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The Case for Paul Violi

This post is the work of Justin Jamail. –SC

In an era where most of the American poetry critics who still publish their views off of the internet seem to be the sort of people who prefer the worst of Keats to the best of Byron or Pope, it should not be very surprising to see Paul Violi complained of in a book review. The particular complaint lodged by Mr. Chiasson in the review of Best American Erotic Poetry is particularly irksome, however. Mr. Chiasson wrote: “Can it be that William Wadsworth’s or Paul Violi’s best erotic poems are better than Frank O’Hara’s second or 10th or 50th best? I’d like to see someone make that case.”

Well, here is the case for Paul Violi:

I want first to set aside complaints about the idea and execution of this anthology in general. Is it the sort of thing that a serious reader of poetry would buy? Probably not – at least none of the readers I know would buy it. Anthologies of poetry are different from all other collections of poetry in that they appear to be designed to make money. At least, that has always been how I have understood them. As a medium for bringing new poets to the attention of readers, the anthology has been trounced by the internet (Perhaps Mr. Lehman deserves credit rather than censure, though, for including so many living poets as a way of preserving this old purpose of
anthologies).

It therefore being the case that this anthology is neither particularly important or interesting to the serious reader of poetry, it is probably fair to ask why one would buck the New York Times Book Review‘s grand tradition of ignoring poetry for the purpose of panning something so benign. Actually, now that I think about it, this is not a small point. In the absence of any remotely serious attempt by the Book Review to bring great contemporary poetry to the notice of its readers, the complaints printed last week ring darned hollow.

The strength of poetry is that the best of it asks so little and delivers so much. The weakness is that it is easy to make a poem, so there are many more unpleasant poems than unpleasant novels. Pointing out a bad anthology or a bad book of poetry requires no effort and no work and does not even have the pleasure normally associated with a critical review.

I want to address two issues as to the inclusion of Paul Violi in this collection. First, the idea of including the work of Mr. Violi. Second, the idea of including this particular poem.

The reviewer complained, with much justice, of the absence of Marianne Moore (although, she is not the first place I would turn for the erotic!) and H.D. and Edwin Arlington Robinson (I withhold my opinion as to the absence of such as the Brock-Broido). I take it from his later tone with regard to Mr. Violi’s work that, were Violi to have been left out, Mr. Chiasson would not have complained about the absence. My feeling, and I can’t think of many people more qualified to remark on the subject, is that the absence of Mr. Violi from any anthology of American poetry would be every bit as objectionable as the omission of Marianne Moore. From the publication of his 6th book, Likewise, through to Overnight, his 9th and most collection, Paul Violi has been one of the most reliably interesting poets writing in this language. The appeal and interest lie in several strengths: variety of topic, inventiveness of form, mastery of the tradition, honesty of feeling, among others. For an introductory example, I recommend his long poem cycle “The Hazards of Imagery,” a tour de force in which Violi’s verse is, by turns, irreverent and serious, rambunctious and clear, erudite and goofy, sentimental and satirical, sincere and ironic.

As all writing teachers know, Violi’s work is an invaluable treasure-trove of inventiveness. He has written poems in the forms of indexes, police blotters, notes under windshield wipers, fashion show reviews, boat marinas, errata, acknowledgments, letters to editors, place-mat quizzes, auction lots, submission letters. In a typical volume of Violi’s poetry one can find excellent tanka, sonnets, blank verse, translations, short poems and long poems – even, famously, “alleolinear autorimic quasi-spondaic pyrrhic monometer.” Auden may sometimes get credit for identifying poetry as a ‘thinking game,’ but I first recognized the truth of that statement after reading Violi.

Look, it’s perfectly possible to honorably dislike Mr. Violi’s poetry. He does not place a high value on the “exquisite.” He is not a confessional poet. He does not betray any admiration of or influence by jazz. He does not replicate the blossomy pyrotechnics found in Stevens. However, if one appreciates the skillful marriage of high and low language; irreverent and erudite allusions to the cannon; the pleasure of a bathetic fall, and, as in the case of the poem included in the anthology, the occasional verse meditation that brings to mind the balance and timbre of fine chamber music, Paul Violi is hard to beat.

The fact of the matter is, Paul Violi’s work exemplifies a classical attitude toward poetry, which, though a minority opinion, has had real and lasting influence on American literature. Characterized by celebration, satire and playfulness (as opposed to eulogy, flinty sobriety, or the dull infatuation with identity), it’s an attitude which, with the possible exception of Kenneth Koch, could not be better represented than by Paul Violi.

So much for the case for Paul Violi’s poetry in general. As to the particular choice of this poem, I have a few things to say as well, but am not sure how to proceed. It seems inappropriate to offer a close reading in this context. I will just say, then, that I have always appreciated the poem included in the anthology for it’s deft combination of an attractively thin and sensuous attention to landscape (in the manner of poets of the New England landscape), the ambiguous formality of the form (“whereas” has both a sense of legal/legislative formula and of the formality of obsolete poetic voices), and, of course, the very pleasing final image – a terrific turn that depends on lulling the reader into ??? what? inattentiveness? complacency? Reminds a little of that famous James Wright poem ??? if the body of that Wright poem were better written and the end less like a sledge-hammer.

As to how this poem compares to O’Hara: First of all, O’Hara is a famously top-heavy poet, and I wonder if this was meant to redouble the insult to Violi? We’ll also leave aside the absurd idea of an anthology with 50 “erotic” poems by O’Hara! It’s tough to find 50 great love poems, much less 50 that would count as “erotic.” At any rate, I don’t think it would be a pleasant or useful exercise to see which poems are “better.” I have another way of thinking about it. If one were to take 25 of one’s favorite O’Hara poems and 25 of one’s favorite Violi poems, one would have 50 great poems. In the O’Hara pile there would be 25 poems of heart-wrenching beauty and startlingly affective observations, but one would be struck by the similarities among these poems. In the Violi stack, one would have 25 poems of delightfully, indeed riotously, inventive form and tone, and one would be struck by how different each poem was from the next. Is there any sense in asking which set is “better” ??? or even pretending to take seriously the obviously marketing-oriented title of this series of anthologies?

Poetic range has never been popular among American reviewers – they much prefer the single-mindedness of Stevens to the variety found in Koch. But range and variety in a poet can be as pleasurable as the career-long elaboration of a single theme (some might say more pleasurable), and the work of Paul Violi may be our best source of that pleasure.

CODA: I’d also like to throw in support for the derided Dean Young line (“I want to watch your face contort / like bacon as it fries”), a line I love as much as Shakespeare’s “O, you shall see him laugh till his face be like a wet cloak ill laid up!” But maybe Mr. Chiasson hasn’t seen that line ??? it’s not from a very well-known play or character.

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Justin Jamail, a writer from Houston, TX, contributes from Brooklyn, NY. He is currently working with Louis Grumet on a book-length account of the landmark Supreme Court case Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet.