Reading wood s lot this morning, I was struck by two poems quoted in the same entry, not far apart. The first:
Katherine E. Young
All travel’s exile, the shedding
of self, a losing and finding,
the possessing of new things. Past
is present — in gondola rides
through fetid canals, light, water,
air shared with Campanile loons
proclaiming “Republic!” too late,
or too soon — in encounters with
selves left standing at the crossroads,
with ghosts asking after Dante
in accents unknown to the shades
who frequent the Baptistery….
All profits disappear: the gain
Of ease, the hoarded, secret sum;
And now grim digits of old pain
Return to litter up our home.
We hunt the cause of ruin, add,
Subtract, and put ourselves in pawn;
For all our scratching on the pad,
We cannot trace the error down.
What we are seeking is a fare
One way, a chance to be secure:
The lack that keeps us what we are,
The penny that usurps the poor.
Now, leaving aside the quality of the poems, what struck me (especially forcibly because of the similarity of the opening lines: “All travel’s exile, the shedding/ of self, a losing and finding” and “All profits disappear: the gain/Of ease, the hoarded, secret sum”) was that the first simply doesn’t sound like poetry to me. I appreciate the imagery and choice of words, but the lack of any coherent rhythm means that it sounds to me like prose divided into lines. The Roethke, on the other hand, immediately establishes itself as a poem in a formal sense—not a slavish imitation of earlier formulas, but a vigorous exploration of them. It reminds me of the jolt of joy I felt the first time I read a Roethke poem, and it makes me sad that so few contemporary poets seem to feel the urge to work in that tradition. I’m not saying contemporary poetry is no good, just that much of it doesn’t appeal to me on a basic level; I can appreciate it intellectually, but, well, as a great American said, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” I think that’s why I read so much Russian poetry these days: the Russians have never taken to free verse, and the age-old tradition of poetic form is still very much alive.