in verse # 85:  Does Christmas Measure Up?

In this post, I will examine two of R. A. Christmas’s poems that are not in Saviors on Mt. Disneyland, looking to see whether, and if, and how, he measures up to his own “Bunk-House Poetics”.  The first is from the first edition of Hungry Sunday (1996, not the one pictured, which is the second edition, of 2006).


for RHC

Now I lay me down by the freeway,
in a duplex in Cedar City, Utah;

and twenty yards west of these bricks
rides the asphalt, as high as my roof,

where the line-haul drivers trade leads
all night in their big sets of doubles.

I open my window and listen
for morning on grandfather’s freight dock:

hand-trucks thumping past my head;
unloading those box-cars of sno-jel;

Grandpa pissed off at everybody;
my father hunched over the bill-writer; Continue Reading →

in verse # 84: Post-Christmas post

The observant among you have noticed that Bob Christmas hyphenated Bunk-House in the titles of his “Bunk-House Poetics,” which indicates that the hyphenated phrase is an adjectival nominal modifying a noun, in this case Poetics.  Given how careful Christmas is with his phrasing and punctuation, if a hyphen were left out, the phrase could mean “House Poetics that are Bunk” — no!  I’d better debunk that one right now.  Christmas punctuates better than that.

If this were a post-structuralist blog, I could accuse Christmas of being an old white guy, but again, in his poems, he has taken care of that.  He has very carefully written that tough truth throughout Saviors on Mt. Disneyland, without conceding, though, that his identity makes him ineligible for poetic stature.  Now, however, in “Bunk-House Poetics 8,” he starts down a different slippery slope:  quantity versus quality.

Bunk-House Poetics 8

………..Write little; do it well.
………..Your knowledge will be such,
………..At last, as to dispel
………..What moves you overmuch.

………..………..Yvor Winters, “To a Young Poet”

All poets (including this one) tend to overwrite.
We’re very verbal, excitable—we have so
much to say, about our own lives especially;
and we’re just dying to share it with others.
Sadly, this is the downfall of most poets.

Do your readers a favor and write one-page
poems eighty—no, ninety—percent of the time.
Avoid writing multi-page poems that read
like somebody’s confessional diary (ouch!).
Keep your lines and your poems short.

You’re not Chaucer, or Pope; you’re writing
the English Lyric, a form that enabled Hardy,
Shakespeare—many others—to achieve near
perfection in verse.  And believe it or not,
Continue Reading →

in verse # 83 : Christmas in the Bunk-House

To reprise:  “Bunk-House Poetics 1” urged poets to avoid assuming that their audience should “feel” some “feeling.”  Number 2 encouraged poets to embrace “‘the plain-style,’ everyday words, in striking order.”  And number 3 reminded us that the plain-style is written in sentences, “distinguished by syntax.”  Today, I present the next four poems in the series for your delight, instruction and edification.  Essentially, they constitute a defense of free verse in English.  Here’s the first:

Bunk-House Poetics 4

……..I have eaten
…….the plums
…….that were in
…….the icebox
…….…….William Carlos Williams, “This Is Just To Say”

It’s tempting—and reassuring—to think that
iambic meter and true rhyme are the norm of
English verse (because so many great poems
have been written this way for centuries).
Sorry, “free-verse” is here to stay.

Writing poems outside the limits of rhyme and
meter is not, as Robert Frost famously said,
“like playing tennis without a net.”  It’s
simply a “convention,” another way of
using language for artistic purposes.

Free-verse, so to speak, has now been written
for so long—and so well—that there’s no
turning back. Poems today can be shaped like Continue Reading →

in verse # 82 : Christmas poetics

Consider this poem:

Bunk-House Poetics 1

……… A poem should not mean/ But be.
……..……..….. Archibald MacLeish

The way we read our fellow-poets is likely
how they’re reading us—meaning that all
too often we’re writing the same poem,
trying to get readers to experience some
“feeling” we think they should all be “feeling.”

Why not get some emotional distance by
writing in the third-person?  Why don’t we
tell our stories, or make statements about
interesting subjects, without constantly
repeating “I,” “I,” as we go along?

Poets and students of verse are generally
not very interested in a poet’s “feelings”;
but like all readers they want to experience
strong feelings of their own—based on what
poets have to say and how they say it.

What poets say must be about things more
important than mere sentiment.  The way
to profound emotion runs through a mind
enchanted by ideas and matchless artistry.
Poems must beautifully mean—to be.[i]

Continue Reading →

in verse #81 : bad motorcycle

In my last post, I examined uses by the pre-eminent modernist male poets, Pound, Eliot and Frost, of the traditional form of the ballad.  I have been examining that use by their female counterparts since I posted, but in the course of that examination, especially when distracted by the needles and catheters of various medical examinations, it has occurred to me that another frequent distraction I suffer is related to the matter of traditional forms — in this case the form of early rock’n’roll pop songs from my wasted youth.  They are, after all, related to several folk forms like the ballad.

I have been haunted for years, since I was about 13, around 1958, by a fragment of a pop song, the chorus in fact, that goes “He was a bad motorcycle, wadi wadi wadi, a bad motorcycle, wadi wadi wadi …” [fading to silence, where it belongs].  Such things get stuck in my head, in my life, in my memory.  Well, recently our eldest grand-daughter, now a freshman at Utah State, was visiting us and her Clark cousins in Utah County — a novelty, because home is Ithaca, New York — and said that you could find anything on Spotify, which she has on her phone.  So I challenged her, saying “Yeah, well I’ll bet you can’t find ‘Screw You, We’re From Texas!’ on that thing[i].”  Sure enough, a few quick pokes of the finger and there it was.  So then I tried to think of the most obscure song that rattles around in my head, and up popped “Bad Motorcycle.”  So of course I said “Well, I once heard a song called ‘Bad Motorcycle.’  I’d be surprised if that’s on there, because no one else I have ever talked to has heard it.”

The Story Sisters

So she poked in “Bad Motorcycle” and back came a list of five songs with that title, by the Storey Sisters (off three different albums), Tracey Ullman, and “Angelos, Barbara Green” off an album “Boys Can Be Mean.”  “Play that bottom one” I said, and it started off promisingly with motorcycle noise before Green started in with “Oh, run run run, Oh, run run run.”  “Nah” I said, “That’s not it.  Try this one” and pointed to Tracey Ullman.  The song had a fifteen-second rock’n’roll intro, then Ullman began singing “I was on my way to school” — “Not it” I said; “Try this one” and she pressed play on the Storey Sisters.   I heard this: Continue Reading →

in verse # 21 : unblank verse

The imp of the perverse — a constant companion — suggested as a title for this installment “blankety-blank verse,” but as its topic is the Elizabethan sonnet, the title above presented itself as an amiable contrast to my last installment.  You will recall from my last post [link] that both the English sonnet and blank verse were inventions of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-47).  However, The new Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics credits Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) with bringing the sonnet from Italy and adapting it, “showing an immediate preference … for a closing couplet in the sestet,”[i] as in this sonnet which he translated from the Italian of Petrarch:

The long love that in my thought doth harbor,
and in my heart doth keep his residence,
Into my face presseth with bold pretense
And there encampeth, spreading his banner
She that me learns to love and suffer
And wills that my trust and lust’s negligence
Be reined by reason, shame and reverence
With his hardiness takes displeasure.
Wherewithal unto the heart’s forest he flieth,
Leaving his enterprise with pain and cry,
And there him hideth, and not appeareth.
What may I do, when my master feareth,
But in the field with him to live and die?
For good is the life ending faithfully.[ii]

The Italian or Petrarchan sonnet features an octave rhymed abbaabba (or, in Anthony Burgess’s hands, an invocation, Abba Abba[iii]) Continue Reading →

in verse #80 : goodly feres

Because of a project I’m working on right now, I looked up Ezra Pound’s “Ballad of the Goodly Fere,” which I had accused him, in December 2016’s post,  of employing “the kind of fake folk style that John Mason Neale abused in his carol Good King Wenceslas” in its writing.  I still think there’s a fakeness to the poem, in that I find it nearly impossible to read aloud while honoring all of Pound’s elisions and abbreviations — which I should be able to do in a poem from the oral tradition.  But it’s such a fine poem.  Here — give it a try, aloud:

Ballad of the Goodly Fere

Simon Zelotes speaketh it somewhile after the Crucifixion.[i]

Ha’ we lost the goodliest fere o’ all
For the priests and the gallows tree?
Aye lover he was of brawny men,
O’ ships and the open sea.

When they came wi’ a host to take Our Man
His smile was good to see, Continue Reading →

in verse # 79 : Swift and Pound

In 1732 Jonathan Swift published “The Lady’s Dressing Room,[i]” a poem commenting on contemporary vanity.  At 144 lines, it might not seem too long to enter into this post, and I might be willing to enter it in its entirety, but Swift, as anyone who has read Travels into several remote nations of the world, in four parts / by Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon, and then a captain of several ships, will know, Swift was, not to put too fine a point on the matter, a satirist.  That work was first issued in a bowdlerized edition in 1726, and then in an amended edition in 1735[ii], after “The Lady’s Dressing Room” was published.

But Swift was a satirist, not a satyrist, although a lady named Satira appears in the poem.  It has been controversial from the first, being considered sexist.  But at least one of the problems with that view is that the satire is more anti-humanist, which allows Swift to vent in 144 lines on every human vice, folly and defect.  He was, after all, a clergyman, Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.  But before that, he was born, in Dublin, to Anglo-Irish parents who had come to Dublin to seek their fortune.  His father died seven months before he was born,[iii] and his mother left him in Dublin and returned to England.  I’m sure that had nothing to do with “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” in which a swain, one Strephon, steals into his lady Celia’s dressing room and finds all in disarray and gross display.  After 114 highly descriptive lines laying all that out, Strephon finds himself in a bind.  As Swift has it:

Thus finishing his grand Survey, [115]
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous Fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia  Continue Reading →

in verse #78 : Pound, and Moore

I was reading The Alfred Smurthwaite family, a family history self-written and self-published, and came across this gem of youthful enthusiasm:

Rooty toot toot, Rooty toot toot
We are the boys from the Institute!
We don’t smoke and we don’t chew
And we don’t go with the girls that do
(Whispered in a quasi-pious voice)[i]

That last line appears to be a characterization of the style of the singer, rather than a fifth line of the song.  I’m not sure what a “quasi-pious voice” is, whether it means a jocular self-mocking voice, or a voice halfway between the pious and the profane.  But my interest in this song is the rhythm of the first line, and its contrast with another poem.  The rhythm is militant, not suppliant (and there was no indication of what kind of institute was meant, whether military or religious).  It matches the rhythm of the third and fourth lines of the following ditty:

Rented a tent, a tent, a tent;
Rented a tent, a tent, a tent.
Rented a tent!
Rented a tent!
Rented a, rented a tent.
*****—  Snare Drum on Mars[ii]

The attribution is part of the savage jocularity of the source, Continue Reading →

in verse #77 : what is poetic about “Poetry”?

So, having all read the poem, tell me what is verse in Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry”?  And what is poetic about it?  She must have asked herself the same question, because when she reprinted the poem in her Complete poems, she revised it thus:


I, too, dislike it.
**Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
**it after all, a place for the genuine.[i]

The revisions emphasize concision.

But at what cost?  What is lost?  Well, for one, two of the most famous phrases in Moore’s corpus, if not the corpus of 20th-century poetry:  “beyond all this fiddle” and “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”.

The only structural element I can find in the original poem, the one published in 1920, is in the  Continue Reading →

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