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On "Index"

Paul Violi

To say that the form and subject of "Index" came to me simultaneously and continued to modify each other as I wrote the poem, may sound a bit convenient, but that is what usually happens when I use a prose form. I had been reading an autobiography--I forget whose, a completely unnecessary book by an egregiously self-indulgent man--and I noticed that the author's egotism even seeped into the end papers, especially the index which by condensing his life seemed to magnify his faults. A different character came to mind, one who was not quite the master of his fate, and an index, with its fragmentary lines, suggested a way to catch both the quick, haphazard changes such a character would endure and his increasingly scrambled perception of them. As I assembled the poem it began to resemble a chronology. This helped define the character more clearly for me and gave the static index, which was developing imagistically, a linear movement as well. The page numbers, initially tacked on as decoration, worked like dates, punctuating the events they paralleled. From then on it was like a run of blind luck in putting a jigsaw puzzle together. The pieces fell into place with little shifting or revision. By going back and indenting all the lines after the first I hoped to imply that the poem was an extract from an index to a larger book, a collection of lives that never made it into Vasari. One change that seems trivial, quirky, in retrospect was mispelling Angiolieri's name (it often appears with variant spelling) but I was going on the impression that indexes are not as carefully proofread as texts. In a way, when I use a prose form I feel I'm adapting a persona, one that speaks a mock-prose. With "Index" I knew I'd set-off and continued to play-off an "argument" between the neutral if not deadpan tone and the wild particulars of the life it described. With regard to formal considerations, how much is a deliberate choice and how much just happens I can't say, but when I do use such forms I assume I'm employing a simple metaphor, a familiar if not trite context yet a very accessible one, by which I don't mean to celebrate the ordinary but to subvert it.

From Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms: 65 Leading Contemporary Poets Select and Comment on Their Poems. Ed. David Lehman. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Copyright 1987 by David Lehman.

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