The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine
Re Verse: Essays on Poetry and Poets
The author of more than eighty books, David Slavitt publishes translations, poetry, novels, and memoir. His prose book, Re Verse, is a powerful collection of essays about poets and poetry. It treats familiar work in a fresh way that illuminates new aspects of each poet’s life and work and opens up poems and poets that may be a bit more difficult.
For those who avoid poetry because they feel ill equipped to take on the technical aspects, Re Verse is a wonderful guide. It contains deeply personal essays about poets and their poetry spanning a lifetime of reading and practice. Slavitt discusses technical issues in an organic and completely comprehensible way that helps the uninitiated understand why meter, elegance of line, and form matter, without ever making the reader feel like an anxious, naked dreamer. He describes the mystery at the heart of poetry in this way, “…that a poet can write something quite private and readers can respond to it, supplying from their own lives those energizing details that the literary work invites and exploits.”
Slavitt also engages us in a multi-layered dialogue about grief. At the end of the book, in his essay on “The Poetry of Grief,” we find one outcome of suffering,
He goes on to discuss grief using two of his own poems, “Solstice” and “Equinox'” to illustrate the difference between grief after an expected death (his father’s) and that from a traumatic death (his mother’s murder).
“Solstice” shows us the relationship between father and son as we follow the speaker’s motivations and actions in performing a rite of rememberance. He observes, “…To think, to grieve,/to remember isn’t enough. One must go to the bother/ of doing something.” And, after a few lines, continues the poem’s uninterrupted column (p.200-201):
The poem ends, “….Say/ rather that I’ve bargained once more with him/and done what he wanted, only to keep him at bay.” Slavitt’s tone is rational, purposeful, and he comes to an accommodation (strikes a familiar “bargain”) with his loss.
By contrast, in “Equinox” (p.201), Slavitt explores a different Yahrzeit, in broken stanzas (in contrast to Solstice’s single column). He writes of the grief he and his sister share after their mother’s murder. The second part of that poem reads:
Read the stanza aloud to appreciate Slavitt’s mastery of sound and structure. By saying the poem, you can hear Slavitt use sound to reinforce and color the portrait of a soul in pain approaching and veering away from an experience of terrible change in the world.
The essay in which these poems appear artfully directs our thoughts back to one of the first essays in the book. There, in a meditation on Donne’s “An Anatomy of the World: The First Anniversary,” Slavitt reviews what he was taught in school about the poem, what he’s been taught by life, then treats us to his accurate, subtle, but plain spoken reading of the poem. Slavitt moves, a page or so later, to a personal experience:
He then returns to a technical aspect of Donne’s poem to explicate the its echoing grief:
In each essay, Slavitt interweaves complex but accessible thematic readings with clarifying biographical and autobiographical examples. At the same time, he notes technical aspects that govern the poem’s levels of meaning. All of which makes Re Verse an accessible and compelling read.
Published: February 4, 2008