Norman Dubie’s “Ars Poetica” punctuates a series of firsts in my life as a poet. I first read it in my first undergraduate poetry workshop twenty-five years ago. It opens the collection Groom Falconer, the first book of poetry I ever bought, and it was my first encounter with Dubie’s poetry, which has been an abiding presence in my life as a reader and writer ever since. It was, most likely, also the first ars poetica I ever stumbled upon.
The ars poetica is a poem that takes the art of poetry as its subject matter. The tradition can be traced back to the Roman lyric poet Horace (ca. 19 B.C.E.) and his poem titled “Ars Poetica,” in which he argues that poetry should be both amusing and instructive. Modern and contemporary poets have approached the genre in a myriad of ways over the years, employing it, for example, to construct broad defenses of poetry, or to make arguments for particular kinds of poetics, or as a space to meditate on or define their own aesthetics.
At the time, I had no clue what the title of Dubie’s poem referred to, but it drew me in just the same. “Ars Poetica” has all the hallmarks of Dubie’s signature style. His poems, like this one, often spin concise narratives that move with cinematic exactness. He has an uncanny knack for precise details and figurative language that surprise in the moment and linger long after the poem is over. Here, for instance, I’ve never been able to shake those “milky rubbers / In the breakers” bobbing “like a familiar invasion / Of sea life,” or the “crumpled pack of Lucky Strikes” stashed at the top of the girl’s nylon stocking. There’s also a way that Dubie’s poems mix fear or dread or sadness (or some combination of all these things) with beauty. The opening sentence of “Ars Poetica,” for example, states that “it is almost polio season,” which has no real bearing on the narrative that follows. It’s a fact deployed for atmosphere, sending a gray miasma wafting over the scene that’s about to unfold. And yet, all the bleakness here—that specter of illness, the polluted surf, the startled girl who’s the victim of a horrible joke—is pierced in the end by the girl’s haunting beauty, embodied in the description of her hair, “colored / That second chaste coat of red on the pomegranate.”
Dubie’s poems can also be reticent, refusing to explain narrative details or imagery. Over the past twenty-five years, I’ve returned again and again to “Ars Poetica,” and the poem remains dream-like and mysterious to me, raising questions that I’ve never been able to fully answer. For example, why is this family picnicking late at night in the dark on a beach where young couples come to make love? And what is the deal with that nighttime runner who cuts through the story with “the bone catching of balance” and who seems to possess, in the quality of his movement alone, some intuition or intelligence that no other figure in the poem has? Are we to read him as a symbol or metaphor for something in the human experience, or in the writing of poetry itself? And with what emotion did the poet dream of the girl when he dreamed of her the second time (“once / With fear and once without”)? Lust? Sadness? Something else? And why is twice “too often” to have dreamed of her? None of these things are explained, just as the poem never explicitly explains how it is an ars poetica.
However, by simply titling the poem “Ars Poetica,” Dubie signals to us that this encounter with the girl transforms, over time, through memory and dream, into an encounter with a muse-like figure. She is beautiful but marred by the violence of the world (she’s missing a thumb). She’s vulnerable in her nakedness, and angry and afraid, but defiant in the face of the cruel tricks of men. None of this is stated outright in this ars poetica, because Dubie understands that both in life and writing poetry there are profound mysteries that approach the unutterable, that strike at the very depths of being. In this way, then, “Ars Poetica” reminds us that poetry is as much about what is not said as what is said. Silence, like language, is an essential part of the poem.