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

amortized, you know, or slowly murdered

while waiting for a metamorphosis.

It was disarming that it was over.

There was harm in him, and a dose of smarm--

that I wasn't dead was the miracle.

I wasn't quite dead, but almost, you know,

arm over arm with my malefactor.

And, you know, alarmingly amorous.

In marital, martial and lunar law

the dead girl can't marry her mortician.

No one was left but the Necromancer,

not the Romancer and not Amore,

something like heavens to murgatory,

and all the morphology of remorse.

To think purgatory led to heaven!

An armchair, mon cher , not a chariot,

all that old passion put out to pasture

for grazing, you know, on "past" memories.

This is wit on a rampage, dramatizing its own excessive drama, generating a sense of desperation as well as knowledge. This is not quite a mad song, but nearly.

The word "humor" originates in the fluids of human personality and "comedy" in the performer's mask. Although we say "witticism" to connote something superficially amusing, Sarah Arvio's book reminds us that the term "wit" can mean the mind itself.

(Sarah Arvio's poem "Amourette" is from her book "Sono: Cantos." Knopf. Copyright © 2006 by Sarah Arvio.)

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