The Creeping Griffon

Monolithos: Poems, 1962 and 1982

by Jack Gilbert
Knopf, 93 pp., $11.50

Stylization is easy to see in the visual arts. The deer on the belt buckle is recognizably a deer, but it has been curved into an oval shape, its legs bent under its body, its neck elongated and tucked toward its breast, its shoulders folded to conform to the left side of the buckle, its flanks curved to align themselves with the right side. It is a deer, but no deer was ever seen to curl itself up in so symmetrical a way; and yet the forms have not been stretched out of plausibility entirely. They touch the limits of contortion without looking contorted. On the facades of Gothic cathedrals the vertical body of the saint is still a body, though stretched and stylized into something resembling a column. In visual forms, the mimetic is subdued to the geometric with such grace that the geometric seems almost an invention of the mimetic—as though the deer had found an oval way of being a deer, the saint a columnar way of being a body.

The best stylization seems a happy inclination of the matter, as a griffon voluntarily appears to creep its way into an illuminated letter, or as the Magi crowd willingly into the capital of a pillar. A stylization uncooperated-in by matter seems an order imposed, not discovered. There are bad stylizations as well as good ones, but it is a matter of taste to distinguish between them; and what is difficult in the visual arts becomes even more problematic in poetry.

In the first place, stylization is far less well defined in the verbal arts. The most obvious forms of it (rhyme and meter) have naturally been the easiest, and usually the least profitable, to discuss. Any literate person can be taught to write in competent meter and rhyme, and all the most forgettable poetry of past ages has been written in acceptable prosodic and stanzaic forms. To discuss how poetry discovers a stylization of its matter we must step beyond rhyme and meter and ask what the subject matter is in a given poem, and into what captivating distortion it (like the deer or the saint, the griffon or the Magi) has been cast. The distortion can be brought about by untoward images (evening “like a patient etherised upon a table”), by sudden conflation of categories (“my daughter and my ducats”), by delphic remarks (“The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream”), by parody (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”), by any number of odd angles.

The experienced reader feels at once the presence of stylization in a work and is pleased by it, without necessarily being able either to describe or define it. A good part of what critics do is to find words for the degree and kind of stylization they perceive. And since the matter of lyric poetry is always and everywhere the same (time passes, experience teaches, I am young, I am old, nature is beautiful, he loves me,…

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