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Poetry? Really?

Editor’s note: Michael Ackley’s columns may include satire and parody based on current events, and thus mix fact with fiction. He assumes informed readers will be able to tell which is which.

Barack and Michelle Obama recently held a celebration of American literature, and the invitees to the White House included the hip-hop artist Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., who records under the moniker “Common.”

This caused a commotion among folks outraged by Common’s praise of cop killers. This is a serious matter, of course, but we should be concerned as well with the implicit coronation of the young man as one of America’s leading versifiers.

While one must give some credit to a writer who can rhyme “cussing me” with “trust in me,” to place Common among great American poets is a sorry stretch.

Actually, we’d contend most of the invited writers were, at best, pedestrian. Their poetry is largely typographic – prose set up in uneven lines, often absent punctuation or capitalization.

Uniformly, they produce an occasional striking image; the words “professor” or “teacher” appear in their resumes; they heavily employ the pronoun “I;” they produce a great deal of what seems to be automatic writing or free association.

Years ago, yours truly pontificated in print that American poetry was “the land of the living dead” – living because so many attempt it, dead because few do it well. What’s left of the art is imprisoned in academia, where its practitioners confirm the Roman poet Martial’s view: “Some good, some so-so, and lots plain bad: That’s how a book of poems is made. …”

In any event, the Obamas’ evening of exalted mediocrity affords me the opportunity to revisit this favorite subject. After I had condemned the art as it now exists, offended “poets” challenged me to define what was good or bad in contemporary poetry. I’ll repeat my response below, this time comparing the verses of Common with those of superior poets:

Good and bad

It is the fashion to protest that such matters are too subjective, that the issues of art and taste are too personal for anybody to set broad standards. If you buy this argument, you would not be put off by the contention that a plaster garden gnome ranks aesthetically with Rodin’s “Thinker.”

There are standards for poetry as there are for any art; they simply have had minimal exercise for several decades. Under these standards a good poem is beautiful, accessible, empathic, revelatory, stratified, memorable, quotable, unitary and imperishable.

Not every good poem has all elements in equal proportion, and some good poems lack one or more of the elements. Perhaps a brief exercise and quiz, taking the elements in turn, would put matters in perspective. Let us begin with:

Beauty: A poem’s sound and image should bring delight, as our dictionary says, to the aesthetic, intellectual or moral sensibilities. Compare the lines of Common’s “Drivin’ Me Wild” with the beginning of Robinson Jeffers’ “Apology for Bad Dreams.” First, Common:

She was the type to watch Oprah and the Today Show
Be on the treadmill, uh, like “OK, go”
Had a body, A body that you can’t pay fo’
That mean she had some Ds on her but they wasn’t fake though

Now, Jeffers:

In the purple light, heavy with redwood, the slopes drop seaward,
Headlong convexities of forest, drawn in together to the steep ravine. Below, on the sea cliff,
A lonely clearing; a little field of corn by the streamside; a roof under spared trees. Then the ocean
Like a great stone someone has cut to a sharp edge
and polished to shining. Beyond it, the fount
And furnace of incredible light flowing up from the sunk sun.

Question 1: Which is more advanced on the continuum of beauty?

Accessibility: A good poem should require something of the reader, but that something should not be clairvoyance. You should be able to tell in relatively short order what the writer is getting at. Here are the beginnings of two more poems, “Invocation” by Common, and “First Death” by Donald Justice. Common begins:

Envisioning the hereafter listenin’ to Steve Wonder
On a Quest for Love like the Proceed drummer
I strike like lightning and don’t need thunder
Inhale imagination and breathe wonder

Justice opens:

I saw my grandmother grow weak.
When she died, I kissed her cheek

I remember the new taste –

Powder mixed with drying paste.

Question 2: Which beginning most readily admits the reader?

Empathy: The reader should feel what the poet wants him to feel.

Question 3: Returning to the quotations under “accessibility,” which evokes your empathic response?

Revelation: A great poem does more than convey how the writer feels or thinks. It gives a glimpse of a broader reality, telling the reader “this is how things are,” rather than “this is how I am.” Here are the concluding lines of Robert Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” and the first verse of Common’s “Misunderstood.” Common closes:

He on the ground he could feel God touching him
He heard the sound of his moms sayin trust in him
At heaven’s gate, saying please Lord let me in
Or send me back to tell my people to be better men

Frost concludes:

Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

Question:: Perhaps both passages possess the quality of revelation. Decide which, in your own mind, conveys it with the greatest impact.

Stratification: A good poem usually can be enjoyed on more than one level of understanding. You may on first reading like the explicit story a poem tells, then return to explore its levels of symbolism. Compares lines from Common’s “Love Is …” with the opening lines of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” First Common:

Love can free us to which some react as a slave /
Funny, we love em more when they relaxed in a grave /
Wonder if a thug is raw, or is he acting afraid? /
Everybody loves somebody but I attract shade /

Frost begins:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Question 5: Which of the above offers more levels of meaning and enjoyment?

Memorability, quotability: These qualities are closely related, and reflect a poem’s combination of revelation and striking language.

Question 6: Which of the quotations in the section above on stratification is most memorable and quotable?

Unity: A good poem does not carry the reader off on confusing tangents; it does not distract from itself and its central purpose.

Question 7: Return to the quotations from Common and Jeffers in the section on beauty. Which is most unified in effect?

Imperishability: Many poems are like potato chips. You may enjoy them, but they leave you wanting something more, and once they are finally consumed, they are forgotten. Good poetry is not something you consume, but something you retain and return to.

Question 8:: Which of the poems quoted above may be imperishable?

We recognize it is not entirely fair to judge literature on fragmentary evidence, but the limitations of space and copyright law preclude our publishing entire poems. Still, the quotations we have selected give a pretty good idea of the tone of the complete works.

In closing, we should keep in mind that writing in any form is an art, and art is the application of skill, not random notions or musings. It would be well for all aspiring writers, of poetry or prose, to recall the words of Alexander Pope:

True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance,
‘Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Echo to the Sense.

So, there you are. When it comes to art, we shouldn’t expect much of the president and first lady. They aren’t going to select writers based on merit, but on popularity – hence, Common – and acceptance by their left-wing base. The latter are limited to socially conscious poets regarded as safe by left-wing academia.

Please feel free to share what you think of the poets invited to the White House (Elizabeth Alexander, Billy Collins, Common, Rita Dove, Kenneth Goldsmith, Alison Knowles, Aimee Mann and Jill Scott) and the current state of the art.