Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What's with 21st century poets?

In my last post I mentioned the 'hope' of the judge who awarded me second place in the recent League of Utah Writers rhymed poetry contest - as well as my reaction to his comment.
Why, you ask, would I be uninterested in 'modern' poetry? 
Good question.
I suppose the initial reason is that I hold poets such as Wordsworth and Shelley in reverent esteem. From the time I entered grade school until the day I graduated from the eighth grade I memorized and recited a poem each Friday as part of my English Language class. Each student in our little one-roomed country school did the same. Because of that requirement, I became familiar with everything from doggerel verse:
(There was a lady
Loved a swine.
Wilt thou be mine?"
Can't remember the stanzas that followed but the mental image of a woman declaring undying amour to a snorting swine tickled my fancy then and has ever since.)

to the rhythmic refrains of Edgar Allen Poe:
(Hear the sledges with the bells - 
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells - 
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.)

to the immortal poetry of Longfellow:
   ( By the shores of Gitche Gumee, 
By the shining Big-Sea-Water, 
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, 
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis. 
Dark behind it rose the forest, 
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees, 
Rose the firs with cones upon them; 
Bright before it beat the water, 
Beat the clear and sunny water, 
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water. )

and the beautiful imagery of Robert W. Service:

(There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.)

I loved poetry then and I still do but I find myself totally unable to understand the rhythms and nuances of modern poetry.  Much of it doesn't make a lot of sense and even when it does, I find myself completely uninterested in the themes so often used by my contemporaries.

Several years ago, when I was a member, I attended a workshop in writing poetry sponsored by a nearby chapter of the Utah Poets' Society. The presenter - a poetry professor from a local college - read her favorite composition glorifying sex in every way she could think of and ending with the sentiment that, if there wasn't sex in heaven she wasn't going there.
TMI imho!
I don't care to know all about someone else's sex life. That's their business. I have my own to take care of, thank you very much. But she wasn't the only 'poet' of my acquaintance who seemed to think modern poetry could focus on nothing else.
Of course, there were other themes presented at our monthly poetry gatherings. Poems glorifying magpies and ravens (two of my least favorite birds) etc., etc., etc. 
These poems were attempts at writing in various forms of modern poetry, forms far removed from the sonnets of Shakespeare or Elizabeth Barrett Browning or the incomparable forms used by Longfellow, Poe or Service. 
When I was challenged to write something other than my much-favored doggerel verse, I borrowed a book from the Society's library so I could learn more about different popular poetic forms. My personal opinion of many of the forms demonstrated therein could be summed up in a single word: pretentious. 
I did, finally, write a totally tongue-in-cheek sonnet. Not a  good sonnet, to be sure, but one mentioning poetry forms that any modern poet would recognize. 


Should I, a fledgling poet, try my hand
at writing sonnets, odes or villanelles —
word pictures left like wayward waves on sand
to tease and tantalize cerebral cells?
Perhaps a terza rima or a glose
would be a better style for my rhyme.
I start out well - but am not even close
To making my feet fit required time.

My fellow poets say I should not use
such archaic words—or phrases trite and true.
They seem to think free verse the only muse
and favor rambling form to clerihew.

I try them all but don’t know which is worse.
Perhaps I’d better stick to doggerel verse.


  1. I have to admit, I felt this way for a long time (Longfellow is my FAVORITE, and I took it upon myself to memorize "Paul Revere's Ride" after reading part of it for my fifth grade class) and I think a good lot of modern poetry really does push the envelope too far, but in college I had to read and write a lot of free-verse, and I think the reason it's so popular is exactly for the reason you said... a lot of the forms out there can be really pretentious, and forcing your words into a shape just to fit a list of rules... it can end up breaking the poem. I think free verse, therefore, can be a celebration of breaking all those rules.

    Speaking of poetry in form, I'll refer you to a poem by Barry Spacks, a professor of mine and a previous poet laureate from Santa Barbara, where I went to school...


    Some seek perfection, a seamless fit,
    but something always muddens if
    it’s found. Better an off-beat sound.
    Better to cultivate rough weeds
    to mar a neat, relentless lawn,
    strike counterthrust of flint to stir
    a spark to flare a shining on
    from edges less well-met.

    Take crystals: at a “chaos-point”
    they seed -- where atoms make no sense.
    From matter slightly out of joint
    appears each little face that glints.
    Weavers insert a deft flaw in their fabric
    by which the soul of the maker springs free.

  2. Thank you for that insightful comment, Lisa. Very interesting poem. I appreciate your sharing.
    You memorized Longfellow's Ride of Paul Revere? I did, too, but not in grade school. In fifth grade I memorized The Cremation of Sam McGee. Cynthia Kent, a former student of our school, came back to visit one day. I'll never forget her standing in front of the old oil stove at the front of the room, reciting The Cremation.... After hearing it, I had to be able to recite it, too.
    I think poetry helps kids learn to feel.
    Drop back by anytime. Glad you were here.