In Praise of Poetry – True Poetry

The other day I was reading a well-known “literary” periodical with large circulation… and I noticed something… and then I read another periodical of the same ilk – and I noticed the same thing.  So I went back, both through the various magazines, as well as my memory, and realized that, no indeed, my memory was not playing tricks on me.

And what was it that I noticed?  I’ll get to that… in a moment.

But first… poetry.  According to A Handbook to Literature, “The first characteristic of poetry, from the standpoint of form, is rhythm…”  The rather lengthy definition also notes that poetry is “characterized by compactness, intense unity, and a climactic order,” expressed with the vital element of concreteness and noting that one of the strengths of Shakespeare’s poetry is that almost every line “presents a concrete image.”

Many years ago, both when I studied poetry and later published some in long-vanished small magazines, there were still poets who believed and worked along those lines, who regularly wrote sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, and other strict poetic forms and who understood and could work with a range of metric forms and rhythms.  And because I tend to appreciate the beauty of language and form, those are the poets whom I read and praise… and the kind that I still seek and seldom find.

That most of what is published as poetry today, even by many publications with literary credentials and pretensions, is what one critic [whose name I can’t recall, or I’d cite him or her] called “greeting card free verse,”  devoid of strict (or even loose) metrics.  And much of the popularity of current so-called poetry rests on the spoken presentation of the work, rather than upon the structure and the words themselves.  Great poetry should not require a great speaker, but should sound great and shake the mind when recited by anyone of average intelligence and speech.

This trend toward greeting card verse and emphasis on presentation rather than substance is certainly why I take out my well-worn copies of William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and William Shakespeare, among others, when I wish to read poetry.  And yes, when I go to various bookstores, I do browse through the “current” poetry sections… and carefully replace the books I’ve perused on the shelves.  Now… I won’t claim that there’s no one out there who’s actually writing full-fledged poetry, but I will claim that, based on a fairly wide reading habit, there certainly aren’t many “poets” who are published today that merit the title in terms of the standards of the past.

As for what I noticed in those “literary” publications… it was that none of what was published as poetry in the issues I read or could find in recent months would have been called poetry until the last half century or so.  Robert Frost once made the observation that writing so-called free verse was like playing tennis with the net down.  Almost anyone could do it and call themselves a poet.

And that is why I praise the great poets who could and can encapsulate vivid images and meaning in rhythmic, rhymed forms without sounding stilted or forced and with words whose sounds, allusions, and connotations stir the mind and soul.

Those who can do all that… they are true poets.

3 thoughts on “In Praise of Poetry – True Poetry”

  1. Tim says:

    As an example, M. S. Merwin’s poetry has some interesting imagery (River of Bees: ‘his voice rising like a forkful of hay’), but even e e cummings (heh) had a reason for his creations’ structures.

    Most of his poetry (and I’ve read a great deal of it, to my regret) is a slapdash of sentence fragments and unfinished thoughts.

    Say what you want, we study DWPs (dead white poets) because their excellence shines through after decades and centuries. A century from now, no one will know who the U.S. poet laureate was in 2010.

  2. What I’ve seen of Louise Bogan is pretty good; maybe Robinson Jeffers, and Richard Wilbur in his earlier years. I’m not sure TS and Wallace were all that big on rhyme.

    Lilacs nod in your eyes, my dear,
    Willows blow in your hair.
    Wine warms on your lips, and there
    Is a small smell of beer.

    The tragedy has died, person,
    Stabbed in the knee with a knife.
    You answer a question:
    Is this worth life?

  3. “The first chacteristic of poetry….is rhythm”
    I am trying to bring this idea back into focus, to define poetry straightforwardly as a rhythmic art akin to music and to suggest that much of what is now called ‘poetry’is taxonomically different and that it should be called something else. You will find a short paper in this matter on the True English (poetry)Party page of my website. Do let me know what you think, and whether perhaps you and others might join in this (quite serious) game’
    Best wishes,

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