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Words in Passing



To be a first-class poet requires a fluency of language, mas­tery of a vocabulary sufficient to express seminal, original thoughts set down with rhythm, with imagery, and with de­scriptive evocation that communicates flaw­lessly with the recipient of the poetry of verse.  Such is the case with the poetry of E.M. Schorb.

  —The Midwest Book Review



Poet in the Shadows


Joseph S. Salemi


Judged solely on the basis of honors received, and prizes won, the poetry of E.M. Schorb would hold a high place in the es­timation of his contemporaries.  This poet's work, published in over sixteen volumes of verse and prose, has taken awards in many categories and from a wide range of competitions.  TRINACRIA began publishing his poems in our second issue, but Schorb's material has appeared in more than sev­enty journals worldwide over the last four decades.


Nevertheless, Schorb remains fairly unknown, largely be­cause his work is not a part of what I call Mainstream Mediocrity—that is, the great flood of child-friendly pabulum and amorphous emoting that constitute "poetry" today.  His work is sharp, clear, well-structured, and solidly in the for­malist camp.  There is still a patent and active prejudice against the formalist revival and its practitioners—one which works to keep many good poets in the shadows despite their achievement.


This is why it is gratifying to have a major selection of Schorb's work in this fine printing from The New Formalist Press.  Nearly two hundred pages of excellent material are gathered here from numerous hard-copy and on-line venues.  The poems are divided into several thematic groups, but these are just convenient and non-rigid gatherings.  There are surprises and delights in each section.


I love the kaleidoscopic range of reference that Schorb demon­strates in these many poems.  He can move easily from an apprecia­tion of the French photographer Eugène Atget to his own brief encounter with Marilyn Monroe; and from a whimsical speculation on the drinking habits of the scholarly translator John Ciardi to a dreamy evocation of Vanna White on "Wheel of Fortune."  He comments on the zoological obser­vations of Jane Goodall, the songs of Edith Piaf, and an imaginary interaction between Rodin and Balzac.  And there are literary allusions galore: Heraclitus, Skelton, Kipling, Swinburne, Housman, Yeats, Wallace Stevens, William Empson, William Carlos Williams, Frost, Berryman. . . here is a poet who has not just read widely, but woven his readings into the fabric of his own art.


In addition, Schorb can use history and mythology in an arresting and novel manner.  His poem "Paris Recidivist," written in the voice of the Prince of Troy, is an up-to-date and cynical macroeconomic account of the causes of the Trojan War, ending with a cavalier dismissal of Helen as a silly, de­luded woman who mattered not a whit in the struggle.  "Letters Home" is an epistolary recounting of the death of an R.A.F. pilot in 1943.  The dialectical "Blarney Stoned" is ad­dressed to Dionysos, Greek god of drunkenness, by an inebriated Irishman tottering between alcoholism and vowed sobriety. The sonnet "Caesar and Cleopatra" is a very suc­cinct report on how a bemused Caesar was seduced into an affair that led to the destruction of the Roman Republic.


There's much more than this: poems of joy and pain, of terror and anger, of political protest, of satiric commentary, of fam­ily remembrance.  Schorb is also at home with antique poetic templates like the pastoral eclogue, the elegy, and Skeltonic verse.  But rather than sing his praises abstractly, I prefer to give some quoted verses to demonstrate the man's skill.  Here are the five lines ending "Elegy," written for a late friend:


Merely the blanket statement, tragic gesture,

As when some friendly hand is flung aloft

Above the crowd, remains to keep; a vesper

Of evening memory; a prayer I coughed

To save your life that wasn't saved by me.


Notice the way the governing verb in this five-line section (remains) is postponed to the third line, and even there it is placed exactly in the middle, followed by an extended appo­sition to the sentence's subject.  Then there is the unusual singular form vesper, which brilliantly pulls the reader's mind towards the suggestion of evening and twilight while also, by felicitous homeophony, hinting at the word "whisper."  This is language as used by a wordsmith of top-notch ability.


I also like Schorb's straightforward description, in more-than-vivid English, of teenage lovers petting in the bushes.  This is from "Hot Teen Hogs," which appeared in TRINACRIA # 6:


They rub the blue out of their bluejeaned crotches.

They rip the teeth out of their red-hot zippers.

They fan the flames, and then curl up like kippers.

At last they check their charioteering watches.


They tell each other where to meet next week.

They shake their leather jackets free of gunk,

and she with red nails combs her ducktailed hunk,

as he wipes damp mascara from her cheek.


The metaphor of "charioteering watches" is striking, the way every new trope should be.  Have you ever thought of speeding chariots when you glanced at your watch and no­ticed how late it was?  Now you will.  Sure, there's a reference to Marvell there, but the personified Time is replaced by a more mundane wristwatch.  The imagery of leather jackets and red nails and "ducktailed hunk"?  If you were alive in the 1950s you'll know exactly what Schorb is talking about.


There's an amazing poem, "The Big Crunch," composed as if a human life were running backwards like a reversed film strip, and clearly designed to be a sardonic comment on the "Big Bang" theory of cosmology.  And Schorb is not afraid to make thundering judgments on the evil and stupidity of the human race, when he speaks of us in the poem "As Good As It Gets":


we, who are madder than the maddest hatter,

our every word a snippet of mad song;

who've served the heads of people on a platter,

or blood in a tureen for Sunday soup!


But even this indictment of our race is qualified by his asking, in the same poem, if in fact our cruelty and savagery are per­haps necessary requirements for the preservation of our lives and identity:


Karl Barth said we were no damned good.  Yes, he

shared Jeffers' view of humankind.  Karl Barth

was probably correct, if we agree

to measure by his standard.  But what hearth

was ever won or kept by kindness?


This is the sort of brutally honest question that a sentiment-soaked and Pollyannaish western world had better start ask­ing itself, instead of wallowing in suicidal altruism towards our enemies.


Schorb can write concisely, or extensively.  There are many short pieces in this collection, but also ambitious long ones, such as the moving "Obituary" on the life and death of his father.  He gives us part of an unfinished musical drama, "Candy Butcher," and the strange "White Stallion," an amaz­ing tale told by a blind Irish seer about a magical horse and the futile attempts to capture it.  In every instance these poems are unpredictable and intriguing.  Schorb never falls into the hackneyed or the formulaic traps that are the occupa­tional hazard of the formalist poet.  He can pen a firm and metrically precise line, but when his subject matter requires it he will release his line from any imposed demands, and write as the flow of inspiration dictates.


Schorb  has an excellent touch with simile, as when he ends a poem by saying:


…till we waken, straight and narrow,

freshened, like a new-fletched arrow.


When he speaks of "gold-nugget bees," he has created a like­ness that you will never forget.  And nevertheless he can also dazzle with descriptions that have neither simile nor meta­phor, as in the octet of his sonnet "The Fashion Show":


The slim young women float their subtle curves

before a fashion-conscious audience.

Diaphanous enough to tickle nerves,

their gowns lift off them in a breezy dance

as left leg forward forces right hip out,

and small breasts, bra-less, bounce beneath a gauze

of punctuated pink.  Their red lips pout.

Their veteran eyes, dark shadowed, seek applause.


It's a pleasure to read a poet whose vocabulary goes beyond the fourth-grade basal reader.  Schorb has no fear of difficult or strange words, which he uses with skill and confidence.  He also has a playful streak that comes out in unusual coin­ages such as leucomelanous (which I assume from its Greek roots to mean "white-and-black") as a way to describe salt-and-pepper hair; and he uses firnificated (probably from the rare firn, or fallen snow) to speak of white birch trees in a winter storm.  Can't you just hear the little dorks in the work­shops screaming about "elitism" and "democratic acces­si­bility"?


Schorb's relative lack of celebrity might have something to do with the demanding nature of some of his work  (and I emphasize some, because  much  of  Schorb  is  as  lucid  and straight­forward as a clock chime).  This is not only an injus­tice, but also an example of the ludicrous hypocrisy that dom­inates contempo­rary po-biz.  Vapidly opaque free-verse gar­bage is printed every­where and celebrated, and its parti­sans defend its impenetrability with various asinine theories.  But when a poet like Schorb writes a piece that might require a second reading, or—Heaven for­bid!—a trip to the diction­ary, then all of a sudden we hear murmurs about how "difficult" a poet is, and how "unfair to his readers."  In other words, you can write off-the-wall surrealist and experimental crap if you are published in Poetry, but you'll be chastised for elitism and ignored if you write discursively lucid poems that demand ac­tual thought and attention. 


I can't resist quoting one poem in its entirety, Schorb's Shakespearean sonnet "Notice to Moderns."  It encapsulates practically the whole critique of confessional verse that new for­malists have been making for the last thirty-odd years:



You solipsistic sissies, male and female,

poets about the Me, Myself, and I,

should send yourselves, and then collect, your email,

and not pretend such jots are poetry.


"Poets are actors, and their books are theatres,"

wrote Wallace Stevens.  Roethke spoke in tongues.

How many voices spoke through William


Create verse worthy of great scoptic lungs!


There is a gathering on a green hill

Where scops will sing of everything they share.

In my imagination, with my will,

I try to see that time, and who was there.


Or in a book or on a stage I try

to tell of others, not Me, Myself, and I.


Notice the wonderful adjective scoptic, created from the Anglo-Saxon scop, or poet.  Here Schorb calls our errant lit­erary clerisy home, urging a return to genuine poetic praxis in place of the narcissistic whingeing that has become de rigueur in our Mainstream Mediocrity.  In isolation, this poem would be no more than a shot in the dark.  But embed­ded in a collection as powerful as this one, it carries great force, and is more than just a word in passing.



Dr. Joseph S. Salemi teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and the Classics Department of Hunter College CUNY.  He is editor of the by-invitation-only formalist poetry journal TRINACRIA.