On American Poetry Criticism;
& Other Dastardly –Isms
In Praise Of Self-Aware Doggerelists
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/6/02
Clanging Music Of The Triangles
The Detested Verse Of The Manifest
Nonsense, You Say!
Open Spaces Endgame
Poetry critics suck. I’ve said it before & will- fill in the blank. Even the few critics that are OK are just that. Conrad Aiken was a good solid critic. But he doesn’t push his ideas or assessments far enough. He would make a good point & then drop it. But he was not GREAT at it. In fact there are few essays by published poetry critics that I would even say approach greatness. But, 1 that does- & is in my view the best piece of criticism published since the 1960s- is by Robert Peters. It was originally from his Great American Poetry Bake-offs series, & collected into his Where The Bee Sucks book of essays. While the book is very hit & miss (RP betrays his affinities & debts too obviously), when he is good he is a very good critic. The great essay in question is called On Divining Rod: McKuen In The Pantheon. It is a brief but brilliant disrobing of the biases, shorthand, & faults of most poetry critics. I much recommend both book & essay. RP starts off by displaying the atrocious writing in the poems. Witness:
a) When you look back there is always the past
Even when it has vanished
But when you look forward
With your dirty knuckles and the wingless
Bird on your shoulder
What can you write
b) We scattered over the lonely seaways,
Over the lonely deserts did we run,
In dark lanes and alleys did we hide ourselves....
c) ....Here, I will stand by you, shadowless,
At the small golden door of your body till you wake
In a book that is shining.
bad, eh? Well, McKuen wrote none of it. A, b, & c were written
respectively by W.S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell, & James Wright. Don’t
ask me the poems they are from- I will not popularize truly bad art.
Go read RP’s essay if you are piqued. RP quotes from 22 poems- all
displaying mediocre to bad writing- yet only some are by McKuen. In truth-
some of the better 1s are RM’s! RP’s point is not that RM is a good
poet- he is not, & RP admits such. But he has written some
passable-to-pretty good poems- poems which in a blind taste test would be
indistinguishable from the anonymous & representative dreck of others.
& don’t think you are gonna alibi out of that with the all poets
write bad stuff jazz. No way- while a true point, RP’s point is that
he selected from poems & sections that were praised specifically by
other critics in the numbingly numinous way bad critics sling their
brand of shit. RP waits till essay’s end to identify the bad poets by
name. He also does a good job of showing RM at his best- which while far
from great, is not that bad- or, at least, not as bad as the public’s
been led to believe. RM is at least the equal or superior poet (in toto)
to more famed but praised poetasters like Sharon Olds, Wanda Coleman,
Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon, Maya Angelou, & any of the scores (if not
100s) of anonymous MFA rejects floating out there. My recent
essay on comparing the undeserved scorn heaped upon contemporary
songstresses Alanis Morissette & Jewel Kilcher with the flaccid praise
given their older counterparts owed alot in tone to RP’s essay.
But I’m gonna go old RP 1 better & take on not only Rodney St. McKuen, but a gaggle of other derided crap that- surprisingly- is not really as bad as it as been insistently labeled by the critical dross with their own axes ground on popular bias. Also, I want to show that critics deride this crap not because it is any worse than the aforementioned poetasters’ crap, but because it is ‘safe’ to attack these folk because they foisted their crap without guile or pretense, & deliberately courted popular attention, praise, & remuneration. Are you reading this Adrienne Cecile Rich? This is at the core of what I mean when I differentiate titularly between self-aware doggerelists (SADs) & oblivious doggerelists (ODs) & doggerel. As example I will use the case of a Richard Brautigan vs. a John Ashbery. Let me state clearly: In no way am I espousing the notion that RB is in a poetic class with JA! Overall, Brautigan never came close to poetic greatness while JA’s Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror contains most of JA’s dozen or so great poems & is 1 of the top 20 or so American poetry books of the 20th Century. What I do mean is this: RB knew his scribblings were not ‘really’ poems, per se- thus the brevity & humor in them. But his jottings occasionally were profound & simple in a haikuvian manner. He did not ‘stretch’ himself to reach for profundities he knew were not there in his abilities. This awareness of his own wordly abilities, & desire to remain within its cocoon, is a large source of the scorn heaped upon poets as RB, by critics who value ‘innovation’ & ‘pushing boundaries’ over actual accomplishment. In short, RB knew he could never ring the poetic bell on a scale of 100- he knew he could crest at a 70 or 75- & did not write worse crap by straining to get into the 80s. The same cannot be said for JA- especially in the last 2 decades where his poetry has, indeed, sunk to doggerel levels, mostly for doing the opposite that RB did. Flowchart is a 200 page atrocity by JA; the only long poem written in the last quarter century- by a major poet- that rivals its horror is Ted Hughes’s Gaudette. (BTW- ain’t it wonderful he’s no longer with us?). Flowchart is so self-indulgent & bloated & contains so much poor writing that I don’t doubt it contains more actual doggerel than RB wrote in his lifetime. Yet this shit (& his subsequent ripping off of his ealier incarnations) is praised only because the name JA is appended to it. JA has spent decades now, writing tripe because no editor, nor critic, dares to denude his crap for what it is. Therefore, JA is unaware of his doggerel, & his recent decades’ poetry almost always stretches absurdly (not Absurdistly) into pointless philosophy, which overwhelms his artistic limits- because he cannot/will not/does not recognize them! & I believe he (& the masses of other ODs) fundamentally CANNOT recognize them! Also, despite being a poet who, indeed, has touched greatness- a poet should truly be measured by their batting average. JA is- in this analogy- a major leaguer who hits, perhaps, .200 in the ballpark of his aims or potential. RB- while a bush leaguer- hits much higher in his less challenging league. Got it? The unfortunate thing is that good SADs like RB are not many in #. Pompous blowhard ODs like JA are legion. Yet, even in the demesne of doggerel there are gradations. Let’s turn to the 1st of 4 of the most well-known categories of doggerel.
The Clanging Music Of The Triangles: Rod McKuen, Leonard Cohen, & the ‘poetry’ of musicians
I’m not gonna talk about the ‘poetry’ (either song lyrics or actual
books of doggerel) of Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Jim Morrison, Henry Rollins,
Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, or Jewel. But I will address the 2
poet/musicians mentioned above & show that while not good poets they
are not as bad as advertised, poetically. I’ll also NOT attempt to
contrast certain snippets of theirs with snippets from ‘serious’
poets-cum-poetasters. Why not? Because it is usually pointless to
repeatedly show what is generally well-known throughout the poetry world
to those who by dint of politics, artistic bent, or familial/sexual
relationship choose to ignore: I can show that a Donald Hall or Maya
Angelou is more atrocious than Poetasters A, B, & C- but to no avail
to those who steadfastly refuse to see. Besides, RP already did
that brilliantly, only to have his excellent essay ridiculed by the
Academic refrain, ‘Well, even the best can suck sometimes!’ Instead I
will focus on the positives (this is a Seek, not a Destroy, essay,
after all!) in the doggerelists’ verse & let you, the poetically
literate readers, make up your own minds.
1st a brief bio of RM: he was born in an Oakland, California Salvation Army hospital in 1933. He never knew his father & at 11 left home to work his way across the US. His itinerance brought him work as a rodman, cowhand, lumberjack, ditch digger, railroad worker, rodeo cowboy, & soldier in Korea. He started out his literary career as a Beatnik poet who read with Jack Kerouac & Allen Ginsberg in San Francisco in the 1950s, but soon tried his hand at acting. This dead-ended with him trying a hand at singing jazz with Lionel Hampton. He turned to scoring films in the late 1960s & snagged 2 Oscar nominations for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie & A Boy Named Charlie Brown. He also wrote classical music & was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize- not for poetry but for music. He even won a Grammy award in 1967 for his spoken word album Lonesome Cities. Say what you will about the man’s verse- & I’ll say plenty pro- & con-- but the man is not nearly the charlatan & fraud, artistically, that his legion of poetic detractors depict. Musicians as diverse & acclaimed as Frank Sinatra, Madonna, Chet Baker, Johnny Mathis, Perry Como, & Petula Clark have used RM songs to display their wares & gather accolades. He’s also a noted left wing hero (outside of poetry) who politically supported all the ‘right’ causes- against Vietnam, pro-civil, gay, adoptee, labor, & human rights.
Now, LC: he was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 1934. His father died when LC was 9. He went to college & led a country-western musical trio called the Buckskin Boys. He began writing poetry, & his 1st book was published in 1956. This led to more books & a reputation as a poet that was higher than RM’s- but not much. LC moved to Greece in the 1960s & wrote more poetry & 2 novels: The Favorite Game, & Beautiful Losers. But novels were not enough- LC turned his poetry into songwriting. He headed for the USA & his songs were covered by a # of artists, including pop diva Judy Collins. In 1967 LC released his 1st album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen. Noted filmmaker Robert Altman scored his film McCabe and Mrs. Miller with LC music. The 1970s saw LC at his high mark musically. A string of acclaimed albums led to the Best of Leonard Cohen in 1975. But, as a musician LC never reached the heights in the USA that he did in Europe, or his homeland. Yet, as with RM, numerous ‘name’ singers have covered his songs: Neil Diamond, Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, & Diana Ross. Also a noted champion of many liberal causes, LC has also produced poetry that is ridiculed- & with some just cause. But, as with RM it is- while not that good, not nearly as bad as detractors claim.
Let us start off with some typical poems. 1st RM:
is entertaining again,
I could set my clock
by the footfall on the stairs.
see her sometimes,
coming and going on the stairs
or going to the market.
Sometimes I hear her late at night
playing sad music
or walking overhead.
She smiles in the daytime,
but not at me.
This is not a good poem. But it is not a bad poem. With a little rework it might be a very good poem in the fashion of my fellow UPG colleague Bruce Ario. The title sets a scene. Stanza 1 sets it up nicely- we even get an inversion of the cliché of ‘setting a clock by’. The music is not too forced nor absent. Stanza 2 is prosaic & contains the near cliché of ‘coming and going’- although, in this instance it is not that egregious since it seems to be just a casual observation from an average lonely guy/(girl?). The 1st 3 lines of stanza 3 are the worst in the poem- 2 clichés are present: ‘late at night’ is borderline, but given that it is followed by the ‘sad’ music, it is tipped into full cliché, because a cliché is not just a phrase or word or trope used too often, but used too often in the same ways & expected places. A quick way to heighten this poem would be to fuse those 3 lines with stanza 2. The association with the casual-speak of that stanza might rescue ‘late at night’ from cliché- but probably not. The last 2 lines, however, are excellent. While the stark contrast with the aforementioned night might seem predictable, the last line’s turn away from the wonderful image of smiling in the daytime really packs an emotional wallop. Is this a good poem? No. Just a so-so poem, & even with massive reworking this will never be a great poem- without losing its casual feel. But this poem is better than alot of the published poems on the same theme. Aside from the poem’s good enjambment this poem could be a Robert Creeley poem. Imagine it broken thusly:
again, I cd set my
clock by the
on the stairs.
I see her some-
times, coming and
going on the stairs
or going to the
Sometimes I hear her late
at night playing sad
music or walking over-
head. She smiles in
the daytime, but
not at me.
See? Call the folks at Separated At Birth?! Either enjambed version, however, has a very minimalist feel. Yet, only RM has the word doggerel appended to his –ist. In truth, RC is no better a poet than RM is. Both are mediocre-to-pretty bad, yet RC is praised wildly, even as his (at best) mediocre poems are not as technically sound as RM’s. The reason is obvious- RC’s a creature of the Academic Establishment, & RM’s a mere pop songwriter who (& here’s the killer for his detractors!) actually sold tons of books & became independently wealthy. Now to LC. Here’s a proem that could have easily come from the pen & mind of the laconic W.S. Merwin:
How To Speak Poetry
Take the word butterfly. To use this word it is not necessary to
make the voice weigh less than an ounce or equip it with small dusty
wings. It is not necessary to invent a sunny day or a field of daffodils.
It is not necessary to be in love, or to be in love with butterflies. The
word butterfly is not a real butterfly. There is the word and there is the
butterfly. If you confuse these two items people have the right to laugh
at you. Do not make so much of the word. Are you trying to suggest that
you love butterflies more perfectly than anyone else, or really understand
their nature? The word butterfly is merely data. It is not an opportunity
for you to hover, soar, befriend flowers, symbolize beauty and frailty, or
in any way impersonate a butterfly. Do not act out words. Never act out
words. Never try to leave the floor when you talk about flying. Never
close your eyes and jerk your head to one side when you talk about death.
Do not fix your burning eyes on me when you speak about love. If you want
to impress me when you speak about love put your hand in your pocket or
under your dress and play with yourself. If ambition and the hunger for
applause have driven you to speak about love you should learn how to do it
without disgracing yourself or the material.
What is the expression which the age demands? The age demands no expression whatever. We have seen photographs of bereaved Asian mothers. We are not interested in the agony of your fumbled organs. There is nothing you can show on your face that can match the horror of this time. Do not even try. You will only hold yourself up to the scorn of those who have felt things deeply. We have seen newsreels of humans in the extremities of pain and dislocation. Everyone knows you are eating well and are even being paid to stand up there. You are playing to people who have experienced a catastrophe. This should make you very quiet. Speak the words, convey the data, step aside. Everyone knows you are in pain. You cannot tell the audience everything you know about love in every line of love you speak. Step aside and they will know what you know because you know it already. You have nothing to teach them. You are not more beautiful than they are. You are not wiser. Do not shout at them. Do not force a dry entry. That is bad sex. If you show the lines of your genitals, then deliver what you promise. And remember that people do not really want an acrobat in bed. What is our need? To be close to the natural man, to be close to the natural woman. Do not pretend that you are a beloved singer with a vast loyal audience which has followed the ups and downs of your life to this very moment. The bombs, flame-throwers, and all the shit have destroyed more than just the trees and villages. They have also destroyed the stage. Did you think that your profession would escape the general destruction? There is no more stage. There are no more footlights. You are among the people. Then be modest. Speak the words, convey the data, step aside. Be by yourself. Be in your own room. Do not put yourself on.
This is an interior landscape. It is inside. It is private. Respect the privacy of the material. These pieces were written in silence. The courage of the play is to speak them. The discipline of the play is not to violate them. Let the audience feel your love of privacy even though there is no privacy. Be good whores. The poem is not a slogan. It cannot advertise you. It cannot promote your reputation for sensitivity. You are not a stud. You are not a killer lady. All this junk about the gangsters of love. You are students of discipline. Do not act out the words. The words die when you act them out, they wither, and we are left with nothing but your ambition. Speak the words with the exact precision with which you would check out a laundry list. Do not become emotional about the lace blouse. Do not get a hard-on when you say panties. Do not get all shivery just because of the towel. The sheets should not provoke a dreamy expression about the eyes. There is no need to weep into the handkerchief. The socks are not there to remind you of strange and distant voyages. It is just your laundry. It is just your clothes. Don't peep through them. Just wear them.
The poem is nothing but information. It is the Constitution of the inner country. If you declaim it and blow it up with noble intentions then you are no better than the politicians whom you despise. You are just someone waving a flag and making the cheapest kind of appeal to a kind of emotional patriotism. Think of the words as science, not as art. They are a report. You are speaking before a meeting of the Explorers' Club of the National Geographic Society. These people know all the risks of mountain climbing. They honor you by taking this for granted. If you rub their faces in it that is an insult to their hospitality. Tell them about the height of the mountain, the equipment you used, be specific about the surfaces and the time it took to scale it. Do not work the audience for gasps and sighs. If you are worthy of gasps and sighs it will not be from your appreciation of the event but from theirs. It will be in the statistics and not the trembling of the voice or the cutting of the air with your hands. It will be in the data and the quiet organization of your presence.
Avoid the flourish. Do not be afraid to be weak. Do not be ashamed to be tired. You look good when you're tired. You look like you could go on forever. Now come into my arms. You are the image of my beauty.
Forget WSM- this proem is so typical of the proems published by Academia that it could have been written by any of the 1000s of them. But, because they know LC wrote it, it therefore is just a feelgood ‘string of clichés’ & not a ‘sensitive probing of the human condition.’ Yes, it is bad writing, & wholly generic- but it is no worse than the reams of proems published in the last 30 years by ODs diverse as Robert Bly & Henry Rollins- & that is the point. Here’s another from LC:
You tell me that silence
is nearer to peace than poems
but if for my gift
I brought you silence
(for I know silence)
you would say
This is not silence
this is another poem
and you would hand it back to me.
Another bad poem. I can tell you it would not surprise me in the least if this had been penned by a celebrity poetaster like Tennessee Williams or Leonard Nimoy, or even that Blue Mountain diva Susan Polis Schutz. Aha!, I know you’re thinking that this is a ‘smoking gun’ that qualitatively proves the difference between the SADs & ODs. Well, no. I could equally imagine the above garbage dripping from the pen of a Mark Strand. Is there that big a difference between LC’s tripe &, say, a Jane Kenyon’s? Here’s a JK piece of tripe- you decide:
He suggests pancakes at the local diner,
followed by a walk in search of mayflowers,
while friends convene at the house
bearing casseroles and a cake, their cars
pulled close along the sandy shoulders
of the road, where tender ferns unfurl
in the ditches, and this year's budding leaves
push last year's spectral leaves from the tips
of the twigs of the ash trees. The gathering
itself is not what astounds her, but the casual
accomplishment with which he has lied.
OK, I couldn’t resist. I know I said I was not gonna compare the SADs’ doggerel to the ODs’- but really, just look at this pair. Both poems are larded with cliché- both in wording & narrative. Despite the alliteration in JK’s poem it is very prosaic & dull- & as ‘precious’ as LC’s. Yet, JK was (according to Robert Bly) a ‘genius’, while LC is a hack songwriter. The really important point to know about an OD like JK is that the above poem is, in fact, 1 of her better & ‘deeper’ poems. Truly! Another poem from LC:
I Wonder How Many People In
I wonder how many people in
live in furnished rooms.
Late at night when I look out at the buildings
I swear I see a face in every window
looking back at me,
and when I turn away
I wonder how many go back to their desks
and write this down.
Is this poem unique, or well written? No. I’ve seen versions of this type of ‘moment poem’ many times before- including the recapitulated title/1st line. It is also a standard ‘filler’ poem: those poems that take up a whole page in a book because the ‘poet’ wants each poem to have ‘breathing room’ & ‘work with the page’s white space’. The point, again, is that this poem- while typical of LC’s oeuvre- is also typical of virtually all published poets writing today. Granted, a literal 3-4 handfuls go beyond this poem’s basic format- but the masses do not. In fact, the bulk of the masses- while being able to pen lines 1-6- are incapable of penning the neat little twist in lines 7-8. Does this make this a good poem? No. Does it rescue it from being bad? Possibly. Is it in league with the best I’ve ever written? Or Frost, Stevens, Emanuel, Plath, Jeffers, Crane, etc.? No. So? It’s still as good as the bulk of the masses, & better than alot of it. Let me end this section with 2 RM poems- this a bit longer than the 1st. Let’s examine it, what follows, & then sum up.
For A Sonnet On Your Body
Were I a
priest I'd lay you open
like a rite and stretch you out across
church conversation. I would translate
every limb of you from my mother tongue
to Latin, Greek, Greek orthodox. I'd mouth
your arms as I would Sunday saints in sermon;
sword and three-pronged spear to frighten
newer converts and the little criminals.
My lips would linger
on your mouth in word only, but with such
words devout parishioner has yet to hear. My
tongue would curve and turn at talking of the
coil and curvature and kindness of your tongue.
Were I a cardinal, a pope, a bishop used as pawn
I'd do you as a final prayer, then tucking you
beneath my arm be gone from church and
catechism contradiction and the dawn.
Comes now the taking of the wine and wafers.
Whose blood and body is it?
I leave the altar cowardly as week-old custard
crusty and with perspiration round my edges.
The choir goes crazy
chanting penance, penance.
If death is
the memory of you lying gently in my head
would still be sentence pronounced but not
said well enough.
Obviously this is a love poem that uses the age-old religious metaphors to compare the act of sex with that of holiness. This has been done very well in the past: think Rilke or Donne. It has also been done terribly- by many a ‘name poet’. This poem has definite minuses, but- overall- its pluses outweigh them. The title is very effective & makes 1 want to read on. Plus it establishes a multiplicity of perspectives that the speaker’s voice can be interpreted from. Section 1 is very good- aside from a dangling the & and in stanzas 2 & 3, there’s very little to quibble with (exactly why RM & other poets are so schizophrenic in their enjambment abilities from poem to poem is a subject worthy of inquiry &/or essay!). This section is cliché-free, & only the last 2 lines could be phrased a little better. Section 2 is a bit weaker, especially stanza 1 with its clichés about the sacramental body. Stanza 2 twists the ‘death sentence’ motif from actual death to grammatical sentence nicely. The whole of section 2, however, feels out of place, thematically, with section 1. Yet, the uniqueness & skilled rescue of clichés in the poem’s 1st ½ is more than enough to compensate for its petering out. & the poem’s last stanza is a nice bit of writing- it just adds nothing to this particular poem. Here is 1 of RM’s most well-known poems:
after the first night of being loved
I heard the disillusioned moth
flapping at the window glass
trying to reach the morning sunlight.
And the sun,
long fingers of it,
came through the window
picking out the dust in special corners.
In the pre-dawn hours
all arms and legs and breathing
with the rain not so far away
and morning coming too soon
I hoped to never see the sun again.
your face and the sun
have made this room
with only ceiling sky
and avenues of sunlit dust
OK, it should be pretty obvious that this is the worst of the 3 RM
poems we’ve looked at. It is also very typical of the bulk of the poems
that spring to mind when the reading public thinks of RM. It is very Blue
Mountain. The only real questions seemingly provoked are a) in the
poem why is the moth disillusioned? This is the classic query, asked
with depth, by those who have deigned to critique RM’s poems-
& this the chestnut they critique. The answer is because it’s
realized it cannot get through the glass. The other question is b) why is
this 1 of RM’s most well-known poems? Again, the answer is obvious,
because it is so banal & easy to understand. But, why have not critics
looked at the 30-40% of RM’s verse that is equal to or better than 99%
of Academic verse? 2 reasons pop up: 1) they have looked & don’t
wanna eat crow. 2) RM has made it easy for them with his injudicious
slapping together of book after book. I suspect that a good editor could
put together a pretty solid-good collection of 60-100 pages of poetry
cobbled together from RM’s dozens of individual books. & I can tell
you- 60-100 pages of solid-good poetry is more than these well-known &
praised poets have written in their lifetime: Janice Mirikitani, David St.
John, Robert Creeley, Donald Hall, Bob Holman, Nikki Giovanni, etc. You
get my point. Here’s another: RM has undoubtedly been his own worst
editorial enemy! Sunday
Three (Rod McKuen) We
cannot go both ways though
I know you'll try I
could take you up one road
and down another, but
one Sunday middle-month is
not enough to start a trip, let
alone do a journey justice. So
we meet and part and
maybe meet again, lonesome
travelers hiking up
some hill of hope then
down a Denver Sunday at
the summer's start. I
don't know where I am.
Do you? A Deep Happiness
(Leonard Cohen) A deep happiness Category RM LC Titles *
ambiguity heightens Puh-leeze!
(then recapped in 1st line) Enjambment *
solid, if unspectacular OK Clichés *1
or 2 borderline at
least 7 (with title/1st line counting for 2) Narrative *predictable-
yet some twists Puh-leeze!
(The Revenge) Punctuation *perfunctory,
but solid lack
of punctuation serves no purpose Positives *2
differing references to Sunday are the best this poem can offer Puh-leeze!
(This time it’s personal!)
6 categories RM is better in a sweep. Yet, his poem is nothing to brag
about. In short, I think LC’s rep has soared (hee-hee) slightly higher
than RM’s for much the same reason that Academics ODs’ soar higher
than both: perceived respectability. LC has had much ‘hipper’
supporters outside of poetry & his ‘serious’ pursuits as a
novelist lend him the Academic thumbs-up RM lacks. Yet, clearly RM
is superior- & may have worked himself up to passability poetically,
had he focused on poetry alone. LC, well- let’s just say Jane Kenyon’s
not the only 1 who could honestly claim she’s on top of Donald Hall!
The Detested Verse Of The Manifest: William
Eugene Field, Joyce Kilmer, & Richard Brautigan
tried to give each of these sub-sectioned essays appropriate titles. The
other sections were easy to name- but to try to link these 4 poetasters
was harder- then it struck! It was manifest that these were the
doggerelists who stated the obvious- & in very simplistic (not simple)
fashion. All of them are mocked & reviled to a degree- yet all 4 have
served the last century or so well in their roles as punching bags. Yet,
as with McKuen & Cohen, none are quite as bad as advertised- yet, all
are pretty bad!
Leven Beautiful Loch Leven, near by Kinross Then there's the lofty Lomond
Hills on the Eastern side, The big house of Kinross is
very handsome to be seen, There the tourist can enjoy
himself and while away the hours, Then there's the old burying
ground near by Kinross, Most of
what critics have said about this poem, & WM’s work in general, is
absolutely true: larded with cliché, poor music, no rhyme nor reason to
the line lengths, mawkish, etc. So you ask, If they’re all right with
all their criticisms then why are they wrong? Good question. They are
absolutely right insofar as what they say about the poem- it’s
what they neglect to say about WM’s poetry that holds the key to why his
poetry is not so bad. Recall some of the poetasters of the last
few decades I mentioned earlier? Add to that lot Academes such as Michael
Dennis Browne, David Citino, Sandra Cisneros, or any Nuyorican or
Languagist Poet. Now, what I just said about WM’s poem applies equally
well to virtually everything these folks have published- i.e.: larded with
cliché, poor music, no rhyme nor reason to the line lengths, mawkish,
etc. But, they lack some of the positives that WM has: that
is- a good sense of humor (however unintended a critic must deal with
what’s there, not a ‘supposed’ provenance- & WM is a
slapsticker’s dream!), some true Absurdism, some nice music scattered
amongst the clangor, & occasional real emotional depth. Let’s go
1-by-1 in this poem: it is very funny to not just state the obvious, but
state it over & over in the exact same mawkish way. Note the times he
does it: c’mon, it’s like waiting for the baboom to drop! This
heightens the Absurd aspect of this speaker & his ‘deep’
observations. Many of WM’s poetic characters inhabit the same universe
as Samuel Beckett’s theatrical characters. But, SB intended his
work to be deep & funny at the same time- whether or not it succeeded
it is that patina which clouds all SB criticism, & the lack
of it which does the same to all WM criticism- NOT THE ACTUAL WORK. Am
I saying SB & WM are literary equals?- NO! But the best of WM &
the worst (even mid-level stuff) of SB most certainly are! Divorced
from the wickedry of intent a more fair & judicious assessment of art
can be constructed. & there is some nice music in this &
other WM poems- usually it will last a line or so & then gnash
terribly- but that does not diminish the mellifluity that is there. This
is an aspect much poetry- free or formal- of the past few decades is
utterly void of. How much ‘poetry’ really is prose cut into lines-
lacking aural, & metaphoric or imagistic, music as well? But, ‘The
big house of Kinross is very handsome to be seen,/With its beautiful
grounds around it, and the lime trees so green’, is very musical;
what surrounds it- we- ell, it’s crap- but not the crux of my point!
Now, look at the last 2 lines of this poem- especially the last 1. There
is genuine emotion there- despite the clunkiness of most of what precedes
it, this poem has real emotion. WM is not just shining us on. Is this, in
of itself, a point worth praising? To me- no. BUT, the point is that WM
has been criticized for lacking ‘real’ or ‘deep’ emotion by the
terrible critics who have wielded ‘emotion’ as an end-all & be-all
for art! My point is this is palpably false- generally & applied to
WM. Here’s another of his clichéfests:
He is a mediocre poet who has written tripe. But, he is aware of that fact. This is why he has never avidly pursued poetry alone. He knows his limits are stretched to the max with Rehearsal For A Sonnet On Your Body. This may be another reason for the scorn directed at RM, & to a lesser degree at LC. They know when ‘not to push’ the envelope, lest reveal the trickster is just an average Joe. Therefore it’s easy to deride their ‘laziness’- which is not true laziness in the Ginsberg/Ashbery mold- rather Self-Awareness of limits! That poets from Hall to Bly to Giovanni to Wanda Coleman are even lazier still, well….Add in the fact that RM (& LC) have been able to support themselves solely via their art & not had to prostitute themselves via Academia, well, again- y’know….Another oddity is why LC’s reputation as a poet (meager though it is) is generally considered above RM’s when, clearly, a side-by-side comparison will reveal that RM is definitely better with words, ideas, & narrative (poetically, if not in prose). Let’s take a brief look at how these 2 scorned SADs handle similar themes in similarly lengthed poems. Hey, I know I promised to end with the prior poems, but you cut me some slack when I slipped in JK’s poison, no?:
had seized me
My Christian friends say
that I have received
the Holy Spirit
It is only the truth of solitude
It is only the torn anemone
fastened to the rock
its root exposed
to the off-shore wind
O friend of my scribbled life
your heart is like mine -
will bring you home
Again, let me lead off with brief bios of this quartet- then pound into assailing & redeeming their shit. William McGonagall was born in Edinburgh, Scotland about 1825(?) & grew up in Dundee, where he followed his family into the weaving trade. His claim to literary fame rests on being ‘The World’s Worst Poet’- & many a tome has sought to embellish this myth. He is both ridiculed & admired for his poetic persistence in the face of talent’s absence. His sojourn, by hoof, for an audience with Queen Victoria (unsuccessful) is legendary in the annals of human failure & mockery: he got no further than the gate & was ordered to never return. WM was also- perhaps the world’s most gullible person- a source of numerous pranks designed to play on his overly high opinion of his doggerel. He’s been called ‘Dundee's best remembered nobody’, & ‘a man without talent who thought he was a great poet’. He was in his 40s when the Muse knocked him for a loop, & he died a pauper in 1902. But, despite writing some terrible verse- HE IS NOT THE WORLD’S WORST POET- not by a longshot; even if we mean only those whose works are widely known.
Eugene Field was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1850, & spent the bulk of his life as a journalist. Although the most widely-read poet of his time (for his children’s poems) he is almost a cipher today. His poems were regularly published in his Chicago Daily News column Sharps & Flats. He married his wife Julia in 1873 & fathered 8 kids- the source of inspiration for many of his poems. So well-known was he for his poems’ aims was EF that he was called ‘The Children’s Poet’- even though he is known to have written sexually explicit lyrics for men’s lodges. He died in 1895. He is a bad poet, no doubt- but the ridicule heaped upon his non-children’s verse is a tad excessive. The bin of obscurity is enough penance for EF- the gratuitous slings against him (although not to WM’s heights) have been excessive.
Next on the list is the poet who authored probably the most singularly scorned English language poem of all time: Trees. If you groaned you know who I mean: the infamous Joyce Kilmer. This JK was actually born Alfred Joyce Kilmer in 1886, in New Brunswick, New Jersey & graduated from Columbia University in 1908. He later embarked on a journalism career with the New York Times, & in 1917 enlisted as a private in the 7th Regiment, New York National Guard. He transferred to the 165th Infantry, & was shipped to France where he spent many nights on patrol in no-man's land. He was shot to death at 31 years of age. JK was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for bravery. So well-known was JK, that Camp Kilmer in New Jersey is named for him. The dread Trees was published in 1914. While John Donne, George Herbert, & Gerard Manley Hopkins never had anything to fear, in those years JK was, astonishingly, considered the top Roman Catholic poet in English. The poetry is bad, mawkish & has little going for it save 1 thing- there are far worse poets alive & spewing doggerel today!
Finally, Richard Brautigan was born in 1935 in Tacoma, Washington. Not much is known of his early childhood but RB spread many tall tales of it- so many that the truth of that part of his life is as obscured as WM’s, except with RB this obfuscation was deliberately intended for use as a literary mythos machine. From 1955-1958 RB lived in San Francisco, & pal’d around with the Beatnik crowd. In 1959 his 1st book was published: Lay the Marble Tea. By the end of the 60s RB was a best-selling poet, with an attendant scorn not too dissimilar to that lobbed at best-selling poets RM & LC. Other works such as Trout Fishing in America, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, & In Watermelon Sugar date from that time. During the 1970s RB became a recluse & refused public invitations. His work slipped into obscurity as quickly as it rose. Sometime in late 1984 RB shot himself with a .44 caliber pistol- so removed from life was RB that his body was discovered only weeks later- on 10/25/84. Alcoholic depression had caught up with the poetaster well-known for his humor. Despite critical pummeling, a good deal of which was deserved, RB was probably the best ‘pure poet’ of the lot of poetasters mentioned in this essay- with the exception of the more formally bound, & later-mentioned, John G. Neihardt.
Now, on to purifying the dreck! The 1st on our list is the dread William McGonagall. Let’s survey some of his crap & point out some redeeming features. Here’s a well-known piece of dung:
For a good day's fishing the angler is seldom at a loss,
For the Loch it abounds with pike and trout,
Which can be had for the catching without any doubt;
And the scenery around it is most beautiful to be seen,
Especially the Castle, wherein was imprisoned Scotland's ill-starred Queen.
And the loch is long, very deep, and wide;
Then on the Southern side there's Benarty's rugged hills,
And from the tops can be seen the village of Kinross with its spinning mills.
With its beautiful grounds around it, and the lime trees so green
And 'tis a magnificent sight to see, on a fine summer afternoon,
The bees extracting honey from the leaves when in full bloom.
Underneath the lime trees shady bowers,
And listen to the humming of the busy bees,
While they are busy gathering honey from the lime trees.
And the dead that lie there turned into dusty dross,
And the gravestones are all in a state of decay,
And the old wall around it is mouldering away.
Three (Rod McKuen)
cannot go both ways
I know you'll try
could take you up one road
and down another,
one Sunday middle-month
not enough to start a trip,
alone do a journey justice.
we meet and part
maybe meet again,
some hill of hope
down a Denver Sunday
the summer's start.
don't know where I am.
A Deep Happiness (Leonard Cohen)
A deep happiness
* ambiguity heightens
Puh-leeze! (then recapped in 1st line)
* solid, if unspectacular
*1 or 2 borderline
at least 7 (with title/1st line counting for 2)
*predictable- yet some twists
Puh-leeze! (The Revenge)
*perfunctory, but solid
lack of punctuation serves no purpose
*2 differing references to Sunday are the best this poem can offer
Puh-leeze! (This time it’s personal!)
In the 6 categories RM is better in a sweep. Yet, his poem is nothing to brag about. In short, I think LC’s rep has soared (hee-hee) slightly higher than RM’s for much the same reason that Academics ODs’ soar higher than both: perceived respectability. LC has had much ‘hipper’ supporters outside of poetry & his ‘serious’ pursuits as a novelist lend him the Academic thumbs-up RM lacks. Yet, clearly RM is superior- & may have worked himself up to passability poetically, had he focused on poetry alone. LC, well- let’s just say Jane Kenyon’s not the only 1 who could honestly claim she’s on top of Donald Hall!
The Detested Verse Of The Manifest: William McGonagall, Eugene Field, Joyce Kilmer, & Richard Brautigan
tried to give each of these sub-sectioned essays appropriate titles. The
other sections were easy to name- but to try to link these 4 poetasters
was harder- then it struck! It was manifest that these were the
doggerelists who stated the obvious- & in very simplistic (not simple)
fashion. All of them are mocked & reviled to a degree- yet all 4 have
served the last century or so well in their roles as punching bags. Yet,
as with McKuen & Cohen, none are quite as bad as advertised- yet, all
are pretty bad!
Beautiful Loch Leven, near by Kinross
Then there's the lofty Lomond
Hills on the Eastern side,
The big house of Kinross is
very handsome to be seen,
There the tourist can enjoy
himself and while away the hours,
Then there's the old burying
ground near by Kinross,
Most of what critics have said about this poem, & WM’s work in general, is absolutely true: larded with cliché, poor music, no rhyme nor reason to the line lengths, mawkish, etc. So you ask, If they’re all right with all their criticisms then why are they wrong? Good question. They are absolutely right insofar as what they say about the poem- it’s what they neglect to say about WM’s poetry that holds the key to why his poetry is not so bad. Recall some of the poetasters of the last few decades I mentioned earlier? Add to that lot Academes such as Michael Dennis Browne, David Citino, Sandra Cisneros, or any Nuyorican or Languagist Poet. Now, what I just said about WM’s poem applies equally well to virtually everything these folks have published- i.e.: larded with cliché, poor music, no rhyme nor reason to the line lengths, mawkish, etc. But, they lack some of the positives that WM has: that is- a good sense of humor (however unintended a critic must deal with what’s there, not a ‘supposed’ provenance- & WM is a slapsticker’s dream!), some true Absurdism, some nice music scattered amongst the clangor, & occasional real emotional depth. Let’s go 1-by-1 in this poem: it is very funny to not just state the obvious, but state it over & over in the exact same mawkish way. Note the times he does it: c’mon, it’s like waiting for the baboom to drop! This heightens the Absurd aspect of this speaker & his ‘deep’ observations. Many of WM’s poetic characters inhabit the same universe as Samuel Beckett’s theatrical characters. But, SB intended his work to be deep & funny at the same time- whether or not it succeeded it is that patina which clouds all SB criticism, & the lack of it which does the same to all WM criticism- NOT THE ACTUAL WORK. Am I saying SB & WM are literary equals?- NO! But the best of WM & the worst (even mid-level stuff) of SB most certainly are! Divorced from the wickedry of intent a more fair & judicious assessment of art can be constructed. & there is some nice music in this & other WM poems- usually it will last a line or so & then gnash terribly- but that does not diminish the mellifluity that is there. This is an aspect much poetry- free or formal- of the past few decades is utterly void of. How much ‘poetry’ really is prose cut into lines- lacking aural, & metaphoric or imagistic, music as well? But, ‘The big house of Kinross is very handsome to be seen,/With its beautiful grounds around it, and the lime trees so green’, is very musical; what surrounds it- we- ell, it’s crap- but not the crux of my point! Now, look at the last 2 lines of this poem- especially the last 1. There is genuine emotion there- despite the clunkiness of most of what precedes it, this poem has real emotion. WM is not just shining us on. Is this, in of itself, a point worth praising? To me- no. BUT, the point is that WM has been criticized for lacking ‘real’ or ‘deep’ emotion by the terrible critics who have wielded ‘emotion’ as an end-all & be-all for art! My point is this is palpably false- generally & applied to WM. Here’s another of his clichéfests:
Beautiful Moon, with thy
Thou seemest most charming to my sight;
As I gaze upon thee in the sky so high,
A tear of joy does moisten mine eye.
Beautiful Moon, with thy
Thou cheerest the Esquimau in the night;
For thou lettest him see to harpoon the fish,
And with them he makes a dainty dish.
Beautiful Moon, with thy
Thou cheerest the fox in the night,
And lettest him see to steal the grey goose away
Out of the farm-yard from a stack of hay.
Beautiful Moon, with thy
Thou cheerest the farmer in the night,
and makes his heart beat high with delight
As he views his crops by the light in the night.
Beautiful Moon, with thy
Thou cheerest the eagle in the night,
And lettest him see to devour his prey
And carry it to his nest away.
Beautiful Moon, with thy
Thou cheerest the mariner in the night
As he paces the deck alone,
Thinking of his dear friends at home.
Beautiful Moon, with thy
Thou cheerest the weary traveller in the night;
For thou lightest up the wayside around
To him when he is homeward bound.
Beautiful Moon, with thy
Thou cheerest the lovers in the night
As they walk through the shady groves alone,
Making love to each other before they go home.
OK, this poem exemplifies my 3 earlier points even better than Loch
Leven. It does not have the genuine feeling- at least to me, but
that’s debatable. But, this poem is an absolute RIOT! It is so
over-the-top that it approaches almost brilliant levels of unwitting
self-deprecation. Taken seriously the flaws are enough to fill a Russian
novel’s length of grievances. But, why take it seriously?- FUCK WM’s
intent! Take the poem as it is. This poet, & poem, might be the poetic
equivalent of noted filmic schlockmeister Ed Wood, & his classic
crapfest Plan 9 From Outer Space. I can even imagine a Tor
Johnson-like character trying to emote his way through this. Just look at
the horrible faux Middle English & assorted horrible –ests. Note the
insistent repetitions of the manifest- stupor reigns, a reader must give
in to it & accept that this is brilliant crap: to go SO FAR over the
bounds of schlockery. Would that modern poetasters could take themselves
so seriously that they veer into satire like this. Virtually every
narrative cliché re: old Luna is recycled here. There is no shame!
& the better portion of it IS VERY MUSICAL! I can easily imagine a soliloquy of this poem spoken by Chuck
Jones’s Bugs Bunny. This is a bad poem- but it is SO BAD that it
is a GOOD type of badness. Pore through recent anthologies of verse-
especially the dreadful Best In American Poetry annuals & I
guarantee you 4 out of every 5 poems published there will be decidedly
worse than this poem. None- especially poems by ‘supposed’
humorists- will hurt your gut like this! My only condemnation of this poem
is that it lacks a Hie or a Prithee. But, other than that
this poem truly is a WM POETIC GEM!
Let us end WM’s section with a snippet from his most famous (read- infamous) poem: The Tay Bridge Disaster. No doubt, if you’ve gone to a poetry workshop or class on poetry history, you’ve been told how bad this poem is in many a book, essay, or ignorant comment. Again, it is bad, but- oh, Hell- you deserve a belly laugh: here’s the whole damned poem:
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.
'Twas about seven o'clock at
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clods seem'd to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem'd to say-
"I'll blow down the Bridge of Tay."
When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers' hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And many of the passengers with fear did say-
"I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay."
But when the train came near
to Wormit Bay,
Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.
So the train sped on with all
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
And the passengers' hearts felt light,
Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
With their friends at home they lov'd most dear,
And wish them all a happy New Year.
So the train mov'd slowly
along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.
As soon as the catastrophe
came to be known
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o'er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which fill'd all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav'd to tell the tale
How the disaster happen'd on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.
It must have been an awful
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.
Admit it, you were rolling. But look at that last couplet- Aesop would be proud. I will not recap my prior points, for they all apply (in spades) to this poem. Let me end my defense of WM by saying that part of the reason he, & other bad poets are ripped, is because their writing is so guileless. This is perceived as a lack of education- & points to a classism that still infects Academia to this day. In truth, few poets who are not ‘sanctioned’ avoid this dunning. Someone like a Robert Burns- who wrote alot of poems that rival or surpass typical WM clangor- avoids this tar by writing his crap in dialect. Granted, he had alot of good poems- mostly song lyrics, though. But his overblown rep as a great poet has more to do with his being held up as a National Poet- the very thing poor WM aspired to (in the same country no less- Scotland!). You object? You say I desecrate a legend? Here’s Burns’s A Vision:
As I stood by yon roofless tower,
Where the wa'flower scents the dewy air,
Where the howlet mourns in her ivy bower,
And tells the midnight moon her care.
The stream, adown its hazelly path,
Was rushing by the ruin'd wa's,
Hasting to join the sweeping Nith,
Whase distant roaring swells and fa's.
The cauld blae North was streaming forth
Her lights, wi' hissing, eerie din;
Athwart the lift they start and shift,
Like Fortune's favors, tint as win.
By heedless chance I turn'd mine eyes,
And, by the moonbeam, shook to see
A stern and stalwart ghaist arise,
Attir'd as Minstrels wont to be.
Had I a statue been o' stane,
His daring look had daunted me;
And on his bonnet grav'd was plain,
The sacred posy-"Libertie!"
And frae his harp sic strains did flow,
Might rous'd the slumb'ring Dead to hear;
But oh, it was a tale of woe,
As ever met a Briton's ear!
He sang wi' joy his former day,
He, weeping, wailed his latter times;
But what he said-it was nae play,
I winna venture't in my rhymes.
Sorry, Burnsians, this is a very bad poem- right there with WM’s worst. Is the overall music better?- YES. But its cliché rate equals WM’s- right from the very title. What equalizes it downward to a typical WM poem, though, is that it is void of real humor- in fact, humor is the single biggest + RB has going for most of his better poems. But critics gush over this crap merely because they fetishize the dialect/lingual aspect of the poem- if you translate what it means, though, there is no hidden depth & your odyssey for meaning turns into a wild goose chase. This poem, while in league with WM’s typical crap, is not as good as WM’s The Moon- despite the difference in seriousness. WM’s poem fulfills more qualities of what 1 looks for in good art than this 1 does. Remove the names & reps & I guarantee more people will enjoy WM’s poem while shrugging their shoulders at this. Here’s this RB’s most famous poem- hey, I already apologized for breaking my word with comparing SADs with ODs!:
A Red, Red Rose
O my Luve's like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June:
O my Luve's like the melodie,
That's sweetly play'd in tune.
Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.
And fare-thee-weel, my only Luve!
And fare-thee-weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho' 'twere ten thousand mile!
know the Gertrude Stein argument is forthcoming- DROP IT RIGHT
THERE! This is a very bad poem- it may well be the most
famous bad poem, by a universally acclaimed poet, ever published. Heed
this- I TRUST YOUR JUDGMENT ENOUGH TO NOT POINT OUT THE OBVIOUS FLAWS in
this vastly overrated poem. Enough of the damnable Scotch! Let’s leap
the pond back to my home country.
I am tempted to call Eugene Field ‘the Donald Hall of the turn of the last century’- but, 2 things prevent that. 1) DH came after EF chronologically so I would be forced to invert that injunction. 2) EF is better than DH, & I am a man of honor. I do not besmirch a man more than he deserves. Here’s the start of EF’s Children’s Poem The Sugar Plum Tree:
Have you ever heard of the
'T is a marvel of great renown!
It blooms on the shore of the Lollipop sea
In the garden of Shut-Eye Town;
The fruit that it bears is so wondrously sweet
(As those who have tasted it say)
That good little children have only to eat
Of that fruit to be happy next day.
Upon a mountain height, far
from the sea,
I found a shell,
And to my listening ear the lonely thing
Ever a song of ocean seemed to sing,
Ever a tale of ocean seemed to tell.
How came the shell upon that
Ah, who can say
Whether there dropped by some too careless hand,
Or whether there cast when Ocean swept the Land,
Ere the Eternal had ordained the Day?
Strange, was it not? Far from
its native deep,
One song it sang,---
Sang of the awful mysteries of the tide,
Sang of the misty sea, profound and wide,---
Ever with echoes of the ocean rang.
And as the shell upon the
Sings of the sea,
So do I ever, leagues and leagues away,---
So do I ever, wandering where I may,---
Sing, O my home! Sing, O my home! of thee.
as wretched as anything WM or any other doggerelist wrought. From the
clichés to the melodramatic poetic O’s & back to its title,
this poem offers little. But remove the archaistic phrasings, & the
form, & this poem is not much different from many a contemporary vers
libre musing on household objects, or relationships, or even a
self-same stroll on a beach. Read some of Robert Bly’s sententious
proems- or worse, W.S. Merwin’s. Here’s some more tripe, this for his
To Mary Field French
A dying mother gave to you
Her child a many years ago;
How in your gracious love he grew,
You know, dear, patient heart, you know.
The mother's child you
Salutes you now and bids you take
These little children of his pen
And love them for the author's sake.
To you I dedicate this book,
And, as you read it line by line,
Upon its faults as kindly look
As you have always looked on mine.
Tardy the offering is and
Yet were I happy if I knew
These children had the power to speak
My love and gratitude to you.
This is very ‘out there’, no doubt. Little can be said in defense of this poem. I know, you’re waiting for the BUT! Except (see, I fooled ya!) that there is fundamentally no difference between this poem & the 1000s of poems published annually (by both Academics & ‘Outsiders’) which equally wear their emotions for all to see, & equally display little skill- be they poems on loved 1s or the poet’s opinions on something. This poem trumps those contemporary disasters for really 1 reason- it has a little bit of genuine music. Let me end EF’s run with 1 of his better poems:
To-day, fair Thisbe, winsome
Strays o'er the meads where daisies blow,
Or, ling'ring where the brooklets purl,
Laves in the cool, refreshing flow.
To-morrow, Thisbe, with a host
Of amorous suitors in her train,
Comes like a goddess forth to coast
Or skate upon the frozen main.
To-day, sweet posies mark her
While birds sing gayly in the trees;
To-morrow morn, her sealskin sack
Defies the piping polar breeze.
So Doris is to-day enthused
By Thisbe's soft, responsive sighs,
And on the morrow is confused
By Thisbe's cold, repellent eyes.
Objectively, this is a very mediocre poem- at best. But if 1 knows
the lore of Pyramus & Thisbe from Greek mythos it takes on a
bit deeper meaning- & is not just the case of a poet
‘name-dropping’ to spice up a poem with implied meaning. P&T were
Romeo & Juliet even before Orpheus & Eurydice were. He (P) was a
swain taken with her (T’s) Babylonian sex appeal. Their parents opposed
their love & bitterly resented the other family. Their homes were
attached, meaning T was the original ‘girl next door’. The 2
young’uns decided to sneak out 1 night & do the nasty. T got there 1st
but saw a lion with blood on its lips from killing another animal. She
tore ass but dropped her cloak. The lion grabbed it in his jaws. P ambled
by a few minutes later & assumed T had been eaten. As all melodramatic
teenagers in mythos seem wont, T took his sword & did the old
hari-kiri. Of course, T never made it home (like a good & intelligent
girl would), & for some reason turned back. Of course, by that time
the lion was chowing down on old P’s carcass. T picked up P’s sword
& decided to follow in his impulsively moronic footsteps. The lion,
needless to say, had a feast that night. The next day P & T’s
parents found the kids’ remains. A mulberry tree’s fruit, which had
fallen where the lion had snacked, was dyed red with P & T’s blood.
Ever after the fruit of mulberry trees was the color of blood (ooh,
scary). OK- now, reread the poem. Is the poem on necrophilia? Lesbianism?
Lesbian necrophilia? Is it all in Doris’s head? Has Doris seen a ghost?
& what has all this to do with the title? The 1st 3 stanzas
foreshadow death: lingering in/by a river is often a synbol of a life
passed, stanza 2 already makes Thisbe a seeming mythic figure, flowers,
birds singing, then time skews over the last 6 lines, & we are ended
by a very disturbing turn away from the usual EF sweet crap. A great poem?
No. But a pretty good 1 & a lot better than the vast bulk of poems on
a loved 1. The fact that it provokes all the questions it does is a
testament to its worth over the snooze-inducing lot of cotemporary
poetastry. In truth, this is not the best selection of EF’s to show
he’s better than the lot assigned him. But I wanted to include some full
poems especially to contrast EF’s typical stuff with what he
occasionally achieved in poems like Chicago Weather. Unfortunately,
most of EF’s better poems drone on for pages- at least in my meaning those
poems with positive qualities swamped by a sea of crap!
Now let me take on the tarbaby known as Joyce Kilmer- I know, even the name draws snickers from those in the ‘supposed’ know. Y’know it’s coming, so let’s get the obvious choice done with right off the bat. Here it is, in all its horror:
(For Mrs. Henry Mills Alden)
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like
But only God can make a tree.
Vain is the chiming of
That the wind sways above a ruined shrine.
Vainer his voice in whom no longer dwells
Hunger that craves immortal Bread and Wine.
Light songs we breathe that
perish with our breath
Out of our lips that have not kissed the rod.
They shall not live who have not tasted death.
They only sing who are struck dumb by God.
Again: Fear Not, John Donne! Clichés abound & there’s not much to recommend it but its nice gonging–like thump. How’s about this 1?:
From what old ballad, or from
what rich frame
Did you descend to glorify the earth?
Was it from Chaucer's singing book you came?
Or did Watteau's small brushes give you birth?
Nothing so exquisite as that
Could Raphael or Leonardo trace.
Nor could the poets know in Fairyland
The changing wonder of your lyric face.
I would possess a host of
But I am poor and such joys may not be.
So God who lifts the poor and humbles kings
Sent loveliness itself to dwell with me.
OK. I can pretty much ditto the sentiments I echoed just above. Some more?:
Time drops in decay,
Like a candle burnt out,
And the mountains and woods
Have their day, have their day;
What one in the rout
Of the fire-born moods
Has fallen away?
Need I go on? Yes. Here’s a final piece of dreck:
Into The Twilight
Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn, Come clear of the nets of wrong and right; Laugh, heart, again in the grey twilight, Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.
Your mother Eire is always young, Dew ever shining and twilight grey; Though hope fall from you and love decay, Burning in fires of a slanderous tongue.
Come, heart, where hill is heaped upon hill: For there the mystical brotherhood Of sun and moon and hollow and wood And river and stream work out their will;
And God stands winding His lonely horn, And time and the world are ever in flight; And love is less kind than the grey twilight, And hope is less dear than the dew of the morn.
I’ve gone asunder?- perhaps the old Joycester is irredeemable? Well, no.
I forgot to mention that the last 2 poems, The Moods & Into
The Twilight, were not written by JK. They were penned & published
(no less) by W.B Yeats- YES, oft-hailed as the greatest English language
poet since Billy Shakes! They are both from his early book The Wind
Among The Reeds (1899). Will you now trust my opinion, at least a
little? Thank you very much. Just read the Yeats poems vis-à-vis
the JK poems & there’s not much difference. In fact, Yeats’ may
very well be worse. I know, I know, I suckered you, & again broke my
initial promise. I’m a bastard- but a correct bastard! I’m so
confident that my little trickery saved me a few paragraphs worth of 'splainin’
that I will not waste more words nor time on JK- on to a more modern
poetaster: Richard Brautigan.
Of all the doggerelists in this essay my money says that RB was very much the most self-aware SAD. He knew his limits to the Nth degree. Of all the SADs he knew that 1 of poetry’s sharpest tools is concision. His poems are brief, to the point, often humorous, & at their worst- not really poems- just dull jottings. He knew this! His critics point to the 80% or so of his poems that are just these dull jottings. They ignore the 1 in 5 poems that are well-written & poignant examples of humor. The factor of his SAD status comes in the fact that critics routinely ignore the 98 or more % of other poets’ bad writings & praise their 1 or 2 % of the best- which usually soars to the heights of the mediocre. This double standard is all-too typical of the hypocrisy critics show SADs. Anyway, Excelsior! Read this poem & let’s compare it to the Leonard Cohen poem which appeared earlier in the essay:
December 30 (RB)
At 1:30 in the morning a fart
I have to get out of bed
I Wonder How Many People In This City (LC)
I wonder how many people
in this city
RB’s is clearly the better poem. It’s funnier, more individuated & specific. Only RB could have written this poem- individuation is a great marker of the quality of an artist: the more individuated the better- USUALLY! The LC poem is generic- poems like it have been written 1000s of times before. RB’s poem has a real person. LC’s has a Hopperesque zomboid- & the point is not the zomboid, but that he does nothing with it. Often RB’s poems, however- are little more than descriptions, or notations, such as this meager poem:
she tries to get things
out of men
that she can't get
because she's not
A nice idea, but there is
no haikuvian ‘moment’. Here’s another in the same vein technically-
as well thematically, & dramatically:
In a sense, this sort of writing is criticism-proof. Why bother when the writer is not aiming to engage, merely scribble a notation? Here’s why: read this next poem & see how significantly it differs from the prior 2. This has the haikuvian (or Rilkean) moment that the best poetry has. Yet it is not simplistic, but simple. Look how the title works with individual lines we’ve read exactly written that way before. Even the usually annoying repetition of the 1st line after the title has a ‘hiccup’ effect- as if we’re about to be startled. This is especially evident upon rereading the poem:
We Stopped at Perfect Days
Even the hanging last
line, used here- in this manner is not as bad nor mawkish as it could have
been had it been appended to a different poem. Many a poem by an OD is
just as brief, with a similar narrative- but those poems lack the
guilelessness. They often insist on having a title that refers to the
wisdom of the poet- i.e.- ‘namedropping’ of a philosopher or artist or
scientific theory. Here’s another poem that echoes the effect of the
last poem. I doubt RB gave a second’s thought to the poem’s
enjambment- but look how that factor heightens the poem. 1st,
read the poem straight through as prose, then reread it & emphasize
the lines by themselves- especially the last 3 lines:
30 Cents, Two Transfers, Love
Thinking hard about you
I got on the bus
and paid 30 cents car fare
and asked the driver for two transfers
that I was
While most political poetry sucks because it states the obvious- & over & over, RB’s political poems are generally better than most. Why? Concision! Here are 2 nicely pointed poems. &, again, this is relative, as none of these poems is particularly good:
A girl in a green mini-
skirt, not very pretty, walks
down the street.
A businessman stops, turns
to stare at her ass
that looks like a moldy
There are now 200,000,000 people
But, while not particularly good they are concise- & their punchlines pack more of a wallop than most political pap-poetry. There have been many poems written on the next subject- including a book-length dull atrocity. Yet, RB’s is probably the most apt & ‘real’- even if it is little more than a thought. The point is, HE KNEW WHEN ENOUGH WAS ENOUGH!:
Forsaken, fucking in the cold,
eating each other, lost
complaining all the time
like so many
that we know
& how many poems have
borne the same title as this next ditty? How many of them so
self-consciously tried to be hip by undermining the title? RB’s has got
to be 1 of the more successful ruse-poems:
It's so nice
to wake up in the morning
and not have to tell somebody
you love them
when you don't love them
But, the reason RB is a
SAD (emphasis on the D) is because he could not tell the difference
between a nice sharp single like Love Poem, & a foul pop out
The petals of the vagina unfold
like Christofer Columbus
taking off his shoes.
Is there anything more beautiful
than the bow of a ship
touching a new world?
Everything here is forced-
from the flower/petal/vagina image to the sea (feminine)/prow(masculine)
imagery. Even the title reeks. The shoe metaphor seems out of left field.
In short, this is RB at his worst- even when concise. But, wacky imagery can
work- read this little gem:
I lift the toilet seat
as if it were the nest of a bird
and I see cat tracks
all around the edge of the bowl.
The point- & it’s
the reason RB is a SAD- is that RB was clueless as to when he was good
& when he sucked. In the same vein is this little ditty:
The Affectionate Lightbulb
I have a 75 watt, glare free, long life
Harmony House light bulb in my toilet.
I have been living in the same apartment
for over two years now
and that bulb just keeps burning away.
I believe that it is fond of me.
By way of comparison,
recall how OD Sharon Olds incessantly fetishizes bodily functions. But, RB
was very aware of his limitations- he could fundamentally never have
produced the dreck of SO. As bad as he could be, he was a better poet-
both comparatively, & really, than that. Let me end this section by
just emphasizing that none of these 4 poetasters were close to being great
poets. But WM’s place as the Ed Wood of poetry is secure- &
wouldn’t you rather watch Plan 9 From Outer Space than Heaven’s
Gate or Ishtar or Titanic? What makes Plan 9,
comparatively, a better film than the other 3 is that it is guileless: ‘You
humans are stupid, stupid, stupid!’ Eugene
Field tops a Donald Hall for similar reasons: there is no pretense, &
occasionally he’d slip a bit of good poison (Chicago Weather) in
with the bad- when has DH ever done that? & you honestly did not
notice the shift from Kilmer to Yeats- did you? Admit it, even the mention
of ‘Eire’ in Into The Twilight did not clue you in- ‘nuff
said! As for RB, perhaps he has more in common with a Will Rogers than a
Will Shakespeare? The point is he knew it! Would that the
bulk of ODs had such SAD insight! Let’s end with this bon mot from RB.
I Live in the Twentieth
Nonsense, You Say!: Lewis Carroll, Edgar Guest, Edward Lear, & Ogden Nash
4 groupings of SADs, this group probably gets the least critical dissing
because, even more than Eugene Field, their stuff is perceived as
child’s play- they are often lumped as a group, & called Nonsense
Poets. This is a generally correct interpretation. Yet, Academics
often derisively refer to poems they don’t like by comparing their
thought, philosophy, or politics to that practiced by 1 of this quartet.
On to the obligatory: Everyone knows Lewis Carroll from the prose of his Alice books (Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland & Through The Looking-Glass), or his famous nonsense poems Jabberwocky or The Hunting Of The Snark. His real name was Charles Dodgson. He was born in 1832 in Daresbury, Cheshire, England. His father was a minister, & LC was- besides a writer- a deacon & mathematician- he even published several mathematical treatises, but was no threat to Einstein. He never married & has been posthumously (& most likely unfairly) dogged by rumors of homosexuality & pedophilia- for he often found joy in weaving tales to little girls. His love of children led to other passions as inventor of games, mnemonics, puzzles, & photography. LC was a master of fantasy & his stories illogic read as precursors to later writers as J.R.R. Tolkien. LC used puns & neologisms, his own 'portmanteau’ inventions: chortle from snort & chuckle. He is praised for his prose, while his poetry is tolerated within ‘its limits’. LC died in 1898
Edgar Guest was born in Birmingham, England, in 1881. His family moved to Detroit when he was 10 years old. In 1895 he got work as a copy boy for the Detroit Free Press. EG then rose to police reporter, exchange editor, & verse columnist. In 1904 his column Chaff was born. It soon became the syndicated Breakfast Table Chat. His guileless poems soon started appearing. Several of his books of verse sold close to or more than a million copies. EG married & had 2 kids. He died in 1959 as a lifelong Freemason & Episcopal parishioner. His sentimental poems were much loved- even as they were artistically reviled. EG boasted of writing over 11,000 ‘poems’. Perhaps 10, 900 of them were meritless. 100 had merit- that’s less than 1/100 of a percent- hmm….doesn’t seem to be much better nor worse than the rest of published poetry’s success rate!
Edward Lear was born on in 1812, in London, England. His professional career started as a children’s book illustrator. The Earl of Derby was a benefactor who encouraged Lear to publish his 1st book of verse for children: the Book of Nonsense (1846). EL left England & rarely returned. His limericks garnered him worldwide fame, which could not lift EL’s spirits from manic depression. He died from a stroke, after a lifetime of epileptic seizures, in 1888.
Ogden Nash was born Frederick Ogden Nash in 1902, in Rye, New York. Prior to ON’s fame the most noted Nash in the family was a distant relative: General Francis Nash, for whom Nashville, Tennessee is named. ON grew up in Georgia & went to college in New England. He wrote advertisements for a living. His 1st kids book was The Cricket of Caradon (1925). He then joined the magazine New Yorker in 1932 & married the next year. He died in 1971 & was buried in New Hampshire.
As I’ve said, this group of SADs has garnered the least derision, yet their poems are often offhandedly used as comparisons for insubstantial poetry- let’s see why & why these comparisons are specious. Let’s look at some snips from LC’s oeuvre:
I have a fairy by my side
Which says I must not sleep,
When once in pain I loudly cried
It said "You must not weep"
If, full of mirth, I smile and
It says "You must not laugh"
When once I wished to drink some gin
It said "You must not quaff".
When once a meal I wished to
It said "You must not bite"
When to the wars I went in haste
It said "You must not fight".
"What may I do?" at
length I cried,
Tired of the painful task.
The fairy quietly replied,
And said "You must not ask".
Moral: "You mustn't."
Despite the childish approach this is a very good & grim poem. Look at the last 7 lines- what a turn away from the sing-songy set-up! The music is fine & bouncy- but this poem is just not a children’s poem. When confronting war & death no comfort is given. The Moral is even gloomier- a call to inanition? But even when we look to the 1st ½ of the poem we see foreshadowings of what is to come. Why is the fairy so grim? Now, that is partly a rhetorical question- but this poem has many layers waiting to be unpeeled. Peel a few while I serve up another from LC:
Lady Clara Vere de Vere
Was eight years old, she said:
Every ringlet, lightly shaken, ran itself in golden thread.
She took her little porringer:
Of me she shall not win renown:
For the baseness of its nature shall have strength to drag her down.
"Sisters and brothers,
There stands the Inspector at thy door:
Like a dog, he hunts for boys who know not two and two are four."
Another very dark & sinister poem- really read this poem & figure out what’s going on. My point, in these 2 examples, is merely to dispel the notion that this is ‘just Nonsense Verse’. Even his more famous poems- Jabberwocky & The Walrus And The Carpenter- have depths unplumbed. There is some real depth- especially psychic- & great potential in LC’s poems; he deserves far more respect as a ‘straight’ poet- for these & other of his poems! 1 wonders if sacrificing his delightful prose would be worth it had LC set his sights on being a ‘real’ bard! By contrast, here’s a typical poem from EG:
I have to live with myself, and so,
I want to be fit for myself to know;
I want to be able as days go by,
Always to look myself straight in the eye;
I don't want to stand with the setting sun
And hate myself for the things I've done.
I don't want to keep on a closet shelf
A lot of secrets about myself,
And fool myself as I come and go
Into thinking that nobody else will know
The kind of man I really am;
I don't want to dress myself up in sham.
I want to deserve all men's respect;
But here in this struggle for fame and pelf,
I want to be able to like myself.
I don't want to think as I come and go
That I'm for bluster and bluff and empty show.
I never can hide myself from me,
I see what others may never see,
I know what others may never know,
I never can fool myself -- and so,
Whatever happens, I want to be
Self-respecting and conscience free.
he’s obviously not in LC’s class. But all of EG’s verse manifests
this self-awareness of its own meager nature- lest why such absolute
straight-forwardness? Bear in mind the similarities & differences to
the earlier reviewed To Mary Field French, by Eugene Field:
Never a sigh for the cares that she bore for me
Never a thought of the joys that flew by;
Her one regret that she couldn't do more for me,
Thoughtless and selfish, her Master was I.
Oh, the long nights that she
came at my call to me!
Oh, the soft touch of her hands on my brow!
Oh, the long years that she gave up her all to me!
Oh, how I yearn for her gentleness now!
Slave to her baby! Yes, that
was the way of her,
Counting her greatest of services small;
Words cannot tell what this old heart would say of her,
Mother -- the sweetest and fairest of all.
makes old EF look like a Master of Obfuscation, eh? Speaking of Masters-
let’s take a gander at that Master of Limericks, Edward Lear. Here’s a
There was an Old Man of Cape
Who wished he had never been born;
So he sat on a chair,
Till he died of despair,
That dolorous Man of Cape Horn.
There was Old Man in a pew,
Whose waistcoat was spotted with blue;
But he tore it in pieces
To give to his nieces,
That cheerful Old Man in a pew.
There was an Old Lady of
Whose language was horribly vague;
When they said, 'Are these caps?'
She answered, 'Perhaps!'
That oracular Lady of Prague.
There was an Old Man with a gong,
Who bumped at it all day long;
But they called out, 'O law!
You're a horrid old bore!'
So they smashed that Old Man with a gong.
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, 'It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!'
Granted, limericks don’t offer much in the way of depth. But reread limericks 1, 2 & 3, & some interesting things pop out. 1 is a sort of Bartlebian character, 2 has Christ-like overtures, & 3 is almost Möbian in its possibilities. But, his is rather transparent verse, albeit occasionally piquant & well-wrought. The poin, again, is that these meager qualities are NEVER addressed, as EL’s poems are dismissed, while poetasters with worse & shallower verse garner raves sucking in the old Academic schlong 6 inches or more! Ogden Nash is the last of our nonsense poets, & while LC is clearly the best, & EG & EL are clearly lesser lights, ON falls somewhere in between. I would surmise closer to LC, although not too close. Here are some of his patented bestiary-type poems (in ascending size order):
A mighty creature is the germ,
Though smaller than the pachyderm.
His customary dwelling place
Is deep within the human race.
His childish pride he often pleases
By giving people strange diseases.
Do you, my poppet, feel infirm?
You probably contain a germ.
God in his wisdom made the fly
And then forgot to tell us why.
Tell me, O Octopus, I begs
Is those things arms, or is they legs?
I marvel at thee, Octopus;
If I were thou, I'd call me U.
Clearly, these poems-
while not as formally tight as RL’s limericks, are better as poems. The
insistent coupletting & humor give them a limerickian quality, yet
they also allow for poetic scatting: the ‘So what?’ in The
Ant, or the effective poor grammar & spelling in The Octopus.
But there was a more ‘serious’ side to ON’s Nonsense Verse:
I Didn't Go to Church Today
I didn’t go to church today,
I trust the Lord to understand.
The surf was swirling blue and white,
The children swirling on the sand.
He knows, He knows how brief my stay,
How brief this spell of summer weather,
He knows when I am said and done
We’ll have plenty of time together.
Compare this to the dim solemnity of a Eugene Field or the dull
piety of a Joyce Kilmer. This poem is better because it both recaps the
posits of those types of poems & has its own odd little mix of
surrealism within it. Look at the lines ‘The surf was swirling blue
and white, /The children swirling on the sand. /He knows, He knows how
brief my stay, /How brief this spell of summer weather’. By
themselves they really tug against the poem’s general flow. A
contra-movement like this in a poem brings to mind some of the very
Abstract Expressionistic qualities in portions of paintings by Andrew
Wyeth. The reason why a Wyeth was a better painter than any of the Ab
Exers is that Ab Ex was not an end to itself, but a tool to serve a
larger purpose. Movements like this do the same in poetry. Then the
poem returns to its leaden & child-like end. But this contra-movement,
whether by mere fortuity or design, lifts this & other poems of ON
beyond mere Nonsense. Granted, the majority of his poems do not scale such
heights- but some do- & do it well. A tangential expression of this
sort of contra-movement is the punning used in this ostensibly simplistic
rhyme by ON:
Marry an April Girl
Praise the spells and bless the charms,
I found April in my arms.
April golden, April cloudy,
Gracious, cruel, tender, rowdy;
April soft in flowered languor,
April cold with sudden anger,
Ever changing, ever true --
I love April, I love you.
The pun with the female name & the month is the manifest 1- but look how the title really adds another layer- the female as the month, in mood & being. Is this the work of a poetic master? No. But, it does show thought & skill- at times. Those 2 qualities are often missing from contemporary published poetry. Let me end by reiterating that these 4 poets have not gotten the vitriol reserved for the other poetasters mentioned- mostly because they called their poetry Nonsense Poetry or Children’s Verse. The final group of SADs, however, were not so lucky, as they had to put up with Rod McKuenesque derision for decades before RM arrived on the poetic scene.
Wide Open Spaces: Robert Service, Banjo Paterson, John G. Neihardt, & the Cowboy Poets
the last couple of decades have seen the poetry of Robert Service &
Banjo Paterson get a little bit more critical respect (after decades as
serving as Poster Boys for doggerel), John G. Neihardt’s poetry is
barely remembered. When it is, it is usually greeted with a roll of the
eyes- an automatic lumping into the dungeon of doggerelist, alongside RS
& BP. As for the related & generic Cowboy Poetry- well, it is
generally as bad as it is thought to be- BUT, it is no worse (& most
often alot better) than Nuyoricanism or Languagist doggerel. Primarily,
these poets represent the poem as Narrative- a skill profoundly lost in
most contemporary poetry circles. Let me lead off with the bios of these 3
Robert Service was born in 1874 to a Scotch bank clerk & the daughter of an English factory owner. At 15 he went into the banking business, but emigrated to Canada in 1896. After a year & a ½ in the wilds of British Columbia RS cut out for California. For 6 years RS vagabonded the West Coast, until landing a banking job in 1903 in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. For RS it was a Nirvana that proved to be his Muse- the next few years saw his classic The Shooting of Dan McGrew & other poems take shape. He found a publisher for his work & actually made a nice profit, as the book sold well in Canada, the U.K. & the U.S.was born. In 1908 he was transferred 400 miles north to Dawson where the Ballads of a Cheechako took shape. More success financially persuaded RS to quit banking in 1909, & write verse fulltime. A novel on the 1898 Yukon Gold Rush did not do as well as his poetry. 1912 saw more great success with his next book of poems. RS was hailed as Canada’s Bard! RS left the Yukon & headed off to be a war correspondent during WW1. RS’s fame & finances allowed him to marry a French woman & buy a mansion in Brittany. The Post-War years saw RS’s fame & reputation shrivel. But, his wealth let him vagabond the world till his death in 1958. However, he never did return to his beloved Yukon after his 1912 departure.
Andrew ‘Banjo’ Paterson was born in Narambla, New South Wales, Australia, in 1864. His day jobs were as a landed farmer & country lawyer. But, his poetry is where his renown lies. As balladeer of Australia’s Outback he was as beloved & famous in his life as RS was as Canada’s Yukon poet. He tried his hand in journalism, like RS, but a loathing of city life made his stints as magazine & newspaper editors brief. WW1 saw BP join up- he was assigned as an ambulance driver. BP’s nickname derived from the singability of many of his well-known poems-cum-songs: the most famous being the universally known Waltzing Matilda. Other poems that have made it into the popular, if not poetic, canon are: The Man From Snowy River, Clancy Of The Overflow, & The Man From Ironbark. Like RS, BP wrote prose stories, yet they also never got the accord that his verse did. Not as well known in this hemisphere as RS, BP’s reputation took a similar nosedive in his later years. It has yet to recover since his 1941 death. Yet Australia has kept note of his achievement by issuing his likeness on many stamps & on their $10 note.
John G. Neihardt was born in 1881 in a Kansas log cabin. His 1st decade saw his family traipse around the state. A pivotal spiritual event in JGN’s life was the flooding of the might Missouri River. While in Kansas he witnessed the Missouri River in full flood. At 10, his father abandoned his mother & 2 siblings. They moved to Wayne, Nebraska. At 12 JGN had a vision that he would be an important writer. His 1st self-published poem The Divine Enchantment embarrassed him after publication & he burned every copy of the book he could find- an admirable deed, no doubt! In 1894 the 13 year old enrolled at Wayne State College where he taught himself Greek & Latin. He graduated 2 years later. The family traipsed about Nebraska, until in 1902 JGN went to work with an Indian Trader, collecting bills on Indian reservations. JGN’s love for Native Americana flowered- he was dubbed Little Bull Buffalo. JGN’s 1st book A Bundle of Myrrh sold well & made JGN a ‘name’. His soon-to be-bride, Mona Martinson of New York City, a talented sculptress, was so impressed she wrote him. They fell in love via letters. A day after meeting in person, they married, as Mona abandoned the East for life on the Prairies. JGN then wrote his famed Cycle Of The West- an epic poem in 5 parts, & the world-renowned Black Elk Speaks- a highly mythologized prose tale of a supposed relative of Crazy Horse. But his popularity had crested during the Great Depression, & JGN died in relative obscurity in 1973- despite a resurgence in his work in his last few years.
I will address the whole field of Cowboy Poetry when I get to it- for now, let’s look at some of the poetry of RS. I vow I will not quote from RS’s most famous poems- for the reasons that they are too well-known & too long to adequately speak on in this essay- his epopee is another matter. All of the poems I will examine are ‘lesser-known’ specimens of RS’s versic talent. Here’s the 1st:
Birds have no consciousness of
Yon thrush that serenades me daily
From scented snow of hawthorn bloom
Would not trill out his glee so gaily,
Could he foretell his songful breath
Would sadly soon be stilled in death.
Yon lambs that frolic on the
And incarnate the joy of life,
Would scarce disport them could they see
The shadow of the butcher's knife:
Oh Nature, with your loving ruth,
You spare them knowledge of Dark Truth.
Tis sad humanity alone,
(Creation's triumph ultimate)
The grimness of the grave is known,
The dusty destiny await ….
Oh bird and beast, with joy, elance
Effulgently your ignorance!
Oh man, previsioning the hearse,
With fortitude accept your curse!
OK, this is mawkish unmusicked crap from the get-go. Just looking at the title makes 1 wince. How can anything written by such a person stand on its own? But, let us look at another poem, less mawkish, more rowdy, & hiding a bit more meaning, as well sounding much better to the ear:
In Praise of Alcohol
Of vintage wine I am a lover;
To drink deep would be my delight;
If 'twere not for the bleak hangover
I'd get me loaded every night;
I'd whoop it up with song and laughter -
If 'twere not for the morning after.
For though to soberness I'm
It is a thought I've often thunk:
The nearest that is Earth to Heaven
Is to get sublimely drunk;
Is to achieve divine elation
By means of generous libation.
Alas, the wine-ups claim their
And as the price if often pain,
If we could sense what morning grey meant
We never would get soused again;
Rather than buy a hob-nailed liver
I'm sure that we'd abstain for ever.
Yet how I love the glow of
As joyfully I drink it up!
Hoping that unto life's last flicker
With praise I'll raise the ruby cup;
And let me like a jolly monk
Proceed to get sublimely drunk.
Hopkins he’s not- but look at stanza 2- does this not equate the nearness to divinity via means of altered states theme so entrenched in modern left wing thought, especially in artsy circles? Look at line 3, stanza 3- it’s a nice conflation of hangover with financial uncertainty. Is this not a ‘political statement’? The important point is not whether he does it excellently- but that he does it. Too often RS’s poems are dismissed out of hand as mere drinking songs- with the same sort of disclaimer that the rock group Pink Floyd’s music gets: i.e.- it’s better when you’re high or drunk! But, the poems can be appraised more directly- as poetry alone. OK, now reread RS’s last 2 poems. Note the decrease in clichés- & the corresponding betterment of the 2nd poem. Now, let’s follow that trend to this little gem (of its sort):
Because I am a self-made man
And forged alone my fate,
I hate their molly-coddle plan
Their Economic State.
From out the lowest of the low,
Aye, from the very ditch,
I've traded bitter blow for blow,
- And now I'm rich.
Because no man has aided me
In all I've been and done,
In battle for security
I owe not any one.
Let all upstand as I upstood,
With hand and heart and mind;
Let each make good as I made good,
- His level to find.
Because I hate your Welfare
That breeds a weakling race,
I deem the days more truly great
When brawn and brain had place;
When strong men strove to hold their own,
And fought to win their way . . .
Social Security you prone,
- The Hell!, I say!
Note the rollicking rhythms within. This poem’s sound & words amply expose its provenance as a ‘Man’s Poem’! While the overall statement of the poem is not new (even then), & stanza 1 has 2 clichés (you know them!), this poem is remarkably straight-forward in its assault on its political target. The dovetail of aim & form are remarkable. Even the title can be read as noun or adjective. This is a good poem. Is it great? No. Could it be great? No. It has topped out as best a poem of this nature can. So why would a poem like this cause sneers if written & published today? 1) The politics. 2) The baldness of statement. 3) the seeming ‘bad music’ which is really apropos to its subject- therefore ‘VERY GOOD’!, & 4) Its self-awareness of the preceding 3 factors. When I have seen poems of this nature occasionally crop up at the Uptown Poetry Group I run, I always seek to try to get the poem to make the most out of those 4 factors I cite. Too often critics & teachers will try to ‘homogenize’ poetry. I decry not only that but state directly- this poem is a better poem & ‘political poem’ than all but the top 3 or 4 published ‘political poems’ of the last 30 years or so in America. Admittedly, this poem is a high point, & most of RS’s shorter poems resemble the prior 2. But, the point is- NOT ALL OF HIS STUFF CAN OR SHOULD BE DISMISSED SO EASILY! Let me end my delve into RS’s oeuvre with this poem that falls somewhere in the middle. See if you can spot its strengths & weaknesses- & how they relate to my observations on his just-discussed poems:
There's a race of men that don't fit in,
A race that can't stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain's crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don't know how to rest.
If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they're always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
They say: "Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!"
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
Is only a fresh mistake.
And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It's the steady, quiet, plodding ones
Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that's dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.
failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
He has just done things by half.
Life's been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He's a rolling stone, and it's bred in the bone;
He's a man who won't fit in.
See what I mean? But if RS is, indeed, a mixed bag- it behooves his readers, teachers, & critics to treat his work as such. Not all Robert Service is garbage just as not all William Shakespeare is divine! Let’s take a peek at some of RS’s austerly literary cousin’s poetry. Banjo Paterson’s poetry has commonalities with RS’s- & clear divergences. Here’s a famous ditty from BP:
Mulga Bill's Bicycle
Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that caught the cycling craze;
He turned away the good old horse that served him many days;
He dressed himself in cycling clothes, resplendent to be seen;
He hurried off to town and bought a shining new machine;
And as he wheeled it through the door, with air of lordly pride,
The grinning shop assistant said, "Excuse me, can you ride?"
here, young man," said Mulga Bill, "from Walgett to the sea,
From Conroy's Gap to Castlereagh, there's none can ride like me.
I'm good all round at everything, as everybody knows,
Although I'm not the one to talk - I hate a man that blows.
But riding is my special gift, my chiefest, sole delight;
Just ask a wild duck can it swim, a wildcat can it fight.
There's nothing clothed in hair or hide, or built of flesh or steel,
There's nothing walks or jumps, or runs, on axle, hoof, or wheel,
But what I'll sit, while hide will hold and girths and straps are tight:
I'll ride this here two-wheeled concern right straight away at sight.
Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that sought his own abode,
That perched above the Dead Man's Creek, beside the mountain road.
He turned the cycle down the hill and mounted for the fray,
But ere he'd gone a dozen yards it bolted clean away.
It left the track, and through the trees, just like a silver streak,
It whistled down the awful slope towards the Dead Man's Creek.
shaved a stump by half an inch, it dodged a big white-box:
The very wallaroos in fright went scrambling up the rocks,
The wombats hiding in their caves dug deeper underground,
As Mulga Bill, as white as chalk, sat tight to every bound.
It struck a stone and gave a spring that cleared a fallen tree,
It raced beside a precipice as close as close could be;
And then as Mulga Bill let out one last despairing shriek
It made a leap of twenty feet into the Dead Man's Creek.
Mulga Bill from Eaglehawk, that slowly swam ashore:
He said, "I've had some narrer shaves and lively rides before;
I've rode a wild bull round a yard to win a five-pound bet,
But this was the most awful ride that I've encountered yet.
I'll give that two-wheeled outlaw best; It's shaken all my nerve
To feel it whistle through the air and plunge and buck and swerve.
It's safe at rest in Dead Man's Creek, we'll leave it lying still;
A horse's back is good enough henceforth for Mulga Bill."
1) BP’s poems generally are longer lined than RS’s- this allows for more of a smooth, rolling rhythm. 2) This smoothness serves BP’s more highly comic style better than RS’s more bawdy takes. 3) BP shares RS’s self-aware directness. For what it sets out to do, this poem accomplishes about all its tasks. It’s a very solid poem- not particularly good, but not particularly bad. Let’s look at another typical BP poem:
As I pondered very weary o'er a volume long and
For the plot was void of interest -- 'twas the Postal Guide, in fact,
There I learnt the true location, distance, size, and population
Of each township, town, and village in the radius of the Act.
And I learnt that Puckawidgee stands beside the Murrumbidgee,
And that Booleroi and Bumble get their letters twice a year,
Also that the post inspector, when he visited Collector,
Closed the office up instanter, and re-opened Dungalear.
But my languid mood forsook me, when I found a name that took me,
Quite by chance I came across it -- `Come-by-Chance' was what I read;
No location was assigned it, not a thing to help one find it,
Just an N which stood for northward, and the rest was all unsaid.
I shall leave my home, and forthward wander stoutly to the northward
Till I come by chance across it, and I'll straightway settle down,
For there can't be any hurry, nor the slightest cause for worry
Where the telegraph don't reach you nor the railways run to town.
And one's letters and exchanges come by chance across the ranges,
Where a wiry young Australian leads a pack-horse once a week,
And the good news grows by keeping, and you're spared the pain of weeping
Over bad news when the mailman drops the letters in the creek.
But I fear, and more's the pity, that there's really no such city,
For there's not a man can find it of the shrewdest folk I know,
`Come-by-chance', be sure it never means a land of fierce endeavour,
It is just the careless country where the dreamers only go.
Though we work and toil and hustle in our life of
haste and bustle,
All that makes our life worth living comes unstriven for and free;
Man may weary and importune, but the fickle goddess Fortune
Deals him out his pain or pleasure, careless what his worth may be.
All the happy times entrancing, days of sport and nights of dancing,
Moonlit rides and stolen kisses, pouting lips and loving glance:
When you think of these be certain you have looked behind the curtain,
You have had the luck to linger just a while in `Come-by-chance'.
On the surface this has some execrable music, & seems bad by even balladeering standards. But, remember that it takes off from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. The clichés, while there, are not as damning as they are when they appear in a poem by a contemporary poetaster. Why? Because the very doggerelized rhythm makes them sort of expected, if not needed to maintain the dittiness. The last 2 lines & the overall melancholy whimsy, however, are what make this a poem worth reading, if not savoring. Again, as with most of the SADs we’ve seen- this poem is utterly guileless. Let’s wrap up BP with a gander at his most famous poem-cum-song:
Oh, there once was a swagman camped in the billabong,
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he looked at the old billy boiling,
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
Down came the jumbuck to drink at the water-hole,
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee,
And he sang as he put him away in his tucker-bag,
You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.
Up came the Squatter a-ridding his thoroughbred,
Up came Policemen - one, two and three,
Whose is that jumbuck you've got in the tucker-bag,
You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.
The swagman he up and he jumped in the water-hole,
Drowning himself by the coolibah tree,
And his ghost may be heard as it sings by the billabong,
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
what you’re thinking: This song is a better poem than the previous 2
poems by BP. You are correct. But it’s still primarily a song lyric.
What is its ‘poetic meaning’? Listen to the wonderfully musical words-
& hopefully dash the song’s music, if you know it. Just read the
words aloud. Again, this is so plainspoken & ‘out there’ that
modern critics simply cannot approach poems like this without wanting to
imbue something. But the obvious simplicity of the words does not allow
that. It is guileless writing. But contemporary poetasters feed off of the
critics’ desire to imbue. How many back book covers have you read where
blurbs describe writing within that has absolutely nothing to do with said
description? If you are starting to wince at my saying so, I apologize but
my point is to emphasize that while these poems are not particularly good,
they are not worse than most of the mainstream poetic crap put out by
high-profile poetry presses. In a lot of cases (as I’ve shown) they are
demonstrably better. Again, you know who mean- I will not give them
Let me now turn to the best poet in this particular lot- & easily the poet least deserving of being in this essay, because he is in no way, shape, nor form, a SAD- although unfairly tarred as 1. Unfortunately, without my mentioning him here few other critics would bother to deign a sniff. If you’ve noticed, I’ve snuck (or tried to) a real ‘poet’- or relative gem into each of these 4 lots. In the 1st batch I argued more vociferously for Rod McKuen’s possibilities as a poet than Leonard Cohen’s. In the 2nd I championed Richard Brautigan’s accomplishments over those of William McGonagall, Eugene Field, & Joyce Kilmer. In the last lot I extolled the occasional ‘true poetic excellence’ & poetic potential of Lewis Carroll over the trio he’s too often lumped with: Edgar Guest, Edward Lear, & Ogden Nash. Similarly John G. Neihardt’s inclusion with Robert Service, Banjo Paterson, & Cowboy Poets is more the laziness of critics in lumping things together by subject matter, rather than skill & accomplishment, for while JGN’s poems have a surface relation to the aforementioned- in quality they are a definite cut above. Part of the reason has to do with the view of JGN cast primarily via his 5 poem/part epic Cycle Of The West. Like most poets who have tried to write epopee on the American (Old) West, the whole Cycle suffers from being far too long with far too much dull & prosaic writing. That said, it should be countered that JGN’s bloated Cycle is a far better & more interesting poem than similar pseudo-epics as Ed Dorn’s piffle-laden Gunslinger, Sharon Doubiago’s aimlessly meandering Hard Country, or William Heyen’s prosaic minutiae-to-the-point-of-ridiculousness Crazy Horse In Stillness- all of which suffer from the same lack of concision. The poem that best matches the truly epical Cycle is probably Stephen Vincent Benét’s John Brown’s Body- although JBB is a better overall poem. But the Cycle has its moments, as do many of the shorter poems of good- or significantly better- quality. Here’s a sample of that quality:
The Morning Girl
All the world is still;
One bleared hour and night is gone.
See the lonely moon-washed hill
Lift its head to catch the dawn!
In the east the eager light
Sets the curtained dusk a-sag;
And all the royal robe of Night
Frays cheaply -- like a rag!
Once I felt a lifting joy
When I saw the day unfurl,
Watching, just a laughing boy,
For the Morning Girl.
Oft I met her in the dew
Face to face, her sapphire eyes
Burning on me through the blue
Of the morning skies.
Then her pure and dazzling breast
Made with joy my senses swoon,
As she burned from crest to crest
Upward to the noon.
Now no more I seek her shrine,
Seek no more her golden hair
Sparkling in the morning shine
And the purple air.
Comes no more the Morning Girl,
Glows not now her golden head,
When the clouds of dawn unfurl --
Purple, yellow, red.
Now the waning of the night
Means another day is near;
Just a haggard splotch of light,
A turning of the sphere!
Would that in the coming hour
I might be that boy who knew
Fragrant import of the flower,
Lyric impulse of the dew!
not a great poem- but much better than at 1st glance. There are
clichés, but JGN often inverts them. & the clichés do not overpower
the poem’s strengths of music & good phrasing. Let’s 1st
acknowledge that this poem is more musical throughout than either RS’s
or BP’s poems- not to mention the early tripe of W.B. Yeats (as we’ve
seen)! Look at some of the great phrasings- ‘See the lonely
moon-washed hill/Lift its head to catch the dawn!’- what a nice
inversion of the expected; ‘Made with joy my senses swoon,/As she
burned from crest to crest/Upward to the noon.’- another rescue from
cliché. Dawn as ‘Just a haggard splotch of light,/A turning of the
sphere!’. & the end with ‘Fragrant import of the
flower,/Lyric impulse of the dew!’. This is a good poem- period. But
we’ve seen the metaphor of the feminine with a piece of time before-
right? Let us look at some more JGN poems, & compare them to earlier
poems we’ve seen. Let’s do a side-by side with a fairly typical
shorter JGN poem, & the best of Ogden Nash’s poems that we’ve
examined. The difference will be stark:
April The Maiden (JGN)
to grow and be vaster,
Gaunt limbs winter-scarred, tragic,
O passionate, panting, love-laden,
Always Marry an April Girl (ON)
Praise the spells and bless the charms,
already described how ON’s title & poetic punning make April a name,
the month, & the month a metaphor for feminine nature. Beyond that,
there is not much- it’s a sweet little poem. JGN’s poem gives a bit
more, however. 1 need not have my poetic expertise to see that, like ON,
JGN is punning off similar things- but how much more dark & dramatic
this little poem is. Easily read as a sexual loss of purity poem the
familiar seeming cliché: ‘dream come true’, really is not- it has
menacing irony. Look at the brilliant last line’s inversion of the
rose/maidenhead cliché. This poem is not as good a poem as Yeats’ great
Leda & The Swan, but it is not too far off (& covers a lot
of the same rape/power violation territory)- it really isn’t; especially
if you look more closely than the average reader tends to. It is, in fact,
a lot closer to Yeats’ poem than the typical poems by SADs we’ve seen.
A poem like this plays off of the dyslexic quality of readers to fill in
the gaps with the familiar when they stumble upon oft-repeated words,
images, & phrases. Unfortunately, most readers stop with their
dyslexia & poems this subtle often are overlooked. In truth, I admit
being guilty of occasionally doing so, especially when reading a book
filled with mediocre verse. Often, the few gems (relatively speaking) will
slip me by. Let us now compare a wonderful 2 stanza JGN invocation to the
Muse with that of an earlier SAD- Joyce Kilmer. But, think of the 100s of
similar invocations you’ve read before, as well. Only a relative handful
(read- couple of dozen) of published poems by the absolute Masters of the
craft of Poetry are demonstrably better- & note the sex of JGN’s
The Lyric (JGN)
the good gaunt horse the rein,
Hurl the lyric swift and true
Vain is the chiming of
Light songs we breathe
that perish with our breath
poem- well, aside from the outmoded language, it recapitulates things said
in Muse poems from the cavemen through Wanda Coleman. JGN’s, however,
deserves a deeper probe. Virtually every other line plays successfully off
of, or inverts, a trite theme or hackneyed phrase. The masculine icon of
the horse is, here, gaunt (read- flaccid, limp- OK?). A command is
given to the ostensible Rider’s/Poet’s controlling body (Master-hand
and –heel), which then definitively is seen as the Controlling
Force: ‘Fling him, hurl him at the wire/Though he sob and bleed!/Play
upon him as a lyre’. For eons the Muse has poetically been cast
outside the Creator- but not here! Stanza 2 invokes Yahweh, Zeus, &
Odin- yet really read what is occurring: ‘Letting all the heavens
through,/And shuddering back to gloom!’. Here the art/lightning bolt
does not destroy what it is within- instead, it frees itself into
another realm- it is active- read MASCULINE! The last 5 lines (especially
the last 2) are simply marvelous- if I need to explain this you are
poetically hopeless! Perhaps I will retract my earlier excuses- this
poem may very well be able to hold its own as a Muse invocation with
anything ever penned by the Masters! Is the word great
in the air? Let me compare another JGN poem to not that of a SAD, but to
that of another poet (Carl Sandburg) derided by contemporary critics-
although he still garners much more respect than any SAD, & much more
name recognition than JGN. Remember, you’ve already pardoned these sins:
to The Poet's Town
not for me within a tomb;
I brothered with the things that pass,
Not Death can sheathe me in a shroud;
O subtle in the sap athrill,
My God and I shall interknit
Prayers Of Steel
Lay me on an anvil, O
Lay me on an anvil, O God.
Beat me and hammer me into a steel spike.
Drive me into the girders that hold a skyscraper together.
Take red-hot rivets and fasten me into the central girders.
are very good poems- a real proponent of either could make some arguments
for the greatness of both. I admire both poems- but no matter your opinion
pro or con of each, WGN’s poem is better. Both deal directly with
masculinity very directly- yet only CS’s poem is well-known. Let’s
deal with both as if we were looking at both for the 1st time-
this may be easier for you readers than me! POS has 2 defining metaphors-
the invocation to the eternal via a (then) new technology, &
destruction begets creation. It has a nice conceit: God as steelworker,
& its lone semi-cliché is ‘red-hot’- which is really &
literally what the steel rivets are when building a skyscraper. The 4, 3,
& 2 line stanza form, with increasing line lengths, really works well.
The last line is 1 of the great all-time lines in poetry.
Still, as excellent a little poem as POS is, I think JGN’s L’Envoi is a masterpiece equal to- NO!- better than POS! Each of its 5 stanzas contains excellence. Stanza 1’s 1st line is a rather standard admonition- then the 1st person speaker seems to subsume the tumulus (death) & pass through it. Stanza 2’s nice use of brother as a verb helps to animate & anthropomorphize the capitalized things- think of & contrast that stanza with CS’s own poem Grass. Bear in mind, the wonderful imagery & music. Stanza 3 starts with another admonition, & its weaker image of ‘sheathe/shroud’ is buoyed by the wonderful coinage of ‘joy-sword’. The masculine is bubbling over & the conceit of a damaged masculinity rising above is a great warrior boast & toast! But, as good a setup as this poem has had it’s the last 2 stanzas which are the great payoff. Just look at the phrasing in stanza 4- a totality of Oneness moving beyond this mortal world- magnificent! Stanza 5 then leaves 2 options: it’s all real & the speaker savors its fruition, & compares it to praying. Or the whole preceding poem reveals the speaker’s orgasmic masculine piety as prayer itself. It can be read either way- this is a great poem. Plus, the little abrupt ½ line that ends the poem is a slammin’ effect that whets the reader for another possible stanza’s go-round. There’s the pier if you disagree!
But, JGN could also hit a home run with more overt religiosity. I am not religious in any way, but appreciate the good verse of all sorts of religious poets- from Rumi through Jessica Powers. JGN’s best is right there with them. Hint- Joyce Kilmer could never have penned this poem:
more the northbound Wonder
Brings back the goose and crane,
Prophetic Sons of Thunder,
Apostles of the Rain.
In many a battling river
The broken gorges boom;
Behold, the Mighty Giver
Emerges from the tomb!
Now robins chant the story
Of how the wintry sward
Is litten with the glory
Of the Angel of the Lord.
His countenance is lightning
And still His robe is snow,
As when the dawn was brightening
Two thousand years ago.
O who can be a stranger
To what has come to pass?
The Pity of the Manger
Is mighty in the grass!
Undaunted by Decembers,
The sap is faithful yet.
The giving Earth remembers,
And only men forget.
This is a bit more overt than L’Envoi, & clearly not as good a poem (it has some clichés that are simply not inverted) - but it is still a quality piece of poetry that deals with very similar subject matter & imagery. Another by WGN:
Let Me Live Out My Years
live out my years in heat of blood!
Let me die drunken with the dreamer's wine!
Let me not see this soul-house built of mud
Go toppling to the dusk—a vacant shrine.
Let me go quickly, like a candle light
Snuffed out just at the heyday of its glow.
Give me high noon—and let it then be night!
Thus would I go.
And grant that when I face the grisly Thing,
My song may trumpet down the gray Perhaps.
Let me be as a tune-swept fiddlestring
That feels the Master Melody—and snaps!
poem uses the abruption that worked so well to end L’Envoi in all
3 stanzas. The recapitulation of title/1st line is a downer at
1st- but this poem is about negation. The 1st
line’s reinforcement seems to serve the purpose of setting up the
initial images for even harsher comeuppances. The 1st 2 lines
of seeming cliché in the poem are put in a different light by lines 3
& 4. A similar presentation of the familiar negated occurs in the 2nd
stanza- which snaps back even more quickly. But stanza 3 is another JGN
marvel. The last abruption/negation is killer!
How, then, did this often excellent poet get not only pilloried, at 1st, but then nearly totally erased from American Poetry’s consciousness? Clearly, it seems both his subject matter & formalist bent are the culprits. The former allowed for easy lumping with RS & BP & that ilk, while the latter allowed lazy critics to write him off as too retro (as well his penchant for epopee). Even contemporary formalists do not recognize anyone after Frost & before Richard Wilbur. Clearly JGN has not been deserving of the abuse, derision, & neglect often heaped upon him. An interesting sidelight in writing this essay was that in online searches I could find derisive comments on the poetry of all the SADs within- that’s because it’s so ubiquitous. I simply chose to not give air to such bad thought & writing. The lone exception was old JGN- not because he is not routinely dismissed, but because he is so neglected no critics even bother to nitpick at his wordly bones. I must confess that I am guilty of a prior neglect as well. Although Cosmoetica has a whole page devoted to Neglected Poets of worth, even I neglected to include JGN on that page. I shall remedy that shortly, however. But, while JGN’s Western-tinged verse is forgotten, there is another group of poets that has seen a Renaissance in the last decade or so- booning especially with the advent of the Internet: Cowboy Poetry! Far closer to RS & BP than JGN, CP may be the ultimate self-aware verse still being written. I won’t spend too much space on it (nor its revered Bards: Bret Harte & Joaquin Miller- for I need only recap my comments on RS & BP, for the most part!) since to criticize it is almost antithetical to its existence. Here’s some of ‘that ilk’. This poem is by 1 of the better known contemporary CPs, in fact- a Lariat Laureate!:
"I'm sellin' my saddle
I remember the words my dad said
but dad cashed in later that summer,
that saddle became mine instead.
The horse that he rode was the comp'ny's
but the saddle was his all alone,
he prided himself in its keepin'
the finest one he'd ever owned.
From sunup to sunset for ten years
and that saddle was his second home,
of custom-made leather from Texas
it suited both cowboy and roan.
The first time I cinched up that saddle
I remember the fit and the feel,
those wide Texas stirrups so sturdy
steam-molded for boot and for heel.
The saddle-horn larger and stronger
for the ropin' and holdin' it done,
the fit of the seat and the cantle,
a man and a horse moved as one.
At night when the day's work was over
and that saddle would pillow my head
I'd think on the cowboy who left it
rememb'rin' the words that he said.
A man all alone with his mem'ries
'bout a cowboy he loved as a lad
a part of his life still remainin'
that Texas-made saddle of dad's.
For twenty-some years it's been mine now
from the wearin' and use it's grown thin,
I'm sellin' that saddle come winter
then waitin' for time to cash in.
A good poem? No. But doggerel? No. Merely a mediocre-to-bad poem. A classic situation is met- the memory of a loved 1 relayed by an artifact of that love. The music of the poem is hit & miss- it should be smoother given its quatrain form & banal subject matter (after all- he’s not riding a wild bull!). But, to Academics who abhor this stuff with its slang & sentiment I submit for opposition its equal or worse in every middle-aged white Midwestern male’s poem on fishing with a male relative, or an urban minority female’s poem about a lost love (male or female!). They are all the same poem essentially. The derision that a poem like this gets is flat-out artistic bigotry. RN’s poetry may not be good, but it at least deserves the respect of an up-front negative engagement! There are also Cowgirl Poets. Here’s a sample from 1 of the founders of the influential Cowboy Poetry Gathering:
Copyright © by Teresa Jordan
The arm that hadn't healed
right would not bend
to hold a hairbrush. "Hack it off!"
Old Anne said of her braid, that braid like blood
flung from the heart, so long a part of her,
that thick grey snake slung heavy down her back.
Young Charlotte, wide-eyed Charlotte, stroked the shears,
reached out her hand to touch the braid, drew back -
"Please, child," Anne said, "don't be afraid to help me."
So Charlotte cut, and Old Anne closed her grey
sun-tired eyes. The hacking made her think
of falling, the colt falling, rain-soaked limestone soil
slick as oil -- slicker -- and a boulder field
cut jagged at the bottom of the hill.
The heavy braid hung loosely now by just a few thin strands;
The scissors sawed one last time through, it fell.
The soft thud she remembered just before
she woke, before the pain set in; the young horse,
stunned on top of her, had just begun to twitch.
This is not a typical Cowboy poem, nor a typical feminine hair/braiding poem. The bulk of the poem takes place inside Old Anne’s mind- a memory of some horse-riding accident that left her severely injured somehow. The “Hack it off!” in line 2 signals a suppressed rage that we later learn the genesis of. The poem has some clichés, & uneven music, but it is remarkably mawkless. We end up stuck at that ‘moment’ that won’t recede for Old Anne. This is certainly not a great poem- but it’s not too bad, & much better than the usual Cowboy poetry. Perhaps a feminine aspect helps? In this poem, yes- but other Cowgirls write poetry indistinguishable from their male peers. In content & approach (but not skillery) this poem could have been penned by Robinson Jeffers. It’s most interesting feature may be its title- in Cowboy Poetry a title with the word ‘old’ in it is not unique. But this poem’s title goes beyond its use as throwaway adjective. There’s a fundamental reason for the word- that being to emphasize the duration of Anne’s pain & memory- & her mood swings. Trust me when I say I’ve seen a whole lot worse come from both Academics & Outsiders poesizing in a similar vein. While RN’s poem is typical in approach & achievement, & TJ’s is not, I could not write of Cowboy Poetry without a sample of what it is most known for- humor (of the lowest common denominator sort):
Benny Reynolds’ Bareback
Copyright © by Paul Zarzyski
A bacon slab a-boiled black in
oil every day
Ain't as soggy as the surcingle he folds whatever way
He wants to, heck, it always
has sprung back
Like a flapping magic bird pulled from his riggin' sack,
Pre-rosined, and fit
directly to the withers of a bare
As if slipping on his socks, there's never a scare
In his wrinkle-less face -
those are laugh lines! -
And no matter what he draws, he never frets or whines
Or paces, he just climbs
aboard and shakes his face
And takes to raking like he's in a race
To stay one big lick ahead of
Who can't figure any reason, can't savvy any rhyme
To the way this rodeo-arena
Keeps on smoking 'em, how he never learns
That he's older than petrified
dinosaur poop -
Did he "Cowboy?" or did he "Caveman?" with Alley Oop
Back when he and glaciers
together first cracked out
In the Mesozoic era when stock was Flintstone stout
When they had to strap a
muzzle on Tyrannosaurus Rex
Or you'd lose a leg or two, and talk about your wrecks!
Those pile-driving reptiles
hit the ground with force
And mass a thousand times that of a feathered horse
Bounced a fan from the front
row to a nose bleed seat
You had to get hold of your holts, you had to use your feet
Whether you was entered up, or
you was there to watch
Benny Reynolds setting this same riggin' in the scale notch
Between the first and second
spike-ed dorsal fin
Of some big ol' thorny lizard he spurred hard enough to win
Just like he does today, with
lots of rapid gap
Those dinos had some girth so you damn sure had to tap
Off on that first squalling
hop, or good-by screws
That snub your riggin' handhold to its body, and you'd lose
Your gripper, and get back-doored
and likely whaled
A shuttlecock badmintoned by a thrashing three-ton tail
Which is why, I'll bet, three
wraps of rusty bailing wire
Is what's holding Benny's handhold on, I could inquire
But I hate to seem a
greenhorn, wet behind the ears
Regardless of the umpteen hundred dozen years,
Or eons, that seperate our
riding gear and style
Of psychin'-up - I'm a nervous wreck, Benny's one big smile!
And once I even saw him place
a snoosey, juicy smooch
Upon the cheek of Kesler's pick-up man, not even hooch
Could loosen me enough for
such flamboyant flair and flirt
Besides, I mostly pick myself up, I mostly kiss the dirt
BUT WHY? My riggin's up to
date with each space-age part
Tailor-made, fit-to-form, state of the art
High-tech Precision, the
bareback Cadillac of rigs
Aerodynamically perfected like the Russkies build their MIGs
Not prehistoric Pterodactyls,
the only thing that flew
Awkward as a tailless kite, back when Benny's rig was "new"
It's time to shine some light
on this riddle I've spun,
I'll rub the maker's stamp with spit and tilt it toward the sun
I swear it won't Surprise me, I'm ready to believe
It's built "Adam's Saddlery" from snakehide tanned by Eve.
OK, this is genuine doggerel- but ain’t it a hoot? The whole point of this essay has been to show that these SADs are not just a gray faceless mass to be tossed aside, rather poets of varying stature whose poems reflect that diversity. From PZ’s poop to JGN’s excellence- at the very least, if you still sneer at these SADs, now it can be a discriminating sneer.
The same hope might be voiced for the entirety of SADs in this essay. We’ve seen me utterly smash some preconceptions, & severely injure others. I started this sojourn by referencing Robert Peters’ excellent but overlooked essay On Divining Rod: McKuen In The Pantheon. I will end it in the same place. Part of the problem with why these SADs have been dealt their lots is the sheer laziness of American Poetry Criticism (APC). Another factor is basic resentment felt for these SADs by most poets of all stripes. These SADs are not the poetic desiderata/chimera of the willfully marginal. Virtually all of them have experienced popular & financial success well beyond all but a handful of history’s ‘serious’ poets. Furthermore, these SADs not only experienced such success, but they unabashedly courted it- & succeeded in their woo! Part of their self-awareness was that they knew they would be marginalized in literata, so they damned the consequences! Their bootstrapping pick-me-up tales are a near mirror image of the willfully marginal poets (workshoppers/street poets/ -istic devotees/Outsiders/ Nuyoricans, etc.) who whine & long to get on the NEA Gravy Train. These poets, in fact, secretly adore the backhand recognition they get for their whining, for they know exposed to real scrutiny their poems will prove as- or more- crappy than the SADs- this is a great resentment causer. They, in fact, revel in their ‘fame’ for being marginal- or ‘emerging’. Even when they eventually drop out of publication they can blame the ‘conspiracy’ against them, & their kind. Therefore- the willfully marginal seek to stand out by disassociating themselves from their clones, & conversely try to blend the SADs into 1 toxic gray stew. It’s amazingly silly how absurdly niggling differences are reckoned between the crap of a Donald Hall & a Galway Kinnell, or a Miguel Piñero & a Jimmy Santiago Baca, but not between a Lewis Carroll & an Ogden Nash, or a Robert Service & a Banjo Paterson. Then, again, it’s really easy- the latter quartet were/are all part of the system derisively & collectively known as Po Biz. & not 1 of the critics charged with commenting on Po Biz has taken the time to pick up RP’s gauntlet….Until now- & hopefully, I have slapped a few cheeks red, & done it- & RP- justice!
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