Dispatches | July 21, 2011

It’s gotten to the point where I recall blog posts from recent years with the same vague fondness as I do certain books and other things that appear in print, like SkyMall’s product descriptions. The blogosphere has reached the size, I suppose, where this is likely.

Yesterday, a certain poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson brought to mind a 2009 blog post at the New York Times by one of my heroes, Dick Cavett. The post, “A Better Sort of Insult,” concerns what it is that insults gain when they are infused with humor, and how wit can make an insult into art. “There are two kinds of insult,” Cavett writes. “‘I was bored by your book’ is one kind. ‘Your book? Once I put it down, I couldn’t pick it up,’ is the other. Although both are insults, only one is witty.”

I agree with Cavett, but some didn’t. Steve in Jersey, as he identified himself, argued that no insult could achieve the status of humor, no matter how funny or finely crafted. I remembered this objection as well as I did the post itself, as I sat beside a lake this afternoon reading E.A. Robinson’s “Another Dark Lady.”

Robinson’s poem is not an insult, but it is infused with the same sort of bile as some of Cavett’s treasured barbs. The poem’s speaker has been jilted by a woman he claims to never want to see again, and he speaks of her in regrettable, but eloquent and memorable, terms. “Think not, because I wonder where you fled, / That I would lift a pin to see you there,” he begins. “You may, for me, be prowling anywhere, / So long as you show not your little head.” The poem is more complicated than a mere statement of a man’s hatred for a woman – we don’t need any more of those in this world. “I cannot hate you, for I loved you then,” Robinson continues.

The woods were golden then. There was a road
Through beeches; and I said their smooth feet showed
Like yours. Truth must have heard me from afar,
For I shall never have to learn again
That yours are cloven as no beech’s are.

I have no grand conclusions to make concerning bilious literature, but I wish I did; there’s something peculiar to the pleasure I (and others, I assume) take in this poem and other literary works like it. I locate similar qualities in speeches by certain characters in Shakespeare plays, and the career of Nick Cave. The poem’s sentiments of hatred are to be enjoyed vicariously, and I do, despite my not being an especially hateful person.  I wish I better understood its appeal.

As I sat beside the lake, I wondered if it is harder to write a good hateful poem than it is to write a good love poem. But my thoughts were cut short by my admission to myself that all writing is very hard, no matter the sentiment behind it.

A couple of great Cavett blog entries, by the way, on Gore Vidal’s confrontation with Norman Mailer, on his show, are here, and here.

And you can see a short film about two strangers falling in love to the tune of an E.A. Robinson poem right here.