Thursday, July 23, 2009

Poetry about Poetry gets poesied

An associate recently tried to persuade me that rhyming is okay and very modern in our time, and suggested that I read the work of the late William Espy. To appeal to what he assumed was my elitist proclivities, he selected this poem

You'd be a poet, but you hear it's tough?
No problem. Just be strict about one rule:
No high-flown words, unless your aim is fluff;

The hard thought needs the naked syllable.
For giggles, gauds like pseudoantidis-
establishment fulfill the purpose well;
But when you go for guts, the big words miss;
Trade "pandemonic regions" in for "hell".

…Important poems? Oh…excuse the snort…
Sack scansion, then -- and grammar, sense and rhyme.
They only lie around to spoil the sport --
They're potholes on the road to the sublime.

And poets with important things to say
Don't write Important Poems anyway.

Copyright © 1986 Willard R. Espy

I thought my associate might know my tastes better, but no matter.I'm not crazy about the Espy poem for the usual reason, it rhymes , it clanks, it clicks, you can here the parts move as you read it. And, despite the notion that Espy is a public poet, accessible, readable, "gettable", this remains a less-loathsome example of a loathsome narcissism among poets in general, a poem about poetry. It is ironic that a poet who bucked the tendency of Modern Poetry to be abstract, coded , enigmatic and self referential would choose to exercise their whimsy on his own medium. This habit, whether requiring an extreme hermeneutics or graspable after first read, is an elitism that has done much, I think, to keep potential readers away from the investigating the craft. His readership isn't the Ideal reader, the nonspecialist who potentially is interested in poetry and the stylistic perspective the art might bring on how ideas and experience intermingle, but rather other poets , who, as a class of professional, are not likely to change their ways. We have, in essence, something that's more an inter- office memo or motivational talk to boiler room of smile-and-dial telemarketers. It's a clever, wind up contraption that , in it's own way, forsakes the mission of any poet, regardless of aesthetic preference: to be in the world. This is as much an Ivory Tower as anything more elliptical , diffuse.

It might have something to do that poems like these are the ones that become heavily anthologized or reprinted in various places by editors who are attracted to works that would rather gavotte among it's particulars rather than chance a subject matter a reader would recognize and, in turn, interrogate. The potential reader, wondering if poetry has anything to say to them, picks up a volume and comes across like this, and places the volume down again, thinking that the poets are thumbing their collective nose at those unfortunate enough not to have had good English teachers in high school. It doesn't really matter who writes Poems About Poetry--post-avant poet, School of Quietude mood monger, whimisical rhymesters--it's a bad habit.


  1. I would never have guessed that this was a real poem...i.e. serious.

    It reads like some of my something thrown together in 5 minutes...for fun.

  2. I agree that it seems like something dashed off. I would say, though, that I like your poems much, much more.

  3. I've just this last few minutes read that associate's comments.

    I saw it referred to as "Light verse." There's nothing light about this. There's nothing gay about the rhythm...(gads, this poem ain't got no rhythm). And there's nothing fun about the words chosen.

    Going for 'sly' he should have made certain the rhythm was dead on. At least then one could have enjoyed some light skip.

    It looks as though he made an attempt at word play, and tripped.

    When I picture this poem, I see fallen arches on two left feet...

  4. There's something passive aggressive about someone offering up the Espy poem as something he thinks you should read.


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