“If the father of criticism [Aristotle] has rightly denominated poetry . . . an imitative art, these writers will, without great wrong, lose their right to the name of poets, for they cannot be said to have imitated anything; they neither copied nature nor life, neither painted the forms of matter, nor represented the operations of intellect. ”
– Dr. Samuel Johnson, describing the metaphysical poets…
Fred Chappell is a poet of considerable gifts. His work has won him the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Bollingen Award, and numerous other distinguished honors. I’ve long been an admirer of both his poetry and prose (he’s won several prestigious fiction awards, too, and I’ll be reporting on one of his novels, Brighten the Corner Where You Are, later in this series), and I’m fortunate enough to say that I know him a little, having attended UNC Greensboro and worked for him as projectionist for a film course he taught with William Tucker back in the early 1970’s. I’ve seen him a few times at readings and he has sort of remembered me – or given a good performance of pretending he did. I’m okay with either.
I suppose all this back story is neither here nor there in reporting on the next book on my reading list, Chappell’s most recent book of poetry called Shadowbox. Praise has been uniformly heaped on this collection – but almost all of that praise has come from fellow poets who have either personal connections to Chappell – or who possibly want them. That kind of “incestuous reviewing” always makes me a bit sad – because it is yet another suggestion that those of us who try to create something more meaningful than prolefeed about vampires, zombies, wizards, and BDSM for bored housewives ad nauseum are merely writing for each other rather than for any sort of “reading public.”
I’m a sophisticated, educated reader – and a writer of prose (fiction and nonfiction) – who approaches these poems from the position of English professor – which means I have a pretty good grasp of prosody and poetic aesthetics – and as a writer who gets the difficulty of writing poetry (it’s the main reason I write prose almost exclusively). I guess I imprinted on JFK’s prolefeed about challenging ourselves: I read books “not because they are easy, but because they are hard….”
All the poems in Shadowbox are challenges to the reader. Kathryn Stripling Byer notes that Chappell has possibly invented a new type of poem with the poems in this book. The poems themselves are wonders: poems are nested within poems, they enclose poems, they offer cinematic shots of themselves, they become reliquaries for poems by others, and, they offer poems constructed like musical counterpoint pieces. Chappell lards his poems with allusions – to Sappho and Catullus and to the metaphysical poets (though I might suggest that he finds Crashaw more intriguing than Herbert, even though Herbert’s “shaped poems” seem to me an obvious source of inspiration – and if by some odd, odd chance you see this, Mr. Chappell, remember, I studied the metaphysical poets under Dr. Amy Charles who terrified me into knowing them as intimately as one can in a single graduate level course so I see the metaphysical poets everywhere I look at times). And in the “reliquary” section of Shadowbox Chappell chooses to create shrines to, of all things, German Romantic poets. This is not greeting card stuff.
Dr. Johnson, cited above for his famous condemnation of the metaphysical poets might take great exception to what Chappell has done. Though in that same critique Johnson notes the following: “But wit, abstracted from its effects upon the hearer, may be more rigorously and philosophically considered as a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike. Of wit, thus defined, they have more than enough.”
Johnson may have meant this as disapprobation, but in the case of Chappell’s superb poems in Shadowbox, these same words can be used to offer high praise.
I offer that here. This is poetry done as well as it can be done.
And I conclude with one of Chappell’s “nested” poems that offers you a taste of his excellence (the “nested” part is noted in italics, per Chappell):
A Drop in the Bucket
Inside this bucket made of white oak staves
wherewith they carry water from the well,
I feel I am the I am contained
and whole, because in this small space, restrained
and still, there is insufficient room to move
about, for places to change place, to rove
at chance, and the stiller things become (the pail
set down) the more am I the I I am (oak leaves
falling around the cabin, cool stars streaming above).