I’ll never forget the smug cynicism I felt last spring when my professor handed us Ezra Pound’s poem “Papyrus.” The poem is as follows:

Spring . . . . . . .

Too long . . . . . .

Gongula . . . . . .

I quickly scribbled my own version to show how much artistic talent I thought a poem like this took. My version went something like this:

Summer . . . . . . .

Too short . . . . . .

Arugula . . . . . .

Unfortunately, my professor overheard the laughter of my two classmates, and had me read my creation to the whole class. I was slightly embarrassed, but I also felt justified in expressing my frustration with modern poetry.

Poetry and I have had a love-hate relationship since I entered college. Before college, I was pretty much unaware that any form of poetry existed beyond your standard rhythm and meter based creation. At this point, I loved poetry. I loved hearing the alliteration and cadence of the Edgar Allan Poe type, and I even felt that I had a knack for writing verse, evidenced by an occasional Facebook note (remember when people wrote those?).

Then, in college, I submitted one of my rhymed masterpieces to the school literary journal, and I heard crickets. When the journal was printed, I found to my bewilderment and dismay that there was not one rhymed poem in the whole book. As I read through the poems, anger started to fester as I realized that I didn’t “get” any of the poems. The word choice seemed random, there seemed to be no unifying theme or structure, but here they were, shouting at me from their cozy black and white abode that they had been good enough to print, while mine hadn’t. I felt the like the awkward outsider not let in on an inside joke.

Even after being slapped with the reality that rhyme was no longer in vogue in the literary world, but was rather something sequestered to cheesy Hallmark cards and children’s books, I refused to give it up. My sophomore year, I started dabbling in free verse, just to see if it was all it was cracked up to be, but I remained loyal to my quatrains. In my creative writing class, we had the chance to read a sample of our work to the class, and I chose to share the rhymed poem that I had put my heart and soul into, and a free verse poem that hadn’t taken me more than a few sittings to write.

I read my rhymed poem to the class, and when I finished, my professor gave me a half bewildered, half-pitying look. He gave me a haphazard tip on how I could improve, but it was clear he was having difficulty showing how much he didn’t like the poem. To get an idea of what the style was like, here’s the last verse:

So bring back color, vibrancy to black and white review,

Define the wine, the bread; refresh with glimpses of the new.

Come break the barricades to meaning guarded by the lies,

And shatter repetition with your wordless loving eyes.

A little shaken, I moved onto my next poem, which was about growing up as a magician’s daughter. Here’s an excerpt from this poem:

On those long car trips home through summery Maine

I leaned my cheek on the sheer glass

following powdered sugar stars on walls of navy ice.

Or if my brother was there

we’d giggle in our late night childish joy,

we were made up characters from a different world

Just a simple description of my childhood, I thought, nothing too special. But after I finished this poem, my professor’s expression completely changed. He loved the poem, and even said he wished he had come up with the phrase “powdered sugar stars.”

I started writing more free verse poetry although I was secretly suspect of its elevated state being a hoax, and my poems started getting into the college literary journal. Although I did work hard on my poems, they still took me less time to write than my rhymed poetry, and I remained simultaneously exhilarated that I had gotten my foot in the door of this literary society that I still didn’t understand, yet critical and disgusted by the poems that I still couldn’t get anything out of.

My poems were free verse now, but they were clear and specific. I viewed my goal as a poet as conveying an idea or emotion with a precision that prose couldn’t give. These other poems seemed to find joy in obscuring meaning.

The more I talked with English majors about my quandary, the more I realized that as a whole, they approached poetry differently than I did. For me, if a poem didn’t “make sense,” the author was doing a disservice to the reader, but for them, poetry wasn’t always supposed to make sense. You weren’t supposed to take apart a poem like you were disassembling an appliance, otherwise, you would kill it. Point taken, I reasoned.  But then, how do you distinguish between a quality poem and a shoddy poem?

Is this

a poem

simply because I

have forced it

into six

neat lines?

I imagined the renowned poets of the 20th century guffawing over beers about how they’d tricked critics into believing their lazy scratchings had artistic value. Williams Carlos Williams would say with giddy tears in his eyes, “and then I wrote about how ‘everything depends on a red wheelbarrow’! And they loved it!”

Beckett would slap his knee heartily and Pound would give Williams a fist bump, and they would continue their poetic scam to the end of their days.

And then there’s the case of Billy Collins, the “everyman’s poet” of the late 20th and early 21st century. Collins said “I think a lot of readers are frustrated with the obscurity and self indulgence of most poetry. I try very assiduously to court the reader and engage him. I am interested more in a public following than a critical one” [http://www.cprw.com/Hilbert/collins2.htm].  “America’s most popular poet” has repeatedly proven his finesse in fulfilling this goal; take this poem for example:

Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep A Gun In The House

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.

He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark

that he barks every time they leave the house.

They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.

I close all the windows in the house

and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast

but I can still hear him muffled under the music,

barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,

his head raised confidently as if Beethoven

had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,

sitting there in the oboe section barking,

his eyes fixed on the conductor who is

entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful

silence to the famous barking dog solo,

that endless coda that first established

Beethoven as an innovative genius.

This poem is both witty and accessible to the general population. I definitely didn’t feel I was being excluded from an inside joke. Still, I have to wonder what exactly it is that makes this a poem. If you took away the visual structure and made it into a paragraph, it would read just like a fun piece of prose.

So readers, these are my questions: first, what makes a poem a poem? And secondly, what makes a poem a good poem? Am I justified in my frustration with modern and post-modern poetry, or is there something I’m missing? If so, please let me in on the inside joke. In the meantime, I’m going to go write a villanelle.

9 comments

  1. Oh dear! I sympathize with your frustrations. It took the wonderful words of Mary de Rachewiltz, (funny enough, EP’s daughter) to enlighten me to a few pieces of information. She reiterated Pound’s early ideas of: treat the thing like the thing, directly.

    I think that you’ve definitely expressed the same idea. Your poetry should be dealing with the reality of the matter and not hidden behind superfluous, unnecessary words. As always: Make it New! The departure from the classical verse into a unrhymed free for all was America moving into it’s own literary heritage. A poem can, in some instances, be treated like a machine made up of parts – look at the cantos, a prime example. But Pound ALSO deals with the thing directly in the cantos, that thing just happens to encompass everything from John Adam’s biographical pieces to Chinese dynasty history, with some Dante and Circe in between.

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    1. Thank you for the insight Ernest! Knowing the context does help me to understand better what poets such as Pound were trying to achieve. I will admit that my study of 20th century American poetry has been pretty superficial (as you can see from this post, I often became frustrated by not being able to immediately “understand” modern poetry and gave up), so it’s helpful to hear from someone who has clearly put time into studying poetry.

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  2. I am right with you. I like the poetry of Billy Collins and am not afraid to say so, despite the criticism he gets from postmodern critics. His poetry is indeed accessible, which I agree is not a negative attribute, but his work also has some subtle layers of meaning that prompt further reflection. He is under-appreciated in academic circles.

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  3. Interesting post. I like free verse, but understand your position (and didn’t like that Billy Collins poem at all).
    I find that a lot of free verse gives me is the ability to put my own feelings into it. I want to relate more than anything.
    In regards to your questions.
    The definition of poetry isn’t all that important to me. Reading Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs felt like reading poetry though it’s considered a novel.
    Trying to explain what makes a poem good is like trying to explain why any art is good. For example, I like Bukowski, but understand why it’s not for everyone.
    Sorry, I don’t study poetry so I can’t articulate my views on it as well as you have. Ultimately, I think you should like whatever you want and write however you want. I don’t think you should write free verse if you feel it isn’t as meaningful to you.
    One last reason rhymed poetry isn’t always appealing to me. As an outsider to the literary world, having rules and structure doesn’t feel welcoming. It’s like going to an art gallery with someone who studied art. At times it can be illuminating, but when the person keeps telling me what I like isn’t actually any good, I lose interest in it altogether. I just want to look at the painting and enjoy it. Poetry can feel that way, too. I don’t know all the rules so that aspect of it passes me by sometimes.
    Oh, and I’d also add that I really enjoyed that part of your rhymed poem the most of any poem posted.

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    1. Thank you! It’s nice to know that some people still enjoy rhymed poetry. Your metaphor of going to the art gallery with someone who has studied art is really interesting; and I can relate to it from the sense of approaching modern/postmodern poetry, like you said, “at times it can be illuminating, but when the person keeps telling me that what I like isn’t actually any good, I lost interest in it altogether.” This is how I have felt when I didn’t “get” this type of poetry that my English major friends appreciated and seemed to understand.

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      1. I used that analogy to demonstrate the case when someone uses technical knowledge of something, that the average person doesn’t have, to belittle an opinion. The thing I’ve found about more abstract art (poetry or paintings) is that the technical aspect isn’t usually as important. So it’s more welcoming to the layperson who simple wants to enjoy.
        I guess my main point is that it’s primarily based on personal preference.
        If your English major friends are trying to convince you rhymed poetry never has any merit, I completely disagree. If they simply have a preference for free verse while you have a preference for rhymed, then I see no conflict.

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