by T.M. Moore

I had just finished teaching one of the adult classes at our church on the meaning of Christmas, using John Milton’s Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity as my text. We examined many aspects of this great poem—themes, development, structure and rhyme scheme, poetic devices, and classical and Biblical allusions—and I showed the class how all these elements worked together to support Milton’s basic proposition, that the coming of Christ heralds the new age of salvation.

Many in that class of older adults were visibly moved, and commented on how the poem enlarged their understanding of Christmas. Others simply reported on how delightful and interesting they found the presentation. One woman said, “I haven’t thought about Milton since high school!” Another asked, “Why don’t they write poetry like this anymore?”

Does poetry have power to provoke, move, excite, disturb, and delight? Seems pretty obvious it does. So why doesn’t more poetry wield such power?


The State of Poetry Today

In a day when virtually everyone can write poetry—since matters of form, rhyme, and the classic poetic devices are regarded as secondary to mere self-expression—much, perhaps most, of the poetry circulating in journals and on websites and in books lacks the charm and resonance traditionally associated with verse. Instead of building on common experiences, much contemporary poetry is self-referential in the extreme, or employs images that confuse rather than endear, or that are too far removed from the experience of most readers to communicate their intended message or stir the desired affection in all but a few. And the form of most contemporary verse, lacking in any discernible rhythm, pace, or lyric, can be more distracting than helpful.

Poetry today is actually thriving, with hundreds of journals and scores of new books being published every year. But, as Dana Gioia pointed out in his landmark study, Can Poetry Matter?, most of this poetry is written for an elite caste of poets and critics, a professional fellowship and mutual admiration society devoted to formlessness, complexity, egalitarianism, and confessionalism in poetryjust the sort of stuff that leaves most readers scratching their heads and moving on to other things.

There are exceptions, of course. Many fine poets whose work actually adheres to traditional forms, who labor to achieve pleasing meters and rhymes, or draw on more accessible experiences and themes, have produced some truly powerful verse. Wendell Berry, Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins, Scott Cairns, and a handful of others come to mind. And some truly great poets have only recently departed the scene—besides Heaney, I’m thinking of Czeslaw Milosz and Denise Levertov. But most readers will not be familiar with these names, or know how to find their poems. This is because, when it comes to poetry as a staple of the reading diet, most readers have long ago lost their appetiteif they ever had one.

I have my own thoughts about how this lamentable situation has come to pass, but I shall reserve them for perhaps another occasion. My purpose here is rather to entice the reader to take up the task of poetry againor perhaps for the first timeand discover the surprising affective power and intellectual satisfaction that comes from studying well-crafted verse.


The Power of Poetry

I am always somewhat bemused by people’s responses to good poetry. In my preaching, teaching, and writing, I will very often use a poem from the great Christian heritage of verse, or an original composition, to illustrate or expand on an idea. Once I even taught a course on Biblical worldview, using as my primary text an anthology of English Christian poetry from the middle ages to the present (A Sacrifice of Praise, James H. Trott, ed., Cumberland House, 1999). The response is always the same: people love the poems, talk about them with great excitement and animation, even get fairly giddy about them. Then, when the session is over, they forget about poetry and fall back into their established reading practices.

Poetry can do so much for us. Besides providing reflective seasons of deep delight and wonder, poetry can teach us how to slow down and be better observers of the ordinary in life. It can make connections between apparently unrelated things and surprise us by revealing the common threads of our experience. Poetry teaches us to appreciate the beauty of just the right word and the mystery of sounds and images woven together just so. It speaks to our hearts, assuring us that others have felt what we were too ashamed or embarrassed to reveal, and perhaps convicting us of misguided affections. It shows us that others have thoughts from perspectives we considered peculiar to ourselves and, therefore, weird. Poetry can increase our sensitivity to others, teach us how to see the glory of God in created things, slow down time so that we are able to milk the moments for all they’re worth; it can stimulate the imagination, put into thoughts sentiments that we only previously knew as feeling, and render into feeling what was before merely an abstract idea. Poetry can connect us with our past, immerse us more deeply in our present, and project us into futures never before imagined.

Perhaps this is why so much of the Bible is written in poetry. Much of the wisdom literature, all of the psalms, and large sections of the prophets were inspired and composed in verse precisely because of the great power latent in this literary form. To be sure, there are significant differences between the way Hebrew verse works and what most of us think of as poetry. But once you learn the conventions of those ancient forms, vast sections of the Bible begin to shine with new and brighter light.


A Personal Perspective

I shall never forget the first time I really encountered the power of poetry. As a child I had written many poemsone that even made it to the Illinois State Fair. But these were mostly word games, childish exercises in rhyme and meter with no deeper significance. Then, as a freshman in college, somewhere near the end of a course on 19th and 20th century English poets, we were assigned to read and analyze W. B. Yeats’ masterpiece, “The Second Coming.” From the first lines of this jarring verse, my mind was riveted to the Irish bard’s words:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer.

Immediately I saw myself as that spiraling falcon, attempting to break free from past ties of home and family, but careering into an unknown and potentially dangerous future. It was the late ‘60s, and I felt that my growing sense of waywardness and uncertainty was the common experience of many of my peers. The poem continues:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats was writing in 1919, in the aftermath of the war to end all wars. But he was seeing through to our day, with political assassinations, an unpopular war, and cultural and social upheaval on every hand. His prescience, or perhaps the timelessness of his words sent chills down my spine. Was this the world I was entering, the world I would be helping to create? What were my own convictions? What was I passionate about? What was happening to my innocence? The next stanza begins:

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

I was not a Christian at the time, but I knew about revelation, and I had heard about the Second Coming. Suddenly I realized that I was desperately in need of some revelation about my life. I needed someone or something to break into my life and point me in the direction of something permanent, something I would be willing to give my whole life to without reservation. But nothing was on the horizon for me. Nothing, that is, but hope in hope.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

What was happening in me, I wondered? Was I becoming a different person, part human and part animal—part beast? I felt as though Yeats had seen through to that “blank and pitiless” part of my being that urged me on to succeed at all costs, and at everyone else’s expense. I was becoming a child of my culture—shaped by the spirit of the world—and I began to fear for where that process might lead.

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

I remember distinctly that this was the first time in my life I ever had a serious thought about what we now refer to as “worldview.” I wondered, Where is all this social and cultural upheaval leading us? What new messianic hope will be born from it? And will it, once revealed, be found to be a “rough beast” that will enslave and crush us all? Where will I be, and what will happen to me, if I keep on spiraling away from the familiar voices of my childhood?

This poem began in me a season of searching for something stable and meaningful to make sense out of my life, a search which ended nearly a year later, when I made a life-changing commitment to follow Jesus Christ.


Poetry Can Matter

Answering his own question, Dana Gioia insists that poetry can matter. The real question is whether or not it will matter for you. Let me offer some simple guidelines to help you get around in the world of poetry, so that you can experience the power of this unique art form to affect your life.

First, be patient, and sample widely. Learning to enjoy poetry is not like eating at my house, where every meal Susie fixes is a culinary delight. It’s more like moving to a new town and sampling the restaurants and their cuisine. Sure, they’re all OK, but you have to keep at it to find one or two, and one or two entrees that are real eating experiences. This takes time. So it is with poetry. Read until you find a poet or two you really like, and a few poems that speak to you. Then savor them over and over.

Second, learn about how poetry works, what’s going on in a poem. Good poets work hard to select just the right words and phrases, in just the right places, to communicate their experience and ideas. Unless you know how to pick up on the cues they have embedded in their poems, you will invariably miss a great deal of the delight and meaning encoded there.

Third, find a few poems that you really like. Read them aloud, over and over. Memorize them. Then ask yourself what it is about these poems that speaks so powerfully to you. Is it the themes? The rhythm? The clever use of words? Identify as many things as you can about the poems you like that contribute to their being pleasing or meaningful to you. This will help you in learning to appreciate other poets and poems as well.

Finally, find someone with whom you can read and share your poetry—both what you are reading as well as any you might attempt to write. Susie is always so affirming as she reviews my work and makes suggestions about how to improve. The Society of Classical Poets is a unique meeting-ground for like-minded aficionados. I find the comments offered on contributors’ poems help me in learning to read and write in this powerful form.

In a world where words are cheap, a world in which a kind of Gresham’s Law of language is debasing conversation and meaning everywhere, poetry can play a powerful role in our lives. It can give us a new appreciation for the power of language and help us to clarify and nurture our thoughts and affections, so that we can live more fully, humbly, and graciously.

So set aside time from TV and other trivial pursuits, and plunge into the world of formal poetry, where beauty, goodness, and truth come to life with lasting delight and power.



T.M. Moore is Principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe. He is the author of more than 30 books, including 6 volumes of poetry, and his poems appear in various journals and at several websites. He and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont. This essay is the first in a series.



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The Society of Classical Poets does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or commentary.

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45 Responses

  1. Joseph S. Salemi

    Poetry can matter — that is true. But in today’s Western world it generally doesn’t, for the simple reason that there has been a major and catastrophic collapse in humanities education. You would be hard pressed to find anyone in the so-called “millennial” generation who would have the intellectual training or historical knowledge to comprehend a great poem like “The Second Coming.”

    Without study, who of them would even understand what a falcon is, or what the art of falconry once was? Without religious training, who of them would know what the Second Coming means? Without Latin, who would know what spiritus mundi means? Without philosophical grounding, who would know that spiritus mundi is a phrase from both the Stoic and the occult traditions? Would any of them know that the “shape with lion body” is a reference to the Egyptian Sphinx, and therefore an evocation of timeless mystery? Who among them would know that a “rough beast” heading towards Bethlehem is a figure of the Antichrist?

    Believe me, I’m not nit-picking here. Moore’s essay is wonderful and inspiring, and I’m glad that he is able to make great poetry come alive for his students. But let’s face facts. The liberal-left has completely taken over the public educational system, from top to bottom, and is deliberately churning out graduates who are simply clueless on a vast range of cultural subjects that in the past were common knowledge. This is their agenda, and they are ruthless in carrying it out. They want a mindless and de-cultured proletariat, which will be easier to control.

    The left is not the only culprit here. The major corporate entities that are today’s face of mindless greed-driven capitalism also have worked to gut education, and turn it into nothing but an array of STEM courses. Mega-corporations would like nothing better than to turn all our schools into training camps for future engineers and techies. Art, literature, history, foreign languages, religion, philosophy, aesthetics — the philistine bureaucrats who now run our educational institutions would like nothing better than to dump them totally, and they are well on their way to achieving that aim.

    Yes — poetry, when well understood, does have great power. But when readers are deliberately deprived of the knowledge and the historical inheritances that they need to understand poetry, that power is inoperative.

  2. Amy Foreman

    T.M., in my opinion, this essay should be required reading in every freshman English class. In simple language, it cuts through today’s otiose, degraded confessionalism, explains the importance of structure and craft, and clearly and compellingly answers the question most young students ask: “Does poetry even matter?” and its follow-up question: “Should it matter to me?”

    Very well executed, sir. I look forward to reading more essays in this series.

  3. Leo Zoutewelle

    I think that Joseph Salemi added an essential completion to Mr. Moore’s important essay.

  4. James Sale

    This is a fine and well written article which is both encouraging and stimulating in turns. I may disagree with the odd observation here and there – for example, I have yet to find a Heaney poem that I like or rate: his poem, Digging, must be quintessential bathos, and as for being the ‘heir’ of Yeats, well there you have it! Welcome the epigones! – but in essence poetry matters because ‘beauty, goodness, and truth’ matter and this is where we find it at the deepest level. But your choice of The Second Coming’ is inspired if somewhat strange, for many would be hard pressed to see any of the three Platonic qualities in it. Poetry, however, is always making the ‘terrible beauty’ to be born again – to paraphrase Yeats from another of his great works – and is making the overwhelming violence that is flooding the world something awesome to behold for all its repulsiveness, and more – as you point out – to feel as we feel it in Yeats’ poem. Thank you.

  5. M. Paul Bowler

    Mr Moore,
    Thank you for your thoughtful essay. I look forward to reading more in the series.

  6. Paul

    I’m no expert on essays, but for me, this one is excellent. I find it clear, warm, personal, and it was a pleasure to read (a page-turner.) You take a strong position, seemingly still remaining open to others’. It’s affirming and reaffirming. And it’s the best list I’ve ever seen of the assets of the art of poetry.

    I think the floodgates of bad art becoming publicly (and professionally) acceptable – in many arts (not only poetry) – were opened by Marcel Duchamp and his readymades – with other forces kicking in – like the growth of individualism – and people’s disdain for [others’] talent. Maybe a form of anti-elitism.

    For me your essay is refreshing and sane. Thanks for this. I look forward to more.

  7. C.B. Anderson

    If everything is as bad as it looks, then I just might have to find a hole in which to bury myself. Grim forces abound in this world where we live, and we should all expect, demand, and fight for something better than a star-spangled banana. Walt Whitman can kiss my ass, and I’m sure he would have liked to to do so. Great essay, T.M. But be warned: We shall expect no less from you in the future.

  8. Joseph S. Salemi

    The poison of literary modernism may have germinated in Walt Whitman, but it didn’t blossom into full malignancy until the critical writings of Ford Madox Ford and T.E. Hulme, followed by the decades-long propaganda campaign of Ezra Pound and his acolytes.

  9. Gregory Spicer

    Yes, the article is epiphonematical, but instead of perpetually grousing about the state of poetic affairs like a spoiled debutante with a last minute tear in her dress, you all should be asking yourselves how best to sell the product. You all claim to care about classical poetry, but what are you really doing about it other than membership here?

    The aforementioned Billy Collins, whether you like his poetry or not, famously said that every poet must first write 200 terrible poems. Don’t ask me how he arrived at such a precise number but he is not wrong about that part of the epiphany process.

    I say roll with it. A teenage boy, (for example) even when going through meth withdrawal, is still often interested in rap. Now, I personally cannot stand rap, but at least it is a couplet and it tells me that on some level he too cares about beautiful language, and the last time I checked, couplets are still thought of as classical. There must be a beginning somewhere.

    What I see in these threads sometimes is a newbie getting kicked in the teeth by long standing members of the SCP and heaven help them if politics gets mixed into it. Well, I will not hate a scorpion for wanting to use his stinger, but how many first timers will simply pack it in and walk away? Public or private, most educators suggest that learning environments be conducive to the rigors of study. Yes, much of that study will produce bad poems but I assure you, a meth addled teenager will cry “bullshit to this!” and storm out of the room if not handled with compassion and forethought, all quite providable at little to no cost by people who actually care. Anybody who cannot positively deal with setbacks such as this is not qualified to be a teacher of any subject at any level.

    It is time to press ahead in the trenches where learning actually happens and for the sippers of single malt scotch to stop complaining about getting stuck with Koolaid.

    No, we must not be snobs or slaves to troglodytic youth culture, (look what it did to baby boomers! Now we cannot trust anyone over 60!) but we must embrace the severe disconnect between today’s youth and the slowly moldering pre Christian classical literature if only to show that it is possible to achieve great things without the assistance of electricity, or Jesus.

    James Sale was once good enough in these posts to remind us that we are all carrying a heavy load. I could not agree more. Edification is not easy, but it can be done.

  10. Joseph S. Salemi

    As I said somewhere in a previous thread, poetry is not a retail business. It never was. If you want to sell things, join Amway.

    Also, it is not a simple matter of getting the attention of young people. We live in what I have called a carminicidal culture — that is, one where genuine formal poetry of the sort that the SCP tries to encourage is actively hated, mocked, and ridiculed by the Poetry Establishment, both in and out of academia.

    • T.M.

      “A twentieth century poet…would like to base his yes and no on some foundation, but to do that he would have to admit that behind the interplay of phenomena there is a meaningful world structure to which our hearts and minds are allied.” – Czeslaw Milosz

      The formal poet recognizes the structure of the world and seeks to engage it, so as to discover its beauty and significance for himself and his readers. Given the obvious rhythms that pervade and sustain our lives – heart beats, breathing, sunrises and sunsets, being born and dying – formal poetry is more real and more objective, and therefore has the greater potential for creating that inner sense of “Yes!” that great poetry can achieve. I’m grateful for SCP and other sites and journals which are devoted to encouraging formal poets. Thanks, Evan.

  11. Wilbur Dee Case

    1. Mr. Moore’s essay on how to read poetry, discuss its importance, and analyze a personal poem is hardly epiphonematical as Mr. Spicer suggests; it is rather, as Mr. Paul suggests, “clear, warm, personal…affirming and reaffirming…and sane.”

    2. What I most liked about Mr. Moore’s essay are
    a) his contention that “Poetry connects us to the past immerses us more deeply in the present and projects us into the future;
    b) his familiarity with Mr. Gioia’s “Can Poetry Matter”;
    c) his mention of Gresham’s Law;
    d) his paragraph on the poetry of the Bible;
    e) his brief paragraph on teaching Milton’s “Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”;
    f) his concluding sentence; and most importantly,
    g) his use of the phrase “the power of poetry”.

    3. Like Mr. Sale, I, too, had some disagreements with the essay:
    a) Barry, Cairns, and Collins do not move me at all;
    b) though I have written poems on Milosz, Levertov, and Heaney, none of them strikes a deep chord; and
    c) the order of his last sentence (I would place beauty last, least).

    I agree with much of Mr. Sale’s assessment of Heaney, and “Digging”; though I do like Heaney’s work more than most SCP writers; and I do like his Beowulf “translation”.

    4. We can be thankful for writers, like Mr. Salemi, in the trenches; but I would remind all readers @ SCP that poetry has, since its earliest days, been involved in war. In a similar manner, as the Christian puts on the armour of God, so too should the good poet prepare himself or herself for the battles of his time.

    5. As to Mr. Spicer’s point about “how best to sell the product”: poetry’s best emphasis is not on sales. That is a very Jamesian philosophical stance, the cash value of truth. Ovid’s father tried to steer his son away from poetry, pointing out that even Homer did not do well financially for his poetry.

  12. Joseph S. Salemi

    If anyone is interested, my address to the SCP conference this past June at the Princeton Club in New York City is now posted at Arthur Mortensen’s website, under the heading of “Essays.” In it I deal with some of the major problems facing poetry today.

  13. Gregory Spicer

    Epiphonematical or not, it was meant as a compliment. My apologies if I managed to bollix it up.
    All hearts crave salience, poets more so, which is probably why they have been so subject to melancholy when it is not to be had.

    I very much concur that poetry matters. So much so that it has practical value and the STEM departments will have to get use to it. But do not fear, gentlemen, that I will repeat the faux pas of suggesting any sort of salesmanship be involved with the propagation of something I believe in. How dare I cheapen it thus.

    The proof of the practical value of poetry may be found in it’s utility to the world of speech pathology. Aphasics, schizophrenics and others show improvement after poetry therapy and neuroscience is just starting to chart the whereabouts of the elusive poetic homunculi silently at work in all of our skulls.

    Sipping the single malts of classical poetry is great if you are in a position to appreciate it but poetic salience in the form of a prodigious leap may just be an ego trip. Which is great, as long as you don’t fall on your face.

  14. Joseph S. Salemi

    I don’t like scotch, whether single-malt or blended. I’m a drinker of aged Bourbon.

    Sure, poetry may have some practical uses, like helping to treat aphasics or getting schizophrenics back on an even keel. But that IS NOT poetry’s primary purpose, and never was. Poetry is meant to be the sacred vehicle of a given culture’s traditions, history, beliefs, triumphs, and pride. Defending it as just another helpful “therapy” is precisely the wrong approach to this great craft. That’s like saying that Titian’s paintings are good for aiding persons who are color-blind. Sure, they might be — but so what?

    • C.B. Anderson

      Ouch! As far as I am concerned, bourbon is all too much all about corn. Though I drink it on occasion, I am much more enamored with the subtle varieties of flavors that malted barley provides once distilled. But then, of course and again, there’s no disputing taste.

  15. Gregory Spicer

    No scotch? That explains a lot. Surely it indicates an alarming synaptic deficit somewhere betwixt the tongue and brain stem. Some positron emission tomography is probably in order. I say, they have those in New York, don’t they?

    Traditional content is fine as long as it’s not the sort of “heritage” that advocates lynch mobs. I myself lean more towards the potential for future poetry that classical technique will make available and while I agree that the younger set seems to be missing out on the goldmine of Greek and Latin I am hoping that they will come around after we cure them of their video game addictions. No small task that, but some classical poetry with references bridging the gaps into their world would help. Perhaps something akin to Percy Jackson?

    What is old is new again and so I am optimistic about a revival of the sort of poetry that has been ignored for, what, a century or so?

    Rome was not built in a day. Hey, who said that first?

  16. Joseph S. Salemi

    Once again, Spicer shows his political colors. Classical poetry is acceptable to him, as long as it is dry-cleaned by left-liberalism.

  17. Gregory Spicer

    Aye sirrah, I enjoy liberality, particularly when some thinking is to be done.
    I encourage you to try it yourself sometime.


    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Liberality and liberalism are not the same thing. Check any dictionary.

      As for thinking, if you believe you can wean meth-head millennials off their video games and get them to study Latin and Greek, you’re the one who needs a brain scan.

  18. James Sale

    Poetry is full of strange paradoxes to be sure: Keats dying in poverty like so many other poets, yet Shakespeare, Yeats, and America’s own Frost relatively rich, well-off and lauded by contemporaries and posterity alike. Dr Johnson’s adage that no-one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money, and yet, and yet … as I have long maintained true poetry belongs to another god, and not the one called Mammon. I take the point that heavy-weights taking punches at newbie lightweights can seem intimidating, but then again no punch by any contemporary compares with the intimidation, and yet the power, of stepping into the ring with the ancient masters – and seeing their footwork, taking their blows as they amaze one’s whole being with their poetic strength. Newbies in some sense have to shape up, and how will they do that if their diet is only ever milk? But kindness is vital, and how we do it is, I think, important. Things are always more than they appear to be. It is good that the SCP exists in order, as Wilbur comments, because there is a war on, and together we can all, perhaps, punch above our weight. How we do that is the issue for the next 5-10 years.

    • Gregory Spicer

      Thank you, James Sale, for your input here because what you say is precisely how I feel about the nature of improvement. Police officers go through training before they are sent out into the streets because otherwise there would be more prematurely deceased police officers and those who became good swimmers after attending the sink or swim school of swimming are just the ones that did not drown. Liberalism, to me, means making incremental progress so as to minimize the carnage that can so often be a by product of discovery. I prefer my discoveries done the Elitzur-Vaidman bomb tester way. I recognize that liberal history is flawed, but so what, who’s isn’t?

      You are of course quite right about punching above our weight, so much so that I peeled out a few moments of the evening last night to re-read your terrific four part article about the muse, or rather the nature thereof. Those essays have been most instrumental in the maintenance of my interest in classical poetry. I’ve dovetailed that reading experience with “The Brains Way of Healing” by Norman Doidge, M.D. and Robert K. Logan’s book “The Alphabet Effect”. This knowledge amalgamation has over the last few years swept away much cynical thinking on my part. Enough to qualify as an epiphany I am sure I am not qualified to say but I’ll take it anyway.

      If an epiphany it was well timed for now I find myself working in a rehab for teenage boys. Their problems are so much worse than mine ever were but I refuse to scoff at the idea of getting them to punch above their weight.

      Perhaps I am indeed a doltish fool for thinking that they may someday develop an affinity for the Bard of Avon and others of his caliber but thanks to blokes like you I will continue the attempt with the occasional hats off to the Goddess of Folly and hope that the ghost of Erasmus would approve.

      • James Sale

        Hi Gregory, I think you make some very sensible points, and as it happens, I love the writings of Norman Doidge, whom you mention: “Ideologues are people who pretend they know how to ‘make the world a better place’ before they’ve taken care of their own chaos within’” – phew, that is good. And FYI my new daughter-in-law is a doctor and psychotherapist working in the area that you are; so, as an ex-teacher myself and with my daughter-in-L in the field, I am concerned about the future as it will be realised – or not – through our young people. Perhaps we can agree on a program here, especially in terms of promoting classical poetry and its incredible effects. That said, I am not a liberal. I am not sure whether you are a Brit or an American. If you are a Brit then you will be fully conversant with the sad fact of the ‘Liberal Anti-Democratic Party’ and their decision to simply ignore the vote of 17.4 M people for Brexit. Of course, I agree with you that Liberals and Conservatives have chequered histories, but the key aspect of being Conservative, which I am, is the taking of personal responsibility. This is the hard thing; but it moves us away from political correctness towards making stuff happen. Without wishing to sound arrogant, when I was a teacher over 30 years ago, I managed to get very mixed ability children not only to read Shakespeare and Milton, but also to perform it. Indeed, the re-creation by students of 14-16 years old on stage of Paradise Lost made headlines in The Times Educational Supplement in the 1980s (I still have the cuttings!). I am still proud of that and guess what? Many of those students are still in touch with me – one even has become a best-selling author! Let’s work towards making good things happen for classical poetry and spreading it more widely around – we don’t have to fudge our value system in order to co-operate on that. Finally, thanks for kindly referencing my 4-part Muse articles. FYI I am writing regularly on classical myths for New York’s The Epoch Times. A full list of my articles can be found here:

  19. Gregory Spicer

    No sir, I am not British, but classical poetry has me envious of their rich cultural past. The grass is always greener on the other side of the pond, eh?

    Clearly the British navy understands the power of the superlative word since no one else names their ships so well!

    I leave the defense of liberalism in the capable hands of New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik’s latest book “A Thousand Small Sanities”.

    There are many conservatives I have admired over the years such as the famous George Will of Newsweek and ABC.
    And who could resist Samuel Johnson? Wasn’t He a tory?

    I especially appreciate your experience with theater and teenagers. I was in the drama club my senior year in high school and it had a more profound and long lasting influence on me than my English classes. Kids want to act out anyway, why not provide them a script? I like to think of it as a deskless scholarship snuck into their heads as they are having fun and there is no reason why critical life lessons such as personal responsibility can’t be a part of it all. You brits have always had more respect for theater than we yanks and I think it “shows”.

    Thanks a heap for the link. I will certainly check it out as I look forward to all of your future SCP contributions. Best of luck to you and yours!

  20. The Society

    A comment received from Dana Gioia:

    Thank you for the essay. I was intrigued that Yeats had brought you to Christianity— not a poet of reliable theology, though from your piece I understood how that visionary poem could send you spiraling on your own journey.

    I am in Washington today. Tonight I give a talk at the Trinity Forum on Poetry and Spiritual Formation. I am still revising it. One could spend a lifetime!

    All the best,
    Dana Gioia

  21. Ryan Burnett

    The thread of these comments leads me to a question: is this the Society of Classical Poets, or is this the Society of Non-Modern Poets?

    The difference is important.

    In the first case, the focus is on cherishing the great writers of our collective past; to study them with zeal until, as Milton said of Shakespeare, the great poet “Dost make us marble with too much conceiving”.

    The second case is the Society of Non-Modern Poets, whose purpose is to whine, sneer and generally fortify the already existing dichotomy between formal poetry and free verse. Why is this done? Why are there essays and poems dedicated to complaining about non-greatness? I don’t know, but I know it smells bad.

    I think it would be fruitful to consider that this website is dedicated to great formal poetry, not old formal poetry. Surely, when Sophocles, Euripides, Virgil, Cicero, Milton and Shakespeare were writing, they were all of them surrounded by awful poets, dramatists and rhetoricians. Yet, we don’t read them. We only read the ancient masters. Why? Because form alone is not enough. It is greatness we are after.

    Let me finish with this question: do you read classical poetry in order to keep the world old, or in order to make yourself new?

    • Paul Oratofsky

      My impression – and how I plan to follow it (being new here myself) – is to take the term “classical” as used here to mean to lean toward keeping meter and rhyme in mind – or to just submit poems that use those poetic devices.

      Although the tendency seems to be to use standard poetic forms (villanelle, sonnet, etc.) I feel a poem, as it comes out, should dictate its own form. Also, I prefer good off-rhymes to strict rhymes, when they’re [aesthetically] properly done. I’m not a fan of free verse, which to me means complete shapelessness, formlessness – although I’ve seen free verse poems that work (Stevens’ “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” Cummings, et al.)

      I find most of today’s published poems not to really be “poems” – but short memoir pieces, whose “point” I usually don’t get. For me, a poem is primarily a piece of music, and its most important aspects are its use of language, playfulness with sound and language, meter, and not its meaning, its content. I feel prose is the domain of wanting to convey a message – and poetry is the domain of playfulness.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      There actually is a real dichotomy between formal poetry and free verse. The former is governed by metrical and rhetorical rules, while the latter isn’t. The purpose of this website is to be on one side of the divide, not to foster some sort of utopian “unity” of the two. Is that clear enough for you?

      We are not the Society of Non-Modern Poets. But we are certainly the Society of Non-Modernist Poets. Everyone who writes in the contemporary world is “modern.” That’s simply a chronological designation. But the poets whom we celebrate and take as models here are “non-modernist,” in that they reject the absurdities of the modernist revolution that debased poetry in the twentieth century.

      Your last question is either facetious or meaningless. The world IS old, and we ARE new. If you are trying to make some point, you had better express yourself more lucidly.

      • Ryan Burnett

        Mr. Salemi,

        Thank you for your clear and direct response. I find this discussion fruitful and am excited to reply.

        First, I agree. There is a real dichotomy between formal poetry and free verse. As someone who has written formal poetry for the past decade, I believe in the value of meter and rhyme. I have read Milton’s “Paradise Lost” thirteen times and have a life-goal of reading it a hundred times. I have great respect for Homer, Virgil, Dante, Tennyson, Keats, Donne, Jonson, Marvell and, of course, Shakespeare. There is a kind of music in formal poetry that you cannot find in free verse and I like that music. Personally, the constriction of meter and rhyme is vivifying and has helped me grow as a poet.

        Second, I think you may have misunderstood my central point. My comment was not aimed at taking down the division between formal poetry and free verse. My purpose was, and is, to point out that it matters a great deal how identity forms. Let me give you an example: imagine a boy whose father is a pastor. That boy, if he is immature, will spend his whole life dressed up in black, listening to death metal in order to piss off his dad. If that boy matures, he will either keep dressing in black and listening to death metal because he actually likes those things for themselves; or he will realize he didn’t like them at all, just as a way to frustrate his father, and will form his identity in another way.

        What is my point in saying this? My point is that in many essays on this website you all sound like that boy. You seem to have developed a fixation on being angry at free verse and modernity as a point of identity. Of course, I understand the frustration; I even agree for the most part that free verse is mostly bad. But that doesn’t mean I think it is useful to spend energy forming identity around that which you are not.

        There is something far greater than being snarky about free verse. There is something far more emboldening, empowering and electrifying: the great poets themselves. There are many great essays on this website dedicated to them, and that is the good stuff. That is what I want when I visit this website. Not whiny lamentations.

        Finally, you asked me about my statement “do you read classical poetry in order to keep the world old, or in order to make yourself new?” You asked if I was joking or being meaningless. I was doing neither. The purpose of that question was to ask about the motivating force of your interest in formal poetry.

        Let me give you an example of what I mean. Suppose that a member of the Society of Classical Poets goes to a bookstore. Where will they go? To the poetry section, as we all know. But what will they do there? In one case, the sad case, they will rifle through modern poetry in order to get themselves twisted into a pretzel over how bad it all is, like a boy who can’t stop making fun of his preacher dad to his friends. In another case, in a far better case, this person finds a new translation of Virgil’s “Aeneid” and rejoices and buys it and zips home and with some scotch in hand starts reading the great epic with rapture.

        What is the result of these two paths?

        In the former, that member was trying to keep the world old, beat back the needles of modernity, to find pleasure in hating, to fixate on how others are wrong.

        In the latter, that member engaged in greatness, let their weaknesses be laid bare in front of a master like Virgil, let themselves discover new things, and most important of all, they took in the greatness of formal poetry in order to take that hot glare of the mind and turn it toward themselves, not others, themselves, in order to burn away the petty and small and in order to shine a light on the beautiful.

        They read the classic poets in order to make themselves new.

  22. Evan Mantyk

    Dear Ryan Burnett,

    Thank you for taking the time to write. I think your metaphorical example is crucially flawed. The situation is more like the father is still listening to death metal, a habit which seems likely to have contributed to his deafness and his wife and many girlfriends leaving him (and which was inherited from anger at his father), and the son generally likes classical and folk music and can’t help but occasionally remark on the deficiencies of death metal, its associated lifestyle, and the psychological baggage that was its impetus. The majority of what is published by the Society is simply enjoying formal poetry. You are welcome to submit poems or essays to The Society is simply what we make of it.

    • Ryan Burnett

      Mr. Mantyk,

      I appreciate your reply. And what a witty use of my metaphor! Smack!

      It would make me quite happy if the Society of Classical Poets were in fact the son you describe, one who “occasionally remarks” on the vices of modern poetry, but puts his greatest energy toward his love of meter, rhyme and the great monuments of that craft.

      To be wrong in this case would be a delight. May it be so that you and others treat modern poetry with the smallness you think it deserves, and leave it to the realm of “occasional”.

      Consider, though, the following essays from this website: “Poetry, Beauty and the Modern Age”, “A Poet’s Lament”, “Who Killed Poetry? A Critique of Modernism and Post-Modernism”, “Down with the Suck-Ups”, “Essay: A Defense of Poetry”, “Why Is Modern Art So Bad?”, “A Short Defense of Formal Poetry” and “Why Poetry Should Be Metered”.

      In fairness, there is a great deal of other essays in between each of these, and I love those essays on meter and the great poets; but I would ask you, and others, to consider how “occasional” the remarks on modern poetry are, in the poems composed, and especially in the comments sections on this website.

      I understand the value in critiquing modern poetry, I do. I don’t understand forming identity around it. That is subtle difference, but an important one in my opinion.

      You can expect an essay from me in time, probably on Milton. If I am going to be critical of something, I should be expected to do my part in the cure!

  23. Joseph S. Salemi

    Dear Mr. Burnett —

    What you say is perfectly correct philosophically. We should establish our poetic identities not on our peeves and bugbears, but on our positive abilities and talents as traditional ( i.e. “classical”) poets.

    But you fail to recognize something important. The positive, non-hostile, generous, and open-handed approach that you favor is inoperative in times of savage warfare. It would be wonderful if we could all go about with big smiles on our faces, being friendly with everyone in the poetry scene, and listening in a spirit of heartfelt appreciation to everybody. That would be really nice., I’m sure.

    But the current situation makes that attitude impossible.

    It’s much more than just a dichotomy of taste between proponents of classical poetry and free-verse partisans, like a taste for Mozart over Bach. Our type of poetry is HATED and DESPISED. The free-verse literary establishment in the Western world has done everything in its vast power to marginalize us, to demean us, to ignore us, and to ridicule us. They control academia, they control publishing houses, they control newspapers and journalistic reviews, and they control grant money. And they make use of that totalitarian control in ruthless ways.

    Under those circumstances, why should be be nice to them? The proper (and self-respecting) response of any despised minority is to fight back and assert itself. The interlocked networks of academics, publishers, editors, and opinion-makers that control what is called “the po-biz scene” both here and abroad is a mutual admiration society, utterly oblivious of anything except themselves, their status, and their chosen style. They treat us as if we were garbage. In warfare, a great deal of one’s identity depends on how well you hate the enemy, and how fiercely you express that hatred.

    We here at the SCP attack the poetic wasteland that surrounds us because without our attacks, the enemy will win this cultural war by default. And make no mistake — this is not just a war dealing with the minor issue of how lines of verse are composed. Not by a longshot! This is a major cultural war that is being waged on dozens of fronts, from politics to economics to education to religion and to basic attitudes and world-views. We here at the SCP are a small embattled outpost (“Fort Apache,” one might say) surrounded by savages.

    And you want us to be respectful and nice? You want us to ignore the raging combat? Thanks, but no thanks.

  24. James Sale

    Hi Ryan, You make some interesting points, although I tend to agree with Joe Salemi even if I do not possess his formidable powers of vituperation! But then I do not live in NY (but low-key Bournemouth in England) where things really are at a highly charged and concentrated level. However, that said, the UK is currently experiencing and critical death-agonies in these cultural wars as the will of the people is being blocked by the ‘modernist’ Remainers who wish to prevent us leaving the EU. The politics and the poetry are highly correlated. But I have to say I like you, and think you must be a good egg: anyone who has read Paradise Lost 13 times earns my respect. And one could not speak enough about just how awesome that poem is.

  25. B. S. Eliud Acrewe

    1. I, too, am impressed that Mr. Burnett has read Milton’s “Paradise Lost” thirteen times. But to what end? 100 times? Why?

    2. Why I read Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, hundreds of lines every year for decades, was to absorb his epic style. There are many extraordinary things about Milton’s style, its power (superior to Nietzsche’s) is extraordinary, though it was deadening to Keats, His remarkable linguistic constructions, his grand vision, the level of his mastery of the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, and the moderns of his time, et cetera.

    3. Mr. Burnett is right: We should focus on “Sophocles, Euripides, Vergil, Cicero, Milton and Shakespeare.” He has great respect for “Homer, Vergil, Dante, Tennyson, Keats, Donne, Jonson, Marvel and Shakespeare”. But only them? There are so many more from around the Globe, but particularly the depths of Greek poetry and prose. And this was, I think, the biggest dilemma for Roman literature—the clash between the old and the new.

    4. So, finally, on another level I agree even more deeply with Mr. Burnett, when he emphasizes the new. He touches just briefly upon two “old” forms of the late Medieval and early Renaissance, sonnet and villanelle (and the many others beloved by writers @ SCP); but here is my question; and it’s one that plagued Whitman viscerally, but Pound both intellectually and viscerally: How do we make the new, while being grounded in tradition? How does one deal with such an enormous task? For literature, like mathematics, with its many eddies and its countless prospects, is a burgeoning accruescence.

    • Gregory Spicer

      Dear Mr. Sale,

      Whether or not it is wise to do, I think I must throw in with Mr. Acrewe’s thinking on the matter. His “burgeoning accruescence” idea seems accurate, if not inspired. It is certainly much more attractive than Big Joe Salami’s bastard literary child of chairman Mao’s little red book and the Unabomber’s manifesto so nastily written above. BTW, how can a chap as apparently brilliant as yourself keep condoning and enabling such horrendous “vituperation”?

      Even Frankenstein’s monster knew vituperation to be counterproductive. I implore you to reexamine the synonyms of vituperation.

      As to your question of “How indeed” I offer the following (more than likely unpopular at the SCP) example.


      I had physical pain in a dream
      Which went away as I woke up
      As if it were some magic cream
      Vaporized from the coffee cup
      Where I had poured Morphean teas
      Brewed in a poet’s alma mater
      Of often gazed at lunar seas
      Full of wispy pixie water
      Attuned to robot gallivants
      Out past yonder heliosphere
      Where angels wear the trendy pants
      So gossamer they disappear
      Just like the nightmare pain I had
      Done in…by daybreak kilorad.

      I realize that this Humble “pseudo-sonnet” is not the end all be all, but I feel that mixing new with old is the only way forward. After all, that is how recombinant DNA greets the future, God given or otherwise.

      And with all due respect, how many times must someone read Paradise lost before one gets the gist? Yes it is awesome, but may we not now please blaze forward as you yourself are so admirably attempting?

  26. Brent Pallas

    Dear T.M. Moore – Loved your essay and loved reading all the replies! But there’s a lot of anger out there regarding modern verse. People don’t write Shakespearean style plays anymore or (not too many) make silent movies or paint on cave walls. Art must change to survive. But we all stand (though cliché it’s true) on the shoulders of giants. I don’t like all modern poetry just as I don’t like all ‘classical’ poems. I think they can all survive together like a DaVinci hanging beside a Pollock. I’m so happy you choose Yeat’s The Second Coming. I also remember the first time I read it as I do reading John Donne’s prose Meditation 17 from which the poem NO MAN IS AN ISLAND was drawn from. I remember the room I was sitting in when I came upon it. In the end I vote for poetry that moves and wakens us. Even if it’s in blank unrhymed verse like THE SECOND COMING. Thanks for your wonderful heartfelt essay.

    • T. M.

      Thank you for your thoughtful response. I agree that simply being classical or formal does not make a poem good. I gravitate to it because its rhythms, images, and various devices engage my soul – heart, mind, and conscience – in ways most nonformal verse does not (although some does). And I appreciate the effort that goes into fitting one’s ideas into a preset form, so that the form exerts a kind of power on the ideas to enhance and makes them more effective.

  27. Brent Pallas

    Dear Mr. Moore – You might also like this Blake poem if you have not read it already. I read it to myself every year and remember the first time I read it.

    I AM made to sow the thistle for wheat, the nettle for a nourishing dainty:
    I have planted a false oath in the earth; it has brought forth a Poison Tree:
    I have chosen the serpent for a counsellor, and the dog
    For a schoolmaster to my children:

    I have blotted out from light and living the dove and nightingale,
    And I have causèd the earthworm to beg from door to door:
    I have taught the thief a secret path into the house of the just:
    I have taught pale Artifice to spread his nets upon the morning.
    My heavens are brass, my earth is iron, my moon a clod of clay,
    My sun a pestilence burning at noon, and a vapour of death in night.

    What is the price of Experience? Do men buy it for a song,
    Or Wisdom for a dance in the street? No! it is bought with the price
    Of all that a man hath—his house, his wife, his children.
    Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy,
    And in the wither’d field where the farmer ploughs for bread in vain.

    It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer’s sun,
    And in the vintage, and to sing on the waggon loaded with corn:
    It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted,
    To speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer,
    To listen to the hungry raven’s cry in wintry season,
    When the red blood is fill’d with wine and with the marrow of lambs:

    It is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements;
    To hear the dog howl at the wintry door, the ox in the slaughterhouse moan;
    To see a God on every wind and a blessing on every blast;
    To hear sounds of Love in the thunderstorm that destroys our enemy’s house;
    To rejoice in the blight that covers his field, and the sickness that cuts off his children,
    While our olive and vine sing and laugh round our door, and our children bring fruits and flowers.

    Then the groan and the dolour are quite forgotten, and the slave grinding at the mill,
    And the captive in chains, and the poor in the prison, and the soldier in the field
    When the shatter’d bone hath laid him groaning among the happier dead:
    It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity—
    Thus would I sing and thus rejoice; but it is not so with me.


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