Plutonic Sonnets by Robert Bates Graber

A Sense of Humor

How refreshing to read a book by a poet with a sense of humor. I used to have a subscription to Poets & Writer’s Magazine and for twelve issues, for one full year, there was not one smile on the cover of its magazine. Plutonic SonnetsEvery featured poet gazed from its covers with the heart-broken burden of their own genius – a gaze that only poets are capable of – a gaze of  über-narcissism that would embarrass Narcissus himself.

I let the subscription expire.

For all the usefulness in the publication, I just could not handle one more angst-ridden cover.

You won’t find [G]reat poetry in Graber’s Plutonic Sonnets, but you will find poetry that is great fun to read and endlessly inventive. Don’t pick up Graber’s book if you’re in the mood for a Keatsian sonnet. Stick it in you backpack or oversized coat pocket. Wait until that moment when the thumb twiddling begins, then dig out Graber’s book and read one sonnet.

You might open the book to sonnet CXIII (Roman numerals are de rigueur):

Why do these eyes see anything save you,
And why is not your voice all I can hear?
Is touching you not all these hands should do,
This nose but draw your scents when you are near?
These lips of mine, that yet need common fare:
Can thus they use most of their pow’r to taste,
When they have savored lips beyond compare?
Why go these senses to such senseless waste?
Did I commit some heinous sin or crime
In this life, or in some life long before,
For which my senses now are serving time
To even up some hidden cosmic score?
Then comes redemption most magnificent:
Those sweet sensations for which they are meant!

The heinous sins and crimes of this sonnet are almost too numerous to detail. First, all but two of the lines are end-stopped (though this is surprisingly superior to many more serious and modern sonnets). Second,  what modern poet would dare apostrophize a word like pow’r, especially for the sake of meter? – how quaint and 19th Century. Third, what modern poet would ever indulge in such archaic diction as: Why go these senses to such senseless waste? Fourth, what modern poet would succumb to such a grandiose (almost Miltonic) inversion as Then comes redemption most magnificent.

Robert Bates Graber would.

Graber makes no effort to hide his influences. From the opening sonnet, we know exactly what he’s been reading:

Bright Gem of the Aegean! Who will dare
To ope’ the treasure thou hast giv’n our kind,
To take its measure, so beyond compare,,
And tell what thou hast meant for human mind?

Graber never wholly leaves behind these 19th Century (and earlier) roots. And he’s not embarrassed by it.

And yet, despite his flagrant disregard for contemporary sensibilities (let alone Ezra Pound), there’s something engaging about his flagrancy. If I were the betting kind, I would bet that Graber is perfectly aware of his poetry’s obsolescences. He revels in it. And that carefree sensibility, to me, makes his poetry refreshingly engaging. Sonnet CXIII is a perfect Shakespearean Sonnet. But not content to simply imitate Shakespeare’s rhyme scheme, he imitates Shakespeare’s sensibility and wordplay – scents (with its pun on cents and common fare), senses and senseless – very Shakespearean. Is it a Masterpiece? No. Is it fun to read? Yes. A poet without pretension and with a sense of humor, I love it.

hydraDONE TO DEATH

Can we please have just one more poem about Greek myths?

There are some modern poets who continue to draw “inspiration” from the Greek Myths, as though the 19th, 18th, 17th, 16th and 15th centuries never happened. They do, honestly, think they have something new and original to add, but Greek Mythology is truly the Hydra of modern poetry. All the pathos and vigor has long since been drained out of them. Allusions, let alone whole poems devoted to the myths,  are as appealing, to me, as stale lettuce.

With that in mind, what a pleasure to read Graber’s Greek Mythology.  He treats it with a tongue in cheek irreverence I can respect.

But now I fear some readers there must be
Whose criticism I cannot avoid;
For, knowing something of mythology,
They have been growing more and more annoyed.

Not me. In Sonnet CVIII, he ruins a perfectly good rape of Proserpina, turning it into a sweet consummation:

The couple were transported to a room,
A quiet chamber very near the top;
And there their love did sweetly consummate,
And afterward, a pomegranate ate.

Why would Graber sully Pluto’s reputation with the imputation of love? He answers that in CIX.

I know old masters model it their way:
A grabbing god, a goddess terrified…
To all of which I have but this to say:
All are agreed that Cupid’s aim was true;
And rape’s a thing true love could never do.

And so Graber goes on his merry, end-stopped way – a narrative poem in linked sonnets! Over a course of several, he shamelessly rewrites the myth of Proserpina and Pluto.  He’s not a poet for elaborate imagery or, really, imagery of any kind. Don’t come to his poetry expecting to be swept away by imagery, rhetorical complexity, or a melodiousness of line. If he does need to stretch a little, he unapologetically borrows or paraphrases (in this case from Shakespeare): “I love you,” Pluto murmured, “and my love/Is past all reason, and is past all rhyme;/’Tis such as dreams and myths are fashioned of…” But that’s not what Graber’s poetry is about. If anything, Graber’s poems could be characterized as little essays that just happen to be in Sonnet form – meter and all.  Each one, like the Shakespearean Sonnets on which they’re based, are little arguments, sometimes conflicting, sometime with a twist, that find resolution in swift epigrammatic coupleta – a neat, rhetorical summing up.

Read Graber’s poetry for the almost Elizabethan joy he takes in the working out of ideas and narratives. That said, at times, Graber’s casual (but usually controlled) tongue-in-cheek tone veers dangerously close to self-parody and outright mediocrity.

“…And though my heart no longer lies below,
There’s this to think of, should we elsewhere roam:
Up here I don’t amount to anything;
Down there we’d share a throne, for I am King!”

The last two lines have none of the ring or pithiness of Milton’s: “It is better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.” They sound altogether too quickly written. Even a little reflection and editing might have tightened them up. As it is, they typify a devil-may-care casualness that is sometimes carried too far by Graber. Even in humor, there’s a balance to be struck. And, to be fair, Graber does make fewer mistakes, like these, as the book progresses.

The Science

Robert Bates Graber

This, in my opinion, is the most enjoyable aspect of the book and the facet that most distinguishes and recommends it. Any reader who is a lover of science (and I am one of them) will enjoy Graber’s scientific sonneteering.  My wife, who has taught the whole gamut of mathematics in high school, couldn’t help but crack a smile at some of Graber’s antics.

(To Isaac Newton)

A pebble: it is difficult to name
An object more conveniently discrete;
Yet “calculus” (or ‘pebble’) somehow came
To name the branch of math with which we treat
All nature’s deepest continuities…

Or if you favor cosmology:

If a mere golf ball represents the Sun
At Yankee Stadium’s home plate, we know
A trip to Neptune would take a home run;
And the next star would be in Chicago!
Such is the size and emptiness of space.
In search of something solid, shall we turn
To matter? Well, supposing we replace
Our Sun with golf-ball nucleus, we learn
That centered, its electrons, far afield,
Would haunt the stadium’s remote recesses….

Or if you favor Astronomy, Graber dedicates several sonnets to the Herschels and one sonnet-sized biography of John Flamsteed (Sonnet XLII):

They say your brewer father could not see
Just what on Earth your hobby could be for;
Yet in your youth your king called you to be
His Astronomical Observator.
And Tycho, whom you called “the noble Dane,”
Inspired you to chart the stars that clad
The night…

You can actually learn interesting facts and anecdotes about the various sciences and scientists you never knew. Addressing Dmitri Mendeleev (Sonnet LX), he informs us:

You wowed the world when you predicted three
New elements with your “periodic table.”
And though it sounds like something of a spoof,
You are the reason vodka’s 80 proof.

It’s too hard not to forgive a poet for his numerous excesses and stylistic frivolity when he is so engagingly self-effacing and humorous. The audience for this book of poetry will be the one who enjoys Graber’s playful references to Greek Mythology, his irreverent odes to the foibles of great scientists, and an ability to sum up scientific grandiosity within the space of a sonnet. Each sonnet is a teaspoon of sugar for the knowledgeable grown-up.

About Robert Graber

Because nothing is private on the Internet, I stumbled on this little piece of autobiography.

“I was born in 1950 in Lansing, Michigan, and grew up in northern Indiana. My father was a physician (obstetrics/gynecology), my mother a schoolteacher. We were Mennonites. Though we were not among the highly culturally-conservative ones, I was impressed by the church’s claims to ultimate significance and by the church/”world” dichotomy. Within months after leaving home at age 19, however, I became a devout agnostic. I was attracted to anthropology by the popular books by Desmond Morris and Robert Ardrey. I got my bachelor’s at Indiana University in 1973, my masters (’76) and doctorate (’79) at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Victor Barnouw, who had been a student of Ruth Benedict, was my adviser. My dissertation was a comparative study of the schisms that have made Mennonites such a culturally variable group of sects. I published several papers in psychoanalytic anthropology, but have grown more and more preoccupied with quantitative theorizing about cultural evolution. My book in press is *A Scientific Model of Social and Cultural Evolution* (Thomas Jefferson University Press 1994) and I am writing an introduction to general anthropology for Harcourt Brace. I have a wonderful wife and two great daughters 13 and 11. I play classical guitar, golf, and chess (in order of declining proficiency), and drive a red ’72 Mustang (fastback) which still looks good if you don’t look too closely. I taught for two years at Millsaps College in Jackson, MS, before coming to Northeast Missouri State. I enjoy teaching anthropology as an integrative, “eye-opening” experience for students.”

In the meantime, Graber is an emeritus professor of anthropology at Truman State University, lives with his wife, Rose, in Kirksville, Missouri. He has published four other books besides Plutonic Sonnets (the book for which, he tells me, he is most passionate). Though the back matter of Plutonic Sonnets doesn’t name them, here are links to his other books, for those who might be interseted.

Valuing Useless Knowledge

  • “Robert Graber explores the historical, philosophical, and sociological origins and nature of liberal arts and sciences education and draws on anthropology to show us how much to value such ‘useless knowledge’.” • His book recieved 3 Five Star reviews at Amazon.

Plunging to Leviathan

  • “Making it fun (and even exciting), Robert Graber pursues here a very serious issue the coming of a world state and gives opposing sides of this debate fair and frequent airings. With his accustomed mathematical skill and ingenuity, he makes a case for the future unification of the world without the necessity of global war. Even the skeptics, and I’m one, hope he s right.” Robert Carneiro, American Museum of Natural History

A Scientific Model of Social and Cultural Evolution

  • This book, for which I couldn’t find a cover, is reviewed at Dannyreviews.com.

Meeting Anthropology Phase to Phase

  • “In Meeting Anthropology, the major phases through which our species has passed provide the structure for a truly coherent encounter with general anthropology — biological, archaeological, cultural, and linguistic.”


28 responses

  1. Although it depends on what Eliot meant by “good”.

    I doubt he would have insisted that Shel Silverstein be hard to be good. Besides that, I suspect that Eliot’s comment was somewhat self-serving. His poetry was nothing, if not hard. His saying that “the reader of a poem should take at least as much trouble as a barrister reading a decision on a complicated case…” is a direct reflection of his own aesthetics. Artists tend to define greatness in terms of themselves, some wittingly, some unwittingly.

  2. Some readers seem to prefer impenetrable poetry; some poets surely prefer writing it. As one adolescent internet poet–not without talent–confessed: “I really like how nobody knows what I am talking about!”

    In poetry, as in social interaction, one should not always “come right out with it.” “What’s lightly hid is deepest understood,” wrote Emily Dickinson (in, I believe, “Tell the Truth But Tell It Slant”). One of the many predilections of modern poetry I do not share is that I prefer stressing the “lightly” rather than the “hid.” I take to heart Robert Frost’s warning against “hiding too far away.” Isn’t life lonely enough already?

    • My own feeling is this: Historically, the greatest poets have been, in their way, “the most difficult”. Shakespeare is hard. He didn’t write the way people spoke, even in his own day. His syntax, grammar and figurative language is that of a poet.

      The greatest poets, before the 20th century, were great, among other things, for their facility with allusion, archetypal metaphor and symbolism. To read Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley or Keats is to learn a new language of signs and metaphor — simple, in their parts, but in their sum, complex. They also were masters of language – in the sense of rhetoric, rhyme, meter, and language’s overall rhythm.

      What happened at the turn of the century? Rhyme and meter were cast out because they were too difficult to do well. Rhetoric (the arts of language) were no longer taught in schools – and so were devalued. Figurative language, metaphor and the conceit were all associated with rhyme and meter.

      What did that leave?

      How were poets supposed to be “difficult”?

      A new way had to be found. In my own opinion, the worst excesses of so-called “hard” poetry in the 20th & 21rst century is little more than a veneer. Poets substituted the inscrutable for the complex. Syntax was contorted, meaning was deferred, and the whole notion of a core aesthetic of accomplishment or greatness was, with prejudice, jettisoned. The notion that great art was great because of what it had in common, was vehemently rejected because, well, it would have rejected the aesthetics of an entire generation. Greatness became a product of culture or politics – a stance that was nicely convenient to those who had been, until the 20th century, excluded from the canon.

      Readers, in order to decode a poet’s symbolic language or imagery, were forced to consult biographies or acquaint themselves with the tenets of this or that school. The school (or aesthetic principle) justified the poetry and the poetry justified the school. Poetry could not be understood apart from the context of the aesthetic – and this made it hard. It’s little wonder that a mediocre poet like Ashbery is the darling of a whole generation of poets. He synthesized the whole aesthetic of 20th century difficulty. As it is, few critics and fewer poets dare criticize him. Doing so is tantamount to criticizing a whole generation. It may take some time but you can expect to see Ashbery’s reputation, once it begins to decline, do so precipitously.

      It’s also no wonder that a poet like Robert Frost was denigrated by the same generation. It was bad enough that his poetry was old school. It was bad enough that his language was simple and that his use of imagery and metaphor was comprehensible. The worst of it was that he, along with Whitman, was (and is) considered one of America’s greatest poet. He is everything that a hundred years of poets have tried to reject or ignore. He is the poet whose poems arrive at complexity through the simplicity of their parts.

      In Frost’s poetry and the poetry before him, the sum of a poem might exceed its parts – even though the parts are easily understood. In the poetry of the twentieth century, the inscrutibility of a poem’s parts almost always, in my judgement, fails to exceed the poem’s sum.

      Until an older generation of poets stop seeking to redefine their mediocrity as greatness (which is much easier than actually producing great art), we shouldn’t be surprised when a younger poet derives satisfaction from a failure to communicate.

      If buildings were designed like modern poems, they would collapse under their own weight.

      The Taj Mahal has stood for hundreds of years because of the elegant simplicity of its design.

  3. My Frost “quotation” went slightly astray; I believe what I was misremembering was the final line of his “Revelation”:

    We make ourselves a place apart
    Behind light words that tease and flout,
    But oh, the agitated heart
    Till someone find us really out.
    ‘Tis pity if the case require
    (Or so we say) that in the end
    We speak the literal to inspire
    The understanding of a friend.
    But so with all, from babes that play
    At hide-and-seek to God afar,
    So all who hide too well away
    Must speak and tell us where they are.

    This poem’s appeal, to me, lies not only in the warning it issues, but in the fact that it is issued, by the lowly poet, to Almight God Himself.

  4. Certaintly I find myself in gneral agreement with you. My impression is that the academic poets have forgotten that poetry needs to entertain–forgotten it, or decided to entertain only a small, intellectually elite audience. Some, however, have kept a sense of humor–despite your solid year of Suffering-Artist cover images! I would instance X. J. Kennedy, for poems such as “Nude Descending a Staircase” and “Somebody Stole My Myths” (the latter of which made me realize the depth of my disagreement with the sestet of Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us,” thereby helping motivate and inform my PLUTONIC SONNETS). Another modern academic poet I admire is Richard Wilbur, who tempers enormous erudition with humor and great wit.

  5. You look really young! To get your poetry published the traditional way, you must try to look older (and more miserable)!

    :-,?

    (User is sagely puffing on his briar–a bent shape, apparently.)

  6. LOL!

    Many great poets not only have been able to crack the occasional smile; they even have warned against taking poetry itself too seriously. A favorite example of mine is the opening line of Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”:

    “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.”

    :-,?

  7. Hi, Patrick. Inspired by your review, and with apologies to the Smothers Brothers:

    As I walked out in the streets of Laredo,
    As I walked out in Laredo one day,
    I met a bleak figure heartbroken from bearing
    A genius far greater than mortal can say.

    “I sense by your heartbreak that you are a poet”;
    “I sense by your heartbreak that you’re a poet too.”
    We sense by our heartbreaks that we are both poets;
    If you are heartbroken, you can be a poet too!

  8. Remember when I wrote this:

    “It’s also no wonder that a poet like Robert Frost was denigrated by the same generation. It was bad enough that his poetry was old school. It was bad enough that his language was simple and that his use of imagery and metaphor was comprehensible. The worst of it was that he, along with Whitman, was (and is) considered one of America’s greatest poet.”

    Well, I just now noticed Silliman’s comment from just over a week ago:

    “Kyger’s poetry will prove far “more lasting” than that of Robert Frost…”

    I couldn’t ask for a more explicit validation of what I wrote. Frost sticks in the craw of a whole generation.

    Nothing would please him more.

  9. I believe there is no poet whose work I have enjoyed–and “profited from,” perhaps–more than his. From his masterpiece “Mending Wall”–a special fave of mine–people tend to remember “Good fences make good neighbors”; but the real point is,

    “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
    That wants it down”…

  10. I don’t get to read many well written reviews online, so this was a treat, and an excellent treatment of the material. I’ve already added Rob’s book to my wish list. He and I share a love of Shakespearean sonnets ;)

  11. Indeed we do! Melissa egged me on in a recent investigation of the historical origins of ababcdcdefefgg; now we are enjoying an exchange over exactly which and how many of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets deviate from this structure (apparently invented by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and first used for a long cycle by Samuel Daniel).

  12. Just a brief update on the bio you posted, Patrick: I retired from full-time teaching, at what by then had been renamed Truman State University, in 2006. I remain in residence as Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, teaching occasionally but mainly writing. Both daughters have flown the nest and married. Due partly to PLUTONIC SONNETS, I have taken up backyard astronomy (with an 8-inch Dob); the old Mustang gave way, several years ago, to a second-generation (1990) Mazda RX-7.

    :-,?

    • Thanks Rob. Is that something you would like me to add to the post? (Although anyone who reads the comments will see it.)

      When I was in highschool (in Vermont), I used to go out at 2 or 3 in the morning to stargaze and turn the telescope to the moon. This would be on January nights. It would be 15 to 20 below zero some nights. Those are wonderful memories. (I would sneak out, without permission, when I was supposed to be in my dorm room.)

      My interest gradually turned to Cosmology. The latest theories on the universe fascinate me. I try to read every new cosmology book as it comes out (generally at the popular science level), although I’ve also read some college textbooks. Theories of consciousness also greatly interest me. In fact, I’m presently working on a poem that sums up my own feelings on their relationship, but work on the poem has been fitful. I lack discipline.

  13. I have taken a professional interest in consciousness with reference to human evolution, chimpanzee behavior, and the origin of ritual; in fact, I’m working now on the question of whether chimpanzee culture shows any cumulative tendency–related to the question of consciousness, if somewhat indirectly.

    Those are great high-school memories! I tried to start an astonomy club in high school, but wasn’t committed enough–too many other things I suppose.

    About the bio: I thought of it as a comment, and am content to see it remain as such; but of course you may append it to the post if you like.

  14. Pingback: What is: Shakespearean, Spenserian, & Petrarchan Sonnets « PoemShape

  15. Greetings, Patrick and friends! I recalled your amusing observations about poets when I came across this:

    “Men who are unhappy, like men who have slept badly, are always proud of the fact.” –Bertrand Russell

    Hope all is well with you!

    • Well, my creative writing urge seems to have been supplanted, of late, by scientific ones; a colleague and I are trying to solve a statistical problem that arises in the analysis of chimpanzee culture traits. Late-breaking news about PLUTONIC SONNETS though: No. 145, line six, alludes to American astronomer Pickering as “H.M”; correct, however, would be “W.H.” (William Henry). The correction clearly would ruin the meter; perhaps I will declare it a matter that matters to history but not to poetry…
      Best,
      Rob
      :-,?

  16. Pingback: Plutonic Sonnets by Robert Bates Graber | Poetica~Place

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