What theoretical ideas can be applied to this poem, please?
Proverbs from Purgatory
"Proverbs from Purgatory," first published in The Paris Review in 1995, is a satirical set of common aphorisms (a general principle written in a witty and brief style) that have been twisted and changed to create a humorous poem that may or may not have a theme. According to Schwartz himself, the poem is hard to characterize:
It’s a series of twisted old maxims and hints at but never reveals a narrative. It has several sources. My late friend Michael McDowell (who wrote the screenplays for Beetlejuice and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie) would return to Boston with tales from the dark side of Hollywood, often quoting various Hollywood figures. ‘I know this town like the back of my head’ and ‘I’ll have him eating out of my lap’ were two amazing lines I wanted to do something with.
As with many poems, the poet takes a kernel of real life experience--in this case, the twisted sayings his friend quoted from Hollywood types--and creates an imaginative and expanded version of a series of aphorisms (saying) that everyone knows. The poem has some shock value in that Schwartz's changes to the aphorisms are often shocking in their implication. Schwartz hoped the odd mixing of two different aphorisms would lead to new insights-- "I was hoping that through this ‘processing’ some new wisdom might emerge—I once introduced the poem as ‘a pre-Postmodern exploration of the instability of language.’ (http://blog.ellensteinbaum.com/2009/09/where-poem-comes-from-lloyd-schwartz.html)
If Schwartz's intent is to explore the instability of language, he could not have picked a better set of sayings in which to show how language affects meaning. For example, when Schwartz writes that
I know this town like the back of my head.
he is parodying the original saying--"I know [this town, this house, this book] like the back of my hand--and changing it in a way that makes the saying meaningless. From a logic standpoint, one can know something as well as one knows the back of one's hand--mainly because we look at the back of our hands all the time--but one cannot know something as well as the back of one's head because no one looks at his or her head well enough to know it. Schwartz is showing us that not only can aphorisms, which are supposed to be condensed wisdom, rendered meaningless by speakers who don't understand them, but also that language is interchangeable. Ultimately, language that has meaning can easily become meaningless when its original wisdom is no longer understood.
One can reasonably argue that the poem, despite its often nonsensical pairing of aphorisms, articulates the meaninglessness or hopelessness of life:
Life isn't all it's crapped up to be.
Schwartz makes only a small change to the original aphorism--Life isn't all it's cracked up to be--which means that life is not as good as people say it is, but by changing cracked to crapped Schwartz makes it clear that life is crap, a much darker view of life. Later in the poem, Schwartz writes that "All's well that ends," leaving out the meaningful part of the original aphorism--"All's well that ends well." The finality expressed by Schwartz's proverbs is consistent with his view that life is meaningless, and all that matters is that life ends.
In sum, then, some of Schwartz's aphorisms are simply designed to evoke laughter, but there are several that, taken together, develop the theme of life's hopelessness or meaninglessness. Schwartz's choice of Purgatory in the title supports the theme--Purgatory is a place where souls wait for something to happen, and they wait for a very long time in a place where nothing happens.