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Essence of Poetry
Posted by: marian2 (
Date: June 04, 2004 06:00AM

Went to a Bradford Book Festival event yesterday - Gerard Benson talking about and reading from Poems on the Underground and got to thinking about constraint and whether it was the essence of poetry as opposed to prose. In this case the constraint is having to select poems to fit into the space available and be big enough to read easily across the carriage - so choices are now limited to a maximum of about 10 lines, (before the logos had to go on a sonnet would just about fit ) or they can double up to 20 if the lines are short. A lot of things rule themselves out, and anything commissioned has to be written to fit. They do a very few extracts of poems but their general rule is it should be a whole poem.

Generally, I've always found short poems more satisfying (to read and write) than longer ones though there are lots of longish ones I like very much indeed. To me a lot of the skill in poetry is in making it fit the constraints, whether they are rhyme or free verse with rhythm or whatever, without it appearing contrived or losing the meaning . It's that difficulty that made poets so frustrated with formal rhyme schemes that they began to break all the rules and eventaully throw away the rule book, and which led to the 'it isn't poetry if it doesn't rhyme' - 'well lots of things that do rhyme aren't poetry, but doggerel' arguments that have destroyed the enjoyment and commercial availability of poetry for a lot of people . Incidentally, I think Poetry on the Underground has done a lot to redress this, along with certain poetry programme request programmes on the radio and regular poems in some of the newspapers. Prose is free and looser in form and thereby generally less satisfying to me to read or achieve (again lots of exceptions) The hardest form to do well must be something like a vianelle - I can only think of one or two that work for me.

Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: Hugh Clary (
Date: June 04, 2004 11:30AM

Is this what you are talking about?:


Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: Talia (
Date: June 04, 2004 11:40AM

Marian, lot of good stuff here.

I agree about shorter poems. Iv'e always been this way and maybe society is parlty to blame for it, but my attention span, as mature as I may be is short, and I have absolutely no patience for a boring poem. If it doesn't interest from the get go, I won't keep reading. I know there is far more poetry in this world than I will ever get around to reading in this lifetime, so why keep reading what doesn't immediately interest me? Now if a professor points it out, perhaps my attention span needs tuning and I need to give it a second look, but for the most part, lit mags and new poets, I don't stand to keep reading if it's not good...and aint that the truth with sending submssions in for publication? You better send the good stuff and the best poem better be on the top...because if the editor has been reading too many poems and your's sound like all the rest of them you don't stand a chance.

And I see your point about the poetry blending in with prose when you remove some of the restraints, but I think that you have to find a happy medium. I think sonnets are for the most part boring, predictable, and many sound so much alike. This is why it's difficult to write something new within this restraint...we only have so many rhyming words in our language. But I would rather read something more cutting edge. But I think that a good poem must have 2 important elements: 1. It must make clear and perfect sense to the reader, or at least have the possibility. and 2. It must be fresh and unlike prose.

Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: Johnny SansCulo (
Date: June 04, 2004 11:54AM

There's nothing wrong with short and to the point........a drowning man doesn't say "please render me assistance"

All writing is essentially communication......there are times I could swear that people are typing with one hand while holding a thesaurus in the other......that doesnt do ANYONE any good !

Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: lg (
Date: June 04, 2004 12:43PM

I agree with most of what you have to say, but Talia and Marian your posts were too lengthy to read. (Just kidding.)

I agree with Marian, especially in thinking that the constraints of 10 lines seems way too short, even for me who likes to see compact verse.


Post Edited (06-04-04 11:58)

Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: joseph r. torelli (
Date: June 04, 2004 05:18PM

agree that short poems are, generally, more interesting and satisfying; however, I am glad that Tennyson, for one, didn't always comply with my desires. I would have hated to miss any of his "In Memoriam," for instance.
Similarly, most classic ballads would lose their effect if their authors had opted for brevity. As long as there's substance, long poems are fine.

On the other hand, I have to admire how someone like Hillaire Belloc communicates so well with so few words. Witness the classic, "Lines on a Christmas Card," for instance:

May all my enemies go to hell,
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel.

There's little doubt about the meaning.


Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: Pam Adams (
Date: June 04, 2004 07:57PM

Perhaps they could run something like 'The Cremation of Sam McGee' in several segments- you'd walk from car to car to read it.

My gripe about the poetry on our public transit (not the graffiti, the poetry) is that they don't print it large enough for me to read!


Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: marian2 (
Date: June 05, 2004 07:42AM

Yes, Hugh - that's it - the event I went to was so good I even bought the book (after swearing I'd never buy another poetry anthology till I've read all the way through the ones I already have - about 20 of them!)

Thanks for the input, folks, it made an interesting thread. I agree there are some wonderful long poems (esp Tennyson) but - like that music quote - there are some wonderful moments and some very tedious quarters of an hour in some of the really long poems.

Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: Chesil (
Date: June 06, 2004 01:07PM

We would have lost so much if poetry had always been restricted in length. Much of Milton, Byron, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning and so many others. Admittedly, it is hard to retain the reader's attention throughout a long poem, but isn't that also the case with prose? Few novels really grip attention throughout.

I do think, however, that modern poets writing book length poems have mostly lost the plot. The great long poems were usually good tales. I recall reading a fairly recent book length poem by John Ashbery and was lost after the first hundred lines or so. I put it down never to pick it up again.

Glasgow is gloomy this afternoon and I have a miserable miserable cold. I'll be so glad to go home and stop living in hotel rooms. Still, a fine opportunity to read the current Poetry Society's Poetry Review, which, sadly, contains some John Ashbury work!


Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: Hugh Clary (
Date: June 06, 2004 02:42PM

Great credentials, but ho-hum verse, I gotta admit.


Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: Steven Waling (195.8.166.---)
Date: June 18, 2004 07:27AM


Not exactly top-notch Ashbery though.

Try "Farm Implements & Rutabagas in a Landscape", "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" or anything from his last couple of books. He's actually best, in my opinion, at medium length. His short ones don't really get going.

But he has to be read at a fair old speed. His poems are like the way most people think when they're not doing anything much, or doing something boring like the washing-up: not in logical order, like an essay, but jumping about from subject to subject, place to place.

Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: Hugh Clary (
Date: June 18, 2004 11:57AM

Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape

The first of the undecoded messages read: "Popeye sits in thunder,
Unthought of. From that shoebox of an apartment,
From livid curtain's hue, a tangram emerges: a country."
Meanwhile the Sea Hag was relaxing on a green couch: "How pleasant
To spend one's vacation en la casa de Popeye," she scratched
Her cleft chin's solitary hair. She remembered spinach

And was going to ask Wimpy if he had bought any spinach.
"M'love," he intercepted, "the plains are decked out in thunder
Today, and it shall be as you wish." He scratched
The part of his head under his hat. The apartment
Seemed to grow smaller. "But what if no pleasant
Inspiration plunge us now to the stars? For this is my country."

Suddenly they remembered how it was cheaper in the country.
Wimpy was thoughtfully cutting open a number 2 can of spinach
When the door opened and Swee'pea crept in. "How pleasant!"
But Swee'pea looked morose. A note was pinned to his bib. "Thunder
And tears are unavailing," it read. "Henceforth shall Popeye's apartment
Be but remembered space, toxic or salubrious, whole or scratched."

Olive came hurtling through the window; its geraniums scratched
Her long thigh. "I have news!" she gasped. "Popeye, forced as you know to flee the
One musty gusty evening, by the schemes of his wizened, duplicate father, jealous of the
And all that it contains, myself and spinach
In particular, heaves bolts of loving thunder
At his own astonished becoming, rupturing the pleasant

Arpeggio of our years. No more shall pleasant
Rays of the sun refresh your sense of growing old, nor the scratched
Tree-trunks and mossy foliage, only immaculate darkness and thunder."
She grabbed Swee'pea. "I'm taking the brat to the country."
"But you can't do that--he hasn't even finished his spinach,"
Urged the Sea Hag, looking fearfully around at the apartment.

But Olive was already out of earshot. Now the apartment
Succumbed to a strange new hush. "Actually it's quite pleasant
Here," thought the Sea Hag. "If this is all we need fear from spinach
Then I don't mind so much. Perhaps we could invite Alice the Goon over"--she scratched
One dug pensively--"but Wimpy is such a country
Bumpkin, always burping like that." Minute at first, the thunder

Soon filled the apartment. It was domestic thunder,
The color of spinach. Popeye chuckled and scratched
His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.

Self Portrait appears to be the name of a book? I could not find the individual poem with that title.


Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: Marian-NYC (
Date: June 18, 2004 03:01PM

Marian2 wrote: "To me a lot of the skill in poetry is in making it fit the constraints, whether they are rhyme or free verse with rhythm or whatever, without it appearing contrived or losing the meaning."

For me, too, one of the pleasures of reading poetry -- ONE of them! -- is seeing a large and abstract idea expressed in a small and definite form. And it's a challenge I enjoy on those rare occasions that I write poems.

I also agree with the general sense (above) that shorter is OFTEN --not always! -- better. Almost any piece of writing can be trimmed and made more effective. And if I pick up a book of poems by someone I've never heard of, I will probably read a short one first and then decide whether to read another.

But -- I mean AND -- no, I mean BUT, when I hear the word "constraint" used in a discussion of form, often someone is complaining, and I want to say to them: Pick a form that works for you and stop complaining! If you want to write the history of your family since the 1500s, obviously you will not choose Haiku or origami as your medium. If you want to describe the way the sunlight made a rainbow on your wall when it hit a glass of ginger ale, you're more likely to choose haiku or painting, less likely to choose mosaic or tattoo. What am I saying... With jillions of forms and materials to use (and more to be invented), don't talk about "constraint" when YOU, after all, are choosing to express yourself in a particular form.

Cristo creates artworks that are installed in canyons and deserts. He doesn't complain that visual art is "constrained" by the size of American museums.

Constraint IS an issue for the guy who chooses poems for subway carriages. But he has CHOSEN this very specific challenge. He isn't complaining about being "constrained" to choose artworks that are made of words (as opposed to, say, fish oil). I imagine he took on the challenge because feels that reading a short poem on the tube IS A GOOD THING. He may also hope that someone who enjoys a one-minute experience of reading poetry between Bond Street and Baker Street may decide to pick up something more than twenty lines long another time.

Remember the athletic shoe ad line: JUST DO IT!

Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: marian2 (
Date: June 21, 2004 06:34AM

For me constraint doesn't carry the element of complaint that it seems to for my namesake. The constraint produces the challenge and the fulfillment comes in rising to it. Removing all the constraints results in prose, to me. That was all I was trying to say.

Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: Marian-NYC (
Date: June 21, 2004 05:01PM

"The constraint produces the challenge and the fulfillment comes in rising to it. "


Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: Johnny SansCulo (
Date: June 21, 2004 05:09PM

Can't just have things flappin' in the breeze !

Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: Steven Waling (195.8.166.---)
Date: June 24, 2004 08:43AM

Unless they're flags, or washing-lines, of course.

Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: Marian-NYC (
Date: June 24, 2004 12:37PM

And hence I find it sport
To keep my poems short
Enough to get one done
Before the next's begun.

Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: Johnny SansCulo (
Date: June 24, 2004 12:52PM

Essence of Brevity

Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: Just Jack (
Date: June 24, 2004 05:53PM


Just for you, family history from 1500s in haiku form.

The Jacks go way back
Sixteenth century, but now
Cutting down the tree


Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: Emer (
Date: June 24, 2004 06:32PM

Despite the fact that most of the poetry I write is short, I love the satisfaction you get from reading the likes of "The Balad of Reading Gaol" and "The Raven". For me, when I'm reading lengthy poetry, even if my attention dwindles in parts, the rewards outweigh any tedium. It's like Ulysses, the overall feeling you get when you finish it is so rewarding. Just my opinion.

Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: Marian-NYC (
Date: June 24, 2004 07:34PM

That's one good thing about the category of CLASSIC poetry. There's a pretty good chance that if you invest the time and effort, you'll end up with that sense of satisfaction. It's no guarantee, but you can trust that time and various editors have weeded out the merely LONG.

Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: russ (
Date: June 25, 2004 12:26PM

Can't believe I just spent the time to read this complete thread. My web time is gone but thank you all.
Short or long, Good is good.

Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: joe q (
Date: August 16, 2004 03:07PM

. It must make clear and perfect sense to the reader, or at least have the possibility. and 2. It must be fresh and unlike prose.

making clear & perfect sense takes away some of the mystery of the poem
prose make perfect sense poetry makes my sense


I speak to you says the poet
But softly. I cannot feel
As you feel, only hope my words
Echo your thoughts, your heart.

My poetry is open says the poet
What I write is not hidden.
The words lie upon the page
Making them easy reading.

There are mysteries says the poet
Words cannot completely show
The totality of my thought
Opening it to you precisely.

I do not hide says the poet
Yet within me is a place
Unreachable with thought.
No sun can melt this ice.

Re: Essence of Poetry
Posted by: marian2 (
Date: August 17, 2004 05:01AM

I like Rapport very much, joe q - thanks for posting it.

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