Correction to This Article
This column incorrectly referrers to Philip Larkin as having described poetry as a "machine made of words." William Carlos Williams gave that description.

Poetic Staying Power

By Mary Karr
Sunday, March 9, 2008

Poetry, William Carlos Williams once said, is a machine made of words: The reader puts the penny of her attention into the slot and pulls the handle; out comes a feeling. Which is true of any art form, no?

But for my money, only a poem can be replicated in toto, no piece missing. We remember overall novel plots or isolated sentences. A movie character or balletic leap haunts you. A tune may stick in your head. These are fragments. Only a lyric poem -- committed to memory in language we all use -- can be activated anytime, anywhere, yielding an artistic experience in its entirety. Pinned in a subway car with arms at your sides, you can call up a poem and enter a cathedral of words that anoints you again in your singular passions. And great poems keep moving in us forever, time and again.

Take Archilochos, a satirist from the 7th century B.C. The apocryphal story goes that he'd been promised a friend's daughter in marriage, but the friend reneged, allegedly because Archilochos' mother had been a slave. The resulting curse, "Liar," still sprays like seawater on your face.


Swept overboard, unconscious in the breakers,

strangled with seaweed, may you wake up in a gelid

surf, your teeth, already cracked into the shingle

now set rattling by the wind, while facedown,

helpless as a poison cur, on all fours, you puke

brine reeking of dead fish. May those you meet,

barbarians as ugly as their souls are hateful,

treat you to the moldy wooden bread of slaves.

And may you, with your split teeth sunk in that,

smile, then, the way you did when speaking as my friend.

Notice that the liar's torments -- strangling, puking, etc. -- keep him from speaking any further falsehoods. The final insult is sinking his split teeth in the slave's bread, which is what the poet's mother fed on.

In an election year, I'm sure this poem could find uses by people in both parties.

(Archilochos' poem can be found in "Dances for Flute and Thunder: From the Ancient Greek," translated by Brooks Haxton. Viking. Copyright 1999 by Brooks Haxton.)

Mary Karr's most recent book of poems is "Sinners Welcome."

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