Who is George Starbuck, anyway?

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 13 2004 6:46 AM

Starbuck the Great

The forgotten poet who made loyalty oaths illegal.

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Still, the narrow tastes of taste-makers may not be entirely to blame for Starbuck's neglect. There may be—I write this tentatively, because Starbuck's rich, dense poems can take years to appreciate—finally, a narrowness to his achievement.

Good poets know that formal limitations can be liberating. "Blessed be all metrical rules," Auden wrote, "that forbid automatic responses, force us to have second thoughts, free us from the fetters of Self." But severe limitations, sometimes, are merely limiting, even to a Houdini like Starbuck. Something about his fastidious method—the non-negotiability of every word—seems to restrict his tonal range, locking certain poems into a precocity they can't grow out of. This isn't necessarily a problem; in many of his political poems, particularly, archness and circumlocution are the perfect weapons to deploy against the dissemblers he's sending up. But in a whimsical poem like "The Staunch Maid and the Extraterrestrial Trekkie" ("hommages à Julia Child"), the showmanship can get a bit tedious:

Stand back, stand back,
Thou blob of jelly.
Do not attack
A maid so true.
I didn't pack
My Schiaparelli
To hit the sack
With a thang like you [ … ]

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And so on for 13 more octaves. Reading some of Starbuck's poems is akin to watching a man who has taught himself to solve a Rubik's Cube with his feet while parasailing. You're amazed that he can do it, and you're amazed that he would want to. Learning that Starbuck left behind "a large box of never finished palindrome poems," I half-lamented the fact that he'd ever started them. What else might he have done with that time?

"For me," Starbuck once said, "the long way round, through formalisms, word-games, outrageous conceits (the worst of what we mean by 'wit') is the only road to truth. No other road takes me."

But some of his best poems belie this. From time to time an event would move him to speak directly. What came out was devastating. Anthony Hecht, in his introduction to The Works, writes that "his poem 'Of Late' is not merely the best 'protest poem' about the Vietnam War that I know [but] the only one of any merit whatever." It begins:

"Stephen Smith, University of Iowa sophomore, burned what
    he said was his draft card"
and Norman Morrison, Quaker, of Baltimore Maryland, burned
    what he said was himself.
You, Robert McNamara, burned what you said was
    a concentration
of the Enemy Aggressor.
No news medium troubled to put it in quotes.

Even when Starbuck loosened the formal fetters only a little, his voice would open like a morning glory. "For an American Burial," which may be the best sonnet ever written by an American, contains these lines:

                                              The earth is fair;
all that the earth demands is the earth's share;
all we embrace and revel in and vow
never to lose, always to hold somehow,
we hold of earth, in temporary care.

Starbuck's technical dexterity is easy to admire, but language like that is impossible to resist.

Eric McHenry is the author of Potscrubber Lullabies, which received the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. He teaches at Washburn University.