JH: The poem is another Virginia poem - let's see, Virginia poem Class B (as it does not feature Virginia as a speaking or reacted-against character). Appius Claudius, whom I fancy to be the person portrayed on the bookmark (actually a cigar box, if you want to know the source of the picture), interacted in history with a Virginia who was the daughter of a centurion named Virginius. Her father stabbed her to save her from being raped by Appius Claudius Crassus, a decemvir (a member of a group of ten judges), which is said to have been the beginning of the end of the office of decemvir. This story occurs many times in poem (example: Virginia, by Thomas Babbington Macaulay) and play (example: Appius and Virginia, by John Webster). The castrato, who sings of Casanova (the anti-castrato), a song that alone reminds the barons why they transformed Sam Whippingcane into a book, either discovers or plants a bookmark depicting a bust Appius Claudius (who is identified as such by the title and the word "Virginia" by the bust). This bust bears much the same relation as a sentient book - it is immobile, only a head, and has its eyes forever fixed on a word or set of words. Perhaps the bookmark is a clue to Sam Whippingcane's transformation - which may be punishment for a transgression, a reward for some service, or a means to prevent his meddling or policing into the affairs of the other barons, etc. The first two lines say all the barons are cheery to some degree, but perhaps it's meant ironically or misleadingly. The features of Sam Whippingcane's face are either the bibliographic descriptions themselves, or the descriptions are meant to provide elements of Sam Whippingcane's face. The books exist in real (non-this-poem) life, but are not, to my knowledge, illustrated by the people I claim as illustrators (who are real-life artists). The books (and illustrators) may contain clues. The entire idea of clues and what's-what is a fiction of the poem - the clues are both based in real life but also must be referenced to a fabricated story, character, and song. The poem is laid out like a telling of a known story, a lecture, complete with a visual aid and a brief apologetic explanation of the visual aid. One could write an entire novel, or series of novels, on the back story of any poem. I will probably never fill in this story - but I do intend to use Whippingcane Sam again, although he probably won't be a book this time - or a baron, or have a castrato. As I was typing this reply, I came close to using the phrase "the moral of all this may be..." but never did. The idea of moral may have come to mind with the story of the historical Appius Claudius (which is also about political change). How about the moral - and political - in poetry? Is it key or tangential? I feel all is just a series of pictures (in whatever medium) and what gets labeled as moral and political is just part of these pictures -- in literature, anyway. What's your view, antic or otherwise?
AHB: Fascinating answer. For me, it is just about imperative not to think things thru so. I would ball things up terribly. When I have repetitive elements (which have included: bears, Walden Pond, Fu Manchu and other juicy pop characters), I mine them on the basis of feeling (vaguely) their worth. Or maybe it is that I show them at all angles. Once again, flight by pant's seat. But your question of the moral and political in poetry: both seem key but they may be tangential. We can start with the idea that everything one does, including writing poetry, derives from a moral and political stance. Your question, I infer, speaks to the conscious movement of the work within these spheres. In that sense, I think these elements are tangential. Samuel Johnson never sounds less useful than when he highlights the finer feelings and morality in literature. In his criticisms, and his Boswell-recorded talk, that is, I've never taken the time with his poetry. I recognize a moral and political stance to my work, a matter of what is happening. Mere outrage, for me, usually doesn't work (too much mere in my rendering). Poetry doesn't talk. Many circumstances occur in life that could lead you to write about them, birth, death, love, injustice. Do you ever write within these occasions, or do you avoid them? If you avoid, how do you filter out the urge? If you don't avoid, how do you keep from just talkin'?