Ars Poetica Redux

Recently a friend pointed out that this blog quotes a lot of poetry. I suppose it does, but I don’t think of this as a “literary” site. It’s just that I spent a lot of time in school studying literature. I probably would have a Ph.D. if I could have stuck with it. The proponents of literary theory, as it was practiced in the ’70s, however, can claim the kill on that one.

I like to tell the story of my leaving grad school as if the whole thing were a heroic march to better things. The truth is considerably less grand. To begin preparing for the program’s comprehensive exams, I had enrolled in a course in which the reading assignments included Roland Barthes’ S/Z. Barthes used words like hermeneutic, semic and proairetic. He speaks of “lexia” and the “axis of castration.” Dear God.

I managed to force myself to read through about half of the book, my personal b*llsh*t alarm trumpeting like a fire klaxon through every word. The critical moment arrived when I gave up. I closed the book and held it in my hand for a few seconds. Then Marge heard the crash.

“What was that?” she asked.

“It was this book hitting the wall,” I answered, “I don’t know if what I’ve been trying to read is true or not, but I am utterly certain that it doesn’t matter.”

Suddenly there was no turning back. In a single heartbeat, I moved from wondering whether I would stay in grad school to making formal arrangements for my departure.

I kept the book around for years. Every time I found myself wondering if I had made the right decision, I would take the book from the shelf and spend a few minutes turning pages in it. I never again found it necessary to knock paint off the wall with the book, but I also found that I never regretted my decision to leave grad school.

I have nevertheless continued to read. In the process I’ve made friends with a great many books, ranging all the way from “brain candy” to classical literature. Some of it makes me feel smart, and some of it is just plain fun. Better still are the moments when things I’ve learned from reading connect.

Years ago, for example, I had a good time reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels. I had a real “aha” moment while reading Strong Poison. As the novel reaches its climax, Lord Peter, having driven himself to the brink of exhaustion to save the woman he loves from the gallows, falls asleep over a book of poems by A.E. Housman.

When he awakes, he knows the identity of the killer and the method of murder. And so did I.

Housman, I knew, really only published one collection of verse, a book called A Shropshire Lad. The best known poem in the book is called Terence, This is Stupid Stuff. The last section of the poem tells the story of King Mithradates who, in order to thwart would-be assassins, developed immunity to the poisons of his time by deliberately ingesting them, “first a little, thence to more.”

Now, in the Lord Peter novel there is a character, someone close to the murder victim, who has unusually shiny fingernails. This I knew could be an indication that the body contains high levels of arsenic. Therefore, to commit the murder, Mr. Fingernails prepares a meal laced with arsenic and shares it with the victim. Victim perishes, but Fingernails, thanks to acquired immunity to arsenic, does not.

Elementary, as another fictional detective might have said.

Anyway, what all of this means is that literary allusions and snippets of poetry are probably inevitable here. I hope most readers enjoy it, but those who do not should remember that there will not be a quiz at the end of the hour.

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