Friday, January 25, 2008

Poetry Friday/ Reader's Diary #325- Oscar Williams (Editor): Immortal Poems of the English Language (FINISHED)

Clocking in at 618 pages, there were many moments when I thought this book would end my love for poetry. But I'm glad persevered. I learned a little about myself and my tastes. In general, I still think 20th century poetry is better than most that came earlier. Immortal Poems of the English Language showcases poetry chronologically from the 1300s (Chaucer) right on up to the mid-1900s (Dylan Thomas).

Right up to the mid to late 1800s, I could barely distinguish one century's poetry with another. It had definitely gotten stale and repetitive. Excuse me for not lamenting the loss of "thou" from the English language.

I was also surprised by how oozing with sentimentality many of these classics were. Being overwrought seems to be one of the major criticisms of modern poetry, yet back then poets could get away with such lines as "If I have freedom in my love/ and in my soul am free..." While I'm sure people could defend Richard Lovelace, composer of the aforementioned lines, because when he wrote them in the 1600s when such grandiose philosophy was somewhat original, poets were still writing such nonsense 200 years afterwards. "O" was as annoyingly common a word as "thou." Progress has been slow, to be sure.

The only great examples of imagery from those times seemed to come from the longer, narrative ballads. But even of these, I could only tolerate a few (such as Coleridge's "The Tale of the Ancient Mariner"). It's probably a personal thing but I appreciate the ability of poetry to find truth in a few short lines. If it takes 5 pages or more, I tune out and quite frankly would rather read a short story. That's probably why short poems, like A. E. Housman's "Infant Innocence" stood out as real gems:

Infant Innocence
The Grizzly Bear is huge and wild;
He has devoured the infant child.
The infant child is not aware
It has been eaten by the bear.

But it's not just because of shortness, more specificity and imagery, or the absence of a few "O's" and "thous" that I like later poetry more, it's also the themes themselves. Nature, love, and especially God seemed to be the three most common sources of inspiration for hundreds and hundreds of years. It was nice to see a few other topics open up towards the 20th century. It's not to say that taboo issues such as sex weren't hinted at in some of the older poems, but it was nice to have the liberation manifest itself in poetry more frankly.

Of course, not enjoying older poetry is hardly an issue with the book. I'm sure many people love it. I did notice, however, that there were some pretty obvious omissions. There were several Edgar Allan Poe poems for example, but not "The Raven." To me, that's as criminal as highlighting his short stories without "The Tell-Tale Heart." Since most of the oversights that I picked up on were post-Poe, perhaps he began to run into copyright issues as he ventured out of public domain territory (the book was originally published in 1952).

On the positive side, the older poems did seem to implant the importance of rhythm in my brain. Not that I wasn't aware of its effect on poetry but I grew to appreciate even more the rise and fall of the words even when I'd tuned out from the meaning itself. Plus, it was nice to revisit lots of great poetry I'd come across in the past. I once read that to truly appreciate a poem, one must read it several times over. I don't always have the patience for that in one sitting, but even revisiting a poem several years later seems to make a difference.

The soundtrack:
1. Drawn To The Rhythm- Sarah McLachlan
2. O Come, O Come Emmanuel- Belle and Sebastian
3. Trapped In The Drive Thru- Weird Al Yankovic
4. The Times They Are A-Changin'- Bob Dylan
5. Long Time Running- The Tragically Hip


Chrisbookarama said...

Why couldn't they fit The Raven in? Strange.
I have a poem as part of my post today. Have breakfast first before reading ;)

Jules at 7-Imp said...

Thou hast written a great post here.

(Sorry. Couldn't pass that up).

I also, whether it's an older or contemporary poem, find myself woefully impatient with poems longer than five pages -- or, hell, even less, really. I know it's not fair of me.

Jules, 7-Imp

Andromeda Jazmon said...

I thought I was the only one in the Society of College English Majors that lost interest after four stanzas. Short is definitely better, and clear images are what it's all about for me. Housman's Grizzly poem rocks! I could BE that infant unaware of having been eaten, right?

Barbara Bruederlin said...

You have helped me pinpoint what is the single most important factor in my enjoyment of poetry - brevity.

Of course any post that cites Weird AL Yankovic is not going to be overly precious anyway, is it?

jama said...

O John! (Like Jules, couldn't resist.)

I'm with you on the long, tedious poems. Can't abide them at all. Since you don't like "thou's," does this mean you don't read Shakespeare?

John Mutford said...

Chris: Actually I had haggis for breakfast, so your post was just fine.

7-Imp: Thy thankest thou. Yes, I was probably pushing my own limits with 5 pages.

Cloudscome: I think we've all been that infant.

Barbara: Probably would have been a more effective post if I'd somehow kept it short myself! And are you implying that Weird Al is not a genius?!

Jama: O stop! ACtually I like Shakespeare. There are exceptions to everything I guess. And besides it's more that poets were still using "thou" 200 years later that was driving me nuts.

Anonymous said...

I do read poetry as I write it. However, I need breaks. I can't read it in a long stretch!

BTW, you have been tagged! Please don't kill me. I assure you, you will like doing it!

Anonymous said...

Great soundtrack, btw.

Over at my blog? A poem with thy/thine/thou. And I love-love-love the poem. So there. Still, I know whereof thou speaketh.

I keep meaning to read Spenser's The Faerie Queen, for instance, but it's a no-go so far.

tanita✿davis said...

HAPPY BURNS DAY! So glad you had the haggis (for me). Funny, I just wrote how I've struggled to like soppy, sentimental, forced-rhyme, LONG poems today -- but you're right, there ARE exceptions, even for I and thou...

laurasalas said...

I am so into shorter poetry, too. If a poem is longer than about 20 lines, I sometimes pass. One of the things I like best about poetry is its compression, and if its long, it just usually doesn't have it!

thegirlinblue said...

I've read this book and I loved it. However, I lost my copy... and I'm trying to track down one of my favorite poems from it...

It's a more modern one, pretty sure from the 20th century, and the theme is basically that it's always better to do something naughty than to regret that you never did anything bad in the first place.

something like "it's always better to have done somethin' you oughtn't.." and it's very cheeky.

Do you know the one I'm talking about?? Haha I'm going nuts here...

Zachariah Wells said...

The problem's not old poetry, John, the problem's the anthology and the guy who built it. Williams himself had a penchant for trite doggerel, and he was assembling his anthologies for a mass audience in the 1950s and 1960s and most folks prefer sentimental rhyming to real poetry. Williams made a fortune from it.

You quoted a couple of objectionable lines from Lovelace's "To Althea from Prison," but you should really quote the whole stanza, which contains some of the most memorable and oft-quoted lines ever written:

Stone Walls doe not a Prison make
Nor Iron bars a Cage;
Mindes innocent and quiet take
That for an Hermitage
If I have freedome in my Love,
And in my soule am free;
Angels alone that sore above,
Injoy such Liberty.

The lines you quote, following hard on the heels of the Prison/Bars lines, make this a powerful statement of defiance against oppression and imprisonment, not just some treacly platitude. And Lovelace could be raunchy, in a sly and subtle way:


I cannot tell, who loves the skeleton
Of a poor marmoset; nought but bone, bone.
Give me a nakedness with her clothes on.

Such, whose white-satin upper coat of skin,
Cut upon velvet rich incarnadin,
Has yet a body (and of flesh) within.

Sure, it is meant good husbandry in men,
Who do incorporate with aery lean,
T' repair their sides, and get their rib again.

Hard hap unto that huntsman that decrees
Fat joys for all his sweat, whenas he sees,
After his 'say, nought but his keeper's fees.

Then, Love, I beg, when next thou takest thy bow,
Thy angry shafts, and dost heart-chasing go,
Pass rascal deer, strike me the largest doe.

To paraphrase: fat-bottomed girls, they make the rockin' world go round.

Thing is, poets often become famous for their least interesting poems. Wordsworth and his goddamn daffodils, Byron for "She walks in beauty," Frost for "Stopping by Woods." Most of the poetry of any age is crap, and even most of the poetry written by the very best poets is crap. Some of that crap is very well loved and gets preserved as coprolites in books like Immortal Poems. The crap of this age is just more palatable to us because it sounds more like we do. But believe me, someone will look back on our crap 200 years hence and say, how could anyone like that?

John Mutford said...

Gautami: I'll get to that tag soon, I swear.

Kelly: I can take "thous" in small doses. A couple hundred poems worth, not so much.

TadMack: Alas, I lied about the haggis. I've never even tried it.

Laura: Maybe our shorter attention apans is a problem!

Thegirlinblue: If I figure it out, I'll let you know.

Zachariah: I'm sure some of the problem was Williams' choices, just as I'm sure much of the problem had to do with my lack of patience.

As for the Lovelace poem, I didn't single him out for any good reason other than opening the book at random. That particular poem is not my least favourite, but it does highlight some of my issues with the older poetry. Even in the stanza you highlighted, there seems to be so little to hold onto. Asides from the stone walls and iron bars, there's hardly anything in the way of concrete images. "Freedome" and "soules" are of course fine topics to discuss, but just throwing the words out doesn't appeal to me at all. It's not so much much Lovelace as it is centuries of Lovelaces using these words as stock that got to me. Likewise with the sly and subtle references to sex. If it was all out of artistic merit, fine. But again, after centuries of such subtlety, I felt I needed something more direct. The oppression was wearing me down. In short, I wanted less freedom, more sex.

Zachariah Wells said...

Ah, but you miss a very important and complicating bit of grammar in that stanza, John: "If." The offending lines are couched in the conditional, and the concrete imagery of the first stanza suggests that Lovelace is not, indeed, free in love or soul:

When I lye tangled in her haire,
And fettered to her eye;
The Gods that wanton in the Aire,
Know no such liberty.

In all the other stanzas, he uses "when," but breaks the formula at the end. Which is easy to miss, particularly if you're frustrated by a couple thousand thous and thees and aery abstractions preceding it.

If you want bawdy badassness, check out Lord Wilmot, Earl of Rochester.

John Mutford said...

Zachariah: I'm afraid I'm not going to warm to this point. I didn't miss the word "if" at all. My problem was with the overuse of these philosophical words "freedome" and "soule" regardless of whether or not "if" or any other restriction was in place. I'd have had as much issue with words such as "peace", "love" and "understanding". Again, not that said words should be off limits, it's just that I found so many poets to just talk about them vacantly with no real attempts to anchor them to any objects, symbols, or to the reader. It's like by mentioning such words they were somehow giving the illusion of hard thinking when actually it was all just lip service. But thanks for the recommendations.