Elegy In a Country Churchyard
by George Starbuck
Pym-Randall, 1975

    A Review by Cooper Renner

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As far as I can tell (and I am as likely to be wrong here as about anything else I write), George Starbuck was pretty much ignored even before he died a few years ago. There were, of course, three strikes against him.
     First, he was clever-- and cleverness is an attribute Americans mostly associate, disparagingly, with the English and thieves.
    Second, he was a formalist at a time when formalism was not popular. Even as Robert Lowell, W.S. Merwin, James Wright and virtually any "younger" American poet you can name were abandoning formal verse for free, Starbuck was still writing in form. Such anti-social behavior, in the very social '60s and '70s, can not have been helped by the fact that Starbuck also deigned to write concrete poetry, again against the trend, since concrete poetry-- as popular as it may have been overseas-- never really caught on here (except among children's poets). Nor did Starbuck suffer a revival (as far as I can tell) among the neo-formalists of the '80s and '90s-- an impossibility, really, since the neo's don't seem to have any use for anyone who wrote formally any earlier than the Reagan presidency.
     Finally he had the (mis)fortune to begin his career as one of the winners of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition selected by Dudley Fitts. While a smarter man than I could easily argue (and probably demonstrate) that Fitts' selectees have proved themselves better poets, as a group, than anyone else's, they have not been treated well by the American literati. Fitts' choice selections are Starbuck, Alan Dugan, Jack Gilbert and Jean Valentine. (I am omitting, of course, James Tate, Fitts' only selection to enjoy a conventionally American idea of literary success, but whose non-linear writing style I don't "get" and thus cannot comment upon.) Of the four, Dugan began with the biggest splash, his Yale-winning volume also taking the Pulitzer and National Book Awards, and he followed it fairly quickly with three more like-minded sequels. But his fifth and sixth collections came along much more slowly, and none of his books is currently in print. Jack Gilbert has followed his winning "Views of Jeopardy" with only two successors in 37 years, and only the more recent (1994, "The Great Fires") is in print and readily available. Despite his substantial achievement in these few books, he was still so beneath consideration several years ago as not even to merit inclusion in the mammoth "Contemporary Poets" encyclopedia (although he may have made the newest edition, which I haven't seen). Jean Valentine would seem, on the surface, to have fared best, even to the point of having been a "Farrar Straus poet" for a number of years, and she has more volumes in print than any of the men. On the other hand, she has apparently been relegated to the dismissive status of "feminist poet," by which means the larger "poetic culture" manages to cease to deal with her.

Starbuck's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" is a charming, if sometimes too self-congratulatory, offering of American concrete verse

     Meanwhile Auden's selections, which immediately precede Fitts', form in large part the current status quo of "older poets" and accepted (if not actual) "greats." Starbuck's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," published more than a decade after he won the Yale competition, is a charming, if sometimes too self-congratulatory, offering of American concrete verse (and is one of only two of Starbuck's books officially in print, though I fail to see that many copies of a 226-copy edition printed in 1975 can remain). Concrete verse-- like its predecessor, shaped verse-- can be among the most formal of poetries, and the individual "poems" which comprise the heart of Starbuck's elegy are frequently both formal in the traditional sense as well as concrete/shaped. The elegy, seen as a unit, is in fact a merger of concrete and traditional formal verse. Although John Hollander has also written shaped verse, his does not smack of the concrete movement at all, but rather of the Metaphysicals. Only the British George Macbeth, Starbuck's contemporary, seems to have shared Starbuck's audacity in pursuing both traditional and concrete poetry. (On the other hand, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Scot like Macbeth, has written "regular" poetry, but is actually almost exclusively a concretist.)
     "Elegy" presents itself as a game or, if you like, a crafts project. The box which houses it calls it "another in the line of complete authentic early American decorator kits by Starbuck of Boston" (and includes the directions, "Object: Players are given the answers and asked to come up with questions.") Like a jigsaw puzzle box, the top features a picture of what the contents will resemble when "assembled." The contents are minimal. The elegy in "concrete" form is printed on three sheets which are meant to be taped together, end to end, to form a panel about 65" long forming the horizon line of the churchyard. A fourth sheet features a "normal" printing of most of the individual poems/elegies/tombstones which figure in the "actual" elegy and also notes, a la an entry signboard, "Rubbings Directory Restroom Crafts Souvenirs." This sheet is, of course, much easier to read, but removes most of the fun and much of the mystique. That is to say, seeing the "tombstones" printed as poems makes it too easy to see them as poems merely, and occasionally overly deft poems at that. "Decoding" the poems in situ, on the other hand, contributes an air of excavation to the reading and "improves" the poems in the same way that assonance and alliteration give heft to a poem whose thought is pedestrian.

That "coffin" replaces the "crust" of standard geology suggests something of Starbuck's view-- that the "world" we live upon is constructed upon the lives and accomplishments-- and indeed the corpses-- of the dead.

     The baseline of the poem is the "earth" itself, both in the sense of the ground we walk upon and of the whole of the globe. The grass (and the word "grass" is printed across the length of the poem) is covered in a "dazzle" and "shimmer," presumably dew, but perhaps just as likely the "illusion" of everyday life, and is undergirded by "coffin," "mantle" and "core." That "coffin" replaces the "crust" of standard geology suggests something of Starbuck's view-- that the "world" we live upon is constructed upon the lives and accomplishments-- and indeed the corpses-- of the dead. Yet this is not a belabored point-- Starbuck merely replaces the "crust"-line with the "coffin"-line and expects us to take note. (And this point is, to be sure, lost entirely if one reads only the "cheat-sheet".)
     Starbuck's formal dexterity is best exhibited by the first individual poem with the whole, the elegy of Bill Bunn. Presented not as a tombstone, but rather as eight 4x4 or 4x5 grids (i.e. 4 or 5 lines of 4 letters each) laid out side by side which represent, I assume, Bunn's body "drag[ged] out into the sun", the poem not only ends with a completed word at the end of each grid, but those eight ending words also rhyme. Printed normally, the poem reads--

    Soft! here lies Bill Bunn,
    His labor at last undone:
    He sought and nearly won
    Decent poetic oblivion
    By writing no poems. None.
    I've foxed the son of a gun
    And fixed his name to one.
    Drag him out into the sun.
    Eternity, meet Bill Bunn.

     Even in this standard format, the poem is both tricky and precise, playing up the cliches of past poems by inverting them, and then reinvesting them.
     A second grid poem, called on the cheat-sheet "East Slope", pays tribute to William Carlos Williams both by being gridded free verse and by focusing on the things and creatures of the physical world. But it's a far less successful poem in its own right and functions solely as homage.
     Another poem, structured as a monument topped by a long-limbed cross, displays an enigmatic gap in the layout of its words: a 1 over a horizontal slash over a 0. Is it a fraction, impossible mathematically but explicable philosophically as a portrait of death?-- that is, "One divided by nothing." Or is it a scorecard-- 1 to 0-- in which case we wonder who scored the point, Death or the deceased, especially since the score occurs under such a prominent cross? Or is Starbuck even playing with the similarity of 1 and I, 0 and O, hoping we will read "I owe" as the monument's primary statement?

Or is Starbuck even playing with the similarity of 1 and I, 0 and O, hoping we will read "I owe" as the monument's primary statement?

     Starbuck also deals with the military dead at the poem's far right, the position itself possibly its first comment. Simple crosses, at a glance, feature "God" on the crossbar, "Country" on the vertical bar, with the intersection occurring at the O. But pausing to read instead of merely to look, one notices that not all of the crossbars salute God-- others of the dead were more devoted to Mom, Job, Pop, and-- yes-- Cow. The "dazzle" that lies along with the "shimmer" elsewhere becomes "glitter" here, and the grass gives way to a long line reading "general issue earth cover standard gage green to greenish russet or olive drab" beneath which the "coffin"-line has become a "bodybox"-line. When evaluating these variations, one ought to remember, I think, that the elegy was written during the final years of the war in VietNam. But perhaps the most striking aspect of his look at military life and death comes with the flag that flies over the dead soldiers and reads (transcribed into my "regular" punctuation) "O I single-- the loveliest slogan-- out of many one cry rising-- I I I. . . ", the I's continuing for the length of the flagpole. Starbuck's recasting of "E pluribus unum" is remarkable both for its utter shift in meaning and its reevalution of the presumed "mass" thinking required of armies, as opposed to the cry of the individual asserting himself.
     But this cry of the one against the many applies equally well to "normal" people as to soldiers, and it is telling that Starbuck chose to present this "cry" within the most regimented (forgive the pun) of settings and by transforming one of the key texts of American democratic thought.
     "Elegy" is that most unusual of literary creations, a document both amusing and thoughtful. I will be quite gratified if this brief review stimulates another look at it and at Starbuck's work in general.

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About Cooper

Cooper Renner also reviews books and engages in various critical activities for the online magazine 'elimae', under the name b. renner. He is a published poet and a very eclectic fellow.