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A twentieth installment in an annual series is an anthology of the past year's top-selected works by some of America's leading working poets, in a volume that includes pieces by such established names as Louise Gluck, Paul Muldoon, and Michael Palmer as well as an assortment of newcomers. Simultaneous. 40,000 first printing.
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David Lehman is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry and the author of seven books of poetry, including When a Woman Loves a Man. He lives in New York City.
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Heather McHugh is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Eyeshot and Hinge & Sign. She teaches at the University of Washington in Seattle and at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.
by David Lehman
A parody, even a merciless one, is not necessarily an act of disrespect. Far from it. Poets parody other poets for the same reason they write poems in imitation (or opposition): as a way of engaging with a distinctive manner or voice. A really worthy parody is implicitly an act of homage.
Some great poets invite parody. Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence" prompted Lewis Carroll to pen "The White Knight's Song" in Through the Looking Glass. In a wonderful poem, J. K. Stephen alludes to the sestet of a famous Wordsworth sonnet ("The world is too much with us") to dramatize the wide discrepancy between Wordsworth at his best and worst. "At certain times / Forth from the heart of thy melodious rhymes, / The form and pressure of high thoughts will burst," Stephen writes. "At other times -- good Lord! I'd rather be / Quite unacquainted with the ABC / Than write such hopeless rubbish as thy worst."
Among the moderns, T. S. Eliot reliably triggers off the parodist. Wendy Cope brilliantly reduced The Waste Land to five limericks ("The Thames runs, bones rattle, rats creep; / Tiresias fancies a peep -- / A typist is laid, / A record is played -- / Wei la la. After this it gets deep") while Eliot's late sententious manner stands behind Henry Reed's "Chard Whitlow" with its throat-clearing assertions ("As we get older we do not get any younger"). In a recent (2006) episode of The Simpsons on television, Lisa Simpson assembles a poem out of torn-up fragments, and attributes it to Moe the bartender. The title: "Howling at a Concrete Moon." The inspiration: The Waste Land. The cigar-chewing editor of American Poetry Perspectives barks into the phone, "Genius. Pay him nothing and put him on the cover."
Undoubtedly the most parodied of all poems is Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," which has long served graduation speakers and Polonius-wannabes as a touchstone. Arnold turned forty-five in 1867, the year the poem first appeared in print. Here it is:
The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; -- on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
The greatness of this poem lies in the way it transforms the painting of a scene into a vision of "eternal sadness" and imminent danger. Moonlight and the English Channel contemplated from atop the white cliffs of Dover by a man and woman in love would seem a moment for high romance, and a reaffirmation of vows as a prelude to sensual pleasure. But "Dover Beach," while remaining a love poem, is not about the couple so much as it is about a crisis in faith and a foreboding of dreadful things to come. It communicates the anxiety of an age in which scientific hypotheses, such as Darwin's theory of evolution, combined with philosophical skepticism to throw into doubt the comforting belief in an all-knowing and presumably benevolent deity. The magnificent closing peroration, as spoken by the poet to his beloved, has the quality of a prophecy darkly fulfilled. Genocidal violence, perpetrated by "ignorant armies," marked the last century, and it is undeniable that we today face a continuing crisis in faith and confidence. Seldom have our chief institutions of church and state seemed as vulnerable as they do today with, on the one side, a citizenry that seems alienated to the extent that it is educated, and on the other side, enemies as implacable and intolerant as they are medieval and reactionary.
Though traditional in its means, "Dover Beach" is, in its spirit and its burden of sense, a brutally modern poem, and among the first to be thus designated. "Arnold showed an awareness of the emotional conditions of modern life which far exceeds that of any other poet of his time," Lionel Trilling observed. "He spoke with great explicitness and directness of the alienation, isolation, and excess of consciousness leading to doubt which are, as so much of later literature testifies, the lot of modern man." And Trilling goes on to note that in "Dover Beach" in particular the diction is perfect and the verse moves "in a delicate crescendo of lyricism" to the "great grim simile" that lends the poem's conclusion its desperation and its pathos.
While perfect for the right occasion, a recitation of the poem is, because of its solemnity, absurd in most circumstances, as when, in the 2001 movie The Anniversary Party, the Kevin Kline character recites the closing lines from memory in lieu of an expected lighthearted toast, and the faces of the other characters change from pleasure to confusion and alarm. Inspired responses to "Dover Beach" spring to mind. In "The Dover Bitch," Anthony Hecht presents the situation of Arnold's poem from the woman's point of view. She rather resents being treated "as a sort of mournful cosmic last resort," brought all the way from London for a honeymoon and receiving a sermon instead of an embrace. Tom Clark lampoons "Dover Beach" more farcically. His poem begins as Arnold's does, but where in the third line of the original "the French coast" gleams in the distance, in Clark's poem light syrup drips on "the French toast," and the poem continues in the spirit of "crashing ignorance." A third example is John Brehm's "Sea of Faith," which Robert Bly selected for the 1999 edition of The Best American Poetry. Here a college student wonders whether the body of water named in the poem's title exists in geographical fact. The student's ignorance seems to confirm Arnold's gloomy vision, but it also spurs the instructor to a more generous response. After all, who has not felt the unspoken wish for an allegorical sea in which one can swim and reemerge "able to believe in everything, faithful / and unafraid to ask even the simplest of questions, / happy to have them simply answered"?
Poets like to parody "Dover Beach" because the poem takes itself so very seriously and because Arnold's wording sticks in the mind. But not everyone agrees on what lesson we should draw from this case. The poet Edward Dorn, author of Gunslinger and other estimable works, called "Dover Beach" the "greatest single poem ever written in the English language." What amazed Dorn was that it should be Arnold who wrote it. According to Dorn, Arnold "wrote volume after volume of lousy, awful poetry." The anomaly "proves that you should never give up," Dorn added. If Arnold with his "pedestrian mind" could write "Dover Beach," then "anybody could do it."
I have dwelled on "Dover Beach" as an object of irreverence not only because the parodic impulse, which informs so many contemporary poems (including some in this volume), is misunderstood and sometimes unfairly derogated, but also because of a superb counterexample that came to my attention this year. In his novel Saturday (2005), Ian McEwan makes earnest use of "Dover Beach" as a rich, unironic emblem of the values of Western Civilization. It is not the only such emblem in the book. There are Bach's Goldberg Variations and Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, to which the book's neurosurgeon hero listens when operating, and there is the surgeon's knife, the antithesis of the thug's switchblade. But a reading aloud of "Dover Beach" in the most extreme of circumstances marks the turning point in the plot of this novel whose subject is terror and terrorism.
Set in London on a day of massive antiwar demonstrations, Saturday centers on a car accident that pits Henry, the surgeon, against Baxter, a local crime boss. Henry gets the better of Baxter in the confrontation, and in retaliation the gangster and a henchman mount an assault on the surgeon and his family in their posh London home. Baxter systematically humiliates Henry's grown daughter, an aspiring poet, forcing her to strip off all her clothing in front of her horrified parents, brother, and grandfather. But the young woman's just-published first book of poems, lying on the coffee table, catches Baxter's eye, and he commands her to read from it. She opens the book but recites "Dover Beach" from memory instead -- with startling consequences. The transformation of the gangster is abrupt and total. In a flash he goes "from lord of terror to amazed admirer," a state in which it becomes possible for the family to overpower him. Thus does poetry, in effect, disarm the brute and lead to the family's salvation.
With the restoration of safety and order, McEwan allows himself a little joke at the expense of both Matthew Arnold and his own protagonist. The surgeon tells his daughter of her choice of poem, "I didn't think it was one of your best." The joke, a good one, reminds us of the poem's complicated cultural status: revered, iconic, but also mildly desecrated, like a public statue exposed to pig...
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