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Poet's Choice

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,

because they are everywhere

to be found. They come to me like strays,

like the damaged, something that could know better,

and should, therefore -- but does not:

a form of faith, you've said. I call it sacrifice -- an instinct for it,

or a habit at first, that

becomes required, the way art can become, eventually, all we have

of what was true. You shouldn't look at me like that.

Like one of those saints

on whom the birds once settled freely.

The poet customarily finds omens everywhere (and the person he is speaking to), calls that habit "a form of faith." Their conversation, along with its oblique and referential differences, also has its blunt moments: "You shouldn't look at me like that." The sentence can be heard as a kind of intimate teasing or something sharper than that.

The traditional Christian image of St. Francis, so benign and sanctified that the wild birds settle on him, emerges as if by association with the contrasting, ancient Roman image of birds as indicators of divinity. The poet associates the pre-Christian image with the pursuit of an art, finding meaning in the "strays" of apparently random experience. He seems to sacrifice, by choice or habit, the comfort of the later Christian image, preferring the restless pursuit of significance in whatever comes. In a nearly casual tone, Phillips explicitly defines his customary process of discovering meanings and connections among random, contrasting or disparate things. Then he demonstrates that process implicitly, by linking the anxieties of Roman augurs with the mysteries of St. Francis.

(Carl Phillips's poem "Custom" can be found in his book "Quiver of Arrows: Selected Poems, 1986-2006." Farrar Straus Giroux.

Copyright 2007 by Carl Phillips.)

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