“Ancient Anecdotage,” The New Yorker Aug. 04 2008
I have next to zero knowledge of Kathryn Starbuck save for two facts: she is the widow of the allegedly slightly-overlooked poet George Starbuck, and she didn’t start writing poetry until some time after his death in the nineties. Since then she’s published one book and is forthcoming with a second. With the exception of “Ancient Anecdotage,” I have read nothing of her work and so cannot place the poem in context of her other work (which may not particularly matter, though to me it seems that it should).
“Ancient Anecdotage” is a skinny poem of roughly thirty-five lines of roughly two beats per line, though it lacks a particular rhythm or count of any kind. The line breaks are all pretty ruthlessly enjambed, and the poem runs quickly, but choppily, down the page as a result. It’s made of two sentences in its entirety. The short, first sentence begins with a brief prepositional phrase—“As a former / and future / child, …”— and the long, second with a similar-sounding, strange sort of interruptive determiner—“But / Poor Richard, his almanac of / …” The sentence continues to the poem’s end mostly by stringing itself together with subordinate and clauses, which effectually lead readers step-by-step to its conclusion without giving us the option of wandering off. We’re just hauled along, clause by clause. Each thin line rapidly forces us to the next thin line without offering much in the way of a complete idea, which also adds to the poem’s quickness and the reader’s need to continue zipping along with it. To acquire any real sense of completion and coherence, you have to keep reading, you have to stay focused, and you have to keep it all in your head until the poem’s final word.
This manipulative gesture on Starbuck’s part makes “Ancient” stand out from other fragmented poems. Often the fragmented poem is at least coherent at the level of the fragment: it may be equally enjambed with “Ancient,” but the fragments themselves are complete thought units—they simply don’t create a sum that is greater than its parts. Often it’s the opposite: meaning is lost on the grander scale while it’s contained in and maintained by the disjointed microcosms that destroy it. “Ancient Anecdotage” differs here in that the fragments themselves don’t add up to much. You have to read the whole poem to get to…the end of it. The poem is only partially associative in nature, which aids it in this regard, and there are no true leaps in image, diction, or tone—leaps much contemporary poetry, especially of the fragmented kind, relies on.
Nevertheless, the poem makes a distinct comment on our poetry-of-the-day: lyricized intellectual truth in, narrative experiential personalia out. Starbuck writes that though Poor Richard’s “ancient / anecdotage / was still in / pretty good / shape,” his comments for day-to-day living had dulled into “a steady / palaver of what / where when and / why.” The once almighty journalistic questions (and their answers) are now examples of “perseveration / and failure.” It’s as though Richard’s life has become the tedium of (bad) poetry and, thus, bad reading. And really, who cares about what happened to Poor Richard on such and such a day and how—or why—he applies it to me via his anecdotage-laden almanac? So what if he has a good story to tell, a fable to share? What do I care if his penis was nearly nibbled to death by piranhas, as suggested by the poem’s ending? How does that represent me and my individualized mode of thinking, which is not poor, male, etc., etc.?
Modern American poetry has been inundated with the confessional and quasi-confessional mode for fifty plus years; it’s bursting with ancient—as in outdated—anecdotage, and Starbuck’s piece makes one wonder about current trends. Still, one advantage of the narrative is that it appeals to the gregariousness of human nature. When we gather at the water cooler—virtual or otherwise—we don’t speak to each other in non-unified, associative imitations of our neural networks. We swap stories (albeit sometimes solely at the sentence level) and talk to each other. More and more, the fragmented poem of the fragmented poet of the fragment universe is talking to herself, Perhaps the Poor Richards of the world are doing the same thing by telling stories so they can hear themselves speak, so they can boil experience down to a few pithy maxims they feel should be shared with the rest of us. Poets undoubtedly should resist that urge.
My last word about “Ancient Anecdotage”? It doesn’t advocate necessarily the new or the old style. Simply it says the old way has failed, as all old ways are destined to do.