Reading wood s lot this morning, I was struck by two poems quoted in the same entry, not far apart. The first:

Italian Hours
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….

The second:

The Reckoning
Theodore Roethke

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.


  1. Vance Maverick says

    leaving aside the quality of the poems
    Um, WTF? 😉 That would be a silly thing to do, and thank goodness you don’t do it.
    I understand where you’re coming from. If you read it with a narrow “window”, considering just a few words at a time, the Young is prosaic. But if you widen the window to span across lines, to full sentences, you’ll hear artifice — even pretentious prose wouldn’t read like that. As for the rhythm, Young surely felt that her strict syllabic discipline (exactly eight per line) counted for something. Marianne Moore did this better, partly by choosing words that are livelier phrase by phrase. I take this as evidence that the fault lies with the poet, not with the specific formal choice.
    The Roethke, though, is for me a good example for why so many poets these days avoid the formal tradition. I have a lot of respect for him, but I think this falls pretty far short of, say, Larkin, or Auden, not to reach for older models. All his talent and effort isn’t enough to make the prosody and rhetoric (for me) cohere, and serve one another.

  2. The first poem is drivel on all counts. It has no music–it is full of hackneyed conjunctions (losing and finding, past is present), boring leaps of imagery (light, water and air? after Venetian canals?), cliched markers of ‘Italy’ (gondolas, Dante, the Baptistery), painfully transparent attempts at profundity (too late, or too soon), even the very idea of exile is one of the hoariest. Ugh.

  3. Arthur Crown says

    I googled Katherine E. Young. I like this one: it may not exactly swing, but it’s not free verse either:
    Moscow, Russia
    When the heat resumes its liquid journey
    through iron casings bent like whalebone stays
    to fit a waist of air, I read the death
    notices: “Died from burns suffered when ice
    gave way above a ruptured heating pipe.”
    And still they lay uninsulated pipe
    because that is what they have always done.
    Strange to imagine whole neighborhoods, whole
    cities being bound by iron girdles
    of heating lines and water mains; each year
    a few unlucky souls tumble into
    their ancient workings, dead of a theory
    that was never quite perfected. Outside
    it’s March, pale-gray, snowing. First I blow on
    my cold-white fingers, seamed and broken like
    the earth of some forgotten riverbed;
    then I press them to the radiator,
    as yet only lukewarm. Across the way,
    a woman uses the new-warm water
    for her wash; wet bras, girdles, lingerie
    stretch rigid and plain across her window.
    I hear the groan of water coursing through
    pipe, the murmuring plaint of thousands of
    taps turning in unison, the scream of
    a child being scalded to death inside
    a manhole (though that happened long ago,
    in America). All that we share, I
    and the washerwoman across the way,
    are these heating veins, these leafless birch trees
    in the yard; but I wonder if she knows
    the feel of heat on my dead hands, or in
    the shriveled-up place that once held my heart.

  4. Vance Maverick says

    Definitely not free — she’s counting syllables again, ten this time. It’s a weird choice, because it flirts with blank verse (take the second line) but haphazardly.

  5. Vance Maverick says

    And lest I seem to be defending her, I think that’s pretty lame again — take the heavy weather she makes of the fact that construction standards differ, as if American building codes were “perfected” “theor[ies]”.

  6. John Emerson says

    I definitely like Roethke better than Auden or Larkin, but I can’t remember why because I quit reading Auden and Larkin for that reason. I confess that their respected personae annoyed me and contributed to my decisions.

  7. Vance Maverick says

    I feel about Auden rather as I feel about Richard Strauss — a long-settled loathing that hasn’t prevented me from returning to the work, and gradually developing a grudging admiration. I can certainly see disliking Larkin (just crack a biography), but somehow I passed directly to the grudging admiration without dwelling on the dislike.
    Generally (for 20thC poetry anyway) I’m a partisan of the avant-garde. I share our host’s attachment to the tradition, too; my beef is with the conscious traditionalists, who (to my ear) mostly fail. My idea of a “formalist” is Zukofsky.

  8. If we must debate a matter of taste, let it be bibulous!

  9. Vance Maverick says

    No debate there!

  10. “‘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.”
    Yep. I agree with you. Very few poets can make free verse musical. All too much of it has a peculiar stiltedness which makes it as fresh and modern as a Ford Model T.
    I’ve never really “got” most English syllabic verse. How can you tell where the line ends when you’re reading it out loud? “Marianne Moore did this better, partly by choosing words that are livelier phrase by phrase.” And partly by using rhyme to mark the end of the lines, at least in some of her best poems such as “Nevertheless”.

  11. What does it take to appreciate poetry? I hated textual analysis in the sixth form (and before) – both in English and Danish. I’ve never read poetry for enjoyment, and I can’t say that it speaks to me now.
    The second one just makes me wonder what sorts accent rhymes sum/home, pawn/down and fare/are …

  12. I’d say that the Young poem uses prosody effectively, particularly in the opening line. The first phrase runs flat, almost boring, like travel to a place of exile might be; the second phrase is cut in half
    the shedding
    of self
    as if forcing the reading to participate in the act of shedding; then a line later
    the possessing of new things
    rushes, as if the reader is rushing towards a new experience–then the last two lines that start with a summary phrase for the whole experience, then awareness breaks into the individual components–
    light water air
    shifting with the last one to a new element (the loons crying “Republic”–with perhaps a suggestion of lunacy regarding those who are nostalgic for old Venice)
    And in all these things there’s a pulse that’s not present in prose.

  13. Vance Maverick says

    Sili — those are not intended as full rhymes. There’s plenty of precedent for off-rhymes (ballads, Dickinson), and here they’re certainly close enough to mark the line endings and the quatrain structure.
    If you’ve never gotten poetry at all, I’m not sure a comment thread on two minor examples will persuade you. But maybe you might consider your responses to other genres. For example, do advertising slogans have any effect? Have you thought about how that works? Putting aside purpose, the verbal engineering of ad copy has quite a bit to do with poetry. (The ad people certainly know this — I was once introduced to Jeff Goodby at a reading by Tom Raworth.)

  14. Crown, Arfur says

    I’m no poetry expert, but I liked her pairing centralisation with central heating and there were some snippets of information I don’t usually get in poems (uninsulated pipe). These are probably reasons why Mr Hat doesn’t like it. I don’t see the point of cutting the verses mid-sentence, is that like collaging a grid on it? (I had a visual arts education).

  15. Vance Maverick says

    Arthur/Arfur — linebreaks are pretty fundamental to poetry, whether “formal” or “free”. Putting a linebreak in the middle of a phrase, or (to put it the other way) making a phrase span multiple lines, is enjambment. Like any device, it doesn’t have one single “point”: rather, it can have various effects, such as those kishnevi remarks.

  16. R. Fur Crown says

    take the heavy weather she makes of the fact that construction standards differ, as if American building codes were “perfected” “theor[ies]”.
    I don’t know about that, Vince. I now see that this poem reminds me of my old apartment, it was in a six-story walkup in Sullivan St. in Greenwich Village. Since this poem is pretty much off topic, I’ll shut up about it now. But thanks for your help, Vince.
    By the way, I love that Wood S Lot photograph of the iron & wooden railings in front of the lilac.

  17. 3:17: “respective”. We regret the error.

  18. Thank you, Vance Maverick.
    I didn’t mean to be disparaging, I was just … exhasperated at my own lack of understanding – perhaps even lack of introspection, since your suggestion about ad copy doesn’t actually make anything resonate with me.
    My ‘point’ – in as much as I can be said to have one – was that while I can see that one (half)rhymes, I just don’t … well, feel any “swing”.

  19. Marianne Moore did this better
    Yeah, exactly. I wasn’t saying Young wasn’t using any formal devices, just that I couldn’t hear them.
    Arthur: Thanks for the heating one; I liked that better too.
    My idea of a “formalist” is Zukofsky.
    Same here, or Bunting. “No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.”

  20. Vance Maverick says

    Zukofsky … or Bunting
    Where have I heard those names linked before?

  21. John Emerson says

    We had a discussion here recently about the Objectivists: Niedecker, Reznikoff, Oppen, and Rakosi are the others. And maybe Cid Corman.

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