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Stalking the Typical Poem

Posted By Jan Schreiber On May 15, 2014 @ 2:21 pm In Essays,This Month | 1 Comment

When I tell people I teach and – God help me – even write poetry, they often say, “I wish you could explain modern poetry to me. I just don’t understand most of it.” My response is usually to talk to them about the kinds of modern poem you can understand, among which I include my own, and to give reassurances that with sufficient patience and care they’ll find it’s not such a jungle out there after all.

But that’s a cop-out, in a way, because when you look at the scene squarely, you have to recognize that many modern poems are enigmatic in the extreme, and this quality is – let’s be generous – not the result of incompetence but a deliberate choice stemming from a particular aesthetic. What does that aesthetic consist of? Let’s step back for a moment and consider the qualities of language that poets and readers pay particular attention to. I would isolate three dimensions: diction, rhetoric, and form. Diction can range from colloquial to elevated, rhetoric from plain to figurative or ornate, and form from relatively unstructured to tightly structured.

Let’s talk about diction first. American poetry of the twentieth century (and the twenty-first so far) operates in a very narrow range of diction: virtually all poets publishing in journals write the standard English of educated speakers. This diction contrasts markedly with that of, say, country-and-western songs, which imitate a semi-literate rural dialect, or certain types of rap, which are based on an inner-city patois. But within the precincts of this standard form of the language, great variation is still possible and often in evidence. The diction may be more or less formal (the less formal style permitting casual usages and eschewing inversions), more or less latinate; it may use longer or shorter sentences, academic precision or a studied approximation of workaday prose. The contrary tendencies can be illustrated in a quotation from Louise Bogan showing the use of the offhand colloquial style –

And like as not when they take life over their door-sills
They should let it go by.

– and in a passage from a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks in which she explains why white soldiers during the Second World War put up less resistance than expected to black soldiers in their midst:

                       … Besides, it taxed
Time and the temper to remember those
Congenital iniquities that cause
Disfavor of the darkness.
(“The white troops had their orders
but the Negroes looked like men”)

A few stylists deliberately distort syntax, invent words, scatter puns, and in other ways make linguistic contrivance an expressive tool, as does John Berryman in “The Poet’s Final Instructions”:

    Dog-tired, suisired, will now my body down
near Cedar Avenue in Minneap,
when my crime comes. I am blazing with hope.
Do me glory, come the whole way across town.

Similarly, the poems of Seamus Heaney abound in old words, regionalisms, and onomatopoeia:  “Old cobwebbed reins and hames and eye-patched winkers” (“The Harrow-Pin”); “a wiper’s strong absolving slumps and flits” (“In Iowa”). But such exuberant invention is exceptional. The banishment of rhyme from much poetry of the twentieth century severely curtailed the possibilities for such frivolities as Frost’s “The first tool I step on / Turned into a weapon.”   The recent restoration of meter as a principle governing the verse line has encouraged poets to rediscover the range of effects possible when phrases are stretched across line endings (though parallel effects are also possible in free verse). In this passage from Derek Walcott’s “The Arkansas Testament”) the meaning of the question is transformed by the phrase at the start of the fifth line:

            Can I bring a palm to my heart
and sing, with eyes on the pole
whose manuscript banner boasts
of the Union with thirteen stars
crossed out … ?

… a wily description of the Confederate flag.

As to rhetoric, it is possible, both in metered and in free verse, to write a language unadorned by rhetorical tropes, a language that nevertheless, in its very simplicity and its judicious choice of words, carries considerable emotional force. Such a style is often called, for lack of a better term, the plain style. Louise Glück, in her book Vita Nova, provides a striking example:

We are all human—
we protect ourselves
as well as we can
even to the point of denying
clarity, the point
of self-deception
And yet, within this deception,
true happiness occurred.
So that I believe I would
repeat these errors exactly.
Nor does it seem to me
crucial to know
whether or not such happiness
is built on illusion:
it has its own reality.
And in either case, it will end.

Contrast this with the final three stanzas of Robert Lowell’s “Water” :

The sea drenched the rock
at our feet all day,
and kept tearing away
flake after flake.

One night you dreamed
you were a mermaid clinging to a wharf pile,
and trying to pull
off the barnacles with your hands.

We wished our two souls
might return like gulls
to the rock. In the end
the water was too cold for us.

The subject is closely related to Glück’s theme: the near-impossibility of sustaining intimacy (though Glück more explicitly contrasts the ethic of traditional marriage with the more fluid mode of the contemporary “relationship”). But Lowell’s verse deals with the difficulty metaphorically – with references to the sea, to gulls, a mermaid, barnacles, rocks, and a wharf. The point of juxtaposing the two rhetorical styles is not to express a preference for one over another – each can be handled well or badly – but to illustrate the range of options open to poets in our time, together with the challenges these options pose to readers.

But form is where the real battles begin. Traditionally form has been considered a defining characteristic of poetry, in that poems were compositions in metered lines. However, in the twentieth century a concerted effort was made to alter the definition, removing meter as a criterion. The effort was so successful, in fact, that in many quarters traditional metered verse came to be considered a kind of anti-poetry – the very model of unacceptable writing.

Nevertheless, a few extremely dexterous practitioners of the craft were born and flourished in the twentieth century, keeping the tradition alive against heavy contrary pressures. Richard Wilbur’s “Hamlen Brook” may be profitably compared with the Louise Glück poem quoted above, as an example of writing within the confines of rhyme and meter that remains as comfortably idiomatic as Glück’s writing outside those confines. In this poem Wilbur is describing the action of looking into a brook that reflects the world above it –

Beneath a sliding glass
Crazed by the skimming of a brace
Of burnished dragon-flies across its face,
In which deep cloudlets pass

And a white precipice
Of mirrored birch-trees plunges down
Toward where the azures of the zenith drown.
How shall I drink all this?

Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
Nothing can satisfy.

The stanzas are highly structured: the first and last lines in each are in iambic trimeter, while the second and third lines are in iambic tetrameter and iambic pentameter respectively. The lines rhyme abba, so that the short outside lines chime with each other, as do the longer inside lines. Each stanza thus presents a shorter line and a longer line mirrored, in its second half, by a longer line and a shorter one. And this structure imitates the physical scene described, where the cloud-swept sky and the birch trees are mirrored in the water, so that by looking down one sees into the water but also what is above.

Such complex interplays between a poem’s form and its content, and within the formal elements themselves, are not to be found in every rhymed and metered poem, and they are by no means a requisite for poetic excellence. But it would be hard to deny the manifold pleasures offered by the ingenious manipulation of these sensuous elements while the poet carries off a seemingly effortless description of complex natural details.

It must be said that the denigration of meter as a principle of verse composition gave many readers license to admit that they had never particularly cottoned to metrical verse anyway, and many writers who had never mastered it a chance to shine as poets. Nevertheless, even among free verse practitioners standards and preferences based on acute sensibilities began to emerge, if not always to achieve wide consensus. In the process these readers and writers proved that expressive literature could be created using unmetered (and unrhymed) short compositions. Effectively the definition of a poem was expanded. A poem now might be defined as a short, intense written composition broken into lines whose length may or may not be determined by syllable or foot count. One can add that verbal patterning by means of rhyme, assonance, alliteration, or the repetition of certain words and phrases is a frequent but not essential attribute of poetry.

Defining a poem this way is an admission that “poem” is a social and not an ideal construct. It marks a retreat from the notion that somewhere in the realm of essences there is a poem-type which earthly writers try vainly to approach. Instead it requires us to observe what people actually do, what they create, and what they respond to. A particular critic may much prefer rhymed and metered verse to free verse, but a second critic might well have the contrary preference. There is in the definition itself nothing that consecrates one type over another.

We are left with more behavioral observations. Verse that is metered and rhymed stays in the mind more easily. It often has a more compelling, even hypnotic emotional quality. Free verse, on the other hand, often more closely approximates the naturalness of ordinary speech and thus feels more approachable in being uncontrived. Debates about formal properties are often debates about the figure of the poet in relation to listeners and readers, and the attitudes behind those debates are constantly changing.

Nevertheless, there does seem to be such a thing as a style of the times. By that I mean that there are prevailing artistic preferences among some poets and not a few strategically placed editors today. As a result there are a few types of poem that might well be considered typical of a certain strain in contemporary writing.

Back in 2010, at the first Poetry Symposium here at Western State Colorado University, I laid down a challenge for editors and critics concerned with poetry: Take a blank sheet of paper and write down a dozen salient characteristics of the typical American poem of our time. I don’t think anyone took up that challenge, which was offered light-heartedly, but as I’ve read more and more contemporary poems in recent years, and seen a lot of common features, I’ve thought it would be instructive to accept the challenge myself.

In doing so I’ve reserved an authorial right to make some modifications in the original terms. First, I’d want to talk about “a typical poem,” not “the typical poem,” since even typical poems don’t all come in one flavor.

Second, I think I’d be pushing it to come up with a dozen characteristics, salient or otherwise. But if there is such a thing as a typical poem, I ought to be able to point to a few distinguishing features.

Third, while I had made the point that American poems are not necessarily the same as English or Canadian or Australian poems, in fact there’s not a sharp dividing line either, so we may find that some types of poem get written by people of various nationalities.

So with those observations as ground rules, I began looking around for typical poems. I decided to start off searching in their most likely habitat, the New Yorker. And I was not disappointed. Here’s one I found right off the bat, in the issue of January 7, 2013 by D. Nurkse:


The Pearl

She lost an earring – who knew
our bed could be so vast?

She combed the sheets:
blue thread tangled in itself,
nibbled transparent moth wing,
two deeply veined maple keys.

She found Bushwick, dawn,
marriage, work, middle age.

What makes her so stubborn,
raking each seam gingerly,
unable to resist the sheen
of a hook with a missing bead?

What can we say about this? First, it’s not metrical, though there are moments when meter briefly appears, as in “who knew / our bed could be so vast?” But overall this poem is written in one of the varieties of contemporary free verse. It is unrhymed. Turning to content, we can see that a situation is suggested, one that is imbued with the fantastic. A woman – presumably the speaker’s wife – is searching for an earring, rather improbably, in their bed. She finds almost everything but the earring: thread, moth wing, maple keys. (Was the couple sleeping in the woods?) At least these things are tangible if unlikely, but then she turns up entities at once more abstract and more humdrum: Bushwick (a neighborhood in Brooklyn), dawn, marriage, work, middle age. If there’s a common denominator, it may be that these might all be emblems of a relationship. The speaker asks with some bemusement what makes the woman so stubborn in her search, and he suggests she can’t resist the sheen of the bauble, even though she has not found it and even though, as he now reveals, it’s only a hook; the “bead” (presumably the pearl of the title) is missing.

The oddness of the details and the illogicality of the conclusion push us, if we’re committed and persistent, to try seeing this poem through a metaphoric or symbolic lens. The bed, in such a reading, might be the marriage itself, containing some remnants of nature and wildness (moth, maple, dawn) and a lot of the quotidian, through which the wife earnestly searches, looking for a very flawed remnant of a prized possession that might once have been lovely.

So we have a poem in twelve lines saying, in effect, “My wife is trying to recapture the lost luster of our relationship.” Personally, I doubt she will succeed, since the speaker isn’t helping her look and doesn’t quite know why she’s trying.

Let’s see what we have so far. The features of this poem are:

  • It is unmetered and unrhymed.
  • It is focused on a particular event – in this case a search for an earring.
  • Its details are slightly fantastical but not incomprehensible.
  • It invites metaphoric or symbolic interpretation.
  • It can be reduced to a simple, unsurprising observation.
  • It ends inconclusively – in this case with an unanswered question.

Let’s try another poem. This one was circulated by our friend Ernie Hilbert in his E-Verse email journal for March 10, 2013.

29th July: Interior

Sean Borodale

My bed here, say four hundred yards south-east of the hive,
my bed here.

Awake in the zoo-dead-of-night
I listen in on the cages of the day’s hours.

There is that question,
trapped and circling a hole in the floor.
A slurry of collapsed swarm agitates in there

like the very black bowl of a
dead stare into itching solid.

And there in that bludgeoned hole is the idea of a calf,
not broken, but fully bruised, and blocked up with clay plugs.

Mistaken bees blackly weep from its ears.

The colony has one time: it’s like a gas
dispersing towards the lowest of pressures.

Another unrhymed free-verse poem, another bed. Where the first poem had the remnants of a moth, this one has bees and a dead calf – or at least the idea of one. The speaker, evidently an insomniac, is reviewing the day “in the zoo-dead-of-night” and trying to capture a question that seems about to disappear down a drain. The drain seems full of bees, likened to “the very black bowl of a / dead stare into itching solid,” which for me at any rate is not an enlightening simile. But in that drain hole, which we’re told is “bludgeoned,” is the idea of a bruised calf, blocked up with clay plugs, and with bees emerging (weeping) from its ears. The poem says the bees are mistaken. It finishes with another simile: the bee colony, which “has one time” – meaning perhaps that it only exists for a moment – is like a gas dispersing toward the lowest pressure.

Once again, the impossibility of the details on a literal level suggests that meaning, if it exists, must be sought through a metaphoric or symbolic interpretation. The ungraspable question is, you might say, a staple of poetry. We recall Eliot’s “overwhelming question” in “Prufrock” (“Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’”) and we may recall in Paul Valéry’s “A Clear Flame” another insomniac’s doubt “Whether I am or was – or sleep or wake?” So it seems we’re witnessing a sleepless night in which the central figure has an almost visual and almost auditory hallucination of a question slipping, like a swarm of bees, through a drain-like hole in the floor. What he sees through the hole is something that was young and helpless but is now dead. The bees “weeping” from the calf might be ideas inherited from youth, but the poem says they are mistaken. The image is repugnant, but the question itself, or its remnants, hovers and disperses. We are at liberty to imagine our own question – our own search for lost and battered innocence – and our own frustration when the answer eludes us. The poem, in effect, says, “My nocturnal review of the day’s events leads to a sense of loss, revulsion, and ebbing coherence.”

What can we say about the salient features of this poem?

  • It is unmetered and unrhymed.
  • It is focused on a particular event – in this case a sleepless night spent reviewing the day.
  • Its details are slightly fantastical but not incomprehensible.
  • It invites metaphoric or symbolic interpretation.
  • It can be reduced to a simple, unsurprising observation.
  • It ends inconclusively – in this case too with an unanswered question.

So back to the New Yorker for a third poem, this one from the issue of February 4, 2013 by Gerald Stern.


I gave thanks of a sort that there were waves,
green oil or not, and that the bridge was low
and made of wood and that the ride was longer
than I expected; and I had time afterward
to put it together again, whatever the name of the
swamp was, though I drove myself crazy
trying to figure out what the dirt road was
and if the flower I picked was medicinal,
and was it the tiny round head or the long root,
and could I save a life? Not to mention
the mystery of the small cement building
and where the driver himself came from –
was he the one from Thessalonica,
a Turk as I recall, and was he the one
who wore a necktie with green on one side
and brown on the other that bore a screaming eagle
with bolts of lightning coming from the claws
your grandfather wore in the early thirties
when he did curbside at Idlewild.

I’ll start by pointing to the greatest mystery in this poem: the last word. I assume Idlewild is the New York airport that’s now known as the JFK Airport. There are other places with that name, but that’s the only place where “doing curbside” makes sense. Yet Idlewild airport was created during World War II. It didn’t exist in the early thirties. Apparently the New Yorker’s famous fact checkers don’t concern themselves with poems.

In this poem the dreamlike details revolve around a ride – whether by road or by water is not quite clear. In any case, the speaker picks a flower which he can’t identify and which may or may not have medicinal properties. Could it (or the speaker) save a life? He points to other mysteries: what is the cement building, where does the driver come from? Was he someone the speaker evidently knew from before, someone who wore a distinctive necktie  like that which “your grandfather” wore long ago?

Here again the elements of the poem resist rational interpretation and suggest a symbolic or metaphoric approach. There is also, it should be said, an ominous aura pervading the poem, created when the speaker gives thanks “of a sort” that the ride was longer than he expected, as if something unpleasant was likely to happen at its conclusion, and sustained when he wonders if he could save a life, presumably with the flower he has picked.

Here the reader must become more than usually ingenious. Is the body of water something like the River Styx? Is the driver Charon, who ferries souls across? Is the cement building a mausoleum? Is the speaker on a mission to avert a death? Or is he inevitably too late? Or is he the one who has died? The only suggestion of a relationship in the poem comes from the word “your” in “your grandfather.” If we feel we need to construct a rational situation to underlie the poem, we might come up with something like: “I imagined myself traveling to find you along a river of the dead, hoping I could save your life with a medicinal plant, and encountering a driver or ferryman whose odd necktie made me think of you because it resembled your grandfather’s.” This statement, whatever its flaws, at least has the virtue that it is not obvious and trivial.

The poem, then, is not entirely like the other two, but it has several points in common with them. Specifically:

  • It is unmetered and unrhymed.
  • It is focused on a particular event – in this case a dreamlike ride over or along water.
  • Its details are slightly fantastical but not incomprehensible.
  • It invites metaphoric or symbolic interpretation.
  • It can be reduced, with some ingenuity, to a statement, though not, in this case, a simple one.
  • It ends inconclusively – in this case with a problematic identification.

Notice that though I call the three poems I have discussed “typical,” they are by no means identical. In fact you can see that I’ve presented them in order of increasing complexity – perhaps increasing indeterminacy. Within the broad structural and conceptual characteristics I’ve isolated, there is considerable scope for invention and imagination. As a result, we are likely to see many such poems proliferating in the years to come. It is a popular style, for reasons beyond my capacity to explain.

But broad and pregnant as this style is, it leaves out a great deal. It does not include poems that describe an actual scene or situation without the screen of metaphor. It does not include poems that make abstract statements along the lines of “Man is the intelligence of his soil” or “No ideas but in things” or “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action.” It excludes poems that follow a clear line of thought to its logical conclusion. It would tend to discourage poems that offer a witty or ingenious take on our common reality (assuming we can agree there is such a thing), and by its very nature it will always carry a large margin of interpretive uncertainty. We might imagine this gets the poet off the hook, since he or she can’t generally be held accountable for failure to treat a problem or a situation adequately because no reader can identify with certainty the specific matter being dealt with. The poet provides a stimulus; the onus of invention is on the reader.

And finally, this type of poem forgoes the emotional intensification and opportunities for nuance and emphasis offered by meter, rhyme, alliteration, and their varied manipulation.

I come, if not to praise this sort of typical poem (and there are obviously other sorts as well), then not to bury it either – even if I could. My purpose is simply to make both readers and writers aware of this proliferating species in our midst, so we can more easily sense what is happening when we encounter one, and so that we might become a little more self-aware when we find ourselves starting to write one. And surely the surreal is not confined to poems. Film and fiction abound in surreal settings and atmospheres, with their attendant ambiguities and their readiness to shock and disturb. The question is whether the gains are worth the inevitable losses.

Poets are a perverse lot. Once beyond the apprentice stage, they shy from conscious imitation. People who read these words are likely to work hard to write some other kind of poem – or if they find they’ve written one of these, at least to avoid sending it to the New Yorker. The editors there have enough already.


Editor’s Note: A slightly different version of this essay was delivered as the keynote lecture at the 2013 symposium on poetry criticism at Western State Colorado University.

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