Memoirs of a Witness Tree, by Randal A. Burd, Jr. Kelsay Books, 2020

by Andrew Benson Brown

Reading Aristotle’s Poetics is in some ways a curious experience for the practitioner of poetry. In this foundational work of literary criticism, the great philosopher fails to discuss the very sort of verse that most people have written throughout history. After distinguishing lyric poetry from the drama and epic, and describing its basic features as striving for imitation or “mimesis” while combining rhythm and meter with music (and sometimes dance), he is totally silent about the genre. Instead he moves onto discussions of comedy, tragedy, and epic, and is careful to rank these in importance (tragedy is judged most superior), to the exclusion of such briefer forms as the ode and elegy. The low value Aristotle places on lyric poetry may be gleaned, in addition, from his views on the function of the chorus in drama. In his analysis of song, tragedy’s final component (which includes the verbal compositions put to music), he refers to it as holding “the chief place among the embellishments.” The songs sung by the chorus, at least in tragedians coming after Sophocles, are a mere flowery “interlude” that “pertain little to the subject of the piece.” Though the genre of tragedy has its origins in lyrics sung to the accompaniment of a kithara or lyre (hence the term), Aristotle considered plot development to represent an advance beyond those primitive origins. If it doesn’t tell a rather long story, the implication is, a poem’s not much worth talking about. In the entire treatise, in fact, there is not a single reference to Sappho, Pindar, Anacreon, or any other lyric poet among “The Nine” who would, not too long after Aristotle’s death, be canonized by the Alexandrine grammarians.

Plato famously takes an even harsher view on poetry in general. The poet, to him, is a depraved creature suffering from divine madness who seduces listeners with representations of nature that are not only below the mimesis of the heavenly Forms, but even below that of the artisan’s imitations of those forms. While Plato and Aristotle differ in their theories of poetry, they have a common enemy in the tragedian Agathon. Just as Aristotle blames Agathon for introducing ornamental qualities to the chorus that made it dramatically irrelevant, so does Plato give him a beautiful speech on love in the Symposium that smacks of sophistry and has no substantive logical weight. It is possible that Plato had Agathon specifically in mind when he had Socrates banish all poets from his totalitarian republic.

Thus philosophers on poets. With a few exceptions like Santayana and Heidegger, they have a tendency to misunderstand the nature of poetic thought (read Daniel Dennett and you’ll find this patronizing view remains alive today). Poor Randal Burd would seem to not fare very well according to these brilliant pedants: his newest collection, Memoirs of a Witness Tree, is comprised almost entirely of sonnets and a handful of rondeaus. If one had to choose a single word to describe it, that word would be “concision.” Were the ancient Stagirite revived to lecture us in his characteristically tedious prose, this versifier from Missouri would receive not even a nod—for while the Italian sonetto and French rondeau had not yet been invented when Aristotle lived, we may well imagine him shaking his head at these little “melodies” and “short poems” that bear a bit too much resemblance to those outdated verses of the Archaic Age. Should we then banish Mr. Burd from our occupied autonomous zones, along with the police?

No. Philosophers are wonks. Memoirs of a Witness Tree explores the sonnet form with wondrous multiplicity. While exercising discipline in the regularity of his rhythm, most of the sonnets vary at least slightly. Though most often than not they follow the English form of three quatrains and a couplet, some are Petrarchan in organization. Length differs: some lack final couplets, expand the couplet to a quatrain, or add an extra line. Rhyme schemes and line groupings also fluctuate. Few have an identical structure. In ‘An Affirmation of Faith?’ for example, Burd explores the metaphysical uncertainty following a car accident in which he rolled his SUV. He does this by “rolling” the sonnet on its head and shortening the pentameters to tetrameters. Here he gives us an opening couplet instead of a closing one, followed by a tercet and two quintets.

Of the forty-three poems included in the collection, only thirteen are not a variation on the sonnet, and only two of these remaining thirteen are not rondeaus. Like the sonnets the rondeaus are also varied, as with “Encroaching Weeds,” where the phrase “She’d not allow” is repeated at the beginning of the third stanza instead of at the ending of the second. Most of the rondeaus tend to focus on objective subjects, while most of the sonnets, as well as the collection’s one sestina, give the impression of being autobiographical—though the reader should exercise caution in attributing a naïve correspondence between narrator and author (as this reviewer initially made the mistake of doing). Some poems also refer to family members in the third person; as in the cases with first-person subjects, there is some ambiguity regarding identity and the precise degree of overlap between fact and experiential inspiration. For these reasons, the first-person subject of these poems will be referred to here as “the narrator” rather than Burd himself, though they broadly overlap.

The first two poems in the collection, “Humblest Apologies” and “Artisans & Fools,” reflect on craftsmanship—in the second case from the standpoint of the blacksmith’s forge, leaving the reader to draw an analogy with the practice of other creative pursuits. The first poem begins as a seemingly straightforward apology for the fact that the author might reveal a personal thought in the form of “A naked truth now shrouded in cheap rhyme.” He acknowledges that “Expression via sonnet is a crime” and conveys a willingness to “risk unwanted feelings of chagrin.” In the final couplet’s volta, however, the significance of this “apology” shifts to one that conveys the original sense of the Greek term apologia—a well-reasoned speech made in defense of something:

 

And thus, with ample warning, pray begin
To reassess conventionality.

 

Immediately following these two opening poems is the remarkable “Armed with Imagination.” This is the first of many poems in the collection that belongs to a genre of adults writing about children for other adults, as opposed to adults writing for children, and is uncommon in the poetic catalogues of most times and places. In our own age the race, class, and gender crowd no doubt finds childhood too evocative of parenting responsibilities, and thus oppressive to their “free spirits” to write about; nor does the subject have clear parallels in the work of poets prior to William Blake. If one picks up, say, the hefty Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, there are plenty of selections on themes of politics, love, friendship, religion, elegies for the deceased, and epicurean themes of “the good life”—but none about children, save Ben Jonson’s moving elegy to his young son who died of plague. Childhood was not a noteworthy subject during that period in history which “discovered” the individual (if Burckhardt’s position is to be accepted), when every verse-scribbling knave, however awkward or craven, longed to pass himself off on the page as a Casanova and daring privateer; even the several notable women poets of the time don’t write about their children. Take Castiglione’s ideal courtier: a figure who possesses both martial skill and classical erudition, is financially astute, carries on love affairs with discretion, can orate on various subjects, write, paint, sing, play at least one musical instrument, etc. —all with the cool grace of sprezzatura. “Family man” is not a virtue that makes Castiglione’s list (imagine Shakespeare in London neglecting his provincial relations in Stratford).

For this reason Memoirs of a Witness Tree is almost unique in the history of poetry collections. In the first stanza of “Armed with Imagination,” the reader takes the perspective of a playing child:

 

Imagination armed this youthful knight—
A plywood shield and sword of sapling wood
Created echoes in the neighborhood
Of backyard battles fought in fading light.

 

The alliterative diction of “shield,” “sword,” and “sapling” slaps together to create “echoes” as the children play. The final phrase “fading light” is suggestive, and in the second stanza the perspective suddenly shifts to “we”:

 

Envision how we must have been a sight
To see—a panorama understood
By only we who fought each chance we could
While lacking rhyme or reason for a fight.

 

The narrator, now an adult, puts himself in the shoes of other adults who observe his youthful self engaging in fights “lacking rhyme or reason.” The dual viewpoint looks both inward and outward, and a gentle alienation is suggested not only between the adults and the playing youngsters, but even between the older and younger narrator. This chasm is widened further in the last stanza, in which the nostalgic adult narrator desires to summon up his former zeal:

 

The best of memories those days remain:
Each noble quest and faux chivalric deed.
Forever will they be accompanied
With yearning for just one last grand campaign.

 

The poem, while exhibiting the typical English sonnet structure in its first three quatrains (though like many in the collection, blending this with an Italian ABBA rhyme scheme rather than the usual English ABAB one), lacks a concluding couplet. Perhaps we are to conclude that the “last grand campaign” is yet to be written?

After two more poems on the same subject, we come to the longest piece in the collection: “Reconnaissant Pour L’esprit de Corps.” It continues the theme of “playing,” this time in the context of the author’s experience in a marching band. Burd ingeniously employs the sestina form to “march” his end-rhymes along six sestets and through the envoi. Like its three preceding poems about childhood, it reflects on youthful experiences now lost. The young narrator is slightly older, though, and when next we return to an autobiographical setting in several pages, he will be slightly older still: now a young father. In “Prematurely Blessed,” we witness a difficult birth that hints at tragedy but ends on an optimistic note. This is one feature of the collection’s subtly complex organization, and as the pages progress we follow the aging narrator and his family through love, hope, loss. Like the poem that contributes to the book’s title (discussed below), the reader is a passive witness to a life journey that, while drawing from Burd’s own experiences, is relatable to many.

As indicated in the above examples, a large number of the poems have an ekphrastic quality that paint a dramatic scene. Ekphrastic poems, as a genre, are traditionally about works of art in one medium from the perspective of another medium (a poem about a painting, for example), though in the original Greek sense of the term, ekphrasis refers more generally to a description of any object or situation. As a concept it is important in the mimetic theories of both Plato and Aristotle as the way the artist imitates reality. The carpenter practices ekphrasis when he constructs his tables based on more perfect forms, as the artist does when he represents, at an even more imperfect remove, the works of the carpenter. We may imagine Plato reading Mr. Burd’s poem, “Circus Elephants in Retirement,” with some faint but failed attempt at comprehension. Plato reads along, drawn into the theme of nostalgia and lost youth re-explored from the pachydermic perspective as Burd asks whether the aging elephant dreams “Of the clowns and trapezes, the music, the shows?”

 

PLATO. (frowning) Hmm, not only do we have a poet here without any real experience as an artisan that builds circus sets, but his verbal imitations of an elephant’s thoughts and dreams bear little relation to the ideal form of elephant-notions, which are in no way ever nostalgic, as the ideal elephant is itself never old.

ARISTOTLE. What are you even saying? Don’t be so hard on Randal. This is a poem that tells a story! It is easily understandable and does not digress with wild or strange metaphors. Though it should have been several thousand lines longer, it is not too bad for what it is…why, it is even faintly tragic!

PLATO. Still, I don’t like it. Reading this reminds me of why I burned all those poems I so foolishly wrote in my youth. In the autonomous zones of our Republic, Burd must not be present. This poet should be defunded.

ARISTOTLE. Poets, unlike the police, cannot be defunded—their coffers have always been empty.

PLATO. Kick him out! He is not even among the bronze souls. He tells lies.

ARISTOTLE. (rolling his eyes) Would you shut up already, old man? It’s whining like this that led me to break with your Academy and form my own school. When you languished in jail under Dionysius of Syracuse, you may well yourself have had similar reflections to Burd’s elephant: whether you resented “being treated like some dancing bear” as the tyrant’s court philosopher and fool, or asked yourself if your own retirement-in-fetters was “all it was promised to be?” And so the mimesis of Burd’s poem is accurate after all. In reflecting on the elephant’s condition, we empathize with it and experience a sense of catharsis.

 

So, while Plato the curmudgeonly communist still refuses to approve of these verses, Aristotle’s ghost has started to come around to the deceptively simple dramatic qualities of Burd’s work. In “The Forlorn Hope—Vicksburg, 1863,” we even encounter bellicose subject matter of the sort that would make Homer-worshipping Aristotle proud. The poem’s sprinting anapests give a sense of urgency as we read of the union soldiers laying siege to the city. In each seventh line of the poem’s three octaves they encounter an obstacle that pushes the meter out an extra foot, as here in the second half of the second stanza:

 

The one hundred and fifty brave soldiers,
All unmarried and all volunteers,
Had advanced at a run while opposing cannon
Brought fresh screams to their still-ringing ears.

 

Moving through the collection, we encounter further organizational tendencies related to the “life’s journey” scheme referred to above. Since an able artist will never come out and directly say what his precise intentions are, a reviewer adopts the method of surmising this through the search for patterns. It is not until “A Mended Heart” on page 28 that we find a sonnet bearing exact structural repetition with another one, “Lost,” on page 24—two poems, the second of which is positioned almost exactly halfway through the book, that take the theme of reflecting about one’s chosen path. They are the most iconically Frostian of the bunch, and conjure comparisons to both “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and “The Road Not Taken.”

In contrast to Frost’s opening line of “Whose woods these are I think I know,” the narrator of “Lost” finds himself on “A long-abandoned logging road” that “still winds / Through wooded hills, off paved, familiar ways.” The second and third stanzas made this reviewer chuckle:

 

That I’m off-course is just a simple fact.
I blindly listened to the G-P-S,
And doing so resulted in this mess—
Lost and alone on this forsaken tract.

My compact car was never meant for this.
How soon until they locate my remains?
My legacy will be my lack of brains
And absence in the lives of those I’ll miss.

 

Each stanza begins in gentle humor with lines such as “I blindly listened to the GPS” and “My compact car was never meant for this,” and employs witty rhymes. Then the last lines of each quatrain pull the reader back to the potential consequences of the narrator’s carelessness. Instead of Frost’s narrator who has paused to calmly admire the woods, reluctantly obeys his horse’s impatience to move on, and only gently hints at darker undertones, the narrator of “Lost” worries anxiously about a fate to which he is probably overreacting. There is no empathy with nature here, and by the final couplet he is desperate to escape:

 

Then, just before the fear sets in for good,
I find my way out of the loathsome wood.

 

Robert Frost, because he is so widely beloved, has never been much admired by intellectuals. In addition to the conservative tone and subject matter that infuriates leftist academics, there seems little to “interpret” in his poems, nothing for scholars to unearth in terms of symbolism or arcane allusions (though postmodernists will dig to uncover the power politics, as they do everywhere). Poet-critic Randall Jarrell, in distinguishing between the “regular” Frost with his “other,” less familiar version, described him as “the one living poet who has written good poems that ordinary readers like without any trouble and understand without any trouble.” The regular Frost has the popular image of being tender, optimistic, and reassuring; the “other” Frost, by contrast, can be starkly bleak, melancholy, fatalistic, and obdurately ambiguous, as in the cases of “Design” and “The Most of It.”

Burd has acknowledged Frost to be one of his favorite poets, and without making the mistake of compressing a writer into the slavish follower of one his major influences, this established link is useful in interpreting Memoirs from a Witness Tree. To the extent that Burd can be called Frostian, it is more in the sense of the less familiar Frost than the beloved, folksy version of the man that one deduces not just from oversimplified interpretations of his poems, but in his pictures: holding an axe in winter, sitting on a pile of stones in a field, etc. (The people who knew him left alternative portraits that contradict one another as to how much of this image was a genuine outgrowth of his reserved personality and how much was a deliberate image he fashioned for popular consumption; for Jarrell it was the latter.) In “Lost,” Burd seems to be flipping the beloved Frost on his head. He explores the famous themes of isolation, extinction, and going astray in a setting and casual style familiar to readers of Classic Frost, but with the severity of Bleak Frost—while managing to blend this with a wit that is all Burd’s.

“A Mended Heart” is a reflective poem that follows “Scars of Unrequited Love,” about the loss of a significant other. The second stanza’s first line of “A Mended Heart” asks, “Could I have traveled on a different path?” and overtly echoes Frost’s most famous poem. It forms something of a rough dividing line in the collection, between poems of childhood and love in the first half, and poems coming later that deal with death, doubt, and political themes chronicling the rotten state of the world. The work thus has a sort of Blakean “innocence versus experience” structure—though this too is an oversimplification, as even in the early poems on childhood, the author is reflecting on innocence from the point of view of experience, and some of the later more somber poems are not without rays of optimism. Throughout, bleakness is fairly balanced with tenderness.

After “A Mended Heart,” poetic structures begin to repeat more often. Most of the rondeaus fall in the second half of the collection. One in particular bears comparison with an earlier poem from which the book takes part of its title, “This Sycamore, a Witness Tree.” In this rondeau—the book’s first—the sycamore quietly observes Lincoln on his way to give the Gettysburg Address, a great speech given by one of the greatest statesmen of the modern world. The sycamore is also silent as

 

It witnessed every enlistee
Succumbing to a battery
Of cannon they could not suppress,
This sycamore.

 

Contrast “This Sycamore” on page eighteen with its mirror rondeau, “The Fall of the Fourth Estate,” sixteen pages later. Here the media is limned as a political force that, like the surveilling sycamore, is not officially recognized for what it is; and yet unlike the silent tree it never stops blathering lies. The soldiers who in ‘This Sycamore’ could not stop the artillery which blew them to smithereens are replaced here with weak and corrupt politicians bludgeoning their cannon fodder of the voting booth:

 

Campaigning bullies will berate
The citizens and educate
Their friends to start deferring to
The Media.

 

The lines “This sycamore” and “The Media” are each repeated in accordance with the rondeau convention in lines 1, 9, and 15. The difference is that in its third appearance the sycamore, though still standing silently in lower caps, is given its due understated historical importance with a final exclamation point, while “The Media” is capitalized with imposing force and stomps its boot with the dull thud of a period.

Another rondeau, almost as equidistant in the collection from “The Fourth Estate” as that poem is from “This Sycamore,” is “On Better Days.” Here news events are again reflected on and combined with the theme of childhood nostalgia. But being one of the book’s final poems, experience is explored from the point of view of innocence rather than vice versa.

“Bad News” also mixes themes: the title evokes the previous poems on the corrupt media, and yet its subject—a father making an ominous disclosure to his daughter—revisits further permutations of the themes of loss, nostalgia, and the relationship between child and adult. The “very-extended sonnet” form of this piece (it is five quatrains) fits well the theme of the father’s full life—the extra quatrain in the middle lists all his accomplishments which “hard-earned, now felt unwon”:

 

The accolades he’d hung upon the wall
In black and silver frames, advanced degrees,
Group photos from his days of playing ball,
His membership in nine societies…

 

Other than “The Fall of the Fourth Estate,” the most resonant of the overtly political poems are “Made in China” and “Indoctrinating Evil,” which tackle the theme of exposing communism. One imagines this latter poem turning even the head of the condescending Plato…

 

PLATO. I think you weren’t entirely wrong about Burd’s collection. There is one poem that I found delightful.

ARISTOTLE. Oh, what’s that?

PLATO. “Indoctrinating Evil.”

ARISTOTLE. What could you possibly find to enjoy in such a poem?

PLATO. It perfectly corresponds to the governmental practices of the heavenly forms regarding how we should be bringing up the children of our Republic.

ARISTOTLE. Our republic?

PLATO. (with the passion of a tragic actor) “A student sits and stares at an exam, / Expected there to demonstrate their hate. / But, something in their heart does not relate— / A pause before the slaughter of the lamb.”

ARISTOTLE. Hmm, that sounds pretty awful.

PLATO. It accurately describes a problem to be overcome. As Socrates says, a city will be stronger if its citizens put the State before everything else.

ARISTOTLE. I’m pretty sure Socrates didn’t really say that.

PLATO. How do you know? Were you there? No! But I was. Socrates specifically said that all barbarian philosophies not our own must be stamped out, including this terrible “Falun Gong” movement, which obviously promotes division and war.

ARISTOTLE. What is this “our” you keep referring to? Do you imagine I will be a party to your mad tyranny

PLATO. You presume to lecture me on tyrants? You who tutored the boy that grew to become the most notorious conqueror in all the world?

ARISTOTLE. Philosophers have to eat, too.

PLATO. (with bacchanalian frenzy) Yes, and our banquets must be sumptuous! We are the gold souls! As philosophers, we have the duty to rule. We are kings by right!

ARISTOTLE. Aren’t you overstepping your bounds a bit, professor? I see that academicians haven’t changed much in the last two-and-a-half thousand years. It’s a good thing you never married; you would have tyrannized your own family for want of access to a better political experiment. The final lines in Burd’s poem rang just as true back then as now: “Indoctrinating children is the crime / Perpetuating evil over time.”

PLATO. (foaming at the mouth) Bah, Burd—burn his house! I can see I was too generous in my reassessment of his work. If there are any statues of him, call on our warrior class to tear them down immediately.

ARISTOTLE. (yawning) Nobody cares what you think. I’m “The Philosopher,” not you. In my view, this is a poet who nicely conforms to my dictum that “the perfection of style is to be clear without being mean.”

 

Clear Burd always is, whatever the subject matter. Several poems in the second half are elegies about the loss of relatives (“Echoes of Yesterday,” “The Edge of Memory,” “Reflection”). “Chaos Abounds” and “Blades of Doubt,” like the aforementioned “An Affirmation of Faith,” deal with a healthy skepticism over the big questions that does not detract from his consistent moral tone. There are also a few poems about romantic love, which is entirely fitting for a book of sonnets.

“They Boldly Went” is one that made me do a double take: here amidst this collection where love and laughter battle against death, despair, and indoctrination, could this be—a paean to Star Trek? Yes! (The chosen subject alone obviously makes this one of the best poems ever.) Appearing in the book’s second half, we are suddenly presented with a vision of an optimistic future where humanity has set its differences aside to work together in facing the unknown.

The poem immediately after this, “What Will Stay,” contrasts with “They Boldly Went” by examining the divisive relationship of past and future through the eyes of ancient Roman statues. It is a timely yet timeless reflection on whether it will matter that the future checkmates our memory:

 

Our kings and queens, our bishops, knights, and pawns,
Torn down by those who’ll find our thoughts impure.

 

This poem might also have been titled, “Ozymandias Meets the Protestors.”

The final poem on page fifty-four, “Forgotten,” is among the best of the whole group, and parallels on a personal note the theme of public memory that “What Will Stay” deals with in a more political way. The gravestone in “Forgotten,” a monument to the narrator’s memory of an ambiguous older relative, is now overgrown, just as the “cold, dead stone” of the Roman gods contrasts with “the green / Of life renewed and thriving all about” in “What Will Stay.” “Forgotten” sums up many of the collection’s themes in a somber manner, and the poems on childhood that begin the collection are balanced here with the death of an old man. The poem itself represents the final monument to the narrator’s relative, and implies that literature will serve to retain that existential evidence which the gravestone, in the powerful final couplet, no longer functions to provide:

 

Few living souls know whose remains are there;
Not even their descendants really care.

 

The final couplet here is quite similar to the final couplet in “What Will Stay,” which emphasizes the willful misinterpretation of the past by future generations; in “Forgotten,” though, the future is simply indifferent. The ABBA CDDC EFFE GG rhyme scheme of the two poems is the most structurally common format among the sonnets, as it is also repeated in five other poems: “Lost,” “A Mended Heart,” “Backwoods Town” (which reverberates with “Lost” in its opening two lines), “The Edge of Memory” (possibly about the same older relative as in “Forgotten”), and “Echoes of Yesterday” (about an older female relative, referred to simply as “she”). It is perhaps a mistake for this reviewer, in his desperate search for patterns, to see all these repetitions as entirely deliberate; it seems unlikely, however, that the careful and concise verbal design exhibited both within and between the poems would not apply here—in good poetry, as in God’s creation, there are no accidents. It is no contradiction then to also describe the compilation as exhibiting a well-arranged anarchy as expressed in the outlook governing “Chaos Abounds,” positioned towards the middle of the book. Comparing this collection with another notable sonnet sequence of our times, J.C. Mackenzie’s Sonnets for Christ the King—in which a rigorous theological structure overrides everything—the organization displayed in Memoirs from a Witness Tree is more like those spirals to be found everywhere in nature which conform to the Fibonacci sequence: present but hidden.

Much more could be said about Memoirs from a Witness Tree. There are other sonnets and rondeaus that pair off and interweave in theme and style to contribute to the delicate arrangement of the whole. No critic or scholar can hope to fully flesh this out in anything less than a book-length treatment that discusses each poem in more depth than is possible here. The present reviewer hopes, however, that he has succeeded in capturing some fragment of the essence that informs this work.

Perhaps Mr. Burd can relate to Pindar’s defense of the ode in an age when everyone was neglecting this unfashionable form in favor of the craze for tragedy-writing that had seized Periclean Athens (Aristotle’s bias is indeed a reflection of the larger culture’s shifting values). By the mid-fifth century B.C. the aristocratic lyric was a dying art, and every Greek beatnik with the remotest imagined literary sensibility yearned to adapt Homeric stories into the Attic theater equivalent of Hollywood screenplays. The Boeotian Pindar, while rejecting this trend in speaking “for a more traditional and less adventurous order of things,” says classical scholar C.M. Bowra, felt the need to apologize, in his second Isthmian ode, for having to seek payment for his work and contrasted his situation with an idealized past:

 

The Muse in those days was not mercenary nor worked for hire,
nor was the sweetness of Terpsichore’s honeyed singing for sale
nor her songs with faces silvered over for their soft utterance.
Nowadays she drives us to hold with that Argive’s
word, that mounts close to the truth itself.
‘Money is man,’ he said, forlorn alike of possessions and friends.
(Richmond Lattimore’s translation)

 

Randal Burd himself has undertaken a defense of sonnet- and rondeau-writing in a time where the musical rhymes and rhythms of verse are shunned, and everyone wants to write what will win them the big awards or rake in the cash. In soliciting an informed readership to side against decadence and cultural nihilism by purchasing his book, this poet has nothing to apologize for.

 

 

Andrew Benson Brown was a graduate student at George Mason University before taking too many classes outside his discipline coincided with the reality of Debt. He now works as a children’s caseworker in rural Missouri. In his spare time he reads obscure classics, writes things of little market value, and exercises far more than is befitting for a modern intellectual.


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6 Responses

  1. james sale

    It is always marvellous to read a review that not only informs one of the poetry in question, but provides a wider education as to the purpose of poetry, alongside deep insights into classical thinking. This is the kind of essay that one returns to time and time again. The ferocious debate between Plato and Aristotle alone is worth its weight in gold, and I certainly feel that this drawing on the past – without being prescriptive or leaden about it – is exactly what The Society of Classical Poets is about: it’s not about reading Greek or Latin (or any other language), as worthy as that is, but understanding what some of their key ideas were concerning poetry; for from the ideas come the forms and from the forms emerge our creative capabilities. I have admired Burd’s poetry that I have seen on this forum, but this analysis gives added impetus to read more of it, since it is clear that forms themselves are being used by him in very specific and exceptional ways: and one such way is, obviously, to counter modernism/post-modernism fair and square. The invocation of Frost here was extremely perceptive. Thanks – this is inspiring poetry and a brilliant review.

    Reply
    • A.B. Brown

      Thanks for the comments, James. There’s a lot more going on in Burd’s book that I had space to relate, there are so many wonderfully subtle flourishes everywhere, but such is the nature of reviews. A good essay should entertain as well as instruct, so I thought the Plato-Aristotle dialogue bits would be a fun addition. Wish I could read Greek and Latin! Took a few years of Latin in high school, should probably pick that back up…one more thing to add to the bucket list. Then again, I am borderline pedantic as it is. I think you’re definitely right about the importance of relating key ideas. There’s a lot more to ekphrasis and mimesis…obviously beyond the scope of this piece, but even the basics are I think helpful in fleshing out poetic forms. The durability of mimetic methods and theories through the centuries is, I think, a powerful testimony against the weird randomness, scatterbrained quality, and sheer boredom of so much postmodern literature and art. As Dr. Salemi notes below, I did not give Aristotle his due respect in founding this tradition.

      Reply
      • James Sale

        Yes, the guiding principles are the key thing, and mimesis is to me central to it. It goes back not only to the Greeks but to the Hebrews too: in the naming of the animals – the ‘spelling’ as it were – whereby, in Pope’s phrase, the sound is an echo of the sense; that sound enacts meaning – and in our language now that is primarily, though not exclusively, through meter and rhyme. I am doing a two-part article for The Epoch Times on a related matter. The first part has now recently been published and this may be of interest to SCP readers: https://www.theepochtimes.com/the-end-times-and-the-soul-of-progressive-thought_3490919.html

  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    Say what you like about Plato and his view of poetry and poets, but don’t denigrate Aristotle. His text on Poetics is incomplete (we don’t have the section on Comedy, which would have followed the treatment of Tragedy), and the text may have been compiled from student notes rather than a direct product of Aristotle’s pen.

    In any case, an ancient writer would normally deal with the high seriousness of any work of art, and for that reason alone lyric poetry would be considered secondary and less worthy of comment. Just because lyric poetry is considered the only viable and proper form of poetry today doesn’t mean that ancient Greeks ought to have thought similarly.

    Aristotle’s “characteristically tedious prose” (says who?) has given us, in the Poetics, the very basis for understanding fictive mimesis. And claiming that if her were alive today he wouldn’t like sonnets and rondeaus is bizarre. That’s like arguing that if George Washington were alive today he wouldn’t like cheese nachos.

    Other than these complaints, this is a well-written and thoughtful review.

    Reply
    • A.B. Brown

      Thanks for taking the time to read and offer your learned insights, Dr. Salemi. It’s true that I was irreverent towards both of the great Greek philosophers. I read one of Aristotle’s lost dialogues, ‘The Protrepticus,’ which has been partially reconstructed by contemporary scholars, and was quite impressed. He was an elegant writer. Unfortunately due to quirks of history, his ‘exoteric’ works intended for the public have not survived. We would not even have his more technical works for students were it not for the shady dealings of Apellicon of Teos, who acquired a number of Aristotle’s neglected original manuscripts, undertook to copy them, and filled in the lacunae with what he thought Aristotle said. According to the philosopher Patrick Grim, it’s hard to separate the two men when reading the ‘esoteric’ texts, and when encountering repetitions it’s reasonable to surmise that we’re reading Apellicon’s imaginative contributions. Hence the dry quality of the writings—admittedly, as you say, no fault of Aristotle himself. Also regarding Aristotle not mentioning any of the nine lyric poets, he actually does talk about a few of them in his ‘Rhetoric.’ I originally was going to throw in a few side explanations about these things, but the essay was already long enough, and I ended up sacrificing fairness for the sake of dramatic flair and (slightly more) economy.

      As for Plato, it’s been argued that his famous Socratic irony leads to an intentional ‘reductio ad absurdum’ position regarding the idea for kicking poets out of the republic, as Plato himself was a highly artful writer. Whether this was his actual view, we’ll never know for sure. Again, thought of explaining this, but I’m too long-winded as it is. Also thought a few corpses at the doorstep would make for a more interesting read. Plato and Aristotle are two of the greatest thinkers of all time, and I didn’t have any illusions abount denting their reputations at all by having a little fun with them—though in retrospect I perhaps should have taken into consideration the fact that many today, in fact, do want to tear down the canon.

      Reply
  3. A.B. Brown

    James—a great article, thanks for the link. When mimesis is abandoned the result is art that lies. It’s an interesting point of ‘progress’ from the despairing tone of modernist poetry in the first half of the twentieth century, to the delusional optimism current in social activist poetry today—an outlook that itself predated the build-up to WW1 and the despair that followed. Progress seems to have its own cyclical psychology, a sort of demonic inversion of the ancient Hindu turning of epochs, or the Stoic view on endless cosmic conflagrations. For progressives, their golden age is in the future, and they actively start a world-consuming conflagration to bring it about.

    Reply

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