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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, October 8, 2006

Poetry is a quick art. It does not plod through needless explanations, and often it takes pleasure in covering a lot of ground rapidly -- or, in doing several things at once. Jonathan Swift, in the 18th century, wrote poems that were sad as well as funny, generous as well as judgmental, calm as well as satirical.

He had the amusing idea of writing a poem ostensibly about his own death, after the fact, observing the behavior of his friends and enemies. The poem is all the funnier and more imaginative because Swift uses his death as an occasion to write about all sorts of things. The 484 lines of the poem touch on politics, religion, writing, manners: a wide-ranging editorial, naming names. Apparently, he intended the work to be published only after his actual death, though in fact it appeared in his lifetime. Here is a sample from "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D." (The initials stand for Dean of Saint Patrick's, Dublin):

"For poetry, he's past his prime;

He takes an hour to find a rhyme;

His fire is out, his wit decayed,

His fancy sunk, his Muse a jade.

I'd have him throw away his pen--

But there's no talking to some men."

And then their tenderness appears

By adding largely to my years:

"He's older than he would be reckoned,

And well remembers Charles the Second.

He hardly drinks a pint of wine;

And that, I doubt, is no good sign.

His stomach, too, begins to fail;

Last year we thought him strong and hale;

But now he's quite another thing;

I wish he may hold out till spring."

They hug themselves, and reason thus:

"It is not yet so bad with us."

The friends here are not scoundrels. Swift is interested in their psychology, the human quirks that can make us vain about our predictions or take pleasure in sounding authoritative about the decay of our friends. The poem is delightful partly because it encourages a fresh look at ourselves.

In his absorbing new book, Mark Strand also uses the notion of his own death as a springboard. Like Swift's lines, but in a distinctly different way, Strand's poem includes laughter and sorrow not as mere opposites, but as one feeling:

2002

I am not thinking of Death, but Death is thinking of me.

He leans back in his chair, rubs his hands, strokes

his beard, and says, "I'm thinking of Strand, I'm thinking

that one of these days I'll be out back, swinging my scythe

or holding my hourglass up to the moon, and Strand will appear

in a jacket and tie, and together under the boulevards'

leafless trees we'll stroll into the city of souls. And when

we get to the Great Piazza with its marble mansions, the crowd

that had been waiting there will welcome us with delirious cries,

and their tears, turned hard and cold as glass from having been

held back so long, will fall and clatter on the stones below.

O let it be soon. Let it be soon."

Eventual death here is a window with a view not of the social world, as in Swift's poem, but of how people think. The ways we find to imagine and re-imagine realities -- the traditional reaper leaning back in his chair and musing wistfully to himself. The paradox of the first six words in the poem, the reversal of the next six, the giddy yet deadpan quality of details such as "in a jacket and tie," the surreal tears clattering on the stones, all build up to the concluding prayer of Death-- who speaks most of the poem. Strand refreshes and questions the nature of allegory, which portrays death as a person: how much like a person, the poem asks, and in what ways? What happens to our dread or our sense of mystery when we mingle the scythe and hourglass with contemporary clothing, the hourglass, the Great Piazza, the crowd? Strand's poem -- no less than Swift's -- invites a reader to consider familiar reality in a new way, or to discover a new reality.

(Jonathan Swift's poem "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D." is available in numerous collections of his work. Mark Strand's poem "2002" is from his book "Man and camel: poems." Knopf. Copyright © 2006 by Mark Strand.)

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