Review: Seth Steinzor’s In Dante’s Wake

This review is a request and a tough one for me. Steinzor sent me three full length books written as a modern parallel to Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Steinzor’s respective books are called, To Join the Lost, In Dante’s Wake, Book 1, Among the Lost, In Dante’s Wake, Book 2, and (as yet unavailable on Amazon) Once was Lost, In Dante’s Wake, Book 3. I’m at a disadvantage because it’s been years since I’ve read Dante and am forced to admit that I intensely disliked Christianity as a child and rejected the religion in my early teens. I saw it as having no relevance to me or my life as a child. The worship of the bible struck me as a bizarre obsession among adults. Why this book as opposed to any other? Why believe these nonsensical fantasies as opposed to any other? When I was assigned Dante’s Trilogy in high school and college it felt (and still does) feel like the work of an alien worldview with which I have no connection. I wish that I could read it in the original. I’ve read that Dante’s poetry has a beauty that’s similar to Shakespeare’s but unfortunately (to my knowledge) no translation has ever approached the genius of the original. All that said, Steinzor’s take has led me to order the Ciardi translation from Abebooks and have another go because it is, after all, a masterpiece of world literature.

But back to Steinzor and Dante. Here is how Ciardi’s Dante began the Inferno:

Midway in our life's journey, I went astray
   from the straight road and woke to find myself
   alone in a dark wood. How shall I say
 
what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
    so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
    Its very memory gives a shape to fear

Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!
    Bust since it came to good, I will recount
    all that I found revealed there by God's grace.
 
How I came to it I cannot rightly say,
    so drugged and loose with sleep had I become
    when I first wandered there from the True Way.

 But at the far end of that valley of evil
    whose maze had sapped many very heart with fear!
    I found myself before a little hill

 and lifted up my eyes. Its shoulders glowed
    already with the sweet rays of that planet
    whose virtue leads men straight on every road,

 and the shining strengthened me against the fright
    whose agony had wracked the lake of my heart
    through all the terrors of that piteous night.

Translated John Ciardi 


And here is Seth Steinzor:

Midway through my life’s journey, I found myself
 lost in a dark place, a tangle of hanging
 vines or cables or branches – so dark! – festooning
 larger solid looming walls or
 trunks or rocks or rubble, and strange shapes
 moving through the mist, silent or
 howling, scuffling through the uneven dirt or
 dropping from the blotchy sky like
 thicker clouds, so close sometimes I ducked in
 fright so that they never quite touched me.
 
Someone I had trusted had led me there.
 Perhaps it was persons, I could not remember,
 only how their words and gestures, once so
 sensible and clear, gradually grew
 obscure, how their features, once so individual
 and expressive – this lifted tuft of
 eyebrow, that kindly smile, that belly laugh –
 smoothed to nothing in the murk,
 and how at last they turned away, gibbering,
 gone. Without them was no path
 
that I could see. A bit ahead to the right the
 curtain seemed lighter, its patterns more
 distinct and loosely entwined and permeable,
 so I stepped over that way, stumbling
 on the occasional root or protuberance,
 until I splashed ankle deep
 into a pool of sucking mud that spread
 among the blackened boles and mounds its
 unforgiving mirror far as could be
 seen, and I could go no farther.

That might give you some flavor of Steinzor’s modern rendition: somewhat of a retelling, borrowing imagery (and some of the same Angels and demons) along with landscapes, tone and some of his punishments (all updated with more contemporary sinners and Saints). Steinzor also, like Dante, names names, some well known and some less so. Dante didn’t hesitate to exact revenge, even condemning (as far as I know) still living contemporaries with whom he was enemies. Filippo Argenti being an example. A contemporary with whom Dante clashed politically and in personal matters. Argenti reportedly even slapped Dante at one point. Dante, in revenge, had Argenti dismembered and torn to pieces in the river Styx. Steinzor, mentions Reagan indirectly twice while in Hell, but Reagan himself appears in Book 2 (Steinzor’s Purgatorio) in the “memorial cube” where Reagan, along with other Presidents, suffer disfigurements (amputated body parts) befitting their sins as leaders.

To give the reader some sense of how Steinzor continues to “retell” Dante’s original, consider one of Dante’s most famous passages from the inferno, the punishment of Francesca de Rimini (for which, frankly, I wouldn’t mind knowing which circle of hell the priggish Dante suffers in).

I came to place stripped bare of every light
     and roaring on the naked dark like seas
     wracked by a war of winds. Their hellish flight 

of storm and counterstorm through time forgone,
     sweeps the souls of the damned before its charge.
     Whirling and battering it drives them on,

 and when they pass the ruined gap of Hell 
     through which we had come, their shrieks begin new.
     There they blaspheme the power of God eternal.

 And this, I learn, was the never-ending flight
     of those who sinned in the flesh, the carnal and lusty
     who betrayed reason to their appetite.

And here is Steinzor:

We followed,
 barely able to pick our way through the
 
deepening dusk, uncertain always of seeing
 what our eyes were looking at.
 At last, ahead in a band of almost blackness,
 I thought I saw red lights like coals
 scattered from an upset barbecue.
 Then they seemed to gutter, and a
 sound of gusty winds – but no: they twinkled,
 as if birds or was that moths,
 huge moths fluttered at them. The lights were moving.
 Rags of breeze brought the odor of
 
 unwashed crotches. Then I saw what they were:
 a horde of naked men and women
 whose genitals glowed so you might read by them.
 They shuffled uneasily around
 each other, avoiding contact. Despite the blazing
 wands and clefts and globes they carried,
 their bodies – that is, their limbs and torsos and heads –
 were strangely unilluminated,
 merging chameleon-like with the rubbish and rocks
 of their crepuscular habitat.

These two are, ostensibly, the same Canto and circle of Hell—both detailing the punishment of those who gave way to lust and their carnal appetite. Steinzor makes reference to the “gusty winds”, acknowledging Dante’s inspiration, then entirely alters the scene presumably because the carnal sin being punished is entirely different than that of Dante’s Francesca de Rimini (with whom I sympathize). The condemned sinner in Steinzor’s retelling is the man who molested Steinzor’s narrator when the narrator was a youth. Steinzor’s punishment, compared to Dante’s, is positively sedate. Whereas Francesca and her lover are battered with the rage of opposing gales that violently smash the erstwhile lovers against each other like knots of bone and flesh, touching but never able to embrace, comfort or express their love, Steinzor’s carnal sinners walk in the dark with genitals seared to a glowing and untouchable coal. There’s some poetic justice in that, for sure, but nothing like the violent rage of Dante’s indignation—nothing that would inspire Tchaikovsky musical vision of the hellish wins bruising and brutalizing the former lovers.

In fact, Steinzor’s Hell does, to me, lack the sheer physical cruelty, suffering and limb-rending torment of Dante’s Hell (Steinzor’s slicing and dicing demons read like something out of fantasy novels) . Dante’s imagined Hell no doubt arises from what was generally the short, and sometimes brutal, lives of 13th and 14th century Europeans. Violence was everywhere and on display. There was no squeamishness about crime and punishment for example. Criminals were strung up, left to die, and left to rot in full view of the public’s comings and goings — children and all. While it’s easy to overstate the suffering in Dante’s day, people did have fun after all, and ate and made merry, I’m certain that many of the punishments—the howls of agony, the torture and dismemberment—were either witnessed first hand or familiar to Dante. In Elizabethan times, the dismembered arms and legs of traitors to the crown were nailed, for all to see, along the shore of the Thames. Some of Shakespeare’s descriptions, of wounds, blood and their effects on the wounded, are so accurate that scholars speculate he must have either seen the worst first hand or through first hand report. I don’t get the same sense from Steinzor. The relatively civilized 20th/21st century has put him at somewhat of a disadvantage in that respect. I don’t get the same feel for human pain and suffering, reading his Hell, as I do when reading Dante. Steinzor feels a bit more secondhand and idealized (if that’s the right word).

And that brings me to Steinzor’s poetry. I agreed to review the books on the basis of their verse form:

This is metrical poetry, in a form I invented for the project. As described at my web site, the work “consists of 100 cantos, spread over three books, written in polyrhythmic, unrhymed, ten line stanzas. Each stanza consists of alternating lines of five and four stresses: 5-4-5-4-5-4-5-4-5-4. In the third book, Once Was Lost, each line begins with a stressed syllable, an added regularity that somehow seemed appropriate to that book’s more elevated status.”

In other words, Steinzor has written an accentual meter (as opposed to a syllabic or accentual-syllabic meter like iambic pentameter). I was interested to see if it worked. At first I tried to read the lines while being conscious of the accented syllables and their count. That didn’t go very well:

Midway through my life’s journey, I found myself
 lost in a dark place, a tangle of hanging
 vines or cables or branches – so dark! – festooning

I counted 6 accented syllables in the first, 5 in the second and, 6 in the third. Two things: First, counting stress in a line isn’t a science, and so I’m not going to assert that my count is right and Steinzor’s is wrong; second, I generally write accentual-syllabic verse and so what I read as accented might be flavored by that. The problem, though, is that unlike accentual-syllabic verse, which provides a regular pattern which the poet can exploit, accentual meter doesn’t. There is a “pattern”, quote-unquote, but it’s not regular. It’s “polyrhythmic”. We know that there are supposed to be five accented syllables in the line but, in my case, I have to go back and sort out which syllables Steinzor isn’t hearing as accented. In the first line that’s probably “life’s“, in the next “dark” and in the third “so“.

But reading three books worth of stanzas like this is exhausting.

So I quit trying. A reader will no doubt assert that the effect works at a subconscious level. Possibly. Being subconscious though, I’m not remotely aware of it—nothing like when reading accentual syllabic verse. (Also, there’s little to no evidence that the subconscious mind actually exists but we won’t go there.) As a guiding principle for Steinzor, accentual verse does provide a kind of structure to work within, but if the average reader is anything like me, they will soon stop trying to read his stanzas as verse but as prose and, functionally, that’s what it is and what I did. To illustrate, Steinzor quotes Wendell Berry at the start of his third book:

Sometimes too I could see that love 
is a great room with a lot
 of doors, where we are invited 
to knock and come in. Though 
it contains all the world, the sun, 
moon, and stars, it is so small
 as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts 
of those who choose to come in. 
Some do not come in. Some may stay out 
forever. Some come in together 

and leave separately. Some come in 
and stay, until they die, and after. 
I was in it a long time with Nathan.
I am still in it with him. 
And what about Virgil? Once, we too 
went in and were together in 
that room. And now in my tenderness of remembering 
it all again, I think I am 
still there with him too. I am there
with all the others, most of them gone 

but some who are still here, who gave me love 
and called forth love from me. When 
I number them over, I am surprised by how many 
there are.

The quote, as written by Berry and quoted by Steinzor, is actually prose. To show just how easily any prose can be lineated as syllabic or accentual verse, I lineated Wendell’s prose using Steinzor’s 5,4 pattern; and as with Steinzor’s verse, some may disagree with the number of accented syllables in each line, but that’s the nature of the “meter”. Does this lineation turn Wendell’s prose into poetry? In truth, some metrists don’t consider syllabic or accentual meters as true “meters”. And as with arguments over the dividing line between free verse and prose: Here there be Rabbit Holes. (The debate can be both informative and frustrating.) Things get a little more interesting in Steinzor’s third book, his retelling of Paradiso, in which he begins each line with a stressed syllable, but the effect is more nominal than structural. It’s easy to alter Berry’s prose, without changing a word (and given the normal latitude as to what is and isn’t accented) so that it fits the new constraint:

Sometimes too I could see that love 
is a great room with a lot of
 doors, where we are invited to
knock and come in. Though 
it contains all the world, the sun, 
moon, and stars, it is so small as to be
 also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of
those who choose to come in. 
Some do not come in. Some may stay
out forever. Some come in (etc.)

All this is to say that I never got the sense, reading passages from Steinzor’s books, that I was actually reading “verse” or “poetry”. There was never a moment when I felt as though “language [was being] used for its aesthetic qualities in addition to, or instead of, its notional and semantic content”. This, for me, is the dividing line between poetry and prose. Other readers disagree and, as the expression has it, your mileage may vary. And as a stylistic matter, I did find Steinzor’s style to be a little too curated at times—a little precious. The purpose, I suspect, was to introduce a certain formal and elevated grandeur to the narrator’s voice, but it too often comes off as mannered and self-conscious.

On a more positive note, I found his writing to be evocative. I especially enjoyed the synesthesia in some of his imagery and appreciated his attentiveness to the five senses—touch, taste, smell, sound and sight—a necessary skill set if one is going to be describing Hell and Heaven.

Do Steinzor’s books make compelling reading? The downside to retelling a masterpiece is that, well, you’re always going to be compared to the masterpiece. Like Dante’s Comedy, there’s really no overarching narrative or dramatic arc beyond the journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. As Steinzor himself comments, the progress is episodic. We move from one tableau to the next and what happens in one canto is mostly forgotten in the next. Unlike Dante’s original, whose sheer force of originality, insight into the human condition and linguistic beauty create a sum in excess of its parts, Steinzor’s effort, by definition, is derivative and his verse falls well short of Dante’s linguistic genius. That leaves Steinzor’s insight into the human condition as the primary reason to read him (insofar as he offers something Dante doesn’t).

In that regard, Steinzor’s Comedy could be read as semi-autobiographical or as a kind of memoir; and, like Dante’s Comedy, as a critique of 20th/21st century figures, culture and politics through the lens of a medieval theology (that has been more or less relegated to history books). As to be expected, given my opening paragraph, I had a mixed reaction. I often felt as though the far greater moral and ethical complexities humanity has realized since the 14th century were being shoehorned into the moral edifice of a rigid and absolutist medieval one. Steinzor’s narrative felt, to me, more like a contrivance, a vehicle into which he could stamp his autobiography and/or life experiences (akin to the vehicle of his accentual verse) rather than as a unique and organic vision of the Comedy.

Is that an unfair standard? Would it be possible to write another Comedy without its feeling derivative? Is being derivative a bad thing; and isn’t its being derivative the point? Is Steinzor’s Comedy also a commentary on Dante’s vision of the universe? It isn’t; and that may be the real missed opportunity. Steinzor doesn’t question Dante’s theology but accepts its strictures and applies it to our own culture and dilemmas. That makes it a retread of medieval Catholic theology in modern dress.

All that said, the writing remains strong enough, honest enough, vivid and humorous enough to recommend to those interested in a modern writer’s tour of a medieval poet’s Hell.

And that’s that for today.

upinVermont | February 18th 2021

My Last Husband

More poems now that I have time. This poem, or dramatic monologue, was written for Harriet Whitbread, who performed my poem, Erlkönigin. I wrote it over the week-end, with Bicycles finally done, and wanted to write her something she could really have fun with—my way of thanking her. If you’ve never read Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess, then you should read that first or you’ll be apt to miss the humor and inside jokes. As usual, I enjoy writing pastiches like these that turn the originals a little upside down and a little inside out. As I see it, why let the men have all the fun? Enjoy.

 
 My Last Husband
  
 L.A.
  
 [Enter Madame de B. wearing a caftan and sipping a whisky sour.]
  
 That’s my last husband pictured on the wall
 Looking as if he were alive. The great
 Photographer Pierre Blanchet insisted—
 And spent the week-end taking photographs.
 No doubt he would have stayed a few weeks longer. 
 I’ve since been told Pierre had fallen madly
 In love with him.  
             It mattered neither men
 Nor women, everyone who met him loved him.
 Yet after all these years I’m not surprised
 You didn’t recognize him—being younger.
 Fame, as they say, is fleeting. Even so
 And only having seen his photograph,
 You’re not the first to ask me who he was—
 What with that jaw, that brow, that piercing gaze.
 And not for me. Oh no. No. All of that
 Was for Pierre or rather I should say
 His camera.
                  Was I there? Oh yes, although
 You’d never guess. Before he was discovered
 He tended bars. He made me whiskey sours.
 That’s how he was. So thoughtful. Whisky sours
 For me and for Pierre a Cosmopolitan,
 A Mai Tai for the bellboy, Juleps for
 The scullery maid. They loved him. Everyone
 Adored him. Oh but they adored him. Why
 Any trifle batting eyes at him
 He’d treat as if he’d known them all their lives.
 A movie star! Imagine that! You’d think
 There was no point in living where we lived:
 This villa, planned by Lars van Alderhof;
 Its stunning view of the Pacific ocean;
 An architectural beacon!
                                         But I digress.
 As I was saying: Everyone who met him—
 Well, I was always being told how lucky
 I was. How fortunate. I was the envy
 Of womankind! Imagine being married,
 They’d say, to Jason of the Argonauts,
 To Robinhood, to Tamburlaine and Harry
 The goddamn Fifth! 
                       The day the photograph
 Was taken, on that very day, my agent
 Called to tell me I’d been chosen. Me!
 The starring role in La Belle Dame. I’m sure,
 Of course, you’ve heard of it. I won an Oscar.
 Alas but that my husband never knew.
 He knew that I would star. Was any man
 Supportive as he was? Was any wife
 So lucky? He at once made known to all
 That I, his unexampled wife, would star
 In La Belle Dame; then added sans merci.
 Indeed. The laughter was uproarious. Oh how
 They loved him. Sans merci. Indeed.
                                           I’m sure
 You know the story. Last that he was seen
 He’d driven off in his belovèd Aston Martin.
 Gone, but for this: his photograph; still smiling
 As if alive.
                     Shall we repair to the salon?
 My agent will of course review the contract—
 I’m sure a mere formality considering
 Your studio’s well-known—munificence.
 Just follow me.
                     And those? The magazines?
 I had the covers framed. Quite lovely. Taken
 Shortly after I had won the Oscar
 For La Belle Dame—and while touring Italy.
 The statue in the background overlooked
 A gorgeous cove and was quite famous. Sculpted
 By Hans of Strasbourg and entitled: Neptune
 Taming a seahorse. Tragically, there was
 An accident. 
            The workmen who’d been hired
 To clean and renovate the statue must
 Have loosened here and there a bolt, forgetting
 To tighten them—a cable snipped?—who knows.
 (Whatever does a woman know about
 Such things.) But down went Neptune, down
 Into the waves with nothing whatsoever
 To brake his fall. The chariot was found
 But never Neptune—no doubt swept out
 To sea. As luck would have it though, just Neptune
 And nothing else. 
                    The seahorse, so it’s claimed,
 Still stands just as it was—and still untamed.
  
 [Exeunt Madame de B.] 

Dedicated Harriet Whitbread

Needless to say, and just like Browning’s poem, mine is based on true events.

Bicycles

 Just as the Cosmos is remarkable
 In its homogeneity, so life
 Surprises not in its variety,
 But similarities—a living world
 May neither be too close nor orbiting
 Too distant from its sun, must be rocky,
 Have water and a molten core’s enveloping
 Magnetosphere. Consider living worlds
 Like organisms, each convergently
 Evolving oxygen, a temperate climate
 And life. 
               And just as they're alike in their
 Constituent elements, the life arising
 Evolves alike—prokaryotic and
 Eukaryotic over billions of years
 Divided into plants and animals.
 The laws of evolution are not altered
 By time, locale or species. Anywhere
 There’s life there’s more that’s recognizable
 Than alien, more that universally
 Applies not just to life’s emergence but
 Also to sentience, intelligence
 And civilization, for in every world,
 Where though the sun is unfamiliar,
 Where night is visited by stranger tides
 And constellations, where though the byways
 And thoroughfares traverse implausible fields
 Under alien skies, you still will find
 The bicycle.
                    There are an infinite number
 Among as many worlds. The universe
 Is everywhere replete with life, some worlds
 Awash in microscopic biomes
 While others teem with wilderness; but where
 Intelligence and sentience evolve
 So does the necessary wheel and means 
 To turn the wheel: the chain, gears, frame and sprocket
 Both different and alike in their design—
 Blueprints of the physiology
 And minds inventing them. In any world
 Where there’s a child’s bicycle, there’s elsewhere
 In any quarter of the universe
 Another likewise trimmed with streamers, spangles
 And balanced on a kickstand.
                    Were it possible
 To bridge the light years with a bicycle
 By pedaling or by a sail affixed
 To catch the winds of other Milky Ways;
 Or to visit on a summer’s day
 An undiscovered world; to gaze at nightfall
 At nebulae; and were there, anchored
 To every handlebar, a telescope
 To navigate the air (and wine and blankets
 In every basket); then bicycles
 Would populate the intervening skies,
 Would coast like comets through the scattered stars
 And glitter in the light.
                    If on an evening
 You find a square of earth to unfold
 Your blanket and to gaze at constellations,
 You’ll see a thousand thousand worlds with life
 And yet see none. In every world you’ll see
 A thousand thousand bicycles and yet
 Not one. You’ll peer into another’s eyes,
 A billion intermittent years gone by,
 Whose gaze meets yours if only for an instant,
 Yet never know. 
                   Ride your bicycle
 The little while you can—and wait no more;
 Though a bicycle won’t ferry you
 Across the pathless oceans of the Cosmos,
 This poem has never only been about 
 The bicycle—but our imagination.
 The Universe is full of bicyclists
 Who dream of navigating, just like you,
 The same intractable distances,
 To view, if for a day, another moon,
 Another sun—and you. So little
 Are our allotted days, so impossible—
 The grandeur, the sublimity, the Universe;
 Let your imagination be the bicycle
 And what before had been beyond your reach
 Will be the passage of an afternoon.
 Will be the nebulae that fade like leaves
 Among worlds moving darkly and unseen;
 Will be the radiant whirlwinds birthing stars
 And stars new worlds. There will be life and bicycles
 And for a little while—yours. 
Bicycles by Me, Patrick Gillespie | February 14th 2021
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A Brief Look at Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural Poem

The first thing to say is that any Elizabethan Rhetorician who saw or heard Amanda Gorman’s poem would immediately, and with a broad smile and nod of recognition, recognize it as a species of Euphuism. The euphusitic style of writing comes from John Lyly’s play Euphues and, for a time, was all the rage in Elizabethan poetry and prose. As of this month, February 2021, Wikipedia opens their article on Euphuism with the following:

Euphuism is a peculiar mannered style of English prose. It takes its name from a prose romance by John Lyly. It consists of a preciously ornate and sophisticated style, employing a deliberate excess of literary devices such as antitheses, alliterations, repetitions and rhetorical questions. Classical learning and remote knowledge of all kinds are displayed. Euphuism was fashionable in the 1580s, especially in the Elizabethan court.

And goes further to describe the principles of the euphuistic prose style:

The euphuistic sentence followed principles of balance and antithesis to their extremes, purposely using the latter regardless of sense. John Lyly set up three basic structural principles:

  1. phrases of equal length that appear in succession;
  2. the balance of key verbal elements in successive sentences;
  3. the correspondence of sounds and syllables, especially between words that are already balanced against each other.

Now one might object that Gorman’s “Poem” is not prose. But it is. A while back I coined a name for verse like hers called Syntactic Verse. Syntactic Verse is simply prose that has been lineated according to its syntactic and/or rhetorical units. I would wager a guess that the majority of free verse is syntactic verse. It’s easy to write and it provides a quick and ready rationale by which to lineate. One could take any of Lyly’s prose and lineate it according to its syntactic and rhetorical units and you would end up with a poem that looked just like Gorman’s and, apart from 400 years of English, would sound identical. All this is to say that Gorman’s verse is verse on paper only. If you didn’t know that she had lineated her prose or that she called it a poem, and listened only to her reading, you would have no reason to think it wasn’t especially euphuistic prose (though you might not know the term you would recognize the patterning). It’s the sort of rhetorical patterning that public speakers from the pulpit to the soapbox have availed themselves of since ancient Rome—though they never took it to the extremes of Lyly or Gorman. None of this, by the way, is meant to denigrate Gorman’s poem or poetry. It’s simply a description of what she’s doing and why there’s no difference between her writing and that of Lyly. They are both playing exactly the same game.

For example, lineated Lyly:

But alas Euphues, 
what truth can there be found in a traveller? 
What stay in a stranger? 
Whose words and bodies 
both watch 
but for a wind, 
whose feet are ever fleeting, 
whose faith plighted on the shore, 
is turned to perjury when they hoist sail

And Amanda Gorman:

but that doesn't mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect
We are striving to forge a union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside

The passages are so strikingly alike that they could almost be performed on the same stage with little disjunction. Both writers use the same rhetorical figures to the same ends: consonance, alliteration, conduplicatio, isocolon, paramoiosis, etc… And both John Lyly and Amanda Gorman weirdly share a predilection for the consonant ‘w’ sounds. Both engage in rhetorical questions. And neither has an alliteration off-switch. The last twenty or so lines of Gorman’s poem is a traffic-stopping crescendo of alliteration. If Gorman had deliberately set out to imitate the euphuistic style of the 16th century, she couldn’t have done a better job.

And here is The Hill We Climb in all it’s euphuistic glory:

My markings aren’t exhaustive and I know I’ve missed some rhetorical figures, but you get the idea. A prose passage by John Lyly would look exactly the same.

It will be rightly pointed out that her style of poetry is influenced by rap and hip-hop rather than John Lyly, but it’s also fair to say that she’s re-invented/rediscovered a style of writing that is nevertheless indistinguishable from the euphuistic Elizabethan style (just as Elizabethan writers re-invented Iambic Pentameter after Chaucer). Lyly’s style was popular for its time, but after a point it became an easy target for satire. As Wikipedia notes:

Many critics did not appreciate Lyly’s deliberate excesses. Philip Sidney and Gabriel Harvey castigated his style.

Lyly’s style, however[clarification needed], influenced Shakespeare, who satirised[clarification needed] it in speeches by Polonius in Hamlet and the florid language of the courtly lovers in Love’s Labour’s Lost; Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing also made use of it, as did Richard and Lady Anne in Richard III. It was taken up by the Elizabethan writers Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge and Barnabe Rich. Walter Scott satirised it in the character of Sir Piercie Shafton in The Monastery, while Charles Kingsley defended Euphues in Westward Ho!Wikipedia on Euphuism

While I thought that Gorman’s poem wasn’t one for the ages, it was perfect for the occasion; and it was perfect because it exploited so many of the rhetorical strategies that every public speaker, from Cicero to Shakespeare’s soliloquies, used to persuade and ingratiate themselves with the crowd. Another poet might have written a poem with such unimpeachable academic poise and restraint as to be generic, like Elizabeth Alexander’s exquisitely forgettable inaugural poem—Praise Song for the Day. Not Gorman. All that alliteration at the close of the poem was like an explosion of confetti, faerie dust and birthday glitter. Irresistible. She knows how to bring down the house.

I only wonder how hard Gorman will ride this horse. Her later Super Bowl recitation, Chorus of the Captains, shows her to be in full gallop:

Let us walk with these warriors,
Charge on with these champions,
And carry forth the call of our captains!
We celebrate them by acting
With courage and compassion,
By doing what is right and just.

The poem—In this Place (An American Lyric)—likewise rhapsodically hails readers with an alliterative piling on of sloganeering. It will wear thin or she’ll be forever asked to write the kinds of poems one belts out before the battle of Agincourt (it’s no coincidence her poetry was featured before the Super Bowl). Hers is stylistically the poetry of public declamation. But she’s young, talented, and deservedly successful. Time will tell and I wish her all the best.

upinVermont ❦ February 12 2021