Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Is It a Crime?

Crime poetry? What the hell? Is that even a thing? I mean, how many crime poetry readings have you been to? True, you've probably been to many poetry readings that were a crime. Rimshot. You know, what I like most about poetry readings is you can go, drink by your lonesome in public, and it seems somehow decent, even upper crusty, and sometimes, if you're lucky, there is even a woman as lonesome and single-minded as your sad ass.

But enough about me. Many famous poems cover the waterfront of crime--rape, war, murder, suicide--and one of my favorites is Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess." You might remember it from 7th grade: "That's my last Duchess painted on the wall, /Looking as if she were alive. . ."

A dramatic monologue narrated by the Duke of Ferrara, the poem slowly uncovers the anatomy of a murder. The Duke is giving the emissary (of his prospective new wife) a tour of the art in his home. He draws a curtain to reveal a painting of a woman, his late wife (represented here for no reason by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres's "Portrait of Princesse de Broglie"). As they admire the the portrait, the Duke describes her perky, flirtatious character, which had--uh oh--displeased him. He says, "She had a heart -- how shall I say? -- too soon made glad." He goes on to say that his complaint of her was that "'twas not her husband's presence only" that made her happy. Eventually, "I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together." Enter Bulldog Drummond.

Consider something like Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner":

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Damn, that's gotta hurt. But that's what we're talking about. If we define poetry as the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" (William Wordsworth) or, simply, "life distilled" (Gwendolyn Brooks), then crime is a perfect poetic subject. Crime, like love, like hate, is imbedded with powerful emotions; a collision not, naively, of good and evil, but of two opposing wants; attacks on the self or on those you love or on things you love; violent, intimate, condensed iterations of our daily battles to survive.

Hell, every poem should be about crime. (Hell, maybe every poem is.)