Though we all sit upon a complicated and varied mind, one which takes inexplicable events and draws meaning from them, we do not always find it useful to administer this, and prefer the inexplicable to remain as is. We perhaps believe that by holding ourselves in some sort of skepticism we may advance slowly and over time reach a better understanding; but then we are farther from the event, and if proper insight gained, we have not proper evidence.  My intention here is to prove with proper insight that formal poetry is more modern and intuitive, by cognitive standards, than our more recent offshoot, modern poetry.  I hope to show even more, that modern poetry, if taken out of time, is but a precursor of formal poetry, and those who partake in modern poetry only scratch the surface of human existence.  Our clearest definition of modern poetry is something that uses neither form, nor rule, nor category: from this we may start our analysis.

We may admit that all poetry is highly ego-centric, but modern poetry more nominally enumerates first-hand experience, adding, as its base, details and complexities only known to the author himself.  Although this approach appears at first multi-dimensional, in which the poet may invoke a variety of scenes one after the other to promote the ever elusive memory or subject, it is merely a summary of things unseen, there is no depth; for the poet searches to underscore the one-dimensional reality he or she has evoked.  The problem with this, which expresses its more shallow evolutionary process, is in its picture-like reproduction of events based on the mechanical processes of the mind; the reason for this being, that there is no impetus for reflection in modern poetry.  One poet has defined this attitude thus:

But sometimes everything I write
With the threadbare art of my eye
Seems a snapshot,
Lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
Heightened from life,
Yet paralyzed by fact.

The exact rules of formal poetry are the generating stimulus for creativity, and push the poet to inquire into his imagination, to use all his powers to overcome them, in the general way that they seem meaningless, as in these lines:

light is where the landless blood of Cain
Is burning, burning the unburied grain.

These last two examples explain the huge distance between modern and formal poetry: the difference is in their depth: light, in the second example is creator, signified as burning, but also destroyer, as well signified by burning, but this is set only as a background to the landless blood of Cain, wherein we have the image being neither created nor destroyed, something inhuman.  Light in the first example, as qualified by the threadbare art of my eye, is only paralyzed by fact, which is to be much deplored.  What is achieved in two lines of formal poetry is still imperfectly said in six lines of modern poetry; and yet both of these examples come from Robert Lowell, who, as his life went on, ceded to the fad of modern poetry and the lurid, rapid, garish, grouped snapshots of life.  But let us go even deeper and analyze these lines of Robert Frost:

Some halfway up the limestone wall,
That spot of black is not a stain
Or shadow, but a cavern hole,
Where someone used to climb and crawl
To rest from his besetting fears.

Though Frost was known for his use of simple and rustic language, the use of meter here saves him by a quick turn of thought: black is not a stain or shadow, and finally relieves the rhyme with: to rest from his besetting fears.  For it is this which wakes the reader from the languid opening, and gives balance and meaning at the same time—something that is so inconceivable in modern poetry that the lines would end up sounding like this: “the limestone wall, spot of black, stain, shadow, cavern hole, climbing, crawling, besetting fears”—all are one-dimensional thoughts, but Frost, the poet, gives them meaning.

Recent research in the cognitive sciences has proven that humans have a natural propensity to create order, and with this order we try to represent or define the meaning of life.  The first human was no doubt a poet in his or her own right, but modern only in the sense that he or she connected A to B to C, etc.  When he or she could form meaning to these connections through awareness, he or she ultimately became the archetype of formal poetry: for the mind creates meaning through order, just as poetry creates meaning through reflection.  It is here we may see that modern poetry is rudimentary, in that from all our sense-perception it creates not a meaning based on order, but a simple enumeration, mostly with conclusion devoid.  This insensitivity of pursuing the reader with shallow or morphed detail removes us not to higher realms, wherein we may capture a hidden moment, but returns us to the very beginning of our existence.  How foreign, or far away from ourselves, do we feel after these lines:

But I too announce solid things,
Science, ships, politics, cities, factories, are not
Like a grand procession to music of distant bugles
Triumphantly moving, and grander heaving in sight,
They stand for realities—all is as it should be.

Each thought in poetry must be an appropriation of itself, wherein it always moves and is never stagnate; thus, poetry is human only by an evolutionary process, and once we make an effort to pass its first means, and realize that those words used to represent the subject can only be possessed by relative meaning, then we see its artistry and depth, as in these most beautiful lines:

Image of many a dream, in hours long past,
When life was in its bud and blossoming,
And waters, gushing from the fountain spring
Of pure enthusiastic thought, dimmed my young eyes,
As by the poet borne, on unseen wing,
I breathed, in fancy, ‘neath thy cloudless skies,
The summer’s air, and heard her echoed harmonies.

Both of these examples come from poets of our early American literature; one is a minor figure, the other the father of modern poetry.  Though Fitz-Greene Halleck has fallen into obscurity, the beauty and movement of his echoed harmonies are incomparable to Whitman’s all is as it should be.

Whether minor or major figure, the poet is the shaman of ancient times; he has learned to find the meaning between his thoughts.  Those who rely solely upon the boorishness of sense-perception give us but a false idea of ourselves.  We lead a multi-layered existence, all thought does not reside in the relation of events, but the distance from them, and all knowing is but the obliteration of self.  Thus it is that poetry only exists as we are human, and this human form that we hold in common is the awareness of our musings to each other whereon our minds have given the proper order.

Douglas Thornton is a poet and English teacher living in France.

Featured Image: “Erato, Muse of Poetry”  by Edward John Poynter

[i] Excerpt: Epilogue by Robert Lowell

[ii] Excerpt: Children of Light by Robert Lowell

[iii] Excerpt: A Cliff Dwelling by Robert Frost

[iv] Excerpt: As I Walk These Broad Majestic Days by Walt Whitman

[v] Excerpt: Wyoming by Fitz-Greene Halleck

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3 Responses

  1. Beau Ecs Wilder

    Erato, Muse of Poetry by Edward John Poynter
    “There is sweet music here that softer falls
    Than petals from blown roses on the grass…”
    Alfred Tennyson, The Lotos-Eaters

    She leans her right cheek on her folded fingers in
    a dreamy mood, her brown hair wrapped in laurel leaves.
    Her hazel eyes are pensive, soft, without chagrin,
    her soft pink lips are closed, her eyebrows faint as eaves.
    Behind, her feathered wings are large, dull brown and red;
    her gown is pale green, and droops, embroidered weaves
    that slip along her lovely shoulder’s swoop and rest.
    Against her knees a lyre seven-stringed, unused,
    her fingers intertwined between its screws. Instead
    of making music, she has paused—Erato, muse
    of poetry—in Edward Poynter’s paint, her chin
    upon the heel of her palm so soft and smooth.
    She seems to lose herself in contemplative skin.

  2. NealD

    Good article; needful. The other team, in all liberality? they seem exhausted.

    I’m almost glad for them to occupy so much stone and stained glass. They may need it moreso than we.


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