Starbuck the Great

The forgotten poet who made loyalty oaths illegal.

Starbuck: clever, witty, and sadly overlooked 

The front cover of The Works, a new edition of selected poems by the late George Starbuck, features the most shamelessly misleading blurb I’ve ever written. Someone at the University of Alabama Press saw my review of an earlier Starbuck collection in the San Francisco Chronicle and extracted the words “It’s impossible to resist the language” from the sentence, “It’s impossible to resist the language of masonry and carpentry when describing Starbuck’s work” (emphasis added).

But I’m not really upset. Part of me suspects I got what I deserved for peddling hyperbole in the first place. (“Impossible to resist … “? What’s the matter with me?) And while distorting a positive review in order to gin up a positive blurb seems kind of pathetic, at least the publisher didn’t misrepresent my opinion. Starbuck is one of the great geniuses of 20th-century American poetry and profoundly undervalued. The Works has been out for almost a year, and I have yet to see it reviewed. Anything that helps move copies is OK with me.

Starbuck himself probably would have been tickled by the marketing maneuver—the irony would’ve appealed to his cynical side. No poet was more disdainful of language that had been co-opted, coerced, or put in somebody’s mouth. And no poet was more scrupulously attentive to words and to the ways in which even the subtlest manipulation of words can bring about seismic shifts in meaning. Starbuck, who was born in 1931, is actually the reason loyalty oaths are illegal in the United States. When the State University of New York-Buffalo fired him in 1963 for refusing to sign one, he fought the university all the way to the Supreme Court and prevailed.

It’s not especially surprising that Starbuck is now so overlooked: Critics today tend to view wit as a poor substitute for humor. Starbuck’s major poems are all the things major poems should be—subtle, intelligent, moving—but their distinguishing mark is almost always cleverness, and cleverness is not a quality prized in contemporary poets. There’s much more room in the canon, at this point, for the breezy humor of Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch than for Starbuck’s elaborately plotted pranks and rococo word-castles. 

The best way to approach Starbuck’s work is to first drink three cups of Starbucks’ French Roast. His poems demand the same sort of hyperattentiveness to language that produced them; they’re packed with allusion, neologism, wordplay, jumps from elevated to demotic diction, and technical pyrotechnics. In “Desperate Measures,” the increasing hysteria of the speaker—a scandal-addled Richard Nixon—registers in the slow unraveling of the end rhyme:

Bad enough with pot fiends rioting in the streets.
But blackmail! Trading on another person’s dirty secrets.
It’s worse than being a classified-documents-leaker, it’s
Diabolicaller it’s slimier it’s sneakier it’sBlackmail! Oh Momma I just don’t care anymore.
They can drag our impetuous ardor in all its sordor
Into the glare of the lawcourts and the even horrider
Glint in the eye of the would-be boudoir toreador
The Suck-of-the-Month subscriber the PlayboyPortfolioreader
The plain-brown-wrapper Scenes-from-the-Life-of-Ann-Corioorderer—

This may seem formally extravagant, but it’s nothing compared to Starbuck’s “A Tapestry for Bayeux,” written in dactylic monometer, with a 156-letter rhymed acrostic threaded through it; or his “Elegy in a Country Church Yard,” a panoramic concrete poem more than 5 feet wide; or his “Verses To Exhaust My Stock of Four-Letter Words,” which includes “zoöoögenous,” “bullllamas,” “disagreeee” (the counterpart to “disagreeor”), and, for good measure, “archchurchmen”; or his Space-Saver Sonnets, which compress 14 lines of Shakespearean pentameter into 14 syllables of rhymed paraphrase:

My Mistress’ Eyes Are NothingYes,

This is all great fun, of course, and hard as hell to do. But poetry critics have never embraced the labor theory of value.

Starbuck wasn’t a marginal figure during his lifetime. A Yale Younger Poet while still in his 20s, he went on to win the Lenore Marshall prize and direct the creative writing program at the University of Iowa. And he enjoyed a certain credibility among poets across the stylistic spectrum, having shown a mastery of both traditional forms (such as the sonnet)and their subversion (the space-saver sonnet), as well as a general respect for experiment. But the poetry world didn’t know what to do with him. His idiosyncrasies made him difficult to categorize and impossible to imitate. He worked extensively in forms that aren’t currently fashionable and some that may never be. Though he studied under Robert Lowell in the now-legendary Boston University workshop that included Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, the years have been kinder to their confessional explorations than to his concrete poems and clerihews.

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 [ … ]

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.