I write as an occasional verse writer and constant poetry lover. Also one-time teacher of poetry in a writing course. Further, poetry reciter of great distinction according to my wife, though not given sufficient opportunity to display it. But what I am most concerned with is the state of poetry at present and the future it may or may not have.
And what exactly is its current state? Very sick, if you ask me. You see, I don’t believe
in free verse, too freely practiced in indiscriminate fashion as it nowadays is. I realize that mine may not be a majority position, but as a former film critic and persistent drama critic, I am used to being a minority voice.
What for me killed poetry is the reckless use of free verse, sometimes even written out as prose. But don’t get me wrong, I freely concede the rare but genuine ability of some to make poetry of free verse, and that in the theater, in good hands, it may prosper. My further point is that although many poetasters mistakenly think that anything in rhyme and meter is automatically poetry, and still more misguided souls think that their free verse is, as self-proclaimed, poetry. Most, though not
all, real poetry makes use of those wonderful devices, meter and rhyme.
Let me state who some of my favorite poets are. In Britain, Robert Graves, Louis MacNeice, Dylan Thomas, Edward Thomas, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, William Butler Yeats, Ernest Dowson, D. H. Lawrence, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, Harold Monro, Hilaire Belloc (with his splendid “Tarantella” and books of verse for bad children). Also the unjustly neglected Humbert Wolfe, John Pudney and A. S. J. Tessimond. In America, it is Richard Wilbur, E.E. Cummings, John Crowe Ransom, Ezra Pound, Robinson Jeffers, Robert Frost, James Dickey, James Wright, W,D. Snodgrass, plus an amazing array of women including Emily Dickinson, Elinor Wylie, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale, Louise Bogan and Elisabeth Bishop. Also the unjustly neglected Kenneth Patchen.
There may be others who do not leap to my mind; may they or their ghosts forgive me. Some of the above wrote very good free verse when it pleased them, but most wrote formal verse as a rule. Ah, yes, rules. Whence my preference for formal verse? It’s like tonal versus atonal music. You probably know Frost’s famous definition of free verse as playing tennis without a net. It is true that some types of constraint benefit poetry, namely rhyme and meter. I could also compare formal verse versus free verse with elegant conservative clothes versus the kind of play or gym clothes that most people nowadays wear even in places where one didn’t use to.
Let me add that formal verse has the advantage of being easier to memorize, and certainly more fit for public declamation such as many Russian poets lustily go in for. Think also of how many English poems are memorized and on occasion recited thanks to those aide memoires, rhyme and meter. I recall how during my brief military stint in the wartime barracks, after lights out, I was able to recite and hold the attention with poems by James Joyce and Sara Teasdale (interesting collocation). But, I can’t repeat it often enough, doggerel is doggerel, no matter how much meter and rhyme it flaunts, whereas at its best, free verse can score, as I have scored with two masterpieces.
One is Kenneth Patchen’s “Do the Dead Know What Time It Is?” A barroom scene in which the poet fantasizes his dead mother being welcomed by God, while a homeless girl approaches him and wants to be taken home by him, but he himself doesn’t own a place he could take her to. The mastery of the poem lies in the way the two story lines interplay to form something bigger than the sum of the two individually touching parts.
The other is Tennessee Williams’s “Life Story,” about two gay guys on a one-night stand in a hotel, each obviously craving solace in sex, but each getting mostly a self-indulgent monologue from the other telling his boring life story, about which the hearer couldn’t care less. It is both grotesque and pathetic, and it’s all there, down to the wheezing elevator just outside.
But two poems don’t make a spring, not even if I throw in a third, James Dickey’s “Falling,” based on a true event, a stewardess falling out of an airplane. Let me however come now to my real subject: Who Killed Poetry?
It all begins with the ‘’good gray poet” Walt Whitman, somewhat fewer than at most twenty shades of gray. He more or less invented free verse, with French poets called vers-libristes, such as Gustave Kahn and Francis Viele-Griffin, emulating him even before Americans like Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg climbed on the bandwagon. Sometimes Walt does hit it, though, notably with a couple of anthology pieces , “O Captain! My Captain!’” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” but there are not that many lilacs among all those endless wilted leaves of grass. Yet it was enough for his form—or formlessness—to engender countless stillborn—or boisterous—progeny still with us. Just open “Leaves of Grass” at random and read a few pieces, and see where it gets you.
And now here comes the major modern poetry killer, John Ashbery, hailed, worshiped and emulated the world over. I knew him, reader, back at Harvard, if only slightly. The closest I came was years later, when I ran into a common friend of ours who was off to visit John in the hospital and persuaded me to tag along. I forget what Ashbery was ailing from that had bedded him, as well as what may have been said in that threesome.
More perpendicularly, he proved amiable but distant the rare times we may have crossed paths, as amiable, I imagine, as when he smilingly murdered poetry. This September 4, it was his turn to check out, and the Times obituary began on the front page and continued inside, with a full page and pictures on both. The headline read “Pulitzer-Winning Poetic Voice Often Echoed , Never Matched,” and the glowing text by David Orr and Dinitia Smith quoted some of his poetry as follows:
All things seem mention of themselves
And the names which stem from them branch out to other referents.
Hugely spring exists again. The weigela does its dusty thing
In fire-hammered air. And garbage cans are heaved against
The railing as the tulips yawn and crack open and fall apart.
And today is Monday. Today’s lunch is: Spanish omelet, lettuce and tomato salad,
Jell-O, milk and cookies. Tomorrow’s: sloppy joe on bun,
Scalloped corn, stewed tomatoes, rice pudding and milk.
The names we stole don’t remove us:
We have moved on a little ahead of them
And now it is time to wait again.
Which is worse: the menu or the poetry? No wonder Ashbery has told us he would be writing a poem when getting a phone call for some gossip, whose content he would blithely insert into the poem. So what do we have here?
Of course all things seem mention of themselves, what else can they seem? But their names branch out to other things. How do they branch out and what are these other referents? So spring is hugely here, but is it so in space or in time?? And why the dust on the weigela, a deciduous shrub, and just what is its thing? Holding up the dust? And what is fire-hammered air? Perhaps hot air, of which this poem is full? And who heaves the garbage cans against what railing, and why? Is it the railing around the tulips? And why are they already shedding just when the weigela is doing its thing? Have they been whacked by the heavy garbage that perhaps was partly heaved over the railing?
And what is the significance of Monday and Monday’s meal? Hardly digested, must we already also get the Tuesday menu? Not very appetizing. What names have we (we?) stolen and why? Stolen from whom? And how could any names, stolen or not, remove us? Then how could we have managed to move ahead, past them, even a little? And how long will we have to wait for those slowpokes to catch up? Or for whom the hell else?
So this, you see, is great poetry. And what do reviewers say? In the Times Book Review, Steven Koch calls Ashbery’s work “a hushed, simultaneously incomprehensible and intelligent whisper with a weird pulsating rhythm that fluctuates like a wave between peaks of sharp clarity and watery droughts of obscurity and languor.” Try to visualize, never mind comprehend, that. How is the incomprehensible intelligent, and how is a watery drink (drought) made up of obscurity and languor, two irreconcilables and neither of them potable. The reviewer as disciple and imitator?
Gibberish, I say. And on goes the obituary: “It is often easier to say what an Ashbery poem feels like than what it is about," i.e., it feels terrific but I have no idea what it means. “And Mr. Ashbery relishes that uncertainty,” i.e., leading us by the nose. A British poet and reviewer, James Fenton, speaks of times when “I actually thought I was going to burst into tears of boredom [does boredom produce bursting tears?]” and, while respecting the talent, “not the resort to sad shadows,” so shadows have feelings, too. These reviewers sure sound influenced by the reviewee.
Another poet, Louis Simpson, was not amused “to see a poet sneering [apropo their concern with the Vietnam War] at the conscience of others,” to which Ashbery replied that he didn’t. But obscurity risks painful misunderstanding. He said he was “ always trying to get back to this [which?] mystical kingdom.” But don’t expect much lucidity from a poet on whom the atonal compositions of John Cage “had a lasting influence.” Also one according to whom “the ocean makes grasses, and in doing so refurbishes a lighthouse.” What some oceans will do!
Two days later, on September 6, the Times published an Op-Ed tribute to Ashbery by Rae Armantrout, a poet and professor. Ashbery’s poems, she writes , “are like involved daydreams from which, as with real dreams, there is no obvious exit.” Awakening, I would say, is a pretty obvious exit from both dreams and daydreams. “Ashbery is the one poet who can somehow be simultaneously elegiac and playful, even goofy. . . . If you could find the impossible space where Franz Kafka overlapped with the Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, John would be sitting there happily grinning like the Cheshire cat.” Aren’t these words something that could come directly from an Ashbery poem? There “the action is always in transit, always hovering somewhere between the last line and the next in a sort of quantum superposition.”
Well, isn’t that space between lines exactly where John could sit and grin? A quantum superposition, to put it a bit more obscurely. And Rae quotes something that she avers could be a fitting epitaph.
How they found you, after a dream, in your thimble hat,
Studious as a butterfly in a parking lot.
The road home was nicer then.
Dispersing each of of the Troubadours had something to say about how charity
Had run its course and won, leaving you the ex-president
Of the event . . .
To quote Professor Armantrout [what a Wagnerian moniker!]: as also for Whitman, “nothing was too incongruous” for John. I could suggest something: one of his poems. Or what poetry has brcome, nonsense being as good as death,