More Thoughts on Poetry

From both the comments on the blog and essays and comments elsewhere, it strikes me that, first, at least a few well-read individuals share my concerns about “modern” poetry and “second, that a great many current poetry editors and poets have made a value judgment that’s not necessarily supported by either history or logic. That judgment, stated in various ways, is that rhyme and metrical language are artificial and antagonistic to natural speech and therefore any obvious meter or rhyme is, in effect, “bad” or “less” because it is unnatural.

Yet all speech that that differs from that of the speaker can be called unnatural.

Moreover, the fantastic and bizarre images, or the convoluted word pictures and contrasts that inhabit a high percentage of the free verse that sprawls or creeps across the pages of literary and poetry magazines is anything but natural or unforced.

So structuring rhyme and meter is unnatural… or forced… but twisting words and metaphors is not?

And… what ever happened to one of the bases of poetry, the rhythmic and metrical dimension?

What I’m seeing and hearing is that it has been abandoned because it’s often badly done. Perhaps that’s because too many would-be poets don’t have the skill and/or vocabulary to write poetry with a rhythmic and metrical dimension… or because too many readers can’t or won’t take the time to really “read” a poem. Or even because metrically structured language somehow puts people off.

But whatever the reason for this change, I object to the idea that a word picture or metaphorical construct or any other structure of words without a rhythmic and metrical dimension can be termed poetry. As I wrote before, true poetry is expressed in patterned, rhythmic language, even when it is not strictly rhymed.

Anything else is just word-play with images, elaborate or sparse as it may be, even if it appears in The New Yorker, Poetry, or The Atlantic Monthly.


According to the doubtless outdated Sixth Edition of A Handbook to Literature, “poetry” is defined as “a term applied to the many forms in which human beings have given rhythmic expression to their most intense perceptions of the world…. The first characteristic of poetry, from the viewpoint of form, is rhythm…marked by a regularity far surpassing that of prose.” The discussion of poetry goes on to note that poetry is marked by “variety in uniformity, a shifting of rhythms that, nevertheless, return to the basic pattern.”

In short, poetry is patterned, rhythmic language, even when it is not strictly rhymed.

Last year, I read and clipped every poem from The New Yorker, except from one issue that vanished while we were on vacation. Exactly one from the ninety seven poems had a discernable rhyme scheme. A handful had internal rhyme schemes. Most had minimal alliteration, and most were essentially free verse, with largely iambic rhythms and irregular line breaks, presumably for either punctuation or emphasis.

The entire point of every one of them was to convey some sort of image and/or philosophical point. To my personal way of thinking, not a single one was memorable, and none of them stuck in my thoughts or mind.

I’ve also read the poetry in The Atlantic Monthly and in various literary magazines and current anthologies… and the vast majority of what is widely published today appears to fall into the “intense image” or “incident in life creating meaning” model, with very little, if any rhythmic support or rhyme.

Like so much in current life, poetry has become “of the moment,” to be read, momentarily enjoyed or considered, and then discarded.

And one of the reasons why it will be discarded is that those “vivid images” need rhythmic aids and/or rhyme for people to remember them. That’s one reason why rhymed song lyrics are far easier to remember… and why almost all the “modern” poets will vanish as if they’d never been.


We finally got the first snow of the year here in Cedar City. Only once since the town was founded more than 160 years ago has the first snowfall been later [January 8, 1977, in case anyone really wants to know]. This first snowfall wasn’t a dusting, but a respectable 8-10 inches at our house, which usually gets a few inches more than the town because we’re on a hill overlooking the main part of town.

But what amazed me most about this snowfall was the news coverage. On the front page of the local paper [one that has won numerous journalistic awards, I might add] on Wednesday,the morning before the snowfall, was a story predicting that the snow would arrive on Wednesday night, drop six to eight inches, and trail off by mid-day on Thursday. That’s very close to what happened.

HOWEVER, the local detailed forecast in the back section predicted snow flurries and no accumulation, and to top it off, the Thursday paper predicted no snow, except flurries late on Thursday. And we got another two inches of snow Thursday morning, and by mid-afternoon on Thursday, the sky was clear and cold, with no afternoon flurries.

I bring this up because it illustrates to my mind the growing tendency of younger people to compartmentalize their thoughts. No one at the newspaper, which has a comparatively young staff, even thought to compare their lead story to their forecast.

This is not exactly a new problem. I’ve noted for the past year, if not longer, that the forecast for Cedar City that appears in the Salt Lake Tribune, a newspaper published 250 miles away, is consistently far more accurate than the forecast in the Spectrum, which is published 50 miles away and which has a local bureau here.

So… what gives? It could be that the Spectrum subscribes to a cheaper canned forecast service. It could be that the staff doesn’t even read the forecast and considers it just another necessary canned feature that the newspaper has to have.

But to me, it shows that the editors aren’t really reading their entire newspaper… and that those numerous journalistic awards are suspect. Either that… or I really don’t want to read the papers that don’t get awards.

Anyway… it looks like, barring an unforecast heat spell, that we will get a white Christmas, after a long dry, cool, and brown autumn.


Several weeks ago, my wife ordered a replacement chair. She received an order confirmation, but days went by… without any chair or any more information. She called the company, and was referred to another number, where she was told they had no information, and that the order number was incorrect. She persisted, and after more than a half-hour the company finally located the chair and provided shipping and arrival information, but the only words remotely related to responsibility were, “The order number was incorrectly entered.”

There was nothing said about someone making a mistake.

And last year, The Atlantic actually ran an article on the phrase “mistakes were made.” Some of those using that phrase included Richard Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler, on the lies he had told the Washington Post [1973]; Vice President George H.W. Bush on the Iran-Contra scandal and the administration’s lying about it [1986]; Ronald Reagan, on the same topic in his State of the Union address [1987]; Bill Clinton on administration officials discussing banking policy in front of fund-raisers [1997]; Henry Kissinger, on human-rights complaints about U.S. intelligence activities in South America [2002]; New Jersey governor Chris Christie on the GW Bridge scandal in his State of the State address[2014], and, incidentally, Albert Speer at the Nuremberg trials [1946].

What bothers me about such phrases is that, all too often, they’re an attempt to avoid personal responsibility or to blame someone else, either for doing something wrong, or for not fulfilling the speaker or commenter’s personal desires, all under the guise of seemingly impersonal objectivity.

And, as the examples above demonstrate, the desire to avoid admitting blame publicly certainly isn’t a recent phenomenon.

Thoughts on Action in Fiction

Action in science fiction and fantasy is often overvalued, whereas, in mainstream fiction, from what I’ve seen, it tends to be undervalued. Part of this difference, I suspect, lies in expectations. Historically, science fiction and fantasy were expected to be exciting, and most readers tend to view action as exciting, while “mainstream fiction” is supposed to be “thoughtful.”

What this view tends to overlook is the fact that action, in real life, is always either the result of an earlier decision or a reaction to some other event or action. In short, somewhere along the line, someone’s “thought” was behind all that action.

Wars don’t start when one kingdom sends knights or troops across the border of another kingdom. They begin well before that for any number of reasons, when a prince is killed by a terrorist, or when a group of dissident aristocrats protest taxes imposed by a distant ruler, or when the head of state of one country decides to take back territory taken in a previous war, which had begun because that territory had been taken away even earlier. Or perhaps the war began when the ruler of a land decided to repudiate the authority of a high priest. Or when the ruler of one land seizes the ships of another land and demands tribute. From the decisions made in studies, throne rooms, military headquarters, or mercantile banks come actions that spur conflicts of interest, and those conflicts lead to wars or military actions and adventures of various sorts.

All too often in action-oriented books, there’s little or no mention of what led to the fighting, except for a brief mention or rationale, with most of the emphasis on what those involved must do in the situations in which they find themselves, and in a way, that makes matters so much simpler. Whatever the protagonist does is for his or her survival. The tacit assumption in most books, except those where the protagonist is an anti-hero, is that the main character’s goals are worthwhile, even in those instances where he or she may not be, although, sometimes, the story is about how the noble protagonist must stoop to despicable means in order to survive or to accomplish great and worthwhile goals [and, yes, I’ve written a few books with that plotline, but I’d like to think that there was a great deal more about why he or she happened to be in that position].

All that leads to the question: Does it matter what led to the fighting or the action?

Obviously, I think it does, as well as the question of how that thought or decision led to what follows. Almost always, military and “action” figures in real life reflect some aspect of their society… and the way that society, or that part of it, thinks. That means that a character that is true to life is going to give some thought to why he or she acts in the way they do, and they may feel conflicts with their mission or their orders… or with the laws under which they live. Or they may agree totally and yet find their orders in conflict with what they believe they stand for.

In most F&SF, this conflict and others are usually resolved in terms of action, although, personally, I try never to have all conflicts fully resolved, even when the ending theoretically ties up most of the loose ends. In mainstream fiction, it’s often never resolved, even when action does occur, but then F&SF has “traditionally” been more optimistic, an optimism that’s often come under attack by the “darker” side of the field as being unrealistic, but doesn’t that make “dark” F&SF more like mainstream fiction with magic or high tech?