Paradox and Persona in A.E. Stallings’ “After a Greek Proverb”

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A.E. Stallings’ “After a Greek Proverb” provides a new perspective on an ancient idea by commenting on human beings and our relationship with time. It expresses the remorse and discontentment experienced upon the realization that a temporary compromise has lapsed into a permanent way of life and that once elapsed, time is never recovered. While not unique in its sentiment, the poem is notable for the ways in which this argument is presented. The central argument is rooted in paradox. The notion that, “nothing is more permanent than the temporary,” (3) at first seems like a logical impossibility. However, as the poem progresses, it becomes clear that in this context, “permanent” and “temporary” and, by extension, “present” and “future” are not as neatly opposed as they first appear. Rather, they are constructed concepts that are inextricably tangled and exist relative to one another. This is illustrated not only through the use of paradox, but also through imagery, and the poem’s structure.

Throughout the poem, the speaker only gradually reveals his or her discontentment with the course his or her life as taken. At the outset, the speaker still clings to the notion that his or her situation is temporary, as a sort of validation for his or her disappointing station in life. However, as the poem progresses, he or she begins to express more outward discontentment. This is expressed through repeated images of the mundane and of “the ordinary” (16), which evoke a sense of hopelessness, stagnation and permanency in a situation that was originally a temporary fix. Thus, Stallings argues that the human tendency to look towards the future inhibits our ability to live in the present. That is to say, when people begin to see the future as...

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...he poem away from an individual speaker and onto a much larger group, perhaps even humanity as a whole. In the final line, the word “but” is added. This serves not only to add fluency to the thought, but also to contradict the “answer” provided in the previous line. The poem ultimately argues that though we may continue to cling to our construction of, “the temporary” as an excuse and validation, it will always prove futile. Though the temporary refers to a present condition, it defines itself only in relation to the future. It is therefore intrinsically contradictory, providing the basis for the poem’s paradoxical argument.

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H., and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 10th ed. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2012. 377. Print.

Stallings, A.E. “After a Greek Proverb.” Poetry Magazine. Jan. 2012. Web. 31 Jan. 2012.

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