What a Wit is Worth

For John Whitworth, poet

Oh,  Whitman was a rhymer who enjoyed to play the part
Of complicating everything.  It’s something of an art
To ramble on for pages on the pinprick of a thought,
Which makes word choice irrelevant, and form seem overwrought,
And chokes the flow of meter like a clot within the heart,
And leaves the scansion bumpy as an overladen cart.
Oh, you may paint your wheelbarrows as red as Commie traitors,
Make sure your plums keep cool and bland in sleek refrigerators,
And hope to Heaven you will cause great earthquakes and unease
Disturbing all the critics huddling roosted in the trees,
But Whitworth’s worth more half again than all the free verse clamor
That issued from that country boy whose hyperbolic stammer
Has branded modern poetry these hundred years or so.
So, now along the bottom road, as in arrears we go,
Feel sorry for poor poets blaring pompously, full blast—
And wave the flag for wit and humor—these things truly last.


A former Wilbur Fellow and six-time Pushcart nominee, Sally Cook is a regular contributor to National Review, and has appeared in venues as varied as Chronicles, Lighten Up On Line, and Trinacria. Also a painter, her present works in the style known as Magic Realism are represented in national collections such as the N.S.D.A.R. Museum in Washington, D.C. and The Burchfield-Penney, Buffalo, NY.

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41 Responses

  1. Gemma Peters

    Red wheelbarrows? Plums in refrigerators? Those were in famous poems by William Carlos Williams, not by Walt Whitman.

  2. Sam Gwynn

    I guess all those earlier “W” poets–Wordsworth, Whitman, Williams, et al.–should be lumped in together. Make no mistake, Mr. Whitworth is a considerable poet, but I doubt that he’d care for this kind of wayward pwaise.

    • Lorna Davis

      Might you be the same Sam Gwynn who wrote “How Pleasant to Know Mr. Whitworth” in 2008? I was looking for some of his poems tonight and came across the article. Poems of his that I have read so far do seem to take you from light verse to what you (assuming it was you) called “hard stuff” as quickly as tripping over a rock.

      Although I must confess that some of Whitman’s passages, especially well-narrated, can still pop me into a state of serene detachment, I’m happy to have been introduced to Whitworth through this poem. I’m looking forward to reading more.

      • Lorna Davis

        Michael Burch, may I just say thank you for the link to your Hypertexts page? Without getting into the ensuing argument. 🙂 It’s a wonderful resource for contemporary classical poetry. I’ve now read more of the poetry of Sally Cook, your poetry of course, more Joseph Salemi, the beautiful poetry of Sam Gwynn, as well as the subject of this poem, John Whitworth. Thank you!

      • Michael R. Burch

        Lorna, thanks for the kind comments about The HyperTexts. We have published many fine poets over the years, and we must be doing something right because we look to get 2-3 million page views this year. Even if we can’t agree about poetry in theory, perhaps we can appreciate poetry in practice!

  3. Damian Robin

    Yes humour, brevity, expectation’s apogee,
    The love of language and association’s revelry,
    (or gravity, or unearthing new scholar-stit-y,
    Or elasticity that pings us to the griss-i-ly)
    Or not knowing where we’re going but still making sure
    That if it’s going nowhere good we close its public door.

    These things do truly last, enhancing and en-handsoming,
    Keeping on until the ending shows a well-made thing.
    All we write’s not perfect and the task of working on
    Progresses skill-sets and enlivens fine trad-it-ee-on—
    Those standards of the West that moderns plundered to made fun-offs.
    But who’d pant best at slams or mik-e (as in nike) run-offs ?
    We’re nearer to hip hop nobility and Nobel Dylan
    Than the sing-y selfies of unbelted-ending lines of whelpee wailing wounded
    Walter Whitman.

    Wordswoth did go on a bit in his unrhymed Prelude.
    But this was mostly on himself, his shorter stuff was shrewd.

    I didn’t get the Williams’ quotes, my reading let me down.
    He too went on about himself when pattering downtown.

    John Whitworth’s worth I’d not have known without this poem’s pwaise.
    I’m glad that poets point to poets I’d not find otherways.
    As for Whitworth’s legacy—the man is still alive
    And yet his words are catalogued in a poet-ry arch-ive.

    • Joseph Salemi

      The choice of “Whitworth” and “Whitman” was made (as should be obvious to anyone claiming skill in poetry) because of the identity of the first syllables in the two surnames. The references to the red wheelbarrow poem and that about the cold plums are generalized allusions to the tendency of modernist verse towards opacity or the mundane. They are not to be taken as quotes from Whitman, but as quotes from one of Whitman’s aesthetic heirs.

      But when you dislike a poet for personal and political reasons, I suppose any angle of attack is justified.

  4. James Sale

    Damian Robin also deserves a prize for his tortured (and very funny) rhymes. It is perhaps time to re-discover Whitworth – love this poem – and as a Brit I seem to remember that when I last heard of Whitworth (sometime in the 90s) he had, at that point in time, won more open poetry competitions than any other poet in the country. That takes some doing, both in terms of the poems and in terms of the energy to compete!

  5. José Vieira

    Feel sorry for poor poets blaring pompously, full blast—
    And wave the flag for wit and humour—these things truly last.

    Flag the mast,
    you could not be more right,
    you could not be more vast.

  6. Joseph Salemi

    Oh dear — here comes poor Mike Burch again, on one of his virtue-driven toots. Now he’s in a state of high dudgeon against Sally Cook for supposedly having besmirched the god-like Walt Whitman.

    For someone who runs a poetry website, it’s amazing how little Mike Burch understands about literature and its function. He seems to think that a satiric poem has to follow the same rules as a courtroom deposition or a tax return. So he spouts his righteous little list of alleged “errors” in Cook’s poem, as if he had never heard of poetic license, hyperbole, exaggeration, parody, or lampoon.

    Burch’s pathetic screed against Sally Cook only proves (as I have abundantly shown three other times, in disputes with him) that he has a naive political activist’s view of literature, and that he can’t tolerate serious dissent from his personal judgments.

    • Michael R. Burch

      Oh dear — here comes Joe Salemi with his shock jock act. It’s very odd that when I disagree with you, I understand “little” about “literature and its function.” But when you were publishing my poetry, you nominated one poem of mine for the Pushcart Prize, and you lauded several other poems. You actively sought to be published by The HyperTexts, which I edit, even prompting me to publish your work as quickly as possible. Why would someone who is so “superior” in knowledge publish and seek to be published by a know-nothing? Have you no taste, no values, no honor? Or do you just attack anyone who disagrees with you on general principle?

      • James Sale

        The real question is not whether the poem is accurate – Macbeth is not an ‘accurate’ historical portrait – the question is: is the poem a poem, does it work? does it make it make us ‘feel’ and see things in new ways? And I think the answer is a resounding, Yes! Sally Cook has written a fine poem. Questions of ‘accuracy’ may be interesting, but I think need to be subordinated to the main issue of poetry qua poetry.

      • Michael R. Burch

        “Macbeth” may be taken as fiction. Cook’s poem doesn’t seem like fiction to me. If Cook is not being accurate about Whitman; should we take to also be lying or exaggerating in her praise of Whitworth? Is she mocking Whitworth with hyperbolic praise?

        No, it seems clear that Cook really does prefer Whitworth’s poetry to Whitman’s. Which is fine, if that is the way her taste leads her. But it makes no sense for her to be honest in her praise of Whitworth and yet dishonest in her criticism of Whitman.

        It seems clear that Cook believes what she says about Whitman, but what she says is not true. To me it sounds like someone who believes the earth is flat, because someone else said that the earth is flat.

      • Joseph Salemi

        It’s one thing to be able to produce competent poems on occasion (which Mike Burch can do), and quite another to be a literary critic. Mike Burch does write a good poem now and then. But when he tries to comment about literature he inevitably falls into the trap of his own politically correct biases, for the simple reason that he cannot see a literary work as anything other than a vehicle for virtuous, politically correct commitments. It isn’t the sign of a “shock-jock” to notice this — many persons in the po-biz scene have recognized this quirk in Mike Burch.

        Burch’s website is a good place to showcase poetry, so I decided to let him publish my material. Big deal. It doesn’t mean that Burch has any expertise in the analysis or professional judgment of literary works. It’s interesting that he has also published Sally Cook, so he must think that her work has merit. Or is it that just that Burch will pretty much publish anyone who submits poems to him? Of course, the poems can’t be conservative or right-wing. That kind of thing gets his dander up.

        What’s really funny is that Burch has just published two godawful poems by an illegal Moslem immigrant, who sneaked into Europe as a stowaway living on stolen food, and who now resides as a parasite in Moldova. The poems are laughable idiocies, but Burch published them because they are pompously anti-Trump. Those two amateurish and incompetent poems on his website tell you how incompetent a literary critic Mike Burch is — he doesn’t care if a poem is aesthetically lousy, as long as it supports his political position.

        After I wiped the floor three times with Burch in previous encounters, I knew it would be just a matter of time before he showed up again to cause trouble. I guess he’s finally come out of his fetal curl of grief after the American election.

  7. Michael R. Burch

    Joe Salemi, how amusing! I published a number of YOUR poems with which I strongly disagree (as you know because we disagreed strongly in private). Why are you lying?

    The editor who makes decisions based on content is quite obviously YOU. You published poems of mine that pass your political/religious texts, but you would never publish a poem that questioned or ridiculed orthodox Christianity or your beloved church. Once again the pot is accusing kettle of being black. Why not be honest and admit that you refuse to publish poems that you disagree with, while demanding “freedom of speech” for your own work, then whining when other editors do what you do yourself?

    As for the two poems by the stowaway poet, they are clearly better aesthetically than Cook’s poem, misrepresentations aside. Take the first line of her poem, for instance. It is very awkwardly worded:

    “Oh, Whitman was a rhymer who enjoyed to play the part”

    Do you think that is “good” poetry, really? I have seen Cook write much better poems, and I have published a good number of them myself. But this particular poem doesn’t hold a candle to the two poems by the stowaway, in my opinion. If readers are interested, they can judge for themselves, by going to http://www.thehypertexts.com, then clicking on Home, then Spotlight, then the page for S. Sel-yksir.

    • Joseph Salemi

      Once again, Burch opens his mouth without thinking first. If he were at all familiar with my journal TRINACRIA, he’d know that it often publishes poems that I personally do not agree with in terms of content or attitude.

      For example, recent issues of the magazine have had two poems lampooning the Pope (by Juliana Beedy); an attack on Jesus (by Frederick Turner); a strongly feminist poem on marriage (by Angelique Wellish); a poem praising heresy (by C.B. Anderson); an attack on America’s use of drones in the War on Terror (by Don Thackrey); a savage indictment of the CIA (by Melissa Peralta); a stern lecture to St. Gregory the Great (by Juliana Beedy), and a playful comment on The Vagina Monologues (by Malcolm Paige). None of these poems necessarily represent my personal religious, social, or political viewpoints.

      But let’s get down to business here. I publish formal poems that I think are competent artistically and stylistically. I don’t give a bloody damn about what they say. But Mike Burch is profoundly handicapped by his viewpoints, and if he accepts material from me it’s because he can somehow fit it into his larger left-liberal agenda, or — if he can’t manage that — he calls in someone immediately afterward to criticize what I say. Let’s see if he denies doing that after my article on the Totems of Poetry, or after the interview I gave him recently. Then we’ll see who the liar is.

      But merely as a hypothetical, let’s say that I had refused to publish any poem at all that I took exception to on grounds of content. I’d be completely within my rights to do so, since I’m not a left-liberal with a pro forma commitment to inclusivity, multiculturalism, tolerance, diversity or all of the other cant terms that Burch gets wet in the crotch for. I wouldn’t be obliged to answer to anyone for not printing stuff from the other side of the political divide.

      Let me end by saying that if Burch thinks those two pieces of puerile garbage by the illegal Moslem immigrant who sneaked into Europe are excellent poems, he’s made my case against his literary abilities. Read them again, Mike. Just because they’re anti-Trump doesn’t make them anything more than drivel.

      • James Sale

        I think it is important we avoid personal attacks and stick to the issue, which in this case is whether it is justified to criticise Sally Cook’s poem on the basis on its ‘historical’ accuracy – keeping in mind that, apart from dates (mostly), what is ‘history’ can be controversial anyway. Michael has dismissed my example of Macbeth as a poem that we don’t judge on the basis of what we actually know about the real Macbeth on the basis that Macbeth is a fiction. In other words, it is a play, not a poem. I think myself this is an invalid point because poetry, too, is a fiction; it is a more linguistically formal and stylised fiction, but fiction it is nonetheless. I could have used the example I used elsewhere on this site: Spenser’s Faerie Queen and its depiction of Queen Elizabeth 1 – this is hardly an accurate historical portrayal of her, but the poetry is not impaired as result of that. Poets need to be free to express their non-linear thinking/feeling as suits them without the charge of historical impropriety being levelled against them. This, of course, is why Plato wanted to kick poets out of his Republic – they are not philosophers (or historians!) – they are loose cannons!!

      • Michael R. Burch

        James Sales, I think it is a fair question. Let me put it this way: if I am writing about someone in your family, would you prefer that I be honest, or is it okay if I make up complete bullsh*t about them?

        I think most of us would prefer that real people be dealt with honestly. If you made up BS about my wife or son, that would be fighting talk, and I would be very unhappy with you. If you made up something about Zeus, that would be different.

      • James Sale

        Michael, your point to me is a fair point, so this will be my last entry on this topic for a while as we must allow a difference of opinion. So while I think you have a point about what if someone made-up something about a member of my family, and I might be upset – that is true. But in this case we are talking about Whitman who has been dead for about 150 years!! Poets, playwrights, novelists by their very nature seize on people long dead and make up (and poet is from the Latin and means ‘maker’) stories about them, so I cannot see the possible wrong Sally Cook has done here. But I accept defaming the living is not to be countenanced. So I’ll leave it at that. You certainly are a passionate person!

  8. Joseph Salemi

    Mike, thanks for proving to the world, by your third paragraph, that you are in fact a left-liberal nut-case, and that the victory of Donald Trump is sticking in your craw like a fishbone. That paragraph is right out of the DNC propaganda book. Did Nancy Pelosi write it for you?

    I suggest you go into therapy for your deep depression. At least for the next four years.

    Contrary to what you claim, I can stand the heat very well, thank you. I have no problem with persons attacking me. But the fact is this: If I’m attacked, I’ll attack back just as hard. I’m not going to turn the other cheek and be polite. You left-liberals had better realize something. When you deal with me, you’re not dealing with some gutless wimp of a Republican. I have no compunction about giving a punch in return for a punch, and I don’t care if you’re some wilting flower or delicate snowflake who is “offended” by this. So save your whining drivel about being “fair” and “nice.” I’ve never attacked anyone who didn’t attack me first. I’m in the kitchen all the time, and the heat doesn’t bother me. But it seems to bother you, since you are already crying and moaning about the way I express myself.

    As for “fact” — are you really serious? Poetry is a licensed zone of hyper-reality. It doesn’t deal with “facts” except as props and armatures on which to hang verbal constructs. As Mr. Sale pointed out to you, this is why a totalitarian like Plato wanted to banish poets from his imagined Republic. Why have you made such an absurd and noisy fuss over Sally Cook’s poem? Is it because (like Plato) you just can’t stand any poem that violates your personal sense of propriety? That’s pretty childish.

    As far as I’m concerned this debate is over. I didn’t have to claim that I have won every single debate that I have had with you. I DID win every one of them. You’re just too punch-drunk to realize it.

  9. Joseph Salemi

    A note to readers:

    Michael Burch has now undertaken to print heavily edited versions of these exchanges at his Hypertexts website, without my permission, and perhaps without Mr. Sale’s permission. These edited versions are incomplete, and designed solely to present Burch’s prejudiced views in the best possible light.

    Is this man honest? Is he believable? Is he the disinterested fact-checker that he presents himself to be?

    • Michael R. Burch

      The exchanges are not “heavily edited.” They are excerpted. I chose not to include Salemi’s litanies of insults. Does Salemi not stand by what he said in public? Would he rather that I paraphrase what he said? If he wants me to replace what he said with a capsule summary, I will be more than happy to do so.

  10. Joseph Salemi

    Mike, you are so utterly duplicitous that it staggers belief.

    No one gave you permission to publish my words. You didn’t even ask. I guess you were afraid that I might say the following:

    I give you permission to publish what I say, BUT ONLY IN FULL. If you want to quote me at the Hypertexts, you must not do it by “excerpts” or “a capsule summary.” You must print, in full, every single post that I put up here at the Society’s website pertaining to Sally Cook’s poem and my dispute with you. EVERY SINGLE ONE, from February 6 right down through this one of February 13. You should also include your own postings, along with the deleted one where you apologized to me for your mistake about my editorial policies at TRINACRIA, and then went into a hissy-fit against Trump. Did Mr. Sale delete it, or did you have second thoughts, and ask him to remove it?

    If you don’t do this, you DO NOT have my permission to publish my words. I stand by everything I say in public, but I won’t let my words be “edited” and “excerpted” by you. You are simply untrustworthy.

    It’s your move now. You either print EVERY SINGLE WORD of my comments on Cook’s poem and our subsequent dispute, or you take down the bowdlerized version that you now have up at the Hypertexts.

  11. Michael R. Burch

    MRB: Perhaps the strangest thing about Cook’s poem is its conclusion: “So, now along the bottom road, as in arrears we go, / Feel sorry for poor poets blaring pompously, full blast— / And wave the flag for wit and humor—these things truly last.” Cook claims that wit and humor are what truly last. Since both Whitman and William Carlos William—the two free verse poets cited in her poem—have lasted awhile, and Whitman well over a century, are we to assume that their specialty must have been humor? Must we also conclude that Shakespeare would be forgotten if not for his comedies, and that his tragedies have left us in arrears and are no longer remembered?   

    • Juanita Hamilton

      Dear MRB,

      I think possibly the missing element that may explain your confusion is that, from the big picture perspective, poetry itself seems to be rapidly (on a history scale anyway) dying according to government surveys (http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/2014592-the-last-national-poetry-month-ever/). Free verse today most commonly represents poetry. Free verse could be viewed as the breaking apart, fragmentation, and destruction of the classical traditions of poetry, a step on the way downward into its death. Whitman might be viewed as a step toward free verse and toward the dying situation of poetry we have today. Whitman, free verse, and communism/modernism will not last but wit and humor, poetry or otherwise, will. I don’t think the poet is exclusive that those will last either, I’m sure good values and basic morals will too, but the poet is talking about “whit” as a theme.

      Basically, I think the scale of history being talked about is bigger than what you are talking about and includes the future and the history that is unfolding right now and right here at the Society of Classical Poets. Shakespeare I would think would last and represents a high point in literature and poetry.

  12. Michael R. Burch

    Juanita, what makes you think that I’m “confused”? I write formal poetry myself. I have been editing and publishing formal poetry for two decades. I am well aware of the issues. Your assertion that wit and humor will last, but free verse will not, seems like a statement of faith or assumption to me. How do you “know” that free verse will not survive? When Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard created the English sonnet form and iambic pentameter, those were radical innovations. Howard also introduced blank verse, another radical invention. I’m sure formalists and traditionalists of that day protested, asserting that the “old style” was better and would survive, while the new style of the “upstart crows” was doomed to vanish. But poets like Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Philip Sidney, John Milton and William Shakespeare wrote stunning poems and plays in the new style, and their “radical” style eventually became the dominant traditional style. Free verse poets like Whitman, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane also wrote stunning poems in a new style. There is no reason to believe that free verse masterpieces they wrote will vanish, while bits of humorous fluff will survive “just because.” In any case, I am not “confused.” If formalists are correct that they hold the high ground and will prevail in the end, why not write truthfully about Whitman? Should poets be truthtellers, or purveyors of “false news” about other poets?

    • Juanita Hamilton

      I thought you had trouble understanding what seemed to me to be a clear and truthful poem from all the questions. Now, on the former point, you ignored poetry’s objective decline and you insist upon a progressive model of things always getting better. I think the decline in popularity of poetry directly demonstrates that poetry is like anything, it grows, reaches it height, and then declines and then it is reborn. We are precisely at the moment of its decline and rebirth.

      I also don’t understand why there is all the talk on here about the poem not being truthful. The gist is completely accurate, which any normal poet knows is all that matters. There are references to WCW’s works. WCW was a student of Whitman and the poem is within its rights to conflate the two. Or if you want to be real picky, from a legal perspective, the poet does not directly say Whitman or WCW when referring to WCW’s works, it is ambiguous and prosecuting the poet theoretically wouldn’t hold in court.

      I was trying to speak to you more diplomatically, but now I can see why Mr. Salemi must deal with you in the fashion that he does.

      • G. M. H. Thompson

        What is lost in this discussion of poetic history is the fact that poetry already has been reborn, but don’t tell any so-called “poet”, because they will not believe you and start saying ridiculous things like ‘it’s got to stand up on the page’, as if Homer, the troubadours, or the skalds ever wrote down any of the poems they sang. The record store killed the poetry shop, selling a product both easier to consume, more emotionally expressive, and a true return to the roots of poetry, the music of the human voice.

    • Lorna Davis

      So is that where the term “upstart crow” comes from? I didn’t know that. As one who has had to be self-educated, I’m just happy to have places and people to learn from. Personally, I write both formal and free verse. My first published poem was formal; the second wasn’t. They were both published by the same magazine. I love Mary Oliver’s work as much as Emily Dickinson. I once read an explanation by Scottish poet John Davidson of his reasons for shifting from formal verse to free verse; it made a lot of sense, but I still prefer his earlier lyrical work. For me, at least, there is good and not-so-good poetry in both styles. My own has always been more likely to come out rhyming than not, so to finally see a growing interest in formal verse is wonderful. But I wonder if we run the risk of alienating other poets if we condemn all non-formal poetry as junk.

      • Juanita Hamilton

        Lorna, I agree. Because at the end of the day, they are just words, just written ideas. Call it free verse poetry or simply prose, if it is a moving, good idea, then it stands on its own just as any individual human being does. That person or idea can be great or terrible, whatever the format it is expressed in. I think that in the scope of history, Sally Cook, has made a worthwhile statement. I wouldn’t make such an absolute one myself, but then again, she might not either in normal conversation, but is only speaking in the hyperbole of poetry. I don’t know the poet personally, so I couldn’t say.

  13. Michael R. Burch

    Lorna, the term “upstart crow” was used about Shakespeare, who was radically shaking things up in his day, as Elvis and the Beatles would do in the future. We now think of Shakespeare’s poetry as traditional, but it was “the new thing” at the time. Condemning non-formal poetry as junk is not only alienating, but asinine, in my opinion. To call great and good free verse “junk” is discrimination. It’s like someone who prefers rock to soul calling all soul music “junk.” As long as there are great and good soul songs, it is wrong to call soul music “junk.” It’s fine to prefer one genre to another, but it is not fine to say untrue things out of pique.

    • Lorna Davis

      It only caught my attention because there was a very nice bookstore/coffee shop by San Diego harbor called The Upstart Crow. Not a thing of great significance, just curiosity on my part. 🙂 Thank you.

      • Michael R. Burch

        Lorna, you’re very welcome. The term “upstart crow” was not a term of endearment originally, but Shakespeare did manage to turn the tables, so to speak. 🙂

  14. Father Richard Libby

    I must admit that I am not familiar with Whitworth or Whitman – but I like Sally Cook’s poem!

    • C.B. Anderson

      I think you might be the the only person who got everything exactly right. The proof is in the poem, and there is no other valid standard. God bless you.

      • Michael R. Burch

        So truth has no place in poetry, even when it’s written about a real person? Suppose I write a great poem in which I call the Pope a pedophile who kills his victims and drinks their blood. Is that the best use of a great art, or have I turned poetry into propaganda?

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