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Man is a being of self-made soul. This simple statement, from Galt's speech on the subject of pride and the creation of character, is at the heart of Ayn Rand's concept of selfishness, a concept that all too often is equated with mere survival. Rand very emphatically qualified her concept of survival as meaning survival as man. A great deal could be written about how Rand intended this survival as man to be understood, but put simply it is a self-oriented method of living, of using the principles of individualism and reason, to create one's character and achieve values, ultimately in order to be happy. The successfully selfish person is in love with life.
This is a fine thing to state but what does it actually mean? The plain fact is that philosophy, which speaks of principles and abstractions, doesn't really say much about happiness. It can debate how to define it, and it can prescribe how to achieve it; but it can't communicate the emotions involved. Emotions are the result of our reason, our knowledge, values, and the self we've created. Everything around us is something that may be worth our thinking, valuing and feeling.
A rich emotional life, that is an intense, integrated, emotional life, is neither an intrinsic quality nor the result of accident. Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson in their book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, describes how so many boys are "overwhelmed by their emotions but without the emotional literacy that lets them understand or make use of their feelings." The term "emotional literacy" strikes me as a particularly valuable expression. Emotions cannot be learned as such, but a person can learn about them; and doing this helps, in part, to make his own character.
In this development of character and emotions, next to the example of one's parents, art is the most important factor. It is art that combines an abstract meaning with a perceptual concrete. A person is given an example, not a lecture or a warning, but an object worthy of contemplation as an end in itself, an emotional statement about reality. Most art today, if it is not pretentious nonsense, falls into the category of entertainment, a diverting amusement intended to occupy time and little more. Like the painting on a tavern sign, it serves its purpose-a valuable purpose for those truly weary and in need of diversion. But art, in its full meaning of having a personally intense or inspiring emotional reaction, is rarely experienced or considered. And yet it is this art which can be so invaluable in the creation of a rich emotional character.
Of all the arts it is poetry, in my opinion, that is the most personal, as well as the most varied and abstract. It is the most personal in its values, and most private in being enjoyed. The reader of a poem is the star of his own production. He decides which poems are worthwhile, and how they should be read. Being composed of words the poem has available all the abstractions of language. Being stylized, by the sound of those words, a poem has a vast variety of pleasing effects. It must be made explicit here that I'm referring to lyric poetry, not the narrative poem which tells a story, but a concise, personal expression of some aspect of reality. This concise and personal nature of lyric poetry makes possible a directness and simplicity not possible to the narrative art of novels or plays. Robert Graves makes the point that a poem should always be shorter than any explanation of the poem. If you speak prose you might say that your lover makes you as happy as seeing a rose that has just opened its petals. The poet writes: "My love is like a red, red rose/that's newly sprung in June." The image is specific and unforgettable. It is up to the reader to realize that this is an abstraction written for an emotional reaction. Being such a direct, personal expression, poetry is the most private of the arts. The lyric poem is a direct communication of what the poet means; it's uncomplicated by plot, background, realistic detail, characters and motives. In poetry only the poet speaks. And, in being a personal statement from the poet, it's inevitable that the reading and enjoying (or disliking!) of a poem is intensely private.
Of course the enjoyment of all the arts is a private experience, but poetry-because it is capable of a stylized, concentrated expression of values into a few words-has a highly individual quality. Poetry was originally a mnemonic device used to make a narrative story easier to memorize. The transition from narrative poetry to one of personal self-expression took hundreds of years. At its best lyric poetry has a union of sincerity and simplicity that allows for both a great honesty, about the poet's thoughts and feelings, and a great clarity in expressing them.
Some people might find such a description unusual. They equate poetry's highly stylized use of words with being artificial. But style is only half the definition of poetry; the actual words and their explicit meaning is just as important. Without an interesting content (that is a content that expresses values) meter and rhyme is, indeed, mere artifice-an attempt to cover up a lack of thought. It's the failure to understand the rational basis of emotions that has lead to the mystification about poetry, and consequently its use as a refuge for subjectivistic posturing and boring self-indulgence. Poetry is thoroughly easy to understand if one remembers that words mean something. It is through the content of words that the poet's thoughts are communicated and his values expressed. But if content, the words' explicit meaning, were all there was to poetry then it would be no different from prose. The distinct difference of poetry is to use language in a stylized manner in order to enhance or emphasize the explicit meaning that is being communicated.
Reams have been written about poetic style, but it's basically a very simple matter of using the sound of the words in order to draw attention to key words and phrases, thus emphasizing their importance and logical relationship. The key element to this is the poem's metrical structure, that is the number of syllables in each line. The line is basically the unit of thought, and it is within this that both the poet's thought and the rhythmic sound of the words and the phrases takes place. To emphasize this metrical line, to set it off from all other lines, and yet also connect it with all the other lines in a pattern, is the purpose of rhyme.
The distinctive quality of poetry is not, as so often claimed, its ability to create an emotion. There are countless beautiful passages of prose. It is the stylization of words, by their sounds, into a metrical pattern that both distinguishes it from prose and allows the poet a greater freedom of expression. This freedom is the result of a more abstract and metaphysical style than that of prose which is committed to explicit fact. It's poetry's freedom that makes possible a greater succinctness and directness than grammatical prose.
Thus to understand poetry one must first contrast it with prose as a style of using language. There is an irony here in that it is the so-called artificiality of style that makes possible a greater directness or honesty of expression. The twentieth century modernists rejected the craftsmanship of meter and rhyme, thinking it got in the way of self-expression, when in fact it was the means of that expression. Rejecting stylistic craftsmanship is rejecting the very quality that distinguishes poetry from prose, and while beautiful prose can be written it is far more difficult and less personal, often requiring the background of a novel.
The reader of poetry doesn't need to learn the rules of poetic style. The definitions of iambic pentameter, beats, feet, and measures, or the difference between male and female rhymes, etcetera are all unnecessary if one has a good ear. It is all too easy to be intimidated by such esoteric details. Poetry is for people who like the sound of words as well as their clear, distinct meaning.
The best way to not be intimidated by poetry is to become acquainted with it when still young. Being young, when discovering any art, is a great advantage, since one can learn its unique expressiveness (as well as its plain, simple fun) without a lot of self-conscious reflection and questioning.
I was fortunate in that my mother liked poetry and had memorized a great deal of it as a child for credit in school. Consequently, it was not unusual as I grew up to hear her rattle of a half a dozen lines in response to whatever sparked her memory. I don't remember any of these, but I do remember her reciting (and it seemed like magic at the time) the famous "The Purple Cow." It goes: "I've never seen a purple cow./ I never hope to see one./ But I'll tell you anyhow;/ I'd rather see one than be one."
Rhymes of any sort delight a child. I also remember her satirical response: "When in danger or in doubt/ run in circles scream and shout." And describing our dachshund she stretched out his loose skin and commented: "Clyde/ you made the hide/ too wide/ to fit what's inside." These are foolish rhymes, but perfect for a child who can't understand much that is serious. (The policy of our schools teaching art by giving students "serious" art, at an age when they can't possibly appreciate it, is one of the main reasons why we have an art illiterate society.) Much later, no longer a little child, she told me how she loved the lines from Matthew Arnold's Sohrab and Rustum: "for like the lightning to this field/I came, and like the wind I go away-/ sudden and swift, and like a passing wind." She wanted this on her tombstone.
In the early sixties a number of movies were made starring Vincent Price and based on Edgar Allan Poe stories. Paperback selections of his stories and poems were available, and it was in regard to Poe's poetry that I received my first information about poetry. Completely baffled by the subject of "The Conqueror Worm" mom explained what happens after a body is buried, a piece of information that immediately prompted a desire for cremation! More importantly she mentioned that if you read "Annabel Lee" in just the right way you could hear the sound of the sea. "For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams/ Of the beautiful Annabel Lee/ And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes/ Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;/ And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side/ Of my darling-my darling-my life and my bride,/ In the sepulchre by the sea,/ In her tomb by the sounding sea." (For the past forty years I've been trying to get the sound of the sea into the rolling, surging rhythm of those words.)
For a child, Poe is a bad poet; he uses so many archaic words that you can't understand half of what he's saying, but his macabre despair appealed to a sense of tragic loneliness and an ideal love. "Of my darling-my darling-my life and my bride," expresses, more than almost anything else, the passionate love and happiness that a man can feel for the woman he adores; all in a mere ten words.
Mom would write poems, of course, short simple things that would impress a child, and no less important for that. Poetry was a constant presence, in the background like my father's interest in fishing and hunting. When needed it was there ready to be called upon. Once, while stretching my father said: "Ah, the grandeur that was Rome." At which my mother shot back: "The glory that was Greece." Thus she coupled a play on the word grease with an allusion to both my father's waist and to Poe's "To Helen." I was most impressed by my mother's knowledge of poetry when we watching a movie on TV called Pandora and the Flying Dutchman which starred James Mason and Ava Gardner. At the end James Mason picks up a copy of Omar Khayyam and, with his beautiful northern English diction, reads the fifty-first rubaiyat: "The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ/ Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit/ Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,/ Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it." My mother's comment was, "He has to read that? He doesn't just know it?" She then explained, to my surprised questioning, that a person just knew certain of the rubaiyats (quatrains) of Omar Khayyam and that "The Moving Finger" was the most famous. I soon made sure that I too knew "The Moving Finger" as well as other rubaiyats, although Edward Fitzgerald did his best to confuse his readers by constantly retranslating and renumbering his original translation.
The ability to memorize a poem-or a portion of it, a quatrain, a couplet, or just a phrase-and to have it with you as a companion to your thoughts is one of poetry's great gifts. Only a song or a melody is so easily retained, so ready to express what you feel or to entertain when you're bored. Countless times I've woken in the morning and as a comfort recited the beginning of Shelley's Prometheus Unbound: "Three thousand years of sleep unsheltered hours/ And moments, aye, divided by keen pangs." Prometheus's description of his torture by Zeus perfectly fits my feeling at having to get out of bed.
But more than memorization the best poetic lesson I learned from my mother was from an anecdote that she told of reading Lord Byron's Don Juan. She was a young teenager at the time, and she had this book length work of poetry (perhaps the edition, that she later had, with the risqué John Austen illustrations). This is big and famous, she thought, this is serious literature. Determinedly she began reading, and at verse xix, describing Juan's father, she read: "Some said he had a mistress, some said two-/ But for domestic quarrels one will do." She couldn't understand this. She read it again. Then she understood. This was funny. This is an amusing story to relax and enjoy, not to study and be intimidated by. Don Juan, overall, is not a good narrative poem. The author himself lost interest in it. The first five cantos (chapters) are by far his best, the most witty and amusing. For example, there's this favorite couplet of a friend of mine describing Juan's education. "He learned the arts of riding, fencing, gunnery,/ And how to scale a fortress-or a nunnery." And there's my favorite passage, from Canto Five, when Juan protests to a eunuch against dressing as a woman (he's being smuggled into a harem). "What, sir!' said Juan, 'Shall it e'er be told/ That I unsex'd my dress?' But Baba stroking/ The things down, said, 'Incense me, and I call/ Those who will leave you of no sex at all."
The first lesson to be learned about poetry is that it's fun. Poetry begins with the pleasure of words cleverly used, often for humor; it goes on, still using the same mixture of thought and style, to the most serious of subjects and deepest of emotions. There is no difference between so-called verse and poetry. The verse/poetry distinction was developed in the early 20th century as a part of the distinction between serious and non-serious art that was created by the avant garde, in the visual arts, and by the advocates of realism and psychology, in literature. This false distinction created a dichotomy between the serious (which often rejected traditional technical standards) and the popular (which still maintained craftsmanship). As the more "serious" art became unintelligible, the more it had to be studied and deciphered.
Prior to the 20th Century literature had been read for the pleasure of discovering important values and intense emotions. Now it's become a subject to study in school, sandwiched between math class and gym. The student is lectured about the psychological or sociological significance of an artwork. Surrounded by dozens of classmates, the fact that a poem is a private experience, that may or may not cause an emotional response (depending on the reader's values and knowledge) is totally lost. All the arts, whether enshrining the classics or anointing the avant garde, are taught as an intimidating mystery above the standard of individual comprehension and enjoyment.
But just as poetry consists of a unity of style and thought, so there is a unity in the response to poetry. The light-hearted, the fun and happy, is as valid a theme as the serious, the profound, or the self-revealing. Happiness, in itself, is a valid subject, one that is far superior to the self-doubt, self-pitying and self-indulgence of the modern selfless, angst-ridden "serious" artist. As a style the light hearted manner can take a serious thought and, by contrast, make it quite memorable. For example, there's the couplet "Problems" by Piet Hein. "Problems worthy of attack/prove their worth by hitting back." A useful truism that's quite comforting when in the midst of one of life's many difficulties. (Equally useful is Hein's "T.T.T." which concludes: "when you feel how depressingly/ slowly you climb,/ it's well to remember that/Things Take Time.")
The value of poetry is not as a mystic revelation of the poet's soul, which we then study, but rather what it expresses for the reader. It makes objective what the reader feels. It can give a sense of recognition and validation to one's pain or joy. It can provide comfort, strength, inspiration, or affirm any aspect of a person's character. But all these more serious purposes of poetry are experienced as an intense personal pleasure, no different in essence from the light-hearted, happy, frivolous poetry of childhood. For a personal example, there is this superb passage from the beginning of "Julian and Maddalo" by Shelley. "This ride was my delight. I love all waste/ And solitary places, where we taste/ The pleasure of believing what we see/ Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be:" A gem in the treasure chest of English poetry, it never fails to delight me.
Emotional intensity is the hallmark of Shelley's poetry, and is what attracted me to his work. This is most evident in his lyric poetry which are unfortunately are all too few. Most of his writing was of long narrative poems or poetic dramas like Prometheus Unbound or The Cenci, which in parts are quite good but whose primary purpose is to tell a story. His best poetry, as opposed to what he considered to be his serious work, were his short, personal, lyric poems, most of which were published after he died. Of these, his romantic poetry is the largest and best portion. One of these is "Love's Philosophy," one of the rare, great love poems that is not about the loss of love.
The third stanza of "The Indian Serenade" with the lines: "Oh lift me from the grass!/ I die! I faint! I fail!" is often used by the critics who want to dismiss Shelley as an emotionally overwrought fool. In this he is the victim of his Victorian age defenders who transformed the real Shelley-a self-centered, atheistic, sexual and political revolutionary-into a sentimental fallen angel. The twentieth century rightly has seen such emotionalism as phony and unconvincing. The real Shelley is much more interesting.
Similarly, "The Indian Serenade" should be remembered not for its conclusion but for the perfection of its first two lines: "I arise from dreams of thee/ In the first sweet sleep of night." Although on the explicit level the poem describes going at night to his lover's window just to be near her, the real subject of the poem is the description of romantic passion. No other poet has ever written about love with such an underlying sexual intensity as Shelley.
"The Fugitives" is a tour de force describing a dangerous elopement. ("One boat cloak did cover/ The loved and the lover.") It's not in any anthologies that I know of, so it's little known. (One of many possible examples for why a person should avoid anthologies like the plague.)
But Shelley's best love poem, perhaps the greatest of all English love poems, is "Good-Night." It's only three quatrains, easy to remember and recite, and guaranteed to win any woman's heart. It begins: "Good-night? ah! no; the hour is ill/ Which severs those it should unite;/ Let us remain together still,/ Then it will be good night." Rarely, perhaps only once, can a man experience the meaning of those words. When you're young the words are a promise, when you're old they are a reminder.
I warned, in the preceding paragraph, against anthologies. This is a corollary to the principle of thinking for one's self. Conceivably anthologies could be a good way to sample a number of poets. Those that are theme-oriented or seek to represent a time period are not too bad. But the sad truth is that many anthologies are evil things-notably those of Oscar Williams and Louis Untermeyer- which are superficial and conformist. Far from presenting the best of a poet's work, they present the most famous, or, for the modern poets, the most critically popular. Some excellent poets, like Arthur Guiterman, Witter Bynner, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, or Berton Braley, are totally ignored. Others, like Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon, are misrepresented. And still others, like Kipling. Shelley, Longfellow, and A. E. Housman, have the wrong poems (or the same trite ones) reprinted.
Alfred Edward Housman was another poet, along with Poe and Shelley, who I discovered in my teenage years. His poetry has a mixture of loneliness and stoic courage that appealed to my youthful alienation. His first book of poetry was A Shropshire Lad, and was pretty much unregarded until World War One made despair fashionable. Housman published only one other book, Last Poems, during his lifetime. Two small collections, More Poems and Additional Poems, were published posthumously. All together he has only about two hundred poems, but the anthologist ignores all but those of A Shropshire Lad, routinely recycling a handful of classics such as: "When I was one-and-twenty," "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now" and the boring "To An Athlete Dying Young."
Today, no longer a lonely teenager, I find most of Housman to be much too self-pitying, although still enjoyable for his craftsmanship. There are, however, two poems, never in anthologies, that I enjoy as if for the first time. From Additional Poems there is poem number iv, which begins "It is no gift I tender,/ A loan is all I can;/ But do not scorn the lender;/ Man gets no more from man." Housman is a master at using the short line, the most difficult type of poetry to write since it provides less room for a natural sounding syntax and logical rhymes. The second poem, number vi from More Poems, illustrates this further. It is, perhaps, my favorite of all poems. It is a masterpiece of concision, rhyme, rhythmic phrasing, and natural syntax. As an explicit statement about life I don't agree with it, but it is unequalled, on the sense of life level, as a description of unflinching courage and endurance:
I to my perils
Of cheat and charmer
Came clad in armour
By stars benign.
Hope lies to mortals
And most believe her,
But man's deceiver
Was never mine.
The thoughts of others
Were light and fleeting,
Of lover's meeting
Or luck or fame.
Mine were of trouble,
And mine were steady,
So I was ready
When trouble came.
Longfellow is another poet whose famous poems get anthologized (out of a reluctant sense of duty one suspects) but whose few (very few) gems have been ignored. One of these is "Christmas Bells," written during the Civil War. It was made into a beautiful Christmas carol back in the thirties, but, unfortunately, it's rarely played. Two other gems are "Snow-flakes" and "Something Left Undone." Both of these are very unlike any of Longfellow's other poetry, most of which is conventional and impersonal, written to describe some scene or event. But "Snow-flakes" and "Something Left Undone" have an immensely deep felt, personal quality. The poet describes his feelings without ever mentioning himself. "Snow-flakes," while describing the snow falling, is at the same time an unspoken, totally implicit, description of the poet's unhappiness.
Technically the poem consists of three stanzas; each being a quatrain followed by a couplet, which, being written in shorter lines than the quatrain, provides a strong emphatic conclusion. "Something Left Undone" expresses the exhaustion of an unbearable task. "Waits, and will not go away;/ Waits, and will not be gainsaid;/ By the cares of yesterday/ Each today is heavier made."
The poet does not tell us what the task is; it can be anything. There is no self-pity in this poem; there is no sympathy, only objective description. Yet having read this to someone, in a similar situation, I know that it can provide the words to make unhappiness explicit and help to release a great deal of pain. Totally objective and yet with intense feeling-there's nothing else like these two poems in 19th century American poetry. But they're ignored in the midst of Longfellow's more typical, more famous, but less personal poems.
Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon are two other victims of anthologies. Both are characterized as World War One poets with Brooke's pre-war and Sassoon's post-war poems being ignored. Brooke is hard to characterize. His total is very small. Some of his poems are very simple, direct poems, like "Song" and "Home." But his best poems, like "The Fish" and "The Great Lover" are both very original and sensual descriptions expressing a love for the physical world. And then there's the completely off-beat "On the Death of Smet-Smet, the Hippopotamus Goddess" which can't be described.
Brooke's death in the war was a true loss to poetry. One of his last poems begins: "Sometimes even now I may/Steal a prisoner's holiday." (My mother loved those lines; no doubt finding the restriction of British army life applicable to the demands of motherhood.) Further into the same poem there's this sensual description of the sunshine in the woods: "And laughter in the gold and green." And later Brooke describes love in five words: "Careless lips and flying hair."
Siegfried Sassoon's Counter-Attack and Other Poems, with such poems as "Glory of Women," "The General," and "Suicide in Trenches" are the most powerful descriptions of what that war really meant to the soldiers fighting it. They helped to shock a nation out of its mindless trust, of incompetent leaders, which had lead to so much needless slaughter. As might be expected, the poetry experts, critics and anthologists typecasted Sassoon as a war poet, and blithely dismissed his post war poetry as "inferior." In fact, it is not inferior, only radically different. Instead of playing the now common role of the embittered young man, Sassoon wrote about the things he loved. Whether it's his favorite poets and artists, a woman or his children, trees or just a room, Sassoon's post-war poems are usually the opposite of fashionable doom and gloom. (Actually, this lack of self-pity is evident in the war poems which, like Longfellow's "Snow-flakes" and "Something Left Undone," are written in a very objective, third person style.)
One of my favorites is "A Local Train of Thought" in which Sassoon describes how the sound of the local train makes his "world seem safer." The poem concludes with: "The same to morrow; and the same, one hopes, next year./'There's peacetime in that train.' One hears it disappear/With needless warning whistle and rail-resounding wheels./'That trains's quite like an old familiar friend,' one feels." For me, the knowledge, that those words were written by a man who'd experienced the horror of years of trench warfare, gives them a great significance. But critics do not like poetry that is undramatic. The peaceful, the reflective or contemplative, the gentle or subtly descriptive poem does not anthologize well. They do not "grab" the reader's attention as anger or cynicism does.
To misrepresent a poet is a bad, but understandable, mistake; to totally ignore one is incompetence. One of those, Berton Braley wrote a large number of heroic, inspirational works celebrating the great achievements of mankind in business, work, science, and technology. He's recently been rescued by Linda Tania Abrams who gives dramatic readings of his work and has published Virtues in Verse: The Best of Berton Braley. She was interviewed in Full Context April 1993, which also reprinted Braley's "The Thinker" and "The Joy of Life."
Another ignored poet is Witter Bynner, who wrote in the early 20th century and published a number of books. Yet he's only recently been restored to notice by the poetry establishment. Grenstone Poems: A Sequence is an autobiographical series of poems. "The Naughty Angel" and "What Man Can Call Me Captive?" in which he writes, "A thousand streets are mine" are particular favorites of mine. But running throughout Grenstone is a series of love poems for a woman he calls Celia. At the beginning they are subtly erotic, expressing an unclouded joy of life. But Celia dies, and many of his poems are about losing her, and then finding her in memory. They are extremely touching, sincere and heartfelt. The last stanza of "At the Last" Bynner writes: "Perhaps you are not dying: /Perhaps-there is no knowing-I shall slip by and turn and laugh with you/ Because it mattered so little,/ The order of our going."
Ella Wheeler Wilcox is still another inexcusable omission from our anthologies. She wrote dozens of books and was quite popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. A person might think that one of the thousands of feminist scholars, assiduously scouring the university libraries for good female authors who've been brutally cast aside by an unfeeling patriarchy, would stumble across her work and seek to revive her reputation. Alas, it's not happened, and not surprisingly so, for much of Wilcox's poetry is religiously oriented. Not only is it religious but it counsels a woman to patience, endurance, and trust, themes that are not politically correct, nor very interesting. But, amidst much that is religious, is a vein of valuable ore-some of the most affirmative, heroic and inspirational poems ever written. For example "Comrades" begins:
"I and my Soul are alone to-day,/ All in the shining weather;/ We were sick of the world, and we put it away/ So we could rejoice together." And "A Song of Life" begins with, "In the rapture of life and of living." The poem is a gem throughout, but my favorite portion is: "Come out of the world-come above it-/ Up over its crosses and graves,/ Though the green earth is fair and I love it,/ We must love it as masters, not slaves." In "All for Me" she states: "I feel that the Summer is all for me,/ And all for me are the joys it is bringing." There's "Winter Rain" which ends with the line, "I look straight in the world's bold eyes, and smile." And "Will" begins with: "There is no chance, no destiny, no fate,/ Can circumvent or hinder or control/ The firm resolve of a determined soul./ Gifts count for nothing; will alone is great."
These were the kind of poems, along with those of resignation, that once were popular with an entire nation. It was only the false dichotomy of splitting art into serious and popular that relegated the low-class, commercial poetry into oblivion.
Unlike Wilcox, the neglect of Badger Clark is somewhat excusable. He didn't publish much, Sun and Saddle Leather is the only book of his that I've seen. This contains Ayn Rand's favorite poem in English, "The Westerner." Full Context reprinted this in the December 1988 issue and Clark's "The Plainsman" in February 1989. If you can find Sun and Saddle Leather read "Bacon," "The Legend of Boastful Bill," the incredibly exhilarating "Hawse Work" or its equal (a rhythmic and yet chilling masterpiece) "The Fighting Swing," which describes soldiers marching off to war, and my favorite, "The Locoed Horse," which has a twist right at the end which shows what a real poet can do.
But of all the abysmal neglects of a major poet that of Arthur Guiterman has to be the worst. In terms of both quantity and quality Guiterman is a major American poet. He wrote mostly from the turn of the century up to his death in the early forties. Like Wilcox and Braley he was a successful poet who wrote what people, not the critics, wanted to read. The positive nature of his poetry can be gauged from the titles of some of his books: Gaily the Troubador, The Laughing Muse, The Light Guitar, Song and Laughter, and Brave Laughter. (Ballads of Old New York doesn't fall into this category and is, frankly, a boring book.) As these titles suggest, many of his poems are humorous, entertaining when in a magazine or newspaper, but lacking the more serious thought of his other work. Ignore the purely humorous and focus on the majority of his poems. What a variety there is in that work! Guiterman wrote about everything: satires (on poetry, the opposite sex, and government) political commentary, his love for his wife (both complaints and apologies), patriotism and American history, inspirational poetry, and above all being out in nature. And all of this is done with a wide variety of meter and rhyme and the stamp of his own personality.
For example, from Death and General Putnam and 101 Other Poems, there's the poem "Pride" which compares animals to men, not an original idea in itself. The first half of the poem tells us what the different animals are proud of. The fox is proud of his sneakiness, the bear of his hunger, the skunk of his smell. In the second half, Guiterman tells us of some men bragging around a campfire: "This for a virtue, that for a sin,/ This for the fame that he meant to win/.... And wisdom, folly, candor, stealth,/ Friendship, hatred, sickness, health,/ Earning least, or having most,/ To someone seemed a proper boast." Now here is the perfect set-up for a modern cynic to make fun of the follies of mankind. But here's Guiterman's conclusion: "There's nothing living, striving, growing,/ But has one pride that keeps it going."
From Death and General Putnam, there is also "House Blessing," which begins: "Bless the four corners of this house,/ And be the lintel blest;/And bless the hearth and bless the board/ And bless each place of rest." The simple, unadorned repetition of this poem creates an effect of quiet dignity and sincerity. (But, because the poet isn't showing off his feelings, and because it's in traditional form and is popular, it must therefore be verse and not "poetry.")
Also from the same book are two other favorites of mine. "The Road" is one of his many hiking poems. and next to John Clare there is no finer nature poet than Guiterman. (Nature poet is really a poor term, since nature is only a subject not a theme.) With Guiterman, as with Clare, describing nature is a means of expressing a love for life. "The Road" concludes with: "A noonday halt at a crystal well,/A word and smile with a passing friend,/A song to sing and tale to tell,/And something coming around the bend."
Perhaps his best poem, "The Silver Canoe," is too good, too integrated, to excerpt; but its first stanza makes its subject clear. "The pack is too hard on the shoulders,/The feet are too slow on the trail;/ The log that was blazing, but smolders,/ And gone is the zest from the tale." Even in accepting death, Guiterman is describing life.
This love of life, whether in his humorous or in his more thoughtful poems, pervades his work. An excellent example is "Wild Orchard" from Brave Laughter it describes an apple orchard that's no longer being kept by man. A mere eight lines this is the second half: "Chipmunk, squirrel, grouse,/ Proud buck, mild doe and furtive whitefoot mouse,/ Return, there is no longer aught to dread,/ For you the feast is spread."
John Clare, mentioned above, is another poet neglected by the experts. It's only been by the efforts of a few poets in the 20th century that have revived his reputation. I learned of him through reading Robert Graves' essays on poetry. Clare was one of the most unusual of English poets. He lived from 1793 to 1864 in England where, despite having a few books published, he worked as a farm laborer and was for a short while famous as the "peasant poet." A combination of poverty, loneliness, unrequited love, and a naturally nervous disposition eventually caused him to have a mental breakdown, and he spent the latter half of his life in a mental asylum where he continued to write thousands of poems. Clare was one of the most prolific of poets, a testament to his burning love for poetry. This was a love fueled by no great amount of reading, for he lived the restricted, ignorant life of a peasant. His addiction to poetry came from within, beginning as a child scribbling on scraps of paper that were later thrown into the fire, and it continued on through madness when he wrote some of the most moving of all his poems.
Clare's usual subject was nature, not nature as a vague generality, but specific, well-known, well-loved aspects of nature: birds, domestic and wild animals, fields and brooks, summer showers and winter storms, hundreds and hundreds, a countless profusion of vignettes of the life he knew. All of them he told with an artless simplicity, and an exact, objective originality. Very little happens in these poems; many of them are pure description, almost as if Clare is letting nature speak for itself. In some poems there is a personal touch only at the very end, a touch that contrasts and sums up all of the preceding poem. As Graves observes these poems do not anthologize well, and it is hard to convey their effect. But a careful reader can discern some of his all embracing love for nature (and his being alone in it) from lines like: "Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves," or "In the pale splendor of the winter sun." In the poem "Insects" he begins: "These tiny loiterers on the barley's beard,/And happy units of a numerous herd/Of playfellows, the laughing summer begins,/Mocking the sunshine in their glittering wings." In "Winter Weather" he writes: "The crows drive onward through the storm of snow/And play about, naught caring where they go./The young colt breaks the fences in his play/And spreads his tail and gallops all the way." This is the intimate detail of a man who truly knows his subject. Originality of detail and a quiet depth of feeling characterizes Clare's work. An anecdote, told by his publisher, John Taylor, illustrates Clare's magic as a poet. Taylor visited him in 1821, and was surprised by the contrast between the actual scenery of where he lived (in the fen country) and the description in a particular poem, "with your own eyes you see nothing but a dull line of ponds, or rather one continued marsh... look again, into the poem in your mind, and the wand of a necromancer seems to have been employed... making the whole waste populous with life and shedding all around the rich lustre of a grand and appropriate sentiment."
Ironically, some of Clare's poetry written in the asylum is the most appealing to the modern taste for intense introspection. Some of his disappointment with life shows in these lines: "Be anything but the world's man," or "Enough of misery keeps my heart alive," or "The heart that keeps its own command." Equally ironic is that his poem, "I Am," is, in its subject, quite uncharacteristic of most of his work. It is, however, very similar in its objective style combined with an intense understatement. It is both a tragic and heroic poem. It begins with, "I am-yet what I am none cares or knows." It is one of the truly great poems in the English language.
In addition to John Clare, it was from Robert Graves that I learned of Robert Herrick. Graves, as I remember, praised his natural use of language. Herrick was a 17th century English poet. This was a time when poetry was full of high-blown description and classical or biblical allusions. Nothing was described simply as itself, but always in terms of something more complicated and abstruse. (Graves blames this on the French, and he's probably right. Rostand parodies this type of poetry in the second act of Cyrano de Bergerac.) This is poetry as a floating abstraction, description is cut off from the real world. Robert Herrick is a welcome exception to this mind numbing nonsense. Although he wrote religious poems later in life, (poems of sincere thought, seeking comfort and not indulging in grandiose speculation) it's his secular, semi-erotic poems, for which he's famous. Louis Untermeyer, in his book of dubious value Lives of the Poets, states that these are naive, and that Herrick lacked the character to be a true libertine. Louis sniffs in disdain and turns his back. The truth is that it's this lack of the libertine that makes Herrick so enjoyable. He did not use poetry as a gimmick to seduce women, or to complain when they refused seduction, or to whine when they proved false. At least several generations of English poetry is devoted to that worthless type of poetical writing, and it's all crap.
Herrick is sexual but innocent. Women are not playthings to trick, but rather delightful creatures to observe and admire. In "Love dislikes nothing" he describes how he likes every kind of woman: "Be my Girle, or faire or brown/Do's she smile, or do's she frowne:/Still I write a sweet-heart downe." And he concludes, perhaps poking fun at himself, with: "Be she fat, or be she leane,/Be she sluttish, be she cleane,/I'm a man for ev'ry sceane." Herrick's women are not sexual harpies withholding their favors, but something to celebrate. It may be her eyes or hair or breasts; it may be her petticoat or her kisses. In this charming little poem he describes: "Her pretty feet/Like snailes did creep/A little out, and then,/As if they started at bo-peep,/ Did soon draw in agen."
It is easy for the poetry critic to sneer that this is merely simple, charming poetry, but there's no one else who gives us (I mean, us men) this innocent affection for the beauty of women. When Herrick, in "The Bracelet to Julia" writes: "But thy Bondslave is my heart:/'tis but silke that bindeth thee,/knap the thread, and thou art free:/But 'tis otherwise with me;" or when he writes: "Thou art my life, my love, my heart,/The very eyes of me" he is idealizing love. The subject may be vastly simplified but isn't that what we need art for? The critics can dismiss this as light, but they're failing-as usual-to distinguish between subject and theme.
Not all Herrick's work deals with women or religion. The poem "A Country Life" has this excellent description of his brother: "But thou liv'st fearlesse; and thy face ne'r shewes/ fortune when she comes, or goes./But with thy equall thoughts, prepar'd dost stand,/To take her by the either hand." Anyone could say that someone is fearless, but Herrick describes it as equal thoughts, and gives us the concrete image of accepting either hand of fortune. He finishes his description of his brother as standing "Center-like, unmove'd."
My favorite of all of his poetry-surpassing his famous "To Virgins, to make much of time" which begins: "Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,"-is "A Ring presented to Julia." Written in short four and six beat lines (a beat is a syllable), of which Herrick, like Housman, is one of the few masters, the poet has to be exact and strictly direct. He begins: "Julia, I bring/To Thee this Ring,/Made for thy finger fit;/To shew by this,/That our love is/(Or sho'd be) like to it." The poem concludes: "And as this round/Is no where found/To flaw, or else to sever/So let our love/As endlesse prove;/And pure as Gold for ever." The entire poem has to be read to be fully appreciated, but this is one of the great love poems in English, simplicity married to sincerity.
Unlike with John Clare or Robert Herrick, I was acquainted with Robert Frost since grade school. His age, craftsmanship, and reading at the Kennedy inaugural had given him a reputation that few poets, if any, attain. As a boy, however, I strongly disliked his poetry. Poems, like "Mending Wall," "Fire and Ice," and "Road Not Taken" which all the teachers liked, I found folksy, homey in style and preachy or pointless in their subject. (Is there a more pointless, boring poem than "The Death of a Hired Man"?) Many of Frost's poems have an indirectness and vague, implied psychological meaning that appeals to some people but not to me. Occasionally, however, Frost stops beating around the bush and, with his characteristic conversational diction, says something clearly and to the point. In "A Considerable Speck" he observes a tiny bug on his writing paper, and with one phrase and three words sums up the bleeding heart liberal. "I have none of the tenderer-than-thou/ Collectivistic regimenting love/With which the modern world is being swept." The poem concludes with a satirical, yet positive, attitude. "I have a mind myself and recognize/Mind when I meet with it in any guise./No one can know how glad I am to find/On any sheet the least display of mind." (This is a good example of poetic metaphor as abstract thought; the poet transforms a bug on a piece of paper into a symbol of human intelligence!)
"Gathering Leaves" and "Our Hold on the Planet" are two wonderful poems expressing a confidence and a joy of living. The former begins in a deceptive, almost doggerel, style "Spades take up leaves/No better than spoons,/And bags full of leaves/Are light as balloons." This sounds awful! But read the whole poem. The final quatrain expresses one of the most beautiful thoughts I've ever read in poetry. "Our Hold on the Planet" is a complete rejection of contemporary cynicism and despair. "Take nature altogether since time began,/Including human nature, in peace and war;/And it must be a little more in favor of man." To quote just a portion of this poem is very unfair. (Unfair to the poem.) It is both a profound statement and an affirmative view of existence including all of man and nature. If a person wanted to describe, in the deepest sense the meaning of the "benevolent universe premise," this would be an excellent poem to use.
Frost illustrates, at least in part, another Objectivist principle, that your work should be a pleasurable activity, an expression of your values and not a drudgery imposed by necessity. In the poem "Two Tramps in Mud Time" he describes the pleasure of chopping wood in the early spring when, "The sun was warm but the wind was chill." Frost describes the physical labor as: "The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,/The grip on earth of outspread feet,/The life of muscles rocking soft." Then two tramps arrive who need this labor more that the poet needs the pleasure of doing it himself. Frost agrees that their need is the greater; he is only playing at what is another's means of living. But then in a wonderful and unexpected assertion of self-interest he concludes: "But yield who will to their separation,/My object in living is to unite/My avocation and my vocation/As my two eyes make one in sight./Only where love and need are one,/And the work is play for mortal stakes,/Is the deed ever really done/ For Heaven and the future's sakes."
With Frost, and the other poets here, I've emphasized affirmative poems, poems defending or describing the values of life, largely because this is what I enjoy and because it's a style of writing that the 20th century has rejected, and in rejecting has killed poetry as a pleasurable literature. But there is a value to poetry and art in general that describes without any obvious reference to values. By describing the private, inner-most states of feeling poetry helps to make them recognizable and provides a self-awareness. Frost's poem "An Old Man's Winter Night" is an example of this. The poem describes an old man alone in his farmhouse at night in the winter. There's one line that I love, "A light he was to no one but himself." There's no better description of loneliness.
Another Frost poem, that's made by a single line, is "Willful Homing" in which he describes a blizzard and a man trying to get home. He describes the storm: "The snow blows on him and off him, exerting force" and how the man, "peers out shrewdly into the thick and swift." But the line I love is, "Since he means to come to a door he will come to a door." Bland and understated, it is a wonderful assertion of human will and ability.
Most of the poets I've mention in this essay I discovered in my teenage years or as a young adult. For a long time I thought I'd run out of new, good poets. Then I discovered someone I'd known since high school, but had disregarded. The poet is Rudyard Kipling. I'd always thought of Kipling as a novelist and short-story writer, the author of Captains Courageous, Kim, The Jungle Book, and the short-story "The Man Who Would Be King" which was made into an excellent movie by John Huston. I knew, of course, that he wrote poems. "On the Road to Mandalay" was once a famous song. "Gunga Din," which I had liked in high school, had been made into a good adventure movie. A very fine science fiction novel by Keith Laumer and Gordon Dickson, Planet Run, uses a large portion of Kipling's poem "The Explorer." (I've read this poem out loud to myself at least a hundred times, and it still has a thrilling, dramatic and awe inspiring effect.) The list of Kipling poems, floating around in our culture, goes on and on. Everyone has heard the line: "And a woman is only a woman, but a good Cigar is a Smoke." It comes from "The Betrothed" by Kipling. Petr Beckmann, the late editor of Access to Energy, author of numerous books, defender of Newtonian physics, told us in his Full Context interview, September 1990, that Kipling's "The Gods of the Copybook Headings" was his favorite poem. And Ayn Rand loved the immortal "If." It was read at her husband's funeral, and at her own. (She also liked Kipling's "When Earth's Last Picture Is Painted" which was reprinted in Full Context December 1988.) Kipling's poetry is all around us in a way that very few poets are. And yet he is ignored.
In the fall of 1995 I picked up and started to read a copy of his Verse. I quickly discovered that my preconceptions of Kipling's poetry, as just a happy-go-lucky empire builder were far too narrow. In fact, he wrote on a vast number of subjects. He is excellent at using the extended metaphor. "The Three-Decker," for example, uses the triple deck sailing ship as a metaphor for the three volume novel, once popular in the 19th century. His theme is the value of a romantic story that takes, "tired people to the Islands of the Blest!" Another example is "The Glory of the Garden." His theme is that it's what person does that's important, for "The Glory of the Garden it abideth not in words," and also that everyone has a value to offer: "There's not a pair of legs so thin, there's not a head so thick,/There's not a hand so weak and white nor yet a heart so sick,/But it can find some needful job that's crying to be done./For the Glory of the Garden glorifieth every one."
Kipling wrote political warnings like "Dane-Geld," "The Pict Song," and "A Servant When He Reigneth" which serves as an excellent description of Bill Clinton: "His vows are lightly spoken,/His faith is hard to bind,/His trust is easy broken,/He fears his fellow-kind." He also wrote a number of very imaginative poems about primitive man. My favorite is "In the Neolithic Age" which is actually a parody of a poet getting revenge on his critics. "Then I stripped them, scalp from skull, and my hunting-dogs fed full,/And their teeth I threaded neatly on a thong;/And I wiped my mouth and said, 'It is well that they are dead,/ 'For I know my work is right and theirs was wrong." More serious in the primitive man genre is "The First Chantey" which is marvelous at conveying that sense of mystery and awe that primitive man must have felt. And there's the chilling "A Counting-Out Song" which combines a childish rhyme with choosing "The men who went out who would rather not." In the context of a child's game Kipling pays tribute to the agonized effort of thousands of years. "Thus it happened, but none can tell/What was the Power behind the spell-/Fear, or Duty, or Pride, or Faith-/That sent men shuddering out to death-/To cold and watching, and, worse than these,/Work, more work, when they looked for ease." In the incredibly exuberant "Song of the Red War-Boat" Kipling celebrates loyalty as he describes a shipload of Vikings going out in a storm to rescue their leader. "For we hold that in all disaster/Of Shipwreck, storm, or sword,/ A Man must stand by his Master/When once he has pledged his word."
Courage, ability, loyalty, and individual responsibility are common themes that run throughout his poetry regardless of any specific subject matter. Repeatedly Kipling offers us a heroic image of man. In the "Hymn of Breaking Strain" heroism rises out of tragedy. "The prudent text-books give it/In tables at the end-/The stress that shears a rivet/Or makes a tie-bar bend-/ What traffic wrecks macadam-/What concrete should endure- /But we, poor Sons of Adam,/Have no such literature, /To warn us or make sure!" And it's in this failure that Kipling finds greatness: "Yet we-by which sole token/We know we once were Gods-/Take shame in being broken/However great the odds-/The Burden or the Odds." "The Peace of Dives" is a poem advocating free trade as way to end war. And free traders might be interested in "A Smuggler's Song," which is mother's advice to her daughter to ignore the strange happenings in the village, and the tongue-in-cheek "Poor Honest Men." Then there's the superb anti-socialist poem "MacDonough's Song." Personal responsibility and an inflexible will is the theme of one of my most favorite of Kipling poems. In some ways it's an awkward poem that takes several readings to appreciate. It's "The Song of Diego Valdez" and it describes a Spanish admiral at the pinnacle of power. "To me my king's much honour,/To me my people's love-." But Diego Valdez does not want fame and power; he remembers the carefree times of his youth, sailing with his comrades. ("So swift our careless captains/Rode each to his desire.") And yet he cannot give up the responsibilities that now are his. Near the end of the poem Kipling mixes the use of the first and third person; he intensifies the introspective tone; he shows us a man looking at himself-desperate in his loneliness, inflexible in his purpose. "Yet, 'spite my tyrant triumphs,/ Bewildered, dispossessed-/My dream held I before me-/My vision of my rest;/But, crowned by Fleet and People,/And bound by King and Pope-/Stands here Diego Valdez/To rob me of my hope.//No prayer of mine shall move him./No word of his set free/The Lord of Sixty Pennants/And the Steward of the Sea./His will can loose ten thousand/to seek their loves again-/But not Diego Valdez,/High Admiral of Spain." The man who can do so much for others cannot use that power for himself. The poem ends with his unflinching acceptance of his fate: "To me the straiter prison,/To me the heavier chain."
Kipling is usually at his best using a dramatic style. In fact, he takes the dullest subject on earth, soldiers plodding on a long day's march, and wrote "Boots," a masterpiece for dramatic reading. But there are exceptions. "The Prairie" is one of the most beautiful and loving descriptions of a part of the world, ever written. It begins: "I see the grass shake in the sun for leagues on either hand,/I see a river loop and run about a treeless land-/An empty plain, a steely pond, a distance diamond-clear,/And low blue naked hills beyond. And what is that to fear?" The last stanza is even more beautiful, a powerful statement of loving life on earth. I'll let the reader discover it on his own.
The great thing about Kipling's poetry (in addition to their great technical variety) is their explicit values, even when he is using an extended metaphor (a very hard thing to keep consistent without becoming ridiculous) there is no doubt as to what the poem's theme is. But, while his values are clear, he keeps his emotions to himself. As with all of the poets mentioned here, Kipling is a master of objective communication, as well as style, and he has something to say.
Kipling re-sparked my interest in poetry, in particular in discovering inspirational poetry. This is poetry that has an explicit message meant to affirm values and encourage the spirit. It takes no great perception to see that this is counter to the modern use of poetry as a psychological tool, a method of describing (and indulging in) one's emotional state, a state that is always angry or depressed-never happy or confident. These two broad types of poetry actually reflect two metaphysical views. The modernist accepts emotions as a primary; an emotional state is what a person is. A passive, deterministic view of life is its basic premise. The inspirational poet-either implicitly or, in some cases, quite explicitly-believes in free will. Searching through old poetry anthologies, anthologies compiled for the common man, but now forgotten, one can find the traces of a vanished literature. As with any poetry there is a wide range of quality for both content and style. Much of the inspirational poetry genre gives advice that is maudlin or overly superficial, much is religious and preaches forgiveness or humility or resignation to God's will. But then there's a surprising amount that is heroic or celebrates the joy of being alive. There's the famous "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley. There's poems by S. E. Kiser, author of at least eight books of poetry; in "The Fighter" he begins "I fight a battle every day/Against discouragement and fear;/Some foe stands always in my way,/ The path ahead is never clear!" And he concludes with: "But fighting keeps my spirit strong/And I am undefeated still!" There's Eliza Cook's "Where There's a Will There's a Way," Edwin Markham's "The Right Kind of People," John Burroughs' "Waiting" with the lovely thought: "Asleep, awake, by night or day,/The friends I seek are seeking me." (My mother ran across these lines once and quoted them in a letter to me. She never found those friends, but she had the thought.) Finally, there's the ever present poet, Unknown, who wrote "Don't Quit" which can be found in The Best Loved Poems of the American People. "Success is failure turned inside out-/The silver tint of the clouds of doubt-/And you never can tell how close you are,/It may be near when it seems afar;/So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit-/It's when things seem worst that you mustn't quit."
But the best of the inspirational poets whom I've discovered, with some surprise, is Edgar Guest. Writing in the first half of the century, Guest is famous for, "It takes a heap o' living to make house a home." Stylistically he is very simple. He doesn't have the variety of form that Kipling or Guiterman gave their work. He's clearly a commercial poet; he wrote about his wife and children, nostalgic memories of his childhood and parents, poems about the common man or religion and charity. But he also has countless poems on the value of hard work, determination, honesty and courage. My favorite of all his hundreds of poems is "Myself." While philosophers tie themselves into knots trying to understand the concept of self- interest, Edgar Guest, a Catholic and a plain man, knows that your own conscience is your most important possession. This is the poem.
I have to live with myself, and so[an error occurred while processing this directive]
I want to be fit for myself to know;
I want to be able as days go by
Always to look myself straight in the eye;
I don't want to stand with the setting sun
And hate myself for the things I've done.
I don't want to keep on a closet shelf
A lot of secrets about myself.
And fool myself as I come and go
Into thinking that nobody else will know
The kind of a man I really am;
I don't want to dress myself up in sham.
I want to go out with my head erect,
I want to deserve all men's respect;
But here in the struggle for fame and pelf,
I want to be able to like myself.
I don't want to think as I come and go
That I'm bluster and bluff and empty show.
I never can hide myself from me,
I see what others may never see,
I know what others may never know,
I never can fool myself - and so,
Whatever happens, I want to be
Self-respecting and conscience free.