Thursday, March 29, 2012

Me Versus the Western Canon, Round Two

I've been trying to read more poetry lately. As someone who works with language, I'm always looking around to see what bright people are making out of words, what images other writers have discovered, what opportunities exist to break grammar apart and reformulate it in startling, shiny ways. A poet is often more daring than a prose writer and often has a more sensitive ear for the sounds of the work, the vowels against the consonants, the inner rhythms and rhymes, the stresses falling on more or less important words, etc. You know: the poetry of the writing. See how clever I am to define "poetry" by calling it "poetry." Did I mention that I work with language? Maybe I should say prosody, though that doesn't really seem to capture all of it. The fine shadings within the music of language, maybe.

Poetry and I do not have a rich and storied history together. We aren't old pals, neighbored in youth and 'havior. I read the old chestnuts in school (you know, the standard list of Frost and Poe and Tennyson and Whitman and Lindsay that every American youth was fed during the late 60s and early 70s) and in college I wandered around with Sylvia Plath and and Erica Jong and Emily Dickenson and Shakespeare and Allen Ginsberg. I paid far too much attention to pop song lyrics which are generally not very good poetry at all. So I don't know much about poetry, obviously. The Poetess of Boise suggested Seamus Heaney some years ago and I like him a good deal but there's only so much of him I can take before I no longer know what I'm reading.

I'm searching, therefore, for an idea of what I actually like in poetry. Who I like, who I don't like, getting together a plan to deepen or at least broaden my understanding of what's out there. My starting point is the Norton Anthology of Poetry 3rd Edition (Shorter). I'm working my way from front-to-back, starting with old Anglo Saxon poems and will someday find myself in the impossible future year of 1983 or whatever. I'm in the 18th century now, and have decided that there are a lot of English poets I won't be bothering with in future.

Here's this Philistine's review of some English poets up to the end of the Baroque era:

Chaucer is still on the list; Canterbury Tales is a classic. William Langland's Piers Plowman is worth the time, too.

William Dunbar, though? Not so much. John Skelton is a bit too foursquare for me. I can appreciate guys like Thomas Wyatt (My Lute, Awake!) but I can't spend a lot of time with him, no. Henry Howard is readable enough, but his short bits on love and nature don't move me.

But, you know, Spencer and John Donne and Shakespeare (of course) and some of Ben Jonson and Robert Herrick (that sensualist, always going on about Julia and what a happy strain she puts upon his libido) and Milton (of course of course and have you not read Paradise Lost?) and Anne Bradstreet but Dryden is overrated but Edward Taylor seems all right and Jonathan Swift and I will have more to do with each other in the future (or me with him, him being dead lo these many centuries) but Alexander Pope, whose "Rape of the Lock" I've circled all these decades? My, I just don't like him so I don't see what all the fuss is about.

William Cowper writes a nice epitaph for one of his pet rabbits, so I might see about seeing more of him. Samuel Johnson doesn't do a thing for me. William Blake is an old favorite though he can be oppressive if I spend too much time with him. Robert Burns? Oh, I do like Burns. I've just started the Wordsworth section. Wish me luck.

I will admit that my favorite poem from this collection is one by John Lily. It's a poem that I used in a novel several years ago, as lyrics to a drinking song sung by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (yes, those two) while deep in their cups:

Oh, for a bowl of fat Canary,
Rich Palermo, sparkling Sherry,
Some nectar else from Juno's dairy;
Oh, these draughts would make us merry!

Oh, for a wench (I deal in faces,
And in other daintier things);
Tickled am I with her embraces,
Fine dancing in such fairy rings.

Oh, for a plump fat leg of mutton,
Veal, lamb, capon, pig and coney;
None is happy but a glutton,
None an ass but who wants money.

Wines indeed and girls are good,
But brave victuals feast the blood;
For wenches, wine and lusty cheer,
Jove would leap down to surfeit here.

4 comments:

  1. I like 'em all! But I like everything, which is why my opinion on this sort of thing is of little value. I am more interested in the fuss.

    On t'other hand, it is easy to see why certain kinds of playing around with language are less useful to a novelist than others. Swift's visual imagery, or Wordsworth's phrasing: useful; Skelton's rattling rhymes or Pope's elegant couplets: useless (unless you are writing Pale Fire).

    Another Cowper poem that is very much worth knowing is one of his last, "The Castaway."

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  2. I would be a better person if I let myself like all the poems in the collection, but "what I can use" is a criterion that plagues all my reading. I read like I'm a shoplifter at a jeweler's: what can I turn to my profit? And it's largely true that I'm reading poetry not so much to enjoy poems as to plunder a graveyard for useful ideas about figurative language. I lead a very narrow little intellectual life.

    Rhyme schemes like aa,bb,cc etc bother me these days and I can't make myself concentrate on such poems. 17th-century rhythmic devices like

    (five syllables)comma(five syllables)comma
    (five syllables)comma(five syllables)comma ad infinitum

    set up hypnotic patterns that put me to sleep, so I skip to what's next. Though I noticed this weekend that even those poets I dismiss seem better on second or third readings, so perhaps I should approach this as less a shopping expedition and more a long-term relationship. I'm not as patient a reader as I used to be. None of this goes to my credit.

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  3. 1. That Cowper poem is in the anthology I'm reading. It's a fine bit of work.

    2. I mean "18th-century" or no century at all; that rhythmic pattern is found all over, innit?

    3. The poem I display as my favorite has, mostly, the aabbcc sort of rhyme scheme I claim to dislike. So huh.

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  4. A necessarily narrow intellectual life - you have work to do.

    Nabokov somewhere calls the 18th century the "least artistic of centuries." I believe you are hitting on a good part of his criticism.

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