Poetic Politique and Genius Versus Tradition

This essay is dedicated to Sarah C. Thank you for reading and following along, Sarah. Wishing you and Clint the most wonderful times in Scotland.

This Is Just To Say

William Carlos Williams - 1883-1963

I have eaten 
the plums 
that were in 
the icebox

and which 
you were probably 
saving 
for breakfast

Forgive me 
they were delicious 
so sweet 
and so cold

I am not a poetry expert. But I have given poetry a bit of thought. A few years ago, in an effort to get one step closer to completing Hemingway’s recommended reading list, I spent an entire Spring reading through the Oxford Book of American Verse. It was an eye opening experience for me to see the beginning of American verse in the 1600s or so; with fairly strict adherence to iambic pentameter lines, hardly any rhyme—just rhythm in traditional forms. And then to see that poetry progress from the English pastoral and Romantic styles it had brought across the Atlantic into a distinctly American urban and contemplative style.

During that Spring where I filled myself with American poetry, I also read a collection of William Carlos Williams’ poems, and another of Emily Dickinson’s poems. I read these two writers mostly because I had liked some of their poems in the Oxford anthology. I had also seen their names mentioned in countless articles in The New Criterion, First Things Magazine, and Lapham’s Quarterly, where I would always make mental notes that I should get around to them sometime. Finally I did.

What I have found to be one of the most interesting things about making reading a regular part of my life, is that once you start, almost immediately you begin to see patterns—vertically within disciplines, and also horizontally across disciplines.

On finishing William Carlos Williams’ Selected Poems, a thought came into my mind. I thought to myself, “William Carlos Williams reminds me of Jazz.”

He probably reminded me of Jazz for many of the same reasons that I recounted in my Philosophy of Jazz Music essay that I put out the other day. But I digress.

It was funny to me that Williams’ poetry reminded me of an early 20th Century free style of music. I love Jazz music, but I know that Jazz is largely an improvisational style, albeit hanging on a generally consistent AABA form. The funny part comes from a thing I’d noticed in myself since taking a few poetry classes in college, which was that I had become a snob about structure when it came to poetry. From what I had seen in the Blank Verse poetry I learned about in school,—and it really is pretty marvelous, what you can do with words by just setting a rhythm of strong and weak stresses and using substitutions every now and again—I had come to think that all poetry that didn’t use a strict form was really just laziness and child’s play. The real art was in learning the different poetic traditions and adding one’s own verses to them; everything else was hubris.

But William Carlos Williams, and Emily Dickinson both changed my mind. And also opened a new line of thinking to me. The line they opened lay in that slim space that marks the difference between tradition and genius.

If you had asked me about modern poetry before my reading Williams and Dickinson, I would have quipped, “Line breaks do not poems make.” Which, to this day, I do lean toward, at least in my own poetry.

I would say that because I had thought, as a rule, that if I’d seen any common theme in the creative habits of great artists, it was that inspiration without structure was not the way to create a good lasting body of work. For any kind of longevity, a good poet has to move beyond the idea that inspired successions of pretty words can be enough to carry the weight of meaning for a poem; as the words in poems like that break under that kind of pressure—unless the poet is some kind of genius.

It turns out, though, that such geniuses do exist.

So what exactly makes these artists geniuses? I think the answer to that question is twofold. On the one hand, the genius doesn’t care very much for the rules, or, if he does, he uses them in a highly original way. And on the other, the genius doesn’t care very much for himself; he cares more than anything in his world about the message of his poem.

One way to shine a massive light on the idea of poetic geniuses and what they do is to compare them to their law-abiding counterparts, the traditional poets. And this, I think, can be done by looking at the science of government, no less. The difference between traditional poetry, and genius poetry can be compared to the difference in government between republicanism and monarchy (despotism). Now forget about any political allegiance that you may feel to either presidents or kings and just walk with me down this road.

Let’s take republicanism first: the traditional style.

For a nation to be a republic—like the United States is—means that that country is ruled by laws. These laws are chosen and agreed upon over time by the people and their representatives, and passed down by tradition and custom. Concerning the constituting laws of a republic, it takes overwhelming agreement of the law-making powers, which are far removed from the leader of the country, to make a significant change. So, though the president may change every term, the fundamental constituting laws of the country will, more or less, stay the same regardless of the person in power.

This country-ruled-by-law idea is similar to the idea behind a villanelle poem, say.

A villanelle has a very specific set of rules that define what it is: nineteen lines, iambic pentameter, five tercets followed by a quatrain, two refrains and two repeating rhymes, with the first and third line of the first tercet repeated alternately until the last stanza, which includes both repeated lines.

These rules are the laws of the poem; the laws of the poem land. So, regardless of the poet who has been given the power of the pen—to write the villanelle poem—you can rest assured that you can know pretty well what kind of poem you’re going to get when all has been written. Having the poem determined structurally by laws makes the writing situation such that the poet has just to fill in the blanks of the poem. The good poet will work within these confines creatively, of course, and that is what can make the dance within a specific ruleset so exciting. But it takes a lot for even a mediocre poet, who only filled in the blanks, to make an utter failure of a fixed verse form.

Do not go gentle into that good night

Dylan Thomas - 1914-1953

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

On the other end of the poetry spectrum you have the monarchical or despotic style of poetic writing: the genius style, as I call it.

For a nation to be a monarchy it has to have a monarch, that is a person who rules over that land unequivocally and by their own will. The monarch comes up with the laws of the land, changes these and other received laws at their sole discretion, executes the laws, and has the power to preside in judgement over any question concerning the laws. Additionally, when an older or deceased monarch leaves power, and a new monarch comes in, the laws of the land are left open to complete overhaul and rearrangement. The laws of the country being in this kind of volatile state, the people can never be sure what to expect until they know the character of the new ruler. If the ruler turns out to be just and magnanimous, we call it monarchy; and if the country ends up with a tyrant for a ruler, we usually call that despotism.

The poetic analogue to monarchy is the free verse poem. The free verse poem does not require any specific form. The writer can pull from previous traditions or not, use any number of lines he wishes, any kind of exotic rhythm, any kind of rhyme scheme, and any kind of surprise to upset the whole. The free verse poem is, in essence, lawless and completely at the mercy of the writer-despot.

So, where most of the quality of poem-life in a traditional poem is determined by the form of the poem—similar to the laws of a republic, most of the quality of poem-life in a free verse poem is determined by the writer of the poem—similar to a monarchy.

Now, to look at this from a reader’s point of view, let’s take the free verse poem—a poem with no rules (monarchist). The reader may not know the poem is free verse (lawless), so the only thing to judge about a free verse poem is whether or not the poem seems good or bad; whether it has worth as being meaningful to the reader or not. If not, the poem is identified as just a collection of words with little worth.

Contrast that with a blank verse poem. Which follows a form so distinct that you can sense that it must have a structure without knowing anything about poetry. The reason for this being the repetitive rhythm, number of lines, and stanza pattern. If the blank verse poem is bad, it still has the identity and dignity of the verse form that it belongs to. That is, it still matters as a contribution to a traditional form—though its poetic significance is subjective.

So, a set verse form—following a certain poetic law code—allows the words within the poem to not have to bear so much weight individually that the whole thing falls apart if each and every one of them isn’t gotten exactly right. The structure (laws of the form) bear most of the creative weight—and make for a more forgiving poem as whole; which is why a formless poem, either uninspired (dead) or inspired (genius),—there's no middle ground—really has to be exceptional in order to be any good. Every word bears the weight of the whole poem on its shoulders. And if even one buckles under that weight, the whole poem comes crashing down in failure. This is quite a perilous feat, but, when pulled off, it is completely amazing.

All of this is just to say that when I discovered William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson for myself, I realized that it was possible to reach moments of genius in poetry where the perilous formless steps of the writing journey are so perfectly chosen that everything you believed about tradition can be thrown out of the window—at least for a moment; exceptions do not rules make. And even though I think this genius chaotic lawlessness is not sustainable, and is hard to be emulated—perhaps why great artists are always ones in many millions—it takes real mastery to achieve a complete freedom of movement that is at once beautiful and good. A manifestation of excellence that is precisely the kind of inspiration we need to draw us to the arts we love in the first place.

Wild nights - Wild nights!

BY EMILY DICKINSON

Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile - the winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden -
Ah - the Sea!
Might I but moor - tonight -
In thee!

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