Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, December 23, 2007

For each person, one utterance is so loaded with associations that it cannot be heard objectively: our own name. The ancient Roman poet Catullus used his name in poems, as did the 15th-century Frenchman Villon. More recently, Alan Dugan (1923-2003) began a poem "Dugan's deathward, darling." Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), in her "In the Waiting Room," wrote: "you are an I,/you are an Elizabeth,/you are one of them."

Possibly the most moving use of a poet's own name in English poetry is Ben Jonson's "On My First Son":

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;

My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy.

Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,

Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.

O, could I lose all father, now! For why

Will man lament the state he should envy,

To have so soon 'scaped world's and flesh's rage,

And, if no other misery, yet age!

Rest in soft peace; and, asked, say: Here doth lie

Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry --

For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such,

As what he loves may never like too much.

Jonson seems to associate his name with temporal and personal things: his work and reputation as a poet, even his role as father and his pleasure in the child -- all the personal attachments he vows to rise above, for some superior but unattained, impersonal form of love.

Stuart Dischell, in his new book, Backwards Days, writes an artful and striking variation on this theme:

In the Manner of SD

The day that I found art in my first name

Was the same day I saw hell in my last.

There was a girl there, of course, --

Touching a wet finger

To a postage stamp,

Pursing her lips

On the double bed.

I went to kiss

The cat-tongue rough

Of her each bent knee.

I was weak then, not yet a liar.

One of us had said,

What we do is our own business.

Then we broke the windows

And looted the store.

The way the last two lines revise and challenge the preceding phrase "our own business" does, indeed, exemplify "the manner of SD," with its playful yet implacable stripping away of self-justification. (His poem "Days of Me," in an earlier book, is a masterpiece of self-manifestation ridiculed by self-deprecation.) Here, Dischell compresses a lot of narrative -- and much understanding -- into fewer than a hundred words. His poem teases and expands notions of personality and impersonality, the hellish and artful qualities of being a many-sided but particular person called by an identifying name.

(Ben Jonson's poem "On My First Son" can be found in "English Renaissance Poetry: A Collection of Shorter Poems from Skelton to Jonson," edited by John Williams. Edwards Brothers. Copyright 1963 and 1990 by John Williams. Stuart Dischell's "In the Manner of SD" can be found in "Backwards Days." Penguin . Copyright 2007 by Stuart Dischell.)

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