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Poetry and Chess

 

I was perusing YouTube for new movie trailers, as I do sometimes in between cases at work. Confession: I never intend to go watch the flick unless it’s a new Bond or new Star Wars, since the trailers are usually more interesting than the movie anyway (witness Age of Ultron). It’s something like getting a tantalizing quote from an unfamiliar poet in a sea of critical prose; one does best not to reserve the whole Collected.

Anyway, it so happens that an upcoming biopic about the chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer is called Pawn Sacrifice, and it so happens that I was thinking about poetic styles recently. So naturally the idea in the background seized on the trailer onscreen; and it occurred to me that every stylistic decision is strategic, and a literary style is akin to strategy in chess. The endgame is to pursue and capture the elusive Black King that is True Poetry, and in the course of attaining that end, poets routinely engage in any number of pawn sacrifices.

The difference, however, lies in what elements of literature a poet considers to be a pawn, which an instrumental Knight, Bishop, Rook, or Queen, and which the sought-for King. In the course of getting those more important pieces into play, and getting them freedom of movement, the player-poet will see pawn after pawn off the board.

Are tumultuous feeling, sustained descriptions of nature, and an insistently candid autobiographical “I” all pawns, readily dispensed with? Yes, according to grandmaster Kay Ryan; to her, rhyme is a rook, coherence is a bishop, and a real-time apperception of meaning is Queen. Yet can clarity of meaning, rhyme, and coherence be intentionally sacrificed? Yes, according to grandmaster John Ashbery. How about sustained Chaucer-like storytelling over dozens of pages? Sustained narrative is nearly-unanimously considered a pawn, if you polled contemporary page poets.

Every great style, if you go down the list, sacrifices something to attain something. That is the nature of style; we think of it in terms of what we see in front of us, but every inclusion implies the exclusion of its opposite. This holds true even of the most grab-bag inclusive poets in the English tradition. So Shakespeare is secular and extrovertedly dramatic, so much so that even his supposedly “intimate” sonnets are divorced from any agreed-upon personal narrative, leading to centuries of speculation (the same holds true of the man). All that he excludes took human form in the author of poems like Paradise Lost (overtly religious) and “On his Blindness” (overtly autobiographical). About John Milton we know so much more than we know about Shakespeare, it’s hard to imagine their lives overlapped, that Shakespeare died when Milton was already eight years old. Similarly, the garrulously public poet Whitman, whose intimacies are blared through a 19th century verse equivalent of a megaphone, leaves room for a Dickinson, who is everything Whitman isn’t (tight, rhymed, intimate, streamlined) and some things he is (mystical), only in the opposite way: Whitman’s mysticism focused on humanity and nature in the broadest collective sense, while Dickinson’s songs-of-herself focused on just that, her unique, private self.

This is reassuring to me; it reminds me that no one writer can be all things, that there is always room in literature for another writer. Because while poetic style may resemble chess strategy, poetic art itself is nothing like chess. It is a one-player game in which the places on the board keep switching, the pieces melt if the clock ticks too long on a good idea, and any piece can move in any direction, including up, where sometimes the elusive King is waiting, in the sky, with diamonds.