Monthly Archives: August 2009

#63: “Terence, this is stupid stuff” (A.E. Housman)

A. E. Housman (1859–1936) was one of the masters of the short, classic English lyric poem. He studied hard to achieve this mastery: he was a professor of classics, one of the greatest experts on the texts of ancient Latin literature. The untitled poem that begins “Terence, this is stupid stuff,” is actually one of the longer pieces he ever wrote.

There are a few proper names in the poem that may pose some difficulty, but they are not as hard as they look; they’re just awkwardly placed. “Terence” in the first line seems difficult if you don’t know who Terence is. But I assume that the poem is a dialogue. The first speaker, unnamed, tells Terence he’s stupid. The rest of the poem is Terence explaining why he’s not stupid. It’s sort of a Point / Counterpoint debate.

“Mithridates” in the very last line is just the name of the king that Terence has been describing at length. All anybody knows about Mithridates is that he tried the poison-protection program outlined in the paragraph before Terence mentions his name.

“Burton built on Trent” refers to the greatest brewery city in England and the river that gives its breweries water. You could substitute “why was Milwaukee built on Lake Michigan,” but that wouldn’t fit the pattern of the poem. Besides, Housman was from England, not the Midwest, and Milwaukee wasn’t yet famous in the 1890s. Meanwhile, “Ludlow fair” with its “Ludlow beer” could be anywhere that offers some kind of comfort substance. We’ve all probably been there.

And then there’s Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost “to justify the ways of God to man.” Housman suggests a quicker way of appreciating the Universe than having to read Paradise Lost.

Do you agree with the main idea in the poem – that by reading poetry (you could substitute “listening to music,” “looking at art,” or other aesthetic experiences) you become toughened up for what life will throw at you? Or is it too early yet to tell? Is Terence being cynical? Rationalizing his own depression?

Terence’s challenging philosophy is one reason to love this poem. But another and greater reason is the humanism of the poem’s take on the person who has “left his necktie God knows where.” The ideas in the poem could possibly be expressed in prose. But Housman conveys great, emotionally sensitive respect for the human tendency to lose ourselves in whatever gives us comfort (beer here, but it could be TV or ice cream or baseball or pop music). Life can be depressing. Housman, possibly, was depressed. His poetry, because it understands both joys and sorrows, is neither depressed nor depressing.

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#64: “Incident” (Countee Cullen)

“Incident” by Countee Cullen (1903-1946) is, as I mentioned in class earlier this week, a “kick in the teeth.” If you demand energy from poetry, this poem generates tremendous energy from a single word. “Nigger” is the most lethal insult in America. Though our society is awash in the word, often in humorous or ironic contexts, it has never been OK to use it as it’s used in this poem. The little boy who uses the “N-word” is not joking. He’s not even being paternalistic in some bizarre sense where he can later claim “that’s just the word we used back then.” He sees a peer, a mirror image of himself in everything but color. And he very deliberately and pointedly uses the word to show that, as segregated society goes, he is the speaker’s superior.

(By the way, I’ll use the word “speaker” to stand for the “I” of any given poem. It’s preferable to “author” because the speaker might not always be the author. We don’t know that this ever happened to Countee Cullen, the human being; we know that he chose to create a dramatic poem where it happens to the “I” of the poem.)

So why is this great poetry and not just another autobiographical “incident”? The quality, for me, comes out of the balance between great rage and hurt in terms of content and great control and coolness in terms of form. A kid’s view of the world is shot through the heart by something he can’t ignore and can’t forget. Yet the poem presents this terrible incident in perfectly calm and controlled lines of traditional formal verse. The contrast couldn’t be greater: the poet has transformed rage into art.

What Should a Poem Be and Do?

So what is a poem, and what should it do? I find myself agreeing with most of the ideas (if they are “ideas”) in Archibald MacLeish’s poem “Ars Poetica”: “wordless as the flight of birds,” “motionless in time,” and “should not mean but be” are not precise instructions for poetry, but ideals that I think the best poems aspire to and in some sense achieve. Poetry should be art, not rhetoric: it may end up convincing you of all kinds of things, but not by arguing through them. Good poetry achieves its ends by other means than marshalling evidence and convincing a jury.

As I said in a recent post introducing the countdown concept, a poem should not have “hidden meanings.” Very often English teachers’ delight in uncovering hidden meanings, in constructing a club of initiates who know how to pick apart a poem (equipped with either “cultural literacy” or postmodern theory), creates hidden meanings by suggesting they exist. So too, the baggage we bring to a poem produces meanings there that aren’t observable in the text. In fact, one of the reasons I like good old “deconstructive” close reading is that it insists on taking the text at face value (even though “deconstruction” is almost always seen by students as some sort of arcane process of getting at invisible meanings). So, take a poem like Robert Frost’s “Road Not Taken”. We tend to see the poem as being about following a different drummer, taking the road “less travelled by.” But that’s just because we like roads less travelled by. There are no such roads in the text of the poem: “both that morning equally lay” untravelled.

Poetry should have energy and at least convey a serious interest in what it talks about. Bad poetry is often tentative, “in quotes,” insincere, saying what it thinks you want to hear instead of what the poet truly experienced. For an example of poetic “energy” I recommend William Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” On the face of it, this is a poem about how pretty flowers are and how good they make the speaker feel. What crap: a greeting card might say the same thing. But I get the sense even though it’s a trite observation, Wordsworth, in this poem, actually does convey being carried away by a feeling.  He can’t resist thinking and feeling about the flowers.   Just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not powerful!  The poem has such energy that you can feel it many years and styles later in this amazing video by a giant rapping squirrel. “Respect Wordsworth!”

Poetry is a written art for the spoken voice. It borders on prose, because it’s written down; it borders on song, “spoken word,” rap, and oratory, because it’s a vocal art form. Some poems are songs, and some songs are poems, but they’re not wholly overlapping categories. But such is the power of great poetry that it can transcend meaning altogether. Just as there are great songs where you can’t understand the words when they’re performed, it’s possible for great poetry to exist in a language you don’t understand. Unless you do understand German (as playwright Edward Albee said, “I understand that German is a language”), check out Rainier Maria Rilke’s “Jugend-Bildnis meines Vaters.” Read aloud, this poem is poetry no matter what language you speak, and I don’t think that’s an entirely sentimental, or snobbish, or subjective claim.

Oh, and so you’ll know: the three eligible poems linked here (by MacLeish, Frost, and Wordsworth) don’t appear in the Countdown proper.  We’ll see Frost and Wordsworth there, but MacLeish, unfortunately, will have to be content with being a kind of epigraph to the Countdown.  The first two poems in the Countdown, #64 and #63, will appear on Thursday, 27 August.

The 64 Greatest Poems in the English Language

Poetry Countdown will do just that: count down from the 64th-greatest poem in the English language to #1.  My inspiration for this project comes from various MTV countdown shows, from Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 on the radio over the years, and from a Rolling Stone feature several years ago that chose the 500 greatest songs of all time, or at least of their time.

I have a few rules, not many, to guide me in choosing the Top 64.

The poems must come from the year 1798 or later.  In 1798, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published the first edition of their book Lyrical Ballads, which some people see as the first book of truly modern English poetry.  Whether it was or not, it was very important in promoting the “Romantic” approach to poetry, using ordinary language and subjects, stressing nature and the imagination.  Any earlier than 1798 and we’re in a somewhat different kind of English and a somewhat different approach to poetry than we still employ today.

Eligible poems must have less than 100 lines.  That was Edgar Allan Poe’s idea in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition”: to have a single effect on the reader, a poem must be short: 100 lines or fewer.  So you won’t see “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” or “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” great as they are.   Maybe I’ll do another course next year on The Slightly Longer Poem. 

The poems will mostly have universal themes.  Some will be difficult, but none will be esoteric: that is, they won’t demand that you have special knowledge.  “Easter 1916” by William Butler Yeats is a very great poem, for instance, but to work it requires that you know a lot about the 1916 Easter Rising rebellion in Dublin.  So it isn’t included here.  

In choosing the Top 64, I have tried not to rely too much on my personal favorites.  I have also tried not to choose poems just because they are of historical importance.  Basically, they have to be good.  Matthew Arnold, another inspiration for this project, advises against evaluations that are too personal or too historical.  He wanted people to study “the best that has been thought and said,” and for our purposes, I agree.

Some of these poems will be very famous and familiar: the “usual suspects” of English literature.  But some usual suspects will be missing, and some little-studied poems will make the list.  Ultimately nobody’s Top 64 will correspond exactly with anyone else’s.  I have taken a lot of hints from scholars, poets, and anthologists.  But I can’t abdicate my own critical judgment, either.

An awful lot of these poems are by white guys.  In a sense, much of English-language literary culture till recently was a white guys’ culture, as well as an upper- or upper-middle class culture.  But people are still people, even if they’re privileged; all these poems speak to what’s human in all of us.   And some are by women; some are by black writers.  Some are by English poets, some by Americans, a few by Irish writers, and there’s the occasional poem by someone of another nationality, but all were originally written in English.  Some poets included here are gay, others straight.  Most of the authors, though not all, are dead, and the poems by living writers tend to be from early in their careers.  It’s hard to be certain that a poem is great if it’s not a few years old.  I have no requirements for “coverage” or “distribution” or “representation.”  If a single poet happened to write six or eight of the greatest 64 poems, so be it.

When I was initially casting about for the Top 64, I thought most of the poems would be about “love and death,” what Emily Dickinson said were the only real themes for poetry.  And indeed, there’s a lot of love and death here.  But there’s also nature, and childhood, and language itself.  And there’s a surprising (to me) amount of poetry about faith.  The last 200 years or so are often seen as a secular age.  Maybe just because they’ve been secular times, a lot of the best poetic thought has been about faith: keeping, losing, reacquiring, or questioning faith, but faith nonetheless.  We will study these poems in a secular context, but we will treat their ideas seriously.

A poem must be poetic: “equal to / not true,” said Archibald MacLeish.  It is not just a dressed-up message.  The language must be beautiful, but there must also be a poetic idea, something fused and perfect that can’t quite be paraphrased or condensed.  “Why did they use all those words,” students sometimes say.  But if the poet didn’t use those exact words, the poem would mean something different, something less coherent, something less exciting.

None of the poems here has a “hidden meaning.”  If a meaning can’t come out into the open, I say the hell with it.