Expansive Poetry & Music Online Mini-Reviews

a book of poetry by
Henry George Fischer
Blacksburg, Virginia: Pocahontas Press, 1999
ISBN: 0-936015-79-9 ($6.00)
Joseph S. Salemi

     Light verse is the hated pariah of modern American poetry. It is the despised poor relation, the déclassé neighbor, the madwoman in the attic. The Free Verse Establishment in this country prefers blandly orthodox effusions of solemnity: the sort of high-minded attitudinizing that is easily inculcated in a workshop, and routinely lauded in the college classroom. In the minds of comfortable and bien-pensant  poetry careerists, flush with grant money and academic sinecures, light verse deserves nothing but the sniffy condescension of We Few Who Know Better. If you think I'm wrong, just consult that great barometer of intellectual trendiness, the American university. Can you imagine an English department offering a course on light verse today? Quite frankly, you'd be hard pressed to find a class on Byron, let alone one on Edward Lear or Hilaire Belloc.
     There are several reasons why this is so. The first is the residual Puritanism of American thinking, which reflexively associates levity with moral turpitude or, at best, irresponsibility. In its secular form, this religious notion translates into the conviction that poets who produce something humorous or witty must be frat-house buffoons, incapable of Arnoldian seriousness. A second reason is simple snobbery: many critics dismiss light verse as too populist, too uncomplicated, too democratically accessible to count as high art. And of course, since light verse presupposes a sense of humor in its readership, it is hated by the politically correct ideologues who dominate so much of the poetry scene and its academic hinterland. For these types, no poem is tolerable unless it apologizes for the sins of the white man, or offers a program of slum clearance. Light verse, with its whimsical insouciance, is an affront to their rectitude.
     Nevertheless, great light verse continues to be written. Although outlets for publication are scarce and the critical silence nearly total, the genre flourishes in a subterranean milieu of master practitioners and passionate devotees. One of those masters is Henry George Fischer, whose latest book Night and Light and the Half-Light  (Pocahontas Press, 1999) is a powerful witness not only to his own skill, but to light verse's enduring vitality. A substantial collection of seventy-six poems, this book (I'll call it Night  for short) is Fischer's third. If volumes were meals, this one would be an haute cuisine  banquet at a four-star French restaurant.
     Fischer write superbly well, with no apologies for his wide-ranging allusiveness, recondite diction, and linguistic intricacy. Perfectly composed meters dance us through multiple literary, historical, and mythological references: Pericles, Mallarmé, Pepys, Phidias, Tennyson, Verlaine, Proust, Georges Sand, Anne Boleyn--not to mention more arcane allusions to Cybele, the Magna Mater, Velikovsky, and Paul Pellisson (I hadn't heard of him either; get the book to see who he was). These references are not erudite tack-ons, but integral aspects of the poetry, making it work and at the same time opening up the past to us. A literary scholar, Egyptologist, museum curator, and classical musician, Fischer is an example of that carefully nurtured humanitas  and paideia  that used to be the ultimate goal of Western education, before our schools were hijacked by politicized mediocrities. The poems in Night shimmer with learning and educated sensibility, made all the more remarkable by the deftness and agility of Fischer's fluent style.
     Fischer's learned and elegant poems give the lie to the notion that light verse is necessarily lightweight, i.e. trivial, immature, and ephemeral. I am amazed at how common the latter idea is in America, even among some practitioners of the craft. People seem to think that light verse is something for children, old ladies, or the humor page of a family magazine. As a result of this misconception a significant percentage of light verse in America tends to be inoffensive pablum for the intellectually undernourished: brainless little squibs about one's pets, one's grandchildren, or how nice the church clambake was. A further consequence is that a great deal of our light verse seems to find its way into print accompanied by cutesy-poo cartoons, fanciful decoration, and that most ghastly icon of contemporary American vacuity, the Smiley-face button. I am happy to report that Night  comes from the printer without a single bizarre fleuron, amateur linoleum cut, or bug-and-flower motif.
     As I read through Night,  poem after poem presented itself as a model of grace, wit, craftsmanship, and good sense. I cannot refrain from quoting a chunk of "A Poem Is Nothing," one of the book's best:

Those six lines are not just beautiful; they are as concise and as limpid an explanation of poetry as you are ever going to get. They brush aside decades of tendentious theorizing and avant-garde posturing, and reaffirm the simple truth that a poem is a verbal artifact, not a fancy telegram with a decodable message. Another piece ("Fringes") deals with the allure of the obscure and marginal elements in life, but might just as well be Fischer's comment on the pleasure he takes in light verse itself. I quote the poem's first and last couplets:

Those verses are sheer perfection, and there are thirty more lapidary tetrameters in between them. "Fringes" alone is worth the price of Fischer's book.
     This delight in the small and seemingly inconsequential allows Fischer to produce poems out of what appears to be nothing. Consider "Between," an absolute gem whose subject is just that: the preposition between.  Could you use that as the central pivot on which to turn a poem about human hope and impersonal destiny? Fischer does it, and the result is dazzling. Or look at the poem "Motes," where he uses the image of floating dust particles to create a memento mori -- not an easy thing to pull off in light verse, believe me. Poems such as this prove something that our boringly earnest poetry world, with its pitiful seriousness about "authenticity" and "relevance," has never grasped: where craftsmanship, imagination, and love of language are present, a poet can conjure up his subject matter out of thin air.
     Love of elegant language is often damned today as an elitist affectation. In politically correct academic circles, a concern for precise phrasing and well-chosen words is called "belletristic," a jargon epithet that is spat out in contempt, the way Communists used to say "petit-bourgeois." Fischer shows, however, that the proper word, even when unusual or recherché,  is not only essential to a poem but also easily understood in context. Consider his poem "Adam's Rib," a tetrameter sonnet on the story of Eve's creation. Working from the theosophical notion that Adam was originally hermaphroditic, Fischer writes:

This is one of several instances where Fischer uses an obscure term (from the facetiously imagined Latin coinage decostalatus,  literally "un-ribbed") in such a way as to make its meaning clear even to the uninitiated. Words like hajj (pilgrimage), umbrous  (shadowy), and transmundane  (beyond the world) appear in Fischer's poems without giving the slightest difficulty to the reader.
     Fischer's style is often densely allusive, by which I mean one hears unmistakable echoes of past poets in some of his lines. Listen to this:

Those intonations cry out Tennyson, particularly the mixed hope, fear, and bravado of "Ulysses." Or consider these four lines from "A Song of Seduction," one of the best poems in the book:

The ghost of Herrick hangs over those tetrameters and virtually claims them as his own. These are not cases of mere imitation, but rather of the internalization of tradition, or what Richard Harrier once called "the possession of great texts at the deepest level of memory." It takes years of devoted reading to accomplish this internalization, and today it must be done in conscious opposition to the Zeitgeist, since current educational methods are actively hostile to its development. Luckily for Fischer, he received his education prior to 1950.
     Metrically, Fischer prefers the iamb in a standard pentameter or tetrameter line. Yet he does produce less common rhythms on occasion; there is an iambic dimeter ("Henry VIII"), a trochaic tetrameter ("Mayonnaise"), and sometimes a mix of meters ("Mnemosyne"). The more important point is that he never writes a problematic line--you always know where you are, metrically, when reading one of his poems. I wish this could be said of more New Formalists, some of whom think that "departures from pattern" (i.e. mistakes) are a sign of sophistication. Fischer's real compositional genius, however, lies in rhyme, which he manages with a skill and facility that are breathtaking. And these are real  rhymes-- Fischer is very rarely tempted by the mirage of half-rhyme, near-rhyme, or crypto-rhyme, the last refuge of formalists who secretly wish to be fashionable.
     A true mark of the light verse master is the ability to rhyme multisyllabic words without obvious labor. Fischer is quite skilled in this respect; he always comes up with a rhyme that is both apt and felicitous. Consider this couplet:

The double-duty assigned to the word cowed  is brilliantly managed (one accepts it without the slightest hesitation in reading), but the rhyme of stupider  and Jupiter is the real triumph. Look also at this opening couplet:

The Hellenistic inkhorn term amphiphilic  (which I take to mean "loving on both sides," or "mutually affectionate") bounces its strangeness off the laid-back pastoral languor of idyllic  in a way that is both arresting and facetious. Or listen to this juxtaposition of sounds:

The composition of that couplet is as perfect as a Fabergé egg: the last three syllables of Persephone  are picked up in an effortless swoop by death of me,  a phrase that resonates with added significance if one remembers that Persephone is the goddess of death and the netherworld, and an immortal. If you think this sort of phonetic collocation is easy, just try finding perfect rhymes for a dactylic trisyllable like wintergreen,  or a second paeon tetrasyllable like Slovakia.  Make the attempt--I guarantee that you'll then have plenty to say when some minimalist-modernist poseur starts pontificating about how "facile" light verse is. In a tour de force of rhyming Fischer has even managed to end three sequential couplets with the unpromising proper names of Turbyfill, Crapsey, and Shanafelt. Buy the book to see how he does it.
     Fischer also has some excellent macaronic verse, making use of both French and German. It's the best I've seen since A.D. Godley's work from the turn of the century. He also includes some original poems in French, accompanied by English renderings that are not mere translations but highly polished poems in their own right. Like everything else in Night,  this work is lapidary.
     The one thing I miss in Fischer's poetry is a dash of vinegar. If he were to use his formidable skills more aggressively, he could really draw some blood. The notion of light verse as something fluffy and upbeat has never been accepted in Britain, where the genre has always carried a sting in its tail. From Robert Burns and Lewis Carroll, on through Calverley, Thackeray, and Clough, and up to Kipling, Belloc, and Chesterton, British light verse has been pungently provocative as well as funny. The reason for this is that in Britain light verse has never been wholly distinct from satire and lampoon. Our American variety (or much of it) consciously disassociates itself from those two sharper modes, and tries to be witty without being mordant. This generally doesn't work--light verse without a bite is analogous to other bourgeois American pipe-dreams, such as inoffensive jokes, health food cuisine, risk-free warfare, and non-erotic sex. It's not a plausible thing, nor even an especially desirable one. If I have one criticism of Fischer it is that he is too much of an American in this respect.
     Fischer does have a few poems in the satiric mode, such as "Modern Verse" and "A Phenomenon," which are sardonic comments on the current state of poetry and education; and some brief pointed epigrams like "A Politician" and "The Truthsayers." But for the most part one gets the impression that he is too good-natured to add more vitriol to his mix. Delight in language and its capacities is clearly the dominant passion in Fischer's work, rather than the saeva indignatio  of Swift. In this respect he reminds me of the late Willard Espy, although they are quite different sorts of writers. Both have a passionate, consuming, and utterly incurable love affair with language per se, which tends to overwhelm their subject matter.
     Nevertheless, Fischer's poetic skill is such that, if he were to choose to attack, his poems would most likely be devastating. I for one would like to see him try his hand at it--not because Fischer is doing anything wrong now, but simply because his example would help to liberate American light verse from its chronic namby-pambyness. After all, Bernard Shaw collected his plays under two rubrics: the Pleasant  and the Unpleasant.  Light versifiers should produce work in both categories as well.

                                Joseph S. Salemi

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