Monday, May 21, 2007

New Poem; Also the Parnassian vs. the Conversational

An Apology for Bad Poems

I’ve been talking at you for years
like a deaf grandfather. I don’t mean
to lecture, that’s death for poetry.

But if poetry can’t compete
with “The Wall of Death,”
at least it can be a Ferris Wheel.

At the zenith of our revolution together,
your head jerking like a gopher sitting sentry,
I’d like to hear, “Grandpa, what’s that?”

“That’s where the A-Bomb hit in ’62.
Nothing grows there except man-eating radishes.”
“Really? And Grandpa, over there, over there!”

“That’s a whale sunning himself in a tree.
Those are sea otters flying about.
The gleaming carousel is made of abalone.”

“And there, Grandpa, what’s that?”
“That’s the Red Giant, gouty Antares
limping out to milk his Apatosaurus.”

“Really? What does the milk taste like?”
“Like vanilla ice cream smothered in caramel
and melted into a thick, sweet soup.”

We descend and dismount. Carnies bark
from booths overflowing with kitsch.
Sorry, son, the poem is over.

I penned (typed) this one first thing this morning. Notice how deafness recurs as a metaphor for me. ;-)

Incidentally I stole the title for today's poem from Robinson Jeffers.

I'm trying to loosen up my verse a little. But there’s always a catch.

The tradition of Parnassian verse, as in Homer, Virgil, Beowulf, Spenser, Shakespeare (ignoring comedies and comedic interludes), Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley, Tennyson—a type of poetry Matthew Arnold wrote of as containing "high seriousness"—seems clearly over.

Yet much of the magic of poetry depends upon such high seriousness, since we must take poetry seriously to set up heroic expectations, or even anti-heroic expectations. (See "The Hollow Men" by Eliot, "Out, Out" by Frost, or "Roan Stallion" by Jeffers. The moderns could still do high seriousness.)

What am I trying to say? There must be a point between the conversational voice of Billy Collins and the often elevated voices of Milosz, Larkin, Yeats and the like.... I think Eliot mixes the conversational with the Parnassian better than anyone:

From “Gerontion":

"The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours. Think at last
We have not reached conclusion, when I
Stiffen in a rented house. Think at last
I have not made this show purposelessly
And it is not by any concitation
Of the backward devils
I would meet you upon this honestly.
I that was near your heart was removed therefrom."

(italics mine)

I find the conversational more effective when set up by the serious, the empyrean, or the Parnassian, but so few poets can do this—change voices in mid-stream successfully. You have to be very good to do this. Most of us can only write well employing one voice. In reading Jane lately, as good as she is, she doesn't even attempt this. Most poets don’t.

Again, without form verse libre is impotent; without seriousness the conversational becomes banal. The necessary dualisms of great writing are in the very nature of writing, just as Shakespeare relieves the political machinations of Henry IV with Falstaff.

Here’s a different example of coming from the conversational to a conclusion of high seriousness (Yeats):


I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
'Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.'

'Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,' I cried.
'My friends are gone, but that's a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart's pride.

'A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.'

(italics mine)

Since first being enamored of poetry, I have been enamored of poetry of power. I find Plath powerful at times but not Collins. Dylan Thomas is powerful, as Larkin can be, but Walcott rarely. Milosz can do it, though he is a bit jagged. Coleridge's "Rime" must be the most powerful poem ever written in the sense I mean.

I wrote an essay called "Power Lyrics" several years ago in which I tried to develop this theme more clearly, but I doubt I'll ever explain it properly; it's like what Blackwell said about pornography; I know it when I see it.

What is even more powerful is when the poet has the skill to interrupt serious verse with a snatch of the intimately conversational, even ridiculous, or vice-versa, which takes us completely by surprise and works despite (and because of) the momentary jarring of switching inputs.

If you are confused by these points, it is the fault of the author, not your brain. Maybe I’ll nail the concept another time.

All for today,



  1. Anonymous11:47 AM PDT


    I think of it as the mixing of the sacred and the profane and the sort of dialectical explosions you get when these two worlds collide or a least rub shoulders.


  2. You do that in prose rather well, Norm, but to do it well in poetry it needs a longer set-up and the change has to be perfect, like a left turn with no corner traffic mirror warning, where the reader is forced unnaturally left but concedes it was natural after all.


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