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
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
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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