HOW FAST CAN WE SEE GOOD POETRY COMING?

Professional athletes do not have better reflexes than the rest of us.  The reason professional ballplayers can hit a 95 mile per hour fast ball is because they “see the future,” as the current issue of Sports Illustrated puts it.  By reading the signals of the pitcher’s motion before he throws the ball, the batter is able to do what is physically impossible, in terms of pure reaction time—hit a baseball that gets to the plate in a blink of an eye.

How is the professional reader of poetry like the professional baseball player?  How much can the former’s eye take in?  How far can the professional reader of poetry, as they are reading a particular poem, see into the future?  A ballplayer’s skill can be measured, but merely disagreeing whether a poem is wonderful or bores us to tears is no measure at all.  A ballplayer’s simple ability to hit a pitched baseball will be universally admired, especially among the young, but a professor’s learned opinion of some difficult poem will just as likely invoke scorn, even from a novice, as it will admiration.

Everyone watching instinctively knows that when a hitter makes contact with a ball that travels to him from the pitcher in under a second, the hitter is taking the shortest possible route in accomplishing his task.  The professor reading the poem, however, in order to impress upon his fans that the shortest possible route is being taken to accomplish his task, is in a bit of a muddle, for an expert explanation naturally takes time, and if no answer or result that is definitive (such as a doctor giving a prognosis) is forthcoming, “takes time” loses all meaning, and therefore efficiency loses all meaning, and therefore all vicarious pleasure is lost.  If watching someone else hit a baseball is more pleasurable than watching someone else read a poem—even if it then does not follow that hitting a baseball will be more pleasurable than reading a poem—one can see already how much poetry is at a disadvantage.

But can’t a professor, when first picking up a poem, detect when a poem is bad very quickly?  Certainly, but what does he see, and how quickly does he see it?  And, conversely, how long does it take the expert to tell when a poem is good?  Can any of this be measured?

And how can we test this theory with a good poem, since all poems which are commonly agreed upon as good are inevitably familiar to the poetry expert?  If good poems are not familiar to the poetry expert, then he is no expert, and if the good poem is familiar, we cannot test the expert’s ability at seeing a good poem for the first time.

Still, the test is probably worth a try.

Fortunately, I own Granger’s Index to Poetry with thousands of first lines of poetry.

Let’s see how difficult it is to predict a good poem from a first line.

Below are twenty first lines, linked to their poems.

Read all, before you click the link.

Which door do you choose?

You cannot, of course, choose a poem you happen to recognize.

1. Who drives the horses of the sun

2. A ball will bounce; but less and less. It’s not

3. When I carefully consider the curious habits of dogs

4. When I play on my fiddle in Dooney

5. Strawberries that in gardens grow

6. The rain was like a little mouse

7. See what a clouded majesty, and eyes

8. See what delights in sylvan scenes appear!

9. Plague take all your pedants, I say!

10. Past ruined Ilion Helen lives

11. Now the time of year has come for the leaves to be burning

12. Now what is love? I pray thee, tell

13. Let your song be delicate

14. Is then no nook of English ground secure

15. A delicate young Negro stands

16. Bright as a fallen fragment of the sky

17. In the great snowfall before the bomb

18. The time will come

19. They all kissed the bride

20. The skinny girl walking arm-in-arm

How much can we tell from first lines?

I don’t want a poem to tell me too much.  I don’t want a poem to tell me too little.  I don’t want a poem which is too much like a lecture.  I don’t want a poem which is too grotesque.  I don’t want a poem which is put together badly.  I don’t want a poem which is too coy or obscure.

Now from the choices above, if I had to choose a good poem based on the first line only—with my failure the penalty of death, which door would I choose?

I have no choice but to eliminate the awkward: Nos. 5, 9, and 10.

To eliminate the plain: Nos. 18, 19, and 20.

The didactic: Nos. 2, 3, 8, 12, 13, and 14.

The bombastic: 7, 16, and 17.

That leaves me to consider: 1, 4, 6, 11, and 15.  “The rain was like a little mouse” is too metaphorically quaint, so I’ve got to leave out no. 6.  “When I play on my fiddle in Dooney” sounds a little goofy, so I must eliminate no. 4.

I’ve reduced my choices from twenty down to three: “Who drives the horses of the sun,” “Now the time of year has come for the leaves to be burning” and “A delicate young Negro stands.”

Do I want to take a chance with a poem which uses the term, “Negro?”  Probably not, although there’s something intelligent about the first line’s insouciant rhythm and pictorial bluntness.

“Who drives the horses of the sun” sounds a little sententious, but it has a compact movement which I like.

“Now the time of year has come for the leaves to be burning” shows off an ambitious, successful rhythm even as it sounds somewhat wordy and overblown.

I choose then: in a split-second (for the experiment to survive): “Who drives the horses of the sun”

Which did you choose?


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20 Comments

  1. marcusbales said,

    August 16, 2011 at 1:50 am

    I’ve got to go with “A skinny girl walking arm in arm”. The horses of the sun sounds too Yeatsian without being Yeats.

    • thomasbrady said,

      August 16, 2011 at 5:39 pm

      Marcus,

      Yea, I might have picked wrong, there. It does sound like Yeats; you’re right. If it at all sounds like Yeats, we tend to think it’s the safe choice; the Romantic who manages to be modern.

      You went for the plain “A skinny girl.” Do you hear a definite rhythm in it? It’s a bit of mongrel beat. I’d as soon hit someone with that line as make poetry with it.

      Tom

  2. Beauregard said,

    August 16, 2011 at 2:35 am

    10 awkward? Hardly.

    Poet Im not but that be Beauty itself, Tommy. Read it a few times.

    • thomasbrady said,

      August 16, 2011 at 5:47 pm

      B.

      I called it “awkward” because it reverses natural word order in order to sound ‘poetic.’

      “Past ruined Ilion Helen lives” is poetry as a fat cow all decked with garlands and perfumed for an ancient sacrifice.

      No modern would choose that—but I tell you it breaks my heart, because the line is all kinds of lovely.

      “Helen lives past ruined Ilion” might have won the day, but even then the classical vibe might have stopped me short…

      T.

      • Beauregard said,

        August 16, 2011 at 8:48 pm

        Yes–klassic. Inversions were part of that, right–especially for latinists, like Landor–an occasional drinking pal of Coleridge . Pound thought him a great.. Hepcats at a SF bistro might not care for that sort of traditional verse , or the homeric or aristocratic allusions, probably preferring the latest nutcase howls from Beatnik X (or beatnikette). They’d prefer Bobby Dylan to Beethoven as well. But like LvB still sublime even if a bit quaint. Spiritual even. The modernists were not responsible for offing that sort of Landorian splendor. The culprits? Walty Whitman, Dickens, Twain, journalistic hacks, Chas Darwin, boilerplate realists (tho’ I say that as a fan of a Steven Crane….or Dash Hammett). Killed by American journalism.

  3. thomasbrady said,

    August 17, 2011 at 4:28 am

    B’gard,

    Modernism did spawn the Beats, especially in the person of WC Williams.

    Pound calls Landor the greatest English poet in “How To Read,” but in that work he also
    1. Says poetry, like science, is chiefly marked by “discovery”—and doesn’t name a single “discovery.”.
    2. Attacks institutions, professors, and critics in vague,amorphous terms.
    3. Says literature shouldn’t be divided into languages—even though literature exists in different languages.
    4. Never explains what he means by “language charged with meaning.”
    5. Claims the language-use of the middle ages was more accurate than the Renaissance, an oddball view already developed by the pre-Raphaelites.
    6. Names many writers, including names of writers he considers of great significance—but without one quote, illustration or example.
    7. Says biographies of writers are not worthwhile, then launches into his own, or at least a bitter rant about being rejected by English publishers (this is soon before he moves to Italy and meets Musollini)
    8.Says literature is essentially “embroidery” after Villon in 1450 and finds itself again, 400 years later, in 19th century prose (Stendhal and Flaubert).
    9. Says literature requires the genius who comes along every century or two and invents something—but doesn’t name any inventions..
    10. Provides the following syllabus for the 4 year undergraduate: Homer, in full, Confucius, in full, Ovid, Dante, Provencal Songbook,Villon, Stendhal.Flaubert, Gautier, Corbiere, Rimbaud.

    Pound and Williams both did the same thing: modernism was a mode which traveled in a bit of foreign exotica and pastiche, and finally appealed simultaneously to elites who had no patience for civilized virtues and ‘anyone-can-write-a-poem’ anti-elites who had no patience for civilized virtues, either, and these two formed an alliance against the middle class person who liked Romantic poetry and classical music and Renaissance paintings.

    Realism was a mode that rose alongside of modernism because it rejected art as an elevating ideal. But Realism is kind of a red herring as a term, anyway.

    Tom

    • Beauregard said,

      August 17, 2011 at 3:14 pm

      You’ve obviously perused EP’s “How to Read” so you should recall the lengthy Exhibits at the end: ie, he does provide examples of what he considers Great Lit. Honestly I don’t really care for the “ex cathedra” mode–then I don’t read Lit. Crit. as a rule (or poeticizing). The point was merely that Pound praised Landor. However I think there’s another aspect of Pound (and TSE) you’re not getting–they are classicists, euro-philes and crypto-catholics, I believe–(tho not consistently–Pound still reveres Jefferson–then TJ hisself was a decent latinist scribe). They react against the Anglo-American ethos as a whole–recall Pound’s comments re modern philosophers as 3rd rate minds or something. Thus … Pound often seems to suggest.a sort of return to the scholastics (tho informed by modern science). AS did the modernists guru Santayana. Crypto-catholic. Dantean as well– (And what Swords said.). Which is to say, Pound believes in a sense (a RC priest attended his death/funeral rites).

      Pound’s point on Stendhal and other prose writers however is a bit puzzling. He sounds secularist at times , and nearly rejects poetry–ie, thus Stendhal (and French revolution, perhaps) as the end of ancien regime Ahht such as poetry. Either learn latin and greek and try to outdo Landor (and the other greats he mentions), or fuggetaboutit, and stick to prose and modern languages.

  4. Desmond Swords said,

    August 17, 2011 at 7:42 am

    Pound was one of the greatest American students of poetry to have committed pen to paper. His essays on Emerson and Whitman, are models of scholarship and radically innovative, intelligent applications of the detached and perspicacious ear and eye on material that, until Pound’s ground-breaking conclusions, had been viewed up til that point as revealing only one dimension of the American body-politic.

    The Body-Electric analyses chapter that combines a modernist tool of retroactive textual mapping, with 19C agrarian narratives suddenly hitting turbulence in the proliferation of urban mode idees, is, for my money, one of the most outstanding achievments in the numerous successful exercises in Pound dazzlingly legacy. To claim Eliot was a willing co-conspiritor in a plot to destablise and topple the Georgian status quo of lyrical stoicism, is just daft. Eliot and Pound weren’t arguing that vers libre didn’t exist as a verse form, but merely that Imagism was a sub-strata of the new, freer, loose and less coherent developments that occured after a removal of the reviews section to anonymity, during the H.D. and T.E. Hulme tenure at The Dial. This is the context we need to keep in mind, and easily forget when arguing the finer points of historical minutae in the Pound-Eliot axis that organically evolved out from the reaction against technological developments that, at the time, held the public consciousness with a totally new and very different hypnotism than anything that had come before it. Ditto the Mark van Doren and Paul Blackburn fallacy, that Eliot somehow disagreed with them in their assertion that Ed Dorn and Ron Silliman represented the best chance of a return to eminence on the overcrowded field of willing participants seeking to make a name for themselves as deeply interesting thinkers with soemthing of interest and originality to impart to a, then, fragmented audience of poetry readers whose conception of and co-operation with, the fringe-elements of, what became, The New Poetry Aesthetic (Volume 2), responsible for the sub-branching of vers libre, into the Libre Rann school that had a short lived, though spectacular, existence in the mid noughties with the widely disseminated consumption of Jock Spock poetry quarterly published by Tracey K Salim, the Harvard prof. of Creative Composition, centre-point and visiting poetry professor at various universities assocaited with this movement.

  5. thomasbrady said,

    August 17, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    Swords,

    You make fun, and I’m not sure why. “TE Hulme tenure at the Dial” T.E. Hulme, the Imagist co-founder with Pound and Ford Madox Ford, whose poem is quoted favorably by Eliot in his groundbreaking “Reflections on Vers Libre,” was killed fighting for the Empire in WW I in 1916—‘The Dial,’ the revived Emerson mag which paid out large annual prizes to the core Modernists: Pound, TS Eliot, Cummings, Williams, and Marianne Moore, started that crucial run in 1920.

    But you and Beauregard are missing the obvious, B’gard earnesty, and you, cynically. The obvious point you are missing is this: Pound and company have no legitimate aesthetic philosophy—to ‘figure out’ their ‘thinking’ is to ponder in vain. They had one goal: to advance their own reputations. To do this, they had to soften up the public to accept their ‘revolutionary’ work, to see it as ‘revolutionary,’ instead of merely bad. Their ‘aesthetics,’ so-called, is merely this action of ‘softening,’ which to accede to, merely ‘softens’ one’s own taste. At first they tried to gain the public’s acceptance by publishing in little magazines and making the right connections among the idle rich. Another ploy was the obscenity charge leveled against Joyce, published in “The Little Review” which Pound did not found or fund, but helped edit. One needs that ‘naughty’ factor to be successful, as the Beats discovered when “Howl” was accused of obscenity. Pound and co. were following the path of Napoleon III era French art (Salon des Refuses, Baudelaire, Manet, Mallarme, etc) and made a certain headway in that direction, but they struck gold by gaining entrance into academia, primarily with “Understanding Poetry,” the school text book (first edition 1937) published by the New Critics (who were soldiers of Eliot/Pound/Eliot) and read by all the GI Bill students after WW II. That volume introduces, in terms of glowing praise, the wretched “Wheel Barrow” of Williams and the “Metro” poem of Pound. Once the Creative Writing Era made poets their own judges in academia, the game was won. The “classical,” or pseudo-classical, aspects which B’gard notes in Pound and Eliot, were merely calling-cards to appear sufficiently ‘learned’ in order to triumph (for material purposes only) in academia. The final trump card, of course, was the ‘cutting edge’ Anglo or Euro-snobbery towards the United States characterized by hatred of Poe and the middle class Yanks, generally. Poe represented the Ben Franklin can-do, non-academic, anti-clique, populist aesthetics with a wide, middle class appeal which Pound and co. felt they needed to suppress. Poe not only wrote magical poems but triumphed in prose and other areas in a timeless manner: 18th century or 19th century ‘stiffness’ was easy for a modernist to ridicule, but Poe had real appeal and couldn’t so easily be knocked off—but Emerson to Henry James to T.S. Eliot to “Understanding Poetry” did so.

    Tom

    • Beauregard said,

      August 18, 2011 at 1:51 pm

      Poe represented the Ben Franklin can-do, non-academic, anti-clique, populist aesthetics

      Amusing since EA Poe wrote a caricature of the Ben Franklin can-do small businessman–isn’t it called “The Business Man”? Poe’s writing is not Franklin-ish or populist, exactly–unlikely old Ben would have cared for ” Masque of the Red Death” and the rest of Poe’s dark gothic tales . Poe was in one of the first classes at UoV–though left mainly because of..well..bad habits (such as gambling). Since you’re fond of the biographical–Id say he was a Southerner (lived in Richmond until his 20s, and in the south most of his life)– not the genteel yankee, but would-be southern aristocrat (Poe got his Lt. bars finally–around the time of writing The Gold Bug). Also a latinist of a sort. –Actually he’d probably have gotten along with TSE and EP, though a bit…of a rogue for Eliot’s clique.

      • thomasbrady said,

        August 19, 2011 at 1:36 pm

        B’gard,

        You repeat dismissive remarks by envious no-nothings. Poe spent most of his writing life in the North. You must be thinking of Jefferson, who loved to shop for wine in Paris and kept to the South. That Poe “aspired to be southern gentleman” is baseless slander. Had he inherited some part of his guardian Allan’s immense fortune, that would indeed have been nice, but he was cut out of that inheritance because Poe couldn’t look the other way at Allan’s ill-treatment of his wife. The virtuous writer did not profit from the scoundrel Allan and made an honest living with his pen. Emerson got rich marrying a young wealthy lady with a mortal disease. If we want to talk about how various writers made their gains, Poe is the last to be tarred with that brush. Poe was distant from everything he wrote, a craftsman who put ‘how-I-did-it’ above everything else, and thus excelled at numerous genres, including a scientific essay which anticipated Einstein, and code-breaking work which helped the allies win WW II. Your attempt to diminish Poe—and you are much better read and more of an independent thinker than most—shows how ubiquitous Poe-slander really is—and confirms my thesis.

        Tom

        • Beauregard said,

          August 19, 2011 at 6:55 pm

          Non sequitur.

          First, I enjoy Poe’s morbid tales, and he did write a parody of Ben Franklin (google’ er)–he was a dark guy, TB– not some Franklinish do-gooder (actually Ben seems quite Emersonian). As far as bio-material goes, he did live in the South, attended UoV, and also was stationed in the Carolinas. While residing in Baltimore he often visited Richmond (not that far). For that matter, I take issue with your focus on the biographical, actually TB–whether in regard to Poe, romantics or modernists.We may not care to hear that Pound had brunch with Il Duce or humped a few rich English ladies but that’s secondary or tertiary to reading his work, (or that of Eliot, or Joyce–).You don’t dismiss Ulysses or the Cantos because you object to the character of the writers– Isn’t that what they teach the young lit-mavens in Collegetown? Compared to say LF Celine, Pound seems nearly innocent. We read it and assess it (use the old Aristotelian criteria if need be–theme, form, content, diction, historical allusions,e tc). Biographical scandals are mostly irrelevant. A writer’s stated political views–ie Pound’s economic essays– might be considered but that’s not the primary focus. Or rather, that would be an examination of …Pound’s politics–a separate matter from his worth as a literatteur. You actually sound a bit marxist at times TB.

  6. Bill said,

    August 19, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    “Human, All Too Human” is the pertinent tag. Tom, I’d say that Pound and Eliot were very good poets and Ulysses is a great book, but Pound and Eliot wanted more, they wanted to exalt themselves and their allies by depreciating their predecessors and contemporaries and spouted a lot of pompous nonsense in the process.

    • thomasbrady said,

      August 19, 2011 at 3:17 pm

      Precisely, Bill. I’m trying to show the modernists were human. Time will do more than I can, of course, to break down their facade. But history ought not to be forgot—and this one is pretty plain to see.

  7. Bill said,

    August 19, 2011 at 10:32 pm

    Beauregard, while we have you on the line, what are your all-time favorite books about war? On WWI, I was most impressed with Graves’ Goodbye to All That and Junger’s Storm of Steel. Sassoon’s trilogy and Junger’s Copse 125 were also first rate. All of Masefield’s writings on the war are sincere and worthwhile, esp. The Old Front Line. A friend recently recommended the Enomous Room and Three Soldiers, both very rewarding. Re Vietnam, have you read Matterhorn? Outstanding. I have just started Hemingway’s collection Men At War. It is first rate.

  8. Beauregard said,

    August 20, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    Ambrose’s Bierce’s Civil War tales are great, tho’ some find his writing a bit “purply” (I’d say ..phantasmagorical or something). Steven Crane’s “Red Badge” still a fave–hipsters might roll their eyes or think of the various watered down-flicks but few ‘Merican writers match Crane’s skill in…language and imagery–Conradian, really. Hemingway’s “In our Time”–probably the best AFAICT, tho’ a bit raw. All quiet on the Western Front. Cela’s writing on the Spanish Civil War is great–Pascual Duarte’ s full of fly-covered corpses. Orwell on the civil guerra as well. I should read Graves and Sassoon. Haven’t as of yet. I usually read WWI and WWII history. For sort of informal accounts, Tuchman’s Guns of August. Toland. Solzhenitsyn’s sort of ugly but his writing on the Red Army’s march to Berlin in ’45 is hellraising.

    Re ‘Nam, O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” sort of knocked me out–superior to all the Ho-wood’s ‘Nam flicks put together IMHE. Haven’t read Matterhorn. Raymond Carver (I think TB hates him) wrote a few interesting ‘Nam stories. What’s the one with the vet back wearing the ear- necklace. Cool .

  9. thomasbrady said,

    August 20, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    Nothing against people who love to read about battles and the general mayhem which affects soldiers and their families, but I’m currently reading the just-published “A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War” by Amanda Foreman, which presents the American Civil War as a global conflict in an epic manner, and how the conflict was shaped by diplomats, the press, economics, the foreign policy of various nations, spies, lesser known government officials: you cannot really know anything about a war just reading about its battles and the catastrophic results on its victims. I highly recommend this book.

  10. Bill said,

    August 20, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    Thanks very much gentlemen!

  11. Beauregard said,

    August 20, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    de nada

    actually Cela’s probably the most talented scribe of all those I scrawled, tho’ not PC. Few anglos are able to write very well about battles, death, chaos, soldiers, whores, etc, IMHE . (Russians maybe but…their writing–in translation– seems ugly, and plebian to me) Anglos are refined, polite, …distant–even with Hemingway. Rarely would Papa like ….feature an actual corpse (or stacks of them) in his writing. In Cela, you are in the presence of Death–but he still manages to be amusing (tho’ probably a bit….macabre for those who fancy British tea-time prose).


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