Diane Wakoski (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: Wakoski, Diane. “A Satirist in the Avant-Garde.” Parnassus 1, no. 1 (fall-winter 1972): 148-51.
[In the following review of the 1971 version of The Tablets, American poet Diane Wakoski praises the work's satire and suggests that Schwerner's poetic language is showcased more completely in performance than in print.]
This book is easy to pass by and not initially understand either its excellence or importance. Why? Because The Tablets by Armand Schwerner is one of the first excursions into real oral poetry that the twentieth century has produced. Its full effect comes from the oral presentation, not from the printed page.
The poem on the page is analogous to a score for a piece of music; one performs or listens for pleasure, studies only for analysis. All poems sound better when read aloud. The Tablets is even more of a play script than a musical score. Anyone who has heard the magnificent presentation of Schwerner would agree he has undertaken an actor's job, not the simple act of reader. In fact, it is because Schwerner has the imagination of a very fine performer that he was able to write such a unique and important work. Consequently, the poems have a different life when performed, as does a play or piece of music.
Schwerner is first and foremost a satirist. Perhaps all serious literature must inherently be satirical, simply because to experience any of the deep emotions—love, compassion, anger, joy, loss, gratitude, pity—is also to understand how these very emotions swing us around by the tail, make up behave foolishly, without dignity, and often against our own best interests. The writer who takes it upon himself to express these deep emotions must also understand and, in some way, be prepared to present the madness and absurdity of our very seriousness.
One of the remarkable aspects of The Tablets is that they present all the serious feelings and persuasions of the world Schwerner occupies (the middle-class, academic, artistic, scholarly, and familial world) and simultaneously make fun of the rituals, taboos, confusions, narrow-minded absorption of that world. Schwerner's most beautiful achievement is he can walk that delicate tightrope of the serious and the absurd, not giving way to the abyss of either.
The Tablets purport to embody a series of inscribed clay tablets operating largely within an ancient Near-East context. The cultural field is reminiscent of Sumero-Akkadian materials, occasionally hieroglyphical, with interspersed tribal layers. The Tablets is presented to the modern reader by a scholar-translator who pays far more attention to figuring out the anthropological, historical quirks and peculiarities of the society the manuscript supposedly comes from than to any concerns that could even faintly be construed as poetic. In an age where half the poets I know devote themselves to the pseudo-poetic task of translating poetry and often seem far more concerned with anthropological fancies than with aesthetic ideas, the basic satire of Schwerner's poem is its definitions. I've seen fine poets turn everything from personal vendettas to political rhetoric, from obscure interests in linguistics to...
(The entire section is 1351 words.)