Robert Lowell ruled mid-20th century poetry. Privileged, no fiction, crazy, avoided rhyme. Perfect.

What’s poetry? Names of race horses.

The necessarily accidental is important to poetry, just as it is for any pleasurable human activity.

J.V. Cunningham (1911-1985) is given 3 pages in J.D. McClatchy’s 560 page The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry (McClatchy was a long time professor at Yale and editor of the Yale Review).

Cunningham, the rhyming, court jester, poet among the prose poetry royalty of this post-High-Modernism 20th century-defining anthology, is represented by 2 poems and some epigrams.

Here’s Cunningham’s first stanza from “For My Contemporaries” (reprinted in the volume); the quatrain serves as an ironic epitaph for the book and its 65 poets:

How time reverses
The proud in heart!
I now makes verses
Who aimed at art.

The irony is that “verses” are not “art” since the Pound/Eliot/Williams revolution a hundred years ago. Cunningham, the oddball rhymer, has failed to make “art,” and now merely makes “verses.”

When McClatchy’s anthology came out in 1990—during the glorious beginnings of MFA America, this was surely how these verses were read: Poor Mr. Cunningham, versifier, admits he failed at “art.”

Today, we can read these lines as a sly prophecy: time punishes the “proud” who “aimed at art,” (“art” according to MFA tastes) the “proud,” in the end, forced to admit poetry is “verses.”

There is some verse in this anthology—Roethke, for instance.

McClatchy’s high-minded and reconciling introduction begins:

“There is no need for any anthology to choose sides. No critic has to deploy our poets into opposing battle lines with names like Paleface and Redskin, or Academic and Avant-Garde.”

Hold on a second. The avant-garde is academic. “Paleface and Redskin” one ought to recognize as poetry criticism terms, such as “raw” and “cooked” or “ancient” and “modern.”

American poetry criticism has been timid since 1900—pushing real critics like Edgar Poe and William Logan aside as too fearsome or mean (honest talk apparently promotes those dangerous “battle lines).

Not only timid, but naive, for McClatchy’s battle talk assumes academia isn’t everywhere since Modernism’s climb to prominence in the early 20th century.

McClatchy goes on:

“Best just to duck: the field echoes with sniper fire from the poets themselves. Whitman complained he couldn’t stomach Poe’s “lurid dreams.” Dickinson wouldn’t read Whitman at all: she had been told he was “disgraceful.” William Carlos Williams railed at T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land for having wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it.”

McClatchy assumes that Whitman dissing Poe is an issue for people outside of academia—it’s not. The man on the street today, if they look at poetry at all, is not saying to themselves, “Oh God, Whitman doesn’t like Poe!” It’s a purely academic concern. McClatchy’s second example is pertinent outside of academia—the morality of poetry—but notice this example is from the 19th century. In the third example we are back in the 20th century: it’s only an issue to a few inside academia that WC Williams felt “The Waste Land” was an “atom bomb.”

Richard Hugo (1923-1982), with 5 pages in the anthology beginning on page 194, wrote gritty, authentic poems about Montana working-class towns—when he was a professor. (University of Montana.) “Degrees of Gray In Philipsburg” begins:

You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.

The poem goes on for three more stanzas like this—it would make a great beginning to a hard-boiled detective novel, but as a poem, what’s the only thing we get?

“You” are having a really lousy time in Philipsburg, Montana.

We see in the short Vintage bio of Hugo: “Hugo was born and educated in Seattle. He studied there with Theodore Roethke, the strongest influence on his early work.” (Both were troubled men who didn’t live to be 60.)

Roethke was born in 1908, almost too old to be in this anthology, but perhaps McClatchy, in his ecumenical spirit needed to include “The Waking” with “Skunk Hour,” “One Art” and “Daddy,” some decent rhyming poems, among all the 20th century prose poems.

Or maybe the issue isn’t rhyme at all—Roethke taught Hugo; this is what’s important; respectful, institutional continuity.

Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, who open the anthology, privileged, and privileged to receive 20 pages apiece (most poets get about 5) were both teachers. Bishop taught at Harvard; Lowell was the first “name” poet to teach at Iowa and jump-start the Creative Writing Program era.

Creative Writing programs typically consist of two branches: Fiction and Poetry.

This leads to an interesting observation about contemporary American poetry.

Let’s forget about rhyme and form. It became increasingly irrelevant as the 20th century progressed. Writing students choose fiction or poetry. So what characterizes this “poetry” that no longer looks like poetry?

It makes sense that what’s most important for American poetry is that it be unlike fiction, or at least unlike what fiction often aspires to become—a film. Otherwise the MFA in poetry might just disappear—why couldn’t “poetry” students just get an MFA in writing?

Why get a poetry MFA? To learn the craft of rhyme and meter? Is that what Jorie Graham learned and subsequently taught? No.

What, then, describes the kind of poetry that we see in 1990’s The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry?

Is this why poetry has become so unpopular? Why poetry these days has no clout? Look what it had to do and what it has to do (we are still in the MFA era): don’t be fiction and don’t be poetry—as it existed for centuries prior to the 20th.

I already mentioned Hugo (whose work in the anthology seems nothing like Roethke’s) and his poetry which reads like the first page of a hard-boiled detective novel set in Montana.

Is critically acclaimed poetry today nothing more than a kind of mentally defective fiction? Fiction, but fiction unable to be carried to completion?

The ballad is a poem that tells a story; but there are no ballads in McClathchy’s anthology of five hundred plus pages.

One does not get an MFA in poetry to learn to write ballads.

It seems the MFA in poetry is determined to keep “story” away, since students might be inclined to get a fiction MFA, instead.

Is there a kind of unspoken rule about poetry as comatose fiction? Fiction which deliberately fails as fiction? Richard Hugo can write a damn good introductory paragraph or two for a Montana mystery novel—therefore he’s a poet.

Richard Hugo’s poetry is depressing.

The introductory (or back-drop) rhetoric of hard-boiled detective fiction is commonly stark and moody.

Edgar Poe, creator of the template, begins one of his famous detective tales: “At Paris, just after dark one gusty evening in the autumn of 18__”

The master sets the mood with just a few words.

20th century poets generally did the same—but using far more words; perhaps because they had to write about something, but no actual tale was forthcoming?

Very few Americans are going to sit and watch a movie without a love story. Movies and novels need a love plot. Your fiction MFA student knows this.

Was MFA poetry, which began to dominate letters starting in the middle of the 20th century, concerned with love?

McClatchy’s anthology contains only a few pages of what could be called love poetry. There are but two love poems of the “I love you” variety—only two, in its 537 pages: “Having a Coke with You” by Frank O’Hara and “To Dorothy” by Marvin Bell, the latter of which may be the worst love poem ever, as it begins:

You are not beautiful, exactly.
You are beautiful, inexactly.

Robert Lowell sets the tone. In his 20 pages of poetry there’s one reference to romance: “too boiled and shy/and poker-faced to make a pass.” It isn’t until page 47 of the anthology that we get “I Knew a Woman” by Roethke, which seems more about sex than love, but in this anthology we certainly can’t be picky.

Audrey Lorde’s “Movement Song” (p. 414) opens with

I have studied the tight curls on the back of your neck
moving away from me
beyond anger or failure
your face in the evening schools of longing
through mornings of wish and ripen
we were always saying goodbye
in the blood in the bone over coffee
before dashing for elevators going
in opposite directions
without goodbyes.

“Over coffee before dashing…? This is OK but still rather reticent and indirect. Not the mad Romanticism of Diane Seuss (whose collection just won the Pulitzer).

There’s this from “Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass (p. 470) but can this even remotely be called love?:

There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river…
…It hardly had to do with her.

Yes, a poet can certainly stand above a man and a woman and make remarks about how they will never be one, as Hass does in “Misery and Splendor” (p. 472) but what is this really saying except ‘too bad, you guys?’ This might end a novel nicely; the poem hasn’t earned this ending, though; that’s sort of the problem:

They feel themselves at the center of a powerful
and baffled will. They feel
they are an almost animal,
washed up on the shore of a world—
or huddled against the gate of a garden—
to which they can’t admit they can never be admitted.

It’s a brutal scene—though it feels like a poetry invested in abstraction somewhat against its will.

The height of love in the volume is reached by Marilyn Hacker’s

If we talk, we’re too tired to make love, if we
make love, these days, there’s hardly time to talk.

Or this, from Hacker, with roaring rhetoric, a few pages later:

Tomorrow night the harvest moon will wane
that’s floodlighting the silhouetted wood.
Make your own footnotes; it will do you good.
Emeritae have nothing to explain.
She wasn’t very old, or really plain—
my age exactly, volumes incomplete.
“The life, the life, will it never be sweet?”
She wrote it once; I quote it once again
midlife at midnight when the moon is full
and I can almost hear the warning bell
offshore, sounding through starlight like a stain
on waves that heaved over what she began
and truncated a woman’s chronicle,
and plain old Margaret Fuller died as well.

Or we could possibly consider these from the anthology, love: “Daddy” by Plath or Sexton’s “I have gone out, a possessed witch…” or Louise Glück’s

It is not the moon, I tell you.
It is these flowers
lighting the yard.

I hate them.
I hate them as I hate sex,
the man’s mouth
sealing my mouth, the man’s
paralyzing body—

Not really.

C.K. Williams has a poem on suburban pals lured by a pimp for cheap, quick sex in NYC; the poem lurid, passive, reactive, helpless.

The overriding tone of the Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry is learned, luxurious, meditation tied up by sadness. Here is Richard Howard, one of those masters born between 1925 and 1929:

Rezzonico…Disraeli…We realize our task.
It is to print earth so deep in memory
that a meaning reaches the surface. Nothing but
darkness abides, darkness demanding not
illumination—not from the likes of us—
but only that we yield. And we yield.

The poets of this volume have all been trained not to be Romantics; a few rebel, but mostly they shy away from poetic devices that moan and sing. The anthology meticulously talks and talks and talks.

When did American poetry feel comfortable with the fact that the Keats cat and the Shelley cat and the Byron cat no longer dwell in the household, just because a guy named Ezra told them to go? When did poetry become supercilious chat, baroque chatter? If perception in life is nearly all, think how ruthlessly perception rules poetry: when rejection of rhyme came to be seen not as a palace assassination but as an exhausted queen doing loads of purple laundry, “I’m too busy to rhyme,” American contemporary poetry must have begun to feel like a starving person listening to financial advice—on how to give endlessly to charity.

How does one bypass all the usual academic netting and state plainly the gist of what troubles professional contemporary American poetry? I may be failing, but I hope we can see it’s necessary more than one person try.

Modern American poetry has long needed a wake-up slap. Which, of course, will not do any good. Time must deal with poetry.

What do we get in McClatchy’s excellent anthology? Character development, psychological insight, plain talk, insights, philosophy, humor, love? Not really. We get something more effete and specialized. The chaste and the vocabulary-heavy.

I hope it doesn’t sound too strange to say it plainly.

The voice in almost all the poems in the Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry is the same: the voice of a very wealthy person, cultured, delicate, shy, deeply self-absorbed, of a calm disposition, fond of secular iconography, passing memories, trinkets, country roads, and anxious to introduce us to a sky as it might appear at dusk…

Salem MA 5/20/22


Carl Sigman—at the piano—wrote the lyrics for It’s All In the Game

Love is when music stops being background music.

Let’s focus a little. We have two match-ups before the final. “The Good Life” by Nancy Wilson vs. “Shaman’s Blues” by the Doors and this one—“It’s All In the Game” (Tommy Edwards) against “Danville Girl” (Pete Seeger).

Final Four contestant, “It’s All In the Game,” tune written in 1911 by Calvin Coolidge’s Vice President Charles Dawes, with lyrics added in 1951, opens with: “Many a tear has to FALL, but it’s ALL in the game,” a hack rhyme, some might think, but “fall” and “all” both fall at the end of an anapest—da da DA.

Carl Sigman’s lyrics:

(C) Many a tear has to fall (Am) but it’s all (F/G) in the game, (C)
All in the wonderful game that we know (F/G) as love. (C)
You have words with him and your future’s looking dim
But these things your hearts can rise above (G7)

Once in a while he won’t call but it’s all in the game.
Soon he’ll be there at your side with a sweet bouquet.
And he’ll kiss your lips and caress (Em) your waiting fingertips (D)
And your hearts will fly (F/G) away (C)

Musically, we notice the following: According to a popular chord chart site, “It’s All In the Game” opens in C with “Many a tear has to,” switching to A minor on “fall,” and as the lyric lands on “all” the F chord is played, letting us know we are in the key of C major (the A minor detour—appropriately on the word “fall” had us in doubt) and then, to be doubly sure, G comes in immediately after, just as “all” is leaving the singer’s lips—making the rhyme “all” even more important, since the music establishes the key for the first time in the song—first with the F (the 4th) and then, even more conclusively, with the G (the 5th).

F is mischievous and all-important in the song, since with C and A minor (the first two chords) F could have belonged to the key of A minor—and it feels right that the word “fall” is with an ambiguous chord.

But it is the G which follows quickly on the F which confirms for the listener (whether they are aware of it or not!) that the F belongs to the key of C major; the 1-4-5 of the song = C-F-G.

The second line of the song (which repeats the same chord sequence) now does something marvelous. “All in the wonderful game, that we know as love.” The word “know” receives the crucial F-to-G chords, the chords which let us “know” the key of the song! We “know” the true harmony (“love”).

The song’s bridge “You had words with him and your future’s looking dim, but these things your hearts can rise above” ends on G7—a G chord with an added F. The “all” rhyme in the beginning of the song greeted us with an F chord followed by a G chord (establishing the key of the song) and the song’s first variation re-visits the F and G, but this time with the G7 chord. Brilliant.

The part of the song which goes “And he’ll kiss your lips, and caress your waiting fingertips” moves to E minor after the A minor and then back to A minor—luxuriating in the minor which was hinted at in the beginning of the song when we first heard the A minor. After all, the song plays with sadness (“many a tear has to fall”) even as happiness prevails.

With “fingertips,” we get a D chord, which has 2 of the same notes as the G chord—plus our friend the F note—but as an F sharp, which contributes to the gently rising finale of the song and that lovely trope—“And your hearts will fly away” returning to the sequence which began the song: C/Am/F/G/C.

Frankly, I don’t know if Carl Sigman, the lyricist, was consciously aware of these things (probably not) but I’m willing to bet it’s one of the reasons “It’s All In the Game” was a no.1 hit when it was released in 1958.

The singer of “It’s All In the Game” is not the lover; he observes the action of the lovers, like T.S. Eliot in “The Waste Land,” which adds to the classic perfection of the song, whose lyrical/musical profundity is largely hidden from us in the form of a ‘mere pop number.’

Can “Danville Girl” hope to beat a recording as good as “Its All In the Game”? The chords of “Danville Girl” are simple; it uses the common pop chord sequence 1-4-5. The pattern is: 1-4-1/1-4-5//1-4-1/1-4-5-1. The “Danville Girl” story, unlike “It’s All In the Game”—featuring a love-tension which resolves—spotlights a first-person hobo pursuing a survival life—stoicism is paramount, so the simple chord structure is appropriate. Pete Seeger, with just the right vocals, and banjo, sings a self-made version (1950) of the Woody Guthrie song.

Who wins?



Yale University Staff - YACOLF19 Understanding Poetry

“The subject is exceedingly simple; one tenth of it, possibly, may be called ethical; nine tenths, however, appertain to the mathematics” –The Rationale of Verse- EA Poe

If you are reading this, it is almost a certainty that your ideas on poetry have been directly or indirectly shaped by this book. If you have anything to do with American poetry, this brief essay is about you.

England produced some pretty good poets—Milton, Byron, Keats—at a time when Greek and Latin was the only literature taught in school. It wasn’t until Matthew Arnold’s advocacy in the late 19th century and the publication of the widely used school textbook Understanding Poetry (Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, 1938, 1950, 1960, 1976) in the United States, that anything like contemporary poetry actually entered school rooms. In the wake of this crude, hysterical, pistol-shootin’, Southern boy, bombastic, textbook, the most force-fed canon in the history of Letters since the King James bible, the poetry of Longfellow, Poe, Dunbar and Millay, which the public adored, was chased from the academy forever.

The only “professional” poetry, after the appearance of Understanding Poetry, was poetry stamped with the approval of the textbook’s authors and their friends.

The term, “professional,” as used by CIA funded John Crowe Ransom in his essays on what he termed “Criticism, Inc.” or “Criticism, Ltd.,” published at this time, was not meant to elevate the vocation of poetry in general, but to pave the way for a clique’s attempt to separate themselves out as the only authority.

It is a cliché by now to say that everything is political. I will show that the textbook Understanding Poetry was nothing but an embarrassing, slipshod, power grab by a connected bunch of radical cowboys. Understanding Poetry, a nicely-sewn hardcover from Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, is anti-historical, extremely judgmental, and illogical. Nothing about it is actually “professional.”

Understanding Poetry looks at only one poem by Edgar Poe—to mock it.

Here is what it says about “Trees,” Joyce Kilmer’s iconic poem: “This poem has been very greatly admired by a large number of people. But it is a bad poem.”

Adelaide Anne Procter—one of only a few women selected for analysis by the authors (the book is at least 95% male)—is treated this way:

Even though the work of Adelaide Procter, who is known now only as the author of “The Lost Chord,” was once greatly admired by Charles Dickens, most modern readers of poetry would find this poem bad. Most readers who admire it probably do so because they approve of the pious sentiment expressed in it. Such readers go to poetry merely to have their own beliefs and feelings flattered…

The authors are anxious to create a schism in poetry.

The “Red Wheel Barrow” (which they unequivocally praise) contains nothing so obvious as a sentiment or an idea—therefore it is now, within the context of the textbook authors’ mandate, safe to like. It is the authors who sniff out a “pious sentiment” in Procter’s poem, “The Pigrims,” which as a poetry textbook subject, deserves to be treated as a poem. Procter’s poem uses a number of literary elements—rhythm, rhyme, imagery, and contrast in a perfectly competent manner. The problem the “professional” authors have with this poem is their problem: as New Critics, they cannot get beyond the simple fact that every poem under the sun will express either some kind of sentiment (which can be summarized or paraphrased) or none at all. The theme of “The Pilgrims” is: Do not despair: others with God-like stature have it worse than you. The textbook authors go on to call Procter’s poem, and anyone who might enjoy it, “stupid” because the poem, according to them, is not fresh or new.

The problem, however, is that the authors are raising the bar impossibly high. Some themes will always be popular. No completely original poem is possible—the imagination does not create; it must use old material. The complete absence of any sentiment or theme whatsoever, like we find in “The Red Wheel Barrow” or “In a Station of the Metro” (this little poem by Pound is lauded as “new and surprising”) is treated by Brooks/Warren as achieving a transcendence of sorts—nothing is preferable to something, due to the New Critics’ hostility to paraphrase. For Brooks/Warren, random imagery sans theme wins them over (especially when produced by a member of their clique) as “new” and “fresh.” Most everything else is cliché or doggerel.

Rhythm gets no close analysis from the authors, even though this element divides poetry from prose; they only express the opinion that too much of it is a bad thing (their reason for condemning “Ulalume”).

The poems they champion are those which are as close as possible to prose—and have no discernible sentiment—thus their keen interest in poems of mayhem and gore treated disinterestedly. The poetry of Poe these critics of poetry reject, while, ironically, embracing the popular trope of Poe’s fiction.

The authors bar most of the poetry canon and replace it with examples written by their friends. The safe filler of the book consists of misplaced canon-material tucked away into chapters in a way that fails to tease out what is most important about them. Poems of metrical excellence are put into chapters on “Tone” and “Descriptive Poems.”

We might conclude that by dismissing Adelaide Procter’s Christian poem, the authors felt too many Christians were reading too many bad Christian poems—one can surely understand this as a legitimate concern; the authors, however, don’t print good Christian poems in the canon by way of comparison; their sincerity extends only as far as scorning “pious sentiment” in a single poem and leaving it at that. Dante, Petrarch, and the entire “Divine Eros” tradition—and all romance, love or religious poetic traditions—are left out of the book altogether.

The question one expects a textbook to ask is: how should a poem best express a sentiment? A poetry textbook shouldn’t be involved in policing or curbing the sentiments themselves—especially those which are world historical and immensely popular. The authors, crusty, secular, and outspoken in the extreme, cannot help themselves. They plead for neutrality, as a matter of principle, but cheer for some sentiments over others throughout the book—and the problem is compounded by their failure to recognize that sentiment manifests itself in a host of unspoken ways. They seem to think poems are able to escape sentiment (which they generally believe is bad) simply by not being overtly sentimental. Thus they think depicting a red wheel barrow is not sentimental—which it horribly is. This particular error in taste infects nearly all of their judgments.

Curiously, they don’t even mention haiku—dare I assume it’s because they’re anxious to champion their friends Pound and Williams and their haiku-like poems, lavished with epithets “fresh” and “new?”

The book as a whole is not only filled with strange hit-and-miss assertions, it reeks of chummy provincialism. The advertising is deeply off—they call their text Understanding Poetry, not, as they should, Understanding the New American Poetry.

In their introduction, the authors, a couple of yahoos from the South (members of a Tennessee gang called the Fugitives, and later the New Critics) quote a Longfellow poem, and in the spirit of Poe, without mentioning the master, fault the Longfellow poem, “A Psalm of Life,” as crudely didactic. These boys, Brooks and Warren, ain’t playin’ around.

“This poem seems to give a great deal of good advice.”

Imagine this said in a bar somewhere in the deep South after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of Massachusetts has taken a seat and is looking around.

“But granting that the advice is good advice, [here Brooks and Warren look at each other and grin] we can still ask [they move closer to Longfellow] whether or not the poem is a good poem.”

After appearing on pg. 8 of this 584 page textbook (third edition) with this one poem, America’s favorite poet, Longfellow, is never seen again.

Edna Millay, Dorothy Parker, and all the women who dominated English and American poetry after Byron, out-selling the men during those decades, never quite appear in Understanding Poetry. Not so, H.D., Pound’s one-time girlfriend—she has two of her poems discussed. The Pound clique is carefully promoted, side by side, with the New Critic circle—the American wing of Pound’s Modernist operation.

“The poet is a man speaking to men.” Wordsworth, a tough son of a bitch who hiked a lot, states the central theme of the book’s introduction.

After the “message-hunting” of Longfellow readers is dismissed, the authors quickly deny the “emotion and sensation” school. The taste of an apple, or a good cry, is better in real life. Poetry can’t compete with these, the authors say. Fair enough, and so far within their introduction the authors are doing okay.

What about “fine sentiments in fine language?” Now we are in the realm of their fellow southerner, Poe. In a word, Beauty. Or as Brooks and Warren put it, “a poem as simply a bundle of melodious word-combinations and pretty pictures.”

The authors straighten their spines and lift up their chins.


Brooks/Warren are sure of that. None of that pretty, elegant stuff.

The authors quote Hamlet: “whips and scorns of time…the law’s delay…To grunt and sweat under a weary life…”

For Brooks and Warren “grunt and sweat” demonstrates that “great” poetry doesn’t need to be pretty or elegant. This proves it.

No doubt the entire passage (Hamlet’s famous To Be or Not To Be speech) taken as a whole, could be called an example of “fine sentiments in fine language,” even if some parts are not absolutely beautiful; certainly the Hamlet speech meets the standard of the sublime—which Poe would gladly substitute for beauty, as would all his Romantic brothers and sisters.

But the authors are adamant: Get the pansies out of here. Poetry ain’t got no part of the ‘greeable and we have shown that to everyone’s satisfaction!

Once they have acquainted their readers with the rude depictions and harsh emotions of “drama” in the hands of Master Grunt & Sweat Will Shakespeare, there is no turning back for these gentlemen from Tennessee. The die is cast. They fire their pistols not only into the ceiling but into the gas lamps—and burn down the tavern. Official Verse Culture is leveled—thanks to Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. A genuine American poetry (something resembling the prose poems of William Carlos Williams and the newspaper clipping rants of Whitman and Pound) will be erected in its place.

Poetry, per the violence of these professors, will do violence to the old order and every sensitive mind.

Brooks/Warren go on to assert: “The relationship of the elements in a poem is what is all important,” a truism, really—a piece of pedantry intended to soften their final conclusion:

Poetry isn’t poetry. According to the authors it’s “drama.” Woo hooo! Damn straight!

The summary to their introduction over the dead bodies of Beauty, Message, and Sensation, in their own words:

“But the fundamental points, namely, that poetry has a basis in common human interests, that the poet is a man speaking to men, and that every poem is at center, a little drama, must not be forgotten at the beginning of any attempt to study poetry.”

Admittedly, at first blush, this does sound pretty sensible. Poetry as dramatic speech. Even Dana Gioia, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Samuel Johnson, and lords Tennyson and Byron might agree.

The “drama” does have much to recommend it; however, the erosion of poetry begins with the assigning of elements to poetry—which exist and can be much better developed or made the object of applause—elsewhere. Can poetry compete with mediums or genres better equipped to envelop audiences in the dramatic—whether it’s videos of street fights on You Tube, popular music, TV, film, or Drama (theater) itself?

The introduction must be judged largely a failure. Yes, it does make sense that one cannot eat a poem like an apple, and a poem should belong to “common human interests” (as opposed to the interests of turtles) and speech does play a large role, obviously, in poetry.

And “drama,” if we stretch out the definition, (recall the authors praise the ‘Red Wheel Barrow’ at some length) can certainly vaguely denote the art.

But why exclude, as the authors do, emotion? Or “fine sentiments in fine language?”

Elsewhere in the book’s introduction, a close reading of Troilus and Cressida—naturally calling on Shakespeare as often as possible to prove their poetry-as-drama thesis—Brooks/Warren write:

“The images of the first five lines, as we have seen, are closely bound together to define a certain attitude.”

Notice how they are precisely imprecise. Defining poetry as “drama,”—and yet eschewing both emotion and what they call “beautiful statement of some high truth,”—they walk an insane tightrope of delicate inference: “images….which define a certain attitude” is how they manage to evade both strong feeling and truth— neither of which, apparently, is allowed.

But “drama” without “fine language or sentiment” is the trope they are going with.

Introducing the first chapter of the book, Narrative Poems, they begin in the following way—and notice the examples they provide:

“We have said that the ‘stuff of poetry’ is not something separate from the ordinary business of living, but itself inheres in that business. We hear someone say that a farm boy has suffered a fatal accident while cutting a block of wood with a buzz-saw; or we read in the newspaper that a woman has shot her sweetheart; or we remember that there was once an outlaw from Missouri named Jesse James who was killed by treachery.”

Poetry instruction as Texas Chain-Saw Massacre.

Imagine millions of HS and college students introduced to poetry defined this way.

Dante compared poetry to a love letter.

The Understanding Poetry authors want poetry to compete with murder stories in newspapers.

Good luck with that.

They are determined to rid poetry, once and for all, of “fine sentiments and fine language.”

These are some scary New Critic outlaws who have rolled into town!

Robert Frost, fresh with a host of Pulitzer prizes, is all too ready to assist them.

Understanding Poetry, for the first time in Academia, makes the swimming pool safe for living poets, as friends of the authors are welcomed into the canon of their textbook, provided with free towels and bathing suits. Come on in, Wheel Barrow! The water’s fine!

If you are Edward Arlington Robinson, Joyce Kilmer, Edna Millay, Edgar Poe, or any number of classic poets from outside England or New England, careful. There’s sharks.

Frost is a perfect guest: old, respectable, a genuinely good poet, and, most importantly, still alive. Living poets (even if they are mediocre) can now be read next to the dead greats. As long as they are fortunate enough to know the textbook authors. The living Robert Frost was iconic enough to make good cover for this move. Today we take such gambits very much for granted, since “the new” is now the pragmatic norm in poetry studies.

There are 6 Chapters in Understanding Poetry; the first one, as mentioned, is Narrative Poems, (murder ballads, mostly) followed by 2. Descriptive Poems, (the silliest kind of poetry is descriptive—strange this gets its own chapter) 3. Metrics, 4. Tone (this is where Ulalume is savaged), 5. Imagery (another word for Descriptive. By now it feels the chapter categories of Understanding Poetry lack a certain sense), and finally, 6. Theme: Statement and Idea.

The theme of Understanding Poetry itself: real life horror, articulated plainly and without sentiment, steps to the fore in the first chapter—Narrative Poems.

The first poem under observation is Robert Frost’s “Out, Out—” a poem I never wish to read again; the poem concerns a Vermont village boy’s buzz-saw accident in front of his sister as she calls him into supper; the boy dies that night in the hospital; the whole thing is described in a chillingly matter-of-fact manner, for the maximum horror-effect, apparently. Frost was experimenting with something—will simple description heighten the horror of a horrible event? Whether or not it succeeds as a poem, the authors only know it is the one they want to set the tone of their book.

The last four lines of “Out, Out—“, a poem of 35 lines:

No one believed. They listened at his heart.

Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.

No more to build on there. And they, since they

Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

Whatever stoic virtue the poem has doesn’t save it. The poem is a monstrosity; but in their mission to define poetry as whatever lacks feeling, while cultivating general human interest with just the right combination of images, the authors consider this poem pure gold.

After “Out, Out—,” we get a bunch of anonymous murder ballads, in which the authors praise the ballad’s ability to condense a story—as it “shows” instead of “tells,” a great virtue, according to the authors, who forget they have defined poetry as “speech.” Poetry can only “show” by telling—the truism that it is better for poems to “show” is a nullity. To tell ironically is the closest a poem can come to “showing,” which it never actually does. Imagists fall into great error on this point.

The Narrative Poem chapter also includes 3 poems by A.E. Housman—the authors seem to prefer him to Longfellow because Housman is a secular Longfellow; “Farewell to Barn and Stack and Tree” is a decent ballad, meeting the authors approval with plenty of tragedy, blood, and stoicism. “Hell Gate” by Housman has nothing to recommend it; the story is muddled and its music uninspired. The authors write, “We feel immediately that we are not dealing with salvation in the Christian sense.” Perhaps this is why they selected this mediocre poem? The third Housman poem, “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries” is praised because the authors recommend its cynical message (every soldier only fights for “pay;”). Longfellow is not allowed to articulate a theme, but apparently Housman is.

I’m not sure why the authors don’t include Poe’s ballad “Ulalume” in the “ballad” chapter; they confine themselves almost entirely to anonymous ballads, and when they briefly discuss “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” at the end of the chapter, they make the mistake of saying that Keats is “using the pretense of ballad simplicity,” as they assume that here we have a “modern poem” pretending to be an authentic ballad. Keats died in 1822. When do the authors think “Frankie and Johnny” was composed? The very essence of the subject seems to elude them.

A naval engagement from “Song of Myself” is the soaring highlight of Chapter One. There’s not much of a story told, but the authors enthuse over seemingly irrelevant “details,” and the following makes them especially happy:

“The hiss of the surgeon’s knife, the gnawing teeth of his saw,/Wheeze, cluck, swash of falling blood, short wild scream, and long, dull, tapering groan…”

In the Afterwards to Chapter One the authors admit they have a problem:

“Indeed, it is not easy, except in regard to the use of verse, to make an absolute distinction between poetry and prose fiction.”

Poetry, they say, has “concentration,” “sharpness of selected detail,” “appeal to the imagination” and “intensity.”

These are too vague to mean very much.

What can be going through the minds of the students forced to read this textbook?

Chapter Two, Descriptive Poems, begins with an assault on a chestnut by Robert Browning, as the authors continue their scorched earth policy against “Official Verse Culture.” Actually, they do make an interesting observation: “mood” and “thought” are often the same. Whether Browning brought the authors into a temporary state of sanity, it is not certain. In the last comment on the Browning, the authors write: one critic felt this poem sucks. Do you agree? It’s OK. Browning will survive.

The Descriptive Poems chapter (Two) is a nod, after the “ballads” chapter (One) to poetry as a rather simple art form—resembling fiction, just more condensed.

Language does not interest our authors, nor aesthetics, nor the Socratic, nor epistemology, nor philosophies of composition, nor fancy v imagination, nor cultural or social content, nor anything beyond things like:

“A lively sense of the perceptible world with its sights, sounds, and smells, is fundamental to poetry.”

Chapter Two devolves into poems about the seasons; Shakespeare, Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats, and T.S. Eliot (“The Preludes”) go to kindergarten. Along the way, a couple of H.D. poems, Pound’s petals on a bough poem (lovingly discussed) and the following poem (quoted in full) by James Stephens, “The Main-Deep:”

The long rolling,
Green billow;

The wide-topped,



This poem fills the authors with wonder. They discuss it at length, quoting approvingly the line “Hush-hushing.” They consider the poem splendid—and write solemnly on it. The author was a close friend of Joyce.

By the time we reach page 119 and chapter 3 Metrics, it is no surprise that Brooks/Warren embrace T.S. Eliot’s strange assertion that prose scans—and therefore poetry and rhythmical language really don’t have much to do with each other.

“What is poetry?” we might ask at this point.

The authors only know what it is not. It is not iambic pentameter. The following, they say, is iambic pentameter, and this is not poetry:

A Mr. Wilkerson, a clergyman.

This pretty much sums up the metrics lesson of Chapter Three.

I’d like to end this look at Understanding Poetry with their take on Metrics, because I think their attitude towards formalism is where they do the most damage, but I’ll sum up Chapters Four, Five, and Six, first.

Chapter Four, “Tone,” is the chapter where we find things by E.E. Cummings and the textbook’s comedic poems (Ogden Nash); and this is where “Ulalume” is treated comically and slaughtered. After “Ulalume” is killed off, the authors reprint “Luke Havergal” by Edwin Arlington Robinson and “Voices” by Walter de La Mare with little comment, implying these two poems are failures as well, mostly because of their exaggerated rhythm, and then, accompanied by a great deal of earnest laudation, Brooks/Warren offer their colleague Jonh Crowe Ransom’s poem, “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” a poem which revels in a child’s death—describing her in its final (rhyming with “stopped”) line: “Lying so primly propped.”

The next poem is “After the Burial” by James Russell Lowell (the 19th century is generally not favored by the authors). The end of Lowell’s poem:

That little shoe in the corner,
So worn and wrinkled and brown,
With its emptiness confutes you,
And argues your wisdom down.

Here’s what the authors say about Lowell’s poem: “Many readers have found this poem disturbing. They find it disturbing because, on one hand, they know that it was written as the expression of a deep personal grief, and on the other hand, they think it is a bad poem.”

Chapter Five (Imagery) is where they put Tennyson, Hart Crane, Marvell, Donne, Auden, and Dickinson—who seems to be the only woman poet the authors can stomach, besides H.D. and Marianne Moore—she was included in the final “Poems for Study” section—no commentary)—two women belonging to Pound’s clique.

Chapter Six—“Theme: Statement and Idea” features still another poem by Housman, George Meredith, Donne, and finishes up with heavy-hitters: 3 well-known poems by Frost, Gray’s “Elegy,” Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” Blake’s “London,” Emerson’s “Brahma,” “The Force That Through the Green Fuse” by Dylan Thomas, Eliot’s “Prufrock,” (with a long, respectful, discussion), Melville, Jarrell, Yeats (and a long discussion), “Shine, Perishing Republic,” by Robinson Jeffers, “The Return” by John Peale Bishop (similar in theme to the Jeffers—no patriotic songs or poems in this book!) and finally “Kubla Kahn,” “Lycidas,” and “Nightingale” (a long discussion) and “Urn” by Keats.

Our New Critic authors do select some powerhouses of “Official Verse Culture,” (necessary if their textbook is to have any weight at all) but it’s clear their intention is to destroy it—by their omissions, their commentary, and the careful organization of their themed chapters. All in all, a very clever hit job. The book also had to make their friends, such as Ezra Pound, WC Williams, and John Crowe Ransom, very happy, indeed.

On page 151, a single line by the otherwise excluded Millay, in a onomatopoeia discussion in the Metrics chapter, is mocked by John Crowe Ransom. This must have given the boys in the office a good chuckle.

Millay’s line: “Comfort, softer than the feathers of its breast.”

Ransom: “Crumpets for the foster-fathers of the brats.”

The first purpose of Understanding Poetry is to prove the authors’ paramount notion—poetry is 95% prose meaning and 5% poetic effect. An interesting idea—like saying a person missing a face is still a person.

Their higher purpose seems to be to replace poetry of the working and middle classes and esteemed by professorial verse-expertise and inspired by a love of verse in general, with the “new” poetry written by their friends. This intent is perhaps more difficult to prove—though it coincides with the first purpose above—and reading this book, what is one to think?

“The Blindness of Samson” by Milton is quoted—the metrical variation of iambic and trochee in the first five lines is pointed out—but I still can’t help but laugh at the ‘buried alive’ (in blindness) theme—the authors, throughout the book, in their poetry selections, are uncommonly fixated on macabre fiction strategies of Poe—even as they reject Poe, the poet.

Brooks/Warren, in the Metrics chapter, fully quote another Milton poem, “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont,” featuring “martyred blood” and “Mother and infant” tossed from cliffs—pointing out this poem has “precisely the same rhyme scheme” of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?”

Really? One has to wonder: are the authors critics or sadists?

They don’t discuss stanza forms—the pinnacle of verse mastery. They do, at least, because it is such a popular trope—thanks to poets like Shelley, Poe, and Alexander Pope—pay some attention to “sound and sense,” but why they feel compelled to compare a famous love poem with a massacre poem simply due to a similar rhyme scheme is just bizarre.

There is more torture of sorts when they discuss the metrics of Milton and Barrett in the following manner:

“To sum up, we may say that the relation of rhetorical pauses to the line pauses of a stanza provides a principle of vital vibration analogous to that provided by the relation of rhetorical accent to metrical accent.”

Got that?

There are different kinds of pauses.

Actually, no. Verse contains only one kind of pause. Speakers, yes, can interpret pauses as wildly as they choose—but this does not alter the verse as written.

“Vital vibration” sounds like something which might inspire the daft Charles Olson and the whole nutty avant school, which hears things in the ether– poetry to neither you nor I, but to them alone.

“After Long Silence” by Yeats (a rare modern who could pull off verse—Auden and Larkin the youngest poets who fit that mold) is reprinted, followed by two difficult sonnets of Shakespeare, Hardy, Ben Johnson,Cowper, Hopkins—not the greatest examples of metrical excellence, frankly, especially for a student exposed to the blurry pedagogy of the authors, but this is all in preparation, no doubt, for the final act of the Metrics chapter: a lengthy commentary on two free verse poems by William Carlos Williams. “By the road to the contagious hospital” and “The Red Wheel Barrow,” including a revisit of “Pear Tree” by H.D.

The authors’ conclusion is that “free verse” is, indeed “verse”—in every sense of the word.

Need I say more?

Thomas Graves, Salem MA

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