Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, March 5, 2006

Wit in poetry reaches beyond the genial chuckle or knowing smirk. Poetic wit is verbal, not anecdotal, and, when ebullient, it guides words into an expressive dance, as in Robert Herrick's line (from "Corinna's Going a-Maying") "The proclamation made for May." But wit can also find bitter meanings in ordinary-looking phrases, as in Elizabeth Bishop's "Crusoe in England," when Crusoe says "And I'd have given years, or taken a few,/for any sort of kettle, of course."

Thus, Bishop's paired opposites indicate how "taking" years of life in isolation can be as harsh a sentence as giving up years of life itself. And Herrick's maying and proclaiming and making, three distinct activities, share a single exhilaration as well as a sound. In such double or triple resemblances, wit presses hard at the surfaces of words to discover an emotional truth.

Sarah Arvio's new book, Sono -- Italian for "I am" -- raises that process to an unusual, expressive intensity. In the accelerating riffs of these poems, the sounds of words express, in addition to comedy and insight, a nearly frantic pursuit of control. This is wit under duress, wrought to an extreme, less like a cool or amusing remark than a crying out. Here is Arvio's "Amourette":

It lasted many moons--in fact decades--

but, you know, never morphed into marriage.

Slow amour, as slow as a snail,

and as armored as an armadillo.

Was imperfect love a peccadillo,

or wasn't it love, this purgatory;

in the end I think I was mortified.

Speaking of petite mort , there was also

petty murder. O ambrosia. I was

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