Poetry Today

If elevated thought had ever been
The least criterion of excellence
In poetry, why should it then be seen
Today as simply of no consequence?
If rhyme was good enough for Shakespeare’s time
And rhythm beats in Keats and Chaucer, Blake
And Dryden why then, why is rhyme a crime
And rhythm a mistake for heaven’s sake?

Free verse, a curse at worst, its mastery
A hash of slapdash balderdash and bull,
Such tripe the tritest poetastery
Disposed in random rows is just as dull.
Who knows why those to metric rhyme averse
Compose such awful prose and call it verse.


Michelangelo’s David

No-one can ever see the man behind
These opaque eyes that never shed his tears
Or feel the fears that simmered in his mind.
No longer does he hear the jeers and cheers
From that unequal combat with the foe.
He sees nothing, nor could he. Through those eyes
Of stone not even Michelangelo
Could let him see his own Italic skies.

There’s something enigmatic we perceive
In statuary, shorn of intellect,
Tongue-tied, unable to explain, receive,
Convey their thoughts to us, or interject
When we are wrong. Free-standing some may be,
They all stand free, remote from you and me.


A Fire Extinguisher

Though technical accomplishment held sway
For centuries, some artists of today
Will doubtless scorn such talent as passé.
Once art stood on its merits and would say
My worth resides in what you see in me,
Not what your facile pseudo-intellect
Extrapolates from what you think you see,
Confected with the guff we all expect.

Collectors, artists, critics must have all
Conspired in symbiosis to inspire
Tate Modern’s latest coup: upon the wall
Its finest purchase yet, a smart new fire
Extinguisher. Just think of all that hype
It garnered, hanging there among the tripe.


A Picture of a Horse

While at a gallery one day appears
A little mob of children, come to see
Some Pollock drips, a few of Rothko’s smears,
And several of Picasso’s ears set free
To roam about the same side of his face.
Their teacher showed a painting of a horse.
“And that’s supposed to be a horse, in case
You can’t read what the label says of course,”

She said, and then a little boy piped “So
Why isn’t it a horse?” and she was at
A loss. It looked more like a portmanteau,
A set of bagpipes or a stovepipe hat,
But gave one the impression of a horse.
Why wasn’t it a picture of a horse?


The Arnolfini Portrait

For some van Eyck might warrant scant acclaim
Today, laboriously painting what he made
Us see in outline, colour, light and shade:
Whose tableaux frozen on oak panels frame
The most minutely detailed scenes and claim
Enraptured awe. In mastery displayed
Six hundred years ago his brush conveyed
What he saw now, for still we see the same.

Should Emin view his art might she dismiss
It all as lesser work than hers because
She’s better known than van Eyck ever was?
And can she see the oddity in this?
Perhaps her confidence in private sinks,
We’re left to wonder what she really thinks. 


Peter Hartley is a retired painting restorer. He was born in Liverpool and lives in Manchester, UK.


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31 Responses

    • Peter Hartley

      Thank you for your very kind response to my maiden entry. Very encouraging!

  1. Steven Shaffer

    Very nice — I’m a sucker for a good couplet:

    “Who knows why those to metric rhyme averse
    Compose such awful prose and call it verse.”

    • Peter Hartley

      Many thanks for your very kind remarks. I bet you like Alexander Pope then!

  2. C.B. Anderson

    Very nice, indeed! And very well constructed. What a fine thing it is to poke fun at deconstructionism in such an orderly, logophilic manner.

    • Peter Hartley

      Thank you for the generous remark, and you can’t poke enough fun at deconstructionism can you?

  3. James A. Tweedie

    I wish I had written these poems. But I’m glad I didn’t, because I suspect they wouldn’t have turned out half as good as these. Well said! and well done!

    • Peter Hartley

      I wish you had too. I might have learned something. Many thanks for your generous remark from an almost total beginner. My last poems were in my school magazine nearly eight hundred years ago.

  4. Michael Dashiell

    In addressing the poem Poetry Today, you express it exactly as I view it, but with a lucidity I can’t attain. Brilliant!

    • Peter Hartley

      I bet they would! But thank you very much for such a generous remark to a complete tyro in the field.

      • Peter Hartley

        Sorry, that was a reply to someone else, but many thanks for your kind remarks which I hope will encourage me to do better.

  5. James Sale

    Love it – great to see another Brit taking a swipe at post-modernist poetry, and art too along the way. Witty, funny and a nice sense of form, not to mention something to say! I particularly like: “… Just think of all that hype/
    It garnered, hanging there among the tripe.” Great rhyme. For those Americans who don’t know, the Tate Modern is a peculiar British disgrace where the ‘great’ intellectuals and artists of our time all pretend they are viewing art when they might just as well be down a supermarket.

  6. Peter Hartley

    Many thanks for your extremely kind remarks to a complete tyro in the field. My last poems were written for my school magazine nearly eight hundred years ago and were full of doths and o’ers.

  7. David Watt

    A fine collection of sonnets. The personification of “Michelangelo’s David” is a striking way to breathe life into an otherwise static subject.

    • Peter Hartley

      And what progress we have made in 3D art over the past 500 years to go from David to Emin’s unmade bed. ‘I’m not even going to dignify it with capital initials.

      • David watt

        Hello Peter, my intention was to say that your personification worked particularly well. I would be the first to acknowledge Michelangelo’s David as a masterpiece, and vastly superior to so called ‘modern art’. Of course David is not static as a work of art, and our reaction to this work is not static either. A better choice of words would have been to say that your sonnet adds further life to our appreciation of a masterpiece carved in stone.

      • peter hartley

        David, Thank you for that nice distinction, and kind of you to say that my little poem might extend appreciation for Michelangelo’s work. I didn’t put it in any of those little poems but it’s mind-boggling to think, isn’t it, that through pursuing sensation and celebrity as ends in themselves quite a few artists today, not just T E (though of a similar calibre) will be better known currently than the greatest geniuses and polymaths of the Renaissance. I wonder though if they will be quite as well known a hundred years hence. Probably, but not for being artists.

  8. Sally Cook

    As poet and painter, I am so happy to see someone else railing against insanity.

    I look forward to more of thus. Thank you.

    • Peter Hartley

      Dear Sally, I remember being extremely surprised a couple of years ago when the famous bed came on the market and was sold for £2.5m. I don’t think I would have been prepared to offer that much even if it had been professionally cleaned. Thank you for your comment. I’m new to sonneteering and such remarks I find very encouraging.

  9. J. Simon Harris

    You have a great gift for the sonnet form. Each of these is extremely well constructed, and the flow is very natural. The only thing I didn’t quite like was the inversion of the syntax in the penultimate line of “Poetry Today”, but otherwise your work is impeccable (and I see you have at least one admirer of that line, so you must take my criticism with a grain of salt).

    Your points about modern art ring true, of course. I remember going to the MOMA in New York when I was younger, and seeing a lot of wall space dedicated to three huge “paintings” that were essentially blank: one literally a blank canvas, one a canvas painted black, and one entitled “Monochromatic Blue,” which it was. Meanwhile, outside, a street artist was selling incredible work for 20 bucks a piece. So there you go. It’s not that that type of art has absolutely nothing to offer; rather, what it has to offer is vastly disproportionate to the professional acclaim it receives. I can almost understand how it caught on when it was novel and original, but at this point it is derivative as well as mundane.

    It isn’t difficult to see why art and poetry aren’t popular among the public anymore. Your sonnets, however, are wonderful. I’m glad you decided to drop the “doths and o’ers” of your school days. And I look forward to seeing more of your work.

    • Peter Hartley

      I have been overwhelmed by the generosity and thoughtfulness of the responses I’ve received over those little poems and this one the kindest of all. I restored paintings for 25 years, working largely on objects from C16th to C19th, and was fortunate enough virtually to escape having to work on art from this century and the last. I can imagine anyone seeing Duchamp’s stunning objet trouvé in 1917 might well have thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse. How wrong would they have been! There must be a word for the nadir of a nadir (hypobathos?) to describe works of art (or music or poetry) seemingly designed to put the viewer into the deepest of deep depressions. Surely one of the touchstones of art should be BEAUTY, whether in subject matter or execution (e.g. Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp – beautifully executed although I wouldn’t hang it in my dining room). But why am I preaching to the converted? I’ll go and fetch my sandwich boards.

  10. Monty

    I’m in total agreement, Pete, with what all the other commenters have rightly said; these are all high-class pieces. Not only do they all contain poetic-discipline throughout (apart from the rhymes in lines 10 and 11 of Arnolfini, which I felt deserved a bit more thought; even if it took many days more to find a stronger rhyme); but, for me, the word “refreshing” pervades all four pieces: refreshing subject-matters.. refreshing wit.. refreshing sarcasm.. and, most refreshingly, something to REALLY say (as opposed to the wearisome “The way the sun reflects upon the lake” type of stuff). I feel that I must also mention the effortless ‘flow’ of each piece; poems can’t flow that fluidly unless they’re masterfully written.

    You’re a pure and utter natural-talent, Pete; and I’ll keep half of one eye out for any pieces you post in the future.

    A (potentially) personal question: In reply to one commenter above, you stated that it was the first poems you’d written since school “eight-hundred years ago”. I immediately dismissed it as a misprint, and thought no more of it . . until noticing that you’d said the same thing in reply to another commenter.
    At which point, I concluded that the insertion of “eight-hundred years” must’ve been intentional; and was just a jokey exaggeration on how long ago it seems since school . . is that right? Or are you really a ghost who was indeed educated that long ago. You’re not obliged to answer that question; and if you DO want to answer it, you’ve got the right to consult a solicitor before doing so.

    • Peter Hartley

      Just to get important matters out of the way first, I think I should plead your Fifth Amendment regarding my true age. If indeed it IS a crime to have reached one’s sesquicentenary 34 years ago I’m not giving anything away. Also, not being used to these computer-things I hadn’t realised at first that my comments would be read by any other than the named correspondent, hence the tautologous nature of my remarks: but what can you expect from someone born during the reign of William IV with a face like a Mesozoic coprolite?
      I take your point about the weak rhyme in Arnolfini. I suppose that rhyming ‘because’ with ‘was’ is only what you would expect from a Liverpudlian who was very badly brought up and for whom the two words do indeed rhyme. The first time I went to the States (to walk up Mount Whitney) I turned up at the bus station in LA, and asked for a ticket to Lone Pine only to be accused, in a horrified voice, of coming from Liverpool. I agree with you, and it IS something I will need to watch out for. And, incidentally, many many thanks for the extremely kind remarks which I shall preserve as bulwarks to counter the offensive and downright unpleasant remarks I’m far more accustomed to.

  11. Monty

    Being one who’s intimately familiar with the scouse accent (many scally friends over the years; and the mother of my daughter was a scouser), I know what you’re saying about the words ‘was’ and ‘because’; they do rhyme in your accent.

    But I deem that to be insufficient mitigation in your defence: and I find you guilty as charged with Undue Care and Attention over two end-rhymes.

    The ‘offensive’ and ‘unpleasant’ remarks to which you’ve become, as you say, ‘more accustomed’: are you referring to remarks made on the SCP pages.. or other sites?

    • Peter Hartley

      Not on SCP pages nor on any other site hitherto, and indeed this is possibly only my third conviction for a capital offence.

      • Monty

        Hardly a ‘capital’ offence, Pete; that’s why it was only dealt with by the Magistrates Court (as opposed to the Crown Court) . . and that’s why your sentence was comparatively light: 180-hours community-work at Endrime House in Skelmersdale.

        My curiosity has demanded that I ask . . if the aforementioned ‘unfavourable remarks’ didn’t come from this or any other site: where DID they come from . . family, friends? And were they directed at other poems you’ve written; or the above poem (surely not)?

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