Our Greek drama teacher, Frank Dwyer, is not only a scholar, poet, translator, stage actor and director; he is also a master of digressions. Before we get to the play he will speak of his weekend which takes him to the opera or philharmonic leading to an anecdote about a performer, then a recitation from Shakespeare which may then segue into a display of another imbecility from Trump or words of wisdom from Yogi Berra… all said parenthetically. After 2,500 years Euripides doesn’t mind the wait. This could eat up the first hour. And that is not a bad thing.
Digressions expand the margins and remind us of larger contexts. They are proof of connectivity. They mimic the way our brains think. We leap spontaneously in everyday conversation. Sometimes we fall on our face, other times make it to the next ledge.
Peggy also writes digressively. One poem starts with a white horse always out of reach a field away, then it asks if her totem is merely a comfort like a Gummy Bear. The final stanza tries to make sense of her daughter’s death at 63 and the last line references the tragedy in Orlando. You might ask, how did I get here? Tracing the thread of her intuitive mind is the challenge and the joy of the poem.
One person’s digression is another’s distraction. The most famous one belongs to Samuel Taylor Coleridge who, in 1797, is said to have been interrupted by a person from Porlock, a neighboring town, when he was on the verge of composing Kubla Khan. As it is he wrote 54 lines but he claims to have envisioned 200. Not everyone believed him. It was more likely his opium dream that deserted him.
Today we have devised thousands of Porlockian pulls to tease our minds out of focus. There’s a knock at the door. The poet lets him in. In Frank O’Hara’s poem, The Day Lady Died, it takes him 25 lines before he mention’s Billie Holiday’s death. What precedes it is 4 stanzas of digressions. The poet has framed the extraordinary shock of the news against a litany of the ordinary.
Stevie Smith, the British poet, saw the person from Porlock as death itself and she welcomed it. That’s what depression can do to a person. Theodore Weiss imagined Porlock representing the move away from the fanciful toward a more reality based sensibility. The only problem with that idea is the nearly 100 years of romantic poetry still to come before Whitman’s yawp or Emily’s terse realism is widely heard.
The stately pleasure-dome of Xanadu with caverns measureless to man was ultimately replaced by Eliot’s Prufrock measuring his life with coffee spoons. Women coming and going speaking of Michelangelo were finally shouted down by Ginsberg’s Howl. But I digress!
Hold that thought, the announcer says, while we go to a word from our sponsor. Every thought has a sponsor. And did I tell you about the funny thing that happened to me on my way to this page?