Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot

The East Bracket Sweet Sixteen contests are over, with Gillian Conoley edging Barbara Guest and Carolyn Creedon getting by Leslie Scalapino into the East Finals.

Today’s North Bracket Sweet Sixteen matchup is Philip Larkin v. Bill Knott.

Knott knocked off Alan Dugan and his “Drunken Memories of Anne Sexton” in a miraculous upset; Dugan’s poem brought celebrity, clarity, drunkenness, wistfulness, and we still have no idea what Knott’s homely sonnet is talking about:


Don’t think, I said, that because I deny
Myself in your presence I do so in mine—
But whom was I talking to? The room, empty
Beyond any standpoint I could attain,

Seemed all sill to stare off before someone’s
Full length nude, at halfmast the pubic flag
Mourned every loss of disguise, allegiance
More to the word perhaps than its image—

But predators always bite the nape first
To taste the flower on the spine-stem, so
I spoke again, which shows how unrehearsed
I failed to be. I went to the window:

Sky from your vantage of death, try to see.
Flesh drawn back for the first act of wound, it’s me.

Rhymes and half-rhymes abound, but rhythmically, the poem is all-thumbs.  It has no music to recommend it, and if its harshness is intentional, or not, we can’t really see how it matters either way.

Knott’s poem is profoundly ugly, and this no doubt is intentional, due perhaps, to the homely subject matter.   Is it a conversation between the poet and his poem? The poem won’t let the poet be seen? That’s as much as we can get from it.

R.P. Blackmur, influential Modernist and New Critic, who got John Berryman—suicidal, in debt from his education, teaching HS—a job at Princeton, wrote:

The art of poetry
is amply distinguished from the manufacture of verse
by the animating presence in the poetry
of a fresh idiom: language

so twisted & posed in a form
that it not only expresses the matter in hand
but adds to the stock of available reality.

“So twisted & posed” sums up Knott’s poem—and much of modern poetry’s hubris: a belief that “twisted poetry” is far superior, by its very nature, to “manufactured verse.”  Verse does not contain “language” and does not “add to the stock of available reality.”  Whole generations which Blackmur influenced became besotted with this idea.

Who will lose to Knott? Not Larkin,
Whose poem contains more memorable
Lines than Pope; the day will darken,
Night meet day and placid on the window sill
Knott sits there still, unable to hearken
To anything but Aubade’s spell, Knott’s will
Broken bric-a-brac facing the pane; outdoors
Larkin, the storm, Monodrama meekly implores
The English poet to stop, stop, but Aubade roars.

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Larkin 98, Knott 37


1 Comment

  1. Recycled material support said,

    May 11, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    Now let’s go down to the floor where Marla Muse is speaking to Philip Larkin, who has just entered the Elite Eight after defeating Bill Knott, Marla?

    Marla Muse (MM): Thanks Tom, I’m here with Philip Larkin whose poem “Aubade” has just defeated Bill Knott’s poem “Monodrama” for entry into the Elite Eight. Thanks for talking with me, Philip, I know your time is limited.

    Philip Larkin (PL): Yes, I would like to get home and enjoy my evening.

    MM: You mean “get half drunk at night”?

    PL: If I can ever get out of here!

    MM: Hah! Philip, let’s talk a bit about your style of play in “Aubade”. It looks to me that one of the most effective elements of your offense was the intimidation factor. This poem just seems to spook the opposition!

    PL: Perhaps so.

    MM: No p’rhaps about it, I’ve seen basketball gods reduced to muttering introspection, as if they were contemplating “The good not done, the love not given, time/Torn off unused”. And it’s a double shocker to them, because when they look at you before the start of regulation play, they see a mild-mannered librarian in his Keds and tennis whites, and they think it’s gonna be a cakewalk! Yet once the clock starts running, you “become Death, the destroyer of worlds”!

    PL: Actually, I’ve read that Oppenheimer mistranslated or misquoted the original, which should read, “I am Time, destroyer of worlds.”

    MM: Nonetheless, I’ve seen some of the most battle-hardened champions go wide-eyed with horror as you go to the basket with “Unresting death, a whole day nearer now…”

    PL: (mumbling and glancing at watch) Getting to be a whole evening nearer too.

    MM: I’m sorry, what?

    PL: Nothing, Marla.

    MM: Philip, it’s as if you make for your opponents “all thought impossible but how/And where and when” they shall themselves—not only lose matches—but die. The great 11-time NBA champion coach Phil Jackson has said you instill into opponents a spirit of “Arid interrogation”—any response to that?

    PL: It’s hard to put a ball in a basket when you’re preoccupied with dying.

    MM: Now Philip, I’ve noticed that some of the more outspokenly religious African-American players seem impervious to your style of intimidation. For example, Dwyane Wade, who built his mother her own church, has said, “Larkin can call religion ‘That vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die’, but that’s not how I was brought up.” Any response to that?

    PL: Dwyane’s team is doing well in the playoffs now, and his team may eliminate mine, which would be fine with me, because I’d get to spend more evenings at home.

    MM: The NBA commissioner has also had a problem with one of your quotes, it’s up on the screen for viewers to read: “This is what we fear—no sight, no sound,/No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,/Nothing to love or link with,/The anaesthetic from which none come round.” The commissioner has publicly stated, “Philip Larkin’s poetry does not speak for the NBA.” Any comment?

    PL: The commissioner can speak for the NBA and I’ll speak for myself. I think we all know whose words will be longer remembered.

    MM: Philip, you have a way of catching your opponents unawares, of being “on the edge of vision/A small unfocused blur”, then making moves that generate in them “a standing chill/That slows each impulse down to indecision.” And then “realisation of it rages out/In furnace-fear…”, and—

    PL: (sighs audibly and looks around for the nearest exit)

    MM: Alright Philip, one of your most spectacular plays has been, “Courage is no good:/It means not scaring others.” I’ve seen opposing players gape open mouthed at that move. Comment?

    PL: It’s effective, as courage is often not.

    MM: Philip, you move like a god of the sport through our “uncaring/Intricate rented world”, and one thing’s for sure: at the end of your upcoming match for entry into the Final Four, “One side will have to go.” Thanks for taking time out to speak with me.

    PL: You’re welcome.

    MM: And coming up: the photos everyone wants to see — could they be the latest surprise from Wikileaks? Bryan Dorgan will tell you all about it — right after this word from our sponsors….


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