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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, July 8, 2007

Possibly even more than rhyme, even more than measures derived from the ballad, the deepest, most traditional poetic form in the English tongue's literature is blank verse: unrhymed lines of five units. That is the form of John Milton's Paradise Lost, William Wordsworth's "The Prelude" and Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning." Allen Ginsberg practices blank verse in his notebooks, and it echoes through the long lines of his "Howl."

Above all, blank verse is the form of William Shakespeare's plays. Grace Schulman uses it in her splendid tribute to the force of drama. In her poem "First Nights," she treats theatrical performance as the epitome of all art -- both in general and in one particular life, that of the poet's father. Schulman's lines live up to their great tradition and model by being saucy and inclusive, encompassing comedy as well as heartbreak, artificiality as well as tragedy:

FIRST NIGHTS

The best of all was listening to a hush

under the chandelier that never fell

and the fat box adorned with gilded masks.

When stiff asbestos parted over velvet,

my father gasped. He'd left the stage for a desk

when I was born. And now first nights were holy.

A program and a house called the Majestic,

more than prayer book and shul, called forth his praise.

One night an actor, fake wrinkles, white hair,

cried out under his breath, All-shaking thunder,

hoarse as my father, who had scared me once,

shutting a book and crying to some storm,

Arms, arms, sword, fire. That night, pitched forward,

I clutched a lineny square, but no tears came

for that desperate king until the swords

I suddenly thought real clashed for his throne.

Exits, applause, and I could breathe again.

My father said, "It helps us bear God's silences,"

and I knew watching was a kind of prayer,

a make-believe you play by looking hard.

It lifted him, as when, evenings at home,

dead still in thoughts about his sister lost,

he heard of cities bombed, while there, onstage,

Lear shouted, in a whisper, Mad, sweet heaven.

Basing a daughter's affectionate tribute to a father on "King Lear" is daring, and the effect is both amusing and poignant. The poem celebrates the majesty and even holiness of the theater and, by implication, art. The survival of words and characters for hundreds of years into a place and time that even Shakespeare could not have imagined is a marvel that Schulman conceives afresh. And by fitting her contemporary American idiom to the old cadences of blank verse, Schulman also celebrates us -- the always changing, renewed and not entirely incongruous inheritors of the art.

(Grace Schulman's poem "First Nights" is from her book "The Broken String." Houghton Mifflin. Copyright 2007 by Grace Schulman.)

Robert Pinsky's most recent book of poetry is "Jersey Rain."

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