A DEFENSE OF POETRY…SORT OF.

A great deal of 19th century verse is wretched—exposure to poorly written rhyme will naturally push the educated poetry lover from the vales of tortured song to the stairwells of sober speech.

Verse was abandoned by educated poets in the 20th century because the versifiers fell out of tune—not because poetry evolved into something higher.   

Frazzled, goaded and tuckered out by Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, with no more heart for Bret Harte, audiences everywhere cried Geez! and So Long! to George Santayana and the other thousand rhyming and chiming poetasters, tossing the simpering, milk & water verse out the window.   (Santayana was T.S. Eliot’s professor at Harvard).  

Throwing off rhyme was not a revolution. 

It was a revulsion.

The yellowish face of Imagism’s moon was not a sign of mystical glory; it was a sign of illness and disgust.

Music coming from instruments only a little out of tune will soon convince hearers to give up all music.

Imagism was a retreat, not an advance. 

Poetry in the 20th century did not add image—it subtracted music. 

The great poets of verse featured imagery and music, skillfully blended into a natural, pleasing speech so that neither speech, imagery, nor music was perceived as such–the elements were blended and lost in the poetry. 

Lost so that no ‘close reading’ can get it out. 

Criticism finds the elements when they are not blended; if they are, criticism cannot see them, for the work succeeds and doesn’t require criticism

 The close reading of the New Critics was mistaken from the start, since it confused desultory, over-elaborated praise with criticism.  New Criticism finally ends in the Prozac Criticism of the Helen Vendlers and the Stephen Burts.

Too much focus on any part—image, language, irony, etc—is a sure sign poetry is in decline.

We’re not sure why–after the renaissance of verse in English from the 16th century sonnet mastery to the 17th century of Milton, Donne, Marvel, to the 18th of Pope, and then Burns, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Coleridge, with writers like Poe bringing Baconic science (with a Platonic sheen) to the art, and Tennyson carrying the flame–why the whole art sickened and died sometime during the middle or latter part of the 19th century. 

It may have been for a very simple reason. 

In the 19th century more people began to write and publish poetry.

There was a glut, and gluts will destroy whatever style currently exists.   

Those who complain contemporary poetry is prosy and dull usually champion the 19th century and its rhyme.  

But the issue is not a stylistic one.  It is simpler than that.   A glut destroyed poetry as it currently existed—first in the 19th century, when poetry rhymed, and then in the 20th century, when poetry didn’t.  The Quarterly didn’t kill Keats.  Sidney Lanier did. 

Those who could not write like Keats eventually decided no one should write like Keats—or none should try, because one more Sidney Lanier would be the death of poetry itself.   William Carlos Williams—when he reached middle-age and stopped rhyming—suddenly became vastly preferable to Sidney Lanier, at least among educated readers. 

Poetry–the art–could not handle one more failed Keats.  William Carlos Williams did not conquer Keats.   He was simply a sobering balm to the intoxicating pain of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman.  The 20th century stopped rhyming, not out of evolution, but from embarrassment. 

Rather than fail at Keats, it was necessary for the pride of the poet in the 20th century to partially succeed at haiku—and the whole history of modernism is nothing but extended haiku: even modern long poems are nothing but haiku patched together and embellished with flotsam and dialogue–breaking haiku’s rules, but not the rules of poetry—in any significant way. 

Our idea is supported by the following:  From the beginnings of poetry in English to the first confirmed glut in the early 19th century, a good poem was never a theoretical specimen; it was good in a way that was socially recognized by everyone: A 16th century Shakespeare song, a 19th century Keats ballad.   Then came the glut, and millions of would-be Shakespeares and Keats’s made rhyme come to seem the playing of an out-of-tune violin.  

The public gradually fled from the poem–not because the novel took them away, but because the public ran from the art of poetry holding its ears.   The modern novel was not an improvement so much as a refuge, and fortunately for that genre, poetry, by mishandling verse, was at that very moment chasing away readers as it had never done before. 

And bad rhyme did not end after Modernism–one can find it in Richard Aldington’s 1941 anthology: Allen Tate, William Carlos Williams’ only poem represented is a rhyming poem; there’s bad rhyme galore.  

Fashions die hard, but when they die, it’s sometimes not the fashion that’s at fault, but the mediocrities practicing it.

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4 Comments

  1. poetryandporse said,

    November 22, 2009 at 3:58 am

    Boring was it?

    I reckon it would be, the angsty wangst from bloomsbury’s head questioners at HQ huw who do Great best, English American, you, me, every briton who do be here my people right now, yeah eh hey: you ka ka ka karaoke y’all ant ‘n decks, halloween summer spring slush and the Norwich School of Cotman-Crome art-as-evidence, that might define us – d’yer know what eye mean – doctored and in any case we are, sort of, not even being here to even beginning to define us.

    How can we begin to talk about this taboo subject of US without one reference to Wilton Diptych, Gothic architecture, Nicholas Hilliard, William Hogarth, Stubbs, Blake and Turner: or a top class Constable?

    The 19C had legendary souls living still within the fold of paper on which is printed, I really don’t know. I read and take it in, of course – I mean, who doesn’t do y’all as a landed given right of being US.

    Perhaps these people, the unhappy rivals, are too good for us. And we wouldn’t want to claim that now, would we, hey?

    We do have Eminem. Embarrassment. Distance. Howard Jacobson, George & Mildred, Yinka Shonibare and Englishness, whispers the good cop, course, critique and Britishness I always keep in reserve (sorry).

    What are you critiquing? That we are not fated to see in our Independant moments, pieces of vigour framed, marginal US art what is we who are all of you whom good will come to, if it were only up top me – all of us free – but we are not famous enough to appear where the actionable event in Letters correctly occuring, is what makes you come back – the people.

    Cheers.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    November 23, 2009 at 1:44 am

    Porsey,

    The Englander is like the New Englander–both have traditionally made their fortune on slaves while never owning one themselves; their boots are as clean as their consciences. Poe found a final home in France, Shelley, Italy, Byron, Greece, as greatness was flushed out by New England and England. The utilitarianism of England and New England would crush us yet.

    Thomas

  3. poetryandporse said,

    November 23, 2009 at 5:54 am

    Not living in America, no knowing nor being constantly aware of living in close proximity to one of the rarest breeds in the universe

    I know a place.

    wanna be a voice in the new sound system
    gotta be the Choice of English distance, sound
    rapping back and forth between the players

    laying out a game sur le plane, the sound for a

    New Sound System

    introducing Hech ad-libbing Audenesque:

    “If some person came to me and said

    I want to be a poet because I have something very urgent and important to express.

    ..the chances are she or he would not be a poet. But if they said:

    ‘I am a person interested in putting words together in novel and unexpected ways. I like playing with words – with language.’

    ..this is someone who might very well turn out to be a poet.”

    Hech, the gravelly bass-tweet meandering ka ka ka ching
    ER – english – Words in inexpected combinations: what Hoch ‘n Horace share as a bass statement-of-intent and philisophical flipper of great strength I think, if it’s fair to say, straight Auden and ker King Hech disrespecting not Hugh, on the ground of his Nationality. The american Auden: i’ve always apprehend as a fairly insignificant precursor, poetically speaking, to John and Paul’s Karma of ka ka ka ching that the proto-bling roar of Bad Boy and Rock ‘n Roll Music, usher in when it’s any auld way yer know-choose-it, which is a backbeat Hugh couldn’t express. At least, not with the authenticity of Willie McTell choosing Statesboro Blues say, or Blind Lemon Jefferson – See That My Grave Is Kept Clean:

    “Well, there’s one kind of favor I’ll ask of you
    Well, there’s one kind of favor I’ll ask of you

    There’s just one kind of favor I’ll ask of you

    You can see that my grave is kept clean

    And there’s two white horses following me

    I got two white horses following me
    And there’s two white horses following me
    Waiting on my burying ground.

    Lemon Jefferson.

    I know a place

    Did you ever hear that coffin’ sound
    Have you ever heard that coffin’ sound
    Did you ever hear that coffin’ sound

    Means another poor boy is under ground

    A know all place

    Did you ever hear them church bells tone
    have you ever heard them church bells tone

    Tuatha Dé Danann tenor, stroll through Space,
    Neighborhood

    ‘In Number 69 there lives a transvestite
    he’s a man by day
    but he’s a woman at night’

    Did you ever hear them church bells tone
    Means another poor boy is dead and gone.

    Blind Lemon

    oh if you find the time
    please come and stay a while
    in my beautiful neighbourhood

    Jefferson

    I know a place, time and space fixed the meeting
    point as Well

    my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold
    And, my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold
    Well, my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold
    Now I believe what the bible told.

    There’s just one last favor I’ll ask of you Lemon Aeroplane,

    And there’s one last favor I’ll ask of you, graves
    There’s just one last favor I’ll ask of you
    See that my grave is kept clean

    South Munster words lapidary, something urgent
    chiseled on stone. Hech:

    “The origins and sources of my poems are, many: and of course the most important ones, are the Ones from personal experience. The fact that I was a soldier in World war two: that I was one of the first Americans to enter the German concentration camp at Buchenwald.

    But they come also of course from literary sources. The poets I’ve admired: both my contemporaries and poets of the past from whom I have learned a great deal.”

    Hecht, Hugh and a canon of Great poets whom I have learned the great deal from Gravesy babe, birthed anew, our song-cloak plumage, wittering old women, we are also men committed to..to the frozen few adhommers totting up fictional databases of info-sqauwks, ka ka ker kingly dealings, one chiseled look,

    that’s all it took

    ~

    I know a board
    you know the place
    full of songstresses

    singing of what Tom
    Brady does for a universe

    of one’s final grave, resting
    place Graves, kept clean

    Men Only, Hugh, Hecht
    at the airplane carousel
    in a re-mixed aero-planet
    flying bunnies blind Hecht

    Hugh the radical checklist
    abort your middle name, a dem on sez, vot izzit y’all

    von tease the trillion dollar trickster, dump us you all
    richest mistress nice dame, dimes, chump-change

    Auden was always on. The best, with TS, both American-Anglo and interchangeable Anglo-American whole, signed, signified and delivered, secret servicing of the higher cultural valleys, peak and trough of little value, few y’all meet singing their bird therein, here on

    pond to heron calls

    Wanna be a trace in the New Sound System

    makes the game change: Tom Brady,

    ‘me’

    Who wouldn’t. Yeah. Dug it, dig in the New
    ad-libitum, at one’s pleasure, New England

    it’s the usual carry on and it is boring.

    It would bore you to death, yer gotta hear me out on this, Tom, Brady, grave it is the gravel-kind way: I know that Thomas B wuz y’all shot, not You tom, no! no – more a kinda Tammy G who talks abroad, seductress skulking about at one’s pleasure, forever ad-lib, extemporised submission to inevitable forces that call us away, far way to a fair rock away
    gun city waiting for a train of love songs, good will mixing and what is left of the dew, seek to kiss it today please Tom ‘n Al, Chris and bunnies gaped open, the intellectual expression: are we any good at being happy, rapping a causeway to eternal lapidary happiness, or a ranter, one of the billions whose plan of Master, same as the unexpected arrangement and phased patterns of light Auden one finds in neither Hugh, Hech nor any playmate, model living a dream in The Girls Next Door, a wonderfully deep and visually predictable, no unexpted nuns and Hugh in the mansion, I’m afraid
    freinds-who-are-girls having intimate physical relations with the 82 year old machine being serviced by a keen intelligence and great, great wisdom, particularly for Femminists who blame men like Hugh and Hech, for Auden. Though Auden himself of course, has always been one of the ones whose know-all place, was just a bit too contrived and pickled by excessive outside interests in alcohol and rent-boys, Wyn-stan’s mansion from Hugh and all of Auden can be all of ours Woodie, Al, Tom.

    The rubbishist was I, i confess, last weekend in the cottage with the rent, blowing off the challenger for boyfreind of boyfreind, four men together, doing it collectively as guys who can trump digital Hech Hugh many con Johnson and Gould kiss on: the place we are all barred from for our game, playing with words and language simply as ourselves: quad of the new sound Shirt, systematic wearing of said green.

    Keano

    ‘It is the usual carry on and it is boring.’ That is what Keano said about Ireland’s soccer players not grabbing, ‘as usual’, the international honour of wearing the Shirt, the prize of representing one’s native realestate, speak, purblind adoptions of the New England, Kent and Henry Johnson, spousal opposite points in a spectrum of exciting middle aged academic American-Anglo couple of odds, mixed-balls, holding hands with them, is the kinda scenario y’all wannbe.

  4. thomasbrady said,

    November 24, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    Porsey,

    Auden’s famous formula that the poet plays with language rather than expresses something important comes right out of Poe—whom Auden studied.

    Crudely put, it’s a Romantic idea: Poetry is a pleasure first, a message, second.

    To reduce it even further: all expression implies desire, task, object, separation, sorrow, work-to-be-done—-all poetry that ‘says something’ belongs in this category.

    In Auden’s Romantic formulation, poetry is the pleasure already attained, not the desire for it.

    Poe, in his underrated “Rationale of Verse,” compares the pleasure involved in reading poetry to the appreciation of a crystal:

    “Let us examine a crystal. We are at once interested by the equality between the sides and between the angles of one of its faces: the equality of the sides pleases us; that of the angles doubles the pleasure. On bringing to view a second face in all respects similar to the first, this pleasure seems to be squared; on bringing to view a third it appears to be cubed, and so on.”

    This may seem quite different from Auden’s “playing with words, with language,” but in one sense the similarity is crucial—pleasure exists in the unfolding present in the arranging of the very materials of the poem, not in some future state which the ‘expression’ of the poem aims at.

    The crucial difference is Poe (per usual) speaks purely of Quantity, where Auden, in a typically modernist assertion, speaks of Quality. Even the Williams “No ideas but in things” is a matter of quality, since the actuality of the thing is not the issue, but treatment OF things as mere representations IN the poem. Auden’s ‘playing with language’ is open-ended: playing with language could mean punning, and as we all know, punning is usually more painful than pleasurable, while Poe’s example of the crystal is precise, tangible, and immutable in its underlying physical relationship to pleasure. Poe then expands his quantitative analysis:

    “The perception of pleasure in the equality of sounds is the principle of Music. Unpracticed ears can appreciate only simple equalities, such as are found in ballad airs. * * * Practised ears, on the other hand, appreciate both equalities at the same instant — although it is absurd to suppose that both are heard at the same instant. One is heard and appreciated from itself: the other is heard by the memory, and the instant glides into and is confounded with the secondary, appreciation. Highly cultivated musical taste in this manner enjoys not only these double equalities, all appreciated at once, but takes pleasurable cognizance, through memory of equalities the members of which occur at intervals so great that the uncultivated taste loses them altogether. That this latter can properly estimate or decide on the merits of what is called scientific music, is of course impossible. But scientific music has no claim to intrinsic excellence — it is fit for scientific ears alone. In its excess it is the triumph of the physique over the morale of music. The sentiment is overwhelmed by the sense. On the whole, the advocates of the simpler melody and harmony have infinitely the best of the argument; — although there has been very little of real argument on the subject.”

    If pinned down, Auden would side with Poe—how could he not? For otherwise Auden is forced to admit he is concerned with what poetry says—and of course this is contrary to Auden’s observation, quoted by Mr. Hecht.

    This is the morass we find ourselves in today—quantity has been left out of sight altogether. Poets no longer ‘see things as they really are.’ We are stuck in a ‘bad infinity’ of ‘make it new’ which we are forever curious to no end. As Matthew Arnold wrote in “Culture and Anarchy:”

    “For as there is a curiosity about intellectual matters which is futile, and merely a disease, so there is certainly a curiosity, — a desire after the things of the mind simply for their own sakes and for the pleasure of seeing them as they are, — which is, in an intelligent being, natural and laudable. Nay, and the very desire to see things as they are implies a balance and regulation of mind which is not often attained without fruitful effort, and which is the very opposite of the blind and diseased impulse of mind which is what we mean to blame when we blame curiosity.”

    Auden and Poe instinctively knew that the poet’s first duty is to separate the Material Poem from the Pedant’s Idea of a Poem.

    Thomas