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.

5 thoughts on “More Thoughts on Poetry”

  1. I think your definition of poetry is a reasonable one. But, for me, some work is poetry even without either rhyme or rhythm, even in translation, e.g. I like this haiku by Taniguchi Buson (translated by X. J. Kennedy):

    On the one-ton temple bell
    a moon-moth, folded into sleep,
    sits still.

    1. Tim says:

      This is one incredible feat of translation and does not need rhyme. But I suspect this is at the apex of excellence.

    2. JakeB says:

      That’s a good point, Ms. Lee.

      You’ve put me in mind of Kenneth Rexroth’s terrific translations of Tu Fu’s poems. As I recall, for the poem he titles “Banquet at the Tso Family Manor”, he has the first line as,

      “The windy forest is checkered by the light of the setting, waning moon.”

      This particular poem in the original is 8 lines of 5 characters each, and (again IIRC) the first line has characters that basically signify: Wind Forest Dapple Dying Moon

      Of course, if that were the first line of a poem in English it’d be the kind I objected to in Mr. Modesitt’s previous post. In the Tang era it worked. Mr. Rexroth’s translation remains near-perfect to my mind.

      I submit that both you and Mr. Modesitt may be right if we observe that the poems were patterned (in both Japanese and Chinese) and rhymed (for the weird ideas of rhyme we find in classical Chinese) but such patterns may need to disappear in translation if beauty and/or sense are to be maintained.

      1. R. Hamilton says:

        While it’s not provably always possible to translate poetry while preserving both meaning and structure, it can often be done, if most easily into a language such as English with a very large vocabulary and selection of synonyms, and with if not the inspiration of the original author, at least little less in the way of technical skill on the part of the translator.

        I know this because (a) my mom has done a few such translations and can discuss the difficulties, and (b) because looking a bit shows ample examples, mostly in hymns, carols, classical lyrics, etc. Some examples show that accepted results aren’t uniformly successful: Silent Night or O Christmas Tree aren’t great translations, but IMO A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (Hedges translation) was elegant, if slightly less literal than other translations, but still preserving both structure and meaning. This shows that there may necessarily be, even between languages as similar as German and English, some slight tradeoff between preserving structure and tone vs literal meaning – which, if idiomatic or nearly so, may not exactly translate anyway.

        1. Daze says:

          See also Douglas Hofstadter’s discussion in Gödel, Escher, Bach on the qualities of French and German translations of Jabberwocky, re translating the words or translating the feelings!

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