Human on My Faithless Arm, Episode 9: Nabokov’s “The Room”
Vladimir Nabokov, Montreux, October 1969. Photograph by Giuseppe Pino (Mondadori Publishers)
Welcome to Episode 9 of Human on My Faithless Arm, a series of podcasts in which I present performances of and brief commentaries upon the poems I recite each night to my infant daughter, Auden.
This episode features Vladimir Nabokov’s brief elliptical narrative poem, “The Room.”
If you want to follow along as I recite “The Room,” you can find the text here:
Several 20th century British poets are remembered by Americans via their association with W.H. Auden. Stephen Spender, for example, an artist any reader of English poetry would be silly to discount, is likely to be introduced with the phrase, “Auden’s dear friend…” or something similar. His second-fiddle circumstance is given a special resonance in the bright light of one of Spender’s best poems, the one that begins, “I think continually of those who were truly great.” From the first time I read this poem, I understood, with little textual warrant, that the number one truly great person Spender was continually thinking about was dear Wystan. How could he help it, being so close to genius?
Recently I was trying to think of an answer to the question, “Among poets publishing today, who is truly great?” For reasons too tediously personal to explore here, I could not come up with an answer worth stating out loud. (Recall please Robert Louis Stevenson’s admonition that even the worst historian has a better view of the period he or she studies than any person will have of the period he or she lives through.)
My difficulty comes as no surprise. What shocked me was how quickly I said to myself, in earnest certainty, that “We have today no American poet who is anywhere near as powerful and important to poetry as Nabokov is to prose fiction.”
Let me propose one strand toward an explanation of why this is so. Today a poet is unlikely to be well-versed in other genres (he or she is also unlikely to be well-versed in line- or stanza- making.) But Hardy and Goethe and Swift and Brontë and Poe and Larkin and Hughes and Cervantes and James and Borges and Shakespeare and Stein and Pushkin and Tagore and Melville and Woolf—they all knew what Nabokov knew:
Poetry, of course, includes all creative writing; I have never been able to see any generic difference between poetry and artistic prose. As a matter of fact, I would be inclined to define a good poem of any length as a concentrate of good prose, with or without the addition of recurrent rhythm and rhyme. The magic of prosody may improve upon what we call prose by bringing out the full flavor of meaning, but in plain prose there are also certain rhythmic patterns, the music of precise phrasing, the beat of thought rendered by recurrent peculiarities of idiom and intonation. As in today’s scientific classifications, there is a lot of overlapping in our concept of poetry and prose today. The bamboo bridge between them is the metaphor.
(Playboy Magazine Interview with Alvin Toffler, January 1964)
So what do we mean when we say that Doty or Graham or Howe (pick one) or Komunyakaa or Glück is “great”? We express an allegiance or a preference—we do not point out an indelible accomplishment.
Nabokov’s “The Room” may not be indelible verse. But there is intense pleasure to be had in reading and re-reading this archly self-conscious work written by a master but, we might say, with his opposite hand. I’ll say a bit more about it in the podcast.
Thank you for listening to this series. I hope you will join me for episode ten, in which I’ll offer atheist’s renditions of a pair of sonnets celebrating religious faith, “Sonnet XVI,” by John Milton, and “The Windhover” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Daniel Bosch is Lecturer in English at Emory University and Senior Editor of Berfrois.