Frequently asked questions about poetry.

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April 17 2008 12:39 PM

Why Don't Modern Poems Rhyme, Etc.

Frequently asked questions about the business of verse.

1. Sometimes I see a poem in Slate or another magazine, and it doesn't do a thing for me. Half of the time I can't figure out what it means—what is that all about?

Generalizing won't do. We'd have to discuss a particular poem. At times prominent magazines publish things that aren't very good.

Magazines sometimes make me think of four lines the 18th-century actor David Garrick wrote as part of his poem praising poet Thomas Gray. About a certain kind of reader, Garrick wrote:

The gentle reader loves the gentle Muse.
That little dares, and little means;
Who humbly sips her learning from Reviews,
Or flutters in the Magazines.

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2. Isn't so-called "free verse" just prose chopped into lines?

Read the following aloud, listening to the vowels and consonants, the sentence movements:

William Carlos Williams, "Fine Work With Pitch and Copper"

Wallace Stevens, "The Snow Man"

3. How come modern poets don't write in rhyme?

Read the following aloud, listening to the vowels and consonants, the sentence movements:

Thom Gunn, "Still Life"

Thom Gunn, "The Reassurance"

4. How come real poetry—in our great-grandparents' time or, anyway, some other long-ago time—was easy to understand and great?

Do you mean like this?

Emily Dickinson, "I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl"

I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl—
Life's little duties do—precisely—
As the very least
Were infinite—to me—

I put new Blossoms in the Glass—
And throw the old—away—
I push a petal from my Gown
That anchored there—I weigh
The time-twill be till six o'clock
I have so much to do—
And yet—Existence—some way back—
Stopped—struck—my ticking—through—
We cannot put Ourself away
As a completed Man
Or Woman—When the Errand's done
We came to Flesh—upon—
There may be—Miles on Miles of Nought—
Of Action—sicker far—
To simulate—is stinging work—
To cover what we are
From Science—and from Surgery—
Too Telescopic Eyes
To beat on us unshaded—
For their—sake—not for Ours—
'Twould start them—
We—could tremble—
But since we got a Bomb—
And held it in our Bosom—
Nay—Hold it—it is calm—
Therefore—we do life's labor—
Though life's Reward—be done—
With scrupulous exactness—
To hold our Senses—on—

Or do you mean like this?

Edgar Guest, "Home"

It takes a heap o' livin' in a house t' make it home,
A heap o' sun an' shadder, an' ye sometimes have t' roam
Afore ye really 'preciate the things ye lef' behind,
An' hunger fer 'em somehow, with 'em allus on yer mind.
It don't make any differunce how rich ye get t' be,
How much yer chairs an' tables cost, how great yer luxury;
It ain't home t' ye, though it be the palace of a king,
Until somehow yer soul is sort o' wrapped round everything.

Home ain't a place that gold can buy or get up in a minute;
Afore it's home there's got t' be a heap o' livin' in it;
Within the walls there's got t' be some babies born, and then
Right there ye've got t' bring 'em up t' women good, an' men;
And gradjerly as time goes on, ye find ye wouldn't part
With anything they ever used—they've grown into yer heart:
The old high chairs, the playthings, too, the little shoes they wore
Ye hoard; an' if ye could ye'd keep the thumb-marks on the door.

Ye've got t' weep t' make it home, ye've got t' sit an' sigh
An' watch beside a loved one's bed, an' know that Death is nigh;
An' in the stillness o' the night t' see Death's angel come,
An' close the eyes o' her that smiled, an' leave her sweet voice dumb.
Fer these are scenes that grip the heart, an' when yer tears are dried,
Ye find the home is dearer than it was, an' sanctified;
An' tuggin' at ye always are the pleasant memories
o' her that was an' is no more—ye can't escape from these.

Ye've got t' sing an' dance fer years, ye've got t' romp an' play,
An' learn t' love the things ye have by usin' 'em each day;
Even the roses 'round the porch must blossom year by year
Afore they 'come a part o' ye, suggestin' someone dear
Who used t' love 'em long ago, an' trained 'em jes t' run
The way they do, so's they would get the early mornin' sun;
Ye've got t' love each brick an' stone from cellar up t' dome:
It takes a heap o' livin' in a house t' make it home.

5. Who is Edgar Guest?

The most popular poet in American history. Sold a million copies when a million was a million; wrote a syndicated poem-a-day column; had his own radio show and even, for a while, his own TV show in the early days of that medium. Here's a poem by a poet more or less his contemporary, less popular than Guest was though more read today:

Marianne Moore, "Silence"

My father used to say,
"Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow's grave
or the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self-reliant like the cat—
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth—
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint."
Nor was he insincere in saying, "Make my house your inn."
Inns are not residences.

6. How come American poets don't write about politics or current events?

Read the following:

Allen Ginsberg, "America"

Robert Lowell, "Waking Early Sunday Morning"

Muriel Rukeyser, "Mearl Blankenship"

7. But what about living American poets—how come they don't write about politics or current events?

C.K. Williams, "Fear"

1.

At almost the very moment an exterminator's panel truck,
the blowup of a cockroach airbrushed on its side,
pulls up at a house across from our neighborhood park,
a battalion of transient grackles invades the picnic ground,

and the odd thought comes to me how much in their rich sheen,
their sheer abundance, their hunger without end, if I let them
they can seem akin to roaches; even their curt, coarse cry:
mightn't those subversive voices beneath us sound like that?

Roaches, though … Last year, our apartment house was overrun,
insecticides didn't work, there'd be roaches on our toothbrushes 
......and combs.
The widower downstairs—this is awful—who'd gone through
......deportation
and the camps and was close to dying now and would sometimes
......faint,

was found one morning lying wedged between his toilet and a wall,
naked, barely breathing, the entire surface of his skin alive
with the insolent, impervious brutes, who were no longer daunted
by the light, or us—the Samaritan neighbor had to scrape them off.

2.

Vermin, poison, atrocious death: what different resonance they have
in our age of suicide as armament, anthrax, resurrected pox.
Every other week brings new warnings, new false alarms;
it's hard to know how much to be afraid, or even how.
The second world war was barely over, in annihilated cities
children just my age still foraged for scraps of bread,

and we were being taught that our war would be nuclear,
that if we weren't incinerated, the flesh would rot from our bones.
By the time Kennedy and Khrushchev faced off over Cuba,
rockets primed and aimed, we were sick with it, insane.

And now these bewildering times, when those whose interest is
to consternate us hardly bother to conceal their purposes.
Yes, we have antagonists, and some of their grievances are just,
but is no one blameless, are we all to be combatants, prey?

3.

We have offended very grievously, and been most tyrannous,
wrote Coleridge, invasion imminent from radical France;
the wretched plead against us
… then, Father and God,
spare us
, he begged, as I suppose one day I will as well.

I still want to believe we'll cure the human heart, heal it
of its anxieties, and the mistrust and barbarousness they spawn,
but hasn't that metaphorical heart been slashed, dissected,
cauterized and slashed again, and has the carnage relented, ever?

Night nearly, the exterminator's gone, the park deserted,
the swings and slides my grandsons play on forsaken.
In the windows all around, the flicker of the television news:
more politics of terror; war, threats of war, war without end.

A half-chorus of grackles still ransacks the trash;
in their intricate iridescence they seem eerily otherworldly,
negative celestials, risen from some counter-realm to rescue us.
But now, scattering towards the deepening shadows, they go, too.

Frank Bidart, "To the Republic"

Ann Winters, "The Displaced of Capital"

8. Aren't a lot of contemporary song lyrics the real poetry of our time?

Read them aloud in your own voice, without the music, and see how they hold up compared with this:

Robert Hayden, "Those Winter Sundays"

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

Or this:

Jack Gilbert, "Measuring the Tyger"

Or this:

Yusuf Komunyakaa, "Facing It"

Or this:

9. Well, I like poetry that is amusing, that maybe makes me chuckle a little. I'd rather read something reassuring and light than something complicated or gloomy. Is that bad? Does that mean I am a jerk?

Yes.

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