Keep Your Piece Nine Years

A Review of Shirley Geok-Lin Lim’s Do you live in? and Ars Poetica for the Day (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2015)
by Helaine L. Smith

In Act II of Shaw’s Pygmalion, Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father, a dustman by trade, prefaces his answer to Higgins with these words: “I’m willing to tell you. I’m wanting to tell you. I’m waiting to tell you,” and Higgins, whose ear is excellent, comments, “[T]his chap has a certain natural gift of rhetoric.” How precious such a gift is becomes clear as one reads, cover to cover, these two recent volumes by Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, who, alas, lacks that “natural gift,” extraneous in a dustman, but essential for a poet.

The title, Ars Poetica for the Day, promises a playful, contemporized (“for the day”) response to Horace’s Ars Poetica, his letter to the Pisos about “the art of poetry.” And so we find in Lim’s volume poems addressed to “the Muse” and to “the Storyteller,” poems alluding to works of other writers, and the poem below, entitled, “To the Sonnet.” The conceit of Lim’s volume is an engaging one, a dialogue with the poetic art, signaled perhaps most clearly in the one prose piece of the volume, “Dating,” where Lim begins, “I went on another date with my writing today.” That’s a funny and potentially lively but limiting theme, one that even the greatest of poets can sustain only in single poems such as “Lapis Lazuli” and “Among School Children.” Not even Yeats attempts a whole volume. And Bishop, writing about landscape and art, is also writing about poetry, the seeing and shaping that is involved, but doing that so subtly, delicately, and variously, with such enormous richness of imagery, that her poems, like Yeats’s, are masterpieces. That’s not what we find here.

The first impression one receives from these books of verse is of being at sea on a small vessel with an outboard motor that’s not working well. Some of us may recall such boat rides from our childhood, the engine stopping and starting, the lurching forward, whoever is in the stern cursing and coaxing and yanking at the cord to start the motor up again. Lim’s verse lines end with no grammatical or semantic clue that more will follow. Then the boat lurches forward again, which is to say that the word that begins the next line turns out, quite unexpectedly, to be attached to what has just preceded it. But listen for a moment to these lines (37-40) of Alexander Pope’s from his “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot”:

I sit with sad Civility, I read
With honest anguish, and an aking head;
And drop at last, but in unwilling ears,
This saving counsel, ‘Keep your Piece nine years.’

At each line that is not end-stopped (lines 37 and 39), what do we find? Something that tells us that we are to go on, that the thought is unfinished. “. . . I read” what or how? “With honest anguish, and an aking head.” Next line: “And drop at last, but in unwilling ears.” We might mistake, as we read the first hemistich, even were we conversant with 18th century diction, “drop” for contemporary slang, as in “I nearly dropped of exhaustion,” but the next phrase, starting midline, forestalls any such error. We know, from “in unwilling ears,” that “drop” is literal and that its meaning requires a direct object and therefore that the thought will continue into the next line. Pope is guiding us grammatically through his verse, so that, while we may be surprised that the abstraction, “counsel,” rather than some medicinal liquid, is the object of “drop,” we are not forced to revise our grammatical expectation. And just as Pope uses end-stopped lines to great effect—as, for example, in the absoluteness asserted by the five-syllable climax, “Keep your Piece nine years.”—so, too, he never creates a run-on line without indicating in some subtle grammatical or semantic way that the line will run on.

He also does a great deal else. If we beat out the syllables of each line, we get four lines of ten syllables each, iambs that are regular yet not at all sing-song because of where the caesurae come, and brilliantly rhymed, the rhymes seeming uncalculated, seeming to flow from the sense. Within this tiny example of technical perfection, what else do we have? Paradox, antithesis, subtle alliteration, the pun on “saving,” fresh and vivid imagery, humor, world-weariness, literary allusion, wisdom. The impression one is left with is of the poet’s tremendous care for each word and foot of each line.

Which brings us to this example of Lim’s:

To the Sonnet

Fourteen lines the perfect fit to pitch
a speaking picture: your slender course
of letters like a channel so natural
to speaking that some forget the cause
for pen and paper. It’s brevity
that glimpses your turns and closures,
the surreal series of unprompted
prompts from a voice, veiled but sure.
Lines where the beginning stays in sight,
even as the sestet’s on you. Almost too
straitened a life for poetry, we protest,
even as the anticipated ending delights,
pulling from your small box a long view
of the poem’s final rhyme and rest.

Remember that motorboat? After line 2’s “your slender course,” we expect a verb, not a prepositional phrase. “Of letters” stops the engine, then jerks it forward. Gamely, we continue, not yet sea-sick, but at the end of line 3, after “a channel so natural,” we expect a “that,” not another prepositional modifier (“to speaking”). Another jerking stop, with no reason why “to speaking” might not have been placed at the end of line 3 rather than at the beginning of line 4. And so, rather than smoothly negotiating our craft from line to line, we lurch forward again and again. In line 5 a new sentence begins with the words, “It’s brevity,” and since we still have the title firmly in mind—if we didn’t keep reminding ourselves that Lim is talking to and about “the sonnet” we should be entirely lost—the natural response is to read “It’s” as “Its,” as an allusion to “the sonnet.” But rather than following Lim’s argument, we must again stop and tell ourselves—“Oh. An apostrophe. It’s ‘It’s,’ not ‘Its.’” And, for most of us, that grammatical distinction doesn’t register until we encounter the “that” that begins line 6. Is Lim attempting to illustrate the idea of “brevity” by a contraction before the word “brevity”? What other explanation could there be, when “It is” is as easy to write as “It’s” and when no attention is elsewhere paid to the number of syllables in these lines? Lim is not a poet who hears what she writes as her readers might hear it. She doesn’t listen to herself. The distance from Pope is palpable.

Let’s take a final look at those lines of Pope’s, this time for how they sound, for their ease on the tongue, for the absence of anything ugly.

I sit with sad Civility, I read
With honest anguish, and an aking head;
And drop at last, but in unwilling ears,
This saving counsel, ‘Keep your Piece nine years.’

Lim’s “To the Sonnet” begins with repeated “ch” sounds—at the end of “pitch,” in the middle of “picture,” and then in “channel” and “natural.” There’s nothing innately wrong with “ch,” but four such sounds, prominently placed, in the three opening lines, take over the ear, and Lim seems not to notice. Try saying out loud the second half of the opening line: “perfect fit to pitch.” It’s like taking your mouth to the gym for a work-out. And having done so, what then? What has Lim given us? An unintelligible phrase. What is “the perfect fit to pitch”? Who “pitches” a picture? An ad-man? And if a sonnet is “a speaking picture,” or should be, and if we can ignore the echo of the original way of describing cinema, does Lim actually create any picture here? And whether she does or not, is “a speaking picture” a clever, fresh, or interesting way to describe the sonnet?

Opening at random either of Lim’s recent volumes, one encounters similar lapses of thought and technique. Grammatical structures, as every schoolchild knows, hold things together, force readers of verse to link one portion of a poem to another, and take us somewhere. Lim’s modes are the list and the short line. Lists can be formidable—think, for example, of these magnificent lines of Macbeth’s, comprised almost entirely of appositives—

Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep”—the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

But Lim’s lists simply slide down the page, neither forcing us back nor pressing us forward. There is no grammatical subordination; in fact, the grammar often evaporates completely. Look, for example, at this poem, presumably about ageing and dying, that to the device of the list adds another favorite trope of Lim’s, that of random association:

Home Stretch

Homing in, homely, homesick—
a word raising tremors
and combats—returning
and leaving, funeral
and rest home, a word with no
stillness, no stand still.
Homing pigeons, home schooled,
home cooking, Homing
device and where the heart is—
neither infallible
for the home stretch.

Lim alludes to Horace, so let’s take Horace as our further guide. In his Ars Poetica he advises “care in weaving words together,” but we find little such care in Lim’s writing. He notes that “If you would have me weep, you must first feel grief yourself.” “Home Stretch,” about a topic that elicits the strongest of feelings, fails to make us feel anything at all. Horace adds, “Less vividly is the mind stirred by what finds entrance through the ears than by what is brought before the trusty eyes, and what the spectator can see for himself.” But Lim has not listened to the master she invokes. Her nouns are abstract, non-sensory, non-specific. She doesn’t linger on life, or its objects; she merely lists them and moves on. Nothing engages her or holds her attention. That her poetry might have taken a different direction is faintly suggested in these three lines from “The Dream Life of Bonsai”: They are lovely, modestly suggestive, musical:

                                        The bonsai starving
have learned to twist and turn, stripped lean
to cast the smallest shadow on their green.

They make us see, and so they lead us to think beyond what we see. And the language here is lovely, not laden with the crudeness of diction (“puke,” “poo,” “stinks,” “sucking,” “gunk”) that Lim mistakes for daring, or the inexplicable phrases (“alone, like a cow,” “the eye’s nauseated,” “the blood . . . uncountable”) that litter Do You Live In? Horace also cautions, “[B]e brief . . . every word in excess flows away from the full mind.” Listen, for a moment, to “Jane Austen” from Ars Poetica for the Day:

Jane Austen

What did she want of the gentlemen
that she wrote so longingly of them?
Like boxes of chocolates set aside
In a High Street shop, fancily bow-tied,
that Jane could not afford.
A home-made confectionary,
She, homely, at home crafting immortal candy.

How restrained and yet how full this little poem is, how clever its candy trope, how proper a tribute to Austen, whose own writing is a model of understatement. But no. That’s the poem that Lim’s poem would have been, had Lim the discipline and ear to edit. Below is Lim’s poem, overdoing its small point, and conflating, in phrases as cringe-worthy and infelicitous as “plain Jane” and “left on the shelf,” cliché with wit:

Jane Austen

What did she want of the gentlemen
that she wrote so longingly of them?
Riding to grand estates or towns, uniformed
and tall-hatted, always in sight,
like boxes of chocolates set aside
in a High Street shop, fancily bow-tied,
for the pretty rich young ladies;
that, counting her pounds and pennies,
plain Jane could not afford, even when pressed—
desire pressed to calculation—
seeing herself left on the shelf, home-made
confectionary, while the young men petition
beribboned chatterboxes, and she, homely,
at home crafting immortal candy. 

Horace’s most famous dictum in Ars Poetica / Epistle to the Pisos, repeated centuries later by Pope, is this: “If ever you do write anything, let it enter the ears of some critical Maecius, and your father’s, and my own; then put your parchment in the closet and keep it back till the ninth year.” Edit your work, Horace says. Seek critical responses. Don’t let yourself fall in love with yourself and what you write. Don’t rush to publish. Rethink. Revise. Don’t be easily satisfied. But the impression one receives from both of Lim’s volumes is that Lim loves everything that comes into her mind, slaps it down, and never looks back. Perhaps a recipe for a happy life, but no recipe at all for art. Think of Bishop who, in her lifetime, approved the publication of sixty-eight poems, fewer than appear in even one of these two volumes of Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s ten. Or of the forty-one pieces Kafka allowed to be published in his lifetime, Kafka, whom Lim blithely evokes in her poem, “Kafka in Singapore.”

Reading a poem is like boarding a boat and saying to the person at the stern, take me any place, but take me well. Lim doesn’t. 

Helaine L. Smith teaches English in New York City and is the author of Teaching Particulars: Literary Conversations in Grades 6-12  (Paul Dry Books, 2015) and, forthcoming this fall, Aristophanes at the Thinkery: Eight Comic Scripts (Bench Press, 2016).