Dec 042002

Howard Owens, proprietor of a fine blog, gets himself into hot water with a couple of pomo poets. “Poetry must be at least as well written as prose,” said Ezra Pound, and says Howard, and I agree. Howard’s critics, practicing contemporary poets God help us, would not know a good poem if it walked up and punched them in the mouth. One of them, Mike Finley, praises this (scroll to the bottom if you insist on following the link) by Charles Potts. I will spare you most of it; here’s the beginning of the last stanza:

Down a lazy river to the polluted sea
The flotsam jettisons thoughtlessly along,
Contributory to a natural disaster.

“Lazy” is the laziest possible adjective. “Jettison” is a transitive verb, and the accidental association with “jetsam” is doubly unfortunate. “Contributory” would mar a business memo, let alone a poem. Someone who praises this has at best a nodding acquaintance with English.

Another, Joseph Duemer, thinks that Alone, by Jack Gilbert, is a great poem:

I never thought Michiko would come back after she died. But if she did, I knew, it would be as a lady in a long white dress. It is strange that she has returned as somebody’s Dalmatian. I meet the man walking her on a leash almost every week. He says good morning and I stoop down to calm her. He said once that she was never like that with other people. Sometimes she is tethered on their lawn when I go by. If nobody is around, I sit on the grass. When she finally quiets, she puts her head in my lap and we watch each other’s eyes as I whisper in her soft ears. She cares nothing about the mystery. She likes it best when I touch her head and tell her small things about my days and our friends. That makes her happy the way it always did.

This is prose. The reader may insert line breaks where he chooses. They won’t be any better than Gilbert’s, or any worse.

Unfortunately Howard himself goes in for similar stuff. He quotes with favor this bit from Richard Howard:

… Everyone knows my history,
complete with goddesses, islands, all those hoary lies!
I have no tales to tell, I have only
echoes. The real Ulysses puts in his appearance
between other men’s lines, the true Odysseus
shows up in unspeakable pauses, the gaps and blanks
where life hasn’t already been turned into
“my” wanderings, “my” homecoming, even “my” dog!

This is prose too, loosely iambic like most prose, dotted with random chunks of blank verse. The second line and first half of the third form two nearly perfect pentameter lines, and then suddenly the iambs disappear. That’s not a poem, no matter where you break the lines.

Free verse, like all verse, can be scanned. If there’s no proper scansion then it isn’t verse. Free verse is syllabic, with a regular number of primary accents per line — anywhere from one, as in H.D.’s Orchard, to three, as in Wallace Stevens’ The Snow Man; more than three is unmanageable. There is a varying number of secondarily accented and unaccented syllables and an occasional half or double line. It’s real verse, and even without understanding the technical details — consult Yvor Winters’ essay in Primitivism and Decadence, “The Influence of Meter on Poetic Convention,” if you care — a competent reader who takes the trouble to read carefully the two poems I cite will hear the difference.

(Howard comments further. Joseph Duemer replies and so does Mike Finley. Alex Knapp tries his hand at a parody, which is no worse than the real stuff.)

(Update: Blogosphere laureate Will Warren, a poet with actual talent, is retiring. He reminds me a lot of the fine and nearly forgotten 19th century comic poet W.M. Praed. Some of these rhyming haikus are my favorite things of his.)

  6 Responses to “Poetry Smackdown — Howard Owens vs. the Pomos!”

  1. Aaron — interesting stuff.

    For the record, I do distinquish between modern poetry and pomo poetry. My taste in poetry is very much modern — Eliot and Crane mainly. The passage of Howard that I quote strikes me as very modern. I do not believe that poetry needs to conform to any technical nature of rhyme or rhythm. I say merely that it needs to have lyricism, which is not necessarily something you scan. It is, probably, highly subjective. But I think the plain prose (broken into shorter lines, of course) that often passes for "poetry" in the pomo dress is rather obvious and easy to spot.

    Also, for the record, I don’t use "Global News Watch" any longer. My site is strictly, but thank you for remembering.

  2. I also dislike the Potts poem which you excerpt, but I suspect your criticism of it is simplifying what’s going wrong.

    I doubt "flotsam jettisons" is really an accidental association, because the connection is too obvious to miss. And I’d also bet jettison is being deliberately misused.

    My guess is this: to the Potts ear, basic errors of grammar are regarded as interesting poetic effects. (They do, at least, get your attention.) So it’s less a question of why Potts would make such mistakes, but why he’d decide it was a good idea to do so.

    Great blog, btw.

  3. Howard: If you’re not willing to say that all poetry must scan, how do you propose to distinguish poetry from prose? By "lyricism"? I think that would be difficult to sustain.

    It is interesting that you like Eliot, because he too often writes loose blank verse, not quite as prosy as the Richard Howard passage, but with a family resemblance. (Crane, who is a more interesting poet than Eliot but destroyed himself with bad ideas, did his best writing in traditional meters and so is less relevant to the discussion.)

    I apologize for using your old name; the reference has been removed.

    Alexis: "Flotsam jettisons" is just awful, whether purposeful, as you (probably correctly) surmise, or accidental, as I (charitably) guessed. I didn’t even get into “thoughtlessly.” And thank you for your kind remarks.

  4. Intriguing discussion going on here. I only discovered your blog last week, thanks to 2Blowhards (whom I first linked the previous week…). Ah, the web.

    As a relative newcomer to the internet, I’ve spent much of my on-line time as a moderator at a poetry website called "Eratosphere," which you can find at

    There I have tried to teach would-be poets the basics of metrical verse, and I have also critted a lot of lame usage like that in the example you cite here. Pay us a visit. You might even want to link the place.

    I’ll certainly be be saying some nice things about your site, the next time I discuss my own growing link-list.

  5. Surely you know the song lyric, "Down the lazy river to the old mill stream?" The line is a quote of that lyric.

    Before you take a snippet of a poet’s work and hoist it as metonymy, read with your heart instead of your blue pencil. Good things happen.

  6. Actually it’s "Up a Lazy River," often confused with "Down By the Old Mill Stream." Now I will put my blue pencil away.

    "Lazy river" was a cliche before the song, certainly after it. How does the fact that it’s part of a famous lyric excuse it?

    I think Mike probably means to accuse me of taking one poem as representative of the work, but that’s not really what metonymy means, and it’s hard to be sure. In any case, he’s wrong. I made no comment about the rest of the work, and the poem I quoted was cited by Mike as especially good. The poet may well have written other stuff that is good; just not this. I also linked to the complete text — which is really no better — lest I should be accused of lifting this bit out of context.

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