The poem is one of my favorites. I once told a professional poet this, and he looked at me as if I had said something so stupid that he couldn't muster a response. He is, by the way, the "poetaster" of my catalogue. He really does write about butterflies and dead relatives. (So does Nabokov, but not in so annoyingly confessional a vein.)
An article in Slate now reveals that I'm not the only one who thinks it's a good poem. The author of the article suggests reading it as "a reproof to the belief that formal poetics could not capture deep feeling in traditional verse forms." Take that Mr. Poetaster with your limp free verse.
It would be interesting to research and write about Nabokov's poem, but I don't have the time right now, or even the inclination, to acquaint myself with the relevant scholarship. The Slate article makes it sound anyway as if Nabokov scholars are asking dumb questions. Here are two things they ought to think about:
- How does the versification of "Pale Fire" relate to what N. writes about meter and prosody in that long appendix to his commentary on Eugene Onegin? (I haven't read the essay yet.)
- From the first canto (several lines of which I know by heart): "My eyes were such that literally they/ took photographs." Except, they didn't literally take photographs, the speaker is just able to maintain a very precise image of what he looks at. This seems to be the stigmatized use of "literally" as a mere intensifier of an expression that is not literally true. Is N. deliberately committing an error of usage? Has anyone used this as evidence that the poem is not to be taken seriously? Is the apparent error meant to characterize the writing of the poem's fictional American author in some way?