Count not Tedious yet...

A few years ago I began starting class with a poem. I don't do it everyday. As with card tricks, too many in a row becomes tiresome. Still, I do it often enough that students come to expect it. If I forget for three or four days, they are sure to remind me. I try to pick the poems with care, too, knowing full well that this may be my one shot at changing their minds about poetry. I always begin the semester with something funny, yet also with a bite. I want a poem they can laugh at, but also perhaps one that makes them feel just a little unsettled. Stevie Smith always works well:

Tenuous and Precarious
Were my guardians,
Precarious and Tenuous,
Two Romans.

My father was
Dear old man,
Three Romans.

There was my brother Spurious,
Spurious Posthumous.
Spurious was spurious,
Was four Romans.

My husband was Perfidious,
He was Perfidious,
Five Romans.
Surreptitious, our son,
Was surreptitious.
He was six Romans.

Our cat Tedious
Still lives,
Count not Tedious

My name is Finis,
Finis, Finis.
Six, five, four, three, two,
One Roman,

A writing instructor once told me that good dialog communicates character, and great dialog communicates more character than characters realize they are communicating. Smith, like Robert Browning, has a gift for this kind of self-revealing dialog. We may snicker at the narrator's attitude toward her family, but her voice tells us as much about her as it does them. There is also the wonderful irony of her dismissive middle class voice and that tedious tabby smacking up against the sound of faux Roman names. Pretence is advanced and punctured in sound alone. But that last stanza, with its forlorn self-awareness and note of mortaliy, saves the poem from being mere snark. There's a real human life here, one lived just as tenuously and precariously as our own.

Poetry is just noise, of course, and it's sometimes celebrated as the preservation of a "still, small voice." In Smith, however, the characters often express lives of noisy and unattended desperation. They are, as she wrote elsewhere, "not waving, but drowning."


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