SAFARI seems to no longer work
for comments...use another browser?

Sunday, October 25, 2020

New reading, new poems--


I've been down in Carolina for some weeks, and of course I did not bring enough books with me (because who can bring enough?), even though there are books here as well, and I somehow tumbled into the lovely Harry Alter Books while my mother was at PT and came out with a Modern Library Pound Poems and Translations, some Horace odes, a pretty Petrarch collection, and Rupert Brooke. This plunge into book-greed happened despite the fact that I toted plenty of books with me, including the new Sally Thomas and Jane Greer collections (if you didn't see our three-way reading, it's mostly--minus a bit of techno-slip--on my Charis in the World of Wonders page, near the end. Jane reads from Love Like a Conflagration and Sally from Motherland.)

The reason I succumbed to another Pound collection was that I had the yen to read him while reading Timothy Steele's interesting nonfiction book, Missing Measures. Having a memory like a sieve, I did not recall--or else Steele has been an indefatigable hunter--so many expressions of uncertainty about vers libre from Pound, Eliot, and Williams. I'm afraid I laughed at Eliot's dismay when his niece sends him some of her school-assigned homework: free verse poems. What you and the public schools have unleashed on us, Thomas Stearns! A Niagara of poems... Steele talks at length about the disappointment of all three with what was accomplished, and how no hoped-for new metric emerges from Modernism and why that might be. It's a fascinating book that zooms back to the classical world to show the roots of free verse, and how various ideas pertaining to prose writing and poetry writing become braided, swapped, or muddled along the way. It's a useful book for any young poet, I would think, and might just convince one of the need to return to roots, or at least examine them.


"An Apple Tree Carol"



"The Little Place"
North American Anglican

(Click on my name for lots more.)

and some






So that's 3 poems at Patrick Key's new Grand Little Things.


Versification, or the art of modulating his numbers, is indispensably necessary to a poet. Every other power by which the understanding is enlightened or the imagination enchanted may be exercised in prose. But the poet has this peculiar  superiority, that to all the powers  which  the perfection of every other composition can require  he adds the faculty of  joining music with reasons, and of acting at once upon the senses  and the passions.


  1. We've discussed this before and I think I understand your wry comment re. Eliot. Parenthetically, just imagine if he'd decided he wanted to be known as Stearns Eliot; I for one might have accused him of deliberate self-decoration. The fact is his mates - although it's difficult to think of them covered by such a workaday sobriquet - called him Tom and I think he liked that.

    But in the end surely it's bad poetry vs. good poetry with a dash of unease thrown in. It's easier to come to terms with a sonnet or an ode because the defects are often directly related to the act of squeezing the idea into a known structure. The problem with vers libre is that it seems to encourage obscurity and sometimes - however hard we try - there may be nuggets we are unable to deal with. But then should poetry be straightforward: the terribly helpful answer is yes and no.

    The fact is you read and re-read the Four Quartets and (I trust) appreciated them. Did you at any time wish - in your secretist bits - that the structure had been more recognisably formal? And is this a telling point? I have no idea. I am as usual out of my depth.

    1. The strength of Eliot is, in part, the knowing of the tradition and past form. There's a lot of formal knowledge that shows up in his poetry and gives it frame and muscularity.

      When you break a thing, there is energy... Eliot benefits from that energy, though of course he did not invent vers libre but carried it from France (and other prior related work like the Psalms, C. Smart, some Blake, and so on.)

      But as vers libre becomes free verse, there's less chance for breakage into something new. Little sub-movements. And there's more chance of new writers not even knowing the tradition and not looking back. Just starting with yesterday's poems... School teaching encourages this view, as children are taught to write free verse rather than to memorize poems or, say, translate a Renaissance sonnet into a contemporary-language rhyming sonnet.

      For me, that says it's hard to beat Eliot at his game. Because writers who descend from him often don't have that powerful understanding of metrics and sound and past accomplishment. And they don't have the wave of rebellion against Swinburne and general Victorian fustiness that powered him.

      Meanwhile, I'm reading Pound and finding a lot more mawkishness and peculiar attitudes (especially toward women) than I remembered. I've rolled my eyes in a number of places over "ideal" ladies or the lure of pallor (Lovely "abortion" pallor? Really? Whether he means literal abortion or miscarriage, he bothers me!) And I end up feeling that there are his own version of bows and furbelows in his poems, even though he and Eliot and Williams thought that they were getting rid of such Victorian bedeckings.

      I've been thinking that I want to reread Eliot. I haven't read much of him in years. And I would like to know what I think of him now. But again, it strikes me that he's close to form, dancing around and briefly with it, a great deal of the time.

      Steele does talk about how much easier it is for a sensitive reader to know where the poet went wrong and whether a poem is good or not when it is a sonnet or some other form. And I have to say that certain free verse poets allure me to write my own poems because I am tugged by their lines but not satisfied--as if I feel an itch but not its satisfaction. That is a useful itch for a writer. I don't know how useful it will be for a reader as time moves on.

      I've read a lot of middle and high school poetry written by students, and seen school poetry slams. There's very little sense of the past, of the laboring to make beautiful, as Yeats would say. The winners in slams seem the most vehement, the ones with the most beans to spill about mental illness or sex or messy feelings like jealousy and hatred. The work that is least ordered takes the prize.

  2. My persiflage hardly deserved such a compelling mini-essay. Thanks for treating me as an adult. I will return to this.

    1. The blogger window-box is so small that I had no idea how much I had rambled on until I posted. I'm off to take the mama to PT...

  3. Thanks for the heads-up about the Steele book, which was new to me! Just ordered a copy.

    Regarding Eliot and form, I see him as akin to sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who was classically trained and was predicted to be "the next Rodin" until he decided to devote his energies to creating Japanese-inspired abstracts. His classical training and understanding of form is in those works...and just as countless lesser artists have imitated Noguchi without any of his deep training, background, and thought, so too have countless poets imitated Eliot without a tiny bit of his knowledge of prosody.

    When I wrote and did PR for a major art center, I saw this in the best artists: Of the ones doing weird, abstract, seemingly formless work, the most memorable and interesting of them had serious formal artistic training. It showed, if you knew to look for it.

    1. Yes, that's it, exactly. The simple fact that one must know form and tradition to break them with power. And when you break them, energy is released...

      But most followers down the line don't have that mastery and ability to break form, and there is a law of diminishing returns that comes into play. And that is where we are, too often.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.