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The Bibliophile’s Birth Certificate

Marius Michel (1846-1925) was one of the most prominent and gifted bookbinders in France. He produced work in strikingly beautiful and unique designs, and today his bound volumes are precious collector’s items.

Marius Michel, maître de reliure,
Bound my soul in fine-grained red morocco;
Culled from his cache of silk and satin gauze
The endpapers of my text’s nativity;
And taking infinite and careful pains,
He tooled in webs of pigment and gold leaf
Covers and corners, in a chaste design;
And with his true edge, die, and fillet wheel
He put (with golden fleurons) on my spine
The place and date of my editio princeps.

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The Chemist Arranges His Social Calendar

Acquaintances are irreducible
Precipitates refusing to dissolve.

Yet each one thinks himself pure aqua regia
Kept in bottles of impervious quartz.

All that’s left: the residue of faces
And the compounded salts of their reactions.

So I maintain my periodic table
To keep track of each rendezvous and date.

Which otherwise neglected, might explode
Like oxygen (the pure kind) in a flame.

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Some Comments on the Above Poems

In my previous posting (January 9) on the matter of using “conceits” in poetry, the two examples that I gave perhaps did not provide the clearest instances of what a conceit should do in a poem. The first rule, in my view, is that it should be sustained long enough to be the dominating metaphoric element in the poem, subsuming everything else to itself. The second is that it should be unexpected enough to baffle the reader, while at the same time compelling him to visualize the conceit’s metaphor as pertinent and plausible, despite its strangeness. The reader at the poem’s conclusion might say “That’s absurd,” but he should also say “I never would have thought of that.”

I try to follow these two guidelines in the poems given above. “The Bibliophile’s Birth Certificate” is in the voice of a rare book collector, the “bibliophile.” The speaker is describing his birth certificate not as the mundane legal document that we all know, but as something intimately connected with the speaker’s identity as a connoisseur of rare books in fine bindings. He imagines it as a volume bound by the famous Marius Michel, and goes on to point out the luxurious details of such a volume: red morocco leather, silk and satin endpapers, gold-leaf designs, and ending with “the place and date” on the book’s spine to indicate that this particular volume is an editio princeps (a “first edition”). A birth certificate is normally the first document connected with anyone’s life, giving the “place and date” of one’s birth and establishing one’s public identity. In this poem the curious idea is that this man’s “birth certificate” is a rare first edition in a sumptuous binding. This is the “conceit” that governs the entire poem.

“The Chemist Arranges His Social Calendar” is similarly structured. The speaker (the “chemist”) is talking about an ordinary social calendar—a small blank book in which appointments, meetings, and birthdays are noted on date-marked pages, usually for an entire year. We all know what the thing is, and by itself it is of no poetic interest. But here the speaker cannot discuss his “social calendar” without using words and imagery that are connected with his occupation as a chemist. The people whom he knows are “precipitates.” Each acquaintance thinks of himself as aqua regia (“royal water,” the acid which is a powerful solvent). He, on the other hand, can only think of them as “compounded salts” or ‘residues.” By referring to the social calendar as his “periodic table,” he clearly thinks of his social life as nothing more than a subdivision of his work in the laboratory. And if he should miss a date or appointment on his social calendar, he can only imagine it as an oxygen explosion.

Both poems are about what the French call déformation professionnelle. This is the tendency of some persons to allow their work or their deepest interests to color all of their activities, discourse, and relationships. A doctor who can only discuss matters from a medical perspective suffers from déformation professionnelle, as does an actor who can only see things from the viewpoint of stagecraft, or a Wall Street financier who can only talk about investments and interest rates. These persons have lost a wider part of their humanity, and have shrunk, morally and intellectually, into stunted and inadequate human beings.

My two poems are an attempt to depict déformation professionnelle in both a comic and a monitory manner. As comic poems, they point out the extravagance and silliness of taking one’s work or interests so seriously that they dominate all other aspects of life; and as monitory poems they warn against the psychological danger of doing so. But above all, the poems employ strange “conceits” that make a daring play for the reader’s attention: a birth certificate is a expensively bound first edition; and a social calendar is a reflection of chemical reactions. I hope that these two examples clarify what I have said previously about the conceit as a poetic device.

One last point: a conceit is the product of artifice. It is a made-up thing, brought into existence by human ingenuity and invention. In a real sense it is unnatural, but at bottom every effective metaphor is unnatural. It isn’t something that you are going to find in nature, or in the conventions of daily conversation, or in logical argument. That is the conceit’s lure, as well as its strength.

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Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.


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10 Responses

  1. BRIAN YAPKO

    Thank you for these poems and the tutorial regarding aspects of poetry I did not know. I am especially intrigued by the idea of the deformation professionnelle, which sounds like an inexhaustible source of material for poetic or dramatic character-development. I am reminded of a Robert Browning poem “An Epistle of Kharshish” in which an Arabian pagan doctor encounters Christ who has just healed someone. Kharshish describes Christ as a doctor and much of the encounter in medical terms. Regarding your poems, I love their vivid, spicy language and unexpected imagery. Thank you again for sharing these.

    Reply
  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    Thank you for your kind words. Browning often describes some sort of deformation professionnelle in his dramatic monologues, such as “Andrea Del Sarto,” where the speaker can only discuss matters from a perfectionist painter’s perspective, and we see how it has ruined his personal life. There’s also “My Last Duchess,” where the speaker (the Duke of Ferrara) has been deformed by his habit of ducal command and instant obedience from vassals, and as a result has become a monster of tyrannical selfishness and narcissism. By the way, this latter poem is almost always misread by modern readers, who can only see it as a psychological study of a male chauvinist who needs “sensitivity training” or some such nonsense.

    Reply
  3. Norma Okun

    Excessive concentration or aloofness can both be bad. It is one of the things that can make poetry go bad. Funny that you called Williams just a doctor and forgot or did not acknowledge his beautiful poems presenting his passion for life. He saved lives. What you claimed in what you wrote does not go along with what you told me. I hope not to make less of what you are saying. I just thought I would say this to you with good will.

    Reply
  4. C.B. Anderson

    It was interesting to see the rhyme you snuck in in lines 7 &9 of the first poem. Perhaps you had wished to avoid it, but couldn’t. Either way, it rang true, and I wonder whether or not an occasional rhyme in otherwise blank verse might be a worthwhile technique. I’m sure this has happened many times before; I even see it sometimes today, and I’ve probably done it a time or two myself.

    The second poem has none of this, and the poor misguided chemist has, in the last stanza, forgotten that pure oxygen cannot explode unless it is in contact with another combustible substance. It’s one thing for him to get life wrong, but getting chemistry wrong is contrary to his nature. One thing leads to another in his peculiar mindset, and he has nobody to turn to for a remedy. I’m probably reading too much into the poem, but there’s no doubt it was easy to read such things out of it.

    Reply
  5. Yael

    Thank you for the additional information about conceits which is still new to me and I love learning new things. I especially like the second poem about the chemist because it’s funny and entertaining. I’ve always been fascinated by how professionals interpret the world around them through the narrow lens of their profession. Of course we all do this to some extent because we cannot help but observe the world from our own unique perspective because it’s the only one we have. Some people just hide this better than your chemist does.

    Reply
  6. James A. Tweedie

    Dr. S, the four examples you have so far given for conceits have all been blank verse. Is this the norm for this type of poem or simply your preference at the moment? It seems to me that any poetic form could serve as a vehicle for a conceit, including those incorporating rhyme. Is this the case?

    Your accompanying essays are as excellent as the poems themselves!

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Yes, any meter could be used in connection with poetic conceits. I just happened to have these blank-verse examples at hand. They were written by me in the 1970s, and never published. At that time I was breaking free from the intolerable constraints of free verse, and was using imagistic language within the framework of blank verse.

      Reply
  7. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Joe S., thank you very much for this masterclass in the art of conceits. Firstly, your examples are infused with inspiration and intrigue. “The Bibliophile’s Birth Certificate” (great title) sings to my soul (which I am sure is bound in much the same way) and continues to thrill me with the sensory delight of such fine bookbinding. “The Chemist Arranges His Social Calendar” is clever, quirky, and hilarious.

    Secondly, your second rule has bowled me over – “it should be unexpected enough to baffle the reader” has changed my whole concept of the conceit. Not following the second rule has been exactly why my efforts at conceits have been (dare I say it) boring.

    I am ready and eager to approach these gems with a fresh eye. Thank you, Sir!

    Reply
  8. Joseph S. Salemi

    Many thanks, Susan. I’m glad if I have helped a fellow poet.

    Conceits are hard to manage, and even when a poet does it well it often goes unappreciated by readers who can’t get over being baffled by an extended metaphor.

    Reply

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