serious-enoughness, Violi, true poet, rates emeritus status in this school.

If you haven’t read Violi yet, The Tame Magpie might not be the book to start with, but it’s a welcome addition to his oeuvre for anyone who’s already hooked. The heart of the book consists of sixteen poems called “I.D.’s” — a series of riddling monologues (continuing a series Violi debuted in his 2007 collection Overnight) each of which asks the reader to guess its speaker’s identity. For those of us who are stumped, the answers are revealed by an “answer key” at the end, and they range from Nero to Curzio Malaparte, Fragonard to Ulysses S. Grant, not mention more obscure figures like the cartoonist Joseph Keppler or the 2nd Duke of Montague, a notorious practical joker of the eighteenth century—all men (Violi is probably what you’d call a guy’s poet) except for one avian species whose gender is not indicated, the Lappet-Faced Vulture, an inhabitant of North Africa and the Middle East who sounds as gruff and eccentric as any of Violi’s human personae:

If you bother me I will hiss at you,
If you threaten me, I will vomit on you.
Caveat lector: I can with stunning accuracy
Spew a good ten feet.

But the I.D.’s are not quite the “dramatic monologues” North and Towle call them, since the speakers are more like figures in a pageant than characters in a drama. But I think Violi offers a secret self-portrait in the second of these new I.D.’s, whose ostensible subject is Democritus — no, no, not Demosthenes, the orator who overcame his speech impediment by rolling stones around his mouth as he spoke, but Democritus, the pre-Socratic philosopher who opined, in Violi’s rendering, that “Nothing exists but atoms and empty space; / All the rest is rumor and guesswork. / (Poetry is worthless.)” Unlike almost any thinker before or since, Democritus counted cheerfulness as the highest ethical good. And yet his laughter worried people — was it kindly or cruel, reflective of contentment or mockery? As imagined by Violi, the philosopher mulls over the suspicions he arouses and wonders:

Couldn’t they hear it all together, a chorus of one?
Kindly mirth, empathy, reckless sympathy, scorn,
All in the same raw ardent voice,
Cockerel or rooster—young or ancient,
Ancient and eager in the dawn.

It’s hard not to hear that raw ardent voice filled with mixed sympathy and scorn as Violi’s own. Unlike Pound, Violi rarely fancies up his writing. This cunning artificer keeps his language as declaratively straightforward as he can, sometimes even flirting with prosaic flatness. I imagine his jaundiced view of how some poets primp and groom their verses is reflected in this take-off on a fellow plain-speaker who nonetheless had a far greater appetite for enjambment:

So much depends
On
The white chickens
Martha Stewart
Fluffs
And
Blow-dries
Before
Letting them
Free range
On her front lawn

In his other poems — here and earlier — Violi’s line is usually congruent with a syntactic unit and end-stopped nearly as often as not. Violi’s mastery lies in his ability to fetch all sorts of unexpected overtones from these blunt units. My favorite among his poems, or at least my idea of his poetry’s most perfect encapsulation, is still an old one that I published in a little magazine that was a folly of my youth, a ransom note in the form of a haiku:

Don’t look at my face.
No change, just large bills.
One wrong move will be your last.

To me, the existential implications of those three little lines go on forever, like the rings I imagine rippling around the splash of water in the ancient pond that Bashō’s frog jumped into. In poetry, Violi was rarely prone to wrong moves and rarely counted style’s small change; so it comes as something of a shock to realize that the poems of The Tame Magpie will be his last.

Paul Violi’s The Tame Magpie (2014) was published by Hanging Loose Press.

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic email newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.

Previous post:

Next post: