Rounding the Horn

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

By now we are almost accustomed to David Slavitt’s remarkable productivity—twenty-one books since his first, Suits for the Dead, appeared in 1961. And it has long since become clear that his six pseudonymous novels, constituting a unique adventure in the manufacture of popular fiction, have not done the harm to his serious work which some of us, less energetic, more prone to envy than to industry, probably hoped to see. Up through Vital Signs (1975), which added eighty-five new poems to a selection from his previous volumes, Slavitt’s poetry was fairly consistent: often cast in forms of sufficient difficulty that the poems were a celebration of the art itself, they meditated with a calm, almost cynical tone on the repetitions of history, the touching folly of people’s relationships with one another and with the objects they are doomed to accumulate, and, more recently, on the pain of diminishing love.

In Rounding the Horn, the dominant theme appears to be the worsening of our times, as seen by an observer aware of his own increasing nearness to death. However, the bleakness of such a view is mitigated by the attention these poems have received during their making, and by the several poems that draw parallels between our time and the bad times of ancient history. In writing alone, there is something consoling; at best, there may be more than consolation. In a brief poem called “Youth, Age, Life, and Art,” it comes down to this:

Innocent, young, I wove syntactical netsto snare moments of joy, but when one getsolder, the trick is reversed, and, late at night,to fend the beasts off—fear, rage, and despair—that prowl the dark or hover in the air,I sit in my circle of lamplight and I write.

A poet must always take some pleasure in finding the right lines above which he may hang a ponderous and abstract title. Thinking of the tradition and the poet’s stance toward it, one notices that this poem is a sestet, and ponders the knowledge and luck which kept the poem from ballooning into a sonnet. Such thoughts are prompted not by this poem alone, but also by several other poems which take various stances toward the tradition and the techniques of sonneteering.

In the first of this book’s three sections, for example, the theme is generally that of physical decay and moral disintegration; in this part of the book, there are four poems with various clear relations to the sonnet. “Revolutionaries,” the first of these, is close enough. Set in an imaginary country which could be our own, it describes the growing anarchy of the workers from the viewpoint of someone higher on the social scale. The vagueness of the location gives the poem the sound of a fable, but in the last sentence the sense of doom is brought close:

The only question is when the regime will fallfrom the cancer. It is not a metaphor.

The poem’s rhyme scheme, wittily enough, is upside-down: a sestet precedes two quatrains.

Similarly, a grim little twenty-line poem called “The Korsakoff Syndrome” consists of a sestet, a three-rhyme octave, and a sestet, in that order: a sonnet that does not know which way is up. It describes an advanced state of forgetfulness achieved by some alcoholics, who remember “their names, the brands/of cheap whiskeys—no more.” And, as in “Revolutionaries,” we are warned away from figurative interpretations: “The brain pickles—it is no conceit/but happens.” But in both poems, the denial of metaphor and the form act with paradoxical power, so that the poems do have metaphorical force. The Korsakoff Syndrome is stubbornly described as an affliction that strikes only the most accomplished and dedicated of drunks; but the poem still frightens us as the disease frightened Dr. Sergei Korsakoff. Somehow, safe as most of us are, the poem suggests that something like this could strike us at any moment.

And in “ENGL. 498-C,” an unrhymed sonnet (true, there is no such thing; but in the context of a tradition, or of a well-made book, such things can seem to be) about teaching, the speaker leaves the classroom when he has finished for the day, misses his train, and returns to the classroom, where all the students are still gathered. But now they are naked, drunk, disposed about the room in sexual postures of varying degrees of intricacy,

and I performmy usual office, suggesting it might help someif this leg were moved there, or that conjunctionsomehow strengthened. Nobody pays any...

(The entire section is 2027 words.)

Rounding the Horn Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXIV, October 2, 1978, p. 131.