Arse Poetica

April is national poetry month, so I thought I would talk about poetry. And then I didn’t finish this while it was still April.

Anyway, for those of you who don’t actually want to read about poetry, my gluteal injury seems to be healing and my butt is significantly less broken than it was a week ago. Thank you for all your sympathy and advice and stuff. The cold packs actually felt better than I expected them to.

Sometimes I claim to hate poetry, but when I do that I’m engaging in hyperbole (a poetic device). Actually I love poetry. I just think a lot of poetry is crap.

This is entirely to be expected, Sturgeon’s Law and all, so that’s not really my complaint.

My complaint is the peculiar sacred glow of Culture that poetry has about it. If something is “poetry” it’s assumed to be good and ennobling and enlightening and uplifting to the human spirit. The mere fact of its being poetry is all it takes to confer these virtues, the actual literary merit of the poem is somehow beside the point.

The first time I even heard anybody dare to admit a famous poem could be crap — it was “Trees” — it was a college professor who was otherwise wrong about everything.

(Wrong about Sylvia Plath, specifically. I think the prof graded me down simply because we disagreed over whether “yeasty” was a positive or a negative word, and twenty years later I am still bitter about it. Dammit. Anyway, here’s the poem, “Metaphors,” you tell ME whether the speaker is happy about being pregnant:

I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.

My claim was “no, not really.”)

The library in downtown Bellingham has a bunch of community poetry enshrined on brass plaques screwed into the cement edge of a big planter. All of these poems won something called the Sue C. Boynton poetry contest, which seems to be a way of honoring amateur poetry which is very earnest and heartfelt and meaningful and special and sometimes written by children.

They literally have that golden poetry glow. I am sure they enrich our community and bring us together and make us better people. And I suppose I find anything at all written on brass plagues to be more entertaining than nothing.

But as I was reading these poems I had a few, uh, less than charitable and uplifting thoughts.

I thought, it’s simply too easy to write poetry.

Poems can be so short, after all, and they don’t even have to have rhyme or meter, so really, all you have to do is put some words on a page and tell people it’s a poem and there you go. Oh, wait, sorry, you have to put in the Significant Line Breaks. You know it’s poetry because
The start of every line
Is just a fragment of a sentence,
A portion,
  you to
  oh, so, very

I don’t mean to suggest that writing a good poem is any easier than writing a good anything else. Of course not. But it seems that if you write a short story, and people read it, people will actually tell you if they don’t like it. They’ll tell you if they don’t get it. They’ll tell you if they think your words are clunky or your sentences are hard to follow or it needs more concrete imagery or your sentiments are overly predictable.

But if you write a poem, nobody tells you any of that. That magical golden poetry glow protects your poem from ordinary literary criticism. It’s like the Significant Line Breaks cause it to be processed by a completely different part of the brain — a part of the brain that doesn’t evaluate anything, it just nods approvingly.

I think it can be instructive to look at poetry (and Bible passages) with the line breaks removed. So here is one of my all-time favorite poems rendered as prose:

I met a traveller from an antique land who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert. Near them on the sand, half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command tell that its sculptor well those passions read which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things, the hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed. And on the pedestal these words appear: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Nothing beside remains: round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.

That poem is “Ozymandias” by Percy Shelley. It’s a sonnet, and follows a rigid and fairly intricate scheme of rhyme and meter, but that is not actually what makes it good.

(When I was very much younger, I thought it did. I thought that poems with rhyme and meter were superior to poems without. I think that I originally got that impression for two reasons. One is that humorous poems nearly always have rhyme and meter, and the first poems I liked were funny. Two, is that I think adhering to a rhyme and meter scheme automatically forces the writer to work a bit harder on the poem.)

What makes “Ozymandias” good is things like its vividness, the resonance of the words, the fact that at the heart of it it tells a straightforward story and lets the symbol and metaphor take care of itself. It’s entertaining. It’s fun to read aloud.

According to the Wikipedia article on the poem, Shelley wrote this sonnet in competition with his friend Horace Smith. Smith published a sonnet on the same topic a month later in the same magazine. Here is Smith’s poem, also with line breaks removed:

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone, stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws the only shadow that the Desert knows:”I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone, “The King of Kings; this mighty City shows the wonders of my hand.” The City’s gone, nought but the Leg remaining to disclose the site of this forgotten Babylon. We wonder, and some Hunter may express wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace, he meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess what powerful but unrecorded race once dwelt in that annihilated place.

Obviously, Shelley won. Smith’s poem has exactly two phrases that I think work well, “forgotten Babylon” and “annihilated place,” but it also has phrases like “gigantic Leg” and “fragments huge” which just make me giggle inappropriately.

Notice how Smith is much more concerned with telling us how we are supposed to feel about this story, than with telling us what the story is. Also, notice how he repeats relatively low-wattage words like “city” and “wonder” and “leg” — a waste of time in something as short as a sonnet. Everything is just a bit more abstract in Smith’s poem. In Shelley’s “on the pedestal these words appear,” and in Smith’s “saith the stone.” Smith tells us “The City’s gone” and Shelley tells us “Nothing beside remains <..> boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.” Smith invites us to imagine a hypothetical future hunter chasing a wolf through what used to be London, Shelley invites us to imagine the actual long-dead person who sculpted the statue.

And there is nothing in Smith’s poem approaching the beauty of “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

(Although paulcarp tells me he likes the Smith poem, including the repetition on the word “leg,” so there you go, taste and all.)

According to the Wikipedia article it was originally published as “Ozymandias” and later retitled “On A Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below.” Which makes me wonder if he intended the poem to be funny, and now I picture, I don’t know, Byron or somebody, reading the phrase “gigantic leg” and laughing so hard he falls off a couch.


  1. Plath’s poem seems to me to express some major ambivalence: I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf. There are some positive phrase in there, and it’s clear that the baby is valued, but unclear whether Plath is the one valuing that baby, since she’s experiencing the pregnancy as an objectification of her self.

    I’m with you on the Ozymandias poems. I’m glad to know about Smith’s poem, but I can’t think of any reason I’d want to read it again for itself.

    I like it when you write about stuff you read.

  2. If you write a bad short story or one someone doesn’t like, they’ll tell you and they likely won’t hold it against short stories. If you write a bad poem or one someone doesn’t like, they won’t tell you, but they’ll decide they HATE POETRY, more often than not – and my theory is that’s partly because of all the “it’s supposed to be all cultured and uplifting” malarkey.

    IMuHO, the point of poetry is like the point of single malt scotch: it’s distilled, and should therefore carry a distinct flavor as well as a fairly potent wallop.

    1. Author

      I think so.

      I encountered something similar when reading “literary” fiction. When reading F&SF I could freely decide how much I liked it, but when reading “literary” fiction it was like you weren’t allowed to decide how much you liked it. The teacher told you how much you were supposed to like it.

      This gave me an early distrust of “literature” as opposed to just, you know, books.

      I credit Shakespeare with getting me out of that one. Here was something that I genuinely liked, which also had the highest possible stamp of literary approval. So clearly literature wasn’t all bad.

      1. Re-reading what I wrote, I sense some lingering resentment on my part that comes across as bitchyness, for which I apologize. I tried briefly to be an English major, and that whole issue of cannon and other people deciding what and who and how much merit was apportioned was one of the big things that put me right off it – and I still resent the thwarting of my creativity that went along with all that, it appears…

        It’s a good discussion to have. I totally agree with you on the Plath poem – when I encountered it I was “whoa, kindred spirit!!” although I already knew we were on the same wavelength from The Bell Jar. Best thing was I’d never encountered the other Ozymandias poem before your post, and I can TOTALLY picture Byron LOL-ing himself off the setee and spilling his absinthe over it…

        1. Author

          Oh, no need to apologize to *me* for, um, excessive snark approaching bitch. I’m a Harlan Ellison fan, man, clearly I like that sort of thing.

          If you really want a good LUYFOTC (laugh until you fall of the couch), the current poll-winner for worst poem ever written ever is this doozy by would-be pre-Raphaelite Theophile Marzials:

          A Tragedy by Theophile Marzials

          The barges down in the river flop.
          Flop, plop,
          Above, beneath.
          From the slimy branches the grey drips drop…
          To the oozy waters, that lounge and flop…
          And my head shrieks – “Stop”
          And my heart shrieks – “Die.”…
          Ugh! yet I knew – I knew
          If a woman is false can a friend by true?
          It was only a lie from beginning to end–
          My Devil – My “friend.”…
          So what do I care,
          And my head is empty as air –
          I can do,
          I can dare
          (Plop, plop
          The barges flop
          Drip, drop.)
          I can dare, I can dare!
          And let myself all run away with my head
          And stop.
          Plop, flop,

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