by Michael R. Burch
As I begin this essay it’s Superbowl Sunday and the New Orleans Saints are preparing to square off against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis colts. Peyton Manning is the son of Archie Manning, who quarterbacked the Saints back in the bad old days when Saints fans took to wearing bags over their heads and calling themselves "Aints."
Today Archie Manning can’t lose. Either his son will earn his second Super Bowl ring, or the franchise he led through its formative years will earn its first. In either case, he’s sure to be thanked for his contributions by the winning side. So it would be very strange to see Archie Manning sitting in a skybox, with a paper bag over his head. Indeed it would be passing strange to see any Saints fans who still profess to be Aints.
But if any of them were Formalists, they probably would.
(1) an utterance of grief or sorrow; a lamentation
(2) a complaint
(3) a lament in verse
(4) [legal] a private memorial tendered to a court; a written grievance to be redressed
I’m writing this essay largely in response to two others: "This is Not a Manifesto" by Quincy R. Lehr and "Regarding the Great Poetic Divide" by Tom Merrill. I tend to agree with the main points of both essays, but my conclusions seem to be quite different. Both essays can be found on the Essays & Assays page at www.thehypertexts.com so I encourage readers of this essay to read the others first. Then we can "compare notes" and see where we stand . . . [brief intermission to allow readers time to peruse Lehr’s and Merrill’s essays] . . .
Merrill made the point—and I believe he’s correct—that when formal poetry fell out of favor with most of the "big name" publishers of poetry, many of the poets who continued to employ meter and rhyme came to adopt a "ghetto mentality" when their work was rejected (all too often, summarily). As the author of The Science of Fear has pointed out, people who huddle together in enclaves with ghetto mentalities tend to compete with each other to be the "most correct" in their beliefs and opinions, and this competition often results in the whole group becoming more and more radicalized, over time. The KKK is an example of such radicalization, as are inner-city gangs, as is the current government of Israel with its "us against the world" mentality.
Human beings share around 95% of our DNA with chimpanzees and like our closest genetic cousins we continue to form groups with "pecking orders" determined, to some degree, by competition for group approval. And unfortunately every goal of a group can be pushed to unreasonable extremes. If the goal of a group is to oppose unjust government policies, members of the group may eventually morph into anarchists. I recently discovered that something like this had happened at our local Peace and Justice Center. The "anarchists" I met there were the mildest-mannered anarchists imaginable, and rather nice, friendly anarchists at that—but they were anarchists nonetheless. I’m something of a hermit, and pretty practical-minded, so I didn’t instantly join their group and start competing to out-"anarchize" them, but if I hung around them long enough, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear myself saying things I wouldn’t normally say in other circles.
So what Merrill pointed out seems correct, and makes perfect sense to me. We do see "fierce and dogmatic" camp mentalities arising from enclaves like Gaza and inner city ghettoes. And something similar can obviously happen in intellectual circles. When certain dogmas of Modernism were pushed to unreasonable extremes ("Make it new!" somehow became "Damn meter and rhyme across the board!"), Formalists soon formed enclaves and then, armed with a reciprocal fierce dogmatism, prepared to retaliate. Before long there were two highly militant "churches" of poetry, each bristling with malice, like bellicose porcupines.
But of course none of this is helpful to either side, or has anything at all to do with writing good poetry, since writing good poetry is invariably a solitary act. When was the last time any organization produced a good poem?
Lehr’s essay makes the point that American poetics have become "fossilized" into "more or less permanent factions." I believe he’s correct. I’ve used the coinage "ossified thinking" to describe what I see today in various religious, political and poetical camps. Like Lehr and Merrill, I have never felt comfortable in the "Formalist" camp—probably because I’m a hermit who likes to read, think and write by himself. I may have avoided the camp mentality simply because I never really enlisted. But I love good formal poetry and good free verse, and everything good in between, so I’d like to see the hostilities cease.
I agree with Lehr that contemporary formal poetry has become "Greek heavy" and "real world light." After all, in the real world we cuss more than we call on Athena and Apollo. And why so many poems about flower gardens, tea parties, ice cream socials, and the travails of being poets? Why not write about really interesting things, for a change? I remember only one popular song about a garden party—the one by Rick Nelson—and it was boring. How many songs did the Stones, Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan sing about boring topics? They wisely enthralled us with songs about passionate love and (yes!) even tear-jerkers like "Angie," "As Tears Go By" and "Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door."
I also agree with Lehr (I’ve been saying it myself for years) that contemporary poets tend to value poise (and style/technique) over passion (and compassion). Poets like Blake, Shelley, Hart Crane and Auden were capable of breaking our hearts. I believe Auden said something to the effect that sympathy is poetry. But most of the poets I publish seem to be leery of appearing to be emotional or sentimental. Why? Obviously, human beings are emotional, sentimental beings. Poems like Auden’s "Lullaby" and Blake’s "Cradle Song" appeal to human sentiment without descending into sentimentalism (by which I mean writing that demands a greater emotional response than the writer has earned). But how many formidable Formalists are capable of writing tender lullabies?
Lehr mentions the tendency of Formalists to avoid strong emotions "at all costs." He calls this an overreaction to post-confessionalist poetry. Whatever the cause, I agree with Lehr that such timidity is not becoming in poets. What are they afraid of?
However, I disagree with Lehr when he calls the "man in the street" a "dreadful bore." Such bigotry is, I believe, a symptom of the ghetto mentality and fierce dogmatism that have contributed to the near-paralysis of contemporary Formalism. The man in the street knows a good Stones song when he hears it, so how can art be beyond his grasp? Perhaps the Stones are simply more authentic artists than most contemporary poets. The Stones aren’t afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves, if doing so will result in crowd-pleasing songs. And if audiences light their lighters and sway rhythmically with tears in their eyes, the Stones don’t instantly go catatonic, as I imagine most hoity-toity poets would. Imagine the shame Formalists would feel, if people broke down and wept upon hearing their poems. "Stiff upper lips, ignoramuses!" Isn’t that what the professor-poets would say (or, far more likely, think discretely to themselves)?
I agree with Lehr that, for the most part, contemporary poetry lacks "outrage," "a sense of moral commitment" and "shock at injustice." In my opinion, Modernism did not begin with Pound and Eliot, but with the Romanticism of Milton and his heirs: Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats. Milton was shocked and outraged—first by the injustices of the British monarchy, then later by the injustices of Cromwell and his "reformers." Milton’s God (perhaps modeled after British monarchs) was a distant autocrat and Milton gave Christ’s "atonement" a single embarrassed enjambed line in his great epic; his real hero was the romantic dissident, Satan. Since Milton the writers who have helped change the world most profoundly for the better have been anti-establishment dissidents: Blake and Dickens (who incited public outrage to put an end to child slave labor in the West), Shelley (who wrote a tract on the necessity of atheism), Whitman (the first publically gay voice in American literature), Harriet Beecher Stowe (slavery), Mark Twain (racism, hypocrisy, anti-Christian polemics), Oscar Wilde (the kitchen sink), et al.
But the revolutionary attitude of Milton probably originates with the ancient Hebrew prophets who upset the applecart of orthodoxy and ritual-based religion by belittling sacrifice (why would God slaver after blood and flesh like a scavenger?) while demanding chesed [mercy, compassion, lovingkindness] and social justice. John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul were also radical reformers. Paul tossed out the entire Mosaic law like so much rancid garbage and instituted the reign of the individual human conscience, saying he was free to do as he pleased, but that he chose not to do anything he considered "unprofitable." After fermenting for the better part of two millennia, the egoist individualism of Paul would finally meld with the rebellious spirit of Milton’s Satan, in visionary writers like Blake, Whitman and Shelley. All the dither and blather about formal verse versus free verse has very little to do with the real Revolution. Lehr’s angel was misinformed, or missed the point. The Rebel Angels were out to overthrow God and church, and still are. Like Frankenstein, Paul created a monster intent on its Creator's destruction.
The real "line in the sand" has been drawn between Dante (who condemned human beings to neat compartments in hell) and Milton, whose rebellious angels left heaven in chaos and earth in an uproar. The battle remains joined between the forces of Orthodoxy (the human Ego is evil) and those of Romanticism (the human Ego makes man divine). This is the Titanic struggle, not the silly debate over formal and free verse. Promethean Man is still struggling to free himself from the Oppressor’s ball and chain. Satan is still opposing Christ. The West’s rebellious Ego is still fiercely opposing the placid Oriental Soul’s call to submit to God and sink back into the Nirvana of nothingness. If God remains on his throne, it's a shaky throne at best.
Meanwhile, the Formalists are writing paeans to Apollo and platitudes to Christ. But of course, not all Formalists are milquetoasts. As the editor of The HyperTexts, I have published strong poems by poets like Ann Drysdale, X. J. Kennedy, Yala Korwin, Tom Merrill, Richard Moore and Joe Salemi: poems which go far beyond mere "art for art’s sake." Wonderful examples (people should read them!) are Salemi’s "The Missionary Position" and Drysdale’s poem about two homeless men "skillfully masturbating" each other on the steps of the Basilica, working toward a "second coming." Another is Joe Kennedy’s poem in which he sticks out his tongue at a Catholic priest, providing a "fresh roost for the Holy Ghost." Merrill regularly writes about the joys of homosexual sex, and how those joys are frequently interrupted by the forces of evil (er, of Orthodoxy and its fascist police state). Unsurprisingly, our most-read THT poets are the ones who aren’t slaves to conformism and convention.
Where would the world be today, without the moral outrage and passion of writers like Blake, Dickens, Whitman and Twain? So I agree with Lehr that poets are unwise to "play it safe." I have published one rant after another (albeit informed, intelligent rants) about the orthodox Christian "Cult of Hell" and how it abuses highly impressionable children emotionally and spiritually, about the U.S.-sponsored Holocaust of the Palestinian people, about the need for human beings to be able to end their lives when and how they choose, etc. I have even created a page called Heresy Hearsay, where poets are free to blaspheme the name of God Almighty. If the Almighty has the good sense not to believe his press clippings, who knows . . . perhaps he’ll listen to his fiercest critics and ease up on Haiti. But I’m not holding my breath. After all, hell hath no fury like an invisible friend scorned.
I asked Merrill and Lehr to make
suggestions about what poets should do at this stage, and I received the
response below from Merrill. After publishing what Merrill has to say on the
subject, I will offer my own conclusions and
"My own response would be no different from what I say in my essay: doors need to be opened. There needs to be more openness to uncommon viewpoints and to more adventurous styles—and to the whole range of variance in human perspective. Segregation is no way to break down barriers or encourage greater understanding and acceptance. Isolation breeds paranoia and mistrust. It is better to get to know "the other side" a little before advancing any conclusions about it. It might not prove so terrible after all. Ignorance is probably the source of all prejudice and all misunderstanding. Too many conclusions are based on what is imagined rather than on what is known."
"Coexistence seems to me a far wiser objective than sectarian warfare. The human tendency to impose one's will on others works against this ideal. Creeds are presumptuous and dismayingly final, and are—all of them—an enemy of progress. What new light can ever leak in through a boarded window? And certainly the attitude by many groups that they are the sole guardians of the light should be seriously questioned. I think it would be truer to call them guardians of darkness. One should be wary of groups per se, or at least of any group devoted to a creed it regards as beyond question. Who on earth could have a monopoly on truth? And yet such presumptuous monopolies abound. Each individual is unique and special in his or her own inherited makeup—each individual represents a unique variation on the species. And all such variations are equal by sheer virtue of their existence, with an equal right to expression. Life can only be what it is, and thank god for the variations."
How do Saints fans know they're no longer the Aints? Well, they can look at the scoreboard: they just won the Superbowl (yes, I confess: I took a short break from this essay to watch the game). Of course Formalists have no such luxury.
Or do they?
Actually, they do. The "scoreboard" is called Google Analytics, and it’s free to the public, thanks to one of the more benevolent companies in the history of mankind. Google Analytics provides a "snippet" of HTML code that can be added to the bottom of any web page. Once the snippet has been added, Google will track every page view and report the number of times a page is viewed, where the views are coming from by country of origin, how long viewers spend on the page, how they got there, etc.
The HyperTexts has hundreds of pages, so it took me some time to add the code snippet. When I did, I was astounded. My part-time enterprise seems to be attracting over half a million page views per year, from over 100 different countries.
Some of our poets are being read many hundreds of times per month. The most-read poets include Richard Moore, Yala Korwin, Leonard Nimoy, Nadia Anjuman, X. J. Kennedy, Tom Merrill, Luis Omar Salinas, Rhina P. Espaillat, Joe Salemi, A. E. Stallings, Robert Mezey, Julie Kane, Ann Drysdale, Takashi "Thomas" Tanemori, Sam Gwynn, J. Patrick Lewis, Jim Barnes, Alfred Dorn, Richard Wakefield, Wendy Videlock, Jennifer Reeser and Annie Finch. Some of our poets will probably be read more than 10,000 times annually. And I would blush if forced to mention how many times my own pages will be read, although any comparison would be unfair because I have a hand in so many of THT’s pages, some of which rank highly with Google for popular searches like "Holocaust poetry," "formal poetry" and "epigrams."
I don’t want to sound arrogant, so let me put it like this: I certainly do not have a bag over my head.
I believe the death of Poetry has been greatly exaggerated. Poets who know me, know that I’ve been saying this for many years now. They also know that I have little sympathy for poets whose plaints and complaints reach to the highest heavens, as they bewail the lingering death of the fairest of the Muses.
This is just another irrational dogma of the highly irrational religion of contemporary poetry. The lingering, languishing Muse is a very pathetic fallacy of poets, with no basis in fact.
I once believed what nearly every Formalist believes, until I discovered an astounding fact, perhaps ten years ago. At that time Lycos, the Google of its era, began publishing its most popular search terms. To my amazement, "poetry" was one of the top ten search terms for an entire year. "Poetry" ranked higher than "football," "golf," and most of the Internet sex kittens!
As I mentioned before, I own a computer software company. I have written thousands of computer programs over the last 30 years. I understand "hard data." Poets may lie. Critics may lie. But hard data does not lie.
Obviously, all the poets I knew were either misinformed, or mad. Poetry was not in the doldrums at all. It was only poets who were in the doldrums.
I have what may be a fairly unique ability. My thirty years of producing computer programs, which are pure logic, have given me a great deal of confidence in my powers of logic. When I discover that other people are misinformed, or mad, I can "turn on a dime" and go in another direction. Being a hermit also helps in this regard, since there’s no one to "talk sense into me."
First, I stopped believing what everyone else accepted as the "gospel truth."
Second, I decided to target those multitudinous Internet searches for things relating to poetry. As Google came into vogue, I learned how to make Google "fall in love" with my pages, by making them "relevant as hell." Soon THT not only ranked number one for most of our poets’ names, but also for highly popular search terms as well.
But the technology of the time didn’t give me much feedback. I had a hit counter on our main page, but it didn’t tell me how many people were coming in "through the back door," so to speak. But now any poetry website can determine its popularity, and the popularity of each of its pages, free of charge, thanks to Google Analytics.
So Formalists do have a scoreboard, and it says the better Formalist poets are hardly Aints.
THT is only one of many, many popular poetry websites. Some are wildly popular. So I have a word of advice for poets: stop whining and complaining. The readers are there. The interest is there. Readers are actively seeking out poetry, using Google and other search engines.
I stopped whining and complaining around ten years ago. For the last decade or so, I have maintained a positive attitude, and I have done many, many positive things to help the cause of Poetry. My Muse is not languishing and dying; She is vibrantly alive and flourishing.
But of course there has been a sea change. When the best poems by the best poets of all time are free on the Internet, most readers aren't going to buy poetry books by lesser poets. And so most poets will need "day jobs." This isn’t the end of the world. Get used to it, or write poetry so astoundingly good people will knock down doors to pay for it.
I have what I believe may be good advice for poets, especially younger poets. So here goes:
Having an optimistic outlook helps, but avoid over-confidence.
Learn not to lean on flattery and unearned compliments.
Be discerning. Learn to be your own best critic.
Be willing to accept negative criticism, and use it to improve your work.
Avoid the ghetto mentality.
Avoid dogma and group-think like the plague.
Use your powers of reason to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Be free to use the best of the entire English poetic tradition, including Modernism.
Remember that even the best poets can be misinformed, or mad.
Stop blaming readers for not liking your poetry.
After all, it’s your job to write poetry other people will like.
This means you will need to write moving poems about things people really care about.
So you will have to stop being a snob, if you ever started.
Develop an ounce of courage and take a few risks.
After all, no one ever died because someone laughed or smirked at a poem.
Poets must adapt to their particular generation and time. When tractors first came out, farmers with horse-drawn plows mocked and ridiculed them, and their owners. "The strange contraptions will never catch on! Horses are more reliable!" But today the only farmers using horse-drawn plows are Mennonites, and most of us consider them merely quaint anachronisms.
Before the printing press caught on, scrolls made of animal hides were the "superior" technology. Rich people wanted hand-crafted hides, not mass-produced books. But when was the last time you read anything on an animal hide? Today many poets (soon to be appreciated as merely quaint anachronisms) are convinced paper-and-ink journals are "much better" than Internet-based journals. But THT is going to get half a million page views this year, and is reaching readers in more than 100 countries. If poets want to be read, whose methods are superior?
Also, poets need to realize that "Google changes everything." As more and more readers use Google to get their daily dose of poetry, poets whose names are currently unknown need to understand "Google dynamics." For an unknown poet to be read, he must either (1) ally with popular websites that attract readers in general, or (2) publish poems on popular topics that readers are actively searching for via search engines, or (3) come up with some other real-world-viable strategy. Poets who fail to understand the "sea change" created by the Internet and Google risk remaining un-find-able, and therefore unread.
The good news for poets is that Internet keyword searches prove that poetry is a popular art form. The bad news for poets is that snobs and popular art forms go together like oil and water. And the simple truth is that far too many poets are snobs.
Poets need to stop blaming readers for not finding their poems of interest. The best poetry is highly interesting to many, many readers. If readers don’t like your work, you need to write better and more evocatively. This isn’t what poets want to hear, but then no one with a ghetto mentality wants to hear that he needs to crack open books, read, study, and work his ass off to escape the ghetto. It’s much easier to sit on a stoop and wail with one’s fellow "prisoners." Unfortunately in poetic ghettoes the people doing the wailing are generally snobs who blame "inferior people" (i.e., readers) for their dire predicaments. And yet many of the "poets" can’t write their way out of paper bags, if the goal is to write evocatively. What do they have to be snobbish about, really?
With Google the cream will rise to the top, because Google is unaffected by snobbery. This means the poets readers like best and find the most relevant will be the most-read poets. I can hear the gasps and shudders. "But the average reader is a cad, and a bore!"
No, but you, my friend, are a snob, if you think so. Even worse, you are a snob who has succumbed to a false religion, like the Pharisees who were ridiculed at every turn by Jesus. Please allow me to offer myself as evidence.
When I was a boy, I discovered poetry in my English textbooks. I remember skipping over the prose, flipping through the pages to find the next poem. I was reading my English books voluntarily, simply because I liked the best poems so much. I was just a schoolboy, not an "intellectual." And yet I was fully capable of reading and understanding the best poems of Blake, Housman, Yeats, Whitman, Frost, et al.
So fuck your snobbery. If a teenager without a classical education can read, enjoy and understand the best poems of all time, fuck you.
I hope my equivalent of electro-shock therapy worked. If not,
so be it. Some people cannot be cured of intellectual snobbery. But if we can
accept the simple, obvious fact that the best poems of all time are accessible
to and enjoyed by schoolchildren who are not specialists, we should be able to cast aside many
of the prevailing fictions and false dogmas poets lug around like balls and chains.
If you write a decent poem, any half-way literate teenager can understand it. If the poem is good, he would also enjoy it. I am living proof that what most poets believe is just another false religion’s mumbo-jumbo.
The best poetry is accessible to "normal" readers. If you want to live in a la-la land where poetry is the province of the uber-reader, that makes you a Fascist. Go subscribe to Mein Kampf and the patently false doctrine of the Aryan Superman.
Obviously, poets like Blake, Housman and Frost were not writing for the uber-reader. They were fully able to connect with ordinary readers. This is obvious. So fuck the snobs. Google will consign the snobs to the ash-heap of poetic history. In the future, the poets who are the best communicators and the most pleasing, entertaining and relevant writers, will prevail.
Google will be the death of snobbery in poetry.
If I just disproved everything you ever believed about poetry and readers, what about other false dogmas, such as poets needing to avoid sentiment like the plague, or "predictable" rhyme being a no-no, or adjectives being "bad" and "dangerous"?
The only poems that have ever really mattered are the best poems. Ernest Dowson is an important poet because he wrote a small handful of utterly stellar poems. Helen Steiner Rice is an unimportant poet because she wrote a plethora of mediocre poems. As the canon continually expands, only the best poems really matter. Google will help the cream rise to the top. This time it will not be the opinions of snobs that matter, but the opinions of multitudes.
Is this good news for the Formalists, or their literary Armageddon?
I believe this is very good news, because when skillfully employed, meter and rhyme please readers. As a matter of fact, some of the very best poems of all time are fairly recent poems that skillfully employ meter and/or rhyme. For example:
"Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold
"God’s Grandeur" and "The Windhover" by Gerard Manley Hopkins
"The Darkling Thrush" and "The Convergence of the Twain" by Thomas Hardy
Any number of poems by A. E. Housman*
"Sailing to Byzantium," "The Second Coming" and other poems by W. B Yeats
"Cynara," "A Last Word" and "Vitae Summa Brevis" by Ernest Dowson
"Luke Havergal" by E. A. Robinson
"Directive," "The Most of It," "Acquainted with the Night," "Birches" and other poems by Robert Frost
"Sunday Morning," "The Snow Man" and other poems by Wallace Stevens
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and other poems by T. S. Eliot
"Bread and Music" and "The Morning Song of Senlin" by Conrad Aiken
"Piano" by D. H. Lawrence
"Dulce et Decorum Est," "Strange Meeting" and other poems by Wilfred Owen
"In Just," "I sing of Olaf glad and big" and other poems by E. E. Cummings
"Song for the Last Act" and "After the Persian" by Louise Bogan
"Voyages," "To Brooklyn Bridge," "The Broken Tower" and other poems by Hart Crane
"Lullaby" and "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" by W. H. Auden
"Bagpipe Music" by Louise McNeice
"One Art" and "The Armadillo" by Elizabeth Bishop
"Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden
"Do Not Go Gentle," "Fern Hill," and other poems by Dylan Thomas
"The Death of a Toad" by Richard Wilbur
"Church Going" by Philip Larkin
"More Light! More Light" and "Sarabande" by Anthony Hecht
"All My Pretty Ones" by Anne Sexton
"Daddy" by Sylvia Plath
"The Forge," "Digging" and several sonnets by Seamus Heaney
"In the Dark Season," "Depths" and other poems by Richard Moore
"The Lovemaker" by Robert Mezey
"For Her Surgery" by Jack Butler
"Advice for Winston," "Incidental Effects ..." and other poems by Tom Merrill
So, again, there's no need for Formalists to put bags over their heads, or to call themselves Aints. Nor is there any reason to damn the reading public. Some of the best poems of all time were written only recently, by poets who were/are virtuosos with meter and rhyme. Why, then, all the gloom and despair?
In closing, I am going to offer excerpts from the Foreword to my upcoming book of poems. I believe my Foreword makes points that may be of interest, and perhaps even useful, to poets. But I don’t want to bore anyone, so please choose the better part of valor—discretion—if my opinions begin to strike you as tiresome . . .
If you’re holding my book in your hands, I truly hope you’re not one of those pale, forlorn creatures known as a "literary personage." If you’re not, how wonderful for you, and for me. If you are, I hope to cure you of your dreadful affliction through a gentle baptism of humor.
Mind you, enjoying reading and writing doesn’t make someone a literary personage. I like to read and write, but in order to be a literary personage, I would require two things: literary aspirations and literary presumptions. A literary personage, by my definition, is someone who sees writing as a way to impress other people while keeping them under his thumb (via his literary presumptions, or "theories").
Poems are creatures of grace and light. But for a person to encounter them while his head is chock-full of literary aspirations and theories … well, that would be like a lab intern bumping into a unicorn. He would certainly want to kill and dissect it.
Poems are meant to be enjoyed, not dissected!
If you’re not a literary personage, you’ll be free to approach my poems the way you approach milkshakes: that is, by simply liking whichever flavors you like, not liking those you don’t, and not inspecting yourself minutely for deficiencies—like a chimp checking for fleas—if you don’t like what someone else thinks you should, or vice versa.
Perhaps "vice" is the operative term. Literary people’s worst and most obnoxious vice is condemning other people, and themselves, for preferring vanilla to chocolate. They stick everybody’s head in a vice, including their own, trying to squeeze out the last drop of common sense, until no one in all the world is able to like a poem without first having an acceptable reason (that is, a "theory" acceptable to the brains of literary personages, which are otherwise [otherdumb?] as empty and drafty as belfries where only a few bats flit about aimlessly in the dark).
If you are a literary personage, you must simply stop telling people, yourself included, that it’s somehow "wrong" to like vanilla shakes, or chocolate, or poems that strum people’s heartstrings like the chords of a lyre, invoking sentiments. After all, the root of "lyric" is "lyre," and what, pray tell, do you think the strummers of lyres were up to, in the olden days? Of course they were making people smile and weep, which is entirely the purpose of lyres, and of lyrics. Who ever played a harp without trying to elicit a smile, or a tear?
According to Robert Frost, "poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom." I like to paraphrase this, saying "poetry delights us into wisdom." But if poetry doesn’t delight, it either isn’t poetry, or the poetry in question wasn’t meant for the reader who wasn’t delighted by it. In either case, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a reader simply saying, "This poem is not for me!" and moving on. It’s nonsensical to say or imply that any person’s taste in milkshakes is "wrong." The problem with literary people is that they’ve somehow become convinced that something is "wrong" with other readers, and with themselves, if they don’t like Shakespeare’s sonnets, or Eliot’s "The Wasteland," or Chaucer’s "Canterbury Tales."
I really don’t care for any of the above, although I do like a word here, a line there.
So literary people are, in a word, nuts. And not even the good kind that can add flavor and crunchiness to ice cream.
The highest aspiration of a literary personage is to be perceived as a non-sentimental automaton. A literary person whose eyes well with tears when he thinks about his mother will be unable to write a highly emotional poem about her and then show it to any other literary person. Such things are simply not done in literary circles! Such poems are embarrassments, and must be hidden in sock drawers!
Now a literary person might write a moving poem about a marble statue, or an obscure figure of Greek mythology, and then not only show the poem to another literary person quite proudly, but even have it published. But certainly not a poem about his mom, which if written must be consigned to a sock drawer (underneath the socks, not on top) for all eternity. Why is this? No one knows. This is simply an incontrovertible edict of Literary Dogma, akin to a religious person saying "Thou shalt not kill." The literary person sternly commands himself, "I shalt not write about my mother, lest my sock drawer should overflow and reveal my embarrassing secret: that I too am a sentimental creature!"
Now it has been known for religious people to break their most solemn edicts. Popes who preach "thou shalt not kill" have often burned heretics at the stake. Evangelists have not only demanded the death penalty, but even an eternal "hell" for "sinners" (those other than themselves, of course), even though their God and his prophets never even mentioned "hell" (as Casey Stengel said, "you could look it up"). There's no mention of "hell" in the entire Old Testament (when did God ever mention "hell" to Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Lot, Moses, et al?) or in the earliest Christian texts (the epistles of Paul). "Hell" pops up in the later books of the Bible like the weasel in the silly song. So it’s hard to take Popes and Evangelists seriously. They say murder is a "sin," but when "great heroes" like Moses, Joshua, Caleb and David kill women, that’s fine and dandy, "just because." But literary types take their self-imposed edicts much more seriously. Quick, tell me the title of a poem by a great poet about his mother! See what I mean? Can anyone name a single poem about a famous poet’s mother?
A modern poet is far more likely to write a poem about an obscure figure of Greek mythology than about his mother. If he does write about his mother, he will do everything in his power not to appear to be "sentimental." But because I’ve chosen to break every tie with my sworn enemies, the Literary Elite, please allow me to offer a poem I wrote for my mother, Christine Ena Burch:
There never was a fonder smile
than mother’s smile, no softer touch
than mother’s touch. So sleep awhile
and know she loves you more than "much."
So more than "much," much more than "all."
Though tender words, these do not speak
of love at all, nor how we fall
and mother’s there, nor how we reach
from nightmares in the ticking night
and she is there to hold us tight.
There never was a stronger back
than father’s back, that held our weight
and lifted us when we were small
and bore us till we reached the gate,
then held our hands that first bright mile
till we could run, and did, and flew.
But, O, a mother’s tender smile
will leap and follow after you!
Every reader with proper literary credentials no doubt just slammed my book closed and crossed me out of his Book of Life, the way Evangelists condemn all the earth’s children to hell so that only the Chosen Few (them) can inherit Heaven. But I’m a poet, and I believe in things of grace and light—poems—not cold, unfeeling, nonsensical literary and religious dogma.
Readers will have to decide what to make of my poem. In any case, I’m glad I wrote it. But no self-respecting literary person would put such a poem in his book, much less his Foreword, and no major literary journal would publish it. And so I’m forced to draw one of two conclusions: either something’s wrong with my poem, or there’s something wrong with the Literarians. What do you think? If you’re a literary person, you may have a strong bias against my poem. Perhaps you should show it to your friends and family. What do they think? What if most people like my poem, except the Literary Elite? Do other people know too little, or do the Literarians know too much?
When I started reading poetry voluntarily as a teenager, I simply picked up my English textbook, flipped through the pages looking for poems, and soon discovered that, while I didn’t care much for most of them, some were quite magical. They moved me. They stirred something within me that I can only call delight. For instance, here’s a short poem that delighted me the first time I read it, and which still delights me today, by Percy Bysshe Shelley:
Music When Soft Voices Die (To—)
Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory—
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.
Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the belovèd's bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.
But all poems certainly didn’t delight me. I found many of them boring or not worth my trouble. It never occurred to me that there was a "right" way or a "wrong" way to read poetry. I just read, waiting to feel the stirring of delight that told me "this poem is for me." Now, at age fifty, I still read poetry exactly the same way. But until I’ve read a poem and have made my decision (really, the poem makes it for me), I take the attitude that all poems are my province. I alone can decide which poems I like well enough to read again later. I call such poems "my poems." Hopefully you will like some of my poems enough to call them your poems.
I encourage you to take all poems as your province, including mine, always avoiding the curious modern malady of feeling somehow "deficient" if you don’t like or understand a certain poem, or don’t find it worth bothering with.
You are the perfect reader of poetry. But it’s just possible that you may be guilty of RUI: Reading Under the Influence (of literary people). And so I didn’t want to start out on a somber tone, and lose you from the onset, especially if you’re a literary person who needs to be cured of your scary malady. Nor do I think it’s time to "sober up" just yet. So please let me continue to tease you a little, if you’re a literary person, or to continue teasing them, if you’re not.
Do I do what every poet does? Probably, although these days I’m not as sure as I once was. All my life, I’ve written in utter solitude, never taking a poetry class, never attending a workshop or poetry reading, and only meeting poets in the flesh on the rarest of occasions. In fact, I may have only met one "real" poet (by which I mean someone who seems to make poetry his primary business) on one occasion, for a few hours, and it was a lot of trouble to find him, and then it was a lot of trouble to find my car afterwards, and then in the interim I had been awarded a parking ticket, which was troublesome to have taken care of, and while I found the real poet a rare and fascinating creature, perhaps akin to a peacock, only more flighty, he did unaccountable things that I would never do, such as reading his poems aloud with people watching, and signing autographs. And who knows, perhaps it was preordained that I should be a hermit in my chosen art and craft, and perhaps this was why the universe was flashing me various strange signals about the dangers of leaving the narrow way. It was a bit like being in an episode of "Lost in Space," with the robot strobing like crazy, flailing its strange accordion-like arms around like over-sized pinwheels, while crying out, "Beware, Mike Burch, Beware!"
I think I shall not attempt such fiascos again. My idea of "performance poetry" is getting my pen to perform its functions properly, by applying ink evenly to paper.
But am I any different from any other poet, or are we all so different that no one can tell us apart, because there’s no possible point of reference? After Byron, even swimming the Hellespont naked to arise from the sea like a beautiful, tragic Merman in defense of Greece, is old hat. There are zillions of poets so nutty, I sometimes strike myself as the only sane one left. Do I alone understand the dangers of being a Poet anywhere except in the Imagination?
I suppose every poet wonders at times (or perhaps in the case of some of them, all the time): Am I not somehow unique? Is it just possible that I’m better than anyone realizes, quite wonderful even, but somehow all the world has gone down the wrong track, leaving me the sole Great Artist who, by some evil, untoward twist of fate, has been condemned to die completely and utterly unknown and entirely and unfairly unmourned?
Such questions are, of course, unanswerable. I know poets who claim to be great, when their poems are, in fact, terrifyingly, terrifically, interterrestrially terrible. The only more difficult tongue twisters are their "poems." One such poet has had, allegedly, 100 million "hits" on his website. I suspect he’s fudged his numbers by a factor of 99,999,999 with the only other possible "hit" being himself. And yet he didn’t knock himself out long enough to stop his bragging! It pains me tremendously to think that I (I!) have been denied 100 million potential readers by someone whose only possible claim to greatness is his own. If I had known it was that easy, I would have merely claimed greatness in my diapers, and not bothered to learn to write at all.
I even know poets who seem to agonize hourly (perhaps even minutely or secondly) that they may not be "remembered," without having ever bothered to learn when the apostrophe goes in "it’s," versus when it doesn’t. (The fancy typography in my previous sentence demonstrates that I have at least one qualification they lack, plus a particle of wit.) Their premonitions seem eerily likely to be proven correct, in my opinion. How can they be such bad poets, and yet such good psychics? Surely there must be good money to be made, somewhere in the universe, by predicting failure for oneself, for having not bothered to be good at something. And to think that I chose to work for a living, so that I could afford to write in my free time!
I suppose it should bother me that some of my peers don’t seem to consider me a great poet. For a long time this did bother me. But then I came to the sudden, stunning understanding that they preferred my less-good poems to my best poems. This simple understanding of their misunderstanding helped me realize who I am as a poet. And yet it seems strange to praise them for not praising me, so I shan’t. Let them remain anonymous, forever! (Which is like saying: anon, a mouse, forever!)
It is all too obvious, at least to me (and now hopefully also to you), that they are simply far too timorous to give me my due. (I do hope you won’t make the same mistake.)
What I discovered by suddenly, stunningly realizing that only I am wise enough to like my best poems is this: my best poems are musical fables.
In literary circles, this is madness! To literary personages this is like saying, "My best yachts are rafts." This is because to them poems must be impressive things, like yachts, and so things that are not impressive cannot be poems, just as a raft cannot be a yacht. But to Huckleberry Finn, a raft might have seemed like a good, comfortable, leisurely way to travel. After all, his raft got him where he wanted to go, and allowed for all types of adventures people on yachts seldom have, since they have to spend all their time fussily adjusting their captain’s chairs and whatever the silly-looking hats they wear are called: the ones with the funny insignia pins. I think I would die of shame if I had to wear a hat with a pin stuck in it, while floating around on an over-sized ship I couldn’t pilot myself, merely to impress people. But what do I know, not being a Literary Personage of the eminence of Thurston Howell the Third?
But of course literary people love to impress other people, as long as the other people are literary people who know how to be properly impressed. This stupendous feat—knowing how to be impressed by what is clearly unimpressive—takes a tremendous amount of "education," as one might imagine. This is why Literary Personages have long, impressive strings of letters before and after their names. This is a code, far more complex than Morse’s, meaning: "I have acquired numerous expensive degrees which enable me to be impressed by you, if only you are able, for example, to explain the difference between a dactyl and a pterodactyl." Most people know that pterodactyls were flying dinosaurs. Pterodactyls are cool. But dactyls are decidedly uncool, and trivial to boot, and so only literary people know what they are, or care to know.
Even T. S. Eliot admitted that he didn’t know what dactyls were, or any of the other metrical feet. If the greatest Literary Personage since sliced bread didn’t know such things, should we?
I imagine literary people wear those silly yacht hats with insignia pins simply because someone once claimed they were the favored hats of T. S. Eliot. And they surely wear the bottoms of their trousers rolled, even on perfectly dry land, only because Eliot’s Prufrock, their hero, advocated such. (This despite the fact that Eliot himself admitted he didn’t know why Prufrock, his alter ego, wore the bottoms of his trousers rolled. It seems to me they were both highly neurotic, but then I’m not an in-the-know Literary Personage. Still, having an iota of common sense, and a particle of wit to boot, at least I know it’s better to mock them, than to join them in their folly.)
But I digress. Let me please get back to my main point, because it’s an important one, especially since it keeps me from being perceived as a literary person myself. That’s a risk I simply can’t take! The point is this: it doesn’t seem to me that any of the literary people I know care anything for musical fables. They seem to be "above" such things (and almost everything else as well). But fortunately they’re not my audience. Quite obviously, if my best poems are musical fables, then I must write for an audience that appreciates musical fables.
I’m quite certain that I’m the only poet left on the planet who understands anything about audiences. The typical attitude of a poet regarding an audience goes something like this: "Canadians like songs about maple leafs, so I will recite ghazals for them about antelopes eating cantaloupes, which I will then translate into Swahili, and when I have earned their undying adulation, they will know that I am a Poet." All the while the people in Canada are singing their favorite maple leaf songs and studiously ignoring the strange being who is being carted off to various asylums, crying at the top of his lungs, "Don’t you get it? A ghazal is a name for an Urdu poetic form that sounds like gazelle, which is a type of antelope, which rhymes with cantaloupe! But I am a Vorticist who detests rhyme in English verse (except of course in Acrostic limericks), and therefore because of the antelope/cantaloupe thing, it was imperative for me to learn Swahili so that I could translate my poem into an unusual language in which it is still permissible to rhyme! Have you no understanding of the complexity of the Task I assigned myself? Have you no appreciation of Art?"
One wonders why he didn’t just write a nice song with a maple leaf in it, which his audience would have enjoyed, and perhaps might even have paid him for.
Of course I have almost the same dilemma, with my love of musical fables, and am perceived as even more deranged by literary people, since I write in English and prefer to rhyme.
But what, you might ask, is a musical fable? Well, the musical part is fairly obvious. Music sings and swings. The fable part is more mysterious. Fables are like reality, only with less logical rules. In the real world, a prince is always a human being, but in a fable the prince might be a human being one minute, a frog the next, and then a human being again. A fable is, basically, something similar to reality, but with a "twist." Let me illustrate with one of my poems:
Will There Be Starlight
Will there be starlight
while she gathers
and sweet-scented heathers?
And will she find flowers,
or will she find thorns
guarding the petals
of roses unborn?
Will there be moonlight
while she gathers
and albatross feathers?
And will she find treasure
or will she find pain
at the end of this rainbow
of moonlight on rain?
You don’t have to be a literary person to like musical fables, which is good, because literary people have been programmed not to like such things, as if they were in a cult (which they are). They are under the impression that most simple things that sound and feel good are horrifically bad, because anyone can like and understand them, not just literary people, such as they. (A Literary Personage will know whether I should have used "they" or "them." Everybody else no longer cares. This is the perfect test, if you’re afraid of such people, as you probably should be, but can’t identify them on sight. Since there’s a 50/50 chance that someone might guess right about they/them, and since most of us don’t know the correct answer, ask they/them to explain the rule. If they/them care passionately about the rule, and go on about it at length, then they/them are a literary person. Avoid they/them if at all possible, unless you have trouble falling asleep, in which case the constant drone can be quite helpful.)
It would, indeed, be horrible for literary people if other people could merely listen to poetry and decide for themselves whether they/them liked it or not, without consulting a literary person. People might, for example, decide that they/them preferred Maya Angelou to Shakespeare. This would cause every literary person on the planet to drop dead instantly. It would be like the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, only no one would complain, or even notice, really (except of course for the absence of the sleep-inducing drone).
For literary people, only highly complicated things that sound obscure (because they are obscure) are good. Only things no human being can possibly understand are great. Eliot’s "The Wasteland" is almost universally acclaimed as the one truly great, shining achievement of Modernism, perhaps because all its other shining lights are of the "deer in the headlights" variety. "The Wasteland" is considered great entirely due to its novelty: it was written in several different languages, all of them hopelessly incompatible. How many readers know English, Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian and Sanskrit? This acme of Modernism is a poem that cannot possibly be read aloud, because no one can pronounce half its words! Because of its perfect novelty, no one has ever understood it, including, self-admittedly, the Poet, who merely shrugged, saying that he had only ever intended to create a slight feeling of dis-ease in his readers. Dis-ease is something akin to a disease that no one can name, which leaves the patient (us) in the uncomfortable position of not knowing whether he is dying, truly, or merely feels as if he’s dying.
Eliot was an amazingly good poet, when anyone could understand him. This happened exactly twice: at the beginning with "Prufrock" and then at the end with the poems he wrote for his grandchildren, which later became the musical "Cats." Before his grandchildren arrived and compelled him to write something both entertaining and understandable, Eliot mostly amused himself by pulling the legs of intellectuals. Eliot cared nothing about intellectuals, except that they had eminently pullable legs, like frogs, and were equally as ghastly. But when Eliot finally had grandchildren to love, he chose to write pleasing, understandable poems, and thus we have "Cats" to go with "Prufrock." The rest is merely a diversion, akin to a football team running the Statue of Liberty play. Intellectuals believe in "The Wasteland" the way teams tricked by the Statue of Liberty play believe a downfield pass is coming, while failing to notice the runner sauntering into the endzone untouched.
Literary people have two heroes: Shakespeare and Eliot. They would have a third, Ezra Pound, but they are uncomfortable with his racism, politics, economics and madness. They would love to praise his Cantos to the skies, since most of them are sublimely incomprehensible, but alas! they/them are too timorous. (Please remember that they/them fail to praise me for a similar, but opposite, reason.) What they/them fail to understand is that even if they/them were able to summon the courage to profess to like Pound, he was merely pulling the legs of intellectuals, like his protégé Eliot. This is clearly evident because Pound told his disciples to "make it new" when his own poems made Chaucer sound thoroughly modern, like Millie. Is this, I ask you, in any way "new":
Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries,
Fields to fairness, land fares brisker,
All this admonisheth man eager of mood . . .
No, it is more than obvious that neither Pound nor Eliot ever kept a single rule they concocted, just as Yahweh/Jehovah never obeyed "thou shalt not kill." Pound is not the newest of poets, but the most archaic since Chaucer, who at least was writing in his own time zone. Eliot and Pound simply liked to pull the legs of intellectuals, because frogs are much smarter and harder to fool. When Pound was busy writing his archaic Cantos and stupid people were distracting him, he would tell them to go "make it new." He didn’t mean it; this was just a polite brush-off, akin to an attractive woman telling a nerd, "Please brush your teeth and we’ll see what happens." She has no more intention of dating the green-toothed nerd than Pound had of reading the work of his admirers. She and Pound were both busy, and trying not to ruffle feathers unnecessarily. When Pound finally did find time to read the alleged "poems" of his disciples, he was aghast and quickly abandoned the poetic school he had created, Imagism, for a new one, Vorticism, neither of which produced a single poem anyone can remember. All anyone remembers, really, is the strange mantra "make it new" which Pound frequently muttered to his disciples but never followed himself.
This, I aver, is the entire basis of Modernism: mantras which make no sense and which wise poets ignore, while their strange lemming-like disciples hurl their weasely bodies from sheer cliffs to their certain ignominious doom.
When Eliot despised someone, he gave them "The Wasteland." When he loved someone, he wrote them playful, joyous songs about cats. You can always spot an intellectual by a simple test: he will hate "Cats" and love "The Wasteland." But no one with a heart and brain that both work simultaneously can love "The Wasteland." Why? Because Eliot had compassion for himself (he was Prufrock) and his grandchildren. He had no compassion for intellectuals, so he gave them "The Wasteland." Even the name is a dead giveaway, but intellectuals still don’t get it, just as frogs being slowly brought to a boil don’t "get" the fact that they are the main course, not dearly beloved disciples.
The disciples of Pound and Eliot "understood" them as abysmally as the disciples of Jesus "understood" him. Disciples never understand their masters, which is why we end up with Christians crying "God is Love" while burning heretics at the stake, over points of nonsensical religious dogma. But Pound and Eliot were far too busy for disciples, really, which is why they sent them on fruitless quests like "Make it new!" King Arthur did the same thing when he got rid of Lancelot by sending him in search of the "Holy Grail." Arthur wanted Guinevere for himself, but she kept making goo-goo eyes at Lancelot. Hence, the diversion of the "Holy Grail." Pound and Eliot just wanted time to write by themselves. Modernism is what happens when people listen to literary dogma that makes no sense, just as Crusades and Inquisitions are the things that happen when people listen to religious dogma that makes no sense, such as "Jesus saves" when his disciples are either being burned at stakes, or are doing the burning themselves. Of course Jesus never saved any of them, or the tiniest flea, or the most innocent baby bunny rabbit, from death. If he loved any of them, why didn't he use his magical superpowers on their behalf? I would never watch my loved ones suffer and die and not lift a finger to help them. Am I more compassionate than Christ?
Before the advent of Modernism, English poetry was different from prose in one important way: it had rhythm (meter) and it usually had rhyme as well. But the Modernists thought "make it new" meant something like "If your teeth were not so green, I might go on a date with you, and perhaps even kiss you." So they had all their teeth extracted. And now every poet with literary pretensions has his teeth extracted as soon as reaches puberty. If only they had kept and brushed their teeth, and had written rhythmic, rhyming love poems! Who knows, they might have been kissed once before they died, and thus been transformed from horny toads into charming princes. But that would be far too easy for poets. Poets seem to believe nothing can be good unless it’s incomprehensible. And they no longer believe in love or magic. This is, of course, why no one reads them.
But what about my fable? Of course no literary person will like it; this is a given. On the other hand, what do they really know, if they've been tricked into professing to like "The Wasteland" while being slowly brought to a boil?
Here’s another one of my fables. This one is about a real person, my wife Beth. However, this is not entirely the "real" Beth, but a Beth who has been placed inside a fable:
She Gathered Lilacs
She gathered lilacs
and arrayed them in her hair;
tonight, she taught the wind to be free.
She kept her secrets
in a silver locket;
her companions were starlight and mystery.
She danced all night
to the beat of her heart;
with her tears she imbued the sea.
She hid her despair
in a crystal jar,
and never revealed it to me.
She kept her distance
as though it were armor;
gauntlet thorns guard her heart like the rose.
to see what you’ve taken
is still less than the due my heart owes!
Literary people will immediately despise this poem because it has two exclamation marks. Every Modernist worth his salt knows that poets are only allowed one exclamation mark per lifetime. This is another of the curious mantras of Modernism, and is akin to saying that every human being is allowed a single french fry per lifetime. Literarians will also despise the fact that I italicized the last three lines, which is sensationalistic. (Please note that they are entitled to italics, but only when criticizing things that offend their delicate sensibilities.) And the fact that my poem expresses sentiment will cause them to pound their heads against various immovable objects, such as the Cantos of Pound.
My publisher Joe Ruggier has called this poem "conventional." But I fail to see anything conventional about it. The speaker (me) perceives his lover (my lovely, mysterious wife Beth) to be a fabulous creature. But she perceives herself as being somehow unworthy, as lacking. This is a true poem, even though it’s a fable: I see Beth differently than she sees herself. But what, exactly, is the "convention" of the poem, unless love and its mysteries have somehow become conventional?
But it’s pointless to dispute what one person thinks or says about a poem. Joe is entitled to his opinion, Beth to hers, me to mine. My fables are entirely open to your interpretation. You are not me, or Beth, or Joe. My main point, to this point in my Foreword, has been: don’t be afraid to like chocolate shakes if you like them, and don’t be afraid of not liking them, if you don’t. If we can agree on this, we can avoid the more nefarious perils of Modernism, such as only being able to eat one french fry per lifetime.
In any case, I hope I’ve kept you entertained so far. My goal has been to
keep this Foreword
from reading like a dirge
Before I begin to digress yet again, I would like to mention two unique features of this book, or at least unusual features for a collected works.
First, Joe has used a feature of Microsoft Word to footnote each poem, while superscripting its title accordingly. I own a computer software company and for more than thirty years I and my colleagues have been writing programs with the goal of increasing human productivity, while reducing the tedium people endure on their jobs. Joe has wisely employed technology to increase his productivity, while making a highly repetitive task far easier and less tedious; I applaud his ingenuity.
Second, Joe has put his subjective ranking of each poem in the poem’s footnote. At first, this took me a bit aback. Did I really want all the world (admittedly, a wild exaggeration) to see my poems being judged by a professional? But then I told my ego, "Get behind me, Satan," thinking of all the attention Joe had lavished on my poems. And some readers may well enjoy comparing their rankings to Joe’s.
But Joe’s rankings raised interesting questions, or at least questions of interest to me. While I agree with or don’t dispute a number of things Joe has said about my poems, there are two points on which I do disagree.
First, I mildly disagree with Joe’s remarks about the craftsmanship of my poems, in terms of meter and rhyme. I eliminated a good number of poems from this collection because I found myself agreeing with Joe’s opinions. The poems I chose to include that didn’t earn his full approval tend to be poems that are "looser" in construction than Joe might prefer. But they were written that way. I’m not disagreeing with Joe’s inalienable right to prefer one poem to another. Nor do I disagree with Joe about the overall quality of any poem, because beauty is truly and solely in the eye of the beholder. But I omitted every poem that in my mind didn’t read well. In the end, Joe and I simply disagree on the quality of the meter and rhyme of some of the remaining poems. My guess is that I like looser meters and rhymes more than Joe does, perhaps because I grew up with rock lyrics. While I’m fully capable of writing formal poetry, ultra-precise metrics and rhymes are not my personal Nirvana. Readers should simply form their own opinions, which they can compare to Joe’s, if they care to.
Second, I disagree strongly with Joe on the matter of love poems being "hackneyed" enterprises because love itself has become a "stale" theme. From reading his comments carefully and thoughtfully, I have come to the conclusion that Joe prefers themes of religion, mortality and art to romantic love. But Joe’s preferred themes have been written about more than copiously. It seems to me that Joe simply prefers certain themes to others, which is, of course, fine. But because Joe raised the issue, I would like to address two common misconceptions about poetry.
First, there’s a lot of dither and blather in literary circles these days about certain themes being "stale" and the need for poems to be "original." But most readers can read the same poems over and over again, and not tire of them, if the poems are good enough. So all the fuss seems mere fussiness to me. I have never tired of reading and re-reading the best poems of poets like William Blake, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, A. E. Housman, Louise Bogan, Dylan Thomas and Hart Crane. Great poems are timeless and don’t wear out from "overuse." But if an individual poem can remain eternally fresh, how can its theme have become "stale"? An analogy would be to say that newborn babies are innocent, but that all human beings are inherently evil. But if there is a single innocent baby, all human beings are not inherently evil. There are undoubtedly love poems that remain eternally fresh, such as "Voyages" by Hart Crane, "Lullaby" by W. H. Auden, and "To Earthward" by Robert Frost. How, then, can the theme of love be inherently "stale"?
Only religious dogma can persuade a loving mother who knows her newborn baby is helpless and innocent that he is somehow "inherently evil" because of "original sin." Only literary dogma can persuade a reader who knows certain poems are eternally fresh that their themes are "stale." But mothers should know better; readers should know better.
There is only one litmus test of poetry, or of any art, and that is whether the art itself is good, or less than good. The fine silks of poetry never become threadbare, but only richen with time. This is not to say, of course, that my poems are great works of art. Readers will have to decide if any of them have any lasting worth. But I believe "staleness" is simply industry jargon. No poem’s theme is "stale" if the poem’s art is good. Themes matter nothing; poems matter everything. The test of a poem is the poem itself.
Joe’s "stale" theme is romantic love; Beth’s favorite theme is romantic love. Why? Because Beth believes in romantic love; perhaps Joe doesn’t. Joe prefers poems about religion; they have little or no appeal for Beth. Themes are a matter of personal taste, as with milkshakes. Some folks prefer chocolate, some vanilla. Some like both about the same. But literary critics like Harold Bloom have claimed to own the "high ground" of poetry, proclaiming it an "elitist art," and now certain themes are considered "trite": romantic love, praise, elegy, and so on. This is like Bloom saying Beth is wrong to prefer vanilla milkshakes, because he’s an expert, and he knows chocolate shakes are best. Bloom is a fascist in matters of milkshakes and poetry. And yet literary people flock after Bloom the way gullible sheep flocked after Hitler. But Bloom is wrong. Beth is the wiser reader. She simply likes what she likes and doesn’t bother with highly dubious theories about poetry. If more readers would follow Beth’s lead, they would lose their fear of poetry and be free to simply like whatever they like. The only bad reader of poetry is a reader with literary pretensions, because he thinks he must get his theories "straight" before he can be sure what he is allowed to like. Beth knows what she likes the minute she reads it.
This is one of the many ironic truths of the world we live in: poetry "experts" are the rub of poetry, just as religious "experts" are the rub of religion.
The world is full of poetry "experts" who believe the stupidest things, such as "no ideas but in things," "only one exclamation mark per lifetime," and the sublimely incomprehensible "the perfect poem is silence," as if we should all devoutly wish Homer and Shakespeare hadn’t given us Achilles, Ulysses, Circe, Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Othello and Romeo and Juliet.
The world is also full of religious "experts" who are full of sublimely incomprehensible "facts," such as the woman-killing genocidal maniac King David being "a man after God’s own heart" who will be in heaven, while other people will go to an "eternal hell" for only taking their own lives. Religious experts tell the world that euthanasia is a "sin," as if God demands our prolonged suffering. The far greater "sin" is to believe they have actually read their Bibles, because the great "heroes" of the Bible committed suicide (Samson), considered euthanasia (Job), slept with prostitutes (Samson), were polygamists (Abraham, David and Solomon), killed women and children (Joshua and Caleb), and advocated the killing of mature women so that their virgin daughters could be taken as sex slaves (Moses). And yet Christians believe they will all be in heaven! If them, why not everyone?
Why do people believe the babblings of charlatans and fools? The perfect poem is not silence. The God of the Bible never condemned anyone to an "eternal hell," nor did he bother to tell Moses about hell when he gave him the Law and its punishments. What could be more silly than for God to go on and on about the temporal consequences of sin to Moses, if there were eternal consequences? If God ever spoke to anyone in the Old Testament, there is no hell, because he never mentioned it to a single soul from the beginning, nor did he ever announce hell’s creation, or purpose, or how to avoid it. Christians only live in fear of hell for themselves and their families and friends because their theologians, priests and pastors are either fools who have never actually read the Bible and actually thought, or because they’re charlatans (or both).
One day as I sat in the pew of the Southern Baptist Church I once attended, the hymn being sung was number one in the hymnal. For some reason I became curious to know what the last hymn might be. When I flipped to the last hymn, its number was 666. If there are no accidents with God, as the Christians at my church often breathlessly informed me, this struck me as a very bad sign. Just what was God trying to tell me?
But once again, I digress. Getting back to poetry …
If a love poem is great or good, it’s because the poet succeeded. If a love poem is mediocre, poor or bad, it’s because the poet failed. Congratulate or blame the poet, but there is no such thing as a "bad" theme. There are only bad (failed) poems.
As for "unoriginality," all poems are original, unless great swaths of words have been copied more or less exactly. There is no such thing as an "unoriginal" poem unless the poet is a plagiarist. But many highly original poems by lesser poets can be bad, or even harrowingly terrible.
As with Jefferson’s, these truths are self-evident, or should be. But Jefferson failed to live up to his own ideals, owning slaves long after he signed his own "Declaration of Independence." Now literary people have become slaves to their own fears. They’re afraid to like poems unless they can come up with theories to explain why they might possibly be good. The best reason they have come up with so far is that someone smarter than them must know what he’s doing, and therefore must be good no matter how incomprehensible he may be, and so they purport to admire what they cannot understand. This is called, quite correctly, "high art." The price is so high no one will pay it, and the art is so high over everyone’s head, no one can understand it.
If only people would be more like Beth, and like what they like, the way they like whatever flavors of milkshakes they prefer, for no good reason at all!
No sane person pretends to like pistachio milkshakes, if he really doesn’t. No sane person orders anchovies on his pizzas to make a good impression. But people must pretend to like "The Wasteland" if they want to be perceived as Literary Personages, when we would all much rather have root canals, with at least the possibility of being sedated.
Literary people often make the same types of mistakes with words themselves. For instance, a literary person who wants to say the grass is green will soon come to the stupendous conclusion that the words "green grass" have been used before and are thus "unoriginal," which is the same as calling them the "Abomination of Desolation." The literary world will thus come to an end if the Literary Personage uses the words "green grass" in his poem.
I’ve even heard such nonsensical things said as it being somehow being "bad" to use words like "bright" and "pale" because they’ve been "overused." Poets are afraid of using the best common adjectives! But I hardly consider a poem finished until I’ve used such words. They never grow stale for me, nor do they lose their allure. Words are the building blocks of poems. Saying basic words have been "overused" is like saying masons have used too many bricks. Should we all go back to living in caves, until we can think of something more "original" than to build houses with bricks? Of course not: the test of a house is whether someone would enjoy living in it, not whether its bricks are stunningly "original" (in which case they would probably fall apart, having never been tested).
If we were to throw out every word as soon as it had been used, we would make the Tower of Babel seem the ultimate in efficiency! The plain, simple truth is that the best words are the ones we use the most frequently, simply because they are the best. This is why chocolate milkshakes are more common than grasshopper-flavored milkshakes. Only in religious and literary circles can simple things become so confused. Only in literary circles and "polite society" do people eat wilted watercress and tomato aspic, sip cold soup, and use incomprehensible words because they are ashamed of the ones they know and understand best.
Winston Churchill said, "Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all." We sane, common folk tend to use words we actually like and understand, avoiding bad words, like "literary person" because they make us sick to our stomachs, as with cold soup. We all know soup was meant to be served hot, and that good words are the ones most people understand. I only use the horrendously awful term "literary person" because I’m engaging in satire, in which the repetition of bad words is considered comical. If I wanted you to feel compassion for such detestable beings, I would couch their names in euphemisms, like "buttercup." If you ever hear me call a literary person "buttercup," this will be a signal that the world is about to end, like the Trump of Doom. As long as I call them "literary people" you will know it’s okay to laugh those little pitying laughs we reserve for people who think they can dance, but can’t.
The true test of a poem is whether it pleases readers enough for them to return to it. It’s the same test as for a good house. The best poems are the ones readers return to, because the poems’ words are memorable. The poet's job is to write memorable poems. In order for me to become immortal, my poems must be memorable. In order for people to laugh at me momentarily, until they forget me forever, I need only two things: literary pretensions and literary presumptions.
If the words "bright" and "pale" have somehow become "stale" from "overuse," we should cringe every time we hear them used in any poem, song or novel. But of course we don’t. The only people who are afraid to use basic words are people with literary pretensions. They are the rub of the English language. Everyone else just uses the best words for the job, the way we build houses with the best bricks. The more words a poet isn’t afraid to use, the larger and more varied his supply of bricks. Why toss out the best ones?
Somehow, incomprehensibly, novelty has become a pre-requisite of contemporary writing, and most particularly of poetry. But I try to avoid fads, and so I will continue to use the time-honored bricks of the best words in my poems.
One has only to read the work of great writers to see that they ignored highly arbitrary, dubious "rules." Hart Crane used the adjective "white" repeatedly in his poems. If James Joyce wanted to emphasize that a room was cold, he would use the word "cold" several times in close quarters. He and Henry James used the taboo words "very," "really" and "extremely" often enough to shock most workshop teachers into early retirement, if not graves. The banned exclamation "oh" is used repeatedly in daily speech. And yet poets fear "oh" like the Anti-Christ, while "O!" is the very Devil.
We often raise the pitch and volume of our voices at the end of sentences to denote surprise or delight. These are called "exclamations." We have a typographic mark to denote the surge in pitch and volume. This is called an "exclamation mark." And yet today it seems to have become a law that each poet is entitled to only one exclamation mark per lifetime. Why? How many times per day do we raise the pitch and volume of our voices? How is it that mere commoners are allotted innumerable exclamations while the Poet, the master of the language, is resigned to only one? Perhaps he should become merely mortal again, rather than a demigod, so that he can express delight, surprise and excitement. Excitement, after all, sells.
I have written thousands of computer programs, the vast majority of which actually work. In so doing I have honed my powers of reason to a fine edge, and I have come to the startling conclusion that there is such a thing as logic, and there is such a thing as nonsense. Logic is the stuff of things that make sense and work, while nonsense is the opposite: the "stuff of fluff." People will pay me large sums of money for programs that work. But no one will buy nonsensical programs from me, else I would be rich beyond imagining without even bothering to work (and so would you, if only you were also smart enough to dispense with logic). Today, almost no one pays for poetry. Can it be that poets have listened to nonsense, believed in nonsense, and have thus increasingly written nonsensical "stuff of fluff" masquerading as poems? There is a long list of things "taboo" for poets today: love, praise, elegy, meter, rhyme, adjectives, adverbs, exclamation marks, sentiment (by which I mean honest human emotion). Were I to attempt to complete the list, we’d soon run out of unfelled trees.
It’s hard to do a good job when an unjust, tyrannical slavedriver is glowering over you, armed with a bullwhip, ready to strike at the first sign of unconventional behavior. Unfortunately, this seems to be the situation of many poets today. The fear is substantial, but fortunately it is unfounded. The poet has merely imagined himself into a corner. The poet is his only taskmaster. If his taskmaster is harsh and unfair, he should fire him and hire a more reasonable one, which would still be himself, but without the whip and the glower. The poet defines his own job. He makes up his own rules. He is self-employed. Unfortunately he is his own worst boss because he emulates other poets who have bossed themselves around unfairly. If he were to say to himself, "My job is to write memorable words, however I please!" then he would be free to find whatever works best for his readers, and perhaps they’d buy his wares, so that he could eat, which would of course further improve his disposition. In any case, he can hardly do worse, since he already works, like a slave, for zilch.
I’m very flattered by the time and attention Joe has given my poems. It doesn’t bother me that he prefers certain of my poems to others; how could it be otherwise? I believe Joe is one of my best and most perceptive readers. But as much as I respect Joe’s intellect and his right to express his opinions, I wish he hadn’t called the greatest theme the world has ever known "stale" and "hackneyed."
Nor do I think my poems about my mother, wife and family are good only if one keeps in mind that they are "occasional" poems. They are either good or bad poems, on their own merits. I believe "Mother’s Smile" is one of my most effective poems, although anyone with a literary presumption will surely call it "trite," "hackneyed," "horribly sentimental," and who knows what else. I believe the real question is whether "sentimental" automatically mean "ghastly." In literary circles, seemingly, it does. For some unfathomable reason, if a poet was able to make a reader feel real emotion for, say, a spider, as Walt Whitman does in "A Noiseless Patient Spider," he would be instantaneously immortal, as Whitman justly is. But what if Whitman had been writing about his mother? Then the jury is stumped. Are poets allowed to say nice things about spiders, but not their mothers? Why?
Who in literary circles can cite a great poem about a poet’s mother? Do such poems not exist, or is there some sort of void in the heart of the Literary Elite? Or do poets simply lack courage?
I don’t claim that my poem is a masterpiece, as Whitman’s undoubtedly is. What I do claim is that my poem just might put a lump in your throat. If you’re a Literarian, however, you might resist the lumpiness. That is, after all, part of your job, as you see it: not to be waylaid or beguiled by sentiment. If so, I believe you may confuse sentiment (good) with sentimentalism (bad). What’s the difference? Sentiment is good: tenderness, nostalgia, melancholy, and various other human emotions. But what is sentimentalism? Why not define it as a failed attempt to appeal to sentiment? That would be fine. But literary types go beyond this, by feeling guilty about being moved, even in a good way.
If you feel the lump in your throat, or the quick flooding of your eyes, and yet deny me my due, then the problem is yours, not mine. I’m a poet, and I did my job. You defined yours as being too wise to be moved by what actually moved you. You are a walking contradiction: someone who knows so much about poetry that you know better than to admit being moved by what you would know actually moved you, if only your brain consulted its body. Such "wisdom" exists only in literary circles and religions. Your job would be easier if you simply asked your body if it had been moved. A quick inventory might convert you back to sanity.
I realize that what I just said was strongly worded. I’m sure by now you’re wondering if I have the authority to speak to you—or to other people, if you’re not bamboozled by dogma—so adamantly. I assure you that I am. Please allow me to present my credentials. Like Esther, I am here for a time such as this, to put dogma in its proper place (which is for its devilishly thick skull to be crushed beneath my heel). I was born for this task, and I can prove it, incontrovertibly. But how can I prove that I am here for a moment such as this? Well, when I was a baby I was christened, and at the precise moment the witchdoctor splashed me with his "special water," I let out a great humongous fart and pooped my pampers. Case closed. This is clear evidence that I am a Prophet.
I see that you still doubt my credentials as a Prophet. Very well then, I will give you a Prophecy. Unlike the prophecies of most other prophets, mine will be eminently useful. My prophecy is this: Use a coal tar shampoo as a treatment for hemorrhoids. You think I jest, but I am quite serious. My sworn enemies, the Chosen Few, are assholes. Both my flatulent response to my christening and my prophecy are more than appropriate to the task at hand. My prophesy came to me as a revelation; do with it what you will.
Now it really is time for me to get on to the main stuff of my book—poems—but if what I’ve said in my Foreword is of interest to you, please consider reading my Afterword, which takes a humorous look at the world from my childhood vantage of a military brat growing up on and around Cold-War-era airbases in the United States and Europe. My Afterword also delves into the possibility of finding hope in Christianity: the hope of the resurrection without the horrors of hell and sacrifice.
We need to tear down the artificial barriers and divisions that are artifacts of our stone-armed savage past. We need to heed the wisdom of Jesus and Robert Frost, rather than using their sage words to laud and applaud what they decried. We need to be better readers of the best poets, and better readers of our own past. One of the highest functions of poetry is to delight us into contemplating and understanding our own history, our own hearts, our own minds, and our own actions. We should put poetry to its best uses, rather than treating it as an adornment.
The ancient Greeks tried to explain the source of inspired Poetry, but couldn’t. And so they attributed the inspiration of Poetry to a Divine Source. They made this Divine Source a Goddess, the Muse. And so in closing, now ready at last to begin, I would like to thank my Muse, and dedicate this poem (yes, Joe, a love poem!) to her:
Poetry, I found you
where at last they chained and bound you;
with devices all around you
to torture and confound you,
I found you—shivering, bare.
They had shorn your raven hair
and taken both your eyes
which, once cerulean as dawn's skies,
had leapt with the sun to wild surmise
of what was waiting there.
Your back was bent with untold care;
there savage brands had left cruel scars
as though the wounds of countless wars;
your bones were broken with the force
with which they'd lashed your flesh so fair.
You once were loveliest of all.
So many nights you held in thrall
a scrawny lad who heard your call
from where dawn’s milling showers fall—
pale meteors through sapphire air.
I learned the eagerness of youth
to temper for a lover’s touch;
I felt you, tremulant, reprove
each time I fumbled over-much.
Your merest word became my prayer.
You took me gently by the hand
and led my steps from child to man;
now I look back, remember when
you shone, and cannot understand
why now, tonight, you bear their brand.
I will take and cradle you in my arms,
remindful of the gentle charms
you showed me once, of yore;
and I will lead you back from your cell tonight
into that wild, incandescent light
which flows out of the core
of a sun whose robes you wore.
And I will wash your feet with tears
for all those blissful years . . .
my love, whom I adore.