Poetry: Serious. Not That Serious.

30 August 2012 on Blog, Poetry: Serious. Not That Serious.   Tags:

Gems Edition

My father found GEMS OF POETRY (with Notes and Illustrations) in a dusty book sale bin. Publication date: 1898. The frontispiece features an old timey photograph of two monks: one stares longingly through a window, the other reads a giant book in a chair and lets the light pour over his back. The blurb under the photo reads: WHERE ARE THE YOUNG MAN'S THOUGHTS? I guess Gems of Poetry attempts to answer this question?

I find compendiums of poetry from long ago fascinating because they show us the preferences, anxieties, social mores, and desires prevalent among readers at the time of publication. Gems of Poetry is a mix of the Good Ol' Guard (Lord Byron, Shelley, Milton, Shakespeare, etc.) and the Bad and Forgotten For a Reason Ol' Guard (“Ode to the Brave” by W. Collins, “The Cup Bearer” by Emilie Clare, a lot of forced rhymed couplets). As I went through, I found some of the poems to be more relevant and engaging than expected. I'd like to share a few with you here, and try to link them up with modern life as best I can.

1. Alfred Tennyson's ars poetica of a sort, The Poet's Song:

The rain had fallen, the Poet arose,
He passed by the town and out of the street,
A light wind blew from the gates of the sun,
And waves of shadow went over the wheat,
And he sat him down in a lonely place,
And chanted a melody low and sweet,
That made the wild swan pause in her cloud,
And the lark drop down at his feet.

The swallow stopt as he hunted the bee,
The snake slipt under a spray,
The wild hawk stood with the down on his beak,
And stared with his foot on the prey,
And the nightingale thought, I have sung
many songs,
But never a one so gay,
For he sings of what the world will be
When the years have died away.

You've probably quoted Tennyson before without even knowing it. He is the 9th most frequently quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations—examples include “Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all" and “Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.” In The Poet's Song, Tennyson uses a universal “Poet” figure, his actions and relationship to the natural world around him, to tell us what a poet should do. The work of a poet is in a “lonely place” but a beautiful one, holding swallows, snakes, wild hawks, the nightingale, in its thrall. So a poet—in the bardic tradition—creates on his own, from an inner sanctum of contemplative wisdom about this world and the next. But he transcends the solo nature of his vocation with the power of his song, which should be universally recognized as glorious. Kind of like the Beatles or Taylor Swift. Of course, anyone who's ever been in an MFA workshop is probably wondering “Where my adoring wild swan and dropping-dead-from-poetic-satiety lark at?”

A sign of the writer's times comes in the last lines of The Poet's Song, where Tennyson says the poet's song is ultimately a happy one, since he sings of a better world—the next one. The speaker's surety of his “rightness” about there being a heaven and thus, implicitly, a God, is a drastic departure from today's poetic/cultural landscape. Contemporarily, the questioning of these set-in-stone beliefs has replaced the by-the-book Christianity and unbridled nationalism characteristic of poetry in Tennyson's day and age.

2. As I flip through this book, I notice a lot of poems (good and bad) using poetry as a prescription or panacea for life's hardships--poetry acting as dumbbell, strengthening the spirit for the inevitable pains and disappointments we all experience. The directing of writing toward this purpose is so unobscured, so unabashed, in the writing of this time period. It sometimes feels like poets today are trying to say the same thing, but behind a velvet curtain, in high heels and backward. I leave you with, while not quite artful, a certainly very honest, heartfelt poem by Miss Mary Louisa Chitwood called “The Precious Gift of Song”:

If in one poor bleeding bosom
I a woe-swept chord have stilled;
If a dark and restless spirit
I with hope of heaven have filled;
If I've made, for a life's hard battle,
One faint heart grow brave and strong—
Then, my God, I thank thee, bless thee,
For the precious gift of song.

So—what do you think a poet's purpose is? Is every poet different, or do our reasons for doing this crazy dang thing have a common thread running through? How have our reasons and what we're trying to say changed between 1898 and today? Have we changed, or are we creating more advanced, accessible, or edgy language tricks to say the same thing?


--Lucy Hitz

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