Most literary histories will tell you that Montaigne invented the essay, although it’s difficult to tell his work apart from Plutarch’s Moralia over a millennium earlier. The practice of the essay — the autobiographical essay, the essay about travel, the “creative nonfiction” essay, the thinkpiece — has expanded so much that you can find its antecedents wherever you look. Many a classical epistle, written for publication by some esteemed Roman, could qualify as a precursor, complete with the personal anecdotes that seem so “modern” today.
Regardless of where they place its origins, most readers assume an essay is a work of prose. Yet those early examples of the essay sometimes happened in verse. Horace wrote epistles, and his “Ars Poetica,” addressed to the senator Piso and his sons, is one of the earliest “craft essays” we possess. Virgil’s hexameters dispensing (sometimes less than sound) advice to farmers, Dante’s rants about politics, Elizabethan stage monologues — if we go looking about for proto-essays, we can find them all over the long history of Western poetry. It may be that “poetry” and “essay” are such ever broadening and encompassing terms that they have become infinite circles of a perfectly overlapping Venn diagram.
And yet the verse essay is still a thing, or was a thing, largely because of a poet named Alexander Pope, whose ideas of what made a good poem were drastically different from ours. Pope was simply the best and most transcendent example of a period style; the more you go rooting about among his contemporaries and successors, the more you realize that there was a witty century back there when everybody was rocking heroic couplets. It was to them what free verse is to us — the default mode, simply what poetry sounded like. At this distance, it’s a little hard to tell his baseline-quality couplets from Dryden’s or Samuel Johnson’s.
Pope, in his “Essay on Man” and other similar poems, always had points to get across. “For it is not metres, but a meter-making argument, that makes a poem,” wrote that anti-Pope, Walt Whitman. Yet Pope’s un-Whitman-like couplets are the English language’s most meter-made argument ever. The word argument comes from the Latin arguere, after all, which means, according to my favorite online etymology dictionaries, “to make clear” or “to make reasoned statements to prove or refute a proposition.” Perhaps Walt and Alexander are arguing this point atop Parnassus right now. “But you’re ignoring the latter half of that quote,” Whitman is grumbling, referring to “a thought so passionate and alive, that […] it has an architecture of its own.” And Pope would counter that in the beginning was the Logos, and Logic never lived in a more impassioned form than the couplet’s point and counterpoint.
Poetically speaking, Whitman has many descendants, while Pope’s lineage has largely died out. The young Lord Byron’s first masterpiece, “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,” was the last great echo of that age of coupleteering, ironically from the ultimate symbol of Romantic passion. The logical, argumentative, dare I say essayistic streak in poetry has nearly vanished.
To my knowledge, Pope has zero imitators among the living major American or English poets, even the ones who do “formal” work. Looking at where poetry is now compared to where poetry was then, I can’t help but wonder whether that entire age took a wrong turn in how it conceived of poetry. How much of that era’s poetry gets read? And even when it is read, how much of it is read as a period-piece, an exhibit in the museum of style, rather than as living, passionate art? Are the pleasures offered by the rational, logically argued couplet, in the service of a larger theme or idea, pleasures that anyone, anywhere considers “poetic”? Or is essayistic discourse on an idea (like, say, repetition) not properly the stuff of poetry? Is it justly relegated to prose?
None of these questions were questions I pondered before I wrote this “Essay on Repetition.” If I had, I might have come to the correct answers — and never written it. By ignoring the recalcitrant and obvious facts of 21st-century poetic convention, I freed my hands up to write this essay. Was I aware that no one reads or writes this kind of thing anymore? Yes, with the literary-critical part of my mind that is writing this; but this is prose. The poet in me had other ideas, or rather, one idea: Repetition. And that idea asked for, and received, its Pope-echoing, argument-making meter: the repetitions, aa bb cc …, of rhyme.
A Golden Egg, the Big Bang, Aum, the Word —
What started this? I don’t know what you’ve heard,
But silence, music, speech occur in time.
In the beginning (risk it!) was the Rhyme.
I know a thing (or two) about beginning
A poem or a family with twinning.
Rebirth, circadian rhythm, rhyme’s felicity,
The art of storytelling, time’s cyclicity,
The lub-dub trochees every heart is beating,
Love for a book that deepens with rereading,
A chain reaction’s fission-fission-fission
Enact a single diktat: Repetition.
Didactic poems simply aren’t written,
I know. Erato, help me: I am smitten.
Erato, help me, make my hand your glove
And shape this essay as a poem of love.
Go back then, to the stacks, that reckless kiss,
Wet-lipped, wide-eyed. I gazed at Aeschylus,
Book lust and lust lust coupled in that moment.
My eyes, my hands were roving, seeking Romans
And Greeks, Loeb-reds, Loeb-greens, like Christmas in
The mind. First kiss! Her incandescent skin
Flickers and dims, but I resist revision.
I know the Loebs were not my “own” tradition,
And she was white, it wasn’t meant to be —
Or should I write, She wasn’t meant for me …
Enough to place them there, the books, the lover,
Between the shelves two secrets to uncover,
My love of literature and love of sex
A mutually overwritten text
From then on. So you see why since the age
Of fourteen, I’ve felt gooseflesh on the page.
I often say that books are where I’ve sought truth.
Truth is, I love them as I love my hot youth.
Desire was the heart of it, of course, the set theme
And variation that condensed that wet dream
Of twinned success in love and literature.
I manage it these days. There is no cure
For it, this twinging of the psyche’s knee.
I’ve read Girard, I know it isn’t me
Desiring what I want. My first ambition
In letters? Execute a repetition
Of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. I wrote blank verse plays
Before I had my driver’s license, days
Spent making (botching) each poetic move
The master made. What was I out to prove?
Why did I want so fiercely to become him?
I craved his title. There was only one him,
But I was sure that I would be the second.
Or was mimesis how the Muses beckoned
Me onward? Coaxing me with my ambition
To master verse through slavish repetition.
Mimesis, at its core, is me. That’s why
Imitation has to start with I.
And yet I’ve read Girard. It isn’t me
Desiring my desires, but what I see
Others desire, yellow fever yearning.
The Fire Sermon saw the whole world burning.
Even before the Buddha, it was common
Among the immemorial twice-born Brahmins
To think desire outside the true self, frantic,
Erratic, ultimately inauthentic,
Both kama, lust, and krodha, anger, just
Subtypes of cordyceps infecting us:
Out of the pelvic husk, the sprouted cock
A pink and parasitic fungal stalk.
Desire is the oldest story, told and told
Again. The hero’s quest for God or gold,
The lovers mad to meet, slyly evading
Some rich old roadblock to their moonlit mating,
A race to get a treasure, or a race
Through the eyes of the quarry who’s fleeing the chase …
No doubt all storytelling started with
Cookfire tales of hunts — from them, each myth
Of dragon, Rakshasa, or monster slain.
Again, the toddler pleads. We invent in vain:
Again is what all storytellers do.
In fables as in genres, nothing’s new.
Because desire is every story’s engine,
Repetition is the only ending.
You pack new turkeys with the same old stuffing.
Filmmakers know there’s one plot: Get the McGuffin.
No one is nonce. Myth is reborn as fiction,
If not as newborn myth. The crucifixion
Remixes tropes: a cut-up God of vine
And vintage, one whose father is divine,
The Father Sky who makes his blue blood blue.
Archaic pagan plotlines, only new
To Aramaic, and Hebrew tradition.
The mythic retread spread by repetition,
The Word reprinted, Dios, Dio, Gott,
Gideon Bibles in a Marriott.
And then the Chosen One was Harry Potter.
It’s high time that the Father had a daughter.
What audiences (toddlers or adults)
Adore the most is form. The ear exults
In hearing things repeat, in hearing pattern
Emerge, an autostereogram, from patter.
The Third Eye sees a Magic Eye illusion
Through noise and dazzle and profuse confusion
Emerge. Nothing redundant in an encore:
The poet’s art is stumbling onto concord.
Consider how, by unforeseen felicity,
I’m falling into coupled periodicity —
A “happy lapse,” as some believe of Eden.
Just hear the heart inside my chatter, beating
Unstressed then stressed, with every tenth beat’s charm a
Recurrence fortunate as instant karma.
With no refrain or rhyme, radeef
Or qaafiyah, a ghazal comes to grief,
And there’s no telling where a line should end
(Read: must end) absent its telltale repetend.
Erato knows, my true first love was form.
Form has a body. She is lithe and warm
And, flush against my mind, she teaches it
To dance. I move the way she moves, my wit
Her whisper in my ear. She pirouettes
A triolet. These couplets? Tête-à-têtes
In which I write the thoughts she thinks for me,
She does the first draft, then she does an edit.
I sit here, sign my name, and take the credit.
Though love is one, continuous emotion,
Lovemaking is a repetitive motion.
Furious Eros pounds until his fist
Is through the drum. I know that kind of bliss:
Form has a body. I make love to her,
And when we get a rhythm going for
A spell, we die la petite mort in synchrony,
And by my ringing ears I swear she’s singing me.
Stories or poetry, no theme is higher,
No subject more inspired, than desire,
Since love, adventure, Grail quest, epic war
Are someone wanting something, little more
Than crave it, chase it, get denied it, get it.
Whether or not you know you have, you’ve read it.
A spouse, a treasure trove, salvation, winning
Goads us busybodies to our sinning.
What makes the same protagonists recur
Remakes our busy bodies. Births recur,
Identical rhymes, self-same every syllable,
The self, like any energy, unkillable
In any circuit where the crackle dances,
In any ardor where our karma lands us.
Desire cycles us, recycling dust
Through dust. The axle of the wheel is lust;
The hamster on the wheel, this migrant soul.
From twelve o’clock around the clock we roll.
But why repeat myself? Why do I yearn
To resurrect, redo, replay, return?
Because a crumpled bike’s back wheel keeps spinning.
Because the toast should be to old beginnings.
Because the rain it raineth every day.
Because the mantra, prayer, Name you say
Draws power from its being said before.
Because some artists make and some restore
And there’s an equal love in either’s brush,
An equal rush. Because two bodies flush
Against each other foster with their heat
A third and separate one that will repeat
Their bodies, both at once, a compound word.
Because it isn’t rhyme if it isn’t heard.
Because momentum builds up through anaphora.
Because a home reborn in her diaspora
Is a dandelion clock becoming dandelions.
Because before your siege machines there stands a lion.
Because the oldest Gods are young in me.
Because no time. Because eternity.
Repeating is revealing: If it’s stale your
Second time around, the book’s a failure.
The love I have for King Lear, Blood Meridian,
Beloved changed with my rereading them.
To read them once? For read read overlook.
A second reading reads a second book,
The same and not the same. It’s quite Borgesian.
And Borges, too, is one whose work can tease me in
To labyrinths I’ve strolled before. I enter
Familiar turns, but a new beast’s at the center.
I re-reread the Odyssey the most, though,
His many turnings-home, his aching nostos.
Love is a homecoming: My second first kiss
Gasped on the shore. I’ve seen a sculpture surface
While she’s asleep, a Chola bronze, some blissed-
Out apsara. I knew right then I kissed
My future wife. Same scene, another take:
First kiss in front of books. I wouldn’t make
This up, I know it seems a bit too pat —
The moment really did play out like that.
The titles on her shelf were different ones.
I saw a Gita (Eknath Easwaran’s),
Rig Veda in the Penguin Classics edition,
Some Tagore, old books from the old tradition,
And this uncanny certainty took hold
Of me that our love, too, was very old,
Predating us, that we were meant to be,
I mean to say, that she was meant for me
The way a word is fated into place
Because the verse line draws no other face
Close for the kiss that shuts the eyes and book,
The life to come foreseen, no need to look …
A memoir can relive this living love,
Not past lives memory keeps no footage of.
Erato, aid me, be my aide-memoire.
I swear I knew we’d end up as we are.
Unless our memories are merely drafts
And memory is what a memoir crafts.
Best write it now, since I may well forget
I ever loved. In time will time reset
My memories, the hard drive wiped, my pictures
Gone, all gone the poetry and scriptures
I tried to English, tried to learn by rote.
I may forget I ever loved or wrote,
Her face as strange to me as any foreign
Language, this line right now mistaken for an
Antique poet’s. I suspect dementia
Is atman en route out — or in absentia.
The bureaucrats are burning files at
The tank’s approach and distant rat tat tat.
Forgetting gets a head start, just before the
Finish. We’re reborn, but prematurely.
The mirror shows your fetch, but time-lapsed. Who’s this?
Your fingers tangle with a pesky shoelace,
Your sole no longer snug inside your sneaker.
The tongue forgets the voice forgets the speaker.
The grandkids stooping, shouting in your ear
Repeat their names for you until you hear.
Rebirth is hope, a repetition with
Trajectory. At least that is the myth,
The math of it: The number of your lives
Is nearly infinite. One self survives
The fluctuations of its fleeting flesh,
Loving its loved ones, loving them afresh
Each time — until nirvana. That is where
The peregrine wind perishes into the air,
Trading its travels not for rest but for
The state of being everywhere. The roar
Inside you quiets. In nirvana comes
An end to rhythm. You become the thrum.
You are your love. The love in you expands.
The cosmos kneels to drink it from your hands.
You will forget your poetry because
You will become the thing your poem was
Before you stuffed its throat full of your own words.
Look east, Odysseus is turning homewards.
We’re all desire’s drunks until we’ve sworn
Off sea-dark wine — drowned in a womb, reborn.
The full-stop pupil dilates. The line breaks segue
The Word, the Big Bang, Aum, a Golden Egg.