The Argot Merchant Disaster

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

The three subtitles of the sections of Wallace Stevens’ Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (1942) make the following stipulations concerning poetry: “It must be abstract. It must change. It must give pleasure.” The first of these, when applied to the work of George Starbuck (or any excellent poet, for that matter), needs some qualification in the light of Ezra Pound’s dictum: “Go in fear of abstractions.” To “be abstract” is not necessarily to toss abstract ideas around, but possibly to exist as an object for contemplation, somehow beyond the subject and even the theme of the poem. Starbuck’s poems are abstract in the way that Andrew Wyeth argues that some of his paintings are abstract; they are of the world, about it, and they are themselves. They change, not only in the usual sense of development over the years, but even as one looks at them; and they give enormous pleasure.

The selected poems in The Argot Merchant Disaster are taken from three of Starbuck’s five previous books: Bone Thoughts, the 1960 volume in the Yale Series of Younger Poets; White Paper (1966), whose tone is dominated by poems of satire and protest concerning issues of the 1960’s; and Desperate Measures (1978), in which Starbuck demonstrates his skills with metrical invention and gamesmanship. The selection of new poems is placed at the beginning of the book, but it makes more sense in considering a book of this kind to begin with the earliest poems.

In his introduction to Bone Thoughts, Dudley Fitts expresses his admiration for Starbuck’s ability, not only to work within traditional forms, but also to make them his own, to do something with them other than merely to obey their rules. Certainly there are spectacular examples of this skill here; perhaps the best known of these is “A Tapestry for Bayeux.” Metrically, the poem may be described thus: it is in two sections of equal length, each section being composed of six stanzas of thirteen lines each; each line is a single dactylic foot. The first section, “Recto,” describes a battle scene from World War II; “Verso” employs the idea that a tapestry’s reverse side is hung with thread-ends and describes the battle from the other side, in terms of wires from exploded switchboards and fibers from exploded men. The tension between the subject and the wit is considerable, but the thread is strong.

Stevens also stipulated that poetry “must change,” and this poem changes in a startling way. It is difficult to imagine what might prompt a reader to examine the first letters of all the lines, in search of an acrostic, because the even-numbered lines are indented, and capitalization appears only according to prose rules. The acrostic is there nevertheless, and says: “Oscar Williams fills a need but a monkey ward catalog is softer and gives you something to read. We treasure his treasuries most every pominem our remarks are uncouth or unjust or ad hominem.” As is appropriate to a poem whose two sections are called “Recto” and “Verso,” the two sentences in the acrostic are contradictory. That they rhyme, and that they contain precisely the same number of letters, and that they are so skillfully concealed along the left edge of this poem, is a remarkable demonstration of versifying skill and patience.

The range between playfulness and solemnity in this first book is wide, but Starbuck broadened it further when he confronted the subject matter of the 1960’s. White Paper contains poems of genuine outrage, under the firm control of Starbuck’s technical mastery; it also contains jeux d’esprit of considerable skill, but of such slight substance that pleasure in them diminishes with successive readings.

In the first category, for example, there is “Of Late,” which recalls the horror of one man’s protest of the American involvement in Vietnam:“Stephen Smith, University of Iowa sophomore, burned what he said was his draft card” and...

(The entire section is 1643 words.)