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.

Pulling Books At Random

The conventional notion of patience is to be very kind and wait and hold your temper, repressing your restlessness…The bodhisattva, on the other hand, free from the compulsive concern with time, can just sit patiently without feeling that he is “waiting” for something else to happen.

~Chogyam Trungpa, The Myth Of Freedom



* * *

Is there a personal Devil? This is more or less the same question as whether there is a personal God. If God, being much greater than we can imagine, is not ultimately personal but is capable of relating to us as persons, something more or less similar is probably true of the great downward force portrayed as the unholy trinity of “the world, the flesh, and the Devil.”…We may fear the Devil and struggle against him, but without him we would not be what we are.
~Richard Smoley, Inner Christianity



* * *

“My friend, I still want to be a gentleman, and to be accepted as such,” the visitor began in a fit of some sort of spongerish, good-natured, and already-yielding ambition. “I am poor, but…I won’t say very honest, but…in society it’s generally accepted as an axiom that I am a fallen angel. By God, I can’t imagine how I could ever have been an angel. If I ever was one, it was so long ago that it’s no sin to have forgotten it…”
~Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky)