Review: Variations in the Literary Iambic Pantemater

A window into the poet’s mind?

variations-in-the-literary-iambic-pentameterVariations in the Literary Iambic Pentameter: The Strict Metrical Tradition from Sydney and Spenser to Matthew Arnold by David Keppel-Jones

So, I was more than ready to dislike this book. There have been any number of attempts to reinvent traditional scansion and every one of them, despite the revelatory accolades of their inventors and partisans, soon end up in the dust-bin of literary baubles and curiosities. Why? Because they add little if anything to old fashioned scansion, are generally redundant, overly subjective, or solutions to invented problems. Keppel-Jones’s methodology isn’t one of those. He uses traditional scansion to build a more complex system of analysis capable of recognizing the distinctive metrical practices of any given author (in effect  an author’s fingerprint).

That said, while Keppel-Jones’s insights are valid and a very useful way to examine the individual fingerprints of poets who wrote iambic pentameter, knowing that one poet preferred the second epitrite while another favored the minor ionic (or that a poet’s favored stress patterns changed over the course of their career) will rarely, if ever, add anything to the comprehension of a poem. Nevertheless, if you read Keppel-Jones’s opening introduction, you might be forgiven for thinking so. Passages like the following are typical:

“At first Spenser fluctuates between a method resembling that of Sindey’ abrupt spondee and the method of the minor ionic. But all these cases are unsatisfactory in their use of weak or ambiguous stresses. [Then he] suddenly seems to realize that the solution to the problem lies in the minor ionic after all, when used with this kind of confidence. And so, at stanza 23, he begins to pour out minor ionics embodying the monosyllabic adjective group, in exuberant profusion… Meanwhile he uses the second epitrite as his alternative vehicle, boldly but not too frequently.” [p. 14-15]

To write that Spenser “seems to realize” is speculative. Spenser was not thinking in terms of minor ionics or second epitrites and whether he had a “realization” is pure speculation. The best one can say is that Spenser’s metrical strategy shows an observable change as he writes. How conscious was he of the change? Being a poet myself, I would guess that Spenser found certain formulations easier than others.

Keppel-Jones goes on to write:

“It all seems to present a clear picture. He started the canto with the problem of the monosyllabic adjective clearly before him, but nothing beyond hits as to what his solution would be. There was just one figure that he was already sure of, the second epitrite; but this ws the one that he was determined not to use as his prime vehicle. Several false starts led him to the solution he wanted, and then at last, finding it, he felt a surge of confidence. Meanwhile, the methods he had started out with, and in differing degrees rejected, are recognizable as those to be found in the poems of Sidney’s Countesse of Pembroke’s Arcadia.” [p.15]

And that all makes a very nice ‘just-so’ fairy tale. Keppel-Jones begins with the hedging “seems to present”, then summarily shelves that qualification as he narrates Spenser’s motives and thinking process. In short, he treats his scansions like windows into the minds of poets. And by this means makes his “strict metrical tradition” an outgrowth of conscious choices—but I’m not convinced. A poet may be influenced by other poets and the tenor of the times without a deliberative awareness of the influence.

And that brings me to the more general question: Who this book for?

I’m inclined to say that the book is for metrists and linguists (primarily interested in authorship studies). I greatly enjoy both subjects but they seldom offer any interpretive insight into this or that work of literature as literature. What does the number of minor ionics tell us about The Faerie Queen interpretively? Nothing.

That said, I have read some fascinating analysis that shows how characters within a single play by Shakespeare may meaningfully differ in their use of language. Russ McDonald’s book Shakespeare’s Late Style is a beautiful and formidable example. Might Keppel-Jones find consistent differences between characters in a given play? I would be interested to know. If so, this would imply a degree of intentionality otherwise missing in his analysis.

The Mono-Syllabic Adjective

Here’s the nub of the problem: For the poet who writes Iambic Pentameter, the English language presents some challenges. First and foremost is the monosyllabic adjective. Keppel-Jones writes:

“Let us be quite clear as to the nature of this problem. The problem was to accommodate, in the iambic pentamater line, wordgroups of the following very common type:

the strong enemy

her sad troubles

with false shows

and sure aid

In each case both the second and third syllables are stressed (the second being, of course, the monosyllabic adjective).” [p. 6]

In other words, how does the poet use any of the examples above without disturbing the iambic pentameter line? Using Keppel-Jones’s own example:

For greit sorrow his hart to brist was boun

The risk is that the line will be read as tetrameter with 4 beats instead of 5.

For greit so | rrow his hart |to brist |was boun

Instead of:

For greit | sorrow | his hart |to brist |was boun

Every four syllable, two foot metrical pattern cataloged by Keppel-Jones may be understood as a variation on that initial impulse to fit the monosyllabic adjective within the context of an iambic line. The basic patterns are as follows:

Choriamb: /⌣⌣/
Minor Ionic: ⌣⌣//
First Epitrite:
Second Epitrite: /⌣//
Third Epitrite: //⌣/
Disponde: ////
Fourth Paeon: ⌣⌣⌣/

So, an example of the minor ionic, using traditional scansion, would be:

⌣⌣ | //

On the | rich Quilt | sinks with becoming Woe

So, what Keppel-Jones is creating is a layer of terminology on top of traditional scansion. Where traditional scansion concerns itself with individual feet, Keppel Jones’s scansion concerns itself with multiple-foot patterns. There are upsides and downsides to this. For the uninitiated, the downsides are considerable. Quite simply, there are far more variations in two foot patterns. In traditional scansion, there are only four basic patterns:

Iamb: ⌣/
Trochee: /
Pyrrhic: ⌣⌣
Spondee: //

Two foot combinations create, theoretically, eight different patterns. Keppel-Jones only finds seven. The eighth:


Apparently doesn’t exist, though I can readily create an example:


Being an in|dispu|table |example
Of what |a met|rist calls |a te|trabrach

I used this word being specifically because Keppel-Jones himself treats it as Pyrrhic:


And being still | unsatisfied with aught [p. 107]

But if you ask me, the line above could also be strictly iambic:

And be|ing still | unsat|istfied |with aught

And if you ask me my own lines begins with a trochee:

/⌣ | ⌣/

Being | an in|dispu|table | example

Is there an example prior to my own? How about a line from Middleton’s The Fyve Wittie Gallantes?


E’en to the last | sop, gapéd while I fed’em (Act 1: 1 l. 158)

We would probably read E’en as trochaic, but Middleton abbreviated the word. The performer could, in fact, get away with a tetrabrach. Or:

E’en to the last | sop, gapéd while I fed’em

There’s considerable subjectivity in scansion. There’s no reason to think that any given poet actually read his or her own meter the way Keppel-Jones does, and if there’s one criticism to be leveled at Keppel-Jones’s scansions, it’s that he doesn’t appear to acknowledge this fact. I don’t dispute the general insights provided by his book, but I’d estimate that a third of his scansions are open to debate. For example, I randomly opened the book to page 107 and found this:


Joined with me once, now miserly hath joynd

Keppel-Jones calls this a choriamb but I could just easily read it as iambic:


Joined with me once

This involves, as metrists term it, demoting Joined and promoting with. But this is precisely what iambic pentameter allows us to do, and is a daily feature of spoken English (and is the sort of thing poets expected from readers). So, I would argue that many of Keppel-Jones’s scansions are anachronistic and ignore how meter can be deployed by the skillful poet. (In fact, many of the metrical conundrums that seem to keep metrists up at night can easily be solved if the reader is willing to read with the meter.) Doing so often changes the meaning of the line and also its emotional content, but that’s precisely meter’s advantage over prose. Ignoring this is to read meter like prose. Shakepeare’s Sonnet 116 is a beautiful example of this and so is Hamlet’s famous line:

To be or not to be: that is the question

Most if not all modern readers read ‘that is’ as trochaic, putting the emphasis on that, and I can’t tell you how many readers, critics and poets assume this to be the case. This dubiously identified trochee is, perhaps, the most famous in the English language, but there’s no reason to read it that way. Any actor can put the emphasis on is, nicely changing the meaning and delivery of the line. That’s reading with the meter; and there’s no reason to think that Shakespeare didn’t intend us to do so. I’m often of the mind that metrists create the problems they claim to solve.

Beyond the General Introduction

Most of my examples come from the General Introduction and this is because the entirety of Keppel-Jones’s argument occurs there. The latter 200 pages of the book are a catalog of multiple-foot combinations, how they are recognized, and all the various syntactic ticks and characteristics typifying them. Here’s the “topic sentence” from his General Introduction:

“A preliminary step in the present work will be to draw a bounding line around the body of verse fully observing this tradition. Then, on the basis of representative samples of iambic pentameter from that body of verse, the three aims of the work are: fist, to describe the variations in question; second, to account for these variations and the form they take, in the light of an appropriate general rationale; and, finally, to demonstrate the consistency with which this system was employed throughout the domain defined by the bounding line.” [p. 5]

Keppel-Jones’s “account for these variations” will exhaust the average reader. He applies a quasi-scientific rigor to his analyses based on what are, largely, subjective readings. One either accepts his scansions or doesn’t. But if one does, then anyone using his system of scansion will be expected to remember paragraphs like these:

“Meanwhile the predicament of syllable 1 (its subordinate status and yet the desirability of its asserting its opposition to the iambic base) is taken care of. Because the spondeee is relieved of the burden of immediate identification, syllable 1 can actually be lingered on, and its opposition to the iambic base felt to the full – as happens in the 11 cases with a major break at a, or at a and b. (I do not say that the boldness of syllable 1 is always displayed, just that it is free to be displaced. In fact, the third epitrite is less frequently placed at the opening of the line than the isolated spondee.)” [p. 115]

And so forth. This is taken out of context but characterizes the sort of fussy housekeeping the reader can expect. It turns out, not only are there seven two-foot combinations, but there are also “isolated” and “appended” feet (and rules of use associated with those) and multiple foot combinations:

Isolated Spondee //
Appended Pyrrhic/⌣⌣
Choriamb + Spondee /⌣⌣///
Spondee + Minor Ionic //⌣⌣//
Spondee + First Epitrite //⌣///
Fourth Paeon + Spondee ⌣⌣⌣///
Appended Pyrrhic + Spondee/⌣⌣//
spondee-paeon //⌣⌣⌣/

So, what Keppel-Jones is really doing is categorizing English syntax in a metrical context. None of this provides any interpretive insight whatsoever into poetry as literature and is very unlikely to provide any insight into a poet’s deliberative process when writing meter (despite Keppel-Jones’s just-so stories). He’s simply offering metrists an exhaustive methodology by which to catalog the various stress patterns that inevitably appear, whether the poet intends them or not, in the English language.

For those interested though, the detailed scansions will be different for each poet— informed by their era, locale and habits of speech—such that even if one doesn’t know the provenance of a given work, the stress patterns can help identify the author. In the latter third of the book, Kepple-Jones applies his technique to the poetry of the Renaissance and later.

Would I recommend this layer of scansion to the average student of poetry? No. It adds nothing in terms of meaning or interpretation beyond traditional scansion. Keppel-Jones also doesn’t write for the uninitiated. He assumes a general academic knowledge of meter , such as a familiarity with Attridge, that few if any general readers are going to have.  However, for those with an interest in the study of meter for meter’s sake, then Keppel-Jones’s book is insightful and indispensable.

The good news is that if you want to learn more about Keppel-Jones’s methodology and try it yourself, another blogger and frequent commenter at Poemshape offers a series of posts that will get you started. The blog’s name is Versemeter. Enjoy.

And Merry Christmas!


Make It Memorable

  • Well, now I find myself debating both the current and former Vermont Poet Laureates.

In today’s Valley News Vermont’s former poet laureate, Sydney Lea, has come to the defense of Vermont’s current Poet Laureate, Chard deNiord. The latter half of Lea’s letter is of the Straw Man variety (which includes taking my high school opinion of contemporary poets out of context). He rhetorically asks, “if [Gillespie] means to stress current authors’ neglect of meter and rhyme…”, then proceeds to dismantle said rhetorical question. In fairness to Lea, the Upper Valley News stipulates that a letter to the editor be 350 words or less and its much easier, in such a short space, to dismantle ones own rhetorical question. To be clear: One can write memorable poetry without meter and rhyme and Mary Oliver, popular enough to support herself through her poetry, would be an example of that.

But far more interesting was Lea’s opening gambit, describing me as a Strafford Poet and “full disclosure”, he writes, “self-published”. To be honest, I’m not sure how to take that. Why does it matter? Evidently, the heat of Lea’s disclosure couldn’t so much as wait for the letter’s first verb. I too am left with rhetorical questions. Does he mean to imply that a person shouldn’t be taken seriously unless he has been approved by peers, academia, and select editors?

Was Lea’s observation a little ad hominem ice-breaker to warm up the conversation? I mean, why else mention it?

Interestingly, as of May 7th, 2016, there were 76.5 million WordPress blogs. 26% of all websites, globally, use WordPress. Further, there have been 2.5 billion posts. Of those 2.5 billion posts, fully 2.5 billion were self-published. And of that 2.5 billion some percentage is poetry. Even 1 percent is significant. My own blog, PoemShape, is a WordPress blog. I personally follow several dozen sites with “self-published” poetry, opinion and editorials. There’s some fabulous poetry out there that’s never seen the light of an editor’s desk.

But weren’t we just talking about contemporary poetry’s “neglect”, or was it “irrelevance”? Has Lea noticed that the Dartmouth Bookstore’s poetry selection, serving a college town no less, has shrunk to one little stand? The Norwich bookstore, last I checked, devoted maybe one shelf to poetry. The track record of published contemporary poetry (as opposed to self-published poetry) is hardly stellar. This, after all, is what started the whole conversation. (As an aside, the reading public might be interested to know that there are two genres literary agents will not consider and one of them, emphatically, is poetry.)

All this is to say: Yes, I’m self-published. 618 readers are followers and the blog continues to be read worldwide. Just today I’ve been visited by readers from the United Arab Emirates Turkey, Qatar, New Zealand, Trinidad & Tobago, India and the Phillippines. And this isn’t just me. There are countless writers self-publishing on the Internet, including a number of authors and poets among my readers.

If Mr. Lea’s “disclosure” was meant to be dismissive, then so be it; but he dismisses more than just me. He dismisses the entirety of the online literary project. I make the deliberate choice not to seek publication through a third party. I see no reason for it. My poetry is readily accessible, is read every day and more widely, probably, because of it. Not to get personal, but by way of comparison, where exactly does the reader go to stumble on Mr. Lea’s poems? Last I checked, and “full disclosure”, neither the Dartmouth Bookstore nor the Norwich Bookstore keeps his poetry in stock. Lea does, tellingly, have a blog on which he’s self-published a handful of poems.

Self-publishing isn’t only a 21rst century phenomena. While Mr. Lea singled out Walt Whitman for his “free verse”, he failed to observe that he was self-published. Not only was he self-published but Whitman used pseudonyms to write favorable reviews of his own poetry. T.S. Eliot self-published The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Waste Land. Shelley and E.E. Cummings were self-published. I count myself in good company. And as for John Milton? Lea includes Paradise Lost in his list of poems that “neglect” meter and rhyme. In fact, the entirety of Paradise Lost is metrical—Iambic Pentameter through and through. Lea’s mentioning the Psalms is also ironic given that, according to Biblical scholars, many of the Psalms (if not all) were characterized by meter and refrain. Whitman’s poetry? Some of the most rhetorically patterned verse since the King James Bible.

Mr. Lea writes that he agrees with me on some points, “not least that the obscurity of much contemporary verse is to blame for much of its neglect.” There’s plenty of verse that’s obscure, but that’s never been my argument. My argument is found in our current Poet Laureate’s rhetorical question: “So what to make of the marginal status of poetry in America, where so many crave poetry for its essential, memorable expression[?]” Indeed, where are the memorable expressions? By in large, the problem with contemporary poetry is not in its obscurity but in its generic blandness. Despite my favoring it, I ultimately don’t care if verse uses meter or rhyme, just make it memorable.

upinVermont | June 28th 2016

Why I tossed all my Rumi


RumiApparently, Leonardo DiCaprio is being tapped to play Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, the widely read Persian mystic poet. The choice of DiCaprio is being met with accusations of Hollywood “white-washing”, never mind that most Persians and Iranians are pale-skinned, that Rumi is historically portrayed as a fair-skinned middle eastern man and that contemporaries reportedly described him as pale skinned. That said, I’ve never been a fan of Hollywood and even if Rumi was “pale-skinned”, that doesn’t mean he looked like an Irishman. It would be refreshing if the producers or directors had actually tried to find an actor from that part of the world.

But, setting that aside, I tossed all my Rumi.

In general, I’d rather read haiku. Why do I mention haiku? Because their brevity strangles a poet’s temptation to turn poems into homiletic tracts. In the case of Zen poems, for example, brevity would otherwise prevent the usual inscrutable allusions (Buddhist tracts) that drive barn nails through the delicate butterfly that is poetry.

But even the most spiritually pedantic verse can be ameliorated, if not made transcendent, by the skill of the poet. It’s the difference, even if illusory, between verse written for the sake of its content versus content devoted to the making of poetry. Compare just about any free verse written in the last century to Keats’s odes. Modern verse is generally as utilitarian as prose and, sans lineation, indistinguishable. That’s because free verse, like prose, is a medium for communicating content and little else.

And that brings me to Rumi. Rumi’s poetry was emphatically not free verse.

“The Mathnawi is in Persian. Mathnawi (Arabic), or Masnavi (Persian), means ‘rhyming couplets’. The title is a reference to its poetic form – each line of verse rhyming with one preceding or following it. All the couplets share the same meter and there are 25,618 of them in six books.” Rumi’s Works

Also quoted at this site:

“When Rumi explains a subject, he begins by telling a story in order to clarify his point. Then in the middle of the story, he relates certain wisdom and truths. He produces such peerless couplets that the reader is astonished. These couplets that he recited in a state of ecstasy remind him of another story. So he begins a new story and then finally returns to complete the first story. This way, stories within stories follow each other.” [Italics and underlining are my own.]

[Fundamentals of Rumi’s Thought, Şefik Can]

And pertaining to the meter:

“The rhythmical patterns of his lyrics have not yet been analysed in detail, but even at first glance they reveal a predilection for comparatively simple patterns. The meters often chosen have a strong hiatus so that the two hemistiches are divided into four parts, sometimes with internal rhyme, thus resulting in something very similar to Turkish folk songs. In many cases one has the feeling that his poems need to be read according to word stress rather than quantitative meter. Whether they are written in short, light meters or in long, heavy lines, one often feels that they should be sung.”

[Mystical Dimensions of Islam, Annemarie Schimmel]

And pertaining to the many forms Rumi used, the author writes that “almost all the poems are in Persian. There are 3229 ghazals, 1983 quatrains and 44 tarji-bands”

It’s for the aforementioned “astonishment” that I read traditional poetry. Put simply, I read poetry to be astonished: astonished by the conjugation of meaning, form, rhyme, and meter into a seemingly inevitable whole. I read poetry, not just for what a given poet is trying to communicate, but how the poet does it.  It’s for that reason that reading a translation in free verse by Coleman Barks, among others, turns Rumi (for me) into pablum fit for greeting cards and fortune cookies.

With Passion

passion pray. With
passion work. With passion make love.
With passion eat and drink and dance and play.
Why look like a dead fish
in this ocean

The above was translated by Daniel Ladinsky and what follows by Coleman Barks.


Don’t let your throat tighten
with fear. Take sips of breath
all day and night. Before death
closes your mouth.

There’s no love in me without your being,
no breath without that. I once thought
I could give up this longing, then though again,
But I couldn’t continue being human.

Barks seems to think it’s all about the message. I’ve read that Barks accompanies readings with beating drums, dimmed lights and other theatrics meant to induce profundity and enlightenment. Those in attendance reportedly swoon. My own take is that if you put enough sugar on corn starch, any child will eat it.

And as far as these translations go, they land on the percussion-less page like sacks of flour. The verse is indistinguishable from the prose of any modern day new age hokum and I’ve read lots of new age hokum. I eventually grew out of it, preferring the mysterious and suggestive to the prescriptive; imagery that asks the reader to inquire; and, at the very least, the mundane elevated by the transcendent deceit of great poetry.

I blame translators like Barks and Ladinsky, and all the translators who think that conveying the spirit of the original only refers to the content—the message. I’ve written this before, but if modern translators can’t be bothered (and I know its hard) to capture in some measure the traditional forms in which the poems were written, they’re only translating half (if that) of the original. Consider the quote above: It wasn’t the message that reportedly astonished Rumi’s contemporaries, but the ‘peerless couplets’. Then as now readers had probably already heard much of what Rumi had to say; it’s just that, like Shakespeare, he said it so well—so beautifully.

For me, and until Rumi is translated by a poet worthy of him, his poems sound like nothing more than glib and facile greeting card homilies. There’s long been a successful market for this kind of new age fatuousness, but I don’t think it does Rumi’s poetry any justice. A translator like Barks may be credited with popularizing Rumi’s message, but he’s done nothing and worse for Rumi’s poetry. He’s turned it into the literary equivalent of elevator music, taking readers just a few flights above street level—and nowhere near heaven.

I’ll return to Rumi when he finds a poet and translator worthy of him.

On Poetic Neglect

  • This article was written in response to an article by Vermont’s poet laureate.  I submitted my response to the Valley News this evening but who knows whether they’ll publish it. It willfully and disdainfully exceeds their 350 word limit (as regards letters to the editor). If link rot sets in, let me know.

On Poetic Neglect

Having just read Chard de Niord I can’t help remarking that this is yet another “it’s not me, it’s you” article by a contemporary poet. He establishes his thesis from the get-go writing that it’s not anything “toxic that’s overcoming them: It’s neglect.” Who’s neglect? Well, obviously, the problem is the reading public. Who else is going to “neglect” poets? He then writes that 99 percent of his incoming freshmen couldn’t name a single contemporary poet.

Mr. de Niord’s comments could have been taken straight from my own article at Poemshape, called Let Poetry Die; written for the Wall Street Journal several years ago. What Mr. de Niord left out is that 99 percent of his students could probably name a poet who wasn’t a contemporary. How about Mother Goose? Shakespeare? Keats? Frost? Eliot? Or even William Carlos Williams? If they didn’t know the names, they could probably recognize their poems. They can in my experience.

Mr. de Niord goes further, noting that “very few Americans outside the minuscule poetry community… read and write poetry as a secret discipline.” This is self-exculpatory and circular. In other words, the implication is that if Americans were reading and writing more poetry, then contemporary poems would be more popular. On the contrary, it’s possible that many more Americans are reading poetry than Mr. de Niord’s reasoning would suggest—they’re just not that into contemporary poetry. Mother Goose and Shel Silverstein continue to sell quite well, as do the Modernists, the Romantics and Shakespeare.

Mr. de Niord then writes: “I often see fright, shame, and even disdain on people’s faces when I tell them I’m a poet” Speaking for myself (being a poet too), when I tell others I’m a poet I’m usually met with warmth and interest and sometimes, in the interest of full disclosure, pity—but never shame or fright. Is it my debonair good looks, my wit, my insouciant flair?

But Mr. de Niord isn’t done blaming the victim. He writes that “schoolchildren, as well as high school students, often feel stupid during their first, second, and third encounters with poetry.”

For the record, my own experience (and that of my peers) was generally the opposite. By our third encounter we had all but confirmed our suspicion: contemporary poets were fools. If we let the instructor conclude that he was the smart one in the room, it was because we knew who buttered our parsnips.

The most telling rhetorical question in Mr. de Niords’ article though, is the following: “So what to make of the marginal status of poetry in America, where so many crave poetry for its essential, memorable expression[?]” The question is its own answer. It’s precisely the “memorable expression” that is missing from contemporary poetry. To combatively paraphrase another obscure poet: The fault, dear Brutus is not in our audience, but in ourselves, that we are neglected.

It’s not the readership who has neglected contemporary poetry, but the poet who has neglected the reader. Who knew, after a stultifying generation of Victorian metrical poetry, the 20th century would inaugurate a stultifying century of naval-gazing free verse? Is it possible that contemporary poets aren’t read because they’re just not that good?

I recently exchanged email with a freshly minted graduate student who told me that his instructor wouldn’t allow him to write poems with rhyme (or presumably meter). Is it any wonder the contemporary audience doesn’t look to contemporary poets for memorable language or the memorable expression? When is the last time readers turned to a contemporary poet knowing they could find a passage like this?

By June our brook’s run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow)–

At least in some academic quarters, the poetics of the last hundred years has apparently turned into an orthodoxy rivaling a religious creed. It’s high time contemporary poets stopped blaming their audience and maybe it’s high time aspiring poets stopped thinking they need to go to school to write poetry. Was William Carlos Williams sitting in a workshop when he wrote The Red Wheelbarrow? As Mr. de Niord pointed out, he was too busy being a doctor.

There’s plenty of poetry being read. It’s just not “contemporary” poetry. My own blog, which primarily examines traditional poetry, has had almost two and half million visits from readers around the world. Readers are fascinated by the memorably expressed poems of the Elizabethans, Romantics and Modernists.

And it’s long past time poets blamed a “utilitarian, capitalist culture” (among other excuses). Mr de Niord might be interested to know that I engage, every day, in wonderful conversations about The Red Wheelbarrow, Hamlet, and the meaning of Ozymandias. I’ve even done so on an airplane. The first is by a modernist, the second an Elizabethan and the third a Romantic. Maybe contemporary poets simply lack the talent to write memorable verse?—or are too ossified by orthodoxy? At the very least, they might evince a little interest in the kind of poetry Americans are reading instead of equating a disinterest in contemporary verse with a general neglect of poetry.

upinVermont • June 3rd 2016

Byron & Shelley: The Making of the Poets


Byron_ShelleySo, the other book I read was Byron & Shelley in their Time: The Making of the Poets. This is written by Ian Gilmour. Gilmour’s writing is much different from Sisman’s. Whereas Sisman’s narrative voice is more generically reportorial, Gilmour packs his narrative with subjective opinion and analysis – revealing a knowledge of culture and politics that Sisman nowhere matches.  Gilmour digs in, hard, giving opinions on both Byron and Shelley’s behavior — and doesn’t pull any punches. I frankly like Gilmour’s style of writing more than Sisman’s. If Gilmour thinks Shelley was  being ridiculous, he says so. And there’s plenty of opportunity. Interestingly, it strikes me that Gilmour repeatedly dismisses Shelley’s atheism and I do have to wonder whether part of that is because of his having been a Conservative MP from 1962 to 1992, “having served as Secretary of State for Defense under Edward Heath and then as Foreign Secretary under Margaret Thatcher.”  I don’t know if a conservative MP is the same thing as a conservative in the United States (those in the United States never saw a problem the Bible couldn’t fix.)

The downside to Gilmour’s biography is that there’s relatively little poetry. He spends much of his time on Byron and Shelley’s politics (which makes sense, I suppose, given his background) and sexual proclivities, speculating time and again on whether their various physical ailments were due to STD’s. To be fair, the lion’s share of the biography takes place before they had written anything memorable, and yet some influence on their later work ought to be demonstrable. If you visit Amazon you’ll see that other readers thought Gilmour dwelt too much on the “biography” and too little on the poetry.

As for myself, the whole book was an education on the brutal Lord of the Flies that was the British educational system, and the incompetent, self-interested, cruel corruption that characterized the rule of the aristocracy. What really struck me is how, in certain respects, little has changed. We still see the same forces battling each other today, including in the United States. The aristocrats have been replaced by monied conservatives and Republicans. The Republicans of Byron and Shelley’s day, on the other hand, have become our modern liberals. Just as the authoritarian English aristocrats felt they were entitled to their money and status (and didn’t owe a shred of their wealth to the less well off) so it is with modern authoritarian conservatives — whose cries of socialism are little more than an affirmation of Social Darwinism (which is all well and good when the money’s in their pocket).

The British  government didn’t serve the people; it was the other way around and knowingly so. And Religion, by the way, really was the opiate of the masses. The upper classes knowingly expected the Church (which has almost always enjoyed the status of an aristocracy) to uphold the social order:

Together with Napolean and many others, Edmund Burke was convinced that only if religion was able to keep the poor, if not contented, at least quiescent, could great inequalities of wealth survive. Thus to the Church — long an important part of the state — fell the task of providing ‘divine cement’ to hold society together by urging the poor to seek their consolation in the next world, not this one. [p. 48]

In our own time, the parallel is to the elevation of unregulated Capitalism. Just as the poor were urged to seek consolation in the “next world”, the poor in the United States are urged to seek consolation in the promise that they too, given the right  circumstances, could enjoy the ‘next world’ that the wealthy and rich already enjoy — the ‘divine cement’ of modern America is the illusion of “equal opportunity” or rather, the notion that all opportunity is equal, that the same wealth can be had by all — promised (though through different means) by both Republicans and Democrats. Gilmour goes on to add:

William Wilberforce, who took a much stronger line on slavery, of course, also urged the poor to be grateful for having to withstand fewer temptations than the rich, consequently they should be content to have ‘food and raiment’ (even though many of them did not have enough) since ‘their situation’ was better ‘than they deserved at the hand of God.’ [p. 48]

And for comparison’s sake, here’s Tucker Carlson of Fox News:

 “All of us should be happy about one thing, and it’s that for the first time in human history you have a country whose poor people are fat.  So this does show this sort of amazing abundance.  For the last however many millennia, poor people starved to death.  And this is a country that’s so rich, whose agriculture sector is so vibrant and at the cutting edge technologically, that our food is so cheap, poor people are fat! I mean, I don’t know. We shouldn’t take that for granted.”

It’s the same monied aristocracy alive and well today. By today’s standards, Shelley would be a scrappy progressive writing blistering jeremiads for far left think tanks, giving Republicans dyspepsia (he reviled marriage before settling, it seems, for an open marriage), and Byron would be the well-heeled Democratic Senator from Massachusetts (a devastatingly handsome, brilliant, womanizing, Ivy-League progressive with a gated colonial at Martha’s Vineyard). Both Shelley (and Bryon especially) came from aristocratic families, and both were active in their political leanings. For example, the British law of the entail requires that the passage of (a landed estate) [be limited] to a specified line of heirs, so that it cannot be alienated, devised, or bequeathed.” This meant, by law, that Shelley was entitled to his father’s inheritance and estate (and none of his sisters). And, as it turns out, William Bysshe Shelley was the first and only eldest son and aristocrat, in the history of England, who tried to disinherit himself — so disgusted was he by the whole system. Shelley’s father, Timothy Shelley, a cold, disinterested and inept father of strong conservative conviction would have been equally happy to disinherit his son:

Shelley had had no word from his father. As soon as Timothy received his son’s letter of 25 August, posted by Charles Grove (which, as we have seen, boorishly demanded his belongings), he hastened to London to consult Whitton, his solicitor. He would have liked to disinherit his son, but Whitton showed him that the entails ruled that out, much as they had ruled out Shelley disinheriting himself. [p. 280]

And that was that. Gilmour also devotes a chapter to Shelley’s trip to Dublin, Ireland.

The object of his Address to them, which he had written at Keswick and revised in Dublin where it was printed cheaply and shoddily, was to ‘awaken… the Irish poor’ to the evils of their present state and suggest ‘rational means of remedy — Catholic Emancipation, and a Repeal of the Union Act, (the latter the most successful engine that England ever wielded over the misery of fallen Ireland,)… Hence, Shelley had ‘wilfully vulgarized its language… [to suit] the taste and comprehension of the Irish peasantry who have been too long brutalized by vice and ignorance.’ [p. 306]

Gilmour goes on to assert that Shelley misjudged the Irish only insomuch,  it seems, as he was too progressive. “Shelley further offended his target readers by telling them that the gates of heaven were open to people of every religion, which was not the general view in a country where, as Byron had written… ‘jarring sects convulse a sister isle'” [p. 307] Byron, on the other hand, is portrayed as a more practical personality with a more  even-keeled intelligence. And that’s where I discovered that I liked Byron after all, and more than Shelley (though I don’t dislike Shelley).

Byron’s ill-repute is based on his womanizing, his  incestuous relationship with his sister, and his aristocratic hypocrisy (while decrying the undeserved entitlements of the ‘nobility’, he nevertheless took offense at the most trivial slights to his own). In another biography of Byron and Shelley (I’ve just started) the author, John Buxton, puts it this way:

Charles Hentsch, the banker, who at twenty-six was already well known [in Geneva] came [to Byron] to apologise for not recognizing Byron when he visited the bank on the previous day. He had the tact to say that he had had no idea that he was then speaking to one of the most famous Lords of England. Byron took to him at once (as he would not have done had Hentsch called him one of the most famous poets of England… [p. 6 Byron and Shelley: The History of a Friendship]

That made me laugh. And I’m inclined to agree with Buxton. The thing about Byron though (and this is also true of Shelley) is that one has to consider his upbringing before judging his adulthood. Byron was born with a club foot (or an abnormality that was inaccurately diagnosed as such). As a child, he had to wear a brace (concocted by a quack) which was ostensibly meant to correct the leg but only caused extreme pain and possibly worsened Byron’s leg. Once Byron landed in school, a brutal environment where a hundred boys might be ‘disciplined’ by a single adult, he was bullied mercilessly because of it  (like Shelley for smallness, eccentricity and effeminacy). Sex between adolescent boys was, if not rampant, tacitly accepted. Boys were expected to grow out of their homosexual experimentation (if not desperation) once they reached manhood. Education for the young men of the aristocracy was a brutal affair, a true Lord of the Flies tale of bullying, favoritism and ruthless hierarchy. Shelley learned to identify with the downtrodden, as did Byron, who pointedly protected younger students from bullying once he was old enough (another reason I like him).

Byron was also sexually exploited [abused?] as a child by his nurse, May Gray:

According to Byron, he ‘certainly had no sexual ideas for years afterwards; yet he had sexual experiences. These were provided by his nurse Mary Gray. As the boy subsequently told his solicitor… his sternly Calvinist nurse ‘used to come to bed to him and play tricks with his person… [p. 35]

Add to this the extremes of anger and affection that characterized his mother, the utter abandonment of his gold-digging (if not sociopathic) father, and the Gordon and Byron family history of murderous dysfunction  (too much to go into), it honest-to-God makes George Gordon Lord Byron look like a Saint (compared to who he could have been). If incest and aristocratic hypocrisy are the worst of this crimes, then I love the man. As to Byron’s seemingly “misogynistic” attitude toward women, this was not unique to Byron, but was shared by nearly all men of the age (except perhaps the ‘pantisocratic‘ Coleridge). Women, by in large, were considered light-brained, trivial beings, incapable of much beyond macramé and sugar plums.

The opinion I have of the generality of women–who appear to me as children to whom I would rather give a sugar plum than my time, forms a barrier against matrimony which I rejoice in. ~ John Keats

And if we’re fair, women chased Byron with as much alacrity as he chased them. It’s not as if Byron thrust himself on them (or his sister). The Byron that I discovered (more so than with Shelley I think) was a deeply intelligent man, inquisitive, gentle, sensitive to the suffering of others, compassionate, with a fixed sense of right and wrong, but also proud, quick to take offense, and volatile. In his maiden speech to the House of Lords, prompted by the 1812 Frame Breaking Act, he could write the following:

But suppose it past,—suppose one of these men, as I have seen them meagre with famine, sullen with despair, careless of a life which your lordships are perhaps about to value at something less than the price of a stocking-frame ; suppose this man surrounded by those children for whom he is unable to procure bread at the hazard of his existence, about to be torn for ever from a family which he lately supported in peaceful industry, and which it is not his fault than he can no longer so support; suppose this man—and there are ten thousand such from whom you may select your victims,—dragged into court to be tried for this new offence, by this new law,—still there are two things wanting to convict and condemn him, and these are, in my opinion, twelve butchers for a jury, and a Jefferies for a judge!”

 The force of Byron’s personality (which he captured in the heroes of his poetry) led to the neologism: Byronic.

“…a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection” ~ Lord Macauley

All that said, if Shelley walked through the door, I’d drop everything: my best wine, a four course dinner. and maybe my lover if he asked. I mean, come on, it’s Shelley and Mary Shelly, author of Frankenstein. Maybe, at some point, we’d discuss poetry; but to spend the evening with that keen and impatient idealist — and intelligence — would be pretty cool.

So, anyway, this post is just some brief impressions and the renewal of my friendship with Byron. Gilmour’s book ends just before Byron and Shelley meet, so while I can guess at the mutual attraction (similar backgrounds, sympathies and politics), I haven’t read the biography. Fortunately, John Buxton’s  Byron and Shelley: The History of a Friendship (written earlier) will pick up where Gilmour left off. I’ll report on that book too, when I’m done with it.


  • I wrote this over the week-end, and not altogether for Halloween. I’m not sure whether to call this done or a rough draft. I’ve taken some liberties with the meter and experimented with internal rhyme.

My skeleton and I go out for walks,
Although he mostly likes it in the closet.
I’ll hear him tap, tap, tapping
His skull for some conundrum; there are many.
It’s no small thing for any skeleton
To think. His skull’s a ruined house, its clasps
And door-locks long since gone.
························He teeters, grasps —
Ideas are fretful winds. They blow into
And through his vacant stare, emptily tumble;
Then out the way they came. He stands perplexed,
A sharp forefinger’s bone upraised, his jaw
Aslant — he’d almost had it.
························So it goes
It’s times like these that we go out. I keep
Our walks discreet though every now and then
We’ll meet a passerby (my skeleton
And theirs will pay no mind). We pass a cape,
A woodpile covered by a sheet of tin,
And laundry—skirts and sheets. They billow ghostlike
Above the ruined dooryard.
························He walks
With fingers laced behind his spine; looks
A little this way and a little that.
The dust recoils between his toes and smolders
At his heels. There’s nowhere he’ll stop
Unless it’s where there used to be a house,
Midfield, where now there’s just foundation stone.
He’ll gaze with longing and he’ll heave
And here and there a leaf snagged in his ribs
(And bones withal) will tumble down. They’ll scrape
And skitter through and in between until
He stands in them.
··················He lingers. He’d share
A secret he kept in life; that now,
In death, keeps him. I never asked and yet
One day he pointed where the house had been
With such a trembling grief
He might have been as likely reaching to touch
Another’s unseen fingertip.
························A gust

Took from the cellarhole a crackling smoke
Of leaves.·The sheets of the house nearby
Were chased into the field’s conflagration
Of nettle, thorn and thistle. Too late
They fled but couldn’t flee. The sudden gust
Confounded them — the mother and her child!
I saw them both. How like a mother’s hand,
And like the daughter’s where the small sheet clung
If only by a clothespin to the larger;
As if they’d change what was already done,
As if this time they’d reach his outstretched sorrow;
Undo, a hundred years gone by, the crows
That rise like startled ashes from the ruins—
Their screams dispersed into the neighboring hemlock
And birch.
······His lowering finger curls beneath
Their rake of knuckles. The sheets lay motionless
Under a settling soot of leaves and wildflowers charred
By frost.
······He never afterward did more
Than linger. I’ll not swear that what I saw
Was true, but then I can’t be sure that I
Won’t too, for guilt, regret, or for some sorrow
Dwell in your home.
······You’ll know me, if I’m there

My bones, a few remains, shelved in a poem;
Willing, if just for company, to share
Your walk and should you need me to — your pain.


November 3 2014 • by me, Patrick Gillespie

On a Definition of Poetry

“It’s Not Poetry if it Doesn’t Rhyme”

This is the title of a recent post I was reading, and it got me thinking. First of all, it’s a definition of poetry. It defines poetry as something that rhymes and if taken at face value, excludes almost all the works Shakespeare and Milton. They mainly wrote blank verse. More usually, readers who say this are using “rhyme” figuratively. What they’re really saying is that poetry without form on a definitionisn’t poetry. Form includes rhyme and meter. So, what someone is really saying is that free verse isn’t poetry. Apart from whether the definition is wrong or right, that led me to wonder why definitions are important.

Do definitions matter?

There’s no question that definitions change over time, but we nevertheless have them. Not too long ago, the definition of planets was revisited and Pluto was demoted to a proto-planet. There was disagreement, but not the kind we might have gotten had certain kinds of poetry or poems been demoted to proto-poems (though I think some should be).

But here’s why definitions matter: Without them, no one could excel. Mastery and achievement wouldn’t exist.  For example, if not for definitions, sports wouldn’t exist (let alone the Olympics), hence the reason for Robert Frost’s famous quip: Writing free on a definitionverse is like playing tennis with the net down. Every rule, in a sport, is a definition that defines the sport. Baseball is defined by its number of outs, bases, players, etc… Once one begins fiddling with the rules that define baseball, then it ceases to be baseball. If there were no rules to baseball, tennis, or basketball, then anyone could play them and everyone could make up their own rules and everyone could be a Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan. For my own part, the first thing I would do is to lower the basket so I could dunk the ball. I’d also make the basket a lot bigger — but only for me. I know I’ll make any number of enemies by following this up with the obvious analogy: There’s no difference between lowering the basket (or the net) and writing without rhyme. There’s no difference between giving yourself 12 outs, instead of 3, and writing without meter. Writing poetry without rhyme and meter is vastly easier. So is dunking a basketball when the hoop is only six feet off the ground. The fact that the NBA would never change the rules for all the wannabes means that the rest of us get to see who the real pros are.

Does that make some kinds of poetry better than others?

Does that mean that some things that are called poems, really aren’t?

Yes and yes. Would you prefer watching basketball with or without rules? Having rules that defined poetry allowed a wide variety of poets to excel. Games are nothing more than a defined way of playing and kids love games. Why? Because games give kids a chance to be better than the next kid. Rules give kids a chance to be competitive, to excel, to accomplish and to master.

on a definitionWhen I was growing up in the seventies, poetry was taught with a nebulousness that made clouds look decisive. Poetry was a feeling. There were no rules; and you can still find those Deep Thoughts right up to the present day. On About.Com, Mark Flanagan, apparently tasked with defining poetry, comes up with the following chestnut:

“…defining poetry is like grasping at the wind – once you catch it, it’s no longer wind.”

The end result of “deep thoughts” like these is that I lost interest in poetry. Who wants to play a game without rules? I decided that poetry was the dumbest art form on the planet. If I saw a game being played willy-nilly, I’d think the same thing. It’s a peculiar thing that the prior generation’s effort to make poetry something “anybody can do” ruined it for children like me. It was only when I began teaching myself about poetry that I learned the truth. There is a definition of poetry. It isn’t easy. You can’t neatly sum it up in a Miriam Webster’s entry, but there is a definition and there are rules. That’s when I got interested in poetry. First, I wanted to learn the rules. Next, I wanted play by the rules. I wanted to prove that I could do it. Next, I wanted to excel. I wanted to master the mystery. Even the seemingly diminutive haiku is defined by centuries of tradition.

Is a definition of poetry useful?

Some readers may object that poetry can’t be compared to sports. The point, however, is not to compare poetry to sports, but to compare a definition of poetry to the kinds of rules that define a sport, or music, or architecture or carpentry. If you don’t have a definition, then you don’t have a game. If you don’t have a game, then who’s going to watch or play?

Definitions, like rules, are useful because they give us a way to ascertain the skills of the players. They allow us to judge how the player is doing. mechanics-imageOne of the hallmarks of the contemporary poetry critic is his and her complete avoidance and non-discussion of the aesthetics or mechanics of poetry. The vast majority of contemporary criticism limits itself to the content of poetry. Why? Because, as with Flanagan’s quote above,  contemporary critics and poets have convinced themselves that defining poetry, to quote Flanagan again, “kind of leaves you feeling cheap, dirty, all hollow and empty inside like Chinese food.” However, in order to critique the mechanics/stylistics of a poem, you have to have a definition of poetry. Can’t be any other way.  And you have to have a definition of what constitutes mediocre or good writing.

During a dispute back in 2009, England’s Poetry Society offered the world this definition of poetry:

“There is poetry in everything we say or do, and if something is presented to me as a poem by its creator, or by an observer, I accept that something as a poem.”

In other words, poetry is anything you want it to be, and they do mean anything. Poetry Magazine, for its part, has taken to publishing comic strips, among other things, and calling them poems. What all this means is that if everyone can make up their own rules/definitions, then there’s no way to judge the skills of the poet or the accomplishments of the poem. If there were no rules in Basketball, then a player like Michael Jordan could never emerge. Or how about gymnastics? We would have no means or vocabulary with which to contrast the poor gymnast with the great gymnast. No Tiger Woods could emerge because everyone would be a Tiger Woods. They’re all playing their own special game of golf and the critic has no way to compare or contrast.

Without a definition of poetry, you can’t have criticism of poetry. In truth, you can’t even have poetry because if poetry is anything, then it’s also nothing. Or, as Syndrome put it in the movie The Incredibles: “If everyone’s a super, then no one is a super.” Anyone who can’t define poetry certainly shouldn’t be teaching it. What exactly would they be teaching? A definition of poetry is not only useful, it’s crucial. Individuals and organizations who fail or refuse to address a definition of poetry do a disservice to the reader, to poetry, and to the next generation of poets. Out of curiosity, I googled the following: “definition of poetry” “Poetry Foundation”. I found nothing straightforward. The fact that the Poetry Foundation, the premier (and self-appointed) curator of American Poetry doesn’t offer a definition of poetry (or even a denial that a definition is possible) is a disgrace.

What about it then?

Where can you find a definition? There are all kinds of quips and one-offs by a variety of poets.

Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes. –  Joseph Roux

Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to d o this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own. – Dylan Thomas

Poetry is, at bottom, a criticism of life. – Matthew Arnold

I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat. – A.E. Housman

Poetry is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself. – William Hazlitt

Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before. – Audre Lorde

Poetry is all that is worth remembering in life. – William Hazlitt

A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep. – Salman Rushdie

Poetry is like making a joke. If you get one word wrong at the end of the joke, you’ve lost the whole thing. – W.S. Merwin

Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat. – Robert Frost

Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds. – Perrcy Bysshe Shelley

At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet. – Plato

Poetry is a search for ways of communication; it must be conducted with openness, flexibility, and a constant readiness to listen. – Fleur Adcock

Do you know how poetry started? I always think that it started when a cave boy came running back to the cave, through the tall grass, shouting as he ran, “Wolf, wolf,” and there was no wolf. His baboon-like parents, great sticklers for the truth, gave him a hiding, no doubt, but poetry had been born—the tall story had been born in the tall grass. – Vladimir Nabokov

Poetry is man’s rebellion against being what he is. – James Branch Cabell

Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity—it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance. – John Keats

All poetry is misrepresentation. – Jeremy Bentham

Poetry is plucking at the heartstrings, and making music with them. – Dennis Gabor

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.   – T.S. Eliot

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar. – Percy Bysshe Shelley

Poetry is at least an elegance and at most a revelation. – Robert Fitzgerald

The poem . . . is a little myth of man’s capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see—it is, rather, a light by which we may see—and what we see is life.  – Robert Penn Warren

You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it tick . . .. You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps . . . so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in. – Dylan Thomas

Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement . . . says heaven and earth in one word . . . speaks of himself and his predicament as though for the first time. – Christopher Fry

Poetry isn’t a profession, it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that. – Mary Oliver

Writing poetry is the hard manual labor of the imagination. – Ishmael Reed

Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people. – Adrian Mitchell

Prose—it might be speculated—is discourse; poetry ellipsis. Prose is spoken aloud; poetry overheard. The one is presumably articulate and social, a shared language, the voice of “communication”; the other is private, allusive, teasing, sly, idiosyncratic as the spider’s delicate web, a kind of witchcraft unfathomable to ordinary minds. – Joyce Carol Oates

Poetry is the journal of the sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air. Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable. Poetry is a phantom script telling how rainbows are made and why they go away. – Carl Sandburg

Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge. – William Wordsworth

Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary. – Kahlil Gibran

Poetry is like fish: if it’s fresh, it’s good; if it’s stale, it’s bad; and if you’re not certain, try it on the cat. – Osbert Sitwell

The essentials of poetry are rhythm, dance, and the human voice. – Earle Birney

Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn. – Thomas Gray

Poetry is ordinary language raised to the n th power. Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words. – Paul Engle

Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.  – Edgar Allan Poe

Poetry: the best words in the best order. – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Poetry is what gets lost in translation. – Robert Frost 

on a definition

And there are far more at goodreads. You might think  there’s nothing very useful in all these quotes, just poets being cute and clever, but there is, actually, a subtle commonality that runs through some of them.  “Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes.” What does Roux mean? That poetry isn’t just the clothes of the workaday, but language that is elevated whether through meter, rhyme or the figures and schema of rhetoric (and these include metaphor, simile, and all figurative language).  Hazlitt, “…the universal language…”; Keats, “Poetry should surprise by a fine excess [and] strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts…”; Thomas, “You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words…“; Fry, “…the language in which man explores his own amazement…”; Oates, “…private, allusive, teasing, sly, idiosyncratic as the spider’s delicate web…”; Sandburg, “…a search for syllables…”; Birney, “The essentials… are rhythm, dance…“; Engle, “Poetry is ordinary language raised to the n th power…”; Poe, “the rhythmical creation of beauty in words…”; Coleridge, “the best words in the best order…“; Frost, “what gets lost in translation…”

What all these have in common is the idea of poetry being defined as a way of using language. Poetry is an art that uses language not only for its semantic content, as a way to communicate, but as an aesthetic experience in and of itself — its “music”: sounds, rhythms, onomatopoeia, assonance, alliteration, and rhymes . Rhyme and meter are the most extroverted expressions, a display of a languages ability to produce repeated sounds and rhythm while the many rhetorical figures, such as simile, hendiadys, anthimeria, puns  and verbal metaphor (and figurative language in general) are a more introverted play with language – using words to express ideas that are unexpected and novel. Prose, inasmuch as it also uses these techniques, can be poetic, but the aesthetic aims of prose and poetry are different.

Think of Robert Frost’s final quote, which I deliberately put at the end: Poetry is what gets lost in translation. Because of poetry’s emphasis on linguistic play, poetry is notoriously difficult to translate. Something as basic as a pun, a staple of many haiku, is lost  unless both languages are lucky enough to share puns. The wholesale disregard of rhymes, internal or otherwise, when translating  into free verse is another example. on a definitionMeter is much easier to reproduce, but does any English meter really reproduce the music of Chinese meter or Latin quantitative meter? How about onomatopoeia, alliteration or assonance? These are all essential to poetry, but are nearly impossible to capture, altogether, when moving from one language to another. Poetry truly is what  gets lost in translation.

So many writers, poets and organizations seem pathologically afraid to exclude anyone. But rather than doing the art form a favor, their unwillingness to exclude so much as the ingredients list of Mac & Cheese has done and continues to denigrate the very art form they claim to cherish and encourage. I personally have no qualms drawing a line in the sand. If all a writer is doing is lineating prose, then it’s not poetry or, at best, it’s bad poetry.  If the writer does nothing more with language than what I expect from an IRS instruction manual, then it’s not poetry. Content, in my view, is secondary; and that will probably rub a lot of poets and readers the wrong way but unlike, at least, the public stance of numerous poets and organizations, I think it’s worth having some idea, some rules, that define what poetry, and great poetry, truly is. It gives the next generation something to fight for or against.

To quote Salman Rushdie again:

A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.

Take a position. Define poetry. Write by that definition. It doesn’t have to be mine. Don’t, whatever you do, buy into the bloodless notion that anything and everything is poetry. Poetry isn’t like the wind. As any Japanese poet will unhesitatingly tell you, the wind is like the wind.

Britannica and a definition of Poetry

There are a few sources which have tackled the definition of poetry. I’ve appended a definition provided by Poetry.Org. Their definition was originally copied from Wikipedia (since changed). Wikipedia’s current entry is less a definition than a historical overview. However, one of the more interesting entries is Britannica’s.

on a definition

Britannica’s entry on poetry begins with a primal scream of terror presented with a stiff upper lip. Only the British can do it. The article’s author writes: “This article considers the difficulty or impossibility of defining poetry…” As anyone knows, there are two reactions when terrified—fight or flight. Britannica opts to fight. The editors begin their definition by roundly upbraiding the reader. Did you really come to Britannica expecting a definition?

“People’s reason for wanting a definition is to take care of the borderline case, and this is what a definition, as if by definition, will not do. That is, if a man asks for a definition of poetry, it will most certainly not be the case that he has never seen one of the objects called poems that are said to embody poetry; on the contrary, he is already tolerably certain what poetry in the main is, and his reason for wanting a definition is either that his certainty has been challenged by someone else or that he wants to take care of a possible or seeming exception to it: hence the perennial squabble about distinguishing poetry from prose, which is rather like distinguishing rain from snow—everyone is reasonably capable of doing so…”

Did you get that? Let me translate: “If you came to the Encyclopedia Britannica looking for a definition of poetry, it’s because you have an agenda and the august editors of Britannica will not, I say will not,  be a party to your filthy crusade. So there.” Apparently, the author of the article never got the memo: Definitions are what Encyclopedia’s do. Encyclopedias aren’t supposed to cop attitudes when readers come looking for information.

Britannica next offers a rebuttal to Frost’s quip that poetry is what is lost in translation:

“And yet to even so acute a definition the obvious exception is a startling and a formidable one: some of the greatest poetry in the world is in the Authorized Version of the Bible, which is not only a translation but also, as to its appearance in print, identifiable neither with verse nor with prose in English but rather with a cadence owing something to both.”

So, after having informed the reader that no definition will be forthcoming, the editors (without a hint of irony) assert that the Bible (or an unspecified part therein) is poetry. All it takes, it seems, are a few thees and thous. What the editors apparently fail to consider is that the “poetry” of the King James Bible may not be the “poetry” of the original. The King James Version, in fact, was not a new translation done from scratch, but a revision of The Bishop’s Bible 1568 and the Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526 among others. Besides that, there is considerable dispute as to the faithfulness of the King James Bible.  It’s quite likely that the King James Bible is better and more poetic, written during the glory of Elizabethan poetry, than the original. It might be more accurate to call the King James Bible a transliteration rather than a translation. Bottom line: try translating the King James back into Greek and then we’ll talk.

Britannica then follows this up with a curious revelation:

“When people are presented with a series of passages drawn indifferently from poems and stories but all printed as prose, they will show a dominant inclination to identify everything they possibly can as prose.”

How this is relevant to a definition of poetry isn’t exactly clear.  For example, when people are presented with passages of iambic pentameter, they regularly misread it (see Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning), reading it like prose. Are we therefore to conclude that there’s no difference between blank verse and prose? Both studies probably say more about the “people” than about poetry or iambic pentameter.

Even so, despite the opening disclaimers, provisos and exculpatory cautions, Britannica sides with Justice Potter Stewart (Jacobellis v. Ohio), when it essentially uses the obscenity test (or was it pornography?) to define poetry. To whit: “We know it when we see it.” The editors of Britannica therewith offer up there choice piece of “pornography”:

“Happily, if poetry is almost impossible to define, it is extremely easy to recognize in experience; even untutored children are rarely in doubt about it when it appears:

Little Jack Jingle,
He used to live single,
But when he got tired of this kind of life,
He left off being single, and liv’d with his wife.”

on a definitionImmediately following this, the editors finally reveal their true colors:

“It might be objected that this little verse is not of sufficient import and weight to serve as an exemplar for poetry. It ought to be remembered, though, that it has given people pleasure so that they continued to say it until and after it was written down, nearly two centuries ago. The verse has survived, and its survival has something to do with pleasure, with delight; and while it still lives, how many more imposing works of language—epic poems, books of science, philosophy, theology—have gone down, deservedly or not, into dust and silence. It has, obviously, a form, an arrangement of sounds in relation to thoughts that somehow makes its agreeable nonsense closed, complete, and decisive. But this somewhat muddled matter of form deserves a heading and an instance all to itself.”

I couldn’t have said it better. Not only that, you might recognize a common theme: “It has, obviously, a form, an arrangement of sounds in relation to thoughts…” There it is again — language (and form too). This little ditty is a poem because of its language, because of the way it exploits language, not for its notional and semantic content (which is nonsensical), but for the language’s aesthetic properties — the rhyme (parallel sounds) and the meter (accentual). Poetry exploits the properties of language (independent of the poem’s content) to inform and elevate the semantic content. This is what distinguishes  poetry from prose. This, traditionally, has been poetry’s reason for being. Prose may be poetic, and display some of the same techniques as poetry (though never end-rhyme or refrains), but that is not its aim or reason for being.

How much should we expect definitions to change?

My guess is that if any objection is to be made, it’s that definitions change. Get used to it. Okay, but then what is it now?

It used to be that if it didn’t rhyme, it wasn’t poetry. If rhyme is understood in its broadest figurative sense (in the sense of a work of literature concerned not just with the content but with the aesthetics of language itself), then I’m still inclined to agree. I’m not willing to concede that on a definitionanything and everything is or can be a poem. Either that, or I’m content to call the uncooperative poem a bad poem or, if we want to be trendy, a proto-poem— a minor and lonely object that’s kind of interesting but didn’t quite have enough material to become a full blown poem.  In fact, I’m really liking that term.

I think it’s okay that we hew to an understanding of poetry that has worked for hundreds and thousands of years, the nervous self-indulgence of the twentieth century notwithstanding. And we can change our definition of “rhyme”, in its figurative sense, to include the figurative language available to free verse — assonance, alliteration, and all the rhetoric that has always been more common to poetry than prose. The poetry of Allen Ginsberg is chock-full of rhetorical figures and schema, lest you think that rhetoric only applies to fusty medieval manuscripts (and Walt Whitman’s poetry too). I’d be willing to say that Ginsberg’s poetry, figuratively speaking, has got “rhyme”.

Anyway, the next time somebody is having their kumbaya moment, proclaiming that poetry is like the wind, or a butterfly or that a definition would crush the delicate flower that is poetry, you can come back to this post for a draught of bitter.

Poetry is hard as hell.

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Donne: His Sonnet V · Spank me, ô Lord

My New Favorite ‘Complete’

This post was requested by Melissa. She asked me to provide a scansion, but I can’t just scan a poem and not talk about.

I’m sure a few upper lips in academe will be horrified by the title of my post but, let’s not kid ourselves, when we boil down Donne’s fifth Shawcross DonneHoly Sonnet, we get the anguished guilt-trip of a penitent. Such is the power of a great poet, and such was the power of King James English, that Donne could turn an ostensibly confessional poem into, if not a masterpiece, a compelling work of literature.

Anyway, I think this post was meant to be. While I was noodling around on Christmas Eve’s Eve at a Montpelier used book store, I discovered another complete collection of Donne’s poetry. Now I have three. This one comes from The Anchor Seventeenth-Century Series and is edited by John T. Shawcross. This particular edition, printed in 1967 (and in a becoming shade of pink) is now my favorite. It may be out of print. The reason it’s my favorite is because Shawcross  ‘gets’ the importance of spelling and punctuation in Elizabethan poetics.  H.J.C. Grierson, the editor of the two volume gold-gilt Oxford edition glosses over the punctuation in crucial places. Even my former favorite, the Everyman edition edited by C.A. Partrides, doesn’t quite get it right. The Norton “Critical” Edition (air quotes), is useless. Don’t get me started. Donne’s metrical practice isn’t all that difficult if we preserve the spelling and punctuation. Donne did not intend his poetry to be difficult. He gave us all sorts of clues. Here’s how Shawcross sums up his editorial practices in relation to the crucial question of Donne’s orthography.

[T]he danger of a plethora of so-called scholarly texts is present, but a revision of Grierson’s, eschewing certain misreadings which often seem to have arisen from delicacy and certain modernizations which obscure subtleties, has long been needed. (…) ¶ The practice of inserting an apostrophe to indicate elision has generally been followed. It is consistently followed in preterits and participles where “e” would create another syllable. 9e.g. “deliver’d,” (…) , in combinations of “the” and “to” where the vowel is not pronounced (e.g. “the’seaven,” (…), and to’advance,” (…), and in the coalescing of two contiguous vowels from two different words (e.g. “Vertue’attired,” (…), which is given three metrical beats.) In the latter case the vowels are really pronounced but within one beat, as in Italian. Where syncope is necessary for meter (e.g. in “discoverers,” (…) no elision is inidicated unless an apostrophe appears in the copy text. (The Complete Poetry of John Donne: Edited with an Introduction, Notes and Variants by John T. Shawcross p. xxii)

If Donne’s orthographic intentions matter to you, look no further. Without further ado, here is Donne’s Sonnet V as edited by Shawcross:

I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements, and an Angelike spright,
But black sinne hath betraid to endlesse night
My worlds both parts, and (oh) both parts must die.
You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write,
Powre new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drowne my world with my weeping earnestly,
Or wash it if it must be drown’d no more:
But oh it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and enviehave burnt it heretofore,
And made it fouler; Let their flames retire,
And burn me ô Lord, with a fiery zeale
Of theeand thy house, which doth in eating heale.

the Scansion (& my high horse)

Back on my post discussing Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14, I covered the same issues that are relevant to this poem. So I’ll try not to repeat too much. As with Sonnet 14, Donne spells ‘er’ words, ‘re’, when he wants you to treat them monosyllabically. He spells power as powre, for example. When he doesn’t want you to pronounce the ‘e’ in ‘ed’ words, he apostrophizes them, e.g. drown’d. Most importantly, when Elizabethan poets wanted you to elide vowels, they used the apostrophe to show you which ones:


These days, by contrast, we write you’ve instead of ‘youhave’ and Ive instead of ‘Ihave’. It’s the same thing. Contractions weren’t normalized and besides that, Donne (like other poets) was willing to take liberties where necessary. In every on-line posting of this sonnet (admittedly not by professional editors) these little niceties are left out. A little more unforgivably, the circumflex above the o (ô) is also left out. If reading the poem the way Donne wrote it matters then, well, it matters. As for sonnets in print (and edited by the experts) all but one leave out the apostrophes between the words above. Goes to show that professionals are just amateurs with degrees.

None of this is really a problem until your instructor gives you this poem as a homework assignment. They probably recommended a book like the Norton “Critical” Edition (air-quotes) or provided a photocopy that entirely omits the original cues that would make scanning the work so much easier. If you had the edition by Shawcross, then you might come up with something like this:

Scansion of Sonnet V

So, the first thing to be said is that once historical concerns are out of the way, scansion isn’t an exact science. Where one person might read a pyrrhic foot, another might read an iamb, spondaic or trochaic foot (depending on the words and phrase). My own practice is not to scan it the way we would read it in the 21rst century, but how Donne might have imagined it or read it himself. With that in mind, I find Donne to be the most metrically inventive and resourceful poet in the English Language (and including Shakespeare) and the most enjoyable to scan. The way Donne plays meter against phrase and line is beautifully flexible and allows for a wide variety of shade and inflection. My own scansion reflects that. I made some choices that others are welcome to disagree with (offer your own). We’ll go by quatrains just to illustrate how important meter can be to a poem’s meaning.

I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements, and an Angelike spright,
But black |sinne hath| betraid to endlesse night
4. My worlds both parts, and (oh) both parts must die.

Line 1. I love this first line.
Line 2.
Angelike is read is angelic.
Line 3. Most modern readers would probably read the second foot as strictly trochaic. The meter, however, makes a spondaic reading possible. I decided to go for it because (according to my rule of thumb) if a foot can be read as an iamb (or more simply if we can emphasize the second syllable) then we probably should (at least to see what effect it has on the line). In this case, emphasizing hath emphasizes the betrayal, sort of like: “Oh no! What have you done?” or “O no! What hast thou wrought?” Remember, Donne was living in the midst of dramatists like Jonson, Shakespeare and Marlowe. One Sir Richard Baker said of Donne that he was “not dissolute, but very neat; a great visiter of Ladies, a great frequenter of Playes, a great writer of conceited Verse.” The playgoing rubbed off on him. The Elizabethan era was dramatic and Donne’s poems are like little speeches — little dramatic set pieces.

You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write,
Powre new | seas in mine eyes, that so I might
8. Drowne my | world with my weeping earnestly,

Line 5. Heaven was pronounced as a two syllable or one syllable word by various poets. The reasons seem to have involved dialect or bald poetic expediency. Shakespeare, for instance, seems to have pronounced it disyllabically. Donne, to judge by his poems, may have pronounced it quickly and as a monosyllabic word, heav’n (or at least that’s how he treated the word in his poems).
Line 7.  Once again, I opted to emphasize the second syllable. A trochaic first foot would hardly be unheard of in Donne’s day (though used conservatively). I think he would have expected his readers to keep the meter where such a thing is possible. In this case, it makes sense. In Life 6 both instances of “new” are in an unstressed position. In line seven, it makes dramatic sense that Donne would be asking God to make new seas.
Line 8. For the same reasons, I emphasized ‘my’ in the first foot of the eighth line. Donne, in the first line, calls himself a little world. It makes sense, to me, that Donne is emphasizing his world as opposed to God’s e.g. You have your world, and I have my world. Also, this pattern of emphasizing normally unstressed words  is a technique that one finds throughout Donne’s poetry. The trick is what makes Donne’s poetry so speech-like and declamatory (he was, after all, famed for his oratories at the pulpit).

Or wash |it if| it must be drown’d no more:
But oh it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and enviehave burnt it heretofore,
12. And made it fouler; Let their flames retire,

Line 9. Again, rather than read the second foot of this line as pyrrhic, I made it iambic. If one reads Donne the way I do, one can’t help detect a sense of humor. “Alright already,” he seems to say, “if you can’t drown the word again, then wash it. Fine.”

And burn |me ô| Lord, with a fiery zeale
Of theeand thy house, which doth in eating heale.

Line 13. If there was any doubt as to Donne’s predilection for shifting stress in ways a modern reader might miss and dismiss, the second foot of this clearly puts that to rest. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the circumflex above ‘o’.

The circumflex has its origins in the polytonic orthography of Ancient Greek, where it marked long vowels that were pronounced with high and then falling pitch. In a similar vein, the circumflex is today used to mark tone contour in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

All educated Elizabethans were schooled in classical Greek and Latin (even if they didn’t remember it all). Donne, with the circumflex John Donneabove the expostulation ‘ô’, makes clear that ‘ô’ receives the stress, not ‘Lord’. One can read that ‘ô’ in a variety of ways. I personally read the ‘ô’ with, perhaps, grim humor instead of exhausted despair. Some scholars seem to think Donne lost his sense of humor with his later divine poems. I’m not so sure. A quirky sense of humor runs through almost all of Donne’s poetry. I’m not convinced his old age was as sour or strict as some scholars might have us think.

Here’s how I read (and hear) it — the humor. It took me about 20 times to get the tone roughly where I wanted it. See what you think. (I’ve had a bad cough, from whooping cough, for about three months now. Can you tell?):

As I’ve written before, a masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. To me, the meter suggests a touch of wry humor that knocks the academic dust right out of it.

Spank me, ô Lord, for I’have been bad.

Unlike some of Donne’s other sonnets, the meaning, I think, is fairly straightforward. The point of the sonnet, in my opinion, is not to display metaphysical cunning (as in many of his other poems), but to create a mood, much like a small soliloquy. In my reading, I’ve chosen to interpret that mood as wry humor.

So, once again, let’s go quatrain by quatrain:

I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements, and an Angelike spright,
But black sinne hath betraid to endlesse night
4. My worlds both parts, and (oh) both parts must die.

1. Donne sets the stage by dividing himself into his corporeal body and his incorporeal soul. C.A. Partrides observes that “man was habitually said to be the microcosm or ‘abridgement’ of the universe’. (John Donne The Complete English Poems p. 437)2. The elements (the body) and an angelic sprite (the soul).
3. The overstatement (even for Donne I think) of this line and next partly invite me to read the sonnet with some humor.
4. The assertion that the soul “must die” was unorthodox (C.A. Partrides calls it “a potentially dangerous notion”) and, at the wrong place and time, flirted with heresy. If the sonnet was interpreted as an exercise in wry humor, the assertion probably felt less heretical if it was even an issue.

You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write,
Powre new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
8. Drowne my world with my weeping earnestly,

5. You refers to Christ. 7. Powre can be read in the sense of create.
7-8. Donne asks Christ to create oceans out of Donne’s tears so that he may drown himself in his “earnest weeping”.

Or wash it if it must be drown’d no more:
But oh it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and enviehave burnt it heretofore,
12. And made it fouler; Let their flames retire,

9. “be drown’d no more” This refers to God’s promise after Noah’s flood, symbolized by the rainbow, to never flood the world again. “neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.” Genesis 9.11
11. heretofore – hitherto
12. “let  their flames retire,” That is, let the fires of lust and envy retreat. Lust presumably refers to his youth and envy to Donne’s involvement on Church and Court politics. Lust and envy are among the seven deadly sins.

And burn me ô Lord, with a fiery zeale
Of theeand thy house, which doth in eating heale.

14. The last line is a reference to Psalm 69.9.For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up… When I wept, and chastened my soul with fasting, that was to my reproach.” Shawcross, in his notes to this sonnet, also sees a reference to the Eucharist. The blood and body of Christ constitutes his house and the eating of the wafer, Christ’s body, removes the sin of partaker. The final image is a compelling one. The image is that of God burning away (consuming), in a fiery conflagration, at least one part of Donne’s world — the part composed of the “Elements”. What will remain, presumably, is the Angelike spright.  However, this interpretation threatens to contradict Donne’s earlier assertion that both parts of his house must die. The question then pertains to what, exactly, will remain once God is done ‘consuming’ Donne with his purifying conflagration. What, exactly, will be “healed”? It’s a riddle unless we treat Donne’s first utterance as wry overstatement, and Donne’s conclusion as an implied admission that his soul is eternal and cannot be destroyed, only purified or healed.

And that’s that. I hope you enjoyed the post. Let me know. (Guess I’m making up for lost time.)

The Vanishing Poetry Section

booksI’ve been noticing a trend. My sampling is unscientific but others are welcome to chime in. I went Christmas shopping with the family today and stopped at my favorite Montpelier bookstore (two used and one new) — Bear Pond Books. Here’s what I can tell you: the poetry section is evaporating. I mentioned the fact to the bookstore clerks but (unsurprisingly perhaps) they didn’t really want to talk about it. I notice the same behavior in other bookstores. Curiously, even when it was patently obvious that the poetry section was a pitiful shadow of its former self, the store employees acted as though they were utterly unaware of it. I can imagine two reasons why. First, what business wants to admit that they’re losing business or under selling? Second, perhaps other customers have noticed the same trend? Maybe owners are fed up with having to explain to those who actually buy poetry that their two percent of the public does not a profit make.

Whatever the reason, facts are facts. Bear Pond Books used to have a glorious poetry section. There were some 18 shelves stuffed with poetry – about 70 square feet of wall space, and these weren’t books sitting on the shelves with their covers displayed. No. Spines only. Today, the bottom shelves are empty. Three of the shelves are nominally empty. They are filled with books facing forward — seven or eight books to a shelf. In all, there were maybe 4 shelves worth of poetry. I’ve noticed the same trend in a variety of local bookstores. The poetry section at the Norwich Bookstore (also locally owned) could fit in two shoe boxes. Borders went out of business but before it did (and long before bankruptcy was being contemplated), it’s poetry section shrank from a glorious dozen down to three or four shelves — stock stuff: greeting card verse, a handful of contemporary poets curated without a shred of conviction, and yellowing anthologies. The poetry section died an ugly death.

The only store still offering anything substantial is the Dartmouth Bookstore (Barnes & Noble in disguise). Hanover is a college town and a bookstore catering to Dartmouth College can’t respectably scant the “literature” section even if the books aren’t selling. Academia doesn’t trouble itself with unseemly considerations like marketability. They don’t have to. All they have to do is double tuition rates every few hours.

And that brings me to my posts Let Poetry Die and Let Poetry Die: Redux. (The latter being a rewrite of the former.) Much to the horror of some, I suggested that poets survive or starve on the basis of public reception — market forces. As it is, I argued, poets have to answer to no one but themselves and they have proven themselves utterly incapable of assessing (or unwilling to assess) merit in poetry. I have to admit (and this will also horrify some readers) that I’m taking satisfaction in the poetry section’s slow and ugly death. If this is what it takes to weed the garden, then I’m all for it. Many publishers will say that they publish poetry not because it sells but because in some soft and obscure cockle of their heart they feel obligated. This mercy-publishing has to stop. There’s a broad swath of poets, an era (from moderns to the present) that needs to fade into the same oblivion as the Victorians. We might be seeing that. Finally.

My 2¢: I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m ready for some fresh air. It’s not that I want poetry to die, but that I’m done with the same tired names. Maybe publishers will actually start looking for poets who sell. If they can’t find any, then I’m okay with that. Somehow, to me, that’s less irritating than 70 square feet of obligation and good intentions. We all know where the latter leads. It’s the devil’s paving.

On the subject of Rhyming

& Trophy Rhymes

I guess this post is going to fall under the rubric: me & my opinions. But here goes: I’ve always admired anyone who can do something I can’t do – artists, athletes, writers, poets, musicians, composers, etc… This is the reason why the majority of modern art and poetry does little to nothing for me.  As far as I’m concerned, “originality” is one of the 20th century’s greatest con jobs (and, ironically, it’s most “original” contribution to the history of art). Obviously, geniuses are few and far between. So, what’s a generation to do? Simple. Redefine artistic accomplishment and transcendence as “originality”. Suddenly, the 20th & 21rst centuries example more artistic geniuses than at any other time since God created Earth.

rhymesComposers like Bach and Mozart were not original in a modern sense. They refined and synthesized what they inherited until the sum exceeded the parts. Bach created no new musical forms and neither did Mozart. For that matter, neither did Beethoven. Shakespeare and Milton also didn’t invent any new forms or invent a new language. They did what everyone else was doing, but better; and the same for Keats, Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rembrandt. The difference between originality (as a goal in and of itself) and the originality of “genius” (a more organic byproduct of a powerfully creative mind) is a fine one. My opinion is that the difference is conveniently confused. There are a number of poets and artists whose works are undeniably “original” but which, despite being a flavor never concocted before, are not that good. I’ve already mentioned some of them in previous posts and time will tell whether I’m right. I might not be.

And this brings me to rhyme. The vast majority of 20th century poets don’t use rhyme. Even translators translating rhymed poems can’t be bothered. Part of the reason, possibly, is that rhyme is seen as “unoriginal” (which misses the point). It’s gotten to such an extreme that for some poets using a recognizable language —let alone English— is unoriginal. Literally. The result for me is that the vast majority of contemporary poems bore me to tears. I like to be wowed and impressed. All else being equal, free verse does neither. Rhyme (and meter) is to poetry what the half-pipe is to snowboarding. It turns snowboarding into an Olympic event. Without the half-pipe an amateur can look an awful lot like a pro. Frost’s quip concerning nets and tennis comes to mind. For example, Ted Kooser’s generic poems bore me to tears. They do nothing that the millionth paragraph doesn’t do, but I’ve read that this is exactly how Kooser wants them — as ordinary as doormats. He’s succeeded.

Among those poets who do write rhyme, however, there is also division. In my own poetry, the rhyming often isn’t very noisy. I once sent some of my poems to the poet Fred Chappell. He criticized the originality of my rhymes and I wrote back that I don’t write trophy rhymes (a term of my own coining and a lie). Back when  I wrote about Emily Dickinson, I summarized most of the rhymes available to poets (using rhymes from Emily Dickinson’s own poetry), but the one rhyme that I left out, because it’s not truly a unique kind of rhyme, is the trophy rhyme. The term can be dismissive (I can’t think of a lasting poem that has endured because of its novelty-rhymes), but can also signify the importance of the rhyme (because entire poems can be built on it). Fred Chappell’s short poems, which I enjoy reading, often have a tongue-in-cheek, sardonic or irreverent tone. The first poem from the book C makes a nice example:


In such a book as this,
The poet Martial says,
Some of the epigrams
Shall have seen better days,
And some are hit-or-miss;
But some — like telegrams —
Deliver intelligence
With such a sudden blaze
The shine can make us wince.

Did you see what happened there? The whole poem/joke was built around the trophy rhyme: epigrams and telegrams.  Limerick’s do the same thing. In Limericks, in fact, you will find some of the English language’s most successful trophy rhymes (which is, after all, the whole point of the limerick).

Said Edna St. Vincent Millay,
As she lay in the hay all asplay:
“If you make wine
From these grapes, I opine
We’ll stay in this barn until May

The New Limerick p. 27

In both the poems, the rhymes draw attention to themselves. The poem serves the rhyme. That’s okay if that’s the kind of poem one wants to write. Conversely, what makes trophy rhymes so useful in limericks, their cleverness and unexpectedness, is what can make them problematic in other kinds of poetry. My own approach to rhyme is a bit different from Chappell’s (and poets like him). For me, rhymes are not meant to be noticed. If they’re noticed, then I’ve done something wrong. If you don’t want rhymes to be noticed, it’s probably best to steer away from the “original” rhyme, the novelty rhyme or, as I call them, the trophy rhyme. My opinion is that too many poets (and teacher’s of poetry) put emphasis on the novelty of rhymes without really understanding the different effects rhyme is capable of (mostly because they’re not that familiar with the art).

So, if I don’t want rhymes to be noticed, why do I write them?

Because I prefer them to effect the reader or listener at a more subliminal level. I want the rhymes to feel organic. If you’ve listened to an unfamiliar poem, without knowing that it rhymes (and if it is well written) you might not have noticed the rhyming at first. You might have noticed a certain musicality to the poetry, only gradually realizing that the poem rhymed while eventually guessing at, or recognizing, the ending of lines and the actual rhyme-scheme. This kind of rhyme doesn’t draw attention to itself. At its best it serves to emphasize the poetic currents, emotion and thought driving the poem. The effect that rhyme has on thought process, mood and development can be discerned in the differing rhyme schemes of the Spenserian, Shakespearean, Petrarchan sonnets. The epigrammatic sting of the Shakespearean Sonnet’s closing couplets, for example, encourages an entirely different kind of mood and argument than the more self-enclosing rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet.

To a greater or lesser degree, and if the poem is written with skill, the rhymes will reinforce the current of thought and mood in much the same way that a skillful composer (or a band like the Beatles or Bob Dylan) will unite word, meaning and musical phrase (where less talented musicians and bands fail).

By way of example, consider Frost’s great poem Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Not one of those rhymes is ‘original’. They’re as well-worn as an old saddle; and yet Frost managed to write one of the greatest, most beloved and memorized poems in the English language. What does that tell you about rhyming? Everything you need to know.

1.) The originality or novelty of rhymes is unimportant. No, really.

2.) English is a finite language. There are a finite number of rhymes.  Searching for the trophy rhyme can stilt ones poetry just as unnaturally as contorted syntax.

3.) A trophy rhyme is a prima donna. It’s always going shift the spotlight from the content of your poem to itself. Rappers count on this because the trophy rhyme is intrinsic to their art. The rhymes demonstrate their skill and prowess with the language. Likewise, in the right poem, a trophy rhyme can add a little sparkle.

4.) If someone tells you your rhymes are predictable, what they’re really saying (knowingly or not) is that your lines are predictable. There is no such thing as a predictable rhyme (inasmuch as all rhymes are predictable). What matters is the line. If you twist the grammar or otherwise contort your phrasing for the sake of rhyme, then the rhymes are going to feel predictable and “rhyme driven”. (Notice how many of the lines in Frost’s poem are not end-stopped but enjambed.) 

The trophy rhyme lends itself to satire, humor, wit, irreverence, sarcasm, the tongue-in-cheek, light-heartedness while, in a form like rap, it draws attention to itself by underscoring the importance of the relevant words. The poem Departmental, another poem by Frost, is a beautiful example of how trophy rhymes emphasize a poem’s satirical bent, humor and wit. Shell Silverstein regularly based his poems on a given trophy rhyme. In the following, it’s bear and frigidaire.

Bear In There by Shel Silverstein
There’s a Polar Bear
SsilversteinIn our Frigidaire–
He likes it ’cause it’s cold in there.
With his seat in the meat
And his face in the fish
And his big hairy paws
In the buttery dish,
He’s nibbling the noodles,
He’s munching the rice,
He’s slurping the soda,
He’s licking the ice.
And he lets out a roar
If you open the door.
And it gives me a scare
To know he’s in there–
That Polary Bear
In our Fridgitydaire.
As for myself, trophy rhymes were exactly what I needed in á la Maison:

a la Maison - Version 2So, if you’re going to rhyme, think about the kind of poem you want write. Don’t be bullied into novelty-rhymes for the sake of originality. Making a poem out of ordinary rhymes that is transcendent and unforgettable? Now that is originality. Making the extraordinary out of the  ordinary and the every day is, to me at least, the half-pipe of poetry.

For another nice take on rhyme, read A.E. Stallings razor sharp Presto Manifesto.