The Failed Arsonist
by A.E. Stallings
In a post-Augustan age, what you need is not epics but epigrams, not poets battened on the endowments of the Mycenas foundation, but a lean satirist, sharpening his quill and dipping it in bitter ink: a modern Martial. Anthony Harrington fits that bill.
I have known Harrington for the better part of 20 years. We met in Atlanta, as part of a group of poets associated with the Callanwolde Poetry Series. Looking back, I marvel that a group of older guys—the core of which was made up of Turner Cassity, Gene Ellis, Ron Hendricks, and Tony Harrington—accepted into their ranks a girl only a handful of years out of college (I was probably the youngest by some thirty years, until not much later joined by my friend and coeval, the poet Lane Young, whom I met in high school), and not as a token female, or mascot, but as one of their own, an Honorary Poetry Curmudgeon. We talked poetry at poetry readings, argued about poets and poems and rhyme and scansion at bars, formed a team at literary trivia (at which, alas, I rarely had much to offer as the knowledge among them was encyclopedic, and I was less autodidact than dilettante). They took my out-sized ambitions in stride, without an ounce of condescension.
In retrospect, the 90s were a critical period in my poetic education, and Tony Harrington was a major part of that. His genius is in guiding one not towards personalities, but poems. James Dickey, whom many of the group had encountered in Atlanta during his drinking days, when he had managed to offend nearly everyone in town, was an occasional topic of conversation or gossip. But Tony would always conclude these conversations with the assertion that, as Auden had said of Kipling and his views, Dickey would be pardoned for writing well: St. Peter would give him a pass to paradise for “The Heaven of Animals” alone.
Poetic greatness and its flip-side, ambition, are common topics of Harrington’s wide-ranging verses. It’s the natural concern of a poet who writes mainly short witty poems that rhyme, i.e., “light verse.” When it comes to literary judgments, we tend to privilege length over brevity, tragedy over comedy, sensibility over wit, even though, when it comes down to brass tacks, few would say that Walt Whitman is a hands-down favorite over Emily Dickinson for posterity. And I would add that these modes aren’t necessarily the decisions of poets, but of muses. As Callimachus says, Apollo tweaked his ear and told him to fatten his livestock, but keep his verses slender.
The epigram, the quatrain, the label of “light verse” turn out to serve Harrington well; they allow him to give full reign to his subversive skepticism. His apologies for his verse are often themselves sly literary tropes (again, think Martial), flavored with a grain or two of Attic salt, or else apologies only in the Greek sense: formal defenses. Take “On Writing Conventional Verse”:
To drive a vehicle that can burst away
With a hotrod’s rubbery squeal,
One is not required every night at the track
To re-invent the wheel.
Let “serious” poets agonize about their “accessibility” to the vulgar populace, presumably people they consider less educated and intelligent than themselves; Harrington, rejoicing in his learning and intelligence, flatters you that you get the references, that you can keep up, which makes him an excellent companion. In a range of tones that can treat the sacred and the profane, from paraclete to excrement (the last usually rendered in its Anglo-Saxon four-letter form), Harrington revels in such elitisms as literary allusion, Latin tags, and sesquipedalian vocabulary.
In a poem that hinges on the metaphor of a chevron of migrating Canada Geese (“The Loneliness of the Long Distance Leader,” the title another allusion) we get not only the wonderfully goosey “gander” but the nobly Latinate “anserine.” (It was the sacred geese on the Capitoline, after all, that saved Rome from the Gauls.)
“Anserine” has nothing, though, on “Alternate History”’s last word, “ophidiophobe.” It’s a poem, naturally, about Eve.
To appreciate Harrington, a more than nodding acquaintance with the English canon is useful, so that the mere utterance of “liquefaction” naturally brings to mind Robert Herrick (“Whenas in silks my Julia goes”). The fancy title and its high-fallutin’ allusions prove the set up for a delightfully goofy rhyme.
Herrick comes in for treatment again with “Gather Ye Rosebuds:”
Consider the Reverend Robert Herrick
In his garden in sunlight bright and garish,
Thinking and thinking pornographic thoughts
About the comely virgins in his parish.
And it isn’t just Metaphysical Poets we should have a handle on. Familiarity with Steven’s “Sunday Morning” is a prerequisite for getting the gist of a wise-cracking cockatoo in “Cameo Role” (it begins, “I got the call Saturday night./ My agent said there was a hurry-up/ Good-paying job for a cockatoo/ In Hartford, Connecticut.”)—references abound too to Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Oscar Wilde, and a slew of German poets to boot.
Not all of Harrington’s epigrams are learned. Some are just wickedly funny. These bear not only repetition, but beg to be memorized for producing in conversation at the right moment:
Variation on an Old Adage
In my long passage through life
I’ve learned at least one thing:
In the country of the half-assed
The total ass is king.
Harrington’s couplet “Surrender” lodged itself instantly into my and my husband’s brains circa 1997 or so, and it has become a “familiar quotation” between us:
When it comes to mathematics
I am Lee at Appomattox.
If Harrington wears his polymath learning lightly, it is also on his sleeve, for anyone to see. His default mode is the quatrain; one of his Kudzu Pamphlets chapbooks, entirely of these gems, is titled Quadrivia. In his author’s note, he says, with typical self-deprecation, “Why Quadrivia? Think of it as trivia raised up a notch.” As one might expect for Harrington, though, Quadrivia suggests many things. Quadrivium is Latin for a crossroads, the “four-ways.” But quadrivium also once denoted the four serious subjects of the seven liberal arts: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. (The remaining subjects, grammar, rhetoric, and logic, were considered light-weight—the “trivium,” from which we get our sense of “trivial.”)
By naming the chapbook “Quadrivia,” Harrington says he wanted to call attention to the “fourness” of the quatrains. “Summing up things I’ve observed in four rhymed lines has become a habit, one that pleases me.” It pleases us too. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but observation is at its heart. Harrington has an eye (and ear) for the telling detail that jolts a memory awake, as in “Progress:”
Soon there will be no one alive
Who learned at an early age
How two keys struck at the same time
Jam and never hit the page.
There is a sort of double twist in the last two lines—we might briefly think, a bit puzzled, that the “two keys struck at the same time” belong to a piano, but the real dissonance is resolved at the end, when we have that sudden tactical feeling of two arms on a manual typewriter crossing and sticking, hovering like a poet’s indecision over the blank sheet of paper.
One of the things that has always impressed me about Tony, besides his sardonic wit and finesse with a rhyme, is how utterly un-cynical he is about poetry as an art, as a vocation. Poets of my own generation are so often conflicted about the scope of their ambition, even about the existence of greatness. “Post Confessional” says more about the state of professionalism in American poetry than any number of omphaloskeptical National Poetry Month essays:
—After a reading by W.D. Snodgrass
Fully recovered, financially secure,
Happily re-married, and academically honored,
The proto-confessional poet performed
Some of his old agony columns
Before a local university crowd.
As he recited for laughs in a lilting voice,
With almost a giddy glee, lines of poems
I remember reading young as the work
Of a man as desperate as I still am,
I confess I nearly cried out loud.
One should note that Harrington, always in dialogue with the Catholicism of his youth, does not use the word “confessional” lightly.
History, personal, tribal, and global, is also a frequent subject, or perhaps a lens. When Harrington considers a biography of Robert Lowell, we get “Caste System”:
Reading a biography of Robert Lowell
I thought of those unnamed Irish Catholic cops
Called out to haul him down from the rigging
Of his wholly imaginary Yankee Clipper,
Of how they longed to bounce black nightsticks
Off the head of this loony with a Brahmin name,
But who—having learned their lowly place
In some parochial school in South Boston—
Controlled themselves and shoved him
Into the cruiser’s back seat, palming like a Celtic
On the Garden floor the great skull, lest he strike it
On the vulgar, made in Detroit by Polacks, frame.
This is a man who knows not only how to write a line, but, even rarer perhaps, how to write a sentence. It is almost as if the Irish Catholic cops are able, with their parochial education, to invoke a syntax normal for Latin but nearly impossible in English, with that beautiful parenthetical (almost ablative absolute) “made in Detroit by Polacks,” separating “vulgar” and “frame,” embodying that move of cops as they firmly but gently lower a perp’s head so he doesn’t hit it on the car door.
Sometimes, of course, history with Harrington is with a capital H. Not all epigrams are light verse. Some are dark indeed, as this: “Dichtung und Wahrheit” (“Poetry and Truth”):
In the cold black German night
As the cattlecars rolled by,
Many a crossing guard, I think,
Hummed Heine’s “Lorelei.”
Another poet might have teased this out into a half dozen stanzas. Harrington leaves everything to juxtaposition, the German title (also the title of Goethe’s autobiography), Heine’s serene Lorelei, the rumbling cattle-cars. Is it a coincidence that “Dichtung” comes from the German for “condense”?
Harrington works so often in caustic quatrains, that one can forget he is a poet, too, of quieter cadences, broader gestures, poems in unrhymed, shapely verse. “Dress Code“ is one such. It begins:
I slide my arms through the silken sleeves
Of a shirt bought the day before at Goodwill
Bearing a label I could never afford firsthand
And wondered at its having been given up.
There is here a certain sleight of hand with the shift from present to past tense, a plain-spoken feel of everyday language (the poem throughout is sprinkled with proper nouns and status signifiers: Goodwill, Mercedes, Rolex Oyster, Hyundai), offset by a poise to the syntax and grammar: “its having been given up.” The poem is unfussy and accomplished as it gets on with its job. You have to read it aloud to pick up the subtle sound effects: “In a paper sack on the back seat of a battered Hyundai.” It ends on a very Harrington meditation on faith and doubt, on everyday grace: “Never knowing the certain truth of any castings-off/ Save those of my own mind, I walk nevertheless/ Into the world sometimes better dressed than I deserve.”
One is struck, on a second reading, with the implications of that “Goodwill” in the beginning.
For all that Harrington is humble about his accomplishments as an artist, he remains passionate about the art itself. Take this quatrain, “Failed Arsonist,” whose title reads like a malapropism. As often with Harrington, sparkles of wit, or darkles of irony, even in their guise as versified shrug, lead to larger questions:
I am, I am, sad to say,
An inveterate little versifier:
Thousands of tiny flint/steel sparks
And never a major fire.
A seemingly burnt-out squib of a squib, even this rewards rereading. Is there anything sadder for a poet to say than “sad to say”? And notice the hard particularity of “flint/steel” at its heart. And the literary judgments, or questions, invoked by “major.”
But I am left mulling other things. What does it mean to consider a poet an arsonist? It puts my mind to contemplating what an arsonist does, what an arsonist wants. It occurs to me that the arsonist, unless after the insurance money, is not concerned with destruction and aftermath. The goal of the pyromaniac arsonist, successful or not, is creation, the realization of a blazing vision—he is willing to use any mundane thing to fuel the sky-lighting brilliance, no thought of the cost. It’s a hell of a metaphor for an artist.
*I was asked, in this essay, to address, briefly, Harrington’s meters. For poets weaned on the tidier accentual-syllabics of many New Formalists, the idea that song stanzas in English often have a mix of three- and four-beat lines, or that short-lined poems (in threes and fours) very frequently contain “extra” syllables might be news, and take a little getting used to, but I assure you you’ll get the hang of Harrington’s attractively rugged voice very quickly. I prefer to reserve “accentual” verse for its specific Anglo-Saxon sense, and I would refer you instead to Derek Attridge’s description of the “dolnik,” a term that I hope will soon catch on. In the meantime, count beats rather than beans. AES
A.E. Stallings is an American poet who lives in Athens, Greece. In a previous millennium, she lived in Atlanta, Georgia, and was a member of the Poetry at Callanwolde Committee. She is a MacArthur fellow. Her most recent book is Olives.