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The Common Thread

What is good poetry, and how can we identify it? Is there a “common thread” we can follow from the distant past to the present? If so, what are the common characteristics of good poetry?

by Michael R. Burch

Yes, I believe there is a common thread traceable from where we stand today, back to the first written poetry of ancient Sumer and Egypt. But we may have to “show” rather than “tell,” just as we would with pictures of beautiful faces, or sunsets. After all, we recognize other forms of beauty instantly, but who can explain exactly why?

Nevertheless, there are certain properties we can identify, certain common characteristics. At the same time we can eliminate other characteristics often deemed “necessary” for poetry, if they are not common to all good poetry, just as we can safely eliminate fair skin as a prerequisite for human beauty by considering portraits of Iman, Beyonce and Muhammad Ali.

And now, without further ado, let’s see what we can determine about the characteristics of good poetry, going back to the very beginning ...

The first poet we know by name is Enheduanna. She was the daughter of King Sargon the Great of Akkad and the high priestess of the goddess Inanna. Enheduanna was writing and collecting lyrics more than 4,000 years ago. In addition to being the first poet we know by name, she was also the first known poetry editor, publisher and anthologist. This is my translation of the opening lines of her hymn to the Gishbanda Temple of Ningishzida:

Temple Hymn 15
by Enheduanna
translation by Michael R. Burch

Most ancient and terrible shrine,
set deep inside the mountain
like a mother's womb ...

Dark shrine,
like a mother's wounded breast,
blood-red and terrifying ...

Though approaching through a safe-seeming field,
our hair raises as we near you!

Is this good writing? Yes, definitely. Enheduanna captures and communicates the moment. We feel as if we are there with her, approaching the forbidding temple. She puts us in her shoes. Her poem is clear and accessible, yet also vivid and startling. Emily Dickinson said she recognized poetry by her physical reaction to it: for her good poetry was hair-raising. This is a hair-raising poem, so we’re off to a good start. Now let’s fast forward to what may be the world’s oldest extant love poem, written circa 2000 B.C. in ancient Egypt by an unknown poet:

The Love Song of Shu-Sin
translation by Michael R. Burch

Darling of my heart, my belovéd,
your enticements are sweet, sweeter than honey.
Darling of my heart, my belovéd,
your enticements are sweet, sweeter than honey.

You have captivated me; I stand trembling before you.
Darling, lead me swiftly into the bedroom!
You have captivated me; I stand trembling before you.
Darling, lead me swiftly into the bedroom!

Sweetheart, let me do the sweetest things to you!
My precocious caress is far sweeter than honey!
In the bedchamber, dripping love’s honey,
let us enjoy life’s sweetest thing.
Sweetheart, let me do the sweetest things to you!
My precocious caress is much sweeter than honey!

Bridegroom, you will have your pleasure with me!
Speak to my mother and she will reward you;
speak to my father and he will give you gifts.
I know how to give your body pleasure—
then sleep, my darling, till the sun rises.

This poem employs repetition and cleverly compares the sweetness and stickiness of honey to human lovemaking. Once again the writing is clear and accessible, vivid and startling, but otherwise unadorned, non-ornamental. We may be onto something, a trend. The next poet on my list is Sappho of Lesbos, born circa 620 B.C., and called “The Tenth Muse” by her ancient peers. (The other nine Muses were goddesses, so Sappho was obviously held in extremely high esteem.)

Fragment 42
by Sappho
translation by Michael R. Burch

Eros harrows my heart:
wilds winds whipping desolate mountains,
uprooting oaks.

Around the same time in nearby Greece, 564 B.C. or thereabouts, we have another poem about the power of Eros (lust):

Ibykos Fragment 286
translation by Michael R. Burch

Come spring, the grand
apple trees stand
watered by a gushing river
where the maidens’ uncut flowers shiver
and the blossoming grape vine swells
in the gathering shadows.

Unfortunately
for me
Eros never rests
but like a Thracian tempest
ablaze with lightning
emanates from Aphrodite;
the results are frightening—
black,
bleak,
astonishing,
violently jolting me from my soles
to my soul.

The next poem, presumably written circa 480 B.C., has been attributed to Simonides:

Passerby
by Simonides
translation by Michael R. Burch

Passerby,
tell the Spartans we lie
here, dead at their word,
obedient to their command.
Have they heard?
Do they understand?

Once again the writing is clear and accessible, powerful but appropriate, not flowery. The trend continues. Now let’s fast forward to Anglo-Saxon England, circa 960 A.D.:

Wulf and Eadwacer
by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet
translation by Michael R. Burch

My clan’s curs pursue him like crippled game.
They’ll rip him apart if he approaches their pack.
It is otherwise with us.

Wulf’s on one island; we’re on another.
His island’s a fortress fastened by fens.
Here, bloodthirsty curs howl for carnage.
They’ll rip him apart if he approaches their pack.
It is otherwise with us.

My thoughts pursued Wulf like panting hounds.
Whenever it rained—how I wept!
the boldest cur grasped me in his paws.
Good feelings for him, but for me, loathsome!
Wulf, O, my Wulf, my ache for you
has made me sick; your infrequent visits
have left me famished, deprived of real meat!
Do you hear, Eadwacer? Watchdog!
A wolf has borne our wretched whelp to the woods.
One can easily sever what never was one:
our song together.

Once again the writing is clear and accessible, vivid rather than ornamental. “Wulf and Eadwacer” was written before the introduction of patterned meter and rhyme to English poetry. Anglo-Saxon scops typically employed four strong stresses per line, with a caesura (a “cut” or strong break), then tied everything together with alliteration. Their techniques were very different, but the results were very similar and the trend continues. Now let’s fast forward again, this time to one of the earliest English rhyming poems, circa the 13th century:

How Long the Night
anonymous Old English lyric
translation by Michael R. Burch

It is pleasant, indeed, while the summer lasts
with the mild pheasants' song ...
but now I feel the northern wind's blast—
its severe weather strong.
Alas! Alas! This night seems so long!
And I, because of my momentous wrong,
now grieve, mourn and fast.

Once again the language is clear and accessible, the language unadorned yet vivid and moving. Now let’s fast forward to a roundel attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer, who was born around 1340:

Merciles Beaute ("Merciless Beauty")
by Geoffrey Chaucer
translation by Michael R. Burch

Your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain,
they wound me so, through my heart keen.

Unless your words heal me hastily,
my heart's wound will remain green;
for your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain.

By all truth, I tell you faithfully
that you are my life and my death, my queen ...
for at my death this truth shall be seen:
your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain,
they wound me so, through my heart keen.

Yet again we have writing that is clear and accessible, with language that is simple and unadorned, yet highly effective. The language is not flowery, but pierces our hearts to the quick. Or at least it does mine. Meanwhile, Hafiz, an Iranian poet, was writing around the same time as Chaucer:

Dispensing Keys
by Hafiz
translation by Michael R. Burch

The imbecile
constructs cages
for everyone he knows,
while the sage
(who has to duck his head
whenever the moon glows)
keeps dispensing keys
all night long
to the beautiful, rowdy,
prison gang.

Once again the writing is clear and accessible, the images vivid but appropriate. The next poet on my translation list is Charles d’Orleans, born around 1394. He was a master of French poetic forms who began writing in English after being held as a privileged hostage in England:

Spring
by Charles d’Orleans
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Young lovers,
greeting the spring
fling themselves downhill,
making cobblestones ring
with their wild leaps and arcs,
like ecstatic sparks
drawn from coal.

What is their brazen goal?
They grab at whatever passes,
so we can only hazzard guesses.
But they rear like prancing steeds
raked by brilliant spurs of need,
Young lovers.

Once again the writing is clear and accessible, the language appropriate yet vivid, more effective than flowery. For me this poem feels “fresh” six centuries after it was written. Fast-forwarding again, we find the great Scottish poet William Dunbar, who was born around 1460:

Sweet Rose of Virtue
by William Dunbar
translation by Michael R. Burch

Sweet rose of virtue and of gentleness,
delightful lily of youthful wantonness,
richest in bounty and in beauty clear
and in every virtue that is held most dear,
except only that you are merciless.

Into your garden, today, I followed you;
there I saw flowers of freshest hue,
both white and red, delightful to see,
and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently,
yet everywhere, no odor but rue.

I fear that March with his last arctic blast
has slain my fair rose of pallid and gentle cast,
whose piteous death does my heart such pain
that, if I could, I would compose her roots again,
so comforting her bowering leaves have been.

Moving forward again in time, and half a world away, Matsuo Basho, born in 1644, was the most famous Japanese poet of the Edo period:

Snowfall
by Matsuo Basho
translation by Michael R. Burch

The first soft snow:
leaves of the awed jonquil
bow low

Far to the west, Mirza Ghalib, born in 1797, was a prominent Urdu and Persian poet during the last years of the Mughal Empire:

Ghazal
by Mirza Ghalib
translation by Michael R. Burch

Not the blossomings of song nor the adornments of music:
I am the voice of my own heart breaking.

You toy with your long, dark curls
while I remain captive to my black, pensive thoughts.

We congratulate ourselves that we two are different
yet this weakness has burdened us both with inchoate grief.

Now you are here, and I find myself bowing:
as if sadness is a blessing, and longing a sacrament.

I am a fragment of sound rebounding;
you are the walls impounding my echoes.

Continuing the trend, Ghalib’s poem is clear and accessible, with appropriate rather than overblown language. Now let’s fast forward to North America. Native American poetry was oral until fairly recently, so the age of the original poem remains uncertain:

Cherokee Travelers' Blessing
translation by Michael R. Burch

I will extract the thorns from your feet.
For yet a little while, we will walk life's sunlit paths together.
I will love you like my own brother, my own blood.
When you are disconsolate, I will wipe the tears from your eyes.
And when you are too sad to live, I will put your aching heart to rest.

Once again we have writing that is clear and accessible. The images are simple and unadorned but speak to our hearts. Or at least to mine. I think this is very effective (and emotive) writing. Now let’s fast forward one last time, and shift back to the European mainland. Rainer Maria Rilke was born in 1875 and wrote poems in German and French:

Autumn Day
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translation by Michael R. Burch

Lord, it is time. Let the immense summer go.
Lay your long shadows over the sundials
and over the meadows, let the free winds blow.
Command the late fruits to fatten and shine;
O, grant them another Mediterranean hour!
Urge them to completion, and with power
convey final sweetness to the heavy wine.
Who has no house now, never will build one.
Who's alone now, shall continue alone;
he'll wake, read, write long letters to friends,
and pace the tree-lined pathways up and down,
restlessly, as autumn leaves drift and descend.

Once again the writing is clear and accessible, the images simple and unadorned, but effective. The language is not flowery, but rather authoritative. We feel that the poet has complete command over his subject and its communication. The trend continues.

One of the problems with much modern literary theory is a lack of logic. If I showed you a picture of Princess Diana and claimed she proves that fair skin is a prerequisite for female beauty, you would immediately ask, “But what about Iman, Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez?” In the same way, if someone says the only good poetry is—take your pick—traditional, metrical, free verse, classical, romantic, etc., you need only bring up good poems that are exceptions to the “rule.” Such unsupportable theories then immediately fall apart.

In closing, let me point out that the common thread in the poems discussed above is not meter, rhyme, form or genre. The common thread is not classicism, romanticism, modernism, or any other “ism.” The common thread, I believe, is that the poets were masters of the art of communicating thoughts and feelings through words. They consistently found and employed the best, most appropriate words. Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined poetry as “the best words in the best order” and I agree.

So how do we distinguish poetry from prose? I like Herbert Read’s definition of poetry as writing that has three dimensions: sound, sense and suggestion. Ordinary prose is one-dimensional writing, with that dimension being sense (meaning). For instance, what I’m writing here. Poetry adds the dimensions of sound (meter, rhyme, alliteration, etc.) and suggestion (the mysterious property that made Emily Dickinson’s pulse quicken and her hair raise).

The best poetry is three-dimensional writing. It appeals to our minds, our ears and our hearts. I have offered the poems on this page as proof, going back over 4,000 years in time. If you liked my translations, how did I produce them? I simply found the best words I was able to find, then put them in the best order I could manage. I ignored all literary theories, all dubious “rules,” all “isms.” Sometimes I employed meter, sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I employed rhyme, sometimes I didn’t. The thing that mattered most to me was getting every word as right as possible. I tried to find appropriate and effective words and phrases, then put them in the best possible order.

I believe the best poets use the best words in the best order, just as the best builders use the best building materials and put them in the best possible order. Easier said than done, to be sure, and that’s why the number of major poets remains small compared to the general population. It has been my honor to translate these great poets of the past and hopefully help them connect with more modern readers.

Michael R. Burch

Related pages: The Cosmological Constant: Limericks by Michael R. Burch, Perfect Poems, The Best Sonnets, The Best Villanelles, The Best Ballads, The Best Sestinas, The Best Rondels and Roundels, The Best Kyrielles, The Best Couplets, The Best Quatrains, The Best Haiku, The Best Limericks, The Best Nonsense Verse, The Best Poems for Kids, The Best Light Verse, The Best Poem of All Time, The Best Poems Ever Written, The Best Poets, The Best of the Masters, The Most Popular Poems of All Time, The Best American Poetry, The Best Poetry Translations, The Best Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs, The Best Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings, The Best Old English Poetry, The Best Lyric Poetry, The Best Free Verse, The Best Story Poems, The Best Narrative Poems, The Best Epic Poems, The Best Epigrams, The Most Beautiful Poems in the English Language, The Most Beautiful Lines in the English Language, The Most Beautiful Sonnets in the English Language, The Best Elegies, Dirges & Laments, The Best Poems about Death and Loss, The Best Holocaust Poetry, The Best Hiroshima Poetry, The Best Anti-War Poetry, The Best Religious Poetry, The Best Spiritual Poetry, The Best Heretical Poetry, The Best Thanksgiving Poems, The Best Autumnal Poems, The Best Fall/Autumn Poetry, The Best Dark Poetry, The Best Halloween Poetry, The Best Supernatural Poetry, The Best Dark Christmas Poems, The Best Vampire Poetry, The Best Love Poems, The Best Urdu Love Poetry, The Best Erotic Poems, The Best Romantic Poetry, The Best Love Songs, The Ten Greatest Poems Ever Written, The Greatest Movies of All Time, England's Greatest Artists, Visions of Beauty, What is Poetry?, The Best Abstract Poetry, The Best Antinatalist Poems and Prose, Early Poems: The Best Juvenilia, Human Perfection: Is It Possible?, The Best Book Titles of All Time, The Best Writing in the English Language, The Best Poems about Mothers, Poems for Children by Michael R. Burch, Did Lord Bryon inspire Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein?

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