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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, May 28, 2006

"It is a precious jewel to be plain," says a wonderful, anonymous poem set to music by John Dowland (1563-1626). Just saying the poem aloud creates a kind of tune. The unknown author, speaking as if he were a street vendor of gewgaws, claims a sincere plainness for his ways of writing and courting. Cunning as well as tuneful, the poem is a rather fancy assertion of being straightforward or unadorned. Writing a poem that imitates the call of a street vendor is a paradoxically elaborate way of suggesting that the "wares" offered are unpretentious and truehearted:

Fine Knacks for Ladies

Fine knacks for ladies, cheap, choice, brave and new!

Good pennyworths! but money cannot move.

I keep a fair but for the fair to view;

A beggar may be liberal of love.

Though all my wares be trash, the heart is true.

Great gifts are guiles and look for gifts again;

My trifles come as treasures from the mind.

It is a precious jewel to be plain;

Sometimes in shell the Orient's pearls we find.

Of others take a sheaf, of me a grain.

Within this pack pins, points, laces and gloves,

And diverse toys fitting a country fair.

But in my heart, where duty serves and loves,

Turtles and twins, court's brood, a heavenly pair.

Happy the heart that thinks of no removes!

Hard for any turtledove to resist this dazzling assertion of simplicity. A "sheaf" of others -- a sheaf of pages or of wheat-stalks -- equals one grain of this peddler's wares.

Stephen Burt's engaging, artful recent book, Parallel Play, deserves comparison with this poem. Each of the poem's four sections ends with a different poem called "After Callimachus." The ancient poet, in these versions, comments on poetry and the poet's life to make a similarly sophisticated claim of plainness. "Using no spice but salt," says the final "After Callimachus," implying that the salt of wit can be more essential than more exotic rhetorical flavors. [Burt's wit and powers of invention are on full display in "Moving Day," but, as with the "fine knacks" poet, he keeps his sentences direct and his images homely. The poem takes as its epigraph a quotation by Willa Cather on the idea that furniture can express its emotions:

Scraps and small reminders said the scissors to the shelf

Why do I feel empty said the oven to itself

Some of us are hungry said can opener to tin

Tell me said the radio how much you want to win

And take us along when you go.

All the way from Thailand said the topmost row of cans

Rise and turn around again explained the standing fan

None of us are broken said the tumblers to the towel

Scratch me up or polish me said bannister to dowel

And take us along when you go.

When they come to get you said a carton to its box

Count your lucky hours said a doorjamb to its locks

Will she will he will she sang the plumbing to the void

Did you mean to build me will I ever be destroyed

Carpet said to ceiling Can I offer any more

Nothing I can give you said the lintel to the door

You always overlook me said the baseboard to the stair

Board game valise said the attic and a folding chair

And take us along when you go.

The penetrating, subtle plainness of language, like the distinct, skillful rhyming, harks back to the time of Dowland, though the poem is thoroughly contemporary.

(John Dowland's poem "Five Knacks for Ladies" can be found in "English Renaissance Poetry," edited by John Williams. Univ. of Arkansas. Stephen Burt's poem "Moving Day" is from his book "Parallel Play." Graywolf. Copyright © 2006 by Stephen Burt.)

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