Do we care if a lapwing is killed in a poem?
We made the assertion in a previous Scarriet post that poetry, unlike prose, has, or should have, an immediate pay-off for the reader.
Poetry should show itself as poetry right away.
The moderns, who have turned poetry into prose for those many advantages prose possesses, have, most noticeably in the last 50 years, lost poetry’s public—not because the public is stupid, or has a short attention span—for otherwise the public would not ‘stick it out’ and read so many lengthy and miserable novels even as they have stopped reading poems—but for obvious reasons not apparent to the moderns.
We will agree the moderns are not stupid people who are bad poets if others will agree the public is not stupid for not being able to read modern poetry.
The public instinctively understands that prose does have advantages, but the glories of prose can take time (or many pages) to please us.
Poetry, the public instinctively understands, is different; we do not expect to be patient with poetry, for poetry is, by its very nature, both linguistically denser than prose, and less given to lengthy explanations of itself.
When a poet acts like a fiction writer, the reader naturally asks, “Why are you trying my patience as a poet when you know I have none to give you?”
The vast majority of readers, by some trick of intuition, understand that enjoying prose requires a certain amount of patience, and then there is this other more lyrical thing—we’ll call it poetry—that, by its very nature, should require no patience at all.
We think we have hit it. This is why the public no longer reads poetry. This is why every poetry reading in America is a poet reading to poets, or a teacher reading to students, and not a poet reading to a public.
But is it possible, you may ask, for poetry to be recognized in just one line?
Are there single lines of poetry which announce themselves as such?
Yes, but not in contemporary poetry, where the prose-poets are after something different.
To prove our point, let’s look at 14 first lines from 14 random poems by 14 poets in the latest issue of Poetry:
Your first thought when the light snaps on and the black wings
There are many opportunities here for unrequited friendship
Two spiky-haired Russian cats hit kick flips
Shouldn’t it ache, this slit
It is not that you want
praise the Hennessy, the brown
A lapwing somersaults spring
Most people would rather not
In the morning that comes up behind the roof, in the shelter of the bridge, in the corner
Where is your father whose eye you were the apple of?
hearing all bells at
My throat is full of sparklers
A husband puts an afghan over the dead goat’s
There is nothing wrong with these lines.
But are they poetic?
A pedant will quickly point out that “Your first thought when the light snaps on and the black wings” has poetic rhythm, and they would be correct, but this still sounds like a good opening for a hard boiled detective novel, not a poem.
“A lapwing somersaults spring” has an internal rhyme, but we are looking for what strikes us immediately as poetic, not merely from a technical standpoint, but in its entirety.
This line perhaps comes the closest, but only superficially; the problem we have with it is that 1) we don’t know what it means and 2) we cannot picture it: spring is being somersaulted by a lapwing. Bad poets—assuming fogginess is automatically a hard-won, well-earned honor—fatally assume that to confuse the reader is a plus. It is not.
On the ‘poetry immediately’ scale, Poetry is 0 for 14.
Again, these are not bad lines or fragments, per se, but nearly all would agree: it is not surprising that contemporary poems fail the ‘poetry-in-a-single-line’ test, just as most novels would.
But are we looking for the impossible?
We are looking for the truly poetic—in a single line!
But such a thing is possible.
Let us demonstrate with some actual examples.
They are old, but not famous.
There are 14 of them, and compare them, as you read, to the 14 you just saw:
Green dells that into silence stretch away
Owning no care between his wings
When all the air in moonlight swims
Follow far on the directing of her floating dove-like hand
In its bright stillness present though afar
Where the tides moan for sleep that never comes.
On valleys of lilies and mountains of roses
Made rich by harmonies of hidden strings
Pondering on incommunicable themes
As jewel sparkling up through dark sea
Now by the crags—then by each pendant bough
A voice fell like a falling star
Ruins and wrecks and nameless sepulchers
Over sleepless seas of grass whose waves are flowers
There. We believe we have proven our case, and we have done so without using Milton or Shakespeare or Dickinson or Keats. Our point has been made, and we did not have to drag out, “Music, when soft voices die…”
Nor did we rely on couplets, such as,
The violets lifting up their azure eyes
Like timid virgins when Love’s steps surprise
And all is hushed—so still—so silent there
That one might hear an angel wing the air
Here to her chosen all her works she shows
Prose swelled to verse, verse loitering into prose
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams
Or such examples as this from the neglected Elizabeth Barrett:
Like a fountain falling round me
Which with silver waters thin,
Holds a little marble Naiad sitting smilingly within.
We have demonstrated, with single lines, a simple, palpable, ignored truth:
Poetry should be poetic in all its parts.