The most significant change in poetry in the last 200 years has been in both form and subject matter, but formal concerns are really  insignificant compared to content, simply because poetry  has become prose and yet is still classified as poetry, and this practical truth trumps all others—no matter how much the formalist poet may protest. You want rhyme? Go to popular music.

But this is not an argument against formalism in poetry; we merely seek to look at the whole issue of old and new poetry as cunningly as possible.

The relationship between life and letters is more complex than the ‘include everything’ modernist would have it, while the pure formalist would reduce the relationship to one of pretty smoke.

But now let us really put our philosophy to work: Subject-wise, the most significant change in poetry is that poetry is no longer concerned with love.

Why were poetry and love nearly the same thing for hundreds of years?

Formal excellences are many, each fit a case, and they work when they work. So much for the rhetoric on that.

Love is the third of the Great Triad which includes Letters and Life—for several reasons.

1. Love is a popular topic. Life and Letters cannot enhance each other if Letters is the domain of a few, or merely a rote academic pursuit.

2. Love is of universal interest precisely because it incorporates every aspect of human existence: behavior, desire, morals, judgment,pride, children, spirituality, generosity, beauty, loyalty, attachment, manners, rhetoric, passion, urgency, delicacy, and the civilized. It is from a practical standpoint, not a romantic one, that love is significant. To reject love the subject matter as ‘romantic sentimentality’ is to reject it for reasons even less substantial.

3. Since so much of old poetry is a love story, to revive the topic again will reconnect old poetry and living poets.

We told the formalists to go to popular music if they wanted rhyme; we could go to popular music for love, too.

But love is like the sea no amount of tears or poems will fill. Popular music will inevitably be about love, and what about poetry?

For the reasons we have just given, Love ought to be Poetry’s template once again.

If poetry’s loud little brother, popular music, makes love its theme, this should not affect what the poets write about.  Sure, if a plaintive singer can sing more profoundly on love than a poet can, the poet should be rightly uneasy and embarrassed to be outdone by the songbird.   But the poets should persist: the topic of love is vast and without end, with nuances abounding, and as we said, it is the only proper subject for lyric poetry.  Exceptions will arise, but even when poets write of walls, what are they really writing of but love?  Let us err in the direction of swoon.

Love is a subject which includes a great deal which seems to have nothing to do with love.  Love is a great way to talk about other things.   At least, in poetry.

If poets think Love is not political enough, well what do we think is at the bottom of the most pressing issues of our day?  Islam and the West disagree most profoundly on sexual freedom.  Love is the most important topic, wherever we look.

Why Love was chased from poetry by the Modernists is surely an interesting topic in itself.

But it is time Poetry saved itself with the one thing that can save it.



  1. Don Fox said,

    July 8, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    For me, the issue of rhyme vs. no rhyme is largely a matter of freedom for the poet vs. having one’s poem remembered. Music can also be an aid to memory, unless you are tone deaf. Love will always be a subject of interest as long as traditional reproduction continues. Anyone know of a poem about loving one’s robot?

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 8, 2013 at 8:01 pm


      From W.H. Auden’s poem, “Heavy Date”

      Love requires an Object,
      But this varies so much,
      Almost, I imagine,
      Anything will do:
      When I was a child, I
      Loved a pumping-engine,
      Thought it every bit as
      Beautiful as you.

      • Don Fox said,

        July 8, 2013 at 8:56 pm

        Interesting. Does Auden go on to extol the virttues of his pumping engine? Or did he grow out of the emotion before he had the capacity to praise it fully?

        • thomasbrady said,

          July 9, 2013 at 1:42 pm


          It’s very common for young boys to love fire engines, trucks, etc. Listing the virtues is an interesting question.

          Let me copy the entire poem for you:

          Heavy Date—W.H. Auden

          Sharp and silent in the
          Clear October lighting
          Of a Sunday morning
          The great city lies;
          And I at a window
          Looking over water
          At the world of Business
          With a lover’s eyes.

          All mankind, I fancy,
          When anticipating
          Anything exciting
          Like a rendezvous,
          Occupy the time in
          Purely random thinking,
          For when love is waiting
          Logic will not do.

          Much as he would like to
          Concentrate completely
          On the precious Object,
          Love has not the power:
          Goethe put it neatly;
          No one cares to watch the
          Loveliest sunset after
          Quarter of an hour.

          Malinowski, Rivers,
          Benedict and others
          Show how common culture
          Shapes the separate lives:
          Matrilineal races
          Kill their mothers’ brothers
          In their dreams and turn their
          Sisters into wives.

          Who when looking over
          Faces in the subway,
          Each with its uniqueness,
          Would not, did he dare,
          Ask what forms exactly
          Suited to their weakness
          Love and desperation
          Take to govern there.

          Would not like to know what
          Influence occupation
          Has on human vision
          Of the human fate:
          Do all clerks for instance
          Pigeon-hole creation,
          Brokers see the Ding-an-
          -sich as Real Estate?

          When a politician
          Dreams about his sweetheart,
          Does he multiply her
          Face into a crowd,
          Are her fond responses
          All-or-none reactions,
          Does he try to buy her,
          Is the kissing loud?

          Strange are love’s mutations:
          Thus, the early poem
          Of the flesh sub rosa
          Has been known to grow
          Now and then into the
          Amor intellectu-
          -alis of Spinoza;
          How we do not know.

          Slowly we are learning,
          We at least know this much,
          That we have to unlearn
          Much that we are taught,
          And are growing chary
          Of empathic dogmas;
          Love like Matter is much
          Odder than we thought.

          Love requires an Object,
          But this varies so much,
          Almost, I imagine,
          Anything will do:
          When I was a child, I
          Loved a pumping-engine,
          Thought it every bit as
          Beautiful as you.

          Love has no position,
          Love’s a way of living,
          One kind of relation
          Possible between
          Any things or persons
          Given one condition,
          The one sine qua non
          Being mutual need.

          Through it we discover
          An essential secret
          Called by some Salvation
          And by some Success;
          Crying for the moon is
          Naughtiness and envy,
          We can only love what-
          -ever we possess.

          I believed for years that
          Love was the conjunction
          Of two oppositions;
          That was all untrue;
          Every young man fears that
          He is not worth loving:
          Bless you, darling, I have
          Found myself in you.

          When two lovers meet, then
          There’s an end of writing
          Thought and Analytics:
          Lovers, like the dead,
          In their loves are equal;
          Sophomores and peasants,
          Poets and their critics
          Are the same in bed.

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