EP&M Poetry Book Review

Greg Williamson
Errors in the Script
Sewanee Writers/Overlook Press,  2001.
94pp. $23.95

review by
Dr. Robert Darling
Keuka College

A professor at Purdue informs his undergraduate creative class that no poems using rhyme or meter (assuming he could recognize it) are  allowed.  An instructor at Hobart and William Smith is told giving  assignments in creative writing would stifle students' creativity.  I took a call recently from a prospective older student who was interested in my  creative writing workshop; when I asked what poets she liked to read she  informed me she didn't read any as she feared it would deprive her of her originality.

Though the past decade has seen welcome developments, the above  examples are still all too common both in academe and out.  Certainly the  ignorance on the streets can be remedied through education.  The real  problem remains in the academy.  Many MFA programs and much of the  AWP remain infected by a virulent form of poetic know-nothingism; many  proud holders of MFA degrees have no sense of the tradition, having  never read Auden let alone Spenser.  The particularly well-read of this  group can trace their routes all the way back to John Ashbery.

There have been good poems written in free verse, though the line (pun  intended) between free verse and chopped-up prose is often problematic.   Those who see craft as limiting are usually deficient in craft, just as  those who most hate cleverness or wit are generally the unclever and the  unwitty, or unwitting.  Students of the tradition know that the tools of  one's craft, properly understood, are liberating and offer to the  practitioner a source of both inspiration and liberation.  Certainly one can  choose to ignore the full array of tools at one's disposal, just as a  carpenter may use a rock instead of a hammer or one could compose a  symphony for piccolos.  But I am hard pressed to believe a better work will result.

But are there cases where one can have too much of a good thing, where  cleverness is merely clever and craft produces an ornate but essentially  empty vessel? (I am not speaking of light verse here, which is a  honorable pursuit and to which slightly different concerns apply.)  One  thinks of Anthony Hecht's first book, before the appearance of The Hard  Hours announced him as an important poet.  Or of much of Brad Leithauser's first two books. Or almost all of Paul Muldoon.  And certainly  such questions at least must be considered when reading Greg  Williamson's second collection, Errors in the Script.

Williamson's debut collection, The Silent Partner, showed a first- rate  craftsman and promising poet at work.  And there is much to admire in  the present volume as well.  The collection opens with "Origami," a poem which shows Williamson's considerable talents at their best.  The  speaker, unable to match the children at their origami, goes home to his  unfolded paper on which to write, his "flag of surrender," and ends  wadding the paper in disgust sitting at his "little desk in mid-July /  Throwing snowballs at the Sheetrock wall." There is considerable cleverness in the piece, but it never seems an end in itself, though parts  may be a bit too cute as when, still in class with the children, he writes "I  tear out a page and say, 'I've made a bed.' / They frown at me. I'll have to  lie on it."  "On or about His Birthday" is a fine poem of a celebration  going unshared.  "The Top Priority" is a fun disquisition concerning the  abuses and oddities of language: "I've left, egressed, dismounted, not  remained; / But the hitch de-planing is, we never planed."  And other  examples: "If grocery stores supply a pre-sliced roll, / And sliced is  sliced, pre-sliced is what? Well, whole."  "And the big business, when its  growing ceases, / 'Rightsizes,' when, more rightly, it decreases."  The  poem ends with just the right lightness of touch:

 And add my errors to the list, or course.
 I have misspoken, riding my high horse,
 But hope I'm truly forgiven every lie.
 And so, you know, like, basically, when I die,
 Pre-dig my grave six feet to hide the coffin,
 Brainstorm and dialogue about me often,
 And I'll de-body to join the win-win group
 For pre-cooked ham and ready-to-eat soup,
 Completely free gifts, no extra charge to me,
 And walk with God, the Top Priority.

More, Mr. Williamson, more.

"Bodies of Water" is also a fine poem, and "Nervous Systems" is an  interesting consideration of the electronic network that runs through  contemporary civilization "Conveying a threat, or something, along  those lines."

"Three-Sided, One-Way Mirror" is a poem of extremely intricate rhyme scheme of rhyming couplets whose rhyme is determined by the  antepenultimate word of the previous line:

 From the collage of arts and SCIences
           Those two old houses, I
 Last in my line, indebted CLASSiFY
           In twin respects as "GLASS" (capitals mine).

Such an ornate scheme seems warranted by the subject, which is  three-in-one, though the pun on collage may be a bit heavy.  "'The  Mockingbird Is Imitating Life'" is a response to Hardy's "The Darkling  Thrush," though it may suffer a bit from the comparison.

In short, these and other pieces give one a good deal to like about Errors  in the Script.  There are plenty of wit and humor here and much to admire in witnessing a virtuoso at work.  With the word virtuoso, though, some concerns I have about the book arise.  I love Paganini, but there is no confusing his greatness with that of Beethoven's, or even that of  Sibelius or Shostakovich, to mention more recent masters.  It is  pleasurable to see something difficult well done.  But for lasting art,  something more is required, and it is this I find missing in much of the book, though even in saying this I still find much more to like in Errors in the Script than in most other collections of poetry.

To begin with, how much of the book is meant to be a joke?  Even the  fine pieces here are a bit heavy with punning for me, and I have a  fondness for puns.  Then there's the cover.  In what must be a very early  Cézanne as it has none of the technique of the mature artist, a winged muse is kissing the poet.  But the painting is reproduced upside down.   The collection ends with a page titled "Errata."  Item one is semi-bogus  but questions the discrepancy between a novel and its film version, and ends "The author (should such a creature exist) regrets this  misunderstanding."  This is certainly not inappropriate in a volume very  much concerned with image and reality.  Item two reads: "The heading of  this page, as was made evident to the author (whatever) by Douglas R.  Hofstadter, should read, 'Erratum.'"  Of course, the fact that the  correction forms the second note means that there is really no correction  to be made and the second note is in error; but if it weren't there the  correction it does not need to make would need to be corrected.

Okay, I can enjoy a good post-modern joke as much as the next guy, but  a poem called "Riddles (time limit -- 20 minutes)" seems to go a bit far,  beginning with an example that is as unenlightening as the rest of the quiz, followed by an answer sheet that is also of no help.  While there are a couple nice jokes within, this is not worth five pages in the book.  Still other titles such as "The Muse Addresses the Poet (and getteth alle up  in hys face)" and "The Life and Times of Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius"  offer a few warning signals.  "[from] In Search of The Forgotten Woman"  offers running content on itself, the commentator posing as someone editing a partial manuscript a couple centuries from now and offering a  totally mistaken analysis in the quest tradition --the poem actually is  rather routine goings-on in a contemporary mall.  This has funny  moments but is not particularly original.

One sees in Greg Williamson a poet who has mastered the craft of  poetry, one of amazing technical control who does not yet have equal control of his humor.  While it is good to find a poet, especially a young  one, who does not take himself too seriously, one sometimes feels as one  does after a show by a conjurer -- impressed but with a sense of being  cheated, something like the children in "Origami":

 Some of the girls, some of the older ones,
 Make effigies of boys and..."Goodness sakes!
 They ask what I can make. "I make mistakes."
 "No really, Mr. Greg!"  They don't like puns.
Perhaps they want to be addressed a little more seriously.
Finally, there is the central section of the book, "Double Exposures."   The form is a creation of Williamson's and of considerable difficulty.  I  quote the first one.
 Just got these photos back. Let's have a look.
  Now what the --? Tell me it's not an overprint.
 I thought, you know, I'd stick 'em in a book,
  But look at those warped trees, the aqua tint,
 "My Life in Pictures." Now I'm not so sure.
  Its long horizon's tipping off the page.
 I mean, what is that red-eyed, furry blur?
  Since "photos capture life," then by my gauge,
 It's either my own Henry Pussycat,
  Turning upon the blue, inclining snow,
 Or Yeti. Hmm. You'd think I'd remember that.
  The world's a whole lot weirder than we know.
This central section develops the book's concern with image versus  reality; as the photographs are double exposures, so the poem can be  read as a normal poem straight through, or just by the odd lines, or just  by the even lines.  Writing this style of poem seems like it would be difficult to do, and one can understand the strategy as a sort of organic form, the craft mirroring the subject matter.  But the problem is that, once one gets over one's admiration of their cleverness, the realization sets in  that these poems are not particularly good.  And there are twenty-six of  them.  A pared-down and revised series of six or seven of them would be of considerable improvement.

At this point, I feel like an elderly, humorless curmudgeon.  But I'm sure  the humorless part does not fit.  Greg Williamson is a poet of  considerable ability and promise.  Errors in the Script has some very fine work in it.  Here's hoping that Williamson can keep his cleverness and humor as he ages, but that he can keep them under better control.  As a  poet of seriousness, of satire and of humor he has a lot to offer us.  But as Errors in the Script often illustrates, these three qualities have not yet  become fully assimilated in this poet's considerable repertoire.

                                    Robert Darling