Saturday, July 3, 2010

Weird (Mis-) Conceptions about Poetry





I'm continually amused at the way people think conceptually about poetry in general. It's almost a catalogue of misconceptions. 

Americans, especially--who seem timid, perhaps even a little afraid of what poetry implies, or might reveal to them about themselves, or the world--frequently have very odd notions about what poetry does, or where it originates, or what its value might be to them.
  
Much of the confusion comes from early associations. As children, we are frequently read nursery rhymes. Nursery rhymes--an old Victorian institution--are intended to catch children's attention, to delight their immature ears with the clanging, clicking congruence of rhythm and rhyme; it's supposed to be easy, and is usually condescending and silly. Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear made "nonsense" poetry popular.
 
Then there's church or religious poetry--from the Bible, and hymn tunes. Most people raised in religious families first encountered "serious" poetry in church. The Psalms, and the familiar rhetorical poetry of the King James Version
 
These typical early exposures to "poetry" put troubling preconceptions into the minds of children from their earliest awareness of language. Has anyone ever given any thought to how powerful these early influences are on our sense of what poetry is, and should be, or could be?
 
Rhyme, it seems to me, is--if looked at dispassionately and without prejudice--a quite sophomoric and idiotic kind of game. Even when it is done magnificently and joyously by Shakespeare, or Donne, there is a kind of absurdity in end-rhyme. How would we be likely to view it, if we hadn't been indoctrinated, in childhood, with the hoary old warhorses like Winnie the Pooh, or Mother Goose, or A Child's Garden of Verses? The association, in childhood, with bad, puerile verses, probably does more to corrupt our minds about poetry, than anything else.  
 
One often hears people talk about poetry as if it were a "sacred" thing. People will speak in hushed tones, or with reverence about Rumi, or St. John of the Cross, or even Manley Hopkins, as if the fact of their orientation with religious themes somehow made poetry synonymous with religious inspiration. There are certainly good reasons to see any kind of art as faith-inspired, but to presume that all poetry is, or should be, religious is really a dumb idea.
 
Poetry and song, poetry and performance (theatre), poetry and games, poetry and private meditation, poetry and knowledge (Lucretius)--there are so many other kinds of associations possible. What would happen if we waited until, say, age 17 to read poetry? What would happen if we didn't read "children's" poetry to children? What would happen if we didn't read poetry in church? I've often thought that our responses to poetry might be so much more balanced and rational, if we weren't subjected to the indoctrinations of childhood. 
 
Is is possible to imagine a setting in which such orientations did not occur? Probably futile to imagine it. What would we think of William Carlos Williams, or Thoreau, or Whitman, if we hadn't already, by the time we first read these writers' works, been subjected to the patter of nursury rhymes and church hymns? Might we not find them much more interesting than the tame couplets and quatrains of a hundred tinkering rhymsters? Might not rhyme be viewed--as I believe it ought to be--as a not-very-interesting parlor trick applied to language?          

23 comments:

Kirby Olson said...

Rhyme is mostly gone. Corso uses it effectively. Marianne Moore uses it effectively. Even O'Hara uses it effectively, but they hide the rhymes inside of lines, and use all kinds of off rhymes and near rhymes.

The four-beat line with a tub-thump at the end is hard to revive with any kind of subtlety, but who does this any longer?


I think Williams' variable foot is pretty nifty. I also like Moore's strange syllabic counted line. She would get a good stanza and then just duplicate it apparently.

Chaz Olson's breath-line is what Ginsberg was using I think he said.

Now you have all kinds of interesting enjambement.

I think there can be no uniformity on this topic. Poetry is after all a form of novelty and surprise, and so each poet has to create something new, as Pound put it (Pound felt that the forms were copyrightable as much as were the actual linesthemselves).

The limerick suited what Edward Lear was doing but wouldn't have suited Tennyson or Rosetti or Dickinson.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Curtis,

having read (and enjoyed) every author mentioned in this post, I'd like to say I agree with most of your comments.

I don't quite get the disparaging of rhyme but you're probably a casualty, as much as I am, of the slaughter of the lyrical Self in contemporary poetry. Only a self-assured voice, with heartfuls of life's painful resonances, can see the beauty in rhyme.

Anonymous said...

the ONLY thing worst than
"a hundred tinkering rhymsters"

is/are 100,000 tinkering rhymster-tricksters "teaching"
this "stuph" swimultaneously

all-the-way-up from pre (PRE!) Kindergarten trough Grad Skool...

where "they" control words... control how words are read

we have "met the enemy"!
and

the "enemy" IS/ARE The Academic Historian Machine

who continue without any sense of Rhyme Or Reason
to lobotomize their 'charges'

etc


Kokkie

Curtis Faville said...

Conrad:

I think rhyme--as a dominant aspect of what we identify as a crucial element of "poetry"--is vastly over-rated and over-emphasized.

It's associated with our earliest memories of childhood--of our orientation of what the grown-up world is feeding us--and probably belongs in childhood. But, unfortunately, we can't undo or unlearn what we're force-fed as tots. It's all so "cute" and "precious" and "playful"--

But when we grow up, literature isn't just about cute and precious and playful--it's about the world. The language of philosophy and the language of science (not to speak of the language of mathematics)--these are elegant languages, too, which don't rely on the childish, silly parlor-games like rhyme. Rhyme is like memory games, or Rubix cubes, or doing cube-roots in your head. One may have a facility for this kind of thing, but what does it prove?

There are many poets whose rhymed work I admire--such as Anthony Hecht--but to use it well is to be fully aware of its limitations, and how its effects swing both ways (good and bad) simultaneously (which is why Hecht succeeds with it--he sees through that dilemma, and works within that dialectic--while doing everything else--at the same time).

Auden is a terrific rhymed poet, but his rhyme is often, as much as anything else, about a conversation with history (and the whole history of literature, in all its forms). An amazing echo-chamber of quotations, half-remembered memories, sounds, "rings" of thought. Did Auden ever write a poem which challenged the forms he adopted from tradition? --not an innovative writer at all.

J said...

Yeah it's probably the memory of silly anglo-rhymes (then is Billy Blake , Emily D. or even Coleridge THAT different then Mother Goose...?nyet) that resulted in many Mericans' hatred for the poetry business, and minstrelsy for that matter.

ReAl music needs no words; and authentic literature needs no lyrical poesy. Sister Carrie's not a poem. Nor is Maltese Falcon. Nor is Crime and punishment. Most in S-man's little gang have apparently read nada except their fave spindrift and tampax odes ...

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Curtis,

I suppose tracing the rhyme-instinct to the ingestion of maternal rhythms makes sense: from pulsing heart & steady relaxed breathing of the mother come in later life, I suppose,the cadences of most significant forms of expression. Rhyme, as you conjecture, is a "memory game" but I'd forgo the associations of anything learned (or inherited) in childhood with ideas of useless or non-productive activity. It seems sadly counterintutive (to me).

I'd suggest to you (though my expertise here is rather limited & I won't press the point too far) that great classical works like Euclid's "Elements", Newton's "Principia" or even Russell's "Principia Mathematica", great milestone works in geometry, calculus and mathematical logic, are rather playful & inventive in spirit, probably inspired by a child-like (not childish)fascination with a universe of angles, orbiting objects, & numbers converted to abstract symbols. Is not the asymptote a favourite metaphor these days for post-avant creativity?

I think you're also being terrifically unfair to Auden, whose own rhymes I would have offered as models. But I'd like you to consider the rhymes in the opening lines of Marianne Moore's poem "The Fish" (without the original indented line format):

wade
through black jade.
Of the crow blue mussel shells, one
keeps
adjusting the ash heaps;
opening and shutting itself like

an
injured fan.
The barnacles which encrust the
side
of the wave cannot hide
there; for the submerged shafts of the

sun,
split like spun,
glass, etc

Irregularly metered and rhymed, Moore's poetry gives the sparkle and animation of marine life in a way that a more loosely-arranged vers libre couldn't. The rhymes (like "sun....spun"; "side...hide"; "wade...jade") are the poem's sine qua non of coherence and an almost flawless aesthetic sensibility, areas of poetic composition in which she excel

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Curtis,

I suppose tracing the rhyme-instinct to the ingestion of maternal rhythms makes sense: from pulsing heart & steady relaxed breathing of the mother come in later life, I suppose,the cadences of most significant forms of expression. Rhyme, as you conjecture, is a "memory game" but I'd forgo the associations of anything learned (or inherited) in childhood with ideas of useless or non-productive activity. It seems sadly counterintutive (to me).

I'd suggest to you (though my expertise here is rather limited & I won't press the point too far) that great classical works like Euclid's "Elements", Newton's "Principia" or even Russell's "Principia Mathematica", great milestone works in geometry, calculus and mathematical logic, are rather playful & inventive in spirit, probably inspired by a child-like (not childish)fascination with a universe of angles, orbiting objects, & numbers converted to abstract symbols. Is not the asymptote a favourite metaphor these days for post-avant creativity?

I think you're also being terrifically unfair to Auden, whose own rhymes I would have offered as models. But I'd like you to consider the rhymes in the opening lines of Marianne Moore's poem "The Fish" (without the original indented line format):

wade
through black jade.
Of the crow blue mussel shells, one
keeps
adjusting the ash heaps;
opening and shutting itself like

an
injured fan.
The barnacles which encrust the
side
of the wave cannot hide
there; for the submerged shafts of the

sun,
split like spun,
glass, etc

Irregularly metered and rhymed, Moore's poetry gives the sparkle and animation of marine life in a way that a more loosely-arranged vers libre couldn't. The rhymes (like "sun....spun"; "side...hide"; "wade...jade") are the poem's sine qua non of coherence and an almost flawless aesthetic sensibility, areas of poetic composition in which she excel

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Curtis,

I suppose tracing the rhyme-instinct to the ingestion of maternal rhythms makes sense: from pulsing heart & steady relaxed breathing of the mother come in later life, I suppose,the cadences of most significant forms of expression. Rhyme, as you conjecture, is a "memory game" but I'd forgo the associations of anything learned (or inherited) in childhood with ideas of useless or non-productive activity. It seems sadly counterintutive (to me).

I'd suggest to you (though my expertise here is rather limited & I won't press the point too far) that great classical works like Euclid's "Elements", Newton's "Principia" or even Russell's "Principia Mathematica", great milestone works in geometry, calculus and mathematical logic, are rather playful & inventive in spirit, probably inspired by a child-like (not childish)fascination with a universe of angles, orbiting objects, & numbers converted to abstract symbols. Is not the asymptote a favourite metaphor these days for post-avant creativity?

I think you're also being terrifically unfair to Auden, whose own rhymes I would have offered as models. But I'd like you to consider the rhymes in the opening lines of Marianne Moore's poem "The Fish" (without the original indented line format):

wade
through black jade.
Of the crow blue mussel shells, one
keeps
adjusting the ash heaps;
opening and shutting itself like

an
injured fan.
The barnacles which encrust the
side
of the wave cannot hide
there; for the submerged shafts of the

sun,
split like spun,
glass, etc

Irregularly metered and rhymed, Moore's poetry gives the sparkle and animation of marine life in a way that a more loosely-arranged vers libre couldn't. The rhymes (like "sun....spun"; "side...hide"; "wade...jade") are the poem's sine qua non of coherence and an almost flawless aesthetic sensibility, areas of poetic composition in which she excel

Curtis Faville said...

J:

In the interests of peace and harmony, I haven't approved your second post today, not because it offends me, but because I think it's uncalled for, and does nothing to move the argument forward.

I welcome debate. But name-calling isn't okay.

Curtis Faville said...

Conrad:

It's ironic you quote the Moore poem above. It's the same one of hers I quoted in my Appendix essay for the Collected Eigner edition that's just been published. I'd suggest that Moore's work goes beyond rhyme as such, that her use of it transcends the traditional use of it. It's almost like concrete poetry;

The fish

wade
through black jade

You can almost "see" the angle of the fish's dorsal fin cutting through dark seawater. It's like magic. Also, the increments of words within the space of the page are precisely measured. It's almost like a scientific demonstration in words!

J said...

It offends me when Kirby O, Foxnews worshipping, catholic-bashing, pro-war rightist even dares to mention Pound or Corso. That should be sufficient, eh more than sufficient, to have the comment appear.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Curtis,

the notion that Moore uses rhymes to transcend it is a bit intriguing: would you say that gives the poet an avant-garde quality? What you're offering is a "transitional" poetics where the rhymes, skilfully used as they are,are seen as just materials of composition, easily deleted, moved or realigned within the six-line stanza like a concrete poem. Interesting to see her perhaps as a precursor of Language school (a la Grenier, Bernstein). Of a purely visual and recombinatorial type of poetry?

Moore's probably a strong enough poet to point towards future styles but I guess the Formalist in me would treat the work as its own artifact. But I see your point. Your criticism of Auden,presumably, is that, unlike Moore's, the rhymed poetry (because of its non-reflexivity) can't act as any interesting transition to a future poetics. Though Auden is, after all, the poet of the "age of anxiety".

Curtis Faville said...

Auden is fine, as far as he goes. A brilliant and eccentric mind--an original thinker, but never an explorer of forms. He's not a Modernist, but a sort of 18th Century throwback to an older mode. Auden is, in fact, an excellent 18th Century poet.

Read my previous posts on Moore and Form as they relate to Watten and Silliman--I have a lot to say about her approach to form (and the page). There's much more yet to point out in her work. Of all the Modernists, she's the one so far not completely appreciated, perhaps because still not completely understood.

Frank Parker said...

I'm surprised no one has mentioned the later work of Robert Creeley, full of rhyme and long, lyrical lines. And Michael McClure whose poetry can sing and dance down the center of the page. How about David Gitin? I can tell you song has always been a principal in his poetry and I can testify that his recent poetry is a reinvention of the modern, sensual lyric.

In the right hands, early influences can be artfully and beautifully acknowledged. Rather than abandon what is clearly part of a person's experience why not celebrate it anew? Sure, that's the tricky bit, how to make it with your own voice. Maybe you should also ask who is doing this and doing it well?

By the way, part of my awakening was due to my 10th grade English teacher reading aloud everything from Chaucer, Whitman, Poe, Sandburg, Pound, Eliot, Frost, cummings, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso on and on. Again, in the right hands poetry can come alive. I'm grateful to this day that Mr. Bernard gave voice to song!

wave and sand
moonlight phosphorus glow

the universe pours
through my eyes and yours

wipes warm and clean
our worn out seams

died and gone
to heaven or hell

-Frank Parker

Curtis Faville said...

Frank, I don't see your comment as an objection to, or contradiction of, my post.

Many of us responded favorably to our first exposure to lyrical poetry.

My point goes deeper--and to earlier influences. Not everyone is "tainted" or persuaded by their earliest exposure(s). But I do think that a lot of the "prejudice" people develop about poetry in general is traceable to their peculiar first impressions from childhood. It shouldn't surprise us that people "think of poetry" as composed primarily of rhyme and "regular" rhythmic units, since this is how it was first presented to them. First influences are difficult to overcome.

I tend to think a lot of people become "convinced" about the value to traditional poetry (heavily confined to fixed forms, and rhyme) for this very reason. It's like they've been indoctrinated against vers libre. Might it not make more sense to let people "find" their own level of appreciation, without insisting to them (as children) that all poetry is rhymed? I find rhyme, per se, to be a deadening quality in poetry, and yet people tend to accept it unquestioningly as an integral component of the art. It gets perpetuated in this way, with little challenge. Poets who don't use rhyme--take, for instance, Philip Levine, about whom I commented recently--may be underestimated because, as Robert Frost once said--he's been playing tennis without a net. And yet Levine is so much better than dozens (hundreds!) of poets trying to replicate the parlor-game of rhyme. The fact of achieving rhyme in a poem is probably the least mark of distinction--why would we think that to have done that constitutes a serious exploration of form? In the hands of 98% of poets writing, at any given time, it's just mindless imitation. That the other 2% should convince us of its utility seems a poor basis for a preference.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Frank,

thank you for validating the incredible work that great secondary school teachers do. In my opinion, that's where the real teaching's done.

You've made my summer break!

Curtis Faville said...

Conrad:

Many of us had inspired teachers in grade school or college.

But in my case, my reading of advanced poetry that moved me preceded my exposures in school. By age 12, I was already reading Cummings and Eliot and Stevens. And listening to Stravinsky and Debussy and De Falla, and looking at Picasso and Mondrian.

Perhaps I jumped the gun. These "daring" examples were a part of my experience long before I read Chaucer and Milton and Shakespeare and Byron and Browning and Tennyson and Frost. I think that metaphorically "saved me" from being a stodgy academic.

J said...

And listening to Stravinsky and Debussy...

where is the poetry to match the Best of Igor and Claude? no-where. A real composer works for years to produce musical beauty. A Creeley-ite on the other hand spins out a few hipster haikus (rhymed, or not) after a bottle of t-bird or somethin' and thinks he's produced a work equivalent to a Debussy prelude...nyet . Recall some chestnuts from Plato's Republic as well....a composer may be allowed in the rationalist State... the lyric poet's kicked out into the wilds of scythia, alas.

Diogenes J.

Kirby Olson said...

Moore can't be understood unless you take on the Bible from inside, and also read all the books she lists in her appendix. These are part of the poems. You also have to visit the places she's writing about.

Otherwise, you aren't getting the poem at all!

Moore was a close friend of most of the modernists, but her real deepest friends were her mom and her brother. The vast correspondence with the brother has never been published, but it's there that she lets her hair down, and says the things she's really thinking.

She makes vicious fun of all the modernists in that correspondence and you find out her real values lie within the church and never go outside of that even though there is a kind of isomorphistic parallel to some degree within other modernist writing.

She's on her own. There are very few other real peers that she had: one is W.W.E. Ross, who wrote a neat book called Shapes and Sounds (Longman's).

There isn't much else. Most people who are reading her aren't getting at more than the husk. The inner life of the poet and the poems is a light year away in another kingdom.

Frank Parker said...

Curtis, you are quite right. My statement is not an objection or contradiction of the point you make here. In support of what you argue, I am related by marriage to the Rossetti's. At family reunions I'd rather drive a nail through my head with my own shoe then try and talk about modern poetry with members of that side of the family. The discussion is predefined, period.

Also, I worked in the commercial printing trade. If I mentioned that I write poetry the immediate default reaction was to stiff form. I heard a lot of, "But, Frank, your poems don't rhyme,how can they be poems?" I saw a lot of head scratching.

You go on to say, "That the other 2% should convince us of its utility seems a poor basis for a preference." I wouldn't call my small defense of rhyme in the right hands a 'preference'. All I'm saying is there are particular occasions when it works for me. It doesn't mean I'm not in awe of and indebted to the work of Oppen, Eigner, Kyger, di Prima, Lu Garcia or Philip Whalen, Janine Pome Vega, etc., just to mention a few.

No matter what though, I can only write my own poems and at my age I'm pretty thrilled with that!

"I don't always use rhyme but when I do I prefer Dos Equis. Stay thirsty, my friends."

Frank Parker said...

Conrad, you betcha!

Steven Fama said...

How dare you claim children's ears are immature, and imply that rhyme and rhythm are but clanging clicking congruence.

Liar liar pants on fire!

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