We hear it all the time these days: if speech is musical, it’s not serious.
Since the Modernist revolution and its Creative Writing Progam put Keats in a museum, the absolute worst thing a poem can be, the new masters of poetry say, is “sing-songy.”
One can be called a genius these days just by not being sing-songy.
Formalist verse, no matter how skillfully done, screams Amateur! The more skillfully done, the more amateurish it seems.
When the success of something condemns it, you know something is afoot.
If poems were washing machines, you could put old ones in a museum—because all the new ones work better.
But John Ashbery and William Carlos Williams don’t wash clothes better than Keats. They just don’t.
So what the hell is going on here?
We think what’s happening are two things:
First, the cult of “Make It New” has convinced enough influential persons that poems do resemble washing machines.
And secondly, as we said in the beginning of this essay: musical poetry, fashionable in previous centuries, is not considered serious.
Even though it’s unfortunate, the first can’t be helped; the new will always be fashionable for that reason. But the second is worth looking into.
Is speech that’s musical less serious?
What of this example:
Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.
This is the most admired and remembered part of a newly elected U.S. president’s speech to the country and the world. There is no doubt this speech was meant to be taken seriously. This phrase, with its repetition and symmetry, is catchy as hell. Kennedy’s famous phrase is swellingly, swooningly, melodiously and metrinomically musical. And deadly serious.
This example alone is enough to bust the modernist myth that any trace of song betrays a lack of seriousness on the part of the speaker—a myth that was swallowed, and ushered in our present era of flat poems which not a soul remembers.
Now obviously John F. Kennedy would have been a fool to stand before the world on that cold day back in 1961 and speak out limericks.
But only a fool assumes the worst example of a thing is what it is.
The modernist might sputter, “But—but—but…your JFK example isn’t really sing-songy. For, instance it doesn’t rhyme…”
Let’s heed the modernist complaint and see if rhyme can be serious…
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 44
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 44
When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.
Oh crap! Rhyme, rhyme, everywhere, and deadly serious.
Even ballad-coughing, melodramatic, hyperbolic, sentimental, self-hating, Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge shows the way to serious art through the music of poetry:
Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.
The art is serious; therefore, the sentiment is.
One clearly sees here two things: the whole issue of musical poetry is not bi-part—one is not either “prosey and serious” or “rhyming and not serious.” The issue is far more complicated than the haters of “sing-songy” would have it. And, secondly, one can see traces in the Coleridge of how the art of formal verse can be abused, can veer into the sickly and the over-emotional, violating the dictates of good taste and Plato’s Republic. But let’s not blame the poetry, as the Modernists (in their bathos) did. It’s not formal verse’s fault. The Shakespeare is as different from the Coleridge as Coleridge is from Dryden, or Dryden is from Ashbery, or Ashbery is from T.S Eliot, or T.S Eliot is from himself, when the latter used rhyme seriously, or mock-heroically—depending on the occasion. The laws of verse are not sentimental. We are—even in our dullest, modern prose.
And now in our final example: who, in 2012, would wish that Emily Dickinson had not rhymed in order to be this serious:
Heart, We Will Forget Him
Heart, we will forget him!
You and I, tonight!
You may forget the warmth he gave,
I will forget the light.
When you have done, pray tell me,
That I my thoughts may dim;
Haste! lest while you’re lagging,
I may remember him!