May 7, 2009

Now We Have to Decide What to Do with Them

I thought of Bernie Madoff's crimes when I recently ran across a short poem by Raymond Oliver, once a student of Yvor Winters and now a retired professor of English and all but forgotten in the literary world. Oliver has specialized in the epigram, the very short poem, and translations of late Medieval and Renaissance verse. A few of his poems and translations are superb; others are well struck but minor; yet others are light verse, though good stuff nonetheless. Here's one for our times from his 1982 chapbook Entries that amounts to acerbic light verse:

The Last Judgment

Medieval scuptors knew,
Better than marxists, what to do
With the exploiting upper classes:
You carve them naked into stone,
With fiends that strip them to the bone
While shoving skewers up their asses.
Torture them richly and with skill.
And then let them pay the bill.

More than venting one's frustration, this sharp, short poem is about shame. No longer fearing death much -- what with hell and even the afterlife mostly denied or ignored nowadays -- wouldn't many an exploiter like to hang on to his so-called earthly "legacy," as we see, for example, in the opening efforts of the Dubya team in recent months. Maybe the thought of lasting infamy is part of what keeps exploiters in line as well as they can be kept in line. That's worth some thought. Though I am a political liberal in the current parlance, I know a few erudite conservative commentators who have argued forcefully and persuasively of late for a renewal of shame in our culture. In that vein, this poem from Raymond Oliver gives rise to some valuable reflection.

On another matter, I noticed that the late Thom Gunn, a semi-Wintersian, blurbed a couple years back for Oliver's latest book of poems (which I have not seen and cannot find), His Book of Hours, “Ray Oliver's poems are like none others I have read.” I think I know what Gunn meant, but the blurb is unintentionally funny because it actually says nothing at all -- not unlike many an advertising tagline (such as Pizza Hut's latest vapid pitch: "Now, that's eating"). Oliver has written mostly in traditional forms, but he has published a few free verse poems that come close to prosetic musing. If you are inclined to try, it will be hard to track his work down, of course, but a few poems are available online here and there. He is not a great poet, in my judgment, but he has done some skillful and thoughtful work that deserves attention in a Wintersian classicist enclave, as Donald Stanford gave him in the Southern Review more than 20 years back. Oliver wrote an essay for and published more than dozen poems in the 1981 Yvor Winters issue of the Southern Review. (That rich issue, by the way, is an important one that deserves attention among modern classicists.)

At some point I will come back to one or two of Oliver's translations.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You can find Ray Oliver's Book of Hours via