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Friday, April 1, 2011

Number 112: George Starbuck "Sonnet in the Shape of a Potted Christmas Tree"

Sonnet in the Shape of a Potted Christmas Tree

O glitter-torn!
Let the wild wind erect
bonbonbonanzas; junipers affect
frostyfreeze turbans; iciclestuff adorn
all cuckolded creation in a madcap crown of horn!
It’s a new day; no scapegrace of a sect
tidying up the ashtrays playing Daughter-in-Law Elect;
bells! bibelots! popsicle cigars! shatter the glassware! a son born
while ox and ass and infant lie
together as poor creatures will
and tears of her exertion still
cling in the spent girl’s eye
and a great firework in the sky
drifts to the western hill.

-- George Starbuck

Hap Notes: It's fitting we use this poem for April Fools' day because George Starbuck (1931-1996) was, in his own lifetime, considered too clever by half and much of his extraordinary work has been dismissed as hyper-educated light verse. This is quite a shame because Starbuck knew a prodigious amount about poetry and its forms and chose to play with them with wit, whimsy and a sense of perspective. So his April Fools' joke on us all is that he was and is a verbal force to be reckoned with and his fading reputation is getting some color back again.

He was a math whiz who was accepted at Cal Tech when he was 16 and I suppose it's no shock that many musicians and poets have a talent for math. He dropped out of the math gig after two years because he wanted to write poetry. He studied at U.C. Berkley, the University of Chicago and Harvard but never got a degree in anything. He studied under both Archibald MacLeish and Robert Lowell (he was in the same class and pals with Plath and Sexton). In fact he served as a sounding board/editor for both Sexton's To Bedlam and Part Way Back and to his friend Philip Roth's book Goodbye Columbus.

Starbuck was a vivid opponent of the Viet Nam War and is responsible for making "loyalty oaths" illegal in the U.S. When the State University of New York-Buffalo asked him to sign one (in the paranoid early 60s) he took his case all the way to the Supreme Court and won.

In today's poem (a "visual" or "shape" poem, often considered "concrete poetry) Starbuck's extraordinary vocabulary bursts and pops and sizzles as it describes Christmas. Note that the tree is "potted" and he's making a comment about religion with that, too. The novelty of this poem often off-sets its brilliant wording. Maybe we'd take it more seriously if it looked like this:

O fury-bedecked! O glitter torn!
Let the wind erect bonbonbonanzas;
Junipers affect frostyfreeze turbans;
Iciclestuff adorn all cuckolded creation
In a madcap crown of horn!

It's a new day; no scapegrace of a sect
Tidying up the ashtrays playing
Daughter-in-Law Elect;

Bells! Bibelots! Popsicle cigars!
Shatter the glassware!
A son born now


While ox and ass and infant lie
Together as poor creatures will
And tears of her exertion still
Cling in a spent girl's eye
And a great firework in the sky
Drifts to the western hill.

But Starbuck's shaping of the poem is integral to its meaning- even though the words are gorgeous in any form. And of course, his words belie the "potted" plant with their wild vigor. In his poem "Tuolumne" Starbuck says "I have committed whimsy. There. So be it./I have not followed wisdom as I see it."

Starbuck's brilliance is that he has hidden much of his genius behind an "antic disposition." It's fitting that on April Fools' Day we unmask the sparkling intelligence and crackling and serious vocabulary that always grins and winks at us underneath his clever wordplay.

And aren't you glad that "Starbuck" means so much more than overpriced coffee? (Well, and the Melville reference, of course.)

Here's a great Starbuck quote:

"For me, the long way round, through formalisms, word games, outrageous conceits (the worst of what we mean by 'wit') is the only road to truth.... Put another way: I have a conscious slavery to the language. The only alternatives are unconscious slavery, or the sainthood of the wholly silent."

You can find more Starbuck here:

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