Sunday, July 27, 2003

I have been reading lately in Powers of Heaven and Earth; New and Selected Poems, by John Frederick Nims. Here is a new favorite from the epigrams interspersed between his longer works:


"A dead tradition! Hollow shell!
Outworn, outmoded--time it fell.
Let's make it new. Rebel! Rebel!"
Said cancer-cell to cancer-cell.

Reading Nims, whose published work spans from the forties until 1999, when he died, I realized that he has a characteristic that I miss in most of our contemporary writers; wit. In our post-modern age we have sarcasm, satire, and irony, but, rarely, wit. Wit shares in post-modernity's delight in word-play. Where wit parts with post-modernity is that wit assumes the existence of standards, of ideals, and skewers our failure to live up to them. In our post-modern days we, by contrast, seem to have come to the conclusion that, since no one lives up to an ideal, it is hypocrisy to hold one. Cleverly pointing out the gap between the real and the ideal is pointless, if ideals themselves are fictions promoted by the dominant class structure. Holding firmly to the existence of standards, wit plays in that gap between our actions and our best intentions. Here is another example from Nims:


"I'm Mark's alone!" you swore. Given cause to
doubt you,
I think less of you, dear. But more about you.

Here the poet makes a double-play, skewering both the narrator and the lady in question, as both fail to live up to the ideal of fidelity. The play of wit, of course, is not the same thing as actually repenting of our sins and hypocrisies. What use is it then? Perhaps it is as close as some of us can come to humility; recognizing our own sins as we smile at our neighbor's. As Nims says in another epigram, directed to

You Pious People

Most any sin--read Scripture if you doubt it--
'S forgiven sooner than righteousness about it.