Poet's Choice

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By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, July 1, 2007

Pundits and politicians sometimes call on ancient, partly forgotten echoes in order to sound wise or authoritative. Instead of saying an outcome might be good or bad, they say it "augurs well" or "augurs ill." The word "augur" harks back to both religion and empire: The Roman augur was a religious official who determined divine favor or disfavor by making a faith-based survey of the number, direction and location of birds in the sky.

Rhetoric deploys such ghostly, buried roots and invisible shadows of meaning for effect. So, too, does poetry, but often in an opposite kind of way -- digging meanings up and turning them in the light expressively. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins opens a poem with words in a super-energized order, muscling "My own" and "me" to the beginnings of lines, "let" to the end, as though stringing a bow or arming a catapult, with the triple-repeated weight of "tormented" as a missile: "My own heart let me more have pity on; let/ Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,/ Charitable; not live this tormented mind/ With this tormented mind tormenting yet."

In a more contemporary way, Carl Phillips is a master of expressive syntax, athletic turns of sentence that mime feeling. His distinctive sentences, with their parentheses of meditation, their cunning asides, suspended parallels and affecting divagations, are a little bit like Latin and a little bit like intense conversation, with its allusive, mothlike movement. His poem "Custom" begins with the old Roman auguring from birds, to end with a different association:

There is a difference it used to make,

seeing three swans in this versus four in that

quadrant of sky. I am not imagining. It was very large, as its

effects were. Declarations of war,

the timing fixed upon for a sea-departure; or,

about love, a sudden decision not to,

to pretend instead to a kind of choice.

It was dramatic, as it should be. Without drama,

what is ritual? I look for omens everywhere,


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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