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A Poet’s Shelf Life

Thinking about free verse and the American Idiom.


A long time ago I read William Carlos Williams book The American Idiom which helped me understand how very different poetry’s language is in this country from our English predecessors. More than that it was a series of letters between Dr. Williams and Harold Norse. I used to tell people all the time that I learned more from reading little books like this than I ever did in my undergraduate days.

Frost may have viewed free
verse as playing tennis without a net, but
I’ve played tennis with and
without a net. And all things
considered, I’d take
free verse any day.

Still, do we all live under the shadow of Whitman? Where do these thoughts come from? Is there anything original left?

Whitman wrote in his preface to Leaves Of Grass: “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” If that’s true, then why do so many poets think that poetry is dying in this country? Or worse, as that other old man Donald Hall once wrote about in his famous essay ‘Poetry and Ambition’:

“Our poems, in their charming and interchangeable quantity, do not presume to the status of ‘Lycidas’—for that would be elitist and un-American. We write and publish the McPoem—ten billion served—which becomes our contribution to the history of literature as the Model T is our contribution to a history which runs from bare feet past elephant and rickshaw to the vehicles of space.”

It is a fallacy of course for any poet to write a poem and think it will be long-lived like Milton’s work, or Blake or any other immortal poet that comes to mind. Poems that have lasted more than a century were undoubtedly groundbreaking in their day, but I believe these poems were written not with longevity in mind on the part of the poet. No, it was the flirt not with the Muse so much as it was with what Lorca called ‘Duende’–the dance on the brink of madness perhaps, flirting with death, without a care in the world, becoming one with the work, being overcome by the work, finding that place where the poem takes over the poet, that place of no-ego, but not in the classic Buddha sense.

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