According to the doubtless outdated Sixth Edition of A Handbook to Literature, “poetry” is defined as “a term applied to the many forms in which human beings have given rhythmic expression to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.

7 thoughts on “Poetry?”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    The additional effort of proper rhyme and rhythm is probably more than most are willing to put forth.

    This strikes me as an opportunity for those with such interests, esp. given the availability of aids such as rhyming dictionaries, thesauruses, and probably even software that combines both, to aid in fitting the words together; although there still has to be more to tell than just a passing image.

  2. Lourain says:

    Perhaps with poetry (like the visual arts and music) only the best will survive in popular culture, while the rest will survive only in obscure repositories.

  3. Constance says:

    So much rhyming poetry is so badly done now days. Think Hallmark greeting card. Or pop song lyrics. I rarely publish rhyming poetry unless it is outstanding. The best rhyming poetry is usually found in the tried and true forms, sonnets, villanelles and the like. But forms demand discipline. Not seeing much of that of late.

  4. Tom says:

    So when can we expect a tome of complete poems from your youth, and since then, plus snippets of verse from your books?

  5. John Prigent says:

    This has stayed with me for over 60 years:

    The curfew tolls the knell of passing day
    The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea
    The ploughman homeward plods his weary way
    And leaves the world to darkness and to me

    Word picture!

  6. I very much like your approach of systematically assessing the New Yorker poems. Rhyme and rhythm definitely help in memorizing poems, e.g. they helped me learn Tennyson’s relatively lengthy “The Lady of Shalott” as a child, and I have retained most of the poem to this day. On the other hand, rhyme, unless masterfully done, seems to me to have a certain distancing artificiality. Sometimes this is useful, e.g. I chose to write several of the nastiest poems in a book-long poetry narrative in rhyme so that they would be less upsetting.

    Everyone’s taste is different, but here are two recent poetry books that I particularly enjoyed: Jenny Blackford’s small book of cat poems, “The Duties of a Cat,” published in 2013, and Timons Esaias’s longer and more varied, “Why Elephants No Longer Communicate in Greek,” published in 2016. (Disclaimer, I used to be in a writer’s group with Tim and I have exchanged friendly emails with Jenny.)

  7. JakeB says:

    I have read with regularity the NYRB, the LRB, the Atlantic, Harper’s, and the last 10 or 20 years, and have found the only poet published in them whose work I regularly like is August Kleinzahler. I admire Frederick Seidel’s skill but his manner is so loathsome I don’t really like him. But virtually all the rest of the poems seem like annoying word games or structural games (e.e. cummings without the soul) or utterly self-focused wankery or hideously graphic narratives, like the poetic version of a particularly unpleasant documentary or slasher film.

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