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 →

Being a Restorationist Writer, and the Quest for the Infinite—17

Let’s Do Some Practical Criticism

**I have received some encouragement for continuing my contributions, such as they are, to “the conversation,” maybe by pulling out for further discussion small “nuggets” from what I have submitted before, to bide time while I prepare to say something intelligent about the French poets who created part of the remote C19 and early C20 context of Joseph Smith’s work. So, how about this. I imagine a few of my readers—or my readers, who are few—to be sitting with me at a circular table in a quiet corner of a small café on the Left Bank of the Provo River, a café that serves only Word of Wisdom – approved beverages, sipping our Sutter Home Fré wine (I hope that’s approved; I drink quite a lot of it—antioxidants, you know; also O’Doul’s, which my adult children, who drink Diet Coke and Mountain Dew, call “Bishop’s Beer”) and shooting the breeze about poetry and MoLit. I put before you for comparison and contrast the following two passages from two different authors. What do we see here? I invite observations and thoughts. Continue Reading →

in verse # 31 : dark Satanic mills

If I were to tell you that I was writing a parody bent on displaying a hacker’s mindset, based on Ira Gershwin’s “I got rhythm,” and that it began

I got rhythm
I got rhythm
Who could ask for anything more?

would you revise the title for this post to “dork Satanic mills”?  What if my parody morphed into

I got rhythm
Al Gore rhythm
I got rhythm
Who could ask for anything more?

would that incline you to a more charitable view?  Would you even notice the change in rhythm in the second line with the change in wording?

Of course you would, because Continue Reading →

in verse # 28 : the pun is meatier than the surd

Sitting at home alone in bed when I was 13, and unable to go out because I was undergoing the aftermath of rheumatic fever, I entertained myself with old copies of Reader’s Digest.  One of the things I digested thoroughly in the humor columns was puns.  I believe it was in one of those columns[i] that I read an entry from a proud punster who told of a woman who had named her new ranch, which was operated by her sons in her behalf , “Focus.”  Asked why, she replied “It’s where the sons raise meat.”  The author was proud of the fact that this was the only triple pun he knew of.  Now it wasn’t that kind of punning that fed this reader’s disgust with the magazine — it was the right-wing politics and red-baiting, which I was old enough to recognize but too young to understand.  So now I only read the magazine to keep my contempt fresh.  Joseph McCarthy had just recently died, and I had heard him memorialized in an editorial on KSL radio by comparison with the Roman senator Cato, who argued that, for the good of Rome, “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” — (Moreover, I advise that Carthage must be destroyed.)[ii]  It was the era of the Birch John Society (promoting outhouses) and Walt Kelly’s Jack Acid Society black book, the first piece of political satire I ever bought.[iii]

But when John Pollack talks about puns, he invokes a bigger tent.  Talking about Jewish punning Continue Reading →

in verse # 19 : a hideous and intolerable allegory

One of the books I took with me to Seoul, Randy Lopez goes home,[i] proves that allegory and fable are alive and well in twenty-first century American literature.  Two newspaper clippings I’ve been carrying around since May 8th prove that poetry is still despised in America:  the first is a story about Lance Larsen being named poet laureate of Utah.  It ran on the obituary page of the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah,[ii] but that’s not why it proves that poetry is still despised; that honor belongs to Randy Wright, the Executive Editor of the Daily Herald, who, on the same day’s editorial page, in a column of stuff he salvages from his blog, begins his comment thus:  “I read on the news that Gov. Gary Herbert has named BYU professor Lance Larsen as the state’s fourth poet laureate.  Why the State of Utah needs an official poet, I don’t know, but it all sounds very cultured.”[iii]  Continue Reading →

in verse # 16 : rime royal

In “The horrors of the German language,” chapter 8 of his Words and rules, Steven Pinker reminds us that “no one is biologically disposed to speak a particular language.  The experiments called immigration and conquest, in which children master languages unknown to their ancestors, settled that question long ago.”[i]  After noting that linguists can’t “test hypotheses about cause and effect” in languages by synthesizing them in test tubes and culturing them, but are reduced to comparisons amongst those already synthesized in those great experiments, and available for study, he concludes:

We find different languages because people move apart and lose touch, or split into factions that hate each other’s guts. Continue Reading →

in verse # 15 : the alliterative resuscitation

When alliterative verse came roaring back to life in the mid-fourteenth century, it was more as a Wolfman than as a creature of some demented Frankenstein.

In the century and a half between Laȝamon’s recasting of Wace’s Roman de Brut,[i] known to scholars simply as Brut or Laȝamon’s Brut, and the writing of the first works of the “alliterative revival,”[ii] there are so few surviving instances of alliterative verse that one might have been forgiven for thinking it dead, if one knew of its earlier life at all.  It had served Anglo-Saxon poets well from their advent in England in 449 to their conquest by the Normans in 1066.  All datings of poems and manuscripts from that period are conjectural, and most of the works are dated by the comparison of dialect and vocabulary differences with the best-established dates of prose works, usually the chronicles.  But it’s all scholarly guesswork.

Call it the alliterative resuscitation if you will — a rose by any other name would still have thorns, after all — a mouth-to-mouth kiss from the crone who served as muse to the Beowulf poet.  Some of the earliest works Continue Reading →

in verse # 14 : the alliterative revival

Literary wayfaring in England did not end with the Norman Conquest in 1066.  It forked, one fork following the lead of the French conquerors, the other the lead of the English conquered.  Both of these were excursions into vulgar territory.  As Malone & Baugh have it:  “In any age up to the Renaissance, the Latin literature of Europe is the measure of its intellectual life.”[i]  The vulgar tongues did not always attract the most learned of men, since they tended to express themselves, when they felt the urge, in vulgar Latin.  Three men of Britain are exemplary in this regard:  Walter Map, Giraldus Cambrensis and Geoffrey of Monmouth.  Map (c. 1140-c. 1209) was a noted wit to whom were attributed “some of the most famous of the Goliardic poems”[ii] (the satirical Latin drinking songs perhaps now most famous for providing the text for Carl Orff’s scurrilous and gloriously vulgar cantata Carmina Burana).  Malone & Baugh tell us that “[a] persistent and early tradition credits him with the authorship of the prose Lancelot and other Arthurian romances, a tradition that cannot be accepted in any literal sense.”[iii]  His friend Giraldus was an historian, as was Geoffrey of Monmouth.  Their names are joined not only because they were all writers of Latin works, nor only because Geoffrey wrote History of the Kings of Britain (1137) and Vita Merlini, a life of Merlin in verse (which are connected, like the prose Lancelot, to the matter of Britain), but because they were all Welsh.[iv]  Their path into the new literary world ran through the church, and though they wrote of some of the same matters, they rejected the Welsh bardic tradition.

Contemporary with this trio was Laʒamon,[v] a priest who produced the first Arthurian narrative in English.  This was a translation of the Roman de Brut by a Norman poet, Wace, writing in French.  The Roman de Brut was, in its turn, “based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, and was probably begun around 1150 and finished in 1155.”[vi]  Malone & Baugh say that it is “customary … to assign Laʒamon’s Brut to the year 1205,”[vii] right at the end of Walter Map’s life and 140 years after the Norman Conquest.  So Wace creates from a Welshman’s Latin history a Norman-French poem that includes Arthurian legend, and Laʒamon translates that narrative into English, adding some new materials, such as

the gifts which the elves conferred upon Arthur at birth, the description of his armor — its magic properties or fabrication by supernatural smiths — the dream in which he received warning of Mordred’s treason, and added circumstances in the account of the passing of Arthur.  But the longest and most interesting addition which Layamon makes is the story of the creation of the Round Table….[viii]

But the most interesting thing to me about Laʒamon’s work is that he uses a version of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse in this poem.  Or more precisely, as Malone & Baugh explain it:

He had apparently been brought up on the Old English alliterative verse and his own lines area so clearly in this tradition that about half of them can be scanned by Old English standards.  He makes frequent use of rime, however, as an additional ornament.  The tradition which he represents is apparently a late one which has left behind some of the older practices and acquired certain new habits in their place [which could be Welsh habits of cynghanedd].  Nevertheless it is still English.  His vocabulary is remarkable for the small number of French words in it….[ix]

It would be worth examining the poem in more detail to determine whether there were traces of Welsh meters — but the only text I have access to now is found in Medieval English Verse and Prose in Modernized Versions,[x] which would have smudged the traces, if not obliterated them.  It is, however, worth quoting for its other qualities, even in modernized form:

There came to him anon   one who was a skilled craftsman,
And went to meet the king,   and courteously greeted him:
“Hail to thee, Arthur,   noblest of kings.
I am thine own man;   I have traversed many a land.
I know in woodwork   wondrous many devices.

I heard beyond the sea   men telling new tidings,
How thine own knights   at thy board did fight
On midwinter’s day;   many there fell;
For their mighty pride   they played the death game,
And because of his high race   each would be on the inside.
Now I will make for thee   a work most skillful
That there may sit at it   sixteen hundred and more,
All in succession,   that none may sit at the end,
But without and within,   man beside man.
Whenever thou wilt ride,   with thee thou mayst take it,
And set it up where thou wilt   after thine own will;
And thou needest never dread   throughout the wide world
That ever any proud knight   at thy board stir a fight;
For there shall the high   be equal to the low.
Let me but have timber,   and begin that board.”
n four weeks’ time   that work was completed.
On a high day   the court was assembled;
And Arthur himself went   forthwith to that board,
And summoned every knight   to that table forthright.
When they were all set,   the knights at their meat,
Then spoke each with the other   as though it were his brother.
All of them sat round about;   none had an end seat;
A knight of every race   had there a good place;
They were all side by side,   the low and the high
None might there boast   of a better beverage,
Than had his companions   who were at that table.[xi]

So we have this single outlier in the three generations after the Norman Conquest, a lone voice crying alliteration in the wilderness — and then, silence, for another three generations.  Now as Malone & Baugh point out, we have other cause to mourn:  “This is the first and also for quite a while the last appearance of King Arthur in English.  When he again returns to the isle of his birth it will be after a considerable sojourn in France, a sojourn which has profoundly altered his character.”[xii]  But, as it also marks the last appearance for that same while of alliterative verse in English, let our mourning be deep and long.

But hold on, I hear you say; surely there is more to come on the alliterative revival?

Your turn.

[i] A literary history of England / edited by Albert C. Baugh. – 2nd ed. – New York : Appleton-Century-Crofts, c1967.  From that work’s “Book I, The Middle Ages (to 1500)” by Kemp Malone and Albert C. Baugh, p. 143.

[ii] Ibid, p. 146

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid, pp. 146-7

[v] The ʒ is, according to MS Word’s Symbol table, a “Latin small letter ezh” which, as I recall, was pronounced like the “ch” in Loch Lomond.

[vi], accessed 29 February 2012.

[vii] Op. cit., pp. 170-171.

[viii] Ibid., p. 171.

[ix] Ibid., pp. 171-172.

[x] Medieval English Verse and Prose in Modernized Versions / by Roger Sherman Loomis and Rudolph Willard. – New York : Appleton-Century-Crofts, c1948.

[xi] Ibid., p. 25, lines 22,847 through 22,877.

[xii] Op. cit., p. 172.

in verse # 11 : last of the awdl

To me, turkey has always meant dark meat — the leg and the thigh.  This may be because of an association I made early on between dark meat and the dark lady of the sonnets.  I had no idea who the dark lady was, nor how the lady was dark, nor yet how dark the lady was.  I really didn’t know what a sonnet was, for that matter.  But since dark meat was clearly darker than the meat of the far drier breast we were served — the so-called white meat — I concluded that the dark lady must be darker than another, hypothetical, light lady of the sonnets.  At that time I didn’t know about the fair youth of the sonnets, or I might have made the association with the dork laddy of the sonnets. Continue Reading →

in verse, #1 : in the beginning

I first thought of calling this bloggette “re verse,” after the blogmaster proposed “Poetry Corner,” because I intend to write about verse, not poetry.  “Poetry” is a quality judgment applied to occurences of verse, and some writers deprecate their works by insisting that “This is just verse, not a poem.”  Others make an explicit contrast between “poetry” and “light verse,” as if the former were heavy verse — perhaps analogous to heavy cream in French cuisine:  something to admire for its culinary perfection, but partake in moderation for fear of consequences to one’s health.  But I find neither distinction helpful.

Verse and its proper counterpart prose are contrasting conventions for representing speech — speech clarified, speech refined.  Each can be used in poems, in short or extended narratives, in essays, in dramatic works, in reports, in précis.  They are contrasted primarily in rhythm and compactness:   prose tends to be looser, with rhythms governed by the paragraph, and using little ornamentation; verse tends to be tighter, with rhythms governed by the line, and using repetition emphatically to maintain structure:  devices like rhyme, alliteration, repeating patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, and, in even the most free of verse, a very tight focus on each word, rather than each sentence.

So I didn’t like the title “Poetry Corner,” but “re verse” was a little cute, even for me.  “In verse,” however, wasn’t such an obvious pun, and describes what I hope to do:  get into verse.  And bring others in, too.  Plus, I don’t like being cornered, even though that’s what it takes to make me write.   Continue Reading →