The Vessels of His Meaningnby David R. Slavittn’There is nothing so likely to hand down your name as a poem: all othernmonuments are frail and fading.”n— Pliny the YoungernProsody and Purpose in thenEnglish Renaissancenby O.h. HardisonnBaltimore: Johns Hopkins UniversitynPress; 360 pp., $42.S0nTo say that O.B. Hardison, Jr., whondied last August at the age of 61,nwas a poet is in some respects tondiminish his memory. “Poet” has becomena hollow accolade, a label with annhonorific charge that is not unrelated tonthe disesteem in which most poets arenactually held in a society that distrustsnand resents poets and has little patiencenfor what they do. Poetry is often demanding,nafter all, and it requires on thenpart of its audience a degree of attentionnand cultivation for which Jacobin egalitarianismnhas neither capacity nor patience.nBut in a larger and less polemicalnway, there is a sense in which thatngrandiose label is stylistically confining,nsuggesting—let us admit — a degree ofnwithdrawal from the great issues of thenculture. Poets sit on the sidelines, scribblingnand entertaining themselves,nwhile the important work of the culturengoes on, strenuously elsewhere.nIt was not always thus. There isnanother model, the all but forgottennidea of the poet who, like Chaucer ornRaleigh, could be involved in affairs ofnstate, active in exploration and militarynadventure and, as a parergon, tossing oflFna poem now and then. There have beennpoet-diplomats in our time, too — St.nJohn Perse, Octavio Paz, and BasilnBunting come immediately to mind.nO.B. Hardison was a poet, then, innthe strict and neutral meaning of thenterm — he published two collections.nLyrics and Elegies in 1958, a part ofnthe Scribner’s ‘Toets of Today” Series,nand Pro Musica Antiqua (L.S.U.nPress, 1977). One might regret thatnthere wasn’t more poetry, that therenDavid R. Slavitt is a poet and novelistnwho lives in Philadelphia.nweren’t more pages and volumes of hisnsuave, elegant, witty, but often deeplynfelt and abruptly moving work, but thatnwould be sentimentalizing and wouldnget the shape of Hardison’s careernwrong. I was at a center for scholarsnand artists not so long ago, where therenwere a couple of poets in residence,nand it struck me as off and, finally,nunhealthy that writing poetry was allnthey did. They woke up each morning,nconsulted their mood, and played withntheir impressions, thoughts, and feelings,nas if these were thermometers bynwhich the temperature of the worldnitself was to be determined — and as ifnthe world was either an invalid or atnleast something of a hypochondriac.nThat is finally silly and not whatnHardison did. Quite the reverse, actually.nHis engagement with the world, asna scholar and as an administrator (notablynof the Folger Shakespeare Library),nnnbut primarily as a thinker, was too burlynand energetic to be comprehended bynthe usual limp suggestion that the wordn”poet” carries. His poems were a partnof his larger work and of a piece with it.nTo get some sense of how this is so, wenmight consider one of his early pieces,nfrom the 1958 collection, a poemncalled “Bernini’s Colonnade.” Itncomes with a note that tells us.nEach arm of Bernini’sncolonnade before St. Peter’s isncomposed of three parallel rowsnof columns. The two arms arenlaid out along the circumferencenof an ellipse, and the columnsnare placed behind one anothernon lines drawn from the foci of ,,nthe ellipse. Thus, if one standsnat the north focus, he has then’•- illusion that the north colonnaden-a has only one row of columns;n^ but if he turns, he sees all threen”1^ rows of columns in the southn2 colonnade. Conversely, if henc stands at the south focus, the ‘..nsouth colonnade seems ‘simple,’nwhile the three rows of columnsnin the north colonnade arenvisible. This arrangement fornisnthe basic image of the poem: tonme, it suggests the relativity ofntruth as we know it.nMy guess is that, later on, he might havensuppressed the explanatory last sentencenwith its suggestion that the poemnitself makes abundantly clear. And if wenare in the explaining mood, I suppose Inought to make it plain that I advert tonthis particular piece not because it isnnecessarily Hardison’s best but becausenI find it peculiariy characteristic. Itnbegins:nThis great ellipse contains twonjarring centersnFrom each of which onencolonnade is pure.nIts other, further twin, irrational,nMaking the form a tension,nFEBRUARY 1991/29n